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.

Top Story

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.

Weekly News Round-Up

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.

Funding and M&A

    • 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.

Downloads

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.

Crypto-driven marketplace Zora raises $2M to build a sustainable creator economy

Dee Goens and Jacob Horne have both the exact and precisely opposite background that you’d expect to see from two people building a way for creators to build a sustainable economy for their followers to participate in. Coinbase, crypto hack projects at university, KPMG, Merill Lynch. But where’s the art?

“Believe it or not, I used to have dreams of being a rapper,” laughs Goens. “There’s a Soundcloud out there somewhere. With that passion you explore the inner workings of the music industry. I would excitedly ask industry friends about the advance and 360 deal models only to realize they were completely broken.”

And, while many may be well intentioned, these deal structures of exploit artistry. In many cases taking the majority of an artist’s ownership. I grew curious why artists were unable to resource themselves from their community in an impactful way — but instead, were forced to seek out potentially predatory relationships. To me, this was bullshit.”

Horne says that he’d always wanted to create a fashion brand. 

“I always thought a fashion brand would be something I’d do after crypto,” he tells me. “I love crypto but it felt overly focused on just finance and felt like it was missing something. When I started to play with the idea of combining these two passions and starting Saint Fame.”

While at Coinbase, Horne hacked on Saint Fame, a side project that leveraged some of the ideas on display in Zora. It was a marketplace that allowed people to sell and trade items with cryptocurrency, buying intermediate variable-value tokens redeemable for future goods. 

“I realized that culture itself was shaped and built upon an old financial system that is systemically skewed against artists and communities,” says Horne. “The operating system of ownership was built in the 1600s with the Dutch East India Trading Company and early Nation States. Like what the fuck is up with that?” 

We have the internet now, we can literally create and share information to billions of people all at once, and the ownership system is the same as when people had to get on a boat for 6 months to send a letter. It’s time for an upgrade. Any community on the internet should be able to come together, with capital, and work towards any shared vision. That starts with empowering creators and artists to create and own the culture they’re creating. In the long term this moves to internet communities taking on societal endeavours.”

The answer that they’re working on is called Zora. It’s a marketplace with two main components but one philosophy: sustainable economics for creators. 

All too often creators are involved in reaping the rewards for their work only once, but the secondary economy continues to generate value out of their reach. Think of an artist, as an example, that creates a piece and sells it for market value. That’s great, but thereafter, every ounce of work that the artist puts into future work, into building a name and a brand and a community for themselves puts additional value into that piece. The artist never sees a dime from that, relying instead on the value of future releases to pay dividends on the work. 

That’s basically the way it has always worked. I have a little background in this as I used to exhibit and was involved in running a gallery and my father is a fine artist. If he sells a painting today for $300, gets a lot better, more popular and more valued over time, the owner of that painting may re-sell it for hundreds or thousands more. He will never see a dime of that. And god forbid that an artist like him gets too locked into the gallery system which slices off enormous chunks of the value of a piece for a square of wall space and the marketing cachet of a curator or storefront. 

The same story can be told across the recording industry, fashion, sports and even social media. Lots of middle-people and lots of vigs to pay. And, unsurprisingly, the same creators of color that drive so much of The Culture are the biggest losers hands down. 

The primary Zora product is a market that allows creators or artists to launch products and then continue to participate in their second market value. 

Here’s how the Zora team explains it:

On Zora, creators have the ability to set two prices: start price and max price. As community members buy and sell a token, it moves the price up or down. This makes the price dynamic as it opens price discovery on the items by the market. When people buy the token it moves the price closer to its maximum. When they sell, it moves closer to its minimum. 

For an excited community like Jeff [Staple’s], this new dynamic price can cause a quick increase in the value of his sneakers. As a creator, they capture the value from selling on a price curve as well as getting a take on trading fees from the market which they now own. What used to trade on StockX is now about to trade on a creator owned market.

