“This program had absolutely nothing to do with race… but multi-variable equations.” That’s what Brett Goldstein, a former policeman for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and current Urban Science Fellow at the University of Chicago’s School for Public Policy, said about a predictive policing algorithm he deployed at the CPD in 2010. His algorithm tells police where to look for criminals based on where people have been arrested previously. It’s a “heat map” of Chicago, and the CPD claims it helps them allocate resources more effectively. Chicago police also recently collaborated with Miles Wernick, a professor of electrical engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology, to algorithmically generate a “heat list” of 400 individuals it claims have the highest chance of committing a violent crime. In response to criticism, Wernick said the algorithm does not use “any racial, neighborhood, or other such information” and that the approach is “unbiased” and “quantitative.” By deferring decisions to poorly understood algorithms, industry professionals effectively shed accountability for any negative effects of their code. But do these algorithms discriminate, treating low-income and black neighborhoods and their inhabitants unfairly? It’s the kind of question many researchers are starting to ask as more and more industries use algorithms to make decisions. It’s true that an algorithm itself is quantitative – it boils down to a sequence of arithmetic steps for solving a problem. The danger is that these algorithms, which are trained on data produced by people, may reflect the biases in that data, perpetuating structural racism and negative biases about minority groups. There are a lot of challenges to figuring out whether an algorithm embodies bias. First and foremost, many practitioners and “computer experts” still don’t publicly admit that algorithms can easily discriminate. More and more evidence supports that not only is this possible, but it’s happening already. The law is unclear on the legality of biased algorithms, and even algorithms researchers don’t precisely understand what it means for an algorithm to discriminate. Is bias baked in? Justin Ruckman, CC BY Being quantitative doesn’t protect against bias Both Goldstein and Wernick claim their algorithms are fair by appealing to two things. First, the algorithms aren’t explicitly fed protected characteristics such as race or neighborhood as an attribute. Second, they say the algorithms aren’t biased because they’re “quantitative.” Their argument is an appeal to abstraction. Math isn’t human, and so the use of math can’t be immoral. Sadly, Goldstein and Wernick are repeating a common misconception about data mining, and mathematics in general, when it’s applied to social problems. The entire purpose of data mining is to discover hidden correlations. So if race is disproportionately (but not explicitly) represented in the data fed to a data-mining algorithm, the algorithm can infer race and use race indirectly to make an ultimate decision. Here’s a simple example of the way algorithms can result in a biased outcome based on what it learns from the people who use it. Look at how how Google search suggests finishing a query that starts with the phrase “transgenders are”: Taken from Google.com on 2015-08-10. Autocomplete features are generally a tally. Count up all the searches you’ve seen and display the most common completions of a given partial query. While most algorithms might be neutral on the face, they’re designed to find trends in the data they’re fed. Carelessly trusting an algorithm allows dominant trends to cause harmful discrimination or at least have distasteful results. Beyond biased data, such as Google autocompletes, there are other pitfalls, too. Moritz Hardt, a researcher at Google, describes what he calls the sample size disparity. The idea is as follows. If you want to predict, say, whether an individual will click on an ad, most algorithms optimize to reduce error based on the previous activity of users. But if a small fraction of users consists of a racial minority that tends to behave in a different way from the majority, the algorithm may decide it’s better to be wrong for all the minority users and lump them in the “error” category in order to be more accurate on the majority. So an algorithm with 85% accuracy on US participants could err on the entire black sub-population and still seem very good. Hardt continues to say it’s hard to determine why data points are erroneously classified. Algorithms rarely come equipped with an explanation for why they behave the way they do, and the easy (and dangerous) course of action is not to ask questions. Those smiles might not be so broad if they realized they’d be treated differently by the algorithm. Men image via www.shutterstock.com Extent of the problem While researchers clearly understand the theoretical dangers of algorithmic discrimination, it’s difficult to cleanly measure the scope of the issue in practice. No company or public institution is willing to publicize its data and algorithms for fear of being labeled racist or sexist, or maybe worse, having a great algorithm stolen by a competitor. Even when the Chicago Police Department was hit with a Freedom of Information Act request, they did not release their algorithms or heat list, claiming a credible threat to police officers and the people on the list. This makes it difficult for researchers to identify problems and potentially provide solutions. Legal hurdles Existing discrimination law in the United States isn’t helping. At best, it’s unclear on how it applies to algorithms; at worst, it’s a mess. Solon Barocas, a postdoc at Princeton, and Andrew Selbst, a law clerk for the Third Circuit US Court of Appeals, argued together that US hiring law fails to address claims about discriminatory algorithms in hiring. The crux of the argument is called the “business necessity” defense, in which the employer argues that a practice that has a discriminatory effect is justified by being directly related to job performance. According to Barocas and Selbst, if a company algorithmically decides whom to hire, and that algorithm is blatantly racist but even mildly successful at predicting job performance, this would count as business necessity – and not as illegal discrimination. In other words, the law seems to support using biased algorithms. What is fairness? Maybe an even deeper problem is that nobody has agreed on what it means for an algorithm to be fair in the first place. Algorithms are mathematical objects, and mathematics is far more precise than law. We can’t hope to design fair algorithms without the ability to precisely demonstrate fairness mathematically. A good mathematical definition of fairness will model biased decision-making in any setting and for any subgroup, not just hiring bias or gender bias. And fairness seems to have two conflicting aspects when applied to a population versus an individual. For example, say there’s a pool of applicants to fill 10 jobs, and an algorithm decides to hire candidates completely at random. From a population-wide perspective, this is as fair as possible: all races, genders and orientations are equally likely to be selected. But from an individual level, it’s as unfair as possible, because an extremely talented individual is unlikely to be chosen despite their qualifications. On the other hand, hiring based only on qualifications reinforces hiring gaps. Nobody knows if these two concepts are inherently at odds, or whether there is a way to define fairness that reasonably captures both. Cynthia Dwork, a Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Research, and her colleagues have been studying the relationship between the two, but even Dwork admits they have just scratched the surface. To get rid of bias, we need to redesign algorithms with a fresh perspective. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters Get companies and researchers on the same page There are immense gaps on all sides of the algorithmic fairness issue. When a panel of experts at this year’s Workshop on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning was asked what the low-hanging fruit was, they struggled to find an answer. My opinion is that if we want the greatest progress for the least amount of work, then businesses should start sharing their data with researchers. Even with proposed “fair” algorithms starting to appear in the literature, without well-understood benchmarks we can’t hope to evaluate them fairly. Jeremy Kun is PhD Student in Mathematics at University of Illinois at Chicago. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Three lawyers and a police commissioner from the US, France, England and Spain have used an opinion piece in the NY Times to hold Apple and Google to account for providing their customers with unbreakable encryption of their mobile devices. Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (Manhattan District Attorney), François Molins (Paris Chief Prosecutor), Adrian Leppard (Commissioner of the City of London Police) and Javier Zaragoza (Chief Prosecutor of the High Court of Spain) have argued that the inability of law enforcement to access a user’s phone has, in their view, been directly responsible for disrupting investigations. They cite that in the 9 months to June of this year, 74 iPhones running iOS 8 could not be accessed by investigators in Manhattan and that this affected investigations that included “the attempted murder of three individuals, the repeated sexual abuse of a child, a continuing sex trafficking ring and numerous assaults and robberies”. They claim that encrypting the phones provides no security for the customer against the type of wide-net surveillance carried out by the NSA, nor would it prevent “institutional data breaches or malware”. How the authors of this piece could be so confident that the investigations they give as examples would have had different outcomes with access to the phones is not clear. What is abundantly clear however, is that the encryption of these devices did exactly what it was supposed to do, it stopped someone other than the owner of the phone from gaining access to the contents. The authors didn’t mention the fact that this alone prevents criminals from accessing the content of the phone if it is stolen or lost. Given that 3 million phones were stolen in the US in 2013 and that the majority of people would go to extreme lengths to recover the data on their lost devices. The opinion piece goes on to declare the benefits “marginal” and the consequences to law enforcement is the inability to guarantee the “safety of our communities”. The lobbying by senior law enforcement officials in the press against the use of encryption is becoming a common occurrence. The NY Times piece follows FBI Director James Comey’s declaration that unstoppable terrorism was the consequence of allowing encryption to be used by consumers. All of the rhetoric used in these arguments make so many leaps of faith as to undermine any credibility in their claims. The suggestion for example that criminals/terrorists would not seek to cover their tracks in their phone use, or execute care over what incriminating evidence they kept on their phones is not realistic. The further suggestion that any evidence that the phone itself revealed would be critical in an investigation is likewise, suspect. Remember that police still have access to phone records, and also to all data communication carried out through the device. Both France and the UK have enacted extensive data retention laws. The police can also continue to get access to cloud services used by the phone’s owner, also social media and location data, and a host of other information leaked through the use of the device that continues to be unprotected in the same way as the device