Fairphone’s new flagship, the 3+, costs just €70 as a modular upgrade

Dutch social enterprise, Fairphone, has moved a little closer to the sustainability dream of a circular economy by announcing the launch of a modular upgrade for its flagship smartphone.

The backwards compatible hardware units mean users of last year’s Fairphone 3 only need swap out a few modules to be holding the Fairphone 3+ in their hand instead of buying a whole new device.

Fairphone pulled off a similar feat with an earlier model of its ‘ethical smartphone’ but this time it’s managed to shrink the time it took it to offer ‘plug and play’ upgrade modules for its latest gen device.

“What we’ve been able to do is get that whole idea of plug and play to the consumer within the smartphone business,” says Fairphone co-founder Bas van Abel . “That part is not trivial because you have to imagine that getting everything into that module and being able to put it into the old phone… Not only the hardware has to fit and everything has to connect in the right way in that previous kind of architecture but also the software.

“But we’ve been able to do that, and it took some time but we’ve done it way faster than we were able to do it with the Fairphone 2. So we’re proud of that as well.”

“The most important part is it’s really also a signal towards the industry that it’s possible to do upgrades with your phone and not have to come out with a totally new phone every year,” he adds.

Finding clever ways to extend device longevity is a core plank of Fairphone’s mission. The biggest resource sinkhole associated with smartphone consumption is the annual or biennial upgrade cycle which encourages consumers to swap perfectly functional phones for a shiny new model. Fairphone 3 owners can get its latest kit with a cleaner conscience.

Fairphone is selling the Fairphone 3+ camera and audio modules separately for current Fairphone 3 users — at an initial cost of €70 until the end of September (rising to ~€95 from October).

It is also selling a Fairphone 3+ handset for an RRP of €469, aimed at new to the brand users — opening up pre-sales from today on its website and via partner retailers, with a release date of September 14 across Europe.

Specs wise, the 4G Fairphone 3+ has a 5.7in Full-HD display with an 18:9 aspect ratio and is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 chipset. Out of the box it runs Android 10. On board there’s 4GB of RAM and 64GB of ROM, expandable via microSD. The removable battery is 3,000mAh. There’s also Bluetooth 5.0, NFC and a fingerprint scanner.  

van Abel confirms the business will continue to sell last year’s flagship — but at a reduced price of around €400.

The 3+ modules are only backwards compatible one generation of Fairphone which means anyone still using a Fairphone 2 can’t get this plug and play upgrade. The blocker there is the core module, per van Abel, who says not being able to swap the SOC out for an upgraded chipset remains the biggest challenge for modular upgrades that are able to span more than one smartphone generation.

“Our vision is definitely there that you can also eventually replace the core module… where the modem and the processor is,” he says, hazarding that it might be possible “within a couple of years”.

However the wider issue is the component industry still moves so fast it remains way out of step with Fairphone’s goal of longevity. The social enterprise pledges to provide up to five years of support for each device it sells, meaning it needs relevant spare parts to still be available in order that it can offer replacements or else stockpile them itself — a capital intensive process. And one that’s at sharp odds with the blistering upgrade trajectory of processor manufacturers.

From a sustainability and resource perspective, the best option is also for a smartphone user to keep using the same chipset for as long as possible. The maturity of the smartphone market and commoditization of the tech — leading to the more iterative device refreshes we generally see now — also tacitly supports that.

van Abel can point to consumers holding onto a handset for an average of about double the time they did when Fairphone got started. It’s a drift that’s providing uplift to environmentally sensitive brand focused on innovating to produce smartphones with a longer lifespan.

“We’ve done a lifecycle assessment on the Fairphone 3 and what comes out of that we’ve also tested what parts of the phone have what kind of footprint and you also see that almost 80% of the CO2 footprint of the phone is within the making and the production of the SOC,” he says. “So that means that if you really want to look at it from a sustainability perspective it really makes sense to keep that part of the phone just as long as possible. Because most of the harm on nature is on that part. So even replacing that part — being able to swap that part — it’s great but it’s kind of a shame that we throw away a lot of stuff and modules and components in the phone.”

“Recycling in the phone business at the moment is plain stupid,” he adds. “How it’s done is you collect the phones and they put them in an oven — they burn them. And then they get the minerals out… You can still reuse the minerals but there’s nothing smart about that. Nothing really has been reused so all the capacitors, the glass of the screen… So it does make sense at a certain point to being also able to swap the processor like you were able to do with the computers in the old days.”

