Tile secures $40 million to take on Apple AirTag with new products

Tile, the maker of Bluetooth-powered lost item finder beacons and, more recently, a staunch Apple critic, announced today it has raised $40 million in non-dilutive debt financing from Capital IP. The funding will be put towards investment in Tile’s finding technologies, ahead of the company’s plan to unveil a new slate of products and features that the company believes will help it to better compete with Apple’s AirTags and further expand its market.

The company has been a longtime leader in the lost item finder space, offering consumers small devices they can attach to items — like handbags, luggage, bikes, wallets, keys, and more — which can then be tracked using the Tile smartphone app for iOS or Android. When items go missing, the Tile app leverages Bluetooth to find the items and can make them play a sound. If the items are further afield, Tile taps into its broader finding network consisting of everyone who has the app installed on their phone and other access points. Through this network, Tile is able to automatically and anonymously communicate the lost item’s location back to its owner through their own Tile app.

Image Credits: Tile

Tile has also formed partnerships focused on integrating its finding network into over 40 different third-party devices, including those across audio, travel, wearables, and PC categories. Notable brand partners include HP, Dell, Fitbit, Skullcandy, Away, Xfinity, Plantronics, Sennheiser, Bose, Intel, and others. Tile says it’s seen 200% year-over-year growth on activations of these devices with its service embedded.

To date, Tile has sold over 40 million devices and has over 425,000 paying customers — a metric it’s revealing for the first time. It doesn’t disclose its total number of users, both free and paid combined, however. During the first half of 2021, Tile says revenues increased by over 50%, but didn’t provide hard numbers.

While Tile admits that the Covid-19 pandemic had some impacts on international expansions, as some markets have been slower to rebound, it has still seen strong performance outside the U.S., and considers that a continued focus.

The pandemic, however, hasn’t been Tile’s only speed bump.

When Apple announced its plans to compete with the launch of AirTags, Tile went on record to call it unfair competition. Unlike Tile devices, Apple’s products could tap into the iPhone’s U1 chip to allow for more accurate finding through the use of ultra-wideband technologies available on newer iPhone models. Tile, meanwhile, has plans for its own ultra-wideband powered device, but hadn’t been provided the same access. In other words, Apple gave its own lost item finder early, exclusive access to a feature that would allow it to differentiate itself from the competition. (Apple has since announced it’s making ultra-wideband APIs available to third-party developers, but this access wasn’t available from day one of AirTag’s arrival.)

Image Credits: Tile internal concept art

Tile has been vocal on the matter of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, having testified in multiple Congressional hearings alongside other Apple critics, like Spotify and Match. As a result of increased regulatory pressure, Apple later opened up its Find My network to third-party devices, in an effort to placate Tile and the other rivals its AirTags would disadvantage.

But Tile doesn’t want to route its customers to Apple’s first-party app — it intends to use its own app in order to compete based on its proprietary features and services. Among other things, this includes Tile’s subscriptions. A base plan is $29.99 per year, offering features like free battery replacement, smart alerts, and location history. A $99.99 per year plan also adds insurance of sorts — it pays up to $1,000 per year for items it can’t find. (AirTag doesn’t do that.)

Despite its many differentiators, Tile faces steep competition from the ultra-wideband capable AirTags, which have the advantage of tapping into Apple’s own finding network of potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners.

However, Tile CEO CJ Prober — who joined the company in 2018 — claims AirTag hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue or device sales.

“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re making things harder for us,” he says of Apple. “We’re a growing business. We’re winning the hearts and minds of consumers… and they’re competing unfairly.”

“When you own the platform, you shouldn’t be able to identify a category that you want to enter, disadvantage the incumbents in that category, and then advantage yourself — like they did in our case,” he adds.

Tile is preparing to announce an upcoming product refresh that may allow it to better take on the AirTag. Presumably, this will include the pre-announced ultra-wideband version of Tile, but the company says full details will be shared next week. Tile may also expand its lineup in other ways that will allow it to better compete based on look and feel, size and shape, and functionality.

Tile’s last round of funding was $45 million in growth equity in 2019. Now it’s shifted to debt. In addition to new debt financing, Tile is also refinancing some of its existing debt with this fundraise, it says.

“My philosophy is it’s always good to have a mix of debt and equity. So some amount of debt on the balance sheet is good. And it doesn’t incur dilution to our shareholders,” Prober says. “We felt this was the right mix of capital choice for us.”

The company chose to work with Capital IP, a group it’s had a relationship with over the last three years, and who Tile had considered bringing on as an investor. The group has remained interested in Tile and excited about its trajectory, Prober notes.

“We are excited to partner with the Tile team as they continue to define and lead the finding category through hardware and software-based innovations,” said Capital IP’s Managing Partner Riyad Shahjahan, in a statement. “The impressive revenue growth and fast-climbing subscriber trends underline the value proposition that Tile delivers in a platform-agnostic manner, and were a critical driver in our decision to invest. The Tile team has an ambitious roadmap ahead and we look forward to supporting their entry into new markets and applications to further cement their market leadership,” he added.

#airtag, #airtags, #android, #apple, #apple-inc, #apps, #bluetooth, #ceo, #computing, #dell, #find-my, #fitbit, #funding, #gadgets, #hardware, #intel, #iphone, #mobile, #plantronics, #recent-funding, #sennheiser, #skullcandy, #smartphone, #startups, #tc, #technology, #tile, #u1-chip, #ultra-wideband, #united-states

Google confirms it’s pulling the plug on Streams, its UK clinician support app

Google is infamous for spinning up products and killing them off, often in very short order. It’s an annoying enough habit when it’s stuff like messaging apps and games. But the tech giant’s ambitions stretch into many domains that touch human lives these days. Including, most directly, healthcare. And — it turns out — so does Google’s tendency to kill off products that its PR has previously touted as ‘life saving’.

To wit: Following a recent reconfiguration of Google’s health efforts — reported earlier by Business Insider — the tech giant confirmed to TechCrunch that it is decommissioning its clinician support app, Streams.

The app, which Google Health PR bills as a “mobile medical device”, was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google — and has been used by the UK’s National Health Service in the years since, with a number of NHS Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health to roll out Streams to their clinicians.

At the time of writing, one NHS Trust — London’s Royal Free — is still using the app in its hospitals.

But, presumably, not for too much longer since Google is in the process of taking Streams out back to be shot and tossed into its deadpool — alongside the likes of its ill-fated social network, Google+, and Internet ballon company Loon, to name just two of a frankly endless list of now defunct Alphabet/Google products.

Other NHS Trusts we contacted which had previously rolled out Streams told us they have already stopped using the app.

University College London NHS Trust confirmed to TechCrunch that it severed ties with Google Health earlier this year.

“Our agreement with Google Health (initially DeepMind) came to an end in March 2021 as originally planned. Google Health deleted all the data it held at the end of the [Streams] project,” a UCL NHS Trust spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust also told us it stopped using Streams this summer (in July) — and said patient data is in the process of being deleted.

“Following the decommissioning of Streams at the Trust earlier this summer, data that has been processed by Google Health to provide the service to the Trust will be deleted and the agreement has been terminated,” a spokesperson said.

“As per the data sharing agreement, any patient data that has been processed by Google Health to provide the service will be deleted. The deletion process is started once the agreement has been terminated,” they added, saying the contractual timeframe for Google deleting patient data is six months.

Another Trust, Taunton & Somerset, also confirmed its involvement with Streams had already ended. 

The Streams contracts DeepMind inked with the NHS Trusts were for five years — so these contracts were likely approaching the end of their terms, anyway.

Contract extensions would have had to be agreed by both parties. And Google’s decision to decommission Streams may be factoring in a lack of enthusiasm from involved Trusts to continue using the software — although if that’s the case it may, in turn, be a reflection of Trusts’ perceptions of Google’s weak commitment to the project.

Neither side is saying much publicly.

But as far as we’re aware the Royal Free is the only NHS Trust still using the clinician support app as Google prepares to cut off Stream’s life support.

No more Streams?

The Streams story has plenty of wrinkles, to put it politely.

For one thing, despite being developed by Google’s AI division — and despite DeepMind founder Mustafa Suleyman saying the goal for the project was to find ways to integrate AI into Streams so the app could generate predictive healthcare alerts — the Streams app doesn’t involve any artificial intelligence.

An algorithm in Streams alerts doctors to the risk of a patient developing acute kidney injury but relies on an existing AKI (acute kidney injury) algorithm developed by the NHS. So Streams essentially digitized and mobilized existing practice.

As a result, it always looked odd that an AI division of an adtech giant would be so interested in building, provisioning and supporting clinician support software over the long term. But then — as it panned out — neither DeepMind nor Google were in it for the long haul at the patient’s bedside.

DeepMind and the NHS Trust it worked with to develop Streams (the aforementioned Royal Free) started out with wider ambitions for their partnership — as detailed in an early 2016 memo we reported on, which set out a five year plan to bring AI to healthcare. Plus, as we noted above, Suleyman keep up the push for years — writing later in 2019 that: “Streams doesn’t use artificial intelligence at the moment, but the team now intends to find ways to safely integrate predictive AI models into Streams in order to provide clinicians with intelligent insights into patient deterioration.”

A key misstep for the project emerged in 2017 — through press reporting of a data scandal, as details of the full scope of the Royal Free-DeepMind data-sharing partnership were published by New Scientist (which used a freedom of information request to obtain contracts the pair had not made public).

The UK’s data protection watchdog went on to find that the Royal Free had not had a valid legal basis when it passed information on millions of patients’ to DeepMind during the development phase of Streams.

Which perhaps explains DeepMind’s eventually cooling ardour for a project it had initially thought — with the help of a willing NHS partner — would provide it with free and easy access to a rich supply of patient data for it to train up healthcare AIs which it would then be, seemingly, perfectly positioned to sell back into the self same service in future years. Price tbc.

No one involved in that thought had properly studied the detail of UK healthcare data regulation, clearly.

Or — most importantly — bothered to considered fundamental patient expectations about their private information.

So it was not actually surprising when, in 2018, DeepMind announced that it was stepping away from Streams — handing the app (and all its data) to Google Health — Google’s internal health-focused division — which went on to complete its takeover of DeepMind Health in 2019. (Although it was still shocking, as we opined at the time.)

It was Google Health that Suleyman suggested would be carrying forward the work to bake AI into Streams, writing at the time of the takeover that: “The combined experience, infrastructure and expertise of DeepMind Health teams alongside Google’s will help us continue to develop mobile tools that can support more clinicians, address critical patient safety issues and could, we hope, save thousands of lives globally.”

A particular irony attached to the Google Health takeover bit of the Streams saga is the fact that DeepMind had, when under fire over its intentions toward patient data, claimed people’s medical information would never be touched by its adtech parent.

Until of course it went on it hand the whole project off to Google — and then lauded the transfer as great news for clinicians and patients!

Google’s takeover of Streams meant NHS Trusts that wanted to continue using the app had to ink new contracts directly with Google Health. And all those who had rolled out the app did so. It’s not like they had much choice if they did want to continue.

Again, jump forward a couple of years and it’s Google Health now suddenly facing a major reorg — with Streams in the frame for the chop as part of Google’s perpetually reconfiguring project priorities.

It is quite the ignominious ending to an already infamous project.

DeepMind’s involvement with the NHS had previously been seized upon by the UK government — with former health secretary, Matt Hancock, trumpeting an AI research partnership between the company and Moorfield’s Eye Hospital as an exemplar of the kind of data-driven innovation he suggested would transform healthcare service provision in the UK.

