I didn’t think my current socially distant life was fun enough for an Instax camera when I received Fujifilm’s new Instax Square SQ1 a few weeks ago. There were no friends laughing on my couch or tables full of hard seltzer and chips. I was alone, with no Instagram-worthy moments that a Polaroid frame would make cute. Yet, as I began taking photos of my office-apartment-studio-hybrid space, one thing became clear: a simple camera that wraps images in an iconic frame can make even the mundane look Instagram-worthy.
The Instax Square SQ1 is a large, plastic, square box that captures and prints images onto Fujifilm’s square film. It is the successor of the Instax Square SQ6 that was released in 2018. Instead of adding more tech, such as the screen and Bluetooth pairing it added to the Instax Mini LiPlay last year, Fujifilm made the SQ1 as simple as possible. There are only three settings you can control: a ring around the lens lets you spin once to turn the camera on, spin it once more to put it in selfie mode, or spin it back to the top to turn it off. There isn’t even an option to turn the flash off; it is always on and fires with every shot. Around back, a small window on the bottom right lets you know how many exposures you have left. And I think it’s perfect that way.
Using the SQ1 feels like using a toy camera: no thinking needed. Point the camera at a subject, press the large shutter button on the front, and out rolls a soon-to-be square image to the tune of a high-pitched hum.
As I wasted away the $1-per-shot square film on photos of my house plants, the cat I was babysitting, and books I use as props but have never actually opened, I was reminded of how a simple flash and white, Polaroid frame can make anything look good by giving it a timeless, filmic look: the highlights blown out, the blacks a bit grainy. Even as a self-proclaimed camera nerd, I was never willing to waste photos to test different modes on the more complicated SQ6, such as options for taking photos of landscapes, flowers, or creating double exposures. With the SQ1, you point the camera and push the shutter button, which is all I am ever needing out of an instant camera.
It is this consistent look and ease of use that, for me, makes an Instax camera an Instax camera, and to see Fujifilm moving the design back to basics with no screens and limited options is oddly a breath of fresh air. The only smelly part about the SQ1 is its $119.95 price tag. Knowing that each photo taken with this camera is going to cost an additional dollar, paying so much for the camera upfront is a bit daunting. And for a similar result, you could pay less for the 2018 SQ6, which sold for $130 when it released, but it can now be found on sale for around $100.
If simplicity and minimalism is your game, the Instax Square SQ1 will be available this October starting at $119.95 and will come in “terracotta orange,” “glacier blue,” and “chalk white.” And yes, it can even make your pandemic life look cool.
General Motors revealed new details about its Ultium battery platform for its upcoming lineup of electric vehicles. The automaker said the battery will power “a family of five interchangeable drive units and three motors” collectively known as “Ultium Drive,” which will aid GM in its transition to an “all-electric future.”
“GM has built transmissions for many notable automakers,” said Ken Morris, GM vice president, Autonomous and Electric Vehicle Programs, in a statement. “Making motors, transmissions, driveline components and systems are among GM’s best-known competencies, and our manufacturing expertise is proving not only transferable but advantageous as we make the transition to EVs.”
The Ultium platform is intended to be flexible and multifaceted, with the goal of eventually undergirding a variety of vehicle types and shapes. In this way it’s similar to Volkswagen’s modular electric drive matrix, also known as its MEB platform.
For example, Ultium is expected to provide the foundation for GM’s upcoming Hummer pickup truck and SUV; the luxury Cadillac Lyriq SUV; an electric delivery van; and two electric vehicles that the automaker is making in partnership with Honda.
GM says Ultium Drive will be more “responsive than its internal combustion equivalents with precision torque control of its motors for smooth performance.” The platform’s five motors will have “industry-leading” torque and power density “across a wide spectrum of different vehicle types.”
Ultium Drive will also be cost efficient through the consolidation of wiring and other reductions, GM says. This consolidation of parts and features also makes it easier to scale Ultium Drive across GM’s future EV lineup, GM says, citing its “digital nerve system” introduced last year that enables smartphone-style over-the-air software updates.
Previously, GM said it reduced by about 80 percent the amount of wiring from the EV architecture currently used in its Chevy Bolt vehicles. The hope is that this will drive battery cell costs below the $100/kWh level and allow GM to get more bang for its buck as it scales up its EV production capabilities.
GM is in the midst of a $20 billion pivot to an “all-electric future” that includes spending $2.2 billion to retrofit its first “fully-dedicated” electric vehicle assembly plant. Last week, the automaker acquired a stake in buzzy electric vehicle startup Nikola, which sparked another round of speculation that GM could spin off its EV business, which is estimated to be worth up to $100 billion.
These announcements are seen as an ongoing attempt to mollify Wall Street investors who have been jittery about GM’s ability to catch up to Tesla. Elon Musk’s company has soared in valuation, even as the auto industry at large has suffered from the coronavirus pandemic. Next week, Tesla is hosting its “Battery Day” event where it expects to make several announcements about its efforts to bring down the cost and extend the range of its batteries.
A British company has launched a new household cleaner that it claims can destroy the SARS-CoV-2 virus in just 60 seconds.
The cleaner, called Cert, comes in a handy tablet form, and can be used on hard surfaces and hard floors.
To use it, customers simply place the tablet in 500ml of water in a spray bottle, and start spraying.
Robin Rough, managing director of Hydrachem, the firm behind the cleaner, explained: “We see Cert. as a real breakthrough for cleaning and hygiene.
“We’ve manufactured for the NHS for many years – now everyone can destroy COVID-19 at home or at work.”
The detergent works by chemically modifying the spike proteins on coronavirus molecules, preventing them from binding onto cells.
