Start Up No.969: Microsoft officially goes with Chromium, Apple v inflation, Google kills another messaging app, Ericsson screws up, and more


An older form of encryption. How would Australia’s government have made it give up its secrets? CC-licensed photo by Sven Graeme on Flickr.


It’s charity time. Today’s suggested one is Wikipedia: at a time when people increasingly don’t want to believe news sources, Wikipedia remains a remarkably impartial source of information about all sorts of topics. Please give as you feel appropriate.

Suggestions for other charities are welcome by email or on Twitter.


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.

A selection of 11 links for you. Treat yourself. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Edge dies a death of a thousand cuts as Microsoft switches to Chromium • Ars Technica

Peter Bright:

»

Microsoft is going to use Google’s Blink rendering engine and V8 JavaScript engine in its Edge browser, largely ending development of its own EdgeHTML rendering engine and Chakra JavaScript engine. This means that Microsoft will be using code from—and making contributions to—the Chromium open source project.

The company’s browser will still be named Edge and should retain the current look and feel. The decision to switch was motivated primarily by compatibility problems: Web developers increasingly test their pages exclusively in Chrome, which has put Edge at a significant disadvantage. Microsoft’s engineers have found that problematic pages could often be made Edge compatible with only very minor alterations, but because Web devs aren’t using Edge at all, they don’t even know that they need to change anything.

The story is, however, a little more complex. The initial version of Edge that shipped with the first version of Windows 10 was rudimentary, to say the least. It was the bare bones of a browser, but with extremely limited capabilities around things like tab management and password management, no extension model, and generally lacking in the creature comforts that represent the difference between a bare rendering engine and an actual usable browser. It also had stability issues; crashes and hangs were not uncommon.

Microsoft’s own telemetry showed that many users did give Edge a chance, but as soon as a problem was encountered—a crash, a hang, or perhaps a page that didn’t work right—they’d switch to Chrome and never really look back.

«

As in the modern smartphone wars, Microsoft entered this race at least a lap too late. But as one person commented on Twitter (I can’t find the link now), If you can get the quality of Chrome but without the tracking, you’re definitely ahead.
link to this extract


Are Apple products overpriced? • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler and Andrew van Dam:

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Apple says prices go up because it introduces new technologies such as Face ID and invests in making products that last a long time. Yet it has clearly been feeling price discomfort from some quarters. This week, amid reports of lagging sales that took its stock far out of the trillion-dollar club, it dedicated its home page to a used-car sales technique that’s uncharacteristic for an aspirational luxury brand. It offered a “limited-time” deal to trade in an old iPhone and get a new iPhone XR for $450, a $300 discount.

Apple offers trade-ins for many products now. And not everything Apple has gone up in price: An entry-level iMac and iPad have gotten cheaper since 2014, though in both cases the company has since added a new higher-end (and higher-price) “Pro” version to its lineup.

It’s a good time to take stock of what you’re paying for. Back at the end of 2014, when the iPhone 6 came out, the average price paid for any iPhone was $634, according to BayStreet. This year, it’ll be $898. (Samsung owners over the same period went from $635 to $710, not accounting for promotions.) Add in services such as iCloud storage and AirPod headphones, and our Apple bill climbs even higher.

«

The graphic above, and the one below, both from the article, are quite telling – of Apple buyers’ loyalty and the value they perceive, as much as anything.


link to this extract


The latest on Messages, Allo, Duo and Hangouts • Google Products blog

Matt Klainer is vice president, Consumer Communications Products

»

Thanks to partnerships with over 40 carriers and device makers, over 175 million of you are now using Messages, our messaging app for Android phones, every month.

In parallel, we built Google Allo, a smart messaging app, to help you get more done in your chats and express yourself more easily. Earlier this year we paused investment in Allo and brought some of its most-loved features—like Smart Reply, GIFs and desktop support—into Messages. Given Messages’ continued momentum, we’ve decided to stop supporting Allo to focus on Messages.

Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app—here are instructions on how to do so. We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.

