Start Up: Apple’s Mac strategy tax, use the computer Luke!, Bixby delayed, stopping trolls, and more


Google’s Book Search project started 13 years ago. How has that worked out? Photo by scottloradio on Flickr.

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

The Mac is turning into Apple’s Achilles’ heel • Above Avalon

Neil Cybart:

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Recent news of Apple developing its own GPU solution is the latest step in the company’s quest to ship a single system-on-the-chip (SOC) powering a range of mobile and wearable devices. This will give Apple a competitive advantage measured in decades. The company is also placing big bets on mobile services such as mapping and payments, items that will serve to create a competitive advantage in the changing tech landscape. 

In stark contrast, Apple’s Mac strategy looks like a slow-motion train wreck. While Apple has made some progress with bringing elements of mobile such as Touch ID, multi-touch displays, and ARM processors, to the Mac, years of sporadic updates have overshadowed the positives. Apple’s relationship with its pro Mac user community has deteriorated and can now be described as toxic. To make matters worse, there appears to be a growing rift among Apple executives concerning Mac strategy. 

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This is very contrapuntal to the takes that you’ll hear elsewhere about what’s going on with Apple and its Mac strategy; but Cybart argues his case acutely that the Mac, and especially its pro users, are in effect becoming a strategy tax on Apple.
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62% using music-streaming services, but just 13% paying • GlobalWebIndex Blog

Katie Young:

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In a deal with Universal Music, Spotify has announced that new albums from certain artists on the record label will only be available to paying Spotify members for the first two weeks of their release.

This change to its ad-supported tier will increase the gap between its free and paid-for services, with the hope of converting more users to the paid-for tier. At present, there’s a huge disparity here, with a substantial 50-point gap between those who say they use music-streaming services (62%) and the numbers paying for this access (13%).

Age-based differences are interesting here, though. 16-24s are the most likely to be using these services each month and are also the most likely to be paying – with figures then declining in line with age.

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Q&A with an iPhone factory worker at Pegatron ChangShuo in Shanghai • Business Insider

Kif LEswing:

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Imagine going to work at 7:30 every night and spending the next 12 hours, including meals and breaks, inside a factory where your only job is to insert a single screw into the back of a smartphone, repeating the task over and over and over again.

During the day, you sleep in a shared dorm room, and in the evening, you wake up and start all over again.

That’s the routine that Dejian Zeng experienced when he spent six weeks working at an iPhone factory near Shanghai, China, last summer. And it’s similar to what hundreds of thousands of workers in China and other emerging economies experience every day and night as they assemble the gadgets that power the digital economy.

Unlike many of those workers, Zeng did not need to do the job to earn a living. He’s a grad student at New York University, and he worked at the factory, owned by the contract manufacturing giant Pegatron, for his summer project.

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Terrific interview. The gruelling reality of the work in a three-shift factory is forgotten by many in the west; but Zeng makes the point that people don’t view it as a career. For some workers in the west in the 20th century, it used to be their life.
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Me and my troll • MIT Technology Review

Jason Pontin is the publisher and editor:

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We believed that good comments could adorn and improve our journalism. But we suffered no illusions that commenters were representative of our broader readership or that comments served any direct business purpose. Building on Disqus and the Ask function in the Coral Project, our new strategy borrows widely from the solutions described above, and it is still a work in progress.

We decided, in imitation of the New York Times, that readers would comment on only a few stories and then only for a while. Stories that might repay good commentary, such as our major features, essays, and reviews, would have comments, but those that might inflame partisan wrangling would not. We would choose to think of comments, whenever possible, as integral to the story: we wondered if we could construct whole stories around comments, or seed a conversation by inviting our smartest, most informed sources to comment. No one was doing this precisely, but some of the expert commentary at Ars Technica and The Information inspired us. We wanted readers to vote comments up and down, as readers once did in Gawker’s Kinja.

