Month: April 2020

The ‘PuffPacket’ could help researchers learn when, how and why people vape

Vaping is a controversial habit: it certainly has its downsides, but anecdotally it’s a fantastic smoking cessation aid. The thing is, until behavioral scientists know a bit more about who does it, when, how much and other details, its use will continue to be something of a mystery. That’s where the PuffPacket comes in.

Designed by Cornell engineers, the PuffPacket is a small device that attaches to e-cigarettes (or vape pens, or whatever you call yours) and precisely measures their use, sharing that information with a smartphone app for the user, and potentially researchers, to review later.

Some vaping devices are already set up with something like this, to tell a user when the cartridge is running low or a certain limit has been reached. But generally when vaping habits are studied, they rely on self-report data, not proprietary apps.

“The lack of continuous and objective understanding of vaping behaviors led us to develop PuffPacket to enable proper measurement, monitoring, tracking and recording of e-cigarette use, as opposed to inferring it from location and activity data, or self-reports,” said PhD student Alexander Adams, who led the creation of the device, in a Cornell news release.

The device fits a number of e-cigarette types, fitting between the mouthpiece and the heating element. It sits idle until the user breathes in, which activates the e-cigarette’s circuits, and the PuffPacket’s as well. By paying attention to the voltage, it can tell how much liquid is being vaporized, as well as simpler measurements like the duration and timing of the inhalation.

An example using real data of how location and activity could be correlated with vaping

This data is sent to the smartphone app via Bluetooth, where it is cross-referenced with other information, like location, motion and other metadata. This may lead to identifiable patterns, like that someone vapes frequently when they walk in the morning but not the afternoon, or after coffee but not meals, or far more at the bar than at home — that sort of thing. Perhaps even (with the proper permissions) it could track use of certain apps — Instagram and vape? Post-game puff?

Some of these might be obvious, others not so much — but either way, it helps to have them backed up by real data rather than asking a person to estimate their own usage. They may not know, understand or wish to admit their own habits.

“Getting these correlations between time of day, place and activity is important for understanding addiction. Research has shown that if you can keep people away from the paths of their normal habits, it can disrupt them,” said Adams.

No one is expecting people to voluntarily stick these things on their vape pens and share their info, but the design — which is being released as open source — could be used by researchers performing more formal studies. You can read the paper describing PuffPacket here.

Smartphone shipments dropped 13% globally, and COVID-19 is to blame

We knew it was going to be bad — but not necessarily “lowest level since 2013” bad. As Apple was busy reporting its earnings, Canalys just dropped some of its own figures — and they’re not pretty. After two quarters of much-needed growing, the global smartphone market just took a big hit. And you no doubt already know who the culprit is.

The mobile industry joins countless others that have taken a massive hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with shipments dropping 13% from this time last year. Here’s a graph for those of you who are visual learners:

Analyst Ben Stanton used the word “crushed” to describe the novel coronavirus’s impact on the mobile market. “In February, when the coronavirus was centered on China, vendors were mainly concerned about how to build enough smartphones to meet global demand,” he writes. “But in March, the situation flipped on its head. Smartphone manufacturing has now recovered, but as half the world entered lockdown, sales plummeted.”

First it was impact on the global supply chain, which is centered in Asia, along with a drop in demand among consumers in China. As Europe, the U.S. and other locations continue to live under shelter in place order, demand in those markets has taken a significant hit. People are stuck inside and many have lost jobs — it’s not really the ideal time to consider shelling out $1,000+ for what still seems a luxury for many.

Samsung regained the top spot, while still losing significant numbers. Both it and the number two company, Huawei, were down 17% for the quarter. Apple, at number three, dropped 8%. Chinese manufacturers Xiaomi and Vivo saw some gains, at 9- and 3%, respectively.

There are bound to be rough times ahead as well. Per Stanton, “Most smartphone companies expect Q2 to represent the peak of the coronavirus’ impact.” Apple noted the uncertainty of its own earnings by opting not to issue guidance for next quarter.

