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The Apple Watch Is Coming In April

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 6:58pm
Apple Watch fitness run summary

Apple CEO Tim Cook disclosed Tuesday that the highly anticipated Apple Watch will begin shipping in April.

Last September, when Apple introduced the wearable gadget, its first, the company promised it would ship in "early 2015.” Previously, expectations pegged a March release. 

See also: Apple Watch Battery Supposedly Lasts Only A Couple Of Hours Under Heavy Use

Cook, answering questions about the watch during his company’s earnings call Tuesday, offered the April timeframe, though he didn’t specify an exact release date. He did, however, mention that development has been progressing “right on schedule.”  

The WatchKit developer tools launched last November, which means that by the time the gadget hits the market, app makers will have had about five months to create software and services for it. 

When the device launches, the base model will cost $350, and premium gold or stainless steel versions could go for as much as $5,000. Questions regarding battery life remain, particularly as recent reports paint a pale picture of its longevity. While Apple typically doesn’t reveal the battery capacity of any of its mobile devices, intrepid hardware experts usually uncover those details in teardowns after the product launch. 

See also: What You Can Do With The Apple Watch

In other words, the earliest adopters of Apple’s fancy wrist gear will likely take a leap of faith when they purchase—or, more likely, pre-order—the watch. 

Photo courtesy of Apple

Categories: Technology

The iPhone May Be Booming, But The iPad Is Still Cratering

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 6:55pm

Lurking behind Apple's dazzling October-December iPhone sales  (74.5 million units, up 46% against a year earlier) and financial results (a 30% jump in revenue to $75.6 billion, a 38% jump in net income to $18 billion) was some almost unremarked bad news. Namely, that the iPad is still tanking.

Apple sold just over 21 million iPads during the holiday quarter, a drop of 5 million units compared to the same quarter a year earlier. The once iconic tablet also posted its first full calendar year of decline; Apple sold just 63 million iPads in 2014, the lowest number since the tablet's launch in 2011 and a 14.6% fall compared to 2013.

See also: How The iPad Stalled And Android Took Over The Tablet Market

Overall tablet sales have slowed dramatically over the past year, but the iPad is faring much worse than the overall market. In November, the research firm IDC predicted that 2014 tablet shipments would rise by 7.2% compared to 2013, but that iPad shipments would fall by 12.7%.

We now know that the iPad did even worse than that, although IDC hasn't released final 2014 figures yet. For comparison, IDC predicted 16% growth in Android tablet shipments and a 67% rise (from a low base) for Windows tablets.

The Apple Rebuttal

As always, Apple CEO Tim Cook remained upbeat about the iPad despite the poor sales numbers, insisting that he felt it was a product that should be looked at "over the long arc of time" rather than in quarterly segments.

"I see that the first time buyer rates are very high," he said during the company's earnings call with analysts. "If you look in developed markets like the U.S., Japan, (and) the U.K., you’d find that 50 percent of people are buying iPad for the first time. In China, it's over 70 percent. When you have that kind of first time buyer rate, you don't have a saturated market."

Cook also theorized that the lifespan of the iPad was playing a part in the decline in sales. "The upgrade cycle is longer, somewhere between an iPhone and a PC," he said. "There’s probably some level of cannibalization that’s going on, with Mac on one side and iPhone on the other. It's very hard to tell in the early going."

According to Apple, the record-setting financial numbers were due to all-time highs in iPhone, Mac, and App Store sales. Sales numbers were up in China, where Apple established two more retail stores in the last quarter. On the conference call, Apple CFO Luca Maestri said Apple planned to have 40 stores open in Greater China by 2016.

China figures to be a key battleground for Apple in the near future, representing a huge market for customers and the base of its largest competitor in the country, Xiaomi

Photo by TonyV3112 for Shutterstock

Categories: Technology

iOS 8.1.3 Shrinks Free Space Needed For iPhone Updates

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 3:53pm

Apple just removed one of the biggest irritations with its current iPhone software—the amount of free space on your handset required to install updates.

The latest release of its iOS mobile software, version 8.1.3, shrinks that storage requirement, which can vary depending on the specific iPhone or iPad model. Previous versions of iOS 8 forced many users—particularly those with 8GB or 16GB devices—to either delete apps, media or other data to make room, or connect their cables to perform a “tethered” iTunes sync. 

iOS 8.1.3 also promises to nix password issues for Messages and FaceTime, a Spotlight glitch that sometimes kept apps out of search results; and problems related to iPad multitasking gestures. The release notes also cover new configuration options for education standardized testing environments. 

