Amazon Pilots Visual, Mobile-Only Affiliate Product To Rival Skimlinks and VigLink


Amazon is testing a new service that could help it and its publishing partners drive more traffic (and, importantly, purchases) from customers on mobile devices. The pilot software is called ‘Mobile Popover’, and it is a mobile-only rival to top affiliate services Skimlinks and VigLink.

The service detects text links on a webpage to automatically surface an image-centric link — which includes details of price, description, ratings and shipping information — and tempt readers into purchasing the item. Clicking the banner takes a user to the mobile web version of Amazon’s store, from there they can open the page in the Amazon app if they have it installed on their device.


In the event that an item is purchased, the publisher is rewarded with a cut of the purchase. We don’t yet have details of the commission percentage for Mobile Popover, although it is likely to be in line with Amazon’s existing affiliate program, which pays out between one and 10 percent of each purchase depending on the type of item bought.

The integration itself is a simple Javascript additional that works for all pages. Amazon is trialling Mobile Popover with a limited group of initial partners at this point, but it looks like other partners can get involved via this link.

Mobile is a huge opportunity for online retailers, particularly when you look at Alibaba and businesses in China which did over 60 percent of their business from mobile devices on China’s largest e-commerce day.

For its part, Amazon recently revealed that “approaching” 60 percent of its Christmas 2014 holiday transactions came from mobile, but it is yet to fully transition its hugely successful business to small screens.

Indeed, last week it pulled its consumer-facing wallet app after less than a year in the market. A spokesperson told us that Amazon had “learned a great deal” from the project, but it’s fair to say it hadn’t gone as well as the company will have hoped.

Skimlinks and Viglink had a run-in with Amazon in Europe last August, when the U.S. giant stopped paying out affiliate money made from auto-tagging from webpages. Amazon’s own affiliate program includes text links, mobile banners, responsive banners and widgets — there’s also an option to integrate with third-party blogging platforms.

London-based Skimlinks was founded in 2006 and has raised over $9 million in funding to date. A newer entry to the market, four-year-old VigLink is based in San Francesco. It has raised over $27 million, including an $18 million Series C led by RRE Ventures that closed last summer.

Scholarships For Code Schools By Galvanize’s New Nonprofit Foundation


Tech education startup Galvanize is bolstering its efforts to get people into tech with the launch of the Galvanize Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that will fund scholarships to code schools and other programs that promote diversity in the tech industry.

While Galvanize proper offers boot camps and a Master’s program in San Francisco and locations in Colorado, Galvanize co-founder Lawrence Mandes says the new nonprofit arm will not just be about getting more people into its for-profit classes.

“This is about funding the pipelines that can get people into tech after or instead of traditional education programs,” Mandes told me on the phone today. He sees the foundation and the things that it plans to support as near-term compliments to programs that get computer science education into K-12 schools. “We’ll see the effects of those efforts in seven to eight years, but you can measure our effectiveness in months.”

That’s because it’ll be funding months-long programs that claim to have job-placement rates above 95 percent, as well as programs from organizations like Girls Who Code, which bring women and other under-represented minorities to coding events in order to bring some much-needed diversity to the field.

In the past, Galvanize has offered scholarships in the range of $5,000 to those interested in going through its programs, with a few rare cases where amounts went as high as $25,000 thanks to support from other organizations. With the Galvanize Foundation, Mandes says that early commitments from companies and startup founders in the tech community in the six-figure range should allow more scholarships in the $20,000 to 25,000 range.

At that amount, the foundation can start looking beyond covering (or partially covering) tuition and start addressing the cost of living for those who would like to participate in code schools. That’s key to opening up such programs to those with lower incomes: their current addressable market only allows for people who can not only afford the classes, but also take several months off from work. Helping to cover things like food and rent with scholarships opens the door for thousands of more people to be able to even consider picking up coding via one of the many code boot camps now available.

Microsoft Faces Stiff Mobile Challenge


Microsoft had a heck of week last week, didn’t it? It actually felt like it got its groove back with HoloLens, its holographic virtual reality glasses, which I have to say looked way cool. It also got our attention with the Windows 10 mobile strategy, and it showed off the desktop version of Cortana, something Siri can’t do.

In spite of its good, dare I say, great week, I have to wonder if Microsoft can make any headway in mobile. As of now, its tablet and phone marketshare numbers are simply abysmal. Microsoft is so far back in the marketshare pack, it’s going to take a huge leap to move the needle enough to matter.

That’s not to say that the company doesn’t have a mobile strategy. Satya Nadella has gotten well-deserved credit for refocusing the company, and creating a much more positive image. A united screen across mobile and desktop with Windows 10 could be attractive to consumers and developers alike, both of which have yet to warm to Windows mobile. But will it be enough to lift Microsoft from its current marketshare doldrums?

Microsoft bought Nokia last year in an effort to take control of the Windows mobile platform, and is finally creating a single-platform view across mobile and desktop. That’s great, as far as it goes, but people still aren’t buying Windows phones or even enough Surface tablets –and unless that turns around, it is going to have a very difficult go of it.

Let’s Look At The Mobile Phone Numbers

The company is betting that Windows 10 is going to be its mobile salvation and finally drive people to buy these devices, but we’ve heard that before and it hasn’t happened.

