Make a notebook, fanbois

A 16-inch MacBook Pro – with a freshly designed keyboard that isn’t trashed by dust and includes a “physical” escape key – has landed, but it won’t come cheap, costing the same as a modest family holiday or a second hand car.

The $2,799 portable has a Retina display and some beefy but by no means unique specs, starting with a 2.3GHz eight-core ninth-generation Intel Core i9 processor, 16GB of RAM, an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU with 4GB of GDDR6 memory, and 1TB of SSD storage. The $2,399 version has a six-core Core i7 processor, 512GB of storage, and a Radeon Pro 5300M.

In the UK, swap dollars for pounds, such is Apple’s magical currency conversion rate. A fully loaded 16-inch MacBook Pro, with the Core i9, 64GB of RAM, Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB, and 8TB of storage, will set you back more than six grand.

Apple was quick to point out the “world’s best pro notebook” will not, happily, include the butterfly keyboard that, since its release in late 2016, has caused some customers to get hot under the collar.

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Basically, the keyboard mechanism has been prone to failure and was said by repair gurus iFixit to be “easily paralysed by particle matter” and “difficult to repair”. Its problems led to lawsuits that encouraged Apple to offer a free repair service and replacements.

The new Magic Keyboard that replaces it has what was described as a “refined scissor mechanism” which Apple expects will deal with the flaw. The new keyboard should also give you 1mm of key travel and pack a “responsive key press”, promised Apple, which, not to be outdone, even packs an actual, “physical Escape key”…

Previously, MacBook users had to assign esc key functionality to another key or access it via the function keys on the Touch Bar. Now, as if you were some kind of cool wizard PC user from the late ’80s, you can press esc itself – no intermediary steps – like it’s nothing.

Sarcasm aside, this shows Apple has been listening to developers, who’ve often got no option to reassign another key, and prefer the feedback they get with a physical key to the fiddly touchscreen response.

“Our pro customers tell us they want their next MacBook Pro to have a larger display, blazing-fast performance, the biggest battery possible, the best notebook keyboard ever, awesome speakers and massive amounts of storage, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers all of that and more,” claimed Apple’s senior director of Mac and iPad product marketing, Tom Boger.

The device will be in US Apple Stores and in the palms of its American authorised reseller crew later this week, while stores around the rest of the world will be stocked “soon”, said Cupertino. ®

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It’s happening!

Vodafone has replaced 2,600 roles with “600 bots” as part of a “long-lasting structural opportunity to reduce cost”, the company revealed in its half-year results earnings call.

The telco has a growing debt pile following its acquisition of Liberty Global’s European assets this quarter and a hit of €1.8bn due to India’s decision to change the way it charges telcos for using airwaves.

It also said restructuring costs were €200m higher, reflecting reorganisations in both Italy and Spain.

Debt grew to €48.1bn by the end of Q2 compared to €27bn in March 2019. The increase primarily reflects cash outflows of €18.5bn relating to the acquisition of Liberty’s assets, it said.

Group chief financial officer Margherita Della Valle outlined some of the company’s existing cost-cutting plans.

“A key lever here is Vodafone Shared Services, where we currently have 22,000 employees, providing the group with a best-in-class cost structure below what could be achievable by third-party outsourcers. VSS is our global centre of excellence for robotic process automation and AI.

“We currently have over 600 bots in our bot farm, and we have already reduced 2,600 roles in the last 18 months. Given the magnitude of the opportunity and our systematic approach to implementing these initiatives at speed across the group, I’m highly confident that we have a long-lasting structural opportunity to reduce costs.”

Jon Davies, head of digital at Vodafone, said last year its chatbot TOBi was delivering double the conversion rate of its website.

The bot began life handling FAQs through webchat, as well as end-to-end sales of SIM plans, and is currently being integrated with backend data, allowing it to answer questions about customer accounts. The next phase will be to introduce it into kiosks in store to allow people to carry out transactions such as pay-as-you-go top-ups.

During the call the business was also asked about its recent FTTP wholesale deal with Openreach covering 500,000 premises, despite already having an agreement in place with CityFibre to deliver fibre to 1 million premises by 2021.

Nick Jeffries, Vodafone UK CEO, said the firm was switching to a “dual sourcing” model for its fibre. “We can do the CityFibre deal and still be able to do other arrangements with other players. What we want is access to gigabit speeds at acceptable economics.

“And I think that what I was pleased about with the Openreach offer is these economics are a lot more comparable to what we have with CityFibre. So finally, they stepped forward with a model that we could, let’s say, find sufficiently attractive.” ®

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Has it found an investor in £1.5bn venture to build 3 million FTTP connections?

