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Google Helpouts Heads To The Big Vid Chat In The Sky

Sat, 02/14/2015 - 01:43



Google Wave and Google Reader will soon have some company: Turns out, Google Helpouts is not long for this world. The company will shutter the online expert help service on April 20.

Helpouts seems to be slowly dissolving. TechCrunch noticed the disappearance of its iPhone app today, following the previous removal of its Android app. The website still works for now, but will go offline in the next couple of months.

See also: Google Now Gives Hypochrondriacs What They Want

In the world of Google services, Helpouts—which uses Google Hangouts to offer live video help from experts on various topics—was just a toddler, having launched near the end of 2013. In that brief time, it gained few fans. I contacted the company asking why it chose to shut Helpouts down now, and a representative pointed me to this new support document. A snippet of the text explains the about-face:

The Helpouts community includes some engaged and loyal contributors, but unfortunately, it hasn't grown at the pace we had expected.

That may have been due to several factors. It seems to be quite low on Google’s list of priorities—it was never a high-profile service for the company's publicity machine, and Google neglected to release updates for it. It also charges for some of its help, with amounts varying by topic or expert.

The company couldn't charge for Helpouts in Europe due to the complications stemming from changing EU tax codes. Essentially, the company had to give away its primo expert help to make it work. (Or figure out how to plaster live video chats with ads without ticking people off. But that was never going to happen.) 

The concept may have been flawed to begin with. Charging people for advice when the Web already offers so much free help on fashion, cooking, tech support, photography and other topics seems ill-conceived. In fact, Google itself competed with Helpouts via how-to videos on YouTube and the canned answers it provides in search via its Knowledge Graph. In fact, the latter just got an update adding even more information for health and medical conditions.

Let this be a lesson: Google may giveth, but it also taketh away. And it does, fairly regularly.

Starting April 20, the five or six people out there who actually used Helpouts will be able to download their history via Google Takeout until November 1, 2015.

Lead image courtesy of Google

It’s Happening: Looks Like Apple May Be Making An Electric Car

Sat, 02/14/2015 - 01:31



After days of rumors, the evidence is starting to mount that Apple is seriously considering building an electric car to take on Tesla. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the company has had a project code-named “Titan” in the works for the past year, with "several hundred" employees assigned to it.

The WSJ notes, of course, that “Apple may decide not to proceed with the car,” and adds that that the battery and electronic technologies developed in the project could be useful in other divisions of Apple. But it also cites insiders suggesting that the size of the team and some of the individuals working there “indicate that the company is serious.”

Apple executives have also reportedly met recently with contract auto manufacturers in Austria, specifically one from Canada’s Magna International.

Product design vice president Steve Zadesky—who has helmed iPod and iPhone design teams at Apple—is reportedly heading up the project. Zadesky formerly worked as an engineer for Ford Motors. Meanwhile, the WSJ points out that Apple has also hired another former auto executive: Johann Jungwirth, former president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz R&D in North America.

The rumors began two weeks ago when CBS San Francisco reported on sightings of a mysterious van with an elaborate camera array on its roof driving around the Bay Area. The report confirmed that the vans were leased by Apple, and cited technology analyst Rob Enderle, who speculated that the vans might be part of an autonomous vehicle project akin to Google’s ongoing initiative. 

At the time, it seemed equally possible that the vans were part of Apple’s efforts to enhance its disappointing iPhone Maps app, perhaps with its own version of Google's Street View.

Then, just a few days ago, an alleged anonymous Apple employee emailed Business Insider to say that Tim Cook and company were working on a project that would “change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money.” And only a few days before that, Bloomberg reported on an escalating hiring war between Tesla and Apple, in which each company was scrambling to poach engineers and employees from the other.

So far, Apple has neither confirmed nor denied the reports. If these rumors turn out to be true, hopefully Tim Cook will let us know by driving one through a wall and screeching to a halt on-stage at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference this summer.

Lead image courtesy of Ferrari

What The Apple Pay Deal With The Feds Is—And Isn't

Fri, 02/13/2015 - 20:36



Apple CEO Tim Cook just announced that Apple Pay, the company's mobile-payment system, will work with payment cards issued by the federal government, and some federal agencies will start taking Apple Pay payments in the fall.

Bloomberg is calling it a "big win" for Apple Pay. Well, hold on there. Yes, the government does $26.4 billion in transactions a year on GSA SmartPay cards. But what are these cards? They're not some strange, alien form of payment. They're just plastic Visa and MasterCard cards issued by Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and US Bank—all of which are existing Apple Pay partners.

All they had to do was turn on a switch for these cards, and the federal employees, veterans, and others using them can now scan their cards into Apple Pay (if they have an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus).

What this doesn't change is where they can spend money with those cards. If the National Park Service, say, starts accepting NFC-based payments, that's another category where iPhone users can tap to pay. But that will require upgrades at thousands of locations—and the federal government is notoriously slow about upgrading its physical and technical infrastructure.

Oh, and by the way—Google Wallet, Softcard, and other NFC-based payment services should work at those same locations once they're upgraded. In fact, the federal government issued a request for information on new payment systems in January, suggesting it's considering embracing many new forms of payment technology.

If you're a federal employee on a business trip who's spending her per diem at Whole Foods, I suppose this is a marginally interesting development. And it's good publicity for Apple. But otherwise, this news doesn't mean much for most of us.

Screenshot by ReadWrite

How Zendesk Captured Its Silicon Valley Spirit In A London Office

Fri, 02/13/2015 - 17:20



This post is presented by Business Is Great Britain.

When Zendesk picked up its roots and moved from Denmark to the United States, its founders didn't expect to be back in Europe so soon. CEO Mikkel Svane vowed not to get on a plane again—a promise that only lasted two years, as Zendesk grew so quickly that going global was the only solution.

One of its first outposts on its return to Europe was London, where it opened an office in 2011.

Nick Peart works there as a marketing director for Zendesk, which offers Web-based tools for customer support. He's spent the last three years working from its office in the Paddington area of central London spreading good vibes about Zendesk to an audience that spans Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

"I think the real advantage is that Britain has one of the biggest economies and business market spaces in the whole region," Peart said. "It just makes sense that you base your people close to your customers. That's the primary reason that we are where we are.”

See also: How Zendesk Reluctantly Staked Out A Customer-Support Empire

Business in Britain is so promising that Zendesk execs have begun looking around for a larger space, one that can accommodate 70 to 100 people, up from 50. Besides just housing employees, Peart hopes the new office will be a place "to meet and mingle and share ideas” with community and industry groups, including ones promoting women in engineering.

In an interview with ReadWrite, Peart gave us insight into Zendesk's diverse approach to staffing and its decision to make itself at home in Great Britain.

Nick Peart, Zendesk's European marketing director, splits time between its London regional headquarters and the home office in San Francisco.A Central Hub

Prior to Zendesk, Peart specialized in helping American brands in the larger region, often dubbed EMEA. (He worked for Adobe for nearly five years in a senior communications role.) The challenges when you take in not just the core of Europe but the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe and Russia include balancing the needs of 120 different countries with more than 23 major languages, and 16 time zones if you count Russia east of the Urals.

“EMEA is a complicated place, but it’s also an easy place to work," Peart said. "That's where the power of London comes in when you're looking for a base for a pan-European company. It’s such a vibrant, multicultural city, that attracting key talent to work for you in London is a relatively easy task,"

While based out of Paddington, Peart does spend a bit of time at headquarters. He's often asked to compare and contrast the cultural, technical and logistical differences between San Francisco and London.

"I think the biggest difference is perhaps an awareness of how diverse and huge the office in Britain is," Peart said. "Maybe that comes from the old colonial past. But there seems to be more awareness of how to go about doing business across [multiple] cultures. "

Community Approach To Tech

The location's convenient enough, especially if you're getting on the Heathrow Express to catch a flight. It's not particularly close to Silicon Roundabout, the supposed “tech center” of London, or Canary Wharf, another hub—but that doesn't stop Zendesk from inviting folks over.

"There's a really big just general tech community here," Peart said. "We're lucky to be just around the corner from a couple of the key London universities. From a technical perspective, we never struggle to hire the right talent in London. And so whether we're looking for a highly skilled Ruby engineer to join our customer success team, or a very talented customer services person, we can always find them in London. Plus, you can always find someone that can speak almost any language in London."

