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SoftBank reportedly plans to lend employees as much as $20 billion to invest in its VC fund

SoftBank reportedly plans to lend employees as much as $20 billion to invest in its VC fund

August 17, 2019

SoftBank has a plant to loan up to $20 billion to its employees, including CEO Masayoshi Son, for the purposes of having that capital re-invested in SoftBank’s own Vision venture fund, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. That’s a highly unusual move that could be risky in terms of how much exposure SoftBank Group has on the whole in terms of its startup bets, but the upside is that it can potentially fill out as much as a fifth of its newly announced second Vision Fund’s total target raise of $108 billion from a highly aligned investor pool.

SoftBank revealed its plans for its second Vision Fund last month, including $38 billion from SoftBank itself, as well as commitments from Apple, Microsoft and more. The company also took a similar approach to its original Vision Fund, WSJ reports, with stakes from employees provided with loans totalling $8 billion of that $100 billion commitment.

The potential pay-off is big, provided the fund has some solid winners that achieve liquidation events that provide big returns that employees can then use to pay off the original loans, walking away with profit. That’s definitely a risk, however, especially in the current global economic client. As WSJ notes, the Uber shares that Vision Fund I acquired are now worth less than what SoftBank originally paid for them according to sources, and SoftBank bet WeWork looks poised to be another company whose IPO might not make that much, if any, money for later stage investors.

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Next Apple Watch could include new ceramic and titanium models

Next Apple Watch could include new ceramic and titanium models

August 17, 2019

Apple’s next Apple Watch revision could include new materials for the case, including titanium and ceramic. That’s according to new assets pulled form the latest watchOS beta release, as uncovered by Brazilian site iHelp.br (via 9to5Mac). The new screens discovered in the beta show graphics used to pair the Apple Watch during setup, and list “Titanium Case” and “Ceramic Case” alongside model size identification info.

Apple has previously offered a ceramic Apple Watch, alongside its Series 2 and Series 3 models, with a premium price and white and black case options. The company hasn’t previously used titanium, but the lightweight, durable metal is popular among traditional watchmakers because it can really significantly reduce the heft of a watch case, while still providing a premium look and feel.

Last year’s Apple Watch Series 4 was the first significant change in body design for the wearable since its introduction in 2015, so it seems unlikely that Apple will change that this year again. The new physical design includes larger case sizes (40mm and 44mm, respectively, vs. 38mm and 42mm for previous generations), a thinner profile and a display with rounded corners and slimmer bezels.

Offering new materials is a way for Apple to deliver new hardware that is observably new on the outside, in addition to whatever processor and component improvements they make on the inside. Apple will likely also offer these alongside their stainless steel and aluminum models, should they actually be released this fall, and would probably charge a premium for these material options, too.

The Series 4 Apple Watch proved a serious improvement in terms of performance, and added features like the onboard ECG. Splashy new looks likely won’t be the extent of what Apple has planned for Series 5, however, especially since the company is revamping watchOS …

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Apple, Samsung continue growth as North American wearables market hits $2B

Apple, Samsung continue growth as North American wearables market hits $2B

August 15, 2019

New numbers out of Canalys show strong continued growth for the North America wearables market for Q2. The market hit $2 billion value for the quarter, according to the firm, marking a 38% year over year growth.

It’s not exactly earth-shattering, but it’s steady for a category that felt almost dead in the water a year or two back. Growth for the quarter was led by Apple and Samsung, which marked 32% and 121% growth, coming in at first and third place, respectively — at 2.2 million and 400,000 units.

Fitbit, meanwhile, retained its No. 2 position. The company showed a modest 18% growth, owing the slowdown to fewer smartwatches (versus fitness bands) shipped. That tracks with the company’s disappointing quarterly results as the new Versa Lite failed to hit the mark. The move marks a misstep for the Versa brand, which has otherwise contributed well to Fitbit’s bounce back.

Interestingly, while North America is the No. 2 wearables market in terms of units shipped, it continues to be the most valuable. That’s likely due to higher unit prices, with the Apple Watch leading the pack, versus Xiaomi’s super-cheap fitness bands, which have a much stronger foothold in their native China.

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US legislator, David Cicilline, joins international push to interrogate platform power

US legislator, David Cicilline, joins international push to interrogate platform power

August 15, 2019

US legislator David Cicilline will be joining the next meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, it has been announced. The meeting will be held in Dublin on November 7.

Chair of the committee, the Irish Fine Gael politician Hildegarde Naughton, announced Cicilline’s inclusion today.

The congressman — who is chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee — will attend as an “ex officio member” which will allow him to question witnesses, she added.

Exactly who the witnesses in front of the grand committee will be is tbc. But the inclusion of a US legislator in the ranks of a non-US committee that’s been seeking answers about reining in online disinformation will certainly make any invitations that get extended to senior executives at US-based tech giants much harder to ignore.

Naughton points out that the addition of American legislators also means the International Grand Committee represents ~730 million citizens — and “their right to online privacy and security”.

