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The IT roundup: news we’re still talking about in March

March 04, 2014

There were plenty of headlines in the tech world this past month, but here’s a recap of the topics that had us buzzing in the office, and our thoughts on how they fit into the bigger picture for IT. From Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp to #SochiProblems, the future of wearable tech to the movie Her, these stories speak to the diverse ways technology is changing the day-to-day of our lives.

Facebook’s WhatsApp purchase and the future of messaging

The question on everyone’s sticker-shocked face is, “Will it be worth it?”

Facebook threw down $19 billion last month to prove that it’s serious about mobile messaging. With over 450 million monthly users (and 1 million more downloading it every day), the WhatsApp purchase gives Facebook an entrée into international markets where mobile messaging is much more popular than texting.

Mark Zuckerberg admitted that "It's hard to make the case today" for WhatsApp's price, but he’s gambling that it's worth more than what he paid. And other apps are already modeling how it might provide a return on investment—WeChat is used ubiquitously in China, for everything from sharing contact information (Bump-style) to buying snacks at vending machines. Big in South Korea, KakaoTalk offers gaming and mobile commerce.

At the heart of this is a war for “eyeballs and fingers,” poised to play out in—of all places—Africa. Both Facebook and WeChat are fighting for millions of consumers who don’t even have smartphones yet.

As these apps evolve and monetize, they will bridge the digital and the analog, enabling us to access everything from one platform. Facebook already has our profiles and our social networks. Throw together Paper, WhatsApp, and something resembling Google Wallet … what else do you need?

Not just #SochiProblems: IT security and travel

Among the toilet talk and viral photos of orange water, one #SochiProblems tweet stood out—that in Russia, NBC’s Richard Engel was hacked within minutes of turning on his devices. Twitter was all abuzz with articles like this one, leading us to believe that “[Olympic] attendees can expect to immediately get hacked as soon as they get to Sochi.”

Initial reports twisted the information to sound like he was hacked out of nowhere. In actuality, as a Business Insider article puts it: “Engel basically visited a bad website, clicked a button he shouldn't have, and downloaded malicious software himself.” (Maybe he should have brought a Chromebook).

We all worry about the security of our information. This fear is heightened abroad where we might not even speak the language. But devices are just as susceptible to hacking here at home. The real danger in traveling with them is theft or confiscation by foreign government officials. But personal information isn’t all that’s at risk. An alarming 65 percent of IT leaders surveyed last year said that their company does not have an official BYOD policy. For people taking the same devices abroad that they use for work, the stakes are higher, and measures should be taken to secure sensitive company information.

Post-CES optimism for wearable tech

Nothing says, ‘the future of wearables is complicated’ like almost getting beaten up in a bar, which happened to a woman in San Francisco last month. While privacy issues have come to a head over Google Glass in particular, other wearables are just trying to be … wearable.

The truth is that tech companies are great at tech; they don’t necessarily know about fashion. Part of the solution is thinking about how something will be worn from the start, at the same time functionality is being designed, so it doesn’t feel like an afterthought. Intel announced a partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and two luxe retailers to help them with this. “Fashion designers are always thinking about things like, how does that clasp close, how does this leather feel,” says Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA.

It will be exciting to see what they come up with. Frog’s international offices had a blast conceptualizing these new ideas for wearables. But why not play to strengths? The future of wearables may well be tiny pieces of hardware that fashion companies embed into their own products.

Beyond Her, consumerizing AI

For anyone who didn’t see the movie, Her is about a man who falls in love with his operating system named Samantha. At a deeper level, it envisions a seamless future for user interface design where artificial intelligence (AI) is integrated in every part of our lives.

As a non-AI expert, I find it easiest to understand as an advancement of predictive analytics. This is an AI that will sort through your life, prioritizing and making suggestions based on past experiences. To achieve this level of “learning,” data will need to be collected, stored and accessed by hundreds of smart devices linked together virtually.

In this respect, the AI of the future seems to have a lot to do with Big Data, the Internet of things and interoperability. These are all things that the healthcare industry is currently struggling with. Data complexity and a lack of skills and resources are two huge challenges right now for healthcare systems implentation, and Marcus Wohlsen wrote in Wired about how closed networks of information will also be a barrier. “Hospitals are starting to benefit from interconnected sensors,” writes Wohlsen, “But without open standards, one hospital’s “Intranet of Things” might not be able to talk to another hospital’s network, causing much usable data to be lost.”

It will be interesting to see how the scenario plays out in healthcare—because though it might not result in a smoky-voiced Samantha, the results will still be very exciting.

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