All posts in “computing”

Happy 10th anniversary, Android

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

Password bypass flaw in Western Digital My Cloud drives puts data at risk

A security researcher has published details of a vulnerability in a popular cloud storage drive after the company failed to issue security patches for over a year.

Remco Vermeulen found a privilege escalation bug in Western Digital’s My Cloud devices, which he said allows an attacker to bypass the admin password on the drive, gaining “complete control” over the user’s data.

The exploit works because drive’s web-based dashboard doesn’t properly check a user’s credentials before giving a possible attacker access to tools that should require higher levels of access.

The bug was “easy” to exploit, Vermeulen told TechCrunch in an email, and that it was remotely exploitable if a My Cloud device allows remote access over the internet — which thousands of devices are. He posted a proof-of-concept video on Twitter.

Details of the bug were also independently found by another security team, which released its own exploit code.

Vermeulen reported the bug over a year ago in April 2017, but said the company stopped responding. Normally, security researchers give 90 days for a company to respond, in line with industry-accepted responsible disclosure guidelines.

After he found that WD updated the My Cloud firmware in the meanwhile without fixing the vulnerability he found, he decided to post his findings.

A year later, WD still hasn’t release a patch.

The company confirmed that it knows of the vulnerability but did not say why it took more than a year to issue a fix. “We are in the process of finalizing a scheduled firmware update that will resolve the reported issue,” a spokesperson said, which will arrive “within a few weeks.”

WD said that several of its My Cloud products are vulnerable — including the EX2, EX4, and Mirror, but not My Cloud Home.

In the meantime, Vermeulen said that there’s no fix and that users have to “just disconnect” the drive altogether if they want to keep their data safe.

Kano’s latest computer kit for kids doubles down on touch

Learn-to-code startup Kano, whose products aim to turn kids into digital makers, has taken the wraps off the latest incarnation of its build-it-yourself computer kit.

With the new flagship Kano is doubling down on touch interactions — urging kids to “make your own tablet”. The Computer Kit Touch packs a 10.1″ HD touchscreen, along with Kano’s now familiar bright orange wireless keyboard which comes with a built in trackpad.

While touch is becoming increasingly central to its products, Kano says the keyboard remains an important component of the product — supporting text-based coding apps which its platform also provides access to, as well as the more approachable drag-and-drop block-based coding systems that do really benefit from having a touchscreen to hand.

The kit, which Kano says is generally (but not exclusively) aimed at the 6-13 age range, is on sale from today, priced at $279.99 — via its website (Kano.me), as well as from selected retailers and e-tailers.

The Raspberry Pi powered computer is also getting increased storage capacity in this upgrade — of 16GB. But the main refresh is around updating Kano OS, Kano’s kid-friendly Pi topper, with expanded support for touch controls, according to founder Alex Klein .

Last year Kano combined touch and keyboard based interaction into a single product, the Computer Kit Complete — calling that a DIY laptop.

The 2018 refreshed version looks much the same, with enhancements generally behind the scenes and/or under the hood.

“The big moves this year are advancing the software and content ecosystem,” says Klein. “How it’s all integrated together.”

He points to another coding kit the team has up for pre-order, slated to ship next month — a co-branded Harry Potter gizmo in which kids get to build a motion-sensitive “coding wand” and use it to cook up their own digital spells, helped along by Kano’s software — adding: “With the Potter kit we’re bringing Kano code — to create a system, the ability to blend and change physics engines and sounds and particle systems — to tablets. So we’ve now got a touch-based interaction model for that e-product, as well as mouse and keyboard, and so we’ve brought that software system now to the Computer Kit Touch.

“You can code by dragging and dropping blocks with your fingers, you can paint and draw. You can change the pitch of a loop or a melody by running your fingers up and down and then using a change of a parameter mess with how quickly that melody changes, mess with the number of layers, you can make a beat or a loop using a touch-based digital audio workstation style X-Y plane. You can go into any one of our creative coding apps and pull in touch-based interactions, so instead of just using a mouse, a click and point, you can make an app that responds to swipes and taps, and different speeds, and in different locations.”

“On the touch kit itself there’s also a set of new content that demystifies how touchscreens work and peels back the layer of the screen and shows you what’s behind, and you’re kind of touching the intersection of the different copper wires and seeing what’s happening beneath,” he adds.

“There’s obviously a big hardware upgrade with the new ability to touch it, to take it with you. We’ve refined a lot of the components, we’ve improved the speed, the battery life. But really the core of it is this upgraded software that integrates with all the other kit.”

Talking of other kit, the learn-to-code space is now awash with quasi-educational gizmos, leaving parents in Western markets spoiled for choice of what to buy a budding coder.

