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Microsoft executive says workers slept in data centers during lockdown


System administrator Alexander Landmann carries a server in the computer centre of Deutsche Bahn in Berlin on Oct. 22, 2020.

Britta Pedersen | picture alliance | Getty Images

Microsoft employees slept in the software company’s data centers during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, an executive said on Wednesday.

While many top technology companies directed their employees to work from home after Covid showed up in the U.S. in 2020, some employees were so important that they had to work on site. That was the case for a select few who worked at the locations containing the servers for online services like Microsoft Teams, as well as public-cloud infrastructure powering third-party customers’ applications.

“I heard amazing stories about people actually sleeping in data centers,” Kristen Roby Dimlow, corporate vice president for total rewards, performance and human resources business insights, said during a conversation with Morgan Stanley analysts Josh Baer and Mark Carlucci. “In certain countries there was huge lockdown, and so we would have our own employees choose to sleep in the data center because they were worried they’d get stuck at a roadblock, trying to go home.”

Generally data centers are not places where people sleep. Aisles can be hot from air coming off of servers, and cold because of air conditioning to prevent machines from overheating. A Microsoft spokesperson would not say where employees slept in data centers or how many did it.

The company changed several aspects of work at its data centers because of the pandemic, Noelle Walsh, corporate vice president for the company’s Cloud Operations and Innovation group, said in an interview with CNBC in April.

Employees were allowed to work from home if they felt anxious about coming to data centers, Walsh said. If people didn’t want to take the bus, the company provided transportation to and from data centers and even allowed people to stay in hotels, she said.

“We had to in some cases go to shift work, day and night, to get the work done within the same schedule,” Walsh said.

WATCH: Why data centers were the top real estate sector of 2020



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Twitter verification process open for first time since 2017


Twitter CEO and Co Founder, Jack Dorsey addresses students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), on November 12, 2018 in New Delhi, India.

Amal KS | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

Twitter on Thursday reopened its verification application process to the public for the first time since putting it on pause in November 2017.

The company is rolling out a new process to apply for verification, which adds a checkmark to an account’s Twitter profile that signals the authenticity of an account to other users.

To apply for verification, an account must have a profile that includes a picture and a confirmed email address or phone number. The user must have been active on the service within the last six months with a record of adhering to the company’s rules.

Additionally, accounts must fall into one of six categories Twitter will consider for verification. Those categories are:

  • Government
  • Companies, brands and organizations
  • News organizations and journalists
  • Entertainment
  • Sports and gaming
  • Activists, organizers and other influential individuals

The company said it will add more categories, like scientists, academics and religious leaders, later this year.

The verification application will roll out gradually to users over the next few weeks. It will exist within the account settings tab of the service.

Users who are approved will see the verification icon automatically. Those who are rejected can reapply 30 days after receiving Twitter’s decision.

The new application process comes after the company paused verifications in November 2017 after receiving criticism for its decision to verify Jason Kessler. He was one of the organizers behind the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of one woman.



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Google and Apple scare us, app makers tell Congress


Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, speaks at the 2019 Dreamforce conference in San Francisco on November 19, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Some app makers who rely on mobile distribution from Apple and Google are scared of how much power the tech giants have over their businesses, according to congressional testimony delivered Wednesday.

“We’re all afraid,” Match Group Chief Legal Officer Jared Sine told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the chair of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, at a hearing.

The hearing brought together representatives from Apple and Google and several of their most outspoken critics, including Match Group, which owns dating site Tinder; Tile, which makes devices that help users find lost objects and faces new competition from Apple’s AirTag technology, and streaming music service Spotify.

The hearing comes as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working on updates to the antitrust laws that could better account for the power a few tech giants hold over many digital markets. That includes the ability of platforms such as Apple and Google to manage the main distribution platform for apps while increasingly hawking their own competing products.

Throughout the hearing, the app makers expressed fear over how easily either company could undercut their businesses by making small changes to their app store rules. They also complained of high fees for in-app purchases and unclear enforcement of standards.

