Swarm debuts $499 Evaluation Kit for consumers and tinkerers

Satellite connectivity company Swarm’s new product will give anyone the ability to create a messaging or Internet of Things (IoT) device, whether that be a hiker looking to stay connected off the grid or a hobbyist wanting to track the weather.

The Swarm Evaluation Kit is an all-in-one product that includes a Swarm Tile, the company’s flagship modem device, a VHF antenna, a small solar panel, a tripod, a Feather S2 development board and an OLED from Adafruit. The entire kit comes in at less than 6 pounds and costs $499. The package may sound intimidatingly technical, but Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo explained to TechCrunch that it was designed to be user-friendly, from the most novice consumer all the way through to more advanced users.

It “was super intentional to call it an evaluation kit because it’s not a finished product,” Spangelo explained. “It serves two different kinds of groups. The first group is people that want to be able to do messaging anywhere that they are on the planet for a really low cost. … The second group of people will be the tinkerers and the hobbyists and educational folks.”

Image Credits: Swarm. CEO and co-founder Sara Spangelo 

This is the second consumer product for Swarm — it went commercially live with its flagship Swarm Tile earlier this year. The Swarm Tile is a key part of the company’s ecosystem, which includes a few different components: the Tile, a kind of modem that can be embedded in different things and what the customer interfaces with; the satellite network; and a ground station network, which is how the company downlinks data. The Tile is designed for maximum compatibility, so Swarm serves customers across sectors including shipping, logistics and agriculture.

“One of the cool things about Swarm is that we’re infrastructure,” she said. “We’re like cellphone towers, so anyone can use us across any vertical.” Some of the use cases she highlighted included customers using Tile in soil moisture sensors, or in asset tracking in the trucking industry.

A major part of Swarm’s business model is its low cost, with a Swarm Tile costing $119 and the connectivity service available for only $5 per month per connected device. Spangelo credits not only the engineering innovations in the tiny devices and satellites, but the gains in launch economics, especially for small satellite developers like Swarm. The company also sells direct, which further reduces overhead.

Swarm was founded by Spangelo, a pilot and aerospace engineering Ph.D. who spent time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and at Google on its drone delivery project, Wing. She told TechCrunch that Swarm started as a hobby project between her and co-founder Ben Longmier, who had previously founded a company called Aether Industries that made high-altitude balloon platforms.

“Then [we] realized that we could do communications at speeds that were similar to what the legacy players are doing today,” Spangelo said. “There was a lot of buzz around connectivity,” she added, noting that initiatives like Project Loon were garnering a lot of funding. But instead of trying to match the size and scale of some of these multi-year projects, they decided to go small.

In the four and a half years since the company’s founding, Swarm has put up a network of 120 sandwich-sized satellites into low Earth orbit and grown its workforce to 32 people. They’ve also been busy onboarding customers that use the Tile. One hope is that the kit will be an additional way to draw customers to Swarm’s service.

Spangelo said the kit is for “everybody in between, that likes to just play with things. And it’s not just playing — the playing leads to innovations and ideas, and then it gets deployed out into the world.”

Google unveils its proposed ‘safety section’ for apps on Google Play

In the wake of Apple’s advances into consumer privacy with initiatives like App Tracking Transparency and App Store privacy labels, Google recently announced its own plans to introduce a new “safety section” on Google Play that offers more information about the data apps collect and share, and other security and privacy details. Today, the company is sharing for the first time what the new section’s user interface will look like, along with other requirements for developers.

In May, Google explained the safety section would be designed to easily communicate to users how apps are handling their data so they could make informed choices. It said app developers would need to disclose to users whether their app uses security practices like data encryption, whether it follows Google Play’s Families policy for apps aimed at kids, whether users have a choice in data sharing, whether the app’s safety section had been verified by a third party, and if the app allowed users to request data deletion at the time of uninstalling, among other things.

In the user interface concept Google debuted today, developers are now able to see how this feature will look to the end user.

Image Credits: Google

In the safety section, users will be able to see the developer’s explanation of what data the app collects followed by those other details, each with its own icon to serve as a visual indicator.

When users tap into the summary, they’ll be able to then see other details like what data is collected or shared — such as location, contacts, personal information (e.g., name, email address), financial information and more.

They’ll also be able to see how the data is used — for app functionality, personalization, etc. — and whether data collection is optional. 

Image Credits: Google

Google says it wants to give developers plenty of time to prepare for these Play Store changes, which is why it’s now sharing more information about the data type definitions, user journey and policy requirements of the new feature. 