In fact, the company’s global marketshare for mobile devices is falling.

Consider looking at Kantar WordPanel mobile marketshare statistics. It’s a great resource, but it won’t make Microsoft or Windows fans happy. As of November, Windows’ phone marketshare in the US was sitting at a measly 3 percent. That’s after years of pushing the platform, and getting great product placement in movies movies and TV shows. What’s more, the number is actually down from 5 percent at the beginning of 2014.

I can hear fans of the platform sputtering: “But what about Europe?” What about it? Consider these November Kantar numbers:

  • England was sitting at just 7 percent, down from a high of 12 percent in August, 2013.
  • France? It had 9.8 percent, down from a high of 12.5 percent in October, 2013.
  • Even Italy, a Microsoft stronghold, was 12.7 percent, down from a high of 17.1 percent in December, 2013.

The trend is down all around and it doesn’t bode well for the company’s mobile initiatives. I know Microsoft will argue that once Windows 10 hits the streets and people see how well it integrates across mobile and desktop, this is all going to change, but it’s hard to see these numbers turning around enough to make a significant difference. You could in fact, argue that at this point, the market has hardened and Microsoft is going to have a tough time pushing through iOS/Android supremacy.

In case you’re wondering in today’s quarterly earnings report, Microsoft reported selling 10.5M Lumias. That’s up from 9.3M last quarter, and while up is better than down, it’s an incremental increase at best.

Surface Pro 3 To The Rescue?


Surface Pro 3 with blue keyboardPutting Windows Phone aside, we’re left with the Surface Pro 3, a tablet-laptop hybrid that Microsoft loves to point to as a big win, and it’s done well, no doubt. By most reports, it can and should feel good about it. Yet in spite of impressive 67 percent growth in 2014, the company marketshare remains miniscule.

The Surface generated a healthy $1.1B in revenue in today’s report, up from $908M the previous quarter, but it still has miles to go before it catches iPad in second place, never mind Android in first.

That’s why Microsoft’s Windows 10 show was so important to the company. It gave them another opportunity to get sustained attention and it didn’t waste it. In fact, Microsoft actually wowed us a little bit, but don’t be fooled by a few minutes of HoloLens. As cool as it was, it’s never going to generate the kind of lift iPhone gives Apple or Android has given Google and by extension Samsung.

Don’t get me wrong, I was dazzled by HoloLens too. I get it, but I also understand that to truly compete in the next decade it’s going to take more than a holographic face computer.

The Harsh Mobile Reality

Microsoft HoloLens user interacting with a holographic globe.Microsoft appears to have done what it needed to do, perhaps something it should have done long ago. It created a single view from phone to tablet to desktop. Unifying the operating system was an important step, but it’s going to take some monstrous gains in mobile marketshare, especially for phones, for it to matter.

The reality is if it can’t attain significant marketshare, it can’t attract developers. It’s really not going to matter how easy it is to develop across desktop and mobile if the developer class isn’t paying attention. It’s also important to remember that the Windows 10 story is going to appeal to companies more than consumers, and the phone choice today for the most part is in the hands of consumers. Most companies aren’t buying employees phones anymore, and most consumers aren’t paying attention to Windows phones.

That means it would take a consumer sea change to make significant gains, and that doesn’t seem likely in its current market state, no matter how well integrated Windows 10 is across devices.

Apple to allow Chinese security inspections of iPhones


Apple will allow the Chinese government to perform security inspections on its products to quell concerns that they are used for surveillance of Chinese citizens, according to reports.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has allegedly conceded to requests from China's State Internet Information Office to perform tests on iPhones, iPads and Mac computers so that they can continue being sold in the country, The Telegraph reported.

Cook reportedly had a meeting with Lu Wei, the department's director, according to the Beijing News. Roughly translated, Cook is said to have told Wei that, although there were rumors to the contrary, Apple has never had any security backdoors or provided customer data to third parties.

Wei reportedly responded that Apple's products would have to pass security audits performed by Chinese officers in order to ensure they were OK for customer use.

China is one of the biggest markets for Apple products, but its government has a history of distrust for the Cupertino-based company. In fact, China has thrown out allegations at more than just Apple, such as IBM and Cisco.

In September of last year, shortly after the new iPhones were announced, Apple reassured the Chinese government that the devices do not have security backdoors that could be used by U.S. organizations to collect Chinese data.

A state-run television program in China accused Apple last summer of tracking people's locations in China through the "frequent locations" feature on the phone. The report said that "those with access to that data could gain knowledge of China's economic situation or 'even state secrets.'"

Apple, of course, quickly rebuffed the allegations, saying that Frequent Locations are encrypted and not backed up on any sort of virtual cloud. Plus, the feature can be turned off.

"Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services," reads a July statement. "We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will. It’s something we feel very strongly about."

China has had its share of finger-pointing, too. In May of last year, the U.S. Justice Department indicted five members of the Chinese military for allegedly hacking American businesses. It was the first time that the department had charged a foreign government for cybercrimes.

The new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus went on sale in China in mid-October. Apple did not reply to Mashable's request for comment.

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The Surface RT And Surface 2 Will Not Be Getting Windows 10


Microsoft has confirmed that both tablets running Windows RT (the long-failing Windows version specifically designed for tablets) will not be getting a full Windows 10 update.

