Start up: Google adds ads, HTC nears Vive, Watch wrinkles and worries, FBI v Apple redux, and more

It’s the Samsung Galaxy S7! Looks completely unlike previous ones, right? Photo by Janitors on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Four ads on top: the wait is over » Moz

Peter Meyers:

»For the past couple of months, Google has been testing SERPs with 4 ads at the top of the page (previously, the top ad block had 1-3 ads), leading to a ton of speculation in the PPC community. Across the MozCast data set, 4 ads accounted for only about 1% of SERPs with top ads (which matches testing protocol, historically). Then, as of yesterday, this happened:

Over the past 2 weeks, we’ve seen a gradual increase, but on the morning of February 18, the percentage of top ads blocks displaying 4 ads jumped to 18.9% (it’s 19.3% as of this morning). Of the 5,986 page-1 SERPs in our tracking data that displayed top ads this morning, here’s how the ad count currently breaks down:

As you can see, 4-ad blocks have overtaken 2-ad blocks and now account for almost one-fifth of all top ad blocks. Keep in mind that this situation is highly dynamic and will continue to change over time. At the 19% level, though, it’s unlikely that this is still in testing.

«

Google came up in a time when search engine results pages (SERPs) were stuffed with paid-for ads. Google’s clean results page was different. Now the other search engines have gone away. And SERPs are becoming stuffed with ads again.
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Phone makers look to add-on gizmos to revitalize market » Reuters

Meanwhile, there’s that event called Mobile World Congress going on in Barcelona this week. Paul Sandle notes the pressures on “traditional” handset makers:

»while the competition [among handset makers] intensifies true innovation has not, with the Barcelona show expected to feature instead other products that connect to phones, like all-round cameras capable of producing immersive views, new wearable devices and electronic gadgets for the home or workplace that use smartphones as a processing hub.

As usual Apple will be absent, preferring to run its own events for new product launches.

“We will see a lot of stuff around 360-degree cameras and virtual reality headsets with a smartphone,” said Francisco Jeronimo, an analyst with research firm IDC. “Commodities rather than innovation”, said Forester analyst Thomas Huston.

“I don’t expect true innovation, it’s going to be more about the specifications, the better processing power, the battery life,” he said.

“What’s the benefit for consumers? I think it will be very limited.”

«

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Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge: curvier, faster, micro SD expansion — available March 11 » Ars Technica UK

Mark Walton:

»In a surprise move, those that pre-order in the UK and US will receive a free Galaxy Gear VR headset to go along with their shiny new phone.

At first glance—besides their larger screen sizes—both phones look largely identical to their predecessors, the S7 sporting a flat glass front, and the S7 Edge sporting a curved display that gently folds in at the edges to the meet the aluminium body. Both phones will be available in Black Onyx and Gold Platinum, with the S7 Edge also available in Silver Titanium. Unfortunately for fans of 4K, both the S7 and S7 Edge are rocking 2560×1440 pixel displays. The most noticeable design change comes to the rear of the phone, where the dreaded camera bump has been removed to to make the camera module flush with the body. Surprisingly, this hasn’t affected the thickness of the phones, which remain fairly svelte at 7.9mm for the S7 and 7.7mm for the S7 Edge. The regular S7 also gains a curved back like the Galaxy Note 5.

Perhaps more exciting is that the S7 and S7 Edge both feature a microSD card slot, a much requested feature that was removed from the S6. Both phones will ship with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which allows users to merge the SD card with the internal flash memory to create one large seamless pool of storage, making the SD card slot a welcome addition. Also back is water and dust resistance, which was previously found in the Galaxy S5 but was skipped over for the S6. The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are both rated IP68, which equates to “totally dust tight” and prolonged submersion in water (the S5 was IP67, which is only “temporary immersion”).

There’s nothing too surprising happening on the inside, aside from the bump up to 4GB of RAM.

«

Don’t think this will make the slightest difference to the general arc of smartphone sales. I doubt these will sell better than either the S5 or S6 or S6 Edge. Water/dust resistance didn’t help the S5; and the Edge feature didn’t change anything much in sales terms.
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The consumer version of HTC’s Vive VR headset will arrive in April for $799 with two free games » Android Police

Michael Crider:

»The headset is nearing completion, and the company has announced that the final consumer model will ship in early April for the disappointing price of $799. For that price you get two motion-sensing controllers, two room scale sensors, and VR games Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives and Fantastic Contraption. Pre-orders begin next week on February 29th.

