Thursday, September 19, 2013

Announcing The First Hardware Startup Battlefield Where One Lucky Hacker Will Win $50,000

Hardware is king. VCs are investing, hackers are taking notice, and a subculture of “artisinal” design, prototyping, and manufacturing has grown almost overnight. And now we’re looking for some of the best hardware startups in the world to compete in something completely new and completely cool: The TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield. What is it? It’s a competition to pick the best hardware product. The winner gets $50,000 and, more important, notoriety and access to a group of early adopters who love cool new gear. Like our Disrupt Battlefield we will run the contest in front of a pack of hand-picked judges who will award the prize live on our site. The best thing? The Hardware Battlefield is taking place at CES 2014 in Las Vegas but is open to all comers and you don’t need a conference badge to enter, attend the battlefield events, or simply spectate. Our goal is to find the diamond in the CE rough. We don’t care about Samsung, Sony, and Philips – we care about you. Entry is free and is open to all hardware companies who are planning to ship product in a six week window before or after January 10. You can still be in prototyping stage but you must have a working, usable product by January 7 and be ready to offer pre-orders on that day or soon thereafter. We recommend launching your crowdsourcing page during the event, however, as it will have maximum impact. We will have more detail shortly but for now we invite you to submit your product now. The rules are simple: 1. You must launch your product or crowdfunding campaign before January 7. 2. You must be a single proprietor or small company. 3. This must not be a feature update to an existing product. 4. You must be able to attend rehearsals and sessions in Las Vegas prior to CES and during the show. 5. You must launch first with TechCrunch and approach other media after you appear on our stage. We will pick 15 entrants on October 30 and announce the location, time, and judges closer to the event. The grand prize winner will get $50,000 to go towards research, development, or whatever else a hacker needs to get by. We are very excited about this new event and we want to make it the best one ever. Remember to email if you’d like to sponsor the festivities and if you have any questions email We look forward to seeing what you’re working and we hope to see you in Vegas!

