TIME Gadgets

Preorder Now: The 2 Worst Words in Tech

Pebble Pebble Time

Consumers are increasingly buying hopes and dreams and receiving empty promises in return

Say hello to Mr. Everything. “Want to charge your phone and listen to your music? Take your music with you everywhere with Mr. Everything. Cords still tangled? Mr. Everything will keep you organized. Are you prepared for an emergency? Mr. Everything helps you stay powered and connected. Mr. Everything will solve your problems so you can relax.” And since Mr. Everything seems to be stealing a joke from Saturday Night Live, I’ll finish it off for them: Mr. Everything is also a floor wax and a dessert topping.

That might seem unfair, but I think this is worse: Mr. Everything is also currently unavailable for purchase.

I couldn’t tell you when I first encountered Mr. Everything — I get a lot of pitches from publicists, and I do even more independent research — but I can say with authority that I’ve met more than a hundred products like him over the past year. And when I say “like him,” I don’t mean a speaker/LED light-combo that quadruples as a utility box and a power bank with wireless charging, because that would be a truly original product (if it was available). Instead, I mean vaporware, because an alarming amount of products being heralded today — like Mr. Everything — have yet to materialize.

Coin, the credit card to replace all credit cards. GoTenna, the private, ad-hoc phone network antenna. MyIDkey, a fingerprint-locked USB drive for storing and displaying passwords. Nadvy, the smartphone-connected heads-up display for your car. These are just four high-profile examples of troublesome “Preorder Now” products. If you’re even moderately tech-savvy or plugged into the media you’ve probably heard of them — and that’s a problem because they don’t exist (yet). Frankly, it’s possible that they never will.

According to research by Matthew Witheiler, a venture capital investor at Flybridge Capital Partners, 91 venture-backed, crowdfunded products raised more than $575 million last year, and just 20% of them delivered on time. Kickstarting and investing aside, simply think of that in shopping terms. If four out of five of your Amazon orders came late, you’d cancel your subscription to Prime. But the reality is that whether they are VCs or crowdfunding supporters, people are increasingly buying companies’ hopes and dreams, and receiving little but promises in return.

Scott Miller, CEO of Dragon Innovation, is a big fan of crowdfunding because, in fairness, his company’s “Dragon Certified” program exists to help products navigate the “preorder” process and reach consumers’ hands. “Whenever people open their wallets to vote for something that doesn’t exist yet, there is some strength to that signal,” he says. But the real advantage to getting the money up front is that creates the capital necessary to offset the cost of tooling, lets product designers know how much inventory they need to produce, and it’s also a cheap and easy way to get some word-of-mouth marketing.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with cheap and easy marketing — if you’re broke and have a challenging road ahead. For instance, The Coolest, the “Mr. Everything” of coolers that beat Pebble’s Kickstarter’s crowdfunding record, rode that wave expertly, and is now doing its damnedest (with the help of Dragon Innovation) to deliver on a $13 million promise to more than 62,000 backers by July. Technically that’s five months late, but in fairness, the inventor (one man, not a company) only hoped to raise $50,000 to begin with.

But The Coolest no longer holds the Kickstarter record. Pebble, which raised more than $25 million in VC funding after its initial record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, launched its Apple Watch-competitor Pebble Time on the crowdfunding site, nabbing another $20 million in preorders to take that title back.

“It was just a great marketing opportunity to take the number one spot from Coolest and move the bar up,” says Miller. “They could get velocity right out of the gate and put some nice stats on the board—I think there’s definitely some merit to that.”

That’s his opinion. Mine is that Pebble’s play was a cheapskate move and crowdfunding’s marketing advantage is what causes the “preorder now” problem. To capture this buzz, companies are crowdfunding on their own sites, simply slapping up products with “preorder now” buttons, and unleashing their publicists to get coverage for gear that can’t be reviewed, much less held, poked or prodded. And in the tech media echo chamber, news outlets eat it up, clamoring to refresh their sites with stories on new products, whether they’re real or not. The marketing game has accelerated so much that reporters are being fed embargoed stories with such regularity that it’s now an industry joke.

