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Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

Censys, a search engine for internet devices, raises $15.5M Series A

By Zack Whittaker

Internet device search engine Censys is one of the biggest search engines you’ve probably never heard of.

If Google is the search engine for finding information sitting on the web, Censys is the search engine for finding internet devices, like computers, servers, and smart devices, that hosts the data to begin with. By continually mapping the internet looking for connected devices, it’s possible to identify devices that are accessible outside a company’s firewall. The aim is to help companies keep track of which systems can be accessed from the web and know which devices have exploitable security vulnerabilities.

Now, Censys has raised $15.5 million in a Series A fundraise, led by GV and Decibel with participation from Greylock Partners.

David Corcoran, chief executive and co-founder of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based internet security startup, said the company plans to “aggressively” invest in top security talent and plans to double its headcount from about 50 to 100 in the next year, including expanding its sales, engineering, and leadership teams.

“We’re thrilled to have the support of world-class investors as we keep the momentum building and continue to revolutionize how businesses manage their security posture in an ever-changing environment,” said Corcoran.

The fundraise couldn’t come at a more critical time for the company. Censys is not the only internet device search engine, rivaling Binary Edge and Shodan. But Censys says it has spent two years on bettering its internet mapping technology, helping it see more of the internet than it did before.

The new scan engine, built by the same team that developed and maintains its original open-source ZMap scanner, claims to see 44% more devices on the internet than other security companies. That helps companies see new vulnerable systems as soon as the come online, said Censys’ chief scientist Zakir Durumeric.

Censys is one of a number of growing security companies in the Ann Arbor area, alongside NextHop Technologies, Interlink Networks, and Duo Security, co-founded by Dug Song, who also sits on Censys’ board.

“You can’t protect what you can’t see — but in today’s dynamic IT environment, many organizations struggle to find, much less keep track of, every system and application at risk before the attackers do,” said Song. “Censys empowers defenders with the automated visibility they need to truly understand and to get ahead of these risks, enabling even small security teams to have an outsized impact.”

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Google-Fitbit deal to be scrutinized in Europe over data competition concerns

By Natasha Lomas

In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.

This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.

The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.

Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.

The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.

Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.

Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.

Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.

So much noise is being made that Google has already played the ‘we promise not to…’ card that’s a favorite of data-mining tech giants. (Typically followed, a few years later, with a ‘we got ya sucker’ joker — as they go ahead and do the thing they totally said they wouldn’t.)

To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)

Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.

It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.

In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.

If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade and where data is concerned it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need radically updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.

Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital robber barons at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

And it remains to be seen whether that record will change by December.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.

Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:

  • “the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
  • and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”

“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.

“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”

The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.

All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)

The regulator has also said it will further look at:

  • the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
  • “whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”

The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.

Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.

Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.

Google One now offers free phone backups up to 15GB on Android and iOS

By Frederic Lardinois

Google One, Google’s subscription program for buying additional storage and live support, is getting an update today that will bring free phone backups for Android and iOS devices to anybody who installs the app — even if they don’t have a paid membership. The catch: while the feature is free, the backups count against your free Google storage allowance of 15GB. If you need more you need — you guessed it — a Google One membership to buy more storage or delete data you no longer need. Paid memberships start at $1.99/month for 100GB.

Image Credits: Google

Last year, paid members already got access to this feature on Android, which stores your texts, contacts, apps, photos and videos in Google’s cloud. The “free” backups are now available to Android users. iOS users will get access to it once the Google One app rolls out on iOS in the near future.

Image Credits: Google

With this update, Google is also introducing a new storage manager tool in Google One, which is available in the app and on the web, and which allows you to delete files and backups as needed. The tool works across Google properties and lets you find emails with very large attachments or large files in your Google Drive storage, for example.

With this free backup feature, Google is clearly trying to get more people onto Google One. The free 15GB storage limit is pretty easy to hit, after all (and that’s for your overall storage on Google, including Gmail and other services) and paying $1.99 for 100GB isn’t exactly a major expense, especially if you are already part of the Google ecosystem and use apps like Google Photos already.

As remote work booms, Everphone grabs ~$40M for its ‘device as a service’ offer

By Natasha Lomas

The latest startup to see an uplift in inbound interest flowing from the remote work boom triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is Berlin-based Everphone, which sells a ‘mobile as a service’ device rental package that caters to businesses needing to kit staff out with mobile hardware plus associated support.

Everphone is announcing a €34 million Series B funding round today, led by new investor signals Venture Capital. Other new investors joining the round include German carrier Deutsche Telekom — investing via its strategic investment fund, Telekom Innovation Pool — US-based early stage VC AlleyCorp and Dutch bank NIBC.

The Series B financing will go on expanding to meet rising demand, with the startup telling TechCrunch it’s expecting to see a 70-100% increase in sales volume vs the pre-crisis period, thanks to a doubling of inbound leads during the pandemic.

“The global pandemic has been a catalyst for growth in the field of digitization,” said CEO and co-founder, Jan Dzulko, in a statement. “We are currently experiencing a significant increase in demand at home and abroad, which is why we are aiming for European expansion with the funding.”

Everphone describes its offer as a one-stop-shop, with the service covering not just the rental of (new or refurbished) smartphones and tablets but an administration and management wrapper that covers support needs, including handling repairs/replacements — with the promise of replacements within 24 hours if needed and less client risk from not having to wrangle traditional rental insurance fine print.

