Headphones Evesdropping On You

This is an older story, but it has come around again recently.

Researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University have created a piece of proof-of-concept code they call “Speake(a)r,” designed to demonstrate how determined hackers could find a way to surreptitiously hijack a computer to record audio even when the device’s microphones have been entirely removed or disabled. The experimental malware instead repurposes the speakers in earbuds or headphones to use them as microphones, converting the vibrations in air into electromagnetic signals to clearly capture audio from across a room.

But, as it turns out, this is less of an out-and-out hack, but just simply taking advantage of a somewhat questionable ‘feature’:

But the Ben Gurion researchers took that hack a step further. Their malware uses a little-known feature of RealTek audio codec chips to silently “retask” the computer’s output channel as an input channel, allowing the malware to record audio even when the headphones remain connected into an output-only jack and don’t even have a microphone channel on their plug. The researchers say the RealTek chips are so common that the attack works on practically any desktop computer, whether it runs Windows or MacOS, and most laptops, too. RealTek didn’t immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment on the Ben Gurion researchers’ work. “This is the real vulnerability,” says Guri. “It’s what makes almost every computer today vulnerable to this type of attack.”

IoT and Auto-Replenishment – A Good Thing?

I guess I am taking a little more cautious/skeptical stance when it comes to the auto-replenishment feature touted by many IoT pundits and vendors. If you aren’t familiar, this would allow a device to determine that you were out of or running low on a given consumable (be it a food item, dish soap or toilet paper) and then order more of it on your behalf.

Here is the problem: the vendor and the device don’t have your best interests at heart and might tend to exaggerate the current state of consumable and (maybe) tend to order more of it more frequently that you might actually need (or want). For example, if you have ever owned an inkjet or laser printer you have probably experienced this already – persistent warnings/notifications to replace a toner or ink cartridge when, in reality, the useful life of the item is much, much longer that you are being led to believe. Heck, I have a laser printer that has been telling be for 13 months that I need to replace the toner. In that time my family and I have printed hundreds of additional pages with this ’empty’ toner cartridge.

Consider also the existing confusion over the meaning of ‘sell by’ and ‘best by’ designations on other consumables (most notably food). What if vendors add a ‘replenish by’ or ‘order by’ date into the mix? Not a great situation for consumers, especially if they have delegated this to an networked device in the name of ‘convenience’.

Creating a shopping list: Evernote vs Google Keep

evernote-v-google-keep
Evernote experience:

1) create list in desktop app
2) attempt to share it with my wife; sorry, have to upgrade to paid version for this
3) finally share with wife, she attempts to edit shared list; sorry, she has to upgrade to paid version (screw that)
4) remember a few more items on the go, add to list via mobile app
5) attempt to sync from mobile; get loads of errors – sync fails
6) only way to fix sync error is to copy note contents, delete note an paste contents into a new note
7) repeat from step 2 or just give up

Google Keep experience:
1) create list on tablet using Keep app
2) share with wife; no problem – she has access to it within seconds
3) she needs to add items to the list – no problem; she adds them and they automatically sync with me
4) edit list on mobile – no problem; list automatically syncs
5) both of us run Keep app in grocery store, ticking off items from the list; no problem – list syncs automatically
6) marvel at the superior user experience from Google Keep
7) BONUS: I can set a reminder on the list that is a location; Google Now notifies me when I am near the store.

Evernote just keeps getting worse and worse. About the only thing that keeps me using it is the web clip functionality in the browser. Come on Keep, add that and I can leave Evernote behind.

Android Wear Customization With Zooper

One of the things that I really like about the Android ecosystem is the degree to which you can customize it to suit yourself (and not what some designer in Cupertino thought was good enough). This extends to the newly released Android Wear devices (I opted for the Samsung Gear Live).

I just discovered a new widget app called Zooper Wear – Square Wearables that brings useful aggregation to Wear notifications. I really like having a consolidated view of the number and type of alerts all on one screen. Throw in current temperature and battery level and I am sold.

What If We Reviewed Movies The Same Way We Review Tablets?

What if we reviewed movies that same way that we review tablets? That is, don’t rate them based on their own merits but always relative to some other popular movie, allow lots of subjective, unsupported assertions and conclude that popularity equals quality. So if we assume that Spiderman was the benchmark du jour, it might go something like this:

Avengers had quite a few popular characters in it, but the fatal flaw was that there was no Spiderman. However, everyone noted that many of the characters closely copied Spiderman in having an alternate identity, special powers and a snazzy costume, it was clear that these were to make the characters more like Spiderman, who is the leader in the super hero space. While the movie was entertaining, it just didn’t have the same flow and ‘ease of watching’ that Spiderman did. And while we paid less to see the Avengers at a matinee, the quality of Spiderman clearly made it worth the extra ticket expense because everyone knows that Spiderman is just a higher quality product. We are sure that the Avengers might appeal to some people; we still believe that Spiderman is the best movie there is.