That may seem like a media problem. But it’s more than that, because “Preorder Now” is companies selling non-existent products to consumers who are willing to purchase gear on speculation. And when those gadgets fail to materialize, the hardware becomes vaporware, but the money still holds the same value — only it’s no longer in people’s pockets anymore. And though it’s just $100, $200, or $300, that’s still a bubble bursting. The Preorder Economy — the products that are late on average 80% of the time — is a thousand little bubbles, popping all the time.

And now with the launch of products like Apple Watch, “Preorder Now” has hit the mainstream. Of course I know this is hardly the first time that Apple has made its customers order its products in advance. But it may be the first time it’s ever had no products available for sale in-store on launch day.

Miller imagines that Apple’s preorder strategy may have more to do with ramping up manufacturing than building up demand. “Usually in a ramp, you wouldn’t throw the switch all at once—you’d kind of ramp up to your steady state,” he says. So, if the actual date they can get up to full speed is July, estimates Miller, “building up that demand and hunger is probably a pretty good strategy.”

Perhaps. But it’s not a good example for other companies to follow. Firstly, by signaling your product too soon, they risk other companies swooping in and eating their oatmeal (see Coin competitors Swyp and Plastc). Secondly, frankly, burned journalists like me aren’t going to cover them anymore. I won’t say that I’ll “never” cover preorders, but I’ll do everything in my power to avoid it.

Of course, it’s fair to point out that I’ve already written several Apple Watch stories — so why not cover other companies’ gear? The obvious difference is that they aren’t Apple, that they don’t have $178 billion in cash stockpiled, and haven’t defined or redefined half a dozen major product categories. Still, that doesn’t excuse Apple. I ordered my watch seven minutes after it was available for sale, and for that, I’m getting it three weeks after launch date? Pony up the bucks, Apple. You’re better than that.

TIME apps

This Is the App You Need to Download for Earth Day

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Getty Images

It lets you keep a log of your daily energy consumption and tells you how to reduce it

Has commemorating Earth Day on April 22 got you in the mood to save some energy? There’s an app for that.

My Earth — Track Your Carbon Savings uses a simple diary format to help make you aware of the energy you’re using during your daily routine.

The app tracks your energy consumption in areas like electricity, travel and food, and within each category, there are suggestions for doing things differently to help conserve energy. Some of the suggestions are simple (like recycling) and some are complex (like installing a high-efficiency water closet). As you take up the suggestions, you accumulate carbon units and can quickly see how much energy you are saving.

A cute visual device — a polar bear perched on an iceberg — depicts your progress. The more energy you save, the bigger the iceberg gets.

Nancy Wong, the app’s designer and professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said on the institution’s website that in many people what looked like a lack of concern for the environment was really “a failure to connect individual action to that bigger picture.”

She explained that “Hopefully the app could help you understand actually whatever you do is not insignificant, and this is how you can contribute.”

TIME Social Media

Anyone Can Now Send You a Direct Message on Twitter

App stock
Lauren Hurley — Association Images The Twitter App is shown on an Apple iPhone 4S.

They don't have to follow you first

Starting this week, Twitter users will now have the option to receive direct messages from any of the other 288 million people who have signed up for the service.

Previously, only individuals that followed each other on the social network and microblogging platform were able to exchange private missives.

However, the option to receive direct messages from non-followers is currently turned off by default. To begin receiving messages from any and everyone, users will have to change their own settings manually.

TIME India

Flipkart, India’s Amazon, Plans to Shut Down Its Website Within a Year

General Images of Flipkart As India's Largest Online Retailer Said To Buy Competitor Myntra
Brent Lewin—Bloomberg/Getty Images The websites for Flipkart, bottom, and Myntra.com are displayed on an Apple Inc. iPad and iPhone 5c respectively in an arranged photograph in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

The firm's mobile traffic has apparently increased tenfold in less than 18 months

Flipkart, India’s biggest e-commerce company, said on Monday that it plans to shut down its website within a year and transition completely to a mobile app.

“Last year, we had more on the app but still did our web and desktop. In the next year or so, we’re going to be only mobile,” Michael Adnani, Flipkart’s vice president, retail and head of brand alliances, told the Times of India.