Luckily for Hancock he didn’t pick Streams as his example of great “healthtech” innovation. (Moorfields confirmed to us that its research-focused partnership with Google Health is continuing.)

The hard lesson here appears to be don’t bet the nation’s health on an adtech giant that plays fast and loose with people’s data and doesn’t think twice about pulling the plug on digital medical devices as internal politics dictate another chair-shuffling reorg.

Patient data privacy advocacy group, MedConfidential — a key force in warning over the scope of the Royal Free’s DeepMind data-sharing deal — urged Google to ditch the spin and come clean about the Streams cock-up, once and for all.

“Streams is the Windows Vista of Google — a legacy it hopes to forget,” MedConfidential’s Sam Smith told us. “The NHS relies on trustworthy suppliers, but companies that move on after breaking things create legacy problems for the NHS, as we saw with wannacry. Google should admit the decision, delete the data, and learn that experimenting on patients is regulated for a reason.”

Questions over Royal Free’s ongoing app use

Despite the Information Commissioner’s Office’s 2017 finding that the Royal Free’s original data-sharing deal with DeepMind was improper, it’s notable that the London Trust stuck with Streams — continuing to pass data to DeepMind.

The original patient data-set that was shared with DeepMind without a valid legal basis was never ordered to be deleted. Nor — presumably has it since been deleted. Hence the weight of the call for Google to delete the data now.

Ironically the improperly acquired data should (in theory) finally get deleted — once contractual timeframes for any final back-up purges elapse — but only because it’s Google itself planning to switch off Streams.

And yet the Royal Free confirmed to us that it is still using Streams, even as Google spins the dial on its commercial priorities for the umpteenth time and decides it’s not interested in this particular bit of clinician support, after all.

We put a number of questions to the Trust — including about the deletion of patient data — none of which it responded to.

Instead, two days later, it sent us this one-line statement which raises plenty more questions — saying only that: “The Streams app has not been decommissioned for the Royal Free London and our clinicians continue to use it for the benefit of patients in our hospitals.”

It is not clear how long the Trust will be able to use an app Google is decommissioning. Nor how wise that might be for patient safety — such as if the app won’t get necessary security updates, for example.

We’ve also asked Google how long it will continue to support the Royal Free’s usage — and when it plans to finally switch off the service. As well as which internal group will be responsible for any SLA requests coming from the Royal Free as the Trust continues to use software Google Health is decommissioning — and will update this report with any response. (Earlier a Google spokeswoman told us the Royal Free would continue to use Streams for the ‘near future’ — but she did not offer a specific end date.)

In press reports this month on the Google Health reorg — covering an internal memo first obtained by Business Insider —  teams working on various Google health projects were reported to be being split up to other areas, including some set to report into Google’s search and AI teams.

So which Google group will take over responsibility for the handling of the SLA with the Royal Free, as a result of the Google Health reshuffle, is an interesting question.

In earlier comments, Google’s spokeswoman told us the new structure for its reconfigured health efforts — which are still being badged ‘Google Health’ — will encompass all its work in health and wellness, including Fitbit, as well as AI health research, Google Cloud and more.

On Streams specifically, she said the app hasn’t made the cut because when Google assimilated DeepMind Health it decided to focus its efforts on another digital offering for clinicians — called Care Studio — which it’s currently piloting with two US health systems (namely: Ascension & Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center). 

And anyone who’s ever tried to use a Google messaging app will surely have strong feelings of déjà vu on reading that…

DeepMind’s co-founder, meanwhile, appears to have remained blissfully ignorant of Google’s intentions to ditch Streams in favor of Care Studio — tweeting back in 2019 as Google completed the takeover of DeepMind Health that he had been “proud to be part of this journey”, and also touting “huge progress delivered already, and so much more to come for this incredible team”.

In the end, Streams isn’t being ‘supercharged’ (or levelled up to use current faddish political parlance) with AI — as his 2019 blog post had envisaged — Google is simply taking it out of service. Like it did with Reader or Allo or Tango or Google Play Music, or…. well, the list goes on.

Suleyman’s own story contains some wrinkles, too.

He is no longer at DeepMind but has himself been ‘folded into’ Google — joining as a VP of artificial intelligence policy, after initially being placed on an extended leave of absence from DeepMind.

In January, allegations that he had bullied staff were reported by the WSJ. And then, earlier this month, Business Insider expanded on that — reporting follow up allegations that there had been confidential settlements between DeepMind and former employees who had worked under Suleyman and complained about his conduct (although DeepMind denied any knowledge of such settlements).

In a statement to Business Insider, Suleyman apologized for his past behavior — and said that in 2019 he had “accepted feedback that, as a co-founder at DeepMind, I drove people too hard and at times my management style was not constructive”, adding that he had taken time out to start working with a coach and that that process had helped him “reflect, grow and learn personally and professionally”.

We asked Google if Suleyman would like to comment on the demise of Streams — and on his employer’s decision to kill the app — given his high hopes for the project and all the years of work he put into that particular health push. But the company did not engage with the request.

We also offered Suleyman the chance to comment directly. We’ll update this story if he responds.

#alphabet, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #deepmind, #fitbit, #google, #google-health, #health, #health-systems, #healthcare, #information-commissioners-office, #london, #matt-hancock, #medconfidential, #moorfields-eye-hospital, #mustafa-suleyman, #national-health-service, #privacy, #uk-government

Fitbit announces Charge 5, teases future Google collaboration

Fitbit announces Charge 5, teases future Google collaboration

Enlarge (credit: Fitbit)

The Fitbit Charge fitness tracker is the company’s best-selling product line, and the latest model, the Charge 5, was just announced. Up for preorder now, the Charge 5 adds ECG (electrocardiogram), EDA (electrodermal activity) stress sensors, an AMOLED display, and a stainless steel facelift for $50 more than its predecessor, the Charge 4.

Fitbit says it will continue to sell the $130 Charge 4 until the end of the year, which positions it between the $100 Fitbit Inspire 2 and the new $180 Fitbit Charge 5. Inching ever closer to smartwatch territory, the new Charge will have most of the capabilities found on Fitbit’s current Versa and Sense smartwatches.

In a closed briefing, Fitbit also disclosed its intention to make smartwatches with Google’s Wear OS built-in. Perhaps this will be the primary distinction between the company’s increasingly capable Charge series and its smartwatch line going forward.

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#fitbit, #fitbit-charge-5, #fitbit-sense, #fitness-tracker, #google, #tech, #versa, #wear-os, #wearable

Fitbit adds ECG and stress-level scanning to its Charge fitness tracker

Fitness band market share is undoubtedly contracting, thanks in no small part to the massive popularity of smartwatches. But 13.1 million overall shipments in Q1 2021 is nothing to sneeze at. People are still buying non-watch fitness trackers, due to their lower price and non-invasiveness.

Announced this morning via the Google Keyword blog, the latest version of Fitbit’s Charge line looks to further blur the line line between the categories. The latest version of the premium fitness band adds a color touchscreen, along with ECG (heart) and EDA (stress) sensors.

Naturally those sorts of smartwatch-level features also come with a $30 price increase, up to $180 — putting it at the same price point as 2019’s Versa 2 and $50 less than the Versa 3. Like I said, the lines have blurred. Fitbit also offers a number of cheaper trackers, including the $100 Inspire 2, though the company is well aware that it can’t really compete on the super low end of the market.

The addition of ECG monitoring brings a feature to the band that has largely been the realm of pricier smartwatches. It’s been popular with both users and doctors, who often recommend it for day to day monitoring of conditions like a-fib. That’s in addition to heart rate monitoring, which can be used around the clock, courtesy of a battery that’s rated at a full week (though the always-on option for the full-color AMOLED touchscreen will undoubtedly eat into that).

Still photography of Fitbit Charge 5. Image Credits: Fitbit

EDA monitoring, which Fitbit first offered on the Sense last fall, is designed to detect a wearer’s stress levels by way of their finger sweat glands. That’s coupled with a “Stress Management Score” available through the Fitbit app, “so you can see each morning if you’re mentally ready to take on more challenges, or if you need to recharge.” The idea of viewing my own stress numbers over the past year is likely enough to drive them up even higher.

All of that feeds into the larger Health Metrics dashboard, which the company is setting up as a kind of one-stop shop that also includes sleep and standard fitness. The Charge also offers integration with third-party mindfulness apps like Ten Percent Happier and Calm, the latter of which is a part of a new partnership that brings the wildly popular meditation app’s content to Fitbit Premium members.

Premium also gets a new feature called Daily Readiness Score, which Fitbit describes thusly:

Coming soon to Premium is our new Daily Readiness Score, which will use insights from your body via your Fitbit device, including your activity, heart rate variability (HRV) and recent sleep, to help you assess when you’re ready to push yourself physically — in other words, if you should workout or prioritize recovery. By wearing your Fitbit device daily (including while you sleep), you’ll receive a personalized score each morning along with details on what impacted it, with suggestions like a recommended activity level and Premium content to help you make the best decisions for your body and make your workouts more efficient.

Oh, and here’s a picture of Fitbit’s new brand ambassador, for good measure. Looks familiar:

Image Credits: Fitbit

The Charge 5 is the first major release since Fitbit officially became a part of Google. We haven’t seen a lot of major changes yet (though CEO James Park is now officially “VP, GM & Co-founder,” per his billing). Expect to see something more significant on that front when the company unveils its next smartwatch.

#fitbit, #fitness-trackers, #hardware, #health, #tc, #wearables

Fitbit’s Luxe activity tracker is a stylish way to casually care about fitness

Fitbit Luxe on a users wrist

Enlarge (credit: Corey Gaskin)

In the game of fitness wearables, it’s hard to give everyone what they want. That’s why Garmin offers a seemingly endless array of watches, Apple currently sells no less than three Apple Watches, and Fitbit has an array of wearables from kid-centric trackers to a smartwatch the company hopes can one day detect early symptoms of COVID-19.

The Fitbit Luxe, which retails for $150, is the latter’s latest style-focused fitness tracker. It attempts to provide some smartwatch luxuries in a device that looks like a piece of jewelry. The Luxe is a cute tracker, but it has some questionable choices and oversights to be aware of—most of which are endemic to Fitbit devices.

If you’re looking for an ultracasual fitness tracker and a stylish smart device for your wrist, the Fitbit Luxe could be one of your best options. If you’re looking to get active and stay active, though, you may want to look elsewhere.

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#features, #fitbit, #fitbit-luxe, #fitness-trackers, #review, #tech, #wearables

EU is now investigating Google’s adtech over antitrust concerns

EU antitrust authorities are finally taking a broad and deep look into Google’s adtech stack and role in the online ad market — confirming today that they’ve opened a formal investigation.

Google has already been subject to three major EU antitrust enforcements over the past five years — against Google Shopping (2017), Android (2018) and AdSense (2019). But the European Commission has, until now, avoided officially wading into the broader issue of its role in the adtech supply chain. (The AdSense investigation focused on Google’s search ad brokering business, though Google claims the latest probe represents that next stage of that 2019 enquiry, rather than stemming from a new complaint).

The Commission said that the new Google antitrust investigation will assess whether it has violated EU competition rules by “favouring its own online display advertising technology services in the so called ‘ad tech’ supply chain, to the detriment of competing providers of advertising technology services, advertisers and online publishers”.

Display advertising spending in the EU in 2019 was estimated to be approximately €20BN, per the Commission.

