Xiaomi teases a double-folding smartphone… ohhai digital triptych!

China’s Xiaomi has become the latest smartphone maker to tease a folding smartphone, dropping the below video clip of its president and co-founder, Bin Lin, fondling the device on social media today.

The twist is the tablet does not have a single center parting but rather two folds that divide it into three panels, with Xiaomi claiming in a tweet: “It is the world’s first ever double folding phone.”

The video shows Bin contemplating a tablet-sized touchscreen device before quickly turning it on its side, taking it into landscape orientation, where he performs the party trick — folding two panels of screen, one at each side, back behind the tablet to form a slightly chunky looking phablet.

The video is edited so it cuts from front view to back at the moment of the fold so the actual folding action is not seen from the front. But from the back the two folded wings go dark after being folded.

When the video cuts back to the front there’s a slight spinning of the screen, as the software appears to grapple momentarily with the new form factor, before it stablizes in portrait orientation.

The phablet form of the device resembles the bezel-less ‘infinity display’ design of a handset like the 2018 Samsung Galaxy S8. Albeit more squat looking than the tall 18.5:9 aspect ratio of the S8.

Xiaomi’s tweet teaser does not include any details about how near (or indeed far off) a market launch of the device might be. We’ve reached out to the company with questions about the prototype and any launch plans.

Update: A spokesman pointed us to a post on Bin’s Weibo account where he asks his followers for feedback on the prototype, and suggests Xiaomi is still weighing up whether to bring the folding phone to market, writing: “If you like it, we will consider making a mass production machine in the future.”

He also asks for name suggestions, saying Xiaomi is toying with two: Xiaomi Dual Flex or Xiaomi MIX Flex.

“This symmetrical double-folded form perfectly combines the experience of the tablet and mobile phone, which is both practical and beautiful,” he writes [translated via Google Translate], saying building the prototype entailed “conquering a series of technical problems such as flexible folding screen technology, four-wheel drive folding shaft technology, flexible cover technology, and MIUI adaptation”.

“We made the first folding screen mobile phone, which should be the world’s first double folding mobile phone,” he adds, again taking a tentative tone vis-a-vis a potential launch timeframe.

In recent months a handful of folding smartphone prototypes have been demoed by mobile makers, including a booklet-style folding slab from Samsung — trailed as incoming for years but finally teased officially last fall — which also appears to transforms into a rather chunky handset.

An invite to a February 20 Samsung launch event for the forthcoming Galaxy S10, sent out to press two weeks ago, also included a conspicuous centerfold in its graphic teaser. Ergo, a commercial launch from Samsung looks imminent.

While, at CES, a little known Chinese OEM called Royole beat others to the punch by showing off a folder in the flesh. In tablet form the Android powered FlexPai, as the device was christened, is 7.8-inches. But once folded in half the gizmo is left with an unsightly gap between the screen pieces, bulking up the resulting smartphone.  

Xiaomi’s triptych looks to offer a more pleasing design for handling the inevitable air gap created by a folding screen by concealing the ends in the middle of the dual folded panels. Side tucks certainly look more visually pleasing.

That said, two folds could mean a higher risk of screen problems — if the folding mechanism isn’t robust enough to handle lots of bending back and forth.

It’s also far from clear whether consumers will generally take to folding phones, or snub them as fiddly and gimmicky.

In recent years smartphone design has converged around a phablet-sized touchscreen and little else. So adding any fresh mechanical complication is a bit of a risk given how smooth and hermetically sealed smartphones have otherwise become.

But a clutch of Android OEMs are going to try their luck, regardless. And with a saturated smartphone market, stalled growth and competition fiercer than ever you can see why they’re pushing the boat out — or, well, bending the screen back — to try and stand out.

Uber Rewards is rolling out. Here’s how the perks work

Did you blow enough money on Uber to get Diamond status? A lot of users are finding out tonight as Uber rolls out its rider loyalty Rewards program to San Francisco and a slew of other cities. The feature calculates how much you’ve spent on Uber and Uber Eats in the last six months awards you perks like no-fee cancellations if you rebook, guaranteed prices between your two favorite spots, and free car upgrades. Uber confirms to TechCrunch that Rewards will roll out to the entire US soon but now is available in 25 places across the country.

