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New Zealand’s media enjoyed a day where computer, or maybe cyber, hacking made the headlines.

Here’s the RNZ take:

National Party ‘Budget leak’: Treasury ‘deliberately hacked’ — RNZ website

There is a lot to unpack in the story. You can find that elsewhere. One thing that needs clarification is what is meant by the word ‘hacking’.

Hacking is a term that’s meaning changes depending on who uses it.

Hacking once meant one thing…

It means one thing to old school computer programmers — kids note that’s what people who wrote computer software were called before the job description was upgraded to developer.

For those people a hacker can be someone who cuts a piece of code.

It can mean someone who writes good code or it can mean someone who writes bodged code. I never quite caught the nuance there but definitely heard it used both ways in different contexts.

You may argue, but for most people this meaning of hacker is now archaic.

… it then meant another thing

It means another thing to people who work in and around computer security. Most of the time they take care not to use the word hacker. I assume that’s a least in part because there can be slightly glamorous connotations.

Or it could be they are lanugage pedants who don’t want to get in a fitght.

Many modern computer security folk prefer terms like bad actor, which makes me think of Tom Cruise.

Or maybe they talk about attackers. At one industry event, some high flying US security experts kept referring to hostiles.

Whatever. The key here is that in some security and enterprise system circles the word hacker can, but doesn’t always, refer to a person who manages to breach a system’s perimeter security and get inside.

Once again there are nuances.

Media see hacker another way

For the more excitable parts of the media, a hacker is someone who wears a balaclava while using a computer. They might also wear military fatigues.

You don’t often get to see the computer, but if you do, it’s often an old fashioned-looking computer, never a tablet or a phone, which seems odd to me, but there you go.

Another feature of this kind of hacker is they ofter work with green, text-based screens. What they do may be advanced and scary, but their computer hardware seems to come from the cold war era. More Trabant than Tesla.

Much of the media and the general public think of hackers as people who do bad things with computers. It’s not just newspapers, radio and TV journalists. When you see computer crime in movies or TV shows, the bad guys are hackers.

Far be it for me to cast aspersions on my colleagues, but there is something a tad click-baity about hacker.

As an aside, I’ve written before about how the word cyber now seems to be related to hacker. In a nutshell when something computery is good, the prefix is computer. When it’s bad the prefix is cyber.

See, “Cyber” is a bad thing…

Which explains why the great unwashed now understands the term hacker in this context.

Guilty your honour

I’ve found myself using the term, most likely incorrectly in your eyes, on TV and radio precisely because it is a shortcut to explaining things to the audience.

You might only have 120 seconds to explain something complicated. If you spend that qualifying terms defining the attack like a crusty old classics academic deconstructing Ancient Greek texts you’ve lost the audience.

It’s all Greek to them anyway.

Treasury hack

So, was this week’s Treasury Hack actually a hacking attack or was it something else? It appears that someone found some data that was stored on a web page or series of pages that had not yet been made public.

You can, I sometimes do, stumble over things like this by accident.

Now that’s not necessary hacking as we know it in 2019. It might well have been described as hacking in 1999.

You can sometimes get to these pages using spiders. This is something Google does every day. No-one thinks of that as hacking.

Dozens, even hundreds of pages on this site are spidered every day. This can include deleted pages, draft posts and posts that will never formally see the light of day,

Hostiles everywhere

If I look at the weblogs there are also thousands of probs every day where people — let’s call them hostiles, after all, it starts with an H — are looking for ways to compromise my security.

Some are easy to spot as they are calling URLs that don’t exist on my site, but might exist on some sites and can contain known vulnerabilities.

I just checked. This site, that’s little old me, had 1486 let’s say, dubious, calls in the last 24 hours.

If I’m getting that. And trust me, there is no information on here worth stealing, then a government system like Treasury will be getting an order of magnitude more probes. At least.

Another aside: There might not be anything worth stealing, but it could be worth gaining access to launch a bot attack or other mischief.

Is that hacking? Not in the sense computer professionals and geeks use the term. But it is in the sense that the media use the term and the sense the general public has come to understand the word.

You don’t have to like seeing the word used this way, but you don’t have any control over it. Those people speak a different language to you. They know what it means to them.

Microsoft third-quarter 2019

Microsoft announced its third-quarter 2019 results in a press release. Highlights are

  • Revenue was $30.6 billion and increased 14% percent.
  • Operating income was $10.3 billion and increased 25 percent.
  • Net income was $8.8 billion and increased 19 percent.
  • Diluted earnings per share was $1.14 and increased 20 percent.

An impressive result by any standard. In the last five years or so, the big story at Microsoft has been the rise of the company’s Azure branded cloud services. The latest quarter was no exception:

“Demand for our cloud offerings drove commercial cloud revenue to $9.6 billion this quarter, up 41 percent year-over-year”.