You won't find that great depth of talent across job categories in other cities, Peart said. Dublin does rank high as a technology hub, he added, but Zendesk chose London for its regional headquarters for its global reach.

Another benefit of establishing roots in central London is that the engineering work can be sensitive to regional privacy and security laws.

“Our customers' data or the data that resides within Zendesk stays in the EU,” says Peart. “That's been a differentiator and also a reason why we'd want to be doing business in that region.”

London Calling

"I think you definitely need to come to London, just to experience the pace, and the ability to be super-agile," Peart said. "London is a very cosmopolitan, dynamic place to be. I think one of the cool things I really love about working at Zendesk is that we have the ability to test in our market, and then see the results of the tests that we can do really quickly in different countries, and see them taken on and embraced and used globally."

Culturally, the London office is extremely diverse with more than 10 nationalities speaking more than 20 different languages.

There's a tradition that “sounds awful, but it’s very much loved in the London office,” says Peart: “If it’s your birthday, then everybody gathers around and sings 'Happy Birthday' in his or her own language to you.”

As London is still considered the gateway to Europe, Peart said he sees the most opportunities coming from startup service businesses.

"Our whole economy is increasingly becoming a service-based economy," Peart said. "So it’s a cracking place to come to start, to test. And if you get it right, the country will take you to its heart and will embrace and enable you to be successful."

Photos courtesy of Zendesk

Why Pinterest Is Banning Affiliate Links

Fri, 02/13/2015 - 16:33



Pinterest has lowered the hammer on affiliate links—a way for social-media users to make a small commission in return for recommending a product. Ostensibly, the move helps keep the site tidy. But unsurprisingly, money is also involved.

According to an email many pinners received Thursday, Pinterest is removing all affiliate links on "pins," the Pinterest term for a image-centric post. The pins themselves will remain live, but Pinterest is officially encouraging users to find other means of making money on the visually oriented social network.

Pinterest has been removing affiliate links for some time. But as the email outlines, it had made an exception for two fashion affiliate programs, RewardStyle and HelloSociety. Pinners enrolled in these programs would make a small cut when people clicked on pin links that included the pinner’s affiliate ID and made a purchase. It's probable that these two programs were permitted longer than others were because they deal chiefly with fashion and design related links—two of Pinterest's most popular subjects—and exclusively limit who can sign up to join, which likely reduced spam. 

"We’re making this change for a few reasons: removing redirects and affiliates will keep Pinterest running quickly, smoothly, and prevent Rich Pins from breaking,” the email said.

See also: Pinterest, Apple Partner To Make Apps Easier To Find

Rich pins, a type of pinned image that automatically features relevant information—say, a map, address and phone number for a "place pin"—depend on an accurate link in order to fill in metadata. According to Pinterest, an affiliate ID tagged onto a link could mess with that instant process.

This isn’t the first time Pinterest has restricted organic behavior on its platform in an effort to improve performance. Last year, the company heavily restricted “Pin It To Win It” contests held by brands. While the site originally allowed brands to encourage pinners to repin the same picture of a prize over and over in order to raffle it off, Pinterest later changed its mind.

From the Pinterest guidelines for brands: “Don’t… Require people to add Pins from a selection—let them add what they like.” From the site's perspective, hundreds of people repinning a picture of, say, a purse can mislead Pinterest’s algorithms, potentially assigning that pin undeserved importance in its relevance score. Affiliate linking can likewise lead to spam and bad algorithmic inferences. 

While some Pinterest users are upset that they will no longer enjoy small commissions, this isn’t a move likely to bother power pinners. Many of Pinterest’s most popular users opt for approved brand partnerships, in which they guest-pin items on a brand’s pinboard, and encourage their millions of followers to check it out. 

See also: How Pinterest Is Slowly Learning How To Make Money

Furthermore, with news that Pinterest is working to implement a “Buy” button in mere months, as Recode reports, it’s hard not to draw a connection. By retiring user commissions, Pinterest is paving a path to potentially draw commissions for itself on every product recommendation made. 

Pinterest has told ReadWrite that its primary motive is to make it easy for pinners to find useful, relevant images, but the company has got to be feeling the pressure from its many investors. Valuated at $5 billion last May, it’s about time for the company to indicate that it’s finally ready to make money on its own. 

Update: In a statement to ReadWrite, Pinterest said the affiliate link ban is purely about user experience. 

"This is not about monetization, this is 100% about the Pinner experience and ensuring relevant content on Pinterest," a spokesperson said.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest

Happy 10th, YouTube: This Is Your Life—And Ours

Fri, 02/13/2015 - 14:28



YouTube, the video-sharing website and ad revenue machine, turns 10 years old on Saturday, otherwise known as Valentine's Day. 

Over a decade, the site went from humble beginnings to the height of popularity as a purveyor of online productions, both amateur and professional. So let’s jump in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine and take a look at how YouTube has grown and become the billion-dollar star-making engine we all know and love.  

Hello, World!

In 2005, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim hatched YouTube out of their San Mateo, Calif. office. 

They registered the trademark, logo and domain for the site. Soon after, they posted the very first upload: a clip titled "Me at the zoo" featured Karim in front of elephants. 

Short and "elephant-y," the video marked a major shift in the way the world was about to interact with media. Anyone with a camera could upload footage of their children or pets engaged in crazy antics. Want to start a video diary for the entire world to see? Now you could.  

The video remains on YouTube today and still receives comments ranging from levity to the sort of trolling that only the Internet can provide.

Show Me the Money

In July 2006, YouTube reported uploads of 65,000 videos per day. In October of the same year, Google purchased the company for enough money to make Richie Rich do a double take—a cool $1.65 billion in Google stock. 

One of the most popular viral videos of 2006 was Evolution of Dance (above). 

At the time, there were questions about whether it was a wise investment for the search giant. But for YouTube, it looked like a great deal. The video site got a powerful new overlord with expertise in generating ad revenue.

Google doesn't release specific financial results for the division, but estimates pegged $1.13 billion in video-ad revenue last year, with the site accounting for 20% of all U.S. digital video ads. YouTube apps now run on everything from phones to smart TVs, and people upload nearly 300 hours of video per minute. 

A Star Is Uploaded

No longer is YouTube only a place for mom and dad to shoot a video of Little Stevie eating cereal in a delightfully sloppy way. The website has given rise to all sorts of videos—for practically anything you can think of. 

Rebecca Black's Friday attracted a lot of haters—and views. Between the original and the current upload (embedded), the video has exceeded 200 million views. Black went on to record and shoot a follow-up, Saturday.

Need a tutorial for lighting a fire with sticks? A humor fix from your favorite online comedians? YouTube has you covered. 

From movie clips to YouTube-only series, the site has become a behemoth of information and entertainment. According to the site, it serves more than 1 billion unique visitors, and over 600 billion hours of video are watched each month. That's nearly an hour for every person on Earth, YouTube says. 

Leave Britney Alone was a master class in overwrought first-person video, and a gift for late-night talk show comedians everywhere. 

Its stars aren’t just limited to the Web's playing field, either. They appear on mainstream television shows, get paid endorsement deals, write books and make movies. The appeal of this online superstar vanguard is their accessibility. They interact with fans in ways that Hollywood types like Kim Kardashian never would. 

In essence, these people are us, and that makes them all the more alluring. The idea that anybody could become famous is both intoxicating and inspiring. Lucrative too, if you’re compelling in front of the camera. 

So hit "record" the next time something hilarious happens and upload the action. Consider it a birthday gift for YouTube. You never know—you might even become the next big thing. 

Lead photo by Rego Korosi; YouTube birthday cake image adapted from graphic courtesy of YouTube.

Mobile Giant Xiaomi Will Launch U.S. Sales—Just Not Of Its Phones

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 22:55



Xiaomi, the tech titan that spurs a crazy load of fandom in Asia, just announced its first outreach to American consumers. Too bad that won’t include its popular line of phones.

At a press event in San Francisco on Thursday, the Chinese electronics company revealed that its e-commerce portal will roll out for the U.S. and other markets very soon. “We’re going to launch when we’re ready," Xiaomi VP Hugo Barra said, "and that will likely be in a time frame of a few months.” 

