Google Meet and other Google services go down (Updated)

Google’s engineers aren’t having a good day today. This afternoon, a number of Google services went offline or are barely reachable. These services include Google Meet, Drive, Docs, Analytics, Classroom and Calendar, for example.

While Google’s own status dashboards don’t show any issues, we’re seeing reports from around the world from people who aren’t able to reach any of these services. Best we can tell, these issues started around 6pm PT.

It’s unusual for this number of Google services to go down at once. Usually, it’s only a single service that is affected. This time around, however, it’s clearly a far broader issue.

We’ve reached out to Google and will update this post once we hear more about what happened.

Update (6:30pm PT): and we’re back. It looks like most Google services are now recovering.

Update: (8:00pm PT): here is a statement from Google: “We experienced a short service disruption affecting several products including G Suite, and are now recovering. For more details, please visit our status dashboard.”

Writer Anand Giridharadas on tech’s billionaires: “Are they even on the same team as us?”

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, America’s roughly 640 billionaires have seen their fortunes soar by $845 billion in combined assets or 29% collectively, widening the already yawning gap between the very richest and the rest of the U.S.

Many of those billions were made by tech founders, including Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, whose companies have soared in value and, in tandem, their net worth. In fact, so much has been made so fast and by so few relatively, that it’s easy to wonder if greater equality is now forever out of reach.

To talk about the question, we reached out earlier this week to Anand Giridharadas, a former New York Times correspondent whose 2018 book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” became a best-seller.

Giridharadas’s message at the time was largely that the generosity of the global elite is somewhat laughable — that many of the same players who say they want to help society are creating its most intractable problems. Think, for example of Bezos, whose company paid zero in federal tax in 2017 and 2018 and who is now on the cusp of opening a tuition-free preschool for underserved children called the Bezos Academy.

Given the aggressive escalation over the last six months of the same trends Giridharadas has tracked for years, we wondered how he views the current situation. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: You have a weekly newsletter where you make the point that Jeff Bezos could give every one of Amazon’s 876,000 employees a ‘pandemic’ bonus of $105,000 and he would still have as much money as he did in March.

AG: There’s this way in which these crises are not merely things that rich and powerful survive. They’re things that they leverage and exploit, and it starts to raise the question of: are they even on the same team as us? Because when you have discussions about stimulus relief around what kind of policy responses you could have to something like the 2008 financial crisis or the pandemic, there’s initially some discussion and clamor for universal basic income, or substantial monthly checks for people, or even the French approach of nationalizing people salaries… and those things usually die. And they die thanks to corporate lobbyists and advocates of the rich and powerful, and are replaced by forms of relief that are upwardly redistributive that essentially exploit a crisis to transfer wealth and power to the top.

TC: Earlier in the 20th century, there was this perception that industry would contribute to solving a crisis with government. In this economy, we didn’t see a lot of the major tech companies, or a lot of the companies that were benefiting from this crisis, really sacrificing something to help the U.S. Do you see things that way?

AG: I think that’s right. I’m always wary of idealizing certain periods in the past, and I think there were a lot of problems in that time. But I think there’s no question that it was not as difficult back then, as it is today, to summon some kind of sense of common purpose and even the need to sacrifice values like profit seeking for other values.

I mean, after 9/11, President George W. Bush told us all to go shopping as the way to advance the common good. Donald Trump is now 18 levels of hell further down that path, not even telling us that we need to do anything for each other and [instead describing earlier this week] a pandemic that has killed 200,000 people as being something that doesn’t really affect most people.

So there’s just been a coarsening. And that kind of selfish trajectory of our culture, after 40 years of being told that what we do alone is better than what we do together, that what we do to create wealth is more important than what we do to advance shared goals — that quite dismal, dull message has had its consequences. And when you get a pandemic like this, and you suddenly need to be able to summon people to all socially distance at a minimum or, more ambitiously, pull for the common good or pay higher taxes or things that might even cost them a little bit, it’s very hard to do because the groundwork isn’t there.

TC: You’ve talked quite a bit over the years about “fake change.”

