The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 2nd 2015
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!
Another blindingly slow week in tech. Most articles were “best of” and other filler. Nothing of any significance or importance seemed to be announced. Next week should be a bit better as many announcements are timed to coincide with the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, whether those are CES related or not. This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
Happy New Year!
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1) ‘Connected life’ at the heart of CES electronics show
Internet of Things (IoT) may be the hottest topic in tech right now but I don’t buy into the idea it is what people think it is. Yes, there are all kinds of connected products being announced but most represent a solution in search of a problem. Besides inter-connectivity and a lack of standards, the cost/benefit analysis appears to be missing most of the benefit bits. It remains to be seen whether the average consumer is capable of setting these things up, or if CE firms can deal with the myriad of issues associated with wonky router set ups, etc.. And then there is the fact most such products use a cloud service, meaning the functionality will be present only up to the point where it will be actively supported.
“In the air, in your car, on your back—new technology at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show is showcasing the growing number of ways to live the “connected life.” The so-called “Internet of Things” is leading to a wider range of wearable tech, from sports shirts to smart watches to sleep monitors to connected refrigerators. The vast 2015 International CES, one of the world’s biggest electronics fairs to be held in Las Vegas January 6-9, shows how technology is permeating virtually all sectors of life—from entertainment to automobiles to kitchen appliances, in sectors including health, fashion and sports. “The ‘Internet of Things’ is the hottest topic in tech right now,” said Karen Chupka of the Consumer Electronics Association, which organizes the annual event.”
2) Police suspect fraud took most of Mt. Gox’s missing bitcoins
File this under “no sh*t Sherlock.” (Some email servers bounce swear words. Sorry). I could, and did, say as much when the first Bitcoin hacks were announced. The less regulated a financial structure, the higher the probability of fraud and, therefore, an unregulated financial structure has a near 100% probability of fraud. Not only that, but there has never been a successful prosecution of theft or fraud of a virtual currency, so “stealing” Bitcoin isn’t even illegal, making it the perfect crime. It is even hard to pity the victims.
“Nearly all of the roughly US$370 million in bitcoin that disappeared in the February 2014 collapse of Mt. Gox probably vanished due to fraudulent transactions, with only 1 percent taken by hackers, according to a report in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, citing sources close to a Tokyo police probe. Of the 650,000 bitcoins unaccounted for — worth about US$208 million today — only about 7,000 appear to have been purloined by hackers, the newspaper reported on New Year’s Day, adding that investigators have yet to identify who was responsible.”
3) Grocery delivery start-up Instacart raises $210 million from investors
If you have any doubts as to whether we are in Dot Com Bubble 2.0, the fact that anybody, let alone purported “experts” would invest in a grocery delivery business, no matter what the valuation, should put those to rest. Of course, the hope among the venture capitalists is not that this rather stupid and well worn business model would make money, but that they can IPO the pig and cash in before the music stops. Stories such as these help build legitimacy to banal ideas, as they did last go around. The public markets haven’t really gone parabolic yet, but when they do you can start the countdown clock to implosion.
“Venture capital funding is pouring into the space. More than $1.6 billion was invested last year into food-related tech companies, up 33% from $1.2 billion in 2012, according to a report by consulting firm Rosenheim Advisors. Instacart shoppers browse online and pick out groceries at supermarkets that have partnered with Instacart. Once an order is placed, Instacart dispatches a “personal shopper” who will polish off the list and then deliver the bags to a buyer’s doorstep.”
4) How Tesla Boosted Its Roadster’s Range by 50 Percent
Even the Tesla news this week wasn’t significant. My read on this is simple: the last Roadster was made in 2011, suggesting the average age of the fleet if probably around 5 years. Over the next 3 years an increasing number of Roadster owners are going to lean a cold reality of EVs: battery packs are staggeringly expensive and don’t last long. Therefore a cynic might conclude this is simply an effort to mask that problem. I would not be surprised if the “upgrade” is heavily subsidized by the company because the looming PR disaster would have a greater impact on Model S sales than the subsidy would cost. Of course, having to replace the drive system in every vehicle sold in Norway hasn’t impinged upon the company’s somewhat undeserved reputation for quality, so why worry?
“Part of the Roadster’s range boost will come from using tires with less rolling resistance and from making modifications to the car’s body that improve its aerodynamics. But the biggest improvement comes from increasing the energy density of the battery pack. Each pack contains thousands of cylindrical battery cells that look similar to AA batteries. “Cell technology has improved substantially” since Tesla designed the Roadster, the company said in its announcement. For the upgrade it will replace the original cells with new ones that store 31 percent more energy.”
