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

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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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FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM DOWN FOR THOUSANDS OF USERS TWO MONTHS AFTER MAJOR OUTAGE

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independent– Facebook users have reported outages on the site just two months after the platform crashed, costing the company millions.

Some Facebook users have had issues accessing the site since 12.30pm this afternoon.

There have been over 2,000 reports of Facebook outages, according to Down Detector. Many have taken to Twitter to report the issues showing error messages on the site which read “sorry, something went wrong.”

The error message adds: “We’re working on getting this fixed as soon as we can.”

One user tweeted: “#Facebook is down. Now I’m forced to do actual work.”

Another added: “Facebook is down what are we going to do this afternoon now.”

The company, which now goes by Meta, experienced outages in October across Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Messenger lasting several hours and costing it nearly $100 million in revenue.

Whatsapp and Instagram are also experiencing outages according to Down Detector, with the latter recording just under 2,000 reports in the last 24 hours.

A Meta spokesperson said: “Earlier today, a technical issue caused some people in Europe to have trouble accessing Facebook and Instagram. We resolved the issue as quickly as possible for everyone who was impacted, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”

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China surveillance of journalists to use ‘traffic-light’ system

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bbc– The Chinese province of Henan is building a surveillance system with face-scanning technology that can detect journalists and other “people of concern”.

Documents seen by BBC News describe a system that classifies journalists into a “traffic-light” system – green, amber and red.

Journalists in the “red” category would be “dealt with accordingly”, they say.

The Henan Public Security Bureau has not responded to a request for comment.

The documents, discovered by the surveillance analyst firm IPVM, also outline plans to surveil other “people of concern”, including foreign students and migrant women.

Human Rights Watch said: “This is not a government that needs more power to track more people… especially those who might be trying to peacefully hold it accountable.”

‘Thematic libraries’

The documents, published on 29 July, are part of a tendering process, encouraging Chinese companies to bid for a contract to build the new system, won, on 17 September, by NeuSoft.

NeuSoft has not responded to BBC News request for comment.

The system includes facial-recognition technology linked to thousands of cameras in Henan, to alert authorities when a “person of concern” is located.

“People of concern” would be categorised into “thematic libraries” – in an already existing database of information about and images of people in the province.

The system would also connect with China’s national database.

‘Key concern’

One of the groups of interest to the Henan Public Security Bureau is journalists, including foreign journalists.

“The preliminary proposal is to classify key concerned journalists into three levels,” the documents say.

“People marked in red are the key concern.

“The second level, marked in yellow, are people of general concern.

“Level three, marked in green – are for journalists who aren’t harmful.”

And an alert would be triggered as soon as “journalists of concern”, marked as “red” – or “yellow”, if they had previous criminal charges – booked a ticket to travel into the province.

The system would also assess foreign students and divide them into three categories of risk – “excellent foreign students, general personnel, and key people and unstable personnel”.

“The safety assessment is made by focusing on the daily attendance of foreign students, exam results, whether they come from key countries, and school-discipline compliance,” the documents say.

The schools themselves would need to notify the authorities of students with security concerns.

And those considered to be of concern would be tracked.

During politically sensitive periods, such as the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, “a wartime alarm mechanism” would be activated and tracking of “key concern” students stepped up, including tracking their cell phones.

The documents outline a desire for the system to contain information taken from:

  • cell phones
  • social media – such as WeChat and Weibo
  • vehicle details
  • hotel stays
  • travel tickets
  • property ownership
  • photos (from existing databases)

It should also focus on “stranded women”, or non-Chinese migrant women who do not have the right to live in China.

A large number of women enter China to find work.

Others have been trafficked from neighbouring countries.

And the system would “dock” with the National Immigration Bureau, the Ministry of Public Security and Henan police, among others.

The documents were published around the time the Chinese government criticised foreign media outlets for their coverage of the Henan floods.

Conor Healy, Government Director of IPVM, said: “The technical architecture of mass surveillance in China remains poorly understood… but building custom surveillance technology to streamline state suppression of journalists is new.

“These documents shed light on what China’s public-security officials want from mass surveillance.”

China’s facial-recognition system is thought to already be in use across the country.

And last year, the Washington Post reported Huawei had tested artificial-intelligence software that could recognise people belonging to the Uighur ethnic minority and alert police.

Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson said: “The goal is chilling, ensuring that everyone knows they can and will be monitored – and that they never know what might trigger hostile interest.”

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QUALCOMM REBRANDS SNAPDRAGON CHIPS THAT POWER MANY OF THE WORLD’S PHONES IN ATTEMPT TO BE LESS CONFUSING

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independent– Qualcomm has announce a major rebrand of its Snapdragon chips, in a move that could make choosing a phone vastly more simple.

The company sells its Snapdragon chips to a vast range of other companies – such as Samsung, HP and OnePlus – which use them to power devices including mobile phones, watches and laptops.

But comparing those devices can often be difficult, because of the confusing name of those Snapdragon processors, which are marked by a host of complex numbers. Since processors are at the heart of the devices, it can therefore be difficult to know whether a given phone is better than another.

But Qualcomm now says that it will simplify its branding in a host of ways, most of which bring new branding to the line.

The most obvious one is that the Qualcomm and Snapdragon brands will be separated. While they will still be owned by the same company as before, the Qualcomm will be removed from the chips itself.

More usefully, however, those complicated names will be changed.

Until now, Snapdragon products have come with three different names. Each of the numbers was intended to show where it was in the line-up: the first indicating the power, the second what generation, and the third used to separate different products within those generations.

But that was difficult to know and to compare. It also led to struggles with Snapdragon running out of names – it has a Snapdragon 695, for instance, and so only space for four more chips in that line-up.

Instead, it will move to a “new simplified and consistent naming structure for our platforms makes it easier for our customers to discover and choose devices powered by Snapdragon”, it says. “This means our mobile platforms will transition to a single-digit series and generation number, aligning with other product categories — starting with our newest flagship Snapdragon 8-series platform.”

It did not give information on what that new naming system would be, and promised more information would be revealed at another event on 30 November.

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