Monthly Archives: November 2016

Smarter Connected Car

In a couple of interesting briefings last week, BlackBerry announced that its turnaround was finished, and Microsoft finally provided some information on its new connected car deliverables.

One strange thing was that after CEO John Chen excitedly pointed out that BlackBerry had displaced Microsoft in Ford, he then announced a strategic initiative to work more closely with Microsoft’s Azure platform on BlackBerry’s own market-leading QNX car operating system. That showcased not only the massive changes in both companies, but also the really strange way this market is evolving.

I’ll close with my product of the week: a very low-cost wearable smartphone display that could get you through your next dentist appointment or boring sermon.

 

BlackBerry’s QNX

With all the focus on the coming autonomous car and on BlackBerry’s old phone business, most don’t know that QNX, the operating system that BlackBerry acquired, is dominant in the car market, largely for car operations. To give you an idea, it currently is in 60M — yes, that’s million — cars. It is ranked No. 1 in telematics and automotive software entertainment, and its main advantage is that it just works and continues to meet all of the car companies’ start of product deadlines.

Chances are that if you like the software running the different parts of your car, it is QNX. The car companies like it because it is very secure, their own software developers know it (it’s been dominant for a number of years), and it works on both 32- and 64-bit hardware platforms from folks like Intel, Qualcomm and Nvidia.

As you’d expect from any modern system, it is set up for over-the-air updates, similar to Tesla. In effect, QNX has become the equivalent of Android or Windows, but for the car — and it dominates the segment.

BlackBerry introduced the Karma folks at the briefing to talk about their most advanced offerings. Karma is what became of Fisker — the firm that tried, with somesignificant drama, to compete with Tesla. (Karma also showcased why Tesla’s decision to use Panasonic batteries turned out to be brilliant.)

Karma’s current car is physically identical to the Fisker Karma, with the exception that all of the electronics have been revamped completely, so it now is reliable. (I was an old Jaguar mechanic, and given the issues the Fisker had with its electronics, I’ve always wondered if they were done by Lucas electrics, which were almost always at the heart of Jaguar reliability issues in the 1960s and 70s.)

However, I spoke to the Karma executives at the event, and their point was that it took them only 15 days to bring up the software on their redeveloped car. (By the way, the new Karma is about US$140K, and it is still a looker.)

BlackBerry currently is pivoting to support the next generation of technology, which includes autonomous vehicles.

Now you’d think that Microsoft and BlackBerry would be at each other’s throats. While BlackBerry has pivoted away from focusing exclusively on secure phones and email, Microsoft has pivoted away from its focus on tools and operating systems.

 

Microsoft: It’s About Azure

Microsoft has changed a lot over the last several years, since Satya Nadella has been running the firm. I really didn’t get that initially, so the company had to set up a special retraining meeting. I had covered Microsoft for so long that my brain apparently was hard coded to think of it in just one way — and it isn’t that company any more.

Microsoft’s big push with automotive is with Azure now, which is a good thing, because its in-car efforts over the last two decades weren’t that great.

I actually had an AutoPC for a number of years. It was very advanced for its time, but truly flawed — so much so that my wife still threatens to throw something at me — and in those early years it was the AutoPC — if I ever suggest something like that again.

To be fair, that product was crippled by an underperforming processor — but I have to say, there is no misery like having a GPS system that can’t navigate at anything exceeding 25 miles per hour. Of course, I put the AutoPC in her new car, not my own, which in hindsight likely wasn’t that wise. (Yes, I’m also often surprised I’m still married.)

Tube Test in Hyperloop Pod Competition

Elon Musk’s hyperloop dream began to take shape in reality last weekend as 27 teams, including six from outside the United States, participated in a competition to create the mass transit vehicle of the future.

The competition in Hawthorne, California, sponsored by SpaceX, which Musk founded, attracted teams made up mostly of students who created pods designed to run on hyperloop transportation systems.

In a hyperloop system, the vehicles, or pods, travel in a vacuum in tubes at speeds close to the speed of sound. To do that, the pods have to be suspended slightly off the ground, typically by riding on a magnetic field.

For its competition, SpaceX built a test chamber that was three-quarters of a mile long and six feet wide. The company capped the speed at which a pod could go at around 50 miles per hour.

In order to get to test its pod in the vacuum chamber, a team had to pass a rigorous 101-point review. Only three teams could do that: Delft University of Technology of The Netherlands; Technical University of Munich, Germany; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

Kind of a Drag

Operating in a vacuum is important to hyperloop systems because it reduces friction. “Hyperloop is all about friction,” said Adonios Karpetis, a faculty advisor to the Texas A&M aerospace team, which competed at the event.

“You have to minimize the air friction in the tube,” he told TechNewsWorld.

By creating a vacuum or near-vacuum in the tube, the drag of the vehicle is nearly eliminated, which allows it to reach tremendous speeds, as high as 700 miles per hour. By contrast, a Boeing 747 has a cruising speed of 570 miles per hour.

“It’s like operating a ground-based vehicle at an altitude of 100,000 feet where the air is very thin,” said Rick Williams, an advisor to Auburn University’s hyperloop team.

