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Why I don’t trust Glenn Greenwald

Willard Foxton, writing for The Telegraph, on Glenn Greenwald and the creepy cult that surrounds him:

I’m sure Mr Greenwald sees himself as a crusader for justice. It’s exactly that commitment to a cause that makes me wonder if he came across a document exonerating the Obama administration in this scandal, would he throw up his hands and say “Sorry guys, we have to forget about this one”? Or would he quietly bin it, because it doesn’t fit with what he believes as an activist? Journalism isn’t just about writing good copy, it’s about actually finding the truth, and accepting that sometimes it won’t be a truth you like.

This is exactly the problem I have with Greenwald. I don’t trust him not to simply ignore anything he comes across which doesn’t fit with his narrative.

Selective publication of documents only works if the journalist handling them can be trusted to publish the truth of what he finds. That’s incompatible with the idea of “activists journalist” that Greenwald espouses – because an activist, by definition, is batting for one side rather than another.  There’s not a chance he would print “a truth he doesn’t like”.

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If someone made a potato, Samsung would make a Galaxy Potato

GigaOm:

Another report in the Korea Times suggests that Samsung is also working on a pair or smart glasses designed to compete with Google Glass, tentatively dubbed Galaxy Glass. Samsung is reportedly hoping to launch these glasses by September at IFA, which might get them to market sooner than Google makes its Glass available at the consumer level. 

I’m trying to think of a new technology which has come out that Samsung hasn’t raced to copy. 

Nope, still trying… no. Can’t think of anything. 

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I’ve been saying for some time that Google’s longer-term plans for application development all hinged around Chrome. Native Android apps are silos: although Google has built tools which allow developers to make Android apps searchable (and thus a target for ad sales, and tracking) it’s much harder than with a native HTML web app. 

Building an app using native tools is also a dead-end: developers have to work harder to create a web-native equivalent. And web-native equivalents can be easily supported by advertising, supplied by… you guessed it… Google. 

Chrome Packaged Apps, on the other hand, are “native” web apps – and the web is Google’s true focus. So it’s no surprise that Google has released an early release which lets you bring Packaged Apps to iOS and Android. 

Chome is the development platform, not Android: Android is just the host, just like iOS is. 

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My thirty years of the Mac

The first Mac I used was a 512K machine, in the computer science lab at Hatfield Polytechnic in 1986. The halls where I lived were organised into floors of 12 rooms which shared a kitchen, and although the Poly tried its best to mix students of different disciplines, for some reason my floor had six computer science students on it. I was the sole, weird, humanities guy[1].

One day, one of my floor-mates took me to the computer science lab, and showed me around. There were terminals hooked into the polytechnic’s main computer (yes, the one computer, running UNIX[2]), PCs… “and this is the Mac. It’s pretty advanced – you should try using one. You might like it.”

I did. In fact, I was in love. Compared to the primitive home computers I’d used up till then, this was amazing. Like something from another planet, or at least California.

Three years and one first-class honours degree later, I ended up spending a year commuting from my home in St Albans, round the M25 to Apple UK’s headquarters in Stockley Park, near Heathrow. I spent a year interning with the Information Systems and Technology (IS&T) team, mostly fixing problems by the two most reliable methods available to a Mac tech at the time: reinstalling the system, or, if that failed, replacing the motherboard. I could probably still disassemble a Mac II if I had to, in record time (hint: don’t touch the power supply).

More importantly to me, working for Apple meant I could take advantage of the “Loan to Own” scheme, which let you borrow a Mac and, after a set period of time, buy it at a steep discount. In my case, a year later the Mac Plus (and 20Mb hard drive) I’d been using was mine, just in time for me to go back to Hatfield to work on a PhD. The Mac Plus, with 4Mb of RAM, spent its time with me for the next few years churning through words in MacWrite (and then Word), keeping notes in HyperCard (in a note-taking stack I’d written) and storing endless academic references in EndNote (which I’m happy to find is still going strong.

