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Apple iOS 7 and Windows 8 woes prove difficulty of operating system builds

18 Oct 2013

iOS 7 features redesigned applications include Music and Safari

Can anyone make a decent operating system? That’s the question tech lovers around the world appear to be asking as the biggest vendors appear unable to just make a decent platform that's easy to use and nice to look at.

Microsoft – the daddy of the operating system world – has been flailing for a while now to try and entice people to Windows 8. But so far it is failing. While Windows 8.1 is improving some areas, it is unlikely to prove a panacea for all its ills.

In fact, Microsoft could be said to have peaked as far back as 2001 when its beloved XP platform hit the market. Even now, 12 years later, there are those who see no reason to upgrade, even if support is set to end in six months.

Meanwhile Apple, the darling of the tech world, is facing unprecedented levels of criticism for numerous issues that users of its new iOS 7 operating system have found with the platform.

These range from functionality to design and many V3 readers have implored others not to move to the new platform if they haven't done so already. Such criticism of Apple, especially on a design and functionality level, would have been unthinkable a year or so ago.

So what is going on? In some ways it appears firms are trying to be too clever, to be too innovative. At the end of a day an operating system should be the base layer for everything else. It should be easy to use, simple to understand and allow you to run other applications over the top.

With too much focus now given to all-singing systems that can do everything and out-innovate rivals it almost seems as if the firms are forgetting to do any user feedback to find out if stuff just works.

One good example was raised by a V3 reader who noticed this bizarre iOS 7 issue. The phone automatically dims its display brightness when you open the new control panel menu. This means, though, if you’re trying to adjust screen brightness, you can’t accurately gauge the brightness of the screen. It’s almost comic in its failure to work at the most basic level.

Similarly, while one can understand Microsoft may have thought the bold and radical change of Windows 8 may have made them seem, well, bold and radical, someone really should have stepped in and said it was too much.

People never like change, even when it's good for them, so for Microsoft to develop Windows 8 was always going to prove an incredibly disruptive situation. And while the tech world loves the term disrupt for conjuring up the feeling they're changing the world, for most people disruption is a negative that can be done without.


The firm was probably so blinded by the need to innovate and impress that it overlooked the basic notion of KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. A motto that works well in a surprisingly large number of instances. Let's hope Apple has taken it on board for its Mac OS X Mavericks update, due to be unveiled next week.

By V3's Dan Worth, who loves a good operating system

Ada Lovelace Day celebrates female tech and science heroines

15 Oct 2013

Ada Lovelace portrait

As we have often reported on V3 there is a clear lack of female workers in the tech and science industries. This is not just an issue about balance in workforces but one that could affect the whole industry as a growing skills crisis looms

As such, the importance of events such as Ada Lovelace Day being celebrated on Tuesday cannot be overlooked. Not only are they vital to ensure the historic legacy of the likes of Lovelace herself are remembered, but to show future generations the potential for exciting and fulfilling careers in the IT industry.

The day itself runs across the world, with events in Brazil, Canada, Ecuador and of course here in the UK. A full list of all the events – some of which run later in the month – can be found on the FindingAda.com website.

The efforts by the organisers to celebrate Lovelace – a Victorian mathematician who is often referred to as the first computer programmer – have been welcomed by many.

Sheila Flavell, the chief operating officer of IT consultant firm FDM Group, which has been a vocal supporter of getting more women into IT, said Lovelace is the ideal role model for female techies.

“Ada Lovelace Day is always an important date in my calendar. Writing computer programmes in a time when women rarely received the same education as men (let alone in science, technology and mathematics), Lovelace is a role model to every woman in the industry, which is why we chose to launch our global Women in IT campaign two years ago on this day," she told V3.
 
“It is not only important to create a positive working environment to develop the careers of your current female workforce, but it is also vital to encourage and support women of all ages to consider an IT career. Whether it is your daughter, your sister, your mother, your aunt or your grandmother, FDM aims to create a new generation of Ada Lovelaces and I hope that other companies do the same.”

Jane Richardson, head of Oracle Academy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the IT industry must take on its burden of responsibility too, and ensure it does everything it can to appeal to young females. “The IT industry will have an important role to play in helping attract women to IT. In the short term, for young people and adults today this role will lie in showing to women just how open to them a career in IT is, and how rewarding they will find it,” she said.

“Longer term we need to work closely with governments to place IT at the heart of curricula, making it a core skill that all students, regardless of gender, will learn at the earliest stage possible.”

Clearly, with support from firms such as Oracle and the FDM Group, the Ada Lovelace Day has major backing and V3 would also add its support to anything that encourages any individual, male or female, to realise the IT and tech sector offers the opportunity for a fascinating, diverse and challenging career, with huge potential for the future.

