Software will reshape our world in the next decade

As I was wrapping up a Zoom meeting with my business partners, I could hear my son joking with his classmates in his online chemistry class.

I have to say this is a very strange time for me: As much as I love my family, in normal times, we never spend this much time together. But these aren’t normal times.

In normal times, governments, businesses and schools would never agree to shut everything down. In normal times, my doctor wouldn’t agree to see me over video conferencing.

No one would stand outside a grocery store, looking down to make sure they were six feet apart from one another. In times like these, decisions that would normally take years are being made in a matter of hours. In short, the physical world — brick-and-mortar reality— has shut down. The world still functions, but now it is operating inside everyone’s own home.

This not-so-normal time reminds me of 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. I sold my company BEA Systems, which I co-founded, to Oracle for $8.6 billion in cash. This liquidity event was simultaneously the worst and most exhausting time of my career, and the best time of my career, thanks to the many inspiring entrepreneurs I was able to meet.

These were some of the brightest, hardworking, never-take-no-for-an-answer founders, and in this era, many CEOs showed their true colors. That was when Slack, Lyft, Uber, Credit Karma, Twilio, Square, Cloudera and many others got started. All of these companies now have multibillion dollar market caps. And I got to invest and partner with some of them.

Once again, I can’t help but wonder what our world will look like in 10 years. The way we live. The way we learn. The way we consume. The way we will interact with each other.

What will happen 10 years from now?

Welcome to 2030. It’s been more than two decades since the invention of the iPhone, the launch of cloud computing and one decade since the launch of widespread 5G networks. All of the technologies required to change the way we live, work, eat and play are finally here and can be distributed at an unprecedented speed.

The global population is 8.5 billion and everyone owns a smartphone with all of their daily apps running on it. That’s up from around 500 million two decades ago.

Robust internet access and communication platforms have created a new world.

The world’s largest school is a software company — its learning engine uses artificial intelligence to provide personalized learning materials anytime, anywhere, with no physical space necessary. Similar to how Apple upended the music industry with iTunes, all students can now download any information for a super-low price. Tuition fees have dropped significantly: There are no more student debts. Kids can finally focus on learning, not just getting an education. Access to a good education has been equalized.

The world’s largest bank is a software company and all financial transactions are digital. If you want to talk to a banker live, you’ll initiate a text or video conference. On top of that, embedded fintech software now powers all industries.

No more dirty physical money. All money flow is stored, traceable and secured on a blockchain ledger. The financial infrastructure platforms are able to handle customers across all geographies and jurisdictions, all exchanges of value, all types of use-cases (producers, distributors, consumers) and all from the start.

The world’s largest grocery store is a software and robotics company — groceries are delivered whenever and wherever we want as fast as possible. Food is delivered via robot or drones with no human involvement. Customers can track where, when and who is involved in growing and handling my food. Artificial intelligence tells us what we need based on past purchases and our calendars.

The world largest hospital is a software and robotics company — all initial diagnoses are performed via video conferencing. Combined with patient medical records all digitally stored, a doctor in San Francisco and her artificial intelligence assistant can provide personalized prescriptions to her patients in Hong Kong. All surgical procedures are performed by robots, with supervision by a doctor of course, we haven’t gone completely crazy. And even the doctors get to work from home.

Our entire workforce works from home: Don’t forget the main purpose of an office is to support companies’ workers in performing their jobs efficiently. Since 2020, all companies, and especially their CEOs, realized it was more efficient to let their workers work from home. Not only can they save hours of commute time, all companies get to save money on office space and shift resources toward employee benefits. I’m looking back 10 years and saying to myself, “I still remember those days when office space was a thing.”

The world’s largest entertainment company is a software company, and all the content we love is digital. All blockbuster movies are released direct-to-video. We can ask Alexa to deliver popcorn to the house and even watch the film with friends who are far away. If you see something you like in the movie, you can buy it immediately — clothing, objects, whatever you see — and have it delivered right to your house. No more standing in line. No transport time. Reduced pollution. Better planet!

