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July 16, 2018
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Amazon Prime Day’s best tech deals

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When you’re as big as Amazon, you get to make up your own holidays. And if you want to make that day 36 hours long, who’s going to stop you? This year, things kick off on Monday July 16, and just kind of keep going from there.

Granted, many of the best deals won’t be announced until the day starts, but companies (including Amazon itself) have been more than happy to offer up a preview of what’s to come. Here’s a partial list of some of the best.

We’ll no doubt be updating things over the next few days as more companies reach out. 

Amazon Cloud Cam ($60, $60 off regular price): One of Amazon’s deepest cuts yet, the company is cutting the price of its 1080p connected security camera in half.

Amazon Kindle Paper White ($80, $40 off regular price) – Amazon’s Kindle Paper White is getting a bit long in the tooth, but it’s still one of the best e-readers on the market. The 300 DPI reader usually runs $120 with Special Offers (you know, screen saver ads), but this will get you in at well under $100.

Blink XT 1 Camera System ($75, $55 off regular price) – After picking up Blink earlier this year, Amazon’s offering some steep discounts off the smart camera line next week. The weatherproof system can run up to two years on AA batteries.

DJI Mavic Pro Fly More Combo ($999, $300 off regular price) – This is the first year the drone giant is participating in Amazon’s pretend holiday, and it’s going all in, with 10 different discounted packages. We’ve got a sneaking suspicion a new Mavic Pro is just around the corner, but in the meantime, DJI’s taking $300 of the first-gen combo pack for the foldable drone.

NVIDIA Shield TV ($139, $40 off regular price) – Shield TV streams Amazon and Netflix video in 4K HDR. The Android-based set top box is also capable gaming — this is NVIDIA, after all. Users can stream games from a PC or the cloud, via GeForce Now. There are also a number of exclusive Android gaming titles on-board for good measure.

razer phone

Razer Phone (Up to 25-percent off): The “deepest discount on Razer Phone to-date,” according to the company. No specifics on how much the $700 phone will be discounted — only that it will be up to a quarter off the full price. The Android handset has some beefy specs, in order to power a mobile gaming experience.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Snapchat code reveals team-up with Amazon for ‘Camera Search’

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Codenamed “Eagle,” Snapchat is building a visual product search feature that delivers users to Amazon’s listings. Buried inside the code of Snapchat’s Android app is an unreleased “Visual Search” feature where you “Press and hold to identify an object, song, barcode, and more! This works by sending data to Amazon, Shazam, and other partners.” Once an object or barcode has been scanned you can “See all results at Amazon.”

Visual product search could make Snapchat’s camera a more general purpose tool for seeing and navigating the world, rather than just a social media maker. It could differentiate Snapchat from Instagram, whose clone of Snapchat Stories now has more than twice the users and a six times faster growth rate than the original. And if Snapchat has worked out an affiliate referrals deal with Amazon, it could open a new revenue stream. That’s something Snap Inc. direly needs after posting a $385 million loss last quarter and missing revenue estimates by $14 million.

TechCrunch was tipped off to the hidden Snapchat code by app researcher Ishan Agarwal. His tips have previously led to TechCrunch scoops about Instagram’s video calling, soundtracks, Focus portrait mode and QR Nametags features that were all later officially launched. Amazon didn’t respond to a press inquiry before publishing time. Snap Inc. gave TechCrunch a “no comment,” but the company’s code tells the story.

Snapchat first dabbled in understanding the world around you with its Shazam integration back in 2016 that lets you tap and hold to identify a song playing nearby, check it out on Shazam, send it to a friend or follow the artist on Snapchat. Project Eagle builds on this audio search feature to offer visual search through a similar interface and set of partnerships. The ability to identify purchaseable objects or scan barcodes could turn Snapchat, which some view as a teen toy, into more of a utility.

What’s inside Snapchat’s Eagle eye

Snapchat’s code doesn’t explain exactly how the Project Eagle feature will work, but in the newest version of Snapchat it was renamed as “Camera Search.” The code lists the ability to surface “sellers” and “reviews,” “Copy URL” of a product and “Share” or “Send Product” to friends — likely via Snap messages or Snapchat Stories. In characteristic cool kid teenspeak, an error message for “product not found” reads “Bummer, we didn’t catch that!”

Eagle’s visual search may be connected to Snapchat’s “context cards,” which debuted late last year and pull up business contact info, restaurant reservations, movie tickets, Ubers or Lyfts and more. Surfacing within Snapchat a context card of details about ownable objects might be the first step to getting users to buy them… and advertisers to pay Snap to promote them. It’s easy to imagine context cards being accessible for products tagged in Snap Ads as well as scanned through visual search. And Snap already has in-app shopping.

Being able to recognize what you’re seeing makes Snapchat more fun, but it’s also a new way of navigating reality. In mid-2017 Snapchat launched World Lenses that map the surfaces of your surroundings so you can place 3D animated objects like its Dancing Hotdog mascot alongside real people in real places. Snapchat also released a machine vision-powered search feature last year that compiles Stories of user-submitted Snaps featuring your chosen keyword, like videos with “puppies” or “fireworks,” even if the captions don’t mention them.

