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19
Oct

Verizon aims for spring 2018 to debut its streaming TV service


We first heard that Verizon was interested in launching a streaming TV service back in March, but getting it off the ground has been a real struggle. It was originally scheduled to debut this past summer, though rumors had it slipping to the fall. Now, Bloomberg reports that Verizon is eyeing a launch in spring 2018.

Verizon’s faced multiple issues in regard to this streaming service. As recently as August, the company was unable to secure enough broadcasters to make the effort worthwhile. Media companies were hesitant because there wasn’t a solid plan in place for the service in terms of pricing, programming and tech. It didn’t help that they’d lost multiple executives during the process; what’s more, news broke last month that the company’s media head Marni Walden will leave the company in February 2018.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Go90, Verizon’s venture into producing original, streaming, ad-supported shows didn’t exactly go well, according to Bloomberg. Still, the company is big enough, and this is clearly important enough of an endeavor, that they will figure out how to make their streaming service work, at least in the short term. It remains to be seen how users and potential subscribers will respond, given the ubiquity of options already available to them.

19
Oct

Alphabet invests $1 billion in Lyft


Last month, we reported on rumors that Alphabet, Google’s parent company, was considering investing in Lyft. Now, Lyft has announced that CapitalG, which is Alphabet’s growth investment fund, is leading a $1 billion financing round in the car-sharing company. This brings Lyft’s total valuation to $11 billion.

Alphabet’s interest in Lyft isn’t that surprising, if you think about it. It’s already clear that Alphabet is interested in self-driving cars, as the company owns Waymo. And back in May, Waymo and Lyft announced the two companies would work together on self-driving cars. Following that, Lyft announced it would develop its own autonomous driving technology, stating that it was “core” to its business. Alphabet’s interest makes sense if we stop thinking about Lyft as a ride sharing service and more of a self-driving car company.

As Uber has been plagued by woe after woe of its own making, Lyft has been quietly rising as an increasingly used alternative. This round of funding may help put the company on equal footing as Uber’s rival, rather than constantly being thought of as a second-place finisher.

Source: Lyft

19
Oct

Gene therapy for advanced lymphoma gets FDA approval


People with advanced lymphoma now have another type of treatment to consider. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Yescarta, a cell-based gene therapy designed to treat large B-cell lymphoma created by Kite Pharma. It’s the second time the FDA has approved a gene therapy for use in the US following a procedure meant to treat leukemia earlier this year.

The therapy requires a patient’s T-Cells, one type of white blood cells, to be harvested and modified. These engineered cells are designed to be attracted to a certain protein in tumor cells in order to kill them. Due to the complex nature of the procedure, a healthcare professional will have to go through training to be able to administer the pricey treatment — The Wall Street Journal says it will cost patients around $373,000.

Kite Pharma conducted a multicenter clinical trial involving 101 adults with relapsed large B-cell lymphoma to convince the FDA to give the therapy its approval. The tumors in 72 percent of the test subjects shrunk and even disappeared completely in 51 percent of the subjects. Despite being effective, the therapy can only be used if a patient has relapsed or failed to respond to at least two different kinds of treatment. That’s because Yescarta could cause pretty severe and life-threatening side effects, including anemia and low white blood cell counts. The worst possible reaction to the therapy? It’s none other than death: according to The WSJ, Kite Pharma determined that the deaths of two of its test subjects were related to the treatment.

Source: FDA, Gilead

19
Oct

‘Star Wars Battlefront II’ turns the Empire into an unlikely protagonist


Star Wars: Battlefront did a lot of things right, but it was criticized for not having a lot of depth, primarily due to the utter lack of a story-driven single player campaign. That’s a shame, because the Star Wars universe is rich enough that fans are genuinely interested in stories that go far beyond what’s presented in the main film series. Fortunately, for Star Wars: Battlefront II, EA developer Motive was tasked with making a compelling story mode. Having completed a 90-minute playthrough of the game’s prologue and first two chapters, it’s safe to say that Battlefront II should have something to lure Star Wars fans who aren’t necessarily interested in multiplayer adventures.

As we learned back at E3, the Battlefront II campaign centers around the Imperial forces and “Inferno Squad “Commander Iden Versio. In a lot of ways, the campaign feels like 2016’s Rogue One in that it shines a light on parts of the Star Wars world we haven’t seen — but it seeks to tie them into the larger narrative that we know from the films. In this case, Versio is leading her Imperial Squad on a mission on Endor when suddenly, the Death Star explodes. Yup, the game is picking up at the end of Return of the Jedi, showing things from the perspective of an Imperial army suddenly thrust into disarray, with their leader dead and most advanced weapons destroyed (again).

