TIME Technologizer

iBooks Author Is the Most Interesting Apple Software You Aren’t Using

BASIC book
A spread from the book I created with iBooks Author Harry McCracken / TIME

What is Apple’s iBooks platform?

The most obvious way to answer that question is to say that it’s the company’s equivalent of Amazon’s Kindle. And it is–they both offer online stores for buying digital tomes, and apps for reading them.

But merely likening iBooks to Kindle isn’t a very satisfactory way of explaining it. For all the similarities between them, their differences are at least as striking.

Kindle is about e-books anywhere and everywhere: On Amazon tablets, iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, Windows Phones, Windows PCs and, most likely, any future devices with even the slightest bit of market traction. iBooks, by contrast, can only be read on Apple hardware: iPads, iPhones and Macs.

But Apple being Apple, iBooks is visually sumptuous–especially in the case of “Made for iBooks” books, which work only on the iPad and Mac versions of iBooks, not on the iPhone one. Such titles are created with a Mac program called iBooks Author, which lets you design stylish books that incorporate images, video, embedded web widgets and other trimmings. You can design something that feels a little like a coffee-table book and a little like an app, and then use Apple’s iBookstore to sell it or give it away.

And one of the neatest things about iBooks Author is that it’s a free download from the Mac App Store, designed to be as approachable as a word processor–giving anyone with a yen to publish an interactive book the same tool used by major publishers of textbooks and other titles.

(It’s possible, incidentally, to put together an attractive Kindle e-book–even one that embeds video and audio elements. But many Kindle books, even ones that should be highly visual, are less than gorgeous. For instance, I recently spent $26 for a Kindle book of photographs by Sammy Davis Jr.; the pictures are great, but the thing looks like it was laid out by a fourth grader in a version of Microsoft Word from 1992.)

Perfect Coffee
A page from Perfect Coffee at Home Apple

Apple unveiled iBooks Author in January 2012, at an event in New York that emphasized using it to create textbooks. It’s equally well-suited to other sorts of books that meld multiple types of media, especially ones with an instructional bent. The fact that it’s free, simple and connected to the iBookstore has let real people with something to say reach a meaningful readership, such as the two Afghanistan veterans who produced an engaging book titled Perfect Coffee at Home. (It became the iBookstore’s top cookbook.)

For an Apple product, though, iBooks Author has a low profile. It’s a bit of an outlier among Apple’s productivity apps, neither part of the iLife creativity suite (which includes programs such as iPhoto and iMovie), nor the iWork office suite (which includes the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and Keynote presentation package). But it’s as Apple-esque as any piece of software the company offers; if you can figure out any of those aforementioned apps, you’ll feel at home in this one.

To try out iBooks Author myself, I wrote and designed a short book. More specifically, I took the longest, most lavishly-illustrated article I’ve written recently for TIME.com–an 8,000-word opus on the 50th anniversary of the BASIC programming language–and turned it into a 29-page iBook. You can download it here.

iBooks template
iBooks Author’s template chooser Apple

For the most part, creating my book was a really easy process–one I accomplished over a couple of nights as I watched TV at home. I chose a template that automatically formatted the book for reading in both portrait and landscape orientations on an iPad, poured in the text, and decided where to position the photographs and animated GIFs from the web version. (The program automatically converted the GIFs into short videos.)

Working in iBooks Author feels a little like using Pages and a little like using Keynote. Other than pulling together the text and images and plopping them where I wanted, most of the effort on my end involved cleaning up the text here and there, such as making sure that all the imported quotation marks were curly quotes rather than plain straight ones. Every so often, I previewed my work in process by looking at it on my iPad–which, once you’ve connected the tablet to your Mac via USB, is a snap.

iBooks Author
Editing my book in iBooks Author Harry McCracken / TIME

The only part of the process that felt balky was getting columns of text to line up neatly: Sometimes they were uneven and I couldn’t nudge them into alignment. (I’ve noticed this to be an issue with some of the Made for iBooks titles I’ve downloaded from the iBookstore, too.)

Because my BASIC book was an experiment rather than a commercial product, I didn’t submit it to the iBookstore; if I had done so, it would have gone through an approval process akin to the one in place at Apple’s App Store. But you don’t need to use the iBookstore to get your works in front of readers, since you can also send iBooks files by e-mail or put them on websites.

iBooks cover
The cover of my iBooks Author book Harry McCracken / TIME

Which brings up another point that needs mentioning. Shortly after Apple announced iBooks Author, a kerfuffle broke out over the software’s license agreement. Just as with apps in the App Store, iBooks in the iBookstore can be free or come with a price attached. In the case of for-pay books, Apple collects a fee of 30 percent for distributing your work. None of that was surprising or controversial.

But the the catch is that the iBooks Author license agreement stipulates you can only charge for a book in iBooks format when you distribute it through Apple’s store, not if it’s available elsewhere. Basically, if anyone is making money off an iBook created with iBooks Author, Apple wants a cut.

