Apple goes to war with the gaming industry

Most gamers may not view Apple as a games company to the same degree that they see Sony with PlayStation or Microsoft with Xbox, but the iPhone-maker continues to uniformly drive the industry with decisions made in the Apple App Store.

The company made the news a couple times late this week for App Store approvals. Once for denying a gaming app, and the other for approving one.

The denial was Microsoft’s xCloud gaming app, something the Xbox folks weren’t too psyched about. Microsoft xCloud is one of the Xbox’s most substantial software platform plays in quite some time, allowing gamers to live-stream titles from the cloud and play console-quality games across a number of devices. It’s a huge effort that’s been in preview for a bit, but is likely going to officially launch next month. The app had been in a Testflight preview for iOS, but as Microsoft looked to push it to primetime, Apple said not so fast.

The app that was approved was the Facebook Gaming app which Facebook has been trying to shove through the App Store for months to no avail. It was at last approved Friday after the company stripped one of its two central features, a library of playable mobile games. In a curt statement to The New York Times, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “Unfortunately, we had to remove gameplay functionality entirely in order to get Apple’s approval on the stand-alone Facebook Gaming app.”

Microsoft’s Xbox team also took the unusually aggressive step of calling out Apple in a statement that reads, in-part, “Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. And it consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content.”

Microsoft is still a $1.61 trillion company so don’t think I’m busting out the violin for them, but iOS is the world’s largest gaming platform, something CEO Tim Cook proudly proclaimed when the company launched its own game subscription platform, Apple Arcade, last year. Apple likes to play at its own pace, and all of these game-streaming platforms popping up at the same time seem poised to overwhelm them.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are a few things about cloud gaming apps that seem at odds with some of the App Store’s rules, yet these rules are, of course, just guidelines written by Apple.  For Apple’s part, they basically said (full statement later) that the App Store had curators for a reason and that approving apps like these means they can’t individually review the apps which compromises the App Store experience.

To say that’s “the reason” seems disingenuous because the company has long approved platforms to operate on the App Store without stamping approval on the individual pieces of content that can be accessed. With “Games” representing the App Store’s most popular category, Apple likely cares much more about keeping their own money straight.

Analysis from CNBC pinned Apple’s 2019 App Store total revenue at $50 billion.

When these cloud gaming platforms like xCloud scale with zero iOS support, millions of Apple customers, myself included, are actually going to be pissed that their iPhone can’t do something that their friend’s phone can. Playing console-class titles on the iPhone would be a substantial feature upgrade for consumers. There are about 90 million Xbox Live users out there, a substantial number of which are iPhone owners I would imagine. The games industry is steadily rallying around game subscription networks and cloud gaming as a move to encourage consumers to sample more titles and discover more indie hits.

I’ve seen enough of these sagas to realize that sometimes parties will kick off these fights purely as a tactic to get their way in negotiations and avoid workarounds, but it’s a tactic that really only works when consumers have a reason to care. Most of the bigger App Store developer spats have played in the background and come to light later, but at this point the Xbox team undoubtedly sees that Apple isn’t positioned all that well to wage an App Store war in the midst of increased antitrust attention over a cause that seems wholly focused on maintaining their edge in monetizing the games consumers play on Apple screens.

CEO Tim Cook spent an awful lot of time in his Congressional Zoom room answering question about perceived anticompetitiveness on the company’s application storefront.

The big point of tension I could see happening behind closed doors is that plenty of these titles offer in-game transactions and just because that in-app purchase framework is being live-streamed from a cloud computer doesn’t mean that a user isn’t still using experiencing that content on an Apple device. I’m not sure whether this is actually the point of contention, but it seems like it would be a major threat to Apple’s ecosystem-wide in-app purchase raking.

The App Store does not currently support cloud gaming on Nvidia’s GeForce platform or Google’s Stadia which are also both available on Android phones. Both of these platforms are more limited in scope than Microsoft’s offering which is expected to launch with wider support and pick up wider adoption.

