Qualcomm faces a challenging future despite dodging Broadcom’s bullet

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After months of listening to Broadcom say flattering things about Qualcomm during its hostile takeover bid, it’s tempting to see Qualcomm as a prized jewel bursting with potential. But now that Broadcom’s pursuit has been permanently blocked due to national security concerns, it’s worth remembering that Qualcomm is a company with…Read More
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Apple acquires digital magazine subscription service Texture

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Apple announced today that it is acquiring digital magazine distributor Texture from Next Issue Media, a company owned by magazine publishers Condé Nast, Hearst, and Meredith; telecom Rogers Media; and investment company KKR. Texture offers an all-you-can-eat subscription pass to over 200 magazines for a monthly fee. “We’re excited Text…Read More
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Apple to address AI, quantum dot, and VR at Display Week in May

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Apple engineers will lead a collection of unusual panel discussions at Display Week, a Los Angeles-based symposium and trade show running from May 20-25 this year, MacRumors discovered today. Apple’s participation is atypical in two ways: Its management typically does not allow engineers to take public roles in events, and several of the topi…Read More
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Apple’s Eddy Cue discusses video service, says you’ll use AR ‘all the time’

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Immediately after Apple publicly announced its acquisition of magazine subscription service Texture this morning, the company’s senior vice president of internet software and services Eddy Cue took the stage at SXSW 2018 to discuss some of Apple’s upcoming content plans. Most notably, he addressed the company’s upcoming video serv…Read More
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AI Weekly: Virtual assistant competition is more complicated than you think

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We’re nearing the end of the beginning for the battle among virtual assistants in the U.S. With the launch of the HomePod, Apple joins Google, Amazon, and Microsoft in having a smart speaker available at all times to answer queries and perform actions. But the market for intelligent virtual assistants is far more complex than just determining who has the best hardware and software.

All of the market players hold specific advantages that their competitors don’t, and they’re each racing to build up their positions. Amazon leads penetration in the smart speaker market, but Alexa’s mobile presence is minimal. Siri’s software lags behind its competition, but Apple has the corner on embedded virtual assistants in its hardware. Google has the planet’s most popular search engine, which drives the assistant’s ability to answer questions better than its peers.

Understanding the different facets of defensibility at play is important for getting a sense of where the virtual assistant market is today and where it’s going in the future.

The winners in the virtual assistant market will control a significant portal for access to information. As the search engine, browser, and mobile markets have shown, owning the platform for people to access information is a massive source of power.

But nobody has the market locked down yet, even as dominant as some players may appear. Right now, no one company has managed to create the ideal assistant: one that has a deep understanding of you, is deeply integrated everywhere you are, and can answer almost any question you might have.

Above: The new Amazon Echo

Image Credit: Amazon

That open competitive landscape is why companies are looking to build the defensibility of their virtual assistants. I’ve identified three axes for that competition: technology development, network effects, and embedding effects.

Technology development is arguably the easiest to identify: Each player is consistently improving the core AI functionality that makes their assistant tick by helping it better understand speech and translate that into action. The same thing goes for hardware — advancements in microphones and speaker technology, along with the processing power needed to answer queries rapidly, add up to a better experience that attracts consumers.

But this isn’t a world where the best technology wins. If it was, we’d all be using Google Wave, may it rest in peace. This is where network effects come into play. There’s a direct network effect at play with devices that integrate with one virtual assistant. The more Apple devices you have, the more valuable Siri is, because it’s closer to being present everywhere you are.

Each virtual assistant is also its own platform, which is more valuable to developers based on user adoption. Conversely, each platform becomes more valuable to consumers the more high-quality developer integrations are available. This is a key advantage for Alexa in the current market.

Integration with smart home appliances is another platform network effect. The more popular a particular virtual assistant is, the more likely companies are to build hardware that integrates with it. The more companies integrate with a virtual assistant, the more valuable it is to consumers.

