Start up: Starbucks app hack, more image recognition, HomeKit on the way, drone questions and more


That’s another sort of third-party keyboard altogether. Photo by zen on Flickr.

A selection of 7 links for you. They are. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

EXCLUSIVE: Hackers target Starbucks mobile users, steal from linked credit cards without knowing account number » Bob Sullivan

Sullivan broke this story:

Because Starbucks isn’t answering specific questions about the fraud, I cannot confirm precisely how it works, but I have informed speculation, based on conversations with an anonymous source who is familiar with the crime. The source said Starbucks was known to be wrestling with the problem earlier this year. Essentially, any criminal who obtains username and password credentials to Starbucks.com can drain a consumer’s stored value, and attack their linked credit card.

Hackers often manage to steal hordes of username and password combinations, the way they steal databases of credit card account numbers. Because consumers often re-use credentials, hackers take them and “brute force” thousands of potential logins at the website. Because Starbucks’ mobile payment app is so popular, any large set of stolen credentials is bound to have at least a few combinations that unlock Starbucks accounts.

Perhaps you’re wondering: what’s the use of hacking the Starbucks app? Answer, as a wilier mind than mine pointed out: you can buy Starbucks gift cards at the counter with them. Then you sell them on eBay. (Though I can’t decide if this is pretty small-time crookedness or a huge line of business. Certainly going to be inflating Starbucks’s bottom line though.)


Wolfram Language Artificial Intelligence: the Image Identification project » Stephen Wolfram Blog

“What is this a picture of?” Humans can usually answer such questions instantly, but in the past it’s always seemed out of reach for computers to do this. For nearly 40 years I’ve been sure computers would eventually get there — but I’ve wondered when.
I’ve built systems that give computers all sorts of intelligence, much of it far beyond the human level. And for a long time we’ve been integrating all that intelligence into the Wolfram Language.
Now I’m excited to be able to say that we’ve reached a milestone: there’s finally a function called ImageIdentify built into the Wolfram Language that lets you ask, “What is this a picture of?”— and get an answer.


Apple says first HomeKit smart devices coming in June » WSJ Digits blog

Daisuke Wabayashi:

“HomeKit [hardware certification] has been available for just a few months and we already have dozens of partners who have committed to bringing HomeKit accessories to market and we’re looking forward to the first ones coming next month,” said Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller.

Apple’s statement comes on the heels of a report in Fortune that said Apple’s software platform — which will allow the company’s devices to control connected home appliances — was experiencing problems and that the introduction of the first HomeKit devices were being delayed.

For its part, Apple has never said when HomeKit-compliant devices would start hitting the market, but one developer working with Apple on the platform had told Re/code earlier this year that new products would be ready in May or June.

Interesting: Apple moved quickly to respond to this – within hours – and chose the WSJ to say it.


Dirt cheap drones: Is Europe’s largest Kickstarter in over its head? » Ars Technica UK

Cyrus Farivar:

In January 2015, the Welsh drone startup concluded its Kickstarter campaign to fund production of the Zano. It raised over £2.3m ($3.4m) in under two months, becoming the most crowdfunded European project ever. This summer, Torquing [Group, which is making the device] says it will ship drones to the more than 12,000 people who backed the project.

There’s only one problem. Despite Zano’s release date being less than two months away, no one outside Torquing has actually flown the drone. And it’s questions about the project that are truly beginning to take off.

Ars visited Torquing last month for an exclusive tour of the company’s offices. After spending a couple of hours with the Zano team, we don’t have a good sense of how well the device actually flies. Although we heard more about its touted “swarm” feature, we didn’t see the drone working in a real-world situation; we were merely able to hold a Zano and verify its existence.

Reece Crowther, the company’s head of marketing, regretfully informed us that we turned up just before a shipment of 500 last-minute prototypes arrived. Torquing, therefore, said it was unable to let us fly one. At the time, Reedman noted that only 12 Zanos existed, and we saw what appeared to be only a few of them.

I’m one of the backers. Fingers crossed. I’d expect this to be late, at best.


Sunrise launches ‘Meet’, a custom keyboard to schedule meetings » MacStories

Federico Viticci:

When I first tried Meet, Sunrise’s latest addition to their popular calendar app, I didn’t think it made much sense as a custom keyboard. Now, a few months later, Meet has become my favorite way to check on my availability from any app and create one-to-one meetings. With Meet, the Sunrise team has created one of the most innovative mobile calendar features I’ve seen in years.