When we reviewed the Fairphone 3 last year we were impressed by how normal the Android device felt — belying its modular, deconstructable interior and all the years of effort Fairphone has ploughed into scrutinising and reworking supply chains to be able to stand up its bold claim of a phone that “dares to be fair”.

Now, with the launch of the Fairphone 3+ modules, last year’s handset is getting a boost to its camera hardware — with a 48MP main lens and a 16MP front-facing lens offered as replacements to last year’s 12MP and 8MP units via the new modules (the main and front modules can be purchased separately or as an upgrade bundle).

On the surface that looks like a huge step up in hardware but it’s down to the camera module using the Samsung GM1 sensor — which uses tiny pixels of 0.8-micro to deliver light sensitivity equal to 1.6-micro pixels.

So it’s actually a software technique to eke more out of the hardware, with a trade off in that it entails some compression of picture quality. A Fairphone spokeswoman confirmed the main lens’ “effective output” is still 12MP. “This is common practice in the industry with phones such as the Samsung S5KGM1, Samsung Galaxy A90 5G, Nokia 7.2 and the Sony IMX363,” she added.

As we noted in our review of the Fairphone 3 last September, the 2019 flagship took a fairly standard snap — with photo quality closer to acceptable, than stand out. The performance gap vs the premium end of the smartphone market was noticeable, even as Fairphone had substantially bested performance vs its earlier handsets.

The company looks keen to further shrink the photo quality gap. Now it touts “significantly” improved photo and video quality via the 3+ upgrade — which it says supports “sharper selfies and clearer video calls”.

It’s also done work to optimize the software, noting support for enhanced object tracking, faster autofocus and image stabilization “for more reliable shots”. While the new audio module serves “louder, crisper sound”, per its press release.

A focus on boosting photo and video performance makes sense given how central the camera has become for smartphone users — feeding into the rise of trendy social video sharing apps like TikTok.

Successfully convincing consumers to hold onto their existing handset for longer means paying attention to such app trends to make sure hardware and software are keeping up with how people are using their phones.

For buyers of the Fairphone 3+ handset there’s another improvement: It boasts 40% recycled plastics — up from just 9% in last year’s model. Fairphone says the volume of recycled plastics is now equivalent to a 33cl plastic drinking bottle — so that’s one piece of plastic waste prevented from ending up in the sea (for now).

While some might wonder if there’s a subtle contradiction in a sustainable smartphone brand launching a new model only a year after unboxing last year’s flagship, van Abel says expanding the portfolio in important — as part of the overall mission to grow demand for ethical smartphones.

That demand is in turn needed to build momentum for the kind of industry-wide shift required for a wholesale upgrade to a circular economy. And the potential of offering devices as a services.

“We want to sell as many phones as possible — because our mission is to show that there is a demand for ethical phones,” he tells TechCrunch. “So the more phones we sell the more we can show that the demand is really there. But that also makes a problem in terms of longevity so we have another KPI where we say we want people to use our phone as long as possible — so we measure how long people actually use our phones and that’s improving every year as well. So a sales person at Fairphone they get a very hard kind of assignment because they have to sell as many phones as possible but they can’t approach people that already have them.”

“We’re challenging ourselves to disconnect the business model from these resources as much as possible but because we take that challenge in the core of our business I think we’re also ahead of where the industry needs to move towards,” he adds.

“Nobody can neglect the fact that we’re running out of resources and it’s getting harder and harder to get these resources. Look at cobalt, for example. Lithium ion batteries. There’s a run on cobalt. It’s gone like 10x, 20x the price it used to be — because we have this energy transition that we need all kinds of batteries for. So even sustainability needs these resources that you can’t get purely from recycling. So we know that this has to change. Even for geopolitical reasons I think that what we’re doing forces us to be ahead of the game.”

Demand for Fairphones has been building steadily over the past decade and the social enterprise is now “almost” at profitability, per van Abel. “We’ve sold over 200k phones — of which 60k were Fairphone 1s. We’ve sold over 100k Fairphone 2s. And last year we sold almost 50k Fairphone 3s and this year we’re aiming for over 100k Fairphone 3+,” he says.

“We’ve never had a portfolio. Now we actually have a portfolio of two phones, Fairphone 3 and 3+, because we’re going to sell the 3 as well at a lower price with the older modules — the previous modules — and the 3+ with the new modules. So that we also have a price point for people that don’t need the newest camera improvements.”

Fairphone remains very much a European project — one that’s perfectly positioned to benefit from a pan-EU push towards sustainability and a circular economy in the coming years. (A ‘right to repair’ Commission proposal for mobiles certainly looks helpful.)

