On a mild Thursday night at the Los Angeles Forum, Nike’s public relations team and a group of journalists from some of the country’s leading lifestyle, tech, and general interest websites gathered to see the debut of Nike’s most ambitious SNKRS stash drop. Launched in conjunction with Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment, the collaboration between Nike and Lamar marks a series of firsts for the world’s largest sports and lifestyle brand. The combined effort is the first capsule collection that Nike has done with a musician. It’s also the first time that anyone currently working at the company can remember the apparel company signing on with a musician for select tour merchandise, and the debut of the stash drop through the SNKRS app was the largest the company’s tech had tried to tackle. For concertgoers, rolling up to the concert in Supreme sweats, Yeezys, Adidas, Pumas… and, of course, Nikes, the SNKRS stash drop would be a surprise. For folks who had downloaded Nike’s SNKRS app, they’d be able to buy and reserve a pair of Kendrick Lamar’s limited edition Cortez Kenny IIIs at the concert. At least on the first night, things didn’t go as planned. Working with live events like concerts, where timing is less regimented than at a typical sporting event (which are marked by tip offs and halftimes that adhere to a pretty regimented schedule), proved too much for the initial rollout of the company’s stash drop. Select NikePlus members received an initial push notification of the Stash drop and a card in the SNKRS feed also advertised the special stash drop, in addition to a notification that flashed onscreen between the (amazing) SchoolboyQ set and SZA’s (equally amazing) performance. There will be other chances to get the timing down, but for the first concert in Los Angeles, concertgoers were prompted to launch the SNKRS app and try and snag a pair of the limited edition shoes well before the activation actually went live. Once the shoes did go on sale, the user interface for finding and reserving the shoes didn’t work for everyone there — in fact, only one reporter from the group was able to reserve a pair of the shoes (since that reporter hadn’t saved payment information onto the SNKRS app, those shoes were released). “I can’t get the app to do what I need,” said one concertgoer trying to snag a pair of shoes. The team at Nike said the concert’s late start caused the miscue. Roughly 30 minutes after the sneakers were supposed to onsale, the activation went live — something journalists were only made aware of when notified by Nike’s public relations team. Once the sale did go live, the shoes sold out within the first five minutes, although it’s unclear how many were made available through the stash drop (Nike declined to provide a number). The SNKRS app is only one example of Nike’s innovative approach to integrating technology and fashion. In April, Nike launched the first sneaker that’s integrated with its NikeConnect technology. Unveiled earlier this year through a collaboration with the NBA, the NikeConnect app allows users to access information on players and stats through a label enabled with near field communications chips. Nike’s Air Force Ones enabled with the NikeConnect tech will open a special limited release sneaker sale opportunity called “The Choice”, but Nike has higher hopes for the technology. “We would love to be able to award sweat equity with access to exclusive products or a partnership,” said a spokesperson for the company in an interview last year. “NikeConnect [is] a great way for us to get interesting data about our members and deliver unlocks that are relevant to those members,” the spokesperson said. Beyond the unlocks for exclusive sneaker offers, Nike is thinking about ways to include all of its technology partners in ways that benefit NikeConnect, NikePlus, and SNKRS users. “We’re excited to learn how unlocks are being received right now,” said the spokesperson. “There is a pretty comprehensive ecosystem of value that we’ve been building for our members… Members who are really active with us are getting rewards or achievements [and] that could include partners like Apple… that we’ll be bringing to the table to round out your whole holistic sport experience.”
