Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why Google is about to trounce Microsoft

I remember way-back when Netscape was the "browser de jour", some pretty smart people predicting how eventually, conventional operating systems (and Windows in particular) would become redundant.

The belief was that the browser would become the OS and the OS would become the browser.

Instead of an OS, such as Windows, appearing when you started up your computer, the first thing you'd see would be your browser. Indeed, there were rumours that Netscape themselves were working hard on a Windows-killer environment that included a browser and OS all rolled into one.

Well of course we all know that Netscape is no longer the dominant browser, that position having fallen to Microsoft for many years.

While it dominated the browser and OS marketplace, Microsoft did try to integrate the two so tightly as to make them inseparable - but the EU decided such a high level of integration was "uncompetitive" and a forced separation followed.

But now it's 2009 and once again the prospect of browser-based computing has come to the fore.

This time we have (at least in part) the concept of cloud-computing to thank.

Instead of shrink-wrapped applications working with locally stored sets of data, cloud computing involves data stored on distant servers and massaged by (usually) browser-based applications.

Thus, once again, the prospect of your browser becoming not only your most commonly used application but also your computer's operating system appears to be a viable one.

Helping the browser in its "desktop takeover" move is the introduction of HTML5, a new set of standards that looks set to significantly increase the power and flexibility of the humble web-browser.

And now, instead of Netscape, it's Google who is at the forefront of turning your PC into little more than a platform for the web browser.

It's not by accident that Google invested millions in developing its Chrome browser. It knows full well that the winner of the computing game is no longer the one who owns the desktop. Instead, it will be the one who owns the browser and the gateway to the internet.

If, as appears to be the case, a huge transition is about to take place from desktop to cloudtop, the relevance of the operating system used falls significantly. Once people become used to using their browser as the primary interface to their computing world, it won't matter nearly so much whether they're running MS Windows, Linux, or any other OS.

Providing there's a consistent browser interface across all platforms, both the hardware and the OS become irrelevant.

And, he who "owns" the browser, owns the market.

Google is one very, very smart company - as Microsoft may be about to discover to their cost.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chipping away at the language barrier online

The internet and email have changed the way we communicate and do business.

Enterprises that previously could only ever have hoped to trade locally or nationally are now able to treat the entire world as their market, receiving orders and queries from across the globe as easily as across the street.

As a result of this we've seen many entrepreneurs take a good idea that may have once earned them a comfortable living and, thanks to the internet, create a business that earns a small (or not so small) fortune.

One only has to look at operations such as Amazon.com.

Before the internet there was just no way a "global bookstore" could ever have reached the heady heights of success that Amazon enjoys.

However, one last barrier has remained for many who have tried to extend their reach to the whole world: language.

Although English is considered the international language of trade and the internet, there are still many countries where the percentage of English-language speakers is tiny.

Savvy businesses wishing to reach such markets have been able to hire translators to produce foreign-language versions of their websites or (if they're saving pennies) simply use a link to Google's translation service. While these options are viable, it still leaves the tricky problem of receiving emails written in a foreign language from one of these distant shores.

Until now it's been a case of cutting and pasting the text into an online translation service but now the clever folks at Google have made that a whole lot easier. They've just announced the introduction of a service that provides automatic email translations.

Although it may not seem like a big deal to the average internet user, this has effectively expanded the size of internet by many hundreds of millions of users, for those who speak only one language.

Businesses and individuals will still have to be very careful of the subtlte meaning changes that automated translations often introduce, it would appear that the language barrier has just been lowered another notch.

Those companies who have been put off trading outside the English-speaking world now have one less excuse for not broadening the size of their markets and now you can get your spam in English, even if it was sent in Russian.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Can credit cards kill spam?

In a world where every IP number has the potential to pose a new threat to your valuable data and bandwidth it is surely time to ask the question "Is the Net secure enough"?

Although it is very much up to individuals to secure their own computers, software and networks, a certain degree of responsibility also has to be taken by those who design and implement the protocols and infrastructure on which the internet is based.

A good example of what happens when insecure infrastructure proliferates is spam.

I an ideal world, email would only be available to authenticated users with known bonafides. However, because the SMTP protocol and the service it provides was designed and implemented in a pre-spam era, we now pay the price in almost immeasurable volumes of junk email.

Despite the best attempts of many, email has yet to be replaced as the primary communications vehicle of the internet.

Sure, there's instant-messaging (which gets its own share of spam) and twitter but nothing replaces email from the perspective of ubiquity, flexibility and simplicity.

So it's clear that security requires sacrifice.

We can't kill spam until we can reliably and effectively authenticate users but such authentication is inevitably complex, expensive, cumbersome and therefore carries its own price.

However there are some interesting options appearing in the authentication world and at the forefront appears to be good old Visa, "the credit card that's accepted in more places..." bla bla.

You see, a lack of adequate authentication has also plagued the credit card industry for a long time now and it seems they've decided to get serious about reducing fraud and the resulting losses.

In this BBC story there are details of there new "interactive" smart credit card and I'm wondering if this might not be a great way to de-spam email as well.

Why not require each email session to start with a user's credit card number and the unique session-code that it produces?

Spammers sure as beans aren't going to use their own cards because one of the caveats of using the system is that you'd be charged (say $0.10 per message) if you decided to spam.

How would they charge you?

Simple -- you've just handed over your credit card and a valid session-code!

And no spammer could use stolen credit card details because they wouldn't have the unique session identifier code that these new cards spit out.

Presumably, if this code wasn't generated until the owner keyed in their PIN then even a physically stolen card would be useless in the hands of a fraudster or spammer.

Who knows, perhaps Visa has unknowingly come up with the answer to the spam problem.