October 31, 2008

How to Destroy Yahoo

Greetings. It is being reported that after continuing resistance from DOJ and other quarters, Google and Yahoo may be on the verge of calling off their proposed ad sharing arrangement.

While I understand the concerns raised by detractors of the plan, I can't help but feel that collapse of the partnership would be a gigantic nail in Yahoo's coffin, and ultimately a blow against vibrant competition in the ad serving marketplace.

The Google/Yahoo proposal represents a means to get cash to Yahoo at just the time when Yahoo needs it most. If the plan vaporizes, the odds of Yahoo continuing for very long as a stand-alone enterprise would seem markedly worsened. This would ultimately most likely represent a significant contraction of competition, not an improvement.

My gut feeling is that a lot of folks complaining about this proposed arrangement couldn't care less about Yahoo -- or the real state of ad competition. What they really want to do is simply "stick it" to Google. If Yahoo disintegrates, and we end up with even less ad competition in the long run -- oh well, them's the breaks seems to be the prevailing attitude amongst this crowd.

For anyone genuinely interested in ad serving competition, this seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face -- painful, unwise, and in the end likely to bring about the very outcome that they ostensibly wish to avoid.

In other words, pretty dumb.


Posted by Lauren at 12:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 30, 2008

T-Mobile Stores Will Apparently "Price Match" Wal-Mart's Lower G1 Price

Greetings. The HTC Google Android G1 world is all atwitter over word that Wal-Mart will shortly be selling the G1 (at least to new T-Mobile customers) for about $30 less than we've been paying at T-Mobile stores (shades of the original iPhone price drop controversy!)

We knew that there would be price drops, and come "Black Friday" shopping later this year even steeper discounts seem likely.

Still, it's irritating after only a week. Is this enough to make you want to return the phone to T-Mobile and deal with Wal-Mart? Hmm. Problematic to say the least. But there is a principle involved. We should be used to being fleeced in the hi-tech consumer electronics sector by this time, but it still bumps up the blood pressure.

However, I have confirmed a rumor (at least as far as my local company-operated T-Mobile store is concerned) that they'll credit the difference if you bring in a Wal Mart ad promoting the G1 and your original G1 receipt. (Anyone see one of these Wal-Mart ads yet?)

I should note that this offer may only apply to new T-Mobile customers who bought their phones in the T-Mobile stores. It is not clear at this point whether similar arrangements will be available to T-Mobile pre-order or upgrade customers.

While I'm on the T-M topic, I'll mention that I've bumped up the concerns expressed in Beware: T-Mobile's Voicemail Paging Trap to T-Mobile corporate. I've been promised some sort of statement shortly. I'll report back on this as soon as possible.


Posted by Lauren at 02:18 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 29, 2008

Homemade (Utilitarian) Belt Case Mods for Google Android G1

Greetings. One thing I really hate about switching to a new cell phone is dealing with new carrying cases. The phones can be too large to comfortably keep stuffed into a pocket all day, and often easy to accidentally trigger or damage that way too. Personally I prefer belt clips, and up to now have been partial to the type where most of the phone is exposed and you just pop the phone off the clip for immediate use.

With the HTC Google Android G1 that approach looks less practical. You really doesn't want to see that beautiful glass touchscreen rammed into anything, and since the phone is a bit on the long side a horizontal orientation appears more practical than the typical vertical holster.

But most horizontal belt cases require you to open a magnetic clasp and tease the phone vertically out of the case -- often unwieldy and prone to expensive demonstrations of gravitational forces and concrete vs. telecommunications devices.

While some G1-sized cases are starting to show up, they're as usual overpriced and look rather inconvenient to actually use.

So I decided to modify an existing case I had around -- the horizontal, magnetic clasp case that was provided with my previous PDA phone (but only rarely used in preference to a vertical belt clip) and try to make it comfortable for access to the G1.

I originally had no intention of sharing this design. It is, uh, "industrial" rather than pretty, and purely utilitarian. I'm a lot better with a soldering iron than with handicrafts. In Junior High (called Middle School these days) I got a low grade on a hand-made electric motor I built in electric shop. My modified design doubled the efficiency of the device. But I was marked down for (a) not following the inefficient instructions to the letter, and (b) not applying varnish to the wooden base to a degree of shimmer and shine that met the instructor's expectations.

Bottom line, no design awards are expected for this G1 case handicraft. But several people suggested that I show it anyway, and perhaps it will trigger other interesting carrying case ideas.