There have been some early successes. Designer and marketer Jeff Staple launched a run of 30 Coca-Cola x Staple SB Dunk customs by Reverseland and their value is trending up around 234% since release. A Benji Taylor x Kevin Doan vinyl figure is up 210%

I have seen some other stabs at this. When he was still at StockX, founder Josh Luber launched their Intial Product Offerings, a Blind Dutch Auction system that allowed the market to set a price for an item, with some of the cut of pricing above market going back to the manufacturer or brand making the offering. The focus there was brands vs. individual creators (though they did launch with a Ben Baller slide). Allowing brands to tap into second market value for limited goods is a lot less of a revolution play, but the thesis is similar. I thought that was a good idea then, and I like it even better when it’s being used to democratize rather than maximize returns. 

Side note: I love that this team is messing around with interesting ideas like dogfooding their own marketplace with the value of being in their own TestFlight group. I’m sort of like, is that allowed, but at the same time it’s dope and I’ve never seen anything like it. 

Zora was founded in May of 2020 (right in the middle of this current panny-palooza). The team is Goens (Creators and Community), Horne (Product), Slava Kim (Design), Dai Hovey (Engineering), Ethan Daya (Engineering) and Tyson Batistella (Engineering). 

Zora has raised a $2M seed round led by Kindred Ventures with participation from Trevor McFedries of Brud, Alice Lloyd George, Jeff Staple, Coinbase Ventures and others.

Tokenized community

But this idea that physical goods or even digitally packaged works have to exist as finite containers of value is not a given either. Goens and Horne are pushing to challenge that too with the first big new product for Zora: community tokens. Built on Ethereum, the $RAC token is the first of its kind from Zora. André Allen Anjos, stage name RAC, is a Portuguese- American musician and producer who makes remixes that stream on the web, original music and has had commercial work featured in major brand ads. 

Though he is popular and has a following in the tens of thousands, RAC is not a social media superpower. The token distribution and subsequent activity in trades and sales is purely driven by the buy-in that his fans feel. This is a key learning for a lot of players in this new economy: raw numbers are the social media equivalent of a billboard that people drive by. It may get you eyeballs, but it doesn’t guarantee action. The modern creator is living in a house with their fans, offering them access and interacting via Discord and Snap and comments. 

But those houses are all other people’s houses, which leads into the reason that Zora is launching a token.

The token drop serves multiple purposes. 

  • It unites fans across multiple silos. Whether they’re on Intsa, Tiktok, Spotify or Snapchat, they can all earn tokens. That token serves as a unifying community unit of value that they all understand and pivot around. It’s a way to own a finite binary “atom” of an artist’s digital being.
  • It creates a pool of value that an artist can own and distribute themselves. Currently you cannot buy $RAC directly. You can only earn it. Some of that is retroactive for loyal supporters. If, for instance, you followed RAC on Bandcamp dating back to 2009, you’ll get some of a pool of 25,000 RAC. Bought a bit of RAC merch? You get some credit in tokens too. Future RAC distributions will be given to Patron supporters, merch purchasers etc.
  • The value stays in the artists universe, rather than being spun out into currency. It serves as a way for the artist to incentivize, reward and energize their followers. RAC fans who buy his mixtape get tokens, and they can redeem them for purchases of further merch. 
  • It allows more flexibility for creators whose work doesn’t fall so neatly into package-able categories. Performance art, activism, bite-sized entertainment. These are not easy to ‘drop’ for money. But if you have a circulating token that grows in value as you grow your audience, there is definitely something there. 

The future of Zora most immediately involves spinning up a self-service version of the marketplace, allowing creators and entrepreneurs to launch their products without a direct partnership and onboarding. There are many, many uncertainties here and the team has a lot of challenges ahead on the traction and messaging front. But as mentioned, some early releases have shown promise, and the philosophy is sound and much needed. As the creator universe/passion economy/what you call it depends on how old you are/fandom merchant wave rises there is definitely an opportunity to rethink how the value of their contributions are assigned and whether there is a way to turn the long-term labor of building a community into long-term value. 

