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Google launches Android Enterprise Essentials, a mobile device management service for small businesses

By Sarah Perez

Google today introduced a new mobile management and security solution, Android Enterprise Essentials, which, despite its name, is actually aimed at small to medium-sized businesses. The company explains this solution leverages Google’s experience in building Android Enterprise device management and security tools for larger organizations in order to come up with a simpler solution for those businesses with smaller budgets.

The new service includes the basics in mobile device management, with features that allow smaller businesses to require their employees to use a lock screen and encryption to protect company data. It also prevents users from installing apps outside the Google Play Store via the Google Play Protect service, and allows businesses to remotely wipe all the company data from phones that are lost or stolen.

As Google explains, smaller companies often handle customer data on mobile devices, but many of today’s remote device management solutions are too complex for small business owners, and are often complicated to get up-and-running.

Android Enterprise Essentials attempts to make the overall setup process easier by eliminating the need to manually activate each device. And because the security policies are applied remotely, there’s nothing the employees themselves have to configure on their own phones. Instead, businesses that want to use the new solution will just buy Android devices from a reseller to hand out or ship to employees with policies already in place.

Though primarily aimed at smaller companies, Google notes the solution may work for select larger organizations that want to extend some basic protections to devices that don’t require more advanced management solutions. The new service can also help companies get started with securing their mobile device inventory, before they move up to more sophisticated solutions over time, including those from third-party vendors.

The company has been working to better position Android devices for use in workplace over the past several years, with programs like Android for Work, Android Enterprise Recommended, partnerships focused on ridding the Play Store of malware, advanced device protections for high-risk users, endpoint management solutions, and more.

Google says it will roll out Android Enterprise Essentials initially with distributors Synnex in the U.S. and Tech Data in the U.K. In the future, it will make the service available through additional resellers as it takes the solution global in early 2021. Google will also host an online launch event and demo in January for interested customers.

Gartner: Q3 smartphone sales down 5.7% to 366M, slicing Covid-19 declines in Q1, Q2

By Ingrid Lunden

We are now into the all-important holiday sales period, and new numbers from Gartner point to some recovery underway for the smartphone market as vendors roll out a raft of new 5G handsets.

Q3 smartphone figures from the analysts published today showed that smartphone unit sales were 366 million units, a decline of 5.7% globally compared to the same period last year. Yes, it’s a drop; but it is still a clear improvement on the first half of this year, when sales slumped by 20% in each quarter, due largely to the effects of Covid-19 on spending and consumer confidence overall.

That confidence is being further bolstered by some other signals. We are coming out of a relatively strong string of sales days over the Thanksgiving weekend, traditionally the “opening” of the holiday sales cycle. While sales on Thursday and Black Friday were at the lower end of predicted estimates, they still set records over previous years. With a lot of tech like smartphones often bought online, this could point to stronger numbers for smartphone sales as well.

On top of that, last week IDC — which also tracks and analyses smartphones sales — published a report predicting that sales would grow 2.4% in Q4 compared to 2019’s Q4. Its take is that while 5G smartphones will drive buying, prices still need to come down on these newer generation handsets to really see them hit with wider audiences. The average selling price for a 5G-enabled smartphone in 2020 is $611, said IDC, but it thinkgs that by 2024 that will come down to $453, likely driven by Android-powered handsets, which have collectively dominated smartphone sales for years.

Indeed, in terms of brands, Samsung, with its Android devices, continued to lead the pack in terms of overall units, with 80.8 million units, and a 22% market share. In fact, the Korean handset maker and China’s Xiaomi were the only two in the top five to see growth in their sales in the quarter, respectively at 2.2% and 34.9%. Xiaomi’s numbers were strong enough to see it overtake Apple for the quarter to become the number-three slot in terms of overall sales rankings. Huawei just about held on to number two. See the full chart further down in this story with more detail.

Also worth noting: overall mobile sales — a figure that includes both smartphones and feature phones — were down 8.7% 401 million units. That underscores not just how few feature phones are selling at the moment (smartphones can often even be cheaper to buy, depending on the brands involved or the carrier bundles), but also that those less sophisticated devices are seeing even more sales pressure than more advanced models.

Smartphone slump: it’s not just Covid-19

It’s worth remembering that even before the global health pandemic, smartphone sales were facing slowing growth. The reasons: after a period of huge enthusiasm from consumers to pick up devices, many countries reached market penetration. And then, the latest features were too incremental to spur people to sell up and pay a premium on newer models.

In that context, the big hope from the industry has been 5G, which has been marketed by both carriers and handset makers as having more data efficiency and speed than older technologies. Yet when you look at the wider roadmap for 5G, rollout has remained patchy, and consumers by and large are still not fully convinced they need it.

Notably, in this past quarter, there is still some evidence that emerging/developing markets continue to have an impact on growth — in contrast to new features being drivers in penetrated markets.

“Early signs of recovery can be seen in a few markets, including parts of mature Asia/Pacific and Latin America. Near normal conditions in China improved smartphone production to fill in the supply gap in the third quarter which benefited sales to some extent,” said Anshul Gupta, senior research director at Gartner, in a statement. “For the first time this year, smartphone sales to end users in three of the top five markets i.e., India, Indonesia and Brazil increased, growing 9.3%, 8.5% and 3.3%, respectively.”

The more positive Q3 figures coincide with a period this summer that saw new Covid-19 cases slowing down in many places and the relaxation of many restrictions, so now all eyes are on this coming holiday period, at a time when Covid-19 cases have picked up with a vengeance, and with no rollout (yet) of large-scale vaccination or therapeutic programs. That is having an inevitable drag on the economy.

“Consumers are limiting their discretionary spend even as some lockdown conditions have started to improve,” said Gupta of the Q3 numbers. “Global smartphone sales experienced moderate growth from the second quarter of 2020 to the third quarter. This was due to pent-up demand from previous quarters.”

Digging into the numbers, Samsung has held on to its top spot, although its growth was significantly less strong in the quarter. Even with that slump, Samsung is still a long way ahead.

That is in part because number-two Huawei, with 51.8 million units sold, was down by more than 21% since last year. It has been having a hard time in the wake of a public relations crisis after sanctions in the US and UK, due to accusations that its equipment is used by China for spying. (Those UK sanctions, indeed, have been brought up in timing, just as of last night.)

That also led Huawei earlier this month to confirm the long-rumored plan to sell off its Honor smartphone division. That deal will involve selling the division, reportedly valued at around $15 billion, to a consortium of companies.

It will be interesting to see how Apple’s small decline of 0.6% to 40.6 million units to Xiaomi’s 44.4 million, will shift in the next quarter, on the back of the company launching a new raft of iPhone 12 devices.

“Apple sold 40.5 million units in the third quarter of 2020, a decline of 0.6% as compared to 2019,” said Annette Zimmermann, research vice president at Gartner, in a statement. “The slight decrease was mainly due to Apple’s delayed shipment start of its new 2020 iPhone generation, which in previous years would always start mid/end September. This year, the launch event and shipment start began 4 weeks later than usual.”

Oppo, which is still not available through carriers or retail partners in the US, rounded out the top five sellers with just under 30 million phones sold. The fact that it and Xiaomi do so well despite not really having a phone presence in the US is an interesting testament to what kind of role the US plays in the global smartphone market: huge in terms of perception, but perhaps less so when the chips are down.

“Others” — that category that can take in the long tail of players who make phones, continues to be a huge force, accounting for more sales than any one of the top five. That underscores the fragmentation in the Android-based smartphone industry, but all the same, its collective numbers were in decline, a sign that consumers are indeed slowly continuing to consolidate around a smaller group of trusted brands.

 

Vendor 3Q20

Units

3Q20 Market Share (%) 3Q19

Units

3Q19 Market Share (%) 3Q20-3Q19 Growth (%)
Samsung 80,816.0 22.0 79,056.7 20.3 2.2
Huawei 51,830.9 14.1 65,822.0 16.9 -21.3
Xiaomi 44,405.4 12.1 32,927.9 8.5 34.9
Apple 40,598.4 11.1 40,833.0 10.5 -0.6
OPPO 29,890.4 8.2 30,581.4 7.9 -2.3
Others 119,117.4 32.5 139,586.7 35.9 -14.7
Total 366,658.6 100.0 388,807.7 100.0 -5.7

Source: Gartner (November 2020)

 

 

Google brings ‘The Mandalorian’ to AR in its new app

By Sarah Perez

Google has teamed up with Disney and Lucasfilm to bring the Star Wars streaming series “The Mandalorian” to augmented reality. The company announced this morning the launch of a new Android AR app,  “The Mandalorian” AR Experience, which will display iconic moments from the first season of the show in AR, allowing fans to retrace the Mandalorian’s steps, find the Child, harness the Force, and more, according to the app’s Play Store description.

