My recent review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Android tablet stirred up a dreary and inevitable round of OS advocacy and such, with both Apple and Android lovers baying like wounded members of persecuted religious minorities, arguing about which OS is most worthy of our love and devotion.
For me, no love or devotion is due to an operating system or a gadget.
I’m enough of an old technology hand to know that any love we harbour for our gadgets is unrequited and generally tragic – not least because you are not destined to have a long-term love-affair with your gizmos, as they will be semi-obsolete in a year or two.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that some devices, apps and systems can work well – that is, they can make it easier to do something that was hard, or possible to do something that was impossible. That’s why we all use this stuff. But I think that how well a system works is only half the picture: the other half is how badly it fails.
Because technology fails all the time. Networked, general-purpose computing devices have so many different failure modes that they can hardly be counted. Your phone or tablet can have problems coping with something as abstract as bad Maximum Transmission Unit sizes in its network connection, or as concrete as being dropped and trodden on by your toddler.
A program that runs flawlessly one day can be derailed by another program, or an OS update, or a mysterious configuration problem – hence the old “Rename your preferences folder and restart” diagnostic procedure.
The general state of technology is to be broken; which is not so different from other complex systems, like technology’s users. You might have lost a pre-beach holiday stone thanks to diet and exercise, only to get a spot on your cheek, bad traffic on the way to the airport, a row with your spouse, and a jammed knuckle from your suitcase handle. Human beings who can soldier on and stay happy and functional in the face of adversity are said to be “resilient,” which means that they fail well.
After all, it’s no good being the world’s happiest, best-adjusted, nicest person if you fall to pieces the minute you get a paper-cut. And that goes double for interpersonal systems: any couple can be happy when everything is going right, but no marriage can survive unless both of its participants are capable of soldiering on when things are going pear-shaped.
I don’t use Android tablets and phones because I hate Apple; I most certainly don’t use them because I love Google. And I don’t prefer Android to iOS because it works better than Apple — in some aspects, it does, in some aspects it doesn’t.
I use Android because I don’t trust Google. Sure, I trust and like individual googlers, and admire many of the things the company has managed – but I don’t for one moment think that Google’s management is making its decisions in order to make me happy, fulfilled and free.
I think there are good days when Google’s management might believe that helping me attain those ends will make it more money, but if it were to believe that making me miserable would enrich its shareholders without alienating too many of its key personnel and partners, my happiness would cease to matter in the slightest.
So why use Android? Because it requires less trust in Google than using iOS requires that you trust Apple. iOS has one official store, and it’s illegal in most places to buy and install apps except through this store. If you and Apple differ about which apps you need, you have to break the law to get your iPhone or iPad to run the app that Apple rejected.
Jailbroken iOS devices have sometimes been targeted by Apple security updates that render them inoperable, and jailbreakers have a reputation for not keeping their devices up-to-date.
By contrast, Android allows you to run apps from any store you choose. Google still rejects plenty of apps submitted to its store, but if you don’t like Google’s choices, you can decide to make some of your own.
That’s failing well.
More of the internal workings of iOS are secret than their equivalent workings in the Android world. Apple’s operating system runs more DRM processes that are intended to allow code to run that treats you as an untrusted adversary and refuses to accept your commands. Not least, Apple has to run all those processes aimed at stopping you from choosing to use an app that Apple hasn’t blessed (and collected its 30% commission on).
I prefer Android because it’s relative openness means more people can and do inspect its workings to ensure it is doing what Google claims it is doing. I prefer Android because when Google decides to leave out a feature that users might want – such as tethering – the people making alternative OSes for the platform stick that feature in, and shame Google into adding it in subsequent versions.
My mobile phone can track where I go. It can record my voice and image, and the voices and images of those around me. It can leak email, voicemail, texts, and passwords. In the time since I’ve gotten a mobile phone, each passing year has meant that I rely on my phone for more things, and I don’t expect that will change.
Android and iOS will both fail their users in the years to come. Not a lot, but often enough, and dramatically enough, that it’s worth ensuring that those failures are as minimal as possible.
