Immigrant founders, smartphone growth, SEO tactics, SoftBank’s financials, and AR tech

How an immigration crackdown is hurting UK startups

Our European correspondent Natasha Lomas spent the past few weeks investigating what’s been happening to immigrant founders and tech talent in the UK, who have been receiving more scrutiny from the Home Office in recent months. Natasha zooms in on Metail, a virtual fitting room startup, and its tribulations with the immigration authorities and the damage those action are having on the broader ecosystem:

The January 31 decision letter, which TechCrunch has reviewed, shows how the Home Office is fast-tracking anti-immigrant outcomes. In a short paragraph, the Home Office says it considered and dismissed an alternative outcome — of downgrading, not revoking, the license and issuing an “action plan” to rectify issues identified during the audit. Instead, it said an immediate end to the license was appropriate due to the “seriousness” of the non-compliance with “sponsor duties”.

The decision focused on one of the two employees Metail had working on a Tier 2 visa, who we’ll call Alex (not their real name). In essence, Alex was a legal immigrant had worked their way into a mid-level promotion by learning on the job, as should happen regularly at any good early-stage startup. The Home Office, however, perceived the promotion to have been given to someone without proper qualifications, over potential native-born candidates.

In addition to reporting the story, Natasha also wrote a guide specifically for Extra Crunch members on how founders can manage their immigration matters, both for themselves and for their employees.

The state of the smartphone

TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater analyzed the slowdown in smartphone sales, finding few reasons to be optimistic about how smaller handset manufacturers can compete with giants like Apple and Samsung. There are slivers of good news from the developing world and also from 5G and foldable tech, but don’t expect profits to reach their zenith again any time soon.

Powerbeats Pro are the Bluetooth earbuds to beat

Let’s get the bad out of the way first, shall we?

For starters, that charging case is huge. There’s no way around it. It’s something that’s become more and more apparent as the weather is warmer and I no longer have jacket pockets to carry it around in. If you shell out the money for these, you’ll be thinking about this a lot, too. How long you plan to be out versus the added pocket bulk.

There’s also the issue of cost. A few years ago, $250 might not have seemed crazy for a pair of wireless earbuds. When you’re out-pricing Apple’s primary earbuds, however, it might be time to reconsider.

Those are really the big strikes in what’s been an otherwise wholly enjoyable review process. I’ve been eager to put these through their paces since the day they were announced, and haven’t been disappointed. Given the choice between the AirPods and Powerbeats Pro, I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment.

The Powerbeats Pro are a wholly different take on the category, and that’s precisely where they succeed. Sure, Beats has been operating under the Apple banner for more than a third of its existence, but the company’s fully wireless headphones are probably the best example to date of how to run a sub-brand with minimal interference.

That’s not to say that Apple wasn’t involved. The company’s fingerprints are here, but that’s largely a good thing, honestly. The inclusion of the H1 chip is the clearest example. Using the same silicon found in the latest AirPods, the initial pairing process is as simple as opening up the case. From there, a large window will show the case and two headphones, along with corresponding battery levels.

Assuming, of course, you have an iPhone. You can pair them up to an Android handset and just about anything else with Bluetooth, but you’ve got to go through the more traditional rigmarole. The flip side of all of this is that the Pros only ship with a Lightning port. I’ve expressed my frustration with Apple’s proprietary connector in the past, but honestly, it mostly comes down to the fact that Apple seems to have finally started following the rest of the industry down the USB-C rabbit hole. At this point it feels inevitable.

And, of course, the Pro case isn’t wireless yet. Gotta save something for the second gen, I guess.

As for the clear advantages Beats has over the AirPods, that’s three-fold. First is battery life. The upshot to the massive case is a ton of time on a charge. Beats puts them at nine hours on the earbuds, with a full 24 hours all told, when the case is factored in. I never found myself short on juice, and I’m pretty psyched to take them on the next cross-country plane ride.

That means, in most instances, you’re totally fine to leave home without the case. Though beware that both the case and the buds tend to scuff easily, so I’d use it when possible. The buds’ placement inside the case is also a little tricky. Unlike the AirPods, I found myself repositioning them the first few times.

While the case itself sports a small light that goes either red or white, depending on whether they’re charging, there’s no light on the buds themselves, meaning you’re primarily dependent on iOS to let you know where things stand.

