Technologizer

Apple Will Let Mac Users Try Out OS X Betas (Finally!)

OS X Mavericks
Apple

Good news for early adopters. Will iOS be next?

If you’ve got a Mac and like trying out new software, Apple has a proposition for you. Join its new OS X Beta Seed program, and you’ll be able to download free test versions of future editions of OS X from the Mac App Store, before they’re released to the general public.

As with all beta programs, what’s in it for the software developer in question is real-world testing. Apple will be able to get feedback from program participants while it’s still possible to fix any glitches which turn up.

With any other product and any other company, this wouldn’t be news: It’s the way things work, generally speaking. For instance, Microsoft released a free consumer preview of Windows 8 in February 2012, months before the final operating system shipped in October.

Apple, however, has usually held its betas close to the vest. It’s distributed them to people who pay $99 a year to register as an OS X or iOS developer, but doing so has required those folks to sign an agreement saying they won’t discuss the pre-release software in public.

Actually, that mandate is still in place: As the Verge’s Chris Welch points out, signing up for the Beta Seed requires you to agree that you won’t blog, tweet, share screen shots or otherwise spill the beans.

The Beta Seed site never says that signing up for the program entitles you to get every new version of OS X early. In fact, the only version of OS X it mentions by name is Mavericks, the current major release. So I don’t think it’s a given that Beta Seed testers will get immediate access to the next version after Mavericks when it comes along, possibly at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June. But it would be nice if they did: It will have major new features, and any further Mavericks updates probably will not.

It’s traditional in stories such as this one to include a stern disclaimer that installing beta software can cause major problems and therefore isn’t for the faint of heart. I guess that’s true. Full disclosure, though: For years, I’ve installed most betas the moment I can get my hands on them. So far, I’ve lived to tell the tale. It may be risky, but it can also be a rewarding experience.

How about iOS? Apple isn’t making any mention at all of its mobile operating system, and it would be a much bigger decision for it to let consumers install such betas. Early versions of smartphone operating systems are far more likely to have crippling problems than desktop ones, and it’s tougher to reverse the process if you regret installing them.

I can’t imagine that Apple wants to provide tech support for people who install an iOS beta and then discover that their phone no longer functions as a phone. Maybe the company will cautiously provide seeds of very late, almost-done betas–also known by names such as “release candidates,” and typically just about as polished as final software. Here’s hoping.

Technologizer

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum on the Company’s Latest Milestone: 500 Million Active Users

Jan Koum
WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum shows off his personal phone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 24, 2014 Angel Navarette / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Not yet part of Facebook, which is still in the process of buying it, or a household name in the U.S., the messaging app is continuing to grow, and grow and grow, adding around 25 million new active users every month

When Facebook announced its stunning agreement to acquire messaging app WhatApp last February for $19 billion in stock, cash and restricted stock units, Mark Zuckerberg said that the startup was on track to reach a billion users. That pretty much explained his interest: It’s a figure that doesn’t come up often when discussing networked services other than…well, Facebook.

As of today, it’s official: WhatsApp is halfway there.

In a blog post today, it’s announcing that the app has 500 million users–not just people who registered, but ones who are active participants. I recently sat down with CEO and cofounder Jan Koum at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. to talk about the news.

Judging from its periodic statements over the past year, WhatsApp has been adding around 25 million new active users every month, a pace that isn’t slowing. The 500 million people now on board send tens of billions of text messages a day, along with 700 million photos and 100 million videos.

“On one hand, we were kind of expecting it,” Koum says of reaching the half-billion mark. “We got to 200 million users, 300 million users, 400 million users. It was going to happen sooner or later. But we think it’s an exciting number to share with the world and a good milestone to acknowledge what’s all been organic growth.”

In the U.S., WhatsApp is still probably best known as that company Facebook is in the process of buying. (The FTC signed off on the sale earlier this month–while emphasizing that WhatsApp must continue to abide by privacy promises it made to users–but other regulatory approvals are still pending internationally.) In much of the world, though, it’s already the app all your friends and relatives are using instead of carrier-provided text messaging.

Koum says that the app’s torrid growth tracks with the boom of smartphones–especially Android models. As people in a country join the smartphone era, some of them get WhatsApp. And then their friends and family members do, too, and the service explodes.

