Monday, May 23, 2011

They Know More Than You Think

I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but companies like Google and Facebook know a lot more about you than they let on.  I certainly don’t want to cause a panic, but I do think that people ought to know what they’re really signing up for when they use services provided by these companies.

The prevailing thought about these web sites is that they only know what you tell them.  It would really be nice if that were true.  Unfortunately, it is not.  Let’s start with Facebook.


It used to be that Facebook could pretty much only record what you are doing on their site.  They only had information on you that you gave to them (or they could collect about you from your friends).  Those days are long gone.  They have access to SO much more.

We all know that Facebook has the ability to build an absolutely enormous social graph of us.  It has more information than even our closest friends and family do about our past, who we know, where we’ve been and what we were doing when we were there, etc.  It’s pretty amazing that a site with so much personal information has become so popular, and that we continue to give it information.  But it goes way beyond what most of us are aware of.

imageYou know that little “Like” button that shows up all over the web? Yeah, the one you see on the right.  Seems innocuous enough, right?  Well, that little tiny tag gives Facebook access to a wealth of information.  Every web site that has that (or any Facebook-provided content) knows you’ve been to that page.  The very act of putting the Like button on a page grants Facebook access to the information that you’ve been there.  And nobody knows what they’re doing with that information.  Since this button has been installed on a ton of very popular web sites, it’s pretty easy for Facebook to be able to build a profile of most every web site you’ve been to.  Not that this in and of itself is necessarily a scary thing, but it does have the potential to be scary.  When combined with other information on your profile, it would be pretty easy to build a dossier on you.  Worst case scenario, they sell that information to advertisers, or their site gets hacked and your personal surfing habits get into the hands of someone with less than pure intentions.  With the huge breach that Sony experienced last month, these things are not outside the realm of possible reality.

Is there a way to prevent this?  Yes.  If you sign out of Facebook before visiting other web pages, and use the Private browsing mode of your web browser (InPrivate in IE, Incognito in Chrome, etc.) there isn’t a way for Facebook to be able to follow you around.  Just be careful not to sign in again without doing it in the private browsing mode.

And just so you know… “deleting” information from the Facebook site doesn’t actually delete it from their databases.  It just turns it off so that they don’t show it to others.  But they don’t actually ever remove anything on anyone.  They’ve still got it filed away.


If anybody on the internet knows more about your surfing habits than Facebook, it’s Google.  Their advertising network extends to an absolutely massive number of web sites.  And every site that contains ads provided by Google is also tracked.  They hold onto an overwhelming majority of the online advertising market, and the odds are in their favor that any particular web site you visit has advertisements served by Google.  Chances are that Google knows every web site you ever visit.

Combine this with Google wanting to get into other aspects of your life… providing the operating system for your cell phone or tablet, Internet service to your home, keeping your Health information, maps for driving directions, etc. on top of virtually every web site you visit and every Internet search you perform (this would include anything you shop for online), they have access to a lot more data than anyone could ever imagine.  It has the potential to be very scary, and a huge mess if that data were to get out.

Why Care?

For the most part I don’t care if the web sites I visit are known to the world.  But there are a few exceptions… If I were to get sick, and use the Internet to search for treatment or cures, I wouldn’t want the whole world to know what I’ve got.  Or if I had children, I wouldn’t want total strangers to know where they live or go to school.  It isn’t that we necessarily have to worry about what we’re doing, but who knows what we’re doing.

I’m not trying to say that the sky is falling here or anything like that.  I just want everyone to at least be aware of what information these companies have access to.  It goes way beyond what they appear to know at first glance.  They’ve got connections with literally millions of web sites, and together they all collect a lot more information on you that you could possibly dream of.

