Happy 10th anniversary, Android

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

Facebook’s Camera AR platform head is coming to TC Sessions: AR/VR

Augmented reality has the potential to change how we interact with the internet, as these technologies scale you can certainly bet that Facebook is going to be looking to shape what’s possible.

At our one-day TC Sessions: AR/VR event in LA next month, we’ll be joined by Ficus Kirkpatrick, Facebook’s Head of Camera AR Platform, to chat about the company’s strategies in 2018 and beyond for augmented reality.

While the bulk of Facebook’s VR ambitions have taken up residence under the Oculus name, the biggest AR platform available right now are the hundreds of millions of smartphones that people already have. Fortunately, Facebook has quite the presence on mobile but that’s made it even more of a challenge to fit AR ambitions into apps that already have so much going on.

Facebook is not the place most people turn to when they want to take a photo, but the company’s Camera team is hoping to change that by bringing augmented reality face and environment filters deeper into the app.

The Camera Effects AR Platform was Mark Zuckerberg’s hallmark announcement at F8 in 2017, a year when Apple and Google also started getting more verbose in their praise for AR’s potential. In 2018, the company has had some other things keeping it busy, but has continued to bring AR to other areas of the company’s suite of apps with new capabilities.

Right now Facebook is largely focused on the fun and artsy applications of AR, but where will the company take smartphone AR beyond selfie filters towards delivering utility to billions of users? We look forward to chatting with Kirkpatrick about the challenges ahead for the tech giant and the strategies for getting more users to warm up to AR.

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A new CSS-based web attack will crash and restart your iPhone

A security researcher has found a new way to crash and restart any iPhone — with just a few lines of code.

Sabri Haddouche tweeted a proof-of-concept webpage with just 15 lines of code which, if visited, will crash and restart an iPhone or iPad. Those on macOS may also see Safari freeze when opening the link.

The code exploits a weakness in iOS’ web rendering engine WebKit, which Apple mandates all apps and browsers use, Haddouche told TechCrunch. He explained that nesting a ton of elements — such as <div> tags — inside a backdrop filter property in CSS, you can use up all of the device’s resources and cause a kernel panic, which shuts down and restarts the operating system to prevent damage.

“Anything that renders HTML on iOS is affected,” he said. That means anyone sending you a link on Facebook or Twitter, or if any webpage you visit includes the code, or anyone sending you an email, he warned.

TechCrunch tested the exploit running on the most recent mobile software iOS 11.4.1, and confirm it crashes and restarts the phone. Thomas Reed, director of Mac & Mobile at security firm Malwarebytes confirmed that  the most recent iOS 12 beta also froze when tapping the link.

The lucky whose devices won’t crash may just see their device restart (or “respring”) the user interface instead.

For those curious, you can see how it works without it running the crash-inducing code.

The good news is that as annoying as this attack is, it can’t be used to run malicious code, he said, meaning malware can’t run and data can’t be stolen using this attack. But there’s no easy way to prevent the attack from working. One tap on a booby-trapped link sent in a message or opening an HTML email that renders the code can crash the device instantly.

Haddouche contacted Apple on Friday about the attack, which is said to be investigating. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Golden Gate Ventures closes new $100M fund for Southeast Asia

Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures has announced the close of its newest (and third) fund for Southeast Asia at a total of $100 million.

The fund hit a first close in the summer, as TechCrunch reported at the time, and now it has reached full capacity. Seven-year-old Golden Gate said its LPs include existing backers Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Korea’s Hanwha, Naver — the owner of messaging app Line — and EE Capital. Investors backing the firm for the first time through this fund include Mistletoe — the fund from Taizo Son, brother of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son — Mitsui Fudosan, IDO Investments, CTBC Group, Korea Venture Investment Corporation (KVIC), and Ion Pacific.

Golden Gate was founded by former Silicon Valley-based trio Vinnie Lauria, Jeffrey Paine and Paul Bragiel . It has investments across five markets in Southeast Asia — with a particular focus on Indonesia and Singapore — and that portfolio includes Singapore’s Carousell, automotive marketplace Carro, P2P lending startup Funding Societies, payment enabler Omise and health tech startup AlodokterGolden Gate’s previous fund was $60 million and it closed in 2016.