“The Dublin meeting will be really significant in that it will be the first time that US legislators will participate,” she said in a statement. “As all the major social media/tech giants were founded and are headquartered in the United States it is very welcome that Congressman Cicilline has agreed to participate. His own Committee is presently conducting investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple and so his attendance will greatly enhance our deliberations.”

“Greater regulation of social media and tech giants is fast becoming a priority for many countries throughout the world,” she added. “The International Grand Committee is a gathering of international parliamentarians who have a particular responsibility in this area. We will coordinate actions to tackle online election interference, ‘fake news’, and harmful online communications, amongst other …

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Facebook’s human-AI blend for audio transcription is now facing privacy scrutiny in Europe

Facebook’s human-AI blend for audio transcription is now facing privacy scrutiny in Europe

August 14, 2019

Facebook’s lead privacy regulator in Europe is now asking the company for detailed information about the operation of a voice-to-text feature in Facebook’s Messenger app and how it complies with EU law.

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that Facebook uses human contractors to transcribe app users’ audio messages — yet its privacy policy makes no clear mention of the fact that actual people might listen to your recordings.

A page on Facebook’s help center also includes a “note” saying “Voice to Text uses machine learning” — but does not say the feature is also powered by people working for Facebook listening in.

A spokesperson for Irish Data Protection Commission told us: “Further to our ongoing engagement with Google, Apple and Microsoft in relation to the processing of personal data in the context of the manual transcription of audio recordings, we are now seeking detailed information from Facebook on the processing in question and how Facebook believes that such processing of data is compliant with their GDPR obligations.”

Bloomberg’s report follows similar revelations about AI assistant technologies offered by other tech giants, including Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft — which have also attracted attention from European privacy regulators in recent weeks.

What this tells us is that the hype around AI voice assistants is still glossing over a far less high tech backend. Even as lashings of machine learning marketing guff have been used to cloak the ‘mechanical turk’ components (i.e. humans) required for the tech to live up to the claims.

This is a very old story indeed. To wit: A full decade ago, a UK startup called Spinvox, which had claimed to have advanced voice recognition technology for converting voicemails to text messages, was reported to be leaning very heavily on call centers in South Africa and the Philippines… …

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Xiaomi tops Indian smartphone market for eighth straight quarter

Xiaomi tops Indian smartphone market for eighth straight quarter

August 13, 2019

Xiaomi has now been India’s top smartphone seller for eight straight quarters. The company has become a constant headache for Samsung in the world’s second largest smartphone market as sales have slowed pretty much everywhere else in the world.

The Chinese electronics giant shipped 10.4 million handsets in the quarter that ended in June, commanding 28.3% of the market, research firm IDC reported Tuesday. Its closest rival, Samsung — which once held the top spot in India — shipped 9.3 million handsets in the nation during the same period, settling for a 25.3% market share.

Overall, 36.9 million handsets were shipped in India during the second quarter of this year, up 9.9% from the same period last year, IDC reported. This was the highest volume of handsets ever shipped in India for Q2, the research firm said.

As smartphone shipments slow or decline in most of the world, India has emerged as an outlier that continues to show strong momentum as tens of millions of people purchase their first handset in the country each quarter.

Research firm Counterpoint told TechCrunch that there are about 450 million smartphone users in India, up from about 350 million late last year and 300 million in late 2017. This growth has made India, home to more than 1.3 billion people, the fastest growing market worldwide.

Globally, meanwhile, smartphone shipments declined by 2.3% year-over-year in Q2 2019, according to IDC.

Chinese phone makers Vivo and Oppo, both of which spent lavishly in marketing during the recent local favorite cricket season in India, also expanded their base in the country. Vivo had 15.1% of the local market share, up from 12.6% in Q2 2018, while Oppo’s share grew from 7.6% to 9.7% during the same period. The market share of Realme, which has …

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Apple brings contactless student IDs to a dozen more universities

Apple brings contactless student IDs to a dozen more universities

August 13, 2019

Ahead of the upcoming school year, Apple this morning announced it’s bringing contactless student IDs in Apple Wallet to several more U.S. universities. The expansion will allow more than 100,000 additional college students to carry their student ID on their iPhone or Apple Watch, where it can be used for a variety of tasks, including paying for their meals and snacks and entry into buildings, like the student’s dorm and other campus facilities.

The expanded list of universities includes: Clemson University, Georgetown University, University of Tennessee, University of Kentucky, University of San Francisco, University of Vermont, Arkansas State University, South Dakota State University, Norfolk State University, Louisburg College, University of North Alabama and Chowan University.

These join the previously supported schools: Duke University, University of Oklahoma, University of Alabama, Temple University, Johns Hopkins University, Marshall University and Mercer University.

Apple first announced its plans for contactless student IDs at WWDC 2018, then rolled out to its debut schools last October.