A little more than three years ago, Apple announced a new MacBook with a “butterfly” keyboard that was 40 percent thinner and ostensibly four times more stable than the previous “scissor” mechanism that MacBooks employed. The promise was to more evenly distribute pressure on each key. Not everyone loved this “reinvention,” however, and now, Apple is facing a class action lawsuit over it. According to a complaint lodged in the Northern District Court of California yesterday and first spied by the folks over at AppleInsider, “thousands” of MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops produced in 2015 and 2016 experienced failure owing to dust or debris the Butterly design that rendered the machines useless. The complaint further alleges that Apple “continues to fail to disclose to consumers that the MacBook is defective, including when consumers bring their failed laptops into the ‘Genius Bar’ (the in-store support desk) at Apple stores to request technical support.” It just not a lack of disclosures at the outset that’s problematic, the suit continues. Customers who think the issue will be covered by their warranties are sometimes in for an unpleasant surprise. As stated in the filing: “Although every MacBook comes with a one-year written warranty, Apple routinely refuses to honor its warranty obligations. Instead of fixing the keyboard problems, Apple advises MacBook owners to try self-help remedies that it knows will not result in a permanent repair. When Apple does agree to attempt a warranty repair, the repair is only temporary—a purportedly repaired MacBook fails again from the same keyboard problems. For consumers outside of the warranty period, Apple denies warranty service, and directs consumers to engage in paid repairs, which cost between $400 and $700. The keyboard defect in the MacBook is substantially certain to manifest.” The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two users, ZIxuan Rao and Kyle Barbaro and more broadly “on behalf of all others similarly situated.” It was brought by Girard Gibbs, a San Francisco-based law firm, which has battled with Apple numerous times in the past, including filing a class-action suit centered on the iPod’s “diminishing battery capacity.” (Apple appears to have settled that one.) We’ve reached out to Apple for comment. Interestingly, AppleInsider appears to have provided the fodder for this new lawsuit, or some of it at least. Last month, the outlet reported findings of its own separate investigation into the problem after hearing enough anecdotes to support a deep dive. It says that after collecting service data for the first year of release for the 2014, 2015, and 2016 MacBook Pros, it concluded that — excluding Touch Bar failures — the 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard has been failing its users twice as often in the first year of use as the 2014 or 2015 MacBook Pro models. AppleInsider says it collected its data from “assorted Apple Genius Bars in the U.S.” that it has worked with for several years, as well as Apple-authorized third-party repair shops. The investigation clearly resonated with MacBook owners, because soon after, more than 17,000 people signed a Change.org petition demanding that Apple recall all MacBooks with butterfly switch keyboards. That petition — which cites among others the highly regarded writer and UI designer John Gruber, who has called the keyboard “one of the biggest design screwups in Apple history” — is gaining steam again today, presumably fueled by this new lawsuit. As of this writing, roughly 18,000 people have provided their signature.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard joined a key execs from Apple and industrial manufacturers Alcoa and Rio Tinto to announce a new process for smelting aluminum that removes greenhouse gases from the equation. Alcoa and Rio Tinto are creating a joint venture in based in Montreal called Elysis, to help mainstream the process, with plans to make it commercially available by 2024. Along with swapping carbon for oxygen as a byproduct of the production process, the technology is also expected to reduce costs by 15-percent. It’s easy to see why Apple’s jumped at investing into tech here, investing $13 million CAD ($10 million USD) in the process. The company has been making a big push over the past couple of years to reduce its carbon footprint across the board. This time last month, Apple announced that it had moved to 100-percent clean energy for its global facilitates. “Apple is committed to advancing technologies that are good for the planet and help protect it for generations to come,” Tim Cook said in a release tied to today’s news. We are proud to be part of this ambitious new project, and look forward to one day being able to use aluminum produced without direct greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing of our products.” Those companies, along with the Governments of Canada and Quebec have combined to invest a full $188 million CAD in the forward looking tech. While the new business will be headquartered in Montreal, U.S. manufacturing will also get a piece of the pie. Alcoa has been smelting metal through the process at a smaller scale in a plant outside of Pittsburg since 2009.