Some of the firm’s exits so far include the sale of Redmart to Lazada (although not a blockbuster), Priceline’s acquisition of WoomooLine’s acquisition of Temanjalan and the sale of Mapan (formerly Ruma) to Go-Jek. It claims that its first two funds have had distributions of cash (DPI) of 1.56x and 0.13x, and IRRs of 48 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

“When I compare the tech ecosystem of Southeast Asia (SEA) to other markets, it’s really hit an inflection point — annual investment is now measured in the billions. That puts SEA on a global stage with the US, China, and India. Yet there is a youthfulness that reminds me of Silicon Valley circa 2005, shortly before social media and the iPhone took off,” Lauria said in a statement.

A report from Google and Temasek forecasts that Southeast Asia’s digital economy will grow from $50 billion in 2017 to over $200 billion by 2025 as internet penetration continues to grow across the region thanks to increased ownership of smartphones. That opportunity to reach a cumulative population of over 600 million consumers — more of whom are online today than the entire U.S. population — is feeding optimism around startups and tech companies.

Golden Gate isn’t alone in developing a fund to explore those possibilities, there’s plenty of VC activity in the region.

Some of those include Openspace, which was formerly known as NSI Ventures and just closed a $135 million fund, Qualgro, which is raising a $100 million vehicle and Golden Equator, which paired up with Korea Investment Partners on a joint $88 million fund. Temasek-affiliated Vertex closed a $210 million fund last year and that remains a record for Southeast Asia.

Golden Gate also has a dedicated crypto fund, LuneX, which is in the process of raising $10 million.

Alibaba goes big on Russia with joint venture focused on gaming, shopping and more

Alibaba is doubling down on Russia after the Chinese e-commerce giant launched a joint venture with one of the country’s leading internet companies.

Russia is said to have over 70 million internet users, around half of its population, with countless more attracted from Russian-speaking neighboring countries. The numbers are projected to rise as, like in many parts of the world, the growth of smartphones brings more people online. Now Alibaba is moving in to ensure it is well placed to take advantage.

Mail.ru, the Russia firm that offers a range of internet services including social media, email and food delivery to 100 million registered users, has teamed up with Alibaba to launch AliExpress Russia, a JV that they hope will function as a “one-stop destination” for communication, social media, shopping and games. Mail.ru backer MegaFon, a telecom firm, and the country’s sovereign wealth fund RDIF (Russian Direct Investment Fund) have also invested undisclosed amounts into the newly-formed organization.

To recap: Alibaba — which launched its AliExpress service in Russia some years ago — will hold 48 percent of the business, with 24 percent for MegaFon, 15 percent for Mail.ru and the remaining 13 percent take by RDIF. In addition, MegaFon has agreed to trade its 10 percent stake in Mail.ru to Alibaba in a transaction that (alone) is likely to be worth north of $500 million.

That figure doesn’t include other investments in the venture.

“The parties will inject capital, strategic assets, leadership, resources and expertise into a joint venture that leverages AliExpress’ existing businesses in Russia,” Alibaba explained on its Alizila blog.

Alibaba looks to have picked its horse in Russia’s internet race: Mail.ru [Image via KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images]

The strategy, it seems, is to pair Mail.ru’s consumer services with AliExpress, Alibaba’s international e-commerce marketplace. That’ll allow Russian consumers to buy from AliExpress merchants in China, but also overseas markets like Southeast Asia, India, Turkey (where Alibaba recently backed an e-commerce firm) and other parts of Europe where it has a presence. Likewise, Russian online sellers will gain access to consumers in those markets. Alibaba’s ‘branded mall’ — TMall — is also a part of the AliExpress Russia offering.

This deal suggests that Alibaba has picked its ‘horse’ in Russia’s internet race, much the same way that it has repeatedly backed Paytm — the company offering payments, e-commerce and digital banking — in India with funding and integrations.

Already, Alibaba said that Russia has been a “vital market for the growth” for its Alipay mobile payment service. It didn’t provide any raw figures to back that up, but you can bet that it will be pushing Alipay hard as it runs AliExpress Russia, alongside Mail.ru’s own offering, which is called Money.Mail.Ru.

“Most Russian consumers are already our users, and this partnership will enable us to significantly increase the access to various segments of the e-commerce offering, including both cross-border and local merchants. The combination of our ecosystems allows us to leverage our distribution through our merchant base and goods as well as product integrations,” said Mail.Ru Group CEO Boris Dobrodeev in a statement.

