Is That a Virus on Your Phone or a New Business Model?

This week’s WSJ.com column (subscription only) is about mobile viruses — or the lack of them. First off I talked about CommWarrior, the virus any of you with a Symbian phone and Bluetooth switched no will have been pinged with anywhere in the world.

CommWarrior isn’t new: It has been around since March 2005. But this isn’t much comfort if you find yourself — as a lunch companion and I did — bombarded by a dozen attempts to infect our phones before the first course had arrived. So is CommWarrior just the thin end of a long wedge? Yes, if you listen to the Internet-security industry. “I can personally assure you that mobile threats are reality, and we have to start taking our mobile security seriously,” says Eric Everson, who admittedly has a stake in talking up the threat, given that he is founder of Atlanta-based MyMobiSafe, which offers cellphone antivirus protection at $4 a month.

But the security industry has been saying this for years about viruses — usually lumped together under the catchall “malware” — and, despite lots of scare stories, I couldn’t find any compelling evidence that they are actually causing us problems beyond those I experienced in the Italian restaurant.

For reasons of space quite a bit of material had to be dropped, so I’m adding it here for anyone who’s interested. Apologies to those sources who didn’t get their voices heard.

Symantec, F-Secure Security Labs and other antivirus companies call FlexiSPY a virus (though, strictly speaking, it’s a Trojan, meaning it must be installed by the user, who thinks the program does something harmless). “In terms of damaging the user, the most serious issue at the moment is commercial spyware applications such as FlexiSPY,” says Peter Harrison, of a new U.K.-based mobile-security company, UMU Ltd.

Not surprisingly, however, Mr. Raihan isn’t happy to have his product identified and removed by cellphone antivirus software, though he says his protests have fallen on deaf ears. “We are a godsend to them,” he says of the mobile antivirus companies. “They are fear-mongering as there is not a significant problem with viruses in the mobile space.”

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The Real iPhone Lesson: the Power of Schtum

I first wrote about Scoble, then the Microsoft Blogger Enfant Terrible back in 2004 or something. Maybe even earlier. But he was the breath of fresh air the company needed at the time. Now the ‘markets are naked conversations’ thing is the main meme, the conventional wisdom the smart people (smugly) get. Now Scoble’s on his own doing podcasts, still famous for being, well, Scoble, and just posted something that made me realize the game may already have changed:

Steve Jobs is MANUFACTURING great PR by keeping everyone’s mouth shut. Heck, I’ve met some people I KNEW had an iPhone and they were so scared of retribution or consequences that they wouldn’t answer a single question.

It’s an interesting possibility: That the real lesson from the iPhone episode is that companies will throw their levers into reverse and batten down the hatches (and mix a few metaphors on the way.) Corporate secrecy rules again. What is the point of opening all your windows at the behest of bloggers if great publicity is possible by controlling the flow of information so it is not a trickle?

Let’s face it: Jobs has perfected a form of self-censorship that is the antithesis of everything Web 2.0, social media, the blogging revolution and the instincts of every decent, right-thinking person. And it works. And we love him for it. Who isn’t going to draw a lesson from that?

Another Birthday, Another Batch of Birthday Spam

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It’s that time of year again. The big old 3 0, or however old I am. And the first where I’ve really felt the power of social networks. Not in a good sense, though. Sure, it’s been nice to get some greetings from ‘loose ties’ in my online world who spotted, in one social network or another, that today is my birthday. Thanks, Graham and co. Really.

But all the other stuff? From websites I signed up for and, in a moment of madness, entered my real birthday (tho usually, the wrong year: 1900. That should mess up their stats.) There’s something rather sad about finding yourself getting more email greetings from services you’ve signed up for than from real people. How pathetic is that?

And not just for my own miserable existence. How is it that companies think that folk like me either a) enjoy being wished a happy birthday by some automated computer script, or b) are ready to believe that employees at the company involved sat around and thought “Oo! It’s Jeremy’s birthday today! We should send him something!” Either way I come across as pretty stupid.

