Start up: gaming Twitter, censoring Facebook, Karhoo’s collapse, MacBook Pro RAM and more

Cyber Monday Shopping
Christmas shoppers in the US aren’t excited about the range of technology on offer. Photo by Mike McCune on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Vitamin-free. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How I learned to game Twitter • New Yorker

Joe Mande:

The simplest way to tell who’s winning the Twitter game is by counting followers. The biggest celebrity accounts—Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga—seem to have millions of followers. But in 2012 I learned that only a portion of those are real humans; some are “bots,” artificially created to boost an account’s popularity. Immediately, I knew that I had found my calling. First, I would buy a million followers. When that stunt was done, I would see how far I could push it. Three million followers? Thirty million? My goal was to have the world’s highest count of followers, all of them fake. It would be an elaborate meta-joke, a piece of performance art demonstrating that social media is stupid and fame is meaningless. When I explained my plan to my girlfriend, she reminded me that I used to be “too cool for Twitter.” I told her that I still was—and this would prove it! On Fiverr.com, a sort of online ninety-nine-cent store, I found a bot vender. I sent five dollars to a PayPal account, and that afternoon my follower count ballooned, from seventy thousand to more than a hundred thousand. But these bots were shoddy: the user names were random strings of numbers, and the bio sections were empty. It didn’t take long for Twitter’s bot-detection system to find and destroy them.

The arms race was only just beginning.


Don’t write off the PC just yet • Bloomberg Gadfly

Shira Ovide:

Above all, the PC industry has become a barbell. There’s promise in selling high-end and low-priced models, with a vast swath of declining demand in the middle… …Catering to the high end has been a windfall to both Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft generated more than $4.1bn in revenue in its last fiscal year from its Surface lineup. That is new revenue for the software giant, which started its own line of PCs in 2012. Microsoft also recently introduced the Surface Studio, an innovative $3,000-and-up desktop computer aimed at the creative types that have long been Apple’s customer base. And although Mac sales have declined in the last year as Apple’s computer models grew long in the tooth, Macs still generated $22.8bn in revenue in the last 12 months. That is more than the annual revenue of all but 117 public companies in the U.S. The company also recently rolled out a new line of the high-end Macbook Pro computers at higher prices. As Apple has done with its iPhone business, if the company has trouble increasing Mac sales, at least it can wring more money from each one. The even bigger PC success story can be found at the low end of the market. IDC estimates unit sales of PCs priced below $300 – including Alphabet Inc.’s stripped down Chromebook laptops – will increase 7% this year.

Though as Ovide points out, Microsoft’s Surface revenue has probably come largely from HP rather than Apple. The PC business is barely even zero-sum competition now, given the way it’s shrinking.


Facebook said to create censorship tool to get back into China • New York Times

Mike Isaac:

The suppression software has been contentious within Facebook, which is separately grappling with what should or should not be shown to its users after the American presidential election’s unexpected outcome spurred questions over fake news on the social network. Several employees who were working on the project have left Facebook after expressing misgivings about it, according to the current and former employees. A Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement, “We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country.” She added that the company had made no decisions on its approach into China. Facebook’s tricky position underscores the difficulties that many American internet companies have had gaining access to China. For years, companies like Google and Twitter have been blocked there for refusing to yield to the government’s demands around censorship. In 2010, Google said it was directing users of its search engine in China to its service in Hong Kong, because of censorship and intrusion from hackers. Other companies, like the professional social networking service LinkedIn, agreed to censor some content on their platforms in China.

It’s quite the dilemma: if Facebook folds to China’s demands, then what becomes of Silicon Valley’s ideals? But if it doesn’t, look at all that money left on the table. And Zuckerberg only a multi-billionaire beset by rows about the possibly malign influence of his invention.


