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Samsung’s Galaxy S21 line arrives with camera bumps, price drops and S Pen compatibility

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Samsung wasted no time this year. With Mobile World Congress pushed back six or so months, the hardware maker hitched its wagon to the tail end of the CES whirlwind — though unlike its press conference earlier in the week, the company is very much on its own for the latest Unpacked.

And why not? In spite of broader issues with the mobile industry (certainly not helped by the COVID-19 pandemic), the Galaxy line is still very much a draw. People may not be as eager to buy a flagship as they were a couple of years ago, but when they do, it’s frequently a Samsung device.

I tend to save pricing for the end of these kinds of posts, but it really bears mention up front. Samsung’s launching three key iterations of the S21 line today: the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra. Those are priced at $799, $999 and $1,119 respectively, here in the States. That’s down from $999, $1,199 and $1,399 last year. While it’s true we’re still very much in the flagship price range here, a $200 drop is not insignificant.

Image Credits: Samsung

Rather, it points to a very conscious correction — one that goes beyond simply introducing a budget flagship or flagship lite to appease that segment of the market. Smartphone sales were already lagging before the pandemic, and the routine pricing of flagships above $1,000 was a considerable piece of that. Obviously the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation for myriad reasons, and 5G, which was expected to lead to a sales rebound didn’t move the needle nearly as much as anticipated.

Of course, 5G was a headliner feature for Samsung all the way back in 2019. The company has been all-in with the Galaxy line for a while now, and frankly, the feature is just kind of expected now. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Samsung is going back to imaging as a key differentiator.

Here’s what Mobile head TM Roh has to say about the new handsets:

We are living in a mobile-first world, and with so many of us working remotely and spending more time at home, we wanted to deliver a smartphone experience that meets the rigorous multimedia demands of our continuously changing routines. We also recognize the importance of choice, especially now, and that’s why the Galaxy S21 series gives you the freedom to choose the best device for your style and needs.

I absolutely understand why companies continue to go the “in these challenging times” route with these announcements, though I will say that, for the most part, the notion of device upgrades as a response to COVID-19 is really overstated here, beyond the aforementioned price drop. And I suspect that, with fewer people leaving the house these days, the dream of a smartphone as a primary productivity device has probably dampened of late.

Image Credits: Samsung

Still, the S21 Ultra, in particular, has one very important trick up its sleeve. Samsung is further blurring the line between the Galaxy S and Note by making the Ultra S Pen compatible. The experience will vary to some degree, but users will be able to use the stylus to write and draw on the handset. It’s sold separately and there’s no in-device housing for the pen, though Samsung will be offering a case that will hold it. It will be interesting to see if the company goes out of its way to distinguish the new Note, but it seems equally possible that the lines are simply converging. After all, the S Pen has long been the key distinguishing factor.

The devices also get Ultra-wideband capabilities, which will bring a number of capabilities, including the ability to unlock car doors and AR messages to find lost items. More detail on that soon, no doubt.

Visually, the biggest change here is the camera housing, which gets streamlined. I’m holding off judgement until I see it in person, but the new “Contour Cut” housing feels a bit more brutalist or perhaps industrial than the prior generation. The device also drops the expandable memory. A strong argument could be made that current on-board storage has made microSD redundant for many or most, but it was always a nice little differentiator.

The company has also removed the headphones charging adapter from the box, a move the world saw coming when the company deleted ads ribbing Apple from dropping accessories over what it said were environmental concerns. It’s the headphone jack all over again, because history rhymes.

Hardware-wise, the triple-camera situation is similar. On the S21 and 21+ you get a 12-megapixel ultrawide, 12-megapixel wide and 64-megapixel telephoto with 30x space zoom. The Ultra bumps that up to a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, 108-megapixel wide and a dual-telephoto lens system with 3x and 10x optical zoom. That’s the first time Samsung has offered a dual-telephoto setup. The Ultra also sports improved low-light shooting, courtesy of the Bright Night sensor.

Image Credits: Samsung

Software imaging updates include the ability to pull stills from 8K shooting, improved image stabilization and new modes like “Vlogger view,” which shoots from the front and rear camera simultaneously. I see limited use for that last bit in my own life, but I’m sure folks will find a creative use for it.

The screens measure in at 6.1, 6.7 and 6.8 inches (that last one is a decrease from the S20 Ultra’s 6.9 inches). All sport a 120Hz refresh rate that adapts based on usage. The phones also get the new Eye Comfort Shield, which reduces blue light as the day goes on.

Here in the States, all three phones sport the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. The S21 and S21+ start at 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, while the Ultra starts at 12GB and 256GB. The batteries are pretty healthy, clocking in at 4000, 4800 and 5000mAh. They’re all available for pre-order now and start shipping January 29.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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SAP is buying Berlin business process automation startup Signavio

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Rumors have been flying this week that SAP was going to buy Berlin business process automation startup Signavio, and sure enough the company made it official today. The companies did not reveal the purchase price, but Bloomberg reported earlier this week that the deal could be worth $1.2 billion.

