SoftBank: Japan’s most interesting tech company

Japan and technology are often mentioned in the same breath. Bullet trains, robots, only-in-Japan phones that’ll never leave the island, digital pop-idols and so on. Tech legends like Sony, Nintendo, Panasonic, Sharp, Nikon, Canon, Toyota and more were born here, but most have had mixed fortunes in recent decades. Some missed out on (or were too late to) the smartphone boom, or suffered from declining point-and-shoot-camera sales. Others simply faced stronger competition from Korean and Chinese companies. Smartphones, wearables and VR have generally come from elsewhere. Japan’s reputation for getting the newest technology first doesn’t ring very true these days — in fact, those aforementioned tech giants have a reputation for being a risk-averse and slow to change. (Many, if not most companies still request that I fax over my RSVP for their press conferences and meetings. I kid you not.) Then there’s Softbank.

Softbank is now best known as one of Japan’s top three phone carriers, but at a time when Japan’s big tech firms are shrinking (or pairing off), it’s launched a humanoid robot, teamed up with Honda to make smarter cars and just bought out the company that designs the chips for most smartphones — including the iPhone.

But first, there’s Pepper. Years after Sony’s Aibo robot faded into obscurity and Honda’s Asimo walked, waved — and not much else — the idea of a personable home robot was replaced with faceless automated vacuum cleaners. Then SoftBank, with no history of robots, announced a large humanoid robot that would come to its phone shops — and even homes.

Early adopters and companies alike seemed to love it. Despite Pepper costing more than a high-end laptop, the first waves of the four-foot robot sold out in minutes. Japanese banks and companies like Nescafe and Pizza Hut all claimed one to help project their images of a futuristic company hiring android help. Pepper is far from perfect, but SoftBank managed to reinvigorate the robot dream in a country whose love for robots has never faltered — as well as inspiring a new generation of rivals. It’s an effort to restart the robot revolution. It’s still not the bot of our dreams, but it’s exciting, OK?

Last month SoftBank announced it’s buying ARM, the UK company responsible for the reference processor designs found in nearly all smartphones. Processors designed by the firm also power a lot of lightweight VR headsets, wearables and and myriad Internet of Things devices. It’s a powerful move for the company: Softbank is buying a major part of the tech supply chain, one that even Apple depends on for chip blueprints that it further develops.

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While Internet of Things is taking its time becoming a true revolution, SoftBank is well-placed to profit from it when it does. “ARM will be an excellent strategic fit within the SoftBank group as we invest to capture the very significant opportunities provided by the ‘Internet of Things,”‘ CEO Masayoshi Son said in a statement about the purchase. “This is one of the most important acquisitions we have ever made.”

In the same week as said “most important acquisition ever,” Son took to the stage with Honda’s CEO to announce a partnership aimed at developing cars that drivers can speak and interact with, channeling the same cloud-based processes found inside Pepper the robot. Details aren’t all that specific, but the companies say they’re looking into combining the technology so that cars could speak and interact with the driver, assess the driver’s emotions through vehicle sensors and cameras and offer support during long trips or while trying to park.

Perhaps even weirder: Honda and Softbank hope that by letting mobility products “grow up” while sharing various experiences with the owner, the user will form a stronger emotional attachment with the car. SoftBank talked a similar game before it launched Pepper, although we’re still waiting for a true reaction to our illogical human emotions.

Softbank isn’t new to Japan’s tech scene. Founded back in 1981, it’s changed and adapted what it sells and deals in. CEO Son started the company specializing as a software distributor and soon launched PC magazines at the start of the personal computing boom — a lucrative time to do so.

The company is also used to taking risks. After struggling for years to enter Japan’s carrier market, SoftBank acquired Vodafone Japan in 2006, and in 2008 it was the first (and only) phone operator in the country to offer the iPhone 3G — an exclusive it kept until 2011. Being the exclusive carrier for the iPhone sounds like common sense, but at the time it was surprisingly risky. Japan is the country of the “Galapagos” phones: flip-phones that had high-resolution cameras, TV tuners, GPS and music downloads for years before the iPhone arrived on the scene.

Apple’s (innovative but still new) PC-style Safari browser didn’t work with Japan’s already well-established mobile sites, and there weren’t even any emoji (gasp!). Phones with embedded NFC chips for contactless payments had already existed in Japan since 2004. To many Japanese phone users, it didn’t look quite as revolutionary as the rest of the world saw it.

History explained the rest: The iPhone was a huge success and helped SoftBank as a carrier gain a foothold in the Japan’s competitive phone market. Softbank’s long-running series of hugely popular TV ads ensure that everyone in Japan knows the company. The ads are weird, confident, funny — and now all the other native phone carriers are trying to copy the same magic for their own advertisements. Softbank-owned Sprint even tried to repurpose them in the US — even if it didn’t work out so well.

Softbank has so far struggled to turn around the American carrier, but it forms just one part of CEO Son’s bid to make Softbank a truly global organization. The company, primarily focused on Japan, also owns a substantial 28 percent share of China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba — it’s like Amazon, but way bigger. And of course, it now owns the UK-based ARM.