See also: 5 Things You Need To Know About Xiaomi

Available in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Portugal, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Indonesia and (soon) Brazil, is a pivotal part of Xiaomi’s business strategy. The site provides high-end smartphones and other goods at low prices via direct-to-consumer sales. 

Co-founder Bin Lin bragged that his company sold more than 61 million units last year, and serves more than 100 million worldwide users of its MIUI software, an Android-based smartphone operating system. Unfortunately, Xiaomi's hugely popular phones won’t be part of the picture in America any time soon. The site will sell lower-ticket electronics and goods, like headphones, wearable devices and mobile batteries. 

There’s something even more important than choice of inventory, however—an American roll-out of helps establish a supply pipeline here and gives the company some interaction with the U.S. market. This suggests the company is setting the stage for a deeper relationship down the road. 

When that might be, however, is anything but certain. 

What's Holding Xiaomi BackXiaomi's Bin Lin

Often referred to as “The Apple of China” due to the striking similarities some of its products have to iPhones and iPads, Xiaomi has numerous hurdles to clear before it can bring its smartphones to these shores. Patent law is a big one.

According to Forbes, Xiaomi made 2,318 filings last year, with plans for tens of thousands more in the works. At the moment, though, the company owns few patents of its own. That makes it complicated to enter the smartphone market in nations like the U.S., where patent protection is strong, licenses are expensive and Xiaomi has few of its own patents to bargain with.

Lin also cited the way the consumer cellular business works here as a major challenge. Customers in many other parts of the world are used to paying full retail prices, but in the U.S., people typically sign up for two-year contracts with mobile carriers, which then subsidize part of the handset cost.

That’s slowly starting to change, thanks to installment-plan models by T-Mobile and others, but it’s still not the predominant way people buy phones here. The company also wants to preserve its direct relationships with customers (or “fans,” as Bin puts it) without any extra layers or go-betweens.

These factors and others represent enormous hurdles for Xiaomi. The company relies on slim margins, so it can sell high-end phones cheaply. Going through carriers or paying out for licensing rights and patent filings could make that tough to maintain.

Xiaomi, mi band

But it's pretty clear that the company has more in mind than just selling earbuds or step trackers in the U.S. The company hired Android boss Hugo Barra away from U.S.-based Google. It also made the Mi Note smartphone available to American tech journalists to play with—even though it comes with beta software geared toward Chinese users. And, of course, its primary e-commerce portal will roll out here very soon.

"The amount of effort required to bring those products to the market is an incredible amount of work,” Barra said. "We’re accelerating our entering by bringing simpler products.” Translation: If you want one of Xiaomi's Mi Note or Mi Note Pro smartphones, or a Mi Pad tablet, you’ll have to look elsewhere. 

For now. 

Photos by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

Pinterest, Apple Partner To Make Apps Easier To Find

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 22:47



Pinterest announced Thursday that it's developed a new feature that lets users pin and install apps from Apple's App Store within Pinterest. 

App pins are a new kind of unit of content within Pinterest, where users arrange items of interests on boards. While Pinterest was best known initially for users' collections of visuals, it introduced "rich pins" in 2013 in a variety of categories. For instance, product pins include information about pricing and availability of the item in question. 

If you see an app pin while on your iPhone or iPad, you'll be able to download it immediately without leaving Pinterest. The motivation for the app pin integration is to make downloads on an iOS device more seamless. 

"With more than 75 percent of usage to Pinterest coming from mobile devices, we want to make it easier to discover apps for all types of interests," said Malorie Lucich, a Pinterest spokesperson in an email interview. 

While Pinterest announced a partnership with Apple today, the company would not share information about whether a similar pin structure was coming to Android or other non-iOS devices. 

"This week's announcement is all about Apple," Lucich said. "We don't have additional plans to share at this time, but we hope to bring more types of Pins to people across locations and devices in the future."

Pinterest has previously collaborated with Google on an app for Android Wear smartwatches.

Facebook and Twitter have built substantial businesses selling app-download ads to mobile-app developers. The app pin format, while not explicitly commercial today, could fit into Pinterest's efforts to make money by charging advertisers to promote pins so they're visible to more users.

A Recode report cites anonymous sources who say Pinterest has plans to implement a "buy" button sometime in 2015. Between getting a cut from app developers and money from online retailers pushing their wares, Pinterest is teeing itself up as serious marketing platform alongside larger social networks.

Why The Node.js Summit Didn't Solve Node's Underlying Problems

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 16:59


Node project lead TJ Fontaine at the Node.js Summit

Node.js, the popular JavaScript framework for building Web applications, has had a rough couple of months.

On the one hand, the thriving open source project has been adopted by some seriously established companies, including Walmart and Netflix. On the other, its developers are at odds over how and how fast to move its technical development forward—so much so that the conflict has literally split Node into two competing projects.

Worse, it's not clear that this week’s San Francisco Node Summit made much progress in patching things up. While Node's corporate steward Joyent agreed to hand off governance of the project to an independent committee, that decision hasn't obviously paved the way for a reunification of Node or an end to the infighting over its future.

See also: Joyent Waves A White Flag, Hands Off Node.js To A New Foundation

So while Node itself is well-established and clearly not going away, it's still in a precarious state.

The Node Fork Three Months Later

In late November, a group of influential contributors to the Node project created their own split, or fork, of the Node codebase. The intent was to advance technical development of the forked version—dubbed IO.js, after Node creator Ryan Dahl’s first-choice name for his invention—more quickly than the conservative, corporate-run Node. IO would also be run by community consensus—i.e., by its developers—rather than a "benevolent dictator" chosen by Joyent.

IO didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was a clear response to community members’ frustration with Joyent’s slow release timeline and the perceived heavy-handedness of its control over the project.

Since Node is currently in use at dozens of major companies and hundreds of smaller ones, Joyent prioritized stability and reliability over faster innovation. That led to conflict with the technical people who contribute to Node the most, who would rather be developing and distributing cutting-edge technology.

See also: Popular Coding Framework Node.js Is Now Seriously Forked

CEO Scott Hammond arrived at Joyent in the midst of this cultural divide, he blogged Tuesday, and has been working to resolve it ever since. More of a business expert than a technical expert, Hammond has struggled to win the trust of developers, who sometimes mock him for pronouncing the name of the project “Node dot jay es.” (The cognoscenti prefer "Node jay es" or simply "Node.")

One of Hammond's first steps was to create a Node Advisory Board that would include major developers as well as some of Node’s most influential users to offer advice on the project's governance. While Node dissidents—several of whom took seats on that board—welcomed the move, it didn't prevent the IO fork in early December.

See also: Why Node.js Is Facing A Possible Open-Source Schism

Joyent's decision to back away from direct oversight of Node stemmed from advisory-board discussions. Major Node users like Microsoft will join as founding members, and other companies can secure a place on the board with an investment into Node of $250,000. The Linux Foundation, a larger and far more experienced open source governance foundation, will advise.

What The Foundation Can't Shore Up

Establishing the Node.js Foundation, however, isn't by itself enough to heal Node's open-source schism. Isaac Schlueter, Node's former project lead and a leading dissident, said the foundation needs to address two big remaining problems:

You have to keep the community engaged with the technical side of the project, and also let companies depending on Node put resources behind it. IO.js solved the first problem. The foundation directly solves the second. It's still to be determined how the foundation will solve the first problem.

Furthermore, neither Joyent nor the foundation have made the new open governance plan public yet, which IO.js advocates like Mikeal Rogers find unsettling.

"They have not yet adopted a technical governance model or accepted the IO.js governance model which we advocated they should do," he said. 

The foundation won't really take shape for another two to three months. This will be a crucial period for Node; decisions the foundation makes could exert outsized influence on whether IO contributors stay where they are or rejoin Node proper.

Node Isn’t Going Away

While many supporters of both Node and IO remain publicly optimistic about a reunification, it was clear at the Node Summit that the split is causing stress. Whenever a panelist mentioned IO on the stage, a hush fell over the crowd—followed by a barrage of tweets:

It’s an awkward position for Node to be in. Four years old, it has only just established itself to the point where it no longer needs to convince clients why they should use it. Now it risks erosion of that goodwill while its community wrestles with itself in public.