The Location-based Context Aware Data Privacy Black Hole

I’ve written before about mobile application privacy over-reach. Now there seems to be a whole genre of mobile applications that want *all* of your personal data in order to ‘help’ you through your day. You know, you are right, I think the number one thing that people want is someone (or something) to tell them what they should be doing all day and all night long. No, not really.

One of these apps that has been around a while is reqall’s Rover. As is typical of the genre, it wants to suck in your contact info, keep fine grained GPS trails of your movements, harvest your info from social media sites like Facebook and twitter, etc. About the only useful feature I found that it provided was traffic conditions for commuting (but you can easily get that from any number of sites). One of the most annoying ‘helpful’ features it provided was trolling through the phone call logs an send alerts that I should call personX because I haven’t talked to them in a while. More often than not it was a number for AAA roadside assistance or some such thing that I wouldn’t have a need to call often.

Friday is another app that a co-worker pointed out to me. A quick visit to their web site had me scratching my head as to why I would ever want to run this app. This app sucks *all* of the information off of your phone into ‘the cloud’ and does so on a continuous basis throughout the day. It does this so it can ‘help you remember’ what you were doing at a particular moment. Right, or use all of that information to sell to marketing types or know when to rob you.

Saga is the latest of these apps I have seen. Whoo, I can see a list of places I have been during the week (like I couldn’t do that with Google Latitude). Same tired ‘check in’ gambit – pooh and I get to earn ‘experience points’ for doing it. And restaurant recommendations based on what I always do! (as if I couldn’t figure that out on my own. Same claims, same huge privacy issues. Do I really want some third party tracking my every move at all, let alone for the claimed ‘benefits’ to me?

Will Google Now be the one that gets this right? Privacy issues remain, but in many cases they probably have this information already so the issue of providing it to yet another third party is somewhat minimized. Also, some of the touted features don’t make a lot of practical sense, like translation and currency. Works great if you have an unlocked phone AND can get roaming data at a less than rapacious rate; otherwise ‘benefits’ that won’t see a lot of use. And then there is the fact that Google Now is only available on the very newest version of the Android OS that is on very, very few devices in the wild.

Amazon’s Brain Dead Content Fumblings

I recently came across a self-published book that I was interested in on Amazon. I noticed that it claimed that if I was an Amazon Prime member (I am) that I could get it ‘for free’. I thought, great, a no risk way to satisfy my curiosity about the book. So I sign in so that Amazon can confirm that I am a Prime member. But, now it is telling me that I can get the book for ‘free’ if I buy a Kindle device – WTF? Sounds like good ole bait and switch to me.

So I started looking into magazines that I might be able to download and take on an upcoming trip. My Galaxy Tab 10.1 came pre-loaded with the Kindle viewer, so why not? Besides, I have been looking for a replacement for the brain-dead Zinio application. Many of the magazines that I wanted to buy were only available for the Kindle devices, not for the viewers on the other platforms. Again, WTF? Poking around on the site, I came across a lame excuse that ‘not all of the content is licensed or optimized for all platforms’ – great, so you are admitting that your reader software is a joke and you are really just trying to get people to buy your sub-par reader devices. Outstanding.

Apparently, Barnes & Noble’s Nook doesn’t have this ignorant limitation. If I buy a magazine for the Nook, I can view it on my wife’s Nook, my Samsung S2 phone, my Galaxy Tab 10.1 or on the iPad and have pretty much the same user experience on all of them. So what is your excuse, Amazon? It doesn’t appear to be a technical limitation if you competition can make it work. Just sounds like some ham-handed strong arming to try to push devices. Fix your content model, Amazon. The reality is, you have no motivation to do that at all, do you?

Tablet Market Swirl

Hmm, iPad traffic dropping, Nook surpasses Kindle Fire. Kind of sorting itself out as expected – the Fire hasn’t turned out to be the big game changer that all the pundits made it out to be. I had my doubts from the very beginning.

The new version of the iPad has been a bit of a dud; the much touted retina display just make the unit run really hot without providing a huge enhancement to the end user experience. The rest of the new feature were just to try to stay at parity with the competition and to continue to copy features from Android. It is no wonder that Apple have an army of lawyers running around the world trying to prevent Samsung’s Galaxy Tab from being released – can’t have people having real choice in the marketplace as they would likely not buy Apple’s product.

