The Geek’s Reading List – Week of April 1st 2016
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 12 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.
ps: It being April Fool’s day, there was a lot of noise in articles. I have done my best to eliminate pranks but nowadays it’s getting hard to tell them from real stories.
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1) XPoint Memory Chips Positioned for Rapid Adoption
XPoint is the memory technology announced by Intel and Micron a few months ago. It sounds pretty impressive but a lot of details remain unknown – most importantly pricing. Although significant strides have been made in flash memory, there appear to be inherent limits associated with wear. XPoint might be the answer – but only if pricing and densities can get to mainstream levels. Note that the article contradicts the first paragraph which states the devices are cheaper than NAND – in fact they are much more expensive.
“After years of searching for a better way to keep computers and other electronic devices from losing data when their power is shut off, Intel Corp. and Micron Technology Inc. are gearing up to produce a new kind of memory chip that’s not only “non-volatile” – allowing it to retain data when powered off – but also faster, cheaper and longer lasting than NAND flash, which dominates the current non-volatile memory market. The companies unveiled their jointly developed 3D XPoint (cross point) memory chips at a press conference last July, touting them as “the first new memory category in more than 25 years.” And while they may not reach full production during 2016, as planned, 3D XPoint sales should be underway at least by early 2017 and are forecast to grow quickly. Data storage consultant Coughlin Associates expects the new chips to generate between $663 million and $1.5 billion in annual sales by 2020. Analysts expect the new technology to help computer users with Big Data analysis and other memory-intensive tasks, and to allow Intel to sell faster processor chips.”
2) The FBI Has Successfully Unlocked The iPhone Without Apple’s Help
Unsurprisingly, the FBI has unlocked the iPhone used by the San Bernardino terrorists, and without Apple’s help. Apple and its acolytes have reacted with characteristic outrage and Apple had the cheek to “demand” the FBI tell it how it cracked the device. Despite the obvious implication that Apple devices are not as secure as the company claims, online commentators are reacting as though the FBI – in the process of investigating a terror attack – is in the wrong. The theater is somewhat amusing, until somebody gets hurt.
“”Our decision to conclude the litigation was based solely on the fact that, with the recent assistance of a third party, we are now able to unlock that iPhone without compromising any information on the phone,” U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement, adding that the investigation will continue to ensure that all of the evidence related to this terrorist attack is collected. The government is not saying exactly what data were found on the phone. DOJ spokeswoman Melanie Newman says the FBI is currently reviewing the information on the phone, consistent with standard investigatory procedures.”
3) Microsoft is bringing the Bash shell to Windows 10
If this had been published April 1st it would surely have been assumed to be an April Fool’s prank. Instead it appears to be legitimate: in the near future you will be able to run Linux “on top of” Windows 10 without dual booting your laptop. It will be interesting to see how this actually works. What is particularly puzzling is Microsoft’s business motivation behind this move.
“The native availability of a full Ubuntu environment on Windows, without virtualization or emulation, is a milestone that defies convention and a gateway to fascinatingly unfamiliar territory,” Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth said in a statement today. “In our journey to bring free software to the widest possible audience, this is not a moment we could have predicted. Nevertheless we are delighted to stand behind Ubuntu for Windows, committed to addressing the needs of Windows developers exploring Linux in this amazing new way, and excited at the possibilities heralded by this unexpected turn of events.”
4) Google Self-Driving Car Will Be Ready Soon for Some, in Decades for Others
This outline of the future of AVs is probably more realistic than most. It ain’t for nothing they mostly test AVs on good quality roads in great weather. Even if cost weren’t an issue (and it is a big issue) the hardest part of true autonomy would be when a driver can completely transfer control over to the car and fall asleep or read a book. That is a long way away.
“But last week in a speech at Austin’s South-by-Southwest, Urmson for the first time told a different story about both the delivery date and capabilities of its first self-driving cars. Not only might it take much longer to arrive than the company has ever indicated—as long as 30 years, said Urmson—but the early commercial versions might well be limited to certain geographies and weather conditions. Self-driving cars are much easier to engineer for sunny weather and wide-open roads, and Urmson suggested the cars might be sold for those markets first. Urmson put it this way in his speech. “How quickly can we get this into people’s hands? If you read the papers, you see maybe it’s three years, maybe it’s thirty years. And I am here to tell you that honestly, it’s a bit of both.””
5) Where’s the lane? Self-driving cars confused by shabby U.S. roadways
A major challenge with AVs will be the simple fact that a lot of roads are chronically in bad repair. It’s hard to keep in the lanes when the lanes aren’t marked (just wait until they discover snow!). Precision mapping isn’t really going to help matters since roadways can be altered, blocked, and so on. Eventually the sensors and software will adapt to these challenges but early on the solution will be straightforward: only allow limited AV on good roads in good weather.
