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“Wall St. set to end 2016 with a whimper” plus 26 more VentureBeat

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“Wall St. set to end 2016 with a whimper” plus 26 more VentureBeat


Wall St. set to end 2016 with a whimper

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 12:55 PM PST

A trader wears glasses that say "2017" ahead of the new year on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 30, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Yang

(Reuters) — U.S. stocks fell on the last trading day of 2016, eating into gains for the year, as Apple led a decline in technology stocks.

The S&P 500 technology sector’s 0.72 percent drop put the broader index on track for its third straight day of declines, its longest losing streak since Nov. 4.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was set for its first weekly decline since the U.S. election. The rally had pushed the index to within 13 points of 20,000 last week, but after three straight days of losses, the index is now about 200 points shy.

“The market is ending 2016 with a whimper. We entered the rally like a lion, but are leaving like a lamb,” said Andre Bakhos, managing director of Janlyn Capital in Bernardsville, New Jersey.

“It is disappointing on many levels as investors believed that we are going to see the Dow at 20,000. The euphoria that was in motion in the Trump rally has fizzled.”

Until Thursday, the three main Wall Street indexes were set to end the year with double-digit percentage gains. The S&P is now on track to post a gain of 9.7 percent for the year, the Nasdaq 7.8 percent and the Dow 13.7 percent.

At 12:35 p.m. ET (1735 GMT) the Dow was down 20.2 points, or 0.1 percent, at 19,799.58, the S&P 500 was down 5.87 points, or 0.26 percent, at 2,243.39 and the Nasdaq Composite was down 38.38 points, or 0.71 percent, at 5,393.71.

Seven of the 11 major S&P 500 sectors were lower, with technology and consumer discretionary stocks taking the biggest hit.

Apple was the biggest drag on all three indexes, falling 0.6 percent to $115.98 after the Nikkei financial daily reported that the company would cut production of the iPhone by about 10 percent.

Apple suppliers also dropped on the news. Qualcomm, Skyworks Solutions, Cirrus Logic and Qorvo were down between 1 percent and 2 percent.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers on the NYSE by 1,444 to 1,402. On the Nasdaq, 1,795 issues fell and 1,004 advanced.

The S&P 500 index showed one new 52-week high and no new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 35 new highs and 36 new lows.

(Reporting by Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Savio D’Souza)

Signal for Android now circumvents censorship in Cuba and Oman

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 12:41 PM PST

Signal for Android.

Open Whisper Systems, the company that makes the Signal encrypted messaging app and that contributed to the encryption in Facebook-owned WhatsApp, today updated its Signal app for Android with the ability to avoid being censored in two more countries: Cuba and Oman.

Last week the company did something similar in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates after learning that people in those countries had problems using the app. People need to have country codes enabled to access this feature.

Signal uses a method called domain fronting to make it harder for the app to be crippled. As Open Whisper Systems’ Moxie Marlinspike explained in a December 22 blog post:

Many popular services and CDNs, such as Google, Amazon Cloudfront, Amazon S3, Azure, CloudFlare, Fastly, and Akamai can be used to access Signal in ways that look indistinguishable from other uncensored traffic. The idea is that to block the target traffic, the censor would also have to block those entire services. With enough large scale services acting as domain fronts, disabling Signal starts to look like disabling the internet.

The Tor browser also employs this approach, as Bruce Schneier pointed out earlier this week.

The Signal app for iOS doesn’t have censorship circumvention for Cuba and Oman yet, but it got the feature for Egypt and United Arab Emirates after it rolled out on Android, so the same thing should happen here.

4 Twitter fixes Jack Dorsey says he’ll consider in 2017

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 12:35 PM PST

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey onstage at the Flight developer conference on October 21, 2015 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, Calif.

Earlier this week, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey issued a public call for feedback on what his company could be doing better. And it went pretty much how you’d expect it to go. On Friday, he shared four “clear themes” that people have told him what they want from the service: handling abuse, editing tweets, following topics and interests, and better managing conversations.

Not surprisingly, abuse was immediately one of the hot things requested by users. People have grown tired of the fact that Twitter is seemingly failing in taking action to stop trolls and those electing to harass others. Sure, you can block someone and report them, but does that solve the problem? Twitter has rolled out features over the course of the year, including allowing others to filter their mentions and also mute specific keywords.

In a tweet today, Dorsey remarked that there’s “obviously a ton of work ahead, but biggest ask was for greater transparency around our actions (or inaction) and faster shipping.” We’ve heard Twitter’s stance on harassment before — it’s not part of “civil discourse,” but users are starting to see the service as inhospitable and that needs to change. Dorsey’s mention of “inaction” is rather poignant, highlighting that the company recognizes that it’s been sluggish to protect users, which has affected potential acquisition candidates.

Another of the most popular requests was the ability to edit a tweet after it had been posted. Whether it’s a typo or a flagrant mistake, we’ve all wanted to make changes to what was said without having to delete the whole thing, because why sacrifice the engagement, right? That’s probably easier said than done — Dorsey remarked that either editing mistakes immediately or at any point in time is a “big [difference] in implementation,” especially since many people on Twitter use what is posted as public record (like with the President of the United States).

But this has resulted in some pushback from users, such as CivilBeat’s social media and video manager Anthony Quintano, who questioned that if Facebook can do it, why can’t Twitter?

Dorsey rebuffed this argument, saying that Twitter isn’t in the habit of copying others. Instead, his company is going to “learn from others. And do it in our own way.”

Granted, it’s likely not a switch you can turn on to just allow tweets to be edited because there are many factors at play in determining the process. For Twitter users, do they prefer a finite set of time in which to make a change? Should there be a change log so that any mistakes still live on in some form? How does this affect the community of users, some of whom likely take what is tweeted as gospel?

When Dorsey assumed power as the permanent CEO, he promised that one of the company’s strategies was to simplify the experience and show why people should use it. The last two items he said he’ll consider next year involves being able to follow topics and to better manage conversations. These seem pretty worthwhile because right now people basically have to follow hashtags or search for specific keywords, such as “Warriors” if you’re interested in the Golden State Warriors or #SXSW for chatter around South by Southwest. Or you can follow specific accounts, but what if you’re interested in seasonal or ephemeral topics? Or maybe you want to read what people are saying about woodworking, politics, global warming, and other interest-based conversations?

As for conversations, Twitter right now is a hodgepodge of chatter where it’s a town hall and everyone is talking over one another, but is there a way the service can improve the conversation and bring better meaning and dialogue? Dorsey promised that this is something Twitter will work on to “make this easier.”

These are just four things Dorsey said he’ll consider going into the new year, but whether he keeps his word or takes verifiable action remains to be seen. After all, Twitter has been saying it’s against abuse and harassment for months but has failed to find a solution to improve things. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens in 2017.

The 10 best games of 2016 and GamesBeat’s Game of the Year

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 12:15 PM PST

Let's talk about the good games.

We did it. We picked the 10 best games of 2016, and you better agree with us (because we don’t even agree with us).

After hours of consideration, the GamesBeat crew has chosen its Game of the Year and its overall top 10. This is separate from our personal lists, which you can find here. This list represents our staff as a whole. To come up with this top 10, we didn’t vote — we argued and deliberated, and you can listen to our conversation to see how we came up with our picks for yourself.

Click play below, download the podcast on iTunes, or watch the video above to hear our Game of the Year discussion. And to see what we picked, scroll a bit further to see our countdown.

10. Darkest Dungeon

Seeing an entire group of monsters dodge your attacks builds up stress (and for me, tears).

Above: Seeing an entire group of monsters dodge your attacks builds up stress (and for me, tears).

Image Credit: Jason Wilson/GamesBeat

Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, Vita

Darkest Dungeon is a Lovecraftian horror role-playing game that will drive you and your characters insane. You guide a party of adventurers through dingy catacombs of a mansion in search of relics and treasure, but you are likely to find death and disease. The challenge is to keep your team alive long enough — avoiding the permadeath mechanic — to empower them with the strength to take on the variety of obstacles Darkest Dungeon will throw at you. That is difficult, but it is also rewarding — and it doesn’t hurt that the game is beautiful looking in its own way.

GamesBeat managing editor Jason Wilson: “My favorite role-playing game this year comes from Red Hook Studios, by far the smallest group of game designers on this list. It does something that no other game accomplished in 2016: instill me with a sense of dread. You recruit adventurers to help clean out your ancestral home of the horrors, but these twisted terrors can do more than rend your flesh. They can drive you insane, which could have positive benefit … or make your warrior a gibbering glop of impotent rage.”

9. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

You'll fight in outer space in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Developer: Infinity Ward
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One

I’m as surprised as you are that this is on our top 10, but GamesBeat lead writer Dean Takahashi had a strong reaction to the single-player campaign. Sure, the multiplayer mode — which has been the franchise’s meal ticket for the last decade — isn’t as beloved as some of the previous Call of Duty releases, but developer Infinity Ward has potentially brought new life into its campaigns, and we recognize that.

GamesBeat lead writer Dean Takahashi: “One of the best decisions Infinity Ward made was to double down on the story. It hired two leaders from Naughty Dog, maker of the Uncharted series, and it used them to instill a much more interesting narrative. This is also why, after many years of repetition, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare feels like a brand new experience. You can fly Jackal fighters in space, use a grappling hook, run on walls, and mow down dozens of combat robots.”

8. Battlefield 1

Zara Ghufran, a fictional character who fights for Lawrence of Arabia in Battlefield 1, is based on real female rebels.

Developer: DICE
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One

It was a wonderful year for shooters, and a big reason for that is everyone tried something different. Developer DICE’s Battlefield 1 is a prime example of that. The studio took its technical know-how to World War I, and focused on personal stories to do something that is fresh in this genre.

Dean Takahashi: “EA took some liberties with history, but I appreciate that the goal was less about being historically accurate and more about re-creating the visceral feeling of being in the war. In that way, EA created one of the best history lessons ever for a new generation of people. Even as a history buff myself, I appreciated learning new things about the war that I didn't know.”

7. Civilization VI

Civilization VI has a "color language" for distinguishing buildings and terrain.

Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, Mac

The latest entry in the long-running Civilization franchise had a lot to live up to, and it mostly holds up as an excellent addition to the series. You get the sense that, like the last couple of Civ games, this one will still benefit greatly from expansions, but Civ VI is a more complete game out of the box than Civ IV or Civ V.

GamesBeat writer Mike Minotti: Civilization VI is such a relaxing game. I can easily lose hours just staring at the screen, building natural wonders, setting new policies, and starting new trade routes. The improved city-building adds more depth, and the stylized character models and art add more personality. Long live fat Roosevelt!”

6. Hitman

Agent 47 is back.

Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC

Hitman is the most pleasant surprise of 2016. This franchise has always seemed to get by on its concept. That is to say that people seem to like the idea of playing as a sneaky assassin who can get away with murder, and so they forgave the Hitman series for coming up short in a lot of key ways in the past. But this Hitman gets so much right. It puts you in a giant, clockwork world where everything works as it should until you come along as Agent 47. As the titular Hitman, it is up to you to figure out how to pull this intricate, interconnected antfarm apart at its seams to accomplish your ends. And because the game is episodic, it encourages you to go back into the same stage over and over to finish different challenges and find new ways of performing the same hits. And by returning to these spaces, you begin to learn everything about them, and then you almost can’t help but fall in love with them for enabling your dumbest ideas.

GamesBeat reporter Jeffrey Grubb: Here’s one of my Hitman stories: In an escalation challenge, where you perform a series of hits that build on top of one another, I started in the kitchen of a Paris palace during a fashion show. I knocked out a chef that attracted the attention of a guard that enabled me to start a gas leak in the kitchen that caused an explosion that distracted the guards in the security office that enabled me to get a shotgun that enabled me to kill my designated target and escape all under five minutes. Yeah. Hitman rules. 