Which I’m not necessarily disagreeing with. Hey, I’d rather get birthday spam than nothing at all. And when you get to my age either your friends have long given up on you or think you’re too old to get real birthday cards with little badges stuck on them you can wear. Message to friends and Auntie Mildred: You’re never too old to get cards with badges on. Never.

Of course, social networks aren’t all bad. At least with services like Facebook you can send birthday greetings and be reasonably sure they actually arrive. Which is more than you can say for those e-cards. Those silly email services where you choose the least lame ‘card’ from a very lame selection and whisk it off, feeling you’ve done the best you can for your buddy/spouse/mother. Awful. Thankfully, no-one sends those anymore, knowing that either they’re so lame they were losing friends/spouses/mothers or that most of them wouldn’t get through spam filters.

Anyway, we should be smarter than this by now. I’d love to see social networking tools used better to celebrate birthdays. We all know we don’t actually remember people’s birthdays; we remember to put them into some diary or calendar so it reminds us. Preferably before the day itself. Technology has just made that more efficient. But it’s lame to then just turn what is supposed to be a very personal experience into a generic one by automating birthday greetings. Who (besides me) wants one of those?

Social networking tools should offer users the chance to opt out of receiving birthday greetings, or to receive them only from insanely attractive members of the desired gender, or automate a quick whipround so the birthday person gets a free year’s subscription or a real g-string or something. I don’t want to sound venal, but whoever enjoyed a birthday made up of only greetings cards or their online equivalent? Where, in short, is the loot?

Why can’t, for example, a mall recognize someone with a birthday has entered the building and offer them freebies and piped ‘happy birthday’ music through the tannoy system? Or car-parks offer free parking? Or banks extra credit? If these companies were sincere about wishing us a happy birthday, shouldn’t they put their money where their mouths are?

And, finally, a thought. Why, if I registered my year of birth as 1900 for these services, aren’t the companies either awarding me ‘oldest living customer’ badges, or sending someone round on my birthday to check I’m ok/still alive, or something? If they really cared, wouldn’t they make more of a fuss of their 107 year old customer?

Protect Your Privacy With Twiglets

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I really hate being asked for lots of private details just to download a product. In short: People shouldn’t have to register to try something out. An email address, yes, if absolutely necessary.

But better not: just let the person decide whether they like it. It’s the online equivalent of a salesperson shadowing you around the shop so closely that if you stop or turn around quickly they bump into you. (One assistant in Marks & Spencer the other day tailed me so closely I could smell his breath, which wasn’t pleasant, and then had the gall to signal to the cashier it was his commission when I did, without his help, choose something to buy.) I nearly put some Marks & Spencer Twiglets up his nose but that branch doesn’t sell them.

Anywhere, latest offender in this regard is Laplink, who ask for way too much personal information just to download trial versions of their products, including email address, full name, address, post code, company name. Then they do that annoying thing at the end of trying to trick you into letting them send you spam with the old Three Tick Boxes Only One of Which You Should Tick if You Don’t Want To End In Every Spammers List From Here To Kudus Trick:

laplink2

Rule of thumb there is to tick the third one in the row because it’s always the opposite of the other ones. As if we’re that stupid.

The other rule of thumb is never to put anything accurate in the fields they do require you to fill out. Not even your gender. Childish? Yes, maybe, but not half as childish as their not trusting you enough to decide whether you like the product on your own terms and not fill their spamming lists.

Of course the better rule of thumb is not to have anything to do with companies that employ such intrusiveness and trickery, but we’d never do anything then.

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Extending Your Brainpower

This Software ‘Thinks’ Just Like You, But Makes Connections You Had Missed

WSJ Online June 22, 2007

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Here’s a heads-up on some organizing software that may take some getting used to. Frankly, it’s taken me nearly 10 years to appreciate its power. But now that I do, it has become something of an obsession. I even have dreams about it.

It’s a defiantly different kind of thought-mapping program called PersonalBrain, and a new version (including versions for Mac and Linux users) will be launched next month by U.S.-based TheBrain Technologies LP. Users include scientists, soldiers, inventors and others who have used it to marshal their collections of thoughts, projects and even databases on criminal syndicates. I find it so useful and absorbing, there’s nothing — be it a Web site link, a random idea, a contact, a document, a scrap of information — that I don’t add to its spider-web-like screen, knowing it will throw up links my brain had never considered or had failed to remember.

