Sunday, November 16, 2014

Boot up: EC targets Amazon, battery limits, Surface mini coming?

A buffet of 8 links for you to chew over, as picked by the Technology team

Alex Barker and Vanessa Houlder:

Brussels is confronting Luxembourg over an unorthodox Amazon tax deal, alleging it allowed the online retail giant to reap potentially illegal state subsidies for its European operations for almost a decade.

The European Commission is poised to launch a formal in-depth probe into its serious concerns over improper state aid, dragging Amazon into a multi-pronged clampdown on sweetheart tax deals that has already ensnared Apple in Ireland and Starbucks in the Netherlands.

The two Luxembourg cases over Amazon and Fiat are particularly sensitive because Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming Commission president, was the Grand Duchy's longtime premier at the time of the deals. All the countries and companies subject to the state aid probes reject any improper arrangements or wrongdoing. The Commission declined to comment.

Is Google next?

Sean Hollister:

Suddenly, I was high atop a skyscraper, kneeling over the edge of the world. Below and all around me was a Gotham City worthy of any Batman, dark and gritty and clearly filled with evil waiting to be stopped. In the heat of the moment, though, I was far more concerned with how close I was to plummeting to my doom. By sheer instinct, I jerked back from the precipice, carefully turned around, and grabbed a nearby metal railing to help me to my feet. ONLY THERE WAS NO METAL RAILING BECAUSE I WAS IN VIRTUAL REALITY and my hand fell through. Holy crap. Before me, a gleaming Oculus tower seemed to laugh at my mistake. Behind me, a billboard with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey's smiling visage reminded me who was boss. The owners of this world had fooled me, and as I looked up at a giant blimp blotting out part of the sky, I vowed not to get fooled again.

Really does sound a lot of fun.

Christopher Mims:

Perhaps the best example of creativity in the face of limited energy storage is the rise of personal drones. These are possible only because of faster microprocessors and tiny versions of the brushless motors also used by Dyson. Even so, at present Parrot's AR 2.0 quadcopter drone, one of the best on the market, can stay aloft for only 18 minutes per charge of its battery.

Drones are a special case of the limitations of current energy storage technology because, even more than in cars and other gadgets, there is a direct penalty for adding more batteries—the drones becomes heavier.

That's one reason we should all be skeptical of companies promising drone delivery services. For drones to become viable for dropping off packages, as prototyped by Amazon and Google, their flight time will have to improve substantially. Yet there are no breakthroughs in commercial-scale battery tech on the horizon. One alternative is to power those drones with gasoline, but it's hard to imagine people will put up with skies darkened by the auditory equivalent of flying weed whackers.

Which means we're not going to eliminate the UPS man until battery power crosses a threshold that might be far in the future. It might not even happen until a time when we're not even using batteries any longer, but rather some kind of solid-state energy storage device or an advanced hydrogen fuel cell.

In happier times:

The company also announced that it has entered into a multi-year supply agreement with Apple Inc. to provide sapphire material. GT will own and operate ASF® furnaces and related equipment to produce the material at an Apple facility in Arizona where GT expects to employ over 700 people. Apple will provide GT with a prepayment of approximately $578m. GT will reimburse Apple for the prepayment over five years, starting in 2015.

Although the agreement does not guarantee volumes, it does require GT to maintain a minimum level of capacity. GT will be subject to certain exclusivity terms during the duration of the agreement. GT expects this arrangement to be cash positive and accretive to earnings starting in 2014. Gross margins from this new materials business are expected to be substantially lower than GT's historical equipment margins. However, the company believes the strategic nature of this agreement and the benefits associated with building a recurring revenue stream are important to its continued diversification.

(The CIO is the chief information officer of a company):

An IT professional with a financial services company, who declined to be identified, agreed that the breakup of H-P came as no surprise. Speaking during an informal interview at the Gartner conference, he described his firm as a large H-P shop. At a round table discussion several years ago, company IT managers were invited to speculate about which vendors might not survive another three to five years, and he said that H-P's name came up a lot. H-P, he said, was slow to react to market forces, including the shift to the cloud…

One IT executive said the breakup of H-P followed the pattern established by its rival, IBM, which has sold its server as well as its PC units to rival Lenovo Group Ltd. to focus on business services. The sale of the server business closed just a few days ago. "It is IBM dejavu. It reinforces our view that hardware is a commodity and will not be a differentiator unless tightly coupled with the software," Manish Kapoor, senior vice president of information systems at NuStar Energy L.P., said in an email.

Earlier this summer, our own sources indicated that Microsoft was working on a Surface 3 tablet with plans to launch it this month, and information reported via separate sources in July appeared to confirm this. The Surface 3 is expected to be slimmer and lighter than the model it replaces, featuring the new multi-stage kickstand from its bigger brother, and also including support for the Surface Pen for the first time. 

We understand that the Surface 3 is still being readied for launch, and TK's sources pointing to the same information suggests that nothing has changed on that front. An October announcement would give Microsoft enough time to roll out the device in key markets ahead of the all-important holiday sales season. 

GT Advanced Technologies, a New Hampshire company that struck a lucrative deal last year to supply sapphire screens to Apple, has filed for bankruptcy.

The company filed Monday to reorganize its finances under Chapter 11  protection of the US bankruptcy court. It said it had about $85 million in cash as of the end of September, but needed to raise money to meet payroll and other obligations of its daily operations. In court documents, it estimated its assets and liabilities exceed $1bn.

Just last year, Apple reached a multi-year agreement with GT in which it committed to make advance payments of approximately $578m to the supplier.  Many believed Apple was considering sapphire as a replacement for Corning's Gorilla Glass in its next-generation iPhone 6, but that didn't happen (though the material is to be used in the forthcoming Apple Watch).

A woman was taken to hospital after her iFake charger exploded while she was on the phone last night.

The Brigade is warning people about the dangers of counterfeit Apple iPhone chargers and say people who use these dodgy devices could be risking electrocution, burns or even a serious house fire.

Firefighters were called to the house on Neville Gill Close in Wandsworth at one minute past midnight. A woman was charging her phone and using it at the time when the explosion happened. Thankfully there was no fire but the woman was taken to hospital by London Ambulance Service crews.

The charger had been bought for £7 off of a local market stall.

Fairly sure it wasn't branded "iFake". Readers of our links to Ken Shirriff's blog will know why this happened. (Shirriff paid £2.79 for his fake, so clearly the market stall made a hefty profit.)

And the page has an entertaining "real or fake?" quiz. See how you get on. (Us: 70%.)

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