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May 26, 2019
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Immigrant founders, smartphone growth, SEO tactics, SoftBank’s financials, and AR tech

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How an immigration crackdown is hurting UK startups

Our European correspondent Natasha Lomas spent the past few weeks investigating what’s been happening to immigrant founders and tech talent in the UK, who have been receiving more scrutiny from the Home Office in recent months. Natasha zooms in on Metail, a virtual fitting room startup, and its tribulations with the immigration authorities and the damage those action are having on the broader ecosystem:

The January 31 decision letter, which TechCrunch has reviewed, shows how the Home Office is fast-tracking anti-immigrant outcomes. In a short paragraph, the Home Office says it considered and dismissed an alternative outcome — of downgrading, not revoking, the license and issuing an “action plan” to rectify issues identified during the audit. Instead, it said an immediate end to the license was appropriate due to the “seriousness” of the non-compliance with “sponsor duties”.

The decision focused on one of the two employees Metail had working on a Tier 2 visa, who we’ll call Alex (not their real name). In essence, Alex was a legal immigrant had worked their way into a mid-level promotion by learning on the job, as should happen regularly at any good early-stage startup. The Home Office, however, perceived the promotion to have been given to someone without proper qualifications, over potential native-born candidates.

In addition to reporting the story, Natasha also wrote a guide specifically for Extra Crunch members on how founders can manage their immigration matters, both for themselves and for their employees.

The state of the smartphone

TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater analyzed the slowdown in smartphone sales, finding few reasons to be optimistic about how smaller handset manufacturers can compete with giants like Apple and Samsung. There are slivers of good news from the developing world and also from 5G and foldable tech, but don’t expect profits to reach their zenith again any time soon.

The state of the smartphone

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Earlier this month, Canalys used the word “freefall” to describe its latest reporting. Global shipments fell 6.8% year over year. At 313.9 million, they were at their lowest level in nearly half a decade.

Of the major players, Apple was easily the hardest hit, falling 23.2% year over year. The firm says that’s the “largest single-quarter decline in the history of the iPhone.” And it’s not an anomaly, either. It’s part of a continued slide for the company, seen most recently in its Q1 earnings, which found the handset once again missing Wall Street expectations. That came on the tale of a quarter in which Apple announced it would no longer be reporting sales figures.

Tim Cook has placed much of the iPhone’s slide at the feet of a disappointing Chinese market. It’s been a tough nut for the company to crack, in part due to a slowing national economy. But there’s more to it than that. Trade tensions and increasing tariffs have certainly played a role — and things look like they’ll be getting worse before they get better on that front, with a recent bump from a 10 to 25% tariff bump on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

It’s important to keep in mind here that many handsets, regardless of country of origin, contain both Chinese and American components. On the U.S. side of the equation, that includes nearly ubiquitous elements like Qualcomm processors and a Google-designed operating system. But the causes of a stagnating (and now declining) smartphone market date back well before the current administration began sowing the seeds of a trade war with China.

Image via Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesThe underlying factors are many. For one thing, smartphones simply may be too good. It’s an odd notion, but an intense battle between premium phone manufacturers may have resulted in handsets that are simply too good to warrant the long-standing two-year upgrade cycle. NPD Executive Director Brad Akyuz tells TechCrunch that the average smartphone flagship user tends to hold onto their phones for around 30 months — or exactly two-and-a-half years.

That’s a pretty dramatic change from the days when smartphone purchases were driven almost exclusively by contracts. Smartphone upgrades here in the States were driven by the standard 24-month contract cycle. When one lapsed, it seemed all but a given that the customer would purchase the latest version of the heavily subsidized contract.

But as smartphone build quality has increased, so too have prices, as manufacturers have raised margins in order to offset declining sales volume. “All of a sudden, these devices became more expensive, and you can see that average selling price trend going through the roof,” says Akyuz. “It’s been crazy, especially on the high end.”

MultiVu raises $7M seed round for its next-gen 3D sensor

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MultiVu, a Tel Aviv-based startup that is developing a new 3D imaging solution that only relies on a single sensor and some deep learning smarts, today announced that it has raised a $7 million seed round. The round was led by crowdfunding platform OurCrowd, Cardumen Captial and Hong Kong’s Junson Capital.

Tel Aviv University’s TAU Technology Innovation Momentum Fund supported some of the earlier development of MultiVu’s core technology, which came out of Prof. David Mendlovic’s lab at the university. Mendlovic previously co-founded smartphone camera startup Corephotonics, which was recently acquired by Samsung.

The promise of MultiVu’s sensor is that it can offer 3D imaging with a single-lens camera instead of the usual two-sensor setup. This single sensor can extract depth and color data in a single shot.

This makes for a more compact setup and, by extension, a more affordable solution since it requires fewer components. All of this is powered by the company’s patented light field technology.

Currently, the team is focusing on using the sensor for face authentication in phones and other small devices. That’s obviously a growing market, but there are also plenty of other application for small 3D sensors, ranging from other security use cases to sensors for self-driving cars.

“The technology, which passed the proof-of-concept stage will bring 3D Face Authentication and affordable 3D imaging to the mobile, automotive, industrial and medical markets,” MultiVu CEO Doron Nevo said. “We are excited to be given the opportunity to commercialize this technology.”

Right now, though, the team is mostly focusing on bringing its sensor to market, though. The company will use the new funding for that, as well as new marketing and business development activities.