Dark clouds have gathered and broken over Apple’s plans to build a data center in Ireland. Three years ago, Apple announced that it would invest $2 billion into building a pair of new, green data centers in Ireland and Denmark. But today, the iPhone giant confirmed that it was cancelling the first of those two projects, after too many delays in the approval process, which today appeared to be extending in a way that could go on for a long time to come. “We’ve been operating in Ireland since 1980 and we’re proud of the many contributions we make to the economy and job creation. In the last two years we’ve spent over €550 million with local companies and, all told, our investment and innovation supports more than 25,000 jobs up and down the country. We’re deeply committed to our employees and customers in Ireland and are expanding our operations in Cork, with a new facility for our talented team there,” the company said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Several years ago we applied to build a data centre at Athenry. Despite our best efforts, delays in the approval process have forced us to make other plans and we will not be able to move forward with the data centre. While disappointing, this setback will not dampen our enthusiasm for future projects in Ireland as our business continues to grow.” Apple had planned for the data center — which would cover 166,000 square metres — to go online in 2017. (The first phase of the Danish center announced at the same time, incidentally, is nearly completed and Apple is now working on a second center in the country. We’ve confirmed with sources that this second center is not the “other plan” that Apple refers to in its statement above, meaning another data center announcement from Apple in the region may be coming.) As originally conceived, the facility in Ireland was planned to be built on land previously used for growing and harvesting non-native trees. As part of its CSR in building the facility on that land, Apple also pledged to “restore native trees to Derrydonnell Forest,” as well as build an outdoor education space an a walking trail. But within months of Apple announcing the project, issues started to arise around the potential environmental impact and what effect the building of the data center would have on the national electric grid. Initially, the Galway County Council asked for more details from Apple about how the data center would work. Then, when Apple provided it and the council granted permission to build the center six months later, individual objections started to surface, including from a local environmental engineer called Allan Daly, who has become something of the public face of the opposition to the plans. Daly’s main argument was that Apple’s data center, particularly at its fullest-possible size, would put too much strain on Ireland’s power grid, including in the building of them. Apple has maintained that its data centers are powered on renewables, that it gives back over time, and that it wouldn’t over-build. Last October, Apple won a case in the Irish High Court that appeared to give the company the green light it needed to proceed with its plans. But from what we understand, there was still some uncertainty that lingered, because opposition could have still taken the case to the Supreme Court to appeal once again. That continued uncertainty was the final straw for Apple. With no guaranteed end in sight, Apple finally made the choice to “move on”, as one source close to the situation told TechCrunch. The whole case underscores some of the ongoing issues that apparently exist in Ireland over how data centers are planned and approved by local authorities. “There is no disputing that Apple’s decision is very disappointing, particularly for Athenry and the West of Ireland,” Ireland’s Minister for Business and Enterprise Heather Humphreys said in a statement provided to Reuters. There is talk of reforming that whole process, but that is not something Apple will get involved with at this point. The company has had a rather complex relationship with the country. Like many tech companies, Apple has made a lot of investment into operations based out of Ireland, including housing its European headquarters in Cork. But the country has also been the subject of a large tax debate, which has seen Apple just weeks ago finally settle on paying some €13 billion ($15.4 billion) in back taxes to Ireland starting this month, after the EU ruled that the existing tax scheme was illegal. Ironically, Ireland was on Apple’s side in trying to resist the payment — perhaps in part because it all too well understands its relationship to the companies that subsequently pump hundreds of millions of euros in investment and jobs into their economies. It’s odd timing, therefore, that we’d hear about Apple pulling out of the data center in Ireland now, although from what I’ve been told the two are very distinct, unrelated issues.
