Mozilla unveils search tool tweaks in next week’s Firefox 34

New tools will accompany change from Google to Yahoo as default search engine for U.S. customers

Along with its impending switch to Yahoo as the default search engine for Firefox, Mozilla will also change how users conduct searches in the browser, the company said Tuesday.

Searches done in the next version of Firefox will display not only a list of suggested searches that narrow the results, but will show buttons for search engines other than the default, said Philipp Sackl, a lead designer of Firefox, in a blog post yesterday.

“These buttons allow you to find your search term directly on a specific site quickly and easily,” Sackl wrote.

For example, a search for “US Grant” started in Firefox’s default search engine can be switched to Wikipedia for results there by clicking a button.

Mozilla has implemented the changes in the beta of Firefox 34, which is scheduled for promotion to the finished, polished build next week. In the beta, Firefox 34 shows search-switch buttons for all available providers, including Bing, DuckDuckGo, Twitter and Wikipedia. Users can also add additional search engines.

Other browsers, such as Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari, lack similar tools, although Safari does offer a short list of suggested searches when a string is typed into its address bar.

Mozilla will introduce the search tweaks next week when it ships the production version of Firefox 34, currently slated for a Dec. 1 release. At the same time, Mozilla will also introduce Yahoo as the default search engine in the U.S.

“Under a new five-year strategic partnership … Yahoo Search will become the default search experience for Firefox in the U.S.,” Mozilla CEO Chris Beard said last week.

Beard’s description implied that Mozilla will automatically change the default search engine within Firefox from the earlier Google to Yahoo for all U.S. customers. But in the beta of Firefox 34 the previous default — Google — remained in place.

Mozilla may face resistance from existing users if it changes the search engine to Yahoo without their permission when Firefox updates itself next week. Firefox users will be able to change the default to another provider, including back to Google, however.

Mozilla did not immediately reply to questions about how it will handle the change from Google to Yahoo within Firefox.

Firefox, unlike its browser rivals, will continue to use separate search and address bars rather than unify them into one field where users can type not only URLs but also search strings. Safari, Chrome and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) all offer a unified address-search bar.

“That has been looked at several times, but there are difficult privacy problems to overcome if you also want to provide search suggestions,” said Gervase Markham of Mozilla in an answer Wednesday to a user’s comment appended to Sackl’s post. “If someone is typing a URL, they don’t necessarily want their default search engine to know where they are going. And yet, if you want to provide search suggestions well, you have to send every keystroke in a unified box to the search provider.”


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MBaaS shoot-out: 5 clouds for building mobile apps

MBaaS (mobile back end as a service) is a fairly new product category that has largely supplanted MEAPs (mobile enterprise application platforms). Over the past two months, I’ve closely examined five MBaaS systems: AnyPresence, Appcelerator, FeedHenry, Kinvey, and Parse. In this article, I’ll wrap up the series by summarizing all five systems, surveying their common ground and key differences, and drawing conclusions.

The general idea of MBaaS is that mobile apps need common services that can be shared among apps instead of being custom developed for each. Mobile apps using MBaaS follow a loosely coupled distributed architecture, and MBaaS systems themselves typically have more distributed architectures than MEAP systems, which tended to be unified middleware servers.
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MBaaS systems typically provide push notifications, file storage and sharing, integration with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, location services, messaging and chat functions, user management, the ability to run business logic, and usage analysis tools. Enterprise-oriented MBaaS systems also provide integration with existing applications and databases.

Back ends don’t exist in isolation, so MBaaS systems provide some level of mobile client support. This ranges from exposing REST APIs to all comers to providing app generation for iOS, Android, some flavors of JavaScript, and perhaps other mobile platforms.

In addition, back ends need to be customized and programmed, so MBaaS systems provide a combination of online and desktop development environments. Finally, back-end services are intended to be in continuous operation, so they need a level of application monitoring and error logging in addition to usage analysis. Monitoring and analytics might be provided directly by the MBaaS vendor or through integration with a third-party service.

For extra credit, MBaaS systems can generate mobile SDKs. This is most useful when a vendor is exposing its services to partners doing mobile app development. In addition, MBaaS systems can support offline operation of their mobile apps and offline/online database synchronization. MBaaS systems may provide their own mobile device management or integrate with an MDM vendor. MBaaS systems may also support device-specific services where appropriate, such as iBeacon on iOS devices.
Commonalities and differentiators

In the course of reviewing FeedHenry, Kinvey, Appcelerator, Parse, and AnyPresence, certain capabilities and implementations became very familiar. For example, all five MBaaS products provide storage using MongoDB, an open source NoSQL document database that stores JSON objects. All of these products provide a data design UI for their MongoDB data store, and these UIs all look similar. It wouldn’t surprise me if the UIs were all based on the same MongoDB sample code.

All five MBaaS systems are available in a multitenant cloud. All have online documentation. All provide push notification and user authentication APIs. All support native iOS and Android apps at some level, and all have some way for developers to implement custom server logic.

The differentiators between these products are telling. For example, their support for integration with enterprise applications and databases ranges from the basic ability to call external REST interfaces that return JSON to deep integrations with common applications and databases. The time required for a developer to implement a given enterprise integration with an MBaaS ranges from days down to minutes, depending on how much of the work a given MBaaS vendor has already done for a specific integration.

Some MBaaS systems are available on-premise, and some are available in private clouds. Some can be hosted in compliance with HIPAA, PCI, FIPS, and EU data security standards. Some have their own testing capabilities, and some offer cloud builds of mobile apps.

Some support HTML5 and hybrid apps. Some compile JavaScript to native device code. Some support PhoneGap, some support Apache Cordova, and some avoid both wrappers for hybrid apps in favor of other solutions, such as generating native apps.

Some run their back ends on Node.js, some on Rails, and some on unspecified platforms. Some support BlackBerry, Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, or Unity clients.