I’d like an official Android version without the DRM, with complete source code, and with generally greater transparency into the device and its ecosystem. I like the alternative Android OS, CyanogenMod, because it has many of those things. Functionally, a CyanogenMod Android phone and a stock Android phone work in much the same way, but CyanogenMod phones fail better.
Our relationship to technology is this: We’ve jammed ourselves into the cockpits of supersonic jets that are being constantly redesigned as they hurtle around the planet, in dangerously close proximity to everyone else’s supersonic jet. It’s good to pay attention to how fast our jets go, and how comfortable the upholstery is, but the thing we really need to keep our eyes on is what happens when they crack up, when their navigation systems go awry, and when they get a bad upgrade.
When you’re moving that fast, with that much at stake, failure is much more important than success.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
John Gilmore, campaigner against internet censorship.
In the annals of the net, one of the sacred texts is John Gilmore’s aphorism that “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. Mr Gilmore is a celebrated engineer, entrepreneur and libertarian activist, who is regarded by the US Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency and men in suits everywhere as a pain in the ass. He was the fifth employee of Sun Microsystems, which meant that he made a lot of money early in life, and he has devoted the rest of his time to spending it on a variety of excellent causes. These include: creating the “alt” (for alternative) hierarchy in the Usenet discussion fora; open-source software; drugs law reform; philanthropy; and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which last week won a notable concession from the Library of Congress to legalise the “jailbreaking” of one’s iPhone – ie liberating it from Apple’s technical shackles).
The Gilmore aphorism about censorship first saw the light of day in 1993 – in a Time article about the internet – and since then has taken on a life of its own as a consoling mantra about the libertarian potential of the network. “In its original form,” Gilmore explains, “it meant that the Usenet software (which moves messages around in discussion newsgroups) was resistant to censorship because, if a node drops certain messages because it doesn’t like their subject, the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route.” But, he continues, “The meaning of the phrase has grown through the years. Internet users have proven it time after time, by personally and publicly replicating information that is threatened with destruction or censorship.”
The aphorism came up a lot last week following publication by the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel of extensive reports based on the stash of classified US military reports published on the WikiLeaks website. And of course in one sense this latest publishing coup does appear to confirm Gilmore’s original insight. But at the same time it grossly underestimates the amount of determination and technical ingenuity needed to make sure that the aphorism continues to hold good.
The sad truth is that, in practice, it is now trivially easy to censor the web. In most jurisdictions all you need to do is pay a lawyer to send a threatening letter to the ISP that hosts an offending site. The letter can allege defamation, or copyright infringement or privacy violations or a host of other grounds. The details usually don’t matter because, nine times out of 10, the ISP will immediately shut down the site, often without bothering to check whether your complaints have any validity. The reason: a legal precedent set by the so-called “demon internet” case, which established that an ISP may be held liable for damages if it fails to act on a complaint. Most companies won’t want to take the risk, so they pull the plug. QED.
So if the WikiLeaks operation depended on simply putting stuff on a website, then the governments and corporations who feel threatened by its exposures would have easily wiped it out years ago. Its durability is a product not just of the commitment of the activists behind it, but also of a sophisticated technical infrastructure which uses cryptography to ensure that every node in its virtual pipeline except the final, public, site is virtually impossible to identify.
At the heart of this is Tor, an open-source implementation of a networking technology which uses cryptography to pass data from router (internet node) to router in such a way that the identity of each is hidden. (The technology is derived from an earlier, multi-layered approach known as “the onion router” – hence the acronym.) As luck would have it, Tor is also a technology routinely used by governments to pass secret information around, so there’s a nicely ironic side to WikiLeaks’ deployment of it.