Walmart is piloting a pricier 2-hour ‘Express’ grocery delivery service

Record usage of grocery delivery services amid the COVID-19 pandemic has led to delayed orders, fewer open delivery windows, and an inability to even book a delivery time slot, on occasion. Walmart now hopes to capitalize on the increased demand for speedier delivery with the introduction of a new service that allows consumers to pay to get to the front of the line. The retailer confirmed today it’s launching a new Walmart Grocery service called “Express” which promises orders in 2 hours or less for an upcharge of $10 on top of the usual delivery fee.

The service has been in pilot testing across 100 Walmart stores in the U.S. since mid-April.

Some Walmart customers may have recently received a push notification alerting them to the launch.

To use Express delivery, you first fill your online Walmart Grocery cart with the $30 minimum required for delivery orders or more. At checkout, you’ll see an option beneath the calendar where you pick a delivery date to select the Express service. In many cases, there may no other standard delivery time slots available for the current day or even several days out, which makes the Express service even more appealing to shoppers who need their orders sooner.

Though Walmart is officially promoting Express as a “two-hour” delivery service, in the weeks it’s been piloting the program Walmart has been able to deliver these orders within 56 minutes, on average.

In our tests, we were shown an Express fee of $18.90 to receive a delivery in “55 mins or less,” the app informed us today, April 30. There were no other fees. Without choosing the Express option, the next available time slot was not until next week, on Monday, May 4.

A price of $18.90 is close to — but is not exactly — a $10 increase over Walmart’s typical delivery fees of $7.95 or $9.95, depending on time of day. But we understand the plan is to make Express a flat $10 upcharge moving forward. (Walmart hadn’t been planning to officially announce the launch until next week, so pricing is being updated.)

Like Walmart’s other grocery deliveries, Express deliveries are handled by Walmart’s external network of delivery partners, which vary by market. The retailer won’t comment on if those additional fees are split with their partners, or how, if so.

There could be backlash against a system like this, given how it favors a wealthier customer at a time when food and other critical supplies have run short. During the pandemic, store shelves have often been bare as consumers hoarded things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Lysol cleaners. Now, consumers are being warned that meat shortages are expected soon.

In addition, the pandemic has already exposed the income divide between those who can afford to shop online and low-income customers, who can only use their SNAP benefits (food stamps) in physical stores — except in a handful of states where a USDA pilot has been running. And now those with the means will be able to gain another advantage: paying to get to the limited supplies first.

Walmart says it’s doing things to mitigate these types of concerns, however.

For items where the inventory is so limited it can’t guarantee delivery, it’s removing their availability from the online grocery service. Plus, the retailer says it’s not pushing back standard delivery orders to accommodate the high-paying Express customers. Instead, the Express service is being made available on top of Walmart’s existing grocery pickup and delivery capacity.

The Express service wasn’t dreamed up because of the pandemic, Walmart says, but it did play a role in terms of the timing of the launch.

“The demand that we’ve seen during the coronavirus pandemic is making us push forward and expedite the development of some services that we may have been thinking about,” a Walmart spokesperson explained. “But demand has pushed us to innovate more quickly,” they added.

Walmart is not alone in experiencing a crush of online grocery orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company and others have seen a record number of downloads for their grocery apps in recent weeks. In fact, demand for online grocery as well as other e-commerce orders has been so great that Walmart hired 150,000 new workers out of a pool of over a million applicants a full six weeks ahead of schedule, and is now hiring 50,000 more.

Meanwhile, Walmart’s online grocery rivals — Shipt, Instacart and Amazon — have also been hiring hundreds of thousands of new shoppers between them. Amazon had to implement a waitlist system for new Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market pickup and delivery customers due to the rise in online grocery shopping. And Instacart made several adjustments to its app to help better prioritize orders and open up more delivery windows.

In Walmart’s case, its ability to launch Express isn’t solely due to its new hires, we’re told.

The company already employs a workforce of “personal shoppers” who dedicate themselves to pulling for online grocery orders. Walmart says Express is powered by these personal shoppers, only some of which may be the newly hired store associates.

Walmart intends to test Express in its pilot markets before rolling out the service further across the U.S.