This is the second strategic alliance that MegaFon has struck this year. It formed a joint venture with Gazprombank in May through a deal that saw it offload five percent of its stake in Mail.ru. MegaFon acquired 15.2 percent of Mail.ru for $740 million in February 2017.

The Russia deal comes a day after Alibaba co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma — the public face of the company — announced plans to step down over the next year. Current CEO Daniel Zhang will replace him as chairman, meaning that the company will also need to appoint a new CEO.

A majority of U.S. teens are taking steps to limit smartphone and social media use

It’s not just parents who are worrying about their children’s device usage. According to a new study released by Pew Research Center this week, U.S. teens are now taking steps to limit themselves from overuse of their phone and its addictive apps, like social media. A majority, 54% of teens, said they spend too much time on their phone, and nearly that many – 52% – said they are trying to limit their phone use in various ways.

In addition, 57% say they’re trying to limit social media usage and 58% are trying to limit video games.

The fact that older children haven’t gotten a good handle on balanced smartphone usage points to a failure on both parents’ parts and the responsibilities of technology companies to address the addictive nature of our devices.

For years, instead of encouraging more moderate use of smartphones, as the tools they’re meant to be, app makers took full advantage of smartphones’ always-on nature to continually send streams of interruptive notifications that pushed users to constantly check in. Tech companies even leveraged psychological tricks to reward us each time we launched their app, with dopamine hits that keep users engaged.

Device makers loved this addiction because they financially benefited from app sales and in-app purchases, in addition to device sales. So they built ever more tools to give apps access to users’ attention, instead of lessening it.

For addicted teens, parents were of little help as they themselves were often victims of this system, too.

Today, tech companies are finally waking up to the problem. Google and Apple have now both built in screen time monitoring and control tools into their mobile operating systems, and even dopamine drug dealers like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have begun to add screen time reminders and other “time well spent” features.

But these tools have come too late to prevent U.S. children from developing bad habits with potentially harmful side effects.

Pew says that 72% of teens are reaching for their phones as soon as they wake up; four-in-ten feel anxious without their phone; 56% report that not have their phone with them can make them feel lonely, upset or anxious; 51% feel their parents are distracted by phones during conversations (72% of parents say this is true, too, when trying to talk to teens); and 31% say phones distract them in class.

The problems are compounded by the fact that smartphones aren’t a luxury any longer – they’re in the hands of nearly all U.S. teens, 45% of whom are almost constantly online.

The only good news is that today’s teens seem to be more aware of the problem, even if their parents failed to teach balanced use of devices in their own home.

Nine-in-ten teens believe that spending too much time online is a problem, and 60% say it’s a major problem. 41% say they spend too much time on social media.

In addition, some parents are starting to take aim at the problem, as well, with 57% reporting they’ve set some screen time restrictions for their teens.

Today’s internet can be a toxic place, and not one where people should spend large amounts of time.

Social networking one the top activities taking place on smartphones, reports show.

But many of these networks were built by young men who couldn’t conceive of all the ways things could go wrong. They failed to build in robust controls from day one to prevent things like bullying, harassment, threats, misinformation, and other issues.

Instead, these protections have been added on after the fact – after the problems became severe. And, some could argue, that was too late. Social media is something that’s now associated with online abuse and disinformation, with comment thread fights and trolling, and with consequences that range from teen suicides to genocide.

If we are unable to give up our smartphones and social media for the benefits they do offer, at the very least we should be monitoring and moderating our use of them at this point.

Thankfully, as this study shows, there’s growing awareness of this among younger users, and maybe, some of them will even do something about it in the future – when they’re the bosses, the parents, and the engineers, they can craft new work/life policies, make new house rules, and write better code.

Xiaomi posts $2.1B profit in its first quarter as a public company

Chinese smartphone firm Xiaomi has posted a $2.1 billion profit for its first quarter of business as a public company on account of growing smartphone and hardware sales.

The firm listed in Hong Kong in July in an IPO that raised $4.7 billion, but Xiaomi’s share price has steadily fallen since then. The company announced today that it grew revenue 68 percent in Q2 2018 to reach 45.2 billion RMB, or $6.6 billion. Xiaomi posted a net profit of 14.6 billion RMB ($2.1 billion), but it recorded an operating loss of 7.6 billion RMB ($1.1 billion) for the period due to significant administration costs around the listing. Costs had also weighed it down in the lead up to the IPO.