If nothing else, I’d advise caution.  Use the Private mode of your browser more, or maybe even all of the time.  Use different browsers for different web sites.  Sign out of web sites when you aren’t actually using them.  And above all, be careful in what information you’re willing to share with them. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Windows Phone 7

About 3 months ago I bought an HTC HD7 from T-Mobile to test to see if would meet my needs for a cell phone.  They were offering a deal where I only had to pay $99 and didn’t have to extend my contract, and since I had been curious about Windows Phone 7 I decided to give it a try.  I’ve wanted to share my thoughts, but I didn’t want to write a long drawn-out review, so instead I’ll just summarize some key points.

  • It’s fast.  With the exception of a handful of apps (mostly games) that take a while to load, everything else about the phone is very fast.  Navigation from one place to another is just fast and fluid.  Compared to the iPhones and Android-based phones I’ve used, my WP7 is markedly faster.

  • I like the interface.  Windows Phone 7 uses tiles on its main screen for launching its core feature set, like making calls, viewing texts and emails, calendar, etc.  Each tile is ‘active’ so it can display information tied to the feature provided by the tile.  So the email tile shows how many emails have come in since the last time I looked at them on my phone, the People tile shows pictures of those updating their Facebook status. The weather tile shows current temperature, etc.  You can create your own tiles, so the people I talk to most have tiles right on the front screen of my phone, which not only makes it easy to call or text them, but since those tiles are active, they are updated with current pictures, status messages from Facebook, and email information automatically.

  • Along with that, the interface between apps is a lot more consistent than you find on other platforms.  Windows Phone 7’s Metro user interface is actually pretty slick, and an awful lot of developers are using it.  I won’t take time to describe how it works, but it is well thought out, and it makes navigation easier than on other phones.

  • The Facebook integration is cool.  Right in my contact list I see status updates and pictures.  Twitter integration is coming in the fall, so we’ll be able to see Twitter updates right on a contact’s information screen (or their tile, if one has been created).  Since Facebook integration is built-in, it’s really easy to do things like upload photos and videos, because you do it right from the Camera app.

  • There aren’t yet a ton of apps.  Fortunately, many of the most popular apps from other platforms are available.  There are some notables that I’d like to have that are missing, like LogMeIn, but there are very good apps for NetFlix, Amazon, Facebook, IMDB, all of the major news organizations, and YouTube to name a few.  The number of apps isn’t huge, but a lot of the more important ones are there.

  • Having Microsoft Office onboard is cool, but I don’t use it much.  It’s still lacking a great way to connect with documents on the desktop if you aren’t using SharePoint.  Connecting to SkyDrive would be awesome.

  • The email feature on Windows Phone 7 is easily the best that anyone is currently offering, especially if you’re someone who likes to use folders to organize your mail, or need the ability to search messages.  Email triage on WP7 is much better than it is on other phones.  It also handles file attachments much better than any other phone I’ve seen.  There isn’t another phone out there that even comes close when it comes to having great email support.

  • Try-before-you-buy with apps is awesome.  There aren’t separate ‘free’ and ‘paid’ versions of apps.  You download one version to try it out (for as long as you’d like) and if you want to buy it, it’s usually a single button click to upgrade.  And upgrading from the trial to full version doesn’t require re-downloading; it just unlocks the paid features, and does so instantly.

  • Xbox Live integration also has potential, but I’m not a gamer, so I don’t really use that very much.  If I were, it would be nice to play against others, or keep tabs on the status of an Xbox game I’m playing at home.  But having Xbox Live doesn’t really sway me at all.

  • Stability.  This phone has never once crashed or locked up on me.  I’ve seen a couple apps crash here and there, but the phone always recovers gracefully.

  • There are a lot of little things that are cool. 

    • The lock screen shows me how many emails and texts have come in that I haven’t read, as well as my next appointment, so I don’t even have to unlock my phone to see any of that information.

    • The phone doesn’t require a password to install app updates.

    • I love having a ‘back’ button.  No matter where I am, I can hit the Back button and go to whatever screen I just came from.  So if I’m reading an email message and it contains a web page link, I can view the page, then hit Back to go right back to the email and continue reading from there.  It works anywhere.

