Start Up: Microsoft’s Laptop surfaces, Facebook’s ad power, un-appy Watch, and more


Rice modified by the CRISPR process. It’s going to change our lives. Photo by Penn State News on Flickr.

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

Meet CRISPR: our genetic superweapon • Geek.com

Daniel Starkey:

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That’s where CRISPR comes in. My earlier analogy of a genetic scalpel isn’t too far off. This system (and it is sort of a system) works mind-bogglingly well. It is laser-precise and can be made self-correcting, so if it does tinker with DNA too much, it’ll go back and fix its mistakes. Together we’re talking about one of the most incredible tools in human history. And that’s no exaggeration. Many in the field have said we’ve left the Information Age for the Genetic Age, others have claimed that it could be the single most important discovery of the 21st century.

CRISPR can be modified to attack or protect or fix anything in the DNA. And yeah, I’m getting repetitive here, but it’s only because you really need to grasp how big this is. I’m betting you don’t CRISPR is our cure for cancer (as in scientists are literally doing that right now in China), it can wipe out the flu or AIDS or anything. We could engineer it to wipe out at all mosquitoes or create hyper-intelligent babies. We can even modify genetic code in living plants and animals. It is entirely possible (though by no means guaranteed) that we could fix our telomeres and make the human race practically immortal. We, as in you and I, could very well live forever. And again, if it sounds like I’m exaggerating… I’m really not.

These treatments will need a lot of testing to make sure they are safe, but the technology is here today. It’s all a matter of refinement from here. It’s like we’ve just discovered the concept of genetic surgery or metallurgy. Once the idea is there, your options are practically limitless.

For now, we’re still in the stages of playing with our new tool. We won’t be curing aging just yet, but the first few projects are, again, cancer cures and one that keeps mosquitos from transmitting malaria.

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CRISPR (pron “crisp-er”) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. It is going to change what we think of disease and inheritance. Expect to hear stories – perhaps strange stories – coming out of China in the next couple of years,.
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I’m an ex-Facebook exec: don’t believe what they tell you about ads • The Guardian

Antonio Garcia-Martinez:

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Facebook deploys a political advertising sales team, specialized by political party, and charged with convincing deep-pocketed politicians that they do have the kind of influence needed to alter the outcome of elections.

I was at Facebook in 2012, during the previous presidential race. The fact that Facebook could easily throw the election by selectively showing a Get Out the Vote reminder in certain counties of a swing state, for example, was a running joke.

Converting Facebook data into money is harder than it sounds, mostly because the vast bulk of your user data is worthless. Turns out your blotto-drunk party pics and flirty co-worker messages have no commercial value whatsoever.

But occasionally, if used very cleverly, with lots of machine-learning iteration and systematic trial-and-error, the canny marketer can find just the right admixture of age, geography, time of day, and music or film tastes that demarcate a demographic winner of an audience. The “clickthrough rate”, to use the advertiser’s parlance, doesn’t lie…

…The hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable. Which is what happened with Trump and the “fake news” accusation: even the implacable Zuck had to give in and introduce some anti-fake news technology. But they’ll slip that trap as soon as they can. And why shouldn’t they? At least in the case of ads, the data and the clickthrough rates are on their side.

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Major apps abandoning Apple Watch, including Google Maps, Amazon & eBay • Apple Insider

Neil Hughes:

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In the last few weeks, the latest update for Google Maps on iOS ditched support for the Apple Watch. Its removal was not mentioned in the release notes, and Google has not indicated whether support for watchOS will be reinstated.

It’s the same story with Amazon and eBay, both of which previously included Apple Watch support in their iOS apps. Both were updated in late April, and as of Monday, neither includes an Apple Watch app.

While shopping on Amazon from your wrist may seem somewhat superfluous, the eBay app for Apple Watch did allow users to track bid statuses. And obviously the utility of glanceable directions from Google Maps —a service many believe is better than Apple Maps —on the watch is apparent.

There are other, scattered examples of Apple Watch apps being removed from iOS updates, including retailer Target (which does still offer watchOS integration with its Cartwheel app).

The fact that these high-profile removals have gone largely unnoticed could be a sign that the apps simply were not widely used. In contrast, removing iPad support from an iOS app, for example, would likely be noticed immediately and generate headlines.

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Google later said it will restore support. But one can see that smartwatch “apps” generally don’t make sense if they aren’t about fitness, maps or messaging, and aren’t accessible via Siri.
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Leaked photos: Fitbit’s new headphones and troubled smartwatch • Yahoo Finance

JP Mangalindan:

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Yahoo Finance has obtained photos of Fitbit’s (FIT) first “proper” smartwatch and first-ever pair of Bluetooth headphones due out this fall.

As Yahoo Finance previously reported in April, the San Francisco-based fitness tracker company is gearing up to release both devices later this year after a series of production snafus delayed the smartwatch project.

“It was originally planned for this spring to likely get ahead of whenever Apple plans their normal fall announcement,” a source familiar with the matter told Yahoo Finance. “Fitbit always likes to try and get in front of it.”

As you can see in the photo [in the article], the watch resembles a somewhat more evolved version of a product in the company’s current product line, the Blaze.

“It was very retro-looking with the lines and stuff — definitely not sexy,” another source previously told Yahoo Finance of the upcoming smartwatch. “Several employees who saw the design complained about it.”

The smartwatch, codenamed “Higgs” internally, will sport a color display with 1,000 nits of brightness similar to the Apple Watch Series 2, a built-in GPS chip, heart-rate monitoring, the ability to make touchless payments, the ability to store and play music from Pandora (P), and four days of battery life between charges, according to the two sources familiar with the matter.

All those features will come housed in an aluminum unibody design, which will let users swap watch bands when it eventually hits shelves this fall for around $300.

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So it’s got a smartwatch that’s being described as “troubled” and some Bluetooth headphones. It doesn’t feel like this story is going well. Meanwhile, Fitbit announces its Q1 results later on Wednesday.
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Acer unveils new 2-in-1 devices • Digitimes

Aaron Lee and Joseph Tsai:

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Acer has announced two new 2-in-1 devices under its Switch series, the Switch 5 and 3, both using Windows 10. Both 2-in-1 devices feature Acer’s Active Pen, allowing users to input in a stylus method via the Windows Ink function.

Acer Switch 5 is equipped with Acer’s LiquidLoop fanless cooling system, supporting up to an Intel Core i7 processor. The device also features a 12-inch FHD+ IPS touch panel and supports up to a 2,160 by 1,440 resolution.

Acer’s Switch 3 is equipped with a 12.2-inch display, an Intel Pentium or Celeron processor and also a fanless cooling design. The Switch 3 is mainly targeting price-oriented customers such as students.

Both Acer Switch 5 and Switch 3 come with a detachable keyboard and dual-cameras. Enterprise users can also choose to upgrade their Switch 5 to feature USB Type-C interface.

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They look OK. But – Pentium or Celeron processors? Isn’t that somewhat low-powered?
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Introducing Surface Laptop, powered by Windows 10 S • Microsoft Devices Blog

Panos Panay:

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Surface Laptop is made for and powered by Windows 10 S. The hardware and software are blended so flawlessly you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. And for a limited time, Surface Laptop comes with an offer for one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal and 1TB of free storage on OneDrive****, giving you full access to Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

All your documents will be protected, secure, and stable. You won’t have to worry about losing a paper again because everything will automatically save to the cloud, and Windows 10 S means your Surface is always up to date providing superior performance and streamlined security.

Every app in the Windows Store is verified for security by Microsoft so you get an experience you can trust. And we’re adding new apps every day. Spotify will come to the store early this summer with new experiences that will light up on Surface including using the Surface Dial***** to run your Spotify playlist.