WhatsApp’s Android version WhatsApp

Right now, “the four big countries are Brazil, Mexico, India and Russia,” he says. “People who never used computers, never used laptops, never used the Internet are signing up.”

Rather than going after any particular country, Koum says, WhatsApp has always obsessed about the overall usage number. “We’re pretty confident that eventually we will a reach tipping point in the U.S. as well. Russia only tipped in the last six months. A switch flipped, and we took off.”

Though WhatsApp’s customer base may skew towards young people who like to share lots of quick messages and lots of photos, Koum says that it’s a mistake to assume that it’s just kids who are keeping the app growing. “We hear lots of stories where grandparents go to a store and buy a smartphone so they can keep in touch with kids and grandkids,” he says. That dynamic is helped by the app’s ridiculously easy setup–you don’t even have to create a user name or password–and features such as the ability to adjust the font size for easy readability.

The growth in smartphones isn’t enough to keep WhatsApp growing, however. There may be roughly two billion smartphones in the world, Koum notes, but between 500 million and one billion of them may be used without a data plan. In most cases, that’s because of cost, but the availability of Internet access isn’t a given everywhere.

“We take [connectivity] for granted in Silicon Valley, where you turn on your phone and see twenty different Wi-Fi networks,” he says. He told me how moved he’d been by a National Geographic photo showing people in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa standing on a beach with their phones in outstretched arms, trying to catch a stray wireless signal from neighboring Somalia, and says that he’s passionate about efforts such as Internet.org, a partnership between Facebook and mobile technology companies to bring Internet access to everybody, everywhere.

“We have no plans to change anything about how we execute.”Even in developed countries, “not everybody is on a data plan, which is unfortunate,” he says. So for the past two and a half years, WhatsApp has been busy partnering with wireless carriers around the world to offer affordable access to its service.

“We’ve done some really cool deals, and they’re not all cookie-cutter,” Koum explains. In India, you can sign up to get unlimited WhatsApp for 30 cents a month. In Hong Kong, you can buy a WhatsApp roaming pass. In Germany, there are WhatsApp-branded SIM cards, with unlimited WhatsApp service and starter credits for voice and data.

Rather than carriers looking at WhatsApp solely as a scary, disruptive force killing their ability to make money off text messaging, such offerings turn the service into a “win-win-win,” Koum says. “Users get unlimited WhatsApp. We get happy users who don’t have to worry about data. Carriers get people willing to sign up for data plans.”

The Future–and Oh Yeah, Facebook

For all of its growth, WhatsApp remains a famously lean operation: It got those 500 million active users with a team that only recently reached 60 staffers, for a ratio of over eight million users per employee. Koum says that the company doesn’t need to grow huge to serve even more folks. But “we do need more people–we’re actively hiring,” he says.

In particular, it’s beefing up its ability to provide customer support in more languages, including Portuguese, German, Ukranian, Polish and Romanian. “If anyone reading this article speaks multiple languages, they should apply,” he jokes.

When news of the Facebook acquisition broke, it inspired many people to worry about what it meant for the future of WhatsApp, whose business model has had a decidedly un-Facebookian slant in the past. The company makes money from customers–who pay 99 cents a year for service after the first year–and has been staunchly anti-advertising.

Both companies said at the time that WhatsApp would continue to be run independently and according to its existing principles, a point Koum stressed when I asked him about it.

“What makes our product work is the way we’re tightly focused on messaging and being an SMS replacement,” he says. The company plans to stick with that approach as it looks to “continuing to get to a billion users, and then two billion users. I think Facebook understands that, and Mark [Zuckerberg] understands that quite well. We have no plans to change anything about how we execute.”

As for competition from other messaging apps–and boy, is there a lot of it–Koum told me that some of WhatsApp’s rivals, such as Japan’s Line and China’s WeChat, are getting distracted from their core missions. People use WhatsApp, he says, to “keep in touch with each other, not movie stars or sports stars or random people you meet on the Internet. That’s why we’re succeeding internationally.”

“We want to do one thing and do it really well. For us, that’s communications between people who are friends and relatives.”

Technologizer

Lytro’s New Illum Camera: Light-Field Photography Gets Way, Way More Serious

Lytro Illum
Lytro

How serious? $1,599 serious

The first time I wrote about Lytro was back in October of 2011, when it announced its first product. I said it was “like no other camera you’ve seen before.” It wasn’t, and it isn’t.

