Google Nest Mini hands-on

Two years after the release of the Home Mini, Google’s back with the sequel. Well, “sequel” might be a bit strong. The Nest Mini is more like one of those 1.5 movies they release on home video with a little extra footage than the theatrical release.

That’s not a compliant, exactly. The truth is there are some improvements here, but honestly, Google didn’t really need to do much. The $49 Home Mini sold like hot cakes and is a big part of the company’s rapid growth in the smart home space.

google nest mini

It was a low barrier of entry for those who were curious, but perhaps not fully on-board. And, like the Echo Dot before, it’s been an inexpensive way to outfit an entire home with smart speaker functionality.

Google has smartly kept the price the same with the Nest Mini. The device may not be a loss leader, exactly, but it’s the easiest and cheapest way of hooking users into the Assistant ecosystem — one that will theoretically lead to more smart home purchases, and, perhaps mobile device decisions.

The Nest is nearly identical to its predecessor. That, too, is fine. It’s simple and with a choice of four pastel colors (Chalk, Charcoal, Coral and Sky), it should fit most interior designs reasonably well. Bonus points for the new fabric covering, which is made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. Google says one half-liter bottle will cover two Minis. Interestingly the new cloth doesn’t negatively impact the sound.

google nest mini

Speaking of, that’s the biggest upgrade on-board. Sound has been improved over the original with a louder max volume and twice the bass. I’ve been listening to music at home on the new device, and while it gets pretty loud, I can’t recommend it as a standalone speaker. There are much better options for that. It serves Assistant and voice playback pretty well, but it gets a bit distorted at louder volumes.

I do quite like the music playback controls, however. Tap the center to play or pause music and either side to increase and decrease volume. When your hand approaches the speaker, two dots will illuminate on the edges to show you where to touch. Paired in stereo mode with another, better speaker (like, say, the Home Max) and it serves as a cool little touch control. The recent addition of stream transfer, meanwhile, makes it easier to keep listening to music as you change rooms.

Another interesting tidbit that didn’t get a lot of mention at today’s event is dynamic volume adjustment, which adjusts the sound based on background noise. It’s similar to the feature the company teased with today’s Pixel Buds reveal and could come in handy if you happen to live or work in a loud environment. Take that, neighbors.

google nest mini

The new Mini presents one of the more compelling use cases I’ve seen for Duo thus far (and honestly, I haven’t seen a ton). You can use the device as a kind of speakerphone with the app. I can certainly see this coming in handy for things like work calls at home. If you’ve got a big home, you can also use it as an intercom to communicate with other Home/Nest devices.

One other bit worth mentioning is the smart addition of a wall mount on the bottom of the device. It’s something small, but handy. Using a nail or thumbtack (well, probably just a nail, given the size/weight), you can now hang the Mini on a wall. Apparently this was a pretty heavily requested feature for those with limited shelf space. I could certainly imagine sticking it in my kitchen, where counter space is at an extreme premium — though dealing with the cord is another question entirely.

The Nest Mini arrives on retail shelves and walls October 22.

SpaceX files paperwork to launch up to 30,000 more Starlink global internet satellites

SpaceX has filed documents with the International Telecommunication Union, which governs international use of global bandwidth, to launch up to 30,000 more satellites for its Starlink global broadband constellation, SpaceNews reports. That’s on top of the 12,000 it already has permission to launch. Why so many? SpaceX says that it’s about ensuring its network can meet anticipated demand “responsibly.”

“As demand escalates for fast, reliable internet around the world, especially for those where connectivity is non-existent, too expensive or unreliable, SpaceX is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs,” wrote a SpaceX spokesperson in an emailed statement to TechCrunch.

The ITU filing doesn’t mean SpaceX is launching 30,000 satellites tomorrow: In fact, the company is looking to launch likely only a few hundred in the coming year. But SpaceX is anticipating big increases in the demand for low-latency and high-capacity broadband globally, and its initial deployment plans only cover a fraction of that demand. Plus, given the increased interest in providing communications from orbit, there’s bound to be a growing rush on spectrum over the next few years.

Starlink will originally set out to provide service in the northern U.S., as well as parts of Canada, beginning as early as next year when the network goes live. The plan is to then scale the network to global coverage over the course of around 24 launches of Starlink satellites. It’s betting that it’ll need to scale by adding on nodes opportunistically to address demand, especially because most current coverage demand models don’t take into account regions that are getting broadband access for the first time.