Surface RT and Surface 2 users won't be able to upgrade the devices to the latest version of Microsoft's software, a company spokesperson told Mashable.

In addition to software woes, Windows RT tablets have suffered from poor branding and a shortage of apps. Plus, there are obvious alternatives for people looking for a Microsoft tablet that doesn't run RT.

But Windows RT will live on in the Surface RT — which lost Microsoft at least $900 million — and Surface 2 tablets, with only some of Windows 10's features, a spokesperson said.

"Surface Pro 3 (and the entire Surface Pro lineup) will update to Windows 10. We are working on an update for Surface [Windows RT], which will have some of the functionality of Windows 10. More information to come."

That's a maddeningly vague description, but it does confirm that people with the RT tablets are being left out of Windows 10. Much of Microsoft's event on Wednesday highlighted the cross-platform functionality of Windows 10, which is supposed to have a unity between desktop and mobile.

There's a precedent for this sort of move: Back in 2012, when Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 8, it revealed that Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 devices would not get to upgrade. Instead, they would get a different, Windows 7-specific update.

This is probably a sign that Microsoft wants people to move away from Windows RT and fully embrace the arrival of Windows 10. It's becoming increasingly clear that there may be no future for Windows RT beyond the Surface 2. The Surface 2 tablet, for example, is out of stock on Microsoft's online store.

Microsoft declined to comment about the out-of-stock Surface 2 tables and the future of Windows RT.

BONUS: Hands on with the Windows 10 consumer preview




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WhatsApp Is Taking 'Aggressive Action' Against Third-Party Apps


WhatsApp is going after unauthorized third-party apps that are designed to work with the popular messaging system.

Users sometimes access third-party clients that offer add-ons for more customization inside of WhatsApp. Now the Facebook-owned service has issued at least one cease-and-desist order to an Android app called WhatsApp+.

On Google+, a WhatsApp+ spokesman announced that the third-party app was shutting down after warnings from WhatsApp.

"Due to the circumstances that arose, and the fact that WhatsApp Inc issued a cease and desist letter to WhatsApp+, the official WhatsApp+ community is shutting down for good and will be removed by the end of the day," reads the statement, which was posted on Wednesday.

So why is WhatsApp so miffed by this service? Well, for one, it claims that these third-party services can't be trusted with user information.

"WhatsApp Plus is an application that was not developed by WhatsApp, nor is it authorized by WhatsApp," reads a FAQ section on WhatsApp. "The developers of WhatsApp Plus have no relationship to WhatsApp, and we do not support WhatsApp Plus. Please be aware that WhatsApp Plus contains source code which WhatsApp cannot guarantee as safe and that your private information is potentially being passed to third parties without your knowledge or authorization."

It's a problem other services — like Snapchat — have run into before. Reports surfaced in mid-October that thousands of Snapchat photos were leaked via third-party Snapchat apps. So concerns about security risks aren't unwarranted at all.

As well as the action it's taking against third-party apps, WhatsApp is also temporarily banning people who use them. The bans usually last 24 hours, and once the countdown ends, users can use the application again. Some, of course, expressed frustration about the situation on social media.

WhatsApp confirmed to TechCrunch and others that it was indeed planning to take "aggressive action" against these kinds of unauthorized apps.

Third parties that have built unauthorized functionality on top of WhatsApp create issues for people including lost messages. This goes against the experience we work hard to give people and we won’t let it continue. Starting today, we are taking aggressive action against unauthorized apps and alerting the people who use them.

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Windows 10 hands-on: Cortana leads a feature-packed update

Is Windows 10 lovable? With the venerable operating system still in previews, it's too early to say, though we now know that's Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's goal: "We want to make people love Windows on a daily basis."

In my brief hands-on experience with what's being commonly referred to as the "Consumer Build," Windows 10 is inching in that direction. Let's say that if it's not quite lovable, Windows 10 is more than ever like the helpful and smart friend you’re usually glad to see.

Most people will tell you that Windows 10 was upstaged at its own event by the HoloLens augmented reality headset. That's not entirely true. HoloLens is, after all, a Windows 10 device HoloLens is, after all, a Windows 10 device. In fact, for all the changes Microsoft unveiled today the biggest one may have been the sharpening focus on Windows 10 everywhere, in every device, without always feeling just like Windows.

So while I'll focus here primarily on PC-based changes, we will take a couple of detours into other hardware platforms that will soon gain the benefit of a Windows 10 bloodline.

Cortana

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As expected, Cortana, Microsoft's voice assistant and Apple Siri competitor is now a part of the OS. It's actually what Microsoft is calling a Universal or Converged App, looking and working almost exactly the same across desktops, laptops, tablets and phones.

I tried it out on a handful of Windows 10 laptops. First of all, Cortana is resident in the taskbar next to the Start button (more on that in a bit). It's a type field with a microphone icon in it. For now, there's no way to turn off this field over even stop Cortana from listening. It's not listening to everything, but if you say "Hey Cortana," it wakes up and is ready respond.

Even in the challenging environment of a demo room with at least a dozen other journalists also speaking to Windows 10 laptops, Cortana heard me when I said, "Hey Cortana, show me that spreadsheet." 

