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Main article: Electronics

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Do trade shows still matter in the age of online business?

00:16 | 19 February

The death of Mobile World Congress 2020 started as a trickle.

First, it was an understandably nervous ZTE. As a Chinese company, it was undoubtedly going to receive extra scrutiny — never mind that ZTE’s Shenzhen headquarters are a two-hour flight from Wuhan. Soon enough, South Korea’s LG backed out, followed by Nvidia and Ericsson.

By the weekend, as deaths from the coronavirus rose to more than 800 (surpassing SARS in the process), event organizers GSMA put strict guidelines in place for approximately 100,000 expected attendees:

  • No travelers from the Hubei province would be permitted access.
  • Attendees were required to prove that they were outside China for 14 days prior to the event (passport stamp, health certificate).
  • Temperature screening was to be implemented.
  • Attendees needed to self-certify they had not been in contact with anyone infected.

Ultimately, it was too late. Soon enough, Amazon was out and the list ballooned to dozens of companies, including AT&T, Intel, Nokia, Sony and Vodafone. Each offered a similar boilerplate response, noting the cost-benefit analysis for sending staff to a large international show amid concerns of a global epidemic.

PCMag’s Sascha Segan wrote a piece worth reading on “snowballing hysteria” around a trade show killed in a country that only had two reported cases at the time of cancellation. It’s a valid point, though speaking purely pragmatically, I can understand why companies felt obligated to back out.

If you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, there are some valid concerns about sending employees into the petri dish of colds and flus that is basically every trade show, coupled with the novelty of a new and still not completely understood virus. It can be difficult to balance concerns for employee safety with the need to resist panicking over media reports that tend to overemphasize threats.

 


0

Rocket Lab will launch a satellite to the Moon for NASA to prepare for the Lunar Gateway

00:57 | 15 February

Launch startup Rocket Lab has been awarded a contract to launch a CubeSat on behalf of NASA for the agency’s CAPSTONE experiment, with the ultimate aim of putting the CAPSTONE CubeSat into cislunar (in the region in between Earth and the Moon) orbit – the same orbit that NASA will eventually use for its Gateway Moon-orbiting space station. The launch is scheduled to take place in 2021.

The CAPSTONE launch will take place at Rocket Lab’s new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) facility at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab opened its launch pad there officially in December, and will launch its first missions using its Electron vehicle from the site starting later this year.

The launch is significant in a number of ways, including being the second ever lunar mission to launch from the Virginia flight facility. It’s also going to employ Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is an in-house designed and built satellite that can support a range of payloads. In this case, Photon will transport the CAPSTONE CubeSat, which weighs only around 55 lbs, from Earth’s orbit to the Moon, at which point CAPSTONE will fire up its own small engines to enter its target cislunar orbit.

Rocket Lab introduced Photon last year, noting at the time that it is designed in part to provide longer-range delivery for small satellites – including to the Moon. That’s a key capability to offer as NASA embarks on its Artemis program, which aims to return human astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and establish a more permanent human presence on and around the Moon in preparation for eventual missions to Mars.

CAPSTONE will play a key role in that mission, by acting “as a pathfinder” for the lunar Gateway that NASA eventually hopes to build and deploy.

“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA in a press release. detailing the news “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”

In total, the launch contract with Rocket Lab has a fixed price of $9.95 million, the agency said. NASA expects contractors Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems to begin building the CAPSTONE spacecraft this month ahead of its planned 2021 launch.

 


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Aptiv’s self-driving cars have given 100,000 paid rides on the Lyft app

14:00 | 11 February

What started out as a temporary pilot project to test a robotaxi service in Las Vegas has turned into a multi-year partnership between self-driving software company Aptiv and Lyft and a new milestone that suggests the operation is ramping up.

The companies announced Tuesday that they’ve given 100,000 paid rides in Aptiv’s self-driving vehicles via the Lyft app.

“To our knowledge this is the largest open-to-the-public commercial pilot,” Aptiv Autonomous Mobility President Karl Iagnemma said in a recent interview. “To me this partnership is a great example of the next-generation ecosystem at work.”

The milestone has a few important caveats. Aptiv’s self-driving vehicles — which initially began with BMW 5 series — have a human safety driver behind the wheel to take over if needed. The human driver operates the vehicle manually in parking lots and hotel lobby areas. 

The program, even if with those human safety drivers behind the wheel, has proven invaluable to the companies, according to Iagnemma and Jody Kelman, who leads the self-driving platform team at Lyft.

“We’ve got something here,” Kelman said. “This is really a blueprint for what future mobility partnerships can look like.”

Companies in this so-called “race” to commercially deploy on-demand ride-hailing services using self-driving vehicles must master more than the technical bits. Fleet management, real-time routing, and designing an approachable user interface are just a few critical components needed to operate a profitable robotaxi service.

