Monday, December 19, 2011

Two sets of rules in the internet age?

Copyright remains a big bone of contention on the internet.

While we tend to think of copyright as being an issue mainly for music and movie studios, it's also a problem for the news publishing industry.

Recently, Rupert Murdoch had a hissy-fit over Google's use of headlines from his online publications in its Google News service although he eventually saw the light and backed down from a threat to take action against the search giant.

However, there are still a good number of organisations within the news industry who are highly protective of their content and regularly threaten bloggers and others who reproduce their copy without permission (such permission almost always requiring payment).

With this in mind, I was gobsmacked to see a judgment made by The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in which it ruled that it was now okay for the news media to publish images it had snatched from FaceBook - without the permission of the original poster.

It seems that the ACMA believes that such content, if it's made publicly available by the FaceBook account owner, can be republished without infringing copyright.

With this in mind, I'm certain that the ACMA will be standing behind any blogger or other Net user who chooses to republish (without permission) any of the work the news media -- so long as that work has been made "publicly available" by being first published by the news-organisation concerned, via its own website.

I will contact the ACMA to get their position on this but I think we all know what it will be.

Does this sound fair to you?

Monday, December 12, 2011

A solution in search of a problem

The quantum world is fascinating...

So much uncertainty and so very different to the Newtonian world we're all familiar with.

When we measure the position of a quantum object, we can't be sure of its speed and if we measure its speed, we're no longer sure exactly where it is.

Totally fascinating.

As we continue forward into the second decade of the 21st century, we are still gifted with only the slightest understanding of the quantum world but already, we've done something very, very clever.

A group of scientists at Bristol University have created the first programmable quantum photonics chip.

Woohoo...

It won't really do anything you can show your mother -- but never the less, it's a gigantic step forward in our attempts to harness quantum effects.

Of course it's pretty much useless as anything other than a proof of concept and, as a practical device, it's even less useful than the very first integrated circuit - but oh the potential!

Unfortunately, we're just not sure what that potential can be used for.

In theory, the quantum computers that may eventually evolve from devices like this one, will be immensely useful for such complex tasks as data encryption and complex mathematics but, as of now, it's all theory.

However, just as the CPU in the computer you're using right now, with its millions or billions of individual silicon junctions grew from those very first transistors created over half a century ago by Bell Labs -- the computer of the future may be filled with devices that owe their very existence to this quantum photonic device.

The future will be a great place and fortunately, that's where we'll all be spending the rest of our lives. Enjoy.

Monday, December 5, 2011

YouTube's new look, not a good look according to many

Regular readers will recall that just a few short weeks ago, I wrote a column titled Stop messing with my user-interface in which I criticised Firefox for stuffing up what was a perfectly good user-interface.

Well it seems that nobody is listening when users vent their dislike of user-interfaces or websites that are arbitrarily "updated" and "improved" without warning or consultation.

On several occasions, Facebook has angered tens of millions of users when they decided to implement changes to the world's largest social networking site and now, it would appear, Google has made the same error of judgment in updating YouTube's look and feel.

If the comments posted in the Youtube feedback forum are anything to go by, the new look is roundly disliked by YouTube users.

Key functionality, such as the ability to see who is subscribed to what channels, is now missing and there are many other niggles that seem to be upsetting the very core of YouTube's lifeblood -- those who contribute and watch the videos around which it is built.

It's becoming pretty clear that Google's stated intention to convert YouTube from a "community" to something more like a regular TV system may lie at the heart of the changes.

Google no longer wants a collection of eclectic videos that people have to subscribe to in order to receive regular updates -- they want to turn the site into a huge video resource that automatically offers-up video content to its viewers. This will make it a far more practical source of content for an IPTV service -- because TV users just want to watch, not go searching for their viewing.

As a result, the emphasis seems to have gone out of building a one-to-one relationship between the content producer and the viewer -- to the extent that now, YouTube content creators don't actually know who has subscribed to them -- they simply get a head-count.

It will be very interesting to see what happens next.

It's been my experience that most people are averse to change. Like a comfortable pair of slippers, they like what they know and are familiar with. Unexpected and unsolicited change can often create feelings of dissatisfaction but, eventually that passes and users just forget about it.

On the other hand, the internet is a fickle place and, as some have found out to their cost, upsetting the great unwashed masses can turn a popular hangout into a ghost-town almost overnight -- so long as they have somewhere else to go.

In YouTube's favour, there aren't a lot of other places to go and certainly none of the alternatives are nearly as convenient as Google's flavour of user-generated video content.

So I suspect that the wailing and gnashing of teeth will continue for a little longer -- but eventually it will subside and, in a month or two, it will be as if nothing had ever happened.

However, wouldn't it be nice if, just every now and then, companies actually consulted the people who use their products and services -- before they decided to make major changes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How to say "I don't care" this Christmas

Christmas is less than a month away and, no doubt, many folk are now considering what gifts to buy friends and family.

If you were hoping to post a gift to Aunt Agatha in the UK or your old friend Eustace in the USA then chances are you've already left it a bit late -- but fear not, the Internet will save you!

Online shopping is a great way to save money and ensure that last-minute gift is delivered on time to those people in far-away lands - what's more, it's almost certainly cheaper than buying locally and then spending a small fortune on postage.

Unfortunately there are often a few hiccups in the process.

Some online retailers won't ship to a country other than that in which your credit card is registered. That makes a lot of sense -- since the trade in stolen/cloned cards is rife and the savvy fraudster will always try to use a card from a foreign country when buying online.

However, if you can find an online store in the UK that will accept payment from NZ for delivery to a UK address then you'll save a bomb (on the postage at least) when buying for Aunt Agatha and the time from clicking "buy now" to actually having the item in her wrinkly little hands will be greatly reduced.

So cyber-savvy makes good sense when buying gifts -- but there are instances when you really ought to give the Net a very wide berth at Christmas.

Please, please please -- do not send e-cards to people you care about.

It reeks of "I'm so cheap I couldn't afford a stamp" or "you're so unimportant I just figured I'd spend 2 seconds sending you an e-card instead of a real one".

Not only do these e-cards make you look like a cheap, insensitive clod, they also make it much easier for malware producers to sneak nasty payloads onto the PCs of unsuspecting victims.

For every genuine e-card that arrives there are goodness knows how many unsolicited malware-versions that are sent out by those seeking to build or grow their botnets -- and collect credit card details from the unsuspecting, in order to fund their own fraudulent online purchases.

So there you have it -- my Christmas tip -- don't send *anyone* an e-card and be very, very wary of opening any that might arrive in your own inbox.

In fact, why not send an email to all your "friends" and family right now, advising them that you won't be accepting e-cards this year for security reasons. That'll mean that those cards which do arrive in your inbox will almost certainly be bogus and it'll also remind those cheapskates who were planning to save themselves a stamp that they really need to think again.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Interesting times in the world of science

A couple of interesting reports caught my eye on the science wires today.

The first was the result of further experiments designed to try and prove or disprove recent observations which hinted that neutrinos may have been observed traveling faster than the speed of light.

Back in September, scientists working in Italy as part of the OPERA collaboration announced the results of an experiment that shook the very foundations of modern physics. They produced data that was at odds with the predictions of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

Numerous peer reviews of the experiments failed to turn up any explanations for the data which suggested that neutrinos had been observed traveling at faster-than-light speed -- but the underlying belief was that it was the experiment at fault, not Einstein's theories.

In an attempt to solve the mystery, another experiment was performed last week -- yet the results are consistent with the first and still indicate that a stream of neutrinos released from CERN arrived in Italy faster than it would take a beam of light to traverse the same distance.

The importance of these findings is so great that the scientists involved are still focused on searching for any possible alternative explanation for what they've observed. Stay tuned, this will be a very interesting outcome -- either way.

Another exciting report was practical proof of theoretical predictions relating to the Casimir Effect.

In theory, the Casimir Effect would allow energy to be extracted from a vacuum, simply by positioning two plates a microscopically close distance apart.

Quantum physics predicts that if the plates were close enough, a force would appear that tried to push them together. This is because, subatomic particles are supposedly constantly popping in and out of existence and if the plates are close enough, there is insufficient room for many to "pop into existence" between the plates but plenty of room for them to do so on the other side of those plates.

The net result would be a pressure that worked to push the plates together -- at least that is the theory.

As part of this theory, the Casimer Dynamical Effect says that a mirror traveling at near light-speed through a vacuum will itself produce light, as it encounters the transient photons that "pop in" ahead of it.

Scientists have been unable to test this theory due to the difficulty in accelerating object with the mass of a mirror to a sufficiently high speed. However, by using a piece of quantum equipment called a SQUID (a superconducting quantum interference device), they have produced the same effect using microwave signals.

What does this mean?

Well it proves that even the most absolute vacuum does contain energy and perhaps one day we will be able to extract that energy.

If ground-breaking scientific discoveries in the field of physics are like most other things, big news will probably come in threes.

I wonder what's next?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stop messing with my user-interface

In the beginning -- there was a row of switches and lights.

That was the interface between man and computer - and it sucked.

Over time, and as technology became more powerful, this interface evolved and became a whole lot more efficient and friendly.