itself. Perhaps this is really what is being fought over? The obvious next step in consumer privacy which is putting the encryption of all cloud-based resources in the hands of the consumer so that companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft are unable to hand over information to Government security and law enforcement agencies. The Internet Architecture Board, a committee of industry, academic and government specialists concerned with the functioning of the Internet has declared that they “strongly encourage developers to include encryption in their implementations, and to make them encrypted by default.” Ultimately, it will be society as a whole that determines the appropriate balance of privacy against the wishes of governments and agencies to surveil-at-will. The rights to privacy are stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it will take more than the alleged inconvenience it causes legal officials to give up those rights. David Glance is Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Google has taken the idea of a company reorganisation to a new level with a restructure that sees the creation of a new overall parent company called Alphabet. Founder Larry Page will be Alphabet’s CEO with his co-founder Sergey Brin, its President. Sundar Pinchai will become the new CEO of the existing Google company. Google itself will be slimmed down and will become one of the subsidiary companies, along with: Calico – a biotech focused on life extension Sidewalk – smart cities or urban innovation Nest – home automation Fiber – internet provider Google Ventures and Google Capital – investment and venture capital Incubator projects – including Google X and others What’s in a name? Alphabet’s new url, https://abc.xyz/, reflects the quirkiness of the new structure, although this may have been because the domain alphabet.com has already been claimed. In fact, Alphabet’s creation has spurred a race to create domains, Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts that Google may want. An earlier Twitter account, @aIphabetinc (with a capital “i” instead of an “l”), was mistaken as Alphabet’s official account and has now been suspended. Another account, @GoogleAlphabet is likely to meet the same fate. There are a range of business reasons why the restructure makes some sense. First and foremost, Google found it difficult to justify the diversity of its interests when its primary moneymaking business is online advertising. So being a division rolling out high speed internet within a company that is focused on advertising proved a very tough sell. There is a difference in priorities, culture and, ultimately, moneymaking objectives. Being a separate company increases transparency and allows it to develop its technology and products in its own way. Three other possibilities exist for what triggered the creation of the new structure. The first is that it is simply another way of reducing tax and the second that it is the imposition of financial discipline by Google’s CFO Ruth Porat. The third reason is based on rumours that Twitter was desperate to hire Sundar Pinchai as its new CEO and that Google decided to clear the path so that he could be CEO of Google. The last reason seems a little far fetched, given that being the CEO of Twitter wouldn’t be a particularly attractive proposition given its difficulties in turning a profit. What does it spell? Google Searching for a purpose Ever since search, where Google has dominated, it has had great difficulty in achieving anywhere near the same success with any other technology. This has led to an almost shotgun approach to its technological purchases which have been as diverse as home thermostats from Nest to weaponised robots from its acquisition of Boston Dynamics. Buying into these areas, and others, seemed to have had more to do with the personal interests of Page and Brin than a meaningful business strategy or technological vision. Splitting its diverse technological portfolio into separate companies makes each company responsible for a particular line of business, and more importantly, for their profit and loss. However, as separate companies, they lose the opportunity to share skills and knowledge that they may have had when they were all under one corporate structure. Having everything separate makes that much harder. Worse, the companies could end up competing against each other. Show me the money Another problem with this structure is the imbalance of where the money for the overall structure comes from. 90% of Google’s revenues are from advertising. All of the revenue will continue to be generated from Google. The only way that any of the other companies will be able to get access to money to expand and invest would be from the parent company, and it is not clear how that will work. Google may see itself as an advanced technology company with diverse interests, like cars, home automation and internet infrastructure, but ultimately, it is still an advertising company. All of its technology underpins that single fact. Its mobile platform Android is a sophisticated electronic billboard for its ads. YouTube is all about delivering content in order to display yet more ads, and even its autonomous cars could be argued to be a precursor for advertising to passengers without the distraction of having to actually drive. Google’s attempts in the past to branch out into new businesses have not fared particularly well. Its wearable spectacles, Google Glass, never lived up to expectations and its foray into producing mobile phones with the Motorola acquisition ended as badly for them as Microsoft’s failed attempt with Nokia. Nothing about this restructure suggests any new coherent technological strategy on Google’s part. Rather, it provides a way for Google to experiment with “Moon shots” that can live, thrive and possibly die, in a sandbox without impacting the central business. Splitting the companies and making them financially responsible for their futures could work out better for Google, but it replaces an existing set of known problems with new and perhaps even more challenging ones in their place. David Glance is Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Windows 10, it seems, is proving a hit with both the public and the technology press after its release last week. After two days, it had been installed on 67 million PCs. Of course, sceptics may argue that this may have simply been a reflection of how much people disliked Windows 8 and the fact that that the upgrade was free. For others, though, it is the very fact that the upgrade is free that has them concerned that Microsoft has adopted a new, “freemium” model for making money from its operating system. They argue that, while Apple can make its upgrades free because it makes its money from the hardware it sells, Microsoft will have to find some way to make money from doing the same with its software. Given that there are only a few ways of doing this, it seems that Microsoft has taken a shotgun approach and adopted them all. The question is whether it’s really ‘free’. Microsoft Free upgrade Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s Chief Marketing Officer, has declared that Microsoft’s strategy is to “acquire, engage, enlist and monetise”. In other words, get people using the platform and then sell them other things like apps from the Microsoft App Store. The trouble is, that isn’t the only strategy that Microsoft is taking. Microsoft is employing a unique “advertising ID” that is assigned to a user when Windows 10 is installed. This is used to target personalised ads at the user. These ads will show up whilst using the web, and even in games that have been downloaded from the Microsoft App Store. In fact, the game where this grabbed most attention was Microsoft’s Solitaire, where users are shown video ads unless they are prepared to pay a US$9.99 a year subscription fee. The advertising ID, along with a range of information about the user, can be used to target ads. The information that Microsoft will use includes: […] current location, search query, or the content you are viewing. […] likely interests or other information that we learn about you over time using demographic data, search queries, interests and favorites, usage data, and location data. It wasn’t long ago that Microsoft was attacking Google for similar features it now includes in Windows 10. Internet Archicve It was not that long ago that Microsoft attacked Google for doing exactly this to its customers. What Microsoft is prepared to share, though, doesn’t stop at the data it uses for advertising. Although it maintains that it won’t use personal communications, emails, photos, videos and files for advertising, it can and will share this information with third parties for a range of other reasons. The most explicit of these reasons is sharing data in order to “comply with applicable law or respond to valid legal process, including from law enforcement or other government agencies”. In other words, if a government or security agency asks for it, Microsoft will hand it over. Meaningful transparency In June, Horacio Gutiérrez, Deputy General Counsel & Corporate Vice President of Legal and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, made a commitment to “providing a singular, straightforward resource for understanding Microsoft’s commitments for protecting individual privacy with these services”. On the Microsoft blog, he stated: In a world of more personalized computing, customers need meaningful transparency and privacy protections. And those aren’t possible unless we get the basics right. For consumer services, that starts with clear terms and policies that both respect individual privacy and don’t require a law degree to read. This sits in contrast to Microsoft’s privacy statement, which is a 38 page, 17,000 word document. This suggests that Microsoft really didn’t want to make the basic issues of its implementation absolutely clear to users. Likewise, the settings that allow a user to control all aspects of privacy in Windows 10 itself are spread over 13 separate screens. Also buried in the privacy statement is the types of data Cortana – Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri or Google Now – uses. This includes: […] device location, data from your calendar, the apps you use, data from your emails and text messages, who you call, your contacts and how often you interact with them on your device. Cortana also learns about you by collecting data about how you use your device and other Microsoft services, such as your music, alarm settings, whether the lock screen is on, what you view and purchase, your browse and Bing search history, and more. Note that the “and more” statement basically covers everything that you do on a device. Nothing, in principle, is excluded. Privacy by default It is very difficult to trust any company that does not take a “security and privacy by default” approach to its products, and then makes it deliberately difficult to actually change settings in order to implement a user’s preferences for privacy settings. This has manifested itself in another Windows 10 feature called WiFi Sense that has had even experts confused about the default settings and its potential to be a security hole. WiFi Sense allows a Windows 10 user to share access to their WiFi with their friends and contacts on Facebook, Skype and Outlook. The confusion has arisen because some of the settings are on by default, even though a user needs to explicitly choose a network to share and initiate the process. Again, Microsoft has taken an approach in which the specific privacy and security dangers are hidden in a single setting. There is no way to possibly vet who, amongst several hundred contacts, you really wanted to share your network with. There are steps users can take to mitigate the worst of the privacy