Sunrise, part of Microsoft since February, rarely shied away from subverting traditional calendar features found in most clients for smartphones and tablets. As I explored last year, Sunrise’s biggest strengths lie in excellent integration with web services, prolific use of icons to quickly discern events, weather support, external calendars, and the ability to show details for event participants. At its core, Sunrise aims to reimagine the calendar by expanding it beyond a list of days and events

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Super-clever. Expect more lateral thinking on keyboards as a result. Available on iOS and Android. Oh, Windows Phone? Doesn’t allow third-party keyboards.


How smartphone startup Light plans to replace high-end cameras » Re/code

Ina Fried on a company that’s not exactly making a smartphone; it’s making the camera systems to go into them:

Put more simply, Light tries to emulate digitally what a big zoom lens does through expensive glass lenses. It aggregates the data from the different cameras to create both optical zoom and high-resolution images. Light has applied for a bunch of patents to cover aspects of its approach, including creating zoom using images from the multiple fixed-focal length lenses.

As a business, Light is banking on the fact that using smartphone cameras, even a bunch of them, is a far more economical way to achieve the kind of images that in the past have required expensive glass lenses.

The technology is ready, says Grannan, who previously ran start-up Vlingo and also worked at Sprint PCS. There is of course, added cost in putting a bunch of cameras and mirrors inside a cell phone, an addition of perhaps $60 to $80 in the final cost of a phone, Light estimates.

Seems high. Creating a big lens from smaller ones is a solved software problem: it’s how the Very Large Array works, for example. Wonder if this is really a defensible USP.


Why I’m breaking up with Google Chrome » The Next Web

Owen Williams, on a topic I previously linked to:

The Verge reported that using Chrome over Safari resulted in a three and a half hour shorter battery life on the latest MacBook.

I’ve always loved Chrome’s interface, its plethora of extensions, and how it integrates with services every day, but it’s time for something new. We can do better.

The problem is that the Web is now optimized for Chrome users and that means alternatives often provide a terrible experience.

Thanks in part to the browser’s massive market share, the best developer tools and Google’s aggressive adoption of the latest Web technologies, developers have gravitated toward Chrome’s rendering engine as the only one they support.

I’ve switched to Safari (on a Mac), and found that yes, processor use plummets and battery life extends dramatically. Nor is it noticeably slower (or faster).

But the important point here is in the third paragraph of this excerpt: that lots of sites are now using Chrome-specific tweaks, which means that they don’t work as well in other browsers, at least on the desktop.

This does pose a problem if it becomes dominant in mobile: Android isn’t going away, and Chrome is increasingly the default browser on mobile too.


Start up: finding Waldo, Amazon’s tablet gripe, Samsung 4:3 tablet?, better interface design, and more


OK, that’s not so challenging. Picture by cybertoad on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. May contain nuts. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Sapphire displays to see major step forward with lower reflectivity » Mac Rumors

While GT Advanced experienced difficulties with both the quality and quantity of sapphire, it is possible that Gorilla Glass was the better choice for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus after all. TIME reported in September that sapphire, in its current form, has several properties that are less ideal than glass, including being thicker and heavier, more expensive, unable to transmit as much light and less durable after exposure to normal wear and tear. Sapphire also has up to double the screen reflectance of glass, especially under bright light, which could make it difficult to read the screen.

The reflective issue in particular could soon be a thing of the past, however, as DisplayMate confirmed to MacRumors that it has lab tested new sapphire technology that it believes will be a major breakthrough for smartphone displays. The display calibration and evaluation company found the production-ready enhanced sapphire to be at an advantage over both regular sapphire and glass based on the results of its testing, and predicted that “rapidly falling production costs” could make the material go mainstream in the near future.

I doubt that the sapphire being made at GT Advanced was planned for 2014’s iPhones. These problems would have been recognised, and the volumes would be too low to make screens for so many devices. Sapphire feels like a super-top-end product – as it is for Vertu. And that means low volume (comparatively).

Other phone makers are considering it, for sure.


Microsoft’s mobile inabilities » Om Malik

Microsoft has acquired two iOS applications — Acompli (email) and Sunrise* (calendar) — for about $300 million. Those acquisitions are good for the founders (and their investors). Some might see it as a sign of a new Microsoft — aggressive and quick in trying to turnover a new leaf. To me, they are all of that, but more importantly indicative of the much deeper cultural rot facing Microsoft and its now not so new chief executive, Satya Nadella.

“He’s hit all the low-hanging fruit — that said, these things were not easy to do — but now he has to address all the long-term issues,” Brad Silverberg, a former Microsoft executive-turned-venture capitalist told Bloomberg Business in an interview. Spot on — and these two acquisitions are just a perfect example of these long term challenges.

