Marketplace Tech®

with Ben Johnson

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Hosted by Ben Johnson, this daily "journal of the Digital Age" airs during broadcasts of Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Edition.

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Bitcoin offers no easy escape for Greece

In the midst of the current Greek financial crisis, some cryptocurrency enthusiasts have pointed to Bitcoin as the panacea for the country's financial woes. The price of the cryptocurrency has steadily risen as the Greek financial crisis has intensified. However, the question remains: can digital money give Greece an out? Spoiler alert: no.

Nathaniel Popper, author of the book, "Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires trying to Reinvent Money," maintains Bitcoin will not save Greece because “at this point, I think Greek citizens are locked into their own system and the bad decisions people have made. I don't think there is an easy way out.”

In theory, Bitcoin seems like just that. However, the logistics of buying bitcoin requires you to move money from your bank account to the bank account of a Bitcoin service. Not so easy when Greeks are unable to withdraw money from the ATM. Sure, you can buy bitcoins from someone in a café with cash from under your bed, but to pull a country out of a financial crisis? Unlikely.

Popper points to Argentina as an example where some “real experimentation is going on” with Bitcoin, but he reminds us that the Bitcoin story “is a very young technology. It’s not ready for the prime time. It’s like expecting to run Netflix on the Internet of 1995.”

As Popper explains it, Bitcoin hopefuls may be expecting too much from the cryptocurrency: “Throughout the Bitcoin story, it's been offered as a utopian solution. But these utopian solutions always need to find some way to get from the current system to the utopian future.”

Ideas anyone? We’re still buffering our 1995 dial-up Netflix.


Silicon Tally: A swift response to Swift

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Jeff Cannata, host of the We Have Concerns comedy podcast, and the DLC video game show.

Click the media player above to hear more.


Prisoners could be an untapped resource for startups

As part of our series about technology in prison called “Jailbreak,” we're taking a look at how former inmates could be an untapped resource for the tech community. 

Take Tulio Cardozo, for example. He was an inmate for nearly seven years in San Quentin prison in Northern San Francisco. Because of restrictions on technology in prisons, he had to learn how to code by reading programming books. He says, “for the most part prisons want to keep you far, far away from technology.” 

Even though he had read about technology in magazines like Wired and Popular Science, he remembers the moment he saw the prevalence of technology upon his release: “When I finally got out, I was left at a bus stop in Tucson, Arizona. I got on the bus, it was the middle of the night, the ceiling glowed with cellphones and that’s when it hit me really hard that ‘Wow technology is everywhere.’”

Cardozo ended up going back to prison within a year after his release — Not for reoffending, but rather to pursue a business idea.

While in prison, Cardozo participated in The Last Mile program at San Quentin, which teaches business and technology entrepreneurship to inmates. There, he honed his concept: a LinkedIn type platform called Collaborative Benefit that connects incarcerated individuals with employers.

Since graduating, Cardozo has been employed as a web developer, launched his own startup, and is himself a mentor in prisons around the San Francisco area. He now uses his coding and entrepreneurship skills to make sure other people on the inside get the same opportunities he had.

In his opinion, the lack of technology on the inside could allow former inmates to contribute new ideas to the startup community: “In the absolute absence of all this outside input, you really get creative about what you think you know and you come up with interesting new ideas.”



Connecting inmates with their children through books

As part of our series about technology in prisons called "Jailbreak," we paid a visit to a new program that uses technology to fill an important role in the development of the children of those who are incarcerated.

Organizers say the TeleStory program the first of its kind in the country. At the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in New York, families of inmates bring their children to a special room filled with toys and books. Even more unique: the room is virtually connected to a prison on Rikers Island.

As part of the program, an inmate who has had training gets a rare opportunity: they get to read a book to their child. 

We paid a visit to the Brooklyn Public Library's main branch, where we got to chat with a family taking part in the program.

Click the media player above to hear more.



Video visitations gain popularity in prison system

As part of a series about technology in prisons called "Jailbreak," we're talking about the growing use of video visitation in prisons. It's being used already in over 500 institutions around the country. Most of them are county jails, but a few are state prisons.

