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The Mets

30 September 2007

I've been a Mets fan for a very long time. I was at the first game they ever won at Shea Stadium; I even went to one game at the Polo Grounds.


However, since I'm from Brooklyn, I'm entitled to say "wait till next year". (Curse you, Walter O'Malley!)

Personal Data Disclosed via Peer-to-Peer Networks

23 September 2007

There have been a few recent news stories on privacy leaks via peer-to-peer filesharing networks. These stories are often accompanied by moralistic warnings that peer-to-peer is inherently dangerous, and that opening oneself up to identity theft is the just consequence of using such softwware:

"Either the software is buggy, in which case you're hosed, or it's malicious to begin with," Stickley concluded. "Most packages are generally designed for theft, and I'd say 95 percent of the time users install them in the first place is to steal something. It comes back to bite you in the end."
There is a danger, and it is somewhat linked to the copyright wars, but the actual link is more complex than that.

In most peer-to-peer packages, you can share your files as well as downloading files shared by others. The problem is what you share: the defaults are often not what you want.

Generally, people who are interested in music want to share — and retrieve — .mp3 files. Similarly, those who are interested in movies want .avi files. The former might be stored in the My Music folder; either might be stored in an iTunes folder. It would be no trouble at all for the authors of file-sharing programs to set these as the default file types or upload locations. However, if they did that, it would be used as evidence that the primary purpose of these programs was illegal distribution of copyrighted materials — which, of course, is their primary purpose, but they don't want to admit it.

The problem, though, is not the technology. Time-Warner, a major content owner, is itself using peer-to-peer technology to distribute its own movies. Similarly, NASA uses it to distribute large image files. The technology isn't illegal; the way it is used often is. Regardless, the central problem is configuration. One wonders if users of these services "deserve" what they get.

Configuration of any sort of file distribution mechanism is hard. Remarkably many confidential documents belonging to high-tech companies are freely downloadable on the Web, and are indexed by search engines. Try it — ask your favorite search engine for documents of type .xls (Excel spreadsheets), .doc (Word documents), .pdf, etc., containing the word "Confidential" and hosted on that company's web site. Is running a web site wrong?

Why is configuration hard? Fundamentally, it's just another piece of the user interface problem. Users, even sophisticated ones, frequently don't understand the consequences of the decisions they make, even when the software is easy to use. And of course, far too much software is hard to use. The profession needs to learn to write better software, software that's hard to misconfigure. That isn't an easy problem.

What's Missing in the iPod Touch

10 September 2007

The new Apple iPod touch has been described as "an iPhone without the cell phone functions". Unfortunately, it's missing some crucial features — and the omissions go to the heart of different visions of the Internet.

The iPod touch naturally lacks some phone-specific features, such as the phone itself and SMS messaging. These changes are pretty obvious ones to make. Presumably, it's also missing a microphone, if for no other reason than to save on hardware costs (though some other MP3 players have voice recorders). But why were the mail and notes applications omitted? For that matter, why were the map and stock quote applications left out? These speak to the heart of the problem and to Apple's view of the new iPod: it's an appliance — in particular, a purchasing appliance — not a PDA or computer replacement.

Put another way, the purpose of the much-touted WiFi interface is to make it easier to buy songs from iTunes or from Starbucks. Jobs as much as said so to the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Jobs said a key reason other wireless music players haven't done well is that they often are unable to connect to Wi-Fi networks outside the home. Many public "hotspots," as public areas such as hotels and airports with Wi-Fi are called, require users to log in through a Web browser, which most portable music players lack. The iPod touch, on the other hand, has a full-blown Web browser, just like the iPhone.
In other words, the web browser is a generic log-in interface; the fact that it can be used to do things that Apple doesn't derive a revenue stream from is an unfortunate side-effect. And that's why the mailer and the note pad were omitted: they're not useful as an adjunct to buying songs.

If the iPod touch were an open platform, it wouldn't matter as much. There would be a legion of 3rd party software developers filling these and other gaps. (Apple TV can browse your home network for digital media; as best I can tell, the iPod touch can't. Why not?) But it isn't open.

The question, then, is not whether the iPod touch is cool; technically, and esthetically, it's gorgeous. The question is, as has been noted, whether the Net is more than "click here to buy".

Update: there are now reports that the new iPods are incompatible with open-source update programs and that they're more crippled in other ways than the iPhone: they don't seem to run MacOS, and they don't appear to the system as USB flash drives.