SpaceX is also priming Starlink for high-traffic operation (though the total constellation won’t all be operating in the same orbital region, it’ll still be a considerable addition to the orbital population relative to the roughly 8,000 objects that have been launched to space to date — in total). The measures SpaceX is taking to deal with traffic include building in automated collision avoidance systems, structure de-orbiting plans, information sharing about orbital routes for their satellites and more, and the company says it’s meeting or exceeding the industry standards that have been established thus far around this.

To address the concerns of astronomers, SpaceX is also turning the base or Earth-facing portion of all future Starlink satellites back, which should help address concerns of space watchers who are concerned about the impact that large constellations will have on stellar observation and research. The company will also take steps to adjust satellite orbits where it’s shown that its constellation is impeding serious scientific pursuit.

Starlink launched its first 60 satellites back in May, and the plan is that each roughly 500-lb satellite will work in tandem with the others to communicate with ground stations that end users will then be able to connect to in order to get a broadband network signal.

LinkedIn gets physical, debuts Events hub for people to plan in-person networking events

LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned social network for the working world with around 650 million users, is known best as a place where people connect with each other online either to build work connections, for recruitment, or for professional development. Now, the company is taking a step to bring its networking features into the physical world: the company is launching a new feature called Events, a (currently free) tool for people to plan, announce and invite people to meetups and other get-togethers, in the physical world.

The feature — which will appear as a menu item in LinkedIn’s website and mobile app — is rolling out first in English-speaking countries starting October 17, with the aim to expand it to further non-English markets soon after that.

Ajay Datta, the head of product for LinkedIn India (where the app was developed; more on that below), believes that there is a clear gap in the market for a feature like this, much like you could argue Facebook’s events feature has served a role in the out-of-work world to plan casual events.

“I think there is a massive whitespace for events today,” he said. “People don’t have a single place to organise [work-related] offline meetups specific to an industry or a neighborhood. People want to find other people.”

You may recall a limited trial of the Events feature about a year ago in New York and San Francisco: the kinds of events that LinkedIn said were created with the pilot included meetups, training sessions, offsites, sales events and happy hours, so expect to see these popping up in the live product, too.

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.26.01

Events is also important because it is the first major, global feature to be built out of the company’s R&D office in Bangalore, India — a significant milestone for the team of engineers and others that are based there. Up to now, much of the work that they have done has been focused on regional tools or those specifically targeting emerging markets.

LinkedIn Lite, the company’s pared-down Android app for users in bandwidth-constrained markets, has probably been the  Bangalore office’s biggest win so far: it has now passed 10 million downloads in the 70+ countries where it is available.

To be clear, right now, Events is free to use and is fairly limited in its first iteration. You can create an announcement and invite first-person contacts, but you have no way to promote the event beyond your own organic reach on the platform (and wherever you might want to share the link outside it).

“Targeting is not the focus right now,” said Ajay Datta, the head of product at LinkedIn India. “Organic adoption is what we are looking for first before we look at anything else.”

You can lay out your plans, but there are no links to services to find and book out available spaces. You can’t create any ticketing or other limitations on attendance numbers, but you can include links to places where you might be able to manage such things, such as Eventbrite or any of its many competitors.

But if this starts to see traction — and I suspect that it will, because of its natural proximity to the social network to amplify an event, and the fact that most of the people who are hanging out on LinkedIn are likely to already be predisposed to engaging on it — you could imagine how LinkedIn might start to add on all of the above, and more. It says that other areas where it’s continuing to experiment to facilitate better in-person connections using include QR codes, business cards, and proximity-based beacons.

This could help LinkedIn create another revenue stream in its business — or at least provide another way to boost existing revenue streams such as premium memberships (access to a wider circle of people to invite), advertising and recruitment solutions. Potentially, this could help pave the way to positioning LinkedIn (and by association, Microsoft) as an Eventbrite competitor.

From the Events menu bar, you will be able to create events yourself and also invite others. It looks like it’s already live on my own account, so here is how it looks from there:

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.43.00

And here’s how the event-creation window looks. As you can see, you post links through to other sites for ticketing, and potentially further details about agendas and more. Each box has a limit on

Screenshot 2019 10 15 at 18.42.15

LinkedIn is also being cognisant of its reputation for how the platform can be used for over-aggressive contacting, and so it’s also including security features for people to report and block suspicious events or conversations related to them. It’s also applying AI algorithms to the events that do get listed to screen them for bad actors and bogus content, which then get assessed by human reviewers for further action.

