The Geek’s Reading List – Week of June 20th 2014
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 10 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) Chinese gov’t reveals Microsoft’s secret list of Android-killer patents
A peek behind the curtain at the methods used by the world’s largest patent troll. If the purpose of patents is to protect inventions from being copied, companies would make the patents, and their relationship to the inventions publicly known. If, on the other hand, the purpose of patents is extortion then the company would keep the relationship between the patents and the invention a secret, only disclosing the relevant patents after the victim company has invested in developing the product. To think this was once an innovative company.
“For more than three years now, Microsoft has held to the line that it has loads of patents that are infringed by Google’s Android operating system. “Licensing is the solution,” wrote the company’s head IP honcho in 2011, explaining Microsoft’s decision to sue Barnes & Noble’s Android-powered Nook reader. Microsoft has revealed a few of those patents since as it has unleashed litigation against Android device makers. But for the most part, they’ve remained secret. That’s led to a kind of parlor game where industry observers have speculated about what patents Microsoft might be holding over Android.”
2) The SSD Endurance Experiment: Casualties on the way to a petabyte
One of the few criticisms of Solid State Drives (SSDs) is that they “wear out” due to the limited number of writes. Of course, in most systems data is read an awful lot more than it is written, and Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) tend to fail in any of a number of ways. I have only had one SSD failure and that was in an OCZ drive, a company whose utter lack of quality control doomed it. In contrast I have had numerous failures from HDDs. In any event, as this article shows the durability of most SSDs is well beyond the figures implied by their manufacturers.
“I feel for the subjects of our SSD Endurance Experiment. They didn’t volunteer for this life. These consumer-grade drives could have ended up in a corporate desktop or grandma’s laptop or even an enthusiast’s PC. They could have spent their days saving spreadsheets and caching Internet files and occasionally making space for new Steam downloads. Instead, they ended up in our labs, on the receiving end of a torturous torrent of writes designed to kill them. Talk about a rough life.”
3) Driverless Cars Could Reduce Urban Traffic by 80 Percent
If you think about it, most cars spend most of their time being parked whereas driverless cars could be used almost 100% of the time so you would need fewer of them. Plus driverless cars could be safely packed closer together on roads, traffic patterns could be optimized, etc.. Of course the drawback to cars that would be used most of the time is that they would probably wear out sooner, though automation could probably ensure timely maintenance that most people seem to neglect.
“Driverless cars could take up to four-fifths of the traffic off the roads of Asia’s congested cities, in combination with sharing schemes, an expert told a city planning conference Tuesday. “In the end what is exciting, I think, is you’re going to have less cars on the road,” said Carlos Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab run by US-based university MIT.”
4) Supreme Court rules software patents that cover ‘abstract ideas’ are invalid
It isn’t often you see a unanimous decision out of the US Supreme Court so this appears to be a pretty solid victory for sanity. What is not clear, unfortunately, is how far a stupid software patent can go (and most of them are pretty damned stupid) before they are considered not patentable. Therefore, while this ruling may effect a range of issued patents, it seems likely the major effect will simply be to get new applicants to craft the wording of their claims more carefully.
“Software patents aren’t dead, but they just took a blow. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that a series of banking patents didn’t cover a concrete software process but an abstract idea, throwing them out and potentially setting a stricter precedent for future patents.”
5) Quantum or not, controversial computer runs no faster than a normal one
The D-Wave story is interesting, but for all the wrong reasons. The question of whether or not a particular computer is a breakthrough should not be controversial, especially for one costing over $10M. Historically any computing technology breakthrough has blown the doors off whatever came before and it does not appear that D-Wave’s equipment can do anything with the sort of orders of magnitude increase in performance implied by its price tag. Therefore, the issue as to whether it is “quantum” or not is mainly of interest to academics as it doesn’t seem to be very good bang for the buck – was it did, nobody would question that fact.
“The D-Wave computer, marketed as a groundbreaking quantum machine that runs circles around conventional computers, solves problems no faster than an ordinary rival, a new test shows. Some researchers call the test of the controversial device, described online today in Science, the fairest comparison yet. But D-Wave argues that the computations used in the study were too easy to show what its novel chips can do.”
