Start Up: 2016’s app market, Tango meets Daydream, nipples!, Lenovo v Motorola, naughty str!ngs, and more


Find out for yourself if you know how well and badly the US fared under Obama. Picture by AK Rockefeller on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Not to be read out for “entertainment” at inaugurations. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Top Apps of 2016: Spotify, Line, and Netflix led the year’s biggest earners • Sensor Tower

Randy Nelson:

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Worldwide net revenue from all apps (including games) across the App Store and Google Play grew 67% over Q4 2015, from approximately $5.2bn to approximately $8.7bn. As illustrated by the chart below, this reflected growth of 60% worldwide for Apple’s App Store, from $3.4bn to $5.4bn year-over-year, and 82% growth for Google Play, which saw revenue paid to developers increase from $1.8bn to $3.3bn for the same period.

Looking at new installs of apps from both stores, downloads of all apps worldwide during Q4 2016 totaled approximately 19.2bn and there were more than 80bn app downloads during 2016 in total.

In terms of year-over-year growth, total downloads for Q4 2016 increased by about 17% compared to 2015.

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It’s not clear whether the data includes ad revenue. From what is shown, you can see iOS App Store revenue growing slower than the market, but still by more in absolute terms than Google Play’s. We constantly hear that Google Play will catch up and pass iOS revenues; on this showing, that will happen in 2020.

What’s more likely to happen first is that app revenue growth slows down dramatically.
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Google’s Johnny Lee excited to merge Tango and Daydream • UploadVR

Ian Hamilton:

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The AR [augmented reality] functionality [of the Asus Zenfone AR] was shown live on stage at CES by Google’s Johnny Lee, who heads up the Tango team. Google has shown a Hot Wheels app (onstage) and Jenga (shown previously) as realistic digital representations of otherwise classic gaming experiences inserted believably into your environment. A GAP app shown at CES, however, hinted at AR technology’s enormous potential to save folks time. It overlaid clothes of varying sizes seamlessly onto a floating model in the living room, with each outfit draping realistically over different body types.

And as countless CES attendees navigated the endless casino hallways, so many of us could have saved time if we’d been given step-by-step directions. All it would take are little dots overlaid on the carpet ahead shown on the phone’s screen — something that has been shown with Google Tango in the past.

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God forbid you should look up from your phone screen or, you know, ask somebody or read a map. What about a strap for each wrist which gives a mild electric shock to tell you which way to turn?
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This “Genderless Nipples” account is throwing off Instagram’s algorithm • PAPERMAG

Nadya Agrawal:

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Genderless Nipples posts up-close pictures of people’s nipples, making it unclear if they belong to men and women. This clever strategy completely bamboozles Instagram’s algorithm for n00dz detection so sometimes when it deletes pictures off Genderless Nippples’ account it ends up deleting pictures of a dude’s nipples.

This happened within a few days of the account going live–Instagram in all its wisdom deleted a picture of nipples thinking they were lady parts when in fact they belonged to a guy. The account holders responded by posting the notification they received and a caption pointing out the clear double standard that exists: “Instagram, you can’t even tell the difference between male and female nipples; who could!? So why even bother banning female nipples if they can be so similar?”

Instagram’s current policy about nudity is clear for the most part: no butts, no genitalia. When it comes to nipples, though, the policy changes based on gender–if a woman’s nipples are exposed, it’s nudity. Male nipples are always permissible.

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Google reveals its servers all contain custom security silicon • The Register

Simon Sharwood:

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Revealed last Friday, the document outlines six layers of security and reveals some interesting factoids about the Alphabet subsidiary’s operations, none more so than the disclosure that: “We also design custom chips, including a hardware security chip that is currently being deployed on both servers and peripherals. These chips allow us to securely identify and authenticate legitimate Google devices at the hardware level.”

That silicon works alongside cryptographic signatures employed “over low-level components like the BIOS, bootloader, kernel, and base operating system image.”

“These signatures can be validated during each boot or update,” the document says, adding that “the components are all Google-controlled, built, and hardened. With each new generation of hardware we strive to continually improve security: for example, depending on the generation of server design, we root the trust of the boot chain in either a lockable firmware chip, a microcontroller running Google-written security code, or the above mentioned Google-designed security chip.”

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This is in Google’s Infrastructure Security Design Overview. Google is paranoid about people penetrating its security because it relies on peoples’ trust; without that it would be Yahoo.
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Lenovo thought it knew how to fix tarnished brands — then it bought Motorola • WSJ

Kathy Chu and Juro Osawa:

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Although Motorola still was among the top five U.S. phone brands with Lenovo acquired it, it was posting losses and lagged behind market leaders such as Apple and Samsung.

Many analysts thought the marriage could work, given Lenovo’s experience. The IBM success, in particular, created “a certain aura of invincibility,” says Neil Mawston, an analyst at market-research firm Strategy Analytics.

Mr. Yang initially instructed Lenovo executives to take a hands-off approach, similar to his strategy with IBM. He vowed to make Motorola profitable within six quarters and reassured Motorola employees he didn’t plan to cut U.S. positions and move them to China.

He also insisted Motorola re-enter China, a country it left after being acquired by Google, whose search and email functions have largely been blocked in China following disagreements with Beijing over censorship.

“Lenovo is a global citizen like you,” Motorola employees recall Mr. Yang telling them in U.S. town-hall meetings after the deal closed. “You have to sell things globally.”

Lenovo already had a huge phone business in China, briefly reaching No. 1 in sales in 2014.

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The piece, though long, is oddly unfocussed. What’s the principal cause of Lenovo’s failure? Motorola being unprofitable (which it was even before Google), or Lenovo being arrogant? One suspects that Motorola’s culture, plus the extreme competitiveness of the mobile market, is the true reason.
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Tower of Babel • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei:

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Our next POTUS, whether wittingly or not, weaponized Russell Conjugation [the way we see desirable traits in ourselves as undesirable in enemies – eg I’m firm, you’re obstinate and he’s pigheaded] and our coalitional instincts [explained earlier in his post] and performed a jiu-jitsu toss on his opponents, leaving much of the country wondering whether winner-take-all elections for the Presidency are a good thing in a country so evenly divided…

…It’s somewhat of a miracle how every Tweet of his sifts the same factions apart; one side screams in disgust and disbelief, the other piles on with glee. Let’s call that technique of tweeting the Trump Conjugation. Sad!

Many claim the internet creates filter bubbles, but I believe the mechanism by which the Internet amplifies tribalism doesn’t work the way most people describe it. The common explanation is that we form networks with like-minded people and only hear the opinions of those who agree with us, reinforcing our narrow world views.

My belief is that the Internet has increased our exposure to diverse viewpoints, including those from oppositional tribes. I suspect everyone who uses the Internet regularly encounters more diverse opinions, in absolute terms, than prior to the rise of the Internet, and there is research (PDF) to support this. Our information diet is more diverse now, and as opposed to the age before social media or even the Internet itself, we’re exposed to more opinions that both strongly confirm AND counter our beliefs.

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Wei doesn’t write often, but when he does it’s worthwhile.
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The Big List of Naughty Strings • Github

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The Big List of Naughty Strings is a list of strings which have a high probability of causing issues when used as user-input data.