“Whether for AR or robots, anytime you have software interacting with the world, it needs a 3D model of the globe. We think that map will look a lot more like the decentralized internet than a version of Apple Maps or Google Maps.” That’s the idea behind new startup Fantasmo, according to co-founder Jameson Detweiler. Coming out of stealth today, Fantasmo wants to let any developer contribute to and draw from a sub-centimeter accuracy map for robot navigation or anchoring AR experiences. Fantasmo plans to launch a free Camera Positioning Standard (CPS) that developers can use to collect and organize 3D mapping data. The startup will charge for commercial access and premium features in its TerraOS, an open-sourced operating system that helps property owners keep their maps up to date and supply them for use by robots, AR and other software equipped with Fantasmo’s SDK. With $2 million in funding led by TenOneTen Ventures, Fantasmo is now accepting developers and property owners to its private beta. Directly competing with Google’s own Visual Positioning System is an audacious move. Fantasmo is betting that private property owners won’t want big corporations snooping around to map their indoor spaces, and instead will want to retain control of this data so they can dictate how it’s used. With Fantasmo, they’ll be able to map spaces themselves and choose where robots can roam or if the next Pokémon GO can be played there. “Only Apple, Google, and HERE Maps want this centralized. If this data sits on one of the big tech company’s servers, they could basically spy on anyone at any time,” says Detweiler. The prospect gets scarier when you imagine everyone wearing camera-equipped AR glasses in the future. “The AR cloud on a central server is Big Brother. It’s the end of privacy.” Detweiler and his co-founder Dr. Ryan Measel first had the spark for Fantasmo as best friends at Drexel University. “We need to build Pokémon in real life! That was the genesis of the company,” says Detweiler. In the meantime he founded and sold LaunchRock, a 500 Startups company for creating “Coming Soon” sign-up pages for internet services. After Measel finished his PhD, the pair started Fantasmo Studios to build augmented reality games like Trash Collectors From Space, which they took through the Techstars accelerator in 2015. “Trash Collectors was the first time we actually created a spatial map and used that to sync multiple people’s precise position up,” says Detweiler. But while building the infrastructure tools to power the game, they realized there was a much bigger opportunity to build the underlying maps for everyone’s games. Now the Santa Monica-based Fantasmo has 11 employees. “It’s the internet of the real world,” says Detweiler. Fantasmo now collects geo-referenced photos, scans them for identifying features like walls and objects, and imports them into its point cloud model. Apps and robots equipped with the Fantasmo SDK can then pull in the spatial map for a specific location that’s more accurate than federally run GPS. That lets them peg AR objects to precise spots in your environment while making sure robots don’t run into things. Fantasmo identifies objects in geo-referenced photos to build a 3D model of the world “I think this is the most important piece of infrastructure to be built during the next decade,” Detweiler declares. That potential attracted funding from TenOneTen, Freestyle Capital, LDV, NoName Ventures, Locke Mountain Ventures and some angel investors. But it’s also attracted competitors like Escher Reality, which was acquired by Pokémon GO parent company Niantic, and Ubiquity6, which has investment from top-tier VCs like Kleiner Perkins and First Round. Google is the biggest threat, though. With its industry-leading traditional Google Maps, experience with indoor mapping through Tango, new VPS initiative and near limitless resources. Just yesterday, Google showed off using an AR fox in Google Maps that you can follow for walking directions. Fantasmo is hoping that Google’s size works against it. The startup sees a path to victory through interoperability and privacy. The big corporations want to control and preference their own platforms’ access to maps while owning the data about private property. Fantasmo wants to empower property owners to oversee that data and decide what happens to it. Measel concludes, “The world would be worse off if GPS was proprietary. The next evolution shouldn’t be any different.”
The whole-home wireless craze peaked and waned last year with the rise of Orbi, Eero, Google WiFi, and Linksys’ Velop. These routers use mesh technology to blanket your home in soft, velvety Wi-Fi, ensuring that everything from the front camera/lamp to the Wi-Fi-connected grill in the back yard are connected to the Internet. I’ve tested a number of these so far and have settled on Orbi as the best of the bunch but the original tri-band Velop was excellent and this dual-band model – a cheaper but still speedy whole home solution – has maintained quality and value and holds the crown for the cheapest – and best – mesh network you can buy. This new mesh kit, the Velop AC3900, costs $299 and is slightly smaller than the original AC4400, a tri-band solution that started at $349 for three units. Considering most routers hover around the $100 mark with some falling as low as $20, it was a hard sell and the story manufacturers told – your Wi-Fi was insufficient for your home and you needed multiple little routers instead of one in the living room – didn’t quite resonate. Linksys reacted to this by releasing this smaller, cheaper model onto a single-router world. The result is the AC3900, a shorter, smaller device that can hide in your home (as long as its near an electrical outlet) or sit out as a high-design techno-tchotchke. The Velop can blanket up to 4,500 square feet and even act as a wired router for standalone devices. Setup is as easy as pulling a single unit out of the box and connecting to it while running the Linksys app. You can then add more units throughout the