Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Apple working on volume control for iPod's ?

One of the problems with using an iPod and listening to some of your favorite music is that you may not realize when the music volume is too loud and liable to hurt your ears. Apple initially did not care too much about this particular problem, but then got hit with a class-action lawsuit over hearing loss caused due to a person. The claim was that the highest level of volume possible in a iPod was enough to cause permanent hearing loss. Apple had at that time responded by releasing a patch that allows users to set a maximum level of volume, but after that, there was no further news in this regard.
However, now Apple seems to have moved further in this direction, and it would now seem that Apple is developing a device that would allow the iPod itself to calculate how long the user has been listening to the iPod and at what volume, and then automatically reduce the volume. Refer this article.

Citing a new patent application, the report--to which Apple declined to comment--says the "device will also calculate the amount of 'quiet time' between when the iPod is turned off and when it is restarted, allowing the volume to be increased again to a safe level."

This could be interesting. Granted, it would be a useful step, but imagine the surprise when a user listening to the device for some time suddenly feels the volume level dropping suddenly. Could be shocking unless the user knows that something like this is going to happen. And unless this is handled right, it could affect all the people who use an iPod as the base for all their music; they connect the iPod to a music system. Such a modification of the volume could also affect them negatively.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ask.com allows erasing of past searches

Once, there was the thought that all the searches that you made were not anything to be worried about; that thought did not last very long as it became clear that search engines were storing searches along with information. Fine, but even then a person does not know who are you - after all, your name and address are not revealed. And then there was research done on the basis of using the various searches conducted by the same computer, and enough information was able to be extracted that the actual address and person could be found. During this time, the question of privacy came to be raised more and more, and there was increasing pressure on search engines to modify their search archival to address privacy concerns.
And now search provider Ask.com has thrown the gauntlet much further. It has announced a feature called AskEraser that seeks to project an image of handling customer-privacy concerns by allowing users to set that their searches on Ask.com be deleted from the company's servers:

When enabled by the user, the feature will completely delete search queries and associated cookie information from Ask.com servers -- including IP addresses, user IDs, session IDs and the text of queries made, according to the company. In most cases, the deletion will take place within a few hours of the time a search is completed, the company said.
But there are important caveats to keep in mind, Chester said, Ask.com, for instance, will still collect and store user search data by default, unless the user specifically enables AskEraser, Chester said. And enabling AskEraser does nothing to prevent third parties with whom Ask.com has relationships from collecting and storing search data.

There are some exceptions, but this is a further movement in the area of search engines being more concerned about privacy. One wonders as to whether Google will react to this move in some way, after all, Google is seen as the market leader in search, and it needs to not be concerned about the privacy of its users. At the same time, Google has made change only after some amount of pressure in the past through privacy experts and through the media.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Facebook forced to reverse plans on Beacon

It seems so logical a business plan; you create a social networking site. Put in effort, put in a lot of useful features, and you start to get a lot of good publicity. People start pouring in, and you start salivating about how to use these large number of people. You get the perfect method, based on advertising. Everything seems fine, and then suddenly there is a large amount of uproar about the loss of privacy implied in this feature, and reluctantly, you have to withdraw the feature. And this is exactly what Facebook had to do over the 'Beacon' feature it introduced.

Facebook is giving members of its social network the ability to completely decline participating in the company's controversial Beacon ad system, a reaction to intense criticism that Beacon is too intrusive and compromises people's privacy. Beacon, part of the company's new ad platform, tracks certain actions of Facebook users on some external sites, like Blockbuster and Fandango, in order to report those actions back to users' Facebook friends network.
The idea is to generate advertising that is more effective because it is intricately combined with people's social circle, so that products and services are promoted in a more organic way via the actions of friends and family.

In this case, the analysis found that Beacon gathered a web of data about the activities of the user even under certain circumstances. For example, Beacon tracks users even if they are logged off from the social-networking site and have declined having their activities broadcast to friends. Beacon captures detailed data including for users who have never signed up to Facebook (but who are transacting on partner sites) or have deactivated their accounts.
Facebook went too far in terms of gathering and using data; however, this is also an example of how even the most fervent supporters can turn against you if they feel that they are being exploited - a sort of warning to developers of such sites.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Mac gets hit with a virus

For years, nay decades, Mac users have claimed that it is poor security prone OS's like Windows that suffer security issues, with regular patching and virus protection needed, and comparatively, Mac's are much more secure. Windows users and people from Microsoft have always countered that Windows is the pre-dominant OS sold, and with the low percentage of Mac users, hackers have not really concentrated on the Mac.
For what seems to be the first time, a Trojan has been found that is made for the Mac and infects it. The Trojan is a file made to look like a video codec, but is instead a piece of malware that will infect the Mac.

The first-ever "fake codec" Trojan malware for the Apple Macintosh was identified yesterday by Intego, a maker of Internet security software for the Mac.
A fake codec pretends to be a free video codec -- often it's posted on a pornography site -- to fool victims into downloading it. It's not a video codec at all, however. Rather, it's a piece of malware intended to compromise the victim's machine. Although there are many Microsoft Windows-based fake-codec Trojans posted on porn Web sites today, Intego's find is thought to be the first Macintosh-based fake codec.

As the Mac grows more popular after the shift of the platform to the Intel chip, it is likely that now hackers will start to pay more attention to the Mac, and to find out security holes.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Apple starts disabling hacked iPhones

After the release of the iPhone, there was some consternation over the non-release of the iPhone outside the United States; it was speculated that hacked copies of the iPhone would be available outside the United States and that this was a natural occurrence. Apple would not be able to do anything about this. Well, looks like the design of Apple's engineers had actually planned for this. So, the latest firmware update to the iPhone has actually disabled the iPhone, apparently permanently for those people who have hacked iPhones. But is this the last statement on this matter ?

The iPhone 1.1.1 update, released Thursday, breaks phones that have been hacked so that they work with providers other than AT&T Inc., the only U.S. provider Apple has allowed to carry its mobile phones. Apple has said that it would fight any attempts to unlock the iPhone. Earlier this week the company released a warning that unlocked iPhones "will likely result in the modified iPhone becoming permanently inoperable when a future Apple-supplied iPhone software update is installed."
The new software is Apple's biggest iPhone update to date, and it fixes a number of security flaws in the mobile phone's browser, mail client and Bluetooth networking server. The majority of the flaws do not appear to be critical, but the update fixes a larger number of bugs than the first iPhone update, released July 31.
Mobile phone users typically cannot update their own software, but Apple introduced this capability in the iPhone, which uses the update mechanism in the phone's iTunes music player. iTunes checks for these updates once per week, so it may take up to seven days for all iPhone users to see these updates. Apple advises users to install the update immediately.

Now, while this patch fixes bugs in the iPhone and should be installed by users, it is unlikely that the hacker community will accept this matter as a fait accompli. It's a gauntlet that Apple has thrown to the hacker community, and with the hacks spawning a new business, there is a major commercial angle to it. Thus, it is likely that hackers will now start to put their creative thoughts on how to defeat this latest attempt by Apple.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

iPhone in Europe

After much hand-wringing and puzzlement over the US only release of the iPhone, Apple is slowly releasing the iPhone in European markets, although, not as attractive to users as it was for the US market. The plan is to release in the UK sometime in October 2007, and then go onto Germany on November 9, 2007. Although one can expects some amount of anticipation, there will not be the same buzz about the release as there was in the US market near its release. Many reasons for this lack of a buzz:
1. The industry to release a patched version of the iPhone that is not carrier restricted is in full swing, so a number of users would already have the iPhone in use with European networks.
2. Europe is far ahead of the US in terms of speed of telecom networks, with 3G being common, and the iPhone currently only supports EDGE which is a lot slower. For people already using 3G or planning to buy a phone to use 3G and get the high speed, the iPhone is a non-starter unless it gets a 3G version
3. Pricing is a major issue. The phone in the US sells for $399, and will sell for a converted value of around $540 in Europe which is a significant premium. Not sure how many people will buy the device at these prices.
4. Apple in the US has gone with a 2-year contract with AT&T for the service plan, but a long service plan is not par for the course in European countries. For customers used to paying on a regular basis and not getting locked into a contract, especially when the contract does not lead to a cheaper device, the iPhone will not seem so attractive.
will all these factors, one will just have to wait and see whether the buzz factor of the iPhone as a must have device is enough to overcome all these.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Get to the moon, win $20 million as a prize

The X Prize foundation is a way to use money an as attraction to get people to use their talents and ingenuity to come up with solutions to intractable problems. So, for example, the first such prize, the Ansari X prize had an open prize to the first group that would send a spacecraft to sub-orbital flight twice within a period of 2 weeks; the prize, $ 10 million. Enough to invite a dedicated group of people who believed that they could do it, and if they did it, then they would not only walk away with fame, and a certain promise of further riches. Then they have open prizes for an effort in human genomes and another prize for the first group to have a vehicle that can go 100 miles per gallon. All these are creditable efforts. But now they are approaching a new frontier, with the moon offer (bankrolled by Google):

Google GOOG will sponsor the newest contest by the X Prize Foundation, which three years ago handed $10 million to a team that sent SpaceShipOne into suborbit and back twice over a two-week period. The nonprofit foundation seeks to promote scientific breakthroughs that benefit humanity. In the new contest, which officials referred to as Moon 2.0, teams will compete to land a privately funded robotic rover on the moon. It will have to roam at least 500 meters of the lunar surface and complete several missions, such as transmitting photos and videos back to Earth.
The idea for the Lunar X Prize emerged from a meeting in March between Google co-founder Larry Page and X Prize Foundation founder Dr. Peter Diamandis. Page is on the foundation's board. Google is the exclusive sponsor. Google already has a Google Moon site, with photos and data focused on the Apollo moon missions. People thought Google Moon was just for fun, "but now you know we are serious about this," said Page, who helped make the Lunar X Prize announcement. "Science and engineering, if you ask an economist, are the only ways that we have to increase our economics and productivity. We believe that these kinds of contests, in setting an ambitious goal like going to the moon, are really a good way to improve the state of humanity."

