Is the World Ready for Friend Tracking?

picture-41Google released a new product called Latitude this week to the moans and groans of numerous privacy organizations. The software detects a user’s location via the cell phone, and shares that information with select friends. Using the software, you could see your friends as photos overlaid on a map showing their current location. The Web site suggests that businesses can use the new tool to track employee movements around the world, country, city, or office. Journalist Ann All of ITBusinessEdge points out that location can be faked by users making people think that you are someplace else. She believes that the only business advantage the software provide is for marketing and advertisers.

For the most part the new software seems to be creeping people out. One consumer advocacy group describes latitude as a “gift to stalkers, prying employers, jealous partners, and obsessive friends”. Google has countered that it puts the user in control, with opt-in policies and robust privacy controls. Privacy International claims to have uncovered major security flaws in the software and considers the service to be more like phone tracking, than location sharing. It will be interesting to see how the Web 2.0 generation reacts to the new location aware technology.

Google launches software to track mobile users [Reuters]
Google Latitude Is for Business, if Your Business Is Advertising [ITBusinessEdge]
Google Latitude Spurs Privacy Backlash [Information Week]

Wikipedia Checks its Facts

cyc1Wikipedia is the 10th most popular Web site in the US, with around 58.3 million unique visitors last month. What makes the site so unique is that it has experienced phenomenal success without advertising revenue by relying on its users to create, edit, and maintain its content – an approach known as crowd-sourcing. WIkipedia has not been without its detractors however. Some criticize the site’s “free-for-all” approach that they say provides the Internet community with misinformation posted without a formal editorial or fact-checking process. Recently the flaws inherent in crowd-sourcing have been the focus of media attention as wiki pages on U.S. Senators Edward Kennedy, and Robert Byrd incorrectly stated that the senators had died.

Wikipedia is responding by experimenting with a new approach called “Flagged Revisions.” In this scenario, edits proposed for pages on some topics will be placed in a holding queue where a “trusted editor” will approve or reject the change within a week. Trusted editors are drawn from the community of users based on the person’s past participation on the site. The new system will provide a cushion that will hopefully reduce instances of misinformation and embarrassment for the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.

The use of flagged revisions, points to a new direction for Wikipedia, an organization that has historically put its faith fully in the crowd. One can’t help but think that this decision may have been helped along by Encyclopedia Britannica recent announcement of its plans to open its doors to the wisdom of the crowd. Competition is a good thing! In this case, it is my hope that competition between Wikipedia and Britannica will provide us with an online encyclopedia of everything that is accurate, up-to-date, and trustworthy.

Whitehouse Technology

Courtesy The Obama-Biden Transition Project
Courtesy The Obama-Biden Transition Project

The presidential inauguration and issues surrounding our new president filled the technology headlines this week. The inaugural event drew millions to the Web seeking news and live video streams. Most major news sites were overwhelmed by requests and brought to a near standstill. CNN reports that it served up a record 1.3 million concurrent live streams at its peak just prior to the President’s inaugural address. Over the course of the day, CNN satisfied 21.3 million video requests in all. Similar amounts of traffic was pouring into Web servers at ABC, CBS, Fox Business, the L.A. Times, NBC, National Public Radio, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

As President Obama delivered his address to the world, a newly designed Web site was unveiled at The Web site features the new administration’s ideals of transparency, communication, and participation. It is at that you can find the President’s weekly video address provided through a YouTube stream. The site also features the president’s blog, and information about the administration’s priorities.

On their first full day on the job, the new president, his cabinet and staff were faced with numerous technological hurdles. Many offices in the Whitehouse had no phone service. The computers available were running outdated Microsoft software. There were very few notebook computers and no wireless network. The new administration, known for its cutting edge use of the latest technologies, and who are predominantly Mac users, will have their work cut out for them, bringing their new office space up to date while maintaining the high-level of security required.

President Obama, was pleased to learn that he will be allowed to continue to use his Blackberry. The deal that he struck with Whitehouse security has some strict conditions. Only his senior staff and a small group of personal friends are allowed to communicate with the president over the device through voice, text messaging and email. Those in this inner circle will be subjected to a briefing by White House security on how communications are to be conducted. Finally, the device itself has been locked down with special security software to safeguard communications.

Our new president is focused on technology issues both in the White House and across the country. He has requested that Sun Microsystems Chairman Scott McNealy prepare a white paper on the benefits the U.S. government can derive from adopting open source software. The new administration has released a six point outline of its position on homeland security. One of the points is directed at building a secure, trustworthy, and accountable cyber-infrastructure. The new administration has also proposed a broadband stimulus package worth $6 billion to deliver high-speed Internet to unserved and underserved US populations. The package is currently being debated in House. Republicans are opposed to the package due to its inclusion of provisions for network neutrality, open access, and minimum speeds.

At the conclusion of its first week in office, it is clear that the new administration will provide technology journalists with plenty to write about in coming weeks, months, and years.

