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The Internet Of Things Will Be A Hotel California For Your Data

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 23:09

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Web

The Internet of Things promises to create mountains upon mountains of data, but none of it will be yours.

I don't mean that you won't be generating lots of data with your Fitbit, smartphone and a myriad of other devices. No, I just mean that—as the Electronic Frontier Foundation warns—come the Internet of Things, all your data will belong to someone else.

I've written about the importance of open source to the Internet of Things to preserve developer freedom and encourage standards. But what may be even more important is the ability of open source to keep your data ... yours.

The Hotel California Of IoT Data

Software may be eating the world, to quote Marc Andreessen, by powering ever-greater shares of our ever-more digital lives. But that software is nearly always closed to us. Despite the rise of open-source software, virtually none of the software that we use is actually accessible to us.

That's a problem.

As the EFF spotlights, "when it comes to digital products, owners have rights. Renters on the other hand, have only permission." Make no mistake, in today's digital age, we are most definitely "renters" with virtually no rights—including rights to our data.

While we may have superficial access to our data, we rarely have ownership of it—or of any digital things, for that matter. (When I "buy" a movie I don't really own it; I just have the right to watch it on a certain device). This is particularly problematic for the Internet of Things, as the EFF notes:

If my car breaks down, I want to be able to take it the mechanic I trust, not the one General Motors hand-picks for me. I also don’t want my trusted mechanic driven out of business because she can’t afford to pay licensing fees for the diagnostic codes she needs to do her job. Or maybe I want to tinker with the software to make the car run better, or test it for malware. As author Mr. Jalopy succinctly put it, “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” And if you don’t own it, it may pwn you.

A General Problem

Not that Internet of Things vendors are particularly evil. As Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond points out, mobile (apps, operating systems, everything) reflects this same trend of locking in user data. Actually, as Twitter open source chief Chris Anisczczyk laments, basically the entire Internet these days is constructed with a one-way data street in mind. 

Sadly, we've come to expect this, something Ethan Zuckerman posits was inevitable given our unwillingness to pay for value:

[A]dvertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see. Outrage over experimental manipulation of these profiles by social networks and dating companies has led to heated debates amongst the technologically savvy, but hasn’t shrunk the user bases of these services, as users now accept that this sort of manipulation is an integral part of the online experience.

We can do better. Do we want to, though?

Noted privacy and open source advocate Glyn Moody reminds us that "if they have your [Internet of Things] data, they know all about you," with "big privacy issues" as a result. At an individual level we may not care ... that is, until our personal health data is used to block us from buying life insurance, or millions of cars, including ours, are remotely unlocked and made available to thieves.

This is not necessarily different from tracking on the Web, which has been par for the course for years, as noted. But as Mike Pittaro suggests, "[Internet of Things] with device/service lock is just a rich source of easy to control data."

Not that I want to be a Luddite alarmist. I don't. I just worry that we're far too casual about the implications of the Internet of Things and data.

Just because a device generates my data doesn't mean its vendor should own that data. And while credit card hacks make the headlines, I'm more concerned by legitimate businesses tapping into my personal, Thing-generated data to offer or deny me services.

How about you? Think it's a big deal or overblown? Your comments are welcome.

Photo by Sonny Abesamis

Don't Text Me! Let's Revive The Lost Art Of Emailing

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 18:34

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Web

I, like so many people, spend an ungodly amount of time each day checking email. Every time my phone pings, I eagerly look at my inbox hoping to see the musings of a loved one. More likely, it's the latest sale that the GAP wants to make sure I absolutely don’t miss.

Sadly, nobody sends me real emails anymore. Not since the days of AOL CDs aplenty have I received an electronic missive from a real human being whom I know. And yet, the email keeps coming.

The Radicati Group, Inc. projects that email users worldwide will reach roughly 4.3 billion in 2015.  Who's sending all that email? It's not your wacky aunt forwarding racist cartoons, meaningless petitions and  urban legends easily debunked on Snopes.com. According to Radicati, 80% of content marketers use email to blast consumers with Wall-E style “Try blue, it’s the new red!” bulletins. 

Between all the advertising mailing lists we can't recall signing up for, entreaties from Nigerian princes, and of course, our wacky racist aunts, can you blame us? Most people have at least three email addresses, which we need for work, to sign up on social networks and what have you. But we've have abandoned using email for actual communication in favor of texting, Facebook, Twitter or SnapChat. 

It's not the same. A picture with some text that’s available for three seconds will never capture the same spirit of an email written to you by your best friend, especially when you may not be able to see that friend as often as you’d like. Social media offers are fast, quick communication and get the job done, but they detract from the very essence of why we communicate; to form and nurture a connection. 

 Let’s put a stop to the spam and reclaim our inboxes as spaces for personal communication.  

First, Face Your Mess

If your inbox looks like mine, an episode of Hoarders but with way less mummified cats, then you know the feeling of doom associated with wading through thousands of messages that are there lingering for that day you decide you’re eventually going to read them or file them.

Fortunately for all of us (mostly me) there are lots of ways to do this as efficiently and pain free as possible.

Unsubscribe from the lists. You can hit each one list by list or use a nifty and fast free service like unroll.me to do it for you. They’ll assist you in deleting (or keeping) the email lists that you’re currently subscribed to faster than the Grinch can steal the last can of Who Hash.

Make like a Brita and filter it. Depending on your email client of choice there should be options for filtering mail as it comes at you, thus keeping your inbox free of clutter and as organized as I wish my closets were. Make sure to check out the help section to see what’s available.

Consolidate it. With nearly everyone having multiple email addresses, it's  cumbersome to check each and every single account. Slingshot your mail  to one centralized account for easier organization and to save time. Check to see what type of POP settings your client of choice offers and whether or not it’s a free service.

Delete it. Do you really need to keep it? Will you refer back to it? Have you looked at it in the last eight months? Is it a receipt from 10 years ago? Sure, there are some emails that everyone keeps to reflect on in later years, but chances are you don’t really need it any longer. Make like Elsa and "let it go!"

Now, Think of Something Cool and Tell Him I Said It

Now that your email is completely organized, junk free and has that new inbox smell, it’s time to fill it with things you actually want to read. Here are some ideas to get you started. 

Start with conscious emailing. When in doubt, just email people pictures of your children or pets. (People LOVE to see other people’s children and pets, trust me.) Better yet, write an email. Maybe your grandmother is as tech savy and awesome as mine is. 

How about a significant other who would love to receive details about your life that you forget get to share at the dinner table? Perhaps your best friend lives on the other side of the country and going to get coffee and catching up just isn’t in the cards. Whomever you want to connect with, ditch WhatsApp and KiK and sit down at the keyboard.

Join an email subscription featuring content that you actually want to read. Websites like Dailylit.com provide  one chapter a day from a wide variety of book titles. They’ll give you something to look forward to everyday and cross that resolution off your list to read more all in one free swoop.

Whichever tools you use to bleach your inbox and however you decide to take back control, making any sort of positive change in communication style is a job well done. And now that you’ve sent out dazzling emails to everyone in your address book, it’s time to sit back, relax and wait for the soft ping to let you know ‘You’ve Got Mail!’

Lead image by Mike Licht

From Kings To Grannies: These Vine Stars Are Starting The New Year In The Top 10

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 14:54

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Web

Vine, the social media platform for creating and sharing short video loops, is one of the hottest growing social media trends right now. Here's a look at the top 10 Viners from the last 30 days based on new followers. Which up-and-coming Vine stars continue to grown in popularity in 2015, and whose careers will fizzle and burn before the year is out? We've got a few ideas.

