PODCAST

RIM’s Tablet Game Plan

As foretold by the scuttlebutt The Wall Street Journal andBusinessWeek kicked up last week, BlackBerry device makerResearch In Motion came through with a head-first leap into the tabletworld.

At its developers conference this week, it unveiled the PlayBook, aseven-inch touchscreen tablet that should hit the market early next year.

As with its BlackBerry line of handsets, the business market is Research In Motion’s real target with the PlayBook,but of course it wouldn’t mind if it just so happened to find a nichein the consumer market as well. The company was quick to point out thething’s various multimedia capabilities, which sounded like a pitch formobile entertainment.

Apple’s iPad is coming from the complete opposite direction,originally demoed as the kind of thing you could use to browse the Webon a couch or catch some movies on. But some users swear there’splenty it can do that counts as actual work — Parks Associates says 57percent of iPad buyers plan to use it in the office to some degree.

RIM’s advantage with the PlayBook is that the company’s already pavedsome massive inroads into businesses, and this tablet could bepresented as an add-on to a system its customers have already heavilyinvested in. In fact, it can be used to sync with BlackBerrysmartphones, letting the user view information from the BlackBerry onthe larger tablet screen. Hooks up over BlueTooth. True, thePlayBook’s operating system is different from that of your typicalBlackBerry handset — RIM built it after it bought up QNX.

But there are rumors that RIM wants to eventually use QNX as its main smartphone OS as well. That may be far enough in the future that RIM could figure out some way of gracefully merging the two rather than just dumping the BlackBerry OS in the trashbin and wiping its hands.

So let’s get down to stats and specs. Flash video is a yes. Processorand RAM are muscular, at least by today’s tablet standards — 1 GHz and1 GB, respectively. So RIM did not repeat its performance with theTorch and serve up a gadget with a pencil-necked processor. It willmultitask. It has dual cameras — 5 megapixels in the back and 3 upfront. That’s a step beyond the iPad, though when the PlayBook doescome out, Apple will probably have iPad 2 right around the corner. ThePlayBook also has WiFi, but if you’re not in a WiFi zone, you’ll haveto do that BlackBerry BlueTooth piggyback mind-meld trick if you wantto use it to get online. At launch, no PlayBooks will have built-incellular data access, though RIM’s working on it.

All in all, not a bad package, hardware-wise. But the tablet battlewill not be won by hardware alone; the platform’s app library is a bigpiece of the puzzle. Right now, even RIM’s mainstay BlackBerryplatform is way behind iOS and Android, and this new OS for thePlayBook is presumably even more so. Hopefully the presentation atthis developer conference was enough to make someone want to actuallyget up and start developing, and fast.


Listen to the podcast (14:27 minutes).


Ad-Droid

The Android logo is a pudgy little floppy-headed green robot. It just stands there looking at you, waiting to be told what to do. Who could ever think it’s actually taking all this information it knows about you and carting it off to a bunch of ad servers?

Using a homemade bit of software called “TaintDroid,” researchers from Duke, Penn State and Intel Labs discovered that some very popular Android apps surreptitiously send user information to remote servers at ad networks and analytics firms — geographic location, hardware identifiers, even phone numbers and SIM card serial numbers.

Granted, ad networks aren’t hard-core crime rings (for the most part), and by now we’re used to the Silicon Valley’s Mad Men having quite a lot on us — but getting precise locations and phone numbers does sound like a bit much. If all of this is a problem for you, it’s not necessarily the fault of the Android platform itself. It’s something being done by certain app developers who aren’t really following Google’s best practices to the letter.

One hard rule app devs must follow if they want to write for Android is that when an app is installed, it must come clean with the user and lay out exactly what services it wants to access — contacts, Internet connection, GPS, so forth. If the user says no, the app cannot be installed.

But the app doesn’t necessarily have to provide details about how that information is going to be used. Will it use the GPS signal to do something inherent to the function of the app itself, like tell you where you are on a street map application? Or is it also going to give that information to ad servers so they can push an extra-special mix of advertisements onto your screen?

