Start Up No.914: “Alexa, microwave!”, the threat to Sonos, PC market to grow?, Huawei gets AirPoddy, get rich on bugs, and more


What’s filling your RAM? Probably a to-do list and a notepad app. Why, though? Photo by osde8info on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Because it’s Friday. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon’s Alexa-enabled microwave hands-on: it cooks but does not speak • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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The way the Alexa integration works is pretty clever: when you set it up, it will get paired to your Alexa system as “the microwave,” and then you can command Alexa to, you know, cook stuff. There are very few buttons on the microwave because all the presets for various food types have been stored in Amazon’s cloud instead.

There is an Alexa button on the microwave, and it does two things: it turns on the microphone on one of your Echo speakers so you don’t have to use the “Alexa” wake word, and, more importantly, it sends a signal so that whatever you’re about to say will be in the context of controlling the microwave. For example, you can hit the button and just say “stop,” and it’ll stop the microwave. (How this is more efficient than just hitting the stop button is unclear.)

The fun feature is the popcorn, though. When you set it up for the first time, you’ll have an option to sign up for a subscription to buy microwave popcorn from Amazon. Then, as you pop it, Alexa will keep track of how many times you have said, “Alexa, make popcorn,” and it’ll reorder automatically when you’re running low. There’s also a popcorn button on the device.

Is all this worth $59.99? Sure, it’s a pretty dead-ahead 700W microwave after all. It’s black and boxy and simple. I don’t have a lot more to tell you about the hardware. It has a rotating tray on the inside. There are vents and a metal enclosure. It ships on November 14th.

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Bohn meets the ultimate gadget that is beyond the capabilities of tech reviewing. Whether it’s secure… one has to hope so.
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Amazon Echo subwoofer and Alexa-capable smart plug may be on the way • Ars Technica

Valentina Palladino:

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Amazon seems to have given us a glimpse into some of its new, unreleased products. Listings on Amazon UK show a new Echo Sub, a subwoofer designed to work with Echo speakers, and a new Amazon Smart Plug, a socket adapter with Alexa capabilities, both with an availability date of October 11. Amazon has since removed the listings, but reports from Pocket-lint show images and details of the two new devices.

The Echo Sub looks like a fatter version of Amazon’s Echo speaker, almost like a clone of Apple’s HomePod. The wireless subwoofer includes a 6-inch down-firing woofer and 100W of bass, tech that would certainly improve the quality of existing Echo speakers. Some complained after Amazon released the updated version of the original Echo last year, claiming its sound quality was subpar.

Listed within the device’s description is stereo pairing, a feature that hasn’t been available to Echo speakers yet. Currently, users can only group multiple speakers together to fill a room with sound, but they won’t get that rich, complex left/right stereo sound. It appears that will be possible with the Echo Sub connected to two compatible Echo devices.

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Stereo pairing and subwoofers are all becoming standard very rapidly: Sonos might have something to worry about. After years in which its combination of sound quality, streaming capability and variety set it apart, it’s being caught up at the top and bottom by Apple and Amazon. Is there room for it in the middle?

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Global PC market to halt decline in 2019 as APAC leads with 1% growth • Canalys

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The worldwide PC market will enjoy a slight recovery in 2019, with shipments of desktops, notebooks and two-in-ones set for 0.3% growth after seven years of decline. APAC will be a key driver as the industry turns to the region in the face of falling demand in Europe and China. PC shipments to Asia Pacific will overtake those to Western Europe by 2021.

“Windows 10 refresh will continue to be the main driver of commercial demand for PCs in 2019,” said Canalys Chief Analyst Alastair Edwards. “This will be buoyed by strong economic performance and business spend in the United States, the largest PC market in the world, as well as a continued global push to upgrade on the back of heightened IT security concerns. Furthermore, 2019 is likely to bring about an easing of component supply constraints that have recently plagued the industry. Intel and its partners have admitted that tight supply of 14 nanometer processors will delay PC shipments this year, while DRAM shortages will start to ease toward the end of 2018, with the effects to be felt next year. Pent-up demand from this year will boost growth in 2019 as these issues are resolved.”