Other touted pluses of its “device as a service” approach include flexibility (users get to choose from a range of iOS and Android devices); lower cost (pricing depends on customer size, device choice and rental term but starts at €7,99 a month for a refurbished budget device, rising up to €49,99 a month for high end kit with a 12-month upgrade); and rental bundles which can include standard mobile device management software (such as Cortado and AirWatch) so customers can plug the rental hardware into their existing IT policies and processes.

Everphone reckons this service wrapper — which can also extend to including paid apps (such as Babbel for language learning) as an employee on-device perk/benefit in the bundle — differentiates its offer vs incumbent leasing providers, such as CHG-Meridian or De Lage Landen, and from wholesale distributors.

It also touts its global rollout capability as a customer draw, checking the scalability box.

While its investors (including German carrier, DK) are being fired up by the conviction that the COVID-19 induced shift away from the office to home working will create a boom in demand for well managed and secured work phones to mitigate the risk of personal devices and personal data mingling improperly with work stuff. (On that front Everphone’s website is replete with references to Europe’s data protection framework, GDPR, repurposed as scare marketing.)

“Everphone envisions that every employee will one day work via their smartphone,” added Marcus Polke, partner at signals Venture Capital, in a supporting statement. “With this employee-centric approach and integrated platform, everphone goes far beyond the mere outsourcing of a smartphone IT infrastructure.”

The 2016-founded startup has more than 400 customers signed up at this point, both SMEs and multinationals such as Ernst & Young. It caters to both ends of the market with an off-the-shelf package and self-service device management portal that’s intended for SMEs of between 100 and 1,500 employees — plus custom integrations for larger entities of up to 30,000 employees.

It says it’s able to offer “highly competitive” prices for renting new devices because it gives returned kit a second life, refurbishing and reselling devices on the consumer market. “Thanks to this profitable secondary lifespan, we are able to offer highly competitive prices and extensive service levels on our rental devices,” Everphone writes on its website.

The second hand smartphone market has also been seeing regional growth. Swappie, a European ecommerce startup that sells refurbished iPhones, aligning with EU lawmakers’ push for a ‘right to repair’ for electronics, raised its own ~$40M Series B only last month, for example. Its secondhand marketplace is one potential outlet for Everphone’s rented and returned iPhones.

EU antitrust lawmakers kick off IoT deep dive to follow the data flows

By Natasha Lomas

The potential for the Internet of Things to lead to distortion in market competition is troubling European Union lawmakers who have today kicked off a sectoral inquiry.

They’re aiming to gather data from hundreds of companies operating in the smart home and connected device space — via some 400 questionnaires, sent to companies big and small across Europe, Asia and the US — using the intel gleaned to feed a public consultation slated for early next year when the Commission will also publish a preliminary report. 

In a statement on the launch of the sectoral inquiry today, the European Union’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, said the risks to competition and open markets linked to the data collection capabilities of connected devices and voice assistants are clear. The aim of the exercise is therefore to get ahead of any data-fuelled competition risks in the space before they lead to irreversible market distortion.

“One of the key issues here is data. Voice assistants and smart devices can collect a vast amount of data about our habits. And there’s a risk that big companies could misuse the data collected through such devices, to cement their position in the market against the challenges of competition. They might even use their knowledge of how we access other services to enter the market for those services and take it over,” said Vestager.

“We have seen this type of conduct before. This is not new. So we know there’s a risk that some of these players could become gatekeepers of the Internet of Things, with the power to make or break other companies. And these gatekeepers might use that power to harm competition, to the detriment of consumers.”

The Commission recently opened up a consultation on whether regulators needs new powers to address competition risks in digital markets, including being able to intervene when they suspect digital market tipping.

It is also asking for views on how to shape regulations around platform governance.

The IoT sectorial enquiry adds another plank to its approach towards reformulating digital regulation in the data age. (Notably competition chief Vestager is simultaneously the Commission EVP in charge of pan-EU digital strategy.)

On the IoT front, risks Vestager said she’s concerned about include what she couched as familiar antitrust behaviour such as “self-preferencing” — i.e. a company directing users towards its own products or services — as well as companies inking exclusive deals to send users “preferred” provider, thereby locking out more open competition.

“Whether that’s for a new set of batteries for your remote control or for your evening takeaway. In either case, the result can be less choice for users, less opportunity for others to compete, and less innovation,” she suggested.

“The trouble is that competition in digital markets can be fragile,” Vestager added. “When big companies abuse their power, they can very quickly push markets beyond the tipping point, where competition turns to monopoly. We’ve seen that happen before.  If we don’t act in good time, there’s a serious risk that it will happen again, with the Internet of Things.”

The commissioner’s remarks suggest EU lawmakers could be considering regulations that aim to enforce interoperability between smart devices and platforms — although Vestager also said they will be asking about any barriers to achieving such cross-working.

“For us to get the most out of the Internet of Things, our smart devices need to communicate. So if the devices from different companies don’t work together, then consumers may be locked in to just one provider.  And be limited to what that provider has to offer,” she said.

“We’re asking about the products they sell, and how the markets for those products work. We’re asking about data – how it’s collected, how it’s used, and how companies make money from the data they collect. And we’re asking about how these products and services work together, and about possible problems with making them interoperable.”

