Apple Watch bands could offer concealed batteries, enhanced fitness tracking

Apple is continuing to explore ways to improve the Apple Watch via bands, including adding an extra battery to the strap, as well as a fabric band capable of handling various fitness tracking capabilities.

The Apple Watch is already a very capable wearable device, with it housing a collection of accelerometers and other sensors to enable it to monitor the health of the user, among other tasks. Packing all of these features into a confined space is a design challenge, as at some point it will be extremely difficult to add more components without increasing the size of the casing somehow.

Apple believes it can get around that limitation, by placing some of the components outside of the main Apple Watch unit itself and taking advantage of the free space offered by watch bands and straps. These elements are not currently electrically connected to the Apple Watch, and for the moment serve only to affix the device to the user’s wrist, but Apple envisions giving them extra capabilities.

According to a pair of patents granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday, Apple’s intentions cover expanding the battery life of the Apple Watch, as well as adding more sensors.

Battery watch band

The first of the two patents, simply titled “Battery watch band,” is pretty straightforward in terms of what it offers. In effect, it’s a watch band that can house multiple batteries, which is connected to the Apple Watch in some way.

Apple’s suggestion is for the band to include multiple battery cells running parallel to each other, and fitting along the watch band section that goes down the wrist, as viewed by the user. By using multiple batteries that are slightly spaced apart, the band will still be able to flex and move without worrying about physically fatiguing the batteries.

The band could contain multiple batteries to extend the usability time for an Apple Watch.

The band could contain multiple batteries to extend the usability time for an Apple Watch.

The band itself would have an inner frame with slots to receive the batteries, complete with tapered projections to protect the battery while slimming down the bulk going towards the sides of the band. An outer cover is employed over the entire assembly. Each of the batteries are also physically isolated from each other, which could potentially allow for simpler replacements during servicing.

The batteries are connected to the Apple Watch by pins within the connector, which slides into the slot at the base of the main unit. Induction coils are mentioned for recharging the batteries, with one battery having the coil wrapped around it and used to recharge all of the cells in the band.

While the main description relates to a typical flexible watch band made from rubber, silicone, or other similar material, Apple also proposes the same thing could be accomplished with a metal watch band. In that particular case, the batteries are held within individual links, encased in an elastomer.

The patent lists its inventors as Michael B Wittenberg, Scott W. Slabaugh, Stephen E. Dey, Benjamin J. Kallman, and Erik G. De Jong. It was originally filed on September 18, 2017.

Apple has previously suggested the addition of components within bracelet links, including batteries and other elements, including in a metal band. One filing from 2017 offered that a modular system could have each link using different sensors, and working as a node in a larger ecosystem.

There has also been the suggestion of adding more battery power to the Apple Watch by adding a backplane to the device. Fitting into the slots where the watch bands attach, the backplane would house a battery that could be used to house a battery and more sensors, with the use of wireless charging coils used to transmit energy to the Apple Watch itself.

Stretchy fabric bands

The second patent, for “Fabric-based items with stretchable bands,” explains how a watch band could be made from a stretchable fabric, that would be configured to fit optimally around part of the user. Given it’s an Apple Watch patent, this would generally be considered the wrist, but it does leave the possibility of attachment to other areas of the body.

Made from a “ring-shaped strip of stretchable fabric,” the band could include conductive strands and other circuitry, which can be connected to a variety of sensors and other components. Naturally this can include sensors for measuring the body, such as those for an ECG, blood pressure, respiration rates, temperature, and others.

Examples of strengthening and conductive thread layouts in a stretchable Apple Watch band containing sensors.

Examples of strengthening and conductive thread layouts in a stretchable Apple Watch band containing sensors.

By using a stretchy material, the band benefits from being easily worn by a wide variety of people, possibly in a one-size-fits-all arrangement. Furthermore, it is also able to hold the sensors close to the body, allowing for accurate measurements to take place.

It is suggested the fabric could be able to sustain “relatively high temperatures,” which the patent defines as “those associated with laundering of clothing.” It is suggested this could mean the use of super-capacitors for energy storage instead of batteries.

The use of strengthening strands and conductive strands with meandering paths could be used to allow for the stretching to take place without damaging circuitry.

Wireless charging also makes an appearance, through the forming of a coil from conductive strands in the band. Wireless communications circuitry may also be used, to allow for the band to communicate with the Apple Watch and other hardware.

The patent’s inventors are identified as Steven J. Keating, Daniel D. Sunshine, Benjamin J. Grena, Daniel A. Podhajny, Jerzy S. Guterman, Jessica J. Lu, and David M. Kindlon. It was filed on September 24, 2018, and surfaced as a patent application in October 2019.