For now, the biggest market for Fairphones is still Germany, per van Abel. While he says its focus for sales of the new portfolio is to push for more growth in Germany, with France, Holland and the UK its other main markets of continued focus. “We’re aiming more also at Scandinavia,” he adds.

“The danger of a commoditizing industry is where you get a lot of easy, cheap access to all these technologies and you see it moving towards two sides: The high end and the really low end stuff. But I hope that customers will also value the companies themselves, and the brands and what they stand for. Whereas [iPhone maker] Apple stands for design; they have a premium to it — you buy something more than just the phone. And I think Fairphone has that as well.

“We have a compelling story. Especially you see the group of conscious consuming growing within every report I read. You see it growing steadily each year. So people do take more notice of what they actually buy.”

Funding wise, the social enterprise is comfortably positioned with the debt, equity and growth financing it raised a few years back from impact investors. Though van Abel moots the possibility of taking in more funding to put towards marketing and help it keep scaling.

“But at the moment we’re good,” he adds. “The impact investors are very patient. It goes with the mission of the company. I think people really are part of Fairphone — participate in this company because they believe not only in the cash return but also in the impact.”

He also notes that Fairphone is also doing separate financing for some related initiatives in the supply chain which are required to underpin its claim of fair and ethical electronics.

“A good example of that is the fair cobalt alliance that we’ve just set up,” he says. “We’re really proud of that. We have set up a great consortium with mining companies, with refineries, with big companies like Signify, that are part of that supply chain of cobalt. It’s partly funded, as well, by the Dutch government. So we have more of a broker position — and that is the nice thing about being a social enterprise. You sometimes can be in between the non-profit and the for-profit sector. You can bridge easily those two worlds.”

Mobile voting can ease polling place unease in the COVID-19 era

A bitterly divided nation heads into the 2020 presidential election with accusations of potential voter fraud, calls for delays and charges of voter suppression as state and local election officials cope with the ongoing threat of COVID-19.

Their challenge: Keep the polling places safe and efficient while providing more effective and trustworthy options for citizens.

Efforts to expand mail-in voting options because of COVID-19 were criticized for overwhelming election clerks and disenfranchising voters, whose ballots were either lost or not counted during the primaries.

Recently, government and media criticism of allowing more mail-in voting beyond traditional absentee ballots has cast a harsh light on flaws in the system.

I believe we can implement a better technology choice that guarantees a voter’s identity, keeps the vote anonymous and keeps voters safe from COVID-19. A mobile voting system that provides a supplemental option to in-person voting makes the most sense in this highly charged political atmosphere.

We have an archaic voting system

Efforts to provide voting options beyond in-person balloting have increased over the years to encourage greater turnout, which is still abysmally low. Ideas such as mail-in balloting, extended hours, weekend voting and other options have found mixed success, but still rely on old, outdated processes. The decentralized nature of the U.S. election process, in which individual towns choose their preferred voting method, has resulted in voting devices that range from paper ballots to mechanical voting machines to electronic voting via a touch-screen tablet.

One only needs to look at the 2000 presidential election recount to see this archaic process in action, as the term “hanging chad” entered the lexicon. Many efforts around improving the election process began as a result of the 2000 election, but now, two decades later, we still see the same process, and the same mistakes, in many locations.

Efforts aimed at expanding mail-in voting earlier this year during the primaries were troubling. In one Pennsylvania county, 6,000 voters were not mailed their ballots until the day before the election, preventing them from getting ballots postmarked before the deadline.

Across the nation, voters requested ballots but did not receive them in time to vote. Even when ballots were mailed in on time, election officials were overwhelmed with the spike in volume.

In-person voting: Long lines, masks, dangerous for at-risk populations

With the COVID-19 virus maintaining its hold on a large part of the country, election officials need to develop in-person voting plans that keep residents safe, but the potential for disaster looms. In many locales, a presidential election often results in long lines and wait times at polling centers, often with understaffed officials or volunteers working tables to verify voter registration.

Many of these volunteers are older Americans, members of the highest-risk population for developing serious complications from the virus. Not only will election officials need to ensure the safety of voters, but they will also need to make sure their own workers and volunteers are protected. This means developing more protocols, testing and potential disinfection procedures, which could extend the time it takes for people to vote.

Given the potential of a multihour wait with hundreds or more people in line, many citizens would likely simply choose to not vote, which would be a greater disaster to American democracy.