Unlike Google Cardboard, Samsung’s Gear VR, and other systems that rely on a smartphone as a slide-in display, the Vive is a fully contained unit with screens, optical lenses, sensors, a camera and microphone, and other electronics built into the device itself. Like the Oculus, it needs a standard PC (and a quite powerful one) to send video and process images for gaming and other applications. Early reports of the Vive have praised it as an impressive experience, particularly with games that have been developed specifically for the platform. However, the Vive will also be able to connect to at least some smartphones via Bluetooth for answering phone calls and viewing notifications, perhaps allowing HTC some synergy with its phone lines.

«

“The headset is nearing completion”? I’m hoping that’s just a loose version of “it’s nearly public”. If it isn’t complete yet, they’ve got some problems. (As for “synergy” – dream on.)
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Watch apps worth making » David Smith

Smith has shipped 11 Watch apps over the past year:

»There seem to be only three kinds of apps that make sense given the current hardware and software on the Apple Watch.

1: Notifications — Not really an “app” in the traditional sense but getting real-time alerts of things that are important to me is great. Any iOS app that sends notifications should do the basic work to make sure they look and perform well on the Apple Watch.

2: Complications — Showing timely information at the raise of the wrist. These are probably the most practically useful apps on my watch. I typically have my watch show me the current temperature, my current step count, and battery percent. All of which present me with timely information that is useful to know now.

3: Sensors — The last kind of app that has actually stuck for me on the Apple Watch are apps that make use of the sensors on the watch. These apps are essentially impossible to re-create on an iPhone. The Apple Watch includes a heart rate monitor, accelerometer and microphone. I don’t think the range and variety of uses for these has been fully explored yet. Having these sensors persistently attached to your body is very different than any use you might come up with on an iPhone.

«

Completely agree. More sensors would be really useful (even sensors relaying stuff from the phone, as the weather is).

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Exclusive: common mobile software could have opened San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone » Reuters

Jim Finkle:

»The legal showdown over U.S. demands that Apple Inc AAPL.O unlock an iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Rizwan Farook might have been avoided if his employer, which owns the device, had equipped it with special mobile phone software it issues to many workers.

San Bernardino County, which employed Farook as an environmental health inspector, requires some, but not all, of its workers to install mobile-device management software made by Silicon Valley-based MobileIron Inc MOBL.O on government-issued phones, according to county spokesman David Wert.

That software is designed to secure corporate data. It also allows information technology departments to remotely unlock phones, even without assistance of the phone’s users or access to the password needed to open the phone and unscramble the data.

“If that particular iPhone was using MobileIron, the county’s IT department could unlock it,” MobileIron Vice President Ojas Rege told Reuters.

«

So there was huge confusion around this phone. Understandable: there’s a mass shooting, the fugitives escape surveillance, a phone is found. Perhaps it is bagged as evidence and its battery runs down, which means it can’t be forced to make an iCloud backup even on trusted Wi-Fi, and that you can’t ask Siri for details about phone calls. Then they reset the password (at the FBI’s request), which made things even worse.

A mess from start to finish – but given that Farook destroyed two other phones, how likely is it that this phone was used to communicate with anyone relevant? Answer: it’s extremely unlikely.
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Reconciling perspectives: new report reframes encryption debate » Berkman Center

»The Berklett Cybersecurity Project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is pleased to announce the publication of a new report entitled “Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the ‘Going Dark’ Debate.” The report examines the high-profile debate around government access to encryption, and offers a new perspective gleaned from the discussion, debate, and analyses of an exceptional and diverse group of security and policy experts from academia, civil society, and the U.S. intelligence community.

“Many conversations on sensitive subjects of technology and security are productive because they’re among people who already agree,” said Prof. Jonathan Zittrain, faculty chair of the Berkman Center. “The aim of this project is to bring together people who come from very different starting points and roles, and who very rarely have a chance to speak frankly with one another. We want to come away with some common insights that could help push the discussion into some new territory.”