It is a pretty damning indictment that Microsoft had to spend hundreds of millions on front end apps for its own platform –Microsoft Exchange — and it should send alarm bells ringing. Exchange is something Microsoft understands better than most and it should in theory be able to develop good apps as front end for it.

I don’t agree. Nadella is being pragmatic here: Microsoft is a big organisation, and it moves slowly. Everyone recognises that small startups can hit precisely the user needs that big organisations can’t see, or can’t develop for even if they see. It has done poorly in mobile so far.

What it’s doing with these app purchases is strengthening Outlook – locking it in place as a product that will continue to rake in money year after year, especially because everyone will get a great experience using it on mobile via these apps.


Meet the ultimate WikiGnome » Medium

Andrew McMillen:

Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling addressed a packed room as they answered a question that has likely popped into the minds of even the most casual users of Wikipedia: who the hell edits the site, and why do they do it?

Pinchuk and Walling conducted hundreds of interviews to find out. They learned that many serious contributors have an independent streak and thrive off the opportunity to work on any topic they like. Other prolific editors highlight the encyclopedia’s huge global audience or say they derive satisfaction from feeling that their work is of use to someone, no matter how arcane their interests. Then Walling lands on a slide entitled, ‘perfectionism.’ The bespectacled young man pauses, frowning.

“I feel sometimes that this motivation feels a little bit fuzzy, or a little bit negative in some ways… Like, one of my favorite Wikipedians of all time is this user called Giraffedata,” he says. “He has, like, 15,000 edits, and he’s done almost nothing except fix the incorrect use of ‘comprised of’ in articles.”

Turns out to be 51-year-old software engineer Bryan Henderson. It beats commenting on websites as a lasting contribution, don’t you think?


The Next Episode: Apple’s plans for Beats-based music service revealed » 9to5Mac

Mark Gurman on the much-anticipated integration of Beats into Apple:

Rather than merely installing the existing Beats Music app onto iPhones, Apple has decided to deeply integrate Beats into iOS, iTunes, and the Apple TV. The company is currently developing new Beats-infused versions of the Music application for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, as well as an updated iTunes application for computers that deeply integrates Beats functionality. A new Apple TV application is also in the works.

Based heavily upon cloud streaming, Apple’s new service is centered around the user’s music library. A new search feature will be able to locate any song in the iTunes/Beats catalog, and users will be able to stream music from the catalog as well as add songs to their personal libraries. Users will be able to select specific tracks to store on their iOS devices and/or computers, or keep all songs solely in the cloud. Apple will also deeply integrate Beats Music’s Playlists, Activities, and Mixes features into the new service, letting users access a vast array of pre-made, human-curated playlists to fit various activities. Surprisingly, Apple is likely to also update Beats’ social networking features, allowing people to follow other users and artists as they did with the failed Ping social music network.

Aiming for a lower price point than the $9.99 per month; Apple wanted $5 but is being pushed to $7.99 by labels. This fits with what I’ve been hearing from analysts and people in the music industry. A lower price is essential to getting more subscribers.


To make tech design human again, look to the past » WIRED

Tom Lakovic of the design company INDUSTRY:

who’s doing it wrong? Examples are everywhere of touch screens existing where no touchscreen should be. Even our favourite innovators over at Tesla Motors have missed out on potentially great DigiLog experiences in their Model S. Personally, I’d love to redesign their console just so I could get that oversized iPad out of their otherwise amazing cars.

You can’t just lean on PARC-style metaphors in every single context moving forward. You have to evaluate and re-evaluate the tradeoffs of digital versus analog interactions. What you gain by dropping in a giant touchscreen that controls every aspect of your vehicle experience is easy to state: customizable skins and software upgradable UIs, but what is lost in the translation?

I’m pleased that he agrees with me about Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay: I don’t like the distraction they imply. I also liked this diagram of touch done right and wrong:

(Via Neil Cybart’s Above Avalon newsletter. You should subscribe.)


Profitable and uncopyable » Matt Richman

Apple Pay will succeed for one simple reason: Everyone in the system has an interest in it succeeding. Card issuers like Apple Pay because it reduces their fraud liability. Card networks like it because it reinforces their role in the system. Merchants like that it precludes Target-style data breaches. Everyone has a reason to want Apple Pay to succeed, so it will.

How much Apple will profit from Apple Pay is anyone’s guess. Mine is: Over time, a lot. In the US alone, credit and debit card transactions totalled $3.9trn in 2013. Since Apple gets a 0.15% cut of every Apple Pay transaction, a measly 10% transaction share is worth $585m. One year, one country, $585m. Over time, Apple will make billions from Apple Pay.

