Start Up No.1,031: Apple sort-of launches video, Asus PCs hacked via updates, ONS on automation risks, and more

Got your mood lighting? Your mood music app will come up with appropriate sounds – for a price. CC-licensed photo by Araceli Arroyo on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. Taking back being out of control. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I can’t use Rift S, and neither can you • The Blog of Palmer Luckey

Let Mr Virtual Reality tell you:


[Oculus] Rift S is very cool! It takes concepts that have been around for years and puts them into a fully functional product for the first time. Sure, sure, I see people complaining about how Rift S is worse than CV1 concerning audio quality, display characteristics, and ergonomics – some of the tradeoffs are real, some are imaginary, and people should really wait for it to come out before passing final judgement. All in all, it is going to be a great HMD.

For about 70% of the population.

My IPD (interpupillary distance, the distance between my eyes) is a hair under 70mm and slightly skewed to the right side of my face. One of my best friends has an IPD of 59mm. I don’t know what your IPD is, but both of us were perfectly served by the IPD adjustment mechanism on Rift CV1, a mechanism that was an important part of our goal to be compatible with male and female users from 5th to 95th percentile. Anyone within the supported range (about 58mm to 72mm) got a perfect optical experience – field curvature on the focal plane was matched, geometric distortion was properly corrected, world scale was at the right size, and pupil swim was more or less even. Sharp imagery from edge to edge of your field of view was the norm. The small handful of people with an IPD outside that range would not get a perfect experience, but at least they would be in the right ballpark. IPD skews in different directions by gender, race, and age, but we managed to cover almost everyone, and we were proud of that.

This is not the case with Rift S.


This all feels like the long slow death of VR to me. It just never gets that virtuous circle.
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Cryptocurrency miner Bitmain’s IPO plans at risk of being shelved • Financial Times

Louise Lucas:


Bitmain Technologies’ application for a blockbuster initial public offering will lapse this week, after the fall in the price of bitcoin spoiled the fortunes of the world’s biggest cryptocurrency miner.

Bitmain filed to list its shares in Hong Kong in September, setting the stage for what was expected to be world’s largest cryptocurrency IPO. The Beijing-based company, which makes and sells kit for cryptocurrency mining, had been planning to raise up to $3bn in the listing, according to bankers.

Bitmain’s prospectus detailed three years of phenomenal growth, with revenues surging ninefold, to $2.84bn, in the six months to the end of June 2018. But the plunge in the price of bitcoin — which is currently trading at less than one-quarter of the value of its December 2017 peak — has spooked investors. Bitcoin’s current price makes mining it virtually unprofitable.

A discrepancy between the numbers Bitmain showed private investors and those in the prospectus sparked further concerns.


That discrepancy was significantly smaller profits stated in the IPO prospectus than in documents it provided to get earlier funding rounds. Bitmain is looking like a stack of shaky claims piled high. It’s also rumoured to have cashflow problems.
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It sure looks like Google’s $599 Celeron Pixel Slate is dead • Android Police

David Ruddock:


The $599 and $699 versions of the Pixel Slate brought sub-iPad Pro pricing to Google’s prosumer tablet, even if it turned out that the tablet itself beat the iPad in pretty much no sense that mattered. Marques Brownlee, typically known for his easy-going takes and willingness to embrace misunderstood tech products, basically called the cheaper Celeron Slate a turd. This was not a good look for Google. Shortly after that, the Celeron Pixel Slate showed up as sold out on the Google Store, and that status hasn’t changed since.

Is it possible Google manufactured such a small quantity of them and demand was so high that the entire initial batch was snapped up? Sure, it’s possible. But given that entry-level SKUs for products like tablets and phones tend to be the most popular, it would have been foolish of Google to assume that demand for the Celeron models would have been lower than the Core m3 and i5 variants you can still buy right now, which cost $799 and $999, respectively. Even the m3 model, though, represents a $200 price hike over the basic Celeron version, which effectively has made the Pixel Slate an $800 tablet – not the $600 one it advertised at launch. That feels like kind of a bait and switch.

