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Why The Cable Companies Have Reason To Fear Amazon

5 hours 4 min ago

The Platform is a regular column by mobile editor Dan Rowinski. Ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and pervasive networks are changing the way humans interact with everything.

HBO programming is among the most coveted in all of television. Its catalog includes some of the best produced and most critically acclaimed comedy and drama series ever created. Millions of people want to watch those shows. They just have to pay the piper first.

Until today, that piper was your cable or satellite provider, who will only provide you with HBO if you also sign up for a whole bunch of other channels as well. While HBO offers its own streaming service, HBO Go, you can't get it without a cable subscription.

In this world of cord cutters—people who forsake cable and use the Internet for their content needs—HBO’s reliance on the cable companies is problematic for its would-be viewers and even for the company itself. (Small wonder that HBO shows are the most pirated of all time.)

Today’s Quick Thought: Supreme Court, Aereo & Cloud Computing

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Aereo TV Supreme Court case, you probably should. Aereo, a service that repackages network TV broadcasts for consumers over the Intenret, has been sued by cable companies and TV networks over copyright violation. But the case has as much to do with the nature of cloud computing as it does the future of TV.

The legal issue turns on whether the network TV shows that Aereo records and stores in the cloud for its users should be considered a "public" performance or a private one. If public, then Aereo is presumably committing copyright infringement—exactly the outcome the TV networks and cable companies are looking for. But there's a deeper questions here: If the Aereo data stored in the cloud counts as a forbidden public performance of copyrighted material, then what about everything else stored in the cloud? That could be a huge can of worms for the Supremes to open.

To their credit, several justices asked during oral arguments this week how they could rule against Aereo without impacting cloud computing. Here’s hoping that the Supreme Court finds a way to allow a unique and innovative service like Aereo to remain in operation while protecting cloud storage as we currently use it.

Big Deal, So Not A Big Deal

HBO's big and famous back catalog—think James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex And The City, Ron Livingston in Band Of Brothers and Paul Giamatti as John Adams—is the reason Amazon's deal to bring older HBO programming to its Prime streaming service is a pretty big deal. For the first time, viewers will be able to stream HBO shows without paying for a cable subscription. (Viewers could, of course, already buy the DVDs or pay to download individual episodes from iTunes, Google Play or Amazon.) 

Granted, Amazon isn't getting the newest and hottest HBO shows. Much like the streaming deals that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have historically cut with movie and television studios, the Amazon-HBO arrangement only covers series that have been around long enough to be released on DVD—though it doesn't even include all of those. So don't look for Game of Thrones or the newest episodes of Girls or Boardwalk Empire on Prime, although you will be able to find earlier seasons of the latter series there.

In that sense, you might conclude that the only novelty here is that HBO has finally stopped holding out and that Amazon beat out rivals like Netflix and Hulu, who would presumably have loved to make this deal. The deal will be good for HBO, which claims it will create new HBO cable subscribers, and for Amazon Prime members (who can now perhaps justify that $20 price hike).

But if you take a step back and look at what Amazon is doing, there is also something much larger going on here.

Over The Top And Onwards Until Dawn

Directionality is the key here. As in, Amazon is now moving in the direction of superseding cable companies.

Quote Of The Day: "No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it." ~ George Washington Carver, American scientist, botanist and inventor.

Amazon is in a unique position relative to its online entertainment rivals. Apple and Google have streamable and downloadable movies and shows available for a price, but no subscription service for binge watching. Hulu and Netflix are subscription services with big catalogs, but they typically don't offer newer movies (and, in the case of Netflix, newer shows). Amazon, Netflix and Hulu are all developing original programming, unlike Apple and Google. Neither Netflix nor Hulu have their own hardware for streaming, instead relying on the likes of Google’s Chromecast, Apple TV, Roku and now the Amazon Fire TV.

Only Amazon has the full package:

  • Its Amazon Fire TV set-top box, which delivers both Prime and Amazon Instant Video rentals and purchases, as well as games.
  • More than 200,000 titles to rent, purchase or view via Prime.
  • The Prime subscription service, which cleverly offers streaming video as an add-on to what is, ostensibly, a free-shipping service for Amazon customers.
  • Cross-platform ubiquity with Amazon Instant Video available on devices such as the Xbox One and Roku.
  • Music download and streaming through its Amazon MP3 and Cloud Player services.
  • Its own Android app store for serving the Kindle Fire and Fire TV.

If only Amazon could become its own Internet provider, it might render the cable companies almost completely irrelevant.

Categories: Technology

Why The Cable Companies Have Reason To Fear Amazon

5 hours 4 min ago

The Platform is a regular column by mobile editor Dan Rowinski. Ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and pervasive networks are changing the way humans interact with everything.

HBO programming is among the most coveted in all of television. Its catalog includes some of the best produced and most critically acclaimed comedy and drama series ever created. Millions of people want to watch those shows. They just have to pay the piper first.

Until today, that piper was your cable or satellite provider, who will only provide you with HBO if you also sign up for a whole bunch of other channels as well. While HBO offers its own streaming service, HBO Go, you can't get it without a cable subscription.

In this world of cord cutters—people who forsake cable and use the Internet for their content needs—HBO’s reliance on the cable companies is problematic for its would-be viewers and even for the company itself. (Small wonder that HBO shows are the most pirated of all time.)

Today’s Quick Thought: Supreme Court, Aereo & Cloud Computing

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Aereo TV Supreme Court case, you probably should. Aereo, a service that repackages network TV broadcasts for consumers over the Intenret, has been sued by cable companies and TV networks over copyright violation. But the case has as much to do with the nature of cloud computing as it does the future of TV.

The legal issue turns on whether the network TV shows that Aereo records and stores in the cloud for its users should be considered a "public" performance or a private one. If public, then Aereo is presumably committing copyright infringement—exactly the outcome the TV networks and cable companies are looking for. But there's a deeper questions here: If the Aereo data stored in the cloud counts as a forbidden public performance of copyrighted material, then what about everything else stored in the cloud? That could be a huge can of worms for the Supremes to open.

To their credit, several justices asked during oral arguments this week how they could rule against Aereo without impacting cloud computing. Here’s hoping that the Supreme Court finds a way to allow a unique and innovative service like Aereo to remain in operation while protecting cloud storage as we currently use it.

Big Deal, So Not A Big Deal

HBO's big and famous back catalog—think James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex And The City, Ron Livingston in Band Of Brothers and Paul Giamatti as John Adams—is the reason Amazon's deal to bring older HBO programming to its Prime streaming service is a pretty big deal. For the first time, viewers will be able to stream HBO shows without paying for a cable subscription. (Viewers could, of course, already buy the DVDs or pay to download individual episodes from iTunes, Google Play or Amazon.) 

Granted, Amazon isn't getting the newest and hottest HBO shows. Much like the streaming deals that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have historically cut with movie and television studios, the Amazon-HBO arrangement only covers series that have been around long enough to be released on DVD—though it doesn't even include all of those. So don't look for Game of Thrones or the newest episodes of Girls or Boardwalk Empire on Prime, although you will be able to find earlier seasons of the latter series there.

In that sense, you might conclude that the only novelty here is that HBO has finally stopped holding out and that Amazon beat out rivals like Netflix and Hulu, who would presumably have loved to make this deal. The deal will be good for HBO, which claims it will create new HBO cable subscribers, and for Amazon Prime members (who can now perhaps justify that $20 price hike).

But if you take a step back and look at what Amazon is doing, there is also something much larger going on here.

Over The Top And Onwards Until Dawn

Directionality is the key here. As in, Amazon is now moving in the direction of superseding cable companies.

Quote Of The Day: "No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it." ~ George Washington Carver, American scientist, botanist and inventor.

Amazon is in a unique position relative to its online entertainment rivals. Apple and Google have streamable and downloadable movies and shows available for a price, but no subscription service for binge watching. Hulu and Netflix are subscription services with big catalogs, but they typically don't offer newer movies (and, in the case of Netflix, newer shows). Amazon, Netflix and Hulu are all developing original programming, unlike Apple and Google. Neither Netflix nor Hulu have their own hardware for streaming, instead relying on the likes of Google’s Chromecast, Apple TV, Roku and now the Amazon Fire TV.

Only Amazon has the full package:

  • Its Amazon Fire TV set-top box, which delivers both Prime and Amazon Instant Video rentals and purchases, as well as games.
  • More than 200,000 titles to rent, purchase or view via Prime.
  • The Prime subscription service, which cleverly offers streaming video as an add-on to what is, ostensibly, a free-shipping service for Amazon customers.
  • Cross-platform ubiquity with Amazon Instant Video available on devices such as the Xbox One and Roku.
  • Music download and streaming through its Amazon MP3 and Cloud Player services.
  • Its own Android app store for serving the Kindle Fire and Fire TV.

If only Amazon could become its own Internet provider, it might render the cable companies almost completely irrelevant.

Categories: Technology

Blur Wars: Google's Camera App vs. The iPhone 5S And A Real Camera

9 hours 26 min ago

You know when a photo has that fuzzy background thing going on and the subject is sharp while the rest looks all dreamy? That technique, usually achieved by setting a camera’s controls to a wide aperture—the smaller the f-stop number, the bigger the aperture—remains one of the easiest shortcuts to a photo that makes people go ooh.

Not one to stand by tradition, Google just released a camera app for Android that does exactly the same thing—except you can adjust the focus and that dreamy blur effect after you take the picture.

Ooh.

Can Free Software Mimic Expensive Hardware? 

The feature is called "Lens Blur,” and it’s built into the new Google Camera app, available in the Play store for Android. Android’s impressive in-house photo software (though not always superior optics) have been more robust than those in iOS for a while, likely thanks to Google’s 2012 acquisition of the excellent photo app Snapseed.

Lens Blur pulls off a qualitatively similar trick to the one that earned the Lytro light field camera so much buzz when it debuted. (Now Lytro is back with an even crazier light field camera, the $1599 Illum, available for pre-order now.) Lytro builds dedicated hardware that allows focus and depth of field to be adjusted after the fact, by letting a camera take in more data (the "light field" idea, detailed at thesis length here).