While I can understand Apple’s desire to not have gaming titles ship that might not function properly on an iPhone because of system constraints, that argument doesn’t apply so well to the cloud gaming world where apps are translating button presses to the cloud and the cloud is sending them back the next engine-rendered frames of their game. Apple is being forced to get pretty particular about what media types of apps fall under the “reader” designation. The inherent interactivity of a cloud gaming platform seems to be the differentiation Apple is pushing here — as well as the interfaces that allows gamers to directly launch titles with an interface that’s far more specialized than some generic remote desktop app.

All of these platforms arrive after the company already launched Apple Arcade, a non-cloud gaming product made in the image of what Apple would like to think are the values it fosters in the gaming world: family friendly indie titles with no intrusive ads, no bothersome micro-transactions and Apple’s watchful review.

Apple’s driver’s seat position in the gaming world has been far from a wholly positive influence for the industry. Apple has acted as a gatekeeper, but the fact is plenty of the “innovations” pushed through as a result of App Store policies have been great for Apple but questionable for the development of a gamer-friendly games industry.

Apple facilitated the advent of free-to-play games by pushing in-app purchases which have been abused recklessly over the years as studios have been irresistibly pushed to structure their titles around principles of addiction. Mobile gaming has been one of the more insane areas of Wild West startup growth over the past decade and Apple’s mechanics for fueling quick transactions inside these titles has moved fast and broken things.

Take a look at the 200 top grossing games in the App Store (data via Sensor Tower) and you’ll see that all 199 of them rely solely on in-app micro-transaction to reach that status — Microsoft’s Minecraft, ranked 50th costs $6.99 to download, though it also offers in-app purchases.

In 2013, the company settled a class-action lawsuit that kicked off after parents sued Apple for making it too easy for kids to make in-app purchases. In 2014, Apple settled a case with the FTC over the same mechanism for $32 million. This year, a lawsuit filed against Apple questioned the legality of “loot box” in-app purchases which gave gamers randomized digital awards.

“Through the games it sells and offers for free to consumers through its AppStore, Apple engages in predatory practices enticing consumers, including children to engage in gambling and similar addictive conduct in violation of this and other laws designed to protect consumers and to prohibit such practices,” read that most recent lawsuit filing.

This is, of course, not how Apple sees its role in the gaming industry. In a statement to Business Insider responding to the company’s denial of Microsoft’s xCloud, Apple laid out its messaging.

The App Store was created to be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. Before they go on our store, all apps are reviewed against the same set of guidelines that are intended to protect customers and provide a fair and level playing field to developers.

Our customers enjoy great apps and games from millions of developers, and gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search. In addition to the App Store, developers can choose to reach all iPhone and iPad users over the web through Safari and other browsers on the App Store.

The impact has — quite obviously — not been uniformly negative, but Apple has played fast and loose with industry changes when they benefit the mothership. I won’t act like plenty of Sony and Microsoft’s actions over the years haven’t offered similar affronts to gamers, but Apple exercises the industry-wide sway it holds, operating the world’s largest gaming platform, too often and gamers should be cautious in trusting the App Store owner to make decisions that have their best interests at heart.


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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.

Twitter says Android security bug gave access to direct messages

Twitter says a security bug may have exposed the direct messages of Android app users, but said that there was no evidence that the vulnerability was ever exploited.

The bug could have allowed a malicious Android app running on the same device to siphon off a user’s direct messages stored in the Twitter app by bypassing Android’s in-built data permissions.

Twitter said, however, that the bug only worked on Android 8 (Oreo) and Android 9 (Pie), and has since been fixed.

A Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch that the bug was reported by a security researcher through Twitter’s bug bounty platform, HackerOne, a “few weeks ago” and was investigated and fixed.

“Since then, we have been working to keep accounts secure,” said the spokesperson. “Now that the issue has been fixed, we’re letting people know.” Twitter said it waited to let its users know in order to prevent someone from learning about the issue and taking advantage of it before it was fixed — a common approach to reporting security flaws.

The notice sent to affected Twitter users. (Image: TechCrunch)

Twitter said about 4% of users are still running a vulnerable version of Twitter for Android, and will be notified to update the app as soon as possible. Many users began noticing in-app pop-ups notifying them of the issue.