The missions themselves don’t do a ton to hint at where the story will go. The prologue and first chapter focus on Versio’s escape from the clutches of the Rebels and her team’s escape from Endor, while the second chapter is largely focused on space combat in Versio’s TIE Fighter. From a pure gameplay perspective, it’s a good start that introduces what I presume will be the game’s core components.

For starters, I got to pilot Versio’s droid in a stealth mission sneaking around Rebels as I tried to free her from prison. After that was the expected combo of stealth and blaster battles as I escaped Endor. The game lets you switch between first and third person while controlling Versio; being able to go into first-person mode definitely helped when I was dealing with a slew of enemies. Finally, the TIE Fighter sequences introduced the game’s space dogfights, something that was definitely fun but also a bit frustrating, as I kept piloting my TIE Fighter into other ships or large space debris, earning me an instant death.

The more traditional ground-based combat segments were easier for me to handle, and they also quickly showed off the various ways you can customize Versio to suit your play style. Naturally, she can carry several different weapons that can be found around the levels, including balanced blasters, faster automatic weapons and long-range sniper-style guns. But Versio also has a handful of special weapon slots that that let her equip more powerful items, like a shotgun-style blaster that quickly takes down opposing soldiers. There’s also a tool that aids with stealth missions by revealing the positions of all enemies within a limited range so you can see who’s coming and what areas you might want to avoid.

To keep things balanced, you can’t use these special skills indefinitely — they all have cool-down timers to keep you from being too powerful. But in just a few chapters of play I already had more skills than I could equip at one time, which added a nice bit of flexibility to the game; it feels like it’ll allow players to approach the game in entirely different ways.

Overall, the game played well and felt polished — but that’s table stakes for a major studio like EA. The bigger question is, how will this work as an entry into the Star Wars universe? Specifically, I was wondering how much interest players would have taking the side of the Empire when basically all of the major pieces of the Star Wars story are from the perspective of the Rebels. Playing the “bad guys” could be fun, but how satisfying would that story be in the end?

“I think Star Wars fans are generally hungry for new characters and new stories,” Motive Game Director Mark Thompson told me after I had finished my playthrough. He thinks that hunger will give them the freedom to pull of a story where you play an elite member of the Empire. “It’s a new perspective on the galaxy,” he added. “What was it like to be a trooper in the Empire when everything went wrong, when the Death Star exploded, when Palpatine died, when Vader was dead. What does the Empire even look like after that?”

That’s a good question, and a final cutscene that we saw made me even more intrigued about where the story would go. Some seeds of doubt about how long Versio would stay loyal to the Empire were definitely sewn, though I haven’t seen enough to make more than a vague guess about where the story is headed.

And for those who crave more direct ties into the Star Wars universe they know from the films, Thompson notes that Versio won’t be the only playable character in the campaign. “You do actually play as the iconic characters,” he said. “There are chapters in the campaign where you get to play as people like Luke Skywalker.” I didn’t get so far as to confirm that you get to play as Skywalker himself, but there’s a strong implication that you’ll get to meet and play as familiar characters from the original trilogy — something that would fill in the scant bits of info we know about Luke, Leia, Han and the rest of the crew between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

But Motive isn’t interested in just letting you replay notable scenes with classic characters. If those familiar faces are being used in the game, it’ll be in entirely new situations; conversely, with new characters like Versio, Motive felt comfortable showing events we’ve already seen, because it’s from an entirely new perspective. “We can take Luke Skywalker somewhere you’ve never seen him before, doing things you haven’t seen him do,” Thompson said. “Whereas, with Iden, we can take her unfamiliar perspective to a familiar event or location like Endor and do something that’s new and different.”

Even after just 90 minutes of play, Battlefront II feels like a new direction for a Star Wars story. It’s hard to miss the fact that the goal is to gun down Rebels, the same troops you’re rooting for when watching the Death Star blow up at the end of Return of the Jedi. Smooth and varied gameplay are obviously key to making Battlefront II a success, but a new, intriguing window into the Star Wars universe is what will really make the game stand out for legions of fans. At the very least, it should help you get your fix in the weeks before The Last Jedi hits theaters.

19
Oct

When VR meets human emotions (and sometimes, hallucinations)


By its very nature, virtual reality is an immersive medium. But for Rama Allen, that bar is higher. The interactive artist and Executive Creative Director at The Mill has made a name for himself leading inter-disciplinary teams of designers, filmmakers, coders, editors, engineers and VFX artists to create new kinds of cinematic experiences. At the inaugural Engadget Experience, a tech-art installation happening in LA next month, Allen will share some of his strangest creations, including a collaboration with an emotional AI; a VR experience that uses biometrics for levitation; a sculpting tool for the human voice; and a mixed-reality galactic journey to spread peace across the universe. Buy your tickets here, and hurry because discounted pricing ends next week, on October 27th. We’ll see you in LA!

