Technologizer

12 Things to Know About Project Ara, Google’s Amazing Modular Phone

Project Ara
Google's Project Ara phone, broken down into its component parts Google ATAP

It's wildly ambitious, it's designed not to fall apart if you drop it -- and it may not come to the U.S. anytime soon.

When Google announced Project Ara last October, its plan to make modular smartphones, it shared some photos and very little else. This week, at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, the company is digging into the nitty gritty, by hosting the first Project Ara developer conference. It’s showing prototypes in public for the first time and explaining the technology to the hardware engineers it hopes will build stuff for the platform.

Back in February, I wrote the first in-depth look at Project Ara. It includes most of the key facts Google is discussing at the developer conference. (At least so far: It’s still in progress.) Here’s a recap of what makes Project Ara so ambitious, fascinating and — in some respects — odd.

1. It’s an infinitely customizable phone. Every feature — the screen, the cameras, the battery, stuff nobody has invented yet — comes in the form of a tile-shaped module. You slip these modules into a framework called an “Endo” to build a phone with the features of your choice. And modules are interchangeable, so you could decide to skip the rear camera and slide in a second battery, for instance.

2. It’s not going to be for you, at least at first. The concept sounds like it’s aimed at lovers of bleeding-edge gadgetry. But Google wants to offer Project Ara phones to folks who’d otherwise be unable to afford any smartphone. It plans to roll out the platform in developing nations first, and isn’t saying when it might reach the U.S.

3. The cheapest, most basic phone will be very cheap and very basic. With the target market in mind, Google aims to offer a $50 “grayphone” starter model — no wireless contract required. That version wouldn’t have frills such as one or more cameras. It wouldn’t even be capable of working on cellular networks — just Wi-Fi. But owners could upgrade their grayphones on the fly as their needs changed and budgets permitted.

4. Google is trying to do this fast and efficiently. Work began on Ara in earnest only a little over a year ago, and only a handful of Google employees are involved, along with outside collaborators as required. The company plans to have its first phone on the market in January 2015.

5. It’s inspired by the U.S. Department of Defense’s approach to innovation. Project Ara is part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, which models its small-team, tight-deadline approach on the Defense Department’s fabled Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which brought us the Internet and satellite navigation, among other things. Regina Dugan, who heads ATAP, is a former DARPA director; Paul Eremenko, who’s spearheading Ara, is also an alumnus.

6. Google thinks of it as Android for hardware. The company’s mobile operating system has done well because it’s essentially a joint effort between Google and the multitudes of software developers who have embraced it. The idea of Project Ara is to allow even tiny companies with inventive ideas to make modules and market them to phone owners — a big shift from the current situation, in which a few large manufacturers crank out one-size-fits-all phones designed to please the masses.

7. The phone isn’t as bulky as you’d expect. You can’t build a phone made out of multiple blocks and make it as skinny as the skinniest entirely-self-contained handsets. But Google’s prototype is 9.7mm thick, which is only half a skosh chunkier than the new HTC One M8. (The final shipping version may be slightly thicker.)

8. It won’t fall apart if you drop it. At least that’s the idea. The modules will use capacitive technology for electrical connections, and will lock in place using super-strong magnets (for modules on the back) and latches (for ones on the front). Google says an Ara phone should be as sturdy as a typical smartphone.

9. The project involves some 3D printing breakthroughs. Project Ara modules will be encased in covers that will be produced on demand using a new generation of 3D printers designed by 3D Systems. Consumers will be able to pick custom designs and snap new covers onto their old modules if they choose.

10. Google’s vision for how Project Ara phones will be marketed is pretty wacky. The company is designing portable stores, which it will be able to ship by sea to the first countries where Ara phones will be available. It’s also developing technology that will do things such as measure your pupil dilation and scan your social networks to help you choose an Ara phone that matches your personality.

11. The platform is going to require lots of enthusiasm from third parties. The only Google-branded part of the hardware will be the Endo. Everything else, like batteries, wireless subsystems, cameras and sensors will be produced by other companies, who will presumably only choose to get involved if they think they can make money. If only a handful of such companies buy the vision, it won’t work.

12. Being both excited and skeptical is a reasonable response. I’m glad Google is trying this: It involves both a big dream and multiple technological innovations, and it’s going to be awfully neat if it takes off.