Unlike the custom Lytro hardware, Android's new camera app Lens Blur feature pulls it all off through depth mapping, which renders the results less than optimal if you treat it like a 2D Instagram pic. More from Google's Research Blog on the brains behind the blur:

Lens Blur replaces the need for a large optical system with algorithms that simulate a larger lens and aperture. Instead of capturing a single photo, you move the camera in an upward sweep to capture a whole series of frames. From these photos, Lens Blur uses computer vision algorithms to create a 3D model of the world, estimating the depth (distance) to every point in the scene.

Here’s an example -- on the left is a raw input photo, in the middle is a “depth map” where darker things are close and lighter things are far away, and on the right is the result blurred by distance:

Playing Around With Lens Blur

For the sake of comparison, we took a few comparison shots using the new Google Camera app, an iPhone 5S and a Sony RX100 II. The comparison isn’t about image quality, which of course differs wildly between very dissimilar shooters.

Instead we’re looking at how (and if) a few different categories of device pull off that dreamy shallow depth of field effect—the blurred points known as “bokeh” in this style of shot. As any photographer knows, not all bokeh are created equal—the quality of the effect varies quite a lot among devices and lenses. Most of all, we just wanted to see what makes Google's new trick tick.

The shots below are both taken with a Nexus 4 using Lens Blur. Note how things get a little dicey when the depth isn't as simple as single foreground object vs. distant background. 

Lens Blur vs. Other Cameras

iPhone 5S

Sony RX100 II

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

While the iPhone 5S's f/2.2 lens didn't feel like doing much in the way of blur, the Sony RX100 II humored our test at f/1.8 in aperture priority mode. Google's Lens Blur did a nice enough job blurring the background, but it didn't like the angled depth of that tiny jaguar much.

iPhone 5S

Sony RX100 II

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

Again, the iPhone 5S didn't really give us a shallow depth of field—super close macro shots are where it really shows off—but Lens Blur did a pretty nice job here.

iPhone 5S

Sony RX100 II

Lens Blur on Google's Camera App

Lens Blur did not like the concave depth of this little bowl. Its effect is obviously the most successful when the depth mapping is a little less mind-bending. 

All told, Google's new camera app is pretty cool, taking the selective focus feature so readily abused by Instagram users and ramping it up a few notches. It doesn't work for every kind of shot—but when it does, it's awfully dreamy, isn't it?

Header image by Cee Webster; sample images by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite

Categories: Technology

HBO Is Coming To Amazon—And You Don't Need To Be A HBO Subscriber

9 hours 49 min ago

Amazon on Wednesday announced a licensing agreement with HBO, which will bring a number of premium shows to Amazon’s Prime Instant Video Service and bring the HBO Go mobile app to the company’s new Fire TV set-top streaming box, which was announced and released earlier this month.

"As owners of our original programming, we have always sought to capitalize on that investment. Given our longstanding relationship with Amazon, we couldn't think of a better partner to entrust with this valuable collection," said HBO's Glenn Whitehead, executive vice president of business and legal affairs, in a press release. "We're also excited to bring HBO GO to Amazon's Fire TV. The features like unified voice search will provide a compelling experience for HBO customers."

Starting May 21, HBO will deliver several original series to Amazon Prime subscribers, although most of the series are on the older side: The collection includes The Wire, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Enlightened, Treme and early seasons of True Blood and Boardwalk Empire. Amazon will also get a number of HBO mini-series, including Band of Brothers and John Adams, but many of the network’s more popular current shows, like Game Of Thrones, Girls and True Detective, are absent from the list.

The licensing agreement is the first time that HBO has made its shows and content available to subscription-based streaming services. Viewers can buy single episodes or seasons of HBO content like Game Of Thrones through Apple's iTunes or Amazon Instant Video, but HBO's debut on Amazon Prime will be the first time HBO has licensed content to a third-party video streaming service.

Though HBO is only providing a limited number of shows for Amazon Prime subscribers, the company’s HBO GO app, which features over 1,700 titles including original films, miniseries, sports, documentaries and specials—not to mention every episode of every HBO series ever made—will hit Amazon’s Fire TV set-top later this year. 

With support from HBO—plus its own exclusive original series coming later this year—Amazon has what it takes to compete with rival set-top devices like Roku and Apple TV, but the content will also help it compete with Netflix, which doesn’t have any licensing agreements with HBO—or any proprietary hardware, for that matter.

Categories: Technology

My Fish Just Sent Me A Text Message

10 hours 53 min ago

The Internet of Things makes it easy for us to monitor our homes. Today I’m taking that concept one step further—getting our homes to report back to us. 

In early March, I wrote about using Raspberry Pi to quantify my fish tank—in short, I taught the $35 single-board computer to monitor the temperature of my home aquarium no matter where I was in the apartment. Of course, the limitations of this project were clear: I could only keep tabs on the tank while on my home network. What if I want my fish to text me when it needs my assistance? 

See also: The Quantified Fish: How My Aquarium Uses Raspberry Pi

The problem, until now, was that getting the Raspberry Pi to initiate communication was hard. I experimented with a Node.js receiving application, and contemplated buying a server from which to run it (since my Bluehost server space doesn’t support a Node installation). The other way to get the Raspberry Pi to talk to me was to teach it to text my phone. There are also many ways to achieve SMS support in Python, Pi’s primary language, but they all either involve money or writing programs that are way over my head. 

However, I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t eventually find a way to do it. The answer turned out to be Twilio, a developer-friendly set of tools for creating SMS, voice, and VoIP applications. Twilio charges pennies for calls and text messages to any phone, but it's free to develop programs that text your own phone. That second part might not sound useful at first, but it’s exactly what I needed to complete my fish tank project.

I met with Matthew Makai, Twilio’s DC-based developer evangelist, and he helped me solve the problem. It only took nine lines of code. 

If you’ve already finished the first tutorial, here’s all you need to do. 

Sign Up For Twilio

Don’t worry, it’s free. Signing up for Twilio will give you a phone number to assign to the Raspberry Pi and credentials for using the Twilio API.  

Your phone number will probably begin with the area code of wherever you sign up. 

These are my credentials. You’ll need both the AccountSID and the AuthToken for this project to work, since we’re making use of the Twilio API to save ourselves a lot of coding.

Raspberry Pi, Meet Twilio

Now you have a Twilio account, but the Pi doesn’t know that. We’re going to install Twilio on the Raspberry Pi via the command line using "pip," the Python package manager. Just like npm is the package manager for Node.js, pip helps to easily install software packages written in Python. 

First type “pip” into the command line to make sure it's installed. It usually installs with Python 3 or higher. If your Pi returns the message, “-bash: pip: command not found,” that means pip still needs to be installed. The official pip website explains the process for OS X, Windows and Linux.

Once you confirm that pip is installed on your Raspberry Pi, you can type: 

sudo pip install twilio

Be sure to use “sudo”—I didn’t at first, and after it installed the Raspberry Pi decided I didn’t have permission to actually install programs. After this process, however, Twilio will be fully installed. 

Tweak The Python Program

Once again, we’re using the code from this Adafruit tutorial. The program already queries the waterproof temperature sensor for data, but it doesn’t text just yet. We’re going to add that functionality in fewer than 10 additional lines.

Go into the directory where your python program is saved with the “cd” command. Then write:

sudo nano YOURPROGRAM.py

That should open what you already have it in the nano text editor. 

At the top, just below the place where we’re importing three Python libraries, we need to import Twilio’s API. Obviously, fill in your own accountSID and auth token here:

from twilio.rest import TwilioRestClient client = TwilioRestClient(account='abc', token='123')

Next, we need to define a condition for when the program needs to text. For me, this was when the fish tank reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which would be too hot for my fish:

MAX_F_TEMP = 80

At first, however, I set the maximum temperature at something ridiculously low, just to be sure it would text me and test the program no matter what it was sensing. I might recommend you do the same.

Finally, we need to add a few lines to the “While True:” section. Right now, this loop reads:

while True: print(read_temp()) time.sleep(1)

And all it does is print the temperature to your computer screen every second forever.

We’re going to add some substance to this:

while True:     c, f = read_temp()     if f > MAX_F_TEMP:      client.messages.create(to='+198755555555,       from_='+1987666666666',       body="fish tank overheating!!")      time.sleep(500) # print(read_temp()) time.sleep(1)

Now the program reads the temperature, and judges whether the temperature it reads is higher than the maximum acceptable temperature. If it is, it sends a text to your number, from the number you got with your Twilio account. It continues to do this every 500 seconds (about 8 minutes) until you rectify the situation or turn off the Raspberry Pi. 

Here’s the final code saved in a GitHub gist. 

Test And Text

Save and exit your program with Command + X and wait. If all goes well and you’ve set your temperature very low, you should get a text relatively quickly. 

Ignore that first text you see above—I was messing with Twilio SMS. But the second one is literally a text from my fish tank! 

I am currently using this sensor to monitor my fish tank, but there are numerous applications for a project like this—whether you have a swimming pool, a pond, or a home brewery where the beer needs to be at a specific temperature. You can also set up a variable to keep the temperature from going below a certain degree, or one on either end of a spectrum.

Next up, I’ll be working with Makai to create a custom connected home tutorial for ReadWrite readers. Tell us what you would like to build, and we'll show you how it's done.

Photos and screenshots by Lauren Orsini; first screenshot via Twilio blog

Categories: Technology

The Facebook Effect: WhatsApp Is Well On Its Way To A Billion Users

11 hours 28 min ago

In just two months since Facebook dropped $19 billion to buy WhatsApp, the five-year-old mobile messaging app on Tuesday announced its active user base has grown to more than half a billion people.

On February 17, the day it was acquired by Facebook, the company said it had 450 million monthly active users worldwide and over 320 million daily active users.

“In the last few months, we’ve grown fastest in countries like Brazil, India, Mexico, and Russia, and our users are sharing more than 700 million photos and 100 million videos every single day,” WhatsApp said on its blog. “We could go on, but for now, it’s more important that we get back to work.”

Facebook: The Key To Growth

This is not the first time that an app has seen a major pop in users after it was acquired by Facebook. When Facebook bought Instagram in April 2012, the service boasted some 30 million users. In one month after the deal, Instagram gained 20 million new users. By July, Instagram grew to 80 million active users. Adding an Android app in addition to its iPhone app certainly helped, but the Facebook effect is a definite reality. Instagram managed to increase its user base by more than 10 million users on average per month.

