Category Archives: google

Google, Bing: time to junk these parasitic download sites

“Users of today’s PCs live on a precipice. One false click and the adware and malware invades,” I remarked in a recent comment on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 launch.

The remark was prompted by a recent call from a friend. His PC was playing up. He was getting all sort of security warnings and being prompted to download more and more apps supposedly to fix problems. It all started, he said, when he went to Google to install iTunes.

After the clean-up, I wondered what had happened. I went to Google and typed in iTunes.

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The top hit is Apple, which perhaps to prevent this kind of problem has actually paid for an ad on its own brand name. However my friend, understandably, went for the link that said iTunes Free Download (actually I am not sure if this was the exact link he clicked, but it was one like it).

Note how the ads are distinguished from the organic hits only by a small yellow indicator.

Microsoft’s Bing, incidentally, is even worse; I presume because Apple has not paid for an ad:

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Using a secure virtual machine, I investigated what happens if you click one of these links (I advise you NOT to try this on your normal PC). I clicked the Google one, which took me to SOFTNOW.

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I hit the big Download button.

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It is downloading a setup from drive-files-b.com which claims to be iTunes, but it is not, as we will see.

The file passes Microsoft’s security scan and runs. The setup is signed by Perion Network Ltd.

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Now here comes iTunes – or does it?

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I clicked to see the Terms of Service. These are from Perion, not Apple, and explain that I am going to get an alternative search service for my browser plus other utilities, on an opt-out basis.

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However I doubt my friend clicked to see these. Probably he hit Next.

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Apparently I have “elected to download Search Protect”. There are more terms to agree. The Skip and Skip All buttons are in grey; in fact, the Skip button looks disabled though perhaps it is not.

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Now here comes a thing called Wajam which is going to recommend stuff to me.

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And another horror called WebSteroids with more terms of use:

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I am going to get “display ads (banner ads), text ads, in-text ads, interstitial ads, pop up ads, pop under ads, or other types of ads. Users may see additional ads when using their internet browser or other software”.

Thanks.

Now “iTunes” seems to be downloading.

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Once it downloads, I get an Install Now button. Apparently all those Next buttons I clicked did not install iTunes after all.

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This last button, of course, downloads the real setup from Apple and runs it. Unfortunately it is the wrong version.

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Who is to blame for all this? Well, the warning signs may be obvious to those of us in the trade, but frankly it is not that unreasonable to go to your trusted search engine, type in iTunes, and click the download link.

The blame is with Google (and Bing) for taking money from these advertisers whose aim is to get to you download their intrusive ad-laden extras.

Apple iTunes is free software and you can get it from Apple here.

Note that Google is experimenting with removing the address bar altogether, so you can only navigate the web by searching Google (which is what people do anyway). This would make users even more dependent on the search providers to do the right thing, which as you can see from the above, is not something you can count on.

Privacy and online data sharing is a journey into the unknown: report from QCon London

I’m at QCon London, an annual developer conference which is among my favourites thanks to its vendor-neutral content.

One session which stood out for me was from Robin Wilton, Director for Identity and Privacy at the Internet Society, who spoke on “Understanding and managing your Digital Footprint”. I should report dissatisfaction, in that we only skated the surface of “understanding” and got nowhere close to “managing”. I will give him a pass though, for his eloquent refutation of the common assumption that privacy is unimportant if you are doing nothing wrong. If you have nothing to hide you are not a social being, countered Wilton, explaining that humans interact by choosing what to reveal about themselves. Loss of privacy leads to loss of other rights.

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In what struck me as a bleak talk, Wilton described the bargain we make in using online services (our data in exchange for utility) and explained our difficulty in assessing the risks of what we share online and even offline (such as via cameras, loyalty cards and so on). Since the risks are remote in time and place, we cannot evaluate them. We have no control over what we share beyond “first disclosure”. The recipients of our data do not necessarily serve our interests, but rather their own. Paying for a service is no guarantee of data protection. We lack the means to separate work and personal data; you set up a LinkedIn account for business, but then your personal friends find it and ask to be contacts.

Lest we underestimate the amount of data held on us by entities such as Facebook and Google, Wilton reminded us of Max Schrems, who made a Subject Access Request to Facebook and received 1200 pages of data.

When it came to managing our digital footprint though, Wilton had little to offer beyond vague encouragement to increase awareness and take care out there.

Speaking to Wilton after the talk, I suggested an analogy with climate change or pollution, on the basis that we know we are not doing it right, but are incapable of correcting it and can only work towards mitigation of whatever known and unknown problems we are creating for ourselves.

Another issue is that our data is held by large commercial entities with strong lobbying teams and there is little chance of effective legislation to control them; instead we get futility like the EU cookie legislation.

There is another side to this, which Wilton did not bring out, concerning the benefit to us of sharing our data both on a micro level (we get Google Now) or aggregated (we may cure diseases). This is arguably the next revolution in personal computing; or put another way, maybe the bargain is to our advantage after all.

That said, I do not believe we have enough evidence to make this judgment and much depends on how trustworthy those big commercial entities prove to be in the long term.

Good to see this discussed at Qcon, despite a relatively small attendance at Wilton’s talk.

