Instagram co-founders resign from Facebook-owned company

SAN FRANCISCO: Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are leaving the photo-sharing app bought by Facebook six years ago, they said late Monday, leaving the parent company with a fresh test as it works to quell mounting turmoil.

“Mike and I are grateful for the last eight years at Instagram and six years with the Facebook team,” Systrom said in a statement, following a report on the departure in The New York Times.

“We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again.”

Systrom, 34, created the app in 2010 with 32-year-old Krieger, now the outgoing “chief technical officer,” when they were students at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Systrom’s fortune is valued at $1.4 billion by Forbes.

“Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs; that’s what we plan to do,” the statement said — though several US media outlets attributed the split to a disagreement with executives at Facebook.

“We’re now ready for our next chapter,” the statement continued.

Instagram in June announced it passed a billion active users, and unveiled a new long-form video feature in a bid to attract “creators” like those on YouTube.

It became the fourth Facebook platform to eclipse the billion-user mark, including the namesake social network with more than two billion users, and the messaging applications WhatsApp and Messenger.

Facebook acquired Instagram in April 2012 for a combination of cash and stock worth some US$1 billion at the time.

Questions of autonomy

Instagram has been a hit with young internet users, an audience that Facebook is keen to keep in its fold.

The Instagram co-founders have reportedly “clashed” with Facebook leadership over the photo-sharing service’s “autonomy” within the company, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing people close to the matter.

The departures come as Facebook grapples with the worst crisis in its history, vilified for not more zealously guarding information users share at the leading online social network.

Many see Facebook as a top vehicle for spreading false information in recent years, and of being used by nefarious interests out to sway the results of the elections such as the one that put President Donald Trump in the White House.

The Cambridge Analytica public relations disaster — in which Facebook admitted that up to 87 million users may have had their data hijacked by the British consultancy firm — came on top of widespread criticism of the social network’s propensity to spread and accentuate large amounts of completely false information.

Facebook is facing multiple inquiries from US and British regulators about the Cambridge Analytica user data scandal, and its boss Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by the European Parliament and the US Congress earlier this year.

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum earlier this year left Facebook, which bought the smartphone messaging service for US$19 billion.

Koum said in a post on his Facebook page that he was taking time off to pursue interests such as collecting air-cooled Porsches, working on cars and playing ultimate Frisbee.

US media reports indicated that a disagreement with Facebook over the privacy of user data may have also been a factor in Koum’s decision to quit his position as a high-ranking executive, and likely leave his seat on the board at the leading online social network. — AFP

New Galaxy A7 comes with more cameras

SAMSUNG recently announced the new Galaxy A7 (2018), the latest addition to its midrange Galaxy A series family.

The new smartphone features a triple-camera system, a sleek design, and all the daily features you would expect from a Samsung phone.

“Samsung is committed to delivering meaningful innovation to all consumers across the Galaxy family, no matter who they are or where they are in the world,” said D.J. Koh, president and CEO of IT & Mobile Communications Division at Samsung Electronics.

“That’s why we’re excited to introduce innovative new features to the A series with the Galaxy A7, a practical but powerful device that is built to help make your every day both convenient and extraordinary.”

With a focus on taking and sharing photos, the Galaxy A7’s triple camera touts an 8MP shooter with a 120° Ultra Wide Lens combined with a pair of 24MP sensors with a fixed lens and a depth lens.

With this triple camera setup, users would not only have more shooting options but will be able to to use favourite features such as Live Focus, which lets you control the depth of field of your photos, and enhance low-light photos by combining pixels.

Also featured is the Samsung’s intelligent Scene Optimiser that lets the Galaxy A7’s camera adjust the colour, contrast, and brightness based on the subject.

For selfie fiends, the Galaxy A7 has a 24MP front camera and adjustable LED flash.

Now they can take bokeh effect selfies with Selfie Focus, and mimic professional studio lighting with Pro Lighting Mode.

Also, add a personal touch with AR emoji, and filters.

The face of the A7 is a premium 6in Super Amoled display with Samsung’s signature Infinity Display and premium glass design.