But that doesn’t mean that I think the folks who are instinctively dubious — such as Daring Fireball’s John Gruber — are being unreasonable. Many things have to fall into place for Ara to evolve from a wild concept to a functioning product to something large numbers of people want. And if Google does indeed have a phone ready to sell in January of next year, it’s not the end of the journey, but the beginning.

I’m not placing any bets on its chances of success, but I can’t wait to see how the world — and especially the smartphone newbies who Google envisions would want this — will react.

Technologizer

Neil Young on PonoMusic, the Third Biggest Kickstarter Project of All Time

Neil Young
Neil Young is honored at a Grammy Week event in Los Angeles on January 21, 2014 Michael Buckner—Getty Images

"The MP3 era is in for a shock," says the rock icon of his no-compromises portable player

Back in 2012, when legendary musician Neil Young started talking about Pono–his effort to build a portable player with an emphasis on audio quality above all else–it wasn’t particularly obvious that the idea had legs in the 21st century.

For a lot of us, after all, music has become something we listen to on our smartphones, streamed from a service such as Pandora, Spotify or Rdio at whatever quality the service in question chooses to give us. To riff on William F. Buckley’s memorable description of the conservative movement, Young seemed to be standing athwart tech history, yelling “stop!”

PonoMusic

Pono still hasn’t hit the market. The wedge-shaped touchscreen gadget–bigger than an iPod, but smaller than a Bluetooth speaker such as the Jambox–will sell for $399 when it shows up. (Once expected to ship last year, it’s now due this fall.) But enough people are excited about the concept to have made PonoMusic the third biggest Kickstarter project of all time. The campaign hit its goal of $800,000 in 10 hours, then went on to raise a total of $6,225,354 from 18,220 backers, who pledged anywhere from $5 (for a thank-you) to $5000 (for an invitation to a VIP dinner and listening party, plus a Pono).

I chatted with Young as the campaign was rocketing past its original target. He told me the idea that became Pono has been kicking around inside his head for years, and didn’t always involve a new portable player.

“First of all, I thought this would be an Internet thing, then I realized that’s not going to happen,” he explains. “The bandwidth isn’t there. We’d have to go back to the original model of the iPod, but with really, really top quality.”

With typical services, he says, “music has been downgraded to ‘content,’ It’s a Xerox of itself. When you see the original art compared to the Xerox, the difference is startling. Whatever the artist creates is what you hear when you hear Pono.”

Although Young talks about Pono as a movement as much as a business enterprise, and sought grassroots funding through Kickstarter, it is in fact a company, with veteran executives and technologists on board. “I’m pretty much the vision of it,” Young says. “I drive the purity and the quality and the transparency of the original artists’ intent.”

Part of Pono’s Kickstarter success was due to its artfully managed campaign, which involved the ability for backers to reserve limited-edition PonoPlayers with the engraved signatures of musicians who back the concept: Everyone from Elton John to EmmyLou Harris to Foo Fighters to Herbie Hancock to Pearl to Willie Nelson to Young’s own groups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young.

“They get it immediately,” says Young of the response to Pono by other musicians. “There’s no learning curve. They’ve been waiting for something like this for a long, long time.”

But he says he’s aiming for mass-market success: “Anyone who thinks this is only for nerds and audiophiles is in for a surprise. Anyone can hear the difference. That’s why we’ve priced it low.”

The era of purely digital music got underway in the late 1990s with the arrival of apps such as Winamp and gadgets like the Diamond Rio, the first successful MP3 player. (I still have audio files I ripped from CD back then, opting for absurdly aggressive compression to conserve precious storage space on my 32MB Rio.) Today, some level of compression–the rate varies widely–is still standard practice for digital music. Which means that there are adults who may be largely ignorant of music in its pre-MP3 form.

Will those folks care about Pono? “The MP3 era is in for a shock,” Young says. “They’re going to realize what they’re missing when they hear this. One hundred percent of the time it happens. They hear it and can’t believe it: ‘I’m hearing things I’ve never heard in songs I’ve heard many times before. How can it be?’”

Pono is not without its critics and skeptics. They argue that the platform’s use of super-high-resolution data–it uses lossless files in the FLAC format, at up to 192 kHz and 24 bit sampling–is a pointless exercise in specsmanship, because going beyond CD quality doesn’t result in a difference human beings can actually hear. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s the last word on Pono, since focusing on audio quality might allow a company such as this to design hardware that’s capable of better audio reproduction than your average phone. And PonoPlayer will be able to work with CD-quality files as well as higher-resolution ones.

