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SpaceX kicks off its space-based internet service tomorrow with 60-satellite Starlink launch – TechCrunch

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As wild as it sounds, the race is on to build a functioning space internet — and SpaceX is taking its biggest step yet with the launch of 60 (!) satellites tomorrow that will form the first wave of its Starlink constellation. It’s a hugely important and incredibly complex launch for the company — and should be well worth launching.

A Falcon 9 loaded to the gills with the flat Starlink test satellites (they’re “production design” but not final hardware) is vertical at launchpad 40 in Cape Canaveral. It has completed its static fire test and should have a window for launch tomorrow, weather permitting.

Building satellite constellations hundreds or thousands strong is seen by several major companies and investors as the next major phase of connectivity — though it will take years and billions of dollars to do so.

OneWeb, perhaps SpaceX’s biggest competitor in this area, just secured $1.25 billion in funding after launching the first six satellites in March (of a planned 650). Jeff Bezos has announced that Amazon will join the fray with the proposed 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper. Ubiquitilink has a totally different approach. And plenty of others are taking on smaller segments, like lower-cost or domain-specific networks.

Needless to say it’s an exciting sector, but today’s launch is a particularly interesting one because it is so consequential for SpaceX. If this doesn’t go well, it could set Starlink’s plans back long enough to give competitors an edge.

The satellites stacked inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing. “Tight fit,” pointed out CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX hasn’t explained exactly how the 60 satellites will be distributed to their respective orbits, but founder and CEO Elon Musk did note on Twitter that there’s “no dispenser.” Of course there must be some kind of dispenser — these things aren’t going to just jump off of their own accord. They’re stuffed in there like kernels on a corncob, and likely each have a little spring that sends them out at a set velocity.

A pair of prototype satellites, Tintin-A and B, have been in orbit since early last year, and have no doubt furnished a great deal of useful information to the Starlink program. But the 60 aboard tomorrow’s launch aren’t quite final hardware. Although Musk noted that they are “production design,” COO Gwynne Shotwell has said that they are still test models.

“This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” she said at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. — they reportedly lack inter-satellite links but are otherwise functional. I’ve asked SpaceX for more information on this.

It makes sense: If you’re planning to put thousands (perhaps as many as 12,000 eventually) of satellites into orbit, you’ll need to test at scale and with production hardware.

And for those worried about the possibility of overpopulation in orbit — it’s absolutely something to consider, but many of these satellites will be flying at extremely low altitudes; at 550 kilometers up, these tiny satellites will naturally de-orbit in a handful of years. Even OneWeb’s, at 1,100 km, aren’t that high up — geosynchronous satellites are above 35,000 km. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all, but it does mean failed or abandoned satellites won’t stick around for long.

Just don’t expect to boot up your Starlink connection any time soon. It would take a minimum of six more launches like this one — a total of 420, a happy coincidence for Musk — to provide “minor” coverage. This would likely only be for testing as well, not commercial service. That would need 12 more launches, and dozens more to bring it to the point where it can compete with terrestrial broadband.

Even if it will take years to pull off, that is the plan. And by that time others will have spun up their operations as well. It’s an exciting time for space and for connectivity.

No launch time has been set as of this writing, so takeoff is just planned for Wednesday the 15th at present. As there’s no need to synchronize the launch with the movement of any particular celestial body, T-0 should be fairly flexible and SpaceX will likely just wait for the best weather and visibility. Delays are always a possibility, though, so don’t be surprised if this is pushed out to later in the week.

As always you’ll be able to watch the launch at the SpaceX website, but I’ll update this post with the live video link as soon as it’s available.



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Employees pleaded with Facebook to stop letting politicians bend rules

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Enlarge / One hundred cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018.

Saul Loeb | Getty Images

Facebook’s senior executives interfered to allow US politicians and celebrities to post whatever they wanted on its social network despite pleas from employees to stop, leaked internal documents suggest.

Employees claim in the documents that while Facebook has long insisted that it is politically neutral, it allowed rightwing figures to break rules designed to curb misinformation and harmful content, after being stung by accusations of bias from conservatives.

In September 2020, just ahead of the US presidential election, the author of an internal memo wrote that “director-level employees” had “written internally that they would prefer to formally exclude political considerations from the decision-making process.”

The author called for the company’s leadership to create a “firewall” around its content moderation teams to stop this from happening and to make sure Facebook did not keep up or take down posts because of external political and media pressure.

In another internal note, dated December 2020, an employee claimed that Facebook’s public policy team blocked decisions to take down posts “when they see that they could harm powerful political actors.”