What did Google have to say about all this? Frankly, they may as well have said nothing at all – their statement to 9to5 was an embarrassing sidestep of the question.


Yup, sure looks like the low-end version has gone for a ride in the mountains with a shovel. It barely existed; the famous Marques Brownlee was very disparaging about it for being too low-powered. You want to make a tablet-laptop combo? Go ahead, but use a processor that can drive it.
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Apple unveils Apple Arcade subscription service for iOS, Mac, Apple TV games • Ars Technica

Samuel Axon:


Apple today announced a new subscription service called Apple Arcade for games on its platforms, including iPad, iPhone, Mac, and Apple TV. The service will debut “this fall.” Its exact price has not yet been confirmed.

The paid-subscription service will include games “unavailable on any other mobile service,” Apple confirmed, and it will launch with “over 100 new and exclusive games.” A sizzle reel of flashy games appeared at today’s Apple event, and it largely focused on indie games that haven’t yet launched on either traditional or mobile platforms yet. One notable exception: there was a brief shot of an apparently unannounced Sonic the Hedgehog game.

By paying the subscription fee, players will have access to all games for as long as they want with no limits or microtransactions attached. Shared family accounts will have access to the titles and parental controls for no additional charge. And the service’s multi-device support extends to letting iOS gamers suspend an Apple Arcade game on their phone, then resume playing it on another device, or vice versa.

As previously reported by Cheddar, Apple will publish games itself, but today’s event didn’t include news about specific first-party titles or efforts.


The offline element seems like a response to Google Stadia (though obviously it’s not; the two have been on separate tracks for months).
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What’s in Apple’s video service, how much will it cost, and why should we pay for it? • Recode



I have some questions about Apple’s new video service:

• What, exactly, is Apple going to have in its new video service?
• What, if anything, will Apple’s new video service cost?
• Why would someone pay anything for Apple’s new video service?

I’ve had these questions for a couple of years, but I figured I would have answers to them today because I just spent two hours watching Tim Cook and other Apple executives show off a new suite of Apple services, with Apple’s video offering as the showstopper.

Nope! Still haven’t found what I’m looking for. [Prize for best U2 joke. – CA]

In lieu of answers, Cook and his team did a high-gloss version of hand-waving at their Cupertino, California, HQ today: they brought out Very Big Stars like Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah Winfrey to tell a worldwide audience that they were indeed working on projects that you might be able to see as soon as this fall. Musician Sara Bareilles played a song on an onstage piano.

Apple did promise that the subscription service would be ad-free and that it would be available in more than 100 countries. And it played the briefest of sizzle reels, which allowed the audience to see that Apple’s production team has indeed shot footage for some of its shows.

But that was it, and that was surprising.


Apple’s language was very vague – but I understand that it’s vague when talking to people about commissioning TV content too. I think it’s going to launch this stuff (not until autumn) and see what people want. And then it will start commissioning stuff with more clarity. But that’s going to mean a lacuna of a couple of years (it takes a long time to commission and produce worthwhile video). Don’t forget that Netflix took many years to become a powerhouse in original commissioning.
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Exclusive: first look at Apple’s new AirPods-like ‘Powerbeats Pro’ truly wireless sport headphones • 9to5Mac

Guilherme Rambo:


Last week, a report suggested that Apple is planning to release a “truly wireless” version of Beats Powerbeats headphones next month. Today’s release of iOS 12.2 includes imagery of the new headphones, which we now know will be called Powerbeats Pro.

Hidden in iOS 12.2 are animations and images that showcase Powerbeats without any sort of connecting wire. In terms of design, they’re nearly identical to Powerbeats3, but truly wireless much like AirPods. The glyphs show Powerbeats Pro in black and white color variations.

