Start Up: Microsoft gets Fluent, iMessage Siri?, GTA X: Self-Driving mode, HP audio keylogging, and more


Guess which “smart speaker” is the most used? OK, it’s not that hard a guess. Photo by adambowie on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. On the other hand, it’s Friday. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Microsoft’s design video features a completely redesigned desktop and email app – The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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Microsoft introduced its new Fluent Design System today at Build, which it believes will usher the company into the future with a whole new look and feel for its products. The design language focuses on five areas: light, depth, motion, material, and scale. In between talk of what all these choices mean and why they’re important, the company gave us previews of how we can expect to see it executed. From the looks of it, Microsoft is experimenting with the design of a new email client, file system, and desktop, among other things. We took screenshots of everything we could find that looked new and clearly spoke to the company’s design choices. The desktop is particularly whoa.

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Here is said whoa desktop:

The impression of depth (greater than Mac OS’s) that it tries (successfully) to create looks good in a static image; I wonder what it’s like if you’re switching between windows a lot, because they’ll seem to move back and forward a lot. That could be unsettling. Notice that in Microsoft’s promo video for Fluent, you don’t see any actual window switching at all.
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Getting smart on smart speakers • LinkedIn

Bob O’Donnell:

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Having just fielded, a little more than a week ago, a brand new TECHnalysis Research study to 1,000 US consumers who own at least some smart home devices, I have some very fresh data to inject into the conversation.

To set the stage, it’s interesting to note that about 25% of US households now have at least one piece of smart home gear in their possession, according to the study. From smart light bulbs and connected door locks, to home security cameras and beyond, it appears that the smart home phenomenon is finally moving into the mainstream.

Much of that reach, it turns out, is due to recent purchases of smart speakers. In fact, the category is by far the most popular smart home device now in use, with 56% of those smart households reporting that they own and use a smart speaker, and 60% of those purchases occurring in the last six months. (Smart thermostats were the second most common device at 44%, with smart light bulbs third at 30%.)

And use them they do. One-half of the smart speaker-owning respondent base said they use it at least daily (just under one quarter said they use it multiple times per day), and another 39% said they engage with it several times a week. As for what they ask their smart speaker, there are some fascinating differences between user ages, but the top five requests across the entire respondent base are (in order) to play music, for the weather, for news, for basic facts or trivia, and for calendar or scheduling information.

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And about 70% of those people have an Amazon Echo or Dot. Other answers suggest that the Amazon Echo Show (the ugly iPad without a battery) could be very popular. Maybe the time has finally come for the home to get smart – and privacy concerns be damned.
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Apple patent describes using iMessage to talk to Siri in noisy or silent environments • 9to5Mac

Bn Lovejoy:

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An Apple patent published today describes using iMessages instead of voice to interact with Siri in environments when speaking wouldn’t be practical.

This could span both ends of the spectrum, from very noisy environments like construction sites, where your voice cannot be heard, to very quiet ones like libraries, where you would disturb people by speaking. It would also be useful for people who don’t feel comfortable talking to their phone in public.

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Makes sense. To some extent you can do that already when Siri shows a message or similar and you can edit it.
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A single autonomous car has a huge impact on alleviating traffic • MIT Technology Review

Jamie Condliffe:

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You’ve likely seen the demonstration of phantom traffic jams where cars drive around in a circle to simulate the impact of a single slowing car on a road full of traffic. One car pumps its brakes for no particular reason, and the slowdown ripples through the traffic. Now, the University of Illinois research, led by Daniel Work, shows that placing even just a single autonomous car into one of

The team’s results show that by having an autonomous vehicle control its speed intelligently when a phantom jam starts to propagate, it’s possible to reduce the amount of braking performed further back down the line. The numbers are impressive: the presence of just one autonomous car reduces the standard deviation in speed of all the cars in the jam by around 50%, and the number of sharp hits to the brakes is cut from around nine per vehicle for every kilometer traveled to at most 2.5 — and sometimes practically zero.

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When motorways are busy, phantom jams are a key cause of holdups – caused by people driving too close to the car in front, then reacting too violently. Autonomous cars will probably help by keeping greater distances. Except that a human will then insert their car into the, as they see it, too-big space. Repeat until the self-driving car is at the back of the line.
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Don’t worry, driverless cars are learning from Grand Theft Auto • Bloomberg

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Last year, scientists from Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany and Intel Labs developed a way to pull visual information from Grand Theft Auto V. Now some researchers are deriving algorithms from GTAV software that’s been tweaked for use in the burgeoning self-driving sector.

The latest in the franchise from publisher Rockstar Games Inc. is just about as good as reality, with 262 types of vehicles, more than 1,000 different unpredictable pedestrians and animals, 14 weather conditions and countless bridges, traffic signals, tunnels and intersections. (The hoodlums, heists and accumulated corpses aren’t crucial components.)

