iPhone XR Bests Rivals in ’19; Pixel 4a- Hole Punch Cam; VW’s Robot EV Charger; Oculus Quest Backordered Until February; ‘Data Leak’ of IoT Gadget Maker Wyze Exposes Millions of Accounts

Apple apparently hit a home run with the iPhone XR. The lower cost, ‘semi-top line’ handset has bested competitors, and comes up the best-selling handset in the world for nearly all of 2019 according to Counterpoint Research…beating out the Samsung A10, Huawei P30, and Xiaomi Redmi 7A. Part of the draw has been Apple’s cutting the price down from $750 to $700…that appears to be a real sweet spot for the entry level ‘higher line’ phones, which mostly cluster around $1000 to $1100 now.

The latest rumor has the Google Pixel 4a launching with a hole punch selfie cam….becoming notch free. According to zdnet.com, the mid range phone will also have just a single rear cam, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. It is expected that Google will upgrade the rather poor battery and slower processor of the Pixel 4. The display grows from 5.6 to 5.8 inches. It may bow with a rear fingerprint scanner as opposed to a face unlock system.

One noticeable issue with electric vehicles…having to hunt for a charging station…may become less of a problem with something Volkswagen has cooked up. It’s a robot that brings a charger right to your vehicle! Geek.com notes that the in-concept robot would be a little ‘mule’ which would pull a battery wagon charger over to your car and connect, then go back and pick up another charger and take it to the next car, and so forth. It is intended primarily for parking structures. The robot is summoned via a mobile app. VW conceptualizes cars that could actually call the robot for a top off without human intervention! The chargers would be 25 Kwh and would support DC quick charging up to 50Kw. VW plans to hold off production ‘until conditions are right,’ which probably means seeing a certain penetration of EVs into the general car market.

The Oculus Quest is now sold out until mid February in the US. Venturebeat.com says Facebook’s standalone VR headset had already sold out at several online stores before Christmas…but now new orders are totally sold out for the $400+ device until around February 18th. Previously, preorders had been promised by February 1st. The standalone headset works fine in wireless mode, but if you plug into a high-end PC, you can play some of the more powerful, expansive PC VR games…including No Man’s Sky VR, Skyrim VR, and Valves Half-Live VR. By the way, Valve’s high end PC powered Index VR headset is also backorder until February. It has been available through the Steam Store, and sells as a kit for $1000.

There has been plenty written about the ease of hacking of Internet of Things devices. Usually, it’s those physical devices that give up our data, not the makers or cloud companies. Now, mashable.com reports that smart home gadget maker Wyze confirms that personal date of millions of users was left exposed on the internet for weeks…they claim due to human error. The data of 2.4 million people includes users’ emails, nicknames given to cameras, Wi-Fi names, health data like weight and gender, and information on users’ Wyze devices. The info was open to the world from December 4th to the 26th! If it’s any consolation, Wyze claims no passwords, financial information, or “government-regulated” personal information was exposed. Your home address should still be safe, even if your email address is not.

Rivian Guardian Mode EVs; TikTok Looks to Move HQ From China; GM SteeringWheel-Less Cars; IBM Developing New Battery

Electric vehicle maker Rivian has patented a so-called ‘Guardian’ mode for its upcoming SUVs. The mode would allow for transporting, for example, kids to school in a driverless EV. According to electrek.co, the passengers couldn’t open windows or doors without permission from a parent…or unbuckle a seat belt. In addition, the mode would ‘geofence’ the vehicle, and route it through a safe route. Should a child or other try to open a door, unfasten seat belt, or the like, the parent gets an SMS message. If it’s ok, the parent can approve that from their phone, or deny it. It will also send a notice that the vehicle is not moving. 