Microsoft opens registration for its free, online Build 2020 developer conference

Microsoft has now opened the registration for the virtual edition of its online-only Build 2020 developer conference, which will take place from May 19 to 20.

Typically, the event draws over 6,000 developers, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, that’s obviously not an option. In contrast to Google, which completely scrapped its I/O developer conference this year, Microsoft decided to go ahead with the virtual event, though. But this will be a very different kind of Build — and not only because it’s online-only.

Not only will the keynotes be shorter (though there will still be Day 1 and Day 2 keynotes). but in response to feedback from developers that have attended previous events, the Microsoft team also decided to focus solely on that audience. In previous years, Microsoft often used Build to announce consumer products, just like Google does at I/O. But that won’t happen this year. And instead of using the keynotes to put an early spotlight on features that won’t be available for half a year or more, the event will be more about providing content that’s immediately useful for developers and new products that are either immediately available or only a couple of months out from getting into the hands of developers.

That also likely means that even though Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will still keynote, there will be less talk about big picture company philosophy and more about developer tools and APIs.

Some of the keynotes and demos will be live, some will be pre-recorded, but overall, the look and feel of the event shouldn’t be all that different from what developers who previously watched Build from afar experienced. But it will be shorter and more focused than in previous years, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Attendees sit in pods during the Microsoft Developers Build Conference in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Monday, May 7, 2018. The Build conference, marking its second consecutive year in Seattle, is expected to put emphasis on the company’s cloud technologies and the artificial intelligence features within those services. Photographer: Grant Hindsley/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Apple News hits 125 million monthly active users

During the pandemic crisis, active users of Apple’s news platform hit an all-time high.

On an earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook shared that Apple News had reached 125 million monthly active users. Cook announced the number after revealing the company’s Q2 performance which saw its Products revenue decline year-over-year while Services surged.

The company earned Services revenue of $13.35 billion in Q2, juicing the segment by about $1.9 billion since last year.

The company launched a paid version of Apple News called Apple News+ last year which offered users access to paywalled news sites and magazines for $9.99 per month. Apple has not delivered any users numbers on how that element of the platform is faring.

iPhone sales are down, ahead of uncertain times for the industry

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Apple device sales have taken a hit, but the company’s services are doing swell. The iPhone, the longtime cornerstone of the company’s hardware portfolio hit $28.96 billion in revenue for Q2, down from $31.1 billion from this time last year. The iPad and Mac lines saw drops for the quarter, as well.

The company had already sounded the alarm bells for a weakened demand, due to the growing threat of COVID-19. Way back in February, Apple noted that the coming pandemic was set to both impact the global supply chain and weaken demand in China. “All of our stores in China and many of our partner stores have been closed. Additionally, stores that are open have been operating at reduced hours and with very low customer traffic,” it said at the time.

While aspects of life have returned to normal in China, the virus has subsequently taken a huge hit to much of the rest of the world, including Apple’s home in the U.S., which continues to lead the world in COVID-19 cases.

Unsurprisingly, CEO Tim Cook struck a consolatory note in a press release, in spite of the company’s decision not to offer third-quarter guidance. “Despite COVID-19’s unprecedented global impact, we’re proud to report that Apple grew for the quarter, driven by an all-time record in services and a quarterly record for wearables,”  he writes.

Wearables were, indeed, up. The category, which also includes home and accessory products like the HomePod, was up to $6.3 billion from $5.1 billion. The category continues to be a success on the strength of the Apple Watch and AirPods lines. Services, too, continue to grow steadily, up to $13.3 billion from $11.5 billion. That category seems to be a reasonably safe bet, as users turn to offerings like Apple Music and Apple TV+ during the on-going stay at home period.

The future for smartphones continues to be a rocky one, going forward. The company recently introduced the SE in a bid to appeal to consumers put off by $1,000+ price tags. And Apple’s certainly not alone there. The entire industry has taken a hit in recent years, well before the arrival of the novel coronavirus.