The gambles are paying off: SoftBank announced it increased profits 19 percent last quarter. And while the most recent moves may seem hugely disconnected, combining its moves into artificial intelligence (Pepper, autonomous cars) with ownership of ARM (and the chips it designs) Softbank could eventually be the company that truly makes internet of things a … thing.

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Calvin Klein thinks Apple was paid fairly in Samsung patent case

The exhausting brawl between Apple and Samsung over patents simply refuses to die the horrible, gruesome death it deserves. Samsung is the more bloodied, you may recall, having paid Apple a $ 548 million settlement for violating a bunch of patents (not that Cupertino is done squeezing money from the Korean company). That big payout is due to be reviewed and potentially reduced by the US Supreme Court, however, with Samsung arguing it shouldn’t have had to hand over every cent of profit it made on devices that were found to specifically infringe Apple design patents. Naturally, Apple disagrees, and now it’s got none other than Calvin Klein fighting in its corner.

The underwear mogul, seminal designer Dieter Rams and architect Lord Norman Foster are some of the better-known names among over 100 signatories of an amicus brief published today by Apple (PDF). These documents are submitted to courts as supporting evidence — supporting Apple’s agenda, in this instance — and often feature the opinions of interested parties that aren’t directly involved in the case at hand. Unsurprisingly, the key takeaway of the report is the Supreme Court shouldn’t revisit the settlement after “the jury properly awarded to Apple all of Samsung’s profits from selling its copycat devices.”

The amicus brief gives us a bitesized history lesson on the importance of product design. Coca-Cola wouldn’t have become “the most widely distributed product on earth” if its contoured bottle hadn’t contributed to its appeal, is one example. Similarly, General Motors would never have outpaced Ford if it hadn’t focused on attractive vehicle designs. The document goes on to argue design has never been more important, since tech products like smartphones all do more or less the same thing. “The iPhone did not fundamentally alter the core functionality of the smartphone.”

Samsung Galaxy S5 vs iPhone 5S

Take that quote with a pinch of humblebrag, though, as Apple does go on to say that the design of the iPhone is what elevated it so very far above competing products. Add in a ton of cognitive science research, and the message is that design is basically the only thing that gives a device meaning. A consumer doesn’t see components, features or functionality; their initial impressions are rooted in visual design. In other words, they judge a book by its cover. “Appearance becomes identified with the underlying functional features and with a particular level of product quality and safety.”

“Thus, when a consumer encounters a known product (or an infringing copy), the consumer identifies the look of the product with the underlying functional features.” Apple is saying here: Yes, we were entitled to the total profits from infringing Samsung devices because everything that makes iPhones great is embodied by their design. Samsung was piggybacking on Apple’s legacy, and profiting. “Indeed, Samsung’s infringement covered the most important design elements of the iPhone. The rectangular face with rounded corners, and the home screen with colorful icons…”

This is just Apple’s position, of course, which is apparently shared by numerous designers, relevant academics, experts and the like who would rather not see the value of design patents eroded by a partial refund. “We all share a strong professional interest in seeing that design patent law continues to protect investments in product design.”

supreme court building

Much like lobbying, the extent to which amicus briefs effect court proceedings is indeterminable. This document was put together by Apple in support of Apple’s interests, after all, but it’s also just one to Samsung’s many. In fact, seven pro-Samsung amicus briefs have been submitted thus far, including one undersigned by Google, Facebook, Dell, HP, eBay and other tech companies. You see, there is widespread worry that awarding the total profits for products deemed to violate design patents sets a dangerous precedent.

Samsung likens it to handing over profits on the sale of a car with a patent-infringing cup holder. It’s the obvious counter-argument: That design is just one element of a product, not the be all and end all. Furthermore, such cases could inspire trolls that will attempt to take credit for a complex piece of hardware or software based on one relatively inconsequential design similarity. It’s important to note that even the Department of Justice has chimed in with a (neutral) amicus brief of its own, recommending the case be sent back to a lower court so more evidence can be collected to inform a verdict.

Whichever way the cookie crumbles, it’ll be interesting fuel for patent reform debate, and it’s important that it’ll be decided in the Supreme Court. It’s basically unheard of for design patent cases to be decided at this level — the first in over 120 years, to be more precise.

[Inline image credits: Janitors/Flickr & Shutterstock / Brandon Bourdages]

Source: Apple (PDF)

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Apple drops the gun emoji for a friendlier water pistol

The news is awash in the shootings of police officers and unarmed black men, and individuals opening fire in nightclubs and public party events. In an effort to stop promoting gun violence, Apple is replacing its gun emoji with a friendlier-looking water pistol. In place of the old black and silver revolver is a bright green and orange water gun that looks very distinctly like a harmless toy.

Apple also led the decision to remove a rifle from a list of potential additions to the emoji library on all platforms, including Android. Unicode, the organization that handles the character standard, listened to the company’s request, and Microsoft agreed with this decision as well.

Apple has an additional one hundred new and redesigned emoji that will be available to iPhone and iPad users this Fall with iOS 10. These new emoji show women playing more sports and performing jobs that, before this update, only had male options. A few examples are a woman riding a mountain bike, lifting weights, and playing basketball. There will also be redesigns of popular emoji, a new rainbow flag, and more family options.