For a while, teletype printers and keyboards ruled. They allowed programs, commands and data to be input in English-like languages and phrases. They also allowed the computers of the day to output information in an easily read and archived form.

Then came the CRT and the electronic keyboard. Suddenly the need to kill a forest simply to initiate a few batch commands or debug a problem was gone.

After a while, the plain, monochrome, character-based CRT display evolved into a pixel-addressable screen capable of displaying tends, hundreds, thousands or even millions of different colours.

Gone was the need to laboriously type in every command using a keyboard -- point and click became the norm once the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointer) interface took ahold.

Of course it's probably best not to talk about the oft promised but never delivered natural language speech interface but who knows, maybe that too will become practical one day.

So now, in the second decade of the 21st century, we're focusing on the feature-set and ergonomics of our software but still using the WIMP paradigm.

Unfortunately, those who design and implement software seem to be running out of good ideas and I get the feeling that some applications are actually slipping backwards when it comes to the effectiveness and efficiency of their user interfaces.

Strangely enough, I am not alone in this observation and others in the industry have voiced similar concerns over recent updates to popular software.

Just last night I upgraded from Mozilla 3 and 4 to Mozilla 8 (did I miss four versions already?) and I'm not at all happy with the changes I now have to adapt to.

For instance... where's the reload button? As a developer, I use the reload function a lot -- but that important click is now two clicks (right button, point to "Refresh", click). Why?

And why did they move bits around for no apparent reason? Simply so that it looked like a new version rather than a minor revision perhaps?

When I upgrade my software, I don't want to have to relearn a whole bunch of stuff for no real gain in efficiency or ease of use -- that's a false economy.

Are we now reaching a point with user-interface design where our interfaces are so good that any change (especially for the sake of change) is simply a retrograde step?

If so - then I would ask the programmers to please "put down the mouse and step away from the keyboard"

Monday, November 7, 2011

Malware makers opt to target mobiles for the big money

For many years now malware authors have discovered that there are rich pickings to be made by infecting people's PCs with trojans and back-door code that offers to harvest key bits of data such as account logins, credit card numbers and online banking data.

Interestingly enough, as PC operating systems become more hardened to such attacks, mobile phones are seemingly becoming more vulnerable and far more attractive targets.

Thanks to the widespread use of two main operating systems (iOS and Android) and a growing appetite amongst users to have the latest and greatest applications, the job of the malware writers has been made somewhat easier than was the case when every phone had its own proprietary environment.

What's more, the increasing power of smartphones has greatly increased the number of people who now use them for activities such as online banking, online purchasing with their credit cards and even mobile payments.

However, if the latest reports are to be believed, the biggest money-spinner for the malware makers is the creation of applications that masquerade as bona fide code while covertly sending of SMS messages to expensive online services. Those services operate very much like an 0900 number and a charge, sometimes quite significant, is levied each time a message is sent to them.

Mobile users who have downloaded malevolent apps can soon find that, with out their knowledge or permission, their phone has racked up huge bills against their account -- or completely depleted the credit on their pre-pay account.

More often than not, the numbers to which the collect SMS calls are made are offshore, therefore the chances of recovering money stolen in this way is remote.

Then of course there are the other trojan apps which simply report on other data passing through the phone, potentially allowing the harvesting of credit card numbers and account logins.

One thing is for sure -- mobile users will have to be come increasingly vigilant when using their phones and, in particular, when downloading applications -- even if they're from approved sources. Already some vendors have had to pull a number of apps from their app stores after it was discovered that they were carrying an unauthorised payload that spied on the user or racked up unexpected bills.

It will be very interesting to see how the industry addresses this increasing problem. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.

In the meantime, my $50 "dumb" phone will be the safest option.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Good product, bad pitch

Today I called in to Dick Smith Electronics because my wife, who now has a brain injury, wanted to take a look at the Kindle ebook reader.

She particularly wanted to evaluate the Kindle because it offers a text to speech function that has the potential to significantly restore much of the enjoyment she used to get from reading.

Unfortunately, since her injury, reading is now very difficult and she finds it much easier to follow the words while they're read out-loud -- hence, the Kindle sounded like the perfect answer to her problem.

We entered the Dick Smith store and asked an assistant where we could find the Kindles. The woman, obviously more interested in doing something else rather than serving nuisance customers, gestured towards the back of the shop and continued with what she was doing.

Off we strolled in the general direction of her pointing and eventually found a pile of empty Kindle boxes labeled "Take this empty box to the checkout to purchase your Kindle". Atop this pile of empties was a working unit operating in "demo mode".

I showed the wife how the buttons worked and we marveled at the high contrast and resolution of the e-ink display.

However, the real reason for the visit was to experience the quality and practicality of the text to speech function so I called over another young shop assistant in the hopes he'd be able to produce such a demo.

He fiddled with the unit for a few minutes before deciding that perhaps the demo model had that functionality disabled.

Another customer came up to us at this stage and began to expound the wonders of the Kindle, saying that he couldn't live without his -- but still no demo of the text to speech.

While we were talking to this customer, the youthfull Dick Smith salesperson finally managed to get the speech system working -- but we couldn't hear it over the extraordinarily loud music that had been screaming from one of the stereo systems throughout our entire time in the shop.

No matter how hard we listened, the Kindle's sound was obliterated by the thumping base and crashing treble of this stereo -- which was right across the other side of the shop.

We said "we can't really hear it over the music" -- to which the sales assistant simply looked blankly at us. Perhaps he couldn't hear us over the noise either.

By holding my ear really close to the Kindle I was able to hear a typical monotone computer synthesized voice which may have been okay -- except that it was reading very fast, far too quickly for my wife to keep up with.

"Can you slow it down?" I inquired.

"Dunno" I was told -- and no attempt was made to find out.

What should have been a very easy sale for DSE was totally ruined by the seeming disinterest of the staff and some strange need to fill the showroom with the emanations of the local radio station to such an extent that a demo was virtually useless.

I'll probably just import one now by purchasing online. After all, if this is the level of service one gets before you lay down your money, how bad would it be afterwards if something went wrong?

DSE -- epic fail!

Now I'll use the Net to find the answers to my questions. Thank goodness for technology.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Google's monopoly to be strengthened?

Word on the wires is that Google is seriously contemplating a buy-out of Yahoo.

Well actually, they're not being quite that blatant about it because a direct attempt at acquisition by Google would likely be disallowed by anti-monopolies (antitrust) legislation and thus would fail.

However, there is more than one way to skin a cat and information has come to light that Google may attempt an indirect buy-out by funding a third-party group of companies to bid for what was once the Web's most valuable property. I say "was once" because Yahoo has fallen on hard times in recent years and is now ripe for takeover.

However despite falling from its once mighty position as "the defacto hub of internet content", Yahoo still has a larger share of the search market than its nearest competitor, Microsoft's Bing. It is because of this that a direct pitch by Google would fail.

Right now, Google has a massive 65% of the market and Yahoo has around 16%, versus Microsoft's 15% so a complete acquisition would give Google more than 80% market-share, clearly a situation that would cement its current move towards "owning" this sector of the industry.

Of course Google has another reason for wanting to buy Yahoo -- simply to avoid Microsoft doing the same. If the boys at Redmond were to purchase Yahoo, they'd double their share of the search market with the stroke of a pen (and the rustle of dollar bills) -- and that would erode Google's own position.

According to reports, Microsoft's Bing has not been the success they'd hoped -- in fact it's bleeding red ink quite significantly. Although Yahoo itself isn't exactly massively profitable, the synergy of the two search engines and the resultant ability to rationalize costs could see a turn-around on the Microsoft ledger for this part of its business.

Google has a mantra of "do no evil" which it has managed to keep to (by and large) so far. There are grave concerns however, that if it does establish such huge dominance in the search market, the temptation to stray from this ideology may become too great.

You know what they say... power corrupts, and ultimate power....

Perhaps what's needed in the online marketplace is more competition rather than less.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Plug and prey

I'm a bit late with this week's column and that's because I'm still recovering from the painful experience of passing a kidney stone.

However, the ordeal was not without some useful insight into our technology and the way we use it.

When the ambulance arrived in response to my 111 call (yes, it was *that* painful and I was getting really concerned that I might pass out and vomit at the same time), they rolled up and threw a blood-pressure/pulse monitor cuff on my arm.

This unit is attached to a fancy box with big LCD display, touch screen, knobs, buttons and a price-tag that would probably make your second car look cheap.

When they pushed the "go" button, a firm but polite voice said "please connect".

The ambo lady frowned and pushed the button again....

"please connect"

She wiggled the wires, removed and reinserted the plugs -- then frowned again when it continued to say "please connect".

Eventually it started working and the cuff inflated, my BP and heart-rate displayed and there was a barely perceptible sigh of relief from its operator.

For a moment I was wondering (amidst the pain) if I'd have to start diagnosing a fault in the medical gear before we'd even get into the back of the ambulance.

When I got to the emergency room I was wheeled behind a curtain and, after the usual questions (are you alergic to anything? What is the capital of Peru? etc, etc) an ultrasound machine was wheeled out.

The probe was greased up and applied to my abdomen which, fortunately, was now not as painful as it had been just 15 minutes earlier.

