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Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator is a beautiful work in progress

Posted by | artificial intelligence, barcelona, bing maps, computing, Gaming, Las Vegas, Microsoft, microsoft flight simulator, nvidia, San Francisco, Seattle, Software, TC | No Comments

For the last two weeks, I’ve been flying around the world in a preview of Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator. Without a doubt, it’s the most beautiful flight simulator yet, and it’ll make you want to fly low and slow over your favorite cities because — if you pick the right one — every street and house will be there in more detail than you’ve ever seen in a game. Weather effects, day and night cycles, plane models — it all looks amazing. You can’t start it up and not fawn over the graphics.

But the new Flight Simulator is also still very much a work in progress, too, even just a few weeks before the scheduled launch date on August 18. It’s officially still in beta, so there’s still time to fix at least some of the issues I list below. Because Microsoft and Asobo Studios, which was responsible for the development of the simulator, are using Microsoft’s AI tech in Azure to automatically generate much of the scenery based on Microsoft’s Bing Maps data, you’ll find a lot of weirdness in the world. There are taxiway lights in the middle of runways, giant hangars and crew buses at small private fields, cars randomly driving across airports, giant trees growing everywhere (while palms often look like giant sticks), bridges that are either under water or big blocks of black over a river — and there are a lot of sunken boats, too.

When the system works well, it’s absolutely amazing. Cities like Barcelona, Berlin, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and others that are rendered using Microsoft’s photogrammetry method look great — including and maybe especially at night.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The rendering engine on my i7-9700K with an Nvidia 2070 Super graphics card never let the frame rate drop under 30 frames per second (which is perfectly fine for a flight simulator) and usually hovered well over 40, all with the graphics setting pushed up to the maximum and with a 2K resolution.

When things don’t work, though, the effect is stark because it’s so obvious. Some cities, like Las Vegas, look like they suffered some kind of catastrophe, as if the city was abandoned and nature took over (which in the case of the Vegas Strip doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, to be honest).

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Thankfully, all of this is something that Microsoft and Asobo can fix. They’ll just need to adjust their algorithms, and because a lot of the data is streamed, the updates should be virtually automatic. The fact that they haven’t done so yet is a bit of a surprise.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Chances are you’ll want to fly over your house the day you get Flight Simulator. If you live in the right city (and the right part of that city), you’ll likely be lucky and actually see your house with its individual texture. But for some cities, including London, for example, the game only shows standard textures, and while Microsoft does a good job at matching the outlines of buildings in cities where it doesn’t do photogrammetry, it’s odd that London or Amsterdam aren’t on that list (though London apparently features a couple of wind turbines in the city center now), while Münster, Germany is.

Once you reach altitude, all of those problems obviously go away (or at least you won’t see them). But given the graphics, you’ll want to spend a lot of time at 2,000 feet or below.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

What really struck me in playing the game in its current state is how those graphical inconsistencies set the standard for the rest of the experience. The team says its focus is 100% on making the simulator as realistic as possible, but then the virtual air traffic control often doesn’t use standard phraseology, for example, or fails to hand you off to the right departure control when you leave a major airport. The airplane models look great and feel pretty close to real (at least the ones I’ve flown myself), but some currently show the wrong airspeed. Some planes use modern glass cockpits with the Garmin 1000 and G3X, but those still feel severely limited.

But let me be clear here. Despite all of this, even in its beta state, Flight Simulator is a technical marvel and it will only get better over time.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Let’s walk through the user experience a bit. The install on PC (the Xbox version will come at some point in the future) is a process that downloads a good 90GB so that you can play offline as well. The install process asks you if you are okay with streaming data, too, and that can quickly add up. After reinstalling the game and doing a few flights for screenshots, the game had downloaded about 10GB already — it adds up quickly and is something you should be aware of if you’re on a metered connection.

Once past the long install, you’ll be greeted by a menu screen that lets you start a new flight, go for one of the landing challenges or other activities the team has set up (they are really proud of their Courchevel scenery) and go through the games’ flight training program.

Image Credits: Microsoft

That training section walks you through eight activities that will help you get the basics of flying a Cessna 152. Most take fewer than 10 minutes and you’ll get a bit of a de-brief after, but I’m not sure it’s enough to keep a novice from getting frustrated quickly (while more advanced players will just skip this section altogether anyway).

