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A startup’s guide to CES – TechCrunch

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The Consumer Electronics Show, like Burning Man, is a massive event in the middle of the desert. Also like Burning Man it is populated by some of the greatest minds in technology. But, unlike Burning Man, these people are all dressed and only a few of them are on hard psychotropic drugs. Also CES is mostly inside.

Here are some tips and tricks I’ve collected over a long career spent staying in awful hotels and wandering around massive conference halls full of things that won’t be released for another year. Hopefully they can be of some use.

Why should you go?

CES is not about innovation. It is about networking with potential buyers. The show is massive and it is popular primarily because it is in Las Vegas, a city so nice they made the movie Casino about it. But the days of you and your brother being dragged out into the corn and beaten to death are gone and what’s left is an adult playground of 24-hour craps and bad drinks.

You are not going to CES to drink and gamble, however. As a startup you are going there to find customers or get press. If you have the hustle and the will you can easily meet hundreds of potential buyers for your technology, including some big names who usually buy massive booths to show off their “innovative” systems. When you go, bypass the armed booth guards who stand at the front directing traffic and go talk to the most bored person at the booth. This is usually some middle manager who was wrangled into telling people about his company’s most boring innovation. Talk to him or her like a human being, offer to take them out for a coffee, do whatever it takes to get a warm lead inside that massive company. Repeat this hundreds of times.

CES costs $300 and the tickets to LV and the hotel will cost far more. Be sure you’re not cash-poor before you go. This isn’t a Hail Mary for your startup, it’s a step along the way.

If you don’t think you can pull off this sort of social engineering I describe, please don’t go to CES, or instead send the most personable member of the team. It’s too big and there are already enough nervous nerds walking around.

You haven’t planned yet?

So you’ve decided to go. Do you have tickets? A hotel? At least an Airbnb? It’s pretty much too late right now to get any of those things in time for January 8th, but you can try.

Further, if you have a friend who lives there, go stay with them. The hotels gouge you during this week. Check out the Excalibur, arguably one of the worst on the strip. Right now, you can stay at this illustrious medieval-themed hotel for $25:

Need a smoke-smelling room abutting a flying buttress topped with an animatronic Merlin around January 9? Fear not, my liege!

The best time to book for CES is a year before CES. The second best time is never.

Maybe you’re going to buy a booth. I wouldn’t, but go ahead and give it a try. I like what my friend Tommy here did. Instead of going through one of the countless staffing agencies in Las Vegas he put out a general call for help and he got plenty of responses. Lots of people would be willing to go to Las Vegas to help out for not much cash.

Do everything in your power to stay as close to the Convention Center or Sands (the hall with all the startups) as possible. It is a living hell trying to get around Las Vegas and you’ll thank me later for every hour in a cab line you save for yourself.

Go to where the action is

If you are trying to get press for your product launch then you came to the wrong place. First, if you’re going to CES to launch then you MUST LAUNCH AT CES. I’ve seen too many idiotic startups who flew in, paid for everything and then told the world they’d launch in like two months or whenever Sven back at the main office in Oslo was done putting the finishing touches on the device driver. If you’re not ready to ship don’t go.

Do not spam journos about your product unless you know them. Your emails will fall into a black hole.

Further, instead of getting a booth at the show I recommend getting a booth at Showstoppers or Digital Experience. The events cost about $8,000 for a booth and are approximately the same. They are held before the main event and they’re where all the journalists go to get free prime rib and ignore you. It’s also where all of the small market journalists and the weird freelancers who wear fishing vests and live in Scranton wander around, so be ready to do a little target acquisition.

Want my advice? Put one person at your booth who can tell your story in two minutes exactly. That person must tell that story as many times as possible and give the odd journalist who will stand there asking dumb questions for an hour the stiff arm whenever someone else comes up. Maximize your message dispersal. Also, if you have product, then have about 20 pieces there ready to give away to Engadget, Gizmodo, The New York Times, The Verge and the like. Don’t give anything to me if I see you. I don’t want that crap in my suitcase.

Now for the ingenious part. Find the most popular food item at the buffets and stand next to it. When a hungry journo comes up to grab a spaghetti taco or whatever, scope out their badge and offer to walk them over to your booth. They’ll harrumph a little but unless they are one of the countless millennial reporters who believe they have to live-blog these events they have nothing else to do that night except get drunk on gin and tonics. Drag them over to your booth and give them the two-minute pitch. They’ll be so busy eating they won’t be able to ask questions. Write down their email address — don’t ask them for a card — and give them yours. Then email the heck out of them for the next few days to remind them about your launch.