These are just a few industries that have been completely transformed by 2030, but these changes will apply universally to almost anything. We were told software was eating the world.

The saying goes you are what you eat. In 2030, software is the world.

Security and protection no longer just applies to things we can touch and see. What’s valuable for each and every one of us is all stored digitally — our email account, chat history, browsing data and social media accounts. It goes on and on. We don’t need a house alarm, we need a digital alarm.

Even though this crisis makes the near future seem bleak, I am optimistic about the new world and the new companies of tomorrow. I am even more excited about our ability to change as a human race and how this crisis and technology are speeding up the way we live.

This storm shall pass. However the choices we make now will change our lives forever.

My team and I are proud to build and invest in companies that will help shape the new world; new and impactful technologies that are important for many generations to come, companies that matter to humanity, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about.

I am hopeful.

Volkswagen launches home EV charging system sales ahead of ID.3 vehicle deliveries

Volkswagen has started to sell a home-charging device as the automaker prepares to bring its new ID family of electric vehicles to market.

The ID.3 is the first electric vehicle under the ID label and will only be sold in Europe. Customers who made reservations for the launch edition, known as ID.3 1st, will be able to order their vehicle starting June 17. Volkswagen said this week that the deliveries for the ID.3 1st will begin in September.

And that means that, at least for now, the home-charging device known as Wallbox will only be available for sale in eight countries in Europe. Volkswagen is making three versions of the Wallbox that will range in price between €399 and €849 ($448 to $953). Those prices don’t include the cost of installation.

All of the versions will have a charging capacity of up to 11 kilowatts, permanently mounted Type 2 charging cable and integrated DC residual current protection. For now, just the base model is available, according to VW.

The two premium models, the ID. Charger Connect and ID. Charger Pro, will be available later this year. These models come with additional software that allows for the kind of interaction and analytics that Tesla owners are more familiar with. The ID. Charger Connect will allow customers to link their smartphone to control charging processes. The ID. Charger Pro has that connectivity feature plus an integrated electricity meter designed for commercial uses. The integrated meter can be used to bill electricity costs for company car drivers, according to VW.

Wallbox Volkswagen ID. Charger

Image Credits: Volkswagen

The ID.3 is the first model in the company’s new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of its ambitious plan to sell 1 million electric vehicles annually by 2025. The ID.3 will only be sold in Europe. Other models under the ID brand will be sold in North America.

Cue Health’s portable, fast COVID-19 test gains FDA emergency approval

Fresh off a $100 million Series C funding round, molecular diagnostics startup Cue Health has more good news — it has received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for its rapid, point-of-care COVID-19 test. The company got a $13 million grant from BARDA in March to help it scale its development and deployment of rapid diagnostics, and its COVID-19 test is obviously a key focus of that effort given the current pandemic.

Cue’s test is portable and uses an RNA detection method to confirm the presence of the actual virus in a patient’s system using nasal swab samples. The company says that it can provide results in as little as 25 minutes, and it’s relatively simple to administer — both factors that make it potentially very useful in efforts to scale COVID-19 testing as the pandemic and its ensuing global health crisis continues.

The Cue Health test comes as a kit that includes the sample collection wand, along with a test cartridge. The cartridge connects to an app on a smartphone and transmits the diagnostic results to that device. Under the terms of the EUA granted by the FDA, the Cue test can be administered anywhere, so long as it’s done under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional. Cue says it’s seeking additional authorizations from the FDA to expand use of the test to include allowing it to be done in settings including workplaces, schools and even in-home use.

To start, Cue Health’s COVID-19 test will be rolling out in partnership with “leading healthcare institutions,” according to the company, and then from there the plan is to expand it to a number of additional healthcare facility settings. Ultimately, Cue’s goal is to create a range of molecular diagnostic testing solutions for not only COVID-19, but also influenza and other viruses, with the ability to flexibly deploy and conduct them in basically any setting where they’re needed.

