October 21, 2018 - Episode 510 (F5 Live: Refreshing Technology)

This week, Apple says they haven't been hacked, Google says it's fixed a privacy violation, and Netflix says the EU is trying to limit content.

PC Refurbishing Nightmares - Episode 178 (Piltch Point)

This week, Avram Piltch discusses some stories of experiences PC refurbishers have had when opening up computers. Can you imagine opening up a desktop computer to find a loaded pistol instead of a CD drive? Or what about letting a collection of live roaches escape from a computer, only to have them infest your office? Those are just some of the bizarre and unpleasant experiences that refurbishers have shared.

Tim Cook Denies <cite>Bloomberg</cite> Report Again, Demands Retraction

On October 4, 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article detailing how China included a tiny microchip on server motherboards in an attempt to bypass corporate security at some major companies, including Amazon and Apple. They described an intricate plot, involving manufacturing plants in China that produced motherboards for Supermicro server hardware. They claim that Amazon noticed the chip, which they reported to US authorities, who have spent over 3 years investigating. The article cites information from insiders at Amazon, Apple, and the Federal government. Newsweek felt this investigative piece, which covers incidents dating back as far as 2015, was important enough that it was the cover story for October 8, 2018.

The story surprised almost nobody in the technology industry. The idea that a Chinese company could be purposely inserting spy technology into products they manufacture is not a far-fetched one. In fact, two Chinese-owned smartphone brands have previously been banned from import into the US over fears that they contained technology designed to spy on US citizens and, hopefully, intercept calls containing sensitive data. To extend the threat from smartphones to servers was a fairly mundane and, frankly, expected.

There are a few in the industry who take particular exception to the story, however; namely, the companies mentioned by name. Amazon claims that they never knew anything of compromised server hardware and have never been in contact with Federal law enforcement, either in reporting or in questioning, regarding the topic. They say that the only issues they have found regarding Supermicro servers were in a web-based application designed for server management, which was addressed prior to implementing the hardware. They say they have no record of any hardware issues ever being reported for hardware.

Apple had a similar response to the article, claiming that they also never had any hardware incidents with Supermicro and the first they were aware of the concept was when Bloomberg themselves started contacting the company asking questions. They also claim that the fact that the company canceled their contract with Supermicro to purchase over 30,000 servers immediately following the timeline Bloomberg claims would have been the disclosure of the server hacks is unrelated.

This week, Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has taken this story very personally, has upped the denial rhetoric. In fact, he has gone so far as to demand Bloomberg retract the entire story. He told Buzzfeed,

I personally talked to the Bloomberg reporters along with Bruce Sewell, who was then our general counsel. We were very clear with them that this did not happen, and answered all their questions. Each time they brought this up to us, the story changed, and each time we investigated we found nothing...

We turned the company upside down. Email searches, data center records, financial records, shipment records. We really forensically whipped through the company to dig very deep and each time we came back to the same conclusion: This did not happen. There's no truth to this.

For Cook, this seems to be some sort of personal attack, either on his credibility or his intelligence; maybe both. To have employees of Apple being part of the investigation, and 4 Federal agents claiming that Apple both reported and participated in the investigation when he believes that it never happened does not seem to be something that he can heal from. It could have to do with the relationship that Supermicro has with Foxconn, who also manufactures most of Apple's products. A stain on their manufacturing process could leave a stain on all of Apple's hardware and security, which is something that has been in question following a couple of security issues at the company. If Cook had ignored it, no one would even remember the report today, but he keeps picking at it, meaning that it keeps being brought to the top of everyone's minds.

Considering their commitment to the story, it is unlikely that Bloomberg is going to retract the story, no matter how much noise Cook makes, though anything is possible at this point.

SmartPay Makes Purchases Amazingly Easy for Everybody (PLuGHiTz Live Special Events)

Vladimir Goloborodko had been an IT Consultant for 15 years and while managing a large team with clients that had multibillion-dollar budgets, he realized that he wanted to do something new and take the path of a startup with a great idea. So he founded a crypto payment system for small and medium-sized merchants to assist them and their clientele with those smaller purchases that decrease the profit margin because of certain roadblocks that are inherent in the system. The result is a really great idea called SmartPay.

As busy humans in the middle of our on-the-go lifestyles, we've all been in situations where we need to grab a quick drink and pack of gum while we're out or pick up that quintessential loaf of bread on the way home. Then we realize that either we don't have any cash on us at the time, or we have a large bill that we don't want to break for something that totals three dollars and seventy-two cents (the "large bill" example not being me, by the way). Not only is this a hassle for us consumers, but it's an even bigger hassle for the merchants. Especially considering the fact that up to 30% of their profit margin get automatically eaten up with bank merchant fees when we use our debit and credit cards. So they end up either imposing minimum purchase amounts when we use a card for payment, or they increase their pricing across the board to help compensate. That leaves us to either pay more for what should have been a quick and easy purchase or keeps us from making these types of purchases at all.

