Messaging app Wire now has an external audit of its e2e crypto

Security can be a fractious space, with claim and counterclaim flying as rivals jockey for position and to achieve reputational robustness. Cutting through the noise can be impossible without outside expertise, which is why it’s so valuable to have an expert audit of a security product.

To wit: encrypted messaging app Wire has now published an external audit of its crypto protocol, Proteus, and the implementation of the protocol across its various apps.

It’s a paid audit, conducted for Wire by two security researchers, Jean-Philippe Aumasson from Kudelski Security, and Markus Vervier from X41 D-Sec.

In a Medium post detailing the review, Wire writes: “The review covers Proteus implementation in all platforms where Wire is available  —  iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Linux, and Wire for Web that works in modern, webRTC-supported browsers.”

An outside audit is perhaps especially valuable for Wire at this point as it took some flak recently following a critical blog post which was shared via Twitter and drew the attention of the security community.

Wire rejected the criticisms and argued it was being unfairly targeted by anonymous accounts posting on social media. TechCrunch contacted the writer of the original critical post who is named on Medium as Tina Membe, but the person would not divulge his or her identity to us — only qualifying themselves as “not really a security researcher”.

That said, the person stood by their criticism of Wire’s code, describing it as “very messy” and specifically criticizing how Wire performs certificate pinning — arguing their method is flawed because it could be bypassed by state-level attackers.

“One example, the code enables ‘pinning’ only if the ‘subject alternative name’ of the certificate matches or ends with,” they told us, pointing to this part of Wire’s code. “But ‘subject alternative name’ is optional in certificates. Attacker would issue a certificate for ‘common name’ of from any CA (China, Tunisia, Turkey, etc) omit ‘subject alternative name’ and this would consider it valid.

“I think this is a very obvious mistake, a real security researcher could verify for you,” they added.

Wire’s security reviewers did identify some issues with the software — including a bug allowing invalid public keys to be transmitted and processed without being flagged as an error. But the reviewers also describe the reviewed components as having “a high security, thanks to state-of-the-art cryptographic protocols and algorithms, and software engineering practices mitigating the risk of software bugs”.

The review covered Wire’s protocol specification and protocol implementation. More specifically, the implementation of its Proteus messaging protocol and Cryptobox API and its C wrapper Cryptobox-C. “Cryptobox defines a simple, high-level API to Proteus in order to hide the protocol’s complexity to callers in Wire applications,” is Wire’s explainer of that component.

The review also included CoffeeScript counterparts of Proteus and cryptobox as implemented in the proteus.js and cryptobox.js.

A third layer of security review — considering the complete solution in the round — remains ongoing, according to Duric.

In their overview of the audit, the external security reviewers write:

The components reviewed were found to have a high security, thanks to state-of-the-art cryptographic protocols and algorithms, and software engineering practices mitigating the risk of software bugs. Issues were nonetheless found, with some of them potentially leading to a degraded security level. None of the issues found is critical in terms of security. We for example found that invalid public keys could be transmitted and processed without raising an error. As a consequence, the shared secret negotiated by communicating parties becomes predictable, which in turns weakens security guarantees in terms of “break-in recovery”. The root cause of this issue is a bug in a third-party component (neglect to verify an error code). We recommend that this issue be fixed, and that other security improvements be implemented to address thread-unsafety risks, sensitive data in memory, and other aspects as described in this report.

Wire says it has fixed all issues identified by the review and deployed the fixes on iOS and Android, and is in the process of deploying on Wire for web and its desktop apps.

It goes without saying that for any security product perceptions of insecurity can do real and lasting damage. So Wire will clearly be hoping that an external review of its crypto helps to dispel some of the criticisms it has attracted — and Duric was quick to point us to a sample early assessment of the audit from a security academic:

“Kudelski is independent reviewer,” Duric added, via email, of the firm paid to carry out the audit. “Company with long tradition in the field and experts that concluded review are among leading experts in the field.”

Katriel Cohn-Gordon, one of the group of academic security researchers who audited the Signal Protocol — which powers the eponymous Signal encrypted messaging app — also welcomed Wire’s move. “It’s good to see companies like Wire being transparent about their security,” he wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “[The audit] seems well-written and Wire’s prompt response is a good sign.”

It’s worth noting that while Signal’s protocol is not the same as Wire’s Proteus protocol, Wire did use some open source components written by the Signal Protocol’s creator, Open Whisper Systems — and as a result its Proteus protocol code displays a copyright attribution reflecting this reuse.

Wire, which was founded in 2012 and is based in Switzerland, is backed by Skype co-founder Janus Friis. Although it started with more of a general communications focus, it has since shifted to billing itself as a “private messenger” with a “focus on privacy” — expanding end-to-end encryption across all messaging types on its platform (not just calls) in March last year.