Tor provides a way of publishing information so that it’s extremely difficult to trace content to a particular internet address. This is good news for WikiLeaks geeks, but less so for the average whistleblower because it requires a level of technical expertise most people don’t possess. Which is why most whistleblowers will have to rely on the old-fashioned approach of putting stuff on lots of websites and social networks in the hope that it will be widely replicated. This may ensure that John Gilmore’s aphorism continues to hold. But it will also mean that the whistleblowers’ identities will be exposed. So if you have anything to reveal, try sending it to WikiLeaks first.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Books have come late to the digital party, but change is now happening at such a furious pace that even conservative members of the trade are starting to realise that their industry is being snatched away from them before their eyes. The undisputed leader in the race to sell digital books is Amazon. Its Kindle e-reader was a late entry into the race but it used its redoubtable marketing muscle to gain a 76% share of all digital books sold. It could have been much more but for the arrival of the iPad, which now has a 5% market share, though rising fast.
Traditional booksellers such as Barnes and Noble (which has just released a new Wi-Fi reader) and Waterstones are still in the race, but it looks as though book distribution is being sewn up by existing digital giants. Is this what we really want – a series of walled gardens controlled by corporate giants? Why hasn’t a horizontal model emerged in which networks of readers and authors can interact and buy and exchange favourite works on a global scale? Where is the Facebook of books?
This vertical model, of course, brings terrific benefits – having a virtual library of thousands of books you can read when and where you want. I do it a lot. But there are also very disturbing side-effects. Do we want reading, which ought to be a truly communal experience, migrating into a handful of digital silos, each imposing their own rules about what we can read, where we can read it and making it impossible to lend a book if you don’t lend the device as well? Some publishers even ask you to state that you won’t read the book aloud.
Amazon doesn’t just own Kindle. Its tentacles have spread out into a series of worrying monopolies. Instead of using its formidable base in selling traditional books to build up a similar position with second-hand books, it purchased the biggest existing seller of second-hand books on the internet, Abebooks.com. Instead of building up its own presence in audio books, it purchased Audible.com, which had over 90% of the audio market. It also bought a 40% stake in Librarything.com, one of the admirable online book clubs, which has just released a kind of mobile public library in the US and Ireland.
There are lots of interesting experiments in the online book world, including Nick Cave’s novel Bunny Munro, sold as a multimedia iPhone app; Google’s massive scanning of out-of-copyright books; the now venerable Gutenberg project, which has over 33,000 out-of-copyright books uploaded by volunteers; and numerous bookclubs not to mention the Guardian’s own. The video book publisher Vook.com has just celebrated its first anniversary. I loved Tim Wright’s geo-tagged retracing of Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey in Kidnapped. And still to come is 24Symbols, which aims to be the Spotify of books by streaming them for free over the web (with adverts paying) as well as traditional paid-for downloads.
If we are yearning for something to take books from "them" and give them back to "us", we have to look a bit into the future to start-ups such as Etherbooks.co.uk, which currently offers short stories to your phone at 59p a pop but has ambitious plans to expand into a global horizontal model. Its founder Maureen Scott has a long history of involvement in disruptive start-ups. Quoting the mantra "Content is king, but context is queen", she sees the literary future as networked, multi-platformed and inclusive – mainly through the mobile phone. Down with silos, up with communities – especially the community of writers, bloggers and fans. She sees the site as a forum for stories that will all be curated to maintain standards.
It is clear that the revolution in books is only just beginning. The interesting thing is that the product itself – the book – is not threatened, only the way it is read. It is pretty clear that more books will be read in future as out-of-copyright ones are reprinted and 18-to-24-year-olds, the drivers of mobile adoption, take to reading on their phones and other devices. More and more books will be read through dedicated e-readers (which can be read in daylight and on the beach) and backlit ones such as the iPad, which can be read at night.
No one knows where all this will end up, but it will be nowhere near as revolutionary as the change from reading scrolls to reading books in the middle ages. The e-reader revolution merely lures the same people to read books in a different format. The move from scrolls to books turned an immobile activity enjoyed by a tiny minority of educated people into a mobile phenomenon that would eventually be enjoyed by all. The unanswered question remains: who will control this revolution in knowledge, them or us? The answer, literally and metaphorically, is in our hands.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
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