Why Google might not so really love open source

Contrasting my earlier estimation of Google’s Android plans, Symbian’s Executive Director Lee Williams recently explained his sharp take on the Android (business) model on GigaOm. Obviously, he’s a competitor, but he also manages to shed an interesting light on potential Google plans:

The Android System is basically open, but to use it in any reasonable means (if you are not a true hacker), you need a Google Account for Mail, Maps, Market, etc. And this account isn’t just something but a unique identifier for Google to collect all of your information, your habits, and device usage in one basket. This enables them to send you highly profiled and personalized ads (which can be sold expensively, I guess).
While you personally could say, “I don’t mind”, it’s a problem for a lot of other service providers who are not able “to get through” to the customer because s/he is already tied to Google.

Additionally, the applications that enforce this strong Google Account/device connection are all proprietary, i.e. not open. Google is really serious about protecting the apps that as their series of “Cease and Desist” letters showed. And because they are so central for the Android OS, Lee Williams has a good point in claiming that Android itself is not really open. Neither concerning these central apps, nor for other service providers. Hopefully, his Symbian Foundation will keep this case in mind.

And again, it looks like a “the winner takes it all” attempt that’s one of the biggest factors of uneasiness in my mixed feelings towards Google.

thanks Fee for pointing me to this.

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Looking forward to Video Surveillance

a quick shot from the entrance of a Kaufhof department store

a quick shot from the entrance of a Kaufhof department store

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Mobile Youth and Social Networks

danah boyd has been working for years on the life of youth and particular what role digital media plays for them. At last year’s Aspen Ideas Conference she made three statements that I found extra interesting (beyond my general respect for her work):

  • teenagers engage in emotional exchange with their peers, especially late at night. This is new because without (digital) media they couldn’t meet at these hours before as they were not allowed to go out so late.
  • they don’t need/want super-immersive online worlds for their friends (like 2nd World) but meet them in asynchronous online communities. Problem here is that you can’t connect from MySpace to Facebook.
  • best thing for them is to “take their friends along in their pocket“, i.e. on their mobile phone. But carriers wall their networks and services even heavier then online communities do and, in consequence, “you don’t see innovations happening in mobile” on the social network side.

And this is a sad thing. As you can see here and as we also found out by our own research, mobile communication has the potential to address exactly these wishes of young people. Already now they make use of the technology in maybe unexpected ways: from sending photos from the fitting room to check their new look with their peers to subtle ring tone patterns that inform friends about the success with dating the latest crush.

T-Mobile’s My Faves looks like a move into the right direction because it is open to “even landlines and other networks” — it seems to be a success in the US but is discontinued it in Europe (where “other networks” were only available in one of the options). It’s people who live in social networks and these networks are not determined by a certain web framework or carrier. If carriers want to respond to that they need to open up and get ready for it before the online communities do and take the lead completely.

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My Android phone: A Hero without (blue) Teeth

Exciting, exciting: the box half open

Exciting, exciting: the box half open

A couple of days ago I touched (ha!) my first Android phone. It’s more than just a test drive this time, I dropped my S60 Nokia for it. I “am” on a HTC Hero now. HTC is stepping out of its “just a OEM manufacturer” shadow once more with this phone (they was already building T-Mobile’s MDA and the O2 XDA).

Old and new, side by side

Old and new, side by side

How does it feel?

The unboxing gave me a solid first impression, from the packaging to the metal and rubber device casing. Also turning it on was of course a carefully designed pleasure but I also admit that I had all the information ready that you are asked for during your first steps (such as all your user accounts from social networks, Google login, etc.). For complete newbies that might be a bit overwhelming but I guess that this isn’t the target group anyway. Although it’s pretty large (esp. compared to my Nokia candybar) it’s also rather thin and therefore fits into pockets easily (the rubber makes it a little difficult to get it out of there again, however).

First doubts about everyday compatibility...

First doubts about everyday compatibility...

All you get in a box!

All you get in a box!

