Zin Boats reinvents the electric speedboat in a bid to become the Tesla of the sea

The automotive industry is knee deep in the vast transition to electric, but one place where gas is still going strong is out on the water. Seattle startup Zin Boats wants to start what you might call a sea change by showing, as Tesla did with cars, that an electric boat can be not just better for the planet, but better in almost every other way as well.

With a minimalist design like a silver bullet, built almost entirely from carbon fiber, the 20-foot Z2R is less than half the weight of comparable craft, letting it take off like a shot and handle easily, while also traveling a hundred miles on a charge — and you can fill the “tank” for about five bucks in an hour or so.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop? Well, it ain’t cheap. But then, few boats are.

Piotr Zin, the company’s namesake, has been designing racing sailboats for 20 years, while working in industrial design at BMW, GM, and other major companies. Soon after settling down on a houseboat on Seattle’s Lake Union, he realized that the waterways he had enjoyed his whole life might not exist for the next generation.

(Disclosure: Zin actually moved in next door to my mother, and I happened to find out he was working on this while visiting her.)

“The reason I started working on electric boats specifically is because I had a kid, and I had a come to Jesus moment,” he told me. “I realized: If we’re not going to do something personally about the quality of the water we live in, it’s not going to be here when my kid is my age.”

Illustrious precursors

Traditional gas-powered boats are very much a product of the distant past, like running a ’70s-era car half underwater. Surprisingly, electric boats are equally old. Like electric cars, they enjoyed a brief vogue in the early 20th century. And likewise they were never considered viable for “real” boating until quite recently.

Image Credits: Zin Boats

Like most things, it comes down to physics: “The power required to move a boat, versus the power to move a car, is absolutely enormous,” Zin explained. “It’s like driving a car in first gear at full throttle all the time.”

That level of draw limited electric boats to being the aquatic equivalent of golf carts — in fact, carts and some of the more popular old-school electric boats share many components. If you’ve ridden in one, it was probably a Duffy, which has made models for puttering around lakes at 3-4 knots since the ’60s. Perfectly pleasant, but not exactly thrilling.

“We tested this boat to 55, but decided not to sell that to people. It’s just insane.”
What changed everything was the increasing density and falling cost of lithium-ion batteries. The Z2R uses BMW batteries mated to a custom Torqueedo engine, and at cruising speeds (say 15 knots) can go a hundred miles or more. It recharges using anything from an ordinary wall plug to the high-amperage charging cables found at most marinas (in which case it will put another 50 miles in the tank while you eat a sandwich). Considering traditional boats’ fuel efficiency and the rising price of marine gas, going electric might save a boat owner thousands every year.

But it’s also more than capable of going extremely fast.

“The top speed is way over 30 knots,” Zin noted. “We tested this boat to 55, but decided not to sell that to people. It’s just insane.”

Having ridden in it myself, I can confirm that the Z2R really jumps off the line in a level-bottomed way that, compounded by its near silence, seems impossible. Just as Tesla’s consumer sedans compete with Lamborghinis in 0-60 times, the instantaneous response from is almost frightening.

“The boat was designed around the battery. The unique part of using an electric system is we can put the motor anywhere we want,” Zin said. By sitting it flat on the bottom, the center of gravity is lowered and weight distribution evened out compared to most speedboats. “You look at a lot of traditional boats’ builds, they kind of cram everything in the back. Then when you put the hammer down, you can’t see anything for five seconds. In this boat, there’s no bow rise — it sits flat.”

Front view of the electric Z2R boat.

Image Credits: Zin Boats

Being so level means there’s almost no risk of overturning it, or many of the other failure modes resulting from lopsided designs that misbehave at speed. Simplicity of operation and surprising performance seem to be a family characteristic of electric vehicles.

Design by wire

“Most builders aren’t about innovation, they’re about ‘this is how we do it.’ “
Zin is proud to have designed the boat himself from scratch, using both high performance fluid dynamics software and scale models to work out the shape of the hull.

