Greetings. Love it or hate it, we all know that Adobe Flash has become the de facto standard for Web video -- that is, it's now by far the most common mechanism for delivery of streaming (and "steaming") video on YouTube, news sites, and most everywhere else.
Without getting into the convoluted details of licensing, containers, and codecs, the bottom line is that Adobe effectively controls Flash, and reported disputes between Adobe and Apple have contributed to keeping Flash off the iPhone, and now, the iPad. During the big iPad unveiling a few days ago, many observers noted Web page "missing plugin" holes where Flash content would otherwise have appeared.
In fact, until last night, some of Apple's most prominent promotional materials for the iPad appeared to show Flash content being displayed -- triggering a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, and very sudden changes in those promos.
By the way, released Android systems don't have full, recent Flash players either yet, but this functionality was demonstrated many months ago, and Flash for at least some Android versions reportedly will be released quite soon.
Back to Adobe vs. Apple. Apparently in an attempt to pressure Apple on this score, Adobe has now published a montage demonstrating what the absence of Flash means on various pages. What attracted particular attention and raised eyebrows was that one of Adobe's examples happened to be a hardcore porn site ("Bang Brothers").
With rapid adoption of HTML5, it may be possible to move Web video out from under Adobe's control by replacing Flash entirely. YouTube and Vimeo have just started beta testing HTML5 video players.
However, there's another issue. Right now those tests (as far as I know) are using HTML5 as a container for H.264 encoded video. H.264 itself (actually now part of the MPEG-4 standard) is also encumbered by various licensing issues.
To get fully out from under this licensing mess, one possibility would be to use HTML5 with an open codec such as Ogg Theora. Whether or not Ogg Theora in its current state of development is efficient enough to be used by high volume video sites like YouTube is currently a matter of some dispute.
Sometimes it feels like only Glinda the Good Witch could untangle all this. Unfortunately, the ruby slippers are not public domain.
Greetings. Since Apple's unveiling yesterday of the iPad, one of the more vexing questions has been why such an advanced device lacks any sort of integral camera -- a small front-facing camera would seem a perfect match, and likely wouldn't increase the overall production costs dramatically vs. the significant additional appeal it would have given the iPad itself.
Was it really a matter of cost? Or perhaps a ploy to sell the next iPad version that actually might include a camera? Or maybe an unwieldy webcam hookup via the added cost dongles (needed for any USB attachments to the iPad) was considered to be good enough?
My curiosity finally got the better of me, so for the first time in years I called up my old friend Ersatz T. Compeer, who always seems to have the proverbial inside pulse of hi-tech. Ersatz is a nice enough guy, but rather disconcerting to be around. He'll never reveal where he gets his information, and the parade of black sedans with dark windows that seem to tail him everywhere makes a lunch meeting feel like a visit to Berlin's old Checkpoint Charlie during the Cold War.
"Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today Ernie!" I began.
"Always a hoot, Lauren," he replied. "So you wanna know about the mysterious missing iPad camera, huh?"
"Yeah. Like I mentioned in my e-mail, it just seems so weird that Steve left something so obvious out. Were any of my guesses correct? Cost? Positioning for the 2.0 version, or ..."
"No. No. No. Jeez Lauren. How many times do I have to say it? You have to look through a glass darkly to understand situations like this," he said.
"Oh boy. Are you about to feed me another one of your wacky conspiracy theories?" I asked.
"Wacky? When have I ever steered you wrong?"
"Well, there was that gunk you fed me about a Google Dyson Sphere project ..."
"Trust me! They're still working on that! They're just trying to scale up gradually before announcing the beta ..."
"OK, Ernie. Fine. Just relax. Now, what about an iPad camera?"
"Just think about it for a minute Lauren," said Ernie. "If there was a nice, front-facing camera on the iPad, what would be the first thing you'd want to do with it?"
"I know what you'd want to do with it Ernie, but I'm not a pervert," I said.
"C'mon Lauren, get real. Now, what's the obvious super-whiz-bang-deluxe application for an iPad with a front camera?"
"Well, uh, video calls I guess."
"Give the man a cigar!" said Ernie. "That's right, video calls. iPadders would want to Video Skype and Google Video Chat their little hearts out!"
"So what's wrong with that?" I asked.
"You're not thinking again, Lauren. What's unusual about video calls compared with other kinds of typical mobile data usage?"
"Well. Let's see. They're pretty data intensive, at least compared with audio-only VoIP ..."
"And given that you usually want to see someone's face throughout a video call, you probably need a continuous, symmetric data stream," I said. "And since most mobile data networks are optimized more for downstream than upstream data ..."
"Keep going ..." said Ernie.
"But I don't see ... Oh no!" I exclaimed.
"Ah! It's sinking in, is it buddy boy? Which mobile carrier is the current iPad built for?"
"Yeah. AT&T. The hardware won't even support T-Mobile's 3G frequencies, not to mention non-GSM systems like Verizon or Sprint ... correct?"
"Yes Ernie," I said. "And nobody's going to be making video calls at lower than 3G speeds. AT&T. It just didn't occur to me!"
"And that's the same AT&T that's been driving iPhone users crazy with mobile network congestion and other mobile problems for ages," said Ernie. "Not only that, they're pricing the iPad data plans below typical price points. Can you imagine what would happen if piles of iPad video calls started hitting their network? It's the obvious killer app! Everyone with an iPad would want to do it!"
"So you're suggesting that if the iPad had included a built-in camera usable for video calls, AT&T couldn't have handled the load?" I asked.
"Handle it? Can you imagine what it would look like -- hell, smell like -- to have AT&T cell sites across the country all melting down at once? I mean physically melt down. Bubbling copper. Molten slag. Liquefied ..."
"I get the idea, Ernie. But wait a minute. Why couldn't you include the camera on all of the iPads and then just restrict users to video calls over Wi-Fi? Or only include the camera on the iPad models that don't include the 3G radios?"
"Would you want to try explain that kind of restriction to users? And how long do you think it would hold up with half the universe trying to hack around it? You really believe it'll work to tell potential buyers that the cheaper Wi-Fi-only unit includes a camera but the more expensive model that also has 3G leaves the camera off? Hell, Apple is already being dragged over the coals for their anal app approval and acceptance apparatus -- how much worse would you have them make an already nasty situation?"
"All right Ernie. I'm convinced. So what's the solution?"