The Galaxy A7 also supports Dolby Atmos sound technology.

The most exciting addition to the Galaxy A7 could be the side fingerprint sensor.

Could this be the next evolution in Samsung’s design language? Only time will tell.

The Galaxy A7 (2018) is available in blue, black, and gold. It is compatible with Bixby, Samsung Pay, and Samsung Health.

The Galaxy A7 will be available in select European and Asian markets soon and expand to additional markets later.

Google tunes search for prescience and pictures

SAN FRANCISCO: Google unveiled changes Monday aimed at making the leading search engine more visual and intuitive to the point it can answer questions before being asked.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are core drivers of how Google will pursue its 20-year-old mission to organize the world’s information and make it accessible to anyone, search vice president Ben Gomes said at an event in San Francisco.

The search engine focused strongly on mobile use and appeared to be growing more like Facebook, encouraging users to linger and explore topics, interests or stories with increasing emphasis on photos and videos. Results will be increasingly personalized.

“Search is not perfect, and we are under no illusions it is,” Gomes said.

“But, you have our commitment that we will make it better every day”.

He described the latest changes as shifting from answers to journeys, providing ways to target queries without knowing what words to use and enhancing image-based searches.

Searching with pictures

Google Images was redesigned to weave in “Lens” technology that enables queries based on what is pointed out in pictures.

The Images overhaul includes carousels of online video clip highlights displayed with mobile search query results.

New Activity Cards will let users pick up searches where they left off, eliminating the need to retrace online steps.

The search engine will also let users create Collections of online content, and suggest related material that might be of interest.

A Google feed used by more than 800 million people monthly is getting a new name, Discover, and increased the ability to offer people the relevant information they are likely to want but haven’t thought to ask for yet.

The feature was described as “Google search helping you discover new things without a query”.

Google said it is also testing out an improvement to its job-related search results that will figure out what skills are needed for such posts and information about how to acquire them.

“Information and language are core to what we are as human beings,” Gomes said.

“Our work here is never done”. — AFP

Brazilians opt for budget bulletproofing as economy tanks

SAO PAULO: Brazilians are as worried as ever about getting shot while driving, but have less money in a stagnant economy to spend on protecting themselves.

Enter the second-hand bulletproof car.

Whether to provide genuinely-needed protection or just to show off, the bulletproofed personal vehicle has usually been associated with the rich, but in Brazil, armored cars are far more common than in most countries.

Industry experts consider Brazil’s US$245 million (RM1,015 million) bulletproofing industry the largest in the world.

But with an economy only just crawling out of recession — one percent growth in 2017 came on the heels of a steep two year-recession — worried drivers are searching for budget options.

“I like cars, but I don’t feel comfortable spending a lot of money on one,” said lawyer Mauricio Paulo, who drives a second-hand bulletproof Volvo XZ 60.

This is the 40-year-old Paulo’s fourth armored vehicle.

He got his first armored car after being robbed while he stopped at a traffic light. The birth of his daughter 18 months ago convinced him he still needs to have one — and stay frugal.

“I need a bulletproof car because of lack of safety,” he said. “I went for a used car because I’m going to spend less money to move around safely.”

To modify a car costs around US$13,000 (RM53,878), pretty much like buying an additional vehicle.

Going for an already used and already armored vehicle gets the price tag down by between 10% and 40%, according to varying estimates from dealers and owners.

Armored vehicle capital

Another big market, Mexico, bulletproofed 2,986 cars in 2017, one of the best years the industry there has had.

But even in a tough climate last year, Brazil’s armoring industry still put out over 15,000.

Armored private vehicles are especially common among the middle class in the economic hub of Sao Paulo, regardless of the fact that the mega-city is one of the safest parts in an often extremely violent country.

Almost three quarters of bulletproofing work is done in Sao Paulo state, and most of the country’s 150,000 armored vehicles are also in the state, according to the bulletproofing association Abrablin.

Neither Abrablin nor the used car sellers’ body Fenauto keeps track of second-hand armored sales.

But industry experts say it is a real trend here.

“This year, the used car market is hot,” said Fabio Rovedo de Mello, director of a Sao Paulo-based bulletproofing company.