This is in an effort to bring more gender and race options to existing characters, and Google’s leading the charge. Apple, Unicode, Google, and other companies have the power to promote change, and making important tweaks to a popular way people communicate on their phones is one way to do it.

Source: Apple

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The Axon 7 finally fulfills ZTE’s ‘affordable premium’ promise

Over the years, smartphones have either been high end and expensive, or dirt cheap and shoddy. But, two years ago, the industry shifted and midrange phones that had great specs for lower prices started to fill the gap. ZTE has long been a proponent of what it calls the “affordable premium” device, and has thrown out middling handset after middling handset that met only the “affordable” part of that promise.

Last year, the Chinese company debuted its Axon line, which was stuffed full of features to fulfill the premium promise. But the Axon Pro fell short, with an oddly hollow metal body, glitchy software and short battery life. It was also more expensive than last year’s OnePlus. This year’s Axon 7, however, is shaping up to be a far better contender, with the same $ 399 price as the OnePlus 3 and offering a higher-res screen, sharper camera and more premium design.

The Axon 7’s design is the result of a team up between ZTE and BMW DesignWorks, and it’s a definite improvement over its predecessor. My gold review unit has a smooth matte finish on its metal body that helps it reject fingerprints and is accented by eye-catching glossy chrome edges that are also around the camera and recessed fingerprint sensor. It looks and feels gorgeous in an elegant way that upstages the OnePlus 3.

Just like its predecessor, the Axon 7 has a row of dot cutouts on the top and bottom of its front face, but unlike the Pro, these grilles actually hide speakers. (The old Axon’s grilles misled a lot of people into thinking it had dual speakers, but it only had one.) Below the display are capacitive keys for Back, Home and All Apps. There’s also a dual SIM card slot on the left edge — a welcome feature for frequent travelers.

ZTE says the Axon 7 will eventually be ready for Google’s “Daydream” mobile VR platform, and its display certainly seems prepared for the task. The 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED screen was a great canvas for my Netflix binging and Instagram sprees, but it was unfortunately dim in sunlight. Although it doesn’t fix the lack of brightness, the Axon offers built-in software that lets you customize the display’s color output. The tool lets you pick from three saturation profiles — “Natural,” “Colorful” and “Gorgeous” — as well as “Warm,” “Normal” and “Cool” color temperatures. I set the screen to “Gorgeous” and “Normal,” which delivered higher contrast levels and deeper hues.

Complementing the screen is a HiFi audio setup. Not many smartphone makers pay attention to quality sound, but ZTE is so proud of its system that it devoted six pages out of a 33-page reviewer’s guide to it. The only other component that got as much love was the camera. For the most part, the coverage was justified.

The Axon’s dual front-facing stereo speakers pumped out distinct, clear sound that drowned out my laptop’s speakers while both devices were set to their maximum volumes. The phone’s speakers were so clear, in fact, that I could easily hear the crinkling of wrapping paper in the background of a scene over dialogue and overlapping music. The Axon was also loud enough to hear from another room. Dolby Atmos enhancements created a surround sound that is more immersive than I’ve experienced on other devices. One of the few other phones to place such a heavy emphasis on audio is the HTC 10, which lets you tailor music output to your hearing.

Continuing its quest to outdo the competition, ZTE also stuffed a 20-megapixel rear camera into the Axon 7. That sensor is sharper than what you’ll find on the iPhone 6s, Nexus 6P and Galaxy S7. The Axon 7’s camera has phase detection autofocus (PDAF), with optical and digital image stabilization that, when combined with the high megapixel count, should theoretically result in crisp pictures. However, real-world image quality was hit or miss. My shot of mosaic art at the 8th Street NYU subway station was clear enough to show individual tiles on the wall, but landscapes with buildings in them sometimes looked blurry.

The camera struggled in low light, too. Upper East Side buildings looked like grainy, dark brown, blobs in a nightscape, and the whole scene was covered with artifacts. Other phones, such as the similarly priced Alcatel Idol 4S, fared better in the same situation.

Up front, the Axon 7’s 8-megapixel front camera takes decent portraits that have accurate colors and are sharp enough to see details such as my individual eyelashes. Thankfully, the “Beautify” mode erases imperfections on your face without going overboard and making you look like a painted-over caricature. Unlike most of this year’s smartphones, though, the Axon doesn’t offer a front flash feature for low-light selfies.

Armed with the same Snapdragon 820 chip as this year’s Android flagships, the Axon 7 was impressively responsive. I relished taking down an enemy Pokémon Go gym as well as catching an oddly evasive Pidgey without any annoying lag — in both cases with a host of apps running in the background.

Even when I used AZ Screen Recorder to capture my exploits while switching between the game and a Netflix video, the Axon kept pace without missing a beat. The only app in which I encountered delay was Pokémon Go, but that appeared to be a server issue rather than the device’s performance.

You’ll be able to enjoy day-long Pokémon Go expeditions without fear of running out of juice, too. The Axon 7’s 3,250mAh battery typically lasted about a day and a half of light use, and I was surprised by the hours of “White Collar” I was able to stream (an impressive 6.5) before the low-battery alert popped up. When powered up with the included charger, the Axon 7 can get back up to 50 percent life in just 30 minutes, the company said.

