Start Up No.1,137: Huawei’s missed fish, the AI fraudsters, iPhone hacks get cheaper, Samsung plans another foldable, and more


The arrival of AM radio meant womens’ voices were cut off – on purpose. CC-licensed photo by alexkerhead on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. All-encompassing. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Huawei was prepared for anything—except losing Google • The Information

Juro Osawa:

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To reduce its reliance on American-made chips inside its phones, for example, Huawei switched to alternatives that it made in-house.

But when it came to one of its most critical American business partners—Google, the creator of the Android mobile operating system that powered all of Huawei’s smartphones—the Chinese company had trouble imagining a parting of ways. In 2016, a top Huawei executive passed on an opportunity to partner with the maker of an Android alternative called Sailfish, seeing little need for a Plan B, according to people familiar with the matter. To the contrary, Huawei explored ways to become more intertwined with Google: A few years ago, the two companies discussed whether Huawei could help the US company bring Google Photos to China, where most Google internet services are blocked by the country’s regime, a person with knowledge of the talks said.

Now its failure to anticipate life without Google has come to haunt Huawei [because it won’t be able to pre-install Google Play or Google apps on phones; that won’t be popular in Europe and other overseas markets where buyers expect those.]

…Huawei has said that it will hold an event in Munich on Sept. 19 to unveil its new flagship model, the Mate 30. But at the event, Huawei may not be able to say when it will actually start selling the Mate 30 in Europe and other overseas markets, employees familiar with the situation said. Huawei still is trying to figure out how to address the problem of missing Google services, the employees said.

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Fraudsters used AI to mimic CEO’s voice in unusual cybercrime case • WSJ

Catherine Stupp:

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Criminals used artificial intelligence-based software to impersonate a chief executive’s voice and demand a fraudulent transfer of €220,000 ($243,000) in March in what cybercrime experts described as an unusual case of artificial intelligence being used in hacking.

The CEO of a UK-based energy firm thought he was speaking on the phone with his boss, the chief executive of the firm’s German parent company, who asked him to send the funds to a Hungarian supplier. The caller said the request was urgent, directing the executive to pay within an hour, according to the company’s insurance firm, Euler Hermes Group SA.

Euler Hermes declined to name the victim companies.

Law enforcement authorities and AI experts have predicted that criminals would use AI to automate cyberattacks. Whoever was behind this incident appears to have used AI-based software to successfully mimic the German executive’s voice by phone. The UK CEO recognized his boss’ slight German accent and the melody of his voice on the phone, said Rüdiger Kirsch, a fraud expert at Euler Hermes, a subsidiary of Munich-based financial services company Allianz SE.

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New technology uses: first for porn, next for crime. It’s as predictable as sunrise.
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Exploit sellers say there are more iPhone hacks on the market than they’ve ever seen • VICE

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai and Joseph Cox:

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On Tuesday, vulnerability broker Zerodium announced new prices for Android zero-days, which are bugs and exploits that are unknown to the companies that make the software or hardware, and coveted by sophisticated attackers such as law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Zerodium will pay $2.5m to security researchers who provide exploits that allow for the complete takeover of Android phones without requiring the target to click on anything, while the same type of exploits for iOS are still worth $2m.

“The zero-day market is flooded by iOS exploits, mostly Safari and iMessage chains, mainly due [to] a lot of security researchers having turned their focus into full time iOS exploitation,” Chaouki Bekrar, the founder of Zerodium, said in an online chat. “They’ve absolutely destroyed iOS security and mitigations. There are so many iOS exploits that we’re starting to refuse some of them.”

Andrea Zapparoli Manzoni, director of Crowdfense, a company that buys zero-day exploits and sells them to governments, also said that there are more iOS exploit chains on the market, but with a caveat.

“There are more iOS chains on the market but not all of them are ‘intelligence-grade,'” he wrote in an email.

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Interesting article; worth also looking at this thread from “The Grugq”, a security researcher who sells secured Android smartphones, and says that “a secured Android phone is safer than an iOS device.” Note the use of “secured” as a qualifier there; the “average” Android device, he says, “can trivially be infested with malware”. Even so, this unwelcome (from Apple’s POV) attention is surely why Apple has started giving security researchers specially unlocked phones so they can find flaws. (Thanks #stormyparis for the link.)
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Study shows some political beliefs are just historical accidents • Ars Technica

Scott Johnson:

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A new study by a Cornell team led by Michael Macy approaches these questions with inspiration from an experiment involving, of all things, downloading indie music. That study set up separate “worlds” in which participants checked out new music with the aid of information about which songs other people in their experimental world were choosing. It showed that the songs that were “hits” weren’t always the same—there was a significant role for chance, as a song that got trending early in the experiment had a leg up.

