All posts in “Mobile”

Essential Phone gets a $200 price drop, existing customers get credit


Essential has an offer that’s honestly very hard to refuse: The price of the Essential Phone (PH-1, going by technical model number), is now $200 cheaper, so $499 off-contract and unlocked. That’s an amazing price for their debut smartphone, which remains my favorite in terms of straight up industrial design (and it has one of the best color-tuned displays in devices right now in my opinion).

The Essential Phone went on sale just a few months ago, but the company believes that as a young startup just getting out therein a market where incumbents like Apple and Samsung basically take up all the available space, there’s a lot of value in word of mouth and perceived value. That’s why it’s making this price change, Essential tells me – though you have to also wonder whether the company’s not seeing the numbers it was hoping for in terms of initial sales, which is what some early third-party sales estimates have suggested.

Regardless of the reason, the price drop makes Essential arguably the best value smartphone on the market, and definitely the best Android device in that range. It’s one major failing has been its camera, which launched as a slow and buggy feature compared to most out there, but the subsequent camera software updates have improved its speed and reliability a lot, and more updates are promised in the future, too.

Lest Essential’s earliest customers feel slighted, it has a deal for early buyers, too – they’ll receive a $200 ‘friends and family’ credit they can use to further discount (valid through December 15, 2017) a device for a loved one (or another for themselves, if they maybe also want the just-released white Essential Phone, for instance), or to buy the 360-camera attachment. Customers will be able to sign up to redeem the $200 credit on the Essential page, using their phone’s IMEI and serial numbers, along with the email address they used to purchase.

In a time when the price of flagship smartphones in both iOS and Android worlds are ballooning, this is a very welcome nod to affordability. Without question, if you want an amazing phone at a killer price, the now $499 Essential Phone is the one to get.

Also, this is U.S. only for now – details on a program for Canadian device followers will follow, per Essential.

Featured Image: Darrell Etherington

GitHub’s scandalized ex-CEO returns with Chatterbug

Translation earbuds might eliminate some utilitarian reasons to know a language, but if you want to understand jokes, read poetry, or fall in love in a foreign tongue, you’ll have to actually learn it. Unfortunately, products like Rosetta Stone leave people feeling burned after claiming the process should be easy while never helping you practice talking with a real native speaker. You know, the skill you actually want. Just memorizing vocabulary doesn’t make you fluent.

So after teaching millions of people to code better, a team of former GitHub co-founders and executives this week launched Chatterbug to combine the best of online and face-to-face foreign language learning. Starting with German, Chatterbug uses a homegrown video chat alternative to Skype that lets you simultaneously talk, type, read, and screenshare your way to becoming conversational.

But one of the co-founders’ past may cast a shadow over Chatterbug. Tom Preston-Werner resigned from his role as CEO and co-founder of GitHub following an investigation into allegations of harassment and intimidation of a female employee by he and his wife Theresa Preston-Werner.

GitHub employee Julie Horvath told TechCrunch that Theresa had bullied her about not writing negatively about the company, said she could read employees’ private chats and had spies at the startup, and verbally bullied her.

While an independent investigation claimed to have found no evidence of illegal behavior or gender-based harassment on Tom’s part, it did conclude that the former CEO showed “mistakes and errors of judgment” and “insensitivity to the impact of his spouse’s presence in the workplace and failure to enforce an agreement that his spouse should not work in the office.”

Ex-GitHub CEO and Chatterbug co-founder Tom Preston-Werner

We asked Tom how he’s building Chatterbug differently this time around. “With some hindsight, the organic management structures at GitHub were a double edged sword. It unleashed a lot of creativity, but was fragile in handling conflict” says Preston-Werner. “From the very beginning of Chatterbug I’ve had serious conversations with the other founders on how to use those experiences to create a more robust channel of communications.”

Former GitHub head of comms and Chatterbug co-founder Liz Clinkenbeard tells TechCrunch “In retrospect, I think one of the major challenges at GitHub back then was that the company’s fairly flat structure sometimes made it difficult to know who to talk to about problems, and how to resolve them before they escalated.” With Chatterbug, she says the team has “been very open and deliberate about wanting to foster a safe and supportive work environment.”

It’s possible that Tom’s inclusion on the team could make it tougher for Chatterbug to hire talent, especially women. Though at least it seems the company is taking office demeanor and harassment issues seriously as it grows.