So what is it, and what does it do? Well, if you’ve ever created a so-called mind-map — a brainstorming technique that creates a burst of thoughts from one central idea or topic — you’ll notice the similarities. Ideas branch out from the center, organizing your thoughts in hierarchies. PersonalBrain, however, is less interested in building hierarchies, and more interested in mimicking the way the brain works. You nominate whatever is uppermost in your mind, and it rearranges things to illustrate the connections that thought has with other ideas in your head. Think less about branches, more about a freeform spiderweb.

PersonalBrain’s screen appearance hasn’t changed much since 1998, and it still looks contemporary. You’d be hard pressed to say that about any other software program. First impressions are positive. It looks good when you launch it, with its navy blue background and spinning central wheel and its spiderweb of links. Once you’ve got the hang of dragging little circles around a word, you get the idea of adding more threads to the web. Click on a word and it jumps to the center, the web of other words and links rearranging themselves around it.

It’s about now that new users tend to flounder a little. Certainly I did: I couldn’t immediately grasp the idea that PersonalBrain is less about getting a bird’s eye view of a subject — there are plenty of tools for that, like MindManager, or TopicScape 3D — than about helping you build and find connections between things you’re interested in. Italian consultant to the Italian police Roberto Capodieci (www.excomputer.net) uses it for tracking the connections among members of a criminal network, while British science historian James Burke uses it to track the links between history’s great inventors.

Now there’s nothing particularly magical in this. It’s not as if PersonalBrain is doing the linking for you. You have to build the links yourself. But remembering all the connections is something else. That’s where PersonalBrain comes in. Bali-based Mr. Capodieci, for example, adds a few basic terms (what the software calls thoughts) as categories — suspects, locations, criminal activities, phone records, etc. For each suspect, he adds a thought. Under locations, he adds places he is surveying — bars, restaurants, clubs — and then under criminal activities adds prostitution, drug dealing, robberies, etc. The next step is to start linking the suspects to the locations and to the activities. Pretty soon it is clear that two suspects in the same bar engaged in the same kind of activity are likely to know each other. Those frequenting more than one bar might be the links between two groups of suspects. Then he adds the suspects’ phone-call records, further linking them together and building a picture of the gangs he is dealing with.

Now your work or interests may not stretch to Soprano-like family trees. (Mr. Capodieci says he began using PersonalBrain when he found it installed on a hacker’s computer: the hacker was using it to store information about employees at a company to improve his efforts at engineering a scam.) But whatever your interest, however smart you are and however good a memory you have, you’re unlikely to be able to make and remember all these kinds of connections — especially over years. One longtime user, U.S.-based technology consultant Jerry Michalksi, has more than 60,000 so-called thoughts in his PersonalBrain, covering everything he has collected in 10 years.

While the new version dovetails better with Microsoft Outlook and has several important new features, it doesn’t feel quite as attractive as its predecessor. Nonetheless, after a few unsuccessful attempts I finally got going with it a few months ago, and now I can’t leave it alone. Pretty much every idea I have (admittedly not many), every Web site I like, every contact I’ve made ends up in my PersonalBrain, linked together by topic (such as “Web sites promoting good shaving practice”), or place, or friends in common, or temporary categories (such as “What I need to work on next”). While other tools would balk at trying to relate one item to more than a handful of others, PersonalBrain positively cries out for it.

Even after three months I’m only scratching the surface with about 4,000 thoughts. I’m also discovering connections that wouldn’t have occurred to me — and finding, lurking there in my PersonalBrain things I’d already forgotten I knew. As its creator, Harlan Hugh, said recently: “It’s like anything that’s truly new; you’re not going to be an instant expert, but we think it’s easy enough to see the benefits.”

I can’t guarantee PersonalBrain will help you sleep better. But if you persevere, I feel sure it will grab you as much as it has grabbed me.