If the efforts result in the discovery of a few more Ada Lovelace geniuses, all the better.

Ada Lovelace plaque

Plaque celebrating Ada Lovelace in St James's Sq, London

Steve Jobs' legacy still looms large at Apple but device design moves on

04 Oct 2013

Steve Jobs

Saturday marked two years since the tech industry came together to mourn the passing of Steve Jobs after his long-running battle with cancer.

His legacy has, if anything, only grown since, with films made to celebrate his life and every decision made at Apple in the last two years scrutinised with the question: “What would Steve have done?”.

Jobs still does – and probably always will – loom in the background of Apple, as shown by a message on Twitter from chief executive Tim Cook posted on the weekend.

Cook also sent an email to staff urging them to remember the legacy of Jobs and reflect on what his work meant to them, and the company as a whole.

"Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of Steve’s death. I hope everyone will reflect on what he meant to all of us and to the world. Steve was an amazing human being and left the world a better place. I think of him often and find enormous strength in memories of his friendship, vision and leadership," he wrote.

"He left behind a company that only he could have built and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple. We will continue to honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to the work he loved so much. There is no higher tribute to his memory. I know that he would be proud of all of you."

However, despite this remembrance and reverence for Jobs, there has been a clear move over the last two years by the firm, led by Cook, to move on and break old directives set by Jobs.

Nowhere is this more obvious than screen size. Jobs was always adamant that a 3.5in screen was more than enough for any smartphone, ignoring the craze for larger screens led by a raft of Android phones.

But since then Apple has brought out a trio of 4in devices – the iPhone 5, 5C and 5S – which everyone would now agree have improved the iPhone range.

In tablets, too, Jobs once decried the notion of a 7in iPad. “Seven-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with the iPad. Seven-inch tablets are dead on arrival,” he said.

Now the iPad Mini – just sneaking in at 7.9in – has arrived on the market and is a revelation, making the larger iPad devices look clunky and unwieldy. 

In many ways Apple had to make these moves, and one could quite easily imagine Jobs applying his ‘Reality distortion field (RDF)‘ to his former statements as he unveiled the same devices anyway to ensure the firm remained at the top of the market.

Nevertheless, it is now an Apple that has changed since Jobs, with new designs and ideas coming to the fore. This can also be seen in the iOS 7 operating system, which, under the leadership of Sir Jony Ive, represents a new chapter in Apple's history in which Jobs has had no direct influence.

Elsewhere, the firm also appears ever so slightly mellower, with Cook able to swallow his pride and apologise for mistakes – such as the Apple Maps launch – in a way that Jobs seemed incapable of doing, as the 'antennagate' saga proved.

Despite these changes, Apple's success, as witnessed by the huge sales of the iPhone 5S, continues thanks to the decisions set down and seen through by Jobs that have seen tablets and smartphones radically alter both the business and consumer landscapes.

Green smartphones to take the world by storm...at some point

01 Oct 2013

up-arrows-green

Among business users, the closest you can get to a discussion about the eco-friendliness of a smartphone is battery life. And even then, it's a purely pragmatic discussion that amounts to: "Will this phone make it through the day?"

Unlike appliances such as dishwashers and fridges, you won't normally come across clear eco-friendly ratings denoting how much energy a smartphone uses. What's more, there's been plenty of talk in the past about the materials used in smartphones: rare metals and harmful chemicals tend to make the smartphone industry a rather environmentally unfriendly business.

Aside from power consumption, conflict minerals are particularly problematic. As it stands, almost every tech company you can name produces hardware that contains minerals taken from regions of conflict in the Congo. While some firms are taking steps towards reducing this, the issue is still rife, and it's not as simple as just finding an alternative source.

It's not an issue that's regularly discussed by the general public, mostly because they probably aren't aware of the issues as there is no easy way to find out how eco-friendly your device is.

The lack of clarity for consumers should soon change, however. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an offshoot of the UN, is working alongside a group of smartphone makers including Apple, Samsung and Nokia to create a universally recognised rating system for smartphones. But who will benefit?

Bettina Tratz-Ryan, a Gartner research vice president, told V3 it isn't just a marketing exercise for the handset makers and mobile networks involved. "Initially, it will be more important for the manufacturers and the mobile service providers who want to show in their sustainability and environmental management reports that they look for eco standards and environmentally green technology."

She added that it will also help the bottom line, with better-designed phones reducing the costs of refurbishment and repairs.

