Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Technical Fowl's 2011 in Review

As the year draws to a close it’s time for the technical fowl to look back on 2011 and tabulate the so-called “greatest hits” of the year in tech, news and hijinx.  I know it's impossible for me to get every important story from the year in the massive realm of technology and games, but here was a lot of stuff going on that TF covered, from tech policy to security to tablet PC’s.  So here I’ve compiled what in my opinion were the biggest TF stories of 2011 in the form of a top ten:

10. Crowdsourcing
Crowdsourcing is a fun portmanteau that refers to driving a call to action through a community or group for a specific task or goal.  While the idea is catching on in private business, it looks like even the United States Government is giving it a go, especially in defense operations.  This year technical fowl explored two such projects to solve real-world issues – the first by the Department of the Navy for an anti-piracy MMO game, and the second by the Department of Defense for an accurate submarine simulator.  Both projects turned to gamers to get collective intelligence and new ideas about both of these topics successfully.  I was very happy to have been able to take part in the first project called MMOWGLI – the Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet.  It was a cool idea and made me want to keep playing and be involved.  Other crowdsourced projects included the XC2V and a Second Life style simulator for the Army.

Relevant TF Stories:
US DoD Turns to Gamers to Test Submarine Software
US Navy Develops Crowdsourced MMO to Sink Piracy

09. The Redner Group and Duke Nukem Forever
Jim Redner of the Redner Group, a PR firm in the gaming industry, caused a very public stir with some incendiary tweets on behalf of 2K Games and Duke Nukem Forever.  The story showed us how quickly social media can spiral a story out of control.  After it was all said and done, Jim Redner himself was cool enough to take time out of what was I can only imagine an extremely busy day to answer some of my questions and talk about the incident, Duke Nukem Forever, and the future of the Redner Group.

Relevant TF Stories:
The Redner Group, 2K Games, and Duke Nukem Forever - a Q&A  with Jim Redner

08. The HP TouchPad Fire Sale
Using their previous acquisition of Palm, Hewlett-Packard made an attempt to enter the tablet fracas with the WebOS-fueled TouchPad.  After the July launch, HP issued a fire sale a month later to unload unsold inventory (Best Buy said it could only sell 10% of their inventory at regular price).  The TouchPad’s prices were slashed by 60-75%, selling for $99 and $149, generating a ton of interest and almost immediately stocking out.  That interest fueled demand to the point that TouchPads were selling for upwards of $300 on eBay.  For at least a short while, the fire sale made us think about how much tablets are actually worth, and what prices consumers should be willing to pay for one.

Relevant TF Stories:
An Unlikely Party in HP's TouchPad Mess - Barnes and Noble

07. Spotify
Spotify’s music service went from completely unknown to a big deal in the United States in July.  Previously only operating across the pond in Europe, Spotify was welcomed to the United States with a lawsuit as an introduction to our litigious culture.  Now having joined forces with Facebook, they are now a household name for music lovers and social media users alike, allowing the type of "frictionless sharing" championed by Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook

Relevant TF Stories:
Spotify Welcomed to the U.S. with a Patent Infringement Lawsuit

06. Amazon's Kindle Fire
Priced right at $199 and timed right to be available during the holiday shopping season, Amazon’s Kindle Fire provided an affordable alternative from a trusted brand for folks that didn’t want to invest $499 on an iPad or even more for an Android based tablet.  Amazon decided to sell the device at a loss in order to secure sales and rely on Prime memberships and media purchases for revenue streams.  As a result Amazon enjoyed a Merry Christmas indeed, reporting sales figures in the millions of units.

Relevant TF Stories:
Amazon's Tablet Poised to Take a Bite out of iPad Sales?

05. Sony's PlayStation Network and SOE Hacked
Hacks and a security breach caused Sony’s PlayStation Network to close their doors for 23 days.  The security breach allowed unauthorized access to over 70 million accounts, including sensitive data like phone numbers, addresses, and birthdates.  The hacking group LulzSec claimed responsibility, a precursor to their 50-day summer hackathon targeting among others, Fox, Sony, and the United States Government.

Relevant TF Stories:
Welcome Back? Sony's Answer to the PSN Fiasco
First PSN, Now SOE: Sony, WTF?

04. Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs: 2011 saw the passing of Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, to the sorrow of many.  As the father of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, Jobs’ influence in computing in general and consumer electronics is still apparent in the American lifestyle and around the globe.  Colleagues, peers, customers and fans, including President Barack Obama, spoke highly of Jobs and his contributions to technology.

Relevant TF Stories:
Remembering Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

03. RSA and SecurID Hacked
The hacking spree that 2011 saw spared no one, not even security firm RSA.  In March they announced a breach related to their SecurID products that would not allow hackers to actually attack SecurID users, but later retracted that statement when the popular two-factor security token was unable to protect customers like Lockheed Martin, L-3 and Northrop Grumman.  The attacks sparked speculation on whether or not they were sponsored by a foreign state, and ended up with RSA offering to replace almost every SecurID token used by their customers.

Relevant TF Stories:
Hacking, Social Engineering and RSA

02. Carrier IQ
With the advent of personal technology exploding with the use of smartphones and other mobile devices, the issue of user security and privacy come to the forefront.  As such, the technology community was appalled when a researcher discovered a mandatory, un-opt-outable service called Carrier IQ on mobile devices that collected certain information on the user’s device for the carriers, including to some extent keylogging.  Senator Al Franken was able to get some information out of Carrier IQ and service providers, but organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are still reverse-engineering the software to see what exactly it collects.  The main issue with the Carrier IQ story is that even if it doesn’t send as much information as we think to carriers and OEM’s, it still has the power to, and that can be abused.

Relevant TF Stories:
Smartphone Spy - Mobile Carriers Caught Secretly Skimming Android User Info

01. SOPA
Late 2011 saw legislation introduced in the House and Senate (SOPA and Protect IP) aimed at protecting United States interests against online piracy.  As good-intentioned as the bills may be, they began drawing huge criticism (specifically SOPA), not only from congressional opponents, citizens and private business, but technology experts up to and including the founding fathers of the internet.  Hearings were held in the House Judiciary Committee this month to discuss markup and a Manager’s Amendment, but it soon became clear that most of the Committee members discussing it didn’t know an IP address from a hole in the ground.  The bill is highly controversial and may potentially bring sweeping changes to the web and an end to the free and open internet.  It will be back on the table when the House reconvenes in 2012.

Relevant TF Stories:
The House Judiciary Hearing on SOPA was a Messy Show
December SOPA Update:

Honorable Mention: Ubisoft/Wii's We Dare
This story was absolutely unimportant.  It was a frivolous post I wrote because I was amused by Ubisoft's game We Dare for the Nintendo Wii.  The game focuses on couples doing naughty things with a wiimote to control their Mii's on-screen to do things.  While I give them all the credit in the world for originality for how to employ a Wiimote to control on-screen activity, it's still petty ridiculous.  So why on Earth am I giving it an honorable mention?  Two reasons: (1) It was the only thing I've ever written that I've legitimately been able to tag with "sexy party" and (2) the pure comedy it has given me while running through my traffic and analytics reports every now and then.  As it turns out, every week at least 2-3 people get to my blog by searching for combinations of the following words and phrases: "wii," "adult," "party," "games," "consensual" and "swinger."  So the real question becomes, how do I not give this an honorable mention?

