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Bellabeat’s new hybrid smartwatch tracks your stress…and goes with your outfit – TechCrunch

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Bellabeat, the company behind a variety of health and wellness wearable devices aimed at women, is now selling its first smartwatch. The device, which is simply called “Time,” was announced earlier this month right in the midst of holiday shopping season. Like other fitness trackers, the watch is capable of basic tasks like counting your steps, tracking sleep patterns and reminding you to move. But unlike traditional smartwatches — which, aesthetically, are still very much just a screen on your wrist — the Time is designed to look like jewelry.

The hybrid device looks like a watch — albeit not a very expensive one.

It’s squarely in the range of fashion jewelry, with either silver or rose gold stainless steel finishes to choose from, and a minimalist watch face that forgoes complications like the date or the moon phase, for example. It even lacks a second hand.

That said, I prefer its cleaner look-and-feel to the gaudier smartwatches put out by brands like Michael Kors and Fossil. (Plus, there’s no Android Wear/Wear OS to contend with here.)

As an analog watch, it has both its pros and cons.

It’s designed to be hypoallergenic so as not to irritate those with sensitive skin, and it has some water resistance. (ATM grade 3, meaning it can withstand a vigorous hand washing and the rain. You can’t swim, bathe or dive with it.)

You also don’t have to charge it, which makes it feel more like a “real” watch than a gadget.

However, there’s a potential downside here, too — the coin cell battery only lasts “up to” six months. You’ll then need to use the tiny tool it ships with to replace the old battery with a new one.

Of course, some will see a user-replaceable battery as a perk. I don’t, but that’s a personal preference on my part.

I much prefer just dropping my Apple Watch onto a charger rather than having to keep up with a small watch tool, which can be easy to lose or misplace in the time between repairs. I’m also not a fan of having to unscrew tiny screws and then finding some sort of small, sharp object to pop out the battery. Perhaps that’s because I have a child with a dozen or so battery-operated toys. I’m constantly unscrewing things to replace batteries, and frankly I don’t need another.

In any event, among the watch’s better aspects is the fact that it packages up fitness and wellness tracking in a device that passes as a regular — and even fairly attractive — piece of fashion jewelry. The Time will go better with some of your outfits where you just don’t think the Apple Watch works — even with one of Apple’s fancier bands.

Of course, it’s not as seamless to use Time as the Apple Watch, which has the Apple platform advantage. (Or an Android smartwatch paired with an Android phone, for that matter.)

Instead, you have to sync your activity between the watch and the third-party Bellabeat app to view things like the steps taken or hours slept. You do so by tapping a sync button in the app and double-tapping on the watch face.

The app can also serve as way to keep up with other aspects of your health and wellness, including your hydration goals, stress, meditation time and your period.

The stress metrics are calculated for you, based on factors like activity levels, sleep quality, reproductive health and meditation over the past week. But hydration and menstruation have to be logged manually (*unless you’re using Bellabeat Spring — see below.)

The mediation tracking only calculates your progress through the app’s own selection of more than 30 included exercises. While it’s nice to have access to those resources included in the app, many people are already using popular meditation apps like Calm or Headspace. An “import” option for externally logged “mindful minutes” would have been nice here.

One of Time’s better features are its silent alarms and inactivity alerts. Instead of pings and loud noises, the watch more calmly reminds you of things with vibrations you configure. There are also included alarms for waking up, taking your vitamins, taking your contraception pill and another general alarm setting, each with their own toggle switches and settings.

There is something to be said for a quieter smartwatch, especially if stress levels are a concern. (There’s also something to be said for a device that’s built by a woman with the needs of women in mind. Remember how long it took for Apple to realize period tracking was a thing?)

That said, it’s unfortunately becoming harder for smaller device makers to compete with the Apple Watch, which has now moved into advanced areas with its Series 4 line, with sports, life-saving ECG and fall detection features, along with smarter workout detection (and yes, you can still swim with it), plus its ability to work with the broader iOS app ecosystem in a more native way.

But the Apple Watch is pricier at $399 and up for current models. Bellabeat’s Time, by comparison, is $179.

The Bellabeat mobile app will work with other Bellabeat products, including its wellness tracker Leaf (which can be worn as a bracelet, necklace, clip, etc.), and $59 smart water bottle, Spring.

Combined, the Spring and Time could be a good entry point into the world of fitness and wellness trackers for those who never felt that wearables and trackers were right for them. Bellabeat’s line is more of a lifestyle choice based just as much on looks as on tech, if not more so.

The question now is whether or not Bellabeat can carve out a big enough slice of the smartwatch market, which continues to be dominated by Apple, to sustain itself in the years ahead.

