Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Digital Nostradamus

Maybe it's just because as a programmer I keep up on technology trends, and perhaps because I'm a fan of Apple, I tend to see a lot of predictions in the technology sector. Some of it is interesting, but most of it consists of soothsaying which ranges from inane to irritating. The sheer bulk of it tends to get me frustrated.

Guessing the future is hard. Guessing about the technology future is even harder. Forecasting just a year or two in advance is difficult enough, but 5, 10, 25, or 50 years is almost impossible. And yet, somehow, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to share their prognostications.

I don't mind predictions. I like it when people state their opinion and share facts to support their claims. I don't mind when people state what they hope will occur. But it drives me crazy when I repeatedly encounter people state their guesses (outlandish or not) as though they were facts. And all too often these same people are unwilling to entertain alternative ideas or viewpoints. The place where this impacts me the most is at work. On the Internet at large, nut-jobs are a dime a dozen; one has to expect a deluge of nonsensical divinations. But at work I have a vested interest in keeping my company afloat and myself sane. Here are a few topics which spawn repeat offenders for me:

  • Will Flash ever be supported on iOS?
  • Will HTML 5 kill Flash?
  • Will Android supplant the iPhone?
  • Will [insert most recently announced Android tablet] be the iPad killer?
  • Will the iTunes App Store's walled garden eventually be its demise?

  • Most recently the Internet (and my work) is abuzz with speculation around the news of Steve Jobs stepping down from his CEO position at Apple. It confounds me how quickly people jump to conclusions and bend any fact or rumor to fit their viewpoint, often with disjointed logic.

    It's wearisome to keep up with and read, let alone try to reason with these people. And it's all about how the arguments are framed. For example, consider the differences between these arguments:
    1. Android will eventually win because it is an open platform.
    2. It's only a matter of time before Android tablets dominate the market, leaving the iPad a niche competitor.
    3. I prefer Android because I can customize it. I hope it continues to gain mass market acceptance so more developers will make apps for it.
    4. Apple is not the future, Android is. It's the Mac vs. PC all over again.
    5. Apple seems intent on losing market share by keeping it's hardware and software proprietary. Also, it refuses to support Flash. I predict it will eventually support Flash in a desperate attempt to remain relevant, but by then Android will be running on 80% of mobile devices. I can't think of a single reason to buy an iPad.
    6. Android has a strong possibility of becoming the eventual mass-market winner in the smartphone wars. Adoption from many carriers and handset makers have helped it gain recognition and cut into the iPhone's market significantly.
    Can you guess which of those arguments make me shudder? I'll give you a hint, there are only two which I find acceptable.

    #3 expresses an opinion. Good.

    #6 makes a prediction of a possible outcome, backed up with some evidence. Good.

    The rest are terrible to me. And sadly, they are actual arguments I've read. They are comprised mainly of opinions stated as facts, and arguments without substance. Could they be right? Sure, anything is possible. But they'd only be right due to chance and circumstance; not due to any insight on their part.

    I'm very open to the possibility of things like Android supplanting iOS. I just don't see any evidence of it. I think it is very reasonable to assume that if a great Android tablet hit the market that it could topple the iPad's dominance. I just don't see any evidence indicating that happening. What I do see is a veritable landslide of second-rate, bug-ridden, also-ran tablets being rushed to market.

    Businesses need to try to look into the future to do strategic planning. I just hope that my company doesn't get lost in this sea of speculation.

    I don't have much hope for the lunacy to end. But I trust that at least some rational thinking people will provide me some shelter from the madness.

    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Reflections on Piracy

    To round out my current thoughts on piracy, I want to delve briefly into the nebulous quagmire of ethics.

    In general, it seems that most people frown on piracy and identify it as an unacceptable behavior. This is likely due to the negative connotations associated with the word: pirates are generally considered to be unscrupulous and unsavory criminals. Few people want to be associated with such ideas, nor do they want to be imprisoned for stealing. And yet, it is not uncommon to find people who hold such beliefs to be guilty of infractions with regard to piracy.

    Usually such infractions are claimed as 'minor'. Concepts of ownership and "fair use" are used as a shield, but these do not always adequately cover the situation. But more often than not, it is justification of some sort which leads the person to believe they have a moral high ground and therefore should not be considered a pirate. "I have a right," "it's all because they don't do ____," or "there are extenuating circumstances" are all excuses which I have heard -- an in the past, I've made some of them myself.

