Wall Street Journal’s (Fail)SafeHouse: Keep Trying

In 2005, intending to innovate, the Los Angeles Times published a “Wikitorial” — an editorial from the paper in a wiki that allowed readers to make changes. The idea was interesting. The execution was a classic in news organization stupidity, because after putting up the piece the news people went home for the night. Naturally, some bad folks took over, and early the next morning they’d thoroughly polluted the thing. One image that found its way onto the wikitorial was an infamously disgusting photograph. Down came the page, and that was that.

The LA Times learned the wrong lesson. Rather than giving up the experiment, it should have tried again.

The failed LA project comes to mind in the wake of the Wall Street Journal’s launch of a WikiLeaks-like experiment, a site called SafeHouse. The page pitches these bullet points:

  • Help The Wall Street Journal uncover fraud, abuse and other wrongdoing.
  • Send documents to us using a special system built to be secure.
  • Keep your identity anonymous or confidential, if needed.

Uh, not really, at least on the second and third points.

Security experts immediately poked holes in the site security. And the site’s Terms of Service contain what might be termed a “Get Into Jail Free Card” — reserving “the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process, to operate our systems properly, to protect the property or rights of Dow Jones or any affiliated companies, and to safeguard the interests of others.”

Unlike the LA Times, the Journal isn’t abandoning the experiment and seems to be working to fix at least some of the site’s flaws. That’s good news, even though I’d still advise any whistleblower to steer clear of this for the moment, not least because the notion of trusting a company controlled by Rupert Murdoch is, well, problematic even if one might trust (as I would) many of the Journal’s lower-level editors.

Which raises the larger question in any case: While I tend to believe that every news organization should have a drop-off point for documents from whistleblowers, there’s always going to be a question of how much a leaker should trust any private company on which a government can exert pressure, apart the issue of whether the company itself can always be trusted. Remember, the New York Times has frequently felt obliged to ask permission from the U.S. government before publishing a variety of things.

Still, these experiments are worthwhile. But it’s going to take some time before we can call them successes in any respect.

Google’s (Partial) Retreat from Open Systems

Google’s “open source” promises regarding its Android mobile operating system have always been a bit exaggerated. Yes, anyone can download and use that software, but to get Google’s official stamp of approval for using it in a mobile device, you have to add in some distinctly proprietary applications that Google alone controls.

Now comes the word, via BusinessWeek, that Google is delaying plans to open-source the OS — built on top of Android (itself a Linux variant) and called Honeycomb — that it wants tablet makers to use. The decision is disturbing for many reasons, but here’s the most important one: It erodes trust.

Google seems to be playing favorites in the rollout of Honeycomb tablets. It’s currently partnering with a relatively small number of manufacturers, such as Motorola, that are bringing out the first of what Google hopes will be many tablets in the next several years.

But the main reason to be excited Honeycomb, from my perspective, is that the OS will be widely in play in a number of form factors and devices by a wide variety of manufacturers. They need the code to experiment with all kinds of ideas, and they aren’t getting it in a timely way.

Google is still leagues ahead of other big tech companies in the openness arena. But people who want to believe in the company should remember that Google is, first and foremost, going to protect itself.

If the Honeycomb code release occurs soon, the impact of the delay will be minimal. No matter when it takes place, however, Google has cost itself a bit of the trust it’s earned in recent years — and that seems like a poor bargain for a company that in the end will live or die based on its users’ trust.

Rodney King and the Rise of the Citizen Photojournalist


Twenty years ago, on March 3 1991, a media shock wave hit Los Angeles and the nation: the Rodney King video. As a bystander captured the incident with his home video camera, several LA police officers beat King repeatedly while other officers stood by and watched.


The video, or more accurately its broadcast across America, set in motion consequences that have reverberated through the years since the beating. Among them: the Los Angeles riots, after the acquittal of police charged with assault, and the poisonous relations between LA police and many of the city’s citizens.

Another impact, of course, was the recognition — which grows more and more prevalent — that anyone with a video camera could become more than a witness to the events of our times. The camera-bearing citizen, in this case a man named George Holliday, was becoming an integral part of how we remember these events.

Bridge truck photo

Holliday’s act was one of citizen journalism. It wasn’t the first, however, even though it was a milestone.

Indeed, people have been witnessing and taking pictures of notable events for a long, long time. Consider the picture at the right. It shows a man being rescued from a truck that dangled over the side of a bridge. It was taken by Virginia Schau, an amateur photographer who happened on the scene after the accident. She won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography.

