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Here's A New Way To Step Into A Virtual World

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 20:38

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Web

When you strap on an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, you're free to look up, down and around. But as soon as you try to explore the virtual world further, you're stuck. You can't interact with your surroundings or walk across the room.

New controllers and sensors hitting the market are built to solve this problem, whether by tracking the precise location of your fingers so you can grab that virtual gun or giving you a simple joystick so you can "walk" from place to place. The HTC Vive, one of the highest-profile new headsets, lets you move around a real room and incorporates your motion into VR.

See also: 6 Ways The HTC Vive Will Freak Out Virtual-Reality Geeks

The startup Occipital thinks there's a simpler way. Up until today, its candy-bar-shaped Structure Sensor, an accessory for mobile devices, has mostly been used for 3D scanning of physical objects—for instance, in order to create 3D-printable virtual models. Now, though, Occipital wants to expand into virtual and augmented reality by giving its sensor the ability to map entire rooms and incorporate a user's actual movement onto a screen, and thus into a virtual world.

Mixing Virtual Reality And Reality Reality

At the Occipital office in San Francisco's Mission Bay neighborhood, I recently rambled around with an Pad in my hands and a Structure Sensor strapped to its back. On its screen, I explored a Portal-esque room in hopes of opening a door to move on to the next level. I noticed a laser crossing the room; blocking it would open the door. But to do so I needed a few of the cubes circulating on a line by the ceiling.

I walked over to a coffee machine in the game, which is called S.T.A.R. Ops, by actually walking down the long row of desks in the Occipital office. I moved through the virtual room in much the same way. I tapped one corner of the screen to grab a coffee cup and moved the tablet away from my body as if I was sticking the cup into the machine. Coffee poured in.

I powered up a nearby gun by tipping the iPad to pour the coffee into a grate. I shot down some cubes and then stacked them in front of the laser, the iPad once again serving as a physical representation of the blocks. The door opened.

It's a funny mix of the virtual and real worlds. Most virtual reality experiences are seated and don't incorporate the tipping and reaching motions calls S.T.A.R. Ops calls for. While the movements are fairly intuitive, it takes a while to get used to them. But the learning curve is quick—on my second run through the level, I cut my time by two thirds.

Positional Tracking Gone Wild

The Structure Sensor works by projecting infrared dots across everything in a room. It can sense depth and motion based on the dots' behavior and build a map of them that updates at 30 frames per second. Occipital calls it "unbounded positional tracking."

There are lots of sensor systems already available in the virtual reality space. Many, like Leap Motion, are more focused on hand tracking—an area with which Occipital is not currently concerned. CEO Jeff Powers related it more to the Kinect sensor, which VR companies have been hacking to incorporate into their demos, except that the Structure Sensor doesn't need any tricky setup to be used with iPads, iPhones and Android devices.

Powers noted that high-end VR headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift also use sensors to incorporate movement, and said he believes sensors incorporated directly into the VR device are the only way to go. Though the Structure Sensor doesn't currently deliver the precise hand tracking that Vive does, it allows users to move beyond a predetermined area if they want to walk around in a virtual world.

See also: Google's Project Tango: What You Need To Know

Eventually, Powers sees Sensor-like systems being incorporated into our mobile devices. Google's Project Tango phone will be an early example. But beyond that, he said the ultimate form will be wearable devices that constantly read and make sense of our surroundings. That's the vision of augmented reality at which Google Glass hinted. 

True augmented reality is years, if not decades away. But beginning today, Structure Sensor owners can play S.T.A.R. Ops and think about the virtual-reality experiences they would like to see built in the near-term.

Lead photo courtesy of Occipital

Your "Strong" Password May Be Weaker Than You Think

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 14:00

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Web

If you've been relying on password meters to determine how strong your passwords are, we've got some bad news. Their strength measurements are highly inconsistent and may even be leading you astray, according to a new study from researchers at Concordia University:

In our large-scale empirical analysis, it is evident that the commonly-used meters are highly inconsistent, fail to provide coherent feedback, and sometimes provide strength measurements that are blatantly misleading.

Researchers Xavier de Carné de Carnavalet and Mohammad Mannan evaluated the password strength meters used by a selection of popular websites and password managers. The sites surveyed included Apple, Dropbox, Drupal, Google, eBay, Microsoft, PayPal, Skype, Tencent QQ, Twitter, Yahoo and the Russian-based email provider Yandex Mail; the researchers also looked at popular password managers including LastPass, 1Password, and KeePass. They added FedEx and the China Railway customer-service center site for diversity.

De Carné de Carnavalet and Mannan then assembled a list of close to 9.5 million passwords from publicly available dictionaries, including lists from real-life password leaks, and ran them through those services to what kind of job their password-strength meters were doing.

Ineffective Rules

Password strength meters typically looked for length, a variety of character sets (such as upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols). Some tried to detect common words or weak patterns.

However, the strength meters that looked at password composition often ignored other easy-to-crack patterns, and didn't take "Leet" transformations—which replace the letter l with the number 1, for example—into account. Hackers, of course, often try these variations when trying to crack passwords.

Inconsistent Results

Confusingly enough, nearly identical passwords provided very different outcomes. For example, Paypal01 was considered poor by Skype’s standards, but strong by PayPal’s. Password1 was considered very weak by Dropbox but very strong by Yahoo!, and received three different scores by three Microsoft checkers (strong, weak, and medium). The password #football1 was also considered to be very weak by Dropbox, but Twitter rated it perfect.

In some cases, minor variations changed the assessment as well due to an overemphasis on minimum requirements: password$1 was correctly assigned very weak by FedEx, but it considered Password$1  very strong. Yahoo considered qwerty to be a weak password, but qwerty1 was strong.

Similar problems emerged with Google, which found password0 weak, but password0+ strong. False negatives turned up as well—FedEx considered +ˆv16#5{]( a very weak password, apparently because it contains no capital letters.

"Some meters are so weak and incoherent (e.g., Yahoo! and Yandex) that one may wonder what purpose they may serve," the researchers wrote.

Black Boxes, Black Boxes

De Carné de Carnavalet and Mannan argue that the opacity of password checkers works to their detriment. That could also be a problem for users confused by oddly inconsistent password-strength results.

“Except Dropbox, and KeePass (to some extent), no other meters in our test set provide any publicly-available explanation of their design choices, or the logic behind their strength assignment techniques," the researchers wrote.

With the exception of Dropbox and KeePass, the password meters appeared to be designed in an ad hoc manner, and often rated weak passwords as strong. As the researchers wrote: “Dropbox’s rather simple checker is quite effective in analyzing passwords, and is possibly a step towards the right direction (KeePass also adopts a similar algorithm).”

De Carné de Carnavalet and Mannan recommend that popular web services adopt a commonly shared algorithm for their password strength meters. In particular, they suggest using or extending the zxcvbn algorithm used by Dropbox or the KeePass open-source implementation of it.

Lead image by nikcname


Why Facebook Messenger Is A Platform—And WhatsApp Isn’t

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 22:35

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Web

WhatsApp doesn’t want to be a platform. Co-founder Brian Acton, on a panel Wednesday at Facebook’s F8 developer conference, made that very clear. Unlike its sibling service Messenger, which has started courting outside developers and businesses, all that matters to WhatsApp is that the service remain stable, simple and unfettered for its worldwide audience of 100 million monthly active users.