“The formal investigation will notably examine whether Google is distorting competition by restricting access by third parties to user data for advertising purposes on websites and apps, while reserving such data for its own use,” it added in a press release.

Earlier this month, France’s competition watchdog fined Google $268M in a case related to self-preferencing within the adtech market — which the watchdog found constituted an abuse by Google of a dominant position for ad servers for website publishers and mobile apps.

In that instance Google sought a settlement — proposing a number of binding interoperability agreements which the watchdog accepted. So it remains to be seen whether the tech giant may seek to push for a similar outcome at the EU level.

There is one cautionary signal in that respect in the Commission’s press release which makes a point of flagging up EU data protection rules — and highlighting the need to take into account the protection of “user privacy”.

That’s an interesting side-note for the EU’s antitrust division to include, given some of the criticism that France’s Google adtech settlement has attracted — for risking cementing abusive user exploitation (in the form of adtech privacy violations) into the sought for online advertising market rebalancing.

Or as Cory Doctorow neatly explains it in this Twitter thread: “The last thing we want is competition in practices that harm the public.”

Aka, unless competition authorities wise up to the data abuses being perpetuated by dominant tech platforms — such as through enlightened competition authorities engaging in close joint-working with privacy regulators (in the EU this is, at least, possible since there’s regulation in both areas) — there’s a very real risk that antitrust enforcement against Big (ad)Tech could simply supercharge the user-hostile privacy abuses that surveillance giants have only been able to get away with because of their market muscle.

So, tl;dr, ill-thought through antitrust enforcement actually risks further eroding web users’ rights… and that would indeed be a terrible outcome. (Unless you’re Google; then it would represent successfully playing one regulator off against another at the expense of users.)

The need for competition and privacy regulators to work together to purge Big Tech market abuses has become an active debate in Europe — where a few pioneering regulators (like German’s FCO) are ahead of the pack.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) also recently put out a joint statement — laying out their conviction that antitrust and data protection regulators must work together to foster a thriving digital economy that’s healthy across all dimensions — i.e. for competitors, yes, but also for consumers.

A recent CMA proposed settlement related to Google’s planned replacement for tracking cookies — aka ‘Privacy Sandbox’, which has also been the target of antitrust complaints by publishers — was notable in baking in privacy commitments and data protection oversight by the ICO in addition to the CMA carrying out its competition enforcement role.

It’s fair to say that the European Commission has lagged behind such pioneers in appreciating the need for synergistic regulatory joint-working, with the EU’s antitrust chief roundly ignoring — for example — calls to block Google’s acquisition of Fitbit over the data advantage it would entrench, in favor of accepting a few ‘concessions’ to waive the deal through.

So it’s interesting to see the EU’s antitrust division here and now — at the very least — virtue signalling an awareness of the problem of regional regulators approaching competition and privacy as if they exist in firewalled silos.

Whether this augurs the kind of enlightened regulatory joint working — to achieve holistically healthy and dynamic digital markets — which will certainly be essential if the EU is to effectively grapple with surveillance capitalism very much remains to be seen. But we can at least say that the inclusion of the below statement in an EU antitrust division press release represents a change of tone (and that, in itself, looks like a step forward…):

“Competition law and data protection laws must work hand in hand to ensure that display advertising markets operate on a level playing field in which all market participants protect user privacy in the same manner.”

Returning to the specifics of the EU’s Google adtech probe, the Commission says it will be particularly examining:

  • The obligation to use Google’s services Display & Video 360 (‘DV360′) and/or Google Ads to purchase online display advertisements on YouTube.
  • The obligation to use Google Ad Manager to serve online display advertisements on YouTube, and potential restrictions placed by Google on the way in which services competing with Google Ad Manager are able to serve online display advertisements on YouTube.
  • The apparent favouring of Google’s ad exchange “AdX” by DV360 and/or Google Ads and the potential favouring of DV360 and/or Google Ads by AdX.
  • The restrictions placed by Google on the ability of third parties, such as advertisers, publishers or competing online display advertising intermediaries, to access data about user identity or user behaviour which is available to Google’s own advertising intermediation services, including the Doubleclick ID.
  • Google’s announced plans to prohibit the placement of third party ‘cookies’ on Chrome and replace them with the “Privacy Sandbox” set of tools, including the effects on online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.
  • Google’s announced plans to stop making the advertising identifier available to third parties on Android smart mobile devices when a user opts out of personalised advertising, and the effects on online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.

Commenting on the investigation in a statement, Commission EVP and competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, added:

“Online advertising services are at the heart of how Google and publishers monetise their online services. Google collects data to be used for targeted advertising purposes, it sells advertising space and also acts as an online advertising intermediary. So Google is present at almost all levels of the supply chain for online display advertising. We are concerned that Google has made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete in the so-called ad tech stack. A level playing field is of the essence for everyone in the supply chain. Fair competition is important — both for advertisers to reach consumers on publishers’ sites and for publishers to sell their space to advertisers, to generate revenues and funding for content. We will also be looking at Google’s policies on user tracking to make sure they are in line with fair competition.”

Contacted for comment on the Commission investigation, a Google spokesperson sent us this statement:

“Thousands of European businesses use our advertising products to reach new customers and fund their websites every single day. They choose them because they’re competitive and effective. We will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission to answer their questions and demonstrate the benefits of our products to European businesses and consumers.”

Google also claimed that publishers keep around 70% of the revenue when using its products — saying in some instances it can be more.

It also suggested that publishers and advertisers often use multiple technologies simultaneously, further claiming that it builds its own technologies to be interoperable with more than 700 rival platforms for advertisers and 80 rival platforms for publishers.

#adtech, #android, #antitrust, #competition-and-markets-authority, #cory-doctorow, #doubleclick, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #fitbit, #france, #google, #information-commissioners-office, #margrethe-vestager, #marketing, #mobile-devices, #online-advertising, #privacy-sandbox, #targeted-advertising, #tc, #united-kingdom

A range of good Garmin smartwatches and Fitbits on sale for Prime Day

he Garmin vivomove luxe on a user's wrist with the screen on, showing heart rate next to the watch hands.

Enlarge / Garmin’s Vivomove series. (credit: Corey Gaskin / Ars Technica)

As we continue digging, we found some Ars-recommended fitness trackers among Prime Day’s many deals. In particular, a slew of our favorite smartwatches from Garmin and Fitbit are on sale.

All these deals are today only, so if you’re a Prime member looking for a fitness tracker or running watch, this is your moment. There are also discounts on the Apple Watch Series 3 and Series 6 if pure smartwatch capability is more important to you than fitness tracking.

Our experience with Garmin watches

Garmin’s watches took a few top spots in our recent smartwatch buying guide. We picked the Forerunner 45 as our favorite runner’s watch while the Vivo series took top honors as the most stylish. Both devices are seeing record discounts for Prime Day. We especially like some older models of the Vivomove. Today’s discounts bring the newer versions, the Vivoactive 4 and 4s, down to about the same price.

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#activity-tracker, #amazon, #amazon-prime-day, #fitbit, #garmin, #prime-day-2021, #smartwatch, #tech

Sundar Pichai Faces Internal Criticism at Google

Despite record profits, a number of them are worried that the company is suffering from both its size and leadership from its C.E.O., Sundar Pichai.

#alphabet-inc, #computers-and-the-internet, #executives-and-management-theory, #fitbit, #gebru-timnit, #google-inc, #pichai-sundar, #prado-halimah-delaine, #shopify-inc

Perspectives on tackling Big Tech’s market power

The need for markets-focused competition watchdogs and consumer-centric privacy regulators to think outside their respective ‘legal silos’ and find creative ways to work together to tackle the challenge of big tech market power was the impetus for a couple of fascinating panel discussions organized by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), which were livestreamed yesterday but are available to view on-demand here.

The conversations brought together key regulatory leaders from Europe and the US — giving a glimpse of what the future shape of digital markets oversight might look like at a time when fresh blood has just been injected to chair the FTC so regulatory change is very much in the air (at least around tech antitrust).

CEPR’s discussion premise is that integration, not merely intersection, of competition and privacy/data protection law is needed to get a proper handle on platform giants that have, in many cases, leveraged their market power to force consumers to accept an abusive ‘fee’ of ongoing surveillance.

That fee both strips consumers of their privacy and helps tech giants perpetuate market dominance by locking out interesting new competition (which can’t get the same access to people’s data so operates at a baked in disadvantage).

A running theme in Europe for a number of years now, since a 2018 flagship update to the bloc’s data protection framework (GDPR), has been the ongoing under-enforcement around the EU’s ‘on-paper’ privacy rights — which, in certain markets, means regional competition authorities are now actively grappling with exactly how and where the issue of ‘data abuse’ fits into their antitrust legal frameworks.

The regulators assembled for CEPR’s discussion included, from the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority’s CEO Andrea Coscelli and the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham; from Germany, the FCO’s Andreas Mundt; from France, Henri Piffaut, VP of the French competition authority; and from the EU, the European Data Protection Supervisor himself, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, who advises the EU’s executive body on data protection legislation (and is the watchdog for EU institutions’ own data use).

The UK’s CMA now sits outside the EU, of course — giving the national authority a higher profile role in global mergers & acquisition decisions (vs pre-brexit), and the chance to help shape key standards in the digital sphere via the investigations and procedures it chooses to pursue (and it has been moving very quickly on that front).

The CMA has a number of major antitrust probes open into tech giants — including looking into complaints against Apple’s App Store and others targeting Google’s plan to depreciate support for third party tracking cookies (aka the so-called ‘Privacy Sandbox’) — the latter being an investigation where the CMA has actively engaged the UK’s privacy watchdog (the ICO) to work with it.

Only last week the competition watchdog said it was minded to accept a set of legally binding commitments that Google has offered which could see a quasi ‘co-design’ process taking place, between the CMA, the ICO and Google, over the shape of the key technology infrastructure that ultimately replaces tracking cookies. So a pretty major development.

Germany’s FCO has also been very active against big tech this year — making full use of an update to the national competition law which gives it the power to take proactive inventions around large digital platforms with major competitive significance — with open procedures now against Amazon, Facebook and Google.

The Bundeskartellamt was already a pioneer in pushing to loop EU data protection rules into competition enforcement in digital markets in a strategic case against Facebook, as we’ve reported before. That closely watched (and long running) case — which targets Facebook’s ‘superprofiling’ of users, based on its ability to combine user data from multiple sources to flesh out a single high dimension per-user profile — is now headed to Europe’s top court (so likely has more years to run).

But during yesterday’s discussion Mundt confirmed that the FCO’s experience litigating that case helped shape key amendments to the national law that’s given him beefier powers to tackle big tech. (And he suggested it’ll be a lot easier to regulate tech giants going forward, using these new national powers.)

“Once we have designated a company to be of ‘paramount significance’ we can prohibit certain conduct much more easily than we could in the past,” he said. “We can prohibit, for example, that a company impedes other undertaking by data processing that is relevant for competition. We can prohibit that a use of service depends on the agreement to data collection with no choice — this is the Facebook case, indeed… When this law was negotiated in parliament parliament very much referred to the Facebook case and in a certain sense this entwinement of competition law and data protection law is written in a theory of harm in the German competition law.

“This makes a lot of sense. If we talk about dominance and if we assess that this dominance has come into place because of data collection and data possession and data processing you need a parameter in how far a company is allowed to gather the data to process it.”