That part, some people were very unhappy about. They tended to look at it as being equivalent to Microsoft demanding a fee whenever someone used Word to write something profitable.

I’ve wrestled with my feelings about the rule myself, and have concluded that I don’t find it all that bothersome. For one thing, you can output an iBooks Author file in PDF format; it will lose its video and interactive features, but you can do whatever you want with it, including selling it for money wherever you like. Even more than that, though, the fact that iBooks Author’s books only work on iPads and Macs means that if I invested a lot of effort in creating an e-book, I’d probably want to make it available in a non-iBooks version anyhow–which would give me options for monetizing it beyond the iBookstore.

It’s also hard to imagine that anyone’s going to come up with a better way to sell iBooks than the iBookstore, which has the advantage of being deeply integrated with the iBooks apps on millions of Apple devices.

Ultimately, the proposition Apple is offering–powerful and elegant free authoring software, plus a way to get the things you create with it in front of vast numbers of people–seems like a reasonable deal to me. The next time I have an idea that feels like it might be a book, I may well decide to turn it into an iBook.

TIME Technologizer

Samsung Announces Simband, a Wearable Health Gadget You Can’t Buy

Samsung Simband
Samsung Electronics president Young Sohn reveals the Simband at an event in San Francisco on May 28, 2014 Harry McCracken / TIME

The Korean electronics giant launches an experimental platform for next-generation digital health

When Samsung announced on May 1 that it was holding a health-related media event in San Francisco on May 28, everybody assumed–reasonably–that it wanted to get some news out before anything health-related which Apple might announce at its WWDC keynote on Monday. But it wasn’t clear what that news might be.

As it turned out, Samsung announced a new health wristband–but not one it plans to sell anytime soon.

Instead, it’s calling its Simband an “investigational device” which will help it meld sensors and other electronics with software and services to create future digital health technology. And rather than being yet another proprietary device such as the company’s Gear smartwatches, Simband is an open platform which Samsung hopes other companies will embrace.

Samsung briefly showed off a Simband during its onstage presentation, but didn’t provide vast amounts of information about the device. It looks much like already-extant smartwatches, with a square case and a large color touchscreen, and it packs Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and sensors for measuring factors such as heart rate and oxygen level. Some of the electronics are embedded in the band, giving the engineers responsible for the gadget more space to work with, and there’s a snap-on external “shuttle battery” which lets you recharge the band without removing it from your wrist. (At the event, Samsung Electronics president and chief strategy officer Young Sohn listed 24/7 wearability as one key goal for future devices.)

Along with the Simband, Samsung talked about SAMI, a neat acronym for a tongue-twister of an initiative: Samsung Multimodal Architecture Interaction. SAMI is a cloud-based service for storing the data collected by a gizmo such as the Simband; like the band, it’s an open platform, and Samsung emphasized that consumers stay in control of any information that it stores.

The company says that it’ll make the Simband available to developers later this year, and is already envisioning future versions with sophisticated capabilities–such as a blood glucose monitor–which would make sense to build in once the technology allows. Consumers won’t be able to buy a Simband, but the whole idea is for it to help lead the way to health wearables with mass appeal.

The most interesting thing about Simband is the fact that it’s open. That surely sets it apart from anything Apple might do which is even vaguely similar. It’s a major move for Samsung, too, which would love to be thought of as an world-class innovator rather than an extremely successful copycat.

It also reflects the company’s recent ramping up of its presence in Silicon Valley. Samsung has already opened an innovation center there and announced plans to invest $100 million in startups. As part of Samsung’s announcement today, it also said that it’s working with the University of California at San Francisco on digital healthcare and has $50 million to invest in companies working on next-generation health technologies.

If Simband and SAMI catch on and provide the foundation for an array of devices and services from multiple companies other than Samsung, what the company announced today could amount to a sort of Android of health–a universal platform shared by almost everybody who isn’t Apple. However, it’s way too early to come to any conclusions about whether there’s a real chance of that happening.

It’s an intriguing idea, though. And there’s nothing mysterious about Samsung wanting the world to know about the Simband right now, before Apple gets into health–not afterwards, when it might smack of me-too-ism.

TIME Technologizer

Square Banks on Cash Advances for Small Businesses

Bloomberg San Francisco
Square CEO Jack Dorsey demonstrating a Square reader at Square headquarters in San Francisco, June 14, 2013. Jeff Chiu—AP

The commerce startup aims to simplify a business with a not-so-great image

Among the various ways that a small business can get access to funds, the cash advance—borrowing against money which a company hasn’t yet made, then paying it back as a percentage of future sales—doesn’t have the best of reputations. Typically, it’s a last-ditch measure taken by a company which can’t convince a bank that it’s a good prospect for a loan, and the fees involved can be steep and complicated.