SmartPay has a perfect solution that makes it easy for both parties to quickly and easily make these smaller transactions a breeze. Their payment platform is specifically designed to accommodate these exact transaction that we encounter on a daily basis and it doesn't even require them to have any special equipment. The basic premise consists of QR codes that are either generated on their existing smartphone or tablet and in cases with preset pricing, they don't need anything except a sheet or sticker with the QR code. It only takes them about 10 minutes to set up the mobile app to start excepting payments. So customers merely need to scan the code for the payments to instantly be sent to the merchant from their mobile account.

It's such an interesting idea, not only for the simplicity of use but also the cost savings and it takes the multiple middlemen out of the processing of each payment transaction down to just two. And as if that weren't incredible enough, it also takes the banks out of the equation as the payments will now go straight through your mobile provider. According to their statistics, mobile operators already have approx. 5 billion customers, while banks have 2 billion. Payment technology on this level has the opportunity to streamline efficiency in much the same manner that the video streaming companies have with network and cable television viewing. We also love how many different uses it would be able to accommodate. It would make paying for lunch, or even things like bus fare, so much easier.

Their model also includes proximity marketing that will allow participating merchants the opportunity to send out digital campaigns that are designed to generate new leads, increase business and improve customer satisfaction and loyalty. Check out Vladimir's full interview to learn more about this blockchain solution and then head over to their website to find their roadmap for future platforms that include a web-based gift version and financial services.

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October 15, 2018 - Episode 509 (F5 Live: Refreshing Technology)

This week, Facebook wants to watch you cook, Microsoft wants to help you game, and WarnerMedia wants to stream its own content.

Intel 9th Generation Core - Episode 177 (Piltch Point)

This week, Avram Piltch has all of the information about Intel's newest generation of processors: the 9th Generation Core, also known as Coffee Lake Refresh. There is a trio of processors, an i5, i7, and i9. The i9 is the most interesting of the lot, upgrading the previous model, which had 6 cores, bringing an additional 2, for a total of 8. The launch did not come without controversy, however, as Intel's independent benchmark, run by Principled Technologies, was flawed at best. The company used standard cooling, standard RAM, and "game mode" on the AMD processor test while using an advanced cooler, overclocked RAM, and the full processor to test the Intel. Avram's got the details on the procs, the tests, and the responses.

Amidst Fresh on the Mind Privacy Problems, Facebook Announces Controversial Video Device

Anyone who is unaware of Facebook's privacy and security violations does not live in the same century as the rest of us. Between major controversies like Cambridge Analytica and their recent data breach, faith and trust in the company is not in a great place. All of that makes this week's announcement even more surprising: Facebook is launching Portal: an Alexa-powered smart display and video chatting device.

These new devices, dubbed Portal and Portal+, are, on the surface, pretty standard fare. They have a screen, a camera, and a microphone array. They respond to a voice command, in this case, "Hey Portal," and theoretically ignore all other content. They have video calling built-in, using Facebook Messenger, and use the microphone array to minimize background noise. Even the body of the base device looks nearly identical to an Echo Show Gen 2.

While the basics are pretty generic, there are some distinguishing features. For example, using some AI features, the camera is capable of some interesting tricks. As people move around in the frame, or people enter and exit the frame, the field of view can be adjusted automatically. It's like having a director of videography living in your kitchen. This is far from the first consumer product to offer a feature like this - even Skype offers a version - but none of them work quite as seamlessly as the Portal.

The really interesting aspect of the Portal has nothing to do with the product, and more to do with the timing and marketing. With such a low level of trust in the company and their handling of data, bringing out what amounts to a spy device right now has created an interesting scenario for the company: getting people to want a Portal in their home. They've gone to a lot of trouble in their marketing material to create a feeling of privacy. In fact, more of their website is dedicated to privacy than any other feature. Privacy seems to be the only feature that has a sub-page on the domain.

From little things like a camera cover to big things, like locally-running AI, they are talking a lot about privacy. They make one claim that others have made in the past, "Facebook doesn't listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you're calling." Usually, when other companies have made a big deal about this, it has turned out to be misleading at best, and an outright lie at worst. Facebook's track record makes me lean more to the latter than the former.

Are you interested in a Facebook Portal? Let us know in the comments.

Announcing a New Breakthrough Alert System for Meds with HEXIS (PLuGHiTz Live Special Events)

Many people old and young have problems keeping track of and remembering to take their medications. Lenny George and another co-founder have developed a wonderful adherence device, which they call HEXIS from CueMed. This device is a voice-enabled connected pill organizer designed to contain your meds. It can hold up to 7 days worth of pills, as many as 14 pills a day and can separate them into 4 groups per day. It comes in a smart-looking little tower that contains 7 containers for your medications. It is a very discreet way to have your meds handy without advertising that you are carrying them. HEXIS recognizes only your voice and will only respond to you, keeping your medication schedule private.

Lenny states that there are as much as 65% of prescription users that do not finish their meds. This can have very serious side effects, resulting in hospitalizations, and increased or recurring illnesses. He also tells of his co-founder having trouble with her thyroid meds. It seems that "life problems" get in the way as they do for so many people.

