Marketplace Tech®

with Ben Johnson

About the Program

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

Official program website

Latest Show
Doubling a country's economy with the click of a mouse

Imagine a country being able to double the size of its economy, almost at the touch of a button, or the click of a mouse. The tiny Baltic state of Estonia aims to do just that. Next month, Estonia will become the first country in the world to offer foreigners so-called “ e-residency,” which could hugely expand its customer base without increasing the size of its physical population of 1.3 million people.  

Estonia is trying to cash in on what it calls its digital infrastructure. It’s one of the most e-connected places on the planet with almost every home, office, factory and classroom hooked up to the internet, and most government business conducted online; Estonia even uses e-voting in its general elections. 

Now, foreigners will be invited to sign up, pay $64, and become an e-resident of Estonia.

“E-residency is basically a government-guaranteed digital identity,” explains Siret Schutting, Estonia’s e-ambassador. “We are allowing foreigners to acquire what every Estonian already has: a digital signature. This means they can securely sign documents online. It’s legally the same as a handwritten signature.”

You “sign” by using a unique code along with your own smartcard and reader. E-residency won’t give you right to live in Estonia or even to visit the country, but Taavi Kotka of the Ministry for Economic Affairs in the capital Tallinn says it will let you do business there. 

“You can open up a bank account, start a company, run a company, all that stuff," he says. "We’re aiming to sign up 10 million e-residents. That would give a big boost to the Estonian economy. More customers for our banks, for telecom companies ... for everybody.”

Kotka claims e-residency will be totally secure. To qualify, you must supply biometric data — like finger prints  and be vetted. However, Ian Bond, a former British ambassador to neighboring Latvia, is not entirely reassured.

“I would have some concerns about who exactly would be getting e-residency. With Russia on its doorstep, there is a risk of money laundering. There is a risk of exploitation by organized crime. $64 won’t pay for much in-depth vetting,” he says.

Estonia knows all about cyber problems from its mighty neighbor; the country suffered a massive attack from Russian hackers in 2007, apparently because it planned to relocate a Soviet-era war memorial. Estonian government, bank, police and other emergency websites crashed under a bombardment of service denial messages. But the Baltic state weathered the storm and it is now host to NATO’s cyber security headquarters. Estonia reckons that although it is small, it can defend itself  and its residents  in cyberspace.   

(11/24/2014)

Aereo files for Chapter 11 reorganization

On Friday, the beleaguered television-streaming service Aereo announced it would file for Chapter 11 reorganization. Founder and CEO Chet Kanojia wrote in a blog post that the move  would "permit Aereo to maximize the value of its business and assets without the extensive cost and distraction of defending drawn out litigation in several courts."

It's been a long journey since the cloud-based television streaming company got started three years ago — Aereo's promise to change the way we watched television was immediately met by a lawsuit brought on by major TV networks.

Says Kanojia, "I think we struck a chord in a lot of people’s hearts that there was something arcane about how television was distributed and watched.”

Aereo celebrated some victories: this year, when ABC's live-stream of the Oscars failed where Aereo's succeeded. But ultimately, a 6-3 vote from the Supreme Court found that the company violated federal copyright law by retransmitting copyrighted programs without paying a fee. In other words, the court didn't buy Aereo's technological argument.

When asked about the court's ruling, Kanojia doesn't mince words: “We believe the court got it wrong.”

The company was considered a favorite among cord cutters—people who favor streaming services over cable—and there's been a rise in networks jumping on the streaming bandwagon since Aereo lost in the high court. "I think we certainly recognized the game was evolving, and we taught the consumers that there was a different way of thinking about entertainment," says Kanojia.

And in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, there have even been companies looking to take Aereo's place.

In spite of Aereo calling it quits, Kanojia remains optimistic about small companies' ability to disrupt at large. As he points out, "Amazon used to be a very small company when it started, and it's not that long ago."


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Chet Kanojia's name. The text has been corrected.

 

 

(11/21/2014)

Silicon Tally: Tweetin' Turkey

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

This week, we're joined by Marty Van Ness, supervisor of the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, for a food-themed Silicon Tally.

(11/21/2014)

A new product from a notorious name in entertainment

For years, the file-sharing service BitTorrent has been associated with piracy, as millions of people streamed creative contentmovies, or musicfor free.

Now, BitTorrentwith 170 million userssays it wants to empower artists, musicians and filmmakers.

While this is a bit ironic for some, the plan is to become a platform where musicians and others sell songs, albums and merchandise. 

The company’s Director of Content Strategy Straith Schreder says you can think of it a bit like Etsy.

“It’s built to kind of bring people together over the content and creativity that they keep in common. That’s very much our mission here,” she says.