Last December it also added a username option, meaning privacy-conscious users do not need to share their phone number or email in order to communicate with other Wire users. And while the app remains free Wire says it will be introducing paid services this year.

It also says it is committing to regular external security reviews from here on in, as it continues to develop its apps.

“Going forward every major development at Wire will also include a security review,” it writes. “We’ll continue to partner with security experts like Kudelski Security and X41 D-Sec to work on a complete solution review.

“All Wire client code is on GitHub and the server code will be open sourced by the end of Q1, 2017.”

Gadget Ogling: Gaming’s New Virtual Reality Frontier and Personal Cargo Robots

Welcome to Gadget Dreams and Nightmares, the column that occasionally stops gaping at contentious Senate confirmation hearings and votes to peruse the latest gadget announcements.

This time around, we’re looking at some of the gadgets that perhaps got a little lost in the noise after CES in January but caught our eye, for better or worse. Among them are a 4-D arcade machine and a robot designed to carry all the things you don’t want to.

As ever, dear readers, this is not a review column, in part because these products have yet to reach the public sphere, but mostly because the chances of my actually ever using said products are slim. The ratings relate only to how much I’d like to try them, should the stars align.

Reality Bites

Regular readers will know that I’ve played games my entire life. I hold deep reverence for the care and attention that go into creating these experiences, and I’ve rarely met a game I didn’t want to conquer.

Yet I am nervous about virtual reality. I’ve tried it and found those disorientating worlds difficult to handle, though I suspect that over time I could grow more accustomed to it. I doubt I could say the same for an arcade machine that both locks me into a VR world and pelts me with physical stimuli.

Koei Tecmo Wave’s VR Sense machine is a virtual reality arcade cabinet that houses you and subjects you to what I can only imagine is sheer torture. It has what Koei Tecmo Wave calls a “3D seat,” which attempts to draw players further into the games through touch, movement, aroma, wind, and temperature and precipitation changes. It’s not completely clear as yet whether you have to wear a headset for the full VR effect.

It’s launching with three games: a horse-riding simulator, a version of Koei Tecno Wave’s Dynasty Warrior franchise (with a stab at replicating in-game flames while you swelter in your moving chair), and a horror game.

I enjoy horror titles. However, I’d be less likely to welcome a VR horror game, as I’d probably come close to having a heart attack or three. There’s next to no chance I’d ever try Horror Sense.

That’s in large part due to the game apparently mimicking bugs falling from the ceiling and critters scuttling along the floor. I have a lot of questions about this, but ultimately, I’d tear off a VR headset in a second if I thought there were bugs falling on me while playing. No thank you, ma’am.

horror sense

I’m happy to transport myself into different times and landscapes mentally if not physically. I may yet become a virtual reality convert — but for now I’m more than happy with a flat screen and a controller.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Not-So-Virtual Worlds

Rolling Repository

There is little I detest more, outside the realm of what certain parties are doing to the planet, than the act of carrying things. I truly despise it. I suppose in my heart of hearts I am a minimalist, and things get in the way constantly. It doesn’t help that I don’t have a car to dump purchases into on a shopping trip, or to hold my bag on the passenger seat.

Praise be to
Piaggio Fast Forward
, then, for its personal cargo robot, Gita. The machine can cart around up to 40 pounds of your things. It can follow you as you trudge home wearing a special belt that connects to Gita over WiFi and houses cameras to help Gita see where it’s headed.

gita cargo robot

Gita can move autonomously if has an area mapped out — though I suspect I would not be likely to let a Gita trundle around by itself lest someone smash it open to steal my water bottle or something.

There’s good news if you’re a cyclist, since Gita can travel at up to 22 miles per hour and has a zero turning radius. I’d love to have this little gizmo even to carry my wallet around instead of stuffing it in my pocket, though I admit I’d feel a little silly having a moving shopping dolly following me around.

For people who aren’t as carrying-averse as I am, there are some broader, practical benefits — like transporting groceries and having only the intended recipient able to open it, or moving goods around a hospital.

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Postal workers might find it useful as well, especially since Piaggio is developing a bigger version, the Kilo, which can transport up to 200 pounds of goods.

Mostly, I’m just glad I may never again have to contend with twine bag handles tearing into my hands as I desperately speed home to unload my frightful burden.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Relieved Hands

Kris Holt is a writer and editor based in Montreal. He has written for the Daily Dot, The Daily Beast, and PolicyMic, among others. He’s Scottish, so would prefer if no one used the word “soccer” in his company. You can connect with Kris on Google+.

