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Apple acquires talking Barbie voicetech startup PullString – TechCrunch

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Apple has just bought up the talent it needs to make talking toys a part of Siri, HomePod, and its voice strategy. Apple has acquired PullString, also known as ToyTalk, according to Axios’ Dan Primack and Ina Fried. TechCrunch has received confirmation of the acquistion from sources with knowledge of the deal. The startup makes voice experience design tools, artificial intelligence to power those experiences, and toys like talking Barbie and Thomas The Tank Engine toys in partnership with Mattel. Founded in 2011 by former Pixar executives, PullString went on to raise $44 million.

Apple’s Siri is seen as lagging far behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, not only in voice recognition and utility, but also in terms of developer ecosystem. Google and Amazon has built platforms to distribute Skills from tons of voice app makers, including storytelling, quizzes, and other games for kids. If Apple wants to take a real shot at becoming the center of your connected living room with Siri and HomePod, it will need to play nice with the children who spend their time there. Buying PullString could jumpstart Apple’s in-house catalog of speech-activated toys for kids as well as beef up its tools for voice developers.

PullString did catch some flack for being a “child surveillance device” back in 2015, but countered by detailing the security built intoHello Barbie product and saying it’d never been hacked to steal childrens’ voice recordings or other sensitive info. Privacy norms have changed since with so many people readily buying always-listening Echos and Google Homes.

In 2016 it rebranded as PullString with a focus on developers tools that allow for visually mapping out conversations and publishing finished products to the Google and Amazon platforms. Given SiriKit’s complexity and lack of features, PullString’s Converse platform could pave the way for a lot more developers to jump into building voice products for Apple’s devices.

We’ve reached out to Apple and PullString for more details about whether PullString and ToyTalk’s products will remain available.

The startup raised its cash from investors including Khosla Ventures, CRV, Greylock, First Round, and True Ventures, with a Series D in 2016 as its last raise that PitchBook says valued the startup at $160 million. While the voicetech space has since exploded, it can still be difficult for voice experience developers to earn money without accompanying physical products, and many enterprises still aren’t sure what to build with tools like those offered by PullString. That might have led the startup to see a brighter future with Apple, strengthening one of the most ubiquitous though also most detested voice assistants.

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A good day for UltraHD: HBO Max and The Lord of the Rings will stream in 4K HDR

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Enlarge / Wonder Woman is going to be extra shiny on modern TVs.

Warner Bros.

Wonder Woman 1984 will be the first film to stream in 4K HDR (UltraHD) on HBO Max when it premieres on the service in the US alongside a theatrical release on December 25. It will also stream with Dolby Atmos audio.

The news was announced in a tweet by Director Patty Jenkins:

Excited to announce that #WW84 will be the first film on HBO Max available in 4K Ultra HD, HDR 10, Dolby Vision AND Dolby Atmos! Can’t wait. IN THEATERS on Dec. 25th and exclusively streaming in the US on @hbomax. PLEASE find the biggest and highest quality screen you can!!

HBO Max is one of the most expensive streaming services at $14.99, but unlike the majority of its competitors, it has not previously included any 4K or HDR content.

For comparison, commercial-free monthly subscription costs for competing services include: $6.99 for Disney+ (4K), $9.99 for CBS All Access (HD), $8.99 for Amazon Prime Video (4K), $11.99 for Hulu (4K), $10.99 for Showtime (4K), $8.99 for Starz (4K), or $10 for Peacock (HD).

Only Netflix has a price point that rivals or beats HBO Max. Netflix’s HD-only subscription, which is equivalent in quality to HBO Max up to this point, recently saw its price raised from $12.99 to $13.99 per month. However, Netflix’s 4K-enabled subscription is now $17.99—three dollars more than HBO Max, albeit with a vast library of UltraHD content.

It’s important to note, though, that even services like Netflix or Hulu that offer 4K content have plenty of shows and movies that are only available in HD. The label here just means they offer at least some 4K content.

4K TVs accounted for a third of shipments in the US even back in 2017, but one analytics firm projected that 60 percent of new TV purchases in 2020 would be 4K. According to surveys from firms like IHS, around a third of US households already had 4K TVs as of 2019. We’re speculating a bit here, but there has been some data that correlates 4K TV ownership with streaming service usage, so it could be that well over a third of HBO Max viewers will get a better experience with the film (and presumably, with some other future HBO Max programming as well) as a result of this move.

It has been a red-letter week for fans of high-end TV tech like 4K and HDR. In addition to this announcement, all six films in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies became available in 4K HDR as well. It was already reported that the films would be released on UltraHD Blu-ray, but it was less widely reported that the physical release early this week was accompanied by quality upgrades in digital storefronts like iTunes and Amazon Video, too.

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One of the Internet’s most aggressive threats could take UEFI malware mainstream

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One of the Internet’s most aggressive threats has just gotten meaner, with the ability to infect one of the most critical parts of any modern-day computer.

Trickbot is a piece of malware that’s notable for its advanced capabilities. Its modular framework excels at gaining powerful administrator privileges, spreading rapidly from computer to computer in networks, and performing reconnaissance that identifies infected computers belonging to high-value targets. It often uses readily available software like Mimikatz or exploits like EternalBlue stolen from the National Security Agency.

