Start up: Facebook’s AI ambitions, it’s the Galaxy S7!, the value of comments, Apple goes Android, and more


Peace began the new war. Photo by ‘Lil on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook’s problem: Its algorithms aren’t smart enough » Fortune

Mathew Ingram:

Zuckerberg said: “Under the current system, our community reports content that they don’t like, and then we look at it to see if it violates our polices, and if it does we take it down. But part of the problem with that is by the time we take it down, someone has already seen it and they’ve had a bad experience.”

The promise of artificial intelligence, said the Facebook founder, is that some day computers might be able to filter such content more accurately, and allow people to personalize their news-feed. “But right now, we don’t have computers that can look at a photo and understand it in the way that a person can, and tell kind of basic things about it… is this nudity, is this graphic, what is it,” he said.

Zuckerberg said that in the case of the Syrian child lying dead on the beach, he thought that image was very powerful, because it symbolized a huge problem and crystallized a complex social issue. “I happen to think that was a very important photo in the world, because it raised awareness for this issue,” he said. “It’s easy to describe the stats about refugees, but there’s a way that capturing such a poignant photo has of getting people’s attention.”

Any AI that could make the right call about that photograph, though, would be as wise as the super-experienced editors around the world. It would have passed the Turing test and then some.
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New ad blocker “Peace” tops iTunes paid apps chart within hours » Marketing Land

Danny Sullivan:

For months, marketers have been worrying over the possibility that consumers might embrace ad blocking that’s made easier in iOS 9. Now iOS 9 is out, and within hours of its launch yesterday, a new ad blocker called “Peace” became the most popular paid app.

The Peace app was created by Marco Arment, former CTO of Tumblr and founder of Instapaper. It sells for $2.99 in Apple’s app store. Within hours of the app going live, it topped the iTunes chart for paid apps for iPhone.

In addition to Peace, Purify Blocker also made the charts ranked fifth for iPhone. The Blockr app is ranked 28th. Crystal, which had some attention earlier this month, is listed at 110 in the free charts. It’s supposed to change to a paid model shortly.

As for iPad, Peace was the number two paid app (Purify is further down at 22; Blockr at 36):

The app is technically a “content blocker,” because it blocks not only ads but other types of tracking codes and anything that is deemed worth blocking based on a list that Ghostery maintains.

Ads are only blocked in Safari, not in other browsers like Chrome. It also doesn’t block ads within apps.

So the outbreak of war began with Peace. But not in other browsers like Chrome, because they don’t use the new WKWebKit viewer, available since iOS 8, which is really fast and powerful and, in iOS 9, enables content blockers. Wonder if Google has considered it? Read on…
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Issue 423444 – chromium – Use WKWebView on iOS 8+ » Chromium Project

Stuart Morgan of Google’s Chromium project discussing, in October 2014, whether to use WKWebView instead of UIWebView in Chrome on iOS:

Unfortunately, despite the advantages of WKWebView, it has some significant technical limitations that UIWebView does not, which means we can’t simply drop it in as a replacement. A partial list of regressions relative to UIWebView that we’re currently aware of:
– There is no cookie management API, which means there is no obvious way to clear/manage cookies
– Protocol handlers no longer work, which breaks several very important features
– POST bodies are missing from delegate callbacks, which breaks certain aspects of form handling

We’re still actively investigating WKWebView, looking for possible alternate approaches, and providing feedback to Apple about issues. We certainly hope to use WKWebView in the future, but there’s currently no way of knowing if or when that will be possible.

The thread continues through the introduction of iOS 9, right up to 10 days ago. Still no movement. It seems remarkable that the newest, most powerful webview on iOS should be so behind in things that Google sees as essential. So Chrome on iOS uses the old – creaking, now – UIWebView instead of WKWebView. No modern compatibility (and lots of crashes, according to some) but equally, no adblocking on Chrome on iOS. (Thanks @reneritchie for pointing it out.)
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Trash talk » Popbitch

The article (byline unprovided) does useful work in estimating the cost of moderating comments at the Mail Online and Guardian (it’s remarkably high) and then looks at sites that have shut down comments, and notes:

A number of journalists from across the political spectrum have spent this last week voicing their displeasure at Twitter, talking about how unpleasant it’s all become. It used to be fun and productive and helpful, they say, but the conversation nowadays is just vicious fighting.

Those reporting on the Scottish referendum last year complained of the same thing too; many threatening to quit social media in the face of brutal Cybernat campaigns. The sheer volume of vitriol leveled at them became unbearable, unmanageable.

Sadly, this will be the inevitable result of shutting down comments sections. People aren’t going to suddenly want to stop voicing their opinions. That’s one genie that won’t ever go back in the bottle. Instead those displaced commenters will simply take up an alternative platform, and the most obvious one of those is social media.

They can do that anyway, of course – the option has been open to them for as long as Facebook and Twitter have been around – but it’s no coincidence that the current trend for editors wanting to direct the conversation away from comments sections and onto social media correlates exactly with journalists’ growing dissatisfaction at the level of discourse on social media.

Comments sections are easy to avoid when you know where they are.

This I don’t agree with. People will find you on social media regardless of whether there are comments sections. The big advantage? There, you can block them. I prefer Mic Wright’s characterisation: comments are the radioactive waste of the web, there effectively forever, and never really useful. (And I speak as someone who has left a fair number of comments all over the place.) Gresham’s Law applies.
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Welcome to hell: Apple vs Google vs Facebook and the slow death of the web » The Verge

Nilay Patel:

with iOS 9 and content blockers, what you’re seeing is Apple’s attempt to fully drive the knife into Google’s revenue platform. iOS 9 includes a refined search that auto-suggests content and that can search inside apps, pulling content away from Google and users away from the web, it allows users to block ads, and it offers publishers salvation in the form of Apple News, inside of which Apple will happily display (unblockable!) ads, and even sell them on publishers’ behalf for just a 30% cut.

Oh, and if you’re not happy with Apple News, you can always turn to Facebook’s Instant Articles, which will also track the shit out of you and serve unblockable ads inside of the Facebook app, but from Apple’s perspective it’s a win as long as the money’s not going to Google.

This is the dynamic to keep in mind — especially when you see Apple bloggers like [John] Gruber forcefully discount the notion that Apple’s decisions will affect small publishers. The Apple vs. Google fight has never been more heated or more tense, and Facebook’s opportunity to present itself as the savior of media has never been bigger — through hey-it’s-just-about-speed Instant Articles, which will almost certainly be featured higher in the News Feed, and huge things like its massive video initiative, which is a direct assault on YouTube. And oh — Apple’s new tvOS, that huge bet on bringing apps to TV? Doesn’t support WebKit at all.

Malicious view of Apple adding content blocking to Safari: it’s trying to kill Google.
Non-malicious view of Apple adding content blocking to Safari: it’s trying to kill ads which take over the mobile browsing experience, bouncing you to an app or putting up a non-removable screen (because the close button is off the screen), and/or trying to keep enterprise buyers happy that they can restrict what their users view.

Patel portrays this as a knife fight, but overlooks the fact that ads will work perfectly well inside iOS apps (annoying as they might be). Apple’s trying to do two things here: stop annoying, intrusive ads on Safari and in Safari web views, and trying to keep apps at the forefront of what people do on iPhones.

Both of those have collateral damage for Google, but it’s a stretch to think of this as a desperate fight to the death. He’s worried for his site, sure. And so he should be. But as I’ve said previously, web ads have to evolve. Nobody said they were somehow protected.
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Sony shuts down its UK online retail store » AndroidAuthority

Andrew Grush:

Sony has never had a major presence in the US, offering most of its products either through its website or a partnering retailer. Sony has also had a carrier presence, but it has generally been limited to just T-Mobile or Verizon. This summer, Sony shut off one of these channels: its retail store. This meant that Sony fans had to either go through a site like Amazon, or turn to carriers. And now they are essentially doing the same in the UK.

