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Definitely not Windows 95: What operating systems keep things running in space?

Enlarge / ESA's Solar Orbiter mission will face the Sun from within the orbit of Mercury at its..



Enlarge / ESA's Solar Orbiter mission will face the Sun from within the orbit of Mercury at its closest approach.ESA/ATG medialab

The ESAs recently launched Solar Orbiter will spend years in one of the most unwelcoming places in the Solar System: the Sun. During its mission, Solar Orbiter will get 10 million kilometers closer to the Sun than Mercury. And, mind you, Mercury is close enough to have sustained temperatures reaching 450°C on its Sun-facing surface.

To withstand such temperatures, Solar Orbiter is going to rely on an intricately designed heat shield. This heat shield, however, will protect the spacecraft only when it is pointed directly at the Sun—there is no sufficient protection on the sides or in the back of the probe. So, accordingly, ESA developed a real-time operating system (RTOS) for Solar Orbiter that can act under very strict requirements. The maximum allowed off-pointing from the Sun is only 6.5 degrees. Any off-pointing exceeding 2.3 degrees is acceptable only for a very brief period of time. When something goes wrong and dangerous off-pointing is detected, Solar Orbiter is going to have only 50 seconds to react.

"Weve got extremely demanding requirements for this mission," says Maria Hernek, head of flight software systems section at ESA. "Typically, rebooting the platform such as this takes roughly 40 seconds. Here, weve had 50 seconds total to find the issue, have it isolated, have the system operational again, and take recovery action.”

To reiterate: this operating system, located far away in space, needs to remotely reboot and recover in 50 seconds. Otherwise, the Solar Orbiter is getting fried.

Billiard ball OS

To deal with such unforgiving deadlines, spacecraft like Solar Orbiter are almost always run by real-time operating systems that work in an entirely different way than the ones you and I know from the average laptop. The criteria by which we judge Windows or macOS are fairly simple. They perform a computation, and if the result of this computation is correct, then a task is considered to be done correctly. Operating systems used in space add at least one more central criterion: a computation needs to be done correctly within a strictly specified deadline. When a deadline is not met, the task is considered failed and terminated. And in spaceflight, a missed deadline quite often means your spacecraft has already turned into a fireball or strayed into an incorrect orbit. Theres no point in processing such tasks any further; things must adhere to a very precise clock.

The time, as measured by the clock, is divided into singular ticks. To simplify it, space operating systems are typically designed in such a way that each task is performed within a set number of allocated ticks. It can take three ticks to upload data from sensors; four further ticks are devoted to fire up engines and so on. Each possible task is assigned a specific priority, so a higher-priority task can take precedence over the lower-priority task. And this way, a software designer knows exactly which task is going to be performed in any given scenario and how much time it is going to take to get it done.

To compare this to operating systems we all know, just watch any given speed comparison between modern smartphones. In this one made by EverythingApplePro, the iPhone XS Max and Samsung S10 Plus go head to head opening some popular apps. Before the test, both phones are restarted, and the cache is cleared in them. Samsung opens all the apps in 2 minutes 30 seconds, and the iPhone clocks in at 2 minutes 54 seconds. In the second round, all the apps are closed and opened again without restarting or clearing the RAM. Because the apps are still in RAM, Samsung finishes the opening in 46 seconds, and the iPhone does it in 42 seconds. Thats a whopping two-minute time difference between the first try and the second. But if the phones had to run the kind of real-time operating systems used for spaceflight, opening those apps would take exactly the same amount of time no matter how many times you tried it—down to a millisecond.

Beyond time, space operating systems have more tricks up their sleeves. Real-time operation is one thing, and determinism is another. If you somehow convinced Craig Federighi to take part in one of those speed comparisons, gave him full access to the iPhone about to be tested, and asked him to predict exactly how much time it would take for this iPhone to complete the test, he would likely have no idea. Sure, hed probably say something like "fast," or "fast enough," or even "blazingly fast," but nothing more specific than that. Neither iOS nor Android is a deterministic system. The number of factors that could potentially affect speed results is so huge that making such exact predictions is practically impossible. But if the phone was running a space-grade OS, an engineer with access to the system would know exactly what causes what in a given sequence and could calculate the exact time necessary for any given task. Space-grade software has to be fully predictable and perform within super specific deadlines.