Some companies, such as Uber and GitHub Atom, have already migrated from Node to IO. Now, video sharing service Vine is considering it too, the company told me.

Such moves could be a gesture of solidarity among developers, although they also likely reflect technical preference. The latest version of Node, for instance, runs on an older version of Google's v8 JavaScript engine, 3.28.73, which Google no longer supports. Meanwhile, the latest version of the newer and more experimental IO runs on v8 version

Photo of TJ Fontaine at Node Summit by Lauren Orsini for ReadWrite

Kill Switches Are Killing Off iPhone Thefts

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 15:00



Looks like the theory that smartphone kill switches discourage theft may be graduating to fact.

Three cities—London, New York and San Francisco—all saw fewer iPhones reported stolen since Apple began putting kill switches into its smartphones, Reuters reports. The drop in crime wasn’t just a subtle downward slope either. Think of it more like the fall off a cliff.

Apple launched the iPhone feature a year and a half ago, and since then, New York City authorities noted a 25 percent decline in iPhone thefts. San Francisco weighed in with a 40% decrease, while in London, thefts dropped by half. All thanks to the software that effectively “bricks” phones by disabling them.

Officials in the three cities issued a joint statement announcing the results.

See also: A Thief Snatched My iPhone—And I Learned A Lot About Smartphone Crime

The news must be very gratifying for London Mayor Boris Johnson, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, all of whom argued for laws to make kill switches mandatory.

Few U.S. jurisdictions have kill switch laws outside of Minnesota and California. The latter just passed one of the strongest last year, though it hasn’t yet gone into effect. Apple, as the maker of one of the most stolen smartphones, voluntarily added the switch—dubbed Activation Lock—in August 2013. Last year, the feature remained a fundamental part of the company’s new and very popular iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus phablet.

Samsung and Google have also implemented kill switch features, and Microsoft will add them into its upcoming Windows phones. In general, the mobile industry seems open to the broad idea of kill switches, but would rather make them opt-in, rather than turned on by default. That led smartphone makers, carriers and the mobile trade group CTIA to argue against the California law, which will mandate default activation. 

See also: Smartphone "Kill Switch" Now Mandatory In California

According to William Duckworth, an associate professor of data science and analytics at Creighton University, American consumers spend $580 million per year (PDF link) on replacements for stolen phones. A National Consumers League statistic from 2012 revealed that 1.6 million people in the U.S. had a handheld device stolen from them. 

Lead photo by Jonas

Verizon Won’t Stop Tracking Users, But At Least You Can Opt Out Now

Sat, 01/31/2015 - 02:03



The saga of last year's privacy controversy over Verizon’s user-tracking behavior continues on. The latest chapter involves the wireless carrier magnanimously deciding Friday to let subscribers opt out of the program, the New York Times reported. 

Not that the idea came purely from the goodness of its heart. As the NYT noted, the decision came less than a day after the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation wrote to Verizon’s chief executive, Lowell C. McAdam, to question his company’s behavior.

Next thing you know, Verizon agreed to let people jump off the good ship “Privacy Fail.”

Shhhh! We’re Tracking You

The fiasco started last year, when a tweet by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jacob Hoffman-Andrews pointed out Verizon’s user-tracking tactics—primarily because few, if any, people realized what the wireless operator was doing.

Hoffman-Andrews cited an Ad Age article about Verizon's advertising business that mentioned the company’s use of PrecisionID, a tool developed by Verizon’s data marketer, Precision Market Insights. Its website describes PrecisionID as “a deterministic identifier matched to devices on Verizon’s wireless network powering data-driven marketing and addressable advertising solutions…”

The system works by tacking on snippets of code—sometimes called “perma-cookies” or “supercookies”—to mobile traffic headers moving through Verizon's cellular network. This “UIDH” identifier allows the carrier to track its subscribers' mobile browsing activity for advertising purposes. Ad Age’s Mark Bergen wrote, "Precision packages the request as a hashed, aggregated and anonymous unique identifier, and turns it into a lucrative chunk of data for advertisers.”

See also: Why Verizon Is Tracking All Your Mobile Web Traffic

In a Google AdSense world, user-tracking may not seem that outrageous. The difference: Google makes no secret of its ad-targeting behavior, and people knowingly accept those terms in order to use the search giant's free services. Verizon Wireless subscribers pay (sometimes hefty) subscription fees, but they apparently didn’t know they were being tracked.

Instead, they became unwitting participants in a program whose security remains in question. As the NYT points out, Verizon must secure those unique identifiers or supercookies, to ensure external attackers can’t get their hands on them.

Verizon "Takes Privacy Seriously" (Kinda) 

Even if people knew about the program, they would have had no way out until now. The company offered no mechanism to decline participation, like it does with other advertising initiatives. It makes sense, in some ways. If no one knows they’re being tracked, where’s the need? Another possibility: Putting something out there might trigger unwanted attention, and Verizon only puts it out there because it’s forced to now.

That is, of course, not the way the carrier positions its decision. According to its latest press statement:

Verizon takes customer privacy seriously and it is a central consideration as we develop new products and services. As the mobile advertising ecosystem evolves, and our advertising business grows, delivering solutions with best-in-class privacy protections remains our focus. 

We listen to our customers and provide them the ability to opt out of our advertising programs. We have begun working to expand the opt-out to include the identifier referred to as the UIDH, and expect that to be available soon. As a reminder, Verizon never shares customer information with third parties as part of our advertising programs.

The announcement looks like a concession, and a minor one at that. Because if it was serious about privacy, then Verizon would have made user-tracking opt-in, i.e. turned off by default and only activated with consent. Instead, the program is opt-out, indicating it may be turned on by default. That would put the onus on users to be aware and proactive enough shut it down. 

Earlier in January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation began a petition against Verizon and Turn, a partner that makes digital marketing software. The digital rights group seeks punitive federal action for the lack of consumer disclosures over the tracking activity. The petition received more than 2,000 signatures as of Friday. 

Lead photo by Kangrex

YouTube Fired Flash, Clearing HTML5's Last Obstacle For World Domination

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 19:44



After 10 years, YouTube gave Adobe Flash the heave-ho as its default video player on Tuesday. Instead, the site announced it would default to HTML5 to play its never-ending roster of cat clips, Taylor Swift tributes and movie previews.

A few years ago, the move would have been unthinkable. In 2010, Adobe bragged that as much as 75% of the Web’s videos used Flash. But as of last year, HTML5’s popularity seemed cemented, with more than 80% of the market using it.

See also: Congrats, HTML5—You’re All Grown Up Now

For YouTube, the change seems natural. Around the time Adobe staked its claim, five years ago, the site began offering HTML5 as an option, setting the foundation. Now, in practical terms, most people probably won’t even know the difference. But the change speaks volumes about the state of online videos, its evolution and HTML5's place in it. 

How Flash Started To Dim

Apple usually isn’t the first to bring a new technology to market, but it wastes no time in sending old ones—like floppy disks, CDs, Firewire and others—packing. Flash was one of its most infamous targets. 

Co-founder Steve Jobs abhorred it, so the iPhone never supported it. Jobs even went an extra step and posted a polemic damning the technology, in response to Adobe taking aim at the iPad’s lack of Flash support. 

The big-screen device was designed for enjoying entertainment—at least those not piped in by Adobe’s standard. Jobs explained, citing Flash's lack of openness, poor performance, battery drain, lack of touch support and other issues.

We have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now. We have never seen it. Adobe publicly said that Flash would ship on a smartphone in early 2009, then the second half of 2009, then the first half of 2010, and now they say the second half of 2010. We think it will eventually ship, but we’re glad we didn’t hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?

That was in 2010, the year Apple sold nearly 40 million iPhones, and moved almost 15 million of its first iPads. Although the tablet’s momentum has been stalling out lately, back then, its growth and popularity in the market had only just begun. Developers couldn’t afford to overlook such a huge user base, so this war wound up accelerating more activity around HTML5.

Not that there was really a choice. The following year, Adobe killed off Flash mobile development and even joined the HTML5 bandwagon.

Becoming A Streaming TV Star

Unlike Adobe’s aging multimedia technology, HTML5 works on all devices. It also plays into the larger trend to "write once and distribute everywhere." Developers of all types can just run with HTML5 and know that their videos would play on computers, smartphones and tablets, as well as televisions, i.e. the biggest screen in most people’s lives.