Data provides its own network effects, too. The more data a company has to learn from, the more it can personalize your assistant. As you provide more data, the more valuable the initial data becomes. This is why Facebook could end up being a dark horse in the virtual assistant race — none of its potential competitors has an equivalent to its social graph data.

Above: An illustration shows Kohler’s new Verdera Alexa-enabled mirror.

Image Credit: Kohler

Embedding effects are exactly what they sound like: These assistants become embedded with your life and workflows, which make it harder to switch to a competitor. That’s why Alexa’s smart home leadership is so valuable to Amazon: If your smart fridge only works with its virtual assistant, you’re stuck in a very shiny Hotel California.

Even choosing to purchase a particular smart speaker has an embedding effect. It’s quite the decision to toss a $ 350 HomePod to the curb for a competing platform, and harder still to consign multiple to the trash heap. Google and Amazon’s budget-friendly smart speakers don’t have nearly as strong an embedding effect — unplugging a single $ 50 intelligent hockey puck is a less daunting proposition.

Above: Google Assistant on a Pixel smartphone

Image Credit: Google

The same goes for other computing hardware, too. Google and Apple have significant advantages because of their assistants’ native integration with Android and iOS. (Plus Chrome OS and MacOS, to a lesser extent.) That’s one reason Cortana isn’t already an also-ran in the market: It’s integrated into every PC and Xbox, which are already embedded in homes and offices.

What’s more, advancements along all these axes feed back into one another. The companies that can best harness all of them will come out on top. But that’s going to take years to shake out, and there are a bunch of complexities at play that make it difficult to declare anyone a winner yet.

Stay tuned to VentureBeat’s AI channel for analysis of each major player in the virtual assistant game along these lines.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Blair Hanley Frank and Khari Johnson, and guest post submissions to Cosette Jarrett — and be sure to bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Blair Hanley Frank

AI Staff Writer

P.S. Please enjoy this panel discussion about artificial intelligence and open source software from this past week’s Open Source Leadership Summit.


Siri cofounder suggests Apple’s ambition and execution caused disappointment

Apple’s release of its HomePod smart speaker and Amazon’s success with its rival Echo products recently reignited discussion over flaws in the digital assistant Siri, and one of Siri’s cofounders has explained why the feature is so disappointing. In an interview with Quartz, Norman Winarsky suggests that Apple may have given Siri an overly ambitious collection of […]

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Here’s what top investors are asking about AI

Last week I attended the KeyBanc Capital Markets Emerging Technology Summit. As a participant in their Mosaic industry leaders program, my role at the conference was to participate in one-on-one and group meetings with their institutional investor clients as a subject matter expert on machine learning and artificial intelligence. Having spent a couple of packed […]

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Microsoft to accelerate AI on Windows 10 with WinML API

Microsoft announced a new set of tools for developers aimed at helping them build Windows apps that leverage hardware acceleration for AI. The WinML API will take in a trained machine learning model and optimize its execution based on the hardware available on host devices. That way, developers can rely on local processing for their […]

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Voicera raises $ 14.5 million for AI that draws insights from meeting notes

Voicera, whose AI assistant Eva creates transcripts from voice recordings of meetings, today announced the closure of a $ 14.5 million funding round, which includes backing from a few tech giants with plans to put their own assistants in the workplace. Formerly Workfit, Voicera uses natural language processing and speech recognition to make transcripts and spot task […]

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Tim O’Reilly to tech companies: Use AI to do more than cut costs

Tim O’Reilly is known for popularizing tech industry buzzwords like “open source” and “Web 2.0.” Now he wants the tech industry to be more precise in the way it thinks and talks about artificial intelligence and automation. “Don’t replace people: Augment them,” O’Reilly said onstage at VentureBeat’s Blueprint conference in Reno, Nevada. To be fair, […]

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Walmart plans to open a computer vision and machine learning office in Dallas on April 5