The photos below (click on any for a larger view) pretty much explain everything. I cut off the somewhat elastic bands that acted as the two side ends, and replaced them both with "industrial strength" Velcro strips (available at hobby stores). By having Velcro at both ends, the overall inside length can be adjusted to provide a snug fit for the G1 itself. The Velcro is self-adhering with a very strong adhesive, and I attached small strips of lens cleaner cloth to the exposed sections of the
Velcro adhesive that face in toward the phone. The rest of the lens cleaner I'm keeping under the clasp -- these displays attract more fingerprints than the FBI's NCIC.

To access the phone, just pop the front Velcro strip, and the phone slides out easily horizontally to the front. Replacing the phone and the strip just takes a couple of seconds. While ideally I'd prefer a clip that extended beyond the bottom of my belt, the pressure clips on these cases are pretty tight and seem reasonably secure.

I recommend keeping the phone display faced outward in the case, both for easier handling and to avoid any chance of the display contacting the plastic Velcro (though it's unlikely the display would be scratched or damaged even if there was contact -- that glass is pretty tough).

That's about it -- this modified case should be working well for me until such a time (if ever) that something better comes along.

And do rest assured, this is probably the very last "handicraft" item of mine you'll ever see featured on this blog!


Posted by Lauren at 07:11 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 28, 2008

Google Book Search Lawsuits Settled -- And Global Internet Compliance Guidelines

Greetings. I've have two very positive moves associated with Google to report, both related to issues of comparatively long standing.

First, the years-old pending lawsuits related to Google Book Search are apparently being settled. Here are more details. I spoke -- or rather sang -- about those suits (tongue-in-cheek, of course) last year in my Modern Major Googler Gilbert and Sullivan parody song.

This settlement is great news. I've long expressed two rather conflicting opinions about Book Search. As someone who used to hang out in libraries picking out books at random, I find the service to be absolutely delightful. But I've also long been concerned about the specific manner in which Google was dealing with copyrighted works without payments being made to authors.

The proposed settlement appears to be a true win-win. A monetary compensation and opt-out structure is established for authors and publishers, while Google Book Search services expand. Ta dah!

Another news item, that hasn't been getting as much play as it deserves, is that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo will be jointly announcing details of their Global Network Initiative tomorrow (see this story for now).

Essentially, this initiative reportedly is aimed at establishing guidelines for global Internet companies to follow when faced with censorship or information demands by countries in which they operate. The generally ad hoc nature of such responses to date, especially in countries that are viewed by many U.S. observers as having repressive political regimes, has been a continuing source of controversy for these and other firms. It is hoped (and I would agree) that by "formalizing" to some degree the manner in which these admittedly complex international situations are handled, significant progress can be made in this area. We'll know more after we see the details.

It appears to me that Google is continuing to find ways to expand their business to serve both their stockholders and the global Internet community, while also increasingly addressing in positive ways various controversial issues that outside observers, including myself, have noted over time. There have been some missteps along the way, but as I frequently point out, no company -- including Google -- is or ever will be perfect.

Google in particular is very much a relatively young firm, pushing the technology envelope outwards in new and exciting ways that will sometimes inevitably intersect with controversy. That's the nature of technology -- it always has been.

I believe very much in always giving credit where credit is due. I find the continuing positive progress on these various fronts by Google to be very encouraging indeed.


Posted by Lauren at 04:51 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Surprise! Google Android G1 Apparently Can "Multi-Touch" After All

Greetings. As consumer electronics devices become increasingly complex internally, the differences between hardware capabilities and software limitations can be ever more difficult to discern from the outside. And intellectual property issues can cast a long shadow on both the hardware and software aspects.

Case in point -- the HTC Google Android G1. A frequently cited "shortcoming" of the G1 (though in my opinion by no means a crucial issue) is the supposed like of iPhone-style "multi-touch" (also known as "multitouch" -- that is, the iPhone "pinch" and "expand" touchscreen gestures).

Most reviewers have assumed that this is a fundamental limitation of the G1 hardware -- a presumed inability to sense more than one simultaneous touch on the screen, like an old-style keyboard without key rollover.

This appears to be an incorrect assumption.

With the G1 now in the wild, videos are appearing that seem to definitively demonstrate -- through clever manipulation of the Android interface -- that multi-touch capabilities are present in the G1 hardware. Here is one example. Here's another (considerably more interesting) one. There are various other similar demonstrations as well.