It also attacks and dissolves the fatty membrane of the virus by punching holes in it, leaving the RNA genome inside the virus exposed to the chemical disinfectants.
Cert has been tested by several experts across Europe under a variety of conditions.
During one test, Dr Jochen Steinmenn of the Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology in Bremen tested Cert against modified vaccinia virus Ankara – the internationally recognised surrogate of SARS-CoV-2.
His tests certified that Cert effectively destroys the virus in just one minute.
Mr Rough said: “In its pre-dosed tablet form of combined detergent and disinfectant Cert. delivers the correct concentration and dosage, as recommended by Public Health England – Cert. provides you with hospital-grade hygiene both at home and work.”
In another test, Dr Andrew Kemp, a specialist in disinfection and decontamination, tested Cert on a wooden food chopping board, an alloy metal sink, and a man-made high gloss kitchen work top.
Dr Kemp said: “At the critical period – 5 minutes after treatment – Cert. killed 100% of the bacteria species used to contaminate the surfaces. You couldn’t ask for more.”
Two tubes of 18 tablets is priced at £17.99, and can be purchased through Amazon or the Cert website.
A hospital in India has deployed a customer-service robot to patrol its wards, connecting coronavirus patients to friends and relatives. Mitra, meaning “friend” in Hindi, is best known for interacting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an event in 2017. Its piercing eyes are equipped with facial recognition technology to help it recall people it has previously interacted with. A tablet attached to Mitra’s chest allows patients to see loved ones, as well as medical staff unable to access the wards. “It takes a lot of time to recover, and during this time, when patients need their families the most, they are unable to visit,” said Dr Arun Lakhanpal, a doctor at the Yatharth Super Speciality Hospital in Noida Extension, a satellite city of the capital New Delhi. Mitra is mainly used by patients who are not able to communicate using their phones.
‘Mitra’ is seen inside a lift of the Yatharth Super Speciality Hospital in Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, September 15, 2020.
Also See | Photos : Mitra the robot helps Covid-19 patients in India speak to loved ones, medical staff unable to visit the wards
“We mainly discuss my health,” said Makhanlal Qazi, a retired government bureaucrat and coronavirus patient who has used the robot to communicate with relatives. “I came here on Friday and now I have started feeling better. I am feeling very happy now.” The robot, developed by Bengaluru-based start-up Invento Robotics, cost the hospital Rs 10 lakh ($13,600), according Yatharth Tyagi, director of the company that runs the hospital. Mitra is also being used for remote consultations with specialists to reduce their risk of becoming infected, he added. “Normally it is very difficult for a psychologist or a dietician to see a COVID patient,” Tyagi said, adding the robot is “very useful”. India’s novel coronavirus cases surged past 5 million on Wednesday, only the second country in the world to cross the grim milestone after the United States.
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)
Even though Apple didn’t announce new iPhones yesterday, the event was a jam-packed hour. Apple announced four new hardware products, a major new service, and a new bundle. By any objective standard, that’s a big day. As I’ll note below, the most important products might not be the hardware, but Fitness Plus and the ability to make an Apple Watch a kid tracker.
Besides those announcements, the main thing that struck me is that Apple seems to be making a subtle but important shift in its product strategy this year. You may have heard of the “Good, Better, Best” pricing strategy — it’s beenapplied to Apple a bunch. I think what Apple is doing this year is making the “better” option …better — and also a little more expensive. It’s the “better better” model.
The old among us have Steve Jobs’ famous Mac product grid indelibly marked in our concept of how Apple approaches products. On one axis was “Consumer vs Pro” and the other was “Desktop vs Portable.”
But it’s not really applicable anymore on either axis and it certainly doesn’t work for the many kinds of products Apple makes now. There simply are more tiers than just “consumer” and “pro” for most product categories. Plus, in Apple world, the word “pro” itself doesn’t really mean “for professionals” so much as “the best thing” these days.
Take the Apple Watch announcements. Apple announced both a flagship Series 6 line of watches and a lower-cost SE line. At first, I thought of the Apple Watch SE as parallel to the iPhone SE. So it seemed to me that the trend is Apple needing to make more inexpensive products that are technically new because it’s harder to get consumers to buy last year’s model. But after some thought, I think that’s not quite right.
The Good, Better, Best cadence for the Apple Watch just happens to go by different names compared to the iPhone. The SE naming scheme just threw me. Here’s how I think it goes:
Good: Apple Watch Series 3 / iPhone SE
Better: Apple Watch SE / iPhone 11
Best: Apple Watch Series 6 / iPhone 11 Pro
The “good” option at the bottom of the lineup actually serves two purposes. It’s a killer deal and makes Apple’s products more accessible. But it also makes space for the better option to be more advanced and pricier. Last year, Apple likely sold a kajillion Series 3 watches at its low price — this year it has a very clear upsell in the SE.
The same basic logic applies to the new iPad and iPad Air. The new iPad Air takes on a lot of the things that make the Pro compelling — so much so that unless the words “ProMotion” and “LIDAR” mean anything to you, the Air is a better choice. It’s also $100 more than the iPad Air was last year.
I think Apple’s not too worried about the iPad Air cannibalizing the iPad Pro — it’s still selling you an iPad, after all, and it’s surely making a good margin because that’s what Apple does. In fact, I suspect “margin” is often the answer as to why the better option is missing a feature the best option has. The Apple Watch SE is a Series 6 with less expensive components too: no blood oxygen monitor, always-on display, or the newest chip.