6) Amazon’s Fire Phone might be the biggest privacy invasion ever (and no one’s noticed)
Smartphones are rapidly becoming commodities so I only bother posting stories when they represent some sort of breakthrough, and nowadays that it typically associated with price. Amazon made a lot of news this week with its announcement, but I confess I am utterly baffled by the Amazon Fire phone. First, it is very expensive: $749 for an unlocked 32 GB version, vs. about $360 for a Nexus 5. Second, it seems to be nothing more more than a sales channel for Amazon. I admit I buy stuff from Amazon occasionally, but not such that I want to pay them money for them to market to me. Furthermore, I know I am old school, but I have no desire to transfer all my data over to a retailer.
“Amazon is a fascinating company, and the Amazon Fire Phone is a fascinating machine for connecting you with stuff to buy. It’s probably also the biggest single invasion of your privacy for commercial purposes ever. And no one seems to have noticed.”
7) Chinese smartphone on sale on Amazon and eBay contains built-in malware
Another interesting smartphone story and for a not entirely different reason. At least this phone is really cheap despite being distributed with malware, rather unlike the Amazon Fire which you pay a huge premium for them to steal your data.
“A Chinese Android smartphone on sale on Amazon, eBay and other online stores has been found to contain a virus that pretends to be the Google Play Store but steals user data. The Star N9500, which closely resembles Samsung’s Galaxy S4 smartphone in appearance, is manufactured in China but sold online through resellers based in Belfast and Hong Kong.”
8) The BlackBerry Passport Is A Phablet With A Hardware Keyboard That Makes No Sense Whatsoever
This is my third weird mobile story of the week. I find it interesting to watch technology companies evaporate as Blackberry is doing. The Passport appears to be a slightly more unwieldy incarnation of their ‘Classic’ device, meaning a slightly larger (but not that much larger) display. And square corners. How this will stem the trend towards corporate BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is not really clear.
“Just when you think you might have figured out what BlackBerry is up to (a strong push in enterprise services and emerging markets like the Internet of Things) they go and do something like the BlackBerry Passport. The device broke cover today (via MobileSyrup) during the Canadian smartphone maker’s earnings call, and it’s set to be launched in September this year, following an official unveiling with more details about specs and pricing coming then.”
9) Gravity’s strength still an open question after latest measurement
You would think we’d have a pretty good idea of the value of a fundamental physical constant, especially one of the earliest ones ever defined. Not only do we not have a good idea what the actual number is, the experimental results are all over the map and don’t even seem to be converging on a particular value. How odd.
“You might expect that, all these years after Newton, we might have a good measure of his gravitational constant, G. As the authors of a new paper on the topic note, there are plenty of reasons to want a good measure of G “given the relevance of the gravitational constant in several fields ranging from cosmology to particle physics, and in the absence of a complete theory linking gravity to other forces.” Yet most of our measurements of G come from an updated version of a device designed by Henry Cavendish back in the 1700s. And rather annoyingly, these measurements don’t agree with each other—they’re all close to a single value, but their error bars don’t consistently overlap. Now, researchers have made a new measurement of G using a method that certainly wasn’t available in the 1700s: interference between clouds of ultracold atoms. And the value that they have come up with doesn’t agree with many of the other measurements, either.”
10) YouTube to block indie labels as subscription service launches
Anti-competitive behavior by tech giants like Google, Amazon, and others is not exactly new (witness the current dispute between Amazon and some publishers). Once the channel gets large enough it can dictate the terms and conditions under which suppliers can offer their good through it. I can almost understand how that works for physical goods because of the need for warehousing but I cannot grasp the problem with respect to music and video. Labels simply need to develop there own channel (which is not difficult) and tell Google to stuff it.
“YouTube will remove music videos by artists such as Adele, Arctic Monkeys and Radiohead, because the independent labels to which they belong have refused to agree terms with the site. Google, which owns YouTube, has been renegotiating contracts as it prepares to launch a music subscription service. A spokesperson for the indie labels said YouTube was making a “grave error of commercial judgment”. YouTube said it was bringing “new revenue streams” to the music industry.”