Vestager has raised concerns about the potential for voice assistant technology to lead to market concentration and distortion before — saying last year that they present an acute challenge to regulators who she said then were “trying to figure out how access to data will change the marketplace”.

The question of how access to digital data feeds platform monopolies has been a long standing preoccupation for the now second term competition chief.

The Commission’s work on figuring out how data access changes marketplace function remains something of a work in progress. Vestager has an open investigation into Amazon’s use of third party data on her plate, for example. It also inked a first set of rules on ecommerce platform fairness last year.

More rules may be incoming in a draft proposal for reformulating wider liability rules for platforms that’s slated to land by the end of this year, aka the forthcoming Digital Services Act.

The Commission noted today that a prior sector inquiry — into ecommerce markets — helped shape new rules against “unjustified geoblocking” in the EU, although it has not yet been able to dismantle geoblocking barriers to accessing digital services across the Single Market’s internal borders.

Logitech’s new Mac-specific mouse and keyboards are the new best choices for Mac input devices

By Darrell Etherington

Logitech has released new versions of its MX peripherals in Mac-friendly finishes, as well as a new K380 wireless Bluetooth keyboard designed for Apple devices. These aren’t dramatically different devices from the existing versions that Logitech offers – but that’s a good thing in this case, and it elevates what were already amazing peripherals to no-brainer default choices for Mac users.

MX Master 3 for Mac

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The MX Master 3 for Mac is a very slightly altered twist on the MX Master 3 – consisting mostly of a new paint job that actually pretty closely resembles the old one. Specs are the same for the Mac-specific version, including its quiet scroll wheel with 1,000 lines per second maximum scroll speed, and Logitech’s MagSpeed tech that dynamically enables freewheel scrolling when you’re going fast.

The MX Master 3 for Mac does ship with a USB-C to USB-C cord in the box, instead of the USB-A to USB-C cable that comes with the non-Mac version, and that’s much more convenient for charging and using it dongle-free with modern MacBook computers. It can run for 70 days on a full charge, and you can get three full hours of use out of just 60 seconds of charge time. The mouse uses Logitech’s Darkfield laser tracking which provides 1000 dpi on average of accuracy and the ability to track on virtually every surface, and it can also work across Macs and iPads with Logitech’s Easy-Switch technology for connecting to multiple devices.

In terms of major differences, the main one any owners of the MX Master 3 will notice is that the MX Master 3 for Mac is listed as only offering Bluetooth connectivity on Logitech’s website – and it doesn’t ship with Logitech’s Unifying USB receiver, which connects its peripherals via a dedicated RF network instead of Bluetooth for greater reliability. That’s odd, because the MX Master 3 for Mac definitely still works with Logitech’s Unifying Retriever, and that’s exactly how I had it set up, using the USB dongle that shipped with the MX Master Keys for Mac.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

This is noteworthy because Logitech is charging $129.99 for the MX Master 3 for Mac – the same as the non-Mac version, but it doesn’t include the receiver and bills itself as a Bluetooth mouse. It’s a bit of an odd choice, but if you’ve used Logitech gear over the years, you probably have an abundance of unifying receivers on hand, and the Space Gray colorway on the Mac version does match better with actual Mac hardware.

Performance-wise, the MX Master 3 for Mac is still one of the best full-size mice you can get. It’s extremely comfortable to use, features a healthy array of controls that are customizable with Logitech’s Options software, and provides smooth, high-precision tracking, with the ability to use it while charging.

MX Keys for Mac

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Like the mouse, the Mac version of the MX Keys is mostly an aesthetic change. It’s also done up in Space Gray to match Apple’s colorway of the same name, and it features contrast-coloured black keys and a top bar that houses the wireless and battery electronics. The key layout also gets Mac-specific, ditching the hybrid key labelling of Logitech’s existing MX Keys for actual dedicated Command and Option keys, as well as a hardware eject key.

Also like the Mac Master 3, the MX Keys can work across devices, including those running macOS, iPadOS and iOS. It ships with a USB-C to USB-C charging cable (again, more convenient than the USB-A to USB-C one in the standard MX Keys configuration) and a unifying receiver. It’s also able to connect via Bluetooth, and can be connected to up to 3 devices with dedicated keys to switch between each.

The MX Keys is already probably your best choice for a third-party keyboard that offers great performance and key feel, unless you’re specifically into clicky mechanical keyboards. It includes smart backlighting that activates automatically when your hands approach, and turns off automatically when not in use to preserve battery life. While it’s made of plastic, it still feels heavy in a good way, ensuring it’ll rest flat on your desk. Since it’s based on the MX Keys, I can also attest to its durability, as I’ve been using that keyboard since its launch and have not had any problems with it at all thus far.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

In terms of battery life, you can expect 10 days of use with the backlighting active – but if you go without the underlay lighting, it’ll stretch out to as much as five months. And as mentioned, it’s easy to charge up directly from your Mac with the included USB-C cable – which also allows you to use it while charging.

Logitech’s work on the color scheme here really does a good job of matching the look of Apple’s aluminum treatment, right down to the metal-like speckles on the Space Gray surfaces. If you’re already using an MX Keys, stick with it, but if you’re in the market for something new, this is the new best choice for a Mac user – at the same $129.99 price point as the original.

