Monthly Archives: March 2015

Etsy’s Success Gives Rise to Problems of Credibility and Scale

Depending on whom you ask, Alicia Shaffer, owner of the hit Etsy storeThree Bird Nest, is a runaway success story — or an emblem of everything that has gone wrong with the fast-growing online marketplace for handmade goods.

With the help of up to 25 local seamstresses and alluring photography, Ms. Shaffer takes in upward of $70,000 a month in revenue selling twee headbands and leg warmers via Etsy. But as her business has grown, she has been harshly criticized online and accused of mass-producing goods, of obtaining wares from China. Detractors consider her a blight on Etsy’s hipster cred.

The dispute over how goods are produced and sold on a site that prides itself on feel-good, handmade authenticity underscores the growing pains transforming Etsy as it moves toward a potentially lucrative initial public offering of stock.

As for Ms. Shaffer, she denies the claims that have dogged her business recently but says she understands why questions have arisen about the volume of goods she produces. She says her store strictly adheres to Etsy’s guidelines, including that all items listed are either handmade or “vintage” secondhand, with some new exceptions that allow for approved outside manufacturing. “We’re a team of dedicated Etsy artisans who have been able to grow a tiny shop into a little machine,” she said.

For many of its fans, Etsy is much more than a marketplace. They view it as an antidote to global mass production and consumption, and a stand against corporate branding. It’s their vote for authenticity and good old craftsmanship, and a seemingly ethical alternative to buying from big corporations. And it has helped spur a wider industry of items that claim to be artisanal, authentic or bespoke, whether bedsheets or beef jerky.

Etsy, in turn, has ballooned and benefited from a growing demand for that kind of shopping, currently offering more than 29 million listings of handmade jewelry, pottery, sweaters and sometimes-regrettable objets d’art. It had 54 million members at the end of last year, of whom 1.4 million listed an item for sale and almost 20 million made at least one purchase in 2014, according to its I.P.O. prospectus.

Though the site still loses money because of high development costs, it is booming, with gross merchandise sales reaching $1.93 billion last year. The fees Etsy collected on items listed and sold, as well as on services like the promoted placement of goods, reached $196 million.

But criticism of the production methods of Three Bird Nest and other increasingly high-volume sellers, together with a string of defections by prominent vendors, reflect the company’s struggles to balance growth with maintaining the indie credibility that fueled its popularity.


Some sellers say they worry that the site could soon become overrun with knockoffs and trinkets. Others say Etsy’s handmade ethos could soon become just a marketing gimmick, turning off shoppers drawn to the site’s alternative appeal.

“Handmade businesses aren’t infinitely scalable, just by the definition of the term,” said Grace Dobush, a writer and longtime Etsy seller who made waves last month when she declared she was finally done with the site. “As Etsy has gotten bigger, it’s gotten more like eBay.”

Etsy grew out of a design project that three Brooklynites took on for an arts-and-crafts bulletin board. At the time, the indie craft scene was just starting up — a plethora of craft sales, blogs and boutiques selling handmade goods — of which one of Etsy’s founders, Rob Kalin, was an active member, according to acquaintances. Etsy declared to shoppers it was building an entirely “new economy” that would re-establish a personal connection between buyers and sellers, and it allowed its merchants to sell only things they made themselves.

But as stores took off, sellers started to complain that one person could not possibly keep up with the flood of orders. The logical next step, they said, would be to take on investment and hire employees, or outsource the manufacturing, but doing so would run afoul of Etsy’s rules.

Still, Etsy stuck to its ban — Mr. Kalin was known to be a vocal opponent of easing it — until late 2013, when, under its new chief executive, Chad Dickerson, the site relaxed those standards. The change allowed sellers to hire workers or outsource the production to small-scale manufacturers that met a set of labor and ecological criteria. Almost 30 percent of sellers on Etsy work in “self-organized teams,” according to Etsy’s I.P.O. prospectus, and there are already over 5,000 instances of Etsy sellers outsourcing their manufacturing.


Critics charge that decision helped open the floodgates to a wave of mass-produced trinkets. For example, a red necklace carried by various sellers on Etsy, with price tags ranging from $7 to $15, can also be purchased through the Chinese wholesale manufacturing site Alibaba.

According to Alibaba, the necklace is made by the Yiwu Shegeng Fashion Accessories Firm, based south of Shanghai, which claims that it can churn out almost 80 million similar necklaces a month. Jacky Wang, listed as the company’s chief executive, did not return requests for comment.

“It’s like having a gourmet restaurant on a street with upscale galleries, bookshops and coffee shops, and a McDonald’s or a Walmart gets built in a vacant lot on the street,” said Diane Marie, an artist who sells handmade jewelry from her home in La Pointe, Wis., and who has called out so-called “resellers” on Etsy’s discussion forums.

Etsy does police such cases, but it can be akin to playing whack-a-mole. Users can flag a suspected reseller to the site’s Marketplace Integrity, Trust & Safety Team, and Etsy has also said it uses algorithms to detect suspicious sellers. But it acknowledges in its prospectus that it cannot fully vouch for the standards of its sellers and the manufacturers they work with. Some critics have questioned whether there is sufficient incentive to investigate or shut down sellers that generate big traffic and sales.

In Ms. Shaffer’s business, Three Bird Nest hires up to 25 seamstresses — local mothers like herself, who work either at home or at a space at the warehouse she now rents in Livermore, Calif. — to churn out thousands of orders a month. She hires a photographer to shoot in-house photos of her products, modeled by a friend. She sells imported necklaces and other accessories imported on another site,, but says none of those products make it onto her Etsy site.


Still, her story has in recent weeks brought intense scrutiny, after a recent interview she gave Yahoo News. Some critics found boot socks on Alibaba’s site that looked the same as her store’s; Ms. Shaffer said that her images were stolen. Still, with sales doubling in the past year, the store will soon start to outsource some manufacturing, Ms. Shaffer said. To prove to Etsy that she will continue to design her headbands and legwarmers, she will have to detail her outsourcing process with step-by-step photos and fill out long questionnaires.