Once a simple banking fraud trojan, Trickbot over the years has evolved into a full-featured malware-as-a-service platform. Trickbot operators sell access to their vast number of infected machines to other criminals, who use the botnet to spread bank trojans, ransomware, and a host of other malicious software. Rather than having to go through the hassle of ensnaring victims themselves, customers have a ready-made group of computers that will run their crimeware.

The first link in the security chain

Now, Trickbot has acquired a new power: the ability to modify a computer’s UEFI. Short for Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, UEFI is the software that bridges a computer’s device firmware with its operating system. As the first piece of software to run when virtually any modern machine is turned on, it’s the first link in the security chain. Because the UEFI resides in a flash chip on the motherboard, infections are difficult to detect and remove.

According to research findings published on Thursday, Trickbot has been updated to incorporate an obfuscated driver for RWEverything, an off-the-shelf tool that people use to write firmware to virtually any device.

At the moment, researchers have detected Trickbot using the tool only to test whether an infected machine is protected against unauthorized changes to the UEFI. But with a single line of code, the malware could be modified to infect or completely erase the critical piece of firmware.

“This activity sets the stage for TrickBot operators to perform more active measures such as the installation of firmware implants and backdoors or the destruction (bricking) of a targeted device,” Thursday’s post jointly published by security firms AdvIntel and Eclypsium stated. “It is quite possible that threat actors are already exploiting these vulnerabilities against high-value targets.”

Rare for now

So far, there have been only two documented cases of real-world malware infecting the UEFI. The first one, discovered two years ago by security provider ESET, was done by Fancy Bear, one of the world’s most advanced hacker groups and an arm of the Russian government. By repurposing a legitimate antitheft tool known as LoJack, the hackers were able to modify UEFI firmware so that it reported to Fancy Bear servers rather than ones belonging to LoJack.

The second batch of real-world UEFI infections were uncovered only two months ago by Moscow-based security firm Kaspersky Lab. Company researchers found the malicious firmware on two computers, both of which belonged to diplomatic figures located in Asia. The infections planted a malicious file in a computer’s startup folder so it would run whenever the computer booted up.

The motherboard-resident flash chips that store the UEFI have access control mechanisms that can be locked during the boot process to prevent unauthorized firmware changes. Often, however, these protections are turned off, misconfigured, or hampered by vulnerabilities.

UEFI infections at scale

At the moment, the researchers have seen Trickbot using it’s newly acquired UEFI-writing capabilities to test if the protections are in place. The presumption is that the malware operators are compiling a list of machines that are vulnerable to such attacks. The operators could then sell access to those machines. Customers pushing ransomware could use the list to overwrite the UEFI to make large numbers of machines unbootable. Trickbot clients intent on espionage could use the list to plant hard-to-detect backdoors on PCs in high-value networks.

Trickbot’s embrace of UEFI-writing code threatens to make such attacks mainstream. Instead of being the dominion of advanced persistent threat groups that typically are funded by nation states, access to UEFI-vulnerable computers could be rented out to the same lower-echelon criminals who now use Trickbot for other types of malware attacks.

“The difference here is that TrickBot’s modular automated approach, robust infrastructure, and rapid mass-deployment capabilities bring a new level of scale to this trend,” AdvIntel and Eclypsium researchers wrote. “All pieces are now in place for mass-scale destructive or espionage-focused campaigns that can target entire verticals or portions of critical infrastructure.”

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Apple’s MagSafe Duo charger finally shows up in online stores

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Today, Apple finally began selling and shipping the MagSafe Duo charger, an accessory that was announced alongside the new iPhone 12 lineup on October 13.

The MagSafe Duo is a charging pad that uses Qi wireless charging tech to charge two devices at once. Apple says it supports any Qi-enabled device but, of course, it specifically notes that the Duo can charge any two-device combination of an iPhone, an Apple Watch, or AirPods cases.

The MagSafe Duo charger is just one of a number of MagSafe accessories Apple announced in October. New iPhones have a magnet built into the back that is designed to allow chargers and cases to latch on, and MagSafe iPhones also have built-in sensors to detect what kind of accessory is being connected and communicate with it via NFC.

Apple also announced at that same iPhone event that new iPhones wouldn’t come with charging bricks in their boxes, and that also applies to this charger. Apple is assuming here that most anyone who buys this already has a charging brick on hand, but if you don’t, Apple’s store page says the following about what you should make sure to get to use the MagSafe Duo:

– 20W USB-C Power Adapter (sold separately) for faster wireless charging up to 11W
– 27W or higher USB-C Power Adapter (sold separately) for faster wireless charging up to 14W

Obviously, wired charging is going to be much faster. But if you like the convenience of wireless charging, this is Apple’s intended multidevice solution for you—though it doesn’t support three devices at once like the long-ago announced-then-seemingly-canceled AirPower mat.

The MagSafe Duo is priced at $129 and ships right away, with the first deliveries expected to arrive at buyers’ doorsteps later this week.

Listing image by Apple

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