Start Up No.1521: SCOTUS backs Google, LG’s phone biz is dead, Tim Cook hedges on App Store, Yahoo will have no more Answers, and more


Cosmic rays (which create the orange glow on the horizon in space photos) are being blamed for thousands of network malfunctions on Earth CC-licensed photo by NASA Johnson on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Billions, you say. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google v Oracle: US Supreme Court declares Google’s code copying fair • BBC News

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A decade-long battle over copied code in Google’s Android operating system has ended in the US Supreme Court.

Oracle, another tech titan, had sued Google in 2010 for copyright infringement over what it said was copied computer code.

Android is now used in an estimated 70% of global smartphones, and damages could have run into the billions.

But the Supreme Court let Google off the hook, overturning a lower court’s decision it had infringed copyright. The court ruled six to two in favour of Google
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At issue was whether Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API – a widely-used “building block” for programmers – counted as “fair use” under US copyright law. If it was, the fact that Google was accused of copying more than 11,000 lines of code [0.4% of the total code – CA] would not matter.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in his written opinion, said that “to allow enforcement of Oracle’s copyright here would risk harm to the public”. So many programmers used and had deep knowledge of Oracle’s building blocks that such a move would turn computer code into “a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs”.

“Oracle alone would hold the key,” he warned.

Oracle made clear that it firmly disagreed with the court’s judgement, saying that it had increased Google’s power further and damaged other companies’ ability to compete. “They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can,” said Dorian Daley, the company’s general counsel, in a statement.

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It’s the 0.4% part that’s important. SCOTUS dodged the question of whether an API can be copyrighted (which remains a big and important question). The decision, linked above, is worth reading; you can get by with just the first four pages, which explain it in enough detail. (Notably, Alito and Thomas – the two most conservative judges – dissented, saying that “Oracle’s code at issue here is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.” The hilarious part of Thomas’s dissent is the implication that it was Oracle’s efforts, rather than Sun originally making Java open source, that made Java successful. Their timeline is wonky: they talk about 2005-08 as a key period, but Oracle didn’t buy Sun until 2010.)
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LG’s phone business is dead: the gripping tale of bold misfires and unfulfilled promise • CNET

Roger Cheng put together this monster obit for LG’s phone business in a day – the equivalent of writing up a celebrity who unexpectedly falls off a cliff. Except LG’s fall had been a long time coming; it lost $4.5bn since 2015:

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It was 2009, and smartphones were still a luxurious novelty despite the appearance of the iPhone and Google’s first Android phone, the G1 from HTC. LG still moved millions of feature phones at each of the US carriers and didn’t deem Apple a threat because it was tied to AT&T as an exclusive. Android was even more of a niche thing. LG’s feature phone business, meanwhile, had peaked at a tenth of the world’s market for phones, according to Statista. 

“Ironically, 2009 was the best year for revenue and profit for mobile,” Kim said.

Publicly, the company expressed confidence, but privately, executives knew they were behind. That year, its heavy hitter was the enV Touch, a large (for its time) candy bar phone with a 3-inch touchscreen that unfolded to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard, dual speakers and a smaller inner screen. Verizon pumped it up as a potential rival to the iPhone with its basic games and rudimentary web browser. 

It was not. And LG knew it. 

“Some of us thought we were too happy with the success of the feature phone,” LG executive Hong-Joo Kim said. “We were so late preparing for smartphones.”

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That’s all you need to know, really. Plus it wouldn’t spend on marketing like Samsung and Apple would.
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Apple’s CEO is making very different choices from Mark Zuckerberg • The New York Times

A transcript of a wide-ranging discussion with Tim Cook by Kara Swisher:

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Kara Swisher: So when you look at this case [where Epic is suing Apple], one of the things is, it could be bad rules. This is what they’re trying to argue, I think, on Epic’s side, whether these rules where you take a certain cut and then, for example, Apple takes only 15% cut of Amazon’s App Store revenue for Prime Video, for example. Is there a reckoning for you all to think about changing these rules more significantly?

Tim Cook: Well, the App Store is not cast in concrete, you know? And so we’ve changed over time. And in fact, if you look at the commissions, Kara, and I would sort of reframe a bit from what you said, because the vast majority of people pay nothing. Because there’s not an interchange of a digital good, right? And so, like, 85% of people pay zero commission. And then with our recent move with small developers, developers earning less than a million dollars a year pay 15%. Well, it turns out that that’s the vast majority of developers. And then, we also have rules that say that if you have a subscription model in the second year and later years, you only pay 15% of those. And so we’ve only reduced the price over time. It’s only gone in one direction. It’s gone down. More apps were exempted. But those rules are applied equally to everyone. So you’ve mentioned Amazon getting 15%. That’s true for any kind of video streaming service that meets the guidelines of that program.

Kara Swisher: So it depends on what they’re doing — what they’re necessary —

Tim Cook: It depends on what they’re doing. Right.

