Lady Gaga performed private Apple concert as a tribute to Steve Jobs

Apple invited Lady Gaga to perform on May 17 at its new Apple Stage at Apple Park.
Apple invited Lady Gaga to perform on May 17 at its new Apple Stage at Apple Park.
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Did you catch the Lady Gaga concert that took place on May 17?

Unless you work out of Apple Park, the tech giant’s massive spaceship-shaped headquarters in Cupertino, you probably didn’t attend.

The singer and actress performed a special private concert for Apple employees on Friday to help formally open the campus as well as pay tribute to Steve Jobs, according MacRumors. The concert took place on a Jony Ive-designed stage, decked with a rainbow arch, inside of Apple Park’s ring.

According to AppleWeb (via Cult of Mac), the tech giant’s own intranet, the “Apple Stage” as it’s called, the platform and rainbow structure are made of some 25,000 parts, including an aluminum frame (because of course it is), and is designed to for quick assembly and deconstruction.

For the stage’s first event, Apple decked out various parts of the campus with rainbow-colored decorations as a throwback to the company multi-colored logo back in the early days.

As seen on social media, some stairways got the rainbow treatment:

And Apple had rainbow-colored coffee cups:

Employees also received these stylish retro Apple logo pins, thanking them for being a part of the company:

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🍎 🍏

A post shared by Elaine (@iwaslikemmkay) on May 18, 2019 at 12:13am PDT

But, of course, the real star was Lady Gaga. She performed several of her hit songs including “Shallow,” “Poker Face,” and “Born This Way.”

If nothing else, she made one valid point: The iPod got smaller and smaller, but why is the iPhone getting bigger?

“What I would love is for it to be like surgically implanted into my hand,” Gaga said.

Oh, and she wants an emoji that means “be kind”:

Jokes! Gaga’s got ’em.

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Immigrant founders, smartphone growth, SEO tactics, SoftBank’s financials, and AR tech

How an immigration crackdown is hurting UK startups

Our European correspondent Natasha Lomas spent the past few weeks investigating what’s been happening to immigrant founders and tech talent in the UK, who have been receiving more scrutiny from the Home Office in recent months. Natasha zooms in on Metail, a virtual fitting room startup, and its tribulations with the immigration authorities and the damage those action are having on the broader ecosystem:

The January 31 decision letter, which TechCrunch has reviewed, shows how the Home Office is fast-tracking anti-immigrant outcomes. In a short paragraph, the Home Office says it considered and dismissed an alternative outcome — of downgrading, not revoking, the license and issuing an “action plan” to rectify issues identified during the audit. Instead, it said an immediate end to the license was appropriate due to the “seriousness” of the non-compliance with “sponsor duties”.

The decision focused on one of the two employees Metail had working on a Tier 2 visa, who we’ll call Alex (not their real name). In essence, Alex was a legal immigrant had worked their way into a mid-level promotion by learning on the job, as should happen regularly at any good early-stage startup. The Home Office, however, perceived the promotion to have been given to someone without proper qualifications, over potential native-born candidates.

In addition to reporting the story, Natasha also wrote a guide specifically for Extra Crunch members on how founders can manage their immigration matters, both for themselves and for their employees.

The state of the smartphone

TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater analyzed the slowdown in smartphone sales, finding few reasons to be optimistic about how smaller handset manufacturers can compete with giants like Apple and Samsung. There are slivers of good news from the developing world and also from 5G and foldable tech, but don’t expect profits to reach their zenith again any time soon.

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Powerbeats Pro are the Bluetooth earbuds to beat

Let’s get the bad out of the way first, shall we?

For starters, that charging case is huge. There’s no way around it. It’s something that’s become more and more apparent as the weather is warmer and I no longer have jacket pockets to carry it around in. If you shell out the money for these, you’ll be thinking about this a lot, too. How long you plan to be out versus the added pocket bulk.

There’s also the issue of cost. A few years ago, $250 might not have seemed crazy for a pair of wireless earbuds. When you’re out-pricing Apple’s primary earbuds, however, it might be time to reconsider.

