Nokia is re-evaluating its wearables division


Nokia’s been facing an uphill battle for relevance in the consumer space ever since the company threw in the towel on smartphones. Wearables seemed like a reasonable road, so the company snapped up French electronics company Withings back in 2016, phasing out the name a year later and rebranding itself Nokia Health.

Of course, the past year has seen much of the air escape from wearables, and the company’s clearly feeling that pinch. In a statement today, Nokia admits that it’s doing some serious soul searching. The actual letter is brief and full of corporate speak, but it paints a company going through some serious growing pains.

“Nokia today announces that it has initiated a review of strategic options for its Digital Health business,” it says in the statement. Then things get a bit more wishy washy. “The strategic review of the Digital Health business may or may not result in any transaction or other changes. Any further announcements about the Digital Health business will be made if and when appropriate.”

As far as what that actually means in the short term, Reuters points out that the company plans to cut at least 425 jobs in Finland this year. It’s a fraction of the 6,300 people it employs in its home country (not to mention the nearly 103,000 worldwide), but its a pretty clear indication of a company looking for the right track.

Once a global leader in mobile, the company failed to embrace the smartphone revolution, selling to Microsoft, which then shuttered the whole thing entirely. Of course, the Nokia name is back in the smartphone space, but that comes under a licensing deal through HMD — a company founded by former execs from the company. Interestingly, recent numbers show that the brand has actually been doing pretty well.

Wearables, on the other hand, have stagnated, forcing brands to exit the space, sell or shutter entirely. The herd has thinned over the past year, and even top names like Fitbit have struggled to keep their head above water. For Nokia, acquiring a company like Withings no doubt seemed like a quick way to hit the ground running — but the timing was rough on this one.

Hopefully this doesn’t mark the end of the Withings/Nokia Health line, which made some really solid and innovative devices.

Fitbit buys Twine Health in bid to become a more serious health care tool


Fitbit’s been on a bit of a acquisition spree over the last couple of years, as the company’s looked to grow its business inside the stagnating wearables category. This morning, the hardware maker announced plans to pick up Twine Health, a HIPAA-compliant, cloud-based health management platform.

The company hasn’t disclosed specific numbers for the acquisition, but expects the deal to close at some point in Q1 of this year. The integration plan seems pretty straight forward, leveraging Twine’s service with Fitbit’s large customer base, in an attempt to offer up more complex and useful health care data collected by its line of wearables. Specifically, the dataset will focus on hypertension and diabetes.

“When combined with our decade-plus of experience empowering millions of consumers to take control of their health and wellness,” Fitbit CEO James Park said in a press release issued this morning, “we believe we can help build stronger connections between people and their care teams by removing some of the most difficult barriers to behavior change. Together, we can help healthcare providers better support patients beyond the walls of the clinical environment, which can lead to better health outcomes and ultimately, lower medical costs.” 

Fitbit and Apple have been particularly aggressive in a push to get their wearables taken more seriously as potential health care tools. In recent years, fitness trackers and smartwatches have become among the most widespread personal monitoring devices around.

While the products don’t rate as sophisticated medical equipment, they do contain enough data tracking to provide potentially useful insight into a large cross section of the population. With this acquisition, Fitbit is no doubt hoping that its line of devices will become more indispensable for users with chronic health conditions that require daily tracking.

No specifics on what will happen to Twine’s Cambridge, Massachusetts-based staff, but the company is  set to roll into Fitbit’s Health Solutions wing, with co-founder and CEO John Moore serving as the company’s Medical Director.

Xiaomi’s wearable device partner Huami raises $110M in NYSE IPO


China’s top wearable firm Huami has raised $110 million after it listed on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday.

Fresh from launching iits Apple Watch-like Amazfit Blip this week, Huami sold 10 million shares at $11 a pop, the mid-point of its price range. The company joined the NYSE under the ‘HMI’ ticker symbol. It potentially raised up to $16.5 million more if underwriters working on the listing took the full share option allocated to them.

HMI closed its first day of trading slight up at $11.25 per share.