Further, never rent a suite and invite journos to come to you. They have enough trouble getting out of bed, let alone getting a cab to your dumb room. If a journo wants to meet, you MUST go to them. Don’t make them come to you.

Manage expectations

Like Burning Man, CES is the worst show on the planet held in one of the most unforgiving habitats known to man. As long as you accept these two points you will be fine. You will not “win” CES. At best, CES will give you a kick in the pants in regard to your competition and actual value to the world. Want to know if you have customer fit? Go to CES and meet your customers. Want to see if journalists care about your idea? Pitch them when they are fat and sassy at CES and feeling powerful. That experience will humble even the biggest ego.

Remember: The world is a cold, uncaring place and this is doubly true at CES.

Be careful with PR people

See that animated GIF above? That’s how I manage my CES email. I scroll through the subject lines, look for people I know, then select all unread and delete them. One of the worst things about CES is that the letters “CES” show up in multiple words and, barring writing a regular expression, it is very difficult to filter them out; 99 percent of your CES emails will go unread.

So should you hire a PR person? Yes and no. If you hire them to just send emails then you might as well burn your money. However, if that PR person can lead you around the show and introduce you to folks who can help you get your story out then it might be worth it. Sadly, there is no way to tell how incompetent a PR person is until you get on the ground with them. I know a few I can recommend. Email me. Otherwise be very careful.

Don’t go

Look, CES sucks. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s too big, everyone there is distracted by potential blackjack winnings, and trying to get noticed or launch at CES is akin to holding a poetry reading in the middle of a rock concert: nobody is paying attention and you actually may annoy more people than you reach. It’s your call whether or not you want to give it a try, but be ready to hustle. Besides, there’s always next year.

Bonus Tip: Buy a humidifier

I learned this trick from Brian Lam, formerly of Gizmodo: when you land go to Walgreens and buy a very cheap humidifier. Put it in your room and leave it on all day. Las Vegas air is very dry and you’re almost guaranteed to get chapped lips and a cough if you don’t have at least one spot where it doesn’t feel like you’re on the surface of Mars.

This was us at CES 2008 or so. We were such sweet summer children.

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New RISC-V CPU claims recordbreaking performance per watt

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Micro Magic’s new CPU prototype is seen here running on an Odroid board.

Micro Magic Inc.—a small electronic design firm in Sunnyvale, California—has produced a prototype CPU that is several times more efficient than world-leading competitors, while retaining reasonable raw performance.

We first noticed Micro Magic’s claims earlier this week, when EE Times reported on the company’s new prototype CPU, which appears to be the fastest RISC-V CPU in the world. Micro Magic advisor Andy Huang claimed the CPU could produce 13,000 CoreMarks (more on that later) at 5GHz and 1.1V while also putting out 11,000 CoreMarks at 4.25GHz—the latter, all while consuming only 200mW. Huang demonstrated the CPU—running on an Odroid board—to EE Times at 4.327GHz/0.8V, and 5.19GHz/1.1V.

Later the same week, Micro Magic announced the same CPU could produce over 8,000 CoreMarks at 3GHz while consuming only 69mW of power.

OK, but what’s a CoreMark?

Part of the difficulty in evaluating Micro Magic’s claim for its new CPU lies in figuring out just what a CoreMark is and how many of them are needed to make a fast CPU. It’s a deliberately simplified CPU benchmarking tool released by the Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium, intended to be as platform-neutral and simple to build and use as possible. CoreMark focuses solely on the core pipeline functions of a CPU, including basic read/write, integer, and control operations. This specifically avoids most effects of system differences in memory, I/O, and so forth.

The Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium (EMBC) is a group with wide industry representation: Intel, Texas Instruments, ARM, Realtek, and Nokia are a few of its more notable and easily recognizable members.

Now that we understood all that, the next step in order to better evaluate Micro Magic’s claims was to run a few CoreMark benchmarks of our own. All we needed to do here was clone its GitHub repository, then issue a make command—optionally, with arguments XCFLAGS="-DMULTITHREAD=8 -DUSE_FORK=1" if we want to test on multiple threads/cores at once.

I still have an Apple M1 Mac Mini on hand, as well as a Ryzen 7 4700U-powered Acer Swift 3, so those were my test systems for comparison. Getting the raw performance scores was considerably easier than getting truly comparable power readings. On the Ryzen powered Linux system, I used the utility turbostat to get both Core and Package power readings while the tests were running.

