The Winds of WikiLeaks' War
WikiLeaks' Cablegate release has instigated a Web battle. On one side, high-profile organizations like credit card companies have refused to do business with the site; on the other, WikiLeaks supporters have carried out a series of reprisal DDoS attacks. Meanwhile, Apple makes new rules for the Mac App Store, a new study makes AT&T look bad, and Google makes plans for its various OSes.
12/11/10 5:00 AM PT
The fallout from WikiLeaks' late-November release of hundreds of thousands of private U.S. State Department messages continues to spread, and it's grown well beyond the spewing of outraged rhetoric. Feeling pressure from the public and possibly the U.S. government itself, businesses are attempting to lay siege to WikiLeaks, cutting it off financially and technologically. Those who support what WikiLeaks has done have begun to fight back in their own way.
Meanwhile, Julian Assange, the site's founder, has been arrested on a Swedish sex crime allegation. But before turning himself in to authorities, he issued something of a threat: If any harm comes to him personally, or if WikiLeaks is somehow wiped off the Web, there will be consequences. He's sent a heavily encrypted file with a surprise inside to supporters around the world. It's locked up so tight that even sophisticated military computers can't crack it open. Assange has said that if he or WikiLeaks croaks, the key gets sent out as well, and the whole world gets to see the great big secret inside. Unless that happens, though, what's in that file is anybody's guess -- and the mystery is what makes it such a powerful life insurance policy.
Despite that threat, WikiLeaks has seen some outfits turn their backs on it. For instance, it came to light recently that Amazon was hosting WikiLeaks for a period of time, and its cloud services were actually giving the site a good amount of protection from DDoS attacks. Soon after that news spread, though, Amazon kicked WikiLeaks off its cloud and washed its hands of the whole thing. That didn't seem to leave WikiLeaks vulnerable, though -- as much as its adversaries have tried, wiping the site off the Web completely may be damn near impossible at this point. It's been mirrored and spread so far and wide throughout the Internet that if anyone manages to shut down one instance, there are many more places still providing access.
It seems WikiLeaks has an army of supporters willing to fight back on its behalf. When companies like Visa and MasterCard refused to process donations people were trying to make to WikiLeaks, a group called "Operation Payback" targeted them for DDoS attacks, temporarily knocking out their websites. This did not crash the credit card operators' ability to conduct transactions; it was more an act of protest that gummed up their front-facing websites, not the vital foundations underneath.
The group reportedly also tried to knock out Amazon's home page, which would have had much more severe implications for that company, since that's really where most of its business is actually done. But that blow apparently failed to connect.
For now, the war continues. High-profile companies are doing everything they can to distance themselves from WikiLeaks -- refusing support, declining to do business, pulling the plug on pro-WikiLeaks groups, so on. The site's supporters just keep pushing back, flooding those companies' servers to the point of collapse. That kind of attack likely won't kill off an entire business, but it can be costly, and the more famous the target, the more publicity the reprisal campaign receives. So who's next?
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Are You Finished?
I guess it turns out that App Store that Apple built for the iPhone was kind of a good idea. Now that it's hosting hundreds of thousands of apps and doing millions in sales -- not to mention being a driving force for iPhone and iPad sales and serving as a template for other platforms to emulate -- Apple's decided that Macs can have an App Store of their very own. In fact, it might just arrive any day now, and when it does, Mac users will be able to buy, download and install full-sized software packages for notebooks and desktops just like with iOS.
But there's one catch, and it applies to developers. With the iOS App Store, developers can, and many do, release trials, demos, betas -- in other words, pared-down or not-quite-done versions of the software that are supposed to maybe whet the buyer's appetite for the full version, or at least test the consumer waters before finalizing the product. That's not going to be an option with the Mac App Store -- the only way Apple will let devs sell there is if their products are fully baked.
That's bad news for some developers. Putting out a so-called lite version is standard operating procedure for a lot of vendors in the iOS App Store, and the try-before-you-buy approach has no doubt played a big role in all that money Apple's raked in with it. Not having a bunch of different trials and betas lying around might help reduce clutter and improve the user experience somewhat, but it's not like it's that hard for the buyer to tell the difference between a demo and a full version. It's usually right there on the name. And the icon. And the fact that it's free. We can read words.
But Mac developers do have an option iOS developers don't. Just because there's going to be a Mac App Store doesn't mean that'll be the only way to distribute Mac software. Regular channels, like a developer's own website, will still work just fine for demos, betas, trials, even full versions. That's not something iOS users can do -- unless they've jailbroken their iPhones, they're stuck with the App Store as their one and only source of software.
So in the end, perhaps this rule isn't necessarily based on a presumption that users are idiots. It's about control. That's Apple's way -- it wants a vise grip on its platform, but it doesn't want to choke it to death. So with iOS, you get a locked-down OS balanced with an App Store that isn't 100 percent liberated but does carry half-pint versions of software. With Mac, the OS is less restricted, so Apple has seen fit to clamp down on the store.
What's Eating AT&T?
Consumer Reports has offered up a preview of a recent survey regarding U.S. wireless carrier customer satisfaction, and it really put AT&T through the meat grinder. After hearing from about 58,000 people, AT&T came in dead last and was the only major carrier to drop significantly in overall satisfaction from a year earlier.
In its defense, AT&T whipped out the science, saying that independent drive tests confirmed that its mobile broadband network is the fastest in the country, beating the next best competitor by 20 percent. And it said the difference between its dropped call rate and the industry leaders is downright negligible -- one tenth of one percent.
