Thursday, February 24, 2011

This Year's Model

Apple has unveiled the new line of MacBook Pros this week and at first glance this year's model is looking pretty good. Powered by Intel's latest dual and quad core "Sandy Bridge," chips, the new MacBook Pros will be twice as fast as previous generations.

In addition to the extra muscle under the hood the new models also come equipped with high def video cameras and a vastly improved AMD graphics chip-set. This will enable users to conduct high def video chats with three times the resolution of existing models of MacBook Pros.

Another innovation to this year's model is the addition of a new kind of data port known as Thunderbolt that will have input/output capabilities to support high-resolution displays and devices. Thunderbolt will enable transfer speeds of up to 10 gigabytes a second so not only does this thing have power under the hood but you could say it also corners pretty well.

The new MacBook Pros are available in 13, 15 and 17 inch models. All models have a sleek aluminum case, a standard keyboard and get pretty good mileage: seven hour battery life to be exact.

Of course whether it's computers, cars, watches or designer suits, quality doesn't come cheap. The 13 inch model goes for around $1199 while the 15 comes in $1799 and the 17 costs $2299.

But let's face it if high speed machines are your thing the MacBook Pro is still a lot cheaper than the new Dodge Challenger which goes for anywhere between $25 and $43 grand.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Preparing for the Cyber-9/11

Speaking at an RSA conference in San Francisco last week, General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA's Cyber Command warned of the need to harden crucial national computer infrastructure against catastrophic cyber-attacks. The General warned that while precautions should and must be taken such attacks were all but inevitable.

General Alexander cautioned that while, "Most of the destructive tools being developed haven't been used; we need to use this window of opportunity to develop defense."

The General's comments echo statements made two days earlier by Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn who warned that malicious software could be implemented to cause real world damage to power plants, water supplies and other vital infrastructure.

Lynn's whose warnings were perhaps even more dire, stated, "It is possible to imagine attacks on military networks or critical infrastructure like our transportation system and energy sector that cause sever economic damage, physical destruction or even loss of life."

Lynn and Alexander's warnings are certainly not without precedent. In January Russia urged NATO to track down the culprits behind the Stuxnet worm that targeted a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Iran, saying the attack could have triggered a disaster on the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl incident.

But while General Alexander stressed the need to take preemptive action to minimize the potential damage from such an attack he also addressed the need to protect civil liberties and individual privacy.

"I believe we have the talent to build cyber security that protects our civil liberties and privacy," said the General who also pointed towards education as a key factor in protecting the nation from cyber threats. "Our nation needs to push science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is absolutely vital to our future."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The O'Hare Airport of the Computer World

There are few air travel hubs in the world as well-traversed as Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The third busiest airport in the world, O'Hare served some 64,397,782 passengers in 2009.

This week Google announced its plans to establish itself as an online travel hub of a similar caliber. The Internet giant intends to take advantage of its position as the leading online search engine and merge with the top airline fare tracker on the Web, ITA software.

Google claims that acquiring ITA for some 700 million dollars will enable the company to provide lower prices for air fares and make the process of shopping for tickets online more convenient. As good as it sounds, not everyone is excited about the possibility of Google taking over the online travel industry.

Existing travel sites like Expedia, Kayak and Travelocity are worried, very worried about their ability to compete and that could lead to higher fares. Critics of the proposal, including Thomas Barnett, an attorney hired by Expedia fear the plan will allow Google to put its own travel recommendations at the top of search results, putting competitors at a disadvantage.

Whether or not the proposed merger actually takes place is largely down to the U.S. Justice Department. The agency is expected to make a ruling in the coming days and weeks as to whether or not to allow Google to acquire ITA.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Malware Goes Mobile

Unlike the rest of us who got mobile phones back in the '90s malware looks set to go mobile itself this year. Security analysts are abuzz with reports of a rising tide in malicious software designed to target phones, iPads and other mobile devices.

The growing popularity and sophistication of multi-use mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad has made them very attractive targets for hackers developing new strains of malware. Malware that is designed merely to take over a phone will often make that phone do things like call certain numbers, or send texts. However as phones have become more multi-faceted their are no exponentially more ways in which a hacker could potentially profit from remotely commandeering your mobile device.

For hackers it must feel kind of like the gold rush did. Mobile devices have become little computers this has increased their value as targets.

Your first couple of Nokias didn't do too much when you stop to think about it. They were just phones and that was kind of enough in those days.