Huami may not be a name well-known in the U.S., but the company has emerged as one of the biggest sellers of wearable gadgets worldwide thanks in no small part to a partnership with Xiaomi, which is one of its largest investors. The phone maker, which is tipped to go public at a valuation of up to $100 billion, has a 19.3 percent stake in Huami, while Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital firm owns a further 20.4 percent.

Three-year-old Huami is best known for producing budget Mi Band fitness trackers that are sold via Xiaomi. It is perhaps the best example of Xiaomi’s smart device platform, which sees Xiaomi work in partnership with device makers to produce and sell hardware using the Xiaomi brand and its Mi.com store.

Huami said it has sold over 45 million devices since its founding in 2013. The company shipped 11.6 million devices during the first nine months of 2017, according to its listing documents. An IDC report ranked Huami (listed as Xiaomi) as the industry’s biggest seller alongside Fitbit.

On the business side, Huami posted a $14 million profit for the first nine months of 2017 on total revenue of $195 million. For 2016, it saw a small $3.6 million profit on $234 million in revenue.

Huami CEO Huang Wang at TechCrunch’s Shenzhen event in 2017

While its tie-in with Xiaomi gives it distribution, there is concern over the relationship since Xiaomi absorbs a large chunk of some costs that typically impact standalone competitors, such as marketing and distribution.

“We believe Huami’s operating profit is a mirage and reflects a company which for all practical purposes is Xiaomi’s subsidiary masquerading as an independently run company. If Huami were an independently run company designing, manufacturing, marketing and distributing its products, it would be unprofitable,” wrote Smartkarma in a report into the listing.

Huami said it plans to use the money on product and tech R&D investments, ramping up sales and marketing, and as working capital that could include acquisitions.

For many, this listing is a prelude to Xiaomi’s expected public market entry. The phone-maker has reportedly already tapped CLSA, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to manage the listing, which is expected to happen in the second half of 2018.

Apple Watch shipments jumped in 2017, according to analysts


The Apple Watch continues to be a bright spot in amongst the middling world of wearables, according to new numbers from Canalys. The analyst group’s figures put the smartwatch at 18 million shipments for 2017, representing a 54-percent jump over the device’s 2016.

Apple’s wearable popped for a couple of reasons, LTE functionality being chief among them. For one thing, cellular connectivity was the top new feature for the Series 3. It also meant that the device got wider distribution, as more carrier partners started carrying the product in their retail stores.  The watch got its warmest reception in US,  Japan and Australia, struggling a bit more in the UK, France and Germany, where carrier partnerships are a bit more spotty for the product.

That said, the cellular version of the watch, not surprisingly, still only makes up a fraction of total sales, at around 13-percent by the firm’s count. That’s far fewer than the 35-percent of non-LTE Series 3 watches and a quarter of the combined Series 1 and 2 shipments last year, as Apple continues to make older models available at a discount.

While the company’s iPhone sales were said to be below Wall Street expectations for Q4, the watch saw impressive growth during the holiday season, up to eight million. That represents a 32-percent jump over Q4 2016, according to Canalys’ figures, and lines up with what the company reported during its last earnings call.

“It was our best quarter ever for the Apple Watch,” Tim Cook said during earnings, “with over 50-percent growth in revenue and units for the fourth quarter in a row and strong double-digit growth in every geographic segment.”

It also, unsurprisingly, represents the best sales of any LTE smartwatch. Apple’s far from the first company to offer cellular connectivity on a wrist worn device — Samsung, mostly notably, beat the company to the punch. I had some trouble finding a particularly compelling use case for bringing LTE to my own wrist, but apparently others haven’t had such a tough time.

Intel wants smart glasses to be a thing


Over the years, we’ve seen folks try and fail at the smart glasses game. Google Glasses never had a chance, and even the Snap Spectacles heyday has come to an end. But that’s not stopping Intel from getting in on the fun.

The glasses are called Vaunt, first seen by the Verge, and they are nearly indistinguishable from regular glasses. Instead of some cumbersome headset with a special screen, Intel’s Vaunt glasses are simple plastic frames that weigh under 50 grams (nearly the exact weight of Snap Spectacles). The smart glasses work with prescription and non-prescription lenses, and there is no camera equipped.