Relevant TF Stories:
Wii Party Games for Consenting Adults: Ubisoft and Wii Dare with We Dare

So there you have it, the top 10 stories TF has covered in 2011.  I hope I've been able to give you some interesting stuff to read in 2011, and here's to a whole new year of news, tech and hijinx in 2012.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December SOPA Update:

[Article first published as December SOPA Update: on Blogcritics.]

Earlier this month we took a look at the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) as it made its way through hearings in the House Judiciary Committee, through amendments, strong objections and ultimately a question on whether or not those folks in the room were even qualified to make any rational and informed decision on the topic. Eventually the proceedings were postponed and will pick up again when the House reconvenes after the holidays, but that doesn’t mean that December has to be devoid of all SOPA news, does it? Politics aside, there was still a fair amount of SOPA news in the last two weeks or so, the majority of it revolving around one of SOPA’s public supporters, domain name registrar

While many other internet companies lined up to publicly oppose SOPA as a death sentence to the free web, GoDaddy supported the bill and other related legislation like Protect IP as a viable method for policing piracy on the internet. They went so far as to publish and op-ed piece on Politico shortly after the bill was introduced praising the bill, as well as providing written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in support. It seemed strange really, as they were the only internet company named in the Committee’s list of corporate SOPA supporters, in a field of entertainment media production companies (Disney, etc.) and organizations that represent entertainment media and related special interests groups like the RIAA and MPAA.

This of course irked the ire of some of their customers, culminating in a Reddit-fueled boycott of GoDaddy by poster selfprodigy, who planned on moving all of their 51 domains away from GoDaddy’s services. As of right now the post has over 3,000 comments and a Reddit score of 4,409 points with more and more people voicing their opinions on the matter. While GoDaddy pretty much ignored the boycott as a nuisance to start, bigger threats from bigger customers like Ben Huh of the Cheezburger websites started to come in (with his 1,000 GoDaddy registered domains), and GoDaddy turned an about face, stating in a news release that they would no longer support SOPA. But was that public reversal of policy nothing more than a parlor trick to woo customers back and keep the ones they still had? Their support for SOPA cost them about 37,000 domains and it looks to me that the only reason they “reversed” their position was an increasing loss in revenue streams. An interview with GoDaddy CEO Warren Adelman by TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey also shows how this change of heart might not really be for real:

“Adelman couldn’t commit to changing its position on the record in Congress when asked about that, but said “I’ll take that back to our legislative guys, but I agree that’s an important step.” But when pressed, he said “We’re going to step back and let others take leadership roles.” He felt that the public statement removing their support would be sufficient for now, though further steps would be considered.”

“Sufficient for now.” It’s pretty clear that GoDaddy hasn’t changed their position, but instead have publicly run to the middle with Swiss-like neutrality, which only further tells me that “We don’t support SOPA” doesn’t translate into much more than “We don’t support losing customers and their cash.” Adelman goes on to say that he will support SOPA when the internet community does and that there has to be “consensus about the leadership of the internet community.” Leadership of the internet community? That’s just the point, no one owns the internet, and this statement further shows how out of touch GoDaddy is with reality and the internet community they claim to serve. Having dealt with GoDaddy before, and reading other pre-SOPA stories of how they operate, it’s just not that surprising.

Other pro-open internet registrars like Dreamhost, NetGator and Namecheap are taking this as an opportunity to take some of GoDaddy’s customers through SOPA coupon codes like “NOSOPA” and SOPASucks.” Namecheap is even running an offer through December 29th in which they will donate $1 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for each domain transfer from GoDaddy. NameCheap CEO Richard Kirkendall had the following to say on SOPA:

“While we at Namecheap firmly believe in intellectual rights, SOPA is like detonating a nuclear bomb on the internet when only a surgical strike is necessary. This legislation has the potential to harm the way everyone uses the Internet and to undermine the system itself. At Namecheap, we believe having a free and open Internet is the only option that will continue the legacy of innovation and openess that stands for everything we all value in our modern society.”

GoDaddy really shot themselves in the foot here. This series of moves is going to lose them a lot of business. But if you’re the “silver lining” type, the GoDaddy mass exodus could be ammunition against SOPA supporters in Congress as a "here's what we think" sort of statement. We’ll see. If you’re looking for another domain name registrar, Lifehacker has a list of some decent ones that are not pro-SOPA.

And about that “leadership of the internet” thing, I’ll throw my hat in the ring for “Internet Elder." 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

100. no news, just a minor milestone

Greetings everyone!

As we swing into the end of 2011 and get ready to start 2012, I came to the fun (and to be honest a little surprising) realization that I've hit post number 100 and actually have people reading my posts . OK fine, technically I've only written 99 and this one isn't a regular one.  But you know what, hop into the World of Warcraft Firelands raid and you'll see that Ragnaros dies when you get him to 10% so I don't even want to hear any of your noise about numbers.

I started this little project in January 2010 as something to do in my free time, with the initial intent being a lofty one of being a video game review site.  A few friends of mine and I did just that years ago in college with a site called 16-bit Psychosis.  It was a lot of fun with a bunch of us working on it and I kind of missed the process, so I figured I'd be game again (no pun intended).  But as a professional instead of a student, I just didn't have the time or patience to play through multiple entire games every month for the sole purpose of writing articles about them.  So I decided to leave that the video game professionals that do that sort of thing for a living.

Abandoning the concept of "having to have a review every week" and just writing on what I see and my thoughts really opened up the content of this thing, and the enjoyment I get from it   So yes I still write about games, but have been able to write about more stuff, like technology, law, politics, and more importantly the sometimes insane interactions between all those things.  Seeing my hit counter scrolling up really does motivate me to write better stuff.  I hope you've all enjoyed reading the stuff I put out here as much as I enjoy writing it.

The next post will pick back up in a couple days with something legit.  We still have the obligatory year end lists to go through.  Lists of what you ask?  Got me but I'll come up with something.  State of tech?  Maybe my 2012 predictions?  Me vs Nostradamus in the Brown Town Arena?  We'll see.  And I think I can go ahead and drop the post numbers now.

So before I do, I'll use number 100 to just say thank you for reading, and all my people around the world, happy holidays, whatever holiday that may be - I hope 2011 was decent year and that you all are celebrating it ending well.

Friday, December 16, 2011

99. The House Judiciary Hearing on SOPA was a Messy Show

[Article first published as House Judiciary Online Piracy Hearings Frightening on Blogcritics.]

Thursday was a, well let’s say, interesting day, for those who have any sort of stake in, or connection to technology, politics or the horrific relationship between the two. 