Shooting at the Moon (and beyond) with VxWorks

Back in the Apollo days, operating systems were custom-built for each mission. Sure, some of the code got reused—parts of the software made for the Apollo program made their way to Skylab and the Shuttle program, for instance. But for the most part, things had to be done from scratch.

One small reboot

During their famous descent, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong left the rendezvous radar antenna on and pointed at the Apollo Command Module orbiting the Moon. This was a safety measure for the lander to know where the CM was in case it needed to abort the landing. But it turned out the radar was flooding the computer with data, which caused the AGC to quickly run out of memory. The infamous 1201 and 1202 errors simply meant there were no free magnetic or memory cores and no free vector accumulation areas, respectively. The lack of memory made it impossible for the landing programs to complete on time, and this in turn caused repeatable restarts of the computer. Still, due to safety measures built into the OS, no critical navigation data was lost during those reboots—the landing could proceed as planned. The OS simply ran its scheduled tasks, picking up exactly where it had left off.Eventually, NASAs preferred OS solution came from WindRiver, a company based in Alameda, California. WindRiver released a fully operational commercial off-the-shelf, real-time operating system called VxWorks back in 1987. While VxWorks wasnt the first system of this kind, it quickly became the most widely deployed of them all, meaning VxWorks soon caught the eye of NASA mission designers.

The first mission to fly VxWorks was the Clementine Moon probe, otherwise known as the Deep Space Program Science Experiment. Back in the early 1990s, Clementine marked NASAs shift away from behemoth, Apollo-like programs. Everything was supposed to be lean, developed quickly, and on a tight budget. As such, one of the design choices made for the Clementine probe was to use VxWorks, and the system made a good enough impression to get a second date. VxWorks was the choice for the Mars Pathfinder mission.

But not everything was all rosy for this RTOS, though. A bug—the priority inversion problem—caused a lot of trouble for NASAs ground control team. Shortly after landing, Pathfinders system started to reboot for no apparent reason, which delayed transmitting the collected data back to Earth. It took three weeks to find the problem and another 18 hours to fix it; the issue turned out to be buried deep down in the VxWorks mechanics.

Listing image by Lee Hutchinson (original image)

An intro to VxWorks from WindRiver

Anatomy of VxWorks

At the heart of VxWorks lies the wind microkernel. Its job is to manage all the interactions between applications operating in the system and hardware. In VxWorks, the microkernel is responsible for task scheduling with all 256 levels of priority the task can be assigned. Both preemptive and non-preemptive round-robin scheduling is supported along with all communications between tasks.

Tasks in the system can be in one of four states. The "ready" state is the state of a task when it is started. From there, it can either run till its done or can be assigned a specific amount of time for running. A task enters a “blocked” state when it gets preempted by another task with a higher priority or when its allotted number of ticks has run out. The third option is a "delayed" state. A task is delayed while it waits for resources necessary for it to do its job (maybe data samples from a sensor). A delay is always measured by a timer running independently of processing, typically a tick counter at all times maintained by the kernel. When such delays exceed some set values, the system assumes something probably went really wrong and starts rebooting. Finally, there is also the fourth, “suspended” state, where the tasks context registers are saved while it is stopped for debugging.

Inter-task communication in VxWorks can be done either through a messaging service that allows tasks to exchange data or through semaphores, a variable that exists to make sure tasks are interlocked or synchronized when needed. There are two types of semaphores in VxWorks. The first are binary semaphores, which can assume two values: "full" or "empty." Full semaphores are available for tasks, and empty ones are unavailable. When a task starts, it takes an available semaphore, making it "empty" or unavailable for other tasks. When the task is finishing its execution, it relinquishes the semaphore, thus rendering it available for other tasks.

Such binary semaphores are used for synchronizing or interlocking different tasks. The name "semaphore" has railroad connotations, so lets stick with that for an analogy: imagine two trains that need to meet at some point to exchange cargo. In the VxWorks reality, the train that needs to pick the cargo up would create an empty semaphore and hand it over to the train that is carrying this cargo at the moment. Once the cargo-carrying train has unloaded it at the exchange point, this train would release the semaphore, leaving it up for grabs again.The first train (the one that created the semaphore) would then get notified that the semaphore is available, take it, and come in to pick up the cargo

In addition to binary semaphores, VxWorks includes a second type known as mutual exclusion, or "mutex," semaphores. These allow a task to have the exclusive use of a resource. The main difference with this method is how the semaphore is initialized. Binary semaphores are always created empty. Mutex semaphores are always created full. A task simply creates a full semaphore and takes it immediately, thus making it unavailable to all other tasks until its through with whatever it is doing. Such semaphores are often used to access communications hardware. A task needs to use such equipment, say, an information bus, until its data transfer is over. Cutting the transmission before it's done would be pointless, hence the need for mutex semaphores.