Of late, TikTok has gotten heat for its closeness to the Chinese government. Now, Businessinsider.com reports that they are looking to build a new headquarters outside of China. Some US senators have been calling for investigation of censorship by the app, and many believe it can be used as spyware by the Chinese government. TikTok parent ByteDance is looking at Singapore, London, and Dublin as possible sites for the new HQ. The company has refused to say why it wants to move, except in a statement saying “We have been very clear that the best way to compete in markets around the globe is to empower local teams… TikTok has steadily built out its management in the countries where it operates.”

GM is talking to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to test a number of self-driving vehicles on public roads. That’s happening all the time with a number of companies. The difference here? Cnet.com says GM wants the self-driving Bolt EVs running the Cruise self-driving automation to have NO steering wheel or pedals! Are you nervous yet? The NHTSA is still reviewing the request. Waymo, the division of Google Parent Alphabet that deals with self-driving vehicles, has been running some self-driving minivans in Arizona…those, however, still have steering wheels and pedals. The Waymo minivans have been running lately without safety drivers. 

Most batteries since the old lead acid and dry cells have used some sort of heavy metals. The most widely used tech today is the lithium-ion battery formulation. Now, according to zdnet.com, IBM Research says it has come up with a battery design that doesn’t use heavy metals and which can out perform lithium-ion in several ways. The tech uses a cobalt and nickel free cathode material along with a safe liquid electrolyte which has a high flash point. This combo reduces flammability in batteries, and minimizes growth of lithium metal dendrites during charging. Big Blue claims it has more sustainability and better performance. It’s also a huge deal to avoid the sourcing problems of heavy metals, the largest easily mineable supply of which is in China. A big plus…the battery can charge to 80% in less than 5 minutes!

ToTok Chat App Is Spyware; Top 2020 Smartphones Getting Longer Optical Zoom; Secret Apple Team Pursues Internet Satellites; Ludicrous Mode & Better Battery for Tesla Model 3; EV Startup Rivian Snags $1.3 Billion More Funding

There are lots of chat apps available, and some people like to check the latest. Most of the big name secure encrypted apps are pretty safe: iMessage, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Signal, etc. If you have downloaded ToTok, though…delete it immediately! According to bgr.com, the app is named to sound a lot like the popular TikTok social network…but…the app is spyware….it tracks, ‘every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.’ The NY Times first broke the story, and now the app has been removed from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The app appears to have been developed by a front company for DarkMatter, and Abu Dhabi based cyber intelligence and hacking firm that’s staffed by former NSA, military intelligence, and Emirati intelligence agents. Again– DELETE ToTalk now if you have it!

A note from well-respected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says a number of top end smartphones in 2020 will feature 10x OPTICAL zoom. Optical zoom is far better than the electronic zoom most have, which smears and gives fuzzier shots, the more you zoom it. Macrumors.com reports that Kuo specifically mentions the Huawei P40 Pro phone. He doesn’t mention Apple or Samsung by name, but he does say the zoom feature will appear in more high end start phones in 2020. Personally, I use zoom much more than the ultra wide angle lenses that Apple and others have added lately, as do a number of pro photographers. Note that you see lots of giant telephoto lenses at sporting events and the like, in order to frame the action. The ultra wide lenses are great for the Grand Canyon or large buildings, but a lot of times you want to focus on specific people or action, so a 10X optical zoom will be very welcome, and perhaps a ‘killer feature’ when it gets here.

Who, besides the CEOs and stock holders would cry if it was possible to get completely around cellular providers and their service issues and high prices? Now, bloomberg.com says Apple has a small, secret team working on developing internet satellites and related wireless tech to allow users (and of course, Apple…which would reap more monthly fees) to get around cell providers entirely. They hope to deploy results within 5 years. Apple is not alone…Amazon plans to deploy some 3,000 satellites in the future.

