2020 was a weird year by any measure. Certainly it was a wild ride for those in the consumer electronics category. Take smartphones — first there were manufacturing delays out of China, followed by an across the board decrease in demand. There are lots of reasons contributing to the latter, but the simplest and most prevalent one is that people just didn’t want to spend money to upgrade their devices.
But the pandemic also changed how — and where — many people work and learn. It was an abrupt shift for many that required tech investments, even in the face of economic uncertainty. After years of stagnating, plateauing and dropping, PC and tablet sales saw a spike. Earlier this month, IDC noted a nearly 20% increase in tablet sales for Q4, owing in part to a backlog in PC availability.
New figures from the firm (first noted by GeekWire) point to some significant gains for Chromebooks during that time period. According to IDC’s PC Tracker, the models comprised 10.8% of the PC market for 2020; that’s up from 6.4% a year prior. The number also pushed past MacOS’s 7.5% for the year.
Even so, Apple still grew as an overall percent of the market, up from 6.7%. Both of those numbers have eaten into Windows’ figures — though Microsoft continues to dominate the market at 80.5% (down from 85.4%).
The figures reflect positive reports from other firms. In January, Canalys noted, “Chromebook vendors enjoyed new heights of success in Q4, as the overall market almost quadrupled in size over the same period a year ago.” Pricing is certainly a factor, along with an overall scramble as schools have gone virtual amid COVID-19 concerns.
3D printing has come a long way over the course of the last decade, but questions about mainstream adoption still linger around the technology. Medical devices have been a pretty compelling use case — they’re not really mass produced and require a high level of personalization. Clear orthodontics are a great example of something that falls in that sweet spot — in fact, dental in general has been a big application.
Audio, too, holds a lot of potential. Imagine, for example, a set of headphones custom designed for your ears. The technology has been available on high-end models for a while, courtesy of molding, but 3D printing could unlock a more easily scalable version of that kind of luxury.
This week, Sennheiser announced a partnership that will utilize Formlabs technology to print custom earphones. Specifically, the headphone maker will be using the Form 3B, a printer design for use with biocompatible material that has largely been utilized for dental applications. Product specifics haven’t been revealed, but the audio company’s Ambeo division will be using the tech to create custom headphone eartips. Users would be able to scan their ears with a smartphone and send that to the company to get a tip printed.
Image Credits: Sennheiser
“Our technology collaboration with Sennheiser seeks to change the way customers interact with the brands they love by enabling a more customized, user-centric approach to product development,” Formlabs audio head Iain McLeod said in a release.. “Formlabs’ deep industry knowledge and broad expertise in developing scalable solutions enable us to deliver tangible innovations to our customers. In this case, we are working with Sennheiser’s Ambeo team to deliver a uniquely accessible, custom fit experience.”
The product is still very much in the prototype phase. And while such a partnership seems like a no-brainer for headphone makers going forward, there are some big questions here, including pricing and scalability. Clearly such a product would come at a premium over standard headphones, but not at so high a cost that supersedes such novelty.
The release calls it “an affordable and simple solution is now available to mass 3D print custom-fit earphones.” What, precisely, it means by affordable remains to be seen.
ExOne this week announced that the U.S. Department of Defense has granted it $1.6 million. It’s one of the Pennsylvania-based metal 3D printing company’s largest government contracts, in service of building a portable 3D printing factory for the front line – essentially a method for troops to fabricate broken and missing parts where the need them the most.
“Over the last two years, we’ve really focused on providing our technology into government-type applications: DoD, NASA, DoE,” CEO John Hartner tells TechCrunch. “Sometimes people talk about disrupting the supply chain and getting decentralized manufacturing. This is decentralized and forward deployed, if you will. Be it an emergency, humanitarian mission or frontlines for a war fighter.”
The money from the grant will specifically go toward R&D and building the first unit.
ExOne is proud to have been awarded a $1.6M U.S. Department of Defense contract to develop a portable self-contained 3D printing “factory” housed in a shipping container. The pod will help reduce inventory and simplify the supply chain. #metal3Dprintinghttps://t.co/jSCef5HuB6 pic.twitter.com/awXhMGrKFp
— ExOne (@ExOneCo) February 16, 2021
The system combines a series of machines with a software layer designed to lower the barrier of entry for use. While some training will be required, the hope is that people will be able to operate the system in the field.
“We’ve ruggedized the products that are going inside,” says Hartner. “There’s an element of software that makes the whole thing easier to use together. You start with scanning. So, there’s a possibility that you print from a cloud-based repository, but that may not be available for whatever reason, so you may have a broken part that you can scan and do some digital repair to the file and print.”
The devices rely on binder jet printing, the core tech behind ExOne’s machines. The system essentially composites powder, layer by layer to build up an object. ExOne expects to deliver the first system by Q3 2022. If all goes well, the parties will discuss further partnerships going forward.
Amazon’s Day 1 Edition program pulled back the curtain ever-so-slightly on the company’s hardware development process. The initial class featured its Echo Frames smart glasses and Loop smart ring. Based on early user feedback, the company only opted to continue production on the former.
But it takes the idea even further. The program is akin to a kind of in-house crowdfunded pre-order program. Amazon presents a handful of concepts and potential customers vote with their pre-order. If the goal is met, they’ll bring the product to market. If not, they spike it. It’s not dissimilar to the “First Flight” program Sony Japan launched a little over five years back.
Clearly Amazon doesn’t wont for resources when it comes to launching products. But while a system like this isn’t necessary, I can certainly appreciate how it will facilitate letting the hardware team get a little weird with it. There have been a few exceptions from the company in recent years, with an Alexa-enabled Big Mouth Billy Bass, but as a rule, big corporations don’t often let really weird hardware concepts get all the way to production.
Image Credits: Amazon
There are three products in this first batch, and they run the gamut from straightforward to wacky. The common thread — at least with this round — is they all work with Alexa. I’d anticipate that will be the case going forward, but Amazon’s willingness to tip its hand has some very clear limits.
On the more mundane side is a Smart Stick Note printer. Basically you tell Alexa/Echo something and it will use thermal technology to print to an off-brand Post-it. The thermal tech means there’s no ink to replace. The idea is you can print, say, grocery lists and event reminders using voice. That’s up for a $90 pre-order (like Kickstarter/Indiegogo, prices will increase if/when these come to market).
Image Credits: Amazon
The $35 Smart Scale is designed to work with an Echo Show. You say something like, “Alexa, ask Smart Scale how much sugar is in these blueberries,” or “Alexa, ask Smart Scale to weigh 200 calories of blueberries” and the smart screen will show off the nutritional information for the weighed amount.
The weirdest/most fun of the bunch is the Smart Cuckoo Clock. Following up on the much more mundane Echo Wall Clock, the proposed model adds a mechanical cuckoo to the mix. There’s also a removable pendulum, allowing users to mount it on a wall or stick it on a shelf. That one is $80 in pre-order.
Image Credits: Amazon
The company isn’t listing specific goals, but each project will show the percentage toward completion (with no numbers listed). If the goal isn’t met, pre-orders won’t be charged and the company will move on to the next project.
Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus, knows a thing or two about communities. At the Chinese smartphone maker, Pei fielded product and feature ideas from fans and held frequent gatherings to hear their feedback. At his new venture, Nothing, Pei is going a step further.
London-headquartered firm said on Tuesday it will allow its community to invest $1.5 million in the company through a community equity round early next month. One community member will be elected to Nothing’s board of directors to always keep the firm in “check” and remind it of ‘what users want,” said Pei.
