Monday, 3 February 2014

Closed App Store or open Android Market? Both, please.

Apple and Android logos

Apple and Google are at war over whose system of accepting apps is better. Here's why they should offer both.

There is little doubt that one of the biggest changes in technology over the last ten years is the adoption of the smartphone. And well as changing the habits of mobile phone users, it's meant a lot of changes to computers in general. Not all have been good - it has propagated some ridiculous patent lawsuits, and it's encourages the rise of some highly dubious "freemium" games - but one of the best things it's brought, in my opinion, in my opinion, is the concept of the app store.

In the Linux world, the idea of the app store is old hat. For decades, most Linux distros have been orgnaised into packages. Some are integral to the system, such as the kernel and desktop, some are standard packages such as Libreoffice, and some are extra packages that users add to their system. To add an extra packages, you simply go to the Add/Remove programme, click on what you want, and Linux downloads and installs it for you. There are a lot of advantages to this method: it automatically installs any other software you need to run this program, everything is automatically updated, and if you ever want to install the program, Linux does it for you rather than relying on a dubious uninstallation package that came with the program. Although most software installed this way is free, it has been used for paid apps too.

So, in theory, it is welcome that this practice has been adopted on smartphones. In practice, however, things are more complicated. There are two big changes between Linux and smartphones. Firstly, it's opened this approach up from a mainly tech-savy small group to the masses of smartphone owners. Secondly, this method of installing software has suddenly become a lucrative way of earning money. As a result, there are now thousands of app writers all jostling for status in a highly competitive market. And this is where Apple and Google have heavily differed in their answer to this challenge.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The big bang theory

If you look beyond the political point-scoring over the latest debacle on Universal Credit, the real lesson is that the "big bang" approach to IT projects rarely pays off.

A completely inaccuarate depiction of the Big Bang.
Also not a good approach to most software projects.
Well, I hate to say I told you so, but ... I told you so. Just under a year ago, I idly speculated that the next big story about an IT cock-up might be the upcoming Universal Credits system. I won't go over the whole thing in detail, but it boiled down to two concerns: firstly, I was sceptical over whether the intended launch of October 2013 was realistic; and secondly, I know from my experience of ID cards that there is a culture in the civil service of making promises that cannot be delivered. And what do I find yesterday? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Now, before I jump on any bandwagons, it's helpful to put this in a bit of context. Firstly, the National Audit Office is notorious for nit-picking (as is the Public Accounts Committee), and their supposedly damning reports are often little more than minor points blown out of proportion by the press. Secondly, benefit reform is a hugely controversial issue and a lot of criticism (and defence) of this IT project will be down to ideological stance on benefits rather than whether the product does the job. (For the record, I think the principles of Universal Credit - that work should always pay and simplification of a bloated complex system - are a good idea, but there's valid points over using the reform as a smokescreen for cuts.) Nevertheless, it looks like there's more to this one than political hype. The October launch is now just six pilot sites, which is a common Civil Service method of back-pedalling in a way they can claim they "met" the deadline.

So what's gone wrong? There is a good summary of reported mistakes on BBC news, and the thing that struck me the most about this is how similar these mistakes are to the mistakes made with ID cards. Comparing what's happening now to what happened with ID cards, I can tell you the following:

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Bring on the naked laptops

If we’re serious about using technology to empower users, people should have the choice to buy a laptop, tablet or smartphone without the software.

This is my new laptop. Observant readers will notice that this is a Chromebook running Ubuntu on it. As Linux fans know, Ubuntu and most other Linux distributions can be legally downloaded for free and installed on any computer. The only question is what computer you choose. For me, a Chromebook seemed like a good bet: they are cheap low-spec laptops, probably incapable of running Windows 7, but Ubuntu is a resource-light operating system and I use my desktop for anything resource-intensive. Chrome OS is heavily geared towards users of Google services, like GMail and Google Docs, but I’m installing my own software so that doesn’t matter. So, let’s buy a Chromebook and install Ubuntu. Simple, huh? Simple?

Hah, I wish! You have no idea how much blood, sweat and tears I’ve been through to get to what you can see in that photo. It all boils down to this thing on Chromebooks called secure boot (aka verified boot). Oh boy. This is something that, in theory, is meant to protect you from hackers up to no good – I have used the words “in theory” for a reason, but I’ll come back to that later. As far as Chromebooks are concerned, there is a way of switching off secure boot by going into “developer mode” (which isn’t advertised widely, but if the intention is to prevent people fiddling with settings who don’t know what they’re doing, that’s fair enough). Unfortunately, even in this mode, you still can’t boot from a CD/USB drive, which is the normal way of installing an operating system. Never mind, there’s an Ubuntu derivative out there called Chrubuntu, specially designed to be downloaded and installed from a command prompt in Chrome OS. Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Time to wise up to Freemium

The recent case of a £1,700 Zombies vs Ninja bill should be a wake-up call for how ruthlessly children are being used as cash cows.

“That will be £699.99, please.”

For all the criticisms I have of Apple, one of the things they got right was the App store. They weren’t first people to use this model (Linux distros had already used this approach for years), but they did pioneer mainstream adoption. This has brought a lot of benefits: software installed through repositories such as App Stores easily remains up to date, you don’t have to search on the internet to find the program you’re after (and therefore little danger of accidentally installing a spiked program masquerading as the one you’re after), and it’s easy to remove anything you don’t like (as opposed to hoping the program came with a working uninstall mechanism). It’s also opened up the market on paid apps beyond the big players, and pushed down prices; no more will we be forking out £29.99 for very basic games. On the whole this has been a major step forwards.