The idea of a watch band that could expand and contract has been bought up previously, with the October 2019 patent for a “Consistently-tight watch band” suggesting the sue of compliant mechanisms to change the size of the band while in use. This to enable it to retain a specific level of pressure despite changes in the circumference of the user’s wrist through motion.

Using the band for sensors and other elements is a repeated suggestion in patents, with examples including creating a band that could provide information to the wearer in Braille, a band with a built-in charger, and adding buttons.

SoftBank takes a $690M stake in cloud-based Swedish CRM company Sinch

On the heels of Facebook taking a big step into customer service with the acquisition of Kustomer for $1 billion, another big move is afoot in the world of CRM. Sinch, a Swedish company that provides cloud-based “omnichannel” voice, video and messaging services to help enterprises communicate with customers, has announced that SoftBank is taking a $690 million stake in the company. Sinch said that it plans to use the proceeds of the share sale for M&A of its own.

“We see clearly how our cloud-based platform helps businesses leverage mobile technology to reinvent their customer experience,” said Oscar Werner, Sinch CEO, to TechCrunch. “Whereas people throughout the world have embraced mobile messaging to interact with friends and family, most businesses have yet to seize this opportunity. We are establishing Sinch as a leader in a global growth market that is still very fragmented, and we’re excited that SoftBank is now helping us realize that vision.”

Specifically, Sinch has issued and sold 3,187,736 shares worth SEK 3.3 billion, and large shareholders have sold a further 5,200,000 shares — with SoftBank the sole buyer.

The move underscores the growing opportunity that those in the world of CRM — which include not just Sinch and Kustomer but Salesforce and many others — are seeing to double down on their services at the moment. With people working and doing everything else remotely, and with the general upheaval we’ve had in the global economy due to Covid-19, there has been an increased demand and strain put on the digital channels that people use to communicate with organizations when they have questions or problems.

The catch is that customer relations has grown to be more than just 1-800 numbers and being on hold for endless hours: it includes social media, email, websites with interactive chats, chatbots, messaging apps, and yes those phone calls.

Organizations like Sinch and Kustomer — which build platforms to help businesses manage all of those fragmented options in what are described as omnichannel offerings, have been capitalising on the demand and are now investing and looking for the next step in their strategies to grow.

For Kustomer that has been leaping into the arms of Facebook, which itself has spotted an opportunity to build out a CRM business to complement its other services for businesses. Recall that it’s also been experimenting and working on its latest Nextdoor competitor to promote local businesses; and it has added a ton of business tools to its messaging apps too.

It will be interesting to see what Salesforce does next. While acquiring Slack gives the company an obvious channel into workplace communications, don’t forget that Slack is also a very popular tool for engaging with people outside of your employee network, too. It will be worth watching how and if Salesforce looks to develop that aspect of the business, too.

For Sinch, its strategy has been around making acquisitions of its own, including paying $250 million to pick up a business unit of SAP, Digital Interconect, which has 1,500 enterprise customers mostly in the US using it to run “omnichannel” CRM. Now the plan will be to do more, since there are still huge swathes of the market that have yet to upgrade and update their CRM approaches.

Sinch, notably, is traded publicly on Sweden’s stock exchange and it currently has a market cap of SEK70 billion ($8.2 billion at current rates). It is profitable and generating cash so has “no need to raise funding for our ongoing business,” Thomas Heath, Sinch’s chief strategy officer and head of investor relations, told TechCrunch.

For SoftBank, the investment marks another step in the company taking sizable stakes in fast-growing public or semi-public tech companies in Europe.

In October, it put $215 million into Kahoot, the online education platform aimed both at students and enterprises, built around the concept of users themselves creating “learning games” that can then be shared with others. Kahoot trades a proportion of its shares publicly on the stock exchange in Norway and like Sinch, the plan is to use a good part of the money for acquisitions.

Not all of SoftBank’s investments in scaled-up European businesses have panned out. Having put around $1 billion into German payments company Wirecard, the company turned out to be one of the biggest scandals in the history of European fintech, facing accounting scandals before collapsing into insolvency earlier this year.

Sinch, as a profitable and a steady business with predictable lines of recurring revenue, looks like a safer bet for now. Even with Salesforce, Facebook and others raising their game, there as Sinch’s CEO says, there is enough of an untapped market that playing well might be enough to do well.