Some have hosted app and back-end IDEs in their cloud, some provide multiplatform desktop IDEs, and some have desktop command-line interfaces for cloud control. Some support multiple popular JavaScript frameworks, such as Backbone and Angular, and some use their own JavaScript frameworks, which may be adaptations of specific open source frameworks.
MBaaS five ways

As we’ll see, the different MBaaS vendors have targeted slightly different markets and made slightly different technical choices. Nevertheless, they have a high degree of overlap and commonality.

The goal of AnyPresence is not only to help enterprises build back ends for their mobile apps. AnyPresence combines app building, back-end services, and an API gateway.

AnyPresence has an online designer that generates back-end code, mobile app code, and even customized mobile API code. All the generated code can be downloaded, edited, and run on compatible platforms. To cite one of AnyPresence’s favorite customer examples, MasterCard has used AnyPresence to enable partners to easily build mobile apps against MasterCard’s Open
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AnyPresence generates app UIs (or starter kits, if you wish) for jQuery, Android (XML layout), and iOS (storyboard), and it generates app SDKs for Java, Android, HTML5, Windows Phone, Xamarin, and iOS. The design environment refers to the generated JavaScript/HTML5 SDK as “jQuery.” In fact, AnyPresence actually generates CoffeeScript that uses the Underscore, Backbone, and jQuery libraries.

AnyPresence generates back-end servers for Ruby on Rails. In the future it will also generate Node.js back ends, which will be a good development. The AnyPresence environment can generate deployments to Heroku (usually for a Rails back end) to Amazon S3 (usually for HTML5 apps) to native iOS and Android apps with or without Apperian security. You aren’t limited by AnyPresence’s deployment choices, however. The generated code can always be downloaded and deployed elsewhere, assuming you have compatible deployment environments.

The AnyPresence design environment exists online and runs in most browsers. The design environment has a dashboard; a settings screen; screens to create and monitor environments, deployments, and builds; screens to generate and deploy apps, back ends, and SDKs; screens to add and manage data sources and data objects; screens for authorization, roles, and authentication strategy; screens for stock and custom extensions; the interface designer; and a customizable set of themes.
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I found the selection of data sources to be good and the implementation of the provided MongoDB data store to be on par with other MBaaS systems. What sets AnyPresence apart is the way the data model integrates throughout the design environment and into all the generated code.

The place you add most monitoring integrations, such as Airbrake and New Relic, is hidden deep in the Deployments/Add-ons tab. Naturally, monitoring is dependent on the runtime environment, and AnyPresence is designed to be environment-agnostic. For Splunk integration, you have to enable syslog output on the back end to push all the logs/events into Splunk systems for reporting and monitoring.

Appcelerator Titanium has been a player in the mobile development space for several years, with a local development environment that compiles JavaScript to native code for iOS, Android, and other targets. With the release of Appcelerator Studio 3.3 and Appcelerator Platform 2.0 in July 2014, the company added an MBaaS with about 25 APIs, Node.js support, and online analytics. In addition, Appcelerator has published interfaces to its MBaaS that developers can add to apps built with native SDKs, although it hasn’t yet supported native SDKs in its own Appcelerator Studio IDE.

Developers can see a quick overview of app installs, sessions, API calls, and crashes in the online Appcelerator dashboard overview page. Other parts of the dashboard allow for cloud management, testing, performance metrics, and analytics.

The Cloud panel shows usage, exposes data management, displays API request and push notification logs, lists custom services, and allows for cloud configuration. The testing panel uses SOASTA’s TouchTest as an integrated mobile testing solution. The performance panel allows you to monitor your apps and troubleshoot performance, crashes, and exceptions. It also lets you view crash trends, integrate with bug tracking systems, and configure your monitoring.

Appcelerator Platform’s dashboard overview for the demo Field Service application. The crashes were deliberately coded into the app.

Developers can define and view Appcelerator analytics online, as well as optionally publish selected analytics to the Appcelerator Insights app for the iPad, typically for use by a manager.

Appcelerator Platform allows you to build custom back-end services using Studio and Appcelerator’s Node.ACS MVC (model-view-controller) framework. Node.ACS combines Node.js and Express with interfaces to Appcelerator Cloud Services. Appcelerator also allows you to run plain Node.js applications on its cloud platform.

Appcelerator has multiple frameworks on the client side, and multiple API types for the cloud. At the base level on the client, Appcelerator offers the Titanium SDK, which provides an interface between JavaScript and native services. At a higher level, Appcelerator offers the Alloy Framework, which is based on the model-view-controller architecture and contains built-in support for Backbone and Underscore. When you create a new client app from Studio, you typically generate one that uses Alloy.

The Alloy framework handles some of what you need for offline/online data synchronization, but not all of it. Appcelerator lacks preconfigured, vetted enterprise data connectors other than for SAP and However, because it can run Node modules on its Node.ACS service, developers can draw on modules from the Node.js community. Appcelerator’s only commercial sync server is currently limited to a Microsoft Dynamics connector.

FeedHenry, with a focus on supporting enterprise line-of-business apps, is a Node.js-based, enterprise-oriented MBaaS and mobile application platform. It has a wide array of integrations, both online and offline development options, collaborative app building, and a drag-and-drop form builder. FeedHenry was spun off from the Irish Research Institute in 2010 and acquired by Red Hat in September 2014.

FeedHenry claims to have global infrastructure on all major clouds and support for on-premise, back-end deployment. The FeedHenry online environment integrates directly with GitHub for collaboration and version control.

FeedHenry 3 supports native SDKs for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 8, along with hybrid apps using Apache Cordova, HTML5 mobile Web apps, and Sencha, Xamarin, and Appcelerator Titanium. The way the JavaScript interface to the FeedHenry cloud works, it would be hard to find a JavaScript framework that isn’t compatible.

When writing for FeedHenry in JavaScript, you include the feedhenry.js script in your HTML, initialize it with $fh.init, then call cloud functions from the $fh namespace. FeedHenry can import existing apps from a Zip file or Git repository.