Sometimes, we get the coolest heads up on future features and products from folks digging through existing lines of code. Mashable.com notes that a Twitter user was combing through Tesla code, and found a couple gems. The user, who goes by Green, spotted an inclusion of Ludicrous Mode for the Model 3. Ludicrous mode could give the 3 a head-snapping zero to 60 time of 2.5 seconds…up from the already crazy fast 3.2 seconds for the Performance model. Even more enticing was spotting an option for the 100kWh battery, a nice jump from the presently offered 75kWh battery in the Model 3. With software reveals, you never know when features might actually get here, but Green also noted other changes in the software that could point toward new options for Model 3 buyers. There could be new tire pressure sensors, new rim options, new options for glass roofs, and improved airflow.

Tesla is far from the only firm with EVs or working on same, although they are the most widely known right now, and have a huge fleet on the roads. EV startup Rivian has picked up another $1.3 billion in new funding for its EVs…which initially will focus on a pickup truck and an SUV. According to TechCrunch.com, the new cash is on top of $700 million from Amazon, $500 million from Ford, and $350 million from Cox Automotive. Amazon is in the mix because Rivian is working with them on all electric delivery vans, which should be a great way for Amazon to go considering all the short haul trip those delivery vehicles take during the average day. Rivian has a 2.6 million square foot manufacturing plant in Normal, Ill, and R&D facilities in several spots worldwide.

Apple, Google, Amazon, & Zigbee Partner- Smart Home Standards; Facebook Rules Decade With Top 4 Apps; Facebook Adding PT Fact Checkers; Virtual Buttons Could Make Next Smartphones More Waterproof

The truth of the matter is that the connected home is a mess. There are too many non-compatible systems in use, making it really hard on consumers to try to jump wholeheartedly into this area. Now, cnbc.com reports that Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance have partnered on Project Connected Home over IP, with the goal of making it easier to pull that fragmented ecosystem of connected home products together. Amazon, Google, and Apple are all hotly competing to get into your homes with more and more IOT (Internet of Things) gadgets and devices, to say nothing of the light bulbs, appliances, and all the rest. As IDC says the world market for home devices is expected to grow 23.5% year over year in 2019, the tech firms see big dollar signs if they can make everything work together, so consumers can buy devices and have them actually be ‘plug and play,’ and not have to wade through complicated setups…or worse, find out they bought a gadget that is not compatible with what they already have! If the firms can build on the Zigbee Alliance and make Amazon’s devices work with Apple HomeKit, and Google Google home, it’s a win all the way around. It should be noted that Samsung Smart Things, Philips Hue, IKEA, and others already work under the Zigbee system. the Alliance hopes to have preliminary open source materials out late next year.

Like ‘em or not, and apparently scandals or not, the decade belonged to Facebook as far as apps. According to mashable.com, App Annie has revealed the top 10 most downloaded mobile apps of the decade, and the top 4 spots belong to Facebook. they are: 1) Facebook, 2) Facebook Messenger, 3) WhatsApp, and 4) Instagram. Rounding out the top 10 apps are: 5) Snapchat, 6) Skype, 7) TikTok, 8) UC Browser, 9) YouTube, and 10) Twitter. It should be noted that Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014, so they basically bought out a couple of top competitors. Still, owning the top 10 downloaded apps on Android and iOS for the decade is a pretty major accomplishment…again, particularly considering the issues with peoples’ data that have tarred the company.

In more Facebook news, the company says they will be adding part-time fact checkers to help root out misinformation. Axios notes that Facebook is starting a pilot program in the US that will leverage contracted ‘community reviewers’ to expedite its fact checking program. The fact checking partners have to be approved by Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. The reviewers are hired through a third party contractor called Appen…which already sources, vets, selects, and qualify community reviewers. Facebook is also partnering with YouGov, the global public opinion and data company, to ensure that the pool of community reviewers represents the diversity of people on Facebook.

Next year, some phones will replace buttons with ultrasonic sensors that will act as virtual buttons. According to cnet.com, phones will benefit from better waterproofing and durability. The virtual buttons will be showed off at CES next month by UltraSense. Right now, a number of handset makers have shown interest, but it’s not clear if the virtual buttons will bow on top line phones, or show up first on lower line models, where makers won’t take as much heat if they bomb. The chip that powers the ultrasonic buttons is truly tiny…about twice the size of Lincoln’s beard on an US penny! The sensors, which UltraSense calls TouchPoint, could eventually make it into numerous other uses like fridges, medical instruments, and replacing all the buttons on car steering wheels, since they can be placed under smooth, easy to clean surfaces.