Over the past few weeks there have been a number of legislative efforts to stop piracy on the Internet, specifically, to protect the intellectual property and innovation of American developers and creators.  One of these bills, HR3261, is called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).   While it’s certainly a noble goal, the language and text in SOPA caused enough outrage and fear across the country (you can see the actual wording here) as to draw strong bipartisan criticism and concern.

The problem, well one of the problems, with the bill in its original state was that it was extremely broad and equally vague in its definitions of terms such as rogue websites and what exactly constitutes infringement.  As it existed,sites like YouTube and Tumblr could become potential targets for legal action and blacklisting, as would any other site where the majority of content is user generated.  Theoretically, for example, if a blogger at were accused of having promoted infringement, other blogs, as part of the same domain, could go poof in the night just for being on the same domain, without proof, only suspicion.  That's broad enough to be easily abused.  Other critics note that the bill is counterproductive, effectively putting a stranglehold on American innovators and startups by forcing compliance to be a design requirement for them.

As a result of the criticism, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), drafted a manager’s amendment to SOPA, with the goal of toning down the language and narrowing the broad definitions that were in the bill’s original draft.  The amendment also narrowed the targets of the bill to non-U.S. sites, and removed language that would put entire domains at risk if even one page appeared to be linked to infringement.   While some provisions were made in the manager’s amendment, a lot was left to still hash out.

So let’s get back to why Thursday was interesting.  The House Judiciary Committee met to discuss SOPA, specifically Chairman Smith’s manager’s amendment.  Thanks to our digital age, I was able to watch some of the hearing's live stream on my phone, all the while hoping and praying that I would not be accused of infringement for occasionally allowing other people to hover around my 4” screen.  After the coverage that I myself was able to see, I came up with one very solid conclusion with which I’m sure many other viewers would agree:

the people in this room have absolutely no business making this decision for the rest of us.

My first fear was that it felt like there was a mad rush to hammer this legislation out before 2011 ran out of days.  I simply don’t understand the rush, when the potential consequences of this bill are so far reaching for not only the United States, but the Internet itself.  Thankfully a few folks in the room, both Democrat and Republican, pointed out to the the committee that rushing the decision could potentially lead to big mistakes.  These included Rep. Sheila Jackson (D-TX) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who cited the America Invents Act, the result of an attempt to reform the patent system that started in 2005; proof, at least to Rep. Issa, that there hadn’t been appropriate levels of due diligence on SOPA.

But that was only half of a two part horror I experienced while watching the stream, with the second half more horrifying than the first.  Hours of representatives tripping over basic technology phrases such as IP address and DNS server were  more than just a little painful to hear, since the proposed actions can cause sweeping changes for technology.  Every third or fourth time someone spoke, their comments were preceded by what became almost clichĂ© disclaimers, such as: “I’m not a nerd/I’m not a technical expert, but I’ve been told,” or “from what I understand.”  These are the people who are discussing whether or not additional regulations (and let’s face it, outright censorship) should be applied to the Internet.  Excellent.  If you can’t intelligently explain to me what an IP address is, or what DNSSEC does, then get your damn hands off our Internet.  It’s not that you don’t speak for us, just that on this topic (with the exception of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO)), you simply don’t have the capacity.

So there’s what Thursday was all about: an argument about whether the blind leading the blind should run full speed into a brick wall.  There were a number of proposed amendments that limited the far-reaching scope of SOPA which were ultimately killed by the bill’s proponents who seemed to be interested in nothing more than going full speed ahead.  The whole thing seemed like a ceremonial meeting that had to happen on principle, and nothing more.  The only individuals in the room who seemed to be talking sensibly, logically and with technical expertise, were Reps. Polis, Issa, Chaffetz and Lofgren, who asked Rep. Smith to stop the hearing so that the committee could hear testimony from technical experts.  Smith refused at the time, but he did make time to hear from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a strong SOPA supporter).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation posted an open letter to Congress, from some of the minds who engineered the Internet (Vint Cerf, co-designer of TCP/IP among them), and who laid out all of their concerns about SOPA.  They didn’t have to preface the letter by apologizing for not being technical experts, because guess what, they are.  And I don’t know about you, but if I received a letter about the Internet in which the senders could legitimately use the phrase “When we designed the Internet the first time,” I’m pretty sure I would give it a listen.  These are the technical experts you didn’t consult, and their opinion is very clear: that this bill would do nothing to stop foreign piracy of American IP, but will hamper American innovation and assault law-abiding citizens’ rights to communicate openly and express themselves online.
Thankfully, it appears that the 11 hour session seemed to convince the committee that we need to explore this far more. As I write this, the SOPA vote has been delayed, hearings resuming at the “earliest practical day that Congress is in session.”  I hope for the sake of the Internet and American innovation that this allows the committee to hear technical experts testify and derail this bill.

I mean, I'm no expert on politics, but…

Saturday, December 3, 2011

98. Computer Professionals Update Act Targets Overtime for American Nerds

[Article first published as Computer Professionals Update Act Targets Overtime for American Nerds on Blogcritics.]

Somehow tech and politics mix together about as well as oil and water.  Look at the current state of technology politics – the FCC took forever to finally quash the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, links are being drawn between finances and congressional support for SOPA and Protect IP, and arguments are being made about the state and future of net neutrality. 

See?  Whether you knew it or not, there’s a lot of tech stuff happening in the hallowed halls of our nation’s leaders.  All of these deal with statutes and laws about fair business practices and anti-trust issues – ultimately things that affect the American technology consumer.  But  a bill that was introduced in late October to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that went to the other side, and set its sights on the American technology worker instead.

The bill would expand the list of workers exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act, to include many in the tech sector.  For those of you unfamiliar with FLSA, that means that they’re adding to the list of people who are exempt from the standard “you get a time and a half for overtime hours” rule. The bill, called the Computer Professionals Update Act (yes, ironically labeled the CPU), adds jobs that pretty much include IT and development from top to bottom.  From the text of the bill: "any employee working in a computer or information technology occupation (including, but not limited to, work related to computers, information systems, components, networks, software, hardware, databases, security, internet, intranet, or websites) as an analyst, programmer, engineer, designer, developer, administrator, or other similarly skilled worker," whose primary duty is the following:

(A) the application of systems, network or database analysis techniques and procedures, including consulting with users, to determine or modify hardware, software, network, database, or system functional specifications;

(B) the design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, securing, configuration, integration, debugging, modification of computer or information technology, or enabling continuity of systems and applications;

(C) directing the work of individuals performing duties described in subparagraph (A) or (B), including training such individuals or leading teams performing such duties; or

(D) a combination of duties described in subparagraphs (A), (B), and (C), the performance of which requires the same level of skill.

The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), keeps the existing language that applies this only to employees that earn at least $26.73 an hour.  And also let me be clear – this doesn’t outright ban these workers from making overtime for hours past 40.  It just means that companies that employ them are exempted from the overtime payment requirement.  But all said and done that doesn’t make it any better.  Given the current cost cutting measures that are in effect across industries in the United States, do you have trust that a company will still pay overtime if they’re not legally obliged to? 