This ultrasound machine was pretty new apparently. It too had a big LCD display with touch screen and lots of blinky lights.

Unfortunately I saw the doctor frown as he began stabbing at the screen.

Was I going to die? Had he seen something awful inside me?

No... as it turns out, he was having trouble making the machine work.

Or, to be precise, he was having trouble figuring out *how* to make the machine work.

After much poking (of the screen, not me) it finally started behaving and he had a good old virtual rummage around inside me.

Nothing wrong there -- everything about the right size and in the right place -- although he couldn't find my left kidney but attributed that to a little gas in my intestines.

It was becoming increasingly clear however, that our medical people are often quite naive when it comes to the use of their hi-tech gear. Obviously, in making these things fool-proof we remove any need to understand the basics of how they work.

Unfortunately, that means that when/if they don't work -- all you get from those trying to use them is a nasty frown.

This drawback to uber-friendly technology has been a trend apparent ever since the middle of the 20th century, when automotive technology changed from something you could easily understand and fix with a screwdriver or hammer -- to a big box of "magic" that requires shelves of diagnostic computers and a PhD in nuclear physics to properly comprehend.

Now, so long as all this new-fangled stuff works as it should, we all benefit.

Unfortunately, when it doesn't do what it's supposed to, I can easily see that (at least in the area of medicine), doctors and nurses could become to focused on "fixing the machine" rather than fixing the patient.

Me thinks there's room for improvement here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Time to stop imitating and start innovating!

A growing number of tablet makers are discovering that they have to drop their prices to compete with the iPad.

In fact, Amazon has hopped straight onto the discounted hardware model and is shipping its Kindle Fire at a give-away price from day one.

Even with the move towards fire-sale prices however, most of the tablet-makers are not doing brisk sales -- in fact, some industry insiders believe that the tablet market is turning out to be a major bust for "brand name" players, except Apple.

Why is this?

How come none of the other "big names" can replicate Apple's success?

Well I'm wondering if it's not actually the "tablet" computer that has people (and their wallets) captivated. I'm starting to think that it's actually just the iPad.

The iPad may be a tablet computer but no other tablet computer is an iPad. This is a one-way equation and as such, means that other wannabe tablet-makers are wasting their time and their money trying to compete because... they'll never be able to build an iPad.

Today I received some junk mail in my letterbox from Noel Leeming and two items made be think "they have to be kidding!".

The first was a "Pre-order Now" ad for the new "Sony S" -- Sony's new tablet computer.

Now I'm sorry but there's just no way I (or anyone else I know) will spend $950 on a tablet that isn't an iPad.

This product is being pitched as a device for music and gaming -- are they kidding? Tablets are not gaming platforms and I can buy a rather nice little MP3/MP4 player from China for $50 that will do the job very nicely.

The other ad which made me look twice was a pitch for the new Sony e-Reader. Once again, I'm not spending $230 on an ebook reader that isn't a Kindle.

No, I'm not a brand-name snob -- I'm just aware that the Kindle is "the" ebook reader. It has everything anyone might want *and* it comes with wireless or 3G access to Amazon's incredible ebook shop. Why would I spend as much for a second-tier device as I would for the recognised industry leader?

I'm afraid that companies like Sony, LG, and all the others will have to learn that the days of making money by playing the "me too" game are quickly drawing to a close.

Simply trying to out-tablet the iPad or out ebook the Kindle is only going to earn you red ink on your sales ledger.

Come on you people -- stop imitating and start innovating!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Software clash - the case for a single-source

Something very interesting happened this past week.

Microsoft declared Google's Chrome browser to be a piece of malware and suggested people delete it.

Was this a cunning ploy to try and promote Internet Explorer as the best browser?

No, it was a simple human snafu that resulted in the kind of software clash nobody likes to contemplate.

It seems that Microsoft Security Essentials was updated with an erroneous signature which happened to match that for Google Chrome and, acting on that errant information, some users were mistakenly told by MSE that their computers were now infected with the Win32/Zbot piece of malware, renowned for stealing login details and credit card numbers.

Microsoft quickly posted an advisory detailing their mistake but by then it was too late for some users who'd already acted on MSE's recommendations and obliterated Chrome from their PCs.

Unfortunately, in a world where multiple software vendors are competing for a slice of your IT spend, such clashes are occasionally inevitable and I'm sure this won't be the last.

It is interesting that the new model for software distribution, as used by Apple for those wishing to buy iPhone apps, is to vet each and every program before it's released for sale. Once given this "seal of approval" and made available for purchase, customers can buy with a slightly increased level of confidence that major clashes won't occur.

I say "slight increase" because, as we've seen, even this model of software distribution is not infallible.

While Microsoft's blunder was surely accidental, there can be no doubt that it will likely result in a benefit to the company, within a market that may now be more inclined to use a browser they could expect to be more compatible with their operating system -- because it's from the same vendor.

For those who acted on MSE's directives, Google has announced that it will be releasing a "fixup" that should restore affected systems to their previous configuration.

System administrators will likely now be adding up the cost of "putting things right" and whether they reconsider the use of MSE and Google Chrome (or any 3rd-party product) as bed-partners on their systems.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Don't believe the internet

Having its roots in the world of academia, there was a time when, if you read something on the internet, you could be fairly sure it was at least partly true.

My, how times have changed.

These days, thanks to the fact that the hurdles to publishing articles, comments, videos and even news stories have been lowered so much, a lot of what you read is far from true. In fact, sometimes it's just a deliberate attempt to deceive.

Several good examples of this have appeared recently all related to video which purports to show a huge NASA weather satellite plowing across the skies above Canada.

When this video and the claims made for it first surface online, a number of otherwise reputable news publishers latched on to it and reported that the satellite must have crashed in Canada. In doing so, they confused speculation for fact.

Later, once it was reported that the satellite had actually splashed down in the ocean off the West coast of the USA, that video and the early reports were clearly discredited. Some news organisations quickly retracted their initial stories or edited them -- by placing a question mark in the headline.

There were plenty of other faked reports popping up online, many like this one purporting to show the satellite crashing to earth nearby.

Eventually, most of the fakers have been exposed but this event does truly highlight the fact that, just because you read it on the Internet, doesn't mean it's true.

But why would people go to all the trouble of creating a hoax and misleading the public?

Simple... money!

The original video now generates revenue for the poster through YouTube's partner program and, based on the number of hits received so far, has probably put a princely sum in their pockets already. Unfortunately, in an age when it has never been easier to create such misleading material and never been easier to profit from it, the internet is becoming a huge source of disinformation.

What a shame.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Should we keep taking the tablets?

Tablet computing is the current "big thing", with every man and his dog rolling out new tablet PCs to sate the apparent demand.

The iPad is clearly the market leader but there are plenty of challengers to that crown, although none has come even remotely close to delivering the slick, polished, product that Apple has created.

The big question however, must be: Are tablets just a fad?

The answer is "yes and no".

What kind of answer is that?

Well the tablet is a device for "consumers" of information -- which most of us are.

The tablet (of any flavour) is best suited to viewing information created and posted by others -- rather than creating and publishing information of your own.

Yes, the tablet has a nice touch-screen which makes it kids-play to interact with the device but just try to knock out a 2000 word essay on a particular subject or edit some graphics with precision and you'll find that the tablet is far from the best machine for the job.

When you're viewing video, text or other material, you can point, swipe, pinch and gesture to your heart's content and the whole process is silly-simple but I can bet you anything you want, that content wasn't created using the same techniques.

Of course you can dock your tablet and plug in a proper keyboard and a mouse -- but then you've basically got a laptop -- except you've paid more than an actual laptop would have cost -- plus you don't have the almost limitless storage that a hard-drive offers.

Then there's gaming...

Apparently, one of the most popular uses for home computers is playing games -- I wouldn't know, I seldom have enough spare time to even contemplate installing a game.

There are tablet-based games but they can't rival the most popular genre amongst hardcore gamers -- the first-person shooter. Again, you could dock your tablet and plug in a joystick but even then, there just isn't the processor grunt to support those ultra-fast frame-rates and super-fast graphics that games salivate over.

But tablets are portable aren't they, you can't lug around a desktop PC and the average laptop is bulkier than a tablet so surely these are the best option for computing on the go -- aren't they?

Perhaps -- but if you're planning to move around a lot, you might find a decent PDA or mobile phone offers a better compromise between portability and performance. Even a small-screened netbook could be a smarter choice.

So I'm left wondering if, once all the iPad fever dies down, whether we'll see a drift back towards netbooks, laptops, hi-end mobile phones and PDAs.

Perhaps the tablet craze is just that -- a craze.

Or I (and HP) could be totally wrong of course.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Look out, it's raining gold (again)

Just last week I read the news that scientists now believe virtually all of Earth's gold and platinum reserves were deposited on the planet as a result of meteor impactsover a 200 million year period.

I guess that's pretty interesting -- but even more interesting (and worrying) is the fact that we're about to get another big lump of gold possibly dumped on our heads and it could arrive as soon as the end of the month.

What am I talking about?

Well NASA has warned that one of its satellites, worth a cool billion NZ dollars, is about to fall from the sky and plummet to earth in an uncontrolled fireball of flaming metal. Some of that metal will actually be gold.