And while we know a lot about the impact of in-person visits between inmates and their familes while incarcerated, we don't know much about the impact of video visitation.

Bernadette Rabuy, a policy and communications associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, says the growth in popularity of video visitation technology has a lot to do with cutting costs. Prisons are also attracted to the fact that it eliminates the opportunity for the smuggling of contraband items to prisoners.

But Rabuy cautions that the benefits may not outweigh the emotional costs: "We don't know that these videos are equivalent to in-person visits, which have been shown by a lot of research to be one of the only ways we know for sure reduces the likelihood of future crimes."

Click the media player above to hear more.


Silicon Tally: Fashionably late to technology

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Simon Doonan, the Creative Ambassador-at-Large for Barneys New York. He’s also the author of “The Asylum: True Tales of Madness From a Life in Fashion."

Click the media player above to play along.


Virtual reality is star of this year's E3

E3, one of gaming’s biggest events, kicks off Tuesday in Los Angeles. "From Call of Duty: Black Ops 3," which features female soldiers on the frontlines, to "Star Wars: Battlefront," dozens of video games are being unveiled. But one aspect of gaming, virtual reality, has the tech world buzzing.

Virtual reality grew in the gaming world. But where it will meet the masses is in mobile technology. Mark Bolas, director of the Mixed Reality Lab at the Institute for Creative Technologies, says Facebook, Samsung and Google are already in. “They’re all jumping in in a way that’s slightly skewed toward the thing that they’re best at,” he says.

For Samsung, it’s mobile phones. For Facebook, it’s the social experience in a virtual world. Amir Rubin, CEO of Sixense, says this is the year virtual reality engages more developers — especially in the mobile space. “There’s going to be hundreds of millions of these phones that have VR capabilities by the end of 2016,” he says.

The trick is getting VR headsets into consumers’ hands. The Oculus Rift, for example, is going to come bundled with an Xbox controller. Will mobile phones come with headsets? Rubin says for that to happen, there have to be good applications consumers want. Otherwise it’s just a funny-looking device strapped onto your face.



Paul Ford on ‘What Is Code?’ and why we should care

We are surrounded with computer code every day. It has built the hardware and software we interact with, from our computers and mobile devices to social networks. It’s changed the way we communicate, do business and conduct our work. But most of us don’t know what code is, really. If the code works, you don’t even know it’s there — and that’s by design. Paul Ford says it shouldn’t be that way. His argument and explainer is laid out in a more than 30,000-word piece for the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. Marketplace Tech Host Ben Johnson sat down with Ford to talk about why he wrote the piece and why we should care enough to read it, top to bottom. 

Here are some highlights from the interview: 

Do you think the average user needs to understand code? 

You know, I really honestly do. And obviously, you know, part of me is going like, "Read the article." Because that's who this is written for: it's for the educated civilian who is surrounded by software.

If you want to understand why there's so much happening in that world, and why suddenly this fairly small cohort has such unbelievable cultural power, it's worth knowing about the fundamental structures. 

Can code "save" us? 

No. People are responsible for saving people. 

Do you think code is powerful enough to answer some of the big questions and the big problems we have? 

Let's just throw something out, that, you know, we wanted to distribute income in a very different way in our country. Software could help with that. Software could help with the optimization problems. It could help with issues related to cost of living and so on. And now, the thing that we just threw out, you can see has tremendous ethical issues. And so to me, I look at this stuff and this world — I just think it's so omnipresent, and so understanding of the pieces of it and writing all that down was actually kind of therapeutic. It was wonderful to just sit here and type out what I know about being a programmer so that people can understand that there's no magic here — it's just systems, and it's just people making things. 

Click the audio player above to listen to the full interview. 


Silicon Tally: These are not the fridges you're looking for

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Greta Johnsen, co-host of the Nerdette podcast.

Click the media player above to play along.


Apple is behind on streaming, but it has a secret weapon

How many times can one company reshape the way we consume music? That's the question Apple is facing Monday, when it's expected to announce two new music streaming options in an attempt to make up the ground it's lost to the likes of Spotify and Pandora.