This leads us to a fascinating question. If the hardware actually is multi-touch capable as it appears to be, why isn't Android making use of this ability?

Opinions run the gamut from a possible desire by Google for a universal hardware "lowest common denominator" interface model, to lack of implementation time for the initial Android release.

But a darker speculation -- and at this point it's only speculation -- is that Android multi-touch may be running afoul of our old "friend" intellectual property disputes -- in this case a variety of patents and patent applications (from Apple and other entities) related to the entire area of "multi-touch" interfaces.

It's possible that we're looking at yet another highly illustrative example -- as we've seen so many times in the electronics and Internet worlds -- of the patent pit that we've dug for ourselves.

As I learn more about the G1/Android multi-touch saga I'll let you know.

In the meantime, it should be fascinating to see how the various stakeholders involved in this area react if and when Android updates, external Android modifications, and/or third party applications appear that find ways to make use of the G1's seemingly present multi-touch hardware.

Let's just hope that this doesn't turn into yet another field day for the lawyers that leaves the rest of us twisting slowly in the breeze.


Posted by Lauren at 09:50 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 27, 2008

Readers Blow Their Stacks Over Voicemail Prompts

Greetings. You never know when a particular blog item will hit a nerve. In a recent piece I lambasted T-Mobile's idiotic and disruptive playing of paging prompts (and collecting call back numbers from callers) even when the called party has paging turned off -- a ridiculous behavior for any voicemail system.

Since then I've been contacted by several persons who spoke with T-Mobile themselves and like me were told (through various support levels), essentially: "That's just the way it is. Tough." I wonder how long T-M will be keeping their high "J. D. Power" consumer ranking with an attitude like that.

In any case, what I didn't expect was all the mail from people expressing their utter frustration with voicemail prompting in general. A whole bunch of folks had plenty to say about having to sit on the line listening to extensive verbiage when all they really wanted was to hear the damned beep, leave their message, and vamoose!

A common complaint was that the prompting spiel was often longer than the called party's actual outgoing message, and ended up pushing calls into additional cell phone minutes unnecessarily.

While it's true that there's often a way to bypass these sequences and go right to the beep (entering # often works), it's also the case that there is no real standardization on this, and entering # or * may also just drop you deeper into the bowels of some voicemail systems and waste even more of your time.

As I noted yesterday, at least AT&T Mobility allows you to configure your outgoing voicemail message so that it plays, there's an immediate beep, and that's the whole shebang. But this behavior is notable mainly for its rarity, when it really should be the default -- or at the very least always an optional -- operating procedure across the entire voicemail industry.

But man, a lot of people are seriously hot under the collar about long voicemail prompt sequences. Whew.

And to those of you who asked me to report back if and when T-Mobile fixes their paging prompt fiasco -- I will certainly do so if such a change is forthcoming. But you may not want to hold your breath waiting.

Finally, to readers who inquired if I myself now have a Google Android G1 phone ... the answer is affirmative. But more on that later.

You may leave your message after the tone. Press 5 to leave a numeric page. Press 3 if you're dissatisfied with the outgoing message of the party you called. Press 4 to hear option 3 again. Press the "pound" key three times in rapid succession to access additional functions and hear your recorded message after you've recorded your message after the beep. Ready for the beep tone? It's coming up soon. Almost time! OK, on your mark, set ... Sorry, voicemail box is full. Goodbye.


Posted by Lauren at 05:11 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 26, 2008

Beware: T-Mobile's Voicemail Paging Trap

Greetings. Longtime users of T-Mobile may already be familiar with this issue that I'm about to describe, but with many persons now moving to T-Mobile from AT&T to get hold of the Google Android G1 phone, lots of these new subscribers may be in for a disappointing surprise, especially if you use your phone for business purposes and rely on a clear and concise outgoing voicemail announcement.

One of the basic rules of human interface design is that you don't want to ever offer callers options that don't actually work as described. T-Mobile violates this concept big time for the overwhelming majority of calls into their voicemail system, and in a manner that could have potentially very serious results.

The problem is essentially simple. All callers who hear your personalized voicemail outgoing message are then offered the opportunity to send a numeric page ("press 5"). Unfortunately, this paging prompt is presented to everyone hearing your voicemail message, even when you have paging turned off -- which is in fact the default state.

This is more than an annoyance to callers who sit through additional verbiage waiting for a beep, it can result in misunderstandings and worse:

I entered my number for a page -- I needed to reach you right away! Why the blazes didn't you call back?