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In case you’ve got something you built that needs testing. Sure that Little Timmy Drop Tables is in there somewhere. He’s already got a company in the UK.
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Restarting the Emergent newsletter • Craig Silverman

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I’m Craig Silverman and this is the first version of a restarted newsletter about online rumors, fake news, and misinformation.

If you’re wondering why you’re receiving it, here’s a bit of background: You signed up to receive the newsletter from Emergent.info, my rumor-tracking website. It’s been dormant since March 2015. That’s also the last time I sent this newsletter. 

I’m now covering fake news and online misinformation as the media editor for BuzzFeed News. This newsletter will be a quick digital briefing on those topics.

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You can subscribe here. If you need more email.
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You Draw It: What Got Better or Worse During Obama’s Presidency • The New York Times

Larry Buchanan, Haeyoun Park and Adam Pearce:

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You Draw It: What Got Better or Worse During Obama’s Presidency

Draw your guesses on the charts below to see if you’re as smart as you think you are.

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This is terrific: unemployment, convicted immigrants deported, national spending on health care, national debt, number of Mexicans illegally in the US, number of violent crimes, troops in Afghanistan and Iraq – all there, but you have to try to guess (or use your gigantic knowledge) first.

More to the point, this is a terrific use of data journalism to get people at least to see how their beliefs match up to reality. (Trouble is, will they accept that it is reality?) Very like the FT’s interactive with data from the US and UK last December.
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How an allegedly fake video killed a much-hyped drone startup • Forbes

Ryan Mac:

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The lawsuit alleged that Lily did not have a single prototype that functioned as advertised at the time of the launch video’s filming. Instead, it claimed Balaresque and Bradlow brought non-functioning models to the shoot for “beauty shots,” while the first-person angles that supposedly came from the Lily Camera were actually shot by GoPro units that had been strapped to the robot.

In an email cited by the lawsuit, Lily CEO Balaresque wrote to Brad Kremer, a video producer who specialized in snowboarding shoots, that shots from the Lily Drone will be using a “Gopro mounted to a Lily prototype.”

“However, we do not feel comfortable telling people that we shot [view from Lily] scenes with a Gopro (because the whole thesis of our product is that you do not need a Gopro),” he continued. “Can you modify a Gopro image in post-processing so that people cannot tell that it was taken from a Gopro…”

Kremer, who works for video production company CMI Productions, declined to comment to Forbes, citing the ongoing litigation.

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The use case that the Lily founders thought they had – include yourself in those family holiday photos! – is pretty much completely answered by the selfie stick. Though I can see scores of professional uses for drones (films, TV, reconnaissance) I still can’t see a viable use for consumers at the moment.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: apparently every iPad mini owner in the entire world spends all their time using it in portrait mode and would love to buy a 10.5in version so they can have two side-by-side. We regret the error.

Start Up: Tesla’s lock trouble, Sudan’s deadly fake news, Fitbit looks flabby, the emoji problem, and more


We might have to think about that “secure” line. Photo by Doug Kline on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

Note to Tesla owners: Don’t forget your car keys • Recode

Johana Bhuiyan:

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Ryan Negri, an angel investor and Tesla owner based in Las Vegas, decided to go for a drive through Red Rock Canyon yesterday to take “some photos of the freshly-fallen snow,” according to a photo caption he posted on Instagram. He unlocked and also started his car using his phone — a handy, somewhat delightful and futuristic-seeming feature — and left the key behind.

As Negri discovered after getting out of the car, it turns out there is no cell reception in a canyon in the middle of the desert — and that the Tesla needs a network connection to use the smartphone-unlocking feature.

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#utopians
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Medium, and the reason you can’t stand the news anymore • Medium

Sean Blanda:

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Companies from Medium to The Washington Post to Mashable to Buzzfeed all eventually run into the same unthinkable truth: The methods used to fund modern journalism simultaneously undermine trust in the news outlets.

Editors, writers, and executives at today’s news outlets are all in a no-win situation where they are forced to contribute to the causes of their own demise to survive. In any other business, companies would try, fail, and another would take its place. This is good and needed.

But for news, the failures are happening at a glacial pace and bad actors are profiting as the trustworthiness of our news outlets are breaking down in slow motion. The result is the worst kind of feedback loop, where well-meaning people try to “fix” the news. But instead, those methods erode trust in all news outlets leading to a total breakdown in discourse.

You can draw a straight line from the bad incentive structure forced upon news outlets to the unprecedented divisiveness in our country. And it’s time we realized what’s going on.

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How to use Facebook and fake news to get people to murder each other • BuzzFeed News

Jason Patinkin:

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Although the vast majority of South Sudan’s population has no internet access — the adult literacy rate in the country is around 30% — social media incitement has had an outsized impact largely because it mainly comes from the South Sudanese diaspora, who are held in extremely high esteem back home.

In November, the UN warned that ethnic cleansing is underway and that the fighting could spill into genocide. Government and rebel leaders stand accused of orchestrating Facebook and Twitter campaigns inciting the violence.

“Social media has been used by partisans on all sides, including some senior government officials, to exaggerate incidents, spread falsehoods and veiled threats or post outright messages of incitement,” a separate report by a UN panel of experts released in November reads.

It’s a situation that has drawn comparisons to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, particularly that crisis’s use of Radio Mille Collines, a local radio station, to fan the flames. And South Sudan’s divide is only getting worse.

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Goebbels would have loved Facebook and Twitter.
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Andy Rubin nears his comeback, complete with an ‘Essential’ phone • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Mark Bergen:

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At least one prototype of Rubin’s phone boasts a screen larger than the iPhone 7 Plus’s (5.5-inches) but has a smaller overall footprint because of the lack of bezels, one of the people said. The startup is experimenting with enabling the phone’s screen to sense different levels of pressure, similar to an iPhone, the person said. Rubin’s team is testing an industrial design with metal edges and a back made of ceramic, which is more difficult to manufacture than typical smartphone materials, two of the people said. 

Essential’s engineers are developing a proprietary connector that serves double duty for charging the battery and expanding the phone’s functionality over time, one person familiar with the planning said. The magnetic connector would allow Essential or even third parties to create hardware accessories that add features to the smartphone. For instance, Rubin’s engineers are working on a sphere-shaped camera add-on that shoots high-resolution 360 degree photographs, the person said.

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1) going to go nowhere. Rubin has a great track record, but this is niche stuff; and modular is a deathwish.
2) increasingly, on reading Gurman’s stories, I feel his sources are in the supply chain, not the actual companies. There’s hardware detail, but very little about how things will work or what their aims are.
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Microsoft acquires deep learning startup Maluuba; AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio to have advisory role • Official Microsoft Blog

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Maluuba’s vision is to advance toward a more general artificial intelligence by creating literate machines that can think, reason and communicate like humans — a vision exactly in line with ours. Maluuba’s impressive team is addressing some of the fundamental problems in language understanding by modeling some of the innate capabilities of the human brain, from memory and common sense reasoning to curiosity and decision making. I’ve been in the AI research and development field for more than 20 years now, and I’m incredibly excited about the scenarios that this acquisition could make possible in conversational AI.