The startup, which recently raised a $15 million Series A round from Alphabet’s GV, said it will raise money from the community at the same valuation as implied in the Series A round.
“We want our community to be part of our journey from the very start and play an active role in it.” said Pei, who serves as the chief executive of Nothing. Pre-registrations to the financing option will open on February 16 at 10AM GMT, and the campaign will go live on March 2 at 10AM GMT.
Pei has yet to share what all products he wants to tackle at his new venture. So far he has said the startup plans to develop a pair of wireless headphones and smart and connected consumer electronics devices.
TechCrunch asked him why he couldn’t do all of this at OnePlus. “When you want to build something new and different, the best way is to start-off on a clean sheet and with a change of environment,” he said.
This week, 9to5Google reported that Nothing had acquired some trademarks from Android creator Andy Rubin’s now-defunct Essential.
Ember today announced that founder Clay Alexander will transition to Group CEO effective February 16. In his place, the Los Angeles-based smart mug company is bringing on Jim Rowan as Consumer CEO. The executive served as CEO of Dyson from 2017 to 2020, after five years as COO.
It’s a big get for a relatively small company like Ember, which is best known for its smart, heated mugs. Founded in 2012, the hardware startup most recently raised a $20 million Series D in early 2019, bringing its total funding up to just shy of $50 million.
Alexander’s continued role at the company points to additional categories for Ember beyond consumer. “When I founded Ember, I knew there were endless applications for our temperature control technology and with Jim joining our team, we’ll be able to focus on our emerging healthcare vertical and use our technology to help improve and even save lives,” the exec said in a statement.
Courtesy of clever technology and smart design, the company has built a pretty sizable footprint for what might otherwise be a fairly niche product, expanding retail sales to Target, Costco, Best Buy and Starbucks, among others. The startup has done so while maintaining a low headcount of around 100 staffers.
“They have great IP, great design and great innovation, all around precise temperature control,” Rowan said in an interview with TechCrunch. “Obviously that started with the temperature control mugs and flasks, but that IP lends itself to so many other application. For me, that golden thread of being able to use that in myriad of different industries and markets is really, really exciting. One of them, of course, is the cold chain, which has become a lot more important since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a good indication of how you can disrupt and innovate in new markets.
Rowan has previously served as the COO of BlackBerry and as a senior exec at Flextronics. After exiting Dyson, he joined both PCH International and KKR as an advisor. It’s Dyson, however, that provides the most direct analogy for what the executive hoping to do at Ember. At its core, Dyson is a company that moves air. That translates to vacuums, fans, hairdryers and myriad other product categories.
The underlying question is how Ember’s proprietary heating and cooling tech can translate to other fields. On an industrial level, it means, potentially, helping keep foodstuff and medicine at a predetermined temperate while shipping in the international cold chain. It also means additional consumer products built around the same underlying tech.
“There will be a lot more products that come out, beyond the current mugs and travel mugs,” Rowan says. “There’s a whole bunch of new products which are in the consumer pipeline and will launch in the next year or couple of years. And then you have the expansion into new geographies with existing products.”
That largely means Asia (Rowan will remain based in Singapore) and Europe. Thus far Ember’s footprint has been U.S.-centric, though a push toward online commerce amid the pandemic has helped expand it some. There does, however, remain a question of how high the ceiling is on adoption for a $130 electric smart mug. Ember has yet to release any actual numbers, and Rowan, whose experience at Dyson has more than familiarized him with selling premium products at a premium price point, isn’t ready to commit to a lower price point or less premium take on the space.
It’s worth noting, of course, that low end of the mug category is ready available at your local 99 cent store, and that’s not likely a space Ember is raring to compete in. And certainly those products — unlike its current lineup — likely wouldn’t end up in Apple Stores. Instead, it seems likely the company will continue a play as a premium consumer brand into additional categories at a more rapid pace. “The actual technology can expand into a whole bunch of new areas beyond just beverages because of the temperature control technology,” Rowan said.
Apple is said to be working on a new version of the MacBook Air with a brand new physical case design that’s both thinner and lighter than its current offering, which was updated with Apple’s M1 chip late last year, per a new Bloomberg report. The plan is to release it as early as late 2021 or 2022, according to the report’s sources, and it will also include MagSafe charging (which is also said to be returning on Apple’s next MacBook Pro models sometime in 2021).
MagSafe would offer power delivery and charging, while two USB 4 ports would provide data connectivity on the new MacBook Air. The display size will remain at its current 13-inch diagonal measurement, but Apple will reportedly realize smaller overall sizes by reducing the bevel that surrounds the screen’s edge, among other sizing changes.
Apple has a plan to revamp its entire Mac lineup with its own Apple Silicon processors over the course of the next two years. It debuted its first Apple Silicon Macs, powered by its M1 chip, late last year, and the resulting performance benefits vs. their Intel-powered predecessors have been substantial. The physical designs remained essentially the same, however, prompting speculation as to when Apple would introduce new case designs to further distinguish its new Macs from their older models.
The company is also reportedly working on new MacBook Pros with MagSafe charging, which could also ditch the company’s controversial TouchBar interface – and, again according to Bloomberg, bring back a dedicated SD card slot. All these changes would actually be reversions of design changes Apple made when it introduced the current physical notebook Mac designs, beginning with the first Retina display MacBook Pro in 2012, but they address usability complaints by some of the company’s enthusiast and professional customers.
Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, is done exploring the idea of using a fleet of balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.
The demise of Loon comes a year after the Android-maker ended Google Station, its other major connectivity effort to bring internet to the next billion users. Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.
That said, Alphabet’s move today is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from the government of Kenya to launch first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.
On its website, Loon has long stated its mission as: “Loon is focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world. We are in discussions with telecommunications companies and governments worldwide to provide a solution to help extend internet connectivity to these underserved areas.”
Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — if not, the two firms are going to have to answer some difficult feasibility questions of their own in the future.
“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.
“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”
The blog post characterised Loon’s connectivity effort as success. “The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.
In a separate blog post, the firm said it had pledged a fund of $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focussed on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.
Alphabet also plans to “take some of Loon’s technology” forward and share what it learned from this moonshot idea with others.
Additionally, “some of Loon’s technology — like the high bandwidth (20Gbps+) optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between balloons bopping in the stratosphere — already lives on in Project Taara. This team is currently working with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring affordable, high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities starting in Kenya,” the firm said.
Scores of firms including Google and Facebook have visibly scaled down several of their connectivity efforts in recent years after many developing nations such as India that they targeted solved their internet problems on their own.
It has also become clear that subsidizing internet access to hundreds of millions of potential users is perhaps not the most sustainable way to acquire customers.
A new report suggests there’s a pricey Apple VR headset in the works, Facebook’s Oversight Board will examine one of the social network’s most consequential decisions and we review the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. This is your Daily Crunch for January 21, 2021.
The big story: Apple might be working on a VR headset
The headset is supposed to include a processor more powerful than the M1 chip currently included in the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. And it would cost more than most competing products (so possibly in the $1,000 range or more).
It sounds, in other words, like this is meant to be a specialist product, perhaps paving the way for a more mass-market device later.
The tech giants
Facebook’s Oversight Board will review the decision to suspend Trump — Facebook VP Nick Clegg called the circumstances around Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action.”
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Camera refinements are nice, but the price drop’s the thing — The updates are mostly iterative for an already solid handset, but we won’t say “no” to a $200 price drop.
