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Bill Bennett

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Where Facebook is vulnerable

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

“They’re not good in any industry they have to compete in or have to be innovative in. They can buy and they can copy, like they just did the other day, again, with another thing. What did they borrow from? From Clubhouse or whatever. They just can’t do anything innovative.”

Facebook may look invincible. Yet as Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway discuss, it could face a rough future. See: Why Facebook Is the Most Vulnerable of the Tech Giants.

It’s hard to like Facebook. At its worst, the company’s business model depends on manipulating emotions. At times it does this in dangerous ways. The more it seeds fear, loathing and misinformation, the richer it gets.

When it’s not undermining democracy, Facebook makes money by spying on its users. It then sells the fruits of its espionage to the highest bidder.

Facebook has no respect for its users.

Over half a billion Facebook customers have details leaked

Last week we heard the personal details of over 530 million users are circulating online. Facebook treated the issue as a public relations problem, not a security breach.

To put that leak into perspective, 530 million people is around seven percent of the world’s population.

Facebook says it has no plans to notify users of the data leak. At no point was there anything resembling an apology or an admission of guilt. So far it has focused on deflecting blame.

Old news

The leak may be old news, Facebook says it is. It says it fixed the problem. Yet it underlines the lax attitude and incompetence. A company packed with high-paid engineers should be able to protect user information.

There’s evidence that Facebook has known about the problem for a long time.

To date the tech giant has skirted past crisis after crisis. Everyone knows you can’t trust Facebook. 

Each act of incompetence or cynicism looks like it could be the last straw for certain users. Each time the business recovers and moves on. It is not going any time soon.

The latest news is also unlikely to sink the company. Although if you listen to what it says, you might think otherwise.

Facebook has made a lot of noise about Apple’s privacy plans for iOS 14.5. Anyone with an iOS app must warn users about the data they collect.

Squeals

Judging by Facebook’s squeals, you’d think transparency will destroy the world’s economy. As the Wall Street Journal puts it: Apple and Facebook Clash Over Ads, Mom-and-Pop Shops Fear They’ll Be the Victims.

Facebook launched an ad campaign insisting that those who will be most hurt by Apple’s changes are small and medium-size businesses, which represent the majority of the social network’s more than 10 million advertisers.

If their business depends on lying to users, that’s not a real problem. 

Swisher and Galloway end their discussion acknowledging that for a potentially vulnerable business, it remains popular with investors. That’s true.

Facebook isn’t going to fall overnight. There’s enough wealth in the business for it to switch its focus and remain huge. Microsoft did this when it flipped from PC software to cloud computing.

PC sales picked up in 2020 – still life in the format

After years of decline, PC sales picked up in 2020. They should remain above their long-term trend this year.

What happens after that is less certain.

As the pandemic spread, companies sent employees home to work. Schools asked students to continue lessons online. Zoom became a household name as many of us attended video meetings or classes.

Two forces combined to boost PC sales.

Personal again

First, many people could no longer get by sharing a laptop or desktop PC.

It’s fine sharing when you need a PC for a few hours a week. The rest of the time a phone or tablet, a workplace computer or a games console does the heavy lifting.

Sharing isn’t ideal when your employer or teacher expects you to be online for eight hours a day.

Working in a lockdown needs closer to one computer per person.

This simple change expanded the PC market beyond anything anticipated before lockdown.

PC sales are upgrades

A second force was that old laptops sitting in cupboards weren’t good enough for long-term working from home.

Many 2020 PC sales were upgrades.

Sales that year could have been higher but for shortages and supply chain challenges.

There’s likely to be a spillover this year.

Expect more upgrades as employees adjust to spending more time working from home. For years people didn’t care about the home PCs experience. Their desktops and laptops were secondary.

Overnight everyone neeed better video calling. They wanted brighter screens, faster computers, better sound, better everything. The PC experience mattered again.

When you realise this is how life will be from now on, this becomes more important.

And less mobility means less emphasis on phones. It’s no accident the 2020 trend for phone sales was towards less expensive, smaller models.

Squeezing out value

For close to a decade we hung on to PC hardware for longer. We skipped upgrades because they added little that improved everyday life.

That’s likely to change. We can expect shorter product lifecycles, more frequent upgrades.

Where possible families will edge closer to the one PC per person goal which allows everyone to work.

Another element in this will be company hardware purchases. This will drive the market. Firms that give employees better work from home computers will see higher productivity. They will have better engagement.

Those that skimp on buying technology will suffer.

Rising PC sales mean fresh ideas

It would be fair to say falling PC sales went hand-in-hand with a slump in innovation. Digital brands diverted their best design and engineering brains to growing markets. Phones, tablets, cloud computing, AI and the like got their attention.