The upper atmosphere research satellite is a 20 year old lump of orbiting space instrumentation that weighs an astonishing 6 tonnes and is expected to start falling earthwards within weeks as its decaying orbit brings it into contact with the upper layers of the planet's atmosphere.

Although NASA is working hard to downplay the level of risk to those over whose head this lump of metal is orbiting, they do admit that about half a tonne of the original six, is likely to make it intact through the fiery descent. If that lump of metal were to hit a population centre, the results would not be at all pretty.

But fear-not. Those NASA guys have crunched the numbers and come to the conclusion that there is just a 1 in 3,200 chance of anyone actually being hit by a piece of this falling satellite -- and even then, it might not kill them -- perhaps just inflicting a minor flesh-wound.

How reassuring ;-)

If you're still worried -- you can check out the official NASA advisory.

Some have predicted that Europe will be right in the middle of the possible impact zone but NASA simply tell us that there will be a "debris footprint" some 500 miles long and that the impact could be anywhere in a zone between 57 degrees north and 57 degrees south of the equator.

So, even if you didn't win Lotto this week, you might still be in luck around the end of the month. Who knows, a big chunk of gold could land in your back yard.

What should you do if this happens?

Well NASA say: "Do not touch it. Contact a local law enforcement official for assistance".

Yeah, right! eBay here we come! This lump of metal will likely be worth more than gold.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The dawn of a new era in media

The provisions of section 92A of the NZ Copyright Act came into force this month and serve to highlight the huge void between consumer demand and supplier delivery in the world of audio and video media.

On the one side, we have an antiquated business model that expects to be able to control in minute detail, exactly how, where, when and for exactly how much their product is sold around the world.

On the other, we have a tech-savvy audience who are not prepared to wait any longer than absolutely necessary or to pay any more than they have to in order to listen to or view the music, movies or TV programmes of their choice.

Personally, I think this law is a futile attempt to try and stop people from adapting to the way the Net empowers them to sidestep the tarnished and outdated distribution methods of the past.

With the appearance of IP-ready TV sets in ever-increasing numbers and the proliferation of IP-based set-top boxes, consumers are already gearing up for the new era in media distribution and, unfortunately for the old "stick in the mud" wrinklies who are presently running the media empires, it's adapt or die.

Even the most draconian of laws will have no effect if the public chose to disregard it in large numbers -- as will increasingly be the case.

Right now, there are a good number of people who use P2P networks to illegally download movies, TV shows and music and, despite the best efforts of the publishers and legislators, I see this number increasing rather than decreasing.

When regular TV viewers tire of the same old repeats, encore screenings and "classic revues" of the same boring oft-seen material, they'll power up their IP connection and seek out more interesting, entertaining and up-to-date content. Inevitably, some of that will involve illegally accessing material that is available via the internet.

Look for a massive boost in the popularity of anonymising proxy-servers which will give Kiwis and others outside the USA, direct access to the content on sites such as NetFlix and Hulu -- despite the most determined efforts of content publishers to quarantine content by region.

Look for new methods of distributing such content to appear online. Perhaps "drop-boxes" on anonymous servers or even public file-sharing sites, with access and decrypting details being distributed by secure email amongst approved lists of friends and associates.

If the publishers think they can keep their old model rolling much longer they are simply deluding themselves.

I'm betting that within the next five years, the whole planet will have, for the purposes of media distribution, become a single market and the Net will be one of the primary conduits.

Prepare for a paradigm change! It's coming whether the media moguls want it or not.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lawyers trump programmers

There as a time when the success of a hi-tech product was pretty much in the hands of those who designed it, those who implemented the design, and the marketing team that sold it.

Come up with a great idea, design a solution around it, get some kick-ass engineers and programmers to turn that solution into a reality then let your ace sales-team take it to the world. Pretty soon you'll be able to kick back and count your profits.

And that's the way it ought to be.

Unfortunately, in the second decade of the 21st century, that's increasingly *not* the way things are working out.

It seems that these days, it's the lawyers who are determining which products will succeed and which products will not.

Take the tablet and cellphone marketplaces for instance.

Right now there's a huge battle underway between patent-holders -- each of which is trying to shoot their competition down by filing suit for all manner of infringements.

Of course patent law is there for a purpose and all good ideas need protection yet, for some reason, it seems that we've almost reached the point where you can't make anything new without infringing someone else's rights.

Apple claim that Samsung are infringing their patents with the Galaxy mobile phone and their tablet computer. In some jurisdictions, the courts are siding with Apple. Sucks to be Samsung.

Of course Samsung, like many other manufacturers, is basing their software on Google's Android OS but have made a few tweaks that apparently fall foul of those Apple patents.

Then there is the war brewing between Google (with the VP8 video codec it has built into WebM) and the patent pool entity MPEG LA who are rattling the lawsuit sabre.

Many commentators claim that ridiculously lax patent laws are partly to blame for the fiasco that is currently emerging in the hi-tech sector. Some argue that many of the patents which have been granted, especially in the software area, are neither novel nor without significant prior-art and therefore ought not to qualify for protection.

Unfortunately, so long as all sides have plenty of cash and a seemingly unlimited army of lawyers, the only winners will be the BMW and Porsche salesmen.

In the meantime, Google and other companies are now finding that it is often cheaper to buy up those companies who have the patents you might otherwise infringe than it would be do battle in a courtroom or to license a right to use that intellectual property.

Let's hope this whole situation gets sorted soon and we can get back to the process of coming up with really smart, innovative, affordable and useful hi-tech products.

Am I holding my breath?

No.

Monday, August 22, 2011

HP dumps PCs and notebooks for software

Just three short weeks after proudly stating that NZ customers would play 40% more than others for their Touchpad tablet computer, HP has announced that it's pulling out of the hardware game.

Not only is it going to ditch the TouchPad but it's also looking to divest itself of all its PC hardware lines and even its WebOS Smartphone products.

Instead, the company is investing heavily in acquiring software talent and intends to reposition itself as a major player in this field.

Although the company's realisation that the Touchpad was never going to fly must come as a relief to shareholders, the company's stocks still took a hit on the news.

One thing is for sure, if HP had tried to do an Adidas and charge Kiwis 40% more than the rest of the world they would have been held up to ridicule and derision by savvy consumers.

This strategic withdrawal from the PC hardware marketplace is a bold step for HP but not a silly one. Although they still have a significant market-share (17.5% of the US market) it is very clear that, in the face of intense competition from rivals such as Apple, the whole market is undergoing significant change. The company has reported significant decline in its netbook and notebook sales -- clearly a result of the iPad's runaway success.

One of the keys to success in an industry as dynamic as the computer one is knowing when to refocus -- fortunately, HP seems to have done this in time to avoid major embarrassment -- although some claim that the Touchpad was proof that it might have been prudent to make this move just a little sooner than they did.

Right now, only 2% of HP's revenues come from software so this redirection is perhaps a risky decision that wasn't taken lightly, especially when you consider that they're now spending $10bn to buy the UK software company Autonomy to establish more of a foothold.

Observers and commentators will be watching HP's progress and reinvention over the coming months to see just how well this gamble pays off.

The great thing about this industry is that the only constant is change.




Friday, August 12, 2011

The end of the PC?

It seems that some experts are now telling us that the PC, as we've come to know it, is reaching the end of its reign.

Ever since IBM launched its industry-defining personal computer way back in 1981, most people have associated home and small-office computing with a beige box having a separate keyboard and monitor. Apparently, now that era is ending.

Thanks to massive improvements in user interfaces and the miniaturisation of processors, memory and other peripherals, we no longer need that box, that bulky monitor, or even that array of push-buttons ordered in a typewriter-like fashion.

Today and tomorrow's computers are far more likely to be as varied in form and style as the PC was fixed.

Notebooks and netbooks have already stolen a significant share of the market in recent years but the newest and most revolutionary form of personal computing has to be the tablet computer and in particular, the iPad.

However, personal computing has long gone past requiring us to use tools with generic capabilities such as web-surfing, word processing and some accounting functions. The arrival of uber-powerful microprocessors has meant that almost every bit of consumer electronics we own has an inbuilt computer which usually performs a specialist task, rather than the more generic role the PC once played.

Instead of listening to audio files on our computers, now we use our iPods or other MP3 players.

Instead of surfing the web and checking our email on a PC, an increasing number of people are performing these tasks through their mobile phones.

Game playing, which was once one of the most popular applications of the home PC has been offloaded to a large degree onto gaming consoles, most of which have internet connectivity.

So, if these experts are correct, the humble PC may be about to become an endangered species, seldom seen in the office or home -- eventually replaced by other smaller, sleeker, more effective and possibly more purpose-specific computing devices.

Alas PC, I knew you well.

Now where did I put that iPad?

Friday, August 5, 2011

When the universe hates rubgy

Those who rely on satellite links for data or television signals are only too familiar with the effect of atmospheric effects on the signal they receive.

When heavy rain, thick cloud or, on occasion, even dense fog is around, the minute amount of power that would normally reach their satellite dishes and be focused onto an ultrasensitive LNB sometimes is just not enough to allow the signal to be separated from the noise.

This is usually a transient problem and occurs so infrequently as to be little more than a minor annoyance -- however, another, more celestial effect looks set to wipe out some parts of the Rugby World Cup broadcasts carried by satellite TV provider, SkyTV.