The contactless IDs not only serve as a means of student identification, but also work as a payment mechanism for on-campus transactions — like meals at the cafeteria or textbooks and supplies at the college’s bookstore, for example. Contactless entry into buildings is also now common on college campuses, and these digital IDs can work to open doors, too, as an alternative to swiping an entry card.

Apple brings student IDs to iPhone and Apple Watch university of san francisco student ID screen 081319

Support for college student IDs is only one way that Apple is trying to replace the physical wallet. The company also supports the ability to add your debit and credit cards, transit and loyalty cards, tickets and even paper money through Apple Pay Cash. And now it’s launching its own credit card, too, which rewards you with cashback for shopping Apple and using Apple Pay.

“We’re happy to add to the growing …

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Phones, laptops and game consoles get tariff reprieve until December

Phones, laptops and game consoles get tariff reprieve until December

August 13, 2019

Update: Trump confirmed to reporters that the delay is due to timing for the holiday shopping season. “We’re doing this for the Christmas season,” he said. “Just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on U.S. customers.”

Electronics manufacturers are no doubt breathing a collective sigh of relief this morning at the news that the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has delayed tariffs on a number of categories.

A long list of exports, including livestock, foodstuff and clothing will have the additional 10% tariff imposed on September 1. Others, including “cell phones, laptop computers, video game consoles, certain toys, computer monitors, and certain items of footwear and clothing” have simply been delayed until December 15.

It seems the fees are an inevitability, but many might be able to scrape through just in time for the holidays.

“Certain products are being removed from the tariff list based on health, safety, national security and other factors and will not face additional tariffs of 10 percent,” the USTR writes. “Further, as part of USTR’s public comment and hearing process, it was determined that the tariff should be delayed to December 15 for certain articles.”

That list includes a wide range of electronics, from “telephones for cellular networks or for other wireless networks” to “telephone answering machines” and “cassette players (non‐recording) designed exclusively for motor‐vehicle installation.”

Stock prices for companies like Apple have already seen a positive bump following the news. The White House is expected to have additional trade talks with China next month in Washington, though President Trump has since cast some doubt.

Asked by reporters whether he might cancel the talks, the president answered, “Maybe. We’ll see what happens.”

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This hacker’s iPhone charging cable can hijack your computer

This hacker’s iPhone charging cable can hijack your computer

August 12, 2019

Most people don’t think twice about picking up a phone charging cable and plugging it in. But one hacker’s project wants to change that and raise awareness of the dangers of potentially malicious charging cables.

A hacker who goes by the online handle MG took an innocent-looking Apple USB Lightning cable and rigged it with a small Wi-Fi-enabled implant, which, when plugged into a computer, lets a nearby hacker run commands as if they were sitting in front of the screen.

Dubbed the O.MG cable, it looks and works almost indistinguishably from an iPhone charging cable. But all an attacker has to do is swap out the legitimate cable for the malicious cable and wait until a target plugs it into their computer. From a nearby device and within Wi-Fi range (or attached to a nearby Wi-Fi network), an attacker can wirelessly transmit malicious payloads on the computer, either from pre-set commands or an attacker’s own code.

Once plugged in, an attacker can remotely control the affected computer to send realistic-looking phishing pages to a victim’s screen, or remotely lock a computer screen to collect the user’s password when they log back in.

MG focused his first attempt on an Apple Lightning cable, but the implant can be used in almost any cable and against most target computers.

“This specific Lightning cable allows for cross-platform attack payloads, and the implant I have created is easily adapted to other USB cable types,” MG said. “Apple just happens to be the most difficult to implant, so it was a good proof of capabilities.”

In his day job as a red teamer at Verizon Media (which owns TechCrunch), he develops innovative hacking methods and techniques to identify and fix security vulnerabilities before malicious attackers find them. Although a personal project, MG said …

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Week in Review: Netflix’s big problem and Apple’s thinnest product yet

Week in Review: Netflix’s big problem and Apple’s thinnest product yet

August 11, 2019

Hey. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about the Capital One breach and how Equifax taught us that irresponsible actions only affect companies in the PR department.


Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

The big story

Disney is going to eat Netflix’s lunch.

The content giant announced this week that when Disney+ launches, it will be shipping a $12.99 bundle that brings its Disney+ streaming service, ESPN+ and ad-supported Hulu together into a single-pay package. That price brings those three services together for the same cost as Netflix and is $5 cheaper that what you would spend on each of the services individually.

This announcement from Disney comes after Netflix stuttered in its most recent earnings, missing big on its subscriber add while actually losing subscribers in the U.S.

Netflix isn’t the aggregator it once was; its library is consistently shifting, with original series taking the dominant position. As much as Netflix is spending on content, there’s simply no way that it can operate on the same plane as Disney, which has been making massive content buys and is circling around to snap up the market by acquiring its way into consumers’ homes.

Disney has slowly amassed control of Hulu through buying out various stakeholders, but now that it shifts the platform’s weight, it’s pretty clear that it will use it as a selling point for its time-honed in-house content, which it is still expanding.

The streaming wars have been raging for years, but as the services seem to …

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