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News Roundup: Auto aesthetics, kicking robo-dogs and Metallica

A roundup of the week’s tech news including Russian Open Source, AR everywhere and Facebook Town

Russia loves open source

We’ve already written about Russia’s hostility to foreign tech companies in the past, but it looks like the Kremlin has found some tech it can get behind: Open Source. Not long after Ubuntu released its first mobile, Nikolai Nikiforov, Minister of Communications and Mass Communications, tweeted that his government would be offering grants to developers who “translate their applications from the monopolies of Google and Android across to the independent Tizen and Sailfish.” 

Whether this will spur developers to make the switch to smaller alternative platforms, or if the government will actually pay, however, are two questions that will only be answered in time.

NSA

The usual dose of NSA-related headlines…

-          The NSA & GCHQ launched joint cyberattacks on Iran, Iran then replicated those tactics in return.

-          GCHQ and Canada piggybacked on mobile analytics and added software to spy on smartphones, codenamed it BADASS.

-          A coalition of privacy groups wants to investigate the consolidation of big data analytics firms, another says the recent GCHQ rulings don’t go far enough, and another is planning to help millions of people request their GCHQ records be deleted.

-          Obama wants Germany to give the US the “benefit of the doubt” over claims Merkel’s phone was tapped.

-          UK MP David Davies wants GCHQ to be more accountable in court, while Ed Vaizey wants technology firms to “meet politicians halfway” over encryption.

Twitter’s latest Transparency report shows another increase in the number of government data requests. An overall rise of 40% saw the US make 1,622 requests in 2014, up from 833 the year before, while Turkey and Japan made 356 and 288 requests respectively.

Samsung got into trouble this week after its privacy statement explained how its voice recognition tech is always listening to you. “Please be aware,” its privacy statement read, “that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of voice recognition.” The furore over that sentence caused Samsung to release a statement denying it’s as bad as all that and changed the wording a bit. Google also do something similar FYI.

View-Master 2.0

Mattel has joined the AR/VR revolution. Joining forces with Google, the toy company revealed an updated Virtual Reality version of the classic View Master at an event in New York today. The device, which Engadget dubbed “a Fisher-Price take on the Oculus Rift,” is based on Google’s Cardboard device, and lets kids explore various locations around the world. The reels still feature, but instead of slotting them into the device, these Augmented Reality experience reels are placed in front of you and then suck you in to different environments. The device is still in development and won’t be available until autumn, but will feature Dinosaurs. So it’s a winner already.

Elsewhere, developer of all things cool DARPA has unveiled some of its latest ideas. First there’s a project dubbed Memex, a search engine for the dark web aimed to help law enforcement types track illegal activity. They’re also working on something called behaviour-based biometrics, where the technology would be able to authenticate that you are indeed you by the way a user handles their mouse or writes emails, akin to the way people used to read Morse code operator’s fists.

Also in the news this week was Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org project, which is now available in Asia for the first time. The free internet service is now accessible to people in India, offering the usual mix of Facebook, Wikipedia, news and others services. Facebook for all marches on.

Meanwhile, LG has also joined the Virtual Reality game with its own take on Google’s Cardboard – even if Mattel and Google stole the company’s thunder a bit. VR for G3 is another headset powered by your smartphone and promise a “much sharper image quality for a smoother, more realistic VR experience,” compared to other options.

M&A

So Apple has become the first company to be worth $700 billion. Apparently that’s bigger than the GDP of Switzerland

Microsoft’s acquisition of Sunrise has been formally confirmed, and now there’s reports the Redmond company has acquired Israeli digital pen maker N-trig. In other Microsoft acquisition news, Finnish startup Verkotan has acquired mobile equipment testing facilities from Satya Nadella’s company.

Meanwhile Google has bought photo backup startup Odysee, Twitter has purchased social media talent firm Niche, ARM now ows Dutch IoT startup Offspark, HP has snapped up Voltage Security, Hitachi has got its hands on Pentaho, IT monitoring firm Datadog has gobbled up Mortar Data, and GoDaddy has procured Nodejitsu.