AG: Silicon Valley is the new Rome of our time, meaning a place in the world that ends up deciding how a lot of the rest of the world lives. No matter where you lived on the planet Earth, when the Roman Empire started to rise, it had plans for you one way or another, through your legal system, or your language, or culture, or something else. The Roman Empire was coming for you.

Silicon Valley is that for our time. It’s the new Rome [in] that you can’t live on planet Earth and be unaffected, directly or indirectly, by the decisions made in this relatively small patch of [of the world]. So the question then becomes, what does that new Rome want? And my impression of having reported on that world is that it’s an incredibly homogeneous world of people at the top of this new Rome. It’s white male dominated in a way that even other white male dominated sectors of the American economy are not . . . and it’s a lot of a certain kind of man who often is actually more obtuse about understanding human society and sociological dynamics and human beings than the average person.

Maybe they didn’t spend a lot of time negotiating human dynamics at sleepovers, which is fine. But when you end up with a new Rome and it’s hyper dominated by people of one race and one gender, many of whom are disproportionately socially unintelligent, running the platforms through which most human sociality now occurs — democratic discourse, family community, so on and so forth — we all start to live in a world created by people who are just quite limited. They are smart at the thing they’re smart at and they’ve become in charge of a lot of how the world works. And there’s simply not up to the task. And we see evidence of that every day.

TC: Are you speaking about empathy?

AG: Empathy is absolutely one of [the factors]. The ability to understand the more amorphous, non technological, non quantifiable things . . . it’s so interesting, because it’s people who are clearly very smart in a certain area but  just honestly do not understand democratic theory. There’s just so much work that’s been done — deep, complicated thinking going back to Plato and Aristotle, but also modern sociological work, including why a safety net and welfare is complicated. And there’s a certain kind of personality type that I have found very dominant in Silicon Valley, where it’s these men who just don’t really have a lens for that.

They’re often geniuses. It’s a certain kind of particular personality type where you care a lot about one thing and you go deep on that one thing, and it’s probably the same personality type that Beethoven had. It’s a great thing, actually. It’s just not great for governing us, and what these people are doing is privately governing us, and they have no humility about the limitations of their worldview

TC: We’re talking largely about social media here. Is it reasonable to expect some kind of government action. Do you think that’s naive? 

AG: It’s absolutely essential that the tech industry be brought into the same kind of sensible regulatory regime. I mean, you have kids, I have kids. If you’ve ever read the side of their car seats or any of the other products in their lives, you understand how much regulation there is for our benefit. . . I often say that the government at its best is like a lawyer for all of us. The government is like ‘Why don’t we check out these car seats for you and create some rules around them and then you can just buy a car seat and not have to wonder whether it’s the kind that protects your child or crumbles?’ That’s what the government does for all kinds of things.

TC: You’ve talked about billionaires who don’t want to pay taxes yet don’t hesitate to make a donation because they have control over where their money is spent and they get their name on a building, and it’s true. Many companies whose founders also consider themselves philanthropists, like Salesforce and Netflix, paid no federal tax in 2018, which amounts to billions of dollars lost. If you had to prioritize between taking antitrust action or closing the tax loopholes, what would you choose?

AG: They’re both important. But I think I would prioritize taxation.

One way to think about it is this pre distribution and redistribution. The monopoly issue in a way is pre distribution, which is how much money you get to make in the first place. If you get to be a monopoly because we don’t enforce antitrust laws, you’re going to end up making pre tax a lot more money than you would otherwise have made if you had to compete in an actual free market.

Once you’ve made that money, the tax question comes up. So both are important, but I think you can’t overestimate the extent to which the tax thing is just totally foundational. If you look at the report that the 400 richest families in America pay a lower effective tax rate than the bottom half of families, it’s appalling.

We live in a complicated world. A lot of different things have been going on, including just in the last few months. But if you have to really summarize the drift and the shift of the last 40 years, it’s been a war on taxation. And it’s been a massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top of American life through taxation. Since the ’80s, the top 1% has gained $21 trillion of wealth, and the bottom half of Americans have lost $900 billion of wealth on average —  and much of that was prosecuted through the tax code.