For the most part, the update looks like a set of bug fixes. The next major version, iOS 8.2, which has entered its fourth beta for developers, will include support for Apple’s upcoming wearable, the Apple Watch. Analysis of that beta version reveals that the software will let Watch users customize watch faces, and include a passcode-protected lockscreen (and auto-unlock in the presence of a companion iPhone), among other things.

iOS 8.1.3 will apply to any device running iOS 8, which includes iPhones 4S, 5, 5C, 5S, 6, and 6 Plus; iPads 2 and later; and the iPod Touch, fifth generation.

Photos and screenshots by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite

Categories: Technology

Group Direct Messaging Is Just Twitter's Latest Flip-Flop

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 11:31am

Twitter direct messages just got more talkative. Now you can have a private conversation with a group, the social network announced Tuesday.

Until now, Twitter’s direct messaging feature has been reserved for conversations between no more than two participants. Now, you can create groups of up to 20 Twitter users at the same time, and they do not have to be following one another to join. Group direct messages will support “text, photos, links, emoji and Tweets,” according to Twitter.

The feature is expected to roll out over the next couple of days to all users.

As Twitter has gotten noisier—and while messaging competitors like Snapchat and WhatsApp grew more significant—users have demanded improvements to its lightweight direct messaging feature, the only way to speak privately on the service. But Twitter has shown anything but a steady hand on the issue. Over the past two years it has lurched back and forth between opening up and restricting new features for direct message.

Here's a quick timeline.

October 2013: You Can Receive Direct Messages From People You Don’t Follow

Prior to October 2013, two Twitter users had follow one another to exchange direct messages. Then Twitter inserted a new option where users could explicitly opt to receive direct messages from any of their followers, whether they followed them back or not. The Verge speculated the change allowed brands to have better access to consumers.

October 2013: Twitter Removes Link Sharing From Direct Messaging

That same month, Twitter users learned that they were unable to send links inside direct messages. This might have been a side effect of opening up DMs to a wider range of users, since it would have opened the door to spammy link-based advertising.

November 2013: Twitter Direct Messages Get A Makeover

Direct messages got a new look, one similar to iMessages. The feature began suggesting followers with whom users could begin a private conversation. The move was seen as part of a larger overhaul of direct messaging in order to compete with WhatsApp.

November 2013: Twitter Shuts Down Direct Messages From People You Don’t Follow

One short month later, Twitter decided fostering conversations between unverified users who don’t follow one another was a bad idea. The company does not respond to requests for comments, but reminds reporters it is “constantly experimenting.”

December 2013: Direct Messages Allow Private Photo Sharing

In a possible response to Snapchat’s visual success, Twitter began allowing people to share photos in privately in direct messages. Simultaneously, Twitter moved the direct messaging icon to a more prominent position on the top navigation bar of the homepage.

May 2014: Twitter Direct Messaging Still Has A Learning Curve

A few months after Twitter’s experimentation craze, ReadWrite reporter Selena Larson reflected on several embarrassing direct message mishaps, known colloquially as "DM fails,” in which users blasted messages to the world that they incorrectly thought would remain private. In a world where messaging services like Snapchat and WhatsApp were king, Twitter still lacked quality messaging.

November 2014: Tweet And Link Sharing Return To Direct Messaging

One year later, Twitter revived the ability to include links in direct messages. The social network described it as a secondary feature to the much acclaimed tweet sharing function, where users could take tweets from their timeline and share them privately.

January 2015: Group Messaging Supports Up To 20 Participants

Fast forward to the present, where Twitter is doubling down on direct messaging support. Users can share links, tweets, and emojis with up to 20 other users who may or may not be following one another. The feature includes elements Twitter has backtracked on in the past.

The real question is how long it’ll stick around before Twitter does its usual about face. 

Illustration by Nigel Sussman for ReadWrite

Categories: Technology

The Big-Data Tool Spark May Be Hotter Than Hadoop, But It Still Has Issues

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 10:00am

Hadoop is hot. But its kissing cousin Spark is even hotter.

Indeed, Spark is hot like Apache Hadoop was half a decade ago. Spawned at UC Berkeley’s AMPLab, Spark is a fast data processing engine that works in the Hadoop ecosystem, replacing MapReduce. It is designed to perform both batch processing (similar to MapReduce) and new workloads like streaming, interactive queries, and iterative algorithms, like those commonly found in machine learning and graph processing.