“Boat building is a very traditional business. Most builders aren’t about innovation, they’re about ‘this is how we do it.’ ” Zin said. “But there’s a huge advantage in being able to use these tools. The computing power that we have in video cards just in the last few years, mainly because of the gaming industry, has pushed what’s possible further and further.”

Previously, large computational fluid dynamics suites would have users submit their parameters and pick a few milestone speeds at X thousand dollars per data point — 10 knots, 20 knots, etc. The way the water would react to the boat and vice versa would be calculated at those speeds and extrapolated for speeds in between. But with increases in computing power, that’s no longer necessary, as Zin ended up proving to a commercial CFD software provider when he used a separate compute stack to calculate the water’s behavior continuously at all speeds and in high definition.

“Right now you can run the boat [in the simulation] at any speed you want and see the way the water will spray, including little droplets. And then you can tweak the shape of your hull to make sure those droplets don’t hit the passengers,” he said. “It’s not exactly the way most boat designers would do it. So utilizing high end software that was not really being given its full potential was amazing.”

Building practically everything out of carbon fiber (an ordeal of its own) puts the whole boat at around 1,700 pounds — normally a 20-foot boat would be twice that or more. That’s crucial for making sure the boat can go long distances; Range anxiety is if anything a bigger problem on the water than on the road. And of course it means it’s quick and easy to control.

Interior of the Z2R electric boat.

Image Credits: Zin Boats

Yet the boat hardly screams speed. The large open cockpit is flat and spacious, with only a steering wheel, throttle, and screens with friendly readouts for range, media controls, GPS and so on. There’s no vibration or engine roar. No aesthetic choices like stripes or lines suggest its explosive performance. The wood veneer (to save weight — and it’s tuned to the speakers to provide better sound) floor and cream leather upholstery make it feel more like a floating Mercedes.

That’s not an accident. Zin’s first customers are the type of people who can afford a boat that costs $250,000 or so. He compared it to Tesla’s Roadster: A showy vehicle aimed at the high end that will fund and prove out the demand for a more practical one — an open-bow tender model Zin is already designing that will cost more like $175,000.

Conscience with a wallet

The target consumer is one who has money and an eco-conscious outlook — either of their own or by necessity.

“There are a lot of inquiries from Europe, where the environmental restrictions are stricter than in North America. But we also have a number of pristine lakes that are electric only for the purpose of keeping them clean,” Zin explained. “So if you live on a lake in Montana that’s electric only, you have the option to go at five knots, and you can’t even cross the lake because the boat is so slow… or you can have a fully functional powerboat that you can water ski behind, the same speeds you get in a gas power boat, but it’s absolutely emissions free. I mean, this boat is as clean as it gets — there’s zero oil, zero gasoline, zero anything that will get into the water.”

It really made me wonder why the whole industry didn’t go electric years ago. And in fact there are a few competitors, but they tend to be even more niche or piecemeal jobs, mating an electric engine to an existing hull and saying it’s an electric boat that goes 50 knots. And it does — for five or ten minutes. Or there are custom boat builders who will create something quite nice for a Zin-type customer — head on over to Monte Carlo and buy one at auction for a couple million bucks.

Side view at night of the Z2R Electric boat.

Image Credits: Zin Boats

Zin sees his boat as the first one to check every box and a few that weren’t there before. As fast as a powerboat but nearly silent; same range but a fraction of the price to get there; handles like a dream but requires practically no maintenance. It’s as smart as the smartest car, limiting its speed based on the waterway, automatically adjusting itself to stay within range of a safe harbor or charger, over-the-air updates to the software anywhere in the world. I didn’t even get a change to ask about its self-driving capabilities.

As a first time founder, a technical one at that, of a hardware company, Zin has his work cut out for him. He’s raised seed money to get the prototype and production model ready, but needs capital to start filling his existing orders faster. Like many other startups, he was just gearing up to go all out when the pandemic struck, shutting down production completely. But they’re just about ready to start manufacturing again.

