Archive for September, 2010

Smart Sat-Phone: Yes And No

Well, you can’t fault AT&T for offering their clients more products.  Even so, it sure seems like they’re putting out second rate material in the process.  On Tuesday, they released their new smart phone, the TerreStar Genus, which has some satellite phone capabilities.  They’re marketing it under the banner of providing coverage absolutely anywhere in the United States, even where there are no cell towers available for use – doing so with all the capabilities expected of smart phones.

However, there’s a big problem with it as well:  there’s only one satellite on this phone’s network.  That means that anyone trying to use it outside of normal cell coverage has to make sure that they have a direct, unimpeded line of sight between them and that one satellite, even though it’s so far away they’ll never actually see it.  Most likely they plan to launch more satellites in the future; but there’s no mention of that in the article, so it’s anybody’s guess when there will be more of them in the sky.

Setting aside how unreliable the satellite capability is, making a hybrid satellite/smart phone actually is a good idea.  Having limitations on where you can enjoy all the benefits of modern phone technology is a problem that countless people have experienced just by finding themselves outside the range of any cell towers at an inconvenient moment.  It may well be that someday we’ll be using our smart phones exclusively on satellite networks.

However, that raises another issue as well.  At what point will we become so dependent on our smart phones that we’re back to square one in terms of having a digital service watching everything we do and quietly violating our right to privacy?  Or perhaps losing our ability to look up more than just an anecdotal amount of information about anything?  We’ve already run the gauntlet on both of these at least once because of powerful search engines, so what would happen if we could check “anything” from anywhere in the globe rather than have to take the time to actually do some digging of our own?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer on that one.  Even though Harrisburg University ran its test to see how its students would do for a whole week without social media through any of their computers, that doesn’t even begin to approach the level of change that could be brought about by irrevocably tying your cell phone and the Internet no matter where you are.

It could well be that the benefits will far outweigh any negative aspects that come about as a result.  It could be that this is going to be the event that finally brings about the technological dystopia of which so many Twentieth century authors wrote.  We’ll just have to wait for a service with more satellites in its network in order to find out.

But a question that everyone ought to be asking themselves when they look at buying one, or just any new smart phone, is how much they’re willing to deal with someone watching them while they’re doing their online business with their cell phones.  Once upon a time, everyone would get up in arms over the prospect of a phone call being “recorded for quality assurance”.  Nowadays that’s standard practice in one form or another for just about everything done through communications technology.  If satellite-based smart phones do prove to be the wave of the future, there will be practically no avoiding being recorded and followed by the Big Brothers of the Internet.

Recently both Google and the U.S. government have been accused of spying on people in the name of maintaining some sort of quality control, but perhaps they’re not the only ones who find the line blurry over what’s OK and what isn’t.  The problem with having everything networked together is that we’re all suddenly living in glass houses whether we like it or not, even though we can’t actually see into other people’s lives as easily as some can see into ours.

Ultimately, people need to stop and think about how much access to the rest of the world they need and how much they’re willing to give someone else – maybe someone they’ll never be aware of – access to them.  What would you do with a smart satellite phone?

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Would You Go Without Facebook?

This week, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology comes back from a week long blackout on Facebook and other social media.  They ran the “program” in an effort to get their students to think about how to use their time on such sites effectively and to decide whether it’s something that’s actually important to them.  Of course, it’s also worth noting that the faculty is just as happy to have their social sites back as the students are.

The fact of the matter is, this experiment has consequences that reach a lot farther than the classroom.  First off, it has obvious implications in the workplace:  social media is currently the big thing in terms of getting your name out there for both potential customers and people you’ve done business with before to see.  However, it can also be a way for employees to goof off rather than work while on the clock.

It should also be taken into account for its effect on your free time.  Some people spend hours on end (or just hours sum total) doing things on Facebook and Twitter, and other social media, rather than on the things they used to do for rest and recreation.  The upside is that they’re able to keep more thoroughly in touch with friends that they aren’t close to geographically but very close to emotionally.

It even has a bearing on advertising, because of how popular it’s been recently in online markets.  If people start spending less time on their favorite sites, all the ads and social media programs run through those sites will far less effective at bolstering business – and might even wind up being a waste of money in some cases.