I don’t have access to anything nearly as fine-grained as turbostat for the Apple M1, so for that platform I took whole-system power draw at the wall and just plain subtracted the reading at desktop idle from the sustained reading while under test. This is extremely crude, and I caution readers not to rely too much on comparing the M1’s efficiency to the Swift 3’s on these numbers alone—but it’s good enough to get some perspective on Micro Magic’s claim for its new RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) CPU.

On to the tests!

The Micro Magic CPU is, for the moment, single-core and single-threaded—although Huang says it could “easily” be built as a 25-core part. Micro Magic has provided figures—and in one case, a screenshot—for performance at 3GHz, 4.25GHz, and 5GHz. At the maximally power-efficient 3GHz clockrate, the Micro Magic CPU scores about 1/4 the CoreMarks of either the Ryzen 4700u or Apple M1. At the maximally performant 5GHz clock, it manages just over a third of their performance.

This is enough to let us know that the Micro Magic chip in its current form isn’t a world-class competitor for traditional ARM and x86 CPUs in phone or laptop applications—but it’s much closer to them than previous RISC-V implementations have been. At the power-efficient 3GHz clockrate, the Micro Magic CPU is nearly three times faster than, for example, SiFive’s Freedom U540 CPU running single-threaded. At 5GHz, it outruns all four of the SiFive’s cores.

We can see the Micro Magic CPU on Odroid board here, scoring 8,200 iterations/sec over 10 seconds. The multimeter attached to the board is reading 69mW—according to Micro Magic, that's a measurement taken during the run, not at idle afterward.
Enlarge / We can see the Micro Magic CPU on Odroid board here, scoring 8,200 iterations/sec over 10 seconds. The multimeter attached to the board is reading 69mW—according to Micro Magic, that’s a measurement taken during the run, not at idle afterward.

At roughly a quarter the performance of world-leading x86 and ARM mobile processors, the Micro Magic CPU doesn’t sound like much yet. But when we factor in power efficiency, things get crazy. I gave my Ryzen and Apple processors the benefit of every possible doubt when generating the above charts—I used core power (not total package power) on the Ryzen 4700U and ran tests with the Gnome3 desktop shut down. For the Apple, I only had access to whole-system power draw, so I subtracted the “desktop idle” power draw from the “under test” power draw.

I tested the Apple and AMD CPUs both single-threaded and multithreaded when checking power efficiency. Unsurprisingly, both parts produced more performance per watt when exercised with one work thread for each available CPU thread. None of this made much of a dent in the Micro Magic’s commanding lead in power efficiency.

At 4.25GHz, the Micro Magic can accomplish the same workload as the Ryzen 4700U with less than one-third the power required. At 3GHz, that figure plummets to less than one-eighth the power required.

What is it good for?

The Linux operating system already supports RISC-V architecture—so for headless or near-headless controllers that simply need to deliver decent performance paired with extreme power efficiency, Micro Magic’s new CPU is likely most of the way there. Things get considerably more complicated once you start talking about entire, consumer-friendly systems, of course. Even aside from hardware considerations like GPU and LTE modem, creating an entire Android phone based on a non-ARM architecture is likely to be a much bigger undertaking.

With that said, it’s worth pointing out that—if we take Micro Magic’s numbers for granted—they’re already beating the performance of some solid mobile phone CPUs. Even at its efficiency-first 3GHz clockrate, the Micro Magic CPU outperformed a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820. The Snapdragon 820 isn’t world-class anymore, but it’s no slouch, either—it was the processor in the US version of Samsung’s Galaxy S7.

If we use the EMBC’s published single-core score for the Snapdragon 820 along with Anandtech’s single-core CPU power test result, we get about 16,000 CoreMarks per watt. That’s triple the efficiency of the Ryzen 4700u running single-threaded, and a little better than par with it when the Ryzen’s running an optimally multithreaded workload.

In other words, Micro Magic’s prototype CPU is both significantly faster and tremendously more power-efficient than a reasonably modern and still very capable smartphone CPU.

Conclusions

All of this sounds very exciting—Micro Magic’s new prototype is delivering solid smartphone-grade performance at a fraction of the power budget, using an instruction set that Linux already runs natively on. Better yet, the company itself isn’t an unknown.