Our Violent Society

halo_3_final_boxshotSome stories speak for themselves… A 17 year old has been convicted of murder in ohio after shooting his parents for taking away his copy of Halo 3. The teen planned the murder for weeks, placing the gun in his father’s hand to make it look like a murder suicide. The teen fled the murder scene carrying only his copy of Halo 3. His father survived but his mother died from a wound to the head. The teen’s defense attorney pleaded insanity stating that the boy was dangerously addicted to Halo 3.  The judge in the case is quoted as saying “”I firmly believe that Daniel Petric had no idea at the time he hatched this plot that if he killed his parents they would be dead forever.”
Murder conviction for teen in ‘Halo’ case [cnet]

Get Well Steve!

Photo by Matthew Yohe
Photo by Matthew Yohe

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has announced that he is taking a 6 month leave of absence to recuperate from health problems -the health issues he described two weeks ago as a minor hormonal imbalance. Most tech analysts are reporting that Steve’s health issues are probably more than minor, and perhaps a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer he battled in 2004.

Apple shares plunged 10.8 percent upon the announcement, with some speculation as to whether Jobs will be able to return to his job at all. Most analysts believe that Apple will be able to sustain its momentum even if Steve is unable to return. Still, Apple and the tech industry would suffer a grave loss if the man that brought us the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone were no longer driving innovation. Get well soon Steve!

Tech Trade Show Take-Aways

The Palm Pre
The Palm Pre

There is no shortage of tech news this week thanks to two big Tech Industry shows that drew thousands of tech analysts and enthusiasts to San Francisco and Las Vegas: MacWorld and the Consumer Electronics Show or CES.

It was at Macworld that Steve jobs made headlines with his introduction of the iPhone two years ago, and again with the unveiling of the Macbook Air last year. This year Steve canceled due to health problems, and his replacement Phil Schiller had no major news to announce, according to most journalists. The news that was announced, included new versions of ilife and iwork, a new 17″ Macbook Pro that utilizes Apples new unibody construction technique that includes a long-lived battery, and at long last, the retirement of DRM from iTunes music altogether, and a variable pricing scheme.

MacWorld was overshadowed by new innovations unveiled at CES in Las Vegas. As expected there were all kinds of new television technologies demonstrated including super-thin OLED televisions, and 3-D televisions. There were many, many new netbooks at the show. The one that created the most buzz was the Sony Vaio P, a very stylish netbook that fits in a purse of large jacket pocket. It includes a large keyboard and a display with a wide-screen aspect ratio perfect for movies and media. Thin and sleek was also in style at this show, stealing perhaps from the Macbook Air. Dell’s Adamo and MSI’s X-Slim fall into this category. LG gets the prize for novelty, with its new wrist watch phone that includes a media player, and text messaging capabilities.

Microsoft’s Steve Balmer used his time as Keynote speaker to sing the praises of the soon-to-come Windows 7. The Beta was released to developers this last Friday, and will soon be available to a million users to try out as well. The company that got the most notoriety from CES this year was Palm. Yes, Palm, the company that many analysts had written off, unveiled an impressive new smart phone and new operating system. The Palm Pre includes a multitouch display like the iPhone, plus a slide out QWERTY keyboard (see photo above), the Palm WebOS that runs on it includes all of the iPhone features and then some. Reviewers are very impressed and excited about this handset which will soon be available on Sprint’s network. For photos and reviews of the Palm Pre and many of the other technologies unveiled at CES, check out my news notebook.

Some take-aways from the tech shows:

  • While Apple didn’t blow everyone away this year, it’s past successes are carrying it through the lull. The iPhone and Air are still best in class.
  • Apple could benefit from adding a small low-priced netbook to its line. The new netboooks, especially the Sony Vaio P are tempting enough to make it almost worth tolerating Windows. I wonder how Linux would run on it? Hmmm.
  • Apple needs to get into the cloud, and now! Google, Microsoft, Adobe and others are investing billions in our cloud-based future and Apple seems to be looking the other way. If Mobile Me is Apple’s cloud, I’m worried for the future of the company.
  • Netbooks  are hot, hot, hot, but I predict that this trend will be short short, short. People can’t seriously enjoy typing on tiny keyboards and viewing half pages hunkered over tiny displays. As soon as regular notebooks come further down in price, the netbook craze is bound to end – except as a novelty or a casual accessry.
  • While CES saw some new Windows Home Server  computers, I don’t think the public is ready. It’ll be another year at least before these gain an audience.

This page is rated “PG”

pgUK Culture Minister, Andy Burnham, is proposing a partnership with the U.S. to impose a motion-picture style rating system for Web pages and sites. There are plenty of U.S. politicians that would support the idea, so its getting significant coverage in the media this week.