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It continues to amaze me that a system in place at Slashdot since 2000 or before – voting comments up and down – isn’t in place at more news organisations.
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Snowden documents reveal scope of secrets exposed to China in 2001 spy plane incident • The Intercept

Kim Zetter:

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On April 1 2001, [Chinese Air Force pilot] Wei was at it again. After his initial approach, he advanced on the EP-3E a second time, this time stopping just five feet short of the spy plane and mouthed something to the American crew before falling back again. Then he tried a third time. On this approach, however, he maneuvered too close to the plane and got sucked in by one of the EP-3E’s propellers. The collision sliced the F-8 in half.

Shrapnel from the F-8 flew through the spy plane’s fuselage and into the nose cone, shearing it off, and damaged the spy plane’s radome — a dome that protects radar equipment — two propellers, and an engine. The Chinese fighter jet plummeted into the sea, and the spy plane rolled upside down and immediately depressurized, creating chaos inside.

“I think they keep the cabin pressured at 7,000 feet, and you go from 7,000 to 30,000 instantaneously,” said the crew member, describing the shock.

The plane plunged 14,000 feet while shaking violently.

“We’re falling like a rock and … everyone thought we were going to die,” he recalled.

As Osborn, the pilot, tried to regain control of the aircraft, he ordered everyone to prepare to bail. With wind roaring inside the cabin, warning lights flashing, and the plane plummeting, crew members struggled to communicate over the noise while donning parachutes, survival vests, and helmets. They were lined up and ready to jump into the sea, the crew member said, when Osborn managed to stabilize the plane and ordered the crew to prepare to land in the water. But then Osborn changed his mind.

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Absorbing read. It’s a sort of short spy novel, or a precursor to a spy film.
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Why we’re dropping Google Ads • GroundUp

Nathan Geffen is editor of the South African news website:

»

From today, we’re dropping Google adverts from GroundUp. The Google advertising model is broken: not for Google of course, which is massively profitable, but for us, the publishers who have to put up with poor quality, misleading adverts in exchange for small change.

Not too many years ago, newspapers could make real money from advertising. Then along came the Internet, followed by Gumtree, and Google Ads, which with a few minor competitors became the backbone of online advertising. As readers moved to freely available news on the web, so too did advertising revenue.

The Internet has made publications like GroundUp feasible. Because publishing and distribution costs are low for us, we can make our content available at no charge. GroundUp relies mainly on donations, but advertising, we thought, might help.

The problem is that nearly all the power in the online advertising relationship lies with Google. Not only do we compete for adverts with other media in the same market; we compete with all the shady advert-laden webpages in the world, irrespective of whether they contain fake news, porn, or other attention-grabbers. With AdSense or Ad Exchange, Google’s two mechanisms for delivering ads, we have very little say in what adverts appear, and we are paid very little.

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Includes an example of a photo that drew a warning from Google – can’t have its ads next to that.
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Why Luke Skywalker was wrong to use the Force • The Atlantic

James Somers:

»

CTs [computerised tomography] and ultrasounds let us see organs, blood vessels, muscles, and other soft tissues in three dimensions, which caused a revolution in diagnostic medicine and made surgery radically more precise and safe.

CT was made possible by the computer, which stitches together a collection of X-rays into a reconstructed 3-D image. But this is still more or less a static enterprise: a CT study is more like a picture than a movie. What if you could do for medicine what we’ve already done for chess and basketball—what if you could somehow use the computer to see not just what’s there, but what could be?

In some specialties, this is already becoming possible. Radiation oncologists, for instance, use accelerated beams of radioactive particles to destroy cancers. It used to be that these beams were targeted somewhat crudely: You’d take a two-dimensional X-ray of your patient and outline the area you wanted to zap (the tumor) and the areas you wanted to avoid (healthy organs). Since X-rays couldn’t show you much in the way of soft tissue, you had to use nearby bones as landmarks.

Today, radiation treatments are planned using software. The doctor identifies tumorous and healthy tissues in slice after slice of a CT scan by drawing on the slices directly, on the computer, as though coloring in a figure in MS Paint. This creates three-dimensional contour maps of the tumor and nearby organs. The software then takes these contours and runs hundreds of thousands of simulated treatments against them, using a model of how radioactive particles will behave in different tissue types—how they’ll be absorbed, how they’re likely to ricochet, and so on—to determine the ideal angle and power settings of the real beam.

