Opinion

John C. Abell

A looking glass into the post-smartphone era

Apr 5, 2012 19:58 UTC

Permit me to not act my age.

I was all grown up already when the Internet became a big deal, scarcely two decades ago. I was like a kid in a candy store. Still, I’ve only had a couple of heart-stopping moments in those 20 years in which everything has changed.

My heart skipped a beat (along with probably only thousands of others) when I downloaded Mosaic, the first Web browser, on the first day it was released. It consistently froze up. But that small, terribly flawed piece of software was really a time portal, showing me the future, and I could barely breathe.

Two years ago I got my hands on the first iPad on the first day it went on sale. My unboxing was unceremonious because I had to rush and show it off during a couple of TV interviews. But when I got home late on that Saturday in April and finally had a chance to put it through its paces, it took my breath away. I was a kid again: full of wonder and utterly immune to negativity.

Call me childish, but I had the same primal reaction to the video, and the reporting of my Wired colleague Steven Levy, on Google’s Project Glass. As Levy writes, Project Glass is “an augmented reality system that will give users the full range of activities performed with a smartphone – without the smartphone. Instead, you wear some sort of geeky prosthetic (one of those pictured is reminiscent of the visor that Geordi La Forge wore on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but Google has also been experimenting with a version that piggybacks on regular spectacles).”

The augmented reality features in Glass aren’t new. Bionic Eye brought AR to the iPhone in 2009: You held up the phone at eye level and nearby points of interest floated through the camera’s lens. Sekai Camera, an augmented reality smartphone app, not only provides a heads-up display of information but also adds a social element. Yelp tossed in Monocle, another augmented reality feature, as an Easter egg in its app. Heck, in December 2009 Wired highlighted the seven best augmented reality apps for iPhone and Android.

Tech’s forbidden touch

Mar 29, 2012 19:18 UTC

“You can look, but you can’t touch” – great advice in most museums, and every strip club. But it makes no sense when it comes to our computers. We are getting very touchy-feely with our smartphones and tablets, and this is how it should be. Even BlackBerry and Amazon’s Kindle, which launched with hardware keyboards to differentiate it from the competition, have abandoned them.

It’s no accident. We touch instinctively. We are born touching everything, and only learn where the boundaries are later in life. Our handheld devices are reconnecting us with the primary technique we used to learn about the world we had just entered. The metaphor extends. Now it’s the mobile computers that we use to learn about the world around us, and we control them with our fingers, by touching a screen. How do you place a price on that?

Many are trying, thanks to software patents. Patents have become a bane to the very essence of innovation. They are arsenals, ostensibly meant to defend but more often used to offend. Yahoo’s lawsuit against Facebook over 10 patents further proves that weaponizing software patents is the last gasp of a dying business.

Apple, the new iPad, and being ‘sanely great’

Mar 9, 2012 16:20 UTC

Sometimes it’s best to start with the obvious. The “new” iPad announced Wednesday will sell like mad when it goes on sale next Friday. So confident is Apple in what it isn’t calling the iPad 3 that it didn’t even bother to give it a special name. It’s just iPad, even though there is a first-generation iPad (a retronym, of course) and an iPad 2. When you’ve achieved one-name status — Bono, Cher, Liberace — you don’t give that up lightly.

The new iPad has a bunch of hardware and design upgrades that do make sense, even though the impetus for incorporating them may or may not have been to play catch-up with some Android tablets that nobody is buying.

It’s nice to see 4G make its first appearance on an Apple device — one wonders why this wasn’t possible on the iPhone 4S that came out not that terribly long ago. This exponentially better network standard isn’t widely available yet, but where it exists. it spoils you quickly.

Boohoo for Yahoo

Mar 2, 2012 17:01 UTC

Yahoo is taking on Facebook — but it’s not vying for the hearts and minds of the Internet cool kids. It’s for licensing fees over some patents. This is not how it was supposed to be.

No, I’m not naive. But I am a bit of a romantic. Thing is, I remember when Yahoo was an upstart with two crazy awkward college kids who came up with something that the search giants of the time — Lycos and Alta Vista — could not withstand. Yahoo’s scrappiness was part of a long tradition of Silicon Valley startups that came before (and would come after). Like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the elder statesmen of Silicon Valley who began their iconic company in a now iconic garage, Jerry Yang and David Filo started with nothing but an idea in a dorm room and changed everything. Yahoo’s blazing success in search and (the now-quaint notion of) cataloging the Web begs comparison to two other crazy awkward college kids who started a search engine. That search engine, of course, killed Yahoo. It had an equally kooky name — Google.

Now Yahoo, as part of its effort remake itself after a decade of decline, is said to be wielding a new weapon: a patent trove. The stellar DealBook blog of the New York Times, which first reported this story, couldn’t get anyone to disclose the particulars, but it quotes “people briefed on the matter” as saying Yahoo is threatening lawsuits and is in the midst of negotiations with a pretty big fish. “Yahoo is seeking to force Facebook into licensing 10 to 20 patents over technologies that include advertising, the personalization of Web sites, social networking and messaging,” DealBook reports.

