Start Up: Magic Leap unveiled, North Korea’s bitcoin heist, Apple’s unified app plan, Google’s map moat, and more

What’s the best way to get usably fast broadband to rural homes in the shortest time? Photo by Craig A Rodway on Flickr.

Charity time: ahead of Christmas, I’m encouraging readers to make a donation to charity; a different one each day.
Today’s is
Wikipedia. (Even if you disagree with or dislike its internal politics, its ability to provide as-far-as-possible neutral information on world events and situations is sorely needed these days.)

Wednesday’s charity/ies was/were:
• UK readers: The National Deaf Children’s Society
• US readers: American Society for Deaf Children
• Australian readers: Deaf Children Australia
(In other countries try a search on “deaf children [your country]”.)

Tuesday’s charity was The Internet Archive, which preserves web content that might otherwise be lost (or conveniently scrubbed). It’s in the middle of a $6m funding drive, and is presently at $3.6m. (The average donation is $41.)

Monday’s charity was BookTrust: give £10 and a child in social care will receive books for Christmas.)
Please donate as you see fit.

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. Also, only one more day of it this year, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A selection of 11 links for you. Sufficient unto the day. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Nobody is going to wear the Magic Leap headset • Business Insider

Dave Smith:


After years of intense secrecy, high-profile augmented reality startup Magic Leap has finally unveiled a prototype of its futuristic headset.

But unless the device, dubbed the Magic Leap One, gets a major makeover before it’s released to the public, you can expect it to bomb when it hits store shelves, even if it is a technological breakthrough. Why? Because it looks ridiculous.

Check it out for yourself:

Would anyone ever feel comfortable leaving the house wearing this headset?

That question — Would anyone wear this? — is typically the crucial one when it comes to the fate of wearable technologies. Successful products like the Apple Watch are fashionable, or blend in well; they look like things that anyone would wear. By contrast, failed wearable products — most notably, Google’s Glass — look too nerdy, like gadgets only a geek could love.


Snap Spectacles, Hololens, Google Glass – the ancestry isn’t good on this. Note too that this is after a billion dollars or so in venture funding.
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BT’s £600m rural broadband offer rejected • FT

Nic Fildes:


The government is to reject an offer from BT to connect 1.1m rural homes to superfast broadband in favour of giving homeowners in remote areas the legal right to demand an upgrade.

The government has been weighing up the respective benefits of BT saying it would improve broadband speeds in sparsely populated areas, or pushing ahead with a so-called universal service obligation system similar to that used for fixed-line telephone services.

Three people with direct knowledge of the situation said the government would on Wednesday opt to push on with a USO model that aims to give people the legal right to access a broadband connection of at least 10 Mbps by 2020.

The move will require secondary legislation to set out the design of the USO. Ofcom, the telecoms regulator which said last week that 1.1m homes and offices still don’t receive a decent broadband connection, will also work with the government on how best to connect rural areas.


I’m definitely one of those 1.1 million. Here’s the thing: BT has promised to upgrade the speed literally for years. But then the timing for improvement gets pushed back, and back. It won’t publish timetables – you can imagine it doesn’t want rivals to know its schedule.

What this USO plan doesn’t do is improve things for rival telcos/ISPs. It forces BT to do things; how does that create the competition that we need at the local level? I’d suggest BT should be obliged to let rivals access its ducts and poles at zero cost. That would give it an incentive to get broadband to people before rivals.
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North Korea is suspected in bitcoin heist • WSJ

Timothy W. Martin, Eun-Young Jeong and Steven Russolillo:


Investigators in South Korea are looking into North Korea’s possible involvement in a heist from a bitcoin exchange that collapsed here on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the situation, as the sanctions-choked regime develops new ways to raise money.

The investigation into the hack, led by South Korean law enforcement and a state cybersecurity agency, is still in its infancy and a review of the malware code could take weeks, the people said.

But the people said there were telltale signs and historical evidence that North Korea, which has turned in recent years to increasingly sophisticated financial warfare, was behind the hack of Seoul-based exchange Youbit.

The same cryptocurrency exchange, operating under a different name, was targeted in April by North Korean hackers, several of the people said. Yapian, the company that operates Youbit, suspended trading and filed for bankruptcy after Tuesday’s hack.