Nokia’s puzzling Android announcement: Nokia X

Nokia has announced the X range: Android smartphones connected to Microsoft/Nokia services including Bing search, OneDrive cloud storage, Nokia Here maps, and Nokia Music.

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The phones, according to Nokia, are aimed at the “affordable” market especially in “growth markets” or in other words, less developed territories.

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The stated reason for Nokia X is combine the rich Android app ecosystem – apart from Google’s own apps which largely will not run because of their dependence on proprietary Google Play services – with a “feeder” for the cloud services which are shared with the Lumia range. The UI is tiled and the phones have the look and feel of cut-down Lumia more than Android. Nokia’s Stephen Elop stated that Lumia and Windows Phone remains Nokia’s primary smartphone strategy.

Note that although Nokia is being acquired by Microsoft, the deal is not complete, and Nokia’s management is equally as independent of Microsoft as it was this time last year.

Here’s the puzzle though. Elop also announced that the low-end Windows Phone, Lumia 520, outsells Android in the €75-150 price range, exactly the range also occupied by Nokia X. It is no more affordable than Windows Phone. The real rationale then is about the Android app ecosystem rather than affordability.

There are several reasons why Nokia X might not be a big hit.

First, consumers will pick up that these do not offer the same experience as mainstream Android devices running Google services. This might not matter if the Microsoft/Nokia services were superior to those from Google, but that is hard to see. Bing vs Google for search?, Nokia Music vs Google Play music? Google Now vs no equivalent? Play Store vs Nokia Store?

Second, if you want a Microsoft services device, how likely is it that the supporting apps on Android will be superior to those on Windows Phone? Take Office 365, for example. Windows Phone has better support than Android, and that is part of Microsoft’s differentiation.

If Nokia X is a worse Android than Android, and a worse Windows Phone than Windows Phone, what is the point of it and why will anyone buy?

Here is where Nokia X does make sense. It is a strong Plan B for a company that is having second thoughts about the long-term prospects of Windows Phone. Perhaps it could also replace Asha at the low end, if in time Nokia manages to drive the cost down. The Android operating system is free, if you leave out the proprietary Google bits, so there is some cost saving versus Windows Phone.

Unfortunately there is also a negative impact on Lumia, in that Nokia is seen to be wavering in its commitment to Windows Phone and distracted by supporting too many mobile operating systems. There was no Lumia announcement today at Mobile World Congress, which is odd considering that Nokia has a reasonable story to report in terms of platform growth.

Microsoft Office 365 and the battle for simplicity

Last week I reviewed a Google Chromebook. Next, I assisted a small business move from Office 365 to Office 365 – yes, Microsoft’s software as a service (SaaS) offering is divided into plans, such that if you want to move from certain plans to certain other plans you have to start again with a new account and copy your data across as best you can, which seems contrary to the smooth experience the cloud is meant to offer. The experience prompts some reflections.

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Do not move between Office 365 plans then, you might argue; but this is not the only complication with Office 365. There are two reasons for its complexity:

1. Although it is SaaS, Office 365 uses a hybrid model in that users are expected to run desktop Office as well as having an Office 365 account. This is a strength in that Word, Outlook and especially Excel are mature and capable products which many users (myself included) find more productive than equivalent browser-based apps, though familiarity is a factor in this. It is also a weakness, since you have a traditional desktop installation working alongside cloud services. Further, if your PC is stolen, you cannot just pick up another PC, log in, and carry on where you left off. You need to install Office first.

Contrast this to the Chromebook, which adopts a pure cloud model. Technically, many browser apps do run locally, in that JavaScript, Flash applets or Google’s native client executes on your local machine just like Office. This is hidden from the user though, and any installations are tucked away in temporary internet files. If you sign into Chrome on another computer, your settings,  bookmarks, history, passwords and browser extensions are synched automatically.

Microsoft has made great strides with its Office installer. Office 2013 installs in most cases using application virtualisation, based on Microsoft’s App-V technology, which means it runs in an isolated environment and is not prone to problems like dynamic library version conflicts or registry errors. The application streaming is also smart enough to let you run applications before they are fully downloaded, by downloading the essential features first and finishing off in the background. The speed with which you can get started with desktop Office, when downloaded as part of an Office 365 subscription, is impressive.

Nevertheless, Microsoft has not eliminated all the issues with desktop software. Outlook was tricky to migrate, for example, in the move with which I assisted. You have to go to the Mail applet in Control Panel, delete the Outlook profile, and create a new one. If you are not careful you can get a scenario where Outlook tries to start up, pauses for a while, and finally announces “Cannot open the Outlook window” and quits. Then you need a web search or a Windows expert to help you out. This kind of experience is less likely with a Chromebook or any pure cloud model where you simply log onto your cloud service.

The worst example of desktop complexity spoiling cloud simplicity is the SharePoint client confusingly called SkyDrive Pro. It is meant to synch SharePoint documents with your local computer but does not work reliably, and trying to fix it involves fiddly instructions to clear your cache, and subsequent re-download of lots of data (I recommend that you do not use SkyDrive Pro).

2. Office 365 is based on applications which were originally built to be managed by system administrators. The core of it is Exchange and SharePoint, both of which come with a myriad of dependencies and configuration options. In their Office 365 guise, these complications are somewhat hidden, and Microsoft has wrapped them with a decent web user interface, both for end users and Office 365 administrators. Nevertheless, the complexity remains, and there is not much in on-premise Exchange that is not also available in Office 365, particularly if you are willing to log on with PowerShell.