Effective immediately, Sony shoppers will now be reliant on carriers or Sony’s partnering retails for Sony devices in the UK. The Japanese giant’s UK website will continue to offer advice on their phones but will no longer sell them, similar to what we have seen with the US website.

Sony gets so much right with the design of their phones, but unfortunately fails at the areas that matter most to average consumers: pricing, availability, and marketing.

That last sentence reminds me of a famous cricket writeup: “there are only three things wrong with the English team: can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field.”
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Move to iOS » Android Apps on Google Play

Would it surprise you to hear there are lots of 1-star reviews? (But also, weirdly, lots of 5-star ones, though rather outnumbered by the 1-stars.)

Sample 1-star: Poor functionality:

I attempted to switch to iOS (apparently zombies ate my brain) and my iPhone 3G would not accept my data. Also, my micro USB would not fit.

Sample 5-star:

Reading all these reviews about people who say “1 star because I don’t want to move to Apple” ticks me off! THIS APP WAS NOT MEANT FOR YOU! Unlike everyone else who thinks Android is all that, there are people who make the jump to Apple. There are also people who switch to Samsung from Apple. (Using Samsung smart switch). Working for a MAJOR US cell phone carrier; this app is perfect!!!! Before we had to use stupid Celbrite machines or our made transfer app. Thank you Apple for making this!

So, you know, horses for courses.
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Exclusive: first Galaxy S7 details emerge, codenamed Project Lucky » SamMobile

Abhijeet M:

Our insiders tell us that the Galaxy S7 is being tested with Samsung’s screaming fast UFS 2.0 storage, but the company might have found a way to make it work with SD cards. As we explained earlier this year, the memory controller on SD cards and the UFS 2.0 storage aren’t compatible with each other, making it impossible for them to co-exist on the same device. Samsung probably is trying out interfacing techniques to get around the limitation, though it would be best to not get too hopeful that the final product will bring back expandable storage to Samsung’s flagship line.

Finally, Samsung is supposedly testing a new 20-megapixel ISOCELL camera on the Galaxy S7, and also a project called the “all lens cover.” We have no idea what this project is; it’s perhaps a cover that will add additional lenses for the camera on to the phone, but we admit we’re in the dark about what the actual purpose will be.

The SD card explanation didn’t get much traction, did it? It makes complete sense, but Samsung sacrificed the broader principle of forward feature compatibility for a hard-to-see benefit in read/write speed. How many people say “wow, the read/write speed on this phone is great!” compared to the number who say “I can still use my SD card in this one!”
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Start up: spotting comment trolls, stopping piracy Of Thrones, where’s Android One?, and more


Try putting those on Bittorrent, suckahs. Photo by Jemimus on Flickr.

A selection of 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Scientists develop algorithm that can auto-ban internet trolls » The Stack

Martin Anderson:

The study found that on CNN the studied trolls were more likely to initiate new posts or sub-threads, whilst at Breitbart and IGN they were more likely to weigh into existing threads.

The report does not exonerate host communities of all blame for troll behaviour, finding that immediately intolerant communities are more likely to foster trolls:

“[communities] may play a part in incubating antisocial behavior. In fact, users who are excessively censored early in their lives are more likely to exhibit antisocial behavior later on. Furthermore, while communities appear initially forgiving (and are relatively slow to ban these antisocial users), they become less tolerant of such users the longer they remain in a community. This results in an increased rate at which their posts are deleted, even after controlling for post quality.”

Seems mostly accurate, apart from calling breitbart.com a “political hub”. I’d go for “troll-employing troll magnet”, personally.


Game Of Thrones leak and watermark: a stupid tracking system » bru’s blog

The first four episodes of game of thrones leaked nearly 36 hours ago. They have been extensively downloaded, and the only tracking set up HBO seemed to be a watermark in the bottom left corner of the screen. Once blurred, it is useless. This impresses me. It’s 2015 and all you’re using is a “confirm you’re deleted” + “your copy is watermarked” for protection? There are simple schemes that would have allowed HBO to track the leak.

The idea is very simple: make each copy unique in a non-visible way.

Seems like the editing to create unique copies would be a hassle. Not sending them out (by getting people to come in to previews?) might be simpler. But there would be geographic reasons against that. No matter what, though, it only delays the piracy by 36 hours or so. That’s the bigger problem.


BOMBSHELL: MUSL employee might have rigged Hot Lotto computerized drawing » Lottery Post

Prosecutors countered this motion by claiming they have a “prima facie,” or at first glance, case that Tipton tampered with lottery equipment.

In their reply to the defense’s motion, prosecutors argued that Tipton’s co-workers said he “was ‘obsessed’ with root kits, a type of computer program that can be installed quickly, set to do just about anything, and then self-destruct without a trace.” The prosecution claimed a witness will testify that Tipton told him before December 2010 that he had a self-destructing root kit.

Prosecutors also argued in their reply that Tipton was in the draw room on Nov. 20, 2010, “ostensibly to change the time on the computers.” The prosecution alleged the cameras in the room on that date recorded about one second per minute instead of how they normally operate, recording every second a person is in the room.

“Four of the five individuals who have access to control the camera’s settings will testify they did not change the cameras’ recording instructions; the fifth person is Defendant,” the prosecution wrote.

Someone’s writing the screenplay already, yes? The accused bought a ticket that won $14.3m.


What’s Become of Android One? » CCS Insight

Peter Bryer is an analyst:

our checks indicate that Android One has had a limited direct effect on the market, despite initial enthusiasm for the programme. Sales of Android One-based smartphones began more than half a year ago in India, but volumes don’t stand out.

The first Android One products came from Karbonn, Micromax and Spice, with more familiar brands expected to begin adopting the platform. Acer, Asus, HTC, Lenovo and Panasonic were among the smartphone manufacturers listed by Google as partners in the project, but this interest appears to have stalled.

The fading momentum of Android One is an indication of the expanding selection of equally well-specified, low-cost smartphones and tablets in emerging markets. Hundreds of models are available at $100 or below — a once impossible price band has become very ordinary.

The standard having been set, others have matched it. All works for Google. But see later…


Flipkart’s move to dump mobile site could hit Google » WSJ

Rolfe Winkler:

Indian e-commerce giant Flipkart has decided it doesn’t need to rely on the Web to lure shoppers, dumping its mobile site and pushing visitors to its app. That move may spell trouble for the future of Google ‘s cash-cow search engine, which relies heavily on links to shopping sites.

Smartphone users that go to the mobile websites of either Flipkart or its sister site Myntra no longer see the same virtual store shelves as when they visit those sites from a personal computer. Instead they see a message to download the sites’ mobile apps.

The problem for Google is that a large percentage of its ad business is driven by paid links that direct users to e-commerce sites. But mobile apps are walled gardens unto themselves, unconnected by links to the broader Web.

A general problem, but if it starts happening early in countries like India, that is a problem for Google.


Brazil’s iPhone investment falls short on promises of jobs, lower prices » Reuters

Brad Haynes:

The Brazilian iPhone was meant to mark a new era.

When Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group agreed in April 2011 to make Apple products here, President Dilma Rousseff and her advisers promised that up to $12 billion in investments over six years would transform the Brazilian technology sector, putting it on the cutting edge of touch screen development. A new supply chain would be created, generating high-quality jobs and bringing down prices of the coveted gadgets.

Four years later, none of that has come true.

Foxconn has created only a small fraction of the 100,000 jobs that the government projected, and most of the work is in low-skill assembly. There is little sign that it has catalyzed Brazil’s technology sector or created much of a local supply chain.

