Category Archives: Technology

Let’s Try This One More (Pebble) Time

The optional watch face mimics the Apple Watch, which I didn't realise until I was using it.
Authentically scuffed Pebble Time: model’s own.

Depending on who you believe, the wearables revolution is underway, has not yet started, or has already failed. While I don’t wholly agree with any of those viewpoints, the fact that I’m now on my second smartwatch does suggest that I don’t agree with the last.

Those who follow this blog and are aware of my devotion to the Cult of Mac may be surprised to learn that my new toy isn’t an Apple Watch. Those who follow this blog in slightly closer detail might be able to guess what it is: a Pebble Time. Several years ago, in one of my early Kickstarter forays, I stumped up for a first-generation Pebble smartwatch, which adorned my wrist for all of a month or two.

Its short lifespan wasn’t down to the fact that it was a bad product. Beyond being a first-generation device (part of my reason for eschewing the Apple option this time) with somewhat dodgy Bluetooth wireless and limited functionality, its only major flaw was that it was uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Unfortunately, that’s also why it was in my pocket instead of on my wrist during a fateful bus journey, and the fact that it fell out of the pocket somewhere was entirely my fault, not the watch’s.

But enough of my ongoing habit of losing things (which seems to come in waves – whenever I lose one thing, I known that at least two more will vanish in the short-term future), what of the Pebble Time? Well, the first thing to note is that it’s much more comfortable to wear, with a slightly curved back to the watch body and a much improved rubber strap. While I’ve had to take it off for comfort reasons a few times, this has been the result of sweating due to exertion, not general day-to-day use.

So score one for the Pebble Time there. In addition, the straps now include easy-release clips that, while not as clever as the Apple Watch’s high-end version, allow access to a full range of standard-gauge watch straps.

In fact, the Pebble Time is a solid version 2.0 in a lot of ways. A colour e-ink screen replaces its monochrome predecessor, the Bluetooth connection seems much more solid, the vibration function is hard to miss, and the build quality overall seems much better, with buttons that avoid feeling too spongy despite being plastic. My gunmetal grey version has picked up a few scratches after a month or two of use, but stumping up a little more money for the Pebble Time Steel could gain you an even more polished experience.

In use, the Pebble Time is easy to figure out. Hit the single button on the left of the watch to navigate backwards to the home (watchface) screen. Hit the centre right button to dive into and select menu options and the buttons above and below it to navigate up and down through lists. Changing settings, accessing apps, changing watchfaces, etc. are trivial tasks. To actually install apps or watchfaces, you’ll need the companion smartphone app, but once installed, they can connect to the phone via a Bluetooth connection for extra processing power. Pebble’s own app store, accessible via the smartphone app, makes installing new apps easy, but finding the app you want can be tricky, as the browsing experience feels a little haphazard.

As with any smartwatch, the Pebble Time is reliant on its connection to a smartphone. Lacking that, it can tell you the time and offer access to any standalone apps that you’ve installed, and not much more. A connected smartphone offers instant access to weather, music, and more advanced apps. For example, I’ve installed the Tripadvisor app, which can point me towards nearby restaurants or attractions, should I so desire. It’s limited, but the interface is responsive and fun to use.

In fact, fun is a good description of the Pebble Time overall. The Pebble team seem to have put a lot of thought into making their device as easy to use and enjoyable to own as possible. For example, there’s no need to install an app to use the Pebble Time as an external display for Runkeeper’s smartphone app—it happens automatically. This good user experience is further helped by the Pebble Time’s battery life, which will stretch out to five days. Changing your watchface to one that displays the battery level will help you keep an eye on that, but it’s far ahead of the Apple or Android watches in this regard at least.

Some commentators have raised concerns that transferring notification from the phone to the wrist just makes us even more tied to that “always on” mentality. The reality has proven very different: an initial flood of notifications trained me to turn off any that weren’t vital. Moreover, even though vibrations on your wrist make notifications hard to miss, it’s it’s far quicker and easier to dismiss those notifications by glancing at summaries of them on a watchface than by digging your phone out of your pocket or purse to see what they are. Yes, notifications probably aren’t wholly a good thing, but if you’re going to opt in, this is the way to go.

