FTC puts hardware makers on warning for potential ‘unlawful repair restrictions’

As phones and other consumer devices have gained feature after feature, they have also declined in how easily they can be repaired, with Apple at the head of this ignoble pack. The FTC has taken note, admitting that the agency has been lax on this front but that going forward it will prioritize what could be illegal restrictions by companies as to how consumers can repair, repurpose, and reuse their own property.

Devices are often built today with no concessions made towards easy repair or refurbishment, or even once routine upgrades like adding RAM or swapping out an ailing battery. While companies like Apple do often support hardware for a long time in some respects, the trade-off seems to be that if you crack your screen, the maker is your only real option to fix it.

That’s a problem for many reasons, as right-to-repair activist and iFixit founder Kyle Wiens has argued indefatigably for years (the company posted proudly about the statement on its blog). The FTC sought comment on this topic back in 2019, issued a report on the state of things a few months ago, and now (perhaps emboldened by new Chair Lina Khan’s green light to all things fearful to big tech companies) has issued a policy statement.

The gist of the unanimously approved statement is that they found that the practice of deliberately restricting repairs may have serious repercussions, especially among people who don’t have the cash to pay the Apple tax for what ought to be (and once was) a simple repair.

The Commission’s report on repair restrictions explores and discusses a number of these issues and describes the hardships repair restrictions create for families and businesses. The Commission is concerned that this burden is borne more heavily by underserved communities, including communities of color and lower-income Americans. The pandemic exacerbated these effects as consumers relied more heavily on technology than ever before.

While unlawful repair restrictions have generally not been an enforcement priority for the Commission for a number of years, the Commission has determined that it will devote more enforcement resources to combat these practices. Accordingly, the Commission will now prioritize investigations into unlawful repair restrictions under relevant statutes…

The statement then makes four basic points. First, it reiterates the need for consumers and other public organizations to report and characterize what they perceive as unfair or problematic repair restrictions. The FTC doesn’t go out and spontaneously investigate companies, it generally needs a complaint to set the wheels in motion, such as people alleging that Facebook is misusing their data.

Second is a surprising antitrust tie-in, where the FTC says it will look at said restrictions aiming to answer whether monopolistic practices like tying and exclusionary design are in play. This could be something like refusing to allow upgrades, then charging an order of magnitude higher than market price for something like a few extra gigs of storage or RAM, or designing products in such a way that it moots competition. Or perhaps arbitrary warranty violations for doing things like removing screws or taking the device to third party for repairs. (Of course, these would depend on establishing monopoly status or market power for the company, something the FTC has had trouble doing.)

More in line with the FTC’s usual commercial regulations, it will assess whether the restrictions are “unfair acts or practices,” which is a much broader and easier to meet requirement. You don’t need a monopoly to make claims of an “open standard” to be misleading, or for a hidden setting to slow the operations of third party apps or peripherals, for instance.

And lastly the agency mentions that it will be working with states in its push to establish new regulations and laws. This is perhaps a reference to the pioneering “right to repair” bills like the one passed by Massachusetts last year. Successes and failures along those lines will be taken into account and the feds and state policymakers will be comparing notes.

This isn’t the first movement in this direction by a long shot, but it is one of the plainest. Tech companies have seen the writing on the wall, and done things like expand independent repair programs — but it’s arguable that these actions were taken in anticipation of the FTC’s expected shift toward establishing hard lines on the topic.

The FTC isn’t showing its full hand here, but it’s certainly hinting that it’s ready to play if the companies involved want to push their luck. We’ll probably know more soon once it starts ingesting consumer complaints and builds a picture of the repair landscape.

Kobo Elipsa review: A sized-up e-reading companion with clever note taking

Kobo’s Elipsa is the latest in the Amazon rival’s e-reading line, and it’s a big one. The 10.3-inch e-paper display brings it up to iPad dimensions and puts it in direct competition with the reMarkable and Boox’s e-reader tablets. It excels on reading experience, gets by on note taking and drawing, but falls a bit short on versatility.

Kobo has been creeping upmarket for a few years now, and though the cheaper Clara HD is still the pick of the litter in my opinion, the Forma and Libra H2O are worthy competitors to the Kindle lines. The $400 Elipsa represents a big step up in size, function and price, and it does justify itself — though there are a few important caveats.