The Moon is a strange episode in human space history. The US sent a number of missions to the Moon, and then curtailed them; after all, would anybody in the early 70's have believed that a few more flights would have the last people walking on the moon; they would have instead believed that the 80's and 90's would have seen moon bases.
Governments have their own agendas and impulses regarding why this needs to be done, but to get private foundations to do this is a new direction. Any such effort has many positive spinoffs, and if it can succeed, it will be a superb new effort.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Apple reduces price of iPhone by $200

This was not something that anybody would have expected. There was the usual sense of expectation regarding what would be new products introduced by Apple, but nobody would have expected the price of the iPhone to drop by a third, to $399. This is good for the people who were thinking of buying the iPhone but the price of $599 was too expensive for them, or maybe they just did not want to spend so much on the iPhone.
It sure looks like Apple felt that the sales figures for the iPhone were not meeting the desired levels, and the cost is a significant factor, and hence the reduction in the price. This price will make the iPhone more attractive for the holiday season and should spur sales. However, there is a very vocal group of uses who feel extremely dissatisfied with this decision, and it is quite expected. After all, to buy a new gadget is good, and then to find out after you buy it that the price has dropped by $200 would make you look like somewhat of a fool. The users were fairly vocal on the Apple website, and the company decided to give all of them $100 as compensation.

Apple on Thursday offered a $100 store credit and an apology to early adopters of its iPhone mobile handset after they reacted angrily to a large price cut within 10 weeks of its launch. The move, designed to boost sales during the holiday season in the US, was an unusual one for the company. It commands premium prices for its products and tends to add features to them to justify maintaining existing prices.
IPhone owners, some of whom queued for days to buy the handset before it went on sale on June 29, had by Thursday besieged Apple with complaints that they had been taken advantage of and overcharged. Apple’s price cut had also disappointed the market. The company’s shares fell 5 per cent on Wednesday on concerns about the effect on profitability and the decision to cut the price so soon. Apple shares closed a further 1.3 per cent lower on Thursday at $135.01.

This may actually be the first time that Apple has to had face the backlash of customers in such a way, and would not have been pleasant for them. However, it must have been necessary for Apple to make such a move in order to avoid getting a bad backlash from customers; at the same time, given the need to increase sales, the price cut would have been necessary.

Microsoft releases version 1.0 of Silverlight

In the latest development in the battle for getting the leading technology in the area of browsing capabilities and internet applications (also known as Silverlight vs. Flash), Microsoft has released the first version of Silverlight 1.0, touted as a rich media player. And, since no release is good without showing some level of support and incorporation, Microsoft also announced its early bird partners, organizations that have started using Silverlight. These include Home Shopping Network, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Entertainment Tonight (a TV show), Netflix, CBS Corp's TV division, MLB.com and with an additional 35 companies signed on.

Microsoft hopes such partnerships will help drive more than 200 million downloads of the player by the end of June next year. Microsoft is consciously not pushing Silverlight to users out via Windows Update, preferring to stimulate demand for the product through its partnerships.
Microsoft is making its move on turf currently controlled by Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash player, which is used by YouTube videos, for example. The beta and release candidate versions of Silverlight, which boasts 720p high-definition video that trumps the existing version of Flash, have garnered several million downloads so far, Goldfarb said.

And this is the true test. Adobe so far has been the owner of this space, with Flash and Flash Video being the dominant players. Now with the entry of Microsoft, which has its massive OS base and an equally massive marketing strength, it remains to be seen as to how this challenge will fare. Microsoft is also trying something different, with actually partnering with Novell to release a Linux version of Silverlight, a indication of how seriously it views the future of Silverlight.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

AT & T provides new service to give parents control

Nowadays a lot of parents feel that they have lost control on the internet and phone habits of their children, and feel distressed about this. However, it is difficult to act as a policeman at all points of time, so, to leverage on this demand, AT & T has come out with a new service that provides some sort of control facilities on the use of the wireless phone.
So AT & T's new Smart Limits for Wireless is a service that enables parents to set usage limits on the talk time, text messaging, instant messaging and downloading, and also setup filters for mobile web sites. The service provides for parents to control the total bill on their children's plans.

The new service, which is part of AT&T's Smart Limits program across multiple technologies, helps parents protect children from inappropriate calls, texts and Internet content by allowing them to block numbers they deem inappropriate and filter access to content on their child's phone.
The service also lets parents establish a maximum dollar amount that can be spent on download purchases such as ringtones and games, and control the time of day and days of the week that the phone can be used.
When a child nears the established usage limit for any wireless capability, he or she will receive a warning notice; once the limit is reached, the service will be restricted.

The service costs $ 4.99 per month, and given the number of parents worried about their kid misuse of the service, and also to protect them from harm, AT & T would expect this service to be a hit. However, this is not something that a lot of kids would appreciate, given the controls on overall text messaging and call when the total amount nears due.
The service also allows parents to go online and modify the limits that they have set up at any point of time. Of course, given that most parents are behind their kids in terms of technological understanding, it remains to be seen as to how many of them are able to figure out how to use this service effectively.

iPhones sales top that of Smartphones

The iPhone is not a Smartphone as per many analysts, but industry specialists, grabbing at sales data proclaimed that when compared to other Smartphones, the iPhone was the market leader; and in the general handset category, it sold approx 1.8% of all handsets sold. These were based on figures from July, although I would doubt whether the first few months of sales should be an indicator for future trend. After all, the iPhone was one of the most publicized devices, with a halo like aura around it, and proclaimed as the new revolutionary device. It would not be surprising that so many people wanted to be the among the ones to carry the device as it would seem like a major new gadget, a cool thing.
The sales figure from iSuppli for iPhone sales till now have been used to project for sales figures for the next few years:

Apple's iPhone was the top-selling smartphone in July, research firm iSuppli reported Tuesday. On the basis of sales figures so far, iSupply predicted that 2007 iPhone sales would reach 4.5 million, would triple in 2008, and would hit 30 million in 2011. "This is a remarkable accomplishment for Apple," iSuppli said in a statement. It's "likely," the firm said, that iPhone sales so far represent the strongest start for a handset in history.
Greg Sheppard, chief development officer for iSuppli and the author of the study, said that there "was a lot of pent-up demand" for the phone. "The follow-up months will be the real proof of the pudding," he said in a telephone interview. Still, he said, it is a data point that iPhone "popped out ahead" of BlackBerrys, Palms, and other leaders in the smart phone category.
Steve Jobs' latest device tends to be seen as straddling two market segments -- smartphones, which allow users to install applications, and feature phones, which allow users to play multimedia. The iPhone matched sales of the leading feature phone, the LG Chocolate, Sheppard said, noting that some people probably wouldn't put the iPhone directly in competition with smartphones. "But," he said, "if you really look at it, it's a smartphone."

The advantage of the iPhone is that it is seen as having multiple advantages, being a very must-have gadget kind of appeal, being a iPod in terms of playing audio and video, and also having the features of a smartphone. This is a great combination and if Apple can maintain that, it will continue to surge ahead in market share.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Microsoft starts planning for the release of Vista SP1

It's the inevitable. After the release of a new application or Operating system by Microsoft, come the regular questions about the Service Pack. There are a number of people who actually believe that the software becomes stable only when the first Service Pack is released; so it is important for Microsoft to release information about the Service Pack. One can be sure that information will be released in bits and pieces, but it seems clear that the Service Pack will be available for restricted beta testing in September (this month) and then finally out sometime early 2008. Given the complexity of this new system, Microsoft will need a lot of time to make sure that the Service Pack can get as wide a testing as possible; after all, nothing hurts the company as much as the news about bad service packs. For example, when I installed Service Pack2 for Win XP, one of my hard disks became unusable and had to re-formatted losing all the data on the system. This may be an isolated case, but if it happens enough times, it makes for a lot of noise on tech forums and among Microsoft baiters.

After lots of whispers, rumours from beta testers and confusing messages from Microsoft executives, Microsoft has finally revealed the full details about Windows Vista's first service pack. The company confirmed a three-month launch window, with a beta testers getting their hands on the update during September.
Microsoft is saying only "a few weeks" and "September", which are, after all, one and the same, for the beta. As for the final release, the software maker finally acknowledged rumours circulating June that the service pack be fully available until the first quarter of 2008.

