MWC 2018: Smell-sensing CAT 61 smartphone sniffs out glue

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Nope, Android isn’t getting a system-wide dark mode (at least not yet)

According to a number of reports today, the next version of Android would include a “dark mode” – something that’s been a long-time feature request from those who prefer the dark-themed and power saving option that’s already available in apps like YouTube and Twitter. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

News that Android was getting its own dark mode emerged from a post by a Google engineer on the company’s Issue Tracker forums, which was then spotted by a Reddit user. (Android PoliceThe Next Web and others noted this, too.)

The Google engineer had responded on the thread where a user had requested dark mode, saying that “our engineering team has added this feature,” and that “it will be available in a future Android release.”

As you can imagine, this got people pretty excited.

Dark mode has become an increasingly popular theme in a variety of third-party apps, and users have since been clamoring for a way to easily toggle on a dark mode across their operating system entirely. (Some Android devices had supported an automatically applied light and dark theme, based on your wallpaper, but users still want a manual, system-wide setting.)

While that could still be in the works, we suppose, the Google engineer’s comments did not mean to refer to a universal Android dark mode, as it turns out.

Instead, from what we heard and since confirmed, what the engineer was referring to was improved support for dark mode as a feature for developers to implement in their own Android applications. That is, if an app developer wants to build in a dark mode, Google is making that an easier process for them in a future release of Android.

The engineer has also since clarified his remarks, too.

In a new post he writes:

…What we *have* added in a future Android release is a developer-facing setting (via Developer Options) to toggle the -night UI mode qualifier, which will make it easier for developers to create and test apps that implement night mode. This qualifier has been in the platform since Froyo (SDK 8) and globally modifiable via UiModeManager since Marshmallow (SDK 23); however, there was never an explicit toggle made available anywhere in Settings.

If it’s any consolation, we will also not be adding Hot Dog Mode (where all UI elements are yellow and red).

What, no hot dog mode? At least he’s got a sense of humor about the whole thing.

Image credit, top: 9to5Google

The FCC’s revamped internet speed map lets you covet nearby exotic broadband

A big part of the FCC’s mandate is to ensure broadband is rolled out all over the country, and it issues regular reports along those lines — but there’s nothing presenting information visually to get the point across. A new official map of broadband access based on FCC data lets you browse block by block and see just what options are on offer, from gigabit fiber to DSL that would have been inadequate a decade ago.

The map is powered by Mapbox (which has its own blog post on the topic) and based on the forms (477, to be specific) submitted to the FCC by broadband providers. That means that this should probably be considered a bit of an optimistic view of what access is available where, and of course speeds achieved by subscribers may or may not be what is listed.

An ISP might serve one or two buildings on a given block or all of them — info isn’t available at that level of granularity. Still, it’s much better than a census block level breakdown, which can show an area as served when entire communities within it aren’t.

The real data missing here is pricing; as the FCC and advocates have pointed out, it does someone no good to be “served” by gigabit internet if it costs $250 a month, more than many families can afford. What kind of service is available and for how much is something you’ll have to look into for yourself.

Veil is private browsing for the ultra-paranoid

If you’re worried about someone finding out what you’re pointing your browser at, there are plenty of options for keeping it secret, with varying levels of difficulty and effectiveness. Veil takes things further than perhaps any other anonymous browsing method by masking the page you’re viewing not just from would-be attackers, but from your own operating system.

The problem, as the MIT researchers behind Veil explain in a new paper outlining the service, is that private browsing modes, even ones using Tor and other measures, can still leave a trace of your history on the device itself, in RAM or temporary storage.

When you visit a page, even anonymously, that page and its components still have to be loaded into memory, displayed and cached, libraries or plugins perhaps accessed or modified. The browser may try to delete these traces, but success can vary depending on how things are set up. A sort of ghost version of your activity may live on in your RAM, even if it’s just a hash of some data or timestamp.

“The fundamental problem is that [the browser] collects this information, and then the browser does its best effort to fix it. But at the end of the day, no matter what the browser’s best effort is, it still collects it,” explained MIT graduate student Frank Wang, the lead author of the paper, in a news release. “We might as well not collect that information in the first place.”

Veil takes things several steps further by handling delivery of the site via what they call a “blinding server.” You enter the URL into the site and the page is retrieved for you from the special servers, encrypted it in transit and in your browser cache, and only decrypted for your viewing. Links and URLs are themselves encrypted so they can’t be linked to the content requested.