YouTube launches hashtag landing pages to all users — The company has been quietly working on a new feature that allows users to discover content using hashtags.
Startups, funding and venture capital
TripActions raises $155M at $5B valuation as corporate travel recovers from pandemic lows — The company became something of a poster-child for the impact of COVID-19 on certain startup categories.
Omnipresent raises $15.8M Series A for its platform to employ remote-workers globally — Omnipresent says it ensures the process of remote-hiring costs a fraction of what it normally would.
Soci raises $80M for its localized marketing platform — National and global companies like Ace Hardware, Anytime Fitness, The Hertz Corporation and Nekter Juice Bar use Soci to coordinate marketing across individual stores.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
Eight VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021 — In 2020, more of us saw our doctor on video than ever before.
Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech — Lemonade is a great example.
Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team — In this week’s Decrypted, we look at the ongoing fallout from the SolarWinds breach and who the incoming president wants to lead the path to recovery.
(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)
The biggest step the Biden administration took on climate yesterday wasn’t rejoining the Paris Agreement — Instead, it was a move to get to the basics of monitoring and accounting, of metrics and dashboards.
How Bitcoin is helping middle-class users survive the pandemic — People like Saeed, an Iranian immigrant to France, see cryptocurrency as a necessity.
MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips — The method results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.
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 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.
The Galaxy S21 is a tank. It’s a big, heavy (8.04 ounces versus its predecessor’s 7.7), blunt instrument of a phone. It’s quintessential Samsung, really — the handset you purchase when too much isn’t quite enough. In fact, it even goes so far as adopting S-Pen functionality — perhaps the largest distinguishing factor between the company’s two flagship lines.
In many ways it — and the rest of the S21 models — are logical extensions of the product line. Samsung hasn’t broken the mold here. But the company didn’t particularly need to. The line remains one of the best Android devices you can buy. It’s a product experience the company is content to refine, while saving more fundamental changes for the decidedly more experimental Galaxy Z line.
Samsung certainly deserves credit for going all in on 5G early. The company was ahead of the curve in adopting next-gen wireless and was among the first to add it across its flagship offerings. 5G became a utilitarian feature remarkably fast — owing in no small part to Qualcomm’s major push to add the tech to its mid-tier chips. In fact, the iPhone 12 may well be the last major flagship that can get away with using the addition of the tech as a major selling point.
With that out of the way, smartphone makers are returning to familiar terrain on which to wage their wars — namely imaging. S-Pen functionality for the Ultra aside, most of the top-level upgrades of this generation come on the camera side of things. No surprise there, of course. The camera has always a focus for Samsung — though the changes largely revolved around software, which is increasingly the trend for many manufacturers.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
There are, however, some hardware changes worth noting. Namely, the new S models represent one of the bigger aesthetic updates in recent memory. I’d mentioned being kind of on the fence about them in my original write up of the news, owing largely to that weird wrinkle of 2020/2021 gadget blogging: not being able to see the device in person. Now that I’ve been toting the product around the streets of New York for several days, I can say definitive that, well, I’m mostly kind of okay with them, I guess.
The big sticking point is that massive contour cut camera housing. Pretty sure I used the word “brutalist” to describe it last time. Having used the product, I’d say it’s fairly apt. There’s something…industrial about the design choice. And it’s really pronounced on the Ultra, which sports four camera holes, plus a laser autofocus sensor and flash. It’s a big, pronounced camera bump built from surprisingly thick metal. I suspect it’s owed, in part, to the “folded” telephoto lens.
Samsung sent along the Phantom Black model. The color was something the company devoted a surprising amount of stage time to during the announcement. It was the kind of attention we rarely see devoted to something as inconsequential as a color finish, outside of some Apple bits. Here’s a long video about it if you’re curious. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s nice. It’s matte black. I do dig the new metallic back; even with Corning on your side, a glass back really feels like an accident waiting to happen.
The curved screen looks nice, per usual, accented well by the round corners. The screen itself is striking — Samsung’s displays always are. The screens on the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra are 6.2, 6.7 and 6.8 inches, respectively. Those are all unchanged, save for the Ultra, which is, strangely, 0.1 inches smaller than its predecessor. It’s not really noticeable, but is an odd choice from a company that has long insisted that bigger is better when it comes to displays.
Eye Comfort Shield is a welcome addition, adjusting the screen temperature based on time of day and your own usage. If you’ve used Night Shift or something similar, you know the deal — the screen slowly shifts toward the more yellow end of the white balance spectrum, reducing blue light so as to not throw your circadian rhythms out of whack. It’s off by default, so you’ll have to go into settings to change it.
The company has also introduced a Dynamic Refresh Rate feature, which cycles between 46 and 120Hz, depending on the app you’re using. This is designed to save some battery life (a 120Hz along with 5G can be a big power hog). The effect is fairly subtle. I can’t say I really noticed over the course of my usage. I certainly appreciate the effort to find new ways to eke out extra juice.
The new era of Samsung is equally notable for what it left off. The new S models mark the end of an era as the company finally abandons expandable storage (following in the footsteps of the Z line). I mean, I get it. These devices range from 128 to 512GB of storage. For a majority of users, the microSD reader was superfluous. I certainly never needed to use it. Per the company, “Over time, SD card usage has markedly decreased on smartphones because we’ve expanded the options of storage available to consumers.”
Of course, expanding the built-in memory is going to cost you. Mostly, though, it’s always a bit of a bummer to say farewell to a long-time distinguishing factory. Speaking of, the company also ditched the in-box headphones and power adapter, notably deleting some ads in which it mocked Apple for recently doing the same. It’s the headphone jack all over again.
The company offered up a similar sustainability explanation in a recent statement. “We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have and making sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits.” As a consequence, the box is nearly half as thick as those from earlier S lines, for what that’s worth.
As mentioned above, the cameras are remarkably similar to their predecessors, with a few key differences. The S20 Ultra sported an 108-megapixel wide lens (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2) and 48-megapixel (f/3.5) telephoto (4x zoom), while the S21 Ultra features a 108-megapixel wide (f/1.8), 12-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2), 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto (3x zoom) and 10MP telephoto (f/4.9) (10x zoom). The dual telephoto lenses are the biggest differentiator.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
The device will switch between telephotos, depending on how much you zoom in. The device performs a lot better than many competing handsets at distances requiring around 10x. Though, while the ability to zoom up to 100x is an extremely impressive thing for a phone to do on paper, the images degrade really quickly at higher levels. At a certain point, the image starts taking on the style of an impressionist painting, which isn’t particularly useful in a majority of cases.
Once Samsung (or whoever) can properly crack the code on translating that noise into signal, it will really be a breakthrough. Still, Zoom Lock is a nice addition in helping to minimize hand shake while zooming. Accidental movements tend to increasing exponentially the tighter you get in on an image. The Super Steady, too, has been improved for video recording.
Portrait mode has been improved. There still tends to be trouble with more complex shapes, but this is a problem I’ve run into with pretty much all solutions. Samsung gets some points here for offering a ton of post-shot portrait editing, from different bokeh levels, to adjusting the focal point to other effects. As with much of the camera software, there’s a lot to play around with.
Other key additions include 8K snap, a nice addition that lets you pull high-res images from a single frame of 8K video. There’s also Vlogger Mode, which shoots from the front and back simultaneously. Someone will no doubt find some social use for this, but it feels a bit gimmicky — one of those features a majority of users will promptly forget about. Additional options are generally a good thing, though the camera software has gotten to the point where there are a ton of menus to navigate.
