In Like a Lion

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One of the most powerful developments in recent years has been the creation of “cloud computing.” Folks familiar with the technology know that it’s essentially doing for your computer what email services like Gmail and Yahoo! have done for your communication–they’ve taken your messages, contacts, and other personal information and stored it on secure servers across the nation to make it easily retrievable in the case of an emergency or hardware failure. Instead of relying on a single storage point (your home PC, for example) to store all of your communication, Google, Yahoo, and dozens of other websites offer to handle of those tasks in exchange for showing you advertising or using some non-identifiable information to craft better algorithms.

For most people, the immediate benefit of these systems was apparent. Access your mail anywhere, store contacts somewhere that won’t be affected in the case of a system crash or loss of a single device (like a phone), and integrate these services with your web browsing. Easy, and powerful. The systems that provided these services long ago have evolved significantly, now allowing entire operating systems to essentially run through your broadband connection, piping only the data necessary for input and allowing massive supercomputers to handle all of the processing.

That all sounds fine and good, but what does it mean for you?

Cloud computing, so named because of its pseudo-omnipresence, changes the role of computers significantly. They no longer exist as a single point of storage for all your information. Instead, the computer is more of a gateway, a portal to your data that is stored in massive servers. One analogy I can draw is that of a dry cleaner. With the old model of computing, it was as though you were standing at the front of a dry cleaning factory trying to look for a specific shirt. You might not even know where the shirt was located, but you’d still have to find it yourself. With the advent of search, that process was trimmed a bit- you tell someone else what to look for and where to look, and they find the shirt.

Now, with cloud computing, we see that yet another layer of interaction is slowly melting away. We’re doing away with the fetching entirely. You don’t even really need to know where you’ve stored your data, you just need to run a search, and you can pull down results from the stuff you have stored locally on your computer as well as the files floating up with the sun and moon. We are no longer limited by how much space is on our devices, how much storage we can buy. The only limiting factor is the infrastructure that connects all these devices together. Some people have asked me, almost accusingly, “Well what happens if the network goes down? What then, huh?”

If the entire United States suddenly experiences a simultaneous and catastrophic shutdown of all of its network infrastructure, we will have much bigger things to worry about than listening to our music or accessing the documents on our cloud folder. That’s akin to asking what would happen if all paper in the United States suddenly caught fire. I don’t want to hypothesize about the events or circumstances that would need to exist in order to facilitate such a terrible reality, but, assuming it was both spontaneous and total, I doubt anyone would be worried about their fourth grade diary.

Digression. Apologies.

In recent news, we’ve heard rumblings of Apple’s new iOS 5 being cloud-based, a total overhaul of the OS. I can’t even begin to fathom what that means. The OS seems just fine as it is, but the cloud is where it’s at these days, and that darn data center that’s been occupying so many of my thoughts and predictions seems like the perfect use of all those massive petaflops (or whatever they use to measure data centers of that magnitude). It all seems to be coming together now.

What we will start to see is more unity across Apple’s various OS products. Remember back in 2005, when Steve was asked what kind of OS the iPhone was running? Does anyone remember his response? Let’s recap, shall we?

Jobs admitted that Apple is a new player in the cell phone business, saying “We’re newcomers. People have forgotten more than we know about this.” Jobs noted that the operating system to run the iPhone — Mac OS X itself — has been in develop for more than a decade (its roots like in NeXT’s Nextstep operating system). Mossberg suggested that the iPhone doesn’t have the entire operating system on it, but Jobs protested.

“Yes it does. The entire OS is gigabytes, but it’s data. We don’t need desktop patterns, sound files. If you take out the data, the OS isn’t that huge. It’s got real OS X, real Safari, real desktop e-mail. And we can take Safari and put a different user interface on it, to work with the multitouch screen. And if you don’t own a browser, you can’t do that,” said Jobs.

This shift is not overnight, and it is not a new direction for Mac OS. Once Apple began work on the iPad, they started planning for this shift, possibly even before that. I seem to remember some folks discussing the origins of the iPhone, how it was actually rooted in an experimental side project that Steve Jobs somehow got a look at and recognized as brilliant, and that said side project was actually more akin to the iPad than the iPhone. At any rate, it looks to me as though Apple has been planning this shift for years, possibly even the better part of a decade. I believe that Apple designed iOS with unification in mind all along, seeing a desire to create a powerful OS for new mobile devices that hadn’t even been developed yet. It seems fairly obvious when you look at their last “Back to the Mac” event, and even more glaringly obvious when you see something like this coming out of Gizmodo.