We built Duo, our simple, high-quality video calling app, so you never miss a moment with the people who matter most. It’s one of Google’s highest rated mobile apps and is seeing strong growth and engagement across both Android and iOS.

«

I dunno, it sounds a bit like the chairman of the football club expressing their full confidence in the manager. (They inevitably get fired a few days later.) Google’s problem these days is that it can never decide on just one product and really go with that. It did in the past – search, mail, ads – but ever since has been all over the place.
link to this extract


Australia passes bill to force tech firms to hand over encrypted data • Reuters

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Australia’s parliament on Thursday passed a bill to force tech firms such as Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook and Apple to give police access to encrypted data, the most far-reaching such requirements imposed by a western country.

The bill, staunchly opposed by the tech giants which fear Australia could be an example as other nations explore similar rules, is set to become law before the end of the year.

“Let’s just make Australians safe over Christmas,” opposition Labor party leader Bill Shorten told reporters outside parliament in the capital of Canberra.

The bill, passed by the lower house of parliament earlier on Thursday, was to be debated in the upper Senate, where Labor said it intended to suggest new amendments, before going back to the lower house.

In an eleventh-hour twist, Labor said that despite its reservations, it would pass the bill in the Senate, on the proviso that the coalition agreed to its amendments next year.

“We will pass the legislation, inadequate as it is, so we can give our security agencies some of the tools they say they need,” Shorten said…

…Australia’s government has said the laws are needed to counter militant attacks and organized crime and that security agencies would need to seek warrants to access personal data.

Technology companies have opposed efforts to create what they see as a back door to users’ data, a stand-off that was propelled into the public arena by Apple’s refusal to unlock an iPhone used by an attacker in a 2015 shooting in California.

«

Based on this, Australia’s politicians’ education is still somewhere in 1998. Can’t see it working, either: criminals will just use apps from companies that don’t have any base in Australia.
link to this extract


Apple’s newest Watch features will transform heart health • WIRED

Robbie Gonzalez:

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Apple Watch’s new features [enabled via a software update this week] are designed to help users spot signs of an irregular heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation—AFib, for short. It’s the most common form of arrhythmia, with upwards of 6 million diagnoses in America alone, a number that is expected to increase to 12 million by 2030. It’s also associated with increased risk of serious health problems like stroke.

Plus it’s underdiagnosed. Conservative estimates predict that 700,000 Americans are affected by AFib and don’t even know it, but many experts think the actual number is much higher. Apple thinks its wearables, which already adorn the wrists of millions of people, can help spotlight previously undiagnosed cases of AFib and enable patients with existing diagnoses to monitor their symptoms.

The company is backing those claims with two clinical trials, which it describes in a white paper published on its website Thursday. The first trial found that the watch’s irregular rhythm notifications compared favorably to the performance of a typical, doctor-prescribed ECG patch, accurately flagging the presence of AFib and occasionally other arrhythmias. It featured 226 people, a tiny subset of patients from a much larger, and still ongoing, study conducted in collaboration with Stanford Medicine.

«

Apple is really showing that vertical integration can pay off in early markets. Did it with the iPod, did it with the iPad, has done it with AirPods.

Note though: iPhone and Watch have to be on the latest software; Watch must have been bought in the US. Otherwise, you don’t get it.
link to this extract


Huawei faces catastrophe in the technology cold war • The Guardian

I wrote about the arrest of Huawei’s CFO – specifically, why it happened:

»

The US has long suspected that Huawei has also been involved in breaking sanctions. Internal documents seized from ZTE when it was found to be breaking sanctions showed that it knew of another Chinese company, codenamed F7, was doing the same by setting up “cut out” companies to which it would sell equipment. This would then be sold on to the sanctioned country. In one crucial passage, ZTE’s document says that “F7’s proposal to acquire US 3leaf company was opposed by the US government.” In 2010, Huawei sought to acquire 3leaf – but backed away after US government opposition.

Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk
Asked if it was the company referred to as F7 in the ZTE document, Huawei said: “Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations where it operates, including applicable export control and sanction laws and regulations of the UN, US and EU.”

