Start Up: iPhone X sales of 29m?, Trump turns US off solar, Torvalds’s spectral meltdown, HomePod ahoy, and more


If your name’s Mohamed, this might cost you more than if it’s John. Photo by David Farrell on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. If only you’d waited. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple iPhone X sales near 30 million in Q4: Canalys • Fortune

Don Reisinger:

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Apple hasn’t revealed how many iPhone X units it sold in the fourth quarter, but a new study from researcher Canalys has put a number on it.

The tech giant sold 29 million iPhone units in the fourth quarter, including 7 million in the U.S., Canalys said in a statement on Tuesday. That was enough to make the iPhone X the most popular iPhone Apple sold during the period, topping the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus…

…Canalys found in its analysis of the worldwide market that many customers traded in their older iPhones to defray the cost of the iPhone X.

Still, Canalys cautioned that the iPhone X might have performed “slightly below industry expectations” and early iPhone X shipments “were not the fastest ever for an iPhone.” The researcher didn’t say which Apple handset tallied the fastest sales.

Apple has been silent about iPhone X sales, despite widespread speculation over exactly how many units it has sold. The company will announce earnings next week for the fiscal period that includes the fourth quarter. It’s unknown whether it will break down iPhone sales by unit.

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Guess what? Apple isn’t going to give a per-product breakdown. Never has. It would be painting a huge target on its financials for rivals. Not sure what these industry expectations were, but if the Canalys figure is right then that’s $29bn in revenues right there. Counterpoint Research reckons the iPhone X was the best-selling phone worldwide in November, and that Apple had five of the top 10 best-selling phones that month. Thus:

The surprising thing to me is how low Samsung’s representation seems to be. But it spreads it widely.
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‘WHAT THE F*CK IS GOING ON?’ Linus Torvalds explodes at Intel spinning Spectre fix as a security feature • The Register

Thomas Claburn and Kat Hall:

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Intel’s fix for Spectre variant 2 – the branch target injection design flaw affecting most of its processor chips – is not to fix it.

Rather than preventing abuse of processor branch prediction by disabling the capability and incurring a performance hit, Chipzilla’s future chips – at least for a few years until microarchitecture changes can be implemented – will ship vulnerable by default but will include a protection flag that can be set by software.

Intel explained its approach in its technical note about Spectre mitigation, titled Speculative Execution Side Channel Mitigations. Instead of treating Spectre as a bug, the chip maker is offering Spectre protection as a feature.

The decision to address the flaw with an opt-in flag rather than activating defenses by default has left Linux kernel steward Linus Torvalds apoplectic.

Known for incendiary tirades, Torvalds does not disappoint. In a message posted to the Linux kernel mailing list on Sunday, he wrote, “As it is, the patches are COMPLETE AND UTTER GARBAGE.”

“All of this is pure garbage. Is Intel really planning on making this shit architectural?” he asked. “Has anybody talked to them and told them they are f*cking insane? Please, any Intel engineers here – talk to your managers.”

«

The full Torvalds rant is worth reading. Never one to hold back, ol’ Linus. (Thanks John Naughton for the link.)
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Motorists fork out £1,000 more to insure their cars if their name is Mohammed • The Sun

Ben Leo:

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Motorists are being stung for almost £1,000 more to insure cars if their name is Mohammed.

Top firms Admiral, Marks & Spencer, Bell, Elephant and Diamond all give far lower quotes when the driver has the English name John, a Sun investigation reveals.

The most shocking example we found was an Admiral quote via GoCompare. We put in identical details apart from the name. When it was “John Smith” wanting fully comprehensive insurance for a 2007 Ford Focus in Leicester the quote was £1,333. But for “Mohammed Ali” it was £2,252 — a huge £919 more.

One victim of the scandal — Mohammed Butt — raged: “It’s racism, pure and simple. They cannot say Mohammeds are worse drivers than Johns.”

