Start Up: Surface joy, Google gets driving, the VR headset market, restart your 787!, and more

Remember when 3D printers were going to revolutionise the home? Now, not so much. Photo by fumi on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – for Surface! • Microsoft Devices Blog

Brian Hall, CVP of Microsoft Devices Marketing:


November was our best month ever for consumer Surface sales. The Best Buy-exclusive Surface bundle sold out on the first day. The momentum was seen worldwide. In the UK, we had the best single week for Surface ever and in Germany the Surface Pen became the best seller in PC Accessories on for over 12 hours.

The excitement for Surface Studio is clear – evidenced by the 10+ million people that have viewed our launch video and the hundreds of thousands who watched the excitement of a fun unboxing of a Surface Studio. But what makes me excited is seeing how people are using, and loving their Surface Studios. Digital artists, to architects, to executives are using this beautiful PC to get things done and be their most creative.

More people are switching from Macs to Surface than ever before. Our trade-in program for MacBooks was our best ever, and the combination of excitement for the innovation of Surface coupled with the disappointment of the new MacBook Pro – especially among professionals – is leading more and more people to make the switch to Surface, like this. It seems like a new review recommending Surface over MacBook comes out daily. This makes our team so proud, because it means we’re doing good work.


“More people are switching from Macs to Surface than ever before” may well be true, but it’s a Bezos claim – no numbers to support it. Not even a chart without values on the axes. Are there dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Microsoft carefully avoids being specific. Apple meanwhile claims the MacBook Pro had more preorders than any other; which is fairly easy to do, since others were more easily available.

Without numbers – even an order of magnitude – Microsoft’s claim is in the “nice, but let’s wait for the financials” category.
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The tipping point for voice activated services • Medium

Ben Holliday is Head of User Experience at the Department for Work & Pensions, UK Government (though writing in a personal capacity, with his own views):


I’m calling it now. The tipping point is here for voice activated services — with Christmas 2016 just around the corner and many devices like the echo filling stockings around the developed world.

It’s not a radical view. The media is acknowledging this.

My (not so bold) predictions:
• We’re going to be increasingly thinking about voice activated services.
• The screen is slowly going to become more of a secondary consideration for digital teams designing public services.
• ‘Telephony’ (that’s business speak for ‘telephone’) channels will be indistinguishable from digital. Like most channels they will become seamless rather than things that businesses treat as separately designed, managed or ‘owned’.
• To make all this happen, content design will have to become more of a recognised and important skill set in digital delivery.

In my mind, the smart home is only a small part of the picture for voice activated services. The potential to open up services through conversation rather than a graphical interface is much greater.


One can certainly imagine that voice recognition systems on public service systems would be a great benefit.
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Mobile is eating the world • Benedict Evans


As we pass 2.5bn smartphones on earth and head towards 5bn, and mobile moves from creation to deployment, the questions change. What’s the state of the smartphone, machine learning and ‘GAFA’, and what can we build as we stand on the shoulders of giants?


A new version of Evans’s presentation, in slide form and also as a video (embedded below). Some of the points – about machine learning and retail (“the internet lets you buy, but not yet shop”) are subtle but, once you consider them, far-reaching.

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The 3D printing revolution that wasn’t • Backchannel

Andrew Zaleski:


How did MakerBot, the darling of the 3D printing industry, fall so hard and seemingly so fast? [Founder and former CEO Bre] Pettis did not return multiple requests for comment, while Smith and Mayer declined to be interviewed for this story.

Backchannel pieced together the account from industry observers, current MakerBot leadership, and a dozen former MakerBot employees. Some gave their names, while others asked to be identified only as former employees.

In the span of a few years, MakerBot had to pull off two very different coups. It had to introduce millions of people to the wonders of 3D printing, and then convince them to shell out more than $1,000 for a machine. It also had to develop the technology fast enough to keep its customers happy. Those two tasks were too much for the fledgling company.

“MakerBot built itself up really big to try and satisfy a market demand that just didn’t show up,” says Ben Rockhold, who spent four years at MakerBot in various engineering roles. In pursuit of the Everyman Tycoon dream, MakerBot tried to release printers that were both affordable and appealing to ordinary consumers, yet it repeatedly failed to hit its mark.

At a TEDx event in New York in 2012, Pettis said, “When you have a MakerBot you have a superpower. You can make anything you need.”

It would be years before anyone was willing to say that just wasn’t true.


3D printing was never going to go beyond a niche of people who really need it. Nobody’s going to buy one to make a spare part for their washing machine. One notable element in the story is how rapidly Pettis pivoted away from open source when it imperilled the company’s ability to maintain a price moat.
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Google’s self-driving car team is hiring executives as it prepares to spin out from Alphabet’s X – Recode

Johana Bhuiyan:


Google’s self-driving project, led by ex-Hyundai CEO and president John Krafcik, is expected to be graduating from Alphabet’s moonshot shop “soon.” That’s according to Krafcik, who spoke at the Nikkei Innovation Forum in Palo Alto in October.