As time goes by, doubtless we will hear more about this service pack.

Sony admits defeat to iTunes

Sony had been trying for 3 years now to defeat iTunes in the market for digital music sales. And Sony is not a small player, after it is a conglomerate with a big studio, builds a variety of electronic devices and fast selling mobile phones, but it does not have an iPod. But Sony has also been scoring self-goals in its fight with the emergence of the Apple-iTunes combination. It was slow to adopt MP3 (doing so only in 2004), but its music players have remained locked to Sony's online music store (the same as Apple with iTunes), but this constraint did not work for most people. For the iPod after all, it was the much appreciated design that got people buying iPod's and then getting locked onto the iTunes store. In addition, Sony has been lagging behind the iPod in terms of features, with video incorporation happening only this year.

Sony Corp.'s three-year effort to beat Apple Inc.'s iTunes Music Store is over. The company, which is one of the largest movie, music and consumer electronics companies in the world, said Thursday that it will be closing down its Connect Music Store in Europe and the U.S. In its place, Sony is adding Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media technology to its music players and allowing consumers to download copy-protected content from numerous Windows Media-compatible music stores on the Internet, including those from Napster, Audible.com and WalMart.
Its first players weren't compatible with the fast-growing MP3 format and would only play Sony's proprietary ATRAC format -- something that didn't find favor with consumers. MP3 was eventually added in late 2004 but the players have remained locked to Sony's online music store for music purchases -- until this week's adoption of Windows Media. On the hardware front Sony has also had trouble keeping up with Apple. A video version of the iPod was launched in late 2005, but the same features weren't added to a Walkman player until April this year when devices went on sale in Europe. Walkman players with video still aren't available in the U.S. but will go on sale from September, Sony said Thursday.

This would be a big shock to Sony, it is not often that Sony has admitted defeat, but in the current case, it must not have been able to see any projections that would have enabled it to at some future point of time take on iTunes and win. But better to cut your losses and run.

YouTube returns to Thailand after it agrees to censorship

So the web is not as all-powerful as we thought it would be. After Google and Yahoo changed their policies to agree to censorship in China, and then Second Life buckled down to US pressure and removed gambling from the online game, YouTube agreed to some amount of censorship and remove some videos that were critical of the country's highly regarded king. This agreement related to existing videos and new ones as well, which means extra overhead for YouTube as they will to review all videos referred to them by Thailand and remove the ones deemed insulting to the King:

Thai censors lifted their ban Friday after five months of blocking the online video site because it had carried material seen as insulting to the country's highly venerated king. The site's management has agreed to block any future clips that are deemed offensive to Thai culture or that violate Thai law, said Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, the minister of information and communications technology.
Sitthichai said the agreement with YouTube — a site that allows people to post and share video clips — had been reached some time ago, but that there had been technical problems in implementing it. "Any clip that we think is illegal, we will inform YouTube and YouTube will have a look independently," he said. "If YouTube agrees that it is illegal for Thailand or against Thai culture, they will block it from viewers in Thailand."

Thailand has laws that prohibit any disrespect of the King, and people have been penalized in the past. However, there is no difference now if Iranian and Saudi Arabians censors prohibit a lot of videos that are either disrespectful of the Prophet or show too much skin. In addition, since China has an unstated law that any mention of democracy or openness is equivalent to sedition and must be punished, they must be justified in their attempts to censor what all people can read.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nokia trying to get into mobile services

It appears that Nokia does not learn easily. Long ago, in the year 2000, when it tried to launch mobile services that included downloading of song snippets as ringtones, operators were not very happy since that would have eaten into a revenue source that they were eying themselves. It seems like Nokia would like to try this approach again. After all, being just a handset provider may not be enough in these times of touch competition from other handset providers, and a seemingly easy pot of gold sitting there waiting for them to just grab it. And why would they not think such a thing, with operators failing to get a strategy that would help them grab users for high-data plans; and Nokia having an incredible number of music enabled phones in the market today, and in the hands of users.

On Aug. 29, at a London press conference in a converted fish market alongside the Thames, Nokia's chief executive Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo unveiled plans to launch a slew of services for mobile users—initially in Europe and Asia, and perhaps later in the U.S. Called Ovi (Finnish for "door") the gateway to music, photos, maps, and other content will be available starting later this year.
This time around, mobile operators may be willing to join in. The scheme includes an online music store rivaling Apple's iTunes, aimed primarily, but not exclusively, at the 200 million music-capable Nokia mobile phones already on the market. It also features an interactive multiplayer game service accessible to the 40 million Nokia Nseries phones now in use. And early next year, Nokia will add a service that lets consumers swap personal photos, videos, and audio.

The plan is ambitious, but it has several pitfalls. For example, operators are not likely to be very happy because they see service revenue as something that belongs to them, and not to a lowly hardware maker. In addition, this is a very fickle market and Nokia needs to let this particular section be very creative if it wants to attract users, and one is not sure about whether Nokia is capable of that.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Unlocking the iPhone

Ever since the iPhone was released, there has been a quest among the hacking community to break open the restrictions placed on the iPhone. There would be 3 primary reasons for the hacking effort:
- It's a new device, hence the need for a large section of the hacking community to try and break it; after all, it's a device out there with a major reputation to be made for the first person who successfully is able to demonstrate a break
- The iPhone is locked to the AT & T telecom service for 5 years, and hence there is an effort to break it such that the phone can work with other services inside the US
- There is currently no announced service for the iPhone outside the US, and with a number of people having seen and heard news for months about this great new device, there is a strong factor in trying to get the device to work outside the US.
There have been some news in the past, but no confirmed hack for the iPhone that will break the AT & T activation need. It is of course only a matter of time, and there seem to be some credible news about these breaks:

The iPhone unlocking game heated up considerable over the weekend with no less than three people/groups claiming to have unlocked the coveted Apple device. The first and most impressive iPhone unlock comes from a New Jersey teenager and involves soldering, but most definitely works. Shortly after that came word from Engadget that the somewhat questionable outfit iPhone Sim Free had succeeded with a software only SIM unlock (Engadget claims to have an iPhone that was successfully unlocked).
What about the iPhone Sim Free hack? Engadget is pretty adamant that it works, the iPhone Sim Free folks unlocked one of their iPhones, which led Engadget to throw some bold tags around this statement: “Again: we can confirm with 100% certainty that iPhoneSIMfree.com’s software solution completely SIM unlocks the iPhone, is restore-resistant, and should make the iPhone fully functional for users outside of the US.”

Once such a news is confirmed, and hacking of the iPhone becomes easy, it is very likely that there will be a small industry that will grow around the concept of easy hacking of an iPhone so that it can be used outside the country.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Google Earth now adds Google sky

If you are an avid watcher of Google Earth, use it regularly, and visit or create sites that create mash-ups from Google Earth, then you are going to love this. Google Earth, earth bound for so long (forget the parts about showing maps from Mars), has now turned to the skies, and is showing a new service called Google Sky, literally aiming for the skies. The service will allow users to view images taken from the Hubble Space Telescope, the space based telescope:

"The basic idea is to take Google Earth and turn it on its head," Ed Parsons, Geospatial technologist at Google told the BBC News website. "So rather than using it to view imagery of the Earth, use it to view imagery of space."
Dr John Mason of the British Astronomical Association, Britain's largest body for amateur astronomers said: "Light pollution and air pollution is now so bad in many areas that all you can see when you look up is a few dozen stars. "If this helps people to realise just what they are missing, it is a jolly good thing."

Users will still need to have Google Earth, and need to select a geographic region from which to view the sky. The clarity will be good, and this could be an excellent tool to impart knowledge as well. Just imagine a scenario where students are given assignments for scientific research and that entails using Google sky.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bank shutting down: Problems inside Second Life

Second Life is a game where you can feel that you are in a different world, and indeed you are. It is a world with different rules, totally online and where you can be somebody different from what you are in real life, and also do something different. This lofty objective seems to have been getting badly bruised in the last few months. First, it was the whole concept of gambling inside Second Life that got clobbered by the real-world rule about no online gambling in the United States. And now this, a closure of a bank in the online world has prompted calls for monitoring of Online Financial Institutions by the actual real world monitoring bodies. Calls for monitoring of something that happens in an Online Game may seem crazy for an outsider, but things in Second Life are not so disconnected from the real world.
The currency of Second Life, the Linden is not disconnected from actual Dollars of the real world, with there being an actual conversion factor. And hence, the closure of a bank, Ginko, located in the online game, has had an impact on the real life wallets of people playing the game. The affected people are now obviously calling for greater supervision:

The recent collapse of Ginko Financial, a "virtual investment bank" in Second Life, has spurred calls for more oversight, transparency and accountability, especially when it comes to business practices in the metaverse. Last week, Ginko Financial -- an unregulated bank that promised investors astronomical returns (in excess of 40 percent) and was run by a faceless owner whose identity is still a mystery -- announced it would no longer exist as a financial entity.
The declared insolvency meant the bank would be unable to repay approximately 200,000,000 Lindens (U.S. $750,000) to Second Life residents who had invested their money with the bank over the course of its three and a half years of existence.