The company’s $399 gizmo looks more like a pocket-sized kaleidoscope than a camera, and though it lacks many features standard on all other cameras, it uses light-field technology to create “living pictures” you can refocus after you shot them.

Since the camera’s debut, Lytro has added several new features–such as filters and an iPhone app–but the camera itself has remained the same. And even though it’s still the only light-field camera, it faces increasing competition from smartphone apps such as such as Google’s Android camera app. They use software alone to perform rough approximations of Lytro’s refocusing trick–usually very rough ones, but with the camera that’s already in your pocket.

Today, Lytro is announcing its second camera, the Lytro Illum. Rather than being what you might expect–an improved model at the same price point, or maybe even a lower one–it’s a radically different beast. Instead of going after garden-variety consumers, the Illum targets what the company calls “creative pioneers,” which it defines as professionals and passionate amateurs who are serious about staying on the cutting edge of storytelling technology.

So serious in fact, that they’re willing to pay $1,599 for this camera. That’s four times the cost of the original model (which remains on the market), and around the same price you might pay for a high-end consumer DSLR. The company will knock $100 off that price if you pre-order; it plans to start shipping the new model in July.

The basic light-field technology remains the same: Like the original Lytro, the Illum captures the direction of light in a scene as well as its color and intensity, giving it a fully three-dimensional understanding of the photos you take that other still cameras don’t have. That’s why you’re able to refocus photos after they’re taken and nudge them back and forth to see them from slightly different perspectives. But just about anything that the company could change about this new model, it did change.

 Illum
The Lytro Illum Lytro

That starts with the form factor. The first Lytro looked a bit like a squared-off, pocket-sized kaleidoscope, but this one looks like…a camera. A sizable, professional, stylish one–it leans forward in an aggressive stance–with a large lens and an articulated 4″ touchscreen display on the back and a shutter button where you’d expect it to be. It also has a slot for SD memory cards and a removable battery, two features absent in the original model. And it sports GPS and Wi-Fi, two features which aren’t yet standard fare on professional cameras.

The company also gave this camera a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, the same one used in Samsung’s new Galaxy S5 smartphone. It says the new chip is 2,000 percent more powerful than the mundane one in its original camera, allowing the new one to do much more sophisticated image processing.

The original Lytro camera Lytro

Shooting with the first Lytro is a bit of a trial-and-error job: The matchbook-sized screen is dinky, grainy and hard to see outside, and it’s tough to tell whether your photo will have enough depth of field to make for striking refocusing effects. The Illum’s screen looks big and beautiful, and there’s a neat dynamic preview that outlines the people and objects in your scene. This time around, you should have a much better idea of the end result before you press the shutter.

The big new lens should go a long way towards improving image quality. It’s a custom design with 8x optical zoom capability (30mm-250mm equivalent) with a constant aperture of f/2. Lytro doesn’t measure images in megapixels. Instead it uses megarays, and while it’s hard for us mere mortals to understand exactly what that means, the Illum’s sensor captures 40 of them, vs. the first Lytro’s 11. Photos are now in a standard 3:2 aspect ratio instead of the earlier model’s Polaroid-like square format, and Lytro’s sample images, at least, are much crisper and more detailed than previous “living pictures.”

Speaking of sample images, here they are. You can refocus and zoom around them; press the arrow icons to move between photos.

As before, you can share Lytro photos online (like I just did above) and view them in the Lytro app for the iPhone and iPad. There’s also a new feature that lets you create videos that pan in and out of a still Lytro image, focusing the scene as they go. It looks a little like a 3D “Ken Burns” effect, and some of it is visible in the below video produced by Lytro.

By pushing the Lytro Illum so far up the photographic food chain, the company answers the challenge from smartphone apps by pretty much avoiding it. Judging from Lytro’s samples, nobody will look at Illum photos and say “My phone can do that.”

So does that mean that Lytro is opting out of the mainstream consumer market? I asked Ren Ng, the company’s founder and chairman, that question. He said that’s not the case at all: There will be further models aimed at a wider audience of snapshot takers, and Lytro still believes that all photography will be light-field photography someday.

For now, this camera is aimed at a relatively small group of people who are really smitten with light-field photography and willing to spend a lot of money to do it as well as possible. For them, it looks like it’s going to be neat. And at least the rest of us will have the opportunity to look at some of the pictures they shoot.

