by Mark

Technology: hope or distraction?

October 12, 2011 in Mark, Computer, Culture by Mark

Much has been said and written over the last week about the life and achievements of Steve Jobs, who founded and ran one of the most successful companies ever, producing technological products that continually pushed the boundaries of expectation. Following his death last week, aged 56, many tributes have been paid to the way in which Jobs apparently changed the world, with much interest also in his philosophy on life, and death.

But amongst all the glowing tributes, two articles have really stood out and made me think. The first is from Eddie, who questions whether Steve Jobs did indeed change the world as many have claimed. Read the rest of this entry →

by Mark

iPad iBad: A Backward Step for Software Freedom

January 28, 2010 in Mark, Computer, Random by Mark

Yesterday Apple announced their latest technological offering – the iPad – which is something between a phone, a laptop and an e-reader. Like all Apple products it looks extremely slick and shiny, and will certainly be popular with Apple enthusiasts, probably overtaking Amazon’s Kindle e-reader before too long.

As someone who enjoys reading (very slowly) and travels quite a bit, never quite knowing which country is really our home, the idea of having all our books on an e-reader -type device is quite appealing (especially with ever-increasingly airline luggage fees). In principle I like the idea of being able to read content – books, magazine, blogs… from a tablet, which is specialised for reading.

However, the problem with the iPad is a frustratingly familiar one when it comes to Apple’s business model. Everything is controlled by DRM, or Digital Rights Management – which basically means that even after you buy the device, and any content, Apple still controls exactly what you can and can’t do with the device and content.

Image: theregister.co.uk

The same thing happened with DRM music from the iTunes store, which has only recently become DRM-free (following years of criticism, and competition from DRM-free Amazon). My friend Andrew posted a link to this concise summary of the issue a couple of years ago:

Image: xkcd.com

Lifehacker has this to say about DRM in the iPad:

What’s dangerous about the iPad is that it’s much closer to a “real” computer than the iPhone is. If you dock it with the keyboard accessory, it really is just a laptop, probably powered somewhere along the lines of a MacBook Air. And yet this is a computer over which you have absolutely no control. And the question is: If we all continue to buy Apple’s locked-down products hand-over-fist (Jobs went so far as to talk about Apple as a mobile device company yesterday), what reason does Apple have not to keep moving forward with that model—a model that, to many, is defective by design.

Apple’s saying to consumers: “Trade in choice for a guarantee that this will work exactly as we designed it to, and you’ll never be upset with a computer again.” Unfortunately there’s no reason to believe the trade is necessary. At the very best, it seems like Apple’s extreme and obsessive control over what you’re allowed to run on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch is maybe delaying the point at which your software demands outpace the hardware, but even that’s is debatable. With the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, you’re trading choice and control in exchange for unsubstantiated promises. read more

As I said before I love the concept of electronic e-readers, the problem is in the proprietary software and media formats. When you buy a book you read it, lend it, and keep it on your bookshelf to read again or just browse through in 20 years time. If it’s really good it might inspire someone else in 50 years.

DRM media is designed for you to read now. You can’t lend it to someone else. You can’t even transfer it to another device that you own. If you upgrade to a different device made by another company, you lose your content. And there’s no guarantee that your proprietary format will be readable in 5 years, let alone 50.

If the iPad follows the iPod, Apple will make billions from selling the iPad to Apple enthusiasts and others who like its slick appearance, other companies will produce their own versions, and then eventually everyone will agree on a format that can be played and transferred between any device. While not entirely open and transparent, the mp3 format for music functions in this way to a great extent – once you buy an MP3 player and music you can do what you like with them, provided you don’t break copyright rules.

The iPad is the latest fashion in our culture of instant gratification and short-term thinking. I’ll be waiting for an open source version where I know what I’m buying, and I know that the device and content belongs to me and isn’t still owned and controlled by a multi-billion dollar company.

by Mark

Dropbox

September 16, 2008 in Mark, Computer by Mark

For a while I’ve been wondering about a solution to the “I want to transfer a file from our laptop to my office computer” problem. OK, on the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a problem – I can always use a memory stick or save the file as an attachment to a draft in gmail.

