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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Kandji nabs $60M Series B as Apple device management platform continues to thrive

By Ron Miller

During the pandemic, having an automated solution for onboarding and updating Apple devices remotely has been essential, and today Kandji, a startup that helps IT do just that, announced a hefty $60 million Series B investment.

Felicis Ventures led the round with participation from SVB Capital, Greycroft, Okta Ventures and The Spruce House Partnership. Today’s round comes just 7 months after a $21 million Series A, bringing the total raised across three rounds to $88.5 million, according to the company.

CEO Adam Pettit says that the company has been growing in leaps in bounds since the funding round last October.

“We’ve seen a lot more traction than even originally anticipated. I think every time we’ve put targets up onto the board of how quickly we would grow, we’ve accelerated past them,” he said. He said that one of the primary reasons for this growth has been the rapid move to work from home during the pandemic.

“We’re working with customers across 40+ industries now, and we’re even seeing international customers come in and purchase so everyone now is just looking to support remote workforces and we provide a really elegant way for them to do that,” he said.

While Pettit didn’t want to discuss exact revenue numbers, he did say that it has tripled since the Series A announcement. That is being fueled in part he says by attracting larger companies, and he says they have been seeing more and more of them become customers this year.

As they’ve grown revenue and added customers, they’ve also brought on new employees, growing from 40 to 100 since October. Pettit says that the startup is committed to building a diverse and inclusive culture at the company and a big part of that is making sure you have a diverse pool of candidates to choose from.

“It comes down to at the onset just making the decision that it’s important to you and it’s important to the company, which we’ve done. Then you take it step by step all the way through, and we start at the back into the funnel where are candidates are coming from.”

That means clearly telling their recruiting partners that they want a diverse candidate pool. One way to do that is being remote and having a broader talent pool to work with. “We realized that in order to hold true to [our commitment], it was going to be really hard to do that just sticking to the core market of San Diego or San Francisco, and so now we’ve expand expanded nationally and this has opened up a lot of [new] pools of top tech talent,” he said.

Pettit is thinking hard right now about how the startup will run its offices whenever they allowed back, especially with some employees living outside major tech hubs. Clearly it will have some remote component, but he says that the tricky part of that will be making sure that the folks who aren’t coming into the office still feel fully engaged and part of the team.

First findings with Apple’s new AirTag location devices

By Matthew Panzarino

I’ve been playing around with Apple’s new AirTag location devices for a few hours now and they seem to work pretty much as advertised. The setup flow is simple and clean, taking clear inspiration from the one Apple developed for AirPods. The precision finding feature enabled by the U1 chip works as a solid example of utility-driven augmented reality, popping up a virtual arrow and other visual identifiers on the screen to make finding a tag quicker.

The basic way that AirTags work, if you’re not familiar, is that they use Bluetooth beaconing technology to announce their presence to any nearby devices running iOS 14.5 and above. These quiet pings are encrypted and invisible (usually) to any passer by, especially if they are with their owners. This means that no one ever knows what device actually ‘located’ your AirTag, not even Apple.

With you, by the way, means in relative proximity to a device signed in to the iCloud account that the AirTags are registered to. Bluetooth range is typically in the ~40 foot range depending on local conditions and signal bounce. 

In my very limited testing so far, AirTag location range fits in with that basic Bluetooth expectation. Which means that it can be foiled by a lot of obstructions or walls or an unflattering signal bounce. It often took 30 seconds or more to get an initial location from an AirTag in another room, for instance. Once the location was received, however, the instructions to locate the device seemed to update quickly and were extremely accurate down to a few inches.

The AirTags run for a year on a standard CR2032 battery that’s user replaceable. They offer some water resistance including submersion for some time. There are a host of accessories that seem nicely designed like leather straps for bags, luggage tags and key rings.

So far so good. More testing to come. 

Some protections

As with anything to do with location, security and privacy are a top of mind situation for AirTags, and Apple has some protections in place.

You cannot share AirTags — they are meant to be owned by one person. The only special privileges offered by people in your iCloud Family Sharing Group is that they can silence the ‘unknown AirTag nearby’ alerts indefinitely. This makes AirTags useful for things like shared sets of keys or maybe even a family pet. This means that AirTags will not show up on your family Find My section like other iOS devices might. There is now a discrete section within the app just for ‘Items’ including those with Find My functionality built in. 

The other privacy features include a ‘warning’ that will trigger after some time that a tag is in your proximity and NOT in the proximity of its owner (aka, traveling with you perhaps in a bag or car). Your choices are then to make the tag play a sound to locate it — look at its information including serial number and to disable it by removing its battery. 

Any AirTag that has been away from its owner for a while — this time is variable and Apple will tweak it over time as it observes how AirTags work — will start playing a sound whenever it is moved. This will alert people to its presence. 

You can, of course, also place an AirTag into Lost Mode, offering a choice to share personal information with anyone who locates it as it plays an alert sound. Anyone with any smart device with NFC, Android included, can tap the device to see a webpage with information that you choose to share. Or just a serial number if you do not choose to do so. 

This scenario addresses what happens if you don’t have an iOS device to alert you to a foreign AirTag in your presence, as it will eventually play a sound even if it is not in lost mode and the owner has no control over that.

It’s clear that Apple has thought through many of the edge cases, but some could still crop up as it rolls out, we’ll have to see.

Apple has some distinct market advantages here:

  • Nearly a billion devices out in the world that can help to locate an AirTag.
  • A built-in U1 wideband chip that communicates with a similar U1 chip in iPhones to enable super precise (down to inches) location.
  • A bunch of privacy features that don’t appear on competing tags.

Important to note that Apple has announced the development of a specification for chipset makers that lets third-party devices with Ultra Wideband radios access the U1 chip onboard iPhones ‘later this Spring’. This should approximate the Precision Finding feature’s utility in accessories that don’t have the advantage of having a U1 built in like the AirTags do. And, of course, Apple has opened up the entire Find My mesh network to third party devices from Belkin, Chipolo and VanMoof that want to offer a similar basic finding function as offered by AirTags. Tile has announced plans to offer a UWB version of its tracker as well, even as it testified in Congress yesterday that Apple’s advantages made its entry into this market unfair. 

