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Google Bets Big on Hardware With HTC Buy

Google is biting off a big piece of device manufacturer HTC for $1.1 billion to expand its efforts to build phones, speakers and other gadgets equipped with its arsenal of digital services. The deal announced Thursday underscores how serious Google is becoming about designing its own family of devices to compete against Apple and Amazon in a high-stakes battle to become the technological hub of people’s lives. Over the past decade, Google had focused on giving away its Android operating system to an array of device makers, including Taiwan’s HTC, to ensure people would keep using its ubiquitous search engine, email, maps, YouTube video service and other software on smartphones and other pieces of hardware. But that changed last year when Google stamped its brand on a smartphone and internet-connected speaker. HTC manufactured the Pixel phones that Google designed last year, perhaps paving the way for this deal to unfold. Although Android powers about four out of every five smartphones and other mobile devices in the world, the software can be altered in ways that result in Google’s services being de-emphasized or left out completely from the pre-installed set of apps. That fragmentation threatens to undercut Google’s ability to increase the ad sales that bring in most of the revenue to its corporate parent, Alphabet Inc., as people spend more and more time on smartphones and other devices instead of personal computers. Apple’s iPhone and other hardware products are also particularly popular among affluent consumers prized by advertisers, giving Google another incentive to develop its own high-priced phone as a mobile platform for its products and ads. Google also wants to build more internet-connected devices designed primarily for home usage, such as its voice-controlled speaker that’s trying to catch up with Amazon’s Echo. The Home speaker includes a digital concierge, called Google Assistant, that answers questions and helps manage people’s lives, much like the Alexa in Amazon’s Echo. The purchase is a gamble on several fronts for Google and Alphabet. Google’s previous forays into hardware haven’t panned out to be big winners so far. It paid $12.5 billion for smartphone maker Motorola Mobility five years ago only to sell it to Lenovo Group for less than $3 billion after struggling to make a dent in the market. And in 2014, Google paid more than $3 billion for home device maker Nest Labs, which is still struggling to make money under Alphabet’s ownership. Expanding into hardware also threatens to alienate Samsung Electronics, Huawei and other device makers that Google relies on to distribute its Android software.

Nevada Lab: Quake-Resistant Bridge Design Tests Well

Scientists at a Nevada earthquake lab Wednesday tested new bridge designs with connectors they say are innovative and created to better withstand violent temblors and speed reconstruction efforts after major quake damage. University of Nevada, Reno engineers performed the experiments on a giant “shake table” to simulate violent motions of an earthquake to rattle a 100-ton (91-metric ton), 70 foot (21-meter) bridge model to determine how well it would hold up. The tests, conducted a day after a big quake struck Mexico, shook large concrete columns and beams back and forth for about 30 seconds at a time, displacing some nearly a foot before returning largely to their original spot. Graduate students measured and marked indications of tiny fractures but no major structural damage was observed in the initial review of the experiments. “The bridge has done better than we expected,” said Saiid Saiidi, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who served as the project leader. He’s done related research for more than 30 years. Bridges are already designed not to collapse in earthquakes but often are unsafe for travel after big quakes. He said the designs that were tested employed special types of connectors to link prefabricated bridge parts, including ultra-high performance concrete. “Earthquakes by themselves don’t kill people, it’s the structures,” Saiidi said. The elements have been tested on their own but never before combined in a bridge model subjected to realistic earthquake motions, like the 1994 Northridge, California quake. Wednesday’s test inside the University of Nevada’s Earthquake Engineering Laboratory simulated activity of a quake as large as magnitude 7.5. Some design work by the engineers has been incorporated into a highway off-ramp under construction in Seattle. It’s the first bridge in the world that uses flexible columns and reinforcement bars made out of a metal alloy with titanium that bends and then springs back into shape when quakes hit. Among other things, the innovative connectors allow for prefabricated concrete and other materials to be attached to an existing bridge foundation so as to speed repair and reconstruction. Part of the research centers on a so-called “pipe pin” connection developed by the California Department of Transportation’s bridge designers for use in connecting certain beam interfaces in bridge construction. The pin consists of a steel pipe that is anchored in the column and extended into a steel can embedded in the beam. A gap between the steel pipe and the can enables the extended segment to freely rotate inside the steel can and prevents bending of the protruded segment inside the can. The University of Nevada’s Earthquake Engineering Lab is the largest of its kind in the United States. The latest project is funded by the California Department of Transportation, which currently is developing plans for 10 pilot projects based on the developing bridge connector technology. “This study today is going to allow them to make observations of those designs,” Saiidi said.

Internet Firms Say Removing Extremist Content Within Hours Is Huge Challenge

Removing extremist content from the internet within a few hours of it appearing poses "an enormous technological and scientific challenge," Google's general counsel will say later Wednesday to European leaders who want it taken down quicker. Kent Walker, general counsel for Alphabet's Google, will speak on behalf of technology companies Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube at an event on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. The leaders of France, Britain and Italy want to push social media companies to remove "terrorist content" from the internet within one to two hours of it appearing because they say that is the period when most material is spread. "We are making significant progress, but removing all of this content within a few hours — or, indeed, stopping it from appearing on the internet in the first place — poses an enormous technological and scientific challenge," Walker will say in a speech on behalf of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a working group formed by the four companies to combine their efforts to remove extremist content. Tech firms have come under increasing pressure from governments in the United States and Europe to do more to keep extremist content off their platforms after a spate of militant attacks, and the European Union is mulling legislation on the issue. "There is no silver bullet when it comes to finding and removing this content, but we're getting much better," Walker will say. "Of course, finding problematic material in the first place often requires not just thousands of human hours but, more fundamentally, continuing advances in engineering and computer science research. The haystacks are unimaginably large and the needles are both very small and constantly changing." Walker will say the companies need human reviewers to help distinguish legitimate material such as news coverage from the problematic material and train machine-learning tools against "ever-changing examples." The companies last year decided to set up a joint database to share unique digital fingerprints they automatically assign to videos or photos of extremist content, known as "hashes," to help each other detect and remove similar content. Facebook used a hash that contained a link to bomb-making instructions to find and remove almost 100 copies of that content. Twitter said Tuesday that it had removed 299,649 accounts in the first half of this year for the "promotion of terrorism," while Facebook has ramped up its use of artificial intelligence to map out pages and posts with terrorist material.