"Solution? I'm not offering solutions. You just asked me why there wasn't an iPad camera, and I'm just telling you what I know. Take it or leave it," said Ernie.
"This stuff sure gets complicated ..." I said.
"Yep. But that's half the fun. Look bro', gotta go. Nice talking at ya'. And remember! Google Dyson Sphere! You heard it here first! Was that just a click on the line?"
"You're always hearing clicks, Ernie. Thanks. Try to stay out of trouble," I said.
"Exit, stage right!" said Ernie.
"This will destroy That. The Book will destroy the Edifice."
"Google's mission: to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Greetings. Around seven years ago, in an article for Wired News, I invoked Victor Hugo's words that encapsulated a common view of the power elite when faced with the reality of a rapidly spreading printing press technology. The concept of information -- a commodity more valuable than any gem in the scheme of human affairs -- being openly available to the "unwashed masses" seemed terrifying.
Now fast-forward and it's easy to see why the words of Google's mission statement appear to be triggering similar fears, and backlash, among some governments around the world. Organized, universally accessible information is anathema to those who rule through carefully skewed information regimentation.
Of course, such fears regarding the Internet and its ability to encourage the free flow of information have been brewing for years, basically since the Internet's nose first began poking out from under the tents of DoD labs and the ivory halls of academia.
But Google's ongoing very visible dispute with China has brought these issues back front and center into the spotlight, and a number of rather idealistic notions often expressed by some in the Internet "intelligentsia" appear somewhat ragged under this new illumination.
It has been popular, for example, for some in the Internet community, including various of my contemporaries, to suggest that the Internet would trigger the blossoming of an international "Digital Democracy" that would sweep past domestic borders and somehow encompass most of mankind in a grand new age where old concepts of national identity and conflict would be swept aside.
Being something of a student of history, I was never able to enthusiastically buy-in to this particular optimistic vision. While I've long argued that attempts to censor or filter Internet information will virtually always fail in the long run, in the shorter run authoritarian information regimes can make ordinary citizens' lives extremely uncomfortable -- or even very short.
Yes, you can use a VPN or proxies to get around most Internet restrictions, but if the penalty for getting caught doing so is 20 years at hard labor, and the finest Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) hardware that money can buy is put to the task of pinpointing such violators -- well, it would be understandable if most persons decided not to take the risks in the first place.
Make no mistake about it, information is the part and parcel of authoritarian regimes' most expansive plans and also their greatest fears.
The control of information available to a population is foundational to most dictatorships, whether this means confiscating radios, banning newspapers, or limiting Internet access. Information -- that is, the information deemed suitable for distribution by the powers-that-be, is a powerful tool for furthering their desired goals.
But "unapproved" information carries the opposite status -- it's often viewed as dangerous and subversive, something to be tightly throttled and ideally stamped out completely.
It becomes clear why Google is so often in the cross-hairs these days. The Internet is so vast that without the kind of organized search access that Google provides, much of the Internet's data effectively might not exist at all, since the average user would have a difficult time finding it, assuming its existence was even known in the first place -- similar to (but much worse than) badly misfiled books in a very large library.
In a related vein, Google's YouTube provides the most egalitarian mechanism yet devised for ordinary people to share the most potent of video presentations, exposing to the entire world that which some governments would much prefer remain unspoken and unseen.
But disturbingly, the calls for Internet restrictions of many sorts, often including various demands being made of Google, aren't just coming from the usual authoritarian "suspects" -- but also from countries like Australia, Italy and more.
Even here in the U.S., one of the most common Internet-related questions that I receive is also one of the most deeply disturbing: Why can't the U.S. require an Internet "driver's license" so that there would be no way (ostensibly) to do anything anonymously on the Net?
After I patiently explain why that would be a horrendous idea, based on basic principles of free speech as applied to the reality of the Internet -- most people who approached me with the "driver's license" concept seem satisfied with my take on the topic, but the fact that the question keeps coming up so frequently shows the depth of misplaced fears driven, ironically, by disinformation and the lack of accurate information.
We've seen much the same happen with the politicalization of Internet Net Neutrality debates, with some mostly right-wing commentators aligned with anti-neutrality forces spreading the Orwellian "big lie" inanity that Net Neutrality is akin to a massive government takeover of the Internet, and applying classic "divide and conquer" techniques in an attempt to coopt natural allies of Net Neutrality over to the side of the equation dominated by the very large ISPs.
At the nexus of so many of these controversies stands Google. It would be difficult to argue that this doesn't seem like a highly unusual position -- a position of enormous responsibility and gravitas -- for a single commercial firm to occupy.
And yet, it seems likely that in the current environment perhaps only an international organization of Google's size, scope, and singularly atypical corporate culture has a realistic chance of systematically nudging events globally in a positive direction toward increased Internet freedoms.
As the China events show, this is a matter of continuing calibration and adjustment, and there are no guarantees regarding happy endings. Human history suggests that it would be foolhardy to assume that even the noblest of motives will always win out over domestically or internationally perpetuated fears and associated propaganda.
But in any battle over ideas, history also teaches that widespread access to information -- in "Google-Speak" that goal of "universal accessibility and usefulness" -- is always better for society in the long run than restrictive information and censorship policies aimed at "short leash" control of populations.
In the scheme of events, the Information Wars have really only just begun. The outcomes of these battles won't only determine the fate of the world population's access to information, but in many respects their ability to exercise a wide variety of other very basic human rights as well.
For all of these issues are linked in highly complex ways, and that's not just via Web sites, but throughout the very core of the human psyche.
Perhaps the historical path from Victor Hugo to Google isn't really all that surprising after all.
Greetings. It didn't take very long for Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer to make crystal clear the philosophical differences between his firm and Google.
In a fascinating speech to an outstanding bastion of upstanding business practices that I'm sure we all know and and love -- a Houston gathering of oil company executives -- Ballmer made it clear that if you're a repressive government with a terrible and rapidly decaying human rights record, Microsoft has a censorship deal for you!
On the same day that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a powerful speech supporting Internet freedom that by implication strongly backed Google's recently announced change in China policy and its refusal to continue censoring Google Search results in China, Ballmer was offering to censor Bing in any manner that Beijing requests. Just send him legal notice, and the offending results are Kaput -- Gone -- Vamonos!