Technologizer

A Rare Look Inside an Apple Data Center

Yet more proof that Apple is not quite as secretive as it once was, when it thinks openness is in its own interest: The company showed off one of its data centers, in Sparks, Nevada, to Wired’s Stephen Levy for a good piece on its renewable-energy efforts. They’re led by Lisa Jackson, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ninety-four percent of the power at Apple’s corporate campus and server farms is now renewable, provided by sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric energy. One hundred percent of the power at Apple’s own data centers — it also uses co-location facilities owned by others — is renewable.

Both Google and Facebook are also aiming for 100% renewable data centers, but have a long way left to go. However, since Apple, unlike those companies, is primarily a producer of physical objects, being environmentally correct involves a different set of challenges and a lot more than data:

Aluminum is huge for Apple—it’s the main material in laptops, phones and iPads. Thus the impact of mining and processing that metal makes up for a substantial part of Apple’s carbon footprint. That’s why Jackson took notice last year when an engineer told her that he felt something wasn’t right with the way Apple measured that impact. Later, a second engineer reported similar suspicions. In her telling, Jackson could have dismissed this disquiet by noting that Apple was simply conforming to the standard methods of measuring the damage in a given process. But she encouraged efforts at Apple to revisit those standards. Indeed, Apple’s reexamination discovered that using the conventional yardstick, it was dramatically underestimating the emissions its aluminum use was dumping into the atmosphere—by a factor of four. Apple had to adjust its figures to reflect this. As a result, the company did not fulfill its expectation that its carbon footprint would be ten percent smaller in 2013 than previous years—it was nine percent larger. Apple would have to work harder to make its goals.

Levy’s story is full of intriguing nuggets, but one item a lot of people are probably wondering about goes unmentioned. He says that the only thing about his data-center visit Apple told him he couldn’t share with the world was the name of the manufacturer of the servers that power it. All he can disclose is that “they are not Mac Mini’s or anything else that you’d buy in an Apple store.”

Technologizer

The History of Technology, as Told in Wacky British Pathé Newsreels

How computers--gigantic, noisy ones--changed practically everything

In an inventive, generous act, British Pathé has uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 pieces of footage from vintage newsreels to YouTube. If you stop by to check it out, you might have trouble pulling yourself away. It’s a fascinating survey of what happened to the world from 1896-1976, told in bite-sized chunks.

The collection is searchable, so I pulled up some choice bits relating to computers–especially how they got used to automate practically everything in the 1960s. This stuff was amazing at the time–especially, it seems, if you were a British newsreel announcer.

1949: An engineer teaches a machine to play noughts and crosses, better known to you and me as tic-tac-toe

1962: Pan Am and IBM sign a deal to computerize airplane reservations (watching this, it hit me: how the heck did they do them before computers?)

1966: Rowland Emett, the Rube Goldberg of the U.K., demonstrates his homemade computer

1967: During an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease, horse-racing fans settle for a computerized simulation

1967: The latest in automation–from the Auto-Typist to a pocket-sized dictation machine–gets demonstrated at the Business Efficiency Exhibition

1968: Honeywell demonstrates its “girl robot,” Miss Honeywell, who, I regret to say, I suspect of being an elaborate hoax

1968: A report on the Univac-powered Tinder of its day, complete with a Beatles soundtrack

1968: A Putney man composes music with his home computer, which happens to be a PDP-8 minicomputer

One thing I learned from watching all of these: Unless British Pathé sweetened its soundtracks, computers used to be noisy. I’m just as glad we no longer have to listen to that incessant clackety, clackety, clackety, clacking.

Technologizer

Bye-Bye FuelBand: Nike Won’t Be the Last Company to Get Out of Wearable Hardware

Nike FuelBand
Nike

A pioneer in fitness trackers decides they don't have a future--at least as a Nike product line

Nick Statt of Cnet has a scoop: He’s reporting that Nike is laying off most of the people on its team responsible for the FuelBand fitness tracker. Instead of making its own hardware, the company will focus on fitness-related software henceforth.

It’s impossible to hear this news without bringing up the fact that Apple CEO Tim Cook is on Nike’s board and wondering whether it relates in any way to any plans Apple might have in the smart watch/fitness category. There, I just did. But that’s all I’m going to say, because who knows?

