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OffGridBox raises $1.6M to charge and hydrate rural Africa with its all-in-one installations – TechCrunch

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The simplest needs are often the most vital: power and clean water will get you a long way. But in rural areas of developing countries they can both be hard to come by. OffGridBox is attempting to provide both, sustainably and profitably, while meeting humanitarian and ecological goals at the same time. The company just raised $1.6 million to pursue its lofty agenda.

The idea is fairly simple, though naturally rather difficult to engineer: Use solar power to provide to a small community both electricity (in the form of charged batteries) and potable water. It’s not easy, and it’s not autonomous — but that’s by design.

I met two of the OffGridBox crew, founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini and U.S. director Troy Billett, much earlier this year at CES in Las Vegas, where they were being honored by Not Impossible, alongside the brilliant BecDot braille learning toy. The team had a lot of irons in the fire, but now are ready to announce their seed round and progress in deploying what could be a life-saving innovation.

They’ve installed 38 boxes so far, some at their own expense and others with the help of backers. Each is about the size of a small shed — a section of a shipping container, with a scaffold on top to attach the solar cells. Inside are the necessary components for storing electricity and distributing it to dozens of rechargeable batteries and lights at a time, plus a water reservoir and purifier.

Water from a nearby unsafe natural (or municipal, really) source is trucked or piped in and replenishes the reservoir. The solar cells run the purifier, providing clean water for cheap — around a third of what a family would normally pay, by the team’s estimate — and potentially with a much shorter trek. Simultaneously, charged batteries and lights are rented out at similarly low rates to people otherwise without electricity. Each box can generate as much as 12 kWh per day, which is split between the two tasks.

The alternatives for these communities would generally be small dedicated solar installations, the upfront cost of which can be unrealistic for them. The average household spend for electricity, Billett told me, is around 43 cents per day; OffGridBox will be offering it for less than half that, about 18 cents.

It doesn’t run itself: The box is administrated by a local merchant, who handles payments and communication with OffGridBox itself. Young women are targeted for this role, as they are more likely to be long-term residents of the area and members of the community. The box acts as a small business for them, essentially drawing money out of the air.

OffGridBox works with local nonprofits to find likely candidates; the women pictured above were recommended by Women for Women. They in turn will support others who, for example, deliver or resell the water or run side businesses that rely on the electricity provided. There’s even an associated local bottled water brand now — “Amaziyateke,” named after a big leaf that collects rainwater, but in Rwanda is also slang for a beautiful woman.

Some boxes are being set up to offer Wi-Fi as well via a cellular or satellite connection, which has its own obvious benefits. And recently people have been asking for the ability to play music at home, so the company started including portable speakers. This was unexpected, but an easy demand to meet, said Billett — “It is critical to listen!”

The company does do some work to keep the tech running efficiently and safely, remotely monitoring for problems and scheduling maintenance calls. So these things aren’t just set down and forgotten. That said, they can and have run for hundreds of thousands of hours — years — without major work being done.

Each box costs about $15,000 to build, plus roughly another $10,000 to deliver and install. The business model has an investor or investors cover this initial cost, then receive a share of the revenue for the life of the box. At capacity usage this might take around two years, after which the revenue split shifts (from a negotiable initial split to 50/50); it’s a small, safe source of income for years to come. At around $10,000 of revenue per year per box with full utilization, the IRR is estimated at 15 percent.

What OffGridBox believes is that this model is better than any other for quick deployment of these boxes. Grants are an option, of course, and they can also be brought in for disaster relief purposes. Originally the idea was to sell these to rich folks who wanted to live off the grid or have a more self-sufficient mountain cabin, but this is definitely better — for a lot of reasons. (You could probably still get one for yourself if you really wanted.)

OffGridBox has been through the Techstars accelerator as part of a 2017 group, and worked through 2018, as I mentioned earlier, to secure funding from a variety of sources. This seed round totaling $1.6 million was led by the Doen and Good Energies Foundations; the Banque Populaire du Rwanda is also a partner.

Along with a series A planned for 2019, this money will support the deployment of a total of 42 box installations in Rwandan communities.

“This will help us become a major player in the energy and water markets in Rwanda while empowering women entrepreneurs, fighting biocontamination for improved health, and introducing lighting in rural homes,” said Cecchini in the press release announcing the funding.