    In years past, I found myself using such justifications because my friends and I were rabid anime fans. The primary justification I used surrounding this was the idea that "if this content were available here in the U.S., then I would buy it. But since it isn't, this is the only way I can experience these shows. After all, if I were in Japan, I'd just see this on TV for free anyway."

    Certainly such justifications are part of human nature. Whether they are right or wrong is a matter of perspective. In many ways, each of us is a modern-day Francis Drake. On the one hand we can say that what we are doing is right; perhaps we are even heros in a way. But on the other hand, we are clearly pirates as well.

    The Techstuff podcast from How Stuff Works had a very interesting discussion about this topic in an episode entitled "The Ethics of Piracy". While listening, one point stuck out to me more than any other:

    You do not have a right to access content.

    When I heard that I immediately agreed with it, and also realized that younger me never considered the idea. In the past, I labored under an assumption that just because something was available to someone out there, I ought to have access to it as well. That's only "fair," right? I was using this justification and pretense of fairness to mask something I hadn't ever realized: my desires were a form of selfishness.

    The idea that no one has an inherent right to content was an epiphany to me. That single watershed moment changed how I look at piracy.

    I do believe that everyone does have a right to some things, like education. And there are some things in the 'public domain' like art and literature which are so engrained with our cultures that we need them to function. At the very least, people ought to have the same opportunities; but we know that isn't the case in practice as we look at the problems across the world. But that does not mean that people can claim unilateral access to content; especially content created for the livelihood of another.

    Luckily, the Internet is making it easier to have legitimate access to content. There is a lot available on the web. New services (like Netflix and Hulu) make it easier and cheaper to watch things you want to watch. iTunes and Pandora make it easier to get music. These types of things can drastically reduce the impulse to justify one's piracy.

    Personally, I am happy to have come to this new paradigm. I intend to dispose of my metaphorical jolly roger as I have no further need for it. Hopefully this insight will help me to identify similar things in my life in the future so I can better understand myself, others, and gain some small bit of wisdom.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    Encryption and the FBI

    In a similar vein to my last post, another futile endeavor I hear about is the FBI wanting to enforce encryption backdoors in software.

    Basically the idea is that the FBI has trouble catching bad guys because they use state-of-the-art encryption to mask their communications, to secure their hard drives, and generally hide their nefarious schemes. Therefore, the FBI wants service providers (like Skype, Dropbox, and everyone else) to maintain the ability to decrypt data or communications if served a subpoena.

    At first blush this seems like a sensible idea. But unfortunately it has three major problems:

    Problem #1
    Bad guys already have access to state-of-the-art, (essentially) uncrackable encryption. The cat is already out of the bag. Free, open-source solutions for asymmetric (public key) and symmetric encryption have been available for years. The algorithms are well known. Tools already exist.

    Bad guys can already share their secrets. And if they merely encrypt their data first, they can take advantage of services and systems regardless of whether they have backdoors. For example, if a hacker puts an encrypted file on Dropbox, the FBI can only ask Dropbox to remove its secondary encryption; the original data is still secure.

    Problem #2
    If the service provider can decrypt information when subpoenaed, that means they can also decrypt information at will. This opens the door to an "inside job" attack. Companies typically have privacy policies stating how they won't do such things, but a disgruntled or malicious employee isn't going to care about company policy.

    Problem #3
    Adding decryption backdoors adds a burden on service providers. In many cases, existing technologies have to be radically re-architected. Additionally, it forces the provider to assume the position of a "middle man", watching communications (and using up bandwidth) to allow secret decryption for traffic which would otherwise be sent point-to-point.

    There are those who say that problem #1 is irrelevant, because at least we'd be able to catch the more stupid criminals. The ones who aren't tech savvy enough to secure their data. But I view this as a short-term solution. Because the important technology is already out in the open, all criminals need are for good tools to be created.

    Problems #2 and #3 are very real, but many people don't realize that these issues could stunt the development of otherwise useful services. Or in some cases, cause existing services to disappear.

    Personally, I don't have secrets to hide. Though I value my privacy, I don't have any sensitive data which I need to secure. But I can understand that there legitimate reasons for people to hide their data. For example, my work has intellectual property which they want to keep safe.

    Arguably, we could say that no one has a right to privacy. In the physical world there are many things which cannot be done in private; even something as simple as walking around. So perhaps the digital world shouldn't have the right to those things either.

    This post just scratches the surface of this issue. But I see these three major problems at the heart of the matter. I'm sympathetic to the problems the FBI faces. I want them to be able to catch bad guys. But I'm not sure that this is the best way to do it. And I am sure that it's already too late to catch the really scary ones who know how to use encryption.