But it always seemed to me that there should be a much simpler solution for two computers that are both online (but not on the same network). A couple of days ago I installed Dropbox, which has an open-source Linux (as well as Windows and OS X) client and is very simple to use.

It just puts a Dropbox folder somewhere of your choosing on your computer, and anything you put in that folder automatically gets uploaded to it’s website (where you can access it from anywhere with your login) and downloaded to any other computers you have Dropbox installed on.

There is a size limit of 2GB for the free account, with much more storage available for a price if you want to use it as a backup facility.

Now when I want to have access to a file from my office computer I don’t have to login to Gmail, compose a message, find the file I want to attach and save the message, I just copy and paste the file or folder into the dropbox folder on our laptop and by the time I’ve walked to the office it’s there waiting for me.

by Mark

Linux simplicity

July 18, 2008 in Mark, Computer by Mark

I love linux – it’s so clean and simple. Today I wanted to record a section of a DVD (of a Wycliffe member being interviewed on TV) in mp3 format so that I could email it to another member who is visually impaired.

In Windows I would have been searching for a while, trying to separate the malware from the rubbish in a vain attempt to find some free programme that would do what I wanted without clogging up my computer. In linux I just searched for “rip dvd mp3 linux” and found this page.

3 minutes and three commands (the last of which looks complicated but is well explained in the tutorial) later I have my mp3.

sudo apt-get install lsdvd transcode

lsdvd

transcode -i /dev/dvd -x dvd -T 1,1,1 -a 0 -y raw -m filename.mp3

And the best thing is I can relax knowing that the software came from a central repository, so isn’t going to cause my computer to crash, spy on me or be generally annoying.

by Mark

Bible translation, Linux and American beer

May 4, 2008 in Mark, Bible translation, Computer by Mark

What does Bible translation have to do with Linux and American beer? The way that it should be marketed.

This article is talking about how, in the main, the marketing strategy for the Linux computer operating system relies on word of mouth. It argues that for some types of products mass marketing is effective, but for others there are much more cost-effective strategies.

A large part of mainstream media marketing, advertising, and branding is a means to get name recognition at a very superficial level. Its main targets are people who make superficial buying decisions, and for the right products, this works. Why buy name brand Tylenol vs. generic acetaminophen, name brand cereal, or a thousand other identical products that come off the same assembly line but use different packaging at different prices? From the perspective of the thrifty, the main answers are ignorance and brand recognition.

Of course, not all marketing is to compete with effectively identical products. Consider the American beer industry as a major marketing powerhouse with a few similarities to the Windows vs. Linux market. The major American breweries formulated modern beers after Prohibition to appeal to people who didn’t like the taste of beer, and as a side effect the major brewers accepted, these beers taste bad to beer connoisseurs. The post-Prohibition era, even to this day, retains elements of a cartelized liquor distribution industry designed to make it difficult and expensive to compete with the major breweries, such that there have been no new domestic majors in decades. The rebirth of real beer in America was through microbreweries that have small to non-existent marketing budgets. They rely on beer connoisseurs who communicate through beer fan reviews, word of mouth, willingness to experiment, and seeking out the minority of stores that actually carry microbrew and local beers. Beer commercials for microbrews about sports and sexy women would not get many beer drinkers to seek out good beer that isn’t already easy to find. Such commercials are just for “all beer is beer” drinkers who are susceptible to brand association marketing and herd opinion.

This doesn’t mean that high-cost marketing is innately wrong or bad. It means that if you can increase the marginal sales of your high-profit-per-sale product to people who make quick decisions based on brand recognition, then your marketing expenses were a good investment, but otherwise not. Unfortunately for Linux companies, desktop Linux is a very low profit per “sale” product that is not an impulse choice off a shelf of interchangeable consumer goods.

I would add recruitment for Bible translation to the Linux-American beer category. Our market is a relatively small one (committed UK Christians), and our product is very different to almost anything else “on the market”. Even other missions organisations are not normally working directly in Bible translation.

Add to that the fact that people rarely give up a salary to raise financial support and live in a third world country on impulse, and I would say that despite the temptation to invest in quick and easy online mass marketing, our best marketing strategies are through the old-fashioned approach of meeting people, building relationships, and word of mouth.