Put another way, all I’m talking about here is upselling. The quality of the “good” option gets you in the (now metaphorical) door and the upsell to the better option is sitting right there. Apple’s trick is to make that upsell a variant of its best thing instead of an improved version of the good thing. The Apple Watch SE is based on the Series 6. The iPhone 11 is closer to the 11 Pro than to the iPhone SE. And the iPad Air is now more like an iPad Pro than a basic iPad.
Like any model, this idea can break down with too much rhetorical pressure. I don’t know how it applies to the MacBook lineup, for example, but that lineup is in such flux right now with the impending Arm chips that I think it gets a pass. To me, this model is what Apple is striving for, but depending on where any given product line is at the moment it might be difficult to achieve.
Every time Apple releases a new product in a line, there’s always some variant of the question “Why does this need to exist when it’s so similar to that other thing?” I was asking it myself with the iPad Air and the Apple Watch SE yesterday. And now I think the answer is to make sure the “better” one is better — and it doesn’t hurt Apple if that means it’s just a little more expensive too.
Rounding up the Apple news
┏ Apple’s ‘Time Flies’ event: the 9 biggest announcements. This is a good summary of everything in one place. You can also find every story we published in this story stream.
┏ Apple ‘Time Flies’ 2020 live blog. If you want to see my and Nilay Patel’s thoughts in real time.
┏ Apple posts ASL translation of its ‘Time Flies’ event. Every company should do this.
┏ Apple announces Apple Watch Series 6 with ability to measure blood oxygen levels. The blood oxygen measurement is the big new feature, but there’s also a U1 chip in there that may unlock some future capabilities someday, like unlocking your car or locating those as-yet unannounced AirTags.
┏ Apple announces Apple Watch SE, an affordable successor to the Series 3. The main things you’ll lose from the Series 6 is the always-on display, the blood oxygen monitor, ECG, and other bits like the U1 chip. Importantly, it has fall detection.
┏ Family Setup will let you manage multiple Apple Watches from a single iPhone. I think this low-key might be the most important thing Apple announced yesterday. You’ll have to pay a carrier a monthly fee for it to work, but I have to imagine that anybody looking at those kid tracker watches is going to think twice about getting an Apple Watch instead — especially if there ends up being kid peer pressure about it!
A couple notes I learned in briefings with Apple: the kids get notified of certain kinds of parental surveillance (like geofences) and can approve or deny sharing of certain health stats. Also for kids: the move ring tracks overall activity time, not estimated calories. Ostensibly this is because it just makes more sense to track how active a kid is, but I am also glad because it’s probably not good for kids to be thinking about caloric intake.
My very informal poll of my Twitter followers has a lot of replies from parents who are paying attention and thinking about this new feature. It also reveals a surprising number of parents who want to implant chips directly into their kids’ skulls.
┏ Apple is removing the USB power adapter from upcoming Apple Watch boxes. As I wrote when it was rumored that Apple would do this for the next iPhone: good. For the environment, I mean. Weirdly, Apple’s very expensive fancy versions of the Apple Watch still do come with a charger. I guess rich people wouldn’t be able to handle the logistics of finding their own charger in a drawer or something?
┏ Here’s how to pick between the Apple Watch Series 6, SE, and older models.
┏ Apple’s new Watch strap comes in 12 sizes, and you’ll need to measure your wrist to pick the right one. I saw a brief demo over video conference of these straps and they do stretch out quite far to fit over your hand before shrinking back to their original shape on your wrist. But this whole system for measuring your own wrist via a printout is really awkward. Not that I think there’s a better solution, but an uncomfortable watch is the worst and I worry people will get the wrong size and then just live with it.
There’s one extra complication, though. The largest three Loop sizes aren’t compatible with a 40mm Watch, while the three smallest sizes won’t work with a 44mm Watch. That means, for example, if you wanted the smaller Watch but have a large wrist, you might not be able to get one of the new Loop bands that fits you.
Services: Apple One and Fitness Plus
┏ Apple announces Fitness Plus virtual workouts. They’re not live like Peloton, but there is going to be new content weekly across a variety of different workout styles. An Apple Watch is required, though, which is maybe just a little disappointing.
┏ Apple confirms Apple One subscription bundle, bringing together Music, TV Plus, Arcade, and more. So there are three tiers, which feels like too many tiers. But okay, Apple has to charge more for a family plan than an individual plan because music labels charge more for that, I’m told. And both Fitness Plus and Apple News Plus aren’t available in all regions (Fitness Plus is only in six countries to start). Put those together and it kind of backs Apple into three tiers.
But I still feel like there’s a bit a confusion here, honestly. My own personal calculus is that the 200GB iCloud storage plan isn’t enough anymore. So I’m in for ten bucks a month for 2TB. Add in another Apple service like TV+ or Music and I’m creeping on $20 or $25 a month. So you start trying to do some math on what you want and don’t and eventually you just kind of land at it screw it, I’ll just get the one with everything for the whole family — and if you are a whole family it’s a good deal!
Still feels like upselling to me, just a little. And my regular reminder is that whenever you see a monthly price, you should do the mental math to see what it costs per year. That’s a scale that makes it easer to compare to other purchases or — you know — saving your damn money. So the Apple One Premier tier is $29.95/month or about $360 per year.
Finally — will Apple start offering bundles with hardware subsidies attached? In some ways it makes sense! In others, though, there are so many models of iPhone it’s hard to know which would get attached at what price.
┏ Apple says its new Apple One services bundle isn’t unfair to Spotify. Award for weirdest statement of the day goes to Spotify, who wanted to butt in and point out that Apple’s services bundle puts it at a disadvantage. In a well-crafted statement, Spotify could have made that case — but it chose more anger than clarity.
