Start up: Lenovo guts Motorola, print PDFs on iOS 10!, Nadella on AI, BlackBerry’s halt?, and more

Nice planet. Let’s go there. Photo by Kevin M Gill on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Elon Musk’s Mars mission: all the news from the big announcement • The Verge

Russell Brandom:


On September 27, Elon Musk announced a bold new plan to establish a permanent human habitation on Mars with his company SpaceX. It’s one of the most ambitious schemes Musk — or humanity in general — has ever attempted, relying on huge advances in both rocketry and spaceship construction. Follow along here for the latest news about the project, and whether Musk can succeed in his longheld dream of bringing humanity to Mars.

Developing. Check out our SpaceX Mars Colonization liveblog for the latest updates and our storystream for all the news!


Sometimes I think that The Verge is actually one of those fake news sites that you see in films, announcing some new plot exposition. All it’s missing is the spinning headline.

(Sure, Musk announced all this stuff. It’s interesting. But it’s a long way to Mars. Matt Damon can probably sleep easy, without fear of abandonment, for now.)
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Facebook ordered to stop harvesting data on WhatsApp users in Germany • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:


Facebook has been ordered to stop harvesting the data of WhatsApp users in Germany.

The move follows the latter’s shock announcement last month that it would start sharing user data with its parent company, Facebook, including users’ phone numbers and last seen time in the app. Stated uses for the data includes marketing/ad targeting.

Shock because, back at the time of the $19BN acquisition, WhatsApp’s founder publicly stated that nothing would change for users of the ad-free messaging platform as a result of selling to the social network giant. Full marks if you didn’t believe a word of it at the time.

But reneging on such public statement looks to be what’s got the two into hot water in Hamburg now, with the city’s data protection authority describing the resulting situation as both misleading for users and a breach of national data protection law.


No doubt in a couple of years the UK’s Data Protection Registrar will decide the same, neatly shutting the stable door after the horse has moved to the next town and sent its kids to university.
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B2G OS and Gecko Annoucement from Ari Jaaksi & David Bryant • Google Groups

Julie McCracken, senior engineering program manager at the Mozilla foundation:


By the end of 2015 Mozilla leadership had come to the conclusion that our then Firefox OS initiative of shipping phones with commercial partners would not bring Mozilla the returns we sought. We made the first of a series of announcements about changes in the development of Firefox OS at Mozilla.  Since then we have gradually wound down that work and, as of the end of July 2016 have stopped all commercial development on Firefox OS. This message recaps what transpired during that period of time and also describes what will happen with the Firefox OS code base going forward.


Without a smartphone presence, the future for Mozilla looks unclear. The desktop is becoming less important, and it isn’t the default browser on any platform. Of course, that was the case when Firefox rose to prominence on the desktop too.
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Ordinary punters will get squat from smart meters, reckons report • The Register

Kat Hall:


Smart meters will benefit suppliers nearly twice as much as consumers in terms of cost savings, according to an assessment by the late Department for Energy and Climate Change.

The government’s £11bn smart meter project will require energy suppliers to offer 53 million meters to homes and small businesses by 2020. Smart meters are being rolled out in two phases.

The mass rollout phase is expected to begin next month, after several major delays. There are now more than 3.6 million smart meters in operation.

A Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee “evidence check” of smart meters noted that “although the scale and durability of such savings is contested and it would appear that the rollout could alter consumption levels by 2–3%.”

DECC’s assessment of the cost savings, contained in the evidence check, found that overall consumers in the UK would save £4.3bn, while suppliers would save nearly £8bn by cutting site visits and reduced inquiries.

Nick Hunn, CTO of WiFore Consulting, told the committee he was sceptical of the extent to which consumers will change their behaviour for a relatively modest financial reward, arguing that “£26 a year or 7p a day is not a big incentive”, and that “there are far cheaper ways of achieving savings”.


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The decline of Stack Overflow • Hackernoon

This is from 2015, but nothing is reckoned to have changed: Stack Overflow – like so many sites which have user-generated content and user-policed content – has been overrun by people who love to be in control. So, asks John Slegers:


Are there any alternatives?

Quora might seem like an obvious choice, but it shares many of the issues common at Stack Overflow, albeit in a less obvious manner. For example, downvoted answers are cleverly hidden from the eyes of most users and it’s not uncommon for answers to be deleted without any explanation or notification and/or without a visible trace to anyone but the answer’s author. Quora is giving some users completely anonymous powers to edit the site as they see fit, yet almost nobody seems to know about it.

