Category Archives: Technology

The world’s 10 best travel apps

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FlightTrack

Follow the path of thousands of international flights on slick, zoomable maps, with detailed information on departure gates, delays and (heaven forbid) cancellations. Great for those anticipating the arrival of loved ones, or particularly nerdy train-spotters looking to up their game.

WeatherPro

An intuitive app offering weather reports for well over two million geographical locations, feeding in everything from cloud formations and atmospheric pressure to wind speed and humidity, all in enough detail to leave Michael Fish clammy-palmed with excitement. It’s also accurate to the point of clairvoyance, so if you’re travelling to Berlin and it predicts rain, pack your best umbrella.

TripAdvisor

Stripping away the glossy magnificence ladled on by just about every online travel agency out there, this is the place to find brutally honest reviews of hotels, restaurants, attractions and more. The user-base is notoriously hard to please, so be warned that you’ll most likely find exclamation mark strewn rants next to your favourite spots. Still, on the flip side, touch down in a strange city with nowhere to stay and you’ll only ever be a few prods away from the warts-and-all opinions of travellers just like you.

Wi-Fi Finder

With data roaming charges still laughably high, knowing where to find a decent wi-fi hotspot is essential if you’re to keep the twitterati up to date with details of your latest sojourn. No need to charge through the city waving your handset around like a fly-swatter, though – simply fire up this handy app and follow directions to your nearest source of wireless internet. Best of all, the offline mode means you can download maps before you go, thereby dodging a massive bill.

Onavo

Anyone who’s ever accidentally downloaded a large email while on holiday will attest to the ridiculousness of data roaming charges, and though there’s no indication from the networks that they’re working on putting things right, there are measures you can take to avoid an end-of-month sting. Once installed, this app drastically reduces the amount of data required to perform everyday tasks, such as retrieving email and posting to Facebook. We’re not entirely sure how it manages such a feat – we just know that it works and we’re not about to complain.

Schemer

Currently in a phase of invite-only beta (have a sniff around forums for a free invite) this is Google’s experimental take on a massive, crowd-sourced travel guide. As tech mash-ups go, it’s fairly straightforward: users leave recommendations for things to do in their city, which visitors can then add to a to-do list and check off as they go. Given the app’s youth, content is fairly sparse outside of the US at the moment, but should you find yourself on a business trip to Chicago with a couple of hours to kill, it’s a reliable

Google Goggles

Stumbled across an important looking building? Want to know more but fear striking up conversation with the locals? Fire up this bad boy, direct your phone’s camera lens at the source of your befuddlement and – as long as what you’re pointing at is famous enough – it’ll return relevant Wikipedia articles filling you in with everything you need to know. After a slow start, recent updates have seen the app’s recognition mechanic and database become really rather impressive, meaning that if it draws a blank, it’s probably just a nice-looking car park.

FourSquare

Though it shot to fame as a social networking tool, this location-based app has become a godsend for curious travellers. The way it works is simple – fire up the app when you arrive at any given place (everything from restaurants to churches are listed) and you’ll see a list of tips from those who’ve been before you (‘try the cheeseburger’, ‘arrive by 9am for a good pew’, etc.). Check in regularly enough and you’ll claim virtual mayorship of that particular venue, with some venues even offering perks (a free pint, discounts, and so on) when you claim the crown.

Time Out city guides

Our apologies for the somewhat self-important trumpet-blowing, but we just couldn’t let you go without a little cheeky reminder about our own fleet of painstakingly researched, expertly written travel apps. There are editions for more than 20 of the world’s biggest cities, each stuffed with comprehensive insights into the finest restaurants, bars, shows and exhibitions on Earth. Best of all, each and every one of these indispensible digital marvels is absolutely free. What can we say – we’ve got big hearts.

Better Translator Pro

The best-rated translation app on Android, and for good reason. More than 50 languages are supported in text-to-text mode, while an impressive 11 work with the app’s voice recognition function. As for accuracy, it’s plugged in to both Google and Bing’s translation services, meaning results are very rarely nonsensical. Don’t expect to be bantering the night away with the natives or anything, but it ought to at least mean the end of ineptly miming ‘ou est la gare?’