Other sellers, increasingly from outside the United States, also say that the distinction between handmade and mass-manufactured is not as sharp as it may seem. Kyoko Bowskill, who runs the Link Collective store on Etsy, works with independent artists to design patterns for Japanese furoshiki wrapping cloth, and consigns the manufacturing to a small family business outside Tokyo that specializes in traditional dyeing methods.

“I’m all for ramping up production,” said Ms. Bowskill, who now sells 40 to 50 cloths a month at $50 each. “Etsy shouldn’t be about one person crafting goods all by herself with no sleep,” she said, adding, “We’re building a viable business, but that doesn’t mean we’re mass-manufacturing.”

Etsy declined to make officials available for interviews, citing the quiet period leading up to its stock offering. In its I.P.O. filing, however, Mr. Dickerson acknowledged concerns that Etsy is “diluting our handmade ethos” by allowing sellers to work with manufacturers.

“After all, Etsy has always served as an antidote to mass manufacturing,” he said. “We still do.”

Still, its success, and perhaps its problems, have spurred a flurry of would-be Etsys, like Artfire, a community-based marketplace for handmade items. Artfire gained traction for a while — especially among disgruntled Etsy sellers, who started to migrate to the site — but many of those defectors soured when it started charging a monthly fee for hosting storefronts. DaWanda, an online bazaar based in Germany selling handmade and vintage products, is popular in Europe, but its sales are thought to amount to just a fraction of Etsy’s.

Nicole Burisch, a fellow with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and an expert on crafts, said separating the handmade from the manufactured would always be tricky. After all, she said, how handmade is a hand-knit sweater or clay pot?

Most of the goods for sale on Etsy were never strictly handmade, she said — “that is, unless you are digging your own clay, weaving your own cloth, raising your own sheep.”

Tagged ,

Can the mobile Web win back developers from iOS, Android?

While mobile-app developers are concentrating their efforts on supporting Apple’s and Google’s mobile operating systems, one group hopes to make the Web a place for apps too.

Dominique Hazaël-Massieux is on the front lines of a struggle that will determine whether you’ll get your next app by visiting a website or by heading to an Apple or Google app store.

Hazaël-Massieux comes down on the Web side of the divide. For the last seven years he’s led mobile-Web work at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an organization that Web founder Tim Berners-Lee established to chart the Web’s future.

You might not care about where your smartphone’s software comes from as long as it works well. But it matters: the better the Web fares, the easier it is for programmers to write software that’s not locked down to a particular operating system and its associated services. That, in turn, makes it easier for you to switch between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile software or to move to whatever alternative arises down the line.

The problem for Hazaël-Massieux is that he’s mostly been on the losing side: The Web has lagged when it comes to convenience, features and performance, and programmers have instead leaned toward building native iOS and Android apps. He’s not discouraged, though. He’s seen the mobile Web grow from awful to workable as browsers embraced new Web standards, and now he’s working on the next step, making Web technology competitive.

“Seven years ago, the challenge was having it work at all,” Hazaël-Massieux said. “The experience was so bad nobody wanted to use it at all. Now everybody does — but not as much as I wish they would.”

The Web is hardly in danger of being squeezed out of people’s digital lives. But the explosive success of mobile devices has hobbled the Web’s prospects by shifting power toward Google and Apple. When new abilities like electronic payments arrive in the mobile world, these two companies often hold control over how it happens.

There are about 1.5 million iOS apps and 1.8 million Android apps available today, said Sameer Singh, senior industry analysis manager with app analytics firm App Annie. That’s a formidable presence — and downloads are increasing every year. It’s no wonder programmers are concentrating there given that1.2 billion smartphones shipped in 2014, about quadruple the number of PCs. The centerpiece of Hazaël-Massieux’s work at the W3C is a project called Application Foundations to endow Web apps with the abilities of native apps.

“The goal is to put in place a framework that makes [the technologies] more understandable to developers and to drive the technology based on developers’ needs,” he said in an interview here earlier in March at Mobile World Congress, a mammoth technology show where smartphones hold center stage.

Loss of universality

The World Wide Web, now 26 years old, transformed the computing industry. Every operating system requires a browser, so the Web lets programmers bridge across previously separate realms. When Facebook was getting started, its developers didn’t have to worry whether its members were on Windows or Mac computers, and updating the service happened automatically when users loaded Facebook’s page in their browser.

But the rise of iOS and Android has reversed some of that trend toward universality. Apps written for one don’t work with the other. If you want to buy a phone using a nondominant operating system — Windows Phone, Firefox OS, Tizen, Sailfish, BlackBerry OS and Ubuntu to name some of today’s struggling contenders — you’ll likely struggle to get all the apps you want.

The clout of Apple and Google also let them extend their power to new domains — iCloud and Google Drive for storing files, for example, or Facetime and Hangouts for communication. It’s enough to make Microsoft’s dominance with Windows and Office in the 1990s pale in comparison.

There are reasons programmers yielded control — and 30 percent of their sales revenue — to Google and Apple. Programming tools for iOS and Android are better than they are for the Web, apps are faster and can use more smartphone features, a payment system is in place when it’s time to sell an app, and innovation is faster than with the multicompany cooperative process that produces Web standards. Even Web-first companies like Facebook opted instead to write apps that run natively on iOS and Android.

New standards

Web allies are working to make up for lost time. The Application Foundations effort, announced in October 2014, adds new heft to existing work to improve standards. It emphasizes a collection of priorities like video chat, cryptography, typography, responsiveness and streaming media.

“There are challenges around performance, around making apps work offline and outside the browser,” Hazaël-Massieux said. One big part of the fixes is a standard called Service Workers that dramatically remakes Web apps’ deeper workings. Service Workers are programs that run in the background, letting Web apps work even if there’s no network connection and enabling things like push notifications. With Service Workers and other software components, those notifications could come through even if a person is using another app.

“A component provided by the browser registers itself with the operating system. When the OS receives a notification, it knows it should wake up the browser, and the browser wakes up the Web application,” Hazaël-Massieux said. “Service Workers are about getting the Web to live also outside the browser. That opens up interesting opportunities.”

Another feature he’s excited about is payments provided with an interface that would take Apple and Google out of the loop, letting the programmer choose what payment mechanisms to offer. That could help when somebody wants to embrace something new like the Bitcoin electronic currency or offer payments that are put on phone bills in countries where credit cards aren’t common.