Getting My Brain Around PersonalBrain

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 This week’s column for The Wall Street Journal (subscription only) is about PersonalBrain, a topic I find hard to write about:

Here’s a heads-up on some organizing software that may take some getting used to. Frankly, it’s taken me nearly 10 years to appreciate its power. But now that I do, it has become something of an obsession. I even have dreams about it.

It’s a defiantly different kind of thought-mapping program called PersonalBrain, and a new version (including versions for Mac and Linux users) will be launched next month by U.S.-based TheBrain Technologies LP. Users include scientists, soldiers, inventors and others who have used it to marshal their collections of thoughts, projects and even databases on criminal syndicates. I find it so useful and absorbing, there’s nothing — be it a Web site link, a random idea, a contact, a document, a scrap of information — that I don’t add to its spider-web-like screen, knowing it will throw up links my brain had never considered or had failed to remember.

 I love the program with the passion of the newly converted but often feel I’m not getting the most out of it. I also feel a failure in my efforts to convert friends to its power. It’s almost painful to see them writhing with information that would reveal so much to them if they spent a bit of time getting their brains around PersonalBrain.

What tipped it for me? I think it was when I stopped trying to use it like a mind map and just trusted it enough to throw things in there and not bother too much. With PersonalBrain there’s no right or wrong way to use the thing, and its tendency is to startle with surprising connections, rather than build a perfectly formed tree of connections. It thrives on connections, so the other lesson is that adding links is good. It’s not, as like mind mapping, a sign of a confused mind, but a recognition that creativity and association is born out of the seeming chaos of our brains. Or something.

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A New Image for Your Email Address

John Graham-Cumming, author of Bayesian spam filter POPFile, points me to a neat tool he’s created which will turn an email address into an image that may spare you some spam from bots scouring web pages for email addresses:

This site converts a text-based email address (such as me@example.com) and creates an image that can be inserted on a web site. The image contains the email address and is easily read by a human, but is intended to fool web crawlers that search for email addresses.

I can’t guarantee that this is foolproof, but Project Honeypot reports that image obfuscation of an email address is very effective (they say 100%) against web crawlers.

Enter your email address in the box and the server returns a string of gobbledygook which contains the email address (padded with a large amount of random data to avoid a dictionary attack) encrypted using a key known only to the server. When the image is loaded into the web page the server decrypts the email address and creates the image. (The email address is not stored by the server; it resides only in the HTML on your website.)

 Here’s what mine looks like:


Made using jeaig

If you need to put a contact address on your webpage or blog, but hate the amount of spam you’re getting, it’s worth a try.

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23 Ways to Make a Better Pitch

There’s been quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing in the light of a recent post by Charles Arthur of The Guardian (original post here; more discussion here) about journalists and PR pitches. So I thought I’d throw in a few ideas of my own, which rapidly expanded to 22 23. (Note to self: never write these in the morning before I’ve eaten.)

