Friday, April 29, 2011

The Two Champions: One Year Later

The soccer world has been awarded a rare treat this spring. Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two great rivals of Spanish football are currently in the midst of an unprecedented string of encounters, each one seemingly growing more contentious than the last.

The two met a fortnight ago in a Spanish La Liga encounter that is known annually as the "El Clasico." That one ended in a 1-1 draw. A week later the two teams met in the Spanish Cup Final. Real Madrid won that one 1-0 and then later that night they dropped the trophy off the top of a moving bus.

Yesterday the two met in the first leg of a two-part European Champions League semi-final. That one boiled over into bitter contention that saw Madrid have a player asked to leave the pitch and their coach sent off from the sidelines. The bad feelings between the sides were so bad at the halftime interval that Barca had a player sent off who wasn't even in the match, just for getting involved in an affray with opposing players.

Barcelona went on to record a scrappy 2-0 victory which gives them a heady advantage going into the second leg next week. The winner of that will go on to face Manchester United in the final and whoever wins that will be crowned Champions of Europe.

Notably the two sides Spanish sides consist largely of players who were involved in Spain's victory in last summer's World Cup. Seven of the Spanish national team's regular 11 play together for Barca while another two at are at Real. Spain won last summer's tournament largely by playing fast, clever, inventive soccer.

There was a new champion crowned in the tech world last year as well and Apple, in their own way, can be regarded as having been just as fast, clever and inventive as the Spanish were in South Africa. In 2010 Apple, for the first time, surpassed Microsoft as the world's most valued tech company. And this week the maker of the iPad and the iPhone reported net income of $5.99 billion dollars for the first quarter of 2011.

So while it seems the sheen may be coming off the World Cup Trophy a bit, languishing in its case, as the men who won it together turn the European club championship into a back alley brawl, the sheen on Apple's conquest of the tech world just seems to be getting brighter and brighter.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Market Research Becomes Big Brother

The biggest story to rock the tech world by a country mile of late has been the controversy surrounding the Apple iPhone clandestinely tracking and recording the movements of users. With similar allegations surrounding Google's Android smart phones, the issue has justifiably ignited the anger of users and invited the condemnation of privacy advocates.

Apple has responded by denying there is a problem and then promising to fix it. Sound familiar? It was about a year ago that Toyota got into even hotter water over problems with sudden acceleration that may have caused its vehicles to take the lives of several drivers. The auto manufacturer responded in a similar manner, first denying such a problem existed and then recalling several models including the Prius for a series of fixes that seemed designed to placate drivers as much as anything else.

Apple are luckier than Toyota for a number of reasons. For one thing no one has died . . . yet. Also for Apple it's not so much of a question of recalling peoples' iPhones as it is to disable or allow people to disable the function that tracks their movements.

These latest allegations could be considered part of a disturbing trend that has emerged in which big Internet and technology companies appear to overstep themselves in monitoring customer and user data. Google have been in hot water several times in the last year. First for invading people's privacy in their effort to circumvent the Earth with photographs for their Google Street View project and now for Android phones tracking their users.

One could take the view that it may be time to regulate tech providers into providing a bit more disclosure about just what it is that their sparkly new products and services are doing for us exactly. There are days now reading the tech news when George Orwell's "telescreen," once the stuff of cautionary tales of future fiction, seems as dangerously close to our current reality as a speeding, out of control Prius does to a freeway guardrail.

Maybe it's time to issue not a recall, but a reclaim, as in let's reclaim our privacy.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Keeping Music in the Clouds

First there were vinyl record albums, which I'll admit, I'm a big fan of. I like the way they sound, you can read the liner notes and really appreciate a good album cover. But it's true they do take up a lot of space and can be scratched or damaged fairly easily.

Which is why in the late '80s the vinyl record largely disappeared from most record stores (remember those places?) to be replaced by the compact disc, which as its name implied was more compact. CDs took up a lot less space than records and they were harder to damage or scratch. However by the end of the 1990s, after only a decade in charge, CDs were already on their way out as digital mp3s swept in.

Mp3s are largely what music consumption has been centered around for the last decade. We've all got our iPods, iTunes and iPhones stocked up with thousands of the things. And why not? They sound as good as CDs at least and they're compact. You can carry you iPod in your pocket and access thousands of songs to listen to from anywhere. This is a long way from the days of the cassette Walkman for which you could reasonably only carry a few different tapes with you at a time.

But while mp3s don't take up any physical space they sure take up a lot of space on our hard drives. Media files like mp3s, photos and video clips are huge space eaters. So while they don't consume shelf space they can burden your processor and slow down your computer overall.

Enter the latest innovation in music consumption. Apple has reportedly just completed work on a new online, cloud-based "music locker" service that will allow users to store their music files on a remote server and access them from anywhere they can get a connection. This means that Apple seem to have got the jump on Google who have gotten bogged down in their own efforts to launch a similar service.

