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Don’t buy the hype: Free VPNs are bad for your privacy

VPNs are in high demand as Americans scramble to keep access to TikTok and WeChat amid a looming government ban. There are dozens of free VPNs out there that promise to protect your privacy by keeping you anonymous on the internet and hiding your browsing history.

Don’t believe it. Free VPNs are bad for you.

The internet is a hostile place for the privacy-minded. Internet providers can sell your browsing history, governments can spy on you, and tech titans collect huge amounts of data to track you across the web. Many have turned to VPNs, or virtual private networks, thinking that they can protect you from snoopers and spies.

But where VPNs try to solve a problem, they can also expose you to far greater privacy risks.

TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet has an explainer on what a VPN is. In short, VPNs were first designed for employees to virtually connect to their office network from home or while on a business trip. These days,

VPNs are more widely used for hiding your online internet traffic, and tricking streaming services into thinking you’re another country when you’re not. That same technique also helps activists and dissidents bypass censorship systems in their own countries.

VPNs work by funneling all of your internet traffic through an encrypted pipe to the VPN server, making it more difficult for anyone on the internet to see which sites you are visiting or which apps you are using.

But VPNs don’t inherently protect your privacy or give you anonymity. VPNs simply divert all of your internet traffic from going to your internet provider’s systems into the VPN provider’s systems instead.

That begs the question: Why should you trust a VPN that promises to protect your privacy more than your internet provider? The answer is that you can’t, and you shouldn’t.

By far some of the worst offenders are the free VPNs.

As the old adage goes, if it’s free then you are the product. What that means is that they make money off you — specifically, your data. Like any service that costs nothing, VPNs are often supported by ads. That means taking your internet traffic and selling it to the highest bidder to serve you targeted ads while you’re connected to the VPN. Other free VPNs have been accused of injecting ads into the websites that you visit.

While there are paid and premium VPNs that are generally more mindful about your privacy, they aren’t anonymous as they can be linked to your billing address. Paid VPNs also don’t solve the problem of funneling all of your internet traffic to a potentially untrustworthy company.

Some VPN providers also claim to protect your privacy by not storing any logs or track which websites you visit or when. While that may be true in some cases, there’s no way you can be completely sure.

In fact, some VPN providers have claimed they don’t store any logs — but were proven completely false.

Take UFO VPN, which at the time had about 20 million users. It claimed to have a zero-logging policy. But security researchers found the company’s logging database exposed to the internet, no password needed. The database was packed with logs of user activity, including which websites users were visiting.

Former NYPD director of cyber intelligence and investigations Nick Selby, now the chief security officer at fintech startup Paxos, said he only uses VPN providers that he knows do not store any logs. During his time as a police officer he would serve search warrants and know which providers were “the best at giving me nothing,” he told TechCrunch.

It’s not to say that all VPNs are unscrupulous or invading your privacy. Much of the problem with VPNs is that you can’t look under the hood and see what’s going on with your data. Standalone VPNs, like Algo and WireGuard, let you create and control your own VPN server through a cloud service, like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, or Digital Ocean. But remember: your encrypted data is stored on another company’s cloud, making it potentially susceptible to being grabbed by the authorities.

VPNs can be useful, but it’s important to know their limitations. Just don’t rely on them to protect your privacy or your anonymity.

Fitbit Sense review

The Versa helped Fitbit reverse its fortunes after a long, gradual slide. The company was slow to embrace the smartwatch, and stumbled somewhat out of the gate with the Ionic. But the Versa found a perfect sweet spot that build atop generations of wearable health knowhow, key acquisitions like Pebble and a pricing sweet spot at $200.

In fact, other big-name smartwatch makers like Apple and Samsung have since followed suit, offering up more budget-friendly approaches to the category. The moves came as Fitbit and a slew of Chinese device makers were nabbing market share through budget plays. But while the competition zigs, Fitbit zags, I suppose. That’s where the Sense comes in. It’s a return to the premium pricing the company put on hold when it let the Ionic fade away.

At $330, the Sense falls under the lower end of premium — at least compared to say, the Apple Watch Series 6 and Galaxy Watch 3, which both start at $399. The premium market isn’t the most logical play for a company that has been successful at a lower price point, but it’s perhaps understandable that the company is interested in expanding on its fortunes, legacy software and health metrics and finally, properly trying to beat Apple at its own game.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

While Fitbit has a bit of a history flooding the market with different devices, I do think the decision to introduce an entirely new product makes sense here. Really, the worst Fitbit could have done was add a bunch of features to the Versa and raise the price by $100, thus removing one of the product’s primary selling points in the process (though the Versa’s price has also increased to $220).

