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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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.

(05/22/2015)

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.

(05/22/2015)

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.

(05/15/2015)

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.

(05/13/2015)

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.

(05/08/2015)

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. 

(05/05/2015)

A conversation with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Microsoft is having an interesting moment.

People are getting more excited about its hardware, and some recent moves by CEO Satya Nadella and others seem to be helping to grow its cloud computing business. Nadella joins us to talk about what the company is trying to do with businesses and information technology workers around the world, including employees of the city of Chicago.

“We worked with the city of Chicago to create this hub where they are not only bringing employees who work for the city to the cloud with Office 365, but they are also figuring out how to connect everything that makes up city of Chicago — every traffic light and piece of equipment they have in the city — and tackle some of the bigger challenges, like energy consumption.” Nadella says. 

When we ask him where Microsoft is now, he says "to me, Microsoft is about empowerment...we are the original democratizing force, putting a PC in every home and every desk." The core of the company remains "user software." But that doesn't exclude the company from having a success, "like the Xbox," he adds. 

Click on the multimedia player above to hear more.

(05/04/2015)

Silicon Tally: What...is the deal...with Hulu?

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

This week, we're joined by Casey Johnston, who writes about technology and is an editor at The Wirecutter.

(05/01/2015)

Social media plays prominent role in Baltimore unrest

As in other instances of protests against police brutality and incidents of erupting violence, social media has played a key role in Baltimore.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young appealed for calm via the live-streaming app Periscope.

LIVE on #Periscope: Please stop the violence. You are not honoring Freddie Gray's memory. https://t.co/9xdAzTW8en

— Bernard C Jack Young (@prezjackyoung) April 27, 2015


On Instagram, Baltimore resident Dominic Nell, 38, who is a photographer, went from documenting people's portraits to documenting riots, and the resulting efforts to clean up and make sense of the chaos.



"With social media, a rumor can spread and go viral, and people get misinformation. So if I'm at the ground level, actually, I'm showing you what I'm seeing," Nell says.

He says he is also driven by the desire to counteract dominant narratives on TV news.

"They just keep looping the footage," Nell says. "They're seeing something that might have happened several hours ago, and the situation has de-escalated. So I'll show how the situation has de-escalated, I'll be in the same area, and people will be peaceful."

The Baltimore Police also took to social media. On Twitter, they urged parents to collect their children — pointing out that many of those perpetrating violence were school-aged. 

"There are just trends, emotional trends, when we have events like this" says Pilar Mckay, a professor of public communication at American University, who has been following the social media conversation surrounding events in Baltimore.

"Anything from getting really upset with your public leaders to then going to the next phases," McKay says. Among those phases, answer this question, she says: "What does it all mean?" (04/29/2015)

Cable giants call off merger

Cable giants Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable are ditching out of their planned merger amidst a heap of regulatory scrutiny.

Combined, Comcast and Time Warner Cable would have had about 30 percent of the pay TV market and more than 50 percent of the broadband market.

Regulators worried that would thwart competition and mean higher prices for consumers.

“All that scale would give Comcast enormous discretion over what reaches Americans, what Americans pay, information flows, customer service—really unlimited power,” says Susan Crawford is co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Crawford also says President Barack Obama's push to have broadband providers regulated like utilities signaled the government would step up its scrutiny.

But Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey thinks regulators are taking an overly narrow view. He doubts a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger would've kept other players out of the lucrative broadband market.

“Because broadband is going to generate billions of dollars of revenue and billions of dollars of profit in the next ten years, broadband competition is going to happen,” says McQuivey.

McQuivey says that means companies like Google, Amazon and even Facebook could eventually be motivated to enter the fray.

 

 

 

 

(04/24/2015)

Silicon Tally: A Whale of a Tail Emoji

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

This week, we're joined by Fred Benenson, data lead at Kickstarter and the creator of an all-emoji translation of Moby Dick.

(04/24/2015)

At RSA, desperate for data to help understand threats

The annual RSA Conference is the largest security trade show in the world, and this year, there’s an extra level of desperation in the air. Security vendors and IT chiefs are looking to big data to help them understand how to protect companies from the ever-increasing tide of hackers looking to break in.

 The RSA Conference is, at its heart, a show where the makers of security products come to pitch their wares to big enterprise buyers. Those buyers, of course, are more interested than ever, since big companies and consumers are both reeling from a string of high-profile breaches at Sony, JP Morgan, Home Depot, Target, and others.

 Insiders say there’s a palpable shift in tone from how the security industry used to treat breached companies. They used to be pariahs: companies that had failed and obviously had inferior infrastructure.

