consumer electronics

Upsie nabs $5M to build a direct-to-consumer warranty service

Posted by | consumer electronics, eCommerce, Finance, Gadgets, Recent Funding, Startups, True Ventures, upsie, warranties | No Comments

Warranties for purchased products is a $40 billion annual market. But in their current form, they are considered by some to be one of the bigger scams in the world of retail because they cost so much and often return too little.

Now there is an alternative emerging. A startup out of Minneapolis, Minn. called Upsie has decided to wage war on the old warranty, with more reasonable pricing (typically 70% lower than what the retailer offers) and a much more modern approach to selling and managing the warranty.

Its bet is that lower prices, and more flexible options for ordering, tracking and claiming against warranties, will drive more users to its service and take some business away from the retailers that largely dominate the market today. Today it’s announcing that it has raised $5 million led by True Ventures to build out that business in the U.S. Techstars Ventures, Matchstick Ventures, Syndicate Fund, M25 and angel investor Marc Belton also participated.

If you’ve ever purchased an expensive consumer electronics product, you know the problem that Upsie is tackling: warranties can cost a lot, and in many cases you’re not sure what you might even be getting out of it. And if you do find yourself in the unfortunate predicament of needing to file a claim, you may find the process a little less than efficient, but hopefully not as bad as this:

“If you buy a product worth $900, a warranty might cost an extra $130, but that warranty might cost only $10 from the insurance company,” said Clarence Bethea, the CEO and founder of Upsie.

When an expensive purchase like a consumer electronics product breaks down, the buyer needs to pay out big money for repairs or replacements, and that worry drives many of those customers to pay a big sum for the guarantee that someone else will cover those liabilities.

The operative words in that last paragraph are “big sum”: a warranty can represent peace of mind, and sometimes actually help in those cases where something relatively new does break down, but one of the big issues is the mark-up that providers put on a service that preys on the fear of needing it — in some cases a warranty can cost as much as 900% more than the policy would cost if it were purchased directly from an insurance provider.

Bethea used to be a consultant to big-box retailers and in the work he did, he realised quickly that the retailers were taking advantage of consumers when they were selling warranties on top of products. “Consumers don’t know what the warranties actually cost,” he said. “That’s what pushed me into this.”

Upsie gives consumers the option to purchase warranties up to 60 days after the sale (or 45 for smartphones). The product itself needs a minimum 90-day warranty from the manufacturers themselves, and the Upsie warranty does not kick in until 30 days after it’s purchased — the idea being that it picks up right after the manufacturer warranty ends.

The warranties can be purchased online or through an app and they apply currently to around 15 categories and hundreds of electric goods covering areas like computers, wearables, phones, TVs, small and large appliances and outdoor tools. The Upsie app in itself is like your warranty file in your filing cabinet, except much simpler and lighter and less cluttered: it stores receipts, lets you scan SKUs to register the goods and more to make it easier. Then after a user purchases the warranty, it can be managed and claims can be filed by way of Upsie’s app.

The basic idea behind Upsie is reminiscent of the direct-to-consumer brands that have grown in popularity over the last several years.

Just as these have leveraged the web, mobile apps and more recently social media to build direct relationships with consumers, Upsie is also bypassing retailers and hoping that consumers will consider their cheaper alternatives, which in actuality have been negotiated with the same warranty service providers that the retailers use. It currently works with Centricity, and the plan is to expand it to a wider range over time.

Other companies have built businesses in the area of providing warranty services outside of what retailers offer, such as SquareTrade, which was acquired by AllState, and Asurion. Puneet Agarwal, a partner at True Ventures, believes that it stands out.

“Upsie is the only consumer-facing brand in the space, whereas everyone else is more of a back-end provider,” he said. “Their subscriber growth and engagement are tremendous and the end consumer identifies with them. Because of their direct consumer focus, they also offer a level of pricing, convenience and customer service the industry has not seen.” He added that the “big ambition” is “to make the idea of ‘upsie-ing’ a product as part of the the everyday lexicon of the consumer.”

Bethea said that one of the big early challenges was convincing insurance companies that D2C was a viable idea — which dissipated as insurance companies, like all brands and B2B2C businesses, began to consider the plethora of ways that people are buying goods today, which increasingly extend well outside the realm of just retailers.