Mobile voting is secure

A mobile voting system allows registered voters to use their mobile phones and a verified app to record their vote. Using blockchain technology, an app can provide an audit trail that verifies the identity of the voter, and keeps their vote anonymous. Mobile voting systems can also include a paper record for additional security.

Early mobile voting programs have allowed an easier way for citizens and military personnel overseas to cast their ballots. The same is true for individuals with physical disabilities that could also be vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

A 2018 mobile voting pilot program for citizens and military personnel overseas held in West Virginia provided a high rate of engagement.

Mobile voting has also proved more secure than other electronic voting methods, including web-based voting systems. Critics of electronic voting have lobbed accusations of potential hacking, but the facts tell a different story.

As of May 2020, Tusk Philanthropies has successfully completed 14 mobile voting pilots in five states with several mobile voting technology platforms and a mix of overseas voters and those with disabilities. It’s good to be concerned about election security, but mobile voting offers more security than existing electoral systems, which can include late or lost ballots, incorrect markings, machine breakdowns and other errors.

Democracy is strengthened when everyone participates

In these challenging and worrisome times, trust and faith in our government leaders is of utmost importance. The right for Americans to vote in a safe, secure and trustworthy environment is fundamental to continue the ideals that so many of our predecessors fought and died to protect.

When more citizens participate in the process, democracy is strengthened. Failing to explore new options to prevent a voting disaster this fall amidst a global pandemic could have grave repercussions on the future of this nation.

OneKey wants to make it easier to work without a desktop by integrating apps into mobile keyboards

“The app that you use the most on your phone and you don’t realize it is your keyboard,” says Christophe Barre the co-founder and chief executive of OneKey.

A member of Y Combinator’s most recent cohort, OneKey has a plan to make work easier on mobile devices by turning the keyboard into a new way to serve up applications like calendars, to-do lists, and, eventually, even Salesforce functionality.

People have keyboards for emojis, other languages, and gifs, but there have been few ways to integrate business apps into the keyboard functionality, says Barre. And he’s out to change that.

Right now, the company’s first trick will be getting a Calendly-like scheduling app onto the keyboard interface. Over time, the company will look to create modules that they can sell in an app-store style marketplace for the keyboard space on smartphones.

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For Barre, the inspiration behind OneKey was the time spent working in Latin America and primarily conducting business through WhatsApp. The tool was great for messaging, but enterprise functionality broke down across for scheduling or other enterprise app integrations.

“People are doing more and more stuff on mobile and it’s happening right now in business,” said Barre. “When you switch from a computer-based world to a mobile phone, a lot of the productivity features disappear.”

Barre, originally from the outskirts of Paris, traveled to Bogota with his partner. She was living there and he was working on a sales automation startup called DeepLook. Together with his DeepLook co-founder (and high school friend), Ulysses Pryjiel, Barre set out to see if he could bring some of the business tools he needed over to the mobile environment.

The big realization for Barre was the under-utilized space on the phone where the keyboard inputs reside. He thinks of OneKey as a sort of browser extension for mobile phones, centered in the keyboard real estate.

“The marketplace for apps is the longterm vision,” said Barre. “That’s how you bring more and more value to people. We started with those features like calendars and lists that brought more value quickly without being too specialized.”

The idea isn’t entirely novel. SwiftKey had a marketplace for wallpapers, Barre said, but nothing as robust as the kinds of apps and services that he envisions.

“If you can do it in a regular app, it’s very likely that you can do it through a keyboard,” Barre said.

Hackers release a new jailbreak that unlocks every iPhone

A renowned iPhone hacking team has released a new “jailbreak” tool that unlocks every iPhone, even the most recent models running the latest iOS 13.5.

For as long as Apple has kept up its “walled garden” approach to iPhones by only allowing apps and customizations that it approves, hackers have tried to break free from what they call the “jail,” hence the name “jailbreak.” Hackers do this by finding a previously undisclosed vulnerability in iOS that break through some of the many restrictions that Apple puts in place to prevent access to the underlying software. Apple says it does this for security. But jailbreakers say breaking through those restrictions allows them to customize their iPhones more than they would otherwise, in a way that most Android users are already accustomed to.

The jailbreak, released by the unc0ver team, supports all iPhones that run iOS 11 and above, including up to iOS 13.5, which Apple released this week.

Details of the vulnerability that the hackers used to build the jailbreak aren’t known, but it’s not expected to last forever. Just as jailbreakers work to find a way in, Apple works fast to patch the flaws and close the jailbreak.

Security experts typically advise iPhone users against jailbreaking, because breaking out of the “walled garden” vastly increases the surface area for new vulnerabilities to exist and to be found.