It’s no shocker that Young is dismissive of the Pono opponents, pointing out that they’ve reached their conclusions without having listed to the still-unreleased player. “They don’t have to waste their time. They can get another MP3 and keep on rocking.”

If Pono is erring on the side of lavishing music with more tender loving care than it may really need, that seems to me to be more admirable than giving it short shrift, as has often happened so far in this century. Other companies have tried to build a business on super-high-quality music and failed, such as MusicGiants; if nothing else, Young’s ambitious, high-profile effort should be the definitive test of whether there’s a market for this.

And it’s not just about the player and whatever music will be available at launch. He talks about, well, just about every song eventually being available for Pono: “The goal is to keep doing it until we’ve got it all—get the new stuff out there and the older stuff that’s still available to get.”

Young calls music “a window to the soul” and “a reflection of civilization.” Sounding like an archivist as much as a purveyor of hardware and software, he says that Pono’s mission “is to create an ecosystem that preserves the history of music for the world in its highest possible form. It’s something that the technological era we live in, the 21st century tech, is capable of delivering.”

“We wouldn’t have a museum where people listened to Frank Sinatra on MP3. It’s the 21st century’s most obvious idea.”

Technologizer

This Animated GIF of a 3D Bear Has a Secret

Spoiler: He's not as digital as he looks

I’ve become obsessed with the below animated GIF, which I discovered over at Amid Amidi’s Cartoon Brew. Stare at it, and you might be obsessed, too, at least for 30 seconds or so.

Bear Walking
Blue Zoo

It looks like something I might have seen as part of a 3D animation demonstration by a computer scientist when I attended the SIGGRAPH conference back in 1989. But here’s the remarkable thing: It isn’t computer animation. That bear may be made out of polygons, but he isn’t made out of bits. He’s a physical object–or, more precisely, 50 of them.

Two London-based companies, DBLG and Blue Zoo, created the animation, Bears on Stairs, which did begin with a computer-designed ursine protagonist. But rather than just rendering a bunch of frames, the companies printed out the sequence as 50 models. Then they photographed them as a stop-motion sequence, using the same basic technique studios such as Rankin/Bass used long before computers had anything to do with animation.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes video:

As Amid points out, the idea of using 3D printing to meld computer and stop-motion animation isn’t new. Laika (the studio behind Coraline and the upcoming Boxtrolls) is already doing it. But normally, the goal is for it all to be so seamless that the viewer doesn’t know or care that computers were used. What’s clever about “Bears on Stairs” is that it evocatively flaunts its use of computers–so much so that almost anybody would assume that it was a purely digital production.

Technologizer

Shocker: In 1980, Motorola Had No Idea Where the Phone Market Would Be in 2000

When you make predictions about tech, prepare to be wrong

Yesterday, I wrote two pieces about the impossibility of making tech predictions–one involving a 1981 magazine cover, and one concerning current predictions about the wearable-gadget market in 2018. I promise to move on to other subjects in a moment, but I stumbled across one more random artifact that’s too good not to share.

Marty Cooper is the legendary inventor of the mobile phone, which he came up with in 1973 while working at Motorola. Over at the website of his company, Dyna, there’s a digitized version of an amazing article about the wireless phone market by H.P. Burstyn, from the November 1980 issue of Electronic Business magazine.

At that point, the wireless phone industry barely existed. The story reports that it may be shaping up as a war between AT&T and Motorola; says that what we later came to refer to as “car phones” would make up the bulk of the market, but that pocket-sized phones could be a big deal someday if they could be made to work indoors; and addresses concerns such as whether thieves would be likely to break into automobiles to steal phones, as they’d done a few years earlier with CB radios. Reading it today, it’s both an endearing period piece and a pretty smart summary of where the market was at the time.

It also features some stats forecasting the number of wireless phones to be sold in 10 major U.S. markets:

Wireless phone projections
Electronic Business

The projections I find fascinating are the ones in the middle column. They’re from Motorola, and they involve the year 2000, which was then two decades in the future.

It’s not entirely clear whether the total figure of 207,399 phones represents cumulative sales or sales in the year 2000 or the number of subscribers. But no matter how you slice the data, it’s wildly off. I don’t have numbers for the 10 markets mentioned, but according to the FCC, when the year 2000 rolled around, there were 109 million wireless phone users in the entire country. That’s 400 times Motorola’s estimate for the markets in its study.