The other challenge that is still one that Upsie will continue to work to surmount as it continues growing is convincing consumers to change their behavior. “Initially it was about convincing the industry that this is a market,” he said. “Today it’s awareness and giving consumers another option. ‘I didn’t know I could leave the register and purchase a plan afterwards’ is what we want people to be thinking.”

So far, the results have been pretty positive. Since exiting beta in 2016, Bethea said the company has grown 300% each year. Services are live only in the U.S., and while it works toward expanding to international markets, it will also be adding auto warranties to its plans next.

Living outside of Silicon Valley as I do, companies that are outliers from the normal pattern that often list the same litany of credentials (including but not limited to grads from Stanford or MIT, possible stint at YC, office in San Francisco, past history at other tech companies), but are still thriving, do tend to catch my eye. Upsie, with its roots in the Midwest and an African American founder (also not very common at the typical SV startup), and tackling something that is fundamentally broken but not flashy, ticks some of those boxes.

Turns out that True sees and wants to seek out more of this, too.

“Great companies are being built everywhere,” said Agarwal. “More and more of the companies we invest in are outside of the Valley or are building teams outside of the Valley and we encourage it. It can be a tremendous competitive advantage both from a talent and cost perspective. We have had great success investing in places like Michigan, Montana, Oregon, Wisconsin, Washington, even recently in Africa, and now in Minnesota with Upsie. I still do see a lot of bias from investors not wanting to invest outside of the Valley. There is no question they will miss out not because of high prices in the Valley but because of the opportunity.”

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Google Home’s Philips Hue integration can now wake you up gently

Posted by | Australia, Canada, Companies, consumer electronics, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, home appliances, Home Automation, india, lighting, Philips, philips hue, Singapore, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

Maybe you love the sound of your alarm clock blaring in the morning, heralding a new day full of joy and adventure. More likely, though, you don’t. If you prefer a more gentle wake-up (and have invested in some smart home technology), here’s some good news: Google Home now lets you use your Philips Hue lights to wake you up by slowly changing the light in your room.

Philips first announced this integration at CES earlier this year, with a planned rollout in March. Looks like that took a little while longer, as Google and Philips gently brought this feature to life.

Just like you can use your Home to turn on “Gentle Wake,” which starts changing your lights 30 minutes before your wake-up time to mimic a sunrise, you also can go the opposite way and have the lights mimic sunset as you get ready to go to bed. You can either trigger these light changes through an alarm or with a command that starts them immediately.

While the price of white Hue bulbs has come down in recent years, colored hue lights remain rather pricey, with single bulbs going for around $40. If that doesn’t hold you back, though, the Gentle Sleep and Wake features are now available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Singapore and India in English only.

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Review: The $299 Echo Link Amp adds Alexa to any speaker

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, audio engineering, AV, consumer electronics, Echo Link Amp, electric guitars, Gadgets, hardware, michigan, Music, musical instruments, Sound, streaming services, yamaha | No Comments

The Echo Link Amp is designed to give Echo owners options. Instead of settling for the sound from a couple of Echo speakers, this amp lets owners use a set of nice bookshelf speakers. Best yet, this replaces a large receiver generally needed to power speakers.

At $299, the Echo Link Amp lives in a curious spot. It’s less expensive and smaller than a traditional home audio system. Yet it’s more expensive than smaller desktop amps with a similar power rating.

Like its little brother, the $199 Echo Link, the $299 Echo Link Amp requires another Echo device. The Link and the Link Amp lack a microphone, which is needed to talk to the system. These two products are, if you will, the missing link between Alexa and better sound.

There are less expensive ways to replicate a lot of the Echo Link Amp’s feature set. There are a handful of small and powerful amps available for around $50 that can take audio from an Echo Dot and power a set of speakers. I use a $30 Lepai amp to power a set of Yamaha outdoor speakers on my deck. I used this system to test the Echo Link Amp.

Review

It’s finally nice outside here in Michigan. The sun is out and the leaves are budding. I’m writing this from my deck where I have two Yamaha speakers connected to a small amp and an Echo Dot, which are mounted to the floorboards. It’s the best. I can yell requests to the Dot from my fire pit. The Dot and $30 amp have survived two Michigan winters, too.

This is the perfect use case for the Echo Link Amp, though I’m sure Amazon will disapprove of the placement outside. That’s okay.

Like when I tested the Echo Link, I enlisted the help of another Echo product to make switching between the audio sources a bit easier. Using an AV switcher I was able to connect everything simultaneously and press a button to switch between the sources. I cued up some summer BBQ music and stepped back, remote in hand.