Combined with recent stories about the link between people who have had romances online and the obvious resentment felt by their offline mates, it seems that the original dream of 2 separate worlds, an offline world where you live in reality, and an online world where you live the life you want to lead, this dream is gone. There is just too much linkage between these 2 worlds, and to wish otherwise seems unlikely. What all of us are just waiting for is the first divorce case based upon a person being too dedicated to an online partner, and real world spouses. This will get to be even more problematic as you get better game playing equipment that provides a sensory feeling of the game.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Research unveils a paper battery

Think about your current battery, big, bulky, hard, and full of chemicals. Somehow, it seems battery research does not move much, otherwise why would you need to have a mobile phone whose smallness is limited by the size of the battery. Cars running on fuel cells have similar large batteries, and even electric cars can only store batteries that will allow 50-60 miles of travel without re-charging. But as we develop newer devices, the demand on batteries to be more capable and to do more is going to grow. So, in a sign that research in this area is alive and kicking, here is a new paper based battery that still has some time to get into production:

Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York have come up with a working prototype of a battery made out of cellulose, a coating of lithium and carbon tubes the size of a virus: a sheet of black paper that stores an electrical charge. While it works on the same principle as any battery for sale in a corner store, the paper battery from Rensselaer is much different than a typical AA. For starters, it can be as large as a newspaper page, or cut to the size of a postage stamp. It can be inserted under human skin, and be powered in part by body fluids.
Dr. Linhardt says the device works, but cost will be the biggest barrier – which is why use in the extreme cold of outer space by customers with budgets running into the billions is the most promising takeoff point for the technology. “If you need something to work in outer space, money is no object,” he said. The paper battery also holds promise in medicine, where it could be implanted under a patient's skin and used to power medical devices such as pacemakers. And it can use electrolytes in bodily fluids such as sweat or blood to draw power. In a paper published yesterday, the Rensselaer team details its efforts, including the use of urine to power a test version in the lab.

As always, the development of such technologies take time, and go through several stages of on / off development, with many such technologies getting actually dumped because of infeasibility, but as long as research remains alive, and the demand for such battery solutions remains high, things will continue to improve.

Anti-SCO verdict to increase usage of Linux?

Seems very likely. After the judgment of the Single Judge (which can be appealed), the case for more people moving to the Linux platform seems to be much more likely. For quite some time now, SCO has been threatening people with the promise of billions of dollars to be paid in royalty to SCO. When a corporation has to take a decision about purchasing an Operating System for use, it looks at the total cost. Now, Linux is free, has some support cost, and may seem more difficult for Windows-comfortable users to use, but the threat of royalty payments and the uncertainty was prohibitive. With that gone now, one can expect Linux sales to go up significantly:

The court victory likely means better business for Novell, which sells Linux software. Brent Williams, an analyst at the Benchmark brokerage, explained that many businesses interested in switching to Linux had been sitting on the sidelines while the SCO suit played out. They worried using Linux could obligate them to pay royalties to SCO or make them lawsuit targets. SCO has sued AutoZone and DaimlerChrysler for using Linux without paying them.
Companies like Novell and Red Hat make money by packaging and supporting Linux. IBM, which failed in its attempt to market a proprietary operating system of its own, has championed Linux as an alternative to Windows.

With this judgment, SCO gets a body blow, and investors reacted in the same way; the SCO stock was down 70%, and given that SCO is primarily a Linux patent earning company, it is expected that their current business model will be significantly affected. The biggest loser of course could be Microsoft, if more businesses move to a Linux based solution, the direct impact would be on the MS businesses of the Operating System and Office.

iPhone resulting in more trees being felled ?

Sounds a bit strange, does it now. After all, the iPhone is a device like any other (well, maybe somewhat more advanced than other such devices), so what does it specifically have to do with more trees being cut? In fact, if you send more email and messages from the iPhone, it is less likely that you will use less paper, and hence save trees.
However, if you balance that with a telecom company that is bound in hide-bound policies unwilling to be changed, then you will realize as to what the association with AT & T is costing Apple. Well, a long preamble, the actual story is that now that customers have started receiving their bill for usage of the iPhone, the bill displays every login, every message and every call. So if you are a frequent user of the iPhone, you will get a bill that is very big in terms of number of pages:

Unlike most cell phone bills, the statement for the iPhone, which was released at the end of June to unparalleled frenzy from gadget geeks across the country, itemizes every data item -- including every text message, every Internet log in and every e-mail.
"AT&T should get a new tagline -- use AT&T, kill a tree," he said. But to Enderle, the biggest incentive for AT&T to change its itemized billing is financial. "You would hope that a manager at AT&T is looking into this. It's a huge waste of money for them. It's not like this cost of paper is passed through the user. This is straight cost to AT&T," he said. "Not only is this costing more money, but it's pissing off users."

And this is bang on the point. At a point when corporates are trying to become more responsible in terms of their environmental costs and responsibilities, such a billing policy that actually consumes this much paper, even more so because most people are not going to go through the bill in detail, is clearly irresponsible. It is also a very bad business decision by AT & T if they continue, since the cost of paper, printing and postage directly hits their profits and affects their shareholders. Users who are environmentally sensitive will certainly not appreciate this particular policy.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Universal to try out DRM-less music

First there was music on CD's, then came the MP3's followed by Napster, swear words in the language of music studios. As a fight-back, DRM (Digital Rights Management) technology was developed to protect against this increasing piracy. Users did not appreciate all this stuff about DRM since it had some quirks, such as not being able to play bought content on other media devices, and so on, plus restrictions on moving the songs onto multiple devices.
Then came the change. EMI and Apple made a change, by allowing users to purchase DRM-less songs (although at a higher charge). Other music recorders were aghast, and made snide comments at that time, but it was pretty clear that they were waiting to see whether the strategy would be successful, and seems like a small step to test the waters. So, Universal is now going to allow music sellers to sell DRM-less songs (interestingly, not to Apple's iTunes):

Vivendi's Universal Music has said it is to test the digital sale of songs from artists without the customary copy-protection technology. It will allow the sale of thousands of albums and tracks available in MP3-form without the protection, known as digital rights management (DRM).
Universal said: "The experiment will run from August to January and analyze such factors as consumer demand, price sensitivity and piracy in regards to the availability of open MP3s." Retailers including Google, Wal-Mart, and Amazon.com, will participate in the DRM-free trial, Universal said.

An experiment indeed ! I am pretty sure that if they taste success, they will make this experiment a strategy, and also start to seed songs on iTunes. One does not know the price point as yet, but there is no reason why they would not try to make money as iTunes does.

SCO no more a threat to the Unix Community

Some time back, there was a major commotion in the open-source community when SCO, now effectively a patent-holding vulture, staked claim to some prime Unix patents and filed a case against IBM for contributing Unix code to Linux, and followed suit next year by filing similar claims against Novell, claiming that Novell's claims to owning Unix were false.
Well, how things have turned. In a judgment that overturned all these claims, and instead put SCO on a path to closure, a judge ruled in the case that it was indeed Novell that owned the Unix and Unixware copyrights, and closed SCO's claims. In addition, in a judgment that will create immense trouble for SCO, the judge also ruled that after SCO's deals with Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, it is SCO which owes Novell a share of the revenue such generated. And since Novell owns the license, SCO no longer has a leg to stand on in its case against IBM and Novell can force SCO to withdraw the case.
This judgment is something that will be welcomed by most people, especially people from the open-source industry, who always had the threat of SCO's cases open, and reinforced recently with the threat from Microsoft that it also owned some patents that were at the core of Linux. Read more details of the judgment:

In the ruling, the judge said SCO must pay Novell, but the amount will be determined in a trial, said Pamela Jones, founder and editor of Groklaw, a Web site that follows open-source software legal issues.
The ruling is good news for organizations that use open-source software products, said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. "From the perspective of someone who is adopting open-source solutions to run in the enterprise, it proves to them that the industry is going to defend the platform, and that when organizations attack it from a legal perspective, that the industry collectively will defend it," he said.
The decision is "abysmal" news for SCO, according to Zemlin. "Their future is looking bleak," he said.

Now the boot is on the other foot. It is Novell that can file claim to recover revenue from SCO's earnings, something that a number of people in the open-source community will really welcome. In addition, the fact that there is no longer a threat to the Linux community is sure to be welcomed. Next to Microsoft, SCO must be the next most disliked name among these people.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Hacking the iPhone and ease of hacking the Mac

For a long time, Apple and Mac users have disdained the PC and Windows as very bad in security, and instead tom-tommed the relative lower number of hacks on the Mac. Microsoft has always been on the defensive in terms of security, and the large number of cracks and holes available on the OS and apps have always led them to be worried. There have been people who have been saying that Mac has not shown so many cracks just because it has a 5% market share, and people have not found it worth their while to try and break through the Mac OS security:

Though there has yet to be any documented criminal hijacking of the iPhone outside of a lab, Miller says his research shows the relative ease of hacking smart phones, as well as Macs in general. He spoke with Forbes.com about the iPhone's vulnerabilities, Apple's short-lived patch and the company's undeserved reputation for building secure computers.
There are two issues with the iPhone. First, the specific weakness that we found in its Web browser. But there's a more fundamental problem. The iPhone runs everything as "root." In other words, there are no privileges for different users. They should have built layers of security. Instead, if you can find a single crack, any user has the entire phone at their disposal. Last week they basically patched a hole in the wall. But inside, it's still pudding.
Bad guys aren't yet targeting Macs because they want to maximize their time. That means writing viruses that target 95% of computers rather than 5%. Apple currently has around 3.5% of the market, but its market share is growing by around 35% a year. As Mac's numbers creep up to 30% or 40%, cyber-criminals will start asking whether it's better to spend two weeks writing a bug for Windows or just a couple days to write one for Macs.

