Mark Wilson

The most popular stories on BetaNews this past week March 9 -- 15

march-2014

This is the week that saw the web celebrating its 25th birthday and Tim Berners-Lee took the opportunity to call for a web bill of rights, which I argued is essential for the future of democracy.

Another week means a fresh batch of security concerns. In Europe, users were warned of the dangers of connecting to public wifi hotspots, while a new report found that cybercriminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their techniques. Ian was on hand with advice for anyone trying to tackle or avoid viruses.

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Google's Chinese web encryption is nothing more than PR and posturing

Shhh

We are spied upon. Someone, somewhere, knows what you have been doing online. It might be your snooping friend taking a look at your browsing history, or it might be that weird looking guy on the next table in the coffee shop watching your every click. It might be advertisers using cookies, or it could be your own government. This is now just about expected; it is part and parcel of using the internet. In some parts of the world, access to the internet is not only monitored, but also restricted and controlled. But it didn’t used to be like this, and it needn't stay like this.

In some regions the idea of mass spying is a relatively recent concept. The activities of the NSA, GCHQ and other government organizations are something only the most recent generation of internet users is "used" to -- for the rest us, it is at best an unpleasant sea change, and at worst just the tip of the iceberg. As it was revealed that governments were not only spying on citizens' online activities but also getting other companies involved by requiring them to hand over user data, big names such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple were falling over themselves to appear to be going out of their way to reveal everything they could about the demands made of them. It was the PR machine in action, trying to make the best of a very, very bad situation.

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Hey, Google! Please be open and honest with your search ads

Mines

It may not be a new season, but it's time for a Google makeover nevertheless. This time around it is the search results page that has been given a lick of paint, although you might be forgiven for not quite being able to put your finger on what's changed. You'll almost certainly notice that things look a bit different, but the details may escape you. The changes were put in place yesterday, having been heralded on Google+ by Google search designer Jon Wiley who explains that the subtle changes are to bring the desktop look more in line with that used on mobile devices.

The size of search result titles has been boosted, and the underline that was present has now been removed. Wiley says that "we've […] evened out all the line heights [which] improves readability and creates an overall cleaner look". This all sounds great in principle. After all, as Wiley points out, it helps to make "the multi-device experience more consistent". But it also ushers in a few concerns.

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Eek! Android WhatsApp database can be stolen and shared by other apps

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The Android version of WhatsApp, the cross-platform messaging tool recently snapped up for $19 billion by Facebook, contains a security flaw that means its chat database could be accessed by any app and uploaded to a web server without user knowledge or intervention. It's not clear whether this vulnerability has yet been exploited, but a proof-of-concept attack by Bas Bosschert (consultant, sysadmin and entrepreneur) shows that it is not only possible, but also incredibly simple. To cut to the chase, the answer to the question posed by Bas' brother, "is it possible to upload and read the WhatsApp chats from another Android application?", is "yes, that is possible".

In order for an "attack" to be successful, a user must have granted the app access to the SD card. As Bas points out, "since [a] majority of the people allow everything on their Android device, this is not much of a problem" for an attacker to overcome. Assuming this setting has been enabled, there really is very little work to be done. With a webserver at hand, it is quite easy to create an app that seeks out WhatsApp's database and uploads it ready for perusal.

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A digital bill of rights is essential to the future of democracy

Internet

If there was ever anyone more qualified to talk about the web than Tim Berners-Lee, I would like to meet them. The man responsible for inventing the World Wide Web (a heavy burden for anyone to carry, I'm sure) joins us today in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the web.

But the big news isn't that Berners-Lee has been able to watch his baby grow up, go through a difficult teenage stage and flourish into adulthood, bringing us up to the quarter century the web has been with us. The real news is the inventor of the web calling for a "digital bill of rights".

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CeBIT: UK Prime Minister backs development of insane-speed 5G networks

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Mobile users are just getting around to upgrading their handsets to take advantage of 4G networks, but this simply is not fast enough. UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke at CeBIT announcing that the country will join forces with Germany to develop the successor to 4G -- the uninspiringly-named 5G. The PM announced a deal with Germany which will help to push forward with the development of a mobile broadband network that will offer download speeds up to 1,000 times those currently available on 4G.