“I’ve always tried my best to empower my teammates and create a work environment that every employee will love. I haven’t been perfect at that endeavor in the past” admits Preston-Werner. “But I’ve learned much from those experiences and intend to use that knowledge to ensure that Chatterbug is a safe, welcoming, and productive place to work for women and other folks traditionally underrepresented in the tech industry.”

Cutting Skype Out Of Language Learning

Scott Chacon discovered what was broken about the current crop of language learning tools when he tried to pick up French via Duolingo and Japanese through Skype chats before spending time in the two countries. “I realized there was a gap between the digital apps that are super flexible but aren’t very effective at teaching conversation with real people, and the tutoring systems or in-person schools that were inflexible and super difficult to do” Chacon tells TechCrunch.

So he started building his own tools that would blossom into Chatterbug. The former GitHub co-founder and CIO recruited GitHub’s Clinkenbeard, director of engineering Russell Belfer, and Preston-Werner over late 2015 and early 2016. They raised a $1.8 million seed round from SV Angel and Berlin’s Fly Ventures to have early-stage allies on both sides of the pond.

Setting goals in Chatterbug

Now after some private trials starting in March, Chatterbug just launched the public beta of its German learning program, with Spanish and French coming next. And right out of the gate, it’s trying to set reasonable expectations for how fast people can pick up a new tongue. “The most difficult part of being in the business is that Rosetta Stone and other companies try to sell the idea that language learning can be easy” Chacon says. “Learning a language is not easy. It’s like a marathon.”

That’s why one of the first things you do in Chatterbug is adjust a slider for when you want to be fluent by, and it tells you how frequently you’ll have to study and be tutored. The app then gives you a foundation of vocabulary using “spaced repetition”, a study method employed by medical students where questions you get wrong get shown more often while you’re displayed fewer questions like those you got right.

Chatterbug understands when you almost get an answer right

Then Chatterbug schedules you for one-on-one tutoring over its video chat system designed specifically for language learning. Rather than having to commit to a weekly session time, only learn when your particular tutor is available, or fall behind if you miss a group class, you just punch in when you want to practice. Chatterbug pairs you with whatever appropriate tutor is available, gets them up to speed on your progress, and provides a personalized curriculum of exercises to do together based on what you’ve been screwing up.

The heavy engineering background of the Chatterbug team allowed it to create a WebRTC-based video chat that lets you view files together with your tutor and see each other’s cursors as well as talk and type. That’s a huge improvement over trying to pass PDFs back and forth or figure out what exercise the teacher is discussing.

Chatterbug’s video chat lets you talk, type, view files, and see each other’s cursors

The pricing model flexes to accommodate your pace. You can get all the self-study features plus one live lesson a month for €15 or eight for €80 with extra sessions costing €12 each if you want to take a vacation next year. Or for €195 you get unlimited sessions and can learn a language in just a few months. Chatterbug is also going B2B, appealing to businesses trying to educate employees by offering discounts and easy expensing.

Turning Anyone Into A Teacher

Chatterbug co-founder Liz Clinkenbeard

The startup’s data-driven approach could make it quick to expand to more languages and identify what’s toughest to learn. Chatterbug gives you the option to have it store recordings of your video sessions, and even give it permission to use them for research. Clinkenbeard studied linguistics at Harvard, and is using her expertise to help the company determine what are the most common vocab and grammar mistakes to help you avoid them.

Long-term, turning native speakers into tutors could offer new employment options to those lacking other quantifiable skills. “After leaving GitHub, I wanted my next project to be something that would positively impact a lot of people. As a filter, I’d ask myself ‘could this idea lead to the creation of a million jobs?’” says Preston-Werner.

Chatterbug faces a wide range of competitors like Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, Busoo, Babbel, and HelloTalk — some with deep pockets and a penchant for downplaying the difficulty of reaching fluency. Being real with people doesn’t always make for great marketing, and people who failed with other products exhibit a “healthy amount of skepticism” says Clinkenbeard. Then there’s the looming threat of advancing translation technology, like the new Google auto-translating Pixel Buds headphones.

Still, “I don’t think it will destroy the need for language learning” says Chacon. “At some point, in-person translators will be obsolete. Not sure if that’s in 5 years or 45 years.” But even if we solve information translation, culture translation will still be in demand. “You don’t want to wear an ear bud while you’re getting married” he laughs. At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and xenophobic, understanding your fellow humans without a technological intermediary could generate some much-needed empathy.