Thankfully it doesn’t harm me personally; I’ve been in technology management for some time now and work on salary, so I was already sans overtime in the old rules.  But what about other folks in the industry?  There are a lot of nerds out there that serve as system admins and fill other necessary roles in the IT field that operate on hourly pay beyond the $26.73 pay threshold.  And some of them depend on overtime as part of their yearly income.

I’ve heard arguments ranging from outrage to “about time” to nothing more than “meh.”  It certainly would reduce costs for technology companies as well as most American companies with regard to their IT shops while stripping workers of their due funds.  As part of the tech world I of course don’t support this, as I feel that it passing it greatly devalues the skills tech workers have put in either a considerable amount of education or a considerable amount of work experience to accumulate.  With the increasing amount humanity relies on technology, specifically computer technology for their day to day lives, it seems like technical work is being not only devalued, but commoditized over time.

I’m not sure what the motivation behind this bill is, but Sen. Kagan mentioned that “the majority of bills and resolutions never make it out of committee." What exactly is going on in North Carolina?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

97. Smartphone Spy - Mobile Carriers Caught Secretly Skimming Android User Info

While I enjoy the increasing number of things I have been able to do with each iteration of mobile technology on the market, I’ve always held a dark spot in my heart for wireless carriers.  First there’s the financial factor – the amount of money they charge for what should be no additional charge, caps on tiered data, or even just cost to the user in general (I enjoy a $100+ per month phone bill for all the crap I have). 

As mobile technology has become more developed though, the prices seem to be going up, and what the consumer is getting seems to be less.  On top of that there’s the creep factor, which is really nothing more than privacy and business practices. Recently Verizon Wireless sent me a letter about an opt-out option for their new ad tracking system that would serve to provide me better targeted ads based on my activity and location.  I opted out due to a certain level of discomfort with privacy when I had the chance, but I give Verizon credit for voluntarily saying “Hey Tushar, here’s some things that what we want to do, are you in?”  They laid out what they were doing, and after understanding it I had a choice.  Now granted any doctors or lawyers reading this are going to cringe at the phrase I’m about to use, but if the activity has the informed consent of the consumer (yeah I said it) then that’s something I may be able to get on board with.  I would assume that other carriers do something similar as far as activity-based targeted ad programs.  After all, ad revenue does make the world spin ‘round.

But then I read today about something that could be a tremendous breach in privacy and almost tantamount to data theft, perpetrated by mobile carriers against their customers.  This revelation came from security researcher Trevor Eckhart concerning a software package called Carrier IQ, which seems to be embedded in at least some phones on major U.S. carriers.  Carrier IQ claims that their software gathers “information off the handset to understand the mobile-user experience, where phone calls are dropped, where signal quality is poor, why applications crash and battery life.” Turns out that while it wasn’t really a secret that this function was installed on many Android phones, no one really knew any of the inner workings of the software and what kind of data it actually captures. That is, until Eckhart found some things that can only be described as suspect at best last week. Carrier IQ tried to hand him a cease and desist letter to quiet him down a bit, but with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Carrier IQ not only backed off but issued an apology (in which they lay out their argument above). He followed up by releasing a video playing around with it on his HTC Evo. You can see the video on YouTube here.

The video paints a pretty creepy picture about what kind of data this software is able to pick up and I warn you, you may feel a little ill watching it. Eckhart uses a factory-reset, non-rooted HTC Evo (as he says, not to single out HTC but it was just what he had on hand) to show not only how the software is hidden and unable to be shut down, but how it appears to also have a built-in keylogger. Each key press looks like it has its own code, so anyone taking a look can see what letters and numbers are being entered.
The killer is that this also covers passwords, browser entries, and even HTTPS browser entries, which is supposed to be encrypted. HTTPS browsing is designed to encrypt data so anyone planning to pick up any data would be thwarted.  Oh right, text message and SMS content counts too. Data from messages gets sent off to Carrier IQ’s servers without anyone being the wiser. Eckhart classifies this as a rootkit, which is a label I wholeheartedly agree with.  It gets into your system, acts with administrator privileges, and you can’t get rid of the software unless you void the warranty and do the rooting yourself.  But it gets even worse.  Even as Eckhart was running in airplane mode (cellular radio off) and on wifi only, the app still logged everything that was going on while “disconnected” from the Sprint network.  It’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder if all the conspiracy theorists are right and that I should be equipped with a tinfoil hat.

So where do we go from here?  No users were ever explicitly told that data would be collected down to the keystroke and screen tap – if that had been the case no one would have a smartphone right now.  And that leads into what may be the inevitable fallout.  Paul Ohm, a former prosecutor for the Department of Justice and current professor at the University of Colorado, weighs in with his professional opinion.  “If CarrierIQ has gotten the handset manufactures to install secret software that records keystrokes intended for text messaging and the Internet and are sending some of that information back somewhere, this is very likely a federal wiretap.” he says. “And that gives the people wiretapped the right to sue and provides for significant monetary damages.”

Without a law degree, I came up with pretty much the same thing.  There wasn’t even an attempt at corporate transparency to the consumer here.  A “no, it’s cool guys we’re not doing anything wrong” issued only after they were caught just isn’t enough.  From what I’ve determined this seems to not affect all Android devices, but I can confirm that Carrier IQ has dealings with both Sprint (from the video) and T-Mobile (via a T-Force poster on their support forums).  I personally have not found any such software on my Verizon Wireless Droid X, so can only speak to that from personal experience.

If this video holds water, consider the game changed.  By Professor Ohm’s argument, the people wiretapped includes every single Android user on carriers that do business with Carrier IQ.  As of yet I don’t have a complete list of affected carriers and models, but that number still has to register pretty high.  After the class action lawsuits all hit and the smoke clears, maybe then we’ll be able to have some sort of serious discussion in this country on the internet and cellular networks at large, specifically concerning user privacy in the digital age.  People do a lot of stuff on mobile – important password protected stuff – now that we have these super fast 4G speeds mobile carriers are all-to-quick to advertise.  That only bolsters the point that privacy is the single greatest challenge we have to solve with current technology.

So even if Carrier IQ only uses the information for aggregate reporting and even if Sprint does actually only use it for diagnostic purposes without any malicious endgame, what happens when someone that does have less than noble intentions figures out how to control it?  There goes your money. There goes your credit.  There goes your reputation.  There’s just too much at risk.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

96. Common Damn Sense: Does the Facebook Spam Wave Reflect Deeper Issues with User Habits?

[Article first published as Does the Facebook Spam Wave Reflect Deeper Issues with User Habits? on Blogcritics.]

It’s been a while since I jumped into a good old-fashioned rant.  As there is, as the kids say these days, no time like the present, I figure now would be a good time.  On the morning news as well as all over the internet were reports of a massive Facebook spam attack that flooded users’ profiles with violenct and pornographic images.  So I thought to myself, “That’s kind of messed up.  Let me go to my account and make sure I’m good.”