There wasn’t a difference.

The $30 amp had the same bass response, vocal reproduction and soundstage as the $300 Echo Link Amp. On paper, the Echo Link Amp has more power, but in practice, that power did not result in a difference with these outdoor speakers. I disconnected everything and plugged the speakers directly into the amps. Nothing changed. Hank Jr. sounded the same. For better or worse, of course.

I tried the system on a set of old Infinity speakers and had the same results. The sound had the same fidelity. On both systems the highs were just as high and the lows were just as low. The quality had the same, admittedly, lack of punch, but sounded good enough to blast Kenny Chesney throughout my yard.

The $299 Echo Link Amp shares a lot with the $199 Echo Link. The main difference, as the name suggests, is the amp. The Link Amp has the ability to drive a set of speakers, whereas the Link needs to be connected to an amplifier. I found the Echo Link to be a fantastic addition to a home audio setup. The $199 device provides a digital connection lacking on other Echo devices and I found it to improve the audio quality of streaming services.

The Echo Link Amp, however, is a touch disappointing, but at the same time very proficient at its job. Buyers are paying for the ease of use more than the quality of the amplifier. It’s clever too. If the connected Echo Dot is asked a question, it responds with the answer. This lets the owner turn off the amplifier and still retain access to Alexa. Only when the owner asks the Echo to play audio does it offload the task to the powered speakers.

With a series of inputs, the Echo Link Amp can easily serve several roles, including as a 2.1 channel home theater receiver.

The Echo Link Amp is a lovely device even though I find the audio quality lacking when compared to less expensive amps. It’s clever and I’m surprised Amazon is selling the device. While the rest of the Echo product line is a mass market play, the Echo Link and Echo Link Amp are designed for a smaller market. The Echo Link Amp features a set of functions unavailable on any other Echo device and the easiest way to add Alexa to a set of speakers.

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Razer hooks up with Tencent to focus on mobile gaming

Posted by | airasia, Android, Asia, ceo, Companies, computing, consumer electronics, Consumer Electronics Show, Earnings, Gaming, HTC, LG, malaysia, Meituan, Min-Liang Tan, mobile phones, mol, Razer, razer phone, Singapore, smartphone, smartphones, Southeast Asia, TC, Tencent, Xiaomi | No Comments

Razer is summoning a big gun as it bids to develop its mobile gaming strategy. The Hong Kong-listed company — which sells laptops, smartphones and gaming peripherals — said today it is working with Tencent on a raft of initiatives related to smartphone-based games.

The collaboration will cover hardware, software and services. Some of the objectives include optimizing Tencent games — which include megahit PUBG and Fortnite — for Razer’s smartphones, mobile controllers and its Cortex Android launcher app. The duo also said they may “explore additional monetization opportunities for mobile gaming,” which could see Tencent integrate Razer’s services, which include a rewards/loyalty program, in some areas.

The news comes on the same day as Razer’s latest earnings, which saw annual revenue grow 38 percent to reach $712.4 million. Razer recorded a net loss of $97 million for the year, down from $164 million in 2017.

The big-name partnership announcement comes at an opportune time for Razer, which has struggled to convince investors of its business. The company was among a wave of much-championed tech companies to go public in Hong Kong — Razer’s listing raised more than $500 million in late 2017 — but its share price has struggled. Razer currently trades at HK$1.44, which is some way down from a HK$3.88 list price and HK$4.58 at the end of its trading day debut. Razer CEO Min Liang Tan has previously lamented a lack of tech savviness within Hong Kong’s public markets despite a flurry of IPOs, which have included names like local services giant Meituan.

Nabbing Tencent, which is one of (if not the) biggest games companies in the world, is a PR coup, but it remains to be seen just what impact the relationship will have at this stage. Subsequent tie-ins, and potentially an investor, would be notable developments and perhaps positive signals that the market is seeking.

Still, Razer CEO Min Liang Tan is bullish about the company’s prospects on mobile.

The company’s Razer smartphones were never designed to be “iPhone-killers” that sold on volume, but there’s still uncertainty around the unit with recent reports suggesting the third-generation phone may have been canceled following some layoffs. (Tan declined to comment on that.)

Mobile is tough — just ask past giants like LG and HTC about that… and Razer’s phone and gaming-focus was quickly copied by others, including a fairly brazen clone effort from Xiaomi, to make sales particularly challenging. But Liang maintains that, in doing so, Razer created a mobile gaming phone market that didn’t exist before, and ultimately that is more important than shifting its own smartphones.