To see if this sort of “accident of history” model could apply to political divisions, the researchers set up a similar experiment. A total of over 4,500 online participants were split into two experiments where each had an equal number of self-identified Democrats and Republicans. The researchers then created ten separate “worlds” in each experiment.

For the first experiment, all the participants were asked whether they agreed with 20 different statements that had been chosen to plausibly be politically controversial, but not actively subjects of argument today. Topics included things like cryptocurrency, a proposal to switch to licensed professional jurors, and gene-editing. In two of the ten experimental worlds, people simply saw these statements and were asked, “As a [Democrat/Republican], do you agree or disagree with this statement?”

The other eight worlds are where it got fun. After the first person had responded to these statements, every other participant would also see whether Republicans or Democrats were more likely to agree with the statement, with that statistic updated following each response.

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The results are quite weird.
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A tariff theory about Apple’s iOS 13 surprise • OneZero

I wrote about my suspicion on why Apple abruptly forked its betas a week ago:

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Imagine it’s midsummer 2019 and you’re in charge of planning at Apple. You’ve been watching Trump’s tweets threatening more tariffs on Chinese-made goods for months now. And on August 1, Trump tweets that he’s going to impose 10% tariffs on all of the $300bn of goods imported from China that don’t already have punitive tariffs on them. Smartphones would be among the products affected.

Neither China nor its exporters pay the tariffs. Trump says otherwise, but is either deluded or lying. They’re paid by Americans. It might be the importer, the distributor, the retail customer, or some combination of the three.

But you know Apple wouldn’t want to bear this cost. It protects its gross margins jealously, and the iPhone is its biggest single business. So, like many companies in the US, it would pass the tariffs on to its customers.

You might think Apple’s customers aren’t price-sensitive and that iPhone sales are price-inelastic, but in reality, at the margin, a number of would-be customers will look at an elevated price tag and say, “uh, maybe some other time.” If the iPhone price is pushed up by tariffs, there would be a ton of stories about that, and about Samsung not being affected by them because its phones are made in South Korea rather than China. Those are the sort of stories Apple doesn’t like around newly released phones.

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Includes ways to tell whether I’m right or wrong on this. (Yeah, Good Place watchers, I’m quite proud of “Holy forking tarballs“.)
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It’s official: USB4 incorporates Thunderbolt 3 • Thurrott.com

Paul Thurrott:

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The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) today published the official USB4 specification, which is based on Thunderbolt 3.

“The USB4 specification is a major update to deliver the next-generation USB architecture that complements and builds upon the existing USB 3.2 and USB 2.0 architectures,” the organization announced. “The USB4 architecture is based on the Thunderbolt protocol specification recently contributed by Intel Corporation to the USB Promoter Group. It doubles the maximum aggregate bandwidth of USB and enables multiple simultaneous data and display protocols.”

To be clear, this is a good thing: Thunderbolt 3 functionality has been available via USB-C for several years now, but adoption has been spotty, with some PC makers mixing and matching between traditional USB-C ports and more powerful USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports. (Only one PC maker, Microsoft, has completely ignored Thunderbolt 3 for some reason.)

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So…. is USB4 only available on USB-C connectors, which are effectively Thunderbolt 3 connectors? It’s confusing enough as it is. (Also, can we standardise between no space, hyphen, space?) (Thanks #stormyparis for the link.)
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A century of “shrill”: how bias in technology has hurt women’s voices • The New Yorker

Tara Tillon:

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The proliferation of AM (amplitude-modulated) radio stations in the early nineteen-twenties led to frequent signal interference, and by 1927 Congress decided to intervene by regulating the bandwidth allotted to each station. Both as a result of these limitations and advances in telephony research, most broadcasters and equipment manufacturers eventually limited their signals to a range between 300Hz and 3.4kHz—a range known as “voiceband”—which was viewed as the bare minimum amount of frequency information needed to adequately transmit speech. Unfortunately, the researchers and regulators who were deciding on this range primarily took lower voices into account when doing so…

…Experiments by the scientists Harvey Fletcher and Wilden Munson in 1933 showed that the human hearing apparatus is naturally more sensitive to frequencies between a 1kHz and 7kHz, and that sounds in those ranges will be perceived as louder when emitted at an equal volume as those below 1kHz. This sensitivity likely has roots in evolutionary biology; warning calls for many species also sit in this range, and failure to hear them could mean death. For modern listeners, this sensitivity aids in the perception of consonants, which result from short, high-frequency noise bursts that punctuate the more continuous, lower-frequency pitched components that we perceive as vowels. However, for female voices, these noise bursts generally occur between 5kHz and 7kHz, whereas, for men, they lie below 5kHz. Capping a signal at 3.4kHz didn’t significantly impact intelligibility for many men, but it certainly did so for most women, because it removed a significant portion of the sonic information critical for consonant identification.

