Monday, December 29, 2014

IBM: Christmas Day Sales Up 8.3 Percent, Mobile Purchases up 20.4 Percent (PCMagazine)

Don't count out the desktop just yet, though; computer-based shoppers drove more sales and spent a bit more, on average, than mobile shoppers.
Best Shopping Apps to Compare Prices

Ho ho ho. New statistics from IBM's Digital Analytics Benchmark Hub suggest that mobile shopping was big on Christmas Day this year—just in case all those presents Santa left under the tree weren't enough to wet your whistle.
According to IBM, online sales were up 8.3 percent this year compared to Christmas Day last year. Online shopping traffic mostly consisted of mobile devices—smartphones and tablets—versus desktops or laptops, and mobile device traffic increased 18.6 percent over last year to reach 57.1 percent of all online shopping traffic in 2014. Additionally, purchases made using mobile devices were up 20.4 percent year-to-year, reaching 34.8 percent for Christmas Day in 2014.
Got it?
Drilling down a bit into the numbers, IBM noted that more smartphones contributed to online shopping traffic than tablets—40.6 percent to 15.9 percent. However, more tablets were used to make purchases than smartphones. Tablet-based purchases ate up 18.4 percent of all online sales, whereas purchases made on smartphones only accounted for 16.3 percent of all online sales.
Though computer users only ate up 42.6 percent of all online traffic, more online purchases were made on computers than mobile devices—65.2 percent of all online sales, specifically. Additionally, those shopping on their computers tended to spend more than those shopping on their smartphones. The average order value for desktop users hit $107.72 this year, which is a bit higher than the $88.70 for mobile users. In general, shoppers spent a little bit more this year than last year. The average overall order value was up 6.2 percent to $100.33.
Apple iPhone and iPad users did a lot more shopping than their Android counterparts this year . They spent more—$97.28 per order versus Android users' $67.40—and they also drove more traffic and sales. Traffic from iOS devices accounted for 39.1 percent of all online traffic, soundly beating Android's 17.7 percent share. Additionally, sales made on iOS devices accounted for 27 percent of all online sales; Android users only hit 7.6 percent.
IBM's Digital Analytics Benchmark tracks real-time transactions across 800 or so different retail websites.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Minneapolis First With 10 GBPS Internet Speed (PCMagazine)

Led by global Web and data services provider U.S. Internet, the Twin Cities' super speeds are effective immediately.


Forget Google's "fiberhoods." Minneapolis, Minn. is launching the world's first 10 GBPS Internet speed service for residential and small-business owners.
Led by global Web and data services provider U.S. Internet, the Twin Cities' super speeds are effective immediately.
"The launch of our 10 GBPS Internet service will make Minneapolis the first city in the world to receive access to the Internet at speeds never before experienced in our country, or any other country for that matter," U.S. Internet CEO Joe Caldwell said in a statement.
Folks can sign up now for premier service, including 10 GBPS download and upload speeds, for $399 per month (plus a $99 installation fee). Check the provider's site to find out which areas are now available—meaning bundles of fiber optic cables have been installed on the streets indicated.
"After this critical step is complete, we proceed to install the transmission equipment necessary to connect the hundreds of individual residences involved," U.S. Internet said.
The process of getting new customers hooked up will be slow-going to start, the ISP warned, suggesting a wait time of anywhere from a few hours to three weeks.
"U.S. Internet has long advocated for small business owners and residential customers that they deserve the same broadband as Fortune 100 companies," Caldwell said. "With our new fiber network, we have redefined what is considered broadband Internet and taken our speed capabilities to next-gen levels, resulting in the fastest Internet service the world has ever seen for home users.
"Now Minneapolis residents will have more Internet bandwidth in their houses than some countries have serving their entire country."
Local residents can sign up online; but be warned: any new orders requiring a dig will likely be postponed until the ground thaws in the spring. Business owners can contact the ISP for more details.
Google, meanwhile, has been rolling out its own Fiber network in Kansas City; Provo, Utah; and Austin, Texas. An announcement about the next cities slated for high-speed broadband, however, has been put on hold. Scheduled to make a decision by the year's end, the news has been pushed to next year.
If you're dying for super-speedy gigabit Internet, check out the slideshow above to find out where to go.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Wall St. inches up after five-day run, claims data (Reuters)

The exterior of the New York Stock Exchange is pictured with a Christmas tree in front of it in the Manhattan Borough of New York, December 23, 2014. U.S. stocks advanced on Tuesday, as the Dow climbed above the 18,000 mark for the first time in history and the S&P 500 set a new intraday record after an unexpectedly strong report on economic growth.          REUTERS/Carlo Allegri      (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)

