Microsoft and Xioami to collaborate on AI, cloud computing and hardware


After Microsoft signed a deal to test Windows 10 on Xiaomi devices in 2015 and then Xiaomi bought a trove of patents to help run other Microsoft services on its devices in 2016, today the two companies announced another chapter in its collaboration. Xiaomi and Microsoft have signed a Strategic Framework Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work more closely in the areas of cloud computing, AI (including Microsoft’s Cortana business) and hardware.

To date, Xiaomi has largely focused its mobile phone strategy in Asia Pacific, where Gartner revealed yesterday that it (and Huawei) were the only two vendors to increase their market shares at a time of general decline. This deal could point to how Xiaomi is looking to raise its game in the West, specifically in the US.

On the side of Microsoft, it’s particularly interesting given that the company has largely pulled back on a lot of its hardware efforts, and has visibly had some major stumbles in this area especially in mobile — most recently with its failure to take on and grow the Nokia mobile business and Windows Mobile.

Understanding that this isn’t an area that Microsoft can quite quit altogether, it seems that the company is going to have one more go now on a slightly different framework.

“Xiaomi is one of the most innovative companies in China, and it is becoming increasingly popular in various markets around the world,” said Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group, in a statement. “Microsoft’s unique strengths and experience in AI, as well as our products like Azure, will enable Xiaomi to develop more cutting-edge technology for everyone around the world.”

“Microsoft has been a great partner and we are delighted to see both companies deepening this relationship with this strategic MoU,” Wang Xiang, Global Senior Vice President and Head of International Business, Xiaomi, added in his statement. “Xiaomi’s mission is to deliver innovation to everyone around the world. By collaborating with Microsoft on multiple technology areas, Xiaomi will accelerate our pace to bring more exciting products and services to our users. At the same time, this partnership would allow Microsoft to reach more users around the world who are using Xiaomi products.”

The deal covers four major areas of services for the two companies.

Cloud support will include Xiaomi using Microsoft Azure for data storage, bandwidth and computing and other cloud services. Meanwhile, Xiaomi’s efforts in laptops and “laptop-style devices” that run Windows will be co-marketed by Microsoft. Then Microsoft is also going to be talking with Xiaomi on how to improve collaboration on AI-powered speakers using Cortana.

That appears to be just the start for the company’s AI collaborations. They also “intend to explore multiple cooperative projects based on a broad range of Microsoft AI technologies, such as Computer Vision, Speech, Natural Language Processing, Text Input, Conversational AI, Knowledge Graph and Search, as well as related Microsoft AI products and services, such as Bing, Edge, Cortana, XiaoIce, SwiftKey, Translator, Pix, Cognitive Services and Skype,” Microsoft said in a statement.

No financial terms to the arrangement are being given but we are asking.

MyBagCheck lets you drop off your bags anywhere


MyBagCheck is a clever system that ensures that you’ll be able to spend that extra few hours in a foreign city without having to lug around fifty pounds of Samsonite. The founder, Micah B. Lewis, created the app to allow people who have bags to get those bags picked up and stored during the day, something every traveler would love.

The app is self-funded and Lewis spent $60,000 of his own money to build it out. It is in the iOS App Store now.

“We are the only on-demand mobile application that picks up, stores, and delivers bags/luggage in the NYC Metro 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Lewis. “No other company does this in the United States.

“I’ve created an entire new segment of business,” he said.

Prices vary based on your location and duration but Lewis’ team will pick up and store your bag from nearly anywhere in New York.

Lewis says the inspiration for the app came when he spent a day in New York and had to lug a laptop bag and shopping around the city and couldn’t get back to his hotel to drop them off.

“With my hands full I had miss out on the impromptu bar crawl because I didn’t want to lug all that stuff around. While walking to the train, I thought to myself there needs to be a better way to get this stuff home so I can stay out and have fun with friends,” he said.

The service is in beta now and he already has a number of paying – and hands-free – customers.

The ICO immaturity problem


I’ve been following “startups” – I define startups as small businesses with a global scale – for almost two decades. In that time I’ve watched them morph from unfunded pet projects by random geniuses into what amounts to an entire sub-economy dedicated to the creation, funding, and sale of these pet projects. Remember: Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter were once startups.

I also so a brief period – probably in about 2008, just before the financial crisis – when startups were red hot. Everyone everywhere had one and desperate CEOs used “growth hacking” techniques – essentially tricks designed to make you click – to get attention. In addition to spam and ads, founders visited business writers and VCs uninvited, war dialed to get access to Sand Hill Road cash cows, and added sex and violence to their Facebook ads to get that last click that would put them into “exit” territory.

But those early days are gone, right?

Wrong.