Adobe demonstrated Photoshop for iPad yesterday. Not a sub-product like Photoshop Express, but the real Photoshop, with a new skin. Sure, it doesn’t have some of the advanced print and web publishing oriented features of the desktop behemoth. But it has everything you need, from layers compositing—including a 3D mode to show people how they work—to what appeared to be non-destructive adjust layers, levels, color controls, and all the features I use every day in the desktop Photoshop. From the little we have seen, the application was fast and smooth.

I believe Apple has succeeded in ushering in a new age already; I can’t wait to see them throw the doors wide open to a future we’ve only dreamed of.

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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

A few days ago, I discussed the idea of the future smartphone/connected device as a companion to an active and mobile lifestyle. One of the topics I also broached was that of online privacy, and people’s need for it (or at least the illusion thereof). While I maintain that the majority of folks who have any sort of online presence are sacrificing their anonymity and a great deal of their privacy, I also agree that this situation should not be the only available option. People should have the right to privacy. It’s a terrible thing when folks simply have little to no knowledge of a) how they are divulging their private knowledge, and b) how to protect themselves from divulging too much. Recent developments in this space have made it much easier for people to protect their identities and ensure at least some degree of privacy in their lives.

The first development which has the potential to set a precedent for further privacy advocates to build off of is a recent ruling in European courts that requires any site desiring to track online behaviors obtain explicit consent from site visitors to track them using cookies.

As part of its work to comply with the directive, the IAB – an industry body that represents web ad firms – created a site that explains how behavioural advertising works and lets people opt out of it.

From 25 May, European laws dictate that “explicit consent” must be gathered from web users who are being tracked via text files called “cookies”.

This is great news for anyone who is looking to push for greater laws or regulations protecting individual privacy online. The efforts for privacy protection in the desktop browsing space are making significant headway, as well. Both Google and Mozilla have released extensions for their respective browsers that keep users protected from websites desiring to track their behaviors.

The two approaches are part of a larger move resisting the efforts of web advertisers to profile people’s online activities in ever more detail. Typically this tracking is accomplished through cookies, small text files many sites use to customise sites for regular visitors.

It’s important to note that websites that track your behavior aren’t necessarily evil. The overwhelming majority of the websites that feed your browser some sort of behavior tracking cookies aren’t looking to ruin your life. They’re not malware, phishing, or scam sites, they’re the same sites that you visit every day looking for your news, videos, media, and shopping. Many cookies are designed just to make your life easier. The same cookies that tell Facebook that you were active yesterday, or your online email site to keep you logged in for a week instead of logging you out after each session, or tell your banking site that your computer is trusted as opposed to foreign.

All these cookies perform functions that most people rely on every day. The problem is that there are people wishing to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) in order to push their agenda. Sometimes these people are anti-technology, sometimes they’re just untrusting, but their message is typically uninformed. They hear the word “tracking” and envision cloak-and-dagger operations going on in your cable modem or cell phone, when the reality is more akin to your local big-box retailer reviewing their security camera footage and attempting to developable better marketing plans for a specific demographic. These folks most likely wouldn’t like the camera idea, either, but it’s something they have turned a blind eye to in order to feel more in control of their buying habits.

Mozilla is really working hard to try to provide people with options when it comes to tracking their online presence. A recent proposal by Mozilla (referenced in the link above) will change the way that future browsers work with tracking cookies. Basically, instead of having cookies to disable tracking (which, despite telling websites that you don’t want to be tracked, can still be deleted when a person closes his or her browser), the browser will include a built-in switch that allows customers to opt-out of tracking (theoretically) with one button press.

Some important things to note about this proposal:

There is no “list” that consumers need to sign up for. Early discussion of Do Not Track included proposals about a list-based registry of users, similar to the Do Not Call Registry. This proposal does not collect data on consumers in a central list. (Security and privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian has more about the history of Do Not Track.)

Consumers won’t need to update software for Do Not Track regularly. Early versions of Do Not Track proposed installing software on an individual’s computer that listed all the known tracking companies. As more companies were identified, the list would need to be updated. The current proposal does not store a list of companies on your computer and so does not need to be repeatedly updated.

You can still clear your cookies without fear of disrupting the header-based Do Not Track.
The header-based Do Not Track model won’t threaten ad-supported businesses.

The final battle over online privacy has yet to be fought, but as people begin spending more and more time online, they will begin to demand greater control over their privacy. Our governments haven’t always made the best decisions regarding technology, but a more informed population will demand greater rights over the evolving online landscape.