If you need to use an app that isn’t in the Windows Store, in just a few clicks can go to the Windows Store and switch to Windows 10 Pro. But you shouldn’t. This device, this OS, they’re made for each other, and together they offer so much. It’s everything you love about Windows, Office, and Surface, made pure and elegant in an unbelievably thin and light package.

Availability: Surface Laptop starts at $999 USD and will be available beginning on June 15th.

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Windows 10 S is an interesting idea: essentially, limited to what Microsoft allows in its app store. (So no Google Chrome.) I don’t think Apple would ever allow the phrase “But you shouldn’t” in any marketing or other literature.
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Apple can’t ignore Microsoft’s slick, new laptop • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Dina Bass:

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Microsoft has already cracked the professional and creative markets with inventive tablets and a desktop that turns into a virtual drafting table. Now it’s chasing another category many believe is Apple’s to lose: the $1,000 laptop for everyone. 

Microsoft, a company once derided for buggy software, unstable hardware and indifferent design, debuted the Surface Laptop on Tuesday. The machine boots up in seconds, has a touch screen and gets a claimed 14 hours of battery life (two better than Apple’s MacBook Air). Weighing in at 2.76 pounds, about a quarter-pound less than the Air, the Surface Laptop boasts a 13.5in screen and is one of the thinnest and lightest products in its class.

Microsoft is targeting the education market—and even threw laptops inside backpacks stuffed with textbooks, notepads and keys to simulate college-kid wear-and-tear. Yet the Surface Laptop’s affordable price, portability and features could appeal to a far broader audience—including Mac loyalists.

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Where is the evidence exactly that Microsoft has “cracked” the professional and creative markets? And what’s the basis for the assertion that the Surface Laptop could appeal to Mac loyalists? The story was written ahead of the launch (one or both writers got a tour for background colour, in the article) so there’s no way in the world they could know this.

The fact of the low sales in the just-gone quarter is skimmed over (perhaps 1m Surfaces sold). Meanwhile Apple sells millions of Macs and iPads, quarter after quarter.

The real focus should have been on education – where Microsoft is trying to hold off the advance of Chromebooks with Windows 10 S. An informative piece on that might have helped understand Microsoft’s broader strategy. Instead we get techno-porn about speakers in keyboards and anechoic chambers.
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Super Free Music Player in Google Play is malware: a technical analysis • Naked Security

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SophosLabs has identified the following characteristics of Super Free Music Player:

• The dropper downloaded from Google Play is named com.superfreemusic.songapp. 
• The payload is decrypted and planted on Android devices by the dropper.

First, the dropper starts a service called com.hole.content.Erpbiobuft to decrypt and drop the payload. It will continues running this service every hour.

It decrypts and drops the payload. It then continues running this service every hour. The dropper then uses dynamic code and reflection to load the payload method (com.fb.content.core.enter).

To avoid detection from Google Play, the payload will verify if a device is an emulator by checking several properties such as the emulator phone number (15555215554, 15555215556…) and specific strings such as (/system/lib/libc_malloc_debug_qemu.so, /sys/qemu_trace …). Moreover, it is able to check if a popular Android research sandbox, TaintDroid, is used. Also, another time bomb is used to avoid detection.

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It’s that last point which is the eye-opener: if Google Play’s detection systems all work on emulation, then this is a problem.
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Sandy Hook father Lenny Pozner on death threats: ‘I never imagined I’d have to fight for my child’s legacy’ • The Guardian

Hadley Freeman:

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[Noah] Pozner himself used to be into conspiracy theories. When he lived in Connecticut, he often had to commute to New York and would listen to rightwing radio hosts such as Alex Jones and Michael Savage on the long drives. “I’m self-employed, an entrepreneur. I was always looking for more information so I could get an edge on the next guy, to get a better idea of the geopolitical perspective,” Pozner says. Once he got used to Jones’s “raspy voice” he liked him especially: “Alex Jones appears to think out of the box. He’s entertaining.”