That matters to parent company Facebook too, but likely for different reasons.

See also: Looks Like Facebook Messenger Is Pulling Up To The Platform

WhatsApp—which sold to the social network last year for $19 billion dollars—offers an interesting counterpoint to Facebook's big Messenger push. Because with less redundancy between the two, the company could essentially own a decent chunk of the world’s conversations. 

The Network Effect

Imagine what it’s like using some of the most robust, dynamic mobile applications available today—complete with the sort of images, animated GIFs, music and videos that will assault Facebook’s Messenger app soon enough. Now imagine running that on a slow cellular Edge network straight out of 1995.

That’s precisely the patience-stretching scenario Acton imagines all the time, and it serves as a guiding principle for his work with the service.

In that regard, WhatsApp’s moves seem obvious. It became popular because it was built on some key fundamentals—namely no-fuss messaging that’s reliable, works in different languages and on as many gadgets as possible. Adding the complexity of outside integrations to the mix would only complicate things for a widespread service that has to work over a variety of networks all over the world—some of which can only muster rudimentary connectivity. 

KPMG's Mary Meeker and WhatsApp's Brian Acton

“The world is a very diverse place,” Acton told panel moderator and analyst Mary Meeker, "and networks can have any number of configurations and problems that impede or get in the way with messaging.” One of those problems, for a globally available texting service, is dealing with systems and networks in emerging markets—a key area for tech companies, including Facebook.

With Acton’s motto being “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” he can leave the complexities of media messaging to sibling services Instagram and Messenger.

The Big Picture

On Wednesday, an audience member asked when WhatsApp would release APIs (application programming interfaces) to let developers tie their apps to the texting service. Acton had bad news for him: "The answer I have is ‘not today’,” he said, later elaborating that APIs are not even on the road map for the foreseeable future.

But that’s not to say WhatsApp will stagnate. "This year, we’re focusing on voice, [and] we’re focusing on the Web product,” he said. "David [Marcus] is really championing the APIs.”

If WhatsApp leaves Messenger to handle Facebook's platform ambitions, that likely suits the parent company just fine. 

From left: Brian Acton (WhatsApp), Mike Krieger (Instagram) and David Marcus (Messenger)

Messenger—Facebook’s other, homegrown messaging service—just unveiled a plethora of developer tools covering embedded videos, embedded posts, app linking and more. Marcus wants to give partners and other app makers the "opportunity to build on these platforms,” he said. And not just once, but often. 

“You want to build an app that will be there to stay," he said, "and you want to build creative tools that people will want to use repeatedly.” 

Some of those people will actually be businesses. Messenger looks intent on pushing its new vision of customer service that replaces logging into websites, punching through automated phone menus or waiting on hold, with chat threads. People could buy products, see their transaction info or receipts, shipping details, individualized promotions and other customer relations messages, all in a Messenger window. 

For now, Messenger doesn’t support cross-border transactions, so it's currently confined to the U.S. But consider it a first step in Facebook's larger ambitions. 

The two messaging services look like perfect foils for each other. While WhatsApp handles the fundamentals—making sure that anyone anywhere, regardless of phone or network, can use its service—Messenger can take on the more complex messaging tasks to satisfy users and companies on advanced networks. Between that and all the sharing that Facebook itself naturally manages, the company could have its fingerprints on an awful lot of conversations all over the world. 

"Build better" may be one of Facebook's F8 slogans, but it's the other one that suddenly has some extra context now: "This is only the beginning." When it comes to messaging, it certainly seems like it. 

Photos by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

Oculus Rift Is Coming, And Facebook Wants It To Be Your New Reality

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 20:40

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A wise man once said that reality is "simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." Oculus, the virtual reality harbinger now owned by Facebook, agrees. And it wants you to believe it too, so you can accept virtual reality as a new form of reality.

"VR is more than just another platform," Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash said at the F8 conference Thursday. "In the long run it has the potential to create the whole range of human experience. Virtual reality done right truly is reality as far as the observer is concerned."

Like the series of optical illusions Abrash showcased on stage, virtual reality works because of our brain's stubborn quest to make sense of the world. Feed a slightly different image into each eye, and it will gladly decide you are seeing depth and motion. It will gladly process virtual images as real, giving you a sense of actual presence. 

It's this model of the world, filtered through our brain's limited sensors, that we experience as "real" and trust implicitly, Abrash said. It's a model built by millions of years of human evolution that is based on assumptions that are almost always right. Virtual reality works because it feeds the brain enough matching information that the brain assumes what it is seeing is real. That's presence.

Merging The Virtual Into RealityOculus chief scientist Michael Abrash speaks at F8. The Crescent Bay prototype is shown on screen.

VR is only in the beginning stages. Abrash said over and over that it just just now reached that minimal level or presence. By adding haptics—physical feedback that corresponds to the virtual world—better screens and improved audio, virtual reality can become even more lifelike. The hardware itself will get smaller, lighter and more powerful.

Abrash also talked about bringing the real world into the virtual. For example, you should be able to look down and see your own body. If you want to reach out and grab your coffee, there's a virtual representation you can pick up without taking off your mask. It sounded like a hybrid form of augmented reality, a different way of experiencing the real world.

Oculus didn't make any announcements about the long-awaited release of Oculus Rift. Abrash did say it will be "shipping in quantity before long." Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer showcased a video game and said, "You're going to be able to do this this year in VR. You're going to be doing it in something shipped by Oculus."

Both Schroepfer and Abrash threw up images of Crescent Bay, the latest publicly-shown Oculus prototype. Schroepfer was quick to clarify on Twitter that he wasn't talking about an actual Rift release, and never mentioned Gear VR, the mobile headset slated for a broad consumer availability later this year. 

In my reality, I'm going to go ahead and envision a 2015 Rift ship date. 

Photos by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

It May Have A Billion Users, But YouTube Isn't A Sure Thing Just Yet

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 20:24

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Web

Since it launched to the public at the end of 2005 (the very first video is still online), YouTube has come to dominate online video in a way that few businesses manage to dominate anything on the Web. Today, it boasts more than a billion users, who are uploading more than 300 hours of video every minute and generating billions of views every single day.

So far, so rosy—but YouTube isn't exactly the home run that these figures might suggest it is, and it's facing increasing pressure from all sides. Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube was only just breaking even; this month, Facebook unveiled a host of new video features designed to steal away a large chunk of YouTube's share of the market.

See also: Facebook Is Coming After YouTube With Embeddable Videos

Mark Zuckerberg isn't the only one who wants some of those YouTube eyeballs, either.

A Changing LandscapeMark Zuckerberg is coming for YouTube

The 360-degree, 4K video uploads YouTube allows today are a world away from the grainy, blocky, buffering clips that appeared in the early days of the site. But it's not just the technical aspects of online video that have come on in leaps and bounds.

We're all watching more video than ever before, for example; movies and television shows are available on-demand over the Web in ways that would have been hard to envisage a decade ago; and services like Spotify (launched in 2008) have changed the way we think about content streaming.