This may not change as much as when the PC boom was racing along. Yet, we can expect fresh ideas to better match the new role played by PCs.

Take the cameras on the front of laptops used for video calls. They are way behind the cameras used on even modest mobile phones. It means poor quality video images, at times coming from odd angles. Any PC brand who can sort that out will find a ready market.

PC sales may never soar again, but they may bump along at a higher level than if there had never been a pandemic. We may even see market excitement. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?

Bumper New Zealand PC sales in 2020

For much of last year the word on the street was that PC sales were running hot. Brands and stores reported shortages of certain models as the pandemic bit and New Zealanders were sent home to work or study online. People did a lot more online than in the past.

Now IDC Research has the numbers to back that up. The latest IDC Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker says 826,000 units shipped in 2020. That’s 12.3 percent higher than the year earlier and an all-time record in New Zealand.

The biggest demand was for notebooks. Sales were up 21.7 percent on the year earlier. Desktop PC sales were down 15.1 percent year-on-year. Commercial PC shipments were up 18.3 percent, consumer PC sales climbed 5.2 percent.

These figures are broadly in-line with worldwide trends. Global PC shipments were up 13 percent. More general information technology spending did not fare as well. 

NZ PC sales forecast IDC 2020 q4

HP tops PC sales, Acer second

Back to New Zealand where IDC says HP was in top spot with Acer in second place, thanks to strong Chromebook sales as the demand for educational computers surged. Lenovo was third. Both HP and Lenovo struggled at times to meet the extra demand. It didn’t help that global supply chains and electronics manufacturing were both disrupted in 2020.

Last year’s growth comes after eight years of steady decline.

The surge in sales is not likely to persist. Although sales in 2021 should remain above the 2019 level, the recent burst of activity may not last. IDC forecasts as 5.5 percent decline from the 2020 level for 2021. It says the commercial market will decline while consumer sales will grow.

IDC says the market is restrained by limited supply and that will put something of a brake on sales. Meanwhile many companies will be more cautious about spending if they have seen or anticipate falling revenue or profits.

Shift to mobile

There’s been a long-term shift from desktop PCs to laptops or notebook computers. This accelerated last year. One reason for this is that companies and schools have traditionally been desktop buyers, but with workers logging on from home it is easier to give them notebooks than desktops.

At the same time, space is often at a premium in homes. A notebook can be used on the kitchen table in work hours, then put aside at dinner time. Another point is that for companies who anticipate workers spending time in the office and at home, having a device that moves between the two makes sense.

Two months with an M1 MacBook Air

Apple sent a M1 MacBook Air for testing in late November. I’ve spent the last two months using it as my everyday mobile computer. This write-up is not a conventional product review, it’s about the experience. View it more as a glimpse into a possible mobile computing future.

At first sight there’s little to tell the new M1 MacBook Air from the most recent model that now sits in the cupboard. There was no choice. It had to go in the cupboard. If they sat side-by-side on the desk I’d need to open both (or mark one) to know which is which. From the outside they are peas in a pod.

In fact its worse that that because when I set-up the new MacBook Air, I copied all the settings from my old one. Which means the opening display on both is identical.

The only physical difference are the small icons printed on the F4, F5 and F6 function keys. You have to look to notice. They show controls for MacOS’s Spotlight search, dictation and Siri features.

A globe printed on the function key at the bottom left of the keyboard tells you this can open an emoji picker. It’s not something I ever use. That’s because I learned to use Command-Space to open Spotlight. Apart from testing that they work, I have yet to use the other new functions.

Clues

There are a few more clues to help distinguish the two MacBooks. The M1 model is much faster. We’ll come to that in a moment.

The battery goes for hours longer between charges. We’ll look at that in more depth later.

Apple’s M1 MacBook Air is cooler and quieter. There is no cooling fan. It doesn’t need one. Mind you, the fan on the older MacBook Air doesn’t kick in until you push the hardware. With my writing work, that’s not common.

I’m a journalist. I spend the bulk of my MacBook time writing. I prefer lightweight writing apps over the big, sprawling word processors. Yet there are jobs where I have to use Microsoft Word. In normal use none of the writing apps in my toolbox draw on enough resources for the cooling fan to kick in.

Goodbye humming fan

To get the fan humming I’d need to run a media creation app or do a demanding spreadsheet or database task. It also hums when playing games.

That said, the old MacBook Air can still warm up during a lengthy work session. After two months with the M1 model, I’ve yet to detect the merest hint of processor heat.