11) Code Spaces goes titsup FOREVER after attacker NUKES its Amazon-hosted data
This could be a story about how bad the cloud is, but it is really a story about a company with serious deficiencies in management. It appears they kept all their eggs (or, more correctly, their customer’s eggs) in one place, including backup. Its a bit like keeping all of your work, including backups ot all your work, on a single laptop and then losing that laptop. Of course, there is probably nothing left of Code Spaces to sue, but if there was it would make for a great shareholders’ suit.
“Source code hosting provider Code Spaces has suffered the ultimate cloud nightmare, having been effectively forced out of business by the actions of an attacker who managed to gain access to its Amazon EC2 control panel. The devastating incident began on June 17 when Code Spaces – a company that claimed to offer “Rock Solid, Secure and Affordable Svn Hosting, Git Hosting and Project Management” – became the target of a DDoS attack from an unknown party who demanded “a large fee” to make it stop.”
12) Sharp Develops Free-Form Display, Enables Vastly Greater Design Freedom for Displays
It takes a while to figure out whats new here. Traditionally, LCD displays have required a bezel, and, for whatever reason, those bezels have been rectangular, meaning whatever the shape of the visible part of the display, the assembly itself was always rectangular. Sharp’s new technology does away with the bezel, thereby allowing freeform shapes for the actual display. Besides allowing for unusual shapes of displays, this may permit the construction of arbitrarily large display through tiling.
“Sharp has developed the Free-Form Display, a revolutionary advance over the conventional display shape concept that enables the creation of new display designs to match a variety of applications. LCDs have contributed to the emergence and spread of a range of application products by offering not just display-related functions such as high brightness, wide viewing angle, high resolution, and superb color purity, but also by providing added value through, for example, greater environmental performance and a superior user interface thanks to touch-panel functions. In addition, LCD application product manufacturers want to offer consumers products with a more polished design, and Sharp has responded by providing these manufacturers with displays that boast features like slim profiles, light weight, and thin bezels.”
13) Chinese site in signal-jammer sting could pay record $34.9M FCC fine
Most people don’t know that signal-jamming is illegal in most countries, as is the manufacture of radio transmitters above a certain power level without certification because these can end up being signal-jammers. The FCC should probably have gone after the buyers rather than the manufacturer because there is virtually no chance they will collect the fine or even impede the manufacturer’s business through this move.
“A Chinese electronics vendor accused of selling signal jammers to U.S. consumers could end up leading the market in one dubious measure: the largest fine ever imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.”
14) Major new security feature coming in next Android and Windows Phone versions
It is about time this feature was implemented in Android and it is a bit surprising to see Android playing catch up to iPhone on a technology. Of course, regulators should have long ago demanded all stolen phone be rendered useless since it was built in to the original cellphone specification. I don’t see that the resale value of a Windows phone would be that high since demand seems rather modest, but it good they are joining the club.
“In addition to replacing Dalvik with ART, which should bring performance improvements and better battery life, the next Android version has apparently been confirmed to feature a new significant security feature that will help users better protect their data when losing their devices, and especially when having them stolen. The same feature is coming to Windows Phone handsets as well.”
15) Light ahead in fight against degenerative blindness
This is an encouraging update on the fight against some of the common causes of blindness. My ill-informed view is that genetic and stem cell approaches will probably be the most successful over time, provided nerve damage is limited, then implants will be a more effective approach. One thing about implants is that their cost will doubtless drop as their capabilities improve, but the cost of the implant procedure will likely remain high.
“Once doomed to a life of darkness, dozens of people stricken by retinal diseases are rediscovering a world of light as scientists push ahead on cures for blindness. Already, bionic retinas enable blind people to “see” sidewalks, doorways and even oversized text while gene therapy has allowed a small boy to put away his white cane and take up Little League baseball.”
16) Taiwan’s Quanta to start mass production of Apple’s smartwatch in July: source
Never before in tech history has an unannounced product been subject to as much hysterical speculation and anticipation, except, perhaps, the Segway. I am actually looking forward to the iWatch so it can flop as thoroughly as all of the other smartwatches have, then I won’t have to read six articles a week speculating as to the life changing nature of the iWatch.