It will be interesting to see these play out once AirTags are out getting lost in the wild. I have had them for under 12 hours so I’ve not been able to test edge cases, general utility in public spaces or anything like that. 

The devices go on sale on April 23rd.

Window Snyder’s new startup Thistle Technologies raises $2.5M seed to secure IoT devices

By Zack Whittaker

The Internet of Things has a security problem. The past decade has seen wave after wave of new internet-connected devices, from sensors through to webcams and smart home tech, often manufactured in bulk but with little — if any — consideration to security. Worse, many device manufacturers make no effort to fix security flaws, while others simply leave out the software update mechanisms needed to deliver patches altogether.

That sets up an entire swath of insecure and unpatchable devices to fail, and destined to be thrown out when they break down or are invariably hacked.

Security veteran Window Snyder thinks there is a better way. Her new startup, Thistle Technologies, is backed with $2.5 million in seed funding from True Ventures with the goal of helping IoT manufacturers reliably and securely deliver software updates to their devices.

Snyder founded Thistle last year, and named it after the flowering plant with sharp prickles designed to deter animals from eating them. “It’s a defense mechanism,” Snyder told TechCrunch, a name that’s fitting for a defensive technology company. The startup aims to help device manufacturers without the personnel or resources to integrate update mechanisms into their device’s software in order to receive security updates and better defend against security threats.

“We’re building the means so that they don’t have to do it themselves. They want to spend the time building customer-facing features anyway,” said Snyder. Prior to founding Thistle, Snyder worked in senior cybersecurity positions at Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, and also served as chief security officer at Mozilla, Square, and Fastly.

Thistle lands on the security scene at a time when IoT needs it most. Botnet operators are known to scan the internet for devices with weak default passwords and hijack their internet connections to pummel victims with floods of internet traffic, knocking entire websites and networks offline. In 2016, a record-breaking distributed denial-of-service attack launched by the Mirai botnet on internet infrastructure giant Dyn knocked some of the biggest websites — Shopify, SoundCloud, Spotify, Twitter — offline for hours. Mirai had ensnared thousands of IoT devices into its network at the time of the attack.

Other malicious hackers target IoT devices as a way to get a foot into a victim’s network, allowing them to launch attacks or plant malware from the inside.

Since device manufacturers have done little to solve their security problems among themselves, lawmakers are looking at legislating to curb some of the more egregious security mistakes made by default manufacturers, like using default — and often unchangeable — passwords and selling devices with no way to deliver security updates.

California paved the way after passing an IoT security law in 2018, with the U.K. following shortly after in 2019. The U.S. has no federal law governing basic IoT security standards.

Snyder said the push to introduce IoT cybersecurity laws could be “an easy way for folks to get into compliance” without having to hire fleets of security engineers. Having an update mechanism in place also helps to keeps the IoT devices around for longer — potentially for years longer — simply by being able to push fixes and new features.

“To build the infrastructure that’s going to allow you to continue to make those devices resilient and deliver new functionality through software, that’s an incredible opportunity for these device manufacturers. And so I’m building a security infrastructure company to support that security needs,” she said.

With the seed round in the bank, Snyder said the company is focused on hiring device and back-end engineers, product managers, and building new partnerships with device manufacturers.

Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures — Thistle’s seed round investor — described the company as “an astute and natural next step in security technologies.” He added: “Window has so many of the qualities we look for in founders. She has deep domain expertise, is highly respected within the security community, and she’s driven by a deep passion to evolve her industry.”

Apple and Google pressed in antitrust hearing on whether app stores share data with product development teams

By Sarah Perez

In today’s antitrust hearing in the U.S. Senate, Apple and Google representatives were questioned on whether they have a “strict firewall” or other internal policies in place that prevent them from leveraging the data from third-party businesses operating on their app stores to inform the development of their own competitive products. Apple, in particular, was called out for the practice of copying other apps by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who said the practice had become so common that it earned a nickname with Apple’s developer community: “sherlocking.”

Sherlock, which has its own Wikipedia entry under software, comes from Apple’s search tool in the early 2000s called Sherlock. A third-party developer, Karelia Software, created an alternative tool called Watson. Following the success of Karelia’s product, Apple added Watson’s same functionality into its own search tool, and Watson was effectively put out of business. The nickname “Sherlock” later became shorthand for any time Apple copies an idea from a third-party developer that threatens to or even destroys their business.

Over the years, developers claimed Apple has “sherlocked” a number of apps, including Konfabulator (desktop widgets), iPodderX (podcast manager), Sandvox (app for building websites) and Growl (a notification system for Mac OS X) and, in more recent years, F.lux (blue light reduction tool for screens) Duet and Luna (apps that makes iPad a secondary display), as well as various screen-time-management tools. Now Tile claims Apple has also unfairly entered its market with AirTag.

During his questioning, Blumenthal asked Apple and Google’s representatives at the hearing — Kyle Andeer, Apple’s chief compliance officer and Wilson White, Google’s senior director of Public Policy & Government Relations, respectively — if they employed any sort of “firewall” in between their app stores and their business strategy.

Andeer somewhat dodged the question, saying, “Senator, if I understand the question correctly, we have separate teams that manage the App Store and that are engaged in product development strategy here at Apple.”

Blumenthal then clarified what he meant by “firewall.” He explained that it doesn’t mean whether or not there are separate teams in place, but whether there’s an internal prohibition on sharing data between the App Store and the people who run Apple’s other businesses.

Andeer then answered, “Senator, we have controls in place.”

He went on to note that over the past 12 years, Apple has only introduced “a handful of applications and services,” and in every instance, there are “dozens of alternatives” on the App Store. And, sometimes, the alternatives are more popular than Apple’s own product, he noted.