“We are pleased to invest in the future of 3D sensor technologies and believe that MultiVu will penetrate markets, which until now could not take advantage of costly 3D imaging solutions,” said OurCrowd Senior Investment Partner Eli Nir. “We are proud to be investing in a third company founded by Prof. David Mendlovic (who just recently sold CorePhotonics to Samsung), managed by CEO Doron Nevo – a serial entrepreneur with proven successes and a superb team they have gathered around them.”

Samsung spilled SmartThings app source code and secret keys

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A development lab used by Samsung engineers was leaking highly sensitive source code, credentials and secret keys for several internal projects — including its SmartThings platform, a security researcher found.

The electronics giant left dozens of internal coding projects on a GitLab instance hosted on a Samsung-owned domain, Vandev Lab. The instance, used by staff to share and contribute code to various Samsung apps, services and projects, was spilling data because the projects were set to “public” and not properly protected with a password, allowing anyone to look inside at each project, access, and download the source code.

Mossab Hussein, a security researcher at Dubai-based cybersecurity firm SpiderSilk who discovered the exposed files, said one project contained credentials that allowed access to the entire AWS account that was being used, including over a hundred S3 storage buckets that contained logs and analytics data.

Many of the folders, he said, contained logs and analytics data for Samsung’s SmartThings and Bixby services, but also several employees’ exposed private GitLab tokens stored in plaintext, which allowed him to gain additional access from 42 public projects to 135 projects, including many private projects.

Samsung told him some of the files were for testing but Hussein challenged the claim, saying source code found in the GitLab repository contained the same code as the Android app, published in Google Play on April 10.

The app, which has since been updated, has more than 100 million installs to date.

“I had the private token of a user who had full access to all 135 projects on that GitLab,” he said, which could have allowed him to make code changes using a staffer’s own account.

Hussein shared several screenshots and a video of his findings for TechCrunch to examine and verify.

The exposed GitLab instance also contained private certificates for Samsung’s SmartThings’ iOS and Android apps.

Hussein also found several internal documents and slideshows among the exposed files.

“The real threat lies in the possibility of someone acquiring this level of access to the application source code, and injecting it with malicious code without the company knowing,” he said.

Through exposed private keys and tokens, Hussein documented a vast amount of access that if obtained by a malicious actor could have been “disastrous,” he said.

A screenshot of the exposed AWS credentials, allowing access to buckets with GitLab private tokens. (Image: supplied).

Hussein, a white-hat hacker and data breach discoverer, reported the findings to Samsung on April 10. In the days following, Samsung began revoking the AWS credentials but it’s not known if the remaining secret keys and certificates were revoked.

Samsung still hasn’t closed the case on Hussein’s vulnerability report, close to a month after he first disclosed the issue.

“Recently, an individual security researcher reported a vulnerability through our security rewards program regarding one of our testing platforms,” Samsung spokesperson Zach Dugan told TechCrunch when reached prior to publication. “We quickly revoked all keys and certificates for the reported testing platform and while we have yet to find evidence that any external access occurred, we are currently investigating this further.”

Hussein said Samsung took until April 30 to revoke the GitLab private keys. Samsung also declined to answer specific questions we had and provided no evidence that the Samsung-owned development environment was for testing.

Hussein is no stranger to reporting security vulnerabilities. He recently disclosed a vulnerable back-end database at Blind, an anonymous social networking site popular among Silicon Valley employees — and found a server leaking a rolling list of user passwords for scientific journal giant Elsevier.

Samsung’s data leak, he said, was his biggest find to date.

“I haven’t seen a company this big handle their infrastructure using weird practices like that,” he said.

Read more:

iPhone hard hit as global smartphone shipments continue nosedive

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The smartphone industry is in rough shape. Sundar Pichai used the word “headwinds” to discuss the company’s difficulties moving Pixel 3 units, but Canalys’ latest report is far more blunt, describing the situation as a “freefall.”

Things are pretty ugly in the Q1 report, as smartphone shipments declined for the sixth quarter in a row. The combined global units hit 313.9 million, marking their lowest point in almost half a decade, according to the firm.

Of the big players, Apple seems to be particularly hard hit, falling 23.2% year on year. Once again, China played a big role here, but as usual, the full story is much more complex.

“This is the largest single-quarter decline in the history of the iPhone,” said analyst Ben Stanton in a release tied to the news. “Apple’s second largest market, China, again proved tough. But this was far from its only problem. Shipments fell in the US as trade-in initiatives failed to offset longer consumer refresh cycles. In markets such as Europe, Apple is increasingly using discounts to prop up demand, but this is causing additional complexity for distributors, and blurring the value proposition of these ‘premium’ devices in the eyes of consumers.”

A lot to unpack there, but what we’re looking at are some larger issues within the industry, including global economic issues and slowed upgrade cycles for users. The XS was also notably much less dramatic of an upgrade than its predecessor. Stanton did add that the iPhone, “show[ed] signs of recovery towards the back-end of the quarter,” which is promising for Q2.

It also remains to be seen what this year will hold in terms of iPhone upgrades, though most signs point to 2020 as the year the company makes the jump to 5G. Tim Cook was noncommittal on the topic during the company’s earnings call last night, instead pointing to positive numbers on the iPad side and, of course, Apple’s continued push into services.

Analysts are somewhat bullish about the potential of innovations like 5G and even foldables in shaking up the stagnant market, but big players like Apple are clearly hedging their bets, should the free-falling headwinds continue.

Huawei, meanwhile, continues to be a bright spot, with a 50.2% year over year growth and an 18.8% global market share, according to the firm. That growth could be hampered, however, by increased competition from Samsung and fellow Chinese handset companies like Xiaomi and Oppo.

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