Week in Review: Google rips out its sweet tooth

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 Snap’s bizarre decision to keep pursuing hardware without really changing their overarching strategy.


The big story

Google isn’t so sweet these days.

The company’s beloved naming scheme of alphabetizing sugary things dies with Android Pie. The company announced this week that they’re dumping the dessert scheme for a much more boring option. The new Android will be Android 10.

Google has been one of those companies that has always liked to keep its quirkiness at the forefront of its brand. Multi-colored logos and bikes and hats with spinners and Nooglers and nap pods might have been the fringe elements of a Google employee’s first week on the job, but that’s what the company’s branding still evoked for a lot of people. The company’s more whimsical elements have realistically always been removed from the real world of its business interests, but at this point, the company may only be able to take away from the quirkiness of its brand, Google is just something different now.

Rebrands always grab attention, and the companies always make broad, sweeping statements about the deep meaning about what the new logo or font or name mean to the mission of the product at hand. With Android 10, Google says that their chief concern was promoting the universality of the operating system’s branding.

[W]e’ve heard feedback over the years that the names weren’t always understood by everyone in the global community. For example, L and R are not distinguishable when spoken in some languages.

So when some people heard us say Android Lollipop out loud, it wasn’t intuitively clear that it referred to the version after KitKat. It’s even harder for new Android users, who are unfamiliar with the naming convention, to understand if their phone is running the latest version. We also know that pies are not a dessert in some places, and that marshmallows, while delicious, are not a popular treat in many parts of the world.

There’s certainly room to question whether this decision has more to do with the fact that there aren’t too many desserts starting with the letter Q that immediately come to mind, or that Google marketing has decided to sanitize the Android brand with a corporate wash.

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On to the rest of the week’s news.

Apple Card available today card on iPhoneXs screen 082019

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • Apple’s credit card goes wide
    The Apple Card might be the prettiest credit card in the wild, but as the iPhone-aligned credit card starts shipping to customers, we’ll find out soon whether its extra features are enough to take down more popular millennial cards. Read more about it here.
  • Overstock’s CEO resigns amid bizarre “deep state” revelations 
    Libertarian tech CEOs are often a special kind of eccentric, but Overstock’s Patrick Byrne set a new bar for strange with his revelation that he had gotten sucked into a Trump-Russia scandal under the guise of helping unearth Hillary Clinton’s secrets. I don’t really understand it, and it seems he understood even less, but it cost him his job. Read more here.
  • Now, even the scooters are autonomous
    Segway seems to believe that it’s revolutionized the world of transportation a few times now, but its latest product is just a bit over-teched. The Segway Kickscooter T60 adds autonomous driving capabilities to the city electric scooter, but it doesn’t use them quite the way you might think. Read more here.

Facebook Currency Hearing

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. States looking to take on tech giants themselves:
    [States to launch antitrust investigation into big tech companies, reports say]
  2. Facebook keeps learning more about how much it knew about CA:
    [Facebook really doesn’t want you to read these emails]
  3. Not really a gaffe, but just embarrassing for Apple Card:
    [Apple warns against storing Apple Card near leather or denim]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. My colleagues and I made our way to Y Combinator Demo Days this week where we screened the 160+ startups pitching and picked some favorites from both days..

The best 11 startups from YC Demo Days (Day 1)

“Eighty-four startups presented (read the full run-through of every company plus some early analysis here) and after chatting with investors, batch founders and of course, debating amongst ourselves, we’ve nailed down the 11 most promising startups to present during Day 1…”

The top 12 startups from YC Demo Days (Day 2)

“After two days of founders tirelessly pitching, we’ve reached the end of YC’s Summer 2019 Demo Days. TechCrunch witnessed more than 160 on-the-record startup pitches coming out of Y Combinator, spanning healthcare, B2B services, augmented reality and life-extending. Here are our favorites from Day 2…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we published a some analysis on the latest YC class and also dug deep into the perks new employees get at some top companies.

Sign up for more newsletters in your inbox (including this one) here.


