Europe

Google tweaks Android licensing terms in Europe to allow Google app unbundling — for a fee

Posted by | Android, antitrust, Apps, chrome os, competition, Europe, Google, google-chrome, Mobile, operating system, play store, smartphones | No Comments

Google has announced changes to the licensing model for its Android mobile operating system in Europe,  including introducing a fee for licensing some of its own brand apps, saying it’s doing so to comply with a major European antitrust ruling this summer.

In July the region’s antitrust regulators hit Google with a recordbreaking $5BN fine for violations pertaining to Android, finding the company had abused the dominance of the platform by requiring manufacturers pre-install other Google apps in order to license its popular Play app store. 

Regulators also found Google had made payments to manufacturers and mobile network operators in exchange for exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices, and used Play store licensing to prevent manufacturers from selling devices based on Android forks.

Google disputes the Commission’s findings, and last week filed its appeal — a legal process that could take years. But in the meanwhile it’s making changes to how it licenses Android in Europe to avoid the risk of additional penalties heaped on top of the antitrust fine.

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president of platforms & ecosystems, revealed the new licensing options in a blog post published today.

Under updated “compatibility agreements”, he writes that mobile device makers will be able to build and sell Android devices intended for the European Economic Area (EEA) both with and without Google mobile apps preloaded — something Google’s same ‘compatibility’ contracts restricted them from doing before, when it was strictly either/or (either you made Android forks, or you made Android devices with Google apps — not both).

“Going forward, Android partners wishing to distribute Google apps may also build non-compatible, or forked, smartphones and tablets for the European Economic Area (EEA),” confirms Lockheimer.

However the company is also changing how it licenses the full Android bundle — which previously required OEMs to load devices with the Google mobile application suite, Google Search and the Chrome browser in order to be able to offer the popular Play Store — by introducing fees for OEMs wanting to pre-load a subset of those same apps under “a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA”.

Though Google stresses there will be no charge for using the Android platform itself. (So a pure fork without any Google services preloaded still wouldn’t require a fee.)

Google also appears to be splitting out Google Search and Chrome from the rest of the Google apps in its mobile suite (which traditionally means stuff like YouTube, the Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, although Lockheimer’s blog post does not make it clear which exact apps he’s talking about) — letting OEMs selectively unbundle some Google apps, albeit potentially for a fee, depending on the apps in question.

“[D]evice manufacturers will be able to license the Google mobile application suite separately from the Google Search App or the Chrome browser,” is what Lockheimer unilluminatingly writes.

Perhaps Google wants future unbundled Android forks to still be able to have Google Search or Chrome, even if they don’t have the Play store, but it’s really not at all clear which configurations of Google apps will be permitted under the new licensing terms, and which won’t.

“Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA. Android will remain free and open source,” Lockheimer adds, without specifying what the fees will be either. 

“We’ll also offer new commercial agreements to partners for the non-exclusive pre-installation and placement of Google Search and Chrome. As before, competing apps may be pre-installed alongside ours,” he continues to complete his trio of poorly explained licensing changes.

We’ve asked Google to clarify the various permitted and not permitted app configurations, as well as which apps will require a fee (and which won’t), and how much the fees will be, and will update this post with any response.

The devil in all those details should become clear soon though, as Google says the new licensing options will come into effect on October 29 for all new (Android based) smartphones and tablets launched in the EEA.

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Truphone, an eSIM mobile carrier that works with Apple, raises another $71M, now valued at $507M

Posted by | Apple, Enterprise, Europe, funding, Mobile, TC, truphone | No Comments

Truphone — a UK startup that provides global mobile voice and data services by way of an eSIM model for phones, tablets and IoT devices — said that it has raised another £18 million ($23.7 million) in funding; plus it said it has secured £36 million ($47 million) more “on a conditional basis” to expand its business after signing “a number of high-value deals.”