While the timeline of the project’s impending spinout isn’t any clearer two months later, the self-driving project is evidently preparing to separate from the mothership by hiring several of its own executives to positions X, formerly known as Google X, already has.

The first was Kevin Vosen, who was hired to be the self-driving arm’s chief legal officer. Now, Alphabet’s self-driving shop is looking for a head of real estate — or someone to secure new space for the autonomous company when it “graduates” from X.

In other words, the project is moving away from having to depend on X for things like dealing with regulation and expansion.


Will it still be in “Other Bets” or might it be a separate company inside Alphabet?
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Google vs. the EU explains the digital economy • Harvard Business Review

Bala Iyer and Srinivasa Rangan, of Babson College in Massachusetts:


Google’s argument [in its antitrust cases against the EU] relies heavily on the prevailing American perspective of competition policy. In the United States, legal precedents, as well as enforcement efforts, approach competition policy with consumer welfare as its lodestar. This approach argues that promoting efficiency with which firms operate leads to enhanced consumer welfare since improved efficiency leads to lower costs which in turn leads to lower prices. In that context, preserving competition in the marketplace is only a means to an end. As one observer puts it, “efficiencies are the goal; competition is the process.” By this logic, Google’s approach to the mobile stack is efficiency enhancing whereby consumers benefit.

Unfortunately for Google, the EU antitrust enforcers have a slightly different perspective. They, too, start off with consumer welfare as the long-run goal, but they insist that moves by rivals that could be efficiency enhancing in the short run could be detrimental in the long run, especially if those moves could thwart technological innovation and competition. In other words, EU authorities put more stress on what one might call dynamic efficiency in markets.

The differing US and EU antitrust perspectives can lead to different outcomes when confronted with the same set of facts. For example, in the case of the proposed merger between GE and Honeywell, US antitrust authorities gave it a go-ahead based on projected cost efficiencies whereas the EU authorities denied it since it has the potential to lower competition in the long run…

…Based on Microsoft’s experience with European Union in the context of its browser and more recent decisions that the European Union has made with respect to other firms in the context of mergers and acquisitions, it is unlikely that Google will prevail in the EU case if its persists with its present arguments. Google, however, could argue that one of the EU assumptions about competition is flawed.


It could try, but it’s unlikely to get far. It would be a bit like saying at your murder trial “but look at all the people I haven’t killed!”
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Fancy that! Google was keen on ‘draining the swamp’ in 2013 • The Register

Andrew Orlowski on the hunt for “fake news” advertisers:


Around four years ago, independent musicians, songwriters and filmmakers tried to find out how big brand advertisements were funding criminal piracy operations. Here’s how David Lowery described it: “When things get complex, it’s typically to hide some institution from liability. In finance, there’s a saying: ‘Complexity is fraud'”.

The brands didn’t like it when their ads showed up on porn sites. It was bad for the brand. The industry body the IAB took an interest. And Google made a promise, which today reads better than ever.

Google’s Theo Bertram welcomed initiatives to “drain the swamp of dodgy networks, dodgy agencies and dodgy sites” and pointed to its own efforts with “in partnership” with IAB.

That was in 2013. How’s the draining operation doing? The swamp must be bone-dry by now.

“Many Google-placed ads, including those for big brands, continue to appear on the sites, even including ads for Google’s new Pixel smartphones,” the WSJ tells us [in a new story].


The WSJ saw a tip of an iceberg: according to the World Federation of Advertisers, many ads are bought, paid for, the cheques cashed, but never seen by a human. The system is “fraudulent by design”, to ensure the parties involved continue to profit, undisturbed.

The ad body described the many flavours of fraud in a report this summer, concluding: “Until the industry can prove that it has the capability to effectively deal with ad fraud, advertisers should use caution in relation to increasing their digital media investment, to limit their exposure to fraud,” it warned.

An exodus by big brands from the ad networks is not impossible to imagine.


Third-party ad networks are increasingly malign influences; strangling them would stop a lot of malvertising dead. Plus, of course, killing off fake news sites.
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Exclusive: Some Bangladesh Bank officials involved in heist – investigator • Reuters

Ruma Paul:


Some Bangladesh central bank officials deliberately exposed its computer systems and enabled hackers to steal $81m from its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in February, a top investigator in Dhaka told Reuters on Monday.

The comments by Mohammad Shah Alam of the Dhaka police are the first sign that investigators have got a firm lead in one of the world’s biggest cyber heists. Arrests are soon likely, he said.

On Thursday, the head of a Bangladesh government panel that investigated the heist said five bank officials were guilty of negligence but that they were only unwitting accomplices.

Alam told Reuters his investigations had discovered that some bank officials had knowingly created vulnerabilities in the bank’s connection to the SWIFT system, used for global transactions.

“Bangladesh Bank’s SWIFT network was made insecure by some bank employees in connivance with some foreign people,” he said. “They knew what they were doing.”


The plot, as they say, thickens.
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FAA orders Boeing 787 safety fix: reboot power once in a while • The Seattle Times


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is issuing a rule requiring urgent attention by operators of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner to avoid the possibility all three computer modules that manage the jet’s flight-control surfaces could briefly stop working while in flight.