Kara Swisher: Like Netflix and others, right. What’s wrong with Epic or any developer going their own way or allowing a direct payment system, instead of having to go through the App Store? Why should you have the control?

Tim Cook: Well, I think somebody has to. I think somebody has to curate, right?

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It’s real Kremlinology to try to read any shift in stance in what Cook says. On the App Store, it feels like the ground might be shifting just a tiny bit. But in general I feel that Cook’s pronouncements are lagging indicators: it’s rare for him to be the one who first comes out with a clear change in policy, except at formal events.
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Cosmic rays causing 30,000 network malfunctions in Japan each year • The Mainichi

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Cosmic rays are causing an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 malfunctions in domestic network communication devices in Japan every year, a Japanese telecom giant found recently.

Most so-called “soft errors,” or temporary malfunctions, in the network hardware of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. are automatically corrected via safety devices, but experts said in some cases they may have led to disruptions.

It is the first time the actual scale of soft errors in domestic information infrastructures has become evident.

Soft errors occur when the data in an electronic device is corrupted after neutrons, produced when cosmic rays hit oxygen and nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere, collide with the semiconductors within the equipment.

Cases of soft errors have increased as electronic devices with small and high-performance semiconductors have become more common. Temporary malfunctions have sometimes led to computers and phones freezing, and have been regarded as the cause of some plane accidents abroad.

Masanori Hashimoto, professor at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Information Science and Technology and an expert in soft errors, said the malfunctions have actually affected other network communication devices and electrical machineries at factories in and outside Japan.

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That’s a lot, and Japan is hardly the only country with lots of electronics. How many might there be elsewhere?
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Covid-19 vaccine cheat days are adding up • The Atlantic

Katherine J. Wu:

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across the [US], states are rushing to lift mask mandates, tolerance for physical distancing is flagging, and vaccinated people are amending the new guidelines as they see fit. Some, like our would-be dinner-party hosts, are planning mixed-vaccination events, and pushing the boundaries of what makes a gathering “small.” Others are holding birthday bashes, or starting to creep back to in-person work. People are also shaving time off the two-week period that the CDC advises waiting after the final shot, so that immunity can mature. “What difference is a few days going to make?” a friend asked me the other day.

Amid all the fudging, that sentiment is starting to become a constant refrain: really, what’s the harm?

The harm is, frankly, mathematical. Over time, our vaccine cheat days start to add up. It might truly be innocuous for a few people to cut a couple of corners on occasion. But eventually, a series of flubs will allow exposures, which will in turn beget disease. Our shortcuts also signal to others that it’s okay to chill out when it is very much not.

Now is not the time to relax—quite the opposite. “We’re so close to the end that we should be extra careful right now,” Julie Downs, a psychologist and behavioral scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. The problem is, our lapses don’t just slow us down. They set us back, in the same way that repeatedly opening an oven door will prolong the time it takes to bake a cake (and, at worst, make your delicious dessert collapse). Having made so much progress, we risk a lot with our impatience. And right now, we’re in serious danger of botching our grand pandemic finale.

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Yahoo Answers will be shut down forever on May 4th • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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Yahoo, which is now part of Verizon Media Group following the company’s sale to the telecom for nearly $5bn in 2017, announced the change at the top of the Yahoo Answers homepage. The message links to an FAQ, which details the timeline of the shutdown. Starting April 20th, the platform will no longer accept new submissions, the FAQ explains.

Users will also have until June 30th to request their data or it’ll be inaccessible after that. That includes “all user-generated content including your Questions list, Questions, Answers list, Answers, and any images,” Yahoo says, but “you won’t be able to download other users’ content, questions, or answers.”

A note sent to active Yahoo Answers members provides a little more detail as to why Yahoo is shutting down the platform, including that “it has become less popular over the years” and that the company “decided to shift our resources away” from the product to “focus on products that better serve our members.”

…Perhaps the shutdown is for the best, considering the site appears to be overrun with far-right conspiratorial garbage. The current Yahoo Answers homepage is highlighting such introspective gems in its discover section as, “Will America survive 4 years of Joe Biden?” and “Will this summer be record riots by BLM and antifa?,” as well as this instant classic, “Was Stalin right about everything?”

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But if they’re not answering questions on Yahoo Answers, they might be doing it somewhere else. Keeping Answers open is a public service, of sorts. Like litter trays.
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What we’re expecting from Google’s custom “Whitechapel” SoC in the Pixel 6 • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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It’s easy to get overhyped about Google’s first in-house smartphone SoC—”Google is ready to take on Apple!” the headlines will no-doubt scream. The fact of the matter, though, is that Apple is a $2 trillion hardware company, and the iPhone is its biggest product, while Google is an advertising company with a hardware division as a small side project. Whitechapel will give Google more control over its smartphone hardware, but Google’s custom chips in the past have not exactly set the world on fire, and therefore it’s reasonable to temper expectations for the company’s first-generation SoC [expected in its phones this year].