The hope is BitTorrent's so-called ‘bundles’ what the company calls content in this new modelwill slow the piracy that’s plagued the entertainment industry; the piracy that some associate with BitTorrent.

Complete Music Update editor Chris Cooke says while it’s not clear yet how to protect artists, direct to consumer models offer some hope.

“Artists now can know pretty precisely who their core fan base are, what sort of people they are, where they live, what they like to spend money on. And then provide products and services that excite those fans,” he says.

Cooke says the music industry is just learning how to capitalize on this new model.

He says the best thing about internet is that’s its putting artists in direct relationship with their fans. 

(11/18/2014)

Silicon Tally: Bounce with Me

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

This week, we're joined by David Banks, co-editor of the blog Cyborgology.

(11/14/2014)

World of Warcraft competes in a 'freemium' world

The latest incarnation of the World of Warcraft video game is released Thursday. The PC-based online multi-player game is among the most popular with more than seven million subscribers, who pay a fee up-front to join the game.

But the subscriber base is down from a peak of 12.3 million in 2010. That decline is opposite the rest of the video gaming industry, which has seen rapid growthfour times that of the rest of the U.S. economy, according to industry data.

A lot of the growth has been in free mobile game appsso-called freemium apps, which mobile consumers can download for free, but which entice players to pay for extras inside the game.

"The question of whether or not free to play is evil, is of course a fair question,” says Joost van Dreunen, who heads SuperData Research, a firm that tracks the video game industry. Van Dreunen says a lot of game designers themselves refer to "freemium" apps as "evil."

But despite any misgivings or criticisms, growth of mobile has changed video games, says van Dreunen, to the point that “only 20 to 25 percent of games in the app stores are charging people up front." 

And Brian Blau, research director at the technology-focused firm Gartner, says the free-to-play model is expanding. 

"There are many games across all platforms that are looking at the free-to-play monetization model as their ticket for the future,” says Blau.

That may mean a lot more freemium games, and certainly a continued growth in the mobile market, as the global video games industry is forecast to hit the $100 billion mark by 2017

(11/13/2014)

Silicon Tally: So many penguins

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

This week, we're joined by Ashkan Soltani, newly appointed Chief Technologist at the FTC.

(11/07/2014)

A stove that can power your phone

The state of cooking in much of the developing world continues to be cooking over an open fire.

As a result, a lot of what you might find in cigarette smoke ends up around the food. Biolite is seeking to change that.

Their stove concentrates heat and lowers the amount of wood needed to get a fire going.

In addition, the device is able to harness the wasted heat from the fire and convert it to electricity. This can be used to power fans near the fire and reduce particles and other traces of monoxide that appear in the air, while at the same time being able to use that electricity to power your phone or even your TV.

For more, click the audioplayer above to hear Jonathan Cedar, CEO of Biolite, in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(11/06/2014)

Keeping track of Ebola

One of the first steps in the fight against Ebola is to increase communication throughout the region. The Ebola phone does just that.

The phone, which looks much like your typical office device, has been distributed across threatened regions in an effort to get first line responders connected to epidemiologists and isolation centers.

The point of this communication is to share information and data, but one of the problems that comes up when storing data in clinics treating Ebola patients is that everything that goes into the clinic is destroyed, which makes keeping a diary or a hard drive to share with others is impossible.

For this reason, among many others, the CDC has launched an online platform called Epi Info which allows clinics to log all the information they're getting about Ebola in the field to this central software. Clinics treating Ebola patients have iPad's where the information is logged and shared with others to continue fighting this vicious disease.

Colin Baker is a journalist based in Bamako, Mali's capital city. He joined us to talk about the other high tech solutions being used to share important medical data.

Click the media player above to hear Colin Baker in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(11/05/2014)

Living without cash or credit cards for a week

Living life for a week without using a credit card or cash may seem impossible, but with a number of mobile payment options now available, Lisa Selin Davis decided to give it a shot.

In the process, she discovered how feasible (or not) paying exclusively with mobile payments has become, and which stores are most equipped to handle mobile payments. Spoiler alert: Selin Davis found herself mostly at retail giants. 

To hear how Selin Davis' week of mobile payments went down, click on the media player above.

(11/04/2014)

Is it a news article or malware?

Back in 2007, the FBI bugged the computer of a 15-year-old student who was suspected to be behind a number of bomb threats that hit Washington State High School.

So how did they do it? The FBI buried malware into a link that resembled a news report. 

"It's not that difficult anymore," says Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law at Harvard University.

All you needed to have was an article persuasive enough for the suspect to click on and you're well on your way to delivering a package of tracking malware.

Now, the question is: Where should the government should draw the line? 