“The way the Web has disintermediated so many — we think the Web can do that for payments, too,” he said.

When industry standards work, hardware and software engineers can concentrate on higher-level innovation rather than grinding low-level details. But creating standards everyone likes is slow work.

Web apps can use smartphones’ accelerometers to orient a screen properly, the GPS system to find location, the camera for taking photos, and buzzers so phones will vibrate for typing feedback. Video and audio chat with a technology called WebRTC is arriving, and hardware-accelerated 3D graphics for games is a possibility with WebGL. On the other hand, work to allow use of near-field communications (NFC), the technology that Apple has embraced for its mobile payment system, has only begun, and phones’ barometers remain off limits for those who’d like to gauge a user’s altitude.

Pointer Events pain

One current example covers what might seem to be among the most basic parts of using a smartphone or tablet: people’s use of touch screens.

One interface, called Touch Events, got an early start here, but Microsoft — with a rekindled interest in Web standards — offered another, called Pointer Events. Microsoft’s standard offered a broader perspective based on its Windows experience, handling not just touch screens but also mice and styli. That means programmers would have an easier time writing websites and apps that spanned multiple devices, and the W3C was pleased when it completed the last stage of standardization in February.

“We think it’s the right technology for the Web and brings new advantages,” Hazaël-Massieux said, mentioning not only the range of input types but also features like pressure sensitivity.

One problem, though: Apple, whose Safari browser on iOS helped kick the modern mobile Web into gear, has expressed no enthusiasm. That had a ripple effect when, in 2014, Google Chrome team member Rick Byers said Google therefore didn’t plan to support Pointer Events, either. “Since Touch Events are here to stay, supporting another largely redundant input model has a high long-term complexity cost on the Web platform,” Byers said.

After Pointer Events was standardized, Apple faced the wrath of those who wanted it to succeed. “We need to stop letting Apple stifle the work of browser vendors and standards bodies,” said Scott Gonzalez of the influential jQuery project whose software is widely used in building Web apps and pages. Peter-Paul Koch, who has worked for years helping programmers grapple with browser differences, piled on as well, urging developers to pressure Google to support Pointer Events and thereby force Apple to make the same change. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Google’s Byers in March said the issue isn’t settled: “We’re still watching this space.”

Hazaël-Massieux knows the process can be grueling. But in the end, it lets programmers reach any device, and he’s optimistic the Web will succeed for mobile devices.

“It could be used as an alternative replacing most native apps,” he said. “All the advantages that come with the Web — sharability, addressability, openness, a completely nonproprietary system — all these are available to mobile app developers.”

Tagged , , , , , ,

Apple Watch effect: How a tiny screen has developers rethinking their iPhone apps

Get ready for simpler designs and new features on your smartphone apps, with developers applying the stripped-down concepts they employed for the Apple Watch.

When building an app for Apple Watch, Mikael Berner and his team at EasilyDo quickly learned that their work could carry over to the iPhone.

The EasilyDo developers found it sometimes took too long for users to find the information they wanted in the company’s namesake app — which acts as a virtual assistant by managing your email, calendar, travel information and services like LinkedIn. When you’re wearing a smartwatch, you need to be able to glance down and see what you’re looking for without digging through menus.

Deciding that also made sense on the iPhone, the developers restructured their smartphone app to also be “more micro-moment,” said EasilyDo CEO Berner, showing quick glances of information that’s relevant to what you’re doing at a particular time. If you’re heading out on vacation, it won’t display a menu with all of your travel information, as the phone app did before. Instead, EasilyDo will notify you about gate changes or pop up your boarding pass while you’re in the airport. It then will display your hotel’s address after you land or provide other information based on what you need in that moment.

Apple Watch hasn’t hit the market yet, but its tiny screen is already changing how our iPhone apps look and feel. Some of the simple, “glanceable” functions found on Apple’s first wearable will make their way to smartphone apps, as will more minimalist designs. And it’s not just about making the phone and watch apps work together seamlessly, but actually incorporating watch features — like new functions and different design schemes — in the iPhone. The result, developers hope, is less digging through menus and a streamlined experience for users.

“A large population is going to get used to the nibbling the watch lets them do,” Berner said.

Not all companies will make tweaks to their iPhone apps that are obvious to users, but others, such as EasilyDo, American Airlines, BetterWorks, Citi and Evernote, are making changes to their main phone software because of the watch.

Apple Watch, which Apple first unveiled in September, costs $349 to $17,000 and hits the market on April 24. The device — which comes in three models, two sizes, a couple metal finishes per model, and with various bands — requires an iPhone 5 or later device to operate and can do very little when not connected to a smartphone.

swaoldnew1x1.jpgApple is counting on its first smartwatch to become a strong seller alongside the iPhone, as well as become a way to get people to buy more smartphones. Whether Apple Watch succeeds or fails is closely tied to the apps available on the device. While there’s no clear “killer app” that makes Apple Watch a must-have device, Apple and its app partners have given users many reasons to at least consider buying the pricey wearable.

Apple made its case at a press event last week,showing how you’ll be able to call an Uber carusing the watch or unlock your hotel room door. You’ll also be able to check in for a flight or turn off your house lights using a tap on your wrist.

Initial watch apps are largely an extension of the main iPhone app, providing users with quick notifications and fairly limited abilities. Simplicity is key, and so far, there are few things you can do on an Apple Watch that you can’t do with your phone. But features that were created for the smartwatch will also be trickling upstream to the iPhone.

A ‘minimalist approach’

Take BetterWorks — an app that lets you set goals at work, monitor your progress and keep others in the loop. The company is incorporating some design changes in its iPhone software thanks to its Apple Watch work. In a future iPhone app update, it will include animations and new ways to present data it hadn’t considered before, said BetterWorks CEO Kris Duggan. Instead of presenting long lists of goals, the app will take a more minimalist approach.

“It’s a small design thing, but it’s pushing us to think about ways to make information more concise, actionable and more easily consumed,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t have been forced to make those hard decisions without the watch form factor.”

BetterWorks may even redesign the Web browser version of its program based on design learnings from the watch, Duggan said.