Two really good things

… in comparison to usual phones:

The Mail Widget (part of HTC’s own “Sense” UI) on one of the home screens provides you with your mail just a litteral fingerstroke away and even notifies you via the mailbox icon on the main screen. I had email on the Nokia, too, and it was really helpful to check for important messages in some difficult situations. But it was built like an annex to the regular SMS interface, took a long time to load and was just not so easy to use. Now, it is really an option e.g. to tidy up my inbox on a train ride home, including some smaller replies right away.

The second great thing, to little surprise, is the Android Market. The (Nokia) Symbian community is an active one, too, but you can’t access its fruits as easily (at the momet they are restarting anyways, with Symbian turned open source). And there are really surprising and playful apps, like the Metal Detector (by Kurt Radwanski) that makes unintended use of the built-in compass.

There are also a couple of nice aspects that are less impressive on their own but contributing to the overall experience, such as all the widgets that you can fill your many screens with, the Blackberry-like trackball, or a standardized mini USB connector for the power supply (still worth mentioning, unfortunately). A third point would be rooting the phone and discovering its Linux guts, but that’s more a fun “because you can” — oh wait. You also need it for tethering (i.e. phone as internet uplink for the laptop)!

There are downsides, too

(this section is relatively long because I was so surprised and disapointed that a phone of this class fails on what I would consider basic tasks):

Androids love to talk via wifi but they are almost silent on Bluetooth (you can attach Bluetooth headsets! wow!). Bluetooth, however, is an established method for exchanging data between small devices, like phone to PC and even more so phone to phone. In a recent study on young people and their phones done I did for my work, Bluetooth turned out to be the second important function of the phone (right after texting) because it is so easy to swap ringtones, pictures from the last party, vcards or anything. Any device has Bluetooth, anyone can use it. I had to install swiFTP (a plus for the Market but not for Android) to make my computer talk to my phone. I always made fun of the oh-so-avantgarde iPhone users who were still passing phone numbers via pen & paper. I would have never believed that a phone of today could make this misstake a second time.

The more I traveled for business reasons, the more I’ve learnt to appreciate my phone as a moving hotspot. 3G and Bluetooth drain down my battery like mad but my computer is online whereever I want (almost). The Android phone puts and end to this. No Bluetooth, no tethering. Now, most of the internet is on the Android phone already — true. But there are a couple of applications and stuff that I want to start from my computer (and note that you can’t attach files from your computer to emails on your phone without swiFTP or a cable). I read about Wireless Tether for Root that would still make it possible if I used some minor force to get root access. Which I did right away despite a couple of warnings that it also might brick the phone (thanks Jesterz and Dayzee). Having to digg so radically means that tethering wasn’t kind of forgotten but really made unavailable deep inside. WHY on Earth?

Then I have this nice Address Book on my Mac. Several hundered entries with birthdays and tags in the notes and so on. Android does everything for you as soon as you go to Google. But I don’t want to put all my addresses on Google (and I guess a couple of people in my Adress Book don’t want to be listed there, either). Google Contacts has no field for birthdays, too. So, how to sync? Android and iSync? No way (remember: Bluetooth doesn’t work). Android does sync via USB cable and HTC’s HTC Sync with Outlook (only), they say. I can barely remember such efforts and restrictions from my first Siemens phone 10 years ago. Can this be taken serious, additionally on the Mac and on-the-go?

  • Android and ActiveSync/Exchange? Granted, that’s built-in. But where would I find a trustworthy Exchange server (and for free because I think syncing my data with my devices should be nothing I pay for regularly).
  • I also tried vcardIO and Andook Lite (by Fezza) which would at least import address books from the SD card (i.e. no sync) but the applications failed before they completed their job (they are pretty beta and maybe my address book is too large). [update 2009-10-22] vcardIO had problems with the images included. Without it works very nice, except that birthday are stored as notes]
  • Android and SyncML? There is a Funambol client but it doesn’t seem to work with my o2 account. I never had to think about syncML with my Nokia, it just worked (everything was set up simply via configuration SMS!)

Overall

It’s still a great phone, the HTC Sense is a very welcome improvement over the regular Android interface and it’s all worth fighting with the downside issues. It’s completely inadequate for a phone built more or less with an open source attitude, however, to constrain the user so heavily in basic connectivity.

If there is someone out there with a non-paid, no cable, no Google solution for me, please let me know!