Almost nothing in this interview is complementary to Mac, but one tends to agree with what he says. Windows is the dominant OS, and most hackers are anyhow biased against Microsoft, in addition people are ready to believe that Windows is inherently insecure, and hence most hackers target Microsoft. Now that the iPhone is a well advertised target, one can expect many more Black Hat hackers to target the iPhone for benefit, and for Apple to be on the backfoot.

Real life invades online world: Gambling banned in 'Second Life'

'Second Life' is a very popular online game, with 8.5 million avatars (representing real people). Now, since creating an avatar is free, this figure is not representative of all the total number of people involved in Second Life, but the number is still a fairly high number. Second life promises a real world online, where you can . Since gambling is a major part of life, gambling inside second life is also common, with the ability to gamble at baccarat, poker, and other games. Now, the difficulty for Linden Labs, the makers of Second Life is that online gambling is explicitly banned in the United States, and in the past, authorities have taken steps to enforce the ban. Second Life may be different, since the gambling is done by avatars, and not by the real person, yet Linden Labs has backed down, and enforced a ban on gambling, and threatened to take a number of measures if it sees gambling happening:

Although "Second Life" is home to large corporations such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Intel Corp., which have virtual advertisements and marketing promotions, thousands of gambling shops dominate commerce. Virtual characters, known as "avatars," may compete at baccarat, poker, slots or other games.
San Francisco-based Linden Lab, which operates "Second Life," imposed the gambling ban last week, citing in a blog "conflicting gambling regulations around the world." The company may remove violators' virtual equipment and may suspend or terminate accounts. Linden Labs also threatened to report user information to authorities.
Numerous "Second Life" fans complained in message forums and on their blogs that the ban was a heavy-handed move to restrict freedom, and experts said the ban could crimp revenue.

This step would be a big shock to users, who would have not had the expectation that constraints from the real world would come zooming in, and the company would buckle down. Depending on user reaction, and given the sense of shock that a lot of users would have felt, the membership and revenue would go down to some extent (there was some initial reaction at the blog, refer this link). On the whole, not a good thing. There are numerous other things that happen in online games, and if the reason for curtailing this is because the US Government is not getting a cut of the online gambling revenue, then it seems very mercenary.

Tech Titans challenge copyright claims in the media

Sounds a bit long-winded, but is a simple thing. When you watch a baseball match or a football match, you will get bombarded with warnings that tell you what you can or cannot do with the thing that you are watching on TV. They never tell you what you can do, instead it is all about not reproducing nor transmitting it any form, coupling this with an official warning and with logos of the league. This practice is now being challenged by a tech association, Computer & Communications Industry Association (comprising such titans such as Google and Microsoft) who contend that these warnings do represent the whole truth, and hence are essentially misleading customers about their rights.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission Latest News about Federal Trade Commission stating that such organizations as Major League Baseball, the National Football League and NBC/Universal, to name just a few, have been misleading consumers for years about their rights under the fair use doctrine in copyright law.
"Every time an American consumer opens a book, plays a DVD or watches a wide range of broadcast programs, he or she is confronted by strong language warning of what they are not allowed to do with that product," the executive summary of the complaint reads. "By design or effect, many of these warnings are misleading and harmful to millions of American consumers, customers and businesses," it continues. In fact, these statements grossly misrepresent federal law, which allows use of this material in certain circumstances, the CCIA contends.
"Uses of copyrighted works unauthorized by the copyright holder are not only permitted by federal law," reads the complaint, "they are actively encouraged by it. Section 107 of the Copyright Act, for example, encourages the unauthorized use of copyrighted works for various purposes, including criticism, commentary and news reporting. Under some circumstances, fair use permits the reproduction of an entire work by consumers."
Further, it goes on to say, MLB's claim that news accounts or "descriptions" of the game cannot be "disseminated" is, no pun intended, completely off base. "No author may copyright facts or ideas. Copyright serves to promote the dissemination of information by ensuring that every idea, theory and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication.

This seems an important issue. For years now, viewers have been essentially threatened that even if they take a section of the recording for doing a critical commentary, it is illegal; and how many users are so aware of that their rights that they don't get dispirited by such challenges.
The concept of fair use is subject to a fair amount of interpretations, and with the rapid advance of technology, legislation and legal compliance is typically falling behind. And for fundamental issues affecting the First Amendment Rights of a citizen, it is even more difficult for a court to refer to the Constitution and interpret it in such cases. Not to talk about how this complaint may even be biased, since many of the complainant companies are running searches, user to user networks, on which many of these clippings get posted.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Gphone: Google Phone ?

There have been rumours of a Google phone (short form 'Gphone') for some time now. Now Google is a search company, or rather it is a company that is trying to do a lot of things, but which makes most of its money from search. It has tried to enter the mobile world through a tie-up with carriers about placing Google search in the mobile space. Now carriers are typically very hard creatures to work with; they don't allow much freedom.
And there was this revolution that happened. Apple released the iPhone in a tie up with AT & T, but shockingly for the telecom industry, it was Apple that called the shots. This was a new type of device with a lot of hype, and hence AT & T would have allowed this. But any such move does set a precedent that Google could easily try and copy:

The company, which has made billions of dollars in Web advertising on computers, is courting wireless operators to carry handsets customized to Google products, including its search engine, email and a new mobile Web browser, say people familiar with the plans. It wants to capture a big chunk of the fast-growing market for ads on cellphones.
Google has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the cellphone project, say people who have been briefed on it. It has developed prototype handsets, made overtures to operators such as T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless, and talked over technical specifications with phone manufacturers. It hopes multiple manufacturers will make devices based on its specs and multiple carriers will offer them.

For Google, the mobile market is the hottest new emerging market, and must be the focus of a lot of strategy sessions at Google headquarters. Carriers have been not so easy to convince, but Google's might and the precedent of the iPhone could change things. If Google does come out with a cellphone, then one would expect more Wi-Fi integration and other methods of browsing, something uncomfortable to carriers since that is outside of their data plans.
The further advantage of having ads on cell phones is that they can be targeted better, and hence Google can ask for and earn more revenue per ad. One thing is sure, Google will do all they can to get an entry into this business, even if it means buying up spectrum and launching itself as a carrier.

An apple patch that you might want to take

Apple has recently released a patch, 2007-007 update for MacOS X, 10.3 and 10.4. This is a mega patch, fixing over 45 defects, out of which 17 are serious security issues where hackers could compromise systems and are classified as equivalent to 'critical'. Since Apple also uses a number of open-source projects, approx 75% of the patches were in the open-source software that Apple blends in with its own code.
These open-source bug fixed include fixes in the following apps: Kerberos, PHP, Samba, SquirrelMail and Tomcat. Components of MacOS X patched as part of this release were CFNetwork, the Mac OS X library of network protocols; CoreAudio, the API (application programming interface) that handles sound on Macs; the zgrep file compression utility; iChat; and WebCore, the part of the WebKit application framework that handles HTML rendering. Fixes also included fixes in Safari (including a fix for a problem on Safari on iPhone)
One normally hears primarily of Microsoft releasing patches at regular intervals to fix security holes and other bugs, so it would be interesting to evaluate whether this gets an negative publicity for Apple. Microsoft would like to advertise this as claiming that OS X has also a number of flaws, and equally, open source technology has a number of security holes for which there are no clear owners, and the total cost of ownership of open source systems is high, as per the Microsoft argument.

Laser printers being a health risk

It was bound to happen. Almost everything that we come into contact with over a period of time will be classified as a health risk. So, the latest article to join the category of being classified as a health risk are some laser printers, model numbers unspecified. Why are they health risks ? Well, a report from the Queensland Institute of Technology in Australia has claimed that out of 62 printers tested, 17 laser printers generated enough spray particles that were so easily inhaled that they could be classified as a health risk:

A report from the Australia's Queensland University of Technology says the particles emitted from some laser printers were as harmful as cigarette smoking. They tested 62 printers. Seventeen printers generated enough fine particles that were easily inhaled and gave you some face time with a "significant health threat," according to Physics professor Lidia Morawska. Swell.
While the study named names -- Canon, HP Color Laserjet, Ricoh and Toshiba -- they unfortunately didn't say anything more about the brands other than "popular models in the U. S. and Australia sold internationally." Hey, come on kids, we need more.