19
Oct

What it takes to be a drone racer


One cold, dreary afternoon in 2014, Jordan Temkin took his drone to Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado. He put on a pair of goggles that filled his view with the live video feed from the drone’s tiny camera.

He’d built the drone frame from scratch using a 3D printer, finishing it with parts he’d bought online. It took about a month for it to take off straight. Eventually, it could hover around his backyard, so one day he took it to the park and began gingerly flying around.

You can still find the video feed of this first flight on YouTube. Temkin flies slowly and carefully at first, meandering around the asphalt path. But before long, he flies the drone up, over and then around a rocky peak before diving toward the ground and pulling up a split second before disaster.

At one point, Temkin appears in the video, sitting on the asphalt path as the drone loops around. “It really felt like I was flying,” he said. “I put on the goggles, and it’s like your consciousness is transferred into this drone. It’s especially weird when you’re flying around a park and you see some guy sitting there with a pair of goggles and you’re like, ‘Who the hell is that? Oh, it’s me.’”

Temkin isn’t alone in describing flying as an out-of-body experience — it’s a common feeling for first-person view (FPV) pilots. Total freedom. Flying like Superman.

He was only 22 at the time of that first flight. Three years later, he hasn’t stopped flying drones. In fact, he now gets paid to fly drones every day, and he’s arguably the best drone racer in the world. That’s not hyperbole: In a sport that’s only a few years old, he’s dominated the most high-profile competition. Twice.

Temkin likes to say he is getting paid to play with toys. He’s made hundreds of thousands of dollars in races from London to Dubai. Drone racing has made him some quick cash, but is it really a living?

Like professional gamers, drone racers use pseudonyms. Temkin’s racing name is Jet, an acronym of his name, Jordan Eiji Temkin. He rents an unassuming ranch house outside Fort Collins, Colorado, with fellow FPV racers Zach Thayer (A_Nub) and Travis McIntyre (m0ke). He moved to Fort Collins in part because authorities in Boulder had been putting up signs outlawing drone flying in public places, including Chautauqua Park.

For the trio, the selling point of this house was the wide-open backyard. The interior is littered with broken drones, airframes, batteries, propellers, racing trophies and not much else. The basement carpet looks like a used-drone sales lot, with row after row of drones, many of them smashed and broken. There’s an audio-visual studio for producing videos for their various YouTube channels and a spare room in the basement where visiting drone pilots can stay. A cutting tool in the garage is used for making prototype drone frames, and a small room in the basement is dedicated to storing frames, which Temkin and Thayer sell under the brand Shrike.

“They’re doing more than just flying the drones. They’re developing their own drones; they’re working on the hardware.”

The title of professional drone racer sounds like the cushiest job in the world: Get out of bed, go fly a drone. But unlike most other sports, it demands a high level of engineering skill. “Some people think of drone racers as early skateboarders, where they are finding empty pools and are just skating anywhere they can,” said Nick Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of the Drone Racing League. “[But] these guys are very sophisticated. They’re doing more than just flying the drones. They’re developing their own drones; they’re working on the hardware. This is his profession, it’s his hobby. It’s where he lives.”

Temkin and Thayer, who won last year’s U.S. National Drone Racing Championship, fly with a team of local pilots under the name Team Big Whoop. Since drone racing isn’t a team sport (although some leagues hope to make it one), Big Whoop is just a bunch of guys in Colorado with a passion for flying, racing and building drones. On days off, they set up soccer goals (sans netting) and use them as racing gates. Other obstacles work just as well — the team also improvises race courses that involve trees in the yard. “The neighbors probably hate us on days when we’re flying, because we fly for hours,” said Temkin. “On other days, we go up to the mountains, where we can fly a thousand feet up and down the cliffs in seconds.”

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Temkin, Thayer and McIntyre (from left-to-right), fly their drones on a clifftop.

Before moving in with Thayer and McIntyre, Temkin flew his drone alone for the better part of a year. He was working three jobs while a full-time student, flying drones in what little spare time he had. A former competitive skier and serious mountain biker, Temkin said droning satisfies his need for speed as well as his love of tinkering. One day, he Googled “drones in Colorado” and found a Meetup group: the Fort Collins Drone Enthusiasts. The group still meets on Mondays at Lincoln Middle School to fly drones together in an open field.