The program has taught Aptiv how to “get and keep a fleet of autonomous vehicles on the road and keep them highly utilized,” Iagnemma said, later adding that this project positions Lyft and Aptiv to be major winners in this space. The companies also learned how to work with various regulatory bodies, in this case, with the city of Las Vegas, Clark County and the region’s transit authority.

Lyft and Aptiv first launched the pilot in January 2018 as a one-week experiment and then announced plans to extend the program. The program surpassed 5,000 self-driving rides by August and jumped to more than 25,000 paid autonomous rides by December 2018, all while maintaining an average passenger rating of 4.95 out of five stars, Aptiv said at the time. 

By May 2019, the companies reported they had given more than 50,000 paid self-driving rides in Las Vegas.

Aptiv’s investment in Las Vegas expanded as those ridership numbers grew. The company opened in December 2018 a 130,000-square-foot technical center in the city to house its fleet of autonomous vehicles as well as an engineering team dedicated to research and development of software and hardware systems, validation and mapping.

 


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Samsung teases videocalling on its next foldable during the Oscars

12:59 | 10 February

It was South Korea’s — rather than Netflix’s — night at the Oscars, thanks to Bong Joon-ho’s biting class satire Parasite, which won best picture (among other well-deserved gongs)

But tech giant Samsung appears to have been hoping to steal a little of the national limelight: The Korean phone maker chose a prime Oscars ad slot to show off a 360-degree view of its next foldable, running it as a teaser for its Unpacked 2020 unboxing event — which takes place in San Francisco tomorrow.

The ad shows the flip phones from all angles, opening and closing while the Comic Strip sounds of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot pop and crackle in the background.

Notably we see the foldable propping itself up, with the screen half or three-quarters open, for a hands-free face-time style chat. (In case you were wondering what the point of a flip phone might be in 2020.)

There’s also an eye-popping iridescent purple colorway on show that seems intended to make the most of the screen-concealing clamshell design. A black version does a much better job of blending into the background.

While a brief side view of the phone shows what looks like a side-mounted fingerprint scanner — per earlier leaks.

And if you’re wondering how you’ll screen incoming calls when the clam is closed the ad shows a micro display that tells you the name of the person calling. tl;dr you can still ghost your frenemies while packing a flip.

We’ve seen renders of the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip leak online before but this is an official full view of the foldable Samsung hopes will spark a retro fashion craze for clamshell flip phones. (See also the rebooted Motorola Razr.)

Samsung will also of course be hoping this foldable can bend without immediately breaking

Stay tuned for all the details from Samsung Unpacked 2020 as we get them (we’re most keen to find out the price-tag for this foldable) — including our first look at the next flagship Galaxy S device. TechCrunch’s intrepid hardware editor, Brian Heater, will be on the ground in San Francisco tomorrow to get hands on with all the new kit so you don’t have to.

 


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After Iowa caucus flub, can tech be trusted in elections?

22:13 | 6 February

An app intended to speed up reporting of election results for the Iowa caucuses has failed spectacularly, not only confusing the electorate but perhaps poisoning their feelings toward making any technological “improvements” to the voting process whatsoever.

TechCrunch staff reporters Brian Heater, Jonathan Shieber, Zack Whittaker, Devin Coldewey and Ingrid Lunden discussed the issue informally.

Brian Heater: We all agree that this is a good sign of a healthy democracy, right?

Jonathan Shieber: Totally agree with Brian here.

Brian Heater: I’m legitimately finding it difficult to discuss these sorts of things without delving into the conspiratorial. That said, I think it’s far more likely that this was just a massive fuck-up on the part of the Iowa Dems. Chalking it up to a conspiracy is honestly giving them entirely too much credit.

Devin Coldewey: But what’s the nature of the fuck-up? Fundamentally?

Brian Heater: An app that wasn’t tested at the scale of a statewide election. The more we move away from more traditional means of accounting, the more of these we’re going to see.

 


0

Launch startup Skyrora successfully tests 3D-printed rocket engines powered by plastic waste

16:35 | 3 February

Rocket launch startup Skyrora, an Edinburg-based company that’s developing a new launch vehicle for small satellites, has successfully tested its new rocket engines in their first stationary ground-firings, a huge step on the way towards developing their launch vehicle. Skyrora’s rocket engines are novel not only in their use of 3D printing, but also because the fuel that powers them is developed from plastic waste – a new type of fuel called ‘Ecosene’ that the startup says makes its launch vehicles greener and more ecologically sound than the competition.