“Volvo’s North American CEO, Lex Kerssemakers, lost his cool as the automaker’s semi-autonomous prototype sporadically refused to drive itself during a press event at the Los Angeles Auto Show. “It can’t find the lane markings!” Kerssemakers griped to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was at the wheel. “You need to paint the bloody roads here!” Shoddy infrastructure has become a roadblock to the development of self-driving cars, vexing engineers and adding time and cost. Poor markings and uneven signage on the 3 million miles of paved roads in the United States are forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps to compensate, industry executives say.”
6) Among iPhone Launches, the SE Is Indeed Small Edition – But it’s Bringing New Consumers to iPhone
Talk about burying the lede! The headline should be “iPhone SE sales 94% lower than iPhone 6S which was 46% less than iPhone 6”. Realistically the SE is targeting people who have an old iPhone 4 or 5, not a new demographic. With US a carrier having abandoned contracts, the “2 year replacement cycle” is history and people will hang on their phones as long as possible rather than paying full price for a new one. This isn’t an Apple problem, it is an industry problem that hurts the market leader most of all.
“Slice Intelligence just revealed the first online sales figures for the iPhone SE, which confirm that while fewer people rushed online to get the latest iPhone than they did for the most recent launches, those who did were more likely to be new to the iPhone. The number of iPhone SEs bought the first weekend of availability was 94 percent smaller than the iPhone 6S launch, which was 46 percent the number of iPhone 6 devices sold when it was released.”
7) Gartner Says Global Smartphone Sales to Only Grow 7 Per Cent in 2016
Gartner’s forecasts are not usually very useful but I agree with this one. A combination of factors – most significantly a mature market and feature saturation – means that consumers see no reason to “upgrade” their devices. After all, new phones aren’t much different from old phones and they cost money, especially in places like the US which has done away with subsidies. Note that a 7% increase in unit sales is not likely to result in an increase in pricing as low cost smartphones are a growing part of the market.
“Gartner, Inc. said global smartphone sales will for the first time exhibit single-digit growth in 2016. Global smartphone sales are estimated to reach 1.5 billion units in 2016, a 7 per cent growth from 2015. The total mobile phone market is forecast to reach 1.9 billion units in 2016.”
8) Don’t take my money: Why mobile payments haven’t taken off — yet
I can sort of understand mobile payments in places where there is no modern banking system. As it stands I have about 8 pieces of plastic in my wallet which I use for various payment systems and I don’t understand why I’d want another one. As a vendor I don’t see the advantage of having yet another piece of hardware on the counter for a trickle of potential customer who almost certainly have a credit or debit card anyway.
“The fact is, as of October 2015 (according to the latest quarterly survey conducted by PYMNTS and InfoScout), just 16.6 percent of iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus users had tried Apple Pay. And of those iPhone users who had tried Apple Pay, only 35 percent said they used it regularly — down from 48 percent six months earlier. A second survey by the mobile-research firm Crone Consulting found equally discouraging numbers for Android Pay and Samsung Pay. Among the 5 million Android Pay users, only 1 percent used it for at least two transactions a month; among 5 million Samsung Pay users, just 4 percent used it that often. (As for Apple Pay, Crone estimated 12 million users, of which 6 percent met that two-transaction minimum.)”
9) Tesla’s Model 3 Could Destroy Elon Musk’s Company
There was much hype and excitement over the “launch” of Tesla’s “low cost” EV, the Model 3. Somehow the company claims to have lured over 100,000 suckers to place a deposit for one before it had even been unveiled. “Launched” is too strong a term because there is very little actual information available on the vehicle, just lots of pictures. Of course, Tesla or GM can sell an EV for $35,000 – the question is whether they can turn a profit doing so. GM doesn’t have to. Tesla is a prodigious destroyer of capital and it needs gullible investors far more than gullible buyers. As the article implies the excitement over the Model 3 probably has more to do with a capital raise than a viable business plan.
“On Wednesday night Musk took the first step toward containing Model 3 hype, tweeting that “Tomorrow is Part 1 of the Model 3 unveil. Part 2, which takes things to another level, will be closer to production.” Tesla plans on launching the Model 3 in the last quarter of 2017, and given the firm’s consistent inability to meet its previous self-imposed deadlines it seems more than likely that the people lined up today won’t actually take delivery of their Model 3 until well into 2018. It’s highly unusual for an automaker to preview a production vehicle so far from its actual launch date for a variety of reasons: as Musk admits, the car is likely to change during the next two years of development work. In the meantime, a heavily hyped but unavailable car could cut into demand for Tesla’s existing models. With Tesla’s cash reserves falling below $1 billion and dwindling fast, the company might not survive long enough to launch the car people are currently lined up for.”
