Start Up: the really world wide web, new gTLDs in trouble, voice’s uncanny valley, Pixel problems, and more

Some of Soundcloud’s money went on its rooftop tiles. How much would you pay for them – and the company? Photo by unfolded 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 13 links for you. Perfectly shaped. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

World wide web, not wealthy western web (part 1) • Smashing Magazine

Bruce Lawson:


Take Ignighter, a dating website set up by three Jewish guys in the US, with a culturally targeted model: Instead of a boy and girl going out on a date, 10 guys and 10 girls would go out together on organized group dates.

Ignighter got 50,000 registrations, but it wasn’t enough to reach critical mass, and the founders considered abandoning their business. Then, they noticed they were getting as many sign-ups a week from India as they did in a year in the USA.

Perhaps the group-dating model that they anticipated for Jewish families really resonated with conservative Muslim, Hindu and Sikh families in India, Singapore and Malaysia, so they rebranded as Stepout, relocated to Mumbai and became India’s biggest dating website.

I’d bet that if you had asked them when they set up Ignighter, “What’s your India strategy?,” they would have said something like, “We don’t have one. We don’t care. We are focusing on middle-class New York Jewish people.” It’s also worth noting that if Ignighter had been an iOS app, they would not have been able to pivot their business, because iOS use in subcontinental Asia is very low. The product was discovered by their new customers precisely because they were on the web, accessible to everybody, regardless of device, operating system or network conditions.

You can’t predict the unpredictable, but, like, whatever, now I’m making a prediction: Many of your next customers will come from the area circled below, if only because there are more human beings alive in this circle than in the world outside the circle.


link to this extract

Voice and the uncanny valley of AI • Benedict Evans

On the topic of voice:


when I said that voice input ‘works’, what this means is that you can now use an audio wave-form to fill in a dialogue box – you can turn sound into text and text (from audio or, of course, from chatbots, which were last year’s Next Big Thing) into a structured query, and you can work out where to send that query. The problem is that you might not actually have anywhere to send it. You can use voice to fill in a dialogue box, but the dialogue box has to exist – you need to have built it first. You have to build a flight-booking system, and a restaurant booking system, and a scheduling system, and a concert booking system – and anything else a user might want to do, before you can connect voice to them. Otherwise, if the user asks for any of those, you will accurately turn their voice into text, but not be able to do anything with it – all you have is a transcription system. And hence the problem – how many of these queries can you build? How many do you need? Can you just dump them to a web search or do you need (much) more?

…fundamentally, you can’t create answers to all possible questions that any human might ever ask by hand, and we have no way to do it by machine. If we did, we would have general AI, pretty much by definition, and that’s decades away.

In other words, the trap that some voice UIs fall into is that you pretend the users are talking to HAL 9000 when actually, you’ve just built a better IVR, and have no idea how to get from the IVR to HAL.

Given that you cannot answer any question, there is a second scaling problem – does the user know what they can ask? I suspect that the ideal number of functions for a voice UI actually follows a U-shaped curve: one command is great and is ten probably OK, but 50 or 100 is terrible, because you still can’t ask anything but can’t remember what you can ask.


This captures the problem with voice services that so many are getting excited about in the home: Alexa and Google Home can do a couple of things. But without heroic measures, they’re not things you couldn’t just do yourself anyway, and probably faster.
link to this extract

Google’s Android close to surpassing Microsoft as top OS for internet usage • TheStreet

Natalie Walters:


The Android operating system from Alphabet’s Google is inching extremely close to passing Microsoft (MSFT) as the most popular operating system (OS) for Internet usage, according to February 2017 data collected by StatCounter from usage across desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile.

“This is hugely significant for Microsoft,” StatCounter CEO Aodhan Cullen told TheStreet. “It’s coming close to the end of an era with Microsoft no longer having the dominant operating system. It took the lead from Apple in the 80s and has held that title ever since.” This new development is coming after Google’s Chrome browser has already beat out Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Edge, he added. 

According to last month’s data, Windows took 38.6% of the OS market share worldwide, vs. a close 37.4% grabbed by Android. This numbers are significant considering Windows held 82% of the global Internet usage share in 2012, vs. a measly 2.2% held by Android.