The jailbreak comes at a time where the shine is wearing off of Apple’s typically strong security image. Last week, Zerodium, a broker for exploits, said it would no longer buy certain iPhone vulnerabilities because there were too many of them. Motherboard reported this week that hackers got their hands on a pre-release version of the upcoming iOS 14 release several months ago.

Top members of Google’s Pixel team have left the company

Key Pixel team members Marc Levoy and Mario Queiroz are out at Google. The departures, first reported by The Information, have been confirmed on the pages of the former Distinguished Engineer and Pixel General Manager, respectively.

Both members were key players on Google’s smartphone hardware team before exiting earlier this year. Levoy was a key member of the Pixel imaging team, with an expertise in computational photography that helped make the smartphone’s camera among the best in class. Queiroz was the number two on the Pixel team.

The exits come as the software giant has struggled to distinguish itself in a crowded smartphone field. The products have been generally well-received (with the exception of the Pixel 4’s dismal battery life), but the Android-maker has thus far been unable to rob much market share from the likes of Samsung and Huawei.

The Information report sheds some additional light on disquiet among the Pixel leadership. Hardware head Rick Osterloh reportedly voiced some harsh criticism during an all-hands late last year. It certainly seems possible the company saw fit to shake things up a bit, though Google declined TechCrunch’s request for comment.

Breaking into the smartphone market has been a white whale for the company for some time. Google has explored the space through its Nexus partnerships, along with its short-lived Motorola Mobility acquisition (2012-2014). The Pixel is possibly the most successful of these projects, but Google’s struggles have coincided with an overall flattening of the market.

The company did find some success with last year’s budget Pixel 3A. The followup Pixel 4A was rumored for a late May launch, though the device has reportedly been delayed.

Apple introduces new $399 iPhone SE with Touch ID and 4.7″ screen

Apple has dropped a new iPhone SE on the market today. It’s a 4.7” iPhone with a physical home button, Touch ID, a single rear-facing camera and the A13 Bionic chip on board. With a $399 starting price point, the new SE is aimed squarely at new iPhone users or first time smartphone buyers but could appeal to those who want the smallest iPhone model currently available above other considerations.

It comes in black, silver and Product(RED) editions and features a single rear-facing camera and a single front-facing camera. This is Apple’s new entry-level iPhone.

The overall package is pretty appealing here. It’s got the same A13 chip as in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro and Apple tells me that the processor performance in the SE is comparable and not toned down for the more affordable unit.

The display is Apple’s Retina HD unit, which is an LCD panel. It is not a Liquid Retina display like the iPhone 11 and iPhone XR. I’m still waiting on specs to see what we’re looking at from a contrast ration perspective here, but it does have True Tone.

Probably the biggest defining feature of the iPhone SE besides its size is its inclusion of a physical home button with Touch ID instead of the Face ID system we’ve come to expect on new iPhones. It’s not clear now whether that’s due to size constraints preventing the inclusion of the needed front-facing True Depth Camera array — but pricing is probably just as likely to figure in this calculation.

Touch ID is reliable and even preferred by some users, though the physical home buttons have long been one of the biggest hardware failure points of iPhones with the feature. In our new mask-using world, though, some ground swell of Touch ID enthusiasm has been gaining. It’s hard to make Face ID systems properly recognize you behind a cloth wrap covering half of your face. This has been an issue for a while in Asia, where mask wearing has long been a matter of courtesy during allergy season or when a person is ill.

Camera and Comparisons

A couple of main items make Apple’s claim that the iPhone SE is ‘the best single-camera system’ supportable. You may recall that the iPhone XR also supported portrait mode and had the same resolution of rear camera. But with the iPhone SE, you have the A13 bionic, a new ISP and the Neural Engine that have improved things significantly in the machine learning department — allowing for segmentation masks and semantic rendering, two big improvements that make the portrait mode far more effective in recent iPhone models.

Apple only supported 3 lighting effects on the XR — the ones where you didn’t have to strip away the background. Those require more beef in the rendering and separation pipeline so the iPhone SE can do those now. The iPhone SE also has the improved Smart HDR that came to the iPhone 11 — once again tied to the chip.

You also get a bunch of other benefits of that new image pipeline including expanded dynamic range while shooting video at 4k 30fps, 4k 60 cinematic stabilization and the improved smart HDR while shooting still images. Also brought all 6 lighting effects to the front facing camera in this model.