If the US can prove that Huawei broke Obama-era sanctions against Iran, it could precipitate a rush of bans against the company. If, like ZTE, it were banned from receiving American parts, its smartphone business, the world’s second largest behind Samsung, would grind to a halt.

«

The document is really worth reading. I did a Twitter thread about it with some extracts. Circumstantial, but quite a thing.
link to this extract


Update on software issue impacting certain customers • Ericsson

»

Börje Ekholm, President and CEO, Ericsson, says: “The faulty software that has caused these issues is being decommissioned and we apologize not only to our customers but also to their customers. We work hard to ensure that our customers can limit the impact and restore their services as soon as possible.”

An initial root cause analysis indicates that the main issue was an expired certificate in the software versions installed with these customers. A complete and comprehensive root cause analysis is still in progress. Our focus is now on solving the immediate issues.

During the course of December 6, most of the affected customers’ network services have been successfully restored. We are working closely with the remaining customers that are still experiencing issues.

«

Oh WELL DONE. Only affected 31 million customers or so at a time when Huawei was on the ropes, PR-wise.
link to this extract


The statistical rule of three • John Cook Consulting

»

suppose you are testing children for perfect pitch. You’ve tested 100 children so far and haven’t found any with perfect pitch. Do you conclude that children don’t have perfect pitch? You know that some do because you’ve heard of instances before. Your data suggest perfect pitch in children is at least rare. But how rare?

The rule of three gives a quick and dirty way to estimate these kinds of probabilities. It says that if you’ve tested N cases and haven’t found what you’re looking for, a reasonable estimate is that the probability is less than 3/N. So in our proofreading example, if you haven’t found any typos in 20 pages, you could estimate that the probability of a page having a typo is less than 15%. In the perfect pitch example, you could conclude that fewer than 3% of children have perfect pitch.

Note that the rule of three says that your probability estimate goes down in proportion to the number of cases you’ve studied. If you’d read 200 pages without finding a typo, your estimate would drop from 15% to 1.5%. But it doesn’t suddenly drop to zero. I imagine most people would harbor a suspicion that that there may be typos even though they haven’t seen any in the first few pages. But at some point they might say “I’ve read so many pages without finding any errors, there must not be any.” The situation is a little different with the perfect pitch example, however, because you may know before you start that the probability cannot be zero.

If the sight of math makes you squeamish, you might want to stop reading now. Just remember that if you haven’t seen something happen in N observations, a good estimate is that the chances of it happening are less than 3/N.

«

I had never heard of this.
link to this extract


How to game the App Store • David Barnard

He’s a third-party app developer:

»

As I’ve said many times before, the App Store is not a free market. Apple can and does dramatically shape the App Store economy. Similar to how governments shape economies through tax law and other policies, Apple shapes the App Store economy through App Review policies, App Store implementation details, editorial decisions, the App Store search algorithm, and in so many other subtle (and not so subtle) ways. I’d love to see Apple wield that power to shape the App Store in ways that will sustain and encourage meaningful development instead of continuing to allow the deck to be stacked against it.

I know what you’re thinking… these are just the ramblings of a failed app developer who blames Apple for their own shortcomings. Quite the opposite. While not an “App Store millionaire”, for the past 10 years I’ve provided for my (growing) family solely on revenue from my apps. And three of my apps have grossed over $1m. While my net income (I spend a lot on design, share revenue with partners, pay Apple 30% on some of that, pay self employment tax, pay way too much for health insurance, etc) hasn’t made me a millionaire (or anywhere close), I’m still blown away that my apps have been downloaded by millions of people, been featured countless times by Apple, mentioned everywhere from indie blogs to the NY Times, and grossed millions of dollars.

My critique of Apple’s management of the App Store (which began in 2008) has never been about embarassing Apple or denigrating its employees or motives, I want to see this amazing platform Apple created be the best it can possibly be. The App Store is an incredible marketplace that has generated tens of billions in revenue while empowering billions of people around the world to do amazing things with these magical little computers we carry around in our pockets. But I do think the overall success of the App Store has blinded Apple to the need for various course corrections over the years. And as the financial incentive to build and maintain great niche apps dries up, the beautiful and diverse forest of apps that is the App Store will slowly start to look more like the unkempt Play Store.