Awkward! Above, Giridharadas shaking hands with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at a Wired event in 2018.

The eSIM maker powering Xiaomi’s IoT devices raises $15M

Connectivity is vital to a future managed and shaped by smart hardware, and Chinese startup Showmac Tech is proposing eSIMs as the infrastructure solution for seamless and stable communication between devices and the service providers behind.

Xiaomi accepted the proposition and doled out an investment for the startup’s angel round in 2017. Now Showmac has convinced more investors to be onboard as it banked close to 100 million yuan ($15 million) in a Series A+ round led by Addor Capital with participation from GGV Capital and Hongtai Aplus.

“We believe cellular communication will become a mainstream trend in the era of IoT. WiFi works only when it’s connected to a small number of devices, but when the number increases dramatically it becomes unreliable,” said Lily Liu, founder and chief executive of Showmac, during an interview with TechCrunch.

Unlike a traditional SIM, short for “subscriber identity module,” an eSIM doesn’t need to be on a removable card, doing away the need for the SIM card slot on a device. Rather, it will be welded onto the device’s integrated chip during assembly and is valid for different network operators. To chipmakers, Showmac’s eSIM functions like an application or software development kit (SDK), Liu observed.

The company began as a pilot project supplying eSIMs to Xiaomi’s ecosystem of connected devices and subsequently set up an entity when the solution proved its viability. Its core products today include eSIM cards for IoT devices, eSIM communication module and gateway, and connection management software as a service.

To date, Showmac has powered more than 10 million devices, around 30% of which are affiliated with Xiaomi, which through in-house development and external investments has constructed an empire of IoT partners reliant on its operating system and consumer reach.

The majority of Showmac’s clients are providers of shared goods, those of which “ownership and right to use are separate”, explained Liu, who earned a PhD in economics from China’s prestigious Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Shared bikes and Luckin’s shared coffee mugs are just a few examples.

Showmac is hardly a forerunner in the global eSIM space, but the founder believed few competitors could match it on the level of supply chain resources, thanks to its ties with Xiaomi.

“As an R&D-oriented and relatively young team, we are very fortunate to have experienced large-scale industrial activity that churns out products in the hundreds of thousands and even millions every day. [Xiaomi] has provided us with this precious opportunity,” the founder said.

With a staff of 40-50 employees across Beijing and Shenzhen, the startup is currently focusing on the Chinese market but has plans for overseas expansion in the long run.

“We are not the first to make eSIM in the world, but being in China, the center of the world’s electronics manufacturing, we are in a superior position to get things done,” suggested Liu.

The arrival of 5G is a boon to the startup, the founder believed. “5G will spurn more IoT devices and applications, giving rise to the need for IoT [devices] with cross-carrier and cross-region capabilities,” she said.

Showmac says it will spend its newly raised capital on mass-producing its integrated eSIM modules, research and development, and business development.

Anduril among companies tapped to build the Air Force’s ‘internet of things’ for war

Palmer Luckey’s young defense company has been selected by the Air Force for work on a cutting-edge, multibillion-dollar nervous system for war. Luckey announced on his Twitter account Thursday that Anduril was one of the selected vendors for the project, known as the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS).

Over the last four months, the Air Force named more than 50 different vendors that would work on developing the system, giving each the chance to receive from $1,000 to $950 million over the next five years. Amazon Web Services was also selected in the fresh round of vendors, along with 16 other lesser-known companies.

The vendor list includes a number of companies that aren’t the usual suspects in Department of Defense work, reflecting the “innovative acquisition strategy” intended to accelerate the timeline for the ambitious system.

As a three-year-old startup founded by the controversial Trump-booster who created Oculus, ushered in the dawn of consumer VR and was eventually fired from Facebook, Anduril fits the bill.

“The goal of ABMS is to enable the Air Force and Space Force to operate together and as part of a joint team – connecting sensors, decision makers and weapons through a secure data network enabling rapid decision making and all-domain command and control,” according to an Air Force press release.

Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper previously said that the ABMS competition would bring in “fresh blood,” particularly commercially focused companies “that know a lot about data, that know a lot about machine learning and [artificial intelligence] and know a lot about analytics.”

Anduril has already picked up a surprising amount of federal work in its short lifespan. In June the Trump administration awarded Anduril a contract to build a so-called virtual border wall comprised of its drones, sensor towers and AI software system — an opportunity that the company seemed custom-built for from its launch.

The ABMS project will ultimately fit into the Defense Department’s work on a system known as Joint All-Domain Command & Control, or JADC2, a kind of meta software platform for warfare that connects all humans, devices and equipment across the domains of air, land, sea, space and cyber — and even the electromagnetic spectrum.

Per Luckey’s tweet, Anduril’s new contract is “for the maturation, demonstration and proliferation of capability across platforms and domains, leveraging open systems design, modern software and algorithm development in order to enable Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2).”

“[JADC2] aims to link every ship, soldier, and jet, so that ground, air, sea, space, and cyber assets can share the exact same data and can be used almost interchangeably to take out targets, even in environments where communication is being heavily jammed or where adversaries have advanced air defenses,” Defense One explained in a piece on the project.

Working with the Department of Defense has been Anduril’s endgame from day one. The company opened that door through key hires, picking up contracts with Customs and Border Protection and the Marine Corps, and building out its small-scale proof of concept: a modular web of hardware and software that could talk to itself and operate autonomously.

Just months after launching in 2017, TechCrunch reported that Anduril was interested in “real-time battlefield awareness for soldiers on the ground and headquarters alike,” which sounds quite a bit like the company’s exploratory new defense work.

 

You can now return Apple’s Solo Loop for a new size, without sending back the Watch

Call it Apple Bandgate, if you must. It’s the latest online dustup, following Apple’s recent Watch Series 6 release. The announcement of the Solo Loop was more or less glossed over during last week’s big event, because, well, watch bands don’t often take center stage at hardware events.

As is often the case, retail availability was quickly followed by purchaser returns. That happens just about any time a new product is released, of course, but things were complicated here for a couple of reasons. For starters, the clasp-free bands come in a variety of different sizes to fit different-sized wrists. That’s further complicated by the fact that trying bands on in-store really isn’t a great option these days.

The initial returns were met with buyer frustration. For starters, many were reporting difficulty getting the correctly sized band, based on online measurements. Also many expressed frustration with a policy that required the entire watch to be sent back to Apple as part of the return process.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple has since clarified and addressed some of the issues. For starters, users can now just replace the band (rather than the entire Watch) either in-store or by mail. That is assuming they have the replacement size. Apparently the company’s been having some trouble keeping some of the styles/sizes in stock. The company has also updated the pricing chart for the bands with additional detail to get a better fit. The process involves printing out the tool, cutting it out and then wrapping it around your wrist. Not exactly the  most high-tech or most ideal method, but it should hopefully work in a pinch.

I will say for my part that I quite like the band. It’s comfortable and it’s got a nice elastic spring that adheres nicely to movement. I’m a fan of the braided version in particular. That said, the company seemed to have triangulated my potential size and gave me a couple of options to try. One of them fits nicely. Not everyone has the ability to do that from home, so you’ll want to get it as close as you can using that tool.

And keep in mind, it’s not simply a comfort thing, either. Some features like the new SpO2 monitor require the right fit, otherwise it can be a bit of a frustrating experience.

Launch Center Pro lets you build custom icons to customize your iOS 14 home screen

Launch Center Pro, an iOS utility that offered widgets and custom icons long before they were allowed on the iPhone’s home screen, is bringing its design tools to iOS 14. The app aims to capitalize on the recent trend toward home screen personalization by offering a set of over 7,000 glyphs and emoji that can be used to create custom icons for use with Apple’s Shortcuts app.

In addition, the app offers over 13 icon background styles with 15 colors each, along with other tools to build a customized experience like glyph styling and badges, for example. In total, it has the capability of producing 13 trillion possible icons using its built-in tools — and even more if you choose to use your own photos when creating your icons.

