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Apple announces $549 over-ear headphones, the AirPods Max

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The AirPods Max are joining the AirPods and AirPods Pro in Apple’s audio accessory lineup. As you can see on the photo, Apple is releasing its first over-ear headphones under the AirPods brand.

The wireless headphones feature active noise cancellation and cost $549. With this product, Apple competes directly with Sony’s and Bose’s wireless headphones — the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose 700. Pre-orders start today and they’ll ship on December 15.

This isn’t the company’s first over-ear headphones as Apple acquired Beats back in 2014. Apple has released new Beats headphones over the past few years. For instance, last year, Apple released the Beats Solo Pro, wireless headphones that feature Apple’s H1 chip and cost $300. They also have active noise cancellation.

The AirPods Max come in multiple colors — silver, space gray, sky blue, pink and green. They are foldable and can be stored in a case — or, as Apple calls it, a Smart Case. When you put your headphones in the case, the device enters an ultra-low power state — but that’s about it. Apple promises 20 hours of battery life.

Image Credits: Apple

Powered by Apple’s H1 chip, they bring many of the features that you can find in the AirPods Pro — active noise cancellation, transparency mode, spatial audio and adaptive EQ. The headband is made of stainless steel, which probably explains the pricing strategy. The ear cushions try to create a seal thanks to memory foam.

In addition to a noise control button, there’s an Apple Watch digital crown, which lets you adjust the volume, skip tracks, etc. Inside the device, you’ll find 40-mm dynamic drivers. Combined with computational audio, Apple promises very little distorsion and high quality sound.

Image Credits: Apple

If you’re not familiar with Adaptive EQ, the feature was originally introduced with the AirPods Pro. The device uses microphones to adjust the sound based on the fit and seal of the headphones or earbuds.

When it comes to active noise cancellation, the AirPods Max use three outward-facing microphones on each ear cup. When you pair the AirPods Max with an iPhone or iPad, Apple uses the gyroscope and accelerometer in both devices to compare motion data and deliver sound in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos. Music also automatically stops when you remove the AirPods Max.

Image Credits: Apple

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Joe Biden’s new gig

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After serving as Obama-Biden campaign manager and White House Deputy Chief of Staff and now living in San Francisco and working with the tech sector, I am hopeful about the Biden-Harris administration’s ability to put in place smart policies and regulatory stability to further unleash the industry’s vast potential — not to mention the effect their calm and measured leadership could have on our greater economy.

However, with new leadership comes new perspectives on many of the most critical issues facing Silicon Valley. While the bonds between the innovation economy and the Obama-Biden Administration resulted in national prosperity, the tech sector is now intertwined in nearly every facet of American life.

The resulting tension means the new Administration will take its role as regulator seriously and investors and businesses alike should not overlook how quickly President Biden will move on policy – especially as it relates to the future of work and getting the U.S. economy back on track.

There’s no question the gig companies had a banner year in 2020. Even with ride-hailing usage down dramatically, the strength of meal, grocery and just about everything else delivered combined with the victory in California of Proposition 22 has driven up market caps and positioned many startups for going public. Yet, while the West Coast may be feeling emboldened, the Beltway has another trajectory in mind.

Congress has been working on gig worker classification legislation named the PRO Act for months. The bill closely mirrors the maligned California Assembly Bill 5 that Proposition 22 mostly reversed. It’s broadly supported by labor and could see some traction this year. Labor is already working hard to line up support from the various Congressional coalitions, and at the same time gig economy companies are gearing up to fight it with their unlimited resources.

The question is – what will President Biden do? Long ago he voiced his support for AB 5 and laid out plans to solve worker misclassification during the campaign, but he’s also hiring and appointing staff to the Administration deeply experienced in tech. President Biden has been governing longer than most startup founders have been alive, he’s a master at understanding forces in Washington and how to reach a compromise. He knows that what’s rarely discussed during legislative debate is how the law will actually be implemented.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Biden Administration convenes the Department of Labor and the industry to determine how companies actually enact worker protections.

Despite most bills being thousands of pages, they’re rarely prescriptive. Those details are left up to agencies. President Biden has oversight of the Department of Labor, which, if the PRO Act is passed, will be responsible for its implementation.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Biden Administration convenes the Department of Labor and the industry to determine how companies actually enact worker protections. President Biden’s nominee for Labor Secretary, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, while a staunch supporter of labor, is also well regarded by the business sector as someone they can work with and reach a compromise.

We just have to look to the states to understand why this outcome is so plausible. The gig companies already have Proposition 22 type campaigns underway in six states and are running legislation in a half dozen more. By the end of 2021 there will be law on the books codifying worker protections in nearly a third of the country, modeled on Proposition 22.

This kind of momentum is hard to ignore and labor knows it. Although labor is aligned in its support of the PRO Act, the alignment becomes blurry when considering state action. For example, many northeastern states have had a thriving black car and taxi industry for decades.