This is not a bad thing as such. For businesses with sophisticated Exchange setups it is a good thing, since the features they need are available in Office 365, and the tools with which to configure it are familiar.

However, it does mean that administering Office 365 is more demanding than perhaps it would have been if designed from the ground up as a cloud application. There are also odd limitations and overlapping features. Let’s say you want to have contacts shared between multiple users. Do you use a SharePoint list, or an Exchange public folder? If you use a public folder, why is it that a top-level public folder can only contain mail items whereas a sub-folder can contain contacts, tasks or calendar items? And if you use an Exchange public folder, don’t forget to go into Outlook and add it to public folder favorites, which enables magic like offline access, and to check the option to “Show as an Outlook address book” so you can select email addresses from it when sending an email – all knowledge which comes from experience of Exchange and Outlook, and which is not intuitive or obvious.

The battle of simplicity versus productivity and features

Considering how Office 365 was created, and Microsoft’s desktop heritage, the progress Microsoft has made in wrestling it into a comprehensive and relatively low-maintenance cloud platform is impressive; but more needs to be done before it comes close to Google’s offering in terms of ease of use and freedom from the hassles of maintaining PCs. Microsoft’s battle is to achieve Google-like simplicity of use but without losing the productivity and features which users value.

The question on Google’s side is how quickly it can offer enough of the features for which users and administrators value Microsoft’s platform to tempt more businesses to make the transition. That means the ability to work on documents and spreadsheets in Google’s browser apps without missing Word and Excel, as well as archiving, compliance and management features to match Exchange.

Many are already happy to work in Google apps, of course. I would be interested to hear from others what keeps them on Microsoft’s platform, or alternatively, why they have found Google (or another cloud provider) a satisfactory alternative.

On Google, Motorola, Microsoft and Apple

Google has sold Motorola Mobility to Lenovo at some kind of loss, prompting a few quick observations.

It matters little whether Google’s Motorola transactions were profitable in themselves. Google can afford it. This is all about strategy and the long term.    

Why did Google acquire Motorola Mobility? Primarily for the patents. The fact that it pushed Google into competing with its Android licensees looks now to have been an unfortunate side-effect. Google has shown no inclination to become Apple and make a virtue of controlling the entire stack from device hardware to web platform.

Why did Google sell Motorola Mobility (though not all its patents)? Maybe because it was trading at a loss, but more because there was no strategic benefit, given that it wants to foster its relationship with OEM vendors rather than undermine it.

Google is not a hardware company. It is an advertising company, but it is now more accurately described as a data company, with advertising the tax it imposes to pay for those data services.

Why does Apple remain a hardware company and not license OSX or IOS to third parties? Because it makes a virtue of controlling every detail of the user experience, and because it enables it to charge a premium price, since to get the software you have to buy Apple hardware (yes there is hackintosh but that is not mainstream).

Why is Microsoft doing more hardware alongside Xbox, with Surface tablets, and most recently with the Nokia acquisition? Because its hand was forced. The Windows brand has been damaged by too much poor quality hardware accompanied with too much trialware put there for the OEM’s benefit (it gets paid) rather than for the user’s benefit. There was too little innovation around tablet hardware for Windows 8. There was too much designing down to a price rather than up to a standard. Hence Surface. As for Nokia, the future of Windows Phone depends on it, since it has most of the market. Microsoft could not risk Nokia turning to Android or dialling back on Windows Phone.

Should Microsoft follow Google and dispose of Surface and in due course Nokia? Maybe, but not while the strategic importance of those two businesses remains.

If Windows Phones develops such a strong ecosystem and diverse hardware base that owning Nokia is no longer necessary, then I’d guess that Microsoft would be glad to dispose of it.

What about Surface, is it still needed? The case is less clear. Some hardware partners, like Lenovo, are now doing a reasonable job with Windows 8 hardware. That might suggest that Surface has done its job. Then again, there is the Windows RT problem. Only Microsoft and Nokia/Microsoft offer current Windows RT devices; and Windows RT is strategically important as the version of Windows that is low on maintenance and high on security, like Google’s Chromebook.

Note that Microsoft has not as yet started to offer conventional laptop or desktop PCs. The implication is that its primary goal is not to compete with its hardware partners, but to do something different that will move Windows forward.

 

Privacy, Google Now, Scroogled, and the connected world

2013 saw the launch of Google Now, a service which aspires to alert you to information you care about at just the right time. Rather than mechanical reminders of events 15 minutes before start time, Google Now promises to take into account location, when you are likely to have to leave to arrive where you want to be, and personal preferences. Much of its intelligence is inferred from what Google knows about you through your browsing patterns, searches, location, social media connections and interactions, and (following Google’s acquisition of Nest, which makes home monitoring kit) who knows what other data that might be gathered.

It is obvious that users are being invited to make a deal. Broadly, the offer is that if you hand over as much of your personal data to Google as you can bear, then in return you will get services that will make your life easier. The price you pay, loss of privacy aside, is more targeted advertising.

