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“Anyone saying that Android apps on ChromeOS are a good experience is delusional.”

Google PixelbookIn Chrome OS has stalled out, Dave Ruddock says Google’s Chrome OS has failed to live up to its potential. Ruddock is a Chrome user who says he does 95 percent of his work using the operating system.

When Chrome OS first appeared it looked like the future. Or at least one version of a potential future.

It’s a great idea on paper.

Take a minimal specification computer. One that costs almost nothing to make and almost everyone can afford. Give it just enough hardware to connect to the net and handle a web browser.

Cloud power

Then let efficient remote cloud systems do all the heavy lifting. After all, that’s what most people now do most of the time anyway. Few MacBooks or Surface Books are not web-connected.

ChromeOS users mainly connect to free services. That’s a problem because in the online world free can be a high price to pay.

Large companies don’t give services away out of the goodness of their hearts. They want to advertise their client’s products or manipulate you into voting a certain way. And we all know that works. It’s an aspect of surveillance capitalism.

This gets worse.

ChromeOS uses Android apps to plug functionality or entertainment gaps. The experience is bad.

Android apps can be cheap and nasty at the best of times. They collect far too much user data. Many Android apps live at the seamy end of surveillance capitalism.

Ask yourself why you need to give someone your home address to write a document or your first pet’s name1 in order to put an interesting filter on your uploaded pictures.

Dismal

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Android app on ChromeOS experience is dismal. I can’t bear to use it.

Many apps were clearly written for phones and make little or no allowance for larger screens and keyboards. They are buggy as anything and many are a security nightmare2.

There’s something else bad about Chrome. We live in a world where technology iterates towards a kind of nirvana. Each successive line of Windows or MacOS computers is a step up on what went before. Each new generation of mobile phone has a better camera, faster processor, is packed with more oomph.

This applies even when there are two-steps forward, one step back messes like the butterfly keyboards in recent Apple laptops.

As Ruddock points out, the problem with Chrome, the OS and Chromebooks, the computers do not appear to be moving in any direction.

Going nowhere

Chromebooks are not as clunky as they were, some are nice to use. But it isn’t going anywhere. The Chrome experience has barely changed over the years. There’s little prospect of it changing in the near future.

It’s stagnant.

Sure this might not matter to school students who need a fast, low-cost route to the web. It matters to almost everyone else.

Ruddock says there are aspects of Chrome life that amount to computing barbarism. He is being generous.

Sure, a MacBook or a Surface Book might cost getting on for ten times the price of a Chromebook. But the experience is on another plane. You can do so much more. It’s a struggle doing everyday work on a Chromebook, it’s a challenge being creative.


  1. Maybe not literally. But they often ask for information they have no right collecting ↩︎
  2. Although I doubt the average Chromebook users cares much for security or privacy ↩︎

In the UK, the Labour Party plans to nationalise part of the telecommunications network if it wins this year’s election.

To cover costs, a Labour government will tax multinational tech giants including Google and Facebook.

Let’s put aside the idea of nationalisation1. Instead, let us focus on the idea of making tech giants contribute towards the cost of telecommunications networks.

Not ridiculous

The idea isn’t ridiculous. Google and Facebook made their fortunes on the back of telecom networks. In effect they had a free ride.

People who invested in building Spark, Vodafone, Chorus and the rest of New Zealand’s telecommunications networks have, up to a point, subsidised the tech giants.

A decade ago there was talk in telecom circles about recapturing some of the value taken by over-the-top companies.

That battle was lost before it started.

It could be impractical and difficult for a small nation like New Zealand to force tech giants to pay all the costs of our telecommunication network.

That would remove price signals. These are important. They help the industry squeeze value from the assets. They tell planners where to invest.

Jangling the gold

There is one area where we can hold Facebook, Google and maybe other tech giants upside down and jangle the coins out of their pockets.

We could get them to contribute to our Telecommunications Development Levy.

This is the money collected by the government to help subsidise rural telecommunications. It also pays for things like the services that help blind and deaf people use phones.