Those are really the big strikes in what’s been an otherwise wholly enjoyable review process. I’ve been eager to put these through their paces since the day they were announced, and haven’t been disappointed. Given the choice between the AirPods and Powerbeats Pro, I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment.

The Powerbeats Pro are a wholly different take on the category, and that’s precisely where they succeed. Sure, Beats has been operating under the Apple banner for more than a third of its existence, but the company’s fully wireless headphones are probably the best example to date of how to run a sub-brand with minimal interference.

That’s not to say that Apple wasn’t involved. The company’s fingerprints are here, but that’s largely a good thing, honestly. The inclusion of the H1 chip is the clearest example. Using the same silicon found in the latest AirPods, the initial pairing process is as simple as opening up the case. From there, a large window will show the case and two headphones, along with corresponding battery levels.

Assuming, of course, you have an iPhone. You can pair them up to an Android handset and just about anything else with Bluetooth, but you’ve got to go through the more traditional rigmarole. The flip side of all of this is that the Pros only ship with a Lightning port. I’ve expressed my frustration with Apple’s proprietary connector in the past, but honestly, it mostly comes down to the fact that Apple seems to have finally started following the rest of the industry down the USB-C rabbit hole. At this point it feels inevitable.

And, of course, the Pro case isn’t wireless yet. Gotta save something for the second gen, I guess.

As for the clear advantages Beats has over the AirPods, that’s three-fold. First is battery life. The upshot to the massive case is a ton of time on a charge. Beats puts them at nine hours on the earbuds, with a full 24 hours all told, when the case is factored in. I never found myself short on juice, and I’m pretty psyched to take them on the next cross-country plane ride.

That means, in most instances, you’re totally fine to leave home without the case. Though beware that both the case and the buds tend to scuff easily, so I’d use it when possible. The buds’ placement inside the case is also a little tricky. Unlike the AirPods, I found myself repositioning them the first few times.

While the case itself sports a small light that goes either red or white, depending on whether they’re charging, there’s no light on the buds themselves, meaning you’re primarily dependent on iOS to let you know where things stand.

The design of the buds themselves isn’t for everyone — but the same can certainly be said for AirPods. It’s true that the over the ear hooks are probably ideally suited for the gym, but in black these are subtle enough for most people to wear out undetected. More importantly, there are quite comfortable. Apple is still kicking and screaming against silicone tips, and that’s made AirPods particularly divisive. Like many of the company’s headphones before, they simply don’t fit in a lot of ears.

Removable silicone tips offer a more adaptable fit, coupled with a better seal. That, in turn, means less sound leak. The headphones might be tuned a little high for some tastes, but it honestly beats the old days when the company leaned entirely too heavily on bass to make up for other shortcomings. As is, the sound is quite good, so far as fully wireless Bluetooth earbuds go.

I will say that the design wore on one of my ears a bit after a marathon listen while working at my desk, but I was able to wear them for a lot longer than most of the earbuds I’ve tested, with minimal annoyance.

Also impressive is the distance they’ll work. I routinely walked into the other room while leaving my phone charging on the desk with no problem. I did run into the occasional connection problems here and there, where one headphone conked out, but again, that unfortunately is pretty in-line with the current limitations of Bluetooth technology. Putting the earbuds in the case and pulling them back out seemed to address the problem just fine.

The Pros are generally less concerned with appearance than their Apple brethren. A bit ironic, perhaps, for a brand that was seemingly built around image. They’re a pretty good indicator of how far Beats has come as a brand, making for a much more utilitarian product than AirPods — and for a constant companion, that’s a good thing.

Assuming you can stomach the high price and massive case, for a majority of users, the Powerbeats Pro are probably the way to go.

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The state of the smartphone

A few manufacturers have managed to buck global trends. Can 5G and foldables turn things around for the rest?

Earlier this month, Canalys used the word “freefall” to describe its latest reporting. Global shipments fell 6.8% year over year. At 313.9 million, they were at their lowest level in nearly half a decade.