WhatsApp seems to be having a similar growth spurt, gaining roughly 25 million users each month since the Facebook deal was announced. Even for an app with astronomic growth like WhatsApp, those are impressive numbers.

It’s clear that WhatsApp has the legs to grow in both developed and emerging markets, especially as a cheap alternative to SMS. The chart below from analytics firm comScore (which doesn’t include WhatsApp’s fifth year of existence) shows just how much the service had grown prior to being bought by Facebook.

At this rate, it should only take less than a year for WhatsApp to reach a billion users worldwide.

Facebook is still in the process of completing its $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp, which included cash and various stock options. The deal has been approved by the Federal Trade Commission but still needs international regulatory approval before the purchase can become final.

Categories: Technology

Cancel The Funeral For The Mobile Web—It's Not Dead Yet

13 hours 2 min ago

Guest author Alex Salkever is head of product marketing and business development at Silk.co. This piece first appeared on his Tumblr.

The venture capitalist and former entrepreneur Chris Dixon recently lamented the growing dominance of mobile apps as evidence that the open Web is on its deathbed. His logic went something like this:

  • App use is crowding out use of the open Web on mobile devices
  • App stores arbitrarily block whole classes of applications (i.e., Apple’s ban on Bitcoin-related apps)
  • A "rich get richer" dynamic favors popular incumbent apps over innovative newcomers
  • As a result, the open Web will eventually devolve into a niche product

Dixon’s post was widely shared. Other leading VCs, such as Fred Wilson, concurred with his assessment.

But it's not that simple. Here's why.

1. Consider The Source

Dixon based his assumptions primarily on findings by Flurry. Flurry is in the business of selling analytics based on app consumption, primarily to app companies, and advertising in new app-based add exchanges.

Basing an entire argument on one source is always dangerous—particularly one that is so vested in a specific outcome. Let's have a look at more diverse data sources before jumping to sweeping conclusions.

2. Consider The Costs See also: Google Needs To Double Down On HTML5, And Soon

Talk to any developer or app company about what it's like to support Android and iOS apps and they'll roll their eyes. Building responsive apps that run everywhere on the Web and the mobile Web is expensive enough. Building siloed apps in two completely different languages—both of which remains difficult development environments—is far more than twice as expensive.

Over time, the mere fact that it's far cheaper and faster to build Web apps will let innovative developers build more of them and create more viable businesses on those apps.

3. Apps Degrade The Mobile Experience In Key Ways

Because apps can't talk to each other, the app experience is disjointed and often illogical. Things you can do easily on a laptop take far longer on a smartphone.

For instance, apps break the ability of the device to automatically access a single secured repository of stored passwords, à la Keychain on the Mac or the "vaults" offered by other password managers. Combine this with difficulty of typing secure passwords accurately on small mobile keyboards and you have a user-experience disaster.

The poor integration of apps with other apps obliterates the advances of context that have actually made Web sites much more useful. Services like Disqus, for example, don’t work well in the app economy.

4. The Mobile Experience Remains Highly Inefficient

Closely related is a critical fact. Across the spectrum—advertising, ecommerce, media consumption—mobile wins more time but generates fewer dollars per capita. Why? Because buying on a mobile phone is still an awful experience.

Ads on apps are clunky and awful. Media consumption is fast and furious but remains very flakey. Those problems translate into opportunity to innovate and make more money.

5. The Browser is Becoming Far More Powerful

This isn’t the dumb browser of yesteryear. The latest generation of browsers offers developers far more control over how their Web apps behave on any device, mobile included. In particular, newer browsers can handle granular caching and storage requests at the device level.

See also: How HTML5 Crashed, Burned, And Rose Again

This allows developers to turn a smart phone into a much smarter phone that retains images, CSS, and JavaScript required regularly in a site experience. The main reason companies such as LinkedIn and Facebook moved from HTML5 to apps was because they couldn't easily control key aspects of user experience in HTML5. As that changes, more of these alpha tech companies will move back to the open Web.

6. Remember AOL And AltaVista

Not all that long ago, AOL ruled over a populous walled garden that closely resembled our current version of the app economy. At about the same time, a search engine called AltaVista ruled the Internet.

At the time, investors assumed those companies and others could maintain a technology hammerlock. Turned out, though, that their technology advantage and lock-in was ephemeral and elusive. Lock-in is even more ephemeral today. A switch from a native app to an HTML5 app is seamless, painless and quick. Consumers won’t even notice when it happens.

These are just a few reasons I suspect the mobile revolution remains in its nascent stages. Were I a venture capitalist, I’d actually double down on the second wave of mobile companies that do things right. Second generation companies in a space tend to do much better than the pioneers.

Mobile technology is still maturing, and mobile usage on smartphones continues to soar. In their days, AltaVista and AOL had fine IPOs and returned loads of cash to VC backers. Yet Google, Facebook, Twitter and other later stage Internet companies have fared far better over time. Mobile is playing out that same cycle—just faster.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock 

Categories: Technology

You Can Now Run Beta Versions Of Apple’s OS X—For Free

14 hours 12 min ago

People love trying out new Apple software before it’s fully baked, and the company knows it.

That’s why Apple on Tuesday announced the OS X Beta Seed Program, which allows anyone to download and install pre-release Mac software for the sake of testing and submitting feedback before the public launch.

Until Tuesday, Apple charged users $99 a year to test out new OS X software—doing so required a paid-up developer account. (Testing new iPhone software still requires a separate developer account for another $99 a year.) Now, much the same way new OS X software is now totally free to download, it's also free to try out. All you need is an Apple ID to sign up.

Of course, it wouldn't be an Apple program without an ominous confidentiality agreement, one that declares all beta software, including "its nature and existence, features, functionality, and screen shots," to be confidential information that cannot be disclosed to anyone without written permission from an authorized Apple representative. Once you've signed away your right to even show the beta version to third parties, Apple will provide you with a special “Beta Access Utility” that offers access to pre-release versions of OS X within the “Updates” panel in the Mac App Store.

This policy change for pre-release Mac software comes a little more than a month before WWDC, the annual developer conference where Apple typically unveils new versions of iOS and OS X software. Still, it doesn’t look like Apple plans to expand this program to iOS just yet. Which has got to be frustrating for iPhone and iPad fans, who exhibited considerable interest in upgrading to iOS 7 ahead of its public release date last year.

Considering that Apple is expected to unveil a new version of OS X at WWDC 2014, it will be interesting to see to what extent users and developers participate in the new beta program are able to access the new software, as well as how well the actual Seed Program actually works. 

Either way, there will be plenty of users interested in experimenting with the unready OS X software, even if it’s glitchy, now that Apple has pulled down the $100 barrier. It’s a win for users who aren’t developers but want to try out new Mac software before it's fully ready. It’s a win for Apple, too, since this program will undoubtedly attract many users and, presumably, plenty of constructive feedback as well.

Lead image by Flickr user Daniel Dudek-Corrigan, CC 2.0

Categories: Technology

How Yahoo Could Get Back In The Search Game

Tue, 2014-04-22 19:40

Google is the clear winner in Web search, but Yahoo still thinks it can make a dent in the market—even though Yahoo Web search technically doesn't exist since the company handed over its search technologies to Microsoft in 2009

As Kara Swisher at Recode reported last week, Yahoo wants to convince Apple to make Yahoo Search the default search engine on iPhones, iPads, and other iOS devices. The strategy takes advantage of an ongoing rift between Apple and Google: Apple booted Google Maps and YouTube from iPhones' homescreens in 2012.

There’s a logic to the push—if only that Google's Android devices and Microsoft's Windows devices seem out of reach to Yahoo’s products.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's "plan to pitch Apple on the idea as its marquee mobile search partner is far along," Swisher reported. According to people close to the company, Yahoo "has prepared detailed [presentations], including images of what such a search product would look like, and hopes to present them to Apple execs."

Still, the idea seems farfetched. Yahoo is reportedly working on efforts to juice up its Web search technologies after handing them over to Microsoft, but it’s unlikely Yahoo can unseat Google as the Web’s most trusted search engine.

Ah, but that assumes that we define search the way Google does it. Yahoo’s best shot is not to play Google’s game.

Moving Towards Mobile

Thanks to a loophole in Yahoo’s search deal with Microsoft, Yahoo is free to pursue mobile search deals. And that's conveniently where it could help Apple—and bypass Google.

On mobile devices, people often aren’t searching for Web pages. They’re searching for apps. 

Apple’s App Store generates billions of dollars in revenue, but it’s weak in surfacing relevant applications that consumers might want to download. At the same time, it’s nearly impossible for users to search for information across existing apps, because the technology to index applications like Web pages hasn’t been developed for the mainstream—yet. 

See Also: Why Google’s App Indexing In Android KitKat Is A Game Changer

Google recently updated Android to simplify search within apps and link directly to specific locations within an app, often called “deep linking.” Android developers can now index their applications so that these links appear directly in Web searches, which will take users to specific pages within apps.

App indexing, or deep linking, is going to change the way developers and marketers distribute applications. We'll likely see people optimize their apps for search in the same way that they currently do for websites. But more importantly, this kind of indexing will make it much easier for users to find relevant applications. 

Apple doesn’t have a search engine like this, which puts it at a big disadvantage with both developers and consumers. Yahoo’s technologies could overhaul the iOS app ecosystem the same way Google did with Android.

And Yahoo could extend this deal to the desktop. Another loophole in the Microsoft deal allows Yahoo to offer contextual search, which essentially means delivering formatted information in response to a search query rather than a list of links to Web pages. For example, a search for "weather" might display the current temperature rather than a list of weather websites.

Yahoo could serve up links to relevant apps from its desktop search as contextual answers to queries, driving more downloads—which fits neatly with the agenda of Apple and its large army of developers. 

Delivering Information In The Moment

App search is still a wide-open field, and two startups recently acquired by Yahoo could help fuel this app-driven reinvention of Yahoo Search.

Aviate, an “intelligent homescreen” application, redistributes applications on Android homescreens to provide helpful apps when you need them. For instance, if you’re an avid Twitter user in the morning but prefer browsing Facebook on your train commute home, Aviate will put Twitter front and center first, then replace it with Facebook when you leave the office in the afternoon. 

See Also: Can Yahoo Inspire Us?

