Start up: sexism in funding, Powa struggles, China’s smartphone rat race, Apple software, and more

Good password on paper

A bit dated? Doesn’t matter, password crackers are after you. Photo by Simon Lieschke on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Plaited in plaid. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

VCs- don’t compare me to your wife, just don’t » Medium

Sarah Nadav:

Investors, you should know that the only thing that I have in common with your wife is a vagina. You need to know that because the women who are sitting in front of you to pitch are Entrepreneurs – and we are a totally different breed of human being than just about anyone else.

Your wife may or may not be an entrepreneur. But the extent to which she is founding a company is the extent to which I have something in common with her.

When you ask me about having it all, or how am I going to manage my kids, I seriously think that you are insane. Because in my head, I can’t imagine a scenario where you trust someone with millions of dollars to run a business but think that they don’t know how to deal with childcare.

Oh, but you have to read the message exchange with one venture capitalist about A Woman’s Place. According to him it definitely isn’t in the boardroom.
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China smartphone market sees its highest shipment ever of 117.3m in 2015Q4 » IDC

Shipments grew 8% year-on-year in the quarter:

“Xiaomi, Huawei and Apple are the top smartphone players in 2015. This is a stark contrast to the top players in 2013, which was Samsung, Lenovo and Coolpad – with Samsung clearly dominating other players. With operators reducing smartphone subsidy and given the volatility of consumers’ brand preference in the market, the smartphone scene has changed significantly since then,” says Tay Xiaohan, Senior Market Analyst with IDC Asia/Pacific’s Client Devices team.

“Xiaomi entered the market at a time when the China smartphone market was still growing, and was able to capture a significant market share with its disruptive sales model. Huawei, with its investments in R&D, strong products, branding and channel connections, saw it having significant growth in 2015. Apple, on the other hand, continues to be a strong and desirable brand in the eyes of the Chinese consumers. With the Chinese market now slowing down, it is unlikely that we will see any new players making a big impact on the smartphone market compared to the way Xiaomi did in the previous years,” adds Ms. Tay.

So the door is shut to new entrants. Remember that scene in Skyfall where Javier Bardem is describing rat removal to James Bond? (Here’s the link if you’d forgotten.) The smartphone business in China now turns into that scenario.
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The superhero of artificial intelligence: can this genius keep it in check? » The Guardian

Clemency Burton-Hill on DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis. The interview with him is OK – though mostly dead-bat responses from him – but I thought this was more indicative of the challenge, and potential for the company:

Upstairs, wrapping the original building, is a modern open-plan structure featuring a deck with undeniably magnificent views of London’s rooftops.

It’s up here, on Friday nights, that the DeepMinders gather for drinks. One employee describes the ritual to me enthusiastically as a way “to end the week on a high”. Socialising is an intrinsic way of life: I’m told of the DeepMind running club, football team, board games club. (“That one gets pretty competitive.”) A wall chart with moveable photographs indicates where everyone is hot-desking on any given day. It’s aggressively open-plan. The engineers – mostly male – that I pass in the corridors shatter the stereotype of people working in the nerdier corners of human endeavour: these guys look fit, happy, cool. A certain air of intellectual glamour, it has to be said, vibrates in the atmosphere. And no wonder. The smartest people on the planet are queuing up to work here, and the retention rate is, so far, a remarkable 100%, despite the accelerating focus on AI among many of Google’s biggest competitors, not to mention leading universities all over the globe.

“We’re really lucky,” says Hassabis, who compares his company to the Apollo programme and Manhattan Project for both the breathtaking scale of its ambition and the quality of the minds he is assembling at an ever increasing rate. “We are able to literally get the best scientists from each country each year. So we’ll have, say, the person that won the Physics Olympiad in Poland, the person who got the top maths PhD of the year in France. We’ve got more ideas than we’ve got researchers, but at the same time, there are more great people coming to our door than we can take on. So we’re in a very fortunate position. The only limitation is how many people we can absorb without damaging the culture.”

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Powa Technologies missed staff and contractor payments » FT.com

Kadhim Shubber and Murad Ahmed:

Powa has raised about $175m, mainly from Boston-based investment fund Wellington Management, which the company says values it at $2.7bn.

Its headquarters are spread over two floors in what Mr Wagner called in one of the videos “the opulent surroundings” of Heron Tower, a skyscraper in the heart of City of London. A person with knowledge of the matter said that Powa could be paying as much as £2.5m a year.

When Powa was founded in 2007, it planned to develop a mobile payments system. More recently it has focused on its PowaTag product, a mobile platform that allows people to buy and order a product by photographing an image of it with their mobile phones.