“We don’t copy. We don’t kill. What we do is offer up a new choice and a new innovation,” Andeer stated.

His argument may hold true when there are strong rivalries, like Spotify versus Apple Music, or Netflix versus Apple TV+, or Kindle versus Apple Books. But it’s harder to stretch it to areas where Apple makes smaller enhancements — like when Apple introduced Sidecar, a feature that allowed users to make their iPad a secondary display. Sidecar ended the need for a third-party app, after apps like Duet and Luna first proved the market.

Another example was when Apple built screen-time controls into its iOS software, but didn’t provide the makers of third-party screen-time apps with an API so consumers could use their preferred apps to configure Apple’s Screen Time settings via the third-party’s specialized interface or take advantage of other unique features.

Blumenthal said he interpreted Andeer’s response as to whether Apple has a “data firewall” as a “no.”

Posed the same question, Google’s representative, White, said his understanding was that Google had “data access controls in place that govern how data from our third-party services are used.”

Blumenthal pressed him to clarify if this was a “firewall,” meaning, he clarified again, “do you have a prohibition against access?”

“We have a prohibition against using our third-party services to compete directly with our first-party services,” White said, adding that Google has “internal policies that govern that.”

The senator said he would follow up on this matter with written questions, as his time expired.

AirTags Are the Perfectly Boring, Functional Future of AR

By Lauren Goode
Apple’s new location-aware widgets point to the company’s possible larger ambitions for augmented reality.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Peloton responds to concerns over Apple GymKit integration

By Brian Heater

Third-party hardware integration can be a tricky thing. Peloton this week raised some eyebrows by dropping Apple GymKit compatibility for its Bike Bootcamp program. Users were, naturally, quick to react. The situation left some wondering whether the move was a direct response to Apple’s recent entry into the home exercise market with Fitness+.

A Peloton spokesperson offered the following statement to TechCrunch, “Apple GymKit is designed to work with equipment-based cardio workouts. However, Peloton recently implemented GymKit with Bike Bootcamp, a multi-disciplinary class type that combines strength and cardio, which the feature does not support. Members can still use GymKit to sync their cycling-only workouts to their Apple Watch from the Bike+.”

The comment appears to reflect one of the bigger issues with its initial GymKit implementation. Designed with the gym in mind, Apple’s program engages with specific exercise equipment. In other words, use the integration on the treadmill and the Watch specifically goes to work tracking run metrics. Use it with a bike and it tracks cycling.

A program like Bike Bootcamp complicates things, adding to the mix things like weightlifting. Likely that didn’t quite mesh with the third-party guidelines around GymKit implementation. The bigger issue for Peloton owners is that GymKit was a primary distinguisher between the standard Peloton bike and the Bike+ — two products with a $500 gulf between them.

Truth is, for now at least, working together is still a net positive for both parties. Apple may have its own fitness platform, but Peloton has a huge footprint — one that likely has significant overlap with Apple Watch users. GymKit may have been developed with gyms in mind, but people haven’t visited the gym much in the past year, and there’s a reasonable expectation that the industry might never entirely bounce back.

For Peloton’s part, it’s probably good to play nice with the company that utterly dominates the smartwatch category.

 

Apple Music streaming revenue detailed in letter to artists

By Brian Heater

Streaming revenue has been a longtime concern for musicians, especially those scraping by in the wake of an industry-wide implosion of record labels. Of course, a year that has made touring an impossibility has only brought those issues into starker relief as the primary revenue source for many has completely dried up.

Apple is hoping to clarify some of the major questions around streaming revenue in a letter it sent to artists. The note, reported by The Wall Street Journal, outlines a revenue that amounts to around double what Spotify pays out.

“As the discussion about streaming royalties continues, we believe it is important to share our values,” the company notes. “We believe in paying every creator the same rate, that a play has a value, and that creators should never have to pay for featuring music in prime display space on its service.”

The company’s comment is a clear shot at Spotify’s much more varied payment model. What that actually works out to at the end of the day, however, is a slightly more complicated question. Things start at around a penny-per-stream (though it can go down from there). That amount is paid out to rights holders — be they record labels or publishers. It’s another in a long line of issues that have led many musicians to question the efficacy of intermediaries in 2021.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek fanned the flames in an interview last year, stating, “Some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.”

At the end of the day, it’s a battle of pennies — or fractions thereof, for many artists. And it has become immensely difficult for mid-tier and truly independent artists to maintain a living as the world has shifted to a streaming model. Services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud have worked to make things more manageable for smaller artists, but the life of a modern musician remains a struggle — especially in the age of COVID-19.

 

You can now pay for BART using an iPhone or Apple Watch

By Greg Kumparak

Good news, Bay Area! Apple Pay now works with Clipper cards.

That means you can now use an iPhone or Apple Watch to pay for BART. Or Muni. Or Caltrain. Or the Ferry! Or (almost) any other transit-related thing you’d otherwise use the plastic Clipper card for.

Clipper has a page outlining the Apple Pay setup process right here.

A few quick but important things to note:

  • Adding an existing Clipper card to an Apple Wallet apparently transfers the funds off that card. At that point, says Clipper, “your plastic card has been deactivated” — so it sounds like it won’t work as a physical backup card.
  • Some people will want to hang on to the plastic cards, regardless: Clipper notes that Bay Area bike share users and anyone using an RTC Discount Card will need to keep the plastic card, even after its deactivated for transit use.
  • Clipper has previously confirmed that support is coming for Google Pay (Android) “this spring”, but today’s rollout seems to support Apple Pay only.

As noted back in February when this was first confirmed as on-the-way, Clipper works with Apple’s “Express Transit” feature. That’s just a fancy way to say that you can tap-to-pay with the digital Clipper card without first needing to punch in your phone’s PIN or using FaceID. On certain newer iPhones, it also lets you keep using the Clipper card for a few hours after your battery has died; a wonderful thing in a pinch, but probably not something you want to rely on regularly.