The device is well designed but lacks any flourishes. The tilted “side chin” of the Forma and Libra is flattened out into a simple wide bezel on the right side. The lopsided appearance doesn’t bother me much, and much of the competition has it as well. (Though my favorite is Boox’s ultracompact, flush-fronted Poke 3)

The 10.3″ screen has a resolution of 1404 x 1872, giving it 227 pixels per inch. That’s well below the 300 PPI of the Clara and Forma, and the typography suffers from noticeably more aliasing if you look closely. Of course, you won’t be looking that closely, since as a larger device you’ll probably be giving the Elipsa a bit more distance and perhaps using a larger type size. I found it perfectly comfortable to read on — 227 PPI isn’t bad, just not the best.

There is a front light, which is easily adjustable by sliding your finger up and down the left side of the screen, but unlike other Kobo devices there is no way to change the color temperature. I’ve been spoiled by other devices and now the default cool grey I lived with for years doesn’t feel right, especially with a warmer light shining on your surroundings. The important part is that it is consistent across the full display and adjustable down to a faint glow, something my eyes have thanked me for many times.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

It’s hard to consider the Elipsa independent from the accessories it’s bundled with, and in fact there’s no way to buy one right now without the “sleep cover” and stylus. The truth is they really complete the package, though they do add considerably to its weight and bulk. What when naked is lighter and feels smaller than a standard iPad is heavier and larger once you put its case on and stash the surprisingly weighty stylus at the top.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The cover is nicely designed, if a bit stiff, and will definitely protect your device from harm. The cover, secured by magnets at the bottom, flips off like a sheet on a legal pad and folds flat behind the device, attaching itself with the same magnets from the other direction. A couple folds in it also stiffen up with further magnetic arrangement into a nice, sturdy little stand. The outside is a grippy faux leather and the inside is soft microfiber.

You can wake and turn off the device by opening and closing the cover, but the whole thing comes with a small catch: you have to have the power button, charging port and big bezel on the right. When out of its case the Elipsa can, like the others of its lopsided type, be inverted and your content instantly flips. But once you put it in the case, you’re locked in to a semi-right-handed mode. This may or may not bother people but it’s worth mentioning.

The Elipsa, center, with the Forma and reMarkable 2 to its left and right. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The reading experience is otherwise very similar to that on Kobo’s other devices. A relatively clean interface that surfaces your most recently accessed content and a not overwhelming but still unwelcome amount of promotional stuff (“Find your next great read”). E-books free and paid for display well, though it’s never been my preference to read on a large screen like this. I truly wish one of these large e-readers would make a landscape mode with facing pages. Isn’t that more booklike?

Articles from the web, synced via Pocket, look great and are a pleasure to read in this format. It feels more like a magazine page, which is great when you’re reading an online version of one. It’s simple, foolproof and well integrated.

Kobo’s new note-taking prowess

What’s new on the bottom row, though, is “Notebooks,” where unsurprisingly you can create notebooks for scribbling down lists, doodles, notes of course, and generally use the stylus.

The writing experience is adequate. Here I am spoiled by the reMarkable 2, which boasts extremely low lag and high accuracy, as well as much more expression in the line. Kobo doesn’t approach that, and the writing experience is fairly basic, with a noticeable amount of lag, but admirable accuracy.

There are five pen tips, five line widths and five line shades, and they’re all fine. The stylus has a nice heft to it, though I’d like a grippier material. Two buttons on it let you quickly switch from the current pen style to a highlighter or eraser, where you have stroke-deleting or brush modes. The normal notebooks have the usual gridded, dotted, lined and blank styles, and unlimited pages, but you can’t zoom in or out (not so good for artists).

Then there are the “advanced” notebooks, which you must use if you want handwriting recognition and other features. These have indelible lines on which you can write, and a double tap captures your words into type very quickly. You can also put in drawings and equations in their own sections.

Handwriting is shown on the Elipsa tablet before and after conversion to typed text.

Close enough. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The handwriting recognition is fast and good enough for rough notes, but don’t expect to send these directly to your team without any editing. Likewise the diagram tool that turns gestural sketches of shapes and labels into finalized flowcharts and the like — better than the original wobbly art but still a rough draft. There are a few clever shortcuts and gestures to add or subtract spaces and other common tasks, something you’ll probably get used to fairly quick if you use the Elipsa regularly.

The notebook interface is snappy enough going from page to page or up and down on the “smart” notebooks but nothing like the fluidity of a design program or an art-focused one on an iPad. But it’s also unobtrusive, has good palm blocking, and feels nice in action. The lag on the line is definitely a con, but something you can get used to if you don’t mind the resulting product being a little sloppy.

