Tag Archives: Web

Inside the Web of Things

This is a slightly longer version of a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service

I’ve long dreamed of an Internet of things, where all the stuff in my life speaks to each other instead of me having to the talking. The vision is relatively simple: each gadget is assigned an Internet address and so can communicate with each other, and with a central hub (my, or my computer, or smartphone, or whatever.)

The most obvious one is electricity. Attach a sensor to your fusebox and then you can see which or your myriad appliances is inflating your electricity bill. Great idea! Well sort of. I found a Singapore-based company that was selling them, and asked to try one out. It was a nice, sleek device that promised to connect to my computer via WiFi and give me a breakdown of my electricity consumption. Woohoo.

Only it never worked. Turns out the device needed to be connected to the junction box by a pro called Ken, who tried a couple of times and then just sort of disappeared. I don’t mean he was electrocuted or vaporized, he just didn’t come back. The owner of the company said he didn’t really sell them anymore. Now the device is sitting in a cupboard.

Turns out that Cisco, Microsoft and Google tried the same thing. The tech website Gigaom reports that all three have abandoned their energy consumption projects. Sleek-looking devices but it turns out folk aren’t really interested in saving money. Or rather, they don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks to be reminded their power bills are too high.

This might suggest that the Internet of things is dead. But that’d be wrong. The problem is that we’re not thinking straight. We need to come up with ways to apply to the web of things the same principles that made Apple tons of cash. And that means apps.

The Internet of things relies on sensors. Motion sensors which tell whether the device is moving, which direction it’s pointing in, whether it’s vibrating, its rotational angle, its exact position, its orientation. Then there are sensors to measure force, pressure, strain, temperature, humidity and light.

The iPhone has nearly all these. An infrared sensor can tell that your head is next to the phone so it can turn off the screen and stop you cancelling the call with your earlobe. (The new version can even tell how far away you from the phone so it can activate its voice assistant Siri.)

But what makes all this powerful is the ecosystem of third party applications that have been developed for the iPhone. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of sensors. There are 1000s of apps that make use of the iPhone’s sensors–most of them without us really thinking about it.

This is the way the Internet of things needs to go. We need to stop thinking boring things like “power conservation” and just let the market figure it out. Right now I want a sensor that can tell me when the dryer is spinning out of control, which it tends to do, because then it starts moving around the room. Or help me find my keys.

In short, the Internet of things needs to commoditize the sensors and decentralize the apps that make those sensors work. Make it easy for us to figure out what we want to do with all this amazing technology and either give us a simple interface for us to do it ourselves, or make a software kit that lets programmy people to do it for us.

Which is why some people are pretty excited about Twine, a bunch of guys from MIT who are working on a two and a half inch rubber square which connects to WiFi and will let you program it via a very simple interface. Some examples: hang it around your infant’s neck and get it to send you a tweet every time it moves.

It may not be rocket science, but if you’ve got an infant-wandering problem it could be just what you needed.

The Privacy Myth

If there’s one myth that endures in this age of online participation, blogs, shared photo albums and Web 2.0, it’s that we’ve overcome our concerns about privacy. It sounds on the surface, logical: We must have gotten over this weird paranoia, or else why would we share so much online? Why would we bother about privacy issues when there’s no real evidence that people, companies, governments and the NSA are out to get us? This, for example, from Web 2.0 blog TechCrunch guest contributor Steve Poland:

I’m sure there’s data to back me up on this, but today compared to 10 years ago — people are way more comfortable with the Internet and have less privacy concerns. Or at least the younger generations that have grown up with the Internet aren’t as concerned with privacy — and spew what’s on their mind to the entire world via the web.

I can’t speak for the younger generation, having been kicked out of it some years ago. But if we’re talking more generally about folk who have embraced the Net in the past 10 years, I’d have to say I don’t think it’s that we don’t care about privacy. We just don’t understand it. In that sense nothing has changed. I think what is happening is the same as before: People don’t really understand the privacy issues of what they’re doing, because the technology, and its liberating sensuality, are moving faster than we can assimilate to our culture. This is not new: Technology has always outpaced our intellectual grasp. If you don’t believe me think radio, TV, cars and cellphones. We were lousy at predicting the impact of any of these technologies on our environment. Lousy.

Usually, it’s because we just don’t stop to think about the privacy implications, or we don’t stop to ask deeper questions about the sacrifices we may be making when we buy something, give information to a stranger, register for something, accept something, invite someone in to our digital lives, install software, sign up for a service, or simply accept an email or click on a link. The speed of communication – click here! register here! — makes all this easier. But I don’t really blame the reader. Often it’s us journalists who are to blame for not digging enough.

