Start Up: Airpods ahoy!, inside Pebble’s fall, Facebook’s (bad) Year in Review, cloud mistrust, and more


Google’s no-steering-wheel no-pedals self-driving car: it’s not around the corner. Photo by smoothgroover22 on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Calamitous! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple’s Airpods now available for pre-order after unusual delay • BuzzFeed News

John Paczkowski:

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Apple introduced AirPods in September alongside the headphone jack-less iPhone 7, touting them as a technically superior alternative to wired earbuds. Packed with a custom-designed Apple chip, accelerometers, optical sensors, beam-forming microphones, and antennas, Airpods are diminutive in-ear computers and a big part of Apple’s vision for the future of audio.

“These are as advanced a project as Apple Pencil,” Apple SVP Phil Schiller told BuzzFeed News back in September. “We started this project when we started the Watch project. We knew we needed a great wireless solution for audio. We said, ‘What if you could design what the future of headphones should look like?’ That’s what we asked the team to do.”

When it announced Airpods in September, Apple said the $159 headphones would begin shipping in October. But on October 26, with the month nearly concluded, the company said it was delaying their retail availability. “We don’t believe in shipping a product before it’s ready,” an Apple spokesperson told BuzzFeed News…

…a person familiar with the product’s development said it required additional “fine-tuning” related to sound performance and battery life.

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By Apple’s standards, these are amazingly late. They were available in prototype form at the iPhone 7 launch, so that’s three months back. But in trying to ramp up production – to, what, a million per week? Per day? – something went wrong. (This is a key topic in John Gruber’s The Talk Show podcast with Glenn Fleishman.)

I think Fleishman’s analysis – that in random sample testing after production they found errors that weren’t being found by automated testing – feels right. They knew how to build these. Production errors occur, but you screen those out. But if your screening isn’t reliable, you suddenly have a big, line-stopping problem, and you have to go back and redo it all – production and screening. The tale of how it was discovered and how it was fixed will make a great late-night bar story some day, if those involved are allowed to tell it. (Note to Apple engineers: my contact details easy to find.)

Meanwhile the Apple Store in the UK is showing December 19 delivery. You waited months, is a couple more days going to kill you?
link to this extract


The inside story behind Pebble’s demise • Medium

Steven Levy had met with Eric Migicovsky, CEO of Pebble, multiple times during the wearable company’s life, including in April:

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what Migicovsky didn’t tell me when he spoke about the Core during our April conversation was that Pebble’s return to Kickstarter was forced by the company’s inability to raise funds. “It was difficult to raise money around the layoffs. That was kind of a non-starter,” he now says. “That’s why we did the Kickstarter. After the Kickstarter we tried to raise money and we were unable to.”

Throughout the spring and summer, Migicovsky tried everything to keep the company afloat, with his efforts coming to a frantic crescendo as summer waned and a poor holiday season loomed — the new products were late, with scheduled shipments not slated until 2017. “September was hectic,” he says. “I was flying around the world, flying to China, trying to do a deal with a licensee to license the operating system, talking to investors — a really different tier of investors than the ones that you talk to in other stages of your startup.” Instead of top VCs he was visiting private equity companies, family-based investing offices—companies outside of the normal tech circles.

He brainstormed wilder alternatives, at one point even mulling crowd-sourced equity funding. But because the company had already gotten criticism for going to the Kickstarter well too often, that option was discarded. As were other options, including Hail Mary schemes “like firing everyone and bringing the company down to 10 people and just seeing what would be next.”

He now compares the situation to the real-time gaming scenarios that election night commentators charted as states kept going red: what was the narrowing path for Hillary Clinton to eke out an electoral victory? As with the Democratic candidate, there proved to be no path.

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Migicovsky won’t be going to Fitbit, and doesn’t leave Pebble with riches. Interested to see where he turns up next.
link to this extract


2016: the year Facebook became the bad guy • The Guardian

Olivia Solon gives Facebook its very own Year In Review:

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“Mark Zuckerberg is now the front-page editor for every news reader in the world. It’s a responsibility he’s not choosing to accept,” [the author Antonio García] Martínez said.

Claire Wardle, from First Draft News, thinks that is changing. “They may not have said it yet, but 2016 is the year Facebook recognized they are a publisher.” The company is simply reluctant to admit it because “it’s a nightmare”.

“We’ve never had a global newspaper in 192 countries, with all these different legal and cultural contexts and languages,” she said.

She points out that Facebook has been very diligent at policing the platform for sexual content and bullying, but now has to do the same for misinformation with a combination of expert human judgment and software. It’s not going to be easy and marks a huge cultural shift for Facebook. “Algorithms aren’t yet smart enough to make these decisions. Facebook needs to be honest about that,” she said.

Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman added: “They need to grow up … There are duties that come with their size and revenue. Facebook spends more on beer and ping-pong tables than on professionals to vet the quality of the material they show to users.”

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Solon’s work has been top-notch this year.
link to this extract


Imagining an attack that could wipe out trust in the cloud • Naofumi Kagami


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Ransomware works because victims are willing to pay money to get back their files. However, now that we often have more valuable data on our smartphones or in the Cloud than on our PCs, it is reasonable to assume that hackers are right now thinking of new ways to hold your private photos, your location data, or messages that you might want to keep secret as hostages.

For example, a recent Apple Ransom scam asked for a $30-$50 ransom or otherwise they would do a factory reset. The author advises that you simply ignore this because you can easily recover with a backup. However, what if the scammer had threatened to publish all your photos, your emails, your location data, etc. on the web for all to see. Would you still ignore the scammer? Unlike the iCloud celebrity photo leak, this is something that could happen to any normal person, and this is what makes it so scary.

This is not about Apple vs. Google/Facebook or about any single company’s approach to privacy. If such attacks became widespread, it could cause people to be scared of storing anything in the cloud, despite whatever security measures each individual company took. Of course two-factor authentication will help, but not enough people use it yet.

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Yes, it does sound like that episode of Black Mirror series 3.
link to this extract


Uber said it protects you from spying. Security sources say otherwise • Reveal

Will Evans:

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For anyone who’s snagged a ride with Uber, Ward Spangenberg has a warning: Your personal information is not safe.

Internal Uber employees helped ex-boyfriends stalk their ex-girlfriends and searched for the trip information of celebrities such as Beyoncé, the company’s former forensic investigator said.

“Uber’s lack of security regarding its customer data was resulting in Uber employees being able to track high profile politicians, celebrities, and even personal acquaintances of Uber employees, including ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, and ex-spouses,” Spangenberg wrote in a court declaration, signed in October under penalty of perjury.

After news broke two years ago that executives were using the company’s “God View” feature to track customers in real time without their permission, Uber insisted it had strict policies that prohibited employees from accessing users’ trip information with limited exceptions.

But five former Uber security professionals told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that the company continued to allow broad access even after those assurances.

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And that could never be used maliciously by a government, could it? Plus some of the things that Uber is said to have done – remotely encrypting computers against government raids – strike one as quite remarkable.

Plus Uber’s latest update asks for your location all the time. For a taxi company? Uber says it’s for safety, among other things.
link to this extract


As Trumplethinskin lets down his hair for tech, shame on Silicon Valley for climbing the Tower in silence • Recode

Kara Swisher:

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When I call these top leaders — of course, it has to be off the record — I get a running dialogue in dulcet tones about needing to cooperate and needing to engage and needing to be seen as willing to work together. Also that Trump means very little of what he says out loud — which I will now officially dub the Peter Thiel take-it-seriously-not-literally defense. And they assure me that they will say what they really think behind closed doors where no one can hear it but each other.

This, even though it will be a certainty that Trump will tweet the whole thing with his doubtlessly warped take of the proceedings. My only hope is that often-erupting Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk — who is also now attending — will also erupt when he realizes the farce he has agreed to be part of.

Or maybe I don’t get it because I am of the old school that when something smells fishy, there is probably a dead fish somewhere to be found. But to my ear, it’s a symphony of compromise, where only now and then a sour note sounds from someone who breaks from the platitudes they are spewing.

Like one tech leader who suddenly stopped mid-sentence about how to really make deals, Kara, because the truth just had to be out. “Trump is just awful, isn’t he? It makes me sick to my stomach,” the leader agonized, as a real thinking person would. “What are we going to do?”

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There’s also an excellent (brief) tweetstorm by Mark Suster, pointing out that Trump’s bullying tweets against companies are “a classic authoritarian move that shouldn’t be tolerated”.

Trump isn’t president yet. When he is, let him call people in. Right now, he’s a businessman with a poor record and worse self-control.
link to this extract


Silicon Valley stumbles in world beyond software • WSJ

Jack Nicas on Google X’s somewhat quixotic attempt to build delivery drones:

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Engineers shadowed deliverymen from Google Express, the delivery service. They saw the wide range of delivery locations, from homes with back entrances to apartment complexes with courtyards. Shippers often struggle with the “last-mile problem”; one former X employee called it “the last-inch problem.”

They struggled to devise a solution. “Do you land? Do you lower it on a string? If you land, are people going to steal the drone? Are they going to be afraid of it? How dangerous is it going to be?” the former employee said. “There was endless debate—I mean months—on landing versus not landing.”

The team eventually settled on lowering the package on a winch. But that required the tailsitter to hover upright, creating a sort of sail in the wind.

Similar questions bedeviled the drop-off location. Satellite data isn’t precise enough to ensure the drone is over the right house, particularly in cities. Even when the address is correct, camera sensors need to interpret the scene below, so the package doesn’t land on a roof or in a pool.

For deliveries, both Alphabet and Amazon now are considering asking customers for help. In a scenario depicted in an Amazon video and that former X employees said Alphabet also is considering, customers would place a specially marked mat as a landing pad that a drone could recognize from above.

One former X employee compared the notion to “having to go out and meet the mailman when he gets there.”

By early 2014, Google co-founder [Sergey] Brin, tiring of the delays, set a deadline: make a delivery to a non-Googler in five months. That led to the dog-treat drop in Australia [referred to earlier in the article. It worked, but not well.]

After that, “we threw everything out,” one former employee said. “Everything. I mean not just the form factor…[Everything] was deemed bullshit.”

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The other, and more substantial, problem: doing it profitably. If it’s less convenient, you’ll have to charge less than the few dollars that courier companies do.
link to this extract


Google scaled back self-driving car ambitions • The Information

Amir Efrati:

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The decision to pursue a less ambitious plan was made by Alphabet CEO Larry Page and CFO Ruth Porat, who determined that making a car without a steering wheel and foot pedals was impractical, say people familiar with the decision. Current U.S. regulatory guidelines call for a steering wheel and pedals.

Eliminating the steering wheel and pedals would allow designers to reimagine the experience of being in a car. For passengers who want to take a nap, for instance, there might be a reclining, bed-like seat option. The autonomous vehicle industry, including Mr. Page, by and large believes that cars without steering wheels will dominate some day.

The decision to be pragmatic and focus on building a real business with traditional cars wasn’t universally embraced by people at Chauffeur. It’s “a step back, a deviation,” said one person who has been involved with Chauffeur.

For many people at Chauffeur, focusing on a car without a steering wheel would differentiate the car from its rivals. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who’s had a hand in Chauffeur from nearly the beginning, had been hoping the unit would continue work on a system for vehicles without a wheel, these people say. The self-driving car unit’s former chief, Chris Urmson, had also wanted to pursue this approach. He left this summer, less than a year after Mr. Page hired Mr. Krafcik to lead Chauffeur and bring much-needed structure and urgency to the program.

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Google is also now looking to work with partners rather than doing everything itself. Reality is biting hard at the Other Bets part of Alphabet.
link to this extract


Michigan lets self-driving cars on roads without human drivers • Associated Press


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Companies can now test self-driving cars on Michigan public roads without a driver or steering wheel under new laws that could push the state to the forefront of autonomous vehicle development.

The package of bills signed into law Friday comes with few specific state regulations and leaves many decisions up to automakers and companies like Google and Uber.

It also allows automakers and tech companies to run autonomous taxi services and permits test parades of self-driving tractor-trailers as long as humans are in each truck. And they allow the sale of self-driving vehicles to the public once they are tested and certified, according to the state.

The bills allow testing without burdensome regulations so the industry can move forward with potential life-saving technology, said Gov. Rick Snyder, who was to sign the bills. “It makes Michigan a place where particularly for the auto industry it’s a good place to do work,” he said.

The bills give Michigan the potential to be a leader by giving the companies more autonomy than say, California, which now requires human backup drivers in case something goes awry.

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Let’s hope they’ve got the insurance details all figured out. Michigan is, of course, the home state of the vehicle manufacturing capital Detroit.
link to this extract


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