I get the sense that most users want a way to quickly snap photos and shoot videos. The lower-end S21 entries are great for that. The hardware is strong enough to give you great shots with minimal effort. If you’re someone who really enjoys drilling down on features and getting the best images on-device without exporting to a third-party app, the Ultra is the choice for you. In addition to being a kind of kitchen sink approach, the high-end device is all about choice.
Image Credits: Brian Heater
The addition of S Pen functionality is probably the most notable — and curious — thing the Ultra has going for it. On the face of it, this feels like the latest — and most pronounced — in a series of moves effectively blurring the lines between the company’s two flagships. Perhaps Samsung will make a move to further differentiate the next Note, or maybe the company is content to simply let the device meld over time.
There is one major difference off the bat, of course. Namely the fact that there’s no pen slot on the S21. This means that:
Image Credits: Brian Heater
I happened to have a Note S Pen lying around and found the experience to be pretty smooth. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I’m not really a stylus person myself, but Samsung’s done a good job building up the software over the years. The S Pen is a surprisingly versatile tool, courtesy of several generations of updates. But I would say if the peripheral is important to you, honestly, just buy a Note.
The components are what you’d expect from a high-end Samsung. That includes the brand new Snapdragon 888 (in some markets, at least), and either 12 or 16GB of RAM and 128, 256 or 512GB of storage on the Ultra. The battery remains the same as last year, at 5,000mAh. In spite of 5G and a high refresh rate, I’ve gotten more than a day and a half of moderate use on a single charge.
In the end, the S21 isn’t a huge change over the S20. It’s more of a refinement, really. But it does represent a big change for Samsung. The company has implemented a $200 price drop across the board for these products. The S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra start at $799, $999 and $1,199, respectively. None are what you would call cheap, exactly, but $200 isn’t exactly insignificant, whether it means easing the blow of getting in on the entry level or taking the pain out of going for a higher-end model.
It’s a clear reflection of a few years’ worth of stagnating smartphone sales, exacerbated by some dire numbers amid COVID. It’s nice to see a company take those issues — and concern around spending $1,000+ on a smartphone — to heart beyond simply offering up a flagship “lite.”
MIT researchers are looking to address the significant gap between how quickly robots can process information (relatively slowly), and how fast they can move (very quickly thanks to modern hardware advances), and they’re using something called “robomorphic computing” to do it. The method, designed by MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) graduate Dr. Sabrina Neuman, results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.
Custom-built chips tailored to a very specific purpose are not new — if you’re using a modern iPhone, you have one in that device right now. But they have become more popular as companies and technologists look to do more local computing on devices with more conservative power and computing constraints, rather than round-tripping data to large data centers via network connections.
In this case, the method involves creating hyper-specific chips that are designed based on a robot’s physical layout and its intended use. By taking into account the requirements a robot has in terms of its perception of its surroundings, its mapping and understanding of its position within those surroundings, and its motion planning resulting from said mapping and its required actions, researchers can design processing chips that greatly increase the efficiency of that last stage by supplementing software algorithms with hardware acceleration.
The classic example of hardware acceleration that most people encounter on a regular basis is a graphics processing unit, or GPU. A GPU is essentially a processor designed specifically for the task of handling graphical computing operations — like display rendering and video playback. GPUs are popular because almost all modern computers run into graphics-intensive applications, but custom chips for a range of different functions have become much more popular lately thanks to the advent of more customizable and efficient small-run chip fabrication techniques.
Here’s a description of how Neuman’s system works specifically in the case of optimizing a hardware chip design for robot control, per MIT News:
The system creates a customized hardware design to best serve a particular robot’s computing needs. The user inputs the parameters of a robot, like its limb layout and how its various joints can move. Neuman’s system translates these physical properties into mathematical matrices. These matrices are “sparse,” meaning they contain many zero values that roughly correspond to movements that are impossible given a robot’s particular anatomy. (Similarly, your arm’s movements are limited because it can only bend at certain joints — it’s not an infinitely pliable spaghetti noodle.)
The system then designs a hardware architecture specialized to run calculations only on the non-zero values in the matrices. The resulting chip design is therefore tailored to maximize efficiency for the robot’s computing needs. And that customization paid off in testing.
Neuman’s team used a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is sort of like a midpoint between a fully custom chip and an off-the-shelf CPU, and it achieved significantly better performance than the latter. That means that were you to actually custom manufacture a chip from scratch, you could expect much more significant performance improvements.
Making robots react faster to their environments isn’t just about increasing manufacturing speed and efficiency — though it will do that. It’s also about making robots even safer to work with in situations where people are working directly alongside and in collaboration with them. That remains a significant barrier to more widespread use of robotics in everyday life, meaning this research could help unlock the sci-fi future of humans and robots living in integrated harmony.
Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.
As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.
The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.
The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.
The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.
Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.
A failed acquisition usually triggers the same series of questions: What does this mean for early-stage startups in the sector? Will a chilling effect occur and hurt valuations? Will VCs stop funding this category? How will the exit environment look going forward?
This week gave that narrative a bullish twist. Visa and Plaid announced that they have reached a mutual agreement to no longer pursue a merger. The $5.3 billion deal had been under antitrust scrutiny from the DOJ, and eventually ended amid these regulatory challenges.
Fintech VCs and startups alike reacted to the fallen deal with aggressive optimism about Plaid’s future as an independently-owned fintech startup.
The most common arguments?
The fact that fintech is bullish on the future of fintech isn’t quite surprising. I will say that while one deal can never make or break a sector, a flopped merger certainly can surface the current temperature in the market. Startups Weekly readers will remember last week’s edition about how P&G’s decision not to acquire Billie could hurt DTC exit opportunities. Fintech seems unbothered and, in fact, celebratory. The only counterargument I got, via Twitter DM, is that it could set a bad precedent on big fintech mergers.
“Or maybe…corporations learn from this and look to make riskier acquisitions earlier in a company’s lifecycle because they know that if they let the company get too big they’ll lose the chance,” Rami Essaid, founder of Finmark, told me.
Only in 2021 could a $5.3 billion break-up and a DOJ investigation be considered a blessing. Rock on, ‘Plaid for X’ startups.
I hope that sub-hed gave you a headache, because that’s exactly what debates about where the best place to start a company do to me. The rise of Work From Anywhere has emboldened VCs to leave San Francisco for markets such as Miami or Austin in search of the next unsung hero of their portfolios.
For investors, though, the financial benefit of moving to an emerging market might not be apparent within months, but instead years. Venture is a long game (at least most of the time).
Here’s what to know, per Silicon Valley editor Connie Loizos: Drive Capital, a venture capital firm based in Columbus, Ohio, and started by two ex-Sequoia investors now has over $1.2 billion in assets. But before it had breakout companies like Root and Olive AI, Drive had to play the unusual role of investing in a region without key investing infrastructure.
Etc: Founding partner Chris Olsen explained how they set up their roots:
“We’ve had to spend a lot of time going into the universities and putting new seed managers in business and helping them fundraise and sort of building all of this infrastructure from scratch so that the next entrepreneur is out here [versus moves away], and it works. In our first year, we had inbound interest from 1,800 [startups], then it went to about 3,000 and now it’s up to about 7,000, which is more than I’ve heard any other venture firms say that they see in California. And I don’t think it’s because we’re great. I think that’s more [a reflection of the] scale of the opportunity that’s here now. One of the things that we would love to see more of is more venture capitalists coming here, because there’s certainly more opportunity than we can invest in.”