A sketched diagram is turned into a real one by the Elipsa.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

You can also mark up e-books, which is nice for highlights but ultimately not that much better than simply selecting the text. And there’s no way you’re writing in the margins with the limitations of this stylus.

Exporting notepads can be done via a linked Dropbox account or over USB connection. Again the reMarkable has a leg up here, for even if its app is a bit restrictive, the live syncing means you don’t ever have to worry about what version of what is where, as long as it’s in the system. On the Kobo it’s more traditional.

Compared to the reMarkable, the Kobo is really just an easier platform for everyday reading, so if you’re looking for a device that focuses on that and has the option of doodling or note taking on the side, it’s a much better deal. On the other hand, those just looking for an improvement to that stylus-focused tablet should look elsewhere — writing and sketching still feels way better on a reMarkable than almost anything on the market. Compared with something like a Boox tablet, the Elipsa is more simple and focused, but doesn’t allow the opportunity of adding Android apps and games.

At $400 — though this includes a case and stylus — the Elipsa is a considerable investment and comparably priced to an iPad, which is certainly a more versatile device. But I don’t particularly enjoy reading articles or books on my iPad, and the simplicity of an e-reader in general helps me focus when I’m making notes on a paper or something. It’s a different device for a different purpose, but not for everyone.

It is however probably the best way right now to step into the shallow end of the “big e-reader” pool, with more complex or expensive options available should you desire them.

Raylo nabs $11.5M to get more mobile users to lease and reuse

UK-based smartphone subscription startup Raylo has tucked $11.5 million in Series A funding into its top pocket, led by Octopus Ventures.

The equity round follows a debt raise last year — and brings Raylo’s total raised since being founded back in 2019 to $40M (in equity and debt). Its roster of investors to date also includes the Macquarie Group, Guy Johnson of Carphone Warehouse and the co-founders of Funding Circle.

The new funding will be used to charge up a subscription smartphone play that nudges consumers never to own their own mobile device — but just pay a monthly fee to lease a new or refurbished SIM-free device instead.

Raylo says it’s seen 10x YoY growth of customers and revenues, and plans to plough the Series A into accelerating its growth in the UK — including by doubling its headcount and further developing its tech. And while it suggests it’s entertaining the idea of a future global rollout it remains firmly UK focused for now.

Consumers opting to get the latest smartphone hardware through Raylo will pay a lower cost than the full RRP for a device since they won’t actually own the hardware at the end of the contract.

Environmental considerations aside, that may be an increasingly important consideration, given the inflating price of premium handsets like the top-of-the-range iPhone which has broken $1,000 for a few years now.

Plus the fact that most consumers simply won’t shell out so much for a handset. Leasing and returning offers an alternative way for people to get to use such expensive high-end devices.

With Raylo, the leased mobile is typically returned after the end of the 12 or 24-month contract — with the returned device refurbished for reuse via a second (or third) leased life with another user.

End of life devices are recycled (by partners), per Raylo. So it’s touting a circular model that promotes sustainability via device usage longevity vs the more typical upgrade scenario, via a carrier, where a consumer may just toss their old unused handset into a drawer, wasting its further potential utility.

Albeit, many people do pass on old devices to other family members or even sell or trade them in. But Raylo claims there are an estimated 125M smartphones in unused ‘hibernation’ across the UK. So, the suggestion is, plenty of smartphone users don’t bother ensure their old handset gets a second life.

Raylo reckons each of its subscription leased device can be used by a total of three customers over 6-7 years – which, if achieved, would mean a lifespan that it says is almost 2x longer than the UK average (of 2.31 years).

To further the longevity goal, all the phones it supplies come with a free case and screen protector.

Users also need to weigh up whether they want to shell out for insurance too, though, since they need to make sure they don’t damage the leased handset or risk having to shell out for expensive repairs or a non-return fee. (Raylo sells its own flavor of device insurance to users as an optional extra which slightly bumps up the monthly cost.)

Raylo competes with carriers’ own device subscription plans, of course. But again the claim is it’s cheaper to lease its way — although that’s as it should be since the consumer doesn’t own the hardware at the end of the contract (so won’t automatically have anything of value they could sell or trade in elsewhere).

If a user doesn’t want (or fails) to return a device at the end of the contract they have to pay a non-return fee — which varies depending on the handset hardware and how long they’ve been paying for it. But the fee can stretch to over £600 at the premium end — after 12 months of use of a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G with 512GB of storage or an iPhone 12 Pro Max, for example.

