All posts in “Gadgets”

Update bricks smart locks preferred by Airbnb

A subset of smart locks made by Lockstate have been bricked after an update. The smart lock vendor is part of Airbnb’s Host Assist program, and integrates with the accommodation rental platform so, for instance, hosts can automatically generate and email one-time codes for their guests to use during check-in.

TechCrunch was alerted to the problem by a Lockstate customer, Ruffin Prevost, who forwarded us the email he had received from the company informing him of the “fatal error” following a software update.

Two models of Lockstate smart lock are apparently affected, one of which currently retails for $469.

In the mass mailer email, which begins “Dear Lockstate customer” and summarizes its contents as an “update” pertaining to LockState 6i/6000i, affected customers are asked to wait as long as 18 days for a full replacement. Or up to a week if they choose to remove and send the back portion of the lock to the company for repair.

The email adds that Lockstate will pay for shipping and return “within the continental US”. And will provide affected customers with “1 year of free service for the LockState Connect Portal for these locks”.

“We hope that you will give us a chance to regain your trust,” it concludes.

Airbnb offers a $50 discount code for purchasing integrated Lockstate products in its Host Assist program — where it describes the recommended smart locks as “revolutionary” and capable of withstanding “high usage”.

Prevost, an Airbnb host, said he owns two LockState 6i locks, which are used on two interior apartment doors that are rented out on Airbnb’s platform.

“The firmware killed the locks mid-morning on Monday, when we happened to be cleaning rooms. We keep keys to both locks in a mechanical lockbox in the hallway in case of dead batteries or failures. So even though the keypads weren’t working, we could still use those keys to open, close and lock the doors manually,” he told TechCrunch.

As well as being understandably annoyed about the update bricking both locks, Prevost is critical of how the company has handled customer outreach and support.

“The company is not making good use of social media to help stranded lock owners. They’re mainly trying to handle it all privately via email,” he said, adding: “I have had considerable problems with the locks and the company’s support in the past.”

At the time of writing neither Lockstate nor Airbnb had not responded to requests for comment.

Several affected customers, including Prevost, took to Twitter to try to figure out how widespread the problem was. Prevost says he was eventually able to speak to a marketing manager at Lockstate, who told him about eight per cent (or around 500) of the company’s locks are affected.

“The company initially told me they had no extra locks to send me for a replacement and I’d have to wait up to 20 days. After word started getting around late Friday about all this, the marketing director left me a message that they had now gotten some extra locks somehow. But I had already sent back parts of both my locks,” he added.

“When I asked why he didn’t post a detailed notice explaining the problem and detailing how folks could send in their defective gear or otherwise jump-start and accelerate the support process through sharing information online, he said: ‘Sometimes the best way is to reach out to them in mass through a vehicle like Twitter. But I’ve got to sell new locks as well. Promoting that there is a problem with less than 8 percent of our locks doesn’t help that.’

“That mindset is my biggest beef with Lockstate.”

Lockstate’s terms of service include the following warranty disclaimer —


So, as is typical with Internet-connected devices, the buyer remains at the ongoing mercy of the company whose digital service is necessary to enable the paid-for hardware to function as intended — in this case for access control.

And also — as Prevost was using it — integrated into his Airbnb host customer service workflow with the aim of making it easier for him to manage guests by generating and sending one-time access codes ahead of time.

So faced with two doors having unresponsive locks for at least a week, what did Prevost do? A lot of extra work, basically — manually replacing both dud locks with two non-Internet-connected-keypad alternatives that he had previously been using, and reprogramming those with the codes previously generated by the (now) dumb Lockstate locks.

“Our Airbnb guests were never inconvenienced,” he added. Clearly the same could not be said of Prevost.

Asked whether he intends to continue to use the product, he illustrated how much of a lock-in a tightly integrated connected device can represent, telling us: “I have six months of Airbnb guest codes for advance bookings already set up and sent out to the guests via email, all as a function of how those locks operate. Manually reprogramming all of those codes or contacting each guest with new codes would be a big productivity loss compounded by this IoT failure. So I’m taking the company at their word that they can fix the locks and have all my cloud data loaded back in.”

“At this point I’ve ‘de-integrated’ the locks from Airbnb so the cloud isn’t generating new codes for those locks. We’ll see where things stand at year’s end when most of those pre-programmed guests have cycled through,” he added.

Another lock-in evidently discouraging Prevost from switching to an alternative smart (or dumb) lock is a physical/aesthetic consideration — with specific holes having had to be drilled in the doors to accommodate Lockstate’s product. “Removing the locks leaves a big hole that I have to patch or cover with some other similar size/shape lock,” he noted.

Prevost says he’s now expecting the reprogrammed backplates back from Lockstate this week — having sent them to the company on Thursday.