Image Credits: Paula Dani/ABlse (opens in a new window) / Getty Images
If you want to start a company, go to a startup and look where employees are still using an Excel sheet. The best products are the ones fueled by frustrations, right?
Here’s what to know per managing editor Danny Crichton: For a trio of Palantir alums, 15 collective years at the now-public government tech company showed a huge gap in technology for CFOs. So, they started Mosaic, a techstack to help financial officers better communicate and perform their jobs.
Etc: Co-founder Bijan Moallemi describes the mistake other platforms are making:
“Everyone wants to be strategic, but it’s so tough to do because 80% of your time is pulling data from these disparate systems, cleaning it, mapping it, updating your Excel files, and maybe 20% of [your time] is actually taking a step back and understanding what the data is telling you.”
Image via Getty Images / alashi
Are wearables still exciting? Is consumer hardware ever going to get easier to pull off? What was the strategy that made Peloton so successful?
These questions and more are answered in the latest consumer hardware-focused Extra Crunch Survey, which brings together VCs from SOSV, Lux Capital, Shasta Ventures, and more.
Here’s what to know: Everyone is studying the Peloton success recipe. But the big question for consumer hardware startups is if the at-home fitness market’s boom is translating to other use cases.
Etc: Cyril Ebersweiler of SOSV noted that supply chain distribution disruption during COVID-19 has been difficult for category startups, but the need for innovative solutions has never been more clear.
“Everybody is waiting for new and mind-blowing experiences, and I guess we’ve all experienced the shortcomings or the magic of some IoT products over the shelter-in-place [orders]. Spatial and ambient technologies that work well will be in demand (audio or visual), while “holographic Skype” will invade households thanks to Looking Glass.”
Also: In another investor survey, five VCs weighed in on the future of cannabis in 2021.
3D render, visualization of a man holding virtual reality glasses, electronic device, head surrounded by virtual data with neon green grid. Player one ready for the VR game. Virtual experience.
We had yet another noisy week of privately-held startups going public to a Very Warm Wall Street reception. The most opulent story of the week was definitely Affirm’s debut, which doubled its already-increased price when it started to officially trade.
Here’s what to know, per our resident IPO reporter Alex Wilhelm, who writes The Exchange:
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 11: PayPal Co-Founder & Affirm CEO Max Levchin visits “Countdown To The Closing Bell” at Fox Business Network Studios on June 11, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
Extra Crunch Live is returning in a big way in 2021. We’ll be interviewing VC/founder duos about how their Series A deals went down, and Extra Crunch members will have the chance to get live feedback on their pitch deck. You can check out our plans for ECL in 2021 right here, or hit up this form to submit your pitch deck. Episodes air every Wednesday at 3pm ET/12pm PT starting in February.
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The news keeps coming so we keep recording. This week, the trio chatted about the Plaid-Visa deal, but also about the Palantir mafia‘s next big bet. In early-stage news, I covered a fintech accelerator that pivoted into an edtech accelerator and a new startup coming out of Austin that makes car insurance more equitable. We also debated SPACs for a bit, and Danny was…optimistic?
Listen to our episode, follow the pod on Twitter, and if you so please, tune into our bonus Equity episode that just came out today. It’s an episode dedicated entirely to the barrage of payments and e-commerce funding that came out this week.
Until next week,
Last CES was a time of reckoning for lidar companies, many of which were cratering due to a lack of demand from a (still) non-existent autonomous vehicle industry. The few that excelled did so by specializing, and this year the trend has pushed beyond lidar, with new sensing and imaging methods pushing to both compete with and complement the laser-based tech.
Lidar pushed ahead of traditional cameras because it could do things they couldn’t — and now some companies are pushing to do the same with tech that’s a little less exotic.
A good example of addressing the problem or perception by different means is Eye Net’s vehicle-to-x tracking platform. This is one of those techs that’s been talked about in the context of 5G (admittedly still somewhat exotic), which for all the hype really does enable short-distance, low-latency applications that could be life-savers.
Eye Net provides collision warnings between vehicles equipped with its tech, whether they have cameras or other sensing tech equipped or not. The example they provide is a car driving through a parking lot, unaware that a person on one of those horribly unsafe electric scooters is moving perpendicular to it ahead, about to zoom into its path but totally obscured by parked cars. Eye Net’s sensors detect the position of the devices on both vehicles and send warnings in time for either or both to brake.
They’re not the only ones attempting something like this, but they hope that by providing a sort of white-label solution, a good size network can be built relatively easily, instead of having none, and then all VWs equipped, and then some Fords and some e-bikes, and so on.
But vision is still going to be a major part of how vehicles navigate, and advances are being made on multiple fronts.
Brightway Vision, for instance, addresses the issue of normal RGB cameras having limited visibility in many real-world conditions by going multispectral. In addition to ordinary visible-light imagery, the company’s camera is mated to a near-infrared beamer that scans the road ahead at set distance intervals many times a second.
The idea is that if the main camera can’t see 100 feet out because of fog, the NIR imagery will still catch any obstacles or road features when it scans that “slice” in its regular sweep of the incoming area. It combines the benefits of traditional cameras with those of IR ones, but manages to avoid the shortcomings of both. The pitch is that there’s no reason to use a normal camera when you can use one of these, which does the same job better and may even allow another sensor to be cut out.
Foresight Automotive also uses multispectral imagery in its cameras (chances are hardly any vehicle camera will be limited to visible spectrum in a few years), dipping into thermal via a partnership with FLIR, but what it’s really selling is something else.
To provide 360-degree (or close) coverage, generally multiple cameras are required. But where those cameras go differs on a compact sedan versus an SUV from the same manufacturer — let alone on an autonomous freight vehicle. Because those cameras have to work together, they need to be perfectly calibrated, aware of the exact position of the others, so they know, for example, that they’re both looking at the same tree or bicyclist and not two identical ones.
Foresight’s advance is to simplify the calibration stage, so a manufacturer or designer or test platform doesn’t need to be laboriously re-tested and certified every time the cameras need to be moved half an inch in one direction or the other. The Foresight demo shows them sticking the cameras on the roof of the car seconds before driving it.
It has parallels to another startup called Nodar that also relies on stereoscopic cameras, but takes a different approach. The technique of deriving depth from binocular triangulation, as the company points out, goes back decades, or millions of years if you count our own vision system, which works in a similar ways. The limitation that has held this approach back isn’t that optical cameras fundamentally can’t provide the depth information needed by an autonomous vehicle, but that they can’t be trusted to remain calibrated.
Nodar shows that its paired stereo cameras don’t even need to be mounted to the main mass of the car, which would reduce jitter and fractional mismatches between the cameras’ views. Attached to the rear view mirrors, their “Hammerhead” camera setup has a wide stance (like the shark’s), which provides improved accuracy because of the larger disparity between the cameras. Since distance is determined by the differences between the two images, there’s no need for object recognition or complex machine learning to say “this is a shape, probably a car, probably about this big, which means it’s probably about this far away” as you might with a single camera solution.
“The industry has already shown that camera arrays do well in harsh weather conditions, just as human eyes do,” said Nodar COO and co-founder Brad Rosen. “For example, engineers at Daimler have published results showing that current stereoscopic approaches provide significantly more stable depth estimates than monocular methods and LiDAR completion in adverse weather. The beauty of our approach is that the hardware we use is available today, in automotive-grade, and with many choices for manufacturers and distributors.”
