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Meet the online gadget show, a hall of mirrors to the future

Inside Telecom Staff

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Every January, huge crowds descend on Las Vegas for the CES gadget show, an extravaganza of tech and glitz intended to set the tone for the coming year in consumer technology. CES kicks off this week, but thanks to the pandemic, it will be in a radical new format — a “virtual” show taking place only in cyberspace.

Yes, that means everyone can still get a glimpse of the future, but only by via technology of the future — aka video streams and chat. If all goes well, attendees will be able to marvel at COVID-fighting “coronabots,” artificial intelligence-powered avatars and transparent TVs.

But it’s still not entirely clear exactly how all this all is going to work, or whether the show will generate anything resembling its usual boosting impact on the tech industry.

“It’s different. Obviously we’re not going to be in Las Vegas, we’ll be spread out around the world,” said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that produces CES. “But I think there’s an attitude that because of COVID that we’re all in this together and that is what the CES is about. It’s really the shared experience of the industry. Everyone just wants to come together.”

The show will be a trade-off, Shapiro said. Forget the attention-getting spectacles, like dazzling wall-high TV displays and Google’s theme-park ride from two years ago. Instead, Shapiro said, there will be a chance for a more personalized experience that attendees can set up in advance based on their particular interests.

That’s the optimistic view. On the flip side, smaller exhibitors are less likely to get noticed without a show floor. Serendipitous meetings between entrepreneurs and investors, potential acquirers and acquirees, job-seekers and employers — all common to the world’s largest tech show — will probably be scarce.

More than 150,000 attendees and 1,800 exhibitors will take part in CES from Monday to Thursday, a show that will now consist of virtual keynote speeches, product demonstrations and panel discussions. Plus, there’s the opportunity to network in virtual meeting rooms. Last year in the physical show, there were about 170,000 attendees and 4,400 exhibitors. The number of exhibitors were capped this year at 2,000 to insure the online experience, which is being run by Microsoft, was optimal.

Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies, insists that not much has changed about CES for him, despite the fact that he’ll be staring at screens rather than haunting meeting rooms and pacing the convention floor. He’s still researching products he wants to see demos of, scheduling meetings with people he wants to talk to one-on-one and focusing on keynotes and sessions to attend.

“The difference is I’m not there physically having to walk 10 miles a day and I’m not paying exorbitant high hotel fees,” he said. “I’m not having to battle people shoulder-to-shoulder to navigate the show floors.”

But smaller companies and startups might find it harder to stand out. While CES has gone to great lengths to let attendees search through exhibitors by topic and interest categories, the site still can be tricky to navigate. When the show is in Las Vegas, its “Eureka Park” is an area where you can wander — aimlessly or with purpose — through hundreds of booths extolling new internet-connected gadgets, unglamorous back-end technology services, or anything else you might want.

Online, you can search for “Eureka Park” or “startup.” But what you get is a seemingly endless set of pages bearing the logos of 600 companies, 12 at a time — and no description of any of them.

Qeexo, a machine-learning platform startup, exhibited during CES in 2019 and 2020, but has decided to sit 2021 out. The company entered the CES innovation awards and won an honor, but won’t have even a virtual booth after participating in other virtual events it didn’t find effective.

“The benefit of having an onsite booth is you get real time feedback, after showing a live demo,” said CEO Sang Won Lee. The company already has an online demo at its own website, and doesn’t see the point of additional investment. “It’s difficult to get engaged (online) when you can’t really talk to people directly,” Lee said.

Mark Ely, vice president of product strategy at Roku, which is announcing technology that lets electronics makers create their wireless soundbars that work with Roku TVs, says changes to the show seem similar to the adjustments everyone has had to make over the past 10 months due to the coronavirus.

“In some ways our meetings approach is the same as it would have been over past few months doing Zoom calls,” he said. So they are adjusting to meetings at CES the same way they’ve adjusted to meetings during the pandemic, by going virtual. “The benefit is everyone shows up on time, which is always challenging at CES,” he said. “The downside is you don’t get the chance to engage with a broader range of partners.”

Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst at Gartner, said this year’s CES is taking more planning.

“The biggest challenge is sort of the ad hoc interactions that I usually have, walking the floor to catch someone doing something interesting,” he said. “I’m trying to do some more targeted outreach.”

But he’s not sure how his week will pan out. The experience reminds him of his first CES, an overwhelming extravaganza punctuated by huge crowds, chance meetings, big parties, endless walking and long taxi lines. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen,” he said.


By MAE ANDERSON

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EU regulator: Hackers ‘manipulated’ stolen vaccine documents

Inside Telecom Staff

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EU regulator Hackers 'manipulated' stolen vaccine documents

The European Union’s drug regulator said Friday that COVID-19 vaccine documents stolen from its servers by hackers have been not only leaked to the web, but “manipulated.”

The European Medicines Agency said that an ongoing investigation showed that hackers obtained emails and documents from November related to the evaluation of experimental coronavirus vaccines. The agency, which regulates drugs and medicines across the 27-member EU, had troves of confidential COVID-19 data as part of its vaccine approval process.