Image Credits: Zin Boats

“I realized that there isn’t such a thing as a boat company any more,” said Zin. “Part of what we do is to build that shell that holds everything, and it happens to be moving through the water, which makes it a boat, but that really where the boating part of it ends. It’s really a technology hub, and my company is not just a boat company, it has to be a technology company.”

He said that his investors understand that this isn’t a one-off toy but the beginnings of an incredibly valuable IP that — well, with Tesla’s success, the pitch writes itself.

“We don’t only have a plan like, just make one really fast boat,” Zin concluded. “We know what we want to do with this technology right now, we know what we’re going to do with this technology in 24 months, and 48 months, I wish I could show you some of this stuff. It’s tough, and we need to survive this year, but this is just the start.”

Google’s Lookout app for vision-impaired now scans food labels and long documents

Google has updated its Lookout app, an AI toolkit for people with impaired vision, with two helpful new capabilities: scanning long documents and reading out food labels. Paper forms and similarly-shaped products at the store present a challenge for blind folks and this ought to make things easier.

Food labels, if you think about it, are actually a pretty difficult problem for a computer vision system to solve. They’re designed to be attention-grabbing and distinctive, but not necessarily highly readable or informative. If a sighted person can accidentally buy the wrong kind of peanut butter, what chance does someone who can’t read the label themselves have?

GIF of Google's Lookout app showing it identifying a jar of mustard.

Image Credits: Google

The new food label mode, then, is less about reading text and more about recognizing exactly what product it’s looking at. If the user needs to turn the can or bottle to give the camera a good look, the app will tell them so. It compares what it sees to a database of product images, and when it gets a match it reads off the relevant information: brand, product, flavor, other relevant information. If there’s a problem, the app can always scan the barcode as well.

Document scanning isn’t exactly exciting, but it’s good to have the option built in a straightforward way into a general-purpose artificial vision app. It works as you’d expect: Point your phone at the document (the app will help you get the whole thing in view) and it scans it for your screen reader to read out.

The “quick read” mode that the app debuted with last year, which watches for text in the camera view and reads it out loud, has gotten some speed improvements.

The update brings a few other conveniences to the app, which should run on any Android phone with 2 gigs of RAM and running version 6.0 or higher. It’s also now available in Spanish, German, French, and Italian.

Google’s Lookout app for vision-impaired now scans food labels and long documents

Google has updated its Lookout app, an AI toolkit for people with impaired vision, with two helpful new capabilities: scanning long documents and reading out food labels. Paper forms and similarly-shaped products at the store present a challenge for blind folks and this ought to make things easier.

Food labels, if you think about it, are actually a pretty difficult problem for a computer vision system to solve. They’re designed to be attention-grabbing and distinctive, but not necessarily highly readable or informative. If a sighted person can accidentally buy the wrong kind of peanut butter, what chance does someone who can’t read the label themselves have?

GIF of Google's Lookout app showing it identifying a jar of mustard.

Image Credits: Google

The new food label mode, then, is less about reading text and more about recognizing exactly what product it’s looking at. If the user needs to turn the can or bottle to give the camera a good look, the app will tell them so. It compares what it sees to a database of product images, and when it gets a match it reads off the relevant information: brand, product, flavor, other relevant information. If there’s a problem, the app can always scan the barcode as well.

Document scanning isn’t exactly exciting, but it’s good to have the option built in a straightforward way into a general-purpose artificial vision app. It works as you’d expect: Point your phone at the document (the app will help you get the whole thing in view) and it scans it for your screen reader to read out.

The “quick read” mode that the app debuted with last year, which watches for text in the camera view and reads it out loud, has gotten some speed improvements.

The update brings a few other conveniences to the app, which should run on any Android phone with 2 gigs of RAM and running version 6.0 or higher. It’s also now available in Spanish, German, French, and Italian.

