Monday, March 31, 2014

GM's Seriously Huge Liability Trouble (BusinessWeek)

Mary Barra in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2013
Mary Barra in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2013

Last week, as things were beginning to crumble at General Motors (GM), new Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra told employees via video link: “Something went wrong with our process … and terrible things happened.” She deserves credit for candor. Now it looks as if GM is in a deeper hole than perhaps even Barra knew.
The New York Times has published a gripping feature story this morning about how the car company “misled grieving families on a lethal flaw” in the ignitions of Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars:
It was nearly five years ago that any doubts were laid to rest among engineers at General Motors about a dangerous and faulty ignition switch. At a meeting on May 15, 2009, they learned that data in the black boxes of Chevrolet Cobalts confirmed a potentially fatal defect existed in hundreds of thousands of cars.
But in the months and years that followed, as a trove of internal documents and studies mounted, G.M. told the families of accident victims and other customers that it did not have enough evidence of any defect in their cars, interviews, letters and legal documents show. Last month, G.M. recalled 1.6 million Cobalts and other small cars, saying that if the switch was bumped or weighed down it could shut off the engine’s power and disable air bags.
Now that the truth is coming out—in fact, GM employees had inklings of ignition problems as far back as 2001—the company is going to face a litigation storm of Biblical proportions. The liability shield that some GM lawyers may have imagined the company’s 2009 taxpayer-bailout and bankruptcy-court restructuring would provide will not hold up in the court of public opinion, not when the company was apparently tricking relatives of car crash victims. To regain consumer confidence, GM will have to settle out of court—and settle big.
How big? Startling reporting by Automotive News hints at just how “wrong” and “terrible,” to use CEO Barra’s words, things got. The headline captures the findings nicely: “Former GM Engineers Say Quiet ’06 Redesign of Faulty Ignition Switch Was a Major Violation of Protocol.” The trade publication elaborates:
Why did GM authorize a redesign of the part in 2006, eight years before the recall? And why was the change made so discreetly—without a new part number—that employees investigating complaints of Ions and Cobalts stalling didn’t know about it until late last year?
These questions, among many that will be posed by lawmakers and federal safety regulators looking into GM’s handling of the recall, have confounded some former GM engineers, who say the company’s reports to regulators describe a sequence of events that was fundamentally at odds with standard operating procedure.
When a company gets caught violating its own basic safety protocols, punitive damages that way lie. When former insiders are available to narrate the breakdown, the penalties are going to be big. Many facts are yet to be determined, but if the well-researched Automotive News piece holds up—and I have no reason to think it won’t—I’d estimate that the procedural failure it describes could add a cool $250 million to GM’s ultimate settlement bill.
In this kind of situation, the tab is not calculated with any precision. A company desperate to put such an episode in the rear view mirror has to make grand gestures. And one would hope that a new CEO realizes that the deep-seated malfunctions she’s inherited will require more than apologies and large checks. GM has a serious bunch of problems to fix.
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, which tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador, will be published by Crown in September 2014. His most recent book is GLOCK: The Rise of America’s Gun.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Will DirecTV and Dish Catch Cable's Merger Fever? (BusinessWeek)

