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Analyzing the top news stories across the web

July 21 2015 2:24 PM

Tech Companies Really Don't Want Apple to Win Its Patent War With Samsung

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Some of Silicon Valley's biggest companies are backing Samsung in its patent war with Apple. A coalition of huge firms including Facebook, Google, HP, Dell, and eBay are asking a U.S. appeals court to review a decision forcing Samsung to turn over full profits for Galaxy products found to infringe on Apple patents.

In a July 1 "friend of the court" filing to the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, picked up by Inside Sources, the group pointed out that devices like smartphones or TVs contain thousands of different bits of hardware and software. This means their design is too complicated to lump it into a single patent-infringement case when only certain aspects of the device could have been copied from another firm. Google, Facebook, Dell, and HP, along with other tech firms and trade groups, believe that the ruling against Samsung sets a bad precedent.

Here's the group's argument: 

Under the panel's reasoning, the manufacturer of a smart television containing a component that infringed any single design patent could be required to pay in damages its total profit on the entire television, no matter how insignificant the design of the infringing feature was to the manufacturer's profit or to consumer demand.
Software products and online platforms face similar dangers. A design patent may cover the appearance of a single feature of a graphical user interface, such as the shape of an icon. That feature—a result of a few lines out of millions of code—may appear only during a particular use of the product, on one screen display among hundreds. But the panel's decision could allow the owner of the design patent to receive all profits generated by the product or platform, even if the infringing element was largely insignificant to the user and it was the thousands of other features, implemented across the remainder of the software, that drove the demand generating those profits.

According to the Inside Sources report, Apple hit back by asking for the group's opinion to be dismissed because Google has an interest in the case as the designer of Android, the mobile platform Samsung devices use. 

The patent war between Apple and Samsung has been going on for years, with each company accusing the other of infringement at several different points.

Apple originally accused Samsung of ripping off designs for tap-to-zoom, single-finger scrolling, and two-finger zooming, as well as edge-to-edge glass design, among other iPhone features. Samsung was eventually found to have infringed on six out of seven patents it was accused of stealing and ordered to pay $930 million in damages. This was the "total profit" of the infringing Galaxy products and was supposed to make up for Apple's lost sales.

This May, an appeals court lowered the amount Samsung was ordered to pay by $382 million. Apple had also accused Samsung of violating the "unregistered trade dress," or wider design of the iPhone such as "a rectangular product with four evenly rounded corners." The court established that these were not just design features of an iPhone but necessary to create a smartphone. Samsung asked the court to review the decision again in June.

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July 20 2015 4:44 PM

Microsoft's Virtual Personal Assistant Will Adapt to Your Country's Culture

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Microsoft's Cortana virtual personal assistant is a big part of the forthcoming Windows 10, and, soon, Android and iOS. And Windows 10 is a big part of Microsoft's product push all over the world, with availability in U.S., UK, China, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain at its July 29 launch.

To further that end, Microsoft today announced in a blog post that Cortana is coming to Japan, Australia, Canada, India, Brazil, and Mexico. Cortana is rolling out first to members of the Windows Insider early testing program by the end of this year, and then to everybody else using Windows 10 after those early international adopters put Cortana through her paces. 

It turns out that it's important that Cortana does get that pre-launch workout, because Microsoft's blog post also revealed she's getting tweaked in each market to better serve users in those countries. For example in China, Cortana will track air quality and alert users:

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Windows 10's Cortana will help users in China track smog and air quality.

Microsoft

It extends to more cosmetic things, too. in China, users requested a voice for Cortana who "sounded like she was smiling." Meanwhile, the UK wanted an "English Rose," a more easy-going personality with some self-deprecating modesty—and a dry, ironic sense of humor that includes "playful irony" if she detects you're asking silly questions. In fact, in all markets, Cortana's is getting a humor update to make sure she can tell jokes that work in the native language.

And in a nuts-and-bolts kind of way, Cortana will pay more attention to cultural touchstones in each market, Microsoft says. In France, she's knowledgeable about the Cannes Film Festival. In Canada, Cortana will have opinions about hockey. In India, she's a fan of cricket star player Sachin Tendulkar. Ask Cortana to sing a song in Italy, which Microsoft says has a strong national identity, and she'll bust out the national anthem.

Plus, in Japan, Cortana will bow to users by default:

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Windows 10's Cortana will bow to Japanese users by default.

