Monthly Archive: July 2017

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Facebook Messenger’s personal assistant is about to get a lot better

Facebook has acquired an artificial intelligence (AI) startup.

The startup, called Ozlo, is based in Palo Alto, California, and according to Facebook, it’ll help Facebook develop its personal assistant in the Messenger app: “They’re just going to be working with [Messenger] to continue their work with artificial intelligence and machine learning,” a Facebook spokesperson told Recode[1]. The financial terms of the deal have yet to be disclosed.

Ozlo focuses on understanding text-based conversations and answering complex questions. On its website[2], you can see an AI assistant answering a question about whether a restaurant is “group friendly”. Ozlo has about 30 employees, and Facebook said a “majority” of that team will join the Messenger team in Facebook’s offices. But it’s unclear if Ozlo’s technology will be folded into Messenger.

In a statement, Ozlo said the following about its acquisition: 

“Now, we’re ready to take the next step in our journey with Messenger. By joining a team that shares our values and our vision, we will be able to continue to work on building experiences powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. There’s a lot more for us to explore ahead and we’re excited to bring our technology to the Messenger community.”

M is the personal assistant that Facebook introduced into Messenger earlier this year. It’s similar to other proactive assistants available. The only difference is that it doesn’t have a voice. It only offers suggestions by popping into an open Messenger conversation and suggesting relevant content, with the purpose of helping users communicate more efficiently and get things done.

Messenger’s M is completely automated and is meant to suggest helpful actions in your chat. M might also expose you to features you didn’t know were available in Messenger. However, months after debuting, it’s still rather limited in terms of functionality, and users still have no way of launching it on command. You can learn more about the feature from Pocket-lint’s guide[3].

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References

  1. ^ Recode (www.recode.net)
  2. ^ website (www.ozlo.com)
  3. ^ Pocket-lint’s guide (www.pocket-lint.com)
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First look: the Fitbit Charge 2 is a wearable fitness band with a great smartphone app

Fitbit Charge 2Image: Fitbit

The bad news is that my Microsoft Band 2 has died a painful death: despite being only 18 months old, the band has split and the battery won’t recharge. The good news is that I’ve just replaced it with a Fitbit Charge 2, picked up on Amazon Prime Day for around half the price: £88.39 (£64.49 plus £12.90 VAT) compared with the £169.99 I paid for my Band 2. I’m hoping this one will last longer…..

The bad news is that the Fitbit Charge 2’s small monochrome screen is no match for the Microsoft Band 2’s delightful AMOLED color display, or for the user interface that made it such a pleasure to use. The good news is that the Charge 2 provides better sleep and weight tracking – two of my main uses – and has a vastly superior smartphone app. (In both cases, I only used the apps on Android and Windows 10.)

For example, Fitbit’s app shows how your actual sleep patterns match your target hours, and adds a trend-line for weight tracking.

There’s nothing to choose in terms of comfort: I had no problems wearing both bands all the time. However, the Charge 2’s standard strap is fiddly to remove, and I will probably try one of the alternatives. This is possible because the Fitbit is a self-contained unit like, say, an Apple Watch. The Band 2’s strap is integrated and unremovable, because of the design decision to put the charger connection at the end of the band, instead of integrating it into the core unit.

The Charge 2 wins on battery life, which reflects its smaller, simpler, monochrome display. The Band 2 needed charging every other day. The Charge 2 goes five whole days – or slightly more – on a single charge.

Fitbit dashboard on the Android app

Fitbit dashboard on the Android app

The dashboard on Fitbit’s Android app provides easy access to well-presented data displays.

Image: Fitbit

The Band 2 wins hugely on notifications. The Charge 2 can vibrate briefly when you get a call, text or calendar event notification. After that, you have a minute to check it before it disappears, and it only shows the first 40 characters. It’s also somewhat tedious to set up notifications, and I suspect many users won’t bother.

Both the Band 2 and the Charge 2 include heart-rate monitors. I can’t say which of them is more accurate, only that the Charge 2 says my resting heart rate is higher than the Band 2 – typically 69 rather than 62. (Around 53 is typical for my age.)

The Charge 2 is slightly less useful as a wristwatch. Both bands are supposed to turn on the display when you twist your wrist to check the time. The Band 2 always worked and the Charge 2 doesn’t. (Mind you, it worked every time I tested it while writing this paragraph. Maybe it has an emergent AI… )

And as mentioned, the Charge 2 is much better for sleep tracking: it seems more accurate, and the app offers many more useful data displays.

The Charge 2 doesn’t provide the Band 2’s option to manually turn sleep tracking on and off, but the automatic detection seems to work perfectly. Unlike the Band 2, it hasn’t once registered a TV session as “sleep”. But perhaps it goes a little too far in the other direction.

The Band 2 is far too quick to register that you’re asleep, typically within three or four minutes. It also claimed I didn’t wake up in the night, even when I remember being awake enough to check the time. By contrast, the Charge 2 claims I keep waking up, even if I’m sure I was fast asleep.

On one night, for example, the Charge 2 reckons I woke up a dozen times and spent 27 minutes awake. Despite Fitbit’s disclaimer, I think I’d have noticed. Either way, I appear to be performing fairly well. Fitbit gives a benchmark range of 15-31 per cent awake time for men my age and I’m averaging 9 per cent.

The Charge 2 also reported 2 hours 25 minutes of REM sleep, 3 hours 13 minutes of Light sleep, and 1 hour 5 minutes of Deep sleep that night. Whether this means anything is open to argument, but at least the benchmarks assure me I’m getting more sleep – and slightly more deep sleep – than average.