In the app, users will be able to follow the trail of Mando, Din Djarin and the Child, interact with the characters, and create scenes that can be shared with friends.

New AR content will be released for the app on Mondays, starting today Nov. 23 and continuing for nearly a year to wrap on Oct. 31, 2021. That makes this a longer-term promotion than some of the other Star Wars experiences Google has offered in the past.

Image Credits: Google/Lucasfilm

Meanwhile, the app itself takes advantage of Google’s developer platform for building augmented reality experiences, ARCore, in order to create scenes that interact with the user’s surroundings. This more immersive design means fans will be able to unlock additional effects based on their actions. The app also leverages Google’s new ARCore Depth API, which allows the app to enable occlusion. This makes the AR scenes blend more naturally with the environment that’s seen through the smartphone’s camera.

However, because the app is a showcase for Google’s latest AR technologies, it won’t work with all Android devices.

Google says the app will only support “compatible 5G Android devices,” which includes its 5G Google Pixel smartphones and other select 5G Android phones that have the Google Play Services for AR updated. You can check to see if your Android phone is supported on a list provided on the Google Developers website. Other phones may be supported in the future, the company also notes.

Image Credits:

While the experience requires a 5G-capable Android device, Google says that you don’t have to be on an active 5G connection to use the app. Instead, the requirement is more about the technologies these devices include and not the signal itself.

Google has teamed up with Lucasfilm many times over the past several years for promotional marketing campaigns. These are not typically considered ads, because they give both companies the opportunity to showcase their services or technologies. For example, Google allowed users to give its apps a Star Wars-themed makeover back in 2015, which benefited its own services like Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Chrome and others. It has also introduced both AR and VR experiences featuring Star Wars content over the past several years.

The  “The Mandalorian” AR Experience” is a free download on the Play Store.

How China’s Realme sold 50 million phones in just over 2 years

By Rita Liao

Starting a new phone brand in 2018 might seem too late in an already crowded market, but Sky Li was convinced that consumers between 18-25 years old were largely under-served — they needed something that was both affordable and cool.

A few months after Li founded Realme in May that year, the smartphone company organized a product launch at a college campus in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market. It brought its own production crew, built a makeshift stage and invited local rappers to grace the event.

“I was amazed. No one was sitting down and it felt like a carnival, a big disco party,” Chase Xu, Realme’s 31-year-old chief marketing officer, told me at the firm’s headquarters in Shenzhen.

“No foreign company had ever entered the campus. They didn’t think it was possible. Why would a university let you do a launch event there?” Xu, clad in a minimalist, chic black jacket from a domestic brand, recounted with enthusiasm and pride.

“Realme became widely known thanks to the event. People found it very interesting that it was mixing with students. It didn’t just launch a product. It was showing off a youthful, flamboyant attitude.”

Within nine quarters, Realme has shipped 50 million handsets around the world with India as its biggest market, even larger than China. The target this year is to double last year’s target to 50 million units, a goal that’s “nearly complete” according to Xu. It’s now the world’s 7th biggest smartphone brand, trailing only after those who have been around for much longer — Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, Apple, Oppo and Vivo, according to a Q3 report from research firm Canalys.

Realme didn’t accomplish all that from scratch. It’s yet another smartphone brand rooted in BBK Group, the mystic electronics empire that owns and supports some of the world’s largest phone makers Vivo, Oppo, OnePlus, and now Realme.

Oppo family

In 2018, former Oppo vice president and head of overseas business Sky Li announced he was resigning from Oppo to start Realme as an independent brand, similar to how OnePlus started in 2013. Today, Realme, OnePlus and Oppo all belong to the same holding group. That entity, together with Vivo, sits under BBK, which started out in 1998 selling electronic dictionaries in south China and has been diversifying its portfolio ever since.

While Realme and OnePlus operate independently, they get access to Oppo’s supply chain, a model that has allowed them to have lighter assets and consequently fewer costs.

Realme’s pop-up store in India / Photo: Realme

“Realme has an advantage because we share a supply chain with Oppo. We are able to get very good resources from the supply end, stay ahead globally and obtain what we should have,” said Xu.

For instance, the nascent phone maker was among the first to get Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 865 chips and put four cameras into a handset. Priority isn’t always guaranteed, however, because “there is definitely competition between us and our peers to fight to be the first,” Xu admitted. “Of course, it also depends on the progress of each team’s research and development.”

The light-asset strategy also means Realme is able to offer competitive technologies at relatively low prices. In India, its 8GB RAM, 128GB phone cost less than 1,000 yuan ($152) and its notch screen one was under 1,500 yuan ($228).

Realme isn’t concerned about increasing margin in the “growth stage,” Xu said, and the firm has “been profitable from the outset.” On the other hand, the phone maker is also introducing a slew of IoT gadgets like smart TVs and earphones, categories with higher markups.

The smartphone-plus-IoT strategy is certainly not unique, as its siblings in the BBK family, as well as Xiaomi and Huawei, have the same vision: smartphones and smart devices from the same brand will form a nicely interconnected ecosystem, driving sales and data collection for each other.

Another way to cut costs, according to Xu, is to avoid extravagant outdoor advertising. The company prefers more subtle, word-of-mouth promotion like working with influencers, throwing campus music festivals and fostering an online fan community. And the strategy seems to be clicking with the young generation who like to interact with the brand they like and even be part of its creative process.

The most enthusiastic users would sometimes message Xu with pencil sketching of what they envisioned Realme’s next products should look like. “They have very interesting and excellent ideas. This is a great generation,” the executive said.

Chinese brands go global

A Realme event during Diwali / Photo: Realme

Realme’s India chief executive Madhav Sheth is equally adored by the country’s young consumers. A former distribution partner of Realme, he made an impression on Realme founder Li, who “understands the Indian market very well despite not speaking fluent English,” according to Xu.

“Sheth is very charismatic and good at public speaking. He knows how to excite people,” Xu spoke highly of Sheth, who is an avid Twitter user and has garnered some 280,000 followers since he joined in the spring of 2018.

The Indian boss’s job is getting trickier as India becomes warier of Chinese influence. In June, the Indian government banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps over potential national security risks, not long after it added more scrutiny on Chinese investments. Anti-China sentiment has also soared as border tensions heightened recently.

Against all odds, Realme is seeing robust growth in India. In Q3, it grew 4% from the previous quarter and currently ranks fourth in India with a 10% market share, according to research firm Counterpoint.

“During the start of the quarter, we witnessed some anti-China consumer sentiments impacting sales of brands originating from China. However, these sentiments have subsided as consumers are weighing in different parameters during the purchase as well,” the researcher wrote in the report.

“Of course the India-China conflict is not something we want to see. It’s a problem of international relationships. Realme doesn’t take part in politics,” Xu assured. “There will always be extremist users. What we can do is to expand our fan base, give them what they want, and leave the extremists alone.”

Next year, Realme is looking to ramp up expansion in Europe, Russia and its home market China. None will be a small feat as they are much-coveted markets for all major phone makers.

Realme’s onion-inspired model designed by prominent Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa

Part of Realme’s effort to associate itself with what Gen-Z around the world considers “cool” is to work with prominent designers. Xu’s eyes lit up, raising his hand in the air as if he was holding a ball. He was mirroring Naoto Fukasawa, the renowned Japanese industrial designer who came up with the onion-inspired color and pattern of the Realme X model.

“The afternoon sunlight slanted through the large windows. [Fukasawa] gave me a playful look, took an onion from beneath the table, and told me that was his inspiration,” Xu recalled. “He slowly turned the onion in the sun. I was dumbfounded. The veins, the pink, gold color, the texture. It was so beautiful. You wouldn’t think it was an onion. You’d think it was craftwork.”

Verizon partners with Apple to launch 5G Fleet Swap

By Frederic Lardinois

Apple and Verizon today announced a new partnership that will make it easier for their business partners to go all-in on 5G. Fleet Swap, as the program is called, allows businesses to trade in their entire fleet of smartphones — no matter whether they are currently a Verizon customer or not — and move to the iPhone 12 with no upfront cost and either zero cost (for the iPhone 12 mini) or a low monthly cost.

(Disclaimer: Verizon is TechCrunch’s corporate parent. The company has zero input into our editorial decisions.)

