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Uber tries to reassure customers that it takes safety seriously, following NYTimes book excerpt – TechCrunch

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It’s hard at times not to feel sorry for Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, given all that he inherited when he became the ride-share giant’s top boss back in April 2017.

Among his many to-do items: take public a money-losing company whose private-market valuation had already soared past what many thought it was worth, clean-up the organization’s win-at-all-costs image, and win over employees who clearly remained loyal to Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, an inimitable figure who Khosrowshahi was hired to replace.

Things are undoubtedly about to get worse, given the fast-upcoming publication of a tell-all book about Uber authored by New York Times reporter Mike Isaac. In just one excerpt published yesterday by the newspaper, Isaac outlines how Uber misled customers into paying $1 more per ride by telling them Uber would use the proceeds to fund an “industry-leading background check process, regular motor vehicle checks, driver safety education, development of safety features in the app, and insurance.”

The campaign was hugely successful, according to Isaac, who reports that it brought in nearly half a billion dollars for Uber. Alas, according to employees who worked on the project, the fee was devised primarily to add $1 of pure margin to each trip.

Om Malik, a former tech journalist turned venture capitalist, published a tongue-in-cheek tweet yesterday after reading the excerpt, writing, “Apology from @dkhos coming any minute — we are different now.”

Malik was close. Instead of an apology, Uber today sent some of its riders an email titled, somewhat ominously, “Your phone number stays hidden in the app.” The friendly reminder continues on to tell customers that their “phone number stays hidden when you call or text your driver through the app,” that “pickup and dropoff locations are not visible in a driver’s trip history,” and that “for additional privacy, if you don’t want to share your exact address, request a ride to or from the nearest cross streets instead.”

The email was clearly meant to reassure riders, some of whom might be absorbing negative press about Uber and wondering if it cares about them at all. But not everyone follows Uber as closely as industry watchers in Silicon Valley, and either way, what the email mostly accomplishes is to remind customers that riding in an Uber involves life-and-death risk.

Stressing that the company is “committed to safety” is the debating equivalent of a so-called negative pregnant, wherein a denial implies its affirmative opposite. It’s Uber shooting itself in the foot.

It would have been more effective for Uber to email riders that when it talks about safety, it really does mean business — and not the kind where it swindles its own customers for pure monetary gain.

Either way, the affair underscores the tricky terrain Uber is left to navigate right now. Though campaigns like Uber’s so-called “safe rides fee” was orchestrated under the leadership of Kalanick — who did whatever it took to scale the company — it’s Khosrowshahi’s problem now.

So is the fact that the company’s shares have been sinking since its IPO in early May; that Uber’s cost-cutting measures will be scrutinized at every turn (outsiders particularly relished the company’s decision to save on employees’ work anniversaries by cutting out helium balloons in favor of stickers); and that Uber appears to be losing the battle, city by city, against labor activists who want to push up the minimum wage paid to drivers.

And those are just three of many daunting challenges that Khosrowshahi has been tasked with figuring out  (think food delivery, self-driving technologies, foreign and domestic opponents). No doubt Isaac’s book will highlight plenty of others.

How Uber handles the inevitable wave of bad publicity that comes with it remains to be seen. We don’t expect Khosrowshahi to come out swinging; that’s not his style. But we also hope the company doesn’t take to emailing riders directly, without any context. It’s great if Uber is taking customer safety more seriously than it might have under Kalanick’s leadership, but reaching out to tell riders how to remain safe from their Uber drivers isn’t the way to do it, especially without acknowledging in any way why it’s suddenly so eager to have the conversation.



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ASUS ROG Phone 5 might have more RAM you’ll ever need for now

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How much RAM do you need for a smartphone? Disregarded the old joke about 640KB of RAM for PCs in the late 80s, smartphone memory seems to have stalled at 12GB in the past year or so with very few exceptions. That said, it seems that high-end smartphones are ready to push the envelope again with the ROG PHone 5 going beyond the 16GB that you’d find on the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G this year.

Just for a quick refresher, RAM is that volatile (meaning it loses data when power goes out) memory space that’s used not for holding data you want to keep but for programs to stay while running. To keep it overly simple, the more RAM you have, the more programs you can have running at the same time before the operating system starts killing unused programs to make room for more. This is why phones with less RAM often have problems multi-tasking, forcing apps to be restarted when you switch back to them because they were killed in the background.