It notes that all developers will have to provide a privacy policy by April 2022. Before, only apps that collected personal and sensitive user data were required to do so. Developers will also be required to share accurate and complete information about all the data in their safety section, including how it’s used by the app’s third-party libraries and SDKs. This is in line with what Apple demands for its apps.

Image Credits: Google

In October 2021, developers will be able to submit their information in the Google Play Console for review ahead of the planned launch of the safety section in Google Play, which is scheduled for the first quarter of 2022.

The company also notes it’s offering some buffer time after the section’s launch before apps must have their safety section approved by Google. However, the company says apps will have to be approved by Q2 2022 or risk having their app submissions or app updates rejected. And if an app doesn’t provide an approved safety section, the app will say “No information available.”

The change will help highlight how many active developers are present on Google Play, because those will be the ones who will adopt the new policy and showcase how their apps collect and use data.

The question that remains is how stringent Google will be about enforcing its new guidelines and how carefully apps will be reviewed. One interesting note here is that conscientious developers will be able to submit their safety section for a third-party review and then be able to promote that to users concerned about app data privacy and security.

This could help to address some potential criticism that these safety sections aren’t factual. That’s been a problem for Apple since the launch of its App Store privacy labels. The Washington Post discovered that a number of apps were displaying false information, making them less helpful to the users whose data they aimed to protect.

When reached for comment, however, Google declined to share more details about how the third-party verification process will work.

Alphabet crushes Q2 earnings estimates as Google Cloud cuts losses, grows 54%

Today after the bell amidst a deluge of major technology company earnings reports, Alphabet reported its own second-quarter performance. The search-and-services company posted revenues of $61.9 billion in the June 30, 2021 quarter, net income of $18.5 billion, and earnings per share of $27.26. Those figures work out to top-line growth of 62%, and net income expansion of 166%. Naturally Google is currently being compared to pandemic-impacted Q2 2020 results, but its gains are noteworthy regardless.

The Android-maker’s results trounced expectations, with the street only expecting Google’s parent company to post $56 billion in total top line and $19.14 in earnings per share. Notably Alphabet shares are up around a single percentage point after hours, mirroring a similarly muted market reaction to better than officially anticipated earnings results from Microsoft.

Alphabet is a company with a number of moving parts, so let’s unpack the numbers a little bit.

YouTube’s reported revenue of $7 billion is up 84% year over year. This feels like a strong result, frankly, given YouTube’s age. That said, your humble servant wonders how much heavier the ad load can get on YouTube before a rival service steals some of its oxygen. In a separate note, YouTube disclosed that its YouTube Shorts product has “surpassed 15 billion global daily views,” up 131% from the 6.5 billion global daily views that it detailed in March. (Everyone wants to eat TikTok, it seems.)

Google Cloud reported revenue of $4.6 billion, up 54% year over year. That growth rate is slightly above what Microsoft posted for its Azure cloud unit. However, as the Microsoft effort is considered to be larger than Google’s own in revenue terms, investors might have anticipated a larger growth ∆ than what Mountain View just detailed. Google Cloud cut its operating loss from $1.4 billion in the year-ago Q2 to a far more modest $591 million deficit in its most recent quarter. That’s honestly rather good.

On the Other Bets side of things, revenues rose! But so did losses. The skunkworks group at Alphabet posted $192 million in revenue, up from $148 million in the year-ago period. But the collection of trials and errors lost $1.4 billion in the quarter, up from $1.1 billion in the corresponding year-ago period.

Naturally with operating income of $19.4 billion inclusive of its Other Bets cost center, Alphabet can well afford to continue spending on what projects that may in time generate material future revenues.

Still, everything at Alphabet that is not Google’s core offerings (search, YouTube, etc.) lost money in the quarter:

Image Credits: Alphabet

The real story, however, is in the epic gains that Alphabet posted in operating income from Q2 2020 to Q2 2021. Just look at that acceleration in operating income! It’s a somewhat befuddling result in terms of its quality.

What else to take note of? Google’s share repurchase program has been modified some, but not in a manner that should impact regular investors. So we can leave Alphabet’s quarter content that the company did well enough to defend its market cap of just over $1.75 trillion, even if it did not manage to add too much to the figure in after-hours trading thus far.

It’s a great time to be a huge tech company.

Google TV mobile app redesign adds new services and recommendations

Following last fall’s debut of Google TV, the new user interface for Chromecast devices, Google is today giving its Google TV companion app for Android a makeover. The updated version of the mobile app for Google TV includes an updated user interface, expanded set recommendations, and more TV and movies to watch.

