Gadgets

Happy 10th anniversary, Android

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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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Apple Watch fire face was made with actual fire

Posted by | Apple, Apple Watch, Gadgets | No Comments

With the Apple Watch Series 4, Apple introduced a new, larger display. It now has rounded edges and thinner bezels. And the company took advantage of that display to introduce new fire, water, liquid metal and vapor faces. Apple didn’t use CGI to create those faces — they shot those faces in a studio.

Many companies would have rendered those effects on a computer given the size of the display. But those are actual videos shot with a camera.

Cool Hunting shared a video of the actual process, and it’s insane:

As you can see, Apple used a flamethrower against a transparent surface, exploded a balloon at the top of a basin of water, made a color powder explosion in a cylinder and rotated a small puddle of metallic liquid.

It says a lot about Apple’s design culture — they don’t take shortcuts and they have a lot of money.

Here’s the introduction video for the new Apple Watch:

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‘Jackrabbot 2’ takes to the sidewalks to learn how humans navigate politely

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Gadgets, robotics, science, TC | No Comments

Autonomous vehicles and robots have to know how to get from A to B without hitting obstacles or pedestrians — but how can they do so politely and without disturbing nearby humans? That’s what Stanford’s Jackrabbot project aims to learn, and now a redesigned robot will be cruising campus learning the subtleties of humans negotiating one another’s personal space.

“There are many behaviors that we humans subconsciously follow – when I’m walking through crowds, I maintain personal distance or, if I’m talking with you, someone wouldn’t go between us and interrupt,” said grad student Ashwini Pokle in a Stanford News release. “We’re working on these deep learning algorithms so that the robot can adapt these behaviors and be more polite to people.”

Of course there are practical applications pertaining to last mile problems and robotic delivery as well. What do you do if someone stops in front of you? What if there’s a group running up behind? Experience is the best teacher, as usual.

The first robot was put to work in 2016, and has been hard at work building a model of how humans (well, mostly undergrads) walk around safely, avoiding one another while taking efficient paths, and signal what they’re doing the whole time. But technology has advanced so quickly that a new iteration was called for.

The JackRabbot project team with JackRabbot 2 (from left to right): Patrick Goebel, Noriaki Hirose, Tin Tin Wisniewski, Amir Sadeghian, Alan Federman, Silivo Savarese, Roberto Martín-Martín, Pin Pin Tea-mangkornpan and Ashwini Pokle

The new robot has a vastly improved sensor suite compared to its predecessor: two Velodyne lidar units giving 360 degree coverage, plus a set of stereo cameras making up its neck that give it another depth-sensing 360 degree view. The cameras and sensors on its head can also be pointed wherever needed, of course, just like ours. All this imagery is collated by a pair of new GPUs in its base/body.

Amir Sadeghian, one of the researchers, said this makes Jackrabbot 2 “one of the most powerful robots of its size that has ever been built.”

This will allow the robot to sense human motion with a much greater degree of precision than before, and also operate more safely. It will also give the researchers a chance to see how the movement models created by the previous robot integrate with this new imagery.

The other major addition is a totally normal-looking arm that Jackrabbot 2 can use to gesture to others. After all, we do it, right? When it’s unclear who should enter a door first or what side of a path they should take, a wave of the hand is all it takes to clear things up. Usually. Hopefully this kinked little gripper accomplishes the same thing.

Jackrabbot 2 can zoom around for several hours at a time, Sadeghian said. “At this stage of the project for safety we have a human with a safety switch accompanying the robot, but the robot is able to navigate in a fully autonomous way.”

Having working knowledge of how people use the space around them and how to predict their movements will be useful to startups like Kiwi, Starship, and Marble. The first time a delivery robot smacks into someone’s legs is the last time they consider ordering something via one.

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Password bypass flaw in Western Digital My Cloud drives puts data at risk

Posted by | cloud computing, computer security, computing, exploit, firmware, Gadgets, hacking, hardware, Security, software testing, spokesperson, Twitter, vulnerability, Western Digital | No Comments

A security researcher has published details of a vulnerability in a popular cloud storage drive after the company failed to issue security patches for over a year.

Remco Vermeulen found a privilege escalation bug in Western Digital’s My Cloud devices, which he said allows an attacker to bypass the admin password on the drive, gaining “complete control” over the user’s data.

The exploit works because drive’s web-based dashboard doesn’t properly check a user’s credentials before giving a possible attacker access to tools that should require higher levels of access.