Depending on how you look at it, that makes it an odd business for Square to enter—as it’s doing with a new service called Square Capital—or a logical one. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s startup, after all, sees its purpose in life as bringing elegant simplicity to transactions which are usually neither simple nor elegant, as it did with its tiny credit-card swiper. And the whole idea of Square Capital is to make cash advances a more straightforward, respectable funding option.

Among the unusual things about Square Capital is the application process—or lack thereof. A company can’t seek an advance. Instead, Square reaches out to prospective businesses which it’s picked as good candidates based on the their statistics as revealed through the sales they’ve processed using Square.

“We send an offer to the seller based on our holistic understanding of their business,” says Gokul Rajaram, Square’s head of product.

Square is also aiming to make the math involved in an advance transparent. As an example, Rajaram says that Square might offer a small business a $10,000 advance. The total payback might be $11,000–making the cost of the advance $1,000–and Square might hold back 5 percent of the business’s sales through Square until it’s recouped the $11,000. A merchant who accepted this deal would receive the money as soon as the next day, and then would monitor it through the same dashboard used for other Square tasks.

All of those figures are hypothetical: Square says that the advances, fees and payback percentages will all vary from offer to offer. That makes it tough to make any sweeping generalizations about how costly an option Square Capital is compared to other sources of small-business funding, from banks to startups such as Dealstruck, Kabbage and OnDeck.

Unlike a loan with an interest rate and fixed payments, one of the advantages of a cash advance is that the pace of the repayment auto-adjusts itself to reflect cashflow, since it’s based on a percentage of sales. If a business boomed after receiving the advance, it might end up paying back the advance more quickly than it expected; if it went through a seasonal lull, or sales turned just plain lousy, the payments would be smaller and the process would take longer. Rajaram says that the goal is to offer amounts which typically will take around ten months to repay.

Square says that it’s already advanced tens of millions to small companies in Square Capital’s pilot phase, such as New York-based coffee chain Cafe Grumpy; San Francisco comic-book collectible shop ZeroFriends; and Follicle Hair Salon, another San Francisco business which used two advances to buy twelve new chairs, each of which can bring in an additional $5,000-$8,000 in sales per month. “It’s part of our broader mission of helping sellers grow,” Rajaram told me.

Among the growing companies which Square Capital might help is Square itself, which has lately been looking to sources of revenue beyond the 2.75 percent processing fee it collects on transactions handled with its card reader. Earlier this month, for instance, it announced Square Feedback, a service for collecting and addressing comments from customers.

The company acknowledges that it’s currently losing money–it’s still in a mode of investment and expansion rather than focusing on turning an immediate profit–and its own financial future is the subject of constant speculation, including rumors of everything from it getting ready to go public to shopping itself to potential acquirers. The more well-rounded its offerings, the brighter its future could end up being.

TIME Technologizer

LG’s G3 Smartphone Has Eye-Popping Resolution, Laser-Focusing Camera

LG G3
LG

The big Korean hardware maker hopes to raise its profile with a new flagship handset

In the Android-based smartphone wars–in the U.S., at least–LG has kept a relatively low profile. Its Korean arch-rival, Samsung, dominates the market with its Galaxy models. HTC aspires to be the category’s class act with its One handsets. And it’s been unclear what LG was, aside from yet another large manufacturer of credible Android phones.

The company just announced its new model, the G3, at a splashy London launch, with satellite events elsewhere such as the one I attended in San Francisco. I heard LG executives extoll the phone’s virtues, then got a bit of hands-on time with an early model (very early–part of its interface was still in Korean). That’s not enough to come to any firm conclusions about the G3, but it looks a smartphone which will merit being taken seriously.

And LG is definitely trying to carve off a clear identity for itself. It hammered home its marketing pitch for the phone — “Simple is the New Smart” — by repeating it at every opportunity during the event. Heaven knows that the average Android phone still isn’t as straightforward as it might be, in part because hardware manufacturers’ “improvements” often add clutter and inconsistency. Erring on the side of simplicity is therefore a worthy goal.

The G3 has an expansive 5.5-inch display–big enough to place it in that popular-but-ungainly-named phablets category. LG doesn’t seem especially eager for people to think of this phone as a phablet, though: During its event, it emphasized that the phone, at 5.76 inches wide, is only a bit bulkier than a 5.1-inch phone.

That 5,5-inch display packs a “quad HD” resolution of 1440-by-2560 pixels, for a pixel-per-inch count of 538–way beyond what the iPhone 5 (326 ppi) and Galaxy S5 (432 ppi) offer. In fact, the conventional wisdom is that a resolution as high as that offered by the G3 is purely an act of specsmanship; the human eye supposedly isn’t capable of detecting a difference between it and a lower resolution.