Given that I spend the bulk of my MacBook time writing, I didn’t expect to get much of a performance kick from the M1. After all, it doesn’t help me type faster.

Processor intensive

Yet, in practice there are dozens of small processor intensive tasks that now work faster. I rarely used dictation on my Mac. It wasn’t great. It is now. The new MacBook Air shows how much processor speed changes that experience.

Likewise Siri. Because I’ve been a touch typist for years I tend to use keyboard commands others might prefer speech.

Movies load faster. Complex web pages perform better. On the odd occasion where I need to edit a photo, clip audio files or chew through a lot of data it all happens at speed.

I’ve never had a problem waiting for a MacBook Air to wake-up when I open the lid. It happens in a few seconds. With the M1 model, it happens in fewer seconds. That’s not a big deal, but I like it.

Pushing Safari

The other effect is more subtle than that. I’ve learned not to have more than a handful of apps open at any given moment and to not push Safari by opening lots of tabs. That could test my old MacBook Air. These restrictions have gone. when. testing this, I got bored opening new apps and tabs long before the new Air began to struggle with the workload.

You can benchmark the new Macs to get interesting looking figures. These numbers may mean something to certain people. Yet I’d argue everyday use matters more: The new Macs offer a much improved experience. It feels more fluid, more natural, there’s less of a gap between what you might want from a computer and what you get.

One aspect of the M1 Macs that worried users was the 16GB limit for system Ram. The MacBook Air never had more Ram, but MacBook Pro models could have 32GB. Desktop Macs could have 64GB.

In the event, it’s not an issue. M1 Macs have a design that does more with less Ram.

To my surprise I found I ended up more excited and enthusiastic about the new M1 MacBook Air than expected.

The new normal

The problem with performance boosts is that higher speeds soon become normal. As an acid test, I fired up the old MacBook Air. I wanted to know different the new experience was. The test confirmed it, the M1 MacBook is much better.

There’s a link between a fast processor like the M1 in the new MacBook Air and gigabit fibre.

Few, if any, everyday applications that push a gigabit fibre connection to the limit. Yet having plenty of headroom means you’re never going hit a speed barrier. Likewise, even if you have modest computer needs, there are times when headroom is useful.

Say you’ve spent months working from home on gigabit fibre. Then, say, you return to the office and a more modest connection speed. That connection now feels laggy and flat, even though it may be fast by accepted standards.

That’s how the M1 MacBook Air feels after using the Intel model.

Battery

One reason I switched from Windows to a MacBook Air seven years ago was the improved battery life. I could get more than ten hours from the MacBook. The Windows machine it replaced struggled to do three hours.

At that time I had a job working part-time in an office. I’d take my MacBook on the bus and work a full nine-hour day without hunting for a power outlet. Two years later the MacBook could still last the entire working day. It changed how I worked.

The Air had enough battery life for a long-haul flight. Enough to work in the Koru lounge and for the trip to, say, Singapore with a few hours of down time for naps or meals.

Apple’s M1 MacBook Air almost doubles that time. I won’t be taking any long-haul flights soon, but, if I did, it would get me to Barcelona or Paris.

Working from home, I can go a couple of days without charging.

This is the start

It’s interesting to realise that Apple used its new processors first in low-end models. There are M1 models of the MacBook Air, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro and the Mac Mini. The message isn’t that subtle. If Apple’s low-cost laptops are this fast, what can we expect from more expensive models?

Which leaves us with another question. How is this going to affect the Windows laptop and PC market? At the time of writing, Apple’s low-end Macs are at least a generation ahead of Windows computers. When Apple releases its Pro model computers that gap could be wider.

Let’s stop and qualify that last paragraph. The NZ$2200 eight core M1 MacBook outperforms almost every Intel-based laptop. This includes models costing twice as much. There may be faster Windows laptops out there. Good luck finding one.

Fanless

Intel can’t build a fast fanless Windows laptop. The Air is silent. If that matters to you, that’s an Apple advantage its rivals can’t match.

When I first switched back to Macs from Windows, I configured my MacBook to dual boot Windows and MacOS. I stopped doing that years ago. If there’s a spare Windows licence in my home, I can no longer find it.

Reports suggest a MacBook Air runs Windows faster than native Windows laptops. That has to rattle Intel.

Last week Intel responded with its own set of cherry-picked benchmarks in an attempt to prove… well, it’s not clear what that goal was other than to muddy the waters.

No doubt Intel will respond. But from a computer user point of view, you now need a powerful reason to choose a Windows laptop over a MacBook.

Acronis True Image 2021 review – Complete back-up, security

Acronis True Image 2021 promises to keep your data safe for around A$100 a year. It protects PCs and Macs from disasters, accidents, criminal attacks and ransomware.