5) Samsung pulls ahead of Apple in consumer satisfaction
Frankly, this is a rather baffling result. Apple spends gazillions on ad campaigns to convince Apple owners their gadgets are the latest breakthrough in technology, despite being in most cases overpriced, well behind the curve, and derivative. Apple also spends a lot of money offering a top notch customer experience. Fundamentally, marketing is responsible for Apple’s astronomical margins, not technology. Meanwhile, Samsung takes a nonchalant approach to promoting its wares and has, at best, a mediocre customer experience. Of course, if these results are true, then the Apple model is breaking down and they are in serious trouble. I believe it is too early for that. It will happen, but it is not happening.
“Customers in 2014 who bought a Samsung smartphone are more satisfied than those who purchased an Apple device, according to a new report from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. The report, which was formally released today, details American consumers’ happiness with smartphones and other mobile cellular devices. In 2013, the ACSI found that 81 percent of consumers were satisfied with their Apple smartphones, while only 76 percent of consumers were satisfied with Samsung. But the two fierce mobile competitors nearly swapped places in 2014, with Samsung taking the lead at 81 percent satisfaction – a 6.6 percent change from 2013, and an 11 percent change from the first year of data, all the way back in 2004 – and Apple dropping to only 79 percent satisfaction, a loss of 2.5 percent.”
6) Review: IPhone user tries to go back to BlackBerry
Frankly I was expecting the conclusion: going from a modern smartphone to a Blackberry is a bit like going back to a flip phone. I prefer a keyboard, but a keyboard isn’t going to get me back onto a tired platform. Near the end of the review he hits upon the reason Blackberry’s problems are terminal: you can’t really run most of the apps you want to run. If you’ve never used a modern smartphone, that might not be a big deal, but that’s why Blackberries can only ever appeal to a shrinking subset of existing Blackberry owners. Plus your buddies make fun of you.
“More importantly, BlackBerry lacks several apps I’ve come to depend on. The Classic will run some Android apps through Amazon’s app store, but it’s a subset of what’s available for Android. It doesn’t even run everything that would run on Amazon’s Fire phone. Apps need to be tweaked for the phone’s 3.5-inch screen (The display is smaller than most phones because the physical keyboard takes up much of the bottom). There’s no Instagram, no Uber car service—at least without relying on unofficial apps or complex, backdoor installation methods.””
7) Ultra HD 4K and beyond: Rec. 2020 glimpses the future of TVs
There are two aspects to HDTV: one is the sale of consumer sets and the other is the sale of broadcast and studio infrastructure equipment. I believe 4K TV sets are a bit like 3D HDTVs in that few people will have any interest in them until the price gap between 4K and HD becomes essentially zero – as is rapidly becoming the case. I do not believe we will see the same transition to 4K as we saw with HDTV on the broadcast side. An HD studio had to be end-to-end HD in order to be HD, whereas 4K can be reserved for special events and may not even be broadcast as such. For example, a sports event might be captured in 4K but, because of the superior resolution, the director could “post zoom” on a goal or other event. Either way, 4K is not going to make much of a dent in the market.
“The International Telecommunications Union is the regulatory body that establishes the parameters by which all TVs and their related paraphernalia (cameras, etc.) work. Without them, every TV show would look different on every TV. To help with the adoption of Ultra HD, otherwise known as “4K,” they’ve put out the sexy sounding Recommendation ITU-R BT.2020. What does it mean for you?”
8) Uber shuts down in Spain after telcos block access to its app
Well, that’s one way of making sure your taxi-drivers don’t have any competition! I don’t know enough about the situation in Spain, however, I strongly suspect the now monotonous rage against Uber has more to do with the fact, at least in North America, most taxi licenses are owned by politically connected rich people who rent them out to drivers who make a very modest income. That is an obsoleted system, but the status quo has a way of looking after itself – consumers be damned. Not that I think Uber is a sound investment: the technology is pretty commonplace and easily replicated. Heck, even cab companies are starting to use dispatch apps.