Streaming TV is an area of intense focus for YouTube. The site has become a fundamental part of living room tech, to the point now that most options seem incomplete without it. Google, which bought the video purveyor for $1.65 billion in 2006, knew it would become important; and if it didn’t, then it definitely knows now. The company’s most successful TV product to date, Chromecast, only offered YouTube, Netflix and two Google Play media services when it launched in 2013. But that was enough to rocket it to the top of Amazon’s list of bestselling electronics.

Meanwhile, HTML5’s prominence in TV app development started to come into focus.

See also: HTML5's "Dirty Little Secret": It's Already Everywhere, Even In Mobile

Differing approaches can make development complicated, developers have told me. Roku, for example, uses its own proprietary BrightStar scripting language. For a while, it looked like every TV and console maker would use their own coding languages, making app development across so many different systems a resource-intensive nightmare. Fortunately, most major smart TV and streaming set-top platforms wound up rallying behind HTML5—including those from Samsung, LG, Opera TV and others (though not Roku).

In other words, TV streaming apps have become something akin to glorified Web apps. YouTube’s change in default from Flash to HTML5 plays directly into that.

See also: HTML5 Catches Up To Apple

Not that Flash is entirely dead. It's still a popular choice for browser-based gaming, apparently even more so than HTML5. The latter can’t handle animations or back-and-forth interactions on its own, requiring other tools like CSS3 and Javascript. But when it comes to video, it’s clear now which one dominates—and that may only scratch the surface.

In emerging markets, developer interest in HTML5 has surged. In places like South Asia, South America, the Middle East and Africa, HTML5 is even more popular than iOS—which means that the technology Apple helped make popular is giving it a run for its money. 

Lead photo screenshot from YouTube video by Gilbert Gottfried

How To Safely Share Passwords With Others Who Need Them

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 19:35



It’s easy to poke fun at companies that treat sensitive information recklessly, sending or receiving plaintext passwords via unencrypted email or chat, or storing customer information in ways that are far from secure. But it can be a logistical nightmare to let multiple remote employees log into a shared account in a secure fashion.

Luckily, there are a few options to make this a little easier. Here's a quick run-through of some of the best options.


Like most password managers, LastPass lets users to log in with just one master password; the tool stores all of their other passwords. Among other things, this makes it easy to create long and complex passwords and to use different passwords for each login account.

In addition, LastPass’ enterprise accounts will let you share login data between individuals and across teams, with customizable permissions. That means that you can choose who has access to which folders, and make changes that are synced automatically. Enterprise accounts cost anywhere from $18 to $24 a year per user, depending on the number of users.

It’s also possible for a Premium account holder to share password information in a single file with up to five other LastPass users, which could be useful for tiny startups, partnerships, or people needing to share passwords with friends or family members. Premium accounts cost $12 a year, and only the main account holder needs to have one.

Because LastPass is cloud-based, it makes things easier for people logging into multiple computers, but has some drawbacks as well. For instance, you'll be uploading your passwords—though not your master password—to the cloud, though in encrypted form.

In addition, “[a] third party service [like LastPass] will be able to see which sites you have an account on ... not the password itself, but when you’re accessing each password,” says privacy and security researcher Runa Sandvik, technical advisor for Freedom of the Press Foundation.

KeePass and KeePassX

“Keepass and Keepass X may not be as pretty as all the other tools, but it is open source, it is free, and it works,” Sandvik says. This password manager is one you have on your computer, so no third party knows when you access different sites. However, you do need to make sure you’re backing up the database frequently. (Let's just say that losing your database of passwords would be ... bad.)

To share passwords with others, you need to create a database, enter the password, send the database to another person, and somehow securely send them the password to open the database. We’ll discuss that a little later.


OneLogin is another cloud-based option. OneLogin allows users to log into multiple cloud services using a single sign-on account. It can integrate with a company’s "active directory" of user accounts and permissions.

Another benefit is that OneLogin can integrate with a large variety of enterprise applications. Plans range from $2 to $8 a month; there's a free version as well.


1Password is a personal privacy manager tool that allows users to create several password vaults, and share a single password vault with a group of people who also have 1Password installed. However, you do need to use Dropbox to synchronize the data.

"That is a sharing solution is suitable for a family and a small team, but it's not an enterprise solution or one for a big company," says security adviser Per Thorseim, founder of the Passwords hacker conference. Licenses cost $49+.

SplashID Safe for Teams

SplashID is an enterprise product that allows large teams or companies to share passwords and other information with larger groups of people, such as entire departments or large companies. The IT team can create users and groups and permissions, so only people who need access to passwords can see them, or to review logs of records and usage.


Dashlane for Teams is yet another privacy tool that works on the company level. It syncs passwords within a team, which is helpful any time someone needs to change a password, as the change will get pushed out to all team members and their devices.

Dashlane also sends security alerts to users' devices when an account may have been compromised. A security dashboard provides tips for making an account even more secure. 

Licenses cost $39.99 a year for each user. There's also a freemium version with very limited features.


Strip is another enterprise solution that has team password sharing. It allows synchronization over Dropbox, Google Drive, and local Wi-Fi, and creates local backups of data.

Don’t Forget Two-Factor Authentication

LastPass, 1Password, and Onelogin support two-factor authentication, which adds an extra step to checking a user’s identity when they log into a website. For instance, logging into the service require not just a password, but an authorization code that's texted to a user's phone.

Two-factor authentication is challenging to use with tools like Twitter if you have a distributed team, since a single phone number must be used, but there are often other options. Google, for example, allows users to generate backup codes, which can be shared with remote users who don’t have access to the mobile device to which the SMS code.

How To Safely Share Just One Password

Suppose you need to send someone just one password, and would rather not deal with the hassle of setting up shared-passworld tools. Or, similarly, say you sent someone a KeePass database, but then also need to send them a password so they can open it. 

“The challenge is that even if you were to store a shared password, you’d still need a password to get into the database in the first place,” Sandvik explains. So what's the easiest way to safely share that single password?

Options might include sending encrypted emails, which require a bit of technical know-how, or using encrypted phone or messaging apps. Open Whisper Systems’ RedPhone (Android) and Signal (iOS) apps are particularly user-friendly.

SnapPass is open-source software used at Pinterest that allows people to send a URL to someone that links to a password. It may require a bit of tinkering to set it up; it stores passwords in a Redis database on the user’s own computer system. 

 “The URL leads to the password,” says web operations consultant Dave Dash, a former internal tools engineer at Pinterest who built SnapPass. He continued:

You can only click on it once and it expires after a few days. If I need to set up an account on any system for someone, I could send them the URL, and then they’d have the password and could then change it for added security.

Dash recommends that anyone setting this up make sure that the application and database aren't publicly accessible. It's also wise to limit the number of people who have access to the running application and its associated database.

Of course, there are non-technical solutions as well. You could, for instance, send a password through a different channel than the one used for login information—you could send one through email and another via chat, for instance.

This is the same concept that banks use when they send a debit card in one envelope and a temporary code in a separate one, and mail them out on different days, although of course it's not foolproof. “That’s an option, but it assumes that NSA isn’t the entity you’re worried about,” Sandvik points out.

 If nothing else, just promise us you won't store all of your passwords in plaintext in a directory called “passwords.” 

Photo by Tit Bonač

The Scoop On Microsoft's New Outlook App For iPhone and Android

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 14:00



Acompli built an Outlook-like mobile app that was so good, Microsoft bought it, renamed it and just released it as the company's own official Outlook app for iOS and Android

Microsoft has been pushing to extend the reach of its Office productivity software to iPhones and iPads, as well as a preview version for Android tablets. (The latter now loses the "preview" label, graduating to a full release.) Meanwhile, the company also gave Windows mobile users Office apps and its own version of the email and calendar software. The lack of Outlook apps for iOS and Android, the world's most popular mobile platforms, seemed like a huge gaping hole. 

Turns out, Acompli managed to fill that annoying, inefficient void just fine. 

See also: Microsoft Office Comes To iOS For Free

Like Outlook, Acompli combined email, appointments, contacts and an attachment manager into one app, so users don’t have to bounce between separate, incompatible applications. Microsoft acquired Acompli last December, and appears to have wasted no time in slapping a new name on it and pushing it out the door. Here’s what you need to know. 