There could be other hidden costs. Insurance is one that intrigues me. If insurance companies know everything about you, they may be able to predict more accurately what bad things are likely to happen to you and make insuring against them prohibitively expensive.

Another issue is that the more you use Google Now, the more benefit there is in using Google services versus their competitors. This is another example of the winner-takes-all effect which is commonplace in computing, though it is a different mechanism. It is similar to the competitive advantage Google has already won in search: it has more data, therefore it can more easily refine and personalise search results, therefore it gets more data. However this advantage is now extended to calendar, smartphone, social media, online shopping and other functions. I would expect more future debate on whether it is fair for one company to hold all these data. I have argued before about Google and the case for regulation.

This is all relatively new, and there may be – probably are – other downsides that we have not thought of.

Microsoft in 2013 chose to highlight the privacy risks (among other claimed deficiencies) of engaging with Google through its Scroogled campaign.

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Some of the concerns raised are valid; but Microsoft is the wrong entity to do this, and the campaign betrays its concern over more mundane risks like losing business: Windows to Android or Chrome OS, Office to Google Docs, and so on. Negative advertising rarely impresses, and I doubt that Scroogled will do much either to promote Microsoft’s services or to disrupt Google. It is also rather an embarrassment.

The red box above suits my theme though. What comes to mind is what in hindsight is one of the most amusing examples of wrong-headed legislation in history. In 1865 the British Parliament passed the first of three Locomotive Acts regulating “road locomotives” or horseless carriages. It limited speed to 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in the town, and required a man carrying a red flag to walk in front of certain types of vehicles.

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The reason this is so amusing is that having someone walk in front of a motorised vehicle limits the speed of the vehicle to that of the pedestrian, negating its chief benefit.

How could legislators be so stupid? The answer is that they were not stupid and they correctly identified real risks. Motor vehicles can and do cause death and mayhem. They have changed our landscape, in many ways for the worse, and caused untold pollution.

At the same time, the motor vehicle has been a huge advance in civilisation, enabling social interaction, trade and leisure opportunities that we could not now bear to lose. The legislators saw the risks, but had insufficient vision to see the benefits – except that over time, and inevitably, speed limits and other restrictions were relaxed so that motor vehicles were able to deliver the benefits of which they were capable.

My reflection is whether the fears into which the Scroogled campaign attempts to tap are similar to those of the Red Flag legislators. The debate around privacy and data sharing should not be driven by fear, but rather about how to enable the benefits while figuring out what is necessary in terms of regulation. And there is undoubtedly a need for some regulation, just as there is today for motor vehicles – speed limits, safety belts, parking restrictions and all the rest.

Returning for a moment to Microsoft: it seems to me that another risk of its Scroogling efforts is that it positions itself as the red flag rather than the horseless carriage. How is that going to look ten years from now?

Platform Wars: Google injects Chrome OS into Windows, never mind the poor users

Google announced its Chrome browser in September 2008. Its stated goal was to run web applications better:

What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for web pages and applications, and that’s what we set out to build.

Chrome was a hit, thanks to easy install, fast performance, and Google’s ability to advertise it on its own search pages and web applications (as well as some deals with OEM Windows vendors). Today, Chrome is the most popular browser worldwide, according to figures from Statcounter covering desktop, tablet and console browsers:

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That’s 43.64% versus 22.76% for Microsoft Internet Explorer in second place and 18.9% for Firefox in third.

Most of those users are on Windows. Statcounter also reports that Windows worldwide has a 79.1% market share worldwide – not quite dead – though Windows 8 has a measly 7.29% share, just behind OS X.

Note that these figures are for usage, not current sales, which is one reason why Google’s Chrome S is lost somewhere in “other”.

Today though we are seeing the force of Google’s intention to introduce a “modern platform for web pages and applications”. Chrome version 32, which comes as an automatic update for most users, no longer has the look and feel of Windows. It has thin scroll bars that lack the standard single-step arrows:

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If you choose the new “Windows 8 mode” which you will find on the Chrome menu, you get something which is neither like desktop Windows, nor like Windows 8. Instead, it is ChromeOS, injected into Windows.

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Chrome’s “Windows 8” mode only works if you set it as the default browser, and if you choose the Windows 8 mode you lose the desktop version until you select “Relaunch Chrome on the desktop” from its menu.

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What is the effect of “Windows 8 mode”? It has several advantages for Google:

  • It serves as an introduction to Chrome OS, increasing the chance of selling a Chrome OS device (Chromebook) that does not run Windows at all
  • It hides the desktop, making it more likely that you will choose a Google web app rather than a desktop or Windows 8 app for your next task

However, considered as a “modern” style Windows 8 app, it is poor. It is not touch friendly, it is multi-window, and it ignores the conventions of Windows 8 apps – this is really Chrome OS, remember.

Users are not impressed. The thing they hate most is losing the paging arrows on the scroll bars. Check the long comment thread here. For example:

This is ridiculous, and the "just deal with it" from some developers is really grating. I am -terrified- of when my Chrome will update because even using this page now I’ve used the sidebar & steppers. I have vision problems and I fear this update will make Chrome unusable for me. I’m using Windows and should have my scrollbar harmonised with Windows instead of an operating system I do not use.

