Transitioning From Billionaire Tech Leaders to Philanthropists

2998Offstage, in a barren conference room at the Paris climate talks, Bill Gates excitedly described the possibility of generating energy through the long-speculated process of artificial photosynthesis, using the energy of sunshine to produce liquid hydrocarbons that could challenge the supremacy of fossil fuels.

Gates was in Paris to push his latest bit of entrepreneurial philanthropy: the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, an informal club of 28 private investors from around the world, including several hedge fund billionaires who have agreed to follow his lead and pump seed money into energy research and development. Gates believes the energy sector suffers from a dearth of such funding, the reason much of the world is still burning coal for its power.

A readiness to put another billion dollars of his own money into what is already a roughly billion-dollar portfolio of energy investments was also enough for Gates to convince 20 governments to commit to doubling their own R&D investments within five years.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, recently welcomed a baby girl. And as that announcement was made, the two have pledged to give 99% of their Facebook shares to “join many others in improving this world for the next generation.” Together, the couple’s shares currently amount to $45 billion.

They are forming a new organization, called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, that will pursue those goals through a combination of charitable donations, private investment and promotion of government-policy reform.

Google’s Machine Learning TensorFlow Is Now Open-Sourced

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Machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence that employs software to interpret and make predictions from large sets of data, is in popular demand in Silicon Valley. Some of the largest of those companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple have thrown their hat into the ring. But it was Google that started the trend, and in order to remain innovative, Google needed to keep looking like the cutting-edge leader.

Hence TensorFlow, a machine-learning system that Google has used internally for a few years. Today, Google is taking it open source, releasing the software parameters to fellow engineers, academics and hacks with enough coding skills. There is no denying that learning systems have made it possible to create and improve apps when it comes to speech and image recognition technologies.

For example, Google Photos have benefitted from their own machine learning system, called DisBelief. Developed in 2011, DisBelief has helped Google build large neural networks, but it has its limitations, including difficult configurations and its inability to share code externally. As a result, the company has open-sourced TensorFlow, which was designed to fix the shortcomings of DisBelief. However, it’s important to note that it only allows for part of the AI engine to be open-sourced.

By releasing TensorFlow, Google aims to make the software it built to develop and run its own AI systems a part of the standard toolset used by researchers. It may also help Google identify potential talent for the future.

Google and Microsoft Kiss and Makeup?

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Google and Microsoft are playing nice, burying all current patent infringement lawsuits that they have had ongoing for some time, all 18 of them.

Microsoft has been systematically targeting Android handset makers with a set of undisclosed patents that were violated by the use of the Android operating system. However, current leadership at Microsoft seems to be shifting from their old ways of confrontation to making way for more collaboration. Arguably, Microsoft used to be quick to sue and drag matters out in court, but it seems newer players within the company are becoming quicker to settle and partner.

Possibly signaling the winding down of the global smartphone wars, the two companies said the deal puts an end to court fights involving a variety of technologies, including mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and patents used in Microsoft’s Xbox game consoles and other Windows products. The agreement also drops all litigation involving Motorola Mobility, which Google sold to Lenovo last year while keeping its patents.

Predictably, as Microsoft and Google continue to make products that compete directly with each other, the agreement notably does not preclude any future infringement lawsuits. The two have said they have been co-operating on such issues as the development of a unified patent court for the European Union, and on royalty-free technology for speeding up video on the Internet.

Search Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Search-Wars-Logo-e1421429928227We have all been bystanders as the tech giants duke it out in various arenas. Microsoft won the battle for the desktop, Google won search, Apple won the device war, and the phone war continues. The supremacy enjoyed by Google in search has been so strong for so long that we have all stopped talking about it, except as a possible cause of anti-trust law suits. That could be changing, and the cause might well be Windows 10.

Microsoft has had the Bing search platform for a good while now, but it’s only loosely integrated with their other products. It was once terrible; now it’s pretty good. In most cases, it’s just about indistinguishable from Google, and has clawed its way to about 20% of the overall U.S. search market. However, those clever guys over in the Evil Empire of Microsoft have plans.

In the new Windows 10 version (which is officially released today), Microsoft has wrapped search around all of its components. Irrespective of what you may be looking for, whether on your PC, in your Outlook or anywhere on the web, Windows 10 will be able to give you an answer without you ever leaving the Windows environment.  Since that environment is to be found on something like 93% of all desktops, that must be a little worrying to our good friends at Google. In addition, the new Windows browser is supposed to be lightning fast. The start bar is back, their digital assistant is impressive, and all in all, what I’ve seen looks both modern and very usable.

I’ve put in for the free upgrade, and I’ll know more once I get my eager little hands on it. However, if I’m rattling around on my Windows desktop using mostly Windows programs, I might not be bothered to go open a Chrome browser just to search on Google. Of course, there will be an adoption curve. There is still a measurable number of Windows 3.1 users, but if the Windows 10 search is as good as it looks, this is going to hurt Google’s search market share, and it will once again be game on in Search Wars. I’m getting popcorn; want some?