“Nobody was talking about gaming smartphones [before the Razer phone], without us doing that, the genre would still be perceived as casual gaming,” Tan told TechCrunch in an interview. “Even from day one, it was about creating this new category… we don’t see others as competition.”

With that in mind, he said that this year is about focusing on the software side of Razer’s mobile gaming business.

Tan said Razer “will never” publish games as Tencent and others do, instead, he said that the focus is on helping discovery, creating a more immersive experience and tying in other services, which include its Razer Gold loyalty points.

Outside of gaming, Razer is also making a push into payments through a service that operates in Southeast Asia. Fueled by the acquisition of MOL one year ago, Razer has moved from allowing people to buy credit over-the-counter to launch an e-wallet in two countries, Malaysia and Singapore, as it goes after a slice of Southeast Asia’s fintech boom, which has attracted non-traditional players that include AirAsia, Grab and Go-Jek, among others.

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Casio unveils an all-metal G-Shock for those who need real steel

Posted by | Bluetooth, Casio, Clothing, consumer electronics, g-shock, Gadgets, metal, TC, watch | No Comments

The G-Shock is so nerdy that it has become cool, and this latest model, the GMWB5000GD-9, is no exception. Based on the original G-Shock models, this decidedly unsmart (but not dumb) watch features solar charging, atomic timekeeping and a simple Bluetooth connection to your phone. Plus, now it comes in gold or silver-toned metal, a decided departure for the decades-old brand.

This wild redesign takes cues from a solid-gold prototype designed by Casio’s Ibe Kikuo. That blinged-out watch, which could hit the market but will be as expensive as an entire Casio display case, is a bit much. However, these two steel models are quite exciting and very luxe.

“Inspired by the first G-SHOCK model, DW5000C, this upgraded original boasts a modern, lustrous, color way while maintaining a vintage aesthetic,” writes Casio. “The watch also incorporates one of the first and most iconic G-SHOCK case designs, featuring a vintage, square shape case, and bezel with a brick pattern on the face and gorgeous gold color accent.”

At $550 this is a bit pricey for an entry-level quartz watch, but rest assured it will find a foothold in the fashion world as “dorky” becomes even more synonymous with “catwalk-ready.”

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The Casio Rangeman GPR-B1000 is a big watch for big adventures

Posted by | Casio, Clothing, consumer electronics, Europe, g-shock, Gadgets, gps, Nevada, New York, TC, travel companion, utah, watch, wireless charger | No Comments

The Casio Rangeman GPR-B1000 is comically large. That’s the first thing you notice about it. Based on the G-Shock design, this massive watch is 20.2mm thick and about 60mm in diameter, a true dinner plate of a watch. Inside the heavy case is a dense collection of features that will make your next outdoor adventure great.

GPR-B1000, which I took for an extended trip through Utah and Nevada, is an outdoor marvel. It has all of the standard hiking watch features including compass, barometer, altimeter, and solar charging, but the watch also has built-in GPS mapping, logging, and backtracking. This means you can set a destination and the watch will lead you and you can later use your GPS data to recreate your trek or even backtrack out of a sticky situation.

This is not a sports watch. It won’t track your runs or remind you to go to your yoga class. Instead it’s aimed at the backwoods hiker or off piste skier who wants to get from Point A to Point B without getting lost. The watch connects to a specialized app that lets you set the destinations, map your routes, and even change timezones when the phone wakes up after a flight. These odd features make this a traveler’s dream.

The watch design is also unique for Casio. Instead of a replaceable battery the device charges via sunlight or with an included wireless charger. It has a ceramic caseback – a first for Casio – and the charger fits on like a plastic parasite. It charges via micro USB.

It has a crown on the side that controls scrolling through various on-screen menus and the rest of the functions are accessed easily from dedicated buttons around the bezel. The watch is mud- and water-proof to 200 meters and it can survive in minus 20 degrees Celsius temperatures. It is also shock resistant.

The $800 GPR-B1000 is a beefy watch. It’s not for the faint of wrist and definitely requires a bit of dedication to wear. I loved it while hiking up and down canyons and mountains and it was an excellent travel companion. One of the coolest features is quite simply being able to trust that the timezone is correct as soon as you land in Europe from New York.