Not everything about it has been welcomed. There are quite a few iffy questions about Apple and Windows 8’s over-zealous vetting policies, which I’ve discussed before. But lately I’ve seen a new breed of programs coming to App stores which I think needs questioning. These are known as “Freemium”, and these apps, usually games, are free to download. But if you want to advance in the game, you have to pay real money to receive in-game power-ups. Let’s make this clear: it is nothing like the old model of a free demo version or a paid full-version – they make their money from customers who pay for upgrades again, and again, and again. Freemium advocates might argue that if you want to be a football champion, you have to spend money on a decent kit and training, but I don’t agree. This is cyber-land, where “training” and “kit” is merely changing a few ones and zeros in your favour, and unlike real training and kit this costs nothing to make. I would rather liken this to an owner of a cricket pitch charging you extra for bowling overarm.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Who needs 1984 when we’ve got Foursquare?

Online snooping is getting worrying – but if we want to stop this, we must ask some fundamental questions about social media.

The next poster in the series says "Facebook is privacy"

When George Orwell created Nineteen Eighty-Four and Big Brother in 1948, he could scarcely have imagined the future. Not so much the nightmarish vision of the Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Plenty, Ministry of Peace and Ministry of Love, but two things he would never have guessed. Firstly, the emergence of god-awful reality TV show Big Brother (and all the other god-awful reality TV programmes it spawned), and secondly, a load of persecution complex-ridden Middle Englanders who says “It’s just like 1984” every time they get a speeding fine. I suppose some bits bear resemblance to the book, but that tends to be things like petty council officials invoking anti-terrorist laws over littering. All in all, it’s a bit of a damp squib.

But fear not, Mr. Orwell, all is not lost. Recently we have seen the arrival of a new program called RIOT (Rapid Information Overlay Technology). This little device uses information from social networks to track the movements of individual people. It is suggested this could be used as ways of monitoring people who are about to commit a crime – cue analogies to Precrime in Minority Report – but just like its ficticious counterpart, there are serious questions of how reliable this would actually be. Certainly there’s not much enthusiasm from the Police. Which makes me think the key market might be employers. Like a retail manager who wants to know if his staff are shopping at competitors. Or a civil servant checking which pesky underlings attend opposition party meetings in the run-up to an election. This could be fantastic news – if you are a control freak with lots of money and power.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A harsh lesson for Facebook

As expectations for a free internet increase, more novel ways have to be found to make money. Instagram is a prime example of how not to do it.
“Hello John. You only did six Facebook Status Updates yesterday. Why don’t you buy
the new iThing plus max supreme, with new Facebook infinity plugin included?”

There’s a famous scene from the Stephen Spielberg classic Minority Report depicting a possible future of advertising. In the film, whenever our hero John Anderton enters shopping centre, the nearest advertising billboard scans his irises and says “You, John Anderton, need a holiday / designer jacket / ticket to the Superbowl.” (And when he gets a new pair of eyes on the black market, the adverts change to “You, Mr. Yakamoto, need a holiday / designer jacket / ticket to the Superbowl.”)

Like most science fiction films, it sought to portray an uncomfortable vision of the future, in this case one with scant disregard for civil rights or privacy. However, it appears that the advertising industry completely missed the point and thought Mr. Spielberg was portraying a rosy future where hard-working businesses can sell more products to consumers through a “relevant adverting experience”. At least, this would explain the logic behind those internet adverts of “57-year-old [Insert location you are accessing internet from] Mom looks 27 – click here to discover her secret”. It would also explain why, when you look at one website, the adverts of that product keep following you to other sites – an action I find comparable to sales reps from Boots following you into Debenhams and Costa to pester you into buying the shampoo you were vaguely browsing.

They haven’t quite reached the technology needed to do full Minority Report -style advertising, but recently a photo-sharing site decided it would join in the fun. Yes, following its recent acquisition by Facebook, Instagram helpfully informed its customers, somewhere in its new terms and conditions, stating that in one month’s time they’d have the right to use your photos for any advertising they want One problem: in most cases, it’s not just the consent of the uploader you need: you also need the consent of the photographer (who is not necessarily the uploader) and for adverts you really need the consent of the people in the photos too. So really the only practical legal way they could use this is to use people’s photos as personalised adverts directed at them. Not sure what they had in mind – maybe “If you liked these hills, you’ll love the hills in Bratislakislavia which you can now reach with cheap flights from us. Click Here.” Anyway, we’ll never find out what their plans were because a massive backlash forced them into a U-turn.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

What is going on with Google’s takedown requests?

Iggle Piggle: The new boss of the Pirate Bay?

I know I promised to take a break from Microsoft blog posts, but here’s a third one in a row. Not Windows 8 this time; it's about how Microsoft has got itself in the news for the wrong reasons. It’s been spotted that Microsoft has been sending automated copyright infringement notices to Google claiming that its copyrighted material is being infringed by sites such as, err … the BBC and its well-known hotbed of online piracy, CBeebies. The BBC was unaffected as it’s on a Google whitelist, but other sites weren’t so lucky, including perfectly reputable sites such as AMC Theatres and RealClearPolitics.

First of all, embarrassing though this is for Microsoft, it’s not fair to single them out. Their only crime is getting caught. The majority of copyright enforcement comes from the big film and record labels. As I’ve previously written, wanting to protect their material is reasonable, but their record of heavy-handedness isn’t. Although Microsoft has been criticised for collusion with the record companies, on this issue of dodgy automated takedown requests, I imagine the record companies are doing the same, if not more.