Those initial results raise the firm’s shares by 1.6 percent at the time of writing. But it remains some way from the HK$21.55 peak reached last month.

The bulk of Xiaomi’s revenue is from smartphone sales and the firm said it shipped 32 million during the quarter, up 44 percent year-on-year, which brought in 30.5 billion RMB ($4.5 billion). That’s 67 percent of all revenue, although it is worth noting that gross profit on hardware sales slipped to 6.7 percent from 8.7 percent last year.

Beyond phones, sales of other smart products, which includes TV and fitness bands, grew by over 100 percent to reach 10.4 million RMB. That’s around $1.5 billion and Xiaomi’s next largest revenue source.

Internet services, a segment that Xiaomi has long forecast as a financial differentiator against other phone brands, saw total sales grow by 64 percent annually to hit 4 million RMB, $585 million. Xiaomi has only recently begun to focus this division on markets outside of China, which accounts for the bulk of its 206.9 million monthly active users. That’s a figure that Xiaomi said it up on 146 million one year ago.

Look more broadly at its globalization strategy, 36 percent of Xiaomi’s revenue for the quarter came from outside of China, which the firm said represents 151 percent year growth year-on-year. That’s predominantly from India, but Xiaomin said it has seen progress in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, while it also recently expanded into Europe.

In India, the firm is shooting for additional growth after it released the first device from its new Pocophone sub-brand. The Poco F1 is designed to offer high-end specs at just a snip of the cost, zooming in on a market segment that fellow Chinese outfit OnePlus has seen much success within in India.

The F1 is priced below $500 and it’ll debut in India before going on sale in Hong Kong, France and Indonesia later this month.

Making way for new levels of American innovation

New fifth-generation “5G” network technology will equip the United States with a superior wireless platform unlocking transformative economic potential. However, 5G’s success is contingent on modernizing outdated policy frameworks that dictate infrastructure overhauls and establishing the proper balance of public-private partnerships to encourage investment and deployment.

Most people have heard by now of the coming 5G revolution. Compared to 4G, this next-generation technology will deliver near-instantaneous connection speed, significantly lower latency – meaning near-zero buffer times – and increased connectivity capacity to allow billions of devices and applications to come online and communicate simultaneously and seamlessly.

While 5G is often discussed in future tense, the reality is it’s already here. Its capabilities were displayed earlier this year at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Samsung and Intel  class="m_4430823757643656150MsoHyperlink">showcased a 5G enabled virtual reality (VR) broadcasting experience to event goers. In addition, multiple U.S. carriers including Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have announced commercial deployments in select markets by the end of 2018, while chipmaker Qualcomm unveiled last month its new 5G millimeter-wave module that outfits smartphones with 5G compatibility.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – 2018/02/26: View of the phone company QUALCOMM technology 5G in the Mobile World Congress.
The Mobile World Congress 2018 is being hosted in Barcelona from 26 February to 1st March. (Photo by Ramon Costa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While this commitment from 5G commercial developers is promising, long-term success of 5G is ultimately dependent on addressing two key issues.

The first step is ensuring the right policies are established at the federal, state and municipal levels in the U.S. that will allow the buildout of needed infrastructure, namely “small cells”. This equipment is designed to fit on streetlights, lampposts and buildings. You may not even notice them as you walk by, but they are critical to adding capacity to the network and transmitting wireless activity quickly and reliably. 

In many communities across the U.S., 20th century infrastructure policies are slowing the emergence of bringing next-generation networks and technologies online. Issues including costs per small cell attachment, permitting around public rights-of-way and deadlines on application reviews are all less-than-exciting topics of conversation but act as real threats to achieving timely implementation of 5G according to recent research from Accenture and the 5G Americas organization.

Policymakers can mitigate these setbacks by taking inventory of their own policy frameworks and, where needed, streamlining and modernizing processes. For instance, current small cell permit applications can take upwards of 18 to 24 months to advance through the approval process as a result of needed buy-in from many local commissions, city councils, etc. That’s an incredible amount of time for a community to wait around and ultimately fall behind on next-generation access. As a result, policymakers are beginning to act. 