Sign o’ the times.
link to this extract

SoundCloud needs more money, or it may sell at a fire-sale price • Recode

Peter Kafka:


SoundCloud’s stall has been out in the open for some time. Investors pegged its value at $700m in 2014, and since then it has raised money twice — including last year’s $70m Twitter investment — at the same valuation.

The service says it has 175 million monthly unique users, but it hasn’t updated that number since 2014, either.

A SoundCloud spokesperson would only say the company is talking to potential investors and strategic partners. The spokesperson added that the conversations, led by new CFO Holly Lim, “reflect the market interest in our differentiated platform, unmatched user reach and strong outlook for 2017 and beyond.”

Meanwhile, efforts to boost revenue by adding a paid subscription model to its free, core service, don’t seem to have generated much traction.


What do we think – end of the year? Can’t quite see Spotify wanting to buy it, because of the price; it isn’t that flush. Apple wouldn’t quite want it; the fit isn’t good with its down-the-line aim at the full commercial business. That’s a problem.
link to this extract

Alaska’s big problem with warmer winters • Bloomberg

Christopher Flavelle:


The wind that comes off the mountains across Cook Inlet in southern Alaska still feels plenty cold in February. But lately it’s not quite cold enough. From 1932 to 2017, the daily minimum temperature in Homer, a city on the eastern shore of the inlet, averaged 19F in February. Narrow that to the past 10 years and the average rises to 21F; for the past five years, 25F. Last February, Homer’s daily low averaged 30F—just two degrees colder than in Washington, D.C., 1,200 miles closer to the Equator.

As warmer winters arrive in Alaska, this city of 5,000 offers a glimpse of the challenges to come. Precipitation that used to fall as snow lands as rain, eroding the coastal bluffs and threatening the only road out of town. Less snow means less drinking water in Homer’s reservoir; it also means shallower, warmer streams, threatening the salmon that support Cook Inlet’s billion-dollar fishing industry.

Heavier storm surges are eating away at Homer’s sea wall, which no insurance company will cover and which the city says it couldn’t pay to replace. Warmer water has also increased toxic phytoplankton blooms that leach into oysters and clams. When eaten by humans, the toxins can cause amnesia, extreme diarrhea, paralysis, and death.


Loss of permafrost in some cases means loss of roads and houses. Yet:


Alaska was once at the vanguard of states trying to deal with global warming. In 2007, then-Governor Sarah Palin established a climate change subcabinet to study the effects of warmer weather and find policies to cope with them. Over three years, the legislature provided about $26 million in funding. But Palin’s successor, Republican Sean Parnell, disbanded the group in 2011. That year, Alaska withdrew from a federal program that provides funds for coastal management because of concern the program might restrict offshore oil extraction. Since then, lower oil prices, combined with dwindling production, have left the state with a budget crisis that’s among the worst in the U.S. Just when climate change is having real impact, Alaska has less and less capacity to deal with it.


I remain convinced that the US is slowly committing a form of hari-kiri through its leaders’ disbelief in inconvenient scientific reality.
link to this extract

Schilling: big price increases needed to keep new gTLDs alive • Domain Incite

Kevin Murphy:


Uniregistry is to massively increase the price of some of its under-performing new gTLDs in an effort to keep them afloat.

Sixteen TLDs from the company’s portfolio of 27 will see price increases of up to 3,000% starting September 8, CEO Frank Schilling confirmed to DI today.

“We need more revenue from these strings, especially the low volume ones, without question,” he said. “We can’t push on a string and stoke demand overnight. So in order for that string to survive as a standalone it has to be profitable.”

While domainers have taken to new gTLDs in greater numbers than Schilling anticipated, demand among worldwide consumers has been slower than expected, Schilling said.

“If you have a space with only 5,000 registrations, you need to have a higher price point to justify its existence, just because running a TLD isn’t free,” he said.

The alternative to repricing would be to sell the TLD in question to a competitor, which in turn would then be forced to reprice anyway, he said.


This needs, as they say, some unpacking. gTLDs are global top-level domains: a huge number of them went live back in October 2013 (here’s a list of those purchased). They’re domain suffixes such as “.xyz” (operated by Google) or “.win” or “.wang”.