If and when Aviate—or a technology like it—finally comes to iOS, it could be the default application manager across Apple’s devices, giving users a more personalized experience by surfacing important applications when they're needed and putting infrequently-used applications in the background. Aviate’s technologies could also fit more generally into an app search engine’s infrastructure.

Sparq, a mobile marketing company brought into the Yahoo fold in January, also offered technology that allows people to jump from app to app via deep links. Sparq's product was shut down, but it’s clear how Yahoo might integrate the underlying technologies. Together with Aviate, users could discover more mobile content without ever needing to leave the search bar. And that's exactly what Yahoo—and by extension, Apple—would want.

How Do You Map An App?

For Yahoo to succeed in in-app search, it would first have to convince developers to give Yahoo access to their APIs and opt to be a part of its mobile search index. 

On its own, Yahoo might have a hard time convincing app creators to share their data, but by building services that appeal to mobile developers—and partnering with Apple, of course—app developers would have a financial interest in enabling Yahoo's mobile search engine. Perhaps they might go beyond allowing Yahoo to index their apps and also promote Yahoo’s search within their products. 

App indexing requires extra steps on the part of developers to configure the relationships between websites and apps. First, it needs filters on a website that specify how a page’s content can be reached in an application, then it needs filters that can tell how, exactly, that information can be opened in an application. Google provides deep technical details for Android here. Part of Yahoo's challenge is to build similar tools for developers.

By bridging contextual and mobile search, Yahoo could provide a mobile search engine that would send users to the right application at the right time—which is something Apple will need to compete with Google in the years ahead. 

Of course, Apple wouldn’t partner with Yahoo because Mayer shows Apple executives some pretty slides. A search partnership with Yahoo would free Apple from sending billions of dollars of advertising business to its mobile archrival through its devices.

In the long term, Yahoo could give Apple what TechCrunch columnist MG Siegler calls “the Google-free iPhone.” It's a high-risk bet. But for Yahoo and Apple, the only other choice is letting Google run away with app search the way it did with the Web.

Lead image courtesy of TechCrunch via Flickr.

Categories: Technology

Google Has New Targeted Ads That Encourage You Dive Into Apps

Tue, 2014-04-22 19:40

You’ll soon be seeing mobile ads from Google that can take you directly into an app. These ads will appear in Google’s mobile search, on YouTube, and on third-party websites that use Google’s ad network.

Today the company announced it will offer ads that display a button that will open up the advertiser's app for more information. If users don't have the app installed, it will prompt them to download it. Known as deep linking, this technique will take you directly to specific information in an app.

Similar to other advertisements Google offers, these deep linked ads will use your personal data—such as which apps you frequently use and the types of in-app purchases you make—to serve up tailored app install suggestions. “If you exercise regularly and use an app to measure how far you run, you might see an ad for an app that helps you measure the foods you eat and calories consumed,” the company said in a blog post.

App install ads have proven hugely successful for Google since it launched them in 2011. Both Twitter and Yahoo have begun using app install ads as well. 

Correction, 1:15 pm PT: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Google was unveiling app install ads, which it has offered since 2011. The new ad product it launched today features deep linking. 

Lead image via Dan Rowinski for ReadWrite, search image via Google

Categories: Technology

Tough Realities Persist In Mobile Payments

Tue, 2014-04-22 15:12

The Platform is a regular column by mobile editor Dan Rowinski. Ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and pervasive networks are changing the way humans interact with everything.

Welcome to The Platform, a new column by ReadWrite mobile editor and senior writer Dan Rowinski on how ubiquitous computing, pervasive networks and the power of the cloud are fundamentally changing everything.

Extraordinary power is found in people’s pockets these days. The ability to tap any piece of information, contextualize any act or help make a decision is just a swipe away. Human behaviors, industry verticals, acts of communication and promises of the future are all touched by the rise of powerful computers and sensors.

Look at what's happening in technology: Everywhere you look, cheap and potent computers are infiltrating every aspect of our lives. Our cars, our clothes, our factories and storefronts, our eye glasses and our wrists. Smartphones and tablets are just the beginning of the evolutionary shift where all the elements that touch our lives are digitized, gadget-ized, hooked to the Internet and computed in the cloud. The impact have profound consequences—positive and negative—that we can only begin to imagine.

The Platform will examine this epoch shift, providing commentary and analysis, reporting and critique. The Platform will be a resource to the curious and the creative, the builders and the artists.

You're out running errands on a Saturday morning. You’ve spent the day shopping for new clothes to add to your new spring fashion. On your way around town, you probably stopped for coffee, a sandwich or a pack of gum. You may even pop into the hardware store to grab some nails to hang a painting at home, or the local Wal-Mart or Target to get a new laundry basket. So what do all of these activities have in common?

You’re spending money.

As you're completing your errands, you're performing the same action at any given stop. When it's time to check out, you reach into your pocket and pull out your wallet. You hand a debit or credit card to the cashier, or maybe cash. Chances are, you're not reaching for your smartphone to pay.

Three years have passed since the notion of mobile payments—paying at a physical retail location with your smartphone—reached the height of its hype cycle. In 2011, the talk on entrepreneurs’ lips was that technologies like smartphones, mobile wallets, QR codes and Near Field Communications (NFC) would soon fundamentally change how people make transactions.

The reality of getting people and stores to actually accept mobile payments, however, has been a different reality entirely.

For technologists, the thought of upending the way people pay comes down to two factors: 1) Money is essentially a data science; and 2) Technological advances and ubiquitous computers provide the platform to change a fundamental human behavior.

Still, each company that has tried to jump into the payments fray has learned one resolute and inarguable fact: Payments are hard.

4 Examples Of Struggle

Humor me while we do a little blind comparison of four companies that have attempted to gain traction in the payments space. All four have run into different problems that tend to plague most company that try to break into the payments space.

Company A started as a geo-location game similar to Foursquare, but after a couple of years of mediocrity, it pivoted to payments with an app, a merchandizing formula and QR codes. Today, it continues to grow but has not achieved the type of scale that its investors had envisioned.

Company B started bringing credit card payments everywhere five years ago by attaching a card-reading dongle to people’s smartphones and tablets. The company raised more than $300 million in funding, achieved immense scale and popularity, but despite processing $20 billion in payments last year and making $550 million in revenue, still was in the red in 2013—to the tune of $100 million.

Company C started as a classroom project at Stanford by a wunderkind founder that thought he could change the way people pay with their smartphones. The company raised the largest seed round in the history of Silicon Valley startups and proceeded to go through one controversy after another. Despite the hype and promises, the company has yet to release a product.

Company D imagined a way to change how smartphone payments are processed at physical locations that don't have QR code scanners or NFC. It raised an over-subscribed $10 million round and began to make partnerships and ship its dongles. The venture capital and technology communities applauded it but saw it as a stopgap invention on its way to more credible solutions.

Company A is Boston-based LevelUp, which used to be SCVNGR before it folded up that part of its business. Company B is Square, the dongle-based smartphone payments system started by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Company C is the travesty that is Clinkle, started by Stanford graduate Lucas Duplan. Company D is called Loop, which uses a dongle/smartphone case approach to allow for ubiquitous mobile payments by tapping into a point-of-sale system’s existing electromagnetic card scanners.

See also: Here's A Heavy Dose Of Reality For New Mobile Payments Startup Clinkle

Each of these companies has issues. Whether it's revenue and profitability (Square), achieving meaningful scale through a sales technology platform (LevelUp), drumming up consumer-side adoption with an in-between technology solution (Loop) or just getting out of your own way to actually create a business (Clinkle), all of these payments companies face unique challenges.

But these companies aren't alone in their hardship. Google took at stab at mobile payments with its NFC-based Wallet, but has not been able to break into retail locations like it would have hoped. Cellular operators like T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon created the Isis mobile wallet with NFC, which was basically dead on arrival. What we are seeing across the entire payments technology ecosystem is that most of the basic tenets of business are extremely difficult.

LevelUp & The Slow Path

Boston-based LevelUp made a lot of noise in 2012. It touted its new platform as a mobile wallet that can be used at participating locations by scanning a QR code, but its goal was to create a world called “interchange zero,” where the cost of making a transaction is 0% of a purchase (most payment processors like Visa or Mastercard charge around 2.75%). LevelUp hired a large sales force and invested in turning its app into an open platform that retailers could implement both online and off. 

For the next year and a half, LevelUp was hardly heard from. You would see it in the wild on occasion (especially in the Boston area), but CEO Seth Priesbatch and his crew did not make many waves in 2013. 

Last week, Priebatsch invited ReadWrite to LevelUp headquarters to talk about progress. The small payments company was very candid about its numbers, showing progress while acknowledging it is not yet profitable and that it's had to make adjustments in its approach to dealing with market realities.

Here are some of the numbers that show the traction that LevelUp is getting:

  • 14,000 merchants in the U.S. accept LevelUp, though not all are active.
  • LevelUp is integrated into 50 point-of-sale partners.
  • The average transaction is a little less than $10.
  • About 10% of all charges are redeemed credit through LevelUp’s rewards and loyalty marketing program for retailers.
  • LevelUp makes 25% of every dollar of redeemed credit. For instance, if a user spends $100 through the app and 10% of that is redeemed credit, LevelUp makes $2.50.
  • Most merchants accepting LevelUp in the U.S. are in the food industry.
  • LevelUp is processing about 600,000 transactions a month.

As of last week, LevelUp charges 1.95% for interchange. This means Levelup’s back-end interchange rate has dropped from 5.2% in February 2013 to about 2% today. LevelUp has lowered its own interchange rate by aggregating individual consumer purchases together over a period of time to lessen the interchange on any single purchase.

LevelUp also has an open software developer kit (SDK) where developers can build apps using LevelUp as a processor without necessarily using the company’s marketing and loyalty programs. Priebatsch recognizes the value in being the pipe and he is fighting to lower interchange to bring in more volume for his platform.

If we compare LevelUp with a company like Square, the difference is almost laughable. But LevelUp is making money (if only in small amounts) and it has made the decision to focus more on engineering (about half of the company’s 85 employees are engineers) and relied less on a robust and expensive sales force to push its product, moving most of its sales into its partner channels. LevelUp is making incremental steps, which is not bad for a company that spends next to nothing on marketing and advertising. Priebatsch estimates the company will be profitable within the next year or so. 