Oh, I have paging turned off.

Then why the hell did the system offer me a page and have me waste my time entering my call back number? Who designed that blasted thing? The Three Stooges?

Actually, that's unfair to Larry, Moe, and Curly -- I'm sure they could have done a better job of voicemail system design than T-Mobile's vendor.

This isn't rocket science. Don't jerk callers around telling them that they can page and then put them through the motions of entering call back numbers in a useless exercise reminiscent of the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland, especially since we can be sure that only a tiny percentage of subscribers ever actually want to use paging at all.

It's notable that AT&T Mobility does this right. You can always configure an AT&T cellular line so that if paging is off, there is no prompting for paging call backs. In fact, AT&T's cellular voicemail system can be configured just to play your outgoing message and beep without any prompting verbiage at all being added onto the end -- which is the ideal situation in most cases.

It's incredible for T-Mobile to operate a voicemail system that makes it impossible for them to avoid confusing callers with false prompting options and actions that are at best ineffectual -- and can easily lead to serious problems indeed when assumed paging actions never actually take place.

Achtung T-Mobile! You pride yourself on your customer service. But this behavior of your voicemail is sloppy, consumer-unfriendly, and in some situations perhaps even dangerous. You can do much better.


Blog Update (November 6, 2008): Official T-Mobile Policy: Tough Luck If You Lose Messages

Posted by Lauren at 09:38 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 24, 2008

Video: Opie/Andy/Fonzie/Richie for Obama

Greetings. Regardless of your political leanings, Ron Howard's short new video in support of Obama is a (somewhat surreal) treat for fans of Happy Days and The Andy Griffith Show.

Watch and you'll see why.


Posted by Lauren at 04:21 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 21, 2008

Fears of Google Android Wiretaps and More -- Plus a "Security Proposal"

Greetings. First, I'd like thank everyone who sent me topic suggestions for last Sunday night's radio show. I was able to touch on a number of the suggestions and I hope we did them justice within the constraints of format and time.

Now to the subject at hand. With the first Google Android phone (the HTC G1) hitting the streets nationally tomorrow (though some pre-orders are already arriving, and the San Francisco T-Mobile store is starting to sell them today) reactions to my glowing endorsements of the Android open development and deployment model have been arriving at an increasing pace. Many of these reactions are negative and sometimes rather accusatory.

My view is that Android represents a massive sea change in mobile technology, with enormously positive potential implications for both consumer and corporate applications.

Quite a few people are taking me to task for this opinion, and they're suggesting that Android will bring a "pestilence" of dangerous and contaminated applications that will destroy users' data, wreck whatever remains of the U.S. economy, and (judging by the intensity of some statements I've received) perhaps also disrupt the space-time continuum.

Concerns over the potential dangers of Android applications appear to be raging in such quarters despite the fact that Google reportedly has a "kill switch" that can disable renegade applications when necessary -- a wise move in the context of such a sophisticated mobile platform.

I'm being bombarded with a range of Android conspiracy theories and related theoreticals, with a number of persons pointing at my own early 2007 discussion and video "Is Your Cell Phone Bugged?" and suggesting that Android represents the ideal platform for the sorts of "wiretapping" exploits I described.

It would be hypocritical for me to claim that an open platform like Google doesn't carry with it different sorts of risks than relatively closed platforms like the iPhone or Windows Mobile, not to mention completely proprietary mobile ecosystems.

But the potential positive benefits in terms of an explosion of wonderful applications for Android is likely to be like nothing we've ever seen before for mobile devices, and just as with the Internet itself, PCs, and even motor vehicles for that matter, to get the benefits of technology we usually have to accept some risks and potential downside aspects as well.

In the case of Android, reputation labeling of posted applications by the Android user community should go a long way to help weed out disruptive programs. And each program presents a manifest of its resources access requirements at install time (though admittedly there may be a tendency for many users to click-through these without much thought or sufficient understanding of the ramifications, and it's possible that granted privileges could be used for other than the "advertised" purposes).

OK, there are risks. On the other hand, it's about time that adult users of advanced mobile devices be treated as thinking adults who can make their own decisions about the code that they wish to run on their phones. Android treats its users as adults in this manner, for the first time from any mobile system vendor.

Yet there will be persons who wish to use Android platform phones -- like the G1 -- and who may be concerned that they simply do not have sufficient expertise to make informed judgments about which applications are safe to run, especially for programs relatively new on the scene. This is a valid concern.