I haven’t tested the limits of what I can do with the Pebble Time yet, having only installed a couple of apps and watchfaces. Though far less powerful than the Apple Watch or its Android competitors, the Pebble Time offers plenty of variety in terms of what it can already do. Everything that I have experienced with it so far has made me pretty happy with my purchase. The cluttered app store is the only minor fly in the ointment, whereas everything else is pleasingly smooth.

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You Are The Product

(With invisible close buttons.)
Our grim, multicolour, flashing future.

One of the quieter announcements that Apple made during its WorldWide Developers Conference recently was that its forthcoming MacOS and iOS updates will give developers the ability to create “Content Blockers” for its mobile and desktop Safari browsers. While the exact content blocked is up to the developer (you could block the Daily Mail if you want—and you really should), no one is under any illusions as to the target of this feature: ads.

Ad blockers already exist as extensions to most existing browsers, but the majority of users probably don’t avail of them, especially in the mobile sphere. Apple’s decision to push this feature and the reaction to its quiet announcement says a lot about the current state of the mobile web and the dominant role that ads have come to play in it.

Faster computers, mobile phones and broadband have contributed to a smoother experience online, but this has helped to hide the fact that the vast majority of what we download is ads and spyware. Blocking out most of that would massively speed up browsing and have the simultaneous benefit of cutting down on the amount of activity tracked online.

As pleasant an outcome as this sounds though, there’s a downside: online advertising pays the bills for many of the sites we enjoy, some of them from smaller content providers. Killing off that revenue stream would likely kill off a lot of the richness and the niche content that the web provides. It’s not like the people running these sites are preying on you through the ads either—they’re often stuck in a system that they don’t like, making do as well as they can.

The power blocs behind online advertising inform the nature of the system and the conflict that Apple is wading into. Facebook and Google ensure that web users have access to a wealth of content for free by harvesting their data and selling it, funnelling a portion of the proceeds back to the content creators in order to keep the whole thing going. This is the system that’s driven the growth of the web to date, but it’s far from perfect, and web site bloat is just one of the symptoms.

Whatever your thoughts on Apple—you won’t look at the comments on any Apple article on a non-Apple site for long before you find mentions of ‘iSheep’ or ‘Apple fanboys’—the fact is that Apple’s profit model is completely different from that of the web titans. Apple’s iAds platform is distinctly small scale, and its money comes from the sale of hardware instead. Providing an improved user experience is vital to enhancing the sale of that hardware, and enabling the creation of content blockers achieves that.

Safari is a minority browser on desktop machines, but it’s a major player on the mobile web, and iOS users are a lucrative market. So while this initiative isn’t going to bring down the current financial underpinnings of the mobile web, it’s a definite shot across Google’s bows. (Less so Facebook, which has a closed ecosystem of its own that it can profit from.) For users, it raises the question: are we happy to receive things for free, with the understanding that we’re being sold in return, or are we going to accept that we should pay for the things we value?

There’s an interesting parallel to be seen in the U.K., where the Tory government is once again taking the knives to the public broadcaster, the BBC. U.K. TV viewers have long been accustomed to paying a TV licence, and in return they’ve gained a globally renowned service that entertains, educates, and informs. Of course, a publicly funded broadcaster has a head start over its private sector rivals, and in the view of the Tories, that’s unfair competition. Speaking as someone who was raised on a diet of BBC television, I’d call the licence fee a small price to pay, but the future that the private sector envisions could look a lot like YouTube: ostensibly free to use but scattered with pop-up ads and laden with user tracking.

When we’re offered something free, it’s convenient to overlook the fine print. We’re okay with being the product as long as it’s not thrown back in our face. It would be nice to think that users’ desire for speed and convenience would eventually find a balance with providers’ need for compensation. But while Apple’s intervention might be to our benefit, Apple doesn’t fund web content, only content provided through its own app store ecosystem. So if its ad blocking does gain traction, either we’re going to have to learn to pay for our content or some of those content providers are going to go under.

Watching the Apple Watch

Go on, admit it. You want to at least play with them for a while.
All these can be yours, for a (to be determined) price.