Although it runs a pretty clean version of Android 6.0.1, the Axon 7 comes with some ZTE-made software changes that I was surprised to find helpful. Most interesting of these is the Power Manager that not only lets you monitor your battery consumption but also gives you the option of setting “power-saving policies” for individual apps such as disallowing autostart, scheduled background wake-up and allowing deep sleep.

A cool Mi-Pop tool adds a floating shortcut to the screen that you can place within reach of your thumb so you can access essential navigation buttons such as Back, Home and All Apps without stretching across the phone. This is a handy tool because trying to reach across the Axon’s face can cause you to drop the phone.

There’s also an intriguing “Voiceprint” function that’s supposed to let you unlock your phone with your voice, but after I excitedly went through the setup process and said my keyphrase three times for the Axon to store it, the method never worked. No matter how many times I said, “Hello there” to the phone, whether its screen was on or off and regardless of the angle at which I held it (ZTE recommends 45 degrees away from your face), I couldn’t get into my phone.

A small thing that infuriated me: Taking a screenshot doesn’t automatically save it to your phone. You’ll have to tap a checkmark below a preview of your snapshot to keep the file. What a waste of time.

Though software glitches like this exist, they’re thankfully rare, and overall the Axon 7 feels like a dependable, well-made handset. If you want a cleaner OS and can live with a less-sharp screen, the OnePlus 3 is a better bet at the same price. But those who prefer a great multimedia experience and a distinct aesthetic will find a more suitable companion in the Axon 7.

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SMS two-factor authentication isn’t being banned

Another week gone by, and the place is in cybersecurity shambles again. A years’ old hacking issue, unencrypted wireless keyboards, being featured in an upcoming Defcon talk mystifyingly became a hot new Internet of Things threat. Obama gave us a colorful “threat level” cyber-thermometer that no one’s really sure what to do with. Ransomware is hitting hospitals like there’s a fire sale on money. And the DNC-Wikileaks email debacle exploded, splattering blame all over Russia.

Just when I thought I’d picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, a U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) report came out that included recommendations about the inherent risks in two-factor authentication, upon which the tech press basically lost their minds and told everyone to assume crash positions because the password sky was falling. Again.

What actually happened was, the NIST released the newest draft version of its Digital Authentication Guidelines. In its public preview, the agency included language that hinted at the depreciation of SMS-based Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) because, basically, phone numbers can be hijacked, and SMS can be intercepted — making the NIST impetus sensible for government employees or those dealing with sensitive medical information or state-level secrets.

But for normal people, 2FA is still going to limit the ability of an attacker to intercept or alter both your password and your SMS code. (Which is, incidentally, the point.)

Using a text message-based code is what would have prevented what happened to tech journalist and editor Mat Honan. In August 2012, a malicious hacker logged into just one of his online accounts and reset the password.

Then the attacker went to town resetting and taking over the rest of Honan’s accounts, remotely erasing (forever) everything on his iPhone, iPad and MacBook, including photos of deceased in-laws and the first year of his daughter’s life. That attacker also deleted Honan’s Google account and took over his Twitter account to post a bunch of racist and homophobic tweets under his name.

With two-factor activated, Honan would’ve gotten an SMS alerting him that someone was logging into his account. In fact, the only reason he realized something was wrong was because his iPhone prompted him for a reset code.

But neither the practical use cases for 2FA nor the emphasis on a draft recommending depreciation were what came out in this week’s mainstream news. Hardly anyone seemed to mention that NIST’s guidelines aren’t legally binding (we did!), though government agencies often follow them.

Defense Daily pointed out the obvious thing that everyone missed — this is a work in progress, directed at government. It said, “This new NIST draft was released as a public preview wherein it is considered a stable draft illustrating what the agency has learned through public comment periods, public workshops, and industry collaborations.” However, it is “neither complete nor perfect-and it’s not intended to be.” They added, “This is the point where the agency is articulating the direction it is going but seeks comments from stakeholders on what is right, wrong, and entirely missed in the guidelines.”

Headlines cried out that the freewheeling halcyon days of 2FA were soon to be forbidden fruit. CNET claimed, “SMS-based two-factor authentication will soon be banned.” Dabbing away tears, we were told, the age of 2FA is over and we should “Say Goodbye to SMS Two-Factor Authentication.”

Suddenly, news outlets and tech blogs were telling us, bizarrely, that Apple was under attack by NIST. Apple wasn’t actually targeted in the NIST document, but headlines proclaimed “U.S. to ban Apple and others from SMS two-step authentication.” Here at Engadget we came this close to making a video, our mascara running as we sobbed into the camera begging NIST to leave Apple alone!

Ultimately, the anti-2FA mob mentality out-crazied our craziness. We were simply outdone when people started telling the public that SMS authentication was now deemed “no longer safe.”

The punchline? No, I think we’ve been punched enough, thanks.

Still, there’s always room for a little insult added to injury. While CNET was telling readers that 2FA was decreed dangerous and about to be banned, government publications bothered with the details and got to the truth.

The coming two-factor apocalypse was only really coming for government agencies, and the recommendation to depreciate SMS would be for new implementations on the road ahead. “The SP-800-63 document set provides technical and procedural guidelines to agencies,” Defense Daily wrote. “The recommendation includes remote authentication of users (employees, contractors, or private individuals) interacting with government information technology (IT) systems over open networks.”