Review: Apple Watch Goes Solo, But Don't Dump Your Phone Yet

A chief gripe with Apple Watch is that it requires you to keep an iPhone with you for most tasks. The inclusion of GPS last year helped on runs and bike rides, but you're still missing calls and messages without the phone nearby. A new model with its own cellular-network connection is Apple's next step toward an untethered world. Now you can make and receive calls and messages on the watch while leaving your phone at home. But the watch still needs regular contact with an iPhone, and for most tasks, the phone needs to be on and connected, even if it's nowhere nearby. So, you can't get away with ditching the iPhone altogether. (Android users have their own wristwear options, including Samsung Gear and Android Wear watches, some of which can already manage their own network connections.) The new Apple Watch Series 3, distinguished by a red crown, comes out Friday starting at about $400. You can forgo cellular, and the red crown, for $70 less. Or get a first-generation model, without GPS, for about $250. Where it helps You might not want to bring your phone on a short jog; the watch can still keep you in touch. Or you can leave the phone home while walking the dog or performing a quick errand. You need a data add-on from the same wireless provider as your phone. It typically costs $5 or $10 a month and uses the phone's data allotment. While the watch technically has its own phone number, the major carriers have worked out number syncing. Calls to your phone will go to the watch, and calls from the watch will appear on caller ID with your regular number. Same goes for texts and iMessage chats. Calls use the watch's speaker and microphone, or wireless earphones. Colleagues say call quality was fine. It came in handy for sneaking in runs during conference calls (though if you're my boss, just kidding! Now, about that raise ...). Phone calls and iMessage chats work on the watch even if your phone is off, as do turn-by-turn maps and queries to the Siri voice assistant. For texts, the phone needs to be on — somewhere. With the phone on, you can perform a variety of other tasks, including checking weather apps, Yelp recommendations and notifications that go to the phone. Coming soon: the ability to stream Apple Music, even with the phone off. Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to rival music services or Apple's podcast app. Limitations Because the watch screen is small, many apps offer only a sliver of information and refer you back to the phone to view more. That was little more than an annoyance when the phone was in the same room. If you've left the phone behind, though, you'll be left hanging. You can also run into trouble while roaming, particularly internationally. For one thing, engineers weren't able to squeeze in support for cellular frequencies around the world. And outside the U.S., only a handful of carriers are supporting the cellular watch. In any case, don't forget to switch to airplane mode on flights. Cellular data also drains the battery quicker. Apple's promised 18 hours of battery life includes about four hours of such use. An hour of phone calls over LTE will drain the battery completely. I got dropped from two conference calls because the battery was low to begin with. Plan ahead. A spare watch charger at your desk helps for those days you're dumb enough to leave your phone on the kitchen counter. Embracing the tether It can be handy to untether the watch at times, but it's not always necessary. Even when tied to the phone, Series 3 offers improvement such as tracking elevation, so you get credit for climbing stairs or jogging up a hill. And you can now hear Siri responses on the watch speaker, something enabled by the new version's faster processor. Software update For owners of past models, a software update out this week, watchOS 4, will bring easier access to music playback controls when exercising — just swipe left. There are more prompts when reaching or nearing daily goals, and options for multiple sports in a single workout. A new heart rate app now shows heart rate at rest and averages when walking or recovering from exercise. These can help you gauge your overall fitness. And if your heart rate is high without any signs of exercise, you'll get an alert. You enable this when you first open the heart rate app. It can signal health problems, though Apple is stopping short of telling you to see a doctor or visit the emergency room, as the watch isn't marketed — or certified — as a medical device.

Security Firm Links Iranian Hackers to Malware Attacks

A private U.S.-based security firm is linking an Iranian government-sponsored hacking group to cyber-attacks targeted at organizations across the world. The security firm FireEye said Wednesday the Iranian hackers used malware to attack aerospace and petrochemical firms in the United States, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. The hacking group, dubbed APT33 (advanced persistent threat) by the FireEye researchers, used phishing emails and fake domain names to gain access to computer systems of the targeted companies. The report suggests the hackers target the companies in an effort to “enhance Iran’s domestic aviation capabilities or to support Iran’s military and strategic decision making vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia.” “We believe the targeting of the Saudi organization may have been an attempt to gain insight into regional rivals, while the targeting of South Korean companies may be due to South Korea’s recent partnerships with Iran’s petrochemical industry as well as South Korea’s relationships with Saudi petrochemical companies,” the report reads. The FireEye report says the hackers retained access to the companies’ computers for between four and six months at a time, during which the hackers were able to steal data and drop off malware that could potentially be used to destroy the infected computers. It is difficult to accurately attribute cyber-attacks, but FireEye says it linked the hackers to Iran in part by tracking an online handle, “xman_1365_x,” that was accidentally left in the malware coding. The report also notes references to the Farsi language in the malware code and that the hackers’ workdays appear to correspond with the Iranian time zone, and the Saturday to Wednesday workweek used in the country.