The decision is a reaction to the rapid growth of smartphone users in India, which is the third largest Internet market after China and the U.S. The Boston Consulting Group projects that the South Asian nation will have more than 550 million Internet users in 2018, of which almost 80% will be on mobile devices.

“A year ago, 6% of our traffic was coming from mobile. In less than 18 months, that traffic is 10-fold,” Adnani said. “That shows the significance of what a mobile phone is doing for the consumers and consequently doing for us.”

Two-thirds of Flipkart’s 8 million monthly shipments come from cities and small towns, where most people don’t have access to desktop computers and broadband Internet.

Fashion e-retailer Myntra, which Flipkart acquired last year, is also set to abandon its website in favor of an app on May 1.

TIME innovations

You’ll Be Able to Buy Star Wars’ Coolest New Droid

BB-8 will roll onto store shelves

BB-8, the newest droid in the Star Wars universe, is not only real, it’s also coming to your living room.

Sphero, a Boulder, Colorado-based company that makes smartphone-controlled spheres, confirmed Monday it made the bi-spherical rolling robot for December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s also making a toy version of the character destined to become a fan favorite to rival R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Sphero did not reveal a release date or price point for the company’s BB-8 toy, but it is letting interested consumers sign up for updates through a cryptic landing page.

“The experience is going to be king with this thing,” Sphero Chief Creative Officer Rob Maigret told TIME in a Monday interview. Maigret wouldn’t give away the secret sauce behind what makes BB-8 tick (magnets, perhaps?). But he did suggest the BB-8 toy could revive a fondly remembered part of the original Star Wars experience: Kids begging their parents to buy Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker toys letting them recreate scenes from the movies.

“Our real goal here is that this should feel as close to what you just saw on the screen as possible,” he says. “And the relationships that you’ve seen BB-8 have in the film in the world of Star Wars, you can now fill that role. BB-8 is now yours.”

Sphero has plenty of incentive to make sure its BB-8 toy flies — or, more accurately, rolls — off the shelves. Toy sales are by far the most lucrative part of the Star Wars financial empire. Forbes estimated back in 2007 that action figures and plastic spaceships accounted for $9 billion of the franchise’s sales, more than $3 billion more than the movies themselves. Sales of Star Wars toys are also known to get big boosts when new films (or even remastered old ones) hit the silver screen, so being in the business ahead of the Dec. 18 Force Awakens release is a good place to sit.

Maigret wouldn’t divulge how much of the BB-8 toy revenue Sphero will get to keep, but it’s safe to say it isn’t nothing. Still, while he admits “it would be really nice to sell a gazillion BB-8s,” Maigret thinks it would be “even better” if “a lot of fans [were] extremely happy with what we provided them.”

“We’re fans,” he adds. “For the folks here at Sphero, we’re freaking out. Like, we get to make BB-8? Think about that, man. We get to make it!”

TIME Social Media

This App Will Flag Your Offensive Tweets Before Your Future Employer Sees Them

Hey Clear Ethan Czahor Jeb Bush
Hey Clear

It was created by a man who lost his dream job with the Jeb Bush campaign.

Ethan Czahor’s dreams collapsed on the national stage earlier this year. The 31-year-old age digital whiz had spent years positioning himself to work in politics and earlier this year Jeb Bush’s campaign came calling, hiring Czahor as its chief technology officer.

He lasted 36 hours, done in by a history of offensive tweets and blog posts that was uncovered by reporters and opposition researchers after TIME broke the news of his hire.

Now, two months later, he is looking to make his comeback, turning lemons into lemonade with Clear, an app designed to keep what happened to him from happening to anyone else.

“Why wasn’t I smart enough to take care of this before it happens,” Czahor asked himself for weeks after the controversy, he told TIME. Now he’s set about making sure people can manage potentially damaging social media histories.

The app, releasing publicly Monday, scours a user’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram histories for potentially inflammatory or damaging posts, and makes their removal a breeze. It’s designed for the next generation in the workforce, who grew up sharing vast amounts of information online, some of which may become a liability in their future careers.

“This could happen to anyone in any field—it doesn’t have to be politics—every millennial is now entering the workforce, and maybe even a senior position, and everything that they’ve said online for the last 10 years is still there, and that’s a new thing for this generation,” Czahor said.