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One% growth! Hang out more flags!
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E.U. justice commissioner quits Facebook, describing her experience as ‘channel of dirt’ • The Washington Post

Hamza Shaban:

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The European Commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality shut down her Facebook account, describing her experience on the social network as a “channel of dirt.”

At a news conference Thursday in Brussels, Vera Jourova said that she received an “influx of hatred” on the popular platform and decided to cancel her account as a result.

“I don’t want to avoid communication with people, even with critical people,” she said, noting her decision to leave Facebook was not to avoid public criticism. Her mailbox is filled with critical comments, she said, and she responds to those people who don’t use vulgar language. “This is my nature, I speak to everybody who wants normal, honest, descent communication.” Euractiv earlier reported on Jourova’s remarks.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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…but she’s staying on Twitter.
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Android and Google Play Security Rewards Programs surpass $3M in payouts • Google Online Security Blog

Jason Woloz and Mayank Jain are on the Android Security & Privacy team:

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In the ASR program’s third year, we received over 470 qualifying vulnerability reports from researchers and the average pay per researcher jumped by 23%. To date, the ASR program has rewarded researchers with over $3M, paying out roughly $1M per year.

Here are some of the highlights from the Android Security Rewards program’s third year:
• There were no payouts for our highest possible reward: a complete remote exploit chain leading to TrustZone or Verified Boot compromise.
• 99 individuals contributed one or more fixes.
• The ASR program’s reward averages were $2,600 per reward and $12,500 per researcher.
• Guang Gong received our highest reward amount to date: $105,000 for his submission of a remote exploit chain.

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That’s quite a healthy average payout; some way short of earning a living, but if you were to do this across multiple platforms (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Apple, Microsoft all have bug bounty programs, as do others) then you could.

The question is, is the value of these exploits as paid by Google greater than their market value?
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Apple’s new strategy: sell pricier iPhones first • WSJ

Tripp Mickle, Yoko Kubota and Takashi Mochizuki:

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This year, according to people familiar with Apple’s production plans, the company prioritized production of its two pricier OLED models, the iPhone XS and XS Max, whose prices start at about $1,000. Both will hit stores Friday, followed five weeks later by the least expensive new model, the XR, which has an LCD screen and a starting price of $749.

The staggered release gives Apple a month to sell the higher-end models without cheaper competition from itself. It also simplifies logistics and retail demands and could strengthen Apple’s ability to forecast sales and production of all three models through the Christmas holidays, analysts and supply chain experts said.

“It’s sort of a Dutch auction,” said Josh Lowitz, co-founder of research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, referring to the practice of starting with a high asking price, then lowering it until a buyer accepts. “The people who are most committed will pay to get early access. Then you get to the people who are making a choice and may settle for the $750 phone. This could become the new normal.”

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It does seem pretty obvious that you’d offer the priciest phone first, so you can mop up all the eager buyers. But you can’t just write a story speculating that for the WSJ; you need to actually ask the people who know. Which is what they did. After the iPhone 8 last year, and the iPhone 5C v 5S in 2013, Apple seems to have figured out what it’s doing. Though it seems odd if it really took that much figuring out.
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That Apple wireless AirPod charging case is delayed, so Huawei is making one instead • BGR

Chris Mills:

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Roland Quandt, a mobile device leaker with a strong track record, shared images of two upcoming Huawei products on Twitter earlier today.

In more images, he shows off the Freebuds 2 Pro, which look like a nearly perfect AirPods knockoff. According to Quandt, the Freebuds have three hours of listening, extended to 20 hours with charges from the case, just like the AirPods.

Unlike the AirPods, however, it seems that the Freebuds 2 Pro case has Qi wireless charging built in, as demonstrated in the image. More…usefully, the case can also be charged wirelessly from the Huawei Mate 20 Pro smartphone, if you desperately need more juice while on the go. The case can also charge via USB-C if you prefer.

