Leopard Brings New Dangers to Mac Users

Apple LeopardA major new release of Apple’s Mac OS X hits the streets today. Arguably the best computer operating system ever, Leopard is ready to rock the world of Mac users everywhere.

Unfortunately, this new Mac OS may also usher in an era of danger for Mac users as hackers and virus writers rush to burst Apple’s newfound bubble of success and popularity.

Apple is a stock market darling, having just earned a valuation that’s behind only Google and Microsoft.

The public is in love with the iPhone, buying this “Jesus Phone” up in untold volumes.

And Mac computer sales are skyrocketing, causing the market-share numbers of PC-based computer makers like Dell and HP to crumble.

Leopard is the being hailed by the popular technology press as both the best implementation of Unix and the best user-oriented computer operating system ever.

This is the Age of Apple.

Every other technology maker is struggling to capture even a sense of the magic that this company effortlessly wields.

However, there is potentially a dark side to this happy story that we long-smug Mac users must be wary of: viruses.

There have been only a handful of viruses that ever affected the Mac OS in two decades, and none for the current-generation Mac OS X.

This isn’t because the Mac OS is a particularly virus-proof environment. It’s just because not enough people use the Mac to warrant virus writers’ attentions.

As a result, unlike Windows-based PCs, Macs generally don’t require anti-virus software. To date, we really haven’t needed the stuff.

That’s about to change, however.

Most virus writers operate with a mixed bag of values that include heavy doses of ego, pride, animosity, and conceit. Their goal is to win community recognition by composing smart, elegant attacks on computers that do massive, widespread damage.

That’s why Windows is such a popular operating systems for hackers. The potential negative impact, and therefore the level of recognition, for virus writers, is huge with such a large user base.

To date, hacking the Mac OS wouldn’t win anyone much attention.

However, with Apple riding a wave of public and market popularity, and with the user base growing in leaps and bounds, the table is set for all variety of nefarious computer evildoers to win their places in the hacker history books.

Furthermore, Apple hasn’t exactly been sending warm fuzzies to the hacker community lately.

Their famously popular iPhone is infamously closed to developers. Such unsubstantiated protectionism is driving the hacker community to “unlock” the iPhone with the intent of winning full control of these devices.

However, a recent iPhone software update from Apple effectively turned 250,000 of these hacked handheld computers into unusable bricks. The hacker community is seething with anger and is primed for an all-out assault on the computer maker in search of vengeance.

Leopard is the perfect environment to target such retaliation at. And we smug Mac users are primed to have this blissful smile wiped from our collective mug.

With its initial release, Leopard is guaranteed to have security holes that are just ripe for exploiting.

Without a doubt, the hacker community will be spending this weekend tearing Leopard apart, looking for such weaknesses.

Leopard will be in the public eye for some time, as it’s being hailed as such a powerful yet usable computer operating system.

The international media will be looking for any story angle that might take the sheen off of Apple’s turtle-waxed public image.

As a result, the first hacker to split Leopard open will win widespread recognition in the mainstream international media and de facto acclaim in the hacker community.

Now, there’s a way to pump up the ego.

All of this said, there’s no reason not to install Leopard in the short term. I’ll be tearing open my copy and installing it as soon as Purolator drops it off at my door today.

However, we Mac users need to learn to exercise caution in dealing with files on our computers. Most viruses are activated by actions committed by a computer’s operator.

So don’t open email attachments that have arrived from suspicious sources. And be wary of the materials you download from the internet. In fact, don’t double-click anything that comes from a source you can’t completely trust.

It may also be wise to finally invest in some anti-virus software for your Mac and keep it up to date. Oddly enough, there’s a good selection of both commercial and free solutions available already.

There’s no doubt that Leopard is a wise (and, at just $129, inexpensive) investment to make in terms of empowering your Mac making it easier to use. I’d advise anyone with a recent Mac computer to upgrade with confidence.

However, with its popularity and power, Leopard represents a new era for the Mac. We should all prepare for the good and bad of the days to come.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 26, 2007.

You Can Take it With You: RSS News Everywhere

Reading the NewsOne of the greatest things since SB, or Sliced Bread, is RSS, or Really Simple Syndication.