Zapruder 246

Less than a decade later, an old-fashioned movie camera captured the most famous pictures in the citizen-media genre: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Abraham Zapruder, the man pointing the camera that day in Dealey Plaza, sold the film to Life Magazine for $150,000— over a million dollars in today’s currency.

In Dealey Plaza that day, one man happened to capture a motion picture—somewhat blurred but utterly gruesome nonetheless—of those terrible events. Zapruder’s work, by any standard we can imagine, was an act of citizen journalism.

But the Rodney King video was a turning point. By 1991, home video gear was becoming common, heading toward today’s near-ubiquity. When people saw that video, they realized a number of things, not least of which was the possibility that average citizens could hold powerful people — the police in this instance — somewhat more accountable for wrongdoing they committed in public places. Witnessing was being transformed into action, we all understood.


Today, many of us carry around still and video cameras that are part of our phones. In the U.S. and around the world, people are capturing events, routine and horrific, that mark our times. The mobile-phone video of Neda Soltani’s death by gunshot in the aftermath of Iran’s rigged 2009 election became a rallying point for opposition to the regime.

In recent days, the grim videos and photos coming out of Libya have been testament to people’s desire to bear witness to cruelty and oppression. Around the world, dictators have learned that even if they kill their people they can’t ultimately stop the world from seeing what crimes they commit. Yes, they can use technology to stifle freedom, and they do. But media from average people can make a real difference, too, and it does again and again.

Imagine where we will be a decade from now in a technological sense, and then let’s return briefly to November 22, 1963. Dozens or hundreds of people in Dealey Plaza would have been capturing high-definition videos of the Kennedy assassination, most likely via their camera-equipped mobile phones as well as single-purpose digital cameras and video recorders. They’d have been capturing those images from multiple perspectives. And—this is key—all of those devices would have been attached to digital networks.

If the soon-to-be-ubiquitous technology had been in use back in 1963, several things are clear. One is that videos of this event would have been posted online almost instantly. Professional news organizations, which would also have had their own videos, would have been competing with a blizzard of other material almost from the start—and given traditional media’s usually appropriate reluctance to broadcast the most gruesome images (e.g., the beheading of the American businessman Nick Berg in Iraq), the online accounts might well have been a primary source.

And think about this: We’d also soon have a three-dimensional hologram of the event, given the number of cameras capturing it from various angles. Which means we’d probably know for sure whether someone was shooting at the president from that famous grassy knoll. In the future, government commissions will still issue official reports, but the documents will be created with much more input from citizens, who, because of digital media tools, are playing increasingly direct roles in governance as well as elections. The prospect of actually making policy, or at least having an impact on it, can offer a serious incentive to be a citizen journalist.

Another famous picture of our times is the single image that we will most remember from the July 2005 bombings in London. It was taken by Adam Stacey inside the Underground (London’s subway), as he and others escaped from a smoky train immediately after one of the bombs exploded. The production values of the image were hardly professional, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was the utter authenticity of the image, made so by the fact that the man was there at the right time with the right media-creation gear.

Stacey’s picture, like the other material I’ve highlighted here, made its way to wide viewership largely because traditional media organizations gave it a push. That will be less and less necessary as social media become the news-access tools of choice for a new generation that consumes, produces and shares news in varying ways. Big media will always have a role, an important one for some time to come, but it’s no longer clear that they’ll be as overwhelmingly essential even in the “distribution” arena.

The era of ubiquitous media creation tools has been dawning for some time. It is almost here now. It will bring some alarming consequences, notably a further erosion of personal privacy; for example, even if you don’t want the world to know that you were falling-down drunk at that party, there’s a growing chance that someone else who was there will post a picture of you in that condition on Facebook.

We will be better off, in the end, as more and more journalistic media creation of this sort becomes part of the mainstream. This isn’t good news for professional spot news photo and video journalists, who are much less likely to be at the scenes of newsworthy events than their “amateur” fellow citizens. But we will have more genuine media than before, as in the authenticity of the London image, and that is a good thing for us all.

UPDATE: In conversations with the Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers, who’s working on written a terrific piece of his own about the King video and its long-range impact, the subject of speed of publication/broadcast and compensation came up. I’ll point to his piece as soon as I see it, but meanwhile hHere are two Mediactive excerpts I sent him relating to these issues.

I also question the ethics of news organizations that assume, as many do, that the work of the citizen journalist is something the company should get for free. I’m highly skeptical of business models, typically conceived by Big Media companies, that tell the rest of us: “You do all the work, and we’ll take all the money we make by exploiting it.” This is not just unethical, it’s also unsustainable in the long run, because the people who give freely of their time won’t be satisfied to see mega-corporations rake in the financial value of what others have created.