Of the major players, Apple was easily the hardest hit, falling 23.2% year over year. The firm says that’s the “largest single-quarter decline in the history of the iPhone.” And it’s not an anomaly, either. It’s part of a continued slide for the company, seen most recently in its Q1 earnings, which found the handset once again missing Wall Street expectations. That came on the tale of a quarter in which Apple announced it would no longer be reporting sales figures.

Tim Cook has placed much of the iPhone’s slide at the feet of a disappointing Chinese market. It’s been a tough nut for the company to crack, in part due to a slowing national economy. But there’s more to it than that. Trade tensions and increasing tariffs have certainly played a role — and things look like they’ll be getting worse before they get better on that front, with a recent bump from a 10 to 25% tariff bump on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

It’s important to keep in mind here that many handsets, regardless of country of origin, contain both Chinese and American components. On the U.S. side of the equation, that includes nearly ubiquitous elements like Qualcomm processors and a Google-designed operating system. But the causes of a stagnating (and now declining) smartphone market date back well before the current administration began sowing the seeds of a trade war with China.

Image via Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesThe underlying factors are many. For one thing, smartphones simply may be too good. It’s an odd notion, but an intense battle between premium phone manufacturers may have resulted in handsets that are simply too good to warrant the long-standing two-year upgrade cycle. NPD Executive Director Brad Akyuz tells TechCrunch that the average smartphone flagship user tends to hold onto their phones for around 30 months — or exactly two-and-a-half years.

That’s a pretty dramatic change from the days when smartphone purchases were driven almost exclusively by contracts. Smartphone upgrades here in the States were driven by the standard 24-month contract cycle. When one lapsed, it seemed all but a given that the customer would purchase the latest version of the heavily subsidized contract.

But as smartphone build quality has increased, so too have prices, as manufacturers have raised margins in order to offset declining sales volume. “All of a sudden, these devices became more expensive, and you can see that average selling price trend going through the roof,” says Akyuz. “It’s been crazy, especially on the high end.”

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LG developed its own AI chip to make its smart home products even smarter

As its once-strong mobile division continues to slide, LG is picking up its focus on emerging tech. The company has pushed automotive, and particularly its self-driving capabilities, and today it doubled down on its smart home play with the announcement of its own artificial intelligence (AI) chip.

LG said the new chip includes its own neural engine that will improve the deep-learning algorithms used in its future smart home devices, which will include robot vacuum cleaners, washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners. The chip can operate without an internet connection thanks to on-device processing, and it uses “a separate hardware-implemented security zone” to store personal data.

“The AI Chip incorporates visual intelligence to better recognize and distinguish space, location, objects and users while voice intelligence accurately recognizes voice and noise characteristics while product intelligence enhances the capabilities of the device by detecting physical and chemical changes in the environment,” the company wrote in an announcement.

To date, companies seeking AI or machine learning (ML) smarts at chipset level have turned to established names like Intel, ARM and Nvidia, with upstarts including Graphcore, Cerebras and Wave Computing provided VC-fueled alternatives.

There is, indeed, a boom in AI and ML challengers. A New York Times report published last year estimated that “at least 45 startups are working on chips that can power tasks like speech and self-driving cars,” but that doesn’t include many under-the-radar projects financed by the Chinese government.

LG isn’t alone in opting to fly solo in AI. Facebook, Amazon and Apple are all reported to be working on AI and ML chipsets for specific purposes. In LG’s case, its solution is customized for smarter home devices.

“Our AI C​hip is designed to provide optimized artificial intelligence solutions for future LG products. This will further enhance the three key pillars of our artificial intelligence strategy – evolve, connect and open – and provide customers with an improved experience for a better life,” IP Park, president and CTO of LG Electronics, said in a statement.

The company’s home appliance unit just recorded its highest quarter of sales and profit to date. Despite a sluggish mobile division, LG posted an annual profit of $2.4 billion last year with standout results for its home appliance and home entertainment units — two core areas of focus for AI.

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