Allegations of threats

Multiple executives accused Apple and Google of threatening their businesses.

Sine said Google called Match Group on Tuesday night after his testimony became public to ask why his testimony differed from the company’s comments in their latest earnings call.

On the earnings call, Match executives had said they believed they were having productive conversations about Google’s 30% in-app payment fee through its Google Play store. But in testimony, Match complained that Google had made “false pretenses of an open platform” and complained about its “monopoly power.”

Wilson White, Google’s senior director of public policy and government relations, said it sounded like employees working in Google’s business development team reached out to ask an “honest question.” White said he didn’t view it as a threat “and we would never threaten our partners” because Google needs app developers to use its app store in order for it to be successful.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the call was “potentially actionable.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the January 6th insurrection, in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 2, 2021.

Graeme Jennings | Pool via Reuters

Klobuchar said she planned to look into the matter further.

Spotify Chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said he could think of “at least four clear examples of threats and retaliation” from Apple after Spotify decided to speak out about alleged anticompetitive behavior and Apple’s fees for developers on digital products purchased through its platform. That included threats of removing Spotify’s app, refusing to promote it, or waiting for months for minor app updates to be approved, he said.

“They’ve basically thrown the book at us in order to make it hard for us to continue to sustain our decision to speak up,” he said.

Fees and rival products

Many app makers have complained about the fees gatekeepers charge for in-app purchases for digital services.

Gutierrez complained of what he called Apple’s “gag order” over how Spotify can communicate with its own users about how to upgrade to its paid version.

For instance, Spotify allows customers to upgrade only outside of its iOS app in order to avoid Apple’s 15% to 30% commission fee on digital services purchased through its platform. But because Spotify doesn’t sell the paid service through its iOS app, Apple also doesn’t let the app maker talk about upgrades with customers through the app — instead, users have to upgrade through a web browser on a PC or another method.

At the same time, Apple operates a competing service, Apple Music, which has no such restrictions. Gutierrez said this gives Apple’s version an unfair advantage.

Representatives from Apple and Google both told lawmakers that their fees for developers are meant to cover the costs that go into distributing apps through their platforms and securing them appropriately. Apple Chief Compliance Officer Kyle Andeer compared the services offered on the App Store today to the cumbersome and expensive process app makers had to pursue to distribute their apps before the App Store existed.

White cast the group as a set of “small but vocal” representatives of “primarily large companies.” He said he worried that in trying to satisfy their complaints, “we damage the very foundation that has allowed the Android open source ecosystem to work so well for a much larger set of small and medium-sized businesses.”

In addition to complaints about fees, developers worried that Apple’s own rival products incentivized it to make unfavorable decisions toward them.

For example, Tile General Counsel Kirsten Daru said the company had asked Apple for permission to use ultra-wideband technology on iPhones to make its item-tracking technology more precise than it can be using only Bluetooth. She said Apple had refused the request, then reserved the technology for its own competitive AirTags, which it announced Tuesday.

While Apple is rolling out a way for third-party developers to build on the more precise location data, Daru said that in order to access that, “we have to give Apple unprecedented control over our business and direct customers to the Find My app to find their lost items.”

Apple’s Andeer argued AirTags is a separate product from Tile, which currently has the majority of the market share for the space, and that opening tools to more third-party developers will encourage competition.

Unclear standards

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the FBI investigation into links between Donald Trump associates and Russian officials during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2020.

Susan Walsh | Reuters

Lee asked Andeer to differentiate between why a paid service through Tinder might incur a commission while one for Uber would not. Andeer explained an Uber customer is paying for a non-digital service — a car to show up to their house — while they don’t expect the same return from Tinder, saying that would be a different service, in what appeared to be an insinuation of sex work.

The app makers emphasized their reliance on the app stores because of their unprecedented access to consumers. But, they argued, it’s not the symbiotic relationship that Apple and Google like to paint.

