TagMobile Technology

Apple and Control Machines

apple: come see our latest restriction

In the days before the new Apple tablet was announced the anti-DRM group Defective by Design dubbed Apple’s announcement event the “Come see our latest restriction” event. Since then, there’s been a lot of chatter about the various limitations of the device – DRM, or otherwise.

I think some of these limitations could be important for the future of computing and media.

Limitations could be a feature – keeping people focused on reading. Perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking of this as a laptop or netbook alternative at all, but as an text reader and video player. Having a limited multitasking abilities and a lack of Flash might be a means to limit our level of distraction from e-mail and instant messaging. Stan Schroeder wrote for Mashable:

Then, there’s multi-tasking. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks this is a huge deal-breaker, but I think it makes sense. Although Steve Jobs was trying hard to prove to us that the iPad is a computer, it isn’t. Just like the iPod and the iPhone, its main purpose is to give the users an easy way to consume certain types of digital content. After music (iPod) and mobile applications (iPhone) comes iPad with video, photos, e-books, e-magazines, games. Apple doesn’t really want you to do complex photo editing on the iPad; you’ve got your Mac or PC for that. Apple wants you to touch a button, and start consuming content (preferably paying a couple of dollars for it).

Finally, the camera. Yes, it would be nice to have video chat. But once again, Apple wants you to do that on a Mac. If you want to snap photos, you should do it on the iPhone — you’re carrying it with you all the time, anyway. Once again, it becomes clear that Apple doesn’t want to sell devices that can do everything; they want to find the best form factor to consume some types of digital content, and then focus on them. If you look at it, you can do pretty much everything on your personal computer; by that philosophy, you don’t need anything else besides a laptop. And yet, you’ve now got smartphones and e-readers selling very well. Could it be that one powerful device is not as good as several less powerful, but more focused ones?

If that’s the case, and the iPad is just another consumer device and a paradigm, then it’s no big deal.

But if they’re letting users instal everything from the iPhone app store, then are they really designing useful limitations to keep the device focused? You can install apps that do just about anything, not just consume media. And the keyboard extension explicitly allows two-way media interaction.

Ultimately the lack of Flash or multitasking or a web cam seem trivial to me. They’re just features that may or may not be able to make or break the latest in consumer technology. And that’s just not important. But there’s a scarier possibility – that Apple is slowing easing its customers into an app-store centric world, where every app that runs on their platform on a “legitimate” (non-“jailbroken”) device has to pass their gates. It may sound conspiratorial, but I worry that Apple is trying to migrate their closed device paradigm from the mobile world (where that sort of thing is already pretty common) to the desktop world (where that’s unheard of). It’s strange that years after Trusted Computing became an information liberty concern, it’s been Apple, not Microsoft, leading the way to a more restrictive computing environment.

Peter Kirn at Create Digital Music has an extensive post considering the potential problems of the “closed Apple” world:

Apple already has a dangerously dominant position in the consumption of music and mobile software, and their iTunes-device link ensures that content goes through their store, their conduit, and ultimately their control. This means that developers are limited in what they can create for the device when it comes to media – a streaming Last.fm app is okay, but an independent music store (like Amazon MP3 on Android) is not. Now, you can add to that Apple dominating book distribution. At a time when we have an opportunity to promote independent e-book publishing, the iPad is accompanied by launch deals from major traditional publishers. What does that mean for independent writers and content? […]

Apple threatens to split computing into two markets, one for “traditional,” “real” computers, and another for passive consumption devices that try to play games without physical controls and let you read books, watch movies, play music, and run apps so long as you’re willing to go through the conduit of a single company.

And, of course, this wouldn’t be worth my breath if not for my real concern: what if Apple actually succeeds? What if competitors follow this broken path, or fail to offer strong alternatives? The iPad today is a heck of a lot slicker than alternatives. It’s bad news for Linux, Windows, and Android, none of which have really workable competitors yet. It’s especially bad for Linux, in fact, which had a real chance to make its mark on mobile devices.

Timothy Blee makes the case that restricted computing will lose out in the market. I’m not so optimistic.