It’s all of the web’s taste with none of its calories.

Unfortunately, if you monitor a common collection of RSS feeds on multiple devices, like I do, it can be hard to keep track of what you’ve read. I often end up re-reading a lot of posts as a result.

Fortunately, I’ve recently come across a couple of services that help me out.

Google Reader is a free tool that’s web-based and can be used from pretty much any sort of device.

And a suite of software tools from NewsGator is the hardcore RSS addict’s best method of shooting up with news.

If you’re not familiar with RSS, think of it as the web without all that crap that can make the web so lame.

Like complicated, slow, frustrating graphical interfaces.

(Who needs them anymore, anyway? I think we’ve all wasted enough of our lives by now staring at loading web browser windows.)

RSS ButtonRSS is just text, typically a headline and summary, that takes moments to load and digest.

Pretty much every web site offers RSS feeds of their content now. (Hint: listen to the donkey.)

And what’s more, RSS comes to you. The software you use to read RSS updates with new information automagically on your device.

The problem I have always had with RSS is that it’s generally stuck to one machine. But I constantly read RSS on my Mac laptop, my PC laptop, my Windows smartphone, and my iPod Touch. None of these devices is aware of what the other has browsed.

So I tend to spend a lot of time sifting through RSS posts I’d already read on another device, in search of new posts.

Enter Google’s web-based Reader application. Understated and elegant in the traditional Google way, Reader presented an excellent solution to my problem, despite the fact it, too, exists only on the web.

Because I’m constantly accessing Reader through the same live web site interface with each device, I’m always reviewing the same set of RSS feeds.

So no matter which device I use to read my RSS feeds, the others will be aware of what I’ve read and what I haven’t.

The Google Reader on a mobile device like a cell phone is particularly well designed. It offers very efficient browsing using your standard telephone keypad.

This makes carving through massive amounts of RSS information simple and fast. Like, you can mark a whole pile of posts as read just by hitting your # key.

That simplicity comes with a price, however. Google Reader on a cell phone just globs all your RSS feeds together without any sense of organization. But I’m very particular about how I structure my information experiences.

If I just want to read world news and skip the geek press, I can’t with Google Reader.

And that’s where another web-based RSS service, NewsGator picks up.

The mobile NewsGator web-based RSS reader offers everything Google Reader does, but with more options for structure and organization.

There are also a wider assortment of NewsGator tools. The company’s good old-fashioned desktop applications can do things web apps can only dream about. Like exist outside of a web browser.

On my Mac, for example, Newsgator’s NetNewsWire identifies how many new posts have arrived in the omnipresent Dock at the bottom of my screen.

Whereas with Google Reader, unless I intentionally load the application in my browser, I have no idea what’s going on in the world of RSS.

NewsGator also offers an awesome RSS reader for the Windows world, FeedDemon and a pretty good mobile application called NewsGator Go!

The real beauty of NewsGator happens in the background, though: your browsing and reading activities are synced between all applications.

So FeedDemon know what you read in NetNewsWire which knows what you read in NewsGator Go! which knows what you read at the internet cafe this morning.

So you’re never reading the same thing twice and you’re never sifting through a mountain of RSS posts, looking for new ones.

Now for the bad news: if you use the NewsGator desktop applications, there’s a price tag.

Each one will set you back $30. That’s a whopping $90 for me to get my RSS fix natively on my mobile device, Windows PC, and Mac. Ouch!

NewsGator does offer a small discount on multi-product purchases, however, and you can try each product free for a month before you buy.

In general, the casual RSS user will stick to the lower-grade Google Reader and be content with its deficiencies.

The hardcore RSShead, however, will be drawn to NewsGator’s advanced set of tools, no matter the cost, to ensure they can mainline every last drop of information that comes their way.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 19, 2007.

Hail to the Thief: Radiohead Conquers the Music Business

Bush Flips the BirdEarlier this week Radiohead gutted the music industry like the fat, fat fish it was.

Their latest full-length album, In Rainbows, was released Wednesday exclusively on their web site, www.inrainbows.com.

You can pay whatever you want for the new album.