(Reuters) - U.S. stocks edged higher on Wednesday, extending a five-day winning streak that pushed the Dow and S&P 500 to new closing records and on the latest piece of economic data indicating the U.S. economy is strengthening.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 280,000, its fourth straight week of declines, and below the forecast of 290,000.
"Economic data has been consistently positive," said Peter Kenny, chief market strategist at Clearpool Group in New York.
"We are positioned well into the close of the year and we have all sorts of validation that the economy, the corporate earnings story and markets are on the most solid footing they have been on in quite some time."
The Dow closed above 18,000 for the first time ever on Tuesday and the S&P 500 ended at its 51st record of the year after an unexpectedly strong report on U.S. economic growth. The 51 new closing highs are the most since 1995 and fourth best in history.
Equity markets will operate on a shortened trading schedule Wednesday, closing at 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT) ahead of the Christmas Day holiday on Thursday. Volume is expected to be light, which could exacerbate volatility.
The benchmark S&P index has risen 5.5 percent in its latest rally, the best 5-day run since December 2011, fueled by a commitment by the U.S. Federal Reserve last week to take a "patient" approach toward raising interest rates amid solid economic data.
The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI rose 38.42 points, or 0.21 percent, to 18,062.59, the S&P 500 .SPX gained 2.78 points, or 0.13 percent, to 2,084.95 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC added 9.72 points, or 0.2 percent, to 4,775.15.
Adamas Pharmaceuticals Inc (ADMS.O) jumped 22.6 percent to $17.96 after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug developed with Actavis Plc (ACT.N) to treat dementia in Alzheimer's patients. Actavis shares rose 0.3 percent to $256.67. 
U.S. surgical implant maker Stryker Corp (SYK.N) is planning to make an offer for British medical device maker Smith & Nephew Plc (SN.L) that may come within weeks, Bloomberg reported, citing sources. U.S.-listed shares of Smith & Nephew (SNN.N) were down 2.5 percent to $37.10 while Stryker edged up 0.2 percent to $96.63.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,429 to 1,232, for a 1.16-to-1 ratio on the upside. On the Nasdaq, 1,203 issues rose and 976 fell for a 1.23-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.
The benchmark S&P 500 index posted 59 new 52-week highs and 5 new lows. The Nasdaq Composite recorded 36 new highs and 9 new lows.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Markets Are Predicting a Venezuelan Default (BusinessWeek)

Maduro’s popularity is rapidly eroding amid an economic crisis marked by widespread shortages, runaway inflation, and a currency that’s quickly depreciating.
Maduro’s popularity is rapidly eroding amid an economic crisis marked by widespread shortages, runaway inflation, and a currency that’s quickly depreciating.
President Nicolás Maduro says there’s a foreign conspiracy at work against Venezuela. In a Dec. 13 speech on state television, he lashed out at the international credit-rating companies that assigned junk ratings to his country’s foreign currency bonds, accusing them of orchestrating “a vulgar, immoral financial blockade.”

The reality is more mundane. A 40 percent plunge in oil prices this year is raising concerns that Venezuela is running out of dollars to pay its debts. The worries have pushed up yields for the country’s bonds to levels not seen since the 1998 Russian financial crisis spurred a selloff in emerging-market debt. Credit-default swaps—financial contracts that insure investors against nonpayment—peg the likelihood of a default at more than 90 percent.

Maduro’s popularity is rapidly eroding amid an economic crisis marked by widespread shortages and runaway inflation. Gross domestic product contracted 3 percent this year and will shrink 1.5 percent in 2015, according to the median estimate of 15 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. The Central Bank of Venezuela hasn’t published inflation data since August, when it reported prices were up 63 percent in the previous 12 months—the fastest pace for any country. “I just spent the last three hours looking for medicines,” says Alicia Gonzalez, a retired civil servant living in Caracas. “I can’t even begin to think about Christmas presents this year.”

In a November poll by the Caracas-based consulting firm Datanalisis, more than 70 percent of respondents said Maduro shouldn’t be allowed to finish his term, which ends in 2019. “Unless the government is able to generate a significant improvement in economic conditions during the coming year, it could lose its parliamentary majority and face a recall referendum in early 2016,” wrote Bank of America (BAC) economist Francisco Rodríguez in a note to clients.

Venezuelan crude has dropped below $60 a barrel, following OPEC’s decision not to rein in production to counter slumping prices. (Maduro’s government had lobbied for a reduction in output at the cartel’s November meeting.) Venezuela needs oil to average $85 a barrel to keep up debt payments and pay for imports, even assuming it cuts handouts to regional allies and reschedules loans from China, says Siobhan Morden, head of Latin America strategy at Jefferies Group (LUK).

Prices of Venezuelan bonds fell to a 16-year low on Dec. 15 after Maduro said he had no plans to curb the domestic gasoline subsidies that eat up more than $15 billion of the budget each year. A reduction in cut-rate oil exports to Cuba and other Caribbean nations is not on the table either. Maduro has also resisted pressure from within his own cabinet to devalue the currency: The official exchange rate ranges from 6.3 bolívars to 50 bolívars per U.S. dollar, depending on the type of transaction. On the streets of Caracas, a dollar fetches 180 bolívars.