According to reports, some outages of up to 15 minutes will affect live coverage of some rugby games during the RWC competition and this time it's not atmospheric conditions that are to blame.

The culprit will be the sun itself.

Due to the geostationary orbit of the satellites which carry some key data and television signals, twice each year the positioning of those satellites just happens to be such that they eclipse the sun itself. Or should I say "try to eclipse" the sun.

Unfortunately, since their size is so much less than that of the sun, our neighbourhood fusion reactor effectively obliterates their signal by outshining it with a blast of electromagnetic radiation many orders of magnitude greater than the satellite's faint signal.

When these satellites are positioned directly between the sun and the receiving dishes on the earth below, the radio frequency noise that the sun generates effectively overwhelms the comparatively feeble satellite signal and thus reception is lost.

What's worse is the fact that the larger the satellite dish being used, the worse the effect, as an increasing amount of the sun's "noise becomes focused on the sensitive LNB at the focal point of the reflector.

This effect usually only occurs for a few minutes per day over a period of several days, around the spring and autumnal equinoxes but unfortunately, this year the spring equinox coincides with the RWC and the timing of some of the matches being played as part of that competition.

Broadcasters say the worst effects will occur at around 1:20pm but will be relatively short in duration, affecting viewers in some regions more than others.

However, it just goes to show that no matter how advanced the technology, mother nature always has the final say.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Light, the new broadcast medium

With the radio-frequency spectrum becoming increasingly crowded due to a growing demand for wireless communications, a new part of the electromagnetic spectrum is shaping up to be one of the broadcast mediums of the future.

I'm talking about the visible light spectrum, ranging from red through violet -- or any combination thereof.

Using lasers to carry data over short and long distances is now very "old hat" with fibre-optic cables being the primary conduit for such bursts of light -- but now there's something different being proposed.

Thanks to the growing cost-effectiveness of powerful light-emitting diodes (LEDs), researchers are promising that very soon we'll be able to use regular visible light to communicate data at very high rates.

Some have speculated using something as mundane as streetlighting to replace WiFi as a two-way high-speed short-range communications links and others have proposed higher intensity lights placed in widely visible locations as being suitable for broadcast-type communications, carrying radio and television signals.

Due to the extremely high switching speeds of modern power LEDs, the data can be encoded in binary form (off/on) without any visible flicker or significant reduction in overall light intensity -- thus allowing the dual-functionality of these public lighting/broadcast nodes.

Of course while this may all work very well at night, researchers are quick to point out that visible light is more easily disrupted than most lower-frequency parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Something as common as rain or fog can significantly reduce the range of visible-light signals and during the day, such signals are likely to be heavily swamped by the light of the sun.

Never the less, there are applications where visible light communications links may have significant benefits over their radio-frequency peers. Possible candidates include underwater communications, domestic and office networking, the delivery of data services within RF-sensitive environments such as commercial aircraft and broadcast information within transport tunnels.

What will they think of next?

Friday, July 22, 2011

You are what you post

An interesting trend is developing in the employment industry...

Recruiting agencies and prospective employers are now using "social media background checks" to help determine the suitability of candidates.

In fact, there are now new companies popping up who will, for a fee, perform these online background checks, trawling through a person's interactions on social networking sites, forums and other mechanisms, all of which leave tell-tale footprints on the Net.

According to psychologists, such a check can deliver considerable insight into a person's personality, including determining whether they are suited to a team environment, have leadership potential, are honest, trustworthy, etc.

Recruitment companies are again warning those who are active online to think twice before they make posts that may later come back to haunt them and damage their career prospects.

Unfortunately, many postings to the Web do not just disappear and even deliberately removing them may not erase the evidence. Such posts often live on in Google's cache or on archive sites such as the internet archive.

Another problem that can cause issues when these background checks are performed is that of identity theft or poisoning.

There have been reported cases of people who have found their reputation deliberately impugned by old adversaries or foes who have created blogs or web-forum identities in their name and then made racist or potentially damaging comments. Since such poisoning often goes undetected until a background check is made, it can be hard for someone to prove that these postings were not made by them.

Good advice is to regularly Google your own name and check to see that your "cyber-rep" remains positive.

In the 21st century, your behaviour online may be every bit as important as the qualifications and experience on your CV when it comes to securing that next job.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Is the internet now an "essential service"?

As our lives become increasingly wired (or wirelessed if you use mobile/WiFi), there are those who believe that internet connectivity is rapidly becoming a "right" rather than an option.

Recent discussion in relation to the amended NZ copyright law and its three-strikes policy brought the whole issue of "the right to access" into the public spotlight.

Advocates of "the right" claim that Net connectivity is now just as essential as other utilities such as telephone, power and water. To force someone to be disconnected, they say, would be an infringement of their human rights.

Personally, I think that's a little bit of a long bow to draw but one has to concede that in a world where we increasingly rely on the Net to perform a growing array of tasks from managing our bank account through paying bills and filing business tax returns -- unwanted removal of internet access can indeed be seen as something that is difficult to justify.

Perhaps the only justification would be persistent abuse of the Net for illegal activities such as copyright infringement, accessing objectionable material or similar offending.

However, in the USA, one man has had his internet access revoked for a period of 12 months by service provider Comcast. His crime?

He simply used too much data.

It seems that because he used more than 250GB per month for two months in a row, Comcast invoked their "over-use" policy which, according to the fine print, allows them to decline to provide service in such cases -- for a period of up to 12 months.

While you might think that this guy could simply sign up with a new ISP, it's not that simple. Comcast are the only provider of high-speed broadband in the area where he lives. His alternatives are not really suited to the kind of hi-bandwidth use he makes of the Net.

In the USA, ISPs have attempted to introduce data-caps to avoid over-use by those who make heavy use of the Net. This move has been roundly criticised by both the public and politicians - to the extent that in a growing number of cases, these caps have been removed or greatly relaxed.

Now, given NZ's meagre data caps and the growing popularity of bandwidth-heavy services such as video on demand, social networking, video-calling/conferencing, etc -- I wonder how long before the issue of data-caps becomes a real bone of contention with Net users.

While it's unlikely any NZ ISP will try to follow Comcast's lead by refusing to connect "heavy users", the cost of over-cap data could soon become a factor that starts to cramp the utility of the internet for a growing number of Kiwi users.

The problem is likely to get worse when the UFB is commissioned. Faster speeds will make it easier to exceed data caps by increasing the viability of accessing HD-quality video and other bandwidth-heavy material.

Perhaps internet access is a right -- but only if you can afford to pay for it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Privacy in the hi-tech era? Yea, right!

Rupert Murdoch has announced he's pulling the plug on his News of The World tabloid newspaper and website.

This move comes after massive public outrage that NOTW had hacked a large number of phone accounts in order to get juicy information for its articles and expose's.

Many people are left wondering just how a bunch of newspaper reporters managed to gain access to what most people think are the secure voicemail systems offered by their phone providers.

The answer is simple -- it's really not that hard at all to access someone else's voicemail, if you know how.

I'm not about to divulge the exact details of how to go about this bit of skullduggery but suffice to say it involves the use of a VOIP connection and some spoofing of the information that connection delivers to the called party.

The illusion of security and privacy which used to surround our hi-tech communications services is once again shot to hell and back.

What's more, if you're an NZ resident, you're now even more likely to find your electronic communications being tapped, monitored and recorded by the government's SIS bureau.

New legislation makes if far easier for this security agency to perform such activities when and where they feel it appropriate to do so -- much to the disgust of many who believe such powers to be totally unnecessary and far too open to abuse.

If you really want privacy and security, you'll now have no option but to use heavy encryption on all data sent to or from your computer, and even when it's stored on your hard drive or backup media. The reality is that it's just so simple for other people to eavesdrop on what you're doing that sensible people will always assume that all communications will eventually fall into the hands of the media or the public at large.

Even if it's not hackers or "big brother" pressing their virtual ears to your electronic communications, it could be any number of hi-tech gadgets which can be bought direct from China that compromise the security of your messaging.

For around $50 you can now import very sophisticated bugging equipment and even covert cameras which will either transmit pictures and audio over distances of up to 1Km, or write it all to a removable microSD card for later recovery.

I know that I myself occasionally use my little HD keychain camera to covertly record important meetings and conversations -- something that has already proven to be invaluable when an official gave me an assurance -- but later denied doing so. With videographic evidence presented, it was amazing just how quickly they recanted on that denial.

This shows that, in today's hi-tech world, those who live by the sword shall also die by the sword and technology is a slave to all who choose to use it, playing no favourites.

The unfortunate thing is, I much preferred a time when we really could be certain that private messages or conversations were just that -- private. Too bad those days are gone forever, such is the price of progress.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why are spam levels declining?

Some very interesting figures came out this week.

Apparently, spam volumes have dropped significantly, compared to their all-time record high levels of last year.

At this time last year, unsolicited bulk commercial email messages (spam by any other name) represented around 90% of all emails transported across the ether. This year, that figure is down to just 75%.

So, either we're sending a lot more legitimate mail -- or spammers are having trouble finding customers willing to pay for their nasty marketing practices.

