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’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, 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 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.