13 states, including Florida, Ohio, and Texas have already passed bills alleviating some of the local infrastructure hurdles accompanying increased broadband network deployment, including delays and pricing. Additionally, this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has moved on multiple orders that look to remedy current 5G roadblocks including opening up commercial access to more amounts of needed high-, mid- and low-band spectrum.

The second step is identifying areas in which public and private entities can partner to drive needed capital and resources towards 5G initiatives. These types of collaborations were first made popular in Europe, where we continue to see significant advancement of infrastructure initiatives through combined public-private planning including the European Commission and European ICT industry’s 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership (5G PPP).

The U.S. is increasing its own public-private levels of planning. In 2015, the Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation launched its successful “Smart City Challenge” encouraging planning and funding in U.S. cities around advanced connectivity. More recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded New York City a $22.5 million grant through its Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) initiative to create and deploy the first of a series of wireless research hubs focused on 5G-related breakthroughs including high-bandwidth and low-latency data transmission, millimeter wave spectrum, next-generation mobile network architecture, and edge cloud computing integration.

While these efforts should be applauded, it’s important to remember they are merely initial steps. A recent study conducted by CTIA, a leading trade association for the wireless industry, found that the United States remains behind both China and South Korea in 5G development. If other countries beat the U.S. to the punch, which some anticipate is already happening, companies and sectors that require ubiquitous, fast, and seamless connection – like autonomous transportation for example – could migrate, develop, and evolve abroad casting lasting negative impact on U.S. innovation. 

The potential economic gains are also significant. A 2017 Accenture report predicts an additional $275 billion in infrastructure investments from the private sector, resulting in up to 3 million new jobs and a gross domestic product (GDP) increase of $500 billion. That’s just on the infrastructure side alone. On the global scale, we could see as much as $12 trillion in additional economic activity according to discussion at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January.

Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” When it comes to America’s technology evolution, this quote holds especially true. Our nation has led the digital revolution for decades. Now with 5G, we have the opportunity to unlock an entirely new level of innovation that will make our communities safer, more inclusive and more prosperous for all.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review

There are no secrets in consumer electronics anymore. Sometimes it’s the fault of flubs and flaws and leakers. Sometimes it’s by design. In the case of the Galaxy Note 9, it’s a little bit of both.

The Galaxy S9 wasn’t the blockbuster Samsung’s shareholders were expecting, so the company understandably primed the pump through a combination of teasers and leaks — some no doubt unintentional and others that seemed suspiciously less so.

By the time yesterday’s big event at Brooklyn’s house that Jay-Z built rolled around, we knew just about everything we needed to know about the upcoming handset, and virtually every leaked spec proved accurate. Sure, the company amazingly managed to through in a surprise or two, but the event was all about the Note.

And understandably so. The phablet, along with the Galaxy S line, forms the cornerstone of Samsung’s entire consumer approach. It’s a portfolio that expands with each event, to include wearables, productivity, the smart home, automotive, a smart assistant and now the long-awaited smart speaker. None of which would make a lick of sense without the handsets.

If the Galaxy S is Samsung’s tentpole device, the Note represents what the company has deemed its “innovation brand,” the uber-premium device that allows the company to push the limits of its mobile hardware. In past generations, that’s meant the Edge display (curving screen), S-Pen, giant screen and dual-camera. That innovation, naturally, comes at a price.

Here it’s $1,000. It’s a price that, until a year ago seemed impossibly steep for a smartphone. For the Galaxy Note 9, on the other hand, that’s just where things start. Any hopes that the new model might represent a move toward the mainstream for the line in the wake of an underwhelming S9 performance can be put to rest here.

The Note is what it’s always been and will likely always continue to be: a device for the diehard. A very good device, mind, but one for those with an arm and or a leg to spare. Most of the good new features will trickle their way down the food chain to the company’s more mainstream device. At $720/$840, the S9 isn’t a budget phone by any stretch of the imagination, but at the very least, keeping it to three digits seems a little more palatable.

A good rule of thumb for a hardware review is incorporating the product into one’s own life as much as possible. It’s a pretty easy ask with a device like the Note 9, which has the advantage of great hardware and software design built upon the learnings and missteps of several generations.