Android – TechCrunch

Focals by North Review: The future is (almost) here

The concept of an IRL heads-up display has been a part of science fiction since basically the beginning. Big players have tried their hand at it with less than stellar results — most notably Google with Glass, and more recently Intel’s Vaunt. But North may have cracked the nut on smart glasses with Focals.

They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination — they’re slightly heavy and don’t feel quite as seamless as science fiction promised they would — but this may be the best pair of smart glasses yet.

Who

Focals were created by North, a Canadian company backed by Intel Capital, Spark Capital and the Amazon Alexa Fund with nearly $ 200 million in funding. Around the time Google Glass was released, founders Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey and Stephen Lake were working on a smart arm band. They were disenchanted, as were many, with Glass and sought out to make something better.

Their first priority? Make a great pair of glasses, then outfit them with technology. In order to do that, they had to allow for prescription lenses, which means that the lenses of their product had to be curved. This throws a huge wrench in the idea of lens-projected notifications and content, so Focals created its own special projector.

The company also felt that the touchpad on the side of Google Glass was overly cumbersome, leading them to build the Focals Ring to let users navigate through the menu.

What

The Focals are technically AR glasses, but they’re not focused on gaming or content consumption. The product is designed to move notifications from your phone to your sightline. It’s a bit like an Apple Watch for your face.

These notifications include the date and time, the weather, text notifications, email, Slack, Apple News alerts, Uber notifications, sports scores, turn-by-turn navigation and more. Users navigate through this content using the Ring, outfitted with a nub of a joystick, which is meant to be worn on the index finger of your dominant hand.

Users can proactively seek out information by clicking the joystick and scrolling, but the headset also serves up information in a push notification, including incoming messages and emails.

Importantly, North implemented a smart response system to keep users from having to pick up their phone each time they get a notification. The system gives users two options: choose from a list of smartly generated responses, or use speech-to-text through Focals’ built-in Alexa integration (the system is listening via built-in mic — but wearers have to opt-in during set up).

However, one of the great advantages for the Focals is also one of its weaknesses. The company chose to build a custom pair of glasses that could work with Rx lenses. That also means that the eyebox (the surface where you can see the projection) is smaller than other AR gadgets, which often use waveguides. In other words, your Focals have to be positioned pretty near perfectly to see the image. The company works hard to make sure that’s the case, fitting the glasses to your specific face. But glasses shift and move throughout the day, which means there’s plenty of re-adjusting in order to see the picture.

All that said, the Focals look surprisingly good. In fact, passersby would be hard-pressed to detect that they’re smart glasses in the first place. They aren’t comfortable enough to wear all day — the extra weight on the front means they get a bit uncomfortable after a few hours. But overall, these are pretty discreet as far as smart glasses go.

How

It’s a relatively time-consuming process to get your hands on a pair of Focals. Because the fit and size are so important to usability, users interested in purchasing a pair have to go to one of North’s two stores (there’s one in Toronto, and one in Brooklyn, NY).

The visit to the store is by appointment. Upon arrival, store associates will take you into a booth where you’ll sit before 11 cameras that will 3D model your head, determining where your eyes and ears sit relative to the rest of your face. The cameras also try to understand your gaze.

From there, you get a demo with a standard (not fitted) pair of Focals, during which you learn how to align the Focals and use the Ring. It takes a few weeks for your custom-fit Focals to be ready to pick up, at which point you go through a final sizing with an optician.

It’s tedious, and will be difficult for the company to scale, but it’s part of what gives Focals an edge in quality. Luckily for folks outside of Toronto and NY, Focals is heading off on a pop-up tour. You can check out the tour dates and locations here.

Why

‘Why?’ is perhaps the toughest question to answer when it comes to the Focals. The goal, as outlined by the company, is to keep you connected to the digital world without taking you out of the real world. In short, stop looking down at your phone.

That said, Focals also take away the option. When your phone rings, or even when your Apple Watch buzzes, you have a choice to make: look down, or ignore. When you’re wearing the Focals, that decision is eliminated.

For this reason, I feel like this product is meant for early adopters and folks who enjoy being ultra-connected to the digital world. If you’re already addicted to the sweet chime of your phone, the Focals may very well keep you more connected to the real world, and potentially save your neck from some stiffness. But if you do well to live in the real world and don’t appreciate the constant flow of notifications to your phone, the Focals likely won’t help you maintain that separation.

