$200 Beats HomePod; Microsoft Snaps Up Veteran AI Team; AT&T No WiFi Smart Button

Apple’s HomePod has had underwhelming sales so far, and now they may be trying to rectify that with a cheaper model than the $350 one with killer sound but anemic voice command abilities. Bgr.com reports that Apple is looking at bringing out one for $199 under the Beats brand. With a decent sounding Google Home speaker going for $130, and Amazon Alexa speakers for less yet, Apple might have a fighting chance at under $200 if the gadget still sounds better than its competitors.

Microsoft has picked up an AI team that includes the former chief speech scientist for Siri. According to businessinsider.com, Redmond has acquired AI startup Semantic Machines, to boost its ‘conversational AI’ and potentially make Cortana better at understanding natural language inquiries. At least for the short term, the artificial intelligence team will remain in Berkeley where Semantic Machines has been based. Besides Larry Gillick, the former chief speech scientist for Apple’s Siri, the team includes Cal professor Dan Klein and Stanford professor Percy Liang. Several other members worked at Nuance, the voice recognition company that built Siri.

AT&T has launched the LTE-M button, which you can use to order something online with a single click. Engadget.com says the gadget…which not only sounds like and Amazon Dash button, but is actually powered by Amazon Web Services….does have a new trick up its sleeve…it works over AT&T’s network, so doesn’t need WiFi. The AT&T button is not preprogrammed, so you can set it up to order different things, unlike the single function Dash buttons. It is pricier than an Amazon button, though. the first 5000 will be $30, then it will be $35. Since it has to be programmed, the price may not be the only limiting factor…you’ll also need to be geeky enough to figure out how to program the LTE-M button.

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Galaxy S9+ Cam Best Yet; Carriers Tout Phone # App Authentication; Uber Health Launched

It will probably only last until the new models of their competitors come out, but Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ camera has snagged the highest DxOMark score ever at 99. Fortunately for the cellphone makers, the scale doesn’t end at 100! Bgr.com reports that the Galaxy has narrowly eclipsed the cameras on the Google Pixel 2, which had a 98, and the iPhone X with a 97. Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro also scored a 97. No matter how objective these test try to be, with photos, there’s still a subjective element…just like a painting, the art is in the eye of the beholder…but for now, Samsung reigns supreme!

The 4 major US phone carriers, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, & T-Mobile, have rolled out plans for an authentication platform that would add extra security for people downloading apps to Apple’s iPhone and other handsets. Appleinsider.com says the tech uses a ‘cryptographically verified phone number and profile data’, info such as how long you’ve had the number, the account type, IP address, and SIM card info. The carriers plan to trial the system in the next few weeks, and launch it later this year. It is hoped the extra layer of security will help counter fraud and identity theft.

Uber has launched Uber Health, a new ride hailing platform for healthcare. According to techcrunch.com, the service is like UberCENTRAL, their ride-booking service for business customers. With the service, the riders don’t have to have the Uber app, the healthcare provider can book rides to and from appointments. Uber says it is HIPAA compliant, and can be used by the clients via a landline. The ride hailing company points out that the service is just for appointments, and is not designed to replace 911 or ambulance rides for emergencies.


3 First Cities to Get 5G; Apple May Buy Cobalt Direct from Miners; Renault’s “Smart Island”; EV Batteries May be Able to Recharge 5X Faster

Even though phones don’t have it yet, the cellular providers have been busily working on building out 5G infrastructure. We have been hearing that AT&T would have some 12 markets on the super fast cellular connection that can carry vast data loads, very soon. Now, AT&T has announced that at least 3 markets will have it by the end of this year. The lucky cities are: Atlanta, Dallas, and Waco, TX. Qualcomm has announced its first 5G modem for smartphones, but it isn’t expected to actually be out and in users new phones until 2019!

With cobalt supply iffy, Apple is in talks to buy it direct from miners. According to bloomberg, the cobalt is used in iPhone and iPad batteries, as well as in EVs. Apple wants to ensure that they have enough for their products. They are apparently working on a deal to buy several thousand metric tons of cobalt per year over a 5 year period. Samsung, BMW, and VW are also working to secure long term supplies….BMW is angling for a 10 year contract. An iPhone takes 8 grams of refined cobalt…an electric car over 1,000 times more! The price of cobalt has tripled in the last 18 months…supply and demand, you know!

