20:20 Hindsight

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As an amateur prognosticator I get to call ahead on all kinds of things…yesterday I hit two in one. Back on January 23rd I suggested that Google was about to announce as a mobile phone service provider and Tada! at the big mobile event in Barcelona this week that came to pass.  Beyond the fact that anything Google does could be important, the interesting nuance about this story is that Google is talking about being more than just another carrier…offering calling over cell and WiFi and Bluetooth…an altogether more integrated thing than just another carrier.

The other thing I hit right on the nose was much less edifying. I have been ranting on and on about police on African American violence and the need for wearable tech to muzzle our out of control police forces. On December 5th last year I lamented the dual standard for the police and the unarmed and or mentally ill people of color they routinely kill in close to cold blood.  This week a group of LA’s “finest” (An oxymoron if ever there was one) tussled with and killed a homeless person of mental illness and color …again filmed by passers by. Yesterday the federal investigation into the Ferguson shooting confirmed (what we all I think suspected) that the police in that jurisdiction were insanely even comically racist in the way they applied the rules to the black residents they “protect and serve.” At the risk of sounding smug back then I railed “This isn’t a tech problem, it’s not “a black problem” it’s an American problem. We have armed the guys who couldn’t get the grades to go to college with sophisticated weapons, given them impunity and “hero” status. They aren’t, they are, in many cases, blue collar guys with way to much power an institutional disregard for our civil rights and a cultural contempt for certain parts of our society”.

I take little satisfaction in either case…the Google story was in the zeitgeist and …well if you live in the same culture I do the police thing won’t be a surprise to you either. Happy March BTW.

An Early Test for Body Cameras

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The officer-involved shooting Sunday on skid row that left a man dead could be an early test of the Los Angeles Police Department’s new body camera program for officers. The encounter was recorded by body cameras worn by at least one of the officers involved in the incident. Other videos have emerged showing parts of the incident, but the actual altercation that led to the shooting is not clear.

The department planned in December to outfit every officer with a body camera that will record interactions with the public. The 7,000 cameras will help bring clarity to controversial encounters, guard against officer misconduct and clear cops accused of wrongdoing.

The hope is that the cameras will help with investigations of use-of-force encounters just like Sunday’s. Increasing transparency could improve the public’s trust. But there are many implications that remain unexplored, including the impact on people’s privacy, how the public and defense lawyers can access the footage and how long footage will be kept before it is destroyed.

Police agencies around the country are grappling with similar issues as they try to figure out the best way to implement body cameras. The devices were among a list of recommendations included in a report released Monday by a task force appointed by President Obama to explore ways to improve relationships between police and the public.

Cameras have the long-term potential to help cut down on civilian complaints and lawsuits, speed up criminal cases and reduce paperwork. That is why he sees Sunday’s case an important test of body cameras’ potential to ensure speedy and fair use-of-force investigations.

There is some debate about making the videos that are involved in the altercations public. The department doesn’t intend, in general, to release the recordings unless required by a criminal or civil court proceeding. The LAPD considers the recordings evidence, investigative records exempt from public release under California’s public records law. But at community forums, some residents said they thought videos should be released as a form of transparency.

Score One For The Bad Guys

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Q: What do you call 10,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean…A: A good start.

I imagine I’m not alone in the category of business people who loathe large chunks of our legal system. Among the most repulsive are the patent laws. In a case announced today Apple has been hit with an absurd fine of $533 million over alleged infringement of patents claimed by SmartFlash LLC. Thankfully the ridiculous size and basis of the award will more than likely mean that it will be rightly thrown out in the appeals process but the award will likely encourage the foul occupation of patent trolling to continue.

Just in case you missed my earlier rants on this topic the patent trolls are essentially investment companies who buy up old patents (typically absurdly general and wide ranging ones granted before the patent courts had any handle on technology) and hold companies of all sizes to ransom by suing for infringement. The poster child for this process who just won against Apple has no employees, makes no product, has no revenues and only solely exists to attempt to exploit defunct overly general patents. This is a toxic business…it’s a tax on any company trying to business in this fair country and makes us look ridiculous as a nation. I wish Apple all the best possible luck in overturning this toxic verdict.  The verdict was (of course) issues in the same East Texas jurisdiction as most of the other patent Troll cases. I have no idea why a particular set of Texan judges have set them selves up as the arbiters (and cheer leaders) for the patent troll cases but they have…one can only assume they have their own internal rewards structure in place to make it worth their while.