We got 60 quotes via GoCompare, plus others using rival comparison sites. The sites do not calculate figures themselves but simply show results from insurers. Admiral and its sister companies Diamond, Bell and Elephant always quoted more if the driver was called Mohammed.

The difference was often hundreds of pounds. The story was similar when we went to the firm direct. Quotes we sought ranged across ten cities.

«

My only thought of the way that this might just – just – make sense is if Asian names were associated with the many “fake whiplash crash” claims that stung insurers so badly in the past. Those were reckoned to add about £100 to every household’s car insurance. (Thanks Richard for the link. First time we’ve had The Sun here.)
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Five obvious questions about Apple’s HomePod speaker – The Verge

Dieter Bohn wonders if HomePod (available for pre-order this Friday, on sale February 9) is like iPod, which was initially dismissed for not being or looking like existing devices in that specific space:

»

I’m not eager put myself out on a limb and say that the HomePod is or is not going to replicate the iPod’s success. But I can’t stop from feeling like the smart speaker market is further along in its evolution now than the MP3 player market was when the iPod was announced. I also can’t stop thinking that consumers are smarter and more demanding about gadgets now than they were then.

Here is a simple list of the things that are troubling about the HomePod vis-à-vis its competition, Alexa and Google Assistant speakers:

Price. The HomePod is $349. You can buy into either the Alexa or Google ecosystem for 50 bucks (often for way less).
Diversity of products. There is one HomePod, and it costs 350 bucks. There are dozens of different speakers that support Alexa; Amazon itself offers at least four current models. There are soon to be dozens of Google Assistant speakers; Google itself offers three models. Both of those ecosystems will have speakers with full displays (if that’s what you want).
Software compatibility. Alexa and Google have a significant lead with their intelligent assistants compared to Siri. That’s a strange circumstance, given that Apple was first to market with Siri and sells millions of devices with Siri on them. But both Amazon and Google have been building out compatible voice-only capabilities with third parties to work with their speakers, while Apple has taken a slower, more deliberate approach. Apple’s description of Siri on the HomePod is a “musicologist” and only mentions its broader capabilities as a side note.
Software compatibility, part 2. The HomePod only works with Apple Music. Alexa and Google not only work with Spotify, Pandora, and TuneIn (and more!), but they’ll even let you set a competing music service as the default playback option. Also, Apple Music has no free option: to make a HomePod work, you’ll have to pay a monthly subscription fee.
Features incomplete. The HomePod is launching without key features for a home speaker. AirPlay 2 is apparently necessary for multiroom audio and even stereo pairing of two speakers, and it won’t be on the HomePod at launch. It’s “coming this year in a free software update.” (Also can we take another moment to ask what the heck is up with AirPlay 2? It still feels very mysterious.) Meanwhile, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Sonos are all offering these features.

«

All good points; I think that the “price” question will be answered by the audio quality. For diversity, it’s easy to build down from the top of the market; harder to build upwards. The software compatibility and features remain to be seen. I think that – like the Apple Watch – it will be a deep hit, beloved by those who really like it. It’s not the next iPhone, but then what is?
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Privacy, simplified • Spread Privacy

Gabriel Weinberg (CEO of DuckDuckGo):

»

Today we’re taking a major step to simplify online privacy with the launch of fully revamped versions of our browser extension and mobile app, now with built-in tracker network blocking, smarter encryption, and, of course, private search – all designed to operate seamlessly together while you search and browse the web. Our updated app and extension are now available across all major platforms – Firefox, Safari, Chrome, iOS, and Android – so that you can easily get all the privacy essentials you need on any device with just one download.

The DuckDuckGo browser extension and mobile app will also now show you a Privacy Grade rating (A-F) when you visit a website. This rating lets you see at a glance how protected you are, dig into the details to see who we caught trying to track you, and learn how we enhanced the underlying website’s privacy measures. The Privacy Grade is scored automatically based on the prevalence of hidden tracker networks, encryption availability, and website privacy practices.