Micro Magic was originally founded in 1995 and was purchased by Juniper Networks in $260 million. In 2004, it was reborn under its original name by the original founders—Mark Santoro and Lee Tavrow, who originally worked at Sun and led the team which developed the 300MHz SPARC microprocessor.

Micro Magic intends to offer its new RISC-V design to customers using an IP licensing model. The simplicity of the design—RISC-V requires roughly one-tenth the opcodes that modern ARM architecture does—further simplifies manufacturing concerns, since RISC-V CPU designs can be built in shuttle runs, sharing space on a wafer with other designs.

With that said, it would be an enormous undertaking to port—for example—an entire smartphone ecosystem, such as commercial Android, to a new architecture. In addition to building the operating system itself—not just the kernel, but drivers for all hardware from GPU to Wi-Fi to LTE modem, and more—third-party app developers would need to recompile their own applications for the new architecture as well.

We’re also still taking a pretty fair amount of Micro Magic’s claims at face value. While we’ve seen a screenshot of an 8,200 CoreMark score, and we’ve seen a 69mW power reading, it’s not entirely clear that the power reading was representative of the entire benchmark run.

Still, this is an exciting development. Not only does the new design appear to perform well while massively breaking efficiency records, it’s doing so with a far more ideologically open design than its competitors. The RISC-V ISA—unlike x86, ARM, and even MIPS—is open and provided under royalty-free licenses.

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Android apps with millions of downloads are vulnerable to serious attacks

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Android apps with hundreds of millions of downloads are vulnerable to attacks that allow malicious apps to steal contacts, login credentials, private messages, and other sensitive information. Security firm Check Point said that the Edge Browser, the XRecorder video and screen recorder, and the PowerDirector video editor are among those affected.

The vulnerability actually resides in the Google Play Core Library, which is a collection of code made by Google. The library allows apps to streamline the update process by, for instance, receiving new versions during runtime and tailoring updates to an individual app’s specific configuration or a specific phone model the app is running on.

A core vulnerability

In August, security firm Oversecured disclosed a security bug in the Google Play Core Library that allowed one installed app to execute code in the context of any other app that relied on the vulnerable library version.

The vulnerability stemmed from a directory traversal flaw that allowed untrusted sources to copy files to a folder that was supposed to be reserved only for trusted code received from Google Play. The vulnerability undermined a core protection built into the Android operating system that prevents one app from accessing data or code belonging to any other app.

Here’s an image that illustrates how an attack might work:

Check Point

Google patched the library bug in April, but for vulnerable apps to be fixed, developers must first download the updated library and then incorporate it into their app code. According to research findings from Check Point, a nontrivial number of developers continued to use the vulnerable library version.

Check Point researchers Aviran Hazum and Jonathan Shimonovich wrote:

When we combine popular applications that utilize the Google Play Core library, and the Local-Code-Execution vulnerability, we can clearly see the risks. If a malicious application exploits this vulnerability, it can gain code execution inside popular applications and have the same access as the vulnerable application.

The possibilities are limited only by our creativity. Here are just a few examples:

  • Inject code into banking applications to grab credentials, and at the same time have SMS permissions to steal the Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) codes.
  • Inject code into Enterprise applications to gain access to corporate resources.
  • Inject code into social media applications to spy on the victim, and use location access to track the device.
  • Inject code into IM apps to grab all messages, and possibly send messages on the victim’s behalf.

Seeing is believing

To demonstrate an exploit, Check Point used a proof-of-concept malicious app to steal an authentication cookie from an old version of Chrome. With possession of the cookie, the attacker is then able to gain unauthorized access to a victim’s Dropbox account.

Account Takeover exploiting vulnerability in Android’s Play Core Library Code – Demo.

Check Point identified 14 apps with combined downloads of almost 850 million that remained vulnerable. Within a few hours of publishing a report, the security firm said that developers of some of the named apps had released updates that fixed the vulnerability.

Apps identified by Check Point included Edge, XRecorder, and the PowerDirector, which have combined installations of 160 million. Check Point provided no indication that any of these apps had been fixed. Ars asked developers of all three apps to comment on the report. This post will be updated if they respond.

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Google Maps’ new “Community Feed” is like a social network for food

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Google Maps is getting a bunch of new features this week, so it’s time for a roundup! The first feature is definitely one nobody asked for: the new “Community Feed,” which is clearly trying to turn Google Maps into a social network. Google’s blog post says that “Every day, people submit more than 20 million contributions—including recommendations for their favorite spots, updates to business services, fresh reviews and ratings, photos, answers to other people’s questions, updated addresses and more.” So now Google Maps is getting a News Feed full of all these reviews and updates.