The last traded price of RAC’s tape, BOY, by the way? $3,713, up 18,465%. 

Standing by developers through Google v. Oracle

The Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow in Google v. Oracle. This case raises a fundamental question for software developers and the open-source community: Whether copyright may prevent developers from using software’s functional interfaces — known as APIs — to advance innovation in software. The court should say no — free and open APIs protect innovation, competition and job mobility for software developers in America.

When we use an interface, we don’t need to understand (or care) about how the function on the other side of the interface is performed. It just works. When you sit down at your computer, the QWERTY keyboard allows you to rapidly put words on the screen. When you submit an online payment to a vendor, you are certain the funds will appear in the vendor’s account. It just works.

In the software world, interfaces between software programs are called “application programming interfaces” or APIs. APIs date back to the 1950s and allow developers to write programs that reuse other program functionality without knowing how that functionality is performed. If your program needs to sort a list, you could have it use a sorting program’s API to sort the list for your program. It just works.

Developers have historically used software interfaces free of copyright concerns, and this freedom has accelerated innovation, software interoperation and developer job mobility. Developers using existing APIs save time and effort, allowing those savings to be refocused on new ideas. Developers can also reimplement APIs from one software platform to others, enabling innovation to flow freely across software platforms.

Importantly, reusing APIs gives developers job portability, since knowledge of one set of APIs is more applicable cross-industry. The upcoming Google v. Oracle decision could change this, harming developers, open-source software and the entire software industry.

Google v. Oracle and the platform API bargain

Google v. Oracle is the culmination of a decade-long dispute. Back in 2010, Oracle sued Google, arguing that Google’s Android operating system infringed Oracle’s rights in Java. After ten years, the dispute now boils down to whether Google’s reuse of Java APIs in Android was copyright infringement.

Prior to this case, most everyone assumed that copyright did not cover the use of functional software like APIs. Under that assumption, competing platforms’ API reimplementation allowed developers to build new yet familiar things according to the API bargain: Everyone could use the API to build applications and platforms that interoperate with each other. Adhering to the API made things “just work.”

But if the Google v. Oracle decision indicates that API reimplementation requires copyright permission, the bargain falls apart. Nothing “just works” unless platform makers say so; they now dictate rules for interoperability — charging developers huge prices for the platform or stopping rival, compatible platforms from being built.

Free and open APIs are essential for modern developers

If APIs are not free and open, platform creators can stop competing platforms from using compatible APIs. This lack of competition blocks platform innovation and harms developers who cannot as easily transfer their skills from project to project, job to job.

MySQL, Oracle’s popular database, reimplemented mSQL’s APIs so third-party applications for mSQL could be “ported easily” to MySQL. If copyright had restricted reimplementation of those APIs, adoption of MySQL, reusability of old mSQL programs and the expansion achieved by the “LAMP” stack would have been stifled, and the whole ecosystem would be poorer for it. This and other examples of API reimplementation — IBM’s BIOS, Windows and WINE, UNIX and Linux, Windows and WSL, .NET and Mono, have driven perhaps the most amazing innovation in human history, with open-source software becoming critical digital infrastructure for the world.

Similarly, a copyright block on API-compatible implementations puts developers at the mercy of platform makers say so — both for their skills and their programs. Once a program is written for a given set of APIs, that program is locked-in to the platform unless those APIs can also be used on other software platforms. And once a developer learns skills for how to use a given API, it’s much easier to reuse than retrain on APIs for another platform. If the platform creator decides to charge outrageous fees, or end platform support, the developer is stuck. For nondevelopers, imagine this: The QWERTY layout is copyrighted and the copyright owner decided to charge $1,000 dollars per keyboard. You would have a choice: Retrain your hands or pay up.

All software used by anyone was created by developers. We should give developers the right to freely reimplement APIs, as developer ability to shift applications and skills between software ecosystems benefits everyone — we all get better software to accomplish more.