What’s interesting to me is that Apple felt the need to respond with a public statement. I think if there weren’t so much heat around antitrust right now, Apple wouldn’t have bothered.
iPad and iPad Air
┏ Apple announces updated eighth-generation 10.2-inch entry-level iPad for $329. The iPad continues to be one of the best deals in consumer tech. And Apple is continuing its efforts to get them adopted in schools in lieu of Chromebooks.
┏ Apple announces new iPad Air that looks more like an iPad Pro, starting at $599. The processor in it is newer than what’s in the iPad Pro, but the iPad Pro has more cores and a stronger GPU. And as for the switch to USB-C? It tells me that there’s no religion about ports at Apple. But I also don’t expect the iPhone 12 will switch over to USB-C.
Which I think is a pity, but I understand Apple’s calculus that it would be disruptive to a large user base. Then again, being willing to disrupt a user base in the name of moving tech forward is something Apple used to be unafraid of — literally it was called “courage” to drop the headphone jack.
┏ Apple will release iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 on September 16th. The drama is that developers have historically had a little more advance notice of these releases. It means that a bunch of devs who worked to create iOS 14-specific features or updates won’t be able to publicize them on day one of the update.
┏ Apple has sold more than 500 million iPads over the last decade. Apple made a big deal of the fact that more than 50 percent of all iPad buyers are first-time iPad buyers. It wants to make the case that the iPad has room to grow and the ability to encroach on the PC and Chromebook market. It specifically called out how both new iPads were faster. Though I have to say Apple touting benchmarks like this rings hollow to me — it should win on experience and software ecosystem. Chromebooks aren’t popular in schools because they’re fast, they’re popular because they’re inexpensive, convenient, and relatively easy to manage.
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It’s one of the most highly anticipated gaming consoles of the year, and now a new leak gives us a look at the box for the PlayStation 5.
Daniel Ahmad, a Senior Analyst at Niko Partners has tweeted what he claims are the model numbers and box contents for both the PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 5 Digital Edition.
Mr Ahmad claims the information is from a ‘Hong Kong distributer’, and highlights that it may just be region specific.
His leak indicates that the PlayStation 5 has model number CFI-1015A, while the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition has model number CFI-1015B.
In terms of box contents, the leak suggests that the PS5 and PS5 Digital Edition will both ship with a wireless controller, a 825GB SSD card, a base, an HDMI cable, an AC power cord, a USB cable, and an instruction manual.
Meanwhile, the leak also suggests that both consoles will come with a game pre-installed in the form of Astro’s Playroom.
The leak comes shortly before the PlayStation 5 Showcase event, during which Sony is expected to reveal the price and release date for the PS5.
The event will begin at 21:00 BST tonight, and will focus on the games coming to the PS5.
Sid Shuman, Senior Director, SIE Content Communications, said: “Before PlayStation 5 launches this holiday, we wanted to give you one more look at some of the great games coming to PS5 at launch (and beyond!).
“Our next digital showcase will weigh in at around 40 minutes, and feature updates on the latest titles from Worldwide Studios and our world-class development partners.
“Tune in live on Twitch or YouTube this Wednesday, September 16 at 1pm PDT / 9pm BST / 10pm CEST to see what’s next for PS5.”
VanMoof just announced $40 million in new outside investment to capitalize on the surging global demand for electric bikes. Importantly, VanMoof’s co-founders, Ties and Taco Carlier, tell The Verge that about a third of that new money will be directed at solving VanMoof customer support issues that have intensified with the launch of the company’s new S3 and X3 e-bikes in the middle of a global pandemic.
“Over the next six to twelve months, we’ll have upgraded every step of the customer journey, from production to scheduling check-ups. Getting a VanMoof e-bike serviced will be as easy as ordering a meal online,” promises Taco in a prepared statement announcing the new investment round.
I caught up with the Dutch brothers over Zoom on Monday to better understand two things: what’s being done to address the quality and delivery issues that have sullied the S3 / X3 launch, and how this new cash infusion will improve things in the future. Ties, the car mechanic-turned-engineer, was in Taipei where he oversees VanMoof’s supply chain and a new dedicated assembly plant operated by SINBON Electronics. Taco, the engineer-turned-business executive, was in Amsterdam where VanMoof is headquartered.
Sales of VanMoof bikes have been booming. The company says that it sold more bikes in the first four months of 2020 than it did in the previous two years combined. Sales of its new S3 and X3 e-bikes, launched in April, have also been selling at twice the rate of any previous launch from the company due to the lower starting price of $1,998, which set a new industry baseline for premium electrics.
Amplified sales have been mirrored by amplified complaints, however. Support forums like VanMoof-ing (which the company and founders monitor closely) are rife with unhappy customers. The most vocal are those still waiting for their bikes to arrive, suffering missed deadlines by several weeks at a time, yet receiving little to no communication from the company. This is despite assurances that the delivery issues that plagued VanMoof’s previous generation of bikes wouldn’t be repeated this time around, thanks to the company’s new “hyper efficient manufacturing and distribution system” touted at the S3/X3 launch event.
To make matters worse, some VanMoof owners who have received their new e-bikes complain about scuffs and damage that occurred during shipping. Others complain about wobbly wheels, hydraulic brakes that make noise or don’t work, or a wide range of cryptic error codes that flash on their disabled bike’s display. It’s also not unusual to be on hold for 20 minutes, 40, or longer when trying to call VanMoof support.
“We want to build the best service experience ever. And we are going from about the worst to the best, I think,” admits Ties in a moment of full transparency. “There’s a lot of frustration, I know. Even if it’s only a few percent of buyers that’s still way too much.”
Something clearly hasn’t gone to plan.
SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
The first issues with the S3 / X3 shipments appeared almost immediately and in far greater volume than anticipated. “We thought this bike would be ten times better than the S2 because we fixed everything,” explains Ties, the engineer. But new issues presented themselves soon after the first few thousand S3 bikes shipped, creating 10 times as many customer support calls instead. “We calculated in about 1 percent — 1 out of 100 bikes within the first week or so would have something important enough for a customer to give us a call. But that turns out to be closer to 10 percent,” he says. The company’s support team was quickly overwhelmed, creating a backlog of help requests.
The company currently assembles and ships between 400 and 500 bikes each day, or about 12,000 bikes each month. “We can not stop even temporarily to catch up with customer service because a lot of people have paid and are waiting for their bikes,” Ties says.
VanMoof says that some issues have already been corrected at the point of assembly. But that won’t fix the bikes that have already left for the staging warehouses in the US, Europe, and Japan before delivery to buyers. So VanMoof had to very quickly mobilize quality control teams to check every bike at the warehouses and filter out the ones with known issues. That additional quality control step in the middle created a delay of up to three weeks for some customers.
VanMoof’s new eco-friendly boxes also created issues. The smaller, less wasteful boxes were cheaper to ship, helping to bring down the cost of the bike, but they didn’t offer enough protection during rough handling.
Ties suggests that he might activate the sensors on VanMoof bikes during shipment to measure the G-force they’re subjected to during delivery. “We didn’t do it yet, but we should. Sometimes you see the damage and it’s insane. We cannot even replicate it here, even if we throw it off a 10-meter wall,” he says.
VanMoof once famously packed its bikes in boxes that implied they contained fragile big-screen TVs. It helped at first, but then the word got out. “It was such a well-known hack, and other companies started doing it,” says Ties. “I don’t think it really works anymore.” His brother Taco, however, is less convinced: “It could be a cool idea to try to do some A/B testing and put the television back on the box to see if it works.”
For the time being, VanMoof started reinforcing the smaller boxes to make them stronger while adding foam back to the packaging to protect the bike tubes. So far, the change looks promising, resulting in less damage during delivery, says Ties.
The other complication, unsurprisingly, was trying to launch the new VanMoof electric bikes in the middle of a pandemic. VanMoof’s supply chain of custom components was fine, humming along while its competitors were forced to shut down due to a lack of parts. But suddenly, everyone who ever bought a VanMoof bike in the last 11 years began calling customer support as bike usage soared around the world. “In April, or the end March, when the crisis started, at first it was three weeks of complete silence, and then it went all crazy,” recalls Taco. “Thousands of people started emailing and calling and it overwhelmed customer support.” Preorders for the S3 and X3 started in early April before the bikes began shipping in May.
The company has been scaling customer support ever since, but it’s had to do so within the restrictions of a COVID lockdown, with people working from home and having to be hired and trained remotely.
It’s easy to say with the help of hindsight, but all of the signs were there that bicycles, electric bikes, and VanMoof e-bikes, in particular, were in unusually high demand even before the less expensive, but more feature-packed, S3 and X3 bikes went on sale. Even VanMoof was saying as much in a blog post from March 20th, talking about the sales jump the company had seen since February. “I either had no time or I didn’t think to make the customer support a lot bigger at that time,” admits Ties. “But we should have anticipated that part as well, for sure.”
VanMoof is now catching up to the backlog while improving the initial quality of its bikes, but the company’s not out of the woods yet. The Brothers Carlier now concede that they’ve outgrown their existing support model that often requires bikes to be reboxed and shipped back and forth for repair.
“We had some big issues in the past four months with our service platform,” says Taco. “And I think this is a big opportunity not only to fix those issues, but reinvent how a bike should be serviced in the future.”
A GLOBAL MOBILE SERVICE NETWORK
“Our next frontier is to transform our business by building a full support ecosystem around every rider,” said Ties in today’s funding announcement. The company is targeting a rollout in the next six to 12 months built around four main components:
A global mobile service network
More intuitive app support
Smarter software with remote diagnostic solutions
More proactive customer support
That first bullet is the most notable. Competitors like Cowboy in Europe, and Rad Power in the US, also offer mobile service networks, whereby parts are shipped to a customer’s home where a certified technician is dispatched to perform repairs beyond the purview of the customer or local bike shop. Rad Power notably partners with Velofix to broaden its support network to more cities.
The Carliers, in traditional VanMoof style, think the best approach is to build their own mobile service network, as it does nearly every component on the S3 and X3 bikes. The mobile service network will be staffed by both full-time VanMoof employees and freelancers, trained to only repair and maintain VanMoof bikes.
The service will be offered in a few cities at the start and then rolled out globally shortly thereafter. “80 to 90 percent of our bikes are shipped to 50 cities around the world,” says Ties. “So we can focus on those 50 cities, that’s very doable. The first 5 or 10 are the most work, that’s what we’re working on now.” From there, it should be easy to take the model and expand it to more cities as needed, or so the thinking goes.
When asked if VanMoof would ever partner with a third-party bike-service company to augment VanMoof’s own mobile service network, Taco, the ever-pragmatic business executive, responded as expected: “Never say never,” he said.
Ties says that building VanMoof’s mobile service network on a global scale only recently became possible. First, they needed to begin shipping in the type of volume seen with the S3 and X3, which is only expected to grow in the years ahead — in May, the company claimed to have “over 120,000 riders.” Second, VanMoof needed to take control of the supply chain to ensure it had ready access to the parts needed for repair, something they’ve slowly been doing since their first electric bike launched four years ago. Finally, VanMoof needed to achieve the type of modularity and OTA update capabilities found in the S3 and X3 bikes so that a trained technician — not an expensive bike mechanic — could be cost-effectively dispatched to a customer’s home or office for service.