TalkTalk has today delayed its financial results due to “advanced negotiations with interested parties regarding its FibreNation business”.

The budget Brit ISP is currently hoping to roll out full-fibre broadband to three million homes via sister company FibreNation and has been in the process of winning funding for the £1.5bn venture.

Following its initial York Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) build with Sky and CityFibre back in 2015, TalkTalk had announced a joint venture infrastructure fund to fund further build-outs.

But as Philip Carse, analyst at Megabuyte, noted, the deal was ripped up in November 2018 when TalkTalk instead announced a new FTTP business, FibreNation, and began its search for a funding partner in May/June 2019.

FibreNation recently began its rollout to 61,000 premises in Dewsbury in August, with further plans to reach 100,000 premises in Harrogate, Knaresborough and Ripon.

Carse said: “Our working assumption is that TalkTalk will sell a majority stake in FibreNation to an investor or strategic partner, thus retaining an interest in the upside but taking the investment requirements and startup losses off its own balance sheet and P&L.”

He said TalkTalk will likely be pitching for a valuation that mirrors other fibre deals, such Infracapital’s £270m takeover of rural broadband provider Gigaclear, and reflect the fact that it has a ready-made customer base to migrate to the new networks.

“Due to ongoing advanced negotiations with interested parties regarding its FibreNation business, TalkTalk will update on its FY20 Interim results by the end of the week,” it told the stock market this morning.

Since ditching its mobile division last year, TalkTalk has been keen to concentrate on its core broadband business.

In its last third-quarter trading update for the three months to June, TalkTalk said it had been making “good progress on finding an infrastructure investment partner for FibreNation”. Total revenue rose 1.3 per cent to £187m for the quarter compared to the same period last year. ®

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Apple has unveiled the latest version of its 16in MacBook Pro laptop computer – and it features a newly designed keyboard.

The keyboards on some older MacBook Pros, which used an internal “butterfly” mechanism, had been described by some as uncomfortable.

Besides the new keyboard, the model also includes a high-resolution Retina Display and up to 64GB of memory.

Dieter Bohn, at The Verge, wrote the new keyboard had “major improvements”.

Since 2015, the keyboards on MacBook Pro computers have divided opinion, with some saying the butterfly mechanism made them less easy to type on.

The new MacBook Pro’s keys use a scissor-switch style action. The physical Esc, or escape, button has also been reinstated.

It had been replaced by a virtual Touch Bar button on some previous models.

The virtual Touch Bar remains in place at the top of the keyboard, however, as does a fingerprint sensor.

There are few pieces of hardware that have caused me quite so much frustration as the keyboards on its recent MacBooks. The T key on my current machine is flapping about like a dead fingernail.

Previously I’ve had to have the entire thing replaced thanks to keys either being dead, or over eeeeeeeeeeeenthusiastic, thanks to some minor dust or dirt.

Even though these repairs are free, this isn’t good enough for what should be the leading premium laptop on the market – and once-loyal Apple fans had run out of patience with the company.

The keys use what’s known as “butterfly” switches, designed under the watch of Sir Jony Ive, the recently-departed Apple design guru.

When unveiled, the firm called it a breakthrough that allowed for slimmer laptops, thanks to the miniscule amount of “travel” – the distance the keys move under your fingers.

What Apple seemed to miss was that many users liked the satisfaction of pressing a key – and the old MacBooks had it just right. Sir Jony had taken the equivalent of a fine Parker pen and swapped it for a chewed up Bic prone to leaking.

I wasn’t among the journalists invited by Apple to get an early look at the new MacBook, but long-time Apple commentator John Gruber was.

“It’s hard not to speculate that all of these changes are, to some degree, a de-Jony-Ive-ification of the keyboard,” he noted, suggesting a change of focus now the revered 52-year-old has left.

“I’m not sure I know anyone who would disagree that over the last five to six years, Apple’s balance of how things work versus how things look has veered problematically toward making things look better - hardware and software - at the expense of how they function.”

By redesigning the keyboard, Apple is attempting to show customers that it listens to them, said Ranjit Atwal at market analysis firm Gartner.

“What you expect from Apple is incrementally better products and the last time round it wasn’t incrementally better,” he told the BBC.

“They had to go and [rethink] the keyboard given the feedback.”

Mr Atwal said that while Apple’s MacBook Pros have some dedicated fans, the number of users who buy them is “not huge”.

“The challenge here is how to increase the install base,” he added.

Apple is also touting the laptop’s improved ability to keep cool, thanks in part to fans with larger blades and vents allowing for a 28% increase in air flow.

