Some Things I Wish to Speak Of

Several things in the news so far this week have grabbed my attention enough that I feel the need to comment on them here, feel free to agree or disagree.

First up 4G
EE have announced their 4G pricing plans this week (http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2012/10/finally-we-have-ees-4g-pricing-and-its-not-coming-cheap/) and I have to say that I am not impressed.  The cheapest tariff clocks in at £36/Month but caps you at 500mb data and then requires you to by booster packs when you hit your limit.
The have also put out some details for the cost of the 4G handsets associated with the new 4G network. (http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2012/10/ee-throws-out-some-expensive-4g-handset-prices-to-match-its-tariffs/)

For me this effectively kills my interest in 4G for the moment.  A decent amount of data, lets say 1GB a month as a conservative estimate but given the supposed speed of 4G and its emphasis on truly mobile data use that is unlikely to be enough for any serious user, this sets your tariff to £51 for a 12 Month contract (and who wants a 24 month lock in for a new technology) if you want a decent phone, lets say the new Samsung Galaxy S3 or Galaxy Note 2 you are then asked to pay £49.99 or £139.99 respectively.

Sorry but that removes any interest I have in the 4G networks for this iteration.
For me this is extremely unusual, I’ve always been an early adopter of technology and mobile technology specifically has always interested me.  I love my Galaxy S2 and was really looking forward to the 4G Samsung phones (or maybe even the 4G Windows 8 phones as they look extremely impressive) however at that price point I am just not interested.  So when my contract comes up for renewal in the summer of 2013 I will stay with 3G, I may even stay with the same handset and just move to a cheaper tariff.
So yes, I understand that a new technology such as this new network requires capital investment to get it deployed but these prices just seem unreasonable to me.  £51/Month for a barely functional data allowance and an upfront cost for the 4G Enabled handset is an unreasonable price point for me.
Second – The Seeming Stupidity Italian Courts 
So yes, apparently this is a thing.  The Italian Courts have charged a number of scientists with Manslaughter because they failed to give a 100% accurate prediction.
“Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake…”
No one is capable of giving a 100% accurate prediction of the future and it is accepted in scientific circles that any predictive result is subject to a chance of failure.  For a government to prosecute 7 people for failing to know the future is simply unacceptable, this basically sends a message to the entire scientific community that, in Italy at least, they should keep their opinions and knowledge to themselves less they be held accountable for something completely out of their control.
They are actively discouraging scientists from sharing their knowledge because the might be prosecuted and jailed for the things they don’t know and are incapable of controlling.
The sheer incalculable stupidity of the whole thing just amazes me.  But then we are talking about the country that imprisoned and probably tortured Galileo.
Finally – Windows 8
I have had the opportunity to play with Windows 8 on a VM here at work and have formulated myself some opinions, which I will now share with you lucky people.
The new tiled interface the Windows 8 uses is the first major change to how you interact with Windows pretty much ever.  If your device is a touchscreen based device, such as a Tablet or Smartphone, then this change is brilliant, it is quick clean and easy to understand and intuitive to navigate.  If however you interact with your computer via the traditional keyboard/mouse interface then it is about as useful as a chocolate teapot and about as friendly as Smaug.
The ‘App’ model; ok cards on the table time, I hate the appstore model of content delivery is was a dick move when Apple did it, it was a dick move when Google did it and it remains a dick move when Microsoft do it.
The idea behind the Windows App store is that only applications signed by Microsoft can be deployed onto your device, now with a traditional PC or other system running the more fully featured version of Windows 8 you retain the ability to install your own applications, however on the basic tablet/mobile version of the O/S you do not and the system only permits you to install signed apps.  The strength of the PC Platform has always been that you can install whatever you want without needing approval from the O/S manufacturer, you the consumer maintain control over what you want to install and run on the hardware you have purchased.  This move to an App store model represents Microsoft attempting to take this choice away from you, this is instantly and catastrophically limiting.
For example, one of the requirements for the MS App Store is that your product cannot have any adult content of a PEGI 18 rating.  So if this was the only way to get software for the Windows platform in the future you would not able to play Skyrim (arguably the best RPG game of recent years, if not ever) or GTA or any number of other titles featuring violence.  Technically it could also be used to refuse certification to things like the Kindle App (allows access to adult material in the form of fiction) or a Media player (some things contain swearing).
In case I am not being clear enough on this.  The App Store sales model is THE SINGLE WORST IDEA IN THE HISTORY OF COMPUTING.  I would rather still be using Token Ring and Windows 3.11 than be forced into a App Store sales model.
Beyond that the version of Windows 8 that I’ve been playing with has a few other faults, the ‘workstation mode’ keeps associating files with the ‘Metro App versions of software even if the full product is installed, the fact that you are forced to use the Metro interface even on a workstation that does not have a touch screen is a bit of a deal breaker as well.
The biggest issue I have with Windows 8 is that I have to basically pummel it into a form that I am happy to work with, whereas Windows 7 is pretty much fully functional right out of the box.
So yes, Windows 8 has some amazing technology under the hood and some brilliant improvements in general and it represents the first truly original work that has been done on the Windows platform since Windows 95.  However I will not be using it as the negatives heavily out weigh the positives and I will not support further moves toward the appstore model of content delivery.