Not every person who captures a newsworthy image or video necessarily wants to be paid. But many do, and right now, for the most part, their compensation is a pat on the back. Eventually, someone will come up with a robust business model that puts a welcome dent into this modern version of sharecropping.

Stacey’s picture in the London Underground was widely distributed—it was published on the front pages of many newspapers—in part because he put it out under a Creative Commons license allowing anyone the right to use it in any way provided that they attributed the picture to its creator. There were misunderstandings (including at least one use by a photo agency that apparently claimed at least partial credit for itself), but the copyright terms—I’ll explain Creative Commons more fully in the Epilogue—almost certainly helped spread it far and wide in a very short time.

Beyond licensing, we need new market systems to reward citizen photographers. Some startups are positioning themselves as brokers, including a service calledDemotix. As I’ll also discuss later, we need to take the next step to a real-time auction system.

A few news organizations have adapted, and are finding ways to reward citizen creators in tangible ways. Bild, the German tabloid, asks people to send in their own pictures, and pays for the ones it publishes. This is an important part of our future.

Just as some people gladly take the New York Times’s absurdly low pay when their freelance articles make it into the paper’s news and op-ed pages, some photographers gladly sell their work for peanuts to Time. They have their own reasons, which can range from getting valuable exposure—so they can (try to) charge more for subsequent work—to not needing the higher rates that staffers and more famous people can demand.

This gets trickier, it seems to me, when it comes to breaking news, where news organizations derive enormous benefits from having the right image or video at the right time, and too frequently get it for less than peanuts. Indeed, practically every news organization now invites its audience to submit pictures and videos, in return for which the submitters typically get zip.

Which is why we need a more robust marketplace than any I’ve seen so far—namely, a real-time auction system.

How would a real-time auction system work? The flow, I’d imagine, would go like this: Photographer captures breaking news event on video or audio, and posts the work to the auction site. Potential buyers, especially media companies, get to see watermarked thumbnails and then start bidding. A time limit is enforced in each case. The winning bid goes to the photographer, minus a cut to the auction service.

The premium, then, would be on timeliness and authenticity. One or two images/videos would be likely to command relatively high prices, and everything else would be worth considerably less.

Eventually, someone will do this kind of business—which could also be useful for eyewitness text accounts of events. For the sake of the citizen journalists who are not getting what they deserve for their work, I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

For print, an auction system is also needed, but the timeliness is less critical. A British startup is planning, as I write this, to launch a service called “Newsrupt,” aimed more at editors than reporters. I hope it’s the first of many such ventures.

(I initially wrote this piece, which is adapted in part from the Mediactive book, at the request of CNN.com. However, CNN declined my request to run it with a Creative Commons license, and since I’m not being paid for the effort I declined to let CNN use it in the first place. Note: I normally don’t care for anniversary journalism, but this felt like a worthwhile exception.)

Mobile Applications Journalists (and You) Should Have on Your Phone

Updated: I added several resources as well as text to show device support. I also clarified the introduction a bit.

A great discussion began on Quora asking “What apps should every journalist have on their iPhone?” Both professional journalists and recreational reporters jumped in on the discussion with enough suggestions to cover most bases when you need to capture news and publish it quickly from a mobile device. While not all are as useful to non-professional journalists, having some of the same apps available can serve the you well in the pursuit to be an active media participant.

For this post, I’ve pulled from the best suggestions there and have added some of my own. I’ve also added Android alternatives to iPhone-only apps. I’ll be updating the Resources section with more mobile apps and welcome your suggestions in the comments.

Apps that improve phone calls and SMS
Actual phone calls and SMS (text messages) are already the killer apps of mobile. However, they can be enhanced by some useful applications.

  • Skype offers flexibility as an IM and live-voice client, giving options beyond using just your mobile carrier for communication. (iPhone, Android, Blackberry)
  • bnter_examplebnter – Bnter allows you to tell stories by recreating your SMS conversations and publish them to the web. It’s an interesting way to visualize a text conversation. (Any device with a  web browser)
  • Apple’s own FaceTime video chat client adds the nonverbal communication that comes with face-to-face conversation. (iPhone)
  • Fring is a video call and chat client that works as a good Android alternative to FaceTime (iPhone, Android)
  • GroupMe helps you organize and send SMS messages to groups of people. (iPhone, Android)

Apps that improve consumption

Reeder exampleWhile individual news organizations are creating great applications of their own, RSS and Twitter clients are still a great way to customize your news consumption experience.