For graphical performance, the computer also includes an AMD Radeon Pro 5000M graphics card, which Apple says will mean smoother game play and faster rendering of effects in design programs.

The new MacBook Pro starts at $2,399 (or £2,399 in the UK) and is now available to order from Apple’s website.

A worldwide launch in Apple’s High Street stores will follow.

An Apple Store employee allegedly texted himself an “extremely personal” photo of a woman from her phone after she took the device to be repaired.

Gloria Fuentes brought her phone to a shop in California last week, after removing some personal data from it.

However, she alleged via Facebook, an employee had found an intimate photo on the device and sent it to himself.

Apple said it had investigated the incident and the worker was no longer associated with the company.

‘Rush over’

Ms Fuentes’s story was first reported by the Washington Post.

She said she had made an effort to remove personal information, such as financial data, from her iPhone before taking the device in to be repaired.

“I was going to delete all the pictures from my phone too but forgot because they were texting me that they moved my appointment time up, so I was trying to rush over there,” she said via Facebook.

The employee who worked on her phone had spent “quite a while” with it and asked her for her passcode twice, she wrote.

‘Deeply concerning’

It was only when Ms Fuentes had returned home that, she said, she had realised her phone had been used to send a text to an unfamiliar number.

“This guy went through my gallery and sent himself one of my extremely personal pictures that I took for my boyfriend and it had my geolocation on, so he also knows where I live,” she said.

“I could not express how disgusted I felt and how long I cried after I saw this.”

Ms Fuentes said she had returned to the Apple Store but the employee in question had claimed he did not know how the text had been sent.

Apple said it was grateful to the customer for bringing the “deeply concerning situation” to its attention.

“Apple immediately launched an internal investigation and determined that the employee acted far outside the strict privacy guidelines to which we hold all Apple employees,” the company said in a statement to the Washington Post.

“He is no longer associated with our company,”

In her Facebook post, Ms Fuentes said she would press charges against the former employee.

Was UK even really in the running?

‘Leccy car baron and space botherer Elon Musk has unveiled a surprising pick of Berlin for the company’s European “Gigafactory 4”, quickly following up by blabbing to car mag Auto Express that “Brexit had made it too risky to put a Gigafactory in the UK.”

Speaking at the Golden Steering Wheel Awards, Musk said last night the new European Gigafactory battery facility would be based in the Berlin ‘burbs, close to the site of the as-yet-unopened Willy Brandt Airport at Berlin Brandenburg. The Model 3 picked up Germany’s Midsize Car of the Year gong at the evening, beating the BMW 3 Series and Audi A3.

His Muskness later tweeted that Tesla would build “batteries, powertrains and vehicles” at the Berlin plant, starting with the all-electric compact crossover utility vehicle, Model Y.

The news comes three years after Musk’s firm acquired specialist automative plant machine manufacturer Grohmann Engineering – now Tesla Grohmann Engineering – based in the town of Prüm, in the Eifel mountains in west Germany, a full 677km, seven-hour-plus drive from Germany’s capital in the northeast.

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Berlin is an interesting choice of city, given that engineering (and other) salaries are naturally higher in the capital, not to mention the pick of Germany itself, which is known for its progressive labour policy, so much so that even Jeff Bezos’ Amazon was strongarmed into paying good wages after multiple strikes supported by Germany’s unions and legislation.

In the March following the Grohmann acquisition, the firm’s founder, Klaus Grohmann, left the company, reportedly because of a disagreement over focusing on Tesla projects rather than those of German-based rivals Daimler and BMW, chatty sources told Reuters at the time, although this was never confirmed. The company also helped build production facilities for electric car batteries for legacy clients.

At the time, Tesla outlined plans “to add over 1,000 advanced engineering and skilled technician jobs in Germany over the next two years”. We’ve asked Tesla for comment on how close it is to that goal.

Earlier this month, Tesla surprised the stock market by posting a profit of $143m for its third quarter, a light moment after it lost over $1bn in the first half of the year amid struggles to control costs around its production lines. It turned over $6.3bn for the three months compared to $6.5bn the year before. Musk said during the Q3 briefing earlier this month that the Shanghai factory had created a template that could be followed in Europe – although we note Tesla is still waiting for final licensing and government approval in China.

Tesla said it delivered 97,000 vehicles – 79,600 Model 3s and 17,400 Model S and X vehicles – in its latest quarter, just short of the 99,000 it predicted. The company predicted earlier this year that deliveries for 2019 would fall between 360,000 and 400,000, meaning it would have to ramp delivery this final quarter to about 105,000 vehicles. ®

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An advert suggesting that children could gain likes and followers to progress through an app has been banned by the UK’s advertising watchdog.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that the phrase “get likes and followers to level up” could have a “detrimental effect on youngsters’ mental health and self-esteem”.