Arguably, more than anyone, Jones is responsible for spreading the theory that the Sandy Hook massacre was fake. His radio shows and website, InfoWars.com, have an audience of more than eight million, and they specialise in the kind of conspiracies that had intrigued Pozner: was 9/11 an inside job? Was the US government involved in the Oklahoma City bombing?

On 27 January 2013, Jones told his audience: “In the last month and a half, I have not come out and said this was clearly a staged event. Unfortunately, evidence is beginning to come out that points more and more in that direction.”

“I wasn’t very verbal at that point, but I managed to send Alex Jones an email,” says Pozner. He wrote: “Haven’t we had our share of pain and suffering? I used to enjoy listening to your shows. Now I feel that your type of show created these hateful people and they need to be reeled in!”

He got a reply from Jones’s assistant, who said: “Alex has no doubt this was a real tragedy.” But Jones’ thinking seemed to change. In 2015, he told his audience: “Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors; in my view, manufactured. I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids, and it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.”

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Pozner’s child was the youngest killed at Sandy Hook. Donald Trump went on Jones’s show in 2015 and complimented him: “I just want to finish by saying your reputation’s amazing”.

(I did once guest on Jones’s show, via Skype, to talk about my book Digital Wars; I had no idea who he was, and it was set up by his assistants. I gradually realised the show was bonkers because of the adverts. Then I began enjoying winding him up by not playing along with – and trying to contradict – the conspiracy ideas he threw out.)
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The ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Netflix hack was a terrible idea • WIRED

Brian Barrett:

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Consider that in 2011, BitTorrent accounted for 23% of daily internet traffic in North America, according to network-equipment company Sandvine. By last year, that number sat at under 5%. “There’s always going to be the floor of people that are always going to be torrenting,” says Sandvine spokesperson Dan Deeth. That group will surely enjoy whatever Piper’s up to in season five. But the idea that so small a cohort might prompt Netflix to negotiate with hackers seems absurd…

…Yes, Game of Thrones provides what seems like an obvious counterpoint; hundreds of thousands of people torrent it every year, suggesting a healthy appetite for the practice. But it proves less instructive on closer examination.

“Even though you can get HBO Now in the US, in Canada and most of the world you would still need a premium television subscription,” Deeth says. Game of Thrones‘ torrenting popularity stems in part from the fact torrenting is the only way to watch it in many parts of the world. Netflix, on the other hand, is available in 200 countries. That speaks to another reason why plopping Orange Is the New Black online early didn’t pay off: The joy of binge-worthy TV hinges on knowing that other people also binge. A water cooler that only the Pirate Bay gathers around defeats the purpose.

“It’s not an experience,” says Rayburn. “People want to watch it with friends.”

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Confirming what I wrote yesterday. If the hacker was inside HBO’s system, that would be quite different. (And I bet HBO is on red klaxons checking that possibility right now.)

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Twitter announces more live video deals • WSJ

Jack Marshall:

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The social network unveiled partnerships with companies such as BuzzFeed, Vox Media, MLB Advanced Media and Live Nation to produce or provide live-streaming content for the platform.

BuzzFeed will create a news and current events show to be broadcast live on Twitter each morning, for example, while Vox Media will create a weekly live show dedicated to gadgets called Circuit Breaker, Twitter executives said.

In the sports arena, WNBA will live-stream 20 regular-season games via the platform, and MLBAM will produce a new 3-hour weekly MLB program featuring game “look-ins” and highlights.

The announcements come as Twitter attempts to reposition itself as a venue for professionally-produced live video content and tap into advertising budgets typically reserved for TV.

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I can’t put it better than Ben Thompson did in his daily Stratechery newsletter ($):

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Twitter is (again, presumably) paying for content about business and financial markets even as the most valuable business and financial market information is being posted for free on Twitter. That the company cannot build a business on that fact is certainly a disappointment.

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Sometimes Twitter reminds me of the Escher engraving of the twin sets of monks on the staircases. It keeps going around endlessly, but nothing really changes. (Side note: Escher only produced his picture in 1960. I had thought it was much, much older.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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