Apple Apologizes After Outcry Over Slowed iPhones

Facing lawsuits and consumer outrage  after it said it slowed older iPhones with flagging batteries, Apple Inc is slashing prices for battery replacements and will change its software to show users whether their phone battery is good.

In a posting on its website Thursday, Apple apologized over its handling of the battery issue and said it would make a number of changes for customers “to recognize their loyalty and to regain the trust of anyone who may have doubted Apple’s intentions.”

Apple made the move to address concerns about the quality and durability of its products at a time when it is charging $999 for its newest flagship model, the iPhone X.

Battery prices lowered

The company said it would cut the price of an out-of-warranty battery replacement from $79 to $29 for an iPhone 6 or later, starting next month.

The company also will update its iOS operating system to let users see whether their battery is in poor health and is affecting the phone’s performance.

“We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down,” Apple said in its posting. “We apologize.”

On Dec. 20, Apple acknowledged that iPhone software has the effect of slowing down some phones with battery problems. Apple said the problem was that aging lithium batteries delivered power unevenly, which could cause iPhones to shutdown unexpectedly to protect the delicate circuits inside.

Lawsuits filed

That disclosure played on a common belief among consumers that Apple purposely slows down older phones to encourage customers to buy newer iPhone models.

While no credible evidence has ever emerged that Apple engaged in such conduct, the battery disclosure struck a nerve on social media and elsewhere. Apple on Thursday denied that it has ever done anything to intentionally shorten the life of a product.

At least eight lawsuits have been filed in California, New York and Illinois alleging that the company defrauded users by slowing devices down without warning them. The company also faces a legal complaint in France, where so called “planned obsolesce” is against the law.


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US Charges 2 Romanians With Hacking of DC Police Surveillance Cameras

The Justice Department on Thursday unsealed details of its case against two Romanians who allegedly hacked computers tied to Washington, D.C., police surveillance cameras.

Police in Bucharest arrested Mihai Alexandru Isvanca and Eveline Cismaru on December 15. U.S. attorneys have charged them with conspiracy to commit computer and wire fraud.

They allegedly hacked into more than 120 computers tied to Washington police surveillance cameras last January. It was part of an alleged scheme to infect personal computers with ransomware.

Ransomware restricts users from accessing their own computers and demands a payment to the ramsomware operator to unlock it.

The Justice Department said the investigation was of the highest priority because the alleged hacking of the surveillance camera computers came just weeks before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump.

However, it says there is no evidence anyone’s personal security was threatened or harmed.

If tried in the U.S. and convicted, the Romanian defendants could face up to 20 years in prison.


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With Lineup Widening, Apple Depends Less on iPhone X

In years past, demand for Apple Inc.’s latest flagship phone was critical to the company’s results over the holiday shopping quarter. That dynamic might be changing, however, as Apple’s widening lineup of devices and services more than makes up for any tepidness in demand this quarter for its lead product, the $999 iPhone X.

On Tuesday, Apple’s stock fell 2.5 percent to $170.57 after Taiwan’s Economic Daily and several analysts suggested iPhone X sales in the fiscal first quarter would be 30 million units, 20 million fewer than initially planned by the company.

The cut in the forecast was not confirmed, and the stock regained ground Thursday, hitting $171.82 by midday. The mean revenue estimate for the holiday quarter among 30 analysts remains at $86.2 billion, near the high end of Apple’s forecast of $84 billion to $87 billion.

Apple declined to comment.

Part of the support for Apple may reflect a change in its business strategy.

Releasing two new models and keeping older ones have made

Apple less dependent on its flagship product. Apple shareholder Ross Gerber, chief executive of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth and

Investment Management in Santa Monica, California, said the higher price and better margins on the iPhone X would reduce fears of a sales decline.

Eye on combined sales

“We know that Apple’s strategy was different this quarter by releasing two phones, the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X, and I think combined sales will be in line with what people expect,” Gerber said.

Apple also has fattened its portfolio of accessories and other devices, from its AirPods wireless headphones to a new Apple Watch with cellular data features.

While none is a runaway hit, collectively they are an important contributor, with Apple’s “other products” segment growing 16 percent to $12.8 billion last year. Customers who buy those add-ons are also likely to buy services from the App Store and Apple Music, part of Apple’s services segment, which grew 23 percent to $29.9 billion last year.

“Ultimately, it will be this multidevice ownership” that will generate further revenue, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies.

IPhone X sales still matter. Each unit generates nearly twice the revenue of an iPhone 7 and contains technologies like facial recognition that burnish Apple’s brand.

Bob O’Donnell of TECHnalysis Research said “hit products” still represent “an enormous amount of the company’s overall value.”

“Will it take hold in the mainstream? That’s the question that still remains,” he said.


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China Gets Its Wine On

By 2020, China could become the world’s second-largest wine consumer, behind the United States, according to a report by Vinexpo, a leading wine exhibition.