issues with Windows 10, and these are highly recommended. Microsoft should have allowed users to pay a regular fee for the product in exchange for a guarantee of the levels of privacy its users deserve. David Glance is Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Last week some old technology reappeared, refreshed for another try at getting it right this time around. Microsoft released Windows 10 and trumpeted as its main feature the return of the Start menu. This had been infamously axed in the previous version, Windows 8. Windows 10 also brings back the desktop as the main interface, relegating Windows 8 live tiles to an extension of the Start menu. The user interface is also a major reversal of the attempt of the previous version of windows to focus on being a mobile platform supporting touch. Now that Microsoft has all but given up on its mobile phone, and its tablet doesn’t even get mentioned in the global sales leader board, the PC is still really where it dominates. Touch screens on PCs never became a thing and so supporting the traditional keyboard and mouse/trackpad arrangement makes much more sense. The other technology that Microsoft effectively killed off – or at least will try never in future speak its name – was its browser, Internet Explorer. Windows 10 introduces Microsoft Edge, a leaner, stripped down version of Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer has become, possibly unfairly, the most universally disliked browser by web developers. This was largely due to the fact that versions of the browser were tied to updates of Windows. Supporting Internet Explorer meant supporting potentially old and outdated versions long after other browsers like Chrome and Firefox had moved on and come to support new standards and features. In fact, the dependency of browser to operating system led companies to become tied to a particular version of Windows because of their reliance on particular versions of Internet Explorer to run their corporate applications. The significance of Microsoft’s move to Edge is that a range of technologies that were once the future of running software in the browser, have disappeared as well. Gone is support for Silverlight, Microsoft’s version of Flash, and a technology called ActiveX, a much earlier attempt by Microsoft to allow for sophisticated applications to be run in the browser. ActiveX, in particular, introduced security concerns and as a consequence was never really widely adopted. Their absence is unlikely to be missed. Right now, users who have rushed to upgrade will be getting the first of many bug fixes as the inevitable problems get ironed out. For companies still on Windows 7, the familiarity of Windows 10 may make it a more tempting option to upgrade, but it is not clear that there is enough of a compelling reason to do so. In the meantime of course, the PC market continues to decline, with more users increasingly relying on mobile devices instead. Google Glass relaunched as a business tool Google has apparently relaunched its Glass wearable computer, but this time aiming it at the business world and not consumers. Google is hoping that if nobody actually sees anyone wearing the devices, it will not attract the same level of “ridicule” and concerns about privacy that the original consumer version did. The new version of Glass has a faster processor and wireless and a longer battery life. It also allows the glasses to fold up which the first version didn’t. Whilst Google’s move may make the wearable attract less negative publicity, it is still hard to see what the particular benefit of Google Glass will ultimately be. The user interface’s limitations mean that it is not a great device to consume content from and its other function as a hands-free video streaming device would be much better handled by something that was portable and worn attached to clothing rather than a person’s face. By limiting the market in this way, it is also hard to imagine that it will actually be much of a revenue generator for Google. David Glance is Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Microsoft’s aim to make Windows 10 run on anything is key to its strategy of reasserting its dominance. Seemingly unassailable in the 1990s, Microsoft’s position has in many markets been eaten away by the explosive growth of phones and tablets, devices in which the firm has made little impact. To run Windows 10 on everything, Microsoft is opening up. Rather than requiring Office users to run Windows, now Office365 is available for Android and Apple iOS mobile devices. A version of Visual Studio, Microsoft’s key application for programmers writing Windows software, now runs on Mac OS or Linux operating systems. Likewise, with tools released by Microsoft developers can tweak their Android and iOS apps so that they run on Windows. The aim is to allow developers to create, with ease, the holy grail of a universal app that runs on anything. For a firm that has been unflinching in taking every opportunity to lock users into its platform, just as with Apple and many other tech firms, this is a major change of tack. From direct to indirect revenue So why is Microsoft trying to become a general purpose, broadly compatible platform? Windows' share of the operating system market has fallen steadily from 90% to 70% to 40%, depending on which survey you believe. This reflects customers moving to mobile, where the Windows Phone holds a mere 3% market share. In comparison Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure platform Azure, Office 365 and its Xbox games console have all experienced rising fortunes. Lumbered with a heritage of Windows PCs in a falling market, Microsoft’s strategy is to move its services – and so its users – inexorably toward the cloud. This divides into two necessary steps. First, for software developed for Microsoft products to run on all of them – write once, run on everything. As it is there are several different Microsoft platforms (Win32, WinRT, WinCE, Windows Phone) with various incompatibilities. This makes sense, for a uniform user experience and also to maximise revenue potential from reaching as many possible devices. Second, to implement a universal approach so that code runs on other operating systems other than Windows. This has historically been fraught, with differences in approach to communicating, with hardware and processor architecture making it difficult. In recent years, however, improving virtualisation has made it much easier to run code across platforms. It will be interesting to see whether competitors such as Google and Apple will follow suit, or further enshrine their products into tightly coupled, closed ecosystems. Platform exclusivity is no longer the way to attract and hold customers; instead the appeal is the applications and services that run on them. For Microsoft, it lies in subscriptions to Office365 and Xbox Gold, in-app and in-game purchases, downloadable video, books and other revenue streams – so it makes sense for Microsoft to ensure these largely cloud-based services are accessible from operating systems other than just their own. The Windows family tree … it’s complicated. Kristiyan Bogdanov, CC BY-SA Platform vs services Is there any longer any value in buying into a single service provider? Consider smartphones from Samsung, Google, Apple and Microsoft: prices may differ, but the functionality is much the same. The element of difference is the value of wearables and internet of things devices (for example, Apple Watch), the devices they connect with (for example, an iPhone), the size of their user communities, and the network effect. From watches to fitness bands to internet fridges, the benefits lie in how devices are interconnected and work together. This is a truly radical concept that demonstrates digital technology is driving a new economic model, with value associated with “in-the-moment” services when walking about, in the car, or at work. It’s this direction that Microsoft is aiming for with Windows 10, focusing on the next big thing that will drive the digital economy. The revolution will be multi-platform I predict that we will see tech firms try to grow ecosystems of sensors and services running on mobile devices, either tied to a specific platform or by driving traffic directly to their cloud infrastructure. Apple has already moved into the mobile health app market and connected home market. Google is moving in alongside manufacturers such as Intel, ARM and others. An interesting illustration of this effect is the growth of digital payments – with Apple, Facebook and others seeking ways to create revenue from the traffic passing through their ecosystems. However, the problem is that no single supplier like Google, Apple, Microsoft or internet services such as Facebook or Amazon can hope to cover all the requirements of the internet of things, which is predicted to scale to over 50 billion devices worth US$7 trillion in five years. As we become more enmeshed with our devices, wearables and sensors, demand will rise for services driven by the personal data they create. Through “Windows 10 on everything”, Microsoft hopes to leverage not just the users of its own ecosystem, but those of its competitors too. Mark Skilton is Professor of Practice at University of Warwick. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
The latest version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system will begin rolling out from Wednesday (July 29). And remarkably, Windows 10 will be offered as a free upgrade to those users who already have Windows 7 and 8.1 installed. That the upgrade is free is an interesting move and comes off the back of much criticism over Windows 8. Interestingly, the software giant has also skipped over any planned version 9 of Windows. So what does this mean for Microsoft and the 1.5 billion people it says use Windows every day? Can the company restore some of the consumer and user confidence it has lost in recent years? Under Satya Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft is transforming itself into a “productivity and platforms company”. This is a bold re-invention of the company as it seeks to secure its future in a market moving steadily towards cloud-based services and mobile devices powered by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Nadella sees it as necessity to broaden the company’s scope of operations beyond its current family of products and conventional modes of delivery. The market does not leave him with much choice if the company is to stay in the game, if not be a leader. After Windows 10 it’s just Windows For decades, the latest release of Windows has been a major event in itself. But that is set to end. Windows 10 will be the last numbered version of the operating system. After Windows 10, it will simply be known as Windows. And you will get your updates incrementally from from the cloud via a subscription service. Many Windows users will have noticed the upgrade notification appearing on their taskbar. Microsoft In what it is calling a “platform convergence strategy”, Microsoft is creating a unified operating environment for phones, tablets, ultrabooks, laptops, desktop computers and Xboxes. All will be integrated by Windows 10, and increasingly so with the later Windows. The platform convergence strategy allows the creation of universal applications that can run on any platform with Windows 10. Surprisingly, applications that have been developed to run on Android and iOS devices will also be able to run on Windows 10, albeit once they have been converted to make them compatible. Still, this will open up a vast number of potential applications to run across Windows platforms. Focus on gaming Microsoft’s acquisition last year of the hit game Minecraft for US$2.5 billion is a measure of how seriously Nadella and his strategists take mobile gaming. Minecraft