The move into Events is one of the bigger moves that LinkedIn has made over the last several years — another big one has been its efforts in educational content — to open itself up to a new area of business by leveraging how it uses the professional graph that it has built up over time. It sometimes feels to me that under Microsoft (which bought the company for $26 billion in 2016) the company has been less productive in terms of launching new services and generally making noise, so this move is interesting in that sense too.

Still, the synergy between online networking and physical networking is so close that it’s a surprise that the company hadn’t launched an Events feature before now. All the more because Linked has dabbled in building tools to help people make better connections with each other when they are in the same physical space before.

Years ago it launched a Connected app to help people maximise the kinds of connections they make in the physical world. It has since been sunset and integrated into the main LinkedIn app, which has a “find nearby” feature that you can use to see if people who are your connections are, say, at the same conference as you are, or if you’re meeting a contact for coffee and don’t know what the person looks like.

It’s also been over the last three months seeding the idea of associating actual events with LinkedIn the platform by encouraging the organising of “LinkedIn Local” events, which apparently have created more feedback from users to build an Events too, too.

It’s not clear why it’s taken so long — LinkedIn sometimes does take its time, as it did with video — but in this period when some of us are beginning to pause and ponder what being online too much does for our ability to relate to each other, collaborate and progress not just in the working world, but in the wider world, it’s an interesting moment to choose to launch Events. We’ll see if LinkedInners agree.

The Station: A new self-driving car startup, Inside Tesla’s V10 software, Lilium’s big round

If you haven’t heard, TechCrunch has officially launched a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future — whether it’s by bike, bus, scooter, car, train, truck, flying car, robotaxi or rocket. Heck, maybe even via hyperloop.

Earlier this year, we piloted a weekly transportation newsletter. Now, we’re back with a new name and a format that will be delivered into your inbox every Saturday morning. We’re calling it The Station, your hub of all things transportation. I’m your host, senior transportation reporter Kirsten Korosec.

Portions of the newsletter will be published as an article on the main site after it has been emailed to subscribers (that’s what you’re reading now). To get everything, you have to sign up. And it’s free. To subscribe, go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

This isn’t a solo effort. Expect analysis and insight from senior reporter Megan Rose Dickey, who has been covering micromobility. TechCrunch reporter Jake Bright will occasionally provide insight into electric motorcycles, racing and the startup scene in Africa. And then of course, there are other TechCrunch staffers who will weigh in from their stations in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

We love the reader feedback. Keep it coming. Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

A new autonomous vehicle company on the scene

the station autonomous vehicles1

Deeproute.ai is the newest company to receive a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Here is what we know so far. The Chinese startup just raised $50 million in a pre-Series A funding round led by Fozun RZ Capital, the Beijing-based venture capital arm of Chinese conglomerate Fosun International. The company has research centers in Shenzhen, Beijing and Silicon Valley and is aiming to build a full self-driving stack that can handle Level 4 automation, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.

Deeproute.ai is also a supplier for China’s second-largest automaker Dongfeng Motor, according to TechNode. The startup plans to offer robotaxi services in partnership with Dongfeng Motor for the Military World Games in the city of Wuhan next month.

Snapshot: Tesla Smart Summon

the station electric vehicles1Remember way back in September when Tesla started rolling out its V10 software update? The software release was highly anticipated in large part because it included Smart Summon, an autonomous parking feature that allows owners to use their app to summon their vehicles from a parking space.

We have some insight into the rollout, courtesy of TezLab, a Brooklyn-based startup that developed a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle. Tesla owners who download the app can track their efficiency, total trip miles and use it to control certain functions of the vehicle, such as locking and unlocking the doors, and heating and air conditioning. TezLab, which has 20,000 active users and logs more than 1 million events a day, has become a massive repository of Tesla data.

TezLab shared the data set below that shows the ebb and flow of Tesla’s software updates. The X axis shows the date (of every other bar) and a timestamp of midnight. (Because this is a screenshot, you can’t toggle over it to see the time.)

Screen Shot 2019 10 11 at 3.52.53 PM

This data shows when Tesla started pushing out the V10 software as well as when it held it back. The upshot? Notice the pop on September 27. That’s when the public rollout began in earnest, then dipped, then spiked again on October 3 and then dropped for almost a week. That lull followed a slew of social media postings demonstrating and complaining about the Smart Summon feature, suggesting that Tesla slowed the software release.