But who wants those? People just want good old dot-coms, or dot-their-country. So the registrars, who have stumped up huge amounts, had to get a return on investment. When nobody new is entering the market, you have to put up rents.

Oddly, data shows that it’s Google’s .xyz which is the busiest new gTLD, with more than 6m registrations, giving it 23% share. It falls off pretty fast after that. Expect more stories like this at the next domain registrar dinner party you go to.
link to this extract

Some Google Pixel owners are reporting failing microphones, warranty replacement may be the only fix • 9to5Google

Ben Schoon:


The Google Pixel and Pixel XL easily became our picks for the best smartphones of 2016, but they’ve not been without faults ─ and a lot of them. Since release, Google has been dealing with issues such as battery hiccups, speaker popping, camera bugs, and much more. Now, some Pixel owners are reporting a new issue with their microphones.

This issue is apparently affecting both Pixel and Pixel XL owners and causes the microphone to completely stop working, at least at certain times. It seems like audio tends to work and then not work depending on the conditions affecting the phone, but regardless, this is a pretty serious issue for Pixel owners, especially those who need to make regular phone calls.

A massive thread is going on Google’s support forums regarding this issue…

…One Google employee, Brian Rakowski, offered up a possible cause for the issue. He explains:


The most common problem is a hairline crack in the solder connection on the audio codec. This will affect all three mics and may result in other issues with audio processing. This problem tends to be transient because of the nature of the crack. Based on temperature changes or the way you hold the phone, the connection may be temporarily restored and the problems may go away. This is especially frustrating as a user because, just when you think you’ve got it fixed, the problem randomly comes back. We believe this problem is occurring << 1% of phones and often happens after a few months of use (it could be triggered by dropping the phone that may not cause any visible external damage).



OK, it may be a tiny proportion of phones – but add to those other problems people have reported? That doesn’t seem good.
link to this extract

Nearly 48 million Twitter accounts could be bots, says study • CNBC

Michael Newberg:


A big chunk of those “likes,” “retweets,” and “followers” lighting up your Twitter account may not be coming from human hands. According to new research from the University of Southern California and Indiana University, up to 15% of Twitter accounts are in fact bots rather than people.

The research could be troubling news for Twitter, which has struggled to grow its user base in the face of growing competition from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others.

Researchers at USC used more than one thousand features to identify bot accounts on Twitter, in categories including friends, tweet content and sentiment, and time between tweets. Using that framework, researchers wrote that “our estimates suggest that between 9% and 15% of active Twitter accounts are bots.”

Since Twitter currently has 319 million monthly active users, that translates to nearly 48 million bot accounts, using USC’s high-end estimate.


This isn’t necessarily bad; lots of accounts simply tweet links to formal organisations, or notice things. It’s the humans who add value. The “how many users?” factor fails to recognise is how much value the human users generate, or derive, from that.
link to this extract

MAC randomization: A massive failure that leaves iPhones, Android mobes open to tracking • The Register

Thomas Claburn:


stores can buy Wi-Fi equipment that logs smartphones’ MAC addresses, so that shoppers are recognized by their handheld when they next walk in, or walk into affiliate shop with the same creepy system present. This could be used to alert assistants, or to follow people from department to department, store to store, and then sell that data to marketers and ad companies.

Public wireless hotspots can do the same. Transport for London in the UK, for instance, used these techniques to study Tube passengers.

Regularly changing a device’s MAC address is supposed to defeat this tracking.

But it turns out to be completely worthless, due to a combination of implementation flaws and vulnerabilities. That and the fact that MAC address randomization is not enabled on the majority of Android phones.

In a paper published on Wednesday, US Naval Academy researchers report that they were able to “track 100% of devices using randomization, regardless of manufacturer, by exploiting a previously unknown flaw in the way existing wireless chipsets handle low-level control frames.”

Beyond this one vulnerability, an active RTS (Request to Send) attack, the researchers also identify several alternative deanonymization techniques that work against certain types of devices.


It isn’t enabled on about 70% of Android phones (including most Samsung devices). And Apple broke it (if you know where and how to look) in iOS 10, having enabled it well before, possibly for HomeKit compatibility.
link to this extract

Caption contest: What are Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai discussing in this image? • 9to5Google


While often made out to be fierce competitors, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently shared dinner and a conversation together in Sillicon Valley. Images of the meal were shared on Facebook and discovered on MacGeneration.