As in increasingly tech based economy this kind of nonsense is harmful to growth and stifling of innovation. Unfortunately the trial lawyers are a huge political force so getting legal reform is going to be an uphill battle. Until then us tech folk will keep wasting time and money fighting absurd law suits…Thank you Texas

Does Google’s Future Look Bright or Dark?

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It may be hard to imagine a world without Google, and the tech giant is working hard to keep it that way. They have perfected the art of search advertising on desktop and laptop, and it controls the widely used Android mobile OS, as well as YouTube and Nest. But is the company nimble enough to capitalize on the next best thing in tech?

Some tech industry observers aren’t sure.

Have we reached “Peak Google,” or will they continue to grow? While it is impossible to know the future, there is evidence for both eventualities. Here, first, are three reasons why Google should be concerned about the future.

  1. Trouble mastering mobile. Google has perfected the art of direct-response advertising alongside search results. About 90% of the company’s revenue comes from this lucrative exercise. However, as smartphones and mobile computing push time spent on desktop and laptop computers to the sidelines, Google has grappled with how to remain an advertising powerhouse. The company has notoriously struggled with mobile advertising, while rival Facebook has seen more success. In a world centered on a fragmented mobile advertising market, Google could suffer.
  2. The perils of incessant experimentation. The “throw it up against a wall and see what sticks” method. Good for testing spaghetti, sending out college applications, and … for technological innovation? Google seems to think so. The company has famously introduced a myriad of now-defunct services — ones that didn’t pan out as expected such as Google Wave and, more recently, Google Helpouts. This kind of innovation is bold, and not a bad strategy so long as something does, eventually, stick. Specifically, something profitable. But there are no guarantees, and some draw parallels between Google X, the research lab responsible for Google Glass, driverless cars, etc., and Microsoft Research. In both cases resources have been directed toward lots of flashy ideas that, in many cases, ultimately lack in financial follow-through. Of course, Google CEO Larry Page has famously prescribed that the company will now put “more wood behind fewer arrows,” meaning that Google will place more focus on its key projects. Still, those arrows need to be chosen carefully, and investors are worried that an excess of Google’s attentions are directed toward ancillary aspects of the company.
  3. The ebb and flow of power. The final reason Google may decline is more esoteric, but somehow sensible. As Ben Thompson, tech strategist and blogger, comments: “When a company becomes dominant, its dominance precludes it from dominating the next thing. It’s almost like a natural law of business.” Essentially, an industry giant lacks the maneuverability of a younger company, perhaps a startup.

But there are reasons to believe that Google’s future is bright. Here are three:

  1. Money, money, money. Google is hugely wealthy. The company posted $14.4 billion in profits in 2014, up about 12 percent from 2013. While a look behind the numbers unveils a more complicated reality, the fact remains that this kind of income allows Google to invest in innovation, even for a product or service that may not pan out.
  2. A high premium placed on innovation. The Google workplace culture is renowned for the concept of “20 percent time.” This is the idea that, for 20 percent of the time they spend at work, Google engineers are encouraged to pursue independent passion projects. The results of this ethos can be seen in successful projects such as AdSense and Gmail. The reality of whether this 20 percent is truly integrated, or only possible in addition to an employee’s normal schedule, is a topic of contention among current and former workers and the management. However, spending time working on more than day-to-day projects is an important value that sets Google apart. If any company seems likely to buck the “natural law of business” trend mentioned above, it would be a company with these priorities.
  3. Smart acquisitions. Google bought Android in 2005 as a way to secure a foothold in the mobile market. In 2006, Google picked up YouTube, the popular online video site. And in 2014, Google acquired Nest, a company that has developed a smart home thermostat and smoke detector. Android is the most widely used operating system in the world; YouTube is a powerful road into the mobile advertising market; and Nest, with Google’s expertise, appears to have a lot of potential to lead home automation. This is another benefit of the deep pockets of Google — the ability to buy into a promising market.

Google has a lot of strengths, making it hard to imagine that the company has started its decline. Of course, no one is suggesting that Google will cease to be relevant overnight. As Farhad Manjoo writes in The New York Times, “Technology giants often meet their end not with a bang but a whimper, a slow, imperceptible descent into irrelevancy.” While Google won’t disappear, it might not lead the charge into our technological future either.