And now that the Google Nexus 7 will soon be on the scene, I anticipate the Kindle Fire sinking even further. I’m not really surprised that most of the ground is being gained in the smaller form factor (7-8 inch screens) that all of the Apple fans crapped on so hard because, well, it wasn’t the same as the iPad. Guess what, it looks like Apple is planning on ‘innovating’ a tablet in that space as well. Once again, innovated by Samsung and Google, copied in Cupertino.

As for the Microsoft Surface – I think it will do about as well as the Zune did.

More Tablet Idiocy (part 3)

Let’s start with the baiting title “Why Android tablets failed: A postmortem“. And, as is typical, there is nothing in the article to substantiate such a ludicrous claim. Android tablets owning a 20-40% share of the tablet market is a ‘failure’? Hmmm.

Let take a look at the four main reasons why Android tablets ‘failed’:

4) “the 16×9 problem” – not a problem from what I can tell and quite simply the opinion of the article’s author. No credible UX studies, just the bald assertion that the screen is ‘awkward’ and ‘odd’. Or stated differently, it is bad because it isn’t an iPad. 16×9 will, of course, become an innovative breakthrough when Apple releases a tablet in that form factor.

3) “Enterprise doesn’t trust Android” – yep, that is why most corporation provide their employees with Android-based phone and address the security issues. The same security models exist for the tablets. Again, an uniformed opinion, unsubstantiated by facts.

2) “Lack of Apps” – this is a popular one that has been proven false. Apple certainly has the fart machine app market cornered. I would love to hear a list of significant apps that are in the Apple space that don’t have Android analogs. Otherwise, the Android market has a stable of quite good apps (and more arriving daily. The statements around HTML5 apps are laughably out of touch.

1) “the price” – one year old data point is cited (Motorola Xoom). However, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is selling quite well (at least where Apple isn’t trying to prevent it from being sold). Again, not facts, just an erroneous assertion.

Conclusion: Apple fan-boys hate the alternatives because they recognize in other tablets what Apple can’t deliver with the iPad.

Dubious AT&T Employees

I recently reacquainted myself with just how bad employees at the AT&T store really are.

I stopped in because my phone (a Samsung Captivate) started behaving bizarrely when it came to WiFi. The issue was that it would take 3-4 attempts at enabling wifi to get it to actually connect to the wifi network. This was reflected in a cycle of “connecting” and “failed” messages. In some cases, I would have to restart the phone. A restart is painful as it takes about 15 minutes for the media scanner to finish doing it’s thing and the phone to be usable again (I am not sure if this might be a symptom of the same problem).

I explained this to the AT&T associate and asked if he had any advice. He snatched the phone out of my hand, looked at the screen and proclaimed ‘that ain’t right’. He then proceeded to pop open the battery door and flick the battery out of the phone. I pointed out that that was not the proper way to shutdown a phone. He looked up at me and grunted then replaced the battery. I reminded him that it was going to be about 15 minutes before the phone was usable; again he responds with a grunt and a ‘that ain’t right’.

After a minute or two he gets impatient and ejects the battery out of the phone WHILE it is still booting up. He squints at the battery ‘to make sure it ain’t a knock off – that causes lots of problems’. Satisfied that it was a ‘real’ battery he places it in the phone again.

While it is booting up he blurts out ‘you probably need to upgrade the firmware in the phone – that’ll fix the problem’. I asked what the ‘issue’ was; he responded with a shrug and a reassurance that the firmware will fix the phone. I then pointed out that I had already updated the firmware and still have the issue. He starts nervously tossing the phone from hand to hand and staring out the window. He then raises the phone to his face and starts poking around in the settings. ‘You got a external memory card installed?’ I said that I did. ‘It is probably that. Yeah. The memory card is corrupt and that is causing the problem’. I asked him to clarify how a bad memory card would effect the wifi and he had nothing. I then pointed out that if the card was corrupt, I wouldn’t be able to read anything from it. Again he shrugs and starts to get an agitated look on his face.

I say to him, if it is a bad memory card then removing it should make the problem go away. Fun boy grunts again, pops the back of the phone and hot ejects the card, while the phone is still powered on. I pointed out to him that if the card wasn’t corrupt before doing ignorant shit like that would contribute to corrupting it. That just got me a side long glance. I asked to speak to the manager; he looks nervously around and says that the manager isn’t in. I ask one of the other employees and they point to the guy on the phone behind the counter. While I wait for the manager to free up, we continue with the diagnostic farce.