LivingPackets hopes to nurture a circular economy with its smart parcels

More than ever before, people are getting life’s essentials delivered — good news for Amazon, but bad news for the environment, which must bear the consequences of the resulting waste. LivingPackets is a Berlin-based startup that aims to replace the familiar cardboard box with a smarter alternative that’s smarter, more secure, and possibly the building block of a new circular economy.

The primary product created by LivingPackets is called The Box, and it’s just that: a box. But not just any box. This one is reusable, durable, digitally locked and monitored, with a smartphone’s worth of sensors and gadgets that make it trackable and versatile, and an E-Ink screen so its destination or contents can be updated at will. A prototype shown at CES and a few other locations attracted some interest but the company is now well into producing the V2 of The Box, improved in many ways and ready to be deployed at the scale of hundreds of thousands.

Sure, it costs a lot more than a cardboard box. But once a LivingPackets Box has been used a couple hundred times for returns and local distribution purposes, it breaks even with its paper-based predecessor. Cardboard is cheap to make new, but it doesn’t last long — and that’s not its only problem.

The Box, pictured here with standard cardboard boxes on a conveyor belt, is meant to be compatible with lots of existing intrastructure.

“If you think about it, online transactions are still risky,” said co-founder Sebastian Rumberg. “The physical transaction and financial transaction don’t happen in parallel: You pay up front, and the seller sends something into the void. You may not receive it, or maybe you do and you say you didn’t, so the company has to claim it with insurers.”

“The logistics system is over capacity; There’s frustration with DHL and other carriers,” he said. “People in ecommerce and logistics know what they’re missing, what their problems are. Demand has grown, but there’s no innovation.”

And indeed, it does seem strange that although delivery has become much more important to practically everyone over the last decade and especially in recent months, it’s pretty much done the same way it’s been done for a century — except you might get an email when the package arrives. LivingPackets aims to upend this by completely reinventing the package, leaving things like theft, damage, and missed connections in the past.

Apps let users track the location and status of their box.

“You’re in full control of everything involved,” he explained. “You know where the parcel is, what’s happening to it. You can look inside. You can say, I’m not at the location for delivery right now, I’m at my office, and just update the address. You don’t need filling material, you don’t need a paper label. You can tell when the seal is broken, when the item is removed.”

It all sounds great, but cardboard is simple and, while limited, proven. Why should anyone switch over to such a fancy device? The business model has to account for this, so it does — and then some.

To begin with, LivingPackets doesn’t actually sell The Box. It provides it to customers and charges per use — “packaging as a service,” as they call it. This prevents the possibility of a business balking at the upfront cost of a few thousand of these.

As a service, it simplifies a lot of existing pain points for merchants, consumers, and logistics companies.

For merchants, among other things, tracking and insurance are much simpler. As co-founder Alexander Cotte explained, and as surely many reading this have experienced, it’s practically impossible to know what happened to a missing package, even if it’s something large or expensive. With better tracking, lossage can be mitigated to start, and the question of who’s responsible, where it was taken, and so on can be determined in a straightforward way.

For packaging and delivery companies, the standard form factor with adjustable interior makes these boxes easy to pack and difficult to meddle with or damage — tests with European online retail showed that handling time and costs can be reduced by more than half. LivingPackets also pays for pickup, so delivery companies can recoup costs without changing routes. And generally speaking more data, more traceability, is a good thing.

For consumers, the most obvious improvement is returns; no need to print a label or for the company to pre-package one, just notify them and the return address appears on the box automatically. In addition there are opportunities once an essentially pre-paid box is in a consumer’s house: for instance, selling or donating an old phone or laptop. LivingPackets will be operating partnerships whereby you can just toss your old gear in the box and it will make its way to the right locations. Or a consumer can hang onto the box until the item they’re selling on eBay is bought and send it that way. Or a neighbor can — and yes, they’re working on the public health side of that, with antibiotic coatings and other protections against spreading COVID-19.