There are also some minor issues with the Focals themselves. The Ring isn’t super comfortable, particularly when typing on a computer (something most of us spend hours each day doing). The Ring also seems like something that would be very easy to lose or break — this hasn’t happened to me yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. (For now, North is replacing broken rings for free.)

With the Focals themselves, I’d like to be clear when I say that I was pleasantly surprised with the over all experience. The UI is pleasant to look at, and the little chime of a notification that whispers in your ear is most certainly addictive.

However, I found my eyes getting tired after more than an hour wearing the Focals. Using the Focals means that you’re constantly changing the focus of your eyes from close to far away, which can be tiring. Moreover, if the glasses shift a bit on your face, the text of the notification can become fuzzy, making the experience even more tiring.

Plus, the glasses are built to bend halfway through the arms, as opposed to where the arms meet the frames. This means you can’t hang the Focals off the front of your shirt, which is an admittedly minor gripe, but it bugged me throughout the review process.

Add to that the fact that Focals start at $ 600, this product is really for technophiles. For now.

North is on the right track. The company is constantly developing new features that are released each week — they recently launched Google Fit support to check your steps, as well as language lessons to brush up on your French during your walk to work. And they’ve started with the right priorities in mind. The Focals are fine looking glasses, and in general, the tech works. Now it’s about refinement.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Review: The 2019 Bentley Continental GT is beautiful, excessive and totally worth it

The Bentley Continental GT is iconic. The vehicle has long stood for excess and opulence, and I knew that going in. I expected the Continental GT to be over-engineered and capable of high-speed thrills. And it is, but there’s more.

The tester I’m driving costs $ 279,000. Of course it’s beautiful and fast and dripping with technology. It’s a Bentley. Inside and out, at high speed or low speed, the latest Continental GT exceeded all my expectations.

The machine glides over the road, powered by a mechanical symphony performing under the hood. The W12 engine is a dying breed, and it’s a shame. It’s stunning in its performance here. This is a 200 mph vehicle, but I didn’t hit those speeds. What surprised me the most is that I didn’t need to go fast. The new Continental GT is thrilling in a way that doesn’t require speed. It’s like a great set of speakers or exclusive liquor. Quality over quantity, and in this mechanical form, the quality is stunning.

Review

Bentley debuted the Continental GT in 2003 and retained a familiar form over the years. Its mission has remained constant: To be the very best grand touring car available. It’s held that crown on and off since 2003 as other cars entered the game. But with this latest revision, the crown has returned to Bentley. This is an astounding vehicle to take on a road trip. It’s like a private jet on the highway.

Under the long hood sits a massive W12 engine with twin turbos. The setup results in over 620 HP and 664-foot pounds of torque. And it knows how to translate those numbers to the payment. The engine pounds not like a stack of Marshall amps at a Motorhead concert, but pounds like a symphony playing Beethoven’s 5th with intensity.

The Bentley Continental GT performance is where it stands apart.

It glides as speeds reach illegal levels. There’s no drama from the transmission or argument from the engine. When the accelerator drops to the floor, a gateway opens in front of the Bentley, allowing it to transcend space and time as it exceeds posted speed limits.

The Bentley Continental GT lays out its power with the precision of an electric vehicle but the intensity of a street racer. The power delivery is unreal. Under normal driving modes, the transmission is hardly noticeable, and under strain of chasing a quarter mile, the shifts are barely noticeable as it arm wrestles the massive W12.

Driving the Bentley Continental GT is an exercise in restraint. At times, say, when coming’s out of a gnarly curve, you feel the need to slam the pedal to the floor and launch the car off the apex. But that would land you in jail. This is a car that could live its best life on a track, but it doesn’t need the track to be happy. Even driving the Continental GT to the golf course or office park is nearly a thrill.

The GT is just excellent. It inspires confidence and regal intrigue that’s often missing in many of its contemporaries.

Entering the latest Continental is like sinking behind the controls of a fantasy rocket ship. Brushed metal adorns the center stack and handcrafted wood and leather wrap the cabin. Adorable metal pulls control the vents, and machined knobs perform various functions.