A hyperloop vehicle has an advantage over an aircraft, though.

“Once the vehicle reaches its cruising speed, it will coast for a long ways because of the minimal drag,” Williams told TechNewsWorld.

“From an energy standpoint, it’s going to be significantly lower,” he said.

Police Cams Days Before Inauguration

A ransomware attack darkened the video surveillance system of the District of Columbia’s police department eight days before the presidential inauguration of Donald J. Trump.

Video storage devices for 70 percent of the CCTV system were unable to record anything between Jan. 12 and Jan. 15, as police techies scrambled to combat malicious software found on 123 of 187 networked video recorders, The Washington Post reported Friday.

However, the safety of the public was never in jeopardy during the camera blackout, Brian Ebert, a Secret Service official, told the Post.

Although the city has characterized the malicious software it found as ransomware, no ransom demand appears to have been made. The city resolved the problem by taking the storage devices offline, removing all their software and then restarting them.

The city is investigating who might be behind the hack, which affected only CCTV cameras monitoring public areas and did not reach deeper into the city’s networks, the Post reported.

 

Blind Deterrent

Closed circuit cameras can be important for collecting evidence about a crime. Fortunately for the D.C. police, that wasn’t an issue while some of its network was disabled.

“If a crime had been committed in an area and its compromised camera held important evidence, then they might have found themselves in trouble,” said Bob Hansmann, director of security analysis and strategyForcepoint.

“In this case, they were lucky and nothing crucial happened,” he told TechNewsWorld.

In addition, cameras have a deterrent effect whether they’re working or not.

“In this instance, it was beneficial that the general public did not know about the attack when it happened,” noted James Scott, a senior fellow with the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology.

“So long as the attack was not common knowledge, the camera itself acted as a deterrent to crime, because potential offenders were not aware that it was infected with ransomware,” he told TechNewsWorld.

 

Attractive Target

Other municipal infrastructures have been targeted in similar ways in the past. A ransomware attack last fall took down the ticket machines for San Francisco’s light rail system for about a day.

“We’re going to see more and more of these kinds of attacks this year,” said Stephen Gates, chief research intelligence analyst with Nsfocus.

“This is a perfect example of hackers taking advantage of these municipal systems. They can cause all sorts of havoc,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“We’re seeing more and more ransomware attacks against the IoT, which is a disturbing trend,” said Jean-Philippe Taggart, a senior security researcher with Malwarebytes.

“CCTVs, hotel locks, libraries, hospitals — the criminals have a wealth of potential targets to choose from,” he told TechNewsWorld.

 

Feasting on IoT

Ransomware extortionists are feasting on the Internet of Things, maintained Simon Crosby, CTO of Bromium.

To prevent these attacks, devices need to be shielded so they’re not exposed on the Internet where hackers can find them, he said.

“Right now, attackers are having a field day finding exploitable systems that infrastructure operators either do not recognize are Internet-facing or think their exposure is too obscure for criminals to find, which is a very dangerous assumption,” Crosby told TechNewsWorld.

In addition to being discovered easily by hackers, networks of IoT devices have another problem: diversity.

“Fleets of PCs can be protected with uniform defenses, but what do you install on rail kiosks, video cameras, cars or televisions?” Crosby asked.

High Powered AI Partnership

The group plans to announce additional details sometime after the board’s Feb. 3 meeting in San Francisco, including how other organizations and individuals can join. It also will address initial research programs and activities.

The board will oversee general activities of the Partnership on AI, and an executive steering committee will commission and evaluate activities within the overall objectives and scope set up by the board of trustees. The board will appoint an executive director, who will oversee day-to-day operations.

The Partnership on AI, announced last fall, aims to advance public understanding of artificial intelligence and formulate best practices. It plans to conduct publish research under an open license on areas such as ethics, privacy, fairness, inclusivity, transparency and privacy.

 

Closely Held

The announcement of Apple’s participation is particularly significant in light of the company’s well-earned reputation for organizational secrecy. There recently have been signs of blowback against that corporate culture, both inside and outside of the organization.

Apple last fall hired Carnegie Mellon’s Russ Salakhutdinov as its first director of AI research, and he soon announced a policy change that would allow the company’s AI researchers to begin publishing the results of their work, a practice that previously had been out of bounds for Apple employees.

As for why Apple decided to join the partnership now, “Apple does things if and when it wants to, on its own timeline,” observed Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

“The company may also have wanted to see how the group’s members were organizing themselves, whether they were serious, and how sustainable the effort appeared” before it took that step, he told TechNewsWorld.

 

Common Interests

Tom Gruber and others at Apple have been working behind the scenes, “communicating and collaborating” with members of the board since before it launched last fall, said company rep Jenny Murphy.

“Apple provided input into the organization’s [memorandum of understanding] and the organization’s tenets,” she told TechNewsWorld. “Apple wasn’t able to formalize its membership in time for the September announcement, but is thrilled now to be officially joining PAI as a founding member.”

It makes sense that Apple would join, as the partnership is about communicating AI to consumers and policymakers, noted Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research.