new web technologies

Build Your Own Mars Rover With LittleBits And NASA

The Mars Rover. The discovery of inhabitable planets. Space experiments. 

Amazing breakthroughs are happening at NASA all the time, but most of us on Earth are resigned to watching from the sidelines. After all, you need to already be an astronaut to understand the first thing about space, or so we thought. 

DIY electronics company littleBits is bringing NASA-approved hardware hacking to the masses. The littleBits Space Kit, announced Thursday, is the result of a year-and-a-half long partnership between NASA and littleBits to make the complicated field of space exploration a little more accessible. The results are projects, lesson plans, and hardware modules designed and vetted by NASA engineers. 

“NASA came to us,” said Ayah Bdeir, CEO and founder of littleBits. “They wanted to know, ‘How do we make space exploration something people can understand, see the importance of, and learn from?’ The result was a kit based on innovations that are scientifically accurate and real, but much more accessible to people.”

How To Simplify Space

littleBits has defined itself by unique prototyping modules that snap together—no soldering, wiring, or programming required for assembly. An artist who uses technology as her medium, Bdeir came up with the idea when she was trying to make an even more approachable DIY hardware option than what she was used to working with. 

“People are passionate about space,” Bdeir said. “But they’re not sure how it works. We’ve been taking on one technological field at a time that people are very passionate about, breaking it down, and making it easy for people to understand and reinvent.”

With littleBits, now people can prototype space-themed projects. They can make their own satellite dishes, star charts, or even a robotic model of the Mars rover—just by snapping components together. This may sound simplistic, but littleBits is proving itself robust enough to be more than a toy for kids. 

“We’ve been testing with people of all ages,” she said. “Including space enthusiasts, scientists, physicists, and astronomers. A fast-growing portion of our customers are entrepreneurs, prototypers, and engineers, and we never planned that.”

It’s this versatility that will end up being the Space Kit’s most redeeming value. Since the new Space Kit can be used with all other existing littleBits kits, it’ll be the community that develops some of the most interesting builds from these new components.

Photos via littleBits

Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2014 07:41:44 -0700
Author: Lauren Orsini :: Category: DIY

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Facebook Pushes Privacy—Well, Private Messaging, At Least

Facebook's mobile ambitions clearly aren't suffering. Over one billion people use Facebook on their mobile devices each month, the social network announced Wednesday, and mobile ads account for almost 60 percent of Facebook’s advertising revenue.

But some of the company's biggest growth isn’t on Facebook proper, but in private messaging.

More than 200 million people use Facebook Messenger each month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during Wednesday's first quarter earnings call. This is the first time the social network has released numbers describing just how popular the messaging application is.

Just a day earlier, WhatsApp—the hugely popular messaging app that Facebook acquired earlier this year—announced it hit the 500 million user mark, putting its well on its way to becoming the next billion-user app. 

What isn’t clear, though, is how many of those users overlap, or how many of them are messaging-only consumers. 

Zuckerberg added that with Messenger and WhatsApp, the company is moving quickly toward more private messaging, a significant shift from the traditional use for Facebook—connecting with as many “friends” as you possibly can to amass a list of hundreds of acquaintances.

It’s likely the number of Messenger users will continue to climb. The company recently said it’s ripping messaging features out of the Facebook application and forcing all users to download Messenger in order to connect privately. 

Image via Facebook 

Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2014 06:35:00 -0700
Author: Selena Larson :: Category: now

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Google Hangouts May Be Ready To Eat Videoconferencing

Video conferencing is about to get commoditized.

While the video conferencing and telepresence was a $3.2 billion market in 2013, according to Infonetics, the market seems set to shrink as individuals and companies turn to free options like Skype and Google Hangouts. Skype stole an early march on this low-end video market, but my money is on Google to win it long term.

The reason is clear: Convenience.

Video Conferencing Takes A Beating

The video conferencing market has been growing at a 5% clip each year. But things are starting to get dicey.

Immersive telepresence sales have been plummeting over the years, dropping nearly 40% just a year ago. Even video conferencing has been 10% lower than vendors like Cisco had been projecting, as ZDNet's Larry Dignan reported last year.

It's about to get worse.