K380 Bluetooth Keyboard for Mac, iPad and iPhone

The K380 is a much more portable keyboard option, with rounded keys and a lighter plastic shell. It’s Bluetooth-only, but still offers the ability to connect up to there devices at once. The Mac version comes in either a white or pink version, and it features Mac-specific keys like the MX.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

It works across macOS, iOS and iPadOS, and can switch between each seamlessly, making it a great choice for working on the road with a setup that includes both a Mac and your iPad or iPhone. It’s powered by two AAA batteries (included), and is rated at around two years of use on a single pair.

The typing feel is a bit shallower than the MX series, but still impressive, and it’s near-silent which makes it better for use in shared or busy spaces. It’s available now for $49.99.

Bottom line

Logitech hasn’t reinvented the mouse wheel with any of these products (it already did that with the MX Master 3’s original launch) but these are all welcome updates that make its hardware feel more at home with Mac and other Apple devices. Even Apple itself charges a premium for the dark-coated versions of its input devices, too, so it’s nice to see pricing stay the same along with the facelift.

If you’re in the market for new peripherals and don’t already own the MX series, these are obvious choices. Ditto the K380 for Mac if you want a durable, all-in-one keyboard to use across your devices that won’t add too much weight to your pack, and that looks and feels great.

Analog Devices to acquire rival chipmaker Maxim Integrated for $21 billion

By Ron Miller

Analog Devices didn’t waste any time kicking off the week with a bang when it announced this morning it was acquiring rival chipmaker Maxim Integrated Products for $20.91 billion (according to multiple reports). The company had a market cap of $17.09 billion as of Friday’s close.

The deal, which has already been approved by both company’s boards, would create a chip making behemoth worth $68 billion, according to the Analog. The idea behind the transaction is that bigger is better and the combined companies will increase Analog’s revenue by $8.2 billion.

What’s more, the two companies should combine well together in that there isn’t much overlap in their businesses. Maxim’s strength is in the automotive and datacenter spaces, while Analog is more concentrated in industrial and healthcare.

Vincent Roche, President and CEO of ADI was enthusiastic about the potential of the combined organizations. “ADI and Maxim share a passion for solving our customers’ most complex problems, and with the increased breadth and depth of our combined technology and talent, we will be able to develop more complete, cutting-edge solutions,” he said in a statement.

Maxim was founded back in 1983 and went public in 1988. It made 9 acquisitions between 2002 and 2013 with the most recent being Voltera in 2013, according to Crunchbase data.

As with all deals of this sort, it needs to pass regulator muster first, but the companies expect the deal to close by next summer.

The best Wi-Fi 6 home networking tech to upgrade your setup

By Darrell Etherington

Wi-Fi 6 is here – making its way to more and more devices, with a noteworthy inclusion on last year’s flagship iPhone 11 lineup. This next-generation Wi-Fi technology provides faster speeds for transferring data between devices, but more importantly, it also means your system will be better equipped to handle multiple Wi-Fi devices connected at one time, without slowdowns or interruptions – and it can even reduce battery drain in mobile devices.

The number of Wi-Fi 6 routers and mesh systems has definitely improved dramatically since the debut of the iPhone 11, and there are a range of options available at a variety of price points. But for those looking to get the most out of their Wi-Fi 6 setup, two available systems in particular can provide all the power you need, with two different approaches that will appeal to differing user needs.

Orbi AX6000 Mesh Wi-Fi System (starting at $699.99)

Image Credits: Netgear

Netgear’s Orbi lineup is a popular mesh option, and its latest AX6000 series offers Wi-Fi 6 networking in either a 2- or 3-pack configuration. Even the 2-pack is able to cover a home of up to 5,000 square feet, Netgear claims, and it an support up to 2.5G internet connections from an Ethernet connected modem.

The Orbi AX6000 includes Netgear’s X technology, which can optimize streaming and media connections for optimal performance. Both the base unit and the satellite include 4 Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports for hardwired connections, which means you’re less likely to need an Ethernet switch to connect all your gear.

In real-world testing, the AX6000 proved a remarkably reliable and far-reaching mesh system. I tested a 2-device configuration, with one base unit and one satellite, and really saw the advantages of its range. In my testing, I was able to enjoy a consistent and strong Wi-Fi connection with the AX6000 as far as around 500 feet or more outside – useful in the situation where I had it installed in a lake house for reaching all the way down to a dock.

Orbi’s system can be managed from a mobile app, which provides an overview of devices attached, with detailed information available for each. You can pause and resume access for each connected device from the app, and also enable features like a dedicated guest network.

Netgear also offers a service called Armor that provides real-time threat detection and protection on your network. It’s a subscription service, with a limited free trial included when you first set up your Orbi system. In practice, it did seem to effectively detect and block phishing and malware connections, and it’s optional as an ongoing paid add-on.

The real strength of the Orbi system for me was that when I used it with a cellular-based network connection in a relatively remote setting, it dramatically improved performance. That was true even when I used it with my home fibre connection, which is a 1.5Gbps network, but it improved the much less reliable 50Mbps mobile connection so much that it went from relatively unreliable to fully reliable.

Netgear’s offering also offers a level of simplicity in terms of the app and network management that has advantages and downsides, but that is probably much better suited to casual or non-technical users. I found that it lacked some advanced options I was looking for, like the ability to separate 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz networks under separate network SSIDs to more easily connect some smart home devices, but that’s probably not a feature most users want or need.

