Start Up No.967: Microsoft dumping Edge, Bose’s audio.. sunglasses?, Python for bras, how was Quora hacked?, and more


Jeff Dean, with a coworker at Google, essentially revolutionised the modern web with some code they wrote. CC-licensed photo by Niall Kennedy on Flickr.


Today’s suggested charity is The Internet Archive, which preserves web content that might otherwise be lost (or conveniently scrubbed). It’s having its annual funding drive; please donate as you feel fit.


A selection of 10 links for you. Not counted in binary. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

What is Windows Lite? It’s Microsoft’s Chrome OS killer • Petri

Brad Sams:

»

Microsoft is working on a new version of Windows that may not actually be Windows. It’s currently called Lite, based on documentation found in the latest build, and I can confirm that this version of the OS is targeting Chromebooks. In fact, there are markings all over the latest release of the insider builds and SDK that help us understand where this OS is headed.

If you have heard this before, it should sound a lot like Windows 10 S and RT; Windows 10 Lite only runs PWAs and UWP apps and strips out everything else. This is finally a truly a lightweight version of Windows that isn’t only in the name. This is not a version of the OS that will run in the enterprise or even small business environments and I don’t think you will be able to ‘buy’ the OS either; OEM only may be the way forward.

The reason Microsoft had to kill off Windows10 S was to make way for this iteration of Windows. The goal of Windows Lite is to make it super lightweight, instant on, always connected, and can run on any type of CPU. Knowing that this week Qualcomm will announce a new generation of Snapdragon that can run Windows significantly better than the 835, fully expect to see this new chip powering many of the first devices running the new OS.

And there’s something a bit different about Lite that we haven’t seen from every attempt at launching this type of software in the past; it may not be called Windows.

«

Anything dubbed a “–killer” won’t be – such a name may even doom it – and the problem for Microsoft is that to compete with ChromeOS on that OS’s terms would be to lose ignominiously. It can’t be done: either you make a browser-based minimal OS, or you don’t. A “light Windows” is like being a little pregnant, or crossing the chasm in two hops.
link to this extract


Microsoft is building a Chromium-powered web browser that will replace Edge on Windows 10 • Windows Central

Zac Bowden:

»

Microsoft’s Edge web browser has seen little success since its debut on Windows 10 in 2015. Built from the ground up with a new rendering engine known as EdgeHTML, Microsoft Edge was designed to be fast, lightweight, and secure, but it launched with a plethora of issues that resulted in users rejecting it early on. Edge has since struggled to gain traction, thanks to its continued instability and lack of mindshare, from users and web developers.

Because of this, I’m told that Microsoft is throwing in the towel with EdgeHTML and is instead building a new web browser powered by Chromium, which uses a similar rendering engine first popularized by Google’s Chrome browser known as Blink. Codenamed “Anaheim,” this new browser for Windows 10 will replace Edge as the default browser on the platform, according to my sources, who wish to remain anonymous. It’s unknown at this time if Anaheim will use the Edge brand or a new brand, or if the user interface (UI) between Edge and Anaheim is different. One thing is for sure, however; EdgeHTML in Windows 10’s default browser is dead.

Many will be happy to hear that Microsoft is finally adopting a different rendering engine for the default web browser on Windows 10. Using Chromium means websites should behave just like they do on Google Chrome in Microsoft’s new Anaheim browser, meaning users shouldn’t suffer from the same instability and performance issues found in Edge today. This is the first step towards revitalizing Windows 10’s built-in web browser for users across PCs and phones. Edge on iOS and Android already uses rendering engines native to those platforms, so not much will be changing on that front.

«

Stunning news; Bowden was the first with it. What a turnaround for the company which was taken to court by the US government because it integrated its browser into the operating system. Google is making its branch of WebKit into the operating system of the web. So now there’s basically Chrome, Safari, Firefox and.. nothing.
link to this extract


The friendship that made Google huge • The New Yorker

James Somers:

»

One day in March of 2000, six of Google’s best engineers gathered in a makeshift war room. The company was in the midst of an unprecedented emergency. In October, its core systems, which crawled the Web to build an “index” of it, had stopped working. Although users could still type in queries at google.com, the results they received were five months out of date. More was at stake than the engineers realized. Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were negotiating a deal to power a search engine for Yahoo, and they’d promised to deliver an index ten times bigger than the one they had at the time—one capable of keeping up with the World Wide Web, which had doubled in size the previous year. If they failed, google.com would remain a time capsule, the Yahoo deal would likely collapse, and the company would risk burning through its funding into oblivion.

