Locked Out: A Biometric Brouhaha

The Wall Street Journal: “The rise of facial-recognition technology such as Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Hello and Apple Inc.’s Face ID means computers now seem to be passing judgment on users’ appearances. When a face doesn’t measure up, people are left to ponder whether they look their best, whether they use too much makeup, why they changed their hairstyle—and perhaps whether they even look like themselves. Users report their devices won’t unlock unless they wear the same makeup as when they set it up. Others complain it can’t identify them in the morning when they first tilt phone to face on the pillow. Men who shave their beards say their phones suddenly treat them like a passing stranger.”

“Windows Hello aims to balance security with usability, said Dave Bossio, a Microsoft program manager. An algorithm uses the infrared camera on laptops and other devices to create a mathematical model based on facial ‘landmarks’ like the eyes, nose and mouth. Makeup, glasses, beards, lighting and other factors can affect the system, and widening the range of acceptability too much creates a security risk, he said.”

“To avoid the makeup problem, Apple’s engineers designed a camera system that projects 30,000 infrared dots across a user’s face to create a 3-D model stored on the phone, according to people familiar with the project. Apple said the chances the iPhone X could be unlocked by a random person’s face are one in a million.”

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Blackberry Keeps Coterie of Devotees

The Wall Street Journal: “The BlackBerry began life as a text pager, created in 1996 by Canadian company Research in Motion Ltd. The founders made technical breakthroughs that popularized world-wide phone texting and mobile email. Its keyboard buttons looked a little like the kernels in a blackberry, hence the name. It transformed the way people worked … But in 2007 Apple Inc. introduced the iPhone, and Android smartphones, also with touch screens, came soon after. Unlike BlackBerry with its office focus, they aimed at the mass market. Today BlackBerry has a global smartphone market share of less than 1%.”

“The diminished band of devotees must suffer for that devotion, as friends brandish other iPhone and Android devices loaded with top-of-the-line cameras and countless apps. At a rugby tournament in Vancouver in early March, Tim Powers, an Ottawa executive, says he was ‘chastised’ for using his BlackBerry. He is willing to bear these slings and arrows. The keyboard suits ‘an old rugby player with some beaten-up hands,’ he says. Also, ‘I am not gentle,’ Mr. Powers says. ‘I almost feel like I could shoot it and it would still work’ … BlackBerrys, says Andrew Stivelman, a technical writer in Toronto, are ‘built like a tank’.”

“Although the company, now named BlackBerry Ltd. , no longer makes the phones, they live on through licensing agreements with companies that make and sell BlackBerry-branded hardware with Android operating systems … Meanwhile, fans of BlackBerrys wax lyrical about features like a curved shape that fits the hand, writing in forums such as There’s magic in BlackBerry 10 on Crackberry.com . A bonus, wrote one person last year, is reduced theft risk, ‘because thieves don’t know what they are’.”

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Apple Stores: The DMV of Retail?

Business Insider: “Apple Stores have become an almost mythical part of the tech giant’s brand. Now, they could be killing it … if you’ve visited an Apple Store recently, you may have found that you weren’t visiting a magical tech utopia after all. Many customers are now comparing their Apple Store experiences to those they’ve had at a different place: the dreaded DMV.”

“Customers’ top complaints are focused on crowds and wait times, which can last for hours. Simply put, too many people need assistance at Apple Stores — and employees don’t have the time to help everyone immediately … Irritated customers tired of waiting for simple assistance tend to be less than impressed by Apple Stores’ unique design. Some say they feel Apple has prioritized artistry over customers’ needs.”

“In 2016, Apple retail boss Angela Ahrendts told Business Insider that the company needed ‘to open incredible places that almost behave like a town square, like a gathering place’ … For some, Apple Stores have become a site of frustration, not community mingling. However, the company is renovating dozens of stores across the US in an effort to better achieve its ‘town square’ goals. These revamped stores are larger, which could help with concerns of overcrowding. They also feature a new approach to the Genius Bar with the ‘Genius Grove,’ which allows a section of the store to be focused on repairs and assistance without involving lines.”