    • Having a dedicated search button on the phone is cooler than I thought it would be.  Many apps have their own search features, and the search button makes it easy to find it.

    • The on-screen keyboard is the smartest one I’ve seen.  Unlike other phones, which only offer correction of one word at a time, Windows Phone 7 looks an entire sentence at a time and will correct not only the word you’re currently typing, but other words in the sentence if a correction makes more sense in context.  Some might think this to be not very useful, but it allows you to absolutely fly through whatever you’re typing without stopping every time you make a mistake, letting the phone handle most correction for you.  It still isn’t perfect, but it is a better system than what is used on other phones.

    • Having a dedicated camera button is nice.  Even when the phone is off, I can press the camera button and the camera app loads instantly.  A second press of the button then takes a picture.  With most other phones, it’s easier to miss photo opportunities because by the time the camera app has loaded, the moment is gone.  On this phone, since Facebook is integrated too, from camera power off to taking a photo to uploading to Facebook is two button presses and two taps of the screen.

    • Wireless syncing with the Zune software is also nice.  If I’m in the living room watching a movie, for example, I can initiate a sync manually, or just plug the phone into a power source and syncing starts automatically. 

    • Background syncing is nice too.  Unlike most other phones, when it is syncing with the desktop it is still usable.  There are no visual indications on the phone that it is syncing with the computer.  There are a few restrictions… I can’t play music or install apps while it’s syncing, but everything else is fully operational.  I can still browse the web, make phone calls, play games, or read my email during a sync operation.

  • There are a few things specific to the HD7 that aren’t available on other Windows Phone handsets that I like too.

    • It has a kickstand in the back to make it easier to watch video.  (I wish it would work in portrait mode as well as landscape, but having one is much better than not.)

    • I can set the phone to ring louder when it’s in my pocket vs. sitting on a desk.

    • I can put it in speakerphone mode just by turning it over face down.

    • When the phone rings, and I pick it up to see who it is, the ringer volume is automatically turned down (the act of picking up the phone turns the ringer volume down).

  • I love having the Zune software on my phone.  Not just because it offers a much better interface than any iPod, but since I have a Zune Pass subscription, I have access to almost all of the Zune music catalog all of the time.  I don’t actually store any music on my phone at all.  If I want to listen to something, whether that be a particular song, album, or even an entire collection by a single artist, I just search for it in the Zune Marketplace and stream it.

    • What is really cool is using Shazam to tag a song playing somewhere near me, then using Zune Pass to download my own copy without buying it.  Since Shazam is linked to Zune, this is really easy.

  • The built-in Bing search is nice (not quite as feature complete as I’d like to see, but that is supposed to be coming in the fall).  From the home screen, pressing the Search button gives quick access to device, web, local (nearby businesses, etc), and news in one fell swoop.  Searching for “hamburger,” for example, gives me search results for the web (Wikipedia, etc.), local (local restaurants that serve hamburgers, complete with driving directions), and news about hamburger.

  • The built-in voice recognition feature is cool.  It’s powered by TellMe, so voice commands not only allow phone calls (“call Mom”), but web and local searches as well.  It’s essentially the Bing search using voice input.

  • Battery life is actually very good, especially considering the physically small battery, compared to many other smartphones.  After a day of typical use, my battery still has about 50% charge remaining.

  • It uses the Zune software on the desktop, which I love.  The Zune software is an example of how to do media management right.  Beats iTunes in every way (except OS X availability, which doesn’t bug me much). 

    If you haven’t tried the Zune software, just do it.  It’s totally free, and you don’t have to have a Zune device to use it.  It’s an order of magnitude faster than iTunes, is much easier to use, is just as feature complete, and much prettier.  If your iTunes library is still in its default location, the Zune software will even find and catalog it for you automatically.  Anyone with an open mind that sees it is very impressed.

  • I haven’t dropped a single call with the phone yet.