HEXIS keeps you on track by educating you that there are serious consequences to not taking them on time or at all. This device can also be work with other health devices such as Fitbit, glucose meters or blood pressure monitors or electronic scales that track your sleep, heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels. Proper monitoring is so very important to your health and HEXIS is a way to make it easy. This isn't just a pill organizer but it actually has an analytic approach to help you form and keep good health habits to ensure your improving health. They have gone through several prototypes to come up with the correct hardware solution that serves as your personal health coach.

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Apple Preventing People From Repairing Devices They Own

Over the past few years, the trend of electronics companies preventing consumers from making alterations to their devices has been on the rise. When it came to videogame consoles, one of the early implementors, it made some sense: altering a console could cause cheating, which is no fun for those who play legitimately. But, as the trend left gaming consoles, it went from a policy to protect a community to a policy to protect corporate profits.

We've seen phones and laptops seal their bodies, even preventing their owners from changing something as simple as a battery - a capability that both had previously had for decades. All of these changes have been made difficult or nearly impossible, but if you had the determination, you could make the repair and continue to use your device. All of that is about to change, however.

This week, it was revealed that Apple has made a change to its 2018 MacBook Pros and iMac Pros, updating a piece of hardware included in their computers specifically to punish people who want to fix a product they own. The new version of the chip, the T2, will temporarily self-destruct the computer if certain repairs or upgrades are performed without authorization. These actions include anything involving the display assembly, logic board, keyboard or trackpad, or Touch ID board. These are some of the most common and most expensive repairs, which causes owners to look for less expensive options. Unfortunately, to get the computer back up and running after a repair, Apple's Toolkit 2 has to be run to unlock the device.

In addition to being a downer to owners themselves, this policy change is going to add several new complications to the macOS ecosystem. First and foremost is computer repair stores. Most are not able to get certified Apple Authorized, which means that these companies will no longer be able to repair or upgrade these computers for their customers without making things worse.

This will also create a new complication for people looking to purchase a used Mac. Similar to Xbox, PlayStation, iPhone, and other devices, there is now a risk of purchasing a used Mac that is theoretically fully functional and even potentially upgraded, but which doesn't work.

This policy has nothing to do with security and everything to do with greed on Apple's part. Apple wants you to bring your computer to an Apple Store or an authorized repair center (which pays for that right), rather than taking it to your local computer shop, so that they can charge customers far above market rate for repairs. Hopefully, other manufacturers won't follow Apple's terrible lead in this area.

Amazon Announced a Line of Useful and Bizarre New Products

Any time Amazon holds a device announcement event, there is no telling what they might show off. This week, the company held a semi-surprise reveal and it did not disappoint in the surprise category. We were aware that there was a DVR coming and there were rumors of a microwave, but other than that, there was no preparing for the event, and that is exactly what Amazon was going for.

In this Alexa-themed event, Amazon showed off some of what we have come to expect: a new Echo Dot, a new Echo Plus, and a new Echo Show. These were existing products in the Amazon catalog that simply got an annual refresh. They also added some products to the lineup that were pretty standard, such as the Echo Input, which is simply an input for an existing speaker system, with a price point of $35. They also showed the Echo Auto, following the lead of some of their hardware partners, bringing Alexa to the car.

Then there were the less-than-expected products. For example, we had heard rumors of an AmazonBasics microwave earlier in the week, but what the product turned out to be was way stranger than we could have expected. The microwave is Alexa-controllable but does not have Alexa built-in. Instead, the microwave takes commands from Alexa devices, such as the Input, Dot or Show, and acts on them. During the presentation, the microwave cooked some potatoes through Alexa input. While Alexa might not be built-in, Dash is, meaning that you can easily replenish your waning popcorn reserves easily.

In addition to the microwave was arguably the strangest of all of the new products: the Echo Wall Clock. This is a fairly standard analog clock which, unlike other Echo-branded products, does not have Alexa built-in. So, what makes this clock special and, more importantly, bizarre? The ring of 60 LEDs around the outside of the clock face. When you set a timer through Alexa, on a different device, the rings will light up and help you count down the timer in 60-second ticks. For example, if you're in the kitchen and ask Alexa to remind you in 20 minutes to check the chicken, 20 of the 60 LEDs will light up and count you down. It's an interesting solution to a problem that I'm not sure exists. At least the clock is self-setting, auto-adjusting for Daylight Savings Time, and only runs $30.

In addition to Echo devices, Amazon also showed off the Fire TV Recast: the DVR product we heard details about last month. This $230 device allows you to connect an antenna wherever you get the best reception and watch the content itself, both live and recorded, somewhere more convenient. It certainly makes the configuration of an antenna-based entertainment system far more effective. Essentially, you can stream the content from the Borg Cube-looking device to just about any Fire TV or Tablet device, Echo show, iOS or Android device.

This product lineup feels a lot like the same Amazon that launched the Fire Phone: a company throwing a bunch of crazy ideas at the wall and hoping something sticks. The products that have the biggest potential to fail this time around, however, took a lot less research and development investment than the Fire Phone did. That means that, even if these products fail miserably, the loss to Amazon is lessened.

Which of Amazon's new products are you most excited for (if any)? Let us know in the comments.

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