Start up: smartwatches’ app gap, games and VR, smart luggage risks, Apple’s China rivals, and more

Uber aims to dominate – but is that because governments no longer can? Photo by afagen on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Don’t put them anywhere Kanye West wouldn’t. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Smartwatches need to get smarter » Re/code

Walt Mossberg:

I don’t think the smartwatch needs one “killer app,” but I do believe it needs a capability more compelling than what’s out there so far. It needs to do something, all on its own, that’s useful, quick, secure and cool.

I have no crystal ball on this question, but I believe that one way to make the smartwatch indispensable is to make it a sort of digital token that represents you to the environment around you.

For instance, while the phone often is faster and easier for, say, using maps, the watch is much better positioned for communicating with smart items in your home, or even your car. It’s likely to be on your person more than your phone is, it knows who you are and it can be secured to be used by only you. So, with your permission, it could open your door, tell your thermostat you’re home, maybe even start your car remotely.

With your permission, it could open your door, tell your thermostat you’re home, maybe even start your car remotely.

In stores, you could opt in to letting the watch not just pay for items, but order frequent purchases automatically, as you approach. These tasks can be set up and customized on a bigger screen once, and then just happen, effortlessly and often, with the watch.

It’s the proximity thing – which Apple sort-of talked about with a hotel door that could be opened by the Watch when it was first unveiled. Then again, this model relies on the much-vaunted Internet of Things, and we know how swimmingly that’s going.
link to this extract

 


Cheap cab ride? You must have missed Uber’s true cost » The Guardian

Evgeny Morozov:

To put it bluntly: the reason why Uber has so much cash is because, well, governments no longer do. Instead, this money is parked in the offshore accounts of Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms. Look at Apple, which has recently announced that it sits on $200bn of potentially taxable overseas cash, or Facebook, which has just posted record profits of $3.69bn for 2015.

Some of these firms do choose to share their largesse with governments – both Apple and Google have agreed to pay tax bills far smaller than what they owe, in Italy and the UK respectively – but such moves aim at legitimising the questionable tax arrangements they have been using rather than paying their fair share.

Compare this with the dire state of affairs in which most governments and city administrations find themselves today. Starved of tax revenue, they often make things worse by committing themselves to the worst of austerity politics, shrinking the budgets dedicated to infrastructure, innovation, or creating alternatives to the rapacious “platform capitalism” of Silicon Valley.

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that promising services like [Finnish startup offering an “Uber of public transport”] Kutsuplus have to shut down: cut from the seemingly endless cash supply of Google and Goldman Sachs, Uber would have gone under as well. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Finland is one of the more religious advocates of austerity in Europe; having let Nokia go under, the country has now missed another chance.

Morozov nails so much of the fake mystique around these companies, but how many people are really listening?
link to this extract

 


GDC: 16% of game developers are working on VR, up from 7% a year ago » GamesBeat

Dean Takahashi:

Virtual reality has the attention of game developers. A survey by the Game Developers Conference shows that 16 percent of all developers are working on VR titles for 2016, compared with just 7 percent a year ago.

In its fourth annual state of the industry survey, the GDC — the big game developer event that draws about 26,000 people to San Francisco in March — found that PC and mobile games are still the top platforms for developers, but VR is growing fast.

The survey was organized by UBM Tech Game Network, the owner of the GDC, and it is based on the feedback of 2,000 game developers from around the world. The GDC 2016 takes place from March 14 to March 18 at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.

“This year, VR is the thing that more developers want to do,” said Simon Carless, group executive vice president of UBM Tech, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It hasn’t taken over, but it has grown fast.”

link to this extract

 


Xolo sees slumping sales, triggers employee exits » Times of India

Xolo, a sub-brand of homebred handset maker Lava International, has fallen on tough times, with slumping sales triggering a restructuring and employee exits. Its performance has been a drag on the parent, which, some estimates show, has dropped two positions since last year to the No. 5 spot in the fiercely competitive Indian market.