LG argues otherwise, although its explanation involved showing images blown up to appear on humongous screens at its London venue–which means that its comparison had nothing to do with what our eyes can make out on a smartphone display. Still, the screen on the G3 I examined looked awfully pretty.

Selfie
A selfie I snapped of myself at LG’s G3 launch event Harry McCracken / TIME

The other intriguing G3 feature its the auto-focus capability on its 13-megapixel camera, which uses a laser. That, combined with the camera’s optical stabilization and dual-LED flash, might make for better photos when you’re shooting on the go or in dim environments. The phone is also designed to appeal to the selfie set: You can hold up your hand and then make a fist, whereupon the handset will do a quick countdown and then snap a picture of you with its front camera.

That’s about it for major new hardware features: There’s no fingerprint scanner or heart-rate monitor or anything else which treads the fine line between useful addition and silly gimmickry.

Like other makers of Android phones, LG has tweaked the operating system’s interface, but it doesn’t look like it’s done so with too heavy a hand. The company says that it’s aimed for a “mature” color palette, and it’s following a current trend by using round icons in some places. There’s also a notification system which does things such as let you respond to incoming calls with a text message.

Industrial design-wise, the G3 looks polished: Along with the Galaxy S5, it’s one of a shrinking number of phones with a pop-off back and a removable battery, but the back is metallic and considerably more upscale than the Galaxy S5’s bedimpled plastic one. In a wacky feature carried over from the G2, the power and volume controls are on the back, on a multi-purpose button located below the camera, leaving the phone with no buttons or other controls on its front or edges.

The G3 is available now in its home market of South Korea. Those of us in the U.S. will have some time to ponder the model before it goes on the market: It’ll be available on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon sometime this summer, at a price to be announced.

TIME Technologizer

Nest’s Smoke Detector ‘Recall’ Doesn’t Mean You Need to Send Yours Back

Nest Smoke Detector
Nest Labs

A problem disclosed in early April is now the subject of an official bulletin from the Consumer Product Safety Commission

Nest Labs–a startup recently bought by Google which brings high style and web smarts to mundane household devices–is recalling Nest Protect, a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, over concerns that its alarm might fail to go off in emergency situations. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 440,000 Nest Protect units are affected by the problem.

Wednesday’s recall news, though important, isn’t quite as big a deal as it sounds like: It’s more of a formality, as the CPSC is officially alerting consumers to measures which Nest took on its own back on April 3. And the “recall” doesn’t involve Nest owners having to send the detectors back for repair; they were designed all along to update their own software over Wi-Fi, a feature which makes this unexpected development less of a disaster.

The risk relates to one of the detector’s most clever features, “wave to dismiss.” If the alarm goes off because of something which isn’t actually dangerous–like a little smoke wafting from your oven as you cook dinner–you don’t need to frantically whip a towel through the air or stand on a chair to turn it off. Instead, you can merely wave your hand and a motion detector inside Nest Protect will shut off the alarm.

Here’s the rub: The company concluded that there was a chance that the feature might malfunction, causing Nest Protect to stay silent in a situation that really is dangerous. There are no known examples of any harm coming to people or property because of the problem, but Nest decided to issue a software update which temporarily disabled the feature while it worked on a permanent fix.

On April 3, Nest disclosed the discovery of the potential hazard, issued the software update which shut off wave-to-dismiss, halted sales of new units and offered a refund to any Nest Protect owner who was unable or unwilling to perform the update.

Why the delay before the CPSC’s recall notice? The agency had its own technicians examine Nest’s solution for the issue and approve it–a process which took a few weeks. It considers the formal notification it published today to be a recall, even though the resolution involves the smoke detector self-installing the update. (And as before, consumers can also return the unit for a refund.)

Nest, meanwhile, says it’s finishing a new version of “wave-to-dismiss” which will bring back the feature while eliminating the malfunction. It’ll be part of another software update which the company plans to push out in the next few weeks, whereupon it will also resume sales of Nest Protect.

MORE: How a Thermostat Can Save the World

TIME Technologizer

‘Secret’ App Is Now Available on Android

Secret
Secret

The anonymous social network opens up to non-iPhone users

On the Secret social-networking app, which launched in February, there are no user names, photos, profiles or other clues as to who’s saying what. But everybody has had one basic fact in common: They’ve all had an iPhone, the only device which the app has run on until now.

Starting today, Secret is also available for Android phones. And in a move which remains the exception rather than the norm, its creators didn’t just clone the iOS version. Instead, they’re rolling out some changes first in the Android edition, making it–for the time being–the most up-to-date expression of the idea. The company’s founders, former Goooglers Chrys Bader and David Byttow, recently chatted with my about their brainchild and gave me a sneak peek of the new version.

On Secret, you see stuff from friends–although you don’t know who’s who–as well as friends of friends, people located near you and and a smattering of folks located elsewhere who have said something which has been favorited and/or commented upon more than usual. In the iPhone version, all of the items from all of these types of users have intermingled in one stream of secrets.