And the tracks are unprotected, so you can play them on whatever device you please.

This is a watershed moment in music history.

Radiohead is arguably the best band of our generation.

And, with In Rainbows, they’re serving their fans a big plate of respect and trust even as they flip the bird at the music establishment.

Distribution, pricing, and copy protection are the major issues that pit music as an art against the narrowly controlled business side of the medium.

And Radiohead is taking them all on at once.

Eschewing the traditional method of content publishing and distribution, a near-criminal racket run by a mere handful of major conglomerates, Radiohead is delivering their product direct to the people, hot out of their own oven.

The band doesn’t even have a record contract, for crying out loud.

Instead, they’re leveraging the incredible weight they have as a major international music phenomenon to self-publish, self-distribute, and self-promote their new effort.

Hence, hit their web site if you want to dig the new tracks. It’s not in stores anywhere or on any other internet outlet.

Then there’s their whacked-out pricing model: you decide what you want to pay. This is, to put it mildly, a little different from the commercial outlets’ pricing models.

Apple and Steve Jobs take a one-size-fits-all approach by insisting that all albums must sell for $10 on iTunes.

Meanwhile, some other online services such as Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace think we’re all into the musical smorgasbord thing.

The “subscription model” is an all-you-can eat flat fee system that lets you download and listen to as much music as you want.

The only problem is, if you forgo your monthly dues, that musical horn of plenty goes stale along with all the tracks you ever downloaded.

Your music’s freshness factor, in either case, is based on a nefarious software tool called DRM — Digital Rights Management.

This is basically industry shorthand for, “all your tracks belong to us.”

While record labels view musical copy protection as a means of limiting the distribution of their commercial products, consumers interpret it as a form of disrespect and mistrust.

DRM says we are all musical thieves who must be placed under technical house arrest.

Most tracks you buy online, be they from iTunes or the Zune Marketplace, contain this built-in licensing system that restricts how you can enjoy your music.

Microsoft, as mentioned before, forces you to pay up every month for the privilege, while Apple generally insists you plug into an iPod.

A few months back, however, European music-haus EMI released their entire catalogue DRM-free, which makes enjoying artists like the Beastie Boys, Lily Allen, and Norah Jones a whole lot easier.

With In Rainbows, Radiohead has made both the price and DRM arguments academic.

Forget the suits combing through pie charts and bar graphs, grasping at the statistical straws that represent music consumption.

Radiohead has said, simply: pay what you please and listen where you like.

It’s a refreshing attitude that puts the power back in our hands and builds a direct relationship that makes one feel connected with the artist.

Of course, only a band like Radiohead could pull off this coup.

They’re big, independent, and, well, weird.

Their entire 14-year career has been all about inventing and defining that musical über-genre called “alternative”.

They conquered the contemporary musical landscape, with hundreds of bands riding their coattails to unoriginal success (think of Muse, Hot Chip, and even Coldplay).

Radiohead’s now stepping it up and taking on music’s industrial oligarchy in an effort to do to the business side of music that they did to the artistic side: reform it.

It’s unlikely that In Rainbow’s pricing model of “you decide” will take hold on a widespread basis too quickly.

Few musical acts could accept that degree of financial risk.

However, their point is taken: nobody knows what music is “worth.”

Let the market decide, or at least have a say.

In Rainbows is a great new album.

It’s perhaps not as musically revolutionary as, say, OK Computer or Kid A, but it’s a great return from a 4-year hiatus.

The problem is, I suppose, we won’t know how In Rainbows’ done, in terms of the traditional measures of success.

Radiohead is not releasing sales figures, nor are they sharing information about how much fans actually paid for the album.

But that’s part of the gig: perhaps sales and revenues are not a valid measure of artistic success.

In Rainbows is in search of a new method of valuation.

As far as I’m concerned, the true sign of success is the bloody mess on the floor that was the music industry’s guts.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 12, 2007.

Smartphone Pioneer Palm Drifts Off Into the Ocean of Irrelevance

Treo 650It was a sad moment when I laid my first smartphone to rest last week.

My Palm Treo 650 had been with me through thick and thin.

It had survived countless tosses across the room delivered by my toddler son.