Retail giant Walmart now thinks of itself as a tech company — but it’s not putting all its eggs in Silicon Valley. The company announced today that it is opening an emerging technologies office in Dallas, Texas. Thirteen employees have already been hired at the office, and the company expects to hire roughly 32 more […]

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SkyKnit: How an AI took over an adult knitting community

Ribald knitters teamed up with a neural-network creator to generate new types of tentacled, cozy shapes. (via The Atlantic)

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Google is helping the Pentagon build AI for drones

Google has partnered with the United States Department of Defense to help the agency develop artificial intelligence for analyzing drone footage, a move that set off a firestorm among employees of the technology giant when they learned of Google’s involvement. (via Gizmodo)

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Rage against the machine: Self-driving cars attacked by angry Californians

Something strange, scary and sublime is happening to cameras, and it’s going to complicate everything you knew about pictures. Cameras are getting brains. (via The Guardian)

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Getting value from machine learning isn’t about fancier algorithms — it’s about making it easier to use

Machine learning can drive tangible business value for a wide range of industries — but only if it is actually put to use. Despite the many machine learning discoveries being made by academics, new research papers showing what is possible, and an increasing amount of data available, companies are struggling to deploy machine learning to solve real business problems. In short, the gap for most companies isn’t that machine learning doesn’t work, but that they struggle to actually use it. (via Harvard Business Review)

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ProBeat: Yay headphone jacks, nay notches

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This week, Google released the first Android P developer preview. Among the new features is built-in support for display cutouts, colloquially known as notches. Just as I support sticking with the headphone jack, I prefer phones without notches.

I criticized Google multiple times for mistakingly following Apple and prematurely removing the headphone jack from its Pixel phones. I won’t do that this time — Google’s move to support notches natively in Android makes plenty of sense to me: Android phone makers are embracing the notch in droves. It follows that Android should support it as well (however, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL will probably have notches as well, which I will whine about loudly).

I can’t blame Google for supporting with software what is already happening with hardware. Android phone makers, though — I am not impressed. For the love of all things screen, stop copying Apple for the sake of copying Apple.

This unscientific poll by my colleague Evan Blass shows I’m not alone in this line of thinking:

When you’re buying a new smartphone, there are already plenty of difficult decisions you have to make: Android or iOS, normal size or plus size, single or dual camera, carrier “discount” or unlocked — just to name a few. Tradeoffs like headphone jacks and notches really should not have to be part of the equation.

As Samsung and a few outliers have shown, you do not have to rip off Apple to please your customers. Just because it makes sense for do it, doesn’t mean it makes sense for your company. You can include a headphone jack, exclude a notch, and still offer an amazing phone in 2017 and in 2018.

They say consumers should vote with their wallet. I wholeheartedly agree. All things being equal, buy a phone that does not make these unnecessary compromises. Trendy should never be more important than practical.

One day I will look back on this stance and chuckle. Notches will have gone away, as will the usefulness of headphones jacks. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to make these tradeoffs now, just because Apple has made certain decisions for its products, and a bunch of Android phone makers have blindly followed.

Yay to headphone jacks, nay to notches, and a big hurrah for consumer choice.

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Apple confirms investigation of creepy Chinese iCloud incident

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Apple’s recent handover of China’s iCloud accounts to a government-run company appeared to have gone smoothly, but a deeply unsettling report related to the transition has gripped Chinese media, leading Apple to announce an investigation. According to sister publications The Paper and Sixth Tone, an Apple customer identified as “Qin” attempted to close his iCloud account ahead of the government takeover, only to have an AppleCare advisor argue with him, hack his account, and threaten to expose his personal information to teach him a lesson.

Qin’s story was originally posted on Chinese microblogging service Weibo and includes detailed text, screenshots, and even audio of one of his calls with the AppleCare advisor. In short, Qin says that he called AppleCare to close his account the day before the government-owned Guizhou-Cloud Big Data company took over Chinese iCloud account data, only to get into an argument with an Apple representative who was “really curious” why Qin didn’t “want to use Guizhou-Cloud Big Data’s service.”