Mr Wagner has predicted that the business will be bigger than Google or Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce group. “What we’re building here is the biggest tech company in living memory,” he told the Financial Times in April last year.

But in the video to staff, Mr Wagner said that the company was “basically pre-revenue”, a term that refers to a lack of sales. “As we go forward from here that revenue will start to flow in meaningful ways but right now it isn’t,” he said.

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Dan Lyons’ HubSpot book ‘Disrupted’: a few predictions » BostInno

Kyle Alspach on the forthcoming book from “Fake Steve Jobs”, aka Lyons, who worked for a while at Hubspot:

• The book is going to accuse HubSpot’s management of being hypocritical—touting how the company is making a positive difference in the world when in reality, according to Lyons at least, they’re not much better than spammers. We already knew this from the shorter description that was posted previously, but the superlatives from other authors suggest just how central the theme will be to the book:

– “Dan Lyons goes deep inside a company that uses terms like ‘world class marketing thought leaders’ to show us how ridiculous, wasteful, and infantile tech start-ups like this can be.”―Nick Bilton (author of “Hatching Twitter”)

– Disrupted “just might tell us something important about the hypocrisy and cult-like fervor inside today’s technology giants.”―Brad Stone (author of “The Everything Store”)

– “Disrupted explores the ways in which many technology companies have come to fool the public and themselves.”—Ashlee Vance (author of “Elon Musk”)

• Some HubSpot executives will definitely be singled out. Such as: “Dan’s absentee boss sent cryptic emails about employees who had ‘graduated’ (read: been fired).”

Waiter! Popcorn!
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Password cracking attacks on Bitcoin wallets net $103,000 » Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

Hackers have siphoned about $103,000 out of Bitcoin accounts that were protected with an alternative security measure, according to research that tracked six years’ worth of transactions. Account-holders used easy-to-remember passwords to protect their accounts instead of the long cryptographic keys normally required.

The heists were carried out against almost 900 accounts where the owners used passwords to generate the private encryption keys required to withdraw funds. In many cases, the vulnerable accounts were drained within minutes or seconds of going live. The electronic wallets were popularly known as “brain wallets” because, the thinking went, Bitcoin funds were stored in users’ minds through memorization of a password rather than a 64-character private key that had to be written on paper or stored digitally. For years, brain wallets were promoted as a safer and more user-friendly way to secure Bitcoins and other digital currencies, although Gregory Maxwell, Gavin Andresen, and many other Bitcoin experts had long warned that they were a bad idea.

Here’s a paper about what happened; to crack the wallets, tables with as many as billions of potential passwords may have been deployed against them. Yes, billions.
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New finding may explain heat loss in fusion reactors » MIT News

The expectation by physicists for more than a decade had been that turbulence associated with ions (atoms with an electric charge) was so much larger than turbulence caused by electrons — nearly two orders of magnitude smaller — that the latter would be completely smeared out by the much larger eddies. And even if the smaller eddies survived the larger-scale disruptions, the conventional thinking went, these electron-scale whirls would be so much smaller that their effects would be negligible.

The new findings show that this conventional wisdom was wrong on both counts. The two scales of turbulence do indeed coexist, the researchers found, and they interact with each other so strongly that it’s impossible to understand their effects without including both kinds in any simulations.

However, it requires prodigious amounts of computer time to run simulations that encompass such widely disparate scales, explains Howard, who is the lead author on the paper detailing these simulations.

Accomplishing each simulation required 15 million hours of computation, carried out by 17,000 processors over a period of 37 days at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center — making this team the biggest user of that facility for the year. Using an ordinary MacBook Pro to run the full set of six simulations that the team carried out, Howard estimates, would have taken 3,000 years.

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Apple’s elephant in the room » Medium

Alexandra Mintsopoulos on the meme about Apple’s “declining” software quality:

If the biggest example that can be pointed to is iTunes or its back-end (which seem to generate the most criticism) then there isn’t any validity to the idea that Apple’s software quality is declining. iTunes has been the target of complaints for as long as anyone can remember and it seems clear that it will be reworked much like Photos, iWork, or Final Cut have been (and likely receive the same backlash for missing functionality). The reason it hasn’t been done sooner is obvious: it has hundreds of millions of users and transacts billions of dollars in sales, revamping it from the ground up is akin to fixing an airplane while it’s in flight and won’t be done lightly.

There is a massive disconnect between enthusiasts and Apple’s broader customer base on the perception of Apple’s software quality. That is a PR problem for Apple to solve, not a software one.