Foursquare, Quora, Path: What Becomes Of The Underachievers?

Foursquare, Quora, Path. Each is (or was) a Valley darling; each has millions of loyal users; each has raised more than $50 million, albeit nontraditionally, and been valued at $400 million or more — and each has recently done something remarkable. Foursquare and Path pivoted, hard. Quora, bizarrely, joined Y Combinator.

Are they just flailing, or is there method to this madness?

Foursquare, which started life as “the check-in app,” is ripping check-ins out of its eponymous app and moving them to its new ambient-social app called Swarm. What’s more, it’s planning to start charging for heavy use of its API, which is much beloved by third-party developers (including me.)

Which leaves it seeming more than a little unfocused. The main Foursquare app has essentially become a Yelp competitor. Swarm is now a side business, presumably because check-ins are no longer a growth industry, and haven’t been for some years now. Foursquare is allegedly on course to bring in $30-$40 million in revenue this year, which sounds good — but is not a lot for a company which has raised more than $160 million at valuations north of $600 million … if its growth has slowed.

Path, the mobile social network whose superb design wowed the Valley some years ago, before it began to look like a beautiful solution in search of a problem, has pivoted almost as dramatically. First they ripped a page out of Snapchat’s book and suddenly retroactively made all Path messages ephemeral. A week later they launched a new messaging app and acquired consumer-to-business messaging service TalkTo.

Again, an odd sudden change of direction for a four-year-old company which has raised $65 million. Everyone loves messaging apps today, in principle, thanks to WhatsApp — but the world already has Line, Viber, Kik, Snapchat, WeChat, Tango, etc, to say nothing of Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. It’s hard to see how (maybe) the sixth-place social network, which has struggled with layoffs and executive exits, benefits from branching out to become (maybe) the thirteenth-place messaging app. But Path has to do something … if its growth has slowed.

Quora is the strangest case of all. Why join Y Combinator? I mean, it didn’t cost them much, and it’s nice that it’ll be “fun personally to participate” for Adam D’Angelo, but how is it anything other than a distraction? “We’ll have Sam and all the other partners to help us,” D’Angelo says, without specifying what kind of help they want.

I think we can all make a pretty good guess, though. Quora was recently valued at some $900 million, but as Josh Constine puts it:

Quora has been cagey about its stats since forever, only talking in relative growth and vanity metrics rather than absolute user counts … This makes it tough to know exactly how popular it is, but the general consensus hovers around “known amongst Silicon Valley intellectuals” and “just not big enough”.

Joining YC might seem weird or even desperate, but weird or even desperate is actually the right move for Quora … if its growth has slowed.

You might be noticing a theme here.

As Paul Graham once put it: “A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup.” But, similarly, just because you’re “late-stage” — big, massively well-funded and relatively mature — doesn’t mean you’re not a startup. A corollary of Graham’s definition is: if you need to grow fast, then no matter how big you are, you’re still a startup … meaning you’re still extremely vulnerable.

Foursquare, Path, and Quora don’t yet have mature business models lucrative enough to justify their funding and valuation. Meaning all three are still startups, and have no choice but to keep growing, fast. That’s a huge challenge. It’s relatively easy to double a userbase when it numbers in the thousands; much harder when it’s already in the millions, unless you benefit from network effects. Doubly so when you’ve lost your cool and become yesterday’s news, no longer the talk of the Valley’s chattering classes:

Does it sound like I’m being hard on them? That is not my intent. All three companies have done genuinely extraordinary things. They have scaled from scrappy outsiders into significant players. They have millions of faithful users. While it’s true they have succeeded well within their founders’ wildest dreams, they are still among the best of the best, or they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are today.

But the lesson here is that even that’s not good enough. Not if you stop growing before you start making money. Today’s tech industry will eagerly accept hypergrowth in lieu of revenue, but it will not accept neither. If you’re not yet raking in money, then you must grow, and keep growing, fast … or suffer and eventually die. And the bigger you are, the harder it is to keep riding the hockey stick — and the harder you fall if you fail.

Ericsson to deploy TD-LTE in 15 provinces in mainland China for China Mobile

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Telecom equipment vendor Ericsson on Tuesday said it will deploy TD-LTE network in 15 provinces in mainland China for China Mobile.