Microsoft

Cortana is a big part of Microsoft's strategy, presenting users with an easy-to-use, natural-language kind of way to sift huge amounts of data. Making Cortana more accessible to everyone, everywhere is a big step towards that end. 

July 16 2015 4:55 PM

Egg Prices Soar as Birds Drop Dead From Avian Influenza

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

The avian influenza that's affecting millions of birds nationwide is also disrupting the fast-food industry. More than 48 million birds have been affected with the flu since December.

This outbreak is causing an egg shortage that's forcing restaurants to modify their menus and improvise. The latest chain to take a hit because of the increase in the egg prices is the popular Chinese fast casual chain Panda Express. 

The chain removed eggs from its fried rice and replaced them with corn in June, according to CBS San Francisco. The eatery was also forced to discontinue its hot and sour soup temporarily. It's also looking like the eggs will not return to its menu anytime soon.

“We have been informed by suppliers that the egg shortage will last between 18 and 24 months. Egg prices have definitely increase [sic] for those who are able to purchase them,"a Panda Express spokesperson told CBS. "In our case, the number of suppliers from whom we can purchase liquid is extremely limited, which jeopardizes our ability to consistently purchase safe and reliable product.” 

Panda Express isn't the first chain to turn to alternatives for eggs. Many restaurants simply can't keep up with the high raise in prices.

"In June, producer prices for eggs for fresh use surged 71.7 percent in price from May. Consumer prices are also jumping with one USDA report for daily New York eggs showing large Grade A and USDA Grade A egg prices at major chains rising to a range of $1.99 to $3.49 Friday from $1.99 to $2.79 to a year ago," according to CNBC.

In early June, another company implemented changes. The San Antonio-based fast food chain Whataburger faced major backlash after it was forced to shorten its breakfast window due to the shortage. Around three weeks later, the restaurant announced it would resume normal breakfast hours. 

"We know it’s been a tough couple of weeks for our customers, but we’re really grateful for their support while we worked to build up our egg supply,” said Whataburger COO Dino Del Nano in a press release. 

Last week another popular chain, Rita's, announced that it was temporarily replacing its frozen custard, which contains eggs, with soft serve ice cream. The company does not guarantee that its prices will not be affected as pricing is at individual franchisees discretion.

The switch has been met with mixed responses on Twitter.

The shortage is even affecting large grocers as many of the stores' items contain eggs, especially their bakeries. Publix is expecting cost increases. "The recent avian influenza outbreak has had a nationwide impact on the supply and availability of both turkey and egg products. Certain items may be temporarily discontinued until we have an adequate inventory," a Publix spokesperson said in an email statement to News-Press. 

Last month another Texas-based grocer H-E-B instated a new policy that only 3 dozen eggs can be purchased per customer, according to the Houston Press. Post Holdings, a large packaged food company that owns popular brands like Raisin Bran and Honey Bunches of Oats, announced at the end of June that the company was affected by the flu.

"A third Company owned chicken flock in Nebraska has tested positive for AI. This brings the total affected supply to approximately 35 percent of the Company's volume commitments as determined prior to the recognition of force majeure," according to a Post Holdings press release.

The company said that it's future remained uncertain because of the outbreak. 

July 15 2015 4:34 PM

Oregon Drivers Can Now Choose to Be Taxed by the Mile

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Oregon was the first state to implement the gas tax in 1919, and may be the first to abandon it. Starting this month, Oregon drivers have the option to pay by the mile for road usage instead of by how much gas they purchase. OReGO, as the program is known, launched on July 1 with the a goal of enrolling 5,000 participants to test the three private partnerships set up by the state’s Department of Transportation for this trial run.

The scheme is designed to shift road tax revenues from a gasoline-based structure to what supporters believe is a more fair approach, given the increasing number of hybrid and electric vehicles. Under the scheme, drivers will pay 1.5 center per mile driven in the state, and then receive credit on their bill for the 30-cents-per-gallon paid at the pump as state gas tax.

"Oregon and other states know that the gas tax drivers pay at the pump isn't cutting it anymore," said Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matthew Garrett in a press release.

"As newer cars squeeze more miles out of each gallon of gas, and more hybrid and all-electric vehicles are sold, paying for road use by the mile instead of by the gallon ensures that everyone pays their fair share—no more, no less.”

Average miles-per-gallon of vehicles in the United States has improved considerably, from just 16 in 1980, to over 24 mpg in 2013, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Portland, Oregon has the most hybrid cars registered of any American city.

