Today, the Internet in most places operates under a policy of "net neutrality"—the idea that all data flowing through the Internet should be treated equally. That may be about to change in the United States. Early this year, a Washington, D.C., Circuit Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently has no authority to enforce network neutrality rules. And this spring, the FCC proposed new rules to govern Internet traffic that would allow broadband providers to charge for access to a “fast” Internet lane, relegating other content to a “slow” lane.
There’s a huge debate going on in the U.S. about whether continuing net neutrality is a good or bad thing. Generally, Silicon Valley companies think it’s good, because it allows start-ups and established companies equal access to the Internet; on the other side are Internet service providers who would prefer to be able to charge for preferred access or give their own content priority.
But the term “net neutrality” itself can get in the way of the debate. Comedian John Oliver charged that the term is being used intentionally to bore people, so they won’t pay attention to the importance of the issue.
And the phrase can be confusing as well as boring. To someone just coming into the discussion, does “net neutrality” imply that the Government should or shouldn’t pass laws regulating traffic on the Internet? (For example, it might seem that a “neutral” government wouldn’t pass laws regulating the Internet, but maintaining net neutrality in the U.S. is going to require regulation.)
Silicon Valley Congresswoman Anna Eshoo says its time to dump "net neutrality" and replace it with something more descriptive and energizing. People know what kind of Internet they want, she says, but, with confusing buzzwords flying around, they have no idea which set of phrases describes their desired outcome.
Many of us wear fitness bands during the day (to track activity) and at night (to track sleep). But it turns out that the data they gather can do a lot more—like track an earthquake.
At 3:20 a.m. Sunday morning 24 August, an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale struck northern California near the city of Napa. Down in Palo Alto where I live, the shaking was minor: not enough to set off car alarms, but enough for my husband to wake me up to tell me that we might be having an earthquake and to cause something in another room to crash to the floor. (It turned out to be my son's old Mr. Potato Head toy.) After that commotion, it took me a little while to fall back to sleep.
I often wear a fitness tracker; on Saturday night, it was in its charger, so it missed my earthquake-driven awakening. But enough people in Northern California were wearing their fitness trackers that night to enable tracker-maker Jawbone to create a snapshot of the earthquake’s intensity by analyzing sleep disruptions of users in the region.
Jawbone’s results weren’t surprising—people living closest to the epicenter were more likely to have been immediately awakened by the earthquake (93 percent, compared with 55 percent a little farther away) and to stay up longer—45 percent of Jawbone users living 24 kilometers or fewer from the epicenter stayed up all night. But it was a fast and powerful demonstration of a new way to use anonymized fitness tracker data.
Data about the amount of ground shaking produced by an earthquake--which differs from the earthquake's magnitude or the distance from the epicenter because it is affected by the type of soil and other factors—is currently provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the form of ShakeMaps. The maps guide earthquake response and disaster planning. The USGS produces its ShakeMaps by combining measured ground motion from earthquake monitors with predicted motion based on geological features that fills in the gaps between the monitors. There are plenty of gaps, which is why data like that gathered by Jawbone could help improve accuracy.
Jawbone isn’t the only tech company testing its data as a supplement or alternative to ShakeMaps. Twitter has been working with researchers at Stanford University to determine if Tweets can be used to create accurate ShakeMaps. The company took a look at geo-tagged tweets sent in the first 10 minutes following a number of Japanese earthquakes in 2011 and 2012 and found that the ground-shaking estimates generated from those tweets were comparable to the official ShakeMaps.
Where are all the women engineers? That’s a question on a lot of minds these past few months. A number of large companies—like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple—have gone public with statistics about their workforces, and the numbers weren’t encouraging. At Apple, the latest large company to report in, women make of 20 percent of the engineering workforce. At Google, 17 percent; Yahoo, 15 percent; Facebook, 15 percent.
But these large companies are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The tech world bustles with small startups. Most don’t get a lot of attention unless they get big—but it’s when they are small and just starting to build their workforces, that they create company cultures, those that are a good fit for women, or those that are not. But how do you get the data from small companies that aren’t public or making the news?
Well, it helps to ask. That’s what Tracy Chou, an engineer at Pinterest with BS in electrical engineering and an MS in computer science, both from Stanford, has been doing. Indeed, a blog post she wrote last October may have sparked the series of revelations of diversity stats from the big Silicon Valley tech companies; she’s not so sure about that, but she knows it started a few conversations. Since then, she’s asked engineers throughout the tech industry to give her the numbers—anonymously if need be—of the female engineers in full-time roles at their companies. She’s collected data on nearly 200 companies to date, and made it available on a spreadsheet to anyone who is interested.