“It still hasn’t clearly explained publicly what happened, why, or how they will ensure this won’t happen again. And word is getting out anyway, so any efforts to keep this under wraps have not worked, and have only been a disservice to the customer,” he added.

“They initially told me it would be 14-20 days for a new lock. But they didn’t explain the degree of the problem, which would have helped us understand why the delay was so long. Many customers balked (including me) and said, ‘No, send me a new lock right now.’ Rather than explain the magnitude of the problem (500 bad locks and apparently no inventory in reserve), the company appeared to ignore those of us complaining the loudest.”

As a kicker, it’s not the first problem Prevost has experienced with Lockstate’s products either, after the initial locks he bought a year ago arrived with defective hardware.

“They had to send me several new locks (some of the new stuff was also defective) to get up and running initially. So if I’ve experienced problems with hardware, software and support. What else is there?”

TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 will feature some of tech’s wildest success stories

Time is marching on — sometimes at an alarming rate — and we’re quickly approaching TechCrunch’s annual huge conference in San Francisco.

TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 is less than a month away at 48 Pier in San Francisco. This year’s lineup includes a stellar group of speakers, including Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann, Golden State Warriors superstar forward (and also investor) Kevin Durant, Forerunner Venture’s Kristen Green and Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun.

We’ll be tackling a lot of huge topics at Disrupt this year — a lot of which have exploded in just the past year or so. From the future of ICOs to AI bleeding into every piece of technology you touch, TechCrunch Disrupt SF features some of the best minds in the industry that spend their days neck-deep in the future of technology. We’ll also have the always awesome Startup Battlefield, where some of the best new companies compete. Early bird general admission tickets are still available for one of the best shows of the year.

Here’s a glimpse at some of the speakers that will be joining us:

Morphing a digital collage into a wildly successful home for inspiration

  • Ben Silbermann, CEO of Pinterest: Pinterest has gone from a simple collage app to one of the go-to apps for planning for the future. Slibermann went from an advertising product specialist at Google to founding one of the most fascinating new products that can drive a different kind of user behavior than you would find anywhere else on the Web, and it’s now worth more than $12 billion. That’s caught the eye of advertisers as a product that could offer some kind of unique customer base that has a totally different behavior than those on Facebook and Google. And it’s for good reason — people come to Pinterest to become inspired, to dig deep into topics (like cars or weddings) and then finally figure out what they want to do. And they go to Pinterest to get inspiration from things they might not have even realized they would find interesting.

Mapping out the human genome

Turning jaw-dropping home design photos into a massive business

  • Adi Tatarko and Alon Cohen, co-foudners of Houzz: If you haven’t already opened Houzz, you’re in for quite the ride. While Houzz could just be a guilty pleasure for many, with its curated photos of interior (and very lavish) home designs, it’s also a massive business. Whenever you ask about Houzz, people in the valley would say they were quietly building their business — until the company announced its astounding $400 million financing round at a $4 billion valuation. Tatarko and Cohen have one of the quietest success stories in the Valley, and we’ll get to know a little more from the married co-founders.

A look at online education beyond the U.S.

  • Cindy Mi, VIPKID: You probably know about Udemy, Coursera and plenty of other online education courses. You might not have heard of Cindy Mi, whose longtime focus on teaching English has morphed into a $100 million startup. VIPKID connects Chinese students with native English speakers to help them pick up the language — especially as they look to work in an increasingly global economic environment. That platform has ballooned into one that has more than half a million students, all while navigating the complex market for online education abroad.

Be sure to stay tuned for more information about speakers, sessions and various entertaining and educational programs at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017. See you in September!

Machine learning can tell if you’re wearing swap-meet Louie

A wise man once said “The hat mighta had a L V on the back but at the swap meet that ain’t jack,” and now researchers can ensure that the Louis Vuitton or Prada or Coach you bought is the real deal. The system, which essentially learns the difference between real and fake products over time, uses a small microscope connected to a phone.

“The underlying principle of our system stems from the idea that microscopic characteristics in a genuine product or a class of products-corresponding to the same larger product line-exhibit inherent similarities that can be used to distinguish these products from their corresponding counterfeit versions,” said New York University Professor Lakshminarayanan Subramanian.

The researchers have commercialized the product as Entrupy Inc., a startup founded by Ashlesh Sharma, an NYU doctoral graduate, Vidyuth Srinivasan and Professor Subramanian. You can even buy the product now and run a few dozen authentications per month.

The system is non-invasive and does not damage the merchandise. Because it uses a “dataset of three million images” you can assess a material almost instantly. It takes about 15 seconds to test a product and it can distinguish fabrics, leather, pills, shoes and toys. It can even tell if electronics are authentic.