Google sent shockwaves through the video conferencing world by announcing a $1,000 Chromebox for Meetings, which gives enterprises a cheap-and-good enough solution for video conferencing. But the far cheaper and also "good enough" solution costs exactly $0 and is also provided by Google. It's called Google Hangout, and it comes free with every Internet connection. 

Most people—indeed, most companies—don't need high-end video conferencing. Not most of the time, anyway. Often enough, we simply need person-to-person video conferencing, for which Microsoft's Skype or Google Hangouts is far more convenient. 

Google: More Than Just A Hangout

While I have used Skype for years for IM, voice and video to interact with international colleagues, I still find that Google is a more natural starting place. Skype is a separate service that I need to get friends, families and colleagues to download. Google is already built into their workflow. At least, their personal workflow.

Two years ago Google's Gmail surpassed Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail with consumers. Even Hotmail holdouts like my mother-in-law have gravitated to Gmail. 

Once there, the step to using Hangouts is very, very small. 

Within my company, we have used a number of up-and-coming video conferencing services, from BlueJeans to Vidyo. But what gets used most often is actually Google Hangouts. Why? Because with one click I can add a video conference to a calendar invitation. (We use Google for email, calendaring, document storage/collaboration and more.) Yes, it helps that Hangout offers great quality video, but the overriding reason it gets used is that it's convenient.

Again, there are different ways to evaluate a video conferencing solution. As with cameras, though, the best video conferencing system is the one you have with you. Google Hangouts is always with us, particularly as more of us move to Google for mail and other services.

Lead image by Flickr user Wesley Fryer, CC 2.0

Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2014 06:07:00 -0700
Author: Matt Asay :: Category: Skype

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Open Source Gets A Security Patch, With A Little Help From Its Friends

The Internet may not agree on much. But if there’s one idea its citizens can get behind, it’s that nothing like the Heartbleed bug should ever happen again.

And so the Linux Foundation—backed by Google, Amazon Web Services, Cisco, Dell, Facebook, Fujitsu, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NetApp, Rackspace and VMware—is launching a new Core Infrastructure Initiative that aims to bolster open-source projects critical to the Internet and other crucial information systems. Many such projects are starved for funding and development resources, despite their importance to Internet communications and commerce. 

The initiative is brand new—the steering committee hasn't even had a meeting yet—so there aren't many details as to how this will all work at the moment. 

It's hard not to applaud such an important development, even if the promise seems somewhat vague. Of course, the details do matter; no one wants to lull a post-Heartbleed world into a false sense of security. The Heartbleed bug tarnished the image of open source. Another serious failure could erode support for it.

That would be a shame—mostly because, despite the hard knock it's taken from Heartbleed, open-source software really is more solid than proprietary code.

Heartbleed: The Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

One of the biggest arguments in favor of open source—which typically depends on volunteers to add and refine programs and tools—is that projects with many eyes on them are less prone to serious bugs.

Often enough, that's exactly how it works out. A recent report from software-testing outfit Coverity found that the quality of open-source code surpassed that of proprietary software. Shocked? You shouldn’t be. Popular open-source projects can have hundreds or thousands of developers contributing and reviewing code, while in-house corporate teams are usually far smaller and frequently hobbled by strict confidentiality to boot.

Unfortunately, not all open-source projects work like that. OpenSSL—yes, the communications-security protocol that fell prey to Heartbleed—was one such project. 

This potentially huge security hole started out as a mistake made by a single developer, a German researcher named Robin Seggelmann. Normally, revised code gets checked before going out, and his work on OpenSSL’s "heartbeat" extension did go through a review—by a security expert named Stephen Henson. Who also missed the error.

So Heartbleed started with two people—but even involving the entire OpenSSL team might not have helped much. There are only two other people listed on that core team, and just a handful more to flesh out the development team. What's more, this crucial but non-commercial project makes do on just $2,000 in annual donations.

If this were a fictional premise, no one would believe it. A critical security project, limping along on a couple of thousand dollars a year, winds up in the hands of two people, whose apparently innocent mistake goes on to propagate all over the Internet.

The Core Infrastructure Initiative aims to ensure that OpenSSL and other major open-source projects don't let serious bugs lie around unfixed. Its plan: Fill in the gaps with funding and staff.

Making Open Source Whole


Security for the Internet at large was practically built on OpenSSL. And yet, the open-source software never went though a meticulous security audit. There wasn’t money or manpower for one.