Google’s consumer hardware team has already shipped several custom chips, and I don’t know if you could call any of them world-beaters:

• The Pixel Visual Core in the Pixel 2 and 3 was a custom camera co-processor created with the help of Intel. The Visual Core helped with HDR+ processing, but Google was able to accomplish the same image quality on the Pixel 3a, which didn’t have the chip.
• The Pixel Neural Core in the Pixel 4 was spun out of the company’s Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) AI accelerator efforts and had a similar job doing camera and AI voice recognition work. It was unimportant enough to just cut from the Pixel 5 entirely.
• There was the air-gesture detection chip, Project Soli, on the Pixel 4. This was a radar-on-a-chip concept that Google originally pitched as capable of detecting “sub millimeter motions of your fingers,” but by the time it was commercialized, it could only detect big, arm-waving gestures. The feature still exists today in the new Nest Hub, for sleep tracking, but it was not good enough to make the jump to the Pixel 5.
• The company’s Titan M Security Chip works as the secure element in some Pixel phones. Google says this makes the Pixel phones more secure, though a roughly equivalent secure element also comes with a Qualcomm chip, or at least, the company has never demonstrated a tangible difference.

I think the biggest benefit we’ll see from a Google SoC is an expanded update timeline.

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Amadeo is Ars’s Google reporter, and is regularly unimpressed with what Google does. It makes for an interesting dynamic.
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Strain on NHS as tens of thousands of staff suffer long Covid • The Guardian

Denis Campbell:

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Intense pressures on the already overstretched NHS are being exacerbated by the tens of thousands of health staff who are sick with long Covid, doctors and hospital bosses say.

At least 122,000 NHS personnel have the condition, the Office for National Statistics disclosed in a detailed report that showed 1.1 million people in the UK were affected by the condition. That is more than any other occupational group and ahead of teachers, of whom 114,000 have it.

Patient care is being hit because many of those struggling with long Covid are only able to work part-time, are too unwell to perform their usual duties, or often need time off because they are in pain, exhausted or have “brain fog”.

“Ongoing illness can have a devastating impact on individual doctors, both physically and by leaving them unable to work. Furthermore, it puts a huge strain on the health service, which was already vastly understaffed before the pandemic hit,” said Dr Helena McKeown, the workforce lead at the British Medical Association, which represents doctors.

“With around 30,000 sickness absences currently linked to Covid in the NHS in England, we cannot afford to let any more staff become ill. Simply put, if they are off sick, they’re unable to provide care and patients will not get the care and treatment they need.

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The NHS workforce is about 1.3 million, so this suggests that nearly 10% are suffering from this post-viral syndrome. Very concerning. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Why computers won’t make themselves smarter • The New Yorker

Ted Chiang doesn’t think we’re at risk from superintelligent AI:

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Some proponents of an intelligence explosion argue that it’s possible to increase a system’s intelligence without fully understanding how the system works. They imply that intelligent systems, such as the human brain or an A.I. program, have one or more hidden “intelligence knobs,” and that we only need to be smart enough to find the knobs. I’m not sure that we currently have many good candidates for these knobs, so it’s hard to evaluate the reasonableness of this idea. Perhaps the most commonly suggested way to “turn up” artificial intelligence is to increase the speed of the hardware on which a program runs. Some have said that, once we create software that is as intelligent as a human being, running the software on a faster computer will effectively create superhuman intelligence. Would this lead to an intelligence explosion?

Let’s imagine that we have an A.I. program that is just as intelligent and capable as the average human computer programmer. Now suppose that we increase its computer’s speed a hundred times and let the program run for a year. That’d be the equivalent of locking an average human being in a room for a hundred years, with nothing to do except work on an assigned programming task. Many human beings would consider this a hellish prison sentence, but, for the purposes of this scenario, let’s imagine that the A.I. doesn’t feel the same way. We’ll assume that the A.I. has all the desirable properties of a human being but doesn’t possess any of the other properties that would act as obstacles in this scenario, such as a need for novelty or a desire to make one’s own choices. (It’s not clear to me that this is a reasonable assumption, but we can leave that question for another time.)

So now we’ve got a human-equivalent A.I. that is spending a hundred person-years on a single task. What kind of results can we expect it to achieve? Suppose this A.I. could write and debug a thousand lines of code per day, which is a prodigious level of productivity. At that rate, a century would be almost enough time for it to single-handedly write Windows XP, which supposedly consisted of forty-five million lines of code. That’s an impressive accomplishment, but a far cry from its being able to write an A.I. more intelligent than itself. Creating a smarter A.I. requires more than the ability to write good code; it would require a major breakthrough in A.I. research, and that’s not something an average computer programmer is guaranteed to achieve, no matter how much time you give them.

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Chiang’s short story Understand gives you a wonderful glimpse of what it might be like to be a superintelligent human.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: today in Nuclear Physics Corrections Newsletter: a criticality (of plutonium) wouldn’t necessarily explode – it could just blast everyone in the near area with a lethal dose of radiation. And there’s a fascinating video about the Demon Core (from yesterday).

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