If this sounds clever, its because it is. The semaphore system is proprietary, and it became one of VxWorks selling points. But during those first few weeks Mars Pathfinder spent on the Red Planet, the RTOS still went beautifully downhill.

A Martian bug

The "information bus" working onboard the Mars Pathfinder was a shared memory used for passing the data between different components of the lander. Predictably, this area was a resource locked with a mutex semaphore. As it turned out, there were three tasks involved in causing the mysterious reboots. The first was a high priority task whose job was to manage the information bus operations. The second was a low priority task, which once in a while would take the information bus mutex to share meteorological data. The third culprit involved was a medium priority communications task.

Heres how this system was supposed to work: the meteorological data-gathering task was supposed to infrequently seize the information bus mutex. On rare occasions when the information bus management task was scheduled to run while the meteorological data-gathering task was running, the higher-priority task would try to get ahold of the same mutex—and therefore it ended up blocked until the lower-priority meteorological data was written to the bus. So far, so good, as data transfers should go from start to finish. But the third medium-priority communications task entered the scene and caused trouble.

The trouble was that there was an unlikely sequence of events that could schedule the medium-priority task to run when the low-priority meteorology task was running after it caused the high-priority bus-management task to block on the mutex. There was only a split-second window of opportunity for this to happen, but when it did occur, the medium-priority task preempted the low-priority task. One of the many things the halted meteorological data gathering couldnt do on such occasions was release the mutex semaphore to the high-priority bus management task. In consequence, the medium-priority task indirectly blocked the higher-priority task from running, hence the priority inversion. Of course, this caused the bus management task to enter the delayed state. And once the independent timer working in the kernel figured out that the important thread was not running as planned, it assumed something went really wrong and initiated a total reboot.

Such reboots happened roughly half a dozen times in two weeks—but ultimately VxWorks and its design was not to blame. The system could deal with such issues with a trick called “priority inheritance,” which caused the low-priority task to temporarily assume the higher priority of another task it has just blocked on mutex. If priority inheritance was working in the Mars Pathfinder, the meteorological data-gathering task would have simply assumed the high priority of the bus management task for the time the bus management task was waiting on the semaphore. This, in turn, would have prevented the medium-priority communications task from preempting it. All that had to be done was to turn on the priority inheritance option before launch.

Therefore, at the end of the day, Pathfinders issues stemmed from a human error. VxWorks, thus found not guilty, has gone on to fly on pretty much every rover that has landed on Mars since. Just a few decades after becoming the most widely deployed RTOS on Earth, it managed to become the most popular operating system on the Red Planet, too.

From 2015: An artist's rendering of the BepiColombo mission, a joint ESA/JAXA project, which will take two spacecraft to the harsh environment of Mercury.
Enlarge / From 2015: An artist's rendering of the BepiColombo mission, a joint ESA/JAXA project, which will take two spacecraft to the harsh environment of Mercury. ESA

ESA Falls for RTEMS

For the last decade, the space operating systems landscape seemed stable. In the US, NASA was mostly happy with using proprietary VxWorks for its most high-profile missions. But in the EU, the ESA had its own workhorse. The space agency was heavily invested in developing the open source RTEMS—which, according to the ESAs Maria Hernek, is just as capable but comes without expensive licensing fees.

RTEMS was not initially created to fly European spaceships—its original purpose was flying US missiles, actually. This RTOS history began with a study performed at the Research Development and Engineering Center of the US Army Missile Command back in 1988. Army researchers concluded that using proprietary real-time operating systems caused a number of problems. Most notably, the government did not own the code, so it couldnt modify it in any way. Moreover, the study claimed the responsibility for software failures looked a bit unclear, and RTOSes of that era were too slow for missile systems. For all those reasons, the Army decided to build its own RTOS called Real-Time Executive for Missile Systems. The goal was to make an RTOS that was fast enough for guiding missiles, government-owned, easy to run on different processor families, and license-free.