If the Jeopardy answer is “A high-end, high-performance, electric car, designed and manufactured in Silicon Valley,” there has, until now, been just one correct response: “What is a Tesla Roadster?”
Starting in 2015, however, if all goes according to plan, Tesla will no longer be the only auto company making electric cars in Northern California. Last week Renovo Motors unveiled the 2015 Renovo Coupe, a 500-horsepower electric sports car that the company says goes from 0 to 100 kph in less than 3.4 seconds (that’s 0.8 seconds faster than the Tesla Model S and 0.3 seconds faster than the Tesla Roadster), and can fast-charge in 30 minutes. The price—US $529,000—is a lot more than the Tesla Roadster, which shipped in 2008 with a list price of $109,000. It will be manufactured in tiny tiny quantities in Campbell, Calif.; just 100 are expected to reach customers next year. It’s going for the high-end, high-performance niche—higher than Tesla. It’s not the first company to think there’s a market for an electric car with higher performance than a Tesla—Tesla co-founder Ian Wright parted ways with the company a few years back and founded Wrightspeed to go after that niche. (Wright never got beyond the prototype stage, and changed his focus to designing commercial powertrains instead of cars, aiming to be the Tesla of garbage trucks.)
Renovo has much in common with its Silicon Valley neighbor Tesla. Like Tesla, whose founders’ resumes include Wyse Technology, Network Computing Devices, NuvoMedia, Packet Design, and Paypal, Renovo’s founders came up through the computer industry, not the automotive industry. Renovo CEO Christopher Heiser worked at Verisign, LightSurf, and IDEO; Renovo CTO Jason Stinson was a long-time Intel employee. And the company is not shy about touting its Silicon Valley roots. Says its web site:
We are fortunate to live in the most innovative place on Earth. It is a place where companies born in a garage—like HP, Apple, and Google—can achieve incredible scale and impact in an amazingly short amount of time. There is no better place to build a company—and no better place to work.
Renovo’s engineers (the company says it employs around 20 people) have been working on the design for four years. The body design is a modified Shelby Daytona CSX9000, a 1964 racecar; the secret sauce is Renovo’s battery architecture and the distribution of the batteries in multiple packages around the car. A Motor Trend writer took a test drive and called the car’s acceleration “fairly epic.”
Journalist and author Mike Malone, who grew up in Silicon Valley and has written about the companies and the people here since 1979, came to the Computer Museum in Mountain View recently to promote his latest book, The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company.His conversation with NBC Bay Area anchor Scott Budman on the Computer Museum stage in front of a packed house quickly veered beyond the book’s subject matter and became an opinionated romp through Silicon Valley’s past and into its future. Some highlights:
On the people who represented the eras of Silicon Valley:
“There are a series of key figures in the Valley’s history. Terman sets the ground. Packard is the first world historic figure and the leader of the Valley through the 60s. Then Noyce. Then Jobs,” Malone said. Right now, however, there is no obvious leader. “When Queen Elizabeth came to the Valley, it was assumed that Packard would meet her,” he said. “When the Japanese semiconductor industry attacked, the only person who could speak for the U.S. industry was Bob Noyce. Now, when Obama flies in, who stands up and says they represent Silicon Valley? No one.”
But that vacuum may soon be filled. “I think Elon Musk is the next major figure of the Valley,” Malone said.
“There’s a nostalgia,” NBC’s Budman interjected,“for a smooth CEO, a good-looking CEO.”“An adult CEO,” Malone quipped, someone who will “take off the hoodie and put on a shirt.”
On Intel’s management:
Malone described Noyce, Moore, and Grove as a “Holy Trinity. You’ve got Noyce, the father of Silicon Valley; Moore, with the law, as the Holy Spirit; and [Grove] the difficult but ultimately successful son.”
On Steve Jobs’ connection to Bob Noyce:
“Apple is patterned on Hewlett-Packard, but Jobs is patterned on Noyce. Noyce’s death shattered Steve Jobs,” Malone said. “It grew him up. Jobs grew up twice—Noyce’s death, and his own illness—those [events] created the Steve Jobs of legend.