“Nowadays, many people in China have given up Baijiu, no more Baijiu,” says Jiawei Wang, a Napa Valley visitor from China, referring to his native country’s traditional grain-based spirits. “Because wine has enough alcohol, but it’s also good for health. It can soften humans’ blood vessels. People are changing.”

Wang is not alone. Chinese are visiting Northern California’s Napa Valley wine region in numbers never seen before.

“It’s interesting because the Chinese market in Napa is the fastest growing international market that we have, according to the statistics from Visit Napa Valley, our visitor bureau here in Napa Valley,” says John Taylor of Yao Family Wines. “China was the number one international market in the Napa Valley last year, composing, I think, about 5.5 percent of total visitation to the valley.”

A must-see stop for Chinese tourists is the Yao Family Wines vineyard, which is owned by retired basketball star Yao Ming. Yao’s celebrity aside, his wines have won praise from wine critics.

“The Cabernet Sauvignon is very nice,” says Wang. “It tastes great.”

About an hour’s drive to the east, the University of California-Davis has one of the country’s top programs for the science of growing grapes and wine making.

“From what I can see, there were not many Chinese students previously,” says Shizhang Han, a Chinese student in the UC-Davis program, “but now in my class and also among those who came after me, there are many more Chinese.”

The Chinese students believe that the wine industry has a promising future in their homeland.

“In Asia, especially in China, people are getting richer,” says student Heigi Wan. “This is one factor.”

“Wine in China is just starting,” says Han. “Before, we imported a lot of wine. And now we start to build new vineyards. The grape vines are still growing. It’s like a newborn baby. Chinese wine carries a lot of hope.”

Hope that has some of the UC-Davis students thinking that their first jobs might not be here in California’s wine country after all, but rather in an emerging wine industry back home in China.


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US Economic Momentum Expected to Continue in 2018

Despite initial concerns about an untested new leader, the world’s largest economy will end the year on a high note. The US economy is expanding at the fastest pace in more than two years, buoyed in part by low unemployment, soaring stock prices and a broad economic recovery around the globe. The momentum is expected to carry into 2018, but, as Mil Arcega reports, economists say the new year is likely to bring new challenges.


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As Online Shopping Grows, UPS Sees Record Holiday Package Returns

United Parcel Service Inc is on track to return a record number of packages this holiday shipping season, a sign that e-commerce purchases surged to new heights over the past month.

The world’s largest package delivery company and rival FedEx Corp get paid by retailers like Amazon.com Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc for handling e-commerce deliveries.

Both have benefited from booming delivery volumes over the past few years, but also have had to invest billions of dollars to upgrade and expand their networks to cope.

An 8 percent increase in returns

UPS said on Wednesday it handled more than 1 million returns to retailers daily in December, a pace expected to last into early January. It said returns would likely peak at 1.4 million on Jan. 3, which would be a fifth consecutive annual record, up 8 percent from this year.

The returns follow what could be the strongest holiday shopping season on record for both brick-and-mortar and online retailers, once stores publish sales data. Mastercard Inc said on Tuesday U.S. shoppers spent over $800 billion during the season, more than ever before.​

FedEx said on Wednesday it experienced another record-breaking peak shipping season, but declined to provide specifics. The company’s Chief Marketing Officer Rajesh Subramaniam told analysts last week about 15 percent of all goods purchased online are returned, with apparel running at about 30 percent.

UPS said record-breaking e-commerce sales during Black Friday and Cyber Monday in late November jolted the returns season, with a larger flood of packages going back to retailers even as many gifts sat under Christmas trees.

Rates raised

UPS has worked for years to increase its ability to forecast customer shipping demands to handle major package volume spikes ahead of the holidays. It has also raised shipping rates and added 2018 peak-season surcharges.

The returns delivered in 2017 are part of the 750 million packages UPS said it expects to deliver globally during the peak shipping season from the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday through New Year’s Eve. That is an increase of nearly 40 million over the previous year.

UPS and FedEx shares were both up slightly on Wednesday.


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Lackluster Year of Space Exploration

While the attention of much of the world was occupied with earthly happenings, space scientists had some notable achievements during the past year, ranging from new projects to the spectacular end of at least one program. VOA’s George Putic reviews the highlights of the year in space.


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Airbus Reportedly Ready to Ax A380 If It Fails to Win Emirates Deal 

Airbus is drawing up contingency plans to phase out production of the world’s largest jetliner, the A380 superjumbo, if it fails to win a key order from Dubai’s Emirates, three people familiar with the matter said.

The moment of truth for the slow-selling airliner looms after just 10 years in service and leaves one of Europe’s most visible international symbols hanging by a thread, despite a major airline investment in new cabins unveiled this month.

“If there is no Emirates deal, Airbus will start the process of ending A380 production,” a person briefed on the plans said.

A supplier added such a move was logical due to weak demand. Airbus and Emirates declined to comment. Airbus also declined to say how many people work on the project.

Gradual shutdown?

Any shutdown is expected to be gradual, allowing Airbus to produce orders it has in hand, mainly from Emirates. It has enough orders to last until early next decade at current production rates, according to a Reuters analysis.

