Start Up No.1360: Intel faces the future, does Britain back Biden?, the Swede helping the Chinese smartphone biz, faster tests are better, and more


FBI? Yes, I’d like to report the death of the G4 Cube, 19 years ago. CC-licensed photo by Matt Thomas on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Back to it. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

20 years ago, Steve Jobs built the “coolest computer ever”—and it bombed • Ars Technica

Steven Levy:

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This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Power Mac G4 Cube, which debuted July 19, 2000. It also marks the 19th anniversary of Apple’s announcement that it was putting the Cube on ice. That’s not my joke—it’s Apple’s, straight from the headline of its July 3, 2001, press release that officially pulled the plug.

The idea of such a quick turnaround was nowhere in the mind of Apple CEO Steve Jobs on the eve of the product’s announcement at that summer 2000 Macworld Expo. I was reminded of this last week, as I listened to a cassette tape recorded 20 years prior, almost to the day. It documented a two-hour session with Jobs in Cupertino, California, shortly before the launch. The main reason he had summoned me to Apple’s headquarters was sitting under the cover of a dark sheet of fabric on the long table in the boardroom of One Infinite Loop.

“We have made the coolest computer ever,” he told me. “I guess I’ll just show it to you.”

He yanked off the fabric, exposing an 8-inch stump of transparent plastic with a block of electronics suspended inside. It looked less like a computer than a toaster born from an immaculate conception between Philip K. Dick and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (But the fingerprints were, of course, Jony Ive’s.) Alongside it were two speakers encased in Christmas-ornament-sized, glasslike spheres.

“The Cube,” Jobs said, in a stage whisper, hardly containing his excitement.

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I remember talking to Fred Anderson, then Apple’s CFO, who was insistent that it was going to be popular with “prosumers” (consumers who want sorta-kinda professional quality but at consumer-ish prices). The Cube’s rapid failure persuaded me that there’s no viable market in targeting prosumers, and never will be.

It is to Jobs’s credit that he was so prepared to change course so quickly. But in July 2000, Apple was missing the boat on MP3s and CD burning. By July 2001, the iPod was a few months away and the Cube was ballast Apple didn’t need.
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Exclusive: want Face ID on the Mac? macOS Big Sur suggests the TrueDepth camera is coming • 9to5Mac

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We were able to find a new extension on macOS Big Sur beta 3 with codes intended to support “PearlCamera.” You may not remember, but this is the internal codename Apple uses for the TrueDepth camera and Face ID, which was first revealed with the iPhone X leaks in 2017.

Codes such as “FaceDetect” and “BioCapture” found within this extension confirms that Apple is preparing macOS to operate with Face ID, as these codes are similar to those used by iOS. We investigated and this Face ID extension was clearly built for macOS, and it’s not some remnant code from Catalyst technology.

However, the implementation is still in the early stages, so it might take some time before Apple announces a new Mac model with the TrueDepth camera to support Face ID.

Only the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro currently feature biometric authentication through Touch ID integrated into the keyboard. Having Face ID on the Mac would bring even more convenience to unlocking the computer, and it would also fit perfectly on iMac, which doesn’t have a built-in keyboard. As Touch ID depends on the T2 security chip, it would be impractical for Apple to add it to a separate wireless keyboard.

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Overdue, inasmuch as Windows machines have had it for quite a while. But likely another thing to make Apple Silicon computers attractive. Or maybe even the forthcoming Intel ones too.
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Intel ‘stunning failure’ heralds end of era for US chip sector • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Ian King:

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After Chief Executive Officer Bob Swan said Intel is considering outsourcing, the company’s shares slumped 16% on Friday, the most since March, when the stock market plummeted in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We view the roadmap missteps to be a stunning failure for a company once known for flawless execution, and could well represent the end of Intel’s computing dominance,” Chris Caso, an analyst at Raymond James, wrote in a research note on Friday.

Swan says where a semiconductor is made isn’t that important. However, domestic chip production has become a national priority for China, and some U.S. politicians and national-security experts consider sending this technical knowhow overseas to be a potentially dangerous mistake.

“We’ve seen how vulnerable we are,” John Cornyn, a top Senate Republican, said in June when U.S. lawmakers proposed an estimated $25bn in funding and tax credits to strengthen domestic semiconductor production.

Intel’s Xeon chips run computers and data centers that support the design of nuclear power stations, spacecraft and jets, while helping governments quickly understand intelligence and other crucial information.

Many of these processors are made at facilities in Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico. If Intel outsources this work, it would likely be done by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which focuses on production and is currently the world leader. It’s based in Hsinchu, one of the closest Taiwanese cities to China, which considers the Asian island a rogue province rather than an independent country.