It doesn’t specify which deals these are, but Truphone was an early partner of Apple’s to provide eSIM-based connectivity to the iPad — that is, a way to access a mobile carrier without having to swap in a physical SIM card, which has up to now been the standard for GMSA-based networks. Truphone is expanding on this by offering a service for new iPhone XS and XR models, taking advantage of the dual SIM capability in these devicews. Truphone says that strategic partners of the company include Apple (“which chose Truphone as the only carrier to offer global data, voice and text plans on the iPad and iPhone digital eSIM”); Synopsys, which has integrated Truphone’s eSIM technology into its chipset designs; and Workz Group, a SIM manufacturer, which has a license from Truphone for its GSMA-accredited remote SIM provisioning platform and SIM operating system.

The company said that this funding, which was made by way of a rights issue, values Truphone at £386 million ($507 million at today’s rates) post-money. Truphone told TechCrunch that the funding came from Vollin Holdings and Minden Worldwide — two investment firms with ties to Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who also owns the Chelsea football club, among other things — along with unspecified minority shareholders. Collectively, Abramovich-connected entities control more than 80 percent of the company.

We have asked the company for more detail on what the conditions are for the additional £36 million in funding to be released and all it is willing to say is that “it’s KPI-driven and related to the speed of growth in the business.” It’s unclear what the state of the business is at the moment because Truphone has not updated its accounts at Companies House (they are overdue). We have asked about that, too.

For some context, Truphone most recently raised money almost exactly a year ago, when it picked up £255 million also by way of a rights issue, and also from the same two big investors. The large amount that time was partly being raised to retire debt. That deal was done at a valuation of £370 million ($491 million at the time of the deal). Going just on sterling values, this is a slight down-round.

Truphone, however, says that business is strong right now:

“The appetite for our technology has been enormous and we are thrilled that our investors have given us the opportunity to accelerate and scale these groundbreaking products to market,” said Ralph Steffens, CEO, Truphone, in a statement. “We recognised early on that the more integrated the supply chain, the smoother the customer experience. That recognition paid off—not just for our customers, but for our business. Because we have this capability, we can move at a speed and proficiency that has never before seen in our industry. This investment is particularly important because it is testament not just to our investors’ confidence in our ambitions, but pride in our accomplishments and enthusiasm to see more of what we can do.”

Truphone is one of a handful of providers that is working with Apple to provide plans for the digital eSIM by way of the MyTruphone app. Essentially this will give users an option for international data plans while travelling — Truphone’s network covers 80 countries — without having to swap out the SIMs for their home networks.

The eSIM technology is bigger than the iPhone itself, of course: some believe it could be the future of how we connect on mobile networks. On phones and tablets, it does away with users ordering, and inserting or swapping small, fiddly chips into their devices (that ironically is also one reason that carriers have been resistant to eSIMs traditionally: it makes it much easier for their customers to churn away). And in IoT networks where you might have thousands of connected, unmanned devices, this becomes one way of scaling those networks.

“eSIM technology is the next big thing in telecommunications and the impact will be felt by everyone involved, from consumers to chipset manufacturers and all those in-between,” said Steve Alder, chief business development officer at Truphone. “We’re one of only a handful of network operators that work with the iPhone digital eSIM. Choosing Truphone means that your new iPhone works across the world—just as it was intended.” Of note, Alder was the person who brokered the first iPhone carrier deal in the UK, when he was with O2.

However, one thing to consider when sizing up the eSIM market is that rollout has been slow so far: there are around 10 countries where there are carriers that support eSIM for handsets. Combining that with machine-to-machine deployments, the market is projected to be worth $254 million this year. However, forecasts put that the market size at $978 million by 2023, possibly pushed along by hardware companies like Apple making it an increasingly central part of the proposition, initially as a complement to a “home carrier.”

Truphone has not released numbers detailing how many devices are using its eSIM services at the moment — either among enterprises or consumers — but it has said that customers include more than 3,500 multinational enterprises in 196 countries. We have asked for more detail and will update this post as we learn more.

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Zyl is now a nostalgia-powered photo app

Posted by | Apps, Crossroad, Europe, France Newsletter, Mobile, Social, Startups, TC, Zyl | No Comments

AI-powered photo management app Zyl is going back to the drawing board with a streamlined, more efficient redesign. The app is now focused on one thing only — resurfacing your old memories.