Here's how you can make money off of Trump's tweets- or go broke

This new app will let you invest automatically every time the president mentions a publicly traded company.

It’s called Trump2Cash, and it’s a bot that watches Trump’s Twitter feed. Every time the president mentions a public company, an analysis is done.

So if Trump says something negative about Toyota, maybe you’ll sell some stock. Or if he’s praising Ford for bringing 700 jobs from Mexico — maybe that’s the time to buy.

Programmer Max Braun, who created the app as a test, shows how the algorithm works.

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Samsung Galaxy S8 rumors and news leaks

Samsung was riding high when the Galaxy S7 officially outsold the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, and even more so when the Galaxy Note 7 came along and impressed everyone — until it went out with a bang. It’s therefore likely to be thrilled to leave 2016 behind and turn its attention to this year’s flagship, which we know as the Galaxy S8.

Lee Jae-yong, Samsung’s mobile communications vice president, has noted that, for starters, the Galaxy S8 will “feature slick design and an improved camera, as well as an enhanced artificial intelligence service.” Rumors say there may even be two — here’s everything you need to know.

More: Everything we think we know about the Galaxy X, Samsung’s rumored foldable phone

AI: A new digital assistant?

We’ve known for quite some time that the Galaxy S8 will likely include Samsung’s new digital assistant, Bixby, and it has long been thought that Bixby is based on the tech of Viv Labs, an artificial intelligence startup that Samsung acquired last year. A new report from the Wall Street Journal, however, suggests that Viv Labs may may not be as involved with Bixby. Instead, the report notes that Bixby is instead an updated version of Samsung’s self-built S-Voice. That’s an interesting move from Samsung — S Voice was first launched in 2012 to somewhat mediocre reviews.

Not only that, but we now have a look at what could be the logo for Bixby. The logo was uncovered by Neowin through a trademark filing with the European Trade Mark and Design Network dated February 5. As you can probably see, the logo resembles a “B,” but it also resembles an “8.”

Previously, Samsung trademarked the name “Bixby” for its “computer application software for smartphones, mobile telephones, portable computers, and tablet computers … used to operate voice recognition system[s] … [and enable] hands-free use of a mobile phone through voice recognition.” This hints that the name may end up being used for its assistant. We also heard from SamMobile that the assistant would boast a cool 7 to 8 languages at launch — which is more than Google Assistant had when it launched. It’s not known exactly which languages will be supported at this point, but it’s safe to assume that we’ll see English and Korean at least.

In fact, we’ve now received even more confirmation of the upcoming assistant, and that it will appear on the Galaxy S8. So far, Samsung has referenced Bixby on its website and hinted at it in interviews, but we still haven’t gotten any confirmation that the assistant will appear on the Galaxy S8 beyond speculation and leaks. Now, however, that may have changed — Samsung has posted a job listing for a “principal program manager,” which was spotted by Twitter leaker Roland Quandt. The job description?

“Shape the decisions for new capabilities of service management platform. Drive the execution and delivery for Samsung’s upcoming AI (artificial intelligence) assistant on Galaxy S8.”

In other words, we can definitely expect the new assistant on the Galaxy S8.

Bixby also appears to be much more capable than early reports suggested. According to SamMobile, the Galaxy S8 will feature a dedicated search button that will give access to a search tool that “processes whatever the user is pointing the camera at.” Bixby will reportedly be capable of analyzing the image, identifying objects and text, and searching for the objects in question.

More: Worlds collide as Cortana makes its way to the Android lock screen

It’s similar in execution to Google’s Goggles app, an image-recognition platform that identifies famous landmarks, bar codes, and off-the-shelf products. And it’s not unlike like Amazon Flow, an app that scans across tens of millions of DVDs, books, packaged household items, and business cards. But SamMobile reports that Bixby will boast “extended functionality” and a “high degree of interconnections” to other applications — it’ll not only help you find and buy an identified object, for example, but help make a purchase as well.

Reports also indicate that Bixby will be usable in almost all of the Samsung Galaxy S8’s native apps that come pre-installed on the phone. Bixby will also reportedly will work systemwide — which means you may not see Google Assistant at all on the Galaxy S8.

Samsung Civil War: Which is better, the Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge?

Samsung’s two flagships have much in common, but there are some key differences. You can read our full reviews for the Galaxy S7 and the Galaxy S7 Edge to learn which one you want, but we thought a head-to-head comparison might make your decision a little easier.

More: Don’t be afraid of using your Galaxy S7: Samsung says it’s just fine

On the surface, Galaxy S7 Edge boasts a bigger screen and two edges. The standard S7, on the other hand, has a traditional design and a more petite frame. Both are excellent phones that are more than worthy of filling your pocket, but which one is right for you? Below are key differences between the two Galaxies.