Apple didn't invent digital downloads, but arguably, it perfected them. The iTunes store is still a force, but it's starting to slip, with sales dropping double digits last year. The streaming market is small, but crowded and growing.

Let's take a look at what we know so far about Apple's potential entrance into streaming:

What's an Apple streaming service look like?

Apple has made one modest attempt at streaming already with iTunes Radio. The Pandora competitor has been quietly expanding, but it's so far failed to make much of a splash. Apple is expected to relaunch the service with more distinct channels and big names attached like the BBC's Zane Lowe, Trent Reznor, Drake and Pharrell Williams. That's important for securing Apple's hold on streaming radio overseas.

"The problem with Pandora — because of rights issues and how [little] money they have — is they operate in very limited markets," says music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz. "So one would anticipate by virtue of launching in all these other markets [with] their brand name, Apple will make huge inroads and probably win in streaming radio."

But likely more lucrative is a subscription-based on-demand streaming service from Apple. Reports in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal say it'll cost around $10 per month for unlimited streaming, similar to what's available from Spotify, Tidal, and Beats Music, which Apple acquired last year.

It's not clear how long Beats Music will be around after Monday. The sale gave Apple a chance to look under the hood of an active, albeit small, streaming service and put a lot of expertise on Apple's payroll, says music technology analyst Mark Mulligan.

"Beats built a service, from the ground up, around curation and programming and editorial, which is a very different thing from what Spotify did," he says.

So what happens to the iTunes store?

Apple will essentially offer three different ways to deliver digital music: radio, on-demand streaming and downloads. The best-case scenario for Apple is that each arm will appeal to a different kind of consumer: if you like Spotify, Pandora, or your old iPod Nano, Apple will have an option for you. 

"I really think there are different customers for these different kinds of experiences, and it makes complete sense to me that Apple would want to be in all three spaces," says Serona Elton, Associate Professor and chair of Music Media & Industry at the University of Miami

"If I subscription service does its job well enough, you never have any reason to buy music again," say analyst Mulligan – and he thinks that shift would be acceptable to Apple. "The labels are much more concerned about Apple eating its own lunch than Apple is."

Record labels are nervous because streaming changes the economics of how we consume music, Mulligan says. The revenue is more incremental, at fractions of a cent per play, instead of $10 up front for an entire album. Unlimited streaming also means people listen with more breadth and less depth — one might enjoy a wide variety of artists but spend far less time with each. That could hurt revenue in the long run, as could free, ad-supported streaming.

Digital music revenues in the U.S.

Why doesn't Apple have an free on-demand option?

Apple is expected to offer some kind of free preview of its streaming service before shuttling customers to either a paid subscription service or radio. It's also reportedly urging record labels to make Spotify to drop its free tier, and attracted the attention of the FTC in the process.

About three-fourths of Spotify's 60 million users don't pay, using on-demand streaming on desktop with occasional ads. That "freemium" model is great for acquiring users and it keeps Spotify competitive, but it isn't a big moneymaker. One analysis found a play on Spotify Premium generated .68 cents in royalties on average, while free plays averaged just .14 cents.

Lefsetz says the big elephant in the room is YouTube, which has become the go-to when you want to to hear to a song without paying. Eventually users may pay $10 per month for convenient, on-demand mobile streaming, he says, but not yet.

"Eventually it's going to work out, but the rights-holders are trying to close the door on free too soon, which will cause piracy," Lefsetz says. "If Apple went with a free tier it would have a chance, but the way it is now it's not looking good."

So how will Apple pull this off?

As we saw with last year's U2 debacle, about half a billion people use iTunes, and Apple can get stuff to them very quickly. The company already has data and credit card information for those users, which would make an Apple streaming service convenient and easy to adopt. 

"People who already consider themselves 'Apple people' based on all of the devices they use [may] try it out and find it appealing enough to be worth the cost, even though they could find the same content elsewhere," Elton says. "It's not just about the content, it's about the experience."

Apple's other crucial advantage is that its not really a music company. It's a tech company with a music arm. They can afford to sell and stream music at a loss, because ultimately they're trying to sell devices. That's not true of any competitors.