The advisor then allegedly used his iCloud login information to hack his account, which contained both sensitive information and logins for other accounts. If that wasn’t bad enough, the advisor then called to blackmail Qin, saying that he would release the information if Qin didn’t comply with his demands. Qin contacted the police and Apple, both of which are investigating the incident.

After spending days going back and forth with Apple, Qin said that the company’s customer support people weren’t appropriately responsive to his requests for information about whether his account was safe, how much data had been taken from it, and who the threatening advisor was. But yesterday Apple sent the following written response (translated) to Chinese media:

We greatly respect the trust that our customers have given us, and entrust [their] personal privacy and information security to Apple. Safeguarding the privacy of users is the starting point of our system design. Any AppleCare technical advisor cannot access the customer’s password, email content and photos. We will work with this customer to investigate the incident and ensure that Apple employees and contractor teams adhere to the strict standards we set in customer contact.

Certain details remain controversial. Sina Technology News, part of the company behind Weibo, claims there is “currently no evidence” that the issue is directly related to the migration of Chinese iCloud accounts to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, despite discussions to the contrary. Additionally, the employment status of the AppleCare advisor is somewhat unclear. The paper says the AppleCare advisor wasn’t fired by Apple but had rather resigned a month earlier and yet continued to serve customers due to an Apple transition policy for departing employees.

It’s safe to say the employee’s behavior did not reflect Apple policy or standards. However, the broader issue of AppleCare employee access to iCloud account information remains open and — based on Qin’s experience — deeply concerning. If you haven’t yet enabled two-factor authentication on your iCloud account, now would be a good time to do so.

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Siri cofounder suggests Apple’s ambition and execution caused disappointment

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Apple’s release of its HomePod smart speaker and Amazon’s success with its rival Echo products recently reignited discussion over flaws in the digital assistant Siri, and one of Siri’s cofounders has explained why the feature is so disappointing. In an interview with Quartz, Norman Winarsky suggests that Apple may have given Siri an overly ambitious collection of responsibilities and hasn’t made the feature reliable enough.

Just after Apple acquired Siri from Winarsky’s company, he said he believed that Apple would use Siri to start another revolution but claimed not to know any specific plans. He optimistically expected that Siri would learn more about its users over time, predict what they needed, and become better at conversation — apparently to the point of eliciting classic Apple “surprise and delight” from users. But he says that element “is kind of missing right now,” as Siri has fallen short of his predictions.

Above: The original version of Siri, launched as a free iOS app before Apple acquired it.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

According to Winarsky, Siri was originally designed to serve solely as an entertainment and travel concierge, and indeed the company’s short-lived iOS app offered only a handful of features. It had the ability to look up restaurants, movies, events, and local points of interest on request and to read the weather, call a taxi, check flight status, and dictate tweets to post on Twitter. After the acquisition, Apple decided to launch Siri as a full-fledged assistant for all areas of a user’s life, which Winarsky said was a bigger challenge that would clearly take longer to perfect.

The original vision for Siri was to do a few things “flawlessly,” for instance automatically handling a cancelled flight by offering you a route home by car or a hotel room ready to book for the night. Once Siri mastered the nuances of handling each specific task, it could be expanded to another task, growing organically. Instead, Apple radically expanded Siri’s list of capabilities and didn’t fully flesh any of them out. “They’re probably looking for a level of perfection they can’t get,” opined Winarsky. “These are hard problems, and when you’re a company dealing with up to a billion people, the problems get harder yet.”