To put this kind of speed in perspective, as the Prime Minister explained, an 800MB movie (or any other type of file for that matter) could be download in a single second. One second. For the best part of a gig of data. On a mobile device. Who is going to say no to that? Ultimately, the adoption rate will be determined by the costs involved -- mobile tariffs, suitable handsets, data charges, and coverage -- but before any of this becomes an issue, 5G needs to be, well, invented really.

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Discover the answer to life, the universe and everything 30 years on

hitchhikers-guide

Gamers of yore will remember the delight that could come from playing a text-based computer game. Forget pushing polygons around the screen as fast as a GPU's legs can pump, these were games where words were king. Back in 1984, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game took the gaming world by storm and now, thirty years later the BBC has resurrected the classic title in an exclusive online version that's free for anyone to play.

This accessible and hilarious sci-fi classic translated well into a game, and whether you missed it the first time around or you like the idea of reliving the mid-80s, warm up your keyboard and prepare to type your way to victory -- and immense frustration. This is not the first time the game has been revived, but this time around there is an HTML5 version to enjoy and there are some comedic touches right from the start. The game developers decided to replace the $, % and ^ symbols with symbols for the Altarian Dollar, Flanian Pobble Bead and the Triganic Pu, "not because they are needed in the game, but just because we felt like it."

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Europol warns users of WiFi hotspot security risks

tablet-wireless

Europol, the law enforcement agency for the European Union, is warning that people should exercise extreme caution when using WiFi hotspots when out and about. Citing an increase in the number of "man-in-the-middle" attacks on such connections, the head of Europol's cybercrime division, Troels Oerting, said that public WiFi connections are being used to "steal information, identity or passwords and money from the users who use [them]". The advice is to not necessarily stop using public networks, but to avoid using them for anything that involves transmitting personal data.

Singled out for particular attention is online banking, which Oerting suggests people should do "from home where they know actually the wi-fi and its security" rather than in a coffee shop. Europol is currently working with several member states of the European Union following an increase in the number of WiFi network attacks.

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Getty Images makes its pictures available for free -- but what’s the real price?

picture-of-picture

You can't argue with free can you? The absence of a price tag makes just about anything seem more attractive, and the latest company to join the freebie party is none other than Getty Images, that bastion of photos whose pictures you cannot fail to have seen in newspapers, magazines and on websites. Previously only available to those willing to cough up the cash, Getty Images' new Embed Images tool can now be used by any to... well... embed images into web pages and blog posts. And there are literally millions to choose from.

Sounds great, right? You must have found yourself struggling to find a royalty free image to use in a blog post, ultimately settling for working with something less than ideal -- after all, you wouldn’t just "borrow" an image from another site, would you? Now you can simply head over to the Getty Images site and, assuming you're not going to use pictures for commercial purposes, start browsing for and using whatever photos take your fancy. Hoorary!

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The most popular stories on BetaNews this past week March 2 -- 8

march-2014

It's been a busy week for Microsoft -- and not necessarily for the reasons the company might have expected. For anyone unwilling to wait until April to receive Windows 8.1 Update, a few methods emerged that made it possible to grab a copy of the eagerly awaited update ahead of the official launch. While some of these options appear to have been stopped in their tracks, where there's a will there's a way, and numerous users -- my good self included -- jumped on the downloads as soon as possible. Some were impressed while others -- yep, me again! -- were not. Perhaps it is little wonder that Windows XP usage continues to grow faster than that of Windows 8.x. This lead to analysts suggesting that the decline of the PC will be slowed rather than avoided by the continued popularity of XP.

Windows 8.1 Update wasn't that only Microsoft download that was on the agenda this week. Brian had details of how Windows RT users can update their copies of Office 2013 to SP1. At the top of Microsoft, a quick reshuffle saw a change of faces in a number of key positions as well as the departure of some well-known characters. Skype rolled out to Outlook.com around the world and gained HD video calling as well. It is normally Microsoft that is to be found on the giving-end of a smeary advertising campaign (hello, Scroogled), but after the Oscars it was Nokia poking fun at Ellen DeGeneres' blurry selfie that was taken on a Samsung device.