The bitcoin heist follows similar suspected Pyongyang-directed offensives against other South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges—and an increasing number of attempts to steal from individual investors.


Particularly now that bitcoin is at such a crazy price, it’s a natural for North Korea’s hackers. It’s almost untraceable – almost, if you use the right exchanges – and it’s directly usable as foreign currency, which North Korea badly needs. (It doesn’t have any access to debt markets.) I’d expect to hear a lot more about NK hackers targeting bitcoin both in future and in the past.
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Why a bursting bitcoin bubble isn’t worrisome • Yahoo Finance

Julia La Roche:


In the last week, the price of the cryptocurrency has jumped more than 40%. Year-to-date, it’s up more than 1,900%. It was last priced above $15,078 on Friday afternoon. Bitcoin’s current market cap is about $252.6 billion, according to Yahoo Finance’s cryptocurrency tracker.

“There are several channels through which a bursting of an asset price bubble can have macroeconomic consequences, but none is a major risk in the case of bitcoin. First, there may be a hit to household spending as people who have invested suffer losses. But bitcoin’s market [capitalization] is too small for this to be a worry,” according to the report.

What’s more, a complete bitcoin crash would be the equivalent of just a 0.6% fall in U.S. stocks, the report said. Furthermore, most of the investors in the cryptocurrency got in early, which would make those losses much smaller.

Another reason cited is that bitcoin is not woven into the banking system.

“While a bursting bubble can affect the economy via the banking sector, this is not much of a risk either, precisely because bitcoin is held and traded outside the banking sector. Also, there is no evidence that investment in bitcoin is being financed by the equivalent of sub-prime mortgages.”


I guess the point that there are very few people holding it is the key here.
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Mashable financial statements paint bleak picture • Business Insider

Maxwell Tani:


Weighed down by large long-term expenses like the high rent on its offices in New York, London, and Singapore, Mashable ended September with about $4.65m in cash on hand, down from $8.4m at the start of the year, the documents show. Its loss for the three months through September was $4.2m and the financial statements suggested revenue growth was slowing.

The company essentially auctioned itself off, soliciting bids from 40 potential bidders. But it received only what it considered to be two serious offers, including the one it ultimately settled on, from Ziff Davis. Mashable’s board believed the sale was preferable to subjecting shareholders to the “risks and uncertainties of the company’s business plan and prospects,” according to the documents.

While management and major investors saw some of the $50m the company sold for, outstanding stock options provided to employees at various points during Mashable’s ascension were completely worthless in the sale, the documents show…

…Roughly 72% of Mashable’s revenue came from digital ads in the last three months before the sale; the next largest revenue source was distributed content, which accounted for 15% of revenue.

Though Mashable’s distributed revenue is about average — premium publishers generated around 14% of their overall revenues from distributing their content on third-party platforms in the first half of 2016, according to Digital Content Next — other revenue sources that could’ve buoyed the site were too small to make a significant impact.

E-commerce accounted for just 2% — or about $163,000 — of Mashable’s revenue in the latest three months. Events made up 7% and licensing made up 3%. By comparison, Gizmodo Media Group expects e-commerce to make up a third of its total revenue this year, while other digital-media publishers say that events may make up 20% of their revenue by next year.


Too reliant on advertising, which isn’t buttering the bread these days. Note that this is the second round of layoffs Mashable has made; in April 2016 it announced a “strategic shift towards video” and got a $50m infusion from Turner Broadcasting to build said video content. Didn’t work out so well.
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esports: Where will the marketing dollars come from? • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jonathan Goldberg:


we read an interview with the head of publishing for our favorite mobile esports title, Vainglory. Scroll down a bit and he mentions an interesting statistic – that the most viewed esports event (the League of Legends Worlds Championships) generates a third of the audience of the Superbowl but only 1/20th of the economics. We can back up some of his stats, and believe he is right in his thesis. Then ESPN aired an episode of its esports podcast that touched on a similar theme, about the changing sponsor ecosystem for esports. (If you care about esports, you really need to be following ESPN’s team.) Most recently, we had a conversation with someone familiar with the vibrant China esports scene who had similar questions. And all the while, there is a growing list of anecdotal evidence that major US advertisers are dipping ever more toes into esports.

