Sunday, 10 January 2021

Thinking about Instant Messaging and WhatsApp

I have been thinking a lot about instant messaging. IM today is something that has evolved from all kinds of “chat” applications over decades. The Internet had Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Proprietary services such as Prestel in the UK had chat systems. It has a long online history including Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in the 1980s.

The idea of Instant Messaging today comes from the competition between three services. America Online Instant Messaging (AIM), Yahoo Instant Messenger, and Microsoft Instant Messenger (MSN Messenger). All three slugged it out for top position in IM on the PC. 

In the early 2000s a new kid on the block was Skype. Eventually taken over by Microsoft. Microsoft then closed down it’s successful MSN Messenger and replaced it with Skype. Although it seems that this didn’t really add much to Microsoft’s usage figures. MSN Messenger had built a use case that wasn’t really replicated by the Skype feature set. 

Mobile threw up some new contenders. Google kept inventing different Instant Messaging tools. It then killed them off. The problem with this is that Instant Messaging depends on your friends and contacts being on one system. Google re-inventing things just relied on it’s Android OS offering each iteration as the default. 

Apple uses it’s iMessage client, integrated with SMS messaging, for it’s mobile messaging service. 

For a while Blackberry also had BBM. A secure messenger focussed on the enterprise. 

Microsoft’s WindowsPhone never had Skype as integral to it’s mobile experience so Skype was never a first class resident on WindowsPhone. 

Mobile already had text messaging (SMS) so Instant Messaging was rather unnecessary in some respects. However, SMS was provided by phone companies and charged per message. It also charged a premium for international texts. It used a phone charging model in an internet connected world. Users quickly worked out there were more capabilities in IM and, if you got a reasonable data plan, messages were free. 

Facebook has its Messenger interface. Closely aligned with it’s social platform You get messenger with Facebook without really trying. Then we have WhatsApp. WhatsApp was bought by Facebook but Facebook promised not to integrate it into the whole Facebook ecosystem and run it as a separate business. WhatsApp ease of use on mobile got many people into Instant Messaging who were usually quite happy with texting friends. 

WhatsApp has been popular and many people just download it when they are invited to a group chat. Now Facebook is going to change it’s terms of service to monetize WhatsApp more effectively. WhatsApp is to share advertising data, location, IP address and much more with Facebook. 

I looked at this. I am certainly not a privacy campaigner but I do believe that applications should only know enough about me to deliver the service. This seems more like data harvesting with no obvious benefit to me. No benefit at all. This is to help Facebook advertising. Nothing more. 

As a result I am now trialling Telegram and Signal as possible replacements. At the time I wrote this Edward Snowden recommends Signal

Instant Messaging has gone from being private chat to a method of extracting a range of personal data to use for advertising. I think it is time for me to opt-out of that.

For more on how social networking makes you the product then this Netflix drama/documentary called the Social Dilemma might interest you. 



Sunday, 27 December 2020

Privacy

 

This year I finally stopped procrastinating, stopping, changing and not deciding. I fully returned to the Apple mobile phone ecosystem after ten years. The last time I really used an Apple Iphone was the Iphone 4. Now I have an Apple Iphone 12 mini.

To be fair I dodged between an Iphone 8 Plus and a Nokia 8.1 for a year. Switching back and forward without really deciding which way to go. 

There were a few reasons at finally spending real money but one was privacy. 

Privacy doesn't mean secrecy. I don't need my private life put in a security bubble. People are entitled to privacy. It's not about hiding stuff. Its much more the simple concept that you should be able to have a life without being watched. Governments and companies should serve citizens and customers. 

The old idea that if you have got nothing to hide you have nothing to fear is untrue. Its nonsense. The word "hide" implies concealment. Privacy is about a person being able to freely choose how to lead their own life without surveillance or judgement. 

However, when you interact with the Internet the services you use are not private. Your location data and shopping habits are the most obvious. The bargain you make with using Google services for free is that they keep track of you and sell their observations to advertisers. 

Apple and Microsoft make their money from selling stuff rather than you. They do keep track of using their services but that's not their main focus. In a world where no one is completely anonymous both Apple and Microsoft seem to value privacy. Facebook is different. Its 2.7 billion users are getting Facebook for free. Facebook categorise you and sell you to advertisers. You are the product. 

Facebook use advertising IDs on mobile. The idea being that apps can track what you do. They are. 