At the moment the TDL is $50 million a year. It’s called a levy, but it’s really a tax on telecommunications companies. They each pay a share roughly based on how much they earn from sales.

As things stand today, Spark, Vodafone and Chorus pay the lion’s share.

How it might work

Suppose, for one minute, we decide to treat income the digital giants earn from New Zealand on the same basis as local telco revenue.

We’ll forget the smaller firms for now and focus on only two tech giants: Google and Facebook.

It’s hard to know exactly how much these companies make in New Zealand. The Commerce Commission would be have a job extracting this data, but it is doable.

This NZ Herald story estimates Google made around $600 million here in 2017. The number for Facebook is hard to estimate. For the sake of argument, let’s say it is much the same.

The total qualified revenue for New Zealand’s telcos is $4.1 billion. If we add in the tech giant revenue that gives us $5.3 billion.

In round numbers that puts Google and Facebook’s share at 20 percent of the total.

This means we could reasonably ask the two giants to stump up $10 million towards the TDL.

If we add in the other large companies who earn revenue on the back of New Zealand having a decent digital network that could take the total contribution from over the top money earners up to around a third of the TDL total.

Fair dealings?

It would be hard for anyone to argue such an approach is unfair. The amounts are, in comparison, tiny. A $10 million charge on $1.2 billion is less than one-tenth of one percent. It wouldn’t even feature as a budget line item.

Tech giants make huge margins on their revenues. The charge need not have any effect on prices.

In comparison the profit margins for New Zealand’s telecommunications companies are slender. Putting $15 million or so2 back into their hands wouldn’t make a huge difference. It would ease their burden.

So there you have it. The company’s that benefit most from investment in telecommunications can return a tiny trickle from their rivers of gold so that more New Zealanders can access their products and services. Is that so unreasonable?


  1. Maybe until another time. Maybe not. ↩︎
  2. This presumes an expanded programme where more than just two tech giants contribute ↩︎

sign in with Apple

At first sight sign-in with Apple looks like another attempt by a tech giant to collect user data.

It isn’t. Apple aims to reverse that data collection.

Facebook and Google offer single sign-in services. These are used to monitor people’s online activity.

Single sign-in reduces friction as you move around on-line sites that ask for a log-in. It speeds things up. That’s important in an impatient world.

Sign-in downsides

The downside is that Facebook and Google get to learn a lot more about account holder online activity.

You may view this as innocent, ominous or simply a tax paid to live in the digital world. You may not care.

Other downsides are greater security and privacy risks. In the past single sign-on services have been hacked.

Sign-in with Apple is different. It is more secure. There is built-in two-factor authentication support and anti-fraud detection.

You can use it to sign-in to websites. It also works with iOS apps. That way you know the apps you use are not sharing your private data with someone you may not trust.

Also, you choose if an app developer gets to see your email address. That’s optional.

If you choose not to share, Apple generates a disposable email address for that app. If, say, the app developer starts spamming you, you can kill the email address and lose nothing.

Sign-in with Apple works with Android phones and Windows computers, but you’ll get most from it if you have Apple hardware. It integrates with iOS and Apple Keychain. It also works with Apple TV and Apple Watch.

Sign-in with Apple stays private

There’s no lock-in. On the other hand, it might give privacy aware users who shop elsewhere another reason to consider Apple products.

Apple insists app developers using the App Store offer the service if they offer the Google or Facebook alternative. Otherwise it is optional.

At first I was wary of the idea. Now I’m keen. I’ve never used the Google or Facebook sign-ins and got used to doing things the slow, but more private, way. Now that’s unnecessary.

Of course, you have to trust Apple when it says that it doesn’t interpret collected data or keep track of your log-ins.

The difference here is that we know for certain Facebook and Google do this. Apple makes its money from hardware and services. Facebook and Google are all about surveillance capitalism.

See: Let’s Clarify some Misunderstandings around Sign In with Apple • Aaron Parecki

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak made the news when he told car industry executives he doesn’t expect to see self-driving cars in his lifetime.

