A New Direction for eBooks

Amazon announced a new option to read eBooks today. Now for $10 a month you can have access to over 600,000 eBooks as well as audio books from Audible. It’s a bit like paying a library fee and not a totally new concept for Amazon, given the availability of some textbooks books for online rental.

If you think about it, it’s a logical extension of the expansion of cloud-based media subscription services like those for music and movies, as well as, although it is not quite so obvious, software subscription services like those being used now for Adobe products like Photoshop and Microsoft’s Office. I underscore the notion of cloud-based here, since these services can be made available across a range of devices (desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet) the subscriber owns and the service is cross-platform (Windows, Mac OS and in some cases Unix). Storage space on devices can now be more efficiently used with content no longer stored. I wonder at times if we understand we realize that we no longer own a copy of the book, CD, MP3 or movie. Not that we cannot still actually buy books, CDS, MP3’s and DVDs, but we are gradually being weaned from doing so.

For heavy readers like myself, Kindle books are a blessing. I simply own too many books in paper form and the challenge to finding shelf space for them is overwhelming. Some have been relegated to tall stacks on the floor in a corner somewhere. I no longer need search to find one of my books. It’s there on my iPad and searchable.

But what will be the unexpected consequences of the continuing shift to cloud-based subscription services on the economy of media production? Still to be solved or exploited is how we share what we are reading with each other. Book publishers will have much to negotiate, particularly since some authors may want to see them removed from the chain from author to deliver to readers.

Designing Web Sites – The Rise of Development Frameworks

150px-Ruby_on_Rails.svgIn the beginnings of the Internet, all web pages were hand-coded and sites were small and simple. Gradually, WYSIWYG programs were developed like Microsoft’s Frontpage and Macromedia’s Dreamweaver which which was bought by Adobe after years of unsuccessfully trying to produce a competitor. Web design now, however, has become more complex and truly professional looking sites with dynamic and interactive abilities require graphic design skills, page layout coding skills and and programming skills.  As a result we have seen the rise of so-called “development frameworks.”  One such framework is Ruby on the Rails, an open-source system based on the Ruby programming language which requires knowledge of HTML and CSS as well as the Ruby programming language to use and an understanding of many of the aspects of web application architecture.  Many commercial systems have also been constructed, some with the additional designation “responsive” development framework to indicate that the framework is meant to make it easier to create applications that adjust to the broad range of devices people now use to connect to the Internet.  A distinction is also made between front-end and back-end systems with front end systems really only changing the cosmetic outer appearance of an application which can only be minimally modified in what it does and how it runs.  In some sense the simple drag and drop web design tools like Weebly can be seen as being very limited front end development environments as are the packages that have been developed to run with with a WordPress blog as the back end.  However, front-end development frameworks are limiting and in many cases are obviously shortcuits used by people with little web design skill, even if they attempt to pass themselves off differently. More complete frameworks like Gumby have more potential. However, people with little understanding of HTML, CSS, databases and computer programming are llikely to find it difficult to troubleshoot problems and those lacking even basic PhotoShop skills are likely to choose the highly-overused graphics that these frameworks provide. My recommendation – get a professional who can use a powerful development framework like Ruby On The Rails.

Keeping Your iPhone Safe

This video alerts us to some very disturbing things.  The first is the need to make the phone password harder to crack then the simple set of four numbers. (My iPhone is set with no password, by the way, which is probably not good but I no longer have to deal with an insane person who needed to daily search my phone).  The add tracking and location tracking discussed here are to be taken seriously and few of us would normally think about these.

In the world of Big Data we become a source of data to be constantly tracked and recorded to conveniently serve the interests of advertisers and marketers.  While Google and Facebook CEO’s cry foul at the surveillance of the public by the NSA, they hide their own hypocrisy in building this huge database with all sorts of applications to exploit it.  As consumers we are told all this is to better serve us (give us better customized search results, alert us to products that might be of interest to us based on what we have just bought or a subject we have discussed in our email or a Facebook post or a web page we have just visited).  The system opens us to be easily watched by government and preyed on by criminals and the mentally imbalanced.

What is surprising in this video is the extent to which this is also aided by the mobile devices and operating systems they use.  You think this only happens in the Mac Os on Apple mobile devices and sigh with relief that you are on an Android mobile device? Think again!  Your Android device is powered by Google, the biggest spying organzation that ever was.

 

 

And Now Extortion Malware!

140630153035-cryptolocker-620xa
It’s been reported that a new major computer threat now exists in the form of viruses that try to extort you.  We are seeing programs that lock your files so you can access them and the make you pay to receive a key to unlock them.  Two of these sites were shutdown by the FBI in May but people who have the virus are still infected. With the sites gone there is no way to obtain the key and removing the virus does not unlock the files.

We are likely to see new Internet extortion schemes in which images are stolen from computers with a threat of posting them unless money is paid.  The latest round seems to have come from Russia.