Apple and other companies were expected to get a boost from the arrival of 5G, though everything is currently up in the air, due to the pandemic. That reportedly also includes the arrival of a 5G iPhone, which is said to have potentially been pushed back a month over supply chain issues.

A new pro bono portal just launched for lawyers looking to help people hit hard by the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has laid low a lot of Americans, more than 62,000 of whom have already died since the beginning of March and 30 million more who are now out of work owing to the resultant shutdown of most businesses and public gathering places.

The ensuant crisis it has created is so massive that any type of coordinated effort is a challenge to pull together. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped the American Bar Association and a justice tech company called Paladin that we introduced to readers last year. On the contrary, the SaaS startup — which helps legal teams sign up for pro bono opportunities, then makes their work and its impact easier to track — has teamed up with the ABA to help lawyers find pro bono opportunities specifically to help people affected by the coronavirus pandemic and other natural disasters.

It’s a way to accelerate work that the ABA has been doing for that last 13 years through its Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Services Program, and time, right now, is of the essence.

We were in touch yesterday with Paladin cofounder Kristen Sonday to learn more about the new portal, which helps lawyers filter opportunities by practice area, communities to serve, type of engagement and the ability to work remotely. We asked how it might better hep attorneys and those in need of their services to connect faster.

TC: How did this project come together? Who brought in whom to do what?

KS: The Paladin team saw a similar response to COVID-19 as previous legal emergencies in how volunteer attorneys were being recruited, which is mostly through online forms and spreadsheets [and] manual and ad hoc.

We had already built a version of a centralized opportunity guide for the Chicago Bar Foundation, and this seemed like a great opportunity to leverage that technology to help legal services organizations across the country recruit and manage disaster response volunteers seamlessly.

TC: Two other companies are involved here: LegalZoom and Clio. What role are they playing?

We approached LegalZoom and Clio to get involved given their reach on both the client and solo/small firm sides. They’re covering the costs of researching and developing this online resource, and we’re excited about the partnership because both organizations are well-known for their commitment to using technology to increase access to justice and improve legal services. filter opportunities by practice area, communities to serve, type of engagement and the ability to work remotely.

TC: Who are some of the people, or businesses, you see this helping right now? What are some common cases?

KS: Vulnerable individuals are experiencing a range of legal issues at unprecedented levels. Common cases include individuals filing for unemployment benefits; navigating housing issues and unlawful evictions; victims of domestic violence who have sheltered-in-place with an abuser; nonprofits and small businesses navigating cancelled contracts; and delays in court proceedings affecting thousands of Americans.

TC: And how did you put together this database?

KS: Paladin partnered its technology with the ABA DLS’s network to provide a centralized portal for state hotlines and disaster-related opportunities from legal services organizations across the country. All Legal Services Corporation grantees are able to post on the platform, and we look forward to seeing more organizations participating every day.

TC: Were there privacy concerns that needed to be addressed first?

KS: Opportunities have confidential information removed prior to posting, and attorneys are typically only provided confidential case information after the’ve been vetted by the referring organization.

TC: How do attorneys make themselves available on this portal?

KS: They sign up for specific pro bono opportunities that align with their interests and experience. Once they submit a form outlining their background to the referring organization, that organization will screen them and pair them with the most appropriate pro bono client.

TC: Are you generating any revenue from this project?

KS: Our mission is to increase access to justice by supporting pro bono legal services, so this project seemed like the perfect way to leverage Paladin’s expertise and increase impact. There is no cost for attorneys to use, nor cost to the legal services organizations posting opportunities. It is a great way to raise awareness of Paladin’s work more broadly.

Lawyers who are willing to provide pro bono legal services can sign up and view cases at here.

FDA authorizes a ventilator developed by NASA’s JPL for emergency use in COVID-19 treatment

The U.F. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized a new ventilator designed by engineers working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for emergency use as outlined in the agency’s COVID-19 guidelines. The ventilator, which has an acronym because this is NASA we’re talking about, is called ‘VITAL’ (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally) and its design is being offered for free, licensed use for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

The JPL-developed emergency use ventilator is an intubation ventilator, meaning that a patient has to be sedated, with a breathing tube inserted all the way down their airway to assist their breathing. It’s reserved for COVID-19 patients exhibiting the most serious symptoms, and even then is really designed for use only to free up availability of existing, fully approved ventilator hardware in the case of extreme shortages.