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3 near-term bots that will force us to ask moral questions

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 12:05 PM PST

Questions about chatbots and humanity

A lot of my waking (and dreaming) life is spent thinking, studying, and reading about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and bots. A common theme that comes up is the need to make the technology seem more human. Well, it’s going to happen, and probably sooner than most of us realize. But what will human-seeming bots mean for humanity?

As the CEO of a company pushing hard in the field of machine learning for AI purposes, I think it’s imperative that we address the social and moral questions associated with AI now, rather than post facto. Below are important near-term examples that I think will really require us to stop and think. I’ve listed out when these bots should be available.

1. Recommendation bots (within 2 years)

Everyone wants a bot that can interact with a human and help them place an order. But bots are built by humans and funded by businesses. So just how impartial are those recommendations?

Imagine you’re trying to figure out where to stay when you take the family to Disney World. If Hotel Chain X has paid the folks running a travel recommendation bot to push their hotels, it stands that the bot has been trained with more positive data about Chain X — meaning that the bot will push users to Hotel Chain hotels.

By simply adjusting the training corpus for the AI, you can create a bot that honestly believes it’s making the best recommendations for users when in reality it’s making the best recommendation for advertisers. It’s a subtle, undetectable twist on the notion of paying for placement — and it’s almost guaranteed to happen. Recommendation bots will arrive with an agenda, and unless guidelines or regulations are put in place, you won’t know what it is.

2. Virtual girlfriends/boyfriends (within 3 years)

As a society we keep our friends close and our phones even closer. It’s not a stretch to imagine the virtual personas of our phones shifting from trusted adviser to romantic interest — think the Oscar-winning film Her.

With AI being endlessly adaptive and lacking the burden of an ego, it’s perfectly positioned to be trained to become the ideal better half. Imagine a partner that could learn your tendencies and desires and adjust itself to meet them in every way. Then imagine what this means for how we learn to socialize, and how we subsequently treat those around us. It sounds frictionless and idyllic on the surface, but there’s a darker side that comes with having our every whim indulged and no one to check our more self-centered proclivities.

This is something we’ll have to deal with sooner rather than later, as virtual partners aren’t so far away. In fact, they already exist in a limited fashion in Japan, and as the technology improves I suspect they’ll be everywhere.

3. Nefarious uses (within 3 years)

The above examples may be fraught with problems, but they’re not intentionally designed to harm users or society. But any technology can be used for evil — or at the very least, for mischief.

Let’s take an example from the corporate world. Imagine a corporation with the resources or technological know-how to build a bot that mimics their competitors’ users. These bots could be used to attack my competitors’ support sites, gumming up support operations and forming an intelligent denial-of-service attack. This may be a relatively harmless-sounding scenario, but that’s what makes it scary. There are without a doubt people actively trying to think of ways to do harm with this new technology.

Given the above, is the world doomed to a Terminator-like existence in the not too distant future? Fortunately, probably not. There are a variety of corporate, educational and governmental working groups exploring the questions, risks, and threats that AI and machine learning will uncover. Of these, the one with the most technical credibility is the group created by Google, Microsoft, IBM, Facebook, and Amazon. The very collaboration between these long-term competitors points to how seriously the issue of the morality and ethics in AI is taken by major companies.

Is it ideal that the people discussing ethics and morality are ones pushing the technologies that will cause the problems mentioned above? No, but at the moment they’re the ones best equipped to point out the issues — and manage them.  The most credible, non-industry-associated group is Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning (FAT ML).

Despite groups like the above,  we are going to be in the Wild West for a while. No one knows for sure when these problems will pop up — nor precisely how we’ll deal with them when they do. It’s going to be quite a ride, but I’m hopeful that the benefits of AI and machine learning will drastically outweigh the costs.

Apple will reportedly cut iPhone production by 10 percent in Q1 2017

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 10:25 AM PST

iPhone 7 Plus.

Apple will be decreasing the production of the iPhone by 10 percent in the first quarter of 2017, according to a new report.

The move will affect the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which were introduced in September, Nikkei said today, citing its own calculations based on data that it has seen.

A year ago, Nikkei reported that Apple had chosen to cut production of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus by 30 percent.

Declines in production could mean sales of the phones are not as high as Apple had expected. Lower iPhone sales equate to lower Apple sales, which equates to lower Apple profit. Which is not the type of thing Apple would like to see after reporting three consecutive quarters of sales declines.

Nikkei said Apple has had trouble meeting demand for the iPhone 7 Plus because of a shortage of camera sensors. That phone, of course, has two cameras and is capable of shooting in a bokeh-like portrait mode.

NaviGate Cardiac Structures Inc. (“NCSI”) Reports World’s First Transcatheter Tricuspid Valved Stent is Successfully Implanted

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 10:05 AM PST

BusinessWire_FeaturedImage

LAKE FOREST, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–December 30, 2016–

NaviGate Cardiac Structures Inc. (“NCSI”) announced today that a novel valved stent that can capture the enlarged annulus in patients suffering from functional tricuspid regurgitation (FTR) was implanted in a patient presenting with massive incompetence of the tricuspid valve.

The patient, a 64-year-old female with an extensive history of severe tricuspid regurgitation (TR 4+) that invariably results in right heart failure (RHF), a lethal condition, was successfully treated with the GATE™ tricuspid Atrioventricular Valved Stent (AVS) from NCSI. The cardiac team from the Cleveland Clinic, recognized as the number-one cardiac medicine center in the USA for 22 consecutive years, implanted the AVS with catheter-guided technique under a compassionate plea from the patient. (A compassionate plea allows a special permission for medical procedures deemed to be the last resort for patients with conditions for which no approved device or medicine exists.)

After the implantation, the valve demonstrated excellent valvular function, indicating correction of the massive regurgitation problem. The patient became stable and was closely observed by the cardiac team and at 30 days post implantation is doing quite well.

“This is a step forward in the treatment of tricuspid regurgitation. The hope is to provide a device that is able to capture the diseased tricuspid valve annulus, which has been enlarged inordinately by the ravages of functional tricuspid regurgitation, thus causing a reverse flow of venous blood from the right heart that should go to the lungs,” said Cleveland Clinic cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Jose L. Navia, a member of NaviGate’s scientific advisory board and company shareholder.

“This patient’s annulus measured 49.7 millimeters in diameter, and there are currently no valved stents that can secure such a dimension without extending into any of the chambers and still provide valvular function, yet there are millions of patients in the USA and worldwide presenting with this problem,” said Dr. Samir Kapadia, Cleveland Clinic interventional cardiologist. Dr. Kapadia also serves as a scientific advisory board member to NaviGate.

The GATE™ tricuspid AVS has been developed and manufactured by NCSI, which licensed the seminal technology from Cleveland Clinic. The technology platform, initially explored at Cleveland Clinic, includes percutaneous valve devices for mitral valve replacement and tissue-preservation techniques that remove the toxic tissue fixatives, which-although allowing the fabrication of biological valve replacement from animal tissues leaves residuals that are thought to promote untoward effects for the longevity of tissue. The technology removes most of the water so that the device can be shipped in the “dry form.”

NCSI made modifications to the device that differentiates it from all others presently manufactured for atrioventricular valves. The unique design of this device in the form of a diffuser or truncated cone exhibits a low-height profile that can be more easily threaded through the vasculature to reach the atrioventricular valves, allowing it to reside without protrusion into either of the adjacent chambers (atrium or ventricle) for mitral or tricuspid valves.

“Our quest,” said Dr. R. Quijano, President and C.E.O. of NCSI, “is to fully develop and provide the medical community with systems of devices to replace the lost function of both atrioventricular valves of the heart, the tricuspid and the mitral, and to develop the easiest, most user-friendly and most secure methods for their use. Not an easy task, granted. These devices could be used by cardiologists delivered either by threading through the vasculature (so long as the patient has no blood clots in those vessels), or alternatively through minimally invasive surgical and beating-heart techniques by the surgeon when the former is not advisable.”

NCSI is presently conducting clinical trials (Chile and Poland) of its NAVI™ mitral valved stent for correction of Functional Mitral Regurgitation (FMR), a similar deadly condition affecting millions of patients worldwide. One patient in Chile has just passed the one-year mark and returned to work with a functional valve.

The healthcare market for these two conditions reaches close to $20 billion yearly, which explains the extensive effort being made by many large multinational medical companies as well as the plurality of start-up venture companies that have focused for the last decade on mitral replacement and repair and those that are now pursuing the repair and replacement of the “forgotten” tricuspid valve.

* New York Heart Association (NYHA) Functional Classification Scale for TR-4+: Unable to carry on any physical activity without discomfort. Symptoms of heart failure at rest. If any physical activity is undertaken, discomfort increases.

Ronald Trahan Associates
Ronald Trahan, APR, +1-508-359-4005, x108

How Apple, Google, and Microsoft used each others’ app stores in 2016

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 09:05 AM PST

Top apps .

For the last two years, we have examined how Apple, Google, and Microsoft develop apps for each others’ competing platforms. It’s time to take another look at their strategies, which of course align with their respective business models.

Apple last year released its first three Android apps for Google Play: Move to iOS, Beats Pill+, and Apple Music. This number didn’t change in 2016, and neither did the fact that Apple continues to ignore the Windows Store. On its own platform, the company more than doubled its apps over the last year.

Google brings almost all its major apps from Android to iOS, offering solid experiences on both platforms. The company also shuns the Windows Store, except for one app: Google Search. On its own platform, the company increased its own apps by some 20 percent in 2016.

Microsoft continues to develop apps for all three platforms, naturally preferring its own. Like in 2014 and 2015, Microsoft this year offered more iOS apps than Google does. And once again, both Microsoft and Google still offer more iOS apps than Apple does in its own store.

Here’s a snapshot of how many apps the three companies had available in each store at the end of 2016:

apple_google_microsoft_apps_2016

To compile this chart, we tallied up the number of apps published by these companies in each of the three app stores. That means we’re counting apps listed in the stores, not those that come preloaded on devices (and we’re counting just one app for iOS, instead of one for iPhone and one for iPad, just like on Android and Windows). Remember that not all apps are available in every market, so you may see fewer apps, depending on which regional store you are accessing. Also keep in mind that all three of these companies build software that doesn’t reside in app stores, and they acquire apps published by different firms — neither is being counted here.

Microsoft has so many entries in its own Windows Store because we’re also counting those published by “Microsoft Studios.” Google’s numbers are inflated a bit as well by the inclusion of very similar apps (such as Chrome and Chrome beta), since we’re counting individual entries in the store.

All in all, not much has changed in the past few years. Thanks to the failure of Windows 10 Mobile, neither Apple nor Google had to even consider giving Microsoft’s platform another look.

And so the Android-iOS duopoly continues. Right now, it doesn’t look like 2017 will be much different.

Japan’s CyberConnect2 levels up to become a global Triple-A game studio

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 09:00 AM PST

Unreal Cloud.

CyberConnect2 has been making games for two decades, growing from a tiny company in Fukuoka, Japan, to more than 200 developers today. It has worked on big titles such as the licensed Naruto games and the .hack// original series. And now the company has been entrusted with the development of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII Remake.

But CyberConnect2 is barely recognizable on the global stage. While it is well known to Japanese gamers, it has a way to go before it has solid name recognition in Western markets. Hiroshi Matsuyama, the gregarious CEO of CyberConnect2, is aware of that and he’s trying to do something about it. I met Matsuyama on a recent trip to Japan, where I moderated a session on Matsuyama’s expansion plans in Canada and also visited the company’s headquarters. It seemed to me that the company’s challenges in going global and sticking to its knitting are similar to the quandaries that many game studios face around the world as they try to decide where to grow next on the path to leveling up.

That headquarters in Fukuoka — a city of 1.48 million on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu — was bursting at the seams with developers. The company’s two floors in a building near Fukuoka’s central train station are loaded with desks, monitors, and huge collections of manga (Japanese comics) and manga videos. CyberConnect2 has another office in Tokyo with 30 employees, and it has just opened a new studio in Montreal, its first foray into an international location. Live camera feeds connect the locations.