The truth is, the Sense and Versa 3 are actually more alike than they are different. The similarities start with the casing. The two products look virtually identical, aside from some different color options. The Sense comes in, arguably, classier colors with either gray or gold. The display is the company’s familiar squircle, which is only available in the one size.

I suspect Fitbit learned its lesson about unwieldy watch designs with the Ionic. The device sports a 1.58-inch display, which feels about right. And the square design makes it feel more compact than Apple’s comparably sized watch. That said, more watch sizes is always a good thing, particularly for a product like the Sense that’s attempting to appeal to a wide range of wearers.

Unlike Samsung and Apple’s smartwatches, there’s no standalone dial-button for navigating through screens. There is a pressure-sensitive button on the side of the device, though that ultimately was a bit of a nuisance. I found myself repeatedly accidentally triggering it while moving my wrist. And honestly, for most actions, simply swiping across screens is perfectly fine.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As the name implies, the biggest difference between Fitbit’s latest smartwatches comes down to sensors. The Sense has a lot packed in here. Both feature optical heart-rate monitoring, a temperature monitor and an SpO2 sensor — which was possibly the biggest upgrade announced for the Apple Watch Series 6. The Sense, however, is alone as the first Fitbit to adopt an ECG sensor, bringing it up to speed with the new Apple Watch on that front.

As is often the case with these sorts of sensors, I’m unable to really highlight it in the review. FDA clearance seems to be a bit more straightforward as the feature has become more and more common on consumer devices, but while Fitbit has cleared it, the functionality won’t be rolled out on the devices until next month. When it does arrive, you’ll get the kind of health readouts we’ve come to expect from these sensors, including heart rhythms and notifications for any usual activity.

Sleep tracking is one place Fitbit has had Apple beat for some time. The latter is attempting to change that with the latest version of watchOS, but still has a lot of work to do in order to catch up. The array of sensors go a long ways toward providing a more complete picture of your sleep over the course of the night. While Apple’s offering largely revolves around things like time in bed and time asleep, Fitbit provides a fuller picture, including, importantly, sleep quality, broken up by REM, light and deep sleep. SpO2 and heart rate are also factored into the picture. SpO2, in particular, will become an increasingly important factor in sleep going forward, as these devices look to track things like sleep apnea.

Another big piece of sleep is battery life. That’s something Fitbit’s been good at for a while. The Sense is rated at six days. Your mileage is going to vary considerably, however, depending on whether you opt for the always on display and other features. As it stands, I was able to get several days on a single charge with the feature switched off. Frankly, that’s a pretty big advantage over Apple’s stated 18 hours. Charging each night before bed or first time in the morning isn’t ideal.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I appreciate Fitbit’s focus on mindfulness. I think it’s something we can all use a bit more of these days. I definitely include myself in that boat. Fitbit is one of a handful of smartwatch makers currently looking to push the concept beyond simple breathing exercises. That’s included in the Mindfulness tile. The company will quantify relaxation using the the on-board sensors. I honestly haven’t used it a ton, but anything that can help jumpstart a mindfulness practice is a net positive.

The Sense’s software continues to still be fairly basic. And while there are plenty of watch faces, the app selection lags behind some of the bigger names. It will be interesting to watch how Fitbit’s approach to software changes if/when the Google acquisition goes through. After all, wearOS has been around for a while and received plenty of updates, but still has its share of shortcomings.

The Sense’s strong suit is also Fitbit’s: a strong underpinning of health and fitness focus. The company certainly has a good, solid history of upgrades. But while it packs more sensors than the Versa 3, for many the difference will be relatively minor — and perhaps difficult to justify that $100 price gap. I’ve yet to spend a lot of time with the latest version of that device, but if past is any prologue, it’s a solid choice for those looking for an Android-compatible Apple alternative at a good price.

Coinbase UX teardown: 5 fails and how to fix them

Digital currency exchange Coinbase has probably done more than most to push cryptocurrencies closer to the mainstream, earning an $8 billion valuation by private investors along the way. The company is reportedly eyeing a public listing next year, and is inarguably doing a lot of things right. However, that doesn’t mean its product experience is perfect. In fact, far from it.