Music is an interesting case study for those looking to chart the evolution of YouTube. It was something the video site stumbled into almost accidentally, providing an online, instant access, personalized version of MTV that connected with music lovers (especially younger ones). Before YouTube, there wasn't really a way to find good-quality music videos online in any great number—today it hosts audio and video for millions of tracks.

Along the way, music on YouTube has become a professional, money-making business through partners like Vevo. But is it making enough? Bar an advert or two, all this content is free to access, and as rumors circulating around Spotify suggest, that's not a model the record labels are particularly keen to see continue.

Enter YouTube Music Key, which provides ad-free tunes with a few extras thrown in if you pony up $9.99 a month for a Google Play Music subscription (you get both services whichever one you sign up for). From free to ad-supported to subscription in the space of ten years—that's a substantial evolution, and one that makes you wonder how many more subscription services YouTube has up its sleeve.

See also: YouTube May Be Winning The World And Losing Its Soul

YouTube personalities who produce videos about tech, make-up, cooking, video game  and just about any other topic under the sun are another booming area of business for the channel. That's no doubt why big names like Facebook and small startups such as small startups such as Vessel are looking to prise these stars (and their audiences) away from Google's grip.

In the coming years, any big name video personality or successful music artist is going to have more choices than ever for hosting their material. So what does YouTube do next?

A Changing YouTubeHits like Gangnam Style took off on YouTube.

Google faces a battle to both hang on to the core pillars of YouTube's popularity as well as expand into more lucrative areas. One of those areas is likely to be video-game streaming and e-sports, a part of the market YouTube has yet to make a mark in (largely thanks to Amazon's Twitch game-streaming site).

See also: Video Games As Spectator Sport—Why Twitch Is Booming

The Daily Dot reported this week that YouTube is preparing to dust off its live streaming ambitions and make esports the focus. Insider sources suggest Google has already started putting together a team and working on preparing the ground for such a move, with an announcement expected in June.

Live streaming of traditional sports could also be a potential goldmine—this is an area YouTube has dabbled in before, but most of the key events and leagues are tied up in several layers of television rights contracts. It seems it will take a TV-to-online shift in mindsets, like we saw with music, before live broadcasts of the NFL and its ilk can become a reality.

Then there's the idea of YouTube pulling a Netflix. This is an idea often rumored and half-confirmed by YouTube's head of content, Robert Kyncl, last month. In short, pay a monthly fee and never see an advert again—presumably a very good deal from YouTube's perspective as it looks to finally get in the black and stay there. There's potential too in a closer relationship with Google Play, providing a Web-based streaming equivalent to iTunes.

What's certain is that YouTube can't stand still, even with a billion user accounts to its name. If it's going to be prospering at 20, then it's will have to be significantly different from the YouTube of today.

Mark Zuckerberg photo by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite; other images courtesy of Google

How South By Southwest Turned Into A Hardware Show

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 19:28

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Kyle Ellicott is the cofounder of Wearable World, ReadWrite's parent company, and directs Wearable World Labs, a startup incubator.

Many of those who have attended South By Southwest Interactive in recent years complain that it's lost focus. Perhaps that's fair: It's no longer the insidery event that crowns new hot social apps like Twitter or Foursquare. And if it's just a big tech spring break dominated by recruiters trying to snap up engineers, why bother going?

For me, this year seemed different. For one, I felt a focus on making business happen. Meerkat, a video-streaming app, got a bit of buzz and managed not to crash. But the technological stars of the show were wearables, the Internet of Things, and virtual reality. I predict we'll mark 2015 as the year that hardware began to take over SXSW.

I have a clear bias here: Wearable World Labs, the startup incubator I run, has a number of hardware companies. Three of our companies—CreoPop, Little Riot and Strap—demonstrated at SXSW's Hardware House. The weekend continues with panels and happy hours focused on hardware, virtual reality, and other connected experiences. Rothenberg Ventures, an investing partnership that has specialized in virtual reality, took over a local barbership and turned it into a VR showcase.

Walking into that barbershop forever changed my view's on virtual reality's future. I sat down and was shown a typical VR demo taking me through landscapes and nature. Then I was pulled into a sporting event. I was center court, courtside, watching LeBron James and his team drive the ball to the basket. I felt like I was sitting in Jack Nicholson’s seat at a Lakers game. It was unreal—and it gave me a taste of what to expect from mass-market VR products as they hit the market in years to come.

Beyond the panels and parties, the trade-show floor was covered with tech companies showing wearables, 3D printers, and other connected hardware. These weren’t me-too, ho-hum fitness trackers—the kind that saturated CES this year—but instead, companies building organs, printing food, and otherwise exploring the boundaries of what we can do with hardware.

Even our housing reflected this year’s shift to supporting and promoting hardware innovation. The team at Pitch My House and MobileFOMO provided the Wearable World team and four wearables companies with a roof over our heads in exchange—full disclosure—for doing the best job we could of promoting them. If you're looking for a spot to stay at SXSW next year, you should apply to Pitch My House. You’ll be joining us and Funny or Die as alumni.

Disclosure: Wearable World entered and won the 2015 Pitch My House competition. Per the terms of the competition, Wearable World accepted Pitch My House's offer of lodging in Austin during SXSW in exchange for promoting Pitch My House.

Photos by Kyle Ellicott for ReadWrite

Facebook's First Drone Is Broader Than A 737

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 19:19

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Drones and satellites will soar above the earth under Facebook's plan to bring Internet connectivity to remote corners of the globe. 

At the F8 conference Thursday, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer revealed images of the company's first such product: the Aquila, a solar-powered drone with the mass of a small car and a wingspan wider than that of a 737 jetliner.

Facebook acquired five employees from drone startup Ascenta last March. The team built the Zephyr—a drone that could fly for two weeks on solar power alone. With its distinctive U-shape, the Aquila appears to be a direct descendant.

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer presents the Aquila drone

The drone's development is managed by Facebook's Connectivity Lab, a part of the company's Internet.org initiative, which plans to bring Internet connectivity to the several billion people in the world who have never had access. On stage, Schroepfer described the project as an answer to simple economics: Companies spend billions wiring cities, but can't expect the same return on investment in rural areas. As a result, people in remote regions rely on either limited options or none at all.

"You have to have satellites, drones and other things that don't require the massive investments in terrestrial infrastructure in order to provide internet access for this world," Schroepfer said.

Photos by Signe Brewster and Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

React Native Will Ease, But Not Settle, The Native vs. Web Wars

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 18:40

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Web
Facebook's Tom Occhino unveils React Native

Web apps and mobile apps don’t just look different, they have to be coded differently, too. However, a new open source framework from Facebook could make those two sets of code a little more similar to one another.

On Thursday, Facebook announced that it had open sourced React Native, a framework that allows developers to use its in-house JavaScript framework, React.js, for mobile development. Developers typically consider Web development to be more flexible than the walled garden world of mobile. This announcement could bring some of that desktop ease to the mobile world as developers prepare apps for simultaneously release on iOS and Android.

“What we really want is the user experience of the native mobile platforms, combined with the developer experience we have when building with React on the Web,” wrote Facebook software developer Tom Occhino. “With a bit of work, we can make it so the exact same React that's on GitHub can power truly native mobile applications.”