Marketing and sales teams at Lava and Xolo have been merged as part of a group-level restructuring aimed at reducing duplicate roles and bringing in efficiencies, several people close to the development told ET. Over the past few months, quite a few marketing and sales employees from Xolo have joined competitors, while some have been absorbed by Lava, one of them said. The company has shifted retail sales of Lava-branded devices exclusively to offline channels and Xolo to online platforms.

The Indian smartphone market is going through the same crunches as the broader market, but speeded up about fivefold.
link to this extract

 


How Bluesmart’s connected luggage nearly got me kicked off a flight » The Next Web

Natt Garun:

[The TSA security officer] began sorting through my clothes when I looked up at the X-ray monitor and noticed a square around where the luggage’s battery pack would be. Realizing the potential issue, I explained to the officer what he might have been looking for.

“Can you get it out?” he asked. Unfortunately, it was underneath the lining of the interior, so I couldn’t unless I was willing to cut the bag open and break the plastic box.

At this point a second officer shows up to give me the inevitable pat down, and she starts looking through my luggage. They swab it as part of an Explosives Trace Detection test and the bag alarms.

“Miss, where are you headed?”

“Las Vegas – I’m going to CES and I’m actually reviewing this bag for the event.” I explained the concept of the bag and tried to show them the booklet that came with the luggage. The second officer warns me not to touch the bag while she’s inspecting.

At this point my flight was boarding in 40 minutes, and I asked the officers if I’d make my flight.

“I’d be more concerned about your bag than making the flight right now,” she responded.

And so she took out the entire contents of my bag, patting each section as I stood there mortified that my bras and underwears were laid out for all of Chicago O’Hare to see.

Once the bag was empty, the officer pulled apart a velcro strip at the fold of the bag.

My body turned cold.

Really terrible design. And – a “smart case”? Dumb.
link to this extract

 


Outsiders’ chance » The Economist

Without divine intervention, it is hard to imagine Americans electing either of the Republican front-runners to be president. The lesson the party drew from Mitt Romney’s failure to dislodge Mr Obama in 2012 was that, in an increasingly diverse society, the Grand Old Party needed to widen its appeal. Mr Cruz’s target audience, white Christians, represent less than half the population. The obvious solution was to woo Hispanics, one of America’s fastest-growing electoral groups, who hold some conservative views, though only 27% of them voted for Mr Romney.

That was why, in 2013, a handful of Republican senators, including Marco Rubio, who is running third in the primary contest, joined a bipartisan, and ultimately fruitless, effort to legalise the status of millions of illegal immigrants. “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you…if they think you want to deport their grandmother,” declared Mr Rubio, a son of poor Cuban immigrants, at the time. It is even harder when you call them rapists. Mr Trump is easily the most disliked candidate of either party; 60% of voters disapprove of him.

There is a consolation for the Republicans. The Democrats could nominate someone even less electable.

In case you’d forgotten that the Iowa caucuses – where about 250,000 people can begin to decide who gets to be that nominee – begin on Monday.
link to this extract

 


GPS glitch caused outages, fuelled arguments for backup » Inside GNSS

Dee Ann Divis:

Less than a month after Europe switched off most of its Loran transmitters, a problem with GPS satellite timing signal triggered alarms across the continent and caused an unknown number of outages, including the disruption of some features of critical infrastructure.

The GPS problem was caused by an error in ground software uploaded January 26 as system operators removed space vehicle number (SVN) 23 from service. The long-planned deactivation of SVN 23, the oldest of the GPS satellites, clears the way for a new satellite, the last GPS Block IIF, which is to be launched February 4.