In 1980, the folks at Motorola knew more about wireless phones than anyone else in the world. But they couldn’t see what economies of scale would do to pricing for handsets and service. They weren’t aware that the breakup of AT&T, mandated by the U.S. federal government in 1982, would lead to dramatically increased competition in the communications market. They likely didn’t envision that by 2000, it would be clear that phones and PCs were on their way to merging into one category of device.

Today, as far as I know, no research firm is attempting to estimate sales figures for the year 2034. Bu things move a lot faster than they did 34 years ago, so looking out even a few years is an exercise fraught with peril. And the best way to look smart isn’t to act like we’re capable of predicting the future with any precision–it’s to cheerfully admit that we often don’t have a clue.

Technologizer

Reminder: Nobody Has a Clue How Many Wearable Devices Will Sell in 2018

Visions Of The Future
Harold M. Lambert / Getty Images

Even more than with most gadgets, this category's future is shrouded in mystery

Jason Snell of Macworld thinks that the pundits who think it’s absolutely vital that Apple dive into the smartwatch market–such as analyst Trip Chowdhry, who predicts doom if the company doesn’t make a move by next month (!!!)–are a tad overexcited. Referencing another post by iMore’s Rene Ritchie, Jason argues that smartphones are going to remain by far the biggest, most profitable category of gadget for years to come, even if they aren’t as much fun to talk about as a nascent field like wearables.

Jason and Rene are two of the smartest people who write about tech, and both of their pieces are well worth reading. I agree with most of what they say. But in his piece, Jason buttresses his skepticism by quoting some stats from research firm IDC, which is part of my former employer IDG:

IDC reported that in 2013, one billion smartphones were shipped, up 38 percent from the previous year. That’s a fast-growing market worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Meanwhile, on Thursday IDC predicted that the wearables market will reach 112 million units in 2018.

In other words, in four years the wearables market might grow to be one-tenth the size of today’s smartphone market—in units shipped. Presumably the average selling price of wearable items will be a fraction of that of smartphones, meaning the dollar value of the wearables market is even more minuscule compared to the smartphone market.

IDC could be right: Maybe the industry will sell 112 million wearable devices four years from now, give or take. But it’s worth noting that back in 2009, the company forecast that 280 million smartphones would ship in 2013, rather than the billion units which it eventually determined did ship in that year. If the firm is off by the same percentage in its 2018 forecast, the industry will move around 400 million wearables in 2018, not 112 million. Though smaller than today’s smartphone market, that would make wearable tech a dramatically bigger deal than IDC is currently anticipating.

But you know what? I think it’s also possible that the real figure will turn out to be fewer than 112 million, or far more than 400 million. We simply don’t know enough about what the wearables of 2018 will be like to form meaningful opinions on the subject.

I’ve squawked in the past about other long-range forecasts of this sort, but even more than most categories, this one has a future that’s shrouded in mystery. The smartphones of 2014 are much nicer than the ones of 2009, when IDC made its 280-million unit estimate, but they’re recognizable as the same beasts. Today’s wearables, on the other hand, are so immature that for the category to matter at all four years from now, it may have to change in ways we don’t yet understand. (Many of the current models still feel like experiments, not mass-market consumer products–sort of like the earliest MP3 players of the pre-iPod era.)

Although I usually try to steer clear of making tech predictions myself, I am willing to make a bold one about the wearable market in 2018. I hereby declare that whatever it looks like then, the chances are zero that anybody will exclaim, “Gee, this was all so utterly predictable back in 2014.”

Technologizer

Is Microsoft’s ‘Scroogled’ Era at Long Last Over?

Scroogled
At Scroogled.com, Microsoft says that your Office docs will look terrible on a Chromebook Microsoft

Maybe the company has decided it's smarter to make friends among Google fans than to antagonize them

I have devoted probably an excessive number of words–see here and here–to Microsoft’s ongoing “Scroogled” campaign, in which it bashes various Google products for invading privacy, deceptively incorporating advertising and, generally, being creepy and anti-consumer. I’ve always found the campaign to be grating and patronizing, and looked forward to the day when Microsoft concluded that it was counter-productive, or at least that it had run its course.

That moment may have come. ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley is reporting that a Microsoft executive says that the company is now “done” with Scroogled. When Mary Jo sought an official statement, she got one which didn’t confirm that it’s over–but which didn’t deny it, either:

We are always evaluating and evolving our marketing campaigns. There are times when we use our marketing to highlight differences in how we see the world compared to competitors, and the Scroogled campaign is an example of this. Moving forward, we will continue to use all the right approaches and tactics when and where they make sense.