Specs and camera

Galaxy S7


Galaxy S7 Edge


Size 142.4 x 69.6 x 7.9 mm (5.61 x 2.74 x 0.31 in) 149 x 72 x 7.62 mm (5.85 x 2.85 x 0.30 in)
Weight 5.36 ounces 5.54 ounces
Screen 5.1-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED Dual-edge, 5.5-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED
Resolution 2,560 x 1,440 pixels 2,560×1,440 pixels
OS Android 7.0 Nougat Android 7.0 Nougat
Storage 32/64GB 32/64GB
SD Card Slot Yes Yes
NFC support Yes Yes
Processor Qualcomm MSM8996, Snapdragon 820 (U.S. Models),
Exynos 8890 Octa (International Models)
Qualcomm MSM8996, Snapdragon 820 (U.S. Models),
Exynos 8890 Octa (International Models)
Connectivity Wi-Fi, 4G LTE, HSPA+ Wi-Fi, 4G LTE, HSPA+
Camera Front 5MP, Rear 12MP Front 5MP, Rear 12MP
Video 2,160p 4K UHD 2,160p 4K UHD
Bluetooth Yes, version 4.2 Yes, version 4.2
Fingerprint sensor Yes Yes
Water Resistant Yes Yes
Battery 3,000mAh 3,600mAh
Charger Micro USB Micro USB
Quick Charging Yes Yes
Wireless Charging Yes, Qi and PMA Yes, Qi and PMA
Marketplace Google Play Store Google Play Store
Color offerings Black, white, gold, silver Black, white, gold, silver
Availability AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile
DT Review 4 out of 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars

When it comes to specs, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are evenly matched. Both U.S. models rock Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processors and 4GB of RAM, which result in super speedy performance. The European counterparts for the S7 and S7 Edge have Samsung’s Exynos octa-core onboard, which is said to be weaker than the Qualcomm chips, but not noticeably so. The two Galaxies also have special water cooling systems inside to keep the heat down while gaming or taking on processor-heavy tasks, though both do get warm in your hand. In terms of performance, these two are completely tied.

More: Google Pixel vs. Samsung Galaxy S7: Which 5-inch flagship is right for you?

Both phones start at 32GB of storage and support expandable storage via MicroSD cards up to 200GB, so there’s no difference there, either. The 12-megapixel, dual-pixel back cameras on the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are among the best smartphone cameras you can find. The f/1.7 aperture and the 1.4µm dual-pixels allow more light to enter the sensor and result in stunning photos in an array of lighting conditions.

As usual, Samsung’s camera app is fast and capable, and the new dual-pixel tech boosts low-light performance to entirely new levels. Although it can occasionally blow out night time shots, the camera typically takes great shots with very little light. Sometimes the resulting pictures are even better than ones taken with the iPhone 6S Plus, which is a fantastic feat. The front-facing 5-megapixel cameras are equally matched and take decent selfies.

Spec-wise, these two are tied.

Specs winner: Tie

Uncorking innovation with Treasury Wine Estates in Napa

The ancient craft of wine making conjures romantic notions of hand-picked vines, and bare feet crushing grapes. However, wine production today is a thoroughly high-tech affair. Degree programs in viticulture and oenology, from Cornell University to UC Davis, reflect advances in the industry. Professors and courses there now focus on topics like “environmental control, and modified atmospheres,” “the genetic engineering of industrial microorganisms,” or “analytical instrumentation,” to name a few.

What wine makers are going after with applied technology and science is a more profitable piece of an already sizable market. Consumers spent $38 billion on U.S.-made wines alone in 2015 according to the annual Wine Industry Metrics report by Wines & Vines Analytics. Using tech and science to gain every possible advantage can help producers keep their costs and prices down, their environmental footprint small, and their wines as high-quality as possible. More and better data, if analyzed properly, can also help wineries cope with extreme weather, from droughts to floods.

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Farmers of every kind have used government research and data from agencies like the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency in planning and managing their crops. President Donald Trump has required that agencies (including the USDA and EPA) stop releasing their findings to the public until they go through administrative reviews and approvals. Although most farms are already paying tech companies and consultants for some of the data that they use to make business decisions, the new administration’s “gag rules” could drive even more demand, and require farmers to spend more time and money on technology.

One of the best-known ways to gather agricultural data these days is seen in the skies. Vineyards and other farms have long used camera-strapped planes, helicopters or drones, and data gathered by satellites, to capture what’s going on in their fields below. But there’s an equally exciting new class of sensors, apps, and other hardware used in the fields, too. TechCrunch took a tour of some of the major vineyards operated by Treasury Wine Estates in Napa Valley to get a first hand look at what’s state of the art.

