A fictionalised conversation between me and a Surface Pro 2 fan

Me: “Surface Pro 2 makes a pretty poor laptop, because of its crazy kick stand and lack of a bundled keyboard. Just buy an ultrabook or MacBook Air.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What laptop can you just take off the keyboard and use as a tablet?”

Me: “Yeah, but the Surface Pro 2 makes a really poor tablet. It’s too heavy, really hard to use in portrait mode, and you keep being dumped back into the crappy old Windows desktop to do things. Just buy an iPad or good Android tablet, or even a Surface if you like that sort of thing.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What other tablet can you clip a keyboard on to and have a fully-fledged laptop?”

Me: “But it’s a pretty poor laptop…”

And so it goes, round and round. Point out Surface Pro 2 is a poor laptop, and you get pointed towards the fact it’s also a tablet. Point out it’s a pretty poor tablet, and you get pointed back towards the fact that it’s also a laptop.

No, the “UK national firewall” doesn’t block Boing Boing, EFF and slashdot

Government-mandated web filtering is a really bad idea, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who’s used the Internet for long. I’m against them: I think it should be up to adults to decide what they see, and for parents to decide what their children see.

However, in opposing them, it’s really important that we don’t go off the deep end and cry wolf about what ISPs are doing. That’s why I find Cory’s post at Boing Boing about how “UK’s new national firewall: O2′s “parental control” list blocks Slashdot, EFF, and Boing Boing” concerning. 

Cory’s post takes it’s lead from another post by Peter Hansteen, which points at o2′s URL checker, which lets you see whether an individual site is blocked by o2′s web filters. The third setting – “Parental Control” – appears to block pretty-much the whole internet.

However, I think this is misleading, and conflating two very different sets of filters. The site checker Peter linked to is, I believe, related to o2′s mobile service, not its broadband service (which is now part of Sky). In common with most mobile companies, o2 has a default blacklist, which can you opt out of easily. It also has a set of much stricter “Parental control” setting which allows parents to tightly lock-down what a child with a mobile can see. It’s this second “Parental control” setting that’s basically blocks everything on the internet, apart from a handful of “child-friendly” sites.

I don’t think this is anything to do with the government mandated porn block. It’s just the same mobile filtering that’s always been there, and that’s common across pretty-much every mobile company. I can’t imagine why anyone would change any child’s mobile to basically block the whole of the internet, but it’s opt-in, and it should be up to the parents.

Sky, which now owns o2′s former broadband service (not the mobile network), does have a system of DNS-based filtering called “Broadband Shield” which is compliant with the government-”requested” filtering system. Although I haven’t run through it, it seems to work like this: when you sign up to Sky as a new customer, you’re presented with filtering options. The default setting is on, but you can change it at this point. (More details in Sky’s response to ORG’s questions about it). The “PG” and “18″ level filtering is, of course, as much riddled with inconsistency as any other filtering system, but it’s not the “OMG BLOCK EVERYTHING” that o2′s mobile parental controls are.

UPDATE: And now this piece on the New Statesman is making the same error, conflating pre-existing filters on a mobile network with Cameron’s “porn blocking” plans. This is crying wolf. The two things are not the same. For the love of god, people, let’s have a grown up debate that actually deals with the facts, rather than sensationalising things.

tumblr_m9638e2X3c1qcdc4q

Did the NSA pay RSA $10m to weaken encryption?

According to a story by Reuters, the NSA paid encryption company RSA $10m to deliberately weaken one of its products by using an encryption algorithm which, presumably, the NSA had already cracked.

Sounds plausible. After all, we know the NSA at least attempted to influence standard-setting bodies to adopt weaker levels of encryption.

But there’s something about this story which doesn’t add up. Once you begin to think about it, this kind of deal doesn’t make sense for either the NSA, or for RSA.

For RSA, doing something like this would be a brain-dead move. Yes, as the Reuters report says, $10m looks big in the context of the $27m made by the division of RSA which allegedly received it. But for the company as a whole, it amounts to less than 2% of its annual revenue of $525m in 2007. And a decision to accept that money would almost certainly have to have been board-level: so why would they have accepted it? Would they undermine their own product – and in a way which they must have known would almost certainly leak at some point? It just looks unlikely.

