Archive for the 'Observer' Category

Batteries not excluded

[link] Sunday, April 12th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Many years ago, in 1999 to be exact, Andy Grove, who was then chairman of the giant chip-maker Intel, famously predicted: “Companies that are not internet companies in five years’ time won’t be companies at all.” He was widely ridiculed for this assertion, mostly because his critics didn’t understand what he was getting at. All he was saying was that the internet, which in 1999 was still regarded by much of the world as exotic, would one day be regarded as a utility, like mains electricity.

Grove was right. What he omitted to say, however, was that the net would never be as important as electricity. This fact appears to have escaped the notice of some folks in the computing business; it certainly escapes many of those who breathlessly report its doings. But it’s obvious the moment you think about it. If we had to choose between the internet or access to electrical power, which one would we go for? No contest.

What we have come to accept as civilised life depends utterly on secure supplies of electricity. We would miss the net, of course, and large chunks of our technical infrastructure depend on its continuance, but we could get by without it. Take away electricity, however, and our modern machine, including the net, stops…

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Apple: the Toyota of precision manufacturing?

[link] Sunday, April 5th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column. Excerpt:

Most of the discussion about the watch comes down, in the end, to reveries about Apple’s now legendary ability to design objects that are both beautiful and functional. But in taking this line we are, in fact, overlooking a more important point. Because what is really interesting about Apple is not just that it can design great products, but that it can actually manufacture the things in huge volumes, and deliver them to market on time.

Just to put that point about volumes in context, consider the iPhone 6. It weighs 129g, and its bigger brother, the 6 Plus, weighs in at 172.1g. In the last quarter of 2014, Apple sold 74.5m iPhones, which works out at an average of 846, 590 a day. If we assume that 15% of those sales were of the heavier Plus, then that means Apple shifted 114,676kg of iPhones a day, on average. Just for comparison, the operating dry weight of a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner is 117, 707kg…

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Crime doesn’t pay, unless it’s online

[link] Sunday, March 29th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Now I know that there are lies, damned lies and crime statistics, but everyone in the UK, including the Office for National Statistics, seems to agree that recorded crime is decreasing – and has been for quite a while. This is one of the arguments the government is using to justify its savage cuts in police budgets. Given that we’ve got crime on the run (so the argument goes) all we have to do now is to get the coppers to become more efficient – working smarter, making better use of information technology and computers, etc. Reduction in crime means we don’t need so many police officers. QED.

The only fly in this rosy ointment is that it’s based on a false premise. Recorded crime is declining, but that’s largely due to the fact that crime has moved on – specifically from the physical world to cyberspace. And there’s a very simple reason for this: cybercrime is a much safer and more lucrative activity than its real-world counterpart. The rewards are much greater, and the risks of being caught and convicted are vanishingly small. So if you’re a rational criminal with a reasonable IQ, why would you bother mugging people, breaking into houses, nicking cars and doing all the other things that old-style crooks do – and that old-style cops are good at catching them doing?

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Internet Explorer RIP

[link] Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Let’s spool back a bit – to 1993. By then, the internet was roughly 10 years old, but for its first decade had been largely unknown to anyone other than geeks and computer science researchers. Two years earlier, Tim Berners-Lee had created and released the world wide web onto the internet, but initially no one noticed. Then in the spring of 1993, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina released Mosaic – the first graphical browser – and suddenly the “real world” realised what the internet was for, and clamoured to get aboard.

But here’s the strange thing: Microsoft – by then the overwhelmingly dominant force in the computing world – failed to notice the internet. One of Bill Gates’s biographers, James Wallace, claimed that Microsoft didn’t even have an internet server until early in 1993, and that the only reason the company set one up was because Steve Ballmer, Gates’s second-in-command, had discovered on a sales trip that most of his big corporate customers were complaining that Windows didn’t have a “TCP/IP stack” – ie, a way of connecting to the internet. Ballmer had never heard of TCP/IP. “I don’t know what it is,” he shouted at subordinates on his return to Seattle. “I don’t want to know what it is. But my customers are screaming about it. Make the pain go away.”

But even when Microsoft engineers built a TCP/IP stack into Windows, the pain continued…

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So what kind of time will you get from the iWatch?

[link] Sunday, March 15th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

A few months ago I bought a “smartwatch”. I did so because there was increasing media hype about these devices and I don’t write about kit that I haven’t owned and used in anger. The model I chose was a Pebble Steel, for several reasons: it was originally funded by a Kickstarter campaign; a geek friend already had one; and, well, it looked interesting. Now, several months on, I am back to wearing my old analogue watch. The Pebble experiment turned out to be instructive. The watch was well made and well presented. It had reasonable battery life and the software was easy to install on my iPhone. The bluetooth link was reliable. Its timekeeping was accurate, and it could display the time in a variety of ways, some of them humorous. One could download a variety of virtual watch-faces, and so on.