While consumers that want to continue using the same device rather than upgrading after their contract ends can opt to continue paying their usual monthly fees — with payments continuing up to a maximum of 36 months, after which the non-return fee drops to a token £1.

All Raylo’s leased devices come with a 24 month warranty, under which it says it will freely repair faults not related to user damage or accidents, or else supply a replacement device if the handset can’t be fixed.

Commenting on Raylo’s Series A in a statement, Tosin Agbabiaka, early-stage fintech investor at Octopus Ventures, said: “The subscription economy is rapidly transforming the way we access products and services — yet the smartphone, an individual’s most valuable device, is still locked behind a bundled, ownership-based model. This means most people are trapped in a buy-and-dispose cycle, with a steep financial and environmental costs.

“Raylo solves these problems by offering access to premium consumer devices at lower, subscription-based prices, helping to widen access to the latest technology. By repurposing its devices at the end of their cycle, Raylo is also the sustainable choice in this market and has built a product loved by its customers — the opportunity here is massive, and we believe that [co-founders] Karl [Gilbert], Richard [Fulton], and Jinden [Badesha] have the vision and depth of expertise to transform the way we all access our devices.”

A number of refurbished electronics businesses have been attracting investor attention in Europe in recent years where lawmakers are also considering right to repair legislation.

Recent fundings in the space include a $335M round for French refurbished device marketplace startup Back Market; a $71m round for Berlin-based Grover‘s subscription electronics business; and a $40.6M round for Finland-based Swappie, which refurbishes and sells secondhand iPhones, to name a few.

Nothing founder Carl Pei on Ear 1 and building a hardware startup from scratch

On July 27, hardware maker Nothing will debut its first product, wireless earbuds dubbed Ear (1). Despite releasing almost no tangible information about the product, the company has managed to generate substantial buzz around the launch — especially for an entry into the already-crowded wireless earbud market.

The hype, however, is real — and somewhat understandable. Nothing founder Carl Pei has a good track record in the industry — he was just 24 when he co-founded OnePlus in 2013. The company has done a canny job capitalizing on heightened expectations, meting out information about the product like pieces in a puzzle.

We spoke to Pei ahead of the upcoming launch to get some insight into Ear (1) and the story behind Nothing.

TC: I know there was a timing delay with the launch. Was that related to COVID-19 and supply chain issues?

CP: Actually, it was due to our design. Maybe you’ve seen the concept image of this transparent design. It turns out there’s a reason why there aren’t many transparent consumer tech products out there. It’s really, really hard to make it high quality. You need to ensure that everything inside looks just as good as the outside. So that’s where the team has been iterating, [but] you probably wouldn’t notice the differences between each iteration.

It could be getting the right magnets — as magnets are usually designed to go inside of a product and not be seen by the consumer — to figuring out the best type of gluing. You never have to solve that problem if you have a non-transparent product, but what kind of glue will keep the industrial design intact? I think the main issue has been getting the design ready. And we’re super, super close. Hopefully, it will be a product that people are really excited about when we launch.

So, there were no major supply chain issues?

Not for this product category. With true wireless earbuds, I think we’re pretty fine. No major issues. I mean, we had the issue that we started from zero — so no team and no partners. But step by step, we finally got here.

That seems to imply that you’re at least thinking ahead towards the other products. Have you already started developing them?

We have a lot of products in the pipeline. Earlier this year, we did a community crowdfunding round where we allocated $1.5 million to our community. That got bought up really quickly. But as part of that funding round, we had a deck with some of the products in development. Our products are code-named as Pokemon, so there are a lot of Pokemon on that slide [Editor’s note: The Ear 1 was “Aipom.”]. We have multiple categories that we’re looking at, but we haven’t really announced what those are.

Why were earbuds the right first step?

I think this market is really screaming for differentiation. If you look at true wireless today, I think after Apple came out with the AirPods, the entire market kind of followed. Everybody wears different clothes. This is something we wear for a large part of the day. Why wouldn’t people want different designs?

We’re working with Teenage Engineering — they’re super, super strong designers. I think true wireless is a place where we can really leverage that strength. Also, from a more rational business perspective, wireless earbuds is a super-fast growing product category. I think we’re going to reach 300 million units shipped worldwide this year for this category. And your first product category should be one with good business potential.

“Screaming for differentiation” is an interesting way to put it. When you look at AirPods and the rest of the industry, are aesthetics what the market primarily lacks? Is it features or is it purely stylistic?