Nike is using its new digital studio to build a community of sneakerheads


A year after acquiring Virgin Mega, Nike is revealing some of the early results of its experiments with augmented reality and community-building.

Virgin Mega was a startup backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that focused on fan communities and shopping. Ron Faris, who led the startup, told me that Nike acquired Virgin Mega in order to explore those same ideas.

Since then, the team has turned into a “digital studio” called S23NYC. Faris said it still has a “startup culture,” with a small team of 24 startup veterans working out of the old Converse offices on 23rd Street in New York City.

S23NYC has taken over Nike’s SNKRS app, which is supposed to offer content and insider access to the latest sneakers. Faris said he treats SNKRS as “our digital piranha tank.”

“This is like our lab,” he said. “We drop something in the piranha tank and see how fast the piranhas swarm around it.”

For example, after Penny Hardaway took a sharpie to his sneakers to so that they met NBA rules, the SNKRS app launched a stealthy promotion where users could unlock Royal Foamposite shoes by swiping over the screen to color in a digital photo — Nike describes it as “scratch-off cards for the digital age.”

SNKRS has also run geotargeted Stash campaigns, where users can purchase limited edition sneakers from the app — but only after they’ve to traveled to a certain location in their city, whether it’s Washington Square Park in New York or pop-up flower stands in Los Angeles.

SNKRS found em

And the team ran a promotion with Momofuku’s David Chang, where users had to capture an image of Chang’s Fuku East Village menu in the SNKRS AR Camera, which would bring up an 3D model of the Nike SB Dunk High Pro Momofuku and unlock the ability to purchase the sneakers.

Faris said these promotions are linked by a focus on scarcity and urgency, combined with the idea of giving sneakerheads the opportunity to “peacock” their knowledge. In other words, the most in-the-know fans can snag their own sneakers, then get bragging rights by sharing that knowledge with others. For example, Faris said users were posting photos of the Fuku menu on Instagram, and they’d hang out at a Stash location to help others unlock the promotion.

Faris added that one of the goals is to use technology to capture “only the good of lines, which is the tailgate, while avoiding the bad, which is where you feel like you’re at the DMV.” So even when users are directed to a certain geofenced area, there’s no actual line to pick up the physical shoes. That means it’s less of a cutthroat competition, and it doesn’t come with any tedious waiting.

Next up, Nike plans to launch SNKRS in China and Japan later this year (the app is already in the United States and Europe). Faris also said his team is working on an initiative called Stash Squads, where people who live outside a given city can still participate in a Stash promotion by forming teams with locals.

BlackBerry’s KEYone ‘Black Edition’ offers more than just good looks


BlackBerry’s most interesting phone in years – if not an entire decade – is the KEYone, an Android device with a classic BlackBerry hardware keyboard that finally answers the needs of truly dedicated thumb typists with a modern mobile OS. Now, the KEYone ‘Black Edition’ has arrived, and it’s more than just a fresh coat of paint on an older gadget.

In fact, the ‘Black Edition’ doubles the internal storage of the KEYone, from 32GB up to 64GB (and it retains its expandable memory capability via microSD) – plus, it boosts RAM up to 4GB, which is a very welcome change from the 3GB on the original, if only because the one complaint I had about the original KEYone was that it could feel a bit pokey in places in terms of the speed of elements of the OS and some aspects of a few applications.

The ‘Black Edition’ feels speedier in all regards, after a few days of testing, and still retains all the charm of the original. The all-black design feels a bit less retro, but on the whole is probably a more appealing look for a larger segment of the population vs. the dual-tone silver and black of the original. And the phone benefits from months of production of the KEYone by TCL, which should mean it’s got less in the way of manufacturing quirks.

Basically, this is the current best BlackBerry you can buy, and it’s actually up there in terms of the top Android device options – for a certain type of buyer. That is, if you value the physical keyboard, and the convenience that comes with having a whole lot of hardware shortcuts for apps and actions at your fingertips, and you’re not as concerned about having a large, generous display for watching videos or other content, this is probably right up your alley.