“We are not successful because of what Apple has done, we have been successful despite Apple’s interference,” Gutierrez said. “And we would have been much more successful but for their anticompetitive behavior.”

WATCH: Here’s why some experts are calling for a breakup of Big Tech after the House antitrust report



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TV company focusing on ads over devices


An employee arranges a display of Vizio Inc. high-definition televisions at a Best Buy Inc. store in Paramus, New Jersey.

Mark Kauziarich | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Vizio emerged as a top-selling TV company in the U.S. about 15 years ago by securing deals with big box stores like Costco and Best Buy and selling high-definition TVs at cut-rate prices.

The company now sells over 7 million TVs a year and generates close to $2 billion in revenue from those devices.

But that’s not the story Vizio is selling to investors as it prepares to go public on the New York Stock Exchange next week.

“One of the primary addressable markets that we’re focused on for our future growth is, of course, television adverting,” said Vizio CFO Adam Townsend in the company’s online roadshow promoting its IPO. “The shift in viewers from linear to ad-supported streaming is significant and we know the ad dollars will follow viewers more and more.”

While Vizio competes with Samsung, Sony, LG and TCL in getting its big screens into American households, the competition that matters most is now from streaming providers Roku, Amazon and Google. Almost all of the growth in the TV industry is in subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus, and from advertisers who want to reach the millions of people switching to over-the-top viewing from traditional cable.

Vizio needs people to buy its TVs, even at a small profit margin, so it can make real money through its homegrown operating system, SmartCast. Like Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Google TV, SmartCast provides access to most major streaming services (though not HBO Max) along with a host of free and paid channels.

Vizio generates revenue from advertising on its home screen and within some free content, and it gets a cut of subscription sales to Netflix and other services when people sign up on their SmartCast TVs. SmartCast accounts jumped 61% last year to 12.2 million.

Paul Erickson, an analyst at research firm Parks Associates, said Vizio’s biggest advantage in trying to lure advertisers is that it’s a popular brand with a big footprint in retail and a major in presence in American homes. In a market that Samsung dominates by units sold, Vizio is consistently a top three vendor.

“If you’re trying to reach a TV manufacturer that reaches a lot of the market in the U.S., certainly they are very present,” he said.

The growth is in streaming

Vizio was founded in Los Angeles 19 years ago by William Wang, a Taiwanese immigrant who famously survived the crash of Singapore Airlines Flight 006 in 2000. By 2007, Wang had turned Vizio into the top-selling flat-panel TV maker. In a video for potential IPO investors, Wang said he was selling Vizio’s first plasma TVs at Costco for under $2,000 when rival products were running at over $10,000.

In 2016, Vizio introduced SmartCast to run its popular TVs with its own software.

“Many brands are out there fighting for the limited space at retail,” Wang said in the video. “To stay competitive, we knew we needed to find a way to gain recurring revenue from the deployed TVs, which would enable us to keep the costs of TVs low for our retailers and consumers.”

Vizio took its first shot of going public in 2015, when it was actually bigger by revenue than it is today due to higher TV prices. The company pulled its IPO in 2016 after China’s LeEco offered to buy it for $2 billion. The deal fell apart the following year because of regulatory complexities, and in 2018 Vizio sold stakes to Taiwanese manufacturing partners Foxconn and Innolux.

A quick glance at Vizio’s financials makes it readily apparent why the company’s future hinges on streaming.

Device revenue in 2020 rose 7% to $1.9 billion, but remains below the total from 2010. That’s because the price of TVs has been dropping every year, offsetting increased shipments. Meanwhile, Vizio’s streaming business, or what it calls “Platform+,” saw growth of 133% last year to $147.2 million.

While the platform business accounted for just 7.2% of total sales, it generated 38% of Vizio’s gross profit, enabling the company to quadruple its net income for the year.

Chief Revenue Officer Michael O’Donnell said in the investor presentation that the company launched its ads direct sales team a little over a year ago. Brands including Campbell Soup, Guinness, Fitbit, AT&T and Progressive are spending money to reach SmartCast users in a targeted way, similar to how they find relevant audiences online.