So I'll make the following proposal and query. What say you to the idea of establishing a standalone group -- structure to be determined -- to review completely voluntary submissions of Android applications for pre-release security analysis of associated distributable installable Android packages?

This would not be a formal "certification" program, would never be a requirement of any kind. Nor would it offer guarantees of applications' performance. But it could provide a voluntary layer of independent expertise to look over applications in advance of release, so that those potential Android users who might be otherwise reluctant to run various programs (e.g. those from relatively unknown parties) can have added confidence in doing so.

Obviously, the devil is in the details for any such proposal, and I won't even attempt to dig into such details in this posting. But I would hate to see users who could greatly benefit from the openness of Android being unnecessarily scared off by the very aspects of open development and deployment that could be of such immense value to them.

Perhaps this sort of voluntary review program could help to bridge the gap of concern that significant numbers of persons may feel while moving from the dark, closed world of controlled mobile applications, into the bright, open world of Android.

Please drop me a line with your thoughts on this proposal. And if you might wish to participate in such a project, please be sure to let me know.

Thanks as always.


Posted by Lauren at 06:32 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 18, 2008

Controversy Over "Turn-By-Turn" Navigation Under Google Android

Greetings. Since I've been enthusiastically noting the open development and deployment ecosystem of Google's Android mobile OS (as will appear on HTC G1 T-Mobile phones when they hit the streets the middle of next week), I've received a bunch of queries about a perceived oddity in the Android development (SDK) licensing rules.

In particular, while the SDK provides extensive and deep access APIs (programming interfaces) to Google mapping data, including Street View, the license appears to specifically prohibit the development of "turn-by-turn" navigation systems (a la TomTom).

Inquiring minds are asking me why this should be the case?

Obviously I can't read Google's mind, but it's worth noting that the iPhone SDK (which operates in a much more restricted deployment environment than Android) contains a similar clause.

This get complicated to analyze from the outside. It's worth remembering that at least some iPhone mapping applications are directly or indirectly using Google mapping data. Also, Google itself licenses various mapping data from other sources, who we can assume impose their own varied usage restrictions.

For both Google and Apple, the complexities of mapping data licensing and related commercial considerations are likely to be nontrivial -- navigation applications are in a highly competitive space these days.

Rather than add much further to the speculation on this topic, I've queried Google directly for the straight scoop, and I've been assured that I should be receiving the details soon. When I do, I'll pass them along of course.

You have reached your destination. Play nice.


Posted by Lauren at 09:21 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 16, 2008

"Joe the Plumber" -- No License? Unpaid Taxes? And Tap Dancing with Sammy Davis, Jr.

Greetings. If you saw the final presidential debate last night, you heard enough about the now legendary "Joe the Plumber" to make you swear off routine sewer line cleaning for the next four years at least.

But with the global spotlight now shining brightly on "Joe" (who we now learn reportedly invoked both tap dancing and Sammy Davis, Jr. in reference to Obama) some other interesting tidbits are being reported, like his license and tax payments status.

All of this is a sideshow to the critical election main event of course, but since John McCain featured "Joe" in the debate, it's at least interesting to find out more about the man to whom McCain hitched his campaign's rhetorical wagon.


Posted by Lauren at 11:33 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 15, 2008

Agenda for Internet Issues Discussion on National Radio Sunday Night

Greetings. This coming Sunday night (10/19), from 11 PM PDT to 2 AM PDT Monday morning (yep, three hours) I'll be discussing a wide range of Internet-related topics as the guest on the nationally (actually internationally available) syndicated Coast to Coast AM (C2C) radio show. While I've been on the show numerous times before, I don't usually have much notice in advance or a wide open agenda, but this time I have the opportunity to ask for your assistance beforehand.

C2C is an interesting creature indeed. Originated by Art Bell many years ago, it's now mostly hosted by George Noory. It's the 500-pound gorilla of late night radio, on over 500 stations plus satellite radio and Internet, with millions of nightly listeners.

While widely known for its focus on UFOs, the paranormal, and other "far out" topics, it also features mainstream guests (I assume that I fall into this category) discussing more "conventional" topics (Wired: "Coast to Coast is No Wack Job").

I've found the show to be a great forum for discussing technology topics where I'm not just "preaching to the choir" -- and some of the best questions I've ever been asked about these topics have been from C2C listeners (OK, I've gotten some pretty odd questions too, but that's part of the package).