San Francisco-based Typesafe, sponsors of a popular survey on Java developers I wrote about last year and the commercial backers of Scala, Play Framework, and Akka, recently conducted a survey of developers about Spark. More than 2,000 (2,136 to be exact) developers responded. Of the findings, three conclusions jump out:

  1. Spark awareness and adoption are seeing hockey-stick-like growth. Google Trends confirms this. The survey shows that 71% of respondents have at least evaluation or research experience with Spark, and 35% are now using it or plan to use it.
  2. Faster data processing and event streaming are the focus for enterprises. By far the most desirable features are Spark's vastly improved processing performance over MapReduce (over 78% mention this) and the ability to process event streams (over 66% mention this), which MapReduce cannot do.
  3. Perceived barriers to adoption are not major blockers. When asked what's holding them back from the Spark revolution, respondents mentioned their own lack of experience with Spark and the need for more detailed documentation, especially for more advanced application scenarios and performance tuning. They mentioned perceived immaturity, in general, and also integration with other middleware, like message queues and databases. Lack of commercial support, which is still spotty even by the Hadoop vendors, was also a concern. Finally, some respondents mentioned that their organizations aren't in need of big data solutions at this time.

I spoke to Typesafe’s architect for Big Data Products and Services, Dean Wampler (@deanwampler), on his thoughts about the rise of Spark. Wampler recently recorded a talk on why he thinks Spark/Scala are rapidly replacing MapReduce/Java as the most popular Big Data compute engine in the enterprise.

Striking The SparkDean Wampler

ReadWriteFor those venturing into Spark, what are the most common hurdles?

Wampler: It’s mostly around things like acquiring expertise, having good documentation with deep, non-trivial examples. Many people aren’t sure how to manage, monitor, and tune their jobs and clusters. Commercial support for Spark is still limited, especially for non-YARN deployments. However, even among the Hadoop vendors, support is still spotty. 

Spark still needs to mature in many ways, especially the newer modules, such as Spark SQL and Spark Streaming. Older tools, like Hadoop and MapReduce, have had a longer runway and hence more time to be hardened and expertise to be documented. All these issues are being addressed and they should be resolved relatively soon.

RWI hear people ask "where are you running Spark?" all the time, suggesting a pretty broad range of resource management strategies, e.g., standalone clusters, YARN, Mesos. Do you believe industry will tend to run Big Data clusters in isolation, or do you see the industry eventually moving to running Big Data clusters alongside other applications in production? 

DW: I think most organizations will still use fewer, larger clusters, just so their operations teams have fewer clusters to watch. Mesos and YARN really make this approach attractive. Conversely, Spark makes it easier to set up small, dedicated clusters for specific problems. Say you’re ingesting the Twitter firehose. You might want a dedicated cluster tuned optimally for that streaming challenge. Maybe it forwards “curated” data to another cluster, say a big one used for data warehousing.

Keeping The Spark Alive

RWIs the operations side of Spark different than the operations side of MapReduce?

DW: For batch jobs, it’s about the same. Streaming jobs, however, raise new challenges. 

For a typical batch job, whether it’s written in Spark or MapReduce, you submit a job to run, it gets its resources from YARN or Mesos, and once it finishes, the resources are released. However, in Spark streaming, the jobs run continuously, so you might need more robust recovery if the job dies, so stream data isn’t lost. 

Another problem is resource allocation. For a batch job, it’s probably okay to give it a set of resources and have those resources locked up for the job’s life cycle. (Note, however, some dynamic management is already done by YARN and Mesos.) Long-running jobs really need more dynamic resource management, so you don’t have idle resources during relatively quiescent periods, or overwhelmed resources during peak times. 

Hence, you really want the ability grow and shrink resource allocations, where scaling up and down is automated. This is not a trivial problem to solve and you can’t rely on human intervention either.

RW: Let’s talk about the Scala / Spark connection. Does Spark require knowledge of Scala? Are most people using Spark also well versed in Scala? And is it more the case that Scala users are those who tend to favor Spark, or is Spark creating a “pull” effect into Scala?

DW: Spark is written in Scala and it is pulling people towards Scala. Typically they’re coming from a Big Data ecosystem already, and they are used to working with Java, if they are developers, or languages like Python and R, if they are data scientists. 

Fortunately for everyone, Spark supports several languages - Scala, Java, Python, and R is coming. So people don’t necessarily have to switch to Scala. 

There has been a lag in the API coverage for the other languages, but the Spark team has almost closed the gap. The rule of thumb is that you’ll get the best runtime performance if you use Scala or Java, and you’ll get the most concise code if you use Scala or Python. So, Spark is actually drawing people to Scala, but it doesn’t require that you have to be a Scala expert. 

