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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Swipe to Unlock: The Non-Coders Guide to Technology and the Business Strategy Behind It
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Publisher: Editora Independente/Não Encontrada
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In 2017, the five largest companies in the world were all tech companies. The world of technology is everywhere: whether it is in medicine where doctors use AI to diagnose patients, or in digital banking. To get by in today’s world, let alone work for a lucrative company, it is essential to understand the world of technology. Luckily, you don’t need to have a degree in computer science for that; “Swipe to Unlock” is a guide to the fundamentals of the tech world. So get ready to brush up on your tech knowledge!
To start things off, let’s first look at operating systems (OSes), the basis for any computing device. Whether it is your phone or a supercomputer, any device or app needs an operating system to run. Android, iOS, Windows, and Linux are all examples of operating systems – but why are there so many, and how do companies make money with them?
Operating systems exist between the device and the app. For an app to work, it needs to be adapted to that specific operating system - that is why Android apps do not work on Apple phones and vice versa. In that sense, apps are a lot like Toyota cars. In some countries, people drive on the right-hand side, while in other countries they drive on the left. That means Toyota must always create two versions of their cars, one with the steering wheel on the left and one with the steering wheel on the right.
That is also why apps usually come in both an Android and an iOS version. By producing both, companies make sure they reach the largest possible market.
Some operating systems, such as Google’s Android, are entirely free. Still though, Google makes a fair bit in revenue from them. In 2016, Google’s revenue was at $31 billion a year! So how does this work?
By making Android free to use for any phone manufacturer, Google ensures that most phones come with Android as the operating system. And every phone that comes with Android automatically has to install the Google core apps, meaning Google gets more users, more data, can show more ads and make more money.
Many billion dollar companies these days are based on little more than an app. To name just a few, think of Uber, Airbnb, or Snapchat. This “app economy” was valued at more than $50 billion in 2016, and yet, most people do not pay a single penny for the apps they use every day. So how do apps manage to conjure up money, seemingly out of thin air?
Of the top 100 apps on both Android and iOS, there is only one paid app, and that is Minecraft. Even still, companies such as Snapchat provide an app for free and manage to make $33 billion a year. That is because app makers use clever business strategies to monetize their app, such as freemium.
This means that they offer an app for free, but if you want certain bonus or premium features you have to pay for them. For example, with the dating app Tinder, you swipe on your possible romantic partners. Every user of the app gets a certain number of free swipes, but if you want to do more than that in a day, you will have to pay for Tinder Plus, which is a monthly subscription. Spotify works in a similar way.
Other apps use in-app purchases to make money, such as Pokémon Go. These freemium strategies work because the users willing to pay for them are usually very dedicated to the product. For example, someone using Tinder excessively won’t mind paying a little for extra swipes, while most people don’t even get to the daily limit of swipes. Most apps actually make their revenue from this small, dedicated core of users.
Then there are companies such as Facebook or Google, whose services you have probably been using for years without ever paying a single dollar. How do they manage to make a profit? Simple: targeted ads.
Companies pay Google or Facebook for showing their ads. They either pay per impression (PPI), or per click (PPC). Those who pay more are more likely to have their ad shown to a customer. But Facebook and Google also make sure to show relevant ads to people using their sites, since those are more likely to generate revenue.
To do so, both companies use something known as “ad targeting.” Because so many people use Facebook and Google, they have managed to collect vast amounts of data on their users. They then use this data for advertising purposes, while letting you use the services for free. There is a Silicon Valley proverb that says, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.”
We are increasingly dependent on online services, and that does not come without its risks. Hackers have evolved with technology and found cunning ways to steal your data or money. In 2017, the software WannaCry crippled computers in 150 countries around the world, including the National Health Service in the UK which, as a result, could not perform many vital surgeries.
WannaCry is an example of ransomware, a new kind of malware. It usually gets onto your computer as an email attachment or a dangerous download. It then encrypts (locks up) your files and threatens to throw away the key unless you pay the criminals who sent you the malware. They usually ask to be paid in bitcoin, an anonymous online currency. Then they hand over the key to decrypt your files again.
An ironic development of this new kind of criminal revenue is that in order to ensure a continuous income, these criminals have to build a certain level of “trust” with their customers – you need to be sure that they will actually give you the key if you pay them. Some criminal organizations have even gone so far to develop excellent “customer” support, including call centers!