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Not sure if Caroline Criado-Perez has heard about this, but she should. (On stories like this, the New Yorker’s insistence on spelling out numbers remains an annoyance, so I’ve put them back into numbers for comprehensibility.)
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Photovoltaic energy is cheaper than spot market electricity across Europe • pv magazine International

Emiliano Bellini:

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Solar power is already the cheapest source of electricity in several European markets. That headline finding has come out of the report: Impact of weighted average cost of capital, capital expenditure and other parameters on future utility scale PV levelized cost of electricity.

The research team behind the study includes Christian Breyer, professor of solar economy at Finland’s Lappeenranta University of Technology. The report claims the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for power generated by large scale PV projects – and including a 7% nominal weighted average cost of capital (WACC) – ranges from €24/MWh in Malaga, southern Spain, to around €42 in Helsinki, Finland. Those figures, the researchers state, are considerably lower than spot electricity prices in both markets: €47/MWh in Finland and €57 in Spain.

“This means that PV is already cheaper than average spot market electricity all over Europe,” the study’s authors wrote.

The researchers expect the LCOE of solar farm-generated power to drop further in Malaga, to €14/MWh in 2030 and €9 in 2050. In Helsinki they predict respective prices of €24 and €15.

The report noted feed-in tariffs are becoming scarce and utility scale PV is ready to compete in the free market through power purchase agreements or the direct sale of power to the spot market.

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Samsung plans 6.7in foldable phone that collapses into square • Bloomberg

Sohee Kim:

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The South Korean smartphone giant is working on a device with a 6.7in inner display that shrinks to a pocketable square when it’s folded inward like a clamshell, according to people familiar with the product’s development. Samsung is seeking to make its second bendable gadget more affordable and thinner than this year’s Galaxy Fold, they said. The launch of the successor device may, however, hinge on how well the Fold performs after its imminent launch, one of the people said…

…The new foldable phone will have a hole-punch selfie camera at the top of the inner display, just as on the recently released Samsung Galaxy Note 10, according to one person familiar with the device. On the outside, it will have two cameras that face the rear when the phone is open or the front when it’s flipped closed.

“I’m intrigued to see if a manufacturer can deliver a clamshell design that takes the current smartphone footprint and lets you fold in half like a wallet in a similar manner to mobile phones of yesterday such as the iconic Motorola Razr,” said Ben Wood, an analyst with CCS Insight. “That’s what the world is probably waiting for.”

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I don’t think clamshells were the dominant form factor when it was possible to have them. I never used one, personally. Foldables remain an unknown.
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Sony Mobile division in Sweden will close as part of corporate restructuring • Android Police

Corbin Davenport:

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Earlier this year, Sony announced that all its consumer electronics divisions would be merged, following years of decline in the company’s mobile sector. Merges inevitably mean job losses, and in addition to cutting around 2,000 employees, Sony is also making plans to shut down the Sweden-based Sony Mobile Communications AB.

Sony’s mobile division currently has two main offices – Sony Mobile Communications Inc. in Japan, and Sony Mobile Communications AB in Sweden. According to local media, 60 more positions are expected to be cut in the Sweden office, on top of the 200 employees already let go. Some workers will be offered positions at Sony Nordic, the company’s general European branch.

Sony’s office in Lund, Sweden is a significant part of its legacy. The location was formerly the main headquarters for Ericsson Mobile Communications, which became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sony in early 2012.

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I missed the news of the Sony restructuring, which seems to be a way to hide the mobile division’s losses. But the latter is just circling the drain now. It’s mobile phones as performance art, not a viable business with any future.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,137: Huawei’s missed fish, the AI fraudsters, iPhone hacks get cheaper, Samsung plans another foldable, and more

  1. I know “synergy” has been upstaged by “disruption”, but how Sony manages to not leverage their brand image, photo cred, gaming cred, screen cred… is mind-blowing. Gaming phones have multiplied, but nothing from Sony, who has an in-house games catalog that could be exclusives. Ditto for films.
    I’d argue that to be successful, brands must be summed-up-able in one or two words. For the longest time, Apple’s were easy+sexy (probably hard-to-switch and Safety/Privacy now). Xiaomi’s are Value+Dependability (as in reliable + you can count on the basic features being there), …
    Sony stands for nothing. Notwithstanding oleveraging other parts of the Sony ecosystem, they’d appeal to aesthetes, as a non-hoi-poloi brand ? To the tech-averse, because they’re well-known and reputable ? But for a long time their main original feature was proactive support but CyanogenMod, which has zero appeal to either demo.
    I’ve seen Android blamed a lot for incumbents’ woes. I feel incompetence had a much stronger impact (granted , the openness of the field ensured punishment for that was swift).

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