AmpliFi Alien Wi-Fi 6 Router (starting at $379)

Image Credits: AmpliFi

The AmpliFi Alien router from AmpliFi, which is the consumer arm of commercial networking giant Ubiquiti, offers all the customization that an advanced user could want, on the other hand. The $379 device can act as a standalone tri-band router, or it can pair up with other Alient base stations (a 2-pack is $699) to form a mesh network for greater coverage. Unlike the Orbi option, AmpliFi’s hardware doesn’t have dedicated base station and satellite units, meaning they can be swapped out as needed to set up different networks if you don’t need the mesh capabilities.

AmpliFi’s Alien in testing also offered excellent coverage, and worked extremely well providing access to the full capabilities of my 1.5Gbps finer optic connection. In long-term testing, their reliability has been impeccable in terms of network uptime, and AmpliFi has consistently and reliably pushed updates to improve their performance as well.

Building on their reputation for delivering the best in advanced networking through Ubiquiti, AmpliFi has also equipped the Alien with some impressive hardware specs, including a custom antenna array and a dedicated 2.2 GHz 64-bit quad-core CPU in each base station. That’s more computing power than you’ll find in some mid-range Android smartphones, all committed to the task of continually optimizing your network and device connections for maximum performance.

All that onboard intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate to complexity, however – AmpliFi is meant to be Ubiquiti’s more accessible consumer brand, and it stays true to that with its simple, app-based setup and control. The AmpliFi app is very user-friendly and well designed, and includes all the features you’d expect from a mesh networking system including individual device views and controls, as well as rule creation and full stats reporting. You can also set up guest networking, and configure more advanced features like distinct SSIDs for different frequency networks.

The AmplifFi Alien also has a colorful, high-resolution display that provides at-a-glance information including current network performance, signal strength, and a list of connected devices. Both these menus and the in-app ones can get a little information dense compared to other options like the Orbi, however, which is why I think it’s a much better option for someone more comfortable with tech in general, and networking tech in particular.

The Alien system offers great expandability and flexibility (albeit with a cost since each is $379) and amazing custom control features. It’s definitely the networking solution to beat when it comes to advanced at-home Wifi 6 networking.

Bottom line

More and more Wi-Fi 6 options are coming to market as the technology shows up on more consumer devices, and as mentioned, you can also get them at increasingly affordable prices. But Wi-Fi 6 stands to be an investment that should provide you with many years of networking advantages, with more benefits accruing over time, so it’s likely worth investing money in a top-tier system that will provide future-proof performance.

Both the Netgear Orbi system and the AmpliFi Alien offer terrific performance, easy setup and a host of great features. Orbi’s AX6000 is likely better for those who prefer to set-it-and-forget-it, and who might appreciate the option of setting up threat detection on an ongoing basis. The Alien is better for power users and anyone who wants the ability to change their configuration over time – including potentially splitting up their networking hardware to use in multiple locations.

Smartwatch hack could trick patients to ‘take pills’ with spoofed alerts

By Zack Whittaker

Security researchers say a smartwatch, popular with the elderly and dementia patients, could have been tricked into letting an attacker easily take control of the device.

These watches are designed to help patients to easily call their carers and for carers to track the location of their patients. They come with their own cellular connection, so that they work anywhere.

But researchers at U.K.-based security firm Pen Test Partners found that they could trick the smartwatch into sending fake “take pills” reminders to patients as often as they want, they said.

“A dementia sufferer is unlikely to remember that they had already taken their medication,” wrote Vangelis Stykas in a blog post. “An overdose could easily result.”

Researchers triggering the “take pill” alert on a vulnerable smartwatch. (Image: Pen Test Partners/supplied)

The vulnerabilities were found in the back-end cloud system, known as SETracker, which powers the smartwatch. The same cloud system also powers millions of other white-label smartwatches and vehicle trackers across Europe, all of which were vulnerable to basic attacks, the researchers said.

The researchers found a copy of the source code that powers the back-end cloud system, allowing the researchers to find security weaknesses in the code. One of the major flaws found was that the server was using a hardcoded key which, if used, an attacker could have sent any commands to remotely control any one of these devices.

With this key, an attacker could trigger the “take pills” alert, secretly make phone calls from the device, send text messages, or — in the case of vehicle trackers — cutting the engine altogether.

The code also had passwords and tokens to SETracker’s cloud storage, which the researchers believe — based on the code — stored data uploaded by these devices. But the researchers were unable to check as doing so would have broken U.K. computer hacking laws.

The researchers said that the vulnerabilities have now been fixed. It isn’t known if the flaws had been exploited by someone else.

This latest research comes just months after Pen Test Partners found similar vulnerabilities in another widely-used white-label child-tracking smartwatches.

Security, or a lack of, is a growing trend among smart device makers, often which build devices with little consideration for good cybersecurity practices. That prompted the U.K. government to propose new legislation that would help improve their security by mandating that smart devices must be sold with a baseline level of security, such as unique passwords.

Twilio acquires Electric Imp to bolster its growing IoT business

By Frederic Lardinois

While you may mostly think about Twilio in the context of its voice and text messaging platform, the company has recently made a number of moves to bolster its IoT platform, which is already one of its fastest-growing business units. To accelerate this push, the company today announced that it quietly acquired IoT platform Electric Imp a few months ago.