And of course I was.  And there was nothing in my friends’ feeds either.  Not because we did anything special or have security settings configured in a certain way, but because there are still some of us left who have some common damn sense.  After reading about how this attack was executed, it became clear to me that, while it was through trickery, the exploitation was invited by the affected users themselves.
The attack tricked Facebook users into pasting a malicious snippet of javascript into their web browsers and running it, which then exploited a browser vulnerability causing them to “share” and “like” the malicious content without even knowing it.

That’s when I stopped reading for a while.  I had to weigh my feelings on this one – on the one hand we as tech people have a responsibility to educate our friends and the public at large as to how to protect themselves in the digital age.  On the other hand, we’ve been doing that forever and no one seems to care.  And while attacks and malware have evolved, the method for preventing this type hasn’t, as it’s one of the big ones we’ve been advocating for years – don’t click on crap that looks suspect.  This case takes it a step further – now someone’s telling you, “Hey, stick this code in your browser and run it.  Cool stuff to follow,” and users mindlessly do it.  Then the public end result is a number of Facebook users on Twitter expressing their disgust and delivering empty threats to close their accounts, as if the internet is a magical and safe place where nothing bad has ever happened and people honestly just want to give you free stuff.

While spam on Facebook is nothing new, it’s never been this bad or spread at such a rapid pace before.  But at the time I’m writing this, Facebook has already claimed to have eliminated the malicious pages and identified the users responsible.  “Our team responded quickly and we have eliminated most of the spam caused by this attack,” a Facebook statement said. “We are now working to improve our systems to better defend against similar attacks in the future.”  This must have been a tough one for them to counter, seeing as the spread not only was user-generated, but exploited vulnerabilities in browsers, not actually Facebook itself.  I didn’t see any info on which browsers were the ones jacked, but I can guarantee that it affected the people who don’t follow their tech friends’ advice to “make sure everything’s always updated.”

Standard advice: Keep your software updated, keep your antivirus updated, don’t click links from people you don’t know, and be suspicious of people sending you links about free iPads, trips, or naked BeyoncĂ© videos, no matter how hopeful you are to see all the single ladies.

So let’s consider the world to be “techs” and “users.”  Techs’ responsibility has to end at some point and users’ responsibility has to begin.  We do all we can to make sure people are educated and browsing safely.  Some onus has to be put on the users, because you’ve been informed of how things work.  It makes me wonder how we’re still in the age of “I wonder what this button does?” 

Computers, the internet, smartphones and mobile devices – these are the things we use in our everyday lives now.  They govern a large percentage of what we do – which is why it’s infuriating that it’s so easy for people to throw their hands up in the air and say “Oh, it’s tech, I don’t understand it and I don’t want to.”  That attitude makes people not take steps to protect themselves, and complain and whine when they get hit.  So don’t tell me things like how you forgot to install antivirus on your computer because you’re not a tech or you clicked a link because “how could I know” without being a tech person.

You’re not a mechanic either, but you still know you need gas in the damn tank to drive your car to work.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

95. Apple's Newly Awarded Patent Shows Cracks in a Broken System

[Article first published as Apple's Newly Awarded Patent and a Broken System on Blogcritics.]

If you read my stuff with any sort of frequency then you know how I feel about the current state of the American patent system as it’s applied to software and technology.  The people that originally developed the patent system had no way of knowing what it would mean in today’s explosion of technological advance. 
The result, in my humble opinion, is that the system is broken for the modern age and in need of an overhaul.  Over the last few years I’ve seen patents, which were originally developed as a form of protection for an inventor, become a corrupted version of its original intent.  Instead of protection they’re now used primarily as strategy and legal weaponry against competition.  And the reason is the pure power behind it – a patent grants exclusive rights on the technology in question for 20 years.

Outside of basic patent trolling, there are a number of examples that can be cited here that illustrate the shambles that our patent system is now plagued with, but it was the most recent one that set me off this week.  Just recently Apple, which is a perennial member of the patent lawsuit club, was just awarded patent 8,046,721 (7,657,849 is the same thing just older) by the good ol’ USPTO, entitled “Unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlock image.”  I’m going to let that one sink in for a second and let you read some of that patent I linked before the tirade that’s about to follow, divided cleanly into three (3) parts for your convenience.  And before I get to it, let me put a disclaimer out there that I’m not a lawyer, nor do I have any formal legal education or professional experience.

You good?  OK.

1.  On the grounds of ridiculousness and greed

A lot of the big sites that are covering this are making a big deal that “Slide to Unlock” has now been patented, and that any other system, as in targets, i mean devices running Android or Windows Mobile that uses a sliding system as a means for device unlock are now all immediately infringing on Apple’s patent rights.  But they’re missing the bigger point, and/or they didn’t actually read the patent before they excitedly posted it as news.  But I’m not going to leave you in the dark like that.  I like you guys.  You read my stuff.  So the link I have above goes to the actual text of the patent on the official US Patent and Trademark Office website.  Search the text for “slide to unlock.”  Can’t find it, can you?  That’s because that phrase isn’t mentioned once in the entire text of the patent.  What is mentioned is “gestures.”  This means that not only sliding, but as the patent says (I’m paraphrasing), any continuous touch motion following a predefined path on a predefined unlock image for means of unlocking a device is covered.  Even if instead of a slide, your device requires you to sketch the Mona Lisa over a specified unlock region to unlock your phone, it’s still infringement on Apple’s new patent in the United States.  As most smartphones today have a full touch screen in a “candybar” form factor, what does apple suggest we do to unlock our devices?  The only option left is a series of hard button presses.  Oh right, or keep the gesture unlock, and pay apple a few bucks for every unit sold.

2. On the grounds of prior art

OK, so “ridiculousness and greed” wasn’t really much more than just my chagrin articulated in text, but prior art is a legitimate thing when it comes to evaluating patents and intellectual property.   Based on my perusal of patent rules and the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (the MPEP for short, and man is that thing complex) the nutshell definition of prior art is that “it’s been done before.”  Now while people were marveling over the iPhone when it was released in the summer of 2007, no one seemed to recall the Neonode N1m, a Windows CE device released in 2005, almost 2 years prior to the iPhone.  The N1m was a touchscreen device that had one very relevant feature to this story:  you slide your finger from left to right on the screen to unlock it.  There’s a video review of the N1m on YouTube that was made around the time of the iPhone release (via Android Central).  You can skip the beginning and start at the 4:00 mark.  It clearly shows the sweeping left to right motion over a visibly marked lock area to unlock the device and get back to the functional menus.  This case was dismissed by Dutch courts for this very reason.  While Apple and Samsung are taking shots at each other across the pond, the N1m came up, forcing the judge to rule that Apple’s patent claim as “non-inventive” and likely invalid.