The Future – Technology Snapshot

One of the things I spend quite a lot of time thinking about each day is cool new technology. So I thought I’d share some of the stuff I’ve come across.

First up my friend Savs (@21stCenturySci) mentioned this on G+ today: http://www.txchnologist.com/2012/charged-up-electric-rockets-are-set-to-transform-space-flight

This article talks about Electric Rockets, a very cool emerging technology that provides a much more efficient engine for use in space. You still need good old chemical rockets to get out of the gravity well but once in space something like is just much much more efficient and cheaper to run.

The reason this is cool is that a large chunk of our future as a species is going to be in space. Our planet only has a limited amount of resources and we are going to run out, at which point importing them from space is a good plan. The best way to do it is looking to be unmanned vessels, so we don’t care that it takes 10 years to do a round trip (please note for the space nerds, 10 years is a number I just pulled out of the air) and a more efficient engine is much cheaper.

Second, Ubuntu for Android: http://www.ubuntu.com/devices/android

This is a very exciting project. The basic idea, as I understand it, is that most modern smartphones are as powerful as a decent PC (Dual core processor, 2-4gb RAM 16gb+ storage) and also have hi-def video out, USB & can use Blue Tooth Peripherals such as keyborads. The ‘app’ contains a fully functional deployment of Ubuntu which can be started when the phone is docked and connected to an external screen/keyboard combo this lets your phone function as a full desktop replacement. This is the first real step in device convergence and looks really promising.

Third is V-to-V Technology: http://money.cnn.com/2012/02/21/autos/vehicle_communication_v2v/index.htm?iid=HP_LN&hpt=hp_t3

V-to-V stands for Vehicle to Vehicle and is an idea that a computer system in a car will communicate with all other nearby cars, sharing info such as road quality, current speed, accel/deccel, direction of travel etc. This means that cars can warn each other about accidents and hazards, if one car spins out then the others will know its spun out and will be able to adjust for this and actively avoid/reduce the collision.

Mate this technology with things like traffic lights, emergency services sirens and possibly even a mobile app that could warn cars of your presence and you have a system that could dramatically increase the safety of motoro vehicles.

Finally I want to mention Google Drive: http://www.gottabemobile.com/2012/02/09/google-drive-rumored-to-launch-soon/

Rumors have been flying around about this for quite a while and I am quite excited about it. I am a Dropbox user, I use it for all kinds of stuff and find it to be incredibly handy. Now if Google manage to make a cloud storage solution that is as easy to use and friendly as Gmail/G+/Google Docs then Dropbox are going to have a serious competitor. Hopefully more news about Google Drive will be available over the next month or so.

Anyway, I think thats it for this entry. Don’t want you all to start thinking that this will become a thing. 🙂

The Rise of the Walled Garden & The App Store (and why this is bad)

First of all a definition, when I say Walled Garden I mean this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walled_garden_(technology)

Generally I’m going to be talking about Apple. This is because I don’t like them, I don’t like their business model and I think their entire company is extremely dubious.

In recent years, driven mostly by the success of the iPhone, the idea of an App Store has seemingly taken over peoples minds. When you mention software they assume you are talking about apps and they don’t seem to understand my problem with an App Store replacing the ability to just buy a bit of software.

This is bad. It is bad for software development, it’s bad for users and it’s bad for distributors. In fact about the only people its any good for are those who own the gardens, Apple in the current example.

Why is it bad? A good question, allow me to provide an example.

In the traditional model of software purchase I can decide I want an office suite, so I go and look at the options, there is MS Office, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, StarOffice and probably a whole lot more. I compare the features and costs, decide which one I want and then purcahse and install the software. I can now use it and I have been able to decide what I wanted from a wide variety of options, including everything from professionally designed and published office applications to very basic freeware written buy a student and released onto the internet.

Now, take the app store model and pose the same problem. I go to the app store (now this is for illustration purposes as I don’t use any Apple products) and look for the same thing, I get 4 responses and which excludes the one I really want because Apple doesn’t like that company. The issue here is I’m having to make do with something I don’t really want because this company has decided that the software I want I can’t have, even though it exists.

The key issue here, and what really peeves me about the whole thing, is that Apple (and other companies who rely on the Walled Garden approach) are saying that on the device that I own, having paid them real money for, I am not allowed to install the software I want because they haven’t approved it.

This is like a panasonic rep turning up and my house and telling me I can’t watch Big Trouble in Little China on my new Panasonic DVD player because they haven’t approved the film. In other words, stupid and unacceptable.