Despite everything, Oyo still has $1 billion in cash

India’s Oyo has been one of the worst impacted startups with the coronavirus, but it has enough cash to steer through the pandemic and then look at funding further scale, a top executive says.

In a townhall with employees last week, Oyo founder Ritesh Agarwal said the budget lodging firm “continued to hold on to close to a billion dollars of cash” across its group companies and joint venture firms and has “tracked to runway very closely.”

“At the same time, we’ve been very disciplined in making sure that we can respond to the crisis in a good way to try and ensure that we can come out of it at the right time,” he said in a fireside chat with Rohit Kapoor, chief executive of Oyo India and SA, and Troy Alstead, a board member who previously served as the chief executive officer of Startbucks.

The revelation will reassure employees of Oyo, which eliminated or furloughed over 5,000 jobs earlier this year and reported in April that the pandemic had cut its revenue and demand by more than 50%.

Oyo also reported a loss of $335 million on $951 million revenue globally for the financial year ending March 31, 2019, and earlier this year pledged to cut down on its spending.

Agarwal said the startup is recovering from the pandemic as nations relax their lockdowns, and with recent progress with vaccine trials, he is hopeful that the travel and hospitality industries will bounce back strongly.

“Together globally, we were able to get to around 85% of the gross margin dollars of our pre COVID levels. This I can tell you was extremely hard. But in my view was probably only possible because of the efforts of our teams in each one of the geographies,” he said, adding that Oyo Vacation has proven critical to the business in recent months delivering “packed” hotels and holiday homes.

During the conversation, a transcript of which was shared with employees and obtained by TechCrunch, Agarwal was heard talking about making Oyo — which was privately valued at $10 billion last year when it was in the process of raising $1.5 billion last year — ready for IPO. He, however, did not share a timeline on when the SoftBank-backed startup plans to go public and hinted that it’s perhaps not in the immediate future.

“And last but not the least, for me, it is very critical. I want the groups to know that I, our board and our broader management are fully committed to making sure that long-term wealth creation for our OYOpreneurs — beyond that of just the compensation, but the wealth creation by means of your stocks can be substantially grown.”

“At the end of the day, what is the right time to go out is frankly a decision of the board to make and from the management side, we’ll be ready to make sure that we build a company that is ready to go public. And we will look at various things like that of the market situation, opportunities outside and so on, that the board will consider and then potentially help advise on the timeline,” he said.

Alstead echoed Agarwal’s optimism, adding, “I think that OYO is made up of a combination of assets, its hotels, its homes, its vacation homes. That’s unique, I think in the industry in the category, I think it makes it probably a little more challenging sometimes for people externally to measure and compare and benchmark a unique portfolio company like this. But I’d also tell you, I think that makes OYO resilient. It makes OYO balanced for the future. It gives OYO several sorts of vertical opportunities to address both customer needs at any time, whether it be a hotel or a small hotel or a vacation home.”

“And it also gives opportunities and expands that interaction in a good healthy way with the property owners, with the partners, who have an opportunity depending on what asset type they have partnered with OYO in different ways, and also to have the access to a technology platform and a continued investment in that innovative platform for customers. So all those things, I think a balanced portfolio, a technology platform, a heavy focus on putting the customer first, putting the business partner first — all those things, in my view, are what positioned OYO for the future.”

Advocacy groups urge Biden to keep big tech out of the White House

A collection of advocacy groups have called upon President-elect Joe Biden to prevent tech companies like Apple from influencing the administration, over accusations the tech giants are a threat to democracy in the United States.

Published on Monday, the joint letter from 33 groups urges Biden to “reject the influence” of “Big Tech” corporations by excluding “executives, lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants from your administration.” The group also looks towards working with the administration “to address the harms posed by Big Tech.”

Naming Apple alongside Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, the letter accuses the group of representing “serious threats to privacy, democracy, innovation, and Americans’ economic well-being.” The companies are all claimed to have “developed predatory business practices that harvest user data for profit,” before asserting that Facebook and Google “irresponsibly wield immense influence over democratic elections, without oversight or accountability.”

“Despite the myth that Silicon Valley is rife with entrepreneurs and small businesses capable of disrupting entire industries, these companies have killed, rather than fostered innovation,” the letter continues, before accusing Amazon of taking advantage of Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic by “tripling their profits on price-gouged essential goods.”

The group insists the Biden Administration must “confront the threats” posed by the companies, “however we can only bring these companies to account if you do not rely on affiliates of these very companies to make up your government.” Existing efforts to influence Washington are highlighted, including increased lobbying and campaign spending, with Facebook and Amazon each said to be spending “more on lobbying than any other company in the country.”