Before the acquisition, Electric Imp, which was one of the earlier IoT startups, had raised about $44 million from firms like Ramparts Capital, which led its 2016 Series C round, with participation from Redpoint, Foxconn, Lowercase Capital and PTI Ventures. The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition.

Electric Imp makes it easier for businesses to securely connect their IoT devices with their data centers and third-party services. The company was co-founded by Hugo Fiennes, who was the engineering manager for the hardware team at Apple that launched the first iPhone. After managing four phone launches at Apple, he briefly went to Google to work on IoT projects there, but quickly realized that Google had already built the idea he wanted to work on in the company with Android for Things. He also turned down a job at Nest — though he did the design and architecture of their first thermostat, too. His, interest, and that of his co-founders (which include Gmail designer Kevin Fox, who left the company in 2013, and software architect Peter Hartley), was elsewhere, though.

“My worry for IoT was, I didn’t want to be spending many years building something which was just going to be a thermostat,” he said. “Not that a thermostat is not an important thing — it does save lots of energy — but it was more like, ‘oh my God, this technology — IoT, connecting a business service to the real world — allows you to optimize the real world.”

So the idea behind Electric Imp was to build a flexible, architecture-agnostic platform that would take care of all the plumbing to build an IoT system and then manage its life cycle throughout the years. Most businesses struggle with things like updates and, related to that, security, Fiennes argues. That’s what Electric Imp aims to essentially abstract away for its customers.

Image Credits: Twilio

“We always wanted it to be really accessible,” Fiennes said. “We don’t know all the applications. It’s not like ‘this is gonna be for us to tracking, let’s just chase asset tracking.’ If we know it’s for general purpose, has to be available to anyone, they just buy a dev kit and sign up, whatever, just try it. And a lot of our marketing, for better or for worse, was really just, ‘hey, it’s a great product, right?’ ”

As Fiennes noted, in that respect Electric Imp wasn’t that different from Twilio — and the company actually used Twilio when it demoed its product to potential Series A investors.

Twilio CEO and co-founder Jeff Lawson also noted that the IoT space hasn’t been innovating at the pace of software. “It’s been fun watching Twilio customers invent new connected experiences like shared scooters, and wearables that enable kids to communicate with their parents,” he said. “It reminds me of the explosion of customer engagement use cases Twilio customers invented using our Programmable Voice and SMS APIs. But overall, the IoT industry doesn’t seem to attract innovation at the same rate as software. One possible reason is that experimentation — real experimentation — that is, testing real business models in the wild — remains difficult.  By democratizing access to cellular IoT connectivity, we’ve been able to help move things along, but many of the hardest infrastructure problems remain unsolved. With the Electric Imp acquisition, we gain the team and technology needed to make a bigger dent in the problems facing future IoT developers.”

Image Credits: Electric Imp

It’s worth noting that Electric Imp isn’t meant to be a platform for high-bandwidth use cases, like streaming video, but more for connecting sensors that produce a more manageable amount of data to the cloud. One of Electric Imp’s customers is Pitney Bowes, which makes postage meters, but you can also think smart grids, river-level monitoring etc. And while Electric Imp’s technology can also be found in smart devices for consumers, Fiennes believes that the real value of the platform isn’t necessary in high-volume products.

“I think it’s kind of like, a lot of those [consumer use cases are] are just like, ‘you can connect it, yes. But why?’ But there’s really a lot of things like, river-level monitoring and a whole load of things which are very hard to deal with without IoT. And they’re not necessarily hugely high volume, which is why a repeatable platform that can be sold to many customers without change is really important because you get to target the niches where there’s a lot of value.”

With this acquisition, Twilio is not just buying a product but also a lot of expertise in building an IoT infrastructure. While the company doesn’t disclose the size of its IoT team, Twilio’s Evan Cummack, the GM of Twilio IT, and Chetan Chaudhary, the VP of Sales for IoT, who together founded the IoT business unit, tell me that a lot of early Twilio employees now work on the IoT side, including Twilio’s very first architect and the company’s first sales rep.

Cummack and Chaudhary told me that after a few years of working at Twilio, the realized there was a lot of untapped potential in IoT for the company.

In the early days of Twilio, both worked on building out Twilio’s strategy for selling to enterprise companies — and to some degree, they are now aiming to use a similar playbook to build out Twilio’s IoT business, though the idea is actually quite a bit older and pre-dates Twilio’s 2016 IPO.

“What I realized was that it was the combination of a really strong go to market with the technical prowess that allowed us to get to the early big wins [for Twilio],” Chaudhary said. “And we had this idea around doing the same thing for cellular connectivity for IoT devices because we were already buying wholesale voice and messaging. And I got to work with some of our carrier relations folks and helping them close some of the connectivity deals. And I was like: ‘Why can’t we sell SIM cards?’ ”

Twilio launched its IoT business in partnership with T-Mobile in 2016. The first product was its programmable wireless service. It then acquired Berlin’s Core Network Dynamics in 2018 to solve another set of problems that IoT developers were facing around connecting their IoT devices.