“The past is also the future because this Facebook case… has always been a big case. And now it is up to the European Court of Justice to say something on that,” he added. “If everything works well we might get a very clear ruling saying… as far as the ECN [European Competition Network] is concerned how far we can integrate GDPR in assessing competition matters.

“So Facebook has always been a big case — it might get even bigger in a certain sense.”

France’s competition authority and its national privacy regulator (the CNIL), meanwhile, have also been joint working in recent years.

Including over a competition complaint against Apple’s pro-user privacy App Tracking Transparency feature (which last month the antitrust watchdog declined to block) — so there’s evidence there too of respective oversight bodies seeking to bridge legal silos in order to crack the code of how to effectively regulate tech giants whose market power, panellists agreed, is predicated on earlier failures of competition law enforcement that allowed tech platforms to buy up rivals and sew up access to user data, entrenching advantage at the expense of user privacy and locking out the possibility of future competitive challenge.

The contention is that monopoly power predicated upon data access also locks consumers into an abusive relationship with platform giants which can then, in the case of ad giants like Google and Facebook, extract huge costs (paid not in monetary fees but in user privacy) for continued access to services that have also become digital staples — amping up the ‘winner takes all’ characteristic seen in digital markets (which is obviously bad for competition too).

Yet, traditionally at least, Europe’s competition authorities and data protection regulators have been focused on separate workstreams.

The consensus from the CEPR panels was very much that that is both changing and must change if civil society is to get a grip on digital markets — and wrest control back from tech giants to that ensure consumers and competitors aren’t both left trampled into the dust by data-mining giants.

Denham said her motivation to dial up collaboration with other digital regulators was the UK government entertaining the idea of creating a one-stop-shop ‘Internet’ super regulator. “What scared the hell out of me was the policymakers the legislators floating the idea of one regulator for the Internet. I mean what does that mean?” she said. “So I think what the regulators did is we got to work, we got busy, we become creative, got our of our silos to try to tackle these companies — the likes of which we have never seen before.

“And I really think what we have done in the UK — and I’m excited if others think it will work in their jurisdictions — but I think that what really pushed us is that we needed to show policymakers and the public that we had our act together. I think consumers and citizens don’t really care if the solution they’re looking for comes from the CMA, the ICO, Ofcom… they just want somebody to have their back when it comes to protection of privacy and protection of markets.

“We’re trying to use our regulatory levers in the most creative way possible to make the digital markets work and protect fundamental rights.”

During the earlier panel, the CMA’s Simeon Thornton, a director at the authority, made some interesting remarks vis-a-vis its (ongoing) Google ‘Privacy Sandbox’ investigation — and the joint working it’s doing with the ICO on that case — asserting that “data protection and respecting users’ rights to privacy are very much at the heart of the commitments upon which we are currently consulting”.

“If we accept the commitments Google will be required to develop the proposals according to a number of criteria including impacts on privacy outcomes and compliance with data protection principles, and impacts on user experience and user control over the use of their personal data — alongside the overriding objective of the commitments which is to address our competition concerns,” he went on, adding: “We have worked closely with the ICO in seeking to understand the proposals and if we do accept the commitments then we will continue to work closely with the ICO in influencing the future development of those proposals.”

“If we accept the commitments that’s not the end of the CMA’s work — on the contrary that’s when, in many respects, the real work begins. Under the commitments the CMA will be closely involved in the development, implementation and monitoring of the proposals, including through the design of trials for example. It’s a substantial investment from the CMA and we will be dedicating the right people — including data scientists, for example, to the job,” he added. “The commitments ensure that Google addresses any concerns that the CMA has. And if outstanding concerns cannot be resolved with Google they explicitly provide for the CMA to reopen the case and — if necessary — impose any interim measures necessary to avoid harm to competition.

“So there’s no doubt this is a big undertaking. And it’s going to be challenging for the CMA, I’m sure of that. But personally I think this is the sort of approach that is required if we are really to tackle the sort of concerns we’re seeing in digital markets today.”

Thornton also said: “I think as regulators we do need to step up. We need to get involved before the harm materializes — rather than waiting after the event to stop it from materializing, rather than waiting until that harm is irrevocable… I think it’s a big move and it’s a challenging one but personally I think it’s a sign of the future direction of travel in a number of these sorts of cases.”

Also speaking during the regulatory panel session was FTC commissioner Rebecca Slaughter — a dissenter on the $5BN fine it hit Facebook with back in 2019 for violating an earlier consent order (as she argued the settlement provided no deterrent to address underlying privacy abuse, leaving Facebook free to continue exploiting users’ data) — as well as Chris D’Angelo, the chief deputy AG of the New York Attorney General, which is leading a major states antitrust case against Facebook.

Slaughter pointed out that the FTC already combines a consumer focus with attention on competition but said that historically there has been separation of divisions and investigations — and she agreed on the need for more joined-up working.

She also advocated for US regulators to get out of a pattern of ineffective enforcement in digital markets on issues like privacy and competition where companies have, historically, been given — at best — what amounts to wrist slaps that don’t address root causes of market abuse, perpetuating both consumer abuse and market failure. And be prepared to litigate more.

As regulators toughen up their stipulations they will need to be prepared for tech giants to push back — and therefore be prepared to sue instead of accepting a weak settlement.

“That is what is most galling to me that even where we take action, in our best faith good public servants working hard to take action, we keep coming back to the same questions, again and again,” she said. “Which means that the actions we are taking isn’t working. We need different action to keep us from having the same conversation again and again.”

Slaughter also argued that it’s important for regulators not to pile all the burden of avoiding data abuses on consumers themselves.

“I want to sound a note of caution around approaches that are centered around user control,” she said. “I think transparency and control are important. I think it is really problematic to put the burden on consumers to work through the markets and the use of data, figure out who has their data, how it’s being used, make decisions… I think you end up with notice fatigue; I think you end up with decision fatigue; you get very abusive manipulation of dark patterns to push people into decisions.

“So I really worry about a framework that is built at all around the idea of control as the central tenant or the way we solve the problem. I’ll keep coming back to the notion of what instead we need to be focusing on is where is the burden on the firms to limit their collection in the first instance, prohibit their sharing, prohibit abusive use of data and I think that that’s where we need to be focused from a policy perspective.

“I think there will be ongoing debates about privacy legislation in the US and while I’m actually a very strong advocate for a better federal framework with more tools that facilitate aggressive enforcement but I think if we had done it ten years ago we probably would have ended up with a notice and consent privacy law and I think that that would have not been a great outcome for consumers at the end of the day. So I think the debate and discussion has evolved in an important way. I also think we don’t have to wait for Congress to act.”

As regards more radical solutions to the problem of market-denting tech giants — such as breaking up sprawling and (self-servingly) interlocking services empires — the message from Europe’s most ‘digitally switched on’ regulators seemed to be don’t look to us for that; we are going to have to stay in our lanes.

So tl;dr — if antitrust and privacy regulators’ joint working just sums to more intelligent fiddling round the edges of digital market failure, and it’s break-ups of US tech giants that’s what’s really needed to reboot digital markets, then it’s going to be up to US agencies to wield the hammers. (Or, as Coscelli elegantly phrased it: “It’s probably more realistic for the US agencies to be in the lead in terms of structural separation if and when it’s appropriate — rather than an agency like ours [working from inside a mid-sized economy such as the UK’s].”)

The lack of any representative from the European Commission on the panel was an interesting omission in that regard — perhaps hinting at ongoing ‘structural separation’ between DG Comp and DG Justice where digital policymaking streams are concerned.

The current competition chief, Margrethe Vestager — who also heads up digital strategy for the bloc, as an EVP — has repeatedly expressed reluctance to impose radical ‘break up’ remedies on tech giants. She also recently preferred to waive through another Google digital merger (its acquisition of fitness wearable Fitbit) — agreeing to accept a number of ‘concessions’ and ignoring major mobilization by civil society (and indeed EU data protection agencies) urging her to block it.

Yet in an earlier CEPR discussion session, another panellist — Yale University’s Dina Srinivasan — pointed to the challenges of trying to regulate the behavior of companies when there are clear conflicts of interest, unless and until you impose structural separation as she said has been necessary in other markets (like financial services).

“In advertising we have an electronically traded market with exchanges and we have brokers on both sides. In a competitive market — when competition was working — you saw that those brokers were acting in the best interest of buyers and sellers. And as part of carrying out that function they were sort of protecting the data that belonged to buyers and sellers in that market, and not playing with the data in other ways — not trading on it, not doing conduct similar to insider trading or even front running,” she said, giving an example of how that changed as Google gained market power.

“So Google acquired DoubleClick, made promises to continue operating in that manner, the promises were not binding and on the record — the enforcement agencies or the agencies that cleared the merger didn’t make Google promise that they would abide by that moving forward and so as Google gained market power in that market there’s no regulatory requirement to continue to act in the best interests of your clients, so now it becomes a market power issue, and after they gain enough market power they can flip data ownership and say ‘okay, you know what before you owned this data and we weren’t allowed to do anything with it but now we’re going to use that data to for example sell our own advertising on exchanges’.

“But what we know from other markets — and from financial markets — is when you flip data ownership and you engage in conduct like that that allows the firm to now build market power in yet another market.”

The CMA’s Coscelli picked up on Srinivasan’s point — saying it was a “powerful” one, and that the challenges of policing “very complicated” situations involving conflicts of interests is something that regulators with merger control powers should be bearing in mind as they consider whether or not to green light tech acquisitions.

(Just one example of a merger in the digital space that the CMA is still scrutizing is Facebook’s acquisition of animated GIF platform Giphy. And it’s interesting to speculate whether, had brexit happened a little faster, the CMA might have stepped in to block Google’s Fitibit merger where the EU wouldn’t.)

Coscelli also flagged the issue of regulatory under-enforcement in digital markets as a key one, saying: “One of the reasons we are today where we are is partially historic under-enforcement by competition authorities on merger control — and that’s a theme that is extremely interesting and relevant to us because after the exit from the EU we now have a bigger role in merger control on global mergers. So it’s very important to us that we take the right decisions going forward.”

“Quite often we intervene in areas where there is under-enforcement by regulators in specific areas… If you think about it when you design systems where you have vertical regulators in specific sectors and horizontal regulators like us or the ICO we are more successful if the vertical regulators do their job and I’m sure they are more success if we do our job properly.

“I think we systematically underestimate… the ability of companies to work through whatever behavior or commitments or arrangement are offered to us, so I think these are very important points,” he added, signalling that a higher degree of attention is likely to be applied to tech mergers in Europe as a result of the CMA stepping out from the EU’s competition regulation umbrella.

Also speaking during the same panel, the EDPS warned that across Europe more broadly — i.e. beyond the small but engaged gathering of regulators brought together by CEPR — data protection and competition regulators are far from where they need to be on joint working, implying that the challenge of effectively regulating big tech across the EU is still a pretty Sisyphean one.

It’s true that the Commission is not sitting on hands in the face of tech giant market power.

At the end of last year it proposed a regime of ex ante regulations for so-called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms, under the Digital Markets Act. But the problem of how to effectively enforce pan-EU laws — when the various agencies involved in oversight are typically decentralized across Member States — is one key complication for the bloc. (The Commission’s answer with the DMA was to suggest putting itself in charge of overseeing gatekeepers but it remains to be seen what enforcement structure EU institutions will agree on.)

Clearly, the need for careful and coordinated joint working across multiple agencies with different legal competencies — if, indeed, that’s really what’s needed to properly address captured digital markets vs structural separation of Google’s search and adtech, for example, and Facebook’s various social products — steps up the EU’s regulatory challenge in digital markets.