Oculus Reveals 1.0

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It’s here! And as predicted, it will launch with Xbox One and Windows 10. Yay! Sorry, let me back that up, I was momentarily exuberant. As you may know, I’m one of the idiot geeks straining at the leash for the launch of meaningful virtual reality. The gamers want it for that total immersive kill factor; I want it because there’s a bunch of stuff I want to do and a bunch of places I want to go that I may not get to in the real world any time soon. I’m also hopeful that we may just figure out how to cheat (or greatly delay) death in my lifetime, and VR will no doubt be an important factor.

Anyhow, my exuberance is a little premature because yesterday they revealed the equipment, but not the price or launch date, which is a vague “Q1 2016.” But still, the equipment looks like the real thing and the gizmos that go with it allow you to virtually touch and hold things in the VR world. That’s a little more than I’d expect out of the box with v1.0.

Importantly, they are announcing with Xbox One and Windows 10. That will give them a ton of early adopter gamers to sell to.  They are also offering $10MM in incentives to game manufactures to support VR. If you add in the recent announcement by GoPro of a 360 VR rig to allow users to record their own VR content, by the time the final thing is ready for release, there may well be a ton of VR enabled content out there that isn’t just VR versions of big selling games.

Their schedule means they will miss the Christmas window for this year, but they will be showing more details and announcing more partnerships at E3 in a couple of weeks. I wonder if that will include the price?

Microsoft Can Bruise or Brighten Your Ego

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People have been having a lot of fun with Microsoft’s age-guessing website since it popped up. It may not always be accurate, but one day the tech behind it could be the bane of tweens all over the world. Check it out here. But be careful, it might just rough up your ego just a little bit. Either that, or guess younger and boost it for a while.

The technology that powers the “How Old Do I Look?” app proves that they’re well on their way to developing a system that can block underage users from playing games, watching movies, listening to music, or even browsing websites, that’s been rated beyond their years.

Windows already has some pretty terrific built-in features that parents can use to limit what their kids have access to. Family Safety lets parents do things like enforce time restrictions, block access to specified websites, and prevent app and game downloads. Roll in Microsoft’s cloud-powered age-guessing system, fire up the webcam, and you’ve got the makings of an automated content watchdog that can’t be circumvented by doing something as simple as figuring out a parent’s password. Got an Xbox One with a Kinect attached? The same system could work on it, too.

Obviously they’ll have to build in some anti-spoofing functionality, but they’ve already demonstrated that with Windows 10’s new biometric authentication system. It does a great job of distinguishing real faces from photos and videos; it’s extremely hard to fool.

Microsoft has already shown that they’re willing to take the lead when it comes to DRM and 4K video. If they’re keen on helping Hollywood prevent unauthorized use of its content, why not help ensure ratings guidelines are being adhered to? Advocates of stricter content rating systems would absolutely love to see this kind of thing be mandated.

The Irony of Apple Taking Some of the Surface Pro’s Thunder

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If there is one thing that none of the world’s major tech brands would knowingly gun for, it is the same kind of non-success the Microsoft Surface tablets have met with. We are a full three rounds into the life of the Redmond hybrid tablet-type things and yet the world’s biggest consumer communities are still not entirely warming to the idea.

Some have blamed high prices, while others would say that replacing laptops with powerful tablet PCs doesn’t seem like the most logical thing to do. However, it seems that the Surface Pro’s market share pie is one that Apple would love a piece of.

Over the weekend, the tech press has been developing reports that Apple’s iPad Pro is a rumor that has substance. Headlines have tipped for a device with a screen measuring in at just over 12-inches and with a specially built keyboard case not much unlike to that of the Microsoft Surface Pro. Also, the primary target audiences of the iPad Pro are said to be corporate and educational clients, which again is pretty much the same as the Surface Pro.

Apple’s largest ever tablet will feature the highest specs in an iPad to date, a modified version of the brand’s OS X desktop system and generally all the bells and whistles you’d expect with a solid laptop…again, right on par with the Surface Pro.

However, what’s entirely unlikely to materialize with the iPad Pro is direct USB device support or any kind of expandable storage, which are of course largely ruled out of the picture for any standard iDevice. Should this be the case, it will be interesting to see how corporate crowds warm up to the iPad Pro, which even with a generous amount of storage space will still be somewhat stunted without removable storage media.

There’s really no denying the irony of the whole thing – the very thought of Apple trying to beat Microsoft at its own Surface game would have been quite laughable at one point. Still, there’s a clear and present gap in the iDevice market for something bigger and better than the iPad though ideally cheaper than the MacBook Pro – a gap the iPad Pro could stand to fill quite nicely.

Of course right now it’s all speculation for the time being as Apple is yet to utter a word on the subject. However, it will be interesting to see how Apple looks to take over a market that it seems to have a need to fill.