As soon as I said "Hey Cortana," the Cortana window expanded up into a tall white box (the opposite of her black-background look on Windows Phone) and I could see it interpreting my spoken query in real time. Within a second or two Cortana showed me a folder full of spreadsheet files. I then asked Cortana about the weather. Again, Cortana understood and returned a visual forecast.

There were a couple of times where Cortana did not get the whole or even part of the question. Microsoft told me that laptop microphones are not usually as good as those found in smartphones. However, the cloud-based Cortana system is always learning and all the information Cortana will soon get from both the mobile and desktop platforms should help it perform even better, even when Cortana doesn't get the whole query — in other words, Cortana will have enough information to perhaps intuit the rest of your question.

And if Cortana doesn't hear you at your desk, that shouldn't be a big problem. Microsoft believes that, on the desktop, most people will probably still type in their Cortana queries.


I noticed a couple of other things about Cortana. When I scrolled through the information Cortana presented, it began to resemble Google Now, with news, weather, and all the bits of info that might be relevant to you right now. Also, thanks to that cloud back-end, your Cortana queries on your mobile device are stored in a synced, cloud-based "Notebook." Your Cortana searches on Windows Phone 10 are also available through Cortana on your Windows 10 desktop.

Start and action

Microsoft continues to refine the Start Menu in this latest Windows 10 build. The most noticeable change for me is the new expand button that resides in the upper right corner of the menu system, next to a now more easily accessible power button. A tap on it expands the menu to the entire screen, which makes it almost just like the Windows Design desktop of old.

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Right now on my Windows 8.1 Surface Pro 3, a swipe from the edge of the right side of my screen brings in the vertical Charms list bar. In Windows 10, you get the robust Action Center. It was easy enough to make it appear with a swipe — a tap anywhere else on the screen made it disappear.

Action Center is full of system, email and social notifications (essentially notifications for any app you have installed on your PC). The bottom of the Action Center is reserved for quick actions like airplane mode, Wi-Fi and system settings.

It looked like there was a lot of information in the Action Center, but without really knowing what was on this particular demo PC, it was hard to know how useful I'd find all that information.

In a later demo, I did get to see some of the calling and messaging integration between Windows 10 and Windows 10 phone. A Microsoft rep showed me how he could start a Skype text conversation between a Windows Phone and a Windows 10 PC (Skype is built into Windows 10). These Skype notifications can appear right in the Action Center. However, if the person at the PC has to go mobile, he can switch to sending texts through SMS text, while not breaking the thread of communication.

Continuum

With the latest Windows 10 build, Microsoft has finally introduced an easy way to switch between tablet and desktop mode. I found a Lenovo Yoga system, which converts from a laptop to a tablet (you fold keyboard all the way to the back of the screen) to try it out. I was a little disappointed that the change is not automatic, but it easy enough to enable.

The control sits in the Action Center. It's a little square icon at the bottom that says Tablet Mode. You tap it and the screen subtly changes. The most noticeable difference, at least to my eye, was that the Cortana box disappeared and was replaced by a small circular Cortana logo. The screen did not, as I thought it would, switch to the Windows Design interface. 

The one odd thing I noticed about this function is that, when you tap the Tablet button, it doesn't switch from saying "Tablet Mode" to "Desktop Mode" and vice versa. It just always says "Tablet Mode" and only the color change indicates if it's on or off

In either mode, it was easy enough to manage multiple windows and task-switch between apps. Windows 10 can show you them in a collection of floating live windows, making it much easier to know what you want to maximize and use. I do wish the tablet change were a bit more dramatic, but I get the sense that Continuum, like so much else here, is still a work in progress.

Spartan

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Microsoft replacing Internet Explorer with something code-named Spartan is very big news, and the look we got during the keynote was exciting. However, sadly, that's all we got. Spartan was not running on any of the demo systems we saw. What we know is that it has a new engine and Cortana integration. We got no comparisons to existing browsers, not Google Chrome, not Firefox and not even Internet Explorer.

Gaming and Photos

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Windows has always been a powerful gaming platform, but it's never had rich deep integration with the Xbox ecosystem. With Windows 10 all that changes. Windows 10 more or less puts the Xbox experience inside every Windows 10 device. Letting you stream games to mobile devices and allowing mobile Windows 10 users to join Xbox gameplay. The new Xbox app for Windows 10 puts a dizzying array of Xbox Live in formation on any Windows 10 system.


It is, to be honest, an incredibly busy interface with four densely-packed columns for main navigation, Recently Played, Activity Feed and Friends. For a devoted Xbox gamer, this is likely nirvana. From this one app you can see your friends’ activities and accomplishments and when they log on and off, jump right to a live Twitch stream and view your own and others recorded game play. Microsoft said Xbox Live is actually built into Windows 10.

  


Microsoft is also updating the Photos app across all Windows 10 platforms with a collection of features that seemed to have been borrowed equally from Apple and Google. There's now better photo management with "Collections," which was not yet ready to demo, and auto enhance, which will fix things like redeye and lighting from photos residing locally on the Windows 10 device and, eventually in the OneDrive cloud. Microsoft said that, statistically, they should be able to improve about 50% of your photos. All changes can be rolled back.