That’s not surprising: If Microsoft has decided that it wants to put Scroogled behind it, it probably doesn’t want to spend a lot of time explaining its rationale. Here’s hoping.

In a possibly related development, Mary Jo has a second article reporting that Microsoft has put its online version of Office into Google’s Chrome Store, making it easy for Chromebook owners to edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files using Microsoft’s own online apps. The move is semi-symbolic, since those services already worked just fine on Chromebooks if you knew they existed. But it belies one of Scroogled’s arguments against Chromebooks, which is that they force you to use “cheap imitations” of Office which will mess up your documents.

Of course, there are plenty of instances in which people will be happier with the far more full-featured Office apps available for Windows laptops than the basic online ones which you can use on a Chromebook. But Scroogled’s over-the-top assault on Chromebooks–which it calls “imitation laptops”–is at odds with Microsoft’s own excellent, Chromebook-friendly incarnation of Office, which it somehow forgets to mention even exist.

Scroogled’s message is also out of whack with the progressive vision expressed by Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, at the company’s recent Office for iPad launch event and Build conference. Nadella isn’t drawing a stark line between Microsoft’s platforms and the rest of the world, and telling prospective customers to choose a side. But that’s what Scroogled–supposedly the brainchild of political adman and Clinton confidante Mark Penn, who Nadella shifted from heading Microsoft marketing to a strategy role–effectively does.

Now, the chances that we’re entering a period of peace, love and understanding are approximately zilch. In her story on Scroogled’s possible demise, Mary Jo says that she expects Microsoft to continue to go aggressively after Google. So do I. But consumers are smart. Chromebooks will succeed if they offer something of value to a meaningful number of people, and will fail if they don’t. Scroogled won’t have a tangible impact on their fate one way or the other.

If these “imitation laptops” are around for the long haul, telling the people who like them that they’ve been duped, as Scroogled does, isn’t going to make Microsoft any new friends. The alternative approach, reflected in the Chrome Store news, is to encourage such folks to be part of the Office faithful. Which strategy do you think is most likely to keep Microsoft and its products relevant in the post-PC era?

Technologizer

This 1981 Computer Magazine Cover Explains Why We’re So Bad at Tech Predictions

BYTE cover
Robert Tinney's cover for the April 1981 issue of Byte magazine Internet Archive

Thirty-three years later, artist Robert Tinney's concept smartwatch is worth at least a thousand words

If you were passionate about personal computers between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the odds were high that you were a reader of Byte magazine. And if you read Byte, you were surely a fan of Robert Tinney, the artist whose cover paintings were one of the magazine’s signature features for years.

Tinney’s work was imaginative, technically superb (he is a master of the airbrush) and, sometimes, very funny. Byte lost a little bit of its soul when the publication started phasing out his work in favor of standard-issue photos of standard-issue computers.

While rummaging around the web last week looking for something else, I came across his cover for Byte‘s April 1981 issue at the Internet Archive. I immediately shared it on Twitter, where it got about as enthusiastic a response as anything I’ve ever tweeted. There it is at the top of this post, with the artist’s permission.

This is, obviously, an amusing image. The notion that a wrist computer might have a floppy-disk drive, a QWERTY keyboard and a tiny text-based interface was a good joke in 1981, and an even better one when seen through the lens of nostalgia. (If you’re tempted to assume that the image was actually a serious depiction of what a future wrist computer might look like–well, no. Inside the magazine, which only had a brief editiorial about future computers, the editors pointed out that it wasn’t a coincidence that it happened to be the April issue of Byte.)

But I also find this art–which Tinney still offers as a limited-edition print–to be quite profound, on multiple levels. Here’s why.

First, it reminds us that the smartwatch is not a new idea. Even in 1981, tech companies had been trying to build them for awhile: Tinney’s creation is a pseudo-logical extension of ideas expressed in real devices such as HP’s HP-01, a “personal information assistant” introduced in 1977. (Of course, people have been obssessed with the notion of strapping advanced communications gadgetry to their wrists since at least 1946, when Dick Tracy got his wrist radio.)

Here we are in the 21st century. The tech industry has lately made progress on this smartwatch idea, but it’s still not a problem that anyone’s completely solved, which is why it still isn’t part of everyday life. You could do a “Future Computers” cover today and put a concept smartwatch on it, just as Byte did in 1981.