See also: Can We Please Stop Fighting The Native vs. Web App Wars?

Whatever simplification React Native might bring to mobile development, Occhino doesn’t want developers to get the wrong idea—they'll still have to write two sets of code. One will be in React.js for their website; another will be in React Native for mobile applications.

The goal isn’t to change that, Occhino said at the React.js 2015 conference this February—just to make it easier for developers to learn one framework and apply their knowledge everywhere.

"We're not chasing the write-once, run-anywhere pipe dream," Occhino said at the conference. "Instead, what we want to do is chase the learn-once, write-anywhere paradigm."

React was designed for Facebook’s express purposes, and entered a crowded web full of frameworks with similar sounding names, like Angular.js, Backbone.js, and Node.js. But the framework has carved out a niche for itself. Major companies like Yahoo, Mozilla, Reddit, and Airbnb have said they use React.

React Native’s iOS code is available on GitHub today with Android support "coming soon," according to Facebook.

Photo of Tom Occhino courtesy of Facebook

LG's Urbane LTE Smartwatch Looks Great, But It'll Cost About $600

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 18:19

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South Korean electronics giant LG announced Thursday (via AndroidCentral) that it plans to release its SIM card equipped smartwatch, the Urbane LTE, in a little less than a month in its home country, with a price of 650,000 won. That translates to a little shy of $600, a price that would put the new wearable firmly into Apple Watch territory.

What you get is a pretty great-looking smartwatch that, on paper, can do a lot of what a smartphone can—albeit at a smartphone price. You'll also be buying into some real uncertainty as to what apps you'll you be able to use.

What $600 Buys

The Urbane LTE is a member in a very small club of smartwatches with SIM cards, which enable them to send and receive texts, place phone calls, and access the Internet without relying on a smartphone. The Urbane LTE is equipped with a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 4GB of internal storage, and 1GB of RAM—twice as much as what’s found in Android Wear smartwatches. Additionally, it’s got NFC, Bluetooth, GPS, a heart rate sensor, and Wi-Fi connectivity stuffed inside as well.

It’s also got a bigger battery than other smartwatches, clocking in at 700 mAh. For comparison’s sake, LG’s most recent Android Wear device, the G Watch R, has a 400 mAh, which to date has been one of the beefier batteries found in a smartwatch.

The LG Urbane LTE is one of the best looking wearables yet

It’s also worth noting that the Urbane LTE is one of the better looking wearables to be revealed to date. Its band isn’t replaceable, since much of its necessary hardware is baked into the strap. Despite being a little bulky, it still manages to look more like an actual watch than much of what’s come before.

Even the stylish Apple Watch has more in common with a teeny iPhone than an actual watch. The Urbane LTE doesn’t seem to have that problem.

What $600 Doesn’t Buy

It sure looks like LG managed to cram every conceivable feature into the Urbane LTE that it could think of. But there’s one important detail that may hurt its overall value: It’s running a new, proprietary operating system, about which we know next to nothing.

When LG revealed the Urbane LTE during MWC in February, the company made a point of insisting that its operating system isn’t based on WebOS—despite evidence to the contrary appearing at CES a month earlier. Whether it is or it isn’t related to WebOS doesn’t much matter, however. Whatever operating system it’s using won’t benefit from the huge library of apps already developed for Android Wear.

Maybe LG will have its own first-party apps available for the device when it launches in a few weeks. It’s even possible that LG has been working with third-party developers to create their own apps to round out the software available for the watch. But even if that’s true, it seems unlikely that there will be much you can do with the device outside of its built-in functions.

There's a lot of hardware in a tiny package. But without apps, all that hardware may get old fast.

Of course, with all of the aforementioned hardware, the Urbane LTE will certainly be capable of plenty. But LG would have done well to provide it with an operating system capable of running interesting, innovative apps, too. Maybe the “LG Wearable Platform operating system” will catch on with developers and tons of apps are on their way—but it hasn't made much noise so far, making it unlikely those apps will be around at launch.

For now, LG hasn’t mentioned when or if the Urbane LTE will be sold outside of South Korea. If it does break free of Korea’s borders, it might have an uphill battle in the face of less expensive—and more app-capable—alternatives.

Images courtesy of LG

The HTC One M9's Best Feature Doesn't Actually Exist Yet

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 17:52

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HTC's One M9 got rave reviews at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and might be HTC's best offering yet. But this phone, which goes on sale first thing Friday morning, seems doomed to be forgotten—not least because what at first looks like its most remarkable feature is basically vaporware.

The One M9 is a nice enough phone, about which more in a moment. But in a year when the iPhone is gobbling the market and Samsung is striking back with its prettiest phones yet, HTC needs to really stand out from its rivals.

It's A Big Phone, Or So HTC Says

So HTC decided to do just that by boasting about the fact that the One M9 offers a stunning 2 terabytes—yes, you read that correctly—of microSD storage. That would amount to roughly 1,000 times the capacity of a free 2GB Dropbox account.

Here's Jason McKenzie, president of HTC America, boasting about that storage in the company's One M9 press release:

HTC One owners listen to music more than the average smartphone user and so we didn’t compromise on what is important for our consumers.... We kept the microSD slot and increased capacity to 2TB because you want your content with you....

There's just one problem: 2TB microSD cards basically don't exist yet. The best you can buy on Amazon appears to be a 128GB card. SanDisk just unveiled a 200GB card—that's still only about one-fifth of a 2TB card—that it calls the "world's largest capacity microSD card." (It will also set you back about $400.)

By Moore's Law, we're at least three cycles—that is, between four-and-a-half and six years—away from a 2TB microSD card. That strongly suggests the One M9 will be little but a dim memory by the time users can lay hands on storage that meets HTC's claims.

The One M9 isn't the first phone to try to excite buyers with larger-than-life storage—the LG G3 tried the same angle last year

What You WILL Get From The One M9

First thing Friday morning (i.e., 12:01am ET), HTC will make the One M9 available in the U.S. for $649 unlocked. Then it will be available through all major U.S. carriers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, on April 10.

See also: The One Thing HTC Did Right With The HTC One M8

The 5-inch smartphone weighs 157 grams. It will ship with Google’s Android 5.0.2 operating system. According to HTC, the One M9 will function for 21.7 hours for 3G talk time and around 400 hours in unused standby—all on one battery charge.

The One M9 also comes with a 20-megapixel rear camera, up to 32GB of storage, and 3GB of RAM. 

It's just too bad about that microSD slot. Maybe next decade.

Photos by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

Facebook Is Coming After YouTube With Embeddable Videos

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 21:51

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Web

If you are interested in sharing a video across the Web, you probably start by uploading it to YouTube or Vimeo. Facebook wants in on that action, and as of today allows videos uploaded to the site to be embedded elsewhere.

During an F8 keynote address Wednesday, product marketing manager Deborah Liu announced anyone can now grab the embed code from their Facebook videos. "This dramatically increases the potential reach of your content," she said.

But not anyone's ability to make money from video. Upload a clip to YouTube and you can get paid based on views if you let YouTube place ads in it. There's no such arrangement on Facebook at the moment, although product management director Fidji Simo said the company is thinking about it.

