John C. Abell

A little Internet private time

Apr 11, 2011 16:23 UTC


We all freaked out a little bit last week over what may have been the worst breach in e-mail address security ever. For me, the rolling thunder of annoyance came in the drip drip drip of e-mail alerts from a number of companies with whom I’ve done business saying that the address I had shared with them for limited, specific purposes had been acquired by a hacker.

A bigger story emerged only later: These were not individual notes, but rather a symphony of breach because e-mail addresses from lots of customers shared with lots of companies were all stored in one place, a company called Epsilon.

Most people probably didn’t realized they had agreed to share their addresses with Epsilon, whose business includes managing marketing mailing lists, by virtue of the contracts they have with thousands of retailers. Nobody really reads privacy agreements and the terms of service because — and let me make a bold assertion here — they are needlessly long and verbose precisely to deter anyone from attempting to do so.

So the circumstances made it possible, a la Oceans 11, to do the cyber equivalent of robbing three casinos by breaking into a single, not quite impenetrable vault.

There could be cause for some concern. It’s possible that your e-mail address could be an important puzzle piece for identity theft. But by far the most likely worst case scenario is just plain annoying: You’ll get more spam, and a lot of those are sent to trick you into selling yourself out.

Don’t beat the news innovators, join them

Apr 4, 2011 16:14 UTC


Getting a cease and desist letter isn’t exactly a laughing matter, but it often can be laughed off — even when it comes from lawyers representing 11 major media companies who say what your are doing is “plainly illegal” and you are a little startup using their copyrighted material in your little iPad magazine.

They aren’t exactly laughing it off, but the folks over at Zite are taking it all in stride, and, so far so good.

Zite recently joined a new breed of news apps designed for the iPad which are unique in at least two ways: None of the companies behind them gather news, and all seem infinitely better than the gatherers at distribution on a platform that is barely a year old. Among this group are Flipboard and Pulse — which make boring RSS feeds pretty — and Instapaper and Read It Later — pioneers in the “undesign” movement which do sort of the opposite, by taking a loud web page and serving up the core text in a bookish way.

The Catch-22 of Google Books

Mar 28, 2011 12:08 UTC

booksIt’s almost a Zen Koan: How many books does a library make?

For Google the answer is: “All of them.”

As of last August that particular number was about 129 million, and since then probably tens of thousands have been added to the world’s shelves, even if you exclude Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s A Shore Thing.

Some tiny fraction of that immense number is good enough for nearly every library in the world, be it the Library of Congress, the world’s largest, or modest locations which are no less devoted to the preservation and dispensation of the world’s collected knowledge.

For Google, though, it’s all or nothing: The Google Books Project — “one company’s audacious attempt to create the largest and most comprehensive library in the history of the world” as wired.com correspondent Ryan Singel put it — began nearly a decade ago.

The web isn’t dead: Newspaper edition

Mar 21, 2011 14:21 UTC


For all the talk about whether apps could be the salvation for newspapers, one little question has been glossed over: Are apps actually a disservice to readers of what, for lack of a better description, we still call newspapers?

The key advantage of the internet over radio or TV is immediacy. Stories fly straight from pocket-sized devices to a great discussion in the sky with no friction being heard. Short bursts of information — as much or even less data than traders on the exchange floor use to make snap, million-dollar decisions — are what drive the conversation now.

Newspapers all have, or could have, vibrant web sites. Web sites are exciting because they are immediate, hamstrung only by the stupidity of servers, how much traffic they can handle and how fast the Internet is working today. You share a story, and BOOM, there it is: Waiting to be discovered by random travelers, spotlighted by RSS, Tweets, Facebook updates and shared by a geometrical progression of friends you didn’t know you had.

Hey NPR: Leave the money, and run

Mar 14, 2011 15:25 UTC


The psychologists will tell you: Don’t try to interpret every little thing. Examine your collective behaviors to see what outcome you’ve engineered through a series of seemingly unrelated acts, including some which seem entirely self-destructive.

Which brings me to NPR.

With the messy firing of commentator Juan Williams last October and this past week’s even messier video uproar, NPR seems to be screaming to re-invent itself.

It should.

Full disclosure: I am a donor to National Public Radio, and while that has not always been the case I must also say that non-commercial programming has provided me with some of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. This force is vital to the broadcast eco-system in the way that pay TV has both pushed boundaries and influenced its predecessors.

Staving off the search war apocalypse

Mar 7, 2011 16:27 UTC


Think the search engine wars are over? They’ve only just begun.