Taking photos on a smartphone is now a daily habit. But what about looking back at photos you took one year, three years or even eight years ago? It can pile up quite quickly. Zyl thinks there’s emotional value in those long-forgotten photos.

Before this update, Zyl helped you delete duplicates, create smart photo albums based on multiple criteria and collaborate on photo albums. In other words, it was a utility app.

But when the company started talking with some of their users, they realized that one feature stood out and had more value than the rest.

Applying those AI-powered models to your photo library is a great way to find interesting photos. But nobody was really looking at them.

When you open the app, you get a view of your camera roll with your last photos at the bottom. There’s also a big green button at the bottom. When you tap on it, Zyl creates a satisfying animation and unveils an important photo.

If you took multiple photos to capture this moment, the app stitches together those photos and create a GIF. You can then share this Zyl with a friend or family member.

But the true magic happens if you try to get another Zyl. You have to wait 24 hours to unlock another photo. The next day, the app sends you a notification when your photo is ready. You can always open the app again and look at your past Zyls in a new tab with your most important photos.

Unlike Timehop or Facebook’s “On This Day” feature, Zyl doesn’t look at your social media posts and focuses on your camera roll. Zyl isn’t limited to anniversaries either.

Just like before, Zyl respects your privacy and leaves your photos alone. They’re never sent to the company’s server — Zyl uses the same photo database as the native one on your iPhone or Android phone so it doesn’t eat up more storage.

Over time, the app could give you more options by leveraging facial recognition and the intrinsic social graph of your photo library. Maybe you want to see more photos of your brother as his wedding is coming up.

And that notification can be a powerful nudge. I keep opening the app and sharing old photos. Zyl is a good example of the combination of something that you care about combined with an element of surprise.

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Kahoot, the educational gaming startup, has raised another $15M, now at a $300M valuation

Posted by | Education, Europe, Gaming, Kahoot!, TC | No Comments

School’s back in session and a startup that’s building games to help students learn has moved to the top of the class. Kahoot — the educational gaming startup out of Norway that has been a quick hit with schools in the US and elsewhere — today announced that it has raised 126.5 million Norwegian krone (around $15.4 million), its second round this year, at a valuation of about 2.55 billion krone ($300 million), tripling its valuation in 7 months.

For some context, the company raised $17 million in March at a $100 million valuation.

Kahoot has been around since 2006 — originally as a gamified education app called Lecture Quiz — although its rise in popularity and usage has been a more recent shift, dovetailing with how teachers are increasingly using more learning aids that are in tune with two of the more popular pastimes among kids these days: playing around on devices with screens, and playing games.

Kahoot is a notable standout at a time when gaming among kids is dominated by Fortnite, a top-grossing app, but a controversial one because of how addictive it is. (Even Prince Harry — yes, Prince Harry — has weighed in on this one.)

Åsmund Furuseth, Kahoot’s CEO and co-founder, said in an interview that the money will be used to continue investing in building the platform, and also to make acquisitions — likely to be announced in the next couple of months.

“It’s about strengthening our position in learning and the platform,” he said in an interview. This latest round comes from Nordic investors in the company led by existing investor Datum AS, and Furuseth said that there is likely to be another round in the company that brings in international investors and strategic backers.

“Disney is an investor already and they have an option to become a larger shareholder,” he noted. Others that have already backed Kahoot include Microsoft and Northzone. “This round was specifically around the Nordic region and Nordic investment bankers, who were interested in acquiring shares because of our growth and what we are doing in the learning space.”

As we have written before, Kahoot in January this year passed the 70 million user mark with about a 50 percent penetration among K-12 students in the US, with about 51 million games created on the platform.

Furuseth today said that the company is on track to pass 100 million users by the end of this year, with rises in its other metrics. Alongside its push into the K-12 education sector, it’s also been growing its enterprise line, building “games” for businesses to use in helping onboard employees and other services. 

“Our largest amount of users come from the education sector, but when it comes to revenue and growth, it’s the business segment that is larger,” he said. The plan is to continue building products for audiences, he added.