Renault is experimenting with an island totally free of fossil fuels. The island in Portugal, Porto Santo, will have only renewable and independent energy production and use. Solar and wind generators, the Renault Zoe and Kango utility van electric vehicles, home batteries, etch. Engadget.com reports that the more diffuse, less massive installations can be used because the island only has 5400 people plus tourists….so won’t require anything like the Tesla Powerpack mega installation in Australia.

Some researchers at University of Warwick have discovered that the lithium-ion batteries used in most electric cars can be recharged up to 5 times faster than they presently are being charged. Engadget.com says the makers have been conservative about charging, due to fear of overheating (which can cause fires and explosions.) The researchers used a fiber optic sensor protected by a chemical layer…it is inserted right into the cell, and can track the temperature precisely. In testing on over 18000 li-ion cells, they were able to quintuple charging times. The increased time does reduce battery life, but the researchers point out that if charging time could be reduced from 25 minutes to 5, it might really jump start e-car purchases.


Switch Online Launches in September; Owl Auto Security Cam; Google Issues Router Fix; Amazon Hand Tracker Patent

Nintendo’s Switch online service, which had been delayed from last year, is now scheduled to be activated in September. Theverge.com says it will cost $3.99 a month, or $19.99 a year. Besides online play, the subscription will give players access to classic games, and features like leaderboards and multiplayer. The hot Switch has already outsold its predecessor Wii U…more than 14 million have been bought since it was launched.

An ex-Apple manager who helped develop the iPod has a startup that is making what they call the 1st security cam for your car. According to 9to5mac.com, the Owl security cam is always connected over AT&T’s LTE system, and it’s powered by the OBD (on-board diagnostics) port every modern car has. Owners can access 24 hours of video footage with a companion app. It has LED lights on either side for theft deterrence, and a 2.4 inch display. Since its always on, it is able to send alerts if activity is detected. The cam is $299, with cellular service for $10 a month, but at launch, a special bundle price of $349 includes the cam and 1st year of cellular service. Preorders are open today at owlcam.com, with delivery expected by the end of the month.

We reported earlier about a bug from Google Play Services that was causing routers to crash when Google Home or Chromecast devices were awakened. 9to5google.com reports that Google has rolled out a fix to all users. It’s version 11.9.75, and should be downloadable from the Play Store if it hasn’t updated your devices already on its own.

In what may be a useful tech that can’t outrun its creepy factor, Amazon has patented wristbands that track where warehouse workers’ hands are. The idea is to make sure they are reaching the right shelf or cubby to grab an item to be boxed and shipped out. Geekwire.com notes that not every patent actually makes it into use, and this one that has the wristbands which emit ultrasonic sounds or radio pulses to help guide the employees’ hands to the right bins may never see actual use. They seem extremely intrusive and super creepy!


Waymo & Fiat Chrysler Expand Ride-Hailing; Facebook Looks to Local News; iPhone X Top 3 Worldwide; Verizon Won’t Carry Huawei Line

Fiat Chrysler is preparing to provide Google’s Waymo with thousands of Pacifica hybrid minivans, as Waymo’s self-driving division rolls out public ride hailing services later this year. Reuters.com says this could press GM and Lyft to pick up the pace, as well as Uber, which already has a test fleet running. Waymo had been been testing out 500 Fiat Chrysler self-driving mini-vans through 2017 in 25 cities.

Facebook plans to start showing more local news in user newsfeeds. According to businessinsider.com, they will start this in the US, and expand to other countries later in the year. The Facebook definition of ‘local’ is if its links ‘are clicked on by readers in a tight geographic area,’ not the logical ‘is actually IN a local geographic area!’

With reports out that Apple is cutting iPhone X production from 40 to 20 million this quarter, some good news popped up. 9to5mac.com reports that Kantar found the pricey Apple hero phone was the #3 phone in all the regions they monitor during December. That includes Europe, China, Japan, Australia, and the US. iOS sales overall were down half a percentage point in the US, but loyalty hit a record high 96%. Apple and Samsung account for more than 2/3 of the US market at a combined 70.8%.