Building A Better Outlook: Mission Acompli'ed

There’s no question that Outlook on the desktop is a powerhouse email client. On Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms, however, it looked like a power failure. 

The Microsoft program has been dominant on the desktop literally for decades—which is no surprise, since it comes bundled with versions of Microsoft Office. But before Thursday, Outlook on iPhones and Androids existed mostly as glorified Web apps for Office 365 users or via numerous third-party Outlook alternatives. 

See also: How To Get Started With Microsoft Office On iPad

Most of the choices paled in comparison to full-fledged Outlook, but one managed to do better. Launched less than a year ago, Acompli garnered immediate rave reviews after its April 2014 release and quickly became a hit—so much so that Microsoft itself couldn’t resist scooping it up. 

For the startup, the deal gave it access to "over a billion Office users,” Javier Soltero, co-founder of Acompli and now general manager for Outlook, wrote on the Microsoft Office blog. It also allowed for "tighter integration with Office and [the official] Outlook, the most popular desktop email app on the planet.” 

The new Outlook is a dead ringer for the old Acompli, an app I’ve been using on the iPhone for several months now. In that time, three features have stood out for me: choice of Web browsers, priority message filtering and the attachment viewer. 

I can choose Chrome as the default Web browser for email or document links, instead of Safari. The "focused inbox" for priority messages may not be perfect at picking out important emails, but it's helpful enough to be handy. The app also offers a handy attachment viewer that integrates with cloud storage providers such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Box and, of course, Microsoft's OneDrive service. 

All of these features remain in the new app. At least for now. However, Microsoft plans to make a lot of changes, and in rapid fire. 

"For our Acompli users, Outlook will be a familiar experience, as we’re developing the apps from this code base," the Official Microsoft Blog states. "You will see us continue to rapidly update the Outlook app, delivering on the familiar Outlook experience our customers know and love.”

In other words, Microsoft wants the former Acompli app to resemble the Outlook experience, and it's in a hurry to get it there. How much of a hurry became plain when Julia White, Microsoft’s general manager of Office, told the Verge, "We have been and we’ll continue to update the app weekly." 

Those updates will likely lead to heavier emphasis on the company’s own offerings. Hopefully that won't come at the expense of integration with Google Drive or other external cloud storage services. 

Super Email Busting Powers

When it comes to email on Acompli—er, Outlook—support for Gmail, Yahoo and iCloud, as well as Microsoft's own and Exchange, won’t go anywhere. In fact, it would benefit Microsoft to link up with as many major email providers as possible, to keep users relying on the app. 

Outlook also offers one of the most popular email features these days: Like with Google’s Inbox, Dropbox’s Mailbox and the now-defunct Acompli, users can swipe to schedule, archive or delete. 

The finger-flinging really slaps a jetpack on the act of zipping through piles of email messages, which should appeal to the businesses and workers that form Microsoft's key user base. 

Serving businesses has always been a primary focus for Microsoft, which has seen competition heat up in this area—most recently by Amazon, which just introduced its own WorkMail service. White said, “we’ll be rounding out the really important business and organizational capability of the app too,” though she didn’t elaborate on what exactly that means yet. But with weekly updates, we may not have long to find out.

For now, Outlook for iOS and a preview for Android are both available for download. Early user reviews seem solid for the iPhone version, and generally positive on Android, though apparently some people report various bugs. That’s understandable, given that the preview app is essentially an early beta-type release. 

The user interface supports 30 languages, and the apps require iOS 8.0 and higher, or Android 4.0 and above. To check them out, visit the Apple App Store or Google Play, or play the promo video embedded below. 

Lead photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite; all others courtesy of Microsoft

White House Privacy Bill Would Reportedly Crimp Data Harvesting

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 00:06



The White House's forthcoming online-privacy bill will would place restrictions on the handling of consumer data while giving more power to the Federal Trade Commission to enforce those restrictions, Politico reported.

The current draft would require Internet companies like Google and Facebook—as well as online advertisers and mobile app developers—to get user permission before collecting or sharing personal information. The report also says the FTC would gain the power to levy fines against companies that violate online privacy laws. 

Earlier this month, the White House said it will introduce a version of its Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights by February 26:

Online interactions should be governed by clear principles ... that look at the context in which data is collected and ensure that users’ expectations are not abused.

Related online-privacy legislation the Obama administration intends to propose includes the Student Digital Privacy Act, a measure based on California legislation that would prevent companies from selling student data for non-educational purposes.

But critics said the bill, which will face a hostile reception in the Republican Congress, will need to stake out some serious enforcement powers.

"It's encouraging that the Obama administration is proposing more privacy reforms," Mark. M Jaycox, legislative analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in an email interview. "But they can't be hollow bills."

For instance, he noted:

EFF supported the California bill that the administration is basing its student privacy proposal on. But just this morning, Education Week reported the administration bill does not contain an explicit prohibition on vendors amassing profiles of K-12 students for non-educational uses.

Jaycox added that the student-privacy bill also won't prohibit companies from collecting information in an educational context and then using it to target advertising to students elsewhere.

Critics like Jaycox argue that weaknesses in the student privacy bills could foreshadow similar problems with the consumer privacy bill. Outsiders, however, haven't yet seen the language of either bill firsthand. Politico attributed its reporting to sources that offered a limited reading of the draft legislation.

Photo courtesy of the White House

Despite All The Buzz, Truly Connected Cars Are Still Years Away

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 21:47



ReadWriteDrive is an ongoing series covering the future of transportation.

Every year, cars become a bigger deal at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Demonstration of self-driving and game-like dashboard wizardry—from the likes of Mercedes, Ford, Volkswagen and Audi—were inescapable in Las Vegas at the 2015 event earlier this month.

You might logically conclude that, at last, this is the year of the connected car. Think again.

There’s little doubt that drivers want to maintain connectivity to the Web, social media and streaming infotainment in cars. But so-called innovations like app-based car keys, or using a television to set up your driving route, seem like solutions in search of problems that don’t exist.

Moreover, much of the gimmicky car technology at CES reveals how far we are from car connectivity that matters where it counts the most: in the actual driving experience.

I visited the show for signs that I could soon toss away the $15 plastic dashboard mount that keeps my smartphone in view from behind the wheel. That’s how I currently access my favorite navigation app, stream music, and (when fully stopped at a stoplight) check email or texts. Even if carmakers, Apple, or Google could integrate mobile communications safely into my car, that’s merely the easy precursor to truly meaningful car connectivity. But we’re not even there yet.

Conflicting Protocols

Charles Koch, a manager of new business development at American Honda, said the 2014 rollout of Honda’s Siri-based hands free functionality was a “tough launch.” Speaking at the Consumer Telematics Show 2015, held concurrent with CES, he told me:

When you bring these environments into the car, inevitably they are conflicting with other protocols that are happening in the [car’s dashboard] head unit. That’s going to take a while to straighten out.

Honda is not alone in needing time to work out technical and user experience challenges that have delayed integration with Apple and Google technology. “Everybody is having a really tough time,” he said, referring to delays faced by Mercedes and BMW. “What it taught us is that it’s very difficult to sew together all these different operating systems when they are not created at the same time.”

Chip Goetzinger, a connectivity manager at Nissan, agreed that it’s a challenge for competing systems to manage things “like arbitration of the audio stream coming out of the speakers.” For example, what happens when you’re streaming music from a Bluetooth-paired phone and the phone rings? What if, at the same time, you’re relying on voice-based navigation commands as you speed toward a highway exit that is quickly approaching?

“You need something to tie all the pieces together,” said Andy Poliak, director of business development at QNX, a BlackBerry unit that provides car-based software. “Whether it’s fast access to a backup camera, or dealing with a device’s microphone versus the car’s microphone and speaker, or warning indicators,” he said. “All of these things need to blend. You need a close coupling between all these devices, cloud backend applications, and embedded systems.”

Now, Add Business Conflicts

While the engineers and HMI experts are working out these issues, business managers at car companies and web companies have yet to sort out the core nature of their collaborations. “We’re in the business of building and selling cars, and the experience of the vehicle,” said Nissan’s Goetzinger. He rattled off these questions: “What is the experience like? Is it consistent with our brand? Who owns the data? What data do you have access to? Do we share the data?”