It’s still not perfect by any means, and the company’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the line means there are plenty of features that never really made their may into my routine. And while, as the largely unchanged product design suggests — the Note 9 doesn’t represent a hugely significant milestone in the product line — there are enough tweaks throughout the product to maintain its place toward the top of the Android heap.

All charged up

Let’s address the gorilla in the room here. Two years ago, Galaxy Notes started exploding. Samsung recalled the devices, started selling them, more exploded and they recalled them again, ultimately discontinuing the product.

Samsung apologized profusely and agreed to institute more rigorous safety checks. For the next few devices, the company didn’t rock the boat. Battery sizes on Galaxy products stayed mostly the same. It was a combination of pragmatism and optics. The company needed time to ensure that future products wouldn’t suffer the same fate, while demonstrating to the public and shareholders that it was doing due diligence.

“What we want to do is a tempered approach to innovation any time,” Samsung’s director of Product Strategy and Marketing told me ahead of launch, “so this was the right time to increase the battery to meet consumer needs.”

Given Samsung’s massive business as a component manufacturer, the whole fiasco ultimately didn’t dent the bottom line. In fact, in a strange way, it might ultimately be a net positive. Now it can boast about having one of the most rigorous battery testing processes in the business. Now it’s a feature, not a bug.

At 4,000mAh, the Note 9 features a 700mAh increase above its predecessor. It’s not an unprecedented number — Huawei’s already hit the 4,000 mark — but it’s the largest ever on a Note device, putting the handset in the top percentile.

As far as how that actually translates to real-world usage, Samsung’s not giving a number yet. The company simply says “all day and all night” in its release. I found that to be pretty close to the truth. I unplugged the handset at 100 percent yesterday afternoon. I texted, listened to Spotify, took photos, downloaded and just generally attempted to live my life on the damn thing.

Just under 22 hours later, it gave up the ghost and after much notification-based consternation about a critically low battery, the screen went black. Like I said, it’s not crazy battery life, but going most of a full day and night without a charge is a nice little luxury — and the sort of thing all phone makers should strive to achieve on their flagship products.

The company also, kindly, included the new Wireless Charging Duo. The charging pad is not quite as ambitious as the AirPower, but unlike that product, introduced nearly a year ago by Apple, I have this in my hands right now. So, point: Samsung. Charging the device from zero to 100 percent took three hours on the dot with the $120 “Fast Charge” pad. And it’s nice and toasty now.

Memories

Okay, about that price. Again, we’re talking $999.99 to start. There’s also a second SKU. That one will run you $1,295.99. Take a moment if you need to.

That’s a silly amount of money if you’re not the starting point guard for the Golden State Warriors. So much for the rumors that the company would be working to make its devices more economically accessible. And while the premium hardware has always meant that the Galaxy line is going to remain on the pricey side, I can’t help but point out that a few key decisions could have kept the price down, while maintaining build quality.

Storage is arguably the primary culprit. The aforementioned two SKUs give you either 6GB of RAM with 128GB or 8GB of RAM with 512GB. With cloud syncing and the rest, it’s hard to imagine I would come close to that limit in the two or so years until the time comes to upgrade my handset.

I’m sure those sorts of crazy media-hoarding power users do, in fact, exist in the world, but they’re undoubtedly a rarity. Besides, as Samsung helpfully pointed out, 512GB SD cards already exist in the world. Sure, that’s another $350 tacked onto the bottom line, but it’s there, if you need it. For most users, it’s hard to see Samsung’s claim of having “the world’s first 1TB-ready smartphone” (512GB+512GB) exists for little more reason than racking up yet another flashy claim for the 1960s Batman utility belt of smartphones.

Sure, Samsung no doubt gets a deal on Samsung-built hard drives, but the component has to be a key part in what’s driving costs up. For a company as driven by choice as Samsung, I’m honestly surprised we’re not getting more options up front here in the States.

Remote control

Confession: After testing many Galaxy Note models over the course of many years, I’ve never figured out a great use for the S-Pen. I mean, I’m happy that people like it, and obviously all of the early skepticism about the return of the stylus was quickly put to rest, as the company has continued to go back to the well, year after year.

But all of the handwritten note taking and animated GIF drawing just isn’t for me, man. I also recently spoke to an artist friend who told me that the Note doesn’t really cut it for him on the drawing front, either. Again, if you like or love it, more power to you, but it’s just not for me.