FeedHenry includes an online editor, supporting offline tools, and a command-line interface. Here we see the mobile app, with a code editor in the middle of the screen and a preview at right. You can configure the back-end service in another pane of the online interface.

The FeedHenry build service, which functions along the same lines as Adobe PhoneGap Build, can turn an HTML5 app into binaries for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, iOS (universal), and Windows Phone. Each binary can connect to one of your MBaaS instances, and it can be built for development, distribution, release, or debugging, depending on the platform.

FeedHenry has a drag-and-drop form builder with a good assortment of templates to use as starting points. However, at the time I reviewed FeedHenry, it had few full-fledged app templates.

FeedHenry lists more than 50 Node.js plug-ins in its curated modules list. That list includes interfaces to most major relational and NoSQL databases. Should the curated list not include what you seek, the much larger list of Node community modules is likely to yield a match.

FeedHenry runs on all major public and private clouds, and on a wide range of IaaS and PaaS infrastructures. FeedHenry operates a HIPAA-compliant cloud and live clusters in both Europe and North America.

Kinvey bills itself as a complete mobile and Web app platform. It has extensive client support, integrates with the major enterprise databases, and offers a back-end data store, a file store, push notifications, mobile analytics, iBeacon support, and the ability to run custom code on the back end.

Kinvey sells to IT as its primary customer because it provides an enterprise platform, not for one or two apps but for tens or hundreds of apps for an enterprise. However, it also engages and supports the developer community app by app.

Kinvey supports native, hybrid, and HTML5 apps. It has native toolkit support for iOS and Android. In addition, it supports Angular, Backbone, Node.js, Apache Cordova/PhoneGap, and Appcelerator Titanium, and it provides a REST API. Kinvey integrates with apps through libraries and API calls, and expects you to edit your app locally.

Kinvey cloud code is written in JavaScript, although not Node.js, and edited online. In addition to using standard JavaScript and external services, it can use Kinvey APIs for logging, accessing collections, sending push notifications, sending email, validating requests, date and time functions, asynchronous processing, rendering a Mustache template, and obtaining the back-end context. Cloud code can live in hook processing functions and custom endpoints. Cloud code is versioned internally in Kinvey.

Kinvey supports deploying on almost any cloud, including private clouds. That includes deploying to HIPAA-compliant facilities and to facilities located entirely in the EU. Even Kinvey’s multitenant cloud is considered secure enough for most apps, as the company does end-to-end encryption, and customers that use data links can keep their data in databases behind their own firewalls. If you have a Google App Engine server, you can link it to your Kinvey back end.

Authentication can be done internally by Kinvey or through LDAP or Active Directory in the business and enterprise versions. Kinvey also supports Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn identities through OAuth.

Kinvey data links connect to Kinvey’s MongoDB data store. In most cases, customers forward the CRUD requests directly to the real back end, but some cache the data in MongoDB. Kinvey currently has data links for Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Salesforce CRM, Oracle Database, and Microsoft SQL Server.

Kinvey has an automated control setup for offline data synchronization, in which data is automatically pulled from the cache if the application is offline. If the application is online, data is pulled from the network and stored in the cache. Using automated control, your Kinvey app will attempt to synchronize any locally stored data when the device goes online again, but if the server data has also changed you’ll have a conflict. You can set your conflict resolution policy to clientAlwaysWins, serverAlwaysWins, or a custom conflict resolution function.

Parse was once the poster child for MBaaS, and despite its acquisition by Facebook, it is still a viable, low-friction mobile back end for limited-volume consumer apps. On the plus side, it is well-documented, with good native client support and a JavaScript client SDK based on Backbone. Parse also runs JavaScript code on the back end, which offers developers the option of an all-JavaScript application stack. On the minus side, Parse is missing big pieces necessary for business apps, such as data integration, offline operation, and online/offline synchronization. At the same time, its pricing seems geared to lower-volume apps.

Parse supports native mobile, JavaScript, and desktop apps. On the mobile side, it has native support for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 8. On the desktop, it has support for OS X and Windows 8 (.Net), as well as Unity games.

Parse lets you run JavaScript code in the cloud using the same Parse JavaScript SDK as the client. Rather than have you routinely edit your cloud code in a browser, as FeedHenry and Kinvey do, Parse supplies a command-line tool for managing code in Parse Cloud and allows you to use your favorite JavaScript editor on your computer. However, you can view your code and your logs in your dashboard. The command-line tool is an app scaffold generator, app deployment tool, log printer, app rollback tool, and self-updater.

The Parse Cloud data browser lets you import bulk data; add classes, columns, and rows; and view filtered data.

Parse can send Push notifications to iOS, Android, Windows 8, and Windows Phone 8. In each case, you’ll have to provision your push server, then provide the certificate or credentials to your app.

Parse has a fairly complete user system predefined, including the usual sign-up mechanism with email verification and a provision for anonymous users. A system of ACLs controls what data individual users can read and write. For more complicated use cases, Parse supports a hierarchy of roles, with a separate layer of ACLs for the roles.

Parse has nine integrations with other services. Three of them — Mailgun, Mandrill, and SendGrid — are for sending email. Stripe is for charging credit cards. Twilio sends SMS and voice messages. Third-party modules are available to integrate Parse with Cloudinary, Instagram, and Paymill.

As far as I can tell, implementing enterprise data integration with Parse requires writing a REST Web service wrapper for the data source and a JavaScript module for Parse. I haven’t seen any options for hosting Parse other than using its own multitenant cloud.

As you can see from the scores listed at the bottom of the first page of this article, AnyPresence earned the highest marks: a combined score of 9.1 and an Editor’s Choice badge. I feel that AnyPresence offers more value than the others for enterprises that need to integrate their existing systems with mobile applications, as it generates customized SDKs, along with apps and back ends, from your model and design. Costing a “low six figures” per year, however, it won’t fit into every company’s budget.