  • Reeder is an iPhone RSS app that connects with a user’s Google Reader Account.
  • Google’s own Reader app for Android.
  • NetNewsWire is an RSS reader with a solid version for the iPhone. It also syncs with Google Reader.
  • Twitter lists are an efficient route for consuming news via mobile device. Make or borrow lists of both individual journalists and publications where you get news.

Apps that improve note taking

While many note applications exist, here are a couple good places to start. Much will depend with personal preference over time, but features to look for are organization, tagging, search capability and the ability to sync to the cloud and other devices.

  • Evernote allows the user to take notes, tag them and then sync them across multiple devices as the notes are backed up on the cloud. (iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Palm, Win Mobile)
  • SimpleNote is a popular note-taking application that replaces the iPhone’s standard Notes app. If you’re a Mac user, an open-source application called Notational Velocity adds syncing to Simplenote and the pair are quickly becoming a popular combo. (iPhone/Mac)

Apps for recording

The photo, video and audio capturing bases can be covered with just a few good apps. Here are several to start with.

  • Instagram is a crowd favorite for taking photos and publishing them quickly. (iPhone)
  • Picplz offers some of the same functionality as Instagram, but is available on Android. (iPhone, Android)
  • For audio, both CinchCast and AudioBoo are worth checking out. Each allow for quickly capturing and then publishing audio, integrating with many social sites. (Both on iPhone and Android)
  • Soundcloud commentFor live streaming video, Bambuser, JustinTV, Qik and Ustream are all good options. (All support both iPhone and Android)
  • Soundcloud allows other users to comment on the timeline of published audio files. This is a great feature for discussing long files of breaking news that haven’t yet been edited as users can quickly see the places creating the most discussion and jump right to that point. (iPhone, Android)

Apps for publishing
Many of the recording apps have their own publishing features built-in. However, the apps listed below help you interact with other publishing tools through your mobile device.

  • For blogging, WordPress, Posterous and Tumblr all have mobile applications that allow you to publish to your blog from your phone. (All on iPhone and Android)
  • Disqus offers an application that allows you to curate and respond to comments on your blog as well as comment elsewhere. It integrates with WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger and other publishing platforms. (iPhone, Android)

Apps that do other useful things

  • Dropbox is a file-storage application that simplifies sharing files across devices and sharing them with others. As it syncs to the cloud, it also serves as a backup application and offers a lot of use to those recording in volatile situations where there’s a risk of a phone being confiscated. (iPhone, Android)
  • Glympse screenPhotoshop Express is a nice tool for editing photos and images on your mobile phone. (iPhone, Android)
  • 5-0 Radio is a police scanner application that can be useful for keeping up with local crime and safety on the iPhone. Scanner Radio is a well-rated Android alternative.
  • Glympse allows you to publish your location in real time. It varies from other location check-in apps in that it allows you to specify times at a location and map a path of travel. It has interesting implications for covering a story that changes locations over time.

Many, many more apps are out there with promising journalistic applications. Jump in on the comments and tell us what you’ve found to help you consume and create media.

Now we have to jailbreak our Android phones, too

This article was originally published on Salon on August 23, 2010.

As Google gives carriers more sway over the operating system, customers need more options

When Google introduced the Nexus One smartphone early this year, we got a glimpse into what the future could be if device makers a) wrested control of the device from the mobile carriers and b) trusted users to decide what software they could run on the hardware they’d purchased. The heart of this notion was Google’s Android operating system running on a device that wasn’t subject to a mobile carrier’s deliberate limitations on how it could be used.

The experiment wasn’t a rousing success for several reasons, not least Google’s ineptness at running a store where it had to, gasp, deal with actual human customers needing technical support. Still, the Nexus One was the class of the not-Apple world, in my view, which is why I bought one and still use it with almost entirely happy results.

But Google has withdrawn from selling its own devices except to developers. And in the process, as ZDNet’s Jason Hiner persuasively explains, it’s ceded back to the carriers selling Android phones the control that users had expected for themselves with an open-source operating system.

Meanwhile, Google has made ominous common cause with Verizon in the policy arena, saying that it’s OK to toss out network neutrality — the idea that carriers shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of content — on mobile networks. Add it all up, and Google’s retreat is distressing.

The emboldened carriers have started loading all kinds of “crapware” — apps from partner companies that can’t be removed in standard configurations and that can slow down the devices. (For that matter, Google itself has done this with the Nexus One and Android, by putting unremovable apps into the operating system updates.)

Now, you can get an iPhone without this stuff. Unfortunately, you also get AT&T’s lackluster network and, much worse, Apple’s control freakery. Apple decides through its app-approval process what you’re allowed to use on the device, where Android phones (in almost all cases) don’t block you from installing what you want in addition to what they’ve already placed on the phones.