“Taiwan’s Quanta Computer Inc will start mass production of Apple Inc’s first smartwatch in July, a source familiar with the matter said, as the U.S. tech giant tries to prove it can still innovate against rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd. The watch, which remains unnamed but which company followers have dubbed the iWatch, will be Apple’s first foray into a niche product category that many remain skeptical about, especially as to whether it can drive profits amid cooling growth in tech gadgets.”
17) Battery-topped electric buses flash charge in 15 seconds
The idea is probably not a bad one as electric buses are already pretty expensive, and the cost of cabling can be pretty high. Plus, the buses can only go where the cables go. Because this system only provides enough charge to get to the next station, charging can be prompt and transparent, provided there are passengers getting on and off the bus. This configuration means a small storage system, which would be correspondingly less expensive. It is not clear what type of battery is being used: batteries have a limited number of charge cycles, so the savings in battery size would be more than offset by the reduced life of the battery and maintenance costs. However, if these are ultra-capacitors (which charge very quickly, have long lives, but low power density) it just might work.
“In Geneva, Switzerland, the TOSA (Trolleybus Optimisation Système Alimentation) pilot project is testing electric buses with an unusual method for keeping charged up. The articulated bus has a battery pack on top of the vehicle. When it pulls into certain stations, it connects through a robotic arm to what is essentially an electric bus dock. A 15-second rapid flash charge helps to keep the buses running all day.”
18) Do salamanders hold the key to limb regeneration?
Limb regeneration would certainly be a boon to human health – I’d like to have the full function of my left hand and left leg back, if even just an improvement. The problem is that amphibians have a lifecycle which is completely different from most critters: after hatching as legless tadpoles they eventually grow rear limbs then forelimbs. In other words, they remodel their bodies as they mature. It is a good guess the ability to regrow limbs is an ancient vestige of this lifecycle and the 400 million years or so of evolutionary history between them and us means a fix is going to be very hard to find.
“The secret of how salamanders successfully regrow body parts is being unravelled by University College London researchers in a bid to apply it to humans. For the first time, researchers have found that the ‘ERK pathway’ must be constantly active for salamander cells to be reprogrammed, and hence able to contribute to the regeneration of different body parts.”
19) Radios Give IoT New Channels
Having a low power, narrowband (i.e. slow speed), long range, version of WiFi would be a real boon to Internet of Things (IoT) consumers, manufacturers and developers. This would especially be the case is if routers, laptops, etc., incorporate the new standard because new IoT gizmos would more or less simply appear as devices on the network and an intelligent hub could coordinate information locally. WiFi is becoming ubiquitous even in factory or commercial settings and this approach will similarly simplify deployment in those environments.
“The emerging 802.11ah specification for running low-power WiFi over 900 MHz at distances up to a kilometer is one of the most promising new radios. “We believe this new standard is a very strong candidate for IoT applications in smart homes and buildings where a WiFi router is nearby,” says Kathleen Philips, who heads an ultra-low-power wireless research program at the Holst Center, a partner with Imec in the Netherlands.”
20) NSA jitters are ‘just a bummer’ for cloud growth, HP says
There are plenty of things to be worried about use (or misuse) of cloud services long before you get to the NSA. For example, if you business is dependent on a service provider, and that service provider goes down, your business goes down and there is nothing you can do about it. Similarly, if you use a cloud-based accounting system, don’t expect anybody to make it easy for you to migrate to a rival system: it is going to be a one-way street. Yes, the NSA (and, in fact, all US legal and intelligence agencies) have free access to your data if it happens to be located in the US, or hosted by a US based company, but rest assured the NSA will gain access to it regardless of where it is hosted.
“Revelations about U.S. National Security Agency snooping have made some buyers outside the U.S. think twice about public clouds, placing a drag on one of the world’s biggest technology trends, the head of Hewlett-Packard’s enterprise group said. Bill Veghte, executive vice president and general manager of the HP Enterprise Group, joined the chorus of tech executives lamenting a new wariness among customers just hours after Amazon.com CTO Werner Vogels said his company had seen no impact.”