is a hugely popular open world game that gives players the freedom to create create and manipulate an on-line world made of Lego-like blocks. The move will establish Microsoft in the booming world of mobile games as well as further popularising the Xbox gaming console. But the question on many people’s minds is whether the personal computer itself is dead, and along with it Microsoft? It’s not the first time we have heard such dire predictions. It is true that PCs are today part of a more complicated personal computing environment, but it is a stretch to declare the PC dead. There is only so much you can do with a phone or a tablet. For serious work or fun, a full-spec laptop or desktop is still the machine of choice and will remain so. For example, I am writing this article using a laptop. Microsoft’s latest upgrade of Windows will be free for many users. Flickr/Eric Li, CC BY-NC The new digital economy The Internet of Things is expanding, with embedded sensors and data gatherers becoming pervasive. Open platforms and operating environments that feed data into the cloud and allow people to derive value will be an important part of the new digital economy. With traditional jobs under threat from automation and artificial intelligence, imagination and creativity will be more important than ever. Microsoft’s strategy to diversify and integrate its platform offerings and move its services to the cloud while opening itself up to using its competitor’s apps would seem to be a bold but rational response to the current challenges; one that stands a good chance of succeeding. There will no doubt be loud complaints from those who claim to speak for all of us. But in the end if a computing environment delivers value and allows people to live their lives as they please, then that platform is likely to succeed, particularly when it has the muscle and know-how of a well-established company behind it. How Google and Apple respond will be very interesting, but competition is a good thing. David Tuffley is Lecturer in Applied Ethics and Socio-Technical Studies, School of ICT, at Griffith University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
This week brought news of the challenge that Apple faces with dwindling sales of the Apple Watch. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also pulled the plug on its smartphone business purchased from Nokia with the announcement of 7,800 job layoffs and writing off US$7.6 billion in assets. Another beleaguered CEO was Reddit’s Ellen Pao. After Reddit’s shutdown earlier this week, a petition calling for her resignation passed the 212,000 signature mark. Apple Watch sales reportedly fall sharply in the US This week Slice Intelligence reported that Apple Watch sales in the US had dropped to 15% of their levels in April, with only 5,000 watches selling per day. Selling large numbers of the Apple Watch was always going to be a big ask. Even for something that actually does function better than its competitors in this space, the price of the Apple Watch and its accessories, is going to be a disincentive for many. The generalised adoption of the smartwatch as a technological category will rely on changing behaviours that have become ingrained over the past 20 years as we have adapted to using mobile phones. The last 10 years has seen smartphones become a real general computing device on which we are prepared to spend a great deal of time. Apple has done a good job with the interface on its watch, but the small screen is always going to limit its capabilities. It will take take time before people decide what can be done on the watch and what they need to get the phone out for and ultimately that will determine the value they are likely to place on having that type of functionality on their wrist. It is early days, however, and this is only version 1 of the watch. Until Apple release worldwide sales figures, it isn’t going to be possible to decide whether this has been a financial success from Apple’s perspective. (Ed's note: AppleInsider has a good piece on the questionable nature of the Slice Intelligence research. In short: the stats also show that the Apple Watch is the most succesful smart watch by a considerbale margin.) Microsoft repeats history and writes off its smartphone business In what is the final act of the tragedy that has been Nokia’s decimation, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that Microsoft would be laying off a further 7,800 staff and writing down US$7.6 billion in assets associated with its smartphone business. It could be argued that Nokia, like BlackBerry, would have struggled to survive in the smartphone business in any event. It had already chosen the wrong side by deciding to focus on using Microsoft’s operating system for its phones instead of embracing Android. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made an equally bad decision to buy the company in order to stop Nokia from changing its mind and abandoning Windows and adopting rival Google’s platform. Microsoft has a history of making poor acquisitions. In 2012 it booked a US$6.2 billion charge for its acquisition of digital marketing company aQuantive. Driven again by wanting to compete against Google in the online advertising space, Microsoft was unable to make its online business profitable. A year later, Microsoft took a US$900 million charge on poor sales of the Surface RT a line of devices that lost Microsoft US$2 billion in the first two years of sales. If nothing else, the experience with Nokia should have finally convinced Microsoft that it is not ever really going to succeed as a devices company. For the moment, this is what CEO Satya Nadella seems also to have accepted. It is a pity that so many people should have had to lose their jobs for Microsoft to learn that lesson. Reddit CEO Ellen (Chairman) Pao clings on to the role The shutdown of parts of Reddit earlier this week eventually came to an end. But a belated apology from CEO Ellen Pao hasn’t satisfied the moderators who took this action. Two moderators involved in the earlier action wrote in the NY Times that the company leaders still hadn’t fully explained their actions in removing staffer Victoria Taylor, a move that triggered the users’ protest. It seems a very large number of the Reddit community are also still unhappy with the CEO’s response to this crisis, and a petition asking for her to stand down has passed the 212,000 signatures mark. Ironically, the skills a CEO would need to possess to be able to recognise when they should go are similar to those that would have made them a good CEO in the first place. Bad leaders, by definition, aren’t able to take the the best decision for the sake of a company and leave when they should. So far, nobody in a position to tell Pao that it is time to move on has surfaced. In Reddit’s case, and also an indicator of poor governance, there seem to be only two board members. Alexis Ohanian, a founder of the company and arguably not any better at handling the company than Pao, and Samuel Altman, who is involved with startup incubator Y Combinator. In the absence of a board to manage the CEO, it will be left to Reddit’s users to decide if it is worth sticking around to find out what she will eventually do. David Glance is Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Australian rugby league games could be heading online following reports the National Rugby League (NRL) has been in discussions with Google as part of the sporting organisation’s latest media rights. The discussions are said to be associated with having NRL games broadcast via Google’s YouTube video website. These are not the first discussions rumoured to have taken place between YouTube and an Australian sporting organisation. Last year it was said that the Australian Football League (AFL) was in discussions with YouTube, as part of its new media rights deal to start in 2017. It should also be noted that YouTube has made a shift toward professional sports media over the past few years. In 2010 it secured the live-streaming rights of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket. Three years later, YouTube began to experiment with major American sports, including Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). How would a deal between an Australian sports organisations and YouTube impact Australian sport media rights? International sport media rights Sports media rights are much sort after. The investment banking group Jefferies Group LLC sees sports as vital for TV channels because 97% of all sports programming is watched live. This is evident by the high stakes of the sports media rights globally. In the UK recently Sky and BT paid a record £5.136 billion (A$10.48 billion) for live Premier League soccer television rights, almost doubling the previous £3 billion (A$6.12 billion) deal. The annual amounts paid for sports media rights in the US range from US$1.5 billion (A$1.93 billion) annually for Major League Baseball to US$3 billion (A$3.85 billion) per year for the National Football League (NFL). The NBA’s recent media rights deal of US$2.66 billion (A$3.42 billion) annually more than doubled its previous deal. How does this compare to Australian sport media rights? The AFL’s current media rights, which includes Seven West Media, Foxtel, Fox Sports and Telstra, are valued at A$1.25 billion. The new media rights are expected to reach more than A$2 billion for a five year deal. The current NRL media rights deal with Nine and Fox Sports are valued at A$1.025 billion over five years, just under the AFL. There is a clear gap between the value of Australian sporting media rights and those in the UK and US, which is arguably one factor in YouTube’s interest in the Australian sports market. Could YouTube become a sport broadcaster? Today the online video market is estimated to be worth US$200 billion to US$400 billion (A$275 billion to A$514 billion), with YouTube having the largest share. YouTube currently has more than 1 billion users, has more than 300 hours of video uploaded to its site every minute, is localised in 75 countries and available in 61 languages. It was recently reported that in the US YouTube reached more Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 than any cable channel, including ESPN. There has also been a 50% growth in the amount of time users spend watching videos on YouTube year over year, of which 50% of viewing is via a mobile. The live streams on YouTube have the potential to far outweigh the highest audience ratings of Australian television broadcasters. Felix Baumgartner’s world record free fall skydive, for example, had 8 million simultaneous viewers. VIDEO 1 Who will pay? Advertisers or the users If YouTube was to commence broadcasts of Australian sports, the question is, who will pay? YouTube has a subscription based services already available that would allow Australian sports to charge per game, per month or per year. But how would this impact the current alternative platforms that both the AFL and NRL have? Both have services for mobile and online viewing, part of digital rights deals with Telstra. The AFL’s deal worth A$153 million and the NRL deal worth A$100 million. Any digital rights deal with YouTube would have an impact upon the current approach toward digital rights. A similar deal could be struck as with the IPL, where YouTube “involves every country outside the US”. YouTube could become a digital partner to broadcast AFL and NRL for countries other than Australia, assisting in the internationalisation of the codes. YouTube and new ways to watch sport In addition to the shear reach of YouTube globally, the other area to consider is broadcast technologies and the way in which YouTube has begun to experiment in this area. In recent months Virtual Reality (VR) and 360 degree video, has been a big talking point. Particularly with the release Microsoft’s