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Apple, Google and a Deal That Controls the Internet

OAKLAND, Calif. — When Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the chief executives of Apple and Google, were photographed eating dinner together in 2017 at an upscale Vietnamese restaurant called Tamarine, the picture set off a tabloid-worthy frenzy about the relationship between the two most powerful companies in Silicon Valley.

As the two men sipped red wine at a window table inside the restaurant in Palo Alto, their companies were in tense negotiations to renew one of the most lucrative business deals in history: an agreement to feature Google’s search engine as the preselected choice on Apple’s iPhone and other devices. The updated deal was worth billions of dollars to both companies and cemented their status at the top of the tech industry’s pecking order.

Now, the partnership is in jeopardy. Last Tuesday, the Justice Department filed a landmark lawsuit against Google — the U.S. government’s biggest antitrust case in two decades — and homed in on the alliance as a prime example of what prosecutors say are the company’s illegal tactics to protect its monopoly and choke off competition in web search.

The scrutiny of the pact, which was first inked 15 years ago and has rarely been discussed by either company, has highlighted the special relationship between Silicon Valley’s two most valuable companies — an unlikely union of rivals that regulators say is unfairly preventing smaller companies from flourishing.

“We have this sort of strange term in Silicon Valley: co-opetition,” said Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel from 2009 to 2017. “You have brutal competition, but at the same time, you have necessary cooperation.”

Apple and Google are joined at the hip even though Mr. Cook has said internet advertising, Google’s bread and butter, engages in “surveillance” of consumers and even though Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, once promised “thermonuclear war” on his Silicon Valley neighbor when he learned it was working on a rival to the iPhone.

Apple and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, worth more than $3 trillion combined, do compete on plenty of fronts, like smartphones, digital maps and laptops. But they also know how to make nice when it suits their interests. And few deals have been nicer to both sides of the table than the iPhone search deal.

Nearly half of Google’s search traffic now comes from Apple devices, according to the Justice Department, and the prospect of losing the Apple deal has been described as a “code red” scenario inside the company. When iPhone users search on Google, they see the search ads that drive Google’s business. They can also find their way to other Google products, like YouTube.

A former Google executive, who asked not to be identified because he was not permitted to talk about the deal, said the prospect of losing Apple’s traffic was “terrifying” to the company.

The Justice Department, which is asking for a court injunction preventing Google from entering into deals like the one it made with Apple, argues that the arrangement has unfairly helped make Google, which handles 92 percent of the world’s internet searches, the center of consumers’ online lives.

Online businesses like Yelp and Expedia, as well as companies ranging from noodle shops to news organizations, often complain that Google’s search domination enables it to charge advertising fees when people simply look up their names, as well as to steer consumers toward its own products, like Google Maps. Microsoft, which had its own antitrust battle two decades ago, has told British regulators that if it were the default option on iPhones and iPads, it would make more advertising money for every search on its rival search engine, Bing.

What’s more, competitors like DuckDuckGo, a small search engine that sells itself as a privacy-focused alternative to Google, could never match Google’s tab with Apple.

Apple now receives an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion in annual payments — up from $1 billion a year in 2014 — in exchange for building Google’s search engine into its products. It is probably the single biggest payment that Google makes to anyone and accounts for 14 to 21 percent of Apple’s annual profits. That’s not money Apple would be eager to walk away from.

In fact, Mr. Cook and Mr. Pichai met again in 2018 to discuss how they could increase revenue from search. After the meeting, a senior Apple employee wrote to a Google counterpart that “our vision is that we work as if we are one company,” according to the Justice Department’s complaint.

A forced breakup could mean the loss of easy money to Apple. But it would be a more significant threat to Google, which would have no obvious way to replace the lost traffic. It could also push Apple to acquire or build its own search engine. Within Google, people believe that Apple is one of the few companies in the world that could offer a formidable alternative, according to one former executive. Google has also worried that without the agreement, Apple could make it more difficult for iPhone users to get to the Google search engine.

A spokesman for Apple declined to comment on the partnership, while a Google spokesman pointed to a blog post in which the company defended the relationship.