Carry1st has $4M to invest in African mobile gaming

Gaming development startup Carry1st has raised a $2.5 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital .

That brings the company’s total VC to $4 million, which Carry1st will deploy to support and invest in game publishing across Africa.

The startup — with offices in New York, Lagos, and South Africa — was co-founded in 2018 by Sierra Leonean Cordel Robbin-Coker, American Lucy Parry, and Zimbabwean software engineer Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu.

Robbin-Coker and Parry met while working in investment banking in New York, before forming Carry1st.

“I convinced her to avoid going to business school and instead come to South Africa to Cape Town,” Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch on a call.

“We launched with the idea that we wanted to bring the gaming industry…to the African continent.”

Carry1st looks to match gaming demand in Africa to the continent’s fast growing youth population, improving internet penetration and rapid smartphone adoption.

Carry1st has already launched two games as direct downloads from its site, Carry1st Trivia and Hyper!.

“In April, [Carry1st Trivia] did pretty well. It was the number one game in Nigeria, and Kenya for most of the year and did about one and a half million downloads.” Robbin-Coker said.

Carry1st Africa

Image Credit: Carry1st

The startup will use a portion of its latest round and overall capital to bring more unique content onto its platform. “In order to do that, you need cash…to help a developer finish a game or entice a strong game to work with you,” said Robbin-Coker.

The company will also expand its distribution channels, such as partnerships with mobile operators and the Carry1st Brand Ambassador program — a network of sales agents who promote and sell games across the continent.

The company will also invest in the gaming market and itself.

“We want to dedicate at least a million dollars to actually going out and acquiring users and scaling our user base. And then, the final piece is really around the the tech platform that we’re looking to build,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails creating multiple channels and revenue points to develop, distribute, and invest in games on the continent, he explained.

Image Credits: Carry1st

Robbin-Coker compared the Carry1st’s strategy in Africa as something similar to Sea: an Asia regional mobile entertainment distribution platform — publicly traded and partially owned by Tencent — that incubated the popular Fornite game.

“We’re looking to be the number one regional publisher of [gaming] content in the region…the publisher of record and the app store,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails developing and distributing not only games originating from the continent, but also serving as channel for gaming content from other continents coming into Africa.

That generates a consistent revenue stream for the startup, Robbin-Coker explained, but also creates opportunities for big creative wins.

“It’s a hits driven business. A single studio will work and toil in obscurity for a decade and then they’ll make Candy Crush. And then that would be worth $6 billion, very quickly,” Carry1st’s CEO said.

He and his team will use a portion of their $4 million in VC to invest in that potential gaming success story in Africa.

The company’s co-founder Lucy Parry directs aspirants to the company’s homepage. “There’s a big blue button that says ‘Pitch Your Game’ at the bottom of our website.”

The FBI is mad because it keeps getting into locked iPhones without Apple’s help

The debate over encryption continues to drag on without end.

In recent months, the discourse has largely swung away from encrypted smartphones to focus instead on end-to-end encrypted messaging. But a recent press conference by the heads of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) showed that the debate over device encryption isn’t dead, it was merely resting. And it just won’t go away.

At the presser, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray announced that after months of work, FBI technicians had succeeded in unlocking the two iPhones used by the Saudi military officer who carried out a terrorist shooting at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida in December 2019. The shooter died in the attack, which was quickly claimed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Early this year — a solid month after the shooting — Barr had asked Apple to help unlock the phones (one of which was damaged by a bullet), which were older iPhone 5 and 7 models. Apple provided “gigabytes of information” to investigators, including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts,” but drew the line at assisting with the devices. The situation threatened to revive the 2016 “Apple versus FBI” showdown over another locked iPhone following the San Bernardino terror attack.