So while Quora may seem more democratic and reasonable, this is really only at the surface. Trolling and plain petty authoritarianism from privileged users is no less common on that site. For many of the same reasons Huxley’s dystopian A Brave New World is more creepy and disturing than Orwell’s dystopian 1984, Quora is more creepy and more disturbing as a Q&A community than Stack Overflow.


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Premium commoditization • CCS Insight


Apple and Samsung have made $650 the standard starting point for flagship smartphones in the US. Each year these leading manufacturers up the specs with their new generation products while maintaining the price, but at some point in time, this cycle is bound to break down. This could be starting now.

We believe that consumer behaviour is showing a shift that’s starting with the younger generation of users who better understand device pricing and product features. On social media platforms and at several leading online retail sites, some smartphones are trending — an important indication of a growing awareness of value.

In particular, there is a trinity of budget premium smartphones making $400 a new standard price for value buyers. Huawei’s Honor 8, the OnePlus 3 and ZTE’s Axon 7 are attention-grabbing phones and it’s difficult to believe that devices like these won’t have a longer-term effect on the overall global market.

Huawei’s Honor 8 is a 5.2in phone with 32GB of storage, a 12-megapixel rear camera, USB Type-C and 4GB of RAM. It has a fingerprint sensor and NFC as well as an octa-core HiSilicon processor (Huawei’s in-house chipset brand). ZTE’s Axon 7 is a 5.5in phone running Android on a Snapdragon 820 with 4GB of RAM, a 20-megapixel rear camera, and 64GB of on-board storage. It also has a fingerprint sensor and NFC reader. The OnePlus 3 is also a 5.5in phone running on a Snapdragon 820 processor, but comes with 6GB of RAM. It’s also loaded with the same sensors and readers and USB-C.

For consumers who are less brand-conscious and interested in separating their phones from their operator payments, such devices are proving to be appealing.


$400 is the new $650.
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The tao of Notch beyond Twitter • The Escapist

Brad Glasgow interviews “Notch” – aka Markus Persson – who became fabulously wealthy when he sold Minecraft to Microsoft:


You’ve talked on Twitter about feeling isolated and you mentioned that it is difficult to tell who is your friend and who is there for the money. You’ve talked about how you like Vegas because you know everyone is there for your money.

MP: This was like a year ago or something?

BG: Right.

MP: Since then I’ve basically come completely out of it. Because I also realized that I’m really an introvert. So I think I kind of had this problem before, always, for my entire life. I didn’t necessarily want to have a lot of friends. And then once you sell your company and have a lot of money there’s not much else to do than continue learning or meet friends and exploring the real world, which is really fun, but it has been kind of a jarring change. I got to play it off, all of it, as just being a weird, eccentric Swedish guy, so it was easier to stop being social.

TE: It seems that it created an image online where people think you are this lonely, depressed rich guy with nothing to do.

MP: Well yeah, that’s the cultural idea of who I am, that I’ve become that.

TE: Is it accurate?

MP: I mean, I spend a lot of time alone, but it’s not as if I’m lonely, because that’s how I feel the most productive and happy. Generally if I’ve been alone programming for a couple of months then yeah I’m going to want to go out and see friends. So I kind of go back and forth, spend some time just programming and learning, you know, playing around with WebGL. And then I spend like a month doing a lot of social stuff like partying. I love partying. And a lot of dinners. I’m trying to learn how to appreciate red wine, which is impossible. I like red wine but I never remember any of it, like names of the old French chateaus.


It’s an eight-page interview (90 minutes of Skype chat). You can put the idea of Persson as some sort of gloomy bloke sitting in an empty mansion to bed.
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Blackberry phones face thumbs down • FT

Nic Fildes:


For many, a decision to close the unit would be an inevitable consequence of BlackBerry’s downward spiral since the ill-fated BlackBerry 10 launch in 2013. Then, its creative director, the singer Alicia Keys, unveiled the new handsets on stage, before continuing to tweet from an iPhone in the following days.

The latest industry data make grim reading for [BlackBerry CEO John] Chen as he considers whether to abandon making phones and go all in on software and security technology.