FeedHenry, which earned an overall score of 8.6, is also an enterprise-oriented MBaaS. FeedHenry has a nice integration with Git for collaboration and version control, and I like its hosted app build service, its Node.js back end and curated Node modules list, and its drag-and-drop form designer. Like AnyPresence, FeedHenry may not fit into every company’s budget.

Kinvey, with an overall product score of 8.3, engages as a company with the developer community, as well as with corporate IT departments. I like the way Kinvey does enterprise data links through its internal NoSQL database API, and I appreciate the way it has structured its hooks for back-end business logic.

I criticized Appcelerator for its apparent lack of effort to curate data integration modules, and considered that its high price relative to FeedHenry and Kinvey may diminish its overall value, giving it a net score of 7.8. However, Appcelerator as a company only recently pivoted into the MBaaS space. It may yet fill in its product’s missing functionality and adjust its pricing to be more competitive.

Finally, I consider Parse suitable for building and operating back ends for consumer-facing mobile apps, and not business apps, given its lack of any data connectors other than a basic REST client. My other major reservation about Parse is its usage-based pricing, which lets a developer get started easily but could potentially bite an underfunded startup that suddenly had a viral hit on its hands without a real business model. Its score is 7.6, the lowest in this group.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t use Parse. It’s a viable, low-friction way to get started with back end as a service. However, if you choose to use it, go in with your eyes open, monitor your costs, and be prepared to throttle or eliminate service calls that are running up bills you can’t afford.

For business apps, AnyPresence and FeedHenry lead the pack in both ease and capabilities. Kinvey is not far behind, and its pricing is more favorable for smaller businesses.

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20-plus eye-popping Black Friday 2014 tech deals

iPhone 6, iPad Air, Samsung Galaxy gear and big cheap TVs among the hottest electronic deals for Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2014.

Black Friday is upon us
Word is that more retailers will relent to public pressure – I mean do the right thing for their employees – and close on Thanksgiving Day this year. But that won’t prevent them from going all out online, where much is automated and the workers are less prominent. Here are some of the best deals on network and technology offerings for Black Friday, Cyber Monday and in between. (Compare with last year’s deals)

Black Friday is upon us
Word is that more retailers will relent to public pressure – I mean do the right thing for their employees – and close on Thanksgiving Day this year. But that won’t prevent them from going all out online, where much is automated and the workers are less prominent. Here are some of the best deals on network and technology offerings for Black Friday, Cyber Monday and in between. (Compare with last year’s deals)

Dell: Inspiron 15-inch laptop
Powered by an Intel Celeron processor and running Windows 8.1, this system boasts 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Dell’s special pricing for those getting through online beginning at 12 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 28, is $190, a $110 discount off what Dells calls the “market price” (though Dell appears to regularly sell the laptop for $250.

Target: Apple TV
Like other retailers, Target has a number of deals on Apple products. Among them: $11 off an Apple TV device, which you can get for $89 on Black Friday.

Target: iPhones, iPads and gift cards
Apple gives retailers little leeway in terms of discounting its products, so Target and others often resort to selling the Apple products for the regular price, but bundling the with gift cards. Target is offering a $100 Target gift card with an iPad Air 16GB WiFi tablet ($400), iPad mini 3 16GB WiFi tablet ($400) or iPad mini 2 16GB WiFi Tablet ($300).

Best Buy: Samsung Gear Fit Fitness watch with heart rate monitor
Best Buy is slashing the price on this gadget, which comes in black, from $150 to $100. Count your steps taken and calories burned in style, with this device, which syncs up with various Android phones. Best Buy’s online sales will run Thursday/Friday, with stores opening at 5 pm on Thanksgiving Day where allowed, and again at 8 am on Friday.

Best Buy: Surface Pro 3
The retailer is cutting $50 to $150 off the price of Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablets with 128GB of storage or more (they start at $1,000 before the discount). Note that this does not include the keyboard for the flexible 12-inch touchscreen device.

Best Buy: Panasonic 50-inch LED TV doorbuster
This 33-pound Panasonic TV, which serves up a 1080p and 60Hz HDTV picture, usually costs $550. The pre-Black Friday price is down to $500, but will go for just $200 in this in-store-only deal on Thanksgiving/Black Friday.

Microsoft: Tablets and games
The Microsoft Store lists a slew of deals, some for which you need to wait until Thanksgiving or Black Friday, and others that you can snag ahead of time. Among the early bird specials is a Lumia 635 phone for 1 cent with a new service contract. The phone has a 4.5-inch screen, runs Windows 8.1 and has 8GB of storage. Microsoft also has lots of Xbox and game deals available in its store this holiday shopping season.

Staples: Asus x205-TA Laptop computer
This bare-bones Windows 8.1 machine, with a 32GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM, normally goes for $250. It’s already been marked down to $200, and for Black Friday, Staples is cutting that price in half. The laptop, featuring 802.11abgn WiFi, is powered by an Intel Atom processor and has an 11.6-inch screen.

Staples: JLab Pro-7 Tablet
OK, can’t say we know this brand either, but for $40, it could be worth a shot if you just want to play around with a small Android tablet. The device usually sells for $70. It only packs 8GB or storage, but has a MicroSD slot for adding up to 32GB more.

RadioShack: RC Surveyor Drone
Satisfy your drone curiosity and freak out your neighbors with this 2.4GHz quadcopter that’s been marked down from $70 to $35 for Black Friday. This lightweight flyer comes with a built-in 1080×720 camera, can be controlled up to 65 feet away and can even do stunts. RadioShack will be opening on Thanksgiving morning, again late in the afternoon, and then at 6 am on Black Friday.

Costco: HP Envy 15.6-inch TouchSmart Laptop
This computer is powered by an Intel 4th generation Core i7 processor, runs Windows 8, features Beats audio and a 1TB hard drive. Costco, which is tossing in a second-year warranty, is slashing its $800 warehouse price by $150 for Black Friday shoppers who come into the store.

Office Depot/Officemax: Samsung Galaxy Tab 4
The price on this 10.1-inch Android tablet has been axed to $250, which is $100 off the usual price. Yes, this isn’t Samsung’s latest model, but it only came out in April. The device features a 1.2GHz quad core processor, and 16GB of storage, expandable to 64GB.