In our latest UX teardown, with the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we highlight some of Coinbase’s biggest user experience failings and offer ways to fix them. Many of these lessons can be applied to other existing digital products or ones you are currently building, including the need to avoid the “Get Started” trap, the importance of providing feedback, why familiarity often wins and other principles.

The ‘Get Started’ trap

Only use CTAs like “get started” or “learn more” if you’re actually teaching users something.

The fail: Coinbase doesn’t actually have any onboarding — but it looks like it does. It has a very prominent “get started” CTA, which actually just puts bitcoins in your basket. This isn’t helping you get started, it’s nothing more than an onboarding Trojan horse.

The fix: It’s simple: Don’t lie in your CTAs. You wouldn’t have “Email Support” as a CTA, and then just show the user a bunch of FAQs.

Steve O’Hear: This feels like another classic “bait and switch” and reeks of dark pattern design. However, what if it actually works to get users over the line and purchase their first bitcoin? Growth hackers, rejoice, no?

Peter Ramsey: You’re absolutely right, this may convert better. From a business point of view, this could be a brilliant little growth hack. However, something converting well doesn’t mean it was a good experience for the user. Look at clickbait-y journalism — it gets more eyeballs, but people aren’t generally happy with what they read.

I’m convinced that in the long term having a great product will perform better than frustrating short-term growth hacks.

Feedback architecture

As a general rule of thumb, all “states” — e.g., success/failure of an action — need to provide feedback to the user.

The fail: After adding a card, you click “Add Card,” and … it takes you back to the homepage. There’s no notice if it was successful or not. The user has no awareness if the action they were trying to do failed and they need to do it again. This is a real problem with digital products: All feedback needs to be thought of and built.

The fix: During the design phase, consider statuses and what the user will want feedback on. For example, if they’ve just added an item to their “wishlist,” how will you show them that the action was successful?

Why isn’t Robinhood a verb yet?

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s VC-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Natasha MascarenhasDanny Crichton and your humble servant gathered to chat through a host of rounds and venture capital news for your enjoyment. As a programming note, I am off next week effectively, so look for Natasha to lead on Equity Monday and then both her and Danny to rock the Thursday show. I will miss everyone.

But onto the show itself, here’s what we got into:

Bon voyage for a week, please stay safe and don’t forget to register to vote.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Hootsuite says it will terminate its ICE contract ‘without delay’

After disagreements within the company spilled over into public controversy, Hootsuite says it won’t go forward with a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Through an external spokesperson, the company told TechCrunch it “can confirm the termination of its only pending contract with ICE” and will “[take] the necessary steps to ensure the action is completed swiftly and without delay.”

Tech employees have become more outspoken about ethical concerns over how the products and services they create are used in recent years. That trend has led some companies to steer clear of potentially lucrative defense and law enforcement work while others have doubled down, seeing an opportunity.

But even within that realm of controversial work, providing software or services to ICE — the agency that again made ghoulish headlines this month as allegations surfaced that it subjected detained women to forced hysterectomies — is regarded as particularly radioactive.

After Hootsuite tweeted a short statement that some critics regarded as insufficient earlier Thursday, Hootsuite CEO Tom Keiser released a longer statement confirming that his company would “not proceed” with the ICE contract.

“Over the last 24 hours there has been a broad emotional and passionate reaction from our people and this has spurred additional dialog. We have heard the lived experiences from our people and the hurt they are feeling,” Keiser said.

“The decision has created a divided company, and this is not the kind of company I came to lead. I—and the rest of the management team—share the concerns our people have expressed. As a result, we have decided to not proceed with the deal with ICE. ”

Hootsuite, which makes social media management and marketing software, is headquartered in Canada and appears to provide software to U.S. federal agencies sporadically.

The company didn’t directly enter into the relationship with ICE, a common strategy for obtaining and sometimes obscuring federal contract work. A third-party company called FCN was awarded a one year base contract worth $508,832 to provide ICE with licenses to Hootsuite’s software.

Because the contract is through an intermediary and went into effect on September 18, it’s not clear how Hootsuite will back out of the work. TechCrunch has contacted FCN and ICE for additional details about the contract and its termination and will update this story if we receive new information.

Keiser’s full statement is provided below.