Marco Santamaria, a money manager at New York’s AllianceBernstein (AB), says Venezuela’s creditworthiness will remain in doubt even if oil rebounds. The government had been running a deficit and depleting its stock of foreign currency when crude was at $100 per barrel. International currency reserves are at their lowest levels in a decade and cover only about 40 percent of the debt due over the next five years. The Ministry of Finance didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Maduro has declared that he has no intention of halting debt payments because it would not be consistent with the course charted by his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez. “There is no possibility of default, unless we would decide to not pay anymore as part of an economic strategy for development,” he said in the Dec. 13 speech.

Analysts at London-based Capital Economics think otherwise. “The writing is on the wall for Venezuela,” they wrote in a Nov. 28 report. “We continue to think that a default is more likely than not in the next two years.”

The bottom line: President Maduro says his government will make payments on its debts, but investors don’t believe him.
With Andrew Rosati
Crooks is Caracas bureau chief for Bloomberg News

Monday, December 22, 2014

Google Reveals 2014's Top Searches (PCMagazine)

From Robin Williams to Flappy Bird, here's what we Googled in 2014. 

Google global top trending searches 2014

Google clocked trillions of searches worldwide in 2014, but one man managed to steal the spotlight: The late Robin Williams landed the No. 1 spot in the global trends charts.

The comedian and actor passed away in August, prompting folks around the world to search for more information and remember the star. Williams's untimely death led people to revisit some of his most iconic film and TV roles, but also inspired many to research depression and mental health, according to Google.

Sports were again a hot topic in 2014: From the Winter Olympics in Sochi to the World Cup in Brazil, Web users came together over the Internet to keep up with their favorite athletes and events.

They also assembled online to participate in one of the most viral awareness campaigns in the history of the Web. This year, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease, reached what Google called an all-time high around the world, thanks to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

A sensation among everyday people and celebrities alike, dumping cold water on people managed to wake the world up to finding a cure for ALS; donations reached almost $100 million.

But it wasn't all fun and games this year: Ebola, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and ISIS also dominated Google's search box, as people looked for answers and comfort on the Internet.
In short, "we were struck by the death of a beloved comedian, and watched news unfold about a horrific plane crash and terrifying disease," Amit Singhal, senior vice president of Search, wrote in a blog post. "We were captivated by the beautiful game, and had fun with birds, a bucket of ice, and a frozen princess."

Visit Google's Year in Search page for in-depth coverage of the top stories of 2014—from the rise of the selfie "to understanding if we search for 'how' more than 'why,' each chapter shares a glimpse into the people and events that drove this year forward," Singhal said.

Among the tech- and science-related searches were those in hunt for Oscar winner Jared Leto's Instagram account, queries about a real-life Hoverboard and how to teleport, Flappy Bird cheats, and the Rosetta spacecraft.

The search giant also made some changes over the past 12 months, most notably making it easier to find this year's trending topics directly from Google Search. Type "google 2014" for a look at the top trending lists from around the world, or keep up with the #YearInSearch hashtag.

"So take a moment to appreciate what this year had to offer," Singhal wrote. "It'll be 2015 before you know it."

For a look back, see what we searched for in 2013, and check out our roundup of the top Google Search tips in the slideshow above.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The World's Biggest Car Company Wants to Get Rid of Gasoline (BusinessWeek)