This isn’t the first time a rating system has been proposed for the Web. Past efforts have been stymied by the challenge of implementation. There are many individuals who enthusiastically support a rating system in order to protect minors and others from stumbling onto objectionable content. Like the v-chip in televisions, a Web-rating system would make it possible to screen out content that a person finds objectionable. Burnham told the BBC that he thinks we “need to have a debate now about clearer signposting and labeling online because it can be quite a confusing world, particularly for parents who are trying to ensure their children are only accessing appropriate stuff.”

There are at least as many people opposed to a rating system for the Web. Some feel that it would lead to filtering by the government – as Australia is currently attempting. Others worry that it would impact the free flow of information to the Web. After all, movies have plenty of time to work through a rating system prior to being released, but Web content is continuously being added to the Web, particularly in this era of social networking. Consider needing to have your Facebook site rated every time you change the content.

A mandatory rating system seems certain to fail as it would be impossible to police and enforce such as system. One solution might be a self-rating system, where those that post the content can voluntarily apply a rating to it. It appears that this debate is about to play out again, so stay tuned to find out what is decided.

Back in the Saddle Again

Singing Cowboy
I’m back! With a new job and a fresh outlook on life. I have moved from teaching Computer Lit in the Computer Science Department to directing a new Program in Interdisciplinary Computing. The goal of the program is to discover common computer skills across various disciplines at the university, and develop courses to teach those skills. I will remain involved in computer literacy/fluency as an author and developer, but now my area of research will extend into discipline-specific skills – computer fluency for professionals.

This evolution towards interdisciplinary computing only makes sense. Computing, and computer programming are no longer activities only pursued by computer scientists and engineers. Professionals in every discipline are leveraging computers and technology in their daily activities. Apply computing skills to work in every discipline produces new innovations and leaders in the global marketplace. For college students to innovate and lead, they must gain a deeper understanding of computing and how to apply it in their field. It is up to colleges to see that students graduate knowing a LOT more than Microsoft Office.

Students are ready to be challenged in this area. Typical college intro computer courses do not challenge today’s students. While learning higher level computer skills and computer programming is hard work, new teaching methods that are goal-oriented, and collaborative in nature, can engage our students. I am looking forward to dedicating my work to discovering what needs to be taught and how to successfully teach it. Follow my weekly progress on this blog. Also check my Web sites (, for course descriptions and materials.

Focusing on Mobile Media and Communications

Those of you, who, like me, have been teaching the Intro Computing class for a while, recall a time, not too long ago, when the focus of our course was on the beige desktop box. There were two varieties, the traditional style –which doubled as a monitor stand, and “the tower”. Our jobs have gotten a bit more complicated, and much more interesting, since those simpler days.

Today the vast majority of our students are using notebook computers rather than desktops. It has taken me some time, but I have finally swung my lessons and my thinking around to focus on the notebook PC as the default. So when I talk about motherboards, and memory, I show photos of notebook motherboards, and instruct students on upgrading their notebook’s memory.

Besides transitioning to mobile computers, our computing activities are being splintered over numerous, often mobile, digital devices: the iPod, the cellphone, the digital camera, the game console, the PDA or Smartphone, the Tivo, media players, and other special purpose digital devices. During this time of year, holiday advertisements (and our kids) remind us of the plethora of digital toys and tools that have become an important part of our lifestyles and economy.

Many college students spend as much time “computing” on non-PCs as they do on PCs. Computing takes place on cell phones, iPods, and the other special-purpose digital devices. In order for the Intro Course to be relevant and interesting for our students, we need to teach about ALL digital devices, not just the traditional general purpose PC.

In my class, we spend one hour-long lecture, talking about digital music technology, players, and online music services. We spend another lecture discussing digital graphics, photography, motion pictures, and special effects, and another on cell phones, cell phone service providers, and services. These are the most interesting and enjoyable lectures for both teacher and students. Not only do I dedicate lectures to these specific topics, but I include these technologies in every topic I teach. When I teach about processors, we talk about the speed and capabilities of processors for desktop PCs, notebook PCs, and Smartphones. When I discuss hard drives, we include a discussion of the Toshiba microdrives that are used in iPods. When we discuss display technologies, I include a discussion of megapixels and digital cameras.

Admittedly, it takes time and effort to keep up with all the latest and greatest uses of digital technologies. Online magazines, blogs, and podcasts can be a big help. The effort of keeping up with technology, and the inclusion of those technologies in our lessons, pays off with greater interest and learning from our students. Topics that used to be difficult to teach, due to their tedious nature and complexity, become more accessible when we place them in the context of the devices that our students carry around in their backpack. Processing, file management, display technologies, databases, storage, networking, and information systems become much more “cool” when applied to the iTunes service, software, and MP3 players.

So, take some time this holiday season to check out the specs on the latest digital devices in the Sunday ads. What’s so special about the new Wii? What’s a Blackjack and why would I want one? What’s better plasma or LCD? What’s a Zune and what are reviewers saying about it? Have fun with it, and have a happy holiday break!

I’ll be taking a break from the blog over the holidays. Back in mid-January 2007! Happy New Year!!