I wish Google — or more likely HTC or some other manufacturer willing to risk annoying the carriers — would sell an Android handset that I could use any way I want: an unlocked, un-crapwared device with lots of power and room to expand. Unfortunately there’s no sign of such a phone on the horizon, though I’ll keep watching.

The alternative is less attractive. It’s the rough equivalent of what the iPhone community calls “jailbreaking” — removing the artificial limitations in the operating system by fixing the software.

In the Android world this is typically called “rooting” the phone (again, not exactly the same thing as jailbreaking an iPhone), or giving the customer what’s also called “Superuser” access to all functions. There are risks in doing this, notably in security, but increasingly I’m inclined to believe they’re worth it.

So as I look for a new Android phone, which I’m doing as the hardware gets better and better, I’m watching several online forums for information, especially the XDA Developers site. Notably, I want to knowbefore I buy that I can root the phone and, in some cases, update to the latest Android operating system with full features.

Unfortunately, this process isn’t always easy or simple, which is just fine, I’m sure, with the mobile network companies. But until we move into a mobile world where at least one carrier and manufacturer allow their customers to actually own what they’ve purchased, we’ll be forced to overcome these barriers.

Yes, you can jailbreak your phone

This article was originally published on Salon on July 27, 2010.

Federal ruling allows slightly more freedom to use what you’ve bought the way you want, but much more is needed

Good news in the copyright world is rare, but we have a couple of small victories to celebrate this week. The bad news: They only emphasize how grossly unbalanced our system remains.

These wins for customer freedom center around a technology broadly known as DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management — methods used by hardware and software companies to allow customers only certain rights. It should more properly be called Digital Restrictions Management, because that’s the real aim of DRM. People have found ways to break or work around DRM, but federal law makes it illegal to do so in most circumstances.

The cracks in DRM’s legal facade are starting to grow, too. On Monday, the Copyright Office and librarian of Congress said, among other things,that it’s OK to A) “jailbreak” your phone, thereby letting you install software not approved by the phone seller; and B) use brief excerpts of DVD videos in other works. Renewing a previously granted exception to federal copyright law, the office also said it was OK to unlock your phone so that you can use it with a different mobile network.

The exceptions are still fairly narrow, to be sure, and how widely they’ll be used remains to be seen given the way our mobile phone and media markets work in the real world. But they’re notable in several ways.

One is the language the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, used in his rulemaking document (1.5MB PDF). For example, he called the act of jailbreaking a phone “innocuous at worst and beneficial at best.”

Industry arguments against these exceptions, for which the Electronic Frontier Foundation had led the fight, had been laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Apple, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, took the hardest-line stance against the concept that customers should have the right to use the devices they’ve purchased as they see fit.

Apple’s objections ultimately came down to its insistence that customer freedoms would “undercut the overall iPhone experience” (emphasis from the original document filed in the case). In other words, you should only be able to use the iPhone, which is nothing more than a handheld computer connected to digital networks — albeit a wonderfully designed device — in precisely the ways Apple determines.

Having lost in the Copyright Office, Apple responded with typical arrogance, telling the Cult of Mac blog that it might now be legal to use your iPhone the way you want to, but you’ll void the warranty if you do. And you can expect Apple to keep up its cat-and-mouse game of using software updates to screw up jailbroken phones, as the iPhone Dev-Team — leaders of the jailbreaking movement — are warning.

The continued ability to unlock your phone and use it on a competing network isn’t much help, because of the insanity of America’s competing mobile standards. Even if you unlock a newer iPhone, you can’t use it to its maximum capabilities on Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile because of various radio and chip incompatibilites.

But if you travel overseas frequently, unlocking your GSM-based AT&T or T-Mobile phone will be nontrivial (assuming it isn’t already unlocked, as mine is). You can use local SIM cards in many countries and save a huge amount of money.

The other important move by the Copyright Office was to allow people to remix videos in other works. Essentially, the copyright officials observed that it was ridiculous to believe that we’re all but forbidden from quoting from others’ creative work just because it’s in a DRM’d video format.

Unfortunately, this exception is way too narrow in the real world. It allows circumvention of the DRM solely for:

(i) Educational uses by college and university professors and by college and university film and media studies students;

(ii) Documentary filmmaking;

(iii) Noncommercial videos.

In other words, it’s still not allowed to quote from another video work for commercial use (other than in a documentary). This is nuts. If authors had to get permission from every writer or publisher whose work they intended to quote, scholarship and journalism would grind to a halt.

The copyright office’s exemptions also included the right to bypass computer system dongles that are broken or obsolete; a research exception for studying video game security; and read-aloud functions in e-books if not provided by the publisher.