"We know this is very important," Simo said. "We have started experiments in that space. It's very, very early. This is a space where we are going to have to take it slowly because we have to figure out the best possible user experience."

Facebook is also increasing the size of videos allowed to 1.5 gigabytes and allowing uploads to be resumed after a disruption, such as loss of internet connectivity. Brands can now decide to only show a video to users of a certain age or who live in a specific area, and if they take down a video they can still access its analytics. Videos can be scheduled for posting and takedown with new partners like Socialflow. Other partners allow for direct posting to Facebook or traffic monitoring.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in the morning keynote that video will likely be the most common type of content uploaded to Facebook within five years. The company recently bumped video views with features like auto-play and more prominent video showcases on pages. Simo noted Facebook is already seeing 65 percent of video views come from mobile devices, making them a priority for her team.

Photo by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

Why Drone Regulations Are Taking Forever

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 20:31

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Amazon is arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration took so long to approve its test drone, the model in question has become obsolete. It said as much during a Tuesday testimony before a Senate subcommittee.

"While the FAA was considering our applications for testing, we innovated so rapidly that the [drone] approved last week by the FAA has become obsolete,” said Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for Global Public Policy. “We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad."

See also: Amazon's FAA Exemption Doesn't Make Prime Air Any More Real

The FAA took a year and a half to approve Amazon’s particular drone model, which is a lengthy amount of time in the technology world. According to Misener, it’s only the U.S. that has given Amazon this amount of hassle.

“Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing, and permission has been granted for operating a category of UAS [unmanned aircraft system], giving us room to experiment and rapidly perfect designs without being required to continually obtain new approvals for specific UAS vehicles,” he said during the hearing.

See also: Why Commercial Drones Are Stuck In Regulatory Limbo

Commercial drones have been locked up in regulatory limbo in the United States ever since their invention. It’s a far cry from other countries, where drones are being deployed and tested at much faster rates. According to an FAA spokesperson speaking to ReadWrite, this is a response to the especially complicated U.S. aviation market, which includes both commercial carriers and a vast number of private aircraft:

We recognize industry’s urgency and understand the many amazing applications for UAS technology. However, the United States has the largest, most complex airspace in the world with—unlike other countries—a large general aviation fleet that we must consider when planning UAS integration, since those aircraft and small UAS may occupy the same airspace. Also, different laws and regulatory structures in other nations may allow them to act more quickly to approve certain UAS operations.

The spokesperson went on to say it was necessary for the FAA to have knowledge of exact makes and models of commercial drones in order to correctly assess them. That’s why the FAA claims it can’t approve a category of drones, just individual models.

Everything we do is safety-oriented, and we base our approvals for unmanned aircraft operations on an assessment of the risks to other aircraft and to people and property on the ground. To make that risk assessment, we need sufficient information on a company’s planned operations and aircraft, and we have been working diligently with Amazon to get the information we need.

The FAA is fighting against the tide of public opinion to correct “misconceptions and misinformation about unmanned aircraft system (UAS) regulations.” In an article published last year, the organization responds to assertions such as “Myth… The FAA is lagging behind other countries in approving commercial drones.”

Responses from the FAA don’t seem to be placating drone advocates. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) is the latest lawmaker to suggest introducing temporary legislation to speed up the commercial use of drones. He aptly calls it the “Commercial UAV Modernization Act.”

Photo via Amazon

Facebook Is Plotting Its Way Into Your Smart Home

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 20:12

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At Facebook’s f8 developer conference Wednesday, the company made its play for the so-called Internet of Things by way of its Parse app development platform. The "back-end as a service” provider just announced new software development kits geared for smart home purveyors.

Parse’s bread and butter has been apps for mobile devices (read: smartphones and tablets), as well as Web and desktop platforms. With the nascent smart home movement, however, the definition of connected gadget has expanded rapidly to include furniture, appliances, locks, lights and other fixed household products and features.

See also: The App Plumber: Parse's Ilya Sukhar

No wonder Parse—and Facebook—want in on that action. Smart homes are one of the hottest and fastest-growing areas of technology right now. The master plan: to make it easier for hardware makers to hook into this Internet of Things movement.

Parsing The Smart Home

Two years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance at the Parse Developer Conference to convey a message: Facebook wants to make it easier to build great applications. Now the sentiment seems to have come full circle, with Parse co-founder Ilya Sukhar telling Facebook's F8 conference that he wants to make smart home development easier. 

Facebook acquired Parse in 2013, giving the social network some juice (and cred) among app developers. Now more than 400,000 of them rely on the service for data, cloud, software integration and other services for their apps. Parse supports iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Mac OS X and Windows, not to mention Javascript, .NET, Unity, PHP and Xamarin technologies. 

Now, with fridges, TVs, lighting, garage doors and more getting smarter and more connected, Parse is eyeing a potentially huge expansion of its platform. 

Parse's Sukhar made it clear at F8 that he wants to boost security while reducing complexity for developers of all sizes—from companies creating innovative home automation features to tinkerers hacking bespoke smart home solutions on top of their Arduinos. 

Toward that end, Parse is putting out an array of software development kits (SDKs) for various Internet of Things hardware setups. Among them, the company offers an Arduino SDK for the Arduino Yún micro controller board, which supports Wi-Fi, and is working on tools for the upcoming Arduino Zero.

According to Sukhar, the company also has a “reference SDK” up its sleeve to help guide chipset manufacturers as they establish their hardware platforms. The open-source kit, also known as the Embedded C SDK, was designed for Linux and real-time operating systems.

These and other Parse tools, including “start” guides and help docs, are available on GitHub

With these kits, device makers can support push notifications and saved data, and integrate with Parse's cloud back-end. For hardware makers and developers, it clearly looks like an easier way to go than doing it themselves. What seems less clear is whether end users would embrace having Facebook—even by way of Parse—enter their homes. 

Photos by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

Say Hello To Hipster Facebook

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 19:57

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Remember when Facebook-app developers were revolutionaries? It wasn’t that long ago—and yet in the fast-moving world of technology, it seems an entire generation ago.

And like an aging urbanite looking to rediscover his youth, Facebook has entered its hipster era—self-congratulating, self-parodying, and yet archly self-aware of all its internal contradictions.

Less Movement, More Monetization

“Hey everyone,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as he jaunted onto the stage without fanfare Wednesday in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center, kicking off the 2015 edition of F8, Facebook’s no-longer-occasionally annual conference for developers. His entrance was so low-key the audience barely had time to hush itself and listen.

These days, Facebook is trying to set expectations low and exceed them. It’s a far cry from the warrior days of the very first F8 in 2007.

“Today, together, we start a movement,” said a younger, less humble, less media-trained-to-within-an-inch-of-his-gray-T-shirt Zuckerberg then. (His bravado disguised the fact that his engineers were still hacking together the code for Facebook Platform.)

At last year’s F8, Zuckerberg preached a new sermon of stable infrastructure—moving fast, maybe, but no more breaking things, at least where developers were concerned! The trouble with stable infrastructure as a rallying cry is that, well, it’s boring.