So now, when evaluating a model of a laser printer, in addition to evaluating the dpi, the number of pages printer per minute, cost per page, etc, you will also need to evaluate the danger quotient. And soon, you might find a person filing a class action lawsuit against his company and against printer manufacturers for an unsafe working environment.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sprint network to use Google Search

Google is already a leader in the Internet Search market, is competing with Microsoft in the desktop search, and now has made an entry in the mobile search market. It has announced a tie-up with Sprint Nextel Corp that will add the Google search and mapping services to Sprint's high-speed wireless network. This is a good deal for Sprint in the sense that Google is a world-leader in the area of search and has an excellent brand name.
Sprint's plan is to create a high speed WiMax network that will be 5 times faster than today's networks, and will cover a city wide area. It can be used by devices other than mobile phones, given that it is actually a wireless network accessible by all devices that support this kind of connection. Once this network is rolled out, it is a service that Sprint will charge for, and Google will be available on the home page of this network.

The agreement gives Reston, Va.-based Sprint the prestige of working with the most popular search engine, along with a source of revenue, West said. For Google, the deal brings a way to extend its search engine into the mobile-device market.
West said Google will pay Sprint as part of the agreement, declining to be specific. Sprint and Craig McCaw's Clearwire Corp. said last week they would use a technology called WiMax to build a wireless network that's more than five times faster than today's standard.

This deal is a big deal for Google. Given the speed with which the mobile platform is proliferating and the increased tendency to build devices that allow for internet access, it is important for Google to be available on this platform. In addition, given that there is a class of devices that use Microsoft's Mobile platform, one can be sure that Google will not be the default search on those devices, so Google needs to network with all other providers and platforms.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Microsoft drops price of HD DVD add-on for Xbox 360

The battle for the next generation of DVD players is getting hotter, although it is a long way from decided right now. Sony's Blu-Ray seems to be ahead in the race with the HD DVD, with increasing adoption by the retailers and media industry. However, these are such early days that things can change a lot in the next few months, eventually leading to a decision on the winner. The ones who lose out are the early customers, who end up choosing Blu-Ray or HD DVD players and discs, and then it turns out that the format they choose is the loser and not supported later, or that they buy a player and do not get movies for the player later.
Microsoft is doing its bit in the fight against Blu-Ray and for the HD DVD player, by reducing the price of the HD DVD add-on to the Xbox360 by $20 to $179. In addition, Toshiba extended the offer of 5 free HD DVD movies to people buying this add-on:

"With the price reduction to $179, the Xbox 360 HD DVD Player continues to be the most affordable way to enjoy high definition," said Jeff Bell, corporate vice president of the global marketing, interactive entertainment business, entertainment and devices division at Microsoft.
This price drop and movie giveaway may entice some buyers who already own an Xbox 360, but Sony and Blu-ray's recent victories in retail and rental outlets may prove to be a more powerful weapon. $179 HD DVD players won't be too attractive if consumers can't easily find HD DVD content in their favorite stores. Conversely, if Microsoft's price drop results in sales of large numbers of HD DVD players, retailers may change their tune.

Still a long way to go, and the fight to attract people to these respective platforms will keep on happening for some time more. It would seem like that Blu-Ray is currently leading the fight, and Sony will keep on pushing for more alliances and adoption.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ask.com goes for anonymous search

Google has faced some rough times over the past few years due to its policies on privacy getting thoroughly questioned by privacy experts. It has had to reduce the amount of time that it carries information about users, and is now down to 18 months, from the previous years and years that it used to carry such information. Well, Ask.com has thrown down the gauntlet significantly, and if another search engine were to implement such a policy, the pressure on Google would grow significantly.

Ask.com took a major step toward protecting protecting the privacy of its users when it announced yesterday that it would be launching a new tool that would allow users to use its search engine anonymously. The tool, called AskEraser, will ensure that users' search records will not be retained by the company in any form for any period of time. Users will be able to set AskEraser settings in their privacy preferences, and the company says that the settings will be clearly displayed on results pages so that users will always be aware of the privacy status of their Ask.com searches.
The move comes after Google's recent attempts to placate privacy advocates by shortening the lifespan of its search preference cookie (as long as users never return) and anonymizing its server logs after 18 months. Ask.com also decided that it will anonymize server logs after 18 months, ensuring that even users who don't make use of AskEraser will be able to rest easy knowing that their search histories won't be kept around forever.

This is currently a voluntary measure on Ask.com, and users will have to change their settings for this to work. However, one is always curious about this major fight regarding privacy, since all such time limits such as 18 months is based on the fact that a user does not return to Google, and it is hard to find people who have used Google once and not used again for 18 months, at which time the user's information will be wiped off from the servers.

Duke and iPhone resolve problems

Earlier this week, there was a major issue over the iPhone apparently causing a Denial of Service attacks on the Duke wireless network, and the issue quickly blew up. Apple would have been in the forefront of attempts to make sure that this issue gets resolved due to the potential bad publicity for the iPhone. Well, it's now blown over, and Apple gets a clean chit:

Initial reports of the problem placed the blame for the outages squarely on Apple's iPhones, which flooded the Cisco WAPs (Wireless Access Points) with thousands of address requests per second. However, in a statement released this afternoon, Cisco Systems admitted that the problem was caused by a Cisco glitch.
The problem could be particular to Duke. Other large universities—specifically the University of Wisconsin at Madison—have not experienced problems with its registered iPhones and Cisco-based Wi-Fi network, according to Dave Schroeder, an administrator in UW's Division of Information Technology. "We have seen upwards of 120 unique iPhones since June 30 on our campus-wide wireless infrastructure, which also uses Cisco 802.11b/g access points. To date, we have not encountered or detected any undesirable behavior from iPhones," said Schroeder. "As I have also not heard reports of errant 802.11 iPhone behavior from any other institution or site, it appears that the issue at Duke may be unique. There may be something unique to Duke's particular wireless installation configuration that the iPhone may be exposing," he added.

Of course, that is something that needs to be investigated further. There is something in the Duke network that was causing the problems to happen, and there is no certainty that such issues will not happen again.
There is an additional comment in the bottom of the article quoted above that could also cause certain problems

"My suspicion is that Duke's network requires Cisco's (Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol) security encryption and the iPhone doesn't have that incorporated into it. That could be a source of the problem," said Van Baker, a research vice president at Gartner in San Jose, Calif.
"Cisco's LEAP is an enterprise deployment not seen in the consumer market at all. The iPhone doesn't have a lot of the features you'd normally expect to see in an enterprise class phone," he added.

This was certainly a negative comment by an analyst, and this is something that Apple needs to quickly address. Apple would want this phone to be adapted in the enterprise segment as well, those segments carry a number of phones with them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

iPhone causing denial of service attacks

Could it be too good to be true ? The iPhone is one of the tech marvels that happens once in a few years, and it has shown itself to be a revolution in the designing of phones, although the restriction on carriers and the relatively slow network are acting as hobble-stones.
Well, in the latest news on this area, the iPhones have been caught to be behaving very strangely on the Duke University campus, with around 150 iPhones (a fraction of what would be available once the students come back from holiday) bring several wireless access points to a halt, in an imitation of a Denial of Service attack, probably the last thing that Apple wants to hear at this point:

The iPhone is flooding wireless access points at the US Duke University with MAC address requests, resulting in a denial of service-like attack that is taking out 20 to 30 access points for 10 to 15 minutes at a time – weird! The iPhones are asking for an address that isn’t on Duke University’s network, and when the iPhones don’t get a response, they keep on sending out requests, flooding the available bandwidth.
Help has been sought from Cisco, the maker of the school’s networking equipment, and technical support has been sought from Apple, although there is only speculation online as to precisely what might have caused the problem – Apple isn’t saying anything yet as it no doubt investigates the problem. When the fix inevitably comes, either the iPhone, Cisco’s equipment, or both, will simply be patched with a software update to resolve the problem.

So even though it will probably be a short-lived problem, the fact that such a problem occurred reflects badly on Apple's quality regime. And it is good that it happened at a time when the university was thinly populated, otherwise at peak times and if happening in a number of places at the same time, the problem would have been magnified many times and probably resulted in a loss of face for Apple.

Security company warns against using iPhone's web dialer

The iPhone has a great new feature, and since it is a combination phone and browser, the feature can work really well for most users. But like any other new great feature, there is tremendous capability for misuse, and seeing the ease of misuse, security companies are warning users against using this feature, or to be very careful when using this feature.
What is the feature? Well, the iPhone uses Safari as a web browser. Now, if the web site displays a phone number, all that the user has to do is to click on the phone number in the browser, and the number will get dialed. This is a great feature, but so is the scope for misuse. Imagine the phone in the hand of a neophyte who is viewing some 'interesting' site on the browser, and there is a number displayed along with a catchy slogan. Press the number, and if the number is an international number, or a fraud number, the calls could become very expensive very soon.