As the RTEMS was taking shape, the US Military started to realize that its possible applications reached far beyond firing rockets. Hence the name of the system quickly evolved into the more general Real-Time Executive for Military Systems. And since May 4, 1995, when RTEMS was released as open source and no longer bound to wear a uniform, it became known as the Real-Time Executive for Multiprocessor Systems.

The European Space Agency has fallen in love with it for two main reasons. The first is that RTEMS was designed from the ground up to be effortlessly ported to new processor families. So, making it work on SPARC LEON radiation-hardened chips developed in Europe for ESAs space missions could be done with relative ease. The second reason was that the system was highly customizable. Based on the same working principles as VxWorks, RTEMS allowed programmers more freedom since virtually everything in the system could be changed. ESA was totally free to fiddle with the code.

Scheduling is one of the customizable areas where RTEMS differs from VxWorks. In VxWorks, a programmer is stuck with a preemptive priority-based scheduler for tasks with differing priorities and a round-robin when multiple tasks have the same priority. It cant be changed. WindRiver built it this way—take it or leave it. RTEMS offers a completely different approach.

Of course, RTEMS has a priority-based scheduler with 256 levels of priority just as in VxWorks. There is also a round-robin scheduling method available. Both are used as default schedulers for single-processor platforms. But in RTEMS, you can dispense with each option and go for one of the numerous other scheduling mechanisms instead. There is the Simple Priority Scheduler, a leaner version of default schedulers that can work under several memory constraints. The same low-memory scheduler is also available in a variant designed for symmetric multiprocessing systems with multiple processors running in parallel. Or another scheduling option entirely is the Earliest Deadline First Scheduler, which, as its name suggests, prioritizes tasks with earliest deadlines. Plus if you are not happy with any of RTEMS options, you are free to throw them all out the window and write your own scheduling algorithm—RTEMS will work with that as well.

Since opting for this RTOS, ESA has invested lots of time and effort into qualifying RTEMS to software criticality Level B, which is the second-highest level of software reliability recognized by the agency. The ESA uses Level B status to denote software whose failure would cause “critical” consequences. To achieve that, ESA testers had to execute every single line and every single decision point in the RTEMS code. The only higher criticality—Level A—is where the consequences of failure are “catastrophic.” (Sadly, ESA documents do not specify what “critical” or “catastrophic” mean exactly, but you can easily imagine the ISS crashing down on Brussels.)

“I recall the last time we used VxWorks was in one of the instruments on Sentinel 1 spacecraft,” says Hernek. All other modern European space missions, including the most recent Solar Orbiter, flew with RTEMS onboard.

RTOS on a mission

At this point, VxWorks and RTEMS have been used for decades and are astonishingly good at what they do. In an email exchange discussing real-time operating systems in 2004, Gregory Menke, NASAs software engineer, wrote that in terms of performance, RTEMS and VxWorks were so close that it was impossible to even tell the difference between the two. So, as you might expect, ESA used VxWorks at times, and NASA went for RTEMS on more than one occasion. The two major flight operating systems have even run in parallel on the same spacecraft managing different instruments.

But that doesnt mean the last decade has been all VxWorks and RTEMS in the world of space operating systems. And sometimes, new challengers came from the most unexpected places—like a bitcoin forum post.

Back in 2013, bitcoin core developer Jeff Garzik posted a humble idea to the Bitcoin Talk Forum: what about building some bitcoin resiliency in space?

"I was researching how to sort of make the bitcoin network even more resilient,” Garzik says. “And I had an amateur space background—my father took me to Space Shuttle launches; he worked at the White Sands Missile Range." Garzik saw two potential paths: the first, according to him, was to rent a bandwidth on an existing satellite and use it to broadcast the blockchain data. "But from tRead More – Source

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Google suspends ‘free speech’ app Parler




Google has suspended “free speech” social network Parler from its Play Store over its failure to remove “egregious content”.

Parler styles itself as “unbiased” social media and has proved popular with people banned from Twitter.

But Google said the app had failed to remove posts inciting violence.

Apple has also warned Parler it will remove the app from its App Store if it does not comply with its content-moderation requirements.

On Parler, the app’s chief executive John Matze said: “We won’t cave to politically motivated companies and those authoritarians who hate free speech!”