That said you should remember that this watch is for “Adventure Survival” as Casio puts it. It’s not a running watch and it’s not a fashion piece. At $800 it’s one of Casio’s most expensive G-Shocks and it’s also the most complex. If you’re an avid hiker, however, the endless battery, GPS, and trekking features make it a truly valuable asset.

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Happy 10th anniversary, Android

Posted by | Amazon, Android, andy rubin, Angry Birds, Apple, artificial intelligence, AT&T, China, computing, consumer electronics, digital media, Facebook, Gadgets, Google, google nexus, hardware, HTC, HTC Dream, HTC EVO 4G smartphone, huawei, india, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, LG, lists, Mobile, Motorola, motorola droid, motorola xoom, Nexus One, oled, operating system, operating systems, phablet, Samsung, smartphone, smartphones, Sony, sprint, T-Mobile, TC, TechCrunch, United States, Verizon, xperia | No Comments

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

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Fido Alliance adds a biometrics certification program to help fight spoofing

Posted by | biometrics, consumer electronics, facial recognition, Fido Alliance, Identification, Mobile, Security, TC, voice recognition | No Comments

In a move aimed at upping standards across biometric user verification systems, the industry consortium, Fido Alliance, has launched a certification program for biometrics systems.

“The goal of the Biometric Certification Component Program is to provide a framework for the certification of biometric subsystems that can in turn be integrated into FIDO Certified authenticators,” it writes on its website.

While biometric verification systems such as fingerprint readers have been pretty widely adopted in the mobile space already — with Apple introducing its fingerprint biometric, Touch ID, to the iPhone a full five years ago; followed, last fall, by a facial recognition biometric (Face ID) for its high end iPhone X — the Alliance says that, up to now, there hasn’t been a standardized way to validate the accuracy and reliability of biometric recognition systems in the commercial marketplace. Which is where it’s intending the new certification program to come in.

While few would doubt the robustness of Apple’s biometrics components (and testing regime), the sprawlingly diverse Android marketplace hosts all sorts of OEM players — which inevitably raises the risk of some lesser quality components (and/or processes) slipping in.

And in recent years there have been plenty of examples of poorly implemented biometrics, especially in the mobile space — with hackers easily able to crack into various Android devices that were using facial or iris recognition technology in trivially bypassable ways.

In 2017, for example, Chaos Computer Club members used a print out of an eye combined with a contact lens to fox iris scanners on the Samsung Galaxy S8. And that was one of the most sophisticated biometric hacks. Others have just required a selfie of the person to be held up in front of a ‘face unlock’ system to get an easy open sesame.

Where the not-for-profit Alliance comes in — an industry group whose board includes security exec reps from the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft, among others — is it’s on a mission to reduce reliance on passwords for digital security because they inject friction into the online experience.

And biometrics do tend to be convenient, given they are attached to each person. Which is why they have been increasingly finding their way into smartphones and all sorts of other consumer electronics — from wearables to car tech, helped by component costs shrinking as biometrics adoption grows.

But it’s no good trying to speed up ID verification if the alternatives being reached for are badly implemented — and end up actively damaging security.

It certainly doesn’t have to be that way.

Apple’s biometrics are not so easily mocked. And while Touch ID is vulnerable to spoofing, like pretty much any fingerprint reader, its depth-mapping Face ID tech is by far the most sophisticated biometric implementation in the consumer electronics space to date. And hasn’t been meaningfully hacked (well, barring attacks by identical twins/strikingly similar looking family members).

So there’s clearly a world of difference (and, well, cost) between a well architected biometric recognition system which puts security considerations front and center, vs the awful sloppy stuff we’ve seen in recent years — where OEMs were just rushing to compete.

Biometrics has certainly often been treated more as a convenience gimmick for device marketing purposes, rather than viewed as a route to evolve (and even potentially enhance) device security.

The Alliance’s certification program is using accredited independent labs to test that biometric subcomponents meet what it dubs “globally recognized performance standards for biometric recognition performance and Presentation Attack Detection (PAD)” — and thus that they are “fit for commercial use”.

PAD refers to various methods that can be used to try to attack and circumvent biometric systems, such as using silicon or gelatine fingerprints, or deploying harvested facial or video imagery of the device owner.

So it looks like the Alliance’s hope for the program is to ‘upskill’ biometric implementations — or at least weed out the really stupid stuff.

“For customers, such as regulated online service providers, OEMs and enterprises, it provides a standardized way to trust that the biometric systems they are relying upon for fingerprint, iris, face and/or voice recognition can reliably identify users and detect presentation attacks,” it writes.