So why is it not still on my wrist? Well, basically most of its “features” were of little or no actual use to me; and for much of the time, even apps that I would have found useful – such as having the watch vibrate when a text message arrived – turned out to be flaky: sometimes they worked; more often they didn’t. Which of course led to the thought that if anybody can make the smartwatch into a successful consumer product that “just works” it would be Apple. And indeed it was amusing to note how many people who, upon seeing the Pebble on my wrist, would ask me: “Is that the new Apple Watch?”

Well, now the Apple Watch is here and we will find out if the world really was waiting for a proper smartwatch to arrive…

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Getting to bedrock

[link] Sunday, March 8th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

The implication of these latest revelations is stark: the capabilities and ambitions of the intelligence services mean that no electronic communications device can now be regarded as trustworthy. It’s not only your mobile phone that might betray you: your hard disk could harbour a snake in the grass, too.

No wonder Andy Grove, the former boss of Intel, used to say that “only the paranoid survive” in the technology business. Given that we have become totally dependent on his industry’s products, that knowledge may not provide much consolation. But we now know where we stand. And we have Edward Snowden to thank for that.

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Straw and Rifkind had nothing to hide, but…

[link] Sunday, March 1st, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

The really sinister thing about the nothing-to-hide argument is its underlying assumption that privacy is really about hiding bad things. As the computer-security guru Bruce Schneier once observed, the nothing-to-hide mantra stems from “a faulty premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong”. But surveillance can have a chilling effect by inhibiting perfectly lawful activities (lawful in democracies anyway) such as free speech, anonymous reading and having confidential conversations.

So the long-term message for citizens of democracies is: if you don’t want to be a potential object of attention by the authorities, then make sure you don’t do anything that might make them – or their algorithms – want to take a second look at you. Like encrypting your email, for example; or using Tor for anonymous browsing. Which essentially means that only people who don’t want to question or oppose those in power are the ones who should be entirely relaxed about surveillance.

We need to reboot the discourse about democracy and surveillance. And we should start by jettisoning the cant about nothing-to-hide. The truth is that we all have things to hide – perfectly legitimately. Just as our disgraced former foreign secretaries had.

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Technology and Inequality

[link] Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Someone once observed that the difference between Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher was that whereas Thatcher believed that she was always right, Blair believed not only that he was right but also that he was good. Visitors to the big technology companies in California come away with the feeling that they have been talking to tech-savvy analogues of Blair. They are fired with a zealous conviction that they are doing great stuff for the world, and proud of the fact that they work insanely hard in the furtherance of that goal. The fact that they are richly rewarded for their dedication is, one is given to believe, incidental.

The guys (and they are mostly guys) who manage these good folk are properly respectful of their high-IQ charges. Chief among them is Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and a man who takes his responsibilities seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he co-authored a book with his colleague Jonathan Rosenberg on the care and maintenance of these precious beings. Dr Schmidt objects to the demeaning term – “knowledge workers” – that economists have devised for them. Google employees, he tells us, are much, much more impressive than mere knowledge workers: they are “smart creatives”.

In the opinion of their chairman, these wunderkinder are very special indeed…

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Why the Chinese really get the Net

[link] Sunday, February 15th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s a proposition to make you choke on your granola: the only government in the world that really understands how to manage the internet is China’s. And I’m not talking about “the great firewall of China” and other cliches beloved of mainstream media. Nor, for the avoidance of doubt, am I saying that I approve of what the Chinese regime does: I do not. It’s just that I think it is better to deal with the world as it actually is, rather than as we fondly imagine it to be.

Western media coverage of China is a mixture of three parts fantasy to one part misinformation. The fantasy bit has deep ideological underpinnings: it asserts that the Chinese are embarked upon a doomed enterprise – to build a modern economy that is run by an authoritarian regime…

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The prosecution of Aaron Schwartz – and what it might mean

[link] Sunday, February 8th, 2015

This morning’s Observer column:

On Monday, BBC Four screened a remarkable film in its Storyville series. The Internet’s Own Boy told the story of the life and tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the leading geek wunderkind of his generation who was hounded to suicide at the age of 26 by a vindictive US administration. The film is still available on BBC iPlayer, and if you do nothing else this weekend make time to watch it, because it’s the most revealing source of insights about how the state approaches the internet since Edward Snowden first broke cover…

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