home. The AC3900 devices are a few inches shorter than the AC4400 and they are missing a few of the high-end bells and whistles of the original models. First, these routers have less memory than the original models, with system memory halving from the original 512MB down to 256MB and internal Flash memory falling from 4GB to 256MB. The router also supports only two simultaneous bands while the original model supported three simultaneous bands. In practice I saw solid performance out of both models with the AC3900 maxing out at about 900Mbps internal network speeds which equates to some excellent Internet speeds when the entire system is working. Interestingly, you can also ask your voice assistants to turn on or off Velop’s guest network, a cute feature for when visitors come over. The real question most people have regarding these whole home solutions is whether they work and whether they’re worth it. Most of them, except for a few exceptions I discovered in my trials, work very, very well. Velop is easy to set up – you just place it in a room and press a button – and once it’s installed you’ll throw away all of your other routers. For years I placed a single router in my living room and used some Apple Airports and wireline networking to connect things up to my attic. Now with mesh networking I get a solid signal throughout the house and even in the back yard. The AC3900 comes with three units and costs the same as Linksys’ dual-unit AC4400. While the AC4400 are ostensibly better I would argue that the AC3900 is about the same and the added benefit of an extra unit makes the whole-home Internet even more widespread. Mesh routers are the way to go and this is a great way to try them out. The only thing you really need to know about these units is that they work. Whether you’re dropping a bunch of Netgear Orbis around your house or starting up a Google Wifi unit, mesh networks make your wireless experience much better. Linksys, to their credit, just made that experience a little cheaper. [gallery ids="1634772,1634770,1634769"]
Notable, a new startup digitizing the checkup through automatic recording of doctor’s visits and updating of electronic health records, is launching its first product for the Apple Watch. Billing itself as a white-label solution for wearables, the company’s technology uses natural language processing and voice recognition technology to automatically record doctor-patient interactions and structure the data for inclusion in a patient’s medical records. After a year in stealth mode, and with $3 million in initial funding from Greylock Partners, Maverick Ventures and 8VC, Notable is finally ready to unveil its first product for the Apple Watch. It could be a boon for busy doctors who spend more than 10 hours a week on paperwork and administration rather than treating patients. The new technology can also help with the perennial problem of deciphering a doctor’s notes (physicians’ poor penmanship has been frequently mined for comedic purposes, but has real-world consequences if medical prescriptions are improperly filled). The team behind Notable was carved out of another Greylock investment — a mortgage lending startup called Blend. Pranay Kapadia, the former head of product at Blend, said the idea for the company came to him after hearing his wife complain about the tribulations of life as a doctor. Joining Kapadia in the company are Justin White, the former head of engineering at Blend and Adam Ting, who headed up product design at the mortgage company. In their efforts to get Notable’s documentation system up and running, the team spent time recording and monitoring over 2,000 physician interactions with patients. Ultimately the problem was a data issue, according to the company, and data processing and handling is what the founding team has been working on since their earliest days at companies like Mint.com, QuickBooks, TurboTax, ClimateCorp and Blend. “We started Notable to leverage powerful technologies such as AI, wearables and voice interface to address these challenges and to give physicians what they really want — a seamless, truly hands-free solution, not another screen to learn or computer application,” said Kapadia, in a statement.
It was another big week for earnings on “Equity,” TechCrunch’s podcast about venture capital and the tech business. But this week, it wasn’t all good news. Spotify stumbled after its first quarterly report since joining the stock market. Tesla shares were down after Elon Musk’s unusualearnings call. Snap hit a record low after failing to gain traction with its redesign. Apple, however, surprised Wall Street when iPhone sales didn’t disappoint. We also recapped the successful IPOs for DocuSign and Smartsheet. Our special guest this week was M.G. Siegler, general partner at GV (formerly Google Ventures). In a previous life, he wrote for TechCrunch. We also had TechCrunch editor Connie Loizos, who will be helping out with the show now that I’m leaving. Yes, that’s right, I’m sad to say that it’s my last episode of “Equity.” I’ve accepted a new opportunity that I’m excited about (announcing it soon), but I will miss the fun times we’ve had on the show. Somehow we’ve managed to have over a million downloads since launching “Equity” in March of last year. Thank you for tuning in! And don’t worry, the show will go on. The remaining “Equity” crew will keep you informed. If you haven’t subscribed already, check it out on iTunes and pretty much every other podcast platform.
