• Newsletter Issue #861

    May 30th, 2016


    So what about those Chromebooks? In the last quarter, they were number one in the K-12 market in the U.S., but sales weren’t signifiant anywhere else. But a big deal is being made of this alleged conquest of a market where Apple has traditionally dominated. Except that the back-to-school season starts in the summer, so sales of Macs and iPads to school systems were at a low ebb anyway.

    On the other hand, school systems, by and large, don’t have the funds to invest in high quality notebooks or tablets. Chromebooks can be had for $150 or so, and there are rudimentary management tools from Google that’ll help school systems set them up. It’s debatable whether the small set of web apps is sufficient to deliver a suitable educational experience.

    The other issue is whether building them makes sense for the PC makers who have jumped into this business. It’s hard to believe that any profits can be made, so it all has to be about volume, keeping the factories churning out gear I suppose. But if there are no profits, what difference does it make? Well, at least it gives jobs to the people who screw them together.

    That said, Apple needs to step up its game about offering gear to school systems at affordable prices. While Apple wants to maintain historically high profit margins, perhaps something can be done to deliver a version of a MacBook Air that would come in at a lower cost in quantity. That assumes Apple is willing to recognize the sad reality of educational systems in the U.S.

    Now on this weekend’s episode of  The Tech Night Owl LIVE, cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, dissected the facts about the presumed success of Google, the Android mobile platform, and Chromebooks, those cheap notebooks that are evidently selling well to K-12 school systems in the U.S. Daniel asks the questions journalists seldom ask about the problems with Android, and the lack of serious new features in the latest version of the OS. He also discussed the problems Microsoft has had as it disengages itself from its failed multibillion dollar purchase of Nokia’s handset division.

    You  also heard from an ethical hacker, Dr. Timothy Summers, President of Summers & Company, a cyber strategy and organizational design consulting firm, who delivered an update on the Apple versus FBI controversy, where the two parties were locked in a legal battle over attempts to unlock an iPhone used in a terrorist attack. The case ended after the FBI paid over a million dollars to hackers who succeeded in breaking into the phone. He talked about Microsoft’s lawsuit against the U.S. government over the right to inform customers when a federal agency wants to examine their emails. We also had an extended pop culture discussion, where Dr. Summers remarked on how computer hackers are portrayed in the movies and on TV, and whether those portrayals accurately reflect how these people actually do their stuff. The segment concluded with an overview of how hackers attacked the SWIFT interbank funds transfer system in an attempt to steal $100 million.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: He’s back. The dean of UFO researchers, Stanton T. Friedman, returns to The Paracast to discuss the full range of UFO-related issues, including the latest on Roswell, recent sightings, abductions and more. He’ll be asked how the key Roswell evidence has stood the test of time, whether there’s a compelling case for the Aztec UFO crash, and if the best UFO cases occurred decades ago, that more recent sightings may not as compelling in terms of evidence. Friedman is one of the key researchers into the Roswell crash and other events over the years, and has posited a strong case that the phenomenon is the result of extraterrestrials visiting Earth.


    Ever since Siri, Apple’s digital personal assistant, debuted in the iPhone 4s in 2011, it has been both a source of amusement and extreme frustration. While Apple’s TV ads, which often feature such notables as Samuel L. Jackson, depict Siri obediently responding to one’s commands, it doesn’t always play out that way in the real world.

    Under regular use by people who aren’t trained performers, Siri wasn’t quite that responsive — or accurate. Even today, when I request that Siri set an alarm for a specific time, it sometimes gets “AM” or “PM” reversed. And that’s the least of it. In the meantime, competitors have arisen. So we have Google Now, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana that are being offered as comparable — or even better — than Siri.

    To be fair, Siri’s original release was quietly and properly labeled as a beta, and it showed. Even though Siri has grown better with each release, and now delivers a more well-rounded feature set, it’s still evidently limited by the fact that Apple isn’t in the business of gathering personal information about you. That’s one key reason, say the critics, that Google Now is superior. Remember, with Google, you are the product they are selling to their advertisers. Apple has assured you that they will do no such thing.

