It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hacked

After suffering a massive network failure for more than a week, Sony’s PlayStation division had the distinct pleasure of revealing to users it had been hacked — deep and hard — by cybercriminals who may have been able to pilfer some very valuable information. Before this happened, PlayStation’s PR condition was already pretty frail on account of it suing its customers. But I hesitate to call this new failure “karma in action” because it looks like the main victims of Sony’s mistake will be, once again, Sony’s own customers.

The PlayStation Network is an online environment in which PlayStation users can enter multiplayer games, purchase additional content for the games they have, download movies and a whole lot more, often with the use of credit card information saved on Sony’s system.

But on April 20, PSN went offline. Very little explanation was provided at first. As the days dragged on, multiplayer gaming addicts began suffering dangerous withdrawal symptoms, and various rumors started making the rounds. One was that the hacktivist group Anonymous was involved, taking payback for Sony’s George Hotz incident. But it’s more Anonymous’ style to claim responsibility for its activities — anonymously of course. And no big statement had come from that group.

Finally, nearly a week later, Sony confirmed that the shutdown was due to a security breach. It said things should be back online the following week, but if you’re a PSN member, here’s what’s probably been exposed: your name, your address, your email address, your birthdate, your user ID and your password. On top of that, your purchase history and the answer to your secret security questions might have been accessed as well. And Sony said it couldn’t promise your credit card number was safe either.

Amazon was criticized for seriously lagging communications after its cloud burst last week — but Sony’s unwillingness to come clean as the outage progressed from days to a week made Amazon look like a model of transparency. A cloud failure in which things just don’t work is bad, but it’s not like Amazon’s EC2 clients had to take fast action in order to protect themselves from fraud. The only thing to do was sit tight. A break-in to PSN, though, means customers’ credit cards and other info may have been in the hands of crooks for nearly a week before Sony decided to let them know about it.

For Sony, the timing couldn’t be much worse. Its rivals are surging — Xbox Kinect is still a hot item, and Nintendo has already started building anticipation for its followup to the Wii. Meanwhile, the biggest stories about PlayStation over the last couple of month have been how it either sues its customers or leaks their data to crooks.

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Cloud Crash

Back to Amazon — the term “cloud computing” lends itself to a million horrible puns you can make when something goes wrong. My favorites aren’t suitable for this venue, so I’ll just say it straight: Amazon’s EC2 cloud service suffered a massive outage last week, taking a lot of websites with it. It’s unclear exactly how many sites were affected, but estimates are in the hundreds, possibly thousands, including well-known destinations that like Reddit, FourSquare and Quora.

Amazon called the whole thing a “networking event,” which makes it sound like there should have been free drinks and hors d’oeuvres. More precisely, it said the widespread failure was the result of a runaway cascade of re-mirroring Elastic Block Storage volumes. Chaotic! Most of the affected sites were back up and running by the next day, but there were still some residual effects felt over the weekend and beyond.

As could be expected, there was plenty of hindsight wisdom being shared in the days that followed regarding how the crash could have been avoided and what design safeguards should have been observed but weren’t. And that’s good — that’s how improvements are made. But aside from the technical bits, there were also a few complaints about how Amazon handled communication with its clients about what exactly was going on.

No doubt the incident’s going to be a black eye for Amazon. Its competitors in the cloud universe are going to be crowing about this one for months, or at least until they suffer a similar outage. But will the Great EC2 Blackout of That One Weekend in 2011 cause cloud computing in general to lose popularity? Did Amazon’s messy little accident represent a turning point in a fad that’ll be long-gone in five or 10 years?

Not likely. Glitch-free computing just doesn’t exist yet, and the cloud is too convenient for too many companies to resist. Amazon’s outage made lots of people mad, and some of them might switch providers, but those providers will have screw-ups of their own at one time or another, and they’ll all provide valuable lessons on how not to design a cloud system.

Tracking Where You Are or What You’re Near?

The revelation from last week that smartphone systems like iPhone, Android and others regularly track users’ whereabouts gave lawyers and politicians plenty to talk about. At least one lawsuit is already in the works, and various members of Congress have written a letter sent to six major phone hardware and software makers asking them exactly how they track devices’ locations and why.

The issue first arose last week when a couple of researchers stumbled on code within Apple’s iOS 4 that recorded the device’s geographic location, time-stamped it, and shared it with whatever computer the phone was synced with. Apple later denied that it actively tracks users but admitted it hasn’t done a great job explaining what exactly is going on.

So it laid it out like this: Your iPhone isn’t logging your location. It’s just logging the locations of whatever cell towers and WiFi hotspots are in your vicinity. That sounds a little double-speaky, but Apple insisted that sometimes a so-called nearby cell tower may actually be 100 miles away.

When an iPhone does this, it’s adding to a crowdsourced database generated by millions of users, and it’s all anonymous and encrypted. With a nice, big database of WiFi and cell tower locations, along with GPS, iPhones can more quickly tell users where they are when they whip them out and bring up a map app to actively search out their location.

Also, said Apple: There’s a bug in the system that might make this happen even if you turn off Location Services. Fix on the way.