In addition, Verizon also today announced its first two major indoor 5G ultra wideband services for its enterprise customers. General Motors and Honeywell are the first customers here, with General Motors enabling the technology at its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, the company’s all-electric vehicle plant. To some degree, this goes to show how carriers are positioning 5G ultra wideband as more of an enterprise feature than the lower-bandwidth versions of 5G.

“I think about how 5G [ultra wide band] is really filling a need for capacity and for capability. It’s built for industrial commercial use cases. It’s built on millimeter wave spectrum and it’s really built for enterprise,” Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin told me.

It’s important to note that these two projects are not private 5G networks. Verizon is also in that business and plans to launch those more broadly in the future.

“No matter where you are on your digital transformation journey, the ability to put the power of 5G Ultra Wideband in all of your employees’ hands right now with a powerful iPhone 12 model, the best smartphone for business, is not just an investment for growth, it’s what will set a business’s future trajectory as technology continues to advance,” Erwin said in today’s announcement.

As for 5G Fleet Swap, the idea here is obviously to get more businesses on Verizon’s 5G network and, for Apple, to quickly get more iPhone 12s into the enterprise. Apple clearly believes that 5G can provide some benefits to enterprises — and maybe more so than to consumers — thanks to its low latency for AR applications, for example.

“The iPhone 12 lineup is the best for business, with an all-new design, advanced 5G experience, industry-leading security and A14 Bionic, the fastest chip ever in a smartphone,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice president of Markets, Apps and Services. “Paired with Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband going indoors and 5G Fleet Swap, an all-new device offer for enterprise, it’s now easier than ever for businesses to build transformational mobile apps that take advantage of the powerful iPhone 12 lineup and 5G.”

In addition, the company is highlighting the iPhone’s secure enclave as a major security benefit for enterprises. And while other handset manufacturers launch devices that are specifically meant to be rugged, Apple argues that its devices are already rugged enough by design and that there’s a big third-party ecosystem to ruggedize its devices.

Daily Crunch: Reviewing Apple’s new Macs

By Anthony Ha

We review each of Apple’s new M1-powered Macs, Twitter launches its new Stories-like format and Amazon launches a pharmacy service. This is your Daily Crunch for November 17, 2020.

The big story: Reviewing Apple’s new Macs

We’ve got three big hardware reviews today, each one highlighting a new Mac with Apple’s M1 chipset.

First up, there’s the MacBook Air, which Brian Heater says offers strong performance gains and is probably the right Apple Mac for most consumers. Then there’s the new Mac mini desktop, which Matt Burns writes is also a winner.

Lastly, there’s the MacBook Pro, where Matthew Panzarino was most impressed by the battery life:

I personally tested the 13” M1 MacBook Pro and after extensive testing, it’s clear that this machine eclipses some of the most powerful Mac portables ever made in performance while simultaneously delivering 2x-3x the battery life at a minimum.

The tech giants

Twitter’s new Stories feature ‘Fleets’ is struggling under the load — Many Twitter users are reporting Fleets are lagging and moving slowly.

Amazon launches Amazon Pharmacy, a delivery service for prescription medications — Customers can add their insurance information, manage prescriptions and choose payment options all through Amazon’s service.

Google updates Maps with more COVID info and finally launches its Assistant driving modeGoogle is updating the COVID layer in Google Maps with some new information, including the number of all-time detected cases in an area and links to resources from local governments.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon docks with the International Space Station for first operational missionSpaceX’s astronaut-ferrying Crew Dragon spacecraft is now docked to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit.

Hover secures $60M for 3D imaging to assess and fix properties — Hover has built a platform that uses eight basic smartphone photos to patch together a 3D image of your home that can then be used by contractors, insurance companies and others.

Trust & Will raises $15M as digital estate planning hits mainstream — Estate planning is a growth business in 2020.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Construction tech startups are poised to shake up a $1.3-trillion-dollar industry — Too many of the key processes involved in managing multimillion-dollar construction projects are carried out on Excel or even with pen and paper.

Why some VCs prefer to work with first-time founders — It all depends on the type of venture capitalist you ask.

Five questions from Airbnb’s IPO filing — The company’s S-1 detailed an expanding travel giant with billions in annual revenue that was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Conan O’Brien will launch a weekly variety show on HBO Max — “In 1993 Johnny Carson gave me the best advice of my career: ‘As soon as possible, get to a streaming platform.’ ”

Lego expands its Super Mario world with customization tools, new Mario power-ups and more characters — Lego’s partnership with Nintendo delivered a pretty awesome debut earlier this year, and now it’s following up with additional sets.

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.

Review: The iPhone 12 Pro Max is worth its handling fee

By Matthew Panzarino

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is probably the easiest of all of the new iPhone 12 models to review. It’s huge and it has a really, really great camera. Probably one of the best cameras ever in a smartphone if not the best. For those of you coming from an iPhone “Max” or “Plus” model already, it’s a no brainer. Get it, it’s fantastic. It’s got everything Apple has to offer this year and it’s even a bit smaller than the iPhone 11 Pro Max. 

For everyone else — the potential upsizers — this review has only a single question to answer: Do the improvements in camera and screen size and potentially battery life make it worth dealing with the hit in handling ergonomics from its slim but thicc build?

The answer? Yes, but only in certain conditions. Let’s get into it.

Build

I’m not going to spend a ton of time on performance or go through a feature-by-feature breakdown of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. I’ve published a review of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro here and just today published a review of the iPhone 12 mini. You can check those out for baseline chat about the whole lineup. 

Instead, I’m going to focus specifically on the differences between the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the rest of the lineup. This makes sense because Apple has returned us to a place that we haven’t been since the iPhone 8. 

Though the rest of the lineup provides a pretty smooth arc of choices, the iPhone 12 Pro Max introduces a pretty solid cliff of unique features that could pull some people up from the iPhone 12 Pro. 

The larger size sets off all of the work Apple did to make the iPhone 12 Pro look like a jewel. Gold coated steel edges and the laminated clear and frosty back with gold accent rings around the cameras and glossy logo. All of it screams posh. 

Some of you may recall that there was a period of time where there existed a market for ultra-luxury phone makers like Vertu to use fine materials to “elevate” what were usually pretty poorly implemented Symbian or Android phones at heart. Leather, gold, crystal and even diamond were used to craft veblen goods for the über rich just so they could stay ‘above’ the proles. Now, Apple’s materials science experimentation and execution level is so high that you really can’t get anything on the level of this kind of pure luxe manifestation in a piece of consumer electronics from anyone else, even a ‘hand maker’. 

To be fair, Vertu and other makers didn’t die because Apple got good at gold, they died because good software is needed to invest life into these bejeweled golems. But Apple got better at what they did faster than they could ever get good at what Apple does. 

This is a great piece of kit and as mentioned even smaller than previous Max models with the same size screen. But in my opinion, the squared off edges of this year’s aesthetic make this phone harder to hold, not easier at this size. This is essentially the opposite effect from the smaller models. For a phone this size I’d imagine everyone is going to use a case anyway so that’s probably moot, but it’s worth noting. 

My feelings on the larger iPhones, which I haven’t used as a daily driver since the iPhone 8, remain unchanged: these are two-handed devices best used as tablet or even laptop replacements. If you run your life from these phones then it makes sense that you’d want a huge screen with plenty of real-estate for a browser and a pip video chat and a generous keyboard all at once. 

The differences 

When we’re talking about whether or not to move up to this beast I think it’s helpful to have a list of everything here that is different, or you think might be but isn’t, from the iPhone 12 Pro. 

Screen. The 6.7” iPhone 12 Pro Max screen has a resolution of 2778×1284 at 458 ppi. That’s nearly identical but slightly under the iPhone 12 Pro’s 460ppi. So though this is a difference I’d count it as a wash. The screen’s size, of course, and the software support that some Apple and third-party apps to take advantage of the increased real-estate are still a factor. 

Performance. The iPhone 12 Pro Max performs exactly as you’d expect it to in the CPU and GPU department, which is to say exactly the same as the iPhone 12 Pro. It also has the same 6GB of RAM on board. Battery performance was comparable to my iPhone 11 Pro Max testing which is to say it outlasted a typical waking day though I could probably nail it in a long travel day. 

Ultra wide angle camera. Exactly the same. Improved over the iPhone 11 Pro massively due to software correction and the addition of Night Mode, but the same across the iPhone 12 Pro lineup.