“We can say that no effective competition nor protection of the rights in the digital economy can be ensured when the different regulators do not talk to each other and understand each other,” Wiewiórowski warned. “While we are still thinking about the cooperation it looks a little bit like everybody is afraid they will have to trade a little bit of its own possibility to assess.”

“If you think about the classical regulators isn’t it true that at some point we are reaching this border where we know how to work, we know how to behave, we need a little bit of help and a little bit of understanding of the other regulator’s work… What is interesting for me is there is — at the same time — the discussion about splitting of the task of the American regulators joining the ones on the European side. But even the statements of some of the commissioners in the European Union saying about the bigger role the Commission will play in the data protection and solving the enforcement problems of the GDPR show there is no clear understanding what are the differences between these fields.”

One thing is clear: Big tech’s dominance of digital markets won’t be unpicked overnight. But, on both sides of the Atlantic, there are now a bunch of theories on how to do it — and growing appetite to wade in.

#advertising-tech, #amazon, #andreas-mundt, #competition-and-markets-authority, #competition-law, #congress, #data-processing, #data-protection, #data-protection-law, #data-security, #digital-markets-act, #digital-rights, #doubleclick, #elizabeth-denham, #europe, #european-commission, #european-court-of-justice, #european-union, #facebook, #federal-trade-commission, #financial-services, #fitbit, #france, #general-data-protection-regulation, #germany, #human-rights, #margrethe-vestager, #policy, #privacy, #uk-government, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #yale-university

Here’s what’s on tap today at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

It’s game day for mobility tech mavens around the world. Well, at least for the ones who made the savvy decision to attend TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. Are you ready for a day packed with potential, overflowing with opportunity and focused on the future of transportation? Yeah, you are, and so are we!

No FOMO zone: Did you wait until the last minute? We don’t judge — simply purchase a pass at the virtual door.

Let’s take a look at just some of the speakers, presentations and breakout sessions on tap today. We’re talking about leading visionaries, founders and makers of mobility tech. They just might have info you need to know, amirite? The times listed below are EDT, but the event agenda will automatically reflect your time zone,

Throughout the course of the day: Be sure to make time to meet, greet and network with the 28 early-stage startups exhibiting in our virtual expo area (seriously, they’re an impressive bunch). The platform lets exhibitors present live demos, host Q&As about their products or hold private 1:1 meetings. Go mining for opportunities!

2:05 pm – 2:15 pm

EV Founders in Focus: We sit down with Ben Schippers, co-founder and CEO of TezLab, an app that operates like a Fitbit for Tesla vehicles (and soon other EVs) and allows drivers to go deep into their driving data. The app also breaks down the exact types and percentages of fossil fuels and renewable energy coming from charging locations.

2:40 pm – 3:10 pm

Equity, Accessibility and Cities: Can mobility be accessible, equitable and remain profitable? We have brought together community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler; Remix by Via co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig to discuss how (and if) shared mobility can provide equity in cities, while still remaining a viable and even profitable business. The trio will also dig into the challenges facing cities and how policy may affect startups.

3:10 pm – 3:40 pm

The Rise of Robotaxis in China: Silicon Valley has long been viewed as a hub for autonomous vehicle development. But another country is also leading the charge. Executives from three leading Chinese robotaxi companies (WeRide, AutoX and Momenta) — that also have operations in Europe or the U.S. — will join us to provide insight into the unique challenges of developing and deploying the technology in China and how it compares to other countries.

That’s just a tiny taste of what today has in store for you. Choosing which of the 20 presentations and breakout sessions to attend could be tough. The good news is that you can catch anything you missed — or want to review again — with video-on-demand.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 kicks off today — go drive this opportunity-packed day like you stole it.

#articles, #automation, #ben-schippers, #china, #europe, #fitbit, #frank-reig, #judge, #mining, #momenta, #renewable-energy, #robotaxi, #robotics, #science-and-technology, #tamika-l-butler, #tc, #tc-sessions-mobility-2021, #technology, #tezlab, #tiffany-chu, #united-states

Tezlab CEO Ben Schippers to discuss the Tesla effect and the next wave of EV startups at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

As Tesla sales have risen, interest in the company has exploded, prompting investment and interest in the automotive industry, as well as the startup world.

Tezlab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, is just one example of the numerous startups that have sprung up in the past few years as electric vehicles have started to make the tiniest of dents in global sales. Now, as Ford, GM, Volvo, Hyundai along with newcomers Rivian, Fisker and others launch electric vehicles into the marketplace, more startups are sure to follow.

Ben Schippers, the co-founder and CEO of Tezlab, is one of two early-stage founders who will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to talk about their startups and the opportunities cropping up in this emerging age of EVs. The six-person team behind TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups.

HFC’s engineers, including Schippers, who also co-founded HFC, were attracted to Tesla  because of its techcentric approach and one important detail: the Tesla API endpoints are accessible to outsiders. The Tesla API is technically private. But it exists allowing the Tesla’s app to communicate with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.

Schippers’ experience extends beyond scaling up Tezlab. Schippers consults and works with companies focused on technology and human interaction, with a sub-focus in EV.

The list of speakers at our 2021 event is growing by the day and includes Motional’s president and CEO Karl Iagnemma and Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson, who will discuss the past, present and future of AVs. On the electric front is Mate Rimac, the founder of Rimac Automobili, who will talk about scaling his startup from a one-man enterprise in a garage to more than 1,000 people and contracts with major automakers.

We also recently announced a panel dedicated to China’s robotaxi industry, featuring three female leaders from Chinese AV startups: AutoX’s COO Jewel Li, Huan Sun, general manager of Momenta Europe with Momenta, and WeRide’s VP of Finance Jennifer Li.

Other guests include, GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, and Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson.

And we may even have one more surprise — a classic TechCrunch stealth company reveal to close the show.

Don’t wait to book your tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility as prices go up at our virtual door.

#alexandr-wang, #amazon, #api, #articles, #aurora, #automation, #autotech-ventures, #autox, #av, #ben-schippers, #ceo, #china, #chris-urmson, #clara-brenner, #construct-capital, #coo, #facebook, #fitbit, #founder, #happyfuncorp, #hyundai, #jesse-levinson, #jewel-li, #joby, #joby-aviation, #joeben-bevirt, #karl-iagnemma, #linkedin, #major, #mate-rimac, #momenta, #motional, #pam-fletcher, #quin-garcia, #rachel-holt, #reid-hoffman, #rimac-automobili, #rivian, #robotaxi, #robotics, #scale-ai, #science-and-technology, #self-driving-cars, #startup-company, #tc, #technology, #tesla, #tezlab, #urban-innovation-fund, #volvo, #weride, #zoox

Can a Smartwatch Save Your Life?

The advent of wearable devices that monitor our heart rhythms both excites and worries doctors.

#american-heart-assn, #apple-inc, #content-type-service, #elderly, #fitbit, #heart, #mobile-applications, #pacemakers, #stroke, #tests-medical, #watches-and-clocks, #wearable-computing

After closing Fitbit acquisition, Google is going big with Wear OS

For years, Wear OS has been, at best, something of a dark horse among Google operating systems. It’s certainly not for lack of partnership or investment, but for whatever reason, the company has never really stuck the landing with its wearable operating system.

It’s a category in which Apple has been utterly dominant for some time. Google has largely failed to chip away at that market, in spite of enlisting some of the biggest names in consumer electronics as partners. Figures from Strategy Analytics classify Wear OS among the “others” category.

Google’s strategy is, once again, the result of partnerships – or, more precisely, partnerships combined with acquisitions. At the top of the list is an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join em’” approach to Samsung’s longstanding preference for open-source Tizen. It seemed like one of the stranger plays in the category, but building out its own version of Tizen has proven a winning strategy for the company, which trails only Apple in the category.

During today’s I/O keynote, the company company revealed a new partnership with Samsung, “combining the best of Wear OS and Tizen.” We’re still waiting to see how that will play out, but it will be fascinating watching two big players combine forces to take on Apple. You come at the king, you best not miss, to quote a popular prestige television program. On the developer side, this seems to allude to the ability to create joint apps for both platforms, as third-party app selection has been a sticking point for both.

The other big change sheds some more light on precisely why the company was interested in Fitbit. Sure the company was a wearables leader that dominated fitness bands and eventually created its own solid smartwatches (courtesy of, among other things, its own acquisition of Pebble), but health is really the key here.

Image Credits: Google

Health monitoring has become the dominant conversation around wearables in recent years, and Google’s acquisition seems to be, above all, about integrating that information. “[A] world-class health and fitness service from Fitbit is coming to the platform,” the company noted. Beyond adding Fitbit’s well-loved tracking features, the company will also be integrated Wear features into Google’s hardware, working to blur the line between the two companies.

Health and fitness tracking is essential for wearables,” Google notes in a blog post. “With the latest Wear update, we welcome Fitbit’s many years of health expertise to the experience. The best of Fitbit, including features like tracking your health progress throughout your day and on-wrist goal celebrations, will motivate you on your journey to better health.”

The consumer-facing experience has been revamped here, as well. Apps like Calm, Sleep Cycle and Flo are getting their own tiles, while shortcuts are now accessible from anywhere. A number of Google’s own apps are getting a refresh, as well, including Maps, Assistant and Pay, the latter of which is rolling out to an additional 26 countries — adding to the 11 currently available. Later this year, the company will also be introducing a Watch version of the YouTube Music app.

The aforementioned updates are set to arrive later this year.

#fitbit, #google-i-o-2021, #google-io-2021, #hardware, #health, #samsung, #tizen, #wear-os

The best smartwatches for every type of user

he Garmin vivomove luxe on a user's wrist with the screen on, showing heart rate next to the watch hands.

Enlarge / Garmin’s Vivomove Luxe has premium materials like 24K gold and a hidden touch screen, achieving a high-tech, high fashion aesthetic. It’s indistinguishable from a traditional watch with the screen off. (credit: Corey Gaskin / Ars Technica)

Believe it or not, there are smartwatches worth owning other than the Apple Watch. If getting important (or not so important) notifications on your wrist in 2021 sounds appealing to you, there’s great news: Most smartwatches can do that for you now. And you have options when it comes to style, form factor, and more dedicated wearable purposes.

There are smartwatches that emphasize style and the classic timepiece aesthetic, others that help you train for competition in specific sports, and truly everything in between. From casual exercisers to those who want every bit of data and guidance they can get, the smartwatch landscape has matured. There’s a great fit out there for us all. And recently, we revisited some of our favorite smartwatches and tested the latest releases in an effort to compile the best this landscape has to offer and help you nail down the best one for your needs.