On not-so-dark note, I was disappointed at how uninnovative the iPad is. It’s just a big iPod touch, or a really crippled tablet pc. It seems like it could be an interesting musical insturment (a nice platform for RJDJ, for instance) It doesn’t seem like as much of a game changer as something like this:

microsoft courier

It’s unusual for Microsoft to out innovate Apple (or rather, to beat them to stealing good ideas), but their Courier seems to do just that. Of course, it’s vaporware right now, and could continue to be so, just like its abandoned predecessor the OLPC2:

olpc 2

Augmented Reality in a Contact Lens

augmented reality contacts

These visions (if I may) might seem far-fetched, but a contact lens with simple built-in electronics is already within reach; in fact, my students and I are already producing such devices in small numbers in my laboratory at the University of Washington, in Seattle [see sidebar, “A Twinkle in the Eye”]. These lenses don’t give us the vision of an eagle or the benefit of running subtitles on our surroundings yet. But we have built a lens with one LED, which we’ve powered wirelessly with RF. What we’ve done so far barely hints at what will soon be possible with this technology. […]

These lenses don’t need to be very complex to be useful. Even a lens with a single pixel could aid people with impaired hearing or be incorporated as an indicator into computer games. With more colors and resolution, the repertoire could be expanded to include displaying text, translating speech into captions in real time, or offering visual cues from a navigation system. With basic image processing and Internet access, a contact-lens display could unlock whole new worlds of visual information, unfettered by the constraints of a physical display.

IEEE Spectrum: Augmented Reality in a Contact Lens

Taser adds mobile phone monitoring tool to its arsenal

Hot on the heels of this court decision, it looks like Taser is trying to diversify their product offerings:

Stun gun maker Taser wants to help parents, not with jolts of electricity but with a tool which allows parents to effectively take over a child’s mobile phone and manage its use.

“Basically we’re taking old fashioned parenting and bringing it into the mobile world,” Taser chairman and co-founder Tom Smith said at the Consumer Electronics Show here, where the Arizona company unveiled the new product.

“Because when you give your child his mobile phone you don’t know who they’re talking to, what they’re sending or texting, all of those things,” Smith told AFP.

The phone application, called “Mobile Protector,” allows a parent to screen a child’s incoming and outgoing calls and messages, block particular numbers and even listen in on a conversation.

A dashboard on a parent’s phone or a personal computer shows the mobiles being monitored and the permitted callers such as friends and family.

AFP: Taser adds mobile phone monitoring tool to its arsenal

(via Cryptogon)

Rwanda mobile phone revenue could reach US$1 billion by 2012

Sub-Saharan Africa is not famous for technological innovation but a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that mobile telephone use has grown twice as quickly there as anywhere else in the world. Even in tiny Rwanda, the government estimates that revenue from mobile phones will reach US$1 billion by 2012.

Africa Confidential: Don’t forget your SIM card (Free preview, haven’t read full article)

(via Appropedia)

Iraq’s mobile phone revolution

Asked to name the single biggest benefit of America’s invasion, many Iraqis fail to mention freedom or democracy but instead praise the advent of mobile phones, which were banned under Saddam Hussein. Many Iraqis seem to feel more liberated by them than by the prospect of elected resident government.

In the five years since the first network started up, the number of subscribers has soared to 20m (in a population of around 27m), while the electricity supply is hardly better than in Mr Hussein’s day. That is double the rate for Lebanon, where a civil war ended two decades ago and income per head is four times higher. […]

They also became a tool of commerce. Reluctant to risk their lives by visiting a bank, many subscribers transferred money to each other by passing on the serial numbers of scratch cards charged with credit, like gift vouchers. Recipients simply add the credit to their account or sell it on to shops that sell the numbers at a slight discount from the original. This impromptu market has turned mobile-phone credit into a quasi-currency, undermining the traditional informal hawala banking system.

Economist: Better than freedom?

(via Chris Arkenberg)

Somali mobile phone firms thrive despite chaos

Somalia’s mobile phone business is booming despite the almost daily artillery fire that flies over expensive satellite dishes and the violence that has brought misery to the population of the Horn of Africa nation.

The three largest firms, Hormuud Telecom, Nation Link and Telecom Somalia, have a combined 1.8 million mobile users who enjoy some of the world’s cheapest calling rates, allowing them to stay in touch with their loved ones amidst the conflict. […]

With mobile phone use at about 18 percent of the population, Somalia lags its neighbour and east Africa’s largest economy Kenya, where it is above 40 percent, but it is ahead of several other poor African nations.