This is a strategic move though and unlikely to change. Here are the key official statements in that thread. Here:

This is because we’re switching to the chromeos style. Passing to review-ui to make sure they are ok with this.

and here:

There is no easy way to go back to the previous scrollbars. There was a big change in the graphics stack from chrome 31 to chrome 32 which meant to unify 3 platforms: windows, chromeos and linux and that includes a shared widget theme.

Chrome may lose a few users to IE or Firefox, but it takes lot to get people to switch browsers.

The purpose of this post is to highlight Google’s strategy, rather than to pass judgement on whether or not it is a bad thing. It is part of a strategy to kill the Windows ecosystem, oddly echoing Microsoft’s own strategy of “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish”:

"Embrace, extend, and extinguish", also known as "Embrace, extend, and exterminate", is a phrase that the U.S. Department of Justice found was used internally by Microsoft o describe its strategy for entering product categories involving widely used standards, extending those standards with proprietary capabilities, and then using those differences to disadvantage its competitors.

says Wikipedia.

Speaking personally though, if I am running Windows then I want to take full advantage of Windows, not to have it morph into another OS to suit the goals of a competitor.

CES 2014 report: robots, smart home, wearables, bendy TV, tablets, health gadgets, tubes and horns

CES in Las Vegas is an amazing event, partly through sheer scale. It is the largest trade show in Vegas, America’s trade show city. Apparently it was also the largest CES ever: two million square feet of exhibition space, 3,200 exhibitors, 150,000 industry attendees, of whom 35,000 were from outside the USA.

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It follows that CES is beyond the ability of any one person to see in its entirety. Further, it is far from an even representation of the consumer tech industry. Notable absentees include Apple, Google and Microsoft – though Microsoft for one booked a rather large space in the Venetian hotel which was used for private meetings.  The primary purpose of CES, as another journalist explained to me, is for Asian companies to do deals with US and international buyers. The success of WowWee’s stand for app-controllable MiP robots, for example, probably determines how many of the things you will see in the shops in the 2014/15 winter season.

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The kingmakers at CES are the people going round with badges marked Buyer. The press events are a side-show.

CES is also among the world’s biggest trade shows for consumer audio and high-end audio, which is a bonus for me as I have an interest in such things.

Now some observations. First, a reminder that CEA (the organisation behind CES) kicked off the event with a somewhat downbeat presentation showing that global consumer tech spending is essentially flat. Smartphones and tablets are growing, but prices are falling, and most other categories are contracting. Converged devices are reducing overall spend. One you had a camera, a phone and a music player; now the phone does all three.

Second, if there is one dominant presence at CES, it is Samsung. Press counted themselves lucky even to get into the press conference. A showy presentation convinced us that we really want not only UHD (4K UHD is 3840 x 2160 resolution) video, but also a curved screen, for a more immersive experience; or even the best of both worlds, an 85” bendable UHD TV which transforms from flat to curved.

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We already knew that 4K video will go mainstream, but there is more uncertainty about the future connected home. Samsung had a lot to say about this too, unveiling its Smart Home service. A Smart Home Protocol (SHP) will connect devices and home appliances, and an app will let you manage them. Home View will let you view your home remotely. Third parties will be invited to participate. More on the Smart Home is here.

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The technology is there; but there are several stumbling blocks. One is political. Will Apple want to participate in Samsung’s Smart Home? will Google? will Microsoft? What about competitors making home appliances? The answer is that nobody will want to cede control of the Smart Home specifications to Samsung, so it can only succeed through sheer muscle, or by making some alliances.

The other question is around value for money. If you are buying a fridge freezer, how high on your list of requirements is SHP compatibility? How much extra will you spend? If the answer is that old-fashioned attributes like capacity, reliability and running cost are all more important, then the Smart Home cannot happen until there are agreed standards and a low cost of implementation. It will come, but not necessarily from Samsung.

Samsung did not say that much about its mobile devices. No Galaxy S5 yet; maybe at Mobile World Congress next month. It did announce the Galaxy Note Pro and Galaxy Tab Pro series in three sizes; the “Pro” designation intrigues me as it suggests the intention that these be business devices, part of the “death of the PC” theme which was also present at CES.

Samsung did not need to say much about mobile because it knows it is winning. Huawei proudly announced that it it is 3rd in smartphones after Samsung and Apple, with a … 4.8% market share, which says all you need to know.

That said, Huawei made a rather good presentation, showing off its forthcoming AscendMate2 4G smartphone, with 6.1” display, long battery life (more than double that of iPhone 5S is claimed, with more than 2 days in normal use), 5MP front camera for selfies, 13MP rear camera, full specs here. No price yet, but expect it to be competitive.

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Sony also had a good CES, with indications that PlayStation 4 is besting Xbox One in the early days of the next-gen console wars, and a stylish stand reminding us that Sony knows how to design good-looking kit. Sony’s theme was 4K becoming more affordable, with its FDR-AX100 camcorder offering 4K support in a device no larger than most camcorders; unfortunately the sample video we saw did not look particularly good.

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Sony also showed the Xperia Z1 compact smartphone, which went down well, and teased us with an introduction for Sony SmartWear wearable entertainment and “life log” capture. We saw the unremarkable “core” gadget which will capture the data but await more details.