I hope that the Supreme Court’s decision will pay heed to what developer experience has shown: Free and open APIs promote freedom, competition, innovation and collaboration in tech.

Here’s everything Apple revealed at its September hardware event today

Apple announced a ton of new devices and features today at its September hardware event, but no word on its upcoming iPhones. That’s expected later in the month, maybe next.

In case you missed Apple’s hour-long keynote, here’s everything that was announced — including some things you might have missed.

Apple Watch

One of Apple’s big announcements is the new Apple Watch Series 6, priced at $399. The new wearable comes with a new Apple S6 silicon chip with an always-on energy-saving display. It also lands with a blood oxygen sensor.

Apple also announced a newer low-cost wearable, Apple Watch SE, which it priced at $279.

Family Setup: The new Family Setup option lets families stay connected, even when some members of the family don’t have an iPhone. It also comes with a family tracking feature, which lets parents make sure their kids have checked into school or sports practice, for example.

Fitness+: Apple is launching a new fitness subscription, landing at $9.99 a month or $79.99 a year. The service is available from inside the Activity app, and takes aim at in-home fitness services, which have taken off in part because of the ongoing pandemic. But so far, the fitness market doesn’t seem too flustered by the move.

Solo Loop: You can now get a Solo Loop for your Apple Watch, a single band that drops the standard clasp in favor of stretchy silicon. It comes in seven colors and a range of sizes.

The new Apple Watch Series 6 arrives September 18.

Apple iPad

Next up, the iPad. Apple said it’s refreshing the iPad line-up with a new fourth-generation iPad Air. The new slimline iPad Air lands with a 10.9-inch 2360×1640 resolution Retina display and replaces the Lightning port with a USB-C cable. The new iPad Air comes with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor embedded in the power button, and a new 12-megapixel, 4K-capable rear camera.

New A14 Bionic chip: Apple unveiled its new, super-fast five nanometer A14 Bionic chip, landing in the new iPad Air. It’s packed with close to 12 billion transistors, 40% up on the previous iteration of chips, and has a 16-core neural engine for apps that rely on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

New colors: Apple has two new colors on top of the existing silver, space gray and rose gold to now include green and sky blue.

New eighth-generation iPad: The new eighth-generation iPad got a refresh, too, packed with an earlier A12 Bionic chip, giving the iPad a much-needed performance boost.

Apple One

With an Apple subscription for TV, music, games, as well as iCloud storage charges, Apple is rolling its subscriptions into one place under its new Apple One plan. There are three tiers — one for individuals, another for families, and the top-tier includes the full package of Apple’s subscription services.

iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 14, and tvOS 14

Apple said its long-awaited software updates will arrive tomorrow — September 16. That includes iOS 14 for iPhones, iPadOS 14 for iPads, watchOS 14 for Apple Watch wearables and tvOS14 for Apple TV boxes.

And iOS 14 comes with new privacy and security features, a new and improved Maps, a redesigned Siri and a new in-built translator app.

No word yet on macOS Big Sur, Apple’s next desktop and laptop operating system. A release date is expected out in the next few weeks ahead of the holiday season.

Google launches the final beta of Android 11

With the launch of Android 11 getting closer, Google today launched the third and final beta of its mobile operating system ahead of its general availability. Google had previously delayed the beta program by about a month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image Credits: Google

Since Android 11 had already reached platform stability with Beta 2, most of the changes here are fixes and optimizations. As a Google spokesperson noted, “this beta is focused on helping developers put the finishing touches on their apps as they prepare for Android 11, including the official API 30 SDK and build tools for Android Studio.”

The one exception is some updates to the Exposure Notification System contact-tracing API, which users can now use without turning on device location settings. Exposure Notification is an exception here, as all other Android apps need to have location settings on (and user permission to access it) to perform the kind of Bluetooth scanning Google is using for this API.