The idea isn’t that the highways and byways of the fictional city of Los Santos would ever be a substitute for bona fide asphalt. But the game “is the richest virtual environment that we could extract data from,” said Alain Kornhauser, a Princeton University professor of operations research and financial engineering who advises the Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering team.

Waymo uses its simulators to create a confounding motoring situation for every variation engineers can think of: having three cars changing lanes at the same time at an assortment of speeds and directions, for instance. What’s learned virtually is applied physically, and problems encountered on the road are studied in simulation.

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“Yeah, this new car knows what to do if someone tries to carjack you, too!”
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LG named as supplier of iPhone 8’s 3D facial recognition system for front-facing camera • Mac Rumors

Joe Rossignol:

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LG Innotek will supply Apple with 3D facial recognition modules for the iPhone 8, according to The Korea Economic Daily (via The Investor).

The report vaguely says LG’s “new facility investment” worth roughly $238.5m will be dedicated to Apple’s orders, and adds that LG will “build a new plant” for production of the facial recognition modules, which are expected to be part of the iPhone 8’s front-facing FaceTime camera system.

It’s not entirely clear if the front-facing camera will also have dual lenses, or retain a single lens in line with previous iPhone models.

Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI Securities previously said the iPhone 8 will have a “revolutionary” front-facing camera system with 3D sensing capabilities, fueled by algorithms from PrimeSense, an Israeli company that Apple acquired in 2013. PrimeSense was known for developing Microsoft’s first Kinect sensor for Xbox.

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Love how we’ve decided so much about the iPhone 8 already, right down to having a set of different “concept renders” (translation: artist fever dreams) to choose from to illustrate stories like this. LG could probably do with the money from the components business, as it could in the next story…
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LG denies claims it’ll be Google’s partner for Pixel 3 smartphones • AndroidAuthority

Brian Reigh:

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according to Chosun Biz, Google may have already picked LG as its partner for 2018’s Pixel 3 smartphones.

The South Korean site claims that Google is looking for a new partner for its third generation Pixel lineup, one who can provide “more stability” in manufacturing. Google and LG have teamed up previously on devices like the Nexus 4, Nexus 5, and Nexus 5X, and the search giant even reportedly offered to invest 1 trillion won or approximately $880m in LG’s OLED display division. Google’s move is likely to be a part of its effort to secure a stable supply of OLED displays for its Pixel phones; after all, Samsung’s OLED panels are largely reserved for Galaxy smartphones and Apple’s iPhones.

The report goes on to say that some industry experts think LG could even help manufacture the upcoming Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2. Whatever the case may be, with the rising popularity of the Pixel brand, LG could see an increase in smartphone revenue if it chooses to partner with Google once again, just as HTC did.

In response to this story, we reached out to LG for further comment, and Ken Hong, the company’s global communications director, has firmly denied the report, stating that the information on Chosun Biz is “speculation of the highest degree” and that LG does not “deal in rumors and speculation.”

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I feel obliged to point out that saying something is speculation, and that you don’t deal in speculation, isn’t actually a denial of whether something is true. It’s just saying that there isn’t proof.
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“Google is as close to a natural monopoly as the Bell system was in 1956″ • Chicago University Booth School of Business

Asher Schechter talks to Jonathan Taplin, who has written a book arguing that Facebook, Google and Amazon are rent-seeking monopolies (a monopsony in Amazon’s case) which have also achieved regulatory capture:

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Q: At the Stigler Center conference on concentration, you called Google “the closest thing to a natural monopoly I’ve seen in my lifetime.” Can you elaborate?
 
I would say Google is as close to a natural monopoly as the Bell System was in 1956. If you came to me and said “Hey, I want to start a company to compete with Google in search,” I would say you’re out of your mind and don’t waste your energy or your time or your money, there’s just no way. Classic economics would say that if there’s a business in which there are 35% net margins, that would attract a huge amount of new capital to capture some of that, and none of that has happened. That tells you there’s something wrong.
 
The way the Bell System had to give up all its patents in return for being named a natural monopoly, that to me is a potential solution.
 
Q: As you point out yourself in the book, natural monopoly can also be a positive thing. For instance, in the cases of the telephone and the telegraph. What is the difference between those natural monopolies and digital platforms?
 
That was kind of a tragedy of the commons, with competing inoperable telephone networks. It didn’t make sense. Now we’re just in a situation where the amount of capital that would be needed to start a new Google competitor would be so huge or so onerous in terms of competition that it would be very hard to raise that capital. So we’re just dealing with the fact that it’s a de-facto monopoly. Even Microsoft couldn’t get past a 5 percent global market share.

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Microsoft started years and hundreds of millions of dollars behind, though. (See my book.) He’s right that a business with 35% net margins ought to attract competition – and search did, back in the 2000s. But Google lapped and re-lapped them. Its competitive moat now is the combination of brand recognition, product placement and enormous hardware and software investment.