  • Apple's Advertising Identifier (IDFA): An advertising ID that Apple provides as part of iOS in its ads framework
  • Android's Advertising ID: An advertising ID that Google provides as part of Android
  • Facebook App User IDs: An ID corresponding to someone who uses an app that can be retrieved through the Facebook SDK.
Just because you use a mobile phone you have an advert id associated with it. Apps can read that id and track you. Even when you use a different app. So if you decide to shop for shoes online then Facebook can use the ID to know this and present you with shoe adverts. 

Apple has decided that it needs to get user's consent for this behaviour. It will shortly be asking people "Do you want to be tracked by ..." adding the name of the app. You can say yes or no. 

Facebook seem to think most people will say no. This will impact their value to advertisers and to revenue. Facebook are fighting back and have used full page adverts in newspapers to claim this is Apple harming small businesses that use Facebook.

I don't mind seeing adverts to get "free" services. Its part of the bargain. However, the relationship should be in a walled garden. I only get the "free" service in that app. Tracking between apps means my personal info is being shared. On this occasion I think Apple are doing the right thing by asking me if I want to be tracked outside the app itself. Privacy is good. People should consent honestly to their data being used. 

Monday, 30 November 2020

Cheating

 I cheated. My MacBook project was doing well but I had to go too far.  My £200 experiment in updating an 11 year old Mac ended with me using a version of MacOS Catalina. Until a week ago this was the latest one. You could use a website run by a developer to "hack" a copy that would work on my ancient Mac.

However, it was unsupported. The IT lesson is always that "unsupported" is not the same as "doesn't work". Supported means, in this context, that Apple will update the OS with a variety of ongoing security updates and maybe even a feature update. This latter possibility being unlikely. 

The supported OS was High Sierra. This is the 2017 MacOs. To be fair none of this is important to me specifically. Getting a really cheap 11 year Mac working was the exercise, not what OS was installed. The fact is that I got quite a few browser crashes and, from what I could see, a considerable performance hit from trying to get it all working.

I am off work and locked down. So today I re-instated High Sierra, version 10.13 of the Mac family. 

In the paraphrased words of Clint Eastwood; "A man has to know his limitations". Today, my limitation was High Sierra. 

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Macbook Air M1

 



The Apple M1 is the first Apple Silicon on a PC. Back in 2005 Apple moved to Intel chips. This year they announced they were going to make their own PC chips based on ARM (Advanced Risc Machines)

ARM is a design. A reference. It is a reduced instruction set. The world of the PC has been dominated by Intel and AMD. They have developed powerful chips that have been put in PCs and servers by default. The instruction set is the way in which the silicon chips process data. Intel have used complex instructions that have allowed increasing speed. ARM designed reduced instruction sets. The idea being that an action that occurs with an Intel chip may take one instruction can happen on ARM with multiple instructions. This isn't a new thing. ARM has been around since the 1980s. 

Over the years Intel has relied on computers tethered to mains electrical power. Their processors have required more power to execute complex instructions and the higher wattage has created heat. So Intel based PCs have fans and large heat sinks. This suited the world of desktop computers and servers with big power supplies and ventilation.

In contrast ARM chips have low power requirements. ARM don't make chips but license the intellectual property of their designs. A company is free to build an ARM chip as long as they pay a license fee. ARM chips are made by a number of companies including Qualcomm and Apple. 

ARM chips, with lower power requirements have become most successful in mobile. The change from large desktop PCs to lower powered smartphones, tablets and ultra thin laptops has left Intel struggling to supply low power chips. However, because most PC applications rely on Intel instruction sets there have been two parallel computing universes. ARM on mobile and Intel in desktop. The latter having the performance and speed to run the heavy duty productivity applications. 

Apple have broken through that barrier by putting an ARM processor inside a MacBook. Although people worried that ARM would not deliver on performance the first reviews seem good. 

This is not the end of the Windows PC. Windows is still used in business and business has a lot of applications that are not going to run on ARM anytime soon. However, the Apple M1 chip is another move to a new mobile centric world. 


Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Everything X


There was a time when everything was "X" at Microsoft. Internet Explorer had "ActiveX" and PC graphics were "DirectX" in Windows. Thus the "XBox" used "DirectX" and was a box of "X". A PC that could do games. It was so PC that people bought the first XBox and installed Linux on it.

This month was my big choice. Move to the Sony Playstation Five from my Xbox One or go for the Xbox Series X. I chose Xbox again. Primarily for the software.

When Microsoft launched the Xbox One the "One" bit was about being the one device for the living room under the TV. Conceptually the Xbox One would be your cable replacement, your movie watching device, your music device and you could even play games. It would use the Kinect sensor to recognise you and log you into your Microsoft account.