It is important that people upgrade their virus definitions and run frequent scans as well as being cautious when installing free software.  It is probably a good idea to backup files to the cloud or an external device as well to have a means of recovering from file lock down extortion.

New and Exciting Way to Be Hacked

If you have ever had the experience of having your computer broken into or one of your online accounts hacked, you understand not only the inconvenience but the stress people feel.

There are several ways it can happen.  The worst case is when someone installs a keystroke logger on your computer like this one either by physically getting onto your computer or tricking you online to install the program.  Sometimes it happens because you get a virus or other malware on your computer as a result of opening an email attachment.  Without anti-virus software running with constantly updated virus databases, you have little protection.

Sometimes it happens because you were dumb enough to use a common word as your password and someone uses a password cracker that looks up dictionary words and tries over and over as fast as it can.  One such program is produced by ElComSoft in Moscow.  Many of these programs were ostensibly designed for use by people who owned a computer and had forgotten their passwords.  This has allowed the programs to be sold legally.

Sometimes it happens because people fail to do the security updates to their operating system or other programs they have installed on the Internet. This happened to me about two years ago when I had an old WordPress blog installed and had not been doing security updates. The hackers were able to get into my web hosting through the security whole in my blog.

The most recent concern is over public wifi systems that are free and unencrypted which are becoming common in airports, coffee shops, shopping malls and restaurants. People who use their email or other Internet accounts using this public wifi on their smartphone, table or laptop are being shocked to find their accounts have been hacked. Tools like the Android Wifi Spy are being used to do just this.  Sold under the lame excuse of wanting to know if you neighbors are illegally using your home wifi system, the app is popular as way for a hacker sitting at Starbucks to get your email password and other private information.

I Recognize That Face

facial-recognition-markers-640x353

Probably one of the most disturbing pieces of new technology, which is being held back because it is known that it upsets much of the public, is face recognition.  You know all those picture of yourself you have put up on Facebook and all those profile pictures you have uploaded to other sites?  Well, you have nicely provided Facebook and Google with wonderful databases on which to develop face matching programs. Even if you delete the pictures, they are still in the databases.  Google Glasses have an app that recognizes human faces.  Google won’t dare release it to the general public. Facebook is capable of automatically tagging almost all the people in Facebook photos with the names of the Facebook members.

I’m quite split on my feelings about this technology.  I’m not young any more and there are cases where people who know me approach me and I am embarrassed that I do not immediately recognize them.  Imagine wearing a pair of Google Glasses that would quickly analyze this person’s face and not only give you their name but a quick bio!

But the potential to scam and con people is certainly present.  Imagine being approached by someone who tells you they have not seen you for a long time and proceeds to demonstrate they know who you are.  They then follow with something like – “hey I wouldn’t ask this of a stranger but could you help me out of a jam by loaning me $20?”

Other people seem to freak out over the use of this technology by governments to identify people in surveillance photographs.  That somehow does not bother me living in the US, but it might if I lived under a totalitarian regime.  On the hand, a guy sitting in a shopping mall using his Google Glasses to identify every young woman who walks by and retrieve information on her does.

 

Predictive Advertising: Big Data and Consumer Spying

Presumably you noticed how ads are being targeted at you on the Internet.  Recently, I searched the Internet for recliner chairs, only to find that ads were being targeted at me in the rightmost column in my home page on Facebook.  I was not logged into Facebook when I did the Google search.  In another case I emailed an old friend about possibly going back to Indianapolis 500 again only find I started having Indy 500 ads fired at me on a number of web sites.  With all the fuss about NSA spying, many people seem unaware that there Internet behavior is being tracked and shared across a broad range of web sites.  The goal is to target ads at people who seem to have interests relating to a product and increase the likelihood that the ad will achieve the desired effect rather than being wasted on those with no interest.

How’s it done?  Well in part it is done by placing data mining “cookies” on your computer, little files that record information about you. The web site writing the cookies then shares information with other web sites about how to read these particular cookies which just happen to contain information about what links you were clicking on that site.

Until recently, web browsers allowed you to easily delete data mining cookies from your computer, but browsers are now complicitous with marketers and actually aid in tracking data on you. It is even worse if you use Google sites and apps like gmail, Chrome, and a range of Google tools like Google Plus, the Google Calendar and so on.

As you may know, if you follow my posts or take one of my classes, I am a fan of Mozilla’s Firefox simply because Mozilla has no data mining interest and actually sees itself as protecting web consumers.  So that you can better see how you are being spied on, Mozilla invented the Lightbeam plug-in for Firefox that lets you see at any moment all the other web sites with which your web behavior at the moment is being shared.

As I write this post, I just ran Lightbeam and captured its output in the image below. I am no longer shocked to find that my web behavior at the moment is being shared with CNN.com, Facebook, Goole and a whole range of bookmarking sites like Reddit. You can click up the image to take a closer look.

lightbeam

One way to deal with the problem is to constantly delete cookies from your computer. You could block them – but many sites will not let you have access with cookies off. Deleting cookies is cumbersome and now hard to do with most browsers (see how quickly you can find how to delete cookies in Chrome and Internet Explorer btw).