The public may be none the wiser after this week. If they’re reading Apple Insider or Sci Tech as gospel, the logical next step would appear to be quitting two-factor altogether. Or, just setting fire to your laptop and throwing it out the window.

Either way, it’s a bad message to send. As many people as possible should be adding this second step to logging in because they are not edge cases, and 2FA is actually making the general public safer.

The real problem here is, as usual, people freaking out about security issues that require more than a “hot take.” It’s a phase in our collective infosec adolescence I worry we’ll never grow out of.

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Evernote’s CEO on ‘unlocking the potential of every idea’

Evernote carved out a name for itself in the startup world with its relentless focus on productivity, synchronization and mobility (it debuted on the iPhone with the App Store’s launch in 2008). Today, almost 10 years since it was founded, the company has more than 200 million users. It wasn’t an easy path to success, though: For years its customers complained about unstable apps, it suffered a major security breach in 2013 and recent pricing changes caused an uproar by removing key free features. I sat down with the company’s new CEO Chris O’Neill, who replaced longtime exec Phil Libin, to chat about where things are headed.

It’s been a year since you joined Evernote. What’s the progress been like, and where do you see the company headed?

I’m tremendously pleased. I was pretty quiet when I showed up. I was focused on the core product, the team and the path to sustainability. We’ll be relentless and continue to invest in the editing experience, search experience and other features. The team is just amazing. We’ve put in place a world-class leadership team, people who have experience navigating from startups to more mature companies.

I’ve spent over half my time building the team. Not just the leadership team, but the next level down, rounding out our technical side, building up marketing and design. Also, I’ve been articulating the values about how we’ll operate as a company, as well as being clear about why we exist as a company.

On the path to sustainability, we’ve raised a lot of money [over $ 200 million], we’re an early on pioneer in a very attractive area. Over 2 billion notes are taken every day. We’re seeing a surge in cloud-based acquisitions and productivity apps. But I didn’t want to raise any more money. I wanted to control our own destiny without dipping into anything beyond the cash we have in the balance sheet. We’re prioritizing monetization. We’ve had our first cash-flow positive month in March, Q3 is shaping up to be the best in the history of the company.

So, how has the response been to the new pricing?

Any time you make changes to prices, there’s going to be an uproar, true as night follows day. We saw some noise for a few days … It’s pretty much died down. In terms of the response, it’s been fantastic frankly. I’d say equally sized group of people saying “I love this product, I use it quite extensively and I’m willing and happy to pay.” Incidentally it’s the only time we’ve raised prices in the history of the company.

We have an obligation to our users to be a sustaining company that lasts forever. We call it Evernote for a reason. If we want to invest and make the service incredible, we need to make decisions on how to sustain the business model. Freemium is fantastic to build scale, but ultimately we felt it was the right move for the company to set us up for the long term … There’s social media noise, but then people vote with their feet. And we’re far, far ahead of our expectations.

We’re not being bashful about it — we’re being open. We’re being transparent and saying we have something of value. We have a free tier to the product; it’s quite generous and robust, and people who use the product extensively we’re not being shy about asking them to pay. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in life.

Are you worried about not attracting as many users if the free offering is more limited? Or is the focus now more on trying to get the people who actually use it to pay?

You need to invest across all stages of the funnel. We haven’t seen noticeable changes to our registered user count, which are hovering north of 75,000 every day … We’ll continue to invest in that, we’ll continue to invest in engagement with the product, which is in many ways the biggest challenge. That’s true for ourselves and any productivity-related app. How do you introduce someone, explain the value, it doesn’t happen right away. The benefits pay off over time. But once the people use the product, they’re generally more than happy to pay.

Evernote used to have a lot of side apps and other aspects that have been shut down over time. Were those decisions more about focusing on the core product?

At the heart it’s about being true to what the original mission of the company was, which was really to solve information overload. In our case it was to help you remember things. But in terms of the side apps, companies take risks, and there was a point where it was the game to have many apps covering lots of different use cases. And what we found was that it made sense to embed a lot of the functionality of these side apps. For example, some of functionality in Penultimate or Skitch, you’re finding a lot of those things in the actual app. They’re really valuable things that users want, as opposed to having a side thing.

There are others, like Evernote Hello or Food, those were more geared towards a lifestyle sort of brand. Each of those apps had a great and passionate following. Ultimately, business sometimes is about making tough decisions. In order to make the core as incredible as it could possibly be, I have a belief you can only do one or two things really well. So you really need to double down on that. A relatively controversial choice, which I thought was even easier, was shutting down the physical goods market.

It was a nice thing to have for a while, but it never made much sense.

Well, it didn’t to me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a wise bet at the time. I think good companies take bets, but they also have the discipline afterwards to look back and see if it panned out as they expected. That’s what all that was about: getting laser focused, reinvesting in the core and adding new experiences.

The syncing stuff, which by definition is almost invisible, we’re fundamentally overhauling it. Search upgrades, like with the quick switcher [Press Open Apple + J on Mac], you’ll fall in love with. It’ll actually learn over time to find things more easily.

How are you evolving Evernote’s security? Are you looking at encryption or anything like that?