This I do know: I’m sorry to see the FuelBand go away. Though it didn’t do anywhere near as much as a Fitbit or Jawbone Up, I loved Nike’s hardware design, with its straightforward display and a clasp that locked securely and doubled as a USB connector. (It’s one of the few wearables that doesn’t make you keep track of a stupid little charging dongle.) I was hoping to see it evolve further; Statt says an upcoming model was canceled, though the current FuelBand SE will stay on the market.

Still, I think it’s possible that Nike’s move is a smart one, strategically. There are just gazillions and gazillions of fitness trackers on the market now–a little like there were once gazillions of e-readers, and before that, gazillions of MP3 players. And now phones such as Samsung’s Galaxy S5 are adding enough fitness-related features–it even has a heart-rate monitor–to render a wristband superfluous for some folks. (The evidence suggests that Apple plans to turn the iPhone into a health aid, too. )

Bottom line: Whether or not Nike has any specific knowledge of anything Apple might be planning to unveil, it has a good idea which way the wind is blowing. I’ll bet it won’t be the last player to exit this category.

Technologizer

Facebook Adds a Feature That Lets People See Your Location — But It’s Optional, Optional, Optional

Nearby Friends
Facebook

The social networking site has announced a new feature for its iPhone and Android apps called "Friends Nearby." The feature will notify users when they have friends in their vicinity — but it only works if users turn it on

Facebook is announcing a new feature for its iPhone and Android apps called Nearby Friends. If you choose to turn it on, and have friends who do likewise, you’ll get notified when you’re in the same vicinity — so you could discover you’re both at the same movie theater, for instance, or both happen to be attending the same conference.

In broad strokes, at least, Nearby Friends is conceptually similar to Highlight and other ambient social-networking apps. The category was hot, very briefly, a couple of years ago — at the time, Facebook bought one such app, Glancee — but didn’t turn out to be the next big thing after all.

One reason the idea didn’t truly take off is that many folks aren’t instinctively thrilled by the notion of an app automatically sharing their location with other people. Facebook gets that: It mentions that Nearby Friends is optional in the headline on the blog post announcing the feature, then stresses that it’s turned off by default and only works if both you and other friends have chosen to enable it. You can also choose to restrict your visibility to a specific list of friends, such as family members or close friends.

At the other end of the location-sharing spectrum, it sounds like Nearby Friends never shares your whereabouts with anyone who’s not on your friends list; that’s a fundamental distinction between it and Highlight, which aims to enable serendipitous connections between people who don’t already know each other. That should remove some of the potential privacy-invading creepiness factor, since strangers being able to determine where you are isn’t on the table.

Facebook’s blog post says that you’ll be notified of nearby pals “occasionally” — I’m not sure if that means you sometimes won’t be alerted to their presence, or simply that you won’t be pelted with so many notifications that it becomes irritating. The post also doesn’t specify the how large a geographic radius the feature covers, which has a big impact on what the experience is like. (Here in San Francisco, I might have dozens of friends within a mile or so of me at any given time — but probably only a few, or none at all, within a hundred miles.)

In a rational world, Nearby Friends would be uncontroversial. If the idea appealed to you, you’d switch it on, and if it didn’t, you’d leave it turned off. I’ll be interesting to see how people react as the option shows up in Facebook’s iPhone and Android apps, which the company says will happen in the “coming weeks.”

Technologizer

FarmVille Is Back — and This Time, It’s Portable

FarmVille 2: Country Escape
In FarmVille 2: Country Escape, your farm is on the coast--and on your phone or tablet Zynga

The one-time Facebook phenom arrives on iOS and Android in its first made-for-mobile edition

Remember FarmVille? Of course you do. Once upon a time, circa 2010, chances are that you either played it on Facebook or were annoyed by addicted friends seeking your help tending to their crops. It was the Facebook game that made Facebook gaming famous.

A lot has happened since then — particularly to Zynga, FarmVille’s creator. The company boomed, went public, paid a lot of money to buy Draw Something developer OMGPOP, saw its stock crater, went through multiple rounds of layoffs and brought in former Xbox chief Don Mattrick to replace founder Mark Pincus as CEO. Although the FarmVille franchise is no longer a phenomenon, it’s still important to Zynga: In its last quarterly results, it reported that its first and third highest grossing games were FarmVille and FarmVille 2, respectively.

