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macOS Big Sur is now available

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The day has finally arrived. The latest version of macOS is here, after a seemingly endless wait. That wasn’t just your imagination, either. Sure time is basically meaningless now, but this one did take a while to arrive, with nearly five months between its announcement at WWDC and today’s public release.

There are, no doubt, plenty of reasons for this. Among other things, this has been an usual year, to put it as benignly as possible. This also marks a pretty big annual update for the desktop operating system. And then, of course, there’s the fact that this is the first version of macOS expressly built for the company’s new Arm-based Macs — the single largest change to Apple hardware in roughly 14 years.

I’ve been running a beta of the operating system on one of my machines since June, along with developers and a smattering of brave souls. I’m not saying we’re heroes — but I’m also not not saying that. At the end of the day, it’s not for me to say.

The update brings a slew of design updates — many of which continue the longstanding trend of blurring the line between macOS and iOS. It’s a trend that may well intensify as Apple silicon ushers in the next era of Macs. At the very least, it makes sense from the standpoint of iOS having long ago taken the pole position in Apple’s software design. The mobile operating system has been the first to introduce many features that have eventually found their way onto the desktop.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Many of the changes are subtle. The menu bar is taller and more translucent, changing with different backgrounds and as the system toggles between light and dark mode. The Finder dock now floats a touch above the bottom of the screen and menus have a little more space to breathe. Windows offer a bit more space, as well, along with a smattering of new symbols scattered throughout first-party apps like Mail and Calendar.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The shapes of the icons have changed to a more iOS-like squircle design, with subtle touches throughout — the Mail icon, for instant, sports the address of Apple’s HQ in barely visible text: “Apple Park, California 95014.” Like many of the other touches, the key is offering up a kind of stylistic consistency, both throughout Big Sur and across the Apple ecosystem.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The most immediate and obvious change to the finder, however, is the addition of the Control Center. The feature is borrowed directly from iOS/iPadOS, bringing a simple, clean and translucent pane down to the right side of the screen. You can drag and drop the panels directly into the menu bar. It brings to mind the sort of control center functionality the company introduced with the Touch Bar, but more than anything the big buttons and sliders beckon you to reach out and touch the screen. It’s really hard to shake the feeling that the company is starting to lay the groundwork for future touchscreen Macs running Apple silicon.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I won’t lie: I’ve never been a big Notification Center user. I understand why Apple thought to bring the center to the desktop several updates ago, but it’s just not as centralized as it is on mobile. Nor does it fit into my existing workflow. Apple has continued tweaking the feature — and it gets a pretty sizable overhaul here. Like much of the rest of the updates, it’s about how Apple uses space.

Now accessible by clicking the date and time in the menu bar (versus a devoted button), the two most appealing changes here are grouped notifications and widgets. Again borrowing from iOS, notifications are now stacked by group. Tapping the top of the pile will expand them down. You can “X” them out on the side to make them go away — but again, a swipe would be more satisfying. Also notable is the ability to interact with notifications. You can reply to messages or listen to podcasts straight from the river. It’s a nice addition for those who already use the feature as part of their workflow.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The system also joins the latest version of iOS with the addition of new widgets into the Notification column. Currently the list includes first-party apps like Calendar, Weather and Podcasts, along with additional widgets available via the App Store. You can add and remove widgets and resize them. On a screen with enough real estate, it might be nice to pin them to the top, so they can stay open and anchored in place, while you’re working in other applications.


Sounds, too, have been updated throughout. The changes are mostly subtle, as in the case of the newly recorded startup chime. More pronounced are changes like moving a file, which has a nice humming sound — more pleasant that the old cold spring noise. Here’s a much better rundown of all of the sounds than I currently have time to put together:

A number of first-party apps get some key updates here. Safari is probably the biggest of the bunch, starting with the welcome page. You can set the background image, using something from your own library — or a pre-picked photo from Apple. It might be nice to have something a bit more dynamic, cycling through a series of handpicked images or using AI to choose the best from a library, but otherwise the implementation is good — and it’s nice to see something familiar when you open a new tab (in my very specific case, a rabbit who also lives rent-free in my apartment).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Beyond that, home-page customizations include toggling between favorites, frequently visited sites, your reading list and even security reports, which tell you things like the number of trackers Safari has blocked. Clicking into that last bit offers up a more detailed profile of the specific trackers it blocked and which sites are doing the tracking. Apparently 80% of the sites I’ve visited with Safari on this computer use them — which, yikes.

