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ExtraBITS for 5 May 2014

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In ExtraBITS this week, Skype makes group video calls free to all and Woz remembers writing his version of BASIC for the Apple I. We learn just how shaky software is and why iPad sales are slowing down. Also, Congress votes to remain clueless on tech, Office for iPad gains AirPrint support, and we get an in-depth look at Google’s self-driving car.

Skype Makes Group Video Calling Free -- In an effort to compete better with Google Hangouts, Microsoft’s Skype has made group video calling — previously available only to Skype Premium subscribers — free for all Mac, Windows, and Xbox One users, with support for more platforms slated for the future. In our use, Skype’s quality and reliability has suffered over the past few years, and while Google Hangouts has a lousy user experience for starting and joining calls, it is far more stable than Skype once you get going.

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Steve Wozniak on How He Wrote BASIC for the Apple I -- To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the BASIC programming language, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has recounted how he wrote BASIC for the Apple I from scratch. His primary motivation was gaming, which he felt could spark a mainstream interest in home computers.

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Software Is a House of Cards -- Writer and programmer Peter Welch has penned an amusing and terrifying essay called “Programming Sucks,” which sheds some light on why so much software is unstable and insecure. A choice quote: “Not a single living person knows how everything in your five-year-old MacBook actually works. Why do we tell you to turn it off and on again? Because we don’t have the slightest clue what’s wrong with it, and it’s really easy to induce coma in computers and have their built-in team of automatic doctors try to figure it out for us.”

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Why iPad Sales Are Slowing -- The iPad was Apple’s fastest growing product for several years, but sales have slowed, and analyst Ben Bajarin offers a few possible reasons why. He focuses on the point that, while they can do many things well, there’s little tablets can do that a computer or smartphone can’t do as well or better. The iPad debuted in 2010, which is often cited as the beginning of the end of PC sales, but Bajarin notes that was also about the time smartphones went mainstream, which might instead explain the decline in PC sales.

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Congress Votes to Remain Clueless about Technology -- Congress is ignorant about technology, by its own admission, and has voted to stay that way. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) introduced an amendment that would have allocated $2.5 million to reboot the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), whose funding Newt Gingrich cut in 1995. The OTA, founded in 1972, saved taxpayers billions by recommending an overhaul of the Social Security Administration’s computer system and convincing Congress to cut back the synfuels program in the 1980s. Alas, Holt’s measure was defeated in a 164-248 vote. Now Congress will just have to go back to relying on lobbyists for technical advice.

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Office for iPad Gains AirPrint Support -- A little over a month after release, Microsoft has updated its Office for iPad apps to 1.0.1 with printing support via AirPrint. Other changes include SmartGuides in PowerPoint to help with object alignment, improved AutoFit in Excel to adjust the width of multiple rows or the height of multiple columns, and bug fixes.

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Google’s Self-Driving Car Takes to City Streets -- In The Atlantic Cities, Eric Jaffe shares his experience riding in Google’s self-driving car as it takes to the city streets of Mountain View, California. It’s a fascinating look at the technology underpinning the 700,000 miles driven by Google’s fleet of self-driving cars. The article is also sobering, because putting self-driving cars on the road for consumers will take years, despite Google’s advances. Nissan is aiming for 2020, but robotic car consultant Brad Templeton says that the most advanced of the car manufacturers is Mercedes, whose self-driving car project isn’t even where Google’s was in 2010. This could mean self-driving cars will take much longer to go mainstream, or that the automotive industry is ripe for major disruption.

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