Toyota President Akio Toyoda
Toyota President Akio Toyoda
The first thing you notice about the Mirai, Toyota’s new $62,000, four-door family sedan, is that it’s no Camry, an international symbol of bland conformity. First there are the in-your-face, angular grilles on the car’s front end. These deliver air to (and cool) a polymer fuel-cell stack under the hood. Then there’s the wavy, layered sides, meant to evoke a droplet of water. It looks like it was driven off the set of the Blade Runner sequel.
Just as the Prius has established itself as the first true mass-market hybrid, Toyota hopes the Mirai will one day become the first mass-market hydrogen car. On sale in Japan on Dec. 15, it will be available in the U.S. and Europe in late 2015 and has a driving range of 300 miles, much farther than most plug-in electrics can go. It also runs on the most abundant element in the universe and emits only heat and water—and none of the gases that lead to smog or contribute to global warming. “This is not an alternative to a gasoline vehicle,” says Scott Samuelsen, an engineer and director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California at Irvine. “This is a quantum step up.”
The Mirai is hardly a speedster, though it’s quicker than a Prius. It can reach 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour in 9.6 seconds. When you punch it, the car feels like an electric—there’s none of the vibration of a combustion engine. Driving the Mirai around a large, man-made island in Tokyo Bay called Odaiba is a little surreal. The interior is a Zen sanctuary of silence, save for the rush of wind passing around the vehicle and the occasional muffled sound of the suspension doing its work. The car can double as a mobile power station: A socket in the trunk can electrify the typical Japanese home for about a week in the event of an earthquake or other emergency.
Behind this week’s cover
Photograph by Jeremy Liebman for Bloomberg BusinessweekBehind this week’s cover
As cool as the Mirai is, selling it is a hugely risky move. While fuel cells are a proven technology, used by NASA during Apollo missions in the 1960s to generate electricity and produce drinking water, a mass market for fuel-cell cars will require big investments in hydrogen fueling stations that may not be forthcoming. And, thanks in large part to Toyota itself, the auto industry has sunk serious money into hybrids, plug-in electrics, and advanced batteries in the expectation that these technologies will dominate the post-gasoline era, whenever that may be. “Every manufacturer has multiple hybrids and electrics coming,” says Mike Jackson, chief executive officer of AutoNation(AN), the largest U.S. retailer of new cars, trucks, and SUVs. “And here you have Toyota saying, ‘We’re not going to go full electric. The ultimate answer is fuel cells.’ ”
Volkswagen (VOW:GR) CEO Martin Winterkorn, Nissan Motor boss Carlos Ghosn, and Tesla Motors (TSLA) founder Elon Musk all question the economic viability, environmental credentials, and safety of Toyota’s fuel cells. One could also ask why Toyota, which does well with its hybrids and plug-in electrics, is bothering with a commercially unproven technology that may undermine a core franchise. Akio Toyoda, Toyota Motor’s (TM) president and the scion of the automaker’s founding family, says there’s room for both plug-in electrics and hydrogen cars; he dismisses doubters. “Fifteen years ago they said the same thing about the Prius,” he says. “Since then, if you consider all [our] hybrid brands, we have sold 7 million of them.”
“We had a kind of feeling that ‘We could do it with the hybrid, why not the fuel-cell vehicle?’”
Toyoda leads one of the most finely tuned capitalist enterprises in history. The company is on course to earn a record $18.2 billion this year—more than the combined projected profits of Ford Motor (F),General Motors (GM), and Honda Motor (HMC). But Toyoda doesn’t just want to sell cars. He wants to save the planet. “The automobile industry can contribute to the sustainable growth of earth itself,” he says, without a trace of irony. “At Toyota, we are looking out 50 years and even more decades into the future. I do believe that [the] fuel-cell vehicle is the ultimate environmentally friendly car. But the point is not just to introduce it as an eco-friendly car with good mileage. I wanted it to be fun to drive and interesting as a car.”
At 58, Toyoda is owlish, wears stylish, rectangular eyewear, and is fond of such concepts as smart mobility and sustainable growth. He speaks English pretty well and has a deep, raspy, and ready laugh. He almost always carries stickers in his suit pockets of Morizo, his cartoon alter ego, which he eagerly hands out. And he regularly suits up in tailor-made Nomex fireproof, red-and-white racing gear to drive souped-up Toyota rally cars at speedways around the world. Judging by his YouTube videos, he’s on a quest to achieve the perfect “Tokyo drift.” That’s a racing maneuver pioneered in Japan involving an interplay of gear shifts, braking, and oversteering to intentionally cause a car’s rear wheels to lose traction with a track’s surface in high-speed turns.