Alibaba has announced that its bought a minority stake in Chinese mobile manufacturer Meizu. While Meizu currently make Android devices, could this be the start of Alibaba creating its own mobile empire a la Amazon?

Both Apple and Google look to be getting into renewables after the iPhone maker announced plans to build an $850 million solar plant and the search giant bought a Wind farm.

Verbatim

Where’s John McAfee these days? Living in Tennessee and armed to the teeth apparently. The antivirus mogul, now based in Lexington, says “This is a new phase in my life — getting back to building things.” Apparently “the mayor and sheriff have welcomed us with open arms,” probably blissfully unaware of the attention Mr. McAfee can attract at times. 

Future predictions are hard. People, even clever ones in charge of big companies, get them wrong. If Microsoft’s Satya Nadella to be believed, the next ten years will see the extinction of the fountain pen. Maybe he’s more of a Bic man. 

Apparently London’s broadband is pretty bad. Which makes Tech City look a bit daft, being a world-leading tech hub and all. Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South and Finsbury, is so distraught about it that she thinks startups are using birds to communicate. “We cannot make Tech City one of the world’s great technology centres and sow the seeds of sustainable growth when it takes nine hours to upload a 2.5-minute film,” she said. “Tech City should not be relying on Game of Thrones ravens.”

Ask.com came perilously close to shutting down Ask.fm after they acquired it, according to CEO Doug Leeds. “We did look at shutting it down and we thought about it significantly as an option,” Leeds said. “We came to the conclusion that there's a good business here as long as you make the service safer.”

So Fitbit’s latest device gives users a rash. The company’s advice? Take it off and “Give Your Wrist A Rest.” Genius.

Tech Philanthropy & Facebook Town

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has released its list of the 50 biggest donors in 2014, and tech leads the way with 12 entrants. The Gates foundation gave over $1.5 billion last year, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum came fourth after giving away over $550 million, while Napster’s Sean Park was fifth on the list. Also giving generously last year were GoPr’s Nicholas & Jill Woodman, Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer, eBay’s Pierre & Pam Omidyar and Salesforce’s Marc R. and Lynne Benioff. Good on them. 

On a related note, Facebook is looking to create its own town. The social network has just bought a 56-acre industrial park close to its Menlo Park headquarters and plans to build “Publicly accessible mixed-use housing, retail, [and] even a hotel,” according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal. “We feel you just can't build a corporate campus, it has to be integrated into the community,” said Facebook real estate chief John Tenanes. Hopefully they’ll make sure the rent isn’t too damn high.

Bitcoins Stats

Bitcoin’s value seems to have stabilised around the $230 mark for now. According to a new report from Boston Retail Partners, 8% of US businesses plan to accept the cryptocurrency within the next 12 months [compared to 30% for Apple Pay and 15% for Google Wallet], while another report from the Bitcoin Knowledge, Use, and Opinion (BitKOU) project found those from lower-income backgrounds are more likely to use BTC.

Driverless Car Lack Aesthetics

So apparently the UK wants to be a leader in driverless cars. The UK Department of Transport has approved testing of driverless cars on public roads in four cities. That’s fine, but the Lutz driverless car isn’t half ugly. Google’s aren’t exactly beautiful, but at least they aren’t plastered in Union Jacks.

Kicking the Robodog

You might remember that last year Google bought robotics company Boston Dynamics. This week the company showed off what they’ve been working on: Spot the robo-dog. A 160 lb four-legged beast, it can walk up hill and stairs, and even be kicked without falling over.

Salestallica.com

Corporate gigs can often be pretty lame affairs. So well done to Salesforce.com, who managed to book the mighty Metallica for their latest shindig. The Bay Area legends might now be corporate sell-outs, but it’s not often you can get so close to James Hetfield & Co.

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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