Imagine a future where, instead of frantically searching through your organization’s directory, documents or emails to find the top tax-law experts in your company, for example, you could communicate with an AI agent that would leverage Maluuba’s machine comprehension capabilities to immediately respond to your request. The agent would be able to answer your question in a company security-compliant manner by having a deeper understanding of the contents of your organization’s documents and emails, instead of simply retrieving a document by keyword matching, which happens today. This is just one of hundreds of scenarios we could imagine as Maluuba pushes the state-of-the-art technology of machine literacy.

Sam Pasupalak and his Maluuba co-founder, Kaheer Suleman, have created a very strong engineering and research team that will become part of our Artificial Intelligence and Research organization.

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If they can imagine hundreds of scenarios, could they not imagine one that actually makes one think “wow”? Keyword matching is popular because one almost always uses a relevant word, which can then be retrieved. What would be impressive would be to ask for “that email by that person who I met with at X hotel”. Calendar, ID, email.
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Why would Apple release a 10.5″ iPad? • Studio Neat blog

Dan Provost:

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When the original iPad Pro 12.9″ was introduced in September 2015, Phil Schiller demonstrated the reasoning for that sizing by illustrating that the width of the new iPad is the exact same dimension as the height of the 9.7″ iPad.

This has the advantage of essentially having two full height iPad apps, side by side.
Now, imagine Apple doing the exact same thing, but with the iPad mini.

The math works out perfectly. This new 10.5″ iPad would have the exact same resolution as the 12.9″ iPad Pro (2732 x 2048), but the same pixel density of the iPad mini (326 ppi instead of 264 ppi). Crunch the numbers, do a little Pythagorean Theorem, and you end up with a screen 10.5″ diagonal (10.47″ to be precise, but none of Apple’s stated screen sizes are exact). In terms of physcial dimensions, the width of this 10.5″ screen would be exactly the same as the height of the iPad mini screen.

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OK, so that’s the case, but does anyone use an iPad mini in portrait? Also, would this mean the end of the iPad mini? If this is released, the SKUs are starting to get weird: 7.9in, 9.7in, 10.5in, 12.9in. Notable how Samsung tried multiple screen sizes for tablets, but it released them all at pretty much the same time. That doesn’t seem to have worked out particularly well for them.
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Fitbit off to slow start in 2017 as devices pile up, report says • Bloomberg

Selina Wang:

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The maker of wearable fitness trackers halted production in mid-December because the devices were piling up at retailers and suppliers amid disappointing sales, according to a report by the firm published Tuesday. Demand so far this year is “characterized as weak,” Cleveland Research said, suggesting analysts’ estimates for 2016 fourth-quarter earnings may be too high.

“The start of the year has been bad with Fitbit,” research analyst Ben Bollin wrote in the note. “There are some concerns partners may not get paid for all of the product they have built because demand is so weak,” he wrote, citing comments from a supplier. “Partners had to completely stop production for Fitbit because they are swimming in product.”

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Wow. Demand reckoned to have been low through the fourth quarter. And yet the Fitbit app was high on the list of free apps in the iOS store. One to keep an eye on this year. (Thanks @charlesknight for the link.)
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Exploitee.rs hacked the Samsung Smartcam yet again, this time with a root exploit • Android Police

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After the first wave of exploits [in May 2014], the Smartcam’s local web interface was completely removed, only allowing users to connect to it via the Samsung SmartCloud website. The company hoped that this would remove all possible exploits, but they neglected to remove the actual web server itself (only deleting the interface that the server was running).

Because the web server is still available, another exploit was found – allowing commands to be run on the Smartcam as root. The full technical details can be found on the Exploitee.rs wiki, but essentially, this works by injecting a specific file into the device’s “iWatch” webcam monitoring service as a firmware update. This can then be used to execute commands remotely as the root user, because the web server runs as root.

Interestingly, the Smartcam was developed by Samsung Techwin, a former division of Samsung. Samsung sold its holding stake of Techwin in 2015 to South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Group. The company, now called Hanwha Techwin, is still responsible for the Samsung Smartcam – likely explaining the camera’s poor user experience and security.

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The Exploiteers wiki is worth a browse; seems to be an IoT hacking/exploit wiki. Oddly, no Apple gear in there.
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Android’s emoji problem • Emojipedia blog

Jeremy Burge:

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The Google design team were months ahead of Apple with new emoji in the past year. Support for the latest emojis came to Android in the major Nougat release in August of 2016.

Yet the vast majority of Android users still can’t see these new emojis. Instead, they see this:

Unicode 9 support was first added to Android 7.0 in August, followed by genders and professions which arrived with 7.1 in October 2016. This was some timely updating from Google, especially compared to previous years.

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84% of iOS users visiting Emojipedia are using iOS 10.x; just 4% of Android visitors are using the latest, 7.x (though that’s 6x greater than the number in the wild, 0.7%). Quoth Burge:

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With numbers like that, it’s no wonder so many apps are providing their own custom emoji support these days.

Snapchat, Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram and Slack all use emoji-replacement images on Android; in a trend started by Twitter with Twemoji which was released when the most popular browser on Windows (Chrome) didn’t include emoji support.

WhatsApp and Telegram even use Apple’s own emoji images on Android, and makes a custom keyboard to display them…

…The answer for users is very clear: if you care about new emoji support, be careful which phone you purchase. Unless you like looking at empty boxes.

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It does feel a bit “first world problem”, but the deeper point is that security elements in newer versions of Android never reach many users.

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Pandora’s eyes are bigger than its wallet • Bloomberg Gadfly

Shira Ovide:

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Pandora said late Thursday that its business is going gangbusters — so wonderfully, in fact, that it needs to fire 7% of its main workforce in the U.S. 

The good news is the online radio service is doing better financially than it told investors to expect. Revenue is higher than predicted, at least in part because the company is willing to cram in more commercial breaks between songs. And there’s a good reason for Pandora’s eagerness for higher advertising sales at the risk of annoying its users with ads: It needs the money. 

Running Pandora Media Inc.’s business in the 12 months ended Sept. 30 burned through $301m in cash, counting what the company spent on computers and other resources to stream songs to its listeners. And the company at Sept. 30 held about $258m in cash and relatively liquid financial instruments. At its current rate of cash burn, then, the company will exhaust its reserves of ready cash in about 10 months. 

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But but but! As Ovide points out, though it has been free cashflow-negative for five quarters in a row (and 8 of the past 11) it can get more cash by a rights issue, or issuing more stock, or a loan. But that’s only going to be a holding position – she reckons it’s in line for a sale. (Ironic, since Pandora is public, and Spotify is angling to go public this year, but isn’t profitable either, and has a giant loan sucking it dry.)
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Trolls decided I was taking pictures of Rex Tillerson’s notes. I wasn’t even there. • The Washington Post

Doris Truong was convicted in her absence on Twitter of having been the (also Asian, also female) person who seemed to be taking pictures of Tillerson’s notes during a break in his confirmation hearing:

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Even more bizarrely, one Twitter user insisted that “facial software on the video” led to the “almost positive” conclusion that the woman was me.

But even if people believed that the person at the hearing wasn’t me, they wanted to know who she was. And that’s what’s particularly alarming about this time in our society: Why are people so quick to look for someone to condemn? And during the confusion about the woman’s identity, why is it presumed that she is a journalist? Or that taking pictures of notes in an open hearing is illegal? Or, for that matter, that she was even taking pictures of Tillerson’s notes?