It's interesting to note that Apple is involved with the scheme. The Cupertino firm always seems to do their own thing, ignoring the unofficial rule that smartphones should all make use of a standard micro-USB port to save on the disposal of thousands of tonnes of useless chargers, and instead choosing to adopt yet another proprietary connector for their most recent generations of iPads and iPhones.

Last year, Apple chose to opt out of EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) in order to take its own direction with its manufacturing methods only to opt back in again two days later. But nonetheless, here they are, seemingly taking an active part in the development of this new, customer-facing environmental scheme and working alongside other manufacturers.

Tratz-Ryan said the new scheme will take some time to filter down to consumers, especially as it may see the spread of smart technologies, which could tell devices when to turn off automatically, among other things. She likened this to technology that switches off the engines of some vehicles when they are stationary.

"Many drivers of new cars with automatic turn off during wait time at traffic lights were uncomfortable at first, but now this is a normality. We will see the same thing with eco-certified technology. The positioning will come through social media, portals, service domains as well as conventional marketing material."

It'll be very interesting to not only see what form this new scheme takes, but how manufacturers respond.

By V3's Michael Passingham, who wants a green iPhone 5C

Microsoft enterprise cloud customers protected by a wall of lawyers

30 Sep 2013

Microsoft logo at its Redmond headquarters

Microsoft's user data requests transparency report contained a brief line about the customers using the firm's enterprise services.

It stated that 19 requests had arrived in the first six months of 2013, all of which came from US agencies relating solely to customers within the US. Microsoft also added that so far it had received no requests regarding enterprise customers in connection with national security orders, which are more serious requests that can't be reported in detail.

It said that the 19 requests related to 48 accounts, which resulted in customer content (emails, documents, chat messages) being disclosed on four occasions, with one other request responded to with non-content data, which includes usernames and IP addresses. Of those five requests, four of the customers were notified while one other was not. Thirteen other requests were rejected or had no relevant data, with one further case still pending.

Microsoft defines enterprise customers as organisations subscribing multiple users to services such as Office 365, Azure, Exchange Online and CRM Online.

Microsoft highlighted that this is particularly pertinent as, while it obviously affects such a tiny minority of users, it still means that enterprise customers using cloud services have no choice as to whether they choose to release their data or not. If it's stored on Microsoft's servers, it's Microsoft's responsibility to disclose data whether they like it or not.

The crumb of comfort for Microsoft's enterprise customers is that Redmond clearly has a crack legal team that will reject any request it sees as legally unjustified. With that being said, there's still a lot of faith the public has to put into a group of unknown legal experts.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft's data compares with other enterprise cloud service providers if they choose to release their own data, which they are of course not obliged to do.

Written by V3's Michael Passingham, who has nothing to hide

Google takes Street View to Cern to allow science fans inside physics wonderland

26 Sep 2013

Street View screen shot showing inside at Cern from Google

Google’s Street View service has been a wonderful addition to the web, as it allows the world to check out landmarks and future holiday destinations in real-life glory, although the images are usually a few years out of date.

The firm has always shown it is keen to expand the services wherever it can, with shots of remote wilderness, canals, rivers and even mountains. Now, the latest location to face the all-seeing eye of Street View is Cern, near Geneva.

V3 has seen the site in the flesh and from the outside it isn’t much to look at, appearing very much like your standard set of offices in the European hinterland. But inside it’s a treasure trove of scientific wonder, with scientists tackling some of the most pressing questions about our universe.

So, the chance to peer around thanks to Street View is a great opportunity, and one that Google was keen to embrace, as Google Street View program manager Pascale Milite explained in a blog post.

"We’re delighted that CERN opened its doors to Google Maps Street View allowing anyone, anywhere in the world to take a peek into its laboratories, control centres and its myriad underground tunnels housing cutting-edge experiments,” she said.

“Street View also lets scientists working on the experiments, who may be on the other side of the world, explore the equipment they're using."

As ever, the images are slightly out of date, with the photography taking place back in 2011, Google said, but the firm did get access to some of the most important parts of the site, which are usually only seen by its top scientists, so we'll forgive them for the lateness.

"You can check out experiments, like ATLAS, ALICE, CMS, LHCb and the Large Hadron Collider tunnel in Google Maps,” she added.

And if you're really lucky, perhaps you'll spot a Higgs boson lurking in the background.

Hackers could turn toasters into Bitcoin mines as value rockets

25 Sep 2013

toaster

HELSINKI: The humble toaster could become a security threat in the future due to the virtual currency Bitcoin.

For the uninitiated, Bitcoins are a cryptography-based digital currency, which allows users to send and receive money with a degree of anonymity without using traditional commerce networks, in effect cutting out middlemen such as banks. Many governments are also wary of their use as Bitcoin value is determined separately from them. Their uptake has rocketed over the past few years.

