Tech

Meta-Speculating on Gruber's Speculation

John Gruber recently wrote up a terrific post trying to make sense of the various rumors which have been circulating about the next generation iPhones. Read it here.

As always, I think John is spot on with a majority of his analysis. The biggest wrench in the predictions is Kuo’s surprising prediction that the phones will only come in 64GB and 256GB flavors. Even if this is true, I find it hard to believe Apple will be offering the 256GB iPhone 7S plus at the 8xx(1) price point, but if they do that’ll be an extraordinary value.

So this brings us to the fabled iPhone “something more”, which was initially pitched in the rumor mill as the iPhone 10th anniversary edition. Gruber initially posited this phone should cost over $1,500, and immediately he received a lot of grousing from people saying that was too high. He has since amended this decision and is putting the price point at a slightly more reasonable $1,299 and $1,399. I’m pretty sure it was this thought that lead to the writeup, and it’s certainly what is inspiring this post. Let’s break this idea down, because I’m suspicious John’s first guess is more reasonable.

A Lesson In Scaremongering

Writing for Wired, Lily Hay Newman writes an awfully misleading opening paragraph:

HOW MANY PEOPLE specifically know where you are right now? Some friends and family? Your coworkers, maybe? If you're using a Windows laptop or PC you could add another group to the list: the CIA.

The operative word there is could, but it reads more like a fact than a possibility. Functionally, the sentence should include a second if statement and read more like:

"you could theoretically add..."

I'm sorry, does anyone in America not think it's theoretically possible one of the various spy agencies knows their location at any given moment?

Back to the situation at hand.

Watson Is Too Elementary

I teased IBM about their Watson advertising in my WWDC 17 roundup, but it seems their ridiculous advertising is causing some backlash.

Early on, some large companies that were interested in Watson as portrayed by IBM, privately noted later that while they saw great promise, Watson in reality, was a set of technologies that needed to be stitched together at their site. That meant buying Watson—and then preparing data for Watson—was more a big integration project than a product purchase.

This was basically the gist of what I was saying in the roundup\review, the solutions being offered currently all require the individual organization to be fluent in taking advantage of training models. This is an extraordinary amount of work, and makes the gains from these efforts inaccessible to the masses. In theory, this is what Apple appears to be addressing with their Core ML framework. It will be very interesting to see who can deliver on this ideal first.

Fake News

Annalee Newitz of Ars Technica takes a look at the proliferation of fake news.

The problem is that most people weren't raised to expect that their social spaces would be full of bots, blabbing the results of simple algorithms and infecting human conversations with misdirection. Rarely do audiences on Twitter and Facebook pause to wonder where their information is coming from.

Newitz comes to a similar conclusion as I do that the solution is education.

Living in a Glass House

Matt Honan of Buzzfeed reviews his new Amazon Echo and its an interesting read, but this is absurd.

It has this wild new feature called Drop In. Drop In lets you give people permission to automatically connect with your device. Here’s how it works. Let’s say my father has activated Drop In for me on his Echo Show. All I have to do is say, “Alexa, drop in on Dad.” It then turns on the microphone and camera on my father’s device and starts broadcasting that to me. For the several seconds of the call, my father’s video screen would appear fogged over. But then there he’ll be. And to be clear: This happens even if he doesn’t answer. Unless he declines the call, audibly or by tapping on the screen, it goes through. It just starts. Hello, you look nice today.
Honestly, I haven’t figured out what to think about this yet. But it’s here.

You don't know what to think of this?!? The whole concept of a home is that you have a space where you can define when other people have access. This product violates the very premise of a door.

Also, notice all the marketing photos show this product face on, there's a reason for that.

Welcoming Wearables

Fascinating look into the popularity of Apple's expanding product line of wearables (which the Neil Cybart defines as Apple Watch, AirPods and Beats powered by the W1 chips) and comparing them in aggregate to the growth curve of previous product lines. 

With 3rd parties finding 97% and 98% customer satisfaction rating for the Apple Watch and AirPods respectively, it shouldn't be too surprising that these products are selling comparable units to the first few years of iPhones. 