No 1: King Of The Hill

At the top of the heap this month we have KingBach coming in with 624,567 new followers. Arguably best known for his infamous #ButThatBackFlipTho Vine, KingBach brings us comedic stylings with a street sensibility that even Grandma can enjoy ... if she's OK with occasional cursing.  

No. 2: School Is Hard

No. 2 on our list is Lele Pons with 488,666 new followers. LeLe brings us a lot of slapstick comedy, and with it, the relief that high school (for some of us), is over and we never ever have to go back. Ever.

No. 3: Hey Piano Man

Rudy Mancuso comes to us at No. 3 with 450,714 new followers. Rudy may  clown around frequently with his friend and fellow Viner, King Bach, but he also knows how to bang out a tune on various instruments which his Vines demonstrate.

No. 4: Farts + Close up = Success for LIFE

JAY VERSACE, who is not afraid of ALL CAPS or close-up selfie videos, is in 4th place with 441,653 new followers. While other Viners are building their shorts around a concept, JAY is building his around the fact that his farts smell like iPhone chargers. It's working out well—because, let's face it—nothing is funnier than flatulence.

No. 5: That One Kid From Some Nickelodeon Show Or Whatever

Halfway between being incredibly awesome and kinda mediocre, we arrive at Josh Peck at No. 5. Josh, who is quick to point out that he’s real famous vs. Vine famous, models his comedy closer to that of his friends LeLe Pons and KingBach. Real famous or not, Josh is pretty funny and more importantly, allows other people hold the camera from time to time. JAY, are you taking notes?

No. 6: And Now For A Word From Our Sponsors

Oddly enough Vine itself comes in at number 6 with 427,493 new followers. More like a looping vlog for its business, Vine’s Vines provide news about new features, people dancing poorly in settings where dancing is uncalled for and musicians who one day may be real famous... just like Josh Peck! While it makes sense to use your own platform to spread knowledge and create brand identity, blank videos with dripping sounds and a hashtag isn't the way to do it. At all.

No. 7: Stop Trying to Make Fetch Happen

Logan Paul steals the No. 7 slot with a whopping 418,010 new followers. Logan, who claims he never begs for followers, spends a lot of his time begging for followers on other social media accounts like Instagram. While his bro comedy does have a certain charm, I think we all know what Regina George would say about the like-for-like requests.

No. 8: Low-Carb Snacks For On-The-Go

No. 8 goes to Nash Grier with 395,704 new followers. Nash is somehow No. 1 in all of Vinedom. Seriously, how did this happen? This kid makes me sad for humanity and scared for the future of our infrastructure. If you’re in the market for a new diet plan in 2015 that will really work, check out Nash’s video of him chewing a tube of chapstick like a cow; it’s guaranteed to make you never want to eat food again.

No. 9: Background Actor No. 1

Not-the-worst this month is Christian DelGrosso at No. 9 with 361,406 new followers. You may recognize Christian from some of his more popular friend’s videos. Christian is pretty funny in his own right, even if he is enrolled in the Logan Paul School of Social Media Advertisement.

No. 10: Granny Got Game

Like the last kid picked for Dodge Ball, Curtis Lepore rolls into 10th place with 344,808 new followers, which he should still be proud of. Curtis’ saving grace is not his more popular friends, but his grandma who easily steals the show in every video in which she appears. Coming in closely behind Grandma are Curtis' parents. We can safely assume they'll only get funnier as they age.

BONUS: It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane ...

As a special treat and not to be left out of the fun is David Lopez with 228,864 new followers this month. His humor is pretty spot-on and his BatJuan is hilarious. Any man who will willingly post several videos of himself in a Superman onesie is pretty much aces in my book.

Lead image courtesy of YouTube

Apple Watch Battery Supposedly Lasts Only A Couple Of Hours Under Heavy Use

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 23:40

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Web

Woe be to anyone actually planning to use an Apple Watch. 

According to sources cited by Apple blog 9to5Mac, the still-unreleased iOS smartwatch’s battery life lasts only for a couple hours of heavy use. 

See also: What You Can Do With The Apple Watch

Standby time looks better; it can hang on for up to 2 or 3 days. But that presumes you don’t actually use anything that makes the gadget “smart.” 

A Dismal Power Play

Apple never willingly discloses the battery capacity of its mobile devices. Typically, those specifications and more come to light after an Apple product launches and gets autopsied—er, a proper teardown—by the tech community. 

So it's no surprise that the company didn’t specify details about its upcoming smartwatch's power cell. At its press conference last year, the only thing the company would say was that it would require nightly charging. 

The latest report seems to dig in a bit more. Its unnamed sources, whose relationship to Apple (if any) was not disclosed, said the company tested the device in various scenarios. Through steady standard app use, the device lasted up to 3.5 hours. Intensive gameplay hammered the battery more, yielding 2.5 hours of life. Ultimately, the device’s energy-swilling processor and beautiful, but power-hungry display are some of the key reasons for the drain. 

Apple supposedly thinks fitness-tracking features could somehow yield better battery life. As illogical as that sounds, the company supposedly targets almost 4 straight hours of exercise tracking. 

A Gadget That Dies Before Lunch?

Battery life for wearables is a fundamental problem. The 5-to-7 day battery life of Pebble—with its e-paper, non-touchscreen—sits on one end of the spectrum, while rivals like Android Wear’s growing army of wrist devices sat on the other, thanks to limited life typically in the 1-to-2 day range. But if there's any truth to this report about the Apple Watch and its scant few hours of functionality under actual use, that could represent a new low for smartwatches. 

Fast-charging could help ease the situation. The site also reports that Apple could be in the throes of refining its MagSafe charging connection to allow for speedier juice-ups. 

Although tech circles seem to be hot on wrist gadgets, the public at large hasn't quite made them a mainstream trend yet. Previously, the Apple Watch looked like it could've gone a long way toward sparking consumer demand. Now, it's unclear if customers, particularly those used to seemingly endless battery life from traditional watches, will embrace a wearable that could die before lunchtime. 

The Apple Watch is expected to launch some time around the end of March. 

Photo courtesy of Apple

Pebble Strikes Deal To Become The Smartwatch Of Choice For First Responders

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 21:26

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Web

Pebble has long been able to dish up phone alerts and pay for our Starbucks lattés. Now, it may even help save lives. 

Pebble just struck a deal with CommandWear System to become a communication lifeline for first responders. CommandWear's platform aims to help emergency workers stay connected without compromising their “situational awareness,” by adding distractions that can compromise safety. 

The mobile device and wearable-based system should allow firefighters, police, paramedics and other rescue workers to keep their senses alert and their hands on important tasks. 

According to CommandWear founder and CEO Michael Morrow, “With the Pebble smartwatch, we have a solution that meets the demanding operational requirements of durability, long battery life and simplicity that all first responders need.”

Here’s how Pebble may serve those who serve us.

The Wrist Steps In When Communication Is Critical

For Pebble, the move represents another step forward on its path to becoming a viable workplace wearable. 

Originally positioned as a personal device for individual consumers, the startup is expanding into partnership territory with various companies, including Salesforce, LiveEnsure, Strap and Wolfram, with deals pending for more. The CommandWear deal thus becomes another building block in Pebble's enterprise plan. 

The CommandWear system will use Pebble’s two-way texting capabilities, so emergency workers can receive messages from central command and send basic replies, without having to dig out a separate gadget. 

However, those capabilities are less than robust. Pebble has no built-in text-authoring tools, like voice dictation—the watch has no microphone—so that essentially means pre-written, canned replies.

Other smartwatches boast voice features, making Pebble seem like an unlikely choice. But after CommandWear tested it with police, paramedics and others, the company found its benefits make up for the missing features. 