As silly as the idea of using the S-Pen as a remote control might appear at first glance, however, it’s clear to me that this is the first use of the built-in accessory I could honestly see using on a daily basis. It’s handy once you get beyond the silliness of holding a stylus in your hand while running, and serves as a handy surrogate for those who don’t own a compatible smartwatch.

The S-Pen now sports Bluetooth Low Energy, allowing it to control different aspects of phone use. Low Energy or not, that tech requires power, so the stylus now contains a super conductor, which charges it when slotted inside the phone; 40 seconds of charging should get you a healthy 30 minutes of use. Even so, the phone will bug you to remind you that you really ought to dock the thing when not in use.

The compatible apps are still fairly limited at launch, but it’s enough to demonstrate how this could be a handy little addition. Of the bunch, I got the most out of music control for Spotify. One click plays/pauses a song, and a double-click extends the track. Sure, it’s limited functionality, but it saved me from having to fiddle with the phone to change songs went I went for my run this morning.

You’ll need to be a bit more creative when determining usefulness in some of the other apps. Using it as a shutter button in the camera app, for instance, could be a useful way to take a selfie without having to hold the phone at arms’ length.

The entire time, I wondered what one might be able to accomplish with additional buttons (volume/rewind/gameplay)? What about a pedometer to track steps when you’re running on the treadmill without it in the pocket? Or even a beacon to help absent-minded folks like myself find it after we invariably drop it between couch cushions.

But yeah, I understand why the company would choose to keep things simple for what remains a sort of secondary functionality. Or, heck, maybe the company just needs to hold some features for the Note 10 (Note X?).

Oh, and the Blue and Lavender versions of the phone come in striking yellow and purple S-Pens, with lock-screen ink color to match. So that’s pretty fun.

Hey man, nice shot

Nowhere is the Note’s cumulative evolution better represented than the camera. Each subsequent Galaxy S and Note release seem to offer new hardware and/or software upgrades, giving the company two distinct opportunities per year to improve imaging for the line. The S9, announced back in February, notably brought improved low-light photography to the line. The dual aperture flips between f/1.5 and f/2.4, to let in more light.

It’s a neat trick for a smartphone. Behold, a head to head between the Note 9 (left) and iPhone X (right):

Here’s what we’re dealing with on the hardware front:

  • Rear: Dual Camera with Dual OIS (Optical Image Stabilization)
  • Wide-angle: Super Speed Dual Pixel 12MP AF, F1.5/F2.4, OIS
  • Telephoto: 12MP AF, F2.4, OIS
  • 2X optical zoom, up to 10X digital zoom
  • Front: 8MP AF, F1.7

This time out, the improvements are mostly on the software side of things. Two features in particular stand out: Scene Optimizer and Flaw Detection. The first should prove familiar to those who’ve been paying attention to the smartphone game of late. LG is probably the most prominent example.

Camera hardware is pretty great across the board of most modern smartphone flagships. As such, these new features are designed to eliminate the current weakest link: human error. Scene Optimizer saves amateur photographers from having to futz with more advanced settings like white balance and saturation.

The feature uses AI to determine what the camera is seeing, and adjusts settings accordingly. There are 20 different settings, including: Food, Portraits, Flowers, Indoor scenes, Animals, Landscapes, Greenery, Trees, Sky, Mountains, Beaches, Sunrises and sunsets, Watersides, Street scenes, Night scenes, Waterfalls, Snow, Birds, Backlit and Text.

Some are pretty general, others are weirdly specific, but it’s a good mix, and I suspect Samsung will continue to add to it through OTA updates. That said, the function itself doesn’t need a cloud connection, doing all of the processing on-board. The feature worked well with most of the flowers and food I threw at it (so to speak), popping up a small icon in the bottom of the screen to let me know that it knows what it’s looking at. It also did well with book text.

The success rate of other things, like trees, were, unsurprisingly, dependent on context. Get just the top part and it identifies it as “Greenery.” Flip the phone to portrait mode and get the whole of the trunk and it pops up the “Tree” icon. I did get a few false positives along the way; the Note 9 thought my fingers were food, which is deeply disturbing for any number of reasons.