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Forget Smellovision: Samsung Intros Invisiblevision

Quartz: “Samsung’s new QLED line of 4K TVs features a technology the company is calling ‘Ambient Mode.’ Before you mount the TV, you’ll snap a picture of the wall it’s going to hang on—it doesn’t matter if it’s brick, wood, patterned wallpaper, or just a white wall—and then after it’s up, you can set that picture as the TV’s background. The result is something that looks like a floating black rectangle mounted on a wall. Samsung even includes a digital version of the shadow this black rectangle would cast on the wall, as if there really wasn’t a large LED panel sitting in the middle of the thin metal strips.”

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Should iPhone ‘Addiction’ Be ‘Cured’?

Farhad Manjoo: “Tech ‘addiction’ is a topic of rising national concern. I put the A-word in quotes because the precise pull that our phones exert over us isn’t the same as that of drugs or alcohol. The issue isn’t really new, either; researchers who study how we use digital technology have for years been warning of its potential negative effects on our cognition, psyche and well-being.”

“With a single update to its operating system and its app store, Apple could curb some of the worst excesses in how apps monitor and notify you to keep you hooked (as it has done, for instance, by allowing ad blockers in its mobile devices). And because other smartphone makers tend to copy Apple’s best inventions, whatever it did to curb our dependence on our phones would be widely emulated … For starters, Apple could give people a lot more feedback about how they’re using their devices. Imagine if, once a week, your phone gave you a report on how you spent your time, similar to how your activity tracker tells you how sedentary you were last week.”

“Another idea is to let you impose more fine-grained controls over notifications. Today, when you let an app send you mobile alerts, it’s usually an all-or-nothing proposition — you say yes to letting it buzz you, and suddenly it’s buzzing you all the time … Done right, a full-fledged campaign pushing the benefits of a more deliberative approach to tech wouldn’t come off as self-interest, but in keeping with Apple’s best vision of itself — as a company that looks out for the interests of humanity in an otherwise cold and sometimes inhumane industry.”

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‘Potheads’ Inhale The Instant Pot

The New York Times: Instant Pot is “a new breed of 21st-century start-up — a homegrown hardware business with only around 50 employees that raised no venture capital funding, spent almost nothing on advertising, and achieved enormous size primarily through online word-of-mouth … devotees — they call themselves ‘Potheads’ — use their Instant Pots for virtually every kitchen task imaginable: sautéing, pressure-cooking, steaming, even making yogurt and cheesecakes. Then, they evangelize on the internet, using social media to sing the gadget’s praises to the unconverted.”

Company founder Robert Wang “listed the Instant Pot on Amazon, where a community of food writers eventually took notice. Vegetarians and paleo dieters, in particular, were drawn to the device’s pressure-cooking function, which shaved hours off the time needed to cook pots of beans or large cuts of meat. Sensing viral potential, Instant Pot sent test units to about 200 influential chefs, cooking instructors and food bloggers. Reviews and recipes appeared online, and sales began to climb.”

“At one point, more than 90 percent of Instant Pot’s sales came through Amazon.” Mr. Wang also revealed a secret: in every official photograph of an Instant Pot, the unit’s timer is set to 5:20 — a series of numbers that, when spoken aloud, sounds like ‘I love you’ in his native Mandarin. ‘It’s a subliminal message,’ he said. ‘It shows how much we care about our customers’.” He adds: “We know we really make a difference in people’s lives. It’s really gratifying.”

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Black Friday Tricks of the Trade

The Wall Street Journal: “Instead of copying Amazon.com Inc.’s playbook, retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. are coming up with new tricks to maximize sales ahead of Black Friday … In the months leading up to the holiday, Target has shifted away from ‘up and down’ pricing moves, streamlining the number of promotions to focus only on ‘impactful’ sales … The company has also reduced the phrases it uses for discounts from 28 last year to seven, dropping language like ‘weekly wow’ and ‘as advertised’ … It is also offering extra incentives to its loyalty card holders, such as early access to Black Friday promotions.”

“Wal-Mart, which has long emphasized an ‘everyday low price’ message, has been experimenting with a new online system, which at times results in higher prices online than in stores for goods that would otherwise be unprofitable to ship. Some product listings on its website now indicate an ‘online’ and ‘in the store’ price … The Bentonville, Ark., retailer said it would sell more exclusive products this holiday as compared with last year.”