Image Credits: Contrast/Launch Center Pro

Much of the work to make this possible had already been done last year for iOS 13, says Launch Center Pro’s developer David Barnard. But iPhone home screen customization never really took off until this month, thanks to the launch of iOS 14. With the OS update, developers have finally been able to ship widgets of different sizes alongside their apps to offer a more engaging experience directly on users’ home screens.

While the original intention was focused on bringing informational updates from existing apps to the home screen, a handful of developers leveraged the new capabilities to build specialized widget design tools. These widget-making apps have allowed users to create widgets of many sorts and sizes, using a variety of colors and styles. Widgetsmith, for example, has been topping the App Store charts as users began to customize their home screens.

In addition, a number of users figured out how to use Apple’s Shortcuts to replace the icons associated with their favorite apps in order to create entirely unique, themed home screen experiences. Tutorials popped up on TikTok and the hashtag #iOS14homescreen began trending on Twitter as people shared the end results of their iPhone makeovers.

But one obstacle to redesigning the home screen was that you either needed to find a set of custom icons to use or design your own using an app like PicsArt or Photoshop, for example. And this could be challenging for those who don’t regularly work with creative tools. That’s where Launch Center Pro comes in:

@launchcenterproBuild your own custom icons for iOs 14! More tips to come! ##ios14homescreen ##ios14 ##homescreen? original sound – Launch Center Pro

The app offers simple tools that let you build your own icons without needing to be a design expert. Instead, you simply pick the icon shape, the color and the glyph, then optionally add a frame or badge. Apple’s Shortcuts app offers a similar set of tools, but with far fewer options.

The icons you make can then either be used with the Shortcuts app by exporting the icon to your Camera Roll or they can be used inside Launch Center Pro’s classic Today View widgets. These widgets can include not just favorite apps, but specific actions or tasks — like messaging a favorite friend, getting directions or anything else you commonly do on your phone.

Spent like an hour creating this layout using @_DavidSmith’s excellent Widgetsmith and @LaunchCenterPro for the icons. #ios14homescreen pic.twitter.com/ZL6hBKY8MZ

— Alex Crocker ???? (@crockerbytes) September 24, 2020

Unfortunately, Launch Center Pro hasn’t yet released iOS 14-compatible home screen widgets at this time.

However, the team expects to have those ready later this fall, along with other big updates. In the meantime, the company hopes its icon designer will come in handy in these early days of iOS 14 customizations. They also plan on releasing smaller updates focused on improving the icon design experience in the weeks ahead.

Launch Center Pro is available as a free download on the App Store.

Daily Crunch: Amazon unveils its own game-streaming platform

Amazon announces a new game service and plenty of hardware upgrades, tech companies team up against app stores and United Airlines tests a program for rapid COVID-19 testing. This is your Daily Crunch for September 24, 2020.

The big story: Amazon unveils its own game-streaming platform

Amazon’s competitor to Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud is called Luna, and it’s available starting today at an early access price of $5.99 per month. Subscribers will be able to play games across PC, Mac and iOS, with more than 50 games in the library.

The company made the announcement at a virtual press event, where it also revealed a redesigned Echo line (with spherical speakers and swiveling screens), the latest Ring security camera and a new, lower-cost Fire TV Stick Lite.

You can also check out our full roundup of Amazon’s announcements.

The tech giants

App makers band together to fight for App Store changes with new ‘Coalition for App Fairness’ — Thirteen app publishers, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, launched a coalition formalizing their efforts to force app store providers to change their policies or face regulation.

LinkedIn launches Stories, plus Zoom, BlueJeans and Teams video integrations as part of wider redesignLinkedIn has built its business around recruitment, so this redesign pushes engagement in other ways as it waits for the job economy to pick up.

Facebook gives more details about its efforts against hate speech before Myanmar’s general election — This includes adding Burmese language warning screens to flag information rated false by third-party fact-checkers.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Why isn’t Robinhood a verb yet? — The latest episode of Equity discusses a giant funding round for Robinhood.