That said, places like Facebook have definitely proven their worth in terms of how much they can help some people to get their jobs done.  The same people who planned HU’s blackout use social media for networking with each other and potential recruits to their university – the same is true at pretty much all other universities in the world, so it’s not likely that this experiment will be repeated in this setting very often.

However, there are already a number of companies that have banned the use of social media (at least outside of the departments dedicated to using them) form the workplace.  The interesting thing is that other companies are now starting to use their own kind of social media in order to make work easier for their employees.  Perhaps it’s all a delicate balancing act between spending one’s time on a new resource and wasting work time on some online toy.

In the end, Harrisburg University’s experiment isn’t probably going to change much of anything.  Too many people have taken a vested interest in social media, both personally and professionally, for a simple “you’re spending too much time here” to stop them from doing so – and people would just start doing the same on something else if they actually did, because that’s human nature.  It may make some people start regulating their time on sites like Facebook to some extent, but probably just as many people would use those sites with a renewed passion if they were subjected to and then released from such a blackout.

Even if people still need to get used to the idea of how to spend their time on it wisely, social media is definitely here to stay.  It’s recently been proven that people like spending time on places like Facebook than they do on the various search engines they can use.  “Don’t Stay There Too Long” isn’t going to change the sites people want to use, they’re going to have to decide through their own experiences how long is too long.

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What Secrets Do You Share Online?

Apparently, people aren’t as leery about dealing with “shady characters” as you might think.  Carnegie Mellon University recently concluded a study in which they found that people were less likely to reveal things to websites that look official (even when that’s just a matter of what logo’s used) than to one that looks like it might be run by people who’ll abuse your trust.

That’s really important for people who want to run honest businesses, as odd as it might seem.  Even though I’m not a psychologist, I’d say that the reason the study had the results they did is that people have, for whatever reason, an inherent distrust of anything they perceive as “The Man”, while they don’t mind sharing anything when they feel they’re sharing it in confidence like they would to a friend.

Obviously, no honest site wants to look like they’re only there to use people’s data to rob or defraud them.  However, this would seem to indicate that they shouldn’t look too polished, either.  If people are more ready to share things with a site that looks dubious than with one that looks official, it’s safe to assume that they aren’t willing to risk anyone in a position of authority to coming after them as much as they are willing to risk being robbed.

This ties in to the issues of online safety raised in previous posts on this blog on the second and eighth.  People who’ve spent their entire lives in the Internet age are generally more trusting with their information, in whatever form, than people who remember life before computers talked to each other as a matter of course.  And nobody wants to deal with a lot of the extra steps they have to take when dealing with some sites that are supposed to be safer because of the extra, proscribed measures they take to that end.

So, for a company to be successful at getting all the information it wants, you apparently need to buddy up with people rather than look like you’re certified and approved.  I can’t say that I like that idea, because it’s hard to tell the online company that’s your buddy from the identity thief that’s just looking for a way to get into your bank account.  Whether this will lead to an epidemic online, though, I don’t know yet.

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Social Media May Be More Important Than Keywords

This just in:  If anyone needed proof that computers are changing the way people live, here it is.

As of today, people spend more time on Facebook than on Google and all of its subsidiary services put together.  That may not surprise some people too much, because of how popular social media has become in the past year, but it’s definitely worth noting that people spend more of their time “hanging out” with friends online than looking for things they want or need.

AP reported on the Forbes website today that people are using 9.9% of their time on Facebook as opposed to 9.6% on everything Google has to offer.  In case you’re interested, Yahoo! came in third at 9.1% percent.  That’s just about thirty percent of everyone’s time online spent on these three website systems!

Facebook is pretty much social media and social games, so it’s got a much stronger claim in its time clocked.  Even when you’re playing one of the ever popular games there, you’re still doing much the same thing you’re doing while checking out the updates and other posts on your friends’ Walls.  The services on Google and Yahoo! are much more spread out over a broad range of subjects, so it’s easy to see what people like most when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of it.

Does this mean that Facebook, and other sites like it that have yet to emerge, are going to become the main way that people communicate with each other at some point in the near future?  Not necessarily.  People still need the normal experiences of life in order to survive.  Nevertheless, they will continue to integrate computerization more fully into every part of life.

