New Chrome OS update makes it easier to check for hardware faults


Bobby Hellard

22 Apr, 2021

Google has released a diagnostic app for Chrome OS that lets users initiate a scan for hardware faults within a Chromebook.

The app is part of a recent update to Chrome OS that also aims to reduce the number of tabs you open by giving the launcher more instant capabilities.

The diagnostic app will be accessible from the launcher so users can instantly scan various parts of their device for issues. This can be used on their Chromebook’s CPU, memory, and battery and give quick insights on what might be slowing their device down.

The Chromebook launcher, which is where users can normally find apps, local files, or Google search, will now also include a calculator, weather updates, stock prices, and even quick word definitions in an attempt to create a single source for all of a Chromebook user’s needs.

For example, if the battery is draining faster than one would normally expect, the app can run a ‘discharge test’ to see if the hardware is the cause of the problem. The app will also offer up links to relevant support articles and save the test results in a session log that can be shared with customer support teams if the problem is severe enough. There will also be a list of standard troubleshooting advice for more minor faults.

In the coming weeks, Chrome OS will also receive the ‘Live Captions‘ feature that was recently added to the Chrome browser. These are automatic, real-time captions for any media that has audio, and will be an option on “most” Chrome OS devices inside the Accessibility menu.

The updates come as Chromebook sales continue to increase, according to recent Gartner research, which suggests that shipments reached “triple figures” for the first quarter of 2021. This follows on from strong sales in Q4 of 2020, where Canalys suggested demand was “through the roof“.

Microsoft to help Met Office build world’s most advanced climate forecasting supercomputer


Sabina Weston

22 Apr, 2021

The UK’s Meteorological Office has signed a multimillion-pound agreement with Microsoft for the provision of a new supercomputing capability designed to protect the public and infrastructure from the effects of severe weather brought on by climate change.

Part of a £1.2 billion investment fund announced last year, the new supercomputer will be built using HPE’s Cray supercomputer hardware and will place it in the top 25 supercomputers in the world, and twice as powerful as any other in the UK.

Apart from providing highly-accurate weather forecasts, it will also be powered entirely by renewable energy and will use market-leading energy efficiencies, saving 7,415 tonnes CO2 in the first year of operational service alone.

With work on the supercomputer already underway, it’s expected to become operational in July 2022.

The liquid-cooled HPE Cray EX supercomputer will be used to create elaborately detailed city-scale simulations, designed to improve the accuracy of localised weather predictions. The data will also be used to improve city design and help reduce risks associated with the rollout of new transport networks.

The deal will see Microsoft provide the Met Office with Azure’s supercomputing as a service platform, including those across its artificial intelligence (AI) and high-performance data archive systems.

In order to be able “to make progress with the ecological challenges we face, [this] requires innovation, technology, and partnerships”, according to Microsoft UK CEO Clare Barclay.

“The potential of the deep expertise, data gathering capacity and historical archive of the Met Office, combined with the sheer scale and power of supercomputing on Microsoft Azure will mean we can improve forecasting, help tackle climate change and ensure the UK remains at the forefront of climate science for decades to come,” she said.

Met Office chief executive Penny Endersby said that, by working with Microsoft, the Met Office “will provide the highest quality weather and climate datasets and ever more accurate forecasts that enable decisions to allow people to stay safe and thrive”.

“This will be a unique capability which will keep not just the Met Office, but the UK at the forefront of environmental modelling and high-performance computing,” she added.

The news comes as the UK government signed a new three-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Microsoft, which provides public sector organisations with discounts and beneficial terms for Microsoft 365, Azure, and associated consulting services. The new MOU, titled the Digital Transformation Arrangement 2021 (DTA21), is the first to also include Dynamics 365 and Power Platform cloud services.

Google Meet updates aim to combat meeting fatigue


Bobby Hellard

21 Apr, 2021

Google has unveiled a host of new functions for the web version of its video conferencing platform Google Meet.

The updates mainly focus on hosts with new options that aim to make presentations more engaging, but there are also AI-based video quality enhancements that aim to make participants feeds clearer.