Regulating search itself doesn’t make sense. What does – and the EU is proposing – is regulating Google’s attempts to annexe every adjacent market, from shopping to news to scraping sites for “snippets” of data.
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Keylogger in Hewlett-Packard audio driver • mod%log

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Security reviews of modern Windows Active Domain infrastructures are – from our point of view – quite sobering. Therefore, we often look left and right, when, for example, examining the hardening of protection mechanisms of a workstation. Here, we often find all sorts of dangerous and ill-conceived stuff. We want to present one of these casually identified cases now, as it’s quite an interesting one: We have discovered a keylogger in an audio driver package by Hewlett-Packard.

A keylogger is a piece of software for which the case of dual-use can rarely be claimed. This means there are very few situations where you would describe a keylogger that records all keystrokes as ‘well-intended’. A keylogger records when a key is pressed, when it is released, and whether any shift or special keys have been pressed. It is also recorded if, for example, a password is entered even if it is not displayed on the screen.

So what’s the point of a keylogger in an audio driver? Does HP deliver pre-installed spyware? Is HP itself a victim of a backdoored software that third-party vendors have developed on behalf of HP? The responsibility in this case is uncertain, because the software is offered by HP as a driver package for their own devices on their website. On the other hand, the software was developed and digitally signed by the audio chip manufacturer Conexant.

…Apparently, there are some parts for the control of the audio hardware, which are very specific and depend on the computer model – for example special keys for turning on or off a microphone or controlling the recording LED on the computer. In this code, which seems to be tailored to HP computers, there is a part that intercepts and processes all keyboard input.

Actually, the purpose of the software is to recognize whether a special key has been pressed or released. Instead, however, the developer has introduced a number of diagnostic and debugging features to ensure that all keystrokes are either broadcast through a debugging interface or written to a log file in a public directory on the hard-drive.

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They attribute to laziness not malice, but neither HP nor Conexant would respond, so now it’s out there..
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Fitness bands stall in Q1 2017 as Apple helps smartwatches grow 25% • Canalys

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Basic band shipments, mostly fitness bands, fell 7% year on year to just over 9 million in the first quarter of 2017 – the category’s first ever decline. Leading vendors Fitbit and Xiaomi saw shipments fall worldwide, including in their home countries. The trend comes as users switch to smartwatches for greater functionality.

Smartwatch shipments increased 25% year on year to more than 6 million. The category now accounts for around 40% of the wearable band market, with growth largely driven by the Apple Watch, with its reinvigorated focus on health and fitness.

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Apple was 3.8m units, @Canalys says. So we have enough data points now. Fitness band makers (hello Fitbit) have a problem.
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Why can’t I curate Facebook’s feed myself? • Newco Shift

John Battelle:

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I won’t go into details (it’s personal, after all), but suffice to say I’ve missed some pretty important events in my friends’ lives because everyone else is paying attention to Facebook, but I am not. As a result, I’ve come off looking like an asshole. No, wait, let me rephrase that. I have become an actual asshole, because the definition of an asshole is someone who puts themself above others, and by not paying attention to Facebook, that’s what I’ve done.

That kind of sucks.

It strikes me that this is entirely fixable. One way, of course, is for me to just swallow my pride and pick up the habit of perusing Facebook every day. I just tried that very thing again this weekend. It takes about half an hour or more each day to cull through the endless stream of posts from my 500 friends, and the experience is just as terrible as it’s always been. For every one truly important detail I find, I have to endure a hundred things I’d really rather not see. Many of them are trivial, some are annoying, and at least ten or so are downright awful.

And guess what? I’m only seeing a minority of the posts that my friends have actually created! I know Facebook is doing its best to deliver to me the stuff I care about, but for me, it’s utterly failing.

Now, it’s fair to say that I’m an outlier — for most people, Facebook works just fine. The Feed seems to nourish most of its sucklers, and there’s no reason to change it just because one grumpy tech OG is complaining. BUT…my problem with my feed is in fact allegorical to what’s become a massive societal problem with the Feed overall: It’s simply untenable to have one company’s algorithms control the personalized feeds of billions of humans around the world. It’s untenable on so many axes, it’s almost not worth going into, but for a bit of background, read the work of Tristan Harris, who puts it in ethical terms, or Eli Pariser, who puts it in political terms, or danah boyd, who frames it in socio-cultural terms. Oh, and then there’s the whole Fake News, trolling, and abuse problem…which despite its cheapening by our president, is actually a Really, Really Big Deal, and one that threatens Facebook in particular (did you see they’re hiring 3,000 people to address it? Does that scale? Really?!)

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Personally, I’ve almost completely given up on using Facebook. I’m with Yogi Berra: nobody goes there anymore, it’s too popular.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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