 Now, though, the incoming president of RSA tells Fortune magazine flatly that "security has failed." 

Security products used to promise prevention and protection. At past conferences, a security company might terrify IT officers with tales of potential security flaws and then tout an ironclad fix.

More recently, as breaches got more common and ironclad fixes less believable, the focus shifted to "intrusion detection." Security experts started telling companies that they shouldn’t wonder if a breach might happen — only when.

 So, the next wave of products promised to detect those inevitable breaches sooner, before they got out of control and compromised mass amounts of data (remember, the Target and JP Morgan hackers were roaming around inside the company’s networks for months before anyone noticed). 

So this year, the product focus is something more like troubleshooting.

 "Half the vendors here are talking about some app that can provide intelligence or 'threat intelligence,'" says Chris McClean, a risk and security analyst at Forrester Research. "That’s the buzzword of the year here."

From what I can tell, "threat intelligence" is really just a dramatic way of saying "figure out what’s happening and hopefully what might work to stop the bad guys."

For example, I interviewed Vikram Phatak, CEO of a company called NSS Labs, which is a security research and advisory company that just launched a new product to help companies gather data about where they’re vulnerable to attack and how well their security products are working.

NSS Labs just raised $7 million in funding to grow its spectacularly named Cyber Advanced Warning System. It’s basically a subscription service with a web dashboard that offers analytics about a company’s security.

There are lots of points of possible failures. Most companies layer on multiple products, like an intrusion detection service, a firewall and a so-called "endpoint solution" (basically an antivirus or antimalware product like McAfee). And then there’s all the potentially vulnerable software the company runs, like Windows, Java, Flash, Internet Explorer and so on.

The Cyber Advanced Warning System dashboard might show, for example, that lots of attacks are getting through the firewall but being stopped by the antivirus software, but that the company is running an outdated version of Java and needs to update it before someone exploits it and takes over company systems.

 The goal, says Phatak, is to help security pros understand how to better use the software they have, deploy the right settings on their company networks and get "situational awareness" about their overall security systems.  

 McClean says that approach — looking to the data — is a big theme at RSA this year.

 "The message is right," he says. "If you are telling an enterprise, we can take all of the disparate sources of information, we can tell you where you risks are and help you make better business decisions, how to allocate and where to prioritize and whether to use certain vendors in certain regions, then as a vendor, you’re in great shape." 

Still, he says there could be a whole new approach to security by next year, because cybersecurity threats are going to keep increasing for the foreseeable future — that is, there's always something to be afraid of. 

"Every year we say that in the last year we’ve seen breaches that are unprecedented and this totally changes the game," he says. "Next year we’ll say there are new breaches that have changed the game; in three years there will be more breaches that change the game. The game will always have changed."

(04/22/2015)

Celebrity gossip comes to Instagram

Traditional celebrity gossip—be it in print, on television, or written about online—deals in the real world goings-on of celebrity life. But a popular Instagram account is garnering attention for looking at the social media lives of those in the entertainment industry. The Shade Room, as it’s known, focuses on how well-known personalities interact in forums like Twitter and Instagram. 

“It’s very much kind of an intra-instagram kind of network,” says Jenna Wortham, technology reporter for The New York Times, who recently wrote about The Shade Room, calling it Instagram’s very own “TMZ.”

“You’re going to see lot of things very specific to social media,” says Wortham. “It tends to focus on when Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are having a back and forth on instagram. It captures that and posts it. It aggregates all of that it in one space.”

Wortham met and interviewed the founder of The Shade Room, a 24-year-0ld woman named Angie, who wants to be known only by her first name.

Given the popularity of her ‘Insta-blog,’ why is she so secretive?

“She knows that the appeal of Shade Room is that it kind of has this sort of Oz-like omnipotence,” says Wortham. “To show the wizard behind the curtain would remove some of  the mystique and the mystery.”

It’s smart decision on her part, adds Wortham, because the mystery keeps things more fun and interesting.

Angie runs the blog with the help of a handful of employees. The Shade Room started out on Instagram, but since then it has launched a regular blog. It also has accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and advertises on all of these platforms.  

Could this turn into a breaking news site for celebrity news?  “I think down the line absolutely it could be a place where people break news or want to make announcements or talk about an album release or a new concert tour,” says Wortham. “I dont think thats’ out of her reach at all.”

 

(04/20/2015)

Insurance companies get FAA approval to use drones

More drones could be coming to a neighborhood near you, and they’ll be from your insurance company.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently approved several insurers to use drones to assess property damage. Soon our blue skies might be dotted with hundreds of little drones.

Sound like science fiction? It’s not.

