Sunday, November 16, 2014

Boot up: Venezuelan bitcoins, Apple v GTAT redux, Windows 10 reaches a million

A helping of 9 links for you to chew over, as picked by the Technology team

Tech-savvy Venezuelans looking to bypass dysfunctional economic controls are turning to the bitcoin virtual currency to obtain dollars, make Internet purchases -- and launch a little subversion.

Two New York-based Venezuelan brothers hope this week to start trading on the first bitcoin exchange in the socialist-run country, which already has at least several hundred bitcoin enthusiasts.

Due to currency controls introduced by late president Hugo Chavez a decade ago, acquiring hard currency now means either requesting it from the state, which struggles to satisfy demand, or tapping a shadowy black market. Even small dollar transactions are out of the question for most Venezuelans.

While President Nicolas Maduro makes frequent tirades against black market traders, whom he sees as part of the "economic war" on his government and the reason for inflation and shortages, he has never said anything about bitcoin. The government declined to comment on bitcoin policy.

Just as in Cyprus, bitcoin is now used to route around currency controls.

Laying down high-speed fiber is expensive. Digging trenches in the ground and stringing cables along utility poles is expensive. Getting permission to do all that is expensive. But it turns out that all of that is a fraction of the cost of offering TV programming, according to the head of Google Fiber, Milo Medin. And it's a cost Google can't avoid paying.

Video "is the single biggest impediment" to Google Fiber's deployment, Medin told an audience at the COMPTEL telecom conference in Dallas on Monday. "It is the single biggest piece of our cost structure."

Why is Google so down on TV? Because as important as Internet access is, Americans still love their triple-play bundle. You can't sell Internet these days without also offering a TV package.

As recently as August, GT said in an earnings call that it was confident it would meet the operational targets set by Apple and receive its final prepayment of $139m, which had been due by the end of this month.

However, when the iPhone 6 was revealed last month without any mention of a sapphire screen, GT's stock tumbled.

Apple insists on a much higher quality of manufacturing and materials than other consumer electronics companies.

Just last week, Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple's design chief, described his extreme attention to detail in developing its gadgets and its efforts to differentiate on quality.

"I believe we sense when there has been care taken with a product," Sir Jonathan told attendees at a Vanity Fair event in San Francisco, "just as in the same way that we sense carelessness. Sadly most of our manufactured environment testifies to a degree of carelessness."

Microsoft opened up a new 'Insiders' program with the release of Windows 10 technical preview and the company has said today that over 1 million users have signed up for the program. That's quite a few folks who want to try out the latest offering from Microsoft and will help shape the upcoming OS.

Seeing that likely everyone who signed up for the program also downloaded the bits, it's likely safe to say that there are over 1 million users playing with Windows 10. Yes, we know that you can access the direct links and bypass the program and there are also those toying with the Enterprise SKU too, but it is safe to say that there are at least 1 million installs of Windows 10 around the world.

Eric Schmidt, speaking in Berlin (at a time when antitrust examination of Google's power in Europe is intensifying):

search is not a network that relies on connecting to other people. You don't use Google because your friends do. Put another way: Google isn't useful because it's popular; we're popular because we're useful. Of course, the more people use our search engine, the more useful we are to advertisers -- but just as users have choice when it comes to information discovery, advertisers have options when it comes to online marketing. You can use Google AND the competition. These relationships are not mutually exclusive.

We hear similar network-effect arguments being made about data. Our experience is that you don't need data to compete online. When Google started, Yahoo was the biggest player in search by a long way. We used just a little bit of data to figure out how to answer queries in a far better way. Or look at social. We had the most popular social network in Brazil. It was called Orkut, and it had many millions of very active users. But in just a few years, Orkut was overtaken by Facebook, just as Facebook overtook MySpace. It's the recipe that matters the most, not the ingredients.

The reality is that Google works very differently from other companies that have been called gatekeepers, and regulated as such. We aren't a ferry. We aren't a railroad. We aren't a telecommunications network or an electricity grid, with only one line going to your home, and no competitors allowed. No one is stuck using Google.

Analyzing the vendor rankings by device type yields an interesting picture. In the smartphone class, Samsung remains the comfortable leader with 45% of the MEA market, but its share is down 8 points from a year ago. At the same time, Huawei's share has jumped from 2% to 10%, putting the vendor in second place, ahead of Apple (8%) and Nokia (6%).

BlackBerry continues to suffer, enduring the biggest drop in smartphone market share of all vendors, from over 12% in 2013 to just under 2% this year. In the feature phone segment, Nokia is still top with 35% share, although this is down from 47% in Q2 2013. Techno, Samsung, and Qmobile (a brand from Pakistan) follow in that order, with shares of 11.5%, 10.7%, and 7.3% respectively, all of which also refect year-on-year share declines.

Smartphone share of sales jumped from 27% a year before to 40% in that quarter; in some of the more developed countries they're 75-80% of all handsets sold. UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Kuwait are leading the smartphone migration trend, with smartphone share in each country surpassing 75%. (That's almost as high as the UK.)

Phone makers are dying to sell us smartwatches, but the human-interface part of the equation remains a work in progress. Happily, Microsoft's latest research effort shows text input could be relatively painless even on tiny, wrist-mounted displays. Behold the Analog Keyboard Project, which Microsoft is testing out on Android Wear devices.

Forget all that nonsense about voice and dictation - scribbling a letter at a time on a tiny touchscreen is the future now.

Philip Elmer-DeWitt:

A reporter who has been tracking iPhone 6 and 6 Plus reservations in China for the past week estimated on Tencent QQ Monday that more than 20m units were pre-ordered last weekend. His report is being picked up by DigiTimes and other Asian tech sites.

If the 20m figure is accurate — a big if — it would mean that five times as many iPhone 6s were pre-ordered in three days in one country as were the first weekend in 10 countries, including the US, UK and Hong Kong.

The Big If. According to the online reservation counter being used to generate the estimate, the iPhone 6 Plus is marginally ahead in the orders.

AT&T has agreed to a $105m settlement with federal agencies and state attorneys general for allowing companies to add fraudulent charges to its customers phone bills—and taking at least a 35% cut of what they made.

This process, known as cramming, has been around in various forms since the 1990s, and carriers have sworn numerous times to put an end to it. In total, customers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on charges they never asked for, officials said in a press conference Wednesday. The Federal Communications Commission has taken 14 enforcement actions on cramming since 2010, covering $122m in activity. The AT&T case is the largest such settlement in the agency's history, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

FTC website cites charging mobile customers "without their permission for third-party services like ringtones, wallpapers, and text message subscriptions for horoscopes, flirting tips, and celebrity gossip".

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