Its simplicity is key, CommandWear found. Pebble has buttons instead of a touchscreen, so workers can operate the watch even while wearing gloves. The device is also durable enough to use in the field. Pebble has a waterproof rating of 5 atmospheres, which means it's safe to wear even while swimming, (though not scuba diving).  The e-paper display is especially practical. Since screen  reflects light instead of being backlighted, there are no visibility challenges in direct sunlight.

Staying Focused On What's Important

Pebble's vibration alerts are strong enough to grab the wearer's attention in situations where it's tough to hear. “At festivals, concerts and other large public events, noise levels can be at a height where you can’t hear yourself think, let alone hear radio communications,” Rod Salem, director of emergency management operations at BC Ambulance, told ReadWrite. He notes that some workers have tried pilot-style headsets, and they help, but "they are cumbersome and not conducive to caring for patients in the field,” he said.

Pebble also offers long battery life. Android Wear gadgets tend to go for a day or two, at most. Pebble lasts five days on a single charge—perhaps even longer, when its integrated fitness-tracking features aren't running.

The deal comes as part of the debut of CommandWear 2.0, which gives its mobile app multimedia features for one-touch photo or video uploads and location tags. 

According to CommandWear founder and CEO Michael Morrow, “With the Pebble smartwatch, we have a solution that meets the demanding operational requirements of durability, long battery life and simplicity that all first responders need.”

Communication among diverse emergency response units can be a critical issue, particularly when urgent disasters strike. Private and government organizations have been working on improving systems for radio communications and smartphones. Wearables like Pebble might be a big leap forward in helping those who help everyone else. 

Lead photo by Nestor Galina; all other photos by ReadWrite

Braintree Betas Bitcoin For U.S. Merchants

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 20:51

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Web

Soon it may be possible to pay in Bitcoin from any merchant that uses Braintree.

The service already allows participating merchants to support payments from credit and debit cards, PayPal, Venmo, and Apple Pay. Now, thanks to Braintree’s partnership with Bitcoin storage provider Coinbase, U.S. merchants can join a private beta to accept Bitcoin, too, Braintree announced Thursday.

In order to join the private beta, merchants must opt in to the program by inserting a few lines of code to its latest payments platform, the v.zero SDK. Braintree is not announcing any participating merchants yet, a spokesperson told ReadWrite, but merchants can start using the program as early as Thursday.

See also: Bitcoin Receives Nod From Financial Sector In Coinbase Funding Round

The price of a single Bitcoin may be falling, but merchants’ faith in the currency is strong. Though a Bitcoin was worth more than $1000 last January and less than $250 today, users are spending, trading, and investing the cryptocurrency at an increased pace. This is why Bitcoin functionality may be desirable for many of Braintree’s merchants, including Uber, Open Table and Hotel Tonight. 

"Bitcoin is growing in popularity for consumer and merchants alike,” wrote Aunkur Arya, Braintree’s general manager of mobile. “We’ve partnered with Coinbase to make it easy and secure for merchants to accept Bitcoin and for consumers to pay via Bitcoin.”

Photo by Francis Storr


Google Enters The Wireless Provider Market, With Sprint And T-Mobile's Help

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 16:07

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Web

Google will sell wireless service plans directly to consumers, managing both calls and mobile data on a cellular network, The Information reports.  

Sources close to the deal say that Google will pay Sprint and T-Mobile for access to their mobile networks, according to The Information. 

What's more, if the contract with Sprint results in a large enough influx of new Google mobile customers, the telecom can renegotiate its deal, The Wall Street Journal reported

This news reveals another prong of Google's desire to bring the Internet to every nook and cranny of the Universe. Earlier this week, Google bought a piece of SpaceX, Elon Musk's space exploration startup, investing $1 billion in the company in order to further develop satellites that could beam the Internet back at the Earth.

On Friday, Google sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commision asking for more access to high-frequency radio bands. According to the tech giant's request, such access would allow for crazy new innovations like beaming broadband down from hot air balloons and drones. This missive came on the heels of another one sent in late December lobbying for access to telephone poles, which would allow Google to deploy Google Fiber at one tenth the cost it currently does. 

The End May Be Nigh For Keyboard, Mouse And Monitor, Thanks To Microsoft

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 23:51

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Web

Yesterday, Microsoft was still a sad sack desperately trying to make up for missing out on the mobile hoopla. Today, the formerly boring office tech supplier got its innovation mojo back in one of the most exciting ways possible. 

The change is enough to induce whiplash. Just the same, at its Windows 10 press briefing in Redmond, Wash., Wednesday, the company unleashed a bevy of announcements and demos—the most noteworthy of which revolved around Cortana voice features, gestures and something it calls “Windows Holographic,” a sort of souped-up augmented reality platform. Microsoft's take puts more realistic 3D images in front of eyeballs along with text, layering them over our view of the real world as seen through its new HoloLens goggles. (To see the product video, scroll down.)

See also: Holograms! Also, What Else Microsoft Announced Today

Voice, gestures and wearable face gear are nothing new to the tech scene, but Microsoft’s bold play here certainly is. It’s as if the company, vowing never to miss out on another emerging trend again, flipped a switch to shake up human-to-computer interfaces. When people can talk to their tech, see 3D representations in the air and interact with media or docs by waving their hands, the long-term survival for the keyboard, mouse and monitor suddenly seems precarious.

Microsoft is far from alone in trying to usher in the new golden age of interfaces that Hollywood has been promising for years. Oddly enough, it might even have the best chance of succeeding. 

Speak UpIn Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a computer he can talk to. 

Microsoft's answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now, Cortana has been making its way from frivolous smartphone distraction to a key part of the company's strategy. The voice feature cements its place now as part of Windows 10.

Cortana, whose name comes from the popular video game Halo, factors heavily in some of Microsoft’s other initiatives—like its partnership with Insteon last year, which promoted Cortana as a way of enabling voice for its smart home. It’s also a main feature of the Microsoft Band, the company’s first foray into wrist gadgets. 

Insteon's smart home can respond to voice commands, courtesy of Cortana.

Now people will be able to talk to their Windows computers—possibly en masse. 

Although desktop PC sales have slumped in recent years, "the U.S. consumer PC market will finally move to positive growth in 2015,” says IDC's Rajani Singh, senior research analyst for personal computing. The reason: “the slowdown in the tablet market, vendor and OEM efforts to rejuvenate the PC market, the launch of Window 10, and replacement of older PCs,” he said.

Although Apple has increased its share in the last quarter, the lion's share of computers today are still PCs running Windows. According to NetMarketShare, more than 90% of personal computers currently run Windows, with nearly two-thirds running Windows 7 or 8.

Moving users through the upgrade cycle can be a slow process, but Microsoft wants to fast-track version 7 and 8 users to the new environment. The company announced that Windows 10 upgrades will be free this year for those users. It also made it somewhat irresistible: Microsoft baked its new Windows Holographic into version 10, to give possibly legions of users a taste of the future. 

Holla Back, HoloLens

These innovations got their start under former CEO Steve Ballmer, but his successor, Satya Nadella—a man who has proven to be an exciting (though slightly long-winded) speaker—will get the credit. It is under his watch that Microsoft finally trotted out the pet project of chief innovator, Alex Kipman, which was seven years in the making.

The main news isn’t that Microsoft has developed voice, 3D visuals and gesture support. Most major tech companies have done the same. It’s that the Windows maker has tied them together in a way that strikes a chord with our inner child, who still so badly wants to be Iron Man or rock Minority Report-style technology.

This morning, Microsoft made us believe we can, even if we won't look as slick with fat glasses lashed onto our heads. 