The app in earlier days was known as “Google Play Movies & TV” (whew!) but rebranded to just “Google TV” alongside the changes that rolled out to Chromecast in September. Here, users can browse over 700,000 movie and TV episodes from across top streaming apps, find new things to watch, and rent or purchase movies and shows, including new releases.

Now, Google is updating the app’s look-and-feel with new 16:9 widescreen movie and show posters which it says will give the app a more “cinematic” look.

Image Credits: Google

In addition, it’s adding the Rotten Tomatoes scores directly under each poster to help users make decisions about what they want to watch next. You can also visit a movie or TV show’s details page and mark it as “watched” in order to improve the app’s recommendations. This will allow Google TV to make further recommendations based on your watch history, and could be helpful if you’re not a regular app user to start tailoring its suggestions to your interests. However, the feature won’t help you keep up with your progress in a show, as the Reelgood or TV Time apps allow for, as you can’t mark individual episodes as watched, only entire series.

The recommendations are another feature that’s been improved with the latest release to be more aligned with what you’d see with the TV experience. In addition to featuring more rows of personalized suggestions to browse through, the app’s recommendation system will now be based on what you’ve watched in the past, your interests from your Google account, and trending and popular content in your region. Trending recommendations are sourced from what’s popular or trending across Google products, what’s being mentioned across the web, as well as hand-picked selections from human editors. For instance, you could see recommendations that suggest “summer blockbusters,” or other timely suggestions.

Users will also now see new movie and how recommendations as new content is released from services they subscribe to.

Image Credits: Google

The app has also expanded its content lineup by adding new providers like Discovery+, Viki, Cartoon Network, PBS Kids, and Boomerang, as well as on-demand content from live TV services, including of course, YouTube TV, as well as Philo and fuboTV. These providers were previously unavailable for search and discovery inside the mobile app, following the platform update in the fall.

Google said during its I/O Developer conference in May that the Android TV OS had reached an install base of 80 million monthly active devices, but it didn’t break down how many consumers streamed on through the Roku and Fire TV rival, Google TV for Chromecast, which is powered by Android TV OS under-the-hood. Instead, Google combined that figure with the numerous Android TV OS-powered devices on the market that include those offered by other streaming device brand partners and TV service providers — meaning the number included operator-tier and set-top boxes, too, which is a different type of market.

The company said the new features are available now on the Google TV Android app in the U.S. but couldn’t offer a timeline for other platforms or an international expansion.

Automakers have battery anxiety, so they’re taking control of the supply

Battery joint ventures have become the hot must-have deal for automakers that have set ambitious targets to deliver millions of electric vehicles in the next few years.

It’s no longer just about securing a supply of cells. The string of partnerships and joint ventures show that automakers are taking a more active role in the development and even production of battery cells.

Automakers are taking a more active role in the development and even production of battery cells.

And the deals don’t appear to be slowing down. Just this week, Mercedes-Benz announced its $47 billion plan to become an electric-only automaker by 2030. Securing its battery supply chain by expanding existing partnerships or locking in new ones to jointly develop and produce battery cells and modules is a critical piece of its plan.

Mercedes, like other automakers, is also focused on developing and deploying advanced battery technology. In addition to setting up eight new battery plants to supply its future EVs, the German automaker said it was partnering with Sila Nano, the Silicon Valley battery chemistry startup that it has previously invested in, to increase energy density, which should in turn improve range and allow for shorter charging times.

“This follows a trend that we’ve seen of automakers realizing how critical the battery is and taking more control of the production of the cells in order to ensure their own supply,” Sila Nano CEO Gene Berdichevsky said in a recent interview. “Like if you’re VW, and you say, ‘We’re going to go 50% electric by whatever year,’ but then the batteries don’t show up, you’re bankrupt, you’re dead. Their scale is so big that even if their cell partners have promised them to deliver, automakers are scared that they won’t.”

Tesla, BMW and Volkswagen were early adopters of the battery joint-venture strategy. In 2014,Tesla and Panasonic signed an agreement to build a large battery manufacturing plant, or a gigafactory as everyone is now calling it, in the U.S. and have worked together since. BMW began working with Solid Power in 2017 to create solid-state batteries for high-performance EVs that could potentially lower costs by requiring less safety features than lithium-ion batteries.

In addition to its partnership with Northvolt, VW is also in talks with suppliers to secure more direct access to supplies like semiconductors and lithium so it can keep its existing plants running at full speed.

Now the rest of the industry is moving to work with battery companies, to share knowledge and resources and essentially become the manufacturer.