Even though its bill with Apple keeps going up, Google has said again and again that it dominates internet search because consumers prefer it, not because it is buying customers. The company argues that the Justice Department is painting an incomplete picture; its partnership with Apple, it says, is no different than Coca-Cola paying a supermarket for prominent shelf space.

Other search engines like Microsoft’s Bing also have revenue-sharing agreements with Apple to appear as secondary search options on iPhones, Google says in its defense. It adds that Apple allows people to change their default search engine from Google — though few probably do because people typically don’t tinker with such settings and many prefer Google anyway.

Apple has rarely, if ever, publicly acknowledged its deal with Google, and according to Bernstein Research, has mentioned its so-called licensing revenue in an earnings call for the first time this year.

According to a former senior executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality contracts, Apple’s leaders have made the same calculation about Google as much of the general public: The utility of its search engine is worth the cost of its invasive practices.

“Their search engine is the best,” Mr. Cook said when asked by Axios in late 2018 why he partnered with a company he also implicitly criticized. He added that Apple had also created ways to blunt Google’s collection of data, such as a private-browsing mode on Apple’s internet browser.

The deal is not limited to searches in Apple’s Safari browser; it extends to virtually all searches done on Apple devices, including with Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, and on Google’s iPhone app and Chrome browser.

The relationship between the companies has swung from friendly to contentious to today’s “co-opetition.” In the early years of Google, the company’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, saw Mr. Jobs as a mentor, and they would take long walks with him to discuss the future of technology.

In 2005, Apple and Google inked what at the time seemed like a modest deal: Google would be the default search engine on Apple’s Safari browser on Mac computers.

Quickly, Mr. Cook, then still a deputy to Mr. Jobs, saw the arrangement’s lucrative potential, according to another former senior Apple executive who asked not to be named. Google’s payments were pure profit, and all Apple had to do was feature a search engine its users already wanted.

Apple expanded the deal for its big upcoming product: the iPhone. When Mr. Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he invited Eric Schmidt, Google’s then chief executive, to join him onstage for the first of Apple’s many famous iPhone events.

“If we just sort of merged the two companies, we could just call them AppleGoo,” joked Mr. Schmidt, who was also on Apple’s board of directors. With Google search on the iPhone, he added, “you can actually merge without merging.”

Then the relationship soured. Google had quietly been developing a competitor to the iPhone: smartphone software called Android that any phone maker could use. Mr. Jobs was furious. In 2010, Apple sued a phone maker that used Android. “I’m going to destroy Android,” Mr. Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to.”

A year later, Apple introduced Siri. Instead of Google underpinning the virtual assistant, it was Microsoft’s Bing.

Yet the companies’ partnership on iPhones continued — too lucrative for either side to blow it up. Apple had arranged the deal to require periodic renegotiations, according to a former senior executive, and each time, it extracted more money from Google.

“You have to be able to maintain those relationships and not burn a bridge,” said Mr. Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel, who declined to discuss specifics of the deal. “At the same time, when you’re negotiating on behalf of your company and you’re trying to get the best deal, then, you know, the gloves come off.”

Around 2017, the deal was up for renewal. Google was facing a squeeze, with clicks on its mobile ads not growing fast enough. Apple was not satisfied with Bing’s performance for Siri. And Mr. Cook had just announced that Apple aimed to double its services revenue to $50 billion by 2020, an ambitious goal that would be possible only with Google’s payments.

By the fall of 2017, Apple announced that Google was now helping Siri answer questions, and Google disclosed that its payments for search traffic had jumped. The company offered an anodyne explanation to part of the reason it was suddenly paying some unnamed company hundreds of millions of dollars more: “changes in partner agreements.”

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Apple iPhone 12 Review: Superfast Speed, if You Can Find It

I started this iPhone review in the most peculiar way: by opening a map to find out where I could test it.

That’s because Apple’s newest iPhones, for the first time, work with 5G, the ultrafast fifth-generation wireless networks that will theoretically let people download a movie to their devices in seconds. The problem? The superspeedy 5G networks have not been rolled out everywhere.