If we take a take a step back and think about it from a consumer perspective, we feel like, as a whole, consumer tech is quite, quite boring. Kids used to want to become engineers and astronauts and all that. But if you look at what kids want to become today, they want to be TikTokers or YouTubers. Maybe it’s because technology isn’t as inspiring as before. We talked to consumers, and they don’t care as much as a couple of years ago either. If you look at what what brands are doing in their communication, it’s all about features and specs.

Apple just released the first iOS 15 beta to everyone

This is your opportunity to get a glimpse of the future of iOS, iPadOS and watchOS. Apple just released the first public beta of iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and watchOS 8. Those releases are the next major versions of the operating systems for the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. Unlike developer betas, everyone can download these betas — you don’t need a $99 developer account. But don’t forget, it’s a beta.

The company still plans to release the final version of iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and watchOS 8 this fall. But Apple is going to release betas every few weeks over the summer. It’s a good way to fix as many bugs as possible and gather data from a large group of users.

As always, Apple’s public betas closely follow the release cycle of developer betas. And Apple also released the second developer beta of iOS and iPadOS 15 today. So it sounds like the first public beta is more or less the same build as the second developer build.

But remember, you shouldn’t install a beta on your primary iPhone or iPad. The issue is not just bugs — some apps and features won’t work at all. In some rare cases, beta software can also brick your device and make it unusable. You may even lose data on iCloud. Proceed with extreme caution.

But if you have an iPad, iPhone or Apple Watch you don’t need, here’s how to download it. Head over to Apple’s beta website from the device you want to use for the beta and download the configuration profile — do that from your iPhone for the watchOS beta. It’s a tiny file that tells your device to update to public betas like it’s a normal software update.

Once it’s installed, reboot your device, then head over to the Settings (or Watch) app. You should see an update. In September, your device should automatically update to the final version of iOS 15, iPadOS 15 or watchOS 8 and you’ll be able to delete the configuration profile.

The biggest change of iOS 15 is a new Focus mode. In addition to ‘Do not disturb’, you can configure various modes — you can choose apps and people you want notifications from and change your focus depending on what you’re doing. For instance, you can create a Work mode, a Sleep mode, a Workout mode, etc.

There are many new features across the board, such as a new Weather app, updated maps in Apple Maps, an improved version of FaceTime with SharePlay and more. Safari also has a brand new look.

Nixie’s drone-based water sampling could save cities time and money

Regularly testing waterways and reservoirs is a never-ending responsibility for utility companies and municipal safety authorities, and generally — as you might expect — involves either a boat or at least a pair of waders. Nixie does the job with a drone instead, making the process faster, cheaper, and a lot less wet.

The most common methods of testing water quality haven’t changed in a long time, partly because they’re effective and straightforward, and partly because really, what else are you going to do? No software or web platform out there is going to reach into the middle of the river and pull out a liter of water.

But with the advent of drones powerful and reliable enough to deploy in professional and industrial circumstances, the situation has changed. Nixie is a solution by the drone specialists at Reign Maker, involving either a custom-built sample collection arm or an in-situ sensor arm.

The sample collector is basically a long vertical arm with a locking cage for a sample container. You put the empty container in there, fly the drone out to the location, then submerge the arm. When it flies back, the filled container can be taken out while the drone hovers and a fresh one put in its place to bring to the next spot. (This switch can be done safely in winds up to 18 MPH and sampling in currents up to 5 knots, the company said.)

A drone dips a sample container in a river.

Image Credits: Reign Maker

This allows for quick sampling at multiple locations — the drone’s battery will last about 20 minutes, enough for two to four samples depending on the weather and distance. Swap the battery out and drive to the next location and do it all again.

For comparison, Reign Maker pointed to New York’s water authority, which collects 30 samples per day from boats and other methods, at an approximate cost (including labor, boat fuel, etc) of $100 per sample. Workers using Nixie were able to collect an average of 120 samples per day, for around $10 each. Sure, New York is probably among the higher cost locales for this (like everything else) but the deltas are pretty huge. (The dipper attachment itself costs $850, but doesn’t come with a drone.)

It should be mentioned that the drone is not operating autonomously; it has a pilot who will be flying with line of sight (which simplifies regulations and requirements). But even so, that means a team of two, with a handful of spare batteries, can cover the same space  that would normally take a boat crew and more than a little fuel. Currently the system works with the M600 and M300 RTK drones from DJI.

Mockup of the Nixie water testing app showing readings for various locations.

Image Credits: Reign Maker

The drone method has the added benefits of having precise GPS locations for each sample and of not disturbing the water when it dips in. No matter how carefully you step or pilot a boat, you’re going to be pushing the water all over the place, potentially affecting the contents of the sample, but that’s not the case if you’re hovering overhead.