The new VanMoof mobile service network is not the same as the $340 Peace of Mind: Maintenance subscriptions that VanMoof offers in 21 cities today. POM, as Ties calls it, sends VanMoof’s Bike Doctors to your home or office to replace worn tires, lubricate the drivetrain, and perform other routine maintenance tasks at defined intervals. The mobile service network kicks into action as issues arise and will be available to all VanMoof customers who need assistance in the cities supported. Pricing for the new mobile service network hasn’t been finalized.
WAIT, THERE’S MORE?
As to the other three components of the new support ecosystem — more intuitive app support, smarter software with remote diagnostic solutions, and more proactive customer support — the VanMoof founders explained their plans for those as well.
Ties says to expect the VanMoof app to offer better support, possibly offering a utility that can be run on the bike to diagnose an issue instead of requiring a call to customer support. It might even order the part automatically after confirmation from the owner.
VanMoof bikes currently receive software updates a few times each year, maybe once every three months by Ties’ estimate. This new round of funding will help accelerate that. “Tesla cars, for example, where you get a weekly software update that adds features but also fixes a lot of bugs — I think that’s where we really want to be.” Ties says it’s also important to continuously update older bikes to keep them on the road longer, noting that VanMoof still maintains a software team dedicated to the S1, VanMoof’s first electric bike launched in 2016.
VanMoof is working to make its bikes so smart, so full of sensors, that they’ll be able to detect an issue before the customer does and then proactively take steps to resolve it. “We are working on more sensors…” begins Ties before pausing. “I don’t know how much exactly I should tell about this, but there are more kinds of sensors that we can build into the bike.” Ties envisions a bike that can detect a worn brake pad, for example, before the owner even notices, causing VanMoof to send a replacement part directly to the person’s home. “You can just change it, or maybe in the near future the mobile service agent can do it.”
VanMoof wouldn’t be the first to implement remote diagnostics in the mobility space. Superpedestrian scooters have had this capability for a while. The company responsible for the Copenhagen Wheel equips its fleet scooters with the intelligence to detect about 100 different points of failure to trigger a service request when needed.
But only a third of that $40 million investment VanMoof announced today is earmarked for improving after-sales support. According to Taco, the other two-thirds will be equally allocated to R&D and to ramping up production capacity.
“We have chosen two investors, NVP and Felix Capital that know everything about scaling brands. We deliberately chose an investor in the American market because I still believe that’s our biggest potential,” says Taco, who describes the US as VanMoof’s third-fastest growth market. “We also chose an investor — Balderton — with a deep knowledge of tech and especially software that can bring our software platforms to the next level.”
VanMoof’s competitors are raising capital as well. For example, Rad Power raised $25 million in February while Cowboy raised $23 million in July. And with VanMoof raising $53.5 million in new investment since May, two things are now abundantly clear: VanMoof is no longer a startup, and investors are now betting on electric bikes as the next frontier in mobility.
It’s money that gives VanMoof a lot of runway to achieve its goal of getting the next billion on bikes, just as cities around the world are finally waking up to the idea.
On Sunday night, after being encouraged to by friends and family, I hit play on a new documentary about our digital lives. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, The Social Dilemma explores the effect of smartphones and social networks on human behavior. Blending talking-head interviews with some well known Silicon Valley apostates and fictional, after-school special-style dramatizations of what happens when Johnny and Janey scroll through feeds all day, the film presents itself as an urgent warning about our modern condition.
I’m more than a little sympathetic to these concerns. I started writing this newsletter in 2017 after coming to the belated realization that social networks really did have an outsized impact on modern life, and deserved to be taken as seriously. My thinking has benefited tremendously from speaking over the years with some of the interview subjects in the film, including Tristan Harris, Renee DiResta, Tim Kendall, Jeff Seibert, and Justin Rosenstein. In particular, Harris’ work on screen time triggered a powerful sea change in the industry, and DiResta’s explorations of misinformation have been essential to helping social networks understand themselves.
And yet despite all that … the film is ridiculous? The dramatized segments include a fictional trio of sociopaths working inside an unnamed social network to design bespoke push notifications to distract their users. They show an anguished family struggling to get the children to put their phones away during dinner. And the ominous piano score that pervades every scene, rather than ratcheting up the tension, gives it all the feeling of camp. If someone asked me to reimagine this newsletter as a drag show, I would start where The Social Dilemma leaves off.
And as Adi Robertson points out at The Verge, the idea that algorithmic recommendation engines are at the heart of our troubles leaves out vast swathes of the internet that are arguably just as important as the big social networks, and perhaps in some cases even more so. She writes:
Propaganda, bullying, and misinformation are actually far bigger and more complicated. The film briefly mentions, for instance, that Facebook-owned WhatsApp has spread misinformation that inspired grotesque lynchings in India. The film doesn’t mention, however, that WhatsApp works almost nothing like Facebook. It’s a highly private, encrypted messaging service with no algorithmic interference, and it’s still fertile ground for false narratives. As Alexis Madrigal notes, condemning the platforms together comes “uncomfortably close to admitting that mobile communications pose fundamental challenges to societies across the world.” There’s a fair case for that, he argues — but a case with much more alarming implications.
Radicalization doesn’t just happen on Facebook and YouTube either. Many of the deadliest far-right killers were apparently incubated on small forums: Christchurch mosque killer Brenton Tarrant on 8chan; Oregon mass shooter Chris Harper-Mercer on 4chan; Tree of Life Synagogue killer Robert Bowers on Gab; and Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik on white supremacist sites including Stormfront, a 23-year-old hate site credited with inspiring scores of murders.