From the Linux Foundation’s perspective, that's unacceptable. 

The Linux operating system may be the world's leading open-source success story. Volunteers across the globe flock to Linus Torvalds’ software, contributing changes at a rate of nine per hour. That amounts to millions of lines of code that improve or fix various aspects of the operating system each year. And it draws roughly half a million dollars in annual donations. Some of those funds go to Torvalds, Linux’s creator, so he can dedicate himself to development full-time. 

The Linux Foundation likewise sees its Core Infrastructure Initiative becoming a benefactor of sorts to key software projects, one that can direct funds to hire full-time developers, arrange for code review and testing, and handle other issues so that major vulnerabilities like Heartbleed don't slip through the cracks again. 

The first candidate is—you guessed it—OpenSSL. According to the press announcement, the project “could receive fellowship funding for key developers as well as other resources to assist the project in improving its security, enabling outside reviews, and improving responsiveness to patch requests.”

But OpenSSL is just the beginning. “I think in this crisis, the idea was to create something good out of it,” Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, told me. “To be proactive about pooling resources, looking at projects that are underfunded, that are important, and providing some resources to them.”

Sounds like a great idea. Not only does the move address specific concerns about open-source development—like minimal staffing and non-existent funding—it would also reinforce the integrity of critical systems that hinge on it. 

It’s an ambitious plan, one that came together at lightning speed. Chris DiBona, Google’s director of engineering of open source, told me Zemlin called him just last week with the idea.

“We [at Google] were doing that whole, ‘Okay, we’ve been helping out open source. Are we helping them enough?’” said DiBona, who reminded me that it was a security engineer at his company who first found the Heartbleed bug. “And then Jim calls up and says, ‘You know, we should just figure out how to head this off at the pass before the next time this happens.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Let’s just do it. We’ll try to find a way’.” 

Over the next few days, other companies immediately jumped at the chance to help. “I think it’s a historical moment, when you have a collective response to what was a collective problem,” said Zemlin.

The Core Infrastructure initiative is still gaining new supporters. Just a few hours before I spoke with Zemlin and DiBona Wednesday evening, another backer signed on. As of this writing, 12 companies had officially joined the fold. Each is donating $100,000 per year for a minimum of three years, for a total of $3.6 million.

Those Pesky Details

Eventually, the details will have to be ironed out. There will be a steering committee made up of backers, experts, academics and members of the open-source community. And when they meet, they will need to make some big decisions—like determining criteria for deciding which projects get funded (or not). The committee will also need to figure out “what we consider to be a minimum level of security,” said DiBona. 

Zemlin is careful to note that he doesn't want to fall into the trap of over-regulating or dictating so much that it would alter the spirit of open-source development. “Everyone who’s participating will respect the community norms for the various projects,” he said. “We don’t want to mess up the good things that happen by being prescriptive."

He and his initiative will draw from the Linux Foundation's experience powering Linux development. “We have 10 years of history showing that you can support these projects and certainly not slow down their development,” Zemlin said. And indeed, if anyone can figure it out, it could be him and his foundation. 

But it may not be easy, keeping the creative, free-spirited nature of open source alive in the face of serious core infrastructure concerns. Critical systems usually demand organization and regimented practices. And sometimes, to keep the heart from bleeding, a prescription might just be in order. 

Images courtesy of Flickr users John (feature image), Bennett (lonely developer), Chris Potter (money life preserver), Alex Gorzen (Linux Easter Egg).

Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2014 05:00:00 -0700
Author: Adriana Lee :: Category: Heartbleed

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Why Apple's iPad May Have Peaked

Even though Apple’s Q2 2014 earnings on Wednesday broke all previous company records for the January-March quarter—with growth across nearly all product lines in all markets—one product was left behind. And that product was the iPad.

Apple sold just 16.4 million iPad units in the quarter, a 16% drop-off from roughly 19.5 million units in the same quarter a year earlier.

Strong iPhones sales more than made up for the poor showing from the iPad, as expected; Apple sold more iPhone models through more carriers than ever this year, particularly in Greater China. But that doesn't explain why iPad sales are slowing to a crawl.

The Reality Distortion Field Is Fading

Early on in Wednesday's conference call with investors, Cook offered a couple of possible explanations for the iPad's lackluster showing.