With Signavio SAP gets a cloud native business process management tool. SAP CFO Luka Mucic sees a world where understanding and automating businesses processes has become a key part of a company’s digital transformation efforts.

“I cannot overstress the importance for companies to be able to design, benchmark, improve and transform business processes across the enterprise to support new capabilities and business models,” he said in a statement.

While traditional enterprise BPA tools have existed for years, having a cloud native tool gives SAP a much more modern approach to attacking this problem, and being able to automate business processes via the cloud has become more important during the pandemic when many many employees are working entirely from home.

SAP also sees Signavio as a key missing piece in the company’s Business Process Intelligence unit. “The combination of business process intelligence from SAP and Signavio creates a leading end-to-end business process transformation suite to help our customers achieve the requirements needed to gain a competitive edge,” he said.

SAP has been making moves into process automation of late. In fact at SAP TechEd in December, the company announced SAP Intelligent Robotic Process Automation, its foray into the RPA space. This should fit in nicely alongside it.

Dr. Gero Decker, Savigno co-founder and CEO, sees SAP resources helping push the company beyond what it could have done on its own. “Considering the positioning of SAP, its geographical coverage and financial muscle, SAP is the biggest and best platform to bring process intelligence to every organization,” he said in a statement.

The increased resources and reach argument is one that just about every acquired company CEO makes, but being pulled into a company the size of SAP can be a double-edged sword. Yes, it has vast resources, but it also can be hard for an acquired company to find its place in such a large pond. How well they fit in and make that transition from startup to big company cog, will go a long way in determining the success of this transaction in the long run.

Signavio launched in 2009 in Berlin and has raised almost $230 million, according to Crunchbase data. Investors include Apax Digital and Summit Partners. The most recent investment was July 2019 Series C for $177 million, which came in at a $400 million valuation.

Customers include Comcast, Bosch, Liberty Mutual, and yes SAP. Perhaps it will be getting a discount now.

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Biden directs billions in federal spending power to climate change

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President Joe Biden continues to make good on his campaign pledge to accelerate progress on climate change, rapidly working down the list of what he can accomplish on his own in his early days in office.

On Wednesday, January 27, he will sign a second set of executive orders and memorandums on climate change that direct federal agencies to purchase US-made, zero-emissions vehicles and carbon-free electricity, halt nearly all new oil and gas leases on public lands, and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

Biden also placed climate change at the center of national security planning, requiring federal agencies to evaluate how increasingly severe heatwaves, fires, flooding and famines could inflame global conflicts. The actions will also begin the process of creating new climate emissions reductions targets for the US under the Paris climate agreement.

The latest directives follow Biden’s climate actions on his first day in office, which included kickstarting the process of rejoining the Paris agreement and establishing new regulations on methane emissions, vehicle fuel economy standards and much more.

A big market boost

The orders will provide a major boost to the domestic market for renewables like wind, solar and geothermal plants as well as electric or hydrogen vehicles. It will direct billions of federals dollars to these industries while creating regulatory certainty that will make it easier to finance new projects and factories, says Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC.

The vehicle order, for instance, could eventually add up to around 650,000 government cars, trucks and buses, potentially increasing the size of the domestic market by nearly 40%. Only an estimated 1.6 million plug-in electric vehicles had been sold in the US as of late last year, and fewer than 10,000 hydrogen vehicles since 2012, according to InsideEVs.

Agencies, however, will likely only replace vehicles as they reach the end of their useful lives, so the full turnover will surely take years.

It’s not yet clear how the order to buy clean electricity will work or what it achieve at this stage, including whether it will require agencies to obtain a certain percentage or all of their electricity through low-carbon sources like wind, solar and nuclear power. It’s also not immediately apparent how government agencies will reach those goals given limited control over the mix of sources generating electricity on local grids.

Erin Sikorsky, deputy director of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C., applauded the order’s focus on national security.

Without incorporating detailed assessments of shifting climate conditions, the US won’t recognize the potential for regional conflicts that can stem from things like prolonged droughts; can’t properly prepare and equip its overseas troops and bases; and won’t grasp how power dynamics are likely to shift among nations and non-state actors, she says. For instance, famines could increase recruitment among terrorist groups and warming conditions could boost the economic output and regional influence of countries like Russia.