This had some consequences. Sony advertised Playstation as "for the players". A serious games console. As a result it sold more than twice as many. Not having a compulsory AI camera system also reduced the price. The Xbox One also had a loud fan and was the size of a suitcase. Not something you want in your living room. Worse was to come. TVs came with apps that had access to pay TV shows and music. An eventuality that meant the Xbox One as an entertainment console was less relevant. 

The dream of Xbox services being everywhere disappeared when WindowsPhone failed to win any market share and Microsoft gradually withdrew from consumer services. The one consumer service remained -  Xbox.

Xbox has rebuilt its reputation by degrees. Microsoft bought games studios and even MineCraft. The cloud business that Microsoft has established is now being leveraged as a games platform. The latest incarnation being GamePass. A monthly subscription service allowing you to download and play games.

Its this latter option that swayed me. Computing is about software. Lack of apps sunk WindowsPhone but having access to a vast library of games for a monthly fee is better value than spending a lot of money to own games. With Netflix for TV and Spotify for music the consumer is now comfortable with the monthly subscription model.

Xbox Series X seemed to me to offer the best value proposition of the new era of console gaming.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Apple October Event


 This week Apple announced it's iPhone 12 in it's reassuringly impressive announcement videos. An Apple announcement is usually incredibly professional and wonderfully produced. It is the summer blockbuster of the tech announcement world. Other companies try to do the same but they all lack a certain something. Microsoft can't manage it because they are a company focussed on the technical. Microsoft also seem curiously unable to produce a flawlessly finished product that people can buy days after. Instead it always looks like a "pre-production" event. 

YouTubers can do a better job than me of breaking down Apple's announcements. However, I have a few thoughts. 

The HomePod Mini is a $99 home speaker with Siri. Welcomed by Apple enthusiasts as a realistic product to take into that device category. Their previous effort was the expensive $399 HomePod. It was really just a music player that only worked with Apple Music. No matter how it sounded it was just "something else". 

The $99 HomePod Mini is the $99 product in a $49 world. The current batch of Google and Amazon speakers have been the impulse purchase of the consumer. Apple's HomePod Mini is "cheap" by Apple standards but twice as expensive as the others.  For those deeply embedded in the Apple ecosystem it will work well. Most people have probably got and Amazon Echo or a Google device.  Apple's new HomePod Mini doesn't seem to support Spotify for music. The choice of millions of people. So again it doesn't really say "device for everyone". 

Privacy could be the big selling point. People don't like the idea of "big tech" listening to them. If  people feel home speakers need privacy then it could sell it to some people. 

The big announcements were about the iPhone 12. What struck me was the Iphone 12 Mini is a 5.4 inch screen device. The iPhone 8 Plus from just a couple of years ago is 5.5 inches.  Mini seems an odd marketing faux pas. It seems meaningless against the iPhone SE at 4.7 inches. 

The design is a revival of the square Iphone 4 look of 10 years ago. So it should look distinctive in a world of rounded edges of Android phones. Above all the selling point seemed to be 5G.  All iPhone 12 models have 5G but most people can't access 5G. It's something for the well connected. It seemed that Apple were trying to create a symbiotic relationship of selling 5G and thus selling iPhone as the best device to access it. 

If you are fully invested in the Apple ecosystem and want the latest then this will be enough to get you. If you have an iphone that's a couple of years old then the device you have is probably good enough. If you live in a 5G area and really need the speed then this could be worth an upgrade. Apple will sell millions of these but they remain premium devices at a premium price. 

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Maxed Out

 


The last stage of my MacBook upgrade saga has been completed. A late 2009 Apple Macbook was sold with 2gb and 4gb memory options. The 4gb option being the maximum supported memory configuration.  Macbooks have a long life. These days 4gb of memory seems like a minimum rather than a maximum. Could this vintage Macbook take two 4gb memory modules and have an unsupported 8gb configuration?

It turned out that several people on the internet have already done this. For a cost of £28.00 I could do it too.

After I took off the back plate, located the modules, and then replaced them 8GB was installed and working. 

The cost of the Macbook was now £179 for the Macbook, £28 for an SSD and £28 to max out the memory. 

The thing that couldn't be changed was the screen. It is lower resolution than what you expect today and the viewing angles are terrible. The processor is years old too. However, for email, web browsing and remote connection it works well. In fact it's more powerful than a similarly priced 2020 Chromebook.

As a project for a week away from work it was a bit of fun.