Not quite clear where the blame lies – high expectation by Foxconn, local taxes or local culture.


Formal charges may be next in Europe’s Google antitrust inquiry » NYTimes.com

James Kanter and Conor Dougherty:

Some experts say that Mr. Almunia’s unsuccessful strategy makes further attempts to settle the case without formal charges unlikely.

“Given the history of failed attempts to reach a commitment decision, I just don’t see what she would gain from going down this route again, unless Google has promised more concessions that we don’t know about,” said Liza Lovdahl-Gormsen, the director of the Competition Law Forum at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.

Without formal charges, Ms. Lovdahl-Gormsen said, “Google might try to buy themselves time by offering commitments that are unlikely to be accepted by the commission, and that it knows won’t be accepted by the market, simply because it does not want to be faced with the instrument of torture — the statement of objections.”

Expect news on Wednesday.


My voice is my passport: Android gets a “Trusted Voice” smart lock » Ars Technica

How secure is this system? We’re wondering the same thing. The popup when you enable “Trusted Voice” warns that the feature is not as secure as a traditional lock screen and that “Someone with a similar voice or a recording of your voice could unlock your device.” We’d love to test it out, but it hasn’t rolled out to any of our devices yet—we only know about it thanks to a report from Android Police.

Android Police hasn’t given it any scrutiny (none of its devices – even Nexuses – seem to have got it.) The commenters on AP don’t seem enamoured, though, pointing out how easy it would be to spoof (as Google itself admits). So there’s now pattern, PIN, face and voice unlock, and also “trusted device” (Android Wear). Flexibility is good, but they aren’t all equally robust, which feels like a problem.


Start up: neural nets explained, Google’s spiralling spend, adieu Nest!, men and their comments, and more


Probably a neural network, but you might need one to look at it to be sure. Photo by jurvetson on Flickr.

A selection of 8 links for you. Slippery when wet. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Emotional design fail: divorcing my Nest thermostat » Nielsen-Norman Group

Kara Pernice of the NN/G user interface design company:

A learning device implies that it will not only pick up on what you usually do, but it will also: 1) allow you to change, and 2) absorb those changes. My Nest learned quite well, but then stopped learning. It remembered but it didn’t look for variations or adapt. It was the equivalent of a printed textbook: Facts, correct or not, become law if written in there and thus will be taught that way until the school chooses a different textbook.

When I turned the dial to increase the heat to 66 degrees, rather than responding by making the house warmer, or by informing me that it is now working toward this, it read, “in 1 hour and 20 minutes 66 degrees until 10:00PM.” The next day the house temperature plummeted to a punishing 50 degrees (I realize I may be spoiled) for no reason I was privy to. Here, by the way, is another usability heuristic not heeded: visibility of system status.

Try as I might, it won’t listen. So I pull on another sweater (a la Jimmy Carter) and mittens and a hat. Indoors. In my home. I am serious. And I wait until my thermostat decides that I am worthy of radiant warmth.

Temperatures in Fahrenheit, obviously. Given Pernice’s provenance, maybe Nest should call. (This is the second heavily critical article about Nest in the past few days; the other was about its smoke alarm, from a Google employee.)


The believers » The Chronicle of Higher Education

Fantastic article on how neural networks have swung in and out of fashion, profiling Geoff Hinton, of the University of Toronto and Google:

Before [the researchers] won over the world, however, the world came back to them. That same year, a different type of computer chip, the graphics processing unit, became more powerful, and Hinton’s students found it to be perfect for the punishing demands of deep learning. Neural nets got 30 times faster overnight. Google and Facebook began to pile up hoards of data about their users, and it became easier to run programs across a huge web of computers. One of Hinton’s students interned at Google and imported Hinton’s speech recognition into its system. It was an instant success, outperforming voice-recognition algorithms that had been tweaked for decades. Google began moving all its Android phones over to Hinton’s software.

It was a stunning result. These neural nets were little different from what existed in the 1980s. This was simple supervised learning. It didn’t even require Hinton’s 2006 breakthrough. It just turned out that no other algorithm scaled up like these nets. “Retrospectively, it was a just a question of the amount of data and the amount of computations,” Hinton says.


Google buys Softcard tech, strikes deal with wireless carriers » Re/code

Jason Del Rey:

The deal will see Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T pre-install Google Wallet on their Android phones in the U.S. later this year. Google Wallet allows shoppers to tap their phones to pay at checkout in some brick-and-mortar stores in much the same way Apple Pay does. The move also involves Google buying some intellectual property from Softcard, formerly known as ISIS. It doesn’t appear that any Softcard employees are joining Google as part of the deal.

In a blog post, Softcard said its users can use their mobile payments app for now. But I can’t imagine the wireless carriers behind the Softcard joint venture would agree to this deal if they planned to continue to invest in their own app. Sounds like game over for Softcard, a very expensive multi-year initiative that was essentially a flop for the wireless companies involved.

The purchase of Softcard (if not the abandonment of its staff) had been expected, but the preinstallation on Android phones is a smart deal.


What your online comments say about you » NYTimes.com

Anna North:

Commenters [the researchers at Skidmore College] identified as male were more likely to post negative comments than were those they identified as female; they were also much less likely to post comments acknowledging that gender bias exists.

Dr. Moss-Racusin said that her team was surprised by how split the commenters were: “The same sort of objective evidence really struck people quite differently.” She and her team are now studying the reasons behind such differences: “what factors might lead certain people under certain situations to be more swayed by scientific evidence, particularly evidence that points to some inequities between different social groups.” One theory, she said, is that when people feel threatened by evidence, “they may be a little bit less receptive to it than when it already fits into their existing worldview, their way of thinking about social relations.”

“Threatened by evidence”. There’s a phrase to conjure with. (Via Mary Hamilton.)


The best Apple Watch apps: Developers reveal upcoming titles » Wareable

With the world counting down to April 2015 for Apple Watch launch, attention turns to the best apps that will make or break this landmark device.

I think the launch will actually be in March, with shipping – as Tim Cook said – in April. (The delay lets Apple take preorders, evaluate demand, and, ah, also helps those camera-magnet queues.) I wrote about what developers aim to do with apps on Apple Watch for The Guardian.


Server and protect: predictive policing firm PredPol promises to map crime before it happens » Forbes

Ellen Huet:

Two or three times a day in almost 60 cities across America, thousands of police officers line up for roll call at the beginning of their shifts. They’re handed a marked-up map of their beat and told: Between calls, go to the little red boxes, each about half the size of a city block. The department’s crime analysts didn’t make these maps. They’re produced by PredPol, a “predictive policing” software program that shovels historical crime data through a proprietary algorithm and spits out the 10 to 20 spots most likely to see crime over the next shift. If patrol officers spend only 5% to 15% of their shift in those boxes, PredPol says, they’ll stop more crime than they would using their own knowledge.

Less Minority Report than quick primer for newbie cops, it seems. Even so…


Google layoffs inevitable » assertTrue( ):

Kas Thomas has been having a look at Google’s General & Administrative [G&A] spending:

With ad revenues levelling off and expenses skyrocketing (G&A has quadrupled in 5 years), Google is headed for a financial meltdown, and when it happens, the company will need to shave $2bn a year off its $16bn/yr in R&D and G&A costs, which means, if we count the fully burdened cost of a Google employee at $200K per year, it needs to shave 10,000 jobs.

Google has $100bn in the bank, so the situation is hardly dire, but Wall St. likes to see expenses cut by some other method than hauling money out of the bank. They like to see a sound Income Statement, and very soon, Google’s Income Statement will be anything but sound.