Wozniak is 69. You can do your own grim maths calculation here. A self-driving car may yet pull up in my lifetime, hopefully your’s too.

The tech sector has a long history of misplaced ‘coming real soon now claims’.

One of my first jobs covering technology was in 1981. I went to a press conference showing an early speech recognition computer. It could just about understand ten words some of the time if you spoke very carefully.

At the press conference we were told computers able to recognise and understand everyday speech are just two years away. They’ve been just two years away ever since.

Self-driving cars are not that different. In fact the reason for misplaced optimism is much the same. That is, people are terrible at forecasting future technology.

In 2015 Elon Musk, Tesla’s boss, predicted his cars would be capable of “complete autonomy” by 2017.

Last year General Motors said it would offer a range of driverless cars this year.

Waymo, which is part of Alphabet (Google) has been testing driverless taxies in Phoenix Arizona this year. Waymo choose Phoenix because it has wide, flat roads.

In theory it is one of the easiest places in the world to drive. In practice Google still sits human drivers behind the wheel; just in case.

One reason for overconfident forecasts is that tech company leaders believe their own hype about progress in artificial intelligence and related technologies.

Progress is difficult. Much of today’s AI uses brute force; improvement can be a long, hard slog. That doesn’t sound anything like as good at a rah rah sales event as whipping up excitement about what could be possible.

Hear me talk to Kathryn Ryan about this on RNZ Nine-to-Noon.

New Zealand and France will work together to make it harder for terrorists to broadcast violence through social media. The move is a response to the March 15 attack in Christchurch which the terrorist streamed live.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will meet in Paris next month to discuss plans. They timed their meeting to coincide with a G7 digital ministers Tech for Humanity event and a separate Tech for Good summit.

A media statement from Jacinda Ardern says:

“We all need to act. That includes social media providers taking more responsibility for the content that is on their platforms and taking action so that violent extremist content cannot be published and shared.

“It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism. This meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and the tech companies.”

Social media terrorist toolkit

This nails the problem. Facebook and other social media outlets have become part of the terrorist’s toolkit. In part they have spent recent years encouraging ever more extreme and violent content on their sites.

Social media companies know that extreme material resonates with audiences. In effect, they have turned people’s anger into rivers of gold. Rather than calm things down, they have learnt that ramping up fear and hate is a lucrative business.

Profit explains their reluctance to act in the past.

Inevitable

Given this, it was inevitable that a terrorist would one day choose to live-stream the murder of dozens of people. It happened in Christchurch, but the live atrocity could have been anywhere.

It’s good to see Jacinda Ardern work with Macron on this. Neither New Zealand nor France are able to fight these battles alone. It’s also good to involve the G7. The more allies the better. It will take co-ordination from many governments to rein-in the social media giants.

Until now the likes of Facebook, Google with YouTube and Twitter have acted amorally.

Above the law?

If they appear to believe they are above the law, that’s because in a sense they are.

The social media giants are all US-based. They can point to that country’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech as a justification for not policing content loaded on to their sites.

What’s more, the US gives them Section 230 protection. In effect, they have legal immunity for what they publish, although there are exceptions. This sets up a climate where the big social media companies act as if they can do whatever they want.

Reputation not considered

In an ideal world, these companies would fear their reputations and long-term business prospects are risk if they don’t take more responsibility. We’re not at that point yet.

Australia has laws which could see them prosecuted for actions like showing the Christchurch terrorist attach video. Incidentally, there’s a report this morning saying these images are still online and easy to find.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can afford to laugh in the face of small governments. To a degree that’s been their strategy until now. Even medium-sized countries like the United Kingdom are openly disrespected by social media executives. Facebook even dismisses ad hoc groups of countries working together.

New Zealand, France and the G7 are a more powerful combination. They can act together. Yet that last sentence has an important word act. The countries must do more than just bat ideas around in a talk fest. They must take collective action if anything is going to change.

I talked to Lynn Freeman on RNZ Nine-to-Noon about the NZ, France effort to tackle violence on social media