“Although I typically would not make a public statement about our customers and our contracts, in this instance I feel it’s important. Recently our company has had to go through the process of determining whether we would engage in a contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That sparked a great deal of internal conversation—and the formation of a committee to further that discussion and consider all points of view. Considering the various factors, including our belief in the power of communications and social engagement to break down barriers, and supported by the set of objective guidelines that emerged from that committee, we made the decision to proceed with signing a contract with ICE. Over the last 24 hours there has been a broad emotional and passionate reaction from our people and this has spurred additional dialog. We have heard the lived experiences from our people and the hurt they are feeling. The decision has created a divided company, and this is not the kind of company I came to lead. I—and the rest of the management team—share the concerns our people have expressed. As a result, we have decided to not proceed with the deal with ICE.”

Announcing the final agenda for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

TC Sessions: Mobility is back and we’re excited to give the final look of what and who is coming to the main stage.

Before we get into who is coming, let’s tackle one important change from our 2019 inaugural event: this year, TC Sessions: Mobility will be virtual. Never fear, the virtual version of TC Sessions: Mobility will bring all of what you’d expect from our in-person events, from the informative panels and provocative one-on-one interviews to the networking and this year, even a pitch-off session.

While virtual isn’t the same as our events in the past, it has provided one massive benefit: democratizing access. If you’re a startup or investor based in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America or another region in the U.S., you can listen in, network and connect with other participants here in Silicon Valley. Plus, you’ll be able to meet all of the attendees through our matchmaking platform, CrunchMatch.

This year, we’re also holding a pitch-off competition for early-stage mobility companies, but you’ll need to make sure you have your ticket to join us at the event online. Prices start at just $25 for an Expo Ticket and only $195 for a General Admission Ticket to experience the whole event. We also offer a $50 tickets for students.

TechCrunch reporters and editors will interview some of the top leaders in transportation to tackle topics such as scaling up an electric vehicle company, the future of automated vehicle technology, micromobility, building an AV startup and investing in the industry. Our guests include Argo AI co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky, Waymo COO Tekedra Mawakana, Lucid Motors CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson, Ike Robotics co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun, Formula E race car driver Lucas di Grassi, Cruise’s director of global government affairs Prashanthi Raman, Hemi Ventures managing partner Amy Gu, Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath as well as TuSimple co-founder and CTO Xiaodi Hou and Boris Sofman, former Anki Robotics founder and CEO who now leads Waymo’s trucking unit.

Don’t forget that General Admission tickets (including $50 savings) are currently available for a limited time; grab your tickets here before prices increase.

AGENDA

Tuesday, October 6

Taking AVs to the Next Level Tekedra Mawakana (Waymo)

Waymo Chief Operating Officer Tekedra Mawakana is at the center of Waymo’s future, from scaling the autonomous vehicle company’s commercial deployment and directing fleet operations to developing the company’s business path. Tekedra will speak about what lies ahead as Waymo drives forward with its plan to become a grownup business.

The Changing Face of Delivery with Matthew Johnson-Roberson (Refraction AI), Ali Kashani (Postmates), and speaker to be confirmed.

Small startups and logistics giants alike are working on how to use automated vehicle technology and robotics for delivery. Matthew Johnson-Roberson, co-founder of Refraction AI and Ali Kashani, the VP of special projects at Postmates will talk about the challenges and opportunities of using robots for delivery.

Investing in Mobility with Reilly Brennan (Trucks VC), Amy Gu (Hemi Ventures), and Olaf Sakkers (Maniv Mobility)

Reilly Brennan, Amy Gu and Olaf Sakkers will come together to debate the uncertain future of mobility tech and whether VC dollars are enough to push the industry forward.

Networking Break

With our virtual platform, attendees can network via video chat, giving folks the chance to make meaningful connections. CrunchMatch, our algorithmic matching product, will be available to ensure you’re meeting the right people at the show, as well as random matching for attendees who are feeling more adventurous.

Setting the Record Straight with Bryan Salesky (Argo AI)

Argo AI has gone from unknown startup to a company providing the autonomous vehicle technology to Ford and VW — not to mention billions in investment from the two global automakers. Co-founder and CEO Bryan Salesky will talk about the company’s journey, what’s next and what it really takes to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology.

The Next Opportunities in Micromobility with Danielle Harris (Elemental Excelerator), Dmitry Shevelenko (Tortoise), Avra van der Zee (Superpedestrian)

Worldwide, numerous companies are operating shared micromobility services — so many that the industry is well into a consolidation phase. Despite the over-saturation of the market, there are still opportunities for new players. Danielle Harris, director of mobility innovation at Elemental Excelerator, Dmitry Shevelenko, founder at Tortoise will discuss, and VP of Strategy and Policy at Superpedestrian.