News of the security issue comes just weeks after the company was hit by a hacker, who gained access to an internal “admin” tool, which along with two other accomplices hijacked high-profile Twitter accounts to spread a cryptocurrency scam that promised to “double your money.” The hack and subsequent scam netted over $100,000 in scammed funds.

The Justice Department charged three people — including one minor — allegedly responsible for the incident.

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.

First US apps based on Google and Apple Exposure Notification System expected in ‘coming weeks’

Google Vice President of Engineering Dave Burke provided an update about the Exposure Notifications System (ENS) that Google developed in partnership with Apple as a way to help public health authorities supplement contact-tracing efforts with a connected solution that preserves privacy while alerting people of potential exposure to confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the update, Burke notes that the company expects “to see the first set of these apps roll out in the coming weeks” in the U.S., which may be a tacit response to some critics who have pointed out that we haven’t seen much in the way of actual products being built on the technology that was launched in May.

Burke writes that 20 states and territories across the U.S. are currently “exploring” apps that make use of the ENS system, and that together those represent nearly half (45%) of the overall American populace. He also shared recent updates and improvements made to both the Exposure Notification API as well as to its surrounding documentation and information that the companies have shared in order to answer questions from state health agencies, and hopefully make its use and privacy implications more transparent.

The ENS API now supports exposure notifications between countries, which Burke says is a feature added based on nations that have already launched apps based on the tech (that includes Canada, as of today, as well as some European nations). It’s also now better at using Bluetooth values specific to a wider range of devices to improve nearby device detection accuracy. He also says they’ve improved the reliability for both apps and debugging tools for those working on development, which should help public health authorities and their developer partners more easily build apps that actually use ENS.

Burke continues that there’s been feedback from developers that they’d like more detail about how ENS works under the covers, and so they’ve published public-facing guides that direct health authorities about test verification server creation, code revealing its underlying workings and information about what data is actually collected (in a de-identified manner) to allow for much more transparent debugging and verification of proper app functioning.

Google also explains why it requires that an Android device’s location setting be turned on to use Exposure Notifications — even though apps built using the API are explicitly forbidden from also collecting location data. Basically, it’s a legacy requirement that Google is removing in Android 11, which is set to be released soon. In the meantime, however, Burke says that even with location services turned off, no app that uses the ENS will actually be able to see or receive any location data.

Samsung’s second-quarter profit grew 23% year-over-year, thanks to strong chip demand

Samsung Electronics sounded a cautiously optimistic note in its earnings report today. The company is continuing to deal with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, but its memory business was fortified by demand for DRAM chips as data centers adapted to an increase in remote work and education.

Second-quarter operating profit grew 26% from the previous quarter, and 23% year-over-year to 8.15 trillion won (about $6.84 billion), due largely to more sales of DRAM chips. Revenue fell 4% from the previous quarter, and 6% year-over-year, to 53 trillion won, while net profit rose 7% to 5.6 trillion won. Samsung said revenue was impacted by lower sales of smartphones and other devices, but some of that was offset by reduced marketing spending and other cost-cutting measures.

Samsung Electronics will launch new models of its flagship smartphones, including the Galaxy Note and a foldable device, at its online Galaxy Unpacked event on August 5, but will also focus on increasing sales of low- to mid-priced phones, which it expects to drive revenue during the rest of the year.

The company also acknowledged that it faces intense competition from other smartphone makers. In fact, on the same day that Samsung announced its second-quarter earnings, research firm Canalys released a report that said Huawei shipped more smartphones globally than any other vendor in the second-quarter, despite dealing with American government restrictions, displacing Samsung from the top position for the first time.

On the brighter side, many analysts believe that Samsung, along with TSMC, will benefit from Intel’s recent announcement that it will outsource more semiconductor manufacturing.

Remote services drove demand for DRAM chips

The company’s semiconductor division was helped by demand for DRAM chips from data centers that need to fortify their online infrastructure to support remote workers and online education. PC demand also remained solid because of low-end laptop sales.