The report takes issue with the usual framing of the encryption debate and offers context and insights that widen the scope of the conversation to more accurately reflect the surveillance landscape both now and in the future.

«

Thanks Seth Finkelstein for the link.
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Apple is selling you a phone, not civil liberties » Lawfare

Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes:

»First, the Going Dark skeptics [who say that it’s OK for phones to be encrypted beyond the capability of companies or law enforcement to decrypt them] demand, show us the cases in which the absence of extraordinary law enforcement access to encrypted data is actually posing a problem. And this demand seemed quite reasonable, in our view. If the FBI wants to take the position that it has a problem, it has to do more than cry wolf. Show us the wolf.

And in the last couple of weeks, the bureau has shown some serious wolf. Consider this excerpt from Director James Comey’s testimony before Congress last week: “A woman was murdered in Louisiana last summer, eight months pregnant, killed, no clue as to who did it, except her phone is there when she’s found killed. They couldn’t open it, still can’t open it. So the case remains unsolved.” (The discussion is available here starting at 31:00.)

Then came the filing in the San Bernardino case this week. Note that this is a case that has a potentially serious ISIS link. The FBI has been sitting on one of the shooter’s phones for more than two months, unable to open it. It wants Apple’s help to determine “who [the shooters] may have communicated with to plan and carry out the IRC shootings, where Farook and Malik may have traveled to and from before and after the incident, and other pertinent information that would provide more information about their and others’ involvement in the deadline shooting.”

This is, in other words, a law enforcement and intelligence interest of the highest order…

«

That Comey testimony, in this extract, is pretty thin gruel; her phone contains the whole answer to the crime? No clues in any physical evidence at all? No clues from her telephone records (which are available from the mobile carrier)? Nothing in her personal computer, assuming she has one? Nothing on any social media profiles, perhaps linked to Tinder? That’s a pretty remarkable murder, and the implication that all the necessary clues are locked inside her phone feels even more remarkable.

But it’s important to read viewpoints like this to realise what the other side of the argument is, and how it carries the same steamroller-style momentum that you might think the privacy/security one does.
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No, Apple has not unlocked 70 iPhones for law enforcement » TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino:

»I keep seeing reports that Apple has unlocked “70 iPhones” for the government. And those reports argue that Apple is now refusing to do for the FBI what it has done many times before. This meme is completely inaccurate at best, and dangerous at worst.

There are two cases involving data requests by the government which are happening at the moment. There is a case in New York — in which Apple is trying really hard not to hand over customer information even though it has the tools to do so — and there is the case in California, where it is fighting an order from the FBI to intentionally weaken the security of a device to allow its passcode to be cracked by brute force. These are separate cases with separate things at stake.

The New York case involves an iPhone running iOS 7. On devices running iOS 7 and previous, Apple actually has the capability to extract data, including (at various stages in its encryption march) contacts, photos, calls and iMessages without unlocking the phones. That last bit is key, because in the previous cases where Apple has complied with legitimate government requests for information, this is the method it has used.

It has not unlocked these iPhones — it has extracted data that was accessible while they were still locked. The process for doing this is laid out in its white paper for law enforcement…

It’s worth noting that the government has some tools to unlock phones without Apple’s help, but those are hit and miss, and have nothing to do with Apple. It’s worth noting that in its statements to the court in the New York case, the government never says Apple unlocks devices, but rather that it bypasses the lock to extract the information.

«

Just to clear that up.
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The colour of surveillance » Slate

Alvaro Bedoya:

»The FBI has a lead. A prominent religious leader and community advocate is in contact with a suspected sleeper agent of foreign radicals. The attorney general is briefed and personally approves wiretaps of his home and offices. The man was born in the United States, the son of a popular cleric. Even though he’s an American citizen, he’s placed on a watchlist to be summarily detained in the event of a national emergency. Of all similar suspects, the head of FBI domestic intelligence thinks he’s “the most dangerous,” at least “from the standpoint of … national security.”

Is this a lone wolf in league with foreign sponsors of terrorism? No: This was the life of Martin Luther King Jr. That FBI assessment was dated Aug. 30, 1963—two days after King told our country that he had a dream…

…Across our history and to this day, people of color have been the disproportionate victims of unjust surveillance; Hoover was no aberration. And while racism has played its ugly part, the justification for this monitoring was the same we hear today: national security.