What makes VITAL most interesting is that it is made of “far fewer” parts than existing traditional ventilators, according to NASA, and it also can be assembled much more quickly, and maintained with less expertise and effort over time. The design provides for use for between three or four months, however, rather than years for traditional hardware, and is meant specifically for COVID-19 patient use, hence its simpler design vs. models that are made to serve in a number of different medical situations.

NASA’s JPL is seeking commercial manufacturing partners for the hardware now that it has its authorization, however, in order to get it built in large numbers for distribution to hospitals in need.

This is one of a number of different emergency ventilator hardware design and development projects that have been spun up to address hardware needs in light of increased usage due to COVID-19. With NASA JPL’s pedigree, and its ability to serve in cases of most dire need, NASA’s definitely seems like one of the better engineered options out there.

Apple’s Q2 earnings show flat year-over-year revenue growth due to pandemic

Apple delivered a rough Q2 earnings report Thursday, besting investor expectations but showing a significant growth slowdown as the coronavirus pandemic deeply impacted the company’s business with year-over-year declines in iPhone, iPad and Mac sales.

Apple’s stock was largely unchanged in after-hours trading.

The company shared that in Q2 it earned $58.30 billion in revenue, better than the $54.54 billion investors were expecting. The figure represents 1% year-over-year revenue growth for the company.

In February, the company issued an update to its Q2 guidance, saying that did not expect to meet its earlier estimates due to fallout driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company did not update its previous guidance which said they expected to earn between $63 billion to $67 billion in Q2. Apple notably did not offer guidance for Q3 in this release.

In terms of earnings per share, the company delivered $2.55 compared to the $2.26 investors had expected. Apple also shared that they were increasing their share buyback program by $50 billion and would be hiking dividends by 6%.

Apple saw year-over-year declines in its iPhone, iPad and Mac categories, only showing gains in Services and its “Wearables, Home and Accessories” category. Hardware as a whole was down year-over-year. The company posted $28.96 billion in net iPhone sales compared to $31.05 billion in Q2 2019.

After a very rough March, most big tech stocks have been roaring back into growth in April. Apple is in a more difficult position than other ad-driven businesses given the global complexity of its hardware supply chain.

“We are proud of our Apple teams around the world and how resilient our business and financial performance has been during these challenging times,” Apple CFO Luca Maestri said in a statement accompanying the release.



AWS hits $10B for the quarter putting it on a $40B run rate

AWS, the cloud arm of Amazon would be a pretty successful business on its own. Today, the company announced it has passed $10 billion for the quarter, putting the cloud business on an impressive run rate of more than $40 billion.

It was a bright spot for the company in an earnings report that saw it report net income of $2.5 billion, down a $1 billion from a year ago.

Still, most companies would take that for the entire business, but AWS, which started off as kind of a side hustle for Amazon back in 2006 has grown into a powerful business all on its own. With a growth rate of 33%, it’s still growing briskly, even if it’s slowing down a bit as the law of large numbers begins to work against it.

Even though Microsoft has grown more quickly — in yesterday’s report Microsoft reported that Azure was growing at 59% clip — AWS had such a big head start and controls a big chunk of the market share.

To give you a sense of how quickly this business has grown, Bloomberg’s Jon Erlichman tweeted the Q1 numbers for AWS since 2014 and it’s pretty amazing growth:

In 2014, it was a $4 billion a year business. Today it is 9.1x that and still going strong. The good news for everyone involved is that this is a huge market, and while nobody could ever characterize the pandemic and it’s economic fall-out as good news for anyone, the fact is that is forcing companies to move to the cloud faster than they might have wanted to go.

That should bode well for all the cloud infrastructures vendors, even as the economy shrinks, the kinds of services these vendors offer should be in more demand than ever, and that means these numbers are could just going to keep growing for some time.

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