On a percent-of-income basis, Google outspends Apple on R&D six-to-one. Where is that money going? Driverless cars, Google Glass, body odour patents. Stuff that doesn’t have a chance in hell of generating revenue any time soon. On the one hand, Google is to be credited with thinking long-term, something American companies don’t tend to do very well, but on the other hand, Google needs to execute well on the revenue side. Right now, most of its revenue is tied to search ads, which are receding in relevance. It competes, in the cloud space, with Amazon (which no one should have to do). Will that save the company? No. It would have, already, if it were going to.

This is hard to argue against, though Google could just ignore Wall St and report lower profits.


Worldwide market for refurbished smartphones to reach 120m units by 2017 » Gartner

“With consumers in mature markets upgrading their smartphones every 18 to 20 months the inevitable question is what happens to the old device?” said Meike Escherich, principal research analyst at Gartner. “While only 7% of smartphones end up in official recycling programs, 64% get a second lease of life with 23% being handed down to other users and 41% being traded in or sold privately.
 
“This rise in smartphone reuse will impact not only the sales of new units, but also the revenue streams of all those involved in the smartphone supply chain,” continued Ms. Escherich. “Stakeholders that are already participating in take-back or trade-in programs need to have a strategy for turning used devices into a positive asset. Others — particularly high-end phone original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) — need to take a closer look at this market in order to evaluate the impact these secondhand devices will have on their market positions and revenue streams.” 

With nearly two-thirds of replaced smartphones being reused, continued demand for high-end used devices will increasingly impact primary-unit sales, and motivate phone providers to look into the secondhand market. In North America and Western Europe, the market for refurbished phones is forecast to be worth around $3bn in 2015 and growing to $5bn in 2017. Many users are attracted to used high-end devices that they would not have been able to purchase at the original selling price.

Next question is whether there’s any difference between platforms over hand-me-downs, and life cycle length.


Start up: smartwatches are go!, tablets shrink, bitcoins all spent?, Yahoo keeps growing in search, and more


What’s Apple up to with its privacy drive? Photo by dmelchordiaz on Flickr.

A selection of 8 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Pebble has now sold over 1 million smartwatches » The Verge

While Google and Apple have been getting the lion’s share of attention for smartwatches lately, indie darling Pebble has been quietly soldiering on, improving its product and selling watches. In an exclusive interview, CEO Eric Migicovsky revealed that the company shipped its one millionth Pebble on December 31st of last year. That’s more than double what Pebble reported in March, indicating that price cuts and new feature additions later in the year successfully boosted sales figures.

Pebble’s biggest and most visible competitor so far has been Google’s Android Wear, which launched in the middle of 2014 and is found on devices from Motorola, Samsung, LG, Sony, and Asus. Google has yet to reveal how many Android Wear watches have been sold in the six months or so it has been on the market, so it is difficult to determine if the platform is a success or not.

Google’s silence speaks volumes; it must know, surely? Also, how many of its employees are still wearing their LG smartwatch Christmas gift? A million is good going for Pebble. Seems like the smartwatch market will split three ways: Apple, Android, Pebble. (I have a Kickstarter Pebble, and recently rediscovered its usefulness through its step-and-sleep counting Misfit app.)


Worldwide tablet shipments experience first year-over-year decline in the fourth quarter while full year shipments show modest growth » IDC

Worldwide tablet shipments recorded a year-over-year decline for the first time since the market’s inception in 2010. Overall shipments for tablets and 2-in-1 devices reached 76.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2014 (4Q14) for -3.2% growth, according to preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker. Although the fourth quarter witnessed a decline in the global market, shipments for the full year 2014 increased 4.4%, totaling 229.6m units.

“The tablet market is still very top heavy in the sense that it relies mostly on Apple and Samsung to carry the market forward each year,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst, worldwide quarterly tablet tracker.

Apple, Samsung, Asus, Amazon, all lost share and sales; only Lenovo, third-largest, grew (by 0.3m), which may have been mainly in 2-in-1s. Amazon’s dropoff is dramatic in both the Q4 and full year. But remember that tablets are principally going to consumers, have saturated their market, and have a replacement period of around four years. Compare that to PCs, which go to companies and consumers, and were at some times replaced as rapidly as every two years.


New findings suggest nearly 90% of all bitcoin holdings already spent » CoinSpeaker

Nearly 90% of those who have purchased or mined Bitcoin may have already cashed out their holdings, it emerged this weekend. Before now, it was thought that just 36% of bitcoins had currently been spent or sold, an argument often used by both advocates and their adversaries to support the fact that Bitcoin is both likely and unlikely to succeed as an asset class over the long term.

The findings were posted by Reddit user intmaxt64 and are being revealed in the Bitcoin press for the first time here at Coinspeaker…

…the findings may indicate that the Bitcoin price has suffered directly as a result of the major holders of Bitcoin liquidating their holdings while claiming the opposite. Many of the potential sellers appear to be the same individuals and organizations who got buyers to purchase during 2011-2013, since the large quantities of unit exchanges happened during this time.

Very deep implications to this, including the potential to corner the market.


Yahoo gains further US search share in January » StatCounter Global Stats

January saw Yahoo further increase the gain it made in US search share last month, according to the latest data from independent website analytics provider, StatCounter. Google fell below 75% in the US for the first time since StatCounter Global Stats began recording data [in June 2008].

StatCounter Global Stats reports that in January, Google took 74.8% of US search referrals followed by Bing on 12.4% and Yahoo on 10.9%, its highest US search share for over five years.

This is desktop-only, of course, and it’s not a giant change. But US users are surely the most valuable ones. Take Firefox out of the equation, and Google’s share remains where it was (despite Google’s attempts to win them back)

So what sort of people use Firefox and don’t change their search engine back to Google? Well, there’s Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of the Guardian’s US operation. Did she notice the change?

So why’s she sticking with Yahoo?


How new versions of Android work » Rusty Rants

Russell Ivanovic of Shifty Jelly, which makes Android and iOS apps:

People are often quick to mis-interpret these numbers. “iOS 8 adoption is at 64%, but Android 4.4, a version that’s years old isn’t even at that!”. There’s two things wrong with these kinds of comments. Firstly there are roughly 6-8x more Android devices than iOS devices in the world, depending on which market share numbers you use. This means that if a version of Android achieves 39% adoption, that’s a huge deal, and you could develop just for that platform and address a larger user base than targeting iOS 8 with its 64%. Secondly people confuse overall numbers, with actual numbers of people who buy apps. Here for example are the version breakdowns of people who buy Pocket Casts on Android:

So while Android 5.0 has less than 1% adoption in the overall Android ecosystem, 23% of our customers already run it. This makes sense when you put a bit of thought into these numbers. People that have the money to buy apps, and are passionate about Android, have up to date phones.

I find Ivanovic a necessary counterpoint to a lot of what one reads about Android and iOS. He’s sincere, and expresses his views directly. (He’s Australian, so..) One point about Pocket Casts is that it’s a podcast player. There are paid-for podcast players on iOS (Marco Arment, obviously) but it seems to me the opportunity is much larger because there’s no OS-level podcast app on Android as there is for iOS.

That said, Ivanovic’s points are still valid. It’s install base x amount paid that really matters for developers (and, to some extent, users, as they benefit from the availability of apps, driven by the size of the ecosystem). Also, he wrote this piece before today’s data about Lollipop share – 1.6% of all Google Play installs as of 2 February.