10) Intel Security’s International Internet of Things Smart Home Survey Shows Many Respondents Sharing Personal Data for Money
You’d think that consumers would be concerned about security and privacy but it seems it’s the opposite: they pretty much throw caution to the wind for a new gadget. After all, data you share is data which can be accessible through hacking and so on. I’m not sure I want to turn the keys to my house or security system over to another company’s hackers – and that doesn’t even address the question of non-existent IoT device security.
“A majority of respondents worldwide (54 percent) indicated they might be willing to share their personal data collected from their smart home with companies in exchange for money, and 70 percent agree companies should give coupons and discounts to customers in return for data about device usage, according to a survey of global consumers sponsored by Intel Security. The survey also found that 77 percent of respondents believe smart homes will be as common in 2025 as smartphones are today, but 66 percent are also very concerned about smart home data being hacked by cybercriminals.”
11) Malvertising Thrives in ‘Shady’ Parts of Highly-Automated Ad Networks
This article takes another look at malvertising, or Internet ads which deliver malware to your devices. Usually the ad brokers (Google et als) are the ones serving up the ads, not the websites, however, the more trusted a website the greater the odds somebody will click on the ad. I doubt Google wants to sell malvertising but it would cost money and take effort for them to stop it. The only thing a consumer can do it is install adblock type software and wait for the industry to clean itself up.
“For two days in mid-March, visitors to major news and information sites—such as the New York Times, Newsweek, The Hill and the Weather Network—may have been redirected to Web servers that attempted to infect visitors’ systems with a variant of the Angler exploit kit and, ultimately, ransomware. So far, the impact of the attack is unknown, but a single antivirus vendor, Trend Micro, recorded 41,000 infection attempts among its users between March 12 and 14. The attack hit visitors to AOL, the BBC, NFL, The Hill, Newsweek, the New York Times, MSN, Realtor.com, The Weather Network and the Xfinity portal, according to Malwarebytes, an endpoint security firm.”
12) Mattel fought elusive cyber-thieves to get $3M out of China
This is an illustration of “phishing” which almost worked out really well for the crooks. Unfortunately, it says a lot about a lack of financial controls at Mattel: all it took was an email for a $3M transfer to take place. Evidently, no invoice, packing slips, etc. – just an email. If I were a shareholder I’d wonder about the quality of financial controls at a company like that.
“The finance executive who got the note was naturally eager to please her new boss. She double-checked protocol. Fund transfers required approval from two high-ranking managers. She qualified and so did the CEO, according to a person familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter. He declined to reveal the finance executive’s name. Satisfied, the executive wired over $3 million to the Bank of Wenzhou, in China.”
13) Dropouts Need Not Apply: Silicon Valley Asks Mostly for Developers With Degrees
Code academies and other for-profit groups have an incentive to promote the myth that nobody in tech cares whether you have a degree or not. Trust me, as a guy who spent over 12 years in tech without a degree it matters a lot. Whatever the skills of the developer, HR departments ae all about mitigating risk for HR people and it is a lot safer to filter people on the basis of qualifications than on actual capabilities.
“But it turns out that tech companies are more likely than other employers to require college degrees when hiring software developers. Seventy-five percent of job ads for those roles at technology companies specify an educational requirement, compared with 58% of openings posted by the full universe of employers that are hiring software developers, according to Burning Glass Technologies, a labor-market data firm that analyzed 1.6 million ads for software-developer jobs nationwide. And in 95% of the tech-sector job ads that list a minimum credential, the employer calls for a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus 92% of the ads from all employers seeking developers.”
14) Scientists regenerate spinal cord in injured rats with stem cells
This might be a major advance, and not an unexpected one as stem cell research is moving along at a good rate. It is not entirely clear how much of an improvement was seen or how bad the damage was, but it is reasonable to believe that given the right chemical environment and the right types of cells it may be possible for significant damage to be repaired and a lot of function restored using this technique. As usual it is a long way away from human trials.
“With patches of stem cells on their broken spinal cords, partially paralyzed rats once again reached out and grabbed distant treats, researchers report in Nature Medicine. While previous studies have shown progress in regenerating certain types of nerve cells in injured spinal cords, the study is the first to coax the regrowth of a specific set of nerve cells, called corticospinal axons. These bundles of biological wiring carry signals from the brain to the spinal cord and are critical for voluntary movement. In the study, researchers were able to use stem cells from rats and humans to mend the injured rodents.”
15) It Has Fast Become Antiquated To Say That You Go Online
This article is more about our environment than about a technology. I thought it summarizes things rather well.