Fortunately for us, it appears as if the latter is true.

The Bagel botnet for instance, has shown a marked reduction in spam volumes coming from its machines -- down from 8.3bn to just 1.6bn per day in the last three months.

Some security analysts are suggesting that the decline in spam is being caused partly by the increased attention being given to killing the botnets, both by technology vendors and law-enforcement. Indeed, a number of high-profile "botnet-busts" have been carried out during the past 12 months and each time spam levels have fallen as a result.

Another possible reason for the decline in spam levels is that the botmasters have found it easier to make money by using their networks to launch denial-of-service attacks, either from on a "pay per kill" basis or by way of blackmailing the intended target.

Further moves to cripple the spammers infrastructure by removing the payment channels being used are also paying dividends.

Could it be that the era of spam will soon be behind us?

Not likely!

So long as someone thinks they can sell something to some hapless internet user, there will always be spam. The best we can hope for is that eventually, the level of spam drops to little more than a background noise.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Governments install internet filters -- just in case?

Another blow has surfaced to the freedom previously enjoyed by users of the internet.

What were once lines of communications unfettered by official roadblocks or detours are now increasingly coming under threat as authorities move to address the issues of crime and unauthorised distribution of copyrighted works.

In the USA, the government has taken it upon themselves to seize control of domain names it believes are associated with such nefarious activities and now the UK is looking at taking similar steps.

To date, filtering or blocking of websites has been used as a tool against more serious crimes such as child pornography and terrorism but now, it would appear, the copyright lobbiests have been able to sway governments to consider the use of such techniques as a method of protecting the rights of copyright holders.

One issue receiving priority consideration for such blocking is the blocking of streamed video, particularly that of live sports events. Such activities are sometimes carried out by capturing live pay-TV broadcasts and streaming them via the internet. However, as in the USA, moves are afoot to also disconnect or block access to sites which make copyrighted material available for illegal download.

Critics of the moves are challenging whether copyright infringement can really be compared to crimes such as child pornography or terrorism and therefore, whether such filtering or blocking can be justified. Some point to a "thin end of the wedge" strategy that ultimately opens the door to government filtering of the internet on political, religious or other grounds.

These opponents also point out that such attempts to stem the flow of copyrighted material will ultimately be futile, due to the wide range of different strategies that can be used to cloak and disguise such downloads and transactions online.

Governments argue that the blocks are simply used to enforce the law and that only sites engaged in illegal acts will be affected.

The question all internet users must ask themselves is -- where should the line be drawn?

We've all seen how instrumental the internet has been in some of the uprisings against oppressive regimes in countries which lack democracy. Could it be that even in democratic nations, governments are so concerned about the power of the Net that they wish to preemptively introduce control measures "just in case" they are needed for political ends sometime in the future?

Food for thought, perhaps.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How a website link can get you a free trip to the USA

For as long as I've been using the internet, and that's about a quarter of a century, there has always been debate as to whether a hypertext link can be considered a breach of copyright.

If I link to another website, am I effectively breaching their copyright by using that content for my own gain?

Way back in 1997 I was threatened with law suits when I dared to link to news stories running on websites published by The Nando Times. They demanded that anyone wishing to link to their stories pay a stiff annual fee for the privilege. Naturally I told them to take a hike.

I continued to link and they never did follow-up on their empty threats. Interestingly enough, The Nando Times has faded from the leading online news source to obscurity -- perhaps as a result of their myopic perspectives on copyright.

More recently, Rupert Murdoch as whined incessantly that content aggregators such as Google were leaching his intellectual property by indexing the news stories from his websites. He also has tried to erect paywalls and other devices designed to prevent others from "stealing" his copyrighted material.

Fortunately for those of us who believe that hypertext links are more a form of flattery than theft, the law rests on our side. I don't believe there have been any successful copyright prosecutions based solely on the fact that someone's copyrighted material has been pointed to by a hypertext link.

However, that does not mean that hypertext linking can't get you into trouble -- as a British student has found out to his cost.

Richard O’Dwyer, a computer science student from Sheffield is facing extradition to the USA to answer charges that he published links to illegal copies of popular Hollywood movies hosted elsewhere on the internet.

It seems that in the USA, this is an indictable offense and, to many people's surprise, there is an extradition treaty between the two countries that covers this kind of thing.

Despite doing nothing more than publishing a few hypertext links on the web, O'Dwyer was hauled off to a British prison for the evening and is now out on a bail of $6,000 pending those extradition proceedings.

US officials have also seized the domain name used by O'Dwyer, even though the site itself was not hosted on US soil and the country code of that domain was .cc, for Cocos the (Keeling) Islands, an Australian territory.

Although there maybe legal precedent in the USA for prosecuting those who publish hypertext links to unlawful copies of copyrighted material, one must really be left wondering how far that nation's jurisdiction now extends. All of Mr O'Dwyer's activities occurred outside the USA - yet somehow he is being prosecuted under the laws of that nation.

This must be a very worrying event for all who use the Net and may, unwittingly, break some esoteric aspect of US law with nasty consequences.

So readers, if you want a free trip to the USA, just publish a few links to Hollywood blockbuster movies on your website and wait for the knock at the door.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Liquid battery could change the world

Chemical batteries or cells are ubiquitous and for decades, have represented the power source for a huge number of portable consumer electronics devices.

Today, the battery is becoming even more important as we look to ween ourselves off fossil fuels for our transport fleets by way of electric vehicles.

The big problem with all the existing battery technologies however, is the time required for recharging.

Even the most advanced cells, such as the lithium-iron-phosphate types being considered for the next generation of electric vehicles, still have a recharge time that is usually measured in hours, not minutes.

There are two factors which dictate this protracted recharge time:

The first is the amount of electrical power that must be available to replenish the battery. In the case of an EV, this represents many kilowatts and, given that the average wall-socket only supports 2-3KW of load, clearly constitutes a serious bottleneck.

Then there is the battery chemistry itself. The charging process is not a lossless process and therefore a percentage of the power fed into the cell is converted to heat, resulting in a temperature rise that can adversely affect the cells. The rate at which the chemical processes in the cell take place can also limit the recharge speed.

Well imagine a battery that can be recharged just as easily as you currently fill your petrol tank...

That's what researchers at MIT are hinting at with their new liquid-plate battery technology.

Instead of using solid plates separated by an electrolyte, like traditional cells, these new batteries use a suspension of minute particles in a liquid which acts as both the plate and the electrolyte.

Two different fluid suspensions, one for the cathode and one for the anode, are poured into the battery and kept separate by a permeable membrane. This membrane allows the transfer of electrons and ions between the two fluids but does not allow them to actually combine.

When a battery becomes depleted, the cell's contents are drained and then replenished with new liquids in a very quick and efficient process.

It is hoped that, once the right chemistry is developed, the used fluids will then be reconstituted in a separate "recharge" process.

Once (or should I say "if") this technology is perfected, it could be the single largest step in the evolution of electric transport.

When you think about it -- it's obvious, isn't it? But aren't all the good ideas just staring us in the face?

Friday, June 3, 2011

I see your ICMP probe and raise you an ICBM

If you're not a tech-head then the title of this week's blog entry won't make a lot of sense to you.

However, once you realise that ICMP is one of the protocols used on the internet to communicate information between computers perhaps the meaning will become a little clearer.

Cyber-attacks are becoming an almost daily event in the 21st century, with "high value" targets such as US military defense contractors and even the suppliers of cloud-based services such as GMail, coming under repeated assault.

Now it seems that the USA has had a gutsfull and is contemplating categorising cyber-attacks against critical systems as "an act of war" -- something that would empower the government to retaliate with good, old-fashioned, guns, bombs and missiles.

Sounds scary, doesn't it?

Imagine if WW3 were to be kicked off by an errant IP packet that was mistaken for a cyber-assault or just happened to crash a pentagon computer by mistake?

Of course this won't happen, and nor will the USA retaliate against attempted or actual intrusions to its systems with lethal force -- and the events of this week demonstrate why.

Google has reported that some of its GMail accounts have been the target of concerted spear phishing attacks that, it is alleged, are coming out of China -- perhaps being the work of state-sponsored hackers.

The big problem is, and will always be, proving that any form of hacking or attack is the work of a state and not just a group of disenfranchised or militant individuals. Unfortunately, due to the very nature of the Net, it's simply too easy to mask the true origin of such attacks by the use of proxies and machines that have been "p0wnd" (ie: taken-over) by evil little sods.

To launch a military assault on a nation simply because it is implicated in a cyber-assault would be an act of incredible foolishness and likely to be the catalyst for even greater military conflict.

The USA won't be impressing anyone with this posturing stance and perhaps the UK has taken a more sensible approach to the problem. The British are planning to develop an arsenal of "cyber-weapons" that can be used to defend and retaliate against such online incursions -- perhaps the only practical way to handle such a situation.

In the meantime, if the USA really wants to bring a cyber-aggressor to its knees, perhaps they could unfriend them from the US government's FaceBook page. That would scare them!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Is it a phone or is it a credit card?

Google has announced that Android-based mobile phones will soon have the capability of replacing your credit card, if it's a Mastercard that is.