“In light of the proposed new regulations from the FAA that came out a few weeks ago, there [are] going to be a lot more commercial agencies using drones for all kinds of things from insurance assessments to agriculture to fire rescue,” says Matt Sloane, president of Atlanta Drone Consultants. Part of that, Sloane says, is because they’re so useful.

“What drones really offer is the ability to get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on, so that doesn’t help in every industry,” he says. "But certainly for things like insurance assessments where you fly something like this just a hundred feet over a damage scene to do an assessment, you really get a different view of what’s going on.”

During natural disasters helicopters are typically used to assess damage, but they can cost $1,000 an hour and put people’s lives in jeopardy, Sloane says.

That’s why insurance companies like State Farm are so interested in drones.

The insurer was the first to get FAA approval to use unmanned aircrafts for damage assessment.

"If we can send a drone to look over at our customer’s house and determine, 'Okay they have significant damage there,'” says Justin Tomczak, the Georgia spokesperson for State Farm. “That information could be relayed to their agent  and we can call [our client] and say I noticed your house has significant damage, we’re cutting you a check right now to cover your immediate expenses that you may have.”

If you’re worried about all those little devices recording you, Matt Sloane says you might just have to get used it.

“Although I will say most of them don’t have cameras with the ability to zoom so it’s not going to be a sort of satellite situation from a 1,000 feet you could zoom in and see every little detail,” says Sloane. “You really need to get a lot closer with a drone to be able to see a detailed image.”

The FAA currently has a public comment period open to address concerns; it ends on April 24.

(04/20/2015)

Silicon Tally: Game of Pirates

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

This week, we're joined by Annalee Newitz, Editor-In-Chief of Gizmodo, and author of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

Click on the multimedia player above to hear more. 

(04/17/2015)

A hand-crafted IPO

Ahead of its IPO, Etsy priced its shares at $16, with an estimated value of $1.78 billion. But Thursday saw those numbers explode, with shares opening at $31, which placed the company value at $3.4 billion.

The 10-year-old marketplace for vintage and handmade goods, is a ‘B Corp,’ or ‘benefit corporation’ - i.e it’s certified as a company that benefits the community. It's notable because very few (Etsy is only the second) for-profit companies with B Corp certification go public.

“If it can do good for the community, for the consumer, for the vendors, it satisfies the B Corp requirement and gives them a good rating,” said Santosh Rao, head of research at Manhattan Venture Partners.

The other reason, Rao added, is strategic: “They need to keep the vendors happy. 80 percent of their business is repeat customers and loyalty is important for the company.”

Etsy’s vendors, however, are mostly small businesses that, on average, don’t make much more than the U.S. median income. That means they aren’t nearly as wealthy as those who typically invest in the stock market.

It’s always risky to buy stock in any company, Rao said, but “nothing wrong in having them come in and especially this one where they are committed to the community.”

Although Etsy hasn’t been profitable recently, the IPO is likely to help, according to Rao. It would help them raise the money to grow bigger and expand beyond the U.S.  

But the bigger Etsy gets, the higher the chances of its business becoming more commercial. That could be a problem since many, including Rao, believe its loyal customer base is the result of its stated mission to promote the opposite: artisanal goods and small, community-based businesses.

“It was designed originally for that,” said Rao. “It wasn’t meant to be a big, high-scale commercial operation and that’s where they made the market.”

Etsy could keep the commercialism at bay, said Rao, because it was a ‘B Corp.’

“They don’t have to necessarily look at the bottom line every quarter,” he said. “In the end they have to show a path to profitability to show they they are a good business but there’s no near-term, absolute imperative to show a profit.”

But even Rao believes there’s a strong likelihood of it being bought over by a bigger company. “I’ll give 60 percent odds that they will be acquired,” he said.

 

(04/16/2015)

Why Nicaraguan businesses can't take PayPal

"Pay securely. Here, there, anywhere." That's the slogan currently on PayPal's website, and one of the central promises for digital payments of all kinds. But so far, the promise isn't accessible "anywhere." 

For instance: Nicaragua. 

On the country's Pacific coast, in a remote beach town, there is a Spanish school called Pie de Gigante. It draws an international crowd to its website. But its founder, Juan Delgado, says it has sometimes failed to convert them into real-world visitors, thanks to its website's inability to let them pay online to reserve a space.

"Right now, we're using a system that's a little bit complicated," he says. "We use a system of paying via Western Union or in cash."

 PayPal isn't an option. 