Apple’s Auto Gamble Is Risky Business

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Apple may be taking a big risk by wading into the automobile market, but that it may be an essential one for a company that must keep moving forward or risk being left in the dust by competitors.

Rumors have the $700 billion company looking at getting into the automotive business, and that the company has already assembled a large team of experts to work on the project.

An “iCar” by 2020 may mesh well with the company’s core competencies of redefining everyday products such as music players, smartphones, and eventually watches. Apple may have decided that cars is the next logical place to go, and the company certainly has a lot of pressure to continue to take bold new steps, especially with developments by competitors such as Google creating their own self-driving cars.

It won’t be a decision to be taken lightly, and Apple certainly has time to back out. Former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz noted in the report that it would take enormous capital to launch an automotive product, and the industry typically doesn’t have big profit margins. It seemed strange to him that Apple would go into a business where, at best, Apple can expect a 5 or 6 percent margin, and in bad times, it will cost the company a great deal of money.

And it’s more than just the capital. There are a huge amount of state and regulatory obstacles to overcome, as well as global hurdles such as engineering a car to drive on the right-hand side. Most likely, Apple would jump into the electric car market, as Tesla has. It’s not clear whether it would also seek to go for automation as Google has.

Tesla may be an example of why Apple might want to think twice. The automaker has burned through lots of money in the past 10 years and have sold just 35,000 cars in the last year. Apple is not likely to be happy with similar figures.

What do you think? Would Apple fare well in this new endeavor?

Sony Follows Glass

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When Google backed away from Glass last year I was one of many welcoming the move. At the time I argued that my complaint with Glass wasn’t that it wasn’t an interesting technology initiative, rather its implications for privacy and the elitist way it was marketed pigeon holed the tech into a “Glasshole” place which did nobody any good.

This week Sony has announced the sale of the “developer” edition of its version of Glass…..imaginatively called EyeGlasses.  It still has the privacy issue to get around (although the red light indicating camera activity helps address that) but it’s a step in the right direction. Aesthetically the Sony offering is a mess.  The frames are ugly and tethered to a hockey puck sized control unit. That will be a big issue for consumers but not as important to industrial users who already often have to put up with clunky protective eye wear. That’s clearly where Sony is positioning this equipment. although the cute commercials feature end users it makes more sense in an industrial or medical context.

Perhaps more important is the price point. Sony has pitched it at $850 which puts in the the high end of the consumer space and quite affordable in an industrial context. It has some clever augmented reality features like directions and facial recognition so if you meet someone you know who is in your contacts (and you have a picture of them) it will let you have their name. This release is significant because it brings a major another player into the game and in the case of Sony a player in dire need of a big win. They are pitching it at practical use rather than tech snobbery and it’s another step towards the end game.

It’s clear, in my mind, that the big win will be believable augmented then virtual reality. This will be led by gamers and the adult content industry with industrial applications running third place. Sony is well entrenched in the gaming world and it’s likely that a subsequent version of this equipment will have integration with PS4. That would give gamers a heads up display fully integrated with their game experience. Sony is talking about eye movement control for things like scrolling and opening in future editions. If they make that part of their game system navigation we would have  a serious contender. at this price point…or close to this could become a viable mass market game controller which happens to be useful for other applications if you can stand the embarrassment of being seen out in them.

Today in Creepy Privacy Policies… Samsung Smart TV’s Eavesdropping

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You might be wanting to go to another room if you don’t want Samsung’s Smart TV’s to record your personal conversations. They don’t just respond to your commands – they will also tell a third party what you’re saying while you sit in from of them.

Some sharp-eyed people have spotted this curious addition to the Privacy Policy: “To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you.”

So far, so mostly-reasonable: if a TV had enough CPU grunt to do voice recognition it could push the price into nasty territory. A cloud-assist feature could be messy, but not terrifying, not least because bigger samples will probably make for bigger improvements in voice recognition. Next comes the admission that “In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features.”

That’s far less comfortable, as it suggests Samsung can identify individuals. If it’s matching MAC addresses, that’s not terrifying. If it depends on logins … yikes! Samsung can identify you and the stuff you say to your TV!

It gets worse in this final sentence:

“Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.” And let’s not even begin to ponder how the sets’ cameras and fitness services might use that data, or the conclusions they would draw, if a program moves to amorous activity on the sofa.

Worse still, this all happens even if you don’t turn voice recognition on, as Samsung says: “If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands. While Samsung will not collect your spoken word, Samsung may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it.”

