Posted: 09 Oct 2019 05:56 AM PDT
It's been more than two years, several price cuts, and one mass layoff since Andy Rubin's Essential burst into the scene with a new kind of phone. Hailed by critics and instantly declared the next big thing, it was the first Android phone with a notch, no headphone jack, a modular magnetic system, and an overinflated sense of purpose.
In no uncertain terms, Essential Phone was a beautiful disaster. Initial figures put sales south of 100,000, the promised charging and audio mods arrived late or not at all, and the AI-powered home hub turned out to be pure vaporware.
But now Rubin expects us to forget all that—along with a series of sexual misconduct allegations that reportedly forced him out of Google back in 2014—and trust in his new smartphone vision. In a thinly veiled tease of the next Essential Phone, Rubin tweeted out a series of pics of what he calls a "new UI for a radically different formfactor (sic)." A few hours later, his company confirmed the images as showing "a new device to reframe your perspective," claiming that "it's now in early testing with our team outside the lab."
And radical it is. The phone looks to have a a glossy "Colorshift" back with a single bulbous camera, a hole-punch selfie cam, uniform bezels, and an extra-tall screen that puts the Note 10+'s 19.5:9 aspect ratio to shame. In all honesty, it looks more like a new Apple TV remote than a phone, and it raises for more question than answers.
Let's start with the most obvious one: what operating system is it running? Rubin touted the unique UI of the new device, but the two screenshots don't look like any version of Android I've ever seen. So it's safe to say that it's a proprietary OS designed for the screen's a ridiculous ratio. Rubin may have the Android pedigree to stand one, but the last thing we need is a new smartphone OS in 2019.
Also, what about our perspective needs reframing? The first Essential Phone may have been a monument to Rubin's self indulgence, what with its lack of a logo, "real passion and craftsmanship," and desire to "change how successful technology companies are built forever," but at least it stuck to a basic smartphone formula. The pictures of Essential Phone 2 show screens with numerous tiles for time, music, photos, and apps all showing at once, but how is that a benefit? To do anything with the phone we're going to need to launch an app anyway, which leads to the rest of my questions:
And if I wasn't clear earlier: what's the point? As far as I can tell, Essential Phone 2's design is little more than Rubin's desire to be different while once again admonishing the rest of the industry for not seeing it sooner.
The only thing Essential Phone was truly better at doing than other Android phones was delivering timely and regular updates, often as fast as Google's own Pixel phones, even to this day. But assuming Essential Phone 2 runs an in-house OS, what guarantees will we have that it's safe, secure, and private? After Essential Phone crashed and burned and failed to deliver on its biggest promises, now we're supposed to believe that Rubin has created a ground-up reimagining of the smartphone experience that is mature enough to challenge Android and iOS? Color me skeptical.
Let's face it, without Rubin's involvement, Essential wouldn't have received nearly as much attention as it did. Maybe we shouldn't repeat that same mistake this time.
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Posted: 07 Oct 2019 05:00 AM PDT
I'm Business columnist David Lazarus, with a look today at questionable cable fees.
You won't be surprised to hear that many companies try to make prices seem lower than they are by breaking out fees and surcharges from a "base price" for a product or service. This was the topic of a recent column, which looked at fees charged by telecom companies, airlines, hotels, restaurants and even a record store.
Now we have a study from Consumer Reports showing that such fees represent more than $37 of average monthly cable bills, or about $450 in annual charges.
"Cable companies are notorious for advertising a low price but charging much more by adding a long list of confusing fees to monthly bills," said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports.
"These sneaky fees are a real budget-buster that enable cable companies to jack up their rates and disguise the true cost consumers pay each month."
As I've noted in the past, cable, wireless and phone companies routinely make surcharges appear to be official or required by government authorities, when in fact they're just routine business expenses that are being passed along to customers.
For instance, AT&T last year more than doubled its monthly "administrative fee" to $1.99 from 76 cents. The company said at the time that the fee "helps cover costs we incur for items like cell site maintenance and interconnection between carriers."
Needless to say, those costs are part of operating a wireless network. The fee is in no way a government-imposed tax or charge.
Among the fees cited by Consumer Reports is what's known as the broadcast TV surcharge, which helps to defray payments by cable companies to local broadcasters — again, a routine business expense that should be part of the base price.
The study notes that Charter Communications' Spectrum pay-TV service "first began charging a Broadcast TV Surcharge in 2010." It was $1 a month.
"More recently, the company raised that fee three times since November 2018, first from $8.85 a month to $9.95, and then to $11.99 a month in March 2019 — a 35% price increase in less than three months," the study says.
"Incredibly, Charter just announced another increase of this company-imposed fee, raising its Broadcast TV Surcharge to $13.50 a month, a 50% increase over what it cost a year ago. All told, that's a 1,250% increase of that fee since 2010."
Dennis Johnson, a Spectrum spokesman, said the company's bills are "simple and straightforward."
"Any applicable taxes and regulatory fees are included in the monthly prices for both Spectrum Mobile and Spectrum Voice," he said. "Yes, the broadcast TV surcharge is a separate line on the bill, which reflects the continually and rapidly rising cost of local broadcast channels."
Spectrum partners with the Los Angeles Times for a nightly TV show.
"Pricing for cable service should be fair and transparent so we can find a plan that fits our budget without having to worry about getting stuck paying hidden fees," Schwantes said. "Congress should require cable providers to include all company and government-imposed fees in their advertised prices to make it easier to comparison shop and find the most affordable package."
That seems like a reasonable request. No one is telling cable companies how much they can charge (although perhaps that's not a bad idea). But it doesn't seem like too much to ask that all costs be disclosed up front.
One price. All-inclusive. No more sneaky fees.
Now then, here are some recent stories that caught my eye:
Who's driving?: Tesla unveiled a new feature called Smart Summon that lets owners of its vehicles press a button on a smartphone and command a Tesla to turn itself on, back out of its parking space and drive to the smartphone holder's location. So does that make it a self-driving car? Not exactly.
Lone Starship: In its push to build a rocket that will bring humans to Mars, SpaceX is first setting its sights on a closer target: a small Texas community. The Hawthorne company is offering to buy out residents of Boca Chica, whose homes aren't far from the launchpad of its planned Mars craft.
Bank on it: A new law makes California the second state in the nation to allow cities and counties to found their own public banks. The bill, signed last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom, lets jurisdictions lend at interest rates below commercial banks, potentially aiding local business initiatives, affordable housing developments, or other projects.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Friend request: Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren is making major inroads in Silicon Valley — even as she's calling for breaking up some of tech's biggest companies. One can assume Mark Zuckerberg was not included in Recode's canvass of tech world donors, considering his belief that a Warren presidency would "suck" for Facebook.
Search results: Facial recognition software has struggled to identify people with darker skin, but Google is facing backlash for its attempts to fix that problem. According to the New York Daily News, the tech giant is taking heat for attempting to build its database by courting the homeless community in Atlanta, students on college campuses and attendees of BET Awards events in Los Angeles.
Until next time, see you in the Business section.
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