Do not count on early adopters to positively impact sales this holiday season • Creative Strategies

Carolina Milanesi on a survey of shoppers’ intentions:

mainstream consumers were not interested in any new technology category. A whopping 64% said they were not planning to buy anything among the hot holiday’s items compared to a more moderate 33% of early adopters. Wireless headsets were the category most mentioned by both early tech and mainstream as an item of interest. We cannot point to Apple as being the driver of this interest, given the iPhone 7’s lack of audio jack. However, it is easy to see how new working habits that see people being highly mobile and working in remote locations might help drive updates for work as well as play with a higher focus on content consumption. The Nintendo NES Classic was another item that stood out across the two groups with 11% of early adopters and 5% of mainstream consumers saying it was on their shopping list. We dug deeper into consumers’ intention for wearables, smartphones, TVs and PC/tablets. We looked at drivers and inhibitors, and we saw little change to the themes we discussed earlier in the year. Inhibitors were longer life cycles for smartphones and PCs/tablets, unclear value add for wearables, and lack of a need to replace TVs. Every year we see an enormous amount of marketing dollars spent leading up to the holidays in advertising and promotions over the holidays with the pinnacle being Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Interestingly, it does not seem mainstream consumers see those deals as very influential. Across the main categories, wearables and TVs are where that influence matters more. I find this interesting because these two categories are also the ones where consumers are focusing on spending the bare minimum.

I get the feeling that we’re very much in a lacuna, technologically speaking; rather like 2002-4, when the first internet wave had gone and the next was waiting to build momentum.


How much humiliation can the special relationship take? • Foreign Policy

Alex Massie:

Even so, Trump’s willingness to flatter Farage — his tweet follows a meeting between the two men at Trump’s impressively vulgar New York tower — remains remarkable. Then again, perhaps he just knows a huckster when he sees one. Farage, who has seven times tried without success to be elected to the British Parliament, evidently enjoys basking in the reflected glory of the new president’s approval. Like Trump, Farage enjoys slithering from television studio to television studio imagining himself to be the voice of the people. This obscures the inconvenient fact that the people have a commendably low opinion of the leader of the UK Independence Party. Farage imagines himself as some kind of bridge between May’s government and the new American administration; mercifully, May disagrees. If Farage were such a bridge, it would be another bridge to nowhere. (Admittedly, there is one sense in which the role of British ambassador to Washington would suit Farage. Sir Christopher Meyer, who held the post from 1997 to 2003, claimed in his memoirs that Tony Blair’s chief of staff sent him off with the instruction “to get up the arse of the White House and stay there.” Farage, it is clear, imagines a comparable anatomical future for himself.) In truth, the Trump-Farage brouhaha is an unwelcome distraction for May. Her government is trapped between a deep skepticism about Trump and the need to make the best of whatever president happens to occupy the Oval Office. Moreover, Britain’s post-Brexit interests lie in negotiating trade deals with its leading commercial counterparts — including, prominently, the United States. This necessarily weakens the U.K.’s strategic position vis a vis the White House. The official line on Trump’s presidency, therefore, amounts to little more than one part “let’s wait and see” and two parts “let’s hope for the best.”

“Slithering”. Burn.


China’s tech unicorns look increasingly cursed • Bloomberg

Christina Larson:

For several months in late 2014 and early 2015, Xiaomi was China’s top smartphone seller. Three months after Alibaba’s IPO, Xiaomi capitalized on the fervor with a funding round that valued the company at a breathless $46bn, making it briefly the world’s shiniest unicorn (it’s now second only to Uber). Yet its dominance proved fleeting. Over the past year and a half, Xiaomi’s position in China’s handset market tumbled from first to fourth. The company is certainly still a unicorn, but its current value may be $4bn to $10bn if it tried to raise more money now, estimated Clay Shirky, an associate professor at NYU Shanghai and author of the 2015 book, Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream. “Over the past 18 months, they’ve lost 90 percent of their value, or thereabouts,” he said. He points to the valuations for smartphone makers with publicly traded stock. China’s Lenovo Group, for example, holds about the same share of the Chinese smartphone market and is valued at about $7bn. Lenovo is also the biggest PC maker in the world. “Xiaomi shouldn’t be six times Lenovo,” Shirky said.

Puts The Information’s rather breathless $40bn “revised” valuation into perspective.