Built-in translation in Safari is a nice step toward taking on Chrome — Google has been a longtime leader in translation services. Apple’s browser has great market share on mobile (thanks in no small part to being the default browser on iOS), but studies tend to put it at somewhere around eight to 10% of the desktop market share. Currently, however, the system is still in beta and the translation options are still limited, including: English, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, French, German, Russian and Brazilian Portuguese. Apple will no doubt continue to update that list.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

One piece that I do dig are website previews, which can be accessed by hovering over a tab. That’s a nice addition for those of us who tend to go overboard with tabs — which I have to imagine is many or most people, these days. Apple has also added site favicons to tabs, which should also help you identify them quicker.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Things have been improved in the backend as well, with quicker site rendering and better power efficiency. The company says you should be able to get up to three extra hours of battery streaming video on Safari versus Firefox and Chrome. Seems like a pretty big discrepancy, though there are, no doubt, advantages to using first-party software. Even if the company still has a steep hill to climb with regards to desktop market share. Maps is another place where Apple’s got some pretty stiff competition from Google. At last measure, Google Maps has something like 67% market share. Apple’s offering got off to an admittedly slow start out of the gate, but the company’s been pushing pretty hard to catch up to — and in a few spot surpass — Google.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Of course, many of these updates are the sort of things that will be easier to check out when there isn’t a pandemic happening. Meantime, things like the 360-degree Look Around (Apple’s Street View competitor) is a nice way to live vicariously. Indoor Maps, too, though the feature is still relatively limited. You can check it out in select spots like airports and indoor shopping malls. Other key additions include electric vehicle routing to plan trips around charging stages, cycling directions and mapped congestion zones for traffic in major cities.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

A handful of updates to Messages warrant mention here — many of which were also introduced with the latest version of iOS (a rare bit of cross-OS parity that could, perhaps, become more common going forward). In this case, it’s clear why the company would want to roll some of this stuff out all at once.

Messages is just more robust across the board on the desktop with this update. The list includes a Memoji editor and stickers, message effects like confetti and lasers and an improved photo chooser. Conversations can be pinned to the top of the app and group chats have been improved to include group photos, inline replies to specific messages and the ability to alert users with the @ symbol. It’s not quite a Slack replacement, nor is it trying to be one.

After months of beta, Big Sur is finally here. It boasts some key upgrades to apps and the system at large, but more importantly from Apple’s perspective, it lays the groundwork for the first round of Arm-powered Macs and continues its march toward a uniformity between the company’s two primary operating systems.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Rusty but intact: Nazi Enigma cipher machine found in Baltic Sea

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The Enigma cipher machine found in the Baltic Sea is lying on a table in front of the archaeological office of Schleswig-Holstein. After its discovery, the machine was handed over to the office by research diver Huber. Photo: Axel Heimken/dpa (Photo by Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Enlarge / The Enigma cipher machine found in the Baltic Sea is lying on a table in front of the archaeological office of Schleswig-Holstein. After its discovery, the machine was handed over to the office by research diver Huber. Photo: Axel Heimken/dpa (Photo by Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

Divers scouring the Baltic Sea for discarded fishing nets have stumbled on the rarest of finds: an Enigma encryption machine used by the Nazis to encode secret messages during World War II.

The electromechanical device was used extensively by the Nazi military to encrypt communications, which typically were transmitted by radio in Morse Code. Three or more rotors on the device used a stream cipher to convert each letter of the alphabet to a different letter.

The Enigma had the appearance of a typewriter. An operator would use the keys to type plaintext, and the converted ciphertext would be reflected in 26 lights above the keys—one light for each converted letter. The converted letters would then be transcribed to derive the ciphertext.

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How the US, UK and China are planning to roll out vaccines

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The vaccines are coming. The UK became the first country in the West to approve a covid-19 vaccine for emergency use on December 2, specifically the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which has completed Phase 3 trials. But the US, EU, and many other countries are expected to follow suit in the following days and weeks. The imminent arrival of vaccines not only means that countries face a huge logistical challenge to distribute them—which is complicated by the fact the two most promising vaccines require ultra-cold temperatures—but they also have to grapple with hard choices over who gets them first. 

Here’s how different countries are making their decisions on distributing vaccines to their populations. 