Speed is another goal too, as it says prior to this certification program due diligence was carried out by enterprise customers (or at least by those “who had the capacity to conduct such reviews”) — which required biometric vendors to repeatedly prove performance for each customer.

Whereas going forward vendors can use the program to test and certify just once to validate their system’s performance and re-use that third-party validation across the market — gaining what the Alliance bills as” substantial time and cost savings”.

Commenting in a statement, Brett McDowell, executive director of the Alliance, said: “While border control and law enforcement markets have mature assessment programs for their biometric systems, we were surprised that no such program existed for this rapidly growing consumer market.”

“With biometrics being a popular option for mobile and web applications implementing Fido Authentication, there is a growing need for those service providers to appropriately assess the risk of fraud from lost or stolen devices,” he added.

Asked whether the program had been introduced in response to particular concerns about weak consumer biometrics — given some of the aforementioned examples of poor implementations — McDowell also told us: “With the rise of any new technology, there’s a risk that some suppliers may over emphasize visible features at the expense of security considerations as they rush to market.

“This program, motivated by our online services community, mitigates that risk for mobile and desktop biometrics by providing a commercial-grade benchmark and independent lab assessment for performance features and spoof attack detection security considerations. Another benefit of the program is a clear way for service providers to prove compliance with strong authentication regulation, which is becoming the norm for financial services. This trend is expected to expand to other sectors as passwords continue to be exploited at increasingly alarming rates.”

Currently only one lab has been accredited to perform components testing for the program.

The lab, iBeta, is located in the U.S. but a spokeswoman for the Fido Alliance told us: “The Alliance is actively working to bring in additional labs.”

She added that the Alliance will update this list as more are added.

This post was updated with additional comment from McDowell 

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Scientists make a touch tablet that rolls and scrolls

Posted by | 3d printing, consumer electronics, Display technology, electronics, flexible screen, hardware, iPad, MagicScroll, Mobile, mobile device, Queens University, Samsung, smartphone, tablet computer | No Comments

Research scientists at Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab have built a prototype touchscreen device that’s neither smartphone nor tablet but kind of both — and more besides. The device, which they’ve christened the MagicScroll, is inspired by ancient (papyrus/paper/parchment) scrolls so it takes a rolled-up, cylindrical form factor — enabled by a flexible 7.5inch touchscreen housed in the casing.

This novel form factor, which they made using 3D printing, means the device can be used like an erstwhile Rolodex (remember those?!) for flipping through on-screen contacts quickly by turning a physical rotary wheel built into the edge of the device. (They’ve actually added one on each end.)

Then, when more information or a deeper dive is required, the user is able to pop the screen out of the casing to expand the visible display real estate. The flexible screen on the prototype has a resolution of 2K. So more mid-tier mobile phone of yore than crisp iPhone Retina display at this nascent stage.

 

 

The scientists also reckon the scroll form factor offers a pleasing ergonomically option for making actual phone calls too, given that a rolled up scroll can sit snugly against the face.

Though they admit their prototype is still rather large at this stage — albeit, that just adds to the delightfully retro feel of the thing, making it come over like a massive mobile phone of the 1980s. Like the classic Motorola 8000X Dynatac of 1984.

While still bulky at this R&D stage, the team argues the cylindrical, flexible screen form factor of their prototype offers advantages by being lightweight and easier to hold with one hand than a traditional tablet device, such as an iPad. And when rolled up they point out it can also fit in a pocket. (Albeit, a large one.)

They also imagine it being used as a dictation device or pointing device, as well as a voice phone. And the prototype includes a camera — which allows the device to be controlled using gestures, similar to Nintendo’s ‘Wiimote’ gesture system.

In another fun twist they’ve added robotic actuators to the rotary wheels so the scroll can physically move or spin in place in various scenarios, such as when it receives a notification. Clocky eat your heart out.

“We were inspired by the design of ancient scrolls because their form allows for a more natural, uninterrupted experience of long visual timelines,” said Roel Vertegaal, professor of human-computer interaction and director of the lab, in a statement.

“Another source of inspiration was the old Rolodex filing systems that were used to store and browse contact cards. The MagicScroll’s scroll wheel allows for infinite scroll action for quick browsing through long lists. Unfolding the scroll is a tangible experience that gives a full screen view of the selected item. Picture browsing through your Instagram timeline, messages or LinkedIn contacts this way!”