To any onlooker, you might just be wearing a pair of Warby Parkers.

But on the inside of the stems sits a low-powered class one laser, as well as a processor, an accelerometer, a Bluetooth chip and a compass.

This laser, which Intel says is “so low-power that it’s at the very bottom end of a class one laser,” emits a red, monochrome image into your eye at 400 x 150 pixels.

The image might let you know it’s someone’s birthday, send notifications from your phone, or the glasses might detect that you’re in the kitchen and send you a recipe. Because the laser is beaming directly into your retina, the image is always in focus.

While future models might be equipped with a microphone and access to smart assistants like Alexa or Siri, the first-gen Vaunt models will be controlled through subtle motion gestures like a nod of the head. Intel wants these glasses to fit into your life as naturally as possible.

While it’s unclear just how the Vaunt glasses will come to market, Intel has said that the OEM route is a more likely strategy than Intel selling these specs themselves.

And, relatedly, Intel will be opening up the platform to developers with the launch of an early access program and SDK.

While it’s unclear if a product like this has wings in the market, Intel’s Vaunt currently represents the most promising version of ‘smart glasses’ we’ve yet seen. However, this project is in the very early stages of development, so there’s no telling when, or even if, this comes to fruition in a meaningful way.

Featured Image: courtesy Vjeran Pavic/The Verge

Photos purportedly showcase the Xbox Watch that never was


It probably goes without saying that Microsoft, along with the rest of the tech world, was working on a smartwatch. And while, by some accounts, the category is finally having its moment, the software giant’s efforts didn’t appear to make it to far beyond the prototype stage.

New photos posted by a Twitter user and spotted by Windows Central purport to show the company’s abandoned effort. Similar images popped up late last year, but these actually show the thing powered on, betraying the same fitness focus that dominated the company’s abandoned Band wearables line.

The device appears to be in line with the one the company was said to be testing internally a few years back. Designed by part of the Xbox hardware team, the hardware has a 1.5-inch display and support for heart rate monitoring.

It’s probably for the best the device never saw the light of day. Wearables have proven elusive for Microsoft. The Band line was severely lacking from a hardware perspective, and the company didn’t really do much to distinguish the offering beyond that, failing to make headway in an overcrowded wearable space.

The company ultimately halted sales on the Band 2 and killed work on its successor. Last year, meanwhile, Microsoft appeared to be transitioning its focus toward its Health software offering, with potential plans to work with third-party hardware developers. Though admittedly, not all that much appears to have happened on that front, either.

Tile lays off dozens after a disappointing holiday


Tile, one of the best known item-tracking gadgets out there, has laid off some 30 people and reportedly stopped the potential hires of another 10, TechCrunch has learned. This comes less than a year after the company raised a $25 million B round last May. The layoffs are reportedly due to disappointing sales over the holidays.

When reached for comment, Tile offered the following statement:

As part of our 2018 planning process, the Tile leadership team determined that a recalibration of our priorities was necessary so that the company can focus on the development of our Tile Platform business and core hardware products. Unfortunately, this means that we had to say goodbye to roughly 30 Tile colleagues. Tile remains the leader in smart location, and we will continue creating a world where everyone can find everything that matters.

The roughly 30 employees being recalibrated weren’t solely from any one area, according to information provided to TechCrunch, so it seems as the company says to be a general cost saving measure. A Tile representative pointed out that a hiring freeze was not announced, so the 10 hires that were reportedly prevented from taking place are still a bit of a question mark.

Tile revamped its product line late last summer, improving range and adding two new “Pro” units: a sporty one for active types and a fancy white-and-gold “Tile Style.” Perhaps it was too little, too late, or perhaps Tile has become too popular for its own good and everyone already has all the Tiles they need.

At CES, it announced a handful of new partners that will integrate Tile tech into their products. This is reportedly the new focus of the company — being a platform-first rather than a hardware-first company. No doubt the devices will still be made and sold, of course, but it won’t be the totality of the Tile offering.

Here’s hoping it works and these layoffs are the last we hear of.