Going Nuclear to stop SOPA

I'm sure this violates someone's copyright

The online news site reddit said it will invoke the “nuclear option” on Jan. 18 – next Wednesday — against two pieces of federal legislation, the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate cousin, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

For 12 hours on Wednesday, reddit’s normally busy “front page of the Internet” will blacked out and replaced by a live video feed of hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is debating proposed legislation to give the government the ability to shut down foreign websites that infringe copyrighted material, and to penalize domestic companies  that “facilitate” alleged infringement.

It remains unclear if Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Craigslist, eBay, PayPal, Yahoo and other Internet titans will join in a simultaneous blackout to protest the legislation, although the trade association that represents them all says it is a possibility. “There have been some serious discussions about that,” Markham C. Erickson, Executive Director and General Counsel of The NetCoalition, told CNET’s Declan McCullagh. The Net Coalition is not involved with reddit’s action next week, a spokeswoman said.

A coordinated systemwide blackout, proponents say, would demonstrate to millions of Americans what could happen to any website that carries user-generated content, if SOPA or PIPA were enacted.

In current forms, the bills would require online service providers, Internet search engines, payment providers and Internet advertising services to police their customers and banish offenders. Companies that did not comply with the government’s order to prevent their customers from connecting with foreign rogue sites would be punished.

Let’s say a company like YouTube, which publishes an average of 48 hours of video every minute, fails to stop one of its 490 million monthly users from uploading a chunk of video that is copyrighted by a Hollywood studio. Let’s say further that one of Twitter’s 400 tweets per minute that link to YouTube videos contains a link to that copyrighted material. And maybe one of Facebook’s 800 million users reposts the link. YouTube says Facebook users watch 150 years worth of YouTube videos every day. And let’s say you hear about the video and enter a search for it on Google.

Under the proposed legislation, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google are responsible for keeping their users within the law. SOPA grants those companies immunity from punishment if they shut down or block suspected wrongdoers. But if they don’t shut down or block the miscreants, they could be punished themselves.

Both the House and Senate bills are strongly backed by Old Media companies, and equally opposed by New Media companies, along with an astonishing confederation of civil libertarians, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, journalists and academics.

Both sides cast the legislation as a battle of life and death for the future of the Internet.

Opponents contend that SOPA would shut down the free flow of information and prevent Americans from fully exercising their First Amendment rights. Venture capitalists say it will kill innovation in Silicon Valley by setting up impossible burdens for the social media companies that now drive the area’s economic engine. Some critics say SOPA will hand Big Business a “kill switch” on the Internet similar to the shutoff valves used by China, Egypt and other repressive countries to stifle dissent.

Supporters of the legislation, meanwhile, say new laws are needed to fight online trafficking on copyrighted materials and counterfeit goods. No one can deny that the Internet is awash in fake Viagra and bootlegged MP3 files. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who sponsored SOPA, says it will stop foreign online criminals from stealing and selling America’s intellectual property and keeping the profits for themselves. Unless copyright holders are given the new protections under SOPA, Mr. Smith argues, American innovation will stop, American jobs will be lost, and the American economy will continue to lose $100 billion a year to online pirates. And people will die, Mr. Smith says, if we fail to stop foreign villains from selling dangerous counterfeit drugs, fake automobile parts and tainted baby food.

“The criticism of this bill is completely hypothetical; none of it is based in reality,” Mr. Smith told Roll Call recently. “Not one of the critics was able to point to any language in the bill that would in any way harm the Internet. Their accusations are simply not supported by any facts.”

“It’s a vocal minority, Mr. Smith told Roll Call. “Because they’re strident doesn’t mean they’re either legitimate or large in number. One, they need to read the language. Show me the language. There’s nothing they can point to that does what they say it does do.”

Who are these clueless critics who don’t know anything about the Internet?

Vint Cerf, Steven Bellovin, Esther Dyson, Dan Kaminsky and dozens of other Internet innovators and engineers wrote an open letter that said: “If enacted, either of these bills will create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure.”

AOL, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Zynga and other Internet companies joined in an open letter to write, “We are very concerned that the bills as written would seriously undermine the effective mechanism Congress enacted in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to provide a safe harbor for Internet companies that act in good faith to remove infringing content from their sites.”

Marc Andreessen, Craig Newmark, Jerry Yang, Reid Hoffman, Caterina Fake, Pierre Omidyar, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, Jimmy Wales and other Internet entrepreneurs contend that the bills would:

  •             “Require web services to monitor what users link to, or upload. This would have a chilling effect on innovation.
  •             “Deny website owners the right to due process or law.
  •             “Give the U.S. government the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran; and
  •             “Undermine security online by changing the basic structure of the Internet.”

A couple of guys named Sergey Brin and Larry Page have been particularly vocal in opposing the legislation.

Well of course, Mr. Smith argues. “Companies like Google have made billions by working with and promoting foreign rogue websites, so they have a vested interest in preventing Congress from stopping rogue sites,” he said at a news conference last month. “Their opposition to this legislation is self-serving since they profit from doing business with rogue sites that steal and sell America’s intellectual property.”

I think everyone agrees that something must be done to combat rampant online piracy and the sale of bogus goods and services by foreign rogue websites. But Old Media is once asking for heavy-handed remedies that resist rather than adapt to technological change. It tried to outlaw videocassette recorders, and it tried to throw students and grandmothers into prison for downloading MP3 files, and now it wants kill-switches on the Internet. Perhaps reddit’s nuclear option will be the kind of heavy-handed rebuttal we need to prompt discussions about a smarter, mutually agreeable solution.



Why PayPal Is a Bigger Challenge Than Yahoo


A month ago The Wall Street Journal had a big story headlined “War Over the Digital Wallet.” “The subhead: “Google, Verizon Wireless Spar in Race to Build Mobile Payment Services.”

Article mentioned AT&T, T-Mobile, MasterCard, Visa, Citigroup, Sprint, and Apple, among others. The word “PayPal” was never mentioned, which is curious because eBay’s PayPal division is by far the global leader in electronic payments.

But not all of the media were ignoring PayPal. TechCrunch the next day carried a story that began, “Hey PayPal, do you realize people no longer trust you?” It continued: “The public’s perception is that there’s a risk in keeping money with PayPal. If something doesn’t change, startups, causes, and merchants will start processing donations and payments elsewhere.”

Something changed. PayPal’s president, Scott Thompson, quit to take over the CEO job at Yahoo!, a media company. When top executives quit, it’s usually because they want a shot at running a bigger or more interesting company. Yahoo is interesting, in the same way that train wrecks are interesting. He will be the fourth CEO of Yahoo in the past five years, not counting those who held the job on an interim basis. None of the previous CEOs, including Carol Bartz, who was fired unceremoniously in September, were able to reverse Yahoo’s seemingly inexorable slide into oblivion.

It’s hard not to chuckle at the highly respected Thompson’s statement that he was leaving PayPal to seek new challenges. “I like doing complicated, very difficult, very challenging things,” he told Reuters. There are challenges galore right under his nose at PayPal’s headquarters in San Jose.

Being ignored completely by the nation’s leading business newspaper in a major story about digital payments, when you are by far the market leader, suggests a nontrivial problem of public perception.

When a major tech blog (itself criticized recently for potential conflicts on interests) scolds that “people no longer trust you,” that stings. Do people really think that AT&T and Google are more trustworthy than PayPal to handle their electronic banking? When I look at my monthly AT&T wireless statement and ponder AT&T’s craven and almost enthusiastic cooperation with the government’s warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens, I can’t imagine ever trusting my digital wallet to a phone company.

PayPal grew impressively under Thompson’s watch at PayPal, doubling its user base to more than 100 million. PayPal in the third quarter of 2011 processed $29 billion in payments. It operates in 190 countries and 24 currencies and has 15,000 bank partners. Revenue was expected to top $4 billion in 2011, and margins were solid at close to 20 percent. PayPal has grown to the point that it now accounts for more than a third of eBay’s operating profits; I would not be surprised to see the tail wagging the dog before too long. John Donahoe, eBay’s CEO, said last year that he expected PayPal to be bigger than eBay two years from now.

Thompson, who is quite savvy about technology and commerce (“e” and otherwise), is credited with the idea to push PayPal out of the cloud and into retail stores. But Google beat him to it, in part by poaching a couple of Thompson’s top lieutenants. (PayPal’s parent, eBay, is suing Google, alleging that PayPal and Google spent two years developing a partnership, then hired PayPal’s point man, who departed with a laptop full of trade secrets; Google denies the charges.) Google then launched its own “Google Wallet” application, beating PayPal to the punch. PayPal still hasn’t articulated its “wallet” strategy.

PayPal’s push into brick-and-mortar retail stores does not appear to be going well. On a visit to PayPal headquarters a few months ago I tried to buy a cup of coffee from the café that operates in its lobby. Sorry, cash or credit cards only. PayPal was not accepted in PayPal’s own headquarters.


Naturally, everyone wonders what Thompson will be able to do in the Augean stables of Yahoo. It is astonishingly hard to revive a declining Internet company, and the task is made more challenging because Yahoo is a media and advertising company very different from PayPal. Both companies recognize, however, that the future belongs to the company that can harvest and sift and parse data, and that’s an area where Thompson has strong chops.

PayPal’s Donohoe said he was shocked by Thompson’s sudden departure; Thomson resigned Tuesday and starts his new job at Yahoo on Monday. Donohoe himself will act as PayPal’s interim president, and promised a “seamless transition.” The person who eventually takes the big chair at PayPal has huge challenges ahead, starting with getting PayPal accepted in its own building.

Part II: Best of Tech 2011 (Gizmos)

In last week’s episode we awarded “Best of 2011” honors to a bushel of Apples: The Macbook Air (portable computer), the iPhone 4S (smartphone), and the iPad 2 (best tablet). Although it wasn’t a category, Apple as a company wins the “Best Tech Company of 2011” honors. Apple doesn’t just dominate major categories in consumer technology; it sets the agenda for all the others, in almost every category it chooses to enter. The obvious question is if Apple can continue to dominate in the post-Steve Jobs era. My Tech.pinions colleague and longtime Apple observer Tim Bajarin makes a compelling case that Tim Cook-era Apple will be the No. 1 PC vendor in 2012, and Ben Bajarin writes that Apple is poised to reinvent television in 2012.

While Apple clearly earned multiple “best” title in the tech scene in 2011, and seems likely to win even more in the new year, my holiday wish for Apple is that it sets the industry agenda in even more areas: the health and welfare of the hundreds of thousands of workers who assemble its products, the environmental consciousness of its production processes and product lifecycles, and its corporate philanthropy for social and civic causes, which was moribund under Steve Jobs’s leadership. There are positive signs that Tim Cook is already beginning to make positive changes in some of these areas.

But back to gizmos and gadgets. The following is a continuation of my picks of “Best Tech Gear of 2011.”


Based on my observations on my daily Amtrak commute into the city, Amazon’s Kindle Touch is the 21st century’s best attempt yet at digitizing the paperback book. It’s not the smallest or lightest Kindle or, even at the deceptive base price of $99, the cheapest. It’s not the first tablet to have a touch-screen interface, and the 6-inch E Ink black-and-white display is not as responsive to touch as the (much more expensive) Apple iPad. It’s not much good for anything other than buying, downloading and reading books. But for buying, downloading (via WiFi or free 3G, depending on model) and reading books and articles, it’s the Goldilocks device: Not as small and cramped as a smartphone, and not as big and relatively bulky as a full-featured tablet or laptop. It can also entertain you with MP3 music and audio books. Is it the perfect e-reader? Not by a long-shot, but it wins the “best of” honor because of the combination of size, weight, functionality, price and simplicity.


As a storage device, the $200 Seagate GoFlex Satellite 500-gigabyte portable hard drive is big enough to hold your entire music collection or favorite photos or a trip’s selection of videos, yet small enough to fit in your pocket. That’s cool. But then you factor in the built-in battery, the an 802.11b/g/n WiFi module and a built-in web server, and suddenly you can stream your digital library to your iOS portable device. Although it works with non-iOS devices including Android phones and tablets, it works best with iPads, iPhones and iPods. If you’re one of the folks who bought a 64GB iPhone and then agonized over which of your favorite artists and TV shows and home videos and documents to take with you, this portable cloud almost certainly solves your problem. Take them all! It runs four or five hours on a single battery charge, and there’s an AC power plug. I’ve had mixed results with Seagate hard drives in the past, but then, I’ve had mixed results with other brands of storage devices too. For now, though, this beautiful streamer is the best accompaniment for my Mac OS X and iOS portables. Let’s hope Seagate comes up with a seamless solution for Windows and Android users in 2012.


Normally I’m a grump when it comes to gizmos that require frequent polishing with white gloves and microfiber rags. But with the Klipsch Gallery G-17 Air, a relatively pricey ($530) soundbar speaker system that works best with Apple iDevices, the glossy black case is worth the occasional dusting. The whole assembly weighs about 8 pounds and seems built like a tank, but that results in the best sound these ears have heard from WiFi AirPlay speakers in any price range. (Caveat: Audiologists often say that it’s rare to find people with “golden ears” over the age of 40, and my ears, veterans of too many loud rock concerts back in the day, are hardly golden. Even so, the G-17s sound better to me than, say, the runner-up Bose Zeppelin Airs. Your mileage may vary.) Even cranked up to neighbor-annoying levels, the G-17 speakers didn’t rattle or buzz or distort appreciably. The ability to stream music from an iPhone to the speakers via AirPlay is thrilling.

Best Tech Gear 2011

Perhaps you skipped Black Friday because of some aversion to rampaging, drooling, pepper-spraying bargain hunters. And Cyber Monday was kind of a dud once you realized that it’s really Cyber Week, and that the best bargains for tech gear are yet to come.

But now here we are at Vague Sense of Anxiety Thursday, when, according to www.xmasclock.com, there are fewer than 1.9 million shopping seconds left until Christmas, and you still haven’t decided which products deserve your attention, or Santa’s.

Here and in this space in the coming 1.9 million seconds are some suggestions, in the form of my picks for the best tech products of 2011. We’re going to look at the basics today, before moving on to Best Gizmos of 2011, followed by Best Software and Services.

And no, I don’t get paid by Apple and no one in my family owns Apple stock.


Q: Siri, what’s the best smartphone introduced in 2011?

Although Verizon’s tantalizing 4G LTE network remains out of its reach for now, the Apple iPhone 4S is still at least a generation ahead of a growing pack of rivals. Yes, it has a new dual-core processor, but in real world performance you’re unlikely to be dazzled. Yes, it has an improved camera, front and back, still and video, but it’s a catch-up feature, not a flashy innovation.

So much for the yes-buts. Two things pushed the iPhone 4S ahead of a pair of runners-up from Samsung, the Galaxy S II and the forthcoming Galaxy Nexus, which is expected to make its debut on the Verizon network any day now. The first is the iPhone’s new antenna configuration, which improved the connection rate and quality of calls on the two networks I tested, Sprint and AT&T. The second is Siri, the voice-control system that everyone is talking about. Siri is huge, and it’s just the beginning.


I’m typing this on a 13-inch Apple Macbook Air, which got a much needed and long-awaited makeover earlier this year. My colleague Ben Bajarin has already written convincingly about its charms, so let me just add this: At least once a day I either lose the Air under papers on my desk, or panic because I think I left the office without the Air in my briefcase. A quick pat on the side of the bag reassures me that no, the Air is in the bag. Unlike the feeble chips in earlier models, the new processor has enough horsepower to run all but the most demanding applications. And yes, if you must, you can run Windows on the Air.

The keyboard is a full-size delight, but I still find the 11- and 13-inch displays a bit claustrophobic on occasion. (So, my latest secret vice is taking the Air on a trip not instead of, but rather along with, my Apple iPad 2. Then I can use the iPad as a separate display for the Air, putting email and Twitter and other distracting apps on the remote screen, and doing word processing or other tasks on the main display.) Rumor has it that Apple is cooking up a 15-inch Macbook in the Air form factor, and if so, I’ll find it hard to resist. But for now, this year, the Air is almost perfect.

Runner-up? Samsung’s Series 9.


By popular consent, 2011 was the year of the tablet. And one tablet completely dominates the rest. The new Apple iPad 2 dazzles on the hardware front, and it’s simply a delight to use. But the real strength of the iPad is the software, not just the much improved iOS 5 operating system, but also the universe of thousands upon thousands of useful and entertaining and productive apps. No other tablet has the app library that the iPad has. If you create stuff, whether for work or play, the iPad is superior to all the others. Even if you just consume stuff, including movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, music, ebooks and the like, the iPad will become your new best friend.

That said, Amazon’s Kindle Fire gets the runner-up nod on the basis of its consumer friendliness. As they say, the Fire allows Amazon to get in bed with its customers. The Fire is quirky, but it’s going to be fun to see it develop.


In a photo finish, the winner is Apple’s new … Just kidding! Apple’s cameras basically suck.

On a purely technology basis, I’m intrigued by the Lytro Light-Field, the first camera that allows the photographer to focus a shot after the picture has been taken. But it doesn’t qualify because it won’t be out until early 2012. And I love my Canon 5D Mark II SLR, but it was introduced before 2011, so it doesn’t qualify, either.

My problem is that the big Canon is too heavy to carry everywhere, and the camera built into my iPhone leaves a lot to be desired. So, I’m always on the lookout for a pocket-size camera that takes great pictures.

Two models from Canon share the Best Pocket Camera award: The PowerShot S100, an upgraded version of the delightful S95, and the PowerShot ELPH 300 HS.

The 30 Percent Solution


Blogs are unforgiving. The entire world can see that I expected the highlight of Apple’s iPhone 5 introduction last week to be a kumbaya love fest between Apple and Facebook. Facebook is number one in mobile social media apps. Apple is number one in smartphones and tablets. Yet even after 18 months, there was no official Facebook app for the iPad.

So, other than the fact that there was no iPhone 5, and that no one at the Apple event even mentioned Facebook, let alone invited Mark Zuckerberg up on stage, my blog post was … well, pretty much in English.

But today, Facebook finally announced its Facebook app for iPhone and iPad.

According to the blogosphere, the hangup was caused by “negotiations” over who would be allowed to make money from apps sold by developers through the Facebook platform on the iPad. (You know, the developers who sell apps like Angry Birds, Hipstamatic, FarmVille,  weather, etc.)

Apple’s standard deal is: We take 30 percent, bitch.

Thirty percent on all paid apps, on all in-app purchases, and on subscriptions.

(Google has a variant on this revenue model for its own developer ecosystem: We take 30 percent but we’re not evil, bitch.)

Facebook sees that Apple and Google are rolling in clover, so it tells Apple it wants to create a separate revenue platform for mobile apps called Facebook Credits, and it wants to build it into Facebook apps that run on the iPhone and the iPad, which would bypass the Apple 30 Percent Bitch system and send that money directly to Facebook.  Negotiations must have gone something like this:

Apple: ”You know what we think of Facebook? We own the operating system and you don’t, and just to make that point absolutely clear we’re choosing Twitter over Facebook as the social layer of the iOS 5 operating system. We have more than 200 million registered users on the iTunes store and we have their credit card numbers, and we make buying apps completely smooth and painless and frictionless, and Facebook doesn’t.”

Facebook: “Oh yeah? Well, in that case, we’ll develop our app for HP’s new TouchPad. How do you like them apples?”

Apple: [30-day pause] “And how did that work out for you?”

Facebook: “Never mind. But we still have the most popular social platform in the universe, with 750 million users, and the only third-party Facebook apps you’ve got now on the iPhone and iPad basically suck. Even so, more than 250 million people use Facebook on a mobile device today.”

Someday I'll be remembered for this.

Apple: “True, but don’t forget, we have ‘Ping.’”

So it appears they have reached a compromise: Apple gets 30 percent, bitch, on all Facebook for iPhone and Facebook for iPad apps developed for the iOS operating system. Developers who want to create apps for Facebook on the Web, in HTML5, must use Facebook’s virtual currency, Credits.

Folks, what we have here are the latest salvos of a global war to create a new type of currency for online transactions, one that will rival cash and credit cards. Microsoft wants to be a player. PayPal (a division of eBay) wants to be a player. All of the mobile phone companies want to be players. When I walk down University Avenue in Palo Alto to get a cup of coffee, I pass what seems like 50 online payment startups that want to be players. The market for mobile apps and virtual goods sold through social networks and app stores is huge, and hundreds of millions of people are already opening their virtual wallets.

The Apple-Google-Facebook mobile app revenue models appears to be evolving along the Mastercard, Visa, American Express models. Developers who want to sell apps or virtual goods online can choose to whom they want to pay, except that the bites are larger by an order of magnitude. Apple wants 30 percent, Google wants 30 percent, and now Facebook wants 30 percent.

Aside: Will you trust Facebook Credits as your medium for buying things online? Google Wallet? A couple of months ago the marketing and advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather commissioned a survey on which brands consumers would trust with their money. It looked like this:



Anyway, I’m so glad that Apple and Facebook have decided, at last, to “friend” one another. I wonder how long they’ll stay friends?

I think this is going to be a very interesting battleground. But hey, I’ve been wrong before.




The Wall Street Journal: “More fizzle than pop.”

The Los Angeles Times: “An evolution, not a revolution.”

The Washington Post: “It wasn’t exactly blowing my mind.”

FoxNews.com: “Lunch-bag letdown.”

Business Insider: “A huge disappointment, or just a regular sized disappointment?”

Analyst Roger Kay: “Underwhelming.”


People, please. There’s nothing wrong with evolution. Without evolution, we would still be apes. (Insert your own snide comment here.) Apple obviously thinks the new iPhone 4S is evolutionary. Otherwise Apple would have given it a new name, like, say, Shebang, or Razzmatazz, or maybe even Five.


But Apple’s new iPhone 4S is the same old iPhone 4 in the same way that a new Tesla Roadster is the same old Lotus Elise. Physically, they’re both sleek and sexy. Under the hood, though, the new model is revolutionary.

Not because of the dual-core processor. Other smartphones already have dual-core chips. Dual-band world phone? Faster upload and download speeds? Fancy camera and high-def video? Others have been there, done that.

No, the iPhone 4S is revolutionary because of Apple’s software, specifically iOS 5, iCloud, and Siri.

Disclaimer: I have not reviewed the iPhone 4S and have no idea if it works as advertised beyond the boundaries of Building 4 on Apple’s Cupertino campus. Apple stresses that the Siri personal assistant software is still in beta mode, even now, a week before the iPhone 4S goes on sale. But if the software does work in the real world, it’s a change as profound as replacing gasoline with electricity.

What is the future of the personal computer interface? Voice and gestures, not keyboards and mice.

Apple patented the capacitive multi-touch interface it introduced with the original iPhone. It included a gyroscope in the iPhone 4, transforming gameplay but also opening the way for new gesture controls. And now, with Siri (and backed by the new A5 and digital signal processors), Apple has added natural language voice control to the computer in your pocket.

Hello, Siri?

Remember the scene in one of the Star Trek movies where a bemused Scotty tries to control a 20th century computer by talking into a mouse? Seriously, does anyone doubt that our grandchildren will operate computers by voice?

Yes, Android phones introduced voice commands a while back. But from the day when Steve Jobs first walked through Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Apple’s true genius has been to seize nascent technologies and make them so simple and elegant that they catch fire. Did Apple invent the MP3 player? No. Did Apple invent the mobile phone? No. Did it invent the portable game system? Negative. Did it invent the tablet computer? Nope. The music store? Uh-uh.

So, what are the best-selling MP3 players and game players and mobile phones and tablets and music stores in the world today? (SPOILER ALERT: iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, iTunes Store.)

Did Apple invent the television? Wait, that’s likely to be the subject of a future column.

In my view, we’ve just seen a revolutionary shift from mobile phones to mobile personal assistants.

What’s on my calendar today? What’s the weather? What’s traffic like? How many calories in this bagel? Remind me to stop to buy coffee on the way home. Read me my mail. Send a message to Ben and Tim telling them I’ll be late to the office. Play this morning’s National Public Radio podcast. What’s the stock market doing now? Call my wife. Let me know when Steve gets to the office. Schedule a lunch with Dave and Kelley for tomorrow. When is Laura’s birthday?

The Siri software “understands” conversational language. It “understands” context. I am unaware of any other voice command system on any other smartphone that reaches this level of competence.

Add this to the intelligent ecosystem of iOS 5 and iCloud – comprising hundreds of new features, all of which make their debuts with the iPhone 4S – and it’s difficult to understand the griping and grousing that followed Apple’s announcement yesterday.

Was it also disappointing that Apple dropped the price of the original 8GB iPhone 4 to $99 (with the usual two-year mobile carrier contract)? Or that it dropped the price of the iPhone 3GS to free? Or that it priced the iPhone 4S at $199 and up? Those were evolutionary changes, too, but if I am Nokia, and my cheapest dumb phone is now the same price as Apple cheapest smartphone, my business plan just got sent back to the drawing board. Ditto Google-Motorola, now that the price bar for state-of-the-art smartphones has been set at $199.

The iPhone 4S is still the thinnest and snazziest smartphone in the world. Okay, so it doesn’t have a four-inch screen, and it’s not shaped like a tear-drop. (Darn, I was hoping I’d have to go buy all-new iPhone accessories.) It does not have built-in near-field radio communications, which prevents me from using it to pay my toll when I board the subway in Seoul, since that’s about the only place I’ve seen that accepts NFC payments. Has anyone seen NFC payment terminals here in the States?

And speaking of NFC, is your mobile phone carrier so trustworthy and transparent that you would trust it handling your daily purchases? Would you trust AT&T as your bank?

Which leaves me to conclude that the biggest cause for pundit, analyst and fanboy disappointment with the new phone is that your friends and co-workers won’t be able to tell that you have the new iPhone 4S just by looking at it, obviating its value as a status symbol. Here’s an idea for a cheap upgrade: Paint a big number “5” on your iPhone case, and they’ll never know the difference.

10-4, Good Buddies

It’s official: Apple will unveil the iPhone 5 on Oct. 4.

But it is widely expected that they’ll make an announcement for the iPad, too:

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook would probably introduce an iPad app at some point. I suspect “at some point” means Oct. 4. And the Facebook iPhone app, which kinda sucks, deserves a refresh at the same time.

But wait: Aren’t Apple and Facebook wary of each other? Apple tried to launch its own social networking system last year. Remember Ping? And Apple is well aware that Facebook will soon have ONE BILLION USERS who don’t really care if they access Facebook on an iPhone, an iPad … or an Android phone, an Amazon tablet, an HP TouchPad (er, nevermind), a toaster, an Xbox, or an Etch-a-Sketch.

Facebook currently has 800 million regular users, and 350 million of them tap into Facebook on a mobile device, even though the mobile Facebook apps kinda suck.

Yes, Apple and Facebook are wary of one another. But they share a common enemy:

Oh, hi, Larry.

And, as the ancients so wisely noted, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Mobile is the future; Facebook lacks a strong mobile platform, which Apple can provide.

Social is the future; Apple lacks a strong social platform, which Facebook can provide.

Google is the enemy; Android competes against Apple’s iOS and Google just bought a mobile phone maker (Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion), and Google+ (the fastest-growing social network in history) competes against Facebook, and everywhere Apple and Facebook want to go, Google is there waiting for them, licking its chops.

So, I expect Facebook to “friend” Apple, and vice versa, at next Tuesday’s events. And that, to me, is far more interesting than the incremental improvements we expect to see in the iPhone 5.

An Apology

I messed up. I owe you an explanation.

Well, not really. I was on a delightful trip to Colonial Williamsburg with my 92-year-old father and hero, Ken Lewis, and took a couple of weeks off from blogging and tweeting. I apologize for not staying in touch.

You see, apologies seem to be trending. One of the emails in my neglected inbox was from Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, which angered customers recently with a blockbuster price increase and a confusing bifurcation of its DVD and streaming movie service.

Hastings began the email with an apology: “I messed up. I owe you an explanation.” He continued:

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing.

Did this appease angry customers or impress Wall Street investors? No. A million customers quit the service, and Netflix’s stock price is less than half what it was earlier this year. “Netflix seems to be making a snuff film starring itself,” a Dow Jones Newswire columnist just tweeted.

The Mob Smells Blood

Then, the other day, the New York Times columnist David Brooks apologized for “being a sap.” Specifically, he apologized to his conservative readers for his previous admiration of President Obama’s centrist, willing-to-compromise, pragmatic approach toward Congress. Obama’s sin: Proposing a $4.4 trillion deficit reduction plan that did not completely cave in to the Republicans. Brooks wrote:

It has gone back… to politics as usual… I was hoping the president would give a cynical nation something unconventional, but, as you know, I’m a sap.

Did this appease angry conservatives bitter about Brooks’s earlier tolerance for Obama? No. The flogosphere erupted in a fury of anger, from both left and right.

In an email to The Atlantic, Brooks mused on the value of apologies:

One thing I’ve noticed is that columns in which you admit error generate more hostility than any other kind. I did a series on what I should have known about the Iraq war and the response from the left was more vicious than at any other time, and I was making a few concessions to them.

Either they smell weakness and exploit it, or they feel more self-righteous than ever. In any case, the lesson is that from a public relations perspective, politicians are probably right in never admitting error in public.

Does this hold true as well for business executives? Should you apologize to customers or employees or investors for upscrewing something big? Is the best policy never to apologize at all?

The obvious advice is to avoid upscrewing in the first place. But upscrews happen. The key is to apologize strategically.

Do you hear HP’s Board of Directors apologizing for allowing a once revered Silicon Valley company to spiral into chaos and irrelevance? Or for even considering Meg Whitman as the next CEO? No.

[I started to list companies that ought to be apologizing for something, but that would consume far too much space. I apologize.]

Remember in April when Sony’s sloppy security allowed hackers to steal credit card information from 10 million Sony PlayStation Network customers? Sony had to shut down PSN for 10 days, knocking 77 million customers offline.

Kaz Hirai, Sony’s No. 2 executive, held a press event to apologize. These screengrabs say it all:


And remember when Apple cut the price of the new iPhone by $200 just two months after introducing it? Steve Jobs, not otherwise known for contrition, issued a public letter of apology, explaining why customers were ungrateful wretches but offering them $100 credit toward buying more Apple products.

Which reminds me of the delightful Joy of Tech cartoon from 2007:

Anyway, I apologize that this post has gone on so long without a conclusion. I promise to do better next time.

P.S. Hey, Reed, how about an apology for naming it “Qwikster”?



Does anybody use Google+ any more? That seems to be the question floating around these days.

The Goog, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Google+ project made its debut two months ago and by the end of its first month had a user base of 25 million worldwide, becoming the fastest-growing social media network in the admittedly short history of social media networks, according to the digital business analytics firm comScore. Almost immediately afterward, Experian Hitwise, an online consumer behavior and marketing consultancy, began reporting that Google+’s rate of growth was slowing, and that the average amount of time Google+ users spent on the site was declining. Then the otherwise respected website GigaOm trumpeted the dubious results of a “voluntary sample of more than 10 million Google+ users” that purported to find “that a whopping 83 percent of Google+ users are currently classed as inactive.”

People are asking if Google’s flagship social media service is destined to follow the trajectory of Google Buzz and Google Wave. People are wondering if social media fatigue is a factor. For me, it’s privacy fatigue as much as anything.

The Sage

But back to the question: Does anybody still use Google+? As often is the case, I find myself in total agreement with Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.” Millions of people use Google+. Millions more are waiting to get in. But I don’t go there anymore.

My enthusiasm for Google+ was never great to begin with, and it diminished after Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, explained that Google+ is really an Internet identity service with social media elements.

Schmidt, according to a transcript of a Q&A session at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, said that Google+ is “an identity service with a link structure around your friends.” In other words, it’s a product that helps Google sell ads more effectively by gathering information about its users. To that end, Google+ does not allow anonymity. It has a “real names” policy and requires users to provide traceable personal information. “It’s central for Google to have such a service,” Schmidt said.

We'll see you ... later

Asked how Google can justify requiring real names if doing so puts some users at risk, especially in unstable political climates, Schmidt said, “Well, the first comment is that Google+ is completely optional. In fact, many, many people want to get in. If you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to.”

By its own admission, Google developed Google+ as a more effective way to gather personal information from users and their friends that Google can then use to target advertisements more profitably.

Here’s what you signed when you signed up for Google+:

“By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.”

“You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.”

I’m taking Eric Schmidt’s advice: I don’t have to use it.

How about you? Has Google+ become an important part of your social life online?

Real Intelligence

The age of intelligent machines is upon us. How did we get here? Who led the way?

You probably know that machines beat humans at chess, and that IBM’s Watson beat humans in the television game show Jeopardy. If you live in Silicon Valley, chances are that you’ve seen Google’s autonomous vehicles cruising local streets. But AI also plays a major role in routing commercial aircraft and truck fleets, in planning battles and supply routes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in thousands of other applications that now touch our daily lives.

The IEEE Computer Society’s IEEE Intelligent Systems magazine just established the IEEE Intelligent Systems Hall of Fame, and named 10 inaugural members. In alphabetical order, they are:


Tim Berners-Lee, the 3Com Founders Professor of Engineering and head of the Decentralized Information Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; a professor in the Electronics and Computer Science Department at the University of Southampton; director of the World Wide Web Consortium; and a founding director of the Web Science Trust;


• Noam Chomsky, linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and Institute Professor and Professor (Emeritus) in MIT’s Linguistics and Philosophy Department; noted for his theory of generative grammar that revolutionized the scientific study of language;


• Douglas Engelbart, head of a Stanford Research Institute group that developed the first computer mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to GUIs;


• Edward Albert Feigenbaum, a Stanford University professor emeritus of computer science and cofounder of applied AI startup firms IntelliCorp, Teknowledge, and Design Power;


• John McCarthy, a Stanford and MIT professor who proposed Lisp, time-sharing computer systems, and program correctness proofs; credited with coining the term “AI”;


• Marvin Minsky, Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, who developed the Society of Mind theory with Seymour Papert and many other advances in cognitive theory;


• Nils J. Nilsson, professor of engineering emeritus at Stanford, who while at SRI International developed statistical and neural-network approaches to pattern recognition;


• Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science and statistics at University of California Los Angeles and director of its Cognitive Systems Laboratory; best known for introducing the probabilistic approach to AI and developing Bayesian networks as inference tools;


• Raj Reddy, the Mozah Bint Nasser University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University; and


• Lotfi Zadeh, a University of California, Berkeley computer science professor known for his work on soft computing, fuzzy logic, and neural-net theory.


To put things in perspective for those of us with more pedestrian interests, here are the first 10 inductees of the Baseball Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Cy Young, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and George Sisler.

UPDATE, Aug. 29 — After watching this video of a conversation between two Cleverbot avatars, we may not be as close to the age of smart machines as I thought.


A personal note to readers


A personal note to Tech.pinions readers:

I’m honored by the invitation from Ben and Tim Bajarin and Steve Wildstrom to write for Tech.pinions. I’m also delighted to have this opportunity to reconnect with many old friends from my New York Times and Fortune years, and to make many new friends, and to resume a dialogue about technology that started back when 640K was enough for everyone.

Notice the word “dialogue.” I spell it the old-fashioned way, not the currently fashionable “dialog” – readers of my blog will discover I’m something of a work freak — but the meaning is the same: A conversation between two or more persons; an exchange of ideas and opinions.

A roundabout looks like ...

Journalism is now a two-way conversation, unlike the old “one-to-many” broadcasting model that for centuries applied to troubadours, town criers, book publishers, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and Web 1.0. Ideally Web 2.0+ journalism is even more than that, triggering not just two-way dialogue between writer and reader, but also many-to-many discussions among readers.

In other words, I don’t want my writing for Tech.pinions to be just a two-way street; I want it to be a roundabout in downtown Cairo or Rome at rush-hour.

So let’s get started: What shall I write about? You tell me.

What’s the next big thing? What’s happening now in technology, or looming on the horizon, that we need to be discussing now?

... a dendrite, don't you think?

Background: In 1984 I started writing a column about personal computers for The New York Times, where I was assistant science editor. In 1992 I convinced the Times to assign me full-time to report about “cyberspace.” I quit to do an Internet startup in 1996. As the Great Wayne Gretsky advised, I’ve tried to skate ahead of the puck, journalistically speaking.

Here’s where I think the puck is going, in terms of technology:

  1. Bioengineering and its impact on global health and life sciences.
  2. The Cloud, the reinvention of enterprise IT, and software as services.
  3. Data security, hackers, cyberwarfare, privacy.
  4. Robots. When people talk about the post-PC era, they say “tablets” and “smartphones” when they should be thinking robots.
  5. Environmental sciences and the role of technology.

These are just my Top Five; there will be fascinating developments in mobile technology, commercial spaceflight, nanotechnology, electronic payments, and all sorts of other areas.

Which ones do you think will be most important for the next five years? What am I missing?

Apple After Steve

Everybody has heard the news by now: Steve Jobs resigned because he “could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO.”

In his letter of resignation to the Apple Board of Directors and the Apple Community, Jobs wrote: “I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.

My first immediate reaction is sorrow that he’s stepping down. I presume that his decision is health related, and wish him and his family well.

My second reaction, to paraphrase Monty Python, is that he ain’t dead yet. His brief and eloquent resignation letter says he plans to hang around a while.

Will Steve Jobs die? Of course. Silly question, as he would be the first to say. (Actually, “stupid f&*$#$g question” is more likely how he’d say it.)

In his graduation speech to Stanford’s Class of 2005, Jobs said: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

I suspect he might see stepping down as CEO in the same Schumpeterian way. He and Steve Wozniak started Apple in a garage and it’s now the most valuable company on the whole f&*$#$g planet. Apple sets the agenda for the global technology industry. Jobs himself is by consensus the most important business executive alive today. Earlier this year he effectively decreed that the Personal Computer era was over, and last week the world’s No. 1 PC company, Hewlett-Packard, effectively said, “You’re right again, Steve. We’re toast. You kicked our butt. We give up.”

It would be hard to conceive of a better time to say “Mission Accomplished” and hand the keys to the next generation.

I haven’t checked the after-hours ticker but I assume AAPL is getting cored. That’s silly, too, for anyone with a view that goes beyond a day or two.

There’s always lots of new stuff in the pipeline at Apple, stuff that takes months and years to develop, and Tim Cook already has been running things on a day-to-day basis for some time. Will Cook be as good a CEO as Jobs has been? No one knows. Can he be even better? Again, no one knows.

Could he be worse? Hey, it’s not like Tim Cook is the second coming of Gil Amelio. I remember sitting in the front row at a Macworld conference in the mid-1990s, as a Jobs-less Apple appeared to be in a death spiral, as then-CEO Amelio gave a rambling keynote address while absent-mindedly beginning to undress himself on stage. Apple PR folks were apoplectic. It’s hard to imagine Tim Cook melting down in a similar way.

One thing we do know is that Jobs’s DNA already inculcates the culture at Apple. That may change a few years out, but … that’s a few years out. The fact that Jobs is no longer CEO of Apple is not suddenly going to make HP or Microsoft or Dell any smarter. The fact that Tim Cook is now running things is not suddenly going to invigorate any of Apple’s competitors to execute their strategies any better.

Another thing we know is that Apple is probably going to introduce a fifth-generation iPhone that will run on all carriers, including new carriers in China, the world’s largest untapped market for smartphones. That fact that Steve Jobs is no longer at the helm will not cause millions of Chinese, or Americans for that matter, to slap their foreheads with an epiphany that Android, Windows Mobile, and WebOS are suddenly better choices for mobile platforms.

Notice also the not-so-subtle jab at the media in Jobs’s letter of resignation: “I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan.” There is in fact a succession plan at Apple and the Board just approved it.

I suspect that Tim Cook didn’t open his first conversation with the Board of Directors by saying, “Okay, boys, now that I’m running the show we’re going to reinvent this company from top to bottom. I’ve been itching to go completely open and dump this whole ‘Apple ecosystem’ strategy.”

At the same time, I can’t think of any company that is as closely identified with its CEO as Apple was under Steve Jobs. Apple without Steve Jobs (or, to be accurate, Apple with Steve Jobs in the Sinatra-esque role of Chairman of the Board) will not be perceived as the same company with Jobs on the sideline. Jobs is a genius. The genius is (sort of) gone. Therefore, some of Apple’s genius is gone, too, until proven otherwise.

In that commencement address at Stanford six years ago, a healthier-looking Jobs gave a speech that was very much like the Apple products for which he is known: Elegantly crafted, attentive to detail, rich in content, but no unnecessary words or buttons. He was talking to a fresh crop of Stanford graduates, but his message almost certainly applies to Tim Cook, Phil Schiller and all the other top Apple executives who are now at the helm.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma,” Jobs said, “which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Jobs also said this: “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

So, Steve woke up one morning recently and decided he needed to change something besides the world. Namaste, dude.


A version of this post appears in Fiscal Times.