Perhaps even more disturbing than Ballmer's "Come to Bing for Censorship!" promotion was his bizarre attempt to equate the rapidly declining human rights and civil rights environment in China with U.S. bans on pornography involving children, and the French ban on Nazi imagery. His presentation of these latter two examples as being morally equivalent to the kind of pervasive censorship, repression, and punishment that is increasingly taking place in China today is nothing short of ludicrous. It's more than a little frightening if he really doesn't see the differences that make China's censorship regime ever more nightmarish for those freedom-seeking citizens unwilling to toe the government's party line.
Ballmer has frequently demonstrated a number of rather clownish traits, but his offer of continuing practical support for China's pervasive information repression isn't funny -- it's boorish, shameful, and reprehensible. And those are just the "family-friendly" terms that come to mind.
For several years -- basically since soon after the start of the censored google.cn project -- Googlers at various levels within the company have expressed their discomfort to me regarding the arrangement, and their hope that the availability of Google Search even in censored form would perhaps help lead to an opening up of China with a blossoming of information, communications, and civil rights freedoms for its population.
It's now apparent that this didn't happen, and China took advantage of the situation to not only increase repression within its only country, but also to strike out at the rest of the world. Google's evolving new China policy is a logical and admirable response to this reality.
On the other hand, Steve Ballmer appears to be comfortably ensconced within a fantasy world -- where human rights matter not at all if they get in the way of business, and where attempting to expand Bing seems to take priority over all else.
Ballmer's attitude is a disgrace to Bing, Microsoft, and of course to himself as well.
Very sad, indeed.
Greetings. In FiOS Scamming the Elderly a couple of days ago, I expressed my extreme displeasure at the horrendous (whether legal or not, yet to be determined) sales techniques used to pressure the elderly father of a friend of mine into signing up for FiOS services (on a long-term contract) that he didn't want or need.
Since that posting, I've discovered more subterfuge -- they even signed him for FiOS TV after he explicitly told them that he already had cable TV and wanted to stay with it.
Today I finally reached Verizon, and after fighting my way through the usual impediments and multiple transfers I successfully canceled the order. I hope.
Verizon won't provide written confirmation that the order has been killed, and simply tells you to use the original order number for reference. We'll see if his existing, non-FiOS Verizon phone service ends up being disrupted, and I've told him that if any Verizon crews show up at his house, just send them packing back to the depot.
I plan to pursue the issue of the tactics used by the Verizon door-to-door hit squad. Verizon reps I spoke to today refused to reveal whether or not such workers were Verizon employees or (more likely I'll bet) contract workers on commission.
There was an amusing aspect to canceling the order. I felt it appropriate to record the call, so that I'd have a proof of this order activity in case there was an "issue" regarding the order's status later on.
Complexities of individual state laws regarding notifications of recording aside (one-party vs. two-party states), my policy is to always notify the other party when I'm recording a call.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Verizon reps I talked to absolutely and indignantly refused to continue the calls when I told them that I was recording. This despite the fact that virtually the first words out of the Verizon phone system are "call may be monitored or recorded."
So, being a law-abiding, ethical citizen, I stopped the recording and so informed the reps. Their hesitation to continue the calls was unmistakable. "Did he really stop recording?"
The technical term for this attitude on the part of Verizon is of course referenced by the acronym CYA. They want to record you for their protection, but heaven forbid if you desire to record them for the same reason.
But given Verizon's sleazy FiOS sales practices, the fact that they behave similarly disrespectful of their customers' concerns at the call center level shouldn't really surprise anyone.
It's almost as if the long gone but widely despised General Telephone sometimes still lives on as a ghostly spirit in aspects of its descendant Verizon.
Cue the theremin ...
Greetings. We know that major telephone/cable/ISP companies have many great people managing them and working for them in various capacities.
But when it comes to sales tactics, sometimes it's difficult to come up with sufficiently descriptive terminology that doesn't involve hard-core expletives.
When sales techniques descend to the level of elder abuse, I'll admit I'm nothing short of livid. And that's how I feel right now.
I've just learned that earlier today, a pair of slick, fast-talking Verizon door-to-door FiOS representatives (I'm still trying to find out if they were Verizon employees or third-party sales reps) scammed the elderly father of a friend of mine here in L.A. into signing up for a one-year contracted bundle of expensive FiOS services that he didn't want or need.
Apparently by implying that a change to FiOS was already a fait accompli, they pressured him into immediately signing even though he was obviously confused.
I'll be working to untangle this starting on the first business day that I can reach Verizon.
But for now, the next time that someone questions the need for more regulation in this area, here's one more example to cite.
More later. Take care, all.
This one's from the "Fun with Photoshop and Google Images Department":
There's a funky old 1972 movie called "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" -- but we might want to headline a new embarrassment for the FBI by the somewhat similar title: "The FBI Shouldn't Play with Google Images!"
Actually, the situation would be even more funny if it weren't potentially so serious. On Friday, to considerable fanfare and media attention, the U.S. State Department released a "digitally enhanced and aged" image of Osama bin Laden, complete with a reminder of the $25-million reward for his capture or obliteration.
Just one problem. It didn't take long for a top Spanish lawyer and Member of Parliament to notice that the new image representing the world's most wanted man was ... uh ... strikingly similar to his own face. Cough, choke, spit out the coffee onto the newspaper! Ouch.
Now comes the really good part. The FBI originally had claimed that it aged terror suspect photos using "cutting edge" technology. But after Gaspar Llamazares (who turns out to be a critic of the U.S. "war on terror") expressed concerns about sharing much of his face with someone carrying such a massive bounty, the FBI admitted to using a somewhat different procedure in this case.
It turns out that they lifted a photo of Llamazares from an old campaign poster found on Google Images, then simply cut and pasted his hair, jaw line, and forehead onto bin Laden's face.
The State Department has now pulled that photo down from their wanted terrorists Web Site.
As you can imagine, Llamazares is most definitely not amused.
But it could have been worse. The FBI might have used images of Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno to update bin Laden's visage.
Now that's scary.
Greetings. Some of the initial dust is starting to settle just a bit in the wake of Google's announced change in China-related operational policies, and it's fascinating to observe the range of reactions.
One almost immediate result of my posting that strongly supported Google's decision has been a number of people asking if I still stand by my previous statements of support for the concept of cloud computing. Don't the Chinese attacks on Google and other companies, that triggered Google's policy changes, demonstrate a weakness in cloud services?