But with Internet, phone and text all potentially vulnerable, never mind all the personal data that can be compromised, a virus on your phone is serious bizzle-dizzle.

But don't panic just yet. This is definitely one of those threats that is still in the "seeing indications" stage. Security experts are in agreement that malware and spyware threats to mobile devices are far less invasive and not nearly as widespread as malware that targets personal computers.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Don't Call it a Comeback: AOL's Second Act

Remember back when the Internet could be boiled down to the three words, "You've got mail?" Texting or social networking were more than half a decade away in the future and SEO stood for Sponsors for Educational Opportunity.

In the middle 1990s AOL was the ground zero web interface for most people who were logging onto the Internet for the first time with over 30 million users at its peak. However like many who come along first in the digital realm (remember Friendster and MySpace?), AOL was outdone by those who saw what they were doing and improved upon it. As the momentum shifted away from dial-up access experienced telecom companies with the technological know-how began to offer faster, more streamlined access to the web through DSL and eventually wireless connections.

Not only that but users began to crave a more varied online experience than the cookie cutter, generic one that greeted you every time you used AOL to log on to the web. As social networking sites began to usurp even the sites like Yahoo that had been more on the money with tailor making a user's web experience, AOL got pretty much left for dead like roadkill on the side of the information super highway.

But like John Travolta suddenly popping up in a Quinton Tarantino film, AOL have recently been making some interesting moves. For starters they've dropped "America Online" altogether and now prefer to be known by the self-consciously lo-fi, "Aol."

With the name adjustment has come an intriguing foray into producing unique, original web content. The company began by launching which provides hyper-local news coverages for towns and neighborhoods all over the country. Patch works with local freelancers to offer much the same experience as reading a small town newspaper in web form. The concept appears to be catching on with new Patch.coms being added in practically every region of the nation.

Monday Aol acquired the Huffington Post for around $315 million dollars. The move certainly seems like a gutsy statement of intent. After being late to the party for high speed connections and social networking Aol seems steadfast in its intent to remain relevant this time out. Buying the Huff could prove to be a grand entrance to a second act for the pioneering web company. Like when a player turns to coaching, or an actor goes into directing we'll of course have to wait a little while to see how it goes with the company once known as American Online.

However the fact that they are adding Arianna Huffington to their management team would seem to bode well. Huffington, who is a regular on the KCRW talk show "Left, Right and Center," would lend the company the sort of blue state indie cred it has always lacked.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Revolution Will Be Digitized

Computers and the Internet in particular have been more entwined with the events in Egypt of the past few weeks than they have ever been in any other conflict or uprising. Which in a way seems surprising when you think about it.

How else do you organize large groups of people to do anything but with telecommunications? I can't even plan a SuperBowl party without the use of Facebook and text messaging at a minimum. It's no wonder the Egyptian government shut down access to the web for three days in an effort to quell the protests.

Technology seemed to hold the Egyptian protests together for the first week, helping it to maintain its civility and remain bonded together through the sharing of information. When things began to turn violent on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere what was happening suddenly seemed more about instant, knee-jerk reactions, lashing out and self-preservation than it did about a carefully organized mass movement orchestrated through technology. Mubarak and his thugs tried playing the age old divide and conquer strategy, creating an inflamed, volatile sense of us and them on the ground.

But with access to the web restored the protest groups have been able to hold their ground and remained somewhat unified in a way that they might not have been able to without computers and digital communications.

In Egypt Mubarak seems ready to give in to just about all that is demanded of him, save resigning from office (which is perhaps the whole point). On Sunday the Egyptian vice president met representatives from a broad array of protest groups and agreed to grant freedom of the press, release detainees and lift the country's emergency laws once the security situation improves.

Twitter, Facebook and other digital means of communication have allowed the protest movement in Egypt to hold together and hopefully see its course. Even though as many as 300 people have now probably died and journalists have been attacked and beaten on the streets, it's just possible that a full scale Tiananmen Square type disaster has been averted.

Banks were reopened Sunday and with the government's concessions there is at least the possibility of things in Egypt returning to a kind of normalcy.

Whatever else you might say about him, Mubarak at least appears unwilling to massacre his citizens wholesale in full view of the press like the Chinese government did in 1989. It's worth noting that those protests occurred without digital or cellular communication. The students in Tiananmen Square used posters and leaflets to spread their message and communicate with each other.

Even with journalists like Anderson Cooper having to go into hiding, computers and digital communications have helped keep the Egyptian government at least somewhat accountable.

Hopefully they will make good on their word to change things.