Launched in 2018, Parler has proved particularly popular among supporters of US President Donald Trump and right-wing conservatives. Such groups have frequently accused Twitter and Facebook of unfairly censoring their views.

While Mr Trump himself is not a user, the platform already features several high-profile contributors following earlier bursts of growth in 2020.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz boasts 4.9 million followers on the platform, while Fox News host Sean Hannity has about seven million.

It briefly became the most-downloaded app in the United States after the US election, following a clampdown on the spread of election misinformation by Twitter and Facebook.

However, both Apple and Google have said the app fails to comply with content-moderation requirements.

Analysis: Necessary or draconian action?

By Shayan Sardarizadeh, BBC Monitoring

For months, Parler has been one of the most popular social media platforms for right-wing users.

As major platforms began taking action against viral conspiracy theories, disinformation and the harassment of election workers and officials in the aftermath of the US presidential vote, the app became more popular with elements of the fringe far-right.

This turned the network into a right-wing echo chamber, almost entirely populated by users fixated on revealing examples of election fraud and posting messages in support of attempts to overturn the election outcome.

In the days preceding the Capitol riots, the tone of discussion on the app became significantly more violent, with some users openly discussing ways to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory by Congress.

Unsubstantiated allegations and defamatory claims against a number of senior US figures such as Chief Justice John Roberts and Vice-President Mike Pence were rife on the app.

Google and Apple say they are taking necessary action to ensure violent rhetoric is not promoted on their platforms.

However, to those increasingly concerned about freedom of speech and expression on online platforms, it represents another example of draconian action by major tech companies which threatens internet freedom.

This is a debate which is certain to continue beyond the Trump presidency.

In a statement, Google confirmed it had suspended Parler from its Play Store, saying: “Our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence.

“In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.”

Apple has warned Parler it will be removed from the App Store on Saturday in a letter published by Buzzfeed News.

It said it had seen “accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate” the attacks on the US Capitol on 6 January.

Mr Matze said Parler had “no way to organise anything” and pointed out that Facebook groups and events had been used to organise action.

But Apple said: “Our investigation has found that Parler is not effectively moderating and removing content that encourages illegal activity and poses a serious risk to the health and safety of users in direct violation of your own terms of service.”

“We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.”

In a related development, Google has kicked Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast off YouTube, saying it had repeatedly violated the platform’s rules.

The ex-White House aide’s channel had more than 300,000 subscribers.

“In accordance with our strikes system, we have terminated Steve Bannon’s channel ‘War room’ and one associated channel for repeatedly violating our Community Guidelines,” Google said in a statement.

“Any channel posting new videos with misleading content that alleges widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential election in violation of our policies will receive a strike, a penalty which temporarily restricts uploading or live-streaming. Channels that receive three strikes in the same 90-day period will be permanently removed from YouTube.”

The action was taken shortly after the channel posted an interview with Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in which he blamed the Democrats for the rioting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

One anti-misinformation group said the action was long overdue after “months of Steve Bannon calling for revolution and violence”.

“The truth is YouTube should have taken down Steve Bannon’s account a long time ago and they shouldn’t rely on the labour of extremism researchers to moderate the content on their platform,” said Madeline Peltz, Senior Researcher at Media Matters for America.

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20 years of tech with Jeff: From green iMacs and DVDs to the iPhone era




When I started covering technology here two decades ago, I didn’t own a cellphone, nor did my company deem it in their interests to buy me one.

My tenure at USA TODAY pre-dates text messages, soundbars, talking speakers, QR codes, video chat, Uber, DoorDash, Zoom calls, YouTube, Wi-Fi, affordable flat-screen TVs….you get the idea.

So many changes in such a short period of time! This is my last column for USA TODAY as your Talking Tech columnist. Let’s say goodbye by celebrating how far we’ve come through the years.

My stint started in 2000 – I began at USA TODAY earlier, covering entertainment – at a time when we spent a lot of time talking about the big three tech companies: AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft. AOL had just shocked the world by buying Time Warner for $165 billion. (You know how well that turned out. But I digress.)

We did use computers, yes indeed, mostly desktops, and they were Windows machines with black-and-white monitors. We weren’t online; we went online, with a phone line attached to our computers. You know, the type we used on our landlines. Remember them?