I thought it was pretty clear in Eddy Cue’s appearance on John Gruber’s podcast (linked here yesterday) that Cue said iTunes is being redesigned, but you don’t do that sort of thing in an afternoon. The vast majority of iTunes-on-desktop users are not using Apple Music. The problem that then needs to be solved is to what extent iTunes could, or should, be broken into multiple apps.
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My Telltale heart: From Monkey Island to the Walking Dead – games matter » The Malcontent

Mic Wright, arguing (on yesterday’s point) that yes, video games are a cultural product:

Most of the brain trust from LucasArts ended up in a berth at TellTale games, where the rabbit and pooch P.I team of Sam & Max and Guybrush Threepwood, the protagonist of the Monkey Island games, also ended up.

Preempting a question I have just imagined Charles – who commissioned my first ever piece for The Guardian – asking, Telltale/LucasArts has also delivered more serious and dramatic gaming experiences. The Game of Thrones and Walking Dead games developed by the studio drop the player into storylines where moral and tactical decisions are at the heart of the gameplay.

In the branching narratives, you’re forced to decide which friends or allies to sacrifice among other pretty gut-wrenching choices. Both sets of titles fundamentally dive into the nature of what it is to be a human in society and, through your choices, end up making you think about your real life character and behaviour.

Of course lots of games are just games, but then what does the average Adam Sandler movie or Dan Brown novel tell us about the human experience?

Touché on that last one. I remain sceptical; I’m not saying that video games cannot be cultural, emotional experiences. However, I don’t think they’ve generally achieved that yet. The question is whether they will continue to remain at the Sandler/Brown end of the spectrum, where I think they are.

After all, very few “games” (chess, squash, football) achieve “cultural event” status. The only ones I can think off immediately are the 1972 Fischer-Spassky chess match (west v east, a cold war fought with chess pieces) and 1997’s chess match of Kasparov v Deep Blue (humans v machines – disappointing outcome). Wimbledon finals, World Cup finals, some Olympic events do manage a “where were you when..?” status, but that’s not quite the same as having cultural impact – i.e. showing us something about where we really are. Any other suggestions?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

Start up: SLR death throes, why fusion won’t change things, Apple’s waterproof phone?, Samsung’s big spend, and more


What are those funny phones they’re holding, dad? Photo by w|©kedf|lm on Flickr

A selection of 10 links for you. Slather over the body when nobody is looking. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Prediction: the age of the standalone still camera is coming to an end for all but pros » Vincent Laforet’s Blog

who wants to stick a CF/SD card in a computer, import, edit, tone, export, share / publish a website anymore – when you can do the same thing in 1-3 clicks of your thumb on a smartphone?

The battle is over… the smartphones and iOSs have won. The quality is good enough on a smartphone/iPhone today, that when combined with software the need for a dedicated still camera can appear to be a burden to the majority of people out there: unless they have a specific technical need that only a DSLR or speciality lenses can offer.

With platforms like Twitter, FB, Storehouse, Instagram, 500 pixels, Tumblr etc etc – it’s too late to go back to the clunky way of doing things unless you are TRULY a big time hobbyist who loves the process. And I do! But not that often… and truth is: we’re in the vast minority…

The technological trends and shift towards digital and now smartphones that are connected to the web are undeniably the most important factors at play here: we’re all gotten used to having a $300-$900 mini computer on us at ALL times, and you can’t compete with a tool that is glued to your end-user… no camera company can compete with that, and they simply haven’t even tried to put editing/social media software into their cameras, which is a potentially devastating oversight long term.

It’s not that dramatic a prediction, but it’s the relentlessness that’s so imposing.


If Lockheed’s recent announcement on nuclear fusion energy is true, how would it change the world? » Quora

Ryan Carlyle, who says he’s a BSChE (chemical engineer?) and subsea hydraulics engineer, is here to rain on the parade:

Real-world fusion reactors aren’t going to be like “Mr Fusion” style reactors from Back To The Future. I mean, seriously -it ran on garbage and powered a flying car. That almost makes the time travel plot seem realistic in comparison. But that’s what people seem to think when they hear “miniature fusion plant.”

Pro tip: the physics of fusion power do not support the concept of automobile-scale fusion. Seriously, this isn’t Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor; it’s just a thermoelectric power plant with a slightly smaller heat source. You need a giant steam turbine and ridiculously giant cooling system to generate serious electricity from a fusion reactor. Even if you miniaturize the reaction chamber, the support equipment required for electricity generation will still be extremely large.

