The Social Network: Off to see the President

Yesterday I was reminded by iTunes that I'd pre-ordered The Social Network, the film of Ben Mezrich's book of the same name–which I enjoyed reading last year (on my iPhone, of course). Having watched the movie, I continue to be amazed at the goings on behind the scenes as Facebook took off. You couldn't invent this stuff. Now, I see, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of a trinity of silicone saints invited to attend a meeting with President Obama when he visits San Francisco later today. This holy trinity of the tech world includes Google's Eric Schmidt and our own Steve Jobs in addition to Zuckerberg. It's a social network I don't think even Mark could have imagined eight years ago when he founded the world-beating site.

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Data Storage: Kilobytes to Exabytes

Every time we up the ante in digital storage, the old "big" unit looks incredibly small. Thirty years ago when I started computing we talked in awe of kilobytes and a megabyte was something almost beyond comprehension. Now it's less than a snapshot on a point-and-shoot camera. My first hard disk, an external monster the size of small fridge, had an incredible capacity of 5MB. Who would ever need more, I wondered at the time. Now the megabyte is  almost inconsequential and we've moved to gigabytes and terabytes with petabytes (PB) just around the corner.

All this sprung to mind this morning when I read in Macworld that scientists have calculated that all the electronic data stored to date comes to 295EB or 295 billion gigabytes. The same experts also concluded that 2002 is the start of the digital age because it was then that digital storage capacity overtook total analogue capacity worldwide.

The sad thing is that our requirements in storage expand constantly in response to higher storage capabilities. Software continually bloats and data files—especially media files—are already moving routinely into gigabyte territory. Cheap computers are already equipped with 1TB disks and 4GB of RAM is now considered baseline for any serious work.

We'd better get used to petabytes and exabytes and, while we're at it, we ought to mug up on zettabytes (ZB) and yottabytes (YB). I've a feeling we're going to need 'em.

Tunes War: Sony to pull out of iTunes? (rumour)

Hot on the heels of news that Apple has rejected Sony's ereader application comes a rumour that Sony are planning to pull out of iTunes. Could this be war? Who will be the loser? See this interesting item from tomorrow morning's Sydney Morning Herald.

PayPal and eBay: When cash in the bank isn’t what it seems

Over the years I've sold many items on eBay and have been very happy, particularly with the strength of Mac and iPhone prices on the auction site. Recently, though, I've been having second thoughts. Costs are rising and the commission for eBay and PayPal can be a shock. Only this week I sold a 16GB wifi iPad for £362 - a very good price, I thought - but after charges I got only £309. That's a massive 15% snaffled by the two eBay-owned companies. Use my site, use my bank, if you please.

Yet as the cost of doing business rises the pitfalls are getting deeper. A couple of weeks ago a friend sold his iMac on eBay for £900. The buyer was a no-star beginner and didn't pay. After four days of fruitless emails, the £900 appeared in the seller's PayPal account. An hour or so later a man appeared at the door, claiming to be a cab driver sent to collect the computer. Very fortunately my friend decided to re-check his PayPal account and was shocked to see that the money had disappeared. Only by the merest chance did he avoid being the victim of fraud.

How can this happen? Well, if you read the small print on your PayPal payment advice you will see the following gem: "Please be aware that your payment can still be reversed, (e.g. if it is subject to a chargeback), even after you have posted the item to your buyer."

So, really, you can have no confidence in the system. Of course, if you have complied with all the guidelines and sent only to a confirmed addresses (not handed over the goods to a taxi driver) you could be covered by PayPal's insurance. I suspect, though, you would have a protracted period of uncertainty before you saw your money.

In my innocence I thought that the whole benefit of using PayPal was that once the money was in your account you could despatch the goods. It seems, though, that PayPal could reverse the payment on the word of the buyer. Everyone understands that precautions have to be taken, but the whole basis of trust in eBay transactions depends on the seller being sure of the funds before sending the goods. Once this trust is lost, the whole edifice comes crumbling down.

I have no doubt that both eBay and PayPal wage an endless war against fraudsters, but it seems to be all too easy for unscrupulous individuals to open eBay accounts and cause havoc. Apart from attempted fraud there is an increasing incidence of spoiler bidding. This activity involves winning auctions by bidding unrealistic amounts simply to annoy the seller and upset the system. No payment is ever made and the luckless seller has to relist. eBay should be doing more to weed out these unsavoury individuals. And PayPal should be unable to recover deposited cash without the agreement of the account holder. 