The short(er) version

  • The Apple Watch Series 6 is still the best all-around smartwatch available. No other wearable offers close to the app variety, ecosystem cohesiveness, and third-party support that the Apple Watch does. Battery life is just okay, and tracking could be more extensive, but the Series 6’s all-around package is tough to beat. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch SE and Series 3 can save you a few bucks depending on your needs.
  • Our runner-up is the Fitbit Sense. It doesn’t have the Apple Watch’s extensive app support, but it offers nearly the same level of fitness hardware (ECG, blood oxygen sensors, heart rate, GPS), week-long battery life, a more in-depth companion app, and actual Android support, all in a stylish design.
  • If you can find it for less than $200, the Fitbit Versa 3 is another option we like. It has a nice combination of sleek smartwatch looks (in both software and hardware) and the requisite fitness tracking and notification capabilities we expect at that price point. There’s no ECG sensor, but it should have you covered with basic to moderate health insights otherwise.
  • Garmin’s Forerunner 745 is our top runner’s watch for its deep training stats, useful yet easy-to-read analysis for all athletes, and its suite of dedicated runner’s tools. It lacks a touchscreen, but with GPS, 24/7 heart rate, all-day blood oxygen monitoring, and music storage for up to 500 songs, it’s a capable companion for running, swimming, biking, and most other sports.
  • The Garmin Forerunner 45 and 245 Music are two less-expensive options worth a look for moderate runners. Those who love the 745’s approach but don’t need things like music storage, blood oxygen monitoring, or running cadence analysis can save a significant amount with a Forerunner 45. The Forerunner 245 Music, meanwhile, may be better for those who don’t need an altimeter or tracking for hikes and other outdoorsy activities but want to retain the bulk of 745’s activity-tracking features.
  • Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 is the best all-around wearable for Android users, especially Samsung phone owners. (Though it supports iPhones, too.) Its classic watch styling looks good, and its rotating bezel controls are intuitive. Some of its more advanced health-tracking features require a Galaxy phone, but its software is polished, and it’s still a capable fitness tracker on the whole.
  • We also have a few stylish smartwatches we like from Garmin, particularly in its Vivomove series. The Vivomove Luxe, Style, and 3/3S share elegant looks and premium materials at varying price points, making them nice pieces of jewelry that don’t compromise too much on moderate fitness tracking.
  • The Garmin Lily is another smartwatch we like. It’s an especially great choice for women or those with smaller wrists, taking many of its style cues from the Vivomove lineup. It requires a phone for GPS, but it delivers useful stats for all sorts of activities and notifications with a fashionable aesthetic.

The best smartwatch overall

Apple Watch Series 6

(credit: Corey Gaskin / Ars Technica)

The Apple Watch should be your first consideration when looking for a smartwatch, especially if you’re an iPhone user. If it worked standalone or with Android phones, it’d be hard not to recommend this for just about anyone looking for a smartwatch or fitness tracker. (Maybe those needing highly specialized sport-tracking devices have better options.)

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#apple-watch-se, #apple-watch-series-3, #apple-watch-series-6, #best-smartwatches, #features, #fitbit, #fitbit-sense, #fitbit-versa-3, #fitness-tracker, #garmin, #garmin-forerunner, #garmin-lily, #garmin-vivomove, #samsung-galaxy-watch-3, #smartwatch, #tech, #tizen, #watch-os, #wearable

Just 72 hours left to save $100 on passes to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

So much can happen in 72 hours, and it’s easy to get distracted — especially when you’re building a startup in the fast lane that is mobility tech. But listen up: you have just 72 hours left to save $100 on your pass to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 on June 9.

Don’t let “busy” distract you. Buy your pass to Mobility 2021 before the price increase goes into effect on Thursday, May 6 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Why should you attend TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? It’s where you can tap into the latest trends, regulatory concerns, technical and ethical challenges surrounding the technologies that will forever change how we move people and material goods across towns, cities, states, countries — and space.

Or, as Jens Lehmann, technical lead and product manager at SAP, told us:

“TC Sessions Mobility is definitely worth your time, especially if you’re an early-stage founder. You get to connect to people in your field and learn from founders who are literally a year into your same journey. Plus, you can meet and talk to the movers and shakers — the people who are making it happen.”

Take a gander at just some of the fascinating people and topics waiting for you and see the event agenda here.

  • Supercharging Self-Driving Super Vision: Few startups were as prescient as Scale AI when it came to anticipating the need for massive sets of tagged data for use in AI. Co-founder and CEO Alex Wang also made a great bet on addressing the needs of lidar sensing companies early on, which has made the company instrumental in deploying AV networks. We’ll hear about what it takes to make sense of sensor data in driverless cars and look at where the industry is headed.
  • EV Founders in Focus: We sit down with the founders poised to take advantage of the rise in electric vehicle sales. We’ll chat with Ben Schippers, co-founder and CEO of TezLab, an app that operates like a Fitbit for Tesla vehicles (and soon other EVs) and allows drivers to go deep into their driving data. The app also breaks down the exact types and percentages of fossil fuels and renewable energy coming from charging locations.
  • The Future of Flight: Joby Aviation founder JoeBen Bevirt spent more than a decade quietly developing an all-electric, vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft. Now he is preparing for a new phase of growth as Joby Aviation merges with the special purpose acquisition company formed by famed investor and Linked co-founder Reid Hoffman. Bevirt and Hoffman will come to our virtual stage to talk about how to build a startup (and keep it secret while raising funds), the future of flight and, of course, SPACs.

Pro tip: Between the live stream and video on demand, you can keep your work schedule on track without missing out.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 takes place on June 9, but you have only 72 short hours left to save $100 on all the info and opportunity that TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 offers. Kick distractions to the curb. Buy your pass before the early bird price disappears on Thursday, May 6 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

#alex-wang, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #automation, #automotive, #av, #ben-schippers, #co-founder, #electric-aircraft, #emerging-technologies, #fitbit, #joby-aviation, #reid-hoffman, #renewable-energy, #robotics, #sap, #science-and-technology, #self-driving-car, #tc, #tc-sessions-mobility-2021, #technology, #tezlab, #video-on-demand

Fitbit’s latest is a $149 ‘luxury’ fitness tracker

It’s been a strange few years for Fitbit. After defining the fitness tracking space, the company was a bit late to the smartwatch trend, but was still able to ride that wave to a rebound. But while watches have received most of the press the now Google-owned company has garnered in recent years, bands still comprise a substantial part of its business.

Today Fitbit announced the arrival of the Luxe. It’s a weird product. There’s certainly a market for it, but it’s hard to say how much of a niche were talking about here. The company called its target demo, “a unique set of buyers whose needs weren’t being met.” Specifically, the product is a “fashioned-forward” tracker for people looking for something a bit nicer than a plastic band to wear out and about.

Frankly, it’s hard not to see some reflections of Misfit’s take on the category. Perhaps the Fossil-owned company was ahead of its time. At $149, the device is priced between the Charge and the Versa, but decidedly closer to the former. That is to say, it’s pricey in the grand scheme of fitness trackers, but more or less in line with other Fitbit products.

It is, indeed, a nice-looking tracker, as far of these things go, featuring a color touchscreen surrounded by a stainless steel case. That’s coupled with a broad range of accessories, ranging from leather to gold-colored stainless steel.

Here’s Fitbit co-founder and GM (under Google) James Park:

Over the past year, we’ve had to think differently about our health – from keeping an eye out for possible COVID-19 symptoms to managing the ongoing stress and anxiety of today’s world. Even though we are starting to see positive changes, it has never been more important to manage your holistic health. That’s why we’ve been resolute in introducing products to support you in staying mentally well and physically active. We’ve made major technological advancements with Luxe, creating a smaller, slimmer, beautifully designed tracker packed with advanced features – some that were previously only available with our smartwatches – making these tools accessible to even more people around the globe.

Certainly physical and mental health have been top of mind over the past year, even as step counts have dramatically plummeted. The device sports the usual array of Fitbit sensors, tracking activity, sleep and stress. It also works with a number of different mindfulness/meditation apps, including the company’s recently announced partnership with Deepak Chopra.

The band is up for preorder starting today and starts shipping in the spring.

#fitbit, #fitness-trackers, #google, #hardware, #luxe, #wearables

Fitbit announces new style-focused Luxe smartband

Lifestyle photo of Fitbit Luxe.

Enlarge / Lifestyle photo of Fitbit Luxe. (credit: Fitbit)

Fitbit has just announced its first fashion-focused, bangle-style tracker—the Fitbit Luxe. True to its luxurious name, the stainless-steel Luxe will come in a $200 special edition, styled with gorjana jewelry as its band (coming in June) but the $150 silicon band version is available for pre-order now.

Both will come with six months of the Fitbit Premium membership (usually $10 a month or $80 per year), which affords users some guided fitness programs, over 200 workout videos, deeper sleep analysis, about 60 nutrition articles and recipes, and other resources to learn about and improve health and wellness. Of course, getting people healthier has always been the name of the game for Fitbit, so with the Luxe, the company is attempting to strike a better balance between style, price, and casual activity tracking.

Sporting a color touchscreen, the Luxe is the company’s first fitness band, not smartwatch, to add this bit of flair and functionality. You can swipe through your latest activity metrics, notifications from your phone (you can receive texts, calls, emails, etc. but cannot reply to them on the band), stress stats, menstrual cycle information, or do guided breath work and start tracking a workout.

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#activity-tracker, #fitbit, #fitness-tracker, #smartwatch, #tech, #wearables

Facebook’s Kustomer buy could face EU probe after merger referral

The European Union may investigate Facebook’s $1BN acquisition of customer service platform Kustomer after concerns were referred to it under EU merger rules.

A spokeswoman for the Commission confirmed it received a request to refer the proposed acquisition from Austria under Article 22 of the EU’s Merger Regulation — a mechanism which allows Member States to flag a proposed transaction that’s not notifiable under national filing thresholds (e.g. because the turnover of one of the companies is too low for a formal notification).

The Commission spokeswoman said the case was notified in Austria on March 31.

“Following the receipt of an Article 22 request for referral, the Commission has to transmit the request for referral to other Member States without delay, who will have the right to join the original referral request within 15 working days of being informed by the Commission of the original request,” she told us, adding: “Following the expiry of the deadline for other Member States to join the referral, the Commission will have 10 working days to decide whether to accept or reject the referral.”

We’ll know in a few weeks whether or not the European Commission will take a look at the acquisition — an option that could see the transaction stalled for months, delaying Facebook’s plans for integrating Kustomer’s platform into its empire.

Facebook and Kustomer have been contacted for comment on the development.

The tech giant’s planned purchase of the customer relations management platform was announced last November and quickly raised concerns over what Facebook might do with any personal data held by Kustomer — which could include sensitive information, given sectors served by the platform include healthcare, government and financial services, among others.

Back in February, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) wrote to the Commission and national and EU data protection agencies to raise concerns about the proposed acquisition — urging scrutiny of the “data processing consequences”, and highlighting how Kustomer’s terms allow it to process user data for very wide-ranging purposes.

“Facebook is acquiring this company. The scope of ‘improving our Services’ [in Kustomer’s terms] is already broad, but is likely to grow broader after Kustomer is acquired,” the ICCL warned. “‘Our Services’ may, for example, be taken to mean any Facebook services or systems or projects.”

“The settled caselaw of the European Court of Justice, and the European data protection board, that ‘improving our services’ and similarly vague statements do not qualify as a ‘processing purpose’,” it added.

The ICCL also said it had written to Facebook asking for confirmation of the post-acquisition processing purposes for which people’s data will be used.

Johnny Ryan, senior fellow at the ICCL, confirmed to TechCrunch it has not had any response from Facebook to those questions.

We’ve also asked Facebook to confirm what it will do with any personal data held on users by Kustomer once it owns the company — and will update this report with any response.

In a separate (recent) episode — involving Google — its acquisition of wearable maker Fitbit went through months of competition scrutiny in the EU and was only cleared by regional regulators after the tech giant made a number of concessions, including committing not to use Fitbit data for ads for ten years.

Until now Facebook’s acquisitions have generally flown under regulators’ radar, including, around a decade ago, when it was sewing up the social space by buying up rivals Instagram and WhatsApp.