Members of this group began going to drone races, but for the most part it was a casual community. That is, until the Drone Nationals in Sacramento, California, in July 2015. Though the event was called the Nationals, it was actually the first major international competition for drone racing, attracting pilots from across the globe. It featured a competitive course, A-list sponsors from the drone world and a prize purse of $25,000. More importantly, it was the first time so many drone pilots were all in one place. Gathered together, the pilots were able to geek out about gear, compare notes about their rigs and discuss their local scenes.

Team Big Whoop members Chris Fisher and Jessie Perkins, both regulars at the Fort Collins Meetup group, were among the first to sign up for the event, alongside Temkin. “We fell in love with the competitiveness and camaraderie. Everyone is a gearhead and wants to show off how cool their stuff is,” Temkin said. “Skiing and mountain biking is the same way: Everyone talks about what frame they use, which grips, wax and all that. It’s the same mind-set in all the hobbies I have: gear plus adrenaline.”

This was Thayer’s first drone race. While he didn’t enjoy the racing (his video feed wasn’t working right), he was immediately drawn into this new world. “Back then, racing wasn’t really a thing. My cousin and I would go to park and just race around the trees and maybe through the gazebo, but that was it,” he said. “But then I got to meet all these people who knew more than I did, and I got to see all this cool equipment. I knew I was home.”

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Temkin quit all three of his jobs around this time to fully dedicate himself to drone racing. His timing was perfect, because in the months after the Drone Nationals, the racing scene erupted. “I saved a bunch of cash and had enough to have a one-year runway,” he said. “Then I won a few races, and it got extended to a year and a few months. Then I won a few more races, and a few thousand dollars here and there kept me going for even longer.”

Meanwhile, Thayer quit his job as a software engineer. He and Temkin ran into each other at a race in Las Vegas and decided it would make sense for them to rent a house together. But on his way out to Colorado, his and Temkin’s phones started blowing up. Before long, they and 30 other racers left on an all-expenses trip to Dubai for an event called the World Drone Prix. Only three days passed after their return home until they were both invited to Los Angeles to join the first season of the brand-new Drone Racing League (DRL).

Temkin hadn’t been racing long, but he had won enough races and, maybe just as important, impressive videos of his flying on YouTube. The DRL season had already started when he and Thayer got the call, but in drone racing, consistent wins are hard to ignore. “We watch videos and follow the races, and you can see talent rise,” said Ryan Gury, director of product at the DRL. “These guys fly hundreds of packs every other day, and over time, the skill level becomes obvious.”

Temkin arrived for the third race of the season and got third place, followed by a second-place finish in the fourth race. He didn’t win a race before the finals, but according to the rules of the competition, any pilot that made the podium (i.e., finished in the top three) went to the finals. “I definitely peaked at the right moment,” he said. “At the time I was like, ‘I am out of money. The runway has passed, and I might have to get a job now.’ Thank God I won.”

floordrones1920.jpgdroneaside.jpgZach Thayer working on a drone at the Big Whoop house.

The prize for winning season one was a contract offering Temkin a six-figure salary as an employee of DRL. He accepted but still lives frugally — that penny-pinching attitude is a necessity in order to survive as a professional drone racer for as long as possible. “My parents taught me pretty well about how to budget. They gave me an allowance for a year and said, ‘If you want to make this last, you have to make this go to the end of the year,’” he said. “It’s the same principles I learned as a kid. If I want this to last, I had better stretch it as far as possible.”

Season two didn’t start the way Temkin wanted. He failed to make the podium in either of the first two events — but Thayer finished second in one of the races. Temkin said the early frustrations led him to do something he normally doesn’t do during the season. “I got bummed and actually started practicing — a lot,” he said. “Normally we don’t practice a lot during the season. We have a philosophy that if you’re in tune with your drone, racing is easy, because you feel it.”

Gabriel Kocher (Gab707) won the opening event and led in points for most of the season. But Temkin found his form at the third contest in New Orleans, rising above the rest to take first place. By the championship race, held at the Alexandra Palace, in London, Temkin was once again in contention to win the title, but still trailed Kocher.

Temkin won the race and the title by passing Kocher while flying through the last loop on the last lap of the last race. But it was no accident the race came down to the final moments. As Temkin put it, drone racers are like horses with blinders — and no brakes. FPV pilots only have a limited field of view, seeing only what their drone camera sees while pointing straight ahead. Flying behind an opponent can give racers a huge strategic advantage.

Temkin admits he is not the fastest drone pilot in the world. He gives that title to Shaun “Nytfury” Taylor, a 37-year-old former firefighter who won 13 of 17 major races in the MultiGP race circuit last year and the 2016 DRL World Championship. But other racers say Temkin is patient and strategic, skills he said come from years as a competitive ski racer … and go-karting.