It had been my lifeline to the internet when landline services went dark.

I had posted dozens of entries to my photoblog directly from it.

After almost 3 years in my pocket, barely held together by a combination of Krazy Glue, scotch tape and its last screw, the time had come to bid farewell to this trusty old unit, my Palm Treo 650.

I felt the tears well up as the salesperson in the mobile phone store transferred my service to a new smartphone and the signal bars on my Treo 650 disappeared forever.

I quietly pulled its battery and said good-bye to an old friend.

I also said good-bye to the Palm platform, as I had just purchased a device from hardware manufacturer HTC that runs Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.0.

For, as trusty and dependable as my Treo had been, the software that ran on the device was deplorably ancient.

And Palm recently announced there won’t be any upgrades to its software until at least 2009.

Like my Treo smartphone, the Palm platform itself has been dying a slow death for some years now.

To my mind, this announcement was just the nail in the coffin.

Possibly one of the most mismanaged companies in history, Palm Inc. is now a rudderless tugboat lost in the seas of technology.

The craft’s former captain, Jeff Hawkins — the man largely credited with inventing both the PalmPilot and the Treo — left the company for a career in neuroscience years ago.

Once a proud and powerful example of innovation, the company now putters about from port to port, hawking overpriced excursions in a craft that is fast growing decrepit and redundant.

Palm, the company, has started a long, slow drift out into the ocean of irrelevance.

The corporate history of Palm reads like a bad dime-store pulp fiction novel.

Palm was founded in 1992 as a software company.

It was acquired by U.S. Robotics in 1995, where the first PalmPilot devices were developed.

Two years later 3Com absorbed U.S. Robotics.

The founders of the original Palm left 3Com to form a new company, Handspring, and 3Com spun Palm off into its own publicly-traded company.

Palm Inc., for reasons unknown, then spun its software division off into yet another corporate entity, PalmSource, and that company was acquired by a Japanese firm called ACCESS in 2005.

Just before that, though, the Treo smartphone was invented at Handspring and then Palm Inc. (the hardware company) merged with Handspring to form yet another company, PalmOne.

They couldn’t use the name “Palm” because the trademark for its use has been lost to a holding company somewhere along the line.

That was in 2003, and the classic PalmOne Treo 600 was born of that union.

But the drama wasn’t over yet.

PalmOne bought back the Palm name for $30 million in 2005 and the next year it paid $44 million to buy back its software division from ACCESS.

Yeesh, after 12 years, it’s all the way round to the nearest for Palm: same name, same products, same executive, and millions wasted on reversing some really, really bad business decisions.

Unfortunately, somewhere along that arduous journey the company lost its innovative spark.

Besides some nominal device redesigns, the Treo line of products has gone nowhere in almost 4 years.

The company’s latest misguided shot at innovation, the laptop-like Treo companion called the Foleo, was wisely cancelled before it even hit store shelves.

And, as I mentioned, the operating system on the Treo won’t see any significant upgrades for at least another year.

In a world of amazing handheld devices like the HTC Touch, Apple’s iPhone and the Blackberry Curve, the formerly cutting-edge line of Palm Treos now looks downright dowdy.

And the company seems to have no plans for changing that anytime in the near future.

Their latest release, the Treo Centro, looks like it was inspired by a bar of soap and offers almost nothing in the way of advanced features.

I couldn’t stomach the thought of tossing my own hard-earned dollars into a sinking ship that really should have been resting on the ocean’s bottom years ago.

So I jumped ship instead and, I must say, not a moment too soon. I love my new HTC 5800.

As a physical device, it makes the Treo look like a Studebaker.

In terms of operability, Windows Mobile 6 is responsive, sleek, and capable.

Heck, it can run more than one application at a time, something Palm’s software may never be able to do.

My one misgiving is regarding the device’s sturdiness.

While I could always trust the tank-like Treo would survive my son’s light-hearted tosses, I’m not so sure my new HTC would.

I laid my old Treo to rest in a hole in the backyard right next to the graves of the countless birds lost to the reflective surface of my living room window.

I have little doubt that Palm Inc. will join my trusty old device underground soon enough.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 5, 2007.