Building an AV Startup with Nancy Sun (Ike)

Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun will share her experiences in the world of automation and robotics, a ride that has taken her from Apple to Otto and Uber before she set off to start a self-driving truck company. Sun will discuss what the future holds for trucking and the challenges and the secrets behind building a successful mobility startup.

Uber’s City Footprint with Shin-pei Tsay (Uber)

Uber’s operations touch upon many aspects of the transportation ecosystem. Whether its autonomous vehicles, food delivery, trucking or traditional ride-hailing, these products and services all require Uber to interact with cities and ensure the company is on the good side of cities. That’s where Shin-pei Tsay comes in. Hear from Tsay about how she thinks through Uber’s place in cities and how she navigates various regulatory frameworks.

The Road to the All-Electric Air with Peter Rawlinson (Lucid Motors)

Just weeks after Lucid Motors unveils its long-anticipated all-electric luxury Air sedan, we’ll sit down with Peter Rawlinson to discuss the challenges of building a car company and assembling that first production vehicle as well as plans for the future.

Wednesday, October 7

The Future of Racing with Lucas Di Grassi (Audi Sport)

Formula E driver Lucas Di Grassi is part of a new racing series, in which riders on high-speed electric scooters compete against each other on temporary circuits in cities. Think Formula E, but with electric scooters. The former CEO of Roborace and sustainability ambassador of the EsC, Electric Scooter Championship, will join us to talk about electrification, micromobility and a new kind of motorsport.

The Future of Trucking with Xiaodi Hou (TuSimple) and Boris Sofman (Waymo)

TuSimple co-founder and CTO Xiaodi Hou and Boris Sofman, former Anki Robotics founder and CEO who now leads Waymo’s trucking unit, will discuss the business and the technical challenges of autonomous trucking.

The Electrification of Porsche with Detlev von Platen (Porsche AG)

Porsche has undergone a major transformation in the past several years, investing billions into an electric vehicle program and launching the Taycan, its first all-electric vehicle. Now, Porsche is ramping up for more. Porsche AG’s Detlev von Platen, who is a member of the company’s executive board, will talk about Porsche’s path, competition and where it’s headed next.

Navigating Self-Driving Car Regulations with David Estrada (Nuro), Melissa Froelich (Aurora) and Jody Kelman (Lyft), Prashanthi Raman (Cruise)

Autonomous vehicle developers face a patchwork of local, state and federal regulations. Government policy experts, from Nuro, Aurora, Lyft and Cruise, discuss the progress that’s been made, the challenges that remain and how startups can navigate the jumble of regulations and deploy their autonomous vehicle technology at scale.

Future of Cities: Delivery Takes Flight with Margaret Nagle (Wing)

Margaret Nagle, head of policy and public affairs at Wing, will talk about how drones used for delivery could reshape cities and improve accessibility.

Delivering and Building EVs with Thomas Ingenlath (Polestar)

Polestar is less than four years old and already has two vehicles on the market and more on the way. In this fireside chat with CEO Thomas Ingenlath, we’ll discuss the company’s focus, strategy and sleek design.

Scooting Through the World’s Regulatory Frameworks with Tony Adesina (Gura Ride), Fredrik Hjelm (VOI Technology), and Euwyn Poon (Spin)

Although dockless scooters first hit the streets of the U.S., there’s plenty of scooter activity going on abroad. And thanks to different regulatory landscapes and players, the state of scooters looks different depending on where you are. Scooters have taken off in Europe, with a number of players operating across the continent, as well as in South America. Now, shared scooters and ebikes are popping up in Africa. Hear from Spin CEO Euwyn Poon about bringing his U.S.-centric company abroad, VOI co-founder Fredrik Hjelm about the state of scooters in Europe and Tony Adesina, the founder and CEO of micromobility startup Gura Ride about opportunities and challenges in Africa.

Startup Pitch-Off

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their companies.

Life After Tesla with JB Straubel (Redwood Materials)

JB Straubel might be best known as Tesla’s co-founder and former CTO who was responsible for some of the company’s most important technology, notably around batteries. But Straubel is hardly finished. He launched his own recycling startup called Redwood Materials that is focused on creating a circular supply chain and recently named Amazon and Panasonic as customers. We’ll sit down with Straubel to talk about his latest venture, time at Tesla and of course, battery technology and the state of the electric vehicles.