“In multiple cases the final judgment about whether a prominent post violates a certain written policy are made by senior executives, sometimes Mark Zuckerberg,” the author added, referring to Facebook’s chief executive. Parts of the note were previously reported by BuzzFeed.

In a further example from 2019, Zuckerberg was alleged to have been personally involved in a decision to allow a video that made the false claim that abortion is “never medically necessary.”

The post, which had been taken down by a moderator, was reinstated following complaints by Republican politicians, the document said.

The documents, part of a wider cache dubbed the Facebook Papers, were disclosed to US regulators and provided to Congress in redacted form by the legal counsel of whistleblower Frances Haugen. A consortium of news organisations, including the Financial Times, has obtained the redacted versions received by Congress.

Facebook declined to respond to queries about the outcome of any discussions about separating its content team from the policy and communications teams.

Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said: “At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false. Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie. The truth is we’ve invested $13bn and have over 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”

Staff told to aim for ‘“unimpeachable neutrality”

A former Facebook executive told the FT that Zuckerberg had long told staff to aim for what he called “unimpeachable neutrality.”

This was important particularly around US political groups, employees were told, because the company did not want to be accused of breaking campaign rules by giving a donation in kind.

But three other former employees said they had observed how Facebook applied its own rules in an inconsistent and haphazard way, with special treatment for celebrities.

One former integrity team employee said: “For the people running Facebook, it seems like they care much more about not appearing biased than actually not being biased. Often their efforts at the former make the latter worse.”

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A look inside Apple’s silicon playbook

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This week Apple introduced a set of new MacBook Pro laptops. During the prerecorded launch event, Apple’s engineers and executives made it clear that the MVPs in these new products are the chips that power them: the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. With 34 billion and 57 billion transistors, respectively, they are the engines powering the new Mac devices’ super hi-res displays, providing blazing speed, and extending battery life. The laptops represent the apotheosis of a 14-year strategy that has transformed the company—literally under the hood of its products—in a massive effort to design and build its own chips. Apple is now methodically replacing microprocessors it buys from vendors like Intel and Samsung with its own, which are optimized for the needs of Apple users. The effort has been stunningly successful. Apple was once a company defined by design. Design is still critical at Apple, but I now consider it a silicon company.

A couple days after the keynote, I had a rare on-the-record conversation about Apple silicon with senior worldwide marketing VP Greg Joswiak (aka “Joz”), senior hardware engineering VP John Ternus, and senior hardware technology VP Johny Srouji. I had been asking Apple to put me in touch with Srouji for years. His title only hints at his status as the chip czar at Apple. Though he’s begun to appear on camera at recent Apple events, he generally avoids the spotlight. An Israeli-born engineer who previously worked at Intel and IBM, Srouji joined Apple in 2008, specifically to fulfill a mandate from Steve Jobs, who felt that the chips in the original iPhone couldn’t meet his demands. Srouji’s mission was to lead Apple in making its own silicon. The effort has been so well executed that I believe Srouji is secretly succeeding Jony Ive as the pivotal creative wizard whipping up the secret sauce in Apple’s offerings.

Srouji, of course, won’t cop to that. After all, the playbook for Apple executives is to expend their hyperbole on Macs, iPhones, and iPads, not themselves. “Apple builds the best silicon in the world,” he says. “But I always keep in mind that Apple is first and foremost a product company. If you’re a chip designer, this is heaven because you’re building silicon for a company that builds products.”

Srouji is clear on the advantages of rolling out your own chips, as opposed to buying from a vendor like Intel, which was summarily booted from MacBook Pros this week in favor of the M’s. “When you’re a merchant vendor, a company that delivers off-the-shelf components or silicon to many customers, you have to figure what is the least common denominator—what is it that everyone needs across many years?” he says. “We work as one team—the silicon, the hardware, the software, the industrial design, and other teams—to enable a certain vision. When you translate that to silicon, that gives us a very unique opportunity and freedom because now you’re designing something that is not only truly unique, but optimized for a certain product.” In the case of the MacBook Pro, he says, he sat with leaders like Ternus and Craig Federighi several years ago and envisioned what users would be able to get their hands on in 2021. It would all spring from the silicon. “We sit together, and say, ‘Okay, is it gated by physics? Or is it something we can go beyond?’ And then, if it’s not gated by physics and it’s a matter of time, we go figure out how to build it.”

Think about that—the only restraint Apple’s chipmakers concede to is the physical boundary of what’s possible.

