Tag Archives: Apple Inc.

Smartwatches: Coming Soon to a Cosmos Near You

This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week. 

There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?

First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.

So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.

That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.

But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.

This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.

So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.

Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.

So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.

In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.

But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.

In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.

I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?

The Tablet is the Computer

One thing discussed often and at great length in nerdy circles these days is this: Is the tablet—by which we really mean the Apple iPad, because it created the market, and presently accounts for nearly two thirds of it—a computer. A PC, if you will?

Some say that the iPad is not really a computer. It has no keyboard. People don’t sit at desks to use it. It lacks the horsepower of most of today’s computers. So they think it’s a big smartphone. I think they are wrong. They misunderstand what is happening.

This is not hard to see in action. Wandering around an airport cafe the other day, everyone had at least one device. But those with an iPad were by far the most comfortable, whether curled up in an armchair or sitting at a table. And they were doing everything: I saw one guy watching a movie, another writing a letter, another CEO-type playing Angry Birds. I was thrown out of the cafe before I was able to finish my research.

At the hairdressers no fashion magazines were being read: Everyone was cradling an iPad, oblivious to the time and their hair being teased into odd shapes.

So let’s look at the data.

Surveys by comScore, a metrics company, point to what is really happening. In studies in the U.S. last October and of Europe released this week [Registration required], they noticed that during the week tablet usage spikes at night—as computer usage drops off. So while during the work day folk are using their PCs, come evening they switch to tablets. (Mobile usage, however, remains flat from about 6 pm.)  The drop in PC usage is even more pronounced in the U.S., while tablet usage in the evening continues to rise until about 11 pm:

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In other words, people are using their tablets as computers. Not as mobile devices. Not as replacements for their phone. They’re using them, in the words of a friend of mine, as a replacement to that ancient computer sitting in the corner gathering dust that gets booted up once in a while to write an email or a letter to Granny on.

Now not everyone is using tablets like this. The first surveys of tablet usage indicated they were using them as ‘TV buddies’—things to play with while watching TV. But this still doesn’t quite capture what is happening.

One study by Nielsen found last May that 3 out of 10 Americans were using their computer less frequently after buying a tablet. What’s surprising about this figure is that it’s higher than for all other devices—including gaming consoles, Internet-connected TVs and portable media players. Given the plethora of games and stuff you can get for a tablet, surely more people would be saying that they use these devices less than their netbook, laptop or desktop, now they have a tablet?

That survey was done when less than 5% of U.S. consumers owned one. A year on, that figure is much higher. Pew’s Internet and American Life Project reported on Jan 23 that the number of American adults who owned a tablet grew from 10% to 19% over the holiday period; although their data may not be directly comparable with Nielsen’s it sounds about right. And represents an unprecedented adoption of a new device, or computing platform, or whatever you want to call it.

(Pew also surveys ebook readers and finds the same results. But I think we’ll see a serious divergence between these two types of device. Yes, some tablets are good for reading and some ereaders, like the Kindle Fire, look a lot like a tablet. But they’re different, and used in different ways. I think that while the market will overlap even more, they’ll be like more like the laptop and netbook markets, or the ultrabook and the PC market: they may do similar things but the way people use them, and the reason people buy them, will differ.)

This is rapidly altering the demographics of the average tablet user. Back in 2010, a few months after the first iPad was launched, 18-34 year olds accounted for nearly half the market, according to another Nielsen report. A year on, that figure was down to a little over a third, as older folk jumped aboard. Indeed the number of 55+ iPad users doubled in that period, accounting for more than 25-34 year old users.

(Pew’s figures suggest that while older folk have been slower to adopt, the rate of growth is picking up. Around a quarter of adults up to the age of 49 now have a tablet in the U.S. (a shocking enough figure in itself.) Above 50 the number comes down. But the telling thing to me is that the rate of growth is more or less the same: about a fourfold growth between November 2010 and January 2012. While a lot of these may have been gifts over the holidays, it also suggests that the potential is there.)

So it’s pretty simple. The tablet, OK, the iPad came along and reinvented something that we thought no one wanted—a tablet device with no keyboard. But Apple’s design and marketing savvy, and the ecosystem of apps and peripherals, have made the tablet sexy again. Indeed, it has helped revive several industries that looked dead: the wireless keyboard, for example. ThinkOutside was a company in the early 2000s that made wonderful foldable keyboards for the Palm, but couldn’t make it profitable (and is now part of an apparently moribund company called iGo).

Now look: the website of Logitech, a major peripherals company, has the external keyboard and stand for the iPad as more or less its top product. Logitech reckon a quarter of tablet users want an external keyboard, and three quarters of them want their tablet “to be as productive as their laptop.” Most peripheral companies offer a kind of wireless keyboard, and there are more on the horizon.