American Airlines, one of the app makers highlighted at Apple’s recent events, has created an app that gives users flight updates and displays their boarding passes. One feature, called the “Travel Cue,” includes a countdown to flights and pops up relevant information. The airline is changing one of the main displays in its iPhone app to also show Travel Cue, said Kevin MacFarland, American Airlines’ director of mobile and online strategy.

“It’s really just finding ways to ease that customer experience,” he said. “It’s all about the right information at the right time.”

Evernote, the popular note-taking app, also has developed a new feature for its Apple Watch app that will make its way to the iPhone. A new personalized note list tries to predict the top five notes you’d want to see in a certain situation based on your location, calendar and your personal usage patterns. For instance, one of the top notes may be business card information for participants in a meeting you’re about to attend.

“You can pull it up and say, wait, what’s that guy’s title again?” said Jamie Hull, Evernote vice president of mobile products. “For us, it was really about can we take your own content and bring it back to you in a way that’s meaningful?”

The personalized note list will appear on Apple Watch and will also be integrated into the Evernote “today widget” that pulls down from the iPhone and iPad notification center. That widget previously just showed your most recent items but now will also include the predicted notes you may want. If users end up liking the feature, Evernote may expand similar functionality to other areas.

Developing for wearables also has gotten Evernote’s team talking about whether it should rethink how it lays out all notes in the future, Hull said. If the company becomes good at making predictions, it may reorder note lists based on what it thinks you need, offering a special section in the Evernote app for you to grab the notes instead of performing a search.

“Trying to predict what users need before they need it … is where we see the future of the app going in general across all of our platforms,” she said. “This functionality is one of the first places we’re trying it, but I absolutely anticipate it will inform what we do in all of our apps in the long term.”

A more elegant app

Other early Apple Watch app makers — including CNN, Expedia, Starwood Hotels Group and Trivia Crack — aren’t making noticeable changes to their iPhone apps.

Expedia hasn’t done anything differently with its iPhone app, at least so far. Its Apple Watch app essentially provides you with an “itineraries experience,” showing information related to flights, hotels and car rentals. That’s something Expedia’s iPhone app already does, though the information in Apple Watch is presented in a simpler way.

“We didn’t want to take the iPhone experience and port it to the watch,” said Jerald Singh, head of mobile product at Expedia. “We wanted a very new experience.”

CNN has made some tweaks under the hood to its smartphone app, allowing for more deep linking of content to send you to a live news video or stories related to a news blurb you see on your watch.

Designing for wearables may “inform the way we build phone and TV apps, but right now it’s just more important they feel they’re part of that ecosystem and [are] talking to each other in a substantial way,” said CNN Chief Product Officer Alex Wellen.

But other app makers plan to completely redesign their phone software. In the case of Citi, the bank created an entirely new iPhone app to interact with Apple Watch, called Citi Mobile Lite, but it plans to discontinue that app after it redesigns its main iPhone app, Citi Mobile, said Heather Cox, chief of client experience and the digital and marketing officer for global consumer banking at Citi.

Consumers who are used to dealing with simple, elegant apps from companies such as Uber and Nest expect the same characteristics in their banking apps, she said. Citi plans to bring features of Citi Mobile Lite — such as a bigger font, less data cluttering the screen and an overall flatter design — to its main app in the coming months. It’s something the company had hoped to do for awhile, and Apple Watch’s release presented the right timing.

“It’s our opportunity now to shift,” Cox said.

Citi also created a new feature that shows you how close you are to reaching your spending limits. A blue notification bar on the watch app turns orange when you reach 80 percent of your limit. It changes colors again, to red, when you’ve reached your full limit. The spending limits feature will debut first in the Apple Watch app but will appear in the Citi iPhone apps shortly afterward.

“Nobody’s quite sure where the wearables market will go, so we’ll use this as our test case,” Cox said. “But I’m quite bullish on it.”

Tagged , , , ,

Meerkat’s CEO has no hard feelings toward Twitter

Days after Twitter cut the live-streaming app off from easily reaching Twitter’s audience, Meerkat’s CEO says it’s “grateful” to Twitter for helping jump-start the service.

The talk of the South by Southwest festival here has been Meerkat, a fast-growing app that lets people stream live videos from their phones, and its tussle with Twitter.

But Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin says he doesn’t blame the social networking giant.

“We would not be sitting here if it wasn’t for Twitter,” said Rubin, onstage during a Yahoo Tech event. “We need to be grateful for that.”

To recap, Meerkat has been the recent darling of the tech industry, exploding to more than 100,000 users since the app launched in late February. The service initially had a tight integration with Twitter, depending on Meerkat users to link their accounts to their Twitter followers. But on Friday, Twitter said it was cutting off Meerkat’s ability to pull information from a user’s collection of Twitter followers, or the “social graph.” On the same day, Twitter officially announced the acquisition of Periscope, a Meerkat competitor.

“They worked very hard to build their graph,” Rubin, 27, said of Twitter. “It’s their house. We need to respect that and be the best guests we can be.”

Live video could become an important element for social networks, as people put more of their personal lives on the Internet. There are also potential revenue opportunities as marketers look to how they can advertise with individualized video feeds.

Rubin on Sunday touted the brands already using Meerkat — from Red Bull to American Idol to the Miami Dolphins. Other clever uses have been a secretary of commerce live streaming his swearing in ceremony, a New York City broker streaming an apartment showing and a church streaming a worship service. (Rubin himself was live-streaming the chat from his phone to more than 360 viewers on his phone.)

He said it was never the intent to keep Meerkat dependent on Twitter, but that using Twitter seemed like the best way to “jump-start” the community. Since Twitter cut off Meerkat two days ago, Rubin said the company has already started to move beyond its leaning on Twitter, though he didn’t go into specifics.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, is for now a less compatible platform for Meerkat because only 12 percent of people see your post within 24 hours, Rubin said. Since Meerkat is about immediate viewing, the network is less relevant. But he said Facebook is still interesting as a way to distribute Meerkat content.

Rubin also addressed some users’ complaints that videos disappear after the live stream has ended, so people can’t go back and watch videos if they missed the live broadcast. Rubin said the reason for that was to make people comfortable with the potentially foreign act of live streaming — so they wouldn’t have to worry about their videos being watchable on the Internet forever. But he said that could change after people get more at ease with live streaming.