Building Better Battery Tech with Celina Mikolajczak (Panasonic) and JB Straubel (Redwood Materials)

Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology for Panasonic Energy of North America, and JB Straubel, co-founder and CEO of Redwood Materials, will dig into the state of battery tech, what it will take to meet growing demand while minimizing the environmental impact, and how their respective companies are working together.

Here’s everything Amazon announced at its latest hardware event

From new Ring flying indoor drone cameras to an adorable new kids version of one of its most popular Amazon home products, Jeff Bezos’ Seattle retailer unveiled a slew of new hardware goodies just ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Echo updates

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon kicked off its latest hardware showcase by unveiling a new version of the company’s Echo devices, which now include spherical speakers (with a version for kids featuring cute animal graphics). Amazon also unveiled an updated, more personalized Echo capabilities and a new tracking feature for its Show 10 that mirrors Facebook’s Portal in its ability to follow users as they move around a room.

Ring’s new things

Ring also had plenty to pitch at the Amazon hardware show. The security camera company is updating its line with the Always Home Cam, a diminutive drone that can be scheduled to fly preset paths, which users can determine themselves.

It also rolled out new hardware for the automotive market with three different devices focused on car owners. A Ring Car Alarm that will retail for $59.99; and the Car Cam and Car Connect will both be $199.99. Ring Car Alarm provides basic features that work with the Ring app, sending alerts to trigger a series of potential responses. The alarm also integrates with other Ring devices or Amazon Alexa hardware and connects using Amazon’s low-bandwidth Sidewalk wireless network protocol.

Meanwhile, the Car Cam allows users to check in on their car via video as long as users are in range of a wifi network, or opt-in to the additional LTE companion plan Ring is selling. The cam also includes an Emergency Crash Assist feature that alerts first responders, and a recording feature that turns on if a user says “Alexa, I’m being pulled over”. Finally, the car connect is an API that manufacturers, starting with Tesla, can use to provide Ring customers with mobile alerts for events detected around vehicles or watch footage recorded with onboard cameras.

Ring also added new opt-in end-to-end video encryption for those users who want it.

New ways to Fire TV

Image Credits: Amazon

The company’s TV platform got several updates. The biggest is probably the addition of the new, lower cost Fire TV Stick Lite at $29.99. For $39.99, meanwhile, you can pick up the new Fire TV Stick, which features a process that’s 50% faster. The platform is also adding Video Calling — a nice addition in the era of working from home — along with a new, improved layout.

Amazon goes ga-ga for gaming

Last, but certainly not least, Amazon announced its new game-streaming platform, Luna.

The long-awaited gaming competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is launching an early access version at a price of $5.99 per-month, the company said. Users will be able to stream titles wirelessly without downloading games and can play across PC, Mac, and iOS (via the web).

Initially, the company will have more than 50 titles in the Luna+ app, including at least one Sonic title and Remedy Entertainment’s control. There’s a partnership with Ubisoft in the works, but access to those games may require a separate subscription.

Netflix finally comes to the Amazon Echo Show

Amazon announced the Echo Show line in 2017, and today, it’s finally gaining access to Netflix. The video service joins Hulu and Prime Video as the only officially supported video streaming apps.

The news came from Amazon’s yearly Echo event where the company unveiled a series of new products and services including redesigned speakers and updated Alexa capabilities.

Amazon executives spoke on how they have data that shows Echo Show owners love watching content on the small screens. Netflix should make that crowd happy. When Netflix, Hulu or Prime Video is viewed on the just-announced Echo Show 10, the unit will swivel on its motorized stand, following the viewer if they move around the room.

Amazon redesigns Fire TV, introduces new Fire TV Stick and low-cost Fire TV Stick Lite

Amazon today announced a redesign Fire TV experience along with an updated Fire TV Stick and a new, lower-cost Fire TV Stick Lite. The updated interface for the Alexa-enabled smart TV platform will introduce a handful of new features, including support video calling and other options for using Fire TV as a way to video chat, including later, support for Zoom, Amazon says.

It also improves the overall design of the Fire TV software experience.

The updated Fire TV design includes a personalized home page where you can more quickly get to your favorite content and apps. It will also support the recently introduced user profiles for up to six people in a household. The profiles allow users to keep track of the shows they’re watching and see recommendations tailored to their own interests.