Click the media player above to hear Jonathan Zittrain in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(11/03/2014)

Silicon Tally: Swipe right for romance

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

This week, we're joined by Andrea Silenzihost of the WFMU podcast Why Oh Why?

(10/31/2014)

Car companies catch up to a connected world

Car companies have been slow to adapt to a connected world. But they're starting to catch up, putting out cars that increasingly work like huge smartphones on wheels. 

Qualcomm is a company built on smartphone chips. But lately, they've also been trying to get their chips inside cars.

"Fundamentally, the car is turning into a smartphone," says Qualcomm's senior vice president of business development Kanwalinder Singh. He's speaking from the passenger seat of an Audi A3, the first car with its own 4G connection. 

With the help of Qualcomm chips, the A3 features more detailed Google maps, internet radio, and Netflix streaming for the kids in the backseat. Drivers can dictate Tweets using voice command, and the car reads incoming text messages out loud. 

Singh says Qualcomm is giving drivers the features they want, and they're doing it in a safe way.

"We believe that driver distraction would actually be alleviated by providing these services," he says. "When all of this is embedded, like it is in this Audi, phone calls destined to you and your smartphone would actually come through the car's antenna, and play through the car's audio-visual system. You would interact through the car."

But some driving safety researchers say moving these features from the phone to the car won't make drivers any safer.

"I think they're really ignoring the powerful effect of cognitive distractions," says Linda Hill, who leads a team of driving safety researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. 

Hill admits voice command might cut down on visual distraction, preventing phone-handling drivers from staring down into their laps. But eye-tracking studies have shown that even when drivers have their hands free and their eyes on the road, their minds can still be elsewhere.

"A recent study looking at that found that voice-to-text increased driving errors more on a closed driving course than text-to-text did, shockingly," Hill says.

Hill does like the idea of building one bit of technology into cars, though: An app that disables phones in moving vehicles. 

(10/29/2014)

For more privacy, let's go to India

One of China's largest electronics companies, Xiaomi, has a plan. They want to sell 100,000 phones in India every week. But there's a problem. A privacy problem.

Chinese smartphones have notoriously been banned or even put on a trade restriction lists because people are concerned that they might be carrying spyware installed by the Chinese government.

To combat this stigma, Xiaomi announced that they will be building a data center in India to ensure customers that they will not be storing their data on Chinese servers.

Molly Wood, Technology columnist at the New York Times, brought up an interesting point in this regard. She wonders if at some point, some country will declare themselves as the "Switzerland of data storage," in that this country will not honor requests from anyone to sift through your data.

However, there's only one slight problem with that, she says. What if we don't trust the manufacturers of the product either? What then?

Click on the media player above to hear Molly Wood in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(10/29/2014)

The $128 million dollar supercomputer

Cray, a Seattle based supercomputer company, just announced that they will be supplying the UK's Met Office, their version of the national weather service, with its next generation supercomputer worth over $128 million.

The machine itself looks like a bunch of refrigerators, known as racks, lined up next to one another.

Barry Boulding, Vice President of Business Development for Cray, says, "Weather forecasting today is more than just the morning news. It's really about providing a set of products to financial markets and the defense industry. What the Met Office just purchased will give them the ability to deliver 13 times more to their customers than they were able to deliver in their previous business."

Technology and the level of computing power continues to improve, and with it, the accuracy of forecasts. But along with more capability comes more complex questions. 

Click the media player above to hear Barry Boulding in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(10/28/2014)

Parking valet on demand

Recently, I was late for a meeting in downtown San Francisco. Worse yet, it was during the workday when it was impossible to find parking. 

Now, this is a problem you’ve likely encountered if you live in a big cityThat is, circling around looking for parking. Well, no surprise, the techies in Silicon Valley have an app for that. And so I pulled out my iPhone, clicked on a parking app called Luxe and told it where I was going.

When I got to my location, Kelda ran up to greet me. She was my Luxe valet.

How long are you staying today?” she asked.

I told her about an hour. And then I asked Kelda how she knew what side of the street I was going to be on.

She took out her iPhone and said, “I have it right here on the app and so you can see where you’re coming from.”

Kelda took my car to a parking lot that had partnered with Luxe. For this service, I pay five-dollars-an-hour with a $15 dollar maximum. Not bad for valet parking in downtown San Francisco. And when I was ready to leave, I pulled out the app to get my car.

Curtis Lee, the CEO of Luxe Valet, says despite its name, the start-up isn’t just providing a luxury, it’s using technology to tackle real transportation problems.

“Thirty percent of traffic is people looking for parking,” he says. “And in parts of San Francisco, that amounts to 27 minutes on average” of people circling around.

With parking being a $30 billion industry in the United States alone, Lee points out there are a handful of start-ups in San Francisco that are trying to capture that market.