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Explorations into the edges of human

Robots and genetical engineering were dominant topics at this year’s ars electronica, entitled human nature. “So, nothing new…” you might think disappointedly, considering that the latest developments were broadly discussed in their own domains already. But then, this is only the first view. On the second, it appeared that “the arts” (as seen in Linz) weren’t surprised by what today’s science makes possible, either. Some artists added scientific laboratories, complete with staff and researchers, to their toolbox where the general public might still expect brushes and pencils.

Next generation of bio toys?

Next generation of bio toys?

Biotechnological Palettes

The best and most outstanding example for this is Eduardo Kac, this year’s winner of the Golden Nica in the (never more applicable) category of Hybrid Art. Under the cryptic title The Natural History of the Enigma, he had a part of his genome combined biotechnologically with a regular petunia flower. This plant now shows fine red veins in its otherwise pink face (that the upper/inner part of a blossom is called a “face” appears as a helpful coincidence for Kac). It was also Kac who had the first “glow in the dark” bunny produced in 2000, which had fluorescent fur due to flyfish genes smuggled into its DNA.

In his talk, Kac put special emphasis on the fact that the extracted part of his genome usually is responsible for detecting alien material in human blood. So, not only was part of “his blood” now making the flower’s “blood” transportation system visible, it also sneaked into the plant as an alien (with a little help from the biotechnological researchers). The result was then defined as a new life form called “plantimal”, and this particular member baptized (not without wink, as it seems) “Edunia”.

There were a lot of finely considered details, which all together make clear that the artist didn’t want to show (only) what is technologically feasible today. He merely used the potential of today’s technology, which also becomes more and more an everyday procedure, to pursue his aesthetic goals.

This was made even more obvious (or compelling), as this year’s ars electronica gave each prize winner’s talk an accompanying lecture from a “real” scientist. Josef Penninger (Director of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, Austrian Academy of the Sciences) explained his work on so called knock-out mice and how he was struggling to find the genetical causes of arthritis.

From both talks resulted the strong impression that the genome is just a set of bricks, and that you can design any property or appearance of a creature by the right combination of these biobricks. The audience put this into question and Penninger also conceded that all of this is less stable than we might think: “motherly love [can even] change the genome”. Still, this remark appears more like a side note. For this piece, the deliberate expression of the artist in his final work was described as central, and less the initiation of processes one can’t quite control or (yet) fully understand.

ars09_023_short

You can even find a S(ecurity level) 1 laboratory as part of the permanent exhibition in the basement of the new ars electronica center.

Robot in the mirror/Uncanny Robots

Gigantic metal monsters, stampeding over planet Earth, that’s a well known and sort of old skool techo-apocalypse. On the one hand, these monsters are already available on the market (less gigantic but at least as leathal as you might expect). On the other, research as well as the arts are often more interested in finding acceptable counterparts for humans, Sociable Robots as the MIT dubs them.

The Geminoid by Hiroshi Ishiguro (from the JST Erato Asada Project), this year’s featured artist, is an exact copy of the body of the artist in the form of a motor driven puppet. The Geminoid is not a robot (or Android) in the classic sense, because it has almost no sensors, world perception or decision making circuits, it can’t even walk. It is controlled by an external, remote operator.

The artist’s goal is to form a puppet that serves as a credible stand-in, e.g. in a discussion at a table, providing a perfect form of telepresence. Showing a certain amount of small, involuntary movements, as it is typical for humans, is among his strategies to bridge The Uncanny Valley, his “ultimate benchmark”, as Ishiguro put it himself. And while you couldn’t tell who is who on a photo, the puppet’s movements are still too slow and uneven to be accepted as humanlike. The ultimate uncanny feeling caught me (in the ars electronica center’s exhibition) when I touched the puppet, feeling the half-soft, half-rubberlike skin, not cold but also not at body temperature.

Ishiguro also reported that he wants to send his Geminoid to “give” his lectures at the Osaka University. It would be still him who talked and he doesn’t expect his students engaging him in fierce discussions, anyway. The university declined his wish so far, and it appeared pretty much as if this caught Ishiguro by surprise.

The artist is present (through the Geminoid)

The artist is present (through the Geminoid)

While most of us will smirk about this anecdote, this really comes to the central point of these efforts: Why do we think we need a “real” person to give a lecture? And what qualifies a “really present” person over a remote controlled puppet that performs all necessary tasks, one that might even be undistinguishable? Which then extends the question to how we could tell apart human and puppet, anyways (especially in everyday life where we usually don’t pay so much attention)?

Additionally to what you could see in the exhibition, Ishiguro is also looking into self-controlled robots. And because it turned out to be very complicated to program every possible move into a machine beforehand, his CB2 starts out as a “baby”. Just as human babies, CB2 starts out with very little knowledge about his motor capabilities and how to use them. It has to “learn” everything, by trial and error, by repetition, with external assistance (the “mother”). While it is entirely grey and has a far fainter visual relationship to the human body than the Geminoid, this mimicing of a central human behaviour leaves you with uncanny feelings, just as well.

Just as a human baby, this robot can’t stand up in the beginning. It needs to learn it by combining random movements, remembering previous successful efforts, and by following its (up to now human) teachers. In this context, Ishiguro also pointed out that human brains are more powerful than supercomputers, but operate on a considerably higher level of noise (i.e. not everything computes logically correctly). He speculates that this noise might be particularly key to the human brain’s learning capabilities.

Robot research has become more human, obviously. Not so much or not only in trying to copy humans, but in arriving in the same research areas as anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and brain researchers. And, besides all nerdiness that surrounded Ishiguro, this is also his declared goal: Building robots to learn more about humans.

Social Conditions

To me, the Digital Communities category always has been one of the wonderful aspects of ars electronica. This year, a whole conference day was dedicated to the topic of Cloud Intelligence. Unfortunately, the Nica winners from Wikileaks were not part of the panels, even though they provide a very important service for intelligent societies, transparency.

The first part of the Cloud Intelligence Symposium looked at online communities from a scientific or meta level. Ethan Zuckerman (Global Voices) set out to talk about mapping online communication but ended up with the Digital Divide.

Surprisingly, he started with stories about the Marshall Islands that barely rise more than four meters above sea level. That means you can’t go from one island to the next on sight. Old maps used by indigenous people therefore depicted certain distortions in the rhythms of the ocean waves, which are caused by the islands, and can thus guide experienced navigators.

Zuckerman used this as an explanation on how communication mapping can work: not observing what is there (infrastructure), but what happens (emergence). Apparently and to little surprise, the USA, Europe, Japan and south-east Asia all were bustling places, and they are also wealthy regions. Some other countries also were in the bloggers’ focus, the ones which were devastated by military conflicts.

World map distorted by the number of cell phones in use - by Worldmapper

World map distorted by the number of cell phones in use – by Worldmapper

This approach surely provides better results on the “intelligence potential” than just counting registered users or the bandwidth installed in fibre cables. But looking at the installed or rather mostly missing high-speed infrastructure e.g. in Africa can also tell you that there haven’t been huge efforts so far to connect these parts of the world. On the other hand, and this might turn it into a hen-egg problem, it might have been due to a lack of demand from a wider audience which then kept the infrastructure suppliers from building. Speaking out loud what you think has also less of a tradition in these countries, most of which had or still suffer from authoritarian regimes.

One of Zuckerman’s findings was also that most of the communication, interlinking between blogs, or facebook friendships happen on a domestic scale. “Flocking with the same” is obviously an anthropological constant which stays true in a (technologically) globally networked world. So even internet infrastructure tells you something about “human nature”.

Transcending human imagination

Besides high-tech and deeply researched artefacts, you could also find the very calm ones that aren’t less thought provoking. Perfect example is the machine with gears and concrete by Arthur Ganson: … While you can see that it is moving at its “origin” (motor), after 12 gears of reduction, no movement is perceivable at the other end. We can calculate the movement because we know the mechanics. But also this will just give us some numbers that we can not relate with on a human scale. In fact, the final gear will make a full turn in a trillion years or so which is why Ganson can “savely” attach it firmely into concrete. Quite an interesting link of mechanics and philosophy…

Machine with Gears and Concrete

Machine with Gears and Concrete

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