I like the fact that Spark uses the more mainstream features of Scala. It doesn’t require mastery of more advanced constructs.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Categories: Technology

Looking To Share Secret Photos On Facebook? This Startup May Help

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 9:00am

One of the big drawbacks to using "secret" or secure messaging is that everyone you want to contact needs to be using the same service. Even when they are, there's usually no easy way to share something with large numbers of your pals where they're most likely to see it, in a way that keeps it for-their-eyes-only.

See also: Suddenly, Messages Are Disappearing All Over—On Purpose

You might think that's a natural tradeoff between security—that is, preventing the wrong people from seeing your texts or photos—and convenience. But Wickr, a service that lets you send secure, self-destructing messages, thinks it has an answer—by letting users post a "fake" photo to Facebook that will lead other Wickr users you trust to the real thing.

Starting today, Wickr users on Apple devices will be able to share self-destructing photos with up to 151 of their closest friends using a feature the service calls Wickr Timed Feed, or WTF—and that acronym probably isn't an accident—that combines cats, ephemerality, and a little sleight of hand. (Android and desktop versions are in the works.)

WTF, Wickr

At heart, WTF is basically just an ephemeral photo-sharing service that lets users annotate and share snaps that will self-destruct in 24 hours. This is not too different from Snapchat, although Wickr uses security techniques designed to keep the photos from sticking around after they're supposed to disappear.

What's new is the way WTF aims to let you post private photo feeds on Facebook so that only your intended recipients can see them. When you share a WTF feed with other Wickr-using friends, it will ask if you want to post it on Facebook. If you do, the service will post a random cat photo instead of what you're actually sharing. Clicking on that photo will open up Wickr, where the friends you've shared with will be able to see the hidden message. Everyone else on Facebook sees only the decoy cat photos.

Here's Wickr's promo video of the feature:

Security Hype 101

WTF is a clever way of snaking around the usual security/convenience tradeoff, but it's not completely foolproof. It also doesn't quite live up to Wickr's security hype.

Wickr has claimed the hashtag #stegocat for this campaign, since it considers WTF an example of steganography, an ancient technique in which secret messages are hidden in plain sight. Some modern examples of steganography include hidden pixels in printers which reveal printer serial numbers as well as time and date stamps, digital watermarks used in ebooks, and, of course, Russian spies who were caught hiding secret images in photos.

Wickr Timed Feed, though, isn’t really steganography; the shared images aren’t embedded within the decoy kitty pics. Instead, they just link back to the Wickr app itself. That doesn't really affect how the service works. But it's a little unsettling when a service that prides itself on its security chops feels compelled to co-opt a technical security term in a misleading way for marketing purposes.

In a similarly disconcerting fashion, Wickr has long billed itself as a good privacy app for human rights activists working to fight dictators, claims that are difficult to verify. Unlike competitors such as Silent Circle, Open Whisper Systems, and CryptoCat, Wickr uses proprietary cryptography, making it difficult for security experts to assess the quality of its code—or to know if anyone has built secret back doors in it.

Wickr CEO and co-founder Nico Sell says the startup used proprietary code to give itself a commercial head start. She points to four independent security audits the app has passed, as well as Wickr’s large hacker budget and $100,000 bug bounty for anyone who can find vulnerabilities that severely impact users.

Wickr has recently added a feature on its app in which users can verify each other’s identities by reading their personal key codes via video, and is working on revising a white paper properly documenting its security protocols in response to feedback from security experts.

What Facebook Knows

Sell says she got the idea for WTF from her daughter. “I have two kids, and one of them is a teenager, and a couple of years ago, she said, ‘Hey, Mom, I know you don't approve of Facebook, but I'd love for you to find a way for me to use it safely,’” Sell recalls.

Of course, convincing users that it's OK to post secret—read, naughty or gossipy or otherwise revealing—photos on Facebook, even disguised as cat photos, could take some doing. Sell argues that Facebook only sees who's using Wickr, but not what they're sharing.

“Facebook is only going to own the pictures of the kitty cats," Sell says. "Their servers will never see your real pictures.” WTF offers one further advantage: It lets Wickr users share with more than ten people at once, sidestepping a limitation in the direct messaging app.

As with most other "ephemeral" messaging services, it's also still possible for Wickr users to screencap secret photos or to make permanent copies using another camera. But Sell argues that any ephemeral protection is better than none.

“It's not usually in the beginning of a relationship where someone is trying to screw you over, right?" she says. "It's a lot further down the line.” Which makes a kind of sense, although you could also argue that receiving a bunch of short-lived photos from a new romantic partner might just increase the temptation to save them off.

Lead photo by Jessica Keating Photography; other images courtesy of Wickr

Categories: Technology