Amazon’s latest Echo Buds are a shameless Apple knockoff

By Matt Burns

This is Amazon’s latest hardware product: The redesigned Alexa earbuds. TechCrunch covered the announcement here, where the specs and capabilities are listed. I’m sure they work fine, too, but the case design is a blatant rip-off of Apple’s AirPod Pros.

This is just lazy.

Amazon has a long history of selling and promoting lookalikes, copycats and clones of other products. Likewise, the retailer sued third-party sellers for doing the same thing. Amazon also has been accused of investing in companies and later producing clones of the products. In 2020 CEO Jeff Bezos testified on this subject in front of a congressional hearing where he couldn’t guarantee the company would end this process. Often the products Amazon copies come from small startups without the resources to fight a giant like Amazon.

Last month California-based Peak Design took to YouTube to protest Amazon’s unabashed copy of one of Peak’s top products. As Peak points out, Amazon’s take is a cheap knockoff made from lower-quality materials and without Peak Design’s ethical manufacturing. The video quickly went viral, amassing over 4.5 million hits and highlighting Amazon’s shady practices.

For the latest Echo Buds, Amazon copied a market leader instead of a small startup. To recap, Amazon, a company worth over a trillion dollars, just released a product that looks essentially identical to a top-selling product from Apple, a company worth 2 trillion dollars.

The Echo Buds are much less expensive than Apple’s $250 AirPod Pros, too. The standard Echo Buds costs $100, and the version with wireless charging runs $120. It’s important to note the wireless buds themselves do not look like AirPods. Amazon only copied the ubiquitous AirPod Pro case.

The consumer is the loser here. With more resources than many countries, Amazon can produce world-class products, yet it decided to copy a rival’s market-leading product. In the end, it’s easier (and cheaper) to follow trends than become a trendsetter.


Peak Design takes on Amazon

Apple’s next event is April 20

By Brian Heater

Apple only dropped info about WWDC two weeks back, but the company just announced another event — this one happening much sooner. After Siri spilled the beans this morning, the company has officially confirmed its next event for April 20. Invites for its “Spring Loaded” event went out just now, sporting what appears to be a doodle drawn on an iPad.

Of course, the assistant’s earlier suggestion that the event is being held at “Apple Park in Cupertino” was only true from a certain point of view, to quote a famous space wizard. It’s 2021, after all, and everything still very much happens online, which means some snazzily edited drone shots of the Spaceship Apple.

As for what this all means from a product perspective, all signs appear to point to new iPads. Specifically, the company is rumored to be releasing a 12.9-inch version of the Pro, sporting a Mini LED, improved cameras and faster chips in-line with what we’ve seen on recent Macs. Continued supply constraints, however, could present an issue.

Another long-standing rumor is the arrival of AirTags. Yes, we’ve heard that one before, but the company just laid the groundwork for some big Find My improvements. Along with opening the app to other companies, the company announced a bunch of third-party hardware sporting the tech. The list includes the Chipolo ONE Spot, which beats Apple to the punch as the first device tag to use the tech.

The event kicks off 10 a.m. PT. We’ll (virtually) see you there.

Apple and Google will both attend Senate hearing on app store competition

By Taylor Hatmaker

After it looked like Apple might no-show, the company has committed to sending a representative to a Senate antitrust hearing on app store competition later this month.

Last week, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mike Lee (R-UT) put public pressure on the company to attend the hearing, which will be held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights. Klobuchar chairs that subcommittee, and has turned her focus toward antitrust worries about the tech industry’s most dominant players.

The hearing, which Google will also attend, will delve into Apple and Google’s control over “the cost, distribution, and availability of mobile applications on consumers, app developers, and competition.”

App stores are one corner of tech that looks the most like a duopoly, a perception that Apple’s high profile battle with Fortnite-maker Epic is only elevating. Meanwhile, with a number of state-level tech regulation efforts brewing, Arizona is looking to relieve developers from Apple and Google’s hefty cut of app store profits.

In a letter last week, Klobuchar and Lee, the subcommittee’s ranking member, accused Apple of “abruptly” deciding that it wouldn’t send a witness to the hearing, which is set for April 21.

“Apple’s sudden change in course to refuse to provide a witness to testify before the Subcommittee on app store competition issues in April, when the company is clearly willing to discuss them in other public forums, is unacceptable,” the lawmakers wrote.

By Monday, that pressure had apparently done its work, with Apple agreeing to attend the hearing. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.

While the lawmakers are counting Apple’s acquiescence as a win, that doesn’t mean they’ll be sending their chief executive. Major tech CEOs have been called before Congress more often over the last few years, but those appearances might have diminishing returns.

Tech CEOs, Apple’s Tim Cook included, are thoroughly trained in the art of saying little when pressed by lawmakers. Dragging in a CEO might work as a show of force, but tech execs generally reveal little over the course of their lengthy testimonies, particularly when a hearing isn’t accompanied by a deeper investigation.

Apple said to be developing Apple TV/HomePod combo and iPad-like smart speaker display

By Darrell Etherington

Apple is reportedly working on a couple of new options for a renewed entry into the smart home, including a mash-up of the Apple TV with a HomePod speaker, and an integrated camera for video chat, according to Bloomberg. It’s also said to be working on a smart speaker that basically combines a HomePod with an iPad, providing something similar to Amazon’s Echo Show or Google’s Nest Hub in functionality.

The Apple TV/HomePod hybrid would still connect to a television for outputting video, and would offer similar access to all the video and gaming services that the current Apple TV does, while the speaker component would provide sound output, music playback and Siri integration. It would also include a built-in camera for using video conferencing apps on the TV itself, the report says.

That second device would be much more like existing smart assistant display devices on the market today, with an iPad-like screen providing integrated visuals. The project could involve attaching the iPad via a “robotic arm,” according to Bloomberg, that would allow it to move to accommodate a user moving around, with the ability to keep them in frame during video chat sessions.