The Box locks securely but also folds down for storage when empty.

The idea underpinning all this, and which was wrapped up in this company from the start, is that of creating a real circular economy, building decentralized value and reducing waste. Even The Box itself is made of materials that can be reused, should it be damaged, in the creation of its replacement. In addition to the market efficiencies added by turning parcels into traveling IoT devices, reusing the boxes could reduce waste and carbon emissions — once you get past the first hundred uses or so, The Box pays for itself in more ways than one. Early pilots with carriers and retailers in France and Germany have borne this out.

That philosophy is embodied in LivingPackets’ unusual form of funding itself: a combination of bootstrapping and crowdsourced equity.

Cotte and his father founded investment firm the Cotte Group, which provided a good starting point for said bootstrapping, but he noted that every employee is taking a less than competitive wage with the hope that the company’s profit-sharing plan will pan out. Even so, with 95 employees, that amounts to several million a year even by the most conservative estimate — this is no small operation.

CEO Alex Cotte sits with V2 of The Box.

Part of keeping the lights on, then, is the ongoing crowdfunding campaign, which has pulled in somewhere north of €6 million, from individuals contributing as little as €50 or as much as €20,000. This, Cotte said, is largely to finance the cost of production, while he and the founding team essentially funded the R&D period. Half of future profits are earmarked for paying back these contributors multiple times their investment — not exactly the sort of business model you see in Silicon Valley. But that’s kind of the point, they explained.

“Obviously all the people working for us believe deeply in what we’re doing,” Cotte said. “They’re willing to take a step back now to create value together and not just take value out of an existing system. And you need to share the value you create with the people who helped you create it.”

It’s hard to imagine a future where these newfangled boxes replace even a noticeable proportion of the truly astronomical numbers of cardboard boxes being used every day. But even so, getting them into a few key distribution channels could prove they work as intended — and improvements to the well-oiled machines (and deeply rutted paths) of logistics can spread like wildfire once the innumerable companies the industry touches see there’s a better way.

The aims and means of LivingPackets may be rather utopian, but that could be the moonshot thinking that’s necessary to dislodge the logistics business from its current, decidedly last-century methods.

Genki’s Covert Dock is the perfect dock for the Nintendo Switch – and other gadgets, too

The Nintendo Switch’s ability to quickly transition from portable to home console is definitely one of its major selling points, but Nintendo’s official dock never really made much sense with the portable nature of the Switch itself. Luckily, third-party accessory maker Genki created the Covert Dock, a device no larger than a smartphone USB charger that easily connects your Switch to any TV. Plus, it actually is a USB charger for all your devices, too.

The basics

The Covert Dock includes a USB Type-C port that’s rated for the Power Delivery 3.0 standard, which means it can charge not only the Switch, but also an iPhone, Android smartphones, the iPad Pro and even a MacBook (though its max output is 30w, so you won’t get full-speed charging for any power-hungry large devices). It also includes a USB-A port, which you can use not only for charging, but also for connecting controllers, microphones, mice, Ethernet adapters, and more to devices connected via USB-C. Finally, there’s an HDMI port, which you can use to connect your Switch (or other devices that support USB-C video out) to your TV or display.

The HDMI port supports a maximum resolution of 1080p at up to 60hz, so it can easily handle the 720p output of the Switch. The Genki Covert Dock also features folding power prongs for maximum portability – and it’s extremely compact, coming in smaller than a MacBook Air charger despite all of its capabilities.

Image Credits: Genki

Genki also provides a set of global power adapters that slide on to the folded prongs for easy travel compatibility, adding to its versatility. There’s also a six-foot USB-C 3.1 charging cable included in the box, so you have everything you need to begin using it right away. When you don’t have an HDMI cable plugged in, it can also power your Switch while you play just like with any other standard USB-C charger.