In development is a smarter version of the sampler that includes a set of sensors that can do on-site testing for all the most common factors: temperature, pH, troubling organisms, various chemicals. Skipping the step of bringing the water back to a lab for testing streamlines the process immensely, as you might expect.

Right now Reign Maker is working with New York’s Department of Environmental Protection and in talks with other agencies. While the system would take some initial investment, training, and getting used to, it’s probably hard not to be tempted by the possibility of faster and cheaper testing.

Ultimately the company hopes to offer (in keeping with the zeitgeist) a more traditional SaaS offering involving water quality maps updating in real time with new testing. That too is still in the drawing-board phase, but once a few customers sign up it starts looking a lot more attractive.

Apple’s latest accessibility features are for those with limb and vocal differences

Apple announced a batch of accessibility features at WWDC 2021 that cover a wide variety of needs, among them a few for people who can’t touch or speak to their devices in the ordinary way. With Assistive Touch, Sound Control, and other improvements, these folks have new options for interacting with an iPhone or Apple Watch.

We covered Assistive Touch when it was first announced, but recently got a few more details. This feature lets anyone with an Apple Watch operate it with one hand by means of a variety of gestures. It came about when Apple heard from the community of people with limb differences — whether they’re missing an arm, or unable to use it reliably, or anything else — that as much as they liked the Apple Watch, they were tired of answering calls with their noses.

The research team cooked up a way to reliably detect the gestures of pinching one finger to the thumb, or clenching the hand into a fist, based on how doing them causes the watch to move — it’s not detecting nervous system signals or anything. These gestures, as well as double versions of them, can be set to a variety of quick actions. Among them is opening the “motion cursor,” a little dot that mimics the movements of the user’s wrist.

Considering how many people don’t have the use of a hand, this could be a really helpful way to get basic messaging, calling, and health-tracking tasks done without needing to resort to voice control.

Speaking of voice, that’s also something not everyone has at their disposal. Many of those who can’t speak fluently, however, can make a bunch of basic sounds, which can carry meaning for those who have learned — not so much Siri. But a new accessibility option called “Sound Control” lets these sounds be used as voice commands. You access it through Switch Control, not audio or voice, and add an audio switch.

Images of the process of adding an audio switch to the iPhone.

Image Credits: Apple

The setup menu lets the user choose from a variety of possible sounds: click, cluck, e, eh, k, la, muh, oo, pop, sh, and more. Picking one brings up a quick training process to let the user make sure the system understands the sound correctly, and then it can be set to any of a wide selection of actions, from launching apps to asking commonly spoken questions or invoking other tools.

For those who prefer to interact with their Apple devices through a switch system, the company has a big surprise: Game controllers, once only able to be used for gaming, now work for general purposes as well. Specifically noted is the amazing Xbox Adaptive Controller, a hub and group of buttons, switches, and other accessories that improves the accessibility of console games. This powerful tool is used by many, and no doubt they will appreciate not having to switch control methods entirely when they’re done with Fortnite and want to listen to a podcast.

Image Credits: Apple

One more interesting capability in iOS that sits at the edge of accessibility is Walking Steadiness. This feature, available to anyone with an iPhone, tracks (as you might guess) the steadiness of the user’s walk. This metric, tracked throughout a day or week, can potentially give real insight into how and when a person’s locomotion is better and worse. It’s based on a bunch of data collected in the Apple Heart and Movement study, including actual falls and the unsteady movement that led to them.

If the user is someone who recently was fitted for a prosthesis, or had foot surgery, or suffers from vertigo, knowing when and why they are at risk of falling can be very important. They may not realize it, but perhaps their movements are less steady towards the end of the day, or after climbing a flight of steps, or after waiting in line for a long time. It could also show steady improvements as they get used to an artificial limb or chronic pain declines.

Exactly how this data may be used by an actual physical therapist or doctor is an open question, but importantly it’s something that can easily be tracked and understood by the users themselves.

Images of Apple Memoji with a cochlear implant, an oxygen tube, and a soft helmet.

Image Credits: Apple

Among Apple’s other assistive features are new languages for voice control, improved headphone acoustic accommodation, support for bidirectional hearing aids, and of course the addition of cochlear implants and oxygen tubes for memoji. As an Apple representative put it, they don’t want to embrace differences just in features, but on the personalization and fun side as well.