The rocket engine that Skyrora is testing will eventually power the final stage of its 22-meter (72-foot) Skyrora XL launch vehicle (closer to Rocket Lab’s Electron at 57 feet than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 at 229 feet), which will be capable of delivering multiple payloads to separate orbits ranging up to 500 km (310 miles) above Earth, popular low-Earth orbit target range for small satellite payloads. Skyrora fired the engines both with its ‘Ecosene,’ which is its kerosene directed from waste plastics using a proprietary process, and with traditional kerosene RP-1 rocket fuel, giving the company the opportunity to compare the two fuel sources in terms of performance.

Skyrora says it can create around 600 kg (1,300 lbs) of kerosene form 1,000 kg (2,200 lbs) of waste plastic, and that its fuel results in around 45% less greenhouse gas emissions. The Ecosene also has the advantage of not requiring cryogenic freezing, and being able to be stored in tanks idea for long periods of time, something that the startup says helps it work particularly well for launch conditions from the Scottish spaceport from which the company plans to launch.

Ultimately, this is just one test on the path to validation and eventual launch, but Skyrora is encouraged by the results of this test, and plans to fly its first Skyrora XL vehicles from its UK-based launch site starting in 2022.

 


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EU lawmakers take fresh aim at Apple’s Lightning connector with latest e-waste push

19:33 | 30 January

The European parliament has voted overwhelmingly for tougher action to reduce e-waste, calling for the Commission to come up with beefed up rules by July 2020.

Specifically, the parliament wants the Commission to adopt the delegated act foreseen in the 2014 Radio Equipment Directive by that deadline — or else table a legislative measure by the same date, at the latest.

The resolution, which was approved by 582 votes to 40, points out that MEPs have been calling for a single charger for mobile devices for more than a decade now. But the Commission has repeatedly postponed taking steps to force an industry-wide shift. Subtext: We’re tired of the ongoing charging cable nightmare.

The parliament says there is now “an urgent need” for EU regulatory action on the issue — to shrink e-waste, empower consumers to make sustainable choices, and allow EU citizens to “fully participate in an efficient and well-functioning internal market”.

The resolution notes that around 50 million metric tons of e-waste is generated globally per year, with an average of more than 6 kg per person.

While, in Europe in 2016, the figure for total e-waste generated was 12.3 million metric tonnes, equivalent to 16.6 kg on average per inhabitant — with the parliament asserting this represents “an unnecessary environmental footprint that can be reduced”.

To date, the Commission’s approach to the charger e-waste issue has been to lean on industry to take voluntary steps to reduce unnecessary variety. Which has resulted in a reduction of the number of charger types on the market — down from 30+ in 2009 to just three today — but still no universal charger which works across brands and device types (phones, tablets, e-readers etc).

Most notably, Apple continues to use its own Lightning port charger standard — while other device makers have switched to USB-based charging (such as the newest, USB-C standard).

When news emerged earlier this month of the parliament’s intention to vote on tougher measures to standardize mobile chargers Apple attacked the plan — arguing that regulation would ‘stifle innovation’.

But the tech giant has had plenty of years to chew over clever ways to switch from the proprietary charging port only it uses to one of two USB standards used by everyone else. So the ‘innovation’ argument seems a pretty stale one.

Meanwhile Apple has worked around previous EU attempts to push device makers to standardize charging on Micro USB by expanding its revenue-generating dongle collection — and selling Europeans a Lighting to Micro USB adaptor. Thereby necessitating even more e-waste.

Perhaps picking up on Apple’s ‘innovation’ framing sidestep, i.e. to try to duck the e-waste issue, the parliament also writes:

… that the Commission, without hampering innovation, should ensure that the legislative framework for a common charger will be scrutinised regularly in order to take into account technical progress; reiterates the importance of research and innovation in this domain to improve existing technologies and come up with new ones;

It also wants the Commission to grapple with the issue of wireless chargers — and take steps to ensure interoperability there too, so that wireless chargers aren’t locked to only one brand or device type.

Consumers should not be obliged to buy new chargers with each new device, per the resolution, with the parliament calling on the Commission to introduce strategies to decouple the purchase of chargers from a new device alongside a common charger solution — while making sure any decoupling measures do not result in higher prices for consumers.

It also wants the Commission to look at legislative options for increasing the volume of cables and chargers that are collected and recycled in EU member states.

We’ve reached out to the Commission for comment.

Per Reuters, officials in the executive are in agreement that the voluntary approach is not working and have said they plan to introduce legislation for a common charger this year.

 


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Dept. of Interior grounds its drones amid cybersecurity concerns

19:42 | 29 January

The U.S. Department of the Interior has confirmed it has grounded its fleet of non-emergency drones amid concerns over cybersecurity.

In a brief statement, the department said the move will help to ensure that “the technology used for these operations is such that it will not compromise our national security interests.”

Interior spokesperson Carol Danko said the department affirms with a formal order the “temporary cessation of non-emergency drones while we ensure that cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed,” months after the department said it was grounding its approximately 800 drones, built by Chinese drone maker DJI.