Tagged , , ,

Blackberry firm unveils new high-security tablet

Blackberry-owned company Secusmart has unveiled a new tablet in collaboration with Samsung and IBM.

The Secutablet is “based on” the Samsung Galaxy 10.5 and runs on Samsung hardware, the firm said.

The additional security it offers is aimed at businesses and governments, but less vigorously protected social media and video platforms can also be used on the device, Secusmart added.

The tablet is likely to be priced at $2,380 (£1,609), according to reports.

The Secutablet is compatible with Blackberry 10 and is currently undergoing security certification at the German Federal Office for Information Security.

It incorporates IBM’s “app wrapping” technology which adds extra layers of security to sensitive data.

“Security is ingrained in every part of Blackberry’s portfolio, which includes voice and data encryption solutions,” said Dr Hans-Christoph Quelle, CEO of Secusmart GmbH, a Blackberry company.

Blackberry playbookBlackberry’s Playbook tablet has not been a big hit for the firm

“Subject to certification of the Secutablet, German government agencies will have a new way to access Blackberry’s most secure and complete communications network in the world.”

Blackberry has struggled in the tablet market, and its PlayBook device did not hit sales targets when it was launched in 2010.

It acquired German voice and data encryption firm Secusmart, in December 2014, and the Secutablet was unveiled at tech fair CeBit in Hanover at the weekend.

“Historically Blackberry has been strong in Germany because of its high-end security offerings,” said analyst Nick McQuire, vice-president of enterprise at analyst CCS Insight.

‘Very specific’

“Clearly the Secutablet is designed to play into Blackberry’s core focus of high grade security.

“The price point is quite expensive – part of the target base is going to be people who can afford to deploy a tablet at that price,” Mr McQuire added.

“It’s aimed at businesses and sectors where security is paramount. Let’s not fool ourselves, this is a very limited solution for a very specific area of the marketplace.”

There has also been speculation that the device will be Android-powered because of the Samsung hardware.

Android speculation

“It is highly likely – but not confirmed – that it will run on Android given that Samsung is a partner, and given Blackberry’s focus on becoming more of a cross-platform security company,” Mr McQuire said.

“One of the things they will want to be known for is to be a mobile security company. Even in the Secusmart business, you can’t be entirely platform specific.

“You want to be as secure as you possibly can but you also want to be user friendly.”

The Secutablet might face competition from the likes of privacy platform Silent Circle, which unveiled the next generation of its security-focused smartphone Blackphone 2 at Mobile World Congress in March, Mr McQuire said.

Tagged , , ,

Cuba approves first public wi-fi hub in Havana

Cuba’s state telecom agency Etecsa has granted approval to the artist Kcho to open the country’s first public wireless hub at his cultural centre.

Kcho, who has close ties to the Cuban government, is operating the hub using his own, government-approved internet connection, and paying approximately $900 (£600) per month to run it.

Only an estimated 5% – 25% of Cubans have any type of internet service.

That is because internet access is incredibly expensive.

For instance, an hour of internet access at a cafe can cost $4.50 – nearly a week’s wages for the average Cuban.

Kcho told the Associated Press he decided to offer free internet at the centre, which opened in western Havana in January, in order to encourage Cubans to familiarise themselves with the internet.

The sculptor Kcho is perhaps the only artist the government would permit to run a public access wi-fi service. The last time Fidel Castro was seen in public was at an exhibition by the contemporary artist.

Many analysts in Cuba see this as a small but potentially significant step. What seems clear is that no such internet access could happen without the tacit approval of the authorities, who may well be using Kcho’s initiative to test the waters of allowing greater internet access on the island.

But this move is still far from universal internet access for Cubans.

There are a number of areas in Havana where informal users have found ways to access business wi-fi connections as well as a number of illegal wi-fi networks operating in some neighbourhoods.

While together they may be seen as examples of greater tolerance towards internet connectivity by the authorities, the next step – reducing the costs and increasing the availability of connections in private homes – has yet to be announced.


Growing network

The Cuban government has expressed a keen desire to upgrade its dilapidated or non-existent telecommunications infrastructure.

Although Cuba’s connectivity to the internet was greatly expanded with the completion of an undersea cable between the island and Venezuela in January 2013, the country still has some of the lowest internet connectivity rates in the world.

On 15 January, the US announced new rules that ease long-running sanctions against Cuba. A trade embargo has been in place since 1962.

A key part of that decision by the Obama administration was a stated desire to help boost telecommunications on the island.

Last week, Etecsa said it had established a direct telephone connection between the US and Cuba for the first time in 15 years, as relations between the two countries continue to thaw.

Netflix, the streaming television and film service, said in February that it had launched its site in Cuba, although it remains unclear how many Cubans actually have internet connections fast enough to operate the service.

Tagged , , ,

For Tech Titans, Sharing Has Its Limits

There are all sorts of activities required of the people who remodel the homes of tech titans in Silicon Valley. Laying reclaimed-wood flooring, installing ever-tinier bathroom tiles, wiring the network.

Add a new one: Signing a domestic nondisclosure agreement.

These powerful documents, demanding the utmost secrecy, are being required of anyone associated with the homes of a small but growing number of tech executives, according to real estate agents, architects and contractors. Sometimes the houses themselves are bought through trusts or corporate entities so that the owners’ names are not on public deeds.

Celebrities have often sought confidentiality about their residences. But now, say those signing the N.D.A.s, the secrecy is sometimes sought by people who don’t necessarily have their own renown, but who work for well-known tech companies — Facebook, Google, Twitter.

“They are people you’ve never heard of,” said one contractor who asked not to be named because he has signed N.D.A.s 10 times in the last three years when he did remodeling work. He characterized the practice in high-end Bay Area homes as “pretty widespread” with the luxury homes of the technology set. The types of workers asked to sign such agreements, he said, are “across the board: painting, flooring, cleaning, gardeners, landscapers, anything associated with the house itself.”


Mr. Zuckerberg, head of Facebook, is being sued by a developer in Palo Alto, Calif., who claims that Mr. Zuckerberg reneged on promises to provide him with business connections.