Furthermore, it injects invisible garbage code into the page while also “mutating” the content (again, invisibly) so that you could load it a thousand times on the same computer and although it would look the same to you, any resulting digital fingerprints like hash, payload size, and so on would always be different.

This way your computer never actually registers the actual URL, never caches any of the data, and any traces left won’t match up with any database or even each other.

In the most extreme privacy case, users don’t even interact with the actual webpage — just an image of it.

Converting webpages to Veil-compatible ones can be done via a special compiler provided by the researchers. It shouldn’t break anything, though it will add to the bandwidth used and requests served, owing to the mutations and extra crypto operations.

But wait, there’s more! For those of you worried that even that level of obfuscation isn’t enough, there’s an option that I’ve always considered a possibility but never seen executed: browsing via visual data alone.

If you want, Veil will instead of showing you the target site’s actual code, just take a screenshot and show you that. You can click on the screenshot and it will record the location of that click, then transmit it to the actual page, returning a screenshot of the result.

The next step, I suppose, will be to employ a robot that looks at a completely separate computer somewhere and tells you what it sees in piglatin. Onnection-cay ecure-say!

Of course this isn’t a zero-trust situation: the blinding servers will, like Tor nodes, be run by volunteers and organizations that could attempt to compromise the system (a site could also run its own). But if the process is mathematically and procedurally verifiable, you should be okay. Of course security researchers will want to audit the code.

Veil was presented this week at the Network and Distributed Systems Security Symposium in San Diego. You can read the full paper here.


The intensifying battle for Africa’s burgeoning tech landscape

Long gone are the days when Africa was disparagingly regarded as the White Man’s Burden. Today, Africa is the continent with the youngest demographic in the world, on the brink of a technical renaissance — yet the world’s tech titans are floundering to understand and gain a foothold in this market.

The scale and complexity of Africa’s technical landscape sits at the heart of the problem, and connectivity issues are particularly prevalent. Internet users in Africa represent only 10 percent of the total users in the world, despite representing 16 percent of the world population, according to Internet World Stats. And only 31 percent of the total population has access to the internet, which represents a penetration that is well below the rest of the world at 52 percent.

Africa’s technical future depends on widespread connectivity. As a result, both Eastern and Western businesses are eager to get Africa online. But for every proposed solution, myriad challenges spring up that are unique to the region.

For example, when Facebook’s co-founder and chairman Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to connect 100 million people in Africa through the now infamous initiative, the proverbial can of worms opened.

Naysayers were quick to point out a lack of infrastructure, technical knowledge and disposable income to fund smartphones and data packages (not to mention the need to meet the continent’s diverse linguistic needs) would all hamper his ambitious goal. And there are concerns that the initiative is a cover for Facebook-backed digital colonialism.

But Facebook is all too aware of these issues, which were highlighted in the recent Facebook-commissioned Inclusive Internet Index report.

The Free Basics app (aka is giving African users free access to a limited number of websites, WhatsApp and Facebook itself — without charging data costs. It works through partnerships with mobile operators (which are left to cover those data costs) and is now available in 63 countries, 27 of which are in Africa. Facebook’s partnership with the Airtel Africa mobile carrier in 2015 has certainly boosted its dominance in Africa.

While Facebook’s popularity in the region is growing, Google isn’t going down without a fight. It is focusing on improving Africa’s infrastructure and, in particular, its last-mile connectivity.

Through its Project Link initiative, Google is building links between undersea cables, ISPs and mobile networks. Its first metro fiber network rolled out in the Ugandan city of Kampala in 2015 and has expanded into Ghana, where it plans to build more than 1,000 kilometers of fiber in Accra, Tema and Kumasi. Project Link has subsequently evolved in the independent CSquared business and recently committed an additional $100 million to further its expansion in the African region. And that’s just one of a handful of initiatives Google announced in 2015 to bring the internet to a further seven billion people.

How and when will the Western tech giants ever get a return on the investments they are currently making in Africa?

Facebook and Google are also fighting for connectivity over African skies. While Google announced plans for balloon-powered connectivity through Project Loon, Facebook’s plans to bring connectivity to Africa using satellite systems were left in tatters in 2016 after the SpaceX rocket carrying its payload exploded.

Such ambitious plans are laudable, but let’s hope they do not suffer the same fate as the Iridium satellite venture. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1999 after having spent $5 billion to build and launch its satellites and provide a worldwide wireless phone service.

The Iridium service was hit with several setbacks. It was viewed as too expensive for users, and mobile phone adoption was beginning to gain traction in the emerging markets. Also, the service would not have given users complete coverage and would not have worked inside moving vehicles, buildings and many urban areas.