The FBI’s violations against King were undeniably tinged by what historian David Garrow has called “an organizational culture of like-minded white men.” But as Garrow and others have shown, the FBI’s initial wiretap requests—and then–Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of them—were driven by a suspected tie between King and the Communist Party. It wasn’t just King; Cesar Chavez, the labor and civil rights leader, was tracked for years as a result of vague, confidential tips about “a communist background,” as were many others.

«

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October 2010: What’s really wrong with BlackBerry (and what to do about it) » Mobile Opportunity

Michael Mace, on an old post which happens to hold some useful insights that are worth remembering:

»When I worked at Apple, I spent a lot of time studying failed computer platforms. I thought that if we understood the failures, we might be able to prevent the same thing from happening to us.

I looked at everything from videogame companies to the early PC pioneers (companies like Commodore and Atari), and I found an interesting pattern in their financial results. The early symptoms of decline in a computing platform were very subtle, and easy for a business executive to rationalize away. By the time the symptoms became obvious, it was usually too late to do anything about them.

The symptoms to watch closely are small declines in two metrics: the rate of growth of sales, and gross profit per unit sold (gross margins). Here’s why:

Every computing platform has a natural pool of customers. Some people need or want the platform, and some people don’t. Your product spreads through its pool of customers via the traditional “diffusion” process — early enthusiasts first, late adopters at the end.

It’s relatively easy to get good revenue from the early adopters. They seek out innovations like yours, and are willing to pay top dollar for it. As the market for a computer system matures, the early adopters get used up, and the company starts selling to middle adopters who are more price-sensitive. In response to this, the company cuts prices, which results in a big jump in sales. Total revenue goes up, and usually overall profits as well. Everybody in the company feels good…

«

But trouble lies ahead.
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Global smartwatch shipments overtake Swiss watch shipments in Q4 2015 » Strategy Analytics

»According to the latest research from Strategy Analytics, global smartwatch shipments reached 8.1m units in Q4 2015, compared with 7.9m Swiss Watch shipments. It is the first time ever that smartwatches have outshipped Swiss watches on a global basis.

Cliff Raskind, director at Strategy Analytics, said, “We estimate global smartwatch shipments reached 8.1m units in Q4 2015, rising a healthy 316% from 1.9m in Q4 2014. Smartwatches are growing rapidly in North America, Western Europe and Asia. Apple Watch captured an impressive 63% share of the global smartwatch market in Q4 2015, followed by Samsung with 16%. Apple and Samsung together account for a commanding 8 in 10 of all smartwatches shipped worldwide.”

Steven Waltzer, Analyst at Strategy Analytics, added, “We estimate global Swiss watch shipments reached 7.9m units in Q4 2015, falling 5% from 8.3m in Q4 2014. Global demand for Swiss watches is slowing down, and major players like Swatch are struggling to find growth.”

«

The lost 0.4m units doesn’t seem like a big problem at first. But then, nothing bad seems like a big problem at first – as above.
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Peeling paint, website bugs: Ringing Bell’s ₹251 phone in a storm of controversies day after launch » Huffington Post

Ivan Mehta:

»It started on an off note after Manohar Parrikar, India’s defence minister, did not show up at the event hosted to launch the phone. The details given out about the phone’s specs were nothing if not vague. A Hindustan Times report suggested that when asked the policy behind the pricing of the phone, Ashok Chadha, an official from the company, said the real cost of the device was ₹2500, which will be recovered through a raft of measures like economies of scale, innovative marketing, reduction in duties and creating an e-commerce marketplace.

Pranav Dixit, Tech editor for the Hindustan Times also said in a Reddit AMA that he has received a letter from the Indian Cellular Association (ICA), written to telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, that estimates that the phone should cost at least USD 60 (Approx. ₹4100).

The phones handed over to the press all have an Adcom logo hidden behind a coat of white paint that easily peeled off. A report from Gadgets 360 suggested that phones handed out as review units were not the final products which will be shipped. That raises the question that who is building the final product? The report also says that Ringing Bells has not been registered at BIS, making their devices unsafe to use.

«

Gets worse. So, $4? Probably more like $40 in reality.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:

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