«

What follows is a hell of a dissection of the failings of the App Store as it stands. Apple does need to consider what it’s doing, and not doing.
link to this extract


In Indonesia Lion Air crash, black box data reveal pilots’ struggle to regain control • The New York Times

James Glanz, Muktita Suhartono and Hannah Beech:

»

Data from the jetliner that crashed into the Java Sea last month shows the pilots fought to save the plane almost from the moment it took off, as the Boeing 737’s nose was repeatedly forced down, apparently by an automatic system receiving incorrect sensor readings.

The information from the flight data recorder, contained in a preliminary report prepared by Indonesian crash investigators and released on Wednesday, documents a fatal tug of war between man and machine, with the plane’s nose forced dangerously downward over two dozen times during the 11-minute flight.

The pilots managed to pull the nose back up over and over until finally losing control, leaving the plane, Lion Air Flight 610, to plummet into the ocean at 450 miles per hour, killing all 189 people on board.

The data from the so-called black box is consistent with the theory that investigators have been most focused on: that a computerized system Boeing installed on its latest generation of 737 to prevent the plane’s nose from getting too high and causing a stall instead forced the nose down because of incorrect information it was receiving from sensors on the fuselage.

«

link to this extract


A backlash is coming to Carlos Ghosn’s arrest • Bloomberg

Joe Nocera:

»

People who know nothing about the Japanese justice system are going to start asking aloud how Ghosn’s ordeal [in which he remains in a small cell, and is interrogated for hours at a time] can possibly be justified. They’ll ask why Japanese executives who have been embroiled in far bigger scandals – the ones who cooked the books at Olympus Corp., say, or oversaw the faulty airbags at Takata Corp. – weren’t treated as harshly as Ghosn. They’ll ask, finally, whether the whole thing was a ruse, designed to get Ghosn out of the way so that Nissan’s Japanese executives could reassert control of the company.

Because there’s a pretty good chance that’s what’s really happened here. According to the Japanese news media, a Nissan whistleblower informed prosecutors of Ghosn’s alleged crimes. If so, the timing was awfully convenient. As Bloomberg reported earlier this year, Ghosn was pushing for Renault and Nissan – which had been part of a Ghosn-led alliance since 1999 1  – to merge into a single company. Most Nissan executives, starting with CEO Hiroto Saikawa, vehemently opposed the merger.

Two decades earlier, Ghosn created the alliance to help Nissan avoid bankruptcy; he had Renault invest $5 billion in the Japanese company in return for a one-third stake. (Renault currently owns 43% of Nissan, while Nissan owns 15% of Renault.) With Nissan now bigger and more profitable than Renault, the Japanese executives bristle at the alliance. And they deeply resent having to take orders from the often high-handed Ghosn.

My theory – and I’m hardly the only one who believes this – is that Nissan’s executives, unable to fire their chairman, had him arrested instead, along with Kelly, the only other Westerner on the Nissan board.

«

I have wondered from the start whether this is actually an Olympus scenario. This remains my suspicion – not because westerners can’t commit crimes, or do so in Japan, but because the crimes he’s accused of are so bizarre. Underdeclaring income? His income is decided by the company.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.969: Microsoft officially goes with Chromium, Apple v inflation, Google kills another messaging app, Ericsson screws up, and more

  1. Re Apple prices. I’m not sure what “overpriced” means.

    On the one hand, the device market is fairly free, so there’s no “right” price, or rather it is whatever maximizes Apple’s profits, and I’d say current prices are fairly close to that. Also, Apple is selling about as many iPhones as 4 years ago, so even if prices have risen, there’s been no buyer exodus. Also, smartphones are handbags now, and the price for those is whatever the market decides. And I’m sure that is we were to do price/performance, or price/features, we’d find things have never been better/cheaper.