Attackers could exploit a bug in this feature to trick a victim into making phone calls to expensive "900" numbers or even keep track of phone calls made by the victim over the Web, said Billy Hoffman, lead researcher with SPI Labs. The iPhone could even be stopped from dialing out, or set to dial out endlessly, he said.
In order for the attack to work, the bad guys would have to either trick iPhone users into visiting a malicious Web site or make a legitimate Web site send untrustworthy information to the iPhone using what's known as a cross-site scripting attack. "Any time someone could control the content that's getting sent to the iPhone [the possibility of an attack] exists," Hoffman said.

It is not as difficult as it looks. It is actually as easy as letting the iPhone be used by a child or by somebody else who is not so experienced, and it is not difficult to create a site that will look attractive and feature this kind of mischief. But as of now there is no way to prevent it, so being careful is the only good way of dealing with this problem.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some Democrats criticize carrier restriction for iPhone

This seems a bit funny. During a Congressional hearing on regulation in the wireless industry, some Democratic leaders lit up on Apple and the iPhone for restricting usage only to AT&T as an exclusive carrier for 5 years. It was sought to be portrayed as a limitation to customers who either had other providers or who were located in areas where AT&T did not provide coverage. Seems a bit strange to be objecting to something that seems so central to how the wireless industry works:

The iPhone "highlights both the promise and the problems of the wireless industry today," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecom and the Internet. "This cutting edge technology breaks new ground … [but] consumers can't use this service with other wireless carriers" and those in areas not reached by AT&T cannot use the iPhone at all, he said.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., was less concerned. "Competition spurs carriers to innovate and build a better mousetrap," he said. "The iPhone is the newest mousetrap and now other carriers will be working to top it." Members convened the hearing to debate whether wireless service agreement regulation should be transferred from state public utility commissions (PUCs) to the federal government. The wireless industry has long favored a more national approach, but state PUCs are hesitant to give up control.

This restriction to AT&T has long been sought as a major weakness for the iPhone, since there will be a number of customers who will not be able to switch over to AT&T because of existing contracts. However, the iPhone is not a device that has a major share of the market, and there will be more devices that will come out of a similar nature that will allow people to use these devices. It is not in the nature of an anti-trust deal that requires lawmakers to comment. It would be nice if there was no restriction, but this is a commercial contract.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Google buys Postini for $625 million

Continuing in its quest for trying to beat Microsoft in the office category, Google made another big buy, buying a 'communications security' firm, Postini, for $625 million. What does Positini do ? Well, it lets corporations set security rules for all communication happening inside the company, such as e-mail, instant messenger and browsing activities. Such policies are necessary for companies, be it to maintain a track of communications for legal purposes, to filter e-mail for spam and viruses, or to prevent employees from accessing certain type of information.

When corporations adopt Postini's software, they can access, filter and impose restrictions on their employees' e-mail, instant messaging and Web habits. And because Google's moving into corporations -- it's fighting Microsoft for the right to rule over our cubicles -- helping firms keep an eye on their workers is an important goal.
There's a useful purpose to these corporate lockdowns, of course. Google notes that companies are under regulations to preserve all their data; the SEC is going to want to know if you discussed setting up Cayman Island shell corporations over AIM. So companies that are itching to use Google's office apps -- Gmail, Google documents, Google Talk, etc. -- can't switch over until the software can be made to obey such archiving rules. Companies are also targets of espionage, they're subject to leaks, and they suffer losses due to viruses and other network attacks. By keeping workers' computers pinned down and monitored, Postini can mitigate all these risks, it says.

Postini is not meant for the employee, it is meant for the corporations to better enforce policies. This acquisition by Google will help make Google's apps (such as Google Pack, Google Talk, etc) be more usable in an office context, and give them a realistic chance of competing with Microsoft's products, Google's prime goal.

Don't use iPod in a thunderstorm

In a report on a man struck by lightning while jogging and using an iPod, the report concludes that even though the iPod did not attract the lightning, once struck, he suffered far greater harm to his body due to wearing the iPod. Refer this report:

His eardrums were ruptured, his jaw fractured and he suffered first- and second-degree burns from his chest — where the device was strapped — up into his ear channels, along the trail of the iPod's earphones. He also had burns down his left leg and foot, where the electricity exited his body, blowing his sneaker to smithereens in the process.
Heffernan said in an interview with the Canadian Press that the man's experience ought to be a cautionary tale for anyone wearing earphones outdoors during a thunderstorm. "Using things like this, a mobile phone or an iPod, there isn't actually an increased risk (of incurring a lightning injury)," he said from Vancouver. "But we just suggest that if you are unlucky enough to be hit by lightning while listening to anything with earphones, you may be more likely to do yourself some damage."
"But once electricity contacts the iPod, then the metal will conduct the electricity and can cause secondary burns, as this gentleman had to his chest underneath where the iPod was and up where the wires went up into his ears, and possibly even cause enough muscle contraction that either caused the jaw fracture or perhaps he fell forward onto his jaw."

Sp, even though the iPod did not cause the electricity to hit him, once he got hit, it amplified the damage and caused him some permanent damage. So this is more of a precaution to not use devices such as iPod's and mobile phones in a thunderstorm or when there is a higher chance of electricity hits.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Selling security exploits

The biggest fear of software makers, application system makers and the like (Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, and numerous other big entities) is coming true. Ever since software holes and bugs started to come into existence, there was always the pressure between the software company trying to release a patch, and hackers trying to exploit this defect. In the past, software makers would try to apply pressure on the defect finders to keep it quiet till the patch is released. If the patch was found by a big company, they would normally respond to pressure from the likes of Microsoft and not release into the public domain.
However, this was not happening more and more, with the security companies releasing their findings independently of the software makers. Some of them would even sell these to people who would exploit them for nefarious purposes. As an example, review the number of botnets that exist in the internet today, with millions of computers being hacked into and controlled. The situation was literally demanding a market-place for such bugs:

An eBay-like auction site that sells vulnerabilities will improve security by ensuring researchers get a fair price for their work, its founders say. "The existing business model to reward researchers is a failure," said Herman Zampariolo, chief executive of WSLabi, and the man behind the WabiSabiLabi auction site. A tiny minority of vulnerabilities currently get patched, he said, because IT experts aren't paid for their work in uncovering them.
"As long as vulnerabilities are bought and sold privately, the value can't be the right one," Zampariolo said. "Our intention is that the marketplace facility on WSLabi will enable security researchers to get a fair price for their findings and ensure that they will no longer be forced to give them away for free or sell them to cybercriminals," he added.
So far, no bids have been posted, possibly because of delays in identifying the buyers, each of whom must use snail mail or fax to deliver proof of their identity and their bank account--electronic currencies are not accepted on the site. Around 20 buyers have been registered so far, as well as 30 sellers, who have provided another batch of flaws that should be on the site next week.

In this case, the intention may be genuine; however, where is the control mechanism to ensure that these sales are happening to the right people. If we are just dependent on the operators of the exchange, then there is no guarantee. Later, if the number of such buyers increases, it would be very easy for the cyber-criminals to pretend to be a genuine buyer and get access to top-notch holes on a very quick basis.

Playstation prices to reduce

Sony's Playstation 3 has got walloped by the Wii in its major markets, and the fact that the PS3 is much more expensive than the Wii. One thing that is expected to happen is that the price of the PS3 would be dropped, not only to compete better with the Wii and the Xbox 360, but also to promote Blu-Ray movies more effectively. This is a particularly critical time to promote the new standard, since a lot of the decision making by other stakeholders such as major studios, etc is being done. Their decision will have a big impact on which of the 2 rival formats (Blu-Ray vs. HD DVD) eventually gets selected as the default format.
Currently, the President of Sony (Ryoji Chubachi) sticks to the no-price-drop-for-PS3 stand, but things may change before the Christmas season:

The fact is that Sony, bereft of PS3 games at present, has flushed out most of the hard core gamers who would buy Sony's latest latest console at any price. The Wii is in a different class and the real competition for the high end of gaming is Xbox 360.
Sony will cut the price of PS3 for two reasons. One is to bridge the gap with Xbox 360 and the other is to drive the nail deeper into the coffin of the HD DVD high definition format.
Given the fact that there are hardly any PS3 games worth buying yet, Sony's nextgen console has done remarkably well to have sold nearly 4 million units worldwide so far. Despite the naysayers, I believe much of this has to do with the PS3's capability as a Blu-ray player. After all, until PS3 games hit the market en masse why would you buy the most expensive console on the planet?
Sony has promised 380 PS3 games will hit the market by next March. If that promise is kept, it will provide a huge filip to PS3 sales. Meanwhile, Blu-ray movie titles continue to grow, HD flat panel TVs continue to sell and PS3 continues to be the best selling HD video player on the planet.