Without these answers, it will be tough for the auto industry to develop a robust connected car strategy. We’re not talking about the music streaming and social media I can already get by pairing my phone to the car—but the more vibrant connectivity that combines the vehicle’s core computer systems with services that help me navigate, fuel, park and maintain my car.

“It’s not Facebook. It’s not Twitter. And it’s not one of your streaming audio services,” said Goetzinger. “It’s going to be vehicle health information, remote access to information about the vehicle and your driving experience. We’re going to be in the business of pulling in information about the vehicle that only we can access or know.”

I don’t expect carmakers to gladly hand their brand and the monetization of this data over to Google and Apple.

Smart Cars Need Smart Cities

The plot gets even thicker, because as Bryan Mistel, chief executive of Inrix, told me in Vegas: “The connected car cannot happen without smart cities.”

Inrix is perhaps the most important connected car company you never heard of. It’s a 10-year-old outfit spun off from traffic prediction software at Microsoft. Inrix is getting data from—and sending it back to—navigation systems in 185 million cars.

The company, whose partner list that includes Audi, BMW, Ford, Mercedes, Toyota, Tesla and Volkswagen, uses hundreds of additional data sources to derive dynamic real-time information about traffic, fuel prices, parking and weather. That gets combined with data from car computers about speed, location, and heading—and even data points about windshield wipers and traction control.

When you add analytics to this big and deep data, you have the makings of true car connectivity. Finally, think about the power of community to provide an exponential increase in driver-generated content. It will come with apps like Waze that allow users to report roadside hazards or the presence of police.

It’s the value of the network effect that prompted Google to acquire Waze in 2013 for $1 billion. And that’s why companies like Cisco, IBM and Intel are so interested in this space.

By the end of CES, I started hearing rumors about these types of old guard technology companies, holding meetings in Vegas in hotel suites far from the floor of the convention center. I suspect that the future of car connectivity, still years away, is being built in these discussions between high-tech infrastructure companies, automakers and web startups—miles away from the buzz of the CES showroom floor.

Lead photo by Ford Europe

Don't Look Now, But Deep Linking Just Got Hot

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 15:06



Suppose the only way to get to this article—yes, the one you're reading—was to first visit and then trust that you could locate it using the site's navigation tools. Odds are good that you'd be somewhere else right now.

Instead, you probably followed a link shared on Twitter, passed along in email or even displayed here on ReadWrite. That "deep link" made it possible for you to zip right to this page, the same way you can visit just about anywhere on the Web with a single click. Deep links make the Web what it is; they're so deeply ingrained in our online understanding that we take them for granted.

At least on the desktop, that is. Mobile is a different story. Most mobile apps live in their own silos, and offer no way to directly access photos, stories, messages and other information to which they control access. Instead of letting you tap through to a relevant page, mobile links generally direct you to the app’s own home page—leaving you to search around the app, often in vain, for whatever you're really looking for.

See also: Facebook Still Thinks It Can Make Apps Work More Like The Web

It’s a problem that leads to increased user effort and frustration, and mobile app developers consider solving it a high priority. Suddenly, deep links in mobile are a hot topic.

Button Me Up

Right now, Button SDK is the development world’s most prominent open source solution to the mobile deep linking problem.

Out of hundreds of thousands of iOS repositories on code storage community GitHub, Button has trended in the top five most popular for weeks. That means a huge number of users are watching it, downloading it, and using it to integrate deep linking into their mobile apps. Recently, Button added ridesharing service Uber as one of those companies.

Chris Maddern, cofounder at Button, said the company built the SDK as a tool for its own app integration needs, but made it open source when they realized so many other developers were experiencing the same problem.

“From app to app, it’s all about taking a user’s intent and most closely matching it to the user’s action,” he said. “If I’m looking at an item and want to buy it in an app, why would you throw me on the home screen? I want to land on the item page so I can buy it.”

Why We Need Deep Links On Mobile

It’s hard to see the impact that deep linking has on our Internet browsing behaviors until it’s no longer there. Users expect to be able to tap from link to link between apps as easily as they do in their browsers. Deep linking is the one technology that lets them.

See also: Google Has New Targeted Ads That Encourage You Dive Into Apps

URX is another company that helps marketers implement deep linking. Mike Fyall, the company's head of marketing, told me that until Android and iOS enable HTTP links on their end, mobile apps will need to use deep links to mimic Web browsing.

“Mobile web browsers support HTTP links just fine—it’s apps that are the problem,” he said. “They aren't built to respond to HTTP links in the same way, so deep links are used to create similar functionality.”

URX takes the technology a step further with a type of deep linking it calls URX Links, previously known as omnilinks. Even deep links have their limits, and URX Links prevent a user’s app ownership from curbing his or her browsing experience.

“If a user clicks on a deep link but doesn't have the app installed, they will get an error message,” said Fyall. “URX Links route users to the right place whether or not the user has the app installed. If the user has the app installed, the deep link is used and the user is taken inside the app. If the user doesn't have the app installed, they are taken to the mobile website.”

The Future Of Mobile Deep Linking

Deep linking is becoming a big asset for marketers who want to drive mobile traffic seamlessly from mobile browsers to mobile apps. The next step for URX, Button, and other companies in the deep linking space is to foster deep linking between different apps. For example, if a user makes a table reservation on partner Rezy, Button wants there to be a link within the Rezy app to order an Uber car to the restaurant. 

“We want to build a more connected app ecosystem,” said Maddern. “To create the fluid world of users moving around on the Web, and a standardized way of moving users between apps.”

Right now, the process of deep linking is wildly different between Apple and Google. URX supports both Android and iOS with separate SDKs, and Button supports just iOS for now, (but is working on Android support). Both companies agree that the possibilities for deep linking could change dramatically depending on what Apple and Google do next.

“For the best user experience possible, we will always need to be able to link directly to a specific place in an app," said Fyall. "Deep links will be the answer for the foreseeable future. However, if the industry agreed on a deep linking standard that worked across platforms and operating systems, they would be easier to implement and use.”

Photo by Yandle

How Big Data Could Limit Super Bowl Sticker Shock

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 14:00



Guest author Alex Salkever is the head of product marketing and business development at

Andrew Kitchell is from Seattle and is the co-founder of PriceMethod, a startup that helps AirBnB and HomeAway hosts price their properties. His co-founder Joe Fraiman is from Boston. They both follow football and pondered going to the Super Bowl, but were floored by the high prices for accommodations—even though their business is all about supply and demand, which gives them a certain insight into the impact of 100,000 people abruptly descending on a city in search of an affordable place to stay.

Credit: PriceMethod

So Kitchell and Fraiman flipped their methodology around and built a simple tool to help Super Bowl attendees find cheaper last minute lodging. They took the same Big Data harvesting and categorization infrastructure they had built and, on a dime, put a new UI on the results to make it easier for the public to search for cheap accommodations—the exact opposite of their normal business helping peer-to-peer property owners charge what the market will bear.

I caught up with Kitchell to talk with him about their Super Bowl findings and how PriceMethod crawls data and builds data models that can give property owners the same pricing tools as big hotel chains. Here's a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Leveling The Playing Field

ReadWrite: So where did the idea come from?

Andrew Kitchell: We are a data science-focused team of Y Combinator alums, and usually we help Airbnb and HomeAway listings with data-driven pricing. However, my co-founder is from Boston, and I'm from Seattle, so we thought this would be a fun time to use our data to help our fellow football fans.

RW: Tell us a little bit about how PriceMethod works.

AK: We’re trying to level the playing field for P2P (peer-to-peer) accommodations versus traditional big hotels. To do that, we need to have a good picture of the entire market including hotels and other accommodation sources.

As a base we collect data from Airbnb and HomeAway, the two biggest P2P accommodation networks. We do that several times per day. Additionally, we collect hotel price and occupancy data from multiple sources across the Internet. Primarily, we use hotel data to build a predictive pricing model for local demand. We assume that hotels, because they have very strong predictive pricing tools, are already baking in good assumptions for local demand based on their own algorithms and historical data.

We also use vacation rental and P2P property data to build a reactive pricing model. This adjusts prices based on how local demand translates into actual bookings within a neighborhood, inventory type. You need that in the P2P market because it is still somewhat unpredictable.