For the NSA, why bother when there are more effective and secretive ways of achieving the same goal? Why not simply plant an employee in RSA with access to the code? Why not quietly pay a very senior individual (or individuals) to buy their compliance? Why not hack into the company and plant your own back door? After all, this is an organisation capable of planting malware in top secret nuclear facilities of another country – breaking into a commercial organisation, by comparison, is trivial. And using methods like bribery, “human intelligence” or hacking gives you a level of plausible deniability that no direct deal with a company could.

Paying the company money – money which would have to be accounted for somehow “through the books” – is the least secure, most probable to leak and thus least-effective option. It seems pretty unlikely to me that an organisation like the NSA would choose to do that, rather than use one of the more covert (and effective) options at its disposal.

UPDATE: RSA has “categorically denied” it was paid to weaken its security. It’s worth reading this post in its entirety, because it includes some details about its decisions.

Your New Quote Title

“Had Microsoft brought out a version of MS Office for iOS 7 within a year of the iPad being on the market, it would have been a big success and serious money maker for them. Now it is too late. You also can’t count out more and more people moving to Google’s productivity tools. I recently found out that a major national newspaper just moved everyone over to Google Docs and away from Office. I have heard that same thing happening at other big firms and big government accounts too.” – Tim Bajarin, “Why Microsoft will regret not doing MS Office for iOS

Cheap Android phones don’t mean what you think they mean

Benedict Evans ponders the meaning of Android:

As should be obvious, this makes counting total ‘Android’ devices as though they tell you something about Google or Apple’s competitive position increasingly problematic. But to me, pointing out that ‘Android’ doesn’t necessarily competed with iPad is rather boring – what’s really interesting are the possibilities that these new economics might unlock. 

A good example is this – a 2G Android phone wholesaling for $35 (just one of hundreds). Now, stop thinking about it as a phone. How do the economics of product design and consumer electronics change when you can deliver a real computer running a real Unix operating system with an internet connection and a colour touch screen for $35? How about when that price falls further? Today, anyone who can make a pocket calculator can make something like this, and for not far off the same cost. The cost of putting a real computer with an internet connection into a product is collapsing. What does that set of economics enable? 

Benedict picks out what’s really interesting about Android, and it’s absolutely not that “80% market share” pundits keep going throwing around. The kinds of devices that Benedict describes aren’t in the same market as the iPhone: a $35 2G smartphone is as comparable to the iPhone as a Mercedes S-Class is to a Mini. Both do the same thing (carry you around), but no one who’s in the market for one of them will end up walking out of a showroom with the other. 

But what is interesting, as Benedict points out, is what a $35 Internet access device enables. When devices like this are as pervasive as a pocket calculator used to be, what does that allow us to do? Smart devices, network-enabled, which are almost cheap enough to throw away are much more interesting in the long term than expensive (but undoubtedly brilliant) devices like the iPhone. 

The end point of surveillance

A starting point:

The federal government is making progress on developing a surveillance system that would pair computers with video cameras to scan crowds and automatically identify people by their faces, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with researchers working on the project.

(via Facial Scanning Is Making Gains in Surveillance – NYTimes.com)

There are very few technical limits connected to surveillance. If a government wanted to, it could monitor every electronic communication you have. It could recognise your face, your car, your clothes and follow you around the physical world. It could recognise every person you meet, track every transaction you make. None of this is rocket science, and within ten years it will be available to every government on the planet. [1]

Turning away from technical capabilities isn’t going to work. Some government, somewhere, is going to do it and gain a huge advantage over others. They won’t limit themselves to surveilling their own people: any way they can hack into the systems used by others will be used, because knowing what the citizens of other countries are up to is a massive advantage too.

Knowledge is power.


  1. And ten years after that, it will be available to every individual on the planet.  ↩

What are low end tablets used for?