At $74.99, the Genki Covert Dock actually comes in under the retail price of Nintendo’s official dock set for Switch – and it’s a much more versatile device thanks to its ability to act as a hub for a wide range of devices that support display output over USB-C. Combine that with the travel adapter set, and the Covert Dock is really replacing two or three devices in your bag, rather than just a Switch dock.

Performance

Genki’s Covert Dock feels very sturdy and well-built, not at all like many of the third-party dock alternatives that you can find on Amazon. Inside, it uses Gallium Nitride technology to enable its small size while still making sure it can provide good power output without overheating.

It worked flawlessly both for charging my Switch (and other devices) and for connecting the Switch to my TV. As soon as you plug in an HDMI cable, the Switch behaves just as it would when using the official dock, switching off the built-in display and outputting to the television in HD resolution.

Image Credits: Genki

Ditto with plugging in an iPad Pro, and a MacBook Pro. Both automatically detect the HDMI connection and behave just like they would using any other display adapter.

Users of other third-party Switch display docking solutions might be hesitant to trust another one, given how frequently third-party hardware has led to issues including console bricking. But Genki has a great and thorough explanation of why their dock shouldn’t encounter such issues, and it mostly relates to their proper implementation of the PD 3.0 specification. Over the course of testing on an up-to-date Switch console over a couple of weeks, I definitely haven’t encountered any issues.

Bottom line

If you own a Switch (not the Switch Lite, sadly, since it doesn’t support video out), then there’s no question that you should also own a Genki Covert Dock. It’s the dock that the console should’ve shipped with, since it respects the Switch’s portability and offers a way to connect to a TV that takes up no more space than the Switch USB charger itself.

Even if you don’t own a Switch, the Genki Covert Dock might be something you need – it’s a great way to power an iPad while presenting during a meeting, for instance, and also a fantastic travel charger even when you’re not using the display features. Genki has done a tremendous job of packing a whole lot of versatility into a unique and well-built device, and at a price that’s very reasonable when you consider how many other potential gadgets and dongles it’s replacing.

Genki’s Covert Dock is the perfect dock for the Nintendo Switch – and other gadgets, too

The Nintendo Switch’s ability to quickly transition from portable to home console is definitely one of its major selling points, but Nintendo’s official dock never really made much sense with the portable nature of the Switch itself. Luckily, third-party accessory maker Genki created the Covert Dock, a device no larger than a smartphone USB charger that easily connects your Switch to any TV. Plus, it actually is a USB charger for all your devices, too.

The basics

The Covert Dock includes a USB Type-C port that’s rated for the Power Delivery 3.0 standard, which means it can charge not only the Switch, but also an iPhone, Android smartphones, the iPad Pro and even a MacBook (though its max output is 30w, so you won’t get full-speed charging for any power-hungry large devices). It also includes a USB-A port, which you can use not only for charging, but also for connecting controllers, microphones, mice, Ethernet adapters, and more to devices connected via USB-C. Finally, there’s an HDMI port, which you can use to connect your Switch (or other devices that support USB-C video out) to your TV or display.

The HDMI port supports a maximum resolution of 1080p at up to 60hz, so it can easily handle the 720p output of the Switch. The Genki Covert Dock also features folding power prongs for maximum portability – and it’s extremely compact, coming in smaller than a MacBook Air charger despite all of its capabilities.

Image Credits: Genki

Genki also provides a set of global power adapters that slide on to the folded prongs for easy travel compatibility, adding to its versatility. There’s also a six-foot USB-C 3.1 charging cable included in the box, so you have everything you need to begin using it right away. When you don’t have an HDMI cable plugged in, it can also power your Switch while you play just like with any other standard USB-C charger.

At $74.99, the Genki Covert Dock actually comes in under the retail price of Nintendo’s official dock set for Switch – and it’s a much more versatile device thanks to its ability to act as a hub for a wide range of devices that support display output over USB-C. Combine that with the travel adapter set, and the Covert Dock is really replacing two or three devices in your bag, rather than just a Switch dock.