“Uber Technologies temporarily shut down in Spain late Tuesday evening, several weeks after a judge ordered the company to suspend its ride-sharing service. The San Francisco-based car services company has run into similar roadblocks across the world as it tries to take on the taxi industry, one of the most heavily regulated. Authorities from Nevada to New Delhi have ordered Uber to shut down. But in Spain, the courts went a step farther. A judge on Dec. 9 ordered payment companies to stop working with Uber and telecom companies to block access to the service. On Christmas, telecom companies began to comply, blocking access to uber.com and connectivity to the smartphone app.”
9) The Patriot Act Is Cannibalizing America’s Economic Edge
The only thing the Patriot Act did was formalize what was happening illegally in the background. Even so, despite the fact the rules had changed under the guise of national security this was all hiding in plain sight – we were writing about it years before the Snowden revelations. Since US tech titans were largely the perpetrators, these changes most affect foreign customers. Most foreign governments would have been well aware of the spying, with the friendly ones collaborating and the unfriendly ones being cautious. The real damage would be to foreign companies who were made aware cloud services (US based or otherwise) are not trustworthy, that their networks has NSA back doors (which could be exploited by anybody, really). This should cause a permanent impairment to the competitiveness of US tech firms but I doubt it will. After all, we see the countermeasures frequently now (Microsoft “fighting” for its customers privacy, etc.) even though this is mostly theater.
“You would think that when tech companies, the ACLU and the NRA unite for the same cause, the federal government would listen. That was not the case in this year’s USA FREEDOM Act vote where the Senate voted against reforms that would stop the NSA from collecting phone metadata. The majority opinion prioritized protectionism—the idea that phone-record collection could stop threats like ISIS from endangering U.S. citizens—over economic growth. Such myopic attachment to the tools of defense, without consideration of their big-picture relevance, puts the $5.7 trillion U.S. IT industry in danger of losing its competitive advantage.”
10) (Indian) Government blocks over 60 websites including github & sourceforge on anti-terror advisory
Talk about a brute force approach: some clown figures out that some content on these website is being used by ISIS so they block the sites, even though they could have been far more selective and even though it will take all of a few minutes for ISIS to move its content to other sites. Since Github, Sourceforge, and other such sites are also (mostly, in fact) used to distribute Free and Open Source Software, something which might be of considerable value to the Indian economy, you have to wonder what they are thinking.
“Over 60 websites and links, including popular online tools like Github and Sourceforge used by thousands of programmers have been blocked in India, triggering angry protests by Internet users. The websites were blocked for hosting content that is pro terrorist group ISIS and not cooperating with government investigations, officials said.”
11) Politician’s fingerprint reproduced using photos of her hands
Fingerprint authentication is a simple method for securing things such as smartphones and laptops. Like any such system, it can be spoofed as these enterprising hackers have demonstrated. I wouldn’t worry: this is a lot of work to go through and, unless you are a celebrity with compromising photos on your smartphone you probably don’t need to be concerned someone will do this to you. Cool nevertheless.
“Last week at a Chaos Computer Club (CCC) convention in Hamburg, Germany, German hacker Starbug claimed he reproduced a fingerprint belonging to German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen using nothing but some commercially available software and a number of high-resolution photos of her hand. Starbug, whose real name is Jan Krissler, said that he used a close-up photo of von der Leyen’s thumb that was taken with a “standard photo camera” at a press conference from a distance of three meters (about 10 feet). He also used several other pictures of her thumb which had been taken from different angles at different times. Then, according to VentureBeat, Starbug used a program called Verifinger to recreate the print.”
12) The rise and fall of fitness trackers
I reiterate that the predictions of the likes of Gartner are probably not as good as chance (chance doesn’t preach to a payign choir). Predictions based up the assumption a new product will displace an existing product assume said new product will be successful. Thus far, “smartwatches” have been a flop and there is no reason whatsoever to assume Apple’s will be any different. Besides if you confront consumers with imaginary choices they give you imaginary answers. I believe the wearables market – smartwatches or fitness trackers – will remain an irrelevant sideshow in the technology world.
“Wearable tech is dedicated to staying on your wrist, but its face is changing fast. Headed into 2015, the wearable market will soon be bidding a slow farewell to the dominance of screen- and app-less fitness wristbands and trackers, like the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP, and welcoming in the era of smartwatches, with the Apple Watch front and center. The global fitness wearable market, which includes fitness wristbands, sport watches and smart garments, is expected to shrink next year from 70 million units sold to 68 million, according to a November report from analyst firm Gartner. Smart wristband shipments are expected to fall by 15 percent to 17 million units, while smartwatches are expected to jump 17 percent to 21 million shipments, eclipsing the former as the most successful wearable design to date.”