Alternative or complementary sources of power, such as wind, are being looked into, and desalination of water (as opposed to just sterilization) is being actively researched. This would increase the range and reliability of the boxes, naturally, and make island communities much more realistic.

Those 42 boxes are just the beginning: The company hopes to deploy as many as 1,000 throughout Rwanda, and even then that would only reach a fifth of the country’s off-grid market. By partnering with local energy concerns and banks, OffGridBox hopes to deploy as many as 100 boxes a year, potentially bringing water and power to as many as 100,000 more people.

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iOS 14.7.1 and macOS 11.5.1 arrive with one bug fix and one security fix

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Enlarge / Apple executive Craig Federighi unveiled iOS 15 this summer. That version is coming later this year.

Apple has issued a new software update for iPhones, iPads, and Macs just a few days after the company launched macOS 10.15 and iOS/iPadOS 14.7.

The updates add no new features, but the iPhone update fixes one bug. From Apple’s release notes:

iOS 14.7.1 fixes an issue where iPhone models with Touch ID cannot unlock a paired Apple Watch using the Unlock with iPhone feature. This update also provides important security updates and is recommended for all users.

As for macOS, there are no listed changes besides security updates. And Apple lists the same security update for iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. Here are the details from Apple’s support hub:

IOMobileFrameBuffer

Available for: iPhone 6s and later, iPad Pro (all models), iPad Air 2 and later, iPad 5th generation and later, iPad mini 4 and later, and iPod touch (7th generation)

Impact: An application may be able to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges. Apple is aware of a report that this issue may have been actively exploited.

Description: A memory corruption issue was addressed with improved memory handling.

CVE-2021-30807: an anonymous researcher

Last week, Apple released software updates for all its platforms, including iOS 14.7, iPadOS 14.7, and macOS 10.15. Among other things, iOS 14.7 added support for the new MagSafe Battery Pack accessory, introduced a new multiuser Apple Card Family feature, and made several small tweaks throughout the operating system. macOS 10.15 was a smaller update that came a few days later; it simply added a new way to sort shows in the Podcasts app and fixed a couple of bugs.

Apple’s software releases tend to follow a common pattern. Top-level numbers like “iOS 13” or “iOS 13” are annual releases that introduce a bunch of significant new features or changes. Then, any update with a number after one decimal point (like iOS 14.7) adds at least one new feature and a handful of bug fixes. When you see another number after another decimal point—as in this case with iOS 14.7.1—you’re usually looking at an update that targets one or two bugs or security vulnerabilities but doesn’t add new features.

Today’s follow-up software updates are available to all supported devices right now.

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Report: The iPhone 14 will be a major upgrade, and it will be made of titanium

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Enlarge / The back of the iPhone 12 Pro.

Samuel Axon

A new investor note from JPMorgan Chase seen by AppleInsider and MacRumors claims that Apple’s high-end iPhone models will soon use titanium alongside or instead of aluminum or stainless steel. It also provides new insights about what to expect from 2022’s iPhone lineup.

Drawing from supply line sources, the note says the materials change is coming in 2022 and that Foxconn will be Apple’s exclusive supplier for the titanium components. The Pro model phones from that year are likely to use a titanium alloy, which is stronger and more resistant to scratches than the stainless steel used in current iPhone models.

While the analyst report does not specify, it’s very likely that we’re talking about the metallic band around the edge of the iPhone, not the front and the back. The front is expected to still be glass, and given that Apple continues to introduce new MagSafe and wireless charging products and features, we expect the back to remain glass as well.

The report also says the iPhone 14 will see more significant changes than the iPhone 13, suggesting that this year’s new iPhones will be spec bumps with minor new features akin to past iPhone launches with an “-S” appended to the products’ names. Meanwhile, the iPhone 14 in 2022 will bring with it a redesign of sorts and major new features, akin to the iPhone X or iPhone 12.

Additionally, JPMorgan Chase corroborates another recent report that Apple will not produce an iPhone 14 mini. That report, from Nikkei Asia, claimed that Apple will sometime in 2022 introduce a 5G iPhone SE with the latest, fastest CPU and the same look and feel as the current iPhone SE—but that this will be a death knell for the iPhone mini, which was introduced as part of the iPhone 12 lineup in 2020 but which has failed to meet sales expectations.