Already, there’s a long history of political aides being done in by their social media postings. Last month, GOP operative Liz Mair was forced to resign from a top digital post for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker after old tweets surfaced showing her criticizing the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa. Benjamin Cole, a senior aide to disgraced Rep. Aaron Schock was forced to resign after racist Facebook posts were dug up. In 2008, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau was forced to apologize after a photo emerged of him groping a life-sized cut-out of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The app works by flagging postings that contain watchwords: the obvious four letter ones, as well as “gay,” “Americans” and “black.” Posts are also subjected to sentiment analysis, using IBM’s Watson supercomputer, to try to flag additional negative messages. The app’s algorithms are far from perfect, but it errs on the side of caution. The Clear analysis of this reporter’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts scored a -2,404—a record low in the private beta—from the app’s proprietary grading system which calculates the potential liability of a person’s social media history.

It will soon be converted to a traditional 0-100 scale, Czahor said, with higher scores meaning safer profiles. (One reason for this reporter’s low rating: quotes from presidential candidates frequently scored as negative, while words on the watch list triggered alerts.)

“The most challenging part of this is determining which tweets are actually offensive, and that’s something that will take a while to get really good at,” Czahor said.

Czahor, who moved to California after college to test his hand at improv comedy at The Groundlings while working at Internet start ups, maintained that the offending comments that cost him the Bush job were meant to be good-natured. “I was telling jokes with my friends and they were completely tongue-in-cheek and completely harmless,” he said. “But years later after I had forgotten about them, they’d been pulled out of context and it looked terrible.”

“Most people don’t know that halloween is German for ‘night that girls with low self-esteem dress like sluts,'” one, now-deleted tweet read. “When I burp in the gym I feel like it’s my way of saying, ‘sorry guys, but I’m not gay,'” said another.

Clear is purely a defensive weapon, and can’t be used the growing class of opposition researchers against whom Czahor is looking to protect. The app requires that users grant access to their social media accounts, meaning, that a third party can’t review a user’s history without their consent.

Czahor said he believes that racist and other offensive postings should be held to account, saying Clear was designed for the universe of embarrassing messages that can simply be taken out of context months or years later.

While some messages, if public, may be captured in public archives and thus out of the reach of the app’s delete feature, Czahor said he believes the awareness alone of what a person tweeted or posted years ago is a valuable resource. “When this was happening,” Czahor added, “there were all of these emails asking how I felt about this statement or that statement, and I remember thinking ‘did I even write this?’”

Czahor said the next step would be to expand the app’s reach to emails, personal blogs, and search results, pointing to the embarrassing leaks from last year’s Sony hack as another potential use-case.

“You as a person exist in a lot of places on the Internet, and I just feel that you have the right to at least know what’s out there, and to take care of it.”

TIME Telecom

Why Nokia’s Blockbuster Merger Turned Into Such a Mess

Nokia's chairman Risto Siilasmaa, Nokia's Chief Executive Rajeev Suri, telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent's Chief Executive Officer Michel Combes and Alcatel-Lucent's chairman of the supervisory board Philippe Camus shake hands prior a press conference on April 15, 2015 in Paris.
Chesnot—Getty Images Nokia's chairman Risto Siilasmaa, Nokia's Chief Executive Rajeev Suri, telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent's Chief Executive Officer Michel Combes and Alcatel-Lucent's chairman of the supervisory board Philippe Camus shake hands prior a press conference on April 15, 2015 in Paris.

Nokia marrying Alcatel-Lucent will have a huge impact

The big headlines in tech M&A come when they involve growth – Facebook buying Instagram or WhatsApp, for example – but more often they tie together two aging companies in established but still important industries. Ideally, in those cases, the merging partners will complement each other’s weaknesses, making for a stronger corporate marriage.

Take the mature but competitive telecom-equipment industry. If selling and maintaining the arcane gear that quietly keeps the Internet humming is hardly a sexy industry, it’s crucial if you want to watch a video of a dog trying to catch a taco in its mouth. Last week, when one industry giant (Nokia) offered to merge with another (Alcatel-Lucent) in a $16.6 billion deal, it seemed like a textbook tech M&A deal, one that analysts have been expecting for years.