And with so many shiny objects to hold developers’ attention—so many platforms, so many APIs, so many SDKs—boring is deadly for a company like Facebook that depends on the kindness of others to fill its newsfeed, message threads, and other streams with headlines, photos, videos, and more.

So yes, Facebook had to remind people that it offers “better monetization” than competing ad networks. News flash: No one cares! Or at least no one wakes up in the morning, heart pounding and eyes blazing, looking to build an app on top of better monetization. It’s not a message that inspires anyone to create.

To Code, Perchance To Dream

Hence the offerings for dreamers:

  • You will soon be able to include "spherical videos” in your Facebook feed, allowing friends to click around and explore the world as you see it in a full 360-degree view. (Consider it a precursor to full virtual-reality views courtesy of Oculus VR, another recent Facebook acquisition.)
  • Parse, Facebook’s service that provides a back end on which developers can run their mobile apps, is extending its reach into the Internet of Things, making it simple to build software that connects to wearable devices and smart-home gadgets.
  • Facebook Messenger—increasingly just called “Messenger,” including its own URL—is becoming a platform, where you can inject your own apps to converse in quirky new ways, particularly in the form of short, jokey videos.

In the Wednesday F8 keynote, Parse CEO Ilya Sukhar faux-cheekily called out one app, Stacheify, which runs on his service and plugs into Messenger. It lets you add facial hair to your friends’ photos. Sukhar laid a mustache on Zuckerberg’s normally clean-shaven visage.

Mark Zuckerberg with a mustache. Consider it a metaphor for what Facebook is trying to do to its own image.

Facebook’s youth, so recently lost amid its immensely rapid growth to a billion users, an IPO, and a move to a new, more corporate campus, still lies in recent memory. There’s no more brogrammery breaking of things; that got packed away with other childish preoccupations. So how does this new Facebook, vast, complicated, burdened with the scars of experience, relate to the new generation of coders rising up and looking to build something new?

Like the hipster toying with his own facial hair, Facebook is trying to find some way to tweak its self-image. Sure, put a mustache on it. Whatever it takes to hack—and to persuade developers to hack alongside it.

Photos by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

360 Degree Video Is Coming To Your Facebook Newsfeed

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 19:50

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Jaunt virtual reality camera

Oculus might not have a release date for its virtual reality headset yet, but its parent company Facebook is already thinking about how to incorporate virtual reality into its lifeblood: the newsfeed.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the f8 developers conference Wednesday that Facebook plans to add newsfeed support for spherical videos—the 360 degree panoramas necessary to make VR an immersive experience. 

Look around where you are right now. Now imagine you're a camera, your surface studded with many different lenses that capture the scene from all angles. Imagine loading that spherical video into a virtual reality headset, where the wearer has the exact same viewpoint. They can see exactly what you see at this moment. Within a VR headset, they can turn their head from side to side and look up or down, and the view changes as if they are looking around the room.

That's spherical video, although it's much cooler to experience than to read about.

Getting Spherical On Facebook

Even outside of a VR headset, Facebook envisions letting newsfeed users pan around in 360 degree videos with a  finger swipe or mouse. It's the same experience, except the user is viewing through a rectangular window on their screen instead of an immersive VR headset. It doesn't inspire the same feeling of real presence, but it still captures more of a scene than a traditional camera.

"I actually think that video is going to be more engaging (than video games for virtual reality) in a lot of ways," Zuckerberg said. "This is a new and much more immersive type of content. You're actually interacting with it and you feel like you're there."

The Newsfeed videos showcased on-stage at F8 were shot with multiple sets of spherical camera arrays, a setup that lets the viewer "jump" from side to side to gain additional perspective in addition to simply panning around. In the demo room, I experienced a live feed of the Facebook campus' Hacker Square. It was shot with six GoPros arrayed in a ball; their video was then stitched together to provide the panorama.

User-created videos, at least in the near term, would be shot from a single location, much like the GoPro ball. That takes away the feeling of being able to step from side to side, but still allows the viewer to look around as if they are standing in place. The camera pictured above, which is built by professional VR camera company Jaunt, is one high-end example of a stationary camera.

DIY Spheres

Consumer spherical cameras, such as the relatively low-quality Ricoh Theta, currently cost as little as $300. That may drop in coming years as a wave of options from crowdfunding-backed startups and large camera companies hit the market. Eventually, 360 degree cameras could even work their way into our phones. Here's an example of an image I captured with a Ricoh Theta (which is also capable of shooting video):

Zuckerberg said photos have replaced text as the most commonly shared medium on Facebook, and predicted that within five years that will shift to video. Beyond that, there's virtual and augmented reality videos.

When Facebook bought Oculus a year ago, Zuckerberg laid out a vision of virtual reality as the ultimate social media tool. That could mean sharing spherical videos and photos with friends across the world, as Facebook revealed today, or creating online worlds and communication apps where people can socialize as if they are in the same room. It more than likely means both.

YouTube began allowing users to upload spherical videos earlier this month—the first example of a major website hosting them. Zuckerberg didn't say when Facebook would add support, but it would make sense to incorporate it into the newsfeed soon to drum up interest in Oculus ahead of its consumer launch.

Photo by Signe Brewster for ReadWrite

Facebook Messenger Wants To Claim E-Commerce ... And Fist Bump GIFs

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 18:57

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Facebook's Messenger app has some big ambitions. It not only wants to give users new ways to communicate via goofy photos, GIFs, video and eventually virtual-reality recordings, it's also making a big play for e-commerce.

No wonder Facebook now calls it the Messenger Platform, as it announced at its F8 Developer Conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. Now we just have to see who will climb aboard.

Fist Bumps On Messenger

The changes Facebook is making to Messenger are simple in concept, and are aimed squarely at making the service a more fun place to communicate by opening the door to third-party apps of all kinds.

The new Messenger Platform will initially integrate photo and graphics apps like Giphy, FlipLip, Bitmoji and Jib Jab. While the current version of Messenger allows users to send text, video, stickers, location data, and to make voice calls, Messenger Platform will add access to any app that developers decide to bring to the party.

Sending dumb videos to your friends is easier than ever with app integration through Messenger Platform

David Marcus, Facebook's VP of messaging, offered a demonstration of the new forms of creative communication. In response to a Jib Jab video sent by Zuckerberg, he accessed a list of compatible apps and decided to download Giphy. From there, he was whisked to the App Store, downloaded the app, and found the fist-bump GIF of his dreams. Another few taps later, he beamed the GIF to his boss.

While sending gifs via Messenger may not seem like a world shattering innovation, the easy-to-use app integration offers a lot of potential. As it stands, there are no shortage of ways for people to send files or ideas to each other. Facebook, however, would clearly like to establish Messenger as the go-to place for people to exchange important files, music, restaurant recommendations—you name it.

The big hurdle, of course, is for developers to come up with the ideas that will bring users to the party. And, of course, for users to accept the idea of funneling all their interactions through Facebook's app.

That may be a hard sell for younger folks who have gravitated more to up-and-coming social apps like Snapchat.

These are Facebook's Messenger Platform third-party app partners ... so farMessenger Means Business

Then there's Messenger Business, which aims to streamline the way users shop online.