Several years later it was forced to pay a fine in the EU over a ‘misleading’ filing — after it combined WhatsApp and Facebook data, despite having told regulators it could not do so.

With so many data scandals now inextricably attached to Facebook, the tech giant is saddled with customer mistrust by default and faces far greater scrutiny of how it operates — which is now threatening to inject friction into its plans to expand its b2b offering by acquiring a CRM player. So after ‘move fast and break things’ Facebook is having to move slower because of its reputation for breaking stuff.

 

#austria, #crm, #data-protection, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #facebook, #fitbit, #fundings-exits, #google, #healthcare, #johnny-ryan, #kustomer, #merger, #privacy, #social-media

NASA will use Fitbits to help prevent spread of COVID-19 to astronauts and employees

NASA will provide 1,000 of its employees, including 150 astronauts, with Fitbit devices in a pilot program designed to see if they can help supplement efforts to keep these mission-critical personnel healthy ahead of key space missions. The program will see NASA employees outfitted with a wearable, and provided access to a daily check-in app they can use to log potential symptoms, as well as their body temperature and other key health metrics, which could potentially help spot developing cases.

NASA has already been taking measures to isolate astronauts and to limit or prevent the spread of COVID-19 across its facilities, which are located across the U.S. It has of course followed local guidelines and requirements regarding COVID-19 protections, but it also introduced its own level-based system last year and implemented remote work protocols for many employees wherever possible. On the astronaut side, it has also beefed up existing isolation and sequestration procedures that are already quite strict in order to guarantee that its spacefarers don’t get sick before they’re set to make a trip to the International Space Station.

The new Fitbit program is designed to supplement those existing measure, providing tracked health metrics including resting heart rate and heart rate variability, as well as respiratory rate, changes in all of which all of which have been linked to COVID-19. Those stats, along with the self-reported metrics logged by users themselves, including any reports of potential symptoms, will be used by the app to provide individuals in the program with guidance about whether they should go into work, or stay home and take additional measures to find out if they have COVID-19.

Fitbit is already engaged in studies to determine whether or not its wearable devices and the metrics they log can be useful in providing early COVID-19 detection. Regardless of those results, self-reporting as well as the baseline health metrics that the app logs from its devices are already likely to be handy in providing a supplement to existing self-assessment measures regarding the level of risk you pose to others if you’re feeling off, which is the primary purpose of this program with NASA.

#aerospace, #astronaut, #biotech, #clothing, #covid-19, #fitbit, #health, #internet-of-things, #nasa, #space, #tc, #united-states, #wearable-devices, #wearable-technology

Google to offer heart and respiratory rate measurements using just your smartphone’s camera

Google is introducing features that will allow users to take vital health measurements using just the camera they already have on their smartphone, expanding health and fitness features typically only available on dedicated wearables to a whole new group of people. Beginning next month, and available initially on Google Pixel phones exclusively (but with plans to offer it for other Android devices in future), users will be able to measure both their heart rate and their respiratory rate using just their device’s camera.

Typically, taking these measurements has required specialized hardware, including red or green light-based heart rate monitors like those found on the Apple Watch or on fitness trackers like those made by Google-acquired Fitbit. Google’s hardware and software teams, including the Google Health unit led by Director of Health Technologies Schwetak Patel, have managed to develop computer vision-based methods for taking these measurements using only smartphone cameras, which it says can produce results that are comparable to clinical-grade measurement hardware (it has produced a study to validate these results, which it’s making available in pre-print format while it seeks peer review through an academic journal).

For respiratory rate, the technology relies on a technique known as ‘optical flow,’ which monitors movements in a person’s chest as they breathe and uses that to determine their breathing rate. In its clinical validation study, which covered both typical individuals in good health, and people with existing respiratory conditions, Google’s data indicates that it’s accurate to within 1 breath per minute across all participants.

For heart rate, Google is initially using the camera to detect “subtle color changes” in a user’s finger tip, which provide an indicator about when oxygenated blood flows from your heart through to the rest of your body. The company’s validation data (again, still subject to external review) has shown accuracy within 2% margin of error, on average, across people with a range of different skin types. Google is also working on making this same technology work using color changes in a person’s face, it says, though that work is still in the exploratory phase.

Google is going to make these measurement features available to users within the next month, it says, via the Google Fit app, and initially on currently available Pixel devices made by the company itself. The plan is then to expand the features to different Android devices running Android 6 or later, sometime “in the coming months.”

Image Credits: Google

“My team has been working on ways that we can unlock the potential of everyday smart devices,” Patel said in a press briefing regarding the new features. This would include smart devices in the home, or a mobile phone, and how we leverage the sensors that are starting to become more and more ubiquitous within those devices, to support health and wellness.”

Patel, who is also a computer science professor at the University of Washington and who has been recognized with an ACM Prize in Computing Award for his work in digital health, said that the availability of powerful sensors in ubiquitous consumer devices, combined with advances in AI, have meant that daily health monitoring can be much more accessible than ever before.

“I really think that’s going to be a really important area moving forward given that if you think about health care, the journey just doesn’t end at the hospital, the four walls of the hospital,” he said. “It’s really this continuous journey, as you’re living your daily life, and being able to give you feedback and be able to measure your general wellness is an important thing.”

It’s worth noting that Google is explicit about these features being intended for use in a person’s own tracking of their general wellbeing – meaning it’s not meant as a diagnostic or medical tool. That’s pretty standard for these kinds of features, since few of these companies want to take of the task of getting full FDA medical-grade device certification for tools that are meant for general consumer use. To that end, Google Fit also doesn’t provide any guidance or advise based on the results of these measurements; instead, the app provides a general disclaimer that the results aren’t intended for medical use, and also offers up some very high-level description of why you’d even want to track these stats at all.

Many of the existing dedicated wellness and health tracking products on the market, like the Oura ring, for instance, provide more guidance and actionable insight based on the measurements it takes. Google seems intent on steering well clear of that line with these features, instead leaving the use of this information fully within the hands of users. That said, it could be a valuable resource to share with your physician, particularly if you’re concerned about potential health issues already, in place of other less convenient and available continuous health monitoring.

Patek said that Google is interested in potentially exploring how sensor fusion could further enhance tracking capabilities on existing devices, and in response to a question about potentially offering this on iPhones, he said that while the focus is currently on Android, they ultimate goal is indeed to get it “to as many people as possible.”

#android, #apple, #biotech, #computing, #fda, #fitbit, #google, #google-health, #health, #internet-of-things, #physician, #science-and-technology, #smart-devices, #smartphone, #smartphones, #tc, #technology, #university-of-washington

Google’s Fitbit acquisition is official

Following regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the pond, Google this morning announced that it has completed its acquisition of wearables pioneer, Fitbit. Google’s use of the vast amount of user health data has long been the key sticking point of regulatory concern of the deal. After all, targeted advertising continues to be at the heart of much of what the tech giant does.

As such, it’s unsurprising that both Google and Fitbit are looking to address concerns in their respective statements on the acquisition. Google, in particular is quick to insist that the deal is all about hardware – which has admittedly been a struggle in this particular vertical. Google’s efforts to compete with Apple in the fitness and wearable categories have been, at best, uneven.

Google SVP of Devices and Services Rick Osterloh notes,

This deal has always been about devices, not data, and we’ve been clear since the beginning that we will protect Fitbit users’ privacy. We worked with global regulators on an approach which safeguards consumers’ privacy expectations, including a series of binding commitments that confirm Fitbit users’ health and wellness data won’t be used for Google ads and this data will be separated from other Google ads data.

We’ll also maintain access to Android APIs that enable devices like fitness trackers and smart watches to interoperate with Android smartphones, and we’ll continue to allow Fitbit users to choose to connect to third-party services so you’ll still be able to sync your favorite health and fitness apps to your Fitbit account. These commitments will be implemented globally so that all consumers can benefit from them. We’ll also continue to work with regulators around the world so that they can be assured that we are living up to these commitments.

Fitbit co-founder and CEO James Park echoed the sentiment, writing,

The trust of our users will continue to be paramount, and we will maintain strong data privacy and security protections, giving you control of your data and staying transparent about what we collect and why. Google will continue to protect Fitbit users’ privacy and has made a series of binding commitments with global regulators, confirming that Fitbit users’ health and wellness data won’t be used for Google ads and this data will be kept separate from other Google ad data. Google also affirmed it will continue to allow Fitbit users to choose to connect to third party services.

The $2.1 billion deal’s completion comes with a number of caveats. The EU in particular presented a number of caveats when it finally greenlit the acquisition last month. It noted at the time, “The commitments will determine how Google can use the data collected for ad purposes, how interoperability between competing wearables and Android will be safeguarded and how users can continue to share health and fitness data, if they choose to.”

As part of the deal, Google agreed to not use Fitbit data for ads for 10 years — which the Commission reserved the rights to extend by another 10 years. Google also agreed to maintain third-party developer access to Android APIs, in order to maintain some competition.

Developing…

#fitbit, #google, #hardware, #health

NYC MTA’s contactless fare system completes rollout, will phase out MetroCard in 2023

On the last day of 2020, New York City’s Metro Transit Authority announced that it has finished its roll out of contactless payment systems. With the addition of a final stop in Brooklyn, every MTA subway station and bus in the five boroughs now sports the OMNY “Tap and Go” system.

We got an early demo of the Grand Central terminals when the project rollout began last May. The system involves a major infrastructure overhaul as the transit authority looks beyond the iconic Metro Card to mobile payment systems from vendors like Apple, Google, Samsung and Fitbit – allowing users to use smartphones and smartwatches to swipe their way through the turn style.

The MTA had expected to finish the project by October – though COVID-19 put the kibosh on those plans along with so much else. The goal was pushed back to December, and it appears it’s been met with no time to spare.

MetroCards are sticking around for the time being – though the MTA expects they will be phased out at some point in 2023. Part of the transition involves the arrival of the OMNY Card, which use the new technology but function similarly to MetroCard. A reduced far version of the card is set to arrive for riders who qualify at some point in 2021. The new readers are also coming to the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road systems.

#apple, #apps, #fitbit, #google, #mta, #samsung, #subway, #transportation

Amazon’s Halo fitness tracker raises privacy concerns for Amy Klobuchar

After reading a review of Amazon’s new fitness tracker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar penned an open letter.

“Recent reports have raised concerns about the Halo’s access to this extensive personal and private health information,” the lawmaker wrote to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “Among publicly available consumer health devices, the Halo appears to collect an unprecedented level of personal information.”

The senator is far from the first critic to express concern about the fitness tracker — the Halo raised eyebrows the moment it was unveiled in August. She is, however, one of the few critics in a position to actually do something about the device, which features both an always-on microphone and asks wearers to perform a full body scan.

“I’m wearing my Fitbit,” Klobuchar says in an interview with TechCrunch. She takes a moment before correcting herself. “Oh, I didn’t put it on this morning. That’s very bad. I wear a Fitbit nearly every day. I sometimes have gone years without doing it, but since, I’d say, about February I’ve been wearing it.”

The senator’s not alone, certainly. According to a January 2020 report from Pew, roughly one-in-five U.S. adults regularly wear a smartwatch or fitness tracker. I’m wearing one as I type this, and chances are pretty good you’re wearing one as well. The Halo may cross a line for some, but the device is far from the first tracker to raise concern among privacy advocates. Klobuchar says that while the Halo’s specific level of data collection, “just cries out for some kind of rules and regulations in place,” stronger scrutiny and regulation is needed for the category across the board.