"In most of Latin America today, the only way you can take money out of your PayPal account is having a U.S. bank  account," says Arnoldo Reyes, head of financial services and business development for PayPal in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

The exceptions have required the company to navigate local regluations and to partner directly with individual banks. It's this kind of extra work that pushes companies like PayPal to focus first on bigger, wealthier markets. (Nicaragua is the second poorest country in all of Latin America, after Haiti.) 

"I mean, you can't take an Uber in Nicaragua," says Reyes.

"We're basically closed off," says Marcella Chamorro, an entrepreneur who first ran into the payment problem when trying to create a kind of Nicaraguan Ticketmaster. 

"I know a bunch of small business owners who need to find like a cousin in California who can open a bank account for them and then sell through PayPal to this bank account and then their aunt comes three months later to bring the cash," she says. "It's really complicated."

It makes it harder for locals than for people like Chris James--a British ex-pat who runs the Hostal El Momento in Granada, Nicaragua. He has a local, Nicaraguan bank account for cash and credit cards. But he also has a U.S. bank account, which he uses for receiving PayPal payments. 

"It's easier to have both really: accounts here and out of the country as well," he says. "That's what I find, anyway."

The situation has been changing. In the last few years, PayPal has partnered with local banks to make receiving payments possible in Peru, Chile, Costa Rica and—on Monday—the Dominican Republic. But as for Nicaragua, Reyes says while the country is on PayPal's radar, the company couldn't give any specific timeline.

(04/16/2015)

Google accused of abusing its search engine dominance

Authorities in the European Union have filed a complaint against Google claiming the company violated anti-trust laws. 

More specifically, there's accusations that Google has abused its search-engine dominance to steer people to other Google products and services. Authorities have also announced an investigation into Google's Android operating system.

Click the media player above to hear Marketplace Tech guest host Adriene Hill in conversation with Marketplace's Molly Wood. 

(04/15/2015)

How to make a movie for $300

When Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg made "Noah," a 17-minute film focusing on a young man’s relationship online, the intention was to shoot at least part of the film in the real world.

But they quickly realized how expensive it was to build a set or hire a crew, including actors.  

“We just basically thought, 'Ok, how could we just make all of this happen on a computer screen?'” said Walter Woodman, one of the directors. “He (Noah) has to see that his girlfriend breaks up with him. How are we going to do that? We could do that through a Facebook post.”

That was easier than it sounded. They tried making fake Facebook accounts but Facebook deleted them. So Woodman and Cederberg turned their own profiles into those of the film’s protagonists: Noah and Amy.

“We kept breaking up and getting back together,” said Woodman. “So our actual friends would mess up takes and we would be like 'No, don't comment on this!'”

The point of filming the entire movie online, Woodman said, was to “peel back the curtain of artifice that is these constructed media profiles.”

“I think the view that you get from Noah is a really voyeuristic view,” he added. “You get to see not only what people type but what they backspace.”

The biggest takeaway from this project? The fact that it cost $300. That, according to Woodman, is among technology's biggest contributions.

“There’s less barriers to tell stories and less barriers means you’re going to get people who are saying what they actually want because they don't need to go through the typical gatekeepers that once prevented really creative people from making stuff,” said Woodman.  

(04/15/2015)

The button that's got everyone clicking

The Reddit “Button” that started out as an April fool’s prank has turned into an internet obsession. As of this writing, nearly 750,000 people have pushed it.

What exactly is it? It's a button with a timer that counts back from 60 seconds. Anyone who had a Reddit account before the day the button launched can push the button and reset the clock. But they can only push once. And no one knows what happens if the clock gets to zero.  

So what’s the big deal? “I think the short answer is, there’s a lot of reasons,” said Kelly Goldsmith, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University. She’s been reading what a lot of people have said online about their experience of pushing the button, which range from competition to status.

“But it also seems like there’s a strong sense of affiliation and a strong sense of community,” said Goldsmith. “But on the other hand, it could just be driven by curiosity.”

Curiosity about when the next person is going to push it? Or how long it’s going to keep going? Or what might happen if no one pushed it?

“That’s really what keeps it so mesmerizing,” said Goldsmith.

Although a strong sense of community is making people push the button, Goldsmith said, “the motivating power of curiosity” was part of it too.

“I don’t think gets enough attention in the academic literature, but it’s (curiosity) definitely a strong driving force,” said Goldsmith.

When she first heard about it, she admits she was in favor of people banding together not to push the button so they could see what would happen. But since then she’s changed her mind because she think so many people working together to keep the button going is a positive affiliation. But that doesn’t mean she’s going to push the button right away.

“I would absolutely be of the group that waits to get the clock as low as possible,” said Goldsmith. “Again, just for curiosity's sake. How low can it go? What would happen if no one pushed it?”

 

(04/14/2015)

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