This is bad for innovation, people with good ideas that don’t mesh with the Apple ‘ideology’ will be refused permission to publish their application despite the fact that it might well be better than the Apple equivalent. Innovators are actively discouraged from innovating as their ideas are subject to the approval of a company who will judge them on arbitary criteria. There have been enough stories of Apple refusing to certify applications purely because they don’t want the competition to make anyone concerned.

The model is unsustainable, if we continue down this route then as the various hardware devices (Smartphones, Tablets and computers) increase in capability the amount of software available will become less and less and the diversity will narrow until options just vanish.

Why do we care about this? Well the unfortunate truth is that most people don’t care, they have no real idea what the impact is and they don’t care as long as their new version of angry birds works. In fact Apple especially have been sneaking more and more 1984 style controls into what you can and can’t do with the device you have purchased with little to no objections coming back their way.

What can we do about this? Again a tricky question, unfortunately the only real option is vote with your wallet and the sad fact of that is most people won’t bother, Apples products are too shiny and all present for people to really consider anything else. (and I’m not even going to start in on the various companies trying to remove competion and stifle innovation through legal actions).

The problem is that if we continue on this course then the end result is bad for the user, bad for the industry and bad for any kind of innovation.

My thoughts on BYOD

There is a culture emerging in some business which is being termed BOYD or Bring Your Own Device.  The meaning of this term is that employees are being encouraged (or in some places required) to buy their own laptop/tablet/smartphone for use at their place of work.

Now this is an interesting and somewhat concerning change to established business culture.  While I like the idea of moving away from the homogenous presentation of computers and devices I would not ever consider spending my cash on a device that would be for work use.

I have a Smartphone, a home PC and a games console, I have no real need for a laptop and while I could probably find a personal use for a tablet (as long as it was not an iPad) I would be hard pressed to see a business value for it.

This could be accused of being ‘old guard’ thinking, digging in my heels and refusing to accept change, I would argue that is isn’t.  If a device is going to be used for the benefit of a company that I work for (and again I accept that if I was self-employed this would be become a much less important distinction) then they can pay for it frankly.

I don’t make enough money to be able to afford to splash out on all the devices I would like to and if I do they are going to be my devices and not subject to snooping by my employer.

There are a number of things that I think prevent the idea of BYOD from truly taking hold, there are:

  1. Reasonable Expectation of Privacy. If it’s my device then I have an expectation of privacy, whatever is on it is my content and other people are not going to be allowed access to it without a court order.  However if it’s a business device, I have no expectation of privacy, it is not owned by me and while the company may agree to allow me to make some use of it for personal purposes (web surfing , document storage, hobby use) it is ultimately theirs and they can at any point deny me access to it or require I return it to them.
  2. Cost & Ownership.  These devices are not cheap and if I was being expected to pay for it then I own it and the company has no rights to it, if it is part funded by the company and part by myself then how does that get resolved when we part ways?  Does one by the other out, what if neither wants to sell?
  3. Security.  Part of the reason why most businesses have a standard type of computer is that they have a standard build of operating system and applications that are installed across all machines.  This coupled with the network policies and access to passwords means that the business can control access to the device and (in the case of Blackberry and some tablets with the correct software installed) remote wipe them as needed.

Those are the top three, I’m sure I could think of many more given time.

So what is the way around this and do we even need a change?  I think we do need a change, people are becoming more and more tech-savvy and developing their own preferences of device, for example you could not pay me enough to work on a Mac and there are people out there who feel the same way about PCs.  Same goes for a phone, I would use an iPhone only under duress and if it was issued to me, I would never buy one for myself, equally I know people who never willingly use an Android device or Blackberry.

People are developing preferences and opinions relating to use of technology and are expecting these preferences to be catered for.

This need will I’m sure drive the development and adoption of new technologies to enable this, VMware for example are developing a piece of software called Horizon Mobile that allows you to have a virtual business area on your personal smartphone, one that can be secured and wiped remotely.  This is, I believe, the most likely course of future development.

As devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets become more commonly owned by employees the demand for technologies such as this will become more and more.  Being able to install and access a virtual drive or OS that has all your work related documents on board is a nice compromise, however it still requires you to be willing to give access to your device to your employer and it requires the employer to give an equal amount of trust in return.

If anyone has read Rule 34 by Charles Stross there is a good idea in there, where everyone has a personalised cloud based virtual machine that is copied down to generic tablet type devices as need, thus your business and personal personas can be maintained separately and on the same hardware.

I guess this whole thing reaches further and touches on the subject of personal privacy and separation of personal and business lives, both of which are things I have pretty strong opinions on and may write more about in the future.  In any case I think I shall leave this long and rambling post with the statement that I think the BOYD culture is going to continue to expand and while I personally would not be comfortable giving up more of my personal life to my employer I can see the bonuses of allowing your employees to choose their own devices.

For anyone interested in the article that spurred this, it can be found here on the BBC News site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17017570