Telephoto camera. This is a tricky one because it uses the same sensor as the iPhone 12 Pro, but features a new lens assembly that results in a 2.5x (65mm equivalent) zoom factor. This means that though the capture quality is the same, you can achieve tighter framing at the same distance away from your subject. As a heavy telephoto user (I shot around 30% of my pictures over the last year in the iPhone 11 Pro’s telephoto) I love this additional control and the slightly higher compression that comes with it. 

The framing control is especially nice with portraits. 

Though it comes in handy with distant subjects as well.

There is also one relatively stealthy (I cannot find this on the website but I verified that it is true) update to the telephoto. It is the only lens other than the wide angle across all of the iPhone 12 lineup to also get the new optical stabilization upgrades that allow it to make 5,000 micro-adjustments per second to stabilize an image in low light or shade. It still uses the standard lens-style stabilization, not the new sensor-shift OIS used in the wide angle lens, but it goes up 5x in the amount of adjustments it can make from the iPhone 11 Pro or even the iPhone 12 Pro. 

The results of this can be seen in this shot, a handheld indoor snap. Aside from the tighter lens crop, the additional stabilization adjustments result in a crisper shot with finer detail even though the base sensor is identical. It’s a relatively small improvement in comparison to the wide angle, but it’s worth mentioning and worth loving if you’re a heavy telephoto user.  

Wide angle camera. The bulk of the iPhone 12 Pro Max difference is right here. This is a completely new camera that pushes the boundaries of what the iPhone has been capable of shooting to this point. It’s actually made up of 3 big changes:

  • A new f1.6 aperture camera. A larger aperture is plain and simple a bigger hole that lets more light in.
  • A larger sensor with 1.7 micron pixels (bigger pixels mean better light gathering and color rendition), a larger sensor means higher quality images.
  • An all-new sensor-shift OIS system that stabilizes the sensor, not the lens. This is advantageous for a few reasons. Sensors are lighter than lenses, which lets the adjustments happen faster because it can be moved, stopped and started again with more speed and precision. 

Sensor-shift OIS systems are not new, they were actually piloted in the Minolta Dimage A1 back in 2003. But most phone cameras have used lens shift technology because it is very common, vastly cheaper and easier to implement. 

All three things work together to deliver pretty stellar imaging results. It also makes the camera bump on the iPhone 12 Pro Max a bit taller. Tall enough that there is actually an additional lip on the case meant for it made by Apple to cover it. I’d guess that this additional thickness stems directly from the wide angle lens assembly needing to be larger to accommodate the sensor and new OIS mechanism and then Apple being unwilling to let one camera stick out further than any other. 

These are Night Mode samples, but even there you can see the improvements in brightness and sharpness. Apple claims 87% more light gathering ability with this lens and in the right conditions it’s absolutely evident. Though you won’t be shooting SLR-like images in near darkness (Night Mode has its limits and tends to get pretty impressionistic when it gets very dim) you can absolutely see the pathway that Apple has to get there if it keeps making these kinds of improvements. 

Wide angle shots from the iPhone 12 Pro Max display slightly better sharpness, lower noise and better color rendition than the iPhone 12 Pro and much more improvement from the iPhone 11 Pro. In bright conditions you will be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two iPhone 12 models but if you’re on the lookout the signs are there. Better stabilization when handheld in open shade, better noise levels in dimmer areas and slightly improved detail sharpness. 

The iPhone 12 Pro already delivers impressive results year on year, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max leapfrogs it within the same generation. It’s the most impressive gain Apple’s ever had in a model year, image wise. The iPhone 8 Plus and the introduction of Apple’s vision of a blended camera array was forward looking, but even then image quality was pretty much parity with the smaller models that year. 

A very significant jump this year. Can’t wait for this camera to trickle down the lineup.

LiDAR. I haven’t really mentioned LiDAR benefits yet, but I went over them extensively in my iPhone 12 Pro review, so I’ll cite them here.

LiDAR is an iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max only feature. It enables faster auto-focus lock-in in low light scenarios as well as making Portrait Mode possible on the Wide lens in Night Mode shots. 

First, the auto-focus is insanely fast in low light. The image above is what is happening, invisibly, to enable that. The LiDAR array constantly scans the scene with an active grid of infrared light, producing depth and scene information that the camera can use to focus. 

In practice, what you’ll see is that the camera snaps to focus quickly in dark situations where you would normally find it very difficult to get a lock at all. The LiDAR-assisted low light Portrait Mode is very impressive, but it only works with the Wide lens. This means that if you are trying to capture a portrait and it’s too dark, you’ll get an on-screen prompt that asks you to zoom out. 

These Night  Mode portraits are demonstrably better looking than the standard portrait mode of the iPhone 11 because those have to be shot with the telephoto, meaning a smaller, darker aperture. They also do not have the benefit of the brighter sensor or LiDAR helping to separate the subject from the background — something that gets insanely tough to do in low light with just RGB sensors.

As a note, the LiDAR features will work great in situations under 5 meters along with Apple’s Neural Engine, to produce these low-light portraits. Out beyond that it’s not much use because of light falloff. 

Well lit Portrait Mode shots on the iPhone 12 Pro Max will still rely primarily on the information coming in through the lenses optically, rather than LiDAR. It’s simply not needed for the most part if there’s enough light.

The should I buy it workflow

I’m straight up copying a couple of sections for you now from my iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 mini reviews because the advice applies across all of these devices. Fair warning.

In my iPhone 12/12 Pro review I noted my rubric for selecting a personal device:

  • The most compact and unobtrusive shape.
  • The best camera that I can afford.

And this is the conclusion I came to at the time:

The iPhone 12 Pro is bested in the camera department by the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which has the biggest and best sensor Apple has yet created. (But its dimensions are similarly biggest.) The iPhone 12 has been precisely cloned in a smaller version with the iPhone 12 mini. By my simple decision-making matrix, either one of those are a better choice for me than either of the models I’ve tested. If the object becomes to find the best compromise between the two, the iPhone 12 Pro is the pick.

But now that I’ve had time with the Pro Max and the mini, I’ve been able to work up a little decision flow for you:

If you haven’t gathered it by now, I recommend the iPhone 12 Pro Max to two kinds of people: the ones who want the absolute best camera quality on a smartphone period and those who do the bulk of their work on a phone rather than on another kind of device. There is a distinct ‘fee’ that you pay in ergonomics to move to a Max iPhone. Two hands are just plain needed for some operations and single-handed moves are precarious at best. 

Of course, if you’re already self selected into the cult of Max then you’re probably just wondering if this new one is worth a jump from the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Shortly: maybe not. It’s great but it’s not light years better unless you’re doing photography on it. Anything older though and you’re in for a treat. It’s well made, well equipped and well priced. The storage upgrades are less expensive than ever and it’s really beautiful. 

Plus, the addition of the new wide angle to the iPhone 12 Pro Max makes this the best camera system Apple has ever made and quite possibly the best sub compact camera ever produced. I know, I know, that’s a strong statement but I think it’s supportable because the iPhone is best in class when it comes to smartphones, and no camera company on the planet is doing the kind of blending and computer vision Apple is doing. Though larger sensor compact cameras still obliterate the iPhone’s ability to shoot in low light situations, the progress over time of Apple’s ML-driven blended system.

A worthy upgrade, if you can pay the handling costs.

Huawei reports slowing growth as its operations ‘face significant challenges’

By Catherine Shu

Huawei announced earnings results today showing that its growth has slowed significantly this year as the Chinese telecom equipment and smartphone giant said its “production and operations face significant challenges.”

While Huawei did not specify trade restrictions in its brief announcement, the company has been hit with a series of commercial trade restrictions by the U.S. government. The full impact of those policies haven’t been realized yet, because the U.S. government has granted Huawei several waivers, including one that will delay the implementation of a ban on commercial trade with Huawei and ZTE until May 2021.

During the first three quarters of 2020, the Chinese telecoms and smartphone giant reported revenue of 671.3 billion yuan (about USD $100.7 billion), an increase of 9.9% year-over-year, with a profit margin of 8%. The company said those results “basically met expectations,” but it represents a huge drop from its performance during the same period last year, when Huawei reported 24.4% growth with a profit margin of 8.7%.

Huawei is a privately-held company and its announcement did not break down its results in terms of smartphone or telecoms equipment sales, or other details.

The company wrote that “as the world grapples with COVID-19, Huawei’s global supply chain is being put under pressure and its production and operations face significant challenges. The company continues to do its best to find solutions, survive and forge forward, and fulfill its obligations to customers and suppliers.”

Other U.S. restrictions include one that would ban Huawei from using U.S. software and hardware in certain semiconductor processes, forcing it to find other sources for chips.