The big news in some circles was that several major apps decided to abandon their Apple Watch apps, and on the surface it can look like this is a bad sign for the platform. Plenty of members of the Apple media circle have already dissected why this is an indication that the platform is only just starting to have any maturity and is still likely in the toddler stage of its development.

The first graph also puts into perspective why the iPad has been able to decline in sales YoY for a couple years straight and yet still is such a huge market for the company and in comparison to other PC manufactures. The first two years of iPad sales are simply totally incomparable to any product launched in history.

I Bought This Before, Take My Money

Note: The Nokia 3310 has sold out across the UK, despite our hard-hitting negative review. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, clearly. Carphone Warehouse and Vodafone are both listing "1 to 2 weeks" for the Nokia 3310 to be restocked.

Amusingly, or perhaps depressingly, Carphone Warehouse said there was "10 times more pre-registration interest for the Nokia 3310 than any other flagship devices out of MWC in the retailer's history."

It might be a bad sign when an objectively bad product is an order of magnitude more popular than any flagship device simply out of nostalgia. Our movies feel more and more like clip shows of previous cinematic marvels, South Park devoted an entire season to documenting how insidious this phenomenon has become. Our obsession with repurchasing the past is a dangerous game.

Whatever, it's still criminal how few NES classics were produced.

Browser Wars Are Still A Thing

John Gruber of Daring Fireball used a now deleted minor snub in a blog post by a Mozilla Firefox engineer as an excuse to write a thoughtful writeup on the state of internet browsers available on the Mac.

As someone who’s been a Mac user long enough to remember when there were no good web browsers for the Mac, having both Safari and Chrome feels downright bountiful, and the competition is making both of them better.

This pretty much sums it up for me. There's a bevy of quality browsers available now, and Safari and Chrome are both excellent options with their own strengths which Gruber highlights beautifully. The only thing I'll add to his points is that Safari is also significantly better at memory management than Chrome on Mac OS, and is completely incomparable on iOS. 

Hardware Preinfected

HP is selling more than two dozen models of laptops and tablets that covertly monitor every keystroke a user makes, security researchers warned Thursday. The devices then store the key presses in an unencrypted file on the hard drive.
The keylogger is included in a device driver developed by Conexant, a manufacturer of audio chips that are included in the vulnerable HP devices. That's according to an advisory published by modzero, a Switzerland-based security consulting firm. One of the device driver components is MicTray64.exe, an executable file that allows the driver to respond when a user presses special keys. It turns out that the file sends all keystrokes to a debugging interface or writes them to a log file available on the computer's C drive.
"This type of debugging turns the audio driver effectively into keylogging spyware," modzero researchers wrote. "On the basis of meta-information of the files, this keylogger has already existed on HP computers since at least Christmas 2015."

So a diagnostic tool for the audio system simply writes out every key pressed on the device to a file in plain text available in the standard filesystem. Seems like the HP acronym stands for something new these days.

What Rinse Cycle Is Best for Electronics?

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop — ugh, that name — is one of the more interesting device announcements we’ve seen so far in 2017. It’s a mid-range notebook with a stripped-down operating system designed with simplicity in mind, and carries a not-quite-budget price of $999. It also happens to have an interior adorned with fabric. How luxurious! Unfortunately for Microsoft, there’s a really, really good reason why fabric and electronics don’t usually mingle: humans are gross.

This marks the first time the Surface line has released a product without a specific hardware novelty. The price point is a tad steep for the hardware, especially compared to commodity PCs, and so purchasers are certainly going to want the product to hold its value.

Fording the Future

Ford Motor Co.’s directors are pressing Chief Executive Mark Fields to sharpen his strategy as the company races to catch up on electric cars, reverse its shrinking market share in the U.S. and buoy its languishing stock price, according to people familiar with the situation.

Ford investors are understandably antsy as Tesla has quickly surpassed Ford in value. 

Now Wall Street certainly makes some bad bets. Still, John McElroy is giving quite the handicap with his bold prediction.

Harnessing Star Power

Solar City has announced their newest solar panels which are modified roofing panels, and they're significantly more affordable than was anticipated.