Several other states, including Washington, California, Colorado, and others, are considering similar programs.

July 14 2015 12:20 PM

Mozilla Just Blocked Flash Player. Will Other Tech Firms Follow?

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Mozilla is blocking the Adobe Flash Player from automatically running in its Firefox Web browser until an update is released to address concerns about its security. Flash is a common software used to view videos, GIFs, and animations in web browsers. It is supported by most Web browsers including FireFox, Safari, Internet Explorer, and Chrome.

The Mozilla Foundation, which makes a number of free-to-use email, Web-browsing, and mobile services, announced it would start blocking the use of Flash Player by default on Firefox in a threat advisory. "Following Adobe’s advisory for two critical vulnerabilities in Adobe Flash Player 18.0.0.204 [the latest version of Flash] and earlier versions for Windows, Macintosh and Linux, we have disabled Flash by default in Firefox to protect our users from active exploits which are distributing malware,” Mozilla director of product management Chad Weiner told Business Insider. 

The vulnerabilities in question were uncovered in the wake of the high-profile Team Hacking leaks. The leaks occurred on July 6 when a group of hackers infiltrated Italian surveillance firm Team Hacking—which creates and sells spy software.

The hackers published 400GB of allegedly stolen Team Hacking data online, including the source code of the firm’s spy tools and what software vulnerabilities they exploited. The exploits targeted included the Adobe Flash flaws mentioned by Mozilla. The security flaws led to a backlash against Adobe, after it was discovered criminal groups have begun using the Flash bugs in their cyber scams.

Facebook’s new chief security officer Alex Stamos led the charge against Flash and called for Web browsers to “announce the end-of-life date for Flash and to ask the browsers to set killbits on the same day,” on Monday.

Stamos is one of many professionals to call for an end to Flash. Deceased Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously hated Flash and worked hard to keep it from running on iPhones and iPads during his tenure as the company’s CEO.

Mozilla’s Weiner confirmed the current block is not permanent and the firm plans to stop blocking it when Adobe fixes the software’s security. “Adobe is expected to release an update to Flash sometime this week. This new version of Flash will be activated in Firefox by default," he said.

A Mozilla spokesperson declined to comment the firm would ever consider permanently blocking Flash Player, telling Business Insider the firm “has nothing to add for the moment.”

Business Insider has reached out to Adobe for comment. Business Insider also reached out to Microsoft and Google’s security teams to see if they are also considering blocking support for Flash, but similarly had not received a reply at the time of publishing.

In the past, Mozilla has been proactive and aggressive when dealing with insecure products, or technologies it feels are invading on its customers’ privacy. Mozilla used a solution developed by privacy advocate and Stanford lecturer Jonathan Mayer to turn off third party cookies in Firefox on May 2013. Cookies are pieces of code websites drop into your browser when you visit websites. They are used by advertisers to target you with adverts.

The European Parliament imposed laws, forcing websites dropping cookies to alert visitors they are doing it in 2012.

July 10 2015 3:55 PM

Chevy Is Turning Discarded Volt Batteries Into Habitats for Bats

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Chevrolet has found a unique use for the discarded cases of its Volt batteries—and it involves bats and ducks.

The Chevy Volt battery cover is made of thermoset, a type of plastic that's difficult to recycle. And once the batteries are ready for use, the thermoset cases that shipped them become useless. Not anymore.

GM's waste reduction expert, John Bradburn, gives new life to these cases by turning them into shelters for bats—and, with some tweaks, for wood ducks, owls, eastern bluebirds, and scaly-sided merganser.    

Bradburn and his team have installed 700 nesting boxes for critters at GM's 40 wildlife habitat sites in the past five years. A box can house up to 150 little brown bats, one of the most common species found in North America.

But research shows that bats are dying in great numbers due to the spread of a disease called white-nose syndrome. The loss of these nocturnal flying mammals is a dangerous development for the planet. Bats help maintain ecological balance by eating 2,000 to 5,000 insects in one night, and more than 500 species of flowers rely on them for pollination. A study in Science magazine even found that loss of bats could cost North American agriculture $3.7 billion. 

A nesting box can at least make life a little easier for bats looking for a roosting spot. Here's how Bradburn puts together a bat box using wood scraps, battery cases and nails:

In a recent tweak to the bat box, Bradburn went a step further by swapping the scrap wood used for laying pallets inside the box with old circuit trays pulled out from GM's SUVs and truck engines.  