Since I do have a number of days warning this time, and a pretty much open agenda within the general topic area of the Internet, I'd like to solicit your ideas for specific issues that you'd be interested in having discussed on air if possible. Net neutrality, privacy, censorship, control, security, "future of the Internet" -- or whatever. This isn't a hardcore technical show, so I'm not going to be getting into Ethernet wiring or protocol discussions, but with so many issues of concern these days that are Internet related, this is an opportunity to get some of these matters in front of a very large audience, many members of which likely don't read our technical blogs and mailing lists!

Please let me know your ideas, ideally as soon as possible. Feel free to tune in Sunday night if you can.

Thanks. Be seeing you.


Posted by Lauren at 02:58 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 13, 2008

Addams Family or Ned Flanders? The FCC Internet Censorship Battle Heats Up

Greetings. The FCC appears poised to push ahead with plans to auction off spectrum to provide "free" nationwide wireless Internet service, but wants to make sure that the Internet you access this way is thoroughly culturally shackled. Even search engines could be forbidden.

At issue is a chunk of unused spectrum that a former FCC official has had his eyes on for quite some time. John Muleta was head of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, then co-founder of M2Z Networks, Inc. M2Z wanted the spectrum to set up an Internet service that would be free and ad-supported at low speeds like 384 Kbs, and a paid service at higher speeds. And they promised to filter content to make the free service "family friendly" (so warm and cuddly that phrase).

When the Commission didn't move fast enough for M2Z's liking, M2Z sued. The FCC decided that they wanted to auction off the spectrum, but auction rules to many observers appear to favor M2Z. The Commission also bought into M2Z's concept that the free service must be "family friendly" content filtered (that is, content censored).

Today we learn that the FCC has determined that use of the spectrum won't interfere with T-Mobile's adjacent 3G services -- a point of strong disagreement with T-Mobile -- and that the Commission plans to go ahead with their auction and Internet censorship requirements.

There are more than a few interesting and important issues relating to all this. Obviously, if the FCC is wrong about the lack of interference, there are going to be a whole lot of very upset T-Mobile customers -- not to mention T-Mobile themselves who paid something like $4B for their nearby spectrum just a few years ago.

Another question we might ask -- does it make sense to hand off the entire nationwide control of this unused spectrum to a single entity? Why not make it available on reasonable terms to the various smaller spectrum-starved regional and local wireless entities -- we might actually see some vibrant Internet access competition enabled that way. But of course money talks and spectrum walks.

Of even broader significance is the whole concept of the FCC mandating a censored Internet. This is a repugnant and unrealistic concept, and likely to land the Commission in endless resource-wasting battles.

Any attempt at selective filtering is doomed to failure. Myriad ways around typical filters will be possible via proxies and other means. To really nail down Internet content, you'd probably have to move from a "prohibited" list to a "permitted" list. That is, only allow access to a walled garden of sites that have been pre-cleared and "sanitized for your protection" -- and no access to anything else.

Otherwise, escapes around the block filters will always be easy. Even general purpose search engines and archives would seem possible targets for blocking, since their descriptions and caches might provide the Web surfer with all manner of officially "unapproved" materials.

And what the blazes does "family friendly" mean anyway? Just whose family are we talking about? I'll admit that seeing the filter list from Gomez Addams or Grandpa Munster might be intriguing, but my suspicion is that we'd get something much closer to the political sensibilities of Homer Simpson's neighbor Ned Flanders.

Whoever might end up in the role of grand exalted censorship god, this whole scheme is not an appropriate concept for the FCC to be mandating. Auctioning off the available spectrum for more Internet access is one thing. But regardless of whether it's being auctioned to a single or multiple parties, any winners should be required to abide by content neutral rules just as everyone else in the ISP business should be doing.

Trying to force feed the public with a pablum of so-called "family friendly" Internet content in auctioned spectrum is a bad joke, an impractical abomination, and an idea worthy of filing only deep in Grandpa Munster's dungeon.


Posted by Lauren at 06:23 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 10, 2008

Verizon Wireless Plans To Charge (Soak) Both Ends of SMS Text Messages

Greetings. The New York Times has revealed that Verizon Wireless, who already makes a bloody fortune on the high cost of text (SMS) messages that they charge Verizon subscribers, now plans to also start demanding fees from the firms who send text messages to those same customers.