 Steel
The Pebble Steel smartwatch Pebble

Second, for all the ways technology has radically improved in the past 33 years, the current crop of smartwatches actually have a lot in common with Tinney’s concept. The industry is still struggling with questions of display technology, input and storage, and one of the best efforts so far, the Pebble Steel, even looks eerily like the Tinney watch, sans QWERTY.

But most of all, the Tinney watch is a wonderful visual explanation of why human beings–most of us, anyhow–aren’t very good at predicting the future of technology. We tend to think that new products will be a lot like the ones we know. We shoehorn existing concepts where they don’t belong. Oftentimes, we don’t dream big enough.

(One classic example: When it became clear that Apple was working on an “iPhone,” almost all the speculation involved something that was either a lot like an iPod, or a lot like other phones of the time. As far as I know, nobody expected anything remotely like the epoch-shifting device Apple released.)

Tinney’s painting is a gag, but it’s not that far removed from what a serious futurist might have predicted in 1981. It’s a PC of the era, downsized to fit the wrist.

Back then, a pundit who started talking about gigabytes of storage or high-resolution color screens or instant access to computers around the world or built-in cameras and music players would have been accused of indulging in science fiction. Even though some of the earliest ancestors of modern interfaces existed in laboratories in places such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, I don’t know if it would have even occurred to anyone to envision them being built into a watch.

And today? Much of the thinking about smartwatches involves devices that look suspiciously like shrunken smartphones. That’s what we know. But I won’t be the least bit surprised if the first transcendently important wearable device of our era–the iPhone of its category–turns out to have only slightly more in common with a 2014 smartphone than it does with a 1981 computer.

Bonus material: Here’s a 1986 Robert Tinney interview by my friend Benj Edwards, illustrated with additional fabulous Byte covers.

Technologizer

Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Microsoft’s Game of Catch-Up Is Just About Done

Cortana
Cortana, Windows 8.1's voice-activated personal assistant Microsoft

From the Cortana voice assistant to a zillion little refinements, this smartphone underdog is in solid shape--as long as you aren't overly demanding on the app front

When you’re number two in a business category, as Avis famously told us, you have to try harder. Which would tend to suggest that whoever’s in third place needs to work even harder still.

That’s certainly been Microsoft’s strategy with Windows Phone. Its mobile operating system still lags far, far behind Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS in market share, but the company has never behaved as if it thinks the game is over. It started by giving the software a fresh and imaginative interface and has been at least as serious about upgrades as anybody else, trying both to match the competition’s features and carve off its own niche as a more people-centric approach to the smartphone.

Two weeks ago, at its Build conference in San Francisco, Microsoft announced the operating system’s next version. There’s enough that’s new in this version that it wouldn’t have been false advertising to call it Windows Phone 9. But its name is Windows Phone 8.1, bringing the version number in line with that of Windows 8.1.

That consistency isn’t just a marketing ploy. Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 are based on the same technical underpinnings, and Microsoft is rolling out tools to let developers create a single application that can run on Windows PCs, Windows phones and the Xbox One console, with an interface and capabilities that adjust themselves appropriately to the device in question. Over time, that could help address Windows Phone’s single biggest shortcoming: It’s rarely near the top of the priority list for companies that make apps.

Windows phone
Windows Phone 8.1′s home screen Microsoft

People who are registered as Windows Phone developers–which is free, and doesn’t require you to actually be a developer–can download a preview version of 8.1 and update their Windows 8 phones starting today. Microsoft says that the software will ship on new phones–such as three upcoming Nokias–starting in late April or early May, and will be available to all current Windows phone owners within the next few months. I tried the preview on a Nokia Lumia Icon phone provided by Microsoft.

Windows Phone 8.1′s flagship new feature is Cortana–the voice-controlled intelligent assistant that’s its answer to Apple’s Siri (introduced in 2011) and Google’s Google Now (2012). The name is an allusion to the holographic, artificially intelligent advisor in Microsoft’s Halo games; that Cortana’s voice actress, Jen Taylor, did some recording for Windows Phone’s Cortana, although for the most part, Siri, Google Now and Cortana sound like robotic triplets.

You can call up Cortana by pressing a Windows 8.1 phone’s search button. Microsoft is labeling it as a beta, and says it’ll get smarter as millions of people use it. It’s awfully ambitious, striving to deliver both the personality of Siri and–with the help of Microsoft’s Bing search engine–the deep trove of knowledge of Google Now. And it performs some new tricks of its own.