I’ve been an Apple user long enough that the company’s regular keynote events are a recognisable form of entertainment. Unusually, I didn’t watch this week’s well-publicised event until the day after it happened. (Possibly a good thing given the problems that the live streaming coverage faced.) By that time I’d already read enough of the media reaction to know exactly what I’d be seeing. Spoilers aren’t really the point with an event like this.

The first part of the event, to be fair, had already been well spoiled by leaks. Enough prototype parts and schematics had trickled out from Apple’s supply chain that only a few details remained to be filled in about the new iPhones. The 6 and 6 Plus looked much as expected and neatly relegated last year’s 5s and 5c to the minor places in Apple’s product lineup. A one-year-old free (on contract) iPhone is a better trick than a two-year-old free offering, but the 6 and 6 Plus are now the stars. The former seems the better bet, though the 6 Plus has its own appeal if you can handle its unwieldy dimensions—in its case, battery life and an improved screen are bigger draws than the optical image stabilisation of its slightly protruding camera.

Next up after the phones was something only hinted at in pre-show leaks: Apple Pay. A solution to the hassle of everyday credit card payments, it positions Apple well in the race to made commercial life more convenient. It’s the biggest leveraging to date of Apple’s credit-card enabled iTunes customers, bringing together a lot of pieces (iBeacon, Passbook) that Apple has been putting into place for some time now. However, given that it’s only usable with NFC-enabled devices (both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as well as this article’s titular device) and is only to be deployed in the U.S. for the moment, its reach will initially be limited. Over the long term though, it could well be the most important announcement of the entire show.

Last up was the fabled “One More Thing,” returning to a very warm welcome from the crowd. This was, of course, the Apple Watch, likewise rumoured in the media but barely even glimpsed in advance of the show itself. It seems that Apple’s secrecy can still hold when they really need it to.

A handful of smartwatches have already hit the market. I owned one briefly, in the form of the Pebble, but most of them are now running Google’s Android in one form or another, and yet more are on the way. If the Apple Watch is going to be a success, Apple’s going to have to repeat a trick it’s already pulled with the iPod, iPhone and iPad: to enter an existing but nascent market and turn it upside down. So has it done so?

Well no, not yet, if only for the reason that the Apple Watch won’t be released until early next year and many important facts about it remain uncertain, but at least one watch industry watcher has been impressed by the unveiling, not just its implications for the smartwatch industry but for watches in general.

Whereas its competitors seem to have focused primarily on providing an adjunct to their Android phones, Apple is coming from the other direction. The Apple Watch is tethered to the iPhone (or possibly the iPad too?) true, but it’s as much a fashion accessory as it is a computing accessory. The fact that Apple paid attention to what people might actually want to put on their wrist can be seen in the simplest fact about the Apple Watch: it comes in two sizes, small and large. Just like non-smart watches do.

Physically, it’s arguably more attractive than any of the other smartwatches already out there. More importantly to potential buyers, it’s massively customisable, more so than any other Apple product before it. Between size, colour and strap type, as long as you fancy having an Apple Watch on your wrist, you’ll be able to make it look exactly the way you want it to. Moreover, Apple has gone to great lengths to design its straps so that you can fit and adjust them yourself, rather than heading to a jeweller to have it done for you, as is the case with several of the Android smartwatches.

As for the software, it certainly looks the part, with Apple once again tailoring an operating system to suit the device. The Apple Watch has a touch screen, but given that any touching finger would obscure a significant portion of the screen, it also has a “digital crown,” refashioning the traditional watch crown into a multifunction control wheel with an integrated home button. Another button devoted to bringing up a “favourite contacts” screen is a reminder that the Apple Watch, above all else, is meant to leverage the power of its linked iOS device, faster and with greater ease than ever, and preferably without needing to take it out of your pocket or bag.

As for whether I plan to get one or not, that depends. Depends on the battery life of the final device and the price of the various options. Depends on whether or not the eventual software manages to live up to the promises of the keynote speech. For, whatever else it may be good at, Apple is very good at selling its devices as objects of desire. I’ll be looking out for reasons not to break open the piggy bank come early 2015. It’s up to Apple to match its own hype.