    However, it does appear that Siri is poised to take the lead in processing natural language requests and what’s referred to as “machine learning.”

    The improvements are said to be the result of Apple’s 2015 acquisition of VocalIQ, a startup focused on speech processing that’s located in the U.K. This is the sort of purchase in which Apple specializes, since it provides new or enhanced technology for the company. Siri itself was acquired by Apple in 2010.

    Now according to published reports, VocalIQ is said to be far more accurate, fully featured and robust than any of the competition. Now that Apple has had the year to integrate the technology into Apple’s own speech recognition services, it may debut later this year. It’s very possible that, among the new announcements at WWDC will be something about Siri on steroids.

    While Apple has said nothing about what they’re working on, or what its capabilities might be, VocalIQ reportedly tested their product against the voice recognition competitors prior to Apple’s acquisition. In these supposedly stringent tests, VocalIQ managed over 90% accuracy compared to 20% for all the rest of the competitors. With Apple said to be falling behind the competition in personal digital assistants, Siri may be poised to take one giant leap, all without loosening Apple’s standards for customer privacy.

    Among VocalIQ’s features is the ability to handle your email while your phone is in your pocket. The new Siri may also be capable of managing context better, meaning that you can pose follow-up questions without having the restate the entire question from scratch.

    All well and good, and I do hope that a version of Siri powered by VocalIQ will be able to set the standard for voice recognition. I would hope that Apple will treat this refreshed version with caution, and give it a proper Beta label while it has its shakedown cruise. Obviously the input of hundreds of millions of Apple customers will provide a far more robust test than anything that can be done in the laboratory.

    I also want to be realistic. There is no guarantee that VocalIQ technology will be ready to incorporate into Siri by June, or after a brief public beta test period thereafter. It might receive a demonstration anyway, with the promise of a later introduction. I prefer not to make predictions based on speculation about the goals of one of Apple’s acquisitions.

    In any case, the rumor sites continue to tout the arrival of Siri on the Mac, in the next version of macOS, if that rumor about the new branding comes to pass. But even if Siri arrives on the Mac with far greater accuracy and flexibility than Cortona under Windows 10, the critics will complain. They will rightly state that Microsoft got there first, and that Apple is merely playing catch up.

    But it’s also true that Apple isn’t in the business of always being first to market with a feature. You can go through the iPhone, iPad and other gear and see where some features came later, to allow for them to be perfected. Consider LTE on the iPhone. When it appeared on other smartphones, the chips were buggy and consumed too much power for decent battery life. Apple doesn’t make its own LTE radios.

    Apple also wasn’t the first out of the gate with large-screen iPhones. However, that may have been because Apple didn’t realize how quickly the larger mobile handsets would catch on.

    So far as I’m concerned, putting Siri on a Mac doesn’t matter. I’m not ready to speak commands to my computer, although it’s possible the poor early implementations of voice recognition soured me. But I’ve rarely played with Cortana on Windows 10 either. To me, it is a feature that may seem impressive, and might be useful for people who have difficulty managing a keyboard for whatever reason. But not to me.

    On the other hand, the Star Trek talking computer looms large in pop culture. So perhaps someday it will make a difference. But not yet.


    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
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    2 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #861”

    1. dfs says:

      I’ve had at best only limited luck with Siri, on my iPhone, my CarPlay, and (to the very limited extent I’ve tried it) on my Apple TV. The reason is obvious. I have a regional accent, idiosyncratic voice patterns, and when I was in elementary school I have vague recollections of being sent to a speech therapist because of some speech impediment (I don’t remember what it was, or why it stopped, either because it was fixed or because they guy gave up on me). Everybody else has similar vocal issues to one degree or another. I can imagine a voice recognition software located on my own Mac being quite successful, as long as it had the capacity to learn and adapt to my special habits. But I can’t imagine any centrally-based VR scheme, be it operated by Apple, Amazon, Google or anybody else, being very useful because it would have no similar learning capacity.

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