Samsung’s responded to widespread discussion of its privacy policy be insisting the data it collects is encrypted and cannot be accessed or used by unauthorized parties. But of course Anthem Healthcare, Target, Sony (Pictures entertainment and the PlayStation arm) and a myriad others have all made similar pledges about the effectiveness of their security.

Broadband Finally Arriving?

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The United States is still lagging behind much of the world in implementing broadband and providing wide range access for citizens. In a significant shift, the Commission has decided to broadly expand the definition of acceptable broadband service.

The minimum broadband speed has been raised to 25Mbps from 4Mbps, reflective an evolution away from dial-up and (hopefully) toward gigabit access. Minimum upload speeds have also been increased from 1Mbps to 3Mbps. The change will more than triple the number of US households without minimum-standard broadband. In effect the move is a bold commentary on the sad state of our digital infrastructure, as bold as you can get from a regulator anyway.

More shockingly, with the new standard over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service. The divide is still greater on Tribal lands and in U.S. territories, where nearly 2/3 of residents lack access to today’s speeds. And 35% of schools across the nation still lack access to fiber networks capable of delivering the advanced broadband required to support today’s digital-learning tools.

Private providers are likely to get riled up from the new standards, but the Commission doesn’t seem to be backing off. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel believes the broadband threshold should be 100 Mbps. Raising speeds to that level would merely put the US on par with many Asian countries like Japan and Korea, and not even in the top spot. (Still feeling like a world superpower?)

Commissioners have also remarked on the requirements of forward leaning technologies like 4K, which require even greater base broadband speeds. The new definitions could play a role in the upcoming net neutrality vote which is scheduled for February 26.

The Google Cop Conundrum

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Disingenuous isn’t a word I get to use that often…given how hard it is to spell that’s probably a good thing. However the recent actions of several senior police people have me reaching for the spell checker. In case you missed it here’s the deal. The fabulous traffic app Waze (which Google acquired in 2013) allows users to mark locations where cops are lying in wait to nab speeding motorists. It’s a terrific feature and one that pretty much everyone I know uses especially on long freeway journeys.  It’s especially fun if you have a passenger and a radar detector to be the first to  tag and flag the cop for others. 
 
In an exercise of staggeringly disingenuous behavior LA Police Chief Charlie Beck (and apparently several other top cops) has written to Google asking them to remove the feature as it might allow criminals to target police more easily….really? is that the argument?  When was the last time you heard of criminals targeting speed traps…off the top of my head it’s never. Waze isn’t used to tag cops going about their business of “protecting and serving” it’s used to tag and flag cops often hiding behind freeway overpass bridges looking to hit their speeding ticket quota and impose massive fines on already over taxed motorists. 
 
Google doesn’t usually cave to this kind of pressure so I’m optimistic this will go away quickly…and even if they did take it away we could still report cops as a “hazard” and flag it police but that will take more than one touch and is actually likely to cause more problems in terms of distracted driving than the original feature. If the police didn’t act as a taxation arm for our local government and stuck to fighting actual crime rather than ticketing moms in minivans doing 7 MPH over the posted limit we wouldn’t have to resort to our technology to counter act theirs. I really hope Google sticks to their guns on this issue….but I’m not holding my breath.

Exploring Mars Getting Easier

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It is looking like Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity will get some company in Mars.

Rovers have a tough time getting across Mars’ vast, unforgiving landscape. They can’t see very far ahead, and the crew back home can only offer so much help by looking at orbital imagery. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory may have a clever solution to that problem, though: an aerial robot scout. Its proposed Mars Helicopter drone would fly ahead of rovers and give operators a much better view of the Martian terrain, helping them plot the quickest route to interesting locales. It could even find a safe spot to deposit samples that future rovers would pick up.

The robotic chopper currently exists as just a tech demo, and it’ll take some testing to prove that this small automaton (it’s 3.6 feet from blade to blade) is ready for the Red Planet. If it makes the cut, though, it could let Mars rovers cover much more ground than they have so far — JPL estimates that these machines could travel three times further in a given day. The project could easily be worthwhile if it means both completing missions faster and discovering things about Mars that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The Mars Helicopter is still being tested at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. and is being proposed as an add-on to future rover missions, but it hasn’t been approved yet. Even if the Mars Helicopter gets approved it will have to wait a while until it is sent to Mars.