Elevating environmental justice

The new executive orders included numerous additional directives and announcements. Among them:

  • Biden will host a climate summit with other world leaders on April 22, Earth Day. It’s a clear bid to reset the nation’s international climate diplomacy efforts.
  • Biden also directed agencies to take steps to address the outsized impact of environmental and climate threats on disadvantaged communities, and to ensure they receive 40% of the benefits from any related federal investments.
  • The president also directed the Secretary of Agriculture to begin exploring ways of encouraging farming practices that can reduce emissions and store more carbon in soil; and called for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative to put Americans to work planting trees and otherwise restoring public lands and waters.
  • A new memorandum elevates the role of science and expertise in federal policy making, directing agencies to “make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.”
  • Biden also set up or reestablished numerous climate and science advisory groups, including the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Interagency Council and a National Climate Task Force that will pull leaders from 21 agencies and departments.

The limits of executive orders

At this stage, Biden is effectively checking off the things he can accomplish on climate change through executive orders, rather than pushing new laws through Congress.

But there are limits on how much he can achieve through this approach. Executive orders are effectively instructions on how federal agencies should operate, but they can’t reverse existing laws or create new powers for the presidency. Presidents also generally can’t spend money that Congress hasn’t already authorized, although they can direct how it’s spent, as Biden seems to be doing with clean electricity and vehicles.

The precise boundaries of what can and can’t be achieved through executive orders is a subject of heated debate and frequent court challenges. The other downside is they can also be unilaterally overturned from one administration to the next, as Trump did with many of President Barack Obama’s orders and Biden is now doing with Trump’s.

Accelerating the shift to zero-emissions technologies enough to prevent 2˚C of warming, the stated goal of the Paris agreement, will clearly require legislation. The real climate test for Biden’s climate agenda will be whether he can get that done with only slim Democratic control of the Senate.

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Could meme stocks like GameStop kill bitcoin’s rise?

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Cryptocurrencies, more so than most other things, are only valuable because of a shared agreement that they are valuable. Their value is a product of digital handshakes over millions of transactions firming up that consensus. For bitcoin, the trust that it has worth has turned more valuable in the past several months; it’s been on a tear.

The (very bizarre) question is whether a new avenue of applying blind trust by brigading trashcan-level stocks and turning them into memes could threaten the appeal of cryptocurrencies for retail investors.

Over the past several days, we’ve seen stocks ranging from GameStop, Blockbuster and AMC make unjustifiable gains as a result of Reddit users in the r/WallStreetBets subreddit triggering a stampede towards stocks being heavily shorted by institutional investors. That in turn has led to a short squeeze troubling hedge funds, causing the price of a stock worth around $5 for the majority of 2020 to swell well above $300 today. In some ways it’s just an Occupy Wall Street protest being held on Robinhood, in other ways it’s a complete rejection of efficient markets and a reinvention of institutional trust.

Bitcoin holds fundamental differences from publicly traded stocks, many of which might matter an awful lot to those betting on the coin as a currency of the future. But to retail investors who aren’t hardcore proponents, I’d imagine FOMO was one of the most intriguing pulls into the cryptocurrency space. But if Bitcoin’s purpose for the time being is merely a “store of value,” I think there’s a world where individual investors might be evolving their interests elsewhere.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies haven’t seen notable price movement in recent days  — Bitcoin is down around 6% in the past 24 hours, a hiccup as far as crypto moves go — but after a few weeks hovering well above $30k and peeking above $40k, the currency seems poised to dip below the $30k range soon unless its trend reverses course.

All that said, Bitcoin is certainly an entity of a different scale than all of these meme stocks bundled together with a market cap above $560 billion and a 24-hour trading volume of $56 billion. Bitcoin has seen stratospheric growth over the past few months so barring an outsized crash, it’s perhaps unlikely that retail investors are going to fully abandon it in favor of buying up crusty old shares of Blockbuster stock. That said…

It’s cheaper to trade these meme stocks and easier for retail investors to get leverage via options. In short, for investors looking to have a good time or shoot the moon, meme stock are a more fun place to be than crypto is.

 

The main thing to consider is what happens if GameStop, for no reason at all, becomes a long-term store of value? When investors collectively begin placing blind trust in more financial assets for the long-haul, does that devalue blind trust itself and the mammoth entities that had more of a monopoly on it? Most investors aren’t expecting this to happen, but stocks like Tesla are beginning to live comfortably at ridiculous premiums that analysts can’t understand. Tesla and GameStop are very different beasts, but if anything I think institutions have a better grasp of GameStop’s rise.

The foil to all of this is whether this pandemonium births some regulatory backlash, a possibility which of course does not exist in quite the same way for cryptocurrencies from a central governance standpoint. TD Ameritrade and Schwab are already limiting trades of some of these meme stocks tday and I think there is certainly a universe in which the SEC aims to take a pot shot at this saga by means of promoting market sanity and I am much more confident that there’s a world where Reddit is pushed to at least temporarily ban r/WallStreetBets for some unclear reason.

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