3.  On grounds of “for the good of the game”

When it comes to software and especially mobile tech, it’s relatively easy for large corporations to either file trivial patents for the sole purpose of extracting money from others or to acquire smaller companies and get ownership of their patents, again for the sole purpose of extracting money from others.  Weaponizing a practice that was originally meant to protect an inventor from unjust theft changes the game.  With this new strategy, fear of a lawsuit creates a huge new barrier to entry for small startups and inventors, who could be forced with a horrible decision between huge licensing fees and closing up shop.  And as for patent wars between tech giants, why invest in R&D and engineering to try to come up with something new and inventive for consumer-generated revenue streams when you can buy or bully a startup for less and charge licensing fees?  Take a look at the recent Microsoft-Compal deal.  Now Microsoft collects licensing fees from over half of Android device manufacturers.  So instead of tech teams trying to innovate, surprise!  A new patent troll comes screaming and kicking into the world.  Look at all that wasted talent.

I don’t know exactly how to fix the system; I just know that a system that let this through needs to be fixed.  Software and tech aren’t really “things” the traditional way most static or mechanical patentable things are, which means that a traditional system can’t work. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

94. Hacking, Social Engineering and RSA

[Article first published as Hacking, Social Engineering and RSA on Blogcritics.]

More than occasionally people will come to one of my tech friends or me with a computer problem.  No longer an uncommon occurrence with the ever-present digital influence in our lives, we’ve all grown accustomed to the fact that this will, in fact, never end. 

If what they say is true that knowledge is power, it’s kind of our duty as computer nerds – versions of “keyboard cowboys” if you’ll allow me to make a reference to Hackers, to help people when it comes to all things technical.  But we’ve all noticed a sharp shift in what people come to us for – when a few years ago it might have been basic OS reinstalls or simple virus cleans, today it’s a lot of security and protection of personal data.  And the reason for that is the evolution of the development of viruses and other pieces of malicious software. 

Back then viruses were designed for one of a few goals: humor and annoyance (i.e. Yankee Doodle and its ilk) or at worst, data destruction (remember Michelangelo?).  But once the internet age took hold, destruction of data wasn’t enough.  Now there are networks.  Now there are advanced communication methods.  Which means now there are means and opportunity.

Where there’s means and opportunity of course there’s theft.  Why just destroy data when systems are in place now to try and leverage that data for gain?  That’s the kind of thinking we need to deal with now.  And while most people may think that the biggest thing to fear on that front is a virus or worm that could steal information or holes in their security, they’re only half right.  What’s more dangerous is the blind spot they have which prevents them from seeing the human element – how those security holes are exploited and how those and trojans and malware are deployed to begin with.  And that human element is called social engineering.

In a nutshell, social engineering means bending someone to your will, whether they know it or not, into giving you their trust, and any information that comes along with that.  It’s a method for skimming information in which a human is the target, not necessarily a computer, and for that reason doesn’t even need a computer.  It can be done over the phone or even in person.  A common form of social engineering is phishing, where a user is baited into handing over information.  Have you ever gotten those emails that appear to be from Amazon or UPS linking a tracking number or purchase ID?  Yet, when you click on the link, it takes you somewhere that isn’t Amazon or UPS and starts asking for names, passwords and credit card numbers?  What the phisher is hoping is that they gain your trust by hoping to be someone you routinely do business with, then convince you to give them the information they want.  See?  A metaphorical bait and hook.  There’s a myriad of other types of social engineering that I may get into in later posts, but this just background for a specific story.

RSA, a highly respected security company who provides the popular SecurID two-factor authentication system was hacked back in March of this year, and that hack started a wave of attacks on companies that do contract work for the US Government like Lockheed Martin, L-3 and Northrop Grumman.  They’re in the news again, this time with some theories after investigating the incident with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.  At RSA’s security conference in the UK on Tuesday, their president Tom Heiser stated, based on the complexity of the attack, that “we can only conclude it was a nation-state sponsored attack.”  They believe that the hackers’ goal was to directly exploit companies that did work for our government, and of course for security reasons have withheld other information.  Scary as hell right?

So how did all of this happen to a company of such reputation in the field of security?  It’s been reported (unconfirmed by RSA) that access was gained through a phishing email targeting employees in the HR department with an excel spreadsheet entitled “2011 Recruitment Plans” and a body text of nothing but “I forward this file to you for review.  Please open and view it.”  No signature, no name, no contact information and presumably unsolicited.  All it took was for someone to trust that the mail was legitimate, open the attachment, and unwittingly let the code execute.  Supposedly in this case it was an exploit in Adobe Flash that allowed the real attack to be executed, but simple phishing provided the entry point.

So what point am I trying to drive home here?  Hackers don’t need to rely on a toolkit of scripts and exploits to gain unauthorized access to networks.  Sophistication isn’t a prerequisite for to successfully find a point of intrusion – even primitive social engineering schemes like this one were enough to break into a company like RSA.  So next time you get an email that’s asking you for personal information, or someone’s asking questions that are getting a bit too personal, do yourself a favor and don’t answer them, whether it’s over the phone, via email or on the web.  Ask your service provider if what you received was really from them and legitimate, and consult one of your nerd friends.

And go buy some antivirus software, I know too many of you are running systems without.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

93. Remembering Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

[Article first published as Remembering Steve Jobs, 1955-2011 on Blogcritics.]

In my scribblings over the years, I’ve occasionally taken the pen to Apple on certain topics, namely mobile wars and the iPhone.  Make no mistake, though I do from time to time disagree with Apple’s tactics and philosophies, you’ll notice that I never once said that they made devices that were ever less than excellent.  And that’s no accident.

Yesterday Steve Jobs, one of the founders and former CEO of Apple passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  With his notorious micromanaging and perfectionist personality, his name was synonymous with “Apple,” as people were unable to see the iconic fruit logo without seeing him.  It was after all his vision and strategies that put the company on the map as one of the leaders in technology and innovation, and changed the way we live our lives.

Throughout his life, Mr. Jobs’ philosophy was one of achieving one’s dreams – regardless of how ridiculous or far-reaching they seemed at the time.  The kind of ambitions that would invite accusations of insanity if it were any one of us.  But fortunately for him, and us, he had the tenacity, need for perfection, outright skill and passion for tech and design to make them all happen.  Even as a youth growing up in Cupertino, California, this held true.  As a teenager, he had the nerve to call William Hewlett (yes, of Hewlett-Packard) and ask him for computer chips and parts he wanted to use for a school project.  Hewlett was convinced, and ended up delivering with the parts Jobs needed, and was impressed enough to offer him a summer job along with them.

That summer job at HP led to a job at Atari in its formative stages, as well as a membership in the Homebrew Computer Club in the late 1970’s.  This was a collection of computer hobbyists, engineers and other folks who saw infinite promise in the realm of personal computing.  This club had members the likes of George Morrow, Jerry Lawson, and of course, Steve Wozniak.  The Woz designed a few computer systems just for fun, but Jobs was the one that recognized the potential of his projects – not only for business, but for something that could be used by the masses, not just nerds tinkering with chips.  After calling all of Wozniak’s family and friends to help, shall we say, he was guided to the right decision, Wozniak ended up leaving HP even though his tinkering was originally just for fun, and Apple Computer was born.  Par for the course – Jobs had gotten his way, as he always did, and always would.