I still am enthusiastic about cloud computing, and I still feel that there are some important areas of cloud services where more work needs to be done. But more on that in a moment.
While I believe it's fair to say that most reactions to Google's announced China-related changes have been extremely positive, there have been some negative voices.
China of course officially is far from thrilled. My favorite official statements from Chinese officials on the matter so far include: "Properly guiding internet opinion is a major measure for protecting internet information security" -- and a warning that Internet businesses must adhere to "propaganda discipline."
Propaganda Discipline. Now that's a nifty turn of phrase if ever I've heard one.
Well, it's pretty clear where official China stands on this, anyway.
An accusation has been floating around suggesting that Google's only real motivation for the China changes was to give Google cover to extract itself from its "underdog" search status vis-a-vis Baidu.
Fiduciary responsibility alone would suggest that Google considered the financial ramifications of actions with the potential of drastic effects on their China-based operations. But there's no rational reason why Google would want or need to "cover" a straightforward business decision in the manner some folks are suggesting -- that's nonsensical. And to argue that Google would purposely create an "international incident" of this sort on such a basis is assuming a degree of functional sociopathy around the level of Norman Bates. Sorry, I just don't buy the paranoid argument.
Another concern being bandied about relates to the (unconfirmed at this point) rumor that part of the attack on Google involved access to a couple of Gmail accounts via a Google "law enforcement compliance" system.
Some observers have expressed outrage that such a system would even exist -- but frankly I'd be surprised if something at least functionally equivalent was not in place. Given that Google must respond to legal demands for information from law enforcement, a system dedicated in some way to that end would seem at least logical. And the header-type data obtained by certain of the (apparently) Chinese attacks (as opposed to message contents that were reportedly not accessed in this context) are the sort of "pen register" type of data that is commonly associated with certain common types of law enforcement information demands.
Whether or not such a compliance system was in play in these attacks, we know that certain aspects of security at Google and elsewhere were compromised. And this brings us back to the question of cloud computing safety.
But to answer that question, we have to consider the security implications of non-cloud systems as well.
Both from security and privacy standpoints in a perfect world (including pretty much unlimited free Internet bandwidth and lots of otherwise free time on your hands as well), it could be argued that keeping all personal data, e-mail, etc. on your own local computers would be a nifty setup.
However, we of course don't live in a perfect world. Maintaining your own mail servers -- and the security of those systems -- in today's Internet environment can be tough work. I know -- I build and operate my own servers, and even on a relatively small scale it can be challenging to keep attacks and other problems at bay. And let's face it, most computer users have not one iota of interest in spending their days (and sometimes nights) maintaining such systems.
If you want to provide remote access to your own services or collaborative environments -- via ssh or other tools -- even more work is involved and additional security considerations come into play. And then there's the issue of system backups. Sad to say, vast numbers of computer users have no usable backups of their data of any kind!
One reason why Google applications like Gmail have become so popular is that they offload so many of these issues onto Google's shoulders (in fact, Gmail has now switched over to using https: by default -- a major and extremely worthwhile boost for what I call "opportunistic encryption.")
But yes, a cloud service can be an attractive target, by offering the potential attacker at least the theoretical possibility of breaching large numbers of accounts in one fell swoop.
So as with so many other aspects of technology, we see that there's little black or white to these situations, but lotsa shades of gray. To judge any given cloud computing or cloud data storage environment involves not only the capabilities of those services, but also by contrast your own capabilities and desires in terms of operating your own systems and associated infrastructure to perform those same services.
For many individuals, companies, organizations, and even cities or larger entities, moving some or all information technology functionality to the cloud may make good economic and security sense, especially compared with what they could do in these areas on their own locally.
This calculus should be conducted in each case with the understanding that no systems -- locally operated or in the cloud -- will have perfect security, and that security breaches of some sort can eventually occur. One advantage of the cloud is that in most cases it is usually much faster to effectively roll out security updates across the entire population of cloud users than when dealing with non-cloud, locally-operated computing environments.
We can certainly assume that Google and the other organizations impacted by these recent attacks will be taking due steps to further secure their systems based on what has been learned. Computer security improvements tend to be more evolutionary than revolutionary, but like in so much else of life we tend to learn the fastest when challenged the hardest, and ultimate perfection is a pipe dream, not a practicality.
The decision to use -- or not use -- cloud services is an individual one. But my stand on the topic hasn't changed at all as a result of these recent attacks. Cloud computing shows enormous promise and is extremely valuable for all sorts of applications today. But we're in the infancy of this technology, and there's a great deal of important and exciting work yet to be done as this area advances. That work will undoubtedly include security and privacy enhancements as key aspects, and much of what we learn from intrusions will often significantly impact these development efforts in positive and useful ways.
Perhaps we should be publicly thanking the Chinese attackers for their "contributions" to the evolution of our cloud computing projects?
Greetings. Almost exactly four years ago, when I first visited Google's Santa Monica offices and presented a talk on Internet issues, one of the topics that I discussed was Google's operations in China.
Google's presence in China has been controversial from the beginning, particularly to the extent that they involved the operation of a version of Google Search (google.cn) that presented censored search results as required by the Chinese government.
Some observers have characterized such an arrangement as a "deal with the devil" from day one, but I've preferred to view the situation in somewhat more nuanced terms. Google indicates to Chinese users when results have been censored, and Google has argued that it made sense to have a presence in China -- even on such terms -- to provide at least some access to Google resources for Chinese Internet users, rather than those users having no access at all.
I've found this argument to have considerable merit, but I've never been happy about this state of affairs. Google and China is probably the single most frequently mentioned Google-related policy area about which I've been asked my opinion over the years. And I've never been fully satisfied with my answers to such queries.
Chatting with Googlers after that talk I gave in Santa Monica, I remember expressing my specific concerns that the China arrangement appeared unstable in light of historical precedent in China -- particularly in regards to a very poor human rights record -- and that the probability of some sort of "trust" breakdown appeared rather high.
Now it appears that the solid excretory matter has hit the fan. You can read considerable details over on the Official Google Blog.
Briefly, after a series of data breaches and attacks related to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists (and attacks targeting other firms as well that Google discovered in the course of investigations), Google has announced that it will not be willing to continue censoring Google Search results for China going forward, even though this may result in Google having to shut down all Google operations in China.