“I really do think there’s got to be rules in place,” she says. “The reason I’m writing HHS is because they should play a larger role in ensuring data privacy when it comes to health, but between the HHS and the Federal Trade Commission, they’ve got to come up with some rules to safeguard private health information. And I think the Amazon Halo is just the ultimate example of it, but there’s a number of other devices that have the same issues. I’m thinking there’s some state regulations going on and things like that, and we just need federal standards.”

The letter lays out four questions for Azar and the HHS, pertaining to the department’s role in safeguarding health data. Amazon’s defense of the product is two-fold: body scanning and speech collection are optional, and the company does not have direct access to this locally stored data.

Asked for response to the letter, the company tells TechCrunch:

We have been in touch with Senator Klobuchar’s office to address their questions about Amazon Halo. Privacy is foundational to how we designed and built Amazon Halo. Body and Tone are both optional features that are not required to use the product. Amazon does not have access to Body scan images or Tone speech samples. We are transparent about the privacy practices for this service and you can read more in the Amazon Halo privacy whitepaper.

“[The letter is] specifically about that they’re safeguarding the private health information, they’re ensuring security and privacy,” Klobuchar tells TechCrunch. “And even if Amazon Halo is saying they’re doing all of this, we need to have rules of the road in place for any company that does it.”

Health privacy concerns have been top of mind since Google announced plans to acquire Fitbit for $2.1 billion in November 2019. At the time, the deal was expected to close at some point in 2020. That timeline has since proven overly optimistic. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in August, Fitbit said the closing date could be pushed as late as May 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic may well have played an issue in that delay, but Google’s biggest hurdle thus far has been government approval. A number of groups and individuals have raised concern over the deal, including Amnesty International. In August, the EU posited that the deal could “further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalization of the ads it serves and displays.”

After launching an investigation into the deal, the Commission greenlit the deal earlier this week — with major caveats. At the top of the list is Google’s 10-year commitment to not use Fitbit health data for ad targeting. The E.U. has also reserved the right to extend the safeguard by another 10 years beyond that.

Klobuchar says she believes the privacy caveats were necessary. “I think the decision about if they’re sufficient or not should be made in the U.S. by our own regulators based on the facts. I am glad they created the data silo. […] And I think we need to greatly up our examination of mergers. We should use those mergers to either say ‘no, because they’re so anti-competitive,’ or to put conditions on them.”

Increased antitrust scrutiny has been a key project for the senator. In August 2019, she introduced the Monopolization Deterrence Act with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. Klobuchar says she hopes to get the bill passed after the new president takes office.

“This new session will be the moment,” she tells TechCrunch. “The Trump administration actually brought these major cases. They were late in the game, but they actually did their job here at the end. But the president wasn’t organized enough in terms of his focus to be able to actually get legislation done on monopolies. And so I think this is going to be incumbent on the Biden administration and the next AG to do that.”

Any meaningful effort to reduce the size and influence of tech corporations will have to go further than simply increasing regulatory scrutiny at the point of acquisition, however. In many cases, that bridge was crossed long ago.

“It’s not just future monopoly mergers being considered,” Klobuchar says. “It’s looking back at what’s happened. That’s what the Facebook suit is. That’s what the Google suit is in a different way. There’s still stuff about DoubleClick and everything, but mostly it’s about how they’re using their monopoly power. So you can be sued for looking back at mergers (that’s what they’re doing at Facebook), but you also can be sued for what we call ‘exclusionary conduct,’ for things that you’ve done that are anti-competitive.”

The Fitbit-wearing senator is quick to close by adding that she’s not anti-technology, per se. “I think the innovations are great. I use them all the time, even though I’ve had some hilarious online ordering experiences, including when I now have six two-pound things of maple yogurt. I mistook it and I thought they were small yogurts in my refrigerator. I think that they’re great, but I think that they can still be great with allowing from our competition, they’ll be better.”

 

#amazon, #amazon-halo, #amy-klobuchar, #fitbit, #google, #hardware, #health, #privacy

Europe clears Google-Fitbit with a ten-year ban on using health data for ads

Europe has greenlit Google’s $2.1BN acquisition of fitness wearable maker Fitbit, applying a number of conditions intended to shrink competition concerns over letting it gobble a major cache of health and wellness data following months of regulatory scrutiny of the deal.

While Google announced its plan to buy Fitbit over a year ago, it only notified the transaction to the Commission on June 15, 2020 — meaning it’s taken half a year to be given a caveated go-ahead by Europe. It is also now facing formal antitrust charges on its home turf — from more than one angle (though not related to Fitbit).

Under the terms of the EU’s clearance for ‘Gitbit’, Google has committed not use the Fitbit data of users in the European Economic Area for ad targeting purposes for a ten year period.

It says it will maintain a technical separation between health and wellness data collected via Fitbit wearables in a data silo kept separate from other Google data.

It has also committed to ensuring that regional users have an “effective choice” to grant or deny the use of health and wellness data stored in their Google Account or Fitbit Account by other Google services — such as Google Search, Google Maps, Google Assistant, and YouTube. But it’ll be interesting to see how much dark pattern design gets applied there.

Interestingly, the Commission says it may decide to extend the duration of the decade-long Ads Commitment by up to an additional ten years — if such an extension can be justified.

It further notes that clearance is conditional upon full compliance with all the commitments — the implementation of which will be monitored by a trustee, who must be appointed before the transaction can close.

This yet-to-be-appointed-person will have what the Commission couches as “far-reaching competences” — including access to “Google’s records, personnel, facilities or technical information”.

So EU regulators are taking a ‘trust but verify’ approach to letting this big tech merger steamroller on.

There are further competition focused commitments, too.

Here, Google has agreed to maintain access to Fitbit users’ data via a web API without charging third party developers for the access (of course subject to user consent).

It has also agreed to a number of commitments related to rival wearable makers’ access to Android APIs — saying it will continue free licensing for all core functionality competing devices need to plug into its dominant smartphone OS, Android.

Improvements in device functionality are covered under the agreement, per the Commission, so it’s intended to allow rival wearable makers to continue to be able to innovate without the risk of making a better/more capable device resulting in them being shut out of the Android ecosystem.

Google must also maintain API support in the Android Open Source Project version of its mobile platform.

Another concession the Commission has extracted from Google during this half year of investigation and negotiation is to say it won’t seek to circumvent the requirement to support rivals’ kit accessing Android via the API by degrading the user experience (such as by displaying warnings or error messages).

That’s — frankly — a pretty dysfunctional signal for a regulatory clearance to have to send. And it highlights the level of mistrust that has built up about how Google’s business operates.

Which in turn raises the existential question for EU regulators of why they are allowing themselves to bend over and let Google-Fitbit go ahead. Unsurprisingly, then, the Commission’s PR sounds a tad defensive — with EU lawmakers writing that the decision “is without prejudice to the Commission’s efforts to ensure fair and contestable markets in the digital sector, notably through the recently proposed Digital Markets Act” (DMA).

It also notes that the monitoring trustee will be entitled to share reports that it provides to the Commission with Google’s lead data protection supervisor, the Irish Data Protection Commission. (Though given the massive big tech-related case backlog on its desk — including a number of investigations into other elements of Google’s business — that’s unlikely to cause Mountain View any extra sleepless nights.)

The Commission does also say that commitments secured from Google include “a fast track dispute resolution mechanism that can be invoked by third parties”. So it’s clearly trying to go the extra mile to justify greenlighting further consolidation in a consumer digital services space that Google already massively dominates — at a time when US lawmakers are headed in the opposite direction. So, um…

Civil society in Europe (and beyond) has been raising a massive clamour about the Google-Fitbit acquisition ever since it was announced — urging the bloc’s regulators to stop the tech giant from gobbling Fitbit’s cache of health data, unless or until human rights protections can be guaranteed.

Today the Commission has sidestepped those wider rights concerns.

At best it believes it’s kicked the can down the road a decade or, max, two. And by 2030 (or 2040) it will hope that rules it’s just proposed to put strictures on digital gatekeepers like Google will be in a position to prevent future abuse in check.

The EU’s oft stated preference is to regulate tech giants, not to break up their empires — or, as it turns out, stand in the way of further empire expansion.

Commenting on the Google-Fitbit clearance in a statement, Vestager said: “We can approve the proposed acquisition of Fitbit by Google because the commitments will ensure that the market for wearables and the nascent digital health space will remain open and competitive. The commitments will determine how Google can use the data collected for ad purposes, how interoperability between competing wearables and Android will be safeguarded and how users can continue to share health and fitness data, if they choose to.”

Taking questions from a European parliament committee last week, Vestager signalled the inexorable looming clearance of Gitbit — saying the US and Europe have a different approach to dealing with market-dominating tech giants. “In Europe we do not have a ban of monopolies,” she told MEPs. “They have a different legal basis in the U.S. We would say you’re more than welcome to be successful but with success comes responsibility — which is why we have article 102 [against abusing a dominant position].”

It’s also why the Commission has felt the need to propose new regulation to strengthen competition enforcement in digital markets — though it’ll most likely be years before the DMA is adopted.

And in the meanwhile EU regulators are letting Google expand its dominance of people’s private information by bagging up Fitbit’s treasure trove of sensitive health data — for full exploitation later.

In any case, as Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff warned last week, surveillance capitalism’s business ambitions now scale far beyond mere targeted ads. The goal is to use data “for the sake of predictions that become more lucrative as they approach certainty”, as she put it — warning society must intervene in the public interest to put a stop to the tech giants’ “epistemic coup”. 

Accurate predictions generated off of health data could be very lucrative indeed for Google (which has been ramping up its focus on the health sector in recent years).

Whether that’s net good or bad for humanity remains to be seen — which isn’t the kind of major gamble regulators should be comfortable with. So plenty will say the Commission is just fiddling round the margins while giving big tech a handy bypass for competition enforcement.

#antitrust, #eu, #europe, #fitbit, #google, #privacy, #tc

Apple’s watchOS 7.2 is out, offers new health and fitness metrics

Two smartwatches are intertwined in this promotional image.

Enlarge / Apple Watch series 6, launched this September, offers health and fitness monitoring in a dizzying array of styles. (It can also tell you the time, if you’re looking for that.) (credit: Apple)

There’s a new version of watchOS, the operating system used by the Apple Watch, out today. WatchOS 7.2 includes support for Fitness+, Apple’s new subscription-based fitness service, as well as new cardio fitness notifications.

“Including support for Fitness+” might actually be putting the cart before the horse—Apple Fitness+ requires an Apple Watch to function. The service bundles trainer-led workout videos and regimens with Apple Music, for $9.99 per month, and you can’t sign up for it without an Apple Watch. The watch syncs with whatever device you’re watching the class on, overlaying metrics and progress measured by the watch on top of the video.

WatchOS 7.2 also includes new cardio fitness notifications:

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#apple, #apple-fitness, #apple-watch, #fitbit, #fitness, #health, #ios, #iphone, #tech, #watchos

Europe urged to block Google-Fitbit ahead of major digital policy overhaul

The European Commission must block the Google -Fitbit merger as a matter of democratic imperative, prominent academic and author Shoshana Zuboff has warned.

The Harvard professor who wrote the defining book on surveillance capitalism has become the latest voice raised against the $2.1BN data+devices deal — that’s now been delayed at the regulatory clearance stage for over a year.

Others calling for the Google-Fitbit acquisition to be blocked — unless or until robust competition, democratic and human rights safeguards can be baked in — include Amnesty International; scores of consumer, privacy and digital rights groups across civic society; and the