Otherwise, there are no surprises here, given that this has already been a pretty lengthy preview cycle. Mostly, Google really wants developers to make sure their apps are ready for the new version, which includes quite a few changes.

If you are brave enough, you can get the latest beta over the air as part of the Android Beta program. It’s available for Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4 and (soon) 4a users.

Connected audio was a bad choice

The past week, I’ve spent ample time looking to revamp my home audio setup. I think my only qualification is that my next setup is as dumb as possible.

In the past five years, my setup has gone from a fairly middling wired 2.1 speaker setup to a confusing menagerie of connected smart speakers. I’ve likely gone through at least five Google Assistant-laden speakers including the Google Home Max, a couple connected Sonos speakers, three HomePods, a Facebook Portal+, non-smart speakers connected via Chromecast Audio and god knows how many Alexa-integrated speakers. All in all, I can firmly say I have made some very bad audio decisions in my recent life.

I’ve had a lot of frustrations with my current setup, but they’re really issues with the entire smart speaker market:

  • Good audio hardware should be timeless, and devices that need frequent firmware updates, have proprietary support for a certain operating system or can lose integration support quickly fly in the face of that.
  • Home entertainment integrations with these speakers are just awful, even among products built by the same company. Repeatedly connecting my stereo HomePods to my Apple TV has been maddening.
  • Smart assistants are much less ambitious than they were years ago and the ceiling of innovation already seems to have come down significantly. Third party integrations have sunk far below expectations and it’s pretty uncertain that these voice interfaces have as bright a future as these tech companies once hoped.
  • These assistants were once going to be the operating systems of the home, but the smart home experiment largely feels like a failure and it’s growing clearer that the dream of a Jarvis-like system that plays nicely with all of your internet-connected devices was totally naive.

All in all, it’s time for me to move on and invest some cash in a setup that will sound good for decades.

Now, many of you will say that my true error was a lack of commitment to one ecosystem, which is undoubtedly spot-on and yet I don’t think any of the players had precisely what I wanted hence the wildly piecemeal approach. Dumping more funds into a robust Sonos setup probably would have been the wisest commitment, but I have commitment issues and I think part of it was a desire to see what was out there.

In quarantine, I’ve gotten ample time to spend with my home audio system and the destructive weave on non-compatible hardware is all too much. I don’t want my speakers to have their own operating systems or for one speaker to play nice with my music streaming platform of choice, but not the other. I want something that can last.

After doing half-commits to several ecosystems, I feel I’ve seen and heard it all and now I’m shopping for some good old-fashioned dumb wired surround sound speakers to integrate with a slightly smarter AV receiver. God willing, I will have strength to not buy whatever cool audio gadgets come out next year and can stay strong. If you have some good tips on a nice setup, please help me out.

Digital elective care and telemedicine provider Ro raises $200 million at a reported $1.5 billion valuation

In three years Zachariah Reitano’s startup, Ro, has managed to hit a reported $1.5 billion valuation for its transformation from a company focused on treating erectile disfunction to a telemedicine service for a range of elective and urgent care-focused treatments.

Through Rory for women’s health, Roman for men’s health, and Zero for smoking cessation, Reitano’s company now treats 20 conditions including sexual health, weight loss, dermatology, allergies and more, according to a statement from the company.

Image Credit: Zero

Ro also has a new pharmacy business, Ro Pharmacy, which is an online cash pay pharmacy offering over 500 generic medications for just $5 per month per drug. And the company is getting into the weight loss business through a partnership with the private equity-backed health care company, Gelesis.

Ro’s also becoming a gateway into patient acquisition for primary care providers through Ribbon Health, and a test-case for the use of Pfizer’s Greenstone service, which provides certification that a generic drug is validated by one of the major pharmaceuticals.

The company’s $1.5 billion valuation is courtesy of a new $200 million investment from existing investors led by General Catalyst and including FirstMark Capital, Torch, SignalFire, TQ Ventures, Initialized Capital, 3L, and BoxGroup. New first time investor The Chernin Group also participated. In all, Ro has raised $376 million since it launched in 2017.