The new Zynga wants to be a much bigger player in mobile gaming, a category where King’s Candy Crush Saga is enjoying a reign of pop-culture dominance that’s reminiscent of Farmville back in the day. And it’s bringing FarmVille along with it, in the form of FarmVille 2: Country Escapes, a game for iOS and Android that’s launching worldwide today. (It’s already been available in Canada and a few other countries as Zynga tested and tweaked it before the full rollout.)

This isn’t FarmVille’s debut on mobile devices: That came with an iPhone app back in 2010. But it’s the first version designed with mobile devices in mind from the get-go, and that competes with existing mobile farming games such as Supercell’s Hay Day.

As the name indicates, FarmVille 2: Country Escape is an extension of FarmVille 2, which modernized the famously blocky franchise with fancier 3D graphics when it premiered in 2010. Visually, it’s quite similar, with the same adorable little farm folk and animals, rendered with lots of details and little animated flourishes. You touch and swipe your way around your land in a manner that, if anything, feels more natural than the pointing and clicking of FarmVille in its Facebook incarnations.

FarmVille 2: Country Escape
Zynga

But FarmVille 2: Country Escape isn’t just FarmVille 2 in app form. In fact, it doesn’t even involve the same farm. You start all over again with new farmland nestled on a cute little coast, and the gameplay, while still involving tending to crops and animals, is quite different in its details. (The two incarnations are linked through a feature that lets people who have farms in both games move goods such as water and sugar between them.)

You can connect FarmVille 2 to Facebook, iOS’s Game Center (iOS) or Google Play Games, play with friends and speed your progress by forming co-ops with other players. But in a FarmVille first, you can also opt to play in standalone mode, without having to go online at all. “Friends are not required to play this game, ever,” says Zynga VP of Games Jonathan King. “As you can imagine, that’s a big deal for FarmVille.”

Though the game looks and feels like FarmVille, it’s not aiming to be a FarmVille-like timesink. Instead, in recognition of the fact that people often use mobile devices when they’re doing stuff like waiting in line at the grocery store, it’s designed to provide more instant gratification. “You can have a short session that actually has meaning,” Knight says. “You don’t have to feel that every time you open FarmVille, it’s a giant commitment.”

As always in FarmVille, there are forms of currency you can trade for items, including both ones you can earn and ones you can buy with real money. New this time around are stamps that can be traded for prize animals, such as a special cow capable of producing more milk than the game’s plain old cattle.

Here’s Zynga’s trailer for the new game:

FarmVille 2: Country Escape may rejigger the FarmVille experience in multiple ways, but Zynga hasn’t fundamentally reimagined it. I asked Knight about where the series might go, especially in light of Zynga’s acquisition in January of NaturalMotion, whose Clumsy Ninja iPad game features spectacular production values more reminiscent of a Pixar movie than a Zynga game. Though he didn’t have anything specific to share, he told me that the company sees lots of opportunity to embrace new technologies and take the franchise new places.

“We think FarmVille is an evergreen,” he says. “I expect FarmVille on the Holodeck in a couple hundred years.”

Technologizer

Eyefi Cloud Is the Best Wi-Fi Camera Experience Yet

Eyefi
Eyefi

New apps and a web-based service make it much easier to get to your photos from anywhere.

You might think that the market for Eyefi cards–the SD cards that have built-in WiFi, providing any camera with wireless networking–would have dwindled away by now. After all, the first cameras that came with Wi-Fi debuted almost a decade ago. But Wi-Fi still only ships as standard equipment on slightly over a third of new models, giving Eyefi a big market to go after.

I’ve used its cards with my cameras for years, especially since I started spending most of my time on my iPad, which otherwise only accepts SD cards through an external dongle I never remember to take with me. They’re indispensable. But in the past, I’ve never been overly impressed with the company’s software: It’s tended to be tough to set up and pretty clunky in everyday use.

Now that’s changing. The company is unveiling Eyefi Cloud, a new service designed to make it a cakewalk to to get your photos off the camera and onto every gadget you own: phones, tablets and PCs. And it’s coupling the service with all-new versions of its iOS and Android apps that are major improvements on their predecessors.

The service and apps work with Eyefi’s Mobi cards, which start at $49 for a model with 8GB of storage. The company’s more PC-centric X2 line remains on the market, and isn’t compatible with the new stuff.

As before, the apps snag photos wirelessly by connecting to the card while it’s still in your camera. But now they’re much meatier and modern-looking. Using an interface that reminds me of Dropbox’s new Carousel app, they cluster your pictures by date, present them more attractively and let you create tags and albums.