“Sometimes,” the contractor said, “you don’t even know who the client is. Or it slips out in the duration of the job.”

Because people sign legal documents pledging not to disclose any information, finding out who and how many people insist on N.D.A.s is next to impossible. But a recent lawsuit involving one of the biggest names of all — Mark Zuckerberg — has shed light on the home-front N.D.A.s, and the urge for privacy that compels them. Documents in the lawsuit, including ones filed on Wednesday, show Mr. Zuckerberg and his representatives seeking nondisclosure agreements. In an email disclosed in the case, a lawyer for Mr. Zuckerberg wrote to the opposing lawyer, “As your client knows, Mr. Zuckerberg goes to great lengths to protect the privacy of his personal life.”

Which adds a wrinkle: Some people requiring nondisclosure are the very ones who have built an industry on its opposite, the disclosure of personal information.

Neil Richards, a professor and privacy expert at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said the N.D.A.s created a kind of “haves and have-nots with respect to information.”

Understandably, new tech millionaires might want to disguise their wealth at a time when resentment is rising toward tech workers gentrifying the Bay Area.  Call it inconspicuous consumption.

So you won’t learn much about the work being done at 21st Street near Dolores in San Francisco from the workers who have spent the better part of two years working there.

On a recent afternoon, I approached a man standing on the block, introduced myself as a New York Times reporter and asked what he was up to.

“Working on a house,” he said. He sipped a Burger King soda and smoked a cigarette and he said he was an electrician taking a lunch break — but that was all he’d disclose.

It was obvious which house he was working on; an anthill of workers swarmed around it, a half-dozen trucks in the street, an orchestra of saws, scaffolding and ladders parked on the street.

“Which house?” I asked.

“A house down the street.” He was vague.

“Are you talking about Zuckerberg’s place?” I asked. It’s been widely reported that this is his property, though the public record says the owner is SFRP L.L.C.

“I can’t say who it is, and I can’t say who it isn’t,” the electrician said.

Had he signed an N.D.A.?

“All the workers sign them,” he conceded. Conversation over.

I introduced myself to a guy sitting behind a table across the street from the house — he seemed to be a foreman or at least someone handing out the badges the workers all wore — he said the place was “just a house” and handed me a card with an email address for Facebook public relations, but no name.

A neighbor walking by was more expressive. “It’s outrageous,” she said of Mr. Zuckerberg’s yearning for privacy, as well as all the activity on the block. “Look at this privacy. It’s been like this for two years. Where’s the concern for the neighbors?” Her first name was Sharon, and she said she was a retired, early-generation techie but declined to give her last name, saying she feared “retribution.”

An email sent to the contact at Facebook provided by the work site overseer was not returned. A Facebook spokeswoman said the company did not comment on Mr. Zuckerberg’s personal affairs.

The lawsuit against Mr. Zuckerberg involves a different residence, 35 miles south in Palo Alto. In it, a part-time developer named Mircea Voskerician claims that he had a contract to buy a $4.8 million house adjoining Mr. Zuckerberg’s residence, and offered to sell a piece of the property to Mr. Zuckerberg. He says that in a meeting at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, he discussed a deal to sell his interest in the entire property to Mr. Zuckerberg. In exchange, he says, Mr. Zuckerberg would make introductions between him and powerful people in Silicon Valley, potential future business partners and clients.

Mr. Voskerician passed up a better offer on the house, the suit contends, but Mr. Zuckerberg did not follow through on the pledge to make introductions.

Documents filed on Wednesday in Santa Clara County Superior Court by Mr. Voskerician’s lawyer, David Draper, raised the stakes in the case by asking for access to Mr. Zuckerberg’s net worth. The request is aimed at establishing how much Mr. Zuckerberg could pay in punitive damages, should a jury find he committed fraud. But of course, it also would also threaten to expose Mr. Zuckerberg’s personal financial information beyond what is already known about his Facebook holdings.

Mr. Draper said he deposed Mr. Zuckerberg on Wednesday in a law office in San Jose, but declined to comment further. Patrick Gunn, a lawyer for Mr. Zuckerberg, said that the lawsuit had no merit and that his client intended to fight it “vigorously.”

Mr. Voskerician said he signed a nondisclosure agreement as a condition of merely discussing his proposed arrangement with Mr. Zuckerberg. The information covered by the N.D.A. “includes, but is not limited to, any and all financial, business or personal information” regarding Mr. Zuckerberg. Such disclosure, the contract reads, “would cause the protected parties irreparable harm.”

Similar N.D.A.s were signed by other Palo Alto neighbors he had real estate dealings with, according to a person with direct knowledge of the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s life has been chronicled in unauthorized fashion in books and other media, most famously in the film “The Social Network.” In court filings, Mr. Zuckerberg’s lawyers have said that Mr. Voskerician might try to use personal information about Mr. Zuckerberg for personal gain “to publish, sell or otherwise use” the material, say from a videotaped deposition.

In an interview with a blogger in early 2010, Mr. Zuckerberg cited changing privacy norms for Facebook’s decision to change its default settings so that more data from the site’s users would be available to the public, not just friends.

“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” he said.

As users complained, however, Facebook has more recently put a greater emphasis on privacy. For instance, changing default settings will allow photos to be seen only by friends, not the public. Perhaps there’s a parallel: Just as Facebook users hope to share their lives only with their virtual networks, so, too, do people who live in a physical house expect their comings and goings to be observed only by their close neighbors.

Chris Hoofnagle, a privacy expert and lecturer at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley, said that while it was noteworthy that data merchants were seeking greater personal privacy themselves, they also may well be on the right track. A nondisclosure agreement, which keeps intimate information from ever getting online where it can spread, “is the sensible thing to do.”

Tagged , , ,

With iOS And Android Plans, Even Cortana Is Part Of Microsoft’s Cross-Platform Strategy

Cortana is bound for both Android and iOS via standalone apps planned for launch after Windows 10 brings the Microsoft virtual assistant to the desktop, according to Reuters. The Android and iOS versions of Cortana serve Microsoft’s larger goal of building more advanced AI features into Cortana, in a future iteration codenamed “Einstein,” the agency says, citing people with knowledge of the project. That would mean Microsoft’s recent willingness to play nice with competitors would extend to its virtual mobile assistant, which began as a value-add incentive for Windows Phone users.