The deployment covers 63 percent of China’s population.

As part of the 4G deal, Ericsson will provide radio access network, Evolved Packet Core and upgrade and expand the installed base of core networks.

This is the first phase of the world’s largest LTE TDD network deployment. Ericsson will deploy radio access networks based on its multi-standard RBS 6000.

For the core network – which will be used for China Mobile’s nationwide mobile network covering 2G, 3G and 4G – Ericsson has been selected to upgrade its installed base, equal to a market share of 40 percent in User Data Management (HLR/HSS).

In addition, Ericsson has been awarded 20 percent market share in Evolved Packet Core. This makes Ericsson China Mobile’s main supplier in Core.

The scope of the contract also includes network design and optimization services.

Ericsson had no 3G footprint with China Mobile, and this technology shift has strengthened Ericsson’s market position.

The deal is aligned with the 11 percent market share in radio access networks awarded earlier in the China Mobile central purchasing process in September. The deployment has begun.

Ericsson said 50 percent of the world’s LTE smartphone traffic is served by Ericsson networks, which is more than double the traffic of our closest competitor. More than 180 LTE RAN and Evolved Packet Core networks have been delivered worldwide, of which more than 110 have gone live commercially.

iTunes 11: Simpler, Faster, Stronger

So here it is: iTunes 11. A lot has changed, but not so much that you’ll feel lost. Here’s what we’ve found after our first poke around inside.Apple understands that people might feel discombobulated by the changes in iTunes 11, so it has put a helpful overlay in place to guide you to the essentials. This is also where you have to make a decision: will you “share details about your library with Apple” or not?

The explanatory web page is thin on details. It mentions getting album artwork, although the “Get album artwork” menu item is still present (in a new location, under File – Library).Look closer at the menus, and you’ll see the Advanced menu has gone. No one needs to think about doing anything “advanced” with iTunes any more.

Visually, the controls look flatter. They don’t look like buttons any more, they look like icons. Like software. The sidebar is hidden by default – hit Command+Option+S to show it again. You can still get around without it, by using the drop-down menu at top left and the big “Store” button at top right.

The new mini player is one of my favorite features in iTunes 11. It’s a work of art, and it does much more. Click the arrow next to your album artwork to call up a context menu with ratings, playlist and Store links. Click the search icon to search your library and switch to another song or album without leaving the mini player at all. The search box finds songs, artists, albums, and playlists, and offers you sensible hyperlinked next steps. It’s fantastic. I used to get so annoyed with the mini player, because I’d constantly be switching back to the main window to find stuff. That’s no longer necessary.

The first view you get of your music is the Albums view. Now speaking as a 40-something, I love this. I still listen to albums, but I have a feeling many people don’t bother to do that any more, and prefer the flexibility of playlists, Genius, and shuffle mode.
Stick with the albums view for a moment, though, because you get this gorgeous expanded view of any album you click on.

It’s very iOS, of course, but it works. I love it, but that’s because albums are still the primary way I listen to music.
In Artists view, you get this fabulous overview of each album.

What’s changed? The columns have gone. All those columns of metadata you could display if you wanted. Actually they are mostly still there (look under the View menu, mainly when looking at the Songs view) but by default, they’re gone.

You get less, but as Jony Ive would say, you get more. There’s less chance that browsing your music collection will start to feel like listening to a spreadsheet, and more chance that you’ll listen to good songs.

The Store has been given a makeover. It looks and feels much more like its iOS 6 counterpart, especially the Apps section. It feels somewhat faster to load. Generally speaking, the changes here are not too dramatic, just cosmetic. There’s still the black intra-Store navigation bar, the breadcrumb links above each title, and lots of side-scrolling lists.

In recent years iTunes has earned quite a lot of criticism, partly for its looks and partly for being overburdened with features.That second criticism still applies. iTunes remains the hub that connects your computer to your iDevices, and that means it has to deal with so much more than just music and podcasts.

What version 11 does achieve, though, is some degree of sensible dividing-up of those many, many features.By clearing the sidebar out of sight, you can concentrate on one thing at a time. Get some music playing, then dive into the Store and go shopping without getting distracted by playlists and stuff. It’s an improvement. It feels better than it did before.