Bloomberg doesn’t provide any specific timelines for release of any of these potential products, and it sounds like they’re still very much in the development phase, which means Apple could easily abandon these plans depending on its evaluation of their potential. Apple just recently discontinued its original HomePod, the $300 smart speaker it debuted in 2018.

Rumors abound about a refreshed Apple TV arriving sometime this year, which should boast a faster processor and also an updated remote control. It could bring other hardware improvements, like support for a faster 120Hz refresh rate available on more modern TVs.

A ‘more honest’ stock market

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I talked about Clubhouse’s slowing user growth. Well, this week news broke that they had been in talks with Twitter for a $4 billion acquisition, so it looks like they’re still pretty desirable. This week, I’m talking about a story I published a couple days ago that highlights pretty much everything that’s wild about the alternative asset world right now.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If you successfully avoided all mentions of NFTs until now, I congratulate you, because it certainly does seem like the broader NFT market is seeing some major pullback after a very frothy February and March. You’ll still be seeing plenty of late-to-the-game C-list celebrities debuting NFT art in the coming weeks, but a more sober pullback in prices will probably give some of the NFT platforms that are serious about longevity a better chance to focus on the future and find out how they truly matter.

I spent the last couple weeks, chatting with a bunch of people in one particular community — one of the oldest active NFT communities on the web called CryptoPunks. It’s a platform with 10,000 unique 24×24 pixel portraits and they trade at truly wild prices.

I wrote about the history and legacy of CryptoPunks, a vibrant $200 million NFT marketplace built around trading pixelated characters. There are only 10,000 of them and owning the cheapest one will cost you about $30k. https://t.co/X4iTSl6FjC

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) April 8, 2021

This picture sold for a $1.05 million.

I talked to a dozen or so people (including the guy who sold that one ^^) that had spent between tens of thousands and millions of dollars on these pixelated portraits, my goal being to tap into the psyche of what the hell is happening here. The takeaway is that these folks don’t see these assets as any more non-sensical than what’s going on in more traditional “old world” markets like public stock exchanges.

A telling quote from my reporting:

“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”

Shortly after I published my piece, Christie’s announced that they were auctioning off nine of the CryptoPunks in an auction likely to fetch at least $10 million at current prices. The market surged in the aftermath and many millions worth of volume quickly moved through the marketplace minting more NFT millionaires.

Is this all just absolutely nuts? Sure.

Is it also a poignant picture of where alternative asset investing is at in 2021? You bet.

Read the full thing.


an illustration of a cardboard ballot box with an Amazon smile on the front

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Amazon workers vote down union organization attempt
Amazon is breathing a sigh of relief after workers at their Bessemer, Alabama warehouse opted out of joining a union, lending a crushing defeat to labor activists who hoped that the high-profile moment would lead more Amazon workers to organize. The vote has been challenged, but the margin of victory seems fairly decisive.

Supreme court sides with Google in Oracle case
If any singular event impacted the web the most this week, it was the Supreme Court siding with Google in a very controversial lawsuit by Oracle that could’ve fundamentally shifted the future of software development.

Coinbase is making waves
The Coinbase direct listing is just around the corner and they’re showing off some of their financials. Turns out crypto has been kind of hot lately and they’re raking in the dough, with revenue of $1.8 billion this past quarter.

Apple share more about the future of user tracking
Apple is about to upend the ad-tracking market and they published some more details on what exactly their App Tracking Transparency feature is going to look like. Hint: more user control.

Consumers are spending lots of time in apps
A new report from mobile analytics firm App Annie suggests that we’re dumping more of our time into smartphone apps, with the average users spending 4.2 hours a day doing so, a 30 percent increase over two years.

Sonos perfects the bluetooth speaker
I’m a bit of an audio lover, which made my colleague Darrell’s review of the new Sonos Roam bluetooth speaker a must-read for me. He’s pretty psyched about it, even though it comes in at the higher-end of pricing for these devices, still I’m looking forward to hearing one with my own ears.


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
The StockX EC-1
“StockX is a unique company at the nexus of two radical transitions that isn’t just redefining markets, but our culture as well. E-commerce upended markets, diminishing the physical experience by intermediating and aggregating buyers and sellers through digital platforms. At the same time, the internet created rapid new communication channels, allowing euphoria and desire to ricochet across society in a matter of seconds. In a world of plenty, some things are rare, and the hype around that rarity has never been greater. Together, these two trends demanded a stock market of hype, an opportunity that StockX has aggressively pursued.”

Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup
“I would really encourage you to take some time to think about what kind of company you want to make first before you go out and start interviewing people. So that really is going to be about understanding and defining your culture. And then the second thing I’d be thinking about when you’re scaling from, you know, five people up to, you know, 50 and beyond is that managers really are the key to your success as a company. It’s hard to overstate how important managers, great managers, are to the success of your company.

So you want to raise a Series A
“More companies will raise seed rounds than Series A rounds, simply due to the fact that many startups fail, and venture only makes sense for a small fraction of businesses out there. Every check is a new cycle of convincing and proving that you, as a startup, will have venture-scale returns. Moore explained that startups looking to move to their next round need to explain to investors why now is their moment.”

Until next week,
Lucas M.

And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Epic cries monopoly as Apple details secret ‘Project Liberty’ effort to provoke ‘Fortnite’ ban

By Devin Coldewey

The Epic v. Apple lawsuit alleging monopolistic practices by the latter will begin next month, and today the main arguments of each company were published, having been trimmed down somewhat at the court’s discretion. With the basic facts agreed upon, the two companies will go to battle over what they mean, and their CEOs will likely take the (virtual) stand to do so.

As we’ve covered in previous months, the thrust of Epic’s argument is that Apple’s hold over the app market and 30% standard fee amount to anti-competitive behavior that must be regulated by antitrust law. It rebelled against what it describes as an unlawful practice by slipping its own in-game currency store into the popular game Fortnite, circumventing Apple payment methods. (CEO Tim Sweeney would later, and unadvisedly, compare this to resisting unjust laws in the civil rights movement.)