As the grandson of founder Kiichiro Toyoda, Akio’s elevation to the top job in 2009 was nothing short of the restoration of the Toyoda clan. The last family member to run the company, Tatsuro Toyoda, gave up control in 1995 after being waylaid by a stroke.
The burden of the Toyoda family’s legacy in a recession-prone Japan can be a heavy one. Despite record profits the last two years, Toyota faces challenges. China may be the fastest-growing car market in the world, but it’s a tough market for Japanese automakers given the toxic political climate between the two countries. Toyota and other automakers have recalled millions of vehicles this year to address air bag problems at Japanese supplier Takata.
Nor has Toyoda had an easy time establishing his credibility in a hierarchical and consensus-driven culture in which corporate elders, not young mavericks, are prized. “There was a civil war internally,” says John Casesa, senior managing director of investment banking at Guggenheim Partners and a former auto analyst. “Akio was not only not part of the professional management team, but he was a member of the family that’s a whole generation younger. He had a lot of the top of the institution stacked against him.”
Toyoda says he often channels inspiration from Kiichiro in quiet moments before the family butsudan, or Buddhist altar, at his home outside Nagoya. “My grandfather was 57 when he passed away, and I’m 58 right now,” he says. “I haven’t found the answer of what my role should be, so I ask him to please use my body to create the company that he wanted.”
Just outside Nagoya, in Toyota City, where company headquarters are based, the automaker has created a community of smart homes equipped with solar cells and energy storage devices that can allow plug-in vehicles to power the dwellings in emergencies. Residents can monitor their energy usage on tablet PCs and pay lower rates as a reward for conservation and off-peak usage.
The Mirai’s profile resembles a droplet of water.
Photographer: Jeremy LiebmanThe Mirai’s profile resembles a droplet of water.
Two other demonstration projects, one also in Toyota City and the other in Grenoble, France, suggest what the clean city of tomorrow might look like: ultracompact, electric vehicles for inner-city commutes that are networked to an intelligent traffic system. The more wirelessly connected trucks, cars, and buses there are, the greater the ability of software algorithms to reroute traffic, easing congestion and improving safety.
However gauzy and utopian these ideas might seem, there’s a business rationale behind them. The auto industry’s fast and furious expansion in recent decades may be, in many parts of the world, a spent force. Personal mobility is a wonderful thing, even crucial. Yet if you’re a commuter in Mumbai, where 12.5 million people are packed into about 230 square miles and six-hour traffic jams aren’t unheard of, driving to work is nuts. Only 14 percent of commutes there are by personal car, and more than half of all workers take the train, according to a report by Mumbai Railway Vikas. China, one of the last fast-growing frontiers of auto industry expansion, is an ecological wasteland. In the vehicle-saturated, rich countries, Uber’s ride-booking service and car-sharing companies such as Zipcar(CAR) offer alternatives to car ownership for a generation of younger urban commuters turned off by the expense of owning a car or concerned about the environment.
“If I put myself in Elon’s shoes, I’d be doing the same thing. He’s got his eggs in the electric vehicle basket.”
Cars, trucks, and other forms of transportation generate about 22 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the International Energy Agency estimates. Auto accidents each year take a huge number of lives—some 1.2 million in 2013, according to the World Health Organization. So what happens when the number of cars and vehicles on the world’s roads more than doubles, from 900 million now (excluding two- and three-wheelers) to 2 billion by 2050, as the IEA forecasts?
Toyoda sees the evolution of the car as nowhere near finished. By the time hydrogen rivals fossil fuels, he envisions even more dynamic radar systems, high-resolution lasers, and predictive data systems reducing traffic fatalities. Above all, he sees the fuel-cell car as the catalyst, as he puts it, in the “creation of a hydrogen society.”
Toyota started its fuel-cell development in 1992, roughly the same time it began its work on the Prius gas-electric hybrid engine. By 2008, executives were keenly aware that Daimler (DAI:GR), Honda, and Hyundai Motor were also quickly moving forward with hydrogen car projects. Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, the driving force behind the Prius, decided to move the car out of development and into mass production that year. At the time, however, the cost of manufacturing a fuel-cell car was “close to $1 million per vehicle,” says Satoshi Ogiso, Toyota’s managing officer in charge of product development and chassis engineering.