RW: How do you account for things like the price of inventory taken off the market?

AK: For scraped hotel and vacation rental or P2P listings, we infer the "booked price" for any day from the last observed price. We collect data from channels throughout the day, so we will observe and record any booking within, at most, 24 hours. With a linked account, we can get perfect access to booking data. However, as a first step, we can use the last observed price to inform a robust model.

How To Build A Pricing Model

RW: Your team has some deep experience in building pricing models for big financial firms in commodities and other trading markets. How do you build your pricing models for the P2P accommodations markets?

AK: Our current pricing model consists of four components. First, we base price recommendations on the average market value of similar listings. Then we make a local adjustment due to the popularity of any given neighborhood. This adjusts and improves our base pricing model.

We then apply a time-sensitive model model informed by the booking curve of the local market, taking into account time periods expected for local bookings. Lastly, we look at demand driven changes depending on the local availability of vacation rentals and hotels.

Q: So how is the Super Bowl different in terms of pricing?

A: By our calculation, at least 75% of the P2P and vacation rental market is underpriced for the Super Bowl. We're seeing some amazing price increases for informed owners, and our favorite example of how the rest of the accommodations market is moving is captured by the fact that someone is selling a basic room for 20x their normal rate.

For the Super Bowl, we wanted to determine how hosts could price their home during a period of exceptional demand. So we actually skewed our model to analyze how much experienced P2P hosts—those with more reviews and more future bookings—were increasing prices, and how booked out these listings were at their raised prices. In some cases, owners are increasing their prices up to 15 times their normal rates, so we were able to observe bookings at this homes to discern the efficacy of these increases.

For hosts during the Super Bowl, we used this analysis to recommend a reasonable range of price increases for other homes. For travelers attending the Super Bowl, we used this same process to determine which homes were priced best in comparison to their potential value.

Let's Talk Nerdy

RW: What does your tech stack look like? 

AK: It’s a Rails stack with a PostGres database and Reddis for caching. The whole thing is sitting on top of Amazon Web Services so we can spin up as many nodes as we need to do our crawls. We use Mechanize for a lot of our crawling and are using a combination of APIs, mobile APIs and standard Web data to fuel our system. AWS makes it very easy to get up and running. It’s almost a no brainer. It has so many tools and for the cost and the power, it’s quite amazing.

RW: For vacation rental owners that use you, how much more money can they expect to make?

AK: Our initial numbers show we are increasing their revenue by 20% to 40%. Those numbers will get better as we have a large set of customers. We can’t disclose numbers right now but this is a huge, multi-billion dollar market that is poorly addressed right now. AirBnB is adding thousands of listings per day. We’re bootstrapping right now and are going to raise money in a few months. But we’re confident the market is there. 

Lead graphic courtesy of Shutterstock

App Revenues Are Booming—But Perhaps Not For Long

Wed, 01/28/2015 - 22:43



Former Facebook executive Jeff Hammerbacher once lamented that "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." I wonder if it would make him feel any better to know that a big chunk of those ads are, in turn, simple facades to drive app installs.

You know, the same apps (up to 95% of them) that languish in a lonely app graveyard.

Hope springs eternal in Appland, however. With iOS app revenues topping Hollywood's box office receipts in 2014, app developers are spending big to drive app installs, as a new report from Business Insider highlights—and as Facebook's big mobile-ad earnings Wednesday—attest. Is this a permanent shift in ad spending, or merely a bookmark until mobile search improves?

The App Install Economy

Most apps are lonely. By one estimate, user retention—that is, the percentage of people who open a given app more than once in a three-month period—ended 2014 at a mere 12%. While app engagement versus the mobile Web seems high (Flurry pegs apps at 86% of our time spent in mobile), the reality is that just a few apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter account for the vast majority of that engagement.

The rest of the apps sit around, waiting to get used. Google data, for example, indicates that of the roughly 52 apps on the average U.S. smartphone, 33 (or 63%) haven't been touched in the last month.

Which is why the app install economy is taking off. Or took off, rather.

According to a Business Insider report, the app install market is already $3.6 billion, and should add another billion in 2015 and rising at a compound annual growth rate of 14% through 2019:

Credit: Business Insider

BI Intelligence estimates that this app install revenue accounts for 30% of all mobile ad spending, and calls out the relative efficacy of such ad units, with an average clickthrough rate (CTR) of 0.98% during the first quarter of 2014, compared to an average CTR of 0.24% for all Facebook ad types across desktop and mobile.

So it's a big business, one with a reasonable amount of growth left in it. But not the kind of growth we expect of mobile.

Where's The Growth?

While a few billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, a 14% CAGR is. It's simply not that impressive, especially in light of the overall growth in mobile apps:

Source: VentureBeat

Much of that mobile app growth increasingly comes from non-game app types, suggesting that there's still healthy growth ahead for mobile apps.

At some point, however, we may lose our fetish for apps as connectivity and the Web catch up. As Apple and Google invest in improving the mobile Web experience—and they are—we may finally get back to where we are now on the desktop.

A Farewell To Apps?

Or, rather, the idea of an isolated app may change. And dramatically, as former Googler Paul Adams speculates:

The idea of having a screen full of icons, representing independent apps, that need to be opened to experience them, is making less and less sense. The idea that these apps sit in the background, pushing content into a central experience, is making more and more sense. That central experience may be something that looks like a notification centre today, or something similar to Google Now, or something entirely new.

In such a world, the app isn't the important thing. Rather, it's the contextual experiences that our mobile devices deliver that are important, and those center on the messages that hit us at the right time and in the right place. 

As Adams writes, we're already seeing this shift away from apps as notifications increasingly "are the app," allowing users to interact with the message itself without needing to visit an app.

The next iteration is obvious. Lots and lots of notification cards that enable full product experiences and independent workflows right inside the card. Comment on the Facebook post. Retweet the tweet. Buy the item on Amazon. Check in for the flight. Share the news story. Add the reminder to your to-do list. Book the restaurant. Swap the fantasy football player. Annotate the run you just finished. Pay the bill. And on and on.

In such a world, the underlying OS takes on an ever-increasing importance. Apps become less so, while the back-end data sitting out on a server (attached to a website or to an app or both) becomes the critical experience as it's transformed into messages that, again, hit the user in the right time and place.

We're not there yet, and I'm not writing an obituary for the app experience. Not yet, anyway. But the writing is on the wall for self-contained apps that want to immerse users in an experience that is somehow divorced from the physical reality in which users live. Mobile blends physical and digital, and it increasingly does so through cards or notifications, not apps, per se.

Photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

How A Linux "Ghost" Spooked The Security World

Wed, 01/28/2015 - 17:39



A vulnerability in a widely used component of many Linux distributions could allow remote attackers to take control of a system. Researchers at Qualys have dubbed it Ghost since it can be triggered by the "gethost" functions in Linux.

See also: How To Protect Yourself Against The Internet "Poodle" Attack

The vulnerability can be found in the in the GNU C Library, known as glibc for short. Without glibc, a Linux system couldn’t function. The flaw is found in __nss_hostname_digits_dots(), a glibc function that's invoked by the gethostbyname() and gethostbyname2() function calls. An attacker able to access either function could take remote control of the entire Linux system.

A series of misfortunes have helped Ghost to slip through the cracks. First of all, the bug had been previously identified and fixed back on May 21, 2013, as Qualys CTO Wolfgang Kandek writes. However, at the time it was seen only as a flaw, not a threat, and no further patching was done:

Unfortunately, it was not recognized as a security threat; as a result, most stable and long-term-support distributions were left exposed including Debian 7 (wheezy), Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 & 7, CentOS 6 & 7, Ubuntu 12.04, for example.”

Secondly, since Ghost affects a code library that's integral to the Linux system, patching it is no simple fix. Patching the GNU C Library will mean that the Linux core functions, or the entire affected server, will have to be rebooted. Companies will have to schedule that downtime, which means affected servers could stay vulnerable for some time longer.

With all the worlds’ Linux distributions to choose from, it’s unlikely your homebrew Linux server is anywhere near high risk. And now that Red Hat, Debian, Ubuntu and Novell have all issued patches, Linux server operators have the resources to stay in the clear. 

Photo by Jon Feinstein