Bellabeat was a Y Combinator 2014 grad founded by female entrepreneur Urska Srsen, and has raised ~$19 million to date, according to Crunchbase. It previously sold products for expectant mothers, as well, but those have been phased out. Bellabeat declined to share any user metrics or revenue figures, when asked.

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Apple and Google’s AI wizardry promises privacy—at a cost

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Since the dawn of the iPhone, many of the smarts in smartphones have come from elsewhere: the corporate computers known as the cloud. Mobile apps sent user data cloudward for useful tasks like transcribing speech or suggesting message replies. Now Apple and Google say smartphones are smart enough to do some crucial and sensitive machine learning tasks like those on their own.

At Apple’s WWDC event this month, the company said its virtual assistant Siri will transcribe speech without tapping the cloud in some languages on recent and future iPhones and iPads. During its own I/O developer event last month, Google said the latest version of its Android operating system has a feature dedicated to secure, on-device processing of sensitive data, called the Private Compute Core. Its initial uses include powering the version of the company’s Smart Reply feature built into its mobile keyboard that can suggest responses to incoming messages.

Apple and Google both say on-device machine learning offers more privacy and snappier apps. Not transmitting personal data cuts the risk of exposure and saves time spent waiting for data to traverse the internet. At the same time, keeping data on devices aligns with the tech giants’ long-term interest in keeping consumers bound into their ecosystems. People that hear their data can be processed more privately might become more willing to agree to share more data.

The companies’ recent promotion of on-device machine learning comes after years of work on technology to constrain the data their clouds can “see.”

In 2014, Google started gathering some data on Chrome browser usage through a technique called differential privacy, which adds noise to harvested data in ways that restrict what those samples reveal about individuals. Apple has used the technique on data gathered from phones to inform emoji and typing predictions and for web browsing data.

More recently, both companies have adopted a technology called federated learning. It allows a cloud-based machine learning system to be updated without scooping in raw data; instead, individual devices process data locally and share only digested updates. As with differential privacy, the companies have discussed using federated learning only in limited cases. Google has used the technique to keep its mobile typing predictions up to date with language trends; Apple has published research on using it to update speech recognition models.

Rachel Cummings, an assistant professor at Columbia who has previously consulted on privacy for Apple, says the rapid shift to do some machine learning on phones has been striking. “It’s incredibly rare to see something going from the first conception to being deployed at scale in so few years,” she says.

That progress has required not just advances in computer science but for companies to take on the practical challenges of processing data on devices owned by consumers. Google has said that its federated learning system only taps users’ devices when they are plugged in, idle, and on a free internet connection. The technique was enabled in part by improvements in the power of mobile processors.

Beefier mobile hardware also contributed to Google’s 2019 announcement that voice recognition for its virtual assistant on Pixel devices would be wholly on-device, free from the crutch of the cloud. Apple’s new on-device voice recognition for Siri, announced at WWDC this month, will use the “neural engine” the company added to its mobile processorsto power up machine learning algorithms.

The technical feats are impressive. It’s debatable how much they will meaningfully change users’ relationship with tech giants.

Presenters at Apple’s WWDC said Siri’s new design was a “major update to privacy” that addressed the risk associated with accidentally transmitting audio to the cloud, saying that was users’ largest privacy concern about voice assistants. Some Siri commands—such as setting timers—can be recognized wholly locally, making for a speedy response. Yet in many cases transcribed commands to Siri—presumably including from accidental recordings—will be sent to Apple servers for software to decode and respond. Siri voice transcription will still be cloud-based for HomePod smart speakers commonly installed in bedrooms and kitchens, where accidental recording can be more concerning.

Google also promotes on-device data processing as a privacy win and has signaled it will expand the practice. The company expects partners such as Samsung that use its Android operating system to adopt the new Privacy Compute Core and use it for features that rely on sensitive data.

Google has also made local analysis of browsing data a feature of its proposal for reinventing online ad targeting, dubbed FLoC and claimed to be more private. Academics and some rival tech companies have said the design is likely to help Google consolidate its dominance of online ads by making targeting more difficult for other companies.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights at University College London, says on-device data processing can be a good thing but adds that the way tech companies promote it shows they are primarily motivated by a desire to keep people tied into lucrative digital ecosystems.

“Privacy gets confused with keeping data confidential, but it’s also about limiting power,” says Veale. “If you’re a big tech company and manage to reframe privacy as only confidentiality of data, that allows you to continue business as normal and gives you license to operate.”