These sites aren’t primarily driven by algorithms or profit motives. Instead, they twist and exploit the open internet’s positive ability to connect like-minded people. When harmful content surfaces on them, it raises complex moderation questions for domain hosts and web infrastructure providers — a separate set of powerful companies that have completely different business models from Facebook.
This isn’t to let social networks off the hook. Nor is it an effort to make the problem feel so complicated that everyone just throws their hands up and walks away from it. But I’m shocked at how appealing so many people find the idea that social networks are uniquely responsible for all of society’s ills. (The Social Dilemma has been among the 10 most watched programs on Netflix all week.)
This cartoon super villain view of the world strikes me as a kind of mirror image of the right-wing conspiracy theories which hold that a cabal of elites are manipulating every world event in secret. It is more than a little ironic that a film that warns incessantly about platforms using misinformation to stoke fear and outrage seems to exist only to stoke fear and outrage — while promoting a distorted view of how those platforms work along the way.
Some folks who worked on the film told me that this kind of approach is necessary to “communicate in a way that appeals to a broad audience.” But I say that’s a cop out. If you’re going to argue that social platforms are uniquely responsible for the fraying of society, you have to show your work.
II. A memo
On the other hand, meet Sophie Zhang. She was a data scientist who was fired in August and left this month in the fashion increasingly popular among departing Facebook employees — which is to say, quite dramatically.
“In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” wrote Zhang, who declined to talk to BuzzFeed News. Her LinkedIn profile said she “worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team” and dealt with “bots influencing elections and the like.”
“I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I’ve lost count,” she wrote.
She added: “I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”
Unlike the Social Dilemma filmmakers, Zhang showed her work — first to her bosses, and then, inadvertently, to the world. She describes governments in Azerbaijan and Honduras using Facebook against their own citizens, employing large numbers of fake accounts to promote their own interests and attack critics. And she found what she described as coordinated influence campaigns in countries including India, Ukraine and Bolivia.
Zhang’s official job was to police Facebook for “fake engagement” — people buying inauthentic likes, comments, and shares. From this perch she continually wandered into an adjacent realm that Facebook calls “civic integrity,” to the apparent frustration of her bosses. It’s a higher-stakes realm that works on some of the most pressing issues a social platform will face, including foreign influence operations and election integrity. It’s also famed for its difficulty — academics tell me that unearthing these operations and properly attributing them requires significant domain expertise. Many of the people who do this at Facebook and other networks previously worked for US intelligence agencies.
Zhang, by contrast, was a relatively junior employee who was essentially moonlighting on civic integrity issues. That may have been one reason why she struggled to get her colleagues’ attention, I’m told. Everyone I’ve spoken to at Facebook over the past day says Zhang was bright and dedicated to her work. But navigating large organizations can be a challenge even for the most senior employees, and it seems like Facebook’s sheer size often prevented Zhang’s findings from getting prompt attention.
After BuzzFeed’s story ran, some people who work on the company’s integrity team — and there are more than 200 of them — were frustrated at the implication that they are sitting on their hands all day, or otherwise bad at their jobs. (I don’t think Zhang meant to imply this, but that was certainly the tenor of the discussion about BuzzFeed’s story on Twitter.) Many of them had worked with Zhang on the takedown efforts she described, and felt undermined by her memo, I’m told. Sometimes team leaders set priorities differently than their own employees would, and Facebook’s efforts — which focus on the largest and most active networks, particularly during elections — sometimes set aside other legitimate threats, like the ones Zhang had found.
Ultimately, that’s the aspect of Zhang’s memo that sticks. Facebook mostly doesn’t deny that her findings were accurate, significant, and sometimes received delayed responses. The company says only that the issues she found, however significant, were less pressing than the many other issues the civic integrity team was policing at the time, in other countries all over the world.
Mastering the geopolitics of each country and rooting out every influence operation that pops up while also policing hate speech and misinformation while promoting free speech and interpersonal connections is a mind-bendingly enormous task. But it’s also the task that Facebook, by virtue of its huge investment in growth and fighting off competitors over the years, has signed up for.
I can’t take seriously a film like The Social Dilemma, which seemingly wants to hold one company accountable for every change society has undergone since it was founded. But when someone takes her employer to task for the things she found on its service — and she leaves with a feeling of blood on her hands — that’s something different.
Not every issue raised by an employee will get immediate attention. But Zhang’s memo raises questions about Facebook’s size, power, and accountability to its users — particularly its non-Western users — that outsiders have been poking at for years. Increasingly, as we have learned from a summer rife with Facebook leaks, those calls are now coming from inside the house. And they deserve better answers than Sophie Zhang has gotten to date.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: More than 400,000 people have registered to vote on Snapchat. The app has rolled out a series of voting tools, including a feature that lets users register to vote in the app. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Trending sideways: Facebook pledged to reach “net zero” carbon emissions, offsetting its global power consumption by investing in renewable energy projects that capture and store carbon dioxide. That puts Facebook in the middle of the pack when it comes to climate commitments from Big Tech. (Justine Calma / The Verge)
The creation of a new entity shows how ByteDance is attempting to put distance between the company’s Chinese ownership and TikTok’s operations, even as it seeks to avoid the full sale of the app that Mr Trump had desired. […]
The new TikTok entity will have independent oversight and will be managed at arms-length from ByteDance, said people briefed on the discussions. The Chinese company will continue to collaborate with TikTok globally and will retain control of the powerful algorithm that keeps users engaged by predicting what sort of videos they will enjoy.
“I love that I can connect directly with you through Instagram and Facebook, but I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation – created by groups to sow division and split America apart – only to take steps after people are killed,” Kardashian West wrote.