Again, we shouldn’t overstate the value of Monday’s ruling. The law remains horribly unbalanced in favor of the copyright holders. But any progress is helpful.

Apple’s iPhone non-apology apology

This article was originally published on Salon on July 16, 2010.

Steve Jobs offers new cases and refunds, and tells the media to stop making such a big deal of reception problems


Here, in a nutshell, is Apple’s defense in the so-called AntennaGate affair:

Our customers love the iPhone4, and everyone else has the same problem, so shut up already, media. But because we’re so generous and customer-focused, we’re giving all iPhone4 buyers a free “bumper” case (and a software update) that makes everything hunky-dory.

OK, that’s a bit oversimplified. But not by much.

Apple brought a small group of selected journalists (given what I’ve saidabout Apple lately I was, unsurprisingly, not invited) to Apple’s Cupertino headquarters for an event that is unlike any I can remember in the company’s history: an attempt to slow if not halt the deluge of bad press the iPhone4 has been getting over the reception problems buyers of the new device have discovered in the real world.

Apple has been taking enormous heat — sometimes fairly and sometimes not — for the iPhone’s flaws. Based on the amount of coverage it’s received, you might imagine that the iPhone is about an order of magnitude more important than, say, the financial “reform” law that has made its way through Congress. (The New York Times’ Nick Bilton wrote, “It’s Just a Phone,” but that, too, was part of the massive coverage, right?)

On the Apple stage Friday morning, CEO Steve Jobs tried to make a casethat a) the problem isn’t bad in the first place; b) it’s a common one in the industry; and c) we should all just stop talking about it.

Regarding the first point, for example, Jobs said half of 1 percent of new buyers called to complain about the reception problem. I’d call that a huge percentage. Most people don’t call support in the first place. And the early adopters of the iPhone are surely predisposed to wanting to be happy with their decision.

I’m more inclined to cut Apple a bit of slack on the second point. There is clearly an industrywide issue with reception, but I’m not persuaded at all — especially after the Consumer Reports testing — that the iPhone4 experience is typical. I’d like to see a much broader research effort by Consumer Reports and other unbiased testing agencies on this, so we really understand what’s happening.

But Jobs was admitting, at the same time, though he didn’t put it this way, that Apple didn’t do sufficient testing of the new phones. (So, by the way, was Consumer Reports admitting that it didn’t do sufficient reporting when it first recommended the phone, only to unrecommend it later.) This is an inevitable consequence of maintaining a corporate culture of such secrecy and paranoia — wanting to spring new products on the world with the maximum amount of hype, an Apple phenomenon that journalists serve so well with their long-standing adoration, only now being tested.

Give Jobs some style points for unintended irony in calling Apple “totally transparent.” But was he taking a subtle jab at AT&T to mention that the carrier keeps dropped-calls data a secret? Pot, meet kettle.

Apple’s insistence that the media are blowing the situation out of proportion is a matter of opinion, of course. I tend to agree that the antenna issue is not exactly earthshaking, but Apple’s claims of near-perfection — its new devices are magical, remember? — leave the company more open to the perception of failure than would otherwise be the case.

The entire affair reminds me of the Intel “Pentium Bug” fiasco back in the 1990s, when Pentium chips were found to have small flaws in the way they handled certain calculations. Intel executives believed the flaws were not important enough to matter, but public concern snowballed and the company — doing the right thing belatedly — did an expensive recall.

Perhaps, given its industry-leading position these days — a long, long way from its earlier days as an underdog — Apple is beginning to realize that it has to be more forthcoming than it’s been in the past. That would be a wise realization, though an unlikely one as long as Jobs is in charge.

Meanwhile, it’s updates and bumpers for all! Well, for some, anyway.

Roll your own apps

This article was originally published on Salon on July 12, 2010.

Google’s Android “App Inventor” tries to bring mobile programming to the masses


Back in the 1980s, Apple Computer (as it was known then) released a product called Hypercard. It was an easy-to-use programming tool, based on a simple and elegant programming language called HyperTalk, combining databases and a graphical display to create applications called “stacks.” Programmers and non-programmers alike flocked to it, and created a huge variety of stacks that ranged from useful to quirky.

In the 1990s, Microsoft released Visual Basic. It, too, greatly simplified the programming process and was adopted by vast numbers of people — many inside large enterprises — whose work reinforced the Windows monopoly.

In the past decade, Web development took on some of the same qualities, giving average people ways to create applications to run on the Web with great ease and simplicity. Blogger, WordPress and Drupal, among others, became the content-management systems of choice, for example, and Yahoo’s brilliant Pipes let people do sophisticated mashups without knowing a line of Java or other popular languages.