Apple denies the charge of monopoly, pointing out it faces enormous competition all over the market, just not within its own App Store. And as for the size of the fees — well, perhaps it’s a matter that could stand some adjustment (the company dropped its take to 15% for any developer’s first million following criticism throughout 2020), but it hardly amounts to unlawfulness.

For its part, Apple contends that the whole antitrust allegation and associated dust-kicking is little more than a PR stunt, and it has something in the way of receipts.

Epic did, after all, have a whole PR strategy ready to go when it filed the lawsuit, and the filings describe “Project Liberty,” a long-term program within the company to, in Apple’s opinion, shore up sagging revenues from Fortnite. Epic does seem to have paid a PR firm some $300,000 to advise on the “two-phase communications plan,” involving a multi-company complaint campaign against Apple and Google via the “Coalition for App Fairness.”

Project Liberty makes up a whole section in Apple’s filing, detailing how the company and Sweeney planned to “draw Google into a legal battle over anti-trust,” (and presumably Apple) according to internal emails, by getting banned by the companies’ app stores for circumventing their payment systems. Epic only mentions Project Liberty in one paragraph, explaining that it kept the program secret because “Epic could not have disclosed it without causing Apple to reject Version 13.40 of Fortnite,” viz. the one with the offending payment system built in. It’s not much of a defense.

Whether Apple’s fees are too high, and whether Epic is doing this to extend Fortnite’s profitable days, the case itself will be determined on the basis of antitrust law and doctrine, and on this front things do not look particularly dire for Apple.

Although the legal arguments and summaries of fact run to hundreds of pages from both sides, the whole thing is summed up pretty well in the very first sentence of Epic’s filing: “This case is about Apple’s conduct to monopolize two markets within its iOS ecosystem.”

To be specific, it is about whether Apple can be said to be a monopolist over an ecosystem it created and administrated from the very beginning, and one that is provably assailed on all sides by competitors in the digital distribution and gaming space. This is a novel application of antitrust law and one that would carry a heavy burden of proof for Epic — and that an (admittedly amateur) review of the arguments doesn’t suggest there’s much chance of success.

But the opinion of a random reporter is not much in the accounting of things; there will have to be a trial, and one is scheduled to occur next month. There’s a lot of ground to cover, as Epic’s presentation of its arguments will need to be as meticulous as Apple’s dismantling of them. To that end we can expect live testimony from Apple CEO Tim Cook, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, Apple’s former head of marketing and familiar face Phil Schiller, among others.

The timing and nature of that testimony or questioning will not be known until later, but it’s likely there will be some interesting interactions worth hearing about. The trial is scheduled to begin May 3 and last for about three weeks.

Notably there are a handful of other lawsuits hovering about relating to this, such as Apple’s countersuit against Epic alleging breach of contract. Many of these will depend entirely on the outcome of the main case — e.g. if Apple’s terms were found to be unlawful, there was no contract to break, or if not, Epic pretty much admitted to breaking the rules so the case is practically over already.

You can read the full “proposed findings of fact” documents from each party on the invaluable RECAP; the case number is 4:20-cv-05640.

E-bikes and earbuds among the first third-party hardware to support Apple’s Find My tracking

By Brian Heater

Yesterday we noted that Apple launched a new Find My Certification Asst. app, designed to test support for third-party hardware. Find My, of course, has been a long-standing feature for Apple’s own hardware like iPhones, AirPods and Macs, but back at WWDC, the company announced plans to open it up to manufactures.

Today the company made official its Find My Network Accessory program, and unveiled a handful of hardware that will take advantage of the new Made for iPhone (MFi)-affiliated offering. Users will be able to locate missing devices via Apple’s Find My app.

Image Credits: Apple

At the top of the list are a pair of e-bikes, produced by VanMoof. The S3 and X3 will sport tracking functionality, along with a “Locate with Apple Find My” logo located on the bottom side of the crossbar. Belkin’s Soundform Freedom earbuds, meanwhile will join Apple’s iPods in sporting the feature, while the Chipolo ONE Spot will beat the long-rumored AirTags to the punch. According to Apple, the new products are set to hit the market next week.

There are a bunch of different privacy concerns laid out by Apple in the white papers, along with other specifications companies will have to adhere to. Draft specs for chip makers will also be released in the spring, so companies can utilize the Ultra Wideband tech on Apple devices sporting a U1 chip. Approved products will be able to display the aforementioned “Works with Apple Find My” badge.

 

Apple shares more details about its imminent App Tracking Transparency feature

By Anthony Ha

Apple is sharing more details today about its upcoming App Tracking Transparency feature, which will allow users to control, on an app-by-app level, whether their data is shared for ad-targeting purposes.

In a sense, anyone using the current version of iOS can see App Tracking Transparency in action, since iOS already includes a Tracking menu in the Privacy settings, and some apps have already started asking users for permission to track them.

But when iOS 14.5 (currently in developer beta) is released to the general public sometime in early spring, Apple will actually start enforcing its new rules, meaning that iPhone users will probably start seeing a lot more requests. Those requests will appear at various points during the usage of an app, but they’ll all carry a standardized message asking whether the app can “track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites,” followed by a customized explanation from the developer.

Once an app has asked for this permission, it will also show up in the Tracking menu, where users can toggle app tracking on and off at any time. They can also enable app tracking across all apps or opt out of these requests entirely with a single toggle.

One point worth emphasizing — something already stated on Apple’s developer website but not entirely clear in media reports (including our own)— is that these rules aren’t limited to the IDFA identifier. Yes, IDFA is what Apple controls directly, but a company spokesperson said that when a user opts out of tracking, Apple will also expect developers to stop using any other identifiers (such as hashed email addresses) to track users for ad targeting purposes, and not to share that information with data brokers.

This does not, however, stop developers from tracking users across multiple apps if all those apps are operated by a single company.