It also whipped out the balance sheet. AT&T's customer numbers really did grow pretty well in the third quarter this year.
Those claims may have merit, but users are obviously unsatisfied, and waving studies and subscriber numbers in their faces isn't going to fix that. So what's making them so unsatisfied in the first place? What's the big difference between AT&T and other carriers? It might have to do with AT&T's frequency band. It uses a chunk of bandwidth that's relatively high in frequency, which makes it harder to penetrate buildings. Verizon uses a lower band. There could also be a difference in the strategy these two use to build out their networks -- quantity of covered areas vs. quality of signal.
And I'd be remiss not to mention the iPhone factor. More than half of Consumer Reports' AT&T-using respondents own iPhones. It uses a huge amount of data, it's sold incredibly well over the last three and a half years, and AT&T is apparently still having a hard time keeping up with user demand. And who knows, maybe it even caused the carrier to get lazy -- millions of new customers saw a shiny new iThingy and signed two-year contracts, and it all looked so good on paper that too many people at AT&T just decided to kick back and call it a day. Why bother building a better network when people are sitting in line literally overnight to get that phone -- and in the process sign a service agreement?
It's clear that AT&T will take some kind of blow when the iPhone expands to another U.S. carrier. The question is whether it'll be a soft blow that actually ends up helping the company by giving its network a break from all the data demands while still letting it retain a good number of customers, or whether it'll be a massive, angry exodus. The timing doesn't look good -- the official report comes in the magazine's January issue, and there are still rumors that that's exactly when Verizon will make its move.
The Next Nexus
Google set its mind on sorting out its plans for its operating systems with a three-strike combo move this week, focusing on netbooks, smartphones and tablets.
First, it moved another step ahead in the dessert buffet, picking up a nice plate of gingerbread, just in time for Christmas. Gingerbread is the code name for Android 2.3, the next edition of the mobile operating system.
Gingerbread will first be served up by the next edition in Google's Nexus line of phones, the Nexus S. For this one, Google partnered with Samsung, resulting in a sort of cross-breed between the Galaxy phone and the original Nexus One, which was made by HTC. It'll feature a refined touchscreen keyboard, a 1 GHz processor, and a front-facing camera that works with Skype video calls.
A few of the improvements Android 2.3 will offer include support for Near Field Communications hardware, the technology that enables your phone to act as your wallet in certain situations. There's also support for Internet telephony over SIP, which is important if your business is big on unified communications systems.
Google isn't sending Gingerbread updates to Android phones just yet. First it's going to have to hand it off to developers so they can get a leg up on it.
Back with the Nexus One, Google tried a new way of selling the phones -- it did it only through its own online channel instead of putting it in carrier stores like usual. I guess that could be called kind of a flop, because this time around, when the Nexus S comes out, it's coming to Best Buy stores for $199 with a T-Mobile contract, or $529 unlocked.
Then Google turned its attention to tablets. The company's long held that Android is mostly for smartphones and its upcoming Chrome OS would be targeted at netbook and notebook computers. That stance has relegated tablets to the role of an awkward and confused middle child, and it's affected how tablet makers can build their products if they want to use Android.
Obviously, there are Android tablets in existence -- several, in fact, the most famous probably being the Samsung Galaxy Tab. It does a fine job running Android, but its screen size is 7 inches compared to the Apple iPad's 10. That's because the OS and the apps it's running were built for smaller screens -- scale them up any further and resolution starts to suffer. A 7-inch screen isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some users prefer the smaller-sized device. But it's still a limitation.
This week, Google took the time to show the world that a 10-inch Android tablet is possible -- if you happen to have a hardware partner willing to build a prototype and a version of Android that's two steps ahead of the one the rest of the world's using. That's not Gingerbread, the one I was talking about earlier -- it's Honeycomb, the next next version, which will be Android's official leap to 3.0 status.
At the D: Dive Into Mobile conference, Google whipped out a prototype tablet built by Motorola. Its screen looked to be the same size as the iPad's -- about 10 inches -- and it was running Honeycomb.
As he did the demo, Android head Andy Rubin revealed only a few choice details. The tablet doesn't even have an official name, but we do know that it has a 3D Nvidia processor. The tablet, or at least something like the design he showed, should be out sometime next year.
It's hard to know anything for sure from surprise prototype demos like this one, but if there really is a 10-inch Android tablet coming soon, that could mean that the Honeycomb update will give Android the ability to scale up properly in larger-screened tablets.
The No-Logo NoBo
Finally, Google put the spotlight on Chrome, the name it uses for both its increasingly popular Web browser and its open source operating system.
The Chrome OS still isn't out in the open yet, but Google has kicked off a slightly unusual beta program to get it started. You can't just hit a website, download a software package and boot up Chrome OS on any old PC. Nope -- you have to audition. Or at least apply. If selected, you get an actual notebook computer, the Cr-48, an all-black, no-logo laptop that looks sort of like the plastic dummies they have sitting on the desks in Ikea. Chrome OS is pre-installed, and you have to agree to use that computer as your primary PC and respond to questions about the product. Big bonus points for students, business people and people working in nonprofits.
Chrome OS may eventually find its way onto computers that would have otherwise been running Microsoft Windows, but that doesn't mean Chrome works exactly the same way we think of a traditional PC operating system working. This is an OS that evolved out of a Web browser. It may share a common ape ancestor with Windows, OS X and most desktop Linux distros, but it's shooting out on its own branch in the family tree. It's an Internet-based OS, it's built for lightweight and highly portable computers, its apps will be Web apps, and if you put its blood cells under a microscope, they may more closely resemble those of Android than Windows.