Category Archives: Tech Companies

Something doesn’t add up in the lastest Washington Post PRISM story

The Washington Post has released additional slides from the PRISM deck, which it has annotated and which have resurrected the “equipment installed at company premises” claim. Some – notably Glenn Greenwald – have claimed this proves the “direct access to company databases” claim from the original story has been verified, despite the vociferous denials of all the companies involved.

But does it? Dig a little deeper, and I think it becomes clear that the WaPo hasn’t got the story it thinks it has.

First, there’s nothing in the released slides themselves which directly corroborates the “installed at company premises” claim, which exists only in the annotations that the reporter, Barton Gellman, has added to the slides. Here’s how the process is described by Gellman:

The search request, known as a “tasking,” can be sent to multiple sources — for example, to a private company and to an NSA access point that taps into the Internet’s main gateway switches. A tasking for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and other providers is routed to equipment installed at each company. This equipment, maintained by the FBI, passes the NSA request to a private company’s system.

The slides themselves, though, make no mention of much of this. In particular, there’s no reference to company premises in anything on the slides. 

Given that the slides don’t say that equipment is installed at the company, where has this point come from? I think there’s three options:

  1. It’s featured in other, as-yet unreleased slides.
  2. It comes from verbal or written testimony from Edward Snowden or another intelligence source.
  3. It’s an interpretation of something in the released slides.

The first option is possible, but I think we can rule it out. If there was a clear, unambiguous statement that the FBI had equipment installed in company premises on another slide, I can’t see why the WaPo wouldn’t publish that slide, even if it had to do so in heavily redacted form. So that leaves us with the other options.

Is the WaPo relying on unknown third-party sources? If it was, I can’t see why it wouldn’t add an “intelligences sources confirmed…” in the story. It would be a stronger story for it, so why not say? If, on the other hand, it’s Snowden, I can understand why it might avoid naming him as the source. Snowden’s direct testimony has proved to be occasionally exaggerated and sometimes even unreliable – but the WaPo could use “a source familiar with the whole presentation” instead of naming him, which would again strengthen the story.

At this point, I think the onus is on the WaPo be a little transparent and clear this up. If there’s additional evidence, show it – or at least note you’re relying on it.

Which leaves us with the third option: interpretation. And I think this is where WaPo has, at the very least, produced something that’s an epic muddle. The muddle occurs around the box labelled “FBI Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU)”.

A DITU sounds like a piece of technology. It sounds like the kind of thing that you would install somewhere to do intercepts, and, given the way the diagram is structured, you might well surmise that it was installed on company premises.

 

But it’s not. In fact, the Data Intercept Technology Unit isn’t a piece of technology, something which would sit at the premises of a company. In fact, it’s a department of the FBI, formed several years ago, tasked with data interception of the “packet sniffing” variety (it even has its own Challenge Coin). It’s known to use a suite of packet inspection tools which allow it, from TCP/IP data, to recreate emails, IM, images, web pages and more. Essentially, it specialises in snooping tools which let you find out what someone is doing online without having access to the original servers. Essentially, it will tap data at the ISP level, rather than the server level.

The annotation on the second new is where the waters get really muddy. In a note attached to the box for the DITU, Barton adds:

From the FBI’s interception unit on the premises of private companies… [my emphasis]

Does Gellman think that DITU is the “interception unit”? I emailed him to ask, and initially he confirmed that the “interception unit” referred to in the annotation was the DITU – which would be a fairly major error. However, when I pointed out that this made no sense, he clarified, claiming that by “interception unit” he was referring to the organisation within the FBI, not the equipment. All clear on that?

WaPo DITU

This, though, makes the annotations even more puzzling. Why would you use the phrase “interception unit on the premises” to refer to the organisation within the FBI? Clearly, the organisation isn’t on the premises – the equipment (supposedly) is.

The other option is that Gellman is using “interception unit” to mean both the DITU and the equipment, which would be – at the very least – pretty poor writing. So what exactly does Gellman mean? Perhaps understandably, he declined to answer further questions.

None of this means that the WaPo doesn’t have a story. We now know that the FBI’s DITU can be tasked by the NSA to conduct live surveillance on the data of identified (and 51%-certain-foreign) targets. The NSA can also request data from previous FBI DITU surveillance. These specifics weren’t known before, so Gellman and the WaPo should get credit for a scoop.

But it isn’t the scoop they think it is, because the slides don’t confirm either the direct server access that Greenwald is crowing about or the presence of on-premise equipment at Google, Apple, and the rest. There’s simply nothing in the slide which states that equipment is on-site, and there’s no alternative source for this claim. There’s no way I can see to interpret anything on the slides as putting that “interception unit” inside the premises, accessing data on demand without any company oversight. 