I learned this the hard way. When Apple provided The New York Times with iPhone 12s to test on Verizon’s 5G network, I quickly discovered that my neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area didn’t have any 5G connection. So I went on a journey through San Francisco to find the superfast data speeds that Apple and Verizon executives promised when they unveiled the new iPhones last week.

When I found places where I could connect to the fastest 5G networks, the iPhone experience was hugely gratifying. The network delivered download speeds to the phone that were up to seven times as fast as the best broadband services I have ever used.

But the locations where I tracked down ultrafast 5G were far less satisfying. At one point, I found the speedy connection in the back of a Safeway parking lot. Another time I was in front of a Pet Food Express. What would I do with an incredibly fast internet connection there?

In most parts of San Francisco, the iPhone instead drew data from a more vanilla flavor of 5G that Verizon calls “5G Nationwide,” which is the connection that most of the country will get for the foreseeable future. Those download speeds ranged from much slower than to twice as fast as my older iPhone, which was on Verizon’s 4G network.

That’s all to say that despite the hype around 5G, the network underwhelmed. At this point, it should not be the primary reason to splurge on an expensive handset in a pandemic-induced recession.

The iPhone 12, with bright screens and a more robust design, is still a solid upgrade from past iPhones. But you will pay a premium: The device, which becomes available on Friday, starts at $829, up from $699 for last year’s iPhone 11. (Another model, the iPhone 12 Mini, costs $729 but has a smaller screen and ships later this year.)

I tested the iPhone 12 and the high-end iPhone 12 Pro, which starts at $999, for about a week. Here’s how that went.

Image
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T started rolling out 5G networks last year and have marketed them as superfast. But what they aren’t telling you is that there are two flavors of 5G and that the one you will most likely get is not going to be the speedier one.

Here are the two versions of 5G in a nutshell:

  • There’s ultrafast 5G, which is called millimeter wave. (Verizon labels it “5G Ultra Wideband.”) It travels very short distances and has trouble penetrating obstacles and walls. That makes it usable in outdoor spaces like street corners or parks, but probably not in our offices or homes anytime soon. Because of that, only tiny slivers of the country now have superfast 5G.

  • Then there’s “5G Nationwide,” which is more widely available. It travels much farther, but carriers have said it will be only about 20 percent faster than 4G wireless networks.

Image

Credit…Verizon

I saw the differences in 5G firsthand when I opened the Verizon coverage map for San Francisco. Verizon used red to highlight locations with 5G Nationwide, while areas with the ultrafast 5G were marked in dark red. The overwhelming majority of the city was shaded in red, with only small areas in dark red.

To test ultrafast 5G, I drove to six locations that Verizon advertised as having the fast connection and used the Speedtest app from Ookla, a network diagnostics company.

At three of the locations in the city’s Marina district and Mission district, I was immediately disappointed. I walked up and down the streets, constantly refreshing websites and running the Speedtest app, but there was no superfast signal to be found. Instead, I got 4G or vanilla 5G connections.

Verizon said its engineers walked those same streets in the Marina over the weekend and were able to find the superfast 5G connection in one location but confirmed the signal had weakened in the other. (Verizon didn’t immediately comment on the location in the Mission district.)

That led me to conclude that Verizon’s coverage map was unreliable.

Still, I drove to three other locations in the city’s Marina, Presidio Heights and South of Market districts. There, I finally found the fabled superfast 5G — and I was blown away.

Standing in front of a camera store in South of Market, I got 5G speeds reaching 2,160 megabits a second, which was 2,900 percent faster than 4G. Even where it was a tad slower — behind the Safeway parking lot in the Marina district — the 5G iPhone drew speeds of 668 megabits a second, which was 1,052 percent faster than 4G.

These were odd places to have blazing fast speeds, though. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, these areas did not have much foot traffic. The carriers have said ultrafast 5G speeds would be great for data-heavy tasks like streaming video, but I had no desire to do much streaming while standing on those street corners.