“What we saw once we started playing in connectivity was that there’s still just a tremendous amount of plumbing that’s not solved for,” Cummack noted. “So you have a tremendous amount of customers having to build their own security stacks, over-the-air update capabilities, secure boot, manufacturing tools, testing, manufacturer, even just things like getting connected to wireless networks, cellular networks and Wi-Fi networks was way too high. And all of this stuff is what I would consider to be platform stuff. It’s all kind of plumbing.”

In its early days Twilio though of the IoT group as a bit of a startup within the company. But that seems to be changing. “Twilio IoT evolved from an internal experiment into a fully fledged business unit with a thriving connectivity business,” Lawson told me. “It has the potential to evolve again into a market-leading platform for the emerging IoT developer community.”

Twilio has already integrated a lot of Electric Imp’s services into its go-to-market strategy, Chaudhary noted. “They’ve already brought […] a lot of credibility in a couple of deals because of their DNA and because of the things that they were able to solve, especially around the embedded design and hardware design, we were able to see some really good synergies early on  and now we’ll start to see some net new customers, I think, come from it.”

Fiennes will continue at Twilio as a Senior Product Architect, working on IoT and Electric Imp is actually releasing its newest product today: the imp006 breakout board for prototyping IoT products, which — no surprise there — comes with Twilio’s Super SIM for global connectivity already pre-installed.

Magic Leap has a new chief executive and it’s former Microsoft exec Peggy Johnson

By Jonathan Shieber

Peggy Johnson, the former executive vice president of business development at Microsoft, has been named as the new chief executive of Magic Leap, the company said in a statement.

Johnson, who will begin her new role on August 1, 2020, comes to Magic Leap after a thirty year career in the technology industry.

It’s been a tumultuous 2020 for Magic Leap. Struggling to survive amid a cash crunch and facing bankruptcy, the company laid off most of its staff in April and was casting around for a white knight investor to come in and keep the company afloat. While the Paradise, Fla.-based company found the $375 million in funding it needed, according to The New York Times, that investment came at the price of Rony Abovitz’s position as chief executive.

Abovitz, whose vision for the future of spatial computing managed to rake in over a billion dollars in funding, was a consummate hype man whose products failed to deliver on the promise they’d held.

In Johnson Magic Leap has a proven executive who joined Microsoft in 2014 from Qualcomm as an executive hire made by chief executive Satya Nadella. There, she ran business development and had a hand in a number of the company’s major acquisitions and partnerships including the $26.2 billion blockbuster acquisition of LinkedIn . The 58 year-old Johnson also launched Microsoft’s venture capital fund (known as M12).

At Magic Leap, Johnson will take the reins of a company whose direction has shifted to focus more on businesses than on consumers — a strategy that mirrors approaches taken both by Microsoft’s Hololens extended reality product and by early wearable tech progenitor Google Glass.

It’s also a company that managed to burn through nearly $3.5 billion under Abovitz’s stewardship and lose a valuation of

“Since its founding in 2011, Magic Leap has pioneered the field of spatial computing, and I have long admired the relentless efforts and accomplishments of this exceptional team. Magic Leap’s technological foundation is undeniable, and there is no question that has the potential to shape the future of XR and computing,” said Ms. Johnson.

Before joining Microsoft, Ms. Johnson spent 24 years at Qualcomm, where she held various leadership positions, and served as a member of Qualcomm’s Executive Committee.

“As a company that has been a leader in transforming what will become the next era of computing, we have been fortunate to have a number of extremely qualified candidates express interest in the position of CEO. However, as soon as Peggy raised her hand there was no question in my mind, or the Board’s, that she was absolutely the best person to lead this company into the future,” said Abovitz in a statement. “As Magic Leap drives towards commercializing spatial computing for enterprise, I can’t think of a better and more capable leader than Peggy Johnson to carry our mission forward.”

 

Fitbit launches a COVID-19 early detection study, and you can join from the Fitbit app

By Darrell Etherington

Fitbit’s activity-tracking wearable devices are already being used by a number of academic institutions to determine if they might be able to contribute to the early detection of COVID-19 and the flu, and now Fitbit itself is launching its own dedicated Fitbit COVID-19 Study, which users can sign up for from within their Fitbit mobile app.

The study will help the company figure out if it can successfully develop an algorithm to accurately detect a COVID-19 infection before the onset of systems. In order to gather the data needed to see if they can do this, Fitbit is asking users in either the U.S. or Canada who have either had or currently have a confirmed case of COVID-19, or flu-like symptoms that might be an indicator of an undiagnosed case, to answer some questions in order to contribute to its research.

The answer to these questions from participants will be paired with data gathered via their Fitbit to help identify any patterns that could potentially provide an early warning about someone falling ill. Pre-symptomatic detection could have a number of benefits, mostly obviously in ensuring that an individual is then able to self-isolate more quickly and prevent them from infecting others.

Early detection could also have advantages in terms of treatment, allowing health practitioners to intervene earlier and potentially prevent the worst of the symptoms of the infection. Depending on what treatments ultimately emerge, early detection could have a big impact on their efficacy.

Fitbit is asking those who would take part in the study to answer questions about whether or not they have or have expressed COVID-19 or flu, its symptoms, as well as other demographic and medical history info. Participation in the study is voluntary, in case you’re not comfortable sharing that info, and once in, participants can decided to withdraw whenever they want.