That may sound funny, considering how much everyone does things with computers anymore.  But it wasn’t more than fifty years ago that computers filled entire rooms in order to do what are now simple calculations.  Nowadays, people can carry models with hundreds of gigabytes of processing power in housings that are smaller than briefcases.  Simpler, but still powerful models can be found in people’s pockets all the time.  All this innovation, and someone a hundred years ago would have called all of this magic.

Well, this magic is being drawn toward bringing people closer together.  Just over a year ago, people were only spending a little less than 5% of their time on Facebook, and that’s pretty much doubled in a year’s time.  Seniors are using the site more and more these days, too.  It’s steadily becoming more than other social media – it’s becoming the medium through which people reach out and touch each other’s lives.

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Is Your Password Safe?

Everyone understands how important it is to keep your information secure online. If you don’t you could find yourself faced with anything from someone using your name to flame someone you’ve never heard of before all the way to stealing your identity and your credit cards and your bank account. There are plenty of people out there who are perfectly willing to harm others in the name of getting what they want, no matter what that is, and you’re more readily exposed to them on the Internet.
The general assumption is that you need an outrageously complicated password as the first line of defense against this. However, it’s recently been suggested that this isn’t the case. It’s recently been suggested that removing just about all restrictions from what possible passwords are allowed would do a lot more to protect people’s information than keeping things complicated would.
The immediate answer has been that people can just use “brute-force attacks” to try all possible letter and word combinations, so you need something that’s going to take longer to reach than the attacker is willing to spend. However, there’s a problem with that argument:
These people are willing to spend all the time in the world, because the payoff is potentially extreme.
So, it’s a lot better to have systems in place to stop that kind of attack than to try to just hide from it. It doesn’t matter how well you disguise yourself, sooner or later someone’s going to send a virus or something after you because the skilled ones are able to send programs out to float around the Internet and do all the work for them.
Obviously you shouldn’t make your passwords easier to work out – if you’re on a given website, making your access code that website plus some number is always going to be a bad idea. So is making it something you’ll never remember, so that you have to write it down. That can make it easy for someone to just stumble across, especially if they’re already rifling through your things to rob you.
Ultimately, keeping your information safe online is going to come down to the quality of the security software of the site where you’re keeping it, rather than to how complicated your password is. It’s possible, with the right hacking skills, to get into the account without using the password at all.
It isn’t possible for everyone to create their own unbreakable security online, because everyone would have to be computer experts – a definite impossibility. So, you need to make sure that you don’t put anything important on sites that aren’t rock solid to begin with, and to get a good security software installed on your computer.
Most notably, the websites with the best track record for this allow for far fewer restrictions on what passwords you can use. That can actually do more to hide you in a broader selection of possibilities, so that you actually stand a better chance all around of withstanding online attacks.

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Does Everyone Know Where You Are?

These days, you can do almost anything online, including letting people know where you are and what you’re doing – that’s a central part of why Twitter started, after all, to let people know in an instant what you’re up to.  It’s becoming a prominent part of keeping up with social media, because of how much location is a part of whatever you’re doing.  “I’m going to the mall, anybody want to meet me?” isn’t very useful without the location.

However, there are lots of people who’re just as happy to keep their location information down to a minimum, too.  People who’ve lived their whole lives in the Internet age seem to be less subject to this, but it’s still a perfectly understandable phenomenon.  There are predators online just like everywhere else, so a lot of people aren’t comfortable with the idea of making themselves easy to find for anyone they don’t already know.

Of course, there’s also the advent of pan-Internet scavenger hunts and a new kind of coupon campaign connected to this, too.  The companies that have are more active at keeping track of people’s locations are doing everything they can to encourage people to use them all the time, no matter whether they have to use incentives with retail partners or gameplay to do so.  Sites like Foursquare.com have become very popular as a result.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of who cares whether a lot of people know exactly where they are and who don’t that will determine whether this is a trend or a turning point.  There are solid arguments on both sides, ranging from the idea that such a detailed level of info reduces the user’s safety to the point that it makes spontaneous gatherings a lot more possible.  Nevertheless, the point remains that location-based media is here to stay, whether they continue to increase in popularity or not.

With the advent of phone access to social media, it’s a safe bet that services like these are only going to become more available as time passes.  The fact that younger people are a lot more ready to use them than older people are may wind up spurring them on to greater and greater success, too (see our previous post on seniors using Facebook and Twitter).  It’ll be interesting to see where this takes social media and the Internet as a whole in the future.

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