Uber Rewards is still a bit complicated to be easy enough for everyone to quickly understand, but it does a could job of offering powerful perks and a way for everyone to earn $5 rebates. The program could discourage users from checking other ride hailing apps if their Uber’s ETA or price seems too high.

Meanwhile, Lyft’s loyalty program remains unseen. The competitor tried to steal the spotlight by announcing its own rewards system just two days before Uber, yet it seems like that was vaporware as it still hasn’t launched. Uber was far from first here, as Southeast Asia’s Grab has had rewards since 2016. But Uber could flex its deep pockets and cultural cache here by using slick product design to differentiate itself in a crowded market of lookalikes.

How To Use Uber Rewards

Luckily, almost everything in Uber Rewards happens automatically. All you have to do is look out for the invitation to join at the bottom of the home screen and activate it. You’ll then see your tier and the associated perks that you’ll get to keep for the next six months.

The only non-retroactive perk is the $5 credits you get for each 500 points you earn going forward. You get 1 point per dollar spent on UberPool, Express Pool and Uber Eats;  2 points on UberX, Uber XL and Uber Select; and 3 points on Uber Black and Black SUV.  The one perk you have to configure yourself is if you’re platinum, you’ll have to choose which route to get price protection for. You probably want to pick your home and your most frequent destination or one of reasonable distance that you often travel to or from during rush hour.

Uber Rewards is now available in Boston, Dallas, Orange County, Houston, New Orleans, Kansas City, Indianapolis, LA, SF, Fort Collins, Rockies, Pittsburgh, Lehigh valley, Gettysburg, Erie, and Western Massachusetts. That’s on top of the launch cities of Miami, Denver, Tampa, New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego, and anywhere in New Jersey. Once Uber has nailed the experience in the US, it plans to roll it out to international locales.

Uber Rewards Levels

Now, here’s a breakdown of the Uber Rewards tiers, the best perks, and how much Ubering it takes to earn them (from our November post announcing the feature):

Blue: $5 credits

The only Uber perk that doesn’t reset at the end of a period is that you get $5 of Uber Cash for every 500 points earned regardless of membership level. “Even as a semi-frequent Uber Rewards member you’ll get these instant benefits,” Janakiram says. Blue lets you treat Uber like a video game where you’re trying to rack up points to earn an extra life. To earn 500 points, you’d need about 48 UberPool trips, 6 Uber Xs and 6 Uber Eats orders.

Gold: Flexible cancellations

Once you hit 500 points, you join Uber Gold and get flexible cancellations that refund your $5 cancellation fee if you rebook within 15 minutes, plus priority support Gold is for users who occasionally take Uber but stick to its more economical options. “The Gold level is all about being there when things aren’t going exactly right,” Janakiram explains. To earn 500 points in six months, you’d need to take about 2 UberPools per week, one Uber X per month and one Uber Eats order per month.

Platinum: Price protection

At 2,500 points you join Uber Platinum, which gets you the Gold benefits plus price protection on a route between two of your favorite places regardless of traffic or surge. And Platinum members get priority pickups at airports. To earn 2,500 points, you’d need to take UberX 4 times per week and order Uber Eats twice per month. It’s designed for the frequent user who might rely on Uber to get to work or play.

Diamond: Premium support & upgrades

At 7,500 points, you get the Gold and Platinum benefits plus premium support with a dedicated phone line and fast 24/7 responses from top customer service agents. You get complimentary upgrade surprises from UberX to Uber Black and other high-end cars. You’ll be paired with Uber’s highest-rated drivers. And you get no delivery fee on three Uber Eats orders every six months. Reaching 7,500 points would require UberX 8 times per week, Uber Eats once per week and Uber Black to the airport once per month. Diamond is meant usually for business travelers who get to expense their rides, or people who’d ditched car ownership for ridesharing.

Apple Pay is coming to Target, Taco Bell, Speedway and two other U.S. chains

A little more retail momentum for Apple Pay: Apple has announced another clutch of U.S. retailers will soon support its eponymous mobile payment tech — most notably discount retailer Target.

Apple Pay is rolling out to Target stores now, according to Apple, which says it will be available in all 1,850 of its U.S. retail locations “in the coming weeks”.

Also signing up to Apple Pay are fast food chains Taco Bell and Jack in the Box; Speedway convenience stores; and Hy-Vee supermarkets in the midwest.