Furthermore, iOS 12.2 includes an image of the Powerbeats Pro charging case. This case looks similar to the AirPods case, and will theoretically charge your Powerbeats Pro buds when not in use. Powerbeats3 today offer battery life of up to 12 hours, but it’s unclear if the truly wireless version would be able to match that. The charging case, however, would make it easier for users to charge while on the go.

Powerbeats remain a popular alternative to AirPods due to their more workout-friendly design. There are clips to help each earbud stay in place, as well as different ear tip designs to accommodate different ear sizes and noise cancellation needs.


Maybe they should have announced these on Monday as the “one more thing”. Coming out next month, apparently. AirPods for people whose ears aren’t a fit for AirPods.
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Hackers hijacked ASUS software updates to install backdoors on thousands of computers • Motherboard



Researchers at cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab say that ASUS, one of the world’s largest computer makers, was used to unwittingly install a malicious backdoor on thousands of its customers’ computers last year after attackers compromised a server for the company’s live software update tool. The malicious file was signed with legitimate ASUS digital certificates to make it appear to be an authentic software update from the company, Kaspersky Lab says…

…The researchers estimate half a million Windows machines received the malicious backdoor through the ASUS update server, although the attackers appear to have been targeting only about 600 of those systems. The malware searched for targeted systems through their unique MAC addresses. Once on a system, if it found one of these targeted addresses, the malware reached out to a command-and-control server the attackers operated, which then installed additional malware on those machines.

Kaspersky Lab said it uncovered the attack in January after adding a new supply-chain detection technology to its scanning tool to catch anomalous code fragments hidden in legitimate code or catch code that is hijacking normal operations on a machine. The company plans to release a full technical paper and presentation about the ASUS attack, which it has dubbed ShadowHammer, next month at its Security Analyst Summit in Singapore. In the meantime, Kaspersky has published some of the technical details on its website.


Asus, you won’t be surprised to hear, hadn’t responded by publication time. What’s notable here is that it’s nation-state attack stuff: using a security certificate and targeting specific machines. Given that Asus is Taiwanese, I’d immediately suspect China trying to spy on Taiwanese government sources.
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Which occupations are at highest risk of being automated? • Office for National Statistics


The analysis looked at the tasks performed by people in jobs across the whole labour market, to assess the probability that some of these tasks could be replaced through automation.

It is not so much that robots are taking over, but that routine and repetitive tasks can be carried out more quickly and efficiently by an algorithm written by a human, or a machine designed for one specific function. The risk of automation tends to be higher for lower-skilled roles for this reason.

When considering the overall risk of automation, the three occupations with the highest probability of automation are waiters and waitresses, shelf fillers and elementary sales occupations, all of which are low skilled or routine.

The three occupations at the lowest risk of automation are medical practitioners, higher education teaching professionals, and senior professionals of educational establishments. These occupations are all considered high skilled.


The data also includes a breakdown of where the most likely areas are. London’s pricey Kensington + Chelsea and Wandsworth areas, stuffed with MPs in their second homes, is the least at risk. Boston in Lancashire and Mansfield in the midlands – which, as it happens, voted 76% and 70% in favour of leaving the EU – are at the highest risk of job automation.
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Warner enters into distribution partnership with a mood music algorithm • Pitchfork

Matthew Strauss:


Endel is an app that creates personalized music for you based on a mood that you can request. For example, if you would like to enter “Relax Mode,” the algorithm will create music that “calms your mind to create feelings of comfort and safety,” according to the app’s description. This week (March 21), Warner Music Group announced that it has partnered with Endel to distribute 20 albums this year through WMG’s Arts Division.

Endel has already released five albums this year, all part of its Sleep series: Clear Night, Rainy Night, Cloudy Afternoon, Cloudy Night, and Foggy Morning. The next 15 album will correspond with the app’s other modes: Relax, Focus, and On-the-Go.