Hololens and more recently the new Oculus Rift VR headset, now owned by Facebook. Google has also released Google Cardboard which gives anyone with a smartphone a cheap entry to the VR headset. Google also recently announced its Jump camera rig for 360 degree videos, which holds 16 GoPro cameras, costing well over US$8,000 (A$10,280) with cameras. But there are cheaper alternatives to Jump coming into the market. The Giroptic camera is under US$500 (A$643) and the Bubl camera is US$799 (A$1,027), both are smaller than Jump and extremely affordable in comparison. YouTube allows for 360 degree video to be upload to its site, something that has been taken up by artists such as Björk and the Red Bull Formula 1 racing team. The 360 degree effect only works when viewed in Google’s Chrome web browser. Sporting organisations are willing to experiment with new technologies. This is evident by the recent virtual reality content filmed for Samsung’s Gear VR at the NBA’s all-star weekend. The National Hockey League (NHL) also experimented with using GoPro cameras for its all-star weekend to give viewers a point-of-view perspective. Example of NBA All-Star Virtual Reality via a Samsung Gear VR Headset These new ways of viewing video content could have a major impact on the future of sports broadcasts and what the viewer sees on a screen, but does not need to entirely replace the current methods. Future of sports broadcasting In the current media environment it seems that YouTube will not replace the current broadcast of sport. For Australia, the anti-siphoning laws prevent subscription or pay-for view only broadcasting many Australian major sporting events. This would prevent YouTube from having a major impact in the near future of sports broadcasts, but it could shake up the digital rights component. The other factor is Australian viewing habits of television. The current reports still show a strong difference between television viewing and online video viewing habits. What YouTube could do for Australian sports is allow for both the AFL and NRL to be internationalised by making it available to people outside Australia, something that the AFL in particular has been strongly working on. In addition to providing a liner stream, YouTube could be a potential platform for sporting organisation to experiment further with new broadcast and viewing technologies, such as the 360 degree video. Imagine being able to experience being in the crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. A 360 degree video could allow the viewer – both in Australia and overseas – access onto the ground, a fly on the wall perspective, via cameras installed on goal posts or positioned above the ground. YouTube thus does have the potential to lead the way in new forms of sports broadcasting. Marc C-Scott is Lecturer in Digital Media at Victoria University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Technolog is the first in a (mostly) weekly wrap up of the highlights of the technology news and events of the week. These are the tech stories that hopefully are the most relevant to knowing what is likely to have an impact on our daily lives. Former CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop is fired from Microsoft Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, this week announced the departure of ex-Nokia CEO Stephen Elop and several other Microsoft executives in a reorganisation of the company that saw the creation of three groups; Windows and Devices, Cloud and Enterprise, and Applications and Services. Whilst at Nokia, Elop arguably destroyed any chances of Nokia remaining relevant in the smartphone world by insisting that all of Nokia’s smartphones move to support the Windows platform instead of Android. Nokia’s death blow came when Elop steered the sale of the smartphone business to Microsoft where Elop then presided over its inexorable journey into obsolescence and the sacking of most of the former Nokia staff. The reorganisation is a good one for Microsoft and will allow them to concentrate on their core strength, namely enterprise software. They are also having increasing success with the move of this software to the cloud. Security Password Manager provider LastPass is hacked Users of the password manager LastPass were advised this week to change their master password after hackers stole users' details including emails from LastPass servers. The hackers did not compromise users’ stored password information itself. It seems unlikely that they will be able to crack the stolen encrypted master passwords with the information they obtained because of the particular security measures LastPass uses. The hack of LastPass showed that even though almost anything can be hacked, how you handle customers afterwards can make all of the difference. LastPass’s fast response and disclosure was praised along with the extensive security measures that they had in place to protect user data in the event of this type of occurrence. Using a password manager is still seen as preferable to using the same password for every account or keeping passwords in Notepad on your computer. Finally, using two-factor authentication with the password manager would still have protected users even if their passwords were compromised and so is still seen as a must with this type of software. 600 million Samsung Phones vulnerable to being hijacked A security researcher this week demonstrated a vulnerability that exists in Samsung phones which allows hackers to send malicious code to install and run on those phones. The vulnerability is specific to Samsung phones, and comes from the way Samsung updates the SwiftKey software embedded in its keyboard on the phone. These updates are not encrypted and Samsung allows code downloaded in this way to get around the normal protections of the Android operating system. Although Samsung has issued an update for this problem, it will depend on phone carriers to actually push it out to customers, and they are typically very slow at doing that. In the meantime, there is little users can do to protect themselves, other than not connect to unprotected Wifi, and this may be a good time for them to consider switching to another brand of Android phone? E3 Game Expo 2015 E3 is the biggest electronic games expo for the games industry held each year in Los Angeles. Upcoming releases of games are announced at the expo along with new games hardware and accessories. There were simply too many announcements to summarise here, but the remake of the first-person shooter game Doom, although stunning in its detail, seemed gratuitously graphic and violent. Another anticipated release was the action role-playing open world game, Fallout 4. Set in post-nuclear apocalypse Boston, the game player can adopt a male or female role, enters a fallout shelter and after 200 years have passed, emerges to explore the world above. What will be interesting about this game is the addition of a device (Pip-Boy wrist mounted computer) that will hold a mobile phone and strap to the wrist of the player, allowing them to interact with the game through that device. Other top upcoming games include Star Wars: Battlefront, Batman: Arkham Knight, Final Fantasy XV and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. On the console side, Microsoft announced that the Xbox One will support streaming of games to a Windows 10 PC where it will also be able to support Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Microsoft’s also showed off their own augmented reality headset Hololens being used with Minecraft. The video highlights some of the amazing potential of this technology that will be available in the not too distant future. This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Spending management company Coupa Software has raised $US80 million, making the cloud startup the latest fast-growing businesses to land a valuation of more than $1 billion. The found was led by T Rowe Price along with Iconiq Capital, the firm managing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s personal investments, according to Re/code. The latest capital injection is the startup’s seventh investment round, bringing the total capital raised to date to $US169m. Microsoft buys German startup for more than $100 million Microsoft will purchase the German startup behind the Wunderlist to-do list app for more than $100 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. The acquisition is part of a bid to improve Microsoft’s mobile, email and calendar applications. The Berlin-based 6Wunderkinder GmbH is backed by US venture capital firm Sequoia Capital and other VCs. Apple to launch music streaming service Apple is launching its own music streaming service to compete with Spotify, according to The Wall Street Journal. The new Apple service will reportedly cost $10 a month; however, unlike Spotify, the company will not allow users to stream its entire catalogue. The move represents a significant shift away from the downloading model that helped Apple revolutionise music a decade ago. Overnight The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 29.69 points, rising 0.16% yesterday to 18,040.37. The Aussie dollar is currently trading at around 76.08 US cents. Do you know more on this story or have a tip of your own? Raising capital or launching a startup? Let us know. Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Brillo, a cut-down version of Android aimed at embedded devices, and Weave, a framework designed to compete against Apple’s HomeKit API, were among the key announcements from the Google I/O developer conference this year. Other key announcements from the tech giant include a photo sharing service and app designed to compete against Flickr called Google Photos, a series of major virtual reality announcements, and the latest version of the Android operating system, which is known as Android M. Clinicloud founder Hon Weng Chong told StartupSmart that while Brillo and Weave are aimed more at the home automation end of IoT rather than medtech devices, a key issue for any embedded device is the trade-off between ease of programming and memory use. “Right now, we’re not even using Embedded Linux. We’re working on bare metal in Assembler,” Chong says. “There’s always a trade-off. When you use Windows 10 or Embedded Android, you need to have extra memory and more processing power, and that comes at a cost. So the trade-off is between the cost versus how easy it is to program. “Certainly, it will be good for new startups that are just prototyping their ideas. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of getting a product ready, you need to do a bit more work. I’m not sure the trade-offs and chip costs are something Microsoft and Google have really taken into consideration.” Assembler still the only way to go The sentiment is shared by Procept products and marketing manager Rob Crowder, who also serves as the managing director of Smash Wearables. He told StartupSmart Assembler is the only way to go right now, assuming you can write apps that basic. Crowder also says multi-purpose wearable devices such as Android Wear smartwatches and the Apple Watch still lack the precision needed to do something like accurately measure a player’s tennis swing, as single-use wearables such as Smash Wearables’ device does. “Right now, if we asked a wearable to do everything the Apple Watch does, and at the same time have the precision we need it to, you’d probably need a battery the size of a backpack, and no one would buy it. “Our own wearables, that are useful for some very specific purpose, have a shelf life of somewhere around three to five years. At some time, someone will come up with a general device that’s precise enough with a battery good enough for tennis. But right now, there’s still a trade-off. How hard you ask it to work led us to develop our own wearable.” Concerns around Brillo’s memory use David Soutar, co-founder and chief executive at Wattcost, says a lot of embedded devices couldn’t support the memory use Brillo requires. However, not all startups are as pessimistic. Oomi vice president Chris Hall says he intends to take a close look at Google’s IoT ecosystem – as long as it doesn’t compromise the user experience for Apple and Windows users. “At our end, we’ve encouraged an open ecosystem. What’s been happening in the IoT space is a lot of fragmentation. So we’ve tried to be as platform-agnostic as possible,” Hall says. “Oomi Touch integrates with Apple HomeKit to give full value to iOS users. We’re also a partner in Samsung’s Tizen Alliance. “On the Google side, the big talk last year Nest Thread. However with Weave, there seems to be a distancing away from Nest and on the hardware side, we’ll take a close look at what the hardware offers.” Great to have an Apple HomeKit rival LEAPIN Digital Keys cofounder Steve Dunn says he thinks it’s great that Google have finally stepped in and set a new IOT platform with Brillo and Weave to rival Apple's HomeKit. “It means that we can now more easily interface our smart lock products with other IOT products without having to go through a lengthy negotiation exercise with all the different companies with all their different IOT products one at a time. “We’ve been talking with some overseas telcos, other startups, security product manufacturers, and even insurance companies about building interfaces, and pulling together smart home products and kits with our smart locks. But up until now it feels like we've been going on dates with all these other companies, talking and looking at each other’s products, discussing taking action, but not actually doing anything. This Project Brillo announcement by Google levels the playing field now, so it means that the best products can more easily come together and offer more choices for the consumer. “Up until now, it’s only been the loudest voices and best negotiators (mostly in the US) and not necessarily the best products, which are coming together because there hasn't been one primary platform for IoT products… Hopefully, Brillo will enable the smaller startups like us with great IoT products to get all the interfaces done, and get their products out there in front of consumers easier than they do now.” Do you know more on this story or have a tip of your own? Raising capital or launching a startup? Let us know. Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Sydney startup Qwilr has raised $500,000 from the Sydney Seed Fund and Macdoch Ventures to reinvent document software. Co-founder Mark Tanner says documents haven’t changed in a very long time, whether it be Microsoft Office or Google Docs, or PDFs. “They’re still just A4 pieces of paper that are very static and quite deliberately unintelligent,” he says. “Qwilr wants to be halfway between word documents and PDFs, and tools like Squarespace and Weebly.” Tanner says Qwilr will unlock the “full power of the web” for documents. That includes everything from embeddable video and audio, and importantly, analytics. “Everyone just expects basic analytics (online), but documents today, you have no idea what’s happening to them,” Tanner says. “You could send out three quotes this week, or an invite to a party, and see it has been viewed this many times, this particular client didn’t even open the document. It would change the way you write to them, how you view the client and your interactions with them.” Tanner returned to Australia after working in New York for Google to start work on Qwilr with co-founder Dylan Baskind. Baskind came up with the idea while working as a freelance artist, designer and engineer. When freelancing he was competing against larger firms, and built Qwilr as a means to help his proposals stand out from the pack. “Often a freelancer or agency will spend hours and hours on a proposal, only to dump it into a text-heavy, long, ugly document,” Tanner says. “With Qwilr, that same proposal can look stunning, be done dramatically faster and include all kinds of images including pictures, photos, gifs and videos. In addition Qwilr pages have analytics running in the background so you can track how many times your proposal was opened (if at all!) and which sections your clients cared about the most.” Users can sign up and create Qwilr documents for free, and can upgrade to a $29, or $89 monthly subscriptions for access to features like advanced analytics and password or time limited security. Tanner wouldn’t say exactly how many users have signed up, or how many are paying for the premium products, but says it has “thousands of users” in over 30 countries. “The big thing for us is it has been global from day one. We’ve had to deal with right to left writing styles, things you don’t think about initially. And the real metric is there are tens of thousands od documents that have been made on Qwilr,” he says. “At the moment, a reasonable amount of people, freelancers and digital agencies, they’re converting really quickly, because they’re seeing the value. At the moment we’re very happy rate, and while it’s a starting number, we are very happy.” Do you know more on this story or have a tip of your own? Raising capital or launching a startup? Let us know. Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Bill Shorten’s recent announcement that, if elected, a Labor Government would “ensure that computer coding is taught in every primary and secondary school in Australia” has brought attention to an increasing world trend. Estonia introduced coding in primary schools in 2012 and the UK followed suit last year. US-led initiatives such as Code.org and the “Hour of Code”, supported by organisations such as Google and Microsoft, advocate that every school student should have the opportunity to learn computer coding. There is merit in school students learning coding. We live in a digital world where computer programs underlie everything from business, marketing, aviation, science and medicine, to name several disciplines. During a recent presentation at a radio station, one of our hosts said that IT would have been better background for his career in radio than journalism. There is also a strong case to be made that Australia’s future prosperity will depend on delivering advanced services and digital technology, and that programming will be essential to this end. Computer programs and software are known to be a strong driver of productivity improvements in many fields. Being introduced to coding gives students an appreciation of what can be built with technology. We are surrounded by devices controlled by computers. Understanding how they work, and imagining new devices and services, are enhanced by understanding coding. Of course, not everyone taught coding will become a coder or have a career in information technology. Art is taught in schools with no expectation that the students should become artists. Drag and drop A computer program is effectively a means of automating processes. Programs systematically and reliably follow processes and can be used to exhaustively try all the possibilities. The languages used to program computers have evolved in the 70 years we have been building computers. Interfaces and programming environments have become more natural and intuitive. Language features reflect the applications they’re used for. What is needed to easily express a business process, scientific equation, or data analysis technique is not necessarily the same as what is needed to rapidly develop a video game. However, throughout the evolution of programming languages, the fundamental principles have remained the same. Computer programming languages express three essential things: The order in which a sequence of instructions is performed A means of repeating a sequence of instructions a prescribed number of times And tests as to whether or not a sequence of instructions is performed. While personal preference influences which computer language a programmer uses, there is a greater understanding of which languages work well for teaching introductory programming. For example, Scratch is popular for primary school students and is quick to learn. Alice has been used to help students quickly build computer animations. Python is increasingly used for scientific applications. Visual programming languages – where students can drag-and-drop icons rather than type code – allow for rapid development of simple programs. At Swinburne University of Technology we run workshops to introduce school students to program NAO robots. Students use the Choregraphe environment to link robot actions from a library. Students previously unused to programming can develop interesting robot projects in a couple of days. More sophisticated development of the robot requires students to use a more detail-oriented language, such as Python or C++. The simpler options lead to positive student experience. Computational thinking Writing and then executing a program gives immediate feedback as to whether you have correctly expressed instructions for the computer. Ultimately, the understanding of how to express concepts so that a computer can perform tasks accurately and efficiently is far more important than the details of the programming language. Underlying all computer programs are algorithms, which specify in a more abstract way how a task is to be done. Algorithmic thinking – also called computational thinking – underlies computer science, and there has been a growing movement on algorithmic thinking in schools. The new national curriculum reflects algorithmic processes, and materials are being developed to help teachers with the new curriculum. Victoria has recently developed a new subject for the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) entitled Algorithmics. There are even materials for teaching algorithmic thinking without computers. The Computer Science Unplugged movement, led by Tim Bell and colleagues at the University of Canterbury, has developed resources that teach students concepts through movement and fun activities. Teaching for the this century Teaching computer coding in schools is very different from initiatives that advocate for computers in the classroom. I was not, and am still not, supportive of compulsory laptop programs in schools. The idea is not necessarily to expose students to the technology itself, which is almost inevitable these days with the wide penetration of mobile phones. Rather, students are exposed to the skills needed to develop computer applications. While IT skill shortages is a contentious topic, there is no doubt that not enough of the best and brightest are studying computer science at university. A significant factor is insufficient exposure to the topic at schools. Teaching coding at schools is aimed at addressing the lack. It might be said that whatever programming language is taught will be obsolete by the time the students enter the workforce. My experience is that, if taught properly, students can rapidly transfer the principles of one language to another. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the challenge was to understand the physical world, and harness force and energy. This understanding percolated into the school curriculum. In the 21st century, the challenge is to understand and harness data, information and knowledge. Computer programming is a necessary way of introducing students to these concepts. Leon Sterling is Pro Vice Chancellor Digital Frontiers at Swinburne University of Technology. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Jokes about scientists, an explanation about how statistics can be manipulated and arguments about the sustainability of eating meat are just some of the topics on Bill Gates’ reading list this American summer. The billionaire co-founder of Microsoft puts out a list of book recommendations this time each year and his endorsements usually carry weight: the books climb up the bestseller charts as soon as Gates spruiks them on his personal blog. This summer Gates has picked seven holiday reads, making an effort to “pick a few more things that are on the lighter side” compared to last year. “Each of these books made me think or laugh or, in some cases, do both,” Gates says. Here’s Gates’ annual summer reading list: How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff Gates has already made it known how much he likes this book for investors, having recommended it to everyone at TED earlier this year. Huff’s book for investors was first published in 1954 but Gates says apart from a couple of examples that are no longer relevant, he says the book “doesn’t feel dated”. “One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons—a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds these days,” Gates says. “[This books is] a useful introduction to the use of statistics and a helpful refresher for anyone who is already well versed in it.” Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh Gates promises readers will “rip through” this book in just a few hours, “but you’ll wish it went on longer because it’s funny and smart as hell”. The book is based on Allie Brosh’s popular Hyperbole and a Half blog, which is part-comic and part-memoir, told in short vignettes about her life. “The adventures [Brosh] recounts are mostly inside her head, where we hear and see the kind of inner thoughts most of us are too timid to let out in public,” Gates says. “I have interrupted Melinda a dozen times to read to her passages that made me laugh out loud.” The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins Gates says Richard Dawkins has “a gift for making science enjoyable”. Gates describes Dawkins’ book as “an engaging, well-illustrated science textbook offering compelling answers to big questions, like ‘how did the universe form?’ and ‘what causes earthquakes?’”. “This book is as accessible as the TV series Cosmos is for younger audiences—and as relevant for older audiences,” Gates says. “It’s also a plea for readers of all ages to approach mysteries with rigor and curiosity.” “Dawkins’ antagonistic (and, to me, overzealous) view of religion has earned him a lot of angry critics, but I consider him to be one of the great scientific writer/explainers of all time.” What if? and XKCD by Randall Munroe Gates has included two books by Randall Munroe on this year’s reading list: What If? is full of Munroe’s answers to “absurd hypothetical questions” from all fields of science and XKCD is a collection of cartoons that poke fun at scientists and computers. In What If? Gates says Munroe provides funny answers to the questions, but “the science underpinning his answers is very accurate”. “It’s an entertaining read, and you’ll also learn a bit about things like ballistics, DNA, the oceans, the atmosphere and lightning along the way,” he says. When it comes to the jokes in XKCD, Gates says not everyone will love Munroe’s sense of humour, but he definitely does. On Immunity by Eula Biss Gates says he thought this book from Eula Biss would be a worthwhile read but he had “no idea what a pleasure reading it would be”. “Biss, an essayist and university lecturer, examines what lies behind people’s fears of vaccinating their children,” Gates explains. “Like many of us, she concludes that vaccines are safe, effective and almost miraculous tools for protecting children against needless suffering. But she is not out to demonise anyone who holds opposing views.” “This is a thoughtful and beautifully written book about a very important topic.” Should We Eat Meat? by Vaclav Smil Gates admits this book is “probably the least beach-friendly” book on his list but says it is a “timely” read. “The richer the world gets, the more meat it eats. And the more meat it eats, the bigger the threat to the planet,” Gates says. “How do we square the circle? Vaclav Smil takes his usual clear-eyed view of the whole landscape, from meat’s role in human evolution to hard questions about animal cruelty.” This article was originally published at SmartCompany.
An innovative augmented reality app called Arboretum, which overlays location-aware soundscapes over the National Arboretum, has been named as one of the joint winners of NICTA’s Digital Canberra Challenge. The ARboretum app was created by APositive, a digital design studio focused on augmented reality experience design. It shares the $12,500 prize with Link Digital, which created a whole of government open data repository for Canberra images and videos that will be opened up to the public. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr presented the prize to APositive at the DCC Awards Day and Innovator Showcase at the National Gallery of Australia. APositive chief executive Amber Standley told StartupSmart the app charts your location in the National Arboretum and plays wild sounds native to the country of origin of nearby trees. So, for example, standing near a cedar will produce a Himalayan soundscape, while cork oaks trigger a Portuguese soundscape. “The brief for the Canberra Challenge was to create a digital art installation, and it was a fairly open brief. A few years earlier, we had the idea of creating a geolocation app for the arboretum,” Standley says. “We really felt we didn’t need to overlay visuals in the Arboretum, as it is already very visually rich. But there is a lack of sound compared to what you would find in a real forest, especially with the noise from the Tuggeranong Parkway and other visitors.” The sound library the app draws on was created by a professional sound designer. It uses mini soundscapes within larger ones that change randomly, giving each visitor a unique experience. The app also allows users to immediately access information about specific trees, their origins and significance. ARboretum from Amber Standley on Vimeo. “We’ve been around officially for two years, and for a year before that as a sole trader. I originally studied for a masters in digital design. I moved into a research cluster where we were bombarded with requests about augmented reality, and eventually turned it into a commercial venture. “We offer custom augmented reality apps, AR experience design and AR Design Thinking workshops to help our clients grasp this new technology and solve problems using AR. We provide AR services to government, art galleries, heritage, small and large businesses,” Standley says. Standley says APositive has worked with businesses on marketing collateral, including overlaying data over signage, posters and digital exhibits. But its projects have also included recreating an 18-pound gun for a World War I exhibition and working with television personality Wil Anderson and a green screen to create a moving artwork. Standley says augmented reality glasses, such as Microsoft’s Hololens, are set to lead to a boom in the augmented reality sector over the coming years. “I am looking forward to the time when wearables like Microsoft Hololens and Meta’s glasses are more mainstream. These devices will allow us to interact with data in a more natural and social way,” Standley says. “We can use our hands again, look ahead not down and share experiences with our peers more freely. Augmented reality will be the interface in which we interact with the data served on these devices.” Do you know more on this story or have a tip of your own? Raising capital or launching a startup? Let us know. Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Uber will have to defend itself against a lawsuit which claims the company is discriminating against the blind by refusing to transport guide dogs. A San Jose court has ruled the plaintiffs in the case can pursue their claims because Uber is a travel service and therefore subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Aaron Zisser, a lawyer for a disability rights group who helped bring the case to court, told Reuters the plaintiffs were pleased with the decision. “Uber is a very popular service, and it is important for riders with service animals to be able to use it like anyone else,” he said. Guess who’s back – back again Nokia is quietly planning to return to the phone market in 2016, Re/code reports. The Finnish company – which was a household name due to its popular mobile phones during the 90s and early 2000s – is also planning to explore the virtual reality market according to insiders. Microsoft finalised a takeover of Nokia’s devices and services business in April 2014 worth more than $7 billion. Nokia is prevented from selling phones under its name until the end of this year. You can now message someone who doesn’t follow you on Twitter Twitter is now allowing users to private message people who don’t follow them. “We hope these changes help you connect more easily – and directly – on Twitter with the people, causes and businesses you care about most,” the company says. “If you do receive a Direct Message from someone you don’t want to privately converse with, you can still take steps to stop them.” The updates are rolling out worldwide from today and require users to change their settings before strangers are able to message them. Overnight The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down 279.47 points, falling 1.54% to 17,826.30. The Aussie dollar is currently trading at around 78 US cents. Do you know more on this story or have a tip of your own? Raising capital or launching a startup? Let us know. Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
On one level, the European Commission’s argument with Google is unsurprising. The EC’s commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager’s job is to investigate possible breaches of EU competition law. That is exactly what she is doing with her official complaints against Google’s use of its Google Shopping service. Equally unsurprising, is the investigation of Google’s other possible breaches of its monopoly position with how it controls the use of its mobile operating system, Android. One should also set aside the melodrama that accompanies such cases. News reports of the case have highlighted calls for the break up of Google as suggested by the European Parliament last year. The reports have also focused on the possible massive Euro 6 billion fine Google faces if the antitrust complaints are upheld. Finally, there is the fact that the case is the result of a conspiracy of competitors, led by Microsoft. All of the drama however, masks what is going to be a protracted process that could take years, during which time the entire landscape that is being fought over could have changed, not once, but several times. Google themselves were at pains to respond to the accusations that they were harming consumers by pointing out that search was quickly being superseded, and that: “People are increasingly using social sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter to find recommendations, such as where to eat, which movies to watch or how to decorate their homes” Whilst it may be true that Google has a monopoly on search of the Internet as a whole, that is certainly not the case when it comes to the “social web” which is well and truly dominated by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others. Likewise, Google may have dominated advertising on the desktop but that is increasingly not the case on mobile. Law and trade policy operate on timescales that are always going to significantly lag technological change. As if understanding the full impact of an existing technology on consumers and competition was already not challenging enough, attempting to do this in the context of what will happen in even a few years is almost impossible. In fact, even determining monopoly in a technological market is not always straightforward. For example, even though Android controls over 80% of the world’s smartphone market compared to Apple’s share of 15%, in terms of mobile e-commerce, users of Apple’s mobile devices account for 5 times the value of Android users. For all of the EC’s past actions against Microsoft, they were irrelevant in shaping what eventually happened in the market. The actions had no effect on Microsoft’s behaviours, and came as little-to-no benefit to consumers. As with the EC’s complaint against Android, the fact that software comes pre-installed does nothing to preclude a consumer’s ability to run alternative software. The EC’s objections against Google again raises the more general issue that it is a futile exercise to use antitrust law to retrospectively try and influence the way the technology companies, and the digital economy as a whole, work. As with copyright and patents, the law has simply not been able to adapt and keep pace with the disruptive change brought about by technology and society at a global scale. It has led policy and law makers, and companies not wanting to adapt to change, to focus on the past and act as a break, rather than an enabler, of progress. It would be a far better use of the EC’s time and resources if their energies were spent creating policy that enabled the digital economy that they profess to want rather than keeping their vision of it restricted to a time that has long since passed. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Mobile annotation software startup and Startmate graduate Drawboard will see a huge jump in users after Microsoft announced its software will be pre-installed on every Surface 3. Alistair Michener, founder and chief executive officer of the Melbourne-based startup, says Microsoft’s announcement gives the Drawboard team a lot of confidence that they’re on the right track. The startup’s software Drawboard PDF has regularly featured in the top 10 apps of the Windows Store’s paid category across the world over the past six to 12 months. Michener, says Microsoft has given him no indication of how many Surface 3 units it believe it will sell, but he expects that number to be greater than 10 million. He won’t disclose how many downloads Drawboard PDF has had to date, but says once Surface 3 launches, the number of people using its product will be far greater than its current figure. “It will be great to get that amount of eyeballs on our application. So obviously that dwarfs the number of users we currently have,” he says. “We’ll have to think about changes in support methods and also how we react to feature requests. Obviously we’ve got our own vision for Drawboard in the engineering and construction markets but there will be those out there in the masses that require something else.” Michener says while the Windows App ecosystem is nowhere near as big as Android or iOS, he hopes it can close that gap over the next two to four years. “I’m a strong believer in Windows 8, Windows 10 and the Surface line. That combo will do a lot of great things in the enterprise and education space. That’s what really driven us forward,” he says. We’ve largely been bootstrapping for the last 12 months, but received a Commercialisation Australia grant in 2013 that let us get started. Fortunately, we stuck to our vision from the beginning and along the way we expanded our market for our first product and have been able to generate enough revenue to grow our team and started earning some profit. “We seem to have hit the sweet spot for a device like the Surface. So Microsoft is a really key partner. The announcement, which we’ve known about for a little bit of time, is really validation for what we’re doing, and has given us a lot of confidence we’re doing the right thing.” Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Buy tickets to the 2015 StartupSmart Awards.
“It’ll never work.” “It’s not trustworthy.” “It’s not fair.” “It’s illegal.” For the last 20 years, this sequence of responses has become quite common to those who watch the internet and the creative companies it’s spawned. Incumbent businesses confronted by these digital disrupters resist changes to the status quo for understandable reasons: they were winning at a game they had mastered. When the game changes, efforts to strengthen the previous barriers to entry are standard procedure. Microsoft did it to Linux (an open-source operating system), the Bell companies fought voice service competition from cable-TV triple-plays and startups like Vonage, and record labels defeated Napster and then proceeded to sue their own customers once they realized peer-to-peer file sharing could not be shut down at a central locus. More recently, Airbnb and Uber have inspired a new generation of incumbents to play these same cards. Both companies have grown at phenomenal rates over short lifetimes, both rely on not owning the core asset (sleeping rooms in the former case, cars in the latter), and both have attracted sky-high equity valuations. Because of these traits, they have also attracted the attention of asset-owners who formerly profited from scarcity and thus are threatened by the lower prices brought by the asset-light coordination model of these two disrupters. This threat has prompted the asset-owners to erect barriers to entry wherever they can, often in the guise of more regulation. Just this month, Airbnb faced a proposal in San Francisco that would place more restrictions on rentals, while Uber has inspired fierce opposition to a bill that would allow its entrance into the Nevada (read “deliberately scarce Las Vegas taxi”) market. More interestingly, New York hotel interests are fighting Airbnb’s efforts to pay lodging taxes, in part because doing so would seem to legitimize the new competitor. In all cases, the incumbents are trying to use their links to legislators to increase regulation of their sector, biased toward status-quo definitions of same. But such efforts that purport to protect consumers lead to all sorts of unintended consequences. Previous efforts to stifle disruptive technologies have often been costly for the economy and in the end unsuccessful, no matter how logical and attractive they appeared to be at the time. Sharing beds and cars Both Airbnb and Uber make commissions by matching sleepers or riders with beds or cars, aided by the internet’s tendency to lower coordination costs and smartphones' unique combination of geographic context, rich visuals and ubiquitous wireless networking. It’s a much more attractive model than owning infrastructure and having to pay health care for employees. Across the world, many taxi and limousine commissions (TLCs) have ruled Uber illegal (even so, the service currently operates in 55 countries). Couch-surfing is more difficult to regulate: a 30-story hotel in Times Square is impossible to miss, while 20,000 available rooms in New York city (the figure dates from 2014) are mostly invisible from the street. In both cases, however, the incumbents can only do so much by way of competition: cab fares are set by law and taxi medallions are scarce for obvious reasons. In New York, the price of those medallions dropped by 17% (about $200,000) between 2013 and 2015, so Uber is hurting incumbents where it counts. Hotels with high fixed expenses, meanwhile, can only compete with Airbnb in subtle ways: saying “we’re cleaner than Joe Blow’s guest room” might be seen as damaging the brand while validating the competition. As a result, these incumbents can do little except drop prices or resort to regulatory protection. In part, this paucity of options reflects the highly fragmented nature of both markets. Trying to organize 50,000 licensed New York taxi drivers (who share 13,600 vehicles) to improve service, speed up pick-up times or otherwise compete with Uber on quality would be a logistical impossibility. Incentives aren’t aligned: the medallion owners don’t drive cars. Furthermore, taxi companies have been slow to invest in GPS and similar technology, guarded as they were by the regulated scarcity. Hailing and hoping Compare this model to Uber, in which the car owner is the driver. The smartphone app is a far superior method of arranging a ride compared with hailing and hoping – or even calling a dispatcher then hoping. Much like Fedex, Uber’s supply chain visibility (knowledge of where the package or cab is) contributes to the overall value of the experience. Conversely, waiting for a cab to get to the airport is made much more stressful by the lack of knowledge of where the ride is or how bad traffic is on a given route. Airbnb uses a similar confidence builder, wrapping information around the transaction. Much like eBay (its business-model grandfather), Airbnb rates both buyers and sellers, making both opening one’s home and staying in a private residence less of a gamble. For both Airbnb and Uber, the low barrier to entry and then the decentralized structure of the asset threatens the incumbents' moats: medallions in the taxi setting, real estate investment and heavy overhead (branding, IT systems and labor costs) in the case of a hotel. Complex regulation protects incumbents It’s important to realize how complex business regulation has become. What started as an effort in consumer protection (think of Upton Sinclair, “The Jungle,” and the creation of what became the FDA) now serves to do multiple additional things: to employ regulators who have a vested interest in keeping their jobs to maintain barriers to new-market entry and thus innovation to reassure markets and investors of a stable competitive environment. Thus what looks like “illegal” or “unfair” competition is in fact often a matter of innovation breaking an outdated, well-protected business model that has focused on profits rather than customer service or competitive differentiation. Note that in every case we have mentioned, the consumer protection function of regulation did not drive efforts to outlaw the competitive threat: Linux, VoIP, and unbundled CDs all dropped prices in the market while arguably improving quality. Regulators, however, need things to regulate, as we have just seen when the Federal Communications Commission defined the internet in such a way as to make up for millions of Americans abandoning wireline phone service, its primary locus of influence and revenue. Thus the incumbents and the regulators face a common threat. Room for regulation, but… At the same time, it’s worth noting that Airbnb’s and Uber’s independent contractors, with few exceptions, are looking littler and littler in light of the massive valuations and global aspirations of the two startups. In the latter case particularly, drivers have faced repeated and arbitrary changes in compensation models. Uber asserts that these changes should increase gross revenues, but the effect on operating expenses (and thus take-home pay) is less clear. Given the power imbalance between very big money at headquarters and independent contractors at the edge of the network, there is scope for harm, for protection and for risk – and thus a potential place for regulation – but those affected lack the political weight to compete with the more powerful motivator of eroded profits among a small number of incumbents. Labor unions and regulations protecting both workplace safety and the right of workers to organize were part of the answer to a similar imbalance in the 20th century. It’s as yet unclear what new arrangements could emerge now. So when a TLC tries to block Uber cars from accessing airport terminals, or hotels ask a city to refuse Airbnb’s efforts to pay lodging taxes, it’s worth asking: whose interests are being protected? Most likely, the legal efforts directly relate to the incumbent businesses that have been insulated from competition rather than to the common good, public safety, or economic progress. This article was originally published at The Conversation.