People are starting to become upset by all of this and it seems, as an appeasement, Facebook has decided to give them a choice to opt out of targetted ads (see story). That still does not prevent you from being bombarded with ads in general on Facebook or in having your web behavior recorded to become part of a massive Big Data set on consumers.

“Oculus Thrift?” – Could This Be Bargain Virtual Reality?

Google is known to be working on a range of wearable computer-based devices collectively labeled Android wear.  Probably, best known is Google Glass, a wearable device worn on a glasses-like frame or over glasses that projects a tiny computer screen over one eye and allows the user to do all the things an advanced smart phone can do including responding to voice commands. Hailed as the end of the computer screen and keyboard, the $1,500 sticker price seems to be slowing its adoption. Due to be released in early July is the Google Watch which will run Android apps.

But one surprise has been Google’s weird response to the virtual reality visor challenge.  Best know of virtual reality visors, of course, is the Oculus Rift. Widely promoted as a device that will oculusrifttransform gaming by giving the gamer the illusion of actually being in the physical space of the computer-generated game word and bringing new realism to gaming, a potentially large market anxiously awaits its final release from development. Mark Zuckerberg was so enamored by it that he recenlt bought the company. Potential developers have been hot on the heels of the Oculus project.  While Microsoft seems to have temporarily placed its own virtual reality visor being produced under Project Fortaleza on hold, Sony is rumored to be quietly working in its own (http://venturebeat.com/2013/09/03/playstation-4-vr-rumor-claims-sony-is-working-on-virtual-reality-headset/).

So it would not be so surprising if Google made its own foray into this terrain albeit that Google is not as close to gaming as Microsoft and Sony.  But was this Wednesday’s announcement 140625165116-google-cardboard-boxes-620xaa joke?  Google announced this week that its engineers on their own 20% time to work on projects of their choice had come up with an inexpensive cardboard design for attacking an Android phone in front of the eyes using a housing made of cardboard.  The design was released to anyone who wanted to experiment with it and to encourage third parties to develop potential apps.  This a long way from the two billion dollars Mark Zuckerberg spent to acquire Oculus Rift.  But Oculus Rift is far more than smartphone strapped in front of your eyes.  Is Google merely poking fun at Oculus Rift or is this for real?

Virtual Worlds: Another Try

A MUVE (Muli-User Virtual Environments) refers to an online virtual world that is not a game and in which users can construct their world.  It’s very different from MMORPG’s (Massively Muti-User Online Role Playing Games) like World of Warcraft that highly limit what the user can create and constrain the user in some sort of game scenario.  In a MUVE like Second Life users can create terrain, design their own avatars with custom clothing and animations, create buildings and design interactive objects.PacificSL2  Beginning around 2005 virtual worlds like Second Life came to be seen as having the potential for creatively delivering online distance learning, marketing and serving as a place for companies to carry on enterprise activities including meetings which did not require employees to travel to a real life site. People could interact within Second Life as avatars enhanced with voice communication and the ability to project real world content into the virtual world. My own university was one of many institutions of higher learning that experimented with Second Life.  The picture shows the Second Life region that was created by the New Media Consortium as a replica of the famous Rose Garden area of our campus.  It was there that we hoped to market the university and offer online classes.  By 2010, most companies and universities abandoned the use of MUVE’s after they failed to achieve the potential that was expected.  Some of the failure was due to a learning curve that was too sharp for many casual users, the preference by users alternative means to interact that did not involve entering a virtual world on an avatar and the failure to really exploit the capabilities of a virtual world. Around 2010 the health of virtual worlds worsened and worlds like There.com shut down.  Although most virtual world use was recreational in nature, Second Life, the most successful virtual world began a downward spiral in growth.

Second Life founder, Phillip Rosendale, was replaced as CEO of Linden Labs, the parent conmpany of Second Life,  around 2008 at the peek of growth.  Two years ago, Rosendale announced that he would launch of a new virtual world based on more recent technology with the potential to do what Second Life had done but much better.  This project is called High Fidelty. This project is at the alpha stage with a limited number of people allowed to experiment.  Some of the features of the new world are ability to use it easily on a range of devices (computers, tablets and smartphones), much more powerful tools for users to create their own worlds with voxxels leapfrogging over mesh as the basic unit of construction and the ability to use the new virtual reality viewer, Oculus Rift, for a feeling of total immersion in the virtual world.

OIn Tuesday of this week, Linden Labs announced its own intentions to launch a new virtual world using technologies siimillar to High Fidelity and with the idea that Second Life would likely be eventually replaced by it.  What is not clear is whether this world is actually High Fideliity.  If so, it would very much be like the story in which Steve Jobs left Apple Computer to design the NeXt computer when he was pushed out as CEO and then brought that project back to become the basis for the Macintosh computer.  Perhaps, once again the founding creative genius will return to take a company forward.