Google’s unhealthy cookie habit

Feb 22, 2012 15:41 UTC

Google got its hand caught in the cookie jar last week — and this time it really does have some explaining to do.

The search giant, which derives some 97 percent of its revenues from advertising, thought it would be all right to circumvent some protections incorporated into Apple’s Safari browser so that it could better target its ads. By intentionally bypassing the default privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser — and, as Microsoft has now asserted, Internet Explorer — Google has decided for all of us that our Web activity will be more closely tracked. They opted us in, without asking. And without a way for us to opt out. (We didn’t even know about it until the Wall Street Journal blew the lid off this last Thursday.)

On the merits, this is a pretty big deal. A class action has already been filed, and an FTC probe is almost certain. That the no-tracking settings were circumvented (and secretly) makes it easier to infer that even Google worried it might be touching a third rail. It says it wasn’t, that its intent was only to discern whether Google users were logged into Google services and that the enabling of advertising cookies was inadvertent.

Trolling for a tech showdown

Feb 10, 2012 20:18 UTC

The scene: A federal courtroom in Tyler, Texas.

The drama: A lawsuit by a patent troll who said he owned the rights to the “interactive web.” The troll says he’s owed some back rent for owning the Web we all use every day.

Dramatis persona: Tim Berners-Lee. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He invented the World Wide Web.

Oh, to have been in Tyler. It was the stage for a showdown in one of the most bizarre patent troll cases ever, pitting (metaphorically if not in fact) expert witness Berners-Lee against some punk who wanted to make his name by taking out a very, very big gun in a shootout. The plaintiff, Eolas, claimed it owned patents that entitled it to royalties from anyone whose website used “interactive” features, like pictures that the visitor can manipulate, or streaming video. The claim, by Eolas’s owner, Chicago biologist Michael Doyle, was that his was the first computer program enabling an “interactive web.”

IPOverload: Facebook goes public

Feb 1, 2012 22:12 UTC

The least suspenseful waiting game in Silicon Valley is now over, thank heavens. Facebook, which began as a decidedly private Harvard hangout, has begun the process of going absolutely, totally, unabashedly public.

Facebook filed for an initial public offering with the SEC Wednesday, which means we have the first raw glimpse of its financials. Advertising makes up 85 percent of its $3.7 billion in annual revenue. And it took in $1 billion of income in 2011. For more of the best data points, see my colleague Anthony De Rosa’s rundown.

Facebook is synonymous with the Internet in many ways: It boasts more than 10 percent of the world’s population as active users and has realizable ambitions to be the preeminent vetting service on the Net, making a “Like” as powerful and capricious as Caesar’s opposable thumb.

Fear not Google’s bid to rock ‘n’ rule your world

Jan 27, 2012 20:01 UTC

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

Big social media company changes its privacy rules. The Internet goes nuts. The tech press fuels the flames. Much hand-wringing and shouts of promises not kept ensue.

Sound familiar?

This time it’s not Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who’s losing sleep. It’s Google’s Larry Page. The search giant changed its rules mid-game, and it’s getting an earful.

Google’s privacy changes are both less and more than meets the eye. The less: Google has been collecting all the data in question already, most for a long time. The more: It’s one thing to collect data, quite another to change how you use it without giving your customers any flexibility. Google should be lauded for über transparency, but it’s hard to like ”Our Way or the Highway.”

SOPA, the Internet, and the benefits of a mutual enemy

Jan 20, 2012 17:25 UTC

That giant sucking sound you hear is the life being drained from SOPA and PIPA.

In an astonishingly effective campaign, a number of prominent websites decided on Jan. 18 to act as though they were being censored. SOPA — the House Stop Online Piracy Act , and PIPA, the Senate’s Protect IP Act  — would, in fact, have little or no impact on U.S. sites but the message was clear: The Net is one seamless organism. An attack on my friend, or even my enemy, is an attack on me.

The big players that made a big show of support for the anti-SOPA/PIPA cause included Wikipedia, which completely shut down its U.S. site, and reddit.com and wired.com (I work for the latter, and both are owned by Condé Nast).

Some big players did not get involved in the protest, including Twitter (which even belittled Wikipedia’s demonstration as “silly”) and Facebook.

TV 2012: A tale of two sets

Jan 18, 2012 16:16 UTC

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the era of big, it was the hour of small. It was the age of complexity, it was the era of simplicity. It was an epoch of freedom, it was a time of tyranny. It was the season of two dimensions, it was the moment of 3D. Everything was before us — and we have seen it all.

With apologies to Dickens, there’s a whole lot going on in the world of television, the medium that has dominated the world’s attention for three generations and was supposed to — at the very least — become an also-ran to the Internet. Convergence (in the 1990s’ sense of the word) is happening, but with no clear winner: Computers became TVs, and TVs are becoming internet-connected computers.

Likewise, TV programming has been in something of a renaissance for a decade — yeah, sure, for every Mad Men there’s a Work It (or 20 of them) — and even the experimentation in programs has something to do with technology, which has made it possible to watch on demand, and in places and at times of our choosing, and enabled new competition that entertains us with things that aren’t on TV at all.

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