Another trick hackers use is to hack your phone using a phony Wi-Fi network. Say you went into a Starbucks, and you wanted to connect to their Wi-Fi to send some emails. There are three Wi-Fis for you to choose from: “Google Starbucks,” “Free Wi-Fi by Starbucks,” or “Free Public Wi-Fi.” Which one would you choose?
Actually, the only legitimate Wi-Fi here is “Google Starbucks.” If you connect to one of the hacker networks instead, they gain access to all the information you receive and send from your device. Usually, websites use “https” which encrypts all information and does not allow hackers to see what you send or receive, but hackers have found a clever way to bypass this protection.
With the tool SSLStrip, your device is fooled into talking with a secure server while actually connecting to the http. This means that the hacker can then read everything you send – including your passwords. If, for example, you were to log into your bank account, a hacker could use that password to send your money to his own account. This is also known as a man-in-the-middle attack.
To protect yourself from such attacks, it is easiest to use a VPN (virtual private network), which creates end-to-end encryption between your device and the website you are visiting.
Hackers are just one example of how the world of technology can be just as much a blessing as a curse. Since the world of technology is always changing, you also need to learn about current trends to keep up. One major trend these days is artificial intelligence. Since Apple launched Siri in 2011, millions of people around the world have started to rely on intelligent personal assistants such as Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa. But how do they work? And can they actually think for themselves?
Let’s take Siri as an example. When you say the word “cat” to Siri, it needs to be transferred from sounds into an actual word that Siri understands. Since a lot of computing power is needed for this process, this does not happen on the device but rather on Apple’s servers. There, the word you said is broken down into phonetic sounds, and then Apple searches a database of thousands of English speakers saying words. The database matches the sounds of “k” “a” and “t” with the word “cat” and sends that back to the device.
Siri then tries to make sense of the word by doing an online search, or, if you were to say “rain,” Siri may open the weather app on your phone. This whole process is known as natural language processing.
Siri and most other artificial intelligence systems today are examples of “weak artificial intelligence.” That is, they simulate how humans think but cannot actually think for themselves. AI has often been represented in apocalyptic terms, by Stephen Hawking, for example, who sees it as the beginning of the end of the human race. The kind of AI that could wipe out humans would be “strong artificial intelligence,” and philosophers are unsure whether AI will ever get to that point.
Whether AI means the end of the world or not, one thing is for sure: robots have already taken over many human jobs. So, is this trend likely to continue? A 2015 report claimed that automation would kill off 4.6 million office and administrative jobs by 2020. But these prognoses are often untrue.
For example, when ATMs were introduced in the 1970s, people believed that fewer bank tellers would be employed. Indeed, fewer human tellers were needed in bank branches, but this saved the banks money, which they used to open up new branches, where they employed new people. From 1970 to 2010, the number of tellers actually grew from 300,000 to 600,000!
As this example shows, it is difficult to say whether robots will replace humans in jobs or not. A much more worrying development in recent years lies in the fact that it is now easier than ever before to create fake audio and video. This is especially dangerous in an era of fake news.
These fake videos are created with the help of GANs: generative adversarial networks. These are self-learning computers. With a little human help, they can teach themselves to produce fakes that are indistinguishable from reality.
In 2017 for example, a Canadian company called Lyrebird uploaded a video of Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton reading their tweets out loud. The problem? None of them had actually done this. If this trend continues, it will be even more difficult to tell the trustworthy news from the fake news.
Technology is as much a blessing as it is a curse. It makes everyday life much easier for us, but it also opens new ways for criminals to steal our data. Moreover, artificial intelligence and robots not only pose threats to human workplaces, but can also produce fake videos or audio recordings that could help the spread of fake news.
That is why it is so important to understand the world of technology - how operating systems work and how companies such as Google, Facebook, and Snapchat manage to make billions in revenue from apps.
Next time you log into a public Wi-Fi, make sure you are using a VPN to protect your data.
Parth Detroja studied applied economics and management at Cornell University where he also co-founded the Cornell International Business Associa... (Read more)
Aditya Agashe studied computer science and business at Cornell University where he also founded Belle Applications, a company dedicat... (Read more)
Neel Mehta studied Computer Science at Harvard University and has since done the “tech triple crown” - he worked for a .com, .org, and .gov organization. He worked as program manager intern for Microsoft,... (Read more)
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