Take, for example, a new service called reQall from QTech Inc in India. On the surface, it sounds like a great service: phone in a message to yourself and it will appear in your email inbox transcribed with 100% accuracy. Great if you’re on the road, on the john or at a party and don’t want to start jabbing away or scrawling the note on the back of your spouse’s neck.

Rafe Needham of Webware initially enthuses about it on his blog. But then he later finds out that

Update: I’m told that ReQall’s speech-to-text engine isn’t wholly automated. “We use a combination of automated speech recognition technology and human transcription,” a company co-founder told me. Which means there may be someone listening to your notes and to-do items. Yikes!

Yikes indeed. Who would record a message knowing that a stranger is going to be transcribing it, and a company storing it on their servers? To be fair to Rafe he’s not the only one not to initially notice this privacy angle. And at least he bothers to write it up. Dean Takahashi didn’t mention it in his (admittedly) brief Mercury News piece, for example. The company’s press release makes no mention of it either, saying only that

reQall is patent-pending software technology that uses a combination of voice interface and speech-recognition technology to record, log and retrieve your tasks, meetings and voice notes.

(The same press release appears on Forbes’ own website, which I always think looks a bit odd, as if there’s no real difference between a story and a press release. But that’s another rant for another day.) That, frankly, would leave me thinking there was no human interaction either.

But then again, there are clues here and if we (by which I mean us hacks) were doing our job we should probably follow them. Any Google search for reqall and privacy throws up an interesting trail. A CNN report on memory quoted Sunil Vemuri talking about reQall but says issues about privacy and keeping such records free from subpoena have yet to be worked out. When a blogger called Nikhil Pahwa quoted CNN on ContentSutra someone from QTech wrote in:

Please note that there is an inaccuracy in the post. QTech is not “currently working on sorting out issues related to privacy laws, and how to prevent these recordings from being subpoenaed.” Can you correct this?

The text was duly crossed out, so now it reads:

According to the report, they’re currently working on sorting out issues related to privacy laws, and how to prevent these recordings from being subpoenaed are still to be worked out.

So we’re none the wiser. Are there issues? Are QTech working on those issues? Or are there issues that other people are working on, not QTech? Their website sheds little light. There’s nothing about human transcription on any of the pages I could find, nor in the site search. Their privacy policy (like all privacy policies) doesn’t really reassure us, but neither does it explicitly scare our pants off. A brief jaunt through it (I’m not a lawyer, although I sometimes wish I was, and I think John Travolta in “A Civil Action” makes a good one) raises these yellow flags:

  • QTech can use your location, contact details etc to “send you information related to your account or other QTech Service offerings and other promotional offerings.” I.e. the company knows where you are, your phone number and home address and could spam you.
  • QTech may “include relevant advertising and related links based on Your location, Your call history and other information related to Your use of the Services.” I.e. The company could send you stuff based on what information you’ve given in your messages, and any other information you carelessly handed over during the course of using the service.
  • QTech can use the content of your audio messages (and your contact information) for, among other things, “providing our products and services to other users, including the display of customized content and advertising,  auditing, research and analysis in order to maintain, protect and improve our services … [and] developing new services.” I.e. the company can mine the contents of your messages and other stuff and spam other customers. Somehow this seems more scary than actually spamming you.
  • QTech will hold onto those messages “for as long as it is necessary to perform the Services, carry out marketing activities or comply with applicable legislation.” I.e. don’t think your messages are going to be deleted just because you don’t need them anymore.

Privacy documents are written by lawyers, so they’re about as weaselly as they can be. And QTech’s is no different. But there is some cause for concern here, and we journalists should at least try to explore some of these issues. I looked for any acknowledgement that there’s a human involved in the transcription, and some reassurance that the content of those messages is not going to be mined for advertising purposes, and that it would be possible for customers to insist their messages are deleted. I couldn’t find anything, although to their credit QTech do say they won’t “sell, rent or otherwise share Your Contact Information or Audio Communications with any third parties except in the limited circumstance of when we are compelled to do so by a valid, binding court order or subpoena”. But if QTech are doing their own advertising then does that really make any difference?

I’m seeking comment from QTech on this and will update the post when I hear it. And this isn’t really about QTech; it’s about us — citizens, readers, bloggers, journalists — thinking a little harder about our privacy before we throw it away for a great sounding service. Do you want, for example, your personal memos (“Calling from the pub. God I really need a holiday. I think I’m cracking up”) mined for advertising (“Hi! Can I interest you in Caribbean cruise? I hear you’re cracking up!” “Hi, need psychological counselling? I’m told you do” “Hi! Need Viagra? I hear from that last message you left you probably do”)?