The design of the buds themselves isn’t for everyone — but the same can certainly be said for AirPods. It’s true that the over the ear hooks are probably ideally suited for the gym, but in black these are subtle enough for most people to wear out undetected. More importantly, there are quite comfortable. Apple is still kicking and screaming against silicone tips, and that’s made AirPods particularly divisive. Like many of the company’s headphones before, they simply don’t fit in a lot of ears.

Removable silicone tips offer a more adaptable fit, coupled with a better seal. That, in turn, means less sound leak. The headphones might be tuned a little high for some tastes, but it honestly beats the old days when the company leaned entirely too heavily on bass to make up for other shortcomings. As is, the sound is quite good, so far as fully wireless Bluetooth earbuds go.

I will say that the design wore on one of my ears a bit after a marathon listen while working at my desk, but I was able to wear them for a lot longer than most of the earbuds I’ve tested, with minimal annoyance.

Also impressive is the distance they’ll work. I routinely walked into the other room while leaving my phone charging on the desk with no problem. I did run into the occasional connection problems here and there, where one headphone conked out, but again, that unfortunately is pretty in-line with the current limitations of Bluetooth technology. Putting the earbuds in the case and pulling them back out seemed to address the problem just fine.

The Pros are generally less concerned with appearance than their Apple brethren. A bit ironic, perhaps, for a brand that was seemingly built around image. They’re a pretty good indicator of how far Beats has come as a brand, making for a much more utilitarian product than AirPods — and for a constant companion, that’s a good thing.

Assuming you can stomach the high price and massive case, for a majority of users, the Powerbeats Pro are probably the way to go.

The state of the smartphone

Earlier this month, Canalys used the word “freefall” to describe its latest reporting. Global shipments fell 6.8% year over year. At 313.9 million, they were at their lowest level in nearly half a decade.

Of the major players, Apple was easily the hardest hit, falling 23.2% year over year. The firm says that’s the “largest single-quarter decline in the history of the iPhone.” And it’s not an anomaly, either. It’s part of a continued slide for the company, seen most recently in its Q1 earnings, which found the handset once again missing Wall Street expectations. That came on the tale of a quarter in which Apple announced it would no longer be reporting sales figures.

Tim Cook has placed much of the iPhone’s slide at the feet of a disappointing Chinese market. It’s been a tough nut for the company to crack, in part due to a slowing national economy. But there’s more to it than that. Trade tensions and increasing tariffs have certainly played a role — and things look like they’ll be getting worse before they get better on that front, with a recent bump from a 10 to 25% tariff bump on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

It’s important to keep in mind here that many handsets, regardless of country of origin, contain both Chinese and American components. On the U.S. side of the equation, that includes nearly ubiquitous elements like Qualcomm processors and a Google-designed operating system. But the causes of a stagnating (and now declining) smartphone market date back well before the current administration began sowing the seeds of a trade war with China.

Image via Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesThe underlying factors are many. For one thing, smartphones simply may be too good. It’s an odd notion, but an intense battle between premium phone manufacturers may have resulted in handsets that are simply too good to warrant the long-standing two-year upgrade cycle. NPD Executive Director Brad Akyuz tells TechCrunch that the average smartphone flagship user tends to hold onto their phones for around 30 months — or exactly two-and-a-half years.

That’s a pretty dramatic change from the days when smartphone purchases were driven almost exclusively by contracts. Smartphone upgrades here in the States were driven by the standard 24-month contract cycle. When one lapsed, it seemed all but a given that the customer would purchase the latest version of the heavily subsidized contract.

But as smartphone build quality has increased, so too have prices, as manufacturers have raised margins in order to offset declining sales volume. “All of a sudden, these devices became more expensive, and you can see that average selling price trend going through the roof,” says Akyuz. “It’s been crazy, especially on the high end.”

LG developed its own AI chip to make its smart home products even smarter

As its once-strong mobile division continues to slide, LG is picking up its focus on emerging tech. The company has pushed automotive, and particularly its self-driving capabilities, and today it doubled down on its smart home play with the announcement of its own artificial intelligence (AI) chip.

LG said the new chip includes its own neural engine that will improve the deep-learning algorithms used in its future smart home devices, which will include robot vacuum cleaners, washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners. The chip can operate without an internet connection thanks to on-device processing, and it uses “a separate hardware-implemented security zone” to store personal data.

