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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

From HomePod to new iMacs: Highlights from Apple WWDC 2017

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San Jose: The annual Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) is underway in the city of San Jose, California, and will run till Friday. Every year, the focus is on the developer community, developer tools and platforms with a generous helping of sneak peaks at forthcoming iOS and macOS operating systems. This year though, partly to perhaps freshen things up and partly because of the pressure to upgrade certain products, Apple gave us a look at the new MacBook refresh, an all-new iPad Pro, an iMac that you can buy over the next few weeks, an iMac Pro that will wow us all later in the year and the rather exciting HomePod smart speaker. Here is everything that you need to know about the new hardware and software that will be heading your way soon.

iOS 11: Truly the biggest iOS release yet

Every year, Apple gives us a preview of what to expect with the next iteration of the iOS operating system, and this year was no different. The iOS 11 will be all about subtle changes, some artificial intelligence and a very clear advantage for iPad Pro devices. Apple’s own apps including Siri, Apple Music, Photos and Mail will get significant updates, while deep learning technology will understand a user’s preferences over time for better Siri responses, text suggestions, content to read and more. We don’t have a date yet, but iOS 11 will release with the new iPhones later this year.

AI: Apple throws its hat into the ring

Tech and artificial intelligence seem inseparable these days. And Apple, which hasn’t been as vocal about AI as perhaps Google, Amazon and Microsoft, is making up for lost time. Be it the Apple Watch-Siri integration, in the Photos app for face recognition and Live photo magic or even the HomePod smart speaker, Apple is now using machine learning more than ever before. Developers will also be given greater access to the AI magic, to make their apps smarter on iOS.

HomePod: Audio first, and then smartness

Apple took its own sweet time to introduce a rival to Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers. Music aficionados will appreciate the fact that Apple has treated this as a speaker first—it packs in a serious amount of power. It is just 7-inches tall, packs in seven tweeters and a 4-inch woofer, while offering a 360-degree sound experience. The HomePod will also have positional awareness, in terms of where it is placed in the house, and direct the sounds accordingly. It runs the A8 chip, also seen in iPhones. The Siri integration means it will answer queries, get you news and weather and set calendar entries too. The Apple Music integration will allow it to suggest music that you’ll like, from over 40 million tracks. This will arrive with a price tag of $349 (around Rs22,475).

MacBooks: There was no option, really

Apple was forced to do something unconventional—that is a mid-term refresh of the MacBook Pro line-up, to bring its laptops up to spec with the Intel 7th-generation processors. After all, it couldn’t stay behind the curve, with the Windows 10-powered rivals sporting the latest chips. Apple has also given the laptops faster storage (it is up to 50% faster than the previous generation), and this would mean a significant performance boost. There is no change in the overall design of the MacBook Pro 13 or the MacBook Pro 15 variants. The best news perhaps is that the much-loved MacBook Air now gets a newer and more powerful processor too, which makes it even better value at the more affordable price points. Pricing and India availability details are awaited.

iMac: The desktop acquires more power

The iMac desktop computing devices have been given more powerful innards, with the latest generation Intel Kaby Lake processors. The displays will be brighter, and rated at 500nits, which makes them 53% more powerful than before. Apple will now let you configure your iMac with as much as 64GB RAM, while the solid-state storage options now stretch up to 2TB.

The entry spec 21.5-inch iMac gets the new Intel Iris graphics, and is 80% faster than before, while the 21.5-inch 4K iMac and the 27-inch iMac get Radeon Pro graphics, the latter configuration being powerful enough to create virtual reality content. India-specific pricing details are awaited.

iMac Pro: The benchmark is coming

Apple gave a preview of what we can expect from the iMac Pro, which arrives in stores in December. They will be powered by Intel Xeon processors with up to 18 cores, run the very advanced Radeon Pro Vega graphics, up to 128GB of RAM and as much as 4TB of storage. There will be four Thunderbolt ports, which can be used to connect, for instance, two 5K displays, simultaneously, along with a pair of high performance RAID arrays. The prices will start at $4,999 (around Rs3.22 lakh).

Apple Watch: Same watch, new straps

The Apple Watch hardware was updated late last year, and isn’t due for any changes just yet. However, Apple has made the already very vibrant Watch straps range even bigger. The latest additions include new sport bands, a bright yellow Classic Buckle, more Nike Sport Band options and a Pride Edition Woven Nylon rainbow strip.

watchOS 4: Fitter than ever before

The watchOS 4 software for the Apple Watch will get deeper Siri integration, and there is also a new Siri watch face which will contextualize and give dynamic nuggets of information which it believes will be relevant for you at some point in the very near future—traffic updates, meetings lined up, data from apps such as Activity and Breathe and news updates. Apple yet again enhances what the Watch can do in terms of fitness tracking capabilities of the Apple Watch.