«

Currently doing 22m direct searches per day. Tiny compared to Google, but personally I like it.
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Economist Barry Eichengreen on the dollar losing its status as a dominant reserve currency and the future of bitcoin • Quartz

Eshe Nelson:

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Using new evidence on central bank reserves from the 1910s to early 1970s, with particularly focus on the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, Eichengreen and his co-authors find that reserve currencies can and do coexist. For example, in the period between the wars, it seems the British pound and the US dollar shared reserve currency status more or less equally, depending on the year. Before the First World War, even though sterling was the most important currency, the French franc and German mark were internationally significant, too.

“From this vantage point, it is the second half of the 20th century that is the anomaly, when an absence of alternatives allowed the dollar to come closer to monopolizing this international currency role,” they write.

This implies that the dollar’s days as the dominant reserve currency will end “sooner rather than later.” The book suggests we’re heading for a return to the time when currencies coexisted on more equal footing in international markets. In the future, the dollar will be forced to share prominence with the yuan and the euro, in particular. The speed of the shift might depend on the actions of Donald Trump, Eichengreen says.

«

There’s an interview with Eichengreen in the article. I’ll point out that the US ceasing to be the world’s reserve currency is the opening pivot of Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles” – about a future US. (Don’t say “bitcoin!”)
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Ending Bitcoin support • Stripe

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At Stripe, we’ve long been excited about the possibilities of cryptocurrencies and the experimentation and innovation that’s come with them. In 2014, we became the first major payments company to support Bitcoin payments.

Our hope was that Bitcoin could become a universal, decentralized substrate for online transactions and help our customers enable buyers in places that had less credit card penetration or use cases where credit card fees were prohibitive.

Over the past year or two, as block size limits have been reached, Bitcoin has evolved to become better-suited to being an asset than being a means of exchange. Given the overall success that the Bitcoin community has achieved, it’s hard to quibble with the decisions that have been made along the way. (And we’re certainly happy to see any novel, ambitious project do so well.)

This has led to Bitcoin becoming less useful for payments, however. Transaction confirmation times have risen substantially; this, in turn, has led to an increase in the failure rate of transactions denominated in fiat currencies. (By the time the transaction is confirmed, fluctuations in Bitcoin price mean that it’s for the “wrong” amount.) Furthermore, fees have risen a great deal. For a regular Bitcoin transaction, a fee of tens of U.S. dollars is common, making Bitcoin transactions about as expensive as bank wires… of the businesses that are accepting Bitcoin on Stripe, we’ve seen their revenues from Bitcoin decline substantially. Empirically, there are fewer and fewer use cases for which accepting or paying with Bitcoin makes sense.

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Bitcoin! So much winning!
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Bitcoin broker Coinbase booked $1bn in revenue last year • Recode

Theodore Schleifer:

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Coinbase, the bitcoin trading broker that has exploded in popularity as cryptocurrencies surge and nose dive, has encountered an unusual problem for a Silicon Valley startup: Too many investors are trying to get in.

The six-year-old company crossed $1bn in revenue last year, Recode has learned from industry sources, a tremendous rise fueled by layman interest in both bitcoin and competing virtual currencies that users can buy and sell through the app…

…Bitcoin is altogether only worth about $175bn in market value as of today’s trading price of about $10,500 — a 50% drop from just a month ago. And so Coinbase’s $1bn in revenue suggests it has become the most-used broker for bitcoin transactions.

Coinbase makes money not on bitcoin’s price but on the volume of trades — charging both the buyer and seller usually a fee between 0.25% and 1% of the total transaction size through the site. The company serves as both an exchange and a broker of deals, though it does not serve as a market maker that holds bitcoin.

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If accurate, that’s really remarkable. Suggests a lot of trading has gone on – but is that people exiting and reentering, or new people coming in?
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Trump slaps steep tariffs on foreign washing machines and solar products • NY Times

Ana Swanson and Brad Plumer:

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Whirlpool Inc. appealed to the White House for help in curbing washing machine imports from its Korean competitors, while two solar companies, Suniva Inc. and SolarWorld Americas, said imports of cheap solar cells and modules were similarly putting their companies at risk.