After the government went to federal court to try to dragoon Apple into doing investigators’ job for them, the dispute ended anticlimactically when the government got into the phone itself after purchasing an exploit from an outside vendor the government refused to identify. The Pensacola case culminated much the same way, except that the FBI apparently used an in-house solution instead of a third party’s exploit.

You’d think the FBI’s success at a tricky task (remember, one of the phones had been shot) would be good news for the Bureau. Yet an unmistakable note of bitterness tinged the laudatory remarks at the press conference for the technicians who made it happen. Despite the Bureau’s impressive achievement, and despite the gobs of data Apple had provided, Barr and Wray devoted much of their remarks to maligning Apple, with Wray going so far as to say the government “received effectively no help” from the company.

This diversion tactic worked: in news stories covering the press conference, headline after headline after headline highlighted the FBI’s slam against Apple instead of focusing on what the press conference was nominally about: the fact that federal law enforcement agencies can get into locked iPhones without Apple’s assistance.

That should be the headline news, because it’s important. That inconvenient truth undercuts the agencies’ longstanding claim that they’re helpless in the face of Apple’s encryption and thus the company should be legally forced to weaken its device encryption for law enforcement access. No wonder Wray and Barr are so mad that their employees keep being good at their jobs.

By reviving the old blame-Apple routine, the two officials managed to evade a number of questions that their press conference left unanswered. What exactly are the FBI’s capabilities when it comes to accessing locked, encrypted smartphones? Wray claimed the technique developed by FBI technicians is “of pretty limited application” beyond the Pensacola iPhones. How limited? What other phone-cracking techniques does the FBI have, and which handset models and which mobile OS versions do those techniques reliably work on? In what kinds of cases, for what kinds of crimes, are these tools being used?

We also don’t know what’s changed internally at the Bureau since that damning 2018 Inspector General postmortem on the San Bernardino affair. Whatever happened with the FBI’s plans, announced in the IG report, to lower the barrier within the agency to using national security tools and techniques in criminal cases? Did that change come to pass, and did it play a role in the Pensacola success? Is the FBI cracking into criminal suspects’ phones using classified techniques from the national security context that might not pass muster in a court proceeding (were their use to be acknowledged at all)?

Further, how do the FBI’s in-house capabilities complement the larger ecosystem of tools and techniques for law enforcement to access locked phones? Those include third-party vendors GrayShift and Cellebrite’s devices, which, in addition to the FBI, count numerous U.S. state and local police departments and federal immigration authorities among their clients. When plugged into a locked phone, these devices can bypass the phone’s encryption to yield up its contents, and (in the case of GrayShift) can plant spyware on an iPhone to log its passcode when police trick a phone’s owner into entering it. These devices work on very recent iPhone models: Cellebrite claims it can unlock any iPhone for law enforcement, and the FBI has unlocked an iPhone 11 Pro Max using GrayShift’s GrayKey device.

In addition to Cellebrite and GrayShift, which have a well-established U.S. customer base, the ecosystem of third-party phone-hacking companies includes entities that market remote-access phone-hacking software to governments around the world. Perhaps the most notorious example is the Israel-based NSO Group, whose Pegasus software has been used by foreign governments against dissidents, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. The company’s U.S. arm has attempted to market Pegasus domestically to American police departments under another name. Which third-party vendors are supplying phone-hacking solutions to the FBI, and at what price?

Finally, who else besides the FBI will be the beneficiary of the technique that worked on the Pensacola phones? Does the FBI share the vendor tools it purchases, or its own home-rolled ones, with other agencies (federal, state, tribal or local)? Which tools, which agencies and for what kinds of cases? Even if it doesn’t share the techniques directly, will it use them to unlock phones for other agencies, as it did for a state prosecutor soon after purchasing the exploit for the San Bernardino iPhone?

We have little idea of the answers to any of these questions, because the FBI’s capabilities are a closely held secret. What advances and breakthroughs it has achieved, and which vendors it has paid, we (who provide the taxpayer dollars to fund this work) aren’t allowed to know. And the agency refuses to answer questions about encryption’s impact on its investigations even from members of Congress, who can be privy to confidential information denied to the general public.