I mostly spent my time flying the small general aviation planes in the sim, but if you prefer a Boeing 747 or Airbus 320neo, you get that option, too, as well as some turboprops and business jets. I’ll spend some more time with those before the official launch. All of the planes are beautifully detailed inside and out and except for a few bugs, everything works as expected.

To actually start playing, you’ll head for the world map and choose where you want to start your flight. What’s nice here is that you can pick any spot on your map, not just airports. That makes it easy to start flying over a city, for example. As you zoom into the map, you can see airports and landmarks (where the landmarks are either real sights like Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle or cities that have photogrammetry data). If a town doesn’t have photogrammetry data, it will not appear on the map.

As of now, the flight planning features are pretty basic. For visual flights, you can go direct or VOR to VOR, and that’s it. For IFR flights, you choose low or high-altitude airways. You can’t really adjust any of these, just accept what the simulator gives you. That’s not really how flight planning works (at the very least you would want to take the local weather into account), so it would be nice if you could customize your route a bit more. Microsoft partnered with NavBlue for airspace data, though the built-in maps don’t do much with this data and don’t even show you the vertical boundaries of the airspace you are in.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

It’s always hard to compare the plane models and how they react to the real thing. Best I can tell, at least the single-engine Cessnas that I’m familiar with mostly handle in the same way I would expect them to in reality. Rudder controls feel a bit overly sensitive by default, but that’s relatively easy to adjust. I only played with a HOTAS-style joystick and rudder setup. I wouldn’t recommend playing with a mouse and keyboard, but your mileage may vary.

Live traffic works well, but none of the general aviation traffic around my local airports seems to show up, even though Microsoft partner FlightAware shows it.

As for the real/AI traffic in general, the sim does a pretty good job managing that. In the beta, you won’t really see the liveries of any real airlines yet — at least for the most part — I spotted the occasional United plane in the latest builds. Given some of Microsoft’s own videos, more are coming soon. Except for the built-in models you can fly in the sim, Flight Simulator is still missing a library of other airplane models for AI traffic, though again, I would assume that’s in the works, too.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

We’re three weeks out from launch. I would expect the team to be able to fix many of these issues and we’ll revisit all of them for our final review. My frustration with the current state of the game is that it’s so often so close to perfect that when it falls short of that, it’s especially jarring because it yanks you out of the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, though, flying in FS2020 is already a great experience. Even when there’s no photogrammetry, cities and villages look great once you get over 3,000 feet or so. The weather and cloud simulation — in real time — beats any add-on for today’s flight simulators. Airports still need work, but having cars drive around and flaggers walking around planes that are pushing back help make the world feel more alive. Wind affects the waves on lakes and oceans (and windsocks on airports). This is truly a next-generation flight simulator.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft and Asobo have to walk a fine line between making Flight Simulator the sim that hardcore fans want and an accessible game that brings in new players. I’ve played every version of Flight Simulator since the 90s, so getting started took exactly zero time. My sense is that new players simply looking for a good time may feel a bit lost at first, despite Microsoft adding landing challenges and other more gamified elements to the sim. In a press briefing, the Asobo team regularly stressed that it aimed for realism over anything else — and I’m perfectly okay with that. We’ll have to see if that translates to being a fun experience for casual players, too.

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Sony announces its first 5G flagship, the triple lens Xperia 1 II

Posted by | 5g, Asia, barcelona, Digital Cameras, digital imaging, Mobile, smartphone, smartphone makers, smartphones, Sony, sony xperia, Sony Xperia 1II, Verizon, zeiss | No Comments

Sony has announced its first 5G smartphone: The Xperia 1 II. (For the curious or confused, it is pronounced ‘Xperia One, Mark Two.’)

“No one understands the entertainment experience better than Sony,” said president of mobile communications, Mitsuya Kishida, claiming the company is “uniquely positioned” in the era of 5G cellular technology to offer its target users an “enriched” experience thanks to Sony’s extensive content portfolio.

“Whether you are a broadcast professional who requires dynamic speed or an everyday user who desires enhanced entertainment, Xperia with 5G takes your mobile experience to the next level,” he said.

As ever with Sony — a major b2b supplier of image sensors to other smartphone makers (rather than a major seller of its own phones) — it’s made the camera a huge focus for the new Android 10 flagship, which has a 6.5in 21:9 “CinemaWide” 4K HDR OLED (3840×1644) display and is powered by a Qualcomm 865 Snapdragon chip (with 8GB of RAM on board).