There are daily fitness tracking features, and monthly challenges too.

The Workout app has been given a new interface, and critically, the heart rate sensor algorithms will be updated too for high intensity interval training workouts.

macOS High Sierra: Optimized for peak performance

The next operating system for your MacBook and iMac is all about under-the-hood improvements. The biggest change is the shift to the Apple File System , which significantly improves performance, reduces chances of data loss and is also more in tune with security requirements. The macOS will also support the High-Efficiency Video Coding video standard, which will be able to save 40% storage space as compared to the earlier H.264 standard. Safari, Photos and Mail apps have also been improved. The OS will roll out later in the year, as a free update for existing users.

iPad Pro: The future of the MacBook?

If the iPad range wasn’t already complicated enough, Apple has now added the 10.5-inch iPad Pro to the mix. In largely the same footprint as the 9.7-inch iPad Pro chassis, because Apple could reduce the bezels to fit the larger display. The larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro, as well as the 10.5-inch iPad Pro also get the new and more powerful Apple A10X Fusion chips. The highlight, perhaps, is the enhanced display. The iPad Pro displays will have a new feature called ProMotion, and will dynamically switch the display refresh rate between 60Hz to 120Hz—this means that all fast-moving video and gaming content will look more fluid.

China’s tough cyber security law effective from 1 June

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Beijing: Online service providers in China will be banned from collecting and selling users’ personal information from 1 June.

Internet service providers cannot collect user information that is irrelevant to the services, and they should handle such information in line with laws and agreements, according to the cyber security law adopted by China’s top legislature in November last year. The cyber security law will be implemented from 1 June. Online service users will now have rights to ask service providers to delete their information if such information is abused, state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Monday.

Cyber security management staff must also protect information obtained, and are banned from leaking or selling the information, including privacy and commercial secrets. Those who violate the provisions and infringe on personal information will face hefty fines. The new law said the government will take measures to “monitor, defend and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources, protecting key information infrastructure from attack, intrusion, disturbance and damage”.

Efforts will also be made to punish criminal activities online and safeguard the order and security of cyberspace, it said. The law also made it clear that no one can use the internet to conduct fraud or sell prohibited goods. Several other regulations will come into force on 1 June. A regulation on online news requires individuals and groups to get government permission before releasing news on instant messaging apps or social websites.

Samsung puts crisis behind it with Galaxy S8 success

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Samsung Electronics Co. is bathing in the glory of forgiveness.

The latest tidbit has its Galaxy S8 smartphone hitting 1 million unit sales in South Korea since its April 21 release, twice as quickly as the previous S7 and S6 models, Yonhap News reported.

Admittedly, that is Samsung’s home market, so you’d expect its compatriots to return to the brand more readily than elsewhere after last year’s battery disaster. But a doubling of the sales pace is quite a feat.

It adds to the growing news flow suggesting Samsung is recovering well, with consumers lured by its cool bezel-less design and whizzbang features. But I’d posit an alternative reason: habit.

While there are dozens of smartphone makers globally, only Samsung has the geographical reach to make it the default Android option almost everywhere. Much has been said about the rise of Chinese brands such as Huawei, Oppo, and Vivo. Yet those three combined don’t equal the shipment volumes of Samsung.

More significantly, each of them barely exists outside their home market. Even Huawei, a global brand in its own right, sells 61 percent of its devices within China, according to data from Bloomberg Intelligence and IDC. For all manner of political and nationalistic reasons, Chinese prefer not to buy Samsung phones. Many other countries also have local heroes that patriots turn to.

But that hasn’t stopped the world, in general, from choosing Samsung. Latin America consistently gives it a 30 percent share while Asia ex-Japan remains loyal quarter after quarter. It’s still No. 1 in central and eastern Europe, despite a strong advance from Huawei, and in western Europe, Samsung is second behind only Apple Inc.

With not much difference between Android models, and most consumers just wanting a good, reliable device, Samsung has become the default brand. This was put in jeopardy with the Galaxy Note 7 debacle, but that crisis is over.

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, though in reality what Samsung may be enjoying is the power of habit.

Apple said to plan dedicated chip to power AI on devices

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San Francisco: Apple Inc. got an early start in artificial intelligence software with the 2011 introduction of Siri, a tool that lets users operate their smartphones with voice commands.