Instead, the announcement of the deal seems to have left everyone unhappy. Analysts lined up to argue why the tie-up would be troubled, while investors wasted little time in selling off shares of both companies. Since the deal was announced Wednesday, Nokia’s shares have lost 4% of their value and Alacatel-Lucent’s have lost 21%.

This is the rare M&A deal that everyone has long-expected to happen and yet seems to please almost nobody. The telecom-equipment sector has been rife with consolidation and restructuring for years, as companies scramble to grab control of technologies that power broadband, wireless networks, networking software and cloud infrastructure.

Both Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent have been undergoing wrenching restructuring to compete with Sweden’s Ericsson, the market leader, and China’s up-and-comers Huawei and ZTE. Nokia sold its handset business to Microsoft for $7.2 billion in 2013, which helped return the company to profitability last year. Now that Nokia is alsoshopping around its mapping software, a merger seems like an important step toward strengthening its remaining operations in the telecom-equipment business.

Alcatel-Lucent has been having a harder time in the past decade. In 2006, the stock of France’s Alcatel was trading near $16 a share when it paid $13 billion for US-based Lucent. But clashing cultures, rigid bureaucracies and a failure to innovate led to years of losses at the combined firm, pulling Alacatel-Lucent’s stock down as low as $1 a share. Years of restructuring brought tens of thousands of job cuts but also, in recent quarters, signs the company may be making a fragile comeback.

So why did everyone expect a Nokia-Alcatel merger to work when the Alcatel-Lucent one failed? For one, there was a complementary fit in terms of the product and geographical markets both companies served. Also, both companies had just emerged from painful restructurings holding smaller shares of a competitive market. By combining, they could command a market share rivaling Ericsson’s and also marshall resources needed for the high R&D costs of next-generation gear.

That was the theory on paper, and for years reports surfaced periodically that the two were talking about joining forces. Talks of Nokia buying Alcatel’s wireless business fell through in 2013, and another report of a merger last December went nowhere. Now that it’s happening, the conversation has shifted from speculation about the deal to the details of how it would work. And some of the details aren’t pretty.

Any large-scale tech merger requires years of integration of sales, engineering and managerial ranks. In the best case, it takes years to complete. In the worst, it leads to entrenched fiefdoms and a bureaucratic hall of mirrors. And in areas where there is overlap, job losses will follow. But Alcatel-Lucent is partly owned by the government of France, which sees the company as a strategic national asset. It will fight massive post-merger layoffs in France, and the Finnish government is likely to do the same.

Analysts expect the trouble that all this work involves will hamper Nokia for some time. Some argued Nokia should have bought only Alcatel’s wireless assets, but since that didn’t didn’t work Nokia offered a discount for the whole company. And what a discount: Nokia’s bid is worth only 0.9 times Alcatel-Lucent’s revenue last year, well below the average figure of 2.5 times revenue for recent telecom deals. Alcatel-Lucent’s shareholders feel the discount is too much, leading to last week’s selloff.

So as inevitable as a combination of Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent seems, there are regulatory, integration and cultural issues that will complicate things for years. In the meantime, few investors are pleased about the deal. Throwing these companies together may be like, well, that taco heading toward the dog’s mouth: the appetite is there, but in the end all you have is a mess.

TIME Smartphones

One of the Best, Cheapest Phones Is Now Available to Everyone

OnePlus One
OnePlus OnePlus One

You can now buy a OnePlus One without an invite

OnePlus, a Shenzhen-based smartphone maker, has released its “flagship-killer” smartphone to the general public at a lethally competitive price of $300 without a contract.

The OnePlus One smartphone garnered rave reviews since it was released by invitation only to a select number of users last year. Critics marveled that a smartphone could match its highest-end rivals spec-for-spec, from the 1080p display to the clean design, yet retail at less than half their price.

OnePlus announced on its blog that the phone would go on sale to anyone, no invitation necessary, starting Thursday.