But sales of chips for mobile devices remained weak as consumers spent less money because of the pandemic. When they did make purchases, they tended to buy low- to mid-end mobile products, which use less powerful chips.

A “one-off gain” boosted display revenue

Samsung Electronic’s display panel business earnings improved quarter-over-quarter thanks to a “one-off gain” that boosted profits from mobile displays. Samsung did not give details about where the gain came form, but Bloomberg reports it was a compensatory payment of about 1.1 trillion won ($924 million) from Apple after the iPhone maker ordered fewer displays than expected.

But overall demand for displays was lower as COVID-19 hit smartphone sales. Operating losses were offset slightly by purchases of monitors by people working from home.

Samsung Electronics said mobile display demand is expected to recover this year as its biggest clients continue to launch new products, despite continuing uncertainties from the pandemic. It also expects orders for mobile and graphic chips to increase as new smartphones and game consoles are released, and anticipates a “full-fledged rebound in earnings from mobile displays” by the end of the year, due largely to sales of mid- to low-end smartphones.

Google One now offers free phone backups up to 15GB on Android and iOS

Google One, Google’s subscription program for buying additional storage and live support, is getting an update today that will bring free phone backups for Android and iOS devices to anybody who installs the app — even if they don’t have a paid membership. The catch: While the feature is free, the backups count against your free Google storage allowance of 15GB. If you need more you need — you guessed it — a Google One membership to buy more storage or delete data you no longer need. Paid memberships start at $1.99/month for 100GB.

Image Credits: Google

Last year, paid members already got access to this feature on Android, which stores your texts, contacts, apps, photos and videos in Google’s cloud. The “free” backups are now available to Android users. iOS users will get access to it once the Google One app rolls out on iOS in the near future.

Image Credits: Google

With this update, Google is also introducing a new storage manager tool in Google One, which is available in the app and on the web, and which allows you to delete files and backups as needed. The tool works across Google properties and lets you find emails with very large attachments or large files in your Google Drive storage, for example.

With this free backup feature, Google is clearly trying to get more people onto Google One. The free 15GB storage limit is pretty easy to hit, after all (and that’s for your overall storage on Google, including Gmail and other services) and paying $1.99 for 100GB isn’t exactly a major expense, especially if you are already part of the Google ecosystem and use apps like Google Photos already.

The hype, haplessness and hope of haptics in the COVID-19 era

In March, Brooklynite Jeremy Cohen achieved minor internet fame when he launched an elaborate scheme to court Tori Cignarella, a cute stranger living in a nearby building.

After spotting Cignarella across an air shaft, Cohen used drones, Venmo, texting and FaceTime to interact with his socially distanced crush. But it was on their second date when Cohen pulled out all the stops. He purchased a gigantic plastic bubble, sealed himself inside and invited his new friend to go on a touchless walk. As Cohen wrote on Instagram, “just because we have to social distance doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant.”

Cohen’s quirky, DIY approach made for fun clickbait for a few days. But it’s also a somewhat unflattering metaphor for the kinds of touch-centric entrepreneurialism that has proliferated in the age of COVID-19. From dating to banking, education to retail, the virus has pushed everyone to rethink how touch and proximity factor into daily interactions. Businesses besieged by the uncertainty of shutdown orders, partial re-openings, remote work, disease spikes and changing consumer behavior have been forced to test-drive solutions on the fly.

Amid that confusion, a few common approaches have emerged. Some are rushing to return to normalcy, adopting quick fixes at the expense of more broad-based solutions. Others are using the pandemic as an excuse to accelerate technological shifts, even those that may be unwelcome, impractical or both. Still others are enforcing guidelines selectively or not at all, tempting consumers back, in part, through the promise of “normal” (read: non-distanced and non-regulated) interactions.

Enter haptics. Investment in touch technologies had been on the rise before COVID-19, with virtual reality fueling fresh interest in haptic gloves and full-body suits, and haptics for mobile devices like wearables and smartwatches infusing the field with new resources. While it is difficult to capture the health and growth of the haptics industry with a single number, one estimate puts the global haptics market at US$12.9 billion in 2020, projected to grow to US$40.9 billion by 2027.