“Misinformation shared on social media has a serious impact on our elections and undermines our democracy. Please join me tomorrow when I will be “freezing” my Instagram and FB account to tell Facebook to #StopHateForProfit.”
TikTok’s most popular creator, Charli D’Amelio, joined rival app Triller in a non-exclusive deal. She and her family are trying out the app, but will continue to post content on TikTok. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Twitch is experimenting with running ads automatically in the middle of streams. The ads will run across affiliate and partnered channels and creators will get paid for every ad that runs. (Bijan Stephen / The Verge)
I hope this email finds you Living in a shotgun shack I hope this email finds you In another part of the world I hope this email finds you Behind the wheel of a large automobile I hope this email finds you in a beautiful house With a beautiful wife
After months of anticipation, Apple is finally rolling out its iOS 14 update today.
Apple’s Craig Federighi announced the new system during Apple’s WWDC 2020 event back in June.
He said: “iOS 14 transforms the most iconic elements of the iPhone experience, starting with the biggest update we’ve ever made to the Home Screen. With beautifully redesigned widgets on the Home Screen, the App Library that automatically organizes all of your apps, and App Clips that are fast and easy to discover, iPhone becomes even more powerful and easier to use.”
The new system has several helpful updates, including picture-in-picture mode, a new home screen layout and Apple Maps updates.
Here’s a round up of all the new iOS 14 features that will be coming to your iPhone.
The first change is to the iPhone home screen, with the announcement of a new feature called App Library.
While most iPhone users currently have their apps spread across several pages, new space automatically arranges your apps on one page.
Apple explained: “The new App Library automatically organizes all of your apps into one simple, easy‑to‑navigate view. Apps are sorted by category and your most used apps are always just one tap away.”
Meanwhile, Widgets have also been updated, and now come in a range of sizes.
iPhone users can now tap on a widget and drag it around the home screen, creating a more customised home screen experience.
Apple said: “Widgets have been totally redesigned to give you more information at a glance — and now you can add them to your Home Screen. Choose from different sizes and arrange however you like.”
It’s a feature that users have been asking for for years, and now Apple has announced that Picture-in-picture mode is finally coming.
This allows you to watch videos in a small window, while still browsing on your smartphone, rather than having to pause your video and come back to it.
Apple said: “Now you can keep watching videos or continue your FaceTime call while you use another app.”
Apple’s smart assistant, Siri, has been given an update, with a more compact design, web answers and the ability to respond to audio messages.
Apple explained: “Siri is a vital way to get information and get things done. And thanks to a new compact design, you can take advantage of everything Siri can do without losing your context.”
The Messages app now lets you pin certain conversations at the top of your list – a feature that has been available on WhatsApp for years.
Apple said: “Pin up to nine of your most important conversations to the top of your conversation list so you can easily get to them.”
Memoji – Apple’s personalised emoji – also have 20 new facial expressions, as well as age options.
Users can now send their character hugging, fist bumping or even blushing.
Like WhatsApp, Apple has also introduced mentions, allowing you to ‘@‘ a friend in a group chat, sending a notification directly to them.
Apple said: “Type a name to direct a message to someone. When you are mentioned, your name is highlighted. You can even customise an active group so you only receive notifications when you are mentioned.”
Having rolled out in the US, Apple Maps’ latest update is coming to further countries this year – including the UK and Ireland.
New features include guides for specific areas, cycling routes and electric vehicle (EV) routing.
For electric car drivers, Maps will track your current charge, and automatically add charging stops along your journey.
Car Play – Apple’s in car app – now has new backgrounds, and a digital car key option.
Users can simply tap their iPhone to the car to unlock it, rather than having to use a physical key.
Apple explained: “Sharing keys with friends or family is easy. You can customize controls and create restricted profiles, perfect for new drivers. You can revoke and share keys temporarily, too.”
Rather than having to search through the App Store for a specific app, iPhone users can now use Apple’s App Clip feature.
By hovering their iPhone over a QR code or NFC, users can download an app quickly. The feature is also synced with Apple Pay, so you can even download paid apps.
Apple added: “Apps from the App Store have changed the way we do just about everything. Now there’s an even faster way to take advantage of them with App Clips. A small part of an app, an App Clip is discoverable the moment you need it and is focused on a specific task.”
The backup safety driver who was behind the wheel when one of Uber’s self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018 has been charged with negligent homicide, the New York Times reports. Rafaela Vasquez, who investigators say was watching an episode of The Voice at the time of the crash, has pleaded not guilty.
The crash, which happened on March 18th, 2018 and resulted in the death of Elaine Herzberg, is believed to be the first fatal collision involving a self-driving car. Investigators have said the car saw Herzberg, but did not automatically stop, and that Vasquez did not brake until it was too late. The case has raised important questions about how to safely test the new technology, and who should be held responsible when something goes wrong.
In March 2019, an Arizona prosecutor’s office ruled that Uber would not face criminal charges over the crash. However, a review by the National Transportation Safety Board later that year highlighted a number of safety issues at the company. It said that it had “inadequate safety risk assessment procedures,” “ineffective” monitoring of backup drivers, and a failure to address the “automation complacency” of its safety drivers, who needed to be able to step in at any moment to address problems.
The same review also called Arizona’s policies to regulate self-driving vehicles on its public roads “insufficient,” and suggested that Herzberg may have crossed the street outside of the crosswalk.
Uber temporarily halted its self-driving tests immediately following the crash, and when they resumed later that year in Pittsburgh they did so with much more stringent safety policies including having two safety drivers in each vehicle. Uber has subsequently expanded these new tests to more cities, including Dallas and San Francisco.