What is True Image?

True Image started life as a back-up application. The name refers to the way it creates a copy or an image of your computer data on an external hard drive or cloud server.

Two years ago Acronis added security features adding ransomware protection to back-up. The most expensive version of the software included blockchain certification. I’m not convinced that is necessary. Yet there are those who find it useful.

The 2021 version of the software adds more protection. Acronis says it deals with malware, malicious websites and code injection. This means the security software has to work in real-time.

There’s the timely addition of protection from videoconferencing interference. This is a threat that emerged during the Covid-19 lockdown. The feature is not included in the MacOS version.

In effect, Acronis repackaged its enterprise security technology for individuals and small businesses.

Acronis True Image 2021

One user interface

Having back-up and security controlled by a single user interface simplifies the two processes. That’s important. Many small business buy back up and security then fail to make the most of them because it’s difficult.

True Image 2021 has a clean, straightforward interface. This hasn’t changed since I reviewed True Image 2019 more than two years ago.

It’s not immediately obvious how everything works, but it is easy to learn. The trick is to mouse your way around the user interface and try all the options.

Once you’re done, you can leave True Image to work without day-to-day intervention, although it is likely you will need to revisit the app.

Testing True Image

I tested it on an iMac. Here it adds an icon to the menu bar. Unlike other MacOS apps, this is not a menu, instead it shows notifications. There is an option to open the app’s main screen from here.

Back-up remains the focus. You can create images of entire drives, partitions, folders or even individual files. True Image can back-up your network drives and add back-ups for your mobile phone or tablet.

There are options to do a full back-up, this can take a long time, or to do a differential back-up. This means backing up everything that changed since the last back-up.

Back-up options

You control the back-up frequency. Options range from monthly, which I’d regard as “why bother”? all the way to hourly.

The default is daily. There’s a twice daily option which I’ve set to back-up about half way through my working day and then late at night. That way I’m never going to lose more than a few hours work.

More frequent back-ups are possible, but this can tie up resources.

There are options to remove older back-ups when you are running out of space on your target disc. You can do this manually or leave it to the software. You can also set up validations.

Pricing

There’s a basic A$70 subscription that doesn’t include cloud back-up. You’ll need a local or network drive. Acronis does not appear to allow you to use alternative cloud storage.

The A$98 Advanced plan includes 500GB of cloud back-up storage. There is a A$140 plan with a terabyte of storage. These prices are for one computer.

Acronis’ per computer price drops if you add more, but you don’t get more cloud storage.

This complex price structure is strange given that everything else about True Image 2021 works to hide complexity. I’m concerned that buyers can end up buying more than they need, or not enough.

Back-up updates

There are updates to the way True Image handles back-ups. It no longer duplicates data if a back-up is interrupted, say if you lose your connection. Instead of restarting and doing the whole back-up again, it picks up from where it left off.

While testing I ran into a couple of interesting observations. First, there may be times when you want to turn off protection. I did this when bittorrenting a copy of LibreOffice 7 for review.

True Image’s security stopped my bit torrent client from working. Fair enough. To allow it through I paused the software, then forgot to restart. The next morning an email arrived telling me the scheduled back-up failed. This is excellent. It’s easy to forget to switch back on and leave yourself without back-ups or protection. Getting a non-intrusive reminder is the best way of fixing this.

Safe replication

Likewise, after first installing the application, I chose to make a replica of my Mac hard drive using the Acronis Cloud. All good. Then I swapped out my home Wi-Fi router for a D-Link Wi-fi 6 router review.

The router remained installed. When I went to update the drive replica, True Image responded with a message saying replication would restart after I connected to an approved Wi-fi network.

This protection would stop True Image from automatic drive replication when, say, a laptop connects to public Wi-fi. It takes a couple of clicks to resume replication with a new router.

True Image’s replication will wait until the everyday back-up is complete. It handles tasks one-by-one, not in parallel. This is useful on slower connection.

Fast, if your network is fast

Cloud back-ups are fast. I have a gigabit fibre connection, my Wi-fi 6 router is the bottleneck. It can clock speeds of over 500mbps. On my set-up, when True Image connects to the Acronis Cloud the reported speed fluctuates from around 100 mbps up to over 200 mbps.

Back-up times vary. The time indicator on the user interface gives a rough guide, but don’t take it seriously. It warned me a full drive back-up of 340 GB would take 52 minutes. I left it running and checked 30 minutes after starting to find it had finished.

Incremental back-ups of around 200 MB take a couple of minutes. Again, the times reported on the user interface can be misleading. The ‘less than one minute’ turned out