"When I held the circuit tray up the length was about right and the width was perfect," he said in a press release. “I figured with some epoxy adhesive applied and sand sprinkled on it to make for a grittier surface, bats would have no problem hanging on."

July 9 2015 4:23 PM

Hawaii Just Became the First State to Ban Plastic Bags

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

Grocery shopping will never be the same—in Hawaii at least. On July 1, the state became the first in the U.S. to ban plastic checkout bags, after Oahu joined the rest of the Hawaiian islands in prohibiting them.

Although California was the first state to pass a law in 2014 prohibiting retailers from handing out plastic bags to customers, the ban was put to a referendum after pro-plastic trade groups opposed the move. The statewide ban in Hawaii requires businesses to stay away from bags made from noncompostable plastic or else pay $100 to $1,000 in penalties.

For a country that threw away 3.4 million tons of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps in 2012, as estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the ban in Hawaii is undoubtedly a major step toward sustainable packaging. But the ban is limited in its approach: it applies only to bags made from noncompostable plastic. Retailers are free to use compostable plastic bags, recyclable paper bags, and reusable bags. 

Moreover, the list of bags excluded from the ban runs long. Plastic bags used for carrying fruit, vegetables, frozen foods, coffee, meat, and fish inside the store have escaped the ban. Retailers who use plastic bags for carrying takeout food, newspapers, laundry, and prescription drugs have also been spared. Nonetheless, the ban represents what could be the start of a game-changing trend. 

Supermarkets use layers and layers of flimsy plastic bags to pack purchases. The average American takes home about 1,500 plastic bags a year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. So it's no surprise that the U.S. figures in the list of top 20 offenders contributing to plastic debris in the oceans, according to a 2015 study. Plastic bags, in fact, are the fourth most commonly littered item on the coasts, as found by Ocean Conservancy.

Plastic bags may trump the eco-friendly paper bags and totes when it comes to cost and convenience, but the Earth suffers. This is because polyethylene—the most common type of plastic seen in supermarkets—doesn't wear down easily. It takes plastic bags ages to decompose, up to an estimated 500 years. A Swedish study found that chemicals used in plastic could increase the risk of diabetes.   

All of those bags have helped give the Pacific Ocean a debris monument twice the the size of the continental U.S. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is full of plastic, which kills sea turtles and other marine life. If other states follow Hawaii's example, it could turn the tide against plastic in the rest of the country—and the world.

July 8 2015 2:49 PM

The Act of Eating Taco Bell Just Got Even Lazier

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

You can now order a Crunch Wrap Supreme and get it delivered directly to your door. 

Taco Bell is the latest fast-food chain to enter the delivery market with the announcement of its partnership with Palo Alto-based delivery service DoorDash. The new delivery service will be available in Taco Bell locations in over 90 cities and more than 200 restaurants in California and Texas. Some of them include Los Angeles, Orange County, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Dallas.

Delivery costs $3.99, is typically only available from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and will take around 38 minutes total, according to BloombergCustomers can order their food through the DoorDash website and its iOS and Android platforms. 

“Delivery is yet another example of how we’re using technology and innovation to respond to consumers’ wants and needs, further evolving the Taco Bell experience for customers," said Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol in a press release. Niccol announced the company's plans to test the service earlier this year, but it's officially launching today. 

Users on Twitter were ecstatic over the announcement, some even urging Taco Bell to bring the service to their city:

The chain plans to expand this service to more locations nationwide, as more customers are leaning towards convenience.

"We were one of the first to redefine convenience at QSR with our mobile app, and knowing that delivery is the no. 1 request from our consumers, we see a tremendous opportunity to bring the Taco Bell experience to fans where and when they want it most,” Niccol said.  

July 7 2015 12:01 PM

Greece Is Cutting Off Its Citizens From Using PayPal and Buying Songs on iTunes

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Yesterday we reported that capital controls were stopping people in Greece from buying songs on iTunes.

Greece put capital controls—which limit withdrawals from bank accounts and a €60 per day cash limit from ATMs—in place on June 29. Since then, people and businesses have started to lose access to the sort of Internet services the rest of us take for granted—such as iTunes, PayPal, cloud storage, and app stores—because they are unable to send money out of the country. 

While accessing iTunes is probably the least of Greece's problems, this does show how centralized the Internet actually is, with many services hosted in just one country, often not your country. The problem with iTunes isn't that people don't have enough money in their account to pay for a track. They are unable to buy even a single song for €0.99 using a Greek credit or debit card because Apple is an American company, and making a payment to them would mean money leaving Greece to the US.

People in Greece are also finding that their cloud storage subscriptions are being disabled because the regular monthly payments to Apple for iCloud, or Google for Dropbox, for example, are being cut off. While iCloud gives you 5GB for free, that's often not enough to back up multiple devices, photos, and apps.

Others aren't able to use PayPal to send money or make payments to anyone outside the country. Mic reports that people are also unable to send money via PayPal to someone else in Greece, because by sending money through PayPal, funds move across servers outside the country. Some of our sources in Greece have said that they think Paypal has stopped anyone in the country sending funds at all.

Money transfer companies such as Western Union and Money Gram stopped operating in Greece last week, CNBC reports, but Western Union started letting people recieve money again today. While Transferwise can't send funds out of the country, it is still letting letting people receive money from other countries. A spokesperson for the company told CNBC that "the controls mean that all and any payments from Greece are on hold and subject to further notice," and that Transferwise is monitoring the situation closely. We have reached out to them for more details.

These restrictions have caused some big problems for Greek startups, who have been unable to pay for cloud storage, ads, domain hosting or credit card processing services from providers outside Greece since the capital controls came into place. Some have managed to convince their providers to keep their accounts open for the time being, Fast Company reports, while others have been helped by friends and family overseas.

For the rest, the Internet did come in handy. The founders of Greek startup Bugsense, John Vlachoyiannis and Panos Papadopoulos, have started a site allowing Greek startups to apply for help to cover their costs from foreign supporters, with Marc Andreessen even pledging his support.

Fast Company points out that the last country to impose capital controls was Iceland in 2008. Back then, companies were less reliant on cloud storage, and the country had built up plenty of data centres of its own.

July 6 2015 1:12 PM

Luxury Brands Have a Big Problem—Their Own Outlet Stores

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Many aspirational retail brands are in crisis. Companies such as Ralph Lauren, Coach, and Michael Kors have reported disappointing earnings recently. Shares for all three companies have declined in the past year. 

Many of the companies' struggles can be traced back to one mistake: opening too many outlet stores. 

Outlet stores sell the labels' clothing for cheaper than department stores, giving the brands a wider audience. But widespread popularity is the “kiss of death for trendy fashion brands, particularly those positioned in the up-market younger consumer sectors,” industry expert Robin Lewis writes on his blog. Lewis compares Michael Kors to Tommy Hilfiger, which reached its peak in the late 1990s. 

All companies have several brands at different price points, a strategy that could easily backfire, Lewis says. Kors has a high-end department-store brand, a middle-market brand, and a brand for discount outlet stores. “Some would argue all of those segments will simply end up competing with each other, thus cannibalizing the top end of the spectrum,” he writes.

In other words, consumers will not pay $300 for a Michael Kors or Coach bag in a department store when they can get one at the outlet mall for half the price. 

Michael Kors in particular illustrates the perils of outlets. The company enjoyed an impressive rise in popularity in recent years thanks to its trendy handbags and watches. But growth has been slowing lately, and the company has reported a weak outlook for the future.

Shares are down more than 50 percent in the past year. Despite overall strength in the apparel industry, the fashion company is the only major specialty retailer not trading above the five-year median right now, according to a recent report by Morgan Stanley.

The brand is now available in 4,133 locations around the world, including boutiques, department stores, and discount outlets. That compares with 2,913 stores at the beginning of 2013. Michael Kors has said it could still add hundreds of locations to its roster. 

While being available in more stores can drive profits in the short term, it can also hurt the brand. Michael Kors, like Ralph Lauren and Coach, is considered an aspirational brand, with consumers paying a premium for its label. Once everyone has the product, it is no longer considered cool. Other brands that have experienced this phenomenon include Juicy Couture and Jordache.

And although outlets are an easy way for retailers to make a quick dollar, they might erode brand perception over time. Many “deals” at outlet stores aren't what they seem, Business Insider's Pamela Engel reported last year. In a way, these brands are essentially selling knockoffs of their own products.

BuzzFeed notes that J. Crew's outlet items are, according to the company, “based on (full-price) products sold in previous seasons.” These cheaper goods are made specifically for the outlets and might not have been sold in the brand's regular retail stores at all.

Michael Kors should focus on getting customers to pay a premium for its products.

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