The two largest satellite television companies in the country are talking about joining forces as a way to combat the pending merger of the country’s two biggest cable companies. Dish Network’s (DISH) chairman, Charlie Ergen, has reached out to DirecTV’s (DTV) chief executive, Mike White, and my colleagues at Bloomberg News report that White isn’t quite convinced about the idea.
One reason White might be gun-shy is that federal antitrust regulators vetoed this exact combination back in 2002. But Dish has been saying that times have changed, and the company has a point. The satellite-TV industry is only part of a broader world of pay television, which includes cable companies and telecom providers. This pay-TV universe has begun to lose ground to Internet-based television. Last year was the first full year in which the total number of people paying for some kind of television service declined, a phenomenon that can be explained primarily by the Internet, which offers close to the same thing at a fraction of the price.
Reasons are still plentiful to be wary of what would amount to a massive consolidation of the companies that offer pay television. Dish and DirecTV have already noted that, unlike their friends in the cable industry, they don’t have a potential chokehold on Internet TV. While you can bundle satellite TV with Internet service, it’s either through partners or, in Dish’s case, through satellite-based Internet, which it acknowledges is no substitute for real Internet service. “While dishNET Satellite will support video streaming, it is best to limit these activities to short video clips,” the company helpfully explains on its website.
DirecTV’s White was asked about the Comcast (CMCSA) deal at a recent industry conference. “I could guess that the concerns the government will focus on are certainly the Internet and the broadband,” he said, “and how it gets played with a player that large in that space and all the aspects of Internet, from neutrality to you name it.”
But in other ways, the combination of the two satellite-TV companies looks like a bigger threat to competition than that of the two big cable companies. The company would have more subscribers: Dish and DirecTV have more than 34 million subscribers between them, compared with about 33 million between Comcast and Time Warner Cable (TWC). If both of these deals went through, it would give two large companies much more leverage in negotiations with programmers.
And unlike cable providers that operate as monopolies in local markets, satellite providers actually compete for accounts. Industry analyst Craig Moffett points out that this would mean that more than half the country would be able to choose between only two different cable-TV providers—and about 9 percent of the population living in rural areas, who rely solely on satellite service, would have just one choice.
Moffett says the chances that a merger would pass muster in Washington are very low. But the industry is certainly in a merging mood. If both these deals were to get done, the top four providers of pay television in the country would have consolidated into two megacompanies.
The fifth- and sixth-largest pay television companies are AT&T (T) and Verizon Communications (VZ). Don’t even think about it, guys.

Brustein is a writer for in New York.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

3D printing: 10 companies using it in ground-breaking ways

By                                                             March 26, 2014,
A growing number of innovative companies are experimenting with 3D printers, propelling the technology closer to the mainstream market. 
GEtumblr-3D printers.jpg
GE used MakerBot and 3D Systems printers to print custom gifts.
 Image: GE
 From the big whig corporations down to the smallest startups, there are plenty of companies utilizing 3D printers to create new products, improve old ones, and better their business processes. As the technology becomes more accepted in the enterprise, it will quickly become more mainstream.
We've compiled a list of 10 companies innovatively using 3D printers.

1. General Electric

General Electric made big investments in 3D printing in their quest to produce more than 85,000 fuel nozzles for the new Leap jet engines. The printers can make the nozzles in one metal piece and the finished product is stronger and lighter than the ones made in the traditional assembly line. However, the 3D printers currently on the market can't produce the nozzles fast enough. GE's business development leader, Greg Morris, joined the company last year when it acquired his 3D company, Morris Technologies, so the company wants to expand its 3D printing staff as well as the production of the nozzles and other equipment using 3D printers. They already have more than 300 3D printers and GE Aviation wants to produce 100,000 additive parts by 2020.

2. Boeing

The airline company was one of the early adopters of 3D printing technology, and has made more than 20,000 3D printed parts for 10 different military and commercial planes. The 787 Dreamliner has 30 3D printed parts, including air ducts and hinges, which is a record for the industry. Using Stratasys 3D printers, the company also printed an entire cabin. The company also supports additive manufacturing programs at the University of Sheffield and University of Nottingham in the UK, where there is research for aerospace and other manufacturing sectors using 3D printing technology.

3. Ford

Ford made engine covers for the 2015 Ford Mustang with 3D printers.
 Image: Ford
The auto company has been using 3D printing technology since the 1980s and recently printed its 500,000th part with a 3D printer, which was an engine cover for the new Ford Mustang. According to Ford's website, traditional methods would take four months and $500,000, but with 3D printing, the same process takes four days and $3,000.
According to Ford, traditional methods would take four months and $500,000, but with 3D printing, the same process takes four days and $3,000.
 Ford also teamed with 3D Systems Sugar Lab around Valentine's Day this year to 3D print an edible 2015 Mustang model, made from chocolate and sugar. The company plans to work with 3D printers in the near future, using sand printing and direct metal printing.