The company maintains its close relations with Japanese publishers through its Tokyo office. It makes its games for the most part in Fukuoka (though all offices work on all games), and through Montreal, the company hopes to broaden its reach beyond a single development culture and make games for the international market.

Hiroshi Matsuyama (left) of CyberConnect2 with Martial Pagé, Minister and Deputy Head of Mission for Canada in Tokyo.

Above: Hiroshi Matsuyama (left) of CyberConnect2 with Martial Pagé, Minister and Deputy Head of Mission for Canada in Tokyo.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

The company has come far since a friend of Matsuyama’s started CyberConnect in 1996. A few years later, Matsuyama joined, and he took over as president in 2001, rebranding the company as CyberConnect2. That was about the same time that the PlayStation 2 was hitting the market.

“We started without around 10, and now we’ve got 200 in Fukuoka, 30 in Tokyo, and eventually 50 in Montreal,” Matsuyama said, speaking through a translator. “Our focus has always been on the software.”

In 2002, CyberConnect2 published its first .hack//Infection game, an action role-playing game for the PS2 that was built by CyberConnect2 and published by Bandai. Matsuyama played a key role in the development of the concept for the series about monsters in the digital world of viruses and hackers. The .hack// games sold well, particularly in Japan, and they put CyberConnect2 on the map — at least in Japan.

Some of CyberConnect2's console games.

Above: Some of CyberConnect2’s console games.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Matsuyama also played a big role in pitching the Naruto fighting video games to the manga series creators. The pitch was accepted, and the company developed a series of Naruto games that Bandai published on the PlayStation 2 and other platforms. That series sold more than 10 million units worldwide, and it fueled CyberConnect2’s growth as a company.

CyberConnect2 became one of Japan's largest independent studios. The company developed very close relationships with a few game publishers so that it could focus on the art of making games, Matsuyama said.

“We want to get better at developing games so we can make the children around the world smile,” Matsuyama said.

Around 2008, the company started making more original games such as Asura’s Wrath and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. CyberConnect2 makes both mobile and console games now, but much of its heavy-duty development is still focused on consoles.

CyberConnect2's entrance in Fukuoka, Japan.

Above: CyberConnect2’s entrance in Fukuoka, Japan.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

For the past five years, CyberConnect2 has been preparing to launch its new studio in Montreal, and in 2016 it finally made the move. Koji Yamanouchi, a veteran developer at CyberConnect2, became the studio manager in Montreal. In a Skype call, he described how it was difficult moving to Montreal, where he not only had to try to learn English but also French in order to communicate with the locals. Building a studio in a strange city, with people from multiple cultures, has become an interesting experiment. But Yamanouchi said he felt like it would be an interesting challenge to build a multicultural team that was filled with like-minded adventurous game developers who love the craft.

“We want to recruit both students and veterans,” Matsuyama said.

Matsuyama said that he hopes to build the Montreal studio into 40 or 50 people eventually. Asked what the studio will make, Matsuyama said that the purpose is to make games that help make the dreams of children come true.

The company chose Montreal in part because it has more than 10,000 game employees, and it’s already a big player in the world’s game industry. By moving into such an international city, CyberConnect2 can have contact with and learn from locals who are already good at global gaming. Matsuyama also said that CyberConnect2 wanted to be one of the first big Japanese companies — aside from Square Enix’s Eidos division — to create a large operation in Montreal, a place where there’s a large support system for new ventures.

CyberConnect2 turned 20 in 2016.

Above: CyberConnect2 turned 20 in 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“Creativity doesn’t have any restrictions,” Matsuyama said. “We want to get some very interesting chemical reactions.”

But part of the reason for opening Montreal is a recognition that the Japanese way isn’t always right. Japanese game developers don’t have all the instincts when it comes to figuring out content that various global audiences will enjoy. Matsuyama wants the Montreal team to be able to tell the Japanese teams when they are unconsciously overstepping or even being offensive to people from other cultures.

“This is the kind of information that we want to get, and it helps that Montreal is a multicultural place,” Matsuyama said.

Naruto makes the world warriors cry.

Above: Naruto makes the world warriors cry.

Image Credit: Jeffrey Grubb/GamesBeat

CyberConnect2 has sold more than 20 million games. That’s a lot for any local developer, but it’s not much when you think about the world’s biggest game companies. And while Matsuyama wants to expand in new territories and make games that are appealing to global audiences, he doesn’t want to forget that CyberConnect2 is a Japanese company and one of the only game companies with roots in Fukuoka, where the game community is strong but small.

Matsuyama wants the community to grow together and create new talent, and he helped set up a group that has monthly meetings that bring together people from more than a dozen game companies in Kyushu. The group has contests to promote and foster new developers in the region.

“One interest is to make Fukuoka the Hollywood of the game industry,” Matsuyama said. “The game companies are increasing, but not enough. We have to make it more appealing and charming.”

That might sound too ambitious, but he noted that Montreal’s development community was about as big as Fukuoka’s just 10 years ago. If Fukuoka can breed companies that grow fast, it could also be a big player on the global stage.

At CyberConnect2, the company is working hard on the Final Fantasy VII Remake, a title that is so beloved that the crowd cheered when Sony announced in 2015 that Square Enix planned to publish a remake of the game. Matsuyama can’t talk about it much, as it is working for Square Enix, a public company whose fortunes could be affected by the game’s sales.

Manga collection at CyberConnect2.

Above: Manga collection at CyberConnect2.

“We have a very big opportunity with Final Fantasy VII Remake,” Matsuyama said.

Ultimately, CyberConnect2 will have to figure out what its next level will be. If Final Fantasy VII Remake is successful, that will raise the company’s profile.

Once they become as large as CyberConnect2, many large developers choose to become game publishers themselves or move into multiple businesses. But CyberConnect2 has yet to stray far from making games. Matsuyama knows that it’s risky to put everyone to work on the same games, but he doesn’t want to stray too far from the franchises that the company has excelled at making. CyberConnect2 can work on about eight games at once now, about half consoles and half mobile. Matsuyama is also experimenting on a new intellectual property in virtual reality.

And it still focuses on making games that its developers want to make, rather than making games that others want them to make or games that the company has to do in order to make money.

“We can make what we want to make,” Matsuyama said. “We have never made games that we didn’t want to do. We are not satisfied with our place in the hierarchy in the food chain. But CyberConnect2 is very cool, and we are known as talented and skillful. We are not aiming just to expand. We want to make the world happy with our games.”

Disclosure: The Canadian government paid my way to Japan. Our coverage remains objective.

GamesBeat weekly roundup: Picking our games of the year

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 08:30 AM PST

Mei probably put a pebble in that snowball.

Welcome to another GamesBeat weekly roundup! As 2017 approaches, it’s time for us to pick our favorite games of the year. You can find our individual lists and our video podcast choosing GamesBeat’s overall pick for 2016’s best game below.

Have a happy New Year, everyone! We’ll see you in 2017!


Pieces of flair and opinion


Days of our lives.

Above: Days of our lives.

Image Credit: Double Fine

News


Mobile and social

Facebook in 2016: Live, fake, and half-baked

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 08:15 AM PST

Facebook Live advertisement as shown in the Montgomery BART station in San Francisco, Calif.

Facebook didn’t flood 2016 with mind-blowing announcements, let’s be honest. In 2015, the company inched closer to making our world a much smaller place, thanks to the promotion of Free Basics, Oculus virtual reality, and more. But this year Facebook charted a different course, one that enabled its 1.8 billion monthly active users to be more vocal about their lives.

And, well, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing.

Instead of giant leaps into extraordinary new categories, Facebook doubled down on existing products, such as Messenger and Instagram. The features Facebook added in 2016 may impress users across these apps, but the company copied a great deal from Snapchat. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?)

Facebook also made an aggressive push into live video. Through partnerships, relentless advertising, and a constant stream of new features, Facebook is determined to convince us that livestreaming is great and everyone should do it. (How else will the company increase its original sharing stats?)

On the less-than-stellar side, 2016 was also the year Facebook’s powerhouse advertising program had to recalculate its metrics multiple times. As 2017 approaches, we have to wonder if the controversy over inaccurate reporting will impact brands’ decisions to spend money on the platform. Has Facebook become too big, too fast, and will we now see it begin to slow down?

The dawn of Messenger

For much of 2016, Facebook’s new releases centered not on the social network itself, but on secondary products: building up chatbots, replicating features from Snapchat, and promoting livestreaming. With more than 1 billion people using Facebook Messenger each month, the company moved forward with plans to transform it into a platform. At F8, Facebook introduced a formal way for businesses to interact with customers, with the addition of some artificial intelligence.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on stage at the F8 2015 developer conference talking about the Messenger Platform.

Above: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on stage at the F8 2015 developer conference talking about the Messenger Platform.

Image Credit: Ken Yeung/VentureBeat

The Messenger Platform allows developers to build conversational bots, using its send and receive API. This means the likes of CNN, Salesforce, OwnersListen, Poncho, Expedia, Hipmunk, and Yahoo can build applications to improve customer service and establish more intimate relationships with their customers. Facebook’s entry into the space enjoined it with Slack, Kik, Line, WeChat, and Telegram, each of which had been exploring bots for some time. But having a company with a household name on the scene cast a spotlight on this trend.

Was it worth it? There are now more than 34,000 bots on the platform, but how many provide real value? Facebook’s vice president of messenger David Marcus admitted earlier this year that the space "got really overhyped really, really quickly," but he stopped short of saying that chatbots are doomed. Marcus explained that Facebook wanted to lay the groundwork for what the company hopes will be a flourishing ecosystem. "It’s not easy, and it takes time," he noted on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in September.

PayPal & Facebook Messenger

Above: PayPal & Facebook Messenger

Image Credit: Paul Sawers / VentureBeat

Facebook continued to improve the Messenger platform by introducing new capabilities, such as making it possible for bots to accept payments. While there’s much said about the use of artificial intelligence, the truth is these applications within Messenger are a hybrid of both advanced machine learning and human-powered customer service.

But this was only the beginning of Facebook Messenger’s push this year, as its capabilities expanded to not only enable more people to make Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls — the app now powers more than 10 percent of all calls globally — but also group video calls. The company also recently added more creative tools designed to personalize conversations. Facebook reports that more than 300 million people are making voice and video calls through Messenger each month.

Facebook vice president of messaging products David Marcus

On the other hand, 2016 saw hardly any public updates to M, Facebook’s pseudo-competitor to Siri, Alexa, and Google Now. Available to a select number of users through Messenger, M launched last year to help users complete tasks, with features like suggested responses, which Facebook is still experimenting with. While Facebook Messenger focused on bots and the platform launch this year, it’s possible that once the right number of partners jump on board, M could become a big part of Messenger in 2017.

Sharing is now in real time

Facebook Live

People have been livestreaming for years, thanks to Ustream, Livestream, Justin.tv, and Twitch, but in 2016 Facebook and Twitter brought livestreaming into the age of mobile. Today, individuals, celebrities, and brands have a more consumer-friendly and commercialized option for sharing what they’re doing in real time.

For Facebook, encouraging people to go live has become a a key strategy. In some cities, subway stations and bus shelters are plastered with advertisements promoting Facebook Live, and commercials have aired in select markets. Whether you’re at a sporting event, political rally, graduation, or anything else you want to share in real time, the social networking company wants to make sure you can do so in an unfiltered way.

One of Facebook’s plans to attract new users is to bring in publishers and content creators — the YouTube stars, as it were. Facebook has signed agreements with 140 media companies and celebrities through which it will pay for content to be created. "The arrangements are a way to encourage publishers to produce a steady stream of high-quality videos, until Facebook figures out a more concrete plan to compensate creators, such as through sharing of ad revenue," the Wall Street Journal reported.