In addition to the U.S., Huawei is also facing scrutiny by other countries, including the United Kingdom, which is planning to implement a new policy that will bar telecoms from buying new 5G equipment from Huawei and ZTE and require them to remove any parts from those companies that’s already been installed in U.K. 5G networks by 2027.

Replacing Huawei equipment also presents costly challenges for telecoms, because Huawei is one of the biggest suppliers in the world. Last month, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said it would cost $1.837 billion to replace Huawei and ZTE networking equipment, with rural telecom networks facing the most financial pressure.

But 2020 has had a few bright spots for Huawei. In July, a report from Canalys found that Huawei overtook Samsung as the leader in global smartphone shipments during the second quarter of 2020, a major milestone because it marked the first time in nine years that Apple and Samsung didn’t take the top spot on Canalys’ charts. This was partly because smartphone shipments in general have been hurt during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Huawei was helped by sales within China, its domestic market.

E-bike subscription service Dance closes $17.7M Series A, led by HV Holtzbrinck Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Three months on since the former founders of SoundCloud launched their e-bike subscription service, Dance they are today announcing the close of a $17.7 million (€15 million) Series A funding round led by one of the larger European VCs, HV Holtzbrinck Ventures.

Founded by Eric Quidenus-Wahlforss (ex-Soundcloud), Alexander Ljung (ex-Soundcloud) and Christian Springub (ex-Jimdo), Dance has ambitions to offer its all-inclusive service subscription package into expanded markets across Europe and eventually the US. Dance is currently operating the invite-only pilot of its e-bike subscription in Berlin, with plans for a broader launch, expanded accessibility and availability and new cities next year. 

Rainer Märkle, general partner at HV Holtzbrinck Ventures said in a statement: “The mobility market is seeing a huge shift towards bikes, strongly fueled by the paradigm shift of vehicles going electric. Unfortunately, the majority of e-bikes on the market today have some combination of poor design, high upfront costs, and cumbersome maintenance. We analyzed the overall mobility market, evaluated all means of transport, and crunched the numbers on all types of business models for a few years before we found what we were looking for. Dance is by the far the most viable future of biking, bridging the gap between e-bike ownership and more ‘joyful’ accessibility to go places.”

E-bikes tend to be notoriously expensive to purchase and a hassle to repair. That said, startups like VanMoof and Cowboy have brought an Apple -esque business model to the market which is fast bringing the cost of full ownership down.

Most commuters are put off cycling the average 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) commute but e-bikes make this distance a breeze. Dance sits in that half-way house between owning an expensive bike and having to hunt down a rentable ebike or electric scooter close to your location.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought individual, socially distanced, transport into sharp relief. UK sales of e-bikes have boomed, seeing a 230% surge in demand over the summer. This has happened at the same time as EU governments have put in more than 2300km of bike lanes, with the UK alone pledging £250 million in investment.

Quidenus-Wahlforss said the startup has been “inundated with positive responses from around the world since we announced our invite-only pilot program.”

Dance’s subscription model includes a fully assembled e-bike delivered to a subscriber’s door within 24 hours. This comes with maintenance, theft replacement insurance, a dedicated smartphone app, concierge services, GPS location tracking and unlocking capabilities.

Smartphone shipments rebound to an all-time high in India

By Manish Singh

Smartphone shipments reached an all-time high in India in the quarter that ended in September this year as the world’s second largest handset market remained fully open during the period after initial lockdowns due to the coronavirus, according to a new report.

About 50 million smartphones shipped in India in Q3 2020, a new quarterly record for the country where about 17.3 million smartphone units shipped in Q2 (during two-thirds of the period much of the country was under lockdown) and 33.5 million units shipped in Q1 this year, research firm Canalys said on Thursday.

Xiaomi, which assumed the No.1 smartphone spot in India in late 2018, continues to maintain its dominance in the country. It commanded 26.1% of the smartphone market in India, exceeding Samsung’s 20.4%, Vivo’s 17.6%, and Realme’s 17.4%, the marketing research firm said.

Image Credits: Canalys /

But the market, which was severely disrupted by the coronavirus, is set to see some more shifts. Research firm Counterpoint said last week that Samsung had regained the top spot in India in the quarter that ended in September. (Counterpoint plans to share the full report later this month.)

According to Counterpoint, Samsung has benefited from its recent aggressive push into online sales and from the rising anti-China sentiments in India.

The geo-political tension between India and China has incentivised many consumers in India to opt for local brands or those with headquarters based in U.S. and South Korea. And local smartphone firms, which lost the market to Chinese giants (that command more than 80% of the market today) five years ago, are planning a come back.

Indian brand Micromax, which once ruled the market, said this month that it is gearing up to launch a new smartphone sub-brand called “In.” Rahul Sharma, the head of Micromax, said the company is investing $67.9 million in the new smartphone brand.

In a video he posted on Twitter last week, Sharma said Chinese smartphone makers killed the local smartphone brands but it was now time to fight back. “Our endeavour is to bring India on the global smartphone map again with ‘in’ mobiles,” he said in a statement.

India also recently approved applications from 16 smartphone and other electronics companies for a $6.65 billion incentives program under New Delhi’s federal plan to boost domestic smartphone production over the next five years. Foxconn (and two other Apple contract partners), Samsung, Micromax, and Lava (also an Indian brand) are among the companies that will be permitted to avail the incentives.

Missing from the list are Chinese smartphone makers such as Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Realme.

Gen Z spends 10% more time in non-game apps than older users

By Sarah Perez

A new report released today by App Annie digs into how Gen Z consumers engage with their smartphones and mobile apps. According to data collected in Q3 2020, Gen Z users spend an average of 4.1+ hours per month in non-gaming apps, or 10% longer than older demographics. They also engage with apps more often, with 20% more sessions per user in non-gaming apps, at 120 sessions per month per app, compared with older groups.

This app engagement data is only a view into Gen Z trends, but is an incomplete analysis, as it only focuses on select markets, including the U.S., U.K., Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Turkey. It also included only data collected from Android devices, which doesn’t provide as full a picture.

App Annie found that Gen Z is more likely to use games than older users, but they don’t access them as often or use them as long. Those ages 25 and older actually spent nearly 20% longer in their most-used games and accessed them 10% more frequently. Both demographics spent more total time gaming than using non-game apps, on a monthly basis.

Image Credits: App Annie

One breakout in the games category for Gen Z users, however, was the casual arcade game Among Us!, which just became the third-most played game worldwide, thanks to its team-based multiplayer features and the surge of Twitch streams. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez played the game on Twitch last night, it became one of the biggest-ever Twitch streams, peaking at 435,000 concurrent viewers.

Other popular Gen Z games include Match-3 games like Candy Crush Saga and Toon Blast, action games like PUBG Mobile and Free Fire, and casual simulation games like Minecraft Pocket Edition and Roblox.

Image Credits: App Annie

The report also examined what apps Gen Z users prefer across a range of non-game categories across both iOS and Android.

TikTok and Snapchat, in particular, stood out as the top over-indexed social and communication apps among Gen Z in nine out of the 10 markets analyzed for this report. This comes on the heels of Snap’s blowout earnings yesterday, where the social app topped analyst expectations and saw daily user growth climb 4% to 238 million.

Discord is also seeing strong growth, particularly in France, as mobile and remote gaming has become an epicenter of social interactions during the pandemic.

Image Credits: App Annie

Among entertainment apps, Twitch was the top over-indexed app in six out of the 10 markets for Gen Z users, though live streaming niconico was popular in Japan.

App Annie found that finance and shopping apps haven’t yet reached a broad Gen Z audience, but are demonstrating promising growth.

Image Credits: App Annie

Few finance apps over-index with Gen Z, though the demographic tends to interact with non-bank fintech apps like Venmo, Monzo and DANA. In South Korea, a top app was peer-to-peer payments app Toss, which also offers loans, insurance and credit.

Top Gen Z fashion apps, meanwhile, included Shein, ASOS, Shopee and Mercari.

Overall, active Gen Z users are rising faster across the markets analyzed, compared with older groups, with emerging markets like Indonesia and Brazil seeing the most growth.

Image Credits: App Annie

App Annie noted that Gen Z is becoming one of the most powerful consumer segments on mobile, as 98% own a smartphone and have a combined estimated spending power of $143 billion annually.

“Gen Z has never known a world without their smartphone. They see the world through this mobile first lens,” said Ted Krantz, CEO, App Annie, in a statement about the report’s findings.