13) Robber barons and silicon sultans
Many years ago I read a fair bit about the “robber barons” and their various misdeeds (few of which are detailed in this article, despite being very seriously bad). For example, it might be a chuckle to read about Henry Ford trying to teach farmers, but his role in anti-Semitic newspapers and publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was somewhat less amusing and should provide a warning for what happens when the very rich involve themselves in politics. Mind you, unlike the original robber barons, no Silicon Valley billionaire has used heavy machine guns to disperse crowds. Yet. Appearances ot the contrary, the interests and the objectives of the very, very rich do not align with those of the common man. They didn’t then and they don’t now.
“Both groups started dreaming ever bigger dreams. The robber barons turned their hands to solving social problems. Ford led a peace convoy to Europe to put an end to war. When he arrived in Norway and gave the locals a long lecture on tractor production in faltering Norwegian, a local commented that you have to be a very great man to say such foolish things. In the Valley, extending life to 100 or 120 is a passion; Mr Thiel even talks about abolishing death. Reforming the state is another hobby; again Mr Thiel takes things to the limit with a project to establish a collection of floating city states in international waters outside the reach of governments. Reinventing food—creating meat substitutes in particular—is another recent craze: Messrs Brin, Gates and Thiel have invested in alternative food companies.”
14) The One Mistake Google Keeps Making
I do wish he hadn’t chose Tesla (a regulatory arbitrage which will collapse with subsidies or when enough Teslas outlive their batteries) or Virgin Galactic (an amusement ride for rich celebrities who think that a short suborbital flight will make them astronauts). Nonetheless, one should not confuse Google, Apple, or Microsoft, with normal businesses as the author does at the end of the piece. They are different and as a result spin off so much cash that nobody really cares how much they could be making if they didn’t waste it. One favorite waste of cash among such firms is acquiring staggeringly overpriced small companies o the theory that it is better to give the money to the shareholders of other companies than your own. I’m not entirely sure all of Google’s adventures are mistakes, however. If the company believes that extending and expanding Internet use is important to its core business, they might be looking at the indirect return on investment.
“And great ideas keep coming from Google. Yet the company continues to make the same mistake. Over and over. I don’t mean the ones that result in product failures (and there have been quite a few over the years). I mean something a little more fundamental. Take Google Glass. For those that haven’t seen it, it’s a pair of glasses that understands your verbal commands so that it can instantly perform tasks for you, like snapping a photo, taking a video, providing driving directions or searching a database. Glass is a great idea with great technology. It demonstrates the future power of the Internet of Things. There’s just one problem: no one is buying it.”
15) Google to FCC: if the internet is a Title II utility, let us expand Fiber
Speaking of dumb ideas, one what was tagged as such when announced was Google Fiber. The regulatory environment in the US and Canada is very much constructed to limit competition in telecommunications services. Different systems are used (for example, in Canada, foreign ownership rules pretty much ensure no well capitalized challengers), but the result is the same. Government regulators are too stupid or too corrupt (I prefer to believe the latter as the former is too frightening to consider) to do anything about it. The cost of Internet services should have dropped dramatically but the US and Canada lags much of the world in terms of price or speed of service. This article provides an example as to why this might be the case, at least in the US.
“Google is often forced to dig trenches for its Fiber internet, limiting the highly sought service to just a few communities so far. That’s because access to poles, ducts and conduits (at a tenth the cost) is limited by federal law to traditional cable TV and telecom suppliers. Google doesn’t legally fit that definition, even though it provides internet-based TV and telephone services. It has had pole access hassles in the past with carriers like AT&T, which said last year that that it would cooperate more with Google only when it “qualifies as a telecom or cable provider” under federal law.”
16) United Airlines sues 22-year-old who found way to get cheaper plane tickets
Unfortunately, the US has a very limited ‘loser pays’ rule meaning being sued can be as financially devastating as losing, providing ample opportunity for anti-competitive moves by corporations. In this case, we have some kid who is simply providing publicly available information and allowing a sort of schedule arbitrage. The should be plenty of examples for this since so little of airline fares make sense (it can often cost more to fly directly to an airport than to take a 2 stop flight and get off early). Needless to say, Zaman will probably be shut down, but hopefully, somebody else will simply replicate the service offshore. After all, the solution to irrational pricing is not lawsuits but making the pricing rational.
