Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Pay-As-You-Go Service Offers Smartphone Access to the Cash-Strapped

Until recently, Javier, a 60-year-old line cook, couldn’t afford a smartphone.

Now, thanks to a Silicon Valley company, Javier has a Galaxy S8, one of Samsung’s high-end smartphones. Javier said he relies on it for everything.

Once a month, he walks into a mobile phone store near San Francisco and makes a cash payment. If he didn’t, the phone would be remotely locked. No YouTube, no Skype calls, no Facebook. He has never missed a payment.

 

WATCH: Pay-As-You-Go Smartphone Gives the Poor Access to Better Technology

Smartphones out of many people’s reach

Around the world, people rely more and more on their smartphones for connecting to the internet, and yet for many, the device is still cost prohibitive. For the roughly 1 in 10 American consumers without financial identities — no banking history or credit scores — it is difficult to get smartphones on one of the low-cost payment plans offered by the major carriers.

Javier, who declined to give his last name because he is an undocumented immigrant, is on his third phone from PayJoy, a company founded by former Google employees. PayJoy offers a pay-as-you-go model for the smartphone market aimed particularly at customers with little or bad credit histories.

“We work with immigrants from all over the world coming to the U.S., and we work with Americans who are just outside the financial system,” said Doug Ricket, PayJoy’s chief executive, who worked in the pay-as-you-go solar industry in Africa. “They can afford $10 a week, and they can get a great smartphone. And for PayJoy, we say, ‘Welcome to the 21st century and get all the modern apps.’”

A new way to figure out a person’s credit risk

PayJoy figures out a person’s risk differently than most companies. A customer provides a Facebook profile, a phone number and some sort of official government ID. PayJoy decides the person’s risk level before offering him or her credit for a phone. Then, a customer picks a payment plan and makes a down payment. PayJoy’s research has found that a Facebook profile can be useful in establishing a person’s identity.

“We’re starting from this pool of people who have no traditional credit score and we’re saying for most of them, we can actually find something that the credit agencies are not finding,” Ricket said.

No payment means no YouTube

If a customer doesn’t pay by 5 p.m. the day payment is due, PayJoy remotely locks the phone. A customer can only make emergency calls or call PayJoy’s customer service. The customer can see that friends are texting or messaging on Facebook, but cannot open the phone to read the messages.

“Now, when we look internationally, we see more people going from a flip phone to smartphones, and people upgrading from a really basic level to one that can handle Facebook, maps and Instagram,” Ricket said.

If customers stop paying, they can return the phone without penalty. But if they do pay off the phone, they can qualify for an even better one. PayJoy makes its money by charging monthly interest — as high as 50 percent in some cases — on the retail price of the phone.

Expanding into Africa, Asia and India

The company is operating in the United States and Mexico and has plans to expand into Kenya, Tanzania, southeast Asia and India. So far, PayJoy offers only smartphones running Android, the operating system created by Google, but Ricket hopes to offer iPhones one day.

PayJoy’s vision is to be not just a smartphone firm, but a financing company, offering customers a way to use their phones as collateral to pay off televisions and other household goods.

“Once the customer gets the smartphone, they can potentially use that smartphone either by buying the smartphone with PayJoy or just collateralize an existing smartphone to finance a TV or a sofa,” Ricket said.

If PayJoy takes off, people in emerging markets may be able to upgrade their phone choices, and have a new way to finance their purchases.

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Uber’s Net Loss Widens to $4.5B for Tumultuous 2017

Ride-hailing giant Uber’s full-year net loss widened to $4.5 billion in 2017 as the company endured a tumultuous year that included multiple scandals, a lawsuit alleging the theft of trade secrets and the replacement of its CEO.

The results also showed that Uber cut its fourth-quarter net loss by 25 percent from the third quarter as new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi moves to make the company profitable ahead of a planned initial public stock offering sometime next year.

The full-year loss grew from $2.8 billion in 2016, a year with results skewed by a gain from the sale of Uber’s unprofitable business in China. Uber also said its U.S. ride-hailing market share fell from 82 percent at the start of last year to 70 percent in the fourth quarter. Uber said the share has now stabilized.

