Tag Archives: online games

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.

More Widgets, This Time from Google

This whole widget thing seems to be taking off. Opera has released a preview version with widgets built in, and now Google have offered something. The new beta of the Google Desktop includes what aren’t being called widgets but should be, as described by Mihai Ionescu, one of the engineers behind the Desktop : 

As a Sidebar user, you can now customize and view personalized information anywhere on the the desktop by clicking and dragging your favorite panels wherever you like. Furthermore, you can now easily share information from your Sidebar panels with your contacts by sending it to them through email, chat or directly to their Sidebar. As an added bonus you and your contacts can also play online games through the Sidebar.

I haven’t checked this out yet, but I will.

Biometrics Close To The Bone

Further to my column about fingerprint biometric scanners (subscription only ), I’ve heard from  a company working on a different kind of biometric security: Via the bone.

Last week, Mass.-based RSA Security Inc. (the guys who make the SecurID number tag, called ‘a two-factor user authentication system’ in the jargon) announced a joint research collaboration with Israel’s i-Mature, specialists in ‘online age recognition’. The two vow to bring together RSA Security’s cryptographic expertise and i-Mature’s Age-Group Recognition (AGR) technology to “work towards a unique solution that would genuinely improve the safety of the Internet for children, by enabling both adult and children’s sites to restrict their content more reliably to their appropriate audience”:

i-Mature has developed an innovative technology that can determine, through a simple biometric bone-scanning test, whether a user is a child or an adult – and thereby control access to Internet sites and content. AGR technology could help prevent children from accessing adult Internet sites and prevents adults from accessing children’s sites and chat rooms.

As far as I understand it, users wanting to visit a website would be required to press their fist against a small scanner, which would work out whether they are 18 or above, or 13 or younger, and then determine, based on software installed at the website itself, whether they are old enough to visit it:

Although the i-Mature website focuses not on confirming the identity of the user but his/her age group, the press release suggests that RSA’s involvement would fact bring some verification: The project would bring a “unique combination of technologies verifying that the person accessing the age-appropriate site is in fact who they claim to be,” the release says.

Obvious benefits? No need for the website itself to know who the user is or keep any data on them, since the scan is simply confirming age-group. Users can’t transfer their passwords or authentication tag to someone else (unless, I guess, if they happen to be around and ‘fist’ themselves into the computer for another user). Also not much work for the parent or teacher to set things up. It might prove popular with public Internet access, since providers might be able to use to limit underage surfing to a select number of websites.

Downsides? The website the person visits needs to have software installed to match the fist-tag. While some pornographic sites, for example, are going to be delighted to conform and limit access, I can’t imagine all of them are. And how many porn websites are there out there at any given point?

I assume RSA and (the rather oddly named) i-Mature are going to limit their targets to chat-rooms and more general websites, rather than the pornographic web. Indeed, the press release suggests as much: “The collaboration will include joint research as well as joint marketing activities around age-group recognition, including market education and engagement with government policy makers.”

Indeed, i-Mature has set its sights more broadly than the net: The press release says:

The protection and safety of children is also required outside the Internet arena. The AGR system complies with this since it is also compatible with mobile phones, television, video and DVD systems that can use AGR technology to prevent children from viewing harmful content. i-Mature can also partner with developers of computer games, online games and video games to block extremely violent and un-educational materials.

Sounds like something worth watching.

Column: SimCity 4

Loose Wire — Calling All Control Freaks: Crave power? Get a taste of it in the newest version of PC game SimCity; In it, you build and govern your own city, then fill it with characters that you’ve created

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 20 March 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Eighteen years ago a guy called Will Wright was trying to peddle a computer game called SimCity to the big boys. Their response was, “Who wants to play a game where you just build a city, and then run it?” Now SimCity is into its fourth incarnation (SimCity 4, $50 from www.ea.com) and is pre-eminent among PC games. It turns out folk did like building stuff rather than blowing it up.

In some ways SimCity hasn’t changed that much in the intervening years. You’re still the mayor of a town that’s starting from scratch, you still zone land for residential, commercial and industrial use, and you still hope that enough citizens — Sims — move in to provide enough of a tax base to fund your grand urban-design fantasies. Under the hood, artificial intelligence is still computing all the factors of life to determine whether those Sims come, how they get to work and whether they are next going to clamour for a mall, a park or an airport. What’s changed is computing: Now computers are so powerful that the makers of SimCity can make the simulations — and the artificial intelligence — so detailed that you’re no longer seeing a few dots represent traffic, but real cars, with people inside them, all driving badly.

SimCity is something of a legend among gamers. At first it was hard to imagine it appealing to anyone other than town planners. Indeed, the early manuals came packed with academic treatises on the art of city building, not the sort of thing that your shoot-’em-up brigade was likely to digest prior to an evening’s PC mayhem. Against all odds, SimCity was a hit, and remained one, as the humble graphics — everything was viewed from above, in two-dimension — gave way to the isometric version used in most computer games nowadays. SimCity 4 has added God-like powers of forming terrain, from deep oceans to volcanoes, while also extending your powers to a region, whether it’s a patchwork of dormitory towns supporting a metropolis, or separate cities linked by rail, road and garbage-disposal deals. As mayor, it’s your job to figure all this out and make it work. SimCity doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you want to spend your free time doing, but trust me, it’s very addictive.

That’s not to say SimCity 4 is perfect. For one thing, it requires a well-powered PC to run — don’t even think of running it on anything less than a 1-gigahertz PC with plenty of memory. Maxis, the maker of SimCity, has been swallowed by the computer-games giant Electronic Arts (www.ea.com). My copy didn’t work until I downloaded an “update” from EA for minor fixes, such as ensuring freight trains drop their cargo at ports and fixing a bug where industrial zones would develop without any roads in and out. Even then my cities have been unstable, tending to crash if I put too many water pipes in. Were my cities not all such appalling examples of urban sprawl and unchecked pollution, I might have been more upset about having to keep starting over. Another grumble: Will Wright’s name is not on the credits, and I have a suspicion he’s transferred his affections to The Sims and The Sims Online games, which he also developed.

SimCity came first, but it made sense that folk who enjoy directing the lives of millions might also get a kick out of micromanaging the lives of one or two. That’s what The Sims was, while The Sims Online allowed you to take your creation onto the Internet and commune with other micromanagees. SimCity 4 has wedded part of this by allowing you to move Sims you created in either game into a building in the city you’ve created and govern: Watching your Sims driving their clapped-out Beetle to work along the streets you have laid, past a monument to yourself, to the smog-covered industrial heartland you zoned is an experience to warm any closet megalomaniac’s heart.

SimCity 4’s strength is its amazing attention to detail. Build a zoo and if you’re lucky you’ll see wild animals visiting their caged cousins after nightfall. Build an advanced research centre and you’re likely to see fireworks emanating from the building before crashing into nearby high-rises. Demolish a bridge and a blue bus will appear, suspended cartoon-style in mid-air before splashing into the river below; dynamite a church and its resident spirit will float heavenwards. Look out for the town drunk wandering by, or the mayor’s stretch limo, which glides down side streets at night: Either the mayor’s a kerb crawler or he takes his duties pretty seriously.

This is all great to watch, but SimCity 4 isn’t the quantum leap many enthusiasts hoped for. Just as with the first game, you’re best advised to ignore all your high-minded ideals about pollution and open spaces and get the place running with a combination of heavy industry and trailer parks. Don’t even think about educating your Sims, let alone giving them running water or a fire station, until you’ve got a population of 10,000 and a decent income. Of course, by then, you’ll have probably forgotten all your ideals and be demanding a limo, a mansion and the odd statue.

Among other gripes, I’d have liked more options for focused management where, as mayor, you could give your attention to traffic problems or waste management by delegating other tasks. As mayor in SimCity, it seems, you’re still putting out too many literal or figurative fires to stand back and be a visionary. A bit like being a real mayor, I guess. Right down to the stretch limo.