The ‘Black Edition’ KEYone also has that assignable dedicated hardware button on the side, which is far more useful than the Note 8’s Bixby button, and the keyboard doubles as a trackpad for scrolling and other features which keep the display free of obfuscation while browsing Twitter and reading documents.

BlackBerry’s ‘Black Edition’ KEYone went on sale this week in Canada at Amazon, Telus and Walmart for $799.99 off contract.

You can now PayPal friends in Messenger and get help via chat


PayPal users in the U.S. will now be able to send and receive person-to-person payments over Facebook Messenger, the company announced this morning. The deeper integration with Messenger’s platform, which will also include PayPal’s first customer service bot for handling customer questions and requests for help, follows a series of tie-ups between the two companies.

Last year, Facebook and PayPal announced a deepened relationship that allowed customers in the U.S. to shop from online merchants using their Messenger chat bots, then transact in the messaging app via PayPal. Customers could also choose to link their PayPal account with Messenger in order to receive notifications and receipts from their online transactions within Messenger.

To date, over 2.5 million users have linked their PayPal account with Messenger, PayPal says, and that number is expected to grow with today’s news.

For starters, PayPal users can now pay their friends right inside Messenger – shifting some portion of PayPal’s $80 billion+ peer-to-peer payment volume to Facebook’s messaging app.

To be clear, this is an alternative to the existing payments feature that’s existed inside Messenger for a couple of years. The feature appeared, at first, to be Facebook’s own competitor to services like PayPal and PayPal-owned Venmo, Square, and others. But Facebook insisted it wasn’t aiming to build its own payments business – it largely saw the addition as something that just made Messenger better.

Earlier this year, Facebook added support for group payments, for example, but said it was still not taking a cut of transactions.

Starting today, Facebook is offering users the ability to choose PayPal as the funding source for peer-to-peer payments – and it can even be set as the default, PayPal tells us.

The new option is available by tapping the blue plus icon within Messenger, then selecting the green Payments button to send or request money. Here, you can select PayPal as the source when making a payment to a Messenger contact.

Beyond just being a simpler – and perhaps quicker – way to PayPal someone compared with using the native PayPal app, the addition will likely be used by those in Facebook’s buy-and-sell groups, including the local sales groups which are visited by some 450 million people monthly, according to data Facebook shared last fall.

While the Messenger integration will bring PayPal to a large audience, it’s not the first time PayPal has integrated with a messaging service – it’s already available via Apple’s iMessage, and can be launched through Siri.

When we asked PayPal if the plan was to offer a similar p2p option in other messaging apps in the future, PayPal COO Bill Ready said there was nothing to share right now.

“But I think this is part of a broader movement where we’re meeting the user in whatever context they’re in,” he added, noting that PayPal is also now available in services like Android Pay and Google Play, for example.

We also wondered if PayPal had plans to integrate Venmo into messaging experiences later on.

“There’s nothing we’re announcing with Venmo right now,” Ready replied. “But we really think about Venmo and PayPal as two interfaces that should get the user two common types of experiences,” he said. “Certainly, this general theme of users wanting to get p2p in new contexts – you see Venmo in iMessage and Siri – those types of things – we’re thinking [should be for] both PayPal and Venmo,” Ready said.

So…uh, yes, from the sounds of that.

PayPal’s new customer service bot

In addition to person-to-person payments, PayPal’s bot is gaining new capabilities, too. While it will still support notifications and receipts, PayPal users will now be able to get customer service help just by chatting with PayPal’s bot.

The automated system takes advantage of the natural language processing capabilities in Messenger’s platform to understand what people are saying.

That means, you can say something like “oh man, I totally forgot my password” and the bot should understand you need a password reset. The bot can also help answer questions about your PayPal transactions. But when the user’s request goes beyond the bot’s abilities, you’ll be connected with a live rep for help.

PayPal says it doesn’t have customer service staff dedicated to Messenger alone, but is using existing reps to handle in the incoming inquiries.

“The unique thing here is that Messenger has opened up a platform that allows us to not only have a one-to-one communication, but there’s a platform where we can go resolve things right inside of Messenger,” says Ready.

The Messenger bot and p2p payments option are going live today for Messenger users in the U.S., but PayPal expects to roll it out to its other supported global markets in time. Because of the size and scale of both companies, the feature will be rolled out gradually – which means you might not see it right away, but should soon.

The feature will initially launch on the web, with iOS and Android to follow.