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That is such a shameful ripoff. Could Huawei really not think of any other design? Seriously? After two years?
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Apple gives you a TRUST rating – and it’s based on your phone call and email habits • The Sun

Sean Keach:

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Apple builds a score based on the number calls and emails you send and receive – to help spot fraudulent transactions made using your device.

“To help identify and prevent fraud, information about how you use your device, including the approximate number of phone calls or emails you send and receive, will be used to compute a device trust score when you attempt a purchase,” Apple explained. “The submissions are designed so Apple cannot learn the real values on your device. The scores are stored for a fixed time on our servers.”

So how does it actually work? Apple has a bunch of different anti-fraud systems in place to work out whether payments you make are legitimate.

One of these, added in the new iOS 12 update, is a numeric trust score that’s associated with your device. This score is sent directly to Apple when you make a purchase.

The data used to create the score – including the number of phone calls you’ve made – is only ever stored on your device.

Importantly, when Apple sees the score, it doesn’t see the contents of your communications. It’s not reading your emails, for instance. These scores are also encrypted in transit, which means anyone who managed to intercept them would only see gibberish. Apple says it holds onto the scores for a limited period of time, although it’s not clear how long that is.

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Clever. It all goes into a single number.
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Software disenchantment • tonsky.me

Nikita Tonsky is in software development:

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Look around: our portable computers are thousands of times more powerful than the ones that brought man to the moon. Yet every other webpage struggles to maintain a smooth 60fps scroll on the latest top-of-the-line MacBook Pro. I can comfortably play games, watch 4K videos but not scroll web pages? How is it ok?

Google Inbox, a web app written by Google, running in Chrome browser also by Google, takes 13 seconds to open moderately-sized emails.

It also animates empty white boxes instead of showing their content because it’s the only way anything can be animated on a webpage with decent performance. No, decent doesn’t mean 60fps, it’s rather “as fast as this web page could possibly go”. I’m dying to see web community answer when 120Hz displays become mainstream. Shit barely hits 60Hz already.

Windows 10 takes 30 minutes to update. What could it possibly be doing for that long? That much time is enough to fully format my SSD drive, download a fresh build and install it like 5 times in a row.

Modern text editors have higher latency than 42-year-old Emacs. Text editors! What can be simpler? On each keystroke, all you have to do is update tiny rectangular region and modern text editors can’t do that in 16ms. It’s a lot of time. A LOT. A 3D game can fill the whole screen with hundreds of thousands (!!!) of polygons in the same 16ms and also process input, recalculate the world and dynamically load/unload resources. How come?

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Are New York’s free LinkNYC internet kiosks tracking your movements? • The Intercept

Ava Kofman:

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Plans to replace the city’s payphone booth network with Wi-Fi-enabled kiosks were first announced by de Blasio in 2014. Less than a year later, the city awarded a contract to a chameleon-like consortium of private companies known as CityBridge. It was an attractive deal: LinkNYC kiosks, at no cost to the city, would provide free internet coverage to anyone walking by. CityBridge, in turn, would be responsible for the installation, ownership, and construction of the devices, with plans to earn back its expenses through advertising. The twin 55in displays will eventually carry targeted ads derived from the information collected about kiosk users.

These terms raised alarms among internet researchers and privacy experts, who were quick to point out that nothing in life is truly free. “As we know,” Benjamin Dean, a technology policy analyst, told attendees at a New York hacking conference in 2016, “When you’re not paying, you’re not the customer — you’re the product.”

The key player in CityBridge is known as Intersection, and one of Intersection’s largest investors is Sidewalk Labs, with whom it also shares the same offices and staff. Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff is the chair of Intersection’s board. Sidewalk Labs is owned by Google’s holding company, Alphabet Inc. In other words, the plan to blanket New York City with 7,500 camera-equipped obelisks has been largely underwritten by the company formerly known as Google — a corporation whose business model depends on selling your personal information to advertisers.