Even back then he had a near-supernatural ability to see not only what was coming next, but more specifically what was important.  Shown again later in his career in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1985, he said that “The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it to a nationwide communications network.  We're just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people--as remarkable as the telephone.”  1985.  Back when a gigabyte was a thing unheard of, the internet didn’t exactly exist, and modem speeds were measured in baud and heard in decibels.

Then came the Apple II, and eventually development of the Lisa, where his time at Xerox PARC would help him drive a system using graphical windows, “files” and “folders,” and a mouse-controlled interface.  As he found the Lisa project team wasn’t ready for that or his demanding management style, he moved over to the Macintosh team.  Energized by his passion and style, they took those technology principles and ran with them.  As Jobs told Steven Levy in 1983, while the Lisa team did want to make something great, “the Mac people want to do something insanely great.”  So came the Mac personal computer in 1984, heralded, ironically, by their “1984” Super Bowl Ad.  But it didn’t sell as well as they anticipated, and Jobs brought in Pepsi’s John Sculley to run the show.  Sculley almost immediately fired Jobs from his own company.

In retrospect, getting fired might have been the best thing that could happen to Jobs.  It allowed him to begin working with George Lucas at a small computer graphics studio called Pixar, leading them to develop successful animated films, ultimately selling to Disney for a shade over $7 billion.  Returning to Apple after Pixar was sold, Jobs took the helm at Apple again with a slightly different philosophy.  Jobs believed in the merging of art and science to create products that stood out from the rest that consumers craved.  With this philosophy he started what would be over a decade of innovative design for consumer goods for Apple, starting with the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, and finally the iPad in 2010.  Of course that is to say nothing of the iTunes service and their massive App Store.  Apple has since been one of the top companies in personal computing, and has the same influence, if not more, than IBM and Microsoft on the way we live and do business today.

His fans regard him as nothing short of a God – as a central figure in their lives whom they’ve never even met.  As irritating as it can get sometimes as I hang out in the Android camp, it’s a testament to the mark Jobs has left on the world – creating products that people – not just tech nerds but civilians – wanted, no matter what… even if they might not have known they wanted it to begin with.  He created the market for modern portable music devices.  He created the smartphone market.  And most recently, the American tablet craze is all thanks to him.  His works not only affected his fans, but fostered fierce competition and helped spur innovation from other companies, in the hopes of matching or beating his product offerings.  Touch technology might not have been as ubiquitous as it is today without Apple’s iPhone fueling competition in mobile communications. 

No one was really trying to make ultra light notebooks until Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.  Countless technologies exist that may not have been invented by Apple, but have the hand of Jobs somewhere in the initial inspiration for those designs.  And that’s not even getting into entertainment and everything that evolved from Pixar and movies like Toy Story.  He helped build the computing industry and would be a face on the Mt. Rushmore of technology if such a thing ever existed, along with faces like Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee.  As personal computing evolved, so did business and enterprise IT.  And on a personal level, the industry he helped create along with other tech giants gave me a hobby as well as a career.  And all along the way we were all inspired, even if only from time to time, to “think different.”

So for everything, thanks Steve. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

92. App Ninja Sneaks one by Apple with Fake Ninja Turtles Game

[Article first published as App Ninja Sneaks one by Apple with Fake Ninja Turtles Game on Blogcritics.]

Apple prides itself on their strict guidelines and screening process for the apps that can be sold in their App Store.  They have a number of rules that cover functionality, quality, content, payment, and of course trademarks and copyrights.  Suffice it to say that there are a number of reasons that the iPhone app you’ve been working on can possibly be rejected at any given time.  So given this strict attitude towards software written by third-party developers, what happens when an app submitted breaks almost all of Apple’s rules?  Generally, the app is rejected and the developer can file an appeal with the review board.  However, certain apps somehow still fall through the cracks.

Recently available on the App Store (August 18, to be precise) was a game that marketed itself as one based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.  Now of course when one thinks of TMNT, there are a number of things that come to mind – turtles named after artists, heroes in a half shell trained in the art of ninjutsu, a healthy amount of pizza being crushed by said turtles, and an overuse of old surfer slang, i.e. “cowabunga” and/or “radical.”  Sadly, much to the dismay and outrage of many Apple customers, this game included none of the above.

The game was made by Vietnamese developer Namphuong Star, who convinced customers with a $5 price tag that it was authentic and official, even going as far as to sport a licensed TMNT logo in its app description.  Opening the app reveals a very different story.  In addition to not having any turtles, there’s no functionality, and the game sprites and backgrounds are flat out stolen from other games.  Look at the screenshot up there.  Look familiar to anyone?  Because it sure looks like Konami’s Contra to me.  I remember a pop-out cannon in that blotched out region of the cliff there, and I don’t even know where to begin with those little army men (?) that must have taken all of 40 seconds to draw in MS Paint.  

This game is horrible straight through to the core, not just on it’s ridiculous surface.  You see, in addition to lying and tricking customers into purchasing it, the developer rewards their purchase with an app that simply does not function, as well as a support site shilling Apple accessories instead of fixing the issues.  Reviews of the game reflected the plight of those who purchased it, but the following three seem to address all the problems present with this particular piece of software:

“I bought this game for my grandson, he loves the TMNT!! This game has no directions we can't figure out how to play, or even how to restart the game. There aren't any turtles in the game. A total waste of $5”

"The character immediately slides off the side of the screen. There seems to be no way to actually interact with the game. And there doesn't seem to be any way to start a new game. The use of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters on the splash screen are almost certainly infringement; the blob that slides off the 
screen during the actual game isn't identifiable as a turtle. Or much of anything.”

“Visiting the developer website and the support site both go to the same spammy, Vietnamese-language website selling iPhone and iPod accessories. There doesn't appear to be any actual support. Deleted and requested refund.”

So let’s round up all of the problems and how they violated Apple’s guidelines.  Just the description breaks Apple’s rules on name and description metadata.  Using sprites and backgrounds from other games, as well as the fact that Nickelodeon owns the rights to the TMNT brand, violates the rule on use of material trademarked or copyrighted by a third party.  The fact that it outright doesn’t work violates Apple’s rules on functionality.  Granted, it may be rare that something like this falls through the cracks, but if any reviewer took any look at this app for more than half a second then this should have been caught right away.  We all remember what happened with the I Am Rich app a little while ago, right?

More than anything else though, this is just plain silly.  I hope the person who bought this for their grandson gets their $5 back. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

91. Documentary Mistakes Gameplay Video as Footage of Real Terrorism

[Article first published as Documentary Mistakes Gameplay Video as Footage of Real Terrorism on Blogcritics.]