A more likely scenario, particularly given the DITU’s heritage as data tappers, is that the equipment taps into Internet backbones – something that’s supported by one of the original slides, which referred to how much of the world’s comms data flowed through the US. Why bother with a slide like that if you’re tapping directly into Google’s servers?

The WaPo story isn’t proof of mass warrantless surveillance of US citizens, or (as it stands) of in-house equipment at Google, Apple, Microsoft and the rest. Unless it has more evidence which hasn’t been published that explicitly shows this, not much new controversial information has been added to what we know about the NSA and its activities.

Google may be bidding for Waze

Bloomberg:

Google Inc. (GOOG), maker of the Android operating system, is considering buying map-software provider Waze Inc., setting up a possible bidding war with Facebook Inc. (FB), people familiar with the matter said.

Waze is a really great service, and it would be a shame to see it go to Google. For Google, Waze would be an “acqui-hire” aimed at securing some great mapping engineering talent: it’s unlikely that the service would be kept running separately to (and competing with) Google Maps. At Facebook, on the other hand, Waze would be more likely to end up like Instagram: a semi-autonomous, but linked, service.

Apple is winning. Google is winning. Can we shut up now please?

Ben Thompson on the Google we always wanted

Android did its job: Google’s signals have unfettered access to users on every mobile platform. Microsoft is in no position to block them, and Apple, for all its bluster, isn’t interested.

Chrome is doing its job: Google’s signals sit on top of an increasing number of PCs, slowly making the underlying OS irrelevant.

Google+ is doing its job: Every Google service is now tied together by a single identity, and identity is the key to data collection on mobile.

This is the thing that people often don’t get: while Google and Apple appear to be competing with each other, because both companies sell a mobile platform, in fact they have entirely different aims and objectives. This means that it’s perfectly possible for both to “win” by their own criteria.

Apple wins by selling the best devices, ensuring no one can stop them delivering the best user experience and making a profit from them. Google wins by improving its advertising products and ensuring that no other company can lock it out, depriving it of potential audience. 

This is why the occasional talk of Google pulling or handicapping its iOS products (see the comments here) is laughable. Google doesn’t care if you’re using an iPhone or an Android phone. It cares if you’re using Google services or not. And the best way to get iOS users to use more Google services is to produce better products for iOS, rather than expect them to buy a new mobile phone. 

Cheap tablets and baked beans

Jared Newman reviews the Hisense Sero LT 7in tablet, currently selling for $99 in Walmart:

But there’s one big caveat with the Sero 7 LT, not listed on Walmart’s product page: According to Engadget, TechRadar and others, this tablet will only last for about four hours on a charge. Most other tablets last at least twice as long. Even if you’re not planning on hours of consecutive use, a big battery allows you to keep your tablet lying around for days at a time, using it on and off throughout. With a four-hour battery, you’ll need to be extra mindful about plugging the tablet in when it’s not in use.

Also, keep in mind that while the Sero 7 LT’s microSD slot compensates somewhat for the measly 4 GB of built-in storage, it’s not a cure-all. Some Android apps and widgets can’t be installed to a microSD card, and juggling two sources of storage can be a hassle.

So in other words, it’s a tablet which has a battery which makes it certain not to last through the day, tiny amounts of storage, and a dual core processor which is likely to make it feel sluggish. It has no roadmap for future software upgrades. Essentially, it’s barely useable for the kinds of purposes that any family would want to use a tablet for. 

Yes, it’s cheap, but in the way that 10p tins of beans used to be cheap: you’d open them up, and find a third of the can was thin watery sauce, with some tough, tasteless beans nestled at the bottom. You’d eat them, because they were the only thing you could afford: but if you could afford anything better you’d buy that instead.

…and gravy

John Gruber replies to my gentle spoofing of his post about Larry Page’s statements with a measured and considered piece which highlights his key point: That Page was simply being hypocritical:

“What major tech giant has Google not pitted itself against? Whose mashed potatoes do they not seek to take? Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Oracle, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon — Google has made enemies of all of them. The difference between Google’s predatory rapaciousness today and Microsoft’s of yore is that Microsoft wore it on their sleeve, they owned it, celebrated it. What rankles about Google is their hypocrisy.”