Final thoughts

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Windows 10 and until I can download the latest build sometime next week, I can’t quite get a coherent picture of the scope of this update. That said, Microsoft's vision for a unified, yet flexible system architecture that spans a variety of devices and activities is coming into focus.

Windows 10 has the potential to be one of Microsoft's best OS updates, if not most beloved.


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The Reason To Be Cheerful About HoloLens

 The question I’m always asking of any invention in the games-tech space is “can I see it being used every day?”. Or is it slight, a novelty or built on shaky assumptions of use patterns? Though early enthusiasm for such inventions tends toward “yes”, much of the time the true answer is “no”. Of course sometimes I’m right, sometimes wrong. Wrongness often (depressingly) arrives dressed in the uniforms of causes. Something HAS to work to solve a big problem I perceive therefore therefore therefore… This is less reasoning than buying a marketing story, but reason eventually prevails.

I could never, for example, see Kinect fomenting long term change in the gaming market. Though Microsoft sold a lot of Kinects by following the Wii wave, the devices were too flaky. I have similar doubts about the real appeal of the smart watch for apps and games, and also about virtual reality (a la Oculus Rift). VR is impressive tech, but nobody’s even close to explaining how it’s supposed to be a business.

Real change often comes slowly and – such as new platforms, new ways to play and so on – looks rather ordinary. Facebook’s platform, for example, seemed incidental at first. We game developers were mostly nonplussed that it could ever be a thing because it was so trivial. But it rocked our world. The numbers started to roll in and we started to pay attention in a hurry. Twas ever thus.

So it’s with that in mind that I want to go out on a limb and say I think Microsoft is onto something with the HoloLens. I’m referring to a technology that the company showed at its Windows 10 event earlier this week. It seems to be an augmented reality system capable of projecting faux-holograms to an eyepiece you wear. The net effect is the wearer “sees” a hologram in space all around him, and to back this up Microsoft’s presentation showed high concept uses like a designer working on an application on a monitor, but with a projected 3D model appearing to the side. That kind of thing.

The HoloLens is not the first device to enter the facespace. That conversation has been occupied for a while by Oculus at the power end and Google Glass at the convenience end. In essence HoloLens is trying to blend the two, forming a high definition augmented reality system within a constrained space. Of course this all sounds enthusiastic and pretty hokey, and the reality of such a device would likely be more ordinary. (I don’t for example, really see office workers walking around wearing bulky headsets just to be on Skype calls.) But I do think it’s more interesting than it initially appears, especially for gaming. It can solve a perennial UI problem.

In many games the screen area is cluttered by a HUD, that is the numbers that show you how much health your character has left, or experience points or levels. Those numbers are an essential aspect of a game’s feedback system, but they bring a visual noise with them. In some cases they hem in the world of the game and make it less impactful. For games that are trying to be immersive or story-driven, for example, experience point counters dinging away at the top of the screen can be distracting. Conversely UI elements also need to be constrained so that they don’t interfere with the main game too much. So games often have muddled UI/world compromises that never feel quite right.

In other words they’re like this:


Now with the HoloLens idea (as explained) the everyday use of the system is not to create over-elaborate holograms doing funky stuff whose utility is likely nil after the first day playing it. Rather it’s simple: It lets a game designer push all those awkward UI elements out of the main screen. Like so:


Its seems trivial, but think about it. How many action, roleplaying, storytelling and other games would be improved by having 30% more screen area dedicated to the game world? And how cool would it be to have lots of numbers floating in mid-space to the sides of the game rather than be hemmed in by constraints of the game world? Plenty. And that would be of great interest to many players such as Call of Duty fans and the like. A solid segment of them would buy that peripheral if it worked.

So what’s the downside? Well to be honest, it’s Microsoft’s tendency to get lost in Microsoft-world. Here’s an example: A couple of years ago I faulted Microsoft’s original vision of the Xbox One as being far too grandiose and trying to solve big problems that no real-world person had. One example was the TV enhancement features of the console, a massively complicated system that amounted to little more than a slightly faster menu for your Comcast box. Though the company has come on a ways from those heady heights, it still tends to get a bit swooped up in what technology might do, to the point that it forgets what it should probably do.

Another example: I was recently given an Xbox One for Christmas (no Kinect) and it’s a powerful gaming machine. It plays Grand Theft Auto V, Geometry Wars 3, Alien Isolation and a bunch of other games just great. I’m not wild about the joypad (something about the positioning of the central buttons feels slightly off) but it works well enough. Its big problem, on the other hand, is the user interface for accessing games, movies and other content. It’s a complete mess with a variety of use-patterns that make sort-of sense within their different sections yet adhere to no discernible overall logic.

Microsoft often gets itself wrapped up in these kinds of problems, creating many of them in one release and then clawing back from the brink in the next. Windows 10, for example, does not look like a shining beacon on a hill. It’s good in reflection only of how Windows 8 was terrible, and even at that the company seems determined to jam as much cross-ecosystem widgets in as it possibly can. So the issue is whether Microsoft can make HoloLens real, or will it get lost in fantasy.

