Start up: Google buys more AI, iTunes’s overload, how SoftRAM fooled the world, Google Maps v Uber, and more


What makes a good chatbot? Photo by reynermedia on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not for resale in Kansas. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Prices of low-end smartphone panels hit new historical highs in september as demand outpaces supply • TrendForce

Julian Lee is an analyst at research company Trendforce:

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strong demand is pushing up prices of LCD panels for smartphone displays of the lower resolution specs. With demand for high-end device models falling short of expectations, smartphone brands are now relying on low-end devices with bargain-priced panels to boost their product shipments. However, limited supply and increasing demand have caused prices of 4-inch WVGA and 4.5-inch FWVGA panels to reach new highs in September, with monthly increases at over 50%, respectively. Looking ahead, prices of lower-end smartphone panels are expected to keep rising in the fourth quarter.

WitsView’s latest analysis indicates that this year’s high-end smartphone models have not been well-received by consumers due to various reasons, such as the lack of innovations, unclear product positioning and even serious product quality issues. Adjusting to the market conditions, smartphone brands are now stepping up shipments of mid-range and low-end devices to achieve their annual shipment targets. Though lower-end smartphone panels are not actively promoted by suppliers due their weak product margins, their demand has soared recently as smartphone brands need them to sustain their overall device shipments.

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That bit about “annual shipment targets” – and the miss on the high end (and the “various reasons”) – is notable.
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Common bot misconceptions • Medium

Amir Shevat, head of developer relations at Slack:

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With every new technology and paradigm, there are a lot of misconceptions, but I’ll try to set the record straight about the most common ones concerning bots.

1. “Bots are AI”

Wrong, most bots do not currently use AI, a lot of them will never need to use AI.

Some bots use Natural Language Processing/Understanding to map what the user is saying to the bot to an actual intent. For example, there are many ways to say you want to book a ticket to a movie — “I wanna book a ticket for later this evening”, “I want to go to the movies tonight”, “book me a ticket to a movie after 8pm”- all of these mean more or less the same, but for a developer it is quite hard to map these into an intent to book a ticket this evening. That is the most common use of AI today in bots, this is not what most people think about when they say artificial intelligence.

In addition, AI is not limited to bots – bots are by far not the only use case for AI. There are great AI solutions, for example image recognition or finding the right song you want to hear right now — solutions that uses AI but does not require bots.

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And there’s more.
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Google acquires natural language understanding startup Api.ai • VentureBeat

Jordan Novet:

»

Google today said that it’s acquired API.ai, a startup with tools for speech recognition and natural language understanding. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

In addition to its developers tools, Api.ai offers a conversational assistant app with more than 20 million users.

Google did not disclose its plans for integrating the startup’s technology. That will be important, as Google already has tools for natural language understanding and speech recognition, and it has unveiled a Google Assistant that will be available through text messaging interface and the Google Home smart speaker.

“API.AI has a proven track record for helping developers design, build and continuously improve their conversational interfaces,” Google vice president of engineering Scott Huffman wrote in a blog post. “Over 60,000 developers are using Api.ai to build conversational experiences, for environments such as Slack, Facebook Messenger and Kik, to name just a few. Api.ai offers one of the leading conversational user interface platforms and they’ll help Google empower developers to continue building great natural language interfaces.”

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Just a guess, but might they use it for conversational AI?
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iTunes will never work well • Medium

Firas Durri:

»

At this point, whatever the causes of the product problems with iTunes and related iOS apps — feature scope, management, team structure, etc. —we can be pretty sure that the only ‘solution’ will appear when this software achieves end-of-life, the same way that the mystery of how to set recording time on VCRs was finally solved by their obsolescence.

«

iTunes used to be really simple, because it didn’t have a great deal to do: play music stored on your computer, through your computer. Then it had to sync with an iPod. Then it had to sync with an iPhone and its apps. Then with video content which might be rented. Then with an iPad and its apps. Then with a cloud library. Then with a music streaming service. No wonder its UI looks exhausted; its functions have been split into separate apps on iOS (Podcasts, App Store, iTunes Store, Music).