Round the back the Xperia 1 II packs three lenses which offer a selection of focal lengths (16mm, 24mm and 70mm) for capturing different types of photos — from super wide angle to portraits.

All three rear lenses have a 12MP sensor, while round the front there’s an 8MP lens. Sony is also using Zeiss optics for the first time in a smartphone, expanding a long-running collaboration to a new device type.

Talking up the camera, Kishida touted ultra-fast, low light autofocus, noting that it supports 20fps autofocus and auto-tracking burst (which he called a world first in a smartphone) for capturing crisp action shots.

“Our new continuous auto focus keeps tracking of moving subjects. What’s special about this is with 20fps it calculates the object 3x per frame — that’s 60x per second — capturing the very moment,” he said.

“With the power and speed of 5G you will be able to share those moments more quickly and more easily across the network,” he added.

Another photo-friendly feature is real-time eye auto focus. Sony demoed this by showing it working on a video of a cat playing with a toy. So, tl;dr: Sony has trained its model on data-sets of pets too, not just humans.

A ‘Photo Pro’ interface on the handset, meanwhile, has been designed to be familiar to users of Sony’s mirrorless Alpha cameras — letting photographers tune shots via access to tweakable parameters they’re used to using on Sony’s high end digital cameras.

Sony is paying the same mind to video makers, with a video editing interface on the device that offers features such as touch autofocus and custom white balance — which Kishida said will help “visual storytellers” control the camera more easily.

There’s also a noise reduction feature to improve audio capture.

Best of all, the Xperia 1II has a 3.5mm headphone jack — enabling audiophiles to enjoy the simple pleasure of plugging in their favorite pair of high-end wired headphones and tuning out everything else.

Kishida flagged the use of an AI technology, called DSEE Ultimate, which he said upscales the sound signal to “near high resolution audio” — including when streaming. “This the best on the go acoustic experience available,” he claimed.

On the games front he touted a collaboration that will let users of the device play a mobile optimized version of Call of Duty using PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 wireless controller.

The handset, meanwhile, packs a 4,000mAh battery as well as fast wireless charging.

Per Kishida the Xperia 1 II will start shipping from Spring onwards, though it’s not yet clear which markets Sony will be bringing the device to. (Last year the company’s mobile division was reported to have defocused most of the global market in a bid to focus on profitability.)

The Xperia 1 II may have a fairly niche target buyer, as Sony is a relative bit player in consumer smartphone sales vs giants like Samsung and Huawei, but is intended to act as a showcase for what the company’s camera technologies can offer other mobile makers.

Sony’s mobile chief was making the announcements at a virtual press conference screened via YouTube after the company became one of the first big companies to pull out of attending the Mobile World Congress tradeshow.

MWC’s organizer, the GSMA, subsequently cancelled the annual mobile industry event, which had been due to take place in Barcelona this week, after scores of exhibitors said they would not attend due to public health concerns attached to the novel coronavirus.

MWC typically attracts more than 100,000 visitors across four days. So the sight of Sony’s press conference being streamed to an empty room — entirely devoid of cameras, claps or woos but still with built in pauses for the media to take photos of the new hardware — was more than a little surreal.

Kishida had another 5G handsets to tease: the Xperia Pro, a flagship handset aimed at video professionals. It features 5G mm wavelength technology for improved capability to stream high-resolution video, as well as a handy micro HDMI port for easy plugging in of other high end camera kit.

Sony touted tests it’s done with U.S. carrier Verizon (TechCrunch’s parent company) to use the forthcoming 5G handset for live streaming of live sports events.

“Sony’s expertise and long history in providing profession digital imaging solutions is very unique,” added Kishida. “Only Sony has such deep and well established relationships, and we are bringing decades of experience to an end-to-end solution — from professional content creation to mobile communications technology in 5G.”

There was a mid-range smartphone announcement, too, also shipping from Spring onwards: The Xperia 10 II packs a 6″ display and also features a triple lens camera as well as water resistance.