The software problem, however, threw GPS’s coordinated universal time (UTC) timing message off by 13 microseconds, which affected the timing data on legacy L-band signals and the time provided by GPS timing receivers, said 50th Space Wing spokesman James Hodges. The problem did not appear to have affected the GPS systems’s ability to provide positioning and navigation service…

…”Every support contract that we have that involves GPS timing receivers called in to say, ‘We’ve got a problem. What’s happening?’ [Charles] Curry [of Chronos Technology] told Inside GNSS.

link to this extract

 


The future is near: 13 design predictions for 2017 » Medium

Chase Buckley:

With UX Evangelists like Tobias van Schneider, Jennifer Aldrich and Chase Buckley behind the wheel, we are steering towards a brighter future. A future where little big details bring about user delight at every corner, where device agnostic pixel perfection is the norm, and where simple day to day experiences engage, excite, and stimulate users in new and innovative ways.

So where do you fit into all of this? To architect the experiences of tomorrow, you must first design the interactions of today. It is not enough to look in front of you; 2016 is already here. You must look ahead, to the future — to 2017 — where the real paradigm shifting trends of tomorrow lie in wait.

This introduction does feel like something from The Office (Chase Buckley referring to himself in the third person? “Architect” as a verb?) but the ideas, especially “failure mapping”, are great.
link to this extract

 


Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo: the challengers leading China’s charge against Apple » The Guardian

My contribution to the wider wisdom on the topic:

China’s phone market, which accounted for a third of all smartphone sales worldwide in 2015, is already slowing as the number of first-time phone buyers declines and people delay replacement purchases. A year ago, phones were being replaced on average after just 13 months; now that period is lengthening. According to Woody Oh, an analyst at research group Strategy Analytics, total Chinese smartphone sales in October-December actually fell by 4%, to 118m; Apple sold 15.5m phones there, up from 13.5m a year before, while its worldwide sales remained flat at 74.4m.

But that was only enough to make Apple the third-biggest supplier behind local firms Huawei (pronounced “Hoo-wah-way”) and Xiaomi (“she-yow-mee”), which each sold nearly 18m units. And just behind Apple were two more local rivals, Vivo and Oppo.

China’s smartphone market was 438m overall in 2015. That’s about 30% of the entire market.
link to this extract

 


Qwerty Looks Set to Stay on Smartphones » CCS Daily Insight

George Jijiasvlii:

I’ve been learning to touch type using the Dvorak keyboard on my laptop for about a month, practising for about 30 minutes per day. I find the Dvorak layout more comfortable, but still can’t type anywhere near as quickly as I can with qwerty. Made-for-smartphone keyboards are similarly more logical, accurate and faster in theory, but require the dedication of enough time to become proficient in using them. The problem lies in this commitment: changing something that’s become second nature is a difficult task.

Qwerty appears here to stay on physical keyboards and smartphones alike, as I don’t expect new designs will win over the masses or disrupt qwerty’s huge installed base any time soon. But the future of mobile communication might not be about taps, swipes or gestures after all.

Our latest multi-country wearables end-user survey found that about 70% of smartphone owners now use voice commands at least once a week, with 20% using the feature on a daily basis. The past few years have seen intelligent personal assistants like Cortana, Google Now and Siri becoming an integral part of the mobile experience, and I won’t be surprised if we revert back to the most rudimentary manner of communication: speech.

Hadn’t seen that voice data anywhere else. A data point in the desert.
link to this extract

 


Windows Phone is dead » The Verge

Tom Warren:

With Lumia sales on the decline and Microsoft’s plan to not produce a large amount of handsets, it’s clear we’re witnessing the end of Windows Phone. Rumors suggest Microsoft is developing a Surface Phone, but it has to make it to the market first. Windows Phone has long been in decline and its app situation is only getting worse. With a lack of hardware, lack of sales, and less than 2% market share, it’s time to call it: Windows Phone is dead. Real Windows on phones might become a thing with Continuum eventually, but Windows Phone as we know it is done.