New Instagram Tools to Battle Fake News; Congress Considers EV Tax Credit Revamp; Samsung-No Million Galaxy Folds Sold; Another Google Employee Canned for Labor Activism

Instagram is starting to roll out new tools to fight fake news and hate speech worldwide. According to 9to5mac.com, the Facebook owned subsidiary will get similar tools to the parent’s set for addressing fake news and hate posts. When a photo or video reported as fake news appears on the feed, Instagram will show a warning above it. Users can still choose to view the content regardless of the warnings.
It will also be possible to see the comments of the fact-checking agencies about that post, and the app will ask if the user really wants to share the post anyway. The company says it uses artificial intelligence technology so that any content already reported as misinformation will be recognized even when it is reposted by another account.

It’s only in the draft state, but the House is looking to update the tax credit for electric vehicles. Electrek.co reports that the present rules were set up so that when a car maker sells 200,000 EVs, the credit phases out of the next 4 quarters. Tesla hit that wall in Q3 of 2018, and GM did in Q4 the same year. This means Tesla buyers lose the credit the end of this month, and GM buyers after March 30th, 2020. The new bill raises the cap per manufacturer to 600,000 EVs. On the down side, the tax credit drops from $7500 to $7000. Importantly, it includes a federal tax credit of up to $2500 on USED EVs…although there are quite a few caveats for those. Also in the bill, a 10% investment tax credit (ITC) for manufacturers of heavy EVs…14,000 pound gross weight or more. This would cover big rigs, motor homes, etc. Getting the bill through the Senate if it passes the House (even with bipartisan support) will be a tough hill to climb, but if it does, it could be a game changer for EVs.

After reports that Samsun had sold a million Galaxy Folds, the company has denied that they have moved that many units. Zdnet.com says someone misquoted an earlier estimate. The company still hopes to sell 500,000 of the $2000 folding smartphones by year’s end, but won’t confirm a hard number of units sold right now. Samsung is working on two more folders….a cheaper clamshell type phone, and an updated Galaxy Fold that will have a bigger 8 inch screen and S-Pen support.

Google has canned yet another employee for labor activism. theverge.com reports that Kathryn Spiers, who worked as a security engineer, was offed after 2 years. Part of her duties included sending internal web browser notifications. Apparently, after news broke that Google was using an anti-union law firm, and the web giant fired 4 other employees for internal union activism, Spiers set up a new notification for employees. When Googlers visited the law firm’s website or Google’s internal worker guidelines, they were sent a new message through a browser pop-up: “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities.” The message included a link to a labor rights notice Google was mandated to post. The employee was put on administrative leave only hours after releasing the message, and fired last Friday. The company spokesperson said the content of the message wasn’t at issue and that management would have taken similar action if the tool had been used to send any message not related to security. “We dismissed an employee who abused privileged access to modify an internal security tool,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “This was a serious violation.”

Xbox Series X; Amazon Delivering Nearly Half Own Packages; Mercedes Delays US EV SUV a Year; Intel Buys AI Chipmaker

Microsoft previewed it’s next generation Xbox at the Game Awards. It will be named Xbox Series X, and should be ready for your waiting hands and eyes by the holidays next year. According to venturebeat.com, it looks more like a PC tower than previous models. A large fan in the top handles airflow, while keeping noise to a minimum. The controller looks almost like the current one, except has a share button in the middle. Microsoft is claiming that ‘Xbox Series X will deliver a level of fidelity and immersion unlike anything that’s been achieved in previous console generations.’