A geofencing bright spot

Speaking of Smart Summon, you might have seen the Consumer Reports review of the feature. In short, the consumer advocacy group called it “glitchy” and wondered if it offered any benefits to customers. I spoke to CR and learned a bit more. CR notes that Tesla is clear in its manual about the limitations of this beta product. The organization’s criticism is that people don’t have insight into these limitations when they buy the “Full Self-Driving” feature, which costs thousands of dollars. (CEO Elon Musk just announced the price will go up another $1,000 on November 1.)

One encouraging sign is that CR determined that the Smart Summon feature was able (most of the time) to recognize when it was on a public road. Smart Summon is only supposed to be used in private areas. “This is the first we’ve seen Tesla geofence this technology and that is a bright spot,” CR told me.

Deal of the week

money the station

There were plenty of deals in the past week, but the one that stood out — for a variety of reasons — involved German urban air mobility startup Lilium . Editor Ingrid Lunden had the scoop that Lilium has been talking to investors to raise between $400 million and $500 million. The size of this yet-to-be-closed round and who might be investing is what got our attention.

Lilium has already raised more than $100 million in financing from investors, including WeChat owner and Chinese internet giant Tencent, Atomico, which was founded by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström, and Obvious Ventures, the early-stage VC fund co-founded by Twitter’s Ev Williams. International private banking and asset management group LGT and Freigeist (formerly called e42) are also investors.

TechCrunch is still hunting down details about who might be investing, as well as Lilium’s valuation. (You can always reach out with a tip.)

Lunden was able to ferret out a few important nuggets from sources, including that Tencent is apparently in this latest round and the startup has been pitching new investors since at least this spring. The round has yet to close. Lilium isn’t the only urban air mobility — aka flying cars — startup that been shaking the investor trees for money the past six months. Lilium’s challenge is attempting to raise a bigger round than others in an unproven market.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share. For the unfamiliar, a little bird is where we pass along insider tips and what we’re hearing or finding from reliable, informed sources in the industry. This isn’t a place for unfounded gossip. Sometimes, like this week, we’re just helping to connect the dots to determine where a company is headed.

Aurora, an autonomous vehicle startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, published a blog post that lay outs its plans to integrate its self-driving stack into multiple vehicle platforms. Those plans now include long-haul trucks.

Self-driving trucks are so very hot right now. Aurora is banking on its recent acquisition of lidar company Blackmore to give it an edge. Aurora has integrated into a Class 8 truck its self-driving stack known as “Aurora Driver.” We hear that Aurora isn’t announcing any partnerships — at least not now — but it’s signaling a plan to push into this market.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Keep (self) truckin’

the station semi truck

Ike, the autonomous trucking startup founded by veterans of Apple, Google and Uber Advanced Technologies Group’s self-driving truck program, has always cast itself as the cautious-we’ve-been-around-the-block-already company.

That hasn’t changed. Last week, Ike released a lengthy safety report and accompanying blog post. It’s beefy. But here are a few of the important takeaways. Ike is choosing not to test on public roads after a year of development, unlike most others in the space. Ike has a fleet of four Class 8 trucks outfitted with its self-driving stack as well as a Toyota Prius used for mapping and data collection. The trucks are driven manually, (a second engineer always in the passenger seat) on public roads. The automation system is then tested on a track.

There are strong incentives to demonstrate rapid progress with autonomous vehicle technology, and testing on public roads has been part of that playbook. And Ike’s founders are taking a different path; and we hear that the approach was embraced, not rejected, by investors. 

Screen Shot 2019 10 12 at 7.56.36 AM

In the next issue of the newsletter, check out snippets from an interview with Randol Aikin, the head of systems engineering at Ike. We dig into the company’s approach, which is based on a methodology developed at MIT called Systems Theoretic Process Analysis (STPA) as the foundation for Ike’s product development.

In other AV truck-related news, Kodiak Robotics just hired Jamie Hoffacker as its head of hardware. Hoffacker came from Lyft’s Level 5 self-driving vehicle initiative and also worked on Google’s Street View vehicles. The company tells me that Hoffacker is key to its aim of building a product that can be manufactured, not just a prototype. Check out Hoffacker’s blog post to get his perspective.

Nos vemos la próxima vez.