Meijer: Samsung Galaxy Tablet Lite
This 7-inch, 8GB tablet will run you $99 on Black Friday, which is $40 off the regular price. Plus, you’ll get a $20 coupon for your next shopping trip. The touchscreen tablet boasts a 1.2Ghz dual-core processor.

Sears: 55-inch Samsung LED TV
This 1080p Smart HD-TV, usually priced at $1,400, is available for $800 starting on Thanksgiving night (though note that Sears already lists TV for $1,000, not $1,400). It comes integrated with services such as Netflix and Pandora.

Belk: iLive Bluetooth Soundbar
This 32-inch black bar will enable you to wireless boom your tunes for $70 — $30 off the usual price. Works with iOS gadgets and most Android and BlackBerry devices. Can also sync up with your TV, game systems and more. This is an online deal.

Shopko: Kindle Fire HD tablet
This lightweight 7-inch WiFi tablet (with 8GB of storage, 1GB of which is internal memory) will have its price shaved by $20, so you pay $80. The retailer’s Black Friday deals start at 6 pm on Thanksgiving Day, though look for additional doorbusters as early as Wednesday.

Various retailers: Record Store Day specials
Got an MP3 hater in your life who prefers to spin big ol’ discs? Record Store Day, an annual April event designed to accommodate record lovers, expands for a Black Friday event that will feature limited-edition offerings from a variety of singers and bands, including The Afghan Whigs, The Beatles and Chvrches.

Walmart: iPhone 6
The monster retailer, which has said it will match Amazon prices in all its stores to kick off the holiday shopping season, has a pretty fine deal on the iPhone 6, which will cost $179 for a 16GB model with a two-year contract (typically $199). What’s more, you’ll get a $75 Walmart gift card, plus another $200 gift card for a smartphone trade-in. (Some industry watchers have warned about whether the 16GB size will only lead to frustration for iPhone 6 users…)

Walmart: 65-inch Vizio LED TV
This behemoth set will go for $648 this Black Friday, a savings of $350. Walmart says a 60-incher last holiday season went at $688, so you can see where pricing for big TVs is going…

Walmart: Xbox One Assassin’s Creed Unity Bundle
This package, including the Microsoft game console, the new edition of Assassin’s Creed and Version IV: Black Flag, will be available for $329 starting on Thanksgiving Day at Walmart. That’s down from the usual price of $400, though actually that price has already been marked down to $349.

Toys R Us: 5th generation iPod touch
You don’t hear about these much anymore, but it makes sense that Toys R Us would sell this Apple mainstay. The 16GB model is selling on Black Friday for $150 — $50 off the usual price. It comes in many pretty colors, too!

Kohl’s: Innovative Technology portable power bank
Kohl’s isn’t the first retailer we think of for tech products, but we did come across this possible stocking stuff: a Justin 2200mAh Power Stick Portable Power Bank for $10, which is $15 off the regular price. USB-pluggable, works with most smartphones to keep you from running out of juice when not able to plug in.

Hhgregg: LG 50-inch smart LED TV
The electronics retailer has a ton of TVs on sale, with many prices slashed by $100 or more. One example: The LG 1080p 120Hz LED WebOS Smart HDTV, which will go for $658, down from $800. You get a free 6-month Spotify subscription to boot.

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How automation could take your skills — and your job

A new book by Nicholas Carr should give IT managers pause about the rush to automation

Nicholas Carr’s essay IT Doesn’t Matter in the Harvard Business Review in 2003, and the later book, argued that IT is shifting to a service delivery model comparable to electric utilities. It produced debate and defensiveness among IT managers over the possibility that they were sliding to irrelevancy. It’s a debate that has yet to be settled. But what is clear is that Carr has a talent for raising timely questions, and he has done so again in his latest work The Glass Cage, Automation and Us (W.W. Norton & Co.)

This new book may make IT managers, once again, uncomfortable.

The Glass Cage examines the possibility that businesses are moving too quickly to automate white collar jobs, sophisticated tasks and mental work, and are increasingly reliant on automated decision-making and predictive analytics. It warns of the potential de-skilling of the workforce, including software developers, as larger shares of work processes are turned over to machines.

This book is not a defense of Luddites. It’s a well-anchored examination of the consequences and impact about deploying systems designed to replace us. Carr’s concerns are illustrated and found in, for instance, the Federal Aviation Administration’s warning to airlines about automation, and how electronic medical records may actually be raising costs and hurting healthcare.

In an interview, Carr talked about some of the major themes in his book. What follows are edited excerpts:
Glass Cage cover

The book discusses how automation is leading to a decay of skills and new kinds of risks. It cites an erosion of skills among aircraft pilots, financial professionals and health professionals who, for instance, examine images with automation. But automation has long replaced certain skills. What is different today about the automation of knowledge or mental work that makes you concerned? I think it comes to the scope of what can be automated today. There has always been, from the first time human beings developed tools, and certainly through the industrial revolution, trade-offs between skill loss and skill gain through tools. But until the development of software that can do analysis, make judgments, sense the environment, we’ve never had tools, machines that can take over professional work in the way that we’re seeing today. That doesn’t mean take it over necessarily entirely, but become the means through which professionals do their jobs, do analytical work, make decisions, and so forth. It’s a matter of the scope of automation being so much broader today and growing ever more broad with each kind of passing year.

Where do you think we stand right now in terms of developing this capability? There are some recent breakthroughs in computer technology that have greatly expanded the reach of automation. We see it on the one hand with the automation of complex psychomotor skills. A good example is the self-driving car that Google, and now other car makers, are manufacturing. We’re certainly not to the point where you can send a fully autonomous vehicle out into real-world traffic without a backup driver. But it’s clear that we’re now at the point where we can begin sending robots out into the world to act autonomously in a way that was just impossible even 10 years ago. We’re also seeing, with new machine-learning algorithms and predictive algorithms, the ability to analyze, assess information, collect that, interpret it automatically and pump out predictions, decisions and judgments. Really, in the last five years or so we, have opened up a new era in automation, and you have to assume the capabilities in those areas are going to continue to grow, and grow pretty rapidly.