Operators must periodically shut and restart the electrical power on the planes, or the power to the three flight control modules. That will avoid the problem until Boeing has a permanent software fix.

In an airworthiness directive to be published Friday, the FAA said it is reacting to indications that “all three flight control modules on the 787 might simultaneously reset if continuously powered on for 22 days.”

It said such a simultaneous reset in flight “could result in flight control surfaces not moving in response to flight crew inputs for a short time and consequent temporary loss of controllability.”


The sharp-eyed will have spotted that 22 days is roughly 2^31 milliseconds, and figured that this means there’s a 32-bit counter in there somewhere measuring time; if it turns over from all 1s to all 0s, bad things happen.

Those with long memories will remember that Windows 95 used to have the same problem after 49.7 days. The saving grace was that, as with the airliners, they rarely stayed up that long. Phil Koopman has more examples (and a short analysis of this one).
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Texas, Arkansas take opposite directions insuring their poor • Houston Chronicle

Jenny Deam looked at a location in the US where the line dividing two states also shows a literal divide in healthcare outcomes:


[Healthcare] insurance alone does not guarantee good health. But often, as Diane Rowland, executive vice president for the national Kaiser Family Foundation, explained, “it is the key to the door.”

Such a door opened in Arkansas.

Once home to some of the highest rates of stroke, heart disease and lung problems in the country, Arkansas appears to be getting healthier. The poor go to the doctor sooner. They go to the emergency room less. They manage chronic conditions better.

The exact opposite is happening in Texas, a recent Harvard University public health study reveals. For instance, three years ago, about 8% of poor Texans used the emergency room as their doctor. In 2014, it was 10%. Last year, it was 11.3%.

“The ER is the last place in the world you want to send someone who doesn’t have an emergency. It’s expensive; there is no continuity of care, no follow-up,” said Dr. Joe Thompson, director of the nonpartisan Arkansas Center for Health Improvements, a Little Rock-based health policy center.

The Arkansas turnaround grew out of the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the ACA that said each state could decide whether to expand Medicaid. Texas said no; Arkansas said maybe.


No other developed nation uses the same system as the US for healthcare, with good reason: it generates the worst outcomes for the highest cost. Yet everyone seems powerless to change it. And the incoming Republicans are determined to make the US look more like Texas than Arkansas. Of course the election slogan wasn’t Make America Healthy Again. (Was it ever?) But why is it Make America Ill Again?
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Over 2 million VR headsets to ship in 2016 • Canalys


VR headsets got off to a strong start in their first year of consumer shipments. Canalys predicts shipments will exceed 2 million units worldwide in 2016. This number is forecast to grow to 20 million by 2020. The lion’s share of 2016 shipments are basic VR headsets that rely on other devices, generally being tethered by cable to a desktop PC. Shipments of smart VR headsets, which can function independently, will reach over 100,000 units. These estimates only include VR headsets with integrated displays, so exclude simple viewers, such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View, which are also shipping in the millions.

As expected, Sony has quickly become the VR market leader, with its affordable PlayStation VR catering to the vast PlayStation 4 installed base. Canalys expects over 800,000 shipments in less than three months on the market. Shipments would have been greater if it were not for one key problem: PlayStation VR was delayed until October and is still seriously supply constrained due to problems making its OLED displays.


Canalys puts HTC Vive numbers at 500,000 and Oculus Rift at 400,000.
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Scientific breakthrough reveals unprecedented alternative to battery power storage • University of Surrey


Ground-breaking research from the University of Surrey and Augmented Optics Ltd., in collaboration with the University of Bristol, has developed potentially transformational technology which could revolutionise the capabilities of appliances that have previously relied on battery power to work.

This development by Augmented Optics Ltd., could translate into very high energy density super-capacitors making it possible to recharge your mobile phone, laptop or other mobile devices in just a few seconds.

The technology could have a seismic impact across a number of industries, including transport, aerospace, energy generation, and household applications such as mobile phones, flat screen electronic devices, and biosensors. It could also revolutionise electric cars, allowing the possibility for them to recharge as quickly as it takes for a regular non-electric car to refuel with petrol – a process that currently takes approximately 6-8 hours to recharge. Imagine, instead of an electric car being limited to a drive from London to Brighton, the new technology could allow the electric car to travel from London to Edinburgh without the need to recharge, but when it did recharge for this operation to take just a few minutes to perform.

Supercapacitor buses are already being used in China, but they have a very limited range whereas this technology could allow them to travel a lot further between recharges. Instead of recharging every 2-3 stops this technology could mean they only need to recharge every 20-30 stops and that will only take a few seconds.


This is the sort of dense and uninformative stuff that lands in journalists’ inboxes all the time. The idea of “transformational effect” is repeated multiple times; only once is the explanation given that they’re polymers, and “based on large organic molecules composed of many repeated sub-units and bonded together to form a 3-dimensional network.”

Basically, we’re no wiser on why this material is a supercapacitor. But there might be some hope.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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