Twitter-backed Indian social network ShareChat raises $40 million — Following TikTok’s ban in India, scores of startups have launched short-video apps, but ShareChat has clearly established dominance.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek pledges $1Bn of his wealth to back deeptech startups from Europe — Ek pointed to machine learning, biotechnology, materials sciences and energy as the sectors he’d like to invest in.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

3 founders on why they pursued alternative startup ownership structures — At Disrupt, we heard about alternative approaches to ensuring that VCs and early founders aren’t the only ones who benefit from startup success.

Coinbase UX teardown: 5 fails and how to fix them — Many of these lessons, including the need to avoid the “Get Started” trap, can be applied to other digital products.

As tech stocks dip, is insurtech startup Root targeting an IPO? — Alex Wilhelm writes that Root’s debut could clarify Lemonade’s IPO and valuation.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

United Airlines is making COVID-19 tests available to passengers, powered in part by Color — United is embarking on a new pilot project to see if easy access to COVID-19 testing immediately prior to a flight can help ease freedom of mobility.

Announcing the final agenda for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 — TechCrunch reporters and editors will interview some of the top leaders in transportation.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Free VPNs are bad for your privacy

VPNs are in high demand as Americans scramble to keep access to TikTok and WeChat amid a looming government ban. There are dozens of free VPNs out there that promise to protect your privacy by keeping you anonymous on the internet and hiding your browsing history.

Don’t believe it. Free VPNs are bad for you.

The internet is a hostile place for the privacy-minded. Internet providers can sell your browsing history, governments can spy on you and tech titans collect huge amounts of data to track you across the web. Many have turned to VPNs, or virtual private networks, thinking that they can protect you from snoopers and spies.

But where VPNs try to solve a problem, they can also expose you to far greater privacy risks.

TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet has an explainer on what a VPN is. In short, VPNs were first designed for employees to virtually connect to their office network from home or while on a business trip. These days, VPNs are more widely used for hiding your online internet traffic, and tricking streaming services into thinking you’re another country when you’re not. That same technique also helps activists and dissidents bypass censorship systems in their own countries.

VPNs work by funneling all of your internet traffic through an encrypted pipe to the VPN server, making it more difficult for anyone on the internet to see which sites you are visiting or which apps you are using.

But VPNs don’t inherently protect your privacy or give you anonymity. VPNs simply divert all of your internet traffic from going to your internet provider’s systems into the VPN provider’s systems instead.

That begs the question: Why should you trust a VPN that promises to protect your privacy more than your internet provider? The answer is that you can’t, and you shouldn’t.

By far, some of the worst offenders are the free VPNs.

As the old adage goes, if it’s free then you are the product. What that means is that they make money off you — specifically, your data. Like any service that costs nothing, VPNs are often supported by ads. That means taking your internet traffic and selling it to the highest bidder to serve you targeted ads while you’re connected to the VPN. Other free VPNs have been accused of injecting ads into the websites that you visit.

While there are paid and premium VPNs that are generally more mindful about your privacy, they aren’t anonymous, as they can be linked to your billing address. Paid VPNs also don’t solve the problem of funneling all of your internet traffic to a potentially untrustworthy company.

Some VPN providers also claim to protect your privacy by not storing any logs or track which websites you visit or when. While that may be true in some cases, there’s no way you can be completely sure.

In fact, some VPN providers have claimed they don’t store any logs — but were proven completely false.

Take UFO VPN, which at the time had about 20 million users. It claimed to have a zero-logging policy. But security researchers found the company’s logging database exposed to the internet, no password needed. The database was packed with logs of user activity, including which websites users were visiting.

Former NYPD director of cyber intelligence and investigations Nick Selby, now the chief security officer at fintech startup Paxos, said he only uses VPN providers that he knows do not store any logs. During his time as a police officer he would serve search warrants and know which providers were “the best at giving me nothing,” he told TechCrunch.

It’s not to say that all VPNs are unscrupulous or invading your privacy. Much of the problem with VPNs is that you can’t look under the hood and see what’s going on with your data. Standalone VPNs, like Algo and WireGuard, let you create and control your own VPN server through a cloud service, like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud or Digital Ocean. But remember: your encrypted data is stored on another company’s cloud, making it potentially susceptible to being grabbed by the authorities.