Treasury Wine Estates Chief of Innovation, Will Drayton.Treasury Wine Estates Chief of Innovation, Will Drayton.

For the unfamiliar, Treasury Wine Estates is the parent company behind some mainstream and critically acclaimed wines including: Beringer, Sterling Vineyards and Stags’ Leap. The wines are produced by separate teams and at distinct vineyards, each with their own processes and approaches.

In some of its vineyards, Treasury Wine Estates uses mobile apps to connect managers with workers in the field; tractors outfitted with high tech systems that allow them to cut away debris, harvest and sort grapes efficiently; ground-based sensors that can gauge the health of their soil or plants, track the weather, and help manage irrigation; and truck-mounted lasers that take precise measurements of vines and leaves.

Treasury Wine Estates Director of Innovation Will Drayton first showed us weather and plant sensors his company is using in select vineyards, which are made by Arable. The startup’s hardware, called the Pulsepod, may look familiar. It was created in partnership with Fred Bould, who was also behind the Nest thermostat, smoke and carbon monoxide detector, as well as Fitbit, GoPro and Roku products.

One thing Drayton said that field workers and he appreciate about the Pulsepod is that it’s easy to clean up, including when birds drop waste and debris into it. You don’t think about this much when you’re working a desk job, but earlier model rain gauges out in the field could be negatively effected by this natural debris in terms of their performance. They were hard to clean out thanks to a design that was anything but portable, and included lots of wires pointing up towards the sky.

Arable's Pulsepod helps vineyards track conditions effecting their plants on the ground.Arable’s Pulsepod helps vineyards track conditions effecting their crops on the ground.

By contrast the Arable PulsePod is solar-powered, lightweight, sensor laden top to bottom, and shaped like a small Frisbee. Using everything from a radiometer to an acoustic gauge it can measure details like precise rainfall or the color of grapes on the vine. (We previously wrote about the company and its angel investors.) Besides a sleek industrial design, the PulsePod is connected to Arable’s cloud-based software, which uses deep learning to help farmers make accurate predictions about crops based on all the data they gather on the ground.

Drayton next introduced TechCrunch to an agtech consultant with Fruitition Sciences, Brandon Burk, who was on-site scanning vines. The company uses–what else in the name of fun on a farm with tech? Truck-mounted lasers! Its “physiocap rig” works like this, Burk said: “It has two lasers on it, one sending and one receiving… Every time something disrupts the flow [of light] that the lasers are sending, it’s taking a measurement. ”

Fruition Science’s physiocap does not count clusters of fruit, but focuses strictly on vine growth and balance, known in the trade as the ratio of “fruit to shoot.” The number of vines, leaves and width of the vines can predict how much fruit a farmer will get and how healthy the plants will be long-term. Correlating vine data with information about drought, storms, and inputs– or the different fertilizers, pesticides and seeds that may be used throughout a season– can help wine makers home in on what works in their field to achieve a certain taste and mouthfeel, every harvest. It can also help them make adjustments when weather drastically changes.

img_7980Treasury Wine Estates vineyards.

California suffered a statewide drought from 2012 to 2016, but the new year has brought storms that pummeled and even flooded parts of Northern California, along with hopes that the drought will be declared, officially, over. According to the US Drought Monitor, over the past 3 months California has shifted from a state to with about 88% of its total area coping with drought conditions to one with 59% in these conditions. Such a dramatic shift could impact the flavor of a given wine, if a farmer isn’t changing tack appropriately.

While we visited after the mayhem of harvesting season, TechCrunch also took a spin around a farm lot at Treasury Wine Estates where heavy agricultural equipment was parked, including a special harvester made by Pellenc, a French company whose name would mean “lever” in English. The harvester has a range of accessories attached to it. “This vehicle is basically the Swiss army knife of tractors,” Drayton said.

With its many attachments, the Pellenc harvesters allow farmers to spray, mow, prune then automatically and cleanly sort the best grapes into a container. One attachment is like a giant metal shelf nearly perforated with berry-shaped holes. The shelf is positioned under the vines where it shakes, and detaches just the ripe and ready to harvest grapes. The grapes are mechanically sifted without damage into a giant container below.

A Pellenc tractor at Treasury Wine Estates in Napa Valley, Calif.

A Pellenc tractor at Treasury Wine Estates in Napa Valley, Calif.