While hanging out in Helsinki with F-Secure, the firm's chief research officer Mikko Hypponen, never one to mince his words, said that the increasing value of Bitcoins is enticing criminal gangs to rework traditional malware targeting businesses to turn infected machines into Bitcoin mines.

Bitcoin mining refers to the way Bitcoins are actually earned. In a normal situation, a user runs an algorithm  on their computer to authenticate transactions on the Bitcoin platform. This is legal and the person running the process is rewarded with Bitcoins for their trouble. However, turning hoards of machines into your own army to generate huge numbers of Bitcoins is not. As such the crooks love it, as Hypponen explained.

"Bitcoins have been skyrocketing in value. At the moment the value per Bitcoin is currently $134. As this started happening and people started realising there's actual money in Bitcoin, people started mining them pretty seriously," he said.

"A big deal about crypto currency [such as Bitcoin] is the mining part. You can actually use other computers to mine and because of this, botnet-based mining is becoming a real problem. About a year ago we spotted a botnet not spreading malware or phishing, it was just mining bitcoins."

Hypponen went on to explain that Bitcoins' financial allure has already made established cyber criminals rethink their strategies and adapt some of the biggest, most dangerous botnets in the world to mine Bitcoins.

"ZeroAccess used to monetise itself with click fraud. They got on the machine and made it click on adverts to earn money. They changed their tactic in spring and went fully into Bitcoin mining. Some of our estimates suggest it is earning $58,000 a day. That's real money and something they will want to move to the real world," he said.

This is where the toaster idea comes in. Hypponen added that many of the gangs are so enthralled by Bitcoin's potential they've started experimenting with the idea of turning non-traditional devices into mines.

"[When mining Bitcoins] the user is irrelevant, it's the GPU, the computer and the network connection they need. This is especially interesting when you look at automation. I have a pebble watch, it has a GPU, it could mine Bitcoins, so does my fridge and my toaster – these are going to be used to mine Bitcoins," he said.

"We accepted toasters would eventually have computers, but didn't think it would be a problem – who would want to write malware for a toaster right? Well now they have a reason."

This may be a far-fetched example of how far the threat could go, but as recent hacks of IP-based lightbulbs have shown, the home of the future could be open to all kinds of attacks, even burnt toast.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Larry Ellison ditches Oracle OpenWorld keynote for America's Cup

24 Sep 2013

Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison disappointed the 60,000 OpenWorld attendees gathered at the Moscone Center on Tuesday afternoon by ditching his keynote slot at the last minute in favour of spending the afternoon out on the water.

Although Ellison is best known as the head of a major enterprise IT player, he’s also the owner of the Oracle Team USA sailing team, which just happens to be in the midst of a thrilling (if you like that kind of thing) race this week.

As is often the case, the OpenWorld user event is taking place at the same time as the America's Cup. But while in previous years the show has coincided with earlier heats or has been held in other locations, this week the final stage of the sailing competition is taking place in Ellison’s home town of San Francisco and is being closely contested by the US and New Zealand, who were leading the US by eight to seven as they took to the waters on Tuesday afternoon.

The timing was due to an unfortunate set of circumstances. Shipping regulations, broadcast time limits for the networks meaning sailing can only take place within defined times each day, and the tide and wind conditions, all combined to extend the race into OpenWorld week.

This left Ellison with a decision to make: leave his sailing team to their fate and head back to the Moscone stage by 2.15pm on Tuesday to fulfill his Oracle duties; or leave his Oracle staff to deal with the fallout from a no-show at Moscone and stay on the boat to watch how his team progressed. He chose the latter, leaving 60,000 disappointed OpenWorld attendees to hear from Ellison’s deputy Thomas Kurian. But while Kurian might have delivered the same information, Ellison draws the crowds for the entertainment factor of hearing who his latest target for digs and jibes will be this year.

So Kurian was faced with an exodus of disappointed DBAs and customers, and entered the stage to a very muted sprinkling of applause, while Ellison is no doubt celebrating Oracle’s eventual victory, meaning the US and New Zealand are now neck and neck with eight wins each. The last race is Wednesday, so Ellison’s PR team must be hastily rearranging all his commitments tomorrow to ensure his day is free to be back on the water. Ellison could always offer a partial refund on the cost of OpenWorld tickets to sweeten the disappointment, but based on his hard-nosed business sense, that seems unlikely.

Whether Ellison’s decision was an indication of his huge passion for sailing, or evidence of the rich not giving a damn, we’re still cheering Oracle Team USA – it’s skippered by Team GB’s Olympics hero Ben Ainslie after all.

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