The only public information coming out of the FBI’s phone-hacking black box is nothingburgers like the recent press conference. At an event all about the FBI’s phone-hacking capabilities, Director Wray and AG Barr cunningly managed to deflect the press’s attention onto Apple, dodging any difficult questions, such as what the FBI’s abilities mean for Americans’ privacy, civil liberties and data security, or even basic questions like how much the Pensacola phone-cracking operation cost.

As the recent PR spectacle demonstrated, a press conference isn’t oversight. And instead of exerting its oversight power, mandating more transparency, or requiring an accounting and cost/benefit analysis of the FBI’s phone-hacking expenditures — instead of demanding a straight and conclusive answer to the eternal question of whether, in light of the agency’s continually-evolving capabilities, there’s really any need to force smartphone makers to weaken their device encryption — Congress is instead coming up with dangerous legislation such as the EARN IT Act, which risks undermining encryption right when a population forced by COVID-19 to do everything online from home can least afford it.

The bestcase scenario now is that the federal agency that proved its untrustworthiness by lying to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can crack into our smartphones, but maybe not all of them; that maybe it isn’t sharing its toys with state and local police departments (which are rife with domestic abusers who’d love to get access to their victims’ phones); that unlike third-party vendor devices, maybe the FBI’s tools won’t end up on eBay where criminals can buy them; and that hopefully it hasn’t paid taxpayer money to the spyware company whose best-known government customer murdered and dismembered a journalist.

The worst-case scenario would be that, between in-house and third-party tools, pretty much any law enforcement agency can now reliably crack into everybody’s phones, and yet nevertheless this turns out to be the year they finally get their legislative victory over encryption anyway. I can’t wait to see what else 2020 has in store.

Xiaomi’s investment house of IoT surpasses 300 companies

Xiaomi, the Chinese comapny famous for its budget smartphones and a bevy of value-for-money gadgets, said in a filing on Thursday that it has backed more than 300 companies as of March, totaling 32.3 billion yuan ($4.54 billion) in book value and 225.9 million yuan ($32 million million) in net gains on disposal of investments in just the first quarter.

The electronics giant has surely lived up to its ambition to construct an ecosystem of the internet of things, or IoT. Most of its investments aim to generate strategic synergies, whether it is to diversify its product offerings or build up a library of content and services to supplement the devices. The question is whether Xiaomi’s hardware universe is generating the type of services income it covets.

Monetize from services

Back in 2013, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun vowed to invest in 100 hardware companies over a five-year period. The idea was to acquire scores of users through this vast network of competitively-priced devices, through which it could tout internet services like fintech products and video games.

That’s why Xiaomi has kept margins of its products razor-thin, sometimes to the dismay of its investees and suppliers. Its vision hasn’t quite materialized, as it continued to drive most of its income from smartphones and other hardware devices. Services comprised 12% of total revenue in the first quarter, although the segment did record a 38.6% increase from the year before.

Over time, the smartphone maker has evolved into a department store selling all sorts of everyday products, expanding beyond electronics to cover categories like stationaries, kitchenware, clothing and food — things one would find at Muji. It makes certain products in-house — like smartphones — and sources the others through a profit-sharing model with third parties, which it has financed or simply partners with under distribution agreements.

Xiaomi’s capital game

Many consumer product makers are on the fence about joining Xiaomi’s distribution universe. On the one hand, they can reach millions of consumers around the world through the giant’s vast network of e-commerce channels and physical stores. On the other, they worry about margin squeeze and overdependence on the Xiaomi brand.

As such, many companies that sell through Xiaomi have also carved out their own product lines. Nasdaq-listed Huami, which supplies Xiaomi’s Mi Band smartwatches, has its own Amazfit wearables that rival Fitbit. Roborock, an automatic vacuum maker trading on China’s Nasdaq equivalent, STAR Market, had been making Xiaomi’s Mi Home vacuums for a year before rolling out its own household brand.