The new Android version divvies up the secrets into two streams. Friends and friends of friends go into the “Friends” tab; “Explore” includes everything else. It reminds me a bit of how Instagram lets you switch between photos from friends and ones which are just plain interesting, and sets Secret up for a future in which it might further categorize the items it shares.

Besides the two-tab interface which is debuting on Android, Secret is getting a few other tweaks designed to make it more engaging and lively. It now shows you how many friends you have on the network, in an animated graphic which it weaves into your stream. (I have 274, which is more than I would have guessed.) The service is also experiencing with prodding shy users to pipe up by inserting questions such as “What’s the best lie you ever told?” and polls into the stream.

One of the things which makes Secret fascinating is that everybody who uses it seems to have a different take on what it’s for. In the stream I see, there’s juicy gossip which may or may not be true, silly pranks, touching confessions of emotional frailty, heartfelt expressions of appreciation for loved ones and far more gross sex-related disclosures than I really care to read.

Bader and Byttow see their creation as a positive force–and ban harsh stuff about private individuals–but are basically happy with the diversity of self expression to be found on it, including the recent chatter about executive departures, layoffs and other tech-industry scuttlebutt. “There are a lot of things that go unsaid in a high-pressure environment such as Silicon Valley,” Byttow says. “It’s a use case we discussed in the early days. To see it actually happening and feel it, it’s very intriguing.”

Byttow told me that they even approved of the recent wacky “secret” about Apple building earbuds capable of measuring heart eate and blood pressure– a hoax which a number of tech sites took seriously and reported as a possible real product: “It got people thinking about what’s possible with earphones. There’s got to be one or two startups out there who think about that and say ‘You know what, maybe that’s not a bad idea.'”

Of course, for Secret to have staying power, it’s going to need to appeal to large numbers of people who aren’t Silicon Valley insiders or the sort of jokesters who fantasize about imaginary Apple products. Being available on Android should help there–and I’m curious to see whether the influx of newbies will be noticeable to seasoned Secret veterans such as myself.

TIME Technologizer

The New Surface Could Be the Tablet Microsoft Has Been Trying to Create Since 1990

Bill Gates
Bill Gates shows off Tablet PCs at COMDEX in Las Vegas on November 16, 2003 Jeff Christensen / WireImage / Getty Images

The vision has remained remarkably consistent. Is the technology finally ready?

Microsoft announced a new tablet computer at an event on Tuesday in New York. As its name indicates, the Surface Pro 3 is the third in a line of devices that run full-blown Windows 8, making them newfangled PCs as much as iPad rivals. (I gave a lukewarm review to the first version, and my colleague Jared Newman wrote more enthusiastically about the second one.)

But in a sense, the road to the Surface Pro 3 really goes back to 2000, when Microsoft unveiled a pen-oriented portable computer it called the Tablet PC. Unless you want to start counting in 1990, when it began work on something called Windows for Pen Computing.

No matter how you do the math, the company got interested in the idea of a portable computer with a touchscreen and a pen many, many years before Apple kicked off the modern era of tablets with the iPad. Only the part involving it designing and selling its own hardware is a recent development.

Being prescient about future trends in computing–which Microsoft has often been, dating back to 1975, when Bill Gates and Paul Allen thought there might be a big market for PC software–doesn’t automatically mean that you’re capable of designing products that vast numbers of people want to use. Windows for Pen Computing, for example, went nowhere. The Tablet PC, which Bill Gates famously predicted would dominate the industry within five years, did not.

As for previous Surfaces, they aren’t the flops they’re sometimes written off as: Microsoft sold almost a half-billion dollars’ worth of tablets and accessories in its last fiscal quarter. But they also aren’t the sort of game-changing blockbusters that would lead anyone to think that Microsoft has nailed what a post-PC PC should look like.

Even with the first two Surface Pros, part of the problem is that Microsoft’s ambition had usually raced ahead of the technology curve. It’s still difficult to cram a potent Intel processor into a thin, quiet device, and to add effective touch and pen features to an operating system with roots as venerable as those of Windows. So the arrival of any new Microsoft tablet always makes me wonder: Is it finally possible to build the device the company has been envisioning all along?

I’m not ready to say anything definitive about the Surface Pro 3, which I haven’t seen in person yet. But the gap between vision and reality is clearly shrinking.

Though this new model isn’t a radical rethinking of the Surface concept, it nudges the platform in a specific direction–even further away from direct competition with the iPad, and back towards the PC productivity category that was so good to Microsoft for so long. That’s the right direction for Surface Pro, and it made perfect sense that the other device onstage as a point of comparison was a 13-inch MacBook Air, not an iPad.