The case for lowering interchange by companies like LevelUp is a strong one. Let’s take the case of Square, for instance. Yes, it is doing $20 billion in transaction volume, but losing $100 million last year is significant. Square tried out a program with smaller retailers where it would charge $275 per month as a flat interchange rate. As ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas predicted when the program came out, Square lost a bundle of money. In February, Square quietly did away with the program and now charges industry-standard 2.75% per transaction. Merchants—like 1369 Coffee House in Cambridge, Massachusetts—saw its interchange fee rise from $275 to well over $1,000 for the month. 

LevelUp doesn’t want to make money off interchange, but rather take a slice of your marketing and loyalty budget. It may seem like fuzzy math, but if you charge nothing for interchange and take 2.5% through a marketing program, isn’t it just replacing the interchange? Well, yes and no. Most merchants are going to have some type of marketing budget anyway, where they pay some third-party to provide a solution. LevelUp wants to be that third party.

The Adoption Quandary Quote Of The Day: "I hold that the mark of a genuine idea is that its possibility can be proved, either a priori by conceiving its cause or reason, or a posteriori when experience teaches us that it is in fact in nature." ~ Gottfried Leibniz, creator of calculus.

Every time I talk to a mobile payments company, the same question comes up: Is growth happening from the consumer side, or the merchant side?

It is this type of chicken-and-egg question that typifies the adoption of any platform, mobile payments included. 

The historical route to scale adoption has been to make partnerships with major players like banks, payment processors, merchants and technology companies like Apple or Google. A large sales force is needed to actually get the payments system into merchant locations and point-of-sale providers. Going down the partnerships and sales route is logical for these companies because, we have to realize, these are businesses with targets and goals. It is much easier to stand up at the quarterly meeting and list off all the deals you have made with tangible businesses than to point at vague charts of consumer adoption (which is something social-based startups thrive on). 

In payments, it is very difficult to scale from the consumer side. Companies need technological solutions that are ubiquitous and without barrier. If I can use my Square or LevelUp wallet at one merchant but not another, I am less likely to use it at all. Technological ubiquity across the entire landscape just does not exist for these would-be disruptors of how you pay, and the key holders—Visa, MasterCard, American Express, et al—are not too keen on opening the door too widely for companies that could cut into their bottom line.

Payment companies' worries naturally turn to merchant solutions, which play in the same realm as the companies they are trying to disrupt. Focus turns to interchange and marketing, loyalty programs and gadgets. If I can put a QR scanner or a dongle in your store, I win that store, right?

The case for Loop is that it wants to eliminate those technological barriers, providing a solution where a merchant doesn’t need a LevelUp scanner or a Square card reader or NFC. But its dongles and cases are neither practical nor convenient. Like just about everybody else in the payments space, Loop is a technology trying to change a behavior that doesn’t necessarily need to be changed.

No matter how the problem is sliced, the basic fact keeps coming up over and over again: Payments are hard. Adoption, revenue, consumer and merchant behavior, partnerships, sales, advertising and people are simultaneously the largest enablers of the changing landscape of payments... and also its biggest inhibitors.

This article has been updated to reflect that LevelUp takes 25% of every dollar redeemed for credit.

Lead image courtesy of Reuters

Categories: Technology

ReadWrite At 11: Mapping The Future

Tue, 2014-04-22 13:06

Eleven years ago, on April 20, 2003, ReadWrite founder Richard MacManus wrote this site’s first post, declaring that “[o]rdinary people should be able to write to the Web, just as easily as they can browse and read it."

In the decade that followed, ReadWrite has lived up to that mission. And as MacManus’s vision came to fruition, something magical happened: The Web became the world, and the world became the Web.

This One Goes To Eleven

Since I joined ReadWrite a year ago, I’ve led a team devoted to mapping the programmable world, finding every darkened corner and shedding light so we can better understand it. As chroniclers of technology, we focus on the new. But our heritage informs us every day: We were around to chronicle the social, mobile, and visual revolutions that reshaped the Web, which gives us unique insights and the ability to place the rapid-fire changes we see in the context of what came before.

Because MacManus was an early champion and observer of the Internet of Things—the spread of connectivity to devices that look nothing like computers or phones—we were able to launch dedicated coverage of the impact of digital technologies on our homes, cars, and bodies.

We tackled a wide variety of topics, from Google’s Chromecast streaming-media device to Raspberry Pi, the DIY-hardware enabler and GitHub, the social-coding service. We found our best stories didn’t address our audience narrowly as consumers or businesspeople or developers, but instead spoke to them as people whose passion for technology took multiple forms.

And—most encouragingly—we found an immense hunger to learn. If I’ve learned anything from the past year, it's that ReadWrite is at its best when we serve as guides. Our explainers and tutorials—on topics as diverse as upgrading to iOS 7 and adopting Hadoop—proved immensely popular.

It is in some ways a triumph merely to have lasted 11 years in the fast-moving world of digital publishing. ReadWrite's ambitions go far beyond that: We aim to be the indispensable resource for those trying to understand a world where technology is accessible to everyone. And we also aim to do our part in creating that world. Thanks for joining us on the journey so far, and for the years to come.

Photo: Past and present ReadWrite staff at the 2014 South By Southwest Interactive Festival (not pictured: Fruzsina Eördögh)

Categories: Technology

Are Tech-Savvy Countries Happier?

Tue, 2014-04-22 12:01

Guest author Kim Gaskins is the director of content development and lead writer for Latitude, an international research consultancy.

In the developed world, even the most passionate technology proponents sometimes find themselves wondering if being constantly "plugged in" means leading a less fulfilling existence. The verdict is still out on that one. But for most of the world,  the relationship between happiness and technology is highly positive.

That's not utopian tech evangelism—it's the result of a cross-referencing of a survey on national happiness with the state of each country's technical development. For the statistically minded, the correlation is +0.72, on a scale from -1 to +1. Mind you, that doesn't mean technology causes people to be happy. There are plenty of other factors at play—notably, the fact that technologically advanced nations also tend to be wealthier. But the strength of the relationship is nevertheless intriguing.

Clap Along If You Know What Happiness Is To You

The interactive visualization above displays nations according to well-established measures of "happiness" and "techiness."

  • The "happiness" measure is derived from self-reported answers to one simple prompt: "Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?" (Source: Gallup World Poll / Happy Planet Index)
  • "Techiness" is derived from a few metrics, including access to technology (e.g., mobile phone subscriptions, percentage of households with Internet, etc.), intensity of use, and skills (education levels, etc.). (Source: ICT Development Index)

Some noteworthy trends emerged.

The way a country governs technology says a lot about the general happiness of its people. The Nordic countries rank high on both happiness and technology. By 2012, more than 87% of people living in this region had access to high-speed Internet. These countries were also leaders in LTE wireless technology, with approximately half of Sweden's population living in places with 4G coverage. Overall, countries scoring highly on "techiness" tend to have a regulatory authority that provides unbiased information, protects consumer interests, and encourages a free, competitive market. Relatedly, it's been shown that heightened trust and high-quality governance are an important part of what makes these countries the happiest in the world.

Rapid digital "acceleration" aligns with rising happiness. Many Latin American nations demonstrate high happiness but relatively low "techiness"; however, a look at trending data from prior years indicates that both happiness and techiness have been simultaneously on the rise for countries like Venezuela and Brazil. Between 2011 and 2012, Latin America saw a significant increase in both access to and use of technology, largely due to rapid mobile adoption. Though this region still has a way to go with its technology, the sense of accelerating digital progress may be cause for optimism.

Acute economic or political trouble has a big impact on happiness. Countries that stand out as technologically advanced but low on happiness—Bahrain, Hungary and Portugal—have experienced instability in the past few years, related to political unrest or having been hit hard by the global recession.

The concept of happiness is complex and likely impossible to quantify in any precise way; it's a largely subjective experience that differs widely across cultures. For example, countries like Japan which are modern and advanced show only mediocre happiness scores—but studies have suggested that Japanese people may deem it less appropriate than Canadians, for example, to express extreme joy, causing their scores to appear lower in comparison.

 

Overall, there appear to be at least two potential opportunities for countries that may be related to its people's happiness: improve access to technology and, once the technological infrastructure is in place, cultivate trust, transparency and freedom in how it's regulated and advanced.

It's also worth thinking about technology as something more involved than just hardware or software. A mobile phone in itself doesn't make someone happy; the way it enables communication, socialization, learning, productivity or some other extension of human capabilities does.

Categories: Technology

AT&T Takes On Google, Eyeing 21 Cities For Ultrafast Internet

Mon, 2014-04-21 22:29

AT&T plans to expand its high-speed fiber-optic Internet service to as many as 21 new US metro areas. It's claiming speeds of up to one gigabit per second with its U-Verse with GigaPower system, which is only available in Austin, Texas, today.

After years of slowing its rollout of faster Internet connections, what's the rush? Thank Google, whose first location for Google Fiber high-speed Internet was Kansas City, in the heart of AT&T's local-service area. Now Google is expanding to Provo, Utah, and Austin, and recently announced that it was exploring adding more cities like Atlanta, Georgia; San Jose, Calif.; and San Antonio, Texas.

All three of those cities are on the AT&T's list. Coincidence? Here's the full list of areas where AT&T is considering deploying U-verse with GigaPower, on top of Dallas, Texas, and the Raleigh-Durham and Winston-Salem regions in North Carolina:

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Augusta, Georgia
  • Charlotte
  • Chicago
  • Cleveland
  • Fort Lauderdale
  • Ft. Worth
  • Greensboro, North Carolina
  • Houston
  • Jacksonville
  • Kansas City
  • Los Angeles
  • Miami
  • Nashville
  • Oakland, Calif.
  • Orlando
  • San Antonio
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose
  • St. Louis

It's not just Google: AT&T also has an eye on its cable competitors in those markets. (While Verizon also has a high-speed fiber-optic Internet service, Fios, it doesn't serve the same areas as AT&T.)

How fast is a gigabit per second? AT&T says it's fast enough to download an HD film in just 36 seconds.

But before everyone races to their Netflix subscription, AT&T isn't exactly promising high-speed Internet. Instead, it seems to be negotiating in public.

