Quaintness in Salt Lake

(This is the script for a piece I did for the BBC World Service. Posted here by request. Podcast here.)

Something rather quaint is going on in a Salt Lake City courtroom. A company called Novell, who you’d be forgiven for not having heard of, is suing Microsoft over a product called WordPerfect, which you also may not have heard of, which it says was hobbled from running on something called Windows 95 to protect its own product, called Microsoft Word.

To be honest, you don’t need to know the ins and outs of this Microsoft law suit; nor do you really need to know much about Novell—once a giant in word processing software, and now a subsidiary of a company called The Attachmate Group, which I had never even heard of. Or, for that matter Windows 95—except that once upon a time people used to stay up all night to buy copies. Sound familiar, iPad and iPhone lovers?

It’s weird this case is going on, and I won’t bore you with why. But it’s a useful starting point to look at how the landscape has changed in some ways, and in others not at all. Microsoft is still big, of course, but no-one queues up for their offerings anymore: Indeed nobody even bought Vista, as far as I can work out. But back then, nearly every computer you would ever use ran Windows and you would use Microsoft Office to do your stuff. You couldn’t leave because you probably didn’t have a modem and the Internet was a place where weird hackers lived.

Now, consider this landscape: Apple make most of their money from phones and tablets. Google, which wasn’t around when Windows 95 was, now dominate search, but also own a phone manufacturer, have built an operating system. Amazon, which back then was starting out as a bookseller, is now selling tablets at cost as a kind of access terminal to books, movies, magazines and other things digital. Facebook, which wasn’t even a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s 11 year old eye at the time, is now the world’s biggest social network, but is really a vast walled garden where everything you do—from what you read, what you listen to, as well as how well you slept and who you had dinner with—is measured and sold to advertisers.

All these companies kind of look different, but they’re actually the same. Back in 1995 the PC was everything, and so therefore was the operating system and the software that ran on it. The web was barely a year old. Phones were big and clunky. So Microsoft used its power to dominate to sell us what made the most money: software.

Now, 15 or 16 years on, look how different it all is. Who cares about the operating system? Or the word processor? Or the PC? Everything is now mobile, hand-held, connected, shared, and what was expensive is now free, more or less. Instead, most of these companies now make their money through eyeballs, and gathering data about our habits, along with micropayments from data plans and apps, online games and magazines.

And to do this they all have to play the same game Microsoft played so well: Dominate the chain: Everything we do, within a Hotel California-like walled garden we won’t ever leave. So my predictions for next year, most of which  have been proved true in recent days : A Facebook phone which does nothing except through Facebook, an Amazon phone which brings everything from Amazon to your eyes and ears, but nothing else, an Apple-controlled telco that drops calls unless they’re on Apple devices. Google will push all its users into a social network, probably called Google+ and will punish those who don’t want to by giving them misleading search results. Oh, and Microsoft. I’m not sure about them. Maybe we’ll find out in Salt Lake City.

Podcast: Quaintness in Salt Lake

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on my predictions for next year  (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

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To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.
 

China’s Mystery Patterns

This has absolutely nothing to do with what I should be working on but this piece in Gizmodo caught my eye: a number of weird lines and structures in the middle of the Gobi Desert in China’s western reaches. Like this one:

image

They don’t seem to make much sense, despite some quite ingeniuous explanations by some of the commenters.

I’ve put all the locations in one Google Map here. I don’t claim to have the answers but I’ve found some clues.

While it’s true that they seem to have some military connection, they are not close enough to Lop Nur to be part of the nuclear weapons testing that took place there.

A book by John Wilson Lewis and Litai Xue called China Builds the Bomb says that Dunhuang, the nearest town, became the temporary base for a PLA unit in 1958 assigned to find the country’s first nuclear test base. Although they quickly moved further west (settling for Lop Nur), the Soviet advisors had come up with a site some 140 km northwest of Dunhuang, relatively close to where all the weird patterns are.

Part of the explanation can be found on an Australian military buff’s website.  It doesn’t give sources, but describes the patterns which most resemble airfields to be mock airstrips along with concrete pads that serve as targets for missile testing (the piece was written in 2005.) This would seem to suggest that the other patterns are also targets, although they’re not mentioned in the piece.

资料图:在2006年珠海航展上亮相的国产月球车。.

Another clue is in this machine-translated piece about China’s lunar ambitions. It says that Chinese researchers are based about 200 km from Dunhuang where the country’s version of the Mars Rover is undergoing testing in conditions “closest to the moon.” It says they have  built a “a board room, five generators…and a huge indoor stadium.” I can’t see anything like that but given what is out there in that desert I wouldn’t be surprised to find several.

Scammers Scam Gmail Scam Filters

This amused me. A scam message got through Gmail’s eagle-eyed scam filters telling me to update my account details. That’s not unusual. But was it because the scammers added their own assurance that they had already done the filtering?

image

It says:

**************************************************************************
This footnote confirms that this email message has been scanned by New Google Mail-SeCure for the presence of malicious code, vandals & computer viruses.
**************************************************************************

Well that’s alright then.

We’ve Moved (But We’re Still Here)

After years of frustration with TypePad, this blog has moved. It’s still here, though, in that you don’t actually need to do anything. The URL is the same. Thanks. 

Podcast: The Usual Suspects

Here I discuss on my regular slot with Adelaine Ng of Radio Australia patent wars, Amazon’s pricing policy and anything else we can think of. (This is from last Wednesday, so probably of historical interest only, unless you like hearing me say ‘er’ a lot.) 

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Thanks to the ABC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.