In a conference room by a set of stairs, the engineers laid doors across sawhorses and set up their computers. Craig Silverstein, a twenty-seven-year-old with a small frame and a high voice, sat by the far wall. Silverstein was Google’s first employee: he’d joined the company when its offices were in Brin’s living room and had rewritten much of its code himself. After four days and nights, he and a Romanian systems engineer named Bogdan Cocosel had got nowhere. “None of the analysis we were doing made any sense,” Silverstein recalled. “Everything was broken, and we didn’t know why.”

Silverstein had barely registered the presence, over his left shoulder, of Sanjay Ghemawat, a quiet thirty-three-year-old M.I.T. graduate with thick eyebrows and black hair graying at the temples. Sanjay had joined the company only a few months earlier, in December. He’d followed a colleague of his—a rangy, energetic thirty-one-year-old named Jeff Dean—from Digital Equipment Corporation. Jeff had left D.E.C. ten months before Sanjay. They were unusually close, and preferred to write code jointly. In the war room, Jeff rolled his chair over to Sanjay’s desk, leaving his own empty. Sanjay worked the keyboard while Jeff reclined beside him, correcting and cajoling like a producer in a news anchor’s ear.

Jeff and Sanjay began poring over the stalled index. They discovered that some words were missing—they’d search for “mailbox” and get no results—and that others were listed out of order. For days, they looked for flaws in the code, immersing themselves in its logic. Section by section, everything checked out. They couldn’t find the bug.

«

A simple magical feature. Ghemawat and Dean went on to write MapReduce – which underpins Hadoop, is used by Facebook – and then Dean made TensorFlow, Google’s AI framework, happen. Essential reading; what they produced is Google at its best.
link to this extract


Bose Frames audio sunglasses arrive in January, cost $199 • CNET

David Carnoy:

»

When it announced its new augmented reality platform with a set of prototype AR glasses back in March, Bose said that a commercial version of the product was coming. Now it’s here: Bose Frames, a set of sunglasses with built-in microspeakers and microphones, will be available in the US in January for $199. Preorders start today at bose.com, and Bose AR apps are coming next year. (It will launch in select global markets in spring 2019; $199 converts to about £155 or AU$270.)

Weighing about the same as your typical sunglasses at 1.6 ounces (45 grams), Frames will come in two styles. Bose says they can stream music and information, take and make calls, and access virtual assistants “while keeping playlists, entertainment and conversations private.”

I had a chance to try a pair of the prototypes earlier this year and was generally impressed with the sound quality. They seem to be about on par with the Apple AirPods’ sound, which also feature an open, non noise-isolating design.

«

They look… tolerable? Battery life not great though, at less than four hours; two hours to recharge. Notable how more and more people are trying this: Google, Snap, now Bose.
link to this extract


Learning How AI Makes Decisions • PCMag UK

»

After her neural networks failed to reveal the reasons they were mislabelling videos and pictures, [Kate] Saenko [an associate professor at the Department of Computer Science at Boston University] and a team of researchers at Boston University engaged in a project to find the parameters that influenced those decisions.

What came out of the effort was RISE, a method that tries to explain to interpret decisions made by AI algorithms. Short for “randomized input sampling for explanation of black-box models,” RISE is a local explanation model.

When you provide an image-classification network with an image input, what it returns is a set of classes, each associated with a probability. Normally, you’d have no insight into how the AI reached that decision. But RISE provides you with a heatmap that describes which parts of the image are contributing to each of those output classes.

For instance, in the above image, it’s clear that the network in question is mistaking brown sheep for cows, which might mean that it hasn’t been trained on enough examples of brown sheep. This type of problem happens often. Using the RISE method, Saenko was able to discover that her neural networks were specifying the gender of the people in the cooking videos based on pots and pans and other objects that appeared in the background instead of examining their facial and physical features.

The idea behind RISE is to randomly obscure parts of the input image and run it through the neural network to observe how the changes affect the output weights. By repeating the masking process multiple times, RISE is able to discern which parts of the image are more important to each output class.

«

Clever – and very usable.
link to this extract


Why Xiaomi’s fancy phones aren’t selling • Tech In Asia

Karen Chiu:

»

“I once tried to convince a friend to get the Mi Note 2. He was pretty excited until he asked about the price. ‘How much? 2,800 yuan [US$405]? How good can that phone be?’” wrote Zhorizonxiansen, a Zhihu user.

“This is a common mentality among phone users these days. If you use Xiaomi, you’re a low-end user, you’re a loser. If you say other phones aren’t good, you’re just broke and jealous.”

Another person, who described himself as a 27-year-old working in sales in a first-tier city, said he’s never met anyone at work who uses Xiaomi.

“Buying a phone isn’t about value for money. It’s not like you’ll buy a particular phone just because it’s cheaper than another one with the same specs. For example, if your relatives, friends and colleagues all drive a BMW or a Mercedes, you could still get a Hyundai or Honda even if you don’t have money. Just don’t buy an Alto,” said Wenyusuruo, referring to a Chinese-made car brand.