Through the addition of near-field communications (NFC) chips and some extra system software, these new phones will permit users to engage in "contactless payment" transactions in much the same way that the latest generation of prepaid and credit cards operate.

While it might seem that in this case, Android has the jump on Apple, rumours abound that there will soon be an NFC-capable version of the iPhone on the market -- effectively closing that gap.

This commentator wonders if this new trend towards using your cellphone as a wallet is simply another case of a solution in search of a problem.

Personally, I find it much easier to keep a small wallet on my person which contains my credit cards and a little cash -- than it would be to carry around an android or iPhone sized mobile all the time.

And then there's the thorny issue of what happens if/when your mobile (with built-in wallet) is stolen -- or the batteries go flat after an extended internet browsing session?

Mobile phones are already an attractive target for thieves and to effectively turn them into a bank vault filled with someone else's cash would surely make them even more of a prize for anyone with criminal intent.

However, from a security perspective, perhaps the upside is that, by their very nature, NFC transactions can only occur where the phone is present. This is significantly different to the case with a stolen credit card that allows fraudulent online purchases to be made from half a world away and provides the thief with a much greater amount of anonymity.

Unfortunately, even if/when your mobile also becomes your default NFC transaction device, you'll probably also have to carry around a wallet containing cash and more traditional credit cards. In that case, you'll be exposed to both kinds of fraud -- should you be unfortunate enough to have your pockets picked.

It strikes me that if the phone makers are going to build in NFC capabilities then they ought to also include some form of biometric authentication. Perhaps a thumbprint reader or iris scan. The technology exists and the scale of manufacture would surely make it quite affordable.

As for me -- well I'll wait a while.

Right now I would be reluctant to give up my tiny pocket-sized mobile that I can take anywhere without creating an unsightly bulge in my shirt or pants and besides, my plastic is working just fine and as they say "if it works, don't fix it".

Friday, May 20, 2011

eBooks have already blitzed the printed word

I've blogged about the way in which the humble eBook seems to be taking on, and beating, its printed counterparts.

Just last year, Amazon.com announced that, for the first time, eBook sales had exceeded those of hardcover editions.

eBook advocates were enthused but most people were somewhat cautious about the announcement - with good reason. The number of hardcover editions sold is dwarfed by the number of paperbacks so, although it was an important milestone, this announcement didn't shake the world.

However, when it was announced earlier this year, that eBooks were now outselling paperbacks, even the most skeptical commentators had to admit that inky stains on dead tree flesh was at risk of losing its dominance in the book publishing industry.

Now -- the final proof.

Amazon has just announced that for the first time, eBook sales now exceed the combined total of both hardcover and softback editions. It seems the eBook is here to stay and picking up speed like a runaway freight train.

The falling price and growing practicality of portable e-readers, combined with the lower cover-price of e-editions are driving this growth at rates which have surprised even the most informed observers.

It's now starting to look very much as if the dominance of the large book publishing houses may be under even more threat than the recording companies who have whined so long and loud about the effects of the digital revolution.

Before the days of the eBook, a would-be writer usually had to search long and hard to a publisher who'd take a punt on their first novel. Now, thanks to the eBook phenomenon, anyone can self-publish for next to no cost -- opening the door to a wealth of previously unknown writers and their works.

Of course the big issue for readers will be that of sorting the good from the bad.

Fortunately, thanks to the proliferation of social networking, even this "problem" may be easily remedied.

I continue to be astonished at how quickly and dramatically the internet and modern technology is changing, and in some cases obliterating, long-standing business models.

But I'm not complaining.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

US legislating against insecurity on the Net

It's starting to look as if cybersecurity is going to become "the" growth industry of the decade.

In the wake of the recent Sony PSN break-in, even governments are beginning to realise that a connection to the internet means a vulnerability that can be exploited by those with evil intent.

The USA has just proposed new legislation that places a burden of responsibility on companies that provide crucial infrastructure services to ensure that their systems are safe and secure.

Already, the US government has accused foreign countries such as China of attempting industrial espionage by attacking high-value properties on the internet, including a series of Google mail break-ins last year.

In an attempt to ensure that key industries will be safe from future attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will soon be empowered to implement and install their own security systems on corporate networks, where those provided by commercial operators are deemed to be inadequate.

Some supporters of the proposed legislation says that it lacks urgency and that, without faster implementation, it could leave the US vulnerable to crippling attacks on major assets such as power grids, key corporations, the financial markets, and even the government's own presence in cyberspace.

Within the draft laws, there are plans to establish an agency that will be responsible for testing and rating the security of affected systems but again, it is claimed that the lead-time to the creation of this agency leaves the nation vulnerable in the interim.

Just as the arms industry has become a huge earner for many countries around the globe, some commentators (including this one) are picking that cyber-weapons and cyber-defense systems will become just as important and lucrative in the years to come.

Others are suggesting that with the death of Osama Bin Laden, terrorist organisations such as al Qaeda may increasingly turn to "virtual" attacks that seek to disrupt or damage key pieces of Western infrastructure via the net.

Perhaps the only upside of war and terrorism in cyberspace is a reduction in the body-count and blood-loss.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Save the planet, buy a phone made from recycled components?

Most of us have heard the environmental mantra "recycle, reuse, repurpose" many times already and, given the way that modern electronics have become "disposable", one must wonder how much of the mobile phones we throw away when upgrading, could be re-used.

Well I came across this very interesting piece about how mobile phones are being recycled down to a component-level in China.

It seems that when labour is cheap enough, it becomes economically viable to unsolder the tiny surface-mount devices from the circuit boards of discarded phones and clean them up for re-sale.

Clearly, Nokia's purpose in publishing this information was probably to dissuade potential customers from buying a "cheap Chinese" mobile instead of a more expensive Nokia-branded one -- but I wonder if that might not backfire a little.

In an era when conservation and recycling is a growing trend, perhaps there will soon be increased cache' associated with choosing to use consumer electronics which are comprised largely of recycled components.

Maybe we'll soon see a "Think of the Planet" brand of mobile phones which emphasize this as a selling feature -- who knows.

I recall, as a young lad, doing exactly what these Chinese "recyclers" are doing -- pawing over thrown out bits of electronic equipment, removing and re-using valuable components that I could not afford to buy brand-new. This tactic allowed me to stretch my tiny budget immensely and I really think it's a good, not a bad move.

What's more, with the move to ROHS-conformant lead-free solder, the days of these Chinese peasants being struck down with lead-poisoning should also be over -- perhaps.

The only concerns that Western manufacturers and distributors of components now have is that the "new" parts they're buying out of China may well be recycled and that could compromise yield-rates and reliability. Now, purchasers have to add the prospect of ending up with second-hand components to the dangers of finding themselves lumbered with a bunch of counterfeit products due to unscrupulous practices being engaged in by some Chinese sources.

Still, I'd favourable consider purchasing products that I knew were made with recycled components (so long as they had the normal warranty) -- how about you?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal couple put the Net to the test

When I read predictions that the royal wedding of Prince William and his bride had the potential to bring the internet to its knees, I laughed.

Ever now and then you read similar predictions that certain events, bound to create large volumes of traffic, will cripple the Net and inevitably they turn out to be false-alarms.

Well, as I type this now (8:20pm on Friday April 29th, 2011), I find that the BBC website in the UK is no longer answering to browser requests in a sane fashion. Instead of the pages I expected to find, all I get is a blank white page -- not even an error message.

For a moment, I thought that the forecasters of a Net-meltdown may have been right this time. However, I see that other UK-based websites seem to still be a live and well so perhaps it's only the Beeb's site that is crumbling under the strain of millions of people trying to catch up on the nuptials via the Net.

One of the other most hammered sites during the ceremony will no doubt be YouTube, who have organised a live feed to be streamed from its servers. Right now (with just 38 minutes to go), YouTube's systems are still working and responsive. I wonder what will happen in just over half an hour's time?

I'm picking that everything will work just fine and that once again, predictions of the internet's inevitable failure will have been grossly overstated.

That of course, will be a good thing, since we are increasingly turning to the Net as our first-port of call whenever breaking news occurs, or whenever disaster requires us to rapidly access important information.

While I'm not someone who's going to stay up into the wee small hours watching the royal couple get hitched, it would appear that tens or hundreds of millions of other folk all over the world will do just that. If the Net can survive this onslaught of traffic then I think it'll have no problem handling lesser challenges to its capacity or resilience.

Most folk will see the royal wedding as just a couple of lucky people getting married. I see it as a great chance to make sure the Net is working under heavy load in a way that would be hard to duplicate any other way.

Kind of nice of the Royals to help out in this way, don't you think?

Friday, April 22, 2011

More cool technology to improve our cars

Although its basic design concept has remained unchanged for over a century, the internal combustion engine has seen dramatic improvements in performance and efficiency in the past few decades, mainly due to the use of clever technology.

Computer-based engine management systems allow for ultra-accurate fuel injection and miniscule adjustments to ignition timing to provide a level of performance and reliability previously unheard of. In fact, today's vehicles are almost twice as fuel-efficient as those of 50 years ago and frequently deliver more than 200,000Kms of relatively trouble-free driving.

Despite the massive sums of money being poured into alternatives such as electric vehicles, the good old internal combustion engine still rules the roads, and looks set to continue doing so for at least a few more decades -- and now there's a new piece of hi-tech that looks set further improve its performance and reliability: the laser.