That is true for normal apps but is even more true for games that have large pieces of code and data that need to be kept in memory to run fast and smoothly. It’s really no surprise, then, that the first smartphones that boasted 16GB of RAM were gaming phones like the Lenovo Legion Duel (or Pro) and the ASUS ROG Phone 3. According to a Geekbench sighting, the ASUS ROG Phone 5 will be taking that to the next level even.

The benchmark notes a RAM size of 16.97GB which, given how these numbers work, suggests that the phone could actually have 18GB of RAM. That is quite a large amount of RAM that, even with today’s demanding mobile games, might sound almost too much. Then again, ASUS offers various configurations for its ROG Phones so this could simply be the top-end variant.

The entry doesn’t have other details to offer but we can already piece some of those together. The phone will undoubtedly take advantage of all the power that the Snapdragon 888 has to offer, for example, and DxOMark’s recent audio benchmark revealed not just the return of the 3.5mm headphone jack but also what seems to be a display on its back purely for branding purposes. The ASUS ROG Phone 5 is slated to debut on March 10 so Android gamers won’t have too long to wait for confirmation.

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NVIDIA SHIELD TV SmartThings Link will become unusable in July

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A smart home hub is only as useful as the number of languages it can speak. Given the number of disparate smart home platforms available today, it pays to either understand all those or at least have the ability to learn to communicate with other smart home products. That was practically what the SmartThings Link USB dongle did for the NVIDIA SHIELD TV but that dongle itself will lose its ability to speak the SmartThings language when Samsung upgrades its ecosystem in June.

The SmartThings Link dongle goes way back in 2017 when Google, NVIDIA, and Samsung seemingly sang in unison to bring their smart home ecosystems to a single device. The NVIDIA SHIELD TV, which ran Android TV, not only got support for Google Assistant but also Samsung SmartThings via that USB stick. It may not have exploded as the companies would have hoped but this recent news shows that there will be quite a number of disenfranchised users who banked on that setup.

Janko Roettgers on Twitter shared an email from Samsung detailing the end of times for the SmartThings Link. Starting June 30, 2021, the device will be rendered useless and the NVIDIA SHIELD TV and SmartThings devices will no longer be able to communicate with each other. Additionally, NVIDIA’s Android TV console will also lose control of any other Zigbee or Z-Wave product previously connected via the SmartThings app.

Although disappointing, the writing has been on the wall since June last year when Samsung announced that it would be moving to a new SmartThings platform. A lot of devices won’t be able to make the transition, not just the SmartThings Link, as the change will require completely new hardware more than just a software update. Samsung is taking a very big risk in promising a more flexible ecosystem while potentially hanging hundreds out to dry.

Samsung seems to be offering refunds for some or discounts for its new SmartThings Hub but this still means that SHIELD TV owners won’t be able to use their device as a central smart home hub anymore. Whether Samsung takes steps to bridge the gap again is still unknown but it seems to be cozying up to Google lately so that might still happen, one way or another.

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Galaxy S21 Ultra DxOMark score is surprisingly lower than expected

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Although it isn’t exactly terrible, Samsung’s performance in the mobile photography department can be described as inconsistent at best. It does take great photos and videos but, at least as far as DxOMark is concerned, it simply isn’t the best by a long shot. Every new generation of the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note flagships are expected to bring improvements in that arena but that didn’t seem to work for the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G which actually fared worse than its predecessor.

Samsung’s gimmick this year was to replace the lone periscope-style telephoto zoom camera with two cameras that work independently, depending on the range of the shot. While that did work as advertised, it couldn’t save the Galaxy S21 Ultra from what DxOMark says is the phone’s biggest flaw, image noise.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra managed to do well in almost all other criteria like exposure, color, and even autofocus where it stumbled last year. Unfortunately, for reasons still unexplained, the phone also produced more image noise than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which was already on the lower rungs of the ladder compared to Huawei, Apple, and even Xiaomi. Making matters more perplexing, however, is that noise and artifacts are present both in low-light situations as well as bright, outdoor scenes.

The story is the same when it comes to video recording, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra doing well for exposure, stabilization, and even autofocus. Again, noise and artifacts pull the score down to the point that it doesn’t even make it to the site’s top tiers in this category.

With an average score of 121, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G ranks not only below its predecessor but even below the likes of last year’s flagships, including the iPhone 11. That said, DxOMark only tested the Exynos variant of the phone and the Snapdragon version sometimes scores differently, whether for better or for worse.

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