Reuters: Somali mobile phone firms thrive despite chaos

(via Global Guerillas)

Transborder Immigrant Tool Helps Mexicans Cross Over Safely

transborder

The hacker/performance art/activist organization Electronic Disturbance Theater has invented a new device, the Transborder Immigrant Tool:

We looked at the Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet. We were able to crack it and create a simple compasslike navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway—things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border.

Some background:

In the 80s I was a member of something called the Critical Art Ensemble. We wrote a series of books published in the 90s that speculated on what the future, and computers especially, might bring. Our core speculations were that we would see the emergence of three different arcs of capitalism in the 90s: digital capitalism, genetic capitalism or clone capitalism, and particle capitalism or nano-driven technology. We decided we would speculate not only on the artistic aspect of these emerging capitalisms but also on how we could intervene as artist-activists into each of these areas. We developed the idea of electronic civil disobedience as a way to mediate the emergence of digital capitalism. Some Critical Art Ensemble members have even been arrested for their work. One in particular, Steve Kurtz, was brought before a grand jury in 2004. Homeland Security considered his use of nonpathogenic bacteria in certain museum installations a bioterrorist threat.

Vice: Transborder Immigrant Tool Helps Mexicans Cross Over Safely

(Thanks Josh Ellis)

Palm Pre Snoops on Users by Phoning Data Home

Programmer Joey Hess found that Palm Pre’s operating system webOS sends his GPS location back to Palm every day. Hess also found code that sends Palm data on which webOS apps he has used each day, and for how long he used each one.

“I was surprised by this,” Hess, who bought the Pre about a month ago, told Wired.com. “I had location services turned off though I had GPS still on because I wanted it to geotag photos. Still I didn’t expect Palm to collect this level of information.” […]

Palm’s actions trigger questions about consumer privacy and the extent to which handset makers and developers are gathering and using data about buyers’ behavior. In this case, some of the concerns may be overblown, says Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Golvin cites Sun CEO Scott McNealy, who said in 1999: “You have zero privacy. Get over it.” Says Golvin, “While that is certainly overstated, it is also true. Consumers, in general are concerned about privacy but look at the number of people who are willing to give up every detail of their personal lives for the opportunity to win a big screen TV.”

Wired: Palm Pre Snoops on Users by Phoning Data Home

Shizzow’s Social Location Service Marries ‘Where’ With ‘What’

Shizzow encourages users to accompany each location update with a short message describing their current activity. The added context is super helpful in real life social applications, and it elevates Shizzow above a simpler service like Fire Eagle, which just provides location data, and Brightkite, which is being used more like Twitter with location attached. By contrast, Shizzow puts location at the fore.

Full Story: Wired

Ubicomp on the cheap

The prototype was built from an ordinary webcam and a battery-powered 3M projector, with an attached mirror — all connected to an internet-enabled mobile phone. The setup, which costs less than $350, allows the user to project information from the phone onto any surface — walls, the body of another person or even your hand.

Maes showed a video of her student Pranav Mistry who she describes as the brains behind the project. Mistry wore the device on a lanyard around his neck, and colored Magic Marker caps on four fingers (red, blue, green and yellow) helped the camera distinguish the four fingers and recognize his hand gestures with software that Mistry created.

The gestures can be as simple as using his fingers and thumbs to create a picture frame that tells the camera to snap a photo, which is saved to his mobile phone. When he gets back to an office, he projects the images onto a wall and begins to size them.

When he encounters someone at a party, the system projects a cloud of words on the person’s body to provide more information about him — his blog URL, the name of his company, his likes and interests. “This is a more controversial [feature],” Maes said over the audience’s laughter.

In another frame, Mistry picks up a boarding pass while he’s sitting in a car. He projects the current status of his flight and gate number he’s retrieved from the flight-status page of the airline onto the card.

“If you need to know what time it is, it’s as simple as drawing a watch on your arm,” Maes said, while Mistry used his right finger to draw a circle on his left wrist. The face of a watch popped up on his hand, which the audience liked.

Full Story: Wired

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