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Windows 8.1 Update is the final nail in the coffin

Windows update grave

Windows 8.1 Update. Windows 8.1 Update 1. Windows Feature Pack. Windows 8.1 Service Pack 1. Call it what you will, the big update to Windows 8.1 is just around the corner and it promises much. Or at least it did. It was revealed yesterday that it was possible to get hold of the update ahead of schedule with a quick and simple registry edit -- or by downloading the necessary files from the numerous mirrors that quickly sprang up -- and it appears that this is final code; the RTM version that will hit Windows Update for the masses very soon. Was it worth the wait?

This update was Microsoft's chance to put things right, to win back people who hated Windows 8 and have failed to be won over by 8.1. I make no secret about having a love-hate relationship with Windows 8.x. There have been parts of Windows 8 -- particularly the Metro/modern side of things -- which I disliked from day one, but for the most part I have been able to just avoid using them. Microsoft has even acknowledged that people want to avoid the Start screen whenever possible, and has provided tips on how to do so.

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Cover up your bits! Vine bans porn

porn

The internet is awash with porn. If you want to find something a little titillating, have a taste for the weird, or just want some good old fashion hardcore, you don’t have to look too far to satiate that desire. But if you have been looking to Vine to get your kicks -- and seriously, there must be some better places to look! -- you're going to have to turn your attention elsewhere, as a complete porn ban has been put in place.

It does not matter if you want to share porny videos of yourself with a loved one privately, everything that falls into the category of "Pornography and Sexually Explicit Content" is outlawed. Vine's terms of service state in no uncertain terms that "You may not post Content that... Is pornographic or sexually explicit", and the Vine Rules make it abundantly clear what is permitted and what is not.

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Yahoo takes data visualization startup Vizify under its wing

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Yahoo has been splashing the cash once again, this time placing its bets on Vizify, a company set up to make it easier to create visualizations from social media data.

The outfit has been up and running since 2011, but as a result of Yahoo's acquisition the service will be "sunsetted". It seems that the startup has been swayed by the idea of teaming up with Yahoo with a view to expanding its audience to one of hundreds of millions and will now be working closely with the search giant on projects that are yet to be revealed.

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Time for honesty -- Samsung seems to have stopped fiddling with benchmark figures

rock-gold

Benchmarks are important. With so much choice in the world of computers, smartphones and tablets, a key factor for potential buyers to bear in mind is raw performance. A few months back benchmarking stalwarts Futuremark took the unusual step of delisting a number of handsets produced by HTC and Samsung after tests appeared to show that the phone artificially boosted performance when they detected benchmarking software was running. Now it looks as though this apparent cheating has come to an end.

Back in October, results published on Anantech showed how a number of popular phones seemed to be cheating the system, giving consumers a false representation of real-world handset performance. Now, according to new tests carried out by Ars Technica it would appear that handsets are behaving in a far more reasonable fashion after being updated to KitKat.

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Where have all the fanboys gone? Is brand loyalty dead and buried?

brand

This is a personal account of the way I have noticed the technology markets changing over the years. It is not gospel, and you are welcome (encouraged, if you like) to disagree… It's not all that long ago that brand loyalty was a given; it was almost the default setting for many people. If you got into computing -- and it was something you "got into" rather than just having as part of your life -- you stuck loyally to whatever brand you chose at the start. We could go back to the 70s and look at the birth of personal computing, but as this is my personal account, we'll have to start in the 80s.

I did just manage to sneak into the 70s -- being born in 1979 puts me in the difficult-to-comprehend position of being 34 years old but having seen five decades -- but an interest in computing didn't emerge until some time in the late 80s. I remember there being several computing camps: BBC, Amstrad, Spectrum, Vic and Commodore to name a few. My decision was made for me at an early age when my dad decided to invest in a Commodore 16 Plus 4 (the Plus 4 referring to the fact that the OS featured four built-in applications including a spreadsheet tool, the absurd simplicity of which was not lost on me even at a young age).

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