MONEY Travel

Airline Miles Are Now So Hard to Use That People Are Paying Consultants for Help

Delta Airlines Inc. Terminal Ahead Of Earnings Figures
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

"Award booking consultants" promise to help confused travelers spend their airline rewards points as efficiently and easily as possible.

Booking airline rewards tickets has gotten so difficult that travelers are paying consultants as much as $200 a pop for help redeeming their miles.

Travel site Skift reports on growing number of “award booking consultants” who, for a fee, will help confused consumers get the most out of their rewards points. One site, BookingGuru.org, charges $50 to arrange a seating upgrade, $80 for an award ticket within North America, and $200 for snagging a points ticket that involves multiple cities or overseas stopovers.

“Booking free seats with frequent flyer miles is more difficult than ever before as airlines have further complicated the rules and fewer seats are available,” explains BookingGuru’s website. “Do not fret though because when the airlines tell you no or tries to charge you higher rates, Booking Guru is usually able to find an option at a lower cost!”

Skift notes that points consultants, unlike travel agents, are generally not accredited by any organization. But rogue as these specialized agents may be, the site adds that “$200 for that peace of mind and a confirmed, somewhat-free ticket, can arguably be worth the investment.”

Now if they could only do something about the rest of air travel’s miseries.

TIME Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina Says the Chinese ‘Don’t Innovate’

Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina speaks at TechCrunchÕs Disrupt conference on May 5, 2015 in New York City.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina speaks at TechCrunchÕs Disrupt conference on May 5, 2015 in New York City.

The presidential hopeful explained 'that is why they are stealing our intellectual property'.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and current Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina apparently doesn’t think very highly of the Common Core education policy or of China’s ability to innovate.

How are those two things related? Well, Fiorina has criticized proponents of Common Core who think the policy will help U.S. students compete with Chinese students in subjects like math and science. The 2016 presidential hopeful told Iowa political video blog Caffeinated Thoughts earlier this year that the U.S. education system should not be modeled after China’s. Chinese students may test well, she said, but they fall short when it comes to innovation.

BuzzFeed pulled this quote from Fiorina’s video interview, in which she cited her years of business experience in China:

‘I have been doing business in China for decades, and I will tell you that yeah, the Chinese can take a test, but what they can’t do is innovate,’ she said. ‘They are not terribly imaginative. They’re not entrepreneurial, they don’t innovate, that is why they are stealing our intellectual property.’

Fiorina has broached this subject before, arguing in her book, Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey, that China’s educational model is “too homogenized and controlled to encourage imagination and risk taking.”

The former HP [fortune-stock symbol=”HPQ”] chief executive’s political experience is limited to her failed 2010 U.S. Senate bid. Fiorina’s tenure as HP CEO ended in 2005, when the company’s board forced her to resign following years of stagnant profits and a massive, ill-advised merger with Compaq.

TIME apps

Why Your Next Tablet Might Come With Word and Excel

Microsoft PRO 3 Surface Tablet Launch
Steve Sands—Getty Images Microsoft Pro 3 Surface Tablet at Skylight Clarkson Sq on May 20, 2014 in New York City.

It's Microsoft's latest move in mobile

Microsoft has signed partnerships with 20 new hardware manufacturers to pre-install Skype and Office apps on a range of new Android devices, marking the company’s latest push to expand its mobile footprint beyond Windows devices.

Sony, LG and Haier are among several major manufacturers to sign the strategic agreement, joining Samsung and Dell as Microsoft’s leading partners. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, OneDrive and Skype will roll out to Sony’s newest tablet, the Xperia Z4, within the next 90 days.

“Our aspiration is to continue to build and grow a vibrant community of billions of people who love and rely on Microsoft experiences, on any device, across all aspects of their daily lives,” Microsoft vice president Nick Parker wrote in an official blog post.

New Microsoft Office apps were first released as a free download for iPhone and Android users last year.

TIME facebook

How Oculus and Facebook Could Finally Work Together

Inside The 2014 E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images An attendee wears an Oculus VR Inc. Rift Development Kit 2 headset to play a video game during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo

Researchers have proposed sci-fi tech that would let users of the social network interact through virtual reality

Facebook’s virtual reality arm, Oculus, may one day help people interact on the social network. The idea: use the technology to create a digital stand-in for users.

Researchers teamed up with Oculus found that they could read the smiles, frowns and other facial movements of people wearing the Oculus headset and then recreate them in an avatar. They theorized that Facebook could let users incorporate their doppelgangers into its service.

The researchers, including from University of Southern California, hung a 3D camera from an Oculus Rift headset to monitor the person wearing it. The software scanned the person’s facial expressions and copied them onto a digital stand-in, whose head moved and reacted as if alive.

As Pfsk noted, one of the biggest challenges is that the Oculus headset covers the upper half the face (the headset resembles big ski goggles). The team worked around this by attaching eight sensors to the foam liner inside the headset. The team then used software to capture the facial movements of the muscles under the headset, and combined that data with what the camera collected.

Facebook hasn’t gone into detail about how it plans to use the Oculus headsets after they become publicly available in 2016. But the gaming industry is particularly interested in the technology because of its ability to enhance interactivity. Digital chatting could also be a good fit. People in different places could talk in virtual face-to-face exchanges, although it’s unclear how that would be an improvement over video chatting.

Founded in 2012, Oculus first raised $2.4 million via a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, before raising an additional $91 million in venture capital. Facebook acquired the company in 2014 for $2 billion.

MONEY Food

Olive Garden’s Breadstick Scientists Have Worked Their Magic Again

Darden Restaurants Inc. Reports 3rd Quarter Earnings Results
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

"The flavor profile of the breadstick is powerful," said one Olive Garden executive.

Just when you might have thought there were no more crazy things Olive Garden could do with breadsticks, the restaurant chain is back to assure us it has at least one more dough-based creation in the tank.

The Associated Press reports Olive Garden’s next bread-in-stick-form invention will be call the “breadstick crostini.” The new offering is essentially sliced toasted bread and will be part of an appetizer, to be added to the menu in August.

The move comes just weeks after the restaurant announced a breadstick sandwich, scheduled to debut on June 1. However, more breadsticks should come as no surprise as Olive Garden revamps its menu to play up its core competencies.

“The flavor profile of the breadstick is powerful,” said Jose Duenas, Olive Garden’s executive vice president of marketing, in an interview with the AP.

So powerful, in fact, that Olive Garden customers are demanding even more breadstick innovation. Jim Nuetzi, executive chef for Olive Garden, explained that “he has been getting other suggestions for dishes that incorporate breadsticks” ever since the breadstick sandwich was revealed.

MONEY food and drink

Burger King Testing Hot Dogs and Corn Dogs

Inside A Russian McDonald's Corp. Restaurant As Putin Instigates Government Investigation
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Residents of Michigan and Maryland will be the first to get their hands on some experimental Burger King dogs.

Fast-food fans, rejoice. Hot dogs and corn dogs may one day come to a Burger King near you.

According to the Consumerist, the Whopper maker is now testing both types of dogs at locations in Maryland and Michigan. Alas, it remains unclear exactly which stores are serving this experimental menu item, but we do know corn dogs will cost $1.49 each, while grilled hot dogs will run you $1.99 and come with ketchup, mustard, onions, and relish.

If this pilot program is expanded, Burger King will be entering a cut-throat hot dog/corn dog market where Sonic is currently king. Arch-rival McDonalds also experimented with a McHotDog in the past, but the product was a failure and later relegated to Japan. As the Consumerist notes, Burger King also previously released a breakfast hot dog (you read that right) in Japan, which makes us wonder if Japan likes hot dogs even more than Americans do.

TIME college tuition

This Tech CEO Wants to Send his Employees’ Kids to College

college commencement
Getty Images

Boxed CEO Chieh Huang plans to pay for college tuition for his employees' children

Parents working at e-commerce company Boxed have one less expense to worry about after the CEO offered to pay college tuition for his employees’ children.

Boxed confirmed on Tuesday that CEO Chieh Huang plans to create a non-profit foundation that will be used to fund the project. He says he will personally donate $1 million in cash and shares in Boxed. Huang also hopes others affiliated with the company will contribute. The fund is intended to cover tuition costs, but not housing, books, or other associated costs.

Boxed currently employs around 100 people, most of which work in the online retailer’s warehouses. Those workers currently have about a dozen children, most of which have yet to reach college-age.

Huang told Forbes:

“‘Not all folks are equally fortunate,’ says Huang. ‘Why is it that someone makes a few bucks an hour and some tech execs make hundreds of millions of dollars?’ Referring to Boxed’s warehouse workers, he adds: ‘If nothing much changes, those families will still be in lower income jobs without access to upward mobility two or three generations from now.'”

Huang’s offer follows high-profile moves by large companies to cover the cost of their employees’ own college tuition payments. Starbucks [fortune-stock symbol=”SBUX”] started the ball rolling last year with an employee college tuition assistance program to help baristas complete their bachelor’s degrees online. And, earlier this month, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said it would offer free tuition to nearly 120,000 employees at its U.S. dealerships.

Boxed is among the e-commerce startups looking to eat into market share held by big box club retailers, such as Costco [fortune-stock symbol=”COST”] and Sam’s Club, that have yet to develop much of a presence online. Huang’s company raised $25 million in a Series B funding round earlier this year.

TIME mergers

Everything You Need to Know About Merger Mastermind John Malone

The deal-maker had a hand in creating the cable industry itself, now he's at it again

Once known as the King of Cable, John Malone helped introduce pay-TV to the masses in the ’70s and ’80s. Now the media mogul, who serves as the chairman of the conglomerate Liberty Media, is helping orchestrate a merger between Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications. (Liberty Media owns the largest stake in Charter.) If approved by regulators, the combined cable and broadband giant would serve almost 24 million total customers, making it nearly as large as industry leader Comcast, which has 27 million subscribers. Here’s everything you need to know about Malone.

Claims to Fame: After an early stint as a researcher at Bell Labs, a 32-year-old Malone became the CEO of a struggling cable operator called Tele-Communications Inc, or TCI, in 1973. By the 1980s TCI was the largest pay-TV operator in the United States, wiring millions of Americans’ homes for cable for the first time. He sold the company to AT&T for $55 billion in 1999, then turned his attention to his role as chairman of Liberty Media, where his investments have ranged from Charter to Sirius XM to the Atlanta Braves.

Current Challenges: The cable industry Malone helped build is losing subscribers because of online competitors such as Netflix and Hulu, which let customers stream their favorite television shows whenever they want on any device. Costs are also on the rise as networks charge ever-increasing fees to carry their content—ESPN alone now charges cable companies more than $6 per subscriber.

Biggest Champion: Charter and Time Warner Cable CEOs Tom Rutledge and Rob Marcus. Rutledge, who has been a vocal proponent of consolidation as a way to protect the cable industry’s future, would remain the head of the newly expanded Charter. Marcus, who has been trying to sell Time Warner Cable since he took on the top role at the company last year, could receive more than $61 million in severance pay.

Biggest Obstacle: The Federal Communications Commission, which forced Comcast to scuttle its own plans for a merger with Time Warner Cable in April. Regulators worried that the expanded Comcast would have too much control of the broadband Internet market.

Can He Do It? Malone’s merger has a better shot than Comcast’s because a combined Charter and Time Warner Cable still wouldn’t control a majority of the broadband market. And Malone is as skilled in the dark art tax-saving acquisitions and spinoffs as they come—in addition to being anointed the king, some have called him the Darth Vader of cable.

Vital Stats

74: Malone’s Age

$55 Billion: Money in cash and stock Charter will pay to buy Time Warner Cable

$8.6 billion: Malone’s net worth, according to Forbes

2.2 million acres: Amount of land Malone owns, making him the largest landowner in the U.S. (For more on Malone’s holdings, check out this Fortune story.)

TIME Google

This Is What Google Could Announce This Week

Inside The Google I|O Developers Conference
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Android, Chrome and Apps for Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

Google's I/O Conference agenda hints at a major update to Android and a push toward wearables, virtual reality and the internet of things

Google’s annual developers’ conference kicks off Thursday at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center. As always, the agenda hints at a slew of new product announcements, including…

Android M. Google wouldn’t let a developers’ conference go to waste without promoting the latest changes to Android, and this year the changes could be significant. A new operating system codenamed “Android M” may not release to the public until next fall, along with a batch of new Nexus devices, but Google is expected to offer developers a peek under the hood. The operating system may introduce several features that are now familiar to iPhone users, including one-tap payment and a fingerprint scanner to unlock devices.