It’s very like you’re getting iPhone 11 Pro image pipeline attached to a single-camera system — but, and it’s a big but — you don’t get Night Mode. Night Mode is one of the most compelling iPhone camera features in a very long time, so buying the new SE is really a price and size over camera equation.

Lineup Placement

This lineup puts the current iPhones Apple produces at roughly 7 as far as I can tell. The iPhone XR, XS and XS Max, iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro and this new model. The iPhone SE’s pricing is incredibly attractive at $399 with 64GB of storage with only a $50 bump to $449 for 128GB.

If you’re comparing the iPhone XR to the iPhone SE, your only real consideration for the older model would be that you must have the larger screen size. But that seems like a hard sell at $200 more.

Overall, Apple seems to be working hard to mortar over the gaps in its iPhone pricing umbrella, making entry into its ecosystem more attractive. Once in, iPhone users tend to stick for the most part, both because of service-based lock-ins and high customer satisfaction.

Apple said to be planning fall iPhone refresh with iPad Pro-like design

Apple is readying a new iPhone for fall to replace the iPhone 11 Pro this fall, Bloomberg reports, as well as follow-ups to the iPhone 11, a new smaller HomePod, and a locator tag accessory. The top-end iPhone 11 Pro successors at least will have a new industrial design that more closely resembles the iPad Pro, with flat screens and sides instead of the current rounded edge design, and they’ll also include the 3D LIDAR sensing system that Apple introduced with the most recent iPad Pro refresh in March.

The new highs-end iPhone design will look more like the iPhone 5, Bloomberg says, with “flat stainless steel edges,” and the screen on the lager version will be slightly bigger than the 6.5-inch display found on the current iPhone 11 Pro Max. It could also feature a smaller version of the current ‘notch’ camera cutout in at the top end of the display, the report claims.

Meanwhile, the LIDAR tracking system added to the rear camera array will be combined with processor speed and performance improvements, which should add up to significant improvements in augmented reality (AR) performance. The processor improvements are also designed to help boost on-device AI performance, the report notes.

These phones are still planned for a fall launch and release, though some of them could be available “multiple weeks later than normal,” Bloomberg claims, owing to disruptions caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Other updates to the company’s product line on the horizon include a new smaller HomePod that’s around 50 percent smaller than the current version, with a planned launch sometime later this year. It’ll offer a price advantage versus the current model, and the report claims it’ll also come alongside Siri improvements and expansion of music streaming service support beyond Apple’s own. There’s also Apple Tags, which Apple itself has accidentally tipped as coming – a Tile-like Bluetooth location tracking accessory. Bloomberg says that could come out this year.

Finally, the report says there are updates to the MacBook Pro, Apple TV, lower-end iPads and iMac on the way, which is not surprising given Apple’s usual hardware update cadence. There’s no timeline for release on any of those, and it remains to be seen how the COVID-19 situation impacts these plans.

The intersection of small business, tech and our financial system is more important than ever

The two of us oversaw the U.S. Small Business Administration’s capital, investment, loan and innovation programs serving America’s small businesses. The nation is rooting for our 30 million small businesses. They employ more than half of the country and create most net new jobs, and 80% of them have less than 60 days cash on hand.

The world has never experienced dislocation of labor and business activity at this scale and speed. We applaud Congress and the White House for stepping up with a $2 trillion relief package, of which, $350 billion is being injected into America’s small businesses. Another $250 billion is being contemplated and negotiated as we write this.

Washington has been talking regularly with the financial sector, and for small business relief to be effective, banks of all sizes, fintechs, other tech companies, community banks and other capital conduits need to be involved in the solution. There is an urgent need to deploy the funds, and technology will be critical to that end.

Two encouraging developments  occurred on Wednesday: 1) SBA launched a new AWS-powered gateway for a streamlined lender entry point and 2) an application for non-bank, non-insured (read: fintech) lenders was made available. Good steps for sure, but retrofits always come with limitations at their root.

Looking back to move forward, the crisis of 2008 was in many ways a “dress rehearsal” of what we are experiencing now. While there are some similarities, the pandemic’s massive toll on virtually every sector of the economy is happening simultaneously, as evidenced by the fact that 17 million people have filed for jobless claims.

The financial crisis was driven by excess risk in the financial system whose shock rippled through our economy with some level of predictability. The number of exogenous factors of the pandemic’s effect on our economy are more interconnected, more widely spread and faster to hit than those in 2008.

This 21st century problem requires 21st century solutions, and that requires fresh thinking, from policy-to-execution. The large part of our economy that lives at the intersection of small business and the financial system is expecting this thinking and execution.