I think about three things around Evernote, the scale, the global aspect and the user trust. And nothing else really matters more than the latter. We’re looking at a world-class security team, and we’re also exploring what moves to a public cloud might look like. There’s been a whole bunch of innovation when you look at Microsoft and AWS. The amount of encryption and security have evolved in incredible ways. I think that’s where we’ll see the biggest amount of pickup, wrapped together with our security.

Can you tell us any more about the behind the scenes changes you’re making?

Basically, we put quality at the very front and center, and with sync we track crashes, latency, and in all those cases many of those are down by 95 percent. Ultimately, I want to get those things to zero. People trust us with their memories, their ideas big and small, Evernote just has to work every time. The proof is in the pudding, we see fewer people reaching out to us in our customer support centers. That’s one pretty tangible bit of evidence … We’ve hired a new CTO [Anirban Kundu] — he’s in the midst of rethinking sync to take advantage of new technology.

How does your vision for Evernote differ from what [former CEO] Phil Libin was talking about? He had ideas around augmented reality and Evernote spreading across devices easily.

I was having lunch with Stepan [Pachikov], the founder of the company, who really likes to focus on memory. He wanted to build a place to keep things he wanted to recall, he viewed it as an extension of his brain. I think he was very prescient in predicting information overload. He figured we’d see mobile phones explode, and he was right.

We’ve consistently delivered on this idea of being a digital archive, because your brain is just a terrible place to store things … If you think of evolving from just sort of remembering things, but to remembering and thinking. My vision is we should facilitate the thinking process. So what does that mean? The digital archive needs to be there, and we basically need to allow ingestion at the speed at which thought happens. You’re typing right now, but clearly voice is tomorrow … There’ll be a world where we can tap into the synapses, I don’t know when that’ll be, but you’ll have a thought and it’ll just go to Evernote.

The opposite of that is surfacing information … We’ll find a new word for what it means to have just the right information at just the right time. It’ll really tap into the context graph.

The thinking process evolves in a couple different ways to me. One is that there’s so much shallow work, like Twitter feeds and Slack messages. Work has changed fundamentally in a couple different ways, in many ways for the better, but in many ways for the worse. Talking about the better side, we collaborate across borders within companies, and teams are the primary unit of actually getting things done. I primarily believe the company you build is the team you build.

The bad side is, knowledge workers are spending 80 percent-plus of our time in meetings, responding to email, creating email, communicating to death. Research shows that typically a third to 40 percent of meaningful collaboration happens with 5 percent or less of people. So you have your stars being drown out by asking for opinions. There’s this idea that real work usually happens at night, usually after all of your other responsibilities. That just really stinks.

In a society laden with distractions, we envision that uncluttered space, where you can work on ideas that change the world in big or small ways. The mission we have is to unlock the potential of every idea … So going from remembering to thinking, when I’m in a meeting, I basically don’t want to have my next meeting suck because no one captured the notes, or no one captured the action items. Everything should be captured, whether it’s voice, whether it’s written, or a transcription. There’s task management software out there, but I think in a lightweight way, I see a world where the collection and management of information is tied to tasks. Not in a heavy way, though: Our research suggests that’s just another thing to manage.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Square Enix’s first Apple Watch RPG is stylish yet dull

There aren’t enough dedicated apps for the Apple Watch, let alone role-playing games from established publishers like Square Enix. The name alone conjures images of classic RPGs: Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and Valkyrie Profile to name a few. That’s why Cosmos Rings, the company’s first Apple Watch-exclusive RPG, feels like such a departure from the norm. It’s vivid, gorgeous and inspired, but unfortunately it falls victim to the very same cliches of so many mobile games that came before it.

At first glance, Cosmos Rings looks quite promising, with a narrative that’s par for the course when it comes to JRPGs. As the God of Time, you’re tasked with wandering an endless expanse called the Rift in a bid to restore time to the way you once knew it. After being moved to stop time to grant the wishes of human beings, you’ve got to repent for causing the Goddess of Time to shatter into pieces. Her crystallized remains were scattered throughout the Rift, and it’s up to you to make things right. Lost love? Check. Protagonist taking it upon himself to make things right? Double check. Now all it needs is an amnesiac to fill the rest of its RPG trope quota.

The Rift acts as the stage on which Cosmos Rings plays out. Get used to the way it looks, because you’re going to be seeing a whole lot of it. After you launch the iPhone app and open up the companion version on your Apple Watch, you’re met with a bit of expository story coupled with artwork that’s meant to move you along. These quickly introduce additional characters whose presence don’t immediately make sense in the context of the God of Time’s story, but you’ll soon realize it won’t matter much when the game basically plays itself, barring a few player-controller machinations.

That’s right — Cosmos Rings is essentially an incremental game that requires little or no input from you. The game is perfect for the diminutive Apple Watch screen, and its neon pixel art absolutely sings on the small display. But in the end, it’s little better than playing Tap My Katamari or Cookie Clicker with a few added mechanics.

The God of Time continues to run headlong into the Rift, fighting off enemies as they appear before him. This is your default screen among the three the game’s comprised of. The God will automatically attack on his own, but if you so desire you can tap the Skills button at the lower right of the screen to utilize various attacks you’ll earn along the way. If you wait for the timer to count down and then fire off a Skill right after the first one, you can chain them for additional damage. You can also rotate the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown to head to the Fragments screen, where you can spend Fragments (displayed on-screen as you collect them in battle) to upgrade your weapons, unlock additional skill slots and most importantly, earn more time.