A team of Japanese researchers have come up with the idea of replacing the relatively crude spark-based ignition mechanism used in all petrol/gasoline engines with a laser.

They claim that lasers offer many advantages over the old coil and spark-plug approach -- including more precise ignition timing and more effective ignition.

The concept is that if a sufficiently powerful beam of laser-light passes through the compressed air/fuel mixture in the combustion chamber, ignition will occur. By using a lens to focus the laser, the point of ignition can be shifted to any point within the mixture rather than simply at the tip of an electrode.

Of course a fairly powerful laser is required to generate the necessary temperatures to produce ignition but thanks to significant advances in the areas of things such as ceramic lasers, this is no longer a problem. Each cylinder could be fitted with its own 9mm ceramic laser or a central laser could feed its light into the individual combustion chambers by way of fibre-optic cable, the distributor being replaced by a rotating mirror.

The researchers are claiming that because there is no spark-plug electrode to erode under the effects of constant arcing and high combustion temperatures, the laser system should allow for longer service intervals and improved reliability. They also believe that the creation of multiple ignition points within the cylinder could also improve fuel efficiency.

Every time you think the internal combustion engine is reaching its "best-by date", someone turns around and makes it just a little better and a little more efficient.

I wonder if we'll ever see the end of pistons, crankshafts, bearings and rings in our lifetime?

Friday, April 15, 2011

The IPV4 well runs dry sooner than thought

When the internet was first designed it was inconceivable that it would connect to so many devices and computers that its massive 2^32 addresses would ever be exhausted.

Using a simple format nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn enabled administrators to give every machine, router switch or other device on the Net its own unique address -- and this worked perfectly well for decades.

However, nobody counted on the Net becoming as ubiquitous as it has so now we find ourselves running short of addresses and having to switch to a new numbering (IPV6) system with 2^128 addresses.

The problem with switching from IPV4 to IPV6 is that everybody seems to be putting off the expensive, complex and time-consuming task until the very last minute.

Well, at least for the Asia Pacific region, that minute is here, right now, earlier than predicted.

This rather unexpected announcement will force the hand of those building new networks or extending existing ones on the presumption that they could obtain extra extra IPV4 blocks.

Even those businesses that have had the foresight to invest in IPV6 networks are still facing problems as, according to media reports, few ISPs in the region are ready and able to deliver an IPV6 connection and allocate IPV6 addresses to their clients.

Officials are hoping that the unexpected speed with which the IPV4 blocks have been depleted in the Asia Pacific region will catalyze US companies and service providers into ramping up their own transitions to IPV6. It was expected that there would be sufficient blocks available to last into 2012 but now predictions are suggesting that the global supply will have dried up before the end of 2011.

I wonder if we'll start seeing error messages on our screens which say "Sorry, the internet is full, please try again later".

And before you think to yourself - "well at least we'll never run out of addresses with 2^128 numbers available" - stop and think about it. I would not be quite so confident. After all, there was a time when a few informed industry leaders thought that 640K of RAM would be sufficient for any computer. And, a few decades before that, an IBM big-wig pronounced that the world would probably only ever need a handful of computers.

In the world of computers, even the biggest numbers become very small, very quickly.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Back to the future for home computers?

Reports published this week indicate that Commodore are re-releasing one of the most popular home computers of all time - the C64.

Well it's not actually the old C64 that so many people loved so much back in the 1980s. No, it's a Windows-based system that comes in a C64-like case, so the similarities are pretty much just cosmetic.

However, if you're hell-bent on playing those games of old that used to hold your attention for hours on the original C64 you'll be pleased to know that it does come with an emulator that should support most of those old titles (if you can find them in any kind of readable format).

I'm predicting that this may be the start of a "retro trend" in computing hardware and we'll see a few more "flashback" designs released over the coming 12 months.

After all, who wouldn't want their very own Commodore PET -- but this time with a quad-core processor, a few gigs of RAM and a terabyte of hard-drive instead of that frustratingly unreliable built-in cassette system?

And who knows -- maybe a faux ZX81 will be the next big thing after the iPad -- stranger things have happened.

While on the subject of retro, I see that at least two companies are now selling mobile phones that look just like the old beige Motorola Bricks of the 1980s -- albeit with all the modern features you'd expect in a contemporary model.

Old is the new black apparently!

Of course, given the huge advances in ergonomics and miniaturisation, this retro phase is likely to be little more than a passing fad. Why clutter your desk with a huge "all in one" facsimile of a Commodore PET when you can get several times the power from a modern netbook which is a fraction the size and weight?

Still, for those who feel the need, the range of retro-tech devices will likely continue to expand in coming months, as manufacturers seek to cash in on the trend.

What a shame my favourite style (art deco) is from an era before the invention of the computer.

Steam-punk PC anyone?

Maybe Weta Workshops could do a roaring trade in designing the physical appearance of the next Apple computer?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Piracy a boon to purveyors of bad music and movies

There was a time when the combination of good stories, great scripts and well-recognised actors would guarantee huge box-office profits for movie companies.

Back in those halcyon days, movies were part of our culture and "a night at the flicks" was part of everyone's weekly routine.

Of course new technologies came along and somewhat changed the entertainment scene.

Instead of dressing up and taking in a movie on a Saturday evening, people opted instead to stay at home and watch this new-fangled television box that now sat in the corner of the living room. Movie stars were replaced by TV stars and the whole movie industry struck a rather rough patch.

Of course there was a problem with TV -- you could only watch what the broadcasters were screening at any given time.

This problem was soon solved however, in the form of the VCR and later, the DVD and PVR.

Today, people can watch whatever movies they choose at a time which best suits their busy schedules. Indeed, DVD sales now exceed box-office returns for many movies, with a good percentage of movies "going straight to disk" rather than even trying to content for a slice of the fickle theatre-going public's purse.

Of course the industry does argue that the internet and resulting piracy is now killing it.

Instead of paying to legally purchase or rent a DVD, people are simply downloading entire movies from P2P networks on the internet and thus depriving the lawful copyright owners of their entitlements -- at least that's the story.

Now while it may be true that the profits some movies might have made are being raped by the users of P2P networks, the real block-busters still seem to be doing "very nicely thank you" -- and the bad movies were never going to make a dollar anyway.

Yet, strangely enough, the internet, piracy and P2P networks may actually be the salvation of the B-grade movie industry, at least if the lawyers have their way.

In the USA right now, the producers of one such B-grade movie are attempting to turn their lacklustre title into a big money-winner, and here's how they're doing it.

Investigators have rounded up a long list of IP numbers that they allege represent just some of the internet users who have downloaded this movie illegally.

Around 6,000 downloads have been logged and identified, a number which could represent a total of over US$850m in damages, should a successful prosecution and full damages be awarded for each infringement.

According to reviews, this movie "Nude Nuns with Big Guns" is nothing to write home about and it's very unlikely it would have made even a tiny percentage of that money if it had been reliant on legal sales and ticket receipts. However, with the maximum penalty for an illegal movie download being around US$150,000 per incident, the potential returns from having your product pirated then successfully prosecuting the downloaders would seem to far exceed anything that could have been hoped for by way of legitimate, legal sales.

If, like some of the other prosecutions, the producer of the movie in question choose to offer defendants a "deal" for settling out of court they still stand to reap big revenues. Lawyers
acting for producers of the Hollywood blockbuster The Hurt Locker recently offered such a deal to those caught illegally downloading that film. Instead of facing a fine of as much as $150K, they were offered the chance to "settle" for $2,900. In the case of Naked Nuns with Big Guns, that'd still net the producers almost $17 million.

One can't help but wonder how long it will be before the producers of B-grade movies are being smart enough to seed the P2P networks with copies of their movies in the hope that they'll be downloaded by enough people to make legal action not only worthwhile but highly profitable.

Look -- a new business model has been invented!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Australian Government bans and slams Hotmail as being too insecure

There can be little doubt that cloud-based services will feature strongly in the future of the Internet.

Even if you prefer to do your word processing on a stand-alone PC and opt to have the family snapshots stored safely on your own DVDs or USB drives, there are some services that really are just better served from a cloud.

Email for instance.

In fact, cloud-based webmail services are probably the oldest form of cloud computing and ever since Hotmail became "flavour of the month", almost everyone has at least one email address which is accessed through a cloud-based provider.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Australian Government doesn't think that such webmail services are secure enough and it's banned access to a raft of different ones, including GMail and Hotmail.

No, they haven't banned all Australians from accessing them (yet), they've simply told parliamentary workers that they are no longer to use these services for security reasons.

To back up the directive, the parliamentary firewalls will be configured to block all access from government PCs -- all in the name of security.

Microsoft has responded by claiming that HotMail is not insecure at all.

Their web-based email service conforms, they say, "ISO 27001 and SAS 70" standards, which mandate a degree of management and security that provide more than adequate levels of protection.

Alas, the Australian Auditor General does not agree and has declared that "agencies should not allow personnel to send and receive emails on agency ICT systems using public web-based email services".

The ban and blocking comes into effect as of July 1st.

Let's hope their own email systems are secure so as to avoid being left with a little egg on face.