Apple back then had less than 3% market share. It wouldn’t start its evolution into the world’s most valuable $2 trillion company until 2001, when it introduced the iPod MP3 music player and helped bring digital music to the masses. This is after the short-lived Napster popularized MP3s by showing how easy it was to copy licensed music. In 2003, the iPod shifted into a mainstream product when CEO Steve Jobs (who rejoined the company in 1997) opened it up to be used on Windows computers with the iTunes music store, the first easy to use, legitimate avenue for buying music, back then at 99 cents a song. Streaming and the celestial jukebox was a far off dream.

We started Talking Tech in 2006 as a weekly, ahead-of-its-time video series, produced bicoastally on two webcams. The first episode – with my former partner, Edward C. Baig – was a review of the Flip Video camera. Remember that one, kids?

By 2010, Flip was soon to be gone, as Apple introduced the iPhone 4, the first iPhone with a decent camera. Kodak became a memory, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and other mainstays of the camera business saw their sales tumble, as people preferred the camera that was in their pocket, their phone.

But I have to admit, I never foresaw just how great the smartphone cams would become. I always loved using them, but there was a stigma to “cellphone video.” Now we can shoot 4K video that looks nearly as good as what you get from a traditional camera, mostly due to computational photography tricks. But I’m not complaining. Have you seen my iPhone sunsets?

Then there’s Google and Facebook.

It was in 2000 that Yahoo handed over its search keys to a scrappy startup that said it had a method for more effective online searches. From there, we got Google stepping out onto its own in 2003 by sending people to its website and popularizing the verb, “Google It.” We got Google Maps (remember life without it?), Gmail (free e-mail without being tied to our internet provider), Google Translate, Google Photos and so many other features that I don’t think we could live without today.

That’s the good side.

There’s also Google tracking our every move, in order to put personalized ads in front of us everywhere we go, and saying goodbye to our privacy. Google will claim that much of the privacy invasion is “opt-in” and that we agreed to it when we signed up for services. But who remembers doing that?

Facebook took the snooping to an even greater level. But today’s column is about celebrating tech. So let’s bypass the misinformation and online rage that erupted from the social network and instead just give props to a site that reconnected some 2 billion people with old friends and family. I announced my pending exit on my newsletter, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. You know where I got the lion’s share of responses? Facebook, hands down.

Amazon. Who believed you could order anything you ever wanted with one click, and have it arrive the next day? By 2001 Amazon had announced its first profit, but it was more recently that we saw Amazon really showcase what was it was to become, by acquiring Whole Foods and launching Amazon Fresh, the supermarket with a radical cart that automatically tallied up your purchases, launching the smart speaker craze with Echo and Alexa and being a dominant force in streaming with Fire TV.

But Amazon missed out on phones. Google got in early, in 2008, with the Android operating system, which it grew by giving it away for free to companies like Samsung, LG and Huawei. That business model would enable Android to claim a whopping 85% market share, where it’s featured on so many low-cost phones.

If I had to pick the most influential tech device of my generation, there’s no hesitation. It’s the iPhone, hands down, even bigger than the VCR or the personal computer.

Because the iPhone (and other smartphone brands to follow) put the computer into our pockets, untethered and presented in a easy, intuitive way that appealed to the masses. Listen to music, answer the phone, watch TV, surf the net, all on one device. One in which we can also monitor our daily steps, show us how to get around and take amazing photos. (Again, those sunsets!)

I love my laptop, but it didn’t change my life.

So what of the future?

In 2016, I did a column quoting analysts saying that the smartphone as we know it, would cease and morph into some form of eyewear within the next few years. I didn’t believe it then, I don’t believe it now.

Having stuff flying in front of your eyes as you walk down the street is a distraction. (Take that, Google Glass.) We watched screens in the 1950s. We’re going to be looking at screens in the 2020s and 2030s.

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Are you willing to pay for email? How about podcasts? Here are our tech predictions for 2021




It’s that time of year when we make predictions about what to see from technology in 2021.

We already know we’re good for new iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones, new smart speakers from Amazon and beautiful new smart TV sets that will have higher resolution than ever before – at a lower cost.

So let’s offer up some tech predictions about what else we’ll see, or just might.

Let’s start with a given:

You’ll be paying for email in 2021

The world’s most popular email program Gmail, is owned by Google, which has decided to follow in Apple’s footsteps by getting more people hooked on monthly subscriptions. (Apple’s Services – which includes Apple Music, News and iCloud – is now its second-highest revenue generator, above Macs, iPads and Apple Watches.)