These updates are a refresh for both the service and its users, with Google looking to reduce “meeting fatigue“. Users can choose to have their video feed in a standard tile in the grid or as a floating picture, which can be moved and resized or even minimised completely. Google says it’s also planning that will enable users to turn off the self-feed across all Google Meet calls.

“The new Meet enhancements are largely inspired by customer and user feedback,” the tech giant said in a blog post. “Beginning next month, desktop and laptop users will see a new, richer user interface with an array of easy-to-access features that make meetings more productive and inclusive.”
 
Meet’s new user interface, which will be available in May, will include easy-to-access features for more productive and inclusive meetings. Presenters will be able to pin and unpin content midway through a presentation and make the content tile the same size as participant tiles. While they will still see the full presentation, the presenter will have a better view of reactions. 

Controls are also getting a rejig, with an update to the bottom navigation bar. Dial-in codes, attachments, call lists, chat and other functions will all sit along the bottom for ease of access, with Google also aiming to increase screen space for more participants. 

Participants might also look a little better thanks to some automated light adjustments. This feature, due to arrive on Meet in the coming weeks, will detect users that appear underexposed and enhance the brightness for them. The same software will also zoom in if a participant needs it and position them squarely in front of the camera.

As with seemingly all video conferencing platform updates, Google will be adding more fun backgrounds. There will be three: a classroom, a party and a forest, set to be released in the coming week. 

UK gov agrees new three-year cloud deal with Microsoft


Zach Marzouk

21 Apr, 2021

The UK government has signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Microsoft to help public sector organisations continue to unlock the benefits of cloud computing and business applications.

The MoU is titled “Digital Transformation Agreement 2021” and allows all eligible public sector organisations to benefit from discounts and beneficial terms for Microsoft 365, Azure, and for the first time, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform cloud services.

The agreement renews the existing DTA MoU as a three-year agreement and will run from May 1 2021 to April 2024. It was negotiated between the tech giant and the Crown Commercial Service.

The relationship between the tech giant and the government has become increasingly focused on cloud services since the latter launched its Cloud First policy in 2013 which was reassessed in 2019 and remains a flagship technology policy, according to Microsoft.

“This new agreement with Microsoft builds on the government’s One Government Cloud Strategy, which supports the key principle of treating government as one single customer,” said Gareth Rhys Williams, the government chief commercial officer.

“It shows the government’s determination to drive transformation as well as adopt value for money technologies that improve services and ensure government departments and their staff have the digital tools they need, now and in the future.”

This isn’t the only company to have signed an MoU with the government. AWS signed one in November last year to help accelerate the public sector’s digital transformation drive and raise the level of participation among smaller cloud providers.

In June last year, UKCloud signed an MoU to allow the company to offer its services to the public sector either directly or indirectly through its partner community. The month before that, Google Cloud signed a similar agreement to provide cloud computing to the country’s public sector agencies.

The agreement, which isn’t legally binding, was set to make it easier and more affordable for public sector agencies to access the full range of Google Cloud services for digital transformation.

Hackers exploit Pulse Secure VPN flaws in sophisticated global campaign


Keumars Afifi-Sabet

21 Apr, 2021

At least two major hacking groups have deployed a dozen malware families to exploit vulnerabilities in Pulse Connect Secure’s suite of virtual private network (VPN) devices to spy on the US defence sector.

Hackers infiltrated the Pulse Connect Secure (PCS) platform by exploiting CVE-2021-22893, a critical remote code execution flaw rated a maximum of ten on the threat severity scale, in combination with a number of previously discovered vulnerabilities

Ivanti, Pulse Secure’s parent company, has released mitigations for the flaw, as well as a tool to determine if customer’s systems have been compromised, although a patch won’t be available until May 2021.

The purpose of the hack, and the scale of the infiltration, isn’t yet clear, but researchers with FireEye have linked the attack to Chinese state-backed groups. Although the predominant focus of their investigation was infiltration against US defence companies, researchers detected samples across the US and Europe. 