And here’s an extract from a review on iTunes – note that the app requires a monthly or annual subscription:


Ok, I’ve had the free trial for a week now, and I feel I can safely say that this app isn’t some algorithmic genius, it’s simply a pleasing ambient album. For example, there are two distinct tracks on the sleep channel, and that’s it, no matter if sometimes a somewhat ancillary ticking clock is playing instead of a white noise filter sweep mimicking the ocean.

There’s no shame at all in making a good ambient album. They’ve done that. But the description of the app is truly misleading and tries to represent this app as something more. And on top of that, it charges an ongoing subscription fee that is not equivalent to the market price of an album, which, again, is what this is. Sorry, but I’m not gonna subscribe and have to renew $25 every year for the latest Carly Rae Jepsen album either.


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A tragedy that calls for more than words: the need for the tech sector to learn and act after events in New Zealand • Microsoft on the Issues

Brad Smith is Microsoft’s chief lawyer:


we need to develop an industrywide approach that will be principled, comprehensive and effective. The best way to pursue this is to take new and concrete steps quickly in ways that build upon what already exists.

There are in fact important recent steps on which we can build. Just over two years ago, thanks in part to the leadership and urging of the British and the European Commission, four companies – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft – came together to create the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT). Among other things, the group’s members have created a shared hash database of terrorist content and developed photo and video matching and text-based machine learning techniques to identify and thwart the spread of violence on their platforms. These technologies were used more than a million times in 24 hours to stop the distribution of the video from Christchurch.

While these are vital steps, one of the lessons from New Zealand is that the industry rightly will be judged not only by what it prevented, but by what it failed to stop. And from this perspective, there is clearly much more that needs to be done. As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted last week, gone are the days when tech companies can think of their platforms akin to a postal service without regard to the responsibilities embraced by other content publishers. Even if the law in some countries gives digital platforms an exemption from decency requirements, the public rightly expects tech companies to apply a higher standard.


Much easier for Microsoft to advocate this because it’s not as if it runs any gigantic social networks. (Well, Xbox Live, but is that known as a sinkhole of white supremacists?)
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Moral crumple zones: cautionary tales in human-robot interaction • Engaging Science, Technology, and Society

Madeleine Clare Elish:


Analyzing several high-profile accidents involving complex and automated socio-technical systems and the media coverage that surrounded them, I introduce the concept of a moral crumple zone to describe how responsibility for an action may be misattributed to a human actor who had limited control over the behavior of an automated or autonomous system. Just as the crumple zone in a car is designed to absorb the force of impact in a crash, the human in a highly complex and automated system may become simply a component—accidentally or intentionally—that bears the brunt of the moral and legal responsibilities when the overall system malfunctions. While the crumple zone in a car is meant to protect the human driver, the moral crumple zone protects the integrity of the technological system, at the expense of the nearest human operator. The concept is both a challenge to and an opportunity for the design and regulation of human-robot systems.


Neat idea. (The text is available under a Creative Commons licence.)
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Man pleads guilty in $100m scam of Facebook and Google • Bloomberg

Chris Dolmetsch:


Prosecutors alleged that Rimasauskas, along with some unidentified co-conspirators, helped orchestrate a scheme in which fake emails were sent to employees and agents of the two tech giants. The thieves pretended to represent Taiwanese hardware maker Quanta Computer. They told Facebook and Google workers that the companies owed Quanta money, and then directed payments be sent to bank accounts controlled by the scammers.

“Rimasauskas thought he could hide behind a computer screen halfway across the world while he conducted his fraudulent scheme, but as he has learned, the arms of American justice are long, and he now faces significant time in a U.S. prison,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan said in a statement.

Dressed in tan prison clothing and speaking in Russian through a translator, Rimasauskas told the judge he took part in the fraud scheme from October 2013 to October 2015, posing as a Quanta employee, creating fake bank accounts in Latvia and Cyprus to receive the scammed proceeds, and signing fake contracts and documents that were submitted to banks to support the wire transfers…

…The scheme netted about $23m from Google in 2013 and about $98m from Facebook in 2015, according to a person familiar with the case, who asked not to be named because the companies haven’t been publicly identified by prosecutors as the victims.