Indeed, a major strike against lidar has been the cost of the unit — even “inexpensive” ones tend to be orders of magnitude more expensive than ordinary cameras, something that adds up very quickly. But team lidar hasn’t been standing still either.
Sense Photonics came onto the scene with a new approach that seemed to combine the best of both worlds: a relatively cheap and simple flash lidar (as opposed to spinning or scanning, which tend to add complexity) mated to a traditional camera so that the two see versions of the same image, allowing them to work together in identifying objects and establishing distances.
Since its debut in 2019 Sense has refined its tech for production and beyond. The latest advance is custom hardware that has enabled it to image objects out to 200 meters — generally considered on the far end both for lidar and traditional cameras.
“In the past, we have sourced an off-the-shelf detector to pair with our laser source (Sense Illuminator). However, our 2 years of in-house detector development has now completed and is a huge success, which allows us to build short-range and long-range automotive products,” said CEO Shauna McIntyre.
“Sense has created ‘building blocks’ for a camera-like LiDAR design that can be paired with different sets of optics to achieve different FOV, range, resolution, etc,” she continued. “And we’ve done so in a very simple design that can actually be manufactured in large volumes. You can think of our architecture like a DSLR camera where you have the ‘base camera’ and can pair it with a macro lens, zoom lens, fisheye lens, etc. to achieve different functions.”
One thing all the companies seemed to agree on is that no single sensing modality will dominate the industry from top to bottom. Leaving aside that the needs of a fully autonomous (i.e. level 4-5) vehicle has very different needs from a driver assist system, the field moves too quickly for any one approach to remain on top for long.
“AV companies cannot succeed if the public is not convinced that their platform is safe and the safety margins only increase with redundant sensor modalities operating at different wavelengths,” said McIntyre.
Whether that means visible light, near-infrared, thermal imaging, radar, lidar, or as we’ve seen here, some combination of two or three of these, it’s clear the market will continue to favor differentiation — though as with the boom-bust cycle seen in the lidar industry a few years back, it’s also a warning that consolidation won’t be far behind.
Some time ago, I gave up on the idea of finding a thread that connects each story in the weekly Extra Crunch roundup; there are no unified theories of technology news.
The stories that left the deepest impression were related to two news pegs that dominated the week — Visa and Plaid calling off their $5.3 billion acquisition agreement, and sizzling-hot IPOs for Affirm and Poshmark.
Watching Plaid and Visa sing “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” in harmony after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block their deal wasn’t shocking. But I was surprised to find myself editing an interview Alex Wilhelm conducted with Plaid CEO Zach Perret the next day in which the executive said growing the company on its own is “once again” the correct strategy.
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In an analysis for Extra Crunch, Managing Editor Danny Crichton suggested that federal regulators’ new interest in antitrust enforcement will affect valuations going forward. For example, Procter & Gamble and women’s beauty D2C brand Billie also called off their planned merger last week after the Federal Trade Commission raised objections in December.
Given the FTC’s moves last year to prevent Billie and Harry’s from being acquired, “it seems clear that U.S. antitrust authorities want broad competition for consumers in household goods,” Danny concluded, and I suspect that applies to Plaid as well.
In December, C3.ai, Doordash and Airbnb burst into the public markets to much acclaim. This week, used clothing marketplace Poshmark saw a 140% pop in its first day of trading and consumer-financing company Affirm “priced its IPO above its raised range at $49 per share,” reported Alex.
In a post titled “A theory about the current IPO market”, he identified eight key ingredients for brewing a debut with a big first-day pop, which includes “exist in a climate of near-zero interest rates” and “keep companies private longer.” Truly, words to live by!
Come back next week for more coverage of the public markets in The Exchange, an interview with Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg where he shares his plans for taking the company public, a comprehensive post that will unpack the regulatory hurdles facing D2C consumer brands, and much more.
If you live in the U.S., enjoy your MLK Day holiday weekend, and wherever you are: Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch.
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
I'm taking the credit/blame for this headline https://t.co/2KYLsTxeHq
— Walter Thompson (@YourProtagonist) January 12, 2021
After spending much of the week covering 2021’s frothy IPO market, Alex Wilhelm devoted this morning’s column to studying the OKR-focused software sector.
Measuring objectives and key results are core to every enterprise, perhaps more so these days since knowledge workers began working remotely in greater numbers last year.
A sign of the times: This week, enterprise orchestration SaaS platform Gtmhub announced that it raised a $30 million Series B.
To get a sense of how large the TAM is for OKR, Alex reached out to several companies and asked them to share new and historical growth metrics:
“Some OKR-focused startups didn’t get back to us, and some leaders wanted to share the best stuff off the record, which we grant at times for candor amongst startup executives,” he wrote.
Image Credits: Ezra Shaw (opens in a new window)
For our latest investor survey, Matt Burns interviewed five VCs who actively fund consumer electronics startups:
“Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder,” says Matt, noting that the pandemic fueled wide interest in fitness startups like Mirror, Peloton and Tonal.
Bonus: Many VCs listed the founders, investors and companies that are taking the lead in consumer hardware innovation.
Image Credits: Getty Images/Andriy Onufriyenko
If you’re looking for insight into “why everything feels so damn silly this year” in the public markets, a post Alex wrote Thursday afternoon might offer some perspective.
As someone who pays close attention to late-stage venture markets, he’s identified eight factors that are pushing debuts for unicorns like Affirm and Poshmark into the stratosphere.
TL;DR? “Lots of demand, little supply, boom goes the price.”
Clothing resale marketplace Poshmark closed up more than 140% on its first trading day yesterday.
In Thursday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex noted that Poshmark boosted its valuation by selling 6.6 million shares at its IPO price, scooping up $277.2 million in the process.
Poshmark’s surge in trading is good news for its employees and stockholders, but it reflects poorly on “the venture-focused money people who we suppose know what they are talking about when it comes to equity in private companies,” he says.
Image Credits: monsitj/Getty Images
This week, Visa announced it would drop its planned acquisition of Plaid after the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to block it last fall.
Last week, Procter & Gamble called off its purchase of Billie, a women’s beauty products startup — in December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sued to block that deal, too.
Once upon a time, the U.S. government took an arm’s-length approach to enforcing antitrust laws, but the tide has turned, says Managing Editor Danny Crichton.
Going forward, “antitrust won’t kill acquisitions in general, but it could prevent the buyers with the highest reserve prices from entering the fray.”
Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn
I’m a grad student currently working on F-1 STEM OPT. The company I work for has indicated it will sponsor me for an H-1B visa this year.
I hear the random H-1B lottery will be replaced with a new system that selects H-1B candidates based on their salaries.
How will this new process work?
— Positive in Palo Alto
Image Credits: Ana Maria Serrano/Getty Images
After news broke that Visa’s $5.3 billion purchase of API startup Plaid fell apart, Alex Wilhelm and Ron Miller interviewed several investors to get their reactions:
Image Credits: George Frey/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Alex Wilhelm interviewed Plaid CEO Zach Perret after the Visa acquisition was called off to learn more about his mindset and the company’s short-term plans.
Perret, who noted that the last few years have been a “roller coaster,” said the Visa deal was the right decision at the time, but going it alone is “once again” Plaid’s best way forward.
In Tuesday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm took a closer look at blank-check offerings for digital asset marketplace Bakkt and personal finance platform SoFi.