Surprise, surprise. With the card out of the phone, the wifi and performance issues persist. He taps the phone on the counter then announces ‘you have installed some software on here that has a virus on it, that is what is causing the problem’. Hmm, now we really are reaching. I point out that I haven’t installed a lot of new apps on the phone and the ones that I have are very well known and were all installed from the android marketplace (in fact, the phone only allows marketplace installs). Nope, definitely a virus. Have to factory reset the phone.

I point out that there are some things on the phone that I would like to backup. He hands me back the phone, steps away and puts both hands up in front of him, palms out. ‘Ain’t nothin else I can do for you ’til you fact-tree reset that phone’. I ask what I do after I fact-tree reset it and it still has a problem. He shrugs and takes another step away. ‘uh, call us…’

The manager finally frees up, so I go tell him about my experience: in the course of my visit, the issue with my phone was 1) fake battery 2)firmware 3)memory card 4)a virus . The manager looks across the room at the guy who was ‘helping’ me, then at the phone, then at me. Silence. Finally he comes up with ‘Um, maybe you should try the reset and see what happens’. And then what? I ask. ‘uh, call us…’

I got home, backed up my phone, factory reset it. Same behavior as before. I am not going to waste any more time with AT&T.

Kindle Fire Or Kindle Cash Register?

The Kindle Fire was announced last week to great fanfare and unchallenged hyperbolic claims. To me it just seemed like Amazon did little more than ‘invent’ the Nook three years after Barnes & Noble did.

Price was one of the big points that was claimed to make the Fire a huge hit. Not many journalists bothered to read the press release – those low prices are for the units that constantly shove advertising in your face. You can pay $30-40USD extra to get rid of the ads.

Availability of all of Amazon’s content was heralded as another component that was going to make Fire reign supreme. I am not so sure this is as compelling as it is being made out to be. For one, I can consume all of Amazon’s goods on my existing tablet (a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1). This could turn out to be a huge negative if the Fire is perceived simply as a content delivery portal and less a general purpose tablet. Here Amazon is trying to make the same play that Apple did with iTunes – trying to wrap consumers paid contents up so that it is not so much purchased as it is rented.

Recent numbers claim that there are over 250,000 pre-orders for the new Kindle, but of course, as with the original Kindle, there is no way to verify the numbers. Nor will there be any way to verify the returns when consumers discover that all they can do with the Kindle is buy stuff from Amazon and not much else.

Android Tablet Sales Growing Steadily

They would probably be growing even more if Apple weren’t running around the planet trying to prevent Samsung’s tablet from being sold. Litigate rather than innovate, Apple.

From the Digitimes posting:

Lin pointed out that Android-based smartphones took two years after launch to surpass iPhone in terms of shipments and sales in 2010 and are currently still seeing the gap with iPhone expanding.

In the future, Lin believes Google’s upcoming Android operating system codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich, which will unify its smartphone and tablet platforms into one system, and smartphone’s strong software application ecosystem, which can quickly enhance applications to support tablet products, will help resolve the issues about Android tablets lacking support for software applications.

With Android tablets’ hardware design and price point to gradually reach a consumer satisfying point, Android tablets should see the same come-from-behind results as Android smartphones, and enjoy similar shipment and sale volumes as iPad in 2012, Lin added.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 And The iPad

With all the predictability of a rocket launch, the Apple fanboys were a-bloggin’ when the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 was released in mid-June. It was pretty evident from the posts that they had not even bothered to checkout the device first hand – they just ‘knew’ that the iPad was better. It was also amusing to note that the things that Apple touts for its own products ‘don’t matter’ when a competitor has a more favorable stat.

Take, for example, the fact that the Tab is thinner – ‘doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter’ goes the fan boy chorus. Hmm, I think back to the most recent releases of the iPod, iPhone and iPad – one of the first things that Apple touted about each was that it ‘only x millimeters thick’ or ‘x millimeters smaller than y’. In reality, is someone going to make a buying decision solely on a few millimeters of size difference? Probably not.

Another difference that was shouted down was the true widescreen format of the device. The upside of this is that when you watch video on the Tab it doesn’t get clipped like it does on the iPad. This was attacked as being ‘weird’, ‘awkward’, and even ‘unusable’ by the fan boys. Personally, I find it quite convenient and easy to use. The device feels well balanced and easy to hold in all orientations.

Next the plastic back plate on the Tab was declared ‘cheap’ and ‘shoddy’ by the Apple fans because the back of the iPad is metal. My experience with the Tab vs iPad on this is that the subtle give of the plastic backing makes me feel like I have a good grip on the Tab versus the sometimes slippery feeling of the iPad’s metallic back. Also the plastic is not quite the fingerprint/smudge magnet that the iPad is.

Now that we have discussed some of the superficial bits, let’s talk about the things that really set the two apart and that is the OS and the software.