I congratulate Google on this decision. They attempted over the years -- in what I believe to have been good faith -- to thread a very complex policy needle to avoid having a major proportion of the world's population ending up being cut off from services that most of us now take for granted in our everyday lives. Google's hope was that China would respond in a positive way with improved civil rights and less fettered access to information for China's citizens.
But China appears to have dropped the ball and has been moving backwards toward ever more restrictions. Google is responding to the current situation in a resolute and completely appropriate manner, even though the negative financial impact on the firm from this decision could be quite significant to say the least. I hope that Google detractors will remember the events today the next time that they're tempted to claim that Google only cares about money and nothing else.
Exactly how these events related to China will all play out in detail is unclear at this point, but Google's statement that they are unwilling to continue censoring Chinese search results seems completely unequivocal.
Once again, I applaud Google's decision to take a "new approach" toward dealing with China from this point forward. Three cheers and two thumbs up!
Update: CNBC Interview with Google's David Drummond regarding this situation (New York Times Video -- ~11 minutes)
Greetings. With sales support and technical support issues surrounding Google's launch of their new Nexus One Android phone rather vividly in the spotlight right now, this seems like an appropriate time to revisit a recurring theme of significant interest to me, the topic of Google's customer support in general.
This is most assuredly not a simple matter, and any attempt to paint this subject as suitable for easy solutions or quickie analysis is doomed to be pretty much useless or even counterproductive. So this is going to be a rather long piece. Sorry about that, Chief.
Regular readers know that I've discussed this topic various times in the past in relation to different aspects of the perceived problems.
I'll try to avoid repeating at length here what I've previously said and recommended in those prior postings -- here are links to a couple of these for backstory reference:
An initially unexpected result of my various writings on Google support problems has been a continuing flow of Google-related issues being sent to me by frustrated Google users, including concerns ranging from trivial to serious.
A common thread is that most of these users claim to have been unable to obtain an adequate response (or in many cases, any non-automated response at all) from Google in reaction to their concerns. These users then start Google Searching on the topic of Google support problems, find my essays, and start forwarding their problems to me!
It's gotten to the point where it's rare for a day to go by without my receiving at least one such e-mail from an upset or concerned Google user. But this does provide me with some interesting insights.
Obviously, I'm not in a position to directly act on Google-related issues. But I do try to help when I can.
Sometimes it's just a matter of clearing up misinformation. Google conspiracy theories float around the Net like flotsam and jetsam, and concerned users often are all too willing to buy into "assume the worst" scenarios.
A common example of this is persons who feel that Google is purposely and unfairly censoring or otherwise damaging their sites' "search ranking reputation" on Google. But at least in my experience, every example of this brought to my attention by concerned site owners has had an innocent explanation.
Sites can be bumped or flagged when they become infected by malware that Google detects. Such infections can occur in ways that the site owner isn't even aware of, resulting in loud (but inaccurate) protests that "my site is clean!"
Another example is sites who have indulged -- sometimes at the urging of less than scrupulous "Search Engine Optimization" (SEO) firms -- in site design practices aimed at boosting their sites' Google search results rankings, but that violate Google's Webmaster guidelines (which are quite explicit and well documented).
In my experience, Google tries very hard to maintain the "purity" of natural search results and to avoid inappropriate bias in those results.
Anyway, you get the idea -- some of the Google problem queries that I receive are pretty easy to deal with via just a bit of relevant information, understanding, and the willingness to appreciate that people get upset about situations where they can't seem to get anyone to respond to their concerns in what they consider to be a useful manner.
Another class of users who come to me with Google issues have genuine operational problems. Perhaps they've been trying to get what they consider to be a specific, privacy-problematic photo removed from Google Street View. Or maybe they're having an issue with Google Voice that is causing them call problems, or perhaps merchant-related ad or Google Checkout issues.
In some cases I'll have information readily available that can help, but other times I go digging for it around the Net, and occasionally I'll need to make some direct queries via my own channels to try help these folks.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of them seem to be thrilled that someone is at least paying attention to their problems.
A key point -- nothing seems to irritate people with Google-related issues more than the perception that they are being ignored, and that their concerns are just falling into automated black holes when submitted to Google Help forms.
There are all sorts of official Google Help Forums of course, but these seem to frustrate many people rather than help them in even common situations. They often seem to run pretty much in an "automatic" mode, with user contributed suggestions (sometimes useful, sometimes just plain wrong) mixed in with everything else, and frequently no formal Google presence other than perhaps a Google employee who pops in occasionally with a comparatively isolated comment.
Again, the perception of a "black hole" related to posted or submitted Google-associated customer service problems runs rampant in the e-mail that I receive on Google topics, with users complaining that they have no confidence that concerns submitted to Google will receive any kind of useful and relevant response or resolution at all from Google in any given case.
There's another class of complaint that is perhaps the toughest to deal with, people who have policy-related concerns with Google (and often, with search engines in general). This can include (for example) persons or firms who feel that false information about them consistently ranks to the top of search results and that they have no way to correct or even respond to what they feel is damaging misinformation.
This is a very tough nut to crack -- particularly since search engines in general do not control the content of the external sites that they index. I've discussed this particular class of policy concerns previously (including in Search Engine Dispute Notifications: Request For Comments) and won't go into it more now, since in my opinion the topic resides at the outer edge of more conventional customer support issues, but that's not to diminish its importance in any way.
The folks over at Blendtec run a really fun site, with a vast collection of videos showing their "nuclear" blenders pulverizing an incredible range of objects. "Will it Blend?" is their very appropriate slogan. ("iPhone smoke. Don't breathe this!")
Over at Google, it could be argued that the slogan "Will it Scale?" is equally venerated -- and with good reason.
Google is dealing with unbelievably vast numbers of users, most of whom pay exactly zero to Google -- nuthin' -- to use Google services.
I have long sensed that Google is aware at various levels of their customer support problems, but has felt stymied about deploying solutions given perceived cost and scale issues, particularly when dealing with a mostly non-paying user base. That's just my opinion, of course, I'm certainly not speaking for Google.
The issue of paying vs. non-paying users is an interesting one. To be sure, most Google users don't pay Google in the same sense that they authorize a payment to their ISP every month. Yet Google's primary ad-supported business model is based on the concept that those non-paying users still represent a revenue stream via their ad clicks. And Google is now a central part of many millions of lives -- whether paying customers or not -- so simply because so many Google services are positioned as "free" to most users does not obviate Google of reasonable and effective support responsibilities.