Did not think the app situation could get worse on WP, but that links shows that yes, it can. I wrote about why Microsoft keeps Windows Phone (perhaps soon to be rebranded Surface Phone) going. And that remains the reason: it’s not about phones.
link to this extract

 


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:

Start up: why Android should encrypt, Facebook v the intifada, 3D Touch v page parking, wary drones and more


“My GPS says we finished ages ago!” Photo by A Brand New Minneapolis on Flickr.

You can now sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Please note: if reading the emails, you can’t link directly to the extracts. Monkeys, eh. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Is Google’s lacklustre support for encryption a human rights issue? » MIT Technology Review

Tom Simonite, reporting on a conference where American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) principal technologist Chris Soghioan argued thus:

People using phones powered by Google’s Android software are not so well protected, said Soghioan. The company said last year that it would make Android phones encrypt all stored data by default, like Apple devices do, but reversed that decision early this year. Google said this month it will require only devices meeting certain hardware performance standards to encrypt stored data, which Soghioan thinks will exclude cheaper devices. Google’s Hangouts text and video chat service bundled with Android does not use end-to-end encryption.

Soghioan said this means that someone who uses a cheap Android device is a much easier target for law enforcement or intelligence agencies — which he argues are prone to abusing their surveillance powers. He cited the way the FBI snooped on Martin Luther King’s phone calls and said he fears that US and overseas activists of today and tomorrow will be even easier targets. “The next civil rights movement will use the technology against which surveillance works best,” he said. Protest movements don’t typically start in society’s upper socioeconomic echelons, he noted.

The difference between Apple and Google’s stances on encryption for mobile devices appears to be due to corporate rather than technical reasons, said Soghioan. “Google has by far the best security team of any company in Silicon Valley, and the security people I know at Google are embarrassed by Android,” he said. “But Apple sells luxury goods and Google gives away services for free in return for access to data.”

That point about protest movements is so important. Would you want people in a repressive regime to have phones that could or couldn’t be tapped? Now you’ve decided, we move on to the next conundrum…
link to this extract


The Facebook intifada » The New York Times

Micah Lakin Avni’s (Israeli) father was stabbed and shot by two Palestinian men in Jerusalem, who acted in the latest intifada (uprising) by Palestinians:

Watching the well-wishers congregating in the intensive care unit, however, I realized that the world leaders who were having the most impact on the situation in the Middle East right now weren’t Mr. Ban or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and other young entrepreneurs who shape the social media platforms most of us use every day.

It may sound strange to talk of Twitter and Facebook as relevant players in the war against terror, but as the recent wave of violence in Israel has proved, that is increasingly the case. The young men who boarded the bus that day intent on murdering my 76-year-old father did not make their decision in a vacuum. One was a regular on Facebook, where he had already posted a “will for any martyr.” Very likely, they made use of one of the thousands of posts, manuals and instructional videos circulating in Palestinian society these last few weeks, like the image, shared by thousands on Facebook, showing an anatomical chart of the human body with advice on where to stab for maximal damage…

…Just as it is universally recognized that shouting fire in a crowded theater is dangerous and should be prohibited, so, too, must we now recognize that rampant online incitement is a danger that must be reckoned with immediately, before more innocent people end up as victims.

Before Facebook or Twitter or Google, those charts would have been available in a library, or in books on sale or smuggled in. What’s different now is the scale and speed with which information can be disseminated. It sounds trite, but what Israel and Palestine need is more speech, not less – but speech of the right kind, to negotiate their differences.
link to this extract


Google owner accuses EU of antitrust about-face » WSJ

Tom Fairless and Natalia Drozdiak:

Google owner Alphabet Inc. accused European Union regulators of making an unexplained about-face in their decision to file antitrust charges against the US search giant, and warned that there was “no basis” for imposing fines, according to a redacted copy of Google’s response seen by The Wall Street Journal.

The response, which runs to almost 130 pages and leans heavily on legal opinions and case law, suggests that Google is gearing up for a protracted legal battle against the European Commission, which has alleged the search giant skewed search results to favor its own comparison-shopping service.