Fire TV’s navigation has also been simplified. Gone is the lengthy row of tabs at the top of the screen to click through. Instead, navigation has moved down the page next to your profile icon, and now includes tabs for Home, Find, Live, and Library, alongside a row of your favorite apps.

The top of the screen, meanwhile, has been freed up to better display a large advertisement for Amazon’s own content. This is an understandable design choice but also serves as a reminder that Amazon Fire TV is not as neutral a platform as something like Roku, where home screen ad space is offered for sale to interested parties and may even point you to new services and apps.

An Alexa hub on Fire TV will help to show off what sort of things you can do with Alexa, including how you can use picture-in-picture mode to watch your smart cameras alongside your TV show. And now, when you ask Alexa a question, she won’t take over the full screen — a tweak that recalls Apple’s recent update to the Siri experience in iOS 14, perhaps.

But the bigger is news is around how Amazon envisions the Fire TV as a communications device.

“People have been watching more and more TV at home through devices like Fire TV and we’ve sold over 100 million of them live today,” said Amazon VP, Entertainment Devices and Services, Marc Whitten. “They’re watching billions of hours of entertainment a month. And they’ve also been using them for new things — different things that they hadn’t before,” he added.

On this front, Amazon is introducing Video Calling with Fire TV.  The new feature will allow the home’s biggest screen to display video calls. Initially, this will work by allowing customers to connect a Logitech USB webcam with their Fire TV Cube to enable two-way video calling on Alexa. Later, Amazon will add support for Zoom, but didn’t offer a launch date.

Though not mentioned today, it seems obvious that Amazon is likely planning to introduce new Fire TV television sets that include built-in webcams at some point further down the road. It’s unclear why it wasn’t ready to launch those today at its big event, however.

Image Credits: Amazon

As for Fire TV hardware, today’s announcements were limited to Fire TV Stick.

The Fire TV Stick is one of Amazon’s best-sellers and the first product on all of Amazon.com to surpass a quarter of million in customer ratings, the company noted. It now has the most 5-star ratings of any product.

The updated Fire TV Stick has been updated with a 50% more powerful processor, and supports HDR compatibility and Dolby Atmos support for full-HD streaming. But it will use 50% less power than its predecessor, Amazon says. It will continue to ship with the Alexa remote, which includes dedicated volume, power and mute buttons that can control your TV, soundbar and AV equipment. The device will roll out later in the year for $39.99.

Amazon also announced a new, more affordable Fire TV Stick, called the Fire TV Stick Lite. This version, which isn’t quite as powerful, supports streaming in full-HD with HDR, and comes with Alexa Voice Remote Lite.

The Fire TV Stick Lite will start shipping later this month for $29.99.

3 founders on why they pursued alternative startup ownership structures

There is no one-size-fits all model for building a startup.

At TechCrunch Disrupt, we heard from a handful of founders about alternative approaches to creating a sustainable company that ensures more than just VCs and early founders benefit from its success. 

One way is building a cooperative, which Driver’s Seat CEO Hays Witt described as “a kind of corporate entity that both allows and requires that we return the majority of our profits to our members, and that our members have a majority of governance.”

Driver’s Seat helps ride-hail drivers use data to maximize their earnings. It works by requiring drivers to install an app that educates them about how the co-op collects and uses their data. In exchange, the app gives them insights about their real hourly wages after expenses and how those wages relate to different driving strategies.

“At a community level, what we do is sort of align everybody’s interest so that as gig workers come into our co-op, as they generate data, the value of that data in the aggregate gets higher and higher,” Witt said. “The dividends that we’re able to return back to drivers gets higher and also the kind of insights we’re able to give communities about work gets higher at the same time. So we kind of align all of our impact and mission goals. And our business model is through our co-op structure.”

That’s not to say Driver’s Seat does not create returns for its investors — investors are just one group of many that benefit from the company’s success. Witt said a desire for accountability made him decide to form a co-op.

“If we are always accountable to our co-op members, and our co-op members are gig workers, then we’re going to know that we’re accountable to the right things,” Witt said. “Now, we have investor members, too. We’re accountable to them, too. But our structure means that the gig workers always have at least that 51%. [ … ] it’s certainly not the only way to build a business. But, you know, for us, it was the way that we would build a business that would align with our mission of really changing the gig economy.”

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