Up by the driver’s seat, the company had outfitted its Pellenc harvesters with an iPad, which displays geo-referenced maps that route drivers to the correct part of the field where they need to pick fruit, irrigate or apply fertilizers. Instead of turning to startups and partners for this one, Treasury Wine Estates developed their own mapping and routing app, Drayton said. A Vineyard Manager for Treasury Wine Estates, Shawn Ramsay, observed: “Younger people are much better at driving these machines because they grew up on video games. Especially with this iPad display, it feels like you’re driving around with a joystick, or a game controller, not a steering wheel.”

Younger people are much better at driving these machines because they grew up on video games.

— Shawn Ramsay

Finally, Drayton took TechCrunch out to launch a drone to run a multi-spectral, aerial survey of the vineyards. The multi-spectral readings, he said, reveal differences in the field for each vineyard unfolding in real-time, identifying irrigation leaks, or taking a quick reading of what sections of the field may be ripening first. The company uses this technology to identify early signs of diseased vines, and get them off the “block,” before they infect any others. The potential of early detection is to make more and better wines without needing as much labor, water, pesticides or fertilizers to do so.

The drone used by Treasury Wine Estates was a research grade-model from drone market leaders DJI equipped with a high-definition camera from Parrot SA and operated using software from agriculture specialists Skycision. According to Skycision CEO Brendan Carroll, the company’s software-as-a-service helps farmers identify crop stress early in their growing season so they can head it off at the pass.

A DJI drone, customized and operated by Skycision, is used to study the health of vineyards.

A DJI drone, customized and operated by Skycision, is used to study the health of vineyards.

“Our app integrates imagery from all kinds of aerial systems, planes, satellites and drones, to help farmers find pests, diseases and weeds much better than they can just walking the fields,” Carroll said. The app also lets farmers “click to fly,” Drayton noted, meaning they don’t have to set drop points and tell a drone where to go in real time. They just define an area on a map where they want to capture imagery and show up with the drone.

Integrating different data sources to show an easy-to-read map to farmers proves harder than something like lining up layers in PhotoShop. Skycision’s software calibrates visual data to take into account the intensity of light on a given day, and the contours of the land below, among other things. Without this crucial step, images of a vineyard compared over time could lead farmers to wrong conclusions. “It would look like your crops died overnight when really, you had a canopy reflecting differently one day because of the clouds, versus the bright sunlight the day before” Carroll said.

Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Skycision works with growers of berries and grapes, which are crops that are very expensive to raise but also have a high-yield value per acre, he said. That’s because losing even a tiny portion of a field to pests, diseases or weeds causes a bad hit to the farm’s margins. And high value crops like grapes tend to see an aggressive spread when certain diseases show up, causing farmers to have to rip out huge amounts of vines to contain them. More precise data helps them rip out only what they must, or better yet, prevent the disease from ever spreading.

Treasury Wine Estates' staff operating drones at a vineyard.

Treasury Wine Estates’ staff launch a drone over the vineyard.

While we didn’t have time to see every technology in action, Drayton said one of his favorite machines to watch at work for Treasury Wine Estates is an optical berry sorter, which employs cameras and computer vision software to literally see, and quickly evaluate the quality of, all the grapes coming down a conveyor belt.

The machine, made by Bucher Vaslin in Santa Rosa, Calif., sorts the good grapes from the bad by directing tiny puffs of air that shoot them into one container or the other. A puff to the right, and a blueberry-like grape falls into the bin that will soon be crushed for pinot noir. A puff to the left, and a berry so dry it could be called a raisin goes to a bin that’s bound for compost. “It really is like a futuristic take on that I Love Lucy episode with the bonbons,” Drayton laughed.

Machines may never catch up to the human palate when it comes to discerning what tastes best. But at least we know that the ancient art of winemaking pairs well with the future.

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Hallmark competitor Facebook is back at it with Valentine’s Day cards

What better way to say “I love you” than with a Valentine’s Day card on Facebook?

Beginning February 13, you’ll see a message from Facebook wishing you a Happy Valentine’s Day. You will then have the option of sharing a card on a friend’s Timeline or, if you’re kind of sad, your own. 

The cards were created by a team of artists from New York and London “who have incorporated a mixture of styles to capture the many things Valentine’s Day could mean to you,” Facebook said in a statement about the update. 

Image: facebook

The Valentine’s Day cards are the latest in a long string of personalized greetings on Facebook. In a push to make Facebook feel more warm and caring, the company has been rolling out several experiences around events like the “Year in Review“, Chinese New Year and its own birthday, coined as “Friends Day.”  

There are also Valentine’s Day themed Messenger filters, for those who care.

Image: screenshot/facebook

Facebook wants to be the first and foremost platform on which you share your life. The company said that Facebook is “the first stop when we’ve experienced a major life event” and that on Valentine’s week last year, there was a 25 percent increase in engagement around life events compared to the prior two weeks. 