There’s an element of truth to this (it is, as John puts it, when referring to the likes of Ive’s comments on not caring about making money, “truthy”). Google as a company has always had the kind of “why shouldn’t we?” arrogance that you’d expect when the founders are a pair of Montessori-educated certified geniuses rather than a couple of drop-out hippies. They’ve had no fear about going up against much older and (initially) far better resourced incumbents. If they decide they want to do something, they really don’t care who gets rubbed up the wrong way.

From the outside, I can see how this looks like “predatory rapaciousness”. But John positions these actions as being driven by greed:

“Page was telling the I/O audience what they wanted to hear, that Google is something other than a ruthless, greedy competitor… The drum I’m trying to bang here is not that Google is a greedy competitor, but rather that Google is a greedy competitor that presents itself as anything but — as a sort of peaceful, whimsical, happy-go-lucky techno-futurist corporate utopian — and that rather than see this pose as absurd, many people, Googlers and Google users alike, buy it.”

(My emphasis) This is where John and my opinions diverge. My experience of Google and Googlers is that they really are something other than a ruthless, greedy competitor, just as my experience of Apple and Apple-folk is something other than a ruthless, greedy machine to vacuum up all my spare cash (something they’ve been remarkably effective at).

Yes, they are ruthless and arrogant. But they are not only that. If they were only that, they wouldn’t be a company capable of producing great products.

The myths that a company tells about itself aren’t just for public consumption: they are the method that you use to set who you are and what you do apart. The statements that Jobs and Ive made about Apple being at the “intersection of technology and the liberal arts” and “our goal isn’t to make money” are exactly this kind of myth. And they are, undoubtedly, genuinely and whole-heartedly believed – because without that kind of belief in a purpose beyond simply making money, creative people find their creativity shrivelling up and dying.

The myths that Google tells itself (and the outside world) are the same: genuinely, wholeheartedly believed by the company from the top down (probably with the exception of some hard-nosed finance people in both cases – but they are a breed apart). This isn’t just a question of marketing or spin. In order to do the work they need to do, they need to believe those myths.

All the truly great companies of our age begin and grow with a fundamental tension at their heart, pulled by two strands which, if the founders are not careful, will pull it apart. On the one hand, they want to build a business, to be a machine for making money; on the other, they want (to borrow Steve Jobs’ phrase) to put a ding in the world, to change it, for the better. Google and Apple are both cut from this cloth, and both have this tension at their heart.

Even Microsoft began with this tension. Microsoft’s founding mission was “A computer on every desk and in every home,” something that was crazily radical in 1975. But even then, Gates knew that building the money-making machine was the only way to achieve this vision: the mission statement added “…running Microsoft software”.

Microsoft’s problem is that the first part of its vision was achieved, and nothing ever filled that void – leaving it with just the money-making part. The visions of Apple and Google, on the other hand, still remain unfulfilled, which is why both of them will continue to make great products for many years to come.

John is absolutely right that Google is perfectly happy to take all the mashed potatoes. But like Apple, it also has the gravy of a genuine, heart-felt desire to change the world for the better, to make amazing stuff which enriches people’s lives. And it’s that, rather than the mashed potatoes, which defines who it is and what makes it great.

Apple versus (after John Gruber)

(Before reading this post, read John Gruber’s post here)

UPDATE: John’s written a thoughtful response to this post, which I’ve added some gravy to in a further response. Both, I think, are worth reading.)

Steve Jobs, on stage in 1997:

“We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose,” Jobs said. “We have to embrace the notion that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job. If others are going to help us, that’s great. Because we need all the help we can get. […] The era of setting this up as a competition between Apple and Microsoft is over.”

Apple fans seem to eat this kumbaya stuff up, to really believe it. But Apple is the company that built iPhone after Windows Mobile, iCloud after Google Docs, and soon a subscription music service after Spotify. iCloud mail? Webmail but better. Think about even iTunes: music software wasn’t something new; it was something better. Way, way, way better, but still.

Consider music sales. Apple iTunes Store entered a market where eMusic and others had been around for years. That wasn’t something great that didn’t already exist. It was a better version of something that already existed. Apple is a hyper-competitive company, and they repeatedly enter markets that already exist and crush competitors. Nothing wrong with that. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work, and Apple’s successes are admirable. But there’s nothing stupid about seeing Apple being pitted “versus” other companies. They want everything; their ambition is boundless.

Chromes OS, Android, and the future of Android apps

Sundar Pichai, who recently took over Android from Andy Rubin, pours some cold water on the “Chrome OS and Android to merge” rumours in this interview with Wired. But he does leave one door open:

” We want to do the right things at each stage, for users and developers. We are trying to find commonalities. On the browser layer, we share a lot of stuff. We will increasingly do more things like that. And maybe there’s a more synergistic answer down the line.”