Why High-Skilled Immigration Reform Is Stuck

In April, the Senate put together a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was then sent to the House of Representatives where it currently languishes. Once wrapped into the larger comprehensive immigration reform push, high-skilled immigration reform’s success became dependent on the passage of the full bill. It wasn’t always this way. In the Senate, for example, the Immigration Innovation Act from early 2013 would have raised the hard cap of H-1B visas to 300,000 per year over time, and grant U.S. companies free rein to apply for H-1B visas for workers who graduated from U.S. universities with technical degrees. It was a simple and bipartisan proposal. It didn’t work. Certain members of the political establishment lined up against the idea of doing immigration reform in pieces. Detractors included former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who wrote an op-ed that included the following bit of language: Some policy makers are calling for piecemeal changes—such as issuing visas for high-skilled workers and investors, or conferring legal status on immigrants who were illegally brought into the country as children. Congress should avoid such quick fixes and commit itself instead to comprehensive immigration reform. Following several failed attempts to pass something to help ease high-skilled immigration’s current bottlenecks and difficulties, the issue was wrapped up into what appeared earlier this year to be a possibly functional bipartisan effort to pass quite a bit of reform at once. The Senate got its bill together after extensive horse-trading. However, once it landed in the House, it was essentially ignored, with the leading party of the lower chamber stating that they wished to work on it in pieces rather than considering the Senate bill as a whole. Since then, little has happened. And as such, high-skilled immigration has stalled. 2012 Given how stuck we now appear to be, it’s worth looking back to when we almost — maybe — had something. Rep. Lamar Smith introduced a bill in late 2012 that would have allowed for 55,000 more green cards each year for foreign STEM graduates of U.S. universities. A modest but perhaps workable idea. However, Rep. Smith included in his proposal the deletion of the green card lottery (which is officially known as the Diversity Visa Program). That’s where the 55,000 figure came from: The green card lottery awards 55,000 visas per year. Rep. Zoe Lofgren then introduced a similar bill, awarding the same number of visas, but without ending the green card lottery. So Rep. Smith, a Republican, and Rep. Lofgren, a Democrat, had legislation in mind that would add the same number of visas, with only a single difference. Surely something could be worked out? No. 2013 So where are we today? Mired. In late August, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent asked publicly if immigration reform is dead, concluding that: Ultimately the outcome will turn on whether the GOP leadership allows votes on enough piecemeal measures — or even a vote on a comprehensive House gang of seven bill — to take to conference negotiations; whether the GOP leadership will decide to go to conference at all; and whether the leadership will allow a vote on something out of conference that lacks a majority of Republicans. Today, that chance appears low. As quoted The Hill this week, Alfonso Aguilar, an activist in favor of comprehensive reform, is concerned over hearing the phrase “if we have time,” regarding progress on the immigration question. If reform of the U.S. immigration system remains a low priority, there will not be enough political will or momentum to do a damn thing. And that keeps high-skilled immigration moot as a topic, as it has now been lashed aboard the larger immigration wagon of non-change. There has been a recent media wave of discontented parties bemoaning the slow death of comprehensive reform. Politico wrote “Outside groups try to revive immigration reform,” while The Hill published “Dems tire of waiting on immigration reform.” All this is capped by today’s news that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in Washington pushing for reform. As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Zuck discussed reform holistically. Claiming to be “optimistic,” the technology leader went on to state that “addressing the 11 million undocumented folks is a lot bigger problem than high-skilled workers.” That’s actually true, but it’s impossible to separate the two at the moment as we won’t get one without the other, unless the House moves forward with its plan to do reform in chunks and the Senate agrees to go along with the plan, forsaking its own bill. What impact might Zuckerberg have on Capitol Hill? There doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm. Slate’s Dave Weigel has I think the best take on the situation: “Wait so Zuckerberg gave an afternoon panel talk in DC, and that’s gonna bring back immigration reform? Hahahahaha.” Why This Matters In the first application period of the 2013 H-1B visa application process, 124,000 requests were filed, shooting past the 85,000 cap for the year in five days. The U.S. government treats the first five days of the application process as a single day, and thus the H-1B visa window closed as quickly as it opened. The demand far outstripped supply. There are strong voices in favor of high-skilled immigration reform, and there are strong voices in opposition. The pro perspective can in this case be summarized as the corporate view, with companies such as Google and Microsoft calling for change. Back when the Immigration Innovation Act wasn’t dead, both companies wrote blog posts in support of its general tenets. As I reported at the time: This morning, on the introduction of the Immigration Innovation Act, tech giants Google and Microsoft published blog entries in favor of the proposal. [...] According to Google, 40 percent of technology companies that have been founded in the United States, were financed by venture capital, and went public, were founded by immigrants. Microsoft was explicit: It’s critical that America address the shortage of workers with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. There are many high-skilled, high-paying jobs being created by American businesses across the country that are being left unfilled because of this gap. How fair are the above arguments? Google’s facts are sound – many technology companies were and are founded by immigrants. You can run that math yourself. But is Microsoft’s point that there is a worker gap reasonable? It is commonly argued that the U.S. has a surplus of STEM graduates that are citizens, and that to therefore import talent from abroad harms our local populace. The idea has some merit, but does conflate the ownership of a degree with a certain tier of competence. One large technology company, I was once told by one of its employees, hires every single applicant that passes its standards testing and interview process. They want all the top-tier talent they can get, and nothing less. So, the problem becomes that, implicitly, our ability to turn out STEM graduates here doesn’t mean that our kids are qualified for the positions that are open. After all, why would companies go through such work and expense to hire foreign workers if they could hire at home? Also, the idyll that we produce far more computer science graduates, say, than jobs is a bit of a myth. According TownHall, a Bureau of Labor Statistics study indicated that “the economy creates 3 jobs requiring a B.S. in computer science for every one college student graduating with a B.S. in computer science.” So, the idea of importing the best from abroad to augment our home-grown labor force doesn’t appear to be too batty. That said, we should be sympathetic to those with STEM degrees who are out of work. That empathy, however, should not decide the larger issue. Finally, speaking more broadly, I view technological progress as an inherent good for human society. That bias colors how I view this issue specifically (though being the grandchild of immigrants isn’t a small part of my perspective, either). The idea that we are keeping away from our shores brilliant minds who want to work and build here is, to me, prima facie ridiculous. What’s Next The simple depressing fact is that not only does no one know, but the cynical take might be the accurate perspective in this case. There appears to be little political will to take up immigration reform in the House ahead of the 2014 elections and their potential primary battles on the right. The Senate bill remains moot in the House. And looming crises involving foreign policy and financing government currently engulf our national attention. I was worried when high-skilled immigration lost its individual agency and was instead strapped to the larger reform push. It could have worked: Momentum in favor of high-skilled reform could have helped propel the comprehensive bill. But here we are, without progress on any immigration front.