Why the nondescript locations? Karen Schulz, a Verizon spokeswoman, said the company ran into complex engineering tasks in San Francisco. While ultrafast 5G relies on access to light poles, most of the city’s utilities infrastructure is underground. Verizon’s progress to deploy 5G has run into red tape, she said.

When I tested the new iPhones on the vanilla 5G network, any speed improvement was hardly noticeable. In the best cases, vanilla 5G was twice as fast as 4G, or 209 megabits a second compared with 103 megabits on 4G. But in some locations, 5G was slower than 4G. In one part of the Mission district, for instance, 5G speeds reached 28 megabits a second compared with 39 megabits on 4G.

Ms. Schulz said that customers should initially expect the 5G Nationwide network to perform like 4G, and that performance and coverage would grow over time.

I’m not sure that’s good enough. I’ve reviewed phones over the past 12 years and covered the transition from 2G to 3G, and from 3G to 4G. I have never seen a network rollout this confusing and spotty — 5G, simply, is a mess.

Image

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Setting aside the network issues, there’s still a handset to review — and that brings much better news.

The design changes to the new iPhones are substantive. The iPhone 12 has a fancy OLED screen, a more modern display technology. So it looks brighter and has more accurate colors than the iPhone 11, which used LCD screen technology. (OLED was previously exclusive to Apple’s high-end iPhones.) The edges of the phone are also now flat instead of round.

The changes have helped the handset shed some weight and thickness while maintaining a roomy 6.1-inch screen. It felt much more comfortable inside my pants pockets than the iPhone 11, which always seemed too thick.

Apple also said it had strengthened the display glass, making it four times less likely to break. It’s difficult to test that scientifically, but I dropped the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro several times by accident on hard surfaces. They survived without any scuffs.

Also new is a charging mechanism that Apple calls MagSafe. It’s basically a new standard to support faster charging via magnetic induction. The new standard will open doors to other companies to make accessories that magnetically attach to iPhones, such as miniature wallets.

I tested both the MagSafe charger and Apple’s MagSafe wallet. But I preferred charging with a normal wire because it was faster, as well as carrying my own wallet, because it can hold more cards.

There’s a major downside to all of the new features: We have to pay a lot for these phones. Apple is also no longer including charging bricks or earphones with the new iPhones since so many people already own power bricks and fancy wireless earbuds. While that will lead to less waste, this shift and the price jump may annoy plenty of people.

It’s tough to recommend splurging on a fancy phone in a pandemic. But here are three quick questions to ask yourself about whether it’s time to upgrade:

  • Can I still get software updates on my current phone?

  • Is my device repairable for a reasonable cost?

  • Am I happy with my phone?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, you will probably be happy investing in this upgrade.

But if you answered yes, wait it out. In a few years, the carriers will probably have a better handle on 5G. At that point, it may even be safe enough to leave the house again and reap the benefits of the mobile companions we carry everywhere.

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

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

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

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

Apple introduces four new iPhones (and more)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Platforms

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

Trends

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

Security

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

Other News

  • Zoom’s new events platform brings apps to video conferencing calls.
  • Messenger update brings new features, including cross-app communication with Instagram. The app gets fun features like chat themes, custom reactions and, soon, selfie stickers and vanish mode. But the bigger news is the (potentially anti-competitive) merging of Facebook’s chat platforms.
  • Life360 leverages TikTok teens’ complaints to start a dialogue and invent a new feature, “Bubbles,” which allows teens (or anyone) to share a generalized location instead of an exact one. The feature gives teens a bit more freedom to roam and make choices without so much parental oversight. Parents, meanwhile, can still be sure their teen is OK, as features like emergency SOS and crash alerts remain functional.
  • Must-read: The MacStories iOS and iPadOS 14 Review. Federico Viticci offers a 23-page deep dive into the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.
    • Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom. The app pairs users with real-life fitness coaching for personal training at home. The round was led by Trustbridge Partners with Caffeinated Capital and Series A investors Kleiner Perkins participating.
    • River raises $10.4M for its app offering news, events and other happenings from around the web, ranging from news stories from top publishers to sports to even notable tweets. The app presents the information in a real-time stream, browsed vertically. There’s also a “For You” page, similar to TikTok.
    • Roblox confidentially filed with the SEC to go public. This cross-platform gaming platform has boomed during coronavirus lockdowns. According to reports, the listing could double Robox’s $4B valuation.
    • Robo Adviser Wealthsimple raises $87M. The funding for the investing app with comparisons to Robinhood was led by Menlo Park-based Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV), valuing the business at $1B.
    • Fitness platform Playbook raises $9.3M. The company offers tools for personal trainers who want to make their own videos, which consumers then browse in Playbook’s mobile app. Backers include E.ventures, Michael Ovitz, Abstract, Algae Ventures, Porsche Ventures and FJ Labs.
    • Live streaming app Moment House raises $1.5M seed. The startup aims to recreate live events in a digital format. LA area investors invested, including Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Kygo’s Palm Tree Crew and Jared Leto. Patreon chief executive Jack Conte and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee also participated.
    • Twilio acquires Segment for $3.2B to help developers build data-fueled apps.
    • E-learning platform Kahoot raises $215M from SoftBank. The Norwegian startup claims to have hosted 1.3 billion “participating players” in the last 12 months. The company’s gamified e-learning platform is used both in schools and in enterprise environments.