But the drones will still be used for emergency purposes, such as search and rescue and assisting with natural disasters, the statement said.

Cyberscoop was first to report the news.

The order did not specifically mention threats from China, but said that information collected during drone missions “has the potential to be valuable to foreign entities, organizations, and governments.”

Danko told TechCrunch that the department currently has 121 drones made by DJI and 665 drones that Chinese-built but not made by DJI. She added that 24 drones are made in the U.S. but have Chinese components.

“The review is to help us identify and assess any potential threats or risks,” said Danko.

Several other government departments — including the military — have also banned or grounded their fleet of Chinese-built drones.

Chinese companies have faced bans and sanctions from operating in the federal government over their alleged connections to the Chinese government. Chief among the fears are that Chinese tech companies could be compelled by Beijing to spy or be used to conduct espionage against the West. Last year, the Trump administration banned federal agencies from buying networking equipment from Huawei and ZTE. Several other companies, including radio equipment maker Hytera and surveillance tech giant Hikvision, were also banned from government.

DJI said last year it would look to assemble its drones in California in an effort to dispel concerns.

 


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Vivo beats Samsung for 2nd spot in Indian smartphone market

19:22 | 24 January

Samsung, which once led the smartphone market in India, slid to the third position in the quarter that ended in December even as the South Korean giant continues to make major bets on the rare handset market that is still growing.

According to research firm Counterpoint, Chinese firm Vivo surpassed Samsung to become the second biggest smartphone vendor in India in Q4 2019. Xiaomi, with command over 27% of the market, maintained its top stop in the nation for the 10th consecutive quarter. A Samsung spokesperson in India did not respond to a request for comment.

Vivo’s annual smartphone shipment grew 76% in 2019. The Chinese firm’s aggressive positioning of budget S series of smartphones in the brick and mortar market and expansion into e-commerce sales helped it beat Samsung, said Counterpoint analysts. Vivo’s market share jumped 132% between Q4 of 2018 and Q4 of 2019, according to the research firm.

Realme, which spun out of Chinese smartphone maker Oppo, claimed the fifth spot. Oppo assumed the fourth. Realme has taken the Indian market by a storm. The two-year-old firm has replicated Xiaomi’s playbook in the country and so far focused on selling aggressively low-cost Android smartphones online.

The report, released late Friday (local time), also states that India, with 158 million smartphone shipments in 2019, took over the U.S. in annual smartphone shipment for the first time.

India, which was already the world’s second largest smartphone market for total handset install base, is now also the second largest smartphone market for annual shipment of smartphones in a year.

Tarun Pathak, a senior analyst at Counterpoint, told TechCrunch that about 150 million to 155 million smartphone units were shipped in the U.S. in 2019.

More to follow…

 


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Scopely is buying FoxNext Games, adding MARVEL Strike Force to its game portfolio

22:01 | 22 January

Scopely, the massively funded mobile game publisher, has made good on its promise to start buying up more properties with the treasure chest it amassed in a whopping $200 million round last year.

The target this time is Walt Disney Company’s FoxNext Games Los Angeles and Cold Iron Studios. Disney picked up Fox’s game division in the huge $71.3 billion deal which merged the two entertainment powerhouses in 2019.

There’s no word on how much Scopely spent on the deal, but the company is quickly becoming one of LA’s biggest mobile game studios, joining the ranks of companies like Jam City as mega-players in the mobile games ecosystem emerging in Los Angeles.

The city has long been home to game development talent including Riot Games, Activision Blizzard, and others.

FoxNext is already the home of the popular “Marvel Strike Force” game and is developing “Avatar: Pandora Rising”, which is a multiplayer strategy game based on the James Cameron blockbuster, “Avatar”.

The portfolio doesn’t include the Fox IP licensed game titles, which will continue to live under Disney’s licensed game business.

“We have been hugely impressed with the incredible game the team at FoxNext Games has built with MARVEL Strike Force and can’t wait to see what more we can do together,” said Tim O’Brien, Chief Revenue Officer at Scopely, in a statement. “In addition to successfully growing our existing business, we have been bullish on further expanding our portfolio through M&A, and FoxNext Games’ player-first product approach aligns perfectly with our focus on delivering unforgettable game experiences. We are thrilled to combine forces with their world-class team and look forward to a big future together.”

As a result of the acquisition, FoxNext’s President, Aaron Loeb will join Scopely in a newly created executive role, according to the company. Meanwhile, Amir Rahimi, FoxNext’s senior vice president will become assume the mantle of President, Games at FoxNext Games Los Angeles studio, the company said.

Last year, Scopely hit $1 billion in lifetime revenue and recently bought the DIGIT Game Studios to further expand its footprint in Europe and across North America.

 


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