Gross revenue for the year rose 85 percent over 2016, to $37 billion.

For the fourth quarter, Uber’s net loss was $1.1 billion, down from $1.46 billion it lost in the third quarter. Bookings from fares rose 14 percent to just over $11 billion for the quarter.

While the losses are significant, the results still are positive for Uber with revenue rising and losses falling in three of four quarters in 2017, said Rohit Kulkarni, managing director of SharesPost, a research group focused on privately held companies.

The numbers show that Uber under Khosrowshahi is on a path toward profitability and a sustainable economic model, Kulkarni said. “If you draw that out further, a year from now, this could be a significant IPO waiting to happen,” he said.

Uber considers adjusted earnings before taxes as a better indicator of its financial performance rather than net earnings based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which include losses for accounting purposes. On an adjusted basis, excluding stock-based compensation, legal costs, taxes and depreciation, the company lost $2.2 billion for the full year. The fourth-quarter adjusted loss was $475 million, down from $606 million to in the third quarter.

San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc.’s results are difficult to report because only pieces are released. Khosrowshahi detailed them on a conference call with investors Tuesday, and the company made some results public by giving them to a website called The Information.

A person briefed on the results provided some numbers and confirmed the accuracy of The Information’s story to The Associated Press on Wednesday. The person didn’t want to be identified because Uber remains a private company.

Last year was a particularly bad one for Uber with its reputation tarnished by the company’s acknowledgement of rampant sexual harassment within its ranks, a yearlong cover-up of a major computer break-in, and the use of duplicitous software to thwart government regulators.

CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted in June and replaced by Khosrowshahi in August.

Earlier this month Uber ended the autonomous vehicle trade secrets lawsuit filed by Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo for a payment of Uber stock valued by Waymo at $245 million.

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US Social Media Firms Step Up Help on Security Efforts, Intelligence Leaders Say

Leaders of U.S. national security and law enforcement agencies said Tuesday the U.S. private sector has been helpful in efforts to keep the country safe.

While the leaders did not name companies, industry sectors or what specific help has been provided, they did discuss the challenges of monitoring social media.

The comments may reflect a shift in what law enforcement has seen as the technology industry’s adversarial approach when it comes to fighting crimes and addressing national security issues.

The most notable example of this tension was support by tech industry groups for Apple’s battle with law enforcement over breaking the encryption of an iPhone used by the man who killed 14 people in the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

‘Forward-leaning engagement’

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday, Dan Coats, director of National Intelligence, said the U.S. government has received more support from those in the private sector “who are beginning to recognize ever more the issues that are faced with the material that comes through their processes.”

Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, referred to the help from the private sector as a “more forward-leaning engagement.”

“So, it’s teamwork within the intelligence community and then partnership with the private sector, which is, I think, the other big change I’ve noticed — is a lot more forward-leaning engagement with the private sector in terms of trying to share information and raise awareness on their end,” said Wray, also speaking at the hearing.

“Because at the end of the day, we can’t fully police social media, so we have to work with them so that they can police themselves a little bit better as well,” Wray added.

Gates: Be careful of arrogance

Separately, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, said in an interview that tech firms need to be careful of being too arrogant when working in realms outside their businesses or they’ll face the kind of government intervention his firm experienced in its antitrust dispute.

“The tech companies have to be careful that they’re not trying to think their view is more important than the government’s view, or than the government being able to function in some key areas,” said Gates in an interview with Axios.

Gates cited Apple’s iPhone battle with the government, criticizing “their view that even a clear mass-murdering criminal’s communication should never be available to the government.”

“There’s no question of ability,” he said about unlocking the iPhone. “It’s the question of willingness.”

He also cited companies’ “enthusiasm about making financial transactions anonymous and invisible.”

Microsoft’s consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department came to an end in 2011, a result of the government’s settlement with the software giant in its antitrust case.

Remarks on Trump administration

On Tuesday, Gates and his wife, Melinda, issued their foundation’s annual letter.

In terms of the Trump administration, Gates wrote that while “we disagree with this administration more than the others we’ve met with, we believe it’s still important to work together whenever possible. We keep talking to them because if the U.S. cuts back on its investments abroad, people in other countries will die, and Americans will be worse off.”