In addition to established players like Immersion Corporation, founded in 1993 and active working on haptics applications ranging from gaming and automotive to medical, mobile and industrial, Sony, Apple, Microsoft, Disney and Facebook each have dedicated teams working on new haptics products. Scores of startups, too, are currently bringing new hardware and software solutions to market: Ultraleap (formerly Ultrahaptics), a Bristol-based company that develops midair haptics, has secured $85 million in funding; HaptX, which makes exoskeleton force feedback gloves for use in VR and remote manipulation, has raised $19 million in funding; and Neosensory, focused on routing sound through the skin with a wrist-based wearable Buzz, has received $16 million in funds. A recent industry-wide initiative intended to make it easier to embed haptics in multimedia content suggests that we could soon see growth in this area accelerate even further.

Despite these trends, the business of touch isn’t heading in one clear direction. And with such variety in business responses, customers have responded with confusion, frustration, anxiety and defiance. More than disgruntlement, though, COVID-19 shines a light on a longstanding debate over whether the future will have more touch or less. Tensions around touch were already high, but rapid changes, Band-Aid solutions and short-term thinking are making the problems worse.

What’s needed now is a longer view: serious, systematic thinking about where we — as consumers, citizens, humans — want and need touch, and where we don’t. To get there, we need greater investment not just in technologies that sound good, but ones that will deliver on real needs for connection and safety in the days ahead.

Plexiglass is the new mask

While the mask may be the most conspicuous symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic in much of the world, the new normal has another, clearer symbol: plexiglass.

Plexiglass leads the way as our environments are retrofitted to protect against the virus. In the U.S., demand began rising sharply in March, driven first by hospitals and essential retailers like grocery stores. Traditional sectors like automotive are using much less of the stuff, but that difference is more than made up for by the boom among restaurants, retail, office buildings, airports and schools. Plexiglass is even popping up in temples of bodily experience, surrounding dancers at strip clubsclients at massage parlors and gymgoers in fitness centers.

Like plexiglass itself, the implications for touch are stark, if invisible. Plexiglass may communicate sterility and protection — though, truth be told, it dirties often and it’s easy to get around. More to the point, it puts up a literal barrier between us.

The story of plexiglass — like that of single-use plastic, ventilation systems, hand sanitizer and ultraviolet light — underscores how mundane interventions often win the day, at least initially. It is much easier for a grocery store to install an acrylic sneezeguard between cashiers and customers than it is to adopt contactless shopping or curbside pickup. At their best, interventions like plexiglass are low-cost, effective and don’t require huge behavior changes on the part of customers. They are also largely reversible, should our post-pandemic lifestyles revert back to something more closely resembling our previous behaviors.

Besides their obvious environmental consequences, plasticized approaches can erode our relationship to touch and thereby to each other. In Brazil, for example, some nursing homes have installed “hug tunnels” to allow residents to embrace family members through a plastic barrier. Given that “when will I be able to hug my loved ones again?” is a common and heart-wrenching question these days, the reunions hug tunnels facilitate are, well, touching. But as a shadow of the real thing, they amplify our desperate need for real connection.

The same with circles on the floor in elevators or directional arrows down store aisles: In expecting us to be our best, most rational and most orderly selves, they work against cultural inclinations toward closeness. They indicate not so much a brave new future as a reluctant present. And without proper messaging about their importance as well as their temporariness, they are bound to fail.

Touch tech to the rescue

To feed our skin hunger, futurists are pushing haptic solutions — digital technologies that can replicate and simulate physical sensations. Haptics applications range from simple notification buzzes to complex whole-body systems that combine vibration, electricity and force feedback to re-create the tactile materiality of the physical world. But although the resurgence of VR has rapidly advanced the state of the art, very few of these new devices are consumer-ready (one notable exception is CuteCircuit’s Hug Shirt — released for sale earlier this year after 15+ years in development).

Haptics are typically packaged as part of other digital techs like smartphones, video game controllers, fitness trackers and smartwatches. Dedicated haptic devices remain rare and relatively expensive, though their imminent arrival is widely promoted in popular media and the popular technology press. Effective haptic devices, specially designed to communicate social and emotional touch such as stroking, would seem particularly useful to re-integrate touch into Zoom-heavy communication.