They were first alerted to several intrusions at defence, government and financial organisations around the world earlier this year, based on the exploitation of Pulse Secure VPN devices. They weren’t able to determine how hackers obtained administrative rights to the appliances, although they now suspect Pulse Secure vulnerabilities from 2019 and 2020 were to blame, while other intrusions were due to CVE-2021-22893.

They identified two groups, referred to as UNC2630 and UNC2717, each conducting attacks during this period against US defence agencies and global government agencies respectively. They suspect that at least the former operates on behalf of the Chinese government, although there isn’t enough evidence to make a determination on the second.

FireEye has recommended that all Pulse Secure Connect customers should assess the impact of the available mitigations and apply them if possible. They should also use the most recent version of the Pulse Secure tool to detect whether their systems have been infiltrated. 

Scott Caveza, research engineering manager with Tenable, said that alongside the new flaw, attackers also seem to be leveraging three previously fixed flaws including CVE-2019-11510, CVE-2020-8243 and CVE-2020-8260. The first of the three, which has been routinely exploited in the wild since it was first disclosed in August 2019, was among Tenable’s top five most commonly exploited flaws last year. 

“Because it is a zero-day and the timetable for the release of a patch is not yet known, CVE-2021-22893 gives attackers a valuable tool to gain entry into a key resource used by many organizations, especially in the wake of the shift to the remote workforce over the last year,” said Caveza. 

“Attackers can utilise this flaw to further compromise the PCS device, implant backdoors and compromise credentials. While Pulse Secure has noted that the zero-day has seen limited use in targeted attacks, it’s just a matter of time before a proof-of-concept becomes publicly available, which we anticipate will lead to widespread exploitation, as we observed with CVE-2019-11510.”

Trend Micro research previously found that attackers were heavily targeting VPNs, including exploiting flaws present in Fortinet’s VPN and Pulse Connect Secure.

Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke dies aged 81


Bobby Hellard

19 Apr, 2021

Charles “Chuck” Geschke, the co-founder of Adobe and the co-creator of the portable document format (PDF), has died at the age of 81. 
 
Together with John Warnock, Geschke set up Adobe in 1982 and helped to develop many software innovations that are still in use today, almost 40 years later. 

The current CEO of Adobe, Shantanu Narayen, sent an email to employees announcing Geschke’s passing. 

“It is with profound sadness that I share that our beloved co-founder Dr Chuck Geschke, has passed away at the age of 81, leaving an indelible mark on our company and the world,” Narayen wrote. “This is a huge loss for the entire Adobe community and the technology industry, for whom he has been a guide and hero for decades.”

Imaging Science Laboratory

Geschke was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939 and enjoyed a successful career in maths and technology long before co-founding Adobe. He taught mathematics at John Carroll University in the 1960s before completing a PhD in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in 1972. 

After his studies, Geschke began working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), building a mainframe computer and developing programming tools for the Xerox Star workstation. In 1978, he started the Imaging Sciences Laboratory at PARC and researched graphics, optics and image processing. While working at the labs he hired a computer scientist called John Warnock with whom he formed a strong working partnership.

Warnock and Geschke developed interpress – a paged description language (PDL) – but were unable to convince Xerox management of its commercial value. The two men left to form their own company, with PDL eventually forming the basis of PostScritpt. 

Adobe Creek

Like a number of today’s biggest tech firms, Adobe was founded in a garage – John Warnock’s, to be precise – but the startup was originally called “Adobe Creek”. PostScript was developed on Apple computers and resulted in one of the first desktop publishing systems – users could see their documents on screen, exactly as they would appear in print. This was known as WYSIWYG, an acronym for What You See Is What You Get, and helped to create a whole new industry within printing and has led to one of the most popular software suites of all time. 

Geschke was Adobe’s COO from 1986 to 1994 but retired in 2000. In 1992 he was kidnapped at gunpoint and held captive for four days by two men who tried to demand ransom from his wife, Nancy “Nan” Geschke. He was found, unharmed, and the two men were sentenced to life terms in state prison. 

In 2009, Geschke was awarded the National Medal of Technology by Barack Obama, but despite this and his contribution to the modern world, Geschke remained a very grounded man. 