“With the addition of these national retailers, 74 of the top 100 merchants in the US and 65 per cent of all retail locations across the country will support Apple Pay,” notes Apple in a press release.

Speedway customers can use Apple Pay at all of its approximately 3,000 locations across the Midwest, East Coast and Southeast from today, according to Apple; and also at Hy-Vee stores’ more than 245 outlets in the Midwest.

It says the payment tech is also rolling out to more than 7,000 Taco Bell and 2,200 Jack in the Box locations “in the next few months”.

Back in the summer Apple announced it had signed up long time hold out CVS, with the pharmacy introducing Apple Pay across its ~8,400 stand-alone location last year.

Also signing up then: 7-Eleven, which Apple says now launched support for Apple Pay in 95 per cent of its U.S. convenience stores in 2018.

Last year retail giant Costco also completed the rollout of Apple Pay to its more than 500 U.S. warehouses.

In December, Apple Pay also finally launched in Germany — where Apple slated it would be accepted at a range of “supermarkets, boutiques, restaurants and hotels and many other places” at launch, albeit ‘cash only’ remains a common demand from the country’s small businesses.

Roger Dickey ditches $32M-funded Gigster to start Untitled Labs

Most founders don’t walk away from their startup after raising $32 million and reaching 1000 clients. But Roger Dickey’s heart is in consumer tech, and his company Gigster had pivoted to doing outsourced app development for enterprises instead of scrappy entrepreneurs.

So today Dickey announced that he’d left his role as Gigster CEO, with former VMware VP Christopher Keane who’d sold it his startup WaveMaker coming in to lead Gigster in October. Now, Dickey is launching Untitled Labs, a “search lab” designed to test multiple consumer tech ideas in “social and professional networking, mobility, personal finance, premium services, health & wellness, travel, photography, and dating” before building out one

Untitled Labs is starting off with $2.8 million in seed funding from early Gigster investors and other angels including Founders Fund, Felicis Ventures, Caffeinated Capital, Joe Montana’s Liquid Ventures, Ashton Kutcher, Nikita Bier of TBH (acquired by Facebook), and Zynga co-founder Justin Waldron.

Investors lined up after seeing the success of Dickey’s last two search labs. In 2007, his Curiosoft lab revamped classic DOS game Drugwars as a Facebook game called Dopewars and sold it to Zynga where it became the wildly popular Mafia Wars. He did it again in 2014, building Gigster out of Liquid Labs and eventually raising $32 million for it in rounds led by Andreessen Horowitz and Redpoint. Dickey had proven he wasn’t just dicking around and his search labs could experiment their way to an A-grade startup.

“I loved learning about B2B but over the years I realized my true passions were in consumer and I kinda got the itch to try something new” Dickey tells me. “These things happen in the life-cycle of a company. The person who starts it isn’t always the same person to take it to an IPO. Gigster’s doing incredibly well. It was just a really vanilla separation in the best interest of all parties.”

Gigster co-founders (from left): Debo Olaosebikan and Roger Dickey

Gigster’s remaining co-founder and CTO Debo Olaosebikan will stay with the startup, but tells me he’ll be “moving away from a lot of the day-to-day management.” He’ll be in a more public facing role, evangelizing the vision of digital transformation to big clients hoping Gigster can equip them with the apps their customers demand. “We’ve gotten to a really good place on the backs of the founders and to get it to the next level inside of enterprise, having people who’ve done this, lived this, worked in enterprise for a long time makes sense for the company.”

Olaosebikan and Dickey both confirm there was no misconduct or other funny business that triggered the CEO’s departure, and he’ll stay on the Gigster board. Dickey tells me that Gigster’s business managing teams of freelance product managers, engineers, and designers to handle product development for big clients has grown revenue every quarter. It now has 1200 clients including almost 10% of Fortune 500 companies. Olaosebikan says “We have a great repeatable sales model. We can grow profitably and then we can figure out financing. We’re not in a hurry to raise money.”

Since leaving Gigster, Dickey has been meeting with investors and entrepreneurs to noodle on what’s in their “idea shelf” — the product and company concepts these techies imagine but are too busy to implement themselves. Meanwhile, he’s seeking a few elite engineers and designers to work through Untitled’s prospects.

