Something of a quieter week this week -- perhaps because of Independence Day and preparations there for. Still, there was plenty of news to keep us busy, including the NSA releasing a transparency report -- for what it's worth. Facebook found itself in the firing line after it transpired that the social network had been conducting psychological experiments by meddling with users' newsfeeds. Security is an on-going concern in technology, but it's something we have tendency to think about only in relation to computers and smartphones. One of the latest targets for malware and attacks is the power grid, and it's hard to tell what sort of havoc could be wreaked.
Microsoft tried to do its bit for security -- arguably in a misguided fashion -- by taking control of dynamic DNS service No-IP, and accidentally taking out a number of legitimate sites in addition to those malware-related ones -- the intended targets. In more positive Microsoft news, enhancements were made to Office 365's collaboration options. Windows Phone is still struggling in the smartphone market, but Microsoft will be hoping that this month's launch of Windows Phone 8.1 will help to improve things -- will the addition of folder support be enough? Looking further into the future, Joe pondered what Microsoft should do with Nokia. He also decided to give Windows another chance, helped along by his new Surface Pro 3.
The revelations about Facebook's emotional experiment with users' newsfeeds back in 2012 has seen the social network fighting off a torrent of criticism. Users were upset to learn that the content of their newsfeed may have been manipulated as researchers tried to determine the effects exposure to positive and negative newsfeed content had on users' subsequent output. Now an official complaint has been lodged against the social network by thee Electronic Privacy Information Center. Epic filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission, alleging that "the company purposefully messed with people’s minds".
There are several lines of attack in the complaint, but the main thrust is that Facebook neither obtained permission from the 700,000 affected users, nor informed them about what was happening. Epic also complains that Facebook failed to warn users that their data would be shared with researchers at Cornell University and the University of California. The complaint points out that "at the time of the experiment, Facebook was subject to a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission which required the company to obtain users' affirmative express consent prior to sharing user information with third parties".
The idea of connected devices means far more than wireless webcams and televisions that are connected to the internet. The Internet of Things is a buzzword, but it’s also a real, tangible thing. Consumers and businesses alike are looking to the ways in which connected devices can help to make life easier, more efficient, and more profitable. In many ways, this is Internet 2.0 -- we've had Web 2.0, now the Internet is being taken to the next level -- as the benefits of getting ever more devices not only online, but also communicating with each other, are realized. But just as with the web, the IoT needs protocols to ensure compatibility between devices, and this is what HyperCat hopes to bring about.
A collaboration between dozens of UK technology firms, HyperCat is… well… let's allow it to introduce itself. "HyperCat is a media type for the web allowing servers to list catalogs of resources. It is designed to make discovery of IoT services and assets easier". It's a protocol, a specification, a standard. It's an attempt to define the semantics of the Internet of Things, helping to level the playing field and start everyone off on an even footing. As we saw with the VHS and Betamax battle, and the Blu-ray vs HD-DVD format wars, there are just no winners when there are two or more competing formats. It makes perfect sense to pin down how the IoT should work as early as possible, and this is precisely what HyperCat aims to do.
Social networks are funny beasts, and this is certainly something that's true of Facebook. The site has a patchy history with regard to user privacy, and there are constant complaints about how personal content is used, who can gain access to it, and the privacy settings that are in place. But like all modern companies, Facebook likes to be seen listening to its customers -- or at least appear to listen. A recent example of 'listening to the people' is Facebook's reaction to the #FreeTheNipple campaign which ultimately led to the site bowing to pressure and permitting photos of breastfeeding to be published. There have also been numerous instances of responding to complaints and making privacy settings easier to control.
Like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and even the NSA, Facebook has released transparency reports that detail data requests and the like. Transparency reports are something that users all but demanded, and delivering them is excellent PR for the companies involved. Now Facebook is taking things up a notch, fighting for users' rights in court. Earlier this week it emerged that the social network is fighting a US court order which forced it to hand over user data. The data was requested as part of an investigation into benefit fraud. Facebook complied but complained that it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
NSA, Snowden, spying, yadda, yadda, yadda. This story is old, I know, but it goes on. The activities of the NSA and other government agencies have forced the online world to look very closely at how its data is being used, and how the companies handling it operate. Just about every online company worth its salt has gone out of its way to bemoan the NSA, their need to comply with data requests from the agency, and their inability to reveal everything they want to about what the NSA is asking about.