Even with well-resourced companies like FacebookMicrosoft and Disney buying in, these applications will not be hitting home offices or teleconferencing setups anytime soon. Though it would be easy to imagine, for example, a desktop-mounted system for facilitating remote handshakes, mass producing such devices would prove expensive, due in part to the pricey motors necessary to accurately synthesize touch. Using cheaper components compromises haptic fidelity, and at this point, what counts as an acceptable quality of haptic simulation remains ill-defined. We don’t have a tried and tested compression standard for haptics the way we do with audio, for instance; as Immersion Corporation’s Yeshwant Muthusamy recently argued, haptics has been held back by a problematic lack of standards.

Getting haptics right remains challenging despite more than 30 years’ worth of dedicated research in the field. There is no evidence that COVID is accelerating the development of projects already in the pipeline. The fantasy of virtual touch remains seductive, but striking the golden mean between fidelity, ergonomics and cost will continue to be a challenge that can only be met through a protracted process of marketplace trial-and-error. And while haptics retains immense potential, it isn’t a magic bullet for mending the psychological effects of physical distancing.

Curiously, one promising exception is in the replacement of touchscreens using a combination of hand-tracking and midair haptic holograms, which function as button replacements. This product from Bristol-based company Ultraleap uses an array of speakers to project tangible soundwaves into the air, which provide resistance when pressed on, effectively replicating the feeling of clicking a button.

Ultraleap recently announced that it would partner with the cinema advertising company CEN to equip lobby advertising displays found in movie theaters around the U.S. with touchless haptics aimed at allowing interaction with the screen without the risks of touching one. These displays, according to Ultraleap, “will limit the spread of germs and provide safe and natural interaction with content.”

A recent study carried out by the company found that more than 80% of respondents expressed concerns over touchscreen hygiene, prompting Ultraleap to speculate that we are reaching “the end of the [public] touchscreen era.” Rather than initiate a technological change, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to push ahead on the deployment of existing technology. Touchscreens are no longer sites of naturalistic, creative interaction, but are now spaces of contagion to be avoided. Ultraleap’s version of the future would have us touching air instead of contaminated glass.

Touch/less

The notion that touch is in crisis has been a recurring theme in psychology, backed by scores of studies that demonstrate the negative neurophysiological consequences of not getting enough touch. Babies who receive insufficient touch show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have all kinds of negative effects on their development. In prisons, for example, being deprived of touch through restraint or solitary confinement is a punishment tantamount to torture. As technology continues to make inroads into our lives, interactions that once required proximity or touch have become mediated instead, prompting ongoing speculation about the consequences of communicating by technology rather than by touch.

The coronavirus pandemic intensifies this crisis by demanding a sudden, collective withdrawal from physical contact. The virus lays a cruel trap: the longer we’re apart, the more we crave togetherness and are willing to take dangerous risks. But giving in to the desire to touch not only exposes us and those we care about to a potentially mortal danger, it also extends the amount of time before we can resume widespread touching.

The pandemic has already revealed important lessons about touch, haptics and humanity. First is that while circumstances can change quickly, true social and behavioral change takes longer. The many examples of Americans acting as though there is no pandemic going on should give pause to anyone thinking touch-free futures are just around the corner. Atop this, there is plain-old inertia and malaise, which suggests some pandemic-era interventions will stick around while others will disappear or slacken over time. Consider 9/11 — nearly two decades later, though we still can’t greet our loved ones at their gate, most airports don’t strictly monitor our liquids and gels.

By the same token, one can imagine unfilled hand sanitizer stations as the ultimate hangover from these times. We may begin to like the plexiglass barriers between ourselves and our fellow subway passengers, but hate them at restaurants and sporting events. We may encounter more motion-detecting sliding doors and hand-tracking options, but when they falter we may revert to revolving doors, handles and push-buttons.