Until then, I have iOS 8 (coming next week) and OS X Yosemite (coming a little later) to refresh my own devices, making them seem like new again. There’s a new U2 album as well, offered as an awkward freebie at the end of the keynote, but that can’t really compete as an attraction. After all, what we get for free, we never really appreciate as we should.

No More Internet Until You Learn to Behave

Be warned – there’s a lot of unpleasant imagery in the above video.

John Oliver’s rants on Last Week Tonight are becoming destination television for me. Or at least destination YouTube-ery. For his new show, the former Daily Show correspondent has replaced that show’s hit-and-miss interview segment with an extended single-topic rant, delivered as only a pissed-off English gentleman can and filled with truth bombs. The World Cup/Fifa rant is a classic already, but the more recent diatribe on the Ferguson affair had a particularly perfect closing line.

“If (the police) can make it through a whole month without killing a single unarmed black man, then, and only then, can they get their f**king toys back.”

Infantilising your opponents is no way to engage in a debate. But it’s so bloody hard to resist when they’re insistent on acting like three-year-olds throwing a tantrum. Take the response to Anita Sarkeesian’s latest Tropes vs. Women video, in which she dissects the often extremely unpleasant treatment that video games have doled out to women over the years. I don’t agree with everything that Sarkeesian is saying, but I’d love to do is have the chance to talk to someone about it and debate the issues she raises. Unfortunately, the people who have responded by hurling abuse and issuing threats of murder and rape are not interested in anything other than silencing a voice that annoys them.

Let’s be clear: there is no excuse for this. Anyone who did this in person, in a newspaper, on television, or in any other media would be shunned, shut down and perhaps even arrested. So why does it happen so regularly on the Internet, and why does it seem to happen particularly often with regard to video games? As for the Internet, the obvious answer is the anonymity that being online provides. The less obvious answer is that this anonymity facilitates communities of like-minded souls, just as the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan allowed their activities to proceed in the not-so-distant past.

Why video games though? That’s harder to unpick. The industry, both producers and consumers, has been predominantly male for most of its history. This has served to enable attitudes to women that are proving very hard to shake. Anita Sarkeesian’s videos may depict only some of the symptoms of this problem, but she has a huge amount of material to work with. To truly dig into the gender issues in video games (which are just an outcropping of the issues in society as a whole) will take a lot more than a series of videos on YouTube.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t something to video games themselves that encourages this mindset. When Valve’s Half-Life 2 debuted its physics engine, giving us the ability to play with physical objects, it was just a more sophisticated version of what games had been allowing players to do for years: play with every interactive object in their arsenal. And in games, there’s no real difference between people and things. Both can be shot, thrown, punched and manipulated if the game designer allows it.

As games moved into the multiplayer era, this mindset didn’t change. The ranting, foul-mouthed Halo player, often teenage or younger, is something of a cliché. I’ve yelled at single-player games when things have gone badly for me, in a way I wouldn’t dream of doing to another human being. But if you’ve been trained to see your opponents as no more than sophisticated versions of computer-generated enemies rather than human beings, what’s to stop you from screaming abuse at them too?

One article on this topic nailed it for me: “There’s a fundamental lack of empathy or understanding for other human beings at play here.” I consider myself lucky to have played (and preferred) games where face-to-face contact with other human beings was a necessary part of the experience—roleplaying games and board games. How many of those who hurl the vilest kind of abuse at Anita Sarkeesian and anyone who dares to stand up for her make it a habit to engage with people who might challenge their point of view?

It’s a pointless argument to say that not all men are like this, not all gamers are like this, not all game creators are like this. In any community, from the global to the local, there are always those who take the opportunity to disrupt and destroy where they can. Every community has to figure out how to deal with this element. On the Internet, the goal of freedom of expression is colliding painfully with the notion that everyone ought to be free to make use of this new medium. In the corner devoted to video games, the howling mob is doing its best to ensure that the common space is shaped according to its preferences. I can’t imagine that it will win in the long term, but how much pain is going to be inflicted before humanity prevails?