Srouji explained how his journey at Apple has been one of conscious iteration, building on a strong foundation. A key element of the company’s strategy has been to integrate the functions that used to be distributed among many chips into a single entity—known as SOC, or system-on-a-chip. “I always fundamentally felt and believed that if you have the right architecture, then you have a chance to build the best chip,” he says. “So we started with the architecture that we believe would scale. And by scaling, we mean scaling to performance and features and the power envelope, whether it’s a watch or iPad or iMac. And then we started selectively figuring the technologies within the chip—we wanted to start owning them one by one. We started with the CPU first. And then we went into the graphics. Then we went into signal processing, display engine, etcetera. Year over year, we built our engineering muscle and wisdom and ability to deliver. And a few years later, when you do all this and you do it right, you find yourself with really good architecture and IP you own and a team behind you that is now capable of repeating that recipe.”

Ternus elaborates: “Traditionally, you’ve got one team at one company designing a chip, and they have their own set of priorities and optimizations. And then the product team and another company has to take that chip and make it work in their design. With these MacBook Pros, we started all the way at the beginning—the chip was being designed right when the system was being thought through. For instance, power delivery is important and challenging with these high-performance parts. By working together [early on], the team was able to come up with a solution. And the system team was actually able to influence the shape, aspect ratio, and orientation of the SOC so that it can best nest into the rest of the system components.” (Maybe this helped convince Apple to restore the missing ports that so many had longed for in the previous MacBook.)

Clearly these executives believe the new Macs represent a milestone in Apple’s strategy. But not its last. I suggest that a future milestone might be silicon customized to enable an augmented reality system, producing the graphics intensity, precision geolocation, and low power consumption that AR spectacles would require. Predictably, the VPs did not comment on that.

Before the conversation ends, I have to ask Joswiak about the now discontinued Touch Bar, the dynamic function-key feature that Apple launched with great fanfare five years ago but that never caught on. Not surprisingly, his postmortem spins it as a great gift to new users. “There’s no doubt that our Pro customers love that full-size, tactile feel of those function keys, and so that’s the decision we made. And we feel great about that,” he says. He points out that for lovers of the Touch Bar, whoever they may be, Apple is still selling the 13-inch—now obsolete—version of the MacBook Pro with the soft keys intact.

The tale of the Touch Bar reminds us that even the best silicon can’t guarantee designers will make the right choices. But as Srouji notes, when done right, it can unleash an infinite number of innovations that could not otherwise exist. Maybe the most telling indicator of Apple’s silicon success this week came not from the launch of the MacBook Pro, but in Google’s unveiling of the Pixel 6 phone. Google boasted that the phone’s key virtues sprang from a decision to follow the path Apple and Srouji forged 14 years ago in building the company’s own chip, the Tensor processor.

“Is this a case of ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?’” I ask the Apple team.

“You took my line!” says Joswiak. “Clearly, they think we’re doing something right.”

“If you were to give Google or some other company friendly advice on their silicon journey, what would it be?” I ask.

“Oh, I don’t know,” says Joz. “Buy a Mac.”

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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iFixit’s Apple Watch teardown includes a theory about device’s delayed launch

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As has become something of a ritual, tools-seller and repair-advocacy group iFixit has published a detailed teardown of the latest Apple product. This time, we get a look at the innards of the Apple Watch Series 7.

This Watch model was announced in September—but without a release date. The eventual ship date for the first orders was Friday, October 15.

iFixit’s teardown lends credence to one of the prevailing theories about why there was a delay. The Apple Watch Series 7 appears to use an on-cell touch OLED panel, the same type seen in the iPhone 13 line. Consulting with a former Apple engineer, iFixit suggests that supply challenges related to this display tech are likely the reason the Apple Watch launched a bit late this year and why the device didn’t get a release date in last month’s keynote announcing it.

As for other findings, the diagnostic port is gone. iFixit speculates that Apple now uses a wireless interface to service the Watch and reasonably ventures a guess that this may be a test drive for the eventual removal of the iPhone’s lone port.

The new Watch also has a slightly bigger battery than its predecessor. Whereas the 40 mm Series 6 had a 1.024 Wh battery, the 41 mm Series 7 comes in at 1.094 Wh. The 44 mm Series 6’s battery was 1.17 Wh, and the 45 mm Series 7’s is 1.189 Wh. It’s not a dramatic difference, but it likely plays a role in keeping the new Watch’s rated battery life the same as the 2020 model, despite the larger, more power-hungry screen.

Of course, iFixit’s teardowns are as much about assessing the serviceability of a device as they are about geeking out about hardware changes.

To that end, iFixit gave the Watch a 6 out of 10 repairability score, citing its “modular construction” and “straightforward access to the screen and battery.” Knocks against the Watch include the absence of a service manual and the fact that the screen must be unglued and reglued with every repair.

Listing image by iFixit

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