Apple on privacy, security and identity » Benedict Evans

Evans tries to connect the dots that Apple has left around, on the basis that products it has now – such as Apple Pay – are obvious in retrospect (TouchID + Passbook). With that in mind, why Apple’s focus on “privacy”, he asks:

it may also be that as our phones go from sharing pictures to unlocking our front doors, privacy becomes a much more valuable selling point. This might be one reason why Nest is being kept semi-detached at Google. Worrying that Google knows what you search for has always seemed to me rather like worrying that your bank knows how much money you have, but Google knowing when you get out of bed or unlock your front door might be different (though of course it gets a fair bit of this through Android). So, perhaps Apple is talking about privacy not because of its current products, but because it thinks privacy will be a real competitive advantage for future ones. Not the iPhones, but the Watch, or other wearables, or the connected home. There’s an interesting question here – is the big data dividend worth the privacy implications? Is it better to let Google know when you flush the loo for what it can tell you about your bowels, or would people really rather not? 


Why I’ve found that online communities on media sites always seem doomed to fail » Martin Belam

I used to work with Martin at The Guardian (he’s now at the Daily Mirror); he’s got great insights into how communities fail or work. His key points – “The behaviour of the regular users becomes self-limiting for the community as a whole” and “The community believes they are representative of the primary audience” are, to me, the essence of the problem.

As a reminder, I did a pseudo-economic analysis of why comments on media sites just don’t work, which comes down to “the crap drive out the good”. I think that’s what Martin’s saying in his first point, only more nicely. Also, as he notes:

At the moment we don’t have comments on the Mirror site where I work, and I must confess it is a slight relief not to be immediately called a twat every time I press publish, but equally I find sites without comments don’t feel as alive. You know an article has had an impact when it has generated hundreds of comments.

I’d disagree on that latter point. You know an article has generated hundreds of comments when it generates hundreds of comments. But if you read them, you might find there’s no actual impact at all – as in, the comments haven’t added to the sum of human knowledge in the slightest.


Apple Watch sightings picking up ahead of official launch » Mac Rumors

Juli Clover:

Due to the large number of employees testing the device, Apple Watch sightings in the wild have become more common over the course of the last few weeks. On the MacRumors forums, readers are aggregating photos and stories of device sightings, giving us an in-use look at the device that will be attached to many of our wrists in just a few short months.

One of the first major Apple Watch sightings occurred several weeks ago, when Vogue Editor Suzy Menkes snapped a photo of someone wearing the device. Rumors and speculation have suggested the arm in the photo could belong to Marc Newson, the designer who now works at Apple part time alongside Jony Ive.

The forums aren’t that helpful (lots of vague discussion); James Cook at BusinessInsider has wrapped the (few) pics together.

Though the iPhone was announced before its public release, the only person I recall ever being seen in public using it ahead of that was Steve Jobs. This quiet seeding and testing is quite different.

Of course – and ponder this for a moment – everyone’s got an internet-connected camera now. Maybe there were tons more iPhones in public testing in 2007. We just didn’t hear about them.


Start up: goodbye Windows Phone, Panic get iCloudy, Google’s long deal, how the cyberwars started, and more


Stormy weather ahead for Windows Phone? Picture by MacBeales on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Transmit iOS 1.1.1 [Updated] >> Panic Blog

UPDATE 12/11/14: After a considerate conversation with Apple, Transmit iOS 1.1.2 has been released with restored “Send To” functionality.

While the process feels less-than-perfect, this resolution is a nice reminder that, just as we thought, there are good people at Apple who will push hard to do the right thing. We hope you enjoy Transmit iOS 1.1.2.

I wrote about the strange back-and-forth that seems to be going on inside Apple over iOS 8 functionality for The Guardian. Developers are, to put it mildly, puzzled.


Apple contract loss could hit Google search revenue big time >> Investors.com

Google has potentially $9.4bn in gross revenue at risk if it’s unable to renew a contract with Apple for mobile Safari toolbar searches, says a Citigroup report, which says potential losses depend on how many Apple customers stick with Google’s search engine.

Google stock had fallen 3.5% as of Wednesday’s close since the Information reported on Nov. 24 that Google’s default search agreement with Apple might be in peril. Google stock, though, was up a small fraction in early trading Thursday.

That report said the Apple-Google deal is set to expire in 2015, possibly as soon as January. Apple’s iPhone 6 sales have been stronger than projected, increasing the potential impact.

Citigroup analyst Mark May estimates that 60% of Google’s 2014 mobile search revenue will come from its default search deal with Apple.

60% is a big number. I was previously wrong about what would happen in the Firefox search deal (Google was expected to renew; Yahoo got the deal in the US), so I’ll stand off this. But the intimation I’ve heard from Apple is that it still thinks Google offers the best search experience.


** A Letter to Indian Mi Fans ** >> Hugo Barra on Facebook

Dear Mi fans,

We have been committed to continue our sales of Redmi Note and Redmi 1S devices in India. In the last 2 days alone, we received about 150,000 registrations for Redmi Note on Flipkart and the momentum has been terrific.

However, we have been forced to suspend sales in India until further notice due to an order passed by the Delhi High Court. As a law abiding company, we are investigating the matter carefully and assessing our legal options.

One way or another, Xiaomi’s going to have to pay up, and that’s going to hit its bottom line unless it comes up with its own patents.


FRAND-ly injunctions from India: has ex parte become the “standard”? >> Spicy IP

Following up on the injunction given against Xiaomi in the Indian high court blocking further sales of the Chinese handsets over standards-essential patents owned by Ericsson:

given that Ericsson sued Indian telecom companies in the past, one needs to carefully reflect on the impact that these patent wars are likely to have on national interest and the growth of the Indian telecom industry. While there are plenty of writings in the pharma space (the various tussles between MNC’s on the one hand and the local generic industry and public health/affordable medication on the other), we haven’t focussed much on the telecom terrain. The time is now ripe to focus on this technology sector as well!

See this ET article from Soma Das and Anandita Singh, which speaks of the latest order in the Ericcson vs Micromax dispute (covered by Rupali on SpicyIP) and reflects a bit on this oft-neglected “national interest” dimension:

“The Delhi High Court has asked homegrown handset maker Micromax to pay a royalty that amounts up to 1% of the selling price of its devices to Ericsson for using the Swedish equipment maker’s patents on technologies that are essential to manufacture the products. The interim order holds until December 31, 2015, the deadline set by the court to conclude the trial…

Apparently China sets a ceiling of 0.017% of adjusted sale value of handsets for the total SEP payout. India might be closer to that, but other countries won’t be. Xiaomi is going to have a problem.


Mysterious 2008 Turkey pipeline blast opened new cyberwar era >> Bloomberg

Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley:

The pipeline was outfitted with sensors and cameras to monitor every step of its 1,099 miles from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. The blast that blew it out of commission didn’t trigger a single distress signal.

That was bewildering, as was the cameras’ failure to capture the combustion in eastern Turkey. But investigators shared their findings within a tight circle. The Turkish government publicly blamed a malfunction, Kurdish separatists claimed credit and BP Plc (BP/) had the line running again in three weeks. The explosion that lit up the night sky over Refahiye, a town known for its honey farms, seemed to be forgotten.

It wasn’t. For western intelligence agencies, the blowout was a watershed event. Hackers had shut down alarms, cut off communications and super-pressurized the crude oil in the line, according to four people familiar with the incident who asked not to be identified because details of the investigation are confidential. The main weapon at valve station 30 on Aug. 5, 2008, was a keyboard.

Surprising. Stuxnet followed not long after.


Because reading is fundamental >> Coding Horror

Jeff Atwood:

Let’s say you’re interested in World War II. Who would you rather have a discussion with about that? The guy who just skimmed the Wikipedia article, or the gal who read the entirety of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?

This emphasis on talking and post count also unnecessarily penalizes lurkers. If you’ve posted five times in the last 10 years, but you’ve read every single thing your community has ever written, I can guarantee that you, Mr. or Mrs. Lurker, are a far more important part of that community’s culture and social norms than someone who posted 100 times in the last two weeks. Value to a community should be measured every bit by how much you’ve read as much as how much you talked.