Mycons

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

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

Spotify’s new iOS 14 widget

Image Credits: TechCrunch screenshot of Spotify widget

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

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

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Daily Crunch: Apple introduces the iPhone 12

Apple embraces 5G, Facebook Messenger gets better integrated with Instagram and Kahoot raises $215 million. This is your Daily Crunch for October 13, 2020.

The big story: Apple introduces the iPhone 12

Apple’s big event today kicked off with the announcement of the HomePod Mini, but the real focus was on the iPhone — specifically, the iPhone 12.

Pricing for the new iPhone starts at $799. New features include 5G, a magnetic adapter for various accessories (including wireless chargers) and a more durable Corning glass display.

There are four models, so if you’re trying to decide which one you want, we’ve even created a handy chart to keep them all straight.

The tech giants

Alphabet’s latest moonshot is a field-roving, plant-inspecting robo-buggy — Announced with little fanfare in a blog post and site, the Mineral project is still very much in the experimental phase.

Messenger’s latest update brings new features, cross-app communication with Instagram – The changes are a part of Facebook’s overhauled messaging platform, announced in late September, which introduced the ability for Instagram users to communicate with people on Facebook.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Kahoot picks up $215M from SoftBank for its user-generated, gamified e-learning platform — After announcing a modest $28 million raise earlier this year, the user-generated gamified e-learning platform revealed a much bigger round today.

Astroscale raises $51M in Series E funding to fuel its orbital sustainability ambitions — The Japan-based company has been focused on delivering new solutions for orbital end-of-life.

Caliber, with $2.2M in seed funding, launches a fitness coaching platform — The company says it brings on about five of every 100 applications for coaches on the platform, accepting only the very best trainers.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Is the Twilio-Segment deal expensive? — A quick look at the deal’s historical analogs and what we can tell from the numbers.

Should you replace your developer portal with a hybrid integration platform? — Changing your integration approach can reduce time to market and boost revenue.

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

Everything else

Walt Disney announces reorganization to focus on streaming — Disney’s media businesses, ads and distribution and Disney+ will now operate under the same business unit.

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Enola Holmes’ is thoroughly mediocre — I did not enjoy this movie.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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PopSockets is working on MagSafe-compatible iPhone accessories

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m probably not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Image does not show MagSafe-compatible products. 

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Apple’s iPhone 12 starts at $799, sporting 5G and a magnetic adapter

It took a bit longer than usual (thank COVID-19 for some insurmountable manufacturing delays), but the iPhone 12 is here. And as expected, it comes bearing 5G. The latest version of Apple’s smartphone also arrives in a variety of different sizes, as the company continues to adjust to changing consumer purchasing patterns around mobile devices.

The inclusion of next-gen wireless is, of course, the flagship feature here. Apple is far from the first company to offer 5G on a handset, but given a bit of a bottleneck in adoption given the extremely odd year we’ve been experiencing. According to recent numbers from Canalys, only 13% of handsets shipping in the first half of the year were 5G capable. That means there’s a long way to go, and Apple finally adopting the tech will certainly move the needle.