In that last category, Cortana understands some complex requests beyond the ken of Siri and Google Now, such as ”Schedule the Reno trip for Monday through Thursday.” It’s also particularly adept at reminders. For instance you can tell it to remind you to buy key lime frozen yogurt the next time you’re at Safeway—either a specific Safeway, or any Safeway. Or to nudge you to ask your boss for a raise the next time you talk to him on the phone.

Cortana
Microsoft

Besides handing your questions and requests—which you can either speak or type—the service shows you news stories (based on interests you specify). It has a do-not-disturb feature called Quiet Hours, which can shield you from calls, texts and notifications while permitting people you specify as part of your Inner Circle to break through. Like Google Now, it can scan your email so it can issue helpful reminders related to matters such as travel plans. The section where you set up all of this is called Cortana’s Notebook, and it makes it easy to determine what the service knows about you, your preferences and your relationships.

Cortana mtches Siri and Google Now in a bunch of areas, and surges ahead in some. But there are at least a few where it’s surprisingly shallow. I tossed what I thought were some softball questions its way—such as “What time is it?”—which stumped it. Nor could I figure out a way to use it to send e-mail; neither “Email Marie” nor “Send an email to Marie” worked. I can’t imagine these issues will linger for long.

The service is also less clever than Siri and Google Now in some cases when it comes to keeping track of the subject of your queries: All three services understand “How old is Barack Obama?”, but only Siri and Google Now get the follow-up question “How tall is he?” (Then again, if you use Cortana to pull up a list of sushi restaurants, it understands “Call the third one,” which Siri and Google Now do not.)

Cortana is personified on-screen as a simple pulsating animated circle, but it doesn’t want to be thought of as mere software: Like Siri, it calls you by name and provides jokey responses to questions such as “Will you marry me?” and “Which is better, Windows Phone or iPhone?” I’m at least as happy with Google Now’s less aggressively ingratiating approach, especially since its on-screen interface–with swipeable little cards displaying tidbits of information–is the most fully evolved of the bunch.

(Of course, all three of these assistants are capable of being eerily helpful one moment, and hopeless the next: For instance, none of them gave me a direct answer when I asked “What time is Mad Men on tonight?”)

Overall, Cortana doesn’t set a new standard for the category, but it’s already impressive in multiple respects–and a solid platform for future invention on Microsoft’s part.

Beyond Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 sports lots of other little improvements. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of highlights:

  • Action Center appears when you swipe down from the top of the screen. Replicating features already in Android and iOS, it provides one-tap access to settings such as Airplane Mode and, for the first time in Windows Phone, a way to review notifications from apps if you didn’t happen to be looking at your phone when they arrived.
  • You can choose a wallpaper to display behind the Live Tiles on your home screen — although it shows through only with certain tiles that are transparent, resulting in a pretty darn subtle effect.
  • Word Flow, a new feature in the on-screen keyboard, lets you blast through text input by gliding your fingertip around without lifting it from the display–a concept that originated with Swype and is now standard functionality everywhere except on the iPhone. Microsoft’s version gets no points for creativity, but it’s a very credible implementation; it set a Guinness record for input speed.
  • Internet Explorer now sports several features seen in other mobile browsers, including a private browsing mode, a password manager, a de-cluttered reading mode and the ability to get to open browser tabs across all your copies of IE.
  • A super-clever feature called Wi-Fi Sense lets you give friends you specify access to your home wireless network–automatically, and without revealing the password to them. (Friends who also also have Windows 8.1 phones, that is.)
  • The calendar has some tweaks, including a new weekly view, and Xbox Video, Xbox Music and podcasts have been broken up into more powerful, stand-alone apps.
Action Center
Windows Phone’s new Action Center Microsoft

At this point, for the first time since it debuted in 2010, Windows Phone is nearly free of glaring gaps in its functionality compared to Android and iOS. The last striking one I can think of is the absence of full-blown speech-to-text dictation; a rudimentary version is available in Messaging and Mail, but not throughout the operating system. And maybe the lack of folders for organizing apps, although Nokia has a fix for that.

Other than those, all the big holes in the Windows Phone story involve third-party apps. The situation is nowhere near as dire as it once was: I was relieved, for instance, to discover that both of the banks I do business with offer wares in the Windows Store. But among the no-shows I pined after were Flipboard, Secret, Facebook’s Paper and Dropbox’s brand-new Carousel.