As far as we can tell, the industry is in a bit of a developing stasis field. US advertisers are aware of esports, but are still unsure about how and how much to commit. They seem to all be sponsoring individual events, a championship series here, a team there, but no broad embrace. Their hesitation is understandable. Esports is still a new and in many ways immature industry.


Could get interesting if esports can get its act cleaned up, which seems to be – from the rest of Goldberg’s post – what’s holding them back, at least in the US.
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Apple plans combined iPhone, iPad & Mac apps to create one user experience • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


The Mac App Store is a ghost town of limited selection and rarely updated programs. Now Apple plans to change that by giving people a way to use a single set of apps that work equally well across its family of devices: iPhones, iPads and Macs.

Starting as early as next year, software developers will be able to design a single application that works with a touchscreen or mouse and trackpad depending on whether it’s running on the iPhone and iPad operating system or on Mac hardware, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Developers currently must design two different apps — one for iOS, the operating system of Apple’s mobile devices, and one for macOS, the system that runs Macs. That’s a lot more work. What’s more, Apple customers have long complained that some Mac apps get short shrift. For example, while the iPhone and iPad Twitter app is regularly updated with the social network’s latest features, the Mac version hasn’t been refreshed recently and is widely considered substandard. With a single app for all machines, Mac, iPad and iPhone users will get new features and updates at the same time.

Unifying the apps could help the iOS and macOS platforms “evolve and grow as one, and not one at the expense of the other,” says Steven Troughton-Smith, an app developer and longtime voice in the Apple community. “This would be the biggest change to Apple’s software platform since iOS was introduced.”

Apple is developing the strategy as part of the next major iOS and macOS updates, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss an internal matter. Codenamed “Marzipan,” the secret project is planned as a multiyear effort that will start rolling out as early as next year and may be announced at the company’s annual developers conference in the summer. The plans are still fluid, the people said, so the implementation could change or the project could still be canceled.


Quite the scoop. How will it work? How do you get something designed for touch to work on a mouse-driven interface? How do you get something designed for a mouse-driven interface to work on touch? Nor is it going to solve the problem of getting people to pay for apps on iOS – that ship has sailed and foundered.
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Apple addresses why people are saying their iPhones with older batteries are running ‘slower’ • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino:


The short-form version of what Poole’s benchmarks are showing is the result of a power curve-smoothing algorithm that Apple rolled out last year to mitigate iPhone shutdown issues. I wrote about it here [in February 2017]; you can read that and come back.

Basically, iPhones were hitting peaks of processor power that the battery was unable to power and the phones were shutting off. Apple then added power management to all iPhones at the time that would “smooth out” those peaks by either capping the power available from the battery or by spreading power requests over several cycles. This is clearly shown in Poole’s charts in his post:

Also, to be clear, Poole’s charts appear to be accurate — nor is Apple saying this isn’t happening.

Some users who have had older batteries replaced also said they’ve seen improved benchmarks after replacing their batteries. Well, yeah. Of course. As batteries age, they stop working as well. Period.

And that age isn’t just about years or charge cycles — heat is a huge killing factor for batteries, for instance. If your iPhone gets left out in the sun a lot or gets hot a bunch, then your battery will kick the bucket a lot sooner.

As that battery ages, iOS will check its responsiveness and effectiveness actively. At a point when it becomes unable to give the processor all the power it needs to hit a peak of power, the requests will be spread out over a few cycles.


As others have said, the problem here is Apple’s terrible messaging about the fact it’s doing this. People complaining that their phones have slowed down happens every year. And Apple hasn’t got it out there that it’s intentional, to save their battery.

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Apple HomePod’s high-priced road to nowhere • Bloomberg Gadfly

Shira Ovide:


Google and Amazon aren’t necessarily trying to turn a profit from their devices, and that is why they’re engaging in a price war to the bottom on the lowest-priced versions of their home speakers.

Those companies view the speakers as a gateway to hook people on Amazon’s collection of Prime membership benefits or to lure them to Google apps and internet services. Not surprisingly, the lowest-priced speakers appear to be selling the best. Amazon has said its Echo Dot, discounted to $30 from $50, was the best-selling item across its entire product catalog over the Thanksgiving shopping period.