Smartphone sales figures from Gartner, the research company, show BlackBerry had a pitiful market share of 0.1% in the second quarter. That represented shipments of only 400,400 phones — less than a third of what it achieved the year before and a fraction of the 15m it sold in a quarter six years ago when at its peak.

Annette Zimmermann, an analyst with Gartner, said BlackBerry has sold only 1m phones this year. “That is not a sustainable business,” she said. “I don’t see any upside in trying to return it to a better state. It is the end of the story.”

There is still hope that a much smaller, more focused BlackBerry could succeed as a niche player and companies such as the rejuvenated Nintendo have proved that persistence can pay off. In April, Mr Chen hired Alex Thurber, a former McAfee executive, as his new head of device sales, suggesting he had not given up.


“Creative director”. Oh yes. And yet Chen boasted at the previous quarterly results that phones were near to gross margin breakeven. (Long way from operating profit though.) BlackBerry announces its quarterly results today, Wednesday.
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Satya Nadella on Microsoft’s new age of intelligence • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:


“In the long arc of time, I learned from our own history that you can’t assume any high-volume device will be at the center of all activities for all time to come,” [Satya] Nadella adds, implying that just as Windows didn’t rule the world indefinitely, it’s not a given that iOS and Android will reign forever.

In the time since Nadella began making cloud-first, mobile-first into a mantra, it’s become clear that it involves a lot more than just making sure that Microsoft’s best-known apps are available in capable versions for iPhones, iPads, and Android devices.

Earlier this year, for instance, the company acquired SwiftKey, a third-party keyboard for Android and iOS that, in its Android incarnation, now utilizes neural network technology to power its guesses about what you’re really trying to type. “We’ve proved that the keyboard is not associated with the device, it’s associated with you,” says Nadella. “That’s a fundamental shift in computing.”

Nothing is more core to Microsoft’s AI vision than the way it treats Cortana as an agent that—with your consent—can know quite a bit about you, and then share it with specialized bots on a need-to-know basis. (The service currently has 133 million active users across Windows iOS, and Android.) As Nadella explains it, “it’s your data, as opposed to something that’s going to be used for advertising or conflated with other data or transferred over to other apps without your consent.”


That “long arc of time” phrase is a good one (Tim Cook uses it to insist iPad sales will recover); the numbers for Cortana are surprisingly high to me. (Presume most of those are on Windows 10 PCs and Xbox.) Would love to know what the daily user numbers are.
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Motorola goes through yet another massive layoff (updated) • Droid Life



According to two sources close to the matter, Lenovo just laid off hundreds of employees at Motorola, potentially more than 50% of the remaining workforce at the mobile device maker. One source actually pegged the number at 700+ out of 1200 remaining who will be told that they no longer have a job within the next day. 

At least one now-former employee took to Facebook to confirm the news (we’ve decided not to include a link to preserve his privacy), saying that he has been with the company for over 20 years and his last day will be this Friday. He mentioned that Lenovo was moving more operations to China, which one of our sources said has been the increasing pattern over the past two years. That source also thinks (according to the internal rumor mill) they may just relocate some remaining Chicago-based staff to North Carolina where Lenovo US is based. EDIT: Motorola denies this rumor and says they plan to keep their HQ in Chicago.


Lenovo confirmed to Droid-Life that the total number affected would be “less than 2% of the 55,000 employed by Lenovo globally” – which puts it at up to 1,100.

An executive at a US company once said to me that Google’s disposal of Motorola to Lenovo was a shocking act – the destruction of a longstanding American brand which was a pioneer in the mobile phone business. Now the staff are out too – on brutally short termination periods.
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Print to PDF on iOS 10 • Devonian Times


iOS 10 comes with a great but somewhat hidden feature: Print to PDF. It allows you to save any document that you can print as a PDF and send it by email or clip it to DEVONthink To Go.

In the Share sheet from any app choose Print. The print preview dialog appears. Now instead of printing “pinch” on the print preview like just as if you’d want to enlarge it. It opens — now as a PDF — in a separate dialog. Choose Share again and send it anywhere you like.


Who on earth thinks of doing the “zoom out” action and discovers this? But thank god someone did. Equally, though, was it put in intentionally by Apple, or is it some byproduct of how iOS 10 renders content (PDF is at the base of all display on OSX, and by extension iOS)?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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