Google does have a set of best practices that promote honesty as the best policy. It discourages collecting unnecessary information and sending data off the device, and it encourages being up-front about the data that an app does collect and why. It just seems that some developers opted not to take that advice to heart.

App developers are doing what they do to make a living, so it’s pretty common that free apps rely on advertising to turn a profit. Just remember that those ads aren’t always coming in on a one-way street. And forcing developers to provide detailed information about what they’re doing with your info may not be an ideal solution either, unless you’re the sort who likes to whip out the magnifying glass and read EULAs word for word.

Also, it’s possible Android isn’t the only platform on which this is happening. It’s just that Android’s open source nature made it the easiest one for researchers to crack open and observe.

Let Me In

As it stands now, there aren’t many things about yourself that you could keep private from law enforcement authorities, provided they have the proper warrants. They can tap phones, plant cameras, go through your filing cabinets, ransack your house, and possibly even get a good look inside your body if a judge gives them the go-ahead.

But there are places where the the cops have a really hard time spying even when they’re allowed to. Peer-to-peer technologies and encrypted email communications are two technologies that can’t be tapped into with a simple flip of a switch.

It appears criminals are aware of this, and they’re using these kinds of technologies more and more often to talk amongst themselves. And it doesn’t take an IT supernerd to use this kind of stuff — just sign up for Skype or BlackBerry services.

Federal enforcement agencies are trying to change that. With the support of the White House, they’re drafting legislation that would basically require all communication services to build them a special backdoor for wiretapping purposes. So instead of running themselves ragged trying to hack into these services, feds could just plug into a legally mandated spy hole and listen away. Provided they have a warrant, of course.

On the one hand, if such a bill passes, the end result will be that it’s easier for the government to spy on citizens. Even though it was enacted with the intention that any sort of eavesdropping would require a warrant just like any other search, it’s clear that the easier it is to listen in, the more likely it is that authorities will bend the rules. Just Google “warrantless wiretapping.”

On the other hand, considering how much power a cop with a warrant already has to spy, eavesdrop, intercept and generally invade a suspect’s privacy, is it all that shocking that they’d want a way to monitor digital messages and conversations in addition to other types of exchanges? Just because one way of communicating is old-timey and the other is relatively new, why should legally authorized law enforcers jump through more hoops if the situation can be remedied by passing a law?

Many lawyers will send their kids to college on the billable hours it takes to debate that question into the ground. But assuming Congress likes the bill, making this idea of easy-in eavesdropping a reality is a lot more complicated than just passing a law.

First, companies that provide these services will have to redesign their own privacy and security systems, which won’t be cheap. And what about communication services that aren’t based in the U.S. but happen to be available to U.S. users? Will there be consequences for companies that choose to ignore this mandatory easy-in? Will U.S. users be blocked from accessing the service? Won’t the more determined criminals just find their way around those blocks? We’re talking about people who were conscientious enough about privacy to use these dark channels in the first place because they knew it was harder for feds to listen to them. If it suddenly becomes easier, won’t they just dig deeper?

Finally, if every communication channel doing business in the U.S. builds a special backdoor for the police, doesn’t that create just about the biggest target a malicious hacker could possibly go after?

My Friends Are Your Friends

Facebook and Skype are in talks to combine their DNA, according to an All Things D report. The resulting mix would theoretically let you Skype your friends through Facebook, or Facebook your friends through Skype. The integration is supposedly part of the next beta version of Skype, which will be out in a few weeks.

It could turn out to be quite a duo. Facebook boasts half a billion users, and Skype says it has even more than that, though its active users number more around 124 million. The combination could give Facebook a foothold in Europe, where Skype is bigger; vice-versa for Skype in North America.

The big reward won’t be in user fees — Facebook’s free and Skype’s most basic services are free too. The opportunity is in click-through ads and growth. Another benefit for both is in rallying against a shared enemy: Google.

Google Voice could be considered a threat to Skype, as could more basic Google services like free video chat.