It must be pointed out that some constraints and limitations of implementing the CARES Act are not regulatory in nature — they are born out of legacy technologies that slow banks down. The antiquated systems of our government agencies, such as SBA’s much talked about and clunky E-Tran system, do not help either.

Government agencies, let alone their systems, were not built to deal with anything of this magnitude and urgency. But the inherent scalability, penetration, infrastructure, algorithmic capability and plumbing of financial technology should be brought to bear, and now! More on this below.

The financial system has significant tech adoption lags, organizational inertia and regulatory constraints — all contributing to the chaotic nature of the programs’ implementation. The design of a potential fourth phase of relief should take this into account. While pumping more money into small businesses is a good decision, the process and its underpinning needs to be improved.

We want regulators and agencies to help minimize the impact to American small businesses and implement the CARES Act in the spirit of what Congress intended. We don’t believe much cash has reached taxpaying citizens or small businesses as of this writing. According to the latest figures, SBA has guaranteed 25% of the relief. While this is an encouraging marker, it is still a small fraction of the $350 billion.

Probably more important for people to understand is that when banks secure loan guarantees, that does not immediately translate to funded loans injecting cash into small businesses.

For cash to move, a few things would help smooth the glide path from CARES Act to small businesses: 1) finalizing definitive guidance on bank notes; 2) enhancing secondary market liquidity; 3) developing a 21st century digital interface for more streamlined touch points for all stakeholders; and 4) opening the pathway to new players, including fintech companies as service providers, rails or lenders themselves.

This is important because SBA has been tasked to increase its capacity by a factor of at least 50. All of its credit programs combined put out $25 billion a year. The task at hand: $350 billion in 8-12 weeks. We know SBA has been working 24×7 — along with Treasury, FRB and other agencies — on systems, technology and execution, but there are real friction points working against solving the problem at hand.

The Federal Reserve’s liquidity backstop for SBA loans is welcome news, but it will take time to develop. Equally welcome news is FDIC’s easing on community bank leverage ratios. Regulators are considering relaxing additional prudent and temporary requirements and limits. This all assists the endeavor, yet there are still unanswered questions keeping lenders of all stripes on the sidelines.

The use of digital constructs and 21st century technology is highly needed due to the amount of dollars, number of loans and the short window we have to deploy them. We urge the SBA, other agencies and regulators to deploy energy and resources to leverage digital finance and financial technology.

Financial technology can help streamline applications, comply with know-your-customer and anti-money laundering rules and application automation. Technology also improves origination, underwriting, loan disbursement and loan servicing, and should be leveraged. Millions of small businesses, the most vulnerable ones in fact, don’t use bank credit. Yet many use Square to accept payments, for example. Fintech now has an open door to participate — good! We encourage regulators to fully leverage the collective capabilities of technology.

Not everyone has a printer, let alone the ability to walk into a bank — but most small businesses and their owners have mobile phones and a digital footprint. A number of fintech companies provide technology to banks themselves, and in those cases, banks should use this time with alacrity to leverage those capabilities. To be clear, fintech is no longer an innovation experiment, given the $200 billion that has been invested in financial technology since the financial crisis.

There is immeasurable pressure to get capital out on the one hand, but on the other, tight regulations create an equally forceful pull. COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the need to usher in a financial system that works for all, and technology is central to that. If there is a time to try new constructs, that time is now!

The problem with losing a job is that it is very hard to re-create. Preserving them, which is the guiding principle of all the recent government action — is energy better spent. Let’s focus on preserving jobs and providing relief to our economy’s beating heart — small businesses.

With lower bandwidth, Disney+ opens streaming service in UK, Ireland, 5 other European countries, France to come online April 7

Disney+, the streaming service from the Walt Disney Company, has been rapidly ramping up in the last several weeks. But while some of that expansion has seen some hiccups, other regions are basically on track. Today, as expected, Disney announced that it is officially launching in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Switzerland; it also reconfirmed the delayed debut in France will be coming online on April 7.

Seven is the operative number here, it seems: it’s the largest multi-country launch so far for the service.

“Launching in seven markets simultaneously marks a new milestone for Disney+,“ said Kevin Mayer, Chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International, in a statement. “As the streaming home for Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic, Disney+ delivers high-quality, optimistic storytelling that fans expect from our brands, now available broadly, conveniently, and permanently on Disney+. We humbly hope that this service can bring some much-needed moments of respite for families during these difficult times.”

Pricing is £5.99/€6.99 per month, or £59.99/€69.99 for an annual subscription. Belgium, the Nordics, and Portugal, will follow in summer 2020.