4. Nike

Nike reported 13% growth for its latest quarter. CEO Mark Parker has previously stated that 3D printing technology has been a big boost for the company recently. Nike made 3D printed cleats for the 2014 Super Bowl. The Nike Vapor Laser Talon has a 3D printed plate and cleats made from selective laser sintering technology, and the Vapor Carbon Elite also has parts produced with a 3D printer. The Nike Vapor Laser Talon, which weighs 5.6 ounces, was designed for football players running the 40 yard dash on football turf. The company indicated that it has plans to extend its use of 3D printing in future products, but hasn't revealed details.

5. American Pearl

Can't decide on an engagement ring? With American Pearljewelry company, customers can create a unique piece of jewelry by choosing specific metals, gems, or diamonds, ordering them online, and then 3D printing them. There are eight metal options to choose from, such as platinum or rose gold, as well as an array of diamonds and other gems like sapphires and emeralds. Then, American Pearl's CAD software makes a digital file of the custom jewelry, which is turned into a 3D printed thermoplastic wax mold via a Solidscape T-76 3D Printer. The metal is poured into the mold, the gems are added, and the piece ships within a few days. However, the service is quite expensive — the company is making jewelry that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

6. DIY Rockets

Last year, DIY Rockets, a global space company that was created to lower the cost of space exploration using crowdsourcing, launched a competition for people to develop 3D printed rocket motors using Sunglass cloud-based design platform. The only rules were that the designs had to be open source and the participants had to present a business case. The winner for the best rocket engine, announced in July, was TeamStratodyne, which won a $5,000 prize. The design will be created with the help of Shapeways,, the world's biggest 3D printing marketplace.

7. Hasbro

Hasbro recently announced a partnership with 3D Systems, the company that first commercialized 3D printing, to develop and commercialize 3D printers later this year for children's toys and games. Hasbro has a range of children's franchises that may be featured for 3D printing, including My Little Pony, Playskool, and Sesame Street.
“We believe 3D printing offers endless potential to bring incredible new play experiences for kids, and we’re excited to work with 3D Systems, a recognized industry leader in this space," Hasbro President and CEO Brian Goldner said in the press release about the announcement in February.

8. Hershey's

Hershey's has partnered with 3D Systems to make a special 3D printer for making chocolate.
 3D Systems has also partnered with Hershey's to make a 3D printer for chocolate and other edible products. The 3D printing company said this partnership is a good way to show how the technology can be mainstream, though there is no word when the chocolate-making machine may be available. The ability to 3D print food is nothing new, as 3D systems has shown with itsSugar Lab, where the company prints icing and other sugary confections.

9. MakieLab

Design your own Makie doll with MakieLab, which 3D prints 10 inch flexible fashion dolls from thermoplastic. Customers can choose all of the features of the doll: face, eyes, jaw, smile, hair, and more. They are made in the London headquarters and shipped around the world. The company markets the product as environmentally friendly not only because of its custom printing that produces less waste, but also because the packaging is made from recyclable materials. MakieLab prints other games and toys, though the doll is still its most popular product.


A team of MIT and Cornell engineers created, a company that is attempting to capitalize on the vast world of 3D printing designs on the web by making it easier to make, download, and share designs. The idea came from the founders' realization that CAD files, which are used with every 3D printer, are made for engineers to understand, rather than the average person. The Matter founders wanted to change that by making it easy to embed the files into websites so users can download and customize the designs before sending them off to Shapewayss to print or print them at home. The bottom line? Matter wants to make 3D printers easier to use so they will be more quickly accepted by the average consumer.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Inside the NSA's Secret Efforts to Hunt and Hack System Administrators