The Caktus Hug Sensor Makes Sure You're Drinking Enough Water

Summer’s all but over, but it’s no less important to stay hydrated. According to the CDC 43 percent of Americans drink fewer than four glasses of water a day, and while the actual amount you should drink varies from person to person, four glasses probably doesn’t cut it. That’s where Caktus, a neat Finnish hardware startup that presented at TechLaunch’s second New Jersey demo day, comes into play. Their mission? To fix that dearth of drinking with an app and a curious sensor that straps onto your water bottle. The sensor (called, adorably enough, the Hug) is a foam-lined gizmo that wraps itself around a water bottle and quietly tracks its motion. It’s not just a pint-sized koozie though — the Hug quietly monitors the bottle’s movements so it can provide its user with a rough idea how much fluid they’ve imbibed so far. Think of it as a giant Jawbone Up that straps onto your water receptacle and you’re on the right track. As always though, the hardware is only part of the equation. A companion app (iOS only for now) uses an algorithm to suss out which of those motions actually correspond to the user lifting the bottle to drink and which are just noise caused by random movements. The app also tracks ambient temperature and keeps tabs on what sorts of exercise you’re doing (you still have to punch that in yourself) so it can update your hydration goal in real time. To hear founder Panu Keski-Pukkila tell it, the Hug (and the rest of Caktus) was born out of pure necessity. An avid extreme athlete, he grew used to his girlfriend reminding him to drink more water while he was out carving up slopes in the Alps. When she moved to New York, though, that useful feedback mechanism disappeared and Keski-Pukkila set out to create something that could fill that particular hydro-centric void. And you know what? As downright kooky as the whole thing sounds, the combo of the Hug sensor and the app actually worked really well. In a brief demo, the sensor was accurately able to determine that roughly two ounces of water were squeezed out of the bottle, and the partner app updated almost immediately. With the Hug, you’re not quantifying yourself so much as you’re quantifying the stuff that goes in your body. That said, the team is taking a proactive approach when it comes to all those fitness-tracking gizmos floating around out there. They’ve already managed to bake in Fitbit support so users won’t have to punch in how many glasses of water they’ve downed in a day. For now the device is still strictly in its prototype phase, but the team is eagerly working to get the Hug, its partner app, and a dev-friendly API ready for prime time by early next year. So far they’ve locked up $25k in seed funding from the TechLaunch accelerator, and they plan to launch a crowdfunding campaign in early 2014 to lock up the cash necessary to start producing these things en masse.