Ben Bajarin takes a peek into the “white box” segment of the tablet market and finds out what they're being used for:

Nearly all evidence and data we find comes back to a few fundamental things. First, most of these low cost tablets in the category of ‘other’ are being used purely as portable DVD players, or e-readers. Some are being used for games, but rarely are they connecting to web services, app stores, or other key services. I have asked local analysts, local online services companies, app tracking firms, and many many more regional experts, and the answer keeps coming back the same. They affirm that we see the data showing all these Android tablet sales. But they aren’t actually showing up on anyone’s radar when it comes to apps and services in a meaningful way.

Is this even the same market as the iPad? I don't think it really is. Whereas the iPad is being used to effectively replace (or augment) the PC in many homes and businesses, this looks much more like a replacement for the portable DVD player. Think video iPod, not Mac replacement.

Apple’s obsession with thin and light

Jason Perlow doesn't understand Apple's “obsession” with thin and light:

It's not like the iPad 4 was a heavy device to begin with. The previous generation weighed 662 grams, the iPad Air weighs just 478 grams.

The reason why Apple is doing this is because as a culture, America and most of the western world is obsessed with the idea of “thin” and “light” to an almost unhealthy degree. They are producing precisely what the buying public wants, even if it compromises the overall durability of the design.

I'd quibble with Jason's assertion that Apple is obsessed with thinness and lightness to the detriment of other aspects of the device. I'm sure the company could have made a device as thin as the iPad Air in the past, but it didn't because that would have compromised on things which Apple holds much higher in the scale of importance than mere millimeters: battery life and thermal performance.

But to the extent that lightness is a factor Apple focuses on (thinness is just a method of removing weight and achieving the right balance), it's down to it being something which allows the device to disappear from view. Apple has consistently aimed to make the technology get out of the way, to let people do things without having to focus on the device. The bigger and heavier something is, the more the device distracts from what the person is trying to achieve.

The Problems Faced By Windows Phone

Long-time Windows Phone user Romit Mehta decided to buy an iPhone 5S, and his reasons for doing so exemplify why Windows Phone is in trouble.

Two of the problems Romit lists strike me as being particularly important when considering the future of Windows Phone:

Windows Phone lacks polished features. Romit talks about Notification Centre, and the similar Windows Phone feature lacks the ability to see recent updates clearly:

Invariably, I find myself hearing a notification from the phone and not realizing what it was for by the time I pick it up from across the room. Could it have been an ESPN score alert, or a News360 breaking news alert? If it is a WhatsApp message, I know the live tile gets updated, but what if the tile already had a non-zero number?

Then there are the missing enterprise features, something which might be surprising coming from Microsoft:

My new office has wifi everywhere on campus, but they use Microsoft Protect EAP (PEAP) for network authentication, which I couldn’t get to work on my Lumia. As I understand, it is not supported by Windows Phone 8 and is not available in GDR2 either.

Family and friends are elsewhere. Romit talks about how his family use iPhones, and it would be “great if I could iMessage with them and FaceTime with them for free.” You could argue that they should switch away from Apple-only technologies, but when you’re dealing with users who just want something that works, and it’s already “just working” for them, that’s a tough sell. And unlike Windows Phone, if Romit has any Android-using friends, there’s a version of Google Hangouts available for iPhone.

Microsoft’s biggest problem is that it’s playing catch-up, both from a development perspective and in its market share. Although having cloud-based services means it can avoid some of the worst network effects, it’s playing catch-up there too: Skydrive is a good product, but it lacks both mindshare and marketshare compared to Dropbox and Google Drive. Hotmail is still a powerful force, but the impetus is towards Gmail. And Office remains a strong brand, but its appeal is now mostly limited to the office: home users are increasingly looking elsewhere.

Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post

““We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient,” he said. “If you replace ‘customer’ with ‘reader,’ that approach, that point of view, can be successful at The Post, too.””

Jeff Bezos sounds like he's prepared to carry on losing money at the Washington Post.

Ian Betteridge on Macs, mobiles, and technology