[Without Scene Optimizer – left, With Scene Optimizer – right]

Obviously, it’s not going to be perfect. I found, in the case of flowers that it has the tendency to oversaturate the colors. If you agree, you can disable the feature in settings. However, you have to do this before the shot is taken. There’s no way to manually override the feature to tell it what kind of object you’re shooting. That seems like a bit of a no-brainer addition.

[Super slow-mo matcha under the flicking lights]

Flaw Detection serves a similar role as Scene Optimizer, helping you avoid getting in your own way as an amateur photog. The feature is designed to alert you if a shot is blurry, if there’s a smudge on the screen, if the subject blinked or if backlighting is making everything look crappy. In the case of lens smudging and backlighting, it only bothers with a single alert every 24 hours.

The blink detection worked well. Blur detection, on the other hand, was a bit more of a crap shoot for subjects in motion and those that were too close to the lens to get a good focus. The feature could use a bit of work, but I still think it’s one of the more compelling additions on the whole of the device and anticipate a lot of other companies introducing their own versions in the coming year.

[gallery ids="1689899,1689901,1689903,1689904,1689932"]

Design Note

The more the Note changes, the more it stays the same, I suppose. As expected, the design language hasn’t changed much, which is no doubt part of what made Samsung CEO DJ Koh think he could get away with using the device in public ahead of launch. The footprint is virtually the same in spite of the ever-so-slightly larger screen (6.3 > 6.4-inches, same 2,960 x 1,440 resolution) — from 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm on the 8, to 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm on the 9.

That’s perfectly fine. Samsung’s done an impressive job cramming a lot of screen into a manageable footprint over the past several gens. The only major change (aside from the lovely new blue and purple paint jobs) is the migration of the fingerprint sensor from the side of the camera to underneath it.

This was a clear instance of Samsung responding to feedback from users frustrated by all the times they mistook the camera for the fingerprint reader. The new placement helps a bit, though it’s still fairly close to the camera, and the fact that both are similar shapes doesn’t help matters. Thank goodness for that new smudge detector.

Oh, and the headphone jack is still present, because of course it is. For Samsung, it’s an important way to distinguish the product and approach from a world gone dongle mad.

Note on Notes

Oh Bixby, you eternal bastion of unfulfilled potential. A full rundown of new features can be found here. Overall, the smart assistant promises to be more conversational, with better concierge features. That said, Samsung’s once again tweaking it until the last moment, so I can’t offer you a full review until closer to the phone’s August 24 street date.

So stay tuned for that, I guess. I will say that the setup process can be a bit of a slog for a feature designed to make everything easier. Playing with Bixby voice required me to navigate several pages in order to connect the two. Thankfully, you should only have to deal with that the one time.

Samsung’s continuing to tweak the internals to make its device more suitable for gaming. The water-carbon cooling system tweaks the liquid cooling system found on the device since the S7, to help diffuse heat more efficiently. The large, bright screen meanwhile, is well-suited to mobile gaming, and the 6GB model handled Fortnite fairly well.

A final note

The next smartphone revolution always seems to be a year away. The potential arrival of a Samsung device with a foldable display makes the notion of carrying a massive device around in one’s pocket almost quaint. For the time being, however, the Note remains one of the best methods for transporting a whole lot of screen around on your person.

A lot has changed about the Note in the past seven years, but the core of the device is mostly the same: big screen and stylus coming together to walk the line between productivity and entertainment. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s too expensive for a lot of us. But it remains the phablet to beat.

Samsung’s 512GB Galaxy Note 9 costs $1,250

Remember those rumors that Samsung would be working to keep costs of its new flagships at reasonable levels? Yeah, no such luck, bucko. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 starts at $999.95. That will get you the base-level model, with an admittedly generous 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM.

The next SKU up will really make the eyeballs pop out of your head like a Tex Avery cartoon, however. At launch, the company’s offering up two models — the premium version gets you 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, which, as the company notes, is “1TB ready,” via expandable storage.

After all, 512GB microSD cards are out there. Granted, that’ll run you $350, but it seems safe to assume that you’re made of money if you’re speccing out a 1TB Galaxy Note. As for the phone itself, that costs a mere $1,249.99. The premium isn’t really a huge shocker, however — SSD is pricey.

That specific SKU will only be available from a select number of retailers — probably not a surprise given that it’s destined to be a niche item. It also will be available directly from Samsung, along with select carriers, including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and U.S. Cellular,

Both SKUs arrive August 24.