My big hope for HoloLens is that it’ll come out as a coherent product that works with Xboxes and PCs to make cool UIs for games. That’s it’s “every day” use. My big fear is that it becomes another Surface. Not the modern one, the old interactive-table which was a neat idea that never found its way into the light of day. My fear is that HoloLens becomes another Kinect 2, so mangled by ambitions that nobody in the company can make a simple case for why it exists. My fear is that Microsoft gets too all-encompassing with HoloLens, tying too many bells and whistles to it and losing its simple appeal.

All I want to do is play games that do cool things to make UI work better. Microsoft please just sell me that.

Lizard Squad Hacked Malaysia Airlines Site


Hacker group Lizard Squad, which took down Xbox Live and the Sony Playstation Network last month, have claimed credit for an attack on Malaysia Airlines’ website. The site currently displays a picture of a lizard in a top hat and monocle, as well as the text “404-Plane Not Found” (a reference to flight MH370, which disappeared in March), and “Hacked by LIZARD SQUAD-OFFICIAL CYBER CALIPHATE.”

(Some users may see a lite version of Malaysia Airlines’ website as the air carrier restores access to its site).

It’s unclear whether or not Lizard Squad is actually linked to Cyber Caliphate, a hacker group that claims to be associated with ISIS. Last month, Cyber Caliphate took control of the U.S. central military command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts.

Malaysia Airlines confirmed the attack on its Facebook page:

Malaysia Airlines confirms that its Domain Name System (DNS) has been compromised where users are re-directed to a hacker website whenwww.malaysiaairlines.com URL is keyed in.
At this stage, Malaysia Airlines’ web servers are intact.
The airline has resolved the issue with its service provider and the system is expected to be fully recovered within 22 hours.
The matter has also been immediately reported to CyberSecurity Malaysia and the Ministry of Transport.
Malaysia Airlines assures customers and clients that its website was not hacked and this temporary glitch does not affect their bookings and that user data remains secured.

In a tweet, however, Lizard Squad (which itself was hacked last week) claimed it had materials taken from Malaysia Airlines’ servers. It has already shared a screenshot of an inbox with passenger itineraries.

App For Low-End Android Phones By Facebook



Not content with spinning out apps for stickers inside Messenger, Groups and new addition Rooms, Facebook has launched another standalone app. Facebook Lite, which some may recall as a simplified version of its mobile website from 2009-2010, is specifically designed for low-end Android devices in emerging markets.

TechCrunch understands that the app was quietly launched in a handful of countries in Asia and Africa over the weekend — Bangladesh, Nepal, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zimbabwe to be precise — where it is being testing with a view to further expansions. That said, a wider launch is not a certainty and Facebook could quietly can the project if it doesn’t believe it is worth pursuing.

The app has been built to accommodate low-end and dated Android devices, and users who are on 2G/poor quality internet connections. It’s based on Snaptu, Facebook’s feature phone client, but includes some native Android features, such as push notifications and camera integration, to make the experience a more sophisticated one.


Why is Facebook launching yet another app? Smartphone sales are soaring in India, which was the fastest growing market in Asia Pacific in Q3 2014, while there’s huge potential in Africa and Southeast Asia where mobile will be (or already is) the primary internet platform for millions. Even though Facebook retooled its Android app specifically for emerging markets last year, it is making sure that it offers a good experience to any user not matter their device or network connection. (Android is the platform of choice for most smartphone owners in emerging markets since devices can cost upwards of $30.)

Facebook already has its Internet.org project, which provides free access to a range of mobile internet services including, of course, Facebook. Internet.org is currently limited to a selection of countries in Africa at this point and, since it is being developed in partnership with carriers and other telecom industry players, launches are time and resource intensive: so why not pull together a ‘Lite’ app that can potentially be pushed to millions overnight, that’s Facebook’s thinking here.

If you’re in one of the aforementioned eight countries where Facebook Lite has launched — and you have an Android phone — then you can check it out here.

The early signs seem positive. The app has already crossed 10,000 downloads at the time of writing, with a 4.6 rating from an initial 693 reviewers. The few early users tweeting about it seem impressed too.

Millennials’ Favorite Trivia Game Dominates App Store Charts


Trivia Crack, a game-show style quiz app that launched in Argentina, is swiftly taking over schools and college campuses around the world.

For months, Trivia Crack has been one of the most popular apps in American app stores, currently topping both the free and paid app charts. Now boasting 100 million users and 800,000 daily downloads, the app yesterday expanded with a UK version.

The basic  of Trivia Crack is as old as board games. Users spin a colorful wheel, and then must answer a trivia question from one of six categories: geography, science, history, sports, art and entertainment. To win the game, you must win a crown in each of these categories before your opponent. You win crowns by correctly answering questions either after answering three questions in a row or landing on the purple crown icon.

The app allows you to easily challenge your Facebook friends to games, creating the same competition within your network as past popular games like Words With Friends and QuizUp.

Although the game is simple, as its name implies, it is completely addictive. Maximo Cavazzani, the CEO of the Argentinian gaming company Etermax that produces the app, says the name works on multiple levels.

“We thought of the name crack because it’s disruptive to the mind,” Cavazzani said. He added it could refer to the drug, but in Argentina “crack” is commonly used synonymously with the word expert. Etermax uses “Crack” in the titles of many of its American game titles, including Bingo Crack.