The bug was “easy” to exploit, Vermeulen told TechCrunch in an email, and was remotely exploitable if a My Cloud device allows remote access over the internet — which thousands of devices do. He posted a proof-of-concept video on Twitter.

Details of the bug were also independently found by another security team, which released its own exploit code.

Vermeulen reported the bug over a year ago, in April 2017, but said the company stopped responding. Normally, security researchers give 90 days for a company to respond, in line with industry-accepted responsible disclosure guidelines.

After he found that WD updated the My Cloud firmware in the meanwhile without fixing the vulnerability he found, he decided to post his findings.

A year later, WD still hasn’t released a patch.

The company confirmed that it knows of the vulnerability but did not say why it took more than a year to issue a fix. “We are in the process of finalizing a scheduled firmware update that will resolve the reported issue,” a spokesperson said, which will arrive “within a few weeks.”

WD said that several of its My Cloud products are vulnerable — including the EX2, EX4 and Mirror, but not My Cloud Home.

In the meantime, Vermeulen said that there’s no fix and that users have to “just disconnect” the drive altogether if they want to keep their data safe.

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iOS 12.1 beta hints at new iPad Pro

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, iPad, iPad Pro, rumor | No Comments

iOS 12 is still brand new, but Apple is already testing iOS 12.1 with a developer beta version. Steve Troughton-Smith and Guilherme Rambo found references to a brand new iPad that would support Face ID.

First, there are changes to Face ID. You can find references to landscape orientation in the iOS 12.1 beta. Face ID on the iPhone is limited to portrait orientation. Chances are you didn’t even notice this limitation because there’s only one orientation for the lock screen and home screen.

But the iPad is a different story as people tend to use it in landscape. And even when you hold it in landscape, some people will have the home button on the left while others will have the home button on the right.

In other words, in order to bring Face ID to the iPad, it needs to support multiple orientations. This beta indicates that iOS 12.1 could be the version of iOS that ships with the next iPad.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s a new device codename in the setup reference files. This device is called iPad2018Fall, which clearly means that a new iPad is right around the corner.

Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo previously indicated that the iPad Pro could switch from Lightning to USB-C. This would open up a ton of possibilities when it comes to accessories. For instance, you could plug an external monitor without any dongle and send a video feed to this external monitor.

As for iPhone users, in addition to bug fixes, iOS 12.1 brings back Group FaceTime, a feature that was removed at the last minute before the release of iOS 12. If it’s still too buggy, Apple could still choose to remove the feature once again. Memojis could support iCloud syncing across your devices, which would be useful for an iPad Pro with Face ID.

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Google Home Mini was the best-selling smart speaker in Q2

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, echo, echo dot, Gadgets, Google, Google Home Mini, HomePod, smart speakers | No Comments

Amazon’s Echo Dot may have been a bestseller on Prime Day, but Google’s Home Mini device is now the top-selling smart speaker worldwide, according to a new report out this morning from Strategy Analytics. The analyst firm says Google’s small speaker accounted for 1 in 5 smart speaker shipments in Q2 2018, edging out the Echo Dot with its 2.3 million global shipments compared to Echo Dot’s 2.2 million.

Combined, these two entry-level smart speakers – the Echo Dot and Home Mini – accounted for 38% of global shipments, the firm found.

In total, 11.7 million smart speaker devices were shipped during Q2, with 4 out of the top 5 devices coming from either Amazon or Google.

Following the Dot, was Amazon’s flagship Echo device with 1.4 million shipments, then Alibaba’s Tmail Genie (0.8m), and Google Home (0.8m).

Apple’s HomePod wasn’t ranked in the top five, but took a 6% share of the shipments in Q2.

However, HomePod’s premium focus and higher price tag allowed it to take a sizable chunk of smart speaker revenue during this period.

While the Home Mini and Echo Dot combined accounted for 17% of smart speaker revenues, Apple’s HomePod alone took a 16% share of wholesale revenues. And in terms of devices above the $200 price point, the HomePod had a 70% revenue share.

Strategy Analytics’s report also indicated this growing market is still in flux, thanks to expected new arrivals which could impact the shares held today by existing players.

“The number of smart speaker models available worldwide has grown significantly over the last twelve months as vendors look to capitalize on the explosive market growth,” said David Mercer, Vice President at Strategy Analytics, in a statement. “Heavyweight brands such as Samsung and Bose are in the process of launching their first models, adding further credibility to the segment and giving consumers more options at the premium-end of the marker,” he added.