And it’s not just engagements. Facebook, which at times seems more interested in my love life than my nosy Indian aunts, has every romantic aspect covered. Need a break from an ex? Facebook’s got you covered. Facebook even teaches brands how to capitalize on your recently single status. And if you want to be old school, you can always just post something cheesy on your loved one’s Timeline.

“The intention is really to reach people where they are,” Alicia Dougherty-Wold, content strategy lead at Facebook, told Mashable last year. “If they are celebrating and if it’s a meaningful moment in a particular country or globally, we want to be celebrating with them.”

Twitter Investors Bail Following Bleak Q4

Twitter’s share price plunged 12.3 percent Thursday, closing the day at US$16.41, after the company released its Q4 2016 financial report. It fell further on Friday, trading at $15.54 mid-day.

On the bright side, daily active usage grew for the third consecutive quarter and strong growth is expected to continue, the company said. Active monthly users in Q4 totaled 319 million, up 4 percent year over year, and 2 million more than in Q3. Both tweet impressions and time spent on Twitter increased by double digits YoY in Q4. Total engagements were up 151 percent.

Financial Engineering?

However, YoY ad revenues fell, totaling $638 million, and losses totaled $167 million in Q4 compared with $90 million during the same period in 2015. Adjusted EBITDA margins for 2016 totaled 30 percent, compared with 25 percent for 2015; and Twitter’s quarterly GAAP net loss was $167 million, while quarterly non-GAAP income was $119 million.

The mixture of GAAP and non-GAAP figures is unusual, said Mark Skilton, a professor at Warwick Business School.

It “feels like financial engineering to try to demonstrate growth that excludes the activities they are spending on, operational investments and costs,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

There is a growth in margins, Skilton noted, but “there’s confusion when I’m also seeing a $176 million reported loss.”

Fakes, Frauds and Trolls

Twitter’s user and engagement metrics are meaningless, said Trip Chowdhry, managing director for equity research at Global Equities Research.

“There are too many fake IDs, too many fake followers and too many fake comments,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

For example, adherents to the extreme views of the alt-right retaliated against Twitter’s suspension of several high-profile alt-right advocates by creating a storm of fake accounts.

Cracking down on fake accounts will create a new problem for Twitter, because “their user numbers will only amount to 20 percent of what they are now,” Chowdhry said.

One solution would be to require all users to authenticate their identities, and require validation with credit card numbers, he suggested, but “that’s not going to happen.”

Getting Money Is Hard

Twitter’s core problem is its inability to convert traffic to new platform services when compared to larger competitors such as Facebook and Google, Warwick’s Skilton said.

Twitter has warned that keen competition may hamper its ability to garner revenue from ads.

The online ad market “is cutthroat [and] highly competitive,” but the underlying issue is “Twitter’s inability to create sticky pull-through of audiences,” Skilton noted.

Twitter’s website is “flat and uninteresting, [and] it has no communities or reasons to stay other than ranting from the likes of Donald Trump and … pop stars,” he added. Further, the consumer base is fickle and jumps to other sites such as WhatsApp and SnapChat.

Although ad placements grew 150 percent, revenue did not keep pace, because Twitter has cut prices to compete against the likes of Facebook and Google, Skilton pointed out.

Twitter’s performance figures “make Twitter an even more likely target for a takeover if this slide continues,” he said.

Is It Curtains for Social Media?

Twitter isn’t the only social media company whose share prices fell following its latest financial report.

Facebook slipped last week. After the company released its Q4 earnings report, beating analysts’ estimates, its stock briefly hit a record high but then closed the day down 1.8 percent at $130.84.

“I don’t think either Twitter or Facebook can grow, because social media fatigue is setting in,” Chowdhry said.

2017 will be a bad year for social media as a whole, he predicted.

In spite of increased attention due to President Trump’s propensity for tweeting, Twitter’s stock likely will fall below $10, he predicted.

Expecting President Trump’s extensive use of Twitter to positively impact the company’s shares would be a mistake, Chowdhry said. “By that logic, people should go invest in Evian because he drinks Evian water.”

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it’s all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon’s Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

Apple iPhone 8 rumors and news

Apple’s iPhone 8 isn’t supposed to arrive until much later in 2017, but that hasn’t stopped legions from fervently speculating about it, and many leaks from springing up, and for good reason, too. It may or may not launch alongside the new 2017 iPhone models, currently known as the iPhone 7S and iPhone 7S Plus, though. It may end up being an incredible technical showcase phone released as an anniversary celebration at a later date.