The computer, in other words, gives the doctor the ability to see the projected path of different treatments as if playing out possible lines from a chess position.

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Neat headline, though.
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Samsung to delay launch of English-language version of virtual assistant • WSJ

Timothy Martin:

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The Bixby delay [probably until May] threatens to damp some of the enthusiasm for the Galaxy S8, whose sleek design has garnered strong reviews. In the buildup to the April 21 sales-launch day, Samsung had heavily touted Bixby, whose functions include voice recognition. Bixby, for example, can complete multiple tasks with a single voice command, such as locating a nearby steakhouse and hailing a taxi.

Industry experts doubt that a postponed Bixby launch would hurt sales significantly, given that initial enthusiasm for the Galaxy S8 smartphone has focused more on its sleek aesthetics. Others said it was too early to make a prediction.

“Rushing with a half-baked solution to the market will actually discourage users to use Bixby,” said Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint Research, which tracks smartphone shipments.

Counterpoint Research estimates Samsung will sell more than 50 million Galaxy S8 handsets—more than the S7 model, which was a best seller for the company. “I don’t think Bixby is a Holy Grail feature which will hamper Galaxy S8 sales because eventually via software updates users will receive it,” Mr. Shah said.

«

“I’m not going to buy the S8 until it has the fully working version of Bixby in the English language,” said nobody ever. This is irrelevant to buyers, and yet deeply relevant in what it says about Samsung’s ability to make big software projects happen. It bought Viv for $200m in October 2016, but that isn’t enough time to integrate it.

The real problem is that Google Assistant is tied to the home button, under the Google Mobile Services agreement that OEMs have to sign to get Google Play, which they must have to have to sell. (Rather like PC OEMs needing to have Windows 95 when Microsoft was cutting off Netscape’s air supply.) Bixby will never get the traction it needs – regardless of whether it deserves it.

Neat name, though. Reminiscent of Iron Man’s “Jarvis”.
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How Google Book Search got lost • Backchannel

Scott Rosenberg:

»

Today, Google is known for its moonshot culture, its willingness to take on gigantic challenges at global scale. Books was, by general agreement of veteran Googlers, the company’s first lunar mission. Scan All The Books!

In its youth, Google Books inspired the world with a vision of a “library of utopia” that would extend online convenience to offline wisdom. At the time it seemed like a singularity for the written word: We’d upload all those pages into the ether, and they would somehow produce a phase-shift in human awareness. Instead, Google Books has settled into a quiet middle age of sourcing quotes and serving up snippets of text from the 25 million-plus tomes in its database.

Google employees maintain that’s all they ever intended to achieve. Maybe so. But they sure got everyone else’s hopes up.

Two things happened to Google Books on the way from moonshot vision to mundane reality. Soon after launch, it quickly fell from the idealistic ether into a legal bog, as authors fought Google’s right to index copyrighted works and publishers maneuvered to protect their industry from being Napsterized. A decade-long legal battle followed — one that finally ended last year, when the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal by the Authors Guild and definitively lifted the legal cloud that had so long hovered over Google’s book-related ambitions.

But in that time, another change had come over Google Books, one that’s not all that unusual for institutions and people who get caught up in decade-long legal battles: It lost its drive and ambition.

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Alex Macgillivray who worked at Google and Twitter as a legal counsel, disagrees: “the moonshot was thinking you could create full text search for tens of millions of hard copy books,” he tweeted. “Many thought it could not be done in any reasonable time or cost. Including engineers on the team. 13 years later, Google has tens of millions of books all full text searchable in a split second. That’s what a flag on the moon looks like.”
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Theft and loss recovery for iOS users • Fraser Speirs

Speirs’s wife had her iPhone nicked at the end of a family holiday. Things went OK. But now he’s wondering: what if all my oh-so-secure stuff got stolen? How do I take back control?

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So, assuming the worst happens and all your devices are gone forever – what now? Well, I need to get back into those accounts.