Amy Hood, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Microsoft.

But the next part of the release was more of an eye-opener. Microsoft Office is also on a roll. Quoting from the press release:

Revenue in Productivity and Business Processes was $10.2 billion and increased 14 percent, with the following business highlights:

  • Office Commercial products and cloud services revenue increased 12 percent driven by Office 365 Commercial revenue growth of 30 percent.
  • Office Consumer products and cloud services revenue increased 8 percent and Office 365 Consumer subscribers increased to 34.2 million
  • LinkedIn revenue increased 27 percent
  • Dynamics products and cloud services revenue increased 13 percent driven by Dynamics 365 revenue growth of 43 percent.

Back in the first division

In other words Microsoft is firing on all cylinders. The turn around in the five years since Satya Nadella replaced Steve Ballmer is astonishing.

Not so long ago the company looked like a has-been. Nadella rebooted the business to focus on the cloud and today it is primed for an optimistic future.

No surprise that the company’s share price jumped 5 percent after the announcement.

What wasn’t part of the popular narrative of the last five years is the pain Microsoft went through as its shifted its focus. The company needed to invest vast sums in cloud capacity to get where it is today. That was a huge risk. Similar investments have not paid off for the likes of IBM or Oracle.

Windows advantage

To a degree Microsoft is still playing catch up with Amazon, which invented cloud computing as we now know it. It had one huge advantage over Amazon; its installed base. Windows was, in some cases still is, loaded onto millions of servers the world over.

As these workloads move from on-premise hardware to the cloud, customers know it’s not hard to move Windows apps and data from a local server to Azure.

There’s a downside for Microsoft. Cloud margins are small compared to Windows licences. Microsoft could rely on gross margins as high as 90 percent when it sold licences. It’s lucky to get half that from selling cloud services. Still, 40 percent or thereabouts is still a healthy margin.

cloud

Network for Learning says ‘moving to the cloud’ is on the to-do list for many New Zealand schools. Here’s the first of a series of posts I’ve written for the N4L blog that aim to demystify the cloud and how to make use of it. It’s written for a non-technical audience.

“Cloud computing is using remote computers for jobs that were once done by local machines.

We call it cloud because the computers are somewhere else on the internet. Most of the time you don’t need to know where they are.

When the idea was first developed, people would draw diagrams to illustrate how it worked. They used pictures of clouds to show the remote computers could be anywhere. The image and the metaphor stuck.”

Read more at The Cloud.

Earlier this week Apple announced new iPads and refreshed iMac models. Both product lines needed an update and, for the most part, Apple delivered. Yet there are some odd choices.

2019 iPad update

While there are two iPads in the announcement, they are, in effect, two different sized versions of the same hardware.

The 2019 iPad Mini is functionally the same as the 2019 iPad Air. In place of the Air’s 10.5 inch screen, the Mini has a 7.9 inch screen. Prices for Air models start at NZ$850. You can buy a Mini for NZ$680. Otherwise they are much the same.

That’s not the only confusing Apple product name to emerge from this week’s announcements. Both the new iPads work with the Apple Pencil, not the new flat-sided Pencil that works with iPad Pro models, but the older round pencil. You’ll need to be careful if you order one to go with your new iPad.

Adding a Mini model that can work with a Pencil is a smart move. There’s a clear need for this with some customers.

The new Air model’s screen is larger than the older Air. A move from 9.7 inches to 10.5 inches might not sound like much, but because we measure screens across the diagonal, any increase is a squared. In plain English, the new screen is a lot bigger than you might otherwise expect.

While I’ve chosen to use an iPad Pro as my main on-the-move computer these lower-powered iPads are a more affordable choice. For most everyday work, such as writing, dealing with email and so on, they are more than enough computer.

2019 iMacs

Apple’s 2019 iMac upgrades are nothing other than speed bumps. You’ll get a faster machine this week than the one you could have bought last week.

The computer’s external design remains much the same as before. This isn’t a problem, the iMac is perfectly formed and there’s nothing obvious that needs fixing on the outside. The gorgeous big displays remain gorgeous.

Inside the case is another matter. The new iMac models still include old school hard drives. The technology is now past its sell-by date. Apple doesn’t offer old style hard drives anywhere else. It pushed hard to show solid-state-only portables were the way to go at a time when other computer makers still relied on hard drives, but hasn’t extended this to its new iMac models.

Sure, there are Fusion drives, which combine some solid state storage with a spinning drive. This will speed up many apps, but even so, they are slower than pure SSDs. No doubt the argument if that iMac buyers are price sensitive.

Next week Apple is holding a media event in Cupertino, California. Company watchers expect Apple to launch one or more new subscription services including TV streaming.