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YouTube cancels two originals but says it’ll keep making premium content (update) • Engadget

Saqib Shah:


As streaming giants dig deeper into their pockets for more video content, some projects often fall by the wayside. Following a report by Bloomberg, YouTube has confirmed it has canceled two of its high-profile shows: sci-fi thriller Origin and comedy Overthinking with Kat & June. Bloomberg also alleged that the video service is no longer accepting pitches for big-budget scripted content, but Google has denied that is the case.

Instead, YouTube has pointed to a slate of upcoming global productions that it says will be announced in the coming weeks. A new ad-supported model for its programming will also be in place by the end of the year.

YouTube’s chief business officer Robert Kyncl said in November that many of its originals, which are currently available to YouTube Premium subscribers, would soon be accessible for free. They include a mix of films (The Thinning, Viper Club), reality shows starring YouTubers (Scare PewDiePie, Prank Academy), series (Wayne, Impulse), and documentaries (BTS Burn the Stage, Ariana Grande: Dangerous Woman Diaries).


Some are spending, some are cutting back.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: OK, so on those “unique links”. It’s just possible that they will work even from the email now so that you can share them with your friends (and enemies). Knock yourselves out. I now realise, of course, that they don’t need to be MD5’d.

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,031: Apple sort-of launches video, Asus PCs hacked via updates, ONS on automation risks, and more

  1. re. Apple announcements. They seem nice, there’s nothing outrageous about them, except the mislead about “we have the WSJ” when they apparently only have a selection of articles. Continuity for games is nice and at least it isn’t cloud gaming; bundled subs for apps make sense and moving away from IAP is a Good Thing. Credit cards are an unsafe racket, every little bit helps, though for society as a whole a non-proprietary solution would be much better (ditto for health stuff, in a few years).

    Taking a step back, the general thrust of the strategy rises a general issue about platform owners, different on the surface from that of Google (ads, android) and Facebook (ads, social) but in the end very similar: platforms are infrastructure (often natural monopolies) and need rules to keep the playing field level the same way electricity, water, roads and banks are regulated.

    On the Apple side, Apple’s new services strongly benefit from Apple owning the platform (no 30% tax, ads in push notifications, power of defaults, user tracking, different/no sandbox, no dev rules contract restrictions…), even though from the users’ point of view, they’re me-too (especially the magazine and video services, payment and games are a bit innovative) only Apple-branded. It’s not quite MS’s days of “DOS ain’t finished until Lotus 123 won’t run”, but it’s a very similar issue. Plus with Apple apparently giving up on device growth, the problem of Apple grabbing business from ex-partners in the Apple ecosystem is bound to get worse.

    I’m seeing a strong parallel with what happened in Telecoms. It took a rather heavy governmental to move away from monopolies and vertical integration towards a competitive marketplace. I’m getting the feeling GAFA markets are rapidly moving the wrong way.

  2. I couldn’t find a link to the source (even on their own website…) so this is second-hand, but the largest French consumer group recently conducted a 40.000 users survey of smartphone reliability:

    Results are mildly surprising, with the usual triad only in the middle of the pack, upstaged by OnePlus, Lenovo/Moto, Xiaomi and LG (from best to worst). Even defunct MS .

  3. It’s a bit frightening: I went to France’s largest sports chain last month, spent some time looking at equestrian stuff just to check if designs and materials had changed since my horseback-riding youth. Now I’m getting a mail a week about equestrian stuff from that shop; that can’t be a coincidence and I never bought anything horse related from them in 10+years.

    Also, they’ve swapped their Windows PCs for Chromebooks (except for special purpose stuff ie banner printing), and Android on small tablets and phones. They guy I talked with seemed happy with it, if happy = “don’t know, don’t care, don’t mind”, which is about as much as you can hope for for salesfloor stuff.

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