With the looming economic downturn triggered by COVID-19, manufacturers might be increasingly turning to Xiaomi and other investors to cope with cash-flow liquidity challenges.

Along with its earnings, Xiaomi announced that it had bought an additional 27.44% stake in Zimi, the main supplier of its power banks, bringing its total stakes in the company to 49.91%. Xiaomi said the acquisition would boost Xiaomi’s competitiveness in “5G + AIoT,” a buzzword short for the next-gen mobile broadband technology and AI-powered IoT. For Zimi, the investment will likely alleviate some of the financial pressure it’s feeling under these difficult times.

Competition in the Chinese IoT industry is heating up as the country races to roll out 5G networks, which will enable wider adoption of connected devices. Just this week, Alibaba, which has its finger in many pies, announced pumping 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) into ramping up its Alexa-like smart voice assistant Genie, which will be further integrated into Alibaba’s e-commerce experience, online entertainment services and consumer hardware partners.

With an ex-Uber exec as its new CEO, digital mental health service Mindstrong raises $100 million

Daniel Graf has had a long career in the tech industry. From founding his own startup in the mid-2000s to working at Google, then Twitter, and finally Uber, the tech business has made him extremely wealthy.

But after leaving Uber, he wasn’t necessarily interested in working at another business… At least, not until he spent an afternoon in the spring of 2019 with an old friend, General Catalyst managing director Hemant Taneja, walking in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood and hearing Taneja talk about a new startup called Mindstrong Health.

Taneja told Graf that by the fall of that year, he’d be working at Mindstrong… and Taneja was right.

“I was intrigued by healthtech previously,” said Graf.  “The problem always was…and  it sounds a little too money oriented.. but if there’s no clear visibility around who pays who in a startup, the startup isn’t going to work,” and that was always his issue with healthcare businesses. 

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 21: Daniel Graf accepts a Webby award for Google Maps for Iphone at the 17th Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on May 21, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The Webby Awards)

With Mindstrong, which announced today that it has raised $100 million in new financing, the issue of who pays is clear.

So Graf joined the company in November as chief executive, taking over from Paul Dagum, who remains with Mindstrong as its chief scientific officer.

“Daniel joined the company as it was moving from pure R&D into being something commercially available,” said Taneja, in an email. “In healthcare, it’s increasingly important to understand how to build for the consumer and that’s where Daniel’s experience and background comes in. Paul remains a core part of the team because none of this happens without the science.”

The company, which has developed a digital platform for providing therapy to patients with severe mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to obsessive compulsive disorders, is looking to tackle a problem that costs the American healthcare system $20 billion per month, Graf said.

Unlike companies like Headspace and Calm that have focused on the mental wellness market for the mass consumer, Mindstrong is focused on people with severe mental health conditions, said Graf. That means people who are either bipolar, schizophrenic or have major depressive disorder.

It’s a much larger population than most Americans think and they face a critical problem in their ability to receive adequate care, Graf said.

“1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, 1 in 25 experience serious mental illness, and the pandemic is making these numbers worse. Meanwhile, more than 60% of US counties don’t have a single practicing psychiatrist,” said Joe Lonsdale, the founder of 8VC, and investor in the latest Mindstrong Health round, in a statement.  

Dagum, Mindstrong Health’s founder has been working on the issue of how to provide better access and monitor for indications of potential episodes of distress since 2013. The company’s technology provides a range of monitoring and measurement tools using digital biomarkers that are currently being validated through clinical trials, according to Graf.

“We’re passively measuring the usage of the phone and the timing of the keyboard strokes to measure how [a patient] is doing,” Graf said. These smartphone interactions can provide data around mental acuity and emotional valence, according to Graf — and can provide signs that someone might be having problems.

The company also provides access to therapists via phone and video consultations or text-based asynchronous communications, based on user preference.