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Sony to pull out of MWC over coronavirus outbreak

Posted by | Amazon, barcelona, China, coronavirus, Ericsson, Europe, gsma, LG, Mobile, mobile world congress, mwc, nvidia, Sony, spain, TC, telecommunications, wireless, world health organization, Xiaomi, zte | No Comments

Japanese electronics firm Sony is the latest phone maker to announce it’s withdrawing from the Mobile World Congress (MWC) tradeshow, citing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

“As we place the utmost importance on the safety and wellbeing of our customers, partners, media and employees, we have taken the difficult decision to withdraw from exhibiting and participating at MWC 2020 in Barcelona, Spain,” Sony wrote in a press release.

MWC is due to take place in Barcelona between February 24-27.

Sony said it will now run a press conference planned for the event via its official Xperia YouTube channel at the scheduled time of 8:30 AM (CET) on February 24.

“Sony would like to thank everyone for their understanding and ongoing support during these challenging times,” it added.

In recent days, a number of companies have announced they’re pulling out or scaling back their presence at the conference as a result of concerns about the spread of the virus, including Amazon, Ericsson, LG, NVIDIA and ZTE.

The World Health Organization dubbed the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus a global emergency late last month.

At the time of writing, the majority of infections and deaths from the virus remain in China, where the virus was first identified in the town of Wuhan in the Hubei province.

Several Chinese tech companies, including ZTE and Xiaomi, have said they will make changes to their participation in MWC related to coronavirus concerns, such as placing limits on staff travelling from China or requiring they self isolate in the period before attending.

Yesterday the organizers of MWC, the GSMA, also announced stringent rules to try to safeguard attendees, including a ban on travellers from Hubei and a requirement that all travellers who have been in China must be able to prove they have been outside the country 14 days prior to the event.

Attendees will also be required to self-certify they have not been in contact with anyone affected, the GSMA said. Temperature screening will also be implemented at the event.

Last year the annual mobile tech conference drew almost 110,000 attendees from 198 countries.

“While further planning is underway, we will continue to monitor the situation and will adapt our plans according to developments and advice we receive. We are contending with a constantly evolving situation, that will require fast adaptability,” the GSMA also said.

Attendance at MWC has regularly broken 100,000 in recent years, but 2020’s conference seems likely to mark a break with business as usual as companies face pressure to rethink their travel priorities.

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Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 starts shipping

Posted by | augmented reality, Australia, barcelona, Canada, China, Computer Vision, computing, France, Gadgets, Germany, hardware, head-mounted displays, holography, hololens 2, ireland, Japan, machine learning, Microsoft, microsoft hardware, Microsoft HoloLens, Microsoft Ignite 2019, mixed reality, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Windows 10 | No Comments

Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced the second generation of its HoloLens augmented reality visor. Today, the $3,500 HoloLens 2 is going on sale in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, the same countries where it was previously available for pre-order.

Ahead of the launch, I got to spend some time with the latest model after a brief demo in Barcelona earlier this year. Users will immediately notice the larger field of view, which still doesn’t cover your full field of view, but offers a far better experience compared to the first version (where you often felt like you were looking at the virtual objects through a stamp-sized window).

The team also greatly enhanced the overall feel of wearing the device. It’s not light, at 1.3 pounds, but with the front visor that flips up and the new mounting system it is far more comfortable.

In regular use, existing users will also immediately notice the new gestures for opening the Start menu (this is Windows 10, after all). Instead of a “bloom” gesture, which often resulted in false positives, you now simply tap on the palm of your hand, where a Microsoft logo now appears when you look at it.

Eye tracking, too, has been greatly improved and works well, even over large distances, and the new machine learning model also does a far better job at tracking all of your fingers. All of this is powered by a lot of custom hardware, including Microsoft’s second-generation “holographic processing unit.”

Microsoft has also enhanced some of the cloud tools it built for HoloLens, including Azure Spatial Anchors, which allow for persistent holograms in a given space that anybody else who is using a holographic app can then see in the same spot.

Taken together, all of the changes result in a more comfortable and smarter device, with reduced latency when you look at the various objects around you and interact with them.

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LA-based gaming company, Scopely, expands in Spain and Ireland

Posted by | barcelona, Brendan Iribe, dublin, Europe, Evolution Media Partners, Gaming, Greenspring Associates, greycroft, greycroft partners, Highland Capital Partners, Horizons Ventures, ireland, jimmy iovine, Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles, Peter Chernin, peter guber, scopely, spain, Startups, take two interactive, TC, The Chernin Group | No Comments

The Los Angeles-based gaming company Scopely is expanding its geographical footprint in Spain and Ireland.