Also, Google recently has been either lining the pockets of or outright buying several companies that make games for the Facebook platform, which is a considerable driver of the social network’s traffic. From here, it looks like Google’s winding up to pitch a game-oriented social network, which could grow into a major threat for Facebook if it takes off.

Clinching the Crunch

Over the last five years, Michael Arrington has built up his TechCrunch blog into a network of high-profile websites specializing in various facets of technology. In addition to the original, you’ve got MobileCrunch, CrunchGear, TechCrunchIT, so forth. That’s a lot to talk about, but one of the more consistent assets of the site is its reporting on the very newest ideas and startups to hit Silicon Valley — companies and concepts you may have never heard of before.

But this week, TechCrunch was purchased by a company that’s anything but new, at least in Web years. In fact, you might have heard it of before you even know what the World Wide Web was: AOL.

Financial terms weren’t disclosed, but rumors put the sale price at somewhere in the $50 million neighborhood.

The deal raises questions about the future of TechCrunch’s identity. The site’s known to have a pretty wide independent streak — they don’t typically shy away from reporting gory details of the Silicon Valley’s less virtuous business dealings. Can it still be the same TechCrunch if a corporate master is holding the leash?

Its headquarters will stay put, it’ll operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary, and Arrington will likely stay on board for at least a few years. But as much as any owning corporation proclaims it’ll keep its hands to itself, in practice, it’s nearly impossible not to exercise at least a hint of managerial control.

This certainly won’t be the first well-known media outlet AOL owns. It already has nearly 100 sites under its belt, including The Unofficial Apple Weblog and Engadget, two properties it picked up in 2005 when it bought Weblogs.

In clinching this deal, though, AOL gets a headliner technology news outlet that’s more businessy than the gizmo-oriented Engadget. It might also bring a certain degree of fresh vitality to AOL’s image. TechCrunch projects excitement and relevancy — it breaks stories, gets high-profile pickups, even stirs up some animosity and controversy from time to time.

Hopefully some of that will rub off on AOL instead of the other way around. The name AOL still harkens back to the days of dial-up, when people needed a hand to hold as they figured out the mysteries of the Internet. The company’s still been active all this time, but its reason for being has been hard to pin down, especially since it was kicked out of Time Warner’s house.

There’s been Platform A, the Bebo disaster, a stab at ultra-cheap advertorial content creation, lots of layoffs, and a weird rebranding to Aol. — lowercase, with a period.

But at least it’s hung on all this time, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the TechCrunch buy is part of a legitimate reinvention or just another odd jab at yet another corner of the Web.

Limp Laws

Apparently that horrifying British PSA that aired last year justdidn’t manage to scare enough crap out of the population at large.According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, the laws several stateshave passed in recent years to curb texting while driving have failedto have any effect — people still beep beep boop on their phones whilebehind the wheel.

The Institute came to that conclusion after looking at auto insurance claims infour states that have passed laws like that — no significantreduction; in fact, claims were actually up in three of the fourstates. In order to account for unrelated factors, it also looked atstates that didn’t pass any such laws.

What’s up with that increase? It’s possible that instead ofdeterring the act, these bans actually make some people try to textliterally on the down low — they hunker down and hold the phone belowthe window so nobody can see it, so they end up having to move theireyes even further away from the road to see what they’re doing.

I’ve heard some suggestions about requiring that phones use GPS tomonitor their speed and disable texting when you’re obviously in avehicle. But first off, just because you’re in a vehicle doesn’t meanyou’re driving it — passengers can text any time. Secondly, keepingthe GPS chip running to constantly check whether you’re driving or notwill bleed a phone’s battery dry in an hour or two.

So what is the solution? We definitely don’t want to take awaythe bans. Maybe increasing the fine — it’s ridiculous that doingsomething that could get another person killed will cost you just 50to 100 dollars if you’re caught, and meanwhile they’ll gouge you for300 bucks for driving alone in the carpool lane, which has nothing todo with safety.

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