I write a lot about the evolution of videogames from the primitive game we know and love as PONG to their being nothing short of a form of art.  Games now have the power to portray story, evoke emotion, and even have Grammy award eligible (and winning) soundtracks.  Aside from all of that, the biggest jump has been in-game visuals, with today’s graphic engines able to pump out those textures so smooth that you’d swear for at least a second or two that it was a real scene.  But for most of us who grew up watching the technology evolve, there’s an imaginary line hardcoded into our brains when it comes to stuff like this.  That line is the boundary between games and reality.  It’s how I know that the scourge isn’t actually coming down from Northrend to get us, and how I’m clear that Marcus Fenix and his COG forces won’t be rolling through my neighborhood anytime soon.  I doubt that there’s any videogame sequence given current technology (even those in a realistic earth-like setting) that I could watch and actually believe was reality.

I say this specifically to convey that events in my life have never unfolded in such a way that I have seen video from a game, took it as reality, then broadcasted it as part of a documentary I was working on.  You may be curious why I would bring up such a ridiculous premise, yes, this I know.

It’s because as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s something that really happened in the UK this week.  British television channel ITV (one of their big ones) aired a documentary called Exposure: Gaddafi and the IRA, promising to show the world evidence of a link between the IRA and famed Libyan nut Colonel Muammar Gaddafi concerning weapons and other military hardware.  At face value it’s pretty compelling stuff I’ll admit, but there were just a couple flaws with the footage.  One particular clip that was shown is labeled as “IRA Clip 1988,” and showed a British helicopter being shot down.  Not a lot in that clip really, well how do I put this... looks real.  The people are all pixilated and stiff, the fire doesn’t look like fire, and some of the vegetation has colors that just aren’t available in nature.  Go and watch it on YouTube while it’s still available.  The YouTube link shows the part as it was used in the documentary followed by the original fan edit.

This “footage” is actually a fan-made video from a game called Arma II, a tactical shooter by Bohemia.  Granted, Bohemia does pride itself on realistic military simulations, but the differences between the game and actual video footage are still pretty clear.  After the documentary aired, Arma fans took to the Bohemia forums, spreading the word on what they had seen.  On the topic, Bohemia’s CEO Mark Spanel told Gamasutra that his company was never contacted for permission to use the clip, and had no idea that it would be used in the documentary.  "We have no idea how this footage made it to the documentary,” he said.  “Our games are very open and allows users to freely do a lot of things, I see this is somehow a bizarre use of creative freedom." 

But how did it even make its way into the documentary to begin with?  That would mean that the game video would have had to be part of the media available to the editors after all of the interviews were taken and the piece was stitched together.  This clip not only made it into that media pool, but got by ITV’s editing staff and was given the final OK to air on national television.  Speaking to The Telegraph, an ITV spokesman said that that they actually did have footage of the authentic 1988 event but used the game material by mistake, as an “unfortunate case of human error” that was “mistakenly included in the film by producers.”

This just goes to show, in the age we live in, while things may slip by human editors and producers and other checks, the internet will catch everything.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

90. Amazon's Tablet Poised to Take a Bite out of iPad Sales?

[Article first published as Amazon's Tablet Poised to Take a Bite out of iPad sales? on Blogcritics.]

OK we’re going to do a little bit of word association.  I’m going to say a word and then you tell me what the first thing that comes to your mind is.  The word is…


So what image flashed across your mind?  The Ten Commandments? The Rosetta Stone?  Nah, chances are, for the majority of you I would think, the image you saw in your head was that of an Apple iPad.  And that makes sense.  When it comes to tablet computing the iPad is in fact the most popular device currently available on the market, with 29 million sold in just the first 15 months the device was on the shelf.   
And the masses love it for a number of reasons, whether that has to do with actual user need and functionality, cool factor, Apple fandom or simply being able to say “I have an iPad.”  So it sells.  At a $499 price point for the entry level model, it’s not really a tough sell to most folks either.  But what if you wanted a tablet but didn’t want an iPad?  What were the options that were available?  Windows 7-based slates were buggy and DOA to begin with.  Android-based units like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and the Motorola Xoom couldn’t compete on price.  HP’s WebOS-based TouchPad tanked and triggered a fire sale.  Other cheaper models couldn’t compete on quality. 

So there the iPad sits, atop the stack of available tablets, on its golden mobile apple-shaped throne.  All of this bolstered, of course, by Apple’s ferociously loyal fanbase in the cult of Mac.  But I won’t deny the genius of Jobs.  He created a sub-market of computing that there was no real need for by introducing a product, and letting consumers create that need themselves.  Brilliance.  So now we have the current tablet market.  Out-speccing the iPad creates a disadvantage on price, outpricing it means lower quality, and no one has figured out a way to strike that balance and see the same level of success.

As my gaming roots run deep in Street Fighter, this is where I picture “here comes a new challenger!” flying across the screen at the prospect of a new tablet officially being announced this week by Amazon in a Wednesday press event.  And this fight card is shaping up to be a good one as both companies are doing well financially and have strong customer bases.  Both Apple and Amazon have first to market titles for different devices – Apple’s iPad for modern tablet, and Amazon’s Kindle as a modern e-reader.  The real difference between the two giants is tactics and content.

Apple has hardware, and that’s what brings in their dollars.  There’s a healthy amount of profit from hardware sales from the iPad, with Apple pulling down about $200 for each $499 iPad sold.  This contrasts sharply to Amazon’s Kindle strategy, who sells the WiFi model of their Kindle at a loss for $139.  They rely on sales from for their money making, which includes not only e-books, but video streams and music as well.  Logic would dictate that this is the same strategy will be used for the upcoming tablet, and with a projected $249 price tag, that seems highly plausible.

While sales tactics are at opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s going to be content that puts at least a dent in the iPad’s numbers, due in part to delivery through their Amazon Prime subscription program.  I myself am an Amazon Prime customer, and have been for a while so I could save money on 2-day shipping and get a deep discount when I need next-day air.  But over the last year, the Prime service has added a library of on-demand video streams of movies, documentaries and television programs for Prime Customers, which now makes the subscription more than worth the money in my eyes.  Recently they even inked a deal with Fox to add programs like the X-Files and Arrested Development to an already impressive lineup, making the $79/year fee a pretty good deal.  On top of that there’s a lot of potential of that kind of content paired with a mobile Android device for viewing it.  And let’s not forget that it’s sure to have a built in Kindle book reader.

Tablet users generally don’t use their devices for anything heavy or resource intensive, so after email, web, social apps and casual games, my guess is that next on the list is video and music, if my own use of my Droid X is any indication.  If that’s the case then the Kindle Tab doesn’t even have to come close to matching the iPad on specs, as long as it can deliver media content the way I think it can.  I’m not saying it will dethrone Apple on the tablet front, but it has the potential to at least pick up a decent chunk of prospective tablet buyers that were eyeing the iPad.  It’ll be priced right and have an extensive library behind it.