While the tariffs [of up to 30%] were welcomed by the companies that sought them, economists warned the levies could drive up prices for consumers and hurt some American businesses. The solar industry has been split over the tariffs; companies that develop large-scale solar farms, as well as purchasers of solar power such as retailers and tech companies, opposed the tariffs over concerns that they would cost them more money and make solar power less competitive with other energy sources, at least in the short term.

Abigail Ross Hopper, the president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, which opposed the measures, said the decision “will create a crisis in a part of our economy that has been thriving, which will ultimately cost tens of thousands of hard-working, blue-collar Americans their jobs.”

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The solar association estimates that 84,000 jobs will go – about 34% of the 260,000 Americans who worked in solar in 2017 (more than coal and oil combined): 6,300 in Texas (Ted Cruz’s state), 4,700 in North Carolina, 7,000 in South Carolina.

That’s going to play through this year, with elections to come in November. Also, there’s no chance the US will challenge China in making solar panels; that’s a race it would have had to enter with commitment 20 years ago.

So the price will put off homeowners buying solar panels for their homes, installers are out of work. Tariffs only help if you have a dominant product or a less developed economy, where you need the time to develop your own specialisation. The US is long past that point on solar.
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Wall Street, not American solar, stands to gain from Trump tariffs • Bloomberg

Brian Eckhouse:

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The biggest winners of President Donald Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on imported solar equipment may not be American manufacturers but a group of investment houses around the globe.

The firms – from Centerbridge Partners LP to JPMorgan Chase & Co. – all are creditors to the two struggling solar companies that brought the trade complaint. The value of their investments, mostly in the form of distressed bonds, is likely to get a boost as the new tariffs help American manufacturers. While much of the US solar industry has blasted the tariffs, warning of massive job losses, these investors show at least some on Wall Street stand to gain.

Centerbridge, a New York firm that manages $14 billion in credit and distressed assets, is among the biggest creditors to solar manufacturer SolarWorld AG, a German company that owns SolarWorld Americas. Centerbridge controls about a third of the parent company’s senior secured notes, according to people familiar with the matter. SolarWorld AG filed for bankruptcy in May. 

SolarWorld Americas, which has a plant in Hillsboro, Oregon, was a leader of the tariff campaign. 

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Another point: the US power infrastructure needs renewal, and having individuals install solar panels takes a lot of load off the generating capacity and grid – think of the times when the weather is hot and air conditioners are on. Generate power locally, or pipe it in from across the grid? If you pipe it in, you need the infrastructure and you need the power plants.
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This Hearst ranch has raised cattle since 1865. Now it also powers Apple’s headquarters • CNBC

Anita Balakrishnan:

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150 years after George Hearst bought the ranch, it took on a new, ultra-modern function: A 2,900-acre solar farm, which until now has been contracted by Apple to run the company’s Cupertino headquarters.

It wasn’t easy to get the job, Hearst said in a statement, as it was “a huge, unbelievable construction project,” but the long summer stretches of 115-degree heat helped seal the deal…

…Apple CEO Tim Cook said in 2015 that the company would contribute $850m to build the solar farm, which also aims to provide enough energy for 60,000 homes.

“We know in Apple that climate change is real. The time for talk is passed,” he said at that time, according to Reuters. “The time for action is now.”

The project is still expanding, with the second phase of the 2.5m solar panels being installed this year, to provide energy offset for California customers. According to Hearst, “cowboys of Jack Ranch have been outnumbered by construction workers as the 280-megawatt solar project heads into its final month.”

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280MW? That’s colossal. Though one suspects it also needs plenty of batteries to store excess, if Apple is really being powered directly from it. (I suspect it’s more that it feeds into the grid, and extracts that much or less.)
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