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Another Sony theme was high resolution audio, on which I am writing a detailed piece (not just about Sony) to follow.

As for Microsoft Windows, it was mostly lost behind a sea of Android and other devices, though I will note that Lenovo impressed with its new range of Windows 8 tablets and hybrids – like the 8” Thinkpad with Windows 8.1 Pro and full HD 1920×1200 display – more details here.

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There is an optional USB 3.0 dock for the Thinkpad 8 but I commented to the Lenovo folk that the device really needs a keyboard cover. I mentioned this again at the Kensington stand during the Mobile Focus Digital Experience event, and they told me they would go over and have a look then and there; so if a nice Kensington keyboard cover appears for the Thinkpad 8 you have me to thank.

Whereas Lenovo strikes me as a company which is striving to get the best from Windows 8, I was less impressed by the Asus press event, mainly because I doubt the Windows/Android dual boot concept will take off. Asus showed the TD300 Transformer Book Duet which runs both. I understand why OEMs are trying to bolt together the main business operating system with the most popular tablet OS, but I dislike dual boot systems, and if the Windows 8 dual personality with Metro and desktop is difficult, then a Windows/Android hybrid is more so. I’d guess there is more future in Android emulation on Windows. Run Android apps in a window? Asus did also announce its own 8” Windows 8.1 tablet, but did not think it worth attention in its CES press conference.

Wearables was a theme at CES, especially in the health area, and there was a substantial iHealth section to browse around.

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I am not sure where this is going, but it seems to me inevitable that self-monitoring of how well or badly our bodies are functioning will become commonplace. The result will be fodder for hypochondriacs, but I think there will be real benefits too, in terms of motivation for exercise and healthy diets, and better warning and reaction for critical problems like heart attacks. The worry is that all that data will somehow find its way to Google or health insurance companies, raising premiums for those who need it most. As to which of the many companies jostling for position in this space will survive, that is another matter.

What else? It is a matter of where to stop. I was impressed by NVidia’s demo rig showing three 4K displays driven by a GTX-equipped PC; my snap absolutely does not capture the impact of the driving game being shown.

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I was also impressed by NVidia’s ability to befuddle the press at its launch of the Tegra K1 chipset, confusing 192 CUDA cores with CPU cores. Having said that, the CUDA support does mean you can use those cores for general-purpose programming and I see huge potential in this for more powerful image processing on the device, for example. Tegra 4 on the Surface 2 is an excellent experience, and I hope Microsoft follows up with a K1 model in due course even though that looks doubtful.

There were of course many intriguing devices on show at CES, on some of which I will report over at the Gadget Writing blog, and much wild and wonderful high-end audio.

On audio I will note this. Bang & Olufsen showed a stylish home system, largely wireless, but the sound was disappointing (it also struck me as significant that Android or iOS is required to use it). The audiophiles over in the Venetian tower may have loopy ideas, but they had the best sounds.

CES can do retro as well as next gen; the last pinball machine manufacturer displayed at Digital Experience, while vinyl, tubes and horns were on display over in the tower.

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Reflecting on 2013: the year of not the PC, no privacy, and the Internet of Things

In last year’s review I wrote “Android up, Apple down, Microsoft so near, so far”. Same again? The headline still rings true, though I would not write “Apple down” today. Android ended Apple’s chance of world domination in mobile, but the company continues to thrive. In some markets Apple is almost the only company that matters. Earlier this month I interviewed Gregor Lawson, the co-founder of Morphsuits, for the Guardian web site. Lawson told me about the company’s mobile app, which he regards as strategically important; it is a free app used for marketing. I did not have space to include this snippet, when I asked him whether he had plans to support Windows Phone alongside Apple iOS and Google Android:

“Oh no. We could almost get away without doing Android. For the business that we track, we have about 80% iOS.”

Simple market share figures do not tell you that. It is a matter of context.

So what did happen in 2013? Here are some headlines.

The year of not the PC

You can safely predict that 2014 will be another year of “The PC is dead” “Oh no it isn’t” exchanges, providing technical commentators with an enduring topic. The PC is not dead; it runs most businesses, it is still the best tool for Office-style productivity, it is an excellent games machine, and a fine open platform for running whatever you want. Its decline is unmistakeable though; for people who can do most of what they need on a tablet, a tablet is a better choice, removing many of the hassles associated with PC ownership and offering portability that a laptop cannot match. Sales figures show that trend and 2013 will be another year of decline for PCs and laptops.

Might that tablet run Windows 8? I will say some more about this in the Microsoft-specific section below; but in summary, there was not sign in 2013 of Windows encroaching in any meaningful way on the iOS/Android tablet market.

The shift away from the desktop is huge for the industry. It continues a trend towards cloud and device which has been obvious for several years, but of which people are now more conscious.