“This new investment will further our mission to become every patient’s first call. We’ll continue to invest in our vertically-integrated healthcare ecosystem, from our Collaborative Care Center to our national pharmacy operating system. This is just the beginning of Ro’s patient-centered healthcare platform.” 

It’s all part of the company’s mission to provide a point of entry into the healthcare system independent of insurance qualifications.

“Telehealth companies like Ro are using technology to address long-standing healthcare disparities that have been exacerbated by Covid-19,” said Dr. Joycelyn Elders, MD, Ro Medical Advisor and Former US Surgeon General. “By empowering providers to leverage their skills as efficiently and effectively as possible, Ro delivers affordable, high-quality care regardless of a patient’s location, insurance status, or physical access to physicians and pharmacies.”

Ro’s new financing is one of several forays by tech investors into reshaping the healthcare system at a time when patient care has been severely disrupted by attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Digital medicine is assuming a central position in the healthcare world with most consultations now occurring online. Reimbursement schemes for telemedicine have changed dramatically and investors see an opportunity to capitalize on these changes by aggressively backing the expansion plans of companies looking to bring digital healthcare directly to consumers.

That’s one of the reasons why Ro’s major competitor, Hims, is reported to be seeking access to public markets through its sale to a Special Purpose Acquisition Company for roughly $1 billion, according to Reuters.

BMW wants to sell you subscriptions to your car’s features

BMW today announced a number of updates to its in-car software experience during a VR press event, complete with a virtual drive through Munich to show off some of these features. These new updates will come to most recent BMWs that support the company’s Operating System 7 later this year — and new cars will already have them built-in.

The automaker is now able to not only update the car’s infotainment system but virtually every line of code that’s deployed to the various compute systems that make up a modern vehicle. And because of this, the company is now also able to bring a couple of features to market that it has long talked about.

Perhaps most notable is the update to the program that allows you to subscribe to specific hardware features that may already be built into your car but that you didn’t activate when you bought the car — like heated seats or advanced driver assistance systems.

BMW has talked about this for a while, but it is now making this a reality. That means if you didn’t buy the heated steering wheel and seats, for example, your new BMW may now offer you a free three-month trial and you can then essentially buy a subscription for this feature for a set amount of time.

Image Credits: BMW

“We offer maximum flexibility and peace of mind to our customers when it comes to choosing and using their optional equipment in their BMWs, whether this BMW is new or used,” a company spokesperson said during today’s press event. “So flexible offers, immediate availability, simpler booking and easy usability for choice, at any time, when it comes to your optional equipment. We already started connectivity over 20 years ago and since 2014, we are online with our Connected Drive Store, where digital services can already be booked.”

Those were very much infotainment features, though. Now, BMW will let you enable vehicle functions and optional equipment on demand and over the air. The company started offering some features like active cruise control with stop and go functionality, a high beam assistant and access to the BMW IconicSounds Sport. The carmaker will add new features to this line-up over time.

Surprisingly, it’s often easier and cheaper for car manufacturers to build some hardware into cars, even if it is not activated, simply because it removes complexity from the production process. A lot of the features that BMW is talking about consist of a combination of software and hardware, though.

What’s new here is the ability to only subscribe to some features for a short time.

“In the near future, we will not only be able to add more functions here, but we will also be able to add even more flexibility for our customers with temporary bookings so booking of options for three years, for one year, or even shorter periods of time, like a few months,” a spokesperson said.

Image Credits: BMW

The company also notes that this will give somebody who buys a used car a lot more flexibility, too. It’s worth noting that Apple CarPlay support was also originally a subscription feature in new BMWs, costing $80 a year. That really felt like nickel-and-diming drivers, though, since none of its competitors charged for this. The company’s customers were not very happy, so the company reversed that decision last December.

It’ll be interesting to see how drivers will react to additional subscription services, but the focus now is more on convenience features that would usually be an option when you buy a new car, so my guess is that this will be less of an issue.