For now, it’s all up in the air; but what we’re hearing about it keeps us interested. Very interested. Here’s what we’ve learned so far about the iPhone 8, or iPhone X, as it has also become known.

More: iPhone 7S and 7S Plus news and rumors

Battery: Wireless charging

Apple has long been rumored to be working on wireless charging for a future version of the iPhone, and while Energous CEO Steve Rizzone has hinted in the past that it has inked a deal with “one of the largest consumer electronic companies in the world,” a new investors note from Copperfield Research suggests that Apple actually has no plans to use Energous’ WattUp wireless charging solution. What will it use instead? Its own self-built tech, apparently.

A new report by KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, from MacRumors, says Apple will use wireless charging in all three of its upcoming iPhones this year. As wireless charging increases the internal temperature of the device, the iPhone 8 will have a 3D Touch module with “additional graphite sheet lamination” — this protects the phone from malfunctioning if it overheats.

“While we don’t expect general users to notice any difference, lamination of an additional graphite sheet is needed for better thermal control and, thus, steady operation; this is because FPCB is replaced with film, which is more sensitive to temperature change of the 3D touch sensor in OLED iPhone,” Kuo said.

More: iPhone 6S battery woes force Apple to recall thousands of devices in UAE

The module could cost Apple $5 to produce per device — which adds to reports claiming the iPhone 8 will likely cost upwards of $1,000 due to more premium components and a massive redesign.

Copperfield Research studied patents filed by Apple between 2013 and now, and found that Apple could go for an in-house inductive charging solution, rather than a radio wave wireless charging option. After all, a patent from 2011 sees Apple calling radio charging “very inefficient” and “not practical.” Things may have changed between now and then, and the patent was filed before Apple signed its deal with Energous.

The news would make sense considering previous rumors — Energous has signed a deal with Dialog Semiconductor to supply hardware components, and Apple is believed to account for more than 70- percent of orders from the company. (In a recent quarterly conference call, Energous revealed that “most, if not all, of Energous’ early adopters are existing Dialog customers.”) However, Apple is known to also be working with a company called Lite-On Semiconductor, and rumors indicate the focus is on the hardware behind wireless charging.

In other words, there are a number of possibilities here — Apple could be working with two hardware providers for wireless charging, or it could only be working with Lite-On for its in-house tech.

If Apple does opt to partner with Energous, it’ll likely use the company’s new DA4100 RF-Transmit wireless power transmission system. The 7mm by 7mm chip, made in collaboration with Dialog Semiconductor, comprises a processor and radio capable of receiving and transmitting power at a distance.

Under an agreement between Energous and Dialo, all of Energous’ technology will be sold under the Dialog brand, and in return, Dialog will provide Energous access to its sales and distribution channels.

Skylanders skips a 2017 console release, refocuses on mobile instead

Why it matters to you

Activision is left with few options for its own toys-to-life series after the recent cancellation of Disney Infinity, and a scaled-back approach is all but necessary at this point.

Activision’s toys-to-life Skylanders series will skip an annual console release for the first time in franchise history as its developers shift their efforts toward mobile gaming and expanded content for last year’s Skylanders Imaginators.

News of a scaled-back release schedule for Skylanders arrives in the wake of a major shake-up at Disney Interactive Studios in 2016, which led to the cancellation of the thematically similar Disney Infinity series and the closure of its creator Avalanche Software.

More: Infinity proves fleeting as Disney exits console game publishing, shutters developer

The Skylanders series launched in 2011 with the release of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure across multiple console platforms. The original game in the series served up kid-friendly, action-adventure gameplay powered by a lineup of collectible toys. An included “Portal of Power” peripheral scans Skylanders figures and summon them as in-game playable characters via NFC technology, allowing players to save their progress and use powered-up characters in subsequent series entries.

After the success of the original Skylanders, the series adopted an annual release schedule that continued through 2016, producing follow-ups like Skylanders Giants, Skylanders Swap Force, and Skylanders Trap Team. Each game in the series introduced new gameplay gimmicks that required players to purchase additional toys in order to get the most from the experience, and dedicated fans now maintain large collections of character figurines.

More: ‘Skylanders: Imaginators’ Hands-On

The toys-to-life market cooled significantly in recent years, leading to disappointing sales for 2016’s Skylanders Imaginators. During an investor call this week, Activision revealed that it has no plans to produce a Skylanders sequel for consoles in 2017, and will instead continue to support Skylanders Imaginators with the release of additional characters and level packs at retail.

Activision assures that the Skylanders series isn’t over, however. A port of Skylanders Imaginators will be available for the Nintendo Switch when the console launches on March 3, and fans can expect an all-new sequel to hit mobile platforms later this year.