The company is building out its Barcelona offices, tripling its office space and planning to significantly expand its 100-person-strong team in the city. Meanwhile, Scopely is also planning to invest heavily in expanding its strategy-focused game studio, DIGIT, in Dublin.

Scopely didn’t say how many jobs it would be adding in either location.

The company has now hit lifetime revenue of more than $1 billion across its franchises and recently launched “Star Trek Fleet Command” and “Looney Tunes World of Mayhem.” Scopely also has licenses to develop games for World Wrestling Entertainment and The Walking Dead franchise.

“We are thrilled to expand our European footprint to accommodate our exponential growth,” said Javier Ferreira, co-CEO of Scopely, in a statement. “I am excited to further lean in to the Barcelona market, which has top-quality talent. The same is true in Dublin with top tech talent flocking to the area, and both offices have amassed impressive highly-specialized expertise. Our Dublin and Barcelona teams play a critical role in the Scopely journey, and we are actively hiring across both markets.”

The company also plans to double its footprint in its hometown of Los Angeles in 2020.

The company has raised more than $250 million in financing to date, from investors including Greenspring Associates, Greycroft Partners, Revolution Growth, Evolution Media Partners, Highland Capital Partners, Horizons Ventures, Sands Capital Ventures, The Chernin Group, Take-Two Interactive, Kobe Bryant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Guber, Jimmy Iovine and Brendan Iribe.

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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

Posted by | Android, api, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, barcelona, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, fleksy, Fleksyapps, Fleksynext, flight search, gboard, gif, Google, imessage, Instant Messaging, keyboard apps, Messenger, Mobile, Pinterest, play store, Qwant, Skyscanner, smartphone, social media, Startups, SwiftKey, TC, Thingthing, tripadvisor, United States, WeChat | No Comments

Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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5G phones are here but there’s no rush to upgrade

Posted by | 5g, Android, Apple, Asia, barcelona, broadband, Caching, China, deutsche telekom, donovan sung, Europe, european commission, european union, huawei, Intel, Internet of Things, iPhone, LG, Mobile, mwc 2019, Qualcomm, Samsung, singtel, smartphone, smartphones, south korea, TC, telecommunications, Xiaomi | No Comments

This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.

The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.

We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.

Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.

“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”

Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.

“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.

Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.

Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.

All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.

Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.

But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.

“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.

“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”

The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G with a dual screen accessory for gaming

Use cases such as better AR/VR are also a tough sell given how weak consumer demand has generally been on those fronts (with the odd branded exception).

The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)

So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.

Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.

Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.

“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.

“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”

“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.

“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”

To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.

Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)

But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it. 

There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)

And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.

Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.

“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.

Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.

In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$340BN-$570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.

Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.

“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”

On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.

From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.

Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.

Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution. 

5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.

It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.

On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).

If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.

Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.

Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.

Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”

Huawei rotating resident, Guo Ping, defends the security of its network kit on stage at MWC 2019

When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.

In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.

In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”

Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.

Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.

Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.

And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.

“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”

“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.

“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”

So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.

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Europe is prepared to rule over 5G cybersecurity

Posted by | 5g, artificial intelligence, Australia, barcelona, broadband, China, computer security, EC, Emerging-Technologies, Europe, european commission, european union, Germany, huawei, Internet of Things, Mariya Gabriel, Mobile, mwc 2019, network technology, New Zealand, Security, telecommunications, trump, UK government, United Kingdom, United States, zte | No Comments

The European Commission’s digital commissioner has warned the mobile industry to expect it to act over security concerns attached to Chinese network equipment makers.

The Commission is considering a defacto ban on kit made by Chinese companies including Huawei in the face of security and espionage concerns, per Reuters.

Appearing on stage at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona today, Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for digital economy and society, flagged network “cybersecurity” during her scheduled keynote, warning delegates it’s stating the obvious for her to say that “when 5G services become mission critical 5G networks need to be secure”.

Geopolitical concerns between the West and China are being accelerated and pushed to the fore as the era of 5G network upgrades approach, as well as by ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China over trade.

“I’m well away of the unrest among all of you key actors in the telecoms sectors caused by the ongoing discussions around the cybersecurity of 5G,” Gabriel continued, fleshing out the Commission’s current thinking. “Let me reassure you: The Commission takes your view very seriously. Because you need to run these systems everyday. Nobody is helped by premature decisions based on partial analysis of the facts.