"Apple can afford to throw endless amounts of money at this and not worry about whether its going to cover its costs. Spotify can't do that," Mulligan says. "Spotify is doing that, but on a limited time scale."


Service Free option? Compatibility on Android: Music Quality Play songs on demand? Share playlists with friends? Offline listening option? What makes it special?
Tidal No Yes Higher quality: 320 Kbps or above Yes Yes Yes Higher royalties to music creators, audiophile friendly
Spotify Yes Yes Higher quality: 320 Kbps or above Yes (paid) Yes Yes Easily build and share playlists with friends
Songza Yes Yes Lower quality: 192 Kbps or below No No No Extensive number of curated playlists by mood, genre, or activity
Rhapsody No Yes Lower quality: 192 Kbps or below Yes Yes Yes Large music library
Rdio Yes Yes Lower quality: 192 Kbps or below Yes (paid) Yes Yes Exclusive music selection
Pandora Yes Yes Lower quality: 192 Kbps or below No No No Music discovery based off finely-tuned robot algorithms
Beats Music No Yes Lower quality: 192 Kbps or below Yes Yes Yes Really, really cool headphones
Apple Music (rumored details) Yes No Lower quality: 192 Kbps or below Yes (paid) Yes Yes Apple.

Raghu Manavalan/Marketplace


Silicon Tally: How many researchers does it take...

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Marketplace reporter Stan Alcorn.

Click the media player above to play along.


Why women are finally in the FIFA videogame

For the first time in its more than 20-year history, the Electronic Arts' FIFA videogame series will include women's soccer teams when FIFA 16 comes out this fall. 

It's been a long time coming. Fernanda Schabarum started a petition in 2012 to bring female players to the series, after playing only as male teams since her first game of World Cup 98 more than a decade earlier. "It was kind of difficult not having anything to relate to," she says. 

Game designer and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost says it may be a sign that we're finally coming out of a "Dark Ages" in which games became entrenched as a medium for men.

Click the media player above to hear more.


Commercial drones' promise drives two new funds

On Wednesday,  DJI, a leading maker of drones for consumers, and Airware, a leading maker of software to power commercial drones, each launched their own drone-focused venture capital fund.

"We definitely did not coordinate," says Jonathan Downey, CEO of Airware and general partner of the Commercial Drone Fund. "So: Pretty significant coincidence." 

Data from CB Insights indicate that $172 million has been invested in drone-related companies in 2015 so far — as much as the previous five years combined. Lux Research analyst Maryanna Saenko credits big gains in sales of consumer drones and a regulatory framework that makes commercial drones look increasingly viable.

The above graph shows drone investment since 2010. Adding up total investments from 2010 to 2014, it's about $172 million. That's the same amount that has been invested so far in 2015.

Courtesy:CB Insights

Silicon Tally: All of the Netflix

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Glenn Fleishman, tech journalist, co-host of the Macworld podcast and two time Jeopardy! Champion.

Click the media player above to hear host Ben Johnson take on Glenn Fleishman for this week's Silicon Tally.


The 'leap second' — another Y2K moment?

On June 30, at midnight Greenwich Mean Time/Coordinated Universal Time, an extra second will be added to the world’s master clocks so that they sync up with the earth’s rotation, which does not precisely match the clocks and computers we earthlings use.

Financial exchanges and firms that depend on precise pricing and transaction data are planning for this so-called "leap second" down the micro-second.

“It’s a big issue for financial firms,” says Victor Yodaiken, whose software firm, FSMLabs, provides time-synchronization computer applications to those firms. “A whole second is a long time. Software is really not set up to see time go backwards.”

U.S.-based exchanges have a deadline of Friday to submit their plans for dealing with the leap second to the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Yodaiken says high-frequency traders are particularly sensitive to the problem because of their automated algorithms.

Meanwhile, U.S. exchanges and those in Asia (Japan, Australia, Singapore and South Korea) will adjust to the extra second by spreading it out over a longer period or adding it later in the day. “During the trading day, their clocks will be different,” says programmer-analyst Steve Allen at the University of California’s Lick Observatory. He is dealing with an automated telescope that will have to adjust to the leap second. “There will be moments during that day when transactions from one market to another seem to come from the future.”