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Hackers stole customer credit cards in Newegg data breach

Posted by | eCommerce, Gadgets, Hack, newegg, Security | No Comments

Newegg is clearing up its website after a month-long data breach.

Hackers injected 15 lines of card skimming code on the online retailer’s payments page which remained for more than a month between August 14 and September 18, Yonathan Klijnsma, a threat researcher at RiskIQ, told TechCrunch. The code siphoned off credit card data from unsuspecting customers to a server controlled by the hackers with a similar domain name — likely to avoid detection. The server even used an HTTPS certificate to blend in.

The code also worked for both desktop and mobile customers — though it’s unclear if mobile customers are affected.

The online electronics retailer removed the code on Tuesday after it was contacted by incident response firm Volexity, which first discovered the card skimming malware and reported its findings.

Newegg is one of the largest retailers in the US, making $2.65 billion in revenue in 2016. The company touts more than 45 million monthly unique visitors, but it’s not known precisely how many customers completed transactions during the period.

In an email to customers, Newegg chief executive Danny Lee said the company has “not yet determined which customer accounts may have been affected.” When reached, a Newegg spokesperson did not immediately comment.

Klijnsma called the incident “another well-disguised attack” that looked near-identical to the recent British Airways credit card breach, and earlier, the Ticketmaster breach. Like that breach, RiskIQ attributed the Newegg credit card theft to the Magecart group, a collective of hackers that carry out targeted attacks against vulnerable websites.

The code used in both skimming attacks was near identical, according to the research.

“The breach of Newegg shows the true extent of Magecart operators’ reach,” said Klijnsma. “These attacks are not confined to certain geolocations or specific industries—any organization that processes payments online is a target.”

Like previous card skimming campaigns, he said that the hackers “integrated with the victim’s payment system and blended with the infrastructure and stayed there as long as possible.”

Anyone who entered their credit card data during the period should immediately contact their banks.

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An Intel drone fell on my head during a light show

Posted by | Gadgets, Intel, TC | No Comments

It didn’t hurt. I thought someone dropped a small cardboard box on my head. It felt sharp and light. I was sitting on the floor, along the back of the crowd, and then an Intel Shooting Star Mini drone dropped on my head.

Audi put on a massive show to reveal its first EV, the e-tron. The automaker went all out, putting journalists, executives and car dealers on a three-story paddle boat for a two-hour journey across the San Francisco Bay. I had a beer and two dumplings. We were headed to a long-vacated Ford manufacturing plant in Richmond, Calif.

By the time we reached our destination, the sun had set and Audi was ready to begin. Suddenly, in front of the boat, Intel’s Shooting Star drones put on a show that ended with Audi’s trademark four ring logo. The show continued as music pounded inside the warehouse, and just before the reveal of the e-tron, Intel’s Shooting Star Minis celebrated the occasion with a light show a couple of feet above attendees’ heads.

That’s when one hit me.

Natalie Cheung, GM of Intel Drone Light Shows, told me they knew when one drone failed to land on its zone that one went rogue. According to Cheung, the Shooting Star Mini drones were designed with safety in mind.

“The drone frame is made of flexible plastics, has prop guards, and is very small,” she said. “The drone itself can fit in the palm of your hand. In addition to safety being built into the drone, we have systems and procedures in place to promote safety. For example, we have visual observers around the space watching the drones in flight and communicating with the pilot in real-time. We have built-in software to regulate the flight paths of the drones.”

After the crash, I assumed someone from Audi or Intel would be around to collect the lost drone, but no one did, and at the end of the show, I was unable to find someone who knew where I could find the Intel staff. I notified my Intel contacts first thing the following morning and provided a local address where they could get the drone. As of publication, the drone is still on my desk.

I have covered Intel’s Shooting Star program since its first public show at Disney World in 2016. It’s a fascinating program and one of the most impressive uses of drones I’ve seen. The outdoor shows, which have been used at The Super Bowl and the Olympics, are breathtaking. Hundreds of drones take to the sky and perform a seemingly impossible dance and then return home. A sophisticated program designates the route of each drone, GPS ensures each is where it’s supposed to be and it’s controlled by just one person.

Intel launched an indoor version of the Shooting Star program at CES in 2018. The concept is the same, but these drones do not use GPS to determine their location. The result is something even more magical than the outside version because with the Shooting Star Minis, the drones are often directly above the viewers. It’s an incredible experience to watch drones dance several feet overhead. It feels slightly dangerous. That’s the draw.

And that poses a safety concern.