The inability of fuel-cell developers to reduce costs was a big reason why the technology never took off in the 1990s and early 2000s, despite best-selling books such as The Hydrogen Economy by futurist Jeremy Rifkin. A number of car companies began developing fuel-cell vehicles, from Honda’s FCX to GM’s Sequel, but high production costs, plus battery technology advancements, swayed momentum to electric vehicles. Toyota says it made the Mirai economically viable by reengineering the fuel-cell stack with less expensive materials, reducing the amount of platinum in the catalyst that separates hydrogen protons from electrons (electricity), and standardizing the production equipment to make the car. Toyota’s earlier work with the Prius’s power electronics and batteries also gave it an edge, says Ogiso: “We had a kind of feeling that ‘We could do it with the hybrid, why not the fuel-cell vehicle?’ ”
Toyota’s fuel-cell launch is getting plenty of government help in Japan, where some early adopters will be eligible for a 2.75 million yen ($23,754) subsidy. In the U.S., Toyota will charge $57,500 for the Mirai. Federal and state incentives could reduce the price as much as $13,000, and Toyota plans to provide free fuel to early buyers. Customers can also lease the car for three years, at $499 a month.
The Mirai’s hydrogen tank can be refilled in less than five minutes via a large hose that pumps supercooled hydrogen into the car’s pressurized tanks. In California there are 13 research hydrogen-fueling stations, 9 public stations, and an additional 18 that have been funded and are expected to be operational in the next few years. Yet it will take a far bigger build-out to give the market for hydrogen cars a chance to develop. “Its infrastructure is constrained much more than electric vehicles, where you can charge them at home,” says Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.
One of the Mirai’s most acerbic critics is Tesla founder Musk, who sees the post-gasoline world dominated by pure electric vehicles—preferably Tesla models powered by lithium-ion battery packs. More than four years ago, Musk invited Toyoda to his California home and let him take the company’s Roadster sports car out for a spin. It was quite a bromance. Within weeks, Toyota agreed to buy a $50 million stake in Tesla and sold a shuttered California factory to its new partner for a mere $42 million.
The two agreed to make an electric Toyota RAV4 and considered extending the collaboration to retrofit the Lexus RX SUV. The RAV4 EV flopped after Toyota slapped it with a sticker price of almost $50,000—almost double the gasoline version—and limited its availability to residents of California. The bigger issue was that Toyota embraced “fool cells,” as Musk dismissively calls them.
During a news conference in Tokyo following a Tesla event in September, Musk delivered an unforgiving takedown of hydrogen cars. Currently, 95 percent of U.S. hydrogen production is made from heating up natural gas, a process that produces greenhouse emissions. Fuel-cell vehicles such as the Mirai, Musk said, are “hydrocarbon-burning cars in disguise.” While EVs take hours to recharge, the fueling cost is a fraction of the roughly $45 a hydrogen fill-up will cost. Musk also noted that hydrogen, while well-suited to the rocket business, is “highly volatile and can have explosive consequences.”
Easing the minds of consumers familiar with the 1937 Hindenburg disaster will take some effort. Toyota engineered its hydrogen tanks with a three-layer structure of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic and other materials that can withstand not only the usual crash dummy collision tests but also a bullet fired at close range. In the event of a leak, special sensors can shut off the hydrogen flow.
Electric vehicles could power Toyota smart homes in a blackout.
Photographer: Jeremy LiebmanElectric vehicles could power Toyota smart homes in a blackout.
Musk’s comments have drawn return fire from Toyota North America CEO James Lentz. “If I put myself in Elon’s shoes, I’d be doing the same thing. He’s got his eggs in the electric vehicle basket,” he says. “There are drawbacks to EVs in the marketplace. Customers have range anxiety. There’s the length of time it takes to recharge.”
Musk and others have a point about one thing: The environmental benefit of fuel-cell cars won’t be fully realized if hydrogen isn’t eventually produced from renewable sources. Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity, a process called electrolysis, from a renewable source such as solar is one option. Another is biomass conversion, the biochemical conversion of methane gas, say, from landfills into hydrogen. “There’s a high possibility that there will be many sources of hydrogen in the future, such as solar energy and even waste,” says Toyoda. Yet whether these methods will ever be cost-competitive with gasoline and diesel is unclear.
Every fall, Toyota’s top executives retreat to the towering pines and white stone courtyards of the Ise Grand Shrine on the Pacific Coast, about a four-hour train ride south of Tokyo. There, the company shows off its newest domestic models, and everyone pays homage to the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. This company loves its traditions, one of which is never to publicly criticize corporate elders.
Such restraint wasn’t shown in one of his first media appearances as president, where Toyoda sounded a little like a Greenpeace activist when he said that his company had fallen prey to “the hubris of success” and the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” That didn’t reflect well on his three nonfamily immediate predecessors—Hiroshi Okuda, Fujio Cho, and Katsuaki Watanabe.
That was in October 2009, when the industry was reeling from the financial crisis and five months after Toyota had reported a 5.5 billion yen loss. The company also became the target of U.S. regulatory scrutiny after multiple deaths were attributed to accidents involving unintended acceleration of its cars, leading to the eventual recall of 10 million vehicles over two years.
When Toyoda made an emotional apology before Congress in February 2010, he placed partial blame for the recall crisis on Toyota’s aggressive growth during the previous decade. Yet a quality review, ordered up by Toyota and led by American safety experts, concluded the problems ran deeper. The company’s slow response to acceleration problems dating back to 2002 owed much to its insularity, even arrogance. The internal review noted that Toyota was slow to respond to feedback from outside, including customers. In March, Toyota paid a $1.2 billion penalty to settle a U.S. government criminal probe into safety issues at the company.
Photographer: Jeremy Liebman
Toyoda struggled in the early stages of the crisis. “I have never seen Akio so sick; his face was white, and he was getting fat,” recalls Javier Quirós, Toyoda’s roommate at Babson College during the 1980s and president of Purdy Motor, a Toyota distributor in Costa Rica. “His grandfather and his father’s work was falling into a cascade, and he didn’t know what to do.” Auto industry consultant and author Maryann Keller believes the recall crisis was transformative for Toyoda. “Those are humbling experiences for somebody who wasn’t previously humbled,” she says. “That was a pivotal time that did change him.”
After years of emphasizing faster development cycles to revamp its lineup with freshly redesigned models, Toyoda tacked on four weeks of work to shore up the reliability and safety of each new car. The company named chief quality officers for North America and other regions, all of whom have direct lines to Toyoda. It also became one of the first full-line vehicle makers to make an advanced brake override system standard on new models. Toyoda has a moratorium on new assembly plants until 2016.
He took some criticism internally when he urged executives to return to basics and pull back from the breakneck plant and product expansions of the previous decade, according to Shigeki Tomoyama, a managing officer in charge of business development and IT. Given the company’s sales-driven culture, that was kind of like placing Godzilla on a vegan diet. “Only Toyoda could say that,” says Tomoyama. “He is from the family, so he’s allowed to talk about the longer term.” Toyoda is open about the second-guessing he sometimes gets from the company’s old guard. “The past presidents that I have spoken with say that I don’t understand my responsibility,” he says with a smile. “I believe that I’m aware and that I understand.”
Toyoda’s most immediate adversary may be prosperity. The automaker’s $210 billion market value is greater than that of Ford, GM, Honda, and Nissan combined—and eight times that of Tesla. The Toyota Camry is the best-selling car in America, and the revived Lexus brand and Toyota lineup finished No. 1 and No. 2 for the second straight year in the annual Consumer Reports quality survey of the U.S. new-vehicle market.
Toyoda could well run the company for roughly another decade. By then the world will get a better sense of whether his legacy play of fuel-cell vehicles and new forms of mobility has a realistic shot. It’s a world that his grandfather, Kiichiro, could scarcely have imagined. Yet one way or another, Toyota’s hydrogen car embrace will probably inform how Akio is remembered 30 years from now.
With Matthew Winkler
Bremner is an editor for Bloomberg News in Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter@bxbremner.
Trudell is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Tokyo.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