Facebook’s payouts vary by contract and haven’t been officially disclosed, but reports say at least 17 publishers are receiving more than $1 million to go live. These include BuzzFeed ($3.05 million), the New York Times ($3.03 million), and CNN ($2.5 million).

Facebook Live on Android

Above: Facebook Live on Android

And what about Facebook’s competition? Those companies aren’t giving up without a fight. YouTube jumped on the bandwagon this year with the launch of a livestreaming service in its mobile app. And Twitter has certainly not surrendered its position in the space — its Periscope service has broadcast more than 200 million streams in the past year. Twitter is also in pursuit of influencers, with a VIP program and support for including high-quality streams from your Xbox One, virtual reality headsets, computer or web cam, external cameras, and more.

Facebook's creative tools: filters and doodling while livestreaming

Above: Facebook’s creative tools: filters and doodling while livestreaming.

Image Credit: Facebook

Facebook, on the other hand, is rapidly beefing up its infrastructure to support broadcasts of up to four hours. And it’s introducing new tools, such as moderation, audio, and video controls that allow social media managers to manage live videos, scheduling360-degree videos, and more interactive livestreams. You can now “drop in” on conversations, and there are tools to help social media teams work more closely together. This month, Facebook also added live audio-only streaming.

Unlike Messenger, Facebook Live isn’t an application you download — it permeates throughout all of the social network’s properties so you can easily livestream within a status update, on the Facebook Mentions app, and through Instagram.

Facebook has seen at least a couple of instances that showcased the impact of live video this year. Viewers watched when Democrats from the U.S. House of Representatives used Facebook Live to broadcast their protest of the opposition’s refusal to vote on gun control legislation and when a person scaled Trump Tower in New York City. However, there were other examples that raised concerns about whether Facebook needs tools to preempt graphic content.

U.S. House Democrats begin their sit-in protest of no gun control measures being voted on in the chamber.

Above: U.S. House Democrats begin their sit-in protest of no gun control measures being voted on in the chamber.

In June, Diamond "Lavish" Reynolds broadcast live from her car while being detained by police. An officer had allegedly shot her boyfriend, Philando Castile, and as she broadcast in the moments following, viewers saw him slumped over and bleeding from his stomach. The video was quickly picked up and a day later had garnered 2.7 million views — but it appears to have been deleted now. It was also unavailable for a short time following the incident, leading to allegations that its brief disappearance was the result of police and Facebook interference. It was restored with a “viewer discretion” warning label, however, and the company attributed its absence to a "technical glitch."

Still, some questioned why such graphic content hadn’t featured a warning upfront. The company issued a statement explaining how it separates “permissible graphic content” from violent images and banned videos:

The rules for live video are the same for all the rest of our content. A reviewer can interrupt a live stream if there is a violation of our Community Standards. Anyone can report content to us if they think it goes against our standards, and it only takes one report for something to be reviewed.

One of the most sensitive situations involves people sharing violent or graphic images of events taking place in the real world. In those situations, context and degree are everything. For instance, if a person witnessed a shooting, and used Facebook Live to raise awareness or find the shooter, we would allow it. However, if someone shared the same video to mock the victim or celebrate the shooting, we would remove the video.

Others have used Facebook to share equally disturbing things, such as livestreaming their suicide. And people have shown live action in war-torn places such as Mosul, shootings at a Munich shopping center, and more. But Facebook isn’t alone in struggling with the bigger implications of live video, as Twitter has faced criticism for also allowing people to livestream their own suicide or footage of someone being raped.

As the Columbia Journalism Review puts it: "Livestreaming isn't going anywhere. The technology will continue to host photos and video from family get-togethers, school performances, and sporting achievements, bringing pleasure to millions. But it is how the platforms respond to the challenges posed by serious events that will test how seriously they take their role within the news ecosystem."

Impact of Snapchat

Examples of Snapchat-like lenses for Halloween that can be affixed to Facebook Live broadcasts.

Above: Examples of Snapchat-like lenses for Halloween that can be affixed to Facebook Live broadcasts.

Image Credit: Facebook

Facebook once made an offer to buy Snapchat for $3 billion. The company wanted to dominate all things social and basically gave Snapchat an ultimatum: Sell to us or we’ll crush you. After Snapchat refused to sell, Facebook pushed forward with a series of experiments to figure out the ephemeral network’s secret sauce. After multiple failed attempts, Facebook began weaving Snapchat-inspired features into different products, including Messenger and Instagram.

Some see what Facebook has done with Instagram Stories, geofilters, and stickers in photos and videos as a sign that the social networking company isn’t original anymore. Instagram cofounder and chief executive Kevin Systrom recently heaped praise on the competitor, telling TechCrunch that Snapchat parent company Snap deserved all the credit for pioneering the space of ephemeral messaging and communication.

Facebook Messenger camera

While pundits and analysts may wish for more innovation, you could argue that the features Facebook copied from Snap are not exclusive and were useful additions. Just because one company does something doesn’t prevent others from doing it too, right?

What can you believe anymore?

But 2016 was more than just product updates and copying. It was also the year Facebook became embroiled in one of its biggest controversies since its advertising technology Beacon was revealed to be collecting non-user data. In the aftermath of a divisive U.S. presidential election, Facebook has faced a barrage of criticism for allowing fake news stories to proliferate on the social network, allegedly contributing to Donald Trump’s victory.

Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit on November 19, 2016, Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed , "We also need to do our part to stop the spread of hate and violence and misinformation."

Above: Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit on November 19, 2016, Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed, “We also need to do our part to stop the spread of hate and violence and misinformation.”

Fake news is not a new problem, but after a hotly contested race, Facebook bore the brunt of the criticism for the phenomenon. At first, company chief executive Mark Zuckerberg downplayed its significance, saying in a post:

Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.

Nearly a week later, Zuckerberg clarified his statement: "While the percentage of misinformation is relatively small, we have much more work ahead on our roadmap." He highlighted efforts Facebook would be making to reduce fake news on the site, including stronger detection technology, easier reporting features, third-party verification, warnings, quality improvements to the related articles feature, "disrupting fake news economics," and listening to user concerns. Facebook has already put some of these efforts in motion, including partnering with Snopes and other signatories of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles to help fact-check articles. But Facebook’s fake news initiative promptly received criticism from those who say it would allow the social network to censor certain sites.

Concerns about bias go back to earlier this year, when Facebook fired all of the human editors who worked on its trending topics feature after reports surfaced that conservative outlets were being censored. Facebook has has refuted these claims, and Zuckerberg wound up meeting with a few publishers to sort through the issue. Enhancements were made to improve the trending algorithm in an attempt to eliminate bias, but then Facebook found itself flat-footed when the iconic Vietnam War image of the "Napalm Girl" was censored.

And let’s not forget the temporary censorship of Shaun King after the Black Lives Matter activist and writer posted racist emails he received — Facebook issued a mea culpa, saying that it was a mistake.

In October, Facebook established a new official policy that no longer places as great an emphasis on censorship of the site. "Observing global standards for our community is complex. Whether an image is newsworthy or historically significant is highly subjective," wrote Facebook’s vice president for global public policy Joel Kaplan and vice president of global operations and media partnerships Justin Osofsky. "Images of nudity or violence that are acceptable in one part of the world may be offensive — or even illegal — in another. Respecting local norms and upholding global practices often come into conflict. And people often disagree about what standards should be in place to ensure a community that is both safe and open to expression."

How to report a fake story to Facebook for third-party verification.

Above: How to report a fake story to Facebook for third-party verification.

Image Credit: Facebook

Moving forward, the service promised to show images and stories that are deemed "newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate [Facebook's] standards."

Keep in mind that all of this took place while Facebook repeatedly denied that it was a media company, something it has only recently come to terms with. In a Facebook Live video, Zuckerberg acknowledged this reality, but with a caveat: "It's not a traditional media company. You know, we build technology and we feel responsible for how it's used. We don't write the news that people read on the platform. But at the same time we also know that we do a lot more than just distribute news, and we're an important part of the public discourse."

Advertising hiccups

For many quarters, Facebook has been an advertising powerhouse, beating all analyst expectations in terms of revenue, marketing potential, and even user numbers. But the company began showing cracks in its facade this year when it had to recalculate advertising metrics not once, but an estimated 10 times.

Marketing Land has chronicled many, if not all, of the known measurement errors in the past year. In 2016, Facebook apologized for incorrectly tabulating the average watch time of Facebook page videos, the organic reach of page posts, the rate at which video ads are completely watched, the average time spent on Instant Articles, and more.

Computer screens display the Facebook sign-in screen in this photo illustration taken in Golden, Colorado, United States July 28, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

Above: Computer screens display the Facebook sign-in screen in this photo illustration taken in Golden, Colorado, United States July 28, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

Facebook isn’t the only social network to experience at least one snafu in calculating advertising metrics, as Twitter has also apologized for a similar glitch. But for a company with more than $6 billion in advertising revenue, repeated missteps could cause some brands to move their advertising dollars elsewhere. On the other hand, the reach and the tools Facebook offers across not only its core social network but also Instagram could outweigh these bumps in the road.

That doesn’t mean the company should just brush these errors off. It’s said that more than two-thirds of social media ad spending was done through Facebook in 2016, meaning that the company has quite a bit to lose unless it figures out how to restore confidence in its metrics.

Facebook headquarters.

Above: Facebook headquarters.

Image Credit: Facebook

This year has passed with hardly any truly exciting product advancements from Facebook. The company has progressed naturally, but it has stumbled quite a few times along the way — enough to reveal some chinks in its armor, perhaps giving competitors an opportunity to pick away at its market share and dominance. Financially, Facebook continues to show it’s still able to grow, with its third-quarter numbers for monthly active users up 16 percent annually and revenue in that same time period up nearly 56 percent year over year. Facebook’s stock price has grown about 10 percent this year.

Facebook’s challenges in 2016 have revolved around three things: live video, advertising vulnerabilities, and its content problems. More than a decade on, Facebook has grown tremendously in size, stature, and capabilities, but is it becoming more complicated than it can handle?

For many quarters, the company has seen success both financially and in terms of growth, but that could all change if Facebook continues to allow fake news, incorrect metrics, and mediocre product releases to occur. It will be worth watching in 2017 to see if the ubiquitous social platform still has some magic up its sleeve.

The DeanBeat: What to expect from the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 08:00 AM PST

Workers pass by a sign outside the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking - RTX215XB

I spend most of the year laser-focused on games. But next week, I'm going to expand my horizons beyond games to the entire tech industry.

I'll be attending CES 2017, the big tech trade show next week in Las Vegas. I've lost count how many times I’ve made it to this show, but I still feel it’s important to attend to see what’s coming next. I’m going with VentureBeat’s Ken Yeung and John Brandon, and our stories will be dropping as early as today. I’ve already written dozens of stories that will appear during CES 2017, and so I’ve got a few insights for this preview.

This tech trade show is the biggest in the U.S., and last year’s event drew more than 177,000 people to view more than 3,000 exhibitors across more than 2.4 million square feet of space. (Here’s last year’s preview). The Consumer Technology Association, which puts on CES every year, expects to have about 3,800 exhibitors, 165,000 attendees, and 6,500 members of the media at CES 2017. It will cover a record 2.5 million square feet this year.

Big companies won’t tell you this, but I think one of the big trends will be the Internet of Stupid Things.

Samsung's Internet of Things had 200 connected objects last year.

Above: Samsung’s Internet of Things had 200 connected objects last year.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

You see, the Internet of Things, or making everyday objects smart and connected, has been going for a few years. We’ve got all of the Internet of Obvious Things covered, like smart drones, smart robots, smart basketballs, smart pet feeders, smart dog collars, smart watches, smart smoke alarms, smart home security cameras, and smart refrigerators. Instead of hundreds of things, we’ll now have thousands of connected things.

This year, in a search beyond the obvious, tech companies are moving into Stupid Things. They’re connecting devices that don’t really need connecting. I’m talking about smart garbage cans, smart wine bars, smart floors, and smart flower pots.