And as BusinessWeek reported, the highest grossing app on the iPad appstore this Christmas wasn’t Angry Birds; it was a program for viewing and editing Microsoft Office documents, called QuickOffice. The app itself is not new: it’s been around since 2002, and a paired-down version came preinstalled on dozens of devices. But people wouldn’t shell out the extra $10 for the full version—until the iPad came along. Now they happily pay $20 and the company sold $30 million’s worth in 2011. (BusinessWeek links this to growing corporate interest in the iPad but you can see from comScore’s data that this is not necessarily correct. The tablet is a personal device that is mostly used outside the office.)

So. There’s a new industry out there, and it’s for a device that’s not a phone, though it has the same degree of connectivity; it’s not a desktop, though it should be able to do all the things a desktop can do; it’s not a laptop, though it should make the user as productive as a laptop can. And it’s many more things besides: a TV buddy, a sort of device to accompany your downtime in cafes, salons or on the couch.

Gartner, a research company, reckon that from about 17.5 million devices sold in 2010 there will be 325 million sold in 2015. An 18-fold increase. In the same period the annual sales of notebooks will only have doubled, and desktops will have grown by, er, 5%. Hard not to conclude from that that the tablet, OK, the iPad, is going to be everyone’s favorite computer—replacing the desktop, the laptop and whatever ultrabooks, netbooks or thinkbooks are the big thing in 2015.

(Update: This was written before Apple’s results. Tim Cook has confirmed the PC is their main competitor.) 

Dragon Tattoo: Mac or Vaio?

Some folk have suggested that because Sony is behind the new version of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo all the product placements are Vaio:

201112231520.jpg

This would be a slap in the face of the original novel and the Swedish version, which stuck pretty closely to the text.

But I’m not sure. Here’s another picture from a Guardian piece:

201112231523.jpg

which looks pretty Apple-ish to me.

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.

The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

A Call for Diminished Reality

(a copy of my weekly syndicated column. Podcast from the BBC here.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

A Call for Diminished Reality

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

How Long Was the iPhone Location Vulnerability Known?

I’m very intrigued by the Guardian’s piece iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go | Technology | guardian.co.uk but I’m wondering how new this information is, and whether other less transparent folk have already been using this gaping hole. Charles Arthur writes:

Security researchers have discovered that Apple‘s iPhone keeps track of where you go – and saves every detail of it to a secret file on the device which is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronised.

The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded coordinates along with a timestamp, meaning that anyone who stole the phone or the computer could discover details about the owner’s movements using a simple program.

For some phones, there could be almost a year’s worth of data stored, as the recording of data seems to have started with Apple’s iOS 4 update to the phone’s operating system, released in June 2010.

But it seems that folk on a forum have already been talking about it since January: Convert Iphone 4 Consolidated.db file to Google earth:

Someone called Gangstageek asked on Jan 6:

Is there a way to, or a program (for the PC) that can read the Consolidated.db file from the Iphone 4 backup folder and accurately translate the cell locations and timestamps into Google earth?

Other forum members helped him out. Indeed, an earlier forum, from November 2010, looked at the same file. kexan wrote on Nov 26:

We are currently investigating an iphone used during a crime, and we have extracted the geopositions located within consilidated.db for analysis. During this we noticed that multiple points have the same unix datestamp. We are unsure what to make of this. Its kind of impossible to be on several locations at once, and the points are sometimes all over town.

Going back even further, Paul Courbis wrote on his site (translated from the French), including a demo:

Makes it relatively easy to draw the data on a card to get an idea of ​​places visited by the owner of the iPhone..

I don’t have an iPhone so I’ve not been able to test this. But I’m guessing that this issue may have already been known for some time by some kind of folk. Indeed, there are tools in use by police and others that may have already exploited this kind of vulnerability.

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

The Phantom Threats We Face

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We fear what we don’t know, even if it’s a guy in Shenzhen trying to make an honest living developing software that changes the background color of your mobile phone display.

Here’s what happened. I’ll save the lessons for the end of this piece.

A guy who prefers to go by the name Jackeey found a  niche for himself developing programs—usually called apps—for the Android cellphone operating system.

They were wallpaper applications—basically changing the background to the display.

That was until an online news site, VentureBeat, reported on July 28 that a security company, Lookout, had told a conference of security geeks that  that some downloadable applications to phones running the Android operating system would “collect a user’s browsing history, their text messages, the phone’s SIM card number and subscriber identification, voicemail phone number password” and send all this data to a website owned by someone in Shenzhen, China.

Yikes! Someone in China is listening to our conversations! Figuring out what we’re doing on our phone! Sending all this info to Shenzhen! Sound the alarum!

Word did indeed spread quickly. About 800 outlets covered the story, including mainstream publications like the Daily Telegraph and Fortune magazine: “Is your smart phone spying on you?” asked one TV station’s website.

Scary stuff.

Only it isn’t true. Firstly, VentureBeat had the story wrong: The applications in question only transmitted a portion of this data. No browsing history was transmitted, no text messages, no voicemail password.

VentureBeat corrected the story—sort of; the incorrect bits are crossed out, but there’s no big CORRECTION message across the top of the story—but the damage was done. Google suspended Jackeey’s apps. Everyone considered Jackeey evil and confirmed suspicions that a) Android was flakey on security and b) stuff from China was dodgy.

All kind of sad. Especially when you find that actually Jackeey himself is not exactly unreachable. A few keyword searches and his email address appears and, voila! he’s around to answer your questions. Very keen to, in fact, given the blogosphere has just ruined his life.

Here’s what he told me: He needed the user’s phone number and subscriber ID because people complained that when they change their phone they lose all their settings.

That’s it. That’s the only stuff that’s saved.

Needless to say he is somewhat miffed that no one tried to contact him before making the report public; nor had most of the bloggers and journalists who dissed his applications.

“I am just an Android developer,” he said. “I love wallpapers and I use different wallpaper every day. All I want is to make the greatest Android apps.”

Now of course he could be lying through his teeth, but I see no evidence in the Lookout report or anything that has appeared subsequently that seems to suggest the developer has done anything underhand. (The developer has posted some screenshots of his app’s download page which show that they do not request permission to access text message content, nor of browsing history.)

In fact, he seemed to be doing a pretty good job: His apps had been downloaded several million times. He declined to give his name, but acknowledged that he was behind both apps provided under the name Jackeey, and under the name iceskysl@1sters.

The story sort of ends happily. After investigating them Google has reinstated the apps to their app store and will issue a statement sometime soon. It told Jackeey in an email that “Our investigation has concluded that there’s no obvious malicious code in your apps, though the implementation accesses data that it doesn’t need to.”

VentureBeat hasn’t written an apology but they have acknowledged that: “The controversy grew in part because we incorrectly reported in our initial post that the app also sent your text messages and browser history to the website.”

For his part Jackeey is redesigning his apps to take into account Google’s suggestions. He points out that to do so will require him to have users set up an account and enter a password, which some users may be reluctant to do. And the Google suggestion is not entirely secure either.

Obviously this is all very unsatisfactory, in several ways.

Firstly, the journalism was a tad sloppy. No attempt was made to contact the developer of the app for comment before publishing—how would you feel if it was your livelihood on the line?—and the correction was no real correction at all.

Secondly, the internet doesn’t have a way to propagate corrections, so all the other websites that happily picked up the story didn’t update theirs to reflect the correction.

Thirdly, Google maybe should have contacted Jackeey before suspending the apps. It would have been kinder, and, given they’ve not found anything suspicious, the right thing to do.

Fourthly, us. We don’t come out of this well. We are somehow more ready to believe a story that includes a) security issues (which we don’t understand well) and b) China, where we’re perhaps used to hearing stories that fit a certain formula. Suspicious?

And lastly, perhaps we should look a little harder at the source of these reports.  We seem very quick to attribute suspicious behavior to someone we don’t know much about, in some scary far-off place, but less to those we do closer to home: Lookout’s main business, after all, is prominently displayed on their homepage: an application to, in its words, “protect yourself from mobile viruses and malware. Stop hackers in their tracks.”

So spare a thought for Jackeey. If you do a keyword search for him, the first hit is the story “’Suspicious’ Android wallpaper app nabs user data”, and links to 863 related articles. Below—a week after the hoo-ha, and after Google has sort of put things right–are headlines like: “Jackeey Wallpaper for Android steals your personal info”, “Your Rotten App, Jackeey Wallpaper” and “Jackeey steeling [sic] info on Android devices”.

In other words, anyone who checks out Jackeey’s wares on Google will find they don’t, well, check out.

I got back in touch with Jackeey to see how he’s holding up, a week after the storm broke. I’m in some pain, he says, “because mass negative press said that I steal users’ text messages, contacts and even passwords.” People have removed his applications from their phone, and people have been blasting him by email and instant messaging, calling him “thief”, “evil person” and other epithets.

“I am afraid that it will destroy my reputation and affect my livelihood forever,” he says.

I’m not surprised. We owe to folk like Jackeey to make apps for our phones, so we should treat him a little better.