“The classification accuracy is more than 98 percent, and we show how our system works with a cellphone to verify the authenticity of everyday objects,” said Subramanian.

Entrupy has raised $2.6 million in funding and has apparently authenticated $14 million in real and fake purses, watches and other fancy stuff. I can definitely help out if you get angry and feel the need to begin sockin’ more fools than Patrick Swayze because they are selling bootleg purses.

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The Minifree Libreboot T400 is free as in freedom

The Libreboot T400 doesn’t look like much. It’s basically a refurbished Lenovo Thinkpad with the traditional Lenovo/IBM pointer nubbin and a small touchpad. It’s a plain black laptop, as familiar as any luggable assigned to a cubicle warrior on the road. But, under the hood, you have a machine that fights for freedom.

The T400 runs Libreboot, a free and open BIOS and the Trisquel GNU/Linux OS. Both of these tools should render the Libreboot T400 as secure from tampering as can be. “Your Libreboot T400 obeys you, and nobody else!” write its creators, and that seems to be the case.

How does it work? And should you spend about $300 on a refurbished Thinkpad with Linux installed? That depends on what you’re trying to do. The model I tested was on the low end with enough speed and performance to count but Trisquel tended to bog down a bit and the secure browser, “an unbranded Mozilla based browser that never recommends non-free software,” was a little too locked down for its own good. I was able to work around a number of the issues I had but this is definitely not for the faint of heart.

That said, you are getting a nearly fully open computer. The 14.1-inch machine runs a Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 processor and starts at 4GB of RAM with 160GB hard drive space. That costs about $257 plus shipping and includes a battery and US charger.

Once you have the T400 you’re basically running a completely clean machine. It runs a free (as in freedom) operating system complete with open drivers and applications and Libreboot ensures that you have no locked-down software on the machine. You could easily recreate this package yourself on your own computer but I suspect that you, like me, would eventually run into a problem that couldn’t be solved entirely with free software. Hence the impetus to let Minifree do the work for you.

If you’re a crusader for privacy, security, and open standards, than this laptop is for you. Thankfully it’s surprisingly cheap and quite rugged so you’re not only sticking it to the man but you could possibly buy a few of these and throw them at the man in a pinch.

The era of common Linux on the desktop – and not in the form of a secure, libre device like this – is probably still to come. While it’s trivial (and fun) to install a Linux instance these days I doubt anyone would do it outright on a laptop that they’re using on a daily basis. But for less than a price of a cellphone you can use something like the T400 and feel safe and secure that you’re not supporting (many) corporate interests when it comes to your computing experience. It’s not a perfect laptop by any stretch but it’s just the thing if you’re looking for something that no one but you controls.

8bitdo’s NES30 Arcade Stick is a big, beautiful fighter companion

If you’re looking for a little more arcade feel for your Nintendo Switch, look no further than 8Bitdo’s NES30 Arcade Stick. The Bluetooth controller accessory is compatible with a range of platforms besides the Switch, and it’s a well-made gadget with careful attention paid to how buttons and the joysticks feel, giving an authentic arcade cabinet experience. It’s also very big, which is not necessarily a bad thing – just something to be aware of.

The NES30 Arcade Stick is a little larger than two Switch consoles stacked on top of one another, and thicker, too. It’s big and solid, which makes it optimal for staying planted when you’re getting fast and furious with fighting game combo action. The Joystick on the left is replaceable if you feel like you want a custom option from Sanwa, and the buttons are standard 30mm arcade models which can also be swapped out if you’re not entirely happy with the feel.

In my relatively amateur opinion, however, 8bitdo did a good job with the stock joystick and buttons included with the controller. They feel like a genuine arcade experience, with satisfying, audible clickiness for the buttons and just enough resistance when you’re rotating that stick. It’s a much better experience overall for pulling off special moves vs. using the existing Switch controllers, and really amps up the fun factor for Ultra Street Fighter II, as well as the many re-released classic SNK fighters available for the console.

The console also features a dedicated turbo button, and a switch for changing between X-input and D-input modes, as well as wired USB support for PC and Raspberry Pi devices, via the included 3-meter USB cable (which is also used for charging the internal battery). It gets 18 hours of playtime on just an hour or two of charging, which is plenty for a single charge, and works with Windows, Android, Mac, Switch and Steam wirelessly via Bluetooth, too.

Functionality aside, the best thing about the NES30 Arcade Stick might be its charm. The use of NES (or Famicom, depending on your model) inspired colors and graphics really makes for an attractive package. Depending on your interior decor tastes, it could even be a central conversation piece adorning a coffee table or curio cabinet when not in use.

The NES30 Arcade Stick is available to pre-order from Amazon for $79.99, and will ship starting on August 20.