The “tide is turning” according to the group, citing a Pew Research Center poll showing almost half of Americans want tech companies to be more regulated, as well as the House Antitrust Subcommittee’s investigation into tech companies, and the US Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against Google.

“We believe that eliminating the decades-old revolving door between Silicon Valley and your administration will only help your cause,” the letter concludes.

The letter is signed by groups including Public Citizen, Demand Progress Education Fund, the American Economic Liberties Project, the Awood Center, Future of Music Coalition, the Progressive Democrats of America, and Take on Wall Street.

Judge backs Apple in BlueMail's App Store antitrust case

A key antitrust case against Apple and the App Store by BlueMail has been dismissed, potentially setting a precedent for the company’s separate dispute with Epic Games.

As Apple remains in a legal dispute with Epic Games over “Fortnite,” another lawsuit bringing specific claims about the App Store has been chiefly dismissed. Blix, the developer of BlueMail, alleged that Apple had first infringed on its patents with “Sign in With Apple,” then just as with “Fortnite,” removed its app from the App Store.

According to Bloomberg, Judge Leonard P. Stark of the US District Court for the District of Delaware dismissed the antitrust claims without prejudice. He reportedly concluded that Blix Inc had failed to provide evidence of Apple’s monopoly or anticompetitive conduct.

Arguing that Apple having the power to restrict competition is not evidence that it did so, Judge Stark also said that Blix’s own claims undermined its case. Reportedly, Blix had said in its filings that it had achieved success on multiple platforms, and was on sale for five years before being on the App Store.

Judge Stark said this demonstrated that the App Store is not essential to BlueMail’s success.

He also dismissed the claim of patent infringement. Citing a previous US Supreme Court ruling regarding the ability to patent an idea, Judge Stark said Blix’s claim did not qualify as a unique and inventive concept.

Not all of BlueMail’s claims were dismissed. However, Judge Stark declined to rule on them, instead directing Blix and Apple to confer. The two companies are now required to inform the court whether the remaining claims will be filed.

Previously, Blix co-founder Ben Volach said that he believed the slow court process was working in Apple’s favor. Blix was looking to recruit other developers to mount a class-action suit against Apple.

GoSite snags $40M to help SMBs bring their businesses online

There are 12 million small and medium businesses in the US, yet they have continued to be one of most underserved segments of the B2B universe: that volume underscores a lot of fragmentation, and alongside other issues like budget constraints, there are a number of barriers to building for them at scale. Today, however, a startup helping SMBs get online is announcing some significant funding — a sign of how things are changing at a moment when many businesses have realised that being online is no longer an option, but a necessity.

GoSite, a San Diego-based startup that helps small and medium enterprises build websites, and, with a minimum amount of technical know-how, run other functions of their businesses online — like payments, online marketing, appointment booking and accounting — has picked up $40 million in funding.

GoSite offers a one-stop shop for users to build and manage everything online, with the ability to feed in up to 80 different third-party services within that. “We want to help our customers be found everywhere,” said Alex Goode, the founder and CEO of GoSite. “We integrate with Facebook and other consumer platforms like Siri, Apple Maps, and search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing and more.” It also builds certain features like payments from the ground up.

The Series B comes on the back of a strong year for the company. Driven by Covid-19 circumstances, businesses have increasingly turned to the internet to interact with customers, and GoSite — which has “thousands” of SMB customers — said it doubled its customer base in 2020.

This latest round is being led by Left Lane Capital out of New York, with Longley Capital, Cove Fund, Stage 2, Ankona Capital and Serra Ventures also participating. GoSite is clearly striking while the iron is hot: Longley, also based out of San Diego, led the company’s previous round, which was only in August of this year. It has now raised $60 million to date.

GoSite is, in a sense, a play for more inclusivity in tech: its customers are not companies that it’s “winning” off other providers that provide website building and hosting and other services typically used by SMBs, such as Squarespace and Wix, or GoDaddy, or Shopify.

Rather, they are companies that may have never used any of these: local garages, local landscapers, local hair salons, local accountancy firms, local dentists and so on. Barring the accounting firm, these are not businesses that will ever go fully online, as a retailer might, not least because of the physical aspect of each of those professions. But they will need an online presence and the levers it gives them to communicate, in order to survive, especially in times when their old models are being put under strain.

Goode started GoSite after graduating from college in Michigan with a degree in computer science, having previously grown up around and working in small businesses — his parents, grandparents and others in his Michigan town all ran their own stores. (He moved to San Diego “for the weather” he joked.)

