MediaFile

Everything we know about tech we learned from Kraftwerk

At 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday there was no more coveted piece of New York City real estate than standing room in the Museum of Modern Art’s Marron Atrium. And so it shall be for the next seven nights as Kraftwerk, the German electronic outfit from the 1970s, plays to a scant crowd of about 450 lucky souls. That this quartet, which includes just one of its original members, can command a showcase like MoMA – and sell out in a drumbeat – provides a useful lesson into technology’s risk of obsolescence.

It would be easy to dismiss Kraftwerk as a relic from the dawn of the digital age and its ardent fans a weird cult in turtleneck sweaters and 3D glasses. But MoMA’s eight-night retrospective of the band helmed by Ralf Hutter provides surprising insight into why some innovations fade and others flourish. Ultimately, success in technology – as in art – is derived from the expression of big ideas, not simply a mastering of its circuitry. It is an example that businesses, too, can learn from.

Kraftwerk is best known for harnessing new gadgets, primarily synthesizers like the Minimoog, to create industrial rhythms and electronic drumbeats that broke new ground in pop music. Kraftwerk’s sounds have been copied, built upon and sampled by artists from Afrika Bambaataa to Pink Floyd to Jay-Z. Today’s auto-tuned pop stars owe a direct debt to the musical sequencing that Hutter and his former partner Florian Schneider pioneered at their Kling Klang Studios in Dusseldorf four decades ago.

Yet funky sounds alone fail to explain how Kraftwerk’s four musicians – looking more like engineers in Tron-era spandex suits – can rivet the attention of New York’s cultural elite for an entire week. That speaks more to the larger concepts embraced by Kraftwerk, chiefly the power of technology – specifically computing, transportation and communications – to transform human relationships and, particularly in the German context, erase the scars of a dark past with visions of a unified, harmonious Europe.

Take Tuesday’s performance of the 1974 breakthrough Autobahn. The song, with its signature electronically modified vocals, “wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn,” against a rhythm of padded drumbeats, is sonically unforgettable. But so, too, is the song’s message – enhanced at the MoMA by 3D screens looming behind the stage – of a peaceful Europe where new highways cut through green fields and the edifices of a modern industrial complex compete with church spires in the middle distance. Like the space-agey sounds emanating from Kraftwerk’s instruments of the era, the limited torque of a 1973 Mercedes diesel sedan might seem obsolete to us today. Yet the freedom of the open road remains an eternal longing.

Can’t find a socket to charge your phone? IDT’s got a solution.

IDT’s wireless recharging chips, on right, versus a rival product.

(Updates with cost details)

Ted Tewksbury wants to get rid your iPhone cable.

The chief executive of San Jose, California-based Integrated Device Technology is pushing a set of microchips he hopes will eventually render “contactless charging” — charging your smartphone by simply placing it on a specific spot — commonplace and eventually make phone-charging cables a thing of the past.

On a recent visit to IDT’s offices, Tewksbury showed me the chips he’s just started selling. They’re IDT”s twist on existing technology, using inductive coupling, which has yet to reach critical mass.

Sony’s case of iPad 3 launch envy

Sony, in a bout of bad timing, is hosting an event on March 7 in San Francisco for tech reporters at the same time as Apple’s reported iPad 3 unveiling and the Japanese conglomerate wants to make sure it won’t get ditched.

Sony, which some people consider to be the “Apple of the ’80s”, sent out a helpful e-mail on Tuesday informing invited members of the press of the scheduling conflict without mentioning the world’s most valuable tech company. 

The email said:

Another press event invitation went out today which conflicts with the Sony roundtable on March 7.
Please confirm if you are still available to join the Sony event.    

from Paul Smalera:

What real Internet censorship looks like

Lately Internet users in the U.S. have been worried about censorship, copyright legalities and data privacy. Between Twitter’s new censorship policy, the global protests over SOPA/PIPA and ACTA and the outrage over Apple’s iOS allowing apps like Path to access the address book without prior approval, these fears have certainly seemed warranted. But we should also remember that Internet users around the world face far more insidious limitations and intrusions on their Internet usage -- practices, in fact, that would horrify the average American.

Sadly, most of the rest of the world has come to accept censorship as a necessary evil. Although I recently argued that Twitter’s censorship policy at least had the benefit of transparency, it’s still an unfortunate cost of doing global business for a company born and bred with the freedoms of the United States, and founded by tech pioneers whose opportunities and creativity stem directly from our Constitution. Yet by the standards of dictatorial regimes, Internet users in countries like China, Syria and Iran should consider themselves lucky if Twitter’s relatively modest censorship program actually keeps those countries’ governments from shutting down the service. As we are seeing around the world, chances are, unfortunately, it won’t.

Consider the freedoms -- or lack thereof -- Internet users have in Iran. Since this past week, some 30 million Iranian users have been without Internet service thanks to that country’s blocking of the SSL protocol, right at the time of its parliamentary elections. SSL is what turns “http” -- the basic way we access the Web -- into “https”, which Gmail, your bank, your credit card company and thousands of other services use to secure data. SSL provides data encryption so that only each end point -- your browser and the Web server you’re logging into -- can decrypt and access the data contained therein.