Now, Masayoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank, anticipates that we’re going to have a future with 1 trillion Internet of Things devices. So you could say we are just getting started.

To me, what makes them stupid are the price tags, which usually start at $99 and go up, and their lack of security, which makes our homes vulnerable to cyber attack. Would you really pay $200 to detect a particular kind of gas in your home? I think these devices are only worth marginally more than what we pay for the dumb, disconnected versions. A pet feeder? $25.

I’m being facetious about the Internet of Stupid Things, but we are heading toward a world where everything will have sensors. That big data will have enormous value, and it could also represent an enormous threat to our privacy. But I see too many companies that are trying to measure a tiny slice of the Internet of Things and hoping to cash in on it. The integrated system has the value, and the parts alone are a tough sell.

The Stupid Things will eventually give way to truly smart things, through artificial intelligence. John Curran, managing director at Accenture for communications, media, and tech, said in an interview that he thinks the “smart” part of technology will finally come true. With improvements in AI (through voice or visual recognition), companies can now retrofit their products with A.I. that really works.

AImotive's software can recognize green areas that are safe to drive, and other cars (orange). Pedestrians show in red.

Above: AImotive’s software can recognize green areas that are safe to drive, and other cars (orange). Pedestrians show in red.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“It's a golden thread that will be woven through so many of the technologies that we're going to see at CES — everything from automotive to robotics to smartphones to health and fitness,” Curran said. “I'm excited to see how it manifests itself and permeates the show. The technology has advanced. If you look at what you have now as a convergence of big data and analytics, machine learning, natural language processing, ubiquitous connectivity — all these things come together. You have an opportunity for device manufacturers and companies who are building services to run on those devices to leverage A.I. and create much easier-to-use, much more intuitive and natural customer interfaces.”

We’ll see the emphasis on AI at the keynotes. Jen-Hsun Huang, CEO of Nvidia, will give the first keynote at CES 2017, and I expect him to talk about the company’s transformation from a graphics chip maker to an A.I. company. And we’ll seen incremental advances on smart things that used to be dumb, like self-driving cars, home control systems such as Amazon’s Echo with Alexa, and health and fitness devices that can recommend exercise routines. Curran believes the smart companies will offer services that go with their new devices.

Based on the floor space, we’re going to see a lot of drones, augmented reality, virtual reality, robots, smart cars, health and wellness, wearables, and 3D printing. We’ll see some smartphones, based on introductions of new processors coming from big chip companies. But most of the smartphone introductions usually happen at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona in the spring.

Samsung's press event in 2016.

Above: Samsung’s press event in 2016.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Apple doesn't go to CES. But its archrival, Samsung Electronics, will have a press conference at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Samsung could play in all of the major categories of electronics. You can bet it will make a big deal about the pervasiveness of inexpensive 4K TVs, which have four times the number of pixels of high-definition TVs. I expect that we'll see plenty of expensive 8K TVs and ways to connect them to all of the other devices in your home. You'll also see Samsung reveal products in almost every other tech category that exists.

CES 2017 takes place in Las Vegas from Jan. 5 to Jan. 8. The press shows up for special events on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4.

CES will also have some interesting no-shows. Facebook’s Oculus isn’t going, as it has already launched its big products in 2016. And drone maker Parrot says it will just do meetings this time.

Panasonic's interactive mirror from CES 2015.

Above: Panasonic’s interactive mirror from CES 2015.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

I really hope to see companies come back with good ideas from past years, only in a more refined, cheaper, and more practical. I’d love to see Panasonic’s interactive mirror become affordable, at maybe $99 (and I don’t mean cheap knock-offs), but I fear my family will have to wait a while for that. Electric cars are becoming awesome, but if you add self-driving to their features, then it’s going to be a while before they become practical. I’d love to see some of these devices make the leap from the equivalent of porn for the tech enthusiast to affordable and valuable devices for mainstream consumers.

Virtual reality has a chance to make some progress on this front, as the 2015 products are only partly satisfying and far too expensive. Augmented reality smartglasses are getting more affordable, but I don’t think we’ll see anything really cool and affordable on that front until 2018. Moore’s Law, or the prediction that the number of transistors on a chip will double every couple of years, will deliver technological progress that makes these devices more affordable and better. But it can’t work miracles. That’s up to the engineers.

I hope you’ll read our coverage of CES 2017 in the coming days.

CES2017

Why PolitiFact’s founder remains more optimistic than ever about the future of fact checking

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 06:30 AM PST

politifact_-_pants_on_fire

During a political season in which fact checking became a central part of the cultural conversation, somehow facts seemed to matter less than ever to the outcome.

This was one of the more puzzling contradictions of this tumultuous election season for me, and honestly, a bit dispiriting as a journalist. So much effort was mustered by so many journalistic organizations, so much information was available, and so many voters claimed they were hungry for it.

Yet, in the end, all the fact checking in the world never really seemed to change anyone’s opinion of either major candidate.

Am I being overly pessimistic?

To test my perspective, I spoke with Bill Adair, founder of PolitiFact, the fact-checking site of the Tampa Bay Times. PolitiFact may not have been the Internet’s first fact-checking project, but it’s fair to say that its success, including winning a Pulitzer Prize, helped shine a spotlight on the practice and make it an essential tool for many major news organizations this past year.

Adair is currently Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, but is still a PolitiFact contributor. In addition to teaching, his research work there continues to focus on the concept of fact checking. And far from feeling battered, Adair made it clear that he feels immensely proud of the work done by the growing army of political fact checkers.

The real issue, he says, goes beyond newsrooms and fact checking.

“I think there’s an unrealistic expectation that fact checking is suddenly going to change people’s minds,” he said. “It’s our job to inform. It’s then up to democracy to decide what to do with it. But we did our job.”

As part of his work at Duke, Adair is helping to track the growing fact-checking movement. He’s currently identified 120 organizations that have some kind of dedicated fact-checking operation. These span the globe, and range from national to local politics.

“There’s more fact checking than ever, particularly at the state and local level,” he said. “It’s not just the presidential campaign. We did lots of great work.”

The real lesson from this campaign mainly confirmed a challenge that he and others had already identified: The most partisan political audiences tend to reject or ignore any fact checking that doesn’t support their passionate views.

Despite the deep political divides in the U.S., there is a narrow middle that remains receptive to having their minds and opinions changed by information they consider reputable, he said. Adair believes he can reach and grow the number of people who fall into that category by delivering fact checking in a more timely way.

“We need to examine how we can expand our audience,” he said. “That’s my work here. How can we get people across the political spectrum to respect this work and realize this is objective journalism?”

Part of the answer is technology and products. At Duke, Adair has created the Reporters Lab to test new ideas and solutions for enhancing the impact of fact checking.

For instance, they created a browser extension for a fact-checking pop-up that they tested during the third presidential debate. Tweets from PolitiFact would trigger a pop-up window for someone watching the debate livestream.

“If you can get fact checking done at the moment of the statement, you can perhaps reach a larger audience,” Adair said. “Because who seeks out fact checks? It’s mostly partisan people. And they’re the people who are already convinced they are right.”

The lab has also developed a fact-checking widget that makes it easier to share fact-check items across social media and to embed them on websites. And in October, the lab introduced a new fact-checking app for the Amazon Echo. Owners of any Alexa-enabled devices could just say “ask the fact checkers” about claims made by the presidential candidates.

Adair is currently talking to the Knight Foundation about a proposal to fund work on tools that would automate fact checking. His vision is to be able to build massive databases of verified information that could be automatically searched by fact-checking tools, which would then deliver the information on any platform, from smart TVs to mobile phones.

To continue building the momentum around this work, Adair also cofounded this year the International Fact Checking Network with the nonprofit Poynter Institute. The IFCN is planning its first conference some time next year in Madrid. The idea is continue to develop strategies, tools, and lessons, and, of course, offer support to each other.

That sense of community between fact-checking organizations is crucial. In a moment when were people of all political persuasions lament about living in a “post-fact world,” Adair says the people doing the hard work of fact checking should be recognized and applauded for their efforts.

 “You shouldn’t blame the fact checkers for how people react,” he said. “We gave people the information. If they chose not to use it in who they voted for, that’s totally up to them. Our goal is to empower democracy. And we did a really good job of that. The fact checkers shouldn’t become the scapegoats.”

Amazon won the 2016 chat wars, but Microsoft isn’t far behind

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 05:00 AM PST

Amazon Echo

At the start of 2016, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple had no publicly known plans to create an ecosystem for bots. There was no Microsoft Bot Framework, no Facebook Messenger bot platform, no iMessage App Store, and no Lex Framework from Amazon.

Then a whole lot changed. After some of the deepest pockets in tech fought for ground with businesses, developers, and consumers, it’s worth asking: Who won the 2016 chat wars?

Bigger battles are sure to take place in 2017, but this year, Amazon came out on top.

Why?

Mainly because of the domination of Alexa. The AI assistant made immense progress this year, both in its AI smarts and in its success as a commercial product.

Alexa is helping Amazon stand strong

When the first Echo became available in late 2014, it was a little-known product made by Lab126, Amazon’s hardware division. By April 2016, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos posited that Alexa could be the fourth pillar of the Amazon business, together with AWS, Amazon Prime, and its massive retail marketplace.

Amazon doesn’t share sale figures, but it’s estimated that more than five million Alexa-enabled smart speakers have been sold so far, and that was before a 900 percent year-over-year increase in Echo sales this holiday season, according to Amazon. Alexa device sales were so high they sparked a surge in downloads that shot the Alexa iOS app into the top 10 of free apps.

A lamp coming soon from General Electric incorporates Amazon's Alexa

Above: A lamp coming soon from General Electric incorporates Amazon’s Alexa.

Image Credit: General Electric

Many devices that weren’t created by Amazon also integrated with Alexa. The Nucleus home intercom system, CoWatch smartwatch, this vacuum, and a General Electric lamp that looks like something from Tron will use the Alexa software development kit (SDK). A home robot and many other devices also have plans to integrate Alexa.

And in actual commerce, Amazon is way ahead of its competitors. This summer, Alexa got the ability to order millions of items from the Amazon retail marketplace. Alexa is now taking hands-free orders from customers, who are likely very used to the Amazon retail experience.

They’re already selling things to people, and that’s damn powerful.

Google, Apple, and Microsoft don’t have that sort of relationship with their customers, and Cortana, Siri, and Google Assistant lack the ability to make purchases today. Technically, Google Assistant can buy you a pizza, but it only works when you create a pre-order template with Domino’s.

Amazon’s AI assistant also got smarter this year. Alexa started the year with about 100 skills. Today, there are more than 7,500 integrations available to complete an absurd amount of tasks. You can control a car, run smart devices in your home, and send messages to friends.

Oh, and all those skills can now be downloaded or linked to in the Alexa Skills Marketplace, a single place to find every bot available. Competitors like Facebook and Microsoft haven’t gotten hip to this yet.

For developers, the Alexa Skills Kit got a major upgrade this year, adding hundreds of built-in commands. The final icing on the 2016 cake is Amazon’s first deep learning products and the Lex Framework.

Lex is a toolkit with natural language understanding for making text or voice-enabled bots for platforms like Facebook Messenger and Slack that comes from the technology used to create Alexa.

A close second to Amazon in the 2016 chat wars has got to be Microsoft.

Microsoft is coming up

Microsoft started the year being called a company on the rebound, after missing the app and smartphone boats. That conversation appears to be over, in part due to a well-executed bot strategy.

Well, after one of the biggest public relations disasters in recent tech history, that is.

Just days before the launch of the Microsoft Bot Framework with CEO Satya Nadella’s assertion that conversation is the future of computing, the chatbot Tay had to be shut down for spewing racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic hate on Twitter.

Tay’s very public failure seemed to overshadow Microsoft’s framework, and could have resulted in a contraction by Microsoft.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, Nadella became a high-profile evangelist of bots, conversational computing, and artificial intelligence made available through Microsoft Cognitive Services.