“United Airlines and Orbitz filed a civil lawsuit last month against 22-year-old Aktarer Zaman, who founded the website Skiplagged.com last year. The site helps travelers find cheap flights by using a strategy called “hidden city” ticketing. The idea is that you buy an airline ticket that has a layover at your actual destination. Say you want to fly from New York to San Francisco — you actually book a flight from New York to Lake Tahoe with a layover in San Francisco and get off there, without bothering to take the last leg of the flight.”
17) Apple sued over iPhone, iPad storage
Speaking of the US tort system, we have hear an example of humanity’s head lice, namely US class action lawyers. The game here is to manufacture outrage by finding some gap between what is and what should be. In this case, presumably, no OS upgrade should occupy more storage than the original one, regardless of enhanced functionality. Assuming the suit gets certified, as undoubtedly it will, accusations will fly and there will be a settlement: “aggrieved” Apple owners will get a coupon worth a few dollars discount off their next purchase whereas 40% or so of the “justice” will be meted out to the imaginative lawyers who made the whole thing up.
“Ever wonder why there never is enough space on your iPhone or iPad? A lawsuit filed this week against Apple Inc. alleges that upgrades to the iOS 8 operating system are to blame, and that the company has misled customers about it. In the legal complaint filed in California, Miami residents Paul Orshan and Christopher Endara accuse Apple of “storage capacity misrepresentations and omissions” relating to Apple’s 8 GB and 16GB iPhones, iPads and iPods. Orshan has two iPhone 5 and two iPads while Endara had purchased an iPhone 6.”
18) Microsoft builds IE’s younger brother, codenamed Spartan: report
This is how slow a week it has been: there were dozens of stories about how Microsoft is coming out with a new browser. Whoop de freakin’ do! Perhaps it won’t be as bad as Internet Explorer, whose market share is an ongoing source of bafflement to me, but people will still have to keep a copy of Internet Explorer on their system to access websites which are so badly written you can only use IE to access them.
“When Windows 10 ships next year, it’ll include a new browser – but the software, code-named “Spartan,” might not be an update to Internet Explorer. Microsoft may be building an entirely new, light-weight browser to better compete with Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, according to a report from CNET’s Mary Jo Foley.”
19) New Clues In Sony Hack Point To Insiders, Away from DPRK
The first source for this was the World Wide Socialist Website, but I figured most folk wouldn’t want to be pitched Trotsky in the GRL. The second was Time Magazine, which isn’t much better, propaganda wise. It was remarkable how quickly the media accepted the narrative blaming North Korea, though, admittedly, it was a logical conclusion (unlike, say, the narrative Iraq was responsible for 9/11). If I were an ex-Sony employee who had perpetrated the hack I would now be very, very worried: stealing proprietary data is one thing, threatening terrorist acts is another.
“A strong counter-narrative to the official account of the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment has emerged in recent days, with the visage of the petulant North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, replaced by another, more familiar face: former Sony Pictures employees angry over their firing during a recent reorganization at the company. Researchers from the security firm Norse allege that their investigation of the hack of Sony has uncovered evidence that leads, decisively, away from North Korea as the source of the attack. Instead, the company alleges that a group of six individuals is behind the hack, at least one a former Sony Pictures Entertainment employee who worked in a technical role and had extensive knowledge of the company’s network and operations.”
20) Academic Journals: The Most Profitable Obsolete Technology in History
This is a very frustrating subject for me, but it might be an object lesson in how to run a “cash cow” type business. Setting aside the evil which is Elsevier, they probably recognize that their era is drawing to an end thanks to the Internet so they are probably structuring their subscriptions to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of universities and hospitals as they can. After all they know these institutions are not exactly paradigms of efficiency, however, if they squeeze too hard, they will accelerate their own demise, and if they squeeze too soft they won’t maximize their cash flow. Incredibly, despite the fact it should be self evident their days are numbered and that they are the next Encyclopedia Brittanica, the stock has been on fire since 2012 …
“The music business was killed by Napster; movie theaters were derailed by digital streaming; traditional magazines are in crisis mode–yet in this digital information wild west: academic journals and the publishers who own them are posting higher profits than nearly any sector of commerce. Academic publisher Elsevier, which owns a majority of the prestigious academic journals, has higher operating profits than Apple. In 2013, Elsevier posted 39 percent profits, according to Heather Morrison, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Information Studies in contrast to the 37 percent profit that Apple displayed.”