Now comes a tool from Google that is getting quick buzz. It seems more in the Hypercard/Blogger genre than Visual Basic, which was made for beginners but did take some skill, but nonetheless a possible breakthrough. This one, built for the mobile age, is called the AndroidApp Inventor. I haven’t been able to try it yet, but its description suggests great potential. Google says:

You can build just about any app you can imagine with App Inventor. Often people begin by building games like WhackAMoleor games that let you draw funny pictures on your friend’s faces. You can even make use of the phone’s sensors to move a ball through a maze based on tilting the phone.

But app building is not limited to simple games. You can also build apps that inform and educate. You can create a quiz app to help you and your classmates study for a test. With Android’s text-to-speech capabilities, you can even have the phone ask the questions aloud.

To use App Inventor, you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires NO programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app’s behavior.

Based on the work of a number of people including Hal Abelson at MIT — a brilliant computer scientist who also understands how app development need to get into wider distribution, not just the coder community — the open-source environment leverages of other educational software projects.

One of the most important elements of App Inventor is that it will let developers take full advantage of the mobile hardware. Part of what makes mobility so interesting is that sensors built into devices — compasses, GPS radios, accelerometers, for example — add  capabilities that were unavailable in the PC era. To be able to leverage those in a dead-simple way is just huge.

I don’t want to overstate the potential here. Google’s not alone in working on such things, no doubt. But from what I can see this is going to be a seriously big deal if it works as advertised.

And I’ll be shocked if Apple doesn’t do something equivalent for its iPhone ecosystem. (It will have to be Apple, because the company forbids app developers to use any tools but its own — one of the most arrogant yet ultimately foolish moves Apple has made to date.) (See the update below for some high irony.)

The downside, if there is one: The number of Android apps is about to explode. This is a giant opportunity for Google — or anyone else, for that matter — to offer better curation than the current Market via various marketplaces and recommendation systems, as well as simple aggregation. Help the users. Don’t control them.

I’m going to start working on an app for the journalism marketplace, a project I’ve wanted to do but couldn’t get going with because of the cost. From what I can tell, I’ll be able to do most of what I need with this tool, maybe not everything but enough to get going and then iterate later.

UPDATE: One of the building blocks for App Inventor happens to beScratch, a programming language aimed at kids and developed at MIT. One guess what happened when the developers of Scratch submitted a version they’d created for the iPhone platform to the Apple App Store: Yep, Apple rejected it.

(Note: Google has supplied some of its early Android phones, the G1 model, to my university for experiments. Many other companies, including Google rivals Apple and Microsoft, have supplied gear and/or software, and offer discounts to university students, faculty and staff.  I purchased (at list price) the Google Nexus One phone that is my main mobile device.)

Phone or Wi-Fi hotspot? Both

This article was originally published on Salon on July 8, 2010.

Android software update turns Internet access loss into a minor problem

As noted several days ago, problems in an intercontinental fiber-optic cable have caused Internet outages for a lot of folks in South Africa this week. Those of us attending the Highway Africa and World Journalism Education Congress meetings were among the mostly disconnected.

But not completely in my case, due to a truly nifty feature in the latest version of its Android mobile operating system: The phone becomes a Wi-Fi hotspot. It’s simply a matter of going to the Settings and turning it on.

I’d already bought a local SIM card and a voice/data plan — total cost about $75 for ample voice time plus 2 gigabytes of data — for the two weeks we were scheduled to be in the country. I didn’t want to pay the outrageous Internet charges hotels tend to charge in much of the world, and also knew we’d be visiting some non-urban areas; the mobile networks do a comprehensive job of covering the country, and in a pinch, I figured, this would suffice. The pinch became a crunch with the cable failure, making the investment an even better one than I’d anticipated.

It’s not new to convert a mobile phone to a modem via tethering. I’d done that before with several other phones. Turning it into a hotspot was more difficult. With this feature, Google has added a service that users will relish — but which some mobile carriers will loathe, because the need for expensive extra dongles and data plans just went away in many cases. Some carriers seem to be preempting this feature, it seems, just for that reason. (It’s possible to unlock these and other “prohibited” features, though it takes some work, which I’ll describe in another posting one of these days.)

My U.S. mobile carrier charges a data fee for the phone, and with a bandwidth cap of (I believe) about 5 GB per month. It doesn’t care, as far as I can tell, whether I use it with the phone alone or a phone/computer combination. This is the right approach, but some carriers want you topay more just for the convenience of tethering your laptop to the phone.