As of June 1, Google will no longer allow users to upload their photos and videos to Google Photos for free. Google offers 15 GBs of free storage for photos, but that also includes Gmail and Google Drive backup. The ask is that you pay for storage, which starts at $1.99 a month – but for just 100 GB of storage.

I don’t know about you, but my Gmail is 41 GBs worth now, I have 15 GBs worth of photos in Google Photos and 1.7 TBs on Google Drive.

Sure, I can clear out Google Drive, but the thing is, my email is a living, growing thing that is just not going to get smaller, no matter how hard I try to clean it up. It grows every day. So if you like your Gmail, get used to it – you might be paying.

Microsoft and Yahoo still offer free email, but they’re littered with ads, and you’re encouraged to step up to the “premium” versions, which starts at $5 and $3.49 a month, respectively, to go ad-free. Yahoo is eliminating the ability to automatically forward emails from Yahoo Mail beginning next week, unless you spend $34.99 a year for the service.

Big tech won’t find the new administration any friendlier

Facebook and Google’s woes in Washington, D.C., won’t change with a new Biden administration, we believe. The companies will continue to be hauled into Washington to defend against being broken up. President-elect Joe Biden has complained to the social network many times about all the disinformation coming out about him on Facebook, and the company declined to act. That certainly isn’t likely to play well in the Biden years.

The streaming wars will lose a big player

Many new streaming networks launched in 2020, most notably HBO Max and Peacock, and many more are on the horizon for 2021, including Paramount Plus and Discovery +, but at least one of the new networks will go down. Or so says my USA TODAY colleague Brett Molina, who puts Paramount Plus as the most likely victim.

Paramount Plus is the soon-to-be new name for what was CBS All-Access, with the addition of movies from the Paramount Pictures library and TV shows from the Viacom (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon) vault. “There’s just too many of them,” Molina says. “I can’t see it lasting.” (You will see many more first-run films on streaming channels in 2021, as Warner Media has announced its entire slate for HBO Max and Disney + has first-run fare scheduled as well.)

5G won’t get any better until late 2021

The launch of new phones with access to the supposedly faster wireless speed of 5G, and the wireless carriers’ breathless hype about speed left many consumers scratching their heads. The promised speeds were no faster than 4G. One day 5G will live up to the hype, but not until late 2021, believes Gene Munster, an analyst and investor with Loup Ventures. For real progress, we’ll have to wait for 2022.

Local retailers will find a way to compete with Amazon

It’s an aspirational wish, but “someone will solve the need and find a way to fill it,” says Kieran Hannon, the chief marketing officer for OpenPath, a company that offers next generation office entry technology. He believes a service will be developed to help local retailers compete with the Amazons of the world by letting customers order from a direct website serving locals and have products delivered to them at home, thus keeping sales in the neighborhood.

Zoom and video meetings will only get bigger

Business travel may start to come back from the dead in the second half of 2021, but all the companies that saved money from the trips won’t likely be as eager to send staffers traipsing around the country when meetings can be done cheaper and more efficiently via video.

Students will one day return to the classrooms, but company meetings, seminars, webinars and the like will likely continue. No need to return those ring lights to improve your appearance yet.

Speaking of Zoom, a possible acquisition?

The video networks is one hot property that saw its usage numbers climb from 10 million to 300 million amid the pandemic, making it one prime acquisition target. Who better to buy Zoom than Amazon?

The companies already work together, with Amazon Web Services providing the server backbone for all those Zoom meetings. Unlike Google, Apple and Facebook, which have their own well-established video networks (Google Meet, FaceTime and Messenger), Amazon doesn’t have one.

So with Zoom in the company, and all those meeting minutes (about 2 trillion in April alone,) what an attractive target that would make for Amazon to remind us to use Alexa and buy more stuff, right?

Pay for podcasts?

Finally, Munster from Loup Ventures believes Apple will follow its smash success with the Services division by introducing a new way for podcasters to make money on their shows by charging admission. He sees a “Podcast +” that sees everyone’s favorite audio shows (like Talking Tech) added to the Apple One bundle with Apple Music. “Good news for podcasters, who may see Apple as another avenue to monetize their listener base.”

We love it.

Happy New Year, everyone!


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