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?