Among the other new and updated digital services the company showcased today is support for Apple’s new ‘Car Keys,’ which BMW brands as the BMW Digital Key, as well as an updated BMW Personal Assistant. Some of these new Assistant features are more cosmetic and about how it is showcased on the in-car display.

One nifty new Assistant feature is a kind of IFTTT for your car, where you can program it to automatically roll down your windows when you enter your company’s parking garage, for example, so that you can easily scan your badge to open the boom gate.

Image Credits: BMW

Other updates include the new BMW Maps, the company’s built-in GPS system, which the company described as a ‘major leap.’

This cloud-based service can now find routes faster, has more granular traffic data and also includes the ability to find parking spaces for you — and that parking feature itself is based on a lot of work the company is doing in aggregating sensor data from across its fleet, which already covers and maps close to 99% of the German highway system once a day in HD.

Image Credits: BMW

Speaking of maps, the company, which is still in the middle of the roll-out of its hybrid-electric vehicles, also announced today that its hybrid fleet will make it easier for drivers to find charging stations and will automatically switch to electric driving when they enter low-emission zones in 80 European cities, with support for additional cities coming over time.

“Digital technologies belong to the core of BMW – because hardware and software are of
equal importance for premium cars,” said Oliver Zipse, the Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW. “Our mission is to integrate advanced digital technologies with highest product excellence to enhance our customers’ experience and driving pleasure even more.”

Bit Bio’s “enter button for the keyboard to the software of life” nabs the company $41.5 million

Bit Bio, the new startup which pitches itself as the “enter button for the keyboard to the software of life” only needed three weeks to raise its latest $41.5 million round of funding.

Originally known as Elpis Biotechnology and named for the Greek goddess of hope, the Cambridge, England-based company was founded by Mark Kotter in 2016 to commercialize technology that can reduce the cost and increase the production capacity for human cell lines. These cells can be used in targeted gene therapies and as a method to accelerate drug discovery at pharmaceutical companies.

The company’s goal is to be able to reproduce every human cell type.

“We’re just at a very crucial time in biology and medicine and the bottleneck that has become really clear is a scalable source of robust human cells,” said Kotter. “For drug discovery this is important. When you look at failure rates in clinical trials they’re at an all time high… that’s in direct contradiction to the massive advancements in biotechnology in research and the field.”

In the seventeen years since scientists completely mapped the human genome, and eight years since scientists began using the gene editing technology known as CRISPR to edit genetic material, there’s been an explosion of treatments based on individual patient’s genetic material and new drugs developed to more precisely target the mechanisms that pathogens use to spread through organisms.

These treatments and the small molecule drugs being created to stop the spread of pathogens or reduce the effects of disease require significant testing before coming to market — and Bit Bio’s founder thinks his company can both reduce the time to market and offer new treatments for patients.

It’s a thesis that had investors like the famous serial biotech entrepreneur, Richard Klausner, who served as the former director of the National Cancer Institute and founder of revolutionary biotech companies like Lyell Immunopharma, Juno, and Grail, leaping at the chance to invest in Bit Bio’s business, according to Kotter.

Joining Klausner are the famous biotech investment firms Foresite Capital, Blueyard Capital and Arch Venture Partners.

“Bit Bio is based on beautiful science. The company’s technology has the potential to bring the long-awaited precision and reliability of engineering to the application of stem cells,” said Klausner in a statement. “Bit Bio’s approach represents a paradigm shift in biology that will enable a new generation of cell therapies, improving the lives of millions.”

Photo: Andrew Brookes/Getty Images

Kotter’s own path to develop the technology which lies at the heart of Bit Bio’s business began a decade ago in a laboratory in Cambridge University. It was there that he began research building on the revolutionary discoveries of Shinya Yamanaka, which enabled scientists to transform human adult cells into embryonic stem cells.