  • The web browser is okay.  Not great, but not bad either.  Nearly on par with the iPhone, but each device has its advantages.  Speed of scrolling and zooming is better on WP7.  Overall page download and rendering speed is somewhat better on iPhone.  Font rendering is better on WP7.  Page layout is noticeably better on iPhone.  The browser is certainly serviceable, but not a standout feature.  The upcoming Fall 2011 update for WP7 which will provide Internet Explorer 9 should go a long way in not only bring it truly up to par, but actually surpassing other smartphones in terms of browser features, page layout, and performance.
There are a number of things that drive me nuts.  I REALLY miss some of the features of my previous phone.
  • I love the dial-by-name feature that my last 5 phones had.  Nobody understands what I mean until I demonstrate.  But if I wanted to dial myself, for example, instead of scrolling through a contact list to find my entry, or even using a search feature to find my contact information, at the dialer I could just type in my name on the number buttons (3684 for DOUG) and the contact would come up pretty fast, usually within 3-4 digits.  Of all of the ways I’ve ever seen to find entries in a phonebook, this is the fastest by far.  This same feature worked for partial phone numbers too, so if I remember that a phone number starts with 555, dialing 555 would show all phone numbers containing 555.  Windows Phone doesn’t have this feature (nor does Android or iPhone, for that matter).

  • Custom ringtones.  I can set ringtones for individual contacts, but I can’t upload ringtones I’ve created.  I’ve used this feature extensively over the years, creating dedicated ringtones for individual callers using songs that have some sort of connection to that person.  I’ve heard this is coming in the Fall 2011 update for WP7, but haven’t seen confirmation on it.  Fingers are crossed.

  • 5 of my last 6 phones had a feature that would automatically set the phone to Vibrate mode whenever an appointment on my calendar was active.  So if I had an appointment in my calendar from 12:00 to 2:00, the phone would go to vibrate mode at 12:00, and go back to the normal ringer at 2:00.  This one little thing made such a difference; I never had to worry about my phone going off during church, a meeting at the office, while doing sound for a concert, or while I’m on set shooting a video or recording audio in my studio.  Windows Phone (and likewise iPhone) doesn’t have this feature.

  • My previous 5 phones all had great multitasking.  If I wanted an app (any app) to continue running in the background, I just didn’t close it; going back to the Home screen would leave the app running in the background.  If I wanted to close an app, I’d click the X in the upper right.  It was a very simple system, and it worked well.  Windows Phone doesn’t currently allow any third party apps to run in the background.  The coming fall update, thankfully, will allow any app developer to write certain portions of their apps to run in the background.  It’s a much better system than we get with the iPhone, which only allows certain features (navigation, audio, data upload, and VOIP) to run in the background.  The limited ‘multitasking’ of iOS bites me all of the time and it just makes me mad.  I’m really looking forward to having real multitasking again.

  • Having the ringer and sound volume tied together bugs me.  On previous phones I could set the two independently… so my ringer could be set to a single volume level all of the time, and still be able to adjust music volume independently, for example.  I’ve missed more than a few phone calls because I had the phone volume turned down from watching a video or playing a game.

  • While providing a lot of cool new functionality, the voice search is still missing features I had on my previous 5 phones and used constantly.  With my prior phones I could ask it “What is my next appointment” or “What time is it” and it knew what I was asking for and would respond vocally.  This was most useful in my truck, where I have a Bluetooth speakerphone kit.

  • I also had my previous 5 phones set to read me incoming text messages and high priority email messages aloud.  This phone doesn’t do that.

  • I really miss the WiFi tethering feature I had on my last two phones (or Bluetooth tethering from my last 5 phones) to provide Internet access to a nearby computer or other device.  Unlike most phones that offer tethering, the models I’ve had until now did it without a fee from the carrier.  The fall update for WP7 is rumored to have tethering, but I still have seen any official confirmation on that.  And I’ll have to pay a monthly fee to access it.

  • As excellent as the on-screen keyboard is, I loved having Swype on my previous phone.  Being able to select different keyboards for different purposes would be nice.