Unfortunately, the latest Android OS isn’t available yet on many of the Android phones. (And the word is it won’t work, ever, on some older phones like the ones, such as the G1s.) So if you have one of those, you’ll just have to wait until your carrier decides to a) install the upgrade; and b) enable the hotspot.

This Mac devotee is moving to Linux

This article was originally published on Salon on June 20, 2010.

Seeking real freedom of choice in a technology ecosystem where vendors are exerting more and more control

I’m not religious about technology. My strategy is to use what works best, period.

This is why, for more than a decade, I’ve been using a Mac as my primary computer (and had been using Macs for some of my work long before that). Apple’s personal computers continue to be the best combination of hardware and software on the market today.

So why am I about to migrate to Linux (aka GNU/Linux)? Because Apple is pushing me away, and because I value some principles, perhaps almost religiously, that affect other decisions.

Apple is pushing computer users as fast as it can toward a centrally controlled computing ecosystem where it makes all the decisions about what native applications may be used on the devices it sells — and takes a cut of every dollar that is spent inside that ecosystem. This is a direct repudiation of its own history, and more broadly that of the larger personal-computing ecosystem, where no one can stop anyone else from writing and distributing software that other people might want to use.

Steve Jobs says Apple is a curator, nothing more. This grossly understates the control. Jobs says Apple has “made mistakes” in being the police, judge, jury and executioner in its Disney-style world, and is working hard to perfect the system.

But this is a disconnect with reality. Central control, no matter how well-intentioned, is itself the problem, not the solution. The “enlightened dictator” is fiction. And dangerous.

I realize that I won’t persuade the many people who prefer to live in gated communities, believing they can leave any time they wish. But switching costs will only get higher over time for those who choose to live in the Apple ecosystem.

As noted, I’ve been happy in the relatively free Mac world. But given the slowing pace of Mac OS development, there’s reason to believe Apple is mostly milking Mac OS users. Will it phase out serious PC development? Or will it eventually move its command-and-control methods up the value chain to the Mac? Apple says it’s committed to the Mac’s future. I’m not so sure, especially after Jobs, speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference earlier this month, made it clear that he believes the iPhone/iPad ecosystem is the real future of personal computing, with PCs becoming a much smaller player. (I’m a believer in tablets, and am planning to put my money there on the Android OS when tablet manufacturers adopt it in tablet-sized formats.)

So I’m looking for options in the personal-computing part of my life. Windows is one, of course, and Windows 7 is a truly fine piece of work by Microsoft’s recent operating-system standards, leagues better than Vista. But it’s impossible to fully trust Microsoft given its own history, not least its long and ever-deepening alliance with the control freaks of the Copyright Cartel, the commercial music, video, software and publishing industries.

That leaves, for practical purposes, Linux, which is freely available and not controlled by any one company. Volunteers around the world, who value freedom of choice and the ability to modify what they use, have created an ecosystem of their own — software based on the concept that you, not Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer, should have control over what you own.

Linux is anything but a walled garden. It’s almost nothing but choice, with all the good and bad that comes with it. Linux comes in all kinds of flavors. For now, I’ve settled on Ubuntu as the OS most likely to be in my own future. The Ubuntu project, founded by Mark Shuttleworth, appeals to me for many reasons, not least the project team’s devotion to making the software easy to use.

Linux runs on many kinds of PCs. The Mac may be a wonderful combination of hardware and software, but the hardware is definitely lagging these days. I’ve purchased a Lenovo ThinkPad X201, a laptop that strikes me as the ideal balance of portability and power. It’s much lighter than my MacBook Pro, yet has a great set of hardware features that Apple can’t seem to provide in its own laptops despite their high prices. (Example: The ThinkPad has a reader for flash-memory cards.)

Unfortunately, Ubuntu’s latest version, called “Lucid Lynx,” won’t run properly yet on the X201. The machine is just too new, and has some hardware Ubuntu doesn’t yet support. I’m assured this will change in the relatively near future, but Ubuntu’s lack of support for such a popular computer is an example of how much progress the project, for all its immense value, needs to make.

Meanwhile, Lucid Lynx is running nicely in a “virtual machine” on my MacBook Pro. I’ve been testing a variety of applications that could replace the Mac software I’ve come to rely on, though in some cases I can’t easily find adequate replacements (such as the blog-posting software I’m using to create this post).

I’m planning to make this transition slow and systematic. And I’ll be blogging periodically about the process. These postings won’t be aimed at geeky folks, but rather at others like me who believe in true freedom of choice in a world where powerful institutions are trying to lure us — or force us — into their walled gardens.