The leather is soft and metal real. It’s the little things, too. The lume on the analog clock is fantastic and the wood grain matches throughout. The seats feature a lovely diamond pattern with multiple layers of embroidered detail. Don’t want to look at an LCD screen? Hit a button, and it rotates away, revealing a set of three analog gauges in its place.

However, throughout the Continental GT, there are odd choices of material. Example: The gear shift is plastic and creaks like a well-used toy. It’s an odd choice for a substantial touchpoint. It feels cheap in comparison to gear shifters in other vehicles. BMW, for instance, is using manufactured crystal in its new large SUV and it conveys a sense of stoutness missing in the Bentley’s.

Other plastic bits feel out of place. When sitting down, a bar extends from behind the seats, pushing the seatbelt within reach of the driver. It’s flimsy plastic. The handle on the outside feels loose. Even the key fob is underwhelming; I think the fob for my F-150 is more substantial.

I’m nitpicking, but the Bentley Continental GT costs north of $ 279,000.

The controls are familiar. The Bentley uses a lot of switch plates and instruments from Audi’s part’s bin though, in the Bentley, they’re chrome. The Audi theme continues to the digital instrument cluster where the shares the same design as the one found in most Audi’s. Expect a similar experience throughout. This isn’t a bad thing. Audi has one of the best interfaces available throughout the industry.

The 2019 Bentley Continental GT is unforgettable. It’s a beautiful combination of obscene power and luxury materials.

I took delivery of this tester on the eve of a long weekend and spent as much time in it as I could. It’s more comfortable than my house. The seats are supple and supportive. The dash impressive with its woodwork and analog dials. The power is intoxicating.

Cars like the Continental GT will likely continue to exist after electric vehicles become the norm. At least until the Earth runs out of oil. They have to. Cars like this will always be a luxury item. They have a soul missing from electric vehicles. There’s nothing like putting your foot down on a Bentley W12 and feeling the world come alive around you.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Review: Ring’s new outdoor lighting products are brilliant

Ring’s new outdoor lighting products are impressive. It’s rare, even in 2019, for something to work out of the box, but that’s what happened when I installed Ring’s outdoor lighting products. They just worked.

You know the drill. You get a gadget and go to install it. Somewhere during the installation, it fails or hiccups. The thing doesn’t connect to Wifi, or it fails during an update, or something. Eventually, you’ll get it working after a few minor issues are solved.

Ring’s outdoor lighting products installed without issue. I took them out of the box, threw aside the instructions, and installed them in a logical manner. And 20 minutes later, I had five new lights configured to my home’s network and installed around my house. Brilliant.

This isn’t Ring’s first lighting product. TechCrunch tested Ring’s video spotlight last year and found it just as impressive with an easy installation and straight-forward feature set. Unlike that product, these new lights lack the camera, which make them significantly less expensive.

The new lighting products are clearly the result of Ring’s purchase of Mr. Beams. The company purchased the lighting company in January 2018 before Amazon purchased Ring in February 2018. Like Mr. Beams lights, Ring’s new lights are just a light and a motion sensor. The lighting products are a natural extension of Ring’s offering and best yet they’re relatively inexpensive.

These lighting products lack cameras found in the rest of Ring’s products but still have motion sensors that work in conjunction with Ring’s cameras. If, say, the $ 25 step light senses motion, it kicks on the light but can also trigger a Ring camera to start recording. Likewise, if a Ring camera notices movement, it will begin recording but also trigger a series of lights to turn on.

The products are priced competitively considering their set of features. A small steplight is $ 25, a pathway light is $ 29, a big spotlight is $ 40, and a floodlight is $ 50. A $ 50 bridge is required to connect the lights to a local network. Or, if you want to connect existing low-voltage landscape lighting to the system, Ring sells a $ 100 transformer.

There are similar products on the market. Ring’s offering is not unique, but its integration and ease of installation set it apart. The new outdoor lighting products is a significant addition to Ring’s ecosystem, which now includes security lighting, indoor and outdoor cameras, security systems, and, of course, a video doorbell.

Gadgets – TechCrunch