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The urge to accuse is extraordinarily strong online. If you renamed Facebook to “Pitchforks” and Twitter to “Flaming Torches” you’d pretty much have it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up: numberplate readers online, PC sales fall again, celebrity death hoaxing, and more


Afraid so – machine learning is coming for your poker game. Photo by Jeremy Brooks on Flickr.

A selection of 14 links for you. It’s a lot, isn’t it? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The Internet IS a Thing: use it to find license plate readers • networked inference

Kenneth Lipp:

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A few years ago I was searching for info about Automatic License Plate Readers, ALPR, Googling by manufacturer “Genetec.” I found a “Read Me” file from an FTP server, that it turned out was a live ALPR server for the City of Boston, with classified watchlists including thousands on a “Gang/Terror” watch.

At the time I was just searching Google, but once I found something interesting I used a variety of other tools to remotely scan the server and its directories to see what I could learn.

I found out recently that you could search Shodan, the Search Engine for the Internet of Things, for text in the “html” field. Shodan indexes, among other data about the physical architecture of the Web, headers which provide response codes (like 100, 200, “404 Error,” etc), and often descriptive information about the function of the computer (or machine, or site, for the purposes of Shodan’s heuristic, host).

In Boston I located a Genetec AutoVu server. I searched Shodan for html:”autovu”

This brings back four results, once filtered to just the US (probably two ALPR systems, 3 IP addresses, one is repeated in the results)…

…What we have in this case appears to be a field test for an occupancy-detection/plate-reader hybrid solution, located in Boydton, in Virginia, all the way down on the North Carolina border — where would you look at that there’s a Microsoft Data Center.

I know off the top of my head that Massachusetts state was working with Xerox on such a system on state roads, which in addition to scanning and archiving plate numbers of passing cars used a computer vision algorithm to determine how many people are in the car (or perhaps whether the car has only one or more than occupant — this type of system is frequently deployed for monitoring occupancy-restricted lanes — “carpool lanes.”)

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And this stuff is on the internet, at least in the US. Lipp has written much more on this in a series of blogposts.
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Facebook risks breaking its perfect business model • Bloomberg Gadfly

Shira Ovide on Facebook’s decision to start revenue-sharing on pre-roll and mid-roll (yuk) ads in videos:

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Facebook has become – surprisingly – the perfect business for the smartphone age, and a big reason is it has spent essentially nothing to keep users enthralled. For the most part, companies that publish political articles or cooking videos on Facebook don’t make money directly from that material, although they use those items to assemble a big fan base and then point those people to websites and apps where the companies make money selling ads or subscriptions.

Those articles and cooking videos keep users hanging out on Facebook, and the company keeps all the money it makes from selling advertisements that fill in gaps between those posts and videos they paid nothing to publish. It may not be fair, but it has made for a wildly successful and profitable business. 

If Facebook is now willing to give 55% of ad dollars from those video ads, that means cracks are emerging in Facebook’s free ride with its army of content suppliers. (Facebook also has experimented with splitting ad dollars with semiprofessional video stars who have attracted television-sized audiences on YouTube.)

Sharing money is more equitable but could damage Facebook’s finances. Consider Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube. The video website makes roughly one-third of the money Facebook generates from each user. It’s not clear exactly why. Facebook may be doing a better job stuffing ads into every spot it can. Surely part of the gap is explained by Facebook paying almost nothing to stock the social network with posts, photos and video, while YouTube hands off 55 cents of every dollar it generates to the creators of popular videos.

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How surveillance changes people’s behavior • Harvard Magazine

Jonathan Shaw, in a very long article on this topic:

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“Google was ground zero,” [Wilson professor of business administration Shoshana] Zuboff begins. At first, information was used to benefit end users, to improve searches, just as Apple and Amazon use their customers’ data largely to customize those individuals’ online experiences. Google’s founders once said they weren’t interested in advertising. But Google “didn’t have a product to sell,” she explains, and as the 2001 dot.com bubble fell into crisis, the company was under pressure to transform investment into earnings. “They didn’t start by saying, ‘Well, we can make a lot of money assaulting privacy,’” she continues. Instead, “trial and error and experimentation and adapting their capabilities in new directions” led them to sell ads based on personal information about users. Like the tinkerers at Ford, Google engineers discovered “a way of using their capabilities in the context of search to do something utterly different from anything they had imagined when they started out.” Instead of using the personal data to benefit the sources of that information, they commodified it, using what they knew about people to match them with paying advertisers. As the advertising money flowed into Google, it became a “powerful feedback loop of almost instantaneous success in these new markets.”

“Those feedback loops become drivers themselves,” Zuboff explains. “This is how the logic of accumulation develops…and ultimately flourishes and becomes institutionalized. That it has costs, and that the costs fall on society, on individuals, on the values and principles of the liberal order for which human beings have struggled and sacrificed much over millennia—that,” she says pointedly, “is off the balance sheet.”

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How celebrity death hoaxes power fake news • Digiday

Lucia Moses:

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Web traffic-goosing tricks come and go. But if there’s one that has enduring appeal, it’s the celebrity death hoax.

In the past few weeks alone, internet pranksters have “killed off” Queen Elizabeth, Tony Hawk, Miley Cyrus and Hugh Hefner, to name a handful that have been debunked by the website Gossip Cop. Some trace its peak to the site Global Associated News, a fake-news headline generator that web entrepreneur Rich Hoover said he started as a joke.

Since then, others have discovered the celebrity death hoax as a tried-and-true scheme to drive traffic to their sites, which they’re monetizing with ads. The fake stories follow a loose pattern: Often coming from sites with legit-sounding names like Msmbc.co and Nbctoday.co, the stories tend to focus on young, popular celebrities with many fans who would be shocked by their premature death, causing a burst of traffic to the site, which is paid for with programmatically served ads.

Michael Lewittes, founder of Gossip Cop, said he once was seeing as many as two or three death hoaxes a week. “Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler have died, probably collectively, 15 to 20 times on the internet,” he said.

The rise of platforms and ad tech have enabled the spread of celebrity death, just as it has other types of fake news. Some pranksters have used Twitter to fool people about celebrity deaths, using accounts that sound like actual news outlets.

«

Celebrity *anything* tends to drive clicks. Hell, you can even get people to *vote* for you with the power of celebrity, even if you’re talentless.
link to this extract


US appeals court revives antitrust lawsuit against Apple • Reuters

Stephen Nellis and Dan Levine:

»

iPhone app purchasers may sue Apple Inc over allegations that the company monopolized the market for iPhone apps by not allowing users to purchase them outside the App Store, leading to higher prices, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Thursday.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling revives a long-simmering legal challenge originally filed in 2012 taking aim at Apple’s practice of only allowing iPhones to run apps purchased from its own App Store. A group of iPhone users sued saying the Cupertino, California, company’s practice was anticompetitive.

Apple had argued that users did not have standing to sue it because they purchased apps from developers, with Apple simply renting out space to those developers. Developers pay a cut of their revenues to Apple in exchange for the right to sell in the App Store.

A lower court sided with Apple, but Judge William A. Fletcher ruled that iPhone users purchase apps directly from Apple, which gives iPhone users the right to bring a legal challenge against Apple.