I call it the 'instant gratification economy,'” says Liz Gannes, a reporter at Re-code. She says it started with services like iTunes, where with one click, Apple could zap a song to your computer. Now smartphones are bringing it into the real word.

You push a button on your phone and get rides through Uber and Lyft,” she says.

She says this new iteration of the instant gratification economy has a few big challenges. First off, these parking-tech companies probably don’t make sense outside of densely populated cities

“And, you’re dealing with real world goods and services,” Gannes adds.

Unlike, say, a digital music file, you can’t just zap up a hundred parking spaces. Plus, you need real people in the real world to provide the service.

One of the ways that different companies are doing that is that they’re working with people who are not full-time employees and are subcontractors,” Gannes says. 

And that introduces real world labor issues. In other words, as the instant gratification economy tries to move offline, tech companies are losing their online advantage and facing many of the same problems brick-and-mortars do.

 

(10/24/2014)

Silicon Tally: Nadella must have good karma

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

This week, we're joined by Kevin Roose, a writer for New York Magazine.

(10/24/2014)

Silicon Tally: The one where you watch all of Friends

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

This week, we're joined by David Albert, co-founder of Hacker School, a retreat for computer programmers in New York City.

(10/17/2014)

The value of voicemail

Text messages, e-mails, missed phone calls, "Yo's  it's easier than ever to let someone know you want to get a hold of them. In many ways, the voicemail is a relic in the eyes of millennials and those younger, but a staple of etiquette for Gen X'ers and older.

This was the precise problem that Leslie Horn ran into with her mother. She just wouldn't stop leaving voicemails.

But then something happened that made her change the way she viewed the end of unanswered phone calls forever: her father passed away.

Upon the passing of her father, Horn's phone rang for months. Many of them ended at the machine.

It was here that she realized a few things about these messages. People often ended up saying more than they do in an actual conversation (in an endearing way), it's nice to hear a voice other than your own sometimes, and that there was a special place reserved for all the messages people left her throughout the years waiting in storage.

Old friends with stories, the occasional ramblings of a drunk dial, and one very special message for her birthday last year: A voicemail from her dad.

(10/16/2014)

A new financial innovation in the housing market

Financial innovation in the housing market is back.

The last year saw the creation of something called "REO-to-rental securities" or "rental-backed securities." It's enough to give you subprime crisis flashbacks. But in fact, it's a very different species of financial instrument. 

It does start with a house, much like that of Jess Joslin. "It's a two-story brick house with a two garage," she says. 

Joslin rents from American Homes 4 Rent, one of the largest players in the emerging market of single family rentals owned by big investors. "From what I understand, almost all their houses look like this," Joslin says. "They’re really nice."

The largest investors have purchased nearly 200,000 houses in the last several years. The purchasing peaked in 2012, and has focused on places where the subprime mortgage crisis hit hardest. 

"You’re seeing it in Phoenix, in Las Vegas, in Atlanta," says Laurie Goodman, director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. 

In many of these markets, housing prices fell by more than a third, and the plan was to buy low with cash from investors, and then reap the profits from high rents. But in many of these markets, housing prices have appreciated, while rents have remained more stagnant. "Rents haven't gone up all that much," says Goodman. "And they haven't gone up nearly as much as home prices."

This change has meant that the buy-to-rent strategy generates less return for every dollar. To make up for it, in the last year, these investors have looked for ways to put other people's dollars to work. 

Enter securitization. 

Do we call them rental-backed securities? 

"They're viewed as a hybrid," says Doug Bendt, director of research for mortgage-backed securities at Deutsche Bank. 

His bank pioneered this new financial instrument as a way of giving investors more leverage. "'Necessity is the mother of invention,' as the saying goes," he says.

Think of it as a really big loan to a really big landlord, chopped into little pieces and sold to bondholders. The landlordlike American Homes 4 Rentgets some cash for the rising home prices, and lower borrowing costs going forward. "Just kinda like a homeowner refinancing," says Bendt. 

The bondholders get a check every month, thanks to thousands of rental payments from people like Jess Joslin.

And if some of the thousands of Joslins stop paying their rent? The landlord can kick them out of their homes and find new tenants, or sell the whole house. That, and a much smaller scale and more conservative approach, are why analysts like Goodman and Bendt see the rental-backed security as far more benign than the infamous toxic assets that led to the last housing crisis. 

"I think people think, ‘Oh this is a repeat of the excesses of the past!’ But in reality, it’s very, very different than the past," says Goodman. "It’s sort of a begin to creep back to normalcy."

A normalcy where more people are renting, and more of their landlords are multi-billion-dollar companies.

(10/13/2014)

Program Schedule

MPR News
Radio

Listen Now

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland

Services