This highlights a dangerous assumption that many Western companies tend to make when providing Africa with new technologies: that a watered-down service is better than no service at all.

Another oversight from Facebook and Google is that the same business models will work in Africa and Western nations. A prime example is the revenue models for both tech giants, which rely predominantly on online advertising. However, an ad-supported internet is unlikely to thrive in Africa due to a range of factors, including a lack of digital footprint for many consumers who still carry out most of their transactions offline in cash (with a few notable exceptions such as the widespread use of M-Pesa in Kenya, for example) and low disposable incomes.

While Facebook and Google do earn enough in the developed world to subsidize the growth of their user base in these emerging markets, this does not seem to be a sustainable business model.

So, we are left with a conundrum: How and when will the Western tech giants ever get a return on the investments they are currently making in Africa?

Eastern promise

On the other side of the world, China has become Africa’s most important economic partner over the last two decades. With the exception of Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei Technologies and ZTE (who have helped deploy the continent’s mobile networks infrastructure for almost 20 years), China is taking a more cautious approach to entering Africa’s technology scene. However, it could still beat Western technical businesses on two important fronts: cost and innovation.

For example, Tecno is a smartphone maker under the Hong Kong parent company Transsion Holdings. It supplies handsets geared toward African markets, with longer battery life, dust-resistant screens and handsets costing between $50 and $100. Tecno has grown fast, and according to Transsion Holdings’ website, its collective brands in Africa have a more than 40 percent market share in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to CNBC Africa, Tecno itself has a 25 percent share of Africa’s total smartphone market.

We’re also seeing Eastern businesses squaring up to Western rivals with Tencent’s dominant WeChat app, for example, now available in Africa as a direct rival to the Facebook-owned WhatsApp service.

However, I believe tech giants (whether from Western or Eastern locales) need to work closely with African businesses to gain a thorough understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities the continent presents. It’s not enough to land in Africa with a flashy launch and a product that’s completely unsuitable (and unaffordable) to the continent’s population.

We’re already seeing signs of increased collaboration from both sides of the globe. For example, China’s biggest e-commerce group Alibaba recently hit the headlines in Africa as its founder and executive chairman, Jack Ma, used his first visit to the continent to announce the creation of a $10 million African Young Entrepreneurs Fund. Under the scheme, the company will help 200 budding African entrepreneurs and fly them to China to learn “hands-on” from Alibaba.

Innovation through collaboration is the best and only way to succeed in Africa’s technical landscape.

This may seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the established education and training programs run by Western tech companies in the region. For example, Microsoft launched its $75 million 4Afrika initiative four years ago, Google runs its Digify program in partnership with Livity Africa offering a free three-month full-time course on digital skills, IBM funded a $60 million computer skills program and is also a strong philanthropic force in the region.

However, Alibaba (along with China’s other internet giants Tencent and Baidu) is only just starting to extend its reach beyond China and, as it does so, it will be a force to be reckoned with. Its decision to dip its toe into African waters through an educational initiative is a shrewd move, compared to the heralded and somewhat elaborate projects some of its Western counterparts are trying to introduce to Africa.

Money matters

To use a clichéd phrase used all too often in the context of traditional aid given by Western countries to populations perceived as desperate and helpless in Asia and Africa, and for many years considered the White Man’s Burden: “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for one day. If you teach him to fish, he will never be hungry again.” In the 21st century, perhaps this concept deserves a digital makeover. While the context in which the saying has traditionally been used is quite patronizing, there is, after all, an element of truth in it, which applies universally, not just to emerging markets.

This is the lesson both Western and Eastern tech companies need to take into account when working in Africa. Innovation through collaboration is the best and only way to succeed in Africa’s technical landscape.

It’s also a premise that we’ve seen played out by Africa’s mobile payment platforms such as M-Pesa, M-Shwari and M-KOPA. These three are Kenyan success stories, where innovation is being fostered through incubator spaces such as iHub and supported by companies like GoogleIBM and Intel.

The secret to success in Africa is not just to hand someone a smartphone and hope they use it. We need a scattergun approach where technical and socio-economic constraints are addressed under one umbrella. There is more than one way to fish.

This may be more difficult for Western businesses than their Easter counterparts, as Africa, being an emerging region itself, tends to relate more to those coming from other emerging markets (like China) that understand the challenges the continent faces now and in the years ahead because of their own more recent and relatable journey toward economic development.

