Weekend news round-up: Bill Gates’ US$100k condom; no more power-downs on airplanes?

25 Mar 2013

In our gathering of some of the best tech news from the weekend, we discover that in the US rules on turning off electronic devices during flights might finally be relaxed; Bill Gates has issued a US$100,000 challenge for students, scientists and entrepreneurs to develop a next-generation condom; and the tech industry is still lamenting the impending demise of Google Reader.

Powering off gadgets on airplanes may finally become a thing of the past

We’ve all been there. The imperious and commanding tone of the flight attendant as you are told to turn off your phone just as you are transmitting that urgent text or email makes you feel shamed and embarrassed, like a 10-year-old caught cheating on a test. But the routine – or inconvenience – of turning off gadgets on flights is about to end. In the US, the Federal Air Authority (FAA) looks set to relax rules on the use of electronic devices.

According to the New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton – who has developed a pet peeve for the notion of switching off devices during flights – the agency hopes to announce by the end of this year that it will relax the rules for reading devices during takeoff and landing. However, the change would not include mobile phones.

“Travellers are told to turn off their iPads and Kindles for takeoff and landing, yet there is no proof that these devices affect a plane’s avionics. To add to the confusion, the FAA permits passengers to use electric razors and audio recorders during all phases of flight, even though those give off more electronic emissions than reading tablets,” Bilton raged.

Bill Gates expands focus from email to French letters

Gizmodo reported at the weekend that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is offering US$100,000 to anyone who can invent a next-generation, hi-tech condom. There are actually a damn good set of humanitarian reasons for this and in continents like Africa, where AIDS is rampant and not helped by cultural or religious zealotry, Gates’ call for innovation could have far-reaching consequences.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has issued the challenge to students, scientists, entrepreneurs – anyone – who has clever ideas around the creation of a next-generation condom.

“Additional concepts that might increase [condom usage] uptake include attributes that increase ease-of-use for male and female condoms, for example better packaging or designs that are easier to properly apply. In addition, attributes that address and overcome cultural barriers are also desired.”

Facebook discovers how to lead developers – like horses – to water

Facebook has turned off access to its website internally to encourage its engineers and developers to create products from a “mobile first” perspective, according to Fast Company.

The decision had a psychological effect of making engineers realise that Facebook exists in more than one place.

“The insight demonstrates just how important mobility is to Facebook’s future. It’s why Facebook spent US$1bn acquiring Instagram, the mobile photo-sharing platform, and why it has spent so much time defending against major players like Twitter and disruptive upstarts like Snapchat. Last quarter, monthly active mobile users reached 680m, an increase of 57pc year-over-year, and daily active mobile users exceeded daily web users for the first time. Mobile revenue accounted for roughly 23pc of ad revenue in that quarter alone. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said then, ‘In 2012, we connected over a billion people and became a mobile company.’”

Lamenting the impending death of Google Reader

A series of articles over the weekend showed that the news of Google’s RSS app Google Reader’s impending demise is not being universally welcomed.

Writing in TechCrunch, one of the founding product managers behind Google Reader Jason Sheldon, drove home the point that the much-loved product was always a bit of an orphan within the Google family and its passionate team of creators always felt somewhat “beleaguered.”

Sheldon wrote of the need for RSS reading technology in the first place: “Back in the days on the Blogger team, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to get people blogging after they had signed up. However, when Blogger achieved critical mass, the need to model good blogging seemed less important since great writers, musicians, photographers and journalists were gravitating towards the form and showing the rest of us what made good blog content. The questions we began to hear from users changed from, ‘How and what do I blog?’ to ‘Where do I find the good ones?’ and ‘How do I keep up with all of these great blogs?’ Naturally, blog search and a blog reader or aggregator of some sort couldn’t be too far off.”

In 2005, Google Reader launched to its first 100,000 users and the team quickly realised that there was a “long tale” of content beyond text that included audio, video and photo content. In effect, they had launched what was ‘Tivo for the Web’.

It seems that Sheldon and Reader’s earliest protagonists learned to accept quite early that Google’s policy of killing its young would inevitably extend to Google Reader.

But he laid down a gauntlet for the future: “I’ve been asked a lot recently if an aggregator or feed reader is even needed these days and what should take Reader’s place. Certainly the folks at Feedly, Digg, Zite and others have promising efforts, but my recommendation is to build something that moves beyond the confines of reading or feeds. Just build the world’s best collaborative and intelligent content-delivery service.”

Devouring your young – that’s what the tech industry does to stay alive

In case you’re wondering at how Google arrived at the decision to kill what is a perfectly good product, ZDNet delved into the culture and decision-making processes at Google that led to the decision to kill Google Reader on 1 July. In essence, it’s the nature of the tech industry to do this kind of thing habitually.

“It’s not unlike the widely criticised model that Microsoft pursued in its pre-millennium days as a monopolist: Embrace, extend, extinguish. Except in this example it doesn’t appear to be part of a grand plan to destroy an industry. Google was Godzilla, sweeping through the landscape and crushing anything in its path, because few start-ups can compete with a free product from Google.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years