Oculus

Though who knows, maybe not for long...
An old-style oculus, letting in light unaltered. Not owned by Facebook either.

Up until now, crowdfunding schemes have had one main pitfall: that even though you prepaid for something, you might not get it. Now, with Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR, a pitfall has emerged on the other end of the success spectrum: that the thing you bought might evolve into something that maybe you wouldn’t have prepaid for in the first place.

The Oculus Rift headset was one of the biggest early success stories on Kickstarter. Virtual Reality is one of those never-was technology dreams, but Oculus’s promise was enough for backers to go for it in droves. It wasn’t just promise either: there was plenty of intelligence behind the Rift headset, and it seemed to keep improving as the months went by, with new versions of the development kit and some highly impressive game demos.

And then yesterday Facebook went and bought Oculus VR for $2 billion. This has not gone down particularly well in the technology press, either because the deal is a betrayal of Oculus’s indie roots, or simply because it makes no sense. Facebook, a company with a major games presence, albeit one that’s hardly on the cutting edge, seems to be buying into Oculus because it sees VR as a new field opening up, and with the recent announcement of Sony’s Project Morpheus, it might be right.

Still, the argument that the purchase doesn’t make much sense is a strong one. Unless Mark Zuckerberg has bought into the notion of The Matrix and sees it as the logical end point of Facebook’s parallel world of social connections, it’s not easy to guess where he’s heading with this. VR headsets may be providing increasingly realistic experiences, but they’re still bulky and obvious—only suited for home use, when you’re alone with a net connection. Vain hope it may be, but I don’t really want things to go that way.

Where VR headsets might be heading can be seen in the convergence of technologies. VR headsets replace reality with something new, which is perfect for games but isolates the user from the world around them. Augmented Reality headsets like Google Glass take the world the user is already in and layers extra information over it. Right now they’re limited in their application, but as they become more sophisticated, the tweaks they make to reality will become increasingly indistinguishable from the real thing. At some point, AR and VR are going to merge, and the choice of just how much of the real world to occlude is going to be left to the user.

With high-definition displays, motion tracking and fast response times, VR headsets are approaching the point where they can deliver a genuinely immersive experience. AR headsets are already extremely lightweight, and you don’t have to look too far in the future to see them being implanted in contact lenses. So maybe this is where Facebook is looking with its purchase of Oculus VR—not the immediate future of immersive gaming but rather the long-term play of a future in which your social world is always with you.

This could yet turn out well for everyone: Facebook certainly (?) isn’t stupid enough to kill off Oculus’s promise as something new in the world of gaming. The goodwill that the company gained over the course of its Kickstarter campaign and subsequently is gone already, but some of it could be clawed back if the hardware and its software ecosystem meet early hopes. Longer term, and more scarily, we might yet be facing a future where Facebook is always in the corner of your eye. That may not be a “Like” button that many are willing to click.

WhatsApp, Doc?

Big as $16bn is, it's small beans to Facebook.
No, I don’t spend a lot of time on these. Why do you ask?

If diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a stick, then Facebook may have found a stick big enough to deliver a final beating to the mobile network operators (MNOs).

SMS text messaging was an unexpected windfall for MNOs back at the dawn of the mobile era. Fitting 160-character text messages into unused network channels, they opened up a new revenue stream with next-to-no investment. It became such a lucrative slice of their business that they got very protective of it.

The problem is that SMS messages are pretty limited. MNO efforts to introduce an alternative in the form of the Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) didn’t really take off, and the advent of smartphone apps and mobile data left the MMOs in the dust.

WhatsApp is probably the most successful of the text-message replacement apps, with 450 million active users at the most recent count. It’s tied to phone numbers, and it allows users to send voice, video, photos and more, as well as text messages of whatever length they like. As of yesterday, it’s in line to be purchased by Facebook for $16 billion (some reports put the price as $19 billion). That’s at least $35 per customer, however you slice it.

Whether or not WhatsApp is worth the price is beside the point. Facebook thinks it is. Why? Well, there are plenty of reasons, even beyond those 450 million users. WhatsApp is big in developing economies, where SMS costs tend to be high. It’s grown its user base faster than any other company ever and done so while remaining a relatively tiny company. The fact that it’s done so without any marketing spending indicates just how much its users like it.