“Some of the correspondence has been manipulated by the perpetrators prior to publication in a way which could undermine trust in vaccines,” the Netherlands-based agency said.

“We have seen that some of the correspondence has been published not in its integrity and original form and, or with, comments or additions by the perpetrators.”

The agency did not explain exactly what information was altered — but cybersecurity experts say such practices are typical of disinformation campaigns launched by governments.

Italian cybersecurity firm Yarix said it found the 33-megabyte leak on a well-known underground forum with the title “Astonishing fraud! Evil Pfffizer! Fake vaccines!” It was apparently first posted on Dec. 30 and later appeared on other sites, including on the dark web, the company said on its website.

Yarix said “the intention behind the leak by cybercriminals is certain: to cause significant damage to the reputation and credibility of EMA and Pfizer.”

Cybersecurity consultant Lukasz Olejnik said he believed the intention was far more broad.

“I fear this release has a significant potential of sowing distrust in the EMA process, the vaccines, and vaccination in Europe in general,” he said. “While it is unclear as to who may be behind this operation, it is evident that someone determined allocated resources to it.”

“This is an unprecedented operation targeting the validation of pharmaceutical material, with potentially broad negative effects on the health of Europeans if it leads to undermining trust in the vaccine,” Olejnik added.

The EMA said law enforcement authorities are taking “necessary action” in response to the hack and a criminal investigation is ongoing.

It said that given the devastating toll of the pandemic, there was an “urgent public health need to make vaccines available to EU citizens as soon as possible.” The EMA insisted that despite that urgency, its decisions to recommend the green-lighting of vaccines were based “on the strength of the scientific evidence on a vaccine’s safety, quality and efficacy, and nothing else.”

The EMA, which is based in Amsterdam, came under heavy criticism from Germany and other EU member countries in December for not approving vaccines against the virus more quickly. The agency issued its first recommendation for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine weeks after the shot received approval in Britain, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

The EMA recommended a second vaccine, made by Moderna, for use earlier this month. A third shot made by AstraZeneca and Oxford is currently under consideration by the agency.


LONDON (AP) — By MARIA CHENG

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Deaths, self-immolation draw scrutiny on China tech giants

Inside Telecom Staff

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Deaths, self-immolation draw scrutiny on China tech giants

E-commerce workers who kept China fed during the coronavirus pandemic, making their billionaire bosses even richer, are so unhappy with their pay and treatment that one just set himself on fire in protest.

China’s internet industries already were known for long, demanding days. With millions of families confined at home, demand surged and employees delivered tons of vegetables, rice, meat, diapers and other supplies, often aboard scooters that exposed them to sub-freezing winter cold.

For white-collar workers in the technology industry, pay is better than in some industries but employees are often expected to work 12 hours a day or more.

The human cost caught public attention after the deaths of two employees from e-commerce platform Pinduoduo, known for selling fresh produce at low prices. Their deaths prompted suggestions they were overworked. In an indication of high-level concern, the official Xinhua News Agency called for shorter work hours, describing long hours of overtime at the expense of employees’ health as an “illegal” operation.

Renewed concerns over dire working conditions for delivery drivers also came to the forefront when a video circulated on Chinese social media showing what it said was a driver for Ele.me, part of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, setting himself on fire to protest unpaid wages.

The controversy is a blow to the image of internet industries that are transforming China’s economy and generating new jobs. They have made some of the founders among the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. During the heights of the pandemic, the fortunes of the biggest, including Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Pinduoduo founder Colin Huang, swelled as online consumer spending boomed.

In a video widely circulated on Chinese social media, 45-year-old delivery driver Liu Jin poured gasoline and set himself on fire outside a distribution station for Eleme in the eastern city of Taizhou, shouting that he wanted his money. Others snuffed the flames and rushed him to a hospital, where he is being treated for third-degree burns on his body.

Details of Liu’s complaint could not be verified and Eleme did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Separately, a 43-year-old delivery driver collapsed on the job and died last week while delivering food for Eleme.

The company said in a statement that it will give 600,000 yuan ($92,700) to the driver’s family and raised its insurance coverage for drivers to that level. Its statement said Eleme “had not done enough in terms of accidental death insurance, and needs to do more.”

The issue was highlighted again after a Pinduoduo employee surnamed Tan committed suicide after taking leave from the firm to return to his hometown, less than two weeks after a 22-year-old employee surnamed Zhang in Urumqi collapsed while walking home from work with colleagues, and later passed away.

Pinduoduo, China’s third-largest e-commerce firm, released statements saying it was providing assistance and support to the families of the two employees who died. Shanghai authorities also are reviewing working hours, contracts and other conditions at the company.

The deaths raised an outcry on social media, with many people suspecting that they were a result of overwork. Chinese social media users blasted the country’s technology sector, criticizing not just Pinduoduo for a culture of long hours but pointing out that this was an industry-wide problem, with similar company cultures seen at most of China’s large technology companies.