But at least the hardware for Windows Holographic would put supposedly realistic 3D imagery in front of our eyes. Meanwhile Cortana would let us speak to conjure information or kick on actions, and gesture support would transform us into conductors of symphonic computing, allowing us to manipulate virtual items in mid-air. 

(If you absolutely must have a display, and have plenty of funds, then ponder the Surface Hub, Microsoft's 84-inch 4K behemoth—a huge, incredibly high-res screen that could cost as much as a car. That’s a guess, though. Microsoft didn't actually announce pricing or availability.)

This is the future Microsoft thinks it can give us, not in 10 years or five years, but with Windows 10 this year.

The lynchpin for those changes is the HoloLens, a set of goggles with the equivalent of a small computer embedded inside.  

Marty McFly's kid tipped us off ages ago.The real-life HoloLens Microsoft just announced.

The technology could have big implications for pursuits like gaming and entertainment. But Microsoft knows its best chance at reaching the public may lie in workplace applications. 

Existing augmented reality devices like Epson Moverio, virtual reality goggles like the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR and other face gear like Google Glass may have the highest utility in enterprise environments—think doctors that can conjure step-by-step procedures hands-free or warehouse workers who can check on supply chain levels by looking at certain beacon points. Educators have been excited about the technology as well, bringing lessons to life in classrooms and museums.

None of those options deliver realistic imagery, though, and they don't tie into gestures and voice. Microsoft also announced APIs, to give developers a chance to show us what we can really do with this technology. 

Voice- and gesture-activated virtual computing environments certainly won’t become mainstream overnight. But it could happen sooner than anyone thought. And surprise, Microsoft, of all companies, could be the one to make it happen. 

For a taste of the future it envisions, check out its product video below. 

Film publicity photos courtesy of respective companies: Iron Man (Paramount Pictures), The Minority Report (20th Century Fox), Her (Annapurna Pictures), Back to the Future, Part II (Universal Pictures), and Ender's Game (Summit Entertainment); screenshots of Microsoft press event captured by Stephanie Chan for ReadWrite; all other photos by Adriana for ReadWrite

Holograms! Also, What Else Microsoft Announced At Its Windows 10 Event

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 20:45

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Web

Microsoft billed its Wednesday event as an introduction to Windows 10. But what everyone's going to remember are the holograms.

That's because Microsoft finally found a secret it could keep. A little more than halfway through its presentation here in Redmond, Wash., executive Alex Kipman took the stage to unveil an entirely new Windows project: Windows Holographic, a new software architecture for displaying virtual holograms.

Of course, Holographic requires special hardware, and Microsoft unveiled that, too, in the form of self-contained smart goggles it calls HoloLens. This is a self-contained computing system that can project holographic images onto surfaces and into space that the user can then manipulate, save, copy and share.

See also: What Windows 10 Will—And Won't—Do

The HoloLens demos were unquestionably impressive. In one, a Microsoft employee used software called Holo Studio to build a model of a virtual drone—one that could be 3D-printed and built (at least up to a point). In others, NASA scientists used the technology to "walk" on Mars and a related app to control a Mars rover.

HoloLens sort of stole the show, although the presentation raised far more questions than it answered. Kipman described the headset as the "first untethered holographic computer," noting that it requires no cables, no associated smartphone or computer and no external cameras. It does, of course, work with Windows 10; holographic APIs will be included in every version of Windows 10.

But basics like pricing, battery life and availability are yet to be determined, although the device will supposedly be available around the time Windows 10 ships. Which will be at some unspecified point later this year.

The Rest Of The Story

Of course, there's lots of news as well on Windows 10, the long-awaited replacement to the enormous kludge that was Windows 8.

The new OS is a reboot of Microsoft's tentpole Windows franchise worthy of J.J. Abrams. It effectively undoes most of Windows 8's most egregious errors—specifically its clumsy mishmash of desktop and mobile-oriented interface features—and aims to lay the groundwork for the company's mobile ambitions.

See also: Microsoft To Offer Free Windows 10 Upgrades For A Year After Launch

Here's a quick runthrough of those further announcements:

  • Windows 10 will be free! For the first year after launch as an upgrade to existing, older OSes, at least.
  • Cortana is everywhere: Microsoft's new personal assistant—i.e., a rival to Apple's Siri and Google Now—debuted last year in Windows Phone. It's now moving everywhere in the Windows universe, serving up voice command for PCs, personalized information like your flight schedules and so forth, and taking over many search functions from the desktop home screen.
  • This. Is. SPARTAN! The rumored non-Internet Explorer browser is a reality. It has three aims: Enable notetaking and annotation of Web pages that users can share; standardize the experience of reading on the Web by making many Web sites look more like book pages (something sure to be popular with publishers), and integrate Cortana into browsing.
  • Across the Continuum: It's finally showtime for this feature, which reconfigures the Windows 10 interface between desktop and tablet modes depending on what peripherals—i.e., keyboard and mouse—are attached to a given device. This feature could be key for making "hybrid" PC-tablet devices truly useful.
  • Surface Hub: A new device CEO Satya Nadella likes to call "enterprise TV," the Surface Hub is an 84-inch video whiteboard and meeting device. It offers nifty features for sharing presentations and documents and allowing team-based annotation.
  • Xbox integration: Xbox chief Phil Spencer unveiled new features that will draw Windows 10 PCs closer to the Xbox gaming console. It'll be possible, for instance, to stream Xbox games to your PC, to have multiplayer sessions across local PCs and Xboxes, and to save snippets of gameplay on a PC-based "game DVR."

Screencap of Holo Studio demo courtesy of Microsoft

IBM The World's Largest Cloud? Not Even Close

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 19:53

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Sometimes an untruth is so breathtaking in its audacity that you have to at least admire the chutzpah that gave it birth. Take, for example, IBM's claim that it now does $7 billion in "cloud revenue," making it the world's "largest cloud provider," as a spokesperson told GigaOm's Barb Darrow.

While IBM is a credible cloud provider, its claims are wishful thinking, at best.

In fact, the only serious cloud competition to Amazon Web Services (AWS) remains Microsoft, with Google also mounting a challenge. IBM? Not so much.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World

Not that IBM is alone in its myth-making. Just six months ago Microsoft went on the offensive, touting its overall cloud numbers as a multi-billion dollar machine. This led at least one analyst to proclaim Microsoft the top cloud by revenue.

If only.

As it turns out, Microsoft was (openly) adding in things like Office 365 to that overall cloud number. While fair, when we're crowning cloud providers most tend to think of Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) or Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), not Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). 

Or, in the case of IBM, its crufty old managed hosting business or other "cloud" outsourcing deals.

This isn't the first time that IBM has fudged the numbers to make its cloud business look bigger than it is. Back in 2013, IBM launched a marketing campaign around AWS re:Invent with a variety of bold claims, none of which had much grounding in fact. One claim, for example, asked, "Whose cloud powers 270,000 more websites than Amazon? If your answer is IBM, you're among the well informed."

Well, no. If you answered that, you're among the Big Blue-wearing gullible.

Not only is IBM a relatively tiny cloud compared to AWS, it's also not nearly as enterprise-ready, as an analysis by Gartner shows. AWS covers 92% of the enterprise use cases delineated by Gartner as essential. Microsoft Azure, a distant second, hits 76%. IBM? It sits well behind the pack, despite its enterprise DNA.

Big And Getting Bigger

Martin Schroeter, IBM’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, touted IBM's cloud growth on the company's recent earnings call:

Together cloud, analytics, mobile, social and security generated $25 billion in revenue, which is 27% of IBM....Analytics was up 7% on a large base. And with 60% revenue growth, our cloud business is substantial. It’s now $7 billion in revenue, and we exited the year with an annual as-a-Service run rate of $3.5 billion. That’s up from $2.2 billion a year ago.