Under pressure from the government, Verizon has dropped plans to carry Huawei mobile devices. 9to5google.com says AT&T had previously backed out of carrying the Mate 10 Pro. The government apparently is concerned about the closeness of the Chinese government to the phone maker and their possible ability to manipulate upcoming 5G cellular networks.


3 New Macs Coming; Google Home Catching Up With Amazon Echo; Nationalized 5G Network; Nissan Self-Parking Slippers

Apple is reportedly working on 3 new Models (maybe more). They will be integrated with custom co-processors, and Cupertino has both new laptops and desktops in the works, according to macrumors.com. Some could be out yet this year. Apple had already confirmed it was working on an new, modular Mac Pro, but what other models could be refreshed are only an educated guess at this point. The MacBooks and MacBook Pros could use it for sure, as well as the Air, and Mac Mini.

Amazon has held the lion’s share of home speakers with it’s Echo line, powered by Alexa, sitting at 69%. 9to5google.com points out that Google Home has grown from almost nowhere to 31% already, though, and now with the Apple HomePod just out, expect more erosion in that number. Google Home barely registered in June of 2017, but during the holidays grabbed 40% of sales…mainly due to success of the Home Mini! Microsoft’s Cortana speakers haven’t really moved the needle, but Apple could…recall how they jumped into the already going portable music market years ago with the iPod, and virtually took that segment over.

You have to go a ways to freak out and infuriate both the far left and the far right, but it looks like an idea from the Trump Administration has done just that. According to businessinsider.com, they are exploring a form of nationalized 5G wireless network. The government apparently fears a huge cybersecurity threat…mainly from China…if they don’t. Folks on the left and the right are more freaked out by the prospect of the government controlling the wireless network. The administration is looking at a totally government one, or a national network in partnership with the wireless companies. Both AT&T and Verizon have responded, noting that they are ‘already well down the road’ to 5G wireless networks nationwide. In other words…’bug off!’

Self-driving cars? Pfft! Get me some of these self-driving, self-parking slippers. Bgr.com says Nissan has made some for a Japanese hotel, the ProPILOT Ryokan. Little wheels drop out of the bottom, and a small electric motor run by a processor magically returns the slippers to their proper place! Apparently the TV remote will do the same in rooms, and the bedding is wired with tricks of their own. Personally, I bow down to our robot overlords…and request that my slippers head over here to my feet!


Samsung Galaxy Invite/Cam Tease; Porsche Plans ‘More Super’ Superchargers; AT&T’s ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ Ploy

Samsung has sent invites to the Galaxy S9 launch, which is February 25th in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress. It will be at noon Eastern time, 9am Pacific. The invite teases cam improvements with ‘Camera, reimagined.’ It’s expected to have improved battery life, in addition to whatever camera tricks are announced. The verge.com notes that the event will be live streamed on Samsung’s website.

With most auto makers racing to produce many electric and hybrid models, you can expect fast ones from Porsche. Speed on the highway is apparently not all, according to bgr.com. Porsche’s head of Electrics/Electronics Development, Uew Michael said in an interview that the upcoming Mission E (which will start at $85,000, right in the breadbasket of the Tesla Model S) will not only be fast, but charge fast. Porsche is going to put out its own supercharger recharging stations that will give you 250 miles of range on a 20 minute charge! Right now, Tesla can get you a half charge in 30 minutes and it takes 75 minutes on a supercharger for a full charge. The Porsche Mission E will have a max range of 310 miles, and do 0-60 in under 3.5 seconds, with a top speed of 155 mph!

AT&T is running ads saying it is pro net neutrality, and always has been. Techcrunch.com reports that they are pushing for an ‘internet Bill of Rights’ for users. If that sounds like the opposite of what they have favored to you, you’re right. It’s really just a sneaky way to try to get Congress to tightly regulate Facebook and Google. Even the FCC noted in a report that AT&T favored content at its own DirecTV over other content providers. Of course, what the phone company doesn’t come out and say when they call for control of these internet companies. is that they are content providers that furnish content ON the internet, they don’t provide ACCESS to the internet like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. The ISPs would love to kneecap content providers besides them…it’s good for their business and bad for Facebook, Google…and users.