The service being rolled out will feature 26 Disney+ Originals plus an “extensive collection” of titles (some 500 films, 26 exclusive original movies and series and thousands of TV episodes to start with) from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic, and other content producers owned by the entertainment giant, in what has been one of the boldest moves yet from a content company to go head-to-head with OTT streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

The expansion of Disney+ has been caught a bit in the crossfire of world events. The new service is launching at what has become an unprecedented time for streaming: because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of of the world is being told to stay home.

That means huge demand for new services to entertain and distract people who are now sheltering in place. But it has also been putting a huge strain on broadband networks, and to be a responsible streamer (and to make sure quality is not too impacted), Disney confirmed (as it previously said it would) it would be launching the service with “lower overall bandwidth utilization by at least 25%.

Titles in the mix debuting today include “The Mandalorian” live-action Star Wars series; a live-action “Lady and the Tramp,” “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,”; “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” docuseries from National Geographic; “Marvel’s Hero Project,” which celebrates extraordinary kids making a difference in their communities; “Encore!,” executive produced by the multi-talented Kristen Bell; “The Imagineering Story” a 6-part documentary from Emmy and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks and animated short film collections “SparkShorts” and “Forky Asks A Question” from Pixar Animation Studios.

Some 600 episodes of “The Simpsons” is also included (with the latest season 31 coming later this year).

With entire households now being told to stay together and stay inside, we’re seeing a huge amount of pressure being put on to broadband networks and a true test of the multiscreen approach that streaming services have been building over the years. In this case, you can use all the usuals: mobile phones, streaming media players, smart TVs and gaming consoles to watch the Disney+ service (including Amazon devices, Apple devices, Google devices, LG Smart TVs with webOS, Microsoft’s Xbox Ones, Roku, Samsung Smart TVs and Sony / Sony Interactive Entertainment, with the ability to use four concurrent streams per subscription, or up to 10 devices with unlimited downloads. As you would expect, there is also the ability to set up parental controls and individual profiles.

Carriers with paid-TV services that are also on board so far include Deutsche Telekom, O2 in the UK, Telefonica in Spain, TIM in Italy and Canal+ in France when the country comes online. No BT in the UK, which is too bad for me (sniff). Sky and NOW TV are also on board.

Apple agrees to settlement of up to $500 million from lawsuit alleging it throttled older phones

Apple Inc. has agreed to pay a settlement of up to $500 million, following a lawsuit accusing the company of intentionally slowing down the performance of older phones to encourage customers to buy newer models or fresh batteries.

The preliminary proposed class action lawsuit was disclosed Friday night and would see Apple pay consumers $25 per-phone, as reported by Reuters.

Any settlement needs to be approved by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila, who oversaw the case brought in San Jose, Calif.

For consumers, the $25 payout may seem a little low as a new iPhone can cost anywhere from $649 to $849 (for a lower-end model). The cost may be varied depending on how many people sue and the company is set to pay at least $310 million under the terms of the settlement.

For its part, Apple is denying wrongdoing in the case and said it was only agreeing to avoid the cost and burden associated with the lawsuit.

Any U.S. owner of the iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6s, 6s Plus, 7 Plus or SE that ran on iOS 10.2.1 or any of the later operating systems are covered by the settlement. Users of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus which ran iOS 11.2 or later before Dec. 21, 2017 are also covered by the settlement.

Apple customers said their phone performance slowed down after they installed Apple software updates. The customers contend that Apple’s software updates intentionally degraded the performance of older models to encourage customers to unnecessarily upgrade to newer models or install new batteries.

Lawyers for Apple said that the problems were mainly due to high usage, temperature changes and other issues and that its engineers tried to address the problems as quickly as possible.

In February, Apple was fined $27 million by the French government for the same issue.

As we reported at the time:

A couple of years ago, Apple  released an iOS update (10.2.1 and 11.2) that introduced a new feature for older devices. If your battery is getting old, iOS would cap peak performances as your battery might not be able to handle quick peaks of power draw. The result of those peaks is that your iPhone might shut down abruptly.

While that feature is technically fine, Apple failed to inform users that it was capping performances on some devices. The company apologized and introduced a new software feature called “Battery Health,” which lets you check the maximum capacity of your battery and if your iPhone can reach peak performance.

And that’s the issue here. Many users may have noticed that their phone would get slower when they play a game, for instance. But they didn’t know that replacing the battery would fix that. Some users may have bought new phones even though their existing phone was working fine.

Shares of Apple were up over 9% today in a general market rally.