Is it practical to offer the vast universe of "free" Google users the same level of support as received by, say, paying Google Apps users?
Perhaps not, but I would argue that the current state of Google customer service is increasingly unacceptable to Google's users in general, and damaging to Google as well.
The apparent lack of foresight in this sphere relating to the Nexus One launch seems surprising -- direct sales of a complex physical product can easily be predicted to need significant consumer hand-holding. But Google can fix the most obvious aspects of this particular issue pretty easily, even if they need to resort to contracting with outside customer service phone banks to help with pre- and post-sales Nexus One (and future direct sales devices) issues.
In contrast, the broader Google support issues beyond the immediate Nexus One story are likely not so easily solved. But I do feel that they are solvable in practical ways.
At the macro level, a "triaged" approach to user concerns is crucial. The "Ombudsman" concept that I have previously explored (as linked above) could be an important aspect of this.
Another critical element of a successful customer service structure is a formalized system for dealing with queries of all types that reduces, or ideally eliminates, the "black hole complaint form" effect that is so incredibly upsetting to users with Google-related issues.
This would require the allocation of significant manpower and the spending of not insignificant amounts of money. So be it. Trying to finesse around this matter indefinitely is likely leading to even more problems for everyone involved.
There are various ways to structure such an improved support environment to help keep the scaling issues under control. One possibility -- and I'm not necessarily recommending this, but only pointing it out as perhaps worthy of discussion -- would be to charge a small "per incident" fee (to otherwise non-paying Google users) for expedited responses to problem issues. This would encourage such users to use available self-help resources when possible, but still provide a practical path for more assistance as appropriate.
Google has attracted some of the best technical talent in the world. In many ways it's the new Bell Labs of its day, and I've long held Bell Labs in very high esteem indeed.
Google's employees include among the most intelligent and perceptive persons I know -- individuals who are also genuinely concerned about a broad range of issues and how Google impacts them. It's a popular misconception to assume that Google is all about money. They're a very powerful business to be sure, but the Google corporate ethos -- as I perceive it -- genuinely is concerned with a much broader range of humanistic concerns beyond the financial bottom line. Perceptions of Google skewed by negative customer service experiences is likely acting to obscure this fact -- and that's a genuine shame -- but not an intractable one.
If Google tasks its collective talent with the challenge of providing world-class customer service, I have absolutely no doubt that they can set an extremely positive example in this regard for the entire Internet.
No, it won't be easy. But it's very much worth doing, not just for the sake of Google's users, but for Google itself, and for the broader Internet community as well.
Greetings. The body image scanner lobby is out in full force to convince governments around the world to buy their products, and to scare the flying public into sheepishly putting up with these invasive devices that will not even be effective in stopping dedicated terrorists.
But money talks -- as demonstrated by Bush-era Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff making the TV rounds promoting these scanners. Oh, by the way, he now works for one of the companies that manufacturers the scanners. Surprise!
There's lots of false or misleading information floating around regarding the scanners themselves.
First is the claim that there's nothing to worry about related to the radiation from these devices. There are two types of units -- millimeter wave and backscatter x-ray. The former do not produce ionizing radiation, but recent research suggests that they still carry risks of cellular changes. X-rays we know far better, and the proponents of this technology make various claims about how little dosage is involved in each scan.
These dosage numbers seem to vary all over the place, even changing dramatically from day to day on Web sites that purport to be giving accurate information. Comparisons with background radiation at altitude and time spent in the sunshine is fine, but the bottom line is that statistics clearly indicate that subjecting mass populations (including frequent flyers) to even small amounts of additional radiation will result in additional cancer deaths. Many deaths? Probably not that can be proven, anyway. But if your "lucky" number comes up, too bad for you.
Another issue -- the claims of safety regarding these scanners all assume accurate calibration. Yet we've recently seen that major hospitals -- including right here in L.A. -- have been found to have medical CAT x-ray scanners that in some cases massively overdosed patients (not just on one bad day, but over long periods of time) with radiation, enough to cause burns and hair loss, not to mention other potential problems down the line. That's in relatively calm and clean hospital environments. If airport body scanners end up badly calibrated -- as is typical for baggage x-ray units that vary widely in intensity -- the risks are obvious.
The many detailed naked images floating around the media and Net from various scanners are widely known. The level of detail can be astonishing. A recent YouTube video purported to show how easy it was to digitally reverse such images to show a naked positive (I noted this video earlier today in another venue.)
That video turns out to have been doctored but was convincing. Why? Because my own experiments have shown that reversing such images does indeed yield almost identical effects. Here's my reversal [Adults Only] of an image provided by TSA as part of a widely seen demo.
Pro-scanner propaganda screams that new scanners don't show this level of detail.
That's only partly true. There are newer systems that display more "symbolic" imagery (e.g. "chalk line" body images). But the fact is that many of the units in use today do display full detail.
Perhaps of even more concern, my sources that have been involved in the evaluation of body image scanners in security contexts tell me that the ability of such scanners to actually find contraband on body areas where it can theoretically be detected (e.g. not in body orifices, etc.) varies directly with the level of detail shown. The less detailed the image, the more likely bad stuff will slip through. Also, I'm told that in practice it's often necessary to have two-way communication between the security personnel at the scanner and the remote scanner viewer, in order to instruct the scanning target to reposition themselves in various ways to get a full scan. And of course, the full detailed scan is the initial result internally in all cases, whether or not a simplified image is actually displayed to the operator.
The irony of all this is that the use of a "booty bomb" -- explosives inserted into the body in various ways, is an effective mechanism to evade all of these body imagery systems that don't use body-penetrating x-rays.
Unfortunately, the more clearly one looks at the reality of these scanners and how they're being promoted, the murkier the image actually becomes.
Greetings. Various media points are reporting fairly widespread complaints about customer support and technical problems related to Google's new Nexus One Android phone. The volume of postings appears to have been sufficient to trigger Google's "real time search" mode for the search term "nexus one complaints" at this time.
The customer support complaints seem to involve both pre- and post-sale issues, tales of finger-pointing between T-Mobile, HTC, and Google -- and a reported lack of other than (currently slow) e-mail support from Google related to the phone.