“What we did is what Yamanaka did. We turned everything upside down. We want to know how each cell is defined… and once we know that we can flip the switch,” said Kotter. “We find out which transcription factors code for a single cell and we turn it on.”

Kotter said the technology is like uploading a new program into the embryonic stem cell.

Although the company is still in its early days, it has managed to attract a few key customers and launch a sister company based on the technology. That company, Meatable, is using the same process to make lab-grown pork.

Meatable is the earliest claimant to a commercially viable, patented process for manufacturing meat cells without the need to kill an animal as a prerequisite for cell differentiation and growth.

Other companies have relied on fetal bovine serum or Chinese hamster ovaries to stimulate cell division and production, but Meatable says it has developed a process where it can sample tissue from an animal, revert that tissue to a pluripotent stem cell, then culture that cell sample into muscle and fat to produce the pork products that palates around the world crave.

“We know which DNA sequence is responsible for moving an early-stage cell to a muscle cell,” says Meatable chief executive Krijn De Nood.

If that sounds similar to Bit Bio, that’s because it’s the same tech — just used to make animal instead of human cells.

Image: PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

If Meatable is one way to commercialize the cell differentiation technology, Bit Bio’s partnership with the drug development company Charles River Laboratories is another.

“We actually do have a revenue generating business side using human cells for research and drug discovery. We have a partnership with Charles River Laboratories the large preclinical contract research organization,” Kotter said. “That partnership is where we have given early access to our technology to Charles River… They have their own usual business clients who want them to help with their drug discovery. The big bottleneck at the moment is access to human cells.”

Drug trials fail because the treatments developed either are toxic or don’t work in humans. The difference is that most experiments to prove how effective the treatments are rely on animal testing before making the leap to human trials, Kotter said.

The company is also preparing to develop its own cell therapies, according to Kotter. There, the biggest selling point is the increased precision that  Bit Bio can bring to precision medicine, said Kotter. “If you look at these cell therapies at the moment you get mixed bags of cells. There are some that work and some that have dangerous side effects. We think we can be precise [and] safety is the biggest thing at this point.”

The company claims that it can produce cell lines in less than a week with 100 percent purity, versus the mixed bags from other companies cell cultures.

“Our moonshot goal is to develop a platform capable of producing every human cell type. This is possible once we understand the genes governing human cell behaviour, which ultimately form the ‘operating system of life’,” Kotter said in a statement. “This will unlock a new generation of cell and tissue therapies for tackling cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and autoimmune diseases and accelerate the development of effective drugs for a range of conditions. The support of leading deep tech and biotech investors will catalyse this unique convergence of biology and engineering.”

 

Apple has just patched the recent iOS 13.5 jailbreak

Well that didn’t last long.

Apple has patched a security vulnerability that allowed hackers to build a jailbreak tool allowing deep access to the iPhone software.

In a security advisory, Apple acknowledged that it had fixed the vulnerability in iOS 13.5.1, posted Monday. The technology giant credited the unc0ver team, which released the jailbreak just last week, for finding the vulnerability.

Although details of the vulnerability are not yet public, Apple typically works quickly to patch vulnerabilities that allow jailbreaks, fearing that the same vulnerability could also be abused by malicious hackers.

In a tweet, one of the lead jailbreakers confirmed that updating to iOS 13.5.1 will close the vulnerability and render the jailbreak useless.

Jailbreaking is a popular way to allow users to break free from Apple’s “jail” — hence the term — that prevents deep access to an iPhone’s operating system. Apple has does this to improve device security and to reduce the surface area in which hackers can attack the software. But jailbreakers say breaking through those restrictions allows them greater customization over their iPhones in a way that most Android users are already used to.

Security experts typically advise against jailbreaking as it can expose a device owner to a greater range of attacks, while advising users to install their devices and software as soon as update become available.

Apple said iOS 13.5.1 also comes with new Memoji stickers and other bug fixes and improvements.

Update today. If security isn’t your thing, at least do it for the Memoji stickers.