Google also appears to have released an intriguing talking point, first spotted by 9to5 Google, that shows a new emphasis on Android’s business users:

“This opens huge new markets for hundreds of millions of devices to workers at small business, deskless workers, logistics and warehousing jobs,” read one item on the conference agenda shortly before it was taken down.

Smart Home Devices. This may be the year the “Internet of Things” at last becomes a thing, especially if Google releases a new development platform that could seamlessly connect Android devices to everything but the kitchen sink.

Google is reportedly working on a new platform codenamed “Brillo” that would enable anything from locks to lightbulbs to garage doors to wirelessly connect to the Internet, offering Android users a new measure of control through their mobile devices.

The announcement could steal some thunder from Apple’s highly anticipated launch of HomeKit, a new smart device platform expected to go live with its first compatible products this June.

Virtual Reality. The darling of last year’s conference was Google’s startlingly low-tech answer to virtual reality headsets: Cardboard, a corrugated cardboard enclosure for a smartphone, with two eyeholes cut out for viewing virtual reality apps. This year Google may double down on the virtual reality apps for Android, or it may at last offer a clue of what’s going on at Magic Leap, a virtual reality company that lured Google into a $500 million funding round last year. At least one conference session will focus exclusively on how virtual reality “may change our lives.”

Wearables. The Apple Watch may have superseded Google’s release of Android Wear smart watches last summer, so Google may attempt to rejuvenate its wearables line with a few product improvements, including rumors of stronger batteries and smarter fitness tracking sensors. One conference session, spotted by CNET, will hone in on health data generated by Google Fit, an app that rolls up fitness data into one comprehensive dashboard.

TIME mergers

Why the Latest Cable Merger Won’t Fail Like Comcast

The Charter deal would not be on the scale of the proposed Comcast-TWC merger

Is Charter Communications Inc bold or foolish? The cable company announced it will acquire rival Time Warner Cable Inc – even though Comcast’s attempt to pull off the same deal foundered just weeks ago on anticompetitive concerns.

Comcast, recall, struck out after spending 14 months and $336 million on legal and lobbying bills. The price of failure for Charter would be even steeper: It has agreed to pay Time Warner Cable a $2 billion break-up fee in the event the deal doesn’t go through. But, for now at least, merger fans have little to worry about.

Even though the deal, which also involves Charter swallowing another small operator called Bright House Networks, would create a broadband behemoth, it would not be on the scale of the proposed Comcast-TWC merger. (The latter deal would have given Comcast exclusive control of over half the high-speed broadband connections in the country; the figure in the Charter deal will be closer to one quarter).

That scale difference alone is likely to quell anticompetitive concerns. While FCC Chair Tom Wheeler is already making noise about the need for the deal to “benefit” consumers, this likely means the agency will try to extract a few promises from Charter rather than erecting full-blown roadblocks.

Also aiding Charter is that, unlike Comcast, it doesn’t own content verticals like NBC. In the view of regulators, this reduces the chances of major mischief in the form of the merged company favoring some type of broadband content over others.

One more good sign for Charter is that public interest groups, which promptly threw a fit after Comcast announced its merger plans in early 2014, are so far keeping their powder dry. The president of Public Knowledge, for instance, said that his group is still assessing the implications.

“No, we have to review all details,” said Gene Kimmelman in response to an email asking if his group plans to oppose the merger. “And it must be shown to benefit the public in the FCC review, which is certainly not clear at this point in time. We may oppose unless certain public interest protections are put in place.”

Finally, Charter’s chances are improved by the simple fact that it is not named Comcast. As Fortune editor Alan Murray recently explained, Comcast’s rotten customer service helped it achieve a singular infamy, even by the low standards of America’s little-loved cable companies. This ensured that consumers and regulators alike were determined to stop Comcast from growing bigger.

All this is why the Charter deal, while no slam-dunk, is likely to go through with relatively few hitches.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

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