I do not know at this point the extent to which these complaints are or are not representative of the overall Nexus One user population. In these kinds of situations, you usually hear from the people with problems, not the folks who are satisfied. Of course, it's the former group who most need an effective support structure in such environments.
I did receive an unsolicited message from a reader (possibly reacting to my The Google "Nexus One" Saga Turns Ugly blog posting from yesterday) expressing incredulity that his Nexus One arrived with voluminous legal disclosure documentation but (he reported) no manual of any kind.
Concerns over the Nexus One's 3G performance appear to be piling up. Again, it is impossible to estimate at this time how representative these are, and of course any associated real problems (if actually related to the phone itself) could be caused by anything from hardware issues (usually a hassle to fix) to firmware issues (typically much easier to deal with).
Since my longstanding concerns and recommendations regarding Google's support structure in general are already quite well known, I won't go farther into that aspect here for now.
Blog Update (January 11, 2010): Google's Customer Support Dilemma Intensifies
Greetings. Until now, I didn't feel any particular need to comment here about Google's new "Nexus One" Android phone. It's gotten plenty of press (by some standards, perhaps too much for its own good), and while it appears to be a very nice phone, it is in many respects essentially a souped-up MyTouch (HTC Magic) -- in fact like the MyTouch it's manufactured by HTC.
I make no secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of Google's open Android OS ecosystem. I carry a (rooted) G1 Android phone (HTC Dream) which serves me well, I do my own Android development, and I've never felt any need whatsoever to look back over my shoulder at Windows Mobile. And while I've noted that I'd happily work with a Nexus if it appeared out of thin air, it's also true that without a physical keyboard it's not a good fit as a primary phone for me, given my high e-mail volumes.
The current Nexus is a GSM-only phone (and the Verizon version will be CDMA only) -- and this GSM Nexus will work 3G domestically only on T-Mobile (not AT&T) -- exactly like the G1 and MyTouch. The price of an unlocked Nexus purchased from Google is in line with other unlocked smartphones, as is the discounted price with T-Mobile contract.
So again, it's a very nice phone. And if Google can get this much publicity out of its launch and is happy with the results, more power to them.
Unfortunately, much of the technical and mainstream media has treated this product launch as a key battle in an assumed Google vs. Apple (Android vs. iPhone) war -- which is to my mind a false comparison.
After all, the iPhone and associated Apple products (like the coming Apple tablet computer) are products of a purposely closed technical ecosystem, with hardware and software development tightly controlled by Apple. Android, on the other hand, is designed to run on a vast range of hardware manufactured by different companies, and it's difficult to imagine how its software development could be any more open without descending into chaos.
In significant ways (and I mean this in a very positive sense!) Android is positioned something like a free, open source version of Microsoft Windows. That is, unlike Apple OSes that only run on Apple hardware, Android -- like MS Windows -- is designed to run on lots of different types of hardware (not limited to phones of course) from a vast range of sources. And Android is well positioned to inter-operate and merge in very useful ways with various Google products and services, including the Chrome OS and other Google systems.
So while there's a natural tendency to try compare the Nexus One with the iPhone via various vectors such as screen size, number of apps available and such, these comparisons are really missing the point of what Google is trying to do -- so far quite successfully -- with Android in the longer run.
A couple of days ago, New York Times columnist David Pogue wrote what I would classify as a generally upbeat and essentially accurate (if not particularly enthusiastic) review of the Nexus One. I don't always agree with David, but I thought his review hit the salient points fairly well. He may not be as excited about Android overall as I am, but I certainly wouldn't have categorized his review as notably unfair or biased.
So I was rather dismayed to read his column today, where he recounted the blast of hateful comments he received in response to that review, leading him to write:
"... Android appeals to precisely the sort of frustrated, anti-establishment people who have no trouble writing abusive notes."
His reaction may be somewhat overwrought, but is completely understandable. There's no rational reason why anyone trying to deal seriously with these complex technical issues should be expected to put up with that sort of abuse. Nor do such juvenile outbursts directed toward reviewers like Pogue do anything to advance the interests of we who support Google's efforts with Android.
I won't belabor the old Rodney King "getting along" stuff here, but I will suggest that these issues are important enough that we would all be well served by at least trying to act like adults when debating such topics (and at other times as well!), and that a bit of respect goes a hell of long way even when you disagree strongly with someone else's opinions.
"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" -- remember?
That's the "nexus" of the matter for me -- and I hope, for you as well.
Greetings. At the ongoing Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, auto manufacturers appear to be in a race to kill more motorists than ever before.
This has nothing to do with speed or brakes per se, and everything to do with an escalating array of distracting dashboard gadgets.
Let's start with a fact. Distracted driving kills. And there are a wide variety of possible distractions. One reason that I have consistently opposed laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones when driving is that such laws do not address the core problem of distractions, which has nothing whatever to do with whether devices are hand-held or not. In fact it's the mental distractions related to interacting with these systems that create the risks. (Please see U.S. Group Wants Total Driving Cell Phone Ban -- Or -- "Are you talking to yourself again?" and associated retrospective links, for my previous discussions related to this topic.)
We know that people have died as a result of distractions caused by simply fumbling around with ordinary car radios while driving. In-dash GPS systems add another layer of distraction that is difficult to resist, even with voice guidance, but it can also be argued that GPS provides a key capability important to the basic goals of driving -- for example, getting to the right place without resorting to distracting paper maps and the like.
But lately auto manufacturers have been piling on far less necessary entertainment extras, including all manner of video playback capabilities (while driver-side video is usually supposed to be disabled while actually driving, this lockout can often be easily defeated).
Now comes word from CES that Ford is bringing Twitter services to their in-car "Sync" system -- right at the same time that moves nationwide to ban text-messaging while driving have been gathering momentum.
I like Twitter. I use it (@laurenweinstein all the time, on desktops and on my Android phone. But the thought of people driving while receiving or sending tweets -- whether as text or audio -- scares the hell out of me.
Perhaps worst of all, Ford CEO Alan Mulally reportedly told an audience at CES that because Sync is voice-activated, it's safer for drivers than using their phones in the car.
I won't call Alan a liar. Let's just say that he appears to be dangerously misinformed. Virtually every reputable study I've seen on this topic has reported that hands-free and hand-held cell phone use while driving carry the same significant distraction risks.