Africa is at a technical tipping point. To survive and thrive in this diverse and highly complex marketplace, we need businesses that are flexible and capable of adapting both their products and their business models, which can most effectively work with local companies and talent to develop and promote local content and digital solutions while leveraging the power of the smartphone and widespread connectivity.

As is the case in other emerging markets, the key to enduring success in Africa is education and innovation through collaboration. Not Manifest Destiny.

Featured Image: Anton Balazh/Shutterstock

The Dropbox IPO filing is here

It’s official, the Dropbox IPO filing is here.

Going public is a huge milestone for Dropbox and has been one of the most anticipated tech IPOs for several years now.

We knew that it had already filed confidentially, but the company has now unveiled its filing, meaning the actual IPO is likely very soon, probably late March.

The filing shows that Dropbox had $1.1 billion in revenue for last year. This compares to $845 million in revenue the year before and $604 million for 2015.

The company is not yet profitable, having lost nearly $112 million last year. This is significantly improved from losses of $210 million for 2016 and $326 million for 2015.

Dropbox says it has 11 million paying users, just a small fraction of the over 500 million registered users who use its cloud services for free.

The big question is whether the company will achieve the $10 billion valuation it raised in the private markets. Part of its success will be measured relative to Box, which went public in 2015 and will be considered a comparable.

With the filing we see that the largest shareholder is Sequoia Capital, which owned 25% of the company prior to the IPO. This is a large stake. Accel owned 5.4%.

Developing story, check back for updates

Twitch’s first live game show ‘Stream On’ debuts March 8

Twitch’s new reality show featuring up-and-coming streamers will premiere on March 8, the company announced this morning, along with the list of the fourteen personalities selected to participate. The video stars will be competing over an 11-week period for the chance to win $60,000, paid out as $5,000-per-month installments, meant to help fund their streaming careers.

“Stream On,”as the show is called, was first announced back in December, where Twitch explained the idea behind the series was to showcase Twitch Partners who were on the cusp of breaking out, but could benefit from additional exposure.

That is, the show won’t feature those whose fan bases are still small, or who are somewhat inexperienced with streaming; but it also won’t feature creators who are already well-known.

Twitch today released the list of creators who have been chosen to compete, following their auditions. That list includes: 88bitmusicBanzaibabyCiraCorelliaCookingforN00bsFerociouslyStephGlanFMKoibuMajinTajSuchikuchithaButtressTheOnlyRyannTheStaceyRoyWavy, and Xmiramira.

Some are known also for their creative talents beyond gaming – like cooking, music, or art – areas that Twitch has expanded into over the years, as with the launch of its Creative channel in fall 2015.

The show itself will be produced in-house by Twitch Studios, which is also responsible for other Twitch community content, including “Twitch Weekly;” a sneaker culture-focused show “FreshStock;” the mini-documentary “Ironsights;” and Twitch’s convention stage coverage.

While Twitch Studios has handled production for some competitive gaming events on stages at various events like PAX and TwitchCon, it hasn’t yet produced any live show of this size and scope in the past.

Throughout the 11-week period when “Stream On” airs live on Twitch, the creators will have their streamer skills tested. For example, they’ll be presented challenges like getting their viewers to respond to calls-to-action, while having their performances analyzed by judges.

Viewers are meant to interact in real-time by watching, cheering and participating in challenges. They will also vote to save creators from elimination using a custom-built extension overlay on the channel page.

As you may have guessed, the show isn’t just meant to be something fun to watch – it has a larger purpose for Twitch.

Not only will it help raise the visibility of various performers who will then, in turn, attract more viewers to Twitch’s platform, it will also serve as an educational experience for those streamers who want to learn how to make it big.

“Our mission at Twitch is to enable creators to make a living doing what they love,” said Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, Director of Twitch Studios, in a statement about the show’s upcoming premiere. “With ‘Stream On’ our goal is to help not just these 14 streamers, but show the thousands at home how to turn their passions into a career.”

Twitch isn’t the only creator-focused streaming site to invest funds meant to fuel the next round of talent. YouTube does this as well, most recently with its announcement last month of a $5 million investment in positive content, and hundreds of millions into original productions for YouTube Red. Meanwhile, in December announced a $50 million creator fund, following its acquisition by Chinese social media giant Toutiao, owned by Bytedance.

Twitch also today announced a partnership with the 1,000 Dreams Fund which will dole out grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 to four or more female Twitch creators in 2018.

Twitch’s “Stream On” will air every Thursday at the same time (3:00 PM), after its March 8 premiere.