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Feels like a hinge moment in the chip business. TSMC becomes the most important manufacturer in the entire world. Diversification suddenly becomes more important than ever.
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Microsoft’s Surface Duo looks like it’s ready to launch • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft has spent the past few weeks teasing the Surface Duo on Twitter, and it now looks like the dual-screen device is ready to launch. Microsoft’s new Android-powered device first appeared at the FCC earlier this week, and today it has shown up on the Bluetooth SIG certification page. Devices typically appear in FCC and Bluetooth listings just a few weeks away from launch.

Recent rumors had suggested the Surface Duo might appear in July, but it’s clear the device isn’t ready to launch this month. Instead, it looks increasingly likely that Microsoft will launch the Surface Duo in the coming weeks.

Sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans tell The Verge that the company had originally planned to focus on the Surface Duo and dual-screen devices at Build earlier this year. These plans changed once it was clear Build would be held virtually due to the pandemic, and Microsoft also pushed back its Windows 10X dual-screen plans to far beyond 2020.

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Have to say, the form factor makes far more sense than the foldables from Samsung and Huawei: you get a full-size screen (with the other screen folded back, facing out) and then a two-screen combo. It’s more honest about the foldable-ness than the others. Probably won’t sell many, but that’s about Microsoft’s position in the phone business more than comparative merit.
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You won’t even hear it whispered in No 10, but they’re desperate for Joe Biden to beat Donald Trump • The Sunday Times

Tim Shipman:

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Johnson’s China crisis will not disappear if Joe Biden, the former vice-president who leads in the polls, wins the top job. As Pompeo told MPs last week: “China is the only bipartisan issue we have in the States. It won’t matter if it’s President Trump or President Biden. The policy is the same.”

However, Biden will try to rein in Beijing’s international aggression using alliances and institutions, rather than Twitter. “They [senior Democrats] believe in going to the UN and working with allies,” a source said.

This appeals to Johnson. The only episode from his spell as foreign secretary about which he likes to boast is the building of a global coalition to kick out more than 150 Russian spies after the Salisbury poisonings in 2018.

Biden’s approach on trade could also take the sting from the dodgy-chicken debate, since he has signalled that he might revive Barack Obama’s plan to join the Pacific free trade area — the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — which the UK had expressed a desire to join in June.

A Tory adviser said: “The assumption in Whitehall is that if Biden wins, we won’t need to do a bilateral trade deal because we might both end up in CPTPP. That is already committed to high standards of animal welfare. Some of the sting will be removed from those issues.”

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Imint is the Swedish firm that gives Chinese smartphones an edge in video production • TechCrunch

Rita Liao:

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The hyper-competitive nature of Chinese phone makers means they are easily sold on new technology that can help them stand out. The flipside is the intensity that comes with competition. The Chinese tech industry is both well-respected — and notorious — for its fast pace. Slow movers can be crushed in a matter of a few months.

“In some aspects, it’s very U.S.-like. It’s very straight to the point and very opportunistic,” [Imint CEO and founder Andreas] Lifvendahl reflected on his experience with Chinese clients. “You can get an offer even in the first or second meeting, like, ‘Okay, this is interesting, if you can show that this works in our next product launch, which is due in three months. Would you set up a contract now?’”

“That’s a good side,” he continued. “The drawback for a Swedish company is the demand they have on suppliers. They want us to go on-site and offer support, and that’s hard for a small Swedish company. So we need to be really efficient, making good tools and have good support systems.”

The fast pace also permeates into the phone makers’ development cycle, which is not always good for innovation, suggested Lifvendahl. They are reacting to market trends, not thinking ahead of the curve — what Apple excels in — or conducting adequate market research.

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(Thanks Adewale Adetugbo for the link.)
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Frequent, fast, and cheap is better than sensitive • Marginal REVOLUTION

Taylor Cowen:

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A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

…The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap is better at telling you whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but that’s what we want to know open schools and workplaces. Second, the virus grows so quickly that the time period in which the PCR tests outperforms the cheap test is as little as a day or two. Third, the PCR tests are taking days or even a week or more to report which means the results are significantly outdated and less actionable by the time they are reported.

The fundamental issue is this: if a test is cheap and fast we shouldn’t compare it head to head against the PCR test. Instead, we should compare test regimes. A strip test could cost $5 which means you can do one per day for the same price as a PCR test (say $35). Thus, the right comparison is seven cheap tests with one PCR test.

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You’d probably need some complicated maths to figure out quite how likely the test was to be right if you got a positive, a negative, and a negative. But the general principle – test often, not slowly – has to be the right one.
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Fire and fawning • No Mercy / No Malice

Scott Galloway:

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The CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are scheduled to testify in front of the US House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. Some thoughts…

Big tech has won before the hearing starts. Agreeing to let all four testify concurrently inhibits the committee’s ability to go deep on any one issue, and will leave the American public with a sentiment instead of a viewpoint on big tech, much less any conclusions (such as, that the Obama DOJ was asleep at the switch, and Instagram and Whatsapp should be divested). The Covid-inspired remote format dramatically lessens the likelihood of an unscripted moment that reveals something the American public didn’t previously know. Fabric softener for tough questioning is the deep pockets that keep members in power.