“You see a lot of people who are so fast but could be so much faster if they would slow down and do a proper race line.”

Temkin said the founder of the MultiGP race series, Chris Thomas, insists on finding go-kart courses whenever he’s with Team Big Whoop. “Racing is racing. A lot of people who race drones haven’t raced before,” said Temkin. “You see a lot of people who are so fast but could be so much faster if they would slow down and do a proper race line.”

The fact that Temkin has won the title for consecutive years is not an accident. Other racers who have watched him fly say that he is perfectly consistent and relaxed, never losing focus during a race. They marvel that he’s able to fly and crack jokes while outthinking his opponent. “The one thing that puts Jordan head and shoulders above other racers is that he remains calm,” said Taylor. “The No. 1 trait of the top racers is how well you perform under pressure, and no one does it better than him.”

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We have an amazing experience to present to the world, but no one has figured out how to do it right.

Zoe Stumbaugh, drone racer

Thanks to exposure on ESPN, the DRL is the most high-profile FPV race league, but it’s just one of several competitions vying to be the home of drone racing. The DRL is a small, closed league that takes elements of car racing, gaming and reality television to make drone racing into a TV show. The International Drone Racing Association sponsors live events like the Drone Grand Prix in Dubai, while other leagues such as DR1 will be televised on Fox Sports this year. Meanwhile, MultiGP has chapters all over the world and is open to anyone who wants to race.

Temkin races in as many of these leagues as he can, but that may not be possible for much longer. Taylor dropped out of competing in the DRL because he said it would have required signing an exclusive contract. Such an agreement would have prevented him from defending his titles in other leagues. “DRL is for sure the kingmaker, but I need to fly at all the races,” he said. “The contract said I can’t do that. It’s not fair to my rivals if I’m not there.”

There is not only a split between the racing leagues but also a division between people who race and freestyle fliers. Most racers do both, but freestyle drone pilots like Rotor Riot are often the most visible face of the drone community, thanks to slick FPV videos and trick flying demonstrations at drone races. “I know Rotor Riot takes credit for making the sport popular, but none of them race,” said Thayer. “There is a real division between racers and freestylers, but everyone calls themselves racers. I think if you’re a good pilot, it shouldn’t matter what you call yourself. But it is a confusing situation.”

“Any sport that’s only two years old is a clusterfuck. MMA was a disaster two years in, so we’ve got time to figure it out.”

These fault lines reveal the central identity crisis facing the sport. The DRL is planning season three, and DR1 is gearing up for its new season. But most drone racers still wonder how to define their sport and make it appeal to a wide audience. Is it the next BattleBots, or is it the new Formula One? Is it like pod racing or professional gaming? “Drones can go faster than a human body could go and survive. We have an amazing experience to present to the world, but no one has figured out how to do it right,” said Zoe Stumbaugh, a former motocross biker and current drone racer. “But any sport that’s only two years old is a clusterfuck. MMA [mixed martial arts] was a disaster two years in, so we’ve got time to figure it out.”

While this is certainly a major concern for racers, a more pressing issue is money. No one agrees on how many professional racers actually make a full-time living out of flying drones. Temkin thinks four to five. Stumbaugh thinks it’s maybe five to seven, and Taylor said three racers, tops. (It’s at least three, since Temkin, Stumbaugh and Taylor all fly full time.)

Thayer and Temkin sell their Shrike frames as a small business out of their Colorado home, but they haven’t yet pulled any money out of it. “We put some money into the business and tripled it, but it’s just self-sustaining, so that any money we make goes back into the business,” said Temkin. “It’s a tough business. I imagine it’s like fashion. There’s this thing that’s ‘in,’ you produce a crap load of it, then tomorrow no one wants it.”

As the popularity of the sport rises, the first generation of racers are under pressure to sustain their careers. “There are so many more people racing now. You have people coming out of the woodwork who are ten times better than you, but you have no idea, because they don’t put anything on YouTube,” said Temkin. “You have this 16-year-old kid who shows up at a race, and a lot of times the pressure doesn’t mean anything to them, mainly because their mom or dad paid for their hobby and they have nothing to lose. I have something to lose now.”

The few lucky trailblazers are under pressure to sustain the sport. Taylor said that he has been avoiding the local race scene in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because of resentment and petty attacks aimed his way. “Jealousy sucks,” said Taylor. “Where I think I’ve failed is when I see some bad apples come in, spreading so much negativity. It’s easy to knock someone down rather than look at yourself and work harder. Instead people are saying, ‘Look at him, why don’t I have that?’”