To create a detailed analysis of the investor presentations for both offerings, he tried to answer two questions:
Image Credits: MirageC/Getty Images
Growth-stage startups in search of funding have a new option: “flexible VC” investors.
An amalgam of revenue-based investment and traditional VC, investors who fall into this category let entrepreneurs “access immediate risk capital while preserving exit, growth trajectory and ownership optionality.”
In a comprehensive explainer, fund managers David Teten and Jamie Finney present different investment structures so founders can get a clear sense of how flexible VC compares to other venture capital models. In a follow-up post, they share a list of a dozen active investors who offer funding via these nontraditional routes.
Image Credits: Anton Petrus (opens in a new window)/Getty Images
For some consumers, “cannabis has always been essential,” writes Matt Burns, but once local governments allowed dispensaries to remain open during the pandemic, it signaled a shift in the regulatory environment and investors took notice.
Matt asked five VCs about where they think the industry is heading in 2021 and what advice they’re offering their portfolio companies:
Of course COVID-19 was bound to be an unavoidable topic during the first-ever all-virtual CES. After all, the topic is at front of mind regardless of the topic these days. Close to a year into the pandemic, presenters still understandably feel obligated to address the always-present elephant in the room. Sometimes it was as simple as acknowledging the strangeness of moving from the Las Vegas Convention Center to a Microsoft-powered virtual venue. Other times it felt far more forced.
When it comes to the technology itself, there’s no doubt that the pandemic is going to have a profound effect on the industry for years to come, from health measures to remote work setups. Sometimes it’s a genuinely organic evolution aimed at adapting technology to an ever-changing world. In other cases, it can feel far more exploitative — like the consumer electronics equivalent to a beer commercial discussing “these uncertain times.”
I’ve written a lot about how the pandemic will impact robotics and AI going forward. The short version is that companies will no doubt be more enthusiastic about embracing these technologies, after bumping up against the limitations of a human workforce with a deadly and highly contagious virus spreading across the world.
We saw some glimpses of robotics’ response. Though there tends to be a far longer lead time than in the consumer category. The clearest and most immediate example had to be the prevalence of UV outfitted robotics. LG, Ubtech and Ava Robotics all bombarded my inbox with their take on the category. The desire for disinfecting technology should be clear during a pandemic, and robotics offer both a way to automate a dull and repetitious process like this, while removing a potential human viral vector from the equation.
Image Credits: Razer
UV disinfecting made appearances in a number of other form factors. Phones have been a target for the tech for a few years now. After all, it didn’t take COVID-19 to teach us that smartphones are mobile petri dishes we watch TikToks on. Products like CleanPhone from Canadian startup Glissner are looking to enter a space that’s been thus far dominated by PhoneSoap, which was genuinely ahead of the curve on the phenomenon.
Targus’s keyboard may well have been the most widely reported-on UV solution of the show, because, well, it’s a bit wacky, with an ultraviolet lamp that sits above it.
Masks are another piece of the puzzle that have slowly been infiltrating the show, but really hit a fever pitch this year. Obviously wearing a face mask in public is only a new phenomenon in some countries — in other parts of the world like East Asia it’s long been a normal part of life. Last year, Portland-based Ao Air grabbed some headlines with its own take on the category.
Razer’s Project Hazel was undoubtedly the most prominent mask to debut at the show. It’s big and flashy and a bit of a diversion for a company that primarily trades in gaming peripherals. The N95 mask sports LEDs to indicate charging status and make the wearer’s face visible in dark surroundings. There’s also technology built in to make the wearer’s voice clearer. For the moment, however, it’s hard to see them as much beyond a headline grabber.
One piece I genuinely expected to see more of was remote work. We caught glimpses, like the Dell monitor with Microsoft Teams conferencing built in. Microsoft pitched its new Surface as a remote work machine, but frankly, it didn’t feel any more targeted at that vertical than any other portable Surface.
No doubt many of the innovations companies are working on will have to wait until CES 2022. Fingers crossed, we’ll see them next year in Vegas.
Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder.
TechCrunch surveyed five key investors who touch different aspects of the consumer electronics industry, based on our TechCrunch List of top VCs recommended by founders, along with other sources.
We asked these investors the same six questions, and each provided similar thoughts, but different approaches:
Despite the pandemic, each identified bright spots in the consumer electronic world. One thing is clear, investors are generally bullish on at-home fitness startups. Multiple respondents cited Peloton, Tonal and Mirror as recent highlights in consumer electronics.
Said Shasta Venture’s Rob Coneybeer, “With all due respect to my friends at Nest (where Shasta was a Series A investor), Tonal is the most exciting consumer connected hardware company I’ve ever been involved with.”
Besides asking about the trends and opportunities they’re pursuing in 2021, the investors we spoke to also identified other investors, founders and companies who are leaders in consumer hardware and shared how they’ve reshaped their investment strategies during the pandemic. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity.
Which consumer hardware sector shows the most promise for explosive growth?
For consumer hardware, offering end users a differentiated experience is extremely important. Social interactions, gamification and high-quality PGC (professionally generated content) such as with Peloton, Xiaomi and Tonal is a must to drive growth. It’s also easy to see how the acceleration of the digital economy created by COVID-19 will also drive growth for hardware.
First, services improved by the speed and reliability of 5G such as live streaming, gaming, cloud computing, etc. will create opportunity for new mobile devices and global mass market consumers will continue to demand high-quality, low-cost hardware. For example, Arevo is experimenting with “hardware as a service” with a 3D printing facility in Vietnam.
For enterprise hardware, security, reliability and fast updates are key competitive advantages. Also as a result of 5G… manufacturing automation and industrial applications. Finally IoT for health and safety may find its sweet spot thanks to COVID-19 with new wearables that track sleep, fitness and overall wellness.
How did COVID-19 change consumer hardware and your investment strategy?
One opportunity for consumer hardware companies to consider as a result of COVID-19 is how they engage with their customers. They should think of themselves more like e-commerce companies, where user experience, ongoing engagement with the consumer and iteration based on market feedback rule the day. While Peloton had this approach well before COVID, it has built a $46 billion company thinking about their products in this way.
For example, some consumers felt the bike was too expensive so instead of responding with a low-end product, the company partnered with Affirm to make their hardware more affordable with pay-as-you-go plans. A Peloton bike is not a one-and-done purchase; there is constant interaction between users, and the company that drives more satisfaction in the hardware adds more value in the business.
Entering 2021, in what way is hardware still hard?
Hardware is still hard because it takes more to iterate fast. The outcome for competitors relative to speed-to-market can be dramatic. For example, every year I look at future generation of EVs with lots of innovations and cool features from existing OEMs but see very few of these making it to market compared to Tesla and other pure players that are cranking out vehicles. Their speed of execution is impressive.
Who are some leaders in consumer hardware — founders, companies, investors?
Is there anything else you would like to share with TechCrunch readers?
Worry less about trends and build products that resonate with customers.
Even before the leaks, we all saw the Galaxy Buds Pro coming. It was a given that the company was planning to deliver its own take on Apple’s AirPods Pro, with improved sound quality and active noise canceling. The real secret weapon here, however, may be the price.
This morning’s S21 announcement found Samsung dropping $200 off the price of its flagship smartphone, and here the Galaxy Buds come in at $50 cheaper than the AirPods’ asking price. It’s not clearance-bin pricing exactly, but $199 is a pretty reasonable starting price. And Samsung’s earbud track record is a pretty good indication that the headphones will be solid.