The experience of working at Apple and owning a Mac changed my life. A few years later, casting around for a job when it became clear I really didn’t want to be an academic (and academia didn’t really want me) I answered an ad in The Guardian media section (in print!) for a labs assistant on MacUser magazine. I’d never wanted to be a journalist, but – thanks to the Mac – I ended up one.

The Mac, in the form of one machine or an another, has been with me now for 25 years. I’ve written millions of words on it, played countless hours of games, got into arguments and met people hundreds of people. It’s taken me – literally – around the world and given me a livelihood. I wouldn’t be the person I am without Steve’s Amazing Machine.


  1. Which is another way of saying I had a girlfriend.  ↩

  2. The same group of computer science friends later thought it was hilarious to give me, the token humanities guy, root access to the mainframe. Thankfully I never used it for evil…  ↩

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Microsoft Surface is still a failure

Jason Del Ray, writing for Re/Code on the apparently-impressive Microsoft Surface:

In its fiscal second-quarter earnings release today, Microsoft said Surface revenue was $893 million during the final quarter of calendar year 2013, up from $400 million in the preceding quarter. It didn’t, however, provide information on the number of units sold and it did cost the company $932 million to generate the Surface revenue.

Still, that’s some holly jolly holiday season news, considering the Surface’s track record. The bad news, of course, is that Microsoft’s share in the tablet market is still minuscule.

The market share is irrelevant at this point: The bad news is that Microsoft is still losing money on every Surface it sells. 

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Samsung’s road to smartphone dominance is a dead end

How many stories in the tech press have you read over the past year which posited a theory of Apple being in trouble? Tens – probably hundreds of articles have appeared which put forward the idea that Apple’s needed to move the iPhone downmarket and create a cheaper version to gain market share. Failure to do this means doom.

So let’s take a look at a company which has followed exactly this plan, competing at every level of the smartphone market from cheap devices for the masses through to expensive, high-end phones: Samsung.

Samsung’s earnings are out, and they’re not pretty:

“Earnings will remain stagnant this year as the explosive growth of the past two to three years seems to have ended,” said Lee Sun Tae, a Seoul-based analyst at NH Investment & Securities Co. “Although the lower-end smartphone market will continue to grow, the scale of profit from that segment doesn’t compare to the high-end market so the growth seems limited.”

Samsung’s problem is simple: at the low end it is being squeezed out of existence by low-name and no-name Chinese manufacturers, all happy to stick “good enough” Android on their phones with no costly extra software. Although the company has tried to differentiate its products by value-ended extras and services, for price-conscious consumers these are meaningless or, in some cases, a turn-off.

At the high end, it is being squeezed by Apple, which has proved it can compete in any market.

If you want to make a comparison to the PC market, Samsung is like IBM was: a “quality brand” producing products which aren’t sufficiently different from cheaper commodity players like Dell. In the smartphone market, for Dell read Lenovo or (long term) Xiaomi.

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Why I fucking love Bill Gates – and you should too

Great interview with the man that too many techies think of as The Great Satan himself. Gates has now found something better to do than create second-rate software: saving the world.

And better yet, he has no time for young whipper-snappers who think all that needs to happen is connectivity for the poor:

“These days, it seems that every West Coast billionaire has a vision for how technology can make the world a better place. A central part of this new consensus is that the internet is an inevitable force for social and economic improvement; that connectivity is a social good in itself. It was a view that recently led Mark Zuckerberg to outline a plan for getting the world’s unconnected 5 billion people online, an effort the Facebook boss called “one of the greatest challenges of our generation”. But asked whether giving the planet an internet connection is more important than finding a vaccination for malaria, the co-founder of Microsoft and world’s second-richest man does not hide his irritation: “As a priority? It’s a joke.”

Then, slipping back into the sarcasm that often breaks through when he is at his most engaged, he adds: “Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.””

And to those who think making new companies does more good than charity, he's equally-dismissive:

To Diamandis’s argument that there is more good to be done in the world by building new industries than by giving away money, meanwhile, he has a brisk retort: “Industries are only valuable to the degree they meet human needs. There’s not some – at least in my psyche – this notion of, oh, we need new industries. We need children not to die, we need people to have an opportunity to get a good education.”