He did not say whether the company is closer to being cash-flow positive. Notably, he took over as CEO earlier this year on a platform of aiming for just that, after a period in which the company appeared to be bulking up quickly with an ambitious plan to ink content partnerships and build out more products.

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Google files appeal against Europe’s $5BN antitrust fine for Android

Posted by | Android, antitrust, app developers, Apps, competition commission, competition law, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Google, lawsuit, Margrethe Vestager, Mobile, play store, smartphone, smartphones, Sundar Pichai | No Comments

Google has lodged its legal appeal against the European Commission’s €4.34 billion (~$5BN) antitrust ruling against its Android mobile OS, according to Reuters — the first step in a process that could keep its lawyers busy for years to come.

“We have now filed our appeal of the EC’s Android decision at the General Court of the EU,” it told the news agency, via email.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment on the appeals process.

Rulings made by the EU’s General Court in Luxembourg can be appealed to the top court, the Court of Justice of the European Union, but only on points of law.

Europe’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, announced the record-breaking antitrust penalty for Android in July, following more than two years of investigation of the company’s practices around its smartphone operating system.

Vestager said Google had abused the regional dominance of its smartphone platform by requiring that manufacturers pre-install other Google apps as a condition for being able to license the Play Store.

She also found the company had made payments to some manufacturers and mobile network operators in exchange for them exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices, and used Google Play licensing to prevent manufacturers from selling devices based on Android forks — which would not have to include Google services and, in Vestager’s view, “could have provided a platform for rival search engines as well as other app developers to thrive”.

Google rejected the Commission’s findings and said it would appeal.

In a blog post at the time, Google CEO Sundar Pichai argued the contrary — claiming the Android ecosystem has “created more choice, not less” for consumers, and saying the Commission ruling “ignores the new breadth of choice and clear evidence about how people use their phones today”.

According to Reuters the company reiterated its earlier arguments in reference to the appeal.

A spokesperson for the EC told us simply: “The Commission will defend its decision in Court.”

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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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N26 is launching its bank in the UK

Posted by | Banking, Battlefield, Europe, Finance, Mobile, N26, Revolut, Startups | No Comments

Nearly a year after German fintech startup N26 announced that it would launch its service in the U.K., the company is launching in the U.K. N26 is already quite popular in the Eurozone, with more than 1.5 million customers. In this new market, it will face tough competition from existing players, such as Revolut, Monzo, Starling and many others.

N26 is going to roll out its product in multiple phases. Some lucky few will be able to open an account right away. The startup will then go through its waiting list — 50,000 people already left their email addresses to express interest. After that, anybody will be able to download the app and sign up.

This might sound like a convoluted process, but N26 expects a full public launch in just a few weeks. So it should be quite quick if everything goes as planned.

So what can you expect exactly? British customers will get all the basic N26 stuff with one killer feature — U.K. account numbers and sort codes. This way, customers will be able to receive payments and share banking information with their utility providers just like they would with a regular Barclays or Lloyds account.

When you open an N26 account, you get a true bank account and a MasterCard. Basic accounts are free, and N26 has a proper banking license — your deposits up to €100,000 are guaranteed by the European deposit guarantee scheme. You can then send and receive money and pay with your card. Sending money to other N26 users is instantaneous (they call it MoneyBeam).

N26 recently launched Spaces, a new feature that lets you create sub accounts and put some money aside. It’s still limited, but the company plans to add more features.

Your MasterCard works like any other challenger bank. Every time you use it, you receive a push notification. You can set payment and withdrawal limits, lock your card if you lose it and reset your PIN code. N26 will also bring Black and Metal plans to the U.K.

How does it compare to Revolut?

Let’s be honest, the elephant in the room is Revolut . The company has hundreds of thousands (if not over a million) customers in the U.K. N26 lets you do many of the things you can already do with your Revolut account.

So let me point out a few differences. As I noted, N26 has a banking license and U.K. banking information. N26 cards work in Apple Pay and Google Pay.

When it comes to international payments, N26 lets you pay with your card anywhere in the world without any additional fee. The company uses MasterCard’s conversion rates. Revolut first converts the money with its forex feature and then lets you spend your money.

There are an infinite number of forum posts about the exchange rates you’ll get. Sometimes Revolut is cheaper, sometimes N26 is cheaper. It mostly depends on the day of the week (Revolut conversion rates are more expensive on the weekend) and the currency. Unless you plan to spend tens of thousands of GBP during your vacation, you won’t see a huge difference on your bank statement.

Revolut also has many more features than N26. You can insure your phone, buy bitcoins, buy travel insurance, create virtual cards and more. It’s clear that N26 and Revolut have two different styles.

Revolut has a bigger user base than N26. But it’s always been a bit hard to compare them, as N26 wasn’t available in the U.K. Of course, they will both say there are tens of millions of people relying on old banks — multiple challenger banks can grow at the same time if they capture market share from those aging players. Still, the battle between N26 and Revolut is on.

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Soviet camera company Zenit is reborn!

Posted by | Europe, Gadgets, leica, leica m, Leica M10, Nikon, optics, Photography, russia, TC, United States | No Comments

If you’re familiar with 20th century Soviet camera clones you’ll probably be familiar with Zenit. Created by Krasnogorsky Zavod, the Nikon/Leica clones were a fan favorite behind the Iron Curtain and, like the Lomo, was a beloved brand that just doesn’t get its due. The firm stopped making cameras in 2005 but in its long history it defined Eastern European photography for decades and introduced the rifle-like Photo Sniper camera looked like something out of James Bond.

Now, thanks to a partnership with Leica, Zenit is back and is here to remind you that in Mother Russia, picture takes you.

The camera is based on the Leica M Type 240 platform but has been modified to look and act like an old Zenit. It comes with a Zenitar 35 mm f/1.0 lens that is completely Russian-made. You can use it for bokeh and soft-focus effects without digital processing.

The Leica M platform offers a 24MP full-frame CMOS sensor, a 3-inch LCD screen, HD video recording, live view focusing, a 0.68x viewfinder, ISO 6400, and 3fps continuous shooting. It will be available this year in the US, Europe, and Russia.

How much does the privilege of returning to the past cost? An estimated $5,900-$7,000 if previous incarnations of the Leica M are any indication. I have a few old film Zenits lying around the house, however. I wonder I can stick in some digital guts and create the ultimate Franken-Zenit?

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Committed to privacy, Snips founder wants to take on Alexa and Google, with blockchain

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, blockchain, cryptocurrency, Developer, Europe, Gadgets, Google, siri, Snips, Startups, TC | No Comments

Earlier this year we saw the headlines of how the users of popular voice assistants like Alexa and Siri and continue to face issues when their private data is compromised, or even sent to random people. In May it was reported that Amazon’s Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random contact. Amazon insists its Echo devices aren’t always recording, but it did confirm the audio was sent.

The story could be a harbinger of things to come when voice becomes more and more ubiquitous. After all, Amazon announced the launch of Alexa for Hospitality, its Alexa system for hotels, in June. News stories like this simply reinforce the idea that voice control is seeping into our daily lives.

The French startup Snips thinks it might have an answer to the issue of security and data privacy. Its built its software to run 100% on-device, independently from the cloud. As a result, user data is processed on the device itself, acting as a potentially stronger guarantor of privacy. Unlike centralized assistants like Alexa and Google, Snips knows nothing about its users.

Its approach is convincing investors. To date, Snips has raised €22 million in funding from investors like Korelya Capital, MAIF Avenir, BPI France and Eniac Ventures. Created in 2013 by 3 PhDs, and now employing more than 60 people in Paris and New York, Snips offers its voice assistant technology as a white-labelled solution for enterprise device manufacturers.

It’s tested its theories about voice by releasing the result of a consumer poll. The survey of 410 people found that 66% of respondents said they would be apprehensive of using a voice assistant in a hotel room, because of concerns over privacy, 90% said they would like to control the ways corporations use their data, even if it meant sacrificing convenience.

“Сonsumers are increasingly aware of the privacy concerns with voice assistants that rely on cloud storage — and that these concerns will actually impact their usage,” says Dr Rand Hindi, co-founder and CEO at Snips. “However, emerging technologies like blockchain are helping us to create safer and fairer alternatives for voice assistants.”

Indeed, blockchain is very much part of Snip’s future. As Hindi told TechCrunch in May, the company will release a new set of consumer devices independent of its enterprise business. The idea is to create a consumer business that will prompt further enterprise development. At the same time, they will issue a cryptographic token via an ICO to incentivize developers to improve the Snips platform, as an alternative to using data from consumers. The theory goes that this will put it at odds with the approach used by Google and Amazon, who are constantly criticised for invading our private lives merely to improve their platforms.

As a result Hindi believes that as voice-controlled devices become an increasingly common sight in public spaces, there could be a significant shift in public opinion about how their privacy is being protected.

In an interview conducted last month with TechCrunch, Hindi told me the company’s plans for its new consumer product are well advanced, and will be designed from the beginning to be improved over time using a combination of decentralized machine learning and cryptography.

By using blockchain technology to share data, they will be able to train the network “without ever anybody sending unencrypted data anywhere,” he told me.

And ‘training the network” is where it gets interesting. By issuing a cryptographic token for developers to use, Hindi says they will incentivize devs to work on their platform and process data in a decentralized fashion. They are starting from a good place. He claims they already have 14,000 developers on the platform who will be further incentivized by a token economy.

“Otherwise people have no incentive to process that data in a decentralized fashion, right?” he says.

“We got into blockchain because we’re trying to find a way to get people to participate in decentralized machine learning. We’ve been wanting to get into consumer [devices] for a couple of years but didn’t really figure out the end goal because we had always had this missing element which was: how do you keep making it better over time.”

“This is the main argument for Google and Amazon to pretend that you need to send your data to them, to make the service better. If we can fix this [by using blockchain] then we can offer a real alternative to Alexa that guarantees Privacy by Design,” he says.

“We now have over 14000 developers building for us and that’s really completely organic growth, zero marketing, purely word of mouth, which is really nice because it shows that there’s a very big demand for decentralized voice assistance, effectively.”

It could be a high-risk strategy. Launching a voice-controlled device is one thing. Layering it with applications produced by developed supposedly incentivized by tokens, especially when crypto prices have crashed, is quite another.

It does definitely feel like a moonshot idea, however, and we’ll really only know if Snips can live up to such lofty ideals after the launch.

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Kano’s latest computer kit for kids doubles down on touch

Posted by | alex klein, computing, connected devices, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Kano, learn to code, London, Minecraft, Raspberry Pi, United Kingdom | No Comments

Learn-to-code startup Kano, whose products aim to turn kids into digital makers, has taken the wraps off the latest incarnation of its build-it-yourself computer kit.

With the new flagship Kano is doubling down on touch interactions — urging kids to “make your own tablet”. The Computer Kit Touch packs a 10.1″ HD touchscreen, along with Kano’s now familiar bright orange wireless keyboard which comes with a built in trackpad.

While touch is becoming increasingly central to its products, Kano says the keyboard remains an important component of the product — supporting text-based coding apps which its platform also provides access to, as well as the more approachable drag-and-drop block-based coding systems that do really benefit from having a touchscreen to hand.

The kit, which Kano says is generally (but not exclusively) aimed at the 6-13 age range, is on sale from today, priced at $279.99 — via its website (Kano.me), as well as from selected retailers and e-tailers.

The Raspberry Pi powered computer is also getting increased storage capacity in this upgrade — of 16GB. But the main refresh is around updating Kano OS, Kano’s kid-friendly Pi topper, with expanded support for touch controls, according to founder Alex Klein .

Last year Kano combined touch and keyboard based interaction into a single product, the Computer Kit Complete — calling that a DIY laptop.

The 2018 refreshed version looks much the same, with enhancements generally behind the scenes and/or under the hood.

“The big moves this year are advancing the software and content ecosystem,” says Klein. “How it’s all integrated together.”

He points to another coding kit the team has up for pre-order, slated to ship next month — a co-branded Harry Potter gizmo in which kids get to build a motion-sensitive “coding wand” and use it to cook up their own digital spells, helped along by Kano’s software — adding: “With the Potter kit we’re bringing Kano code — to create a system, the ability to blend and change physics engines and sounds and particle systems — to tablets. So we’ve now got a touch-based interaction model for that e-product, as well as mouse and keyboard, and so we’ve brought that software system now to the Computer Kit Touch.

“You can code by dragging and dropping blocks with your fingers, you can paint and draw. You can change the pitch of a loop or a melody by running your fingers up and down and then using a change of a parameter mess with how quickly that melody changes, mess with the number of layers, you can make a beat or a loop using a touch-based digital audio workstation style X-Y plane. You can go into any one of our creative coding apps and pull in touch-based interactions, so instead of just using a mouse, a click and point, you can make an app that responds to swipes and taps, and different speeds, and in different locations.”

“On the touch kit itself there’s also a set of new content that demystifies how touchscreens work and peels back the layer of the screen and shows you what’s behind, and you’re kind of touching the intersection of the different copper wires and seeing what’s happening beneath,” he adds.

“There’s obviously a big hardware upgrade with the new ability to touch it, to take it with you. We’ve refined a lot of the components, we’ve improved the speed, the battery life. But really the core of it is this upgraded software that integrates with all the other kit.”

Talking of other kit, the learn-to-code space is now awash with quasi-educational gizmos, leaving parents in Western markets spoiled for choice of what to buy a budding coder.

Many more of these gizmos will be unboxed as we head into the holiday season. And while Kano was something of a startup pioneer here — a category creator, as Klein tells it — there’s now no shortage of tech for kids promising some kind of STEM-based educational benefit. So it’s facing an ever-growing gaggle of competition.

Kano’s strategy to stand out in an increasingly contested space is to fix on familiar elements, says Stein — flagging for example the popular game Minecraft — which runs on the Kano kit, and for which there’s a whole subsection of the Kano World community given over to hacking Minecraft.

And, well, aside from block-headed Minecraft characters it’s hard to find a character more familiar to children than the fictional wizard Harry Potter. So you can certainly see where Kano’s trying to get with the coding wand.

“We broke our first month pre-order target in one day,” he says of that forthcoming e-product (RRP ~$130). “There was massive coverage, massive traffic on our site, it was picked up all over the place and we’re very happy with the pre-orders so far. As are our retail partners.”

The Potter co-branding play is certainly Kano trying to make its products cast a wider spell by expanding the appeal of coding from nerdy makers to more mainstream child consumers. But how successful that will be remains to be seen. Not least because we’ve seen this sort of tactic elsewhere in this space.

Sphero, for example, is now rolling back the other way — shifting away from Star Wars co-branded bots to a serious education push focused on bringing STEM robotics to schools. (Although Kano would doubtless say a programmable bot that rolls is not the same as a fully fledged kit computer that can run all manner of apps, including familiar and fashionable stuff like Minecraft and YouTube.)

“We’re very pleased to see that this category that we created, with that Kickstarter campaign in 2013 — it’s become more than what some people initially feared it would be which was niche, maker ‘arcanery’; and it’s becoming a major consumer phenomenon,” he says. “This notion that people want to make their own technology, learn how to code and play in that way. And not just kids — people of all ages.”

On the hard sales front, Klein isn’t breaking out numbers for Potter kit pre-sales at this stage. But says the various incarnations of its main computer kit have shipped ~360,000 units since September 2014. So it’s not Lego (which has also moved into programmable kits) — but it’s not bad either.

In recent years Kano has also branched out into offering Internet of Things kits, previewing three code-your-own connected devices in 2016 — and launching Kickstarter campaigns to get the products to market.

It’s since shipped one (the Pixel kit) but the other two (a build-it-yourself camera kit and a DIY speaker) remain delayed — leaving crowdfunder backers waiting for their hardware.

Why the delay? Have Kano’s priorities shifted — perhaps because it’s focusing efforts on cobranded products (like the Potter wand) vs creating more of its own standalone devices?