Incidentally, in the above case, according to PayPal's fraud department, the payment had been sent from the account of an innocent third party whose details had been compromised. Hence the need for a personal collection rather than having the parcel sent to the registered address of the defrauded alleged buyer. However, I believe that if a fraudulent account is used to pay for goods it should not be the seller who suffers: it should be PayPal. That's why we pay them a fee. They should act like credit card companies who usually take full responsibility for fraudulent card use.





Analyst Wars: How bloggers out-do the professionals

Immediately after any set of Apple results there is a lot of navel searching by professional analysists and the blogosphere in general. "Why were forecasts so far out" is all too familiar when it comes to analysing Apple's figures. Sales forecasts are the biggest pitfalls and this time around some of the leading analsists were embarrassingly while bloggers, notable Horace Dediu of Asymco, called it more or less right on. According to Bloomberg Dediu is the most accurate analyst covering Wall Street. Yet he isn't on the Street, he's blogging away quietly in Finland.


Digital Downloads: Who owns what, who can resell or lend?

Interesting article today in Fortune ( by Seth Greenstein on the subject of digital rights. In the past, before downloads because so popular, you bought a book, a CD or a book and you could then give it, lend it or sell it to whomever you chose. These says you can't do that. You buy something, such as a Kindle book, and it's yours. But it can never be lent, sold or passed on to someone else. It turns what most people consider to be common sense on its head. In future, as digital downloads gradually ease out the sale of physical media, there can be no second-hand markets, car-boot sales or, even, giving to Oxfam. It's an interesting legal conundrum and, so far, no one has even got near a solution. 

Britons net-buy like crazy but deliveries continue to irk

According to Britain's communications watchdog, Ofcom, the British spend three times as much online as their European counterparts and make on average 19 internet purchases every six months. It seems we are following the tradition of catalogue selling, although I remember that catalogues from companies such as Littlewoods traditionally majored on easy payments and tended to be aimed at the poorer sectors of society. The motivation was always the easy credit rather than the convenience. It was different in the USA where remote communities have traditionally bought by mail order because, in many cases, it was the only way to get the choice.

Waiting at home for deliveries has always been the big snag with on-line or catalogue ordering in this country. While friends in the USA routinely find packages left on their doorstep when they return home, courier companies in the UK would be foolish to do that here. Even a bottle of milk is in great peril, never mind a Kindle or iPod touch.

What annoys me, though, is the slavish refusal of courier companies to offer a self-collection service until they've made at least one fruitless attempt at delivery.  Apple and UPS are among the biggest culprits here. Not only do they insist on trying to delivery, but packages are whipped back to the sender in double quick time if you are not available to call or make delivery arrangements.

There would be a good demand for a collection point in most towns where parcels could be delivered for later collection by the addressee. I'd even pay a small premium for this service because, in the long run, it would work out cheaper than getting in the car and driving to some godsforsaken industrial estate in the hinterland of Heathrow airport. I breathe a sigh of relief when something is delivered by Royal Mail because, at least, I know that there's a handy place to collect from - the local sorting office. 

Balmer: The Microsoft brand still means something

I used Microsoft products for nearly 25 years from the early days of MS DOS and MS Word, then Windows from the early nineties. Up to the introduction of the second-generation iPhone I was enjoying a love-hate relationship with Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS on a Treo 750.  I have a lot to thank Bill Gates for and no one can take away from him and from Microsoft the enormous contribution they made to personal computing. Now, though, Microsoft is suffering from competition and has stood by while the smartphone world (and the new tablet world) has been revolutionised by the likes of Apple.

Steve Ballmer, ever the optimist, has said in an interview with CNet News that Microsoft's brand "means something" to users. According to Apple Insider, commenting on the piece, Steve "insinuated that the company's 'ailing brand' holds value for users, more so than rival brands, while at the same time conceding that he's seeing a lot of of Apple's iPads deployed in the real world than he'd like to."