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Some of the questions are good (“Your market capitalization per employee is thousands of times higher than that of other companies in your sectors. Do you think your companies contribute to income inequality?”) though quite a few focus too much on market capitalisation, which isn’t something the companies directly control; some mistake what market power companies have, or show that it’s not big – as in Apple, where the “Apple tax” on streaming services works out to a few% of total revenues. And Jeff Bezos’s “worth” isn’t money in the bank: it’s shares, which can go down as well as up. (Via John Naughton)
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YouTube’s psychic wounds • Columbia Journalism Review

Nicholson Baker decided to try YouTube, and set up a brand new account on a new email address, chose an Elvis video to watch, and then some parakeets, and then:

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I went back to my home screen, where the breaking news of the day, displayed as a row of smaller video thumbnails, was “Biden Talks ‘Presidential Leadership’ in Time of Coronavirus.” Biden says, “Just over a week ago, many of the pundits declared that this candidacy was dead. Now we’re very much alive.” A crowd cheers.

Then something oddly political happened. The next video that the algorithm gave me was a three-year-old monologue by Judge Jeanine Pirro, on Fox News, about why Hillary Clinton used a private email account for her government correspondence. Before it played, an ad came on from the Trump campaign, wanting me to take a survey. Then I got a second ad, for a newspaper with ultraconservative and Falun Gong connections called the Epoch Times: “Are you tired of the media spinning the truth and pushing false narratives?” Evidently YouTube, not knowing much about me yet, wrongly assumed that I was a member of the alt-right. Based on what? Where I live, in Maine, or that I like dancing-cockatoo videos? That I like Elvis? Maybe it was Elvis.

Judge Jeanine’s monologue was bitter and unpleasant. “Bill and Hillary Clinton are the Bonnie and Clyde of American politics,” she says. I clicked the “next” arrow. Now I was given fourteen minutes of Hillary Clinton testifying about Benghazi from 2015. Why?

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Avoiding the news stuff turns out to be very tricky. Yet feasible.
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Lenovo Flex 5G review: insane battery life, at a cost • Android Authority

Eric Zeman:

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There’s no Intel inside. The Lenovo Flex 5G is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx mobile processor with eight Kryo 495 cores clocked at 2.84GHz. It features an Adreno 680 GPU, 8GB of LPDDR4 RAM, and 256GB of UFS 3.0 storage. This system felt fast across the board, though its Geekbench 5 scores were only 721 for single-core and 2862 for multi-core.

Battery life is absolutely outstanding. The machine has a four-cell 60Wh lithium-polymer battery inside. Combined with the 8cx, it absolutely kills. Lenovo rates battery life at an astounding 24 hours. I couldn’t kill the battery over a period of several days. It lasts and lasts and lasts. That includes time spent surfing on 5G, which you’d expect to drain the battery right quick. The Lenovo Flex 5G has some of the best battery life we’ve tested.

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Seems to me this is a hint of what Apple Silicon might be able to do. The A12Z, in the iPad Pro, is a 2.48GHz chip, and that knocks lots of Windows (and Mac) machines into a box. Ramp up the speed, add in a few cores, and you’ve still got something that will be faster and last all day.

Plus this Lenovo has 5G built in. Even 4G would be welcome to lots of people.
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America’s looming primary-care crisis • The New Yorker

Clifford Marks:

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Even before the pandemic, primary care was in crisis. Primary-care doctors were already among the most poorly compensated physicians in the country; for medical students burdened with debt, those smaller salaries lessened the specialty’s allure. Experts have long warned of a shortage of doctors providing foundational forms of outpatient care, especially in rural areas. Last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that more than fourteen thousand primary-care physicians were needed to eliminate existing shortages.

For this article, I spoke with more than twenty primary-care physicians, from New York City to rural Nebraska and suburban Colorado. They work in single-physician practices, in multi-specialty groups, or as part of hospital systems. Nearly all of them described dramatic declines in revenue. Many benefitted from the P.P.P. [government bailout money]; without it, some of their clinics might not have survived. All of the physicians expressed concern about how they would navigate the uncertainty ahead. “This is taking us down,” Jacqueline Fincher, an internist and the president of the American College of Physicians, told me. “We’re not going to have a vaccine and herd immunity for probably a year—so, is this sustainable for a year? The reality is, it’s probably not, certainly not for most small practices.” If many of them go out of business, the consequences for Americans’ health could be profound and enduring. What’s at stake is not just a pattern of health outcomes but the shape of the health-care system as a whole. The way that patients interact with their doctors and the path that American health care takes in the future may be about to shift.

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America, land of concurrent looming crises.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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