The current scheme appears to be for a $0.03 charge per SMS message. Doesn't sound like much, but as noted in the old Pajama Game song Seven and a Half Cents, those pennies add up fast, especially if you're sending millions of SMS messages to Web users who have come to depend on those notifications.

On a cost-per-bit basis, text messages can be insanely expensive in the U.S. A few months ago, TechCruch calculated that at $0.20/msg, AT&T SMS data was priced at $1,310/MB!

Note a familiar marketing pattern ...

First, you wait until outside services establish their business models based on a known cost (in this case SMS charges) incurred by users. Then, once those SMS-dependent services are really rolling, and subscribers are fully dependent, you drastically change the rules and charging methodologies in midstream.

For companies sending a lot of text messages to subscribers, we're talking big bucks, costs that will have to be dealt with somehow and/or services that might need to be curtailed -- perhaps at least to Verizon Wireless users for now in many cases.

This may not be a network neutrality issue per se, but it reminds me of the infamous suggestion by AT&T that (to paraphrase slightly) "Google shouldn't be able to use our [Internet] pipes for free" -- even though Google and AT&T subscribers are both already paying for Internet services.

Most Verizon subscribers are similarly already paying -- and way more than they should -- for SMS messages, and the text messaging profit level for the wireless carriers is typically obscenely high.

I hope that Verizon customers, and text message SMS-sending services, all make it clear to Verizon that this isn't a plan that Verizon's horn-rimmed glasses wearing Paul Marcarelli can shove through with a simple, "Can you hear me now?"


Posted by Lauren at 08:46 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 09, 2008

NSA Voyeurs Admit Getting Their Phone Monitoring Jollies

Greetings. ABC News is reporting the accounts of NSA operatives who are admitting to the inappropriate sharing and use of personal phone calls officially being monitored for security purposes:

Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News.

The fact that this is being independently reported by two different operatives suggests -- no big surprise -- that it may have been a widespread practice, perhaps still in progress (well, until this story hit the fan, anyway).

Similar instances in other contexts abound. Abuses of government-controlled closed-circuit CCTV cameras for similar "tantalizing" purposes are well known. Years ago, it was a not uncommon practice for telephone company workers on late night shifts to attach loudspeakers to particularly "interesting" phone lines in central offices, and play the illegally monitored conversations loudly for their own enjoyment while working.

In the current NSA case, the reported ability for conversations to be monitored and particularly shared without cause in the particular manners described suggests a breakdown (or a lack) of appropriate access controls and "need to know" classifications on such sensitive materials. It is unacceptable for operatives to be able to access and "trade" such conversations for their own enjoyment and without any legitimate security purpose being served. In fact, such lax circumstances themselves could introduce their own serious security risks relating to potentially serious misuse of monitored conversations (of government officials and others) outside of the official parameters of monitoring programs.

This once again drives home how critically important continuous and rigorous independent oversight is for any such projects and systems, no matter how crucial to security the ostensible purposes of such operations are purported to be.


Posted by Lauren at 09:13 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 06, 2008

Sour Grapes: Missing the Point About Google Android and the G1

Greetings. I've recently written a number of items related to Google Android and the first Android phone, the HTC G1, due to hit the streets in a couple of weeks or so. I've suggested that Android is a "game changer" in terms of mobile applications, and despite the apparent inability to be used in 3G mode in the U.S. on other than the T-Mobile network (even if unlocked), I've been impressed with what I've seen of the G1 (my current phone is an HTC WM5-based PDA, so I have some experience with HTC products).

Despite my debunking of Google Android conspiracy theories, I continue to receive e-mail from iPhone diehards who still seem to be (either purposely or innocently) missing the key points of why Android is potentially such a positive development in the mobile communications industry.

Folks have been sending me excerpts from various "G1 vs. iPhone" articles around the Web that do their best to tear down the G1 and Android. Typical talking points from such articles and messages:

- The G1 is bulkier than the iPhone
- The G1 doesn't have the same beautiful industrial design as the iPhone
- The G1 doesn't have a "multitouch" screen (you can't "pinch" images)
- Android is dangerous since there is no central control over applications

The physical aesthetic differences between this first Android phone and iPhone strike me as not a big deal. OK, the G1 is bigger and perhaps not as pretty -- but golly Mr. Wizard it has a real keyboard! The lack of such a keyboard on the iPhone always relegated it -- for my usage patterns at least -- into the "toy" category. To me, the lack of a multitouch screen on the G1 is virtually meaningless. There are an almost unlimited number of other methods that can be implemented to perform the same functions via the touchscreen. What's more, the G1 has a trackball so that it can be used one-handed, or conveniently when wearing gloves.