Many more of these gizmos will be unboxed as we head into the holiday season. And while Kano was something of a startup pioneer here — a category creator, as Klein tells it — there’s now no shortage of tech for kids promising some kind of STEM-based educational benefit. So it’s facing an ever-growing gaggle of competition.

Kano’s strategy to stand out in an increasingly contested space is to fix on familiar elements, says Stein — flagging for example the popular game Minecraft — which runs on the Kano kit, and for which there’s a whole subsection of the Kano World community given over to hacking Minecraft.

And, well, aside from block-headed Minecraft characters it’s hard to find a character more familiar to children than the fictional wizard Harry Potter. So you can certainly see where Kano’s trying to get with the coding wand.

“We broke our first month pre-order target in one day,” he says of that forthcoming e-product (RRP ~$130). “There was massive coverage, massive traffic on our site, it was picked up all over the place and we’re very happy with the pre-orders so far. As are our retail partners.”

The Potter co-branding play is certainly Kano trying to make its products cast a wider spell by expanding the appeal of coding from nerdy makers to more mainstream child consumers. But how successful that will be remains to be seen. Not least because we’ve seen this sort of tactic elsewhere in this space.

Sphero, for example, is now rolling back the other way — shifting away from Star Wars co-branded bots to a serious education push focused on bringing STEM robotics to schools. (Although Kano would doubtless say a programmable bot that rolls is not the same as a fully fledged kit computer that can run all manner of apps, including familiar and fashionable stuff like Minecraft and YouTube.)

“We’re very pleased to see that this category that we created, with that Kickstarter campaign in 2013 — it’s become more than what some people initially feared it would be which was niche, maker ‘arcanery’; and it’s becoming a major consumer phenomenon,” he says. “This notion that people want to make their own technology, learn how to code and play in that way. And not just kids — people of all ages.”

On the hard sales front, Klein isn’t breaking out numbers for Potter kit pre-sales at this stage. But says the various incarnations of its main computer kit have shipped ~360,000 units since September 2014. So it’s not Lego (which has also moved into programmable kits) — but it’s not bad either.

In recent years Kano has also branched out into offering Internet of Things kits, previewing three code-your-own connected devices in 2016 — and launching Kickstarter campaigns to get the products to market.

It’s since shipped one (the Pixel kit) but the other two (a build-it-yourself camera kit and a DIY speaker) remain delayed — leaving crowdfunder backers waiting for their hardware.

Why the delay? Have Kano’s priorities shifted — perhaps because it’s focusing efforts on cobranded products (like the Potter wand) vs creating more of its own standalone devices?

“We are still committed to shipping the speaker kit, the camera kit,” Klein tells TechCrunch. “A big reason for [the delay] is not only the fact that the company is in a position now where we have mass distribution, we have great partners — perennially testing new product ideas — and we want to make sure that products are going to resonate with, not just a small group of people but many, many people, of many different age groups and interests before we release them.”

He also points out that any backers of the two devices who want refunds can get them in full.

Though he also says some are choosing to wait — adding that Kano remains committed to shipping the devices, and saying for those that do wait there will be a few extra bells and whistles than originally specced out in the crowdfunder campaign.

The delay itself looks like the market (and consumer tastes) moving quicker than Kano predicted — and so it finds itself wishing its products could deliver more than it originally planned (but without a wand to wave to instantly achieve that).

This is also a pitfall with previewing anything months or years ahead of time, of course. But the expense and complexity of building hardware makes crowdfunding platforms attractive — even for a relatively established brand like Kano.

“The delay is really unfortunate,” he adds. “We did say they would ship earlier but what we have done is we’ve offered any backer a full refund on the camera and the speaker if they don’t want to wait. But if they do wait they will receive incredible camera, incredible speaker. Both of them are going to benefit from the advancements made in low cost computing in the last year.

“The speaker as well is going to have elements that weren’t even part of the original campaign. On our side it’s critical that we get those products absolutely right and that they feel mass, and that they demystify not only coding and the Internet of Things, which was part of the original purpose, but in the case of the camera and the speaker there are elements that have come to the fore in more recent months like voice interaction and image recognition that we feel if our mandate is to demystify technology and we’re shipping a camera and a speaker… that’s kind of part of it. Make it perfect, make it of the moment. And for any backer who doesn’t want to wait for that, no problem at all — we’ll refund you 100%.”

Beyond reworking its approach with those perhaps overly ambitious connected devices, Kano has additional release plans in its pipeline — with Klein mentioning that additional co-branded products will be coming next year.

He says Kano is also eyeing expanding into more markets. “There’s a significant market for Kano even beyond our traditional leading position amongst 6-13 year olds in the US and the UK. There’s a really strong market for people who are beyond the US and the UK and we’re now at a scale where we can start really investing in these distribution and localization relationships that have come our way since year one,” he says.