So how do we encourage reading, exactly?

You could do crazy stuff like require commenters to enter some fact from the article, or pass a basic quiz about what the article contained, before allowing them to comment on that article. On some sites, I think this would result in a huge improvement in the quality of the comments.

Though he thinks that’s sub-optimal. See what he does suggest. This is such a terrific post. Read it all.


Benedict Evans on Twitter: “The end of SMS http://t.co/0n9hCi9uJJ”

Graph sourced from IHS/ industry data/ Ofcom showing that SMSs per head peaking in 2011 for a wide range of countries (except, strangely, France). Over-the-top services are taking over.


I’ve given up on Windows Phone >> The Verge

Tom Warren is The Verge’s Microsoft correspondent; he started Winrumors.com (which is part of how he got the job at The Verge). He’s been using Windows Phone since 2010, along with other platforms. Now he’s going to stick with an iPhone 6:

I’ve always been slightly frustrated at the lack of Windows Phone apps, but as the gaps have been gradually filled, a new frustration has emerged: dead apps. Developers might be creating more and more Windows Phone apps, but the top ones are often left untouched with few updates or new features. That’s a big problem for apps like Twitter that are regularly updated on iOS and Android with features that never make it to Windows Phone. My frustration boiled over during the World Cup this year, as Twitter lit up with people talking about the matches. I felt left out using the official Windows Phone Twitter app because it didn’t have a special World Cup section that curated great and entertaining tweets, or country flags for hashtags.

That same sense of missing out extends elsewhere with Windows Phone. I rely on apps like Dark Sky on iPhone to give me a weather warning when it’s about to rain, or Slack and Trello to communicate with colleagues at The Verge. All three aren’t available on Windows Phone, and Dark Sky is particularly useful when you’re at a bar and it pings you a notification to let you know it’s going to rain in your location for the next 30 minutes. It lets you decide whether to grab another beer (tip: always grab another beer) or risk getting wet. It’s an essential app to me personally, and it’s a good example of how apps are changing the world.


Sites certified as secure often more vulnerable to hacking, scientists find >> Ars Technica

The so-called trust marks are sold by almost a dozen companies, including Symantec, McAfee, Trust-Guard, and Qualys. In exchange for fees ranging from less than $100 to well over $2,000 per year, the services provide periodic security scans of the site. If it passes, it receives the Internet equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval that’s prominently displayed on the homepage. Carrying images of padlocks and slogans such as “HackerProof,” the marks are designed to instill trust in users of the site by certifying it’s free of vulnerabilities that hackers prey on to steal credit card numbers and other valuable customer data.

A recently published academic paper discovered an almost universal lack of thoroughness among the 10 seal providers studied. For one thing, the scientists carried out two experiments showing that the scanners failed to detect a host of serious vulnerabilities. In one of the experiments, even the best-performing service missed more than half of the vulnerabilities known to afflict a site. In another, they uncovered flaws in certified sites that would take a typical criminal hacker less than one day to maliciously discover.

Well isn’t that so disappointing.


​Why have I given up on Windows Phone? Blame Verizon >> ZDNet

Ed Bott – Ed Bott – has finally given up on Windows Phone. Not because of any faults in the platform itself, but because of the lock that carriers have in the US:

I’d love to leave Verizon behind completely and switch to another carrier, but I don’t have that luxury: Where I live and work, Verizon is the only carrier with a reliable signal.

After waiting in vain for months, I’ve finally given up. I used the Nokia Software Recovery Tool to restore the factory software to my Lumia Icon and put it on the shelf until Microsoft and Verizon figure things out. In the meantime, I’ve switched to an iPhone 6 Plus.

I’m probably not the only one.

And as long as US-based carriers, including the biggest of them all, Verizon, are able to drag their feet and ignore Windows as a mobile platform, it’s unlikely that anything Microsoft can do will be able to make a dent in its market share in the United States.

This highlights the real problem in the mobile phone market: it is carriers which are the “customers”, while people like you and I are “users”. The same disconnect existed with PCs in business (and particularly enterprise apps). There’s no simple solution, though. (Don’t say “Wi-Fi networks!”)

The decision by both Warren and Bott may be seen by some as canaries in the coalmine. Their reasons are slightly different – but both blame Microsoft. That feels significant.


Start up: Sony-signed malware, robots watching videos, Nexus 6’s lost finger lock, are tablets desktops?, and more


I love robots, by Duncan on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Swedish police raid The Pirate Bay, site offline >> TorrentFreak

This morning, for the first time in months, The Pirate Bay disappeared offline. A number of concerned users emailed TF for information but at that point technical issues seemed the most likely culprit.

However, over in Sweden authorities have just confirmed that local police carried out a raid in Stockholm this morning as part of an operation to protect intellectual property.

“There has been a crackdown on a server room in Greater Stockholm. This is in connection with violations of copyright law,” read a statement from Paul Pintér, police national coordinator for IP enforcement.


‘Destover’ malware now digitally signed by Sony certificates >> Securelist

Functionally, the backdoor contains two C&Cs [command & control servers for computers taken over by the malware] and will alternately try to connect to both, with delays between connections:

208.105.226[.]235:443 – United States Champlain Time Warner Cable Internet Llc

203.131.222[.]102:443 – Thailand Bangkok Thammasat University

So what does this mean? The stolen Sony certificates (which were also leaked by the attackers) can be used to sign other malicious samples. In turn, these can be further used in other attacks. Because the Sony digital certificates are trusted by security solutions, this makes attacks more effective. We’ve seen attackers leverage trusted certificates in the past, as a means of bypassing whitelisting software and default-deny policies.

We’ve already reported the digital certificate to COMODO and Digicert and we hope it will be blacklisted soon. Kaspersky products will still detect the malware samples even if signed by digital certificates.

Everyone says “ooh! Thailand again!” (a previous part of the hack was linked to a hotel in Bangkok) but nobody says “hmm, Time Warner.” What if the hackers are based in the US? (Speaking of which, has Re/Code walked back – as one says – on its claim that North Korea was behind the Sony hack?)


Android source reveals scrapped Nexus 6 fingerprint sensor >> Ars Technica

Methods like “FINGERPRINT_ACQUIRED_TOO_FAST” and “FINGERPRINT_ACQUIRED_TOO_SLOW” in the fingerprint API suggest it supported a “swipe” style fingerprint reader, which, unlike Apple’s stationary fingerprint reader, requires the finger to be moved across a sensor at the right speed. Another file said the system would show a picture indicating which part of the finger would need to be scanned next, which again points to it being more like a swipe reader and less like a whole-fingerprint scanner.

The fingerprint API would be open to multiple apps, with a comment saying Google had built “A service to manage multiple clients that want to access the fingerprint HAL API.” Presumably this would allow apps like Google Wallet to use your fingerprint as authentication.

Motorola had a fingerprint scanner in the Atrix in 2011. Sucked.


The real reason why Google is dropping the tablet v desktop distinction – it’s the user context, stupid! >> Search Engine Land

Looking at the huge amount of search query data that they have access to, Google picked up on a pattern in the way people use their devices. What they noticed is that user context trumps everything else.

“User context” refers to the time, location and device from which a search is conducted, and as [group product manager of Global Mobile Search Ads at Google] Surojit [Chatterjee] put it: “User context drives what people search for, and the actions they take. So for example, say I am at home in the evening, and I’m doing a search. The actions that I will take will be largely the same if I’m using a smartphone, tablet or notebook, because the context is the same. Particularly between notebook and tablet, the query patterns are very similar.”

Similarly, the types of searches that we typically think of as “mobile” searches are the ones that people make when they’re out and about, away from home or work – and that user context is actually far more important than the physical device they are using.