United States

How many doses will be available? Up to 40 million doses are expected to be on offer in the US by the end of 2020—25 million of which will come from Pfizer-BioNTech, and 12.5 million from Moderna, according to Reuters. Since the vaccines each require two doses spaced several weeks apart, this will be enough to vaccinate 20 million people—but not all shipments will come at once. The first shipment will reportedly cover 3.2 million people, with 5-10 million more doses delivered each week after that.  

Who will get it first? In the US, individual states are responsible for creating their own vaccine distribution plans. They are meant to follow general guidance from the CDC’s Interim Playbook for Covid-19, which was shaped by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) with input from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

ACIP met on December 1, and voted on the recommended first phase of the distribution plan. This is known as 1a, and will prioritize 21 million health care workers and 3 million adults in long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, who are particularly vulnerable. 

USA vaccine covid-19

MS TECH | PIXABAY

The following phases will add other people to the list: 1b will prioritize other essential workers, such as school staff, while 1c prioritizes adults older than 65 and others with other medical issues that increase the risk of serious complications from covid.

Phase two would cover people who work in schools, transportation, congregate housing facilities, like nursing homes, and other places with high concentrations of people. Phase three includes young adults and children—in an attempt to stop super spreading events—as well as other essential workers not previously covered. Phase four would include everyone else. 

But the CDC guidelines leave a lot for state and local governments to interpret and implement. 

Even in phase 1, different states have different definitions for essential workers, for example. ACIP has yet to discuss anything beyond phase 1, leaving many open questions about how to prioritize the rest of the population. One analysis of 47 published state plans by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about half explicitly mentioned race and health equity as a factor for prioritization. 

China

How many doses will be available? Chinese scientists say the country will have 600 million doses ready this year, the South China Morning Post reports. Wang Junzhi, a member of the nation’s vaccine task force, told journalists on December 4 that the doses of inactivated vaccines will be ready for launch before the end of the year. He said a “major announcement”on vaccine trials was expected in the coming weeks. 

China vaccine covid-19

MS TECH | PIXABAY

China has five vaccine candidates from four manufacturers in phase three clinical trials, including the frontrunners from Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech. While none have yet been approved for commercial use, they have been administered in so-called “pre-tests” in China, where coronavirus numbers are low, and are also undergoing phase three trials in 15 countries abroad. 

Who will get it first? That question’s already been answered. Emergency authorization was granted to the two leading candidates earlier this year: Since June, an unknown number of People’s Liberation Army members have received shots, and essential city workers started getting vaccinated in July. All in all, roughly one million people have received emergency authorization vaccines so far, including employees of state-owned enterprises, Huawei employees in 180 countries, and Chinese diplomats. 

“An emergency use authorization, which is based on Chinese vaccine management law, allows unapproved vaccine candidates to be used among people who are at high risk of getting infected on a limited period,” said Zheng Zhongwei, the director of the Science and Technology Development Center of China’s National Health Commission, in an interview with China’s state television channel on August 22.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to make the vaccine available around the world as a“global public good.” In October, China joined the Covax Facility, a global alliance of 189 countries that have pledged to equitably distribute vaccines. The US is not part of that group. 

The countries prioritized for distribution of the five Chinese vaccine candidates are primarily those which have hosted trials, which in turn is shaped by China’s strategic interest.  These include Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey, which have signed deals for 46 million, 50 million, and 50 million Sinovac doses respectively; and Mexico, which has a deal with CanSino Biologics for 35 million doses. 

Little is known about how the Chinese government is prioritizing vaccine distribution domestically, though local reports suggest that individual provinces are making their own plans to buy vaccine doses, which will cost 200 RMB per dose (roughly $30.) The state insurance plan will not cover the cost. 

UK

How many doses will be available? The UK approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use in the general public on December 2. It will start inoculating its population of 67 million people through the state-run National Health Service, with the first vaccinations to be given to the highest-priority individuals from December 7. The UK bought 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine; since each person requires two doses, so it has enough to vaccinate about a third of the population. It has also purchased 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, 7 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, and smaller quantities of other vaccine candidates, bringing the total it has bought to 355 million—in short, more than enough to vaccinate everyone. 