And he at least entertains the idea of a future Kano device that does away with a keyboard entirely — and goes all in on touch — when we suggest it.

“Would we move to a place where we have no keyboard in a Kano computer? I think it’s very possible,” he says. “It might be a different form factor, it might be smaller, it might fit in your pocket, it might have connectivity — that kind of stuff.”

Which sort of sounds like Kano’s thinking about making a DIY smartphone. If so, you heard it here first.

The five and a half year old London-based startup is not yet profitable but Klein flags growth he dubs “fast enough” (noting it doubled sales year-over-year last year, a “trend” he says continued in the first half of this year), before adding: “It’s not impossible for us to get to profitability. We have a lot of optionality. But at the moment we are making investments — in software, in team — we have partner products coming out like Harry, we’ll have more coming out next year. So in terms of absolute positive EBITDA not yet but we are profitable on a units basis.”

Kano closed a $28M Series B last year — and has raised some $44.5M in all at this stage, according to Crunchbase. Is it raising more funding now? “I think any entrepreneur who is looking to do something big is always in some sense keeping an eye out for sources of capital,” replies Klein. “As well as sources of talent.”

He points by way of a connected aside to this study of C-suite execs, carried out by Stripe and Harris poll, which found that access to software developers is a bigger constraint than access to capital, saying: “I read that and I thought that that gap — between the 1% of 1% who can develop software or hardware and the rest of us — is exactly the challenge that Kano set out to solve from a consumer and education perspective.”

“In terms of fundraising we do get a lot of inbound, we have great investors at the moment,” he adds. “We do know that the scale of this particular challenge — which is demystify technology, become synonymous with learning to code and making your own computers — that requires significant support and we’ll be continuing to keep our eyes out as we grow.”

Apple’s new iPhones are powered by the industry’s first 7nm chips

Unsurprisingly, Apple today announced its newest generation of iPhones. And with that, it also announced its new chips: the A12 Bionic.

What makes the A12 Bionic stand out is that it’s built using a 7nm process. While it’s hard to compare these numbers given that every chip manufacturer seems to have its own way of measuring them, 7nm is very much the state of the art. Indeed, Apple claims this is the industry’s first 7nm chip. It features a total of 6.96 billion transistors.

more iPhone Event 2018 coverage

“What the team has done is truly, truly a breakthrough,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP of Worldwide Marketing, said in today’s keynote. “The A12 bionic is the industry’s first 7nm chip.”

The A12 Bionic, which was designed by Apple, features a 6-core CPU and a 4-Core GPU, as well as Apple’s Neural Engine for running machine learning workloads. What’s interesting here is that the chip has two high-performance cores and four efficiency cores. The high-performance cores are up to 15 percent faster and use 40 percent less power than before, while the efficiency cores use up to 50 percent less power.

The GPU, too, got a speed boost and is now almost 50 percent faster. Rejoice, mobile gamers.

The Neural Engine is now an eight-core system that has gotten a speed boost as well as new smarts. Schiller noted that the chip can now figure out what the machine learning workload looks like and then decide whether to run it on the GPU, CPU or the Neural Engine.

In total, the A12 Bionic’s Neural Engine can process 5 trillion operations per seconds. That’s up from 600 billion for the A11. I would take those numbers with a grain of salt, though, since Apple didn’t quite detail what operations we are talking about here. Either way, though, it’s a pretty fast chip.

more iPhone Event 2018 coverage

Sonatype raises $80 million to build out Nexus platform

Sonatype, a cybersecurity-focused open-source company, has raised $80 million from investment firm TPG.

The company said the financing will help extend its Nexus platform, which it touts as an enterprise ready repository manager and library, which among other things tracks code and helps to keep everything in the devops pipeline up-to-date and secure.

It’s that kind of technology that Sonatype says can prevent another Equifax -style breach of over 147 million consumers’ data. Earlier this year, the company found over dozens of Fortune Global 100 companies that downloaded outdated and vulnerable versions of Apache Struts, which Equifax failed to patch or update.

Sonatype’s chief executive Wayne Jackson his company can help prevent those type of breaches.

“We monitor literally millions of open source commits per day,” he told TechCrunch. “Last year hundreds of billions of components were downloaded by software developers, 12 percent of which had known security defects.”

The funding will go to extend the company’s Nexus platform, Jackson said.

The company said it’s had an 81 percent increase in year-over-year sales in the first-half of the year, and 1.5 million users added to its flagship Nexus platform since January. In all, the company has more than 10 million software developers and 1,000 enterprises on Nexus worldwide.

Sonatype’s last round of funding was in 2016, led by Goldman Sachs, snagging $30 million.