“You don’t really “go” online in 2016. Online is simply there, waiting. It’s what happens the moment you switch your devices on; it’s the default state of your office, your home, your vehicle, your stroll to the shops. We’ve been promised an Internet of Things for so long, now, that we’ve lost sight of what the phrase really signifies: a world in which the majority of digital chatter doesn’t involve us at all, but consists of internet-connected devices communicating with other internet-connected devices. Drop by drop, a shared ocean of data has accumulated across our world.”
16) Teens vastly prefer YouTube and Netflix to TV, don’t mind ads, report finds
Part and parcel with the cultural shift in online access has been the move away from broadcast, which can be considered a sort of centralized entertainment function, to streaming, which is highly personalized. Older folks remain committed to the traditional broadcast model of “news at 11” whereas millennials are far more comfortable with “what I want to see when I want to see it”. This is probably a good thing for content creators as they will be able to access viewers they would never have been able to in the past.
“According to a new survey from digital entertainment company Defy Media, Gen Z and young millennial consumers consider digital video “their daily lifeline.” The company’s fourth annual “Youth Media Diet” report — which Mashable got an early look at on Tuesday — suggests that a majority (65%) of 13-to-24-year-olds watch content from the start of their day (such as before school or work) straight through to the evening hours. Those surveyed said digital video serves as a mood lifter (57%) and stress reliever (61%), as well as a way to stay up to date on what’s trending or new (60%), to learn how to do something (47%) or to lull oneself to sleep (44%).”
17) Newspapers Gobble Each Other Up to Survive Digital Apocalypse
Streaming will result in a transformation of the video (and music) business but the newspaper business will likely go extinct. Consolidation of newspapers mostly leads to a lowering of standards and homogenization of content, as well as a sharp rise in advertorial content (paid advertising made to look like reporting). There might be some survivors who purport to have a quality product (post Iraq war I’m surprising anybody take the NY Times seriously) but for the most part they’ll just fade away.
“Newspapers have settled on a strategy to stop withering away: feast on each other for survival. For the owners of big-city dailies like the Chicago Tribune and Denver Post, buying smaller publications and slashing costs has become a way to buy time while figuring out how to make more money online. That was the logic behind the recent failed attempt by Tribune Publishing Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, to buy two Southern California newspapers. Last year, the industry saw the most deals for the largest amount of money since the 2008 financial crisis, with 70 daily newspapers being sold for a combined $827 million.”
18) Google disables April fool joke amid user fury after prank backfires
This appears to have been a joke gone awry, but I don’t know if the joke is in the reporting of the joke or whether it is real. I’d hope that any employer would find out what happened before firing somebody over something like this, especially on April Fool’s.
“One, who posted on the company’s Gmail help forum, wrote: “Thanks to Mic Drop I just lost my job. I am a writer and had a deadline to meet. I sent my articles to my boss and never heard back from her. I inadvertently sent the email using the ‘Mic Drop’ send button. There were corrections that needed to be made on my articles and I never received her replies. My boss took offence to the Mic Drop animation and assumed that I didn’t reply to her because I thought her input was petty (hence the Mic Drop). I just woke up to a very angry voicemail from her which is how I found out about this ‘hilarious’ prank.””
19) Kuvée is trying to reinvent wine with a ridiculous Wi-Fi bottle
This and the next item are explicitly not April Fool’s jokes. Yes – somebody has figured out a better way to sell wine.
“Using the bottle’s touchscreen, you can browse and purchase the other wines available through Kuvée. At launch, there are 48 wines from 12 wineries. “As wide of a variety that we can get,” says Ed Tekeian, Kuvée’s chief technology officer. For the most part, you’ll be looking at wines in the $15 to $30 range, with some going as high as $50 (all sold in standard, 750ml bottles). Kuvée is aiming for the wine drinker who wants something better than Two Buck Chuck, but isn’t regularly dropping money on fine, aged bottles. Because it’s promising 30 days of freshness, Kuvée imagines that its customers might keep open a couple bottles at a time — maybe a red and a white.”
20) A $700 Juice Box for the Kitchen That Caught Silicon Valley’s Eye
If you’ve ever wondered how out of touch Silicon Valley is, here is a product which has received $120 million in financing. It is a $700 machine which squishes a plastic bag for you. It has WiFi. Enough said.
“The machine itself is a white plastic slab roughly the size of a food processor. To get some juice, you insert a pouch that resembles an IV bag and press a button. A couple of minutes later, a thin stream of vividly colored liquid squirts into a glass. For health nuts willing to pay a premium, Juicero promises the platonic ideal of juice. Plus, the machine never needs to be cleaned. But getting from farm to glass involves a daunting mix of hardware, code and food processing. The arrangement relies on a smartphone app, always-on Wi-Fi, QR codes, high-tech packaging and an army of workers slicing fruits and vegetables in very particular ways.”