It’s hard to tell if Xiaomi users are actually as poor as many in China believe. A recent report by Shanghai-based research agency MobData found that college graduates and those who earn more than 20,000 yuan (around US$2,880) a month actually prefer Xiaomi (and Huawei) phones. Oppo, Vivo and Apple users, on the other hand, earn less on average.

Yet the image has stuck. One reason could be that Xiaomi continues to churn out extremely cheap handsets. Its cheapest phone in China at the moment is the US$86 Redmi 6A, which costs nearly US$30 less than Vivo’s cheapest, the Y73.

Xiaomi is actively trying to boost its premium offerings in China. Abacus News contacted company spokesman John Chan, who directed us to their most recent financial report, which says the average selling price of Xiaomi smartphones in China increased 16% year on year. He declined to comment further.

So Xiaomi is rolling out fancier phones. But there seems to be one problem: consumers aren’t buying them.

«

Who would have thought that a phone could be too cheap?
link to this extract


What we learned from three years of bra engineering, and what’s next • Bra Theory

Mona Zhang:

»

In the beginning, I wrote a Python-based program that would take measurements as inputs and, after a few calculations, output the pattern (or blueprint) of the bra. We built it end to end, even including the seam allowances and labels that bra-makers require to sew the pattern…

…In 2016, we quickly learned a painful lesson: the important part was not the technology itself, but closing the feedback loop of measurements and bra-that-fits.

As much as I wanted to nerd out and build a sexy (pun-intended) 3D solution, we actually had to scrap our algorithm for a period of time so that we could move faster.

So we ditched the algorithm for something more agile, with fewer assumptions: we became a custom bra-maker.

We didn’t forget our vision. As our bra-makers taught me about the garment, I taught them about the algorithm. What we did had to be reproducible. Our resident bra-makers soon learned that whenever they “eyeballed” something, I was going to swoop in and ask a lot of annoying questions. We began to get feedback on the product, even if it wasn’t purely produced by code, in a way that could inform the code.

Though we pivoted from the 3D technology, it allowed us to simplify the problem.

«

There’s a lot of naivete on show here; but also optimism that she can create the perfect bra and that women will put down $350 per.
link to this extract


Quora security update • The Quora Blog – Quora

»

For approximately 100 million Quora users, the following information may have been compromised:

• Account information, e.g. name, email address, encrypted (hashed) password, data imported from linked networks when authorized by users
• Public content and actions, e.g. questions, answers, comments, upvotes
• Non-public content and actions, e.g. answer requests, downvotes, direct messages (note that a low percentage of Quora users have sent or received such messages).

Questions and answers that were written anonymously are not affected by this breach as we do not store the identities of people who post anonymous content.

«

Neat way of getting in that you have at least 100 million users, but also that few people send messages. Meanwhile: another day, another big hack.
link to this extract


Samsung used my DSLR photo to fake their phone’s “portrait mode” • DIY Photography

Dunja Dudic:

»

Curious as I am, I performed a reverse image search a few days later, just for fun. I thought that, even if I get to see the image online, it could be included in a blog post about outdoor activities, nature, autumn… Maybe even makeup. But to my surprise, there was only a bunch of search results related with Galaxy A8 Star. I clicked on the first link, scrolled down, and saw this:

My first reaction was to burst out into laughter. Just look at the Photoshop job they did on my face and hair! I’ve always liked my natural hair color (even though it’s turning gray black and white), but I guess the creator of this franken-image prefers reddish tones. Except in the eyes though, where they removed all of the blood vessels.

Whoever created this image, they also cut me out of the original background and pasted me onto a random photo of a park. I mean, the original photo was taken at f/2.0 if I remember well, and they needed the “before” and “after” – a photo with a sharp background, and another one where the almighty “portrait mode” blurred it out. So Samsung’s Photoshop master resolved it by using a different background.

«

I bet the Photoshopper was not pleased with the challenge of cutting around her many fine strands of hair. Which you can tell, because they gave up on the right-hand side of the picture.

But come on, Samsung. This is just crappy.
link to this extract


Tumblr’s anti-porn algorithm is flagging basically everything as NSFW • Daily Dot

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw:

»

Starting on Dec. 17, the site will block anything it considers to be adult-rated visual content, a category that ranges from porn .gifs to “female-presenting nipples,” whatever that means.

This porn ban is already being implemented, with Tumblr flagging everything it deems to be explicit material. On a purely conceptual level, this was already bad news for many Tumblr users. An NSFW content ban will hurt the livelihoods of artists and sex workers on the site, and potentially lead to a mass exodus of bloggers who want to retain their creative freedom. However, it looks like the problems go even further because Tumblr’s content flagging algorithm is hopelessly incompetent. As soon as Tumblr started highlighting “explicit” content on Dec. 3, users reported having totally innocuous posts flagged on their accounts.