Sony would be constantly trying to evolve its strategy. Both the Blu-Ray and PS3 are high-stake strategies for Sony, and if a price cut is required for sales to increase, a price cut it will be.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Open document formats push by states and Microsoft

There is a large amount of money in software contracts by American states. Hence if a state makes a push for moving onto an independent document format, it has a major impact on Microsoft, since Office makes around 1/3rd of Microsoft's revenue, making around $14 billion.
There have been attempts by some American states to try and push through legislative bills to mandate the use of an open document format (ODF), something that Microsoft's Office did not have. Such a measure could have a domino effect on other states also trying out similar efforts, and hence Microsoft's intense lobbying of legislators paid off. The states of Florida, Texas, California, Oregon, and Connecticut had these bills defeated and never became law. Chalk one up for Microsoft. Remained Massachusetts.
To get around the obstacle of not having an Open document format, Microsoft proposed a new format called 'Open XML' and promised to allow any company to make software that will produce documents in the Open XML format. In addition, the new format was also validated by an open standards body called ECMA International.
These gambits seem to have worked. When Massachusetts finally decided on this topic, the decision was 'Okay, fine'. This means that Microsoft Office is still on the list of softwares that can be bought by the state of Massachusetts, handing Microsoft a great victory and crushing the hopes of some open source competitors such as Open Office. Now that state agencies can continue to use MS office, there is much less of an incentive to switch to open source software.

Bethann Pepoli, Massachusetts' acting chief information officer, said her office is seeking public comment through July 20 on the plan to approve the Microsoft format. But Pepoli already seems convinced. "It does meet our criteria for an open standard," she said.
Andrew Updegrove, a Boston lawyer who tracks the open document dispute, said that Microsoft's embrace of its Open XML provides more choices to consumers, because rival software companies can make compatible products. "If you look at it from the standpoint of Microsoft customers, it's a good thing," Updegrove said. But he warned that if Microsoft's Open XML becomes the dominant format, driving out ODF, Microsoft could try to modify the standard in ways that would put competing software products at a permanent disadvantage.

And that last point is the major one. Microsoft has not been known for its usage of business ethics and has been known to use all sort of tactics to get victory. The hope remains that things will change this time.

iPhone: The hacking race begins

In the past, there was a great market for cracking the service linkages of phones. The concept being, SIM based GSM phones in many countries are locked to service providers. They are much cheaper than their cost because of the service conrtract, with a subsidy being provided by the telecom carrier such as AT&T, SPrint, etc. This subsidy is provided because the contract normally locks the user in for a 2 year conract, and the company can recover the subsidy during this period.
The iPhone is a somewhat different model. AT&T does not provide any subsidy for the iPhone, with the full cost of the phone being the amount charged ($499 for a 4 GB one, and $599 for a 8 GB one); but Apple, presumably in a bid to repay AT&T over the allowances allowed to Apple while designing the phone prevents another SIM from being used in the phone. In addition, no functionality of the device such as music playing, video, camera, etc can be used without activation (which can only happen with AT&T in the US - and not yet allowed outside the US).
Thus the cat and mouse game between a company and hackers has now begun. The iPhone is a prime target for hackers and crackers, many seeing it as a game / test; and many seeing it as something worth a great deal of money. When Apple would have designed the phone, it would have been a priority to set the security of the phone such that the protection would have difficult to crack:

Locked phones can only be used with cellular service from one carrier, a move designed to guarantee carriers recover the cost of subsidizing a handset through monthly service charges. But the cost of the iPhone, which is priced at either US$499 or $599 depending on the model, is not subsidized by AT&T. Users must pay full price for the handset and sign a two-year contract, which requires them to pay from $59.99 to $99.99 per month for cellular service.
Unlocking the iPhone will enable the handset to be used with any cellular provider with a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) or EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) network, not just AT&T's network. That's an attractive proposition for users who already have a cellular contract with another carrier, or users outside the U.S. who can't wait to get their hands on Apple's new handset.
Efforts to unlock the iPhone are being tracked on several Web sites, including Hackint0sh and the iPhone Dev Wiki.

This is also something that is a bit odd. If users are being made to pay the full amount for the phone, then they should be able to use the phone at their discretion. It is understandable if the iPhone was subsidized, in which case the service provider locks the phone until the subsidy has been paid. But to lock the phone till activation and prevent usage of other functions is very strange, and once could argue, an extra charge that a user has to bear for having the iPhone. Especially because the AT&T network has been shown to be a slow one, and limiting the speed of wireless browsing.
It is bound to happen sooner or later that the unlocking scheme will fail, and when that happens, it will be a pretty simple job to do this in mass. That will be time when the world proliferation of the iPhone begins.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The time involved in getting the iPhone to actually start working

In all the launch buzz of the iPhone, there has been an incredibly successful publicity campaign that has been run, and market watchers have been waiting to see whether Apple will do anything to trip up on this success story. Well, there is some news, just not enough to trip up the iPhone story, but enough to give a serious headaches to the thousands of people affected.
Normally, the process of wireless activation involves the sales person in the shop handling the activation process, something that would take rougly an hour. However, to make things easier for the large crowds expected, Apple changed the activation process to something that can be done via the user's own computer, through their version of iTunes. However, in the end, this caused problems for a number of buyers, with no clarity regarding contact numbers, and in many cases, with buyers having to spend more than 10 hours waiting for activation to happen.
This can actually be the most frustating thing in the world as of that point, if you imagine spending some time in queue to buy a new phone for around $600-700, and then having to wait while customer service tells you that you need to wait. Obviously, these are teething problems, and Apple should be happy that otherwise people are happy with the phone, otherwise this issue would have escalated into a disaster.

Apple and AT&T unveiled an innovative activation scheme with the iPhone launch. Usually, activating a new cell phone means spending almost an hour or so in a wireless store as the sales representative lights up the phone. But with the long lines expected last Friday, Apple came up with a way to use iTunes to connect to AT&T's activation process so iPhone customers could set up the device at home.
Activation was supposed to be a snap: hook up the iPhone to a Mac or PC with the latest version of iTunes installed, and the software would automatically walk you through the process. After entering a credit card number and selecting a rate plan, the system was supposed to send an e-mail confirming the iPhone had been activated. But waiting for that e-mail turned into a frustrating experience for some iPhone customers.
Other iPhone owners on Apple's Web site reported problems with the SIM (subscriber identity module) cards inside their iPhones. SIM cards hold information unique to a mobile phone account and allow users to easily switch between phones while keeping their numbers and contacts--except on the iPhone, which uses a SIM card that works only with the iPhone. It seemed that the activation system was unable to recognize the SIM cards in some iPhones, which led it to bypass the activation screen and move straight into syncing music, movies and contacts. One user reported that his local AT&T store switched the SIM card that originally came with his iPhone for a new one, fixing the problem. Others said they had done the same thing.

Of course, Apple made a feature that caused a lot of worry to those users who were not activated. Unless the phone was activated, users could not even access other features on the phone; this was something that Apple should have thought through much more clearly, and from the perspective of phone users, not from the perspective of AT&T.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Some relief for the Playstation 3 down under

In the US and Japan, major markets for the gaming consoles, the Nintendo Wii is beating the Playstation 3 by large margins. So it must be some consolation for Sony that in the market at the bottom of the world, that is, the Australian market, Playstation 3 is the largest selling gaming console, outselling the Xbox and Nintendo Wii.

According to Ephraim, the Playstation 3 has sold 50,000 units since its launch March 23, 2007. The Wii, which launched December 7, 2006 has accumulated 100,000 consoles sold.

This is good news, even though the number of actual consoles sold is not that much. May make sense for Sony to keep on investigating as to what worked in the Australian market (maybe a specific campaign or something like that) and see how they can use such inputs to get out of their losing position in the US and Japanese market.

The iPhone finally on sale

Finally, one of the most-awaited devices is on sale, and as expected, there are long queues waiting to buy the phone. But with prices of between $1,100 and $2,000 being quoted on Craiglist and eBay, it is an open question as to how many people are waiting to get it first and then immediately sell it, as opposed to those who are waiting to be one of the first to get their hands on it for personal use. Anyhow, the initial response would be good news for Apple. The iPhone is a major business milestone for Apple, and the success or failure (not meeting projected targets) would have a major impact on Apple.
If Apple can show the iPhone as a major success, they will be known as the company with a Midas touch, in tune with customer requirements and on the bleeding edge of design. If, however, there is a failure, then things will move the other way. The Apple stock, that has gone by more than 200% in the last couple of years will show the impact as well. Of course, as the example of the Playstation3 shows, it will only be with the passage of time that success or failure can be measured. Right now, it is the device fetching customers to shops:

Take San Francisco resident Jerry Taylor, 54, who was first to buy the iPhone from Apple's store near Union Square. After a brief moment in the media spotlight, he said he was selling the device, apparently to a mysterious man with a Scandanavian accent who stood next to Taylor, but who declined to give his name. In spending more than $650 for the gadget, including taxes, Taylor said he was "gambling with this month's rent."
In case you're one of the few who haven't heard, the iPhone is Apple's first attempt at a cell phone. Hyped for months - even years - the device is built around a large, touch sensitive screen, which takes the place of a physical keypad. Apple CEO Steve Jobs and a coterie of analysts, consumers and enthusiasts have predicted that the device will change the cell phone industry as much as Apple's Macintosh computers and iPod MP3 players changed the PC and music businesses, respectively.

It could be similar to what the iPod has turned out to be. The iPod is more expensive than most other music players of its category, but yet is an incredible success, chiefly because it has an incredible reputation. It is known as having an excellent design, with a great brand value and with a complete service infra-structure including good integration with a music purchase and download process (iTunes and store).