This Week in Apps: Apple’s big event, lidar comes to iPhone, Android gets a new IDE

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the TechCrunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

Top Story

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

Apple hosted its iPhone event this week, where it introduced the new iPhone 12… and the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max — effectively plugging all the holes in the market. With the release of the four new iPhones, app developers will have a range of devices to build for, from small to very large — the 12 Pro Max, for example, introduces the iPhone’s biggest-ever screen and the highest resolution, at nearly 3.5M pixels.

It also, of course, includes serious camera improvements, from a redesign of the three-lens system to including a new deeper telephoto camera, now a 65 mm-equivalent instead of 52 mm, as on previous models. There’s also an improved wide-angle lens, larger sensor, the addition of sensor-level image stabilization and a revamped Night Mode. Photographers will appreciate the new Apple ProRAW format, as well. (More on that here).

The iPhone 12 mini, meanwhile, aims to serve the customer base that prefers a smaller phone, like the iPhone SE, but without sacrificing functionality.

All the devices share some key features, including 5G connectivity, the new MagSafe connector for wireless charging and snap-on magnetic accessories, OLED displays and the A14 chip. They also have a more classic look, with straight edges that allow for additional antennas, providing next-gen wireless connectivity.

One of the bigger differences, however, between the Pro models and the regular iPhone 12 is the addition of the LiDAR Scanner, which is also found in the latest iPad Pro. The scanner measures how long it takes for light to reach an object and reflect back. The new depth-sensing technology has big implications for AR, as it allows augmented reality objects to interact with objects in the real world. AR apps will be more user-friendly, too, as they won’t need to first scan the room to place the AR object in the real world. It can be placed instantly.

Apple is leveraging the sensor for the iPhone 12 Pro camera to offer up to 6x faster focus in low-light conditions. Developers, meanwhile, can leverage lidar for use cases like AR-enabled games that work in the real world, social media (like Snapchat’s new lidar-powered Lens), home design and improvement apps involving room scans, spatial layout planning (like JigSpace), better AR shopping experiences and more.

The company also announced an affordable version of its HomePod smart speaker, the $99 HomePod Mini. The item works best for those fully locked inside the Apple universe, as it will stream a handful of music services, but not one of the most popular — Spotify. However, Apple also introduced a nifty feature for the HomePod devices, Intercom, which lets you send announcements across the speakers. While Apple and Google have offered a similar feature for their smart speakers, Intercom also works across other Apple devices, including iPhone, iPod, AirPods and even CarPlay. (What, no Mac?)

If Apple isn’t too late to capture smart speaker market share, the new speaker could see more users adopting smart home devices they can voice control through the HomePod Mini.

During the event, Apple also subtly snubbed its nose at Epic’s Fortnite with the announcement that
League of Legends: Wild Rift would be coming to iPhone 12 to take advantage of its new 5G capabilities and A14 Bionic chip.

Weekly News Round-Up

Platforms

  • Lidar comes to iPhone 12 Pro. Developers can now build AR experiences that interact with real-world objects, and AR apps can now instantly place AR objects in the real world without scanning the room. The update will mean a huge increase in the usability of AR apps but is limited to the Pro model of iPhone for now. Snapchat is already using it.
  • Apple developers can now make their apps available for pre-order even earlier — up to 180 days before release on the App Store.
  • Android Studio 4.1 launches. The new, stable version of the IDE for building Android apps introduces better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector. The team also fixed a whopping 2,370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.
  • Google introduces the Android for Cars library. The library, now in open beta, gives developers tools to design, develop and test new navigation, parking or charging apps for Android Auto. The Google Play Store will be enabled for publishing beta apps in the “coming months.”
  • Google stops selling music. The company no longer sells tracks and albums on its Play Store, shifting all its focus to YouTube Music. The latter also just launched on Apple Watch this week.

Trends

  • Shopping apps forecast. U.S. consumers were expected to spend 60M hours in Android shopping apps during Prime Day week, (which just wrapped) according to one forecast from App Annie.
  • Prime Day downloads grow. Sensor Tower estimates global installs of the Amazon app grew 23% year-over-year, to 684K, as Prime Day neared. Installs on Wednesday were up 33% to 750K. However, U.S. installs were down by 22% 10/13-10/14. Apptopia noted that app sessions, however, were up 27% year-over-year.
  • Shopping, Food & Drink app launches up more than 50% year-over-year. Shopping apps grew 52% while Food & Drink apps grew 60%, due to COVID-19 impacts, according to Sensor Tower.
  • Subscriptions. U.S. consumers spend $20.78 per month on app subscriptions, Adjust study says.
  • TikTok sale impact on ad industry. 73% of marketers said a TikTok sale in the U.S. would impact their 2021 advertising plans. 41% also believed the deal could allow Walmart to overtake Amazon in e-commerce.
  • Amazon expands AR experimentation to its boxes. The retailer launched a new AR application that works with QR codes on the company’s shipping boxes to create “interactive, shareable” AR experiences, like a pumpkin that comes to life.

Security

  • Robinhood said a “limited number” of its users’ accounts were hacked. The service itself was not hacked, but around 2,000 customers had accounts compromised by cybercriminals who first compromised users’ personal emails outside the trading app.

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.

Funding and M&A

    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Downloads

Mycons

Mycons is a new app that makes it easier for users, including non-designers, to create and buy custom icons for their iOS home screen makeovers. In the app’s “Icon Studio,” users can create icons by swapping out the background, choosing a symbol and placing it on the icon accordingly. You can also create a whole set of icons in a batch export. If you don’t feel like designing your own, you can opt to purchase premade packs instead.

The app is a free download with a one-time, in-app purchase to unlock the fully functionality of the icon designer. The icon packs, which include different variations and matching wallpaper, range from $7.99-$9.99.

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

It’s here! The widget a number of people have waited for since the launch of the new version of iOS has arrived. 

The widget, which arrives in the latest version of the Spotify iOS app, comes in two sizes. The smaller widget will display just your most recently listened to item, while the medium-sized widget will instead show the five most recent items — four in a horizontal row and the most recent at the top. In that case, you can actually tap on the small thumbnail for which of the five you want to now stream to be taken directly to that page in the Spotify app. The widget also automatically updates its background color to match the thumbnail photo.

Google introduces song matching via humming, whistling or singing

By Darrell Etherington

Google has added a new feature that lets you figure out what song is stuck in your head by humming, whistling or singing – a much more useful version of the kind of song-matching audio feature that it and competitors like Apple’s Shazam have offered previously. As of today, users will be able to open either the latest version of the mobile Google app, or the Google Search widget, and then tap the microphone icon, and either verbally ask to search a song or hit the ‘Search a song button’ and start making noises.

The feature should be available to anyone using Google in English on iOS, or across over 20 languages already on Android, and the company says it will be growing that user group to more languages on both platforms in the future. Unsurprisingly, it’s powered behind the scenes by machine learning algorithms developed by the company.

Google says that it’s matching tech won’t require you to be a Broadway star or even a choir member – it has built-in abilities to accommodate for various degrees of musical sensibility, and will provide a confidence score as a percentage alongside a number of possible matches. Clicking on any match will return more info about both artist and track, as well as music videos, and links that let you listen to the full song in the music app of your choice.

Google explains in a blog post announcing the feature that it’s able to do this because it basically ignores the fluff that is the quality of your voice, any accompanying instruments, tone and other details. The algorithm is basically boiling the song down to its essence, and coming up with a numerical pattern that represents its essence, or what Google calls its ‘fingerprint.’

This is an evolution of how Google’s existing music recognition tech works, which is present in the passive ‘Now Playing’ feature that’s available on its Pixel smartphones. That feature will listen passively in the background for music, and provide a match when it finds one in its offline database (all done locally). That same technology is at work in the SoundSearch feature that Google later introduced via its app.

Google isn’t the first to do this – SoundHound’s Midomi offers music matching via singing or humming. But Google is obviously much more widely used, so it’ll be interesting to see if it can achieve better hit rates, and overall usage.

Google Pixel 5 review: Keeping it simple

By Brian Heater

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I don’t really understand Google’s phone strategy right now. And for what it’s worth, I’m not really sure Google does either. I wrote about it here, but I’ll save you from having to read an additional 800 words on top of all these. The short version is that Google has three phones on the market, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of distinction between them.

The Pixel is a portrait of a hardware division in transition. That applies to a number of aspects, from strategy to the fact that the company recently saw a minor executive exodus. It’s pretty clear the future of Google’s mobile hardware division is going to look quite different from its present — but 2020’s three phones are most likely a holdover from the old guard.