You’ll want to keep a close eye on the time you’re allotted, especially if you don’t want to keep playing the same “days” over and over. There’s a timer at the bottom left of the screen that continually counts down. Essentially, that’s your HP gauge. Let it run out, and you’re forced to start the game from the beginning, though you’ll retain any Skills or Relics acquired in the process.

It’s more akin to a roguelike in this respect than an RPG, and is one of the most challenging elements of Cosmos Rings. If you make a mistake or forget to use Fragments to level up or augment your equipment, you can also use the digital crown of your Apple Watch in the Rift to rewind time to a specific “hour,” as the game is split into during each day, to go back and do it all again. These light strategic elements add a little variety, but the game is otherwise so hands-off you’ll wonder why you’re even interacting with it.

Bizarrely, time doesn’t cease counting down unless you’re fighting a boss, when the ticker hits 3 minutes, or during a story event where you’re given a slice of story. So if you’re planning on not playing for a long stretch of time you’ll need to make sure you do keep an eye on the game when you want to make progress. It’s almost like toting around a Tamagotchi or a Giga Pet, except you can’t let your “pet” die.

Cosmos Rings is a strange amalgam of clicker mechanics, colorful pixelated graphics and a score that you’ll want to listen to more than once, but it’s also lacking in the RPG department. When compared to its competition, a fantasy adventure called Runeblade from Everywear Games, Cosmos Rings seems feature-deficient. The former utilizes several of the same mechanics Cosmos Rings does (namely time travel), but offers an offline mode, various quests, and other reasons to keep you coming back. It’s hard to recommend Square Enix’s offering over Runeblade, especially since Runeblade is free.

If you’re looking for something to idly tap on while on the way to work or need to use your Apple Watch for a use beyond regular apps, it’s an interesting experiment. If you’re hoping for anything more than an endless grind with little input required from you, you might want to take your 3DS or Vita with you along for the ride instead. Cosmos Rings is available now as an Apple Watch exclusive.

Source: App Store

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This phone-powered vision test can replace your eye doctor

There are dozens of inexpensive ways to buy glasses online today, but getting a new eyeglass prescription is as old-school as ever: Book an appointment with your eye doctor, spend more time than you expect in the waiting room and go through a full exam. Even if you’re lucky enough to book through Zocdoc, it’s still a long process. Smart Vision Labs hopes to make it easier to get a new glasses prescription with the SVOne Enterprise, a smartphone-powered self-guided vision test that’s launching in some New York City glasses stores today.

It may not have the catchiest name, but the SVOne Enterprise could be a huge boon for the vision impaired. It’s based on the same autorefraction technology as the company’s first product, the handheld SVOne Pro, which lets doctors perform eye exams just about anywhere. In a nutshell, the tech involves bouncing a laser off of your retina, which is then measured by the device. The new product adds a telemedicine element: After going through the vision test, the results are sent to a remote eye doctor who approves the final prescription. You can then download the prescription at any time and take it to the glasses retailer of your choice.

The SVOne Enterprise looks like an iPhone with a specialized eyepiece on top of a tripod. It’s more functional than attractive, the sort of thing an optical store can leave in a corner until it needs to test a customer. Since only a few stores can afford to have actual doctors on staff, most are left pointing customers elsewhere to get new prescriptions. Smart Vision Labs’ device allows stores to keep those customers in-house, so they’ll be more likely to buy a pair of glasses. The company chargers its partners $ 40 a test, but it’s up to the individual stores to determine pricing for shoppers.

Founder Yaopeng Zhou says he was inspired to create the SVOne Enterprise after realizing there are almost 200 million people in America who need glasses, but only 106 million eye exams take place every year. He also points out there’s only one eye doctor for every 5,000 people in the US. There’s a definite need for a faster way to perform vision tests.

To be clear, the SVOne Enterprise isn’t a completely self-service product. You’ll still need a bit of help to step through the exam, though it’s still far less involved than going to the doctor. To start, I answered a few questions on the SVOne Enterprise’s iPhone screen about my age and pre-existing eye conditions. If I had any major eye problems, the app would direct me to take a full exam from a doctor.

After that, Yaopeng had me read from a fairly standard vision chart on the SVOne Enterprise’s iPhone screen using my glasses. I then placed my right eye in the device’s eyepiece and stared at a red laser as it took three photos. I repeated the same process with my left eye, but it took a few tries and a move to a darkened room for it to make a successful measurement. (Yaopeng noted that my pupils were smaller than most, so we had to dilate them a bit by moving to a dark environment.)

A day after the exam, I received a link to an official prescription from one of the company’s contracted doctors. Surprisingly, they didn’t make any changes to my current prescription, which is hopefully a sign that my terrible vision is stabilizing a bit. I can now take that prescription to an online eyeglass outfit like Warby Parker, or a local store in my neighborhood, to get a new pair of frames. (If you’ve only ever gotten new glasses directly from your doctor, it’s definitely worth exploring the wealth of new options out there.)