That's great (once we parse the "cloud" numbers correctly), but it pales in comparison to AWS' dedicated, cloud only business. 

As Benedict Evans captures, Amazon's "other" revenue, which is mostly its AWS business, is on a tear, and is 100% cloud:

While AWS may have given a little ground—as of 2013 it was estimated by Gartner's Lydia Leong to be five times the utilized capacity of its next 14 largest competitors combined - it still dwarfs IBM and every other vendor. Such "relentless economies of scale," as Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady notes, makes for "daunting" competition: AWS' cost advantages just keep getting better, even as it builds out proprietary networking and other infrastructure to ensure top performance.

What does this scale look like? As AWS engineer James Hamilton declared recently, "Every day, AWS adds enough new server capacity to support all of Amazon’s global infrastructure when it was a $7B annual revenue enterprise (in 2004)."

In other words, enough capacity to support IBM's so-called $7 billion cloud business. Every. Single. Day. 

Stick To The Facts

None of which is meant to disparage IBM's cloud business. Softlayer, the underlying infrastructure powering IBM's IaaS business, is awesome and likely to keep getting better.

But IBM poorly serves its customers when it dupes them into believing it is more successful than it is. Fortunately, as a Piper Jaffray survey indicates, few are fooled:

Source: WSJ

IBM, like Microsoft before it, would do better to focus on building out its cloud to rival AWS in functionality even as it carves out its own approach to cloud. Microsoft's Azure cloud business has soared as a result of this strategy, generating real, substantial growth. So long as IBM keeps pretending to a throne it doesn't deserve, it will remain an also-ran in the battle of the clouds.

Surprise! You Can Now Buy Terrorist-Baiting Charlie Hebdo App In Apple's App Store And Google Play

Mon, 01/19/2015 - 15:54

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Five years after the staff of Charlie Hebdo gave up on the idea of submitting an app to Apple due to its notoriously restrictive approval process for political and controversial content, the French satirical magazine now has one live in the App Store, as well a Google Play.

What a difference a bunch of dead cartoonists makes.

Last week, Apple approved a "Je Suis Charlie" geo-tracking app for people who want to show their support for free expression in the wake of the massacre at the publication's office in Paris.

"Contrary to what you thought would happen if Charlie Hebdo was to submit its app, it did get approved," a spokesperson from Le Monde, the French daily newspaper which built the app, said.

Groupe Le Monde, which owns Le Monde, is one of several media outlets in France to offer material support to Charlie Hebdo following the January 7 terrorist attack, which left 10 staff members dead. Along with with the daily newspaper Libération, Radio France and France Televisions, Groupe Le Monde volunteered staff and equipment to ensure Charlie Hebdo's continued publication.

As part of that support, Le Monde's mobile team began building the Charlie Hebdo app the day after the massacre. They wanted to have the app available for download on Friday, the day the first post-shooting issue of Charlie Hebdo hit the newsstands, the spokesperson told ReadWrite. Now, anyone unable to find a print copy of Charlie Hebdo's 3 million-issue run (up from its standard 60,000) can download the app in both the Apple App Store and Google Play.

The Charlie Hebdo app is free to download, but you have to make a $2.99 in-app purchase in order to access the latest issue, or shell out $89.99 for a year's subscription. The latest issue is available in English and Spanish as well as French. But Anglophones and Hispanophones take note: future issues will be only appear in French.

According to Le Monde's spokesperson, time limitations proved the greatest obstacle in getting the Charlie Hebdo app on the market. "We needed to build the app, to translate all the content to Spanish and in English, and hurry a way to display the translations," he told ReadWrite. "Second, we needed to get the proper documents from Charlie's survivors to open the official accounts, and as you can guess they were mourning their loss, working on the survivor's issue, dealing with the press."

Despite Charlie Hebdo's caustic content, receiving Apple's approval for the app was not a problem. "Apple and Google both have been very kind and helpful and of course they never asked to limit the content in any way," the spokesperson told ReadWrite.

Even the cover of Charlie Hebdo's latest edition, which depicts the prophet Muhammad holding a "Je Suis Charlie" sign" while shedding a tear, appears in the App Store. Depicting Muhammad's image--something that Charlie Hebdo does regularly--is considered heretical to some Muslims.

The necessity of making an in-app purchase to access Charlie Hebdo's content may provide Apple with enough comfortable distance to approve the free app. Regardless, it's a dramatic change for Apple, which rejected comparatively tame American political cartoonist Mark Fiore's animation app in 2009. Offending images included, according to Apple's rejection letter at the time, cartoons that criticized torture and White House party crashers. It wasn't until 2010, when Fiore won the Pulitzer Prize, that Apple relented.

An onslaught of customer complaints following Fiore's rejection also led to changes in Apple's rules, which now allow apps that feature ridicule of public figures and the like. Apple's difficult relationship with satire remained an issue, however. In 2013, the App Store rejected the iOS game "Sweat Shop," which dealt with the conditions in Third World factories.

Whether the Charlie Hebdo app is an aberration greenlighted in the aftermath of a horrifying tragedy, or this marks a real change to Apple's App Store and iTunes restrictions, remains to be seen. 

Lead image courtesy Valentina Calà

This Horrible Steam Bug Erases All User Files On Linux Systems

Sat, 01/17/2015 - 01:14

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If you’re using the Steam videogame service on Linux, be very, very careful lest you run into a terrible bug that could wipe out all your personal files—and maybe even your backups, for good measure.

In particular, you’ll want to think twice before moving your Steam directory. Github user Keyvin was doing just that by moving his directory from a default location, after which he tried to create a shortcut to the original location. To his surprise, the Steam application then recursively deleted everything in his directory tree—including backups stored on an external hard drive.

Another user reported that his entire Home directory was deleted while debugging Steam. Looks like the problem is a script bug in which an incorrect empty setting gets passed into an rm -rf command that erases files in a given directory, plus all the subdirectories in the home directory (and all their subdirectories, and so on, and so on).

This doesn’t wipe out literally everything—your operating system should still be safe—but it can basically take out all your documents, pictures, saved games, other media and anything else you've personally stored.


So if you’re playing Rust or the Talos Principle this weekend and restoring files from cloud backups isn't how you want to spend your Saturday night, just make sure to avoid symlinking Steam’s .local folders or debugging until a patch is in place. (Looks like one is in the works already.)

Photo by alx_chief

Sprint To FCC: We're Perfectly OK Being Treated Like A Utility

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 23:51

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Sprint broke ranks with other major players in the telecom industry Friday by sending a letter to the FCC saying it would be just fine with being regulated like a utility for net-neutrality purposes. 

"So long as the FCC continues to allow wireless carriers to manage our networks and differentiate our products, Sprint will continue to invest in data networks regardless of whether they are regulated by Title II, Section 706, or some other light touch regulatory regime," wrote Sprint CTO Stephen Bye

That's the money quote in the letter, but may not mean a whole lot to you unless you've been steeped in net neutrality coverage over the past year or so. So, instead of waiting for the next John Oliver explainer, let's break this down. 

Title II refers to part of the Communications Act of 1934 that the FCC is considering using to regulate Internet service providers—in part to prevent them from creating Internet fast lanes, with only those able to pay top-dollar able to experience non-rage inducing video streaming.

Bye is essentially saying that Sprint is okay with this sort of regulatory action. That puts it at odds with other large wireless providers and the mobile-carrier trade association (which represents Sprint as well as behemoths like Verizon and AT&T). Those lobbyists, unsurprisingly, insist that net neutrality and Title II regulation would "jeopardize mobile broadband’s dynamism and the investment and innovation which characterizes the U.S. mobile ecosystem today."