The Apple spokesperson also said that Apple’s own apps will abide by these rules — you won’t see any requests from Apple, however, since it doesn’t track users across third-party apps for ad targeting purposes. (As previously noted, there’s a separate Personalized Ads option that determines whether Apple can use its own first-party data to target ads.)

Facebook has been particularly vocal in criticizing the change, arguing that this will hurt small businesses who use targeting to run effective ad campaigns, and that the change benefits Apple’s bottom line.

Apple has pushed back against criticism in privacy-focused speeches, as well as in a report called A Day in the Life of Your Data, which lays out how users are actually tracked and targeted. In fact, the report has just been updated with more information about ad auctions, ad attribution and Apple’s own advertising products.

UK’s Digital Markets Unit starts work on pro-competition reforms

By Natasha Lomas

A new UK public body that will be tasked with helping regulate the most powerful companies in the digital sector to ensure competition thrives online and consumers of digital services have more choice and control over their data has launched today.

The Digital Markets Unit (DMU), which was announced in November last year — following a number of market reviews and studies examining concerns about the concentration of digital market power — does not yet have statutory powers itself but the government has said it will consult on the design of the new “pro-competition regime” this year and legislate to put the DMU on a statutory footing as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Concerns about the market power of adtech giants Facebook and Google are key drivers for the regulatory development.

💻 Our new Digital Markets Unit, launched today, will help make sure tech giants can’t exploit their market dominance to crowd out competition and stifle innovation online.

Find out more: https://t.co/PCBCYwuA3o pic.twitter.com/Ybvn81uuBK

— Competition & Markets Authority (@CMAgovUK) April 7, 2021

As a first job, the unit will look at how codes of conduct could work to govern the relationship between digital platforms and third parties such as small businesses which rely on them to advertise or use their services to reach customers — to feed into future digital legislation.

The role of powerful intermediary online gatekeepers is also being targeted by lawmakers in the European Union who proposed legislation at the end of last year which similarly aims to create a regulatory framework that can ensure fair dealing between platform giants and the smaller entities which do business under their terms.

The UK government said today that the DMU will take a sector neutral approach in examining the role of platforms across a range of digital markets, with a view to promoting competition.

The unit has been asked to work with the comms watchdog Ofcom, which the government named last year as its pick for regulating social media platforms under planned legislation due to be introduced this year (aka, the Online Safety Bill as it’s now called).

While that forthcoming legislation is intended to regulate a very wide range of online harms which may affect consumers — from bullying and hate speech to child sexual exploitation and other speech-related issues (raising plenty of controversy, and specific concerns about associated implications for privacy and security) — the focus for the DMU is on business impacts and consumer controls which may also have implications for competition in digital markets.

As part of its first work program, the government said the secretary of state for digital has asked the DMU to work with Ofcom to look specifically at how a code would govern the relationships between platforms and content providers such as news publishers — “including to ensure they are as fair and reasonable as possible”, as its press release puts it.

This suggests the DMU will be taking a considered look at recent legislation passed in Australia — which makes it mandatory for platforms to negotiate with news publishers to pay for reuse of their content.

Earlier this year, the head of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which the DMU will sit within, told the BBC that Australia’s approach of having a backstop of mandatory arbitration if commercial negotiations between tech giants and publishers fail is a “sensible” approach.

The DMU will also work closely with the CMA’s enforcement division — which currently has a number of open investigations into tech giants, including considering complaints against Apple and Google; and an in-depth probe of Facebook’s Giphy acquisition.

Other UK regulators the government says the DMU will work closely with include the data protection watchdog (the ICO) and the Financial Conduct Authority.

It also said the unit will also coordinate with international partners, given digital competition is an issue that’s naturally globally in nature — adding that it’s already discussing its approach through bilateral engagement and as part of its G7 presidency.

“The Digital Secretary will host a meeting of digital and tech ministers in April as he seeks to build consensus for coordination on better information sharing and joining up regulatory and policy approaches,” it added.

The DMU will be led by Will Hayter, who takes up an interim head post in early May following a stint at the Cabinet Office working on Brexit transition policy. Prior to that he worked for several years at the CMU and also Ofcom, among other roles in regulatory policy.

 

Apple launches an app for testing devices that work with ‘Find My’

By Sarah Perez

Apple has launched a new app, Find My Certification Asst., designed for use by MFi (Made for iPhone) Licensees, who need to test their accessories’ interoperability with Apple’s Find My network. The network helps users find lost Apple devices — like iPhones, AirPods, and Mac computers, among other things — but is poised to add support for finding other compatible accessories manufactured by third parties.

The launch of the testing app signals that Apple may be ready to announce the launch of the third-party device program in the near future.

According to the app’s description, MFi Licensees can use Find My Certification Asst. to test the “discovery, connection, and other key requirements” for their accessories that will incorporate Apple’s Find My network technology. It also points to information about the Find My network certification program on Apple’s MFi Portal at mfi.apple.com, which currently references Find My network as a MFi program technology that’s “launching soon.”

The new app’s screenshots indicate it allows device makers to run a wide variety of tests in areas like connectivity, sound (for example, if the item can make a noise when misplaced), firmware, key management, NFC, power, and more.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

The app became publicly available on Sunday, April 4th on the iOS App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. It’s brand-new so is not yet ranking in any App Store categories, including its own, “Developer Tools,” or others. It also has no ratings and reviews at this time.

The app’s launch is step towards the larger goal of opening up the Apple Find My network to third-parties and Apple’s planned launch of its own new accessory, AirTags.

Apple at last year’s Worldwide Developer Conference had first announced it would open up Find My to third-party devices after facing pressure from regulators in the U.S. and Europe who had been looking into, among other things, whether Apple had been planning to give itself an advantage with its forthcoming launch of AirTags, a competitor to Tile’s lost-item finder.