Here’s a small nuclear power plant. I have helpfully indicated the size of the actual fission reactor inside the containment structure:

And here’s my detailed conceptual rendering of a “miniature” fusion reactor power plant with the same power output:

And that’s only the start of it.


Ghacks is dying and needs your help » gHacks Tech News

Martin Brinkmann, who started the site in 2005 and was able to make it his full-time job, now faces the chasm:

In addition to [Google downranking the site in 2011 with its Penguin search update], ad blockers and script blockers became increasingly popular. Since advertisement is what keeps this site alive, a yearly increase between 5 and 10% in ad-block usage is not something that you can endure for long especially if it goes hand in hand with a decline in traffic.

Currently, between 42% and 44% of all users use blockers when they visit the site and if the trend continues, more than 50% might before the end of the year.

If you take these two factors together, it is only a matter of time before ad revenue won’t be sufficient to pay for the site’s upkeep anymore.

Advertising is dying in its current form. While I could make a quick buck throwing popups, auto-playing videos or other nasty stuff at you, I’d never do that.

Heck, those are the things that make people use ad-blockers in the first place and as much as I like this site to survive, I like to protect the integrity of this site and you from these diabolical monetization methods even more.

Advertisements won’t be sufficient to keep this site up and there is not really much out there that I could implement or try instead to make sure this site is not taken off the Internet in the next year.

He’s going to try Patreon. Presently the pledges aren’t enough to cover the server costs – $280 per month?! I wish him luck, but I’m not optimistic. (I’ll return to see how things are in a few months.)

I think Brinkmann’s business problems are probably echoed all over the web by small sites which were once able to make money from ads, but are now finding them sucked up by Facebook, or Twitter, or the effect of Google invisibility.


US DOJ accuses three men in largest email breach ‘in the history of the Internet’ » GeekWire

Frank Catalano:

The indictments against two Vietnamese citizens and a Canadian citizen — operating from Vietnam, the Netherlands, and Canada — alleges the trio were involved in hacking at least eight U.S. email service providers, spamming tens of millions of email recipients, getting money from affiliate relationships for spammed products, and laundering the proceeds.

“The defendants allegedly made millions of dollars by stealing over a billion email addresses from email service providers,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Caldwell said in a statement. “This case again demonstrates the resolve of the Department of Justice to bring accused cyber hackers from overseas to face justice in the United States.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates the accused allegedly took in approximately $2 million through the affiliate marketing sales linked to spam. One of the three is said to have already pleaded guilty.

Brian Krebs suggests it was a breach of the email marketing company Epsilon in 2011 – whose servers were then hijacked to send the spam. A reminder that spam is still big, big business.


Why do we care about Xiaomi? » Benedict Evans

Evans (who works at VC company a16z) thinks we care (or should) because of what it implies for the “next stage” of Android:

Historically, Google’s lock on Android outside China has therefore been based on three things: 

• You can’t experiment outside very tight constraints: making even one forked device means Google won’t allow you to sell a single phone running Google services. And all the OEMs have too much to lose to risk experimenting
• There’s a widespread belief that an Android device without Google services (really, this means Maps and the app store) is unsaleable outside China (I’m not entirely sure about this, as I wrote here)
• No OEM managed to build a compelling set of services or tools of its own that might offer alternatives to Google, because, well, that was impossible (see above)

These new trends place all of those in question. The growth of smaller operators pursuing different models, with no existing base of sales and hence nothing to fear from  Google ban, may mean more experiments with forks. Xiaomi and its imitators point to a new potential model to differentiate (and note that Xiaomi is not a fork), and Cyanogen (an a16z portfolio company) offers the tools to do it. Smaller OEMs are less powerful than Samsung as a counterpart to Google, but also harder collectively to impose upon – Google can’t shout at them all.


Apple researching device waterproofing via vapor deposition, silicone seals » Apple Insider

Mikey Campbell:

As published by the US Patent and Trademark Office, Apple’s filing for “Methods for shielding electronic components from moisture” outlines a process for coating sensitive device components using advanced vapor deposition technology and protecting solder leads with silicone seals.

Instead of sealing off the entire device housing like a common wristwatch, Apple proposes coating integral components, like the printed circuit board (PCB), with a hydrophobic coating. Depositing the coating via plasma-assisted chemical vapor deposition (PACVD) would create an acceptable insulating layer to protect against short circuits that occur when high voltage parts are exposed to liquid.

I’ve thought for some time that Apple would add waterproofing (well, water resistance) to its phones in due course, but that it sees no rush while it’s not completely commonplace elsewhere. (Look at how Samsung has taken it out of the Galaxy S6.) This would also require factory equipment, so might be something for 2016’s range.