“The theory on which the [EU’s] preliminary conclusions rest is so ambiguous that the Commission itself concluded three times that the concern had been resolved,” Google’s lawyers wrote in the document.

It’s certainly a good point that the EC antitrust team were ready to okay everything, and then decided not to. But the EC would say that new evidence became available (which it did) and that changed things. Less convincing on Google’s part is its quoting of a US academic who used to be in the US Department of Justice antitrust side. That’s not likely to hold any sway.
link to this extract


Why every GPS overestimates distance travelled » IEEE Spectrum

Douglas McCormick on how an Austrian team discovered subtle but persistent errors in GPS:

Not content with mere calculation, Ranacher, Reich, and their colleagues went on to test their findings experimentally. In an empty parking lot, they staked out a square course 10 m on a side, reference-marked each side at precise 1-m intervals, and set a GPS-equipped pedestrian (a volunteer, one hopes) to walk the perimeter 25 times, taking a position reading at each reference mark.

The researchers analyzed the data for segment lengths of 1 meter and 5 meters. They found that the mean GPS measurement for the 1-m reference distance was 1.02m (σ2 = 0.3) and the mean GPS measurement for the 5-m reference distance was 5.06m (σ2 = 2.0).  They also ran a similar experiment with automobiles on a longer course, with similar results.

Now, that pedestrian-course error of 1.2% to 2% isn’t huge. But it is big enough that your GPS watch could tell you you’re crossing the finish line of a 42,195-metre [26-mile] marathon while the real terminus is more than 400 meters ahead.

Sooo.. how do they measure a marathon? Does someone go around with one of those wheel things? Asking for all my marathon-running friends.
link to this extract


3D Touch on iPhone 6S: embrace the Force » Nielsen-Norman Group

Raluca Budiu:

Is this a feature worth having? Yes, as an enhancement. There is a lot of potential for improving the user experience and supporting behaviors that mobile and desktop users are engaging in already. Two of them come to mind: microsessions and avoiding pogo sticking.

Microsessions are phone sessions that are 15 seconds or shorter. Recent research by Denzil Ferreira and colleagues shows that 40% of app launches are microsessions, namely short interactions in which users are able to quickly satisfy their goals. A common microsession activity is checking for updates in an app (such as Email or Facebook); the quick actions offer an opportunity for rapid access to such frequent tasks or content. Peek-and-pop views should also make many microsessions more efficient for users.

Pogo sticking refers to alternating between inspecting a collection of items (such as a list of products) and looking at each item individually (a product in the list). It is usually an inefficient behavior because it makes users jump back and forth between pages, losing not only time for loading the page but also the time needed for recovering context. Our recent research with Millennials shows that pogo sticking is so annoying that, on desktop, users have developed a special behavior called page parking to avoid it. On mobile phones, page parking is a lot more difficult.

“Page parking” is basically “open that link in another tab/window while I get on with this”. Other points: interstitials screw up the previewing experience, and so do “can we use your location?” questions.
link to this extract


Back-alley upgrades: in China, $100 can get you an 128GB iPhone boost » WSJ

Yang Jie and Josh Chin:

If you’re an Apple Inc. device user, you can also now boost your iPhone’s storage from the cramped-feeling 16GB standard to a cavernous 128GB for less than a hundred bucks.

Mobile phone repair shops in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai have sparked curiosity on sidewalks and social media by offering the service, which appears aimed at the many aspirational Chinese device users who can’t afford the roughly $200 premium attached to large-capacity iPhones.

Some are offering the service through online shops on China’s biggest e-commerce site Taobao. One such shop offers to upgrade an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus from 16GB to 128GB for 500 yuan ($79). Descriptions posted by several Taobao vendors indicate that the new storage card is hand-welded into the phone after the old card is removed. An unnamed software [program] is then used to trick the device into accepting the unapproved hardware.