Tech wrap: Apple teases “Mountain Lion”

Apple released details on the successor to its “Lion” operating system for Mac computers, due out late this summer. OS X 10.8, dubbed “Mountain Lion,” will inherit features already running on iPhones and iPads such as iMessage, Notification Center and AirPlay mirroring, according to an Apple press release. Game Center will give Mac users the opportunity to square off against gamers on iOS devices as well as other Mac users. A new feature called “Gatekeeper” is meant to give OS X users more control over what apps can be downloaded onto their Macs, further distinguishing Apple-approved apps from third-party ones. The plan to introduce more iOS functions to Apple’s desktop and laptop OS comes as Microsoft prepares to make its desktop applications more mobile with a rumored fall release of Windows 8.

Four months after one of Japan’s biggest corporate scandals, police and prosecutors arrested seven men, including the former president of Olympus and ex-bankers, over their role in a $1.7 billion accounting fraud at the medical equipment and camera maker. Three former executives arrested, ex-President Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, former Executive Vice President Hisashi Mori and former auditor Hideo Yamada, had been identified by an investigative panel, commissioned by Olympus, as the main culprits in the fraud, seeking to delay the reckoning from risky investments made in the late-1980′s bubble economy.

Groupon CEO Andrew Mason said that the company’s location-based service Groupon NOW will likely not be a material contributor to results in the next one or two quarters. Mason said customers of the company’s daily deals are using Groupon NOW too. However, he stressed that the new service will likely take time to grow. Groupon NOW is a relatively new service that differs from Groupon’s main daily deal business. Groupon subscribers can check on nearby deals that are happening in the next one or two hours, based on their location.

Corporate co-dependence: when good partnerships go bad

One of the biggest surprises in Facebook’s IPO filing was that it depended on game-maker Zynga  for 12 percent of its sales last year.

In 2010, the online game company famous for “FarmVille” and “Words With Friends” nearly declared war with the social network over a change in Facebook’s policy involving credits — the currency Zynga players use to buy virtual goods. Facebook wanted to take a 30 percent cut of transactions.

Bing Gordon, a video game veteran, Zynga board member and partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, described the standoff during the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in May as a Silicon Valley version of the Cuban Missile crisis, where Zynga was at one point prepared to walk away from Facebook.

from Paul Smalera:

Twitter’s censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter

Twitter’s announcement this week that it was going to enable country-specific censorship of posts is arousing fury around the Internet. Commentators, activists, protesters and netizens have said it’s “very bad news” and claim to be “#outraged”. Bianca Jagger, for one, asked how to go about boycotting Twitter, on Twitter, according to the New York Times. (Step one might be... well, never mind.) The critics have settled on #TwitterBlackout: all day on Saturday the 28th, they promised to not tweet, as a show of protest and solidarity with those who might be censored.

Here’s the thing: Like Twitter itself, it’s time for the Internet, and its chirping classes, to grow up. Twitter’s policy and its transparency pledge with the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects is the most thoughtful, honest and realistic policy to come out of a technology company in a long time. Even an unsympathetic reading of the new censorship policy bears that out.

To understand why, let’s unpack the policy a bit: First, Twitter has strongly implied it will not remove content under this policy. If that doesn’t sound like a crucial distinction from outright censorship, it is. Taking the new policy with existing ones, the only time Twitter says it will ever remove a tweet altogether is in response to a DMCA request. The DMCA may have its own flaws, but it is a form of censorship that lives separately from the process Twitter has outlined in this recent announcement. Where the DMCA process demands a deletion of copyright-infringing content, Twitter’s censorship policy promises no such takedown: it promises instead only to withhold censored content from the country where the content has been censored. Nothing else.

Tech wrap: Is Samsung buying RIM?


Shares of Research in Motion jumped 10 percent on Tuesday after a tech blog (The Boy Genius Report) said the BlackBerry maker was actively seeking to sell itself to South Korean smartphone rival Samsung Electronics.

This fall New York will open The Academy for Software Engineering, the city’s first public high school that will train kids to develop software, reports Mashable.

In protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act, popular Web sites such as Reddit, Boing Boing, and Wikipedia will go dark Wednesday, displaying only a message about their opposition to the controversial bill, reports The Washington Post.

Tech wrap: Amazon concerns hit shares

 

Amazon.com shares fell to their lowest level since late March on Thursday on concern about sales growth during the online retailer’s crucial fourth quarter.

Free Wi-Fi is on its way to some Japanese vending machines, reports gizmag. Much like a mobile hotspot at a local coffee shop, people near the machines would be able to connect to the internet for 30 minutes at a time and surf the web.

Just when you thought you’d never hear the words HP TouchPad ever again, the miniature version of the tablet computer that caused a frenzy when it went on sale for $99 has emerged: the HP TouchPad Go, reports the International Business Times.

Tech wrap: Apps are iTV’s secret weapon


The iTV might be the most anticipated product Apple will ever launch, and it seems everyone has an opinion about it, writes Gigaom’s Ryan Lawler. Apple will win in TV the same way it won with the iPhone — by having a compelling platform for app developers, he says.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS “hasn’t made much of a splash in 2011″, says ex-Windows Phone evangelist Charlie Kindel. “Microsoft’s approach with WP7 has a impedance mismatch with the carriers and device manufacturers while Google’s approach reduces friction with carriers and device manufacturers at the expense of end users,” his blog says.

Netflix and the Gap were among the worst performers in customer satisfaction among the largest online retailers this holiday season, according to a survey released on Wednesday.