Vizio is also making its debut at top ad industry events. In May, the company is participating in the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s NewFronts, where online publishers and platforms show off their programming, audience data and tools to media buyers. Amazon, Snap, Twitter and Google’s YouTube will also be there.

An ad for FireTV on TeaTV.

Megan Graham

Investors will need a lot of convincing if they’re to ever value Vizio as something other than a consumer hardware vendor. In its updated prospectus on Tuesday, Vizio said it expects to sell shares in its IPO at $21 to $23 piece, which would value the company at $4.2 billion at the top of the range.

At about 2.1 times 2021 revenue, that would make Vizio trade closer to old stodgy hardware companies like Samsung and Sony than it would to Roku, which currently commands a price-to-sales multiple of 26. The particular challenge for Vizio is that it needs consumers to first choose to buy its TVs and then opt to use its operating system rather than plugging in a Roku, Google or Amazon device.

“To the extent consumers who purchase a Vizio Smart TV do not engage with our SmartCast operating system and instead use their Smart TV with one of our competitors’ solutions or for other purposes, our ability to generate Platform+ net revenue may be harmed,” the company acknowledges in its prospectus.

VIZIO CEO William Wang at LeEco and VIZIO Press Conference in Hollywood where it was announced that LeEco had acquired VIZIO for $2 billion, Tuesday, July 26, 2016 in Los Angeles.

Jeff Lewis | AP

Voice is the future

Vizio’s streaming business remains in its early stages. One area where it’s investing is voice control to make it easier for consumers to navigate, buy things, and work with other smart home products. Between 2018 and 2019, Vizio’s SmartCast integrated with Amazon Alexa, as well as offerings from Google and Apple, “thus enabling our Smart TVs to work with all three major voice assistants.”

Vijay Balasubramaniyan is keeping close tabs on the development of voice controls in smart TVs. He’s the CEO of Pindrop, which develops security software for voice communications and partnered with TiVo earlier this year to power its voice controls after TiVo abandoned Alexa.

While he hasn’t had discussions with Vizio, Balasubramaniyan said the whole industry is experimenting with how to make voice not just a feature for turning on the TV and moving between apps and shows but a useful way for improving monetization.

“Between being able to provide better advertising to being able to do voice commerce on TV, those are two increasingly important areas that each of these Smart TV manufacturers are looking aggressively in,” Balasubramaniyan said.

WATCH: Netflix remains important selling point for smart TVs



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AMD (AMD) earnings Q4 2020


Lisa Su, president and chief executive officer of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), holds a 3rd generation Ryzen desktop processor while speaking during a keynote session at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Jan. 9, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

AMD stock was flat in extended trading after the company announced revenue and earnings that beat Wall Street’s already high expectations for the chipmaker.

Here’s how AMD did versus Wall Street expectations:

  • EPS: $0.52, adjusted, versus $0.47 according to Refinitiv consensus estimates
  • Revenue: $3.24 billion, versus $3.03 billion according to Refinitiv consensus estimates

AMD also provided a strong forecast for the current quarter of between $3.1 billion and $3.3 billion and said that it expects 2021 revenue would grow 37%. AMD’s revenue in 2020 was up 45% year-over-year.

The biggest highlight for AMD this quarter was its enterprise segment which was up 176% year-over-year and up 13% from last quarter to $1.28 billion. That division sells server chips as well as CPUs and graphics processors for game consoles like the Sony PS5 and Microsoft Xbox One.

AMD attributed the growth to its semi-custom sales, which is what it calls its console chip business, and said there was strong demand for the current generation of Sony and Microsoft consoles. It also said that its server revenue grew on a sequential basis.

AMD’s business selling processors and graphics chips for PCs, which it calls Computing & Graphics, also reported strong results, rising 18% year-over-year to $1.96 billion. That was driven by an increase in processor sales, AMD said.