Tesla will begin with production of two of the four styles it unveiled in October: a smooth glass and a textured glass tile. 1 Roofing a 2,000 square-foot home in New York state—with 40 percent coverage of active solar tiles and battery backup for night-time use—would cost about $50,000 after federal tax credits and generate $64,000 in energy over 30 years, according to Tesla’s website calculator

Coach Bands

Luxury fashion maker Coach has issued new leather Apple Watch bands and colors, offering quirky styles and bright patterns for the spring season, ranging in price from $125 to $150.

I've written previously that I think the future for traditional watch makers is to continue to stick to their traditional watches and to supplement the business by making their own bands. So far, two luxury fashion companies and one sports apparel company have expanded into the accessory market. We'll see if and when the traditional watch makers decide to start riding the coat tales of the most popular wearable of 2017.

As for these bands, I personally like the idea of the colorful graphics being tastefully hidden on the inside of the band.

The Future of Smartphone Cameras

A Google employee has released a set of images he's produced using sets of pictures taken with his Google Pixel. 

Taking all this into account, I wrote a simple Android camera app with manual control over exposure time, ISO and focus distance. When the shutter button is pressed the app waits a few seconds and then records up to 64 frames with the selected settings. The app saves the raw frames captured from the sensor as DNG files, which can later be downloaded onto a PC for processing.

They Took Our Jobs

This past year a huge story in the tech world was that Google's Go playing AI AlphaGo was able to top the best Go player in the world. A year later, the most beautiful fallout of this story is how the Go community has responded.

AlphaGo's greatest strength is not any one move or sequence, but rather the unique perspective that it brings to every game. While Go style is difficult to encapsulate, one could say that AlphaGo's strategy embodies a spirit of flexibility and open-mindedness: a lack of preconceptions that allows it to find the most effective line of play. As the following two games will show, this philosophy often leads AlphaGo to discover counterintuitive yet powerful moves.

Google Invents a Whole New Processing Unit

I spoke briefly on this last pod with Cillian about Google's new TPU (Tensor Processing Unit). I've been able to find some better details about the hardware. Google's been working with these coprocessors since about 2006 and from what I can tell began formally using their TPUs to power their machine learning in 2015. At this point, it seems like the easiest way to think about the TPU is that it is similar to a GPU in that it performs thousands of calculations at once, but its ace-in-the-hole is its incredibly low latency in both pulling and outputting data all at incredibly low wattages compared to traditional GPUs.

On our production AI workloads that utilize neural network inference, the TPU is 15x to 30x faster than contemporary GPUs and CPUs.
The TPU also achieves much better energy efficiency than conventional chips, achieving 30x to 80x improvement in TOPS/Watt measure (tera-operations [trillion or 1012 operations] of computation per Watt of energy consumed).

Google seems to be promising that they will start making these tools available for the public at large. This surprises me as generally companies will keep what differentiates themselves private and allow public access to things which they do not feel they have a significant advantage in the market and wish to commoditize the technology. 

Apple To Stop Mining New Materials

Apple has one of the most aggressive sustainability and recycling programs in tech, but it still pulls plenty of metals and toxic rare-earth materials out of the ground to make iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, and other products.
That’s about to change. The company is set to announce a new, unprecedented goal for the tech industry to “stop mining the earth altogether.”

This is Apple, and specifically Tim Cook's Apple, at its finest. While they aren't exactly sure how they'll achieve this goal, setting impossible goals which are best for the planet and society and achieving them is exactly how Apple has become the most profitable company on the planet.

The Cost of Free

Privacy advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have again outlined how Google is successfully dumping millions of low-cost Chromebooks on U.S. schools, enabling the mass collection and storage of information on children without the consent of their parents or even the understanding of many school administrators.
Two years after it filed a federal complaint against Google alleging that it was "collecting and data mining school children's personal information, including their Internet searches," the EFF has issued a new status report detailing how Google is still working to erase minor students' privacy "often without their parents notice or consent, and usually without a real choice to opt out."

This is just moral bankruptcy. From the EFF's statement.