“However it is also clear that Europe has to have a common approach to this challenge. And we need to bring it on the table soon. Otherwise there is a risk that fragmentation rises because of diverging decisions taken by Member States trying to protect themselves.”

“We all know that this fragmentation damages the digital single market. So therefore we are working on this important matter with priority. And to the Commission we will take steps soon,” she added.

The theme of this year’s show is “intelligent connectivity”; the notion that the incoming 5G networks will not only create links between people and (many, many more) things but understand the connections they’re making at a greater depth and resolution than has been possible before, leveraging the big data generated by many more connections to power automated decision-making in near real time, with low latency another touted 5G benefit (as well as many more connections per cell).

Futuristic scenarios being floated include connected cars neatly pulling to the sides of the road ahead of an ambulance rushing a patient to hospital — or indeed medical operations being aided and even directed remotely in real-time via 5G networks supporting high resolution real-time video streaming.

But for every touted benefit there are easy to envisage risks to network technology that’s being designed to connect everything all of the time — thereby creating a new and more powerful layer of critical infrastructure society will be relying upon.

Last fall the Australia government issued new security guidelines for 5G networks that essential block Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment to operators — justifying the move by saying that differences in the way 5G operates compared to previous network generations introduces new risks to national security.

New Zealand followed suit shortly after, saying kit from the Chinese companies posed a significant risk to national security.

While in the U.S. President Trump has made 5G network security a national security priority since 2017, and a bill was passed last fall banning Chinese companies from supplying certain components and services to government agencies.

The ban is due to take effect over two years but lawmakers have been pressuring to local carriers to drop 5G collaborations with companies such as Huawei.

In Europe the picture is so far more mixed. A UK government report last summer investigating Huawei’s broadband and mobile infrastructure raised further doubts, and last month Germany was reported to be mulling a 5G ban on the Chinese kit maker.

But more recently the two EU Member States have been reported to no longer be leaning towards a total ban — apparently believing any risk can be managed and mitigated by oversight and/or partial restrictions.

It remains to be seen how the Commission could step in to try to harmonize security actions taken by Member States around nascent 5G networks. But it appears prepared to set rules.

That said, Gabriel gave no hint of its thinking today, beyond repeating the Commission’s preferred position of less fragmentation, more harmonization to avoid collateral damage to its overarching Digital Single Market initiative — i.e. if Member States start fragmenting into a patchwork based on varying security concerns.

We’ve reached out to the Commission for further comment and will update this story with any additional context.

During the keynote she was careful to talk up the transformative potential of 5G connectivity while also saying innovation must work in lock-step with European “values”.

“Europe has to keep pace with other regions and early movers while making sure that its citizens and businesses benefit swiftly from the new infrastructures and the many applications that will be built on top of them,” she said.

“Digital is helping us and we need to reap its opportunities, mitigate its risks and make sure it is respectful of our values as much as driven by innovation. Innovation and values. Two key words. That is the vision we have delivered in terms of the defence for our citizens in Europe. Together we have decided to construct a Digital Single Market that reflects the values and principles upon which the European Union has been built.”

Her speech also focused on AI, with the commissioner highlighting various EC initiatives to invest in and support private sector investment in artificial intelligence — saying it’s targeting €20BN in “AI-directed investment” across the private and public sector by 2020, with the goal for the next decade being “to reach the same amount as an annual average” — and calling on the private sector to “contribute to ensure that Europe reaches the level of investment needed for it to become a world stage leader also in AI”.

But again she stressed the need for technology developments to be thoughtfully managed so they reflect the underlying society rather than negatively disrupting it. The goal should be what she dubbed “human-centric AI”.

“When we talk about AI and new technologies development for us Europeans it is not only about investing. It is mainly about shaping AI in a way that reflects our European values and principles. An ethical approach to AI is key to enable competitiveness — it will generate user trust and help facilitate its uptake,” she said.

“Trust is the key word. There is no other way. It is only by ensuring trustworthiness that Europe will position itself as a leader in cutting edge, secure and ethical AI. And that European citizens will enjoy AI’s benefits.”