A would-be Uber rival’s $250m taxi ride to nowhere • Bloomberg

Adam Satariano:

Before the company’s price-comparison app for hailing a taxi was released, Karhoo grabbed headlines last year when it reportedly raised $250m and said it had plans to bring in more than $1bn. In fact, it never raised that much. According to internal financial documents, it had raised $39m as of September and was bleeding money as it attempted to take on Uber Technologies Inc. In its two-year life, Karhoo generated about $1m in net revenue, according to the records shared with Bloomberg… …As Karhoo introduced its service in London and several other U.K. cities, [founder Daniel] Ishag was attempting to raise more money. One person involved in the process said Ishag was at one point seeking a $400m valuation. To entice investors, he had to show that customers were using the service in droves to hire taxis, several former employees said. The company began an aggressive promotional campaign in which it gave away codes for free rides, according to former employees. But the service had a bug that didn’t properly process the codes, meaning customers could use them over and over again. Some people on social media said they had taken more than 100 free rides. The company had to pay drivers or taxi companies even though Karhoo didn’t receive any money from customers. In October, about 70% of its bookings were with promo codes, according to sales documents seen by Bloomberg. The app’s payment processing system also didn’t have many fraud protections, such as verifying a user’s address or requiring an e-mail address to set up an account, several people said. At one point, more than 90% of passengers’ credit-card payments were being rejected as a result of the problems, three people said.

Daniel Ishag. Remember that name. And: more fake claims, this time about funding, reported as fact without verification.


Why the Macbook Pro is limited to 16GB of RAM • Macdaddy

Benedict Slaney:

At Apple’s scale even if 0.1% of people suffer from an issue, it becomes suffixed as a “gate”, to indicate that it’s a scandal on a massive scale. Apple then gets huge numbers of upset customers. If Intel had decided to support LPDDR4 then it seems clear that Apple would have used it. The iPhone 7 does use LPDDR4 memory, since it uses Apple’s custom ARM CPU which supports it. LinusTechTips attempted to do an analysis on the extra power that would be required to support more RAM, but unfortunately it has the fatal flaw in that they only compare DDR4 (16GB) to DDR4 (32GB), making their results mistaken. Which is surprising, as usually it’s a top quality information source. In my last article on this topic where I mentioned that the FAA ceiling [on capacity of batteries that can be carried on aircraft] would have prevented Apple from including DDR4 RAM while maintaining decent battery life even if they wanted to, there was quite a backlash, with claims that it must be easily supportable because of other laptops being out that do support it. I went through these laptops which support memory greater than 16GB and found what you would expect: that aside from pay-to-play reviews, all of them do suffer from big restrictions in terms of battery life.

This is fantastically thorough, and makes you realise the tradeoffs that Apple has made in this decision: it’s all about longer battery life, and longer standby life. Slaney also points out that those tests consisting of “we ran a video for X hours” or “we set up a script to run web browsing for Y hours” aren’t useful, because they don’t include application switching – which is what taxes memory. And – added bonus – Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, responds to the article from his iPhone pointing out two arcane but engineering-depth errors, and reiterating that it’s all about the battery life.


Nearly half the world is online • PCMag.com

Angela Moscaritolo:

Forty-seven percent of the world’s population is online, according to a new report from the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). At this point, there are almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions around the world as there are people on Earth. But that doesn’t everyone on the planet has a mobile phone, since many people have multiple subscriptions or devices. The offline population — some 3.9 billion people around the world — is “disproportionately female, elderly, less educated, lower income, and rural,” the report notes. But with the resources and desire, almost everyone could be connected. Ninety-five percent of the global population lives in an area that is covered by a mobile cell signal. But while most people have access to Internet services, many don’t actually use them, largely due to high prices.


Circulating five-second video causes Apple iPhones to freeze • Apple Insider

Roger Fingas:

iPhone owners are cautioned to be careful about tapping unsolicited links as a new five-second MP4 video, currently being shared online, is causing devices to freeze not long after it’s played. The video is corrupt, and appears to be generating a loop which causes iOS 10 to crash, according to The Verge, which tested the glitch on several iPhones running versions of iOS 10.1.x or the iOS 10.2 beta. The issue first came to light on Reddit. Notably the crash takes about 10 seconds, during which people can do other things on their iPhone as the device gradually slows down. Once an iPhone freezes the only option is to reboot it, though it should work as normal once it recovers. Apple has yet to announce a fix for the issue.

Sounds like a buffer overflow. One wonders how you’d discover a particular video that could do that: a lot of fuzzing, at a guess.


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