The Chinese smartphone maker, which has swelled to more than 700 employees, also announced the upcoming release of its next generation smartphone, OnePlus 2, which will be available, once more, by invitation only at launch.

TIME Apple

Apple Is Already Making New Apple Watch Bands

Apple's design chief showcased a multi-hued collection of Sports bands in Milan

Apple design chief Jony Ive unveiled a new selection of Apple Watch bands at a design fair in Milan this week, showcasing a never before seen color palette of bright red, dark blue, yellow and “skin tone” Sport bands.

The first images of the new collection were posted to Instagram by Umberta Gnutti Beretta, an Italian philanthropist who got an up-close look at the designs:

Picking my #applewatch #Now #socool #thankyou #appleteam such a great evening 👍❤️

A photo posted by Umberta Gnutti Beretta (@188e76) on

The unveiling comes as Apple aggressively markets the Apple Watch as a personal fashion statement for celebrities and tastemakers. Last week fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld sported a custom-designed, gold-on-gold Apple Watch.

Deliveries of the Apple Watch to the not-so-rich-and-famous officially begin on April 24th.

TIME Web

Science Says You Should Ignore Internet Trolls

Troll sign
Douglas Pearson—Getty Images Troll Road Sign, Trollstigen

A new algorithm can predict Internet irritants with 80% accuracy

Commonly found under bridges and in the reader commentary of stories about Apple, trolls have long plagued the good people of fairy tales and the Internet. While banishing them has long been the remedy of choice, new research out of Stanford and Cornell universities might help to identify these persistent pests before they even start wringing their wart-covered hands. Boasting a methodology with 80% accuracy, the study provides hope that once Skynet becomes self-aware, we can wipe this scourge off the face of the web once and for all.

So who, exactly, is a troll? Analyzing the comments on news (CNN.com), politics (Breitbart.com), and gaming (IGN.com) sites over a period of 18 months, the study examined more than 40 million posts by at least 1.7 million users, discovering not only what antisocial behavior looks like, but how it festers, grows, and is ultimately dealt with. This allowed the researchers to see how trolls typically evolve over time.

But one thing in particular helped these odious Internet users stand out from their mild-mannered counterparts. “They receive more replies than average users,” says the paper, “suggesting that they might be successful in luring others into fruitless, time-consuming discussions.”

To create the algorithm, the researchers looked at all 1.7 million users surveyed and split them into two groups: future-banned users (FBUs) and never-banned-users (NBUs). Assuming the FBUs were all trolls, they then monitored their behavior from when they signed up to when they got shut out. Some clear differences emerged between the trolls and the NBUs: FBUs wrote differently than everyone else, often going off-topic, scribbling posts that were more difficult to read, and saying more negative things. In addition, trolls made more comments per day, and posted more times on each thread. They often had the most posts in a particular thread, and made more replies to other comments.

In other words, the trolls were hyper-active.

But that alone wasn’t enough to separate trolls from your casual cranks. To do that, the researchers looked at how users’ behaviors changed over time, analyzing how many posts of theirs were deleted by site moderators. NBUs weren’t saints — they also had posts deleted — but only a small proportion got worse over the course of the study. The trolls, on the other hand, had an increasing amount of posts deleted as time wore on.

And this all makes sense, when you think about it. Trolls start off surly, are met with opposition and then get a little nutty. Then, and when their comments are deleted, they get even crazier — a cycle that gradually spins out of control, until they’re ultimately shut down. It happens online. It happens on television. It even happens in the real world.

Admittedly, the study doesn’t take sarcasm into account, a tool no doubt wielded by a mutant strain of super-trolls, users who “purposefully ask overly naive questions or state contrary viewpoints.” Imagine that . . . oh god, the horror.

But the study does give actionable insight on what to do should you ever encounter a troll. “Anti-social behavior is exacerbated when the community feedback is overly harsh,” says the report. In other words — and of course you already know this — don’t feed the trolls. Since FBUs’ behavior gets worse over time, that means don’t engage them early or often.

Currently, this research is unfortunately little more than an exercise in academics, as its algorithm for detecting trolls has yet to be rolled into a software or a service. But it’s a good first step for sites all over the web — especially on Twitter —where the formula could be used to scout out future troublesome users.

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