Performance

Genki’s Covert Dock feels very sturdy and well-built, not at all like many of the third-party dock alternatives that you can find on Amazon. Inside, it uses Gallium Nitride technology to enable its small size while still making sure it can provide good power output without overheating.

It worked flawlessly both for charging my Switch (and other devices) and for connecting the Switch to my TV. As soon as you plug in an HDMI cable, the Switch behaves just as it would when using the official dock, switching off the built-in display and outputting to the television in HD resolution.

Image Credits: Genki

Ditto with plugging in an iPad Pro, and a MacBook Pro. Both automatically detect the HDMI connection and behave just like they would using any other display adapter.

Users of other third-party Switch display docking solutions might be hesitant to trust another one, given how frequently third-party hardware has led to issues including console bricking. But Genki has a great and thorough explanation of why their dock shouldn’t encounter such issues, and it mostly relates to their proper implementation of the PD 3.0 specification. Over the course of testing on an up-to-date Switch console over a couple of weeks, I definitely haven’t encountered any issues.

Bottom line

If you own a Switch (not the Switch Lite, sadly, since it doesn’t support video out), then there’s no question that you should also own a Genki Covert Dock. It’s the dock that the console should’ve shipped with, since it respects the Switch’s portability and offers a way to connect to a TV that takes up no more space than the Switch USB charger itself.

Even if you don’t own a Switch, the Genki Covert Dock might be something you need – it’s a great way to power an iPad while presenting during a meeting, for instance, and also a fantastic travel charger even when you’re not using the display features. Genki has done a tremendous job of packing a whole lot of versatility into a unique and well-built device, and at a price that’s very reasonable when you consider how many other potential gadgets and dongles it’s replacing.

Google-Fitbit deal to be scrutinized in Europe over data competition concerns

In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.

This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.

The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.

Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.

The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.

Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.

Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.

Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.

So much noise is being made that Google has already played the ‘we promise not to…’ card that’s a favorite of data-mining tech giants. (Typically followed, a few years later, with a ‘we got ya sucker’ joker — as they go ahead and do the thing they totally said they wouldn’t.)

To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)

Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.

It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.

In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.

If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade+ (and where data is concerned) it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.

Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital ‘robber barons’ at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting that EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

It remains to be seen whether that record will change come December.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.

Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:

  • “the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
  • and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”

“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.

“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”

The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.

All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)

The regulator has also said it will further look at:

  • the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
  • “whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”

The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.

Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.

Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.

Google-Fitbit deal to be scrutinized in Europe over data competition concerns

In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.

This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.

The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.

Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.

The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.

Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.

Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.

Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.

So much noise is being made that Google has already played the ‘we promise not to…’ card that’s a favorite of data-mining tech giants. (Typically followed, a few years later, with a ‘we got ya sucker’ joker — as they go ahead and do the thing they totally said they wouldn’t.)

To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)

Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.

It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.

In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.

If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade+ (and where data is concerned) it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.

Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital ‘robber barons’ at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting that EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

It remains to be seen whether that record will change come December.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.

Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:

  • “the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
  • and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”

“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.

“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”

The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.

All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)

The regulator has also said it will further look at:

  • the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
  • “whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”

The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.

Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.

Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.

Apple’s partners and Samsung apply for India’s $6.6 billion local smartphone production program

South Korean giant Samsung, Apple’s contract manufacturing partners Foxconn, Wistron and Pegatron, and Indian smartphone vendors Micromax and Lava among others have applied for India’s $6.6 billion incentive program aimed at boosting the local smartphone manufacturing, New Delhi said on Saturday.

The scheme, called Production-Linked Incentive Scheme, will offer a range of incentives to companies including a 6% financial incentives on additional sales of goods produced locally over five years, with 2019-2020 set as the base year, India’s IT Minister R.S. Prasad said in a press conference.

22 companies have applied for the incentive program — that also includes manufacturing of electronics components — and have agreed to export 60% of their locally produced units outside of India, said Prasad. He said the companies estimate they will produce smartphones and components worth $153 billion during the five-year duration.