Some U.S. exchanges will pause around the leap second as a precaution or will halt after-hours trading beforehand.


Silicon Tally: Hashtag POTUS

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Dan Lyons, a tech journalist and writer for season 2 of HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Click the media player above to hear host Ben Johnson take on Dan Lyons for this week's Silicon Tally.


Silicon Tally: The selfie drones are coming

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Kristen Bellstrom, senior editor at Fortune Magazine, where she writes The Broadsheet—a daily newsletter about the world’s most powerful women.

Click the media player above to play along with this week's quiz.


Uber drivers struggle to pay subprime auto loans

Richard Brunelle feels trapped. The 58-year-old says he has to drive for Uber.

Brunelle got a car through Uber's low-credit finance program and needs to make money for the loan. His payments are about $1000 dollars a month, and the loan has a 22.75 percent interest rate. That means by the time Brunelle finishes the loan, he will have paid twice the price for his Kia Optima.

At first, Brunelle thought he could cover the payments and still make a profit. Uber has since cut income to drivers. Now, Brunelle says he's working just to break even.

“It's like a ball and chain,” Brunelle says. “It's ridiculous.”

Brunelle says he has already fallen behind a few payments on the car, and that if he doesn't make a payment it could get repossessed. “I'm just trying to get by,” he says.

Here is how the financing program works: Uber connects low-credit drivers to dealers and lenders. Then it is up to the driver to negotiate the terms of the loan. Uber deducts loan payments directly from the drivers' earnings.

Uber says thousands have used the program. It had me talk with driver Jon Hutcherson, who says he's happy with the loan. Hutcherson says, “The thing about it being no hassle financing is really what attracted me.”

Hutcheron says working with Uber was easier than going to a dealer by himself because his credit isn't so great. Uber spokesperson Kristin Carvell says that's the point of the financing program. It helps people like Hutchinson get cars. And to boot, drivers get a little discount on the cost of the vehicle.

But if you don't drive, you still have to make the payments. Hutcherson says he had to dip into his savings when he stopped driving because of two accidents. He says, “When you aren't working for Uber, you make payments out of your own pocket like you do for a traditional loan.”

Another troubling aspect of the program is who Uber partners with. It's working with subprime lenders like Santander Consumer USA.

William Black is an economist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a former bank regulator. Black says Santander “is one of the most notorious sub-prime auto lenders in the United States.”

Black says Santander is known for predatory practices like sky high interest rates and hefty fees. Uber works with multiple lenders says spokesperson Carvell, and they provide loans for people with all kinds of credit.

Richard Brunelle isn't impressed. He feels like Uber would deal with anyone to get more drivers on the road. Brunelle says, “I feel like Uber not only tossed us to these wolves, but they intentionally did it and they are making bank it.”

Brunelle says he's stuck—it's either drive or meet the repo man. Now he is going online to tell others not to take the financing and get trapped like him.


Silicon Tally: Anyway, here's Powerwall

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Lily Hay Newman, lead blogger for Slate's Future Tense.


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on India and tech's pay gap

We chatted with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella yesterday about the company's cloud computing and software business. The second part of our conversation turns to Nadella himself, his roots in India and Microsoft's plans there.

"When I look at my own story, I think it's just 'only in America,'" Nadella says. "We have a lot of work ahead in creating equity between gender and races. But we also have a lot to celebrate, and that's the message,"

We also asked him about the gender pay gap in the tech industry, seven months after he made some comments — then immediately took them back — about the issue. Nadella says he's learned a lot, and he'll be turning his attention to staffing and culture at Microsoft. 

"When I think about our own developers and engineers, we have about 18 percent women...we absolutely see this issue where we have to make huge amounts of progress, where we not only provide equal pay for equal work, but we have to create an environment and a culture of inclusiveness that creates equal opportunity for equal work," Nadella says. "And it starts with, I think, looking inside at our own culture and making sure that it cultivates that core that allows women to thrive." 

Click on the multimedia player above to hear more from our conversation with Nadella. 


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