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The Geek’s Reading List: Week of March 6, 2015

Alcatel's

This another slow week for tech news – Most of the news was associated with relatively unimportant announcements regarding product releases or business strategies. We thought the announcement of Alcatel’s new phone was significant simply because it reiterates an important trend towards cheap but highly functional smartphones which will put significant pressure on manufacturers’ earnings.

Alcatel’s new flagship smartphones have high-end features, low-end prices

Carriers would prefer to lock hapless consumers into contracts by offering to “subsidize” expensive mobile phones in exchange for servitude. Of course, there is no subsidy: the consumer is simply paying an inflated price for a phone over a 24 month period. I don’t know how many consumers would finance a television, but the vast majority finance their mobile devices. The alternative is to buy an unlocked phone from an independent vendor and demand a discount on mobile services. An increasing number of inexpensive and highly functional smartphones will make that an easier choice for consumers – if they decide to act on it.

“There are lots of phones flooding the market at ultra-low price points, many of which bring along rather impressive design and user experiences. But the pair of Alcatel phones are notable in that they don’t look like cheap smartphones at all. Even the Motorola Moto G and Moto E, both of which are great inexpensive phones in their own rights, mostly look the part. In contrast, the Alcatel’s have bright, laminated displays with great viewing angles (which Alcatel says was tuned by Technicolor), fast performance, loud speakers, and clean, attractive designs. Most of those features have been reserved for high-end, expensive smartphones until now. The Idol 3 units I saw don’t quite hit the high marks set by HTC and Apple when it comes to build quality, but when you can get three 5.5-inch Idol 3s for the cost of one iPhone 6 Plus, it’s easy to excuse that.”

Exclusive: Obama sharply criticizes China’s plans for new technology rules

There are times when you read something and wonder if perhaps it is actually an “Onion” article because the absurdity is so stark: the US president, it seems, is “sharply criticizing” the Chinese government for enacting legislation which more or less exactly mirrors the Orwellian themed and named US Patriot Act (see here) and many issues of the Geek’s Reading List. In addition, the Snowden/NSA revelations prove major US technology companies are actively colluding with security agencies to spy on any person, business, or government they can. The hypocrisy: it burns.

“A Chinese parliamentary body read a second draft of the country’s first anti-terrorism law last week and is expected to adopt the legislation in the coming weeks or months. The initial draft, published by the National People’s Congress late last year, requires companies to also keep servers and user data within China, supply law enforcement authorities with communications records and censor terrorism-related Internet content. The laws “would essentially force all foreign companies, including U.S. companies, to turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services,” Obama said.”

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Google has developed a technology to tell whether ‘facts’ on the Internet are true

This got a lot of coverage over the past week. As the article notes, it is theoretical. There does seem to be an assumption that all facts are either true or false: often, facts are a matter of opinion, recollection, and subsequent revisions, and this is often as much the case for historical as scientific facts. What Google might ultimately be able to do is to determine whether a particular item line up with the consensus as expressed on the Internet, and there can be a very big difference between what is believed to be true by the majority of even experts and what is really true. Reality is not a popularity contest.

“The Internet, we know all too well, is a cesspool of rumor and chicanery. But in a research paper published by Google in February — and reported over the weekend by New Scientist — that could, at least hypothetically, change. A team of computer scientists at Google has proposed a way to rank search results not by how popular Web pages are, but by their factual accuracy. To be really clear, this is 100 percent theoretical: It’s a research paper, not a product announcement or anything equally exciting. (Google publishes hundreds of research papers a year.) Still, the fact that a search engine could effectively evaluate truth, and that Google is actively contemplating that technology, should boggle the brain. After all, truth is a slippery, malleable thing — and grappling with it has traditionally been an exclusively human domain.”

Auto Makers Gear Up to Take On the Challenge From Google and Apple

This week I read an article about how Apple was going to disrupt the TV industry, as I have been told they were going to disrupt the TV industry for the past five years or so. Similarly, despite no actual evidence that Apple is getting in to the car business, they have become a force to reckon with, or at least a necessary mention for any article regarding the auto industry. At least Google has shown that it has relevant technology, though I would argue that it is probably easier to catch up with self driving car technology than it is to build an affordable and reliable automobile. In any event, as this article shows, the actual auto makers are paying attention and working on their own solutions.

“There is tremendous opportunity from the convergence of the West Coast technology and the auto industry with its huge technology depth,” said Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler AG. “We are not afraid. We are confident about our own strength.” Neither Apple nor Google exhibited vehicles at the Geneva show, but their presence was felt in closed-door briefings and news conferences. Google has developed a prototype car that can drive itself. The company has said it hopes to have one on the road in five years.”

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