In his F8 demo, Marcus focused on the numerous emails you get whenever you sign up for store accounts, placed orders, track packages or deal with refunds. Messenger Business is designed to let users communicate with participating online retailers one-on-one, creating one thread with all the necessary information.

For example, if consumers buy products via a participating retailer, they’ll have the ability to open a thread in Messenger to stay up to date with their orders’ progress. The Messenger thread will allow for package tracking, providing feedback, and even reordering or returning items. Because Messenger Business is tied to a user’s Facebook account, there’s no need to log in or verify your identity.

Track a package you ordered via Messenger Business.

The key phrase there is "participating retailer." Dealing with retailers by email works because email is universal and easy. Having to take the mental effort to figure out whether the shoe store you're ordering from works with Messenger and then making sure you only manage your order through Messenger could be a lot to ask of users.

It's also not clear how Facebook plans to combat compromised accounts. We’ve all seen posts on our friends’ feeds that say something along the lines of, “I’m stupid for leaving my Facebook account open on my friend’s computer.” As such, it isn’t hard to imagine the kinds of e-commerce shenanigans that can come up through similar carelessness.

Presumably, Facebook will have more details about e-commerce security as Messenger Platform and Messenger Business roll out within the next few weeks. In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see what kinds of ideas developers come up with now that they have a new sandbox to play in.

Images courtesy of Facebook

Apple May Have Just Killed An Open Source Project

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 17:49

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On Tuesday, Apple acquired FoundationDB, an enterprise software company with a major open source component. On Wednesday, that open source component was no more.

See also: Apple Buys FoundationDB In A Decisive Break With The Jobs Playbook

FoundationDB’s GitHub page, which was a bustling open source repository mere hours ago, has now been locked up. “This organization has no public repositories,” a message now reads, indicating that FoundationDB’s new owners have made the project closed source.

Many developers were using FoundationDB’s open source software for database projects when the software was pulled. Unless those developers had made clones of the GitHub repository, the takedown could put their projects at risk. A group of Hacker News commenters dedicated a thread to discovering recent forks of the repository for anyone using it.

“Pulling an open-source project upon which people may depend is total jerk behavior,” one commenter wrote.

According to commenters on a TechCrunch article about the acquisition, neither FoundationDB nor Apple warned anyone using deployed versions of the software that they were about to close the open-source repository. With such warning, developers could have at least cloned the software on their own accounts and continued their work without major interruption.

Developers had no warning that there was anything unstable about FoundationDB’s open source status. Before the Apple acquisition, company's FAQ stated, "We have released several FoundationDB language bindings and layers as open source software and anticipate continuing to do so." The FAQ has been pulled, but you can still read it here.

With this move, Apple is indicating that everything FoundationDB has created is for its use alone, regardless of how recently it was intended for everyone’s use. It's certainly Apple's right to do so, but there's nothing nice about it. 

Photo by hans van den berg

10 Things That Might Unexpectedly Spike Your Startup's Churn Rate

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 17:32

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Guest author Scott Gerber is founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council.

Gaining new customers is always a priority. But that doesn't mean keeping your existing clients happy isn't also high on the to-do list. Keeping your startup's churn rate steady—and low—is critical.

So what's going wrong when those numbers take a turn for the worse? I polled 10 entrepreneurs from YEC about the surprising things that could negatively effect a company's churn rate, so you can learn how to up your game.

Slow Website Loads

How fast your website typically loads will negatively impact your churn rate if it's slow. People don't like to go to a slow site or app. If it takes longer than a second or two to load, I'm going to ditch your app for another one. It's not worth my time.

Pro tip: Speed up your Web server so that you have a lot more RAM and it can process the requests faster. Have solid state hard drives to make everything go faster. A CDN is required to handle loads in different countries, have fast connections, etc.

The goal is to have a fast website/app. This will help customers not get frustrated when using your service.

John Rampton, JohnRampton.com

Expired Credit Cards

Most credit cards expire every few years, which will cause recurring transactions to fail. Using a service such as the "account updater" tool in your merchant account can go a long way towards fixing this problem. Additionally, proactively emailing customers prior to the expiration date can encourage them to manually update the card before the transaction fails.

Sathvik Tantry, FormSwift

No Clear Guidelines For Major Features

Having easily accessible, clear guidelines and FAQs about how to use the main features will help customers understand how to properly use your product. Otherwise, customers will churn as they spend a long time trying to figure out how to use your site but are not able to experience the full value of the product.

Randy Rayess, VenturePact

Customer Apathy

When a product is new, customers are excited. But they can become apathetic if there is no change or improvement. People remain interested in Apple’s iPhone because new versions come out each year. Give your customers something to look forward to by sharing your development roadmap. They will feel connected to your company and excited about the future.

Eric Schaumburg, eventr.io

Too Many Clicks

Customers are lazy (you know you are, too). So spend energy simplifying everything throughout the customer funnel—not only how they buy your product, but also how they communicate with your team. No matter how strong your brand is, you will lose customers if interactions are painful or slow.

Aaron Schwartz, Modify Watches

Lack of Focus

It is fairly common knowledge that a startup's best weapon is focus, but focus is also your best weapon against churn.

The most common answer to high churn is to keep adding new features. However, the real solution is to cut out features and make your product or service more focused. Do one thing incredibly well and you'll stand out from the pack. In addition, focusing on one thing makes it much easier for customers to "get it" it before they churn.

James Simpson, GoldFire Studios

Neglecting Client Communication

Most people are so focused on trying to get new clients they forget to promote their brand with the clients they already have. If your clients are consistently getting messages from competitors, they could be lured away. Maintaining communication and promoting your brand to current clients can help ensure they aren't poached by the competition.

Nicole Munoz, Start Ranking Now

Lack Of Relatability

It's important that in your client relationship they occasionally hear your voice instead of only reading your emails. Changing providers/vendors is a pain, so give them one more reason not to: Because they don't want to break up with you!

Adam Stillman, SparkReel

Poor Interface Design

To most customers, the user interface is the product. A poorly designed website, or structure that is not coherent and easy to understand, will create additional hassles for your users. Those hassles will turn into frustrations, and those frustrations into cancellations.

Communication is important, but most customers aren't going to submit a ticket about their ignorance over your product when a plethora of competitors also exist in the market. Every founder needs to take a course in UX Design to better understand the fundamentals of customer interaction with their products.

Cody McLain, WireFuseMedia

Failing To Cultivate Loyalty

Your efforts to come across as personal and approachable—to let your customers know you care about them and that their business is important to you—will be one of the hidden factors that can impact your churn rate. If a customer feels zero loyalty to you and a competitor offers a similar service with a lower price, they'll have no motivation to continue giving you business.

You know that you work hard to continually improve your business, but unless you communicate this in a way that lets them know you care, they'll never know. Even just a simple email reaching out to them and giving them suggestions based on their account will let them know you've been working hard for them, and they'll have more reason to prefer you to an unknown competitor.

Dave Nevogt, Hubstaff.com

Lead photo by Neil Bird

Amazon Fire TV Gets USB Support And Travel-Friendly Features

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 00:24

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Cord-cutters have plenty of streaming-TV options, but Amazon just upped the stakes.