Voice AIs are raising competition concerns, EU finds

The European Union has been digging into the competition implications of AI-powered voice assistants and other Internet of Things (IoT) connected technologies for almost a year. Today it’s put out a first report discussing potential concerns that EU lawmakers say will help inform their wider digital policymaking in the coming years.

A major piece of EU legislation introduced at the back of last year is already set to apply ex ante regulations to so-called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms operating in the region, with a list of business practice ‘dos and don’ts’ for powerful, intermediating platforms being baked into the forthcoming pan-EU Digital Services Act.

But if course applications of technology don’t stand still. The bloc’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, has also had her eye on voice assistant AI technologies for a while — raising concerns about the challenges being posed for user choice as far back as 2019, when she said her department was “trying to figure out how access to data will change the marketplace”.

The Commission took a concrete step last July when it announced a sectoral inquiry to examine IoT competition concerns in detail.

It’s now published a preliminary report, based on polling more than 200 companies operating in consumer IoT product and services markets (in Europe, Asia and the US) — and is soliciting further feedback on the findings (until September 1) ahead of a final report due in the first half of next year.

Among the main areas of potential competition concern it found are: Exclusivity and tying practices in relation to voice assistants and practices that limit the possibility to use different voice assistants on the same smart device; the intermediating role of voice assistants and mobile OSes between users and the wider device and services market — with the concern being this allows the owners of the platform voice AI to control user relationships, potentially impacting the discoverability and visibility of rival IoT services.

Another concern is around (unequal) access to data. Survey participants suggested that platform and voice assistant operators gain extensive access to user data — including capturing information on user interactions with third-party smart devices and consumer IoT services as a result of the intermediating voice AI.

“The respondents to the sector inquiry consider that this access to and accumulation of large amounts of data would not only give voice assistant providers advantages in relation to the improvement and market position of their general-purpose voice assistants, but also allow them to leverage more easily into adjacent markets,” the Commission writes in a press release.

A similar concern underlies an ongoing EU antitrust investigation into Amazon’s use of third party merchants’ data which it obtains via its ecommerce marketplace (and which the Commission believes could be illegally distorting competition in online retail markets).

Lack of interoperability in the consumer IoT sector is another concern flagged in the report. “In particular, a few providers of voice assistants and operating systems are said to unilaterally control interoperability and integration processes and to be capable of limiting functionalities of third-party smart devices and consumer IoT services, compared to their own,” it says.

There’s nothing very surprising in the above list. But it’s noteworthy that the Commission is trying to get a handle on competitive risks — and start mulling potential remedies — at a point when the adoption of voice assistant AIs is still at a relatively early stage in the region.

In its press release, the Commission notes that usage of voice assistant tech is growing worldwide and expected to double between 2020 and 2024 (from 4.2BN voice AIs to 8.4BN) — although only 11% of EU citizens surveyed last year had already used a voice assistant, per cited Eurostat data.

EU lawmakers have certainly learned lessons from the recent failure of competition policy to keep up with digital developments and rein in a first wave of tech giants. And those giants of course continue to dominate the market for voice AIs now (Amazon with Alexa, Google with its eponymous Assistant and Apple’s Siri). So the risks for competition are crystal clear — and the Commission will be keen to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Still, quite how policymakers could look to tackle competitive lock-in around voice AIs — whose USP tends to be their lazy-web, push-button and branded convenience for users — remains to be seen.

One option, enforcing interoperability, could increase complexity in a way that’s negative for usability — and may raise other concerns, such as around the privacy of user data.

Although giving users themselves more say and control over how the consumer tech they own works can certainly be a good idea, at least provided the platform’s presentation of choices isn’t itself manipulative and exploitative.

There are certainly plenty of pitfalls where IoT and competition is concerned — but also potential opportunities for startups and smaller players if proactive regulatory action can ensure that dominant platforms don’t get to set all the defaults once again.

Commenting in a statement, Vestager said: “When we launched this sector inquiry, we were concerned that there might be a risk of gatekeepers emerging in this sector. We were worried that they could use their power to harm competition, to the detriment of developing businesses and consumers. From the first results published today, it appears that many in the sector share our concerns. And fair competition is needed to make the most of the great potential of the Internet of Things for consumers in their daily lives. This analysis will feed into our future enforcement and regulatory action, so we look forward to receiving further feedback from all interested stakeholders in the coming months.”

The full sectoral report can be found here.