Apple doesn’t necessarily want to sell more gadgets than anyone else. Market share didn’t matter when Apple could grab the lion’s share of profits without having the best-selling hardware. Its gross margin, or the share of revenue remaining after production costs, has been roughly 38% to 40% for years – a level that generates envy among hardware makers. 

But if Apple truly wants to become more than a hardware company, it needs to think different – to steal from a Steve Jobs advertising campaign. It needs the quality of its digital music service, mapping app, Siri, future web video products and more to be up to par and not only good enough to help differentiate its hardware from that of rivals. Apple doesn’t necessarily need to sell $50 Siri speakers. But if Apple wants its software and internet offerings to stand on their own, then it needs to borrow from Amazon and Google and make the hardware a means to an end — and rethink gadget prices, too.


Amazon has a reason to sell Echos: to get people on Prime. Google has a reason to sell Home: to get people to use it to do searches, which they don’t do so much on mobile as they did on desktop. Apple’s reason to sell HomePods is.. to get them to use Apple Music more? In which case the music quality thing makes sense.
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Google Maps’s moat • Justin O’Beirne


So Google seems to be creating AOIs [areas of interest] out of its building and place data. But what’s most interesting is that Google’s building and place data are themselves extracted from other Google Maps features.

As we saw earlier, Google’s buildings are created out of the imagery it gathers for its Satellite View:

And as we saw in “A Year of Google & Apple Maps”, Google has been using computer vision and machine learning to extract business names and locations from its Street View imagery:

In other words, Google’s buildings are byproducts of its Satellite/Aerial imagery.6 And some of Google’s places are byproducts of its Street View imagery…

…so this makes AOIs a byproduct of byproducts:

This is bonkers, isn’t it?

Google is creating data out of data.


A very long post with tons of illustrations. Shows that Google is definitely miles ahead through its use of satellite data, which it interprets use machine learning systems. Remarkable.
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We’re getting into French Revolution territory • The Outline

Paul Blest:


All of this will, eventually, go horribly wrong. We’re still living with the effects of the Reagan tax cuts, which sought to end public services as we know them and replace them with charity. Trickle down economics have proven to be a miserable failure, as the idea that companies would pump more money back into the economy and hire more workers at higher salaries if they just had lower tax rate has been proven to be a complete myth. As Sarah Anderson noted for The New York Times in August, AT&T — whose CEO, Randall Stephenson, has been a major proponent of cutting the corporate tax rate to 20% — “enjoyed an effective tax rate of just eight% between 2008 and 2015, despite recording a profit in the United States each year, by exploiting tax breaks and loopholes.”

That should mean more jobs, right? Wrong: AT&T downsized its workforce by nearly 80,000 jobs in the last eight years, according to Anderson and the Institute for Policy Studies, and spent $34bn to purchase its own stock, money that could have been ostensibly used to hire more workers. In the same study, the IPS found that average CEO pay among 92 publicly held companies studied — all of which paid less than a 20% effective federal tax rate — rose 18% between 2008 and 2016; private sector worker pay, they noted, only increased by 4% over the same period. Corporations are making more money than ever before, and they’re keeping it.

Jobs, contrary to Trump’s central argument for the tax cuts, aren’t provided to people by corporations out of the kindness of their hearts when they have the extra money. It doesn’t matter how much money they make; if there’s no need to employ workers, a company like AT&T just won’t.


The point about that money not trickling down is going to be made thoroughly in the next few years.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up: Magic Leap unveiled, North Korea’s bitcoin heist, Apple’s unified app plan, Google’s map moat, and more

  1. The Apple battery hoopla and the PR around it have me in awe. Let’s recap from scratch:
    Context: batteries are the only thing in a smartphone that suffer wear & tear in the course of normal use. They’re equivalent to tires on a car (car analogy !). Also, the following applies to pretty much all smartphone makers. So, what’s the situation (keep in mind, substitute “car’s tires” for “battery” at each step)

    1- make the battery not removable
    2- make the battery not user-replaceable
    3- sell in-shop battery swaps for $80 (that a $10 battery +5 minutes of work)
    4- throttle phones with old batteries. Do not inform users. Do not give a choice.
    5- get praised all over the iWeb for doing the nice smart thing.
    Seriously ? What would happen to a car maker that did that with tires ?

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