AMD launched new processors and graphics chips last fall that have been consistently sold out. It said that its desktop CPU revenue grew on an annual basis, suggesting that its Ryzen CPUs are competing fiercely with Intel for market share.

At the start of trading on Tuesday, shares of AMD were up 85% over the past year. That’s partially because of investor enthusiasm for semiconductors, but it’s also because in the past year AMD has gained a technological edge on its primary competitor, Intel. Intel was flat in extended trading.

AMD outsources its manufacturing to partners including Taiwan’s TSMC, whereas Intel is still committed to manufacturing its best chips. That’s allowed AMD to access more advanced chip manufacturing on a so-called 5-nanometer process, which makes denser and more efficient chips.

In October, AMD announced that it planned to buy Xilinix in a deal worth $35 billion that should close by the end of this year. Xilinix focuses on specialized chips that can efficiently handle tasks like compressing videos, as compared to AMD’s general purpose processors. The acquisition is expected to give AMD more firepower to compete with Intel in the data center chip market. AMD said on Tuesday the transaction was still on track to close by the end of the year.



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Apple App Store customers spent record $540 million on New Year’s Day


A customer exits after picking up Apple’s new 5G iPhone 12 that went on sale, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, at an Apple Store in Brooklyn, New York, October 23, 2020.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Apple‘s App Store customers spent a record $540 million on New Year’s Day alone, marking a 40% increase from last year, the company said Wednesday in its annual services report.

On top of that, Apple announced it generated $1.8 billion in App Store sales of digital good in the week between Christmas eve and now has 90 million monthly active users for its Apple Books app.

But the report didn’t provide updates on subscribers for its suite of newer subscription products like Apple TV+ (video streaming), Apple Music and Apple Fitness+ (a Peloton competitor). In the fall, Apple began bundling many of its subscription services together as part of its Apple One program. The Services category is a key growth area Apple has focused on in recent years as hardware sales growth has fallen.

Apple’s App Store update also comes as tensions continue to rise over Apple’s control over its App Store policies. Several app developers, most notably Facebook and Fortnite maker Epic Games, have publicly criticized Apple for taking a 30% cut of App Store sales from developers and for enforcing a new policy designed to disclose which apps track your data for targeted advertising. Apple recently altered its policies to take a 15% cut from companies that generate less than $1 million in App Store sales, which the company said was a move to help small businesses.

Overall, Apple’s Services generated revenue of $53.8 billion in the company’s last fiscal year, which ended in September 2021. Apple is expected to report its fiscal first quarter earnings in a few weeks.

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Intel falls on report Microsoft will design own chips for PCs, servers


Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp., speaks during the company’s annual shareholders meeting in Bellevue, Washington, on Nov. 29, 2017.

David Ryder | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Intel dropped 6.3% on Friday following a Bloomberg report that Microsoft plans to design its own chips for its Surface PCs as well as servers.

Intel has famously had a long-running partnership with Microsoft as the primary processor maker for Windows PCs.

“Because silicon is a foundational building block for technology, we’re continuing to invest in our own capabilities in areas like design, manufacturing and tools, while also fostering and strengthening partnerships with a wide range of chip providers,” Microsoft spokesperson Frank Shaw said in a statement.

The report comes a month after Apple started selling PCs using its own M1 processor, instead of Intel chips. The Microsoft chips are reportedly based on technology from Arm, which Nvidia is in the process of acquiring from Softbank.

Apple’s chips for its iPhones and Amazon‘s server chips are also based on Arm’s instruction set, which is distinct from the x86 technology Intel primarily uses.

Earlier this month, a senior Microsoft executive did not reject the idea that Microsoft would build its own “first party” chips at a conference.

“The partnerships that we have though in this realm, from the OpenAI efforts that we have to our relationship with Intel and Arm developments that we have certainly point to the need to have advanced capabilities here, whether we build it first party or have an ecosystem of third-party partners, it’s sort of yet to be disclosed,” Judson Althoff, executive vice president of worldwide commercial business at Microsoft, said during an appearance at the UBS Global, Technology, Media and Telecommunications conference on December 8.

Windows currently runs on Arm-based PCs, usually with chips made by Qualcomm. Microsoft introduced the Surface RT tablet in 2012 that contained an Arm chip from Nvidia, although the device was discontinued in 2013. Last year it introduced the Surface Pro X containing a Qualcomm Arm chip, and it came out with an updated version of the device this year.

Microsoft said in 2017 that it was working with Arm server makers to optimize silicon for use in its own data centers.

Intel reported $9.85 billion in revenue from its group that sells PC chips in the quarter ending in September. Server chips are also a major business for Intel. In the quarter ending in September, Intel reported $5.91 billion in revenue for its Data Center Group that sells server chips.

Intel has had challenges with manufacturing its chips in recent years. Intel controls its own chip factories, called “fabs,” as compared to other chip designers, which contract with companies in Asia to manufacture chips to client specifications.

The more transistors that a chipmaker can fit into the same space, the more efficient a chip is. Currently, Intel ships chips with 10-nanometer transistors, but dedicated foundries, like TSMC, are now making 5-nanometer chips, which are technically superior.

Earlier this year, Intel CEO Bob Swan said that it was considering outsourcing its manufacturing, like what Apple does.

Representatives for Intel and Microsoft didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

—Jordan Novet contributed to this story.



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Watch SpaceX launch Starship prototype rocket SN8’s high-altitude test


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SpaceX is preparing to launch the latest prototype of its next-generation Starship rocket on Wednesday, in a high-altitude flight that represents the company’s most ambitious test to date.

Starship prototype Serial Number 8, or SN8, will aim to fly as high as 12.5 kilometers, or about 41,000 feet. That’s significantly higher than the pair of 500-foot flight tests that SpaceX completed with prototypes SN5 and SN6 earlier this year.

The attempt comes a day after SpaceX nearly launched the rocket but was stopped short by a last second engine issue. The company has since reset for another attempt.

Notably, the goal of the SN8 flight is not necessarily to reach the maximum altitude, but rather to test several key parts of the Starship system.

“This suborbital flight is designed to test a number of objectives, from how the vehicle’s three Raptor engines perform to the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities of the vehicle (including its body flaps) to how the vehicle manages propellant transition. SN8 will also attempt to perform a landing flip maneuver, which would be a first for a vehicle of this size,” SpaceX said in a statement on its website.

Given the multiple development milestones the company is undertaking with the SN8 flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave the rocket low odds of complete success on the first try.

“Lot of things need to go right, so maybe 1/3 chance,” Musk said.

Starship SN8 is built of stainless steel, with the prototypes representing the early versions of the rocket that Musk unveiled last year. The company is developing Starship with the goal of launching cargo and as many as a 100 people at a time on missions to the Moon and Mars.

While SpaceX’s fleet of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are partially reusable, Musk’s goal is to make Starship fully reusable — envisioning a rocket that is more akin to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights where the only major cost is fuel.

The company is building and testing the Starship prototypes at its growing facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The facility on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, about 20 miles east of the Texas city of Brownsville on the Mexico border.

Starship prototype rocket SN8 stands on the launchpad at SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas on Nov. 10, 2020.

SpaceX

SpaceX also noted that it has completed over 16,000 seconds – or nearly four and half cumulative hours – of tests running its Raptor series of engines, which are built to power Starship.

Three of SpaceX’s Raptor engines at the base of its Starship rocket.

SpaceX

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Pixel 5, OnePlus 8T, Galaxy FE


Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G

Google

Apple‘s new iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are excellent phones, but some people prefer Android devices.

There are three really good Android phones that recently launched that you should know about, in case you’re looking to upgrade but don’t want the iPhone 12. They all include 5G, like the new iPhones, so you’re future-proofing yourself if you plan to hold on to your phone for the next couple of years. They also have solid cameras. And they’re all cheaper than the standard iPhone 12, which starts at $799.

Samsung Galaxy FE 5G

Samsung’s Galaxy FE was released earlier this month. It offers lots of features found in Samsung’s more expensive flagship phones, but starts at $699 instead of $999 like the Galaxy S20 phones. It’s made out of aluminum and plastic — that’s one place Samsung cut costs — but still has a high-end Qualcomm 865 processor, a sharp and colorful screen and is water resistant. And, like the iPhone 12, it’s available in a bunch of colors, such as red, blue, purple and green.

It’s also got a couple of features the iPhone 12 doesn’t have. It’s equipped with a high-refresh display, for example, which is smoother than the one on the iPhone 12 for things like scrolling through websites or Twitter. It also has a fingerprint reader under the screen, which is useful for unlocking your phone while wearing a mask (which makes facial recognition unlocking, like Apple’s FaceID, harder). I like that it has a microSD card so I can expand storage to download more movies and games.

Google Pixel 5

The Google Pixel 5 costs $699 and is a good pick if you want a phone that’s not too big and is easy to use with one hand. I really like the colorful screen, great camera and long battery life. It also feels really fast, despite a mid-range Qualcomm processor.

That’s because Google put a lot of work into optimizing the software. It has a fingerprint reader on the back — again, useful if you’re wearing a mask — and can do some of the things an iPhone 12 can, like night-mode portrait shots. I also really like the soft-touch aluminum body, which doesn’t get smudged up with fingerprints, and the unique green color Google sells.

Finally, the Pixel 5 comes with a few Google-exclusive features I love that aren’t on other Android phones. The voice recorder app automatically transcribes interviews to text, for example. It can detect if you were in a car crash and automatically dial 911. It has excellent spam call screening features, too.

OnePlus 8T

OnePlus made its name as a company selling affordable phones with flagship-level specs. Its prices had started creeping up in recent years, but the OnePlus 8T reverts to the original model, offering high-end specs in a phone that starts at only $749.

OnePlus phones are also known to be super speedy, and the OnePlus 8T keeps that promise.

It has a colorful and premium metal and glass design, like the iPhone 12. Plus it has one unique feature I really dig: It can fully charge in 39 minutes, faster than any other phone I’ve tested — the iPhone 12 charges to 50% in about a half hour. But, you don’t get wireless charging or any certified water resistance rating, two things I like to have.

Like the Galaxy FE, it has a fingerprint reader that works well and is hidden in the screen. The cameras are good enough, but I prefer the pictures from the Pixel 5 and Galaxy FE. But, you still get wide-angle, ultrawide-angle and a macro lens for lots of different types of photos, from pictures of landscapes to really close-up shots.



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iPhone price wars are back as carriers compete for 5G customers


The Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max is unveiled during a virtual product launch.

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The price Americans will pay for an iPhone 12 depends on what cell service they plan to use it with. The three U.S. carriers are actively competing for subscribers by discounting the new iPhone, which goes on sale next week, hoping to lock customers in for years on their wireless service.

It starts with a $30 discount. For people with AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon service, an iPhone 12 costs $799 before taxes and other fees. If you want one unlocked, without activating it on a carrier, it’s $829.

Customers can get even bigger discounts for the new devices if they are willing to commit to monthly payments for the next few years, if they get unlimited data plans, and if trade their old phone in. For example, AT&T customers can get as much as $800 off an iPhone 12, nearly covering the entire cost of the device.

“That is the largest promotion we have ever seen on an iPhone launch day, topping the $650 offers by all carriers back in 2016 and topping the $700 that Verizon offered to new subscribers last year,” LightShed analysts Walter Piecyk and Joe Galone wrote this week, saying it heralded the return of the “fat subsidy.”

Verizon and T-Mobile are also offering competing promotions.