By Ryan Gallagher and Peter Maass, The Intercept
(illustration: IBT)
cross the world, people who work as system administrators keep computer networks in order – and this has turned them into unwitting targets of the National Security Agency for simply doing their jobs. According to a secret document provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the agency tracks down the private email and Facebook accounts of system administrators (or sys admins, as they are often called), before hacking their computers to gain access to the networks they control.
The document consists of several posts – one of them is titled “I hunt sys admins” – that were published in 2012 on an internal discussion board hosted on the agency’s classified servers. They were written by an NSA official involved in the agency’s effort to break into foreign network routers, the devices that connect computer networks and transport data across the Internet. By infiltrating the computers of system administrators who work for foreign phone and Internet companies, the NSA can gain access to the calls and emails that flow over their networks.
The classified posts reveal how the NSA official aspired to create a database that would function as an international hit list of sys admins to potentially target. Yet the document makes clear that the admins are not suspected of any criminal activity – they are targeted only because they control access to networks the agency wants to infiltrate. “Who better to target than the person that already has the ‘keys to the kingdom’?” one of the posts says.
The NSA wants more than just passwords. The document includes a list of other data that can be harvested from computers belonging to sys admins, including network maps, customer lists, business correspondence and, the author jokes, “pictures of cats in funny poses with amusing captions.” The posts, boastful and casual in tone, contain hacker jargon (pwn, skillz, zomg, internetz) and are punctuated with expressions of mischief. “Current mood: devious,” reads one, while another signs off, “Current mood: scheming.”
The author of the posts, whose name is being withheld by The Intercept, is a network specialist in the agency’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, according to other NSA documents. The same author wrote secret presentations related to the NSA’s controversial program to identify users of the Tor browser – a privacy-enhancing tool that allows people to browse the Internet anonymously. The network specialist, who served as a private contractor prior to joining the NSA, shows little respect for hackers who do not work for the government. One post expresses disdain for the quality of presentations at Blackhat and Defcon, the computer world’s premier security and hacker conferences:
It is unclear how precise the NSA’s hacking attacks are or how the agency ensures that it excludes Americans from the intrusions. The author explains in one post that the NSA scours the Internet to find people it deems “probable” administrators, suggesting a lack of certainty in the process and implying that the wrong person could be targeted. It is illegal for the NSA to deliberately target Americans for surveillance without explicit prior authorization. But the employee’s posts make no mention of any measures that might be taken to prevent hacking the computers of Americans who work as sys admins for foreign networks. Without such measures, Americans who work on such networks could potentially fall victim to an NSA infiltration attempt.
The NSA declined to answer questions about its efforts to hack system administrators or explain how it ensures Americans are not mistakenly targeted. Agency spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines said in an email statement: “A key part of the protections that apply to both U.S. persons and citizens of other countries is the mandate that information be in support of a valid foreign intelligence requirement, and comply with U.S. Attorney General-approved procedures to protect privacy rights.”
As The Intercept revealed last week, clandestine hacking has become central to the NSA’s mission in the past decade. The agency is working to aggressively scale its ability to break into computers to perform what it calls “computer network exploitation,” or CNE: the collection of intelligence from covertly infiltrated computer systems. Hacking into the computers of sys admins is particularly controversial because unlike conventional targets – people who are regarded as threats – sys admins are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
In a post calling sys admins “a means to an end,” the NSA employee writes, “Up front, sys admins generally are not my end target. My end target is the extremist/terrorist or government official that happens to be using the network some admin takes care of.”
The first step, according to the posts, is to collect IP addresses that are believed to be linked to a network’s sys admin. An IP address is a series of numbers allocated to every computer that connects to the Internet. Using this identifier, the NSA can then run an IP address through the vast amount of signals intelligence data, or SIGINT, that it collects every day, trying to match the IP address to personal accounts.
“What we’d really like is a personal webmail or Facebook account to target,” one of the posts explains, presumably because, whereas IP addresses can be shared by multiple people, “alternative selectors” like a webmail or Facebook account can be linked to a particular target. You can “dumpster-dive for alternate selectors in the big SIGINT trash can” the author suggests. Or “pull out your wicked Google-fu” (slang for efficient Googling) to search for any “official and non-official e-mails” that the targets may have posted online.
Once the agency believes it has identified a sys admin’s personal accounts, according to the posts, it can target them with its so-called QUANTUM hacking techniques. The Snowden files reveal that the QUANTUM methods have been used to secretly inject surveillance malware into a Facebook page by sending malicious NSA data packets that appear to originate from a genuine Facebook server. This method tricks a target’s computer into accepting the malicious packets, allowing the NSA to infect the targeted computer with a malware “implant” and gain unfettered access to the data stored on its hard drive.
“Just pull those selectors, queue them up for QUANTUM, and proceed with the pwnage,” the author of the posts writes. (“Pwnage,” short for “pure ownage,” is gamer-speak for defeating opponents.) The author adds, triumphantly, “Yay! /throws confetti in the air.”
In one case, these tactics were used by the NSA’s British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, to infiltrate the Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom. As Der Speigel revealed last year, Belgacom’s network engineers were targeted by GCHQ in a QUANTUM mission named “Operation Socialist” – with the British agency hacking into the company’s systems in an effort to monitor smartphones.
While targeting innocent sys admins may be surprising on its own, the “hunt sys admins” document reveals how the NSA network specialist secretly discussed building a “master list” of sys admins across the world, which would enable an attack to be initiated on one of them the moment their network was thought to be used by a person of interest. One post outlines how this process would make it easier for the NSA’s specialist hacking unit, Tailored Access Operations (TAO), to infiltrate networks and begin collecting, or “tasking,” data:
Aside from offering up thoughts on covert hacking tactics, the author of these posts also provides a glimpse into internal employee complaints at the NSA. The posts describe how the agency’s spies gripe about having “dismal infrastructure” and a “Big Data Problem” because of the massive volume of information being collected by NSA surveillance systems. For the author, however, the vast data troves are actually something to be enthusiastic about.
“Our ability to pull bits out of random places of the Internet, bring them back to the mother-base to evaluate and build intelligence off of is just plain awesome!” the author writes. “One of the coolest things about it is how much data we have at our fingertips.”