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Whatever happened to the Semantic Web? • Two Bit History

Sinclair Target:

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the Semantic Web we were promised has yet to be delivered. In 2018, we have “agents” like Siri that can do certain tasks for us. But Siri can only do what it can because engineers at Apple have manually hooked it up to a medley of web services each capable of answering only a narrow category of questions. An important consequence is that, without being large and important enough for Apple to care, you cannot advertise your services directly to Siri from your own website. Unlike the physical therapists that Berners-Lee and his co-authors imagined would be able to hang out their shingles on the web, today we are stuck with giant, centralized repositories of information. Today’s physical therapists must enter information about their practice into Google or Yelp, because those are the only services that the smartphone agents know how to use and the only ones human beings will bother to check. The key difference between our current reality and the promised Semantic future is best captured by this throwaway aside in the excerpt above: “…appointment times (supplied by the agents of individual providers through their Web sites)…”

In fact, over the last decade, the web has not only failed to become the Semantic Web but also threatened to recede as an idea altogether. We now hardly ever talk about “the web” and instead talk about “the internet,” which as of 2016 has become such a common term that newspapers no longer capitalize it. (To be fair, they stopped capitalizing “web” too.) Some might still protest that the web and the internet are two different things, but the distinction gets less clear all the time. The web we have today is slowly becoming a glorified app store, just the easiest way among many to download software that communicates with distant servers using closed protocols and schemas, making it functionally identical to the software ecosystem that existed before the web. How did we get here?

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Meituan IPO fact-checks Mobike’s fanciful numbers • Bloomberg

Tim Culpan:

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Compare the details in the prospectus with statements made in press releases and the divergence is striking. 

Consider user numbers.

In a December press release, Mobike claimed 200 million users worldwide. That figure has been repeated often, with the most recent example I could find coming in July.

Meituan’s prospectus says otherwise:

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With 48.1 million Active Bike Users, 7.1 million Active Bikes and over 1.0 billion rides completed in the four months ended April 30, 2018, Mobike is a leading player in bike-sharing.

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Let’s skip past the fact that Mobike was claiming nine million bikes, not the actual 7.1 million, and look at that last data point: 1 billion rides.

In October, Bloomberg cited Mobike’s statement that it was “the clear leader in the global bikesharing industry,  supporting 30 million rides in 180 cities around the world every single day” (emphasis added). Just a month earlier it was telling the world it “supports over 20 million rides every day” (emphasis added). 

With 119 days during the period cited in Meituan’s prospectus, Mobike was actually averaging 8.4 million trips daily — 70% fewer than it had been claiming.

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I get the feeling that Culpan is tired of being lied to by these companies. So the fact that their prospectus has to be truthful is amusing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.914: “Alexa, microwave!”, the threat to Sonos, PC market to grow?, Huawei gets AirPoddy, get rich on bugs, and more

  1. ” Sonos might have something to worry about. After years in which its combination of sound quality, streaming capability and variety set it apart, it’s being caught up at the top and bottom by Apple and Amazon. Is there room for it in the middle?”

    ??? You had me double-check (off Google first page results for “is the apple speaker better than sonos ?”): except Cult of Mac, pretty much all reviews rate Sonos better than Apple around the same price for pure sound quality; plus you get a better Assistant and a lot more streaming services, as well as a range of devices and prices. How is that “above Sonos” except for the iBubbled ?

    The way anything Apple does gets promoted to “best in class” even when reviews and tests say otherwise is incredibly insidious, and dispiriting.

  2. Huawei’s ripoff: I’m curious, once you decide to put the mike in a kind of leg, how different can/would you make the design ? There are voluntary visual cues (the square grille, the bronze ring) than these aren’t AirBuds, but, same as for wired airbuds and phones, function dictates form, they all look the same, I can’t think of any way to differentiate legged wireless earbuds except via that kind of small aesthetics detail.

    There are plenty of true wireless earbuds w/o the leg, I’m guessing the leg offers better voice recording and ambient noise reduction. And all buds of this type will look the same.

    It’s funny how anything that vaguely looks like something Apple started gets called out for it (even when they add visual differentiation), yet nothing Apple copies (large screens, metal unibody, homescreen gestures, buttonless phones…) ever gets remarked on.

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