The A380 was developed at a cost of 11 billion euros to carry some 500 people and challenge the reign of the Boeing 747. But demand for these four-engined goliaths has fallen as airlines choose smaller twin-engined models, which are easier to fill and cheaper to maintain.

Emirates, however, has been a strong believer in the A380 and is easily the largest customer with total orders of 142 aircraft, of which it has taken just over 100.

Talks between Airbus and Emirates over a new order for 36 superjumbos worth $16 billion broke down at the Dubai Airshow last month. Negotiations are said to have resumed, but there are no visible signs that a deal is imminent.

British Airways interested

Although airlines such as British Airways have expressed interest in the A380, Airbus is reluctant to keep factories open without the certainty that a bulk Emirates order would provide.

Emirates, for its part, wants a guarantee that Airbus will keep production going for a decade to protect its investment.

A decision to cancel would mark a rupture between Airbus and one of its largest customers and tie Emirates’ future growth to recent Boeing orders.

European sources say that reflects growing American influence in the Gulf under President Donald Trump, but U.S. and UAE industry sources deny politics are involved. There are also potential hurdles to a deal over engine choices and after-sales support.

Safety net

Yet if talks succeed, European sources say there is a glimmer of hope for the double-deck jet, which Airbus says will become more popular with airlines due to congestion.

Singapore Airlines, which first introduced the A380 to passengers in 2007, showcased an $850 million cabin re-design this month and expressed confidence in the model’s future.

Airbus hopes to use an Emirates order to stabilize output and establish a safety net from which to attract A380 sales to other carriers, but has ruled out trying to do this the other way round, industry sources said.

As of the end of November, Airbus had won orders for 317 A380s and delivered 221, leaving 96 unfilled orders. But based on airlines’ intentions or finances, 47 of those are unlikely to be delivered, according to industry sources, which halves the number of jets in play.

30 orders needed

Airbus needs to sell at least another 30 to keep lines open for 10 years and possibly more to justify the price concessions likely to be demanded by any new buyers.

To bridge the gap, Airbus plans to cut output to six a year beyond 2019, from 12 in 2018 and 8 in 2019, even if it means producing at a loss, Reuters recently reported.

Chief Operating Officer Fabrice Bregier confirmed this month Airbus was looking at cutting output to 6-7 a year.

If Airbus does decide to wind down production, some believe Emirates will ask Airbus to deliver the remaining 41 it has on order and then keep most A380s in service as long as possible. Even so, some A380s are likely to be heading for scrap.


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Homelessness to Digital IDs: Five Property Rights Hotspots in 2018

The global fight over land and resources is getting increasingly bloody and the race for control of valuable assets is expanding from forests and indigenous territories to the seas, space and databanks.

Here are five hotspots for property rights in 2018:

1. Rising violence: From Peru to the Philippines, land rights defenders are under increasing threat of harassment and attack from governments and corporations.

At least 208 people have been killed so far this year defending their homes, lands and forests from mining, dams and agricultural projects, advocacy group Frontline Defenders says.

The tally has exceeded that of 2016, which was already the deadliest year on record, and “it is likely that we will see numbers continue to rise”, a spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

2. Demand for affordable housing: Governments are under increasing pressure to recognize the right to housing, as Smart Cities projects and rapid gentrification push more people on to the streets, from Mumbai to Rio de Janeiro.

India has committed to providing Housing for All by 2022, while Canada’s recognition of housing as a fundamental right could help eliminate homelessness in the country.

“We need our governments to respond to this crisis and recognize that homelessness is a matter of life and death and dignity,” said Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing.

3. Takeover of public lands: From the shrinking of wilderness national monuments in Utah to the felling of rainforests for palm plantations in Indonesia, public lands risk being rescinded or resized by governments in favor of business interests.

Governments are also likely to be hit by more lawsuits from indigenous communities fighting to protect their lands, as well as the environment.

4. Fight over space and sea: A race to explore and extract resources from the moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies is underway, with China, Luxembourg, the United States and others vying for materials ranging from ice to precious metals.

The latest space race targets a multi-trillion dollar industry.

Expect more debate over the 50-year-old U.N. Outer Space Treaty, which declares “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”

On Earth, the fight over the seas is intensifying, particularly in the Arctic. Melting ice caps have triggered a fierce contest between energy companies in the United States, Russia, Canada, and Norway over drilling rights.

5. Debate over data: As more countries move towards digital citizen IDs, there are growing concerns about privacy and safety of the data, the ethics of biometrics, and the misuse of data for profiling or increased surveillance.

Campaigners are pushing for “informational privacy” to be part of the right to privacy, and for governments to treat the right to data as an inalienable right, like the right to dignity.


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Social Media is Changing the Way Restaurants Cater to Customers

In this digital age, meals are now shared over the internet. With social media users looking for dishes that are both ready to snap and to eat, restaurateurs across the globe are taking advantage, styling their creations to be camera ready. VOA’s Jesusemen Oni has more.


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