The numbers you get from fitness bands may be of little practical use, but the benchmark comparisons are somewhat reassuring. If my numbers were radically different from other men of my age, I’d probably consult my doctor…

As I said in my Microsoft Band 2 review[1], fitness bands are gamification devices, not medical grade monitoring products. They’re a way of changing your behavior by setting goals and trying to beat them.

From this point of view, both bands have been a modest success. I’m getting more sleep, and I’ve lost a couple of kilos. The one area where I’ve failed is in doing a healthy amount of walking. In fact, I reduced my Charge 2 target from 5,000 steps a day to 3.500 just so I could see more wins than losses. Still, if taking a pointless walk around the block will earn me a star then I’ll do it, so even failing is better than nothing.

All round, the Fitbit Charge 2 seems like a good product at a reasonable price. I’ll miss the Surface Band 2, but I no longer think I’d buy a Band 3 if Microsoft changed its mind about making one. The device might be better, but it would have to improve the app dramatically to win me back.

References

  1. ^ my Microsoft Band 2 review (www.zdnet.com)
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Amazon suspends sales of Blu phones due to privacy concerns

amazon-blu-r1-hd-4253-004.jpg

The Blu R1 HD had previously gotten into hot water for sharing user data. 

CNET

Amazon just put budget phone maker Blu in the penalty box. 

The online retailing giant told CNET that it was suspending sales of phones from Blu, known for making ultra-cheap handsets, due to a “potential security issue.”

The move comes after security firm Kryptowire demonstrated last week how software in Blu’s phones collected data and sent it to servers in China without alerting people[1]. Blu defended the software, created by a Chinese company called Shanghai Adups Technology, and denied any wrongdoing. A company spokeswoman said at the time it “has several policies in place which take customer privacy and security seriously.” She added there had been no breaches. 

Blu wasn’t immediately available to comment on the Amazon move. 

prime Screenshot by Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

The issue of privacy and how data is collected is a hot topic thanks to a year’s worth of reports about Russian hacking[2] and its intrusion into the 2016 presidential race, as well as news in the last few months about ransomware attacks[3] that hijack people’s computers, to be unlocked (if you’re lucky) for a fee.

Amazon, for one, wasn’t taking any chances. 

“Because security and privacy of our customers is of the utmost importance, all BLU phone models have been made unavailable for purchase on Amazon.com until the issue is resolved,” Amazon said in a statement.

Amazon directed customers to contact Blu’s customer support. 

Blu may not be a household name like Apple or Samsung, but the company found success selling phones at a fraction of the price of an iPhone. The Blu R1 HD[4] sold for $60, compared with the starting price of $650 for Apple’s flagship phone. 

Blu was one of the key participants in Amazon’s “Prime Exclusive Phones” program[5], which offered steep discounts on phones to its members in exchange for ads on their lockscreen. Blu is no longer listed on the page[6]

Blu cited Krytopwire executive Tom Karygiannis as saying the company didn’t do anything wrong, although Karygiannis later told CNET that he didn’t authorize Blu to make a public statement on his behalf. He confirmed that he spoke to Amazon to give the retailer data on his findings. 

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter. Here’s what they’re up to.[7]

Logging Out: Welcome to the crossroads of online life and the afterlife.[8]

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T-Mobile will say goodbye to its revamped Windows app in late August

Why it matters to you

If you’re a T-Mobile customer with a device operating on Windows 10, you will only be able to access the T-Mobile app until the end of August.

T-Mobile confirmed it will be ending support for its Windows mobile app only a year after revamping it, Neowin reports[1]. The news was brought to users through the carrier’s Windows app itself, explaining it will no longer be supported starting August 25.

For users still on the app, they will receive a message that reads, “Thanks for being an awesome T-Mobile customer! We’re always finding new ways to provide you with the best experience possible. Unfortunately, our Windows app will no longer be supported beginning 8/25/2017. Moving forward, you’ll be able to manage your account at My.T-Mobile.com[2].”

The latest phone to be launched with Windows 10 was the Alcatel Idol 4S[3] in November, with support for Continuum, Cortana, and the finger sensor for Windows Hello. Alcatel’s virtual reality headset that came bundled with the device also worked with the Windows variant.

Ending support for the Windows app comes shortly after the T-Mobile stopped selling the Alcatel Idol 4S[4] — marking the end of the Uncarrier offering any Windows phones at all. For those interested in the phone, Alcatel’s official website[5] redirects you to unlocked versions of the device available through Amazon.

Only a few weeks ago, Microsoft also ended support for Windows Phone 8.1[6] and announced that it will not receive any future updates. With the end of the 8.1 operating system, Windows 10 is the remaining active platform for the few devices able to run it. According to AdDuplex[7], about 76.3 percent of phones running Windows are still on 8.1. with only 17 percent on Windows 10.

Analysts add it is likely that users are abandoning these devices for Android and iOS. Even though T-Mobile redesigned the Windows version of its app to be up to speed on both the iPhone and Android — including a new user interface and additional features — it clearly still was not enough.

Windows 10 is also most likely on its way by fall 2018. While Microsoft combined the Windows Phone brand with Windows 10 in 2016, the Creators Update did not include any extreme feature additions for the devices. The operating system also lacks apps available on both the Google Play Store or Apple’s App store, and the only updates seem to be bug fixes or security patches.

References

  1. ^ Neowin reports (www.neowin.net)
  2. ^ My.T-Mobile.com (my.t-mobile.com)
  3. ^ Alcatel Idol 4S (www.digitaltrends.com)
  4. ^ Alcatel Idol 4S (www.digitaltrends.com)
  5. ^ Alcatel’s official website (alcatelonetouch.us)
  6. ^ Windows Phone 8.1 (www.digitaltrends.com)
  7. ^ AdDuplex (www.slideshare.net)