We have seen "transparency reports" from Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn and numerous other companies. But as suggested by my use of quotes, and as alluded to in the opening paragraph, there have been (severe) limits to the levels of transparency we have seen. "Quite opaque" might be a better description. Still, with the world and its dog falling over one another to release the most details, most comprehensive, and most self-congratulatory report, we probably should have predicted that pressure on the NSA would reach a point at which it felt forced to show its own hand. That time has come. The microscope has been turned around, and the security agency is now laying bare its own facts and figures.
The battle for dominance between Microsoft and Google continued, with Microsoft offering a huge storage boost for Office 365 and OneDrive users. This was quickly trumped by Google later in the week at 1/0 2014, when the company announced unlimited storage for Google Drive for Work users. Microsoft is basking in the glory of being heralded as cooler than Apple by Joe -- and stunts like offering cashback deals to sway MacBook Air owners into switching into Surface Pro 3 certainly helps. Microsoft opened a new store on Long Island, while Google branched out into new territory with a trial run of a new domain registration service. Microsoft also ventured into new waters with its first Android smartphone, the Nokia X2.
In something of an interesting twist, Microsoft opted to use Opera Mobile as the default web browser. Opera is also returning to Linux after the surprise release of Opera 24 Developer. Linux Mint 17 "Qiana" KDE was also released. Linux also managed to hit the headlines for facilitating the hacking of Google's Nest thermstats. If this hasn’t put you off, Logitech added support to its Harmony remotes.
At I/O 2014 Google announced that more cloud storage will be made available to space hungry users. Google Drive for Work has a price tag of $10 per month and includes not just more cloud storage, but unlimited cloud storage. Well, there is one limitation; individual files cannot exceed 5TB, but this is, for all intents and purposes, a deal that is unlimited by most people's understanding of the word. As the name suggests, this is a product that is aimed at businesses, but at this price it is hard to imagine that there won’t be swathes of home users looking to take advantage of the package.
A few months back, Google slashed the cost of its cloud storage packages, but today's news is something quite different. Worries about security may be allayed by the news that Drive, Gmail and Calendar data will be encrypted at data centers. IT admins will also be able to audit and control options, that means internal security policies can be implemented as required.
In many regards, it is rather surprising that it didn’t happen sooner -- today Google announces it is testing a new domain registration service aimed at businesses. Google Domains is currently an invite-only service, and it has taken the search-giant a very long time to get in on the website game. Once fully up and running, "businesses will be able to search, find, purchase and transfer the best domain for their business -- whether it's .com, .biz, .org, or any of the wide range of new domains that are being released to the web".
At the moment, the service is concerned only with domain registration. However, partnerships with the likes of Shopify, Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix.com suggest that storage and web building options will also be in the cards. Few details have been released about just what we can expect from Google Domains, but the About page does give something of an insight. Standard features such as domain forwarding and domain management tools are complemented by customizable sub-domains and email accounts that can be forwarded to existing Gmail addresses.
Just three months ago we saw the start of the cloud storage price wars when Google slashed its prices. Today Microsoft has retaliated by offering a massive increase in the amount of free cloud storage available to OneDrive and Office 365 customers. The company's recently renamed storage service jumps from 7GB of free space to 15GB -- although those with reasonable memories will recall that it is not all that since SkyDrive customers were given 25GB free of charge. But it doesn’t end there. Every version of Office 365 will now come with 1TB of free space as standard.
The figure for OneDrive has not just been plucked out of the air. "Our data tells us that 3 out of 4 people have less than 15 GB of files stored on their PC. Factoring in what they may also have stored on other devices, we believe providing 15 GB for free right out of the gate – with no hoops to jump through – will make it much easier for people to have their documents, videos, and photos available in one place."