“Eventually, our hope is to design the device so that it can even roll into something as small as a pen that you could carry in your shirt pocket,” he added. “More broadly, the MagicScroll project is also allowing us to further examine notions that ‘screens don’t have to be flat’ and ‘anything can become a screen’. Whether it’s a reusable cup made of an interactive screen on which you can select your order before arriving at a coffee-filling kiosk, or a display on your clothes, we’re exploring how objects can become the apps.”

The team has made a video showing the prototype in action (embedded below), and will be presenting the project at the MobileHCI conference on Human-Computer Interaction in Barcelona next month.

While any kind of mobile device resembling the MagicScroll is clearly very, very far off even a sniff of commercialization (especially as these sorts of concept devices have long been teased by mobile device firms’ R&D labs — while the companies keep pumping out identikit rectangles of touch-sensitive glass… ), it’s worth noting that Samsung has been slated to be working on a smartphone with a foldable screen for some years now. And, according to the most recent chatter about this rumor, it might be released next year. Or, well, it still might not.

But whether Samsung’s definition of ‘foldable’ will translate into something as flexibly bendy as the MagicScroll prototype is highly, highly doubtful. A fused clamshell design — where two flat screens could be opened to seamlessly expand them and closed up again to shrink the device footprint for pocketability — seems a much more likely choice for Samsung designers to make, given the obvious commercial challenges of selling a device with a transforming form factor that’s also robust enough to withstand everyday consumer use and abuse.

Add to that, for all the visual fun of these things, it’s not clear that consumers would be inspired to adopt anything so different en masse. Sophisticated (and inevitably) fiddly devices are more likely to appeal to specific niche use cases and user scenarios.

For the mainstream six inches of touch-sensitive (and flat) glass seems to do the trick.

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Samsung’s official launch video for the Galaxy Note 9 has also now leaked…

Posted by | Asia, consumer electronics, galaxy note 9, Mobile, phablets, Samsung, Samsung Electronics, samsung galaxy, samsung galaxy note 8, smartphone, smartphones, Storage | No Comments

The official launch promo video for Samsung’s next flagship smartphone in the long-running Galaxy Note line — the Note 9 — appears to have leaked, with links to the video now cropping up on YouTube.

And via Twitter…

Samsung accidentally posted its Galaxy Note 9 into video to YouTube. Oops. pic.twitter.com/NfzikY4tLG

— Tom Warren (@tomwarren) August 3, 2018

The forthcoming phablet has been pretty comprehensively leaked already. And clearly hasn’t had a radical (cosmetic nor form factor) makeover. (This is not the fabled folding phone Samsung is slated to be working on for next year.)

The Note 9 will also be officially unveiled on August 9. So Samsung fans don’t have long left to wait for any last minute details they were keen to nail down.

But, in the few days remaining, the Samsung-branded video offers a more polished look at what’s going to be up for pre-order next week…

Samsung kicks off touting the power of the Note 9 — telling us it’s not just powerful but “super powerful” (leaked benchmarks have previously suggested a big performance boost); and with a bottoms-up ports & rear view pan that shows a 3.5mm headphone jack sitting in the frame — confirming my TC colleague Brian Heater’s eagle eye.

Also of note: A repositioned fingerprint sensor (now in a less stupid location below the dual lens camera housing).

Next, the video flips focus to a snazzy yellow (or is that gold?) S Pen stylus, which Samsung describes as “all new powerful”, before showing its physical button being pressed by an invisible force (human, we hope) which then does a spot of aimless doodling.

After this, Samsung moves to brag about the Note 9’s “all day battery” (which it’s confidently teased before — so the company looks to have put the Note 7 battery fiasco well and truly behind it), although the usual small print disclaimers warn about variable battery performance.

On the storage front, there’s a big bold claim of the device being “1 terabyte ready” — although this is on account of a 512GB SD card shown being pulled out of the expandable memory slot.

And in the small print displayed on the video at that point the company caveats that the 1TB claim is for 512GB models equipped with another 512GB in expandable memory (at the owner’s separate expense).

“The power to store more” [photos] “Delete less” [photos] is what the company’s marketing team has come up with to try to excite people over the utility of owning a smartphone that can have 1TB in storage capacity. i.e. if you stump up extra for the extra storage.

The video shows a camera roll chock-full of stock photos of pets, snacks and people. Hopefully Note 9 owners will find more creative things to do with 1TB storage.

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