Let’s assume that somehow I can acquire a new device. As a side issue, ask yourself how you would even do that. If everything was gone – how would you call home? How would you get money? Do you even have those numbers written down anywhere that isn’t in your phone?

Also bear in mind that to activate an iPhone you might also need a working SIM card. I’m not sure if this is true everywhere on all networks, but I’ve certainly seen that requirement in the UK.

To sign into a new device, you need your iCloud password and a way to access your 2-factor information. With Apple’s current implementation of 2-factor authentication, you can use a number of methods to get that second factor.

First, you can get it from another trusted device. This is when that dialog pops up and tells you that someone is trying to log in from a specific location, you tap OK and then you see a 6-digit code that you can provide.

Except in this scenario, all your trusted devices are gone. So that’s out.

The next thing you can do is have a code sent to a trusted phone number. But your phone is gone and the SIM card is gone with it, so no calls or texts to that number.

Here, I discovered the second flaw in my setup. I only had my own devices set up as Trusted Devices and I only had one phone number set up as a Trusted Number – namely, my iPhone’s phone number.

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This is worth considering if you’re one of those people who does take security seriously: it’s possible to be too serious.
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Amazon continues to grow lead over Google as starting point for online shoppers • GeekWire

Taylor Soper:

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Where do you start when shopping for something online? For a majority of people, it’s Amazon — not Google.

That’s one finding from a recent research report from Raymond James that surveyed 587 people about their online habits.

The study found 52% of respondents who said they start their online purchasing process at Amazon, which is up from 47% last year, and 38% from the year prior.

That compares to 26% who say they start at a search engine. This graph shows the changing habits clearly:

The trend toward Amazon and away from Google is highlighted even more so with younger shoppers aged 18-to-29, with 62% of respondents from that age group starting on Amazon versus 21% at a search engine.

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This is the basis of Google’s argument in Europe for why it has no case to answer in the antitrust argument over suppression of comparison shopping sites in its (organic) search results. But that, of course, isn’t the point of the antitrust case. It’s not about “where does anyone ever search for shopping”; it’s “what do people find on Google search, which has 90% of the search market”.

But at the same time, this is clearly worrying for Google: if people aren’t starting to shop on its site, it’s left with lower-value search.
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Traditional PC market was up slightly, recording its first growth in five years as HP recovered the top position • IDC

»

Worldwide shipments of traditional PCs (desktop, notebook, workstation) totaled 60.3 million units in the first quarter of 2017 (1Q17), posting year-over-year growth of 0.6%, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. The previous forecast had expected shipments to decline 1.8% in the quarter. And, while the 0.6% growth was arguably flat, the result nonetheless represented the first foray back into positive territory since Q1 2012, when many users still considered PCs their first computing device.

Like the second half of 2016, some of the same forces continue to shape the market. Tight supplies of key components such as NAND and DRAM are affecting inventory dynamics and led a number of vendors to boost shipments to lock in supply ahead of further cost increases. In addition, the market continued along a path of stabilization that began in the latter half of last year, especially as more commercial projects moved out of pilot mode and began shipments in earnest…

…”The traditional PC market has been through a tough phase, with competition from tablets and smartphones as well as lengthening lifecycles pushing PC shipments down roughly 30% from a peak in 2011,” said Jay Chou, research manager, IDC PCD Tracker. “Nevertheless, users have generally delayed PC replacements rather than giving up PCs for other devices. The commercial market is beginning a replacement cycle that should drive growth throughout the forecast. Consumer demand will remain under pressure, although growth in segments like PC Gaming as well as rising saturation of tablets and smartphones will move the consumer market toward stabilization as well.”

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Let’s be clear: it’s 0.6% growth officially, but it would have been down 1.1% using last year’s numbers – which IDC quietly revised down. (Neither IDC or Gartner ever reveals in these press releases when they tweak their year-ago numbers.) Arguably, that means this year’s 0.6% growth could be next year’s 1% fall.

Whatever; the PC market isn’t in freefall any more, though Gartner’s numbers suggest a 2.4% fall (it revised 1Q 16 down by 1m, so that fall is ever bigger than reported). It is however settling into one where the business market has taken over again.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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