They also revived a national debate over the tech sector’s so-called “996” working culture, in which employees often work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. Companies sometimes pay huge bonuses to some employees, enticing them to work more overtime.

“We must strive to succeed in pursuit of dreams, but the legitimate rights and interests of workers cannot be ignored or even violated,” said state-owned Xinhua News Agency in a post on microblogging site Weibo.

The issue has also cast a spotlight on the working conditions of delivery drivers, who are under heavy pressure to get orders to customers quickly and at times make less than 10 yuan ($1.55) per delivery. If they fail to meet deadlines, fines imposed can range from as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) to as much as 500 yuan ($77.30) if a customer lodges a complaint.

As part of the gig economy, such delivery workers often do not get the benefits provided to full-time employees, such as social or medical insurance.

Since there are many people willing to work under those conditions, it is hard for employees to negotiate better pay and conditions.

Last August, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) — the only trade union allowed to legally exist in communist-ruled China — said that 6.5 million delivery workers had joined it since 2018. However, the worker rights group China Labor Bulletin, which tracks labor relations in China, says little has been done to improve workers’ ability to win better treatment from companies. The union provides only skills training, legal assistance and some medical benefits.

“Labor unions need to become more effective, otherwise labor laws cannot be enforced,” said Li Qiang, founder of China Labor Watch, another organization that monitors labor rights.

Under China’s labor laws, workers and laborers should work no longer than eight hours a day, or more than 44 hours a week on average. Total amount of overtime should not exceed more than 36 hours in a month, and should only be done “after consultation with the trade union and laborers”.

However, even though the labor laws exist, they are rarely enforced as employees become mired in a culture of overwork while striving for bonuses or in cases of delivery drivers, to eke out a living.

Delivery workers are part of a corporate culture where even white-collar employees in the technology sector work excessively long hours, Li noted.

“Employees who do not work overtime cannot survive in technology or white-collar jobs. Everyone is working overtime. If they do not work overtime, they will be terminated,” Li said.

Putting workers at an even bigger disadvantage, indemnity clauses are at times written into workers’ contracts in some industries, absolving a company from responsibility for death on the job and other such events, said Li of China Labor Watch. Although such clauses may violate China’s labor laws, the legal system in China is opaque and laws can be difficult to enforce.

“In Western countries, if an employee dies because of working overtime, then the legal and economic costs will be greater, and they are generally more restrained as the country’s laws will intervene,” said Li. “But in China, there is no bottom line when it comes to working overtime, and companies are generally not held liable in the event of death.”

HONG KONG (AP) — By ZEN SOO AP Technology Writer

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Twitter CEO defends Trump ban, warns of dangerous precedent

Inside Telecom Staff

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Twitter CEO defends Trump ban, warns of dangerous precedent

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended his company’s ban of President Donald Trump in a philosophical Twitter thread that is his first public statement on the subject.

When Trump incited his followers to storm the U.S. Capitol last week, then continued to tweet potentially ominous messages, Dorsey said the resulting risk to public safety created an “extraordinary and untenable circumstance” for the company. Having already briefly suspended Trump’s account the day of the Capitol riot, Twitter on Friday banned Trump entirely, then smacked down the president’s attempts to tweet using other accounts.

“I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter,“ Dorsey wrote. But he added: ”I believe this was the right decision for Twitter.”

Dorsey acknowledged that shows of strength like the Trump ban could set dangerous precedents, even calling them a sign of “failure.” Although not in so many words, Dorsey suggested that Twitter needs to find ways to avoid having to make such decisions in the first place. Exactly how that would work isn’t clear, although it could range from earlier and more effective moderation to a fundamental restructuring of social networks.

In Dorsey-speak, that means Twitter needs to work harder to “promote healthy conversation.”

Extreme measures such as banning Trump also highlight the extraordinary power that Twitter and other Big Tech companies can wield without accountability or recourse, Dorsey wrote.

While Twitter was grappling with the problem of Trump, for instance, Apple, Google and Amazon were effectively shutting down the right-wing site Parler by denying it access to app stores and cloud-hosting services. The companies charged that Parler wasn’t aggressive enough about removing calls to violence, which Parler has denied.

Dorsey declined to criticize his Big Tech counterparts directly, even noting that “this moment in time might call for this dynamic.” Over the long term, however, he suggested that aggressive and domineering behavior could threaten the “noble purpose and ideals” of the open internet by entrenching the power of a few organizations over a commons that should be accessible to everyone.

The Twitter co-founder, however, had little specific to say about how his platform or other Big Tech companies could avoid such choices in the future. Instead, he touched on an idea that, taken literally, sounds a bit like the end of Twitter itself — a long-term project to develop a technological “standard” that could liberate social networks from centralized control by the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

But for the moment, Dorsey wrote, Twitter’s goal “is to disarm as much as we can, and ensure we are all building towards a greater common understanding, and a more peaceful existence on earth.”


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — By DAVID HAMILTON

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