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LG hints at gesture interface for smartphone flagship next month

Posted by | Android, barcelona, gesture interface, hardware, leap motion, LG, LG Premiere, Mobile, mwc, MWC2019, Samsung, smartphone, smartphone hardware, smartphones, TC, touchscreen | No Comments

LG has put out a gesture-heavy hint ahead of the annual unveiling of new smartphone hardware at the world’s biggest mobile confab, Mobile World Congress, which kicks off in a month’s time.

The brief video teaser for its forthcoming MWC press event in Barcelona, which was shared today via LG’s social media channels, shows a man’s hand swiping to change on-screen content, including the message “goodbye touch.”

The title of LG’s teaser video includes the name “LG Premiere,” which could be the name of the forthcoming flagship — albeit that would be confusingly similar to the mid-tier LG Premier of yore. So, hopefully the company is going to make that last ‘e’ really count.

Beyond some very unsubtle magic wand sound effects to draw extra attention to the contactless gestures, the video offers very little to go on. But we’re pretty sure LG is not about to pivot away from touchscreens entirely.

Rather, we’re betting on some sort of Leap Motion -style gesture control interface being added to the front of the handset, using sensors to detect a hovering hand, for example — probably accompanied by heavy marketing about how filthy-with-germs phone screens are so it’s totally better you don’t actually touch them.

Safe to say, the idea looks terribly gimmicky. Or, well, just terrible. This kind of stuff has been tried (and failed to stick) plenty of times before — as long ago as a decade, in the now no longer mobile-maker Sony Ericcson’s case.

Samsung also added a gesture feature, called Air Gesture, to some of its handsets more than five years old — which lets smartphone users do things like wave to answer a call or swipe through air to scroll up. Some of its smartphones also offer hands-free scrolling via facial tracking.

Yet smartphone users everywhere still seem as hooked as ever on actually fingering their touchscreens. And gesture-based interfaces have, fittingly enough, largely failed to stick.

Although you could view Apple’s Face ID technology as a form of non-touch gesture control, as my TC colleague Ingrid Lunden suggests. Albeit the primary point in that case is security/authentication, so it’s more than just a frictionless way to interact with a device without touching it.

Smartphone makers — and Android OEMs especially — are under acute pressure to stand out in a fiercely competitive and growth-stalled market. So despite a flighty history for gesture interfaces on mobile, a bunch of hardware experiments look to be in play, such as whatever LG’s cooking.

And that includes — as we noted earlier today — what’s now open flirtation with foldable tablet smartphones (see: Xiaomi teased a double folder phone.)

We’ll be on the ground in Barcelona to bring you news of all the major hardware releases next month — including keeping an eye on whatever LG is preparing to unbox (but not actually touch) on February 24. So stay tuned.

We just hope that another detail in LG’s description for the teaser video, in which it asks its followers whether they’re “prepared to get stunned by the LG Premiere,” does not augur a highly potent new form of contactless haptic feedback.

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Fleksy’s keyboard grabs $800k+ via equity crowdfunding

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, barcelona, Europe, european union, fleksy, Fundings & Exits, gboard, Microsoft, Mobile, mobile device, palm, smartphone, smartphones, Thingthing, web search | No Comments

The dev team that’s now engineering the Fleksy keyboard app has raised more than $800,000 via an equity crowdfunding route.

As we reported a year ago, the development of Fleksy’s keyboard has been taken over by the Barcelona-based startup behind an earlier keyboard app called ThingThing.

The team says their new funding raise — described as a pre-Series A round — will be put towards continued product development of the Fleksy keyboard, including the core AI engine used for next word and content prediction, plus additional features being requested by users — such as swipe to type. 

Support for more languages is also planned. (Fleksy’s Android and iOS apps are currently available in 45+ languages.)

Their other big push will be for growth: Scaling the user-base via a licensing route to market in which the team pitches Android OEMs on the benefits of baking Fleksy in as the default keyboard — offering a high degree of customization, alongside a feature-set that boasts not just speedy typing but apps within apps and extensions. 

The Fleksy keyboard can offer direct access to web search within the keyboard, for example, as well as access to third party apps (in an apps within apps play) — to reduce the need for full app switching.

This was the original concept behind ThingThing’s eponymous keyboard app, though the team has refocused efforts on Fleksy. And bagged their first OEMs as licensing partners.

They’ve just revealed Palm as an early partner. The veteran brand unveiled a dinky palm-sized ‘ultra-mobile’ last week. The tiny extra detail is that the device runs a custom version of the Fleksy keyboard out of the box.