 

Tiny handheld Playdate ships next month for $179, with 24 charming monochrome games to start

Playdate, app and game designer Panic’s first shot at hardware, finally has a firm price and ship date, as well as a bunch of surprise features cooked up since its announcement in 2019. The tiny handheld gaming console will cost $179, ship next month, and come with a 24-game “season” doled out over 12 weeks. But now it also has a cute speaker dock and low-code game creation platform.

We first heard about Playdate more than two years ago, were charmed by its clean look, funky crank control, and black and white display, and have been waiting for news ever since. Panic’s impeccable design credentials combined with Teenage Engineering’s creative hardware chops? It’s bound to be a joy to use, but there wasn’t much more than that to go on.

Now the company has revealed all the important details we were hoping for, and many more to boot.

The Playdate handheld with a person playing a game on it.

Image Credits: Panic

Originally we were expecting 12 games to be delivered over 12 weeks, but in the intervening period it seems they’ve collected more titles than planned, and that initial “season” of games has expanded to 24. No one knows exactly what to expect from these games except that they’re exclusive to the Playdate and many use the crank mechanic in what appear to be fun and interesting ways: turning a turntable, opening a little door, doing tricks as a surfer, and so on.

The team hasn’t decided how future games will be distributed, though they seem to have some ideas. Another season? One-off releases? Certainly the presence of a new game by one-man indie hit parade Lucas Pope would sell like hotcakes.

Screenshots of the Pulp game creation tool.

Image Credits: Panic

But the debut of a new lo-fi game development platform called Pulp suggests a future where self-publishing may also be an option. This lovely little web-based tool lets anyone put together a game using presets for things like controls and actions, and may prove to be a sort of tiny Twine in time.

A dock accessory was announced as well, something to keep your Playdate front and center on your desk. The speaker-equipped dock, also a lemony yellow, acts as a magnetic charging cradle for the console, activating a sort of stationary mode with a clock and music player (Poolsuite.fm, apparently, with original relaxing tunes). It even has two holes in which to put your pens (and Panic made a special yellow pen just for the purpose as well).

Playdate attached to its little cubical dock.

Image Credits: Panic

The $179 price may cause some to balk — after all, it’s considerably more than a Nintendo 3DS and with the dock probably approaches the price of a Switch. But this isn’t meant to be a competitor with mainstream gaming — instead, it’s a sort of anti-establishment system that embraces weirdness and provides something equally unfamiliar and undeniably fun.

The team says that there will be a week’s warning before orders can be placed, and that they don’t plan to shut orders down if inventory runs out, but simply allow people to preorder and cancel at will until they receive their unit. We hope to get one ourselves to test and review, but since part of the charm of the whole thing is the timed release and social aspect of discovery and sharing, it’s more than likely we’ll be experiencing it along with everyone else.

Apple releases torrent of updates, and Wall Street yawns

Today’s WWDC keynote from Apple covered a huge range of updates. From a new macOS to a refreshed watchOS to a new iOS, better privacy controls, FaceTime updates, and even iCloud+, there was something for everyone in the laundry list of new code.

Apple’s keynote was essentially what happens when the big tech companies get huge; they have so many projects that they can’t just detail a few items. They have to run down their entire parade of platforms, dropping packets of news concerning each.

But despite the obvious indication that Apple has been hard at work on the critical software side of its business, especially its services-side (more here), Wall Street gave a firm, emphatic shrug.

This is standard but always slightly confusing.

Investors care about future cash flows, at least in theory. Those future cash flows come from anticipated revenues, which are born from product updates, driving growth in sales of services, software, and hardware. Which, apart from the hardware portion of the equation, is precisely what Apple detailed today.

And lo, Wall Street looked upon the drivers of its future earnings estimates, and did sayeth “lol, who really cares.”

Shares of Apple were down a fraction for most of the day, picking up as time passed not thanks to the company’s news dump, but because the Nasdaq largely rose as trading raced to a close.

Here’s the Apple chart, via YCharts:

And here’s the Nasdaq:

Presuming that you are not a ChartMaster™, those might not mean much to you. Don’t worry. The charts say very little all-around so you are missing little. Apple was down a bit, and the Nasdaq up a bit. Then the Nasdaq went up more, and Apple’s stock generally followed. Which is good to be clear, but somewhat immaterial.

So after yet another major Apple event that will help determine the health and popularity of every Apple platform — key drivers of lucrative hardware sales! — the markets are betting that all their prior work estimating the True and Correct value of Apple was dead-on and that there is no need for any sort of up-or-down change.

That, or Apple is so big now that investors are simply betting it will grow in keeping with GDP. Which would be a funny diss. Regardless, more from the Apple event here in case you are behind.