“For the first time, Best Buy Co. offered hundreds of Black Friday deals on TVs and other devices in early November in hopes of driving sales before the competition heats up. The electronics giant has a price-matching guarantee, but the offer doesn’t apply to items on sale Thanksgiving through Monday.”

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Does Apple Hack Its Own Products?

Axios: “Every time Apple releases its newest iPhone or OS, there are significant spikes in searches for terms like ‘iPhone not working,’ ‘iPhone slow,’ and ‘iPhone problems,’ according to data from Google Trends.This has led to a conspiracy theory that has been revived almost every year, claiming that Apple intentionally slows down old phones to entice iPhone users to upgrade to their newest, often more expensive product. But the phenomenon can also be explained by a few other reasons.”

For example: “Older models have to work harder to run everything the newest, superior OS provides, and therefore consume more energy and battery life.” Also: Patrick Moorhead, an analyst for Moor Insights Strategy comments: “One very important thing to consider is that at the same time of an OS upgrade, application developers upgrade their applications. Therefore at the same time the new OS is indexing for Spotlight, it is updating applications, which temporarily would slow down the phone.”

And: “Most iPhone users are quick to update to the newest OS, and tend to be critical of every included change. This critical mindset might cause some to feel like like their phone is working slower than before at first … Nothing has been ‘proven’ here, but there are many logical explanations for why iPhones might not run quite as smoothly after an OS update that don’t include Apple maliciously hacking their own products.”

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5 Ways Best Buy Beats Amazon

The New York Times: “Best Buy’s rebound has been surprisingly durable. Revenue figures have beaten Wall Street’s expectations in six of the last seven quarters … How do they do it?” Highlights from a conversation with Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly: 1) Price. “Price-matching costs Best Buy real money, but it also gives customers a reason to stay in the store, and avoids handing business to competitors.” 2) Humanity. “The associates in our stores are much more engaged now, much more proficient,” Mr. Joly said.

3) Showcase & Ship. “Mr. Joly realized that with some minor changes, each of Best Buy’s 1,000-plus big-box stores could ship packages to customers, serving as a mini warehouse for its surrounding area … Best Buy also struck deals with large electronics companies like Samsung, Apple and Microsoft to feature their products in branded areas within the store. Now, rather than jamming these companies’ products next to one another on shelves, Best Buy allows them to set up their own dedicated kiosks … Even Amazon has set up kiosks in Best Buy stores to show off its voice-activated Alexa gadgets.”

4) Quiet Cuts. “Under Mr. Joly, Best Buy has used the scalpel as quietly as possible … he has never announced a huge, public round of layoffs, which can crater employee morale and create a sinking-ship vibe.” 5) Luck. “It’s lucky that the products it specializes in selling, like big-screen TVs and high-end audio equipment, are big-ticket items that many customers still feel uncomfortable buying sight unseen from a website. It’s lucky that several large competitors have gone out of business, shrinking its list of rivals. And it’s lucky that the vendors who make the products it sells, like Apple and Samsung, have kept churning out expensive blockbuster gadgets.”

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Hitting Home: Best Buy’s Traveling Salespeople

The Wall Street Journal: “Best Buy is hiring hundreds of salespeople to sit down with consumers inside their homes and recommend electronics to buy, part of a free service it has been testing in several cities and plans to roll out across the U.S. this fall. The company hopes its in-home salespeople will help drive sales of TVs and gadgets at a time when fewer people are visiting shopping centers, as well as drum up business for Best Buy’s Geek Squad, which provides tech repairs and in-home installations for a fee.”

Best Buy Chief Executive Hubert Joly comments: “What we’re finding is people in the home tend to spend more because we address a bigger need for them compared to what they spend in the store.”

“Unlike its Geek Squad workers who fix gadgets, Best Buy’s in-home advisers are traveling sales consultants who are paid a salary or on an hourly basis, not commissions. Based on the customer’s needs, they provide product recommendations, ranging from HP and Apple laptops to Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. The prices cited are the same as in the company’s store or website.”

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