I've got to say for a vinyl record aficionado I was a bit slow on the uptake when it came to both CDs and mp3s. But this sounds pretty cool to me. However keeping all your music files online in a cloud-based server does carry some risks. Just ask

The Seattle-based Internet retail giant also does a major line in Web hosting for cloud-based remote servers. But on Thursday one of their major servers suffered a network failure which lead to an automatic recovery response which also failed. The result was that sites across the Internet went down including many cloud-based Web applications for creating business plans and other functions.

So while keeping your music collection in a cloud might seem like the most convenient way of storing files, you might want to keep your old turntable on standby in case of network failure. I know mine is standing by at the ready.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Hollow Victory for Computers

Not to alarm you, but in case you hadn't noticed, since the mid-90s computers have gradually been taking over various aspects of our lives, one by one. First there was music with CDs having all but been eradicated and record stores falling like dominoes in the path of the mighty mp3. Then there was print journalism with long established, giants of the newspaper and magazine world folding like cards before the insidious convenience of finding out what's going on through Yahoo news.

Well new data has emerged this week that the virtual world has quietly conquered yet another aspect of our lives. Online researchers Knowledge Networks conducted a panel on coupon usage between 2008 and 2010. The panel of some 23 million shoppers revealed findings that were overwhelmingly in favor of the computer.

It seems that in the coupon world digital coupons you print out yourself are far more likely to encourage people to buy things they wouldn't have than standard coupons that come already printed. According to the findings digital coupons also encourage more first time users to try new products despite being less cost-effective than standard coupons.

The coupons are less cost-effective because print at home coupons have a greater overhead for the individual consumer than standard coupons which are cheap enough for retailers to product and distribute and cost consumers absolutely nothing. So ironically the savings offered by a majority of print yourself coupons are ultimately mitigated by the overhead of printer ink and paper costs. So while it may be another victory for the digital world, in this case it's something of a hollow one.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Presidential Politics Goes Digital

During the 2008 presidential campaign Republican candidate John McCain famously told reporters he didn't use email. McCain's lack of Web savvy was just one element that contributed to his defeat at the hands of an Obama campaign that was arguably the most Internet savvy in history at the time.

Well as we approach the next presidential campaign season it looks like the Republicans have learned from (at least some of) McCain's mistakes. Former Minnesota governor and 2012 Republican hopeful Tim Pawlenty announced his candidacy via Facebook. Mitt Romney used Twitter. Other potential Republican candidates like Newt Gingrich and Haley Barbour, who have yet to officially throw their hats in the ring have been using the digital pulpit to criticize President Obama's policies.

Of course campaigning digitally is old news for the Dems who have long been the more tech savvy of the two parties. In 2004 Howard Dean used the Web to raise money in an unprecedented manner that a then Illinois senator Barack Obama certainly took notice of. In 2008 the Obama campaign utilized the web to raise money and drum up support in a manner that left the McCain campaign largely dumbfounded as to what hit them.

This time around President Obama has launched his reelection bid by emailing a digital video to 13 million of the online backers who helped him capture the White House three years ago. However President Obama is perhaps more aware than anybody that in national politics the Web is a blade that cuts both ways. His line about disenfranchised voters in certain states clinging to guns and Bibles was pumped up and flung back at him via Web channels.

Of course the campaign is still a year off and as anyone who follows technology knows that's a long time in Web terms. It's possible that the most powerful and effective means of reaching voters in the next campaign hasn't even emerged yet.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cyber-Criminals Getting Ahead of the Curve

As Internet users grow more savvy and learn to avoid opening suspicious emails that appear in their in-boxes, it seems that cyber-criminals are becoming more savvy as well. In its annual threat assessment review, Internet security firm Symantec, identified a 93% increase in web-based attacks last year.

Among those attacks were an increased number of so-called targeted attacks. Targeted attacks involve the sending of infected files that appear as if they originated from legitimate senders.

In presidential elections they say that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. Well in Web-based malware attacks it could be said that as consumers go, so go the hackers. A growing number of these cyber-attacks are being launched on social media sites and aimed at mobile devices.

Many alware designers are also utilizing social media sites like Facebook to place targeted "phishing" ads that are designed to interest specific users in much the same way advertisers target specific users by placing ads of interest on their Facebook pages.

Meanwhile as the major mobile communication platforms for cellphones become more widespread, hackers are seizing the opportunity and creating more pieces of malicious software aimed at targeting mobile devices.

Unfortunately while cyber-criminals seem to be ahead of the curve on this one it seems most users are behind it. Firewall-type security applications for mobile devices exist but they are not widely in use and most people have a false sense of security when it comes to sites like Facebook.

Until the proper security measures are made available by mobile phone companies and social media sites it's largely up to individual users to be diligent in regard to protecting themselves and their devices.