And yet it’s still widely used.
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Snake oil software – or how SoftRAM hoodwinked the world • Digital Trends

Brad Jones:

»

When Windows 95 launched in August 1995, there was only one piece of software available that was specifically written for the brand new operating system. SoftRAM 95 was a utility intended to double a system’s memory without the need for a hardware upgrade, and it was in stock at retail locations around the country as consumers ventured out to make the jump from Windows 3.1.

There was only one problem. SoftRAM 95 didn’t work.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t common knowledge. No one knew until after the software had become a best-seller across the globe. Back in the 1990s, SoftRAM hoodwinked hundreds of thousands of people. But that was before the age of widespread internet connectivity. Today, we’re more informed and harder to fool — right?

“The reason that it got as much attention and publicity as it got was that on the day that Windows 95 launched — August 24, 1995 — it was the only Windows 95-specific software available,” recalled Larry Seltzer, then a technical director for PC Magazine.

“Someone told me that they had been testing this, and that their claims are full of crap,” Seltzer continued. “I had already been involved in test labs for a long time, and the people involved with those labs talked with each other, so there was a lot of behind-the-scenes chatter about it.”

Despite these rumors of wrong-doing, SoftRAM was a hit with the general public.

«

It took a while to tear down (much longer, oddly, than the real problem with Intel’s flawed multiplication a year before) and prove false. But as Jones points out, “placebo” is still around today – you just don’t pay for it with money.
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Samsung unloads tech shares as it braces for Galaxy Note 7 recall costs • WSJ

Kwanwoo Jun:

»

Over the past decade, Samsung has used its massive manufacturing scale to expand into smartphones, televisions and components such as displays and semiconductors. But top executives believe that those markets are no longer able to generate the huge growth returns Samsung has seen in the past. In the smartphone market, Samsung is currently facing Chinese and Indian upstarts that are offering high-spec phones at cheaper prices. Meanwhile, Apple Inc. on Friday launched its newest iPhone, matching Samsung’s waterproof and advanced camera phones.

In a statement Sunday, the South Korea-based tech giant said it sold off its entire 4.2% stake in Seagate Technology and its whole 4.5% stake in Rambus, both based in California. Samsung also confirmed the previously reported sales of half of its 2.9% stake in ASML Holding and its full 0.7% stake in Sharp.

A person familiar with the stake sale told The Wall Street Journal last week Samsung was selling about half of its stake in ASML for €606m ($676m). Samsung’s stakes in Rambus, Seagate and Sharp were valued at more than $500m combined, based on Friday’s closing prices.

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The Note 7 recall costs will be an exceptional item, so won’t affect operating profits (except they couldn’t sell any more), but will affect the bottom (net) line. This sale near quarter end thus looks like an effort to keep the dividend up by having cash on hand.
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Exclusive: Google may face over $400m Indonesia tax bill for 2015 – government official • Reuters

Gayatri Suroyo and Eveline Danubrata:

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Most of the revenue generated in the country is booked at Google’s Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore. Google Asia Pacific declined to be audited in June, prompting the tax office to escalate the case into a criminal one, [Indonesian tax affairs chief Muhammad] Hanif said.

“Google’s argument is that they just did tax planning,” Hanif said. “Tax planning is legal, but aggressive tax planning – to the extent that the country where the revenue is made does not get anything – is not legal.”

The tax office will summon directors from Google Indonesia who also hold positions at Google Asia Pacific, Hanif said, adding that it is working with the Indonesian police.

Globally, it is rare for a state investigation of corporate tax structures to be escalated into a criminal case.

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Hailing more ride service options in Google Maps • Google Maps blog

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Back in March, we introduced a new way for people to find and compare the fastest ways to get around town by adding a new ride services tab when searching for directions in Google Maps. Today, we’re adding two more partners in the U.S., Lyft and Gett. Now Google Maps will display options from 9 ride-sharing partners in over 60 countries, allowing you to compare the fastest, most affordable ride near you, without having to download and open multiple apps.