  • I miss having a dedicated Talk button.  Now I have to navigate back to the home screen and press the Phone tile, which takes longer.  On my last 5 phones, not only could I start a phone call at any time, but in certain contexts, pressing the Talk button would call the phone number of the on-screen contact, or the sender of the text or email message I’m currently reading.  Sometimes dedicated hardware buttons are just the right way to do things.
Other wishes
  • I don’t find myself using the front facing camera on my iPod Touch or iPad very often, but it would be nice to have one in a phone for those few occasions where I do.  With Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Skype, I’d be surprised if we don’t see front-facing cameras in future models.

  • I wish it had a dock-style connector so I could easily charge it, get audio and video out of it, and control it with a remote in my truck over a single connector. A Zune dock connector in addition to the now industry-standard micro USB would have been nice.

  • Obviously, we still need more apps.  While there are quite a few to choose from, there are still a few key ones that I’d love to have that aren’t available yet.

  • Not specific to Windows Phone, but T-Mobile’s 3G has slowed down in the last year.  It’s still faster than Verizon’s, but not as fast as AT&T’s.  I would have liked to have access to T-Mobile’s 4G network, but there are only a couple phones with 4G capability, and none are Windows Phone-based. 
  • The camera, while good, is not great.  Definitely not as good as the camera in the iPhone 4, for example.  But pretty typical for a smartphone camera.
Overall I'm mostly more excited about what Windows Phone 7 can be more than what it currently is.  It is certainly a usable, competitive, and useful smartphone in its present state, but it is going to be a much better product after the Mango update that is supposed to be coming this Fall.  

Buyer Recommendations

So would I recommend a Windows Phone to someone?  For some, yes.  For others, no.  It depends on what you want out of a phone.  If you want the best music player you can get, absolutely.  If the idea of having streaming access to a multi-million song catalog of music all the time, yes.  If you primarily want quick and easy access to email, absolutely yes.  If you need Microsoft Office, again, yes.  If you need multitasking, not yet; wait until the end of the year, or go Android if you can’t wait.  If you need an app only available in Apple’s App Store, obviously, no.  If you’re a Facebook junkie, yes.  If you need a good camera, buy a camera and stop trying to use a phone; great optics don’t fit in something the size of a phone.  If you need WiFi tethering, go with an Android.  If you primarily want to browse the web, WP7 is okay, but some Android devices support Flash.

As it stands now, the reason to buy the different smartphone platforms are:

Windows Phone 7: High performance, very easy to use, very quick access to email, Microsoft Office, Xbox Live, Facebook integration, and access to Zune Pass.  If you want a smartphone primarily for email, WP7 is easily your best option.  Provides the best media playback experience.

Android: Real multitasking, tons of free apps, huge variety of phones.

iPhone: Tons of very good apps in the App Store, only device capable of playing paid video content from iTunes.  iTunes syncing for those who actually like iTunes.

Reasons to not buy…

Windows Phone 7: Number of apps is still low compared to the other platforms.  No multitasking of third party apps whatsoever.  Sync software on Mac has limited capabilities.

Android: Despite all of Google’s efforts, the user interface is still clunky and inconsistent, especially between apps.  Phone upgrades are sparse after newer models come out.

iPhone: Limited “multitasking.”  Still drops calls more than other phones.  iTunes is still an absolute abomination on Windows, not much better on Mac.  And Steve Jobs is still an evil man.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

When English Fails

Sometimes, even as clearly as many rules of language are defined, the intent of the writer is still ambiguous.  I don’t know if I think about it too much, but sometimes it bugs me that I don’t really know what is supposed to be being communicated.  As I was shopping yesterday, I bought a snack package that describes itself as:

Chocolate and yogurt-covered peanuts and raisins

Unfortunately, this could mean any of the following:

Chocolate, plus yogurt-covered peanuts and plain raisins

Chocolate, plus yogurt-covered peanuts and yogurt-covered raisins

Chocolate-covered peanuts, plus yogurt-covered peanuts, and plain raisins

Chocolate-covered peanuts, plus yogurt-covered peanuts, and yogurt-covered raisins

Chocolate-covered peanuts, yogurt-covered peanuts, chocolate-covered raisins, and yogurt-covered raisins

Chocolate, plus yogurt-covered peanuts, and yogurt-covered raisins

Chocolate and yogurt-covered peanuts, and plain raisins

Chocolate and yogurt-covered peanuts, and chocolate and yogurt-covered raisins

…and there are other potential interpretations as well.