Now the electronics giant is bringing artificial intelligence to chips. Apple is working on a processor devoted specifically to AI-related tasks, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The chip, known internally as the Apple Neural Engine, would improve the way the company’s devices handle tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence—such as facial recognition and speech recognition, said the person, who requested anonymity discussing a product that hasn’t been made public. Apple declined to comment.

Engineers at Apple are racing to catch their peers at Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. in the booming field of artificial intelligence. While Siri gave Apple an early advantage in voice-recognition, competitors have since been more aggressive in deploying AI across their product lines, including Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home digital assistants. An AI-enabled processor would help Cupertino, California-based Apple integrate more advanced capabilities into devices, particularly cars that drive themselves and gadgets that run augmented reality, the technology that superimposes graphics and other information onto a person’s view of the world.

“Two of the areas that Apple is betting its future on require AI,” said Gene Munster, former Apple analyst and co-founder of venture capital firm Loup Ventures.

“At the core of augmented reality and self-driving cars is artificial intelligence.”

Apple devices currently handle complex artificial intelligence processes with two different chips: the main processor and the graphics chip. The new chip would let Apple offload those tasks onto a dedicated module designed specifically for demanding artificial intelligence processing, allowing Apple to improve battery performance.

Should Apple bring the chip out of testing and development, it would follow other semiconductor makers that have already introduced dedicated AI chips.

Qualcomm Inc.’s latest Snapdragon chip for smartphones has a module for handling artificial intelligence tasks, while Google announced its first chip, called the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), in 2016. That chip worked in Google’s data centres to power search results and image-recognition. At its I/O conference this year, Google announced a new version that will be available to clients of its cloud business.

Nvidia Corp. also sells a similar chip to cloud customers.

The Apple AI chip is designed to make significant improvements to Apple’s hardware over time, and the company plans to eventually integrate the chip into many of its devices, including the iPhone and iPad, according to the person with knowledge of the matter. Apple has tested prototypes of future iPhones with the chip, the person said, adding that it’s unclear if the component will be ready this year.

Apple’s operating systems and software features would integrate with devices that include the chip. For example, Apple has considered offloading facial recognition in the photos applicati on, some parts of speech recognition, and the iPhone’s predictive keyboard to the chip, the person said. Apple also plans to offer developer access to the chip so third-party apps can also offload artificial intelligence-related tasks, the person said.

Apple may choose to discuss some of its latest advancements in AI at its annual developer’s conference in June. At the same conference, Apple plans to introduce iOS 11, its new operating system for iPhones and iPads, with an updated user interface, people with knowledge of the matter said in April. The company is also said to discuss updated laptops with faster chips from Intel Corp.

An AI chip would join a growing list of processors that Apple has created in-house. The company began designing its own main processors for the iPhone and iPad in 2010 with the A4 chip. It has since released dedicated processors to power the Apple Watch, the motion sensors across its products, the wireless components inside of its AirPods, and the fingerprint scanner in the MacBook Pro. The company has also tested a chip to run the low-power mode on Mac laptops.

In 2015, Bloomberg reported that Apple’s culture of secrecy stymied the iPhone maker’s ability to attract top AI research talent. After that Apple hired Russ Salakhutdinov from Carnegie Mellon University as its director of AI research in October 2016.

India’s ethical hackers rewarded abroad, ignored at home

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New Delhi: Kanishk Sajnani did not receive so much as a thank you from a major Indian airline when he contacted them with alarming news—he had hacked their website and could book flights anywhere in the world for free.

It was a familiar tale for India’s army of “ethical hackers”, who earn millions protecting foreign corporations and global tech giants from cyber attacks but are largely ignored at home, their skills and altruism misunderstood or distrusted. India produces more ethical hackers—those who break into computer networks to expose, rather than exploit, weaknesses—than anywhere else in the world.

The latest data from BugCrowd, a global hacking network, showed Indians raked in the most “bug bounties”—rewards for red-flagging security loopholes.

Facebook, which has long tapped hacker talent, paid more to Indian researchers in the first half of 2016 than any other researchers. Indians outnumbered all other bug hunters on HackerOne, another registry of around 100,000 hackers. One anonymous Indian hacker—“Geekboy”—has found more than 700 vulnerabilities for companies like Yahoo, Uber and Rockstar Games.

Most are young “techies”—software engineers swelling the ranks of India’s $154-billion IT outsourcing sector whose skill set makes them uniquely gifted at cracking cyber systems.

“People who build software in many cases also understand how it can be broken,” HackerOne co-founder Michiel Prins told AFP by email.

But while technology behemoths and multinationals are increasingly reliant on this world-class hacking talent, just a handful of Indian firms run bug bounty programs.

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