Melinda Gates wrote that the president is a role model of “American values in the world.” She continued, “I wish our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets.”

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US Postal Service Rolls Out Virtual Mail

A new service that sends virtual images of the day’s mail to inboxes, before snail mail arrives in actual mailboxes, is now a reality in the United States.  

“Informed Delivery” is the latest way the United States Postal Service (USPS) is trying to stay competitive.  

“Informed Delivery is a way for you to receive an email every single day of all the digital images of all your mail,” explained David Rupert, media relations specialist at USPS.  Rupert said his digital images arrive around 9 a.m. each day.

Though the USPS delivers about 46 percent of the world’s total mail, it is battling email, text messages, online advertising, television and other delivery services for consumers’ attention and business.

 

“In a digital world, more and more people are having their bills delivered online, paying them on line. And that’s starting to cut into the overall letter volume, as well as the handwritten letter and the notes that we used to send. The reality is, we’re not doing that anymore. That’s not just a U.S. trend, that’s a worldwide trend,” Rupert said.

WATCH: USPS Enters Digital, Virtual, Augmented Worlds to Attract Customers

Battling that trend also means using virtual and augmented technology in advertising, often called “junk” mail.

“What you can do is to take your cellphone, and you can take a mail piece, and it will interact with that mail piece,” Rupert described.

If there is a special digital code on an ad, consumers can scan it with their mobile device and an animated, augmented reality ad will appear.  An advertiser can also send a cardboard virtual reality headset along with a code for mobile phone users to scan.  What shows up is a VR ad that can be inserted into the headset for a 360-degree experience.

Virtual and augmented reality advertising are getting mixed results from consumers.

“Not all junk mail [pieces] are junk mail. You can find some good [things] within the junk mail. It’s a good idea. We’ll see how it works out,” said consumer Victor Teah.

 

“For some, that might be fun. But for me, I wouldn’t have any use for it,” consumer Jocelyn Coatney said.

Informed Delivery has broader appeal.

“I think I would like that a lot, especially with checks and things coming in, and things coming in from grandkids. That would be a nice service,” said Coatney.

 

Rupert added: “We don’t want to be a world leader on technology, but we certainly want to make our services relevant to you — in your home and in your neighborhood.”

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4 Robots That Aim to Teach Your Kids to Code

You’ve seen apps and toys that promise to teach your child to code. Now enter the robots.

At the CES electronics show in January, coding robots came out in force. One convention hall area was packed with everything from chip-embedded, alphabet-like coding blocks to turtle-like tanks that draw on command.

Of course, no one can really say how well these coding bots teach kids, or even whether learning to code is the essential life skill that so many in the tech industry claim. After all, by the time today’s elementary-school kids are entering the workforce, computers may well be programming themselves.

But experts like Jeff Gray, a computer science professor at the University of Alabama and an adviser to the nonprofit coding education group Code.org, say kids can derive other benefits from coding robots and similar toys. They can, for instance, learn “persistence and grit” when the toys inevitably do something unintended, he says.

So if you’re in the market for a coding robot that teaches and maybe even entertains, here’s a look at four that were on display at CES. But beware: None of them are cheap.

CUBETTO

London-based Primo Toys, the makers of this mobile wooden block, believes kids can learn coding concepts at age 3 before they can even read. And they don’t even need a screen.

The “Cubetto” block on wheels responds to where chip-embedded pieces are put on a wooden board. Different colors represent different commands – for example, to “go straight” or “turn left.”

Kids can bunch together a number of commands into what’s called a function and can also make Cubetto repeat actions in a loop.

Pros: Good for parents who want to avoid more screens

Cons: Doesn’t offer an immediate path to real coding

Price: $226

ROOT

Root Robotics’ flattish, hexagonal droid has downward-facing scanners, magnetic wheels, touch-reactive panels, lights, motion sensors, and a pen-grabbing hole in the center of its body.

Controlling it does require a screen.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts, company also claims kids don’t need to be able to read and can start playing with Root at age 4.

Root draws, moves, sees and reacts to touch and various other commands. Kids can use Root to start drawing lines and progress to creating snowflake-like mathematical patterns called fractals.