Also: “Currently, 80% of tablet traffic occurs in the home, in the evening, and Google is much more interested in user context vs. user hardware.”

In other words, tablets are the new laptops/desktops.


Korea’s shrinking market: domestic smart device market size likely to shrink for two years >> BusinessKorea

[Research company IDC] mentioned a decline in smartphone supply as the main culprit of the negative growth of the domestic market. The smartphone segment used to account for 80% of the overall smart device market, but the domestic supply is forecast to drop by 20.5% to 17.54m units and the sales by 29.2% to 12.345trn won (US$11.1bn) this year.

“The smartphone market has already reached a saturation point, and the market downturn has been accelerated by the recent suspension of the business of mobile carriers, the Terminal Distribution Structure Improvement Act and the crisis of Pantech,” IDC Korea explained.

Non-tablet PC demand is on the decline as well, with more and more people using their smartphones and tablet PCs instead of conventional PCs.

That’s a steep drop in Samsung’s and LG’s homeland.


OMG! Mobile voice survey reveals teens love to talk >> Official Google Blog

Mobile voice searches have doubled in the past year, says Google, which commissioned a study of 1,400 US adults so it could commission an annoying infographic:

We weren’t surprised to find that teens — always ahead of the curve when it comes to new technology—talk to their phones more than the average adult. More than half of teens (13-18) use voice search daily — to them it’s as natural as checking social media or taking selfies. Adults are also getting the hang of it, with 41% talking to their phones every day and 56% admitting it makes them “feel tech savvy.”

Those numbers feel high. Would love to know how they break down between smartphone platform; Google doesn’t specify that, and doesn’t show what the actual questions on the survey are.

Given that about half of smartphone owners in the US have iPhones, could it be that a significant portion of those people who use voice commands (because that’s what the survey asks about – not voice search) were actually asking Siri to do stuff?

Note though how Google cleverly elides from “voice search” (what it offers in the Google app) to voice commands – which don’t necessarily involve Google at all.


Digitimes Research: Lenovo mobile device shipments to lead Samsung by 9 million units in 2015 >> Digitimes

Note that by “mobile” it’s excluding smartphones, which might strike some as contrary. But anyway, Jim Hisiao and Joanne Chien report:

Despite difficulties to achieve further shipment growths for its tablet business, Lenovo with its advantage as the largest notebook brand vendor worldwide and aggressive promotions of its inexpensive and phone-enabled tablets is expected to achieve 50m in total tablet and notebook shipments in 2015, widening its gap with Samsung to 9m units.

Because tablet demand will weaken in 2015, Lenovo’s and Samsung’s strategies for the mobile computing device market are expected to focus on maintaining their tablet shipments. Digitimes Research believes Lenovo’s shipments for tablets with phone functions to emerging markets in 2015 are expected to remain strong…

…Samsung’s aggressive expansion of its tablet product line in the first half of 2014 did not receive a good response from the market. Since the company is expected to turn conservative about its tablet business and place most of the resources on the smartphone business in 2015, Digitimes Research expects the Korea-based vendor’s tablet shipments to drop to 36m units in the year.

As for the notebook business, after phasing out from the market in the second half of 2013, Samsung’s shipment volume has dropped rapidly and is only expected to reach 5m units in 2015.

Samsung’s essential weakness compared to Lenovo is its failure to make any profit from selling PCs.


Editorial: No comments. An experiment in elevating the conversation >> St Louis Post-Dispatch

Last Sunday, we challenged our region to have the serious discussion on race that it has been avoiding for decades. Such difficult discussions are made more challenging when, just to present a thoughtful point of view, you have to endure vile and racist comments, shouting and personal attacks.

If you’ve watched many of the talking heads on cable television try to discuss the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, you know what we’re talking about. Unfortunately, sometimes comments on newspaper stories and columns have a similar effect.

In fact, it has a name: “The nasty effect.”

That’s what University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele dubbed the negative effect certain comments can have on a reader’s understanding.

Comments on general news sites are a waste of the readers’ (and arguably writers’) time. I wonder how much further this trend will go.


Apple trial continues, without a plaintiff for now >> Associated Press

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers scolded Marianna Rosen and her attorneys on Monday for not providing more complete information about the iPods Rosen had purchased. That came after Apple lawyers successfully argued that the devices purchased by Rosen were not among those affected by the lawsuit.

But the judge also rejected Apple’s argument that the case should be dismissed because it’s too late to name a new plaintiff. She ordered the attorneys suing Apple to identify a new person, by Tuesday, who can serve as a lead plaintiff.

Both sides estimate about 8 million people bought iPods that are potentially affected by the lawsuit, which focuses on Apple’s use of restrictive software that prevented iPods from playing music purchased from competitors of Apple’s iTunes store. The plaintiffs say that amounted to unfair competition and that Apple was able to sell iPods at inflated prices because the software froze makers of competing devices out of the market.

Apple is carving out entirely new areas of law. There was the antitrust case where it had the minority share (in ebooks), and now a class action (also with antitrust implications) where none of the plaintiffs shows up. Presumably a suitable plaintiff will have to show that they bought music from Real and that it was deleted… but that they then couldn’t reload it or play it on any device, or only on the iPods? Did Apple explicitly promise that they would be able to buy music bought from anywhere on it? (I don’t think so.) The limits of this case aren’t clear.


Robots, not humans, fake 23% of web video ad views, study finds >> Bloomberg

Computers being remotely operated by hackers account for almost one in four views of digital video ads worldwide, according to a study that estimates such fraud will cost advertisers $6.3bn next year.

The fake views, which also account for 11% of other display ads, often take place in the middle of the night when the owners of the hijacked computers are asleep.

The result is retailers, automakers and other companies paying for web advertisements that are never seen by humans, or are seen by fewer people than they are paying for, according to the report released today by the Association of National Advertisers, whose members include Wal-Mart Stores, Ford Motor Co. and Wendy’s.

“We’re being robbed,” said Bob Liodice, president and chief executive officer of the New York-based association, which has 640 members that spend more than $250bn a year in advertising. “This isn’t about system inefficiencies or process sloppiness. This is about criminal activity.”

Between this and Google’s announcement that half of all online ads aren’t actually viewed, a lot of the basis for the online advertising business begins to look a bit shaky.


China’s polluted soil is tainting the country’s food supply >> Businessweek

A new study from the China National Environmental Monitoring Center examines the results of nearly 5,000 soil samples from vegetable plots across China. Roughly a quarter of the sampled areas were polluted. The most common problem is high soil concentrations of heavy metals—such as cadmium, lead, and zinc—which leach out from open mines and industrial sites and into surrounding farmland.

Plants grown in tainted soil can absorb heavy metals. People who ingest high levels of heavy metals over an extended time can develop organ damage and weakened bones, among other medical conditions.


How Gresham’s Law explains why news sites are turning off comments

Re/Code is turning off comments. This comes after Reuters turned off comments, and many other sites have dialled back on allowing comments – Popular Science, the Chicago Sun-Times, and so on. Huffington Post stopped “anonymous” (actually pseudonymous) comments in August 2013.

Pew Research coincidentally has some new research out headlined “About 1 in 5 victims of online harassment say it happened in the comments section“.

It says:

While social media sites (66%) were the most common place noted for harassment, comments sections were named more frequently than online gaming sites (16%) and discussion sites like reddit (10%)… One respondent said, “Comment sections of news articles often contain some very racist, homophobic, sexist language.” Another noted that, on news sites, “people are brutal and seem to feel way too comfortable in their anonymity.”

Comments on newspaper sites are generally rubbish, aren’t they? Snarky, pointless, off-topic, flame-baiting… I think it’s because Gresham’s Law mostly applies.