The ad was “likely to cause harm” and was “irresponsible”, it added.

PopJam argued that its app encouraged “positive digital engagement”.

It pointed to other ways to make progress through the app, such as by sharing drawings and taking part in quizzes and creative challenges.

SuperAwesome Trading, the firm behind PopJam, argued that the app – designed for seven to 12 year olds – was a walled garden of social content “designed to ensure [childrens’] privacy, safety and well being.”

It said that likes and followers in the app did not signify social status, rather they were there to help progress through the levels on the app.

The television advertisement was seen in July on CITV with large text stating “likes” and “followers”, with an image of a number rising quickly from 96 to 10,000, while a female voiceover stated, “Get likes and followers to level up.”

The ASA said in its ruling: “We considered [the ad] explicitly encouraged children to seek likes and followers in order to progress through the app”.

It acknowledged that there were other ways of advancing in the app, but said that these were not explained in the ad.

“We considered that the suggestion that the acquisition of likes and followers was the only means of progression was likely to give children the impression that popularity on social media was something that should be pursued because it was desirable in its own right.”

The ad must not be broadcast again in its current form, it concluded.

According to an Ofcom report, 78% of 12 to 15 year olds feel pressure to look popular on social media.

This was acknowledged by PopJam, but it said the report also recognised that nine in 10 children of the same age stated that social media also made them feel happy and closer to their friends.

Google is to be investigated over how it is accessing US patient data via a major health firm, the Wall Street Journal reports.

An office of the US Department of Health and Human Services will examine the details of a deal dubbed “Project Nightingale”.

Google said patient data was “secure”.

Separately, in the UK, the Financial Times (FT) reports that popular health websites are sharing sensitive data with firms including Google.

The Project Nightingale deal with Ascension – a firm that runs 2,600 hospitals in the US – attracted criticism from some when the Wall Street Journal revealed that Google could access patient data without them being notified.

Among those who expressed concern was Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.

“Privacy protections, particularly when it comes to personal info like your health, is a high priority of mine,” she said via Twitter.

However, in a blog, Google argued that the deal “adheres to industry-wide regulations” and that access to patient data by its employees was controlled.

The tech giant said patient data would not be combined with customer data from other parts of its business.

It added that it was “happy to co-operate” with the federal inquiry.

In its own blog, Ascension said it looked forward to developing artificial intelligence tools for medical purposes with Google’s help.

Websites’ data shared

News of Project Nightingale coincided with an FT investigation that revealed how popular health websites in the UK frequently shared personal data with companies including Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Websites such as WebMD and Bupa used cookies – code added to web browsers – that allowed other companies to track users’ activity on the web.

The kind of data shared from health websites to others included medical symptoms, diagnoses, and menstrual and fertility information, as well as the names of drugs.

Google told the FT it had strict policies preventing advertisers from using sensitive data to target ads.

Richard Taylor attends the LA Adobe MAX Creative Conference for BBC Click.

Each year in LA 15,000 artists and storytellers flock to the conference to see the latest tools they will be able to mix into their creative palates.

So what is new this year?

See more at Click’s website and @BBCClick

Massachusetts judge reminds America of that little thing called the Fourth Amendment

The seizure and search of phones and laptops at the US border is unconstitutional, a judge said Tuesday in a landmark ruling.

Massachusetts district court judge Denise Casper declared [PDF] that the practice breaks the Fourth Amendment on unreasonable search, and that border agents need to have a “reasonable suspicion” of illegal activity before they can search electronic devices.

“The CBP [Customs and Border Protection] and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] policies for ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ searches, as presently defined, violate the Fourth Amendment to the extent that the policies do not require reasonable suspicion that the devices contain contraband for both such classes of non-cursory searches and/or seizure of electronic devices,” Casper declared.

As such, she noted, “the non-cursory searches and/or seizures of Plaintiffs’ electronic devices, without such reasonable suspicion, violated the Fourth Amendment.”

Despite ruling that such searches are unconstitutional, the judge declined to issue an injunction that would require border agents to get a warrant before probing such devices or to have “probable cause” before searching a device. That means border agents will continue to be able to search devices at the border, though will have to justify doing so.

A senior lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation that fought the case, Adam Schwartz, told The Register that he is confident the decision will have a real-world impact on what happens at the border.

“There are all kinds of checks if there is a requirement for reasonable suspicion,” he noted, in large part because a judge would throw out any evidence in a subsequent trial if there wasn’t found to be reasonable suspicion when a device was searched. Equally, if innocent people had their phones searched without reasonable suspicion they could file a lawsuit claiming injury.