Snapchat was so interested in visual search that this year, it reportedly held early-stage acquisition talks with machine vision startup Blippar. The talks fell through with the U.K. augmented reality company that has raised at least $99 million for its own visual search feature, but which recently began to implode due to low usage and financing trouble. Snap Inc. might have been hoping to jumpstart its Camera Search efforts.

Snap calls itself a camera company, after all. But with the weak sales of its mediocre v1 Spectacles, the well-reviewed v2 failing to break into the cultural zeitgeist and no other hardware products on the market, Snap may need to redefine what exactly that tag line means. Visual search could frame Snapchat as more of a sensor than just a camera. With its popular use for rapid-fire selfie messaging, it’s already the lens through which some teens see the world. Soon, Snap could be ready to train its eagle eye on purchases, not just faces.

In related Snapchat news:

News Source = techcrunch.com

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

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In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for fifteen years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Apple’s Shortcuts will flip the switch on Siri’s potential

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At WWDC, Apple pitched Shortcuts as a way to ”take advantage of the power of apps” and ”expose quick actions to Siri.” These will be suggested by the OS, can be given unique voice commands, and will even be customizable with a dedicated Shortcuts app.

But since this new feature won’t let Siri interpret everything, many have been lamenting that Siri didn’t get much better — and is still lacking compared to Google Assistant or Amazon Echo.

But to ignore Shortcuts would be missing out on the bigger picture. Apple’s strengths have always been the device ecosystem and the apps that run on them.

With Shortcuts, both play a major role in how Siri will prove to be a truly useful assistant and not just a digital voice to talk to.

Your Apple devices just got better

For many, voice assistants are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have.

It’s undeniably convenient to get facts by speaking to the air, turning on the lights without lifting a finger, or triggering a timer or text message – but so far, studies have shown people don’t use much more than these on a regular basis.

People don’t often do more than that because the assistants aren’t really ready for complex tasks yet, and when your assistant is limited to tasks inside your home or commands spoken inton your phone, the drawbacks prevent you from going deep.

If you prefer Alexa, you get more devices, better reliability, and a breadth of skills, but there’s not a great phone or tablet experience you can use alongside your Echo. If you prefer to have Google’s Assistant everywhere, you must be all in on the Android and Home ecosystem to get the full experience too.

Plus, with either option, there are privacy concerns baked into how both work on a fundamental level – over the web.

In Apple’s ecosystem, you have Siri on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod, CarPlay, and any Mac. Add in Shortcuts on each of those devices (except Mac, but they still have Automator) and suddenly you have a plethora of places to execute these all your commands entirely by voice.

Each accessory that Apple users own will get upgraded, giving Siri new ways to fulfill the 10 billion and counting requests people make each month (according to Craig Federighi’s statement on-stage at WWDC).

But even more important than all the places where you can use your assistant is how – with Shortcuts, Siri gets even better with each new app that people download. There’s the other key difference: the App Store.

Actions are the most important part of your apps

iOS has always had a vibrant community of developers who create powerful, top-notch applications that push the system to its limits and take advantage of the ever-increasing power these mobile devices have.

Shortcuts opens up those capabilities to Siri – every action you take in an app can be shared out with Siri, letting people interact right there inline or using only their voice, with the app running everything smoothly in the background.

Plus, the functional approach that Apple is taking with Siri creates new opportunities for developers provide utility to people instead of requiring their attention. The suggestions feature of Shortcuts rewards “acceleration”, showing the apps that provide the most time savings and use for the user more often.

This opens the door to more specialized types of apps that don’t necessarily have to grow a huge audience and serve them ads – if you can make something that helps people, Shortcuts can help them use your app more than ever before (and without as much effort). Developers can make a great experience for when people visit the app, but also focus on actually doing something useful too.

This isn’t a virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, but a digital helper that can pair up with the apps uniquely taking advantage of Apple’s hardware and software capabilities to truly improve your use of the device.

In the most groan-inducing way possible, “there’s an app for that” is back and more important than ever. Not only are apps the centerpiece of the Siri experience, but it’s their capabilities that extend Siri’s – the better the apps you have, the better Siri can be.

Control is at your fingertips

Importantly, Siri gets all of this Shortcuts power while keeping the control in each person’s hands.

All of the information provided to the system is securely passed along by individual apps – if something doesn’t look right, you can just delete the corresponding app and the information is gone.

Siri will make recommendations based on activities deemed relevant by the apps themselves as well, so over-active suggestions shouldn’t be common (unless you’re way too active in some apps, in which case they added Screen Time for you too).

Each of the voice commands is custom per user as well, so people can ignore their apps suggestions and set up the phrases to their own liking. This means nothing is already “taken” because somebody signed up for the skill first (unless you’ve already used it yourself, of course).