Tumblr and Twitter are already full of screencaps showing random posts mislabeled as explicit material. In some cases, you can kind of see how the mistake happened (for instance, art with partial but non-sexual nudity, or images that a bot might mistake for a human body), but there’s also a ton of content that appears to have been flagged at random.

«

The range of content that’s being flagged is hilarious and also worrying. Although, contra theory: Tumblr’s management want to let the system flag like crazy, and it will listen to the complaints in order to tune it.
link to this extract


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified. Ha!

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.967: Microsoft dumping Edge, Bose’s audio.. sunglasses?, Python for bras, how was Quora hacked?, and more

  1. re Xiaomi. Phones are handbags now. Social markers and fashion accessories as much as tools, at least for some. I’m still wondering why OEMs don’t use 2 brands for high-end/design vs low-end/value. I understand Halo effect, but when sales are 80%+ low-end like for most Android brands, the halo effect morphs into a black hole effect and the low-end taints the high-end, not the other way around. Simply dubbing the low-end Redmi and the high-end Mi isn’t enough differentiation if both are mostly branded Xiaomi. What’s even more weird is that Xiaomi *is* using a different brand for its gamer phones (Pocophone).

    If you must buy a flagship, Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 is a fine choice. Cute, distinctive (all-screen, slide for selfiecam; ceramic back), good pics and vids (3rd on DxOMark), usual performance and specs. Arguably a better deal than a OnePlus 6T, except BBK did have the smarts to launch a dedicated brand for their flagships.

    I’m wondering if there’s need for a bit of time to build trust before people spend big bucks on a newcomer, which Xiaomi still is. It used to be cheap phones sucked, so upselling on renewal was rare, people switched OEMs because they hated the low-end device. Now that low-end devices are pleasant, I think there’s a better chance of punters sticking with their previous OEM. I’m just not sure there’s much of a need for flagships these days except for bragging rights.

    • By the way, I just did that “upgrade” thing Xiaomi-to-Xiaomi, except I just replaced my Mi Max 1 (failing battery and shutdown at 35%… I’d take throttling over that ^^) by a 3 and my Redmi Note 5 (too small ! + niece wanted it) by a Mi Max 2 (it’s my backup/courtesy phone, I saved $100 over getting another 3). Anyhow, Xiaomi has a very nice Mi Mover tool to transfer *everything* from old phone to new phone, home layout, wallpaper, apps and their data. I didn’t even have to re-login to the unsecured apps, it even copied discontinued apps (gReader Pro, what happened ?). It worked much better than Google’s tool, and might be a reason to stick with your previous OEM.

      Biggest pain was realizing all of that uses USB-C now, so on to contribute to Anker’s fortune (at least the new tablets use that too), and now I have to buy and carry 2x the cables; and re-setting all the 2FA apps + browser syncs. For some reason they don’t have Mi Mover on tablets.

      Now to try and change the 1’s battery… It’s in the mail. I’m ok building PCs, but phone surgery seems finicky.

  2. re Windows Lite. It’s still interesting in theory. Not a browser-based OS, but Metro-only with CPU-independent bytecode apps, touch-first, no-admin. That’s what RT and 10S were supposed to be already though.
    Even with a Chromium browser and PWAs, MS still needs some native apps to prime the pump. At his stage, ChromeOS has one or two orders of magnitude pore apps apps than Metro, more so now that it runs Android and Linux apps (make that 5 or 10 orders of magnitude ^^). Maybe MS can get some pull in Entreprise via infrastructure integration (Active Directory etc…).

    I think MS badly misjudged when they dropped their almost-completed project to run Android apps. For all its magicness, Fuchsia’s first order of business seems to be: run all Android apps, either because they’ll be Flutter or in a compatibility box.

  3. re. Edge. I haven’t been using it much (I go Firefox > Opera > Chrome > Edge > Vivaldi) but it’s been working fine when I have (I’m using it to impersonate my mom on Amazon, Google, her ISP…). The consensus seems to be that a) it had moments of brightness, marred by too many stutters and incompatibilities and b) web devs don’t like having to support many different engines which is required for both bleeding-edge stuff and for more common stuff and c) it was a huge resources sink for MS.

    As long as Google keeps playing fair and don’t “embrace and extend” Chromium, we should be fine. If they start bundling “google services” with it à la Android/ChromeOS, alarm bells should ring all over. I can’t get a taste test of ChromeOS in a VM, because the thing is proprietary and ChromiumOS, w/o the Google proprietary bits, is only a remote relative. I think It’s easier to hack a MacOS VM…

  4. re. Coding together… there’s that NCIS meme about when 2 actors start typing on the same keyboard to go faster…. It must be silly on purpose, right ? RIGHT ?

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