Sponsorships are rare in drone racing, and the purses for winning a race usually don’t break the four-digit mark, unlike the multimillion-dollar purses that professional gamers win. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a good idea of how to make the sport more lucrative. “It’s fucked up that [Temkin] had to win to be a paid racer,” said Stumbaugh. “How about if everyone in DRL got a salary? Wouldn’t that make more sense?”

As a spectator sport, drone racing is a hard sell. It’s impossible for crowds to follow small, buzzing drones that whip around racecourses. The problem persists on television as well. “I went down to the local Chili’s when a race was on, and people said, ‘Oh, cool, drones,’ but then they lost interest when they couldn’t follow what was going on,” Taylor said. “They just see red, green and blue lights. It’s like, ‘I think the red thing won.’”

The DRL has made the sport more watchable by making the drones slower and bigger. “By making the drones heavier and slowing it down, the racing gets better,” Thayer said. “The thing is, I can’t handle my fast drones to their full extent. When I’m flying or watching, it’s so much better when you’re neck and neck and can’t pass — all that stuff makes better racing. When you go to local racecourses, someone is always winning by quite a large distance.”

Some race organizers want to take that idea and go even bigger. The new Titan Grand Prix Racing Organization hopes a bigger, louder racing drone will make for an even more exciting spectator sport. While most drones are 250mm across, the new GFD1 is 1,100mm across and is powered by eight rotors instead of the usual four.

Stumbaugh has a different opinion. She thinks the sport will only work if TV channels feature more FPV feeds. “When people see what we see, it’s crazy. Show more FPV, and slow it down,” she said. “No other sport can deliver this point of view. No other sport can fly through amazing locations at insane speeds like this. No other sport has so much potential.”

One thing drone racing has going for it is Temkin. Unlike MMA, which seems to have a new champion every other fight, DRL’s format favors good fliers. “We race multiple heats. It is a completely level playing field,” said Horbaczewski. “One race is randomness, but Jordan is perfectly consistent. We want the races to identify someone exceptionally talented with a drone.”

At the Team Big Whoop house, Temkin and Thayer were racing quads around the yard. Horsetooth Mountain loomed in the distance as the high-pitched whine of racing quads pierced the air for minutes at a time. Temkin thought something was wrong with Thayer’s motors, but neither of them could pin down the problem. “Well, I guess we’ve got another late night,” he said. But he quickly added, “I’m not complaining. I started three years ago. I did this TV series, and now I get paid to do this every day. So it’s all good.”

Images: Thomas Danneman

19
Oct

Google and Microsoft troll each other over software vulnerabilities


Google has a history of not playing nicely with Microsoft. The company has previously posted publicly about their competitor’s software vulnerabilities, and understandably, Microsoft hasn’t been very happy about it. But now, the company has turned the tables on Google. Microsoft found a vulnerability within the Chrome browser, and while Google patched it in beta versions, it wasn’t fixed in the public release for roughly a month.

However, Google posted the fix on GitHub instantly, before it was applied to the public release. While the fix for this issue doesn’t out the vulnerability, according to Microsoft, that hasn’t always been the case. Microsoft believes that a fix should be applied before they are public knowledge.

Microsoft does have a point here. It took Google a month to patch this particular Chrome vulnerability; that’s plenty of time for a hacker to examine it and exploit it. It’s probably not the best judgment to put fixes for vulnerabilities on GitHub before they’re patched in a browser.

That being said, though, are we really benefitting from this one-upmanship between Google and Microsoft? Sure, the issues are being identified and corrected, which is always a good thing. And a bit of friendly competition can certainly be helpful. But this may have veered beyond “friendly” territory and started endangering users’ security in the process. Perhaps it’s time for both companies to rethink their approach when it comes to these issues.

Source: Microsoft

19
Oct

Huawei didn’t need American customers to become a smartphone giant


On October 16th, Huawei announced its latest smartphone, the Mate 10, alongside a Porsche Design-ed version of the same device. In previous years, the phone might have been seen as little more than a me-too clone of Samsung’s Galaxy Note. But these days, Huawei believes that its hardware is more than enough to stand up against the smartphone world’s “big two.” Its status as a major player may not be entrenched, yet, but between flashy product launches and an ever-growing presence on the world stage, it feels almost inevitable.

Huawei’s rise began in 1987 when the Chinese company was founded as a niche importer of telephone switches from Hong Kong. Since then, it has learned to develop its own telecoms and networking equipment, becoming the biggest infrastructure firm in the world. In 2016, it raked in profits of $5.3 billion and its handset business, which started in 2008, is now the third-biggest in the world. From the clunky U8100 in 2010, Huawei now has a plethora of Android smartphones tailored to a wide variety of niches.