COVID-19 early detection could be a big help in any safe, actually practical return-to-work strategy for reopening the economy. It could also serve as a means of expanding diagnosis in combination with testing, depending on how accurate it’s found to be across these studies, and with what devices. A confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis doesn’t actually have to mean a test result; it could be a physician’s assessment based on a number of factors, including biometric data nd symptom expression. Depending on what a comprehensive mitigation strategy ends up looking like, that could play a much bigger role in assessing the scale and spread of COVID-19 in future, especially as we learn more about it.

COVID-19 exposure notification settings begin to go live for iOS users with new update

By Darrell Etherington

Apple has released iOS 13.5, which includes support for the Exposure Notification API that it co-created with Google to support public health authorities in their contact-tracing efforts to combat COVID-19. The API requires third-party apps developed by public health authorities for use, and none have yet been released, but iOS device users already have access to COVID-19 Exposure Logging global settings.

As previewed in the beta release, you can access the Exposure Logging settings under the Settings app, then navigate to the Privacy subsection. From there, you can select the Health submenu and find the COVID-19 Exposure Logging setting, which will be off be default. It can’t be turned on at all until you actually get an authorized app to enable them, at which point you’ll receive a pop-up asking you to authorize Exposure Notifications access. Once you do, you can return here to toggle notifications off, and also manually delete your device’s exposure log should you choose to opt out.

Apple and Google both have emphasized that they want as much user control and visibility into the Exposure Notification API as possible. They’re using randomized, temporary identifiers that are not centrally stored to do the exposure notification, and are also forbidding the simultaneous use of geolocation services and the Exposure Notification API within the same app. This manual control is another step to ensure that users have full control over what info they share to participate in the system, and when.

Contact tracing is a time-tested strategy for combating the spread of infectious disease, and has traditionally worked by attempting to trace potential exposure by interviewing infected individuals and learning as much as possible about their movements during their infectious period. Modern connected devices mean that we can potentially make this far more efficient and accurate, but Google and Apple have worked with privacy experts to try to determine a way to make this happen without exposing users to privacy risks. Matching also happens locally on a user’s device, not in any centralized database.

Apple and Google are currently working with public health authorities who are building apps based on this API, and the companies also have noted that this is a temporary measure that has been designed from the beginning to be disabled once the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

Fitbit’s Chinese rival Amazfit mulls a transparent, self-disinfecting mask

By Rita Liao

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a wave of Chinese companies with manufacturing operations to produce virus-fighting equipment: Shenzhen-based electric vehicle giant BYD quickly moved to launch what it claims to be the world’s largest mask plant; Hangzhou-based voice intelligence startup Rokid is making thermal imaging glasses targeted at the US market; and many more.

The latest of such efforts comes from Huami, the NASDAQ-listed wearables startup that makes Xiaomi’s Mi Bands and sells its own fitness tracking watches under the Amazfit brand in more than 70 countries. In a phone interview with TechCrunch, the firm said it is developing a see-through plastic mask with built-in ultraviolet lights that can disinfect filters within 10 minutes when connected to a power supply through a USB port.

The Aeri concept comes with built-in ultraviolet lights that can disinfect filters within 10 minutes when connected to a power supply through a USB port. 

Called Aeri, the mask uses removable filters that are on par with N95 filtration capacity. If the concept materializes, each filter could last up to a month and a half, significantly longer than the average life of surgical masks and N95 respirators. The modular design allows for customized accessories such as a fan for breathable comfort, hence the mask’s name Aeri, a homophone of “airy”.

Aeri started from the premise that wearing masks could thwart the increasingly common adoption of facial recognition. That said, imaging companies have been working on biometric upgrades to allow analyses of other facial features such as irises or the tip of noses.

Aeri might still have a market appeal though, argued Pengtao Yu, vice president of industrial design at Huami. “Whether people need to unlock their phones or not, they want to see each other’s faces at social occasions,” said Yu, the California-based Chinese designer who had served clients including Nest Labs, Roku, GoPro and Huawei prior to joining Huami.

Huami’s U.S. operation, which focuses on research and development, opened in 2014 and now counts a dozen of employees.

Many companies turning to pandemic-fighting manufacturing have taken a hit from their core business, but Huami has managed to stay afloat. Its Q1 revenue was up 36% year-over-year to hit $154 million, although net income decreased to $2.7 million from $10.6 million. Its stocks have been declining, however, sliding from a high point of $16 in January to around $10 in mid-May.

Huami is in the process of prototyping the Aeri masks. In Shenzhen, which houses the wearables company’s headquarters, the development cycle for hardware products — from ideation to market rollout — takes as short as 6-12 months thanks to the city’s rich supply chain resources, said Yu.

Huami hasn’t priced Aeri at this early stage, but Yu admitted that the masks are targeting the “mass consumer market” around the world, not only for protection against viruses but also everyday air pollution, rather than appealing to medical workers. Given Huami’s history of making wearables at thin margins, it won’t be surprising that Aeri will be competitively priced.

The Aeri project is part of Huami’s pivot to enter the general health sector beyond pure fitness monitoring. The company has recently teamed up with a laboratory led by Dr. Zhong Nanshan, the public face of China’s fight against COVID-19, to track respiratory diseases using wearables. It’s also in talks with the German public health authority to collaborate on a smartwatch-powered virus monitoring app, the company told TechCrunch.

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