Who will get it first? The UK’s decision relied on a group called the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), an independent committee of academics and medical experts responsible for advising government ministers. For its phase one delivery, it divided the population into nine different groups, recommended vaccinating them in this order of priority, which the government has adopted:

  • Residents and staff working in elderly care homes
  • Everyone over 80 years old plus health and social care workers
  • Everyone over 75 years old
  • Everyone over 70 years old plus “clinically extremely vulnerable” individuals, which does not include pregnant people or those under the age of 18. 
  • Everyone over 65 years old
  • Adults aged 18 to 65 years in an at-risk group. This includes people with chronic diseases, diabetes, learning difficulties, morbid obesity or severe mental illness.  
  • Everyone over 60 years old
  • Everyone over 55 years old
  • Everyone over 50 years old

The JCVI has publicly explained its thinking in a 25-page document stating that “current evidence strongly indicates that the single greatest risk of mortality from covid-19 is increasing age.” It has not yet announced plans beyond phase one.

Elsewhere

Russia: Russia became the first country anywhere to approve a vaccine back in August 2020. President Vladimir Putin himself announced its Sputnik V vaccine had been granted authorization on August 11, before phase 3 trials had even started. Those are still underway, but the country is already preparing to start mass immunizations, with Putin ordering officials to start making the necessary preparations just hours after the news of the UK’s approval came in. Vaccinations will reportedly begin with healthcare workers and teachers. They will be free of charge, and the Kremlin says they will be carried out on a voluntary basis. Russia also says it will have up to 500 million doses ready for export. 
Other countries: The options are limited for many lower and middle income countries, since the world’s richest nations—including the 27 member-states of the EU as well as Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan—have already pre-ordered half of the world’s expected available supply. Ninety two of these countries have joined the Covax Facility, which has secured 700 million doses and aims to cover 20% of the population of lower and middle income countries by the end of 2021.

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3 ways the pandemic is transforming tech spending

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Ever since the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force last March, the B2B tech community keeps asking the same questions: Are businesses spending more on technology? What’s the money getting spent on? Is the sales cycle faster? What trends will likely carry into 2021?

Recently we decided to join forces to answer these questions. We analyzed data from the just-released Q4 2020 Outlook of the Coupa Business Spend Index (BSI), a leading indicator of economic growth, in light of hundreds of conversations we have had with business-tech buyers this year.

A former Battery Ventures portfolio company, Coupa* is a business spend-management company that has cumulatively processed more than $2 trillion in business spending. This perspective gives Coupa unique, real-time insights into tech spending trends across multiple industries.

Tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many startups are raising large rounds and even tapping public markets for capital.

Broadly speaking, tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many tech startups are raising large financing rounds and even tapping the public markets for capital. Here are our three specific takeaways on current tech spending:

Spending is shifting away from remote collaboration to SaaS and cloud computing

Tech spending ranks among the hottest boardroom topics today. Decisions that used to be confined to the CIO’s organization are now operationally and strategically critical to the CEO. Multiple reasons drive this shift, but the pandemic has forced businesses to operate and engage with customers differently, almost overnight. Boards recognize that companies must change their business models and operations if they don’t want to become obsolete. The question on everyone’s mind is no longer “what are our technology investments?” but rather, “how fast can they happen?”

Spending on WFH/remote collaboration tools has largely run its course in the first wave of adaptation forced by the pandemic. Now we’re seeing a second wave of tech spending, in which enterprises adopt technology to make operations easier and simply keep their doors open.

SaaS solutions are replacing unsustainable manual processes. Consider Rhode Island’s decision to shift from in-person citizen surveying to using SurveyMonkey. Many companies are shifting their vendor payments to digital payments, ditching paper checks entirely. Utility provider PG&E is accelerating its digital transformation roadmap from five years to two years.

The second wave of adaptation has also pushed many companies to embrace the cloud, as this chart makes clear:

Similarly, the difficulty of maintaining a traditional data center during a pandemic has pushed many companies to finally shift to cloud infrastructure under COVID. As they migrate that workload to the cloud, the pie is still expanding. Goldman Sachs and Battery Ventures data suggest $600 billion worth of disruption potential will bleed into 2021 and beyond.

In addition to SaaS and cloud adoption, companies across sectors are spending on technologies to reduce their reliance on humans. For instance, Tyson Foods is investing in and accelerating the adoption of automated technology to process poultry, pork and beef.

All companies are digital product companies now

Mention “digital product company” in the past, and we’d all think of Netflix. But now every company has to reimagine itself as offering digital products in a meaningful way.

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