(It’s worth noting that there is one small caveat: typically sales figures look at BKK Electronics’ various divisions as separate businesses. BKK, Huawei’s local rival, owns Vivo, Oppo and OnePlus, and would probably Huawei into fourth place if all those divisions were treated as one.)

Huawei’s one-two punch of networking technology and handsets has made it a welcome friend of many carriers, especially in Europe. The company’s device strategy mirrored the early days of HTC and ZTE, producing white-label devices for networks to badge as they saw fit. But while ZTE has languished at the bottom and and HTC attempted to push its brand into the elite, Huawei stayed the course, flooding the market with handsets of all stripes.

One facet of Huawei’s success is its verticality; it has good relationships with many global carriers, producing reliable and low-cost devices that work well with its own infrastructure. Another is that the company rose to prominence towards the latter period of the smartphone boom. It took advantage of the advances (and risks) made by other companies to learn what not to do.

In 2013, the company’s Ascend P6 was launched as a statement of intent for the Chinese company looking to break into the mainstream. The device cribbed plenty of hardware and software flourishes from both Apple and Sony, and retailed for €449 ($531). It was a cheap phone that felt anything but, and while there were obvious compromises, people took it seriously. Our own review said “The takeaway message here is that Huawei means business. With the build quality and core-functionality nuts cracked, most other niggles should be relatively easy to improve.”

The Ascend P7 remedied many of the flaws of its immediate predecessor, doubling down on its iPhone-design on a budget ethos. It wasn’t going to blow anyone away, not compared to the flagships of the day, but it did what it needed to do well. In the UK, Huawei still uses phones based on the P7, as well as the G6, as the basis for the low-end devices sold by British carrier EE.

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Huawei’s product strategy is very fragmented, with the company splitting its business into sub-brands that cater to different markets. The Ascend and P marques tackle higher-end customers, with this year’s P10 packing a Leica-branded camera, while its Y and Nova names are aimed at lower-end customers. The company also owns Honor, an online-only sub-brand that caters to the sort of enthusiasts who would be tempted by competing phones like the OnePlus. The company can also boast that it was chosen by Google to build the Nexus 6P, the final phone in the Nexus series.

The Mate 10, announced this week, comes with the company’s own Kirin 970 CPU that, Huawei hopes, will make it a real player in the silicon stakes. The 970 is designed to do all of the usual things a CPU can do, with the added bonus of on-device artificial intelligence processing. The belief is that local artificial intelligence will help Huawei stake a claim as distinct from Samsung and Apple. Although, much like the Pixel 2, it remains to be seen if customers will care enough to put down money for the Mate 10.

There is a potential limit to Huawei’s growth, which is mostly down to the problematic reputation it has outside of China. Specifically, that the company has a deep and long-standing relationship with that country’s government. Founder Ren Zhengfei was a senior engineer in the People’s Liberation Army and there is a belief that those ties still run deep.

Huawei’s ownership structure, too, raises questions about its impartiality, since it is nominally set up as an employee-owned co-operative. In reality, the 80,000 Chinese nationals who work for the company are believed to have no say in its operation. It’s also never been clear how much power its trio of rotating co-CEOs have, given their tenure lasts for just six months at a time. The US House Intelligence committee described the situation saying that “many analysts believe that Huawei is not actually controlled by its common shareholders, but actually controlled by an elite subset of its management”.

In fact, Huawei has been blocked from bidding on several high-profile contracts in the US as well as elsewhere in the world. For instance, it was given a polite, but firm no when the option of bidding to build America’s first responder wireless network was in play. Australia has also thrown up a wall preventing the company from building out its national broadband network on the advice of the security services.

In the UK, Huawei had to open up a Cybersecurity Evaluation Center (HCSEC) that let the UK’s security services examine its products. This is backed up with government oversight and an independent audit which, it’s hoped, will ensure that Huawei kit remains backdoor-free. Although even that has still left questions as-yet unanswered, since there are issues surrounding the “incomplete delivery of source code.”

The general anxiety is that wherever Huawei goes, China’s prying eyes will follow. It’s not something everyone wants, because the nation’s policies on free speech and identity are a human rights nightmare. The country prohibits discussions relating to democracy, imprisons journalists who truthfully report on China’s slowing economy and has a blanket ban on pornography. Not to mention all of the geopolitical saber-rattling between the US and China that has continued over the last few years.