AT&T says that "communities that have suitable network facilities, and show the strongest investment cases based on anticipated demand and the most receptive policies will influence these future selections and coverage maps within selected areas."

In other words, it's looking for areas with governments that will smooth the way for AT&T in terms of permits, approvals, and possibly economic incentives.

Demand for U-Verse with Gigapower in the Austin area, which began in 2013, has been higher than initially thought, AT&T said.  We can expect to hear more when AT&T announces its first-quarter earnings on Tuesday.

Update: A previous version of this post mistakenly referred to AT&T's gigabit service has having one gigabyte per second speed. The error is regretted.

Categories: Technology

What Tom Preston-Werner's Departure Means For GitHub

Mon, 2014-04-21 21:09

GitHub cofounder Tom Preston-Werner has resigned from the popular storehouse of open-source code after an internal investigation found he had made “errors of judgment” in an ongoing dispute that resulted in the departure of an influential woman developer.

The investigation, announced by GitHub cofounder and CEO Chris Wanstrath in a blog post, appeared to clear Preston-Werner and his wife, Theresa. It concluded that they and the company had not discriminated against Julie Ann Horvath, the influential developer who had previously spoken publicly about GitHub’s efforts to improve working conditions for women at the company, because she was a woman. 

See also: Influential Developer Julie Ann Horvath Quits GitHub, Charging 'Harassment'

After working at GitHub for two years, Horvath left the company in March, alleging that a cofounder and his wife—whom she did not name at the time—had harassed her. GitHub took Horvath’s concerns seriously, put Preston-Werner on leave, and launched a full investigation.

Wanstrath wrote that there was no evidence of “sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation” against Horvath. In her account of events, Horvath claimed that Preston-Werner told his wife to befriend Horvath as a fellow woman. GitHub did not dispute or confirm particulars of Horvath’s account.

“While there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment,” Wanstrath wrote. “In light of these findings, Tom has submitted his resignation, which the company has accepted.”

In a personal blog post, Preston-Werner said he will be moving on to found an immersive computing company.  

A Blow To GitHub

No matter the circumstances, Preston-Werner’s departure is a huge blow to GitHub as a company, and its users, who benefitted hugely from his technical contributions and evangelism for the notion of a community built around publicly sharing open-source code.

GitHub’s problems are far from over. Here are the next challenges the company ought to tackle:

Finding A New Public Face

Wanstrath took over as CEO from Preston-Werner in January 2014. At the time, Preston-Werner said he would focus on product development and public speaking. Wanstrath is less established as a face of GitHub, and it’s not clear he enjoys delivering speeches as much as his cofounder did. 

Ironically, Horvath was also a major public advocate of GitHub before she left. Passion Projects, the women in technology lecture series she started at GitHub, helped the company hire a lot of new women—some, according to Preston-Werner, directly because of the series. 

See also: How GitHub Hired More Women—In Part, By Encouraging Them To Talk

After this event, GitHub is now lacking two of its biggest public voices. It’s time for the company to find a replacement, and fast. 

Making Sure Jekyll Won’t Hide

Preston-Werner was a coding CEO. His technical contributions to GitHub were significant, including Jekyll, a website builder which powers GitHub Pages, a site-hosting feature used by many of the open-source projects which also store their code on GitHub. 

See also: How To Use GitHub Pages To Make Web Sites While Learning Code

Preston-Werner was by no means the only contributor to Jekyll, and it seems clear that GitHub will continue to support it. But the Heartbleed debacle has taught open-source advocates that it’s unwise to leave a project in the hands of the masses. If Preston-Werner is too busy with his new venture to continue contributing to GitHub-specific projects like Jekyll (and we suspect he will be), GitHub ought to find new project leads. 

Cleaning Up Its Reputation 

GitHub said that the company found “no evidence” of any “gender-based discrimination.” But that doesn’t give the company and Preston-Werner a total pass. Horvath suggests that the company may have engaged in other kinds of misconduct that don’t fit into the category about which GitHub cleared itself:

2. Asking an employee to relay private conversations between her and her partner: Illegal.

— Julie Ann Horvath (@nrrrdcore) April 21, 2014

It’s possible some will view the way GitHub resolved the matter as “sweeping it under the rug.” Those lingering doubts could hurt the company’s reputation with minorities and women. 

Wanstrath had the right idea when he stopped asserting the company operated as a “meritocracy” by ditching a culturally divisive rug in his first act as CEO. The company can continue to do the right thing through community outreach, notably through trainers like Matthew McCullough, who teach GitHub to diverse communities in countries all over the world. 

Through the nature of its platform—a coding tool that can be used by anyone, even people who don’t code—GitHub has already sparked a social movement. That’s why GitHub is in such a difficult position: While it may have protected the company through this investigation, it’s not clear it did the best thing for the community. For the good of both, GitHub will have to keep proving that it can spread access to the benefits of coding culture, and create a good workplace for the employees charged with its mission.

Photo by Flickr user jeffkward, CC 2.0

Categories: Technology

Microsoft Begins Life As A Smartphone Manufacturer As Nokia Deal Is Finalized

Mon, 2014-04-21 15:55

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop

Microsoft and Nokia will consummate their marriage by the end of this week. On Monday, Microsoft said its $7.2 billion acquisition of Nokia's devices and services division, which was announced in September, will be finalized by Friday.

In the deal, Microsoft will subsume nearly 32,000 Nokia employees including CEO Stephen Elop, who will become the head of devices at Microsoft reporting to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. 

Reports surfaced over the weekend that Microsoft would rename Nokia as "Microsoft Mobile." Microsoft has not confirmed the name change at this time. Under the original agreement of the acquisition, Microsoft is allowed to use the "Nokia" and "Lumia" smartphone brand names for several years after the acquisition is finalized.

Microsoft announced a couple of tweaks to the original agreement on Monday, noting that it will bring on a 21-person team in China in addition to working on new mobile devices; part of the original agreement said Microsoft would take control of a manufacturing facility in Korea, but that is no longer the case. Microsoft will, however, take control of the Nokia.com domain and its social media sites for up to one year.

See also: With Nokia, Microsoft Has No More Excuses

Nokia will continue to exist as a company outside of Microsoft. Nokia retains its patents portfolio, brand name and the Nokia HERE maps team that employs about 6,000 people globally. 

Microsoft, on the other hand, will now embark into previously uncharted territory as an original device manufacturer that designs and builds its own hardware. With Nokia in tow, the pressure is on Microsoft to grow its own market share and the general viability of its mobile platform, Windows Phone. Earlier this month, Microsoft released the developer preview of the latest version of Windows Phone, Windows Phone 8.1, which introduces a new voice-activated personal assistant called Cortana plus a handful of other new features and improvements.

Lead image (Stephen Elop at Mobile World Congress 2014) by Dan Rowinski for ReadWrite

Categories: Technology

How Smartphones Are Increasingly Driving Our Cars

Mon, 2014-04-21 15:43

Suddenly it's not so important to own a car that's "the ultimate driving machine," as opposed to "the ultimate app machine." I drive my Honda Pilot instead of my Volvo XC90 whenever I can because the Honda can connect to my smartphone over Bluetooth, plus it has a great navigation system. My Volvo has neither—all it does is drive.

Car manufacturers have picked up on this trend, recognizing that our apps are increasingly important in our car purchasing decisions:

Developers want to get in on the action, too, but there is a big problem. In the car app market, "Developers are faced by enormous fragmentation, small addressable markets and high friction in the distribution and monetization of their software," as a new VisionMobile report highlights.

In other words, the car app market is a nightmare. And yet, there's still hope.

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

The best approach to incorporate apps these days is through in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems. Within the IVI market, mobile laggards Blackberry (QNX Car) and Microsoft (Windows Embedded Automotive) are the leaders. But not for long.

Given how important in-car technology has become—and the sluggish pace at which it updates—more automobile manufacturers are turning to smartphones to drive innovation. While people swap out their cars infrequently, we change our smartphones every two years or so, making the smartphone ideal as a target for car app innovation. John Ellis, head of Ford's developer program, explains:

The only one that puts software on the head unit is Ford Motor Company. We don't allow you access to the head unit but through a dedicated set of APIs. In our philosophy, the phone drives the head unit, the head unit is a display. Innovation is much faster on the phone than it could be on the head unit. Certainly for us, we're very bullish on this model. People are starting to see that it just works.

As VisionMobile's report indicates, there are three different ways automakers integrate cars and smartphones:

  1. The steering wheel controls and built-in voice recognition can be used to control smartphone apps. 
  2. Reversely, smartphone voice recognition (e.g. Apple’s Siri or Google Now) can be used to control IVI apps. 
  3. The built-in infotainment system becomes a second display for smartphone apps, using APIs, or in its most extreme case, by mirroring the smartphone app on the in-car display. 
Standardizing The Link Between Car And Smartphone

Of course, this assumes there are standards for seamlessly connecting our cars to our smartphones. There are several competing standards, with Ford, who recently open-sourced its AppLink system as SmartDeviceLink, leading the pack. Others include the Car Connectivity Consortium's (CCC) Mirrorlink, an alliance of consumer electronics companies (Mirrorlink has roots in Nokia) and car makers.

As important as these car manufacturer-driven initiatives are, there's a fair amount of enthusiasm for two new platforms from Apple (CarPlay) and Google (Open Automotive Alliance, modeled after the Open Handset Alliance). Such efforts, however, may be artificially limited: Any household that mixes iOS and Android devices is going to want a car app platform that isn't fixated on a particular smartphone OS. For those households, an open platform like SmartDeviceLink, which can integrate with different smartphone OSes, may be the better choice.

The Distant Future Of App-Enabled Cars

For developers pining after the biggest addressable market, smartphones are the biggest and best target, by far. But it's not a target to salivate over today: While there were 84 million new vehicles manufactured in 2012, a small minority of these are “app-enabled” models. According to ABI Research, there were fewer than 8 million OEM-installed connected car telematics systems in 2012. 

Pushing new technologies and applications through through automakers is always going to be slow. It's far more likely that Apple and Google will find ways to go "over-the-top" and connect apps directly with cars, perhaps by connecting directly to the car through its On-Board Diagnostics (OBD-II) port. The OBD-II port has been mandatory in cars for over 10 years, which leaves the door open for app developers to connect directly with cars without awaiting formal approval from Ford, Fiat or others. At the moment, there are almost 200 apps in the Google Play store that use OBD-II. 