On Gordon Moore’s big mistake:
Malone thinks Gordon Moore made a big mistake in 1965, when he wrote the paper that described what came to be known as Moore’s Law. “He wanted to write about the performance of memory chips, and he had maybe six of them. He drew a graph, and [the slope was so steep] it went off the page. So he did it again with log paper, and it formed a shallow, comfortable line.” That’s the graph he used. “We got used to that nice line,” Malone said. But it was misleading, because it made the rate of technology change seem fast, but not too fast to assimilate. He explained that replotting that line as a regular graph, not a logarithmic one, from 0 to 10 billion transistors, you discover that in 2005 the curve takes a dramatic vertical turn. And then, Malone said, you can see “that everything we’ve been through—from transistor radio through the Internet and smart phones, is all in the foothills, and the leaps every two years now are staggering. Everything we’ve gone through now is just a prelude to what’s about to hit us.”
On the shifting center of Silicon Valley, geographically and technically:
Malone, a resident of Silicon Valley since childhood, said the capital of Silicon Valley, the center of the action, keeps changing. It started in Palo Alto, he explained, with companies like Hewlett-Packard and Varian. It then slowly crept south, to Mountain View and Santa Clara and Sunnyvale (where many of the semiconductor companies are located). Then, he said, with the boom in Internet-related startups, it hopped north to San Francisco. “The capital of Silicon Valley has been San Francisco since 1998 he said.”
But change is coming. “The valley is getting ready to make another move of its capital,” he said. “This is ground zero: the triangle of Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Cupertino. And it will be for next 10 years. Facebook is down here. Google is here. I was in downtown Sunnyvale and there is a million-square-foot office building under construction—for Linked In. And the Apple donut is coming.”
One reason, he said, is that San Francisco is becoming inhospitable to tech companies, with the current backlash against tech workers. And those tech workers are growing up, and looking for a more child-friendly place to have families.
But probably a bigger reason, he explained, is the technical shift, from software back to hardware. “ They code stuff up there, we build stuff down here,” he said. “If you look at Tesla, wearables, health care, mobile medical, it’s all hardware.”
On the future of Apple under Tim Cook:
Malone said that he predicted that Tim Cook was going to be a great CEO, at least for a while, because he knew “how to handle Steve, if you controlled him, he created magic, if you unleashed him, he destroyed the morale and created chaos.” Cook’s management talent would make Apple more profitable than ever for a few years, but Cook is not the person who, Malone said, “when you came with a new idea, would say that isn’t crazy enough. [Under Jobs,] Apple was pro-risk, not risk adverse—you got punished for not taking enough risk.”
Without that risk-pusher at the top, Malone said, “I think the age of Apple as the most exciting company has gone by.”
On Facebook’s strategy:
Malone thinks Facebook’s push to make money off of its users is “a very dangerous game.” If they make a mistake, people will walk away from the site, he said, because there isn’t enough to hold them there. But, that said, Malone says “Zuckerberg’s strategy has been brilliant, because he knows the vulnerability. So he goes out and buys Instagram. Then Instagram is no longer the flavor of the day, so he buys What’sApp. Zuckerberg is jumping from rock to rock in this roaring river of the technical revolution. [And he can do that because] every company around here is like Scrooge McDuck, they have vaults filled with gold coins.”
About a year ago, CPI Corp., the king of the portrait studios, with storefronts inside Sears, Wal-Mart, and Toys R Us stores, closed its 2000-plus U.S. outlets. I was sad to see it go—for more than a decade, I dragged my kids over to one of those studios for an annual portrait. Now, in an era of cameras in every gadget, like most families, we moved from portraits to selfies, from framed photos to Facebook posts, and left the portrait studio behind.
But CPI may have given up just a bit too soon. Because the portrait studio may be about to come back, thanks to sophisticated scanning technology that’s coming down in price, and 3-D printers that are getting better and better at creating realistic full color objects.
San Francisco’s Momentum Machines has been working for several years to develop a robotic system that can make the perfect custom hamburger—cooking the burger, slicing and placing the toppings, even, eventually, grinding meat to order—at the rate of 360 burgers an hour. The company’s aim is to replace the line cook at fast food restaurants. Initially, it plans to set up its own chain of restaurants; eventually, it expects to sell its burger-robot to competitors.
The company recognizes that when a restaurant brings in its system, jobs will be eliminated; it wants the men and women who lose their jobs to become engineers and work to design more automated systems. On the website, the company states: “We want to help the people who may transition to a new job as a result of our technology the best way we know how: education. Our goal is to offer discounted technical training to any former line cook of a restaurant that uses our device. We will certainly need more engineers to design new devices and technicians to service a growing line of automated restaurant solutions. These are the minds that can do this job.”
It also is asking for ideas about other ways it can “help with the transition” as robots replace workers; to submit your thoughts, email email@example.com.
Silicon Valley CEO pay is typically all over the map—with some CEOs, rich in stock, taking a token $1 in salary, and others (even those with large stock holdings), raking in astronomical paychecks. And some salaries are simply head-scratchers. Here are a few highlight’s from the latest “What the Boss Makes” survey, a study conducted annually by Equilar for the Bay Area News Group. A searchable database of the study results is here. (Note: annual compensation includes, in most cases, a mix of salary and stock awards.)
Still way at the top is Oracle’s Larry Ellison, at more than US $78 million, down 18 percent from last year. That’s a weird one though—his salary and stock grants totalled up to a grand $1, his pay is largely based on performance bonuses. But we all know that Larry Ellison is the king of the paycheck.
More interesting is number two, Zynga’s Don Mattrick, at just under $58 million. Mattrick moved over from Microsoft in 2013 to turn the once high-flying company around or, in corporate speak “guide the company into its next chapter of growth”. That turnaround? Not happening, at least not yet.
Marissa Mayer at Yahoo ($25 million) came in ahead of Cisco’s John Chambers ($21 million), even though it was a good year for Chambers; his pay was up 80 percent from the previous year. Intel’s Brian Krzanich’s paycheck totalled about $9.5 million, putting him in a crowded $5 to $10 million group that also included Electronic Arts’ John S. Riccitiello, SunPower’s Thomas H. Werner, and AMD’s Rory P. Read, and a number of other semiconductor industry executives. Of course, the executives who really get bragging rights are those who are forgoing pay altogether (or close to it); like Larry Page ($1), Ubiquiti Networks’ Robert Pera ($0) or Tesla’s Elon Musk ($70,000—or almost exactly the price of a 2014 Tesla Model S.)
Trust me, Mark One’s $200 drinking cup ($100 if you preorder), Vessyl, won’t be the next Fitbit. But if it works as its creator, Justin Lee, says it will, it’s pretty amazing. And it's a demonstration of the power and availability of low-cost sensors today.
The system involves a washable (but not dishwasher-safe) cup that can be used for hot or cold beverages. The cup contains proprietary sensors, a processor, memory, and a small display; it does some analysis and tracking onboard, but uses a bluetooth transmitter that can connect it to a smart device, where an app can perform more detailed analysis and tracking of beverage consumption. The cup charges on a pad that looks like a coaster; it takes 30 minutes for a charge that can last up to a week.
Lee, a biomedical computing graduate of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont., has been working on his smart cup design for seven years, taking sensors from the food manufacturing industry and reducing them in cost and size.
“We built our sensors,” Lee said, “and they use a proprietary technique to analyze what’s inside the cup, even though they don’t come in contact with the substance.” He’s not saying specifically what he’s sensing, or how the app uses information from the cup to figure out characteristics about the beverage like calories, nutrients, and caffeine content, but it’s some combination of sensor data and profiling, that is, after the app identifies the liquid, it consults a database to get detailed nutritional information about it.
The system is sophisticated enough, Lee says, to distinguish between orange juice with pulp and juice without, to calculate how much sugar or cream you added to a drink, and to know the caffeine content of a cup of coffee (handy for folks trying to monitor caffeine content, as the caffeine in a cup of coffee can vary dramatically, even from the same vendor). The database, Lee reports, is extensive: the company recently added beet juice, Kombucha, and a lemon-ginger beverage.
The app will track calories, nutrients, and basic hydration using the user’s height, weight, and gender to calculate his needs. And it only tracks what you drink, not just what you put into the cup; it also knows the difference between water that you’re drinking and water that you’re using for washing.
Mark One has 17 employees right now, about half engineering, and recently settled into San Francisco’s South of Market area, a short walk from Pinterest and Dropbox, where, Lee reports, “there’s a lot of engineering talent; we’ve been able to build our team with some really phenomenal people out of Nike, Apple, and Google.”
Lee says preorders surpassed his initial goal of $50,000 in less than two hours. And, giving the company a further marketing boost, in July comedian Stephen Colbert skewered the gadget, pointing out that the only real use he could identify was telling the difference between Diet and Regular coke in a restaurant. Getting on Colbert, even as the butt of a joke, can only help.