CEO Tim Cook kicked off the announcement by inviting Verizon (TC’s parent co.) on stage to sell the carrier’s UWB take on the tech and announce that it’s gone “nationwide.” 5G will be available on all of the new models announced today. The specifics of the 5G will vary based on location — here in the States, for example, mmwave will also be available.

As expected, the line gets a full redesign, borrowing cues from the iPad Pro, including a flat edge more in line with older devices than the newer curved models. The device is also 11% thinner and lighter than its predecessor. The redesign also makes it possible for the company to pack more antennas into the edge of the device.

There’s a Corning glass display. Apple says it worked directly with with the Gorilla Glass maker to develop ceramic shield, which it states is around six-times more reliable in drop tests. The smartphone sports an OLED display (which appears to be consistent across the new devices, as well), with double the number of pixels as the iPhone 11.

The handset sports the already-announced A14 bionic chip. Apple’s silicon sports six-cores on its CPU and four on its GPU. The latter will go a ways toward extending its position in mobile gaming. The company used that opportunity to announce that it will be bringing Riot Games’ League of Legends: Wild Rift to the handset. As anticipated, the base model 12 sports a dual-camera rear — with 12-megapixel wide and ultra-wide lenses. Night Mode has been improved across the devices and added to the front camera.

Speaking of charging, the Lightning port is still very much on-board, in-spite of dropping it on some iPad models. Speaking of dropping things, Apple is getting rid of a bunch of the inbox accessories, including Earpods and the adapter, ostensibly for environmental purposes.

The new iPhone starts at $799 — $100 more than the also-announced iPhone 12 mini. The model will also be joined by the higher-end Pro and Pro Max, priced up to $1,099.

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Apple reveals the $99 HomePod Mini

Today, during its iPhone hardware event, Apple unveiled the $99 HomePod Mini.

The HomePod Mini is clearly a reach for a broader swath of new users. The original HomePod managed to impress audiophiles but its high price served as a high barrier of entry to new users looking for a new smart speaker. Complicating that “smart speaker” designation is the face that Siri was and is several years behind the intelligence of both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, leaving the speaker as a more compromised choice for users who might have been hoping to embrace the fully smart home ecosystem.

The new device starts shipping the week of November 16. The device comes in white and space grey colors.

The HomePod Mini ditches the trashcan Mac Pro design of its bigger relative and is much more spherical in shape, still covered in a mesh fabric. It boasts the same onboard screen that allows users to summon Siri and adjust volume, while giving the device a more interesting visual look than smart devices from other companies. Also differentiating the device is Apple’s S5 chip which the company says helps the HomePod Mini bring users its “computational audio.”

Like with the original HomePod, users can arrange a stereo pair of two of the HomePod Minis and will also be able to utilize multiple HomePod devices in a home to operate a new “Intercom” experience.

Image Credits: Apple

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Live from Apple’s virtual 2020 iPhone event

Apple’s big iPhone event is finally here – virtually, which is to be expected these days. This is already the second virtual event Apple has hosted this fall, following one in September at which it revealed the Apple Watch Series 6 and a new iPad Air. This time around, we’re going to see what the iPhone 12 looks like, as well as how many colors and sizes it comes in.

There’s also supposed to be plenty of other news, including a new smaller HomePod mini, maybe an updated Apple TV, possibly a number of different headphone products and more. Will we get our first glance at the first shipping ARM-based Mac to use Apple’s in-house processors? Probably not, but maybe!

We’re going to be following along live and offering commentary below, and you can also tune in live to the video stream right here. Everything gets underway at 10 AM PT/ 1 PM ET.

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Former Apple engineer and autocorrect creator builds his first app, a word game called Up Spell

Former Apple software engineer and designer Ken Kocienda, whose work included the original iPhone and the development of touchscreen autocorrect, has created his first iOS app, Up Spell. The fast-paced, fun word game challenges users to spell all the words you can in two minutes and uses a lexicon of words Kocienda built to allow for the inclusion of proper names. A portion of app revenues are also being donated to a local food bank, so you can help give back while relieving stress through gaming.