VPNs can be useful, but it’s important to know their limitations. Just don’t rely on them to protect your privacy or your anonymity.

Fitbit Sense review

The Versa helped Fitbit reverse its fortunes after a long, gradual slide. The company was slow to embrace the smartwatch, and stumbled somewhat out of the gate with the Ionic. But the Versa found a perfect sweet spot that build atop generations of wearable health knowhow, key acquisitions like Pebble and a pricing sweet spot at $200.

In fact, other big-name smartwatch makers like Apple and Samsung have since followed suit, offering up more budget-friendly approaches to the category. The moves came as Fitbit and a slew of Chinese device makers were nabbing market share through budget plays. But while the competition zigs, Fitbit zags, I suppose. That’s where the Sense comes in. It’s a return to the premium pricing the company put on hold when it let the Ionic fade away.

At $330, the Sense falls under the lower end of premium — at least compared to say, the Apple Watch Series 6 and Galaxy Watch 3, which both start at $399. The premium market isn’t the most logical play for a company that has been successful at a lower price point, but it’s perhaps understandable that the company is interested in expanding on its fortunes, legacy software and health metrics and finally, properly trying to beat Apple at its own game.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

While Fitbit has a bit of a history flooding the market with different devices, I do think the decision to introduce an entirely new product makes sense here. Really, the worst Fitbit could have done was add a bunch of features to the Versa and raise the price by $100, thus removing one of the product’s primary selling points in the process (though the Versa’s price has also increased to $220).

The truth is, the Sense and Versa 3 are actually more alike than they are different. The similarities start with the casing. The two products look virtually identical, aside from some different color options. The Sense comes in, arguably, classier colors with either gray or gold. The display is the company’s familiar squircle, which is only available in the one size.

I suspect Fitbit learned its lesson about unwieldy watch designs with the Ionic. The device sports a 1.58-inch display, which feels about right. And the square design makes it feel more compact than Apple’s comparably sized watch. That said, more watch sizes is always a good thing, particularly for a product like the Sense that’s attempting to appeal to a wide range of wearers.

Unlike Samsung and Apple’s smartwatches, there’s no standalone dial-button for navigating through screens. There is a pressure-sensitive button on the side of the device, though that ultimately was a bit of a nuisance. I found myself repeatedly accidentally triggering it while moving my wrist. And honestly, for most actions, simply swiping across screens is perfectly fine.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As the name implies, the biggest difference between Fitbit’s latest smartwatches comes down to sensors. The Sense has a lot packed in here. Both feature optical heart-rate monitoring, a temperature monitor and an SpO2 sensor — which was possibly the biggest upgrade announced for the Apple Watch Series 6. The Sense, however, is alone as the first Fitbit to adopt an ECG sensor, bringing it up to speed with the new Apple Watch on that front.

As is often the case with these sorts of sensors, I’m unable to really highlight it in the review. FDA clearance seems to be a bit more straightforward as the feature has become more and more common on consumer devices, but while Fitbit has cleared it, the functionality won’t be rolled out on the devices until next month. When it does arrive, you’ll get the kind of health readouts we’ve come to expect from these sensors, including heart rhythms and notifications for any usual activity.

Sleep tracking is one place Fitbit has had Apple beat for some time. The latter is attempting to change that with the latest version of watchOS, but still has a lot of work to do in order to catch up. The array of sensors go a long ways toward providing a more complete picture of your sleep over the course of the night. While Apple’s offering largely revolves around things like time in bed and time asleep, Fitbit provides a fuller picture, including, importantly, sleep quality, broken up by REM, light and deep sleep. SpO2 and heart rate are also factored into the picture. SpO2, in particular, will become an increasingly important factor in sleep going forward, as these devices look to track things like sleep apnea.