With the rise of the unregulated ICO we are entering a new sort of startup era. This is an era populated by the growth marketers that got bad mobile apps to the top of app stores and who used spam and sex to get attention. This is also an era where the money on the table is untrammeled. An ICO can seemingly raise $850 million in a few seconds although smart people know that these sums are mostly smoke and mirrors. However, even if you capture a few million out of a multimillion dollar token raise that’s enough for a lambo, an off-shore bank account, and a life of relative ease.

I’ve even gathered a small team to research and write about token sales that may be more than just wishful thinking and we’ve found it’s surprisingly difficult. The primary reason most ICOs don’t get much press attention is that the the idea/product (if there is one) and even the team do not inspire confidence or even trust.

Change is coming. This much is clear. The SEC is currently attacking even the most stringent of ICOs and we can expect to see much more regulatory activity in the future. But that is not stopping bad actors from acting bad. For every successful ICO there are hundreds of frustrated founders who can’t afford the legal or editorial fees to get a white paper started and hundreds more scammers trying to eke a little Ether out of the unsuspecting investor.

And then there’s the ICO above that is proud to associate itself with the proud tradition using leggy models in sexy Facebook ads.

The crypto industry, as a whole, needs to grow up. The ICO corner of crypto needs to do it faster than any other aspect of the culture.

The answer is to think intelligently about the value propositions offered to us all in the wake of the ICO craze and, further, create a similar framework that gave rise to the best of the startup era. Right now we are in Deadwood-era Wild West complete with the sex, curses, and cheats. Where we need to be is a few decades after that in a world where the future is just peeking over the edge of a gilded horizon. Immaturity gives rise to distrust which can destroy this form of fundraising in the cradle. It’s important that all of us not to post pictures of semi-naked girls – or, for that matter, lie – in an effort to raise an extra $50,000.

‘Alto’s Odyssey’ is now available on iOS and it’s wonderful


Alto’s Adventure could be my most-played game on iOS. I spent countless hours on flights getting lost in the serene landscape offered in the game. To me it’s a satisfying mix of adventure and mindless pleasure. The sequel is now available on iOS and it’s even better than the first.

As Darrell explains here, the new game has the same magic as the original but this time Alto is carving up sand dunes instead of ski slops. There are multiple landscapes complete with castles, hot air balloons, water, shipwrecks and all sorts of gorgeous bits that make up the beautiful game. But no llamas. Thankfully the game still feels like Alto’s adventure but with more to experience and explore.

The game costs $4.99 and is currently only available on iOS. The developer told TechCrunch last week the game will eventually be on Android but did not give a timetable.

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Author Brian Dear talks about the amazing PLATO computing system


Before Xerox Parc there was PLATO. This amazing computing system came to life in 1960 and by the 1970s was running a number of graphical terminals well before the rise of Xerox PARC and the Alto. This wild little system used some unique hardware and software to create true early educational computing projects and author Brian Dear has written an amazing book on the project. Called Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, it is available now.

In this week’s Technotopia I talked to Dear at length about the project and the future of cyberculutre. It’s a cool discussion with someone who knows his stuff.

Technotopia is a podcast by John Biggs about a better future. You can subscribe in Stitcher, RSS, or iTunes and listen the MP3 here.

Clever Ethereum honeypot lets coins come in but won’t let them back out


An interesting new Ethereum-based honeypot has been discovered that essentially allows hackers to steal from hackers. The honeypot is detailed on Reddit. A user was hunting for examples of contracts that exhibited possible were susceptible to a “reentrancy attack.” It’s a bit complex but at its core the attack lets you concurrently request your money out of a smart contract over and over before the contract is able to set your account total to zero. Imagine being able to call the back over and over again and ask for $5 before it was able to debit your account to $0.

The contracts are visible on the network and are easy to find. The Reddit user found one and tested it, finally sending 1 Eth – about $1,000 – into the system. He expected to be able to pull out multiple Ethereum thanks to the reentrancy attack. In the worst case these contracts allow you to withdraw they Ether that you deposited so there was seemingly little risk. However, it got stuck.

“Beauty!”, I thought. “I can have some fun and try out this hack, and give the funds back to the contract creator later. There’s 1 ETH in there, so it should be a fun challenge, maybe do a victorious blog post later”.
The first thing I did is to is to re-deploy his contract on Ropsten testnet. Then I wrote my exploit code, and tried it out. After a few tries, it worked! I was able to empty the test contract using my exploit contract.
So next day, I decided it was time to run it on the real thing. Min deposit was 1 Ether.

Once it got stuck once he sent another Ether as a test. It was stuck again. Then, a few moments later, the Ether disappeared. The owner of the honeypot had pulled out the Ether.

One Reddit commenter checked the code and found that all withdrawals had been secretly disconnected in the contract, ensuring that only the owner of the contract could get at the money.

“It’s quite clever, because if you do the deposit and withdraw in separate transactions, you’ll find that the deposit works and the withdraw fails. If you do them together in a single transaction, you’ll still find that the deposit works and the withdraw fails (in the same transaction!),” he wrote.

Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon


The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

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I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.