What is the worry here? If I can get into my self-driving car in the morning, I can sit back and work on other things. There are two worries. One is practical and the other is philosophical. The actuality of what’s facing us in the foreseeable future is not complete automation, it’s not getting into your car and simply allowing the computer to take over. It’s not getting into a plane with no pilots. What we’re looking at is a shared responsibility between human experts and computers. So, yes, maybe at some point in the future we will have completely autonomous vehicles able to handle traffic in cities. We’re still a long way away from that. We have to figure out how to best balance the responsibilities between the human expert or professional and computer. I think we’re going down the wrong path right now. We’re too quick to hand over too much responsibility to the computer and what that ends up doing is leaving the expert or professional in a kind of a passive role: looking at monitors, following templates, entering data. The problem, and we see it with pilots and doctors, is when the computer fails, when either the technology breaks down, or the computer comes up against some situation that it hasn’t been programmed to handle, then the human being has to jump back in take control, and too often we have allowed the human expert skills to get rusty and their situational awareness to fade away and so they make mistakes. At the practical level, we can be smarter and wiser about how we go about automating and make sure that we keep the human engaged.

Then we have the philosophical side, what are human beings for? What gives meaning to our lives and fulfills us? And it turns out that it is usually doing hard work in the real world, grappling with hard challenges, overcoming them, expanding our talents, engaging with difficult situations. Unfortunately, that is the kind of effort that software programmers, for good reasons of their own, seek to alleviate today. There is a kind of philosophical tension or even existential tension between our desire to offload hard challenges onto computers, and that fact that as human beings, we gain fulfilment and satisfaction and meaning through struggling with hard challenges.

Let’s talk about software developers. In the book, you write that the software profession’s push to “to ease the strain of thinking is taking a toll on their own skills.” If the software development tools are becoming more capable, are software developers becoming less capable? I think in many cases they are. Not in all cases. We see concerns — this is the kind of tricky balancing act that we always have to engage in when we automate — and the question is: Is the automation pushing people up to higher level of skills or is it turning them into machine operators or computer operators — people who end up de-skilled by the process and have less interesting work. I certainly think we see it in software programming itself. If you can look to integrated development environments, other automated tools, to automate tasks that you have already mastered, and that have thus become routine to you that can free up your time, [that] frees up your mental energy to think about harder problems. On the other hand, if we use automation to simply replace hard work, and therefore prevent you from fully mastering various levels of skills, it can actually have the opposite effect. Instead of lifting you up, it can establish a ceiling above which your mastery can’t go because you’re simply not practicing the fundamental skills that are required as kind of a baseline to jump to the next level.

What is the risk, if there is a de-skilling of software development and automation takes on too much of the task of writing code? There are very different views on this. Not everyone agrees that we are seeing a de-skilling effect in programming itself. Other people are worried that we are beginning to automate too many of the programming tasks. I don’t have enough in-depth knowledge to know to what extent de-skilling is really happening, but I think the danger is the same danger when you de-skill any expert task, any professional task, …you cut off the unique, distinctive talents that human beings bring to these challenging tasks that computers simply can’t replicate: creative thinking, conceptual thinking, critical thinking and the ability to evaluate the task as you do it, to be kind of self-critical. Often, these very, what are still very human skills, that are built on common sense, a conscious understanding of the world, intuition through experience, things that computers can’t do and probably won’t be able to do for long time, it’s the loss of those unique human skills, I think, [that] gets in the way of progress.

What is the antidote to these pitfalls? In some places, there may not be an antidote coming from the business world itself, because there is a conflict in many cases between the desire to maximize efficiency through automation and the desire to make sure that human skills, human talents, continue to be exercised, practiced and expanded. But I do think we’re seeing at least some signs that a narrow focus on automation to gain immediate efficiency benefits may not always serve a company well in the long term. Earlier this year, Toyota Motor Co., announced that it had decided to start replacing some of its robots in it Japanese factories with human beings, with crafts people. Even though it has been out front, a kind of a pioneer of automation, and robotics and manufacturing, it has suffered some quality problems, with lots of recalls. For Toyota, quality problems aren’t just bad for business, they are bad for its culture, which is built on a sense of pride in the quality that it historically has been able to maintain. Simply focusing on efficiency, and automating everything, can get in the way of quality in the long-term because you don’t have the distinctive perspective of the human craft worker. It went too far, too quickly, and lost something important.

Gartner recently came out with a prediction that in approximately 10 years about one third of all the jobs that exist today will be replaced by some form of automation. That could be an over-the-top prediction or not. But when you think about the job market going forward, what kind of impact do you see automation having? I think that prediction is probably over aggressive. It’s very easy to come up with these scenarios that show massive job losses. I think what we’re facing is probably a more modest, but still ongoing destruction or loss of white collar professional jobs as computers become more capable of undertaking analyses and making judgments. A very good example is in the legal field, where you have seen, and very, very quickly, language processing software take over the work of evidence discovery. You used to have lots of bright people reading through various documents to find evidence and to figure out relationships among people, and now computers can basically do all that work, so lots of paralegals, lots of junior lawyers, lose their jobs because computers can do them. I think we will continue to see that kind of replacement of professional labor with analytical software. The job market is very complex, so it’s easy to become alarmist, but I do think the big challenge is probably less the total number of jobs in the economy then the distribution of those jobs. Because as soon as you are able to automate what used to be very skilled task, then you also de-skill them and, hence, you don’t have to pay the people who do them as much. We will probably see a continued pressure for the polarization of the workforce and the erosion of good quality, good paying middle class jobs.