Kocienda says he had never before made a standalone iOS app.

When he worked at Apple, all the code he wrote was integrated into a bigger iOS release. So when Kocienda got the idea to develop a game, he looked to obvious sources of inspiration: his past experiences with typing, keyboards, and autocorrect.

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The game’s lexicon was built first with the New General Service List to serve as its foundation. This was followed by weeks of writing small programs to generate lists of candidate words — like, by adding an “S” to existing words to pluralize them, for example. And hours more were spent scanning lists to choose the words to include.

Kocienda says he also wanted the game to fun, and personally found it frustrating that other word games wouldn’t allow proper names.

“Many games accept words like PHARAOH and PYRAMID, but not NILE or EGYPT. This doesn’t make sense to me. These are all words!,” he says.

So he built his own list that includes thousands of proper names, then added to it more slang and contractions to expand it even further. That means you can spell a word like S’MORES, which involves an apostrophe, for example.

Image Credits: Up Sell

While support for a variety of words, including proper names, is the key way the gameplay differentiates from rivals, the app’s business model is also one that’s becoming less common these days: it’s a one-time paid download.

The app is a $1.99 download that lets you pay once to play forever. Today, many games in this same space use a freemium model where the app download itself is free, but you’re then nagged with in-app hooks to buy coins or tokens to advance gameplay or unlock certain features.

Kocienda’s decision to forgo this model was intentional, he explains.

“I made Up Spell a two-minute game without much in the way of gameplay gimmicks,” says Kocienda. “You just spell words. 2020 has been a rough year for everyone, and sometimes taking out two minutes to think about nothing but spelling a few words is just the kind of right kind of stress reliever,” he adds. “I hope Up Spell brings people a little unexpected happiness to their 2020.”

Also of note, 25 cents per download is being donated to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, which works to get food to vulnerable people in Kocienda’s area.

If all goes well, Up Spell may be followed by other games with a similar model, like a sounds or color-matching games, for instance.

The new game is a one-time paid download on the App Store.

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India approves Apple partners and Samsung for $143 billion smartphone manufacturing plan

Samsung and three major contract manufacturing partners of Apple are among 16 firms to win $6.65 billion incentives under India’s federal plan to boost domestic smartphone production over the next five years. These companies had applied for the incentive program in August.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said these companies will be producing smartphones and other electronics components worth more than $143 billion over the next five years. In return, India will offer them an incentive of 4% to 6% on additional sales of goods produced locally over five years, with 2019-2020 set as the base year.

New Delhi’s move is aimed at significantly improving India’s manufacturing and exporting capacities and generating more local jobs. Around 60% of the locally produced products will be exported, the Indian ministry said. The companies will generate more than 200,000 direct employment opportunities in next five years and as many as 600,000 indirect employment opportunities during the same period, the ministry said.

The move is also a precursor to how the dynamics among major smartphone makers might change in India, the world’s second largest market, over the next few years. The inclusion of Foxconn, Wistron and Pegatron underscores how rapidly Apple plans to expand its local manufacturing capabilities in India. Wistron began assembling a handful of iPhone models in India three years ago, followed by Foxconn. Pegatron has yet to start production in India.

“Apple and Samsung together account for nearly 60% of global sales revenue of mobile phones and this scheme is expected to increase their manufacturing base manifold in the country,” the ministry said.

“Industry has reposed its faith in India’s stellar progress as a world class manufacturing destination and this resonates strongly with Prime Minister’s clarion call of AtmaNirbhar Bharat – a self-reliant India,” the ministry added.

Indian firms Lava, Bhagwati (Micromax), Padget Electronics, UTL Neolyncs and Optiemus Electronics have also received the approval. But missing from the list are Chinese smartphone makers Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Realme that had not applied for the program. Chinese smartphone vendors currently command about 80% of the Indian market. Samsung, which once led the Indian smartphone market, has faced intense competition from Xiaomi and Vivo in recent years.

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