Bots and human language will become the new user interface, Nadella said.

“Pretty much everyone today who is building applications, whether they be mobile apps or desktop apps or websites, will build bots as the new interface, where you have a human dialogue interface versus menus of the past,” Nadella said in July at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference.

The bot framework slowly expanded and took on a true multi-channel strategy, adding integrations with Facebook Messenger, Kik, Slack, and in recent weeks, Microsoft Teams, and Cortana.

On the research side, Microsoft achieved parity with human speech recognition in October. In that same month, Lili Cheng of Microsoft Research, who led teams in charge of the creation of Tay, talked with VentureBeat about the possibility of the return of Tay in another form (meet Zo), and the creation of a common bot search engine so that the best bots — regardless of platform — could surface.

In 2016, the Microsoft Bot Framework appears to have edged out much of its chat app competition in the arena of attracting developers.

We don’t know exactly how many bots have been made for Skype or with the Microsoft Bot Framework, but earlier this month Microsoft said more than 78,000 developers are now using its bot framework and cognitive services, more than double the 34,000 developers creating bots for Facebook Messenger.

The Azure Bot Service also launched this year to place bots in the cloud and make bot management easier for developers.

Finally, earlier this month Cortana began to compete seriously with the likes of Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant. A Cortana Skills Kit will launch soon, allowing developers to convert each bot made with the Microsoft Bot Framework into Cortana commands. A Cortana SDK is also underway, so it will enter mass market devices just like Alexa in devices like next year’s possible Echo competitor from Samsung’s Harman Kardon.

The real secret sauce — the major key, if you will: Cortana is already everywhere. More than 145 million people have it inside their Windows computers and devices.

Add in Microsoft’s AI prowess and the company seems well positioned to make big waves next year.

Amazon edges out Microsoft because the power of its AI assistant to compete with others is not something that could happen or is scheduled to take place. It's already happening. Millions of Alexa devices have already been sold, and Amazon already has millions of products available for sale through its marketplace.

Behind Amazon and Microsoft come Facebook, Google, and Apple.

Facebook, Google, and Apple are plotting

Facebook Messenger, the second largest chat platform on Earth, made a lot of changes this year.

Buttons, menus, and cards were added to the Messenger bot platform, along with other changes to give Messenger bots more options. Promotion and marketing, forbidden for the first months of the bot platform, is now possible on Messenger. The ability to accept payments was also added this fall. Each of these changes is fundamental to Facebook’s long-term ambition to reshape conversations between businesses and customers.

Look for more on this front in 2017, especially from that other chat platform Facebook owns. In late August, WhatsApp committed to opening its service to more businesses in “the months ahead.” With 1.2 billion monthly active users, WhatsApp is the biggest chat platform on the planet.

On the intelligent assistant front, Messenger’s AI assistant M, under development for more than a year now, is expected to be made available to more users in 2017. And a few weeks back, we saw the premiere of Jarvis, the AI assistant Mark Zuckerberg made for his home using the voice of Morgan Freeman. Jarvis will be available to the public in the future, Zuckerberg said.

Whether it was done to show off Zuck’s new tool or to get more attention for Facebook’s AI and chatbots, the Jarvis announcement got Facebook some press for its AI assistant at a time when all eyes were on Alexa and Google Assistant.

Google also had a strong year.

A day before it launched Allo, Google acquired API.ai, a platform used to create bots and intelligent assistants by more than 60,000 developers. Gupshup and partners like Dashbot also came on board to help people build and analyze their Google Home actions.

Google Home came out in October, and the Google Assistant platform debuted earlier this month and will extend to Pixel smartphones and the Allo chat app next year.

Dozens of actions, the Google Assistant equivalent of Alexa skills, ranging from WebMD to Domino’s to CNN have already launched. More are on the way.

Perhaps most importantly, a lot of people believe Google Assistant is the supreme assistant, the killer bot that’s better than the rest. But it’s early days.

How Google plans to put bots inside SMS on Android devices is a big, unanswered question we’re likely to hear more about in 2017.

If Amazon and Microsoft are the winners of the 2016 chat wars, Siri might be the loser. Many tests have found Alexa and Google Assistant to be superior to Siri, and momentum is clearly not on Apple’s side. Have you heard anybody talk about the fantastic things you can do with Siri since third-party integrations became possible in September? I didn’t think so.

Most of this year was a ramp-up — the launch of bot platforms and ecosystems. In the year to come, every one of the tech giants mentioned in this article will be well armed in the fight to occupy your home, your car, your workplace, and the chat apps we all use to communicate.

Now the real fight begins.

Run-DMC files lawsuit against Amazon and Wal-Mart claiming trademark violations

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 04:20 AM PST

Darryl McDaniels of the rap group Run DMC takes part in a panel discussion of National Geographic Channel's ''The 80s'' during the 2013 Winter Press Tour for the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, California January 4, 2013.

(By Jonathan Stempel, Reuters) – A founder of Run-DMC on Thursday filed a lawsuit accusing Amazon and Wal-Mart of selling a wide variety of clothing and accessories bearing the pioneering rap group’s name without permission.

Darryl McDaniels, the owner of Run-DMC Brand LLC, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, is seeking at least $50 million of damages from the retailers and other defendants over their alleged sale of glasses, hats, patches, T-shirts, wallets and other products that infringe the Run-DMC trademark registered in 2007.

McDaniels called the Run-DMC brand “extremely valuable,” and said it is the subject of several licensing agreements, including to endorse sneakers from Adidas AG.

He said the defendants are confusing consumers into believing that Run-DMC endorsed their products and are trading on the goodwill associated with the name, in violation of federal trademark and New York unfair competition laws.

“Plaintiff will suffer immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage” unless the infringements are stopped, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Other defendants include Jet.com, an online retailer that Wal-Mart bought, and a variety of companies that do business with Amazon or sell products through Amazon.

Amazon, Wal-Mart and Jet.com did not immediately respond to requests for comment. McDaniels’ lawyer did not immediately respond to similar requests.

Run-DMC was founded in the New York City borough of Queens in 1981 by McDaniels, Joseph “Run” Simmons and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell. It became one of the best-known rap acts of the 1980s, including for the album “Raising Hell” and such songs as the Aerosmith cover “Walk This Way” and “My Adidas.”

In 2009, Run-DMC became the second rap act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The case is Run-DMC Brand LLC v Amazon.com Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-10011.

Latest Trump FCC pick has not battled net neutrality rules

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 03:40 AM PST

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logo is seen before the FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington February 26, 2015.

The incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump named another person to its transition team overseeing the Federal Communications Commission. And unlike past picks, this one has no record of criticizing net neutrality, the 2015 rules that prevent Internet service providers from slowing or blocking online content and services.

David Morken, co-founder of Republic Wireless and an entrepreneur from Raleigh, N.C., will join three prior Trump FCC transition team members in helping set policies at the agency that regulates telecommunications, cable TV, and the Internet, Politico reported on Thursday.

But unlike previous Trump FCC transition picks, Morken has no obvious and widespread record of speaking out against the agency’s moves in 2015 to protect competition on the Internet through net neutrality rules. Companies like AT&T and Verizon have complained that the rules over-regulate the industry and deter investment in networks.

Rather, Morken was quoted in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 9 expressing concern about the tilt of some of the earlier picks.

“Traditional Republican telecom policy has favored incumbents who are heavily engaged in regulatory capture over innovators like us,” Morken was quoted saying in article about Trump’s expected FCC policies to demolish regulations that protect smaller players. Morken told the paper he was a lifelong Republican, but in “every election I have to choose between voting personal conviction or business interests.”

Fortune contacted Morken for comment and will update this story if we receive a response.

Trump’s first three picks had ties to the largest companies in the telecom sector and had written publicly against the FCC’s rules on net neutrality.

Jeff Eisenach, an economist who has been on Verizon's payroll, and Mark Jamison, who formerly worked on Sprint's lobbying team and now heads the University of Florida's Public Utility Research Center, opposed the net neutrality rules and other policies of the FCC under Obama appointee Tom Wheeler. A third appointee, Roslyn Layton is a telecom industry consultant and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has opposed both net neutrality and Internet privacy rules.

The two current Republican members of the FCC, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, have said rolling back the net neutrality rules will be a top priority next year. They will constitute a majority at the agency once Wheeler steps down, as he has pledged to do next month.

This story originally appeared on Fortune.com. Copyright 2016

Rejoice! Twitter CEO is ‘thinking a lot’ about letting users edit tweets

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 03:00 AM PST

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey onstage at the Flight developer conference on October 21, 2015 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, Calif.

If you know a dance to please the Twitter gods, then start doing it right now.

Because it seems the greatest wish of Twitter users everywhere could in fact become a reality. Yes, we’re talking about the near-universal desire for Twitter to add an edit button to its service. With our grammatically challenged incoming tweeter-in-chief, one could argue that such a feature has become a matter of national security. (Okay, not really, but…)

During a late-night tweet-brainstorming session, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey asked for suggestions about how to improve the service. He publicly discussed the notion of editing tweets and seemed to be focused on the question of how to do it, rather than whether to do it.

Cool! So, what’s been holding things back the past 10 years? Well, Dorsey noted that the company would need to figure out just how to implement editing, as well as the rules around it.

For instance: Do you get just a set amount of time in which to make a change? If you can make a change at any time, Dorsey suggested there would need to be a way to view the revision history. It could be tricky, of course, if you embed a tweet (like the ones above) and then someone goes back and changes it. Of course, if you have a change log, then any mistakes still live on in some form, though in a less obvious way.

Dorsey also worried about downsides. These include the fact that tweets are taken as public statements by the media and considered to be the “public record” of what was said. If these can always be altered, that might make them less valuable.

Still, for now, we’ll take “thinking a lot about it” as a sign of hope in a dark age.

Tech IPO drought continued in 2016, but there are signs 2017 could be a blockbuster year

Posted: 30 Dec 2016 01:36 AM PST

Nutanix celebrates its premier on the NASDAQ on September 30, 2016.

When it came to public offerings by tech companies, 2016 emerged like a corpse and only exhibited the faintest of heartbeats by the end.

Still, it’s worth re-writing the line that we have all written for the last two years: Next year could be much better! And this time, that could actually turn out to be true.

Let’s start with the 2016 IPO autopsy.

According to Renaissance Capital, in 2016 there were 21 U.S. tech IPOs, which raised only $3 billion. (The first quarter was particularly rough, with zero tech IPOs.) For the year, the total was down from 2015’s 26, which raised $7.1 billion. Put those two years together, and they don’t match 2014’s 56 tech IPOs, which raised $32.5 billion.

Within these numbers, things were a bit worse for venture capital firms. Only 15 of those tech IPOs were venture-backed, down from 20 venture-backed tech IPOs in 2015.

It’s a remarkably awful track record, considering that the U.S. economy is doing well overall, the S&P 500 hit record highs, and unemployment continued to dip.

The culprits are those oft discussed. Greater access to late-stage capital is allowing tech companies to stay private longer (cough, Uber, cough). There is a general desire to avoid the scrutiny that comes with being a public company. There is also a feeling that — thanks to unicorn mania — many of these companies are overvalued. And yes, that breeds skepticism among investors with regard to tech IPOs. And then the U.S. election was a distraction.

Still, amid the dry spell, there were some bright spots.

Overall, tech IPOs outperformed all other sectors, providing a 39.8 percent return from their initial IPO pricing, well above the 23.6 percent overall return for all IPOs this year, according to Renaissance. That means that, for the most part, what companies are sneaking out are generally considered to be of good quality. Indeed, four of the top 10 IPO returns came from tech companies:

  • Acacia Communications: up 191.8 percent
  • Impinj: up 133.4 percent
  • Twilio: up 97.7 percent
  • Nutanix: up 79.0 percent

These performances are just one reason to be optimistic about next year. Solid returns are just what tech needs to rebuild its credibility and get its IPO mojo back. Renaissance is predicting that tech IPO activity in 2017 will increase “significantly.”