The sleek looks have Ive’s stamp on them, and look sleeker than they have for many years. Remember when OS X was made of stuff that Steve Jobs called “lickable”? Well, iTunes 11 is far, far away from that. It looks electronic. Digital. Not a metaphor for something else, but a statement of function. I much prefer it over the iTunes some of us thought we might get – something like wood-edged horror that lurks on my iPad 2. Ugh.

My favorite thing in iTunes 11, by a huge margin, is the mini player. I can see myself making a lot of use of that. I’ve got a feeling that this is just the beginning of a new era for iTunes, though. There are more changes to come.What do you make of it so far? What do you like and dislike?

WordPress begins accepting Bitcoin for service upgrades

WordPress has announced it will begin accepting payment for upgrades via the controversial peer-to-peer currency Bitcoin, a move it promises will break down geographical and corporate boundaries.

While the popular blogging platform is a free service, it does offer paid upgrades such as custom designs and ad-free presentations.

owever, not everyone has access to those upgrades due to limits on traditional payment networks such as PayPal, which is blocked in more than 60 countries, notes Andy Skelton, code wrangler at WordPress parent Automattic.

“Some are blocked for political reasons, some because of higher fraud rates, and some for other financial reasons,” he wrote in a blog post today. “Whatever the reason, we don’t think an individual blogger from Haiti, Ethiopia, or Kenya should have diminished access to the blogosphere because of payment issues they can’t control. Our goal is to enable people, not block them.”

As such, Automattic has decided to accept the online currency through Bitpay.com, although it has opted to forgo the “confirmations” process. This traditional manner of establishing a reputation for trustworthiness among Bitcoin users relies on other users recording transactions and sharing the news with other users.

“Making you wait for confirmations would virtually eliminate our risk, but we’re confident that with digital products like ours the risk is already acceptably low,” Skelton said.

In another departure from the norm, Skelton said Automattic intends to still honor its refund policy for transactions through Bitcoin.
“If a refund is granted on a purchase made with BTC we will work with BitPay to issue a refund in BTC,” he said.

Bitcoin sprang up in 2009 as a peer-to-peer currency that intentionally avoided the prying eyes of law enforcement officials. In order to acquire Bitcoins, users access exchange sites to transfer actual currency, such as U.S. dollars, into the digital option.

In June 2011, the currency attracted the attention of Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, highlighting the role Bitcoin plays in an online marketplace known as “Silk Road,” which allows customers to buy illegal drugs.

The platform has also been the target of frequent thefts, hacks, and scams, with more than 290,000 BTC lost in 10 heists since June 2011, according to tallies on the BitcoinTalk forum. Users of Bitcoin exchange Bitcoinica filed a complaint in August against the trading platform in a San Francisco court, alleging the loss of $460,000 due to poor security and deceitful practices.

Google’s New Cloud Service Said To Be Imminent

There’s speculation that the Web giant may launch its cloud service during Google I/O — putting it in competition with Amazon’s existing service and Microsoft’s rumored upcoming service.

Talk has been circulating recently about Google building an Infrastructure as a Service cloud computing platform in the near future. Now, GigaOM is reporting that it’s possible the Web giant could be launching this service as soon as next week during the Google I/O developers’ conference in San Francisco.

The tech news site is also saying that several people familiar with Google’s plans have confirmed that Google will offer its current App Engine and storage with its forthcoming service.

The Web giant’s platform will most likely compete with Amazon’s EC2 cloud service, but it could also be up against a similar infrastructure as a service (IaaS, in industry jargon) cloud computing offering that Microsoft is supposedly building.

Both Microsoft and Google already have software suites in the cloud, Microsoft with Office 365 and Google with Apps for Business; moving into infrastructure as a service territory could be a financial boost for both companies.

According to GigaOM, Google’s main target is actually Microsoft and its developer community. “The enterprise developer community is also one of Microsoft’s biggest strengths, and Google wants to go after them,” GigaOM writes. “In order to lure these enterprise developers, the company has focused heavily on making it easier to write, deploy and manage applications on its platform.”

When CNET contacted Google for comment, its spokesperson said the company is not commenting on rumor or speculation.