Gresham’s Law is an economic tenet which is often stated as “bad money drives out good”. That isn’t a good way to put it, really. It’s better described (as in Wikipedia) through an example about money.

Minted

The US used to mint silver to make its nickels and dimes. But the rising price of silver made this expensive – so expensive that the silver in a nickel or dime would be worth more than 5c or 10c. So it began minting nickels and dimes with cheaper metals, bringing the “true” value of the coins below their face value. This preserves their usefulness as currency.

But some of the silver-bearing coins remained in circulation. What’s the logical response to this? If you’re someone with an eye for profit, you offer the equivalent face value of non-silver coins (or paper dollars) for those silver-bearing coins, and leave the rubbish coins to everyone else. In theory, you’ve just made an instant profit. Will you spend those coins as “coins”? Of course not.

What’s happened here is that high-value coins have been replaced with cheap, lower-value ones. People will keep the high-value coins out of circulation because they’re not being properly rewarded for spending them – what they get for spending them is less than the value they perceive in them. They can get better elsewhere.

Bitcoined

Gresham’s Law has more general application, though. In general, you can use it to mean that “people will opt for the cheaper way to get it done”. There’s an interesting economics paper around at the moment which looks at the economics of mining Bitcoin, and suggests that in the long run it will be mined by botnets because then you don’t have to pay for the electricity. You can dispute their reasoning (most profitable Bitcoin mining is done on ASIC rigs these days) but we’ve seen a version before – it’s much easier to hire a botnet to send a gazillion pieces of spam than to hire a server.

So now we come to comments on newspaper sites. I highlight these because they’re different from specialist forums where people with similar interests tend to gather. Newspaper sites get huge numbers of people passing by, though the number who comment is tiny (typically far less than 1% of those who view an article).

But a significant number of those commenters are persistent – and this is where the “bad” can drive out the “good”. There are determined people who just want to leave comments, and view the space below the line as “their” territory. They aren’t interested in adding quality, or bringing new information to the discussion. They just want to dominate.

For an example, look at the comments below this article by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes. There’s a couple of people in there who I can recognise as “regulars” from just having read two of AKH’ articles in the past 24 hours, and looking at the comments: “Owl;Net” and “William.Farrel”. It’s clear that they don’t really have any new information to bring; they’re just there to wind people up.

For people who might have useful experiences, or insight, to bring, the sight of comments and threads like those are a natural STOP sign. Why would you invest your time, knowledge and special insight adding a comment to a thread when you have idiots like that already busy (and commenting repeatedly, and repetitively)? Why would you want to be the 133rd commenter on a story, if you have an insight that you consider has a separate and unique value?

In the manner of someone choosing not to spend their silver-bearing coin, the smart people will tend to stay away from places like that. They might try it once or twice, but then discover that nothing special happens to their comment; it’s just left to twist in the morass of snakes. Deleting comments doesn’t help much; at worst it leaves a sort of potholed wasteland where you wonder quite how offensive the person was to merit the thunderbolt.

What’s been tried

There have been attempts to improve this situation: the Guardian has “staff picks” where particularly insightful or helpful comments get flagged for more visibility, and can be found through a special tab. At the Daily Mail, there’s up- and down-voting – though this doesn’t of course ensure that comments which are intelligent or knowledgeable will be rewarded.

In fact, there’s negative reward. If someone talks nonsense, you can rebut them with facts. Then what happens? Nothing. The person who talked nonsense is free to keep on talking nonsense. There’s no reputation harm for talking rubbish. (By the way, that exchange is a rare case of someone whose views have high externally perceived worth taking the time to rebut twaddle. He doesn’t do it very often 17 comments in more than two years.

For the knowledgeable person, this is negative reward – swapping silver coins for dud metal.

Problems like this are found in all sorts of places where you have unmoderated discussion, though I think that specialist forums probably avoid some of it simply because there’s a shared interest in the topic, rather than the conflict that you often see around topics on newspaper sites. (It’s also why the comments on what we can politely call fan sites will tend towards an echo chamber of approval or disapproval, depending on how the story above leads them.)

There’s the companion problem of pseudonymity causing people to simply find it easy to be rude – letting out their frustrations with everything else in flinging insults around – but that doesn’t fully explain why there are so infrequently any useful comments, especially on technology articles (which is what I see the most, of course).

But rationally, would you want to dump your useful insights into a place where you’ll get someone who has too much time on their hands just writing “LOL FANBOI OMG”, and whose remarks will get just as much prominence as yours? No. Perhaps that’s why less than 1% of people comment: all the other 99% tried it and discovered it was a waste of their time.

Et tu, Twitter?

Why doesn’t Twitter have the same problem? By contrast to the mess that is commenting on news sites, I generally find that people who interact with me on Twitter are interesting, helpful, polite, and offer links to stuff I didn’t know about. And they’re willing to correct me without making it necessary to hang an insult on them. Well, usually.

The difference with Twitter, I think, is that it’s a conversation: there’s always the chance that you can have a rational discussion, which seems often to be almost impossible in comments. If someone’s hell-bent on annoying and insulting you on Twitter, you can just ignore them or block them. If they’re hell-bent on the same in a comment thread, there’s not much you can do, especially since being rational and quoting facts brings no benefit. The proportion of people who’ve admitted they’re wrong on comment threads is as close to zero as you can get and still be a number. The number who’ve admitted being wrong on Twitter might not be high, but I’d bet it’s significantly higher.

Twitter has key two advantages: it’s live, and it streams past. You don’t get either of those feelings on comments threads. As Mic Wright once wrote, newspaper site comments are the radioactive waste of the internet:

At their worst, comments are like toxic waste buried under the foundations of an article and irradiating all rational debate with ignorance and aggression. And, like radiation, the effect of the internet commenting culture is spreading. The degradation of discourse online is mirrored in real-world dialogue. Adults who would balk at bullying in school playgrounds are happy to fling snide and often extremely aggressive comments around.

Kill them with a file

For general-purpose, general-readership sites, commenting is broken in its present form. The irony is that it used to work really well, back in the days of newsgroups and Usenet. Even though newsgroups were ostensibly free for anyone to post on, you could also configure your newsreader to ignore particular posters or topics or pieces of content in posts. (Usenet died because the spambots overran it in the end.) Slashdot had, and still has, its scoring system which you can use for filtering to choose what comments you see (score 5: damn good idea).

I often long for the days of killfiles; it would make the experience of finding the needles in the haystack far more pleasant, and less like finding needles in a slurry tank. Some people do have useful things to say; some people don’t. Yes, some people can write scripts that will make comments by particular people invisible, but those don’t work for the majority. We need something akin to killfiles, akin to Slashdot’s scoring system, to reclaim comments.

Although the logical extension is that if we treat the leaving of comments as being like “spending” (which it is – of the commenter’s attention and knowledge) then the only way to retrieve it from the inexorable creep of Gresham’s Law is to directly reward people for doing it well. Quite what form that “reward” needs to take isn’t obvious (you can come up with a few, I’m sure). But I think it would make a difference.

In the meantime, the comments are going off all over the internet, tiny bit by tiny bit. It calls to mind the death of the long tail of blogging which I wrote about in 2009. (I’m never sure that Tumblr’s quick grab-someone-else’s-content-and-+1 format is really “blogging”. Low friction tends to low value-added.)

Comments have their supporters – Mathew Ingram of Gigaom in particular (and he’s spent his time in the moderation trenches) – but there’s a clear trend away from them.

The radioactive nature, the abuse, the lack of broader engagement, and the fact that lots of the writers are actually on social media, not trawling those comments, all points towards Gresham’s Law taking its inexorable toll. Comments on news sites are broken. Until and unless there’s a fix, the number of established sites that drop them will keep growing.