“He was really a humble, humble man – I can say that, as his wife,” Nan Geschke told Mercury News. “He was very proud of his success, of course, but he was very circumspect about how much he had to do with that.”

Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke dies aged 81


Bobby Hellard

19 Apr, 2021

Charles “Chuck” Geschke, the co-founder of Adobe and the co-creator of the portable document format (PDF), has died at the age of 81. 
 
Together with John Warnock, Geschke set up Adobe in 1982 and helped to develop many software innovations that are still in use today, almost 40 years later. 

The current CEO of Adobe, Shantanu Narayen, sent an email to employees announcing Geschke’s passing. 

“It is with profound sadness that I share that our beloved co-founder Dr Chuck Geschke, has passed away at the age of 81, leaving an indelible mark on our company and the world,” Narayen wrote. “This is a huge loss for the entire Adobe community and the technology industry, for whom he has been a guide and hero for decades.”

Imaging Science Laboratory

Geschke was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939 and enjoyed a successful career in maths and technology long before co-founding Adobe. He taught mathematics at John Carroll University in the 1960s before completing a PhD in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in 1972. 

After his studies, Geschke began working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), building a mainframe computer and developing programming tools for the Xerox Star workstation. In 1978, he started the Imaging Sciences Laboratory at PARC and researched graphics, optics and image processing. While working at the labs he hired a computer scientist called John Warnock with whom he formed a strong working partnership.

Warnock and Geschke developed interpress – a paged description language (PDL) – but were unable to convince Xerox management of its commercial value. The two men left to form their own company, with PDL eventually forming the basis of PostScritpt. 

Adobe Creek

Like a number of today’s biggest tech firms, Adobe was founded in a garage – John Warnock’s, to be precise – but the startup was originally called “Adobe Creek”. PostScript was developed on Apple computers and resulted in one of the first desktop publishing systems – users could see their documents on screen, exactly as they would appear in print. This was known as WYSIWYG, an acronym for What You See Is What You Get, and helped to create a whole new industry within printing and has led to one of the most popular software suites of all time. 

Geschke was Adobe’s COO from 1986 to 1994 but retired in 2000. In 1992 he was kidnapped at gunpoint and held captive for four days by two men who tried to demand ransom from his wife, Nancy “Nan” Geschke. He was found, unharmed, and the two men were sentenced to life terms in state prison. 

In 2009, Geschke was awarded the National Medal of Technology by Barack Obama, but despite this and his contribution to the modern world, Geschke remained a very grounded man. 

“He was really a humble, humble man – I can say that, as his wife,” Nan Geschke told Mercury News. “He was very proud of his success, of course, but he was very circumspect about how much he had to do with that.”

Remote workers spend more hours on the job, finds ONS


Zach Marzouk

20 Apr, 2021

People working from home during the pandemic spent more time at their job and were less likely to be promoted or receive a bonus, but their average pay was 20% higher.

That’s according to the ONS, which has been studying the shift to remote work throughout the pandemic. It found that there’s been a 9.4% increase of people who have completed some work at home, rising to 35.9% of the working population, between 2019 and 2020.

According to the study, those who completed any work from home did six hours of unpaid overtime on average per week in 2020, compared with 3.6 hours for those that never work from home. 

Homeworkers were more likely to work in the evenings too and were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other workers between 2012 and 2017. Moreover, those who worked from home were around 38% less likely to receive a bonus compared to those who never worked from home between 2013 and 2020.

Despite this, the average gross weekly pay of workers who had recently worked from home was about 20% higher in 2020 than those who had never worked from home in their main job, something the ONS explained continues a long-running trend.

The sickness rate was also 0.9% on average in 2020, compared with 2.2% for those who never worked from home. The working day of homeworkers is longer but also more flexible than those who work away from home, with later and more varied starts and more frequent breaks that are longer too.

The union Prospect told IT Pro that the research matches with the experiences of its own members, and highlighted that remote working has been instrumental in providing flexibility and keeping people safe during the pandemic.

“But for many it has also meant an always-on culture with longer unpaid hours and fewer opportunities to get on at work,” said Mike Clancy, the general secretary.