“The AI Chip incorporates visual intelligence to better recognize and distinguish space, location, objects and users while voice intelligence accurately recognizes voice and noise characteristics while product intelligence enhances the capabilities of the device by detecting physical and chemical changes in the environment,” the company wrote in an announcement.

To date, companies seeking AI or machine learning (ML) smarts at chipset level have turned to established names like Intel, ARM and Nvidia, with upstarts including Graphcore, Cerebras and Wave Computing provided VC-fueled alternatives.

There is, indeed, a boom in AI and ML challengers. A New York Times report published last year estimated that “at least 45 startups are working on chips that can power tasks like speech and self-driving cars,” but that doesn’t include many under-the-radar projects financed by the Chinese government.

LG isn’t alone in opting to fly solo in AI. Facebook, Amazon and Apple are all reported to be working on AI and ML chipsets for specific purposes. In LG’s case, its solution is customized for smarter home devices.

“Our AI C​hip is designed to provide optimized artificial intelligence solutions for future LG products. This will further enhance the three key pillars of our artificial intelligence strategy – evolve, connect and open – and provide customers with an improved experience for a better life,” IP Park, president and CTO of LG Electronics, said in a statement.

The company’s home appliance unit just recorded its highest quarter of sales and profit to date. Despite a sluggish mobile division, LG posted an annual profit of $2.4 billion last year with standout results for its home appliance and home entertainment units — two core areas of focus for AI.

Apple & Google celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day with featured apps, new shortcuts

With last fall’s release of iOS 12, Apple introduced Siri Shortcuts — a new app that allows iPhone users to create their own voice commands to take actions on their phone and in apps. Today, Apple is celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) by rolling out a practical, accessibility-focused collection of new Siri Shortcuts, alongside accessibility-focused App Store features and collections.

Google is doing something similar for Android users on Google Play.

For starters, Apple’s new Siri shortcuts are available today in a featured collection at the top of the Shortcuts app. The collection includes a variety of shortcuts aimed at helping users more quickly perform everyday tasks.

For example, there’s a new “Help Message” shortcut that will send your location to an emergency contact, a “Meeting Someone New” shortcut designed to speed up non-verbal introductions and communication, a mood journal for recording thoughts and feelings, a pain report that helps to communicate to others the location and intensity of your pain, and several others.

Some are designed to make communication more efficient — like one that puts a favorite contact on the user’s home screen, so they can quickly call, text or FaceTime the contact with just a tap.

Others are designed to be used with QR codes. For example, “QR Your Shortcuts” lets you create a QR code for any shortcut you regularly use, then print it out and place it where it’s needed for quick access — like the “Speak Brush Teeth Routine” shortcut that speaks step-by-step instructions for teeth brushing, which would be placed in the bathroom.

In addition to the launch of the new shortcuts, Apple added a collection of accessibility-focused apps to the App Store which highlights a ton of accessibility-focused apps including Microsoft’s new talking camera for the blind called Seeing AI, plus other utilities like text-to-speech readers, audio games, sign language apps, AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) solutions, eye-controlled browsers, smart home apps, fine motor skill trainers, and much more.

The App Store is also today featuring several interviews with developers, athletes, musicians, and a comedian who talk about how they use accessible technology.

Apple is not the only company rolling out special GAAD-themed collections today. Google also unveiled its own editorial collection of accessible apps and games on Google Play. In addition to several utilities, the collection features Live Transcribe, Google’s brand-new accessibility service for the deaf and hard of hearing that debuted earlier this month at its annual Google I/O developer conference.

Though the app’s status is “Unreleased,” users can install the early version which listens to conversations around you, then instantly transcribes them.

Other selections include home screen replacement Nova Launcher, blind assistant app Be My Eyes, head control for the device Open Sesame, communication aid Card Talk, and more.

Ticketmaster put an end to screenshots with new digital ticket technology

Ticketmaster is turning to new technology to help fight ticket fraud. The ticketing giant today unveiled its next-generation digital tickets, “Safetix,” which are tied to the ticket holder’s mobile device through an encrypted barcode that automatically refreshes every few seconds. The tickets will also support NFC technology, allowing fans to enter venues through a “tap and go” experience.

The company says ticket holders will later this year be able to add their contactless ticket to Apple Wallet, so they can enter a venue with their iPhone or Apple Watch. This will also involve the use of proximity-based technology which automatically selects the tickets when the phone is held near the ticket reader.

Apple and Ticketmaster already tested SafeTix this month during the fintech conference Transact, Ticketmaster says.