The company revealed several new upcoming features for its Fire TV products on Tuesday, including support for external USB storage and the sort of wireless networks found in hotels. The announcements seem strategically designed to set Amazon's TV devices apart, as few competitors—and none of its top rivals—offer similar options. 

See also: Amazon's Fire TV Stick Aims To Compete With Chromecast

The timing is impossible to ignore. The Amazon news lands just after a report claiming that Apple wants to reinvigorate its TV initiatives. But with the iPhone company likely waiting for its Worldwide Developers Conference in June to reveal its intentions, there’s plenty of time for contenders to put up a fierce fight—and Amazon looks like it’s coming out swinging.

Amazon Beefs Up Its Streaming Powers

Currently, on the Amazon e-commerce site's list of bestselling TV products, the company’s own $39 Fire TV stick sits at number one. The small unit wrested the top spot from the $30 Chromecast, which was the reigning champ on and off for more than a year.

According to Peter Larsen, vice president of Amazon Devices, the company has been working at breakneck speed to satisfy all the demand for both the Fire TV set-top box and the streaming stick. In a press statement, he said Amazon has been “working hard to build more of both as quickly as possible.” But as it lines up its hardware, it's also clearly pushing to advance the software—primarily by addressing travel, one of the most vexing problems for streaming fans.

See also: Have Chromecast, Will Travel ... Er, Maybe Not

Some customers buy compact TV sticks expressly so they can take them on trips. But none of the most popular streaming devices—specifically Chromecast, Apple TV and Roku—work with complex logins or the multi-screen setups often used in hotels and other public locations. But Amazon’s upcoming update will.

Both the $39 Fire TV stick and the squarish $99 set-top box will work with hotel Wi-Fi, airport hotspots, university networks and other “captive portals” requiring secondary authentication or acceptance of other terms. That alone positions Amazon's Fire TV product line as the only choice for business travelers or vacationers who want to take their Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu or other streams on the go. 

Amazon’s TV box will also get support for external USB storage, so users can store and play their own games, apps and media, instead of solely relying on streaming. The set-top will soon work with Bluetooth headphones, too, so people who use wireless earbuds with their smartphones can use the same headsets for TV audio. Of the top TV streaming devices, the only other product that offers private listening is Roku, which comes courtesy of a headphone jack in the remote for the Roku 2 and 3. 

See also: HBO Go Hits Amazon Fire TV, May Bring Cord-Cutting Service Too

Other changes coming to both the Fire TV box and stick include hidden PIN code entry, so the numbers won’t show up onscreen when you input them for purchases, new Prime Music playlists and remote control shortcuts. In addition, the company announced that the Fire TV Stick orders will open immediately in the UK and Germany, with a ship date beginning on April 15.

Amazon’s new features will arrive as free over-the-air software updates some time in the “coming weeks.”

It’s Going To Be A Hot Summer

Amazon’s streaming gadgets also likely benefitted from key partnerships—in particular, the company’s latest deal with Sling TV.

The service adds live television streaming to Fire TV’s feature list, similar to the new service expected from Apple this summer. Speaking of Apple, its next-generation Apple TV will also reportedly offer voice features. Voice was a distinguishing factor for Amazon’s first Fire TV set-top product when it debuted last year. Though limited, Amazon's voice search has slowly begun to expand beyond its Instant Watch catalog to include Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, among others.

Television may only scratch the surface of Apple’s ambitions, but when it comes to standalone TV products, Amazon’s devices could wind up holding their own—partially due to the new additions coming soon, but also because of price.

See also: Apple’s Small iOS 8.3 Updates Speak Volumes About Where It's Headed

Amazon’s compact device is currently the least expensive streaming TV product that offers the combination of live online TV programming, travel-readiness and, at the very least, a foundation for growing voice features.

Roku also works with Sling TV, though it offers no voice features and no support for captive portal networks yet. Chromecast, the second most popular option, offers no voice support and does not work with hotel Wi-Fi networks, though it's capable of some live television streaming through individual third-party services or providers, like ABC. To make its Chromecast more appealing, Google announced several promotions last week for streaming subscriptions and a free Google Play movie rental. 

But the battle for the living room isn’t over yet. There's more than two months to go before Apple’s WWDC conference, with Google's I/O developers conference falling in between, so more announcements are likely on the way. Stay tuned. 

Amazon Fire TV Stick lead photo and Game Of Thrones photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite; Amazon Fire TV set-top box product shot courtesy of Amazon

Apple Buys FoundationDB In A Decisive Break With The Jobs Playbook

Tue, 03/24/2015 - 23:40

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Web

(Updated to note the closure of FoundationDB's GitHub repository.)

This really isn't Steve Jobs' Apple anymore. 

According to TechCrunch, Apple just acquired FoundationDB, a relative newcomer to the NoSQL crowd and the first enterprise software company Apple has ever bought. While the acquisition seems weird on one level, it makes sense on another: talent. Apple has struggled to retain top Web and infrastructure engineering talent.

See also: Apple May Have Just Killed An Open-Source Project

By buying FoundationDB, Apple scored a great set of engineers in an area that it must own to be competitive with other data-hungry companies like Google and Facebook.

FoundationDB Who?

FoundationDB, with its "NoSQL, YesACID" mantra, has never managed to generate much of a following. While MongoDB, Cassandra, and Redis headline the multi-faceted database popularity ranking kept by DB-Engines, FoundationDB came in a dismal #115 out of 216 on that list.

It was always going to struggle to catch up, at least in terms of market traction.

Apple, however, doesn't need a database to sell. Instead, it can use database engineers to help build out the infrastructure behind iTunes, iCloud, and other data-centric services. True, Apple already uses NoSQL databases like MongoDB, Cassandra, and Couchbase (this isn't a secret—search the company's job postings and you'll find plenty of mentions of each of these databases). But there's always a difference between paying vendor technologies and homegrown technologies.

Apple clearly feels that it needs to have deep database expertise in-house.

Getting Out Of The Database Business

And let's be clear: By buying FoundationDB, Apple is almost certainly not getting into the database business. Indeed, based on FoundationDB's community site, it would appear that the NoSQL startup is already gearing up to get out of distributing software.

As the company's FAQ (removed from the website—you can find a cached version here) indicates, "We have released several FoundationDB language bindings and layers as open source software and anticipate continuing to do so."

That open sourcery doesn't look like it has much of a future under Apple.

In fact, it seems that FoundationDB may be getting out of the business of selling software altogether. As the company notes on its community site:

Source: FoundationDBA New Era For Apple

Of course, those components that FoundationDB open sourced will always remain open. That's the benefit of open source. [Update, March 25: That may not be true; FoundationDB's GitHub repository is now private.]

But the real benefit in this deal is for Apple, and for developers. As one engineer close to the company told me: "I'm looking forward to what this means for Apple developers. I'm hoping for a new service rather than CloudKit enhancements."

As he intimates, the acquisition of FoundationDB could lead not only to improved engineering under the covers of Apple's products, but also to improved developer services. While it's doubtful one startup can change Apple's engineering culture, Apple CEO Tim Cook has already displayed a propensity for openness in a way that Steve Jobs never did. 

At any rate, it's a start. This is a new Apple, one that may have taken a big step toward improving its data infrastructure engineering team.

Lead photo by Brett Bolkowy