Suppose that, rather than Android effectively subsuming Chrome, as most people seem to think will happen, Android got the ability to run Chrome Packaged Apps? What if Chrome Packaged Apps ultimately became the default way to develop for Android?

Java, which Android apps are currently developed in, has never felt like a good fit for Google – a company which spends much of its time evangelising the web and web technologies. Packaged apps deliver native-like capabilities and are installable, so you don’t need a constant Internet connection to run. Developers have already used Packaged Apps to create some pretty good games, which shows what can be done. 

I wouldn’t expect to see this at this year’s Google I/O… but next year? That sounds like a pretty Googly thing to do.

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Blink and you’ll miss it

Blink and you'll miss them

There’s a part of me which wonders, as a massive Doctor Who nerd, if someone in Google’s web platforms team isn’t a big fan. In “Blink”, one of the best episodes ever, the enemy is a group of aliens who take the form of statues which can only move when you’re not looking at them. They’re the ultimate stealth attacker: blink, and they’ve got you.

Likewise, Google’s decision to split with WebKit and instead create its own browser engine – called, Who-style, Blink – looks at first like a stealthy move to control more of the Internet than the search giant already does. Like the statues in Doctor Who, if you don’t keep an eye on them, they’re going to control everything.

That’s certainly the angle that many Mac fans have taken with Blink. I’m actually not so sure. I think that Blink might turn out to be the best thing that’s happened to the web – and, indirectly, a really good thing for Apple too. Continue reading

VP8: Where next for Google’s video format?

What’s the point of VP8, Google’s alternative video compression format which the company released in 2010? VP8 wasn’t just promoted as an option – the company actually said it would phase out support for H.264 in Chrome, and replace it with VP8. Given Chrome’s incredible rise in popularity, this would have been a major blow to H.264.

Fast forward to now, and that strategy looks like it’s in tatters. Chrome retains support for H.264, and has expanded it further, and few sites (except for Google’s own YouTube) even support VP8. Far from being unencumbered by patents, as Google claimed at the time, the company has been forced to take a license to a pool of FRAND patents adminstered by MPEG LA, and other companies continue to claim VP8 infringes on their patents too.

Video compression is an area that’s heavily patented, but also widely licensed under FRAND terms. This is partly because compression is such a core part of what computers are expected to do these days that it’s to everyone’s benefit to ensure that patents are widely licenses. It’s mostly better to pool your patents with others and get either a couple of cents from hundreds of millions of devices or avoid paying the same fee on your own.

I’m at a loss to understand what Google thought it was doing with VP8. Given then vast range of patents in this area, it was never likely that Google could create a patent-free codec that performed equal to or better than H.264 unless it made some significant breakthrough in technology.

Yes, if it had made such a breakthrough, it would lower its own licensing costs for YouTube and every other property it has which uses video. But given that the licensing costs for H.264 are not exactly onerous, it’s probably ended up spending more on lawyers fees in an attempt to claim that VP8 doesn’t violate patents than it could ever have saved just licensing H.264.

The saga of VP8 smacks a little of corporate immaturity. In most cases, that is one of Google’s strengths, because it allows the company to disrupt product categories and gain footholds in new territory.

But when dealing with something as heavily patented as video compression, that strength becomes a weakness. As with many of Google’s brushes with the law, the company seems to see legalities as something it can legitimately try and “hack”, rather than just following the same rules as everyone else. By and large, though the law isn’t amenable to hacking, and the VP8 case is just another example of this.

A Mac user’s view of the Chromebook Pixel

I’ve been a Mac user since 1986, and edited a Mac magazine for a couple of years. I’ve contributed to MacGasm, MacFormat, and pretty-much anything that has the word “Mac” in its title. I attended more Steve Jobs keynotes than is healthy, and suffered the epic 3 hour Gil Amelio keynote which reduced even the hardest-bitten hacks to weeping babies. If there is such a thing as Mac spurs, I’ve earned them.

But as a technology writer, I’ve also always kept an open mind about other options. I’ve used Windows in anger (back in the days when a tablet PC meant Tablet PC, not an iPad). I’ve had Android phones. I’ve used my own cash to buy Android tablets (and boy, did I regret that one).

And in the past couple of years, anyone that follows me will know that I’ve also long been interested in the Google’s Chromebook concept. The idea of a machine which reflects how I actually work (mostly online) is attractive. It’s secure, fast enough, and I never have to worry about where any of my data lives. Almost all the software that I use on a day-to-day basis is web-based, and my browser is the application I use most often. Sometimes two of them. Continue reading