“Because of the situation the country is going through, the demand for used cars has gone up”.

Sales of new cars in general plummeted to a 10-year low in 2016 in Brazil. The niche market in new armored cars mirrored the trend, dropping 20 percent last year, compared to 2016.

“When the new market doesn’t sell, there’s higher demand for used cars, because a person can’t afford to buy a new one,” said Abrablin president Marcelo Christiansen, who also heads up a bulletproofing firm.

“Armored cars are a lot more expensive, so the option was to go for a used car that fell within my budget,” said Eliane Wakatsuki, 39, a manager at a hydroelectric firm, who was test-driving a used Mercedes Benz GLA 200 at a luxury bulletproofing outfit.

Even those drivers who still buy new cars and get the armoring added are looking for deals.

Last year, the best-selling new car for bulletproofing was the Toyota Corolla, the cheapest and smallest that can handle armor, which can add up to 12% to the vehicle’s body weight.

Do they need it?

Owners say high crime rates drive them to seek extra security. Some international companies based in Brazil compel their expat employees to drive armored vehicles.

But whether the cars are needed is another question.

Sao Paulo, Brazil’s richest state, had the lowest murder rate in the country in 2016, the last year for which comparative figures are available. There were 10.9 murders per 100,000 people against a national average of 30.3, while Sergipe state in the northeast had 64.7.

“Having a bulletproof car in Brazil is about status. People are more worried about status than they are about their own safety,” Christiansen said.

“The wife gets angry, because the neighbor has one and she doesn’t, so she tells her husband: ‘I need a bulletproof car'”.

For Paulo, the armored vehicle may bring security, but also a troubled conscience.

“Those who have a bit more resources can protect themselves better,” he said. “Those who don’t can even lose their lives over something small”.

“You feel bad, because people are separated by their economic power in third-world countries and that’s sad”. — AFP

Nasa counts down to launch of laser study of ice sheets

TAMPA: Nasa counted down Saturday to the launch of its US$1 billion, (RM4 billion) ICESat-2 mission, using advanced lasers to uncover the true depth of the melting of Earth’s ice sheets.

The mission will inform sea level rise forecasts and is “exceptionally important for science,” according to Richard Slonaker, ICESat-2 program executive at Nasa.

The half-ton satellite should reveal unprecedented detail about the current thickness of ice at the vulnerable polar regions as the climate warms.

The weather forecast was 100% favourable for the 40-minute launch window opening at 8:46 am (1246 GMT) on Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The measurements will be “extremely precise,” down to the width of a pencil, said team member Kelly Brunt.

It has been nearly a decade since Nasa had a tool in orbit to measure ice sheet surface elevation across the globe.

The preceding mission, ICESat, launched in 2003 and ended in 2009. From it, scientists learned that sea ice was thinning, and ice cover was disappearing from coastal areas in Greenland and Antarctica.

In the intervening nine years, an aircraft mission, called Operation IceBridge, has flown over the Arctic and Antarctic, “taking height measurements and documenting the changing ice,” Nasa said.

But an update is urgently needed.

Humanity’s constant reliance on fossil fuels for energy means planet-warming greenhouse gases are continuing to mount.

Global average temperatures are climbing year after year, with four of the hottest years in modern times all taking place from 2014-2017.

Ice cover is shrinking in the Arctic and Greenland, adding to sea level rise that threatens hundreds of millions of people along the coastlines.

ICESat-2 should help scientists understand just how much melting the ice sheets are contributing to sea level rise.

“We are going to be able to look at specifically how the ice is changing just over the course of a single year,” said Tom Wagner, cryosphere program scientist at Nasa.

Advanced lasers

ICESat-2 is equipped with a pair of lasers — one is on board as a back-up — that are far more advanced than the kind aboard the preceding ICESat mission.

Though powerful, the laser will not be hot enough to melt ice from its vantage point some 300 miles (500 kilometers) above the Earth, Nasa said.

The new laser will fire 10,000 times in one second, compared to the original ICESat which fired 40 times a second.

The result is a far higher degree of detail, akin to taking 130 images of a single football field, compared to one shot of each goal post.

Measurements will be taken every 2.3 feet along the satellite’s path.

“One of the things that we are trying to do is, one, characterize the change that is taking place within the ice, and this is going to greatly improve our understanding of that, especially over areas where we don’t know how well it is changing right now,” Wagner said, mentioning the deep interior of Antarctica as one such area of mystery.

The mission is meant to last three years but has enough fuel to continue for 10, if mission managers decide to extend its life. — AFP

New iPhones aim for momentum in sputtering smartphone market

SAN FRANCISCO: Apple is set to unveil new iPhones, aiming to gain fresh momentum in the premium segment of a global smartphone market showing signs of fatigue.

In its usual secretive style, Apple has remained mum about revelations planned for Wednesday’s event at its spaceship campus in Silicon Valley, but the timing fits its pattern of annually introducing new iPhone models.

Speculation includes talk that Apple will introduce three new iPhone models, infusing some with features from a premium iPhone X that debuted last year with a US$1,000, (RM4,151) price tag.

While the iPhone has made Apple the world’s most valuable company worth more than $1 trillion, it has slipped to third place among smartphone makers as Chinese-based Huawei has grabbed the number two spot.

Still, analysts say Apple has a formula that works with a loyal customer base and steady sales.

“There is nothing in their product line-up that isn’t working for them in the premium segment of the market, so there is no imperative for them to break that mould,” NPD analyst Stephen Baker said of Apple likely sticking with modest improvements in new iPhones this year.

“They gobble up most of the profits. I don’t think they are under any pressure at all.”

Technalysis Research chief analyst Bob O’Donnell agreed that Apple is fine with holding its niche in the market.

“Apple doesn’t have to prove anything, other than that they are willing to segment the market more,” he said while pointing out that the company will likely be “offering a wider array of choices”.

Premium competition

Samsung, the world’s biggest smartphone maker, last month unveiled its latest flagship handset, the Galaxy Note 9, and next month Apple rival Google will hold an event at which it is likely to showcase new Android-powered top-end Pixel phones.

Google took to making its own smartphones to showcase the capabilities of the Android operating system that it makes available free of charge to handset makers. Android smartphones have come to dominate the market.

Apple’s event comes with the global smartphone market largely saturated, without a major catalyst for sales ahead of a likely rollout of 5G, or fifth generation wireless networks, expected in 2019.

Research firm IDC expects worldwide smartphone shipments to decline 0.7% in 2018 to 1.455 billion units, with growth likely to resume as 5G devices become available.

“We still believe the smartphone market has some healthy growth in the years to come, although finding and competing in those markets and segments is increasingly more challenging,” said IDC analyst Ryan Reith.

Watching the watch

Apple has sold more than a billion iPhones since the first model was unveiled by late co-founder Steve Jobs in 2007.

The company is in the unique situation of controlling the hardware and software in its mobile devices, with content for users required to go through its App Store that takes a percentage of revenue.

Leaks and rumours have it that Apple plans to unveil three new iPhone models, including an improved version of the flagship X model released a year ago with a US$1,000 price tag.

Apple is also expected to introduce a lower-priced iPhone with some X features but a less expensive LCD screen.

The event may also include Apple Watch internet-connected wrist wear getting its first significant redesign since it debuted three years ago.

“I think that in the long run, the watch will be a much larger business than people give it credit for; where Apple can iterate and grow,” Baker said.

“Clearly products on your body have a whole different business opportunity than products you carry around, like smartphones”.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has touted fitness and health features of the company’s smartwatch, which dominates that market.

The culture-changing company behind the iPod, iPhone and iPad hit a historic milestone last month, becoming the first private-sector company to surpass US$1 trillion in market value.

The landmark was the latest victory for Tim Cook, who faced scepticism when he took over as chief executive in 2011 from Jobs just before his death.

While Apple watchers wait for the company to wow the world with a surprise such as augmented reality glasses or an Apple car that drives itself, the company has ramped up the amount of money it makes selling online services and digital content to the vast sea of iPhone users. — AFP