BlackBerry dwindles

I dug out my BlackBerry Playbook (launched in 2011) during my Christmas clear-out. It is a nice little tablet – and the QNX embedded OS on which it is based is great – but it failed in the market for all sorts of reasons, the chief one being that it is neither iOS nor Android. 2013 was the launch year for smartphones running BlackBerry 10 (also QNX based), the Z10 and the Q10, but sales have been equally disappointing. It is a shame as the company did many things right: the operating system is good, the developer evangelism and support before the launch was strong, and the handsets in my brief looks are worthy contenders; but the barriers in front of any company trying to launch a new mobile OS have so far proved too great. Those barriers are to do with app ecosystem, the de-facto lock-in among users who have already purchased apps for their current smartphone and want to carry them over, operator support and marketing, retail support and marketing, and the difficulty of competing against Apple, Google, Nokia and Microsoft. Enterprise security was meant to be the USP for BB10 devices, but there are strong mobile device management solutions for other platforms; in fact, the current wisdom is that BES 10, the BlackBerry mobile device management software which also supports iOS and Android, may now be the future of the company.

The year of no privacy

Humans are not logical creatures, which is the only way to make sense of the no-privacy story of 2013. There are two key sides to this.

One is Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing over the data capture practised by his former employer the NSA (National Security Agency), which according to his reports goes beyond what the public imagines that national security agencies do and caused much consternation and indignation around the world.

The other is the increasing amount of data captured for marketing purposes by Google, mobile operators, internet advertisers, retailers online and offline, and others, about which the public cares very little as far as I can tell. The question is: how much data are we willing to hand over in return for free services, and the answer seems to be, pretty much everything. One or two individuals care about this – Aral Balkan for example – but it is not an issue for most of the public.

I am one who is concerned about this, because data is power, and it strikes me as dangerous to put so much power in the hands of a few large corporations, which are only lightly regulated. How much it really matters is open to debate; we are sailing into the unknown.

Turning this around for a moment, for many businesses the ability to make intelligent use of what has become known as “big data” is now critical.

Wearable computing on the rise

A nod here to wearable computing, with the big story being the previews of Google Glass, embedded Android with camera, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi which is clipped to the side of your head and responds to voice control. It may or may not succeed in the market, and makes another bullet point for the Year of No Privacy, but it is a fascinating experiment with huge potential.

It is not just Google Glass. Devices like fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand monitor our movements for the purpose of fitness tracking and will become commonplace – more data, more possibilities, less privacy. Privacy aside, there is no doubting the potential of such devices to improve health, not only by encouraging exercise, but moving on into things like early warning of heart problems and better data on the effectiveness of different treatments.

The Internet of Things

Wearable computing is one facet of a wider field called the Internet of Things (IoT). I was fortunate to attend ThingMonk, a London event organised by analyst company RedMonk, which gave me several insights. 

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Claire Rowland at AlertMe.com talks UX for IoT at ThingMonk, next to an internet-connected coffee machine.

One is that IoT will change our lives, mostly in a good way. Ubiquitous small wi-fi enabled computers will get everywhere, talk to sensors, and connect with web services to make our lives mostly better. Home appliances will report service requirements to engineers before we know, moving maps on our SmartPhone will show where our bus has got to, luggage will phone home, and so on.

For businesses, IoT ability will be an important product differentiator, initially at the high end, but increasingly throughout the market in some sectors; motor vehicles is an example.

At the same time, it was evident from ThingMonk that the IoT world is full of ideas not all of which are practical and plenty of mistakes will be made.

It was also evident that lack of standards will hold back the IoT. Vendors will each prefer to use unpublished APIs and proprietary protocols, to protect their business, even though open standards and published APIs would enable more innovation and be a public benefit.

Microsoft in transition

2013 was the year Microsoft lost a CEO (Steve Ballmer announced his retirement) but failed to gain one (no successor has yet been announced). It is a difficult appointment: does Microsoft need an outsider with new ideas, or simply an insider with the ability to execute on the strategy that is already in place? My view is that the latter is likely to work out better. Oddly, the company announced strong financials despite the decline of the PC, which is why regard the tendency of the media to equate the decline of the Windows client with the decline of Microsoft puzzling at times.

Growth areas in the last set of figures were own-brand hardware (Xbox and Surface), server and tools, and cloud services including Office 365 and Azure.

It is possible that 2014 will be the year when Microsoft unveils a dreadful set of figures but I have been waiting for this a long time.

Nevertheless, Microsoft’s traditional software business is under threat, not only from PC decline but also from cloud computing. Weakness in mobile might help competitors (especially Google) promote rival cloud services.

Microsoft also needs to up its game in quality and performance. Bugs in SkyDrive on Windows 8.1 cost me data this year. I edited an article, saved it to SkyDrive, attached it to an email, but the recipient got an old version. It is extraordinary that Microsoft has yet to get sync right after so many years of trying. Another annoyance is the slowness of Microsoft web properties at times, including Bing.

As always, this will be a fascinating company to watch in 2013.

  • Can Microsoft continue to do whatever Nokia was doing right with Windows Phone, so that market share grows?
  • Will the Windows 8 “Metro” platform build some real momentum as market penetration improves?
  • What will the promised unification of phone and tablet platforms look like for developers?
  • How will Xbox One fare against PlayStation 4, given its higher price and lesser graphics power, but greater innovation with Kinect 2 and voice control?
  • At what point does growth in cloud computing mean that growth in on-premise server licenses will stall?

Twitter, Google, Facebook free services get worse

Twitter got worse in 2013. More sponsored posts and the appearance of inline images on the web site mean that for me the appeal of the controlled, short-form feed which made Twitter great has been diluted. Google search got worse in 2013, with more ads and more brand-driven results, and its insistence on putting Google+ at the centre of its services became an annoyance. Facebook too is increasingly commercial.