Frontline officers can expect to have a supervisor “look over their shoulders” if they decide there is in fact a reasonable suspicion that someone has “digital contraband” on their devices.

A big win

The decision is a huge win for privacy advocates and the 11 plaintiffs that brought the case back in 2017. Ten of the plaintiffs are US citizens and one is a permanent resident. It’s not clear whether the ruling will apply to all visitors to the United States or just citizens and permanent residents, but Schwartz argues that the “logic should be” that all visitors are given equal protections.

(Bear in mind, if you show up on a visa, you can be turned away for whatever reason, realistically speaking.)

The judge addressed the point on citizens and immigrants briefly. She notes that nothing presented by the government makes the case that any “evidence would be contained on the electronic devices, particularly of plaintiffs, all US citizens and one lawful resident alien, that would prevent their admission.”

She goes on: “Even as to an alien, where CBP posits that an electronic device might contain contradictory information about his/her intentions to work in the US contrary to the limitations of a visa, there is no indication as to the frequency of same or the necessity of unfettered access to the trove of personal information on electronic devices for this purpose.”

She also repeatedly dismisses the government’s main argument in favor of being allowed to search electronic devices – the possible discovery of child abuse images. “The record of the prevalence of such digital contraband encountered at the border remains unclear.”

“Given the dearth of information of the prevalence of digital contraband entering the US at the border, the Court cannot conclude that requiring a showing of some cause to search digital devices would obviate the deterrent effect of the border search exception.”

All that said, it is a virtual certainty that the case will be appealed to the Supreme Court and the judge effectively acknowledges as much in her lengthy 48-page judgment.

Quote unquote

The judgment falls down very firmly on the side of the plaintiffs in asserting that the search of electronic devices at the border is not justified under the current rules. In reaching that decision, she quotes extensively from other judgments, particularly Supreme Court judgments.

Most integral to her argument is another landmark decision (Riley) by the Supreme Court where it found, unanimously, that the warrantless search and seizure of digital contents of a mobile phone during an arrest is unconstitutional.

Among the many arguments taken from that Riley decision, Judge Casper that it “rejected the notion that searches of electronic devices are comparable to searches of physical items or persons” – a key argument put forward by the government in this case.

As the Supreme Court noted in that case: “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.”

The judgment extensively picks apart the government’s defense and even throws out a recent change made by the CBP over how it does searches. Thanks in large part to this case, the CBP in January 2018 created two different categories of searches – basic and advanced – in an effort to retain its ability to search any electronic device at its agents’ discretion.

A “basic” search would not require anything more than an agent’s say-so, whereas an “advanced” search, using forensic software, required an additional level of authorization. But the judge refused to accept the distinction and declared that there were effectively the same thing, with both searches breaking the Fourth Amendment.

“Even a basic search alone may reveal a wealth of personal information,” she notes. “Such information can be accessed during not just the forensic searches under the CBP and ICE policies, but also under a basic search.”

Border law

At the same time, the judge goes to some length to reflect other decisions by the Supreme Court highlighted by the government in its case that the border represents a unique place legally. However, she repeatedly makes the same argument: that the government has to balance what is reasonable when it comes to people’s privacy with the risk of damage to national interests.

When it comes to searching people’s phones and laptops, she notes that “there are a number of reasons and ‘a convincing case for categorizing forensic searches of digital devices as nonroutine’: the ‘scale’ and ‘sheer quantity’ of personal information they contain, the ‘uniquely sensitive nature of that information,’ and the portable nature of same such that it is neither ‘realistic nor reasonable to expect the average traveler to leave his digital devices at home when traveling’”.

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In other words, our phones contains so much highly personal and confidential information that any search should be considered highly significant.

In the judgement, the broad range of plaintiffs is used to show the breadth and depth of that information: a journalist’s notes and sources in one; a client-attorney conversations in another; personal pictures offending religious rights in another; business secrets in a fifth; and so on.

The judge stopped short of saying that border agents needed to get a warrant, and she also refused to order the deletion (expungement) of the material that the CBP and ICE have already gathered, although she did note that the plaintiffs have standing to push that point further in the legal process.

In not pushing those issues, and in largely steering clear of First Amendment arguments, it appears clear that the judge was determined to allow the fundamental decision that searches of electronic devices at the border break the Fourth Amendment stand until the case reaches the Supreme Court – something that it is almost certainly destined to do.

In short: another privacy win for the digital era, but a small win in a much larger war that still isn’t settled. ®

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