In part, that’s because of looming IPOs by Snap and Spotify. Renaissance projects that Snap will file sometime in the next six months and that its IPO could raise $4 billion, at a valuation of $25 billion. Spotify is even more likely to IPO in 2017, thanks to terms of the debt it raised. While Spotify’s IPO terms are less clear, Renaissance points out that just these two companies would likely raise more money than all VC-backed tech IPOs over the last two years put together.

And this also doesn’t include persistent speculation that companies like Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest, Dropbox, Palantir, or WeWork could be considering going public.

However, there are some caveats that could just as easily dampen enthusiasm.

The largest tech IPO of 2016 was Japan’s Line, which raised a total of $1 billion after debuting on the New York Stock Exchange this summer. However, the stock is currently trading at $33.83, as of Dec. 23, well below the $42 per share offering price. Another big one, Dell spinoff SecureWorks, is down about 24 percent since it raised $112 million in April.

The overall IPO pipeline (not just tech) also remains weak. According to Renaissance, 120 companies filed for IPOs in 2016, down by 50 percent from 2015. The number of companies that we know have filed for IPOs is 64, also down about half from this time last year.

And, of course, there is the wildcard of a new administration taking office in late January. Radical changes in policy could either excite markets or spook investors.

If the IPO window doesn’t reopen, some of the larger unicorns could be in the tough position of needing to raise more money from private investors who are growing tired of underwriting their losses and are hoping for an exit.

But, overall, it seems 2017 could the year tech IPOs make a comeback. The real drama may be just how wide that IPO window opens and how many tech companies can squeeze through it.

Amazon awarded patent for drone-friendly floating warehouses

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 11:35 PM PST

Amazon Prime: Packaging

Amazon might soon take flight in more ways than one.

The e-commerce giant has been awarded a patent that describes a logistics technology it calls “airborne fulfillment center (AFC).” The AFC is essentially in airship that’s capable of flying at altitudes of 45,000 feet or more that would house items the company sells through its online marketplace. In the patent, Amazon describes a method by which drones would fly into the warehouse, pick up the items they need to deliver, and then deliver those items to the customer’s home.

Amazon filed for the patent in 2014. While it was actually awarded in April, it wasn’t discovered until Wednesday by CB Insights tech analyst Zoe Leavitt.

Over the last few years, Amazon has been working on drone technology through its Prime Air initiative with an aim on delivering products to customer homes without relying upon logistics companies to do it. Earlier this month, Amazon successfully completed its first drone delivery in the U.K. The company plans to expand its drone testing in 2017 in hopes of eventually relying on the unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver lightweight packages to homes.

Currently, Amazon’s drone-delivery process requires the company to erect a warehouse to serve a particular area. Inside that warehouse is a selection of lightweight products the company sells through its e-marketplace. Once a customer places an order, those items are packaged in a box the drone can carry. The drone is then outfitted with the package and delivers it to a customer’s home within 30 minutes.

The potential pitfall with drones, however, is that they can only travel so far, so Amazon would technically need to erect a large number of warehouses around the world just to accommodate customers in disparate areas.

But rather than look to the ground for fulfillment centers, Amazon is apparently looking to the sky. Like their grounded alternatives, the AFCs would be home to an inventory of items Amazon sells through its online marketplace, according to the patent. New items would be added to the AFC with help from a logistics shuttle that would carry products to and from the device. When an order is placed, a drone would be outfitted with the desired products and descend from the airship. It would then deliver the items to the customer.

Since the drones that Amazon is testing can’t get up to heights as high as 45,000 feet, the company says its used drones will fly back to a ground installation, where they’ll be placed in a shuttle and brought back to the AFC.

Amazon says the AFC concept could be a boon for handling its logistics, and pointed to its ability to move around in anticipation of demand as one of its benefits.

“The use of an AFC and shuttles also provides another benefit in that the AFC can remain airborne for extended periods of time,” the company wrote in its patent description. “In addition, because the AFC is airborne, it is not limited to a fixed location like a traditional ground based materials handling facility. In contrast, it can navigate to different areas depending on a variety of factors, such as weather, expected demand, and/or actual demand.”

For its part, Amazon hasn’t commented on the patent and did not immediately respond to a Fortune request for comment. And like other companies, Amazon often files for patents on technologies it might never bring to the market. But it’s possible that one day, Amazon drones—and airships—will be flying above, delivering products to folks around the globe.

This story originally appeared on Fortune.com. Copyright 2016

Cubans gain access to the internet at home in Havana pilot project

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 08:15 PM PST

The Cuba State Capitol (El Capitolio) in Havana. The photo is taken from a nearby rooftop.

(Reuters) — Downtown Havana resident Margarita Marquez says she received a special Christmas gift this year: web access at home, a rarity in a country with one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world.

Marquez, a 67-year-old retired university professor, was among those selected by the government two weeks ago to participate in a pilot project bringing the web into the homes of 2,000 inhabitants of the historic center of the island’s capital.

Most of Communist-ruled Cuba’s 11.2 million inhabitants only have access to internet at Wi-Fi hotspots, and only then if they can afford the $1.50 hourly tariff that represents around 5 percent of the average monthly state salary.

Only 5 percent of Cubans are estimated to enjoy internet at home, which requires government permission. This is usually granted mainly to academics, doctors and intellectuals.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Marquez, who lives with her sister in a second-story flat in a colonial-era building. “To be in touch with the outside world is important.”

Her 80-year-old sister, Leonor Franco, said the news they had been selected came as a surprise and she was excited to be surfing the web for the first time.

“I had never had any experience of internet,” she said, seated in front of a laptop she has owned for two years without web access, searching for videos of her favorite singers on YouTube.

She said she wanted to learn how to surf the web properly so she could make the most of the experiment, and for as long as the government provided free internet access.

“From March we will have to start paying and we don’t know if we will be able to continue. So at least we are going to enjoy January and February,” she said.

While the cost of internet has dropped in recent years, it is still prohibitive for most Cubans.

Cuba says it has been slow to develop network infrastructure because of high costs in part due to the U.S. trade embargo. Critics say the real reason is fear of losing control.

Before Wi-Fi signals became available last year, broadband internet access had been limited largely to desktops at state internet parlors and pricy hotels.

However, the government has said it wants to ensure everyone has access and has installed 237 Wi-Fi hotspots so far. In September, it announced it would install Wi-Fi along Havana's picturesque seafront boulevard, the Malecon.

“There are many places now where you can go and sit and connect along the Malecon,” said Eliecer Samada as he sat on the stone wall lining the boulevard, checking social media on his phone. “We’re happy with this.”

(By Rodrigo Gutierrez and Mario Fuentes; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Paul Tait)

What was the best gaming company in 2016? GamesBeat Decides

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 06:45 PM PST

The GamesBeat Decides podcast picks the best game-making company in 2016.

With so many amazing games in 2016, we thought it was time to recognize the publishers and the studios that made the year so excellent in the latest episode of our podcast.

As part of the ongoing GB Rewind 2016 series, the GamesBeat Decides podcast is ready to choose the best gaming company of the year. Of course, we wish it was easier to recognize the individual creators of these games, but the industry still makes it difficult to do that by hiding producers, directors, coders, and writers behind a layer of PR. But, for now, we’ll have to settle on awarding our faceless corporate overlords at Activision, Electronic Arts, and Devolver Digital … OK. I’d actually be into a dystopian oligarchical society run by that last company.

Listen to the GamesBeat Decide podcast pick the best gaming company of 2016, or scroll down to see for yourself:

How to listen:

  • Watch the episode live every Monday on our Facebook page, just hit the Like button to get notifications.
  • Watch the recording on YouTube.
  • Subscribe to our podcast RSS feed using a podcatcher app.
  • Subscribe on iTunes (also please leave us a review to help other people learn about the show!).
  • Subscribe on Google Play Music.
  • Subscribe on Stitcher.

The best gaming company of 2016 is … Blizzard

Blizzard is legendary — and that’s not just because global warming will eventually turn the idea of heavy snow storms into something out of mythology.

With Overwatch, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, World of Warcraft, and Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard had some of the best new games and some of the best-supported living games in the world in 2016. When it launched Overwatch in May, the company (which is technically a part of Activision, but we considered as its own unit) once again proved that no one makes a game more appealing and understandable than Blizzard.

Overwatch’s art and characters are gorgeous and interesting. And the way the game animates, sounds, and moves makes it so easy to learn the intricacies of those heroes. That translates to the shooter’s esports scene, where even the most novice players can tune in, see a play, and completely grasp why it is amazing.

On top of Overwatch, getting one of the best expansions ever for World of Warcraft and continuing support for Hearthstone shows how Blizzard isn’t just great at onboarding. It is potentially unmatched in content creation from launching a game through possibly 10 years of service or more.

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Asus Chromebook Flip 2 appears on Best Buy website, gets yanked

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 06:28 PM PST

Asus Chromebook Flip 2 on Best Buy.

One of the first Chromebooks to get support for Android apps through the Google Play Store, the touch-friendly Asus Chromebook Flip has gotten a refresh — but it’s not quite available yet. Two days ago, the Asus Chromebook Flip 2 (C302CA) showed up on Newegg.com, only to get swiftly pulled down, and today it popped up online again, this time on Best Buy’s website.

Based on the product listing, it appears the convertible laptop will ship on January 5, as 9to5Google reports. The real product description is no longer available now, but it is stored in Google’s cache.

Here are the specs shown in the cached description for the Chromebook:

  • 12.5″ FHD touchscreen with 1920×1080 resolution
  • Intel Pentium 4405Y chip
  • Intel HD Graphics 515 integrated graphics processing unit (GPU)
  • 4GB RAM
  • 32GB eMMC solid state drive (SSD)
  • 2.65 lbs
  • 0.5″ thick
  • Aluminum case
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 2 USB-C ports
  • MicroSD card slot
  • High-definition webcam and microphone
  • Backlit keyboard
  • Headphone jack

Compared with the original Chromebook Flip, the new one will have more storage, a larger and higher-quality display, and a newer chip. And judging by the product images, it will also look more like a serious laptop, instead of a tablet that happens to work in laptop mode. It could pose competition to HP’s Chromebook 13 from earlier this year. And Google, for its part, has not yet unveiled the successor to its Chromebook Pixel 2.

Asus did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

BotBeat 2016: This year’s top bots stories

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 06:12 PM PST

BotBeat Weekly Newsletter for posts

VentureBeat's Bots Channel tracks the most important news and analysis from the exploding fields of bots and messaging. Each week, we select the top stories and present them in our free weekly newsletter, BotBeat. We include news stories by VentureBeat staff, guest articles from leading figures in the bots community, and posts from a wide variety of other outlets. You can subscribe to our BotBeat newsletter to receive this information in your inbox every Thursday.

Here's the special, year-end edition of our weekly newsletter:

In 2016, the bots ecosystem went from being a mere gleam in the eyes of hopeful developers to birth, infancy, and adolescence. Entrepreneurs, investors, and big tech combined to lay the groundwork that would allow chatbots — with help from messaging and intelligent assistants — to become a powerful horizontal technology.

When we convened MobileBeat 2016 in July, we predicted an “unstoppable shift to AI and intelligent messaging (i.e. chatbots), away from apps as we know them.” That change is happening faster and with greater force than anyone predicted.

Naturally, such rapid growth hasn’t always been smooth. Bots suffered not one, but two hype cycles. Many of the early bots didn’t live up to expectations, there was the Tay fiasco, and Pokémon Go even threatened to ban their use.

As we head into a new year, we present our top bots articles of 2016 (based on pageviews) and thank you for being a valued member of the VentureBeat Bots Community. Give the stories a read and let us know what you think.