The Sprint letter suggests that at least one mobile provider sees the FCC's embrace of Title II regulation as inevitable.

Photo by Somaya Langley

Why Automakers Still Haven't Smartened Up Your Car's Dashboard

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 16:55

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ReadWriteDrive is an ongoing series covering the future of transportation.

For all the talk of self-driving and connected cars, the simple task of using smartphone apps while driving remains frustrating as hell.

The great promise of in-car electronics—one that allows you to safely talk on the phone, text, listen to tunes and get directions while motoring down the highway—is still a dream. All too often, I find myself toggling my attention between the roadway, the car’s dashboard, and my iPhone as I drive, pick new songs, and peek at my phone’s navigation app.

Unfortunately, there's little to suggest this situation is going to improve much in 2015.

Look In The MirrorLink, My Pretty

Four years ago, things looked very different. That's when nearly 100 companies—including major automakers, smartphone-makers and mobile communication firms—produced MirrorLink, an open technology standard for porting a smartphone’s functions to dashboard screens, buttons, and the car’s steering wheel.

It was a great concept. “Rather than going with a fragmented approach for every handset manufacturer and every car manufacturer, we set up a universal open industry standard,” said Antii Aumo, the Finland-based marketing director for the Car Connectivity Consortium that oversaw MirrorLink. “We made the technology as generic as Bluetooth and WiFi.”

The idea was to make it so consumers could expect smartphone-type features in their car regardless of its brand, the make of their phone or its operating system. This was especially important given that cars can last a decade or longer, meaning that a single vehicle might easily last through 3-5 technology cycles.

It was a great vision, if a bit Pollyanna-ish. The CCC, after all, also expected car and phone makers to play well together. A common open framework, according to Aumo, would allow smartphone services to appear on your dashboard in a simplified and safe manner—while freeing app developers (inside car companies as well as independent app-makers) to innovate via MirrorLink.

Through The MirrorLink

“I’m sure that somewhere there are two guys in a garage coming up with wild and crazy things, new innovations for the car and driving,” said Aumo. “You and I have no idea what the crazy new apps [for driving] will be.”

And who doesn't love innovation? The short anwer: Car companies who want to control every aspect of the driving experience.

In October 2014, Honda announced the launch of Honda Connect, its new MirrorLink-enabled smartphone connectivity service. It uses MirrorLink protocols, but they are in the background. The technology, design and user experience is all Honda Connect, which will first be put into service in 2015 on select Honda Civic models in Europe.

Other car companies, including Volkswagen, Subaru, and Toyota, are also utilizing MirrorLink—but the relevance of the open standard has been subsumed by a set of powerful competing interests that might be described in two words: Apple and Google.

Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto aim to take all the familiarity of Apple and Android apps and port it to the car with bigger fonts and icons, and limits on distraction. Just plug in your phone, and apps that followed Apple or Google guidelines for mapping functions to buttons on the car, will take over the dashboard screen.

The MirrorLink Crack'd From Side To Side

“MirrorLink missed an opportunity,” said Doug Newcomb, founder of the Connected Car Council, an industry organization. “Although frankly it's not for lack of trying. Part of the blame could be from car companies dragging their feet, and long product cycle times.”

So while Honda only announced its MirrorLink-based product three months ago, its high-level message now appears to be about Apple and Google. “On a very basic level, we can tell you that we are bringing CarPlay and Android Auto to market in 2015 but the cars are to-be-announced,” wrote Angie Nucci, a Honda spokeswoman.

Hyundai, the Korean automaker, is also focused on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. “MirrorLink had limited success,” said Miles Johnson, manager of connected car publicity at Hyundai. “But it’s not quite where it needs to be.”

At CES 2015, Hyundai showed off a new head unit—the dashboard hardware—that integrates both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. When Hyundai first announced CarPlay, it was planned only for the company’s most expensive head units. But the new more affordable Hyundai-developed head unit will be capable of running both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

“Ferrari launched CarPlay, but nobody else has pulled the trigger,” said Johnson at Hyundai. “Our guys are working very hard to be first, but I can’t predict the future.” (Ferrari debuted CarPlay in the California T and FF models at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show.)

Consumer electronics move at warp speed compared to auto technology. Those longer development times, and difficulty with integrating disparate systems, are the culprit for delays with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which were supposed to debut in 2014. But that’s only a slight delay for the two 800-pound gorillas.

“Once those two companies came in, and laid a path, that was definitely a game-changer,” said Johnson. He believes that CarPlay and Android Auto are going to help sell cars, bringing customers into dealerships for demos.

Familiarity Trumps Innovation

The learning curve for car-based infotainment is very steep—as anybody who has taken a first spin through dashboard menus and voice commands of a new car will testify. “Our research indicates that the average customer will give you about 15 minutes to learn a system, and then they start to tune out,” said Hyundai’s Johnson. “If you can accomplish that with CarPlay or Android Auto, then you’ve accomplished something very quickly.” 

While the familiarity is welcomed, it won’t stop Hyundai, Honda and nearly every other automaker from developing vehicle-specific apps. It’s a control and data access issue. Vehicle-specific apps are considered a core part of the car’s functions: things like emergency response, cabin pre-conditioning, parking apps, teen driving mode, and digital access to the owner’s manual. In fact, at CES BMW introduced the Connected Drive Store, allowing U.S. owners to purchase apps and other services directly from behind the wheel.

As the Detroit News reported earlier this month, German industrial and political leaders don’t want the country’s flagship industry to have its importance diluted, or have Google gain access to data on driving behavior and location. “The data that we collect is our data and not Google’s data,” Rupert Stadler, Audi’s chief executive, told the newspaper. “When it gets close to our operating system, it’s hands off.”

The takeaway: Innovation in car-based apps from third-party open-source developers are getting pinched by Google and Apple, who in turn, are getting squeezed (and delayed) by the automakers trying to develop their own smartphone ecosystem. It could take another few years for this to sort itself out.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, many drivers will continue to drive with one hand on the steering wheel and the other clenched to a smartphone. 

Europe's Largest Public School Of Video Games Gets A Major Upgrade

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 16:48

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Editor's Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen

It’s a cold winter morning at Angoulême, a small town located at the Eastern side of France, and dozens of game developers, students and politicians are about to enter a huge building next to a river. The National Graduate School of Games and Interactive Media of France (ENJMIN) has a new home.

Since 2005, when the ENJMIN started offering graduate courses on game development, much has changed in the game industry. Games have, by and large, become more meaningful, they have a bigger audience now than ever, and they are crossing lines with other art forms more aggressively.

For more stories about video games and culture, follow@killscreen on Twitter.

These changes have also been part of the life of the school, which was founded under the hood of a bigger regional project that has built seven public schools dedicated to creative media in the same neighborhood of Angoulême, a city previously only known for its comics festival.

Building this school from an ancient cigarette paper mill cost 10 million euros ($11.6 million). It was funded by the Ministry of Education of France, the Regional Government and Pôle Image Magelis, the creative media cluster project that France started a decade ago in this town.

See also: Confronting Video Game Torture, After The CIA’S Report

At its inauguration, people gather in the school auditorium to hear game British video game designer Peter Molyneux give the opening speech. He talks about the importance of making mistakes and describes some of his errors when he began his new studio, 22cans, and while making Godus, his latest game. 

“Making mistakes is the most important ingredient in creativity,” he says. Molyneux is followed by a series of speeches by politicians that give their view on how games and other creative media are important to the economic development and cultural heritage of France. They also praise the founder and director of the school, Stephan Natkin, a stubborn professor that had a clear vision for the ENJMIN since its first years.