For Apple, the wave of carrier promotions could boost iPhone sales in the United States by reducing the cost of a new phone. They could also help shorten Apple’s smartphone upgrade cycle by prompting users to upgrade to a new phone sooner. Apple says the typical life-cycle of an iPhone today is three years, and the company times its new releases accordingly, putting out a fairly major redesign every three years, interspersed with more minor updates.

For carriers, iPhone promotions represents an opportunity to shore up existing subscribers and potentially gain new ones, hoping to cover the cost of the devices over multi-year payment schedules.

The new iPhones also support 5G networks, which are still under construction in the United States. Locking customers into 30-month commitments means that some users won’t be able to switch if one carrier’s network suddenly looks better than the other two.

“We believe that Verizon likely sees this as a way to move customers to higher rate plans as well as a way to make sure deployed mmWave spectrum gets utilized,” Goldman Sachs analyst Rod Hall wrote this week. “We have long expected US carriers to help to drive Apple 5G sales though we believe the economic attraction outside the US is less clear given the lack of mmWave deployment.”

Slight differences

All of the carrier promotions in the U.S. have two things in common: Customers have to trade in an old device with some value — a phone from the last few years that isn’t busted — and they have to commit to monthly payments.

But they differ in how they are targeting new customers and how the mechanics of the deals work. The best deal for any given user depends on their current carrier.

Here’s how they break down:

  • AT&T’s promotion applies both to new and existing customers. To get a free iPhone 12, AT&T requires a trade-in, and the customer must activate it on an unlimited plan that costs at least $65 per month for an individual. AT&T’s installment plan lasts 30 months. Piecyk estimates that AT&T is subsidizing new and existing customers to the tune of about $800.
  • T-Mobile is offering as much as $850 in credit on iPhone 12 models spread out over 30 payments. Users have to sign up for T-Mobile service and trade in an old device, and the amount of the discount is tied directly to the value of the trade-in. It’s also offering deals for customers who buy multiple iPhones at the same time. The best deals are reserved for new subscribers, though, with lesser discounts for existing Sprint or T-Mobile subscribers.
  • Verizon is offering a free iPhone 12 for new customers, but they have to trade in an old phone, sign onto an unlimited data plan that costs at least $80 per month for an individual, and stick with it for 24 months. Existing customers can get an iPhone 12 for $15 per month with a trade-in. Piecyk estimates that Verizon is effectively offering a $800 subsidy for new customers.

Back to the good old days

The wave of competing discounts from the three U.S. carriers is effectively a return to carrier subsidies, which was a major factor in the U.S. smartphone market in its early years.

Ten years ago, the price for a new iPhone was often listed at $199, because that’s how much the device cost when users bought it from a carrier with a two-year contract, usually with a hefty early cancellation fee. Those contracts also kept a swath of consumers on a two-year smartphone upgrade cycle.

Carriers started phasing out smartphone contracts in 2013, revealing to many consumers that the up-front price for a premium smartphone is $700 or more, and allowing them to cancel without incurring a big cost.

In the years since, carriers have effectively recreated the same customer lock-in using device payment plans — customers don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars up front for a new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, but they must commit to paying between $30 and $50 per month for at least two years with a lump sum payment if they cancel early.

Carriers found ways to entice new customers with promotions tied to their device upgrade plans, often by overvaluing a trade-in device. But in the past two years, aggressive promotions became less common and competing carriers often did not match them.

Now, with 5G hyped as a major growth cycle for the telecommunications industry, the three carriers are working to steal customers from the their rivals or lock them in for the next two years using the 5G iPhone.

In the meantime, Apple has boosted its own device upgrade installment plans in several different ways, although it does not offer subsidies like the carriers. People with the Goldman Sachs Apple Card can buy an iPhone and pay over 24 months without paying interest.

Apple also has an upgrade program that combines an iPhone paid in monthly installments with an extended warranty, doesn’t tie users to a single carrier and allows them to upgrade to the newest iPhone after a year.

“One of the things we are doing is trying to make it simpler and simpler for people to get on these sort of monthly financing kind of things,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said last December.



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