If Microsoft’s goal is to truly build an AI-like assistant that can parse email and provide useful services based on what it finds, then the decision to launch a cross-platform version makes perfect sense – Cortana on Windows mobile devices reaches only a tiny sliver of the total mobile population, while offering even a standalone app, which likely can’t have the same kind of system-level access on either platform, opens up the potential reach exponentially.

Cortana on desktop probably help to serve the same end, seeing as Windows is still by far the most popular desktop computing platform. If Microsoft hopes to turn Cortana into something truly approaching genuine artificial intelligence, a key ingredient will be range and volume of inbound data points. Serving the greatest possible number of users if self-serving in that regard.

Microsoft is also being a lot less precious about its software and services. The new beta version of Office for Mac is impressive, and of course Office’s full mobile applications actually debuted on platforms other than Windows Phone first. The company, especially under CEO Satya Nadella, seems to recognize the value of reaching potential users regardless of their hardware and OS choices, and if Cortana isn’t a key driver of new Windows Phone device (and I’d argue it definitely isn’t) then expanding availability is the best way to serve Microsoft’s long-term goals.

Tagged , , , ,

Want to fight climate change? Organize over the Internet, says Al Gore

During a talk at the South by Southwest festival, the former US vice president likens the cause to the campaign for Net neutrality.

Al Gore thinks the Internet could help save the planet. Literally.

The former United States vice president exhorted people to tap into the power of the Internet to organize their efforts for a healthy environment and call out politicians who deny climate change.

“Push back. Use social media, use the Internet,” Gore said Friday. “Political will is a renewable resource.”

Gore made his comments during a presentation on the first day of South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-centric portion of the festival that brings together the technorati, filmmakers and musicians. Gore has deep ties to the technology industry, as a director on Apple’s board and senior partner at the venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.

True to the cause, Al Gore flew to Austin on Southwest Airlines instead of, say, taking a private jet.

Arguably the most recognizable face of the environmental movement, Gore compared the fight over climate change to recent political wins for Net neutrality, the concept of ensuring that all Internet traffic gets fair and equal treatment. The Federal Communications Commission last month voted in favor of stricter regulations that would ensure an open Internet. The lead up to that vote involved an active Internet campaign, with Amazon, Facebook, Google and other tech giants voicing support, joined by people sharing their views on social media.

Gore also pointed to the tech industry’s fight in 2012 against SOPA, or the Stop Internet Piracy Act. Many Internet companies, which believed the 2012 bill would impinge on freedom of speech and curtail growth of the industry, staged protests against the bill. That included an “Internet blackout” that involved thousands of websites, including Google and Wikipedia. For example, Google covered the logo on its homepage with a black box.

Gore has long-championed the cause to halt climate change. In 2006, he starred in the Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” about the effects of global warming. He’s also the founder and chairman of the Climate Reality Project, an environmental nonprofit organization that promotes education and advocacy.

The United Nations will host its Climate Change Conference in Paris from November 30 to December 11. The conference aims to achieve a legally binding agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.

Tagged , , , ,

13 things you need to know about the FCC’s Net neutrality regulation

Having trouble digesting all 400 pages of the FCC’s Net neutrality order? Have no fear, CNET’s Marguerite Reardon is here to tell you what you really need to know.

Two weeks after voting to preserve the open Internet (also referred to as Net neutrality) the Federal Communications Commission finally released a 400 page document detailing the new rules in all their glory.

If you haven’t been following along, Net neutrality is the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. That means your broadband provider, which controls your access to the Internet, can’t block or slow down the services or applications you use over the Web. It also means your Internet service provider — whether it’s a cable company or telephone service — can’t create so-called fast lanes that force content companies like Netflix to pay an additional fee to deliver their content to customers faster.

Even though most people agree with the basic premise of Net neutrality, the FCC’s rules have become a lightning rod for controversy. The reason: The FCC has now reclassified broadband as a so-called Title II telecommunications service under the 1934 Communications Act. That reclassification places broadband providers under the same strict regulations that now govern telephone networks.

Broadband providers, like AT&T and Comcast, say Title II allows the FCC to impose higher rates and will discourage them from building or upgrading their networks. On the flip side, Title II will help the FCC fight any legal challenges that AT&T, Verizon and Comcast (among others) lob its way.

But 400 pages of government-speak and legalese is a lot to swallow (let alone digest). So we’ve done it for you. What follows is a quick FAQ explaining the most pressing issues.

1.What are the new rules?

The FCC’s Net neutrality order boils down to three key rules:

No Blocking. Simply put: A broadband provider can’t block lawful content, applications, services or nonharmful devices.

No Throttling. The FCC created a separate rule that prohibits broadband providers from slowing down specific applications or services, a practice known as throttling. More to the point, the FCC said providers can’t single out Internet traffic based on who sends it, where it’s going, what the content happens to be or whether that content competes with the provider’s business.

No Paid Prioritization. A broadband provider cannot accept fees for favored treatment. In short, the rules prohibit Internet fast lanes.

2. Why did it take 400 pages to say that?

Just to clarify, the actual order takes up 313 pages, and the remaining 87 pages are statements from the five FCC commissioners, including lengthy dissenting comments from two of those commissioners.

Beyond that, FCC officials say they needed to give detailed explanations of how and why they wrote these rules, because they expect the rules will be challenged in court. That’s because the FCC’s two previous attempts were thrown out of court for improper legal justification. AT&T and Comcast have already hinted they will sue the FCC over the rules and, in particular, their reclassification as broadband services.

3. Some broadband providers say the FCC’s rules ban them from effectively managing traffic on their networks. Is this true?

That depends on how they want to manage traffic. According to the FCC, broadband providers need to show a technically justified rationale for how they manage traffic, rather than for purely business reasons.

Generally speaking, this means your broadband provider can block spam from your email inbox, block traffic from a denial of service attack and slow down or redirect traffic to ensure the network runs smoothly during times of congestion, so long as the provider isn’t targeting any particular application or traffic source. It can’t block or slow down access to video streaming services like Netflix or Hulu just because it thinks those services use too much bandwidth.

