Saturday, March 6, 2021

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

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Interesting article today in Fortune (CNNMoney.com) 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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Duster Death: Modern science scuppered by cleaner

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You know how geeks, even ancient geeks, love to show off their technology? So it was last weekend in Rome when I decided to demonstrate to admiring friends how I could watch British television on my iPad. Thanks to my Slingbox, I cried, I can tune in to any programme and, even, set up recordings and watch pre-recorded material from my recorder. How? Simple: call up Sling Player on the iPad (sadly only in iPhone format as yet) and press connect. Success: Within seconds I was lord and master of the home-based Humax, ready to surf the channels and bring up Coronation Street. Sadly, when I pressed the virtual power button to switch on the home video recorder I was met with total dumb insolence. Try again. Fail again.

Not daunted, I checked the settings and verified that I was indeed connected to homebase. But why no action? The answer was simple and extremely low tech. My cleaner, Tatiany, had been doing her thing the day before I left home. She's extremely thorough and dusts everything to death. It was no surprise to find, then, that she had dusted to one side the two infra-red transmitters that Slingbox uses to communicate with the recorder. These sit on little protruding plastic paddles that stick (not too successfully, as it happens) to the top of the unit.

This all goes to prove that technology is pretty reliable, but the old arts of housework and tidyness are unpredictable. Geekily, I was a bit disappointed to find the fault to be so low-tech. Maybe in future I should issue a cleaning Vebot and just let the dust gather around the techie bits. As Quentin Crisp famously said, the dust doesn't get any thicker after the first 25 years. 

Duster Death: Wonders of modern science scuppered by duster

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You know how geeks, even ancient geeks, love to show off their technology. So it was last weekend in Rome when I decided to demonstrate to admiring friends how I could watch British television on my iPad. Thanks to my Slingbox, I cried, I can tune in to any programme and, even, set up recordings and watch pre-recorded material from my recorder. How? Simple, call up Sling Player on the iPad (sadly only in iPhone format as yet) and press connect. Success: Within seconds I was the master of the home-based technology, reading to surf the channels and bring up Coronation Street. Sadly, when I pressed the virtual power button to switch on the home video recorder I was met with no reaction. Try again. Fail again.

Not daunted, I checked the settings and verified that I was indeed connected to home base. But why no action. The answer was simple and extremely low tech. My cleaner had been doing her thing the day before I left home. She's extremely thorough and dusts everything to death. It was no surprise to find, then, that she had dusted to one side the two infra-red transmitters that Slingbox uses to communicate with the recorder. These sit on little protruding plastic paddles that stick (not too successfully) to the top of the unit.

This all goes to prove that technology is pretty reliable, but the old arts of housework and tidyness can have unwelcome results. Actually, I was a bit disappointed to find the fault to be so low-tech.

iPub: Sherlock Holmes, Black Lion and a half pint of shandy

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It's nice to have a backwater on a busy bank-holiday Monday and my (now) trusty iPad kept me entertained this afternoon at the historic Black Lion - in Black Lion Lane, next to the Thames in London:  a fireplace of great age, a cool half of Foster's shandy and an iTunes rental copy of the pretty awful Sherlock Holmes movie. The simple, minimalist Apple iPad case makes a good stand for viewing in most situations. 

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1922 Wireless: Link to the “first mobile phone” video

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Here's a link to the British Pathe video showing what is supposed to be the world's first mobile phone. Actually, it is clearly a wireless or radio as we now call them. But it's a good story.

iPad 3G UK: Carrier choice, lots of questions

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On Friday I asked both Vodafone and O2 if they had news on the availability of the micro-SIM cards and, also details of contracts for the iPad. Both said they had absolutely nothing to say, but that there would be an announcement on May 28 when the iPad officially launches in the UK.

Today, however, Apple themselves have leaked pricing for three major networks in the UK - O2, Orange and Vodafone. There are some interesting differences and Vodafone looks to be the least competitive. This is not true to form and I suspect there will be changes before the launch.

O2, the original iPhone carrier for the UK, is offering 500MB per day for £2, 1G per month for £10 and 3GB a month for £15. Orange want £2 per day for a measly 200MB, £7.50 per week for 1GB, £15 per month for 3GB or £25 per month for 5GB. Vodafone, surprisingly, intends to charge £10 a month for a ludicrous 250MB or £25 a month for 5GB. While the 5GB price is par for the course, it's surprising to find no £15 rate for 3GB (as I currently pay them). Unless Vodafone has a massive rethink between now and the end of the month I cannot see many people choosing their network. It's a pity, because I think Vodafone's network is generally faster and more available than offerings from the competition. Presumably there will be an upfront charge for the SIM. Judging by current schemes for standard SIMs, this is likely to be between £20 and £25.

What is interesting is that all are following AT&T's American lead in offering monthly (or even shorter) arrangements and it seems clear that there will be no attempt to tie in subscribers for 12 months or, even, 24 months as is the case the laptop pricing structures.

This morning I arrived in Switzerland and was surprised and delighted to find Swisscom had micro-SIM cards in stock. For 19 francs (about £11.50) you buy the SIM and then enjoy a daily rate of no more than 7.50 francs (about £4.50) for unlimited data. This is an excellent deal for occasional visitors and I would have taken one had it not been for the fact that I had just topped up my current Swisscom pay-as-you-go standard SIM contract. I'm currently using this SIM in my MiFi (which gives internet service to both iPad and iPhone) but will upgrade on my next visit to the country.