So that’s Cupertino’s story, but the location-tracking issue quickly spread to other phone and software makers as well, and with Congress paying attention now, it would seem that this is a very worrisome topic for consumers. So far, though, any ruckus from the general gadget-buying public seems pretty muted. Sony’s PlayStation fiasco is the big rager of the week. On the standard technology consumer outrage index, I’d say the phone-tracking issue clocks in at a tenth of a Google Buzz, at most.

Perhaps the apparent lack of anger is due to a less privacy-minded consumer base. A lot of the people who use smartphones also happen to be the ones who like to use Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and whatever other social network you care to throw in. They’re already putting themselves out there on a daily basis, and some of them don’t really care whether Apple or Google or whoever knows where they’re standing. Hell, this kind of location-tracking technology is the kind of thing that’ll actually help you find your phone if you happen to lose it.

Outrage fatigue might also be a factor. We hear about how our privacy is being screwed over by one company or another almost on a weekly basis. We’re supposed to be angry and creeped out, and deep inside, maybe some of us feel it really is a violation and it just isn’t right. But we’ve got work to do, kids to take care of, friends to meet, not to mention more important current events going on in the world to eat up what’s left of our attention spans. Who’s got time to worry about whether Phil Schiller knows where I eat lunch?

Evolution of a Species

E-readers and tablets are generally regarded as two different species of devices. Tablets have backlit screens and run apps; e-readers use e-ink displays and cost less. Generally speaking.

But it appears that Barnes & Noble is attempting to transcend the species barrier with an update it just put out for its flagship handheld, the Nook Color. Before, it was decidedly an e-reader, though perhaps one of the fancier e-readers out there. But this new update blurs the line in some respects.

Barnes & Noble has given the Nook Color an Android OS. That’s an operating system mostly used on phones and tablets. For most e-readers, the OS is something that doesn’t even get talked about. They just read books. But by joining team Android, the Nook Color supports Flash Player, can surf the Web, and gets real email and calendar programs. And the Nook Color has always had a TFT screen, not an e-ink display like an Amazon Kindle.

It even runs apps, and that may be the factor that makes the Nook Color an actual tablet in the minds of some users.

At the same time, improvements were also made to the Nook’s core function, which is reading e-books and other electronic publications. One feature is called “Nook Books Enhanced,” which will offer over 200 media titles that supplement text and pictures with embedded video and audio. The Nook Newsstand also offers more than 150 full-color newspapers and magazines.

But even though you could call the Nook Color a tablet at this point, it’s much harder to argue that it’s in the same league as something like an iPad 2 or a Xoom. It has less processing power than either of those tablets, and it’s running Android Froyo, a version meant for smartphones, not tablets. And that part about running apps — technically it’s true, but it’s limited to a library of 125 specially designed Nook apps. It’s not open to use the hundreds of thousands of apps in the general Android Market.

Despite these limitations, The Nook Color does serve as a sort of proto-tablet while still enjoying an e-reader price level. Barnes & Noble’s set the price at exactly half of that of the very cheapest iPad 2.

The Odd Couple

Sony’s never met a consumer electronics category it didn’t want to bury beneath several hundred different SKUs, so it comes as no surprise that it’s finally unveiled not one, but two new tablet computers it plans to launch this fall.

The S1 and S2, which is what they’re called for the time being, stand out from the crowd in terms of design. The S1 is about the same size as a Xoom or iPad, but unlike those two, it doesn’t have a flat back. It’s wedge-shaped — thicker on one side than on the other. That’s to simulate the feel of holding a folded-over magazine, and it’s supposed to make it more comfortable to hold it in one hand, though I suppose it depends on which hand.

And just like the Kyocera Echo smartphone, Sony’s S2 sports a design inspired by European hotel beds. Instead of one big screen, it’s two small screens fused down the middle. The S2 folds up to fit in a pocket and unfolds to give you two 5.5-inch screens, which can be used to display different content or used in tandem as one big screen, albeit with a big seam right down the middle.

Both tablets will be Androids, loaded with Honeycomb 3.0. Sony says they’ll be 3G and 4G compatible, which would put it one full G ahead of iPad 2’s wireless capabilities.

Price is going to be an important factor. Apple’s set a $500 standard with its bottom-of-the-line iPad 2, and any tablet that debuts with a starting price much higher than that tends to make reviewers gag a lot.

One thing Sony does have going for it is an established marketplace for content. Its Qriosity store is sort of its answer to iTunes, at least when it comes to movies, and users of Sony stuff like PlayStations have been able to use it for a while now. Sony’s tablet users will be able to get video there. And for books, Sony’s also had its foot in e-reader territory for years, so it already has a bookstore up and running for those who want to use an S1 or S2 as an e-reader.

As Honeycomb tablets, it’s likely these two have access to the Android Market to provide users with their app fix. And by the time these go on sale, there may be more apps in that market that are specifically optimized for big-screen, Honeycomb-era tablets, rather than smaller-screened smartphones. But who knows — maybe Sony will insist on keeping its tablets locked into its own proprietary app store, just like Apple and iTunes, only way, way smaller. Kind of a long shot, but you just never know with Sony.

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