Though Apple Pay will make Apple a ton of money, the strategic implications of the service are worth far more. With Apple Pay, Apple leveraged its business model, cultural influence, and customer base to enter arguably the most heavily-regulated international system on Earth in a way that everyone already in the system had a reason to like. This is an incredible accomplishment, and no other company could have done it.

Google does not control Android enough to create anything truly comparable to Apple Pay. Even if Google were able to add Apple Pay’s software components to Android, the company would have to rely on its hardware partners to replicate Touch ID and the secure element and to seamlessly integrate everything together. They’re not going to be able to do that for the foreseeable future.

A few nitpicks. Not all retailers like all aspects of Apple Pay – in particular, they don’t get customer data they got previously, and might still want. (Whether they should get that is another matter.) Also, 10% of all transactions is a lot – but his number shows that even a couple of percentage points is very valuable, and almost all profit.

On the topic of Google, there is Google Wallet – whose key problem is poor and inconsistent implementation. The secure element is already available in ARM chips. But it will take a long time to feed through to handsets in use.


Amazon takes issue with report that holiday Fire tablet sales fizzled » Re/code

Dawn Chmielewski:

Researcher IDC said Amazon showed the steepest annual decline among the five major tablet makers, with worldwide shipments of its Kindle Fire devices falling by as much as 70% compared with the holiday 2013 period. The declines come at a time when worldwide shipments in the fourth quarter fell for the first time since the tablet market’s inception in 2010.

But there’s a caveat in the results: IDC doesn’t count shipments of Amazon’s new six-inch version of its Kindle Fire HD tablet, introduced in September and ranked among the “most wished for” gift items of the holiday season. A spokesperson for the retailer criticized IDC’s methodology, saying “our most affordable tablet ever, the Fire HD 6 at $99, which is one of our high volume products, wasn’t included in the report.” She declined to discuss sales.

Er.. if you’re going to call it a “high-volume product”, shouldn’t you help people out by explaining what that volume is? Doing this is like saying the cake you’ve got in the fridge is wayyy bigger than people are saying. But then not opening the fridge. Mmm, cake.

But wait, there’s more:

IDC Senior Research Analyst Jitesh Ubrani said the researcher doesn’t consider the Kindle Fire HD 6 a tablet because of its screen size and its inability to connect to cellular networks. It’s more of a media player, in the researcher’s view. But even if the estimated 1.2m shipments of the device were included in IDC’s numbers, Amazon’s holiday tablet shipments would still be off by 50% from the prior year, he said.

Soooo… the Kindle has hit its ceiling for sales; the Fire phone was a flop; the Fire tablet has fizzled. Let’s look forward to not hearing how the Amazon Echo has sold.


Wishbone: the world’s smallest smart thermometer by Joywing Tech » Kickstarter

The core function of Wishbone is to detect temperature using an infrared sensor. Wishbone is noninvasive, reliable and versatile for many applications. It can accurately measure body temperature by measuring forehead skin and examine liquid temperature from surfaces in just a few seconds. While measuring, Wishbone does not emit any radiation or sound as it uses a passive sensor.  Wishbone can also measure environment temperature by pointing it toward the sky or ceiling. Both Object and Ambient modes are still currently under development.

Works on iOS and Android (it plugs into the headphone jack). I think this is neat; I’ve backed it. (It’s already miles past its goal.) I like the idea of the Object and Ambient modes. Notice too how smartphones are now offering core functionality for medical products like this.

Yes, a simple alcohol thermometer is cheaper – but less flexible. As more people have smartphones, more functions and industries get sucked into them.


New Galaxy Tab 5 might have 4:3 aspect ratio as well » SamMobile

We have already reported that Samsung is working on new Galaxy Tab tablets. It is expected that these tablets are going to have displays with 4:3 aspect ratio instead of the 16:9 aspect ratio that Samsung has stuck with in the past. According to information obtained through the import tracking website Zauba the new Galaxy Tab 5 may also have a 4:3 aspect ratio. The import tracker picked up on a new Galaxy Tab 5 model imported into India and it seems to have a 9.7-inch display, similar to the screen size of Apple’s iPad, which also has a 4:3 ratio.

I’ve been told – endlessly – by people who claim it’s important that 16:9 is the “right” ratio for tablets because it means you can watch films without letterboxing. Now we find that Google (qua the HTC-built Nexus 9) and now perhaps Samsung are going for 4:3, like the iPad… which has seen the most success in the market.