“Think of us more as a virtual hospital… our care pathways are super complex for this population,” said Graf. “We’re not aware of other startups working with this population. These folks, the best you get right now is the county mental health.”

Mindstrong’s Series C raise included participation from new and existing investors, including General Catalyst, ARCH Ventures, Optum Ventures, Foresite Capital, 8VC, What If Ventures and Bezos Expeditions, along with other, undisclosed investors.  

And while mental health is the company’s current focus, the platform for care delivery that the company is building has broader implications for the industry, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, according to General Catalyst managing director, Taneja.

“I expect that we’ll see discoveries in biomarker tech like Mindstrong’s that could be applied horizontally across almost any area of healthcare,” Taneja said in an email. “Because healthcare is so broad and varied, going vertical like Mindstrong is makes a lot of sense. There’s opportunity to become a successful and very impactful company by staying narrowly focused and solving some really hard problems for even a smaller part of the overall population.”

China’s Oppo partners with Vodafone for bigger European push

Huawei is facing an uphill challenge in the overseas market as its upcoming devices lack the full set of Google apps and services. That leaves ample room for its Chinese rivals to chase after foreign consumers.

That includes Oppo, the sister brand of Vivo under Dongguan-based electronics holding company BBK. In an announcement on Monday, the Chinese firm announced a partnership with Vodafone to bring its smartphones to the mobile carrier’s European markets. The deal kicks off in May and will sell Oppo’s portfolio of advanced 5G handsets as well as value-for-money models into the U.K, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Turkey.

While Vodafone pulled Huawei phones from its U.K. 5G network last year following the U.S. export ban that stripped Huawei models of certain Android services, the British operator can now tap Oppo’s wide range of mobile products in a heated race to sign up 5G customers. The partners will jointly explore online sales channels as many parts of Europe’s physical premises remain closed due to the COVID-19.

Oppo, currently the second-largest smartphone vendor in its home country after Huawei, has seen a spike in sales across Europe since entering the market in mid-2018. The company was one of the first to launch commercially available 5G phones in Europe last year and now ranks fifth on the continent with a 2% share, according to a survey from research firm Canalys.

“Oppo has a product range that can hit many of the same segments as Huawei, enabling it to gain market share at the expense of Huawei,” Peter Richardson, research director at Counterpoint Research, explained to TechCrunch. “Oppo has always used quite a European flavour in its product design. This extends to things like colour choice, packaging, and advertising materials. This makes it acceptable to European consumers.”

Interestingly, Richardson pointed out that Oppo, which has a less “Chinese sounding” name than its domestic rivals Xiaomi and Huawei, will help it circumvent some of the “negative media surrounding China just now – first Huawei’s difficulties around security threats and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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.

All product creators can learn something from Jackbox Games’ user experiences

During this period of shelter-in-place, people have had to seek out new forms of entertainment and social interaction. Many have turned to a niche party series made by a company best known for an irreverent trivia game in the ’90s called “You Don’t Know Jack.”

Since 2014, the annual release of the Jackbox Party Pack has delivered 4-5 casual party games that run on desktop, mobile and consoles that can be played in groups as small as two and as large as 10. In a clever twist, players use smartphones as controllers, which is perfect for typing in prompts, selecting options, making drawings, etc.

The games are tons of fun and perfect for playing with friends over video conference, and their popularity has skyrocketed, as indicated by Google Trends. I polled my own Twitter following and found that nearly half of folks had played in the last month, though a full third hadn’t heard of Jackbox at all.

How do these games work?

There are more than 20 unique games across Jackbox Party Packs 1-6, too many to explain — but here are three of the most popular:

  • Fibbage: A twist on the traditional trivia game, players are asked to invent an answer to a question of obscure knowledge (e.g. “a Swedish man who works as a dishwasher receives disability benefits due to his unusual addiction to ____.”) Then all the invented answers are mixed in with the truth and players must select the real answer while avoiding fakes. You earn points for guessing correctly and for tricking other players (the answer is “heavy metal”).