The TMZ-like spy shot shows Cook and Pichai talking to one another over dinner, but not much else is known about the conversation. The two powerful executives have traded blows in the past, with Tim Cook calling Android a “toxic hell stew” and Pichai responding by saying Android is just a more popular operating system than iOS.


Some suggest Cook is drinking wine; I don’t think so. Looks like water to me. I wonder if they’re discussing something to do with Trump and the immigration ban: they have common cause there, and it’s a current topic which affects a lot of their staff.

link to this extract

March security update for Nexus 6 pulled after breaking Android Pay for many • 9to5Google

Stephen Hall:


This all started with reports across the web that the update was breaking Android Pay for users, including a handful in the Nexus 6 subreddit. The real situation here, though, is that the update seems to be breaking SafetyNet, which is software that makes sure that unlocked or otherwise modified phones aren’t able to run certain apps with sensitive data — like Android Pay.

In response, Google has been replying to plenty of Nexus 6 owners on Twitter saying that they’re “aware of this issue and our team is investigating.” The update has also been pulled from Google’s factory image website and the OTA website.

If you’re a Nexus 6 owner and your Android Pay app recently broke, this is probably why.


The Nexus 6, released in 2014, but which was still on sale in 2015? The stunning part here is that an update to a Google phone could kill core functionality. This doesn’t speak well to the narrative of Google’s awesome l33t s0ftwar3 ski11z.
link to this extract

Google’s reCAPTCHA turns “invisible,” will separate bots from people without challenges • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


Google’s reCAPTCHA is the leading CAPTCHA service (that’s “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”) on the Web. You’ve probably seen CAPTCHAs a million times on sign-up pages across the Web; to separate humans from spam bots, a challenge will pop up asking you to decipher a picture of words or numbers, pick out objects in a grid of pictures, or just click a checkbox. Now, though, you’re going to be seeing CAPTCHAs less and less, not because Google is getting rid of them but because Google is making them invisible.

The old reCAPTCHA system was pretty easy—just a simple “I’m not a robot” checkbox would get people through your sign-up page. The new version is even simpler, and it doesn’t use a challenge or checkbox. It works invisibly in the background, somehow, to identify bots from humans. Google doesn’t go into much detail on how it works, only saying that the system uses “a combination of machine learning and advanced risk analysis that adapts to new and emerging threats.” More detailed information on how the system works would probably also help bot-makers crack it, so don’t expect details to pop up any time soon.


OK then. So we’ll have robots watching us to make sure that we aren’t robots, and when it thinks it sees a robot the robot will challenge the robot, or perhaps human, to prove they’re aren’t a robot, but a human.
link to this extract

Media the enemy? Trump sure is an insatiable consumer • AP News

Jonathan Lemire:


the power of Trump’s media diet is so potent that White House staffers have, to varying degrees of success, tried to limit his television watching and control some of what he reads.

The president’s cable TV menu fluctuates. Fox News is a constant, and he also frequently watches CNN despite deriding it as “fake news.” Though he used to watch “Morning Joe,” a Trump aide said the president has grown frustrated with his coverage on the MSNBC program and has largely stopped.

For Trump, watching cable is often an interactive experience. More than dozen times since his election, he has tweeted about what he saw on TV just minutes before.

On Nov. 29, he posted about instituting potentially unconstitutional penalties for burning the American flag 30 minutes after Fox ran a segment on the subject. On Jan. 24, he threatened to “send in the Feds!” to Chicago a short time after watching a CNN segment on violence in the city. On Feb. 6, after CNN reported about a “Saturday Night Live” skit on the increasing power of the president’s advisers, Trump just 11 minutes later tweeted, “I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data, and everyone knows it!”

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted five different times about the news of the day being discussed on his preferred morning show, “Fox & Friends.”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a frequent Trump critic, told The Associated Press that she finds it “unsettling” that Trump “may be getting most of his understanding of the world based on whatever he stumbles upon on cable.”


That first sentence is concerning, though. They know it’s crap. They just can’t persuade him of the fact.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.