Apparently Amazon is now delivering almost half its packages. CNBC.com reports that amazon Logistics (the arm of the company that handles deliveries) will attain a volume of 6.5 billion packages per year by 2022. This blows past an estimate from Morgan Stanley of the Amazon packages shipped by UPS at 5 billion and FedEx at 3.4 billion packages for that year.

Mercedes-Benz will delay the US release of its EV SUV, called the EQC from Q1 of 2020 until 2021. Businessinsider.com says Mercedes is making the move to try to support growing customer demand for the EQC in Europe. Mercedes still plans to release 10 EVs by 2022. EV sales in the luxury segment have been a bit soft this year, but European demand has been trending stronger.

Intel is picking up Israeli AI chipmaker Habana Labs for around $2 billion. According to techcrunch.com, last summer Habana had announced a chip that would outpace GPU based systems by four times. Apparently, Intel has had its eye on the startup for a while now. Intel has said they will keep the present team in place, and let them operate as an independent unit.

No Major iPhone Price Hike for 2020; 2 Chinese Firms Making Domestic OS; Google Interpreter Goes Live On Mobile; Facebook Gets Your Retail Data-But You Can Minimize

Here’s a nice rumor about next year’s iPhones. Noted analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says the 4 5G iPhones won’t have much of a price boost…ranging from $30 to $100, depending on the model. Macrumors.com reports that, in spite of the new 5G tech being more expensive, Apple will pull this off by cutting non-recurring engineering payments to suppliers. These have been used in the past to help out suppliers in the ‘dark side’ of the year, when no iPhones come out, and sales drop off. Now, it appears Apple will be releasing the smaller, lower cost so-called SE-2 model in the spring, and the other phones in September…and plans to continue releasing iPhones on a biannual basis moving forward.

China recently announced that in the next couple years, all government computers and affiliated organization computers there will have to be Chinese computers running their software. Now, according to zdnet.com, they are going a step further. The two biggest operating system makers in China have announced to unite and build a new ‘domestic operating system.’ China Standard Software and Tianjin Kylin Information both have ties to the Chinese government (of course.) It appears that China is following Moscow’s lead, trying to make sure they can keep out any unwanted foreign entities from their computing systems. Russia recently announced that all devices there must have certain Russian apps installed (spyware for the government…the same as the Chinese are working on, no doubt.) It is unlikely that the government there or anywhere will be able to keep young, bright hackers from cleaning up the Domestic OS to keep out prying eyes. That genie has been out of the bottle for decades now. Nothing is ‘hack proof.’

A feature Google has had on smart speakers and displays for months is now hitting mobile. Techcrunch.com says Interpreter, which works hand in hand with Assistant, will be available on both Android and iOS worldwide starting today. You can then tell it something like ‘Hey Google, help me speak French,’ or the like and you are offered real time translated transcripts and audio. It also works on a limited basis with some Smart Replies as in Gmail. 44 languages are available, which is an increase from the 29 that were offered on the smart speakers. I hope if Apple tries to join this party, they do some major work on Siri. Based on some of the texts and the like I get from some friends that dictate replies to Siri IN ENGLISH, it could be scary. Would you trust that to say what you intend in another language? Let’s hope that Google has their translator thoroughly tested out and pretty bulletproof!

As if Facebook doesn’t get enough of your data from your use of the platform, and their tracking you on the web via ‘partners,’ they have also been getting offline data through partners since August. According to businessinsider.com, any of their partners can ‘opt to send Facebook information about customers, including identifying information like an email, name, or phone number, and a record of what they bought. Facebook matches that information to user’s profiles, allowing the business to advertise to those people directly on its apps.’ Two known partners thus far are Macy*s and Dick’s Sporting Goods. If you have shopped at a store and suddenly note an uptick in ads on Facebook from them, that’s where it’s coming from. The practice extends to online sellers, too…but that has just been expanded….they have been tracking your online shopping for some time now. Like to minimize this? You can opt out of being served ads based on offline activities by going to settings, selecting ‘ads,’ and unchecking ‘ads based on data from partners.’