Apart from the high tech labs, large rooms and the beautiful river view from the project room, the most important elements at any school are the students. After a lunch break, the class of 2014 show game trailers and share some details of their games. 

From a virtual reality climbing experience using the Oculus Rift to a narrative exploring game where you interact with an A.I inside a spaceship, passing through an emotional journey of a fisherman, all of the games are surprisingly polished. The students are all at the end of their two-year Master’s program.

The inauguration ends with a speech by David Cage, one of France’s best-known game developers, and one of the vanguards of narrative video game experiences. After his talk, he decides to stay and spend some time talking to students. He might learn some new things.

More From Kill Screen

For more stories about video games and culture, follow@killscreen on Twitter.

Freelance Hackers Will Bust Into Your Boyfriend's Email ... For A Fee

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 15:46

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The freelance economy, a boon both to those unable to assemble Ikea furniture and corporate giants averse to employee benefits, will continue to grow in 2015, some predict. Enter Hacker's List, the obvious upgrade in the so-called "movement" of extreme short-timers in our increasingly computerized society.

The New Zealand-registered website is a meeting place for those who need something "hacked" and will pay, and the hackers who are willing to do it, the New York Times reports. According to the NYT, more than 500 "jobs" have been posted since Hacker's List launched in November. These range from a man offering $2,000 for someone to hack into his landlord's website to a woman ready to pony up $500 to bust into her boyfriend's Facebook and Gmail accounts. 

See also: Marriott Will Let You Use Your Own Wi-Fi, Like It's Doing You A Favor

Common sense dictates that once you're willing to pay big bucks to find out if your lover is cheating, your bank account would be better served by dumping the chump ... or at least spending that money on mental health care. As for the landlord's computer—that's between you, your hacker and the laws that govern your part of the planet. 

Hacker's List operates in the gray area of legality, despite the blatantly illegal activities requested on the site. Similar to "sharing economy" sites such as Airbnb, payment is made through the site. Hacker's List holds the money in escrow until the job is done. As the NYT reports, the founders "contend that they are insulated from any legal liability because they neither endorse nor condone illegal activities." What's more, there's a 10-page terms and conditions disclaimer which forbids illegal activity. (Have a little cognitive dissonance with your cyber-espionage!)

The ultimate success of the site remains to be seen, though there seems to be a demand ... or maybe just a lot of prurient interest. In the hours after the NYT story went live, the Hacker's List website was inaccessible. Too many people trying to access the site could've caused a crash. Unless ... it's been hacked!

Lead image courtesy Warner Bros.

5 Things You Need To Know About Xiaomi

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 14:10

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Four years ago, consumer electronics company Xiaomi didn’t even have a smartphone product. Now the former startup is worth $45 billion and has become one of the three top phone makers in the world.

If you keep up with the job-hopping antics of tech execs, then you might have come across Xiaomi when Google VP Hugo Barra left his comfy American gig a year and a half ago to join the Chinese tech titan. Now a smartphone maker often described as China’s Apple, Xiaomi unveiled new devices Thursday in Beijing, including new Mi Note phablets whose high-end specs (but lower prices) seem to take aim at the iPhone 6 Plus.

Xiaomi's meteoric rise in its home country pits it against Apple, which finds the Chinese market of intense interest. The contender has been largely ignoring the U.S., but that doesn’t mean it won’t become our own tech overlord one day. In fact, plans may already be in the works for an American tech invasion.

So if you’re not already familiar, here’s a basic primer on the company that could fuel all of our digital lives before long.

How To Pronounce “Xiaomi"

According to Barra, it sounds similar to "show me,” but the first part doesn't take the longer "o" sound. Think "shout me," minus the "t." There’s an even finer distinction that the well-tuned Chinese ear could pick up, but for non-native speakers, this is good enough to get you by.

What “Xiaomi" Means

The name means “little rice” in Chinese, which is adorable and belies the big deal the company is actually becoming.

How The Company Grew

The company makes smartphones for China, Taiwan, Singapore and other South East Asian countries, but with low overhead—its devices are sold exclusively online—so it can offer bargain prices. It also uses components from an array of outside vendors instead of trying to make its own parts (or pretending to), so it doesn't have to compromise on hardware specifications—like bigger tech companies often do. 

Xiaomi’s fans also consider it a cool local brand. The company's product announcements come off like rock concerts, and it's very active on social media. Yet, it also manages to convey an image of humility and care for the customer experience. That helped it overcome a potential nightmare recently: When it came to light that it collected addressbook contacts without users’ permission, Xiaomi didn’t equivocate, but apologized and changed the default setting. Taiwan investigated the matter and wound up dismissing it.

A more cynical view of its business: Xiaomi succeeds because it rips off other people’s products. (See below.)

Why It’s Considered China’s Apple

Though Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun hates the comparison, it exists because there are some striking similarities between products from the iPhone maker and Xiaomi devices. Superficially, the latter's Mi Pad tablet was a dead ringer for the iPad mini, and some say its latest Mi Note phablets take cues from Apple's iPhone 6 Plus, not to mention some rather iOS-like software, complete with bright colors and flat design. 

For all that hand-wringing, though, what’s less clear is that consumers actually care. For far less than what Apple or its rival Samsung charges for flagship devices—full price, the base model iPhone 6 Plus costs close to $1,000 U.S. dollars in China—customers will be able to pick up the new Mi Note for about $370 (base model) and $520 (pro version).

The 5.7-inch phablet measures 6.95mm in thickness and comes with a 3200 mAh battery, curved Corning Gorilla Glass 3, and high-megapixel cameras in the front (4 MP) and rear (13 MP), with wide aperture and optical; image stabilization. Users can pick from a choice of Snapdragon processors, 3GB or 4GB of RAM, 16GB or 64GB of storage, and a 1080p or 1440p display.

The pro model just might be the best smartphone to hit the market yet. Its hardware specifications look even better than the iPhone 6 Plus, with photo-taking abilities as good as the HTC One and other coveted features—such as high fidelity audio quality, super-fast LTE support and dual 4G-SIM support, in a nano SIM and a micro SIM, to cover more networks.

Why You Won't See The Mi Note In The U.S.

The Mi Note launches in Taiwan in the next quarter; after that, it's off to other non-U.S. markets. However, Xiaomi does want to reach American consumers, and this year, it will begin work on devices and dealing with the LTE bands in use here for a product roll-out later.

Xiaomi faces some significant challenges in doing so, though. Not the least of these is the fact that smartphone components and designs are heavily patented—and Xiaomi doesn't hold many such patents itself. That means it would need to spend huge sums on licensing before it can sell in the U.S. or Western Europe. For a company that mostly sells its products close to cost, that's a big hurdle.

Smartphones, however, look like just one piece of Xiaomi’s larger puzzle. The company has big ambitions and the underpinnings of a broader smart home play already in place. The company sells connected electronics through its Mi.com website, and it all links up by Xiaomi's software, a variation on Android called Miui, notes Stratechery’s Ben Thompson, a Taiwan-based technology consultant and writer. 

... you could argue that Xiaomi is actually the first “Internet of Things” company: unlike Google (Nest), Apple (HomeKit), or even Samsung (SmartThings), all of whom are offering some sort of open SDK to tie everything together ... Xiaomi is integrating everything itself and selling everything one needs on Mi.com to a fan base primed to outfit their homes for the very first time. It’s absolutely a vertical strategy—the company is like Apple after all—it’s just that the product offering is far broader than anything even Gene Munster could imagine. 

Those products have limited reach, though, since they live only in Xiaomi's existing Asian markets (where patent law is somewhat less strict). For now, anyway. 