The drone that hit me is light and mostly plastic. It weighs very little and is about 6 inches by 4 inches. A cage surrounds the bottom of the rotors, though not the top. If there’s a power button, I can’t find it. The full-size drones are made out of plastic and Styrofoam.

Safety has always been baked into the Shooting Star programs, but I’m not sure the current protocols are enough.

I was seated on the floor along the back of the venue. Most of the attendees were standing, taking selfies with the performing drones. It was a lovely show.

When the drone came down on my head, it tumbled onto the floor and the rotors continued to spin. A member of the catering staff was walking behind the barrier I was sitting against, reached out and touched the spinning rotors. I’m sure she’s fine, but when her finger touched the spinning rotor, she jumped in surprise. At this point, seconds after it crashed, the drone was upside down, and like an upturned beetle, continued to operate for a few seconds until the rotors shut off.

To be clear, I was not hurt. And that’s not the point. Drone swarm technology is fascinating and could lead to incredible use cases. Swarms of drones could quickly and efficiently inspect industrial equipment and survey crops. And they make for great shows in outside venues. But are they ready to be used inside, above people’s heads? I’m already going bald. I don’t need help.

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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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The Punkt MP02 inches closer to what a minimalist phone ought to be

Posted by | design, Gadgets, hardware, Light Phone, Mobile, Punkt. Tronics | No Comments

There’s an empty space in my heart for a minimalist phone with only the most basic functions. Bad for my heart, but good for a handful of companies putting out devices aiming to fill it. Punkt’s latest, the MP02, goes a little ways to making the device I desire, but it isn’t quite there yet.

Punkt’s first device included just texting and calling, which would likely have worked as intended if not for the inconvenient choice to have it connect only to 2G networks. These networks are being shut down and replaced all over the world, so you would have ended up with a phone that was even more limited than you expected.

The MP02 is the sequel, and it adds a couple useful features. It runs on 4G LTE networks, which should keep it connected for years to come, and it has gained both threaded texting (rather than a single inbox and outbox — remember those?) and Blackberry encryption for those sensitive communications.

It has nice physical buttons you can press multiple times to select a letter in ye olde T9 fashion, and also lets you take notes, consult a calendar, and calculate things. The battery has 12 days of standby, and with its tiny monochrome display and limited data options, it’ll probably stay alive for nearly that even with regular use.

Its most immediate competition is probably the Light Phone, which also has a second iteration underway that, if I’m honest, looks considerably more practical.

Now, I like the MP02. I like its chunky design (though it is perhaps a mite too thick), I like its round buttons and layout, I like its deliberate limitations. But it and other would-be minimal phones, in my opinion, are too slavish in their imitations of devices from years past. What we want is minimalism, not (just) nostalgia. We want the most basic useful features of a phone without all the junk that comes with them.

The Light Phone 2 and its nice e-ink screen.

For me, that means including a couple things that these devices tend to eschew.

One is modern messaging. SMS is bad for a lot of reasons. Why not include a thin client to pass text to a messaging service like WhatsApp or Messenger? Of course iMessage is off limits — thanks, Apple — but we could at least get a couple of the cross-platform apps on board. It doesn’t hurt the minimalist nature of the phone, in my opinion, if it connects to a modern messaging infrastructure. No need for images or gifs or anything — just text is fine.

Two is maps. We sure as hell didn’t have maps on our featurephones back in the day, but you better believe we wanted them. Basic mapping is one of the things we rely on our phones for every day. Whatever’s on this minimal phone doesn’t have to be a full-stack affair with recommendations, live traffic, and so on — just location and streets, and maybe an address or lat/long lookup, like you’d see on an old monochrome GPS unit. I don’t need my phone to tell me where to eat — just keep me from getting lost.

Three, and this is just me, I’d like some kind of synchronizing note app or the ability to put articles from Pocket or whatever on there. The e-ink screen on the Light Phone is a great opportunity for this very specific type of consumption. Neither of the companies here seems likely to add this feature, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the few things I regularly use my phone for.

Light Phone 2 is possibly getting music, weather, and voice commands, none of which really screams “minimal” to me, nor do they seem trivial to add. Ride-share stuff is a maybe, but it’d probably be a pain.

I have no problem with my phone doing just what a pocketable device needs to do and leaving the more sophisticated stuff to another device. But that pocketable device can’t be that dumb. Fortunately I do believe we’re moving closer to days when there will be meaningfully different choices available to weird people like myself. We’re not there yet, but I can wait.

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