However, it really is all about those 450 million users and however many it may be able to add in the future. The fact that Google is rumoured to have offered $10 billion for WhatsApp is indicative of the war for communication being waged between those two titans. Facebook has the biggest private social network out there, and WhatsApp marks a land grab among the services seeking to circumvent the MNOs’ control of how we communicate with one another.

This can’t be good news for the MNOs. They’ve been fighting a rearguard action against being turned into mere bandwidth providers ever since Apple launched the iPhone App Store, and with Google and Facebook seeking to dominate how we use the mobile space, that’s not going to get any easier in the future. Here in Ireland, companies like Vodafone, O2 and Meteor are increasingly getting shoved into the background—we get our phones from them and pay for our broadband, but beyond that? There are fewer and fewer spaces for them to make any extra money or offer extra value.

This isn’t necessarily bad for consumers, but it does steal from the MNOs one of the most valuable commodities of the modern world: data. Everything that we do online leaves a digital footprint, and what we do reveals better than anything else what we want now and what we might buy in the future. Theres money in them thar 1s and 0s. Google and Facebook want it and have a lot of it, and with the purchase of WhatsApp, Facebook will have even more, based on both our phone numbers and our contact books.

WhatsApp was founded on being a straightfoward replacement for SMS, free from ads, games or other frippery. That will inevitably change somewhere down the line, and how major the change is will affect at least to some degree how successful WhatsApp’s future will be. WhatsApp’s investors and employees have already won in this acquisition game. Facebook may well win in the future. As for us consumers, we’ll have to wait and see.

Changing the World in 3/4 Decades

D&D games on the Mac? Yeah, I remember that.
Kicking it old-style…

Last week was a week of anniversaries. World-changing anniversaries, in fact, though I’m going have to make an argument for at least one of them.

The anniversary that got the most press inches was the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984. The launch is best known for that Ridley Scott advertisement invoking Orwell’s Big Brother, but recently a video came to light revealing a launch event in front of the Boston Computer society.

It’s a fascinating watch, mostly for the fact that it contains so much of the future. The Mac is front and centre, and it’s amazing just how much of what we take for granted in our computers today appeared right at the start of the Mac age. It’s not just the MacOS that still bears the ancestral marks of its progenitor. Every modern desktop/laptop OS can trace its ancestry back to 1984. Amazingly, it’s a trick Apple has pulled off more than once: its iOS is similarly the root from which the modern smartphone/tablet ecosystem arose.

It’s also instructive to watch Steve Jobs at work, long before his keynote speeches grabbed attention around the world. The delivery isn’t as smooth as it later became, but so much of those keynotes is already in place: the idea of the intersection of art and technology, the attention-grabbing video segments, the on-stage demonstrations to wow the audience. Jobs would soon be ousted from Apple, only to return and lead it to world leadership years later, and his keynotes would be much more controlled, so getting to see him do a question-and-answer with the original Mac team is a rare treat.

The other anniversary is for an event ten years earlier and one less easy to nail down. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons also changed the world, albeit in a less direct way than the Mac. It birthed, of course, the roleplaying game (RPG), a combination of board game and improvisational storytelling. RPGs have never been a big industry, but their influence has spread far and wide.

D&D drove an interest in fantasy, and followup RPGs drove interest in science fiction and horror, even as they followed trends in wider culture: Star Wars, Anne Rice, Ghostbusters, etc. RPG players got involved in the growing computer games industry and the entertainment industry, leading to a lot of what is now mainstream. Game of Thrones’ George RR Martin? A roleplayer. Joss Whedon? Roleplayer.

The Mac is still going strong, despite some dodgy moments along the way. D&D has lost its leading position everywhere except cultural memory, but the hobby it kicked off has endured and spread like a weed, its roots and tendrils going everywhere. The Mac changed how we interact with the world. D&D created a new spawning ground for content, and an avenue for storytelling and offbeat genres that wasn’t there before. Happy birthday to them both.