And unlike the iPhone, the G1 has -- like virtually every other battery-operated consumer electronics device except many from Apple -- a user-replaceable battery. The design arrogance of the Apple "don't replace the battery yourself nor carry a spare battery" philosophy always struck me as incredibly bizarre and anti-consumer.

But the "Android is dangerous" argument is the one that almost causes uncontrollable chuckling.

Apparently simply because we're talking about a phone, not a desktop PC, some observers can't seem to accept the open source concepts of user choice and associated responsibility for applications. But an iPhone or the G1 are essentially just computers -- nowadays more powerful in most respects than desktops of a relatively few years ago -- with cellular air links.

Nobody in their right mind would suggest that we should need central approval to run applications on our PCs -- despite the risks of viruses that comes along with such free choice. Nor does it make sense that the only distribution point for applications should be a single entity -- who even takes a significant percentage fee from each non-free application sold (as is the case for the Apple iPhone model). Expensive required development environments don't make sense either anymore.

The Android model simply says that you can run and develop whatever you want on your Android phones like the G1, that the development environment is free, and that there is no central control over the distribution of applications.

This reminds me of the early ARPANET and Internet environments, where we were similarly free to create and distribute software applications, in a manner that greatly sped the development of the networks through which you're reading these words right now. Even in the earliest Defense Department ARPANET days, there was no central point through which all software had to be approved and distributed.

Android detractors seem to be blinding themselves to the immense power of open source development, using freely available tools, for mobile platforms. This isn't just a matter of being able to run applications developed by other parties, it also means that you can run applications on your phone that you write yourself. Individuals, organizations, and businesses will be free to create and deploy a vast range of applications -- even if just for their own internal use -- without the need for outside approval and with full control over the security and privacy aspects embedded in those applications (a crucial point).

The ability to run your own apps is fundamental, as is the right to run applications from other parties without the approval of a software politburo. Does this mean that you're taking on additional responsibility when it comes to the potential for misbehaving software? Indeed, but just as with PCs this is a matter of individual responsibility and using good judgment in your selection of applications. Already, the Android security model provides more installation-time checks on device capabilities access than is present in the standard desktop PC environment.

Whether or not the G1 hardware, as the first phone to run Google Android, is as physically appealing to the eyes as the iPhone is arguably an interesting short-term marketing question. But in the longer run, this is largely an irrelevant issue in comparison to the vastly superior applications development and deployment environment represented by the open source, open distribution Google Android philosophy.

Watch and see.


Posted by Lauren at 09:49 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

October 01, 2008

Where's Elvis? -- Dueling DVD Copying Lawsuits

Greetings. Here we go again. A pair of dueling lawsuits between the motion picture industry and Rob Glaser's RealNetworks have materialized, this time surrounding Real's release of a DVD copying program, RealDVD, that includes some unilateral restrictions on created copies.

I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not a fan of DVD piracy. Nor am I an expert on the intricacies of the legal differences between DVD piracy and fair use copying -- clearly an evolving area of law.

But one aspect of all this seems obvious to me. Elvis has already left the building!

Unless our goal is the full employment of itinerant attorneys, these sorts of lawsuits -- on both sides -- tend mainly to divert resources from the broader range of intellectual property issues that truly deserve our attention.

DVD ripping and copying is impossible to stop at this late stage. Here's over 1.5 million reasons why in a single URL:


The DVD Decrypter program is -- obviously -- ubiquitous. While its development stopped sometime back, it's still perfectly capable of extracting the contents of virtually any commercial DVD to disk, and in conjunction with other widely available and free programs create perfect DVD copies.

Is DVD Decrypter legal to use? As I suggested above, the laws in this area are in flux, and I don't consider myself qualified to render an opinion on this for any given situation.

But the point is that DVD Decrypter, and other programs like it do exist. They're not going to vanish and will always be easily available, lawsuits notwithstanding. That's simply the reality of the situation, whether we choose to like it or not. Anyone who wants to is easily capable of copying DVDs without paying a single dime to RealNetworks.

The current round of DVD lawsuits is something of a battle between phantoms, like attempting to alter history without the benefit of Mr. Peabody's Wayback machine.

It's time to move on. Elvis isn't coming back for another encore.


Posted by Lauren at 02:55 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein