Author: Hector Dish

Sony's PS4 vision raises privacy, DRM questions

Sony’s New York PlayStation 4 event simultaneously disappointed and intrigued. Many were hoping for more details on the next-gen machine, or at least a glimpse of it – what the world got instead was too vague for some and the footage from upcoming games did not entirely placate that. What there is to work with, though, is interesting – Sony’s vision appears to be playing the long game, in building a completely connected ecosystem.

Under the bonnet, the PS4 will be running a setup not dissimilar to a speedy PC. AMD got the contract for the CPU and GPU, with an 8core 64-bit x86 Jaguar as the CPU, and a Radeon GPU with 18 compute units which Sony claims can handle an enormous 1.84TFLOPS in processing power. Additionally it will ship with 8GB of GGDR5 RAM which should manage 176GB/sec of bandwidth, as well as USB 3.0, Bluetooth 2.1, optical out, and a legacy analogue AV, Engadget reports. It is not known how much storage the devices will ship with. 

Aside from the great spec, what is particularly interesting is the direction in which Sony is keen to take gaming. Sony revealed enough,but not too much, to – we suspect – twist Microsoft’s arm into an announcement in the near future.

Much bluster was made of the new DualShock controller’s track pad, and its share button, a feature that lets users record video and upload it in real time for friends to see on social networks. Sony must be feeling confident. Even years-old games like past Battlefields and earlier Call of Duty titles still drop connections frequently on the Playstation 3. This cannot just be a software problem.

It is true that networking is improving, but Sony’s vision for an always on connected device may not be immediate or noticeable for large sections of gamers at launch. To expect connections to carry the weight of 20 gig downloads while playing the game is asking a lot, especially in heavy-use households. Imagine multiple PS4s bringing this burden on a connection in a single household – while others put further demands on the network: seeding and uploading torrents, streaming HD content on Netflix, another stream on a tablet and the bandwidth begins to get pretty crowded. Introduce the fair-use bandwidth capping of some of the bigger ISPs in, and to expect a seamless experience by Christmas 2013 is a lofty goal. Sony was confident enough to make a two hour song and dance about the upcoming console – so it must know something we don’t.

Much as cloud computing has been foisted upon the consumer, a connected PS4 ecosystem will, in the words of a Sony representative in this illuminating video on IGN, follow you as you go. Games will find new ways to connect with you outside of the living room,and this is being marketed to the public as something it wants. That may be the case, but we will have to wait and see the real world reaction. There is something slightly eerie about an always-on gaming network that you carry with you at all times, reminscent of the least season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

It looks like anonymity will be going out the window, too. In one obvious way, integration with Facebook (already possible on the PS3) and the Sony Entertainment Network appears more pervasive, from the snippets we have seen. Sony wants the real you playing on its servers. With the consumer pushback against Mark Zuckerberg’s data harvesting operation, it will be interesting to see the reaction. What benefits does this have for Sony? Aside from keeping its customers as a captive audience across multiple devices, if Sony is as successful as it wants to be with broadening out the scope of its network, opportunities for gathering personal data and consumption habits will be easier than ever for the company to pick at. Unlike Facebook, users would be paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege.

The Playstation 4 raises more questions about Digital Rights Management. That is, piracy and privacy. Microsoft last year was revealed to have filed a patent on image recognition technologies that could place basic demographics of the viewer or viewers, opening up worrying possibilities for DRM that the company fully acknowledged in its patent.

The above IGN video makes reference to that, too – that your PS4 would know more about your living room than perhaps you’d be comfortable with. A developer says this will be useful in marketing items that are more relevant to a user’s interests, based on past behaviour. But what creepy domino effect could this ultimately set into action? Eli Pariser’s argument of an online “filter bubble” comes to mind. That the more cultivated and personalised our experiences are, while giving the illusion of being open, make us more closed off than ever before. Sony’s vision so far is intriguing. For now, it is difficult to do much more than wait for more information, not to mention Microsoft’s riposte.

Pope to join Twitter

Hitler Youth conscript hat-wearing figurehead of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, is planning to turn to social media with the help of the Vatican. 

Just as the Twiterrati largely reacted to David Cameron joining the website with heaps of scorn, the Pope has an even wider audience which will be prepared to harass him in 140 characters or less.

The internet’s rabid atheists are going to lap this up and we are predicting the following right now: an influx of parody accounts, anti-Catholic hashtags, and widely retweeted paedophile jokes. In other words, it’s going to be a PR nightmare for a week or so before the mob moves onto something else.

Reuters reports Benedict himself is not a fan of technology and writes most of his speeches by hand, so the anti-religion mob will be able to go nuts without having to consider hurting the feelings of an 85 year old man. He will not pen the tweets himself, but will personally sign them off before they’re sent.

The content is expected to be made up of the Pope’s weekly audience, as well as Sunday blessings and reactions to major world events like natural disasters.

Last year, the Pope officially gave his blessing to social media as part of World Communications Day. He said that social networking offers ‘extraordinary potential’, but he did warn that Facebook and Twitter can bring risks with them.

He warned against one-sidedness, self-indulgence, and false representation – all of which could arguably be levied against a man who is considered to be the successor to Saint Peter and spends much of his time in a palace.

With the iPad 3, Apple is taking a bite out of itself

Is the technology news industry really doing it again? As Apple made its latest iPad available – a slightly refined iPad 2 with a well-received, high definition retina display – the technology press mostly frothed feverishly at the mouth describing punters who would trample over their own grandmothers to be among the first to pay through the nose for the tablet.

Although one of the red-top online magazines pointed out only a few die hard Apple nerds bothered to head down to its flagship Regent Street shop in London this morning, elsewhere the web has been peppered with articles practically weeping for the poor souls who won’t be able to get one because the demand is too high.

But is the demand really too high? Aside from the usual carefully-selected seatfillers Apple put in front of new CEO Tim Cook, much of the real world reacted with apathy. The hype machine well and truly built up Apple’s latest tablet as if it was going to be the Second Coming of Jobs.

Aside from the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg predictively cooing over the machine – comparing its screen to getting a “new pair of eye glasses” – the machine is almost the same as the iPad 2. Is it really worth an upgrade? The iPad 2 was worth an upgrade because the hardware was a significant leap from the original iPad. Overall it was more sleek, stylish, powerful, and less cumbersome than its predecessor. The suckers among the cultish Apple faithful who buy this new machine will only be able to bang on about its screen for so long.

Just like with other releases, a cynic – or a realist – would suggest that Apple very carefully controls the stock of its products and drip feeds its supply into the public domain. This creates artificial demand, in turn making the product seem more desirable than it, well, is. It could well be that the shiny gadgets are beginning to lose their shine.

Rome didn’t fall in a day, and neither will Apple, if it falls at all. It needs to, at the very least, be seen as innovating. Cupertino might come to realise that its famous reality distortion field was powered solely by the charisma and effortless sales pitches of late CEO Steve Jobs. 

Android ships on over half of the world's smartphones

Gartner has announced that Apple’s iPhone was by far the world’s most popular smartphone during the last quarter of 2011 – but failed to mention Cupertino is in a very difficult fight against Android.

Although Apple’s iPhone took an impressive 23.8 percent of the market share for all smartphones sold, the company is only winning in a race as manufacturer. The world and its dog agree that battles won’t be won in hardware alone, and that the real struggle for pole position is in the ecosystem. Apple has enjoyed being at the top because it was the first aggressive push into the mobile market, but will soon find that its closed approach isn’t doing it any favours.

Late Apple boss Steve Jobs was famously furious about Android, pledging his company’s vast fortunes to serve as coffers for a  “thermonuclear war” against it. Apple’s worries about Google are evident in the long list of patent infringement cases it is using to drag manufacturers through the courts. Executives in Cupertino know full well that they have a challenger which is inherently more attractive to potential customers that haven’t been won over by Apple’s marketing.

In Gartner’s manufacturer list, Nokia and Samsung still pipped it to making the most mobile device sales. They are followed by Apple and then some intriguing newcomers to the western market in ZTE and Huawei. ZTE and Huawei, both from China, have been on an extensive and aggressive marketing and sales campaign for a couple of years now. If they continue as they are, they’re likely to become very real challengers to the big players. 

Gartner concedes that Android is absolutely devouring the market for operating systems, being on just over half of all devices sold. This is exactly Google’s plan: by offering a free, and increasingly swish OS for manufacturers to stick on their devices, it has flooded the market with excellent software for little cost.

The sticking point for Android is the royalties that must be paid to Microsoft for each device sold. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that without that bump in the road, and Apple’s frenzied legal attacks, Android would be close to winning the war already.

What is interesting in the list for Apple is how popular its devices have become in the corporate markets, where RIM spectacularly fell from grace.

Nvidia's Kepler suffers wobbly perturbations

Today’s AMD Radeon 7950 release saw the embargo lifted on a funny little saga which you can read about here. But another hell-on-earth yarn from the rumour mill is even more interesting. TechEye has heard Nvidia has been asking hacks why the reviews have been so good.

Nvidia absolutely denies the rumour which suggests representatives have been asking journalists to file a short report on what is exactly so great about the 7950. Whether or not Nvidia is canvassing reviewers, there may be reasons the Green Goblin would like hacks to do its homework for it.

More industry whispers suggest the reason Nvidia’s upcoming hope, the GK104, is late to the table is all the redesigns it has had to go through. Parts on the 32nm had to be redesigned for 28nm, but along the way there were challenges with packaging and interconnects. Some industry watchers suggest that Nvidia gave up a lot of space on its chip, trying to buff up Kepler by bringing Ageia to the hardware.

But the murmurs suggest Nvidia has been dedicating a lot of resources to get physics and fluid dynamics operating properly, which has so far, allegedly, taken half of its gaming engineers and six months to get right.

One industry watcher said to TechEye the company is in “holy s**t” mode – having been confident that the GK104 would fight off and trounce the competition, but the timing is out of whack. When Nvidia does get its high-end Kepler chip out in the second half of the year, the competition is going to be ready with something else.

There are no doubts that full fluid dynamics is going to wow the crowds – on demos specifically catering to fluid dynamics. Writing code for games to get the performance right, though, is trickier. While Nvidia’s team is working overtime, its rivals just may be able to clean up.

“Their SDK is great,” someone familiar with the matter said to TechEye. “But it was foolish of them to try putting Ageia hardware onto a GPU. The amount of engineering work you have to do to make that useful in games – you get one game every six months that gives you the benefits of that.”

Grey market entrepreneurs turn trojans into profit

A small gang of men living St. Petersburg, Russia, managed to elude law officials, Facebook and computer security firms for years. They operated Koobface, an infamous worm named after a play on Facebook which spread like wildfire on the social network.

Security outfit Sophos has an excellent investigation revealing the mistakes the men made, which is available to read here. But what Koobface really demonstrated is the link between those irritating spam posts you wish your friends wouldn’t fall for. Everyone know the sort: posts with names like “How can a girl be this sexy???” and “SHOCKING survivor story” which look almost real, but actually redirect the user and help to spread the virus. 

The Koobface gang even stole real information from real people on dating websites and pieced it together into Facebook profiles which looked real. Captchas were no problem – you can hire companies in China which will provide you with 1,000 of them solved for just a dollar. 

Koobface is a fascinating bit of malware. It made money for the Koobface gang in two ways. First, it played on the gullible by redirecting them to scareware which appeared semi-legitimate. Less tech-savvy users would then download a bogus program that did nothing but remove a virus which never really existed – paying roughly $60 for the privilege. 

Second, Koobface had its roots entrenched in the Russian pornography industry. Affiliates are an easy money spinner if you’re prepared to leave any moral scruples at the door. The Koobface gang would make profits from porn sign-ups and adverts ran by agencies that will claim ignorance. 

Koobface’s legacy highlights the far-reaching and enormously profitable black market on the web, though a security analyst, who does not wish to be named, says calling it that isn’t entirely accurate. But he does agree that we are talking about at least a billion dollar industry.

It’s not technically a black market, our analyst says, because often the perpetrators are aware that the countries they operate in don’t have the cyber laws in place that give authorities the powers to bring them down.

Dirk Kollberg, a lead investigator in the Sophos report, explains the link to Russia’s porn industry and web attacks clearly: “What we know is porn is a good way to make money, proven over the internet for years. So there are people in Russia who think it might be interesting for them to take it as a main source of income. If they want to boost their income, they might want to use some trojans to get more people on their site…”

Along with the porn link, there was the scareware. When users sign up for the “service” and pay the rate for the fake antivirus, the affiliate gets 40 or 50 percent depending on how much money they generate, Kollberg tells us. “There are other people just making money getting customers to the pages,” he continues, and it’s not just about Facebook. “You might get redirected while searching for something on Google Images – looking for pictures of nice cars, for examples – and you might get redirected to a blog. And if you sign up to where that blog redirects you, Koobface gets the money.”

Steve Jobs once said: “It is hard to think that a $2 billion company with 4,300-plus people couldn’t compete with six people in blue jeans.” 

But that is the way cyber crime can work. Sophos’ previous investigation was with a group calling itself InnovativeMarketing, based in the Ukraine, one of the biggest ever scareware vendors on the web. “They focus on creating the software and creating fake websites,” Kollberg says, “fooling ISPs into hosting their sites, and then also providing tech support for their users. Those people would tell them it’s not scareware and they’re fine. They had call centres in Germany, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Dallas and two call centres in India.” 

Providing their own infrastructure, using clever but morally bankrupt social engineering and tools available in the grey market, InnovativeMarketing brought in $180 million in revenues in 2008 alone. 

Kollberg says that the scene is “very modular” now. “You just put the stuff in that you need: Look at the Zbot trojan. Someone buys the software, configures it for its own need, then puts it somewhere on the web.” 

Brazen grey-market entrepreneurs have never had it easier. “If you want to distribute the trojan, to thousands of people,” says Kollberg, “you can just rent a botnet.”

Apple and Lonely Planet depose BoJo as London mayor

This time of the year, Apple and its generous partners give away an app each day for the 12 days of Christmas. The iTunes 12 Days of Christmas.

Christmas giveaways this year included games from EA, a One Direction single and stuff like that. Today’s is Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2012 , which points out the best places to go for the new year and why. London’s on the list and Lonely Planet thinks there are some very good reasons to visit.

Ken Livingstone’s campaigning team will be happy with their Christmas present from Apple, because Lonely Planet has decided that tourists coming to London in 2012 will be visiting his city…

Did you spot it? Under the “recent fad” section (page 96), it says: “Londoners have been quick to embrace Boris Bikes. Informally named after the former mayor who launched the scheme, Boris Johnson…”

AMD leaves its partners in the dark

AMD launched the Radeon HD 7970 card for desktops – but all was not well at the Little Chip That Could’s external marketing wing in the UK, according to a round of Chinese whispers, with its marketing in the UK.

The 7970 was supposed to launch at CES. Just why AMD pushed forward the release date we may never know, but the mutterings we’ve heard from the dark satanic rumour mill suggest that it didn’t fancy competing with high-profile announcements from the likes of Nvidia. For some key partners, yesterday’s launch will be the first they heard of it.

The NDA for AMD Partners to talk about their products is still in early January. When a journalist spoke to a partner about review samples it was the first the company had heard of it. What followed was a mix-up, allegedly, on Text100’s part – the partner approached Text for information which was then up in arms, blood boiling, because a journalist had compromised an NDA. There was a string of furious phone calls and email exchanges.

“In which universe does an AMD partner not know the NDA date?” said an industry watcher. “They’re not bringing a knife to a gunfight, they’re bringing ****ing bananas.”

*EyeSee An eBuyer slip-up revealed the price for the Powercolor model. Somehow this got back to Text 100, who allegedly began telling people the street price based on that model. Sapphire is the number one partner…

Britain is a nation of politically confused piles sufferers

Google’s Zeitgeist lists are out and the top searches, at least in the UK, paint a bizarre picture of the questions and queries of the modern Brit.

The fastest rising search for 2011 was “Royal wedding” followed by a mixture of electronic goods and middle-of-the-road music. Apple products rated highly, with iPhone 5 the second fastest rising search term in 2011. Then there was Fifa 12, Groupon, iPad 2, the late Jackass star Ryan Dunn, Adele, Minecraft, Rebecca Black and Ed Sheeran. 

Google revealed that the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign was a total failure – and the ‘No to AV’ campaign wasn’t much help either. A more accurate statement to represent the British public’s stance is “what is AV” – as it topped the “what is…” search list. Another surprise hit on the what is list revealed the UK’s confusion about unpleasant symptoms, with “what are piles” coming in at number four. 

But it’s no surprise the country couldn’t grasp a complicated voting alternative – as the top two searches for “how to” were “how to revise” and “how to snog”.

The fastest rising people – sometimes from the dead – of 2011 reads like the world’s worst dinner party. There are three corpses at the table. In order: Ryan Dunn, Adele, Rebecca Black, Ed Sheeran, Amy Winehouse, Charlie Sheen, Steve Jobs, Kate Middleton, Nicki Minaj and Darren Criss. 

In the top food and drink section, Asda got the number one spot, indicating the UK’s fondness for oven chips over actually cooking – recipes came in at number two. At the rear was that famous restaurant and grocers, Argos.

Mainly, Google is using Zeitgeist to promote its Facebook runner-up, Google +. The top search in the UK overall was ‘Facebook’, but Google’s Zeitgeist page says G+ was a rising star in search. Even Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan has an account.

RIM investor confidence 'in the pits'

A high profile Berenberg Bank analyst has penned a damning open letter to RIM’s two-headed CEO, warning that there must be major changes or the company faces certain doom.

Adnaam Ahmad begins by telling them he has been closely following technology for 13 years, and warns that success is in the ecosystem and not just in hardware product cycles. While Google and Apple understand this, he says “since the inception of this smartphone revolution, RIMM, under your stewardship, has lost its sway”. Clearly reflected by, Ahmad says, the “80 percent decline in your stock since March 2009”.

He tells the CEOs that they have “joined the ranks of Ken Olsen, who stated ‘there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home'” just as Microsoft and Apple were making the most of that in the 80s. Ahmad cited two RIM flops, the BB7 and Playbook, as proof that the CEOs are entrenched in denial or the company will join the ranks of other once-mighty, now-extinct companies like Kodak and Polaroid. 

The analyst says what we’ve been saying for a while now – that companies like Good Technology are making RIM and its unique smelling point of strong security redundant. RIM just doesn’t have the egosystem to succeed, he suggested.

Ahmad makes three points in his letter which he believes RIM must listen to or fail. First, he recommends RIM focuses on services – by opening up its Network Operations Center and licensing technology to the other ego-systems. That will, he believes, at the very least protect RIM’s existing subscriber base. Or it could give RIM the opportunity to grow its subscription base if the competitors go for it.

Lazaridis and Balsillie were told they must de-emphasise on hardware. “There is no way you are going to be able to compete with Samsung in hardware given its ability to innovate quickly,” Ahmad warned. “Spinning off, shutting down or selling your hardware business is the ultimate goal,” because RIM hasn’t a snowball’s hope in heck of outgunning Apple and Google.

Finally, RIM must increase its transparency. He claims RIM abandoned its subscriber base over the past few years – by opening up disclosure it could kick-start the healing process with shareholders.

Ahmad signs off by saying ultimately, RIM needs to win back the hearts and minds of investors, as its credibility is “in the pits right now, to put it mildly”.

The damage has been done, which industry watchers are expecting will be reflected in today’s earnings call. The Playbook was a monumental flop but remains part of the company’s key strategy and BBX is taken about as seriously as the Newton.