Trivia Crack is the first of Etermax’s games to take off in the United States. The company’s Apalabrados, a Spanish version of Words With Friends, was one of the top games in Spain.  Cavazzani said because of that game’s past success, Trivia Crack was popular and profitable from day one.

But Trivia Crack, or Preguntados as its known in Spanish speaking countries, has reached new levels of success. In Argentina, a TV game show version of Trivia Crack has been aired, and a board game version is available.

Cavazzani says he thinks the app has been able to differentiate itself from existing trivia apps because of its question factory, dedicating many of the company’s engineers to just developing that part of the game. Trivia Crack allows users to submit questions for the game, which, Cavazzani said, keeps the questions in the app new and relevant.

Obviously allowing everyone to submit questions results in a lot of duds, but Trivia Crack also allows users to offer feedback on the questions. If they’re reported as offensive, boring or wrong, they get the boot. Cavazzani estimated if the system received 200,000 question submissions, about 1,000 will go to production. Then the frequency the questions appear depends on user feedback and the number of correct responses they receive.

He noted that while Trivia Crack has users of all ages, it’s become particularly popular at schools and universities, where players are more likely to ask people around them for help with answers. Once friends help with answers, they’re more likely to download and play it themselves. On my own campus, it’s hard to miss how many students are spinning the colorful Trivia Crack wheel on their way to class or even during dry lectures.

Trivia Crack isn’t perfect. Sometimes you still get questions that seem unfairly easy as compared to others. If you play frequently, you’ll see questions repeat.

Cavazanni said the app has overcome many of the obstacles of producing trivia questions that work for a global audience. Initially he said American users were at times frustrated by the number of soccer questions that came up in the sports category.

Despite some of the initial cultural barriers, Cavazzani said he attributes much of the app’s success to its roots in Latin America.

“We’re proof that great things in technology can be done outside of Silicon Valley,” Cavazzani said. “It forces you to be a more independent company.”

What Happens To Privacy When The Internet Is In Everything?


This week Google’s Eric Schmidt was on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he suggested that the future Internet will be, in one sense, invisible — because it will be embedded into everything we interact with.
“The Internet will disappear,” he predicted (via The Hollywood Reporter). “There will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time.
“Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”
This is not an especially outlandish forecast, given the trajectory of connected devices. AnalystGartner calculated there were some 3.8 billion such ‘smart objects’ in use last year, and forecast 4.9 billion this — rising to 25 billion in circulation by 2020. (The global human population was estimated at around seven billion, at the last count.) In other words the sensornet is here, it’s just not densely (or evenly) distributed yet.
Google already owns Nest, a maker of connected devices for the home, such as a smoke alarm and learning thermostat. Google-Nest also owns Dropcam, a Wi-Fi security camera maker. Mountain View is clearly making a bid to be the nexus of the ‘connected home’ — which, along with the ‘connected car’ (of course Google is also building driverless, Internet-tethered cars), is the early locus for the sensornet. See also: wearables (‘connected people’), and the fact smartphones are gaining additional embedded sensors, turning our pervasive pocket computers into increasingly sensory mobile data nodes.
One of Davos’ more outlandish (perhaps) predictions for our increasingly connected future came from a group of Harvard professors who apparently sketched a scenario where mosquito sized-robots buzz around stealing samples of our DNA, as reported by Mail Online. “Privacy as we knew it in the past is no longer feasible,” computer science professor Margo Seltzer is quoted as saying. “How we conventionally think of privacy is dead.”
What Seltzer was actually arguing is that it needs no sneaky, DNA-sealing robo-mosquitos for connected technologies to violate our privacy. The point is, she later told TechCrunch, we are already at a privacy-eroding tipping point — even with current gen digital technologies. Let alone anything so futuristic as robotic mosquitos.
“The high order message is that we don’t need pervasive sensor net technologies for this to be true. We merely have to use technologies that exist today: credit cards, debit card, the web, roads, highway transceivers, email, social networks, etc. We leave an enormous digital trail,” she added.
Seltzer was also not in fact arguing for giving up on privacy — even if the Mail’s article reads that way. But rather for the importance of regulating data and data usage, rather than trying to outlaw particular technologies.
“Technology is neither good nor bad, it is a tool,” she said. “However, hammers are tools too. They are wonderful for pounding in nails. That doesn’t mean that someone can’t pick up a hammer and use it to commit murder. We have laws that say you shouldn’t murder; we don’t specialize the laws to call out hammers. Similarly, the laws surrounding privacy need to be laws about data and usage, not about the technology.”