When the company launched the original Surfaces in 2012, it declared that their 10.6″ screens, with a 16:9 aspect ratio, were ideal and chosen after rejecting many other sizes. But the Pro 3 has a 12″ display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. As Surface honcho Panos Panay explained at today’s event, that’s reminiscent of a piece of paper. It’s also closer in size to a conventional laptop, making Surface more intriguing to folks who are looking for a laptop replacement and found the earlier models too dinky.

The Pro 3’s snap-on keyboard accessory–oddly, it still isn’t standard equipment–is a Type Cover, with real mechanical keys and a more serious touchpad than previous Surface keyboards. It’s designed to fasten to the tablet more securely than earlier models, which–coupled with the new infinitely-adjustable kickstand–should make the Pro 3 a more lap-friendly laptop alternative.

Microsoft will also offer the Surface Pro 3 with a choice of Intel processors: Core i3, i5 or i7. That’s unusual for a tablet, but standard practice for a user-configurable PC. As are accoutrements such as the docking station and Ethernet adapter the company will offer.

Software-wise, the product launch reflected Microsoft’s recent efforts to reassure Windows users that the operating system’s classic desktop mode is alive and well, not something the company envisions as being replaced by the new-style Metro interface anytime soon. We got a tantalizing peek at a version of Photoshop that ran in desktop mode but featured tweaks to make it work better with touch and pen input, for instance–something likely far more interesting to more Photoshop aficionados than a stripped-down, fully Metro-ized Photoshop would be.

I don’t yet have an opinion on some of the most important things about Surface Pro 3, such as how easy it is to work with the pen, which is based on technology from a company called N-trig rather than the Wacom tech in the first two Surface Pros. (I’ve tried to take notes with a pen using an infinite number of Windows-based devices in the past and it’s never felt anywhere as natural as it does with a pad of actual dead-tree paper, which Microsoft rightly says is the benchmark.)

Also: I continue to be confused by something I already complained about four paragraphs back: Why doesn’t Microsoft include the keyboard with the Surface?

Yes, making it optional helps bring the starting price down–the Pro 3 starts at $799–and allows buyers to choose between multiple keyboard options, such as ones in a variety of colors. But given that the click-on keyboard has been Surface’s defining feature from the start, not bundling it muddies the message. And the more Microsoft focuses on pitching Surface Pro as a complete laptop replacement, the muddier the message feels.

Still, I’m glad that Microsoft has taken three whacks at the Surface Pro concept in a little over a year and a half. If the Surface Pro 3 (or the Surface Pro 4 or Surface Pro 5) is a winner, it won’t just help convince skeptics that the company’s decision to start making its own computers was smart. It will also mean that the Tablet PC vision Bill Gates himself preached beginning in the last century wasn’t the misfire it’s often seemed to be–just a good idea that took an uncommonly long time to become reality.

TIME Technologizer

Microsoft’s Home Automation Deal Is More Proof It’s a Whole New Company

Insteon Box
Insteon

Rather than trying to destroy an established leader in the category, the company is embracing it

On the surface, there’s nothing particularly surprising about the news that Microsoft is working with Insteon, the creator of one of the major home-automation standards, to provide Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8 with new apps. Home automation is rapidly becoming a major tech category unto itself. The deal will let consumers control household items such as lamps, security cameras and thermostats from their Windows PCs, phones and tablets, and Microsoft will sell Insteon hardware kits in its stores.

It sounds like a sensible partnership, and it is. But it’s also evidence that the Microsoft of 2014–the one run by Satya Nadella–is a whole lot humbler and more sensible than the one which dominated the industry for so long.

The old Microsoft was often prescient when it came to identifying emerging categories. It entered them aggressively, usually with its own technologies and almost always with a Windows-centric perspective on the world. Its goal was to crush the competition.

Sometimes the strategy worked: That’s how we got Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer, both of which reached 90 percent-plus market shares in their respective categories. But it also led to plenty of stuff which never went anywhere, such as the Microsoft SPOT platform for devices such as smartwatches, the Plays for Sure system for copy-protected digital music and Windows Media Photo, an alternative file format to JPEG for storing digital photos.

If home automation had started blossoming a decade or so ago, it’s likely that Microsoft would have devised its own platform–let’s call it Windows for Your House–and would have tried to topple the standards of the day, which included Insteon as well as perennial rivals ZigBee and X10. It’s possible that such a gambit would have succeeded. But it seems even more likely that it would have been a waste of everybody’s time.

Which is why the partnership with Insteon is such a refreshing move, in line with other recent Microsoft developments such as it release of a capable version of Office for Apple’s iPad. The company still needs to provide millions of people with clear reasons to dump their old copies of Windows 7 and–bleeecch–Windows XP and move to Windows 8.1. It also has to provide reasons to choose a Windows Phone over an iPhone or an Android handset. The new Insteon support is a small-but-meaningful incentive, in a way that some new Microsoft technology would not be.