LG Tips Quantum Dot 4K TVs for CES (PCMagazine)

LG's latest lineup of 4K TVs promises a wider color palette and better color saturation.

LG 4K Ultra HD TV with quantum dot
LG will ring in the New Year by unveiling a new 4K Ultra HD TV series with "quantum dot" technology.
The set will be on display at January's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, and LG's lineup promises a wider color palette and better color saturation than conventional LCD TVs.
Most notably, LG's new sets come with "quantum dot" technology, which is often used in medical sensors and lighting systems. Composed of nanoparticles that react to light and electricity, each quantum dot emits a different color depending on its size.
By adding a film of dots in front of the LCD backlight, picture color reproduction rate and overall brightness are significantly improved, LG said. Ideal for 4K content, the technology enhances the company's current Ultra HD In-Plane Switching (IPS) displays and increases high color accuracy by more than 30 percent.
"Quantum dot's vibrant and vivid color reproduction capabilities brings LG's LCD TVs to the next level when it comes to picture quality," In-Kyu Lee, senior vice president at LG, said in a statement.
"The addition of Ultra HD TV with quantum dot technology to our TV lineup, positioned under our award-winning OLED TVs, further establishes LG as a leading provider of the most diverse and innovative TV display technologies in the industry," Lee added.
Visitors to CES 2015 from Jan. 6 to 9 can stop by LG's booth to catch a glimpse of the new 4K Ultra HD TVs.
Further details like pricing or a sales timeline were not disclosed.
According to Reuters, Japan-based Sony is the only major TV manufacturer already selling quantum dot models. The company had a number of 4K TVs on offer at CES 2013 and CES 2014, but until now, price and available 4K content has hampered 4K pick-up among consumers.
Can 2015 change that? For more, see the video below and What Is 4K (Ultra HD)?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The sharing economy: Will self-regulation by startups suffice to protect consumers? (TechRepublic)

By Alex Howard December 15, 2014,
Regulation and the "sharing economy" was the topic of a recent panel discussion in the U.S. House of Representatives. Alex Howard summarizes the highlights. 
(L to R) David Hantman, John Breyault, Alex Howard, Adam Thierer, Arun Sundararajan at the regulation and sharing economy panel convened by the Internet Caucus.