The combination of new technologies is meant to cut down on ticket fraud.

Today, unscrupulous resellers take screenshots or photocopies of tickets that they then sell multiple times over to unsuspecting victims. Because the barcodes now automatically refresh, a saved photo won’t work.

In practice, however, this may inconvenience some people who previously enjoyed the ease of screenshotting the ticket, then sending it to a friend — something that’s a lot faster than using the transfer feature on Ticketmaster’s website and in its app.

The change could also complicate things at venue check-in as users fumble with their phones to figure out how their new passes work — at least in the near-term.

For fans, the change means they’ll have to transfer tickets to friends, or anyone else they’re selling a ticket to, using the recipient’s phone number or email address. As a result, Ticketmaster gains visibility into the custody chain of each ticket, it notes. And that data can then be turned over to event owners, who will now have information about both the original ticket owner and the actual attendee, as well as anyone else who had access to the ticket.

This also means venues and event owners can target attendees with other offers and information about the event — like food, beverage or merchandise deals or venue-specific instructions. These are the fans they couldn’t have necessarily reached in the past, had the fan entered the venue using only a screenshot on their phone, for instance, or a paper ticket. The event or venue owner can even choose to follow up with the fan after the event wrapped, Ticketmaster says.

“Because a new ticket is issued every time there’s a transfer or sale, event owners have the ability to develop a unique relationship with each fan, leading to in-venue personalization and future communication while increasing their known fanbase,” explained Justin Burleigh, Chief Product Officer of Ticketmaster, North America, in a statement about the launch. “SafeTix will allow fans to arrive at a show or game with confidence that their tickets are always 100 percent authentic and will dramatically reduce the amount of ticket fraud event owners are dealing with on event day,” he added.

SafeTix aren’t immediately available everywhere, but are instead rolling out to specific venues and events to start. Initially, they’ll be used across NFL stadiums for the 2019 season and across a variety of touring artists’ acts.

They’ll later be available at Ticketmaster’s “Presence-enabled” venues — today that includes 300 venues across the U.S. where proximity-based technologies like NFC, RFID, and audio are used. (Of note: Ticketmaster partnered with TechCrunch Disrupt battlefield finalist Lisnr on the audio check-in functionality.)

SafeTix is only one way that Ticketmaster is leveraging technology at live events. The company is also now using facial recognition tools from Blink Identity, which it also invested in, at some venues. And Ticketmaster last fall acquired blockchain ticketing company Upgraded with an eye towards future enhancements of identity-based ticketing.

The transition to SafeTix shouldn’t be a major change for NFL game fans, however. Ticketmaster said that in 2018, 97 percent of fans entered venues using Ticketmaster technology during the 2018 season. It expects Ticketmaster Presence to be installed at over 350 venues in 2019.

 

OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance”, OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications, and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions, or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar. Image via OpenFin

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now President & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. Openfin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including over 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors, and 15 out of the world’s 20 largest banks.

Over 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”

Tesla’s communications chief is leaving the automaker

Dave Arnold, Tesla’s senior director of communications, is leaving the company after two-and-half years years, according to sources familiar with the move.

Tesla confirmed to TechCrunch that Arnold was leaving in June.

“We’d like to thank Dave for his work in support of Tesla’s mission, and we wish him well,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a company-issued statement. “Dave will remain with the company for the next month to help transition his responsibilities to Keely Sulprizio, Tesla’s Director of Global Communications.”

Arnold became senior director of communications Tesla in July after the departure of Sarah O’Brien. O’Brien, who was previously at Apple, held the position at Tesla for two years. She later took a position at Facebook.

The top communications job at Tesla is a high-profile and critical role for the company, which unlike other automakers, doesn’t have a traditional advertising strategy. And thanks to the near-frenetic amount of attention that Tesla and CEO Elon Musk receives from investors and the press, it can also be a challenging and exhausting one. 

The typical stint for the role has been about two years.

Musk reaches his fervent fan base — and critics — via Twitter. His account now has some 26.5 million followers. Musk’s tweets, along with other announcements and controversies, translate to constant news coverage of the company.

That coverage has been largely responsible for driving sales. Tesla’s relationship with the media might be rocky at times. However, the attention by the press has also helped drive sales. The company has said in previous regulatory filings that “media coverage and word of mouth have been the primary drivers of our sales leads and have helped us achieve sales without traditional advertising and at relatively low marketing costs.”