Wishing you happy holidays and best wishes for 2017,

— Blaise Zerega

Editor in Chief

P.S. Please enjoy this video of Chris Messina on the (then) State of Conversational Commerce from the MobileBeat 2016 archive.

The Best of the Bots Channel 2016

10. How will bots make money? Here are 7 business models

With major announcements from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon, the bot craze has grown dramatically over just a few months. But one question that is being discussed in boardrooms and among makers in Slack channels and in Facebook groups around the web is this: How will these things make money?

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9. Germany’s supreme court ruling on online games and bots could affect entire EU

Computer games are a rising business branch, and, in the scope of established law, a rather new one. Lawmakers haven’t given much thought about a highly agile industry with a significant worldwide reach and news ideas.

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8. 10 jobs that AI and chatbots are poised to eventually replace

Artificial intelligence has arrived. Time to sharpen up those resumes.

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7. Kasisto’s new bots want to be the Ask Me Anything of personal finance

Kasisto, a spinoff of Siri maker SRI International, added two bots to the personal finance bot space today with the introduction of MyKAI and KAI Banking.

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6. The 200 billion dollar chatbot disruption

Chatbots will cause a near-term disruption in how businesses interact with consumers and a long-term paradigm shift in how people interact with machines.

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5. What happens when bots start writing code instead of humans

We are rapidly approaching our next paradigm shift: AI-based code generation. When we reach that inflection point, web development will have officially died, and the labor force is woefully unprepared for what’s next.

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4. Microsoft Cortana is about to become your all-purpose productivity bot

Microsoft Cortana has been playing catch-up with Siri and the Google Assistant, but that’s about to change.

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3. The DoNotPay bot has beaten 160,000 traffic tickets — and counting

The bot was made available to New Yorkers in March. In recent years and decades, residents of the Big Apple have seen a persistent increase in traffic fines. A record $1.9 billion in traffic fines was issued by the City of New York in 2015.

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2. How Amazon’s Alexa will work with Sonos

While Sonos left a few details in the dark ahead of the 2017 launch, here’s a list of everything we know so far.

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1. Amazon Alexa skills are about to become much smarter

Amazon offered few details about the kinds of intents and slot types coming, though Alexa vice president Rohit Prasad told Backchannel that people should expect book, video, and local business slot types.

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Y Combinator-backed Omniref is shutting down on January 31, 2017

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 04:37 PM PST

Omniref's website.

Omniref, a startup that developed a service for finding information about open-source software and adding notes to source code, has announced that it will shut down on January 31, 2017.

The startup stopped taking registrations earlier this month, and earlier this year it stopped charging customers, cofounder and chief executive Tim Robertson wrote in a blog post dated December 21.

“This isn't how we hoped things would turn out, but unfortunately, we were never able to find a sustainable business model that justifies the (considerable) expense of running the site. Because of the large number of developers who have come to depend on our services, we've kept things running for as long as we possibly could, but unfortunately, there no practical path forward from here,” Robertson wrote.

The startup released Chrome and Firefox browser plugins and had an integration with the GitHub source code repository software. On the Omniref website, developers could find documentation for and discuss Ruby and JavaScript code.

Omniref was founded in 2013 and based in San Francisco. It was part of accelerator Y Combinator’s winter 2015 batch. Cofounder and chief technology officer Montana Low left the startup in 2015 to join Instacart.

What Ford is doing right with the Fusion Hybrid autonomous car

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 04:10 PM PST

Ford is making sure their self-driving tech actually works.

Tesla deserves the credit for leading the automotive industry forward with a self-driving car that’s available now and lets you drive (mostly) hands-free and feet-free. Yet there’s another company that plans to make a statement at CES 2017 next week.

Ford first announced a self-driving car program quite a few years ago, but at CES, they will unveil the Ford Fusion Hybrid as a development platform. The car has LIDAR sensors installed in a way that doesn’t look obnoxious but still can scan in a 360-degree pattern in front of the car. (They’re in the front pillars.) In a detailed blog post, Chris Brewer, the chief program engineer for Ford Autonomous Vehicle Development, explained that the high-res sensors can determine where an object exists on the driving path, the size and movement of the object, and the shape.

There are also two cameras on the roof that scan for objects and can tell when the traffic lights turn from red to green. Additional radars let the car “see” in fog, rain, and snow.

One interesting note from the blog post has to do with power consumption. All of the radars and sensors, as well as the hardware that runs the brain of the autonomous vehicle, use extra power, so the Fusion had to be built as a hybrid with extra battery power.

Reading the post, you get a sense that Ford wants to handle the self-driving car tech the right way, not in a half-baked manner or rushed to production. You could say the Tesla Model S is a prototype for future cars, but that’s both a good thing and a ding against a fairly small company. Tesla sells a few thousand cars a year; Ford sells millions of them. Ford has to figure out not just how to make a self-driving car, but also how to design it for mass production, for any driver. It’s the difference between having a startup mentality — prioritizing being first to market and taking risks — and being an established brand. The challenge is not to make a one-off vehicle that’s a showroom trick, but to engineer every make and model in an entire fleet to drive autonomously.

That was one obvious challenge I heard about when I visited a race track with a team from Stanford building autonomous tech a few years ago, in partnership with Audi. They kept telling me about all of the things that can go wrong on the road. Cars that behave erratically, snow and rain that suddenly swell up from a farm field in the country.

While it seems like Ford is behind some of the other car companies, it appears to be a deliberate plan. Brewer’s blog post mentioned how a computer in the trunk generates 1 terabyte of data an hour  during tests. Ford has to make sure they are building a platform that not only is safe to deploy in the Fusion and in other cars eventually, but that feels safe to consumers.

One last interesting note about what Ford is doing: The company has specifically mentioned ride-sharing and ride-hailing, which means the self-driving Fusion will act more like an Uber. They’ve set a timeframe, too — committing to the year 2021 as the debut year. That’s not exactly aggressive, and I’m guessing the Chrysler Pacifica that drives autonomously will debut before then (with help from Waymo, the Google spin-off). I’m not sure if aggressive is what we really need right now, anyway. Ford is taking a measured, logical approach — targeting a specific market, ride-sharing — and making sure the platform works in the long run.

Here’s hoping all of those pieces fall into place.

CES2017

Slack loses another executive, head of platform products Jason Shellen

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 03:52 PM PST

Former Slack head of product Jason Shellen speaks with VentureBeat editor in chief Blaise Zerega onstage at the MobileBeat conference held July 12-13 in San Francisco.

Head of platform products Jason Shellen announced today that he plans to leave Slack after being part of the company for less than a year.

“Jason wound down his time at the company in late December to pursue a path closer to his entrepreneurial roots," a Slack spokesperson told VentureBeat in an email. "Platform remains a cornerstone of our growth strategy. April Underwood continues to oversee all of product, including Platform growth and development. It’s a significant and strategic focus area for April, Stewart and the entire company.”

During his time with the San Francisco-based company, Slack expanded its App Directory to include offerings from productivity apps like Trello, Harvard Business Review, and other companies.

Buttons and other features were also added for Slack bots. It also expanded its $80 million Slack Fund to give promising startups money and seed its third party ecosystem. To date, roughly 14 companies have received funding.

He is the fourth executive to leave Slack this fall, after the departure of head of HR Anne Toth, CMO Bill Macaitis, and creative director Mark Lawson, according to Business Insider.

Shellen leaves at a time when competition is increasing for Slack, a company with a $3.8 billion valuation.

In October, Facebook launched Facebook Workplace, a collaboration service for businesses which includes Facebook's enterprise Messenger app Work Chat.

A month later, Microsoft unveiled Microsoft Teams, a Slack competitor that operates inside Office 365 and provides bots, integration of enterprise software, and other services.

Shellen came to Slack after leading product teams at companies like Pinterest, Google, and messaging at AOL, according to his LinkedIn profile.

About a year ago Slack launched its platform for apps and bots and worked with Howdy to create Botkit, a toolkit for developers to make tools that plug into Slack.

Updated 5:23 p.m. Dec. 29: The original version of this article stated that “Shellen came to Slack after leading product teams at Pinterest, Google, and messaging at AOL.” This statement was replaced by the more accurate “Shellen came to Slack after acting as a project leader for products at companies like Pinterest, Google, and AOL.”

U.S. evicts Russians for spying, imposes sanctions after election hacks

Posted: 29 Dec 2016 03:21 PM PST

1280px-Barack_Obama_speaks_in_Cairo,_Egypt_06-04-09

HONOLULU/WASHINGTON (By Jeff Mason and Lesley Wroughton, Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian suspected spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking U.S. political groups in the 2016 presidential election.

The measures, taken during the last days of Obama’s presidency, mark a new post-Cold War low in U.S.-Russian ties, which have deteriorated over differences about Syria and Ukraine.

Allegations by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed efforts to intervene in the U.S. election process by hacking mostly Democrats have made relations even worse.

“These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior,” Obama said in a statement from vacation in Hawaii.

“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia's actions,” he said.

It was not immediately clear whether President-elect Donald Trump, who has repeatedly praised Putin and nominated people seen as friendly toward Moscow to senior administration posts, would seek to roll back the measures once he takes office on Jan. 20.

The Kremlin, which denounced the sanctions as unlawful and promised “adequate” retaliation, questioned whether Trump approved of the new sanctions. Moscow denies the hacking allegations.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia was behind hacks into Democratic Party organizations and operatives ahead of the Nov. 8 presidential election. U.S. intelligence officials also say that the Russian cyber attacks were aimed at helping Trump, a Republican, defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump has rejected that conclusion and said on Wednesday that “we ought to get on with our lives,” when asked about possible tough sanctions for the cyber attacks.

Should Trump seek to overturn Obama’s measures, he would likely encounter wide bipartisan Congressional opposition.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, the top Republican in Congress, said Russia “has consistently sought to undermine” U.S. interests and the sanctions were overdue.

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they intended to lead effort in Congress to “impose stronger sanctions on Russia.”

Opposition from Trump could generate bipartisan discord early in his administration. “This is going to be a key source of tension post-inauguration,” said Eric Lorber, a senior associate at the Financial Integrity Network, which advises banks on sanctions.

Spies and sanctions

Obama put sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies, the GRU and the FSB, four GRU officers and three companies “that provided material support to the GRU's cyber operations.

He said the State Department declared as “persona non grata” 35 Russian intelligence operatives and is closing two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland that were used by Russian personnel for “intelligence-related purposes”. The State Department originally said the 35 were diplomats.

The 45-acre complex in Maryland includes a Georgian-style brick mansion, swimming pool, tennis courts, and cottages for embassy staff.

A senior U.S. official told Reuters the expulsions would come from the Russian embassy in Washington and consulate in San Francisco. The Russian embassy declined to comment.

The Russians have 72 hours to leave the United States, the official said. Access to the two compounds will be denied to all Russian officials as of noon on Friday.

The State Department has long complained that Russian security agents and traffic police have harassed U.S. diplomats in Moscow, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue with Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

The U.S. official declined to name the Russian diplomats who would be affected, although it is understood that Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, will not be one of those expelled.

Obama said the actions announced on Thursday were just the beginning.

“These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia's aggressive activities. We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized,” Obama said.

A report detailing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election as well as cyber attacks in previous election cycles would be delivered to Congress in the coming days, he said.

The sanctions were the strongest response yet by the Obama administration to Russia’s cyber activities, however, a senior administration official acknowledged that Trump could reverse them and allow Russian intelligence officials back into the United States once he takes office. He said that would be inadvisable.

Obama amended an executive order originally issued in April 2015 to respond to cyber hacking to include sanctions on those who tamper with information to interfere with an election.

Trump said in October he would "cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama” on his first day in office, without saying who would determine their constitutionality.

(Additional reporting by Dustin Volz, Yeganeh Torbati and Nikolai Pavlov in Washington and Katya Golubkova and Svetlana Reiter in Moscow; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Jeff Mason; Editing by Alistair Bell)

This story originally appeared on Www.reuters.com. Copyright 2016

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