These are businesses after all. Overall though, it seemed that the web got more proprietary in 2013.

Social media: the good and the bad

During much of 2013 I edited a section on the Guardian web site focused on social media marketing. The opportunity to talk to many experts in the field has been illuminating. Social media is not a short-term fashion; rather, it has changed the way we interact with each other and made it richer and more public. It is also changing marketing, and not just marketing, but the way businesses engage with their customers and potential customers.

Speaking for myself, user reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor and Amazon are now a significant influence on my purchasing decisions. Despite the fact that such platforms are gamed by vendors, overall I believe I am making better decisions as a result. Whether or not I am right about that, the influence is real.

The positive aspect of social media is the opportunity it presents for businesses to be better informed and more responsive to customer needs, and the increasing power of customer opinion to influence others, resulting in better products and more responsible behaviour.

Negatively though, social media marketing means that our public interactions with friends are now invaded by brands looking for a marketing opportunity, enabled by social media platforms which are monetized by selling our personal data (though hopefully anonymized) and access to our social media feeds. When that vendor interaction is shallow and one-sided, it leaves a sour taste.

The good outweighs the bad in my opinion, though see again the note above on the Year of No Privacy.

Personal hopes for 2014

A few personal hopes for me to review this time next year:

  • A redesigned ITWriting.com, probably on a new cloud platform, as time and funds allow
  • A converged device that works for me, so a smartphone can be good enough (for my specialised purposes) as phone, camera and recording device
  • Complete my Windows 8 game; I am working on it and will write up the experience in due course!

Happy New Year!

2013: the web gets more proprietary. So do operating systems, mobile, everything

There may yet be an ITWriting review of the year; but in the meantime, the trend that has struck me most this year has been the steady march of permission-based, fee-charged technology during the course of the year, even though it has continued trends that were already established.

The decline of Windows and rise of iOS and Android is a great win for Unix-like operating systems over Microsoft’s proprietary Windows; but how do you get apps onto the new mobile platforms? In general, you have to go through an app store and pay a fee to Apple or Google (or maybe Amazon) for the privilege of deployment, unless you are happy to give away your app. Of course there are ways round that through jailbreaks of various kinds, but in the mainstream it is app stores or nothing.

The desktop/laptop model may be an inferior experience for users, but it is more open, in that vendors can sell software to users without paying a fee to the operating system vendor.

Microsoft though is doing its best to drive Windows down the same path. Windows Phone uses the app store model, and so does the “Metro” personality in Windows 8 – hence the name, “Windows Store apps”.

What about the free and open internet? That too is becoming more proprietary. Of course there is still nothing to stop you putting up a web site and handing out the URL; but that is not, in general, how people navigate to sites. Rather, they enter terms into a search engine, and if the search engine does not list your site near the top, you get few visitors.

In this context, I was fascinated by remarks made by Morphsuits co-founder Gregor Lawson in an interview I did for the Guardian web site. His business makes party costumes and benefits from a strong trademarked brand name. Yet he finds that he has to pay for Google ads simply to ensure that a user who types “morphsuits” into a search engine finds his site:

Yes, it is galling, it really is galling," he says. "We are top of the organic search, but we also have to pay. The reason is that some people like organic, some people like to click on ads. Google, in their infinite wisdom, are giving more and more space to the ads because they get money for the ads. So I have to pay to be in it.

It is also worth noting that when you click a link on Google, whether it is a search result or an ad, it is not a direct link to the target site. Rather, it is a link which redirects to that site after storing a database record that you clicked that link. If you are logged into Google then the search giant knows who you are; if you are not logged in, it probably knows anyway thanks to cookies, IP numbers or other tracking techniques. It does this in order to serve you more relevant ads and make more money.

Of course there are other ways to drive traffic, such as posting on Facebook or Twitter – two more proprietary platforms. As this internet properties grow and become more powerful, they change the rules in their favour (which they are entitled to do) but it does raise the question of how this story will play out over time.

For example, Lawson complains in the same interview that if he posts a message on Facebook, it will not be seen by the majority of Morphsuits fans even though they have chosen to like his Facebook page. Only if he pays for a promoted post can he reach those fans.

The power of Facebook must not be understated. One comment I heard recently is that mobile users on average now spend more time in Facebook than browsing the web and by some margin.

Twitter is better in this respect, though there as well the platform is changing, with APIs withdrawn or metered, for example, to drive users to official Twitter clients or the web site so that the user experience is controlled, ads can be delivered and so on.

These are observations, not value judgements. Users appreciate the free services they get from platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and are happy to give up some freedom and share some personal data in return.

The question I suppose is how much power we are ceding to these corporations, who have the ability to make or break businesses and to favour their own businesses at the expense of others, and the potential abuse of that power at some future date.

I appreciate that most people do not seem to care much about these issues, and perhaps they are right not to care. I will give a shout out though to Aral Balkan who is aware of the issues and who created indiephone as a possible answer – an endeavour that has only small chance of success but which is at least worth noting.

Meanwhile, I expect the web, and mobile, and operating systems, to get even more proprietary in 2014 – for better or worse.