A Few Tricks All The New iOS 7 Users Should Know

At long last, iOS 7 has just arrived. That is, it just arrived for everyone who didn’t say “Developer? Oh, yeah, I’m totally a developer. Cough.” and wiggle into the Beta months ago. iOS 7 is a strange new land, especially on day one. Out with the gradients, in with the trippy fluorescents. Your favorite app? It probably looks completely different, now. It can be confusing, but we’re here to help. iOS 7 has all sorts of nifty little tricks tucked away in places that are in no way immediately obvious, especially if you haven’t followed Tim Cook’s every word along the way. If you’ve been using iOS 7 for a while, you might know some of these. Hell, you might know most of these. But we tried to cover the bases to make sure that most people learn a thing or two. (Know all of these? You’re way cool, high five. Share another trick down in the comments!) Swipe Down For Search: Gone are the days of having to swipe or tap your way to iOS’ dedicate search page. You can now access Spotlight search from anywhere on the homescreen. Just swipe down in the middle of the screen. You can use Spotlight to quickly search across your device’s apps, emails, and contacts — but curiously, it seems that Apple has removed Spotlight’s ability to search the web. I’m pretty sure I never actually used that, but this is the Internet so I’m supposed to complain now that it’s gone. Swipe Up For Toggles: Toggles! At last! Fixing what is perhaps one of iOS’ most glaring, long lasting omissions, iOS 7 puts one-click access to things like Airplane mode and WiFi/Bluetooth toggles just one swipe away, instead of hiding them away in settings. To get to the new Control Panel, just swipe up from the bottom of the screen anywhere you might be. You’ll get buttons for Airplane mode, WiFi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, Orientation lock, and sliders for brightness and media control. Oh, and there’s a flashlight in there. If you were thinking about building a dedicated flashlight app now is probably not a good time. (Pro tip: The control panel is available from the lockscreen. Also: if the control panel is sliding out and interrupting your Candy Crushin’ time, you can block it from sliding out while in an app in your settings.) Reveal iMessage and SMS Timestamps: iOS has always been kind of weird about telling you when a message was sent or received. It’ll tell you when some messages came through — but only if it’s the first one that’s come through in a while in a given thread. If you sent a bunch of messages around 12:45, for example, you’d normally only get that first 12:45 timestamp. With iOS 7, you can reveal the timestamp for each and every message. Just grab one of the speech bubbles in a thread and swipe to the left. Tada! Timestamps! Never argue about exactly when a message was sent again! (Because, yeah, I’ve had those arguments. Seriously. Sigh.) Built-In Level: Building a house boat? Hanging a picture? Just want to show off one of the stranger new tricks that your iPhone has picked up? iOS 7 has a built-in bubble level, of all things. I thought it was a pretty strange addition at first… but then I found myself using it one day. Then again the next. To get to the level, open the compass app. Though not immediately obvious, there’s a second page to the app; swipe to the left, and you’ll be at Apple’s level. (Pro tip: Double tapping the screen resets the level to consider whatever angle the phone is currently at to be 0°. That design choice, expressed through a series of colored flashes, isn’t super intuitive) Swipe To Close Safari Tabs: Safari has a new, scrolling 3D tab interface that allows for just about as many tabs as you want. Alas, these tabs also have new, tiny “X” buttons that make closing them quickly a bit of a pain. Forget the X button — it’s for chumps. Swipe the tabs away to the left, instead. It’s a whole lot faster, and requires less precision when you’re trying to dump a bunch of tabs on the go. Call/SMS/Facetime Blocking: “Surely, there’s got to be a way to block phone numbers”, said every iPhone user ever. Really, just type “How to b” into Google and let it autocomplete. First result? “How to block a number”. Second result? “How to block a number on iPhone”. Third result? “How to be happy”. This feature is in greater demand than happiness! Happiness! Yet until now, there hasn’t really been an easy way. With iOS 7, it’s finally a pretty straightforward process to block people from calling, messaging, or FaceTime-ing (FaceTiming? Facing? Agh.) you. You can find the block list at Settings > Phone > Blocked, Settings > Messages > Blocked, or Settings > Facetime > Blocked. Note, however, that the block list is universal — block them in the phone settings, and they’re blocked on FaceTime, too. App By App Cell Data Usage/Blockage Want to see which app is using up all of your cell plan’s precious megabytes? Want to keep Pandora from streaming unless it’s on WiFi? Pop into Settings > Cellular and scroll down to the bottom. You can see which apps have used the most cell data, and block any app from using cell data at all. (Note: An app needs to have used cell data at least once for it to show up in the list.) How To Close Apps: We’ve had a bunch of requests for this one since this post first went up, so here you go. Apple changed the App Switching/App Closing mechanism up a bit with iOS 7. It used to be that to close an app, you’d double tap the home button, wait for the app drawer to slide out, then press and hold on an icon until the little “X” appeared. With iOS 7, the whole thing looks and works a bit more like webOS of yesteryear. Double tap the home button to bring up the fullscreen app switcher, which provides a screenshot of each running application in a sideways-scrolling carousel. To close an application, simply swipe the app’s screenshot up and off the screen. (Note: You really shouldn’t need to close apps all that often. Unless the app has crashed and refuses to fix itself or it’s doing something that is eating your battery, iOS 7 is designed so that most apps use little to no resources when in the background.) Bonus Tricks: Folders can now be paged, allowing them to hold a huge number of apps. Safari still has private browsing mode, it’s just in the app itself now instead of hidden away in settings. Find the switch in Safari’s tabs screen. Airdrop, Apple’s much touted system for wirelessly transferring files to other nearby iPhones, only works with the iPhone 5 and later. (I’ve spotted many a 4S user wasting time trying to figure out how the heck to turn it on, when the option simply isn’t there for them. Don’t worry, I wasted a good 10 minutes, myself.) Miss the “List” view in the calendar app? It’s still there, just not immediately obvious. Tap the search icon to bring up a scrollable list. If you’re into using default ringtones, give Apple’s list another look. They’ve added a bunch of new trancy ringtones and chiptuney text alerts. Siri has picked up a bunch of new tricks. You can toggle settings (“Turn On Do Not Disturb”), ask for recent tweets (“What is TechCrunch saying?”), show you pictures (“Show me pictures of cats”) pulled from Bing, provide Wikipedia info inline (“Tell me about TechCrunch”), Post to facebook, play back voicemail, list recently missed calls, and find restaurants on Yelp and make OpenTable reservations. iOS 7 keeps tabs on where you hang out most, allowing it to cache relevant nearby data. It’s neat, if a bit spooky. Once you’ve used iOS 7 for a while, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services to view a list of your frequent haunts. You can also turn this feature off at the same location.


Water Fountains in Villa d Este, Italy

Desert Castle

Desert Castle of Quseir Amra in Jordan

Polar Bears on the Shore of Hudson Bay, Manitoba

Polar Bears on the Shore of Hudson Bay, Manitoba