Friday, March 21, 2014

La Revolución del Internet de Banda Ancha: White Space

White Space broadband: 10 communities doing big projects

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

WaRPboard: La tecnología que permite el desarrollo de electrónica usable en el cuerpo

Kick-start your wearable technology development project with WaRPboard

Freescale Semiconductor recently announced WaRPboard, a wearable reference platform for kick-starting wearable development projects.  
Keeping up with the excitement and expectations that wearable technology is bringing to the consumer and enterprise mobility markets is not without its challenges. Time to market is key and the newness of wearables brings with it the inevitable technology knowledge gaps within engineering, development and product management groups.
I spoke with Robert Thompson, director of consumer business development for microcontrollers for Freescale Semiconductor about the launch of WaRPboard, a low cost (Freescale is setting the initial price at $149) wearable reference platform that’s sure to spur even more wearable development in the market. The WaRPboard is in final stages of development and will be available for purchase in Q2 2014.
Origins of WaRPboard
Thompson traces the origins of WaRPboard to the market still trying to get their arms around the wearable category.
When I mentioned to Thompson that I’m still trying to understand the wearables category, Thompson responded, “I think that’s true for everybody. Even the people who would claim they are in the wearable industry. I don’t think very few people would claim they understand the ingredients to be successful in this category right now. I think it’s wide open. The usage models are all undefined. The usage models that will resonate with customers are unclear.”
He adds, “And so you are seeing a lot of experimentation and innovation from both established companies all the way through to companies that are startups.”
“So you are seeing a wide open market with a lot of one-off experimentations,” according to Thompson. “People are putting things out there and see what resonates and quickly going back to the drawing board and coming out with new products. And, that was really our motivation for the WaRPboard.”
“Freescale works as a semiconductor company in many different markets: automotive, consumer, or networking,” explains Thompson. “What we started seeing about 18 months ago was a lot of our current customers both in the consumer space and companies you wouldn’t think of as consumer companies such as healthcare companies designing or coming to us and saying we want to use your part in this wearable product.”
When Freescale further questioned their customers on such requests, Thompson said they often got vague answers.
“We found that a lot of projects started and then would kind of stop after three months or they would get very close to go to market and then they wouldn’t go to market because the marketing team suddenly decided it wasn’t a product they thought they could launch,” says Thompson. Freescale saw a very large and undefined market in the wearable market that could benefit from their technology expertise.
He relates, “When you say wearable, wearable is obviously smart watches and activity trackers getting a lot of the attention right now. But if you really look at the wearable market its everything from sports and fitness to healthcare and wellness to entertainment from smart watches and smart glasses and then you have the industrial and military including smart clothing which is really evolving. It’s a wide open market.”