His belief is that while there are and always will be alternatives like Facebook or Yelp to plant a flag, there is nothing that can replace the value and longer term security and control of building something of your own — a sentiment small business owners would surely grasp.

That is perhaps the most interesting aspect of GoSite as it exists today: it precisely doesn’t see any of what already exists out there as “the competition.” Instead, Goode sees his purpose as building a dashboard that will help business owners manage all that — with up to 80 different services currently available — and more, from a single place, and with minimum need for technical skills and time spent learning the ropes.

“There is definitely huge demand from small businesses for help and something like GoSite can do that,” Goode said. “The space is very fragmented and noisy and they don’t even know where to start.”

This, combined with GoSite’s growth and relevance to the current market, is partly what attracted investors.

“The opportunity we are betting on here is the all-in-one solution,” said Vinny Pujji, partner at Left Lane. “If you are a carpet cleaner or house painter, you don’t have the capacity to understand or work with five or six different pieces of software. We spoke with thousands of SMBs when looking at this, and this was the answer we heard.” He said the other important thing is that GoSite has a customer service team and for SMBs that use it, they like that when they call, “GoSite picks up the phone.”

Apple donates millions of masks and face shields to Zambia

As part of its long-running (PRODUCT)RED efforts, Apple reports that it has been supplying personal protective equipment to the Ministry of Health in Zambia.

Since its first PRODUCT(RED) efforts in 2006, Apple claims to have raised almost $250 million to support the Global Fund AIDS charity. As the coronavirus pandemic continued, Apple and Global Fund have redirected the support to a COVID-19 Response Mechanism, to support Zambia in particular.

Apple reports that that PRODUCT(RED) proceeds, including those editions of the iPhone 12, and iPhone SE, will be sent to the Response Mechanism until June 30, 2021. Separately, the company has announced that it has donated millions of units of personal protective equipment (PPE) to Zambia’s Ministry of Health.

“This provision of PPE will go a long way in cutting the transmission of infections,| says Prosperina Mwanza, who runs the Mwembeshi Rural Health Centre. “The biggest challenge right now is that people stopped coming for [HIV] follow-ups because they felt they would interact with people that had COVID-19.”

Apple’s donation includes face masks that it says it sourced from its supply chain. The company also designed and produced face shields itself.

“The Global Fund has been a game changer,” says Yoram Siame, head of Advocacy, Planning, and Development with the Churches Health Association of Zambia. “We were able to repurpose some of the money for personal protective gear for health workers, we ramped up our [COVID-19] testing capacity, and we were able to respond at a community level to make people understand what COVID-19 meant for them and their families.”

Apple’s efforts to help the worldwide fight against COVID-19 comes alongside its work with Google on contact tracing technology. Apple has also been among the first to close its retail stores ahead of lockdowns around the globe.

Nordigen introduces free European open banking API

Latvian fintech startup Nordigen is switching to a freemium model thanks to a free open banking API. Open banking was supposed to democratize access to banking information, but the company believes banking aggregation APIs from Tink or Plaid are too expensive. Instead, Nordigen thinks it can provide a free API to access account information and paid services for analytics and insights services.

Open banking is a broad term and means different things, from account aggregation to verifying account ownership and payment initiation. The most basic layer of open banking is the ability to view data from third-party financial institutions. For instance, some banks let you connect to other bank accounts so that you can view all your bank accounts from a single interface.

There are two ways to connect to a bank. Some banks provide an application programming interface (API), which means that you can send requests to the bank’s servers and receive data in return.

While all financial institutions should have an open API due to the European PSD2 directive, many banks are still dragging their feet. That’s why open banking API companies usually rely on screen scraping. They mimic web browser interactions, which means that it’s slow, it requires a ton of server resources and it can break.

“If you’re wondering how we’d be able to afford it, our free banking data API was designed purely with PSD2 in mind, meaning it’s lightweight in strong contrast to that of incumbents. So it wouldn’t significantly increase our costs to scale free users,” Nordigen co-founder and CEO Rolands Mesters told me.

So you don’t get total coverage with Nordigen’s API. The startup currently supports 300 European banks, which covers 60 to 90% of the population in each country. But it’s hard to complain when it’s a free product anyway.

Some Nordigen customers will probably want more information. Nordigen provides financial data analytics. It can be particularly useful if you’re a lending company trying to calculate a credit score, if you’re a financial company with minimum income requirements and more.

For those additional services, you’ll have to pay. Nordigen currently has 50 clients and expects to attract more customers with its new freemium strategy.