What do you want people to take away from this work? I think we’re naturally very enthusiastic about technological advances, and particularly enthusiastic about the ways that engineers and programmers and other inventors can program inanimate machines and computers to do hard things that human beings used to do. That’s amazing, and I think we’re right to be amazed and enthusiastic about that. But I think often our enthusiasm leads us to make assumptions that aren’t in our best interest, assumptions that we should seek convenience and speed and efficiency without regard to the fact that our sense of satisfaction in life often comes from mastering hard challenges, mastering hard skills. My goal is simply to warn people.

I think we have a choice about whether we do this wisely and humanistically, or we take the road that I think we’re on right now, which is to take a misanthropic view of technological progress and just say ‘give computers everything they can possibly do and give human beings whatever is left over.’ I think that’s a recipe for diminishing the quality of life and ultimately short-circuiting progress.


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Microsoft’s Office for iPad carrot fails to boost consumer revenue

With consumer productivity apps’ value near zero, company goes for mindshare rather than Office 365 subscriptions

Microsoft yesterday made the surprising move to offer consumers more functional Office apps on the iPad after failing to drive Office 365 Home and Personal subscriptions, analysts said today.

“Microsoft is feeling pressure from the bottom end of the productivity market,” said Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft. “In reality, they are doing this because of low uptake on consumer Office 365.”

On Thursday, Microsoft moved what independent analyst Ben Thompson called Office’s “scarcity line — the line between paid and free” for the iPad by changing the rights consumers have when they run the free-to-download Excel, PowerPoint and Word apps.

Prior to Thursday, consumers without an Office 365 subscription could use the Office for iPad apps only to view documents. Under the new rules, those consumers may also create and edit documents, although with numerous restrictions on the latter — Microsoft called the missing pieces “advanced editing” — that may be useful to a minority of tablet owners.

Office on the iPhone and for Android smartphones — dubbed Office Mobile — went free for consumers in March on the same day Microsoft introduced Office for iPad, and so already came with those rights. Yesterday, Microsoft split Office Mobile on the iPhone into separate Excel, PowerPoint and Word apps; on Android, the collective Office Mobile app remained.

Because businesses must still pay to use Office for iPad — or Office on iPhones and Android smartphones now, as they likely will for the soon-to-be-released Office on Android tablets — for commercial purposes, yesterday’s changes only benefited consumers, a fact that many seemed to miss.

Others agreed with Miller that Microsoft’s carrot to consumers — subscribe to Office 365 Home (for $100 annually) or Personal ($70) and get full rights to Office for iPad — had not moved the needle on the consumer editions of the rent-not-buy model.

“The reality is that Office revenue is on the business side,” said Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research, in a interview. Previously, Dawson had pegged total revenue from Office — from both Office 365 and traditional perpetual licensing, with the latter dominant — at $24 billion for the 2014 fiscal year. Just $3 billion came from consumers, representing less than 13% of the total.

More to the point, consumer Office 365 revenue has grown much slower than subscriptions: Sales grew just 4% in the September quarter from the June period, while subscriptions increased 27% during that same time.

With Office on mobile failing to spark Office 365 consumer sales, Microsoft rethought its March strategy, which at the time most experts had applauded.

“The bifurcation of Office, with the free versions able to read documents but not do anything else, may have limited the uptake [of the iPad apps],” said Dawson. “The boundary between free and paid was very far toward the former because you could do almost nothing or you could do everything. I think Microsoft saw that the boundary was in the wrong place.

“Because most of the revenue is on the business side, Microsoft thought, ‘Why don’t we just give away more features on the consumer side?'” Dawson said of the strategy switcheroo. “Previously, they were afraid to give away any kind of Office.”

Miller pointed out that the value of consumer-grade productivity software has “essentially reached zero.” Google Docs is free to use for consumers and Apple began giving away its iWork suite last year to any iOS or OS X device owner. To compete, Microsoft had to reduce Office as far toward “free” as it could stomach.

Thompson concurred. “This is powerful evidence that it is actually impossible to make money selling productivity software to consumers,” Thompson wrote in his Stratechery subscription-only Daily Update of Friday. “If Microsoft couldn’t manage, how can anyone else?”

Assuming Miller and Thompson are right, what does Microsoft get from giving away Office? The firm is a corporation, not a charity. What’s the value in free?

“Because Microsoft wants to make Office the universal productivity app and its file format the universal format, so that it can perpetuate its business on the commercial side,” said Dawson.

There’s not only truth to what Dawson said, but it’s a tenet of Microsoft’s overall Office strategy. Microsoft hammers on the fact that only its Office apps and applications can reproduce the Office file format in high-quality fidelity. Putting Office in front of more people, theoretically at least, increases the Office lock-in.

Thompson echoed Dawson. “This new strategy is much more defensive in nature: Microsoft may not be able to drive new Office 365 subscribers, but … they are immensely concerned about keeping people away from Google Docs, in particular,” said Thompson. “Better to keep someone in the fold for free, with up-sell opportunities, then to incentivize them to try out your competitor.”

Not everyone saw the strategic shift in negative terms. “This is not a desperation move, or one from a point of weakness,” countered Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. “This is their multi-platform strategy in a nutshell, not some reaction to a tactical threat. They’re simply delivering on their strategy, which is all about mobility and the cloud.”

But even Moorhead acknowledged that Microsoft hoped to prevent consumers from adopting Office alternatives. “They’re trying to lower the number of people who look to a Google solution or something different,” Moorhead said of the iPad apps’ new rights.

And while Microsoft might have been pushed toward the decision — pushed just eight months after debuting it to much fanfare — the analysts’ consensus was that it wasn’t only necessary, but the smartest move possible under the circumstances.

“They have taken the killer app for Windows and made it accessible to the Web, to iOS and to Android,” said Moorhead. “The BYOD [bring your own device] play is critical, and because Microsoft has the ability to leverage on other platforms what people access at work, it can force enterprises to pony up for access [to Office] on all an employee’s devices. That’s the real revenue maker for Microsoft.”

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2014’s most significant cloud deals have OpenStack at heart

The most important cloud acquisitions this year have one thing in common: OpenStack.