Dickey said he came up with the “search labs” definition since he and others had found success with the strategy that no one had formalized. The search labs model contrasts with three other ways people typically form startups:

  • Traditional Startup: Founders come up with one idea and raise from venture firms to build it into a company that’s quick to start and lets them keep a lot of equity, but these startups often fail because they lack product market fit. Examples: Facebook, SpaceX.
  • Startup Accelerators and Incubators: Founders come up with one idea and enter an accelerator or incubator that provides funding and education for lots of startups in exchange for a small slice of equity. Founders sometimes learn their idea won’t work and pivot during the program, which is why accelerators seek to fund great teams, but otherwise operate traditionally. Examples: Y Combinator, 500 Startups.
  • Startup Studio: The studios’ founders work with entrepreneurs to come up with a small number of ideas while keeping a significant of the equity. The entrepreneurs operate semi-autonomously but with the advantage of shared resources. Examples: Expa, Betaworks.
  • Search Lab: Founders conceptualize and experiment with a small number of startup ideas, then focus the company around the most promising prototype. Examples: Untitled Labs, Midnight Labs (turned into TBH)

Dickey tells me that after 80 angel investments, going to every recent Y Combinator Demo Day, and talking with key players across the industry, the search lab method was the best way to hone in on his best idea rather than just going on a hunch. Given that approach, he went with “Untitled” so he could save the branding work for when the right product emerges. Dickey concludes “We’re trying to keep it really barebones. We don’t have an office, don’t have a logo, and we’re not going to make swag. We’re just going to find the next business as efficiently as possible.”

Google starts pulling unvetted Android apps that access call logs and SMS messages

Google is removing apps from Google Play that request permission to access call logs and SMS text message data but haven’t been manually vetted by Google staff.

The search and mobile giant said it is part of a move to cut down on apps that have access to sensitive calling and texting data.

Google said in October that Android apps will no longer be allowed to use the legacy permissions as part of a wider push for developers to use newer, more secure and privacy minded APIs. Many apps request access to call logs and texting data to verify two-factor authentication codes, for social sharing, or to replace the phone dialer. But Google acknowledged that this level of access can and has been abused by developers who misuse the permissions to gather sensitive data — or mishandle it altogether.

“Our new policy is designed to ensure that apps asking for these permissions need full and ongoing access to the sensitive data in order to accomplish the app’s primary use case, and that users will understand why this data would be required for the app to function,” wrote Paul Bankhead, Google’s director of product management for Google Play.

Any developer wanting to retain the ability to ask a user’s permission for calling and texting data has to fill out a permissions declaration.

Google will review the app and why it needs to retain access, and will weigh in several considerations, including why the developer is requesting access, the user benefit of the feature that’s requesting access, and the risks associated with having access to call and texting data.

Bankhead conceded that under the new policy, some use cases will “no longer be allowed,” rendering some apps obsolete.

So far, tens of thousands of developers have already submitted new versions of their apps either removing the need to access call and texting permissions, Google said, or have submitted a permissions declaration.

Developers with a submitted declaration have until March 9 to receive approval or remove the permissions. In the meantime, Google has a full list of permitted use cases for the call log and text message permissions, as well as alternatives.

The last two years alone has seen several high profile cases of Android apps or other services leaking or exposing call and text data. In late 2017, popular Android keyboard ai.type exposed a massive database of 31 million users, including 374 million phone numbers.

Dolby quietly preps augmented audio recorder app “234″

Dolby is secretly building a mobile music production app it hopes will seduce SoundCloud rappers and other musicians. Codenamed “234” and formerly tested under the name Dolby Live, the free app measures background noise before you record and then nullifies it. Users can also buy “packs” of audio effects to augment their sounds with EQs settings like “Amped, Bright, Lyric, Thump, Deep, or Natural”. Recordings can then be exported, shared to Dolby’s own audio social network, or uploaded directly to SoundCloud through a built-in integration.

You could call it VSCO or Instagram for SoundCloud.

234 is Dolby Labs’ first big entrance into the world of social apps that could give it more face time with consumers than its core business of integrating audio technology into devices by other manufacturers. Using 234 to convince musicians that Dolby is an expert at audio quality could get them buying more of those speakers and headphones. And by selling audio effect packs, the app could earn the company money directly while making the world of mobile music sound better.

Dolby has been covertly testing Dolby Live/234 since at least June. A source tipped us off to the app and while the company hasn’t formally announced it, there is a website for signing up to test Dolby 234. Dolby PR refused to comment on the forthcoming app. But 234’s sign-up site advertises it saying “How can music recorded on a phone sound so good? Dolby 234 automatically cleans up the sound, gives it tone and space, and finds the ideal loudness. it’s like having your own producer in your phone.”