  1. Put a link to the product/company’s website in the press release or pitch. Really.
  2. Don’t duplicate the pitch (your contact list should be pruned of any duplicates, whether they’re different email addresses or not). It looks poor to get lots of emails from the same person. One email, one pitch.
  3. Make sure your contact list and press releases are geographically sound: Not everyone, amazingly, lives in the U.S. and cares about Texas.
  4. Drop the lame intros and get to the point.
  5. Leave out industry jargon.
  6. Don’t bury the significance or drown it in longwinded subordinate clauses.
  7. If you’re going to offer “an expert” to comment on a news event, be upfront about any possible conflicts of interest. We’ll find them eventually and we won’t be impressed.
  8. Don’t offer to write our story for us. It’s frankly insulting.
  9. If we try out your client’s product and have negative feedback, don’t take offense or try to persuade us otherwise. Instead ask permission to pass it onto the client. We like to think we’re experts, and while we’re probably not, getting into a debate about it with anyone less than someone big from the company is unlikely to sway us.
  10. Don’t try to win us over with the line “your rival has written about us! Maybe it’s time for you to!” It reveals only your ignorance about how journalism works.
  11. Put contact details on the press release that are helpful, including time zones. IM and Skype are legitimate communication tools: offer them. (But don’t pitch via them unless you know the reporter well enough.)
  12. Don’t leave out important information, such as the imminent launch of a new product in the range that will make the review of the soon-to-be-obsolete model we’re working on look silly.
  13. Don’t follow up with phone calls or a reminder email if you don’t get a reply to a pitch. If you don’t get a reply assume we’re not interested. Know how many press releases and pitches we get per day?
  14. If we do reply with interest, please respect our deadlines, time zones and preferred medium of communication. We’re not prima donnas (well a bit) but there’s a reason why we give this information. Whole days can get lost if you don’t understand that the whole world is not on Seattle’s timezone.
  15. If we request a particular expertise or subject, keep your pitch to that subject. It wastes everyone’s time to have to read through pitches that begin “I know you asked for an expert to comment on polar bears, but would be you be interested in talking to one of my clients about athlete’s foot?”
  16. Similarly, please don’t try to force a pitch to fit a request. “Your request for comment on polar bears made me think of my client Bob who doesn’t know anything about polar bears, but once went on holiday to Finland, which has lots of snow. He could comment on how snow is white, like polar bears.”
  17. Don’t think that writing a pitch as if it’s a done deal is going to make it any more likely to result in a sale: “When is a good time to set up a phoner with my client?”
  18. Never, never, call us out of the blue. Especially in the middle of the night. (Second reminder: not everyone in the world is on Seattle time.)
  19. If someone leaves your company make sure their email address patches through to whoever took over their job/accounts. Don’t let the email bounce back.
  20. Make sure you, and your clients, have updated About/Press pages that let us find contacts quickly and easily. And email addresses, too, please. No just offering a phone number, or a lame email form.
  21. If we do contact you out of the blue with a request, do please respond with more than a press release. Chances are our request doesn’t fit exactly what you’re working on, but that shouldn’t stop you from helping us, even if it’s only passing us on to someone else who might be better suited to help us.
  22. If such a request does not fall in your geographic area, don’t just leave the reporter hanging. (That’s you, Sony!)
  23. Not every request is going to follow exactly your launch and publicity schedule. Roll with it. The important thing is getting some coverage.

Technology and Getting A Life

70s

Why do I like technology? Well, I don’t, actually. I think back wistfully do the days before computers and my love affair with the typewriter and my newspaper cuttings library (which I still have, weirdly.) But technology isn’t going away, so rejecting it is a bit like rejecting clothing. But if I was being honest, I would say: technology allows us to think hard about the future, to see it more clearly, and to be able to argue with people who are much smarter than us.

Take a column I have just been reading by a guy called Nicholas Carr. He’s a very smart fellow, written a skeptical book about IT called Does IT Matter? and generally says things that are smart. But like a lot of people, he doesn’t always seem to get things. One thing he doesn’t like is the idea that as technology gets more ubiquitous, so does recording our lives get easier. This, he says, in a recent editorial piece in The Guardian, would make Socrates (who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”) turn over in his grave: “We’re so busy recording our lives that we have little time left to examine them.”

This is the kind of thing that technology users have learned to live with: the nonsense that everyone who uses technology is obsessed by it, and watches as their lives roll by. But like all balderdash it has some truth to it. As parents we seem more determined to plot our child’s progress through the filter of an viewfinder or LCD monitor than to actually absorb the moment through our eyeballs (babies one day are going to start thinking a human face has one big eye on it, one vast rectangular ear and a blinking red light for a nose.) And as I’ve mentioned before, we cubicle wallahs may be forgiven for mistaking virtual lives via our Twitter and instant messaging lists for real ones.

But Nicholas is not really talking about that. He’s talking about things called lifestreams – where we nerds create a digital feed of all the things we’re doing, reading or taking photos of and share it with anyone who’s interested. One or two folk take this a stage further, and walk around with cameras on their head. Or they record on their Twitter page what they’re eating, or write blogs that redefine the notion of boring your audience to tears. (I have read blogs that have had me literally weeping with boredom.)