A Google spokesperson said the company “builds for privacy everywhere computing happens” and that data sent to the Private Compute Core for processing “needs to be tied to user value.” Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Cummings of Columbia says new privacy techniques and the way companies market them add complexity to the trade-offs of digital life. Over recent years, as machine learning has become more widely deployed, tech companies have steadily expanded the range of data they collect and analyze. There is evidence some consumers misunderstand the privacy protections trumpeted by tech giants.

A forthcoming survey study from Cummings and collaborators at Boston University and the Max Planck Institute showed descriptions of differential privacy drawn from tech companies, media, and academics to 675 Americans. Hearing about the technique made people about twice as likely to report they would be willing to share data. But there was evidence that descriptions of differential privacy’s benefits also encouraged unrealistic expectations. One-fifth of respondents expected their data to be protected against law enforcement searches, something differential privacy does not do. Apple’s and Google’s latest proclamations about on-device data processing may bring new opportunities for misunderstandings.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Amazon joins Apple, Google by reducing its app store cut

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Enlarge / The Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet, which runs Amazon’s Fire OS.

Apparently following the lead of Apple and Google, Amazon has announced that it will take a smaller revenue cut from apps developed by teams earning less than $1 million annually from their apps on the Amazon Appstore. The same applies to developers who are brand-new to the marketplace.

The new program from Amazon, called the Amazon Appstore Small Business Accelerator Program, launches in Q4 of this year, and it will reduce the cut Amazon takes from app revenue, which was previously 30 percent. (Developers making over $1 million annually will continue to pay the original rate.) For some, it’s a slightly worse deal than Apple’s or Google’s, and for others, it’s better.

Amazon’s new indie-friendly rate is 20 percent, in contrast to Apple’s and Google’s 15 percent. Amazon seeks to offset this difference by granting developers 10 percent of their Appstore revenue in the form of a credit for AWS. For certain developers who use AWS, it could mean that Amazon’s effective cut is actually 10 percent, not 15 or 20 percent.

But for some, it amounts to something more like giving the developer a coupon on a purchase of services from Amazon than actually putting more cash in their pockets. It leaves small developers who aren’t spending a bunch of money on Amazon’s services with a worse deal than they’d get on Apple’s or Google’s marketplaces.

As with Apple’s program—but not Google’s—the lower rate applies to developers only if they made $1 million or less in total (in this case, the numbers assessed are those from the previous year). Crossing that threshold will lead developers to pay the older, higher rate on all of their earnings. In contrast, Google always takes a smaller cut of the first million in a given year and then applies the bigger cut to revenues after $1 million without changing the amount it took from the first million.

The Amazon Appstore primarily exists as the app store for Amazon’s Android-based Fire OS software that runs on tablets. It’s also offered as an alternative App Store for users of other Android-based operating systems.

All three companies are facing various forms of regulatory scrutiny, and that scrutiny was likely a factor in Apple’s decision to cut the fees it applies to apps released by small developers on the Apple App Store. Google followed shortly afterward for its Google Play marketplace.

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Microsoft’s Linux repositories were down for 18+ hours

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Enlarge / In 2017, Tux was sad that he had a Microsoft logo on his chest. In 2021, he’s mostly sad that Microsoft’s repositories were down for most of a day.

Jim Salter

Yesterday, packages.microsoft.com—the repository from which Microsoft serves software installers for Linux distributions including CentOS, Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and more—went down hard, and it stayed down for around 18 hours. The outage impacted users trying to install .NET Core, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft SQL Server for Linux (yes, that’s a thing) and more—as well as Azure’s own devops pipelines.

We first became aware of the problem Wednesday evening when we saw 404 errors in the output of apt update on an Ubuntu workstation with Microsoft Teams installed. The outage is somewhat better documented at this .NET Core-issue report on Github, with many users from all around the world sharing their experiences and theories.

The short version is, the entire repository cluster which serves all Linux packages for Microsoft was completely down—issuing a range of HTTP 404 (content not found) and 500 (Internal Server Error) messages for any URL—for roughly 18 hours. Microsoft engineer Rahul Bhandari confirmed the outage roughly five hours after it was initially reported, with a cryptic comment about the infrastructure team “running into some space issues.”

Eighteen hours after the issue was reported, Bhandari reported that the mirrors were once again available—although with temporarily degraded performance, likely due to cold caches. In this update, Bhandari said that the original cause of the outage was “a regression in [apt repositories] during some feature migration work that resulted in those packages becoming unavailable on the mirrors.”

We’re still waiting for a comprehensive incident report, since Bhandari’s status updates provide clues but no real explanations. The good news is, we can confirm that packages.microsoft.com is indeed up once again, and it is serving packages as it should.

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