Another big piece of sleep is battery life. That’s something Fitbit’s been good at for a while. The Sense is rated at six days. Your mileage is going to vary considerably, however, depending on whether you opt for the always on display and other features. As it stands, I was able to get several days on a single charge with the feature switched off. Frankly, that’s a pretty big advantage over Apple’s stated 18 hours. Charging each night before bed or first time in the morning isn’t ideal.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I appreciate Fitbit’s focus on mindfulness. I think it’s something we can all use a bit more of these days. I definitely include myself in that boat. Fitbit is one of a handful of smartwatch makers currently looking to push the concept beyond simple breathing exercises. That’s included in the Mindfulness tile. The company will quantify relaxation using the the on-board sensors. I honestly haven’t used it a ton, but anything that can help jumpstart a mindfulness practice is a net positive.

The Sense’s software continues to still be fairly basic. And while there are plenty of watch faces, the app selection lags behind some of the bigger names. It will be interesting to watch how Fitbit’s approach to software changes if/when the Google acquisition goes through. After all, wearOS has been around for a while and received plenty of updates, but still has its share of shortcomings.

The Sense’s strong suit is also Fitbit’s: a strong underpinning of health and fitness focus. The company certainly has a good, solid history of upgrades. But while it packs more sensors than the Versa 3, for many the difference will be relatively minor — and perhaps difficult to justify that $100 price gap. I’ve yet to spend a lot of time with the latest version of that device, but if past is any prologue, it’s a solid choice for those looking for an Android-compatible Apple alternative at a good price.

Coinbase UX teardown: 5 fails and how to fix them

Digital currency exchange Coinbase has probably done more than most to push cryptocurrencies closer to the mainstream, earning an $8 billion valuation by private investors along the way. The company is reportedly eyeing a public listing next year, and is inarguably doing a lot of things right. However, that doesn’t mean its product experience is perfect. In fact, far from it.

In our latest UX teardown, with the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we highlight some of Coinbase’s biggest user experience failings and offer ways to fix them. Many of these lessons can be applied to other existing digital products or ones you are currently building, including the need to avoid the “Get Started” trap, the importance of providing feedback, why familiarity often wins and other principles.

The ‘Get Started’ trap

Only use CTAs like “get started” or “learn more” if you’re actually teaching users something.

The fail: Coinbase doesn’t actually have any onboarding — but it looks like it does. It has a very prominent “get started” CTA, which actually just puts bitcoins in your basket. This isn’t helping you get started, it’s nothing more than an onboarding Trojan horse.

The fix: It’s simple: Don’t lie in your CTAs. You wouldn’t have “Email Support” as a CTA, and then just show the user a bunch of FAQs.

Steve O’Hear: This feels like another classic “bait and switch” and reeks of dark pattern design. However, what if it actually works to get users over the line and purchase their first bitcoin? Growth hackers, rejoice, no?

Peter Ramsey: You’re absolutely right, this may convert better. From a business point of view, this could be a brilliant little growth hack. However, something converting well doesn’t mean it was a good experience for the user. Look at clickbait-y journalism — it gets more eyeballs, but people aren’t generally happy with what they read.

I’m convinced that in the long term having a great product will perform better than frustrating short-term growth hacks.

Feedback architecture

As a general rule of thumb, all “states” — e.g., success/failure of an action — need to provide feedback to the user.

The fail: After adding a card, you click “Add Card,” and … it takes you back to the homepage. There’s no notice if it was successful or not. The user has no awareness if the action they were trying to do failed and they need to do it again. This is a real problem with digital products: All feedback needs to be thought of and built.

The fix: During the design phase, consider statuses and what the user will want feedback on. For example, if they’ve just added an item to their “wishlist,” how will you show them that the action was successful?

Why isn’t Robinhood a verb yet?

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s VC-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Natasha MascarenhasDanny Crichton and your humble servant gathered to chat through a host of rounds and venture capital news for your enjoyment. As a programming note, I am off next week effectively, so look for Natasha to lead on Equity Monday and then both her and Danny to rock the Thursday show. I will miss everyone.

But onto the show itself, here’s what we got into:

Bon voyage for a week, please stay safe and don’t forget to register to vote.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.