2014’s slate of cloud deals reflect a few important trends in the market for the open source cloud software. One is that traditional enterprise vendors continue to see potential in OpenStack and they’re willing to shell out the cash to buy the expertise and technology they need to pursue the market.

The second is that despite interest from those big vendors, actual adoption of OpenStack hasn’t happened as quickly as some people might have hoped. The result is that some of the startups, even trendsetters like Cloudscaling, are open to acquisition as they realize they may not be able to make it on their own.

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The impact of these deals is still unknown. On the downside, the acquiring vendors all have other flagship businesses they need to protect. In many cases, that means they’ll limit customers of their new OpenStack products and services to using their legacy products. The result is users won’t have as much choice as they might like.

The upside, however, is that the traditional vendors know how to ship stable, well-supported products. That’s a plus for any business that’s been reluctant to go with an OpenStack startup.

Here are the top five cloud deals of the year, so far:

EMC buys Cloudscaling for an unconfirmed $50 million

The rationale: With more workloads moving to the cloud, EMC knows its storage products have to be in the running for businesses building cloud operations. While EMC is an obvious option for VMware shops given that it owns VMware, it’s not always top of mind in the open source world. With its platform for building private OpenStack clouds, Cloudscaling gives EMC a foot in the door in the OpenStack community.

It remains to be seen if a culture clash will lead to hiccups, however. Cloudscaling, with its outspoken founder Randy Bias, has a reputation as a scrappy upstart. EMC, on the other hand, is more of a staid, traditional vendor.

Who cares? It’s possible that Cloudscaling won’t be quite so open once it gets absorbed by EMC.Cloudscaling currently names EMC competitors including Dell, HP and Supermicro as partners on its web site, and Nexenta’s CEO is on Cloudscaling’s board. Also, Cloudscaling’s platform allows users to build hybrid clouds with Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform. Given that those businesses compete with EMC or VMware in some way, it wouldn’t be a surprise if EMC restricts Cloudscaling’s openness in the future. That could be a disappointment for potential Cloudscaling users.

Impact: With the backing of a giant like EMC, Cloudscaling is likely to stabilize and become more attractive to enterprises. But being backed by a giant often means slower innovation. Combined with the potential for less choice for users, this deal slightly tips negative in terms of potential benefit to users.

HP buys Eucalytpus for an unconfirmed $100 million

The rationale: HP’s press release about the deal focused heavily on the fact that Marten Mickos, Eucalyptus’s CEO, will run HP’s cloud business. There was essentially no mention of Eucalyptus’s technology – a private cloud platform that’s compatible with AWS. It’s hard not to think that HP bought Eucalyptus primarily to get Mickos, who was also previously CEO of MySQL.

Who cares? If Mickos gets his way, users might get a unique and valuable capability. In an interview on the day the acquisition was announced, Mickos said his hope was to use Eucalyptus technology to bring AWS compatibility to HP’s OpenStack cloud products. That could be attractive for businesses that want to build private OpenStack clouds that burst to AWS when additional resources are needed.

Impact: The fact that Eucalyptus couldn’t go it alone seems to prove that a community-based open source project like OpenStack has a better chance of success than an open source platform driven by one company, like Eucalyptus. Chalk this up as a win for the OpenStack community.

Cisco bought Metacloud for an undisclosed sum

The rationale: With Metacloud, Cisco gets a unique technology that delivers an OpenStack private cloud as a service, remotely managing the cloud for customers. Cisco has actually had its own OpenStack distribution for years, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing it existed. The Metacloud deal lets Cisco sell customers server hardware combined with a well-known platform for running a cloud.

Who cares? VMware might. Cisco and VMware have had a curious relationship over the past few years, at one moment, partners, and the next, competitors.

For instance, Cisco, EMC and VMware started VCE, which offers packaged compute, storage and networking from those three companies. (Just this week Cisco reduced its stake in VCE to 10%.) Cisco also makes it easy for users of its server hardware to run VMware’s cloud products. With Metacloud, however, Cisco now opens the door for customers to go OpenStack instead of VMware.

Impact: Customers and potential customers lose another independent service provider, which offered users lots of choice, but gains a backer determined to be successful in OpenStack. This one is a wash.

Red Hat buys eNovance for $95 million

The rationale: Red Hat wants to dominate OpenStack and with eNovance it gains deployment expertise, since eNovance is in the business of helping customers build OpenStack clouds.

Who cares? While eNovance was open to using the best technology to meet a customer’s needs, including sometimes recommending AWS instead of an OpenStack cloud, that’s likely to change under Red Hat. For instance, eNovance will surely steer customers to Red Hat’s OpenStack distribution rather than any available from competitors.
No deal!

This year has also been a year of cloud-related acquisitions that didn’t end up happening. For instance, for months there was buzz around Rackspace looking for a buyer. Eventually though, Rackspace said it had decided to continue go it alone.

There were also rumors about EMC wanting to acquire HP. There’s more to both companies than the cloud, but after HP’s announcement of earmarking $1 billion for OpenStack, it’s clear the cloud is becoming an important business for the company.

Impact: The presumed loss of choice for eNovance customers pushes this deal into the negative column for customers.

Red Hat buys Inktank for $175 million
The rationale: Adding Inktank’s Ceph object and block storage software to its existing Gluster file system storage gives Red Hat a more complete portfolio of storage offerings. Also, as Ceph is popular among OpenStack users, the deal makes sense as part of Red Hat’s enthusiastic support of OpenStack.

Who cares? Red Hat tends to do its best to herd customers exclusively toward its own products, but it has pledged to keep Ceph open. For instance, Red Hat has said that Ceph will continue to run on non-Red Hat operating systems.

Impact: If Red Hat does indeedallow Ceph to continue to support non-Red Hat products, this deal should be a solid win for OpenStack users. Ceph has proved valuable to the OpenStack community and can benefit from Red Hat’s experience running open source projects and delivering open source products.

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