Google’s sales pitch reads “The feed shows you the latest reviews, photos and posts added to Google Maps by local experts and people you follow as well as food and drink merchants, and articles from publishers like The Infatuation.” All of these updates are in the style of a social network, with the author at the top, a “follow” link for the author, and the ability to “like” posts. The only thing it’s missing is comments!

To show how serious it is about this Google Maps Social Network thing, Google is putting the community feed front-and-center in the interface. When you open Google Maps, the community feed card is peeking up from the top of the screen, right on the main page of Maps. You just swipe up on it to read the latest updates. If you’re not on the main page of Maps, the community feed lives under the “explore” tab, the first tab on the Google Maps tab bar. This also looks like a great spot for ads.

Besides people you actively follow, it sounds like Google Maps is going to push updates from “local experts” to everyone, which hopefully won’t be abused. Google has to assume that, especially at first, everyone is going to have zero followers, so you’ve got to fill the feed with something. Google also says it will try to figure out your Google Maps interests and will fill the feed with recommendations for similar places. Today these recommendations exist in the “updates” tab, which is still in Google’s new images. Seems redundant.

Building numbers and crosswalks

Enlarge / Left: crosswalk markers on the roads. Right: Building numbers!

For a less controversial addition, how about building numbers and crosswalks? Android Police has spotted even more detail being added to certain cities in Google Maps. If you zoom all the way in on places like NYC, you’ll see striped crosswalk paint in some roads and tiny little building numbers letting you know where the exact addresses are. These go great with Google Maps’ other recent detail addition: Traffic lights.

Android Police says this was first spotted in the Android Google Maps Beta, which you can sign up for here. I’m also seeing it on Google Maps on the web.

The “Go” tab: Google Maps Bookmarks

More tab shenanigans: Google Maps’ “Commute” tab (the second one) is turning into the “Go” tab, which sounds a lot more useful. Commute would only list navigation options to your home and work, but the “Go” tab is more of a general bookmark section. Besides your home and work, you can also pin frequently visited places to the “Go” tab, and navigate them to with a tap. It looks like this will also show suggestions too, which are typically based on things like your travel and search history.

The "Go" tab.

Google says your pinned destinations will show live traffic info and accurate ETAs right from Go tab, which sounds handy. You can also pin public transit routes, which will show departure and arrival times, an up-to-date ETA, and any service alerts.

Google says “The Go Tab starts rolling out on Android and iOS in the coming weeks.” There’s no word on if you’ll be able to access these bookmarks from the web. Google didn’t say anything about the social network being on the web either. Someone remind Google that Google Maps has a website.

“Connected Photos” for Street View

Google’s ground-level Street View feature is getting another form of imagery that’s easier to record without special equipment. “Connected Photos” is a new feature more-or-less replicates the experience of walking down a street with street view, but without the hassle of taking a 360-degree photo. You just fire up the new Street View app, walk (or drive) down the street, and some sort of imagery will be created.

The feature requires an ARCore-compatible phone, Google’s 3D sensing Augmented Reality framework. It sounds like what is happening is that Google is recording a video with some 3D positional data, and as you move down the street, the best frames will be saved and converted into a series of still images for Street View. These aren’t 360 images, so you won’t be able to turn the camera, but you will be able to press the forward and backwards buttons to virtually walk down the street.

Back when this feature was in testing, it used to be called “Driving Mode” for Street View. So I guess Google wanted you to put the phones in a car mount, fire up the app, and let it collect as much data as possible while you drive around. The blog post shows a photo from the middle of a five-lane highway, so it seems like turning yourself into an amateur, 120-degree Street View car is still something Google would like you to do.

Google’s blog post says “Before this feature, you would typically need special 360-degree cameras to capture and publish Street View imagery.” That is …not accurate. Android has been able to capture Street View imagery for years, via the PhotoSphere feature that launched in 2012 on Android 4.2. Google Maps uploads of PhotoSpheres have been supported since 2013. PhotoSpheres are full 360 images, and taking them on a phone involves stitching together something like 15 photos. While the wizard walks you through the steps, it takes forever to make one, so Connected Photos is a simpler, higher-bandwidth way for the public to contribute pictures. It sounds like this is only an Android feature again, and you’ll need a new version of the Street View app, not Google Maps.

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