An important point: Microsoft hasn’t given up on the view that as new gizmos come along, they should all be based on Microsoft technologies. At its BUILD conference last month, it talked about a new shrunken-down version of Windows for “Internet of Things” devices. Among its potential applications are household appliances. And the company is giving the operating system to hardware makers for free, which certainly sounds like an attempt to grab lots of market share as quickly as possible.

But whether or not you ever own a toaster that runs Windows, future versions of the operating system for PCs, phones and tablets will work with the hundreds of devices which already support Insteon. That’s good for everybody involved, including Microsoft, Insteon and–most important–both companies’ customers.

TIME privacy

Why Major Tech Companies Are Getting Much Better About Privacy

EFF report
Electronic Frontier Foundation

A new study shows dramatic improvements after Edward Snowden's NSA revelations

Whatever you think of Edward Snowden and his revelations about the National Security Agency’s alleged monitoring of the Internet, one thing is beyond debate: His disclosures have ignited a global conversation about privacy in the online age. And a new report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests that he spurred the tech industry to take newly aggressive measures to defend their users against inappropriate government intrusions.

“Who Has Your Back?” rates 26 U.S.-based tech companies on six factors:

  • Whether they require a warrant before they’ll release user content;
  • Whether they inform users of government data requests;
  • Whether they publish transparency reports;
  • Whether they publish law enforcement guidelines;
  • Whether they fight for users’ privacy rights in court;
  • Whether they fight for users’ privacy rights before Congress.

A company which the EFF concluded did all of the above would get a six-star rating. Eight companies achieved that, including giants such as Apple. Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter. They outnumbered the laggards, such as Amazon and AT&T (two stars apiece) and Snapchat (one star).

The EFF has been publishing this report since 2011, and this is the first year that reading it might leave you feeling guardedly upbeat rather than depressed. Last year, for instance, regional ISP Sonic.net and Twitter were the only companies to get perfect six-star ratings, and Apple and Yahoo only got one star apiece. In 2012, the report involved a simpler rating, and only Sonic.net got all four stars. And in 2011, no company got four stars and only Google managed not to look dismal.

The EFF’s analysis of its data notes the turnaround and credits Snowden for nudging the industry in the right direction:

This year, we saw major improvements in industry standards for informing users about government data requests, publishing transparency reports, and fighting for the user in Congress. For the first time in our four years of Who Has Your Back reports, every company we reviewed earned credit in at least one category. This is a significant improvement over our original report in 2011, when neither Comcast, Myspace, Skype, nor Verizon received any stars.

These changes in policy were likely a reaction to the releases of the last year, which repeatedly pointed to a close relationship between tech companies and the National Security Agency. Tech companies have had to work to regain the trust of users concerned that the US government was accessing data they stored in the cloud. This seems to be one of the legacies of the Snowden disclosures: the new transparency around mass surveillance has prompted significant policy reforms by major tech companies.

There’s still plenty of fodder for concern in the report. Why, for instance, do all the old-school communications behemoths on it–AT&T, Comcast and Verizon–look so much worse than many younger companies? And this particular study covers only protection from governmental snooping; you can applaud Google and Facebook for their high scores here while still having questions about what they’re doing with your data for purposes such as targeting advertising.

Still, when Snowden blew his whistle, numerous tech executives expressed outrage over what he revealed and said they’d put new measures in place to safeguard their customers. It’s good to get this confirmation from the hard-nosed privacy advocates at the EFF that so many of them lived up to their word–and I’m already curious what next year’s report will look like.

TIME Technologizer

Sony Xperia Z2 Review: A Great Android Tablet, But Still No iPad

Sony Xperia Z2 tablet
Sony Xperia Z2 tablet

This stylish, waterproof featherweight is hobbled by some traditional Android disadvantages

When we talk about gadgets, we tend to lump smartphones and tablets together. But in many ways, they’re strikingly different product categories.

Among smartphones, for instance, the iPhone has usually competed with at least one high-profile, big-selling Android model–most famously ones in Samsung’s Galaxy S line. But there’s no Android tablet that’s done well enough to feel like the full-sized iPad’s peer. Instead, Apple’s tablet has remained the Goliath of the category, and an Android army of Davids has haphazardly ganged up on it with limited success.

One of those Davids has been Sony. The company started out making quirky tablets which went out of their way not to resemble the iPad too much. Then it released the Xperia Z, which was a lot more iPad-like than its predecessors, but with some features which the iPad lacks, such as a water-resistant case.

The newest Sony tablet is the Xperia Z2–not to be confused with the phone of the same name. As the name indicates, this is an evolutionary advance on the Xperia Z, rather than a radical rethinking of what a tablet should be. At $500 for a model with 16GB of storage, the Z2 costs the same as the iPad Air; unlike a bargain tablet such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX, it aspires to compete with Apple purely on quality, not price.