“We are still committed to shipping the speaker kit, the camera kit,” Klein tells TechCrunch. “A big reason for [the delay] is not only the fact that the company is in a position now where we have mass distribution, we have great partners — perennially testing new product ideas — and we want to make sure that products are going to resonate with, not just a small group of people but many, many people, of many different age groups and interests before we release them.”

He also points out that any backers of the two devices who want refunds can get them in full.

Though he also says some are choosing to wait — adding that Kano remains committed to shipping the devices, and saying for those that do wait there will be a few extra bells and whistles than originally specced out in the crowdfunder campaign.

The delay itself looks like the market (and consumer tastes) moving quicker than Kano predicted — and so it finds itself wishing its products could deliver more than it originally planned (but without a wand to wave to instantly achieve that).

This is also a pitfall with previewing anything months or years ahead of time, of course. But the expense and complexity of building hardware makes crowdfunding platforms attractive — even for a relatively established brand like Kano.

“The delay is really unfortunate,” he adds. “We did say they would ship earlier but what we have done is we’ve offered any backer a full refund on the camera and the speaker if they don’t want to wait. But if they do wait they will receive incredible camera, incredible speaker. Both of them are going to benefit from the advancements made in low cost computing in the last year.

“The speaker as well is going to have elements that weren’t even part of the original campaign. On our side it’s critical that we get those products absolutely right and that they feel mass, and that they demystify not only coding and the Internet of Things, which was part of the original purpose, but in the case of the camera and the speaker there are elements that have come to the fore in more recent months like voice interaction and image recognition that we feel if our mandate is to demystify technology and we’re shipping a camera and a speaker… that’s kind of part of it. Make it perfect, make it of the moment. And for any backer who doesn’t want to wait for that, no problem at all — we’ll refund you 100%.”

Beyond reworking its approach with those perhaps overly ambitious connected devices, Kano has additional release plans in its pipeline — with Klein mentioning that additional co-branded products will be coming next year.

He says Kano is also eyeing expanding into more markets. “There’s a significant market for Kano even beyond our traditional leading position amongst 6-13 year olds in the US and the UK. There’s a really strong market for people who are beyond the US and the UK and we’re now at a scale where we can start really investing in these distribution and localization relationships that have come our way since year one,” he says.

And he at least entertains the idea of a future Kano device that does away with a keyboard entirely — and goes all in on touch — when we suggest it.

“Would we move to a place where we have no keyboard in a Kano computer? I think it’s very possible,” he says. “It might be a different form factor, it might be smaller, it might fit in your pocket, it might have connectivity — that kind of stuff.”

Which sort of sounds like Kano’s thinking about making a DIY smartphone. If so, you heard it here first.

The five and a half year old London-based startup is not yet profitable but Klein flags growth he dubs “fast enough” (noting it doubled sales year-over-year last year, a “trend” he says continued in the first half of this year), before adding: “It’s not impossible for us to get to profitability. We have a lot of optionality. But at the moment we are making investments — in software, in team — we have partner products coming out like Harry, we’ll have more coming out next year. So in terms of absolute positive EBITDA not yet but we are profitable on a units basis.”

Kano closed a $28M Series B last year — and has raised some $44.5M in all at this stage, according to Crunchbase. Is it raising more funding now? “I think any entrepreneur who is looking to do something big is always in some sense keeping an eye out for sources of capital,” replies Klein. “As well as sources of talent.”

He points by way of a connected aside to this study of C-suite execs, carried out by Stripe and Harris poll, which found that access to software developers is a bigger constraint than access to capital, saying: “I read that and I thought that that gap — between the 1% of 1% who can develop software or hardware and the rest of us — is exactly the challenge that Kano set out to solve from a consumer and education perspective.”

“In terms of fundraising we do get a lot of inbound, we have great investors at the moment,” he adds. “We do know that the scale of this particular challenge — which is demystify technology, become synonymous with learning to code and making your own computers — that requires significant support and we’ll be continuing to keep our eyes out as we grow.”

 

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