Currently, Apple offers two options for users of small, one-handed phones. There’s the iPhone SE, which emphasizes low cost by using older technologies like an LCD display and the home button. And there’s the iPhone 12 mini, which places the latest chip, screen, and camera tech Apple has to offer in a smaller chassis at a price close to that of the other flagships.

Based on the insights from Nikkei and JPMorgan Chase, it appears that Apple will soon relegate small phones to the budget bin (or midrange bin, you could really argue), with the most expensive flagships with the latest features staying big.

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Here’s the first credible Microsoft Surface Duo 2 leak

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The Surface Duo was one of the biggest hardware flops in recent memory, but Microsoft is still charging ahead with a sequel to the device, and now we have the first credible pictures of it. The story here is kind of weird. We’re not actually sure where the pictures are from (they’ve been uploaded to this random YouTube channel with other uncredited content), but Windows Central’s Zac Bowden says the images are legit, and since he has had an impeccable history of nailing Surface Duo rumors, his affirmation is good enough for us. Bowden calls the two devices shown off in the leak “near-final prototypes.”

The most obvious change in the pictures is a huge camera bump on the back of the device. The bump houses three cameras, along with what looks like an LED flash to the right and one more sensor, perhaps laser autofocus, just below the flash. The standalone fingerprint reader on the side is gone (Windows Central speculates it will be integrated into the power button), and the USB-C port on the bottom is now centered. Sadly, we don’t know what the inside looks like yet.

The Surface Duo 1 never had a good camera solution—in fact, it didn’t have a rear camera at all. Cameras are one of the biggest thickness demands on a phone body (hence the camera bumps), and the Surface Duo, being one of the thinnest phones ever made (at only 4.8 mm thick for each half), simply didn’t have room for a good camera. The device only got one low-quality front camera, and since the phone was foldable, it could pull double-duty as a rear camera, too.

Skipping out on a rear camera for the Duo 1 wasn’t the only solution Microsoft tried, though—early prototypes showed a rear camera with a corresponding divot on the other half of the device, allowing the proto-Duo to have a rear camera bump and still fold flat. This Duo 2 prototype has a big camera bump but no divot on the other side, so it looks like it won’t fold flat? A big selling point of the first Duo was the 360 hinge and the ability to use it in single-screen mode if you wanted, but it seems like that feature is being compromised.

Another problem with the Duo 1 was its weird and out-of-date spec sheet, but many of the device’s technical shortcomings will be fixed in the sequel. Windows Central says the phone will ship with a modern SoC—the Snapdragon 888—along with NFC, one of the more bizarre omissions of the Duo 1. The phone should ship sometime in September or October.

Is Microsoft changing enough?

The Surface Duo 1 was Microsoft’s first-ever self-branded Android phone and the company’s first swing at a smartphone since the Nokia Windows Phone days. By all accounts, the Duo 1 was a disaster. In our time with it, we experienced a ton of bugs and glaring software deficiencies like its poor keyboard. But our big takeaway was that the form factor didn’t work. Even when folded up, the Duo 1 was significantly wider than any other device on the market, eclipsing even historically huge phones like the Nexus 6 by 10 mm, which made it uncomfortable to hold or shove into a pocket. Android doesn’t scale well to ultra-wide screens (tall is fine, wide is not), so the phone didn’t show much content.

The two-screen design also wasn’t that compelling. A tablet or foldable can offer similar side-by-side app action and also provide the flexibility of a single, big screen for videos and tablet apps, which isn’t viable on the split-screen Duo. The Duo also didn’t have a front screen for notifications, which is a standard feature on every other foldable device like the Galaxy Fold and Flip, the Moto Razr, and the Xiaomi and Huawei foldables. When your phone beeps, you want to be able to glance at it to see the notification without having to use two hands to open and close the device. It does not seem like any of these issues will be addressed in the sequel.

The Surface Duo was a failure in the market, too, with discounts starting nearly immediately. Today, the sky-high $1,400 MSRP is down to almost $1,000 off. The hottest fire sale saw Duos being unloaded for $409, but today, these things are just sitting around in Amazon warehouses for $419, and they still aren’t selling out. You would think that a serious market flop like the Duo 1 would lead to dramatic changes in the sequel, but Microsoft does not seem deterred.

The company can at least fix some of the buggy software and out-of-date hardware it shipped with the Duo 1. But if you weren’t a fan of the concept before, the Duo 2 isn’t trying to do much to change your mind.

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