Say you’re looking to get from the High Line to Times Square in Manhattan. When typing these locations into the Google Maps app, you’ll see a ride services tab appear alongside driving, transit and walking directions. Just tap the icon and you’ll find fare estimates and pick up times from multiple ride service partners, depending on driver availability. We’ll also show various types of services offered by each partner— for instance Lyft may also show options for a Lyft Line ride.

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Ben Thompson pointed out this blogpost in his daily Stratechery update, suggesting that it creates a threat for Uber because it will now be priced directly against other services.

My first thought though was: this is Google trying to get people out of non-Google apps, and back onto its own ones. If you order your Uber in Google Maps, it can (potentially) show you an ad.

The question now is: does Uber mind this use of its API? If it does, can it afford to block it, or would the lost business be too great? (I suspect “no” and “perhaps”.) So far, then, a win for Google.
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Microsoft lays off hundreds of employees this week, largely in Redmond, London • ZDNet

Mary Jo Foley:

»

The Financial Times reported on September 16 that Microsoft is planning to shut down Skype’s London offices. A Microsoft spokesperson with whom I spoke today characterized the London cuts as a consolidation of some engineering positions that affected both Skype and Yammer. The spokesperson said about 220 jobs would be eliminated as a result.

Microsoft cut about 300 additional people globally this past week, the company spokesperson confirmed, with the majority of those cuts affecting those working in the Puget Sound, Wash., area. I saw a few people cut from various teams in Redmond earlier this week post about the cuts on Facebook.

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Sony Xperia XZ and Xperia X Compact won’t have fingerprint scanners in the US • Phone Arena

Florin T:

»

Sony’s brand new Xperia XZ and Xperia X Compact are coming soon to the US. In case you’re planning to buy any of them, you should first know this: unlike their European counterparts, the US-bound Xperia XZ and X Compact do not feature fingerprint scanners. This is confirmed by Sony Mobile’s US website, where full specs for both phones are available (see the source links below), and there’s no mention of fingerprint scanners whatsoever.

The non-US Xperia XZ and Xperia X Compact have fingerprint scanners embedded in their power buttons, but Sony decided to remove them from the devices that will be shipped in the States. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Sony did the same with the Xperia X Performance, Xperia Z5, and Xperia Z5 Compact. As for why this is happening, there is no official explanation.

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Perhaps I can help? HP has a patent in the US on fingerprint scanners in power buttons. Filed in 2009, published in 2012, and I’d guess that HP wants some good money for it – which Sony’s money-losing mobile division really can’t afford given the tiny volumes in the US.

The patent is also published (hence valid?) through WIPO, Europe and China – but maybe Sony thinks it’s worth paying there. Though one would think it would move to a different design, to avoid the patent.
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Has the UK got Tech Talent? • BBC News

Rory Cellan-Jones:

»

Across BBC News outlets this week, under the banner Tech Talent, we are asking whether the UK can compete in the global technology industry – and why we haven’t produced a tech giant on the scale of Google or Apple. Here are my thoughts on those questions.

In the last ten days I’ve met the founder of a British games company which is still independent after a quarter of a century, and about to launch one of Sony’s first virtual reality titles.

I’ve attended a celebration to mark the extraordinary success of the Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer created in Cambridge to teach children to code, which has now achieved global sales of ten million.

And I’ve had a demo of the latest products from a fledgling company called Chirp, created by a University College London scientist to transmit data via an audio signal.

All of these are examples of a thriving British technology landscape. So why, over nearly 20 years of covering the tech scene, do I keep getting asked the same thing – where is the UK’s Google?

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What isn’t mentioned in the piece, but seems relevant, is that Google, Apple, Facebook and so on can count on scale: the US is largely homogenous and can be largely covered using a single language (add Spanish and you’re pretty much at 100%). The UK is part of Europe (presently) but crucially you can’t reach all its users with a single language, plus there are cross-border differences in business practice.

That said, the UK has produced lots of top-flight tech companies. We just tend to overlook them until they get bought.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yesterday we linked to Ars Technica’s piece about the 2003 Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP, which didn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack. Guess what? Every model after that did have a headphone jack. (Bet the iPhone 7’s successors won’t.)

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