As a consequence, Huawei’s impressive rise has taken place despite any real penetration into the lucrative US market. There are even green shoots of optimism there, at least for Huawei’s smartphone and device business. Recent rumors suggest that AT&T will be the first major US network to carry a Huawei-branded smartphone.

Of course, carrier support is no guarantee of success, especially given the wide number of devices that fail despite such patronage. Andy Rubin’s Essential phone, for instance, was a flashy exclusive on Sprint but rumors suggest it’s sold fewer than 10,000 units so far. Then there’s the fact that selling Android smartphones is a potentially fruitless endeavor these days. Big companies like Sony, LG and HTC have all endured plenty of pain for doing so.

If Huawei has a defence against that, it’s the cosy relationship it has with many networks and its infrastructure business. It may not make huge profits building Android devices, but so long as its cheap white-label hardware works well with its own switches, networks will keep buying them.

As for the future, analysts believe that Huawei has a shot at the Number Two slot, overtaking Apple, in the next few years. Although it’s worth noting that, even as a Chinese superbrand, Huawei still faces the same existential threats as the rest of the smartphone world. That includes more upstart, zero-margin Chinese brands that will look to emulate the success of Huawei and BKK. Not to mention the fact that pretty much everyone who wants a smartphone has one already, and signs that the 24-month replacement cycle is coming to an end.

Of course, little matters unless Huawei’s phones have the class to woo undecided buyers into making a switch. Thankfully, there are reasons to adopt the devices, including a Leica partnership that is beginning to pay some real dividends. The P10, which launched earlier this year, has some serious imaging chops, and the monochrome mode produces beautiful imagery.

The Chinese company is gradually closing the technical (and aesthetic) gaps that keeps it separated from Samsung, Apple, LG and the rest. And as it does, the Huawei name will be brought up in more conversations when people are looking to buy their next devices. The evolution of Huawei’s smartphones should rightly make the bigger kids in the playground nervous.

19
Oct

Apple Store Remains Most Popular Destination to Purchase a Mac in the United States


Apple Stores continue to be the most popular destination to purchase a new Mac in the United States, according to a recent survey conducted by research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

Apple’s retail locations and online store accounted for roughly 40 percent of Mac sales between October 2016 and September 2017, based on 2,000 survey respondents who purchased a Mac during that period.

When the first Apple Stores opened in 2001, Apple was still known as Apple Computer, and the Mac was its primary product. Nowadays, of course, there is the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and beyond.

“Since Apple designed its stores originally to promote Mac computers, it is not surprising that that they continue to account for roughly 40 percent of Mac sales,” said Josh Lowitz, co-founder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

While it’s generally unsurprising that Apple is the most popular Mac retailer, given it creates the computers, it is still notable given there are often better deals available from third-party resellers like B&H and MacMall.

By comparison, the survey found only around 20 percent of iPads and 10 percent of iPhones were sold directly by Apple.


“Best Buy actually sells more iPads than Apple,” added Lowitz. “And, carrier stores have become a significant retailer of tablets.”

In terms of the iPhone, Apple had the lowest share of iPhone sales in the 12 months ending September 2017. Roughly 77 percent of customers made their purchase through a carrier like Verizon or AT&T, according to CIRP.

The research firm said sales can fluctuate based on the timing of product launches and during the back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons.

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19
Oct

Triby IO Smart Speaker and Switch Offers HomeKit Integration


Triby IO, a new smart home product from French company Invoxia, is a speaker that also doubles as a HomeKit switch, allowing HomeKit scenes to be added to the five buttons on the device.

Designed to be attached to the wall or placed in a room to serve as sort of a home hub and entertainment unit, Triby lets users listen to music and radio. Its HomeKit support is limited to the five buttons on the device, but switches, a new addition to HomeKit, are valuable in a HomeKit setup.

Switches are designed to let you activate a HomeKit scene that can incorporate multiple smart home products without the need to use your iPhone or Siri. There are options that are cheaper than the Triby, though, like the Hue Switch, if speaker functionality is unappealing.

Triby IO is actually the second-generation version of Triby. The first version offered support for Amazon Alexa, but did not include HomeKit integration.

Apple is planning to allow speakers with AirPlay 2 functionality to be controlled through HomeKit in the future, but AirPlay 2 will not be available until 2018, so that’s not the implementation that’s available in the Triby. It does, however, support the current implementation of AirPlay, so it can be used like any standard speaker.

According to Invoxia, the Triby features high quality acoustics and it also supports Amazon Alexa and IFTTT to connect to non-HomeKit smart home products. It also provides access to internet radio and Spotify through built-in integrations.

Triby can be purchased from the Invoxia website for $199.

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