Bottom line: We still live in a world in which only iPhone users can be reasonably confident that they’ll get versions of hot new apps at least as early as anyone else. For Windows Phone owners, the app situation, for now, is still “maybe, eventually.”

For those who can accept that reality, and are willing to consider dumping whatever smartphone platform they’re currently using, Windows Phone 8.1 offers an experience that’s fun, fluid and just about feature-complete. It may be an outlier, but it’s a choice, not an echo, and it’s clearly viable in a way that the fourth-place mobile OS, BlackBerry 10, is not. If you hear this operating system calling your name–most likely on a Nokia Lumia–there’s no reason not to answer.

Technologizer

How They Found Heartbleed

Over at Vocativ, Eric Markowitz has a good piece on how a Finnish security firm discovered the Heartbleed bug that’s left vast numbers of Internet services utterly vulnerable for more than two years:

Before hanging up, Chartier instructed one of the Finnish engineers to write an exploit code to take advantage of Codenomicon‘s own site. Basically, Chartier wanted to see what, exactly, a hacker could get if they knew about the bug.

“We attacked ourselves,” Chartier says. The results freaked him out. The team realized they were able to access a user’s memory, encryption keys, usernames and passwords—”plus a lot of other stuff that we don’t want to mention,” Chartier says. “We saw how serious it was.”

An engineer at Codenomicon, the firm in question, found the bug at the same time as a Google researcher, an amazing coincidence considering that it was introduced back in March 2012.

The whole situation is chilling — not just because we don’t know who might have known about the bug and leveraged it to steal data, but also because it’s such a sobering reminder of how little we know about the software we depend on every day. There are other Heartbleeds out there; it’s just that nobody’s told us about them yet.

More Heartbleed coverage on TIME

Technologizer

Department of Inevitable Acquisitions: Amazon Buys ComiXology

ComiXology
ComiXology

The New York City-based startup was already the Amazon of digital comics. Now it's official

When it comes to mergers and acquisitions in the tech world, there are deals nobody saw coming. And then there are the ones you kind of assumed would happen all along.

Today’s news that Amazon is buying ComiXology, the biggest purveyor of comics in digital form, is that second sort of deal. It’s so natural a business for Amazon to covet that it’s a wonder it took this long. (ComiXology was founded in 2007.)

The prospect of yet another form of digital publishing being dominated by Amazon is not inherently appealing to me. The company has a reputation for playing hardball with the content companies whose work it licenses. Aside from the Marvels and DCs and Dark Horses of the world, comics publishers tend to be small, fragile outfits; if Amazon wants to push them around, it can. And owning ComiXology will only make it more powerful.

Then again, the industry had already largely standardized on ComiXology as its mechanism for getting comics to owners of computers, tablets and phones. Whether owned by Amazon or not, it’s likely to stay digital comics’ 800-pound gorilla for the foreseeable future.

Rather than taking on ComiXology directly, alternative platforms take different approaches: Madefire, for instance, publishes comics with so much animation and audio that they feel like movies that happen to be broken up into panels. ComiXology’s approach has been relatively conservative, giving other companies an opportunity to be innovative, maybe even disruptive.

I chatted about the merger this afternoon with ComiXology co-founder and CEO David Steinberger and David Naggar, Amazon’s vice president of content acquisition and independent publisher. They both stressed that ComiXology will be operated as a standalone business, with its brand, management team and headquarters in New York City intact.

“Amazon, when it buys a working company that’s doing a good job, tends to let them spread their wings,” says Steinberger. “It gives them resources and lets them go on the same path, only faster, better and stronger.”

Naggar points out some examples of past Amazon acquisitions that followed this model: IMDb, Zappos and Audible. When I heard that last one, I calmed down a little: Similar to ComiXology’s position in the comics world, Audible was the leader in digital audiobooks long before Amazon bought it. And it still retains its own identity after six years of Amazon ownership. If the ComiXology story follows a similar arc, I’ll be happy.

Of course, there are obvious opportunities for synergy: It would be startling if some flavor of ComiXology didn’t wind up as a standard feature of Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, for instance. (Naggar told me that the company will continue to sell comics outside of ComiXology–graphic novels are already a major Kindle category–but that even there, cross-pollination is possible.)

It’s not tough to envision a happy outcome here: If Amazon helps get ComiXology comics in front of more paying customers, it can be a boon for Amazon, ComiXology, comics publishers and comics readers. As a member of that last constituency and a voracious consumer of digital content, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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