One of the things that absolutely drove me nuts every time I tried to use my wife’s iPad was how modal it is. Reminded me of the ‘good ole days’ of DOS. Need to write a doc? Open a word processor. Need to crunch some numbers? Close the word processor and open a spreadsheet. Yuck. It is sort of amazing to me that with all of the work that Apple has done with widgets in Dashboard that the concept hasn’t carried over to the iPad. Well, it has with the Galaxy Tab, and I am loving it. I can drop widgets on the screen and in one view I can see gMail, Twitter, Facebook and the current weather without having to cycle through apps to get the latest updates. That is a huge win for the Tab.

Notifications are subtle and convenient on Android versus annoying and in-your-face on the iPad. Notifications appear on the bottom right of the screen where I can get the details on them (and dismiss them) when I want. The iPad notifications remind me of the Windows “Abort, Retry, Cancel” dialog boxes of years past that break the flow of what you are trying to accomplish at the moment.

The Android Market is much less painful than it’s Apple counterpart. I never understood why it was important to hurl me out of the Apple app store every single time I selected an app to install. This just meant that I had to swipe my way back to the app store, open it back up and find the next app I wanted to try out so I could again be hurled out to some random screen. With Android, I select an app, it installs in the background and I can continue browsing for additional apps or close out of the Market when I want.

The browsing experience on the Galaxy Tab is fast, clean and overall more productive. One of my favorite features is real tabbed browsing on the Tab, not the modal screen-swap browsing on the iPad. Having Flash available is nice to have, but not essential for my needs. Still, it is better to have it and not need it than otherwise.

Another huge win is the inherent openness of the Android operating system. When I am on the web I am attending to multiple channels (Twitter, browsing, RSS, Evernote, blogs) so I am constantly shifting and saving things from one channel to another or saving things for later review. This is dead simple on the Galaxy Tab because most every application has a ‘Share’ menu option in it. So if I see an interesting link on Twitter I can easily view the full page (without having to leave Plume no less!) and then ‘Share’ it with Evernote or gMail or whatever I want without awkward copy and paste and opening and closing of applications. Android 3.1 on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 just works and works the way that I want to not the way some engineer in Cupertino thinks I should work.

More Dubious ‘Journalism’ On Tablets

So the answer to the Faux News-esque Has Apple’s iPad finally killed the Netbook? question is a firm NO. It is right there in paragraph four:

But the real reason Netbooks have fallen by the wayside is that they failed to evolve. After the first couple of generations, Netbooks settled into a comfortable niche of a 10.1-inch display, 1GB to 2GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and Windows (first XP, then Windows 7 Starter or Home Premium). You could get this basic combo for as little as $299, but some companies would charge more for upgrades such as nicer designs, rugged bodies, 3G antennas, or occasionally a higher-resolution display. But performance-wise, you’d usually be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a $299 Netbook and a $450 one.

Here is another stunning insight:

Tablets, on the other hand, have been growing in reader interest since the iPad launch (with a few ups and downs along the way), and is 56 percent higher in April 2011 than it was one year before.

So, interest in tablets has been growing since the first viable one was introduced. Shocked, shocked I am that there wasn’t more interest in tablets before they were actually being sold. I bet there was a similar uptick in iPods after they were introduced!

Samsung Captivate Update to Froyo

If you are looking for instructions on how to update your AT&T Samsung Captivate to the latest version (2.2 aka Froyo) of the Android OS look no further than Samsung’s site. And, please, avoid all of the sites out there that what you to register before they will give you this same link.

The process takes about 20-30 minutes to complete. After the update, all of your wallpapers and launch page layouts will be gone. No apps or data is lost, just the layouts, so you will need to recreate those.

Other than that little annoyance, I am noticing snappier performance overall from the phone so it is definitely worth the time to update.

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Tablet Idiocy

It is kind of fun to listen to the ‘pundits’ slobber over the rumored iPad 2. They seem to not have a very long memories when they criticize (with a barely masked worried tone in their voices) the emerging Android tablets.

“There aren’t many apps written specifically for the Android tablet” – yes, and this was very much true with all of the iPhone apps when the iPad came out.

“iPad has more business adoption than Android tablets” – um, which Android tablets? Most of them will be released in the next six months – businesses typically find it hard to adopt technology that doesn’t exist.

Personally I find the walled off nature of iOS a hindrance for any serious use of the iPad. As I have said before, we travel with both the iPad and a cheap netbook and the netbook is the device that gets used most often. Android just provided a better fit for the way I want to use a computer and it looks like the tablet-specific Honeycomb version of the Android OS is just going to make that even better.

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