    On the other hand, there’s significant lock-in at play with non-device things ie skills, apps, content, services, peripherals; that makes the market not so free. And one meaning of “overpriced” is the relative, user-centric view: “compared to the cheapest alternative that does the job in a way that’s bearable/OK/pleasant/delightful”. And what people actually do with their phones and tablets has fairly stabilized, so flagships in general and Apple in particular offering ever more for ever more money is overserving, not value for money. Also, those are prices for devices, not TCO incl. services especially the basic ones of warranty and repair; Apple has made their new devices mostly non-repairable by 3rd parties in recent years, so not only have Apple’s prices for repairs risen, they’re also w/o alternatives now.

    What I’m seeing today is the “iPhone 6 conundrum”. A lot of people around me have about a iPhone 6 (or 5S, or 6S) and are happy with it but it’s old, often with a broken screen and/or a dud battery, and very much last season’s design … Their alternatives are:
    – go on as in the past, get Apple’s flagship + warranty. Even with “only” an XR, that’s a 1.100€ proposition. XS is 1.400€.
    – stick with Apple, but lower down their range. An iPhone 8+ with warranty is 950€ (and fails the handbag smell test)
    – go as cheap as possible with a 7+ and warranty, that’s still 800€, fails the handbag test, and at 32GB probably triggers iOS’ most salient pain point: storage.
    – Since they were fine with their iP6, get an Android iP6-equivalent, that’d be the 200€ Xiaomi Redmi Note 5, which incurs significant switching costs (takes me about half a day or a long evening to set one up, assuming people have their passwords which they often don’t) but performs broadly similar to the iP6 (bit slower SoC, better pics and vids, expandable storage, much better battery).

    In that sense, flagships in general and iPhones in particular are mightily overpriced. Much the same goes for tablets and PCs.

    • Lock-in is often cited as a reason that people stick with Apple, but my (informal, anecdotal, non-scientific) impression of fellow Apple users is that use of Apple services is not that significant. Many ordinary users have no peripherals that depend on Airplay or the Lightning connector. Their commitment to ICloud may only be a basic subscription to take care of wireless backups.

      On the other hand, I think at this stage in the smartphone game, most people have chosen a side (Apple/Android) for some reason, and they can see no significant reason to change that decision. A kind of lock-in, if you like, but a self-imposed one. (In the same way that people in the past might have chosen Ford or Vauxhall, or Citroën or Renault, and stuck loyally to that decision.)

      For myself, I will be replacing my 5.25 year-old iPhone 5s with an XR. Yes, it is more expensive than some of the alternatives, but if it lasts as long (and I see no reason why it might not — butter-fingers aside), I can easily justify paying £12.70 per month for something I use daily. (And that is now big enough to store the music collection from my aged iPod.)

  2. We live in a strange world. At the margins of France’s current “événements” (not quite ’68 yet, but petrol is getting scarce in some places) , one high-school is Marseilles’ “bad” Northern Borough is on strike, which disrupts the drug dealing massively going on over there.
    Drug dealers & friends have attacked the students and buildings with paintball guns, threatening that they wouldn’t be using paint next time around, if things don’t go back to business as usual on the double.
    It’s both cute and… devastating ?
    (in French) https://www.20minutes.fr/faits_divers/2389235-20181206-blocage-lycees-marseille-mitraille-paintball-trafiquants-delogent-eleves

  3. Android news: Google Play Services drops support for 2011’s Android 4.0. That’s 0.5% of Play Services’ installed base.

    As with iOS, “no longer updated” doesn’t mean “instantly bricked”, but both security, functionality, and compatible apps will suffer over time.

    Play Services versions are arguably the real equivalent of iOS versions. Most new functionality (Health, Car, Home, Pay, AR/VR,…) gets implemented via those just like they are implemented via OS versions on iOS. 1st-party apps and tools, and security patches, get updated separately, independently of Android. Only really core OS stuff is in the Android updates: underlying Linux, for some reason Notifications and Settings, and Java VM.

    I guess that means my 4.1-running Galaxy Note 10.1 is next on the block. I’m still using it daily, though the pair of Mi Pad 4+ I bought last month blow it out of the water, and cost less than half as much each. We’ll see if they last 7 yrs too ;-p

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