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From the Olympic Non-Robbery to Ford Getting Out of Cars, to Evil NSA: A Strange Week

There were three stories that caught my eye last week that I think deserve some additional discussion. One is the alleged robbery of U.S. Olympians followed by questions of whether it really happened because their phones weren’t stolen. There may be a legitimate reason for that, and it’s one that suggests a lot of folks will be getting huge cellphone bills next month.

Another eye-catching story is that Ford is getting out of the car business.

The third is an NSA leak that has me wondering if we should reclassify the NSA as a criminal organization.

I’ll share some observations on all three and close with my product of the week: a new drone equipped with technology from Intel, which apparently is in the midst of an impressive feeding frenzy.

The Real Olympic Robbery: Next Month’s Cellphone Bill for Attendees

The Brazilian Olympics was a bit of a disaster in the making from the start, but it seemed to be going surprisingly well until last week. That was when four top U.S. swimmers went out to party and then said they had been robbed on the way home.

Their story wasn’t hard to believe, given that robbery is a common event in Brazil. Anyone traveling there on business tends either to get a bodyguard or a lesson in robbery avoidance (which generally consists of advice to stay in your hotel).

However, after the Olympians’ robbery report, the Brazilian police questioned whether the swimmers were robbed — in part because they still had their phones, and phones commonly are stolen. (As I wrote this, the story got more interesting. It turns out these guys actually may have broken a bathroom door and been forced to pay for it.)

This story reminded me that if they actually were robbed, there could have been reasons their phones weren’t stolen. One is that after a ton of pressure from local and national governments, cellphone makers have been implementing programs that make stolen phones worthless. Many phones now can be bricked remotely if stolen, which removes their value.

Second, Brazil’s mobile operators have been raising rates so rapidly that cellphones there have become unaffordable in large part. Third, unless you are an idiot, you’ll buy a cheap prepaid phone when traveling there, because roaming is wicked expensive. That’s something I think a lot of folks not used to traveling are going to discover when they get home.

Given how many folks likely were taking and sharing videos and pictures, it wouldn’t surprise me if many Olympics attendees have cellphone roaming charges in the thousands of dollars. So there may be a good reason why the phones weren’t stolen — and that reason is tied almost directly to why many folks visiting Brazil will get an unholy surprise when they get their roaming charge bill.

So, regardless of whether our now tarnished Olympic champions were robbed, many folks returning home may feel they were robbed when they get their cellphone bills.

By the way, it does strike me that more of us should have pointed this out before the Olympics. Sorry…

Ford Is Getting Out of the Car Business

Ford has announced it will have autonomous cars in five years, and those cars won’t allow drivers. This plan is very different from what most car makers are working on.

Most are working on a model called “guardian angel,” which means driving is optional and the cars will step in when their drivers are in trouble, and save their butts. Granted, this is a tad like the cars on rails that they have at Disneyland, but there is still a driver — even though they clearly are no longer a critical part.

Ford’s approach is more like a wheeled elevator. It comes with the announcement that the cars will be targeted at firms like Uber, and that Ford is repositioning itself as a mobile company. (By the way, Uber coincidentally started testing self-driving cars this month, but from Volvo. Oops…)

Ford’s move seems fair, given that Apple, which is a mobile company, is looking at building vehicles that are basically iPads with wheels. Now the model that Uber is driving envisions most folks using Uber rather than buying their own cars. It’s consistent with a millennial trend toward not getting driver’s licenses and avoiding the whole car ownership thing altogether.

So, effectively, the company that founded mass-produced cars in the U.S. has decided to make a change and become Apple — but with wheels. I’m sure that will work out swimmingly. I should add that Uber, which launched with the promise that you could work for it and work your own hours is now planning to let you become unemployed instead! Just think of all the free time you’ll have to ride in Uber cars — though paying the fare could be problematic.

Is the NSA a Criminal Organization?

Now I was lead to believe the “S” in NSA stood for “security,” but I think I’ve been misled. Last week, it became clear it should stand for “stupid.” The NSA experienced yet another leak — this time of tools that use secret flaws in U.S. networking gear in order to compromise networks.

Using such tools in most countries, including the U.S., is highly illegal. More importantly, given that pretty much every hostile government has hackers, the agency’s secrecy regarding the related flaws in U.S. networking products ensured that every connected business and government entity was exposed to attack.

As we move to the new ultra-connected world of the Internet of Things, the kind of exploits that could be mounted could do far more than just shut down the country — they could cause things like Ford’s autonomous driverless cars, and coming pilotless planes, to become guided missiles.

So, an organization with “security” in its name effectively puts the nation at risk, leaving in place security holes in the hope it can use them to spy on people illegally. Oh, and be aware, since the NSA started doing this, sales of U.S. networking gear in Asia — its primary target — have fallen off sharply, thanks to concerns about the NSA’s activities, so it got a two for one. It put the U.S. at risk and did serious damage to the technology industry.

We put folks in jail for one hell of a lot less, so maybe we should stop thinking the NSA is on our side and start treating it as an enemy combatant.

Wrapping Up

Last week was a really strange week with the Olympics in Brazil showcasing why you sure as hell don’t want to travel to Brazil, and why, if you do travel there, you want to buy a prepaid cellphone in country.

Ford, the founder of the U.S. car industry, effectively announced it was getting out of the car business and somehow moving to compete with Apple.

The NSA, an organization supposedly founded to protect the U.S., once again was tied to illegal practices that put the country at high risk.

Between you and me, I’m sure as hell glad last week is over!

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

Boy, I really love product names that are a good part of a paragraph — however, the Yuneec Typhoon H Pro 4K Intel RealSense Collision Avoidance Hexacopter is the first semi-pro drone that uses Intel technology, and it is pretty cool looking.

Yuneec Typhoon H Pro 4k Intel RealSense CollisionAvoidance Hexacopter

Yuneec Typhoon H Pro 4kIntel RealSense Collision Avoidance Hexacopter

You might question why something like this would need a 3D-positioning camera, but I’ve seen reviews of the version of this product that doesn’t have the camera, and it has a nasty habit of catastrophically running into things.

That has been a long-term problem with drones, and given that they can cost upward of US$1,000, those crashes are painful to watch — particularly if it’s your drone.

Now, I’m a DJI Phantom owner, but the Phantom kind of looks like a toy — even though, in terms of performance, the latest version the Phantom 5 is considered the best in market.

The Yuneec Typhoon H Pro 4K Intel RealSense Collision Avoidance (or YTHP4IRCA — OK, that doesn’t work either) drone looks like a pro product. It uses an integrated controller — not a cobbled-together solution like the DGI (sorry, I still find that annoying). It has retractable landing gear, and it has six motors (two more than the four that are more common for consumer products). That means it actually can lose propellers and engines, and keep flying, where the typical four-rotor drone would become an expensive hole in the lawn.

The only things missing are downward-firing sensors, which would allow it to hover more reliably. I expect those will show up in a future model.

This drone is so popular it has been selling out everywhere, even though it costs a whopping $1,899. (However, you can get it with free shipping from Amazon.)

Surprisingly there were only two for sale at the Intel Developer Forum, and they sold in seconds. I ordered one on Amazon with free shipping, which means I didn’t have to schlep it home.

Covered in carbon fiber, this version of the Typhoon will create envy every place it goes. With the RealSense camera, it is less likely to commit drone suicide — and given that I bought one, it is my product of the week.

Now I just have to make sure my well-armed neighbor doesn’t shoot it down when I buzz his patio.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends. You can connect with him on Google+.

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