This is the week of the Surface Pro 3. Brian had already attended the launch event earlier in the month, and has provided an essential list of hardware and software purchasers need to grab for the best all round experience -- he even goes as far as suggesting that it's better than a MacBook Air. Even before launch there was an update available for the tablet-cum-laptop, and there was also news that the Intel Core i3 and i7 models would be shipping earlier than previously expected. But not all of the products we looked at this week were quite so "every day". There was the wifi doorbell complete with camera, and also the prospect of charging your phone wirelessly with your pants -- yes you did read that correctly.
The Windows Phone market is dominated by Nokia, but a new batch of handsets has been unveiled by Indian manufacturer Micromax. If Android is your mobile OS of choice, you may be thinking about venturing into the rooted world. This week a new tool was released that makes the process as quick and painless as possible, opening up a whole new breed of apps and options. Joe decided to take a walk on the wild side and adopt the Nokia Lumia Icon as his phone of choice. In the Android arena, a new contender entered -- the Amazon Fire Phone. Will a kill switch be added? Microsoft and Google have agreed to add it to their mobile operating systems.
A ruling by the US Supreme Court could change the way patents are assigned in the future. A case between New York-based CLS Bank International and Australian company Alice Corp found judges unanimously agreeing that software patent was invalid because it was simply an existing idea transferred to a computer. In order to qualify for a patent, an idea must be unique, and the court ruled that the simple addition of a computer application is not enough.
CLS Bank International had complained that Alice Corp had applied a "generic computer implementation" to a patent owned by the bank, rendering it invalid; the court agreed. "The representative method claim does no more than simply instruct the practitioner to implement the abstract idea of intermediated settlement on generic computer", the ruling states.
Both Microsoft and Google have agreed to add a kill switch their mobile operating systems. Following an agreement with the New York Attorney General, the next versions of Windows Phone and Android will include a feature that will render handsets useless if they are stolen. The attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, published a report yesterday outlining the importance of such a feature, and revealed that two of the biggest names in technology are on-board.
It's something that authorities have been calling for for some time now, citing the sheer number of mobile phone thefts taking place around the world. Schneiderman's report points to Apple as proof of the efficacy of a kill switch. Thefts of iPhones dropped by 17 percent in New York City after the introduction of a remote wiping and locking feature. The Secure Our Smartphones report took fire at Samsung. The company had opted not to include a kill switch, and thefts of Samsung handsets jumped by 40 percent in NYC. "Reactivation Lock" has since been implemented on a small number of new Galaxy handsets.
Amazon today unveiled the latest entrant to the smartphone race -- the Fire phone. The handset continues the Fire name that is more readily associated with Amazon's range of Android tablets, and it has a few tricks up its sleeve to make it stand out from the competition. A press event in Seattle brought to an end weeks of rumor and speculation as the phone, which features Dynamic Perspective that allows for maps and other images to be displayed in three dimensions, was revealed.
Run by four ultra-low power specialized cameras and four infrared LEDs, Dynamic Perspective has numerous uses. One application makes it possible for users to gain a different perspective on an image or object on screen by moving their heads. In games, a move of the head can be used to switch views, and there is scope for unique navigation options within apps. Some applications are slightly simpler, and mimic those found in other handsets such as Samsung's Galaxy range. For example, auto-scroll allows for easy reading of lengthy documents and web pages without the need for swiping.
Twitter has reversed blocks it placed on numerous tweets and accounts in Pakistan that were deemed "blasphemous" and "unethical", including some that featured anti-Islamic content, depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, and photos of the Koran burning. Pakistani authorities complained to Twitter back in May, and the social network "made an initial decision to withhold content in Pakistan".
But after the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority failed to provide the additional information that Twitter requested, the accounts and tweets have been restored.
If you have ever bemoaned the fact that maps are too blurry on Bing, too grainy on Google, moan no more! US restrictions on the quality of satellite imagery that can be used by online services such as these has been lifted by the US government.
The ban is to be removed after satellite photography firm DigitalGlobe made an appeal to the US Department of Commerce. Security concerns meant that satellite images were limited to a 50cm resolution, but this is to be boosted to 40cm and beyond.