Before I reveal what was actually in the package, I have a potential solution to this problem.  As a software developer, I’ve had to learn to be absolutely clear about my intent when writing logic statements so the computer can follow my instructions explicitly.  This is done by grouping related portions of an expression using parentheses.  So, the above statement should be written:

(Chocolate or Yogurt) covered (Peanuts and Raisins)

This is much more clear, but even that doesn’t describe what was actually in the package.  To be fully accurate in the description of the contents of the package, the statement would have to be:

(Plain or chocolate-covered or yogurt-covered) (peanuts and raisins).

This is a lot easier than:

Peanuts, raisins, chocolate-covered peanuts, chocolate-covered raisins,
yogurt-covered peanuts, and yogurt-covered raisins.

See how much easier it is when you include the parenthetical markings? SmileNow we just need to figure out how to communicate this statement verbally.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tech Tip: Extra Life From Your Old Computer

One of the things I did this week was try to upgrade my netbook computer with an SSD (Solid State Disk) drive to make it faster and more bearable to use (more on what that is in a minute… bear with me). It’s always been kind of slow, and I figured if I could put $100 into it instead of buying a whole new one, that would be a good thing, right?  Well, that didn’t work out so well… performance with the SSD was actually far worse than it was with the hard drive that was in it, and the “fix” to make it work right just ended up not being worth it… so I had an SSD without a home.  After playing around with a couple other ideas, I decided to put it into an old Toshiba laptop I’ve had for a little over 3 years because it has always felt a little slow.  And boy, what a difference it made.

An SSD is a storage device that acts like a hard disk drive, but uses memory chips instead of a spinning platter to store data.  Since there are no moving parts, they are very fast.  They’ve been prohibitively expensive until fairly recently (and it’s still expensive to get something with a lot of storage capacity) but they’re finally in the realm of being affordable for the masses as long as your storage needs aren’t extreme.  The SSD I bought was an OCZ Vertex 2 60GB model which I picked up on sale for just over $100.  Since I don’t store music or movies on that laptop, this was plenty large enough.  Windows 7, Microsoft Office, and Photoshop take up around 20 GB total, which gives me plenty of room to spare for anything else I might need to put on it.  The difference in performance was enormous!

If you can work a screwdriver you can install an SSD drive in your computer.  The physical installation is very easy.  The only part that might get a bit tricky is getting Windows installed onto it.  If your computer came with a Restore DVD, or you have an original Windows installation DVD, setting it up is a piece of cake.  If it didn’t, you may want to invest in a data transfer kit (this one is my favorite).

Prior to installing the SSD, my Toshiba laptop would take about 60-75 seconds to boot.  With the SSD it takes about 13 seconds.  That’s logo screen to usable desktop, folks.  While it previously took about 5-10 seconds to load Microsoft Word on the hard drive, it now loads in less than 1 second on the SSD.  Photoshop loads in 6 seconds instead of 40, and web browsers come up instantly.  Launching most programs occurs almost instantaneously.  As I was installing Windows updates (I started with a fresh copy of Windows), I was amazed to see the majority of them install about one per second instead of watching the minutes tick by.  From start to finish (empty drive to installing Windows to installing all available updates) it only took about 30 minutes to do everything.  And this computer is SO fast now… even though it’s over 3 years old and wasn’t that much to shout about when it was new.