Smart Vision Labs isn’t the first company to pursue phone-powered eye exams. Blink claimed it would send someone to your home for an exam (it hasn’t launched yet). And Peek has been trying to bring vision tests to the developing world for years. But the SVOne Enterprise is the first product I’ve seen that delivers a valid prescription just as accurate as my current one.

Looking ahead, Yaopeng says the company is attempting to bring the SVOne Enterprise to more markets in the US. Smart Vision Labs’ handheld product is already available in 23 countries. Though it’s only sold around 500 units of that device, they’ve already completed more than 40,000 refraction eye tests over the past few years.

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Apple has finally sold its billionth iPhone

Apple has managed to pull in some extremely impressive numbers when it comes to its flagship mobile phone. While iPhone sales overall had begun to decline over the last quarter, that didn’t stop the company from selling its one billionth iPhone last week.

Apple’s CEO announced the milestone today during a special employee meeting in Cupertino this morning. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, thanked employees for “helping change the world every day,” noting that Apple has “always set out to make the best products that make a difference.”

The billionth iPhone was sold about two years after Apple sold its 500 millionth iPhone. That’s a lot of units, and with the impending launch of additional phones to its line, it’s likely to sell a whole lot more in the future.

Via: TechCrunch

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Microsoft’s new camera app brings AI to your iPhone

Microsoft sure loves it when research projects beget actual products, and it just released another for the masses to play with. Pix is a replacement camera app (what?) available for iPhones and iPads (what?), and in short, it promises better photos of the people around you without any extra work on your part. It’ll run on just about every iOS device from the iPhone 5S on, and an Android version is in the works too. (Microsoft didn’t have a firm answer when I asked if these features would make their way into the Windows 10 Mobile camera.) And you know what? In some ways, I wish this was the camera app that Apple built in the first place.

First, the basics. The most important thing you need to know about Pix is that it’s been tuned to make your pictures of people look better.

“There are things the Apple camera does that we don’t do and might not ever do,” said Josh Weisberg, GM of computational photography at Microsoft. “The goal was around people photos — can we make better people photos than the stock camera? And we succeeded.”

From the moment you start Pix, it’s capturing what your camera is pointed at -– you can never tell when something’s about to happen, after all. Once you press the shutter button, Pix snaps 10 frames, and Weisberg says that’s where the magic really kicks in. Algorithms evaluate those ten frames for obvious things like sharpness or exposure, but also underlying characteristics like whether a person in the shot seems happy or sad. When that near-instantaneous process is done, you’ll be given up to three “Best Images.” The image data from the leftover photos is used to enhance those winners before being deleted. All of this happens on the fly and without any extra fiddling, so you don’t need to be a photo buff to snap some great shots.

If the app detects a bunch of similar pictures, it’ll stitch them into a Live Image, but only when it thinks what’s going on in the photos is interesting. Oh, and the Hyperlapse feature that Microsoft has been working on for years is here too. This time, though, you can turn existing photos into time-lapses, or just use it to stabilize video you just shot.

Using Pix is very much a learning process, and I don’t just mean for you, the user. According to Weisberg, the app sends anonymized bits of “telemetry” — settings data and what Best Images people fave’d or deleted — back to the mothership, where human judges will examine them and adjust the image processing algorithms accordingly. Basically, the more you use Pix, the more insight it gains into what makes a photo good. All told, Weinberg was right: The app really is helpful for improving your photos of people. Usually, anyway.

In no time at all, I was snapping photos using Pix that came out punchier and with a greater emphasis on the people in the shot. When the testing period inevitably overlapped with post-work drinks at a local dive, Pix shined even brighter. I mean that literally too. Smartphone camera sensors often flounder in dim, dank conditions, leaving software to do the heavy lifting required to make a passable photo. Microsoft’s photo processing was both super-fast and mostly great at brightening up pictures of my colleagues and removing grain without making things look unnatural. I was utterly impressed… until I wasn’t.

Left: Microsoft Pix; Right: Apple’s camera app.

My biggest issue with Pix in its current form is that it’s inconsistent. Sometimes my shots were clear improvements over what Apple’s camera app was capable of. Other times, though, Apple’s softwaer had a clear edge. Take landscape photos, for instance: Even before Microsoft’s instantaneous image processing did its thing, the app had trouble exposing shots with bright backgrounds. Pix’s outdoor shots tended to be a little blown out, while Apple’s camera software was generally better at balancing exposure levels.

And for all the work that went into teaching Pix to enhance photos of people, it still struggles at times. A “Best Image” it suggested of a colleague in the dimly lit dive mentioned earlier was noticeably less crisp than the image the camera actually captured. In the app’s zeal to brighten up her face, it smoothed out her features a little too much. Long story short, the version of Pix I played with was still fairly hit or miss.

Left: Microsoft Pix; Right: Apple’s camera app.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. In fact, I’d strongly recommend giving this a download, even if you’re not the sort of person who already juggles multiple camera apps. The benefits of better image processing can be seen from the get-go, but the weightier, far more fascinating goal is to see how much Microsoft’s system can learn about good photographs. In a way, it’s almost as though we’re collectively training it to better understand art. The very nature of Microsoft’s algorithmic processing means these early issues will probably get ironed out over time, and I’m fascinated to see how long it takes before Pix becomes great in every situation.

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