The buds get a stated five hours of on-board battery life. That bumps up to eight hours with active noise canceling and Bixby Voice off — one of those things I can fairly easily live without. The case bumps things up to 18 and 28 hours, respectively. Pretty impressive claims for a quite small case.
Image Credits: Samsung
The buds’ design improves on the Galaxy Buds Live’s bean design, trading it for something a bit more ergonomic that’s designed to reduce the contact area between the device and the ear. Per Samsung’s claims, the ANC is capable of reducing ambient sound up to 99%. You can tweak the settings from there. They sport an 11 mm woofer and 6.5 mm tweeter, along with three microphones for calls.
There are a couple of features specifically for Samsung devices, including auto switching between phones and tablets, as well as Dolby head tracking and microphone capabilities for video recording on the Galaxy S21.
The buds are available in three colors and go up for order today. They’ll hit retail tomorrow.
Samsung wasted no time this year. With Mobile World Congress pushed back six or so months, the hardware maker hitched its wagon to the tail end of the CES whirlwind — though unlike its press conference earlier in the week, the company is very much on its own for the latest Unpacked.
And why not? In spite of broader issues with the mobile industry (certainly not helped by the COVID-19 pandemic), the Galaxy line is still very much a draw. People may not be as eager to buy a flagship as they were a couple of years ago, but when they do, it’s frequently a Samsung device.
I tend to save pricing for the end of these kinds of posts, but it really bears mention up front. Samsung’s launching three key iterations of the S21 line today: the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra. Those are priced at $799, $999 and $1,119 respectively, here in the States. That’s down from $999, $1,199 and $1,399 last year. While it’s true we’re still very much in the flagship price range here, a $200 drop is not insignificant.
Image Credits: Samsung
Rather, it points to a very conscious correction — one that goes beyond simply introducing a budget flagship or flagship lite to appease that segment of the market. Smartphone sales were already lagging before the pandemic, and the routine pricing of flagships above $1,000 was a considerable piece of that. Obviously the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation for myriad reasons, and 5G, which was expected to lead to a sales rebound didn’t move the needle nearly as much as anticipated.
Of course, 5G was a headliner feature for Samsung all the way back in 2019. The company has been all-in with the Galaxy line for a while now, and frankly, the feature is just kind of expected now. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Samsung is going back to imaging as a key differentiator.
Here’s what Mobile head TM Roh has to say about the new handsets:
We are living in a mobile-first world, and with so many of us working remotely and spending more time at home, we wanted to deliver a smartphone experience that meets the rigorous multimedia demands of our continuously changing routines. We also recognize the importance of choice, especially now, and that’s why the Galaxy S21 series gives you the freedom to choose the best device for your style and needs.
I absolutely understand why companies continue to go the “in these challenging times” route with these announcements, though I will say that, for the most part, the notion of device upgrades as a response to COVID-19 is really overstated here, beyond the aforementioned price drop. And I suspect that, with fewer people leaving the house these days, the dream of a smartphone as a primary productivity device has probably dampened of late.
Image Credits: Samsung
Still, the S21 Ultra, in particular, has one very important trick up its sleeve. Samsung is further blurring the line between the Galaxy S and Note by making the Ultra S Pen compatible. The experience will vary to some degree, but users will be able to use the stylus to write and draw on the handset. It’s sold separately and there’s no in-device housing for the pen, though Samsung will be offering a case that will hold it. It will be interesting to see if the company goes out of its way to distinguish the new Note, but it seems equally possible that the lines are simply converging. After all, the S Pen has long been the key distinguishing factor.
The devices also get Ultra-wideband capabilities, which will bring a number of capabilities, including the ability to unlock car doors and AR messages to find lost items. More detail on that soon, no doubt.
Visually, the biggest change here is the camera housing, which gets streamlined. I’m holding off judgement until I see it in person, but the new “Contour Cut” housing feels a bit more brutalist or perhaps industrial than the prior generation. The device also drops the expandable memory. A strong argument could be made that current on-board storage has made microSD redundant for many or most, but it was always a nice little differentiator.
The company has also removed the headphones charging adapter from the box, a move the world saw coming when the company deleted ads ribbing Apple from dropping accessories over what it said were environmental concerns. It’s the headphone jack all over again, because history rhymes.
Hardware-wise, the triple-camera situation is similar. On the S21 and 21+ you get a 12-megapixel ultrawide, 12-megapixel wide and 64-megapixel telephoto with 30x space zoom. The Ultra bumps that up to a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, 108-megapixel wide and a dual-telephoto lens system with 3x and 10x optical zoom. That’s the first time Samsung has offered a dual-telephoto setup. The Ultra also sports improved low-light shooting, courtesy of the Bright Night sensor.
Image Credits: Samsung
Software imaging updates include the ability to pull stills from 8K shooting, improved image stabilization and new modes like “Vlogger view,” which shoots from the front and rear camera simultaneously. I see limited use for that last bit in my own life, but I’m sure folks will find a creative use for it.
The screens measure in at 6.1, 6.7 and 6.8 inches (that last one is a decrease from the S20 Ultra’s 6.9 inches). All sport a 120Hz refresh rate that adapts based on usage. The phones also get the new Eye Comfort Shield, which reduces blue light as the day goes on.
Here in the States, all three phones sport the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. The S21 and S21+ start at 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, while the Ultra starts at 12GB and 256GB. The batteries are pretty healthy, clocking in at 4000, 4800 and 5000mAh. They’re all available for pre-order now and start shipping January 29.
A security flaw in Ring’s Neighbors app was exposing the precise locations and home addresses of users who had posted to the app.
Ring, the video doorbell and home security startup acquired by Amazon for $1 billion, launched Neighbors in 2018 as a breakaway feature in its own standalone app. Neighbors is one of several neighborhood watch apps, like Nextdoor and Citizen, that lets users anonymously alert nearby residents to crime and public-safety issues.
While users’ posts are public, the app doesn’t display names or precise locations — though most include video taken by Ring doorbells and security cameras. The bug made it possible to retrieve the location data on users who posted to the app, including those who are reporting crimes.
But the exposed data wasn’t visible to anyone using the app. Rather, the bug was retrieving hidden data, including the user’s latitude and longitude and their home address, from Ring’s servers.
Another problem was that every post was tied to a unique number generated by the server that incremented by one each time a user created a new post. Although the number was hidden from view to the app user, the sequential post number made it easy to enumerate the location data from previous posts — even from users who aren’t geographically nearby.
Ring Neighbors app (left), and the data it was pulling in, including location data (right). (Image: TechCrunch)
The Neighbors app appeared to have about 4 million posts by the end of 2020.
Ring said it had fixed the issue.
“At Ring, we take customer privacy and security extremely seriously. We fixed this issue soon after we became aware of it. We have not identified any evidence of this information being accessed or used maliciously,” said Ring spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri.
Ring currently faces a class-action suit by dozens of people who say they were subjected to death threats and racial slurs after their Ring smart cameras were hacked. In response to the hacks, Ring put much of the blame on users for not using “best practices” like two-factor authentication, which makes it harder for hackers to access a user’s account with the user’s password.
After it emerged that hackers were reportedly creating tools to break into Ring accounts and over 1,500 user account passwords were found on the dark web, Ring made two-factor authentication mandatory for every user.
The smart tech maker has also faced increasing criticism from civil rights groups and lawmakers for its cozy relationship with hundreds of U.S. police departments that have partnered with Ring for access to homeowners’ doorbell camera footage.