Swapping out a hard drive for an SSD isn’t the only easy and relatively inexpensive thing you can do to speed up an aging computer.  Upgrading the memory is also very easy and doesn’t cost that much (the Crucial web site has a scanner that can tell you what type of memory your computer needs).  I upgraded my Toshiba laptop to 4GB of RAM for $35 a couple months ago, and recently upgraded a different laptop to 8GB of RAM for $85.  The desktop computer I built last month got 8GB of RAM for about $80 as well.  If you’re running a computer with just 1 or 2GB of RAM, it’s time to upgrade.  The performance difference can be pretty dramatic.  Not quite as drastic as replacing a hard drive with an SSD, but still quite noticeable.

So how do you know if your computer can be upgraded with an SSD? If it’s less than about 4 years old, the chances are very high.  The computer requires an SATA interface for the hard disk drive, which most computers made in the last 4 years are likely to have.  If you’re working with a desktop computer, you can probably buy a relatively small SSD for your operating system and programs, and use your existing hard drive as a secondary drive for storing your personal data.  That’s the route I’ve gone with the last two computers I’ve built, and I’ve been thrilled with the results.  As far as which model to get, the drives based on the SandForce controller chips currently yield the best performance (the OCZ Vertex 2 series give the best bang-for-the-buck and is available in 60GB, 120GB, and 240GB sizes.  For better performance at a higher cost, step up to the OCZ Vertex 3 series.)

So, long story short, if you’ve got an old computer that is just slower than you’d like and you don’t want to shell out a pile of money to buy a newer model, chances are you can swap out your hard drive with an SSD, and upgrade the RAM, not have it cost you that much, and you’ll end up with a computer that feels better than it did when you first pulled it out of the box.  It will actually feel much faster than a new computer unless the newer one happens to come with an SSD.

Installation of either the SSD or memory is pretty easy, but if you’ve got a hungry computer-savvy buddy, bake him or her a pie or plate of cookies to install yours for you.  You’ll be SO glad you upgraded.

Tip: SSDs perform best under Windows 7 (or the most recent versions of Linux).  Windows Vista, XP, and Mac OS X will run on SSDs, but they do not fully take advantage of the extra performance that SSDs offer.  These operating systems also suffer from a problem which causes writes to the disk to become incredibly slow after a period of time because they do not support a feature called TRIM.  This happens once the total amount of data written to the drive exceeds the total capacity of the drive.  This doesn’t mean you’ll see performance decrease when the drive is full, but after that much data has been written to the drive in total, whether you’re overwriting or deleting files or not.  Since the operating system itself writes to the disk a lot just as part of its normal operation (especially if you don’t have enough memory), you’ll probably hit this limitation a lot faster than you’d think you might.  Windows 7 knows how to properly communicate with the drive to let it know what parts of the drive are no longer being used, so it does not suffer from this problem.  If you’re running Vista or XP, you should also upgrade to Windows 7 if you’re going to run an SSD for the best results.  Mac users, you’re kind of out of luck... you’ll see amazing performance on your SSD for a while, then it will slow down drastically.  And there isn’t anything that can be done about it; it looks like not even the forthcoming OS X Lion upgrade is going to support TRIM unless you buy the computer with an SSD pre-installed by Apple.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Apple Location Issue: Somewhat Better, but Still Bad!!!

Apple put out a press release last week, and issued a software update yesterday that addresses the location tracking issue that was made public two weeks ago.  It’s a step in the right direction, but there are still unanswered questions and things to be concerned about.

The software update does a few things right.  iOS version 4.3.3 makes some good changes…

  • Only 24 hours’ worth of data is stored on the phone.
  • The local cache of location data can be turned off entirely.
  • The data file is not backed up to your computer.

These are all great steps.  Apple should be commended for making these changes.  However, they haven’t really gone quite far enough.  The data on the phone is still not encrypted (that change is coming sometime in the future), potentially making it available to apps and people if a phone has been jailbroken or a software exploit is discovered that allows access to such files.  I’m not going to make too much more of a stink about that because on easy way to avoid that is to not jailbreak the device in the first place.