Now I can understand that non-techies may feel this is a vast waste of time, and can’t think of anyone whose lives they’d want to follow in such excruciating detail. But just because we, and Nicholas Carr, can’t imagine anyone wanting to see or hear or read this deluge of life-data doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. As with all technologies, we’ll both adapt it to our needs, and adapt to it.

Posterity is a funny thing: We don’t know what it is our future selves and descendants are going to be interested in. A BBC website requesting photos and recollections of the 1970s, for example, found that most British people fondly remembered the strike-induced blackouts. (This is true: I remember looking forward to them because we all slowed down for 10 seconds and Dad told us a story around the fire.) But don’t expect to see any family snaps of that particular aspect of life back then. Unsurprisingly, not many people thought, as they shopped in the flickering gloom of candlelight, “Oo! I should record this for posterity! We’ll look back on these grim days in 30 years’ time with fondness!”

Then take a look at Flickr, or any online photo sharing site and see what people record and share these days. Now, technology allows us not only to see ourselves immediately — no more waiting for the film to come back from the developer, no more tiny digital display that doesn’t let us see much of what we’ve just shot — but also, via 3G and GPS, to share it immediately with anyone else on the planet. Technology, in other words, lets us hold a mirror up to our existence, which we can observe in real time. Socrates wouldn’t be alarmed, he’d be dancing around considering the possibilities.

True, we may not use this mirror as well as we could. A lot of what people record is banal, but who knows what people are going to find interesting about us 30, 50, 300 years down the track? Who knows what we’re going to find interesting about us 10 years down the track? (I’m guessing the lurch in male fashion from long pants to those over-the-knee numbers.) The point is that we’re not just recording our lives because technology allows us to. We’re recording them because we want to. Nicholas Carr thinks this is narcissism. For some it probably is. For others the technology becomes a fence from which to hide behind and not participate. For the rest of us it offers chance to capture and reflect on a life that goes by way too quickly.

At Last, a Zoomable World

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It’s sometimes hard to get my friends excited about the technology I’m interested in, and that’s often down to the fact that a) the exciting stuff is often a big shift in what that technology can do and b) I’m not good at explaining these things to people, especially in wine bars, for some reason.

Last night, for example, I was trying to get someone excited about the Nokia N95. It’s a good phone, but the thing that most gets me excited is the ability to take good photos (5 megapixel camera) and then immediately upload them to Flickr (or anywhere else) via ShoZu, with a GPS tag attached. I just love that idea because it pulls all these technologies together (camera, phone, GPS, 3.5G connection) and makes something of them:

  • it’s seamless. I don’t need to do anything except say yes when a message pops up answering if the photo I just took should be uploaded
  • it’s instantaneous. As soon as the photo is uploaded it’s visible on Flickr. Anyone who wants to can see what I just saw.
  • it’s physical. Now my photo can be seen in geographical context, or seen on Google Earth, or whatever.

But this is just the start. We’re getting closer to a zoomable world, as imagined by the likes of the late Jef Raskin. Images will become the way we transfer, navigate and access all sorts of data: it’s often easier to navigate through thumbnails than it is through filenames. Think Google Earth using 3Dconnexion’s SpaceNavigator but applied to information. The closest I think we have at the moment is TopicScape. For a sign of what this might look like, check out Microsoft’s photo-based acquisition, SeaDragon, which will make viewing everything, from maps to newspapers, something that we can do on more or less any device. (See Long Zheng’s blog post for a demo at TED, and tools like Widsets for pushing the boundaries of what can be viewed on a small screen.)

The other big change coming that appears in the demo above is that this data will become more meaningful as it’s incorporated into bigger arrangements of data. Instead of us just uploading and tagging/geotagging photos, those photos will help make up 3D maps of the world– check out the BBC/Photosynth gallery in Long’s excellent post on this. Imagine that tied to Google Earth-type environments, and then imagine it time-tagged as well as geo-tagged, and you can see the possibilities. Suddenly every photo we take will fit somewhere into a greater mosaic:

ps1

This is why I think people should buy phones like the N95, because I think these tools — camera, phone, fast connection, GPS, editing features — are going to make ordinary folk much more excited about the content-creating revolution that started with blogs.