Those with access to the Dolby 234 app can quickly record audio or audio/video clips with optional background noise cancelling. Free sound editing tools including trimming, loudness boost, and bass and treble controls. Users can get a seven-day free trial of the Dolby’s “Essentials” pack of EQ presets like ‘Bright’ before having to pay, though the pack was free in the beta version so we’re not sure how much it will cost. The “Tracks” tab lets you edit or share any of the clips you’ve recorded.

Overall, the app is polished and intuitive with a lively feel thanks to the Instagram logo-style purple/orange gradient color scheme. The audio effects have a powerful impact on the sound without being gimmicky or overbearing. There’s plenty of room for additional features, though, like multi-tracking, a metronome, or built-in drum beats.

For musicians posting mobile clips to Instagram or other social apps, 234 could make them sound way better without much work. There’s also a huge opportunity for Dolby to court podcasters and other non-music audio creators. I’d love a way to turn effects on and off mid-recording so I could add the feeling of an intimate whisper or echoey ampitheater to emphasize certain words or phrases.

Given how different 234 is from Dolby’s traditional back-end sound processing technologies, it’s done a solid job with design and the app could still get more bells and whistles before an official launch. It’s a creative move for the brand and one that recognizes the seismic shifts facing audio production and distribution. As always-in earbuds like Apple’s AirPods and voice interfaces like Alexa proliferate, short-form audio content will become more accessible and popular. Dolby could spare the world from having to suffer through amazing creators muffled by crappy recordings.

U.S. will reportedly seek criminal case against Huawei for stealing tech secrets

According to a new report from the Wall Street Journal, U.S. federal prosecutors are preparing a criminal indictment against Huawei stealing trade secrets. The report, which cites sources with knowledge of the indictment, specifically mentions Huawei’s actions surrounding a T-Mobile smartphone testing tool known as “Tappy.” The report notes that the current investigation is far enough along that an indictment may come soon.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard of Tappy. In 2014, T-Mobile sued Huawei for allegedly gaining access to a company lab outside of Seattle and photographing and attempting to steal parts of the robotic smartphone testing device. In May 2017, T-Mobile won $4.8 million against Huawei, only a fraction of the $500 million the U.S. mobile carrier sought. The current federal criminal investigation reportedly arose from that civil suit.

The Chinese phonemaker has faced increased scrutiny, escalating to open hostility from U.S. agencies and lawmakers who believe that Huawei poses a security threat due to its close relationship with the Chinese government. The tension escalated considerably last December, when Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the request of the U.S. Meng was charged with fraud for deceptive practices that allowed the Chinese company to avoid U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Huawei, now the world’s number two smartphone maker, trails only Samsung when it comes to mobile device sales, beating Apple for the second slot in late 2018.

The Motorola Razr could return as a $1,500 foldable smartphone

Motorola has revived the Razr name a few times over the years, but the once mighty brand has failed to regain the heights of its early days as an ultra-slim flip phone. But what better time for for the phone maker’s parent Lenovo to bring back the brand in earnest as the mobile world is readying itself for a wave of foldable smartphones?

Nostalgia’s a bit of a mixed bag in consumer electronics. Take the recent returns of Nokia (good), BlackBerry (okay) and Palm (yikes). Slapping a familiar brand on a new product is a fast track to prominence, but not necessarily success. What ultimately may hinder Razr’s rumored return, however, is price.

All of this stems from a new Wall Street Journal report noting Lenovo’s plan to revive the Razr as a foldable smartphone. The price point puts the handset north of even Apple and Samsung’s flagships, at $1,500. Of course, there isn’t really a standardized price point for the emerging foldables category yet.

The Royole FlexPai starts at around $1,300 — not cheap, especially for a product from a relative unknown. And Samsung, the next on the list to embrace the foldable, has never been afraid to hit a premium price point. Ultimately, $1,500 could well be standard for these sorts of products. Whether or not consumers are willing to pay that, however, is another question entirely.

The new Razr is apparently destined for Verizon this year. The carrier (which, as it happens, also owns TechCrunch) has had a longstanding relationship with Motorola. Success, however, is going to hinge on more than name recognition alone.