Co-founder Zee Dubrovsky says his daughter began coding with Root at age 4, and progressed up to the point where her robot drew her name on a whiteboard in school.

Pros: Sturdy frame; kids can progress from graphical block-based codes to text coding

Cons: Requires lots of clean, flat surface area, preferably whiteboards. Root has three difficulty levels, some of which wade into deeper math, so parental time commitment could be considerable. The Kickstarter-launched company has taken a while to ship items, so delivery could be delayed

Price: $199

Shipping: June 2018 (although the company has been working to fulfill Kickstarter orders since May 2017)

COZMO

This bundle of personality on wheels debuted in 2016. It now comes with an app called Code Lab, which allows kids to drag and drop blocks of code that control its movements and animations. They can even access facial and object recognition functions enabled by Cozmo’s front-facing camera.

Cozmo, recommended for kids aged 8 and up, looks like a little tractor and can pick up interactive cubes, which are included.

Part of its appeal are the twitches and tweets that make it seem like an energetic pet, according to Boris Sofman, the CEO and co-founder of Cozmo maker Anki, based in San Francisco.

Pros: Its expressive eyes and movements make it seem like a little R2-D2

Cons: Because it’s so full of personality, there might be a disconnect between programming it to do things and just letting it be itself

Price: $180

EVO

 

This dome-shaped, wheeled dynamo about the height of a few fingers looks for direction right out of the box – and comes equipped to follow around any finger placed before its frontal camera.

 

“We want kids to immediately engage with a robot,” says Nader Hamda, founder and CEO of Evo’s maker, Redondo Beach, California-based Ozobot.

The robot makes sounds, flashes lights, moves and can sense and react to its environment.

An app helps kids – aged 8 and up – program Evo to do what they want. The bot’s downward facing scanners also let it follow lines drawn on regular paper, some of which embody coding instructions. For instance, blue-black-blue gets it to speed up; green-red-green-red tells it to spin.

Pros: It’s cheaper than other coding bots

Cons: It doesn’t do quite as much as other bots

Price: $89

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Disposable Delivery Drone Goes Where Other Services Do Not

Plastic foam, plywood and some other plastic parts could make the difference between life and death.

These are the materials that make up a delivery drone created by DASH Systems. The California company also describes its lightweight aircraft as an unmanned aerial vehicle or glider.

It can be used to deliver up to 20 kilograms of food, medicine or other essential supplies to people in need in areas that traditional shipping and delivery companies cannot reach. And because it’s made of low-cost materials, it’s disposable, so there is no worry about getting it back.

“Many times, we found that during times of crisis or humanitarian need, it’s very, very difficult to get supplies into remote regions,” said Joel Ifill, chief executive officer and co-founder of DASH Systems.

“Couple that with reduced or destroyed infrastructure. Those are the areas and circumstances under which this system really shines,” said DASH Systems co-founder Joe Caravella.

The system’s aim is targeted, precision delivery. There is a built-in Global Positioning System device that provides enough accuracy to land the vehicle in the courtyard of a hospital.

“You can always fly an airplane overhead, so we help bridge that gap. Using our technology, you can throw a package out of an airplane and have it land right at the area of use,” Ifill said.

The DASH Systems delivery drone will go to places too dangerous or remote for other global shipping services such as FedEx or DHL.

“So, for instance, a delivery in South Sudan or Puerto Rico — oftentimes every traditional carrier will say no. Organizations are willing to pay the fair market value for those trips. They just do not have the solution,” said Ifill.

Ifill thought of this solution while working on smart bombs at a previous job.

“Actually, I felt bad about essentially making technology that was designed to harm and kill people. So, I wondered what else could I do with the technology of a smart bomb, something that can launch from an airplane and land within inches. And I thought, ‘Why can’t I use that same technology to deliver packages and goods?’ ”

DASH Systems says its unmanned glider is unlike other methods of delivery to remote places that have been developed thus far.

“There are a variety of parachute-type systems where you can drop things out of airplanes. We’re hoping to improve the whole operation, both with deploying it at the right time and then guiding the package to where it needs to be, to be more accurate than anything currently on the market,” said Caravella.

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