Beyond the issues Winarsky cites, Apple’s dramatically heightened focus on user privacy certainly had an impact on Siri’s development. Rivals such as Google and Microsoft have leveraged user permission to search cloud-based data that their assistants can use to anticipate user needs, a step Apple refused to take because of privacy considerations. Instead, Siri relies heavily on the smaller subset of user data stored on the iOS device, to its predictive disadvantage. The article notes that between its greater access to data and superior problem-solving skills, Google Assistant has already surpassed Siri’s ability to navigate travel — just one of several areas where Apple had an early lead.

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Apple patent application details waterproof Lightning connector

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As the difference between “water-resistant” and “waterproof” generally comes down to whether a device can survive a splash or submersion, removing or shrinking holes can make all the difference. Having already removed headphone ports and gasketed other iPhone holes, Apple has applied to patent a new tapered Lightning connector that could narrow the opening on iOS devices until the plug is fully inserted, then seal the male and female sides shut.

The patent, originally discovered by Patently Apple, depicts a wedge-shaped male Lightning plug with a very thin insertion-side edge and a base highly similar to the current Lightning design. On the device side, the new connector would have a pliable seal that expands to expose metal contacts only when a plug is inserted. The cable would use similar material on the base of the plug or a larger portion of the plug, in either case forming a liquid-tight seal with the device once connected.

Filed in March 2017 and published today, this next-generation Lightning connector patent application is shared with two standard caveats: Apple’s patents frequently do not result in actual products, and the company often contemplates multiple possible designs including varying components and shapes. To that point, the patent application includes an alternate version of the connector with a gasketed base and more conventional shape. It’s also worth underscoring that Apple has been steadily moving towards wireless connectivity and charging solutions, so it might skip a next-generation Lightning connector to fully embrace inductive charging, leaving no holes to seal.

But if Apple does evolve the Lightning connector, the patent application spells out the reasoning for doing so: Electronic devices are increasingly indispensable and more frequently used in harsh conditions with greater damage potential, so seals can reduce or eliminate that damage. Until electronics makers are ready to go wireless-only for charging, gasketed ports and connectors will likely be the best alternative.

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Amazon closes in on Apple in race to $1 trillion market cap

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(Reuters) — Apple, the world’s most valuable publicly listed company, is in danger of being beaten by Amazon.com to the $ 1 trillion mark.

Wall Street’s optimism about last year’s 10th anniversary iPhone had propelled Apple’s stock 24 percent higher over the past 12 months, giving it a market capitalization of $ 893 billion.

That is $ 141 billion more than the $ 752 billion market value of Amazon, the world’s second most valuable publicly listed company, but Amazon has been closing the gap.

Amazon’s stock has surged 83 percent over the past year, bolstered by scorchingly fast revenue growth as more shopping moves online and businesses shift their computing operations to the cloud, where Amazon Web Services leads the market.

In January, Amazon announced that it, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase & Co would form a company to cut health care costs for their employees, which was widely seen as a threat to the existing U.S. health care system and underscored Amazon’s ability to disrupt markets.

Amazon dislodged Microsoft as the No. 2 U.S. company by market capitalization in February.

Meanwhile, optimism about Apple’s iPhone X has given way to concerns that demand for the $ 1,000 device may be weaker than expected.

To be sure, past stock gains are not a reliable predictor of future performance, and the surge in Amazon shares in recent years has been exceptional by most standards.

But if Amazon’s stock were to keep growing on the trajectory seen over the past year, the company’s market capitalization would hit $ 1 trillion in late August. Apple would reach $ 1 trillion around a week later if its stock price continued to rise at the same pace seen over the past year.

Most Wall Street analysts are not quite that enthusiastic. Analysts on average expect Apple’s stock price to rise 11 percent and reach $ 195 within the next 12 months, which would put its market capitalization at $ 989 billion, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Analysts covering Amazon on average expect its stock to rise 10 percent within the next year to reach $ 1,700, which would give it a market value of $ 823 billion.

Apple on Thursday was up 0.60 percent at $ 176.05, while Amazon rose 0.31 percent to $ 1,549.90.

(Reporting by Noel Randewich; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)

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