"Congress should care, but forbear." That was the conclusion of a panel of an academic, a researcher, a consumer advocate, and a tech executive convened by the Internet Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives in DC last week to consider regulation and the "sharing economy." I was proud to moderate the discussion. It's a timely topic: startups that develop platforms that match the supply of goods and services with demand from mobile consumers are attaining multi-billion dollar valuations and shaking up markets for lodging, transportation, and more.
Three of the participants, Arun Sundararajan, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and David Hantman, the head of global public policy for Airbnb, all made a case for why legislators and regulators need to take great care in enacting laws and policies that govern companies and startups, lest entrepreneurs be stifled and genuine benefits to consumers be snuffed.
That came as no great surprise: Sundararajan has previously written that government shouldn't regulate the sharing economy, in 2012, and, more recently, about trusting the sharing economy to regulate itself. Thierer just co-authored a paper on the sharing economy and consumer protection regulation (PDF) in which he and his co-authors argue that, "coupled with the Internet and various new informational resources, the rapid growth of the sharing economy alleviates the need for much traditional top-down regulation."
These recent innovations are likely doing a much better job of serving consumer needs by offering new innovations, more choices, more service differentiation, better prices, and higher-quality services. In particular, the sharing economy and the various feedback mechanism it relies upon helps solve the tradition economic problem of "asymmetrical information," which is often cited as a rationale for regulation. We conclude, therefore, that "the key contribution of the sharing economy is that it has overcome market imperfections without recourse to traditional forms of regulation. Continued application of these outmoded regulatory regimes is likely to harm consumers."
John Breyault, vice president of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud at the National Consumers League, made arguments for consumer protection within the services using existing statutes and posited that thetechnological innovation that various startups are deploying benefit consumers. Hantman, for his part, recounted the steps that Airbnb now takes to protect both hosts and users of its services in the event of disputes and issues.
One narrative of the sharing economy has often been that these platforms enable ordinary people to earn income renting a room or driving for a car service in their spare time, and others to rent part of a good or service, as opposed to having to own it. A countervailing narrative is that the business tycoons of Airbnb, one of the most well-known examples of the sharing economy, are professional operators, not amateurs, and that other markets for goods and services will have similar dynamics. Hantman argued that their data shows the majority of the 700,000 or so Airbnb listings in New York City alone are offered by individuals, not businesses.
As anyone who has used a mobile device to request on-demand transportation to those who have found flexible accommodation knows, these kinds of services can offer improved services at lower prices. (I've used Uber around the US, and we were Airbnb hosts for a few months.) The question of where liability rests, however, is an important legal matter that came up during the discussion. The consensus answer was that "it depends," but one emerging approach is to make sure operators of vehicles and hosts carry sufficient insurance.
Given that the forum was held in Washington, DC, it was no surprise to hear the question of taxes and the sharing economy also came up. (Once something exists, it seems people in DC will inevitably wonder if it's taxable.)
In this land of lawyers and lobbyists, the issue of legal liability is never far away. In the sharing economy, the question is often unresolved. For instance, if the operator of a vehicle used in a sharing economy startup kills someone while driving, who is liable? I asked the panel this question, along with the related issue of whether the people on these platforms provide means of "public accommodation," which in turn would mean that some vehicles or residences would need to be accessible. No clear answers there, either, but again, there are existing statutes, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, on the books to apply if violations are found.
A clear tension point is how and where data showing compliance with existing laws and regulations can and should be disclosed. The companies involved aren't sitting idly by on the sidelines, either: as WAMU reported in November 2014, Uber is actively lobbying the municipal government of the District of Columbia toseek changes to a wheelchair-accessible taxi bill, the For-Hire Vehicle Accessibility Amendment Act (PDF). Uber holds that disclosing the data about the numbers of wheelchair-accessible trips that are requested and provided to passengers would pose an "undue regulatory burden" upon the startup.
There's also the issue of discrimination in the sharing economy. On the one hand, "Ubering while black," as Jenna Wortham wrote in Medium and Latoya Peterson described at Racalicious, canenable people of color to order transport when cabs do not stop. While it may cost more to use the premium towncars, an UberX is currently cheaper than a taxi and does not carry any emotional overhead.
On the other hand, as Wortham noted, creating platforms and leaving people using them to self-regulate commercial activity there without oversight could be problematic in the long term.
Michael Luca, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told me that the one clear downside to marketplaces that rely on reputation and build social features like personal information into business transactions is that they can have unintended side effects. "The social nature of the sharing economy is more vulnerable than a traditional economy," he said.
In January, Luca co-published a paper on digital discrimination that surveyed thousands of listings on Airbnb. The study compared black and non-black hosts who had similar apartments, photos, and ratings, and found that the non-black hosts tended to earn 12 percent more than their black peers, suggesting that those black Airbnb hosts were susceptible to some form of social selection and internal biases.
One of the final questions that I brought up regards privacy and trust in the sharing economy, a matter I explored at Wired in November 2014. Information transactions around services, objects, and resources have existed in humanity for thousands of years, from people sharing shelter and food to neighbors borrowing tools to housemates borrowing cars to colleagues and classmates sharing networks, servers, and printers.
Today, these interactions and transactions are rapidly becoming digitized: if an entrepreneur can create a marketplace for a given commodity or service, someone will try to do so. That means there's going to be data generated where there was none before, which will give the owner of the platform strategic insight and business intelligence about the dynamics of the market, and its users.
As sharing economy startups become larger parts of local economies, embedded into how people work, travel, recreate, and shop, the digital exhaust from those actions creates associations and patterns that may be mined for insight, efficiencies, or more nefarious purposes. Location data is powerful, in context. As The Washington Post reported, when access to Uber's internal analytics was granted to a job applicant, he was then able to use it to look up the relative of a politician in DC. Uber now says that it's monitoring and auditing user data access much more robustly, as is Lyft, the ridesharing startup's chief competitor.
These kinds of issues around user data privacy will lead more people to worry about whether they can trust companies like Uberand other players in the sharing economy.
One approach to that issue could be what Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of North Carolina, and Brayden King, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, suggested in an editorial in The New York Times: information fiduciaries, or "independent, external bodies that oversee how data is used, backed by laws that ensure that individuals can see, correct and opt out of data collection."
Given a 113th Congress that did not pass surveillance reform, a national data breach law, digital due process, or Freedom of Information of Act reform, it's unlikely that such a body will be created soon, but in the vacuum left behind, the Federal Trade Commission has placed many tech companies under privacy audits. If platform operators in the sharing economy aren't responsible about designing their platforms and applications to deliver security and "privacy by design," they may face the same attention.
Down the road, if discrimination, disability, civil rights, and consumer protections aren't also baked into these services from the start, more members of Congress and parliaments around the world might also start to care about sharing -- and stop forbearing from legislative action.

You can listen to the archived audio of our robust discussion on the audio player at or download it directly as an MP3 to listen to at your leisure.