The Production-Linked Incentive Scheme is aimed at turning India into a global hub of high-quality manufacturing of smartphones and support Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to make the country self-reliant, said Prasad.

As part of their applications, the companies have also agreed to offer direct and indirect employment to roughly 1.2 million Indians, the Indian minister said.

The interest of Samsung and Apple, two companies that account for more than 50% of the global smartphone sales revenue, in India is a testament of the opportunities they see in the world’s second largest internet market, said Prasad. “Apple and Samsung, India welcomes you with attractive policies. Now expand your presence in the country,” he said.

Missing from the list of companies that the Indian minister revealed today are Chinese smartphone makers Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus, and Realme that have not applied for the incentive program.

The Indian government did not prevent companies from any country from participating to the program, Prasad insisted in a call with reporters Saturday noon. Chinese smartphone vendors command roughly 80% of the Indian handset market, according to research firm Canalys.

“We are optimistic and looking forward to building a strong ecosystem across the value chain and integrating with the global value chains, thereby strengthening electronics manufacturing ecosystem in the country,” he said. The deadline for applying to participate in India’s program, which began in April, ended on Friday this week.

The participation of Wistron, Foxconn, and Pegatron is also indicative of Apple’s future plans to produce locally in India. Apple’s contract manufacturing partner, Taiwan-based Wistron, first began assembling older iPhone models in 2017. Last month, Foxconn kickstarted assembly of a small batch of iPhone 11 units. This was the first time any Apple supplier assembled a current-generation iPhone model in the country.

Apple’s partners and Samsung apply for India’s $6.6 billion local smartphone production program

South Korean giant Samsung, Apple’s contract manufacturing partners Foxconn, Wistron and Pegatron, and Indian smartphone vendors Micromax and Lava among others have applied for India’s $6.6 billion incentive program aimed at boosting the local smartphone manufacturing, New Delhi said on Saturday.

The scheme, called Production-Linked Incentive Scheme, will offer a range of incentives to companies including a 6% financial incentives on additional sales of goods produced locally over five years, with 2019-2020 set as the base year, India’s IT Minister R.S. Prasad said in a press conference.

22 companies have applied for the incentive program — that also includes manufacturing of electronics components — and have agreed to export 60% of their locally produced units outside of India, said Prasad. He said the companies estimate they will produce smartphones and components worth $153 billion during the five-year duration.

The Production-Linked Incentive Scheme is aimed at turning India into a global hub of high-quality manufacturing of smartphones and support Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to make the country self-reliant, said Prasad.

As part of their applications, the companies have also agreed to offer direct and indirect employment to roughly 1.2 million Indians, the Indian minister said.

The interest of Samsung and Apple, two companies that account for more than 50% of the global smartphone sales revenue, in India is a testament of the opportunities they see in the world’s second largest internet market, said Prasad. “Apple and Samsung, India welcomes you with attractive policies. Now expand your presence in the country,” he said.

Missing from the list of companies that the Indian minister revealed today are Chinese smartphone makers Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus, and Realme that have not applied for the incentive program.

The Indian government did not prevent companies from any country from participating to the program, Prasad insisted in a call with reporters Saturday noon. Chinese smartphone vendors command roughly 80% of the Indian handset market, according to research firm Canalys.

“We are optimistic and looking forward to building a strong ecosystem across the value chain and integrating with the global value chains, thereby strengthening electronics manufacturing ecosystem in the country,” he said. The deadline for applying to participate in India’s program, which began in April, ended on Friday this week.

The participation of Wistron, Foxconn, and Pegatron is also indicative of Apple’s future plans to produce locally in India. Apple’s contract manufacturing partner, Taiwan-based Wistron, first began assembling older iPhone models in 2017. Last month, Foxconn kickstarted assembly of a small batch of iPhone 11 units. This was the first time any Apple supplier assembled a current-generation iPhone model in the country.