What you’re looking at here is the Pixel 5. It’s Google’s flagship. A device that sports — among other things — more or less the same mid-range Qualcomm processor as the 4a announced earlier this year. It distinguishes itself from that budget handset, however, with the inclusion of 5G. But then here comes the 4a 5G to further muddy the waters.

There are some key distinctions that separate the 5 and 4a 5G, which were announced at the same event. The 5’s got a more solid body, crafted from 100% recycled aluminum to the cheaper unit’s polycarbonate. It also has waterproofing and reverse wireless charging, a fun feature we’ve seen on Samsung devices for a few generations now. Beyond that, however, we run into something that’s been a defining issue since the line’s inception. If you choose not to use hardware to define your devices, it becomes difficult to differentiate your devices’ hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Since the very beginning of the Pixel line, the company has insisted that it will rely on software advances to push the products forward. It’s a nice sentiment after years of feature arms races between the likes of Apple and Samsung. But that means when it comes time to introduce new devices, the results can be fairly lackluster. That certainly applies to the Pixel 5.

From a hardware perspective, it’s not a particularly exciting phone. That’s probably fine for many. Smartphones have, after all, become more commodity than luxury item, and plenty of users are simply looking for one that will just get the job done. That said, Google’s got some pretty stiff competition at the Pixel 5’s price point — and there are plenty of Android devices that can do even more.

There are certainly some upgrades in addition to the above worth pointing out, however. Fittingly, the biggest and most important of all is probably the least exciting. The Pixel 4 was actually a pretty solid device hampered by one really big issue: an abysmal battery life. The 2,800mAh capacity was a pretty massive millstone around the device’s neck. That, thankfully, has been addressed here in a big way.

Google’s bumped things up to 4,080mAh. That’s also a pretty sizable bump over the 4a and 4a 5G, which sport 3,885mAh and 2,130mAh, respectively. That extra life is extra important, given the addition of both Battery Share and 5G. For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I still live in an area with basically no 5G (three cheers for working from home), so your mileage will vary based on coverage. But using LTE, I was able to get about a day and a half of use out of the handset, besting the stated “all-day battery).

This is helped along by a (relatively) compact display. Gone are the days of the XL (though, confusingly, the 4a 5G does have a larger screen with a bit lower pixel density). The flagship is only available in a six-inch, 2,340 x 1,080 size. It’s larger than the Pixel 4’s 5.7 inches, but at a lower pixel density (432 versus 444 ppl). The 90Hz refresh rate remains. Compared to all of the phones I’ve been testing lately, the Pixel 5 feels downright compact. It’s a refreshing change to be able to use the device with one hand.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The camera is probably the aspect of the handset where the opposing hardware-first and software-first approaches are the most at conflict with one another. Google was fairly convinced it could do everything it wanted with a single lens early on, but eventually begrudgingly gave in to a two-camera setup. The hardware is pretty similar to last year’s model, but the 16-megapixel 2x optical telephoto has been replaced by a 16-megapixel ultra-wide. Whether that represent progress is largely up to your own personal preference. Frankly, I’d prefer a little more non-distorted zooming.

Google, of course, is building on a solid foundation. I really loved the Pixel 4’s photos. The things Google’s imaging team has been able to do with relative hardware constraints is really impressive, and while you’re lacking the scope of a premium Samsung device or high-end iPhone, casual photo snappers are going to be really happy with the shots they get on the Pixel 5.

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Night Sight has been improved and now turns on when the phone’s light sensor detects a dark scene. My morning walks have gotten decidedly darker in recent weeks as the season has changed, and the phone automatically enters the mode for those pre-dawn shots (COVID-19 has made me an early riser, I don’t know what to tell you). The feature has also been added to portrait mode for better focused shots.

The Pixel’s Portrait Mode remains one of the favorites — though it’s still imperfect, running into issues with things like hair or complex geometries. It really doesn’t know what to do with a fence much of the time, for instance. The good news is that Google’s packed a lot of editing options into the software here — particularly for Portrait Mode.

You can really go crazy in terms of bokeh levels and placement and portrait lighting, a relatively subtle effect that lends the appearance of changing a light source. Changing the effects can sometimes be a bit laggy, likely owing to the lower-end processing power. All said, it’s a good and well-rounded photo experience, but as usual, I would really love to see what Google’s imaging team would be able to do if the company ever gives it a some real high-end photography hardware to play around with. Wishful thinking for whatever the Pixel 6 becomes, I suppose.

In the end, the two biggest reasons to recommend upgrading from the Pixel 4 are 5G and bigger battery. The latter is certainly a big selling point this time out. The former really depends on what coverage is like in your area. The 5G has improved quite a bit of late, but there are still swaths of the U.S. — and the world — that will be defaulting to LTE on this device. Also note that the $200 cheaper 4a 5G also offers improvements in both respects over last year’s model.

Still, $700 is a pretty reasonable price point for a well-rounded — if unexciting — phone like the Pixel 5. And Google’s got other things working in its favor, as well — pure Android and the promise of guaranteed updates. If you’re looking for something with a bit more flash, however, there are plenty of options in the Android world.

PopSockets is working on MagSafe-compatible iPhone accessories

By Sarah Perez

PopSockets will support Apple’s MagSafe technology, TechCrunch has confirmed — meaning you’ll soon be able to pop on and off these ubiquitous iPhone accessories without worrying about the sticker on the back losing its adhesiveness over time and needing a rinse.

MagSafe, Apple’s charging brand, is now the company’s new system for iPhone wireless charging and easy-to-attach accessories, introduced today at Apple’s iPhone event.

Thanks to the new array of magnets positioned around the wireless charging coil, the iPhone will be better aligned when connected with Apple’s MagSafe Charger and MagSafe Duo Charger — designed for wirelessly charging the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 plus Apple Watch, respectively.

But the system also enables a range of MagSafe accessories that work with iPhone 12.

Apple is introducing its own accessories, with new silicone, leather and clear cases that easily snap on the back of the iPhone 12 models, as well as an attachable iPhone wallet. The company also said on Tuesday that consumers should expect a range of MagSafe accessories from third-party manufacturers.

I’ll admit, my mind was on PopSockets for some reason before the Apple event. Which is why when MagSafe was introduced, my first thought was oh, PopSockets! 

I’m probably not alone.

The company has sold more than 165 million PopSockets Grips since launching in 2014, and has since expanded its grippy-things-on-the-back-of-your-phone product line to include all sorts of variations — like PopSockets with mirrors or lip gloss, tiny versions, PopSockets with wallets, Otter + PopSockets phone cases and even PopSockets that match your nails. (Oh, and they’ve got face masks to match your PopSockets now, too.)

PopSockets Grips can be removed a number of times, but they can lose their stickiness over time. The company says the solution is to give the little dongle a rinse and let it air dry for about 10 minutes, then stick it back on the iPhone and let it set for a couple of hours.

This can be a bit of a tedious process, which is why the company introduced PopSockets Grips with interchangeable covers, aka PopTops.

However, a line of MagSafe-compatible PopSockets line would mean you wouldn’t have to worry about the product’s stickiness wearing off. As a result, users might be induced to buy more of these iPhone dongles — perhaps even accumulating a collection they can swap out at will, to match their outfits or mood.

It also means that users could forgo having to use a case with their iPhone — as iPhone 11 owners currently have to — in order to take advantage of PopSockets Grips.

Conversely, it could open PopSockets to more competition in the accessories market, as companies won’t have to out-engineer the Grips and their patent-protected technology. Instead, rivals could simply expand their existing product lines with MagSafe-compatible items for an upcharge and increase their revenues.

PopSockets says it has MagSafe products in development, but isn’t announcing details at this time.

Note: Image does not show MagSafe-compatible products. 

Google updates Android Studio with better TensorFlow Lite support and a new database inspector

By Frederic Lardinois

Google launched version 4.1 of Android Studio, its IDE for developing Android apps, into its stable channel today. As usual for Android Studio, the minor uptick in version numbers doesn’t quite do the update justice. It includes a vast number of new and improved features that should make life a little bit easier for Android developers. The team also fixed a whopping 2370 bugs during this release cycle and closed 275 public issues.

Image Credits: Google

The highlights of today’s release are a new database inspector and better support for on-device machine learning by allowing developers to bring TensorFlow Lite models to Android, as well as the ability to run the Android Emulator right inside of Android Studio and support for testing apps for foldable phones in the emulator as well. That’s in addition to various other changes the company has outlined here.