As I mentioned above, these dangerous distractions are intrinsic to the mental processes of interacting with these systems, and these are fundamentally the same when driving whether you're holding a cell phone, talking on a speakerphone, or even interacting with Twitter in a hands-free mode.
I like my Internet toys as much as the next person -- probably even more than most people. But I don't love them enough to want people dying as a result of auto manufacturers pushing ever more dangerous extra-cost distractions into our vehicles -- in their never-ending quest to stay financially afloat.
Much as I hate to say this, it may well be appropriate for some preemptive federal regulatory activity in this area.
Most of us need our cars. But killing or dying due to tweets or other unnecessary driving distractions is just plain stupid -- and in many cases likely criminal as well.
Greetings. Among the hard core of Internet Geekdom (of which, I must admit, I'm a charter member) you'll frequently hear the phrase "Bits are bits" -- often in the context that at the digital level, all content -- Web pages, movies, TV shows, music, and so on, are composed of the same fungible zeros and ones, at least theoretically capable of flitting around the Internet with equal ease.
But in the real world, various forces work to channel and control the flow of bits, in the furtherance of various goals. Many of the key issues related to Network Neutrality are focused on a range of controversies and conflicts associated with these efforts to manage and monetize the movement of data around the Internet.
Most Net Neutrality discussions to date have focused on the ways in which a few dominant ISPs, who in the U.S. control the vast majority of Internet users, could use their leverage in ways that favored or disfavored particular content, create anticompetitive situations for outside Internet content vs. content affiliated with those ISPs, and so on.
But we've very recently seen a saga that demonstrates another potential aspect of the situation that could become important for persons and organizations concerned about Net Neutrality.
In a nutshell, the question is this: Could Web services use their popularity to "extort" payment from ISPs in exchange for continued direct access to those services by those ISPs' subscribers? As an alternative to directly charging users themselves for site access, this might seem attractive to unscrupulous entities.
For example, could a popular social networking site, knowing that many tens of millions of persons organized their lives around the site, go to an ISP and demand, say, a buck a month per ISP subscriber (regardless of whether individual subscribers ever visited that particular Web service or not) -- or alternatively face that ISP's IP addresses being blocked by that Web service?
Of course, such blocking would not be absolute -- subscribers in the know would find a way to access the site via proxies and such. But would an ISP want to risk the backlash from most subscribers who suddenly found themselves unable to access their favorite site in a conventional manner?
At first glance this entire scenario might seem like Fantasyland. What content provider or other Web site would be so wacko as to try "blackmailing" an ISP that way?
And yet, we've seen something rather like this play out just a few days ago, when Time Warner Cable (TWC) subscribers were caught in the middle of a battle royale between their cable company and FOX, specifically whether or not TWC could continue carrying key FOX over-the-air channels on TWC systems in major cities.
This was big news -- the thought of missing some football games or episodes of The Simpsons drove many viewers into a flurry of consternation and panic.
Battles over "retransmission" are not new, but this escalation, both in terms of rhetoric and potential pass-through costs to cable and satellite subscribers going forward, is very significant, since the new venue is battles over traditional "free" locally transmitted channels, not cable-only channels.
While TWC and FOX finally settled (exact terms moving forward not officially released as far as I know) at the urging of the FCC, subscribers in at least one other cable system were not so lucky at the end of 2009, actually losing some popular cable channels when other agreements couldn't be reached.
What does all this have to do with Net Neutrality?
Remember -- bits are bits. Television distribution is moving rapidly toward Internet "IP"-based models. AT&T's U-verse is already an "IPTV" system. The evolution plans for digital cable all appear to lead ultimately to IPTV.
Meanwhile, content providers are beginning to offer TV programming directly through conventional Internet sites, sometimes linked to being a subscriber of particular cable systems.
This is Convergence with a capital C, and the distinction between "TV" and the "Internet" is already blurring. At some point down the line the visible differences are likely to vanish completely as far as most people are concerned. CBS? NBC? PBS? FOX? YouTube? Eventually -- and not that far in the future -- these will all be the same bits feeding into the same boxes and displaying on the same screens in people's homes.
And so we come back to the scenario in question. If FOX can threaten to block Time Warner Cable subscribers unless TWC coughed up a dollar per sub, could
When the technical distinctions between different modalities of content delivery fall away, the possibility of particularly distasteful monetizing strategies migrating across a range of associated services would seem all too real unless moderating influences -- or in some cases regulatory controls -- are present.
It's an issue at least worth thinking about.
After all -- bits are bits.
Greetings and Happy New Year!
I hadn't planned a blog post for today, but in the course of research a few hours ago I stumbled across a site that at first had me chuckling, but that I found increasingly disturbing the more I thought about its privacy and other implications. I'll provide the link at the end of this item -- as we proceed you'll understand why I'd prefer that you read this posting entirely before considering if you want to actually visit the site for yourself.
The site is apparently registered to an individual in New York. While it may not be officially affiliated with police departments, the nature of the contents suggests that the site enjoys the cooperation in some manner of various police agencies and personnel.
The silly, off-color, and other jokes, plus a wide range of associated oddities, can easily be viewed as folks in a tough job letting off some steam.
But one section of the site, featuring an array of mostly uncensored photos of fully naked men and women interacting with police in various public contexts (protests, arrests, etc.) seems highly problematic, especially since the lack of any "masking" of photos makes many of the individuals completely identifiable.
It's one thing to argue that such photos show the reality of what law enforcement deals with, or that the photos' subjects were in public contexts where they had no expectation of privacy.
But the juxtaposition of these photos within a joke-filled "lighter side" Web site suggests that the images are present to amuse and titillate, not teach and inform.
One also can't help but wonder where these photos originated. Bystanders? Official police photography? On the scene media?
Regardless of the sources for the photos and other materials, the apparent "nod and wink" (if not fully active) association of various police agencies with this site strikes me as rather inappropriate at the very least.
But perhaps I'm being too sensitive about this and it's all just in good fun with no real privacy implications at all. Or perhaps some of the site's materials being displayed as they are actually do break privacy laws in some jurisdictions. I won't even try to pass judgment at this point. You can make up your own mind.
The site is called The Police Daily.
Their adult-oriented section can be reached via the "Police Flashers" link in the navigation bar on the left side of their home page. Frankly, I don't want to link to that section directly.
All in good fun? Or taking the "lighter side" of law enforcement too far?
What do you think?