A second and equally important insight is that the past and the future exist side by side. Technological development takes even longer than behavioral change, and can be bedeviled by momentary trends, expense and technological limitations. For example, there are a lot of pressures right now to transform stores and restaurants into “last-mile” fulfillment centers, to embrace AR and VR and to reimagine space as contact-free. In these scenarios, objects could be touched and handled in virtual showrooms using high-fidelity digital touch technologies. But some of this pressure is based on promises that haptics have yet to fulfill. For instance, being able to touch clothing through a mobile phone may be possible in theory, but would be difficult in practice and would mean other trade-offs for mobile phones’ functionality, size, weight and speed.

Touch/more?

But just as the coronavirus pandemic did not create making us miss touching, it also did not create all the problems with touching. Some of the touch we were used to — like the forced closeness of a crowded subway car or the cramped quarters of airline seats — is dehumanizing. Social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have drawn attention to how unwanted touch can have traumatic consequences and exacerbate power imbalances. We must think broadly about the meaning of touch and its benefits and drawbacks for varying types of people, and not rush toward a one-size-fits-all solution. Although touch may seem like a fundamentally biological sense, its meaning is continually renegotiated in response to shifting cultural conditions and new technologies. COVID-19 is the most rapid upheaval in global practices of touching that we’ve seen in at least a generation, and it would be surprising not to see a corresponding adoption of technologies that could allow us to gain back some of the tactility, even from a distance, that the disease has caused us to give up.

Too often, however, touch technologies prompt a “gee whiz” curiosity without being attentive to the on-the-ground needs for users in their daily lives. Businesses looking to adopt haptic tech must see through the sales pitch and far-flung fantasies to develop a long-term plan for where touch and touch-free make the most sense. And haptic designers must move from a narrow focus on solving the complex engineering problem touch presents to addressing the sorts of technologies users might comfortably incorporate into their daily communication habits.

A useful exercise going forward is to consider how would we do haptic design differently knowing we’d be facing another COVID-19-style pandemic in 2030? What touch technologies could be advanced to satisfy some of the desires for human contact? How can firms be proactive, rather than reactive, about haptic solutions? As much as those working in the field of haptics may have been motivated by the noble intention of restoring touch to human communication, this mission has often lacked a sense of urgency. Now that COVID-19 has distanced us, the need for haptics to bridge that physical gap, however incompletely, becomes more obvious and demanding.

Businesses feel it too, as they attempt to restore “humanity” and “connection” to their customer interactions. Yet as ironic as it might feel, now is the time not to just stumble through this crisis — it’s time to prepare for the next one. Now is the time to build in resilience, flexibility and excess capacity. To do so requires asking hard questions, like: do we need VR to replicate the sensory world in high fidelity, even if it’s costly? Or would lower-cost and lower-fidelity devices suffice? Will people accept a technologized hug as a meaningful proxy for the real thing? Or, when touch is involved, is there simply no substitute for physical presence? Might the future have both more touch and less?

These are difficult questions, but the hardship, trauma and loss of COVID-19 proves they demand our best and most careful thinking. We owe it to ourselves now and in the future to be deliberate, realistic and hopeful about what touch and technology can do, and what they can’t.

As remote work booms, Everphone grabs ~$40M for its ‘device as a service’ offer

The latest startup to see an uplift in inbound interest flowing from the remote work boom triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is Berlin-based Everphone, which sells a ‘mobile as a service’ device rental package that caters to businesses needing to kit staff out with mobile hardware plus associated support.

Everphone is announcing a €34 million Series B funding round today, led by new investor signals Venture Capital. Other new investors joining the round include German carrier Deutsche Telekom — investing via its strategic investment fund, Telekom Innovation Pool — US-based early stage VC AlleyCorp and Dutch bank NIBC.

The Series B financing will go on expanding to meet rising demand, with the startup telling TechCrunch it’s expecting to see a 70-100% increase in sales volume vs the pre-crisis period, thanks to a doubling of inbound leads during the pandemic.

“The global pandemic has been a catalyst for growth in the field of digitization,” said CEO and co-founder, Jan Dzulko, in a statement. “We are currently experiencing a significant increase in demand at home and abroad, which is why we are aiming for European expansion with the funding.”