Microsoft Facing a Tough Challenge from Google’s Chromebook

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Those unwilling to believe that Microsoft is not concerned with the competition from Chromebooks better adjust their thinking. The company has been targeting the cheap laptops running Google’s OS since the early days of its Surface tablets. It is now pushing the building of cheap Windows laptops to go head-to-head with the Chromebook.

There’s good reason for Microsoft to be worried about the Chromebook. They are cheap and are making a market for themselves in the vital education market. Selling laptops is important to the industry where they buy in bulk and are training the computer buyer of the future in the systems they will look to down the road.

The education sector may be a target for these cheap Windows laptops. HP will soon launch its Stream Windows laptop that should cost around a couple hundred dollars. HP is including 200GB of cloud storage with the purchase. That’s well and good, but it still falls short of what schools get with Chromebook deployments.

Deploying Chromebooks to schools removes expensive support from the budget equation. School districts with Chromebooks don’t have to worry about supporting the OS and updates are handled automatically without issues. Even though Windows 8 is probably the easiest version of Windows yet, many users still require regular support.

Perhaps most importantly, school personnel don’t have to worry about hardware maintenance. When a Chromebook stops working, whether through rough handling by students or simple failure, Google replaces it with another. This is a tremendous advantage that the Chromebook has over Windows laptops. It makes it easy for school districts to put a fixed cost on the deployment, a crucial component of IT costs in cash-strapped organizations.

Apple had made some headway years ago in the education market by offering schools a huge discount on early computers that retailed for thousands of dollars at the time. This move has kept Apple as a competitor to Google and Microsoft in the classroom due to winning over many early on.

It’s a good thing for Microsoft to get behind cheap laptops to compete with Chromebooks, especially in schools. It’s going to take more than cheap laptops with Windows to do so, however. There will have to be turn-key programs like that from Google with Chromebooks to remove the cost and concerns of hardware and software maintenance. All for a low price schools are able to pay.

Microsoft Follows Google in European Union’s “Right to Be Forgotten”

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Microsoft has decided to also comply with European Union regulations over the ‘right to be forgotten’ by introducing request forms for users who want removal of obsolete or personal information from Bing’s search results.

The law requires national and international companies operating in the European Union to entertain removal requests of links that are either obsolete, outdated, or compromise an individual’s privacy.

As of now, Microsoft requires separate forms to be submitted in order to process a request. It plans to replicate Google by introducing online forms soon, so that it can speed up the process. The form will specifically ask users to identify the link and provide reasons as to why they want it removed, and also requires submitting photo identification.

Google has pioneered developing the online form for users through which they can process link removal requests. The company immediately responded to European Court of Justice’s ruling on May 13, requiring companies to entertain data removal requests. Google received around 12,000 requests on the first day it started accepting forms. Till now, more than 70,000 data removal requests have been filed with the search giant.

Currently, Microsoft’s Bing controls 3% of Europe’s search traffic, significantly lower than the 11% it controls in the US. However, other search engines in Europe, like Seznam in Czech Republic, have adopted different means to process removal requests. They ask users to file removal requests to original publishers first, and then the search engine will alter results once the content has been removed by the original publishers.

Microsoft’s Finish Adventure

I have several secret vices; one of them is the Show Time masterpiece House of Lies. If you haven’t seen it, think Entourage meets KPMG. It’s dark, funny, clever, and uses cell phones a lot. That’s understandable as those consulting types famously live and die on their cells, but in recent episodes phone use seemed to be much more intense and I kept not recognizing the phones they were using. I’m pretty certain I remember them using Blackberries and iPhones in season one, but in season two they have been using the very good looking Windows powered the Nokia Lumina 920. It stands out, not just because the brutal product placement deal they have has had them using the phones 24×7 on any pretext… but because they are so unfamiliar, cool looking and rare. It’s a bit like catching sight of an exotic Italian sports car on the street… wait… what? was that a yellow Countach. That’s kind of been the problem with both Nokia hardware and Microsoft OS for phones… I don’t know anyone who has one, and I’ll give you dimes to donuts neither do you. The weird thing is I found myself looking at my beloved iPhone 4s and experiencing handset envy.

So the announcement today by Microsoft that it’s buying all the remaining bits of Nokia, which matter, is interesting… but is it more remarkable than then a Coked up Consultant picking up their Countach from the valet? The acquisition cements Microsoft as the solid (if distant) third place in the phone game. Google leads the OS race with Android (new version called Kitkat… long story) and lags in the handset sector. iOS has a huge installed  base, let’s face it we all use Google Apps on our iPhones so that race is still too close to call.  Microsoft has neither a compelling handset nor OS…’til now maybe.  Nokia was going in two directions… the super cool looking Lunina (Countach edition) and a bargain basement set of models focused on emerging markets. There is a market for lower end devices for sure and word is the new iPhone will address that with a low cost version… but I want cool toys damn it! (waaah). Apple has to come out with something as cool as the Samsung Galaxy and as hot as the Lumina or it is going to take a well deserved pounding… and I have my eye on fresh meat. My Verizon contract is up on Thanksgiving… can’t wait!