With your permission

What especially stands out to me from Schmidt’s comments at Davos is his afterthought caveat — that this invisible, reactive, all-pervasive future sensornet will be pulling its invisible strings with your permission.
Perhaps he was paying lip-service to the warning of the FTC’s Chairwoman, Edith Ramirez, at CES earlier this month that building connected objects — the long discussed ‘Internet of Things’ — demands a new responsibility from businesses and startups to bake security and privacy protections into their products right from the get go.
“[The Internet of Things] has the potential to provide enormous benefits for consumers, but it also has significant privacy and security implications,” she warned. “Connected devices that provide increased convenience and improve health services are also collecting, transmitting, storing, and often sharing vast amounts of consumer data, some of it highly personal, thereby creating a number of privacy risks.”
Ramirez said that without businesses adopting security by design; engaging in data minimization rather than logging everything they can; and being transparent about the data they are collecting — and who else they want to share it with — by providing notifications and opt outs to users; then the risks to users’ privacy and security are enormous.
The problem with those well-meaning words from a consumer watchdog organization is that we are already struggling to achieve such rigorous privacy standards on the currentInternet — let alone on a distributed sensornet where there’s no single, controllable entry point into our lives. The Internet and the mobile Internet can still be switched off, in extremis, by the user turning off their router and/or powering their phone down (and putting it in the fridge if you’re really paranoid, post-Snowden).
But once a distributed sensornet has achieved a certain penetration tipping point, into the objects with which we humans are surrounded, well then the sheer number of devices involved is going to take away our ability to trivially pull the plug. Unless some kind of regulatory layer is also erected to provide a framework for usage that works in the interests of privacy and consumer control.
Without such consumer-oriented controls embedded into this embedded Internet, the user effectively loses the ability to take themselves offline, given that the most basic level of computing control — the on/off switch — is being subducted beneath the grand, over-arching utility of an all-seeing, always on sensornet. (Battery life constraints, in this context, might be viewed as a privacy safeguard, although low power connectivity technologies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy, work to circumvent that limit.)
In parallel, a well-distributed Internet of Things likely demands greater levels of device automation and autonomy, given the inexorable gains in complexity generated by a dense network of networked objects. And because of the sheer number of connected devices. And more automation again risks reducing user control.
Connected objects will be gathering environmental intelligence, talking to each other and talking to the cloud. Such a complex, interwoven web of real-time communications might well generate unique utility — as Schmidt evidently believes. But it also pulls in increased privacy concerns, given how many more data points are being connected and how all those puzzle pieces might slot together to form an ever more comprehensive, real-time representation of the actions and intentions of the people moving through this web.
Earlier generation digital technologies like email were not engineered with far-sighted privacy protections in mind. Which is why they have been open to abuse — to being co-opted as part of a military industrial surveillance complex, as the Snowden revelations have shown, offering a honeypot of metadata for government intelligence agencies to suck up. Imagine what kind of surveillance opportunities are opened up by an ‘invisible’ Internet — which is both everywhere but also perceptually nowhere, encouraging users to submit to its data-mining embrace without objection. After all how can you resist what you can’t really see or properly control?
That is exactly the Internet that Schmidt wants to build, from his position atop Google’s ad sales empire. The more intelligence on web users Google can harvest, the more data it can package up and sell to companies who want to sell you stuff. Which, for all Google’s primary-colored, doodle-festooned branding, is the steely core of its business. Mountain View has long talked about wanting search to become predictive. Why? Because marketing becomes a perfect money-pipe if corporates can channel and influence your real-time intentions. That’s the Google end game.
Learning about human intention from the stuff people type into search engines is laughably crude compared to how much can be inferred from a sensornet that joins up myriad, real-time data-dots and applies machine learning data-mining algorithms dynamically. More dots are already being joined by Google, across multiple web products and its mobile platform Android — which brings it a rich location layer. Doing even more and deeper data mining is a natural evolution of its business model. (Related: Google acquired AI firm Deep Mind last year — a maker of “general-purpose learning algorithms”.)
The core reality of the Internet of Things is that a distributed network of connected objects could be deliberately engineered to catch us in its web — triangulating our comings and goings as we brush past its myriad nodes. The more connected objects surround us, the more data points wink into existence to be leveraged by the Googles of the digital world to improve the accuracy and texture of their understanding of our intentions, whether we like it or not.
So while the future Internet may appear to fade into the background, as Schmidt suggests, that might just signify a correspondingly vast depth of activity going on in the background. All the processing power required to knit together so many connections and weave a concealed map of who we are and what we do.
The risk here, clearly, is that our privacy is unpicked entirely. That an embedded ‘everywhere Internet’ becomes a highly efficient, hugely invasive machine analyzing us at every turn in order to package up every aspect of our existence as a marketing opportunity. That’s one possible future for the sensornet.
But it seems to me that that defeatist argument is also part of the spinning which vested interests like Google, whose business models stand to benefit massively, engage in when they discuss the digital future that they are trying to shape. Technology is a tool. Diverse applications are possible. And just because technology makes something possibledoes not also mean it is inevitable.
As Seltzer says, we need to be thinking about how we want the data to flow or not flow, rather than throwing our hands up in horror or defeat. What is also clearly necessary — indeed, I would argue, is imperative — is joined up thinking from regulators to comprehend the scope of the privacy risks posed by increasingly dense networks of networked objects, and how the accumulation of data-points can collectively erode consumer privacy. A clear-sighted strategy for ensuring end users can comprehend and control the processing of their personal data is paramount.
Without that, the risk for startup businesses playing in this space is that the rise of more and more connected devices will be mirrored by a parallel rise in human mistrust of increasingly invasive products and services.
In the hyper personal realm of the Internet of Things, user trust is paramount. So building a framework to regulate the data flows of connected devices now, while the sensornet is still in its infancy, is imperative for everyone involved.
In the offline world we have cars and roads. We also have speed limits — for a reason. The key imperative for regulators now, as we are propelled towards a more densely-packed universe of connected devices, is coming up with the sensornet’s speed limits. And fast.