This is why I fucking love Bill Gates. He's going to save a lot of kids lives.

 

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Kevin Marks, on the “Dishfire” system which apparently hoovers up millions of SMS messages:

I don’t think this is correct. As I understand it, and in all instances I’ve used, the codes delivered by SMS for two-factor authentication are time and use limited: that means after a few minutes, they’re useless, or if you use them once, they can’t be used again.

This means that, in order to be useful to someone, they would need to be monitored in real time and used before you used them – which would, of course, alert you to the fact they’ve been used, as they would fail when you tried it yourself.

Panic over, people.

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Ina Fried, reporting on a survey of iPhone users which apparently shows the iPhone 5c doing worse than the equivalent model in the range did last year, the iPhone 4S:

The iPhone 5s accounted for 59 percent of October through December U.S. sales, according to a study from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. This compares to the iPhone 5′s 50 percent of sales when it was the high-end model a year ago.

The iPhone 5c, meanwhile, represented 27 percent of sales, less than the 32 percent that the iPhone 4s had a year ago when it was the mid-range model. CIRP’s findings are based on a survey of 500 buyers of Apple gear during the survey period.

How accurate a survey is depends on the sample size. And while 500 is a valid sample size considering the overall “population”[1] of around 50m iPhone buyers, it isn’t enough to reduce the margin of error to the kind of point which would justify the claims being made.

With a sample this size, unless they’d taken a lot of precautions, the margin of error would be around +/–4–5%. This means, potentially, the models could have the reversed share: 32% for the 5c (27% + margin of error upwards of 5%) and 27% for the 4S (32% – margin of error down of 5%).

All that you can say based on these numbers is the iPhone 5c is performing about as well as the iPhone 4S did in the same role. However, a conclusion like that isn’t enough for CIRP. According to CIRP analyst Josh Lowitz:

“If the old iPhone 5 had been the mid-priced phone, we expect that it would have sold a higher percentage of iPhones than the 5c did, as previous mid-priced legacy iPhones have,” Lowitz said. “The 5c seems to have been designed to force certain buyers to the 5s.”

I’m not sure how you can “force” buyers into buying something more expensive if they haven’t got the money. Sure, it probably does well at “upselling” customers: those who would never consider buying the top-end phone and so walk into an Apple Store to get the 5c, but then play around with a 5S and get a case of profound gadget-lust. But I can’t imagine that more of those kinds of customers took at a look at last year’s top of the line phone and didn’t feel equally lustful.


  1. A “population” in survey terms is the number of people who fall into the group you’re trying to sample: in this case, the roughly 50m people in the US who bought iPhones that year. The bigger the population, the bigger the sample size you need.  ↩

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Some thoughts on what Google has bought Nest for

Some smart points about Google’s acquisition of Nest from John Gruber, who notes that in Tony Fadell Google has got someone who knows how to do hardware capable of scaling to tens of millions of units.

However, one minor point about John’s story, from this paragraph:

One of Alan Kay’s numerous oft-cited quotations is, “People who are really serious about software should partner with an OEM in Asia.” No, wait, that’s not what he said. What he said is, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” That’s never been true of Google, putting aside Motorola (which they seemingly acquired more for its patent portfolio than for its phone hardware acumen) and the niche Google Search Appliance.

In fact, Google has independently designed two pieces of hardware: The Chromebook Pixel and Nexus Q. But that, I think, makes John’s point stronger. Both the Pixel and Q were expensive, high-end pieces of hardware which could never have scaled to selling tens of millions of units. The Pixel was (and is) effectively a flagship demonstrator the potential for Chromebooks; and the Nexus Q was a unique media device which, because of its design, cost about four times as much as its competition.

With the Pixel and Q, Google proved it could design high-end hardware on its own. What it hasn’t been able to do is create high-quality hardware capable of being mass produced at low cost. Of all the tech hardware companies, only Apple and Nest have really nailed that one. And Apple wasn’t available for sale.

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