«

That could get interesting.
link to this extract


The eye of the storm: a look at EyePyramid, the malware supposedly used in high-profile hacks in Italy • TrendLabs Security Intelligence Blog

Federico Maggi:

»

Two Italian citizens were arrested last Tuesday by Italian authorities (in cooperation with the FBI) for exfiltrating sensitive data from high-profile Italian targets. Private and public Italian citizens, including those holding key positions in the state, were the subject of a spear-phishing campaign that reportedly served a malware, codenamed EyePyramid, as a malicious attachment. This malware was used to successfully exfiltrate over 87 gigabytes worth of data including usernames, passwords, browsing data, and filesystem content.

«

Caught how? One of them bought a licence key for MailBee under his own name, and used the key in the attack code. Operational security is tough.
link to this extract


Asking the wrong questions • Benedict Evans

Evans looks at forecasts of the future from the 1960s:

»

Some of this has happened more or less as predicted – we did get air traffic control, automated subway trains and computerised taxation (except in the USA). There are some great comedy predictions here too – that ‘centralised wire tapping’ would take until 2030, or never, or that people in both 1964 and 2016 thought we’d have automated driving ‘by 2020’. 

However, to me the interesting thing is how often the order is wrong. What we now know to be the hard problems were going to be solved decades before what we now know were the easy ones. So it might take until 2020 to ‘fax’ a newspaper to your home, and automatic wiretapping might be impossible, but automatic doctors, radar implants for the blind, household robots and machine translation would be all done by 1990 and a machine would be passing human IQ tests at genius level by 2000. Meanwhile, there are a few quite important things missing – there is no general-purpose computing, no internet and no mobile phones. There’s no prediction for when everyone on earth would have a pocket computer connected to all the world’s knowledge (2020-2025). This aren’t random gaps – it’s just not that they thought X would work and didn’t know we’d invent Y. Rather, what’s lacking is an understanding of the structural impetus of computing and software as universal platforms that would shape how all of these things would be created. We didn’t make a home newspaper facsimile machine – we made computers.

«

link to this extract


Damn, Apple is losing a lot of people • Gizmodo

Christina Warren:

»

Here is a list of some of the high level employees who have left Apple since January 2016 and where they have gone, if that information is available:

«

It’s a long list (24 names), from multiple departments – though five are PR or media (is that a crucial department?). Notable that many in that list are going to Tesla. Either Tesla is the attractive place, or it’s good at the PR job of announcing recruitment wins.
link to this extract


Xiaomi stops disclosing annual sales figures as CEO admits the company grew too fast • TechCrunch

Jon Russell:

»

Xiaomi has forgone its tradition of revealing how many smartphones it sold the previous year. The strategy yielded many headlines for the highly-regarded Chinese outfit, but today its CEO admitted that Xiaomi has been in transition after growing “too fast”.

The writing was on the cards, even as early as January 2016 when Xiaomi revealed it had sold “over 70 million” devices in 2015. An impressive number, for sure, given the backdrop of slowing smartphone sales worldwide, but it was short of the company’s public target of 80m, which was reduced from an initial 100m.

It’s been fairly evident from analyst reports that 2016 wasn’t a year for blockbuster Xiaomi growth. While it featured near the top of the sales pile in China, and held steady in India, its top emerging market, there was no great acceleration as in past years. For example, sales jumped from 7.2m in 2012, to 18.7m in 2013 and 61m in 2014.

A Xiaomi rep confirmed to us that the company will not be disclosing its 2016 sales numbers.

«

That $45bn valuation (at its last funding round in December 2014) doesn’t look so solid any more.
link to this extract


Poker is the latest game to fold against artificial intelligence • MIT Technology Review

Will Knight:

»

In a landmark achievement for artificial intelligence, a poker bot developed by researchers in Canada and the Czech Republic has defeated several professional players in one-on-one games of no-limit Texas hold’em poker.

Perhaps most interestingly, the academics behind the work say their program overcame its human opponents by using an approximation approach that they compare to “gut feeling.”

“If correct, this is indeed a significant advance in game-playing AI,” says Michael Wellman, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in game theory and AI. “First, it achieves a major milestone (beating poker professionals) in a game of prominent interest. Second, it brings together several novel ideas, which together support an exciting approach for imperfect-information games.”

Later this week, a tournament at a Pittsburgh casino will see several world-class poker players play the same version of poker against a program developed at Carnegie Mellon University.

«

Computers playing poker get an advantage over humans: they don’t have emotions, and they don’t have “tells” – the unconscious signals we give off to indicate tension or otherwise.

However, poker is amazingly hard for computers:

»

tellingly, it contains levels of uncertainty, such as when an opponent may be bluffing, that are found in many real-world situations that AI has not yet mastered. Poker players cannot see their opponents’ hands, meaning that, in contrast to checkers, chess, or Go, not all of the information contained within the game is available to them.

«

About 10^160 paths for each hand in heads-up no-limit Texas Hold’em.
link to this extract


2016 marked fifth consecutive year of worldwide PC shipment decline • Gartner

»

For the year 2016, PC shipments totaled 269.7m units, a 6.2% decline from 2015. PC shipments have declined annually since 2012.

“Stagnation in the PC market continued into the fourth quarter of 2016 as holiday sales were generally weak due to the fundamental change in PC buying behavior,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. “The broad PC market has been static as technology improvements have not been sufficient to drive real market growth. There have been innovative form factors like 2-in-1s and thin and light notebooks, as well as technology improvements, such as longer battery life. This end of the market has grown fast, led by engaged PC users who put high priority on PCs. However, the market driven by PC enthusiasts is not big enough to drive overall market growth.”

“There is the other side of the PC market, where PCs are infrequently used. Consumers in this segment have high dependency on smartphones, so they stretch PC life cycles longer. This side of the market is much bigger than the PC enthusiast segment; thus, steep declines in the infrequent PC user market offset the fast growth of the PC enthusiast market.”

«

Hasn’t found the bottom yet, then. The other notable point is that the “Others” category (all those who aren’t Lenovo, HP, Dell, Asus, Apple or Acer) shrank by 19% in the fourth quarter, against 17% for the year – suggesting that the squeeze on the smaller players is getting worse. In total, “Others” went from 77.6m in 2015 to 64.5m. Those lost 13m sales are going to hurt balance sheets.
link to this extract


Saving you bandwidth on Google+ through machine learning • Google product blog

John Nack, Google+ product manager:

»

Traditionally, viewing images at high resolution has also meant using lots of bandwidth, leading to slower loading speeds and higher data costs. For many folks, especially those where data is pricey or the internet is spotty, this is a significant concern.

To help everyone be able to see the beautiful photos that photographers share to Google+ in their full glory, we’ve turned to machine learning and a new technology called RAISR. RAISR, which was introduced in November, uses machine learning to produce great quality versions of low-resolution images, allowing you to see beautiful photos as the photographers intended them to be seen. By using RAISR to display some of the large images on Google+, we’ve been able to use up to 75% less bandwidth per image we’ve applied it to.