This means Labor’s position on gig laws in New York and New Jersey are quite different than places like Washington State or Illinois where gig workers are still relatively new and the ink is drying on regulations supported by Uber and Lyft just a few years ago. Labor is aligned as much as they can be and enough to support the PRO Act, but there isn’t a national movement and that leaves room for compromise.

This is all good news for the tech sector. It’s a fantasy to think that regulation wouldn’t eventually come to protect the very workers who power the gig economy. And that’s a good thing – tech has a moral responsibility to do right by its workers. However, those regulations shouldn’t and won’t be imposed on tech. Rather it will take weeks and months of campaigns and bills winding their way through the states and Congress, culminating with negotiations and compromises.

Or maybe even years of renewed regulatory processes. All of which will be overseen by a new President who has witnessed first-hand over his career how innovation can help the nation grow and recover.

After four years of Trump’s stubborn denialism, magic thinking and economic harm, Biden will promote policy rigor, public spiritedness and private sector ingenuity to work together for innovative solutions. It will be hard work and I promise you it won’t be pretty, but we should expect the dawn of a new era of U.S. tech-driven dynamism.

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InSight’s heat probe has failed on Mars. Is the mission a failure?

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For two years now, NASA’s InSight probe has sat on the surface of Mars, attempting to dig 5 meters (16 feet) deep in order to install the lander’s heat probe. The instrument was going to effectively take the planet’s temperature and tell scientists more about the internal thermal activity and geology of Mars. 

InSight never even got close to realizing that goal. On January 14, NASA announced that it was ending all attempts to place the heat probe underground. Affectionately referred to as “the mole,” the probe is designed to dig underground with a hammering action. But after the first month of its mission, it  was unable to burrow more than 14 inches into the ground before getting stuck. NASA has been working since to come up with some kind of solution, including using InSight’s robotic arm to pin the mole down with added weight to help it loosen up some dirt and get back to burrowing.

It never really worked. The Martian dirt has proved to be unexpectedly prone to clumping up, diminishing the sort of friction the mole needs to spike its way deeper and deeper. Ground crews came up with a last-ditch effort recently to use InSight’s arm to scoop some soil onto the probe to tether it down and provide more friction. After attempting 500 hammer strokes on January 9, the team soon realized there was no progress to be had. 

It’s discouraging news, given that NASA just recently decided to extend InSight’s mission to December 2022. During that time, there won’t be much of a role for the heat probe. Bruce Banerdt, the InSight principal investigator, says that the planet’s temperature could still be measured at the surface and a few inches below the surface using some of the instruments on InSight that still work. “This will allow us to determine the thermal conductivity of the near surface, which might vary with season due to changing atmospheric pressure,” he says.

An illustration of how InSight’s mole was supposed to be deployed on Mars.
DLR

And while the mole was unable to accomplish what was expected, it’s not accurate to see this as a failure. “We have encountered new soil properties that have never before been encountered on Mars, with a thick, crusty surface layer that decreases its volume substantially when crushed,” says Banerdt. “We do not yet understand everything we have seen, but geologists will be poring over this data for years to come, using it to tease out clues to the history of the Martian environment at this location.”

InSight will continue on with some of its other investigations, especially the measurement of seismic activity on Mars. It turns out the Red Planet is rocked by quakes all the time.

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Fintech startups and unicorns had a stellar Q4 2020

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The fourth quarter of 2020 was as busy as you imagined, with super late-stage startups reaching new valuation thresholds at a record pace, and total venture capital funding in the United States recording its second-best result of all time.

That’s according to data released recently by CB Insights, which complements our look back at 2020’s venture capital year in America from yesterday.

At the time, we noted that American startups raised an average of $428 million each day last year, a sum that helps illustrate how rapid the private markets moved during the odd period.


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But a peek at aggregate results for the world’s largest VC market provides only part of the picture. We need to narrow our lens and peer more deeply into standout categories to understand how the U.S. venture capital market managed to post its biggest year ever in terms of dollars invested, despite seeing deal volume slip for a second consecutive year.

This morning, we’re scraping data together to better understand.

First, we want to how unicorns performed in Q4 2020. This column noted in late December that it felt like unicorn creation was rapid in the quarter; how did that hold up?

And then we’ll take a look dig into PitchBook data concerning the fintech sector, a huge recipient of venture capital time, attention and money.

Fintech’s 2020 is a good perspective to view both the year and its wild final quarter. So this morning, as America itself resets, let’s take a moment to understand last year just a little bit better as we get into this new one.

Unicorns

One of the most curious things about the unicorn era is the rising bet it represents. I’ve written about this before so I will be brief: Nearly every quarter, the number of unicorns — private companies worth $1 billion or more — goes up.

The private market is able to create more unicorns than it has been historically able to exit them.

Some of these companies exit, sometimes in group fashion. But, quarter after quarter, the number of unexited unicorns rises. This means that the bet on expected future liquidity from venture capitalists and other private investors keeps ratcheting higher.

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