There’s a lot that’s very nice about this tablet: It’s both Sony’s best tablet to date and one of the best Android models, period. But as with other Android tablets, trumping the iPad Air in certain respects doesn’t mean you’re in the same Zip Code when it comes to overall experience.

Good: The Size, Weight and Overall Feel

There’s nothing plasticky or bulky about the Z2. Like the iPad Air and Amazon’s 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX–and few other full-sized tablets–it’s so light that I’m pleasantly surprised every time I pick it up. At 15.49 ounces and a quarter-inch thick, it’s a tad lighter and thinner than the one-pound, .29-inch iPad Air–but the difference is more striking than those numbers suggest, because the Z2’s 10.1-inch screen is meaningfully larger than the Air’s 9.7-inch display.

I also like Sony’s soft-touch back, which feels a bit reminiscent of a leatherette cover on a classy old hardcover book, without reducing itself to actively mimicking stitched leather like some recent Samsung gadgets. Basically, this is a really nice tablet to hold.

Bad: The Screen’s Aspect Ratio

 Xperia Z2 keyboard
The Xperia Z2’s thumb keyboard Sony

Sony’s screen, with a resolution of 1920-by-1080 pixels, is crisp, vivid and easy on the eyes. But I continue to be befuddled by why so many non-Apple tablets opt for a wide-screen orientation, including this one. Sure, it’s great for movies.

But in every other respect, it makes for a more awkward experience than if the horizontal and vertical dimensions were more similar. The Z2 is oddly skinny in portrait mode, and typing on the full-sized keyboard in landscape mode is awkward. (Sony does give you a wacky-yet-effective mini-keyboard option, though–it sits in the lower right-hand corner of the screen where you can jab at it with one thumb.)

Good: It’s Splashproof

Sony has been on the water-resistant bandwagon for a while now. You can submerge the Z2 in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to half an hour. Sony talks about using it to take photos while swimming or diving; even if that sounds like an unlikely scenario, it’s good to know that spilling a drink in the vicinity of this tablet shouldn’t be cause for panic. (You do need to make sure that you’ve snapped the MicroUSB and MicroSD doors along the tablet’s metallic rim firmly shut.)

Good: Android’s Interface Shines Through

Sony Z2 photo
The Xperia Z2 lets you shoot pictures with defocused backgrounds Harry McCracken / TIME

Unlike Samsung–which likes to pile its own features on top of Android, such as the ability to stick four apps onscreen at once–Sony hasn’t tampered too much with Google’s software design. If you’re familiar with Android in its unvarnished form, you won’t have trouble finding your way around the Z2. And with a quad-core Qualcomm processor and 3GB of RAM, it’s got enough hardware oomph to keep the interface zipping along.

Most of the stuff which Sony has added makes sense. There’s a universal remote-control app which lets you command your TV using the tablet’s built-in infrared transmitter, for instance. And an image-processing program can blur the backgrounds on photos from the 8.1-megapixel rear camera–nothing like the effect you can get with a serious DSLR camera, but still fun to fiddle with.

Bad: The Third-Party Android Tablet App Situation

The selection of apps which have been designed specifically for an Android tablet with a roomy screen such as the Z2’s remains skimpy. That’s not something that Sony can fix. But it remains a significant downside for Android tablets in general, especially compared to the embarrassment of riches available for the iPad.

Bad: Dueling Content Stores

Almost every phone and tablet that runs Android suffers to some degree from having an excess of ways to buy movies, music and/or apps–Google’s Play stores, plus whatever the hardware manufacturer and, sometimes, a wireless carrier, has added. It leads to bloat and confusion and generally feels like too many salespeople clamoring for your attention.

With the Z2, the duality is more striking than usual, in part because Sony is such a major purveyor of digital content. The Z2 plays up Sony’s own music and movie stores, and plunks a prominent What’s New widget on your home screen, with “recommendations” of movies, albums and apps.

I recommend ignoring those recommendations. What’s New suggested I buy a Spider-Man game from Gameloft’s site–which made me enter my credit-card details and download it through the tablet’s web browser, a clunky process which failed the first time I tried–rather than simply getting it from the Google Play store. Rather than linking to Google Play for video, the widget links to Sony’s video store, where prices are often the same as Google’s but sometimes higher or lower.

A company like Sony is never going to come to terms with this, but with Google Play onboard a tablet, additional sources of content are largely redundant. Maybe when you set up an Xperia tablet for the first time, you should get to choose between either Sony’s stores or Google’s as your primary sources of content–and the tablet could then tuck the ones you didn’t select into an out-of-the-way folder.

The Upshot

If you’re going to buy an Android tablet, the Xperia Z2 merits your attention. It’s a solid piece of hardware with style to spare, and a worthy alternative to anything available from Samsung. But I’m still waiting for an iPad alternative which–like the iPad Air itself–adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The Z2, pleasing though it is some respects, is yet another Android model which doesn’t perform that rare feat of mathematical magic.

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