The fight isn’t over who’s the most popular anymore. Google has that sown up for now with a nearly 90 percent share, according to what StatCounter published last week. Microsoft’s Bing Yahoo account for an anemic 8 percent worldwide.

The battle isn’t for the hearts and minds of the public; It is for the heart and soul of the internet — a battle to put “content farms” in their place and suffocate sites which, due to creative SEO, somehow manage to appear higher in search results than the original sites whose content they are re-blogging or flat-out stealing.

The sanctity of search is critical because search is the entry point for the internet, the gateway to everything you haven’t bookmarked or that hasn’t been recommended to you. And since it is the 800-pound gorilla, if Google’s results are compromised, everyone loses.

IPad 2. Who’s Xooming who?

Feb 28, 2011 16:35 UTC

Screen shot 2011-02-27 at 6.34.24 PM

Tomorrow, Apple is expected to announce a next-generation iPad, an iterative upgrade of the breakthrough product whose radical original Steve Jobs described as “magical.”

Jobs may be excused his poetic license, but in the 11 short months since the first iPad was sold it’s pretty clear Apple’s tablet has changed our relationship with computing in big, noticeable ways. Once-hot netbooks suddenly aren’t selling, PC sales are flatlining and even hard drives are having a hard time.

The causal link is debatable, the observable facts are not. Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads through Christmas Day last year, nearly half of that in the final quarter alone. That’s more than 45,000 iPads a day for a device that had been tried before but never captivated buyers, doesn’t exactly do anything different and which everyone knew would be updated within the year.

Watson’s a Kindle, humans are iPads

Feb 22, 2011 17:17 UTC

I missed the first and last days of IBM Watson’s assault on humanity, played out innocently on a game show. But Tuesday’s edition of Jeopardy alone was as demoralizing for me as a human as it exhilarated my android side.

Part of the fun is what the IBM Language Team came up with to make humans comfortable in Watson’s presence. The supercomputer had that tad of inflection and a tone of voice which put one in the mind of HAL 9000 before, well, you know. Watson mixed up the banter at least once with a “Let’s finish out … ,” instead of just naming the category and amount. Watson displayed some frailty on display by giving the same wrong answer human competitor Ken Jennings had just before — I have seen humans do this, so why not a supercomputer?

For many, though, Watson’s weakness wasn’t something with which to commiserate but a way to cling to a small hope that we weren’t sowing the seeds of our own destruction. As Wired put it on Twitter during day two’s massacre: “For those not watching @IBMWatson on Jeopardy, we won’t spoil it, but you might want to stock up on provisions. #skynet

Nokia and Microsoft? Just maybe

Feb 13, 2011 22:39 UTC
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop (left) and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer address the Senior Leadership Event before they announce plans for a broad strategic partnership to build a new global mobile ecosystem . Nokia and Microsoft plan to form a broad strategic partnership that would use their complementary strengths and expertise to create a new global mobile ecosystem.

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop (left) and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Credit: HO

Before there were smartphones Nokia made smart phones. Sleek. Colorful. Attractive. Sporting a distinctive, trademarked ring that, because there are so many Nokia handsets in the world, may actually be heard 20,000 times a second.

Nokia’s phones never made a huge splash in the United States, but worldwide they are to this day the market leader with some 300 million in use. In Q4 of last year, Nokia’s flagship Symbian mobile phone operating system boasted more than a third of the world’s market share. At nearly 37 percent, that was 10 percent more than the range of devices running Google’s Android, and more than Apple’s iPhone and Rim’s Blackberry combined.

But Nokia is losing, by leaps and bounds. The handwriting is on the wall. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, who joined the company only last September, minced no words last Wednesday when he said the company was standing on a “burning platform.”

The Daily, news by the numbers

Feb 7, 2011 18:12 UTC


By John Abell
The opinions expressed are his own.

It isn’t every day that a new “mainstream” news publication launches, so hurrah for News Corp and deep pockets and experimentation. The Daily is not only a new brand, but a brand new approach to publishing, tied to a specific device — just as ink + newsprint equalled a newspaper. The really radical notion is that people are going to have to pay to get it, making content the deciding factor over style, speed and even convenience.

The Daily is up against a number of things, not the least of which is the web and a link economy Rupert Murdoch has argued undermines the economics of news gathering. As an avowedly for-profit undertaking which burns through $500,000 a week, it has quite a bit to achieve.

Putting aside content for the moment, here is what The Daily does have going for it.