Image Credits: screenshot of FMCA app

A prominent Apple critic, Tile had complained that AirTags would be able to connect with Apple’s U1 chips, which use UWB (ultra-wideband) technology for more precise finding capabilities, and at a Congressional hearing noted that AirTags would work with Apple’s own Find My app, which ships by default on Apple devices. This, Tile believed, would give Apple a first-party advantage in the lost-item finder market that Tile had successfully established and dominated for years.

Apple, in response, opened up third-party developer access to its U1 chip via its “NearbyInteraction” framework last year. As a result, Tile in Jan. 2021 announced its plan to launch a new tracker powered by UWB.

More recently, Apple updated its Find My app to include a new tab called “Items” in preparation for the app’s expanded support for AirTags and other third-party accessories, like those from Tile and others. This “Items” tab is enabled in latest Apple’s iOS 14.5 beta release, where the app explains how the Find My app will now be able to help users keep track of their everyday items — including accessories and other items that are compatible with Find My.

However, Tile (and likely others) feel that Apple’s concessions still disadvantage their businesses because participation in Apple’s FindMy program means that the third-party device maker would have to abandon its existing app and instead require its customers to use Apple’s FindMy app — effectively turning over its customers and their data to Apple.

It’s worth noting that, upon launch, the app features an icon that shows three items: headphones, a backpack and a suitcase. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Tile’s first integrations were with Bose headphones and luggage and bag makers, Away and Herschel.

Apple has not responded to a request for comment about the new app’s launch.

Tim Cook drops hints about autonomous tech and the Apple car

By Rebecca Bellan

Apple CEO Tim Cook dropped a few hints in an interview released Monday about the direction of the much-anticipated Apple car, including that autonomous vehicle technology will likely be a key feature.

“The autonomy itself is a core technology, in my view,” Cook told Kara Swisher in an interview on the “Sway” podcast. “If you sort of step back, the car, in a lot of ways, is a robot. An autonomous car is a robot. And so there’s lots of things you can do with autonomy. And we’ll see what Apple does.”

Cook was careful not to reveal too much, declining to answer Swisher’s question outright if Apple is planning to produce a car itself or the tech within the car. What clues he did drop, suggests Project Titan is working on something in the middle.

“We love to integrate hardware, software and services, and find the intersection points of those because we think that’s where the magic occurs,” said Cook. “And we love to own the primary technology that’s around that.”

To which Swisher responded: “I’m going to go with car for that, if you don’t mind. I’m just going to jump to car.”

We are, too.

Many people in the micromobility industry like to say that e-scooters are basically iPhones on wheels, but it’s more likely that the Apple car will actually be the iPhone on wheels. Apple is generally known for owning all of its hardware and software, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Apple engineers working closely with a manufacturer to produce an Apple car, with the potential to one day cut out the middle man and become the manufacturer.

The so-called Project Titan appeared at risk of failing before a car was ever seen by the public with mass layoffs in 2019. However, more recent reports suggest that the project is alive and well with plans to make a self-driving electric passenger vehicle by 2024.

Earlier this year, CNBC reported that Apple was close to finalizing a deal with Hyundai-Kia to build an Apple-branded self-driving car at the Kia assembly plant in West Point, Georgia. Sources familiar with Apple’s interest in Hyundai say the company wants to work with an automaker that will let Apple hold the reins on the software and hardware that will go into the car.

The two companies never reached a deal and talks fell apart in February, according to multiple reports. That hasn’t stopped the flow of rumors and reports about Apple and its plans, which have previously been linked to other suppliers, automakers such as Nissan and even startups.

It’s still unclear what the Apple car will look like, but as a passenger vehicle, rather than a robotaxi or delivery vehicle, it will be going up against the likes of Tesla.

“I’ve never spoken to Elon, although I have great admiration and respect for the company he’s built,” said Cook. “I think Tesla has done an unbelievable job of not only establishing the lead, but keeping the lead for such a long period of time in the EV space. So I have great appreciation for them.”

Project Titan is being led by Doug Field, who was formerly senior vice president of engineering at Tesla and one of the key players behind the Model 3 launch.

Daily Crunch: Apple Arcade expands with classic games

By Anthony Ha

Apple adds classic titles to Apple Arcade, Microsoft experiences an outage and Coinbase is going public. This is your Daily Crunch for April 2, 2021.

The big story: Apple Arcade expands with classic games

Until now, Apple’s game subscription service was limited to exclusive new titles, but today it’s introducing two new categories: App Store Greats (popular iPhone games like Monument Valley+, Fruit Ninja Classic+, Cut the Rope Remastered and Badland+) and Timeless Classics (board games and puzzle games, such as Backgammon+ and Chess Play and Learn+).

This is a major expansion to the Apple Arcade back catalog, but it’s not simply a matter of putting previously free games behind a paywall. The Arcade versions of these titles will be ad-free and without in-app purchases — you’re never paying anything beyond the $4.99 monthly subscription fee. Also, some of these games had become unavailable in their original forms due to iOS and hardware updates.

The tech giants

Microsoft outage knocks sites and services offline — Microsoft stumbled back online Thursday after an hours-long outage in the middle of the U.S. west coast working afternoon.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Coinbase to direct list on April 14th, provide financial update on April 6th — The company will trade under the ticker symbol “COIN.”

Uruguayan payments startup dLocal quadruples valuation to $5B with $150M raise — This means that the five-year-old Uruguayan company has effectively quadrupled its valuation in a matter of months.

Backflip offers an easier way to turn used electronics into cold, hard cash — The company offers customers cash on delivery for their used electronics, which could be anything from iPhones to Game Boys.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How is edtech spending its extra capital? — Edtech M&A activity has continued to swell.

Tech in Mexico: A confluence of Latin America, the US and Asia — LatAm entrepreneurs seem to be looking to Asian tech giants for product inspiration and growth strategies.

RPA market surges as investors, vendors capitalize on pandemic-driven tech shift — Robotic process automation came to the fore during the pandemic as companies took steps to digitally transform.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

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