Technology helps visually impaired navigate the Tube » BBC News

Hugh Pym (the health editor):

Members of the Youth Forum of the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) said they wanted to navigate the tube system independently.

Currently most have to rely on friends to help them get used to familiar routes or phone ahead to request assistance from London Underground staff. Many do not feel confident about using the whole network. They group teamed up with a digital products designer, ustwo, which then devised a system which was effective below ground.

The Bluetooth beacons transmit signals which can be picked up by smartphones and other mobile devices. Audible directions are provided to users via “bone conduction” earphones which allow them to hear sounds around them as well.

The directions warn users when they are approaching escalators and ticket barriers and which platforms they may be approaching. It’s the first such trial of a technology which can guide blind and partially sighted people underground or in areas with limited mobile phone reception.

Developers say it could be used in other subway networks like those in Newcastle and Glasgow or in other busy public transport hubs

That’s ustwo, as in Monument Valley. Many strings to their bow. Wonderfully clever application.


Samsung breaks records with £45m push behind Galaxy S6 » Daily Telegraph

Chris Williams:

Samsung is launching a record-breaking £45m marketing barrage to support its new Galaxy S6 smartphone and regain ground lost to Apple.

The figure, disclosed by industry sources, is the largest ever for a mobile phone launch and is believed to be the largest for any single product in the UK.

Samsung is spending heavily across all traditional and new media marketing channels, but is understood to be especially targeting the mass audiences provided by television and high-profile outdoor advertising sites.

The Galaxy S6 is already being heavily promoted on the digital billboards on the London Underground network, for instance.

Samsung also paid for a special advert based on the Galaxy S6 launch event last week in Barcelona. It aired three hours later in the UK on Sunday evening during ITV’s primetime drama Mr Selfridge.

Samsung has long been among the world’s biggest marketing spenders, devoting a larger proportion of its annual sales to promoting its products than any other top 20 global company.

Reading the comments under Apple articles always reveals two trains of thought, often following each other: (1) Apple is only popular because it spends so much on marketing (2) [when it’s pointed out that Samsung spends more] Apple is only popular because “the media” pushes it.

On the basis of (1), the S6 is going to be the most humungous hit, surely?


Popular Xiaomi phone could put data at risk » Bluebox Security

There’s a big asterisk on this one, but first read what Andrew Blaich found:

We ran several of the top malware and antivirus scanners on the Mi 4 to determine if any questionable apps came pre-loaded on the device. We used several scanners to compile a comprehensive list as some scanners returned nothing and others flagged different apps. Ultimately, we found six suspicious apps that can be considered malware, spyware or adware; a few were more notable than others.

One particularly nefarious app was Yt Service. Yt Service embeds an adware service called DarthPusher that delivers ads to the device among other things[2]. This was an interesting find because, though the app was named Yt Service, the developer package was named com.google.hfapservice (note this app is NOT from Google). Yt Service is highly suspicious because it disguised its package to look as if it came from Google; something an Android user would expect to find on their device. In other words, it tricks users into believing it’s a “safe” app vetted by Google.

Other risky apps of note included PhoneGuardService (com.egame.tonyCore.feicheng) classified as a Trojan, AppStats classified (org.zxl.appstats) as riskware and SMSreg classified as malware[3]

However, Xiaomi says that the device “appears to have been tampered [with] in the distribution/retail process by an unknown third party”. But as Blaich points out, if it’s that easy to mess with, that raises other questions too. Selling smartphones isn’t as simple as just choosing a spec list.


The Apple Watch is time, saved » TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino does that thing where, you know, you talk to sources to find stuff out, which he then collects in this fascinating article:

Here’s a tidbit you might not know — in order to receive notifications from apps, the Watch must be on your wrist and locked. The Watch requires contact with your skin to receive notifications. There will be no in-app dropdown notifications or constant pinging while it’s off your wrist. Push notifications also cease when the battery reaches 10%. Those decisions speak to the care with which Apple is handling notifications.

The notifications are also different at an elemental level than the ones on your phone — both on the developer and user side of things. These are seen right away rather than at some point. You act on them quickly and they don’t stack up like they do on the phone.

There is that added bit of context because you know exactly when they got it, which means that time-sensitive notifications like those that recommend a precise establishment or ping you during a live event become much more germane.

And this is a key point:

the only resource we all have exactly in common is time. Kings don’t have more of it than peasants. Not everyone will be able to afford an Apple Watch (or even an iPhone), but if they’re in an economic situation where that’s feasible then they’re also in the situation where they are probably willing to trade money for time.