Everphone describes its offer as a one-stop-shop, with the service covering not just the rental of (new or refurbished) smartphones and tablets but an administration and management wrapper that covers support needs, including handling repairs/replacements — with the promise of replacements within 24 hours if needed and less client risk from not having to wrangle traditional rental insurance fine print.

Other touted pluses of its “device as a service” approach include flexibility (users get to choose from a range of iOS and Android devices); lower cost (pricing depends on customer size, device choice and rental term but starts at €7,99 a month for a refurbished budget device, rising up to €49,99 a month for high end kit with a 12-month upgrade); and rental bundles which can include standard mobile device management software (such as Cortado and AirWatch) so customers can plug the rental hardware into their existing IT policies and processes.

Everphone reckons this service wrapper — which can also extend to including paid apps (such as Babbel for language learning) as an employee on-device perk/benefit in the bundle — differentiates its offer vs incumbent leasing providers, such as CHG-Meridian or De Lage Landen, and from wholesale distributors.

It also touts its global rollout capability as a customer draw, checking the scalability box.

While its investors (including German carrier, DT) are being fired up by the conviction that the COVID-19 induced shift away from the office to home working will create a boom in demand for well managed and secured work phones to mitigate the risk of personal devices and personal data mingling improperly with work stuff. (On that front Everphone’s website is replete with references to Europe’s data protection framework, GDPR, repurposed as scare marketing.)

“Everphone envisions that every employee will one day work via their smartphone,” added Marcus Polke, partner at signals Venture Capital, in a supporting statement. “With this employee-centric approach and integrated platform, everphone goes far beyond the mere outsourcing of a smartphone IT infrastructure.”

The 2016-founded startup has more than 400 customers signed up at this point, both SMEs and multinationals such as Ernst & Young. It caters to both ends of the market with an off-the-shelf package and self-service device management portal that’s intended for SMEs of between 100 and 1,500 employees — plus custom integrations for larger entities of up to 30,000 employees.

It says it’s able to offer “highly competitive” prices for renting new devices because it gives returned kit a second life, refurbishing and reselling devices on the consumer market. “Thanks to this profitable secondary lifespan, we are able to offer highly competitive prices and extensive service levels on our rental devices,” Everphone writes on its website.

The second hand smartphone market has also been seeing regional growth. Swappie, a European ecommerce startup that sells refurbished iPhones, aligning with EU lawmakers’ push for a ‘right to repair’ for electronics, raised its own ~$40M Series B only last month, for example. Its secondhand marketplace is one potential outlet for Everphone’s rented and returned iPhones.

VCs and startups consider HaaS model for consumer devices

I’ve been following consumer audio electronics company Nura with great interest for a few years now — the Melbourne-based startup was one of the first companies I met with after starting with TechCrunch. At the time, its first prototype was a big mess of circuits and wires — the sort of thing you could never imagine shrunk down into a reasonably-sized consumer device.

Nura managed, of course. And the final product looked and sounded great; hell, even the box was nice. If I’m lucky, I see a consumer hardware product once or twice a year that seems reasonably capable of disrupting an industry, and Nura’s custom sound profiles fit that bill. But the company was unique for another reason. A graduate of the HAX accelerator, the startup announced NuraNow roughly this time last year.

Hardware as a service (HaaS) has been a popular concept in the IT/enterprise space for some time, but it’s still fairly uncommon in the consumer category. For one thing: a hardware subscription presents a new paradigm for thinking about purchases. And that is a big lift in a country like the U.S., which spent years weaning consumers off contract-based smartphones.

That Nura jumped at the chance shouldn’t be a big surprise. Backers HAX/SOSV have been proponents of the model for some time now. I’ve visited their Shenzhen offices a few times, and the topic of HaaS always seems to come up.

In a recent email exchange, General Partner Duncan Turner described HaaS as “a great way to keep in contact with your customers and up sell them on new features. Most importantly, for start-ups, recurring revenue is critical for scaling a business with venture capital (and will help appeal to a broad set of investors). HaaS often has a low churn (as easier to put onto long-term contracts).”