“We believe all of the difference can be explained in two factors," Cook said. "We increased iPad channel inventory last year, but this year reduced it. And last year, we ended the December quarter with a substantial backlog of iPad minis that were shipped in March, whereas this year they reached a [balance].”

Cook blames channel inventory changes, but data shows the iPad has been stalling in the market for some time. In fact, iPad unit sales have dropped on a yearly basis in two of the past four quarters, and were only slightly up in a third. Over that period as a whole, iPad sales actually fell 3.2% compared to a year earlier.

According to research firm IDC, tablet shipments are surging as the iPad slumps, with Android and (to some extent, at least) Windows tablets taking a serious bite out of Apple. In 2012, Apple’s iPad controlled over 60% of the market; by last June, the iPad’s share had fallen to 33%, while Android tablets accounted for 63% of the market—a near total reversal in market share in just 12 months. Things haven't changed much since then.

In October, Apple tried to stem the tide with the new iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display. Those products became its new high-end tablets, while the iPad mini (sans Retina display) and iPad 2 got $100 price cuts. Yet the plethora of offerings so far hasn't done much to re-energize interest in the iPad.

Cook pointed out that the iPad still dominates the education and enterprise markets—with 95% and 98% market share in those areas, respectively. He also insisted that no other tablet has a 98% customer satisfaction rating, and that the iPad is used more often than other tablets, especially for Web search. Still, Cook couldn't explain why the new iPads, particularly the thinner and lighter iPad Air, haven't bolstered sales.

"The thing that drives us are the 'next iPads,' if you will, the things we can do to make the products even better," Cook said. "And there’s no shortage of work going into that, and no shortage in ideas going into that. So when I back up from all of that I can’t help but feel extremely excited. I think we did a good job at explaining the disconnect of the street’s view [of iPad sales and the reality], and I think we should’ve been a little more clear on channel inventory last year, but I am still very bullish on the iPad.”

The Future For Apple's Tablet

The iPad may still be the best tablet on the market, but it’s certainly not the cheapest one available, and more importantly, it’s not exactly “innovative” anymore.

Apple doesn’t stuff its new iPads with new features every year, so the iPad relies on reductive innovation, which Apple’s lead designer Jony Ive describes as the most troubling Catch-22 about creating new products:

We’re often faced with a paradox when we design: To make products smaller and lighter, while at the same time more powerful. The more we reduce a product’s physical volume, the more difficult it becomes to increase its power and maintain its battery life. But if we can overcome these challenges, we can make something without compromises.

But therein lies the problem: Eventually, customers will balk at paying more for a product that’s not too dissimilar from a cheaper, rival machine, regardless of that product’s reputation. Ideally, Apple would drop its prices for the iPad to make them more accessible to more people. But if Apple plans to keep selling the iPad at the upper end of the price continuum, it needs to avoid scaring away new customers by injecting some kind of “newness” without adding expensive features just for the sake of change.

Continually innovating the iPad will prove to be a great challenge for Apple, but if the company’s other products continue to sell, it won’t need to rely on the iPad to drive the company’s growth—just like the iPod and the Mac, once Apple's big breadwinners, now play minor supporting roles. The iPhone is still going strong, but there's always the likelihood of "one more thing"—rumors are pointing to a more elaborate Apple TV product in 2014, as well as a new wearable for the wrist, presumptively dubbed the "iWatch."

Apple will likely have some news before long. Excepting the March rollout of CarPlay—an iOS 7 feature that connects car in-vehicle infotainment systems to Apple’s mobile ecosystem—and new iPads hitting China at the beginning of April, Apple has remained eerily quiet over the past few months. Look forward to June 2, the first day of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, which is typically when Apple unveils new iOS and OS X software. This year, we might see some new hardware alongside the new software, given Amazon's recently-released Fire TV set-top box and the fact Apple TV has gone largely unchanged since 2010.

As Cook concluded Wednesday's call with investors, he mentioned that Apple is not interested racing to unveil new products or technologies, but is certainly "in a race to make the best products people will love." In the case of the iPad, Apple may choose to pursue refinements rather than innovations. That may as flashy as adding new features and functions every year, but polishing innovative products is just as important to Apple's strategy as innovating them in the first place.

Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2014 04:26:00 -0700
Author: Dave Smith :: Category: Apple

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