Their press release was still a little bit troubling, though.  First, they engaged in a game of semantics.  They claim that “Apple” does not track “your” location.  Instead, the phone keeps a list of cell phone towers and WiFi access points near its location.  Uhhh… how much different is the location of things near you from your current location?  WiFi access points typically have a very short range (how far away from your house can you use your WiFi?) so the accuracy of WiFi location data is actually fairly good.  Nice try, Apple, but your word game doesn’t work on me.

The more troubling thing about their release is something that I haven’t heard anybody bring up, anywhere.  One of the things they stated was that the data on the phone isn’t really the phone’s location, but a local cache of list of cell towers and WiFi access points that have been near your phone, right?  Well, that data is coming from an Apple database.  And that database is huge.  Certainly bigger than what can be stored on a phone.  So Apple sends small subsets of that data to the phone, and this is stored locally (indefinitely for iOS <4.3.3, 24 hours for 4.3.3) to make calculating your location easier.  Sounds okay conceptually, right?  Well, there’s a big problem with that.  In order to decide what data to send to you, Apple has to know what cell towers and WiFi access points are near your phone in the first place.  They haven’t made any sort of statement about what they are doing with that data.

Imagine this scenario… you’re lost, and you need to know where you are. You might call a friend and tell them a little about what you see around you.  You can describe buildings and other landmarks, hoping that based on that information your friend will be able to help you figure out where you are.  But in the process, haven’t you revealed your position to your friend?  It just isn’t possible to get your location using this method without letting someone know where you are.  This is exactly what happens with cell phones (not just the iPhone) when they use this method to locate themselves.

Apple claims that it uses a unique ID number which isn’t tied to your account, and it changes (now) every 24 hours when making these requests.  Microsoft has said it changes the ID number as well periodically, but not how often.  Google never changes this ID number.  So in theory, Apple can only track a phone for 24 hours, Microsoft for an indefinite amount of time, and Google can track it forever.  They all claim they can’t tie this to an individual phone, but that just is not accurate.  Here’s why…

Every data conversation that takes place on the internet does so using an IP address.  It’s sort of like a phone number, and it is used to route data from point A to point B.  It’s fundamental to the way that the Internet works.  For two computers to have a two way conversation, both have to know the other’s IP address.  So these conversations where phones download the list of nearby cell towers and WiFi access points have to include this IP address.  It’s absolutely required. 

If the cell tower and WiFi location data was hosted by a third party (as all three of these players once did), there might not be as much to worry about because the IP address couldn’t necessarily be tied to an individual phone.  The trouble is that the companies providing the location data are the same ones that create the operating systems for the phones.  And you have to sign into their services to use the devices.  With the iPhone, you have to tie it to your Apple ID.  With Google, it has to be tied to your Google Account.  With Windows Phone, it has to be tied to your Windows Live account.  And all devices call home to update various aspects of those services… such as checking for app updates or checking email, for example.  Those conversations ALSO take place using an IP address, which happens to be the same for both these services as well as the location database download as well.  Bingo… they have a link between you, your device, and your location.

All three companies have claimed that they do not upload YOUR location to their services tied to your account.  The problem is that they DO have enough information in various places to be able to piece together your location.  A request for a list of nearby cell towers and (Your login to a company’s services + IP Address) + (WiFi access points + IP Address) = You + Your Location. 

I’m not saying that the companies are actually doing this, I’m just saying that the potential is there for these companies to tie a lot of information together than they’re admitting.  In all cases, you, your location, your purchasing habits, the contents of your email, and more can all potentially be tied together.  The possible implications can be scary.

The good news is that Apple now allows Location Services to be turned off entirely, so the phone won’t even ask for location information tied to nearby radio signals.  The down side is that turning this off completely disables all GPS functions.  It is technically possible to enable GPS functionality without the local cache functionality, but none of the phone manufacturers are allowing that.  GPS devices do it all of the time, but for some reason cell phones aren’t allowed to.

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