WaRPboard: A reference design for a wide customer base

Freescale saw the need for an offering such as WaRPboard as a solution for companies coming into the wearable space that didn’t have a lot of hardware and software experience in-house to start a wearable technology development project from scratch.
The WaRPboard is a reference design – not a finished product. Thompson states, “We are giving you a board, Android OS for you to test concepts and ideas of what might work.” As a reference design, the WaRPboard isn’t a finished product and it doesn’t even have a casing. It’s not a watch. It’s not an activity tracker. It could be the start of either wearable device depending on your development goals. Figure A is a picture of the WaRPboard:
 Image: John Larsen
 “If we could put together a board and a software package that was focused on obviously being small from a form factor standpoint and really deliver battery life that would be applicable to most usage models,” says Thompson. “We gave them a range of connectivity options from Wi-Fi down to Bluetooth low energy and then from a software stand point we gave them an operating system with a UI that would enables them to download applications in the Android framework.
Thompson positions the WaRPboard between the Qualcomm Toq and Raspberry Pi. He adds, “We aren’t assuming you are not going to go to market with every component chosen and you are going to lay out the board exactly as we have as Qualcomm is suggesting with the Toq.”
“However, compared to Raspberry Pi, if you do come up with a product idea and you want to change for example, we’ve used a Wi-Fi Bluetooth combination module,” explains Thompson. “You may decide that you only need Bluetooth for your product and then you can go find a Bluetooth module at a lower cost then the module we’ve put on the board.”
Developers have the option to mix and match components on the board with those available from other manufacturers and still productize the WaRPboard.
According to Thompson, the target customer for the WaRPboard is very broad. The potential customer ranges from an individual to a market or somebody who want to play around with a board and Android. He told me Freescale is seeing interest from start-ups through Tier 1 consumer electronics companies including some who are already in the wearable market and have launched products.
“That’s why initially we are pricing it at a $149,” Thompson relates. “It’s a very low cost board.”
“Most big companies, even those with wearables in the market have very little in house expertise on building this range of products,” explains Thompson. The lacking expertise includes building a board for a very small form factor and adapting an operating system for a 1.43” screen.

Taking WaRPboard open source for innovation

Freescale Semiconductor is making the WaRPboard open source to help spur innovation and development in the wearable market as quickly as possible. You can go to to download all of the engineering files and operating system royalty free.

Final thoughts

I count myself amongst those still trying to get my arms around wearable technologies both as an enterprise mobility writer and technology professional. However, I recognize the potential that the WaRPboard brings to wearable technologies by lowering the barrier of entry for startups and individual developers. I see WaRPboard opening up the wearable category to more innovative developers who could in turn help better define the future of the wearable market.
Will Kelly is a technical and marketing communications writer based in the Washington, DC area. He has written about SMB technology, data center management, project management applications, mobile computing, Microsoft Office, and productivity applica...