«

“Google+ product manager” must be one of those depressing jobs. This is a great application, though on my slow connection the picture alone took absolutely ages – over 30 seconds – to load.
link to this extract


Techdirt’s First Amendment fight for its life • Techdirt

Mike Masnick, Techdirt’s founder:

»

As you may have heard, last week we were sued for $15m by Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email. We have written, at great length, about his claims and our opinion — backed up by detailed and thorough evidence — that email existed long before Ayyadurai created any software. We believe the legal claims in the lawsuit are meritless, and we intend to fight them and to win.

There is a larger point here. Defamation claims like this can force independent media companies to capitulate and shut down due to mounting legal costs. Ayyadurai’s attorney, Charles Harder, has already shown that this model can lead to exactly that result. His efforts helped put a much larger and much more well-resourced company than Techdirt completely out of business.

So, in our view, this is not a fight about who invented email. This is a fight about whether or not our legal system will silence independent publications for publishing opinions that public figures do not like.
And here’s the thing: this fight could very well be the end of Techdirt, even if we are completely on the right side of the law.

«

I don’t agree with Masnick on everything (specifically: the value of copyright) but he always argues his case well; and he’s not afraid to call a spade a spade. It’s likely Techdirt will set up a legal defence fund. That could be a worthy cause for donations.

It’s also a sign of the US’s media getting an inkling of what it’s like to be in the news business in the UK: you always need to be thinking about libel risk.
link to this extract


The slow, sad, and ultimately predictable decline of 3-D printing • Inc.com

John Brandon:

»

I often think of that Saab part [a cupholder which had broken, and which he wanted to replace] as a good model of what went wrong. (By the way, I promise not to use any metaphors for 3-D printing from now on.) For starters, I really wanted to print the cup holder. I even asked a well-known Thingiverse designer for help, and was going to pay him, but he said the part was too complex. Wait, what? Too complex for a well-known designer? He even used the word “hassle” in his email back to me. The part is not something you’d use on a NASA spaceship. It does have a spring attached to two pieces of plastic that fold together.

What about a water bottle cage for my bike? Shouldn’t be a big problem. There are plenty of designs. But when I actually printed one of them, it broke on my first ride. Also, a much more important piece of data: A water bottle cage costs about $4 at Amazon.com but even a relatively short spool of filament costs $65. The math doesn’t compute. And, it doesn’t make sense to spend the time.

From that experience, I knew something was wrong. As the Newsweek article notes, you can print only so many Yoda heads before you wonder why you bought the device. A 3-D printer won’t magically terraform anything right before your eyes, and it even has problems with slightly complex car parts. I even remember my nephew, who is working as an intern for me this year, saying the industry needs to figure out this problem. It’s fun for a while, but eventually you realize you need to do something practical after paying almost $1,000 for the product.

«

It’s that: the costs just never add up.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: “Alibaba” was mispelt as “Alababa” in the article about Yahoo yesterday. What’s an extra i between friends, though?

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

Start Up: how Facebook splits us, Alphabet’s selloff, the tld domain scam, Parrot shrinks, and more


What if someone takes over your phone using voice commands you can’t recognise? Photo by TechStage on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

Back by minimal demand! A selection of 17 links for you. (It’s 20-17, after all.) Please do not abuse them in Russian hotels. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why America is self-segregating • Points

Danah Boyd:

»

Naive as hell, Mark Zuckerberg dreamed he could build the tools that would connect people at unprecedented scale, both domestically and internationally. I actually feel bad for him as he clings to that hope while facing increasing attacks from people around the world about the role that Facebook is playing in magnifying social divisions. Although critics love to paint him as only motivated by money, he genuinely wants to make the world a better place and sees Facebook as a tool to connect people, not empower them to self-segregate…

…In the springs of 2006, I was doing fieldwork with teenagers at a time when they had just received acceptances to college. I giggled at how many of them immediately wrote to the college in which they intended to enroll, begging for a campus email address so that they could join that school’s Facebook (before Facebook was broadly available). In the previous year, I had watched the previous class look up roommate assignments on MySpace so I was prepared for the fact that they’d use Facebook to do the same. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly they would all get on Facebook, map the incoming freshman class, and use this information to ask for a roommate switch. Before they even arrived on campus in August/September of 2006, they had self-segregated as much as possible.

«

The longer piece has much more data, and is even more remarkable.
link to this extract


Demo: Hidden Voice Commands • UC Berkeley/Georgetown U research

An eight-strong team from the two universities show how machines can hear things that you can’t – and will act on them:

»

The video below shows black box attack attack being carried out in presence of background noise with the target phone kept at a distance on 10.1 ft away from the speakers used to play the attack audio. 

The understanding of attack commands by a human listener is subject to priming effects:  when we already know the actual message embedded in an obfuscated command, we unconsciously “hear” that message in the noise. This effect is so extreme that we can even “hear” primed messages when no such message actually exists; see, for example, Sounds you can’t Unhear

«

The video is creepy, and amazing. They’ve published a paper too.

I mean, imagine if you broadcast one of those “hidden” commands over some speakers to direct the phone belonging to, say, a resident of a tower in New York to open a URL which exploited a known Android security flaw so you could take the phone over and passively connect to the microphone. Imagine.
link to this extract


How volunteer reviewers are saving the world from crummy – even dangerous – USB-C cables • Fast Company

Glenn Fleishman:

»

Nathan Kolluru [who has been testing and then reviewing USB-C cables bought from Amazon] has also seen the downside of being fully independent: In July, he wrote about a warning from Amazon that he risked termination of his Prime account after he tried to return some non-standards-compliant cables.

But surely this isn’t how the hardware world should work for consumers. Shouldn’t there be a formal source of information about a new technology’s promise and pitfalls that isn’t reliant on manufacturers and industry trade groups?

Well, yes, there should. And for a glorious few decades there was, in the form of test labs at computer and other electronics trade magazines. Before the rise of the internet, tech companies that wanted to reach consumers and businesses bought advertising in magazines such as PC Magazine, PCWorld, and InfoWorld. That made such publications highly profitable, which funded large staffs and testing labs.

«

Hey, guess what happened to them? But this is a good article about what the USB people can and can’t do. Though it doesn’t give us much of a timeline for when it will all be plain sailing as it always almost is with USB-A.
link to this extract


Longtime Apple programmer and Swift creator leaves Apple for Tesla • Ars Technica

Andrew Cunningham:

»

Ted Kremenek, another longtime Apple developer who has been with the company since 2007, will be taking over Lattner’s duties as Swift project lead.

[Chris] Lattner has worked at Apple since 2005, and he’s been involved in a lot of major tools and software initiatives over the years. His extensive resume lists many versions of Xcode going back to at least version 3.1, LLVM and the Clang frontend, OpenCL, LLDB, and Swift. He also did some work on macOS, helped tune software performance for the Apple A6 used in the iPhone 5, and helped with the transition to 64-bit ARM CPUs that began with the iPhone 5S. His resume shows a willingness to create, adopt, and evangelize new software and programming languages, which will no doubt be a component of his work at Tesla.

«

11 years is a fair length of time. But equally, Lattner was clearly important at Apple, which couldn’t find a way to keep him. You can see that becoming the person in charge of self-driving software at Tesla would be attractive. And clearly, Apple doesn’t have the same means of attracting him.
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78% of global smartphones will be sold to replacement buyers in 2017 • Strategy Analytics

»

According to the latest report from our Wireless Smartphone Strategies (WSS) services: Global Smartphone Sales by Replacement Sales vs. Sales to First Time Buyers by 88 Countries : 2013-2022, global smartphone replacement sales outweighed sales to first time buyers in 2013, for the first time ever. In 2017, we expect 78% of global smartphones will be sold to replacement buyers. We forecast replacement smartphone sales will continue to dominate smartphone sales across all six regions by 2022.

«

I think they mean 78% of smartphones globally, but anyhow. Saturation beckons.
link to this extract


LG Electronics, moving away from modular model, plans new smartphone • WSJ

You know that thing where annoying people say “I told you so”? I told you so about LG’s modular plan.

Also, I think we can declare 2016 “the year of moving away from modular smartphones”. Besides all the other things it was.
link to this extract


Apple’s 2016 in review • Chuqui

Former Apple employee Chuq von Rospach:

»

Why make a product?

If you boil business down to essentials, there are only three reasons a product should exist:

Because it makes you money: Most products need to make you money and contribute to the financial success of the company. Some are going to be more profitable than others, but you shouldn’t be doing products that lose you money (buy hey, we’ll make it up in volume!). Unless…

Because it’s strategic: Sometimes you create a product for strategic reasons: it’s not going to make you money, but it’s necessary to compete, or it creates other opportunities where you can profit indirectly (iTunes is a great example of this, where most of the profit came from iPod sales and later music and media sales), or you’re investing in in something that in the long term you expect will make you money some day, but you need to start now and let the market grow (but you can’t really wait until it does, because someone else will take the market from you first) — the Apple TV, while labelled a hobby for years, was such a strategic investment. So were the early Airport devices, because Apple saw wireless as a big part of its future and a long-term competitive advantage, but existing WIFI devices were pretty terrible and had horrible user experiences.

Because it matters to you: And sometimes you do it because you feel it has to be done. Apple’s strong commitment to accessibility is one very visible place where they are clearly investing not because it’ll make them money, but because it’s an important thing to do.

I bring this up because it helps me frame my view of the reality of the Macintosh product line and why I think Apple’s gotten some things very wrong with it.

«

This has been a very widely shared article (but linked here just in case). Von Rospach makes many good points: one gets a feeling that Apple is struggling to keep its arms around everything it’s doing and keep it all timely. That has become a much bigger problem with its expanding product range, and there have been lacunae when it was smaller (iMovie and iPhoto languished for years, as did iWork). But that doesn’t excuse the stunning lag on the Mac Pro, and the decisions around the MacBook Pro – for which von Rospach gives this analogy from experience:

»

Back when I was running most of Apple’s e-mail systems for the marketing teams, I went to them and suggested that we should consider dumping the text-only part of the emails we were building, because only about 4% of users used them and it added a significant amount of work to the process of creation and testing each e-mail.

Their response? That it was a small group of people, but a strategic one, since it was highly biased towards developers and power users. So the two-part emails stayed — and they were right. It made no sense from a business standpoint to continue to develop these emails as both HTML at text, but it made significant strategic sense. It was an investment in keeping this key user base happy with Apple.

«

link to this extract


Registering a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 • Medium

Justin Searls got a Surface Pro 4:

»

I’ll have a lot more to say about my experiments in trying out Windows over the coming days, but as a special Christmas bonus edition, I thought I’d share the steps that were apparently required for me to register my Surface Pro 4 with Microsoft.

As I got in bed last night, I activated tablet mode for the first time and while perusing the don’t-call-it-Metro tile page, I saw an app called “Surface”. I have one of those, I thought, I should tap that!
At first blush, the purpose of the app is to introduce you to the Surface’s features, process device registration, solicit customer feedback, and so forth. The first thing the app asks of its users is to register the Surface device for benefits that include both requesting (and cancelling!) hardware service. Since part of my aforementioned experiment is to begrudgingly click “yes” to every asanine pop-up and prompt the operating system throws at me, I decided to go ahead and register the device.

«

Partly this is an argument for not trying to register devices while in bed. But it’s also a cautionary tale for UX designers. And it’s entertaining too. For longer reading, his “warm takes” on the experience are excellent.
link to this extract


Yahoo leaves behind $30bn ‘company’ that does nothing • MarketWatch

Therese Poletti:

»

When Yahoo Inc. officially becomes a part of Verizon Communications Inc., it will leave behind a “company” with no workers and no product. Yet this entity, which doesn’t even have a name yet, is worth more than six times the amount Verizon is paying for the internet portal that web users have known for decades.

The rest of Yahoo is made up of its Asian assets – a roughly 36% stake in Yahoo Japan and 16% equity stake in Alababa Group Holding Ltd – as well as $7.1bn in cash, a large portfolio of patents, certain minority investments and its convertible notes. Considering Yahoo’s market cap at the close of trading Monday, after Verizon said it would pay $4.8bn for the core business, was more than $36bn, Wall Street appears to value these assets at more than $30bn.

«

Then again, you could argue that in its last few months the part of Yahoo that Verizon *is* buying was a company that did nothing.

And “Altaba” is an awful name.
link to this extract


CES proves carmakers still confused about autonomous driving • The Information

Amir Efrati:

»

Mr. Hafner’s [of Mercedes, which has teamed up with Nvidia] comments are interesting given a view among traditionalists in the self-driving field—including people who work at Waymo (formerly Google), Baidu and Ford—that Nvidia’s approach, which is sometimes called “end-to-end deep learning,” either won’t work or is outright dangerous.

Coincidentally, a day before the Mercedes-Nvidia announcement, a primitive version of Nvidia’s “AI-trained” car being demonstrated in a parking lot outside the exhibition hall veered off course. It would have crashed into a portable wall if Nvidia engineers hadn’t remotely stopped it, according to a person who saw the incident.

Danny Shapiro, senior director at Nvidia’s automotive business, said in an interview that the car’s self-driving system, called “pilot net,” had been “trained” earlier in the week during cloudy conditions so when the sun came out on Thursday, the system was unprepared. He added that the car is not representative of Nvidia-powered autonomous driving systems because it was making driving decisions based on data from just one camera. Nvidia’s latest system supports vehicles with many more cameras and other sensors.

«

But how long will it take to train them in every conceivable weather, road and other condition?
link to this extract


Alphabet said in talks to sell Skybox satellite business • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen and Ashlee Vance:

»

Alphabet Inc. is in talks to sell the Skybox Imaging satellite business it acquired for $500m less than three years ago, another sign the technology giant is ratcheting back grand ambitions to blanket the globe with internet service.

Planet Labs, a satellite imaging startup, may acquire Skybox, according to people familiar with the situation. Some employees from the Alphabet division, renamed Terra Bella last year, are moving to Planet Labs as part of the deal, while others may get different positions at Google, according to these people. They asked not to be identified because the transaction is private.

«

Wow. Things really are getting tight at Alphabet. When Google bought Skybox, its ambitions looked completely untrammeled; the potential looked huge to know everything about trade all over the world. Now? A retreat.
link to this extract


Why Google might sell its Fiber business • The Information

Kevin McLaughlin:

»

Google underestimated the costs of laying fiber. Meanwhile, Google Fiber’s consumer appeal was eroded as rivals upgraded their services by offering faster speeds and better pricing. Google Fiber executives hoped to sign up around 5 million subscribers within five years but only had around 200,000 subscribers by the end of 2014, a former Google employee said in August. Google paused the buildout in 11 cities where it had planned to offer coverage. Mr. Page ordered the Google Fiber team to cut costs by using wireless technology to continue expanding Fiber to other cities.

That raises deep questions about Google Fiber’s future. Wireless technology doesn’t have enough capacity to offer the same broadband and TV service as a fiber network. At the same time, Google Fiber can’t just stop service. It has signed contracts in cities to operate the service for several years, so it’s legally bound to ensure that the service remains operational and continues to be supported, said another former Google Fiber employee.

«

Suitors could include CenturyLink, says McLaughlin. Odd how nobody is seeing these retrenchments as defeat for Google; if Apple (say) were publicly to sell off or give up on something, the DOOM noise would go all around the internet.

link to this extract


Alphabet cuts former Titan drone program from X division, employees dispersing to other units • 9to5Google

Seth Weintraub:

»

In 2014, Google bought Titan Aerospace, maker of high altitude, solar-powered drone aircraft. At the time Google noted, “It’s still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation.” Titan previously said that its drones could collect real-time, high-resolution images of the earth, carry other atmospheric sensors and support voice and data services…

…In mid-2015 Titan team experienced a crash in the Arizona desert which was in 2016 revealed to be a wing fault. Later last year, under the moniker ‘Skybender’ reports surfaced from Spaceport America in New Mexico that Google planned to use 5G for dispersing internet, but the team there seemed to be experiencing significant problems.

We’ve now heard and Alphabet has confirmed, that the Titan group was recently shut down and engineers were told to look for other jobs within Alphabet/Google in the coming months. Over 50 employees were involved in the process. The Titan Team has been dispersing to other groups including the Project Loon effort, which similarly aims to distribute internet via high altitude balloons.

«

Spring cleaning really started early. Loon is still going, but at this rate Google X will be Google x. Don’t forget too that it’s still trying to sell off its robotics division, originally purchased as Boston Dynamics.
link to this extract


Parrot is laying off a third of its drone division • Recode

April Glaser:

»

Parrot, the French drone maker, announced today it is planning to lay off one-third of its drone-related workforce — about 290 employees — after poor performance in its fourth quarter caused it to miss sales estimates by 15%.

Specifically, Parrot said margins are so low in the consumer drone business that it wouldn’t be able to generate “profitable growth … over the medium and long term.”

This echoes other industry commentary that DJI has been undercutting the market with much cheaper-priced drones. Parrot isn’t alone in cutting back.

Chris Anderson, CEO of drone software firm 3D Robotics, estimated in an October interview with Recode that DJI dropped prices by as much as 70% in less than a year, which is a key reason his company stopped making drones altogether after it entered the market in 2015 with its Solo quadcopter. The company now focuses solely on drone software.

«

I feel that consumer drones aren’t a real market – just a fad. I’m not so certain about the business market either: Amazon is doing lots of testing, but you’d expect it to. Google ditto. This doesn’t mean they can make them work profitably compared to people with vans.
link to this extract


How search engines are killing clever URLs • The Atlantic

Lindsay Gellman on Icann’s largely failed attempt to get us all excited about new top-level domains:

»

Although investors scrambled—and shelled out up to $185,000 a pop—for the chance to snatch up the new domains and profit as gatekeepers, uptake among end-users has been underwhelming. More than three years after the program’s launch, roughly 26m new generic top-level domains have been registered, compared with the 164m registered “legacy” top-level domains.

Cyrus Namazi, the vice president of domain-name services and industry engagement at ICANN, acknowledged that demand for new top-level domains won’t eclipse that for legacies “any time soon.”

Yet Namazi believes registrations for the new extensions will continue to grow. “We are in the embryonic stages of the expansion,” he said.

Indeed, the fresh prospect of a virtual gold rush has set the niche market for domains abuzz, drawing veteran investors eager to place bets on what they see as a long-overdue expansion of the Internet’s architecture that will gain traction over time. Major players in the domain world include registries, which operate a given top-level domain, and registrars, which dole out individual URLs from registries to users. Their shared mission: identify and control access to desirable domains.

Those who have a stake in the new top-level domains argue that short, clean URLs ensure that brands will be remembered and found online. They predict that firms will continue to compete vigorously for attractive domains to signal trustworthiness to users.

Richard Tindal, the chief operating officer of Donuts Inc., a registry that operates new top-level domains like “.guru” and “.email,” said that while the new extensions have yet to reach a “tipping point of awareness,” he believes they will be “ubiquitous” within a few years as users realize the possibilities for customization and more firms adopt them.

«

I recognise the irony in saying this while posting on a site whose suffix is “.blog” (WordPress gave it to me free), but people have become used to trusting the standard TLDs dating back to 1991 or so; other ones much less so. And standard economics suggests that if you vastly increase the available domains, the new ones don’t rise in value. Quite the opposite.
link to this extract


I was a victim of a Russian smear campaign. I understand the power of fake news. • The Washington Post

Anne Applebaum:

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Why are Americans so vulnerable to fake news, both domestic and foreign-sourced? Why do they consume it and pass it on? A part of the explanation lies with the Republican Party, which told people for years to hate and fear “Washington” and has now created a constituency that actually prefers information generated by the Kremlin or white supremacists to fact-checked or edited news. In this election, the distrust of Hillary Clinton also made people shy away from anyone who seemed to support her.

But it is also true that we are living through a global media revolution, that people are hearing and digesting political information in brand-new ways and that nobody yet understands the consequences. Fake stories are easier to create, fake websites can be designed to host them, and social media rapidly disseminates disinformation that people trust because they get it from friends. This radical revolution has happened without many politicians noticing or caring — unless, like me, they happened to have seen how the new system of information exchange works. This is true not only in the United States and Europe but around the world. Half of all Filipinos are active Facebook users, and millions of them shared the scare stories and fake news that helped elect President Rodrigo Duterte, a populist who claims he has personally carried out nonjudicial executions.

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Applebaum was the subject of fake news reports which bounced around Russian “news” sites for a while in 2015 after she began writing about Ukraine.
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World energy hits a turning point: solar that’s cheaper than wind (and coal) • Bloomberg

Tom Randall:

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It started with a contract in January to produce electricity for $64 per megawatt-hour in India; then a deal in August pegging $29.10 per megawatt hour in Chile. That’s record-cheap electricity—roughly half the price of competing coal power. 

“Renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting” fossil fuel prices, BNEF chairman Michael Liebreich said in a note to clients this week.

Those are new contracts, but plenty of projects are reaching completion this year, too. When all the 2016 completions are tallied in coming months, it’s likely that the total amount of solar photovoltaics added globally will exceed that of wind for the first time. The latest BNEF projections call for 70 gigawatts of newly installed solar in 2016 compared with 59 gigawatts of wind. 

The overall shift to clean energy can be more expensive in wealthier nations, where electricity demand is flat or falling and new solar must compete with existing billion-dollar coal and gas plants. But in countries that are adding new electricity capacity as quickly as possible, “renewable energy will beat any other technology in most of the world without subsidies,” said Liebreich. 

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Seemed worth marking this point.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified. Despite such a long layoff.