While OBD-II connections don't allow apps to actually control the car, it may give developers just enough access and a lot more development freedom, which are the key ingredients for fostering innovation.

Categories: Technology

Easy Arduino: Two Projects To Help You Get Started

Mon, 2014-04-21 14:38

Meet Arduino, the tiny microcontroller that’s good at doing what your computer can’t.

The computers we use every day are powerful, but they’re terrible at knowing what’s going on around them. Your laptop isn’t exactly equipped to sense light or moisture, for example. Arduino, on the other hand, is specifically designed to stay keyed in to the outside world. It’s equipped with a board full of inputs and outputs for sensors to simplify communication.  

The Arduino was developed by Massimo Banzi and his cofounders out of Ivrea, Italy, who named the device after his favorite bar. Banzi wanted his design students to have a cheap, easy solution for prototyping hardware solutions. Since Arduino's release in 2005, it has gone from a teaching tool to a DIY project for makers all over the world. Multiple models exist now—the more advanced Arduino Due, the souped-up Mega and the tinier Nano. 

Regardless of which Arduino model you buy, the utility of the microcontroller comes out when you use it for "Internet Of Things" projects—whether you want to connect to the real world, the cloud, or both, Arduino makes it easy. In this primer, we’re going to highlight two ultra-basic projects in order to show just how simple Arduino can be. 

Getting Started With Arduino

Before we can fully understand what Arduino is, it’s important to realize what it isn’t. An Arduino is not a computer (the way Raspberry Pi is). It can’t be programmed independently; it needs to be plugged into a computer. It is not especially powerful either—the Arduino Uno has 32 KG of memory, while the average Macbook has about 8 gigs. 

So in order to work with Arduino, you can’t just buy the microcontroller and be done with it. For the following projects, here’s what you’ll need: 

Hardware

  • Arduino Uno. “Uno” means one in Italian, but this isn’t the first Arduino ever built, just the most recent iteration of the most basic Arduino microcontroller. These projects will work with almost any model, but this is the one I used.
  • Type B USB cable. I haven’t seen one of these old-style USB ports in years, but you might remember them from older electronic devices. They cost about $5-10.
  • LED light. A tiny light-emitting pin we can stick directly on the Arduino; these also tend to be pretty cheap.

Software

  • Arduino IDE, which stands for “integrated development environment,” is free open-source software for writing “sketches,” which is what Arduino users call programs. 

When you open Arduino IDE for the first time, you need to establish the port where the software ought to expect the Arduino to show up. Go to “Tools,” then “Serial Port.”  

  • On OS X, the serial port should be something like “/dev/tty.usbmodem” for the Uno, though it may be different for other types of Arduino boards. Mine is “/dev/tty.usbmodem1421.”
  • On Windows, the serial port should be COM3 or higher, as COM1 and COM2 are usually reserved for other hardware. In order to know for sure, you can unplug the Arduino and reopen the IDE menu. The entry that no longer appears is what your Arduino was. 

In general, you shouldn't ever worry about unplugging your Arduino board. We know better than to do that with fully-functional computers, including Raspberry Pi, because they could be running an important OS task in the background. But Arduino is just a microcontroller; it’s definitely not writing anything to memory unless you’re actively telling it to do so. 

Arduino Hardware Sketch: Blink An LED 

In this first project, we’ll overview the most basic way for Arduino to produce physical output, in this case, a blinking LED light. 

We’re going to write a very simple sketch to get an LED to strobe—or as my friend cleverly told me when I proudly showed him my iteration, “a very tiny rave.” This program is based on the open-source Blink sketch, which can be found on Arduino's official site. 

First, set up the hardware by sticking the LED’s two prongs into GND and pin 13 on the Arduino.

 

One of the prongs is slightly shorter than the other—that shorter prong is the negative lead, and therefore the one that goes in the “ground,” or GND input/output. 

Notice the shorter lead goes in GND.

Now let’s move onto writing the program. First, let’s name it. Arduino will ignore anything on a line following two forward slashes, so this is a great way to leave notes for yourself: 

// Program 1: Making an LED blink on and off

When hardware’s involved, we need to tell the Arduino where it should expect a signal among its 14 different input/output pins. In this case, we stuck the LED in pin 13. This is how we name the LED stuck in pin 13, where “LED” is just the name I gave the variable:

int LED = 13;

Every Arduino sketch contains two components: void setup() and void loop(). These are the bare minimum for any Arduino program, without which it won’t function. 

In void setup(), we tell Arduino to initialize the pin as an output: 

void setup() {  pinMode(LED, OUTPUT); } 

In void loop(), we tell Arduino to “write” a value to pin 13. Since we want it to blink, we’re going to ask it to write a sequence of four different commands in a row. As you can guess by the word “loop,” we expect this to continue until we turn the Arduino off.

In the following code, LED stands for the same variable we assigned before. "HIGH" tells the Arduino to deliver five volts of power to the LED, while "LOW" delivers zero volts. Telling it to delay for “1000” pauses the program between blinks for a full second. 

void loop() {   digitalWrite(LED, HIGH);     delay(1000);                 digitalWrite(LED, LOW);       delay(1000);   } 

When you put it all together, here’s what the entire sketch should look like (again, Arduino ignores anything after two forward slashes, so those are just notes for yourself):

// Program 1: Making an LED blink on and off int led = 13; // name the LED in pin 13 void setup() { pinMode(LED, OUTPUT); // tell Arduino the pin in question is an output } void loop() {   digitalWrite(LED, HIGH);   // deliver 5V to LED   delay(1000);                     // wait a second   digitalWrite(LED, LOW);    // deliver 0V to LED    delay(1000);                     // wait a second }

Press the checkmark to verify that your code is bug-free, and then press the play button. If your Arduino is plugged in, it should begin running your blinking light sketch. 

Arduino Software Sketch: Print To Computer

Let’s now switch gears and try out the most basic project for demonstrating how Arduino produces a digital output.  

We’re going to set up the Arduino to “print,” or display information on your computer screen. This sketch is based on Paul Bianchi’s Arduino printing tutorial

There’s no hardware in this case, so we can just jump right into the program. Once again, it’s going to take place in two parts: void setup() and void loop().  

In void setup(), we’re going to open up a line of communication between Arduino and your computer, specifically at 9600 bits per second. If you use another number, you may end up getting gibberish printed to your computer instead of words.

void setup() {  Serial.begin(9600);  }

The void loop() section is going to look a lot like the one in our LED sketch. We’re going to give it two separate commands, telling it to pause for a full second in between them. Println is the Arduino language command to get something to display on your computer. Note the name "Println" uses a lowercase "L," not an uppercase "i"!

void loop() {  Serial.println(“hello”); delay(1000); Serial.println(“world.”); delay(1000); }

Put it all together with a title and some comments, and it should look like this: 

// Program 2: Make Arduino Print “Hello World” to Computer void setup() { Serial.begin(9600); // open a 9600 baud communication line to computer } void loop() { Serial.println(“Hello”);       // write the word “Hello” delay(1000);                    // wait a second Serial.println(“World”);     // write the word “World” delay(1000);                   // wait a second }

Verify your code and run it. Nothing will appear until you click on “Serial Monitor” at the upper righthand corner of the Arduino IDE window. You should see a steady stream of “Hello world,” over and over again until you unplug Arduino. You'll see it's not perfect: mine always starts with a bit of gibberish but soon rights itself. 

 

These two Arduino projects are both extremely basic, but by executing them you can already begin to see the potential Arduino has to offer as a device that can communicate with sensors and write results to your computer. And if you combine these two projects—for example, you could connect a thermometer to your Arduino and tell it to write the temperature to your laptop—you'll soon realize the possibilities for Arduino are virtually endless.

Categories: Technology

Yahoo's Design Director: A Day In The Life

Mon, 2014-04-21 14:07

Editor's note: This post was originally published by our partners at PopSugar Tech.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2013, Fry's Electronics was mostly empty, except for one very determined designer. Jackie Goldberg was a woman on a mission — bouncing from laptop to laptop to triple check that the "Yahoo purple" was a fresh, modern hue that rendered correctly on every device. Picking the perfect purple is just one of the many things Jackie is charged with as the company's senior design director.

When she's not geeking out to color science (her dad was a color scientist for Technicolor), Jackie is overseeing some of Yahoo's most notable recent redesigns, including the homepage, My Yahoo, sports, finance, Shine, and many other verticals. How does she keep it all together? We sat down with the designer to find out more about what's going on at Yahoo, her unique fine arts background, and how she keeps her work and home space creative.

A subtle makeunder is taking over the Internet giant, now spearheaded by one of tech's few C-level females, chief executive officer Marissa Mayer. Jackie's team of 50 designers worldwide doubled in size within the past year. A new logo was just the beginning of many design overhauls for Yahoo.

But modernizing a page visited by hundreds of millions of users each day is tricky: "There are so many devoted users ... this is where they get their daily news. You have to know when to respect the thing they use the most and when to introduce innovation," said Jackie of taking on the homepage. As many Facebook users know, one small tweak can cause an uproar from dedicated consumers overnight.

Our Q&A With Jackie Goldberg

POPSUGAR:What were some of the considerations of redesigning the homepage?

Jackie Goldberg: I'm always very interested in the tension between the classic and the new. What's the right intersection between what's been time-tested and what's been invented?

PS: How was Yahoo's iconic purple a part of that?

JG: From the get-go, there was never a question that Yahoo is purple. This is a color that our audience relates to us. Making it more modern, more fresh, making it work for users across all display environments ... that was our focus in our latest round of color refinement.

We wanted something that's not ho hum but has a little bit of bite, something with a little bit of edge. It's fun to explore color for me, it's something you can be really precise about and be really scientific about it. But the end result is an emotional one.

We really explored a full range between what our previous brand hue was, which was quite red-based, to something more blue and more desaturated.

PS: You studied painting in college—arguably one of the most traditional, oldest art mediums. How does that inform your graphic design?

JG: I had the great fortune to study at Yale, which has a great art school, and I had the opportunity to work with amazing painters there ... but I also took a lot of design. For me, there was a seamless blend between the visual arts.