Also, Shortcuts don’t require the web to work – the voice triggers might not work, but the suggestions and Shortcuts app give you a place to use your assistant voicelessly. And importantly, Shortcuts can use the full power of the web when they need to.

This user-centric approach paired with the technical aspects of how Shortcuts works gives Apple’s assistant a leg up for any consumers who find privacy important. Essentially, Apple devices are only listening for “Hey Siri”, then the available Siri domains + your own custom trigger phrases.

Without exposing your information to the world or teaching a robot to understand everything, Apple gave Siri a slew of capabilities that in many ways can’t be matched. With Shortcuts, it’s the apps, the operating system, and the variety of hardware that will make Siri uniquely qualified come this fall.

Plus, the Shortcuts app will provide a deeper experience for those who want to chain together actions and customize their own shortcuts.

There’s lots more under the hood to experiment with, but this will allow anyone to tweak & prod their Siri commands until they have a small army of custom assistant tasks at the ready.

Hey Siri, let’s get started

Siri doesn’t know all, Can’t perform any task you bestow upon it, and won’t make somewhat uncanny phone calls on your behalf.

But instead of spending time conversing with a somewhat faked “artificial intelligence”, Shortcuts will help people use Siri as an actual digital assistant – a computer to help them get things done better than they might’ve otherwise.

With Siri’s new skills extendeding to each of your Apple products (except for Apple TV and the Mac, but maybe one day?), every new device you get and every new app you download can reveal another way to take advantage of what this technology can offer.

This broadening of Siri may take some time to get used to – it will be about finding the right place for it in your life.

As you go about your apps, you’ll start seeing and using suggestions. You’ll set up a few voice commands, then you’ll do something like kick off a truly useful shortcut from your Apple Watch without your phone connected and you’ll realize the potential.

This is a real digital assistant, your apps know how to work with it, and it’s already on many of your Apple devices. Now, it’s time to actually make use of it.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Airwallex raises $80M for its international payment service for businesses

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Airwallex, a three-year-old fintech startup focused on international payments for SMEs and businesses, is putting itself on the map after it raised an $80 million Series B round.

Based of out of Melbourne, but with six offices in Asia and other parts of the world, Airwallex’s new funding round is the second largest financing deal for an Australian startup in history. The round was led by existing investors Tencent, the $500 billion Chinese internet giant, and Sequoia China. Other participants included China’s Hillhouse, Horizons Ventures — the fund from Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-Shing — Indonesia-based Central Capital Ventura (BCA) and Australia’s Square Peg, a firm from Paul Bassat who took recruitment firm Seek to IPO and is one of Australia’s highest-profile founders.

The financing takes Airwallex to $102 million raised. Tencent led a $13 million Series A in May 2017, while Square Peg added $6 million more via a Series A+ in December. Mastercard is also a backer; the finance giant uses Airwallex to handle its “Send” product while Tencent uses the service to power an overseas remittance service for its WeChat app.

Airwallex handles cross-border transactions for companies that do business in multiple countries using international currencies. So it’s not unlike a Transferwise-style service for SMEs that lack the capital to develop a sophisticated (and expensive) international banking system of their own.

The service uses wholesale FX rates to route overseas payments back to a client’s domestic bank and is capable of processing “thousands of transactions per second,” according to the company. A use case example might include helping a China-based seller return money earned in the U.S. or Europe via Amazon or other e-commerce services, or route sales revenue back directly from their own website.

Airwallex CEO Jack Zhang (far right) on stage at TechCrunch Shenzhen in 2017

China is a key market for Airwallex — which was started by four Australian-Chinese founders — as well as the wider Asian region, and in particular Australia, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. With this new capital, Airwallex co-founder and CEO Jack Zhang said the company will increase its focus on Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, whilst also extending its business in Europe (where it has a London-based office) and pushing into North America.

Product R&D is shared across Melbourne and Shanghai, while Hong Kong accounts for business development, compliance and more, Zhang explained. However, Airwallex’s locations in London and San Francisco are likely to account for most of the upcoming headcount growth planned following this funding. Right now, Airwallex has around 100 staff, according to Zhang.

The company is also aiming to expand its product range, too.

The firm is in the process of applying for a virtual banking license in Hong Kong, a third-party payment license in mainland China, and a cross-border Chinese yuan license. One goal, Zhang revealed, is to offer working capital loans to SMEs to help them to scale their businesses to the next level. Airwallex is working with an undisclosed partner to underwrite deals in the future. Zhang explained that the company sees a gap in the market since banks don’t have access to critical data on clients for loan assessments.

More generally, he’s bullish for the future despite Brexit and the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.

“The trade war gives the Chinese yuan a lot of vitality, and we’ve seen more demand in the market. China’s belt road initiative has really taken off, too, and we’re seeing the impact in many many of our payment corridors,” he explained. “Business has been booming, especially as traditional offline SMEs start to move online and go from domestic to global.”

“We want to be the backbone to support these new opportunities for businesses,” Zhang added.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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