The one feature that will likely improve the quality of life for developers the most is the ability to run the Android Emulator right in Android Studio. That’s something the company announced earlier this summer, so it’s not a major surprise, but it’s a nice update for developers since they won’t have to switch back and forth between different windows and tools to test their apps.

Talking about testing, the other update is support for foldable devices in the Android Emulator, which now allows developers to simulate the hinge angle sensor and posture changes so their apps can react accordingly. That’s still a niche market, obviously, but more and more developers are now aiming to offer apps to actually support these devices.

Image Credits: Google

Also new is improved support for TensorFlow Lite models in Android Studio, so that developers can bring those models to their apps, as well as a new database inspector that helps developers get easier insights into their queries and the data they return — and that lets them modify values white running their apps to see how their apps react to those.

Other updates include new templates in the New Project dialog that support Google’s Material Design Components, Dagger navigation support, System Trace UI improvements and new profilers to help developers optimize their apps’ performance and memory usage.

What to expect from Apple’s ‘Hi Speed’ iPhone event

By Brian Heater

For starters, iPhones, of course. That one was easy. The company skipped out on new mobile devices during its recent Apple Watch event, owing to COVID-19-related delays. And, of course, the fact that the events are all pre-taped and virtual now means companies can more easily split them up in ways that were harder to justify when people were expected to fly in from all over the world.

That doesn’t mean we won’t be getting more than just a phone (or, more like multiple phones). While Apple’s been more inclined to host more, smaller events, there’s a decent chance this is going to be the last major event the company hosts before the holidays. That means it’s going to want to get a lot of bang for its buck this time out.

The iPhone 12 is expected to be the centerpiece, of course. The headline feature will almost certainly be 5G. Apple’s been a little behind the curve on that front versus its Android competitors (Samsung, for instance, has several devices with next-gen wireless), though another knock-on effect from the pandemic has been a slower than expected adoption of the tech. So in some ways, Apple’s really right on time here. In the U.S., the company is said to offer both the mmWave and sub-6Ghz 5G technologies. Availability may vary depending on the needs of a given market.

Rumors point to a bunch of different models. After all, gone are the days a company like Apple could just offer up a big premium device and be done with it. Sales for high-end devices were already drying up well before the virus came along to bring smartphone sales to a screeching halt there for a bit. People were already tired of paying in excess of $1,000 for new phones when the ones they already had still did the job perfectly fine.

There are supposedly four sizes arriving. There will be higher-end devices at 6.1 and 6.7 inches, and more budget-minded devices at 6.1 and 5.4 inches. It’s a pretty broad price range, from $699 for the “mini” to $1,099 and up for the Pro Max (sandwiched between are the $799 iPhone 12 and $999 Pro). Along with its recently expanded Watch line, Apple’s all about choice this time out.

Reportedly, however, the company will be bringing OLED tech to all of the models, marking a pretty big change from the days of LCD-sporting budget models. The new models are expected to get a welcome redesign, reportedly returning to something more in line with the iPhone 5. The rounded edges are expected to be dropped in favor of a flatter design, akin to what you get on the iPad Pro.

Other interesting potential additions include the return of the company’s dearly departed MagSafe life for a pair of wireless charging pads that will hopefully finally lay to rest any memory of the failed AirPower experiment. Available for one or two devices, the new pads will reportedly leverage magnets built into the phones to snap them in place.

Music has always been a cornerstone for the company, and it’s long overdue for some updates to audio products. This time out, we may finally get the long-awaited AirPods Studio, an over-ear addition to its line of headphones. The models are set to come in two variations, the largest variation being build materials. A smaller version of its smart speaker could be on the way, as well. The HomePod has long been cost-prohibitive for many, so a mini version could finally make it a bit more accessible.

Another long-rumored addition — AirTags — could finally arrive, as well. Apple’s product-tracking Tile competitor has been in the cards for some time now, but has repeatedly been delayed. That may still be the case — and same goes for a refresh to Apple TV. With the company’s subscription service about to celebrate its year anniversary, it could really use some updated hardware. New Macs with Apple-built chips could be on the table, as well, though the company is reportedly planning one more 2020 event for that big launch.

The event kicks off tomorrow at 10AM PT/1PM ET. We’ll be watching along with you, bringing you the news as it breaks.

Startups joining SK Telecom’s accelerator include AI-driven mapping and vision for delivery robots

By Mike Butcher

We don’t often cover telecom technology startups, but it’s periodically worth checking in to see what’s happening in that space. We can get a good indication from the latest cohort to emerge from an accelerator associated with South Korea’s largest wireless carrier, SK Telecom.

This group of startups will join the Telecom Infra Project accelerator in South Korea, which is part of a global program of telecoms specialist centers, and run in partnership with SK Telecom.

The cohort includes a ship-berthing monitoring system; an app that turns a group of mobile phones into a TV studio; an AI-powered indoor positioning system, which creates interactive maps; a vision system for delivery robots; and one which allows remote audiences to experience live events “together” via a digital stadium.

The selected startups include:

Dabeeo: Dabeeo’s AI-powered indoor positioning system uses vision data produced through smartphone cameras to create interactive maps, used for gaming, marketing and logistics. Crunchbase  

Neubility: Neubility develops vision-based localization and path planning technologies for last-mile delivery robots. Crunchbase

Seadronix: Seadronix is a computer vision-based ship-parking-monitoring solution that provides an AI-based berthing-monitoring system. Crunchbase  

39 degrees C: This is a mobile multi-camera live-streaming app. It directly connects multiple smartphone feeds to each other using a technology called WiFi-Direct — turning them into a TV studio. Crunchbase

Kiswe: Kiswe is a supplier of entertainment broadcast technology. Its product, CloudCast, is a “Broadcast Studio in the Cloud,” which enables partners to send a digital feed into the cloud to produce live and non-live content. Its other product, Hangtime, allows remote audiences to experience live events “together” through creating a digital stadium with chat rooms, and provides control over viewing angles from within the platform. Crunchbase

MIT engineers develop a totally flat fisheye lens that could make wide-angle cameras easier to produce

By Darrell Etherington

Engineers at MIT, in partnership with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, have devised a way to build a camera lens that avoids the typical spherical curve of ultra-wide-angle glass, while still providing true optical fisheye distortion. The fisheye lens is relatively specialist, producing images that can cover as wide an area as 180 degrees or more, but they can be very costly to produce, and are typically heavy, large lenses that aren’t ideal for use on small cameras like those found on smartphones.

This is the first time that a flat lens has been able to product clear, 180-degree images that cover a true panoramic spread. The engineers were able to make it work by patterning a thin wafer of glass on one side with microscopic, three-dimensional structures that are positioned very precisely in order to scatter any inbound light in precisely the same way that a curved piece of glass would.

The version created by the researchers in this case is actually designed to work specifically with the infrared portion of the light spectrum, but they could also adapt the design to work with visible light, they say. Whether IR or visible light, there are a range of potential uses of this technology, since capturing a 180-degree panorama is useful not only in some types of photography, but also for practical applications like medical imaging and in computer vision applications where range is important to interpreting imaging data.

This design is just one example of what’s called a “Metalens” — lenses that make use of microscopic features to change their optical characteristics in ways that would traditionally have been accomplished through macro design changes — like building a lens with an outward curve, for instance, or stacking multiple pieces of glass with different curvatures to achieve a desired field of view.

What’s unusual here is that the ability to accomplish a clear, detailed and accurate 180-degree panoramic image with a perfectly flat metalens design came as a surprise even to the engineers who worked on the project. It’s definitely an advancement of the science that goes beyond what many assumed was the state of the art.

Apple to release iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 14 and tvOS 14 on September 16

By Zack Whittaker

Apple said its latest iOS 14 software will be released on September 16, ahead of the company’s release of the next-generation iPhones.

We saw our first glimpse at iOS 14 earlier this year at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, which included home screen widgets and reply threading in Messages. It also comes with new Maps features, including adding cycling as a transportation option, and routing for electric vehicle owners so they can find charging points along the way.

iOS 14 also comes with an in-built translator, an improved and redesigned Siri, and better security and privacy features in the Safari browser.

But one privacy feature promised by Apple will be delayed. Apple said it would allow iPhone users to opt-out of in-app tracking, which the company said would not be immediately enforced when iOS 14 is released. It follows an uproar from ad giants — including Facebook — which lobbied against the proposal. Apple said it would give developers until next year to adjust to the changes.

iOS 14 will be supported on iPhone 6s and later, and lands as a free download.

Apple said it will also release its upcoming iPadOS 14, watchOS 14 and tvOS 14 on September 16.

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