So much about painting is about composition, balance, and color harmony, and these are the same formal elements in graphic design.

PS: Of all the routes you could have taken as a graphic designer, why did you go the web/tech route?

JG: When I left school, the web was emerging exactly that moment. Sites were becoming apps, they became tools. Users were putting in input like never before. Graphic design turned into things that people use.

Traditional graphic design is about communication. With the evolution of user interface on the web, it's now about users communicating back to the designer and with each other.

In terms of moving to a digital environment, it was really the collaboration with engineers that whet my appetite. Where an engineer's skills begin and mine begin was immaterial, it was that collaborating to create things that could be put in the hands of users.

It reminded me of my dad who was a scientist and an engineer in a creative industry who created beautiful experiences. He knew that it was great chemistry that made that color and contrast and tonal range possible.

The Time, No Contacts Necessary

"I appreciate the analog a lot, which is why I have this clock my dad gave me. I can see it without my contacts." This is Jackie's bedside table, which features a painting of violets with a familiar purple. "I call our brand color 'burple,' which is a purple with a lot of blue in it. This painting has a lot of burple."

Morning Cup O' Joe

"Saint Frank is a beautifully designed coffee shop in my neighborhood. It's a pleasure to go into spaces where everything is considered, where everything is beautifully designed. I like to think that we're delivering the same kinds of experiences for our users."

Home Screen Run-Through

"I love the News Digest app, which has a really smart UI. It gives you a brief summary of the subject matter and every avenue to explore the subject more deeply. That's really intelligent design."

A Colored Pencil Collection To Envy

"My dad gave me my first Prismacolor set. I draw on paper daily, but I also use the whiteboard a lot. The one challenge with paper is now I need to share the ideas out with many other people."

Essential Design Reading

"We sit in an open plan and everyone can see my monitor, so it's pretty transparent here. I have my favorite design books. Have a color bridge to bridge from Pantone into web color. There's a newspaper from the day we acquired Tumblr. That baseball is a momento from our redesign."

Rethinking Features And Flows

"I'm favoring the whiteboard these days, because it's better about communication or a quick collaborative session."

City Lights

This is the view Jackie sees on her walk to her Russian Hill home.

Her Home Desk

To stay productive in her living room, she also keeps an entire set of pencils close by — just in case inspiration strikes.

A Mini Painting Studio

Jackie's painting roots are still very much a part of her daily life. This narrow room is a dedicated ministudio, complete with canvas and inspiration board.

Image courtesy of Jonny Mack 

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Unlock the Fitness Tracker Already in Your iPhone 5S
Not a Dream: This Vintage Camera Cafe Is 100% Real
How Captain America 2's Explosive Visual Effects Were Made
It's OK to Cry When You See These Kids Reacting to Walkmans
This App Turns Android Phones Into SLR Cameras

Categories: Technology

Heartbleed Defense: The 3-Step Password Strategy Everyone Should Use

Sun, 2014-04-20 14:11

It’s a dangerous world out there, now made a little scarier thanks to Heartbleed.

A small coding error in OpenSSL, a massively adopted open-source protocol, the Heartbleed flaw managed to go undetected for two years as it tore security holes across huge swathes of the Internet. 

That’s enough to strike fear into the heart of any modern Web-using person—which is practically everyone in the developed world. And yet, most people I’ve spoken to still haven’t changed their passwords or taken other steps to make hackers’ jobs more difficult. 

If you’ve also been putting this off, or simply don't know where to start, dedicate a little time this weekend to this checklist of tasks that can help protect you against Heartbleed. 

Stopping The Bleed

Anxiety has been running high ever since the security flaw was made public on April 7. In less than two weeks since then, legions of Website administrators, app developers, security pros and others have been scrambling to address this mess. Although some companies say they’ve now patched it, plenty still haven’t. It will likely take years before the Heartbleed threat can be considered largely neutralized. 

Until then, users find themselves in a weird place. Since the onus is on tech purveyors to lock things down, there’s not much individuals can do—except make it harder for hackers to target them and actually use that data. That’s why experts urge people not to frequent Heartbleed-vulnerable sites, and change their passwords across their various accounts. 

This suggestion sounds reasonable; unfortunately, trying to remember every site, service and app you use and manually checking them, one by one, before changing logins is a tedious process. And, in itself, it's prone to human error. After all, there’s bound to be some site or service you forget about. 

Sure, you can go to extremes by locking everything down—you can even take yourself totally offline—but realistically, that’s not going to work for most of us. So let’s focus on the simpler things you can do with the biggest security payoff. 

Step 1: Make A List Of Important Sites And Accounts

Start by corralling your top-priority accounts—anything that touches your financial or medical data, email and messaging accounts, online identities (including social media), or anything else you wouldn’t want strangers to access. 

  • The sites that come to mind first will likely be your most frequently used applications, which means they're probably important to you in some way, so jot those down. 
  • Browse through your desktop and phone applications, and call out any apps or accounts that sync your data to the Internet. (Note: Intranets, VPNs and other proprietary cloud services may also be vulnerable, but you’ll want to follow administrators’ guidelines for that. Don’t include those in this list.)
  • If you’re an Apple OS X user, look at the apps and sites listed in Keychain, which holds usernames and passwords. The Keychain is located in the Utilities folder within your Applications folder.
  • If you use a password manager, take note of those accounts as well. (If you don’t use one, see below.) 
  • Parse your browser bookmarks, for Web accounts you access directly. 

Basically you want to consider any app, Website or service that requires login credentials and goes to, or through, the Internet. Keep in mind that some store passwords and log you in automatically. 

Step 2: Check Which Apps or Sites Are Vulnerable To Heartbleed See also: 7 Heartbleed Myths Debunked

Now that you've compiled your list of sites and services, you'll need to check which accounts are actually vulnerable to this bug. Then you'll go through and change passwords. It sounds straightforward, but it's not, partially because there’s disagreement about how to actually do this. 

Some experts say you should change all your passwords immediately. Emmanuel Schalit, chief executive of password management service Dashland, urged users to quickly change their passwords for all critical accounts—like banks, PayPal and email—and then change them again once those sites actually plugged the holes. 

Others—like Rik Ferguson, vice president of security research at Trend Micro—advise holding off on changing passwords for affected sites until they’ve implemented the fix.

Ferguson tweeted that changing one's password “while the vuln[erability] is probably under widespread exploitation isn’t a good suggestion,” adding, "Changing now increases your risk of exposure in the short term as the vuln[erability] is now public." 

The latter suggestion appears to be the predominant wisdom, but either way, it's necessary to check each one of your important sites and note which are vulnerable to this bug. CNET offers an ongoing Heartbleed status list for popular sites, but there are other tools that can help: 

  • Browser users can install extensions like Chromebleed (Chrome) or Heartbleed-Ext (Firefox) or Netcraft (Chrome, Firefox, Opera), to see if sites they’re visiting are affected and get browser notifications. 
  • Android users can check on their device’s Heartbleed risk using Lookout’s Heartbleed Detector app, or use Bluebox Heartbleed Scanner to evaluate both the operating system and installed applications. There’s also a Heartbleed app for Windows Phone, though it’s simply a URL checker. Apple says iOS is not vulnerable to Heartbleed. 
  • Check URLs directly with an online Heartbleed checker, like the ones by Filippo Valsorda or LastPass

For Android users, we may just be scratching the surface. According to Google, most gadgets that run its mobile operating system are safe from Heartbleed exploitation, except those that run Android 4.1.1. But Lookout claims that a few Android 4.2.2 devices could be affected

A representative from the company, which compiled data from 100,000 of its app users, told me that 5.4% of users running 4.2.2 had the affected version of OpenSSL with Heartbeat—the specific extension that carries the Heartbleed flaw—enabled. These mobile devices could be running custom versions of the Android software, but for peace of mind, you can use Lookout or Bluebox’s mobile apps to check your handset. 

Step 3: Change Your Passwords

The final step is changing your passwords for every site that’s no longer vulnerable to Heartbleed, especially those were initially at risk but have now patched the hole. 

There are three common ways to deal with passwords, but the first two of these are incredibly insecure: Many create the same easy-to-memorize login for every site, or set different passwords and store them in a text file for easy access. But we recommend you keep your passwords diverse and store them all in a password manager. 

Here's what you need to bear in mind when changing passwords: 

  • For optimal security, you want long passwords with random numbers and punctuation.
  • Passwords are more secure if there are no actual words in them.
  • Vary your passwords for each account. Every single one of them. 
  • Can't remember them all? Few could. So rely on password managers instead—that's what they're there for. In fact, not only can they store your logins, but they can suggest new ones, too, which would take care of all of the above.

There are plenty of password management apps and services—like LastPass, Dashlane, 1Password, Keeper, Roboform, Lookout and PasswordBox. They're basically highly encrypted password vaults that work across different devices—whether iOS or Android, Windows or Mac. And most of these services feature password generators that can toss out different, hard-to-guess logins for every account. LastPass even has a Heartbleed checker built-in. 

Note: If you're a small business owner or running a team, you may need a more robust, collaborative password manager with administrative functions instead. In that case, something like Meldium or OneLogin may be up your alley. 

Other Considerations

You can change all of your passwords now, or only some, subtracting those services that are still vulnerable. Either way, you’ll still need to stay on top of the Heartbleed status for affected sites, so keep one or more of the tools listed above on hand. You'll also want to keep your desktop and mobile apps updated so you always have the latest security updates. 

Finally, if you haven’t done so before, activate multi-factor authentication wherever you can. It’s a secondary security protocol that usually involves sending a code or password to another device, like your smartphone, before allowing account access. On sites that offer it—including many online banking services, and email and social networks like Gmail, Twitter and Facebook—you can typically enable the feature from the settings page after you log in. 

Unfortunately, even this extra layer of security isn’t foolproof. Nothing really is, though, short of shutting down our accounts and going totally offline. But even then, our information is often saved online in some way.

Although end users can't fix this hole—it's up to the Web's architects to shore up the leaks in the Internet's foundation—we can do more than just sit idly by. We can and should create more obstacles for the intruders who would exploit it. 

 

Images courtesy of Flickr users Rachel Hofton (feature image), Horia Varlan (puzzle), cali4beach (image cropped) and Alonis (heart lock).

Categories: Technology