“This is a revolutionary moment for the future of workplaces, but there are too many in business and government rushing into decisions without thinking about long-term consequences and without listening to what workers actually want. 

The results of the ONS study come after Prospect called for a legal requirement to be put in place to bring about a “right to disconnect” policy that stipulates when companies can contact their employees when working from home. Prospect said that including this right in the Employment Bill would be a big step in redefining blurred boundaries and show the government is serious about taking on the “dark side” of remote working.

Zoom launches $100 million fund for app developers


Sabina Weston

20 Apr, 2021

Zoom has announced a $100 million (£71.5M) venture fund that aims to “stimulate growth” of the video conferencing platform’s ecosystem of Zoom Apps, as well as their integrations, developer platform, and hardware

The newly launched fund will invest in developer partners with “an early market traction” who propose viable products with the potential to benefit the experience of Zoom users.

Chosen companies will be awarded initial investments of between $250,000 (£179,000) and $2.5 million (£1.8 million) to develop the new solutions to be used by Zoom customers.

The company announced that, at the time being, “dozens” of Zoom Apps are being developed and are “an important component in building the future of video communications”.

Although the announcement can be seen as an effort by the company to remain relevant in the face of the post-pandemic return to the office, Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan hinted that the fund was inspired by his own experience in launching the video conferencing platform back in 2011.

“Without the support of early investors, Zoom would not be what it is today. What I’ve learned over the past year is that we need to keep meetings productive and fun. My hope is that the Zoom Apps Fund will help our customers meet happier and collaborate even more seamlessly, and at the same time help entrepreneurs build new businesses as our platform evolves,” he said.

The announcement of the fund comes less than a month after the company launched new tools for developers to help them build video-based applications and websites with fully customisable, native user interfaces, called Video SDK. Developers can also access APIs, webhooks, chatbots, and even an analytical platform that provide real-time data on their builds, such as customer engagement and performance figures.

As one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic, Zoom experienced a 355% rise in adoption in the second quarter of 2020 as consumers and businesses adopted video conferencing platform following the mass shift to remote working. However, the gradual reopening of working spaces and offices means that Zoom might be cast away in favour of traditional face-to-face meetings.

This has prompted the company to reveal new features aimed at hybrid workforces, including new updates to its Zoom Rooms video conferencing hardware suite.

IBM returns to growth after four quarters of decline


Bobby Hellard

20 Apr, 2021

IBM’s first-quarter earnings for 2021 beat analyst expectations with modest revenue growth of 0.9% ending four consecutive quarters of decline.

The company’s revenue for the first three months of the year came in at $17.73 billion, still some way off the $21.8 billion it recorded in Q1 of 2020 just before the pandemic spread to Europe and the US. 

For the first three months of 2021, IBM’s Global Technology Services – the unit that handles managed services and outsourcing – brought in revenues of $6.37 billion. Its Cloud and Cognitive Software Division, which includes Red Hat, was up 4% with revenues $5.44 billion, with Red Hat on its own reporting impressive growth of 17%.

IBM’s Global Business Services, which includes consulting, contributed $4.23 billion in revenue, a 2% increase year-on-year. System sales, such as mainframe computers, was also up 4% with revenue coming in at $1.43 billion. 

“Strong performance this quarter in cloud, driven by increasing client adoption of our hybrid cloud platform, and growth in software and consulting enabled us to get off to a solid start for the year,” said IBM CEO Arvind Krishna. 

“While we have more work to do, we are confident we can achieve full-year revenue growth and meet our adjusted free cash flow target in 2021.”

Krishna has now completed a full year at the helm of IBM and this is the company’s best quarter under his leadership. While a number of other cloud firms have seen revenues increase throughout the pandemic, IBM turned out to be one of the few that saw consecutive declines. In the fourth quarter of 2020, its revenues dropped 6%, its sharpest fall for five years. 

IBM is currently undergoing a major shift by splitting its business in two; IBM is transitioning into a full cloud firm and its infrastructure segments will fall under a new company called Kyndryl. With more and more companies turning to the cloud or accelerating digital transformation plans, IBM hopes its two units will be better placed to capitalise.