Images courtesy of Xiaomi

Marriott Will Let You Use Your Own Wi-Fi, Like It's Doing You A Favor

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 22:25

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Marriott hotels will no longer interfere with their guests' personal Wi-Fi hotspots, the hotel chain announced Wednesday. That includes within the confines of the company's lucrative convention and trade-show spaces, where it's charged attendees anywhere between $250 and $1,000 per device for Internet access.

"Marriott International listens to its customers, and we will not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices at any of our managed hotels," the company posted in the news center on its website.  

See also: How This Hotel Made Sure Your Wi-Fi Hotspot Sucked

Of course, hearing your customers gets a whole lot easier when blocking Wi-Fi access results in hefty fines, something Marriott knows about first hand. The hotel chain paid out $600,000 to the Federal Trade Commission in October, after customers complained about blocked Wi-Fi at its Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville.

Prior to receiving the fine, Marriott and the American Hotel & Lodging Association trade group joined forces to file a petition asking for FCC-approved permission to block Wi-Fi access on hotel properties. Marriott attempted to "clarify" its intentions earlier in January, no doubt inspired by the ongoing stink raised by Internet companies and consumer rights groups. 

Marriott Cares About You—Really

According to Marriott's New Year's statement, guest safety was the hotel chain's primary concern. The hotel chain said it welcomed guests to use their Internet connectivity devices while in the privacy of their rooms. Those used in its public spaces during events however, “pose a security threat to meeting or conference attendees or cause interference to the conference guest wireless network,” the company said.  

Large gatherings of corporate and government officials are inviting to cyber spies, security experts have found. Bad guys do use deceptively named Wi-Fi networks and false software updates to trick hotel guests into exposing their computers. These malefactors, however, are usually exploiting vulnerabilities within hotel networks and the gullibility of uneducated Internet users. So Marriott's argument against personal Wi-Fi devices doesn't hold up. 

That doesn't mean Marriott intends to drop the argument. As well as agreeing not to block personal WiFi access at its establishments—a practice for which its already been fined—Marriott's joint petition with the FCC with the American Hotel & Lodging Association is still pending. 

"We will continue to look to the FCC to clarify appropriate security measures network operators can take to protect customer data, and will continue to work with the industry and others to find appropriate market solutions that do not involve the blocking of Wi-Fi devices," Marriott said in its Wednesday statement. 

If you've got something to say to the FCC about the petition  to block personal Wi-Fi access, you can do that here on the FCC website. 

Photo by National Society of Professional Engineers

 

 

 

 

   

Google Glass Moves On From Google X, Lands In Tony Fadell's Nest

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 19:41

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Today, you can’t just look at a Nest smart thermostat, nod and watch as the gizmo warms up the room. But perhaps someday you will, now that Google has put ex-Apple exec and Nest co-founder Tony Fadell in charge of Google Glass.

The controversial digital face-gear, now out of the purview of the company's mad scientist laboratory Google X, is moving to a new division under Fadell’s stewardship. Ivy Ross, a marketer and jewelry designer who signed on to lead the Glass team last year, will still head the group, but she'll report directly to Fadell, who will continue to run his Nest division. 

Google is also ending sales of the original Glass device to individuals after January 19. (Companies and developers can continue to pick them up for work applications, the Wall Street Journal reports.)

After much initial hype, things have been quiet on the Glass front recently; other wearable devices like virtual reality goggles and smartwatches, meanwhile, have taken center stage. But Google obviously hasn't forgotten its smart glasses. On the contrary, the reorganization means the device has graduated from a beta gadget to an actual product.

Well, sort of. Exactly when Glass may resurface as a full-fledged retail product on sale again—or if it will go for a more consumer-friendly price than the original $1,500—isn’t clear yet. Google will release a new version at some point this year, but no one knows when. We’ve contacted the company to find out more, and will report back if it responds. 

Photo by tedeytan

Update: The Wall Street Journal reports that Google is mulling over the addition of an indicator light in the new version of Glass to show when it's in recording mode. If it pans out, the change would be long overdue

Ranking Programming Languages: Swift's Growth Is "Unprecedented"

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 19:12

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Developers may be a fickle bunch, but they're sticking with Java, thank you very much. Even so, as the newest Redmonk Programming Language Rankings suggest, developers are very (very) open to new languages like Go and Swift that help them program for the cloud and mobile, respectively.

In the case of Swift—boy, are they ever open to it.

As we'll see, the rankings clearly show the shift to mobile, cloud and Big Data, which isn't all that surprising. What is, perhaps, surprising is just how dramatic that shift has been.

Ranking The Best

To glean which programming languages developers prefer, Redmonk analyzes languages being used on GitHub, a popular code repository, and Stack Overflow, the place many developers go to discuss programming. Every six months Stephen O'Grady, a Redmonk analyst and co-founder, highlights the results.

 Here are the rankings, first as a chart:

Credit: Redmonk

And then as a list (top 10):

1 JavaScript
2 Java
3 PHP
4 Python
5 C#
5 C++
5 Ruby
8 CSS
9 C
10 Objective-C

It's clear, as O'Grady highlights, that Java isn't dying: "[T]he language frequently written off for dead [Java] and the language sometimes touted as the future [JavaScript] have shown sustained growth and traction and remain, according to this measure, the most popular offerings."

It's equally clear if we look outside the top 10 that there are some fundamental shifts in how developers craft their code:

  • R may have hit its peak, but it's an impressive peak. As an analytical tool, the language lacks the general purpose nature that drives the popularity of Python or Ruby. Even so, to hit #13 (after climbing the last few Redmonk rankings) is impressive. Clearly there's something to these open source analytics languages. As Gartner finds, "A lot of innovative data scientists really favor open source components (especially Python and R) in their advanced analytics stack." Indeed.
  • Go is a rocket ship. With Google's blessing and the ability to make cloud development powerfully simple, Go has been on a tear, climbing to #17 in the Redmonk rankings, up from #21 just six months ago and #28 two years ago.
  • But Swift's growth is "unprecedented." Swift was always going to be a top-20 language, given that Apple has declared it to be the successor to Objective-C. But as O'Grady notes, its dramatic rise in the rankings is incredible and signals what we already know: mobile is huge, and Apple's place within mobile remains huge(r):

The growth that Swift experienced is essentially unprecedented in the history of these rankings. When we see dramatic growth from a language it typically has jumped somewhere between 5 and 10 spots, and the closer the language gets to the Top 20 or within it, the more difficult growth is to come by. And yet Swift has gone from our 68th ranked language during Q3 to number 22 this quarter, a jump of 46 spots.

Clearly, Apple still has a (big) part to play in defining development for mobile. This shows in VisionMobile's analysis of mobile developer fealty and in App Store numbers (iOS developers raked in $10 billion in 2014 alone). 

What The Rankings Mean

Apple excepted, though, Redmonk's rankings generally show a persistent stasis in the top development rankings, as O'Grady notes:

The inertia of the Top 10 remains substantial, and what change there is in the back half of the Top 20 or just outside of it – from Go to Swift – is both predictable and expected. The picture these rankings paint is of an environment thoroughly driven by developers; rather than seeing a heavy concentration around one or two languages as has been an aspiration in the past, we’re seeing a heavy distribution amongst a larger number of top tier languages followed by a long tail of more specialized usage.

In other words, developers are in control and they want to use the best programming tool for a particular job. They don't want to use 100 different tools, to be fair. But they are comfortable using 10 to 20 different programming languages, with little significant change over the years.

Even so, where those changes are occurring—in mobile development, cloud and analytics languages—signals deep and permanent shifts in the market. As useful as it is to know Java or C#, the future lies in also knowing a language built for mobile, cloud computing or data analytics. 

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock