Tag Archives: operating system

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?

2011: Year of The Media App

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I predict this year that we’ll settle on a way to make people pay for stuff they so far have proven reluctant to pay for—namely information. This won’t be done by pay walls, exactly, but by what we’re now calling apps. Apps are applications that people seem very willing to pay for when they’re doing it from a device that isn’t a desktop computer.

So people are buying these things because what’s a buck when you know you can get to hurl Angry Birds onto flimsy structures sheltering evil pigs on your device in a couple of seconds? Or listen to Yesterday on your iPod Touch a few seconds after buying it?

Compare this with the laborious process of signing up for an online subscription, or having to download, install and pay for some software and then have to enter a serial number longer than most emails you’ve written.

Others are now trying this route. Google has the Android Marketplace, which lets you do more or less the same thing. In fact, it’s even easier—you don’t get prompted for your password when you buy something. And now they’re trying something on your computer: their own browser, Chrome, now have apps which you can buy or get for free. (Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, will revolve around these apps.)

In fact these aren’t really anything new—they’re what we might call web-services which are accessible via a website, rather than by downloading software. But by packaging them up as apps Google make it easier for us to get at them and, crucially, break down our resistance to buying something online.

This is how we’ll pay for news in the future. Smart companies like The Economist will give the print edition away free with the iPad version, or vice versa, since we’ll start resisting the idea that we have to pay twice for the same information, whether it’s all glitzy and interactive or not. We will expect to be rewarded for paying for something we know we can get from somewhere else if we tried hard enough. If you’re a news organization use whatever lure you can think of to get the reader back into the paying habit again.

This is the point of the payment process. It has to be easier than getting the information/music/entertainment/book through another means. If I find a book for my Kindle ereader on Amazon I’ll check to see whether there’s a cheaper version—which there quite often is. If it’s under ten bucks I’ll buy it. If not, I’ll read the reviews below to see whether there is a free version somewhere—which is sometimes possible. If there isn’t, I’ll check out Google books to see whether the chapters I’m interested in are there.

OK, I’m a cheapskate. But my thinking is basically this: $10 is my threshold for an eBook. It might be more if I got access to a physical version, or was able to clip bits from it and store it somewhere else. But I’m not, so I won’t pay more than that. Moreover, I don’t want to be the mug who pays for something others get for free.

Everyone else has their own logic, but they’re probably not dissimilar to mine. We pay for things if we think the price is right for the convenience, and if we think that we’re not being suckered—which means that other people aren’t shelling out for it.

This is basically micropayments. It’s what we’d been hoping would happen for some time, and it took Apple’s megalomania and micromanagement to get us there. Now we’re nearly there, but we could still mess up. Some newspapers try to charge us for single articles, for example, misunderstanding that micropayment doesn’t mean microproduct. I don’t want to pay every time I visit your site: I want to pay for something that gets me seamless access to your product.

In other words, we’re paying for not having to pay (or register, or download, or enter codes, or any of that kind of nonsense.) This is why the term pay wall is so revealing—and why it’s doomed as a concept. We’re not buying information with our iPhone or Android app, we’re buying frictionless access to something—an icon on our display that may be a shortcut to a web page, or open an application,  we don’t care. All we care about is that it gets us to where we want to go, when we want to go there.

We’ve some ways to go before this works well. I can’t stand the idea that my Kindle book doesn’t belong to me in the way a real book does, and I refuse to buy any music that I can’t move around as I wish. I succumbed to buying some apps for an iPad I borrowed but Steve Jobs will rue the day if I can’t easily move them onto another iDevice if I ever end up getting one.

But the good thing is that we’ve found a way to make this palatable to people, and I am optimistic that the media, booksellers, music sellers and web developers can turn this into revenue streams that keep them going.

Google’s Missteps

By Jeremy Wagstaff

This one needed some correcting, for which apologies, and also, unsurprisingly, attracted some opprobrium. It’s Google Notebook, not Notes, and Jaiku’s founders are Finnish, not Swedish.

I’m a big fan of Google. A big fan. But I’ve finally realized what its problem is. It doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing.

Take its recent decision to close something called Google Wave.

Google Wave was introduced to much fanfare back in May 2009. I can’t really describe what it is, but I can tell you what Google called it. Email killer, a new version of the web, etc etc. “Wave is what email would look like if it were invented today,” said one of its creators.

Then, a few weeks back, they killed it. CEO Eric Schmidt said: “We liked the (user interface) and we liked a lot of the new features in it,” he was quoted as saying,  “(but) didn’t get enough traction, so we are taking those technologies and applying them to new technologies that are not announced.”

Schmidt explained Google’s policy like this: “Our policy is we try things. We celebrate our failures. This is a company where it is absolutely OK to try something that is very hard, have it not be successful, take the learning and apply it to something new.”

The point is not that Wave was rubbish. Or great. It’s that we never really got to try it out. When Schmidt says that “we tend to sort of release them and then see what happens” he’s telling the truth. Only it’s not really something he should be too proud about.

Quite a few of us worked quite hard to make Wave part of our lives. Not many of us, admittedly, but enough. Enough to be somewhat peeved to find it’s not going to be around much longer.

This isn’t the first time Google has done this. Google Notes Notebook was a way to collect snippets from the web and save them in the browser. Great, but Google killed that one off. They bought and killed off something called Jaiku, a better-than-Twitter service developed by some guys in Sweden Finland (thanks, Gabe,Adewale Oshineye and others). Of course, like Wave, they don’t actually shoot these things dead, they just go to some weird twilight zone where new people can’t sign up and existing users look kinda passé.

Like people who overstay a party that never really took off.

Who’s going to continue using a product that could disappear at any minute?

This, arguably, is fine when you’re not actually paying for the product. Well, not directly. But what happens when you shell out $500 for it?

That’s what happened when fools bought into Google’s foray into the cellphone world with their fancy Nexus One phone. What it called the Superphone, with plans to make lots more. “Imagine a thousand gphones!” said Schmidt

So people went out and bought it and yay! less than a year later Google closes down the online store where you can buy the thing and then, a few weeks after that, said that it’s not making any more phones.

Of course, Mr. Schmidt put a positive spin on it all.

But it’s not good enough.

I was one of those people who bought the phone because I love Google’s email service, its photo service, its online documents service, its RSS reader, its chat program, its maps. Its search engine. Pretty much everything it puts out. And I thought to myself: all this in a phone, made by the same guys, it’ll be heaven!

Only it wasn’t. The phone is good, but not great. I still use it, but my hope was that Google would be serious about all its products and pulling them together into one seamless service.

Never happened. And now, clearly, never will. Yes, Google make the operating system—the Android OS—so they still have a dog in the fight, but clearly they’ve decided that spending more time on the cellphone thing isn’t worth it for them.

Now these are the gripes of someone who feels a bit like a mug. But they’re also the ramblings of someone who feels there’s a fundamental problem with Google’s approach to the post-search world.

They don’t seem to get it. Buzz, their version of Twitter, is awful. It ignores the fundamentals of the service: it’s personal while also being impersonal, it’s chatty while at the same time having to be succinct. It’s not the same as email, and the people we share tweets with are not, necessarily, the people we email. So putting it together with Gmail was dumb.

Google has got to tread carefully. It’s not really had a hit for a while—since Gmail, probably, back in 2004. Yes, its Google Docs are good, but they’re not taking over the world. And the things they thought might take over the world—such as Wave—are poorly thought out, poorly promoted, poorly supported, and killed off with an insouciance that doesn’t only upset those people like me who took time and effort to build them into our workflow. It’ll also upset two other key groups: business users and investors.

No business user is going to start playing around with a Google product thinking it might be good for their company, because who knows when Mr.. Schmidt is going to pull out his hunting knife? And investors? Well, we’ve seen plenty of tech behemoths who were one- or two-hit wonders.

It’s not time up yet for Google. They’ve just launched a sort of phone service that could be a Skype killer, but who’s going to ditch Skype in their office for something that might not be around in a year’s time? They not only need to come up with good new products. They need to find ways to convince their users they’re not just playthings, given and taken back on a whim.

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.

Phantom Mobile Threats

How secure is your mobile phone?

This is an old bugaboo that folks who sell antivirus software have tried to get us scared about. But the truth is that for the past decade there’s really not much to lose sleep over.

That hasn’t stopped people getting freaked out about it.

A security conference heard 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” and send all this data to a website owned by someone in Shenzhen, China. Some outlets reported that it also transmitted the user’s passwords to their voicemail.

About 700 outlets covered the story, including mainstream publications like the Telegraph and Fortune magazine: “Is your smart phone spying on you?” asked one TV station’s website.

Scary stuff.

Only it isn’t true. It’s not clear who misreported all this—the journalists and others covering the event, or the company releasing the fruits of their research, but it gradually emerged that the applications—downloadable wallpapers—only transmitted a portion of this data. (See a corrected version of a story here.)

Indeed, the whole thing got less suspicious the more you dig.

This is what the developer told me in a text interview earlier today: “The app [recorded’] the phone number [because] Some people complained that when they change the[ir] phone, they will lose the[ir] favorite [settings]. So I [store] the phone number and subscriber ID to try to make sure that when [they] changed the phone, they have the same favorites.”

Needless to say the developer, based in Shenzhen, is somewhat miffed that no one tried to contact him before making the report public; nor had any of the 700 or so outlets that wrote about his applications tried to contact him before writing their stories.

“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 shared with me 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!

Not much longer. One website quoted Lookout as saying “We’ve been working with Google to investigate these apps and they’re on top of it.” They have: Google has now removed the apps from their site. So I guess Jackeey, as he asked me to call him, is going to have to look for other ways to spend his time. (He told me that Lookout had contacted him by email but not, apparently, before going public.) 

Seems a shame. Obviously, there is a mobile threat out there, but I’m not sure this is the way to go about addressing it. And I don’t think a guy in Shenzhen doing wallpaper apps is, frankly, worth so much hysterical column ink.

Let’s keep some perspective guys, and not embark on a witch-hunt without some forethought.

Lookout has since been backtracking a bit from its original dramatic findings. “While this sort of data collection from a wallpaper application is certainly suspicious,” it says on its blog, “there’s no evidence of malicious behavior.”

Suspicious? 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.”

Conflict of interest, anyone?

The Browser Wars: Another Milestone

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence lack of links)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you know, I’m into milestones, and another one has been passed in recent days: Microsoft’s market share of browsers is down below 60%.

Now this may not sound very exciting to you, but it is. And you are to be congratulated. Because it’s you who have made it happen.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, when I started training journalists on things digital, I used to ask them what browser they used. They either answered Internet Explorer—Microsoft’s browser, which comes with Windows—or they would look blankly at me.

The truth is that since the demise of Netscape in the late 1990s, there really hasn’t been much of a battle between the browsers. Most Windows users accepted Internet Explorer, while Mac users settled for the Apple browser Safari.

So when I would ask the class whether they had heard of Firefox, the Open Source browser, they would again look blank, or bored, or both.

That was then and this is now, two years on.

Now most of them have heard of Firefox, and many of them have it installed on their computers.

Not only that: Most of them have tried out Google’s own browser, Chrome.

Indeed, nowadays, when I venture a peek over shoulders at cafes and in offices, I see many more Firefoxes (or Chromes) than I used to.

So it doesn’t surprise me to read that, according to research company Net Applications, Internet Explorer’s market share has, for the first time in more than a decade, fallen below 60%.

Of course, 60% still sounds like a good chunk of the market, but remember this: Internet Explorer is the default browser on Windows computers, which still occupy most of the world’s desktops. Last year that figure was nearly 68%. Two years ago, when I started the training course, the figure was 77%. Back in 2003 it was 95%.

Compare this with Firefox, which is now on nearly a quarter of the world’s computers. And while Chrome has only a small share—6.7%—it is growing at quite a clip. A year ago that figure was closer to 2%.

Some of this may be down to a ruling in Europe which has forced Microsoft to offer 12 different browsers. But more likely is that people are getting smarter—more demanding—about what is on their computers.

After all, we spend a lot more time in our browser than we used to. Most of us now use webmail, rather than a separate email application. A lot of us use tools like Google Docs, rather than Microsoft Office. And, of course, there are productivity killers like Facebook, all of which are primarily accessed through the browser.

So what makes these other browsers so appealing?

Well, Internet Explorer is considered notoriously insecure, for one. Lots of bad things are supposed to happen if you use for online banking etc. And users like their browsers fast and light. But perhaps most importantly, Firefox—and increasingly Chrome—offer a range of plug-ins (little bits of software that, well, plug in, to your browser to do extra things for you, from tell you the time in Timbuktu to letting you save clips to online databases, or to Facebook).

This, I think, is part of a broader trend that Microsoft and others haven’t figured out yet.

I see an increasing number of people using Gmail, Google’s webmail service, and I’ve noticed that all these people have customized their interface. This wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. Now they’re exploring beneath the hood of the default settings, and changing their environment to suit their moods and work styles. Some of these changes are small—background colours or themes—but they’re also more productivity-oriented, adding labels and filters to their workflow.

This is great. This is just what they should be doing. But it’s also part of a bigger trend that I believe explains the inexorable shift away from the default.

The simple truth is that as we spend more time in the browser we’re less likely to just go with what’s given to us. We want our browser to be as good as possible and because the changes we make to our online services are movable feasts: If I’ve changed the background on my Gmail to black, shifting to another browser isn’t going to reset it back to boring white.

There’s another factor at play here. Websites used to look very different depending on what browser you used. That’s changed, as developers follow standards more closely (what’s called being “standards compliant”). This gives us users a lot more flexibility—we don’t feel like we’re going to break something on our computer, or not be able to access, say, our banking website—if we’ve left the reservation and installed another browser.

The next step: the browser replaces your operating system. Google is onto it. 

Google’s Sleazy (and Broken) Updater

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Sorry to see that Google is going the sleazy route that Microsoft and Apple have ploughed before, namely trying to hoodwink and browbeat users into installing and automatically updating software they don’t want via an installer.

Try to download Google Earth now, for example, and you’ll be directed to the Google Updater, which will try to persuade you to install software you didn’t ask for. (A great write-up of all this is at the Google Operating System blog.)

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On top of the inconvenience and sleaze of all this, I was irritated to find that the Updater doesn’t actually work: Not only that, but the help pages don’t help, and there’s no direct link to the original files so you can download them separately. (Fortunately the blog above does.)

All in all, a sure sign that Google is entering the software business, since it’s adopting the same bait-and-switch, install-by-stealth tactics of its Apple and Microsoft competitors. Shame on you, Google.

Heathrow’s Old Windows

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Snapped this on my way to Gate 1 at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. I know the London hub has its problems, but I didn’t realise one of them was that its passenger information system — or at least part of it — was running on Windows 95, a 12-year old operating system that has not been supported by Microsoft since 2001.

Does it matter that flight information is being run on a system that Microsoft not only no longer sells, but it no longer supports?

I guess not, in some ways. Who cares, if it’s still working? (Well, in the case above, where one screen is in permanent ‘shutdown’ mode, and the other seems to be in permanent ‘boot’ mode, leaving me waiting patiently in the hope of getting some flight information, I guess I do.)

But how about security? If a software manufacturer no longer supports a product, it doesn’t just mean their helpdesk is no longer taking calls from baffled customers. It also means they’re not pushing out updates to the software that solve problems like the one above, or security patches to cover holes bad guys have found in the software.

This bit is more worrying. If a bad guy knows that Heathrow is using Windows 95 for some of its operations (and I guess he does now) it should be pretty easy to find a way in. While not many people use the software anymore (I couldn’t find any surveys on this, but anecdotally there don’t seem to be many folk out there using it), new vulnerabilities are appearing that affect both newer and older versions of Windows. So while XP users might get a patch, Windows 95, 98 and Me users won’t.

Anyway, I caught my flight OK. So maybe there’s nothing to worry about. Apart from realising that an airport I entrust my life to a few times a year is relying on software that, when first launched, didn’t even support Internet access.

The Power of Tiddly

This week’s Loose Wire Service column, a service for print publications,  is on the TiddlyWiki, a piece of software I find myself coming back to from time to time:

This isn’t for everybody, but I’ve found myself recently going back to a little itsy bitsy piece of software that turns your browser into a notebook cum database.

It’s called TiddlyWiki, and it takes the two concepts — tiddlyness, as in smallness, and Wiki, as in simple editing software — about as far as you can take them. The result: a flexible piece of software that contains both the programming needed to run the thing and the information you put it into in one file.

This is how it works. You download the software from www.tiddlywiki.com, a site run by the TiddlyWiki’s creator, Jeremy Ruston. The file itself is just an HTML file, the same as most web pages you visit.

Inside that one file is all the code you need to start your own TiddlyWiki. Once open, the file has a title, a menu on the right and a couple of basic entries — called Tiddlies, in the trade — already open.

You can then add your own entries by clicking on “New Tiddly”. You can change the title and subtitle of the page by editing the corresponding Tiddly. It’s both nerdy and intuitive: You quickly learn that it’s possible to convert plain text to bold by adding you add two apostrophes before and after the text you want emboldened.

To highlight text in yellow add two @-signs before and after the text. And so on. To edit a Tiddly just double click anywhere in its text; when you’re done, hit Control + Enter, or else click on the Done button.

The power of the TiddlyWiki is, in my view, in how you can organize your entries. You can add tags, or labels, to each entry, adding new ones on the go or from a pull down list of existing tags. You can then see at a glance what entries you’ve got with those tags. You can see your entries in chronological order, or alphabetically. Or you can search through the entries looking for specific words.

Why might you want something like this? Well, there are a number of advantages:

You have a project and you want to keep all the data in one place. Or you want to create small databases of, say, recipes or contacts for a specific project.

You don’t want to splash out for expensive database or outliner software.

You like something like EverNote, but you can never find what you’re looking for.

You crave simplicity. TiddlyWiki is not as fancy as most programs, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful.

You’re using both Macs and Windows computers (or Linux); TiddlyWiki works on most browsers, and of course doesn’t care what operating system it’s on.

You like trying something new, but don’t want to get a headache. Tiddly, as they say, ain’t fiddly.

You want something you can put on a USB stick and carry with you, and use on any computer without installing something.

You want to create a quick and dirty website (TiddlyWiki can be uploaded and used as a website, though it’s not overly elegant; as all the data is in one HTML file, it may slow loading the page.

You like programs that are always improving themselves; a passionate user base is always coming up with improvements and add-ons. A great way to waste an evening.

I messed around with it a couple of years back and enjoyed it, but bumped up against its limitations. My main problem was that adding too much to a TiddlyWiki makes it unwieldy. This time around, instead of adding everything to one TiddlyWiki, I made different ones for each specific project.

Keeping the entries smaller and the number of entries to 20 or so made it much easier. It got me through a tricky project, I have to say.

Downsides? Some people swear by the TiddlyWiki, but I suspect it’s the kind of thing you play with, and perhaps come back to from time to time, as the mood and need take you.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone either; some of us just need things to be a bit more straightforward than TiddlyWiki presently is. But for the rest of you, this is a great way to try something a bit different and see if it fits a need you have.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today