Since I converted to Apple in 2005 I've enjoyed a peaceful and relatively trouble-free computing existence. I often compare this idyll with the problems and irritants I suffered while using Windows. Of course, things change and I'm comparing the Microsoft of pre-2005 with the Apple of today. No doubt the Microsoft experience is now much better and probably similar to the current Apple experience, but I don't know for sure because I seldom lay hands on a Windows computer. 

From reading tech blogs and news sites, I gain the impression that not all is well with Microsoft. Too often, these days, they are playing catch up and all too often they have taken a wrong turning (such as with the short-lived Kin phone). Apple offer a clear alternative on all fronts and, because they control both hardware and software, consumer satisfaction is incredibly high. Sure, the Microsoft brand means something. But what?

Free WiFi: New twist in mysterious signal on London Underground

Small tube mapLast month I posted an article about a mysterious "Free Public Wifi" signal that I had found while travelling under central London on the (very deep) Piccadilly Line. It seems that other travellers have been noticing the same signal and there's been some conjecture as to whether this could be some sort of trial for Boris Johnson's promised capital-wide network for the Olympics. 

Today I got a message from reader Martha Hampson who had noticed the same signal on the Northern Line, also deep under ground, and had searched the internet for references. She has telephoned Transport for London and they say it's nothing to do with them. They suggested that wifi signals do sometimes leak through ventilation shafts. This sounds a bit unlikely because of the depth of the lines and, if this were the case, the signal would be fleeting as the train passed the shaft. 

However, she has found a possible alternative explanation which sounds pretty fantastic but could just be true. This blog post by Dwight Silverman of TechBlog in 2006 produces an answer. The "Free Public WiFi" signal, which always leads nowhere, is actually being transmitted by Windows computers in the vicinity. I won't cover the technicalities (and I'm not sure I understand them anyway), so read the full story here.

I'm reminded by this that I've seen "Free Public Wifi" access points in other parts of London and, even in foreign countries where, in retrospect, I would have expected the name to be in the local language. But it is always in English and identical. Dwight Silverman reckons this is not a virus, but it is viral in the sense that it propagates itself through Windows computers which latch on to the name and then retransmit it. I wouldn't have thought this possible, but the argument is compelling. 

So the explanation of this munificent free wifi on the London Tube could be quite prosaic: a fellow traveller using a Windows laptop somewhere else in the same carriage. So next time you see the signal, have a scout round to see if there is a computer nearby. In the meantime, I will keep my fingers crossed that Macs are immune. 

1891 Blogging: The tech future seen from 120 years ago

Review: Heroes of the Telegraph by John Munro (1891), iBookstore, free

Had blogs existed 120 years ago John Munro would have been up there with the best of 'em. His book, which traces electronic communications from the 50-year-old and "perfected" telegraph through to the latest modern developments, the telephone and the phonograph, is a Gutenberg gem. At the time of writing in 1891 both the telephone and phonograph had been around for little more than 10 years and Munro exhibits the sort of enthusiasm now associated with the latest technical news on Engadget or TechCrunch.

Edison and phonographThe story of the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison is fascinating enough, but it is Munro's conjectures on the future opened up by recordings that are much more interesting. Here is a review of possible future developments, some uncannily accurate, some wide of the mark, that make for gripping reading. 

He suggests that phonograph records could be used for correspondence, for dictation and for communication "on unsteady vehicles such as trains" where writing is difficult. He also foresees audio books and reports that Edison can fit the whole of Nicholas Nickleby on four eight-inch wax cylinders of five-inch diameter. "Perhaps," he says, "we could have circulating libraries which issue phonograms, and there is already some talk of a phonographic newspaper which will prattle politics and scandal at the breakfast-table. Addresses, sermons, and political speeches may be delivered by the phonograph; languages taught, and dialects preserved; while the study of words cannot fail to benefit by its performance."

Strangely, in 1891, the concept of recording music was not mainstream: "Musicians will now be able to record their improvisations by a phonograph placed near the instrument they are playing."

This book is a delight and is a must-read for all technophiles.  It has probably been out of print for decades, yet through the Gutenberg project and Apple's iBookstore we can read it again. Much of the book is concerned with the development of the electric telegraph and, of particular interest, the trials and tribulations of undersea cable laying.

After the break is a fuller excerpt from the chapter on Edison's invention of the phonograph.