And now the apps automatically upload all your photos in full resolution, as well as snapshots you take with the camera on your phone or tablet, to Eyefi Cloud. (You can choose to have them do this over Wi-Fi and cellular connections, or only Wi-Fi.) Once they’re there, they’re available on all of your devices running the app, as well as in a browser-based version of the service you can use on your Windows PC or Mac. You can also share images and albums with other folks, who don’t need to have Eyefi Cloud accounts to view them.

The apps keep only recent photos on the devices themselves so they don’t gobble up all your storage. But you can quickly swipe backwards in time to get to any photo you ever took, and save it on any of your devices. (Any photo you took with your Eyefi card or device’s camera once you started using Eyefi Card, that is: The apps don’t provide a mechanism for getting your older pics into the service. But the company says it’s working on that.)

The Eyefi Cloud service lets you store an unlimited number of photos indefinitely at full resolution, so it shouldn’t come as stunning news that it’s not a freebie. After a 90-day trial period, you pay $49 a year. If you don’t want to spring for that, you can still use the new iOS and Android apps and take responsibility for moving your pictures between devices yourself.

Eyefi Cloud isn’t doing anything radically new: It’s already possible to automate the process of putting your Eyefi photos online by using the automatic uploading features provided by apps such as Dropbox, or the Google+ uploads built into Android. But it does what it does really well.

I do have one remaining beef, though. Each time you want to pair an Eyefi card with a phone or tablet, you need an activation code that’s in the original packaging. It’s possible to find the code online or in the app on an already-activated device if you’ve misplaced the printed version–which I did, inevitably, moments after buying my card. But the apps don’t explain that. And why do you need to re-enter the code manually, anyhow?

Nitpicks aside, this is the best user experience that Eyefi has ever offered. I recommended its cards in the past; now I do so more heartily than ever.

Technologizer

Anki’s Slot Cars for the iPhone Era Get a New Game, New Tracks and New Cars

Anki Drive
Anki's new cars, Corax and Hadion Anki

Whenever I write about Anki’s Anki Drive — a remarkable plaything that involves tiny robotic cars you control via iPhone — I call them a dazzling modern-era take on the slot-car racing of my youth.

They are. But strangely enough, until now, Anki Drive hasn’t been racing. The gameplay involves shooting tiny virtual weapons at other cars (controlled by your friends or artificial intelligence). Rather than being the fastest car, it’s often been advantageous to hang out in back so you can shoot at the ones in front.

And for all the ways Anki improves on old-school slot racing, it’s only offered one track — the giant, roll-up one it comes with. With slot car racing in its old-school form, you could vary gameplay by breaking apart the track pieces and reassembling them in new configurations.

With some new additions to its lineup, Anki is addressing both these issues. It’s giving its iPhone app a free update with a new game that really does involve racing: You compete to be the first to complete a set number of laps. The weapons are still part of the play, but the dynamics of the competition are meaningfully different, since you can’t win through pure violence alone.

The company is also rolling out two new tracks, each with the same dimensions as the original one (8.5 feet by 3.5 feet). “Crossroads” has a figure-eight layout, with an intersection where cars may cross each others’ path as they whiz by in both directions. And “Bottleneck” has an unevenly-shaped road, with one particularly narrow area that forces cars to squeeze through one at a time. You can play in either battle or racing mode on either track. They’re $99 apiece, and here they are…

 tracks
Anki

Then there are two new Anki cars, which go for $69 each. Like the others, they’ve got their own capabilities and personalities: Corax can use two weapons at once and works only in AI mode until you’ve beaten it on the track, and Hadion is Anki’s fastest car to date.

Anki’s cars may be physical, but a huge percentage of what makes its products interesting is the software that powers the experience. When the company does something like introducing additional tracks, it’s less about designing the new layout, and more about updating the iPhone app — which orchestrates the competition and keeps track of where the cars are — to deal with the new gameplay dynamics that layout introduces.

“People should expect products to change over time,” says Hans Tappeiner, Anki’s co-founder and president. “You see it with cell phones, but you don’t see it in this industry with toys. That’s just wrong. There’s no reason you can’t use software to make things better over time.”

The updated app and additional cars are available on Anki’s site beginning today. The two new tracks go on sale May 6.

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