Column: the problem with online music

Loose Wire: On-Line Music’s Jarring Notes

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 14 November 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Big media’s flirtation with the Internet may be over soon after it began. At least that’s how it looks to a bunch of music enthusiasts who have been subscribing to an on-line service called EMusic (www.EMusic.com), which allows users to download songs in the compressed MP3 format for a flat monthly subscription fee (a princely $10 for most). The four-year-old service was going fine — about 65,000 users, 230,000 tracks available, revenues rising 30% in the first half of the year — until late October when several subscribers were told their accounts had been terminated, due, EMusic said, to “unusually excessive download activity.” In a nutshell, they got bumped because they downloaded more music than EMusic reckoned was fair. One or two have since been reinstated, but most haven’t, leaving a very sour taste in the mouth of EMusic’s once loyal fans.

 
This is all sad, and in my view unnecessary. EMusic has done a wonderful job in bridging the gap between the illegal world of Napster file-sharing and the old world of buying expensive CDs in a shop. But it has shot itself in the foot and raised fears that the entertainment giants behind such sites are no more committed now to distributing music over the Internet than they were pre-Napster.
 
For those of you not in the know, here’s some history: A few years back pimply youths discover MP3, a computer-file format which allows them to convert a CD into a size small enough to send over the Internet. Other youths discover ways to share such files with other users, suddenly making shops and the CD somewhat redundant. Lawyers swoop and Napster, despite being bought out by one of the big media giants, is now a redundant “work in progress” (www.napster.com).
 
Into the gap, among others, leapt EMusic (which started out as GoodNoise), with a sizeable stable of music for easy download. Deciding wisely not to tamper with the MP3 format via security features that may prevent users from doing what they want with the music they buy, the service quickly grew. Last year it was bought by Universal Music Group and later folded into the new Vivendi Universal Net USA Group, Inc., along with other music-oriented sites like www.rollingstone.com and www.MP3.com. So far, so good. EMusic has proved to be an excellent source of interesting, if not mainstream, music from classical to hip hop. In the past month I’ve become a big fan too, dipping into some great ambient and electronic stuff I otherwise would never have found, finally ditching those Dolly Parton records I’ve been listening to for years.
 
However this recent move casts a heavy cloud over the service. EMusic appears caught between the scepticism of its owners and the natural desire of users to make the most of their subscription. Ahead lurk some difficult decisions: Reuters last month quoted sources in Universal as saying a verdict would soon be made on what music Web sites would be sold off and which would be kept, probably as part of some integrated Web site.
 
So what to do? I can quite understand that EMusic wants to protect its assets. EMusic public-relations chief Steve Curry says EMusic must pay royalties to both the music publisher/songwriter — via a flat-rate fee per track downloaded — and to the record label/performer — from what’s left in the pot after EMusic takes its cut. In short, he says, the business model will only work if it doesn’t spend too much on paying the former, leaving none for the latter. If one person downloads a lot of tracks, most of the money will be paid in flat-rate royalties. “That is why we’re very concerned about monitoring and preventing large-scale abuse of our service — to make sure members are keeping it to ‘personal use and enjoyment,’ not ‘I wonder how many tens of thousands of MP3s I can possibly download in a month.'”
 
Fair enough, but EMusic’s own press releases hardly discourage such practice. The most recent states that “EMusic is a revolutionary new music discovery service that allows fans to download as much MP3 music as they desire for as little as $9.99 a month.”
 
What’s unnecessary about this is that every subscriber to EMusic knows they could find the music free on file-sharing services like Grokster (www.grokster.com) and Kazaa (www.kazaa.com). But they choose to obey the law and cough up. To me this is proof positive that most Internet folk are reasonable and law-abiding and want the artists they listen to to get some money for their work. And most would probably be happy to cough up more if it meant EMusic survived.
 
If EMusic survives it’s going to be down to whether its owners reckon it’s going to make money in the long run. If it does make money it’s going to be because its fans continue to sing its praises to others, in turn feeding more subscriptions, and, most importantly, the readiness of artists and labels to contribute their catalogues to the EMusic library. None of this is going to happen if EMusic treats its users like potential shoplifters.
 
EMusic, change your subscription model (there are some excellent suggestions on the newsgroup at http://groups.yahoo.com/ group/emusic-discussion) so that heavy and light users are catered for, but don’t drive away the very people who have helped proselytize your service. Otherwise they’ll slink back to illegal file sharing and I’ll have to root around in the dumpster for my old Dolly Parton records.