Last October, Google launched its Advanced Protection Program for users who want to ensure the highest degree of protection for the data they store in services like Gmail, Google Calendar and Drive. Users who need that kind of protection can opt into this program, but, in return, they have to use security keys for the two-step verification and can only access their Google data from Google’s own web and mobile apps. Today, Google is opening up this last restriction a bit by allowing access through Apple’s own native iOS apps like Mail, Calendar and Contacts. Users in the Advanced Protection program can now choose to give those apps access to their data, too. “Our goal is to make sure that any user-facing an increased risk of online attacks enrolls in the Advanced Protection Program,” Dario Salice, Google’s product manager for this services, writes. “Today, we’ve made it easier for our iOS users to be in the program, and we’ll continue our work to make the program more easily accessible to users around the globe.” Like before, the program is meant mostly for those users who are most likely to become the victim of a sophisticated attack, including journalists, activists, politicians and business leaders. By supporting Apple’s own native apps, the service will likely be attractive to a wider audience now. For some reason, not everybody loves Google’s own mobile apps, after all.
Apple ended up with a pretty decent report for its second quarter, beating analyst expectations on most of its metrics — but it is making a huge move in terms of returning capital to investors. The company said it is announcing a new $100 billion buyback program and increasing its dividend by 16%. That means that Apple investors are going to get more of an opportunity to snap up the value the company has created over time as it’s continued to grow significantly. While Apple in the past several months a lot of the momentum that carried it to a market cap nearing $1 trillion, the company’s stock has still risen around 80% in the past two years. Not surprisingly, the stock today is soaring (by Apple standards) in extended trading, with shares rising nearly 5% after the report. Last quarter Apple CFO Luca Maestri said the company expected to be “net cash neutral” over time, signaling that it might start returning more capital to shareholders through its dividend and share buyback programs. That’ll be important for the company, which thanks to the tax bill last year will be able to repatriate a significant amount of the cash it holds outside of the U.S. These kinds of returns are pretty common with larger companies that generate a ton of cash — Apple already had some buyback programs in place, for example — but investors have always dinged Apple for not deploying its massive pile of cash. This quarter, however, Apple’s pile of cash actually fell. Apple continued to add more and more cash to its reserves, though a significant amount of it was overseas. This quarter it fell to $267.2 billion, down $17.9 billion from the last quarter. From August 2012 to March 2018, Apple has returned around $275 billion in capital to Wall Street. That included a collective $200 billion in share repurchases. Apple has had some of these programs in place, but this is still a substantial addition to its capital return plans. The rest of the line was a pretty solid beat on expectations Apple’s services revenue continues to grow as it looks to create a steady additional revenue stream. All that’s important too, of course, but the big news here is the set of buybacks. Here’s the bottom line: Q2 Revenue: $61.1 billion, compared to analyst estimates of $60.86 billion. Apple projected between $60 billion and $62 billion. It’s an increase of 14% year-over-year. Q2 Earnings: $2.73 per share, compared to analyst estimates of $2.60 per share. Q2 iPhone shipments: 52.2 million units sold, compared to Wall Street estimates of 51.9 million iPhones sold. Q2 Greater China revenue: $13 billion, up 21% year-over-year. Q3 Gross Margin estimate: Between 38% and 38.5% Q3 Revenue estimate: Between $51.5 billion and $53.5 billion Q2 iPad shipments: 9.1 million units Q2 Mac shipments: 4.1 million units Q2 Services revenue: $9.2 billion, up 31% year-over-year That big capital return program is likely to keep investors happy for some time while it continues to sort out its new iPhone lineup. Last year, the company released the iPhone X — which was widely praised, but also carried a substantial $999 price tag for the cheapest model. Apple has worked to create programs to pay for those phones over time, but it’s still an extremely high ticket price. That’s especially true internationally, where consumers might not tolerate high prices for those phones. As a result, the reception on Wall Street was pretty muted, and Apple seems to have to figure out some other way to restart that iPhone growth engine. Toward the end of last year, it seemed like Apple was inching closer to being a company with a market cap over $1 trillion. That’s a completely symbolic number, but nonetheless would be a significant milestone for the iPhone maker that looks to figure out what a next-generation smartphone looks like. Apple’s stock has by no means been in a tailspin, but it hasn’t really done anything either as expectations start to drop a bit following the launch of the iPhone X.