Love the comment from one customer: “I’ve used it for a day. It feels so great.”
link to this extract


Huawei emerges as 2nd largest Android brand in EU’s big five » Kantar Worldpanel

“In urban China, with a market share that grew 72% over the third quarter of 2014, Huawei remained the top brand followed by Xiaomi and Apple,” Tamsin Timpson, strategic insight director at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech Asia, commented. “iOS continued to grow year over year with 56% of iPhone buyers during the quarter switching from Android and with iPhone 6 and 6Plus retaining their positions as the best selling and second best-selling smartphones.

“Next month all eyes will be on Apple’s performance in the US and China, as many observers continue to doubt the size of the remaining opportunity for Apple,” Milanesi explained. “28% of consumers in China who own smartphones plan to upgrade in the next 12 months. Among them, 79% of those who own iPhones, and 25% of those who own Android devices, say they prefer Apple.”

That “56% of iPhone buyers in China were switchers” number is remarkable – perhaps it was people waiting for the 6S/Plus. Meanwhile in the UK, Samsung and LG were the only Android makers to grow their share; the implication seems to be that people were switching to iPhones.
link to this extract


Self-flying drone dips, darts and dives through trees at 30 mph » MIT CSAIL

Adam Conner-Simons of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory:

“Everyone is building drones these days, but nobody knows how to get them to stop running into things,” says CSAIL PhD student Andrew Barry, who developed the system as part of his thesis with MIT professor Russ Tedrake. “Sensors like lidar are too heavy to put on small aircraft, and creating maps of the environment in advance isn’t practical. If we want drones that can fly quickly and navigate in the real world, we need better, faster algorithms.”

Running 20 times faster than existing software, Barry’s stereo-vision algorithm allows the drone to detect objects and build a full map of its surroundings in real-time. Operating at 120 frames per second, the software – which is open-source and available online – extracts depth information at a speed of 8.3 milliseconds per frame.

The drone, which weighs just over a pound and has a 34-inch wingspan, was made from off-the-shelf components costing about $1,700, including a camera on each wing and two processors no fancier than the ones you’d find on a cellphone.

If this doesn’t lead to an amazing VR “fox and hounds” sort of game soon, someone’s missing a trick. Quad-core CPUs and stereo cameras. Expect the price to halve in a year or so.

link to this extract


Hilton obstructed investigation into Wi-Fi blocking at hotels, FCC says » Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday issued proposed fines against two companies in its latest actions against Wi-Fi blocking at hotels and convention centers.

The FCC said it proposed a $25,000 fine against Hilton Worldwide Holdings “for its apparent obstruction of an investigation into whether Hilton engaged in the blocking of consumers’ Wi-Fi devices.” The FCC also plans a $718,000 fine against M.C. Dean, a Wi-Fi access provider that is accused of “blocking consumers’ Wi-Fi connections at the Baltimore Convention Center” on dozens of occasions.

Each company has been accused of blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots that let consumers share mobile data access with other devices such as laptops and tablets. Hilton and M.C. Dean must pay the fines within 30 days or file written statements seeking reduction or cancellation of the penalties.

The FCC last year received a complaint against a Hilton hotel in Anaheim, California that the company “blocked Wi-Fi access for visitors at the venue unless they paid a $500 fee.” More complaints against other Hilton properties followed, and in November 2014, the FCC issued Hilton a letter of inquiry seeking information about its Wi-Fi management practices at various Hilton-owned hotel chains.

Obstructing the FCC seems to be a parlour game for some companies. Remember Google and its Wi-Fi sniffing? That earned a $25,000 FCC fine for impeding investigation in 2012.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: gave the wrong link for the Microsoft OneDrive story in yesterday’s email – this is the right one (damn ZDNet scrolling system). And no, you won’t use up 5GB of storage with 10 Microsoft Word documents. Unless they’re very big.