4. Will the FCC determine how much my broadband and wireless service costs?

No, the new rules don’t regulate broadband rates or require providers to get the FCC’s permission to offer new rate plans or new services. Broadband providers will still be able to offer new services and rates, which means they can add a faster tier of service, at a new price, without permission from the FCC.

That’s different from the old-style telephone regulation. Under the full Title II regulation, phone companies were required to file tariffs with the FCC and wait for regulatory review before they could offer new products. The FCC said it is “forbearing” from using some of those requirements for broadband services.

5. Will my broadband bill go up because of taxes associated with these rules?

There is nothing in the FCC’s Open Internet order that imposes new taxes or fees on broadband service. That said, there is a separate FCC proceeding that began before the Net neutrality order was published that looks at whether broadband customers should pay into the Universal Service Fund. (Customers of traditional telephone services already pay into USF to help subsidize phone service in rural and low-income areas.)

Depending on how that proceeding plays out, broadband customers could be required to contribute to USF. If that does happen, your broadband bill could go up a few pennies each month.

6. Is the government taking over the Internet?

These new rules don’t regulate any content or application on the Internet, or dictate how the Internet operates or where traffic is routed. So in that sense, the answer is no. They do regulate access to the “last mile” of the Internet, which is the network that connects your home or mobile device to the Net.

This means the rules govern just the companies and the sections of their networks that deliver Internet access to consumers. Companies subject to the regulation are broadband providers, like AT&T, Verizon or Comcast, which sell consumers fixed or wireless access to the Internet.

7. The FCC keeps saying that not all of the Title II regulations apply to broadband. What pieces of the old style regulation will apply?

The FCC isn’t applying more than 700 rules found in the Title II regulation.

So what’s left? The FCC has kept at least nine sections of the Title II regulation.These include sections 201, 202 and 208 — which the agency said are necessary for open Internet rules.

Additionally, the agency is applying parts of sections that protect consumers, promote competition and “advance universal access, all of which will foster network investment, thereby helping to promote broadband deployment.”

Section 222, for instance, protects consumer privacy. Sections 225/255/251(a)(2) ensure broadband access to people with disabilities. The agency also kept section 224, which requires utilities to give cable system operators and telecommunications carriers access to their poles so they can attach their own wires for service.

The agency is also keeping section 254, which promotes universal deployment of services. But to make sure broadband customers aren’t forced to pay into the Universal Service Fund, the FCC is forbearing from a subsection of section 254 that would require broadband providers to collect universal service fees from customers. That said, the agency does have the authority under section 254 to distribute USF funds already collected to promote broadband deployment in rural or low-income areas.

8. This current FCC may be forbearing most Title II provisions, but could a future FCC change that?

In theory yes. But FCC officials said on a call with reporters on Thursday that it’s not that easy. That’s one reason the FCC spelled out its rationale in a 400 page document. With it, the agency creates a record that could be used to prevent future iterations of the FCC from undoing everything.

And keep in mind that the FCC has to follow procedures for any official action it takes, including changing its own regulations. Those procedures include a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which must be introduced and accepted by the majority of commissioners. Then there’s a public comment period on the proposal, followed by a comment period on the comments. Then the full commission votes. And at least three out of five commissioners need to approve those new rules before they can pass.

9. Will emerging services, like connected cars and telehealth applications, be regulated under these new rules? Won’t that stifle innovation?

Services that don’t offer full Internet access won’t be regulated. These include things like cable telephony or voice over IP services, dedicated heart-monitoring services, e-readers, connected cars or the new voice over LTE services offered by wireless operators. Such services all use the Internet, but they don’t offer consumers access to the public Internet.

10. Let’s get into some specifics. Will the FCC put a stop to “sponsored data” deals where a certain service, like Spotify, won’t count against my monthly data allotment?

The answer is a fuzzy “maybe.” The FCC said it understands some people worry such plans could “distort competition by allowing service providers to pick and choose among content and application providers to feature on different service plans.” But it also realizes these plans can benefit consumers and promote competition.

Therefore, it will not ban these types of services outright. Instead, it will evaluate these plans on a case-by-case basis to make sure a specific offering doesn’t give any one service an unreasonable advantage over another.

11. Will wireless providers still be allowed to use data caps to limit the bandwidth their customers use?

The FCC said it can’t make “blanket findings about these practices.” For instance, some data caps can benefit customers because they allow wireless operators to offer a variety of service plans at different price points.

Still, the FCC acknowledged that broadband providers can wield data caps against competing “over-the-top” services like Netflix, which offers streaming video over the Internet.

For now, the FCC will not ban data caps. But if consumers or other Internet companies feel that a certain data cap policy is unfair, they can lodge a complaint, which the FCC will examine case-by-case.

12. What about “interconnection” deals between companies like Netflix and broadband providers like Comcast? Is the FCC regulating those deals now?

Yes and no.

First, let me explain what “interconnection” is. The Internet is made up of a series of networks. The “last mile” is the connection your broadband provider offers consumers to get to the public Internet. A broadband provider then connects with other network providers to get access to content on the Internet. These “interconnections” between network operators are commercial arrangements between companies. The FCC has never before intervened in these commercial deals.

But the FCC acknowledges that broadband providers could act in a way that harms competition, affecting how or if consumers can access certain services. Netflix will say that’s just what happened last year while it was in contentious negotiations with Comcast and Verizon. The streaming video service provider argued that Comcast and Verizon were unfairly charging it for increased capacity to their “last mile” networks. Meanwhile, Comcast and Verizon said they were justified in asking Netflix to pay for network upgrades to accommodate an uptick in Netflix traffic.

And all the while, some Netflix customers saw a degradation in the quality of their Netflix service.

Was this Netflix’s fault or the broadband provider’s fault? It depends on how you look at it, the FCC has reasoned. It also recognized that the industry is rapidly changing. And it concluded that it’s currently unwise to impose the same no-blocking, no-throttling, no-paid prioritization bans on this part of the Internet.

Instead, the agency said it will review these disputes when complaints are filed.

13. Have the lawsuits started yet?

Not yet. And they won’t until the rules are officially published in the Federal Register, which may take a few days or a week. The rules will then take effect two months after they’re published.

Tagged , , ,