With just 3.3 inches of screen to play with, the keyboard on the Palm risks being a source of stressful friction. Ergo enter Fleksy, with gesture based tricks to speed up cramped typing, plus tried and tested next-word prediction.

ThingThing CEO Olivier Plante says Palm was looking for an “out of the box optimized input method” — and more than that “high customization”.

“We’re excited to team up with ThingThing to design a custom keyboard that delivers a full keyboard typing experience for Palm’s ultra mobile form factor,” adds Dennis Miloseski, co-founder of Palm, in a statement. “Fleksy enables gestures and voice-to-text which makes typing simple and convenient for our users on the go.”

Plante says Fleksy has more OEM partnerships up its sleeve too. “We’re pending to announce new partnerships very soon and grow our user base to more than 25 million users while bringing more revenue to the medium and small OEMs desperately looking to increase their profit margins — software is the cure,” he tells TechCrunch.

ThingThing is pitching itself as a neutral player in the keyboard space, offering OEMs a highly tweakable layer where the Qwerty sits as its strategy to compete with Android’s keyboard giants: Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-owned SwiftKey. 

“We changed a lot of things in Fleksy so it feels native,” says Plante, discussing the Palm integration. “We love when the keyboard feels like the brand and with Palm it’s completely a Palm keyboard to the end-user — and with stellar performance on a small screen.”

“We’ve beaten our competitor to the punch,” he adds. 

That said, the tiny Palm (pictured in the feature image at the top of this post) is unlikely to pack much of a punch in marketshare terms. While Palm is a veteran — and, to nerds, almost cult — brand it’s not even a mobile tiddler in smartphone marketshare terms.

Palm’s cute micro phone is also an experimental attempt to create a new mobile device category — a sort of netbook-esque concept of an extra mobile that’s extra portable — which looks unlikely to be anything other than extremely niche. (Added to its petite size, the Palm is a Verizon exclusive.)

Even so ThingThing is talking bullishly of targeting 550M devices using its keyboard by 2020.

At this stage its user-base from pure downloads is also niche: Just over 1M active users. But Plante says it has already closed “several phone brands partnerships” — saying three are signed, with three more in the works — claiming this will make Fleksy the default input method in more than 20-30 million active users in the coming months. 

He doesn’t name any names but describes these other partners as “other major phone brands”.

The plan to grow Fleksy’s user-base via licensing has attracted wider investor backing now, via the equity crowdfunding route. The team had initially been targeting ($300k). In all they’ve secured $815,119 from 446 investors.

Plante says they went down the equity crowdfunding route to spread their pitch more widely, and get more ambassadors on board — as well as to demonstrate “that we’re a user-centric/people/independent company aiming big”.

“We are keen to work and fully customize the keyboard to the OEM tastes. We know this is key for them so they can better compete against the others on more than simply the hardware,” he says, making the ‘Fleksy for OEMs’ pitch. “Today, the market is saturated with yet another box, better camera and better screen…. the missing piece in Android ecosystem is software differences.”

Given how tight margins remain for Android makers it remains to be seen how many will bite. Though there’s a revenue share arrangement that sweetens the deal.

It is also certainly true that differentiation in the Android space is a big problem. That’s why Palm is trying its hand at a smaller form factor — in a leftfield attempt to stand out by going small.

The European Union’s recent antitrust ruling against Google’s Android OS has also opened up an opportunity for additional software customization, via unbundled Google apps. So there’s at least a chance for some new thinking and ideas to emerge in the regional Android smartphone space. And that could be good for Spain-based ThingThing.

Aside from the licensing fee, the team’s business model relies on generating revenue via affiliate links and its fleksyapps platform. ThingThing then shares revenue with OEM partners, so that’s another carrot for them — offering a services topper on their hardware margin.

Though that piece will need scale to really spin up. Hence ThingThing’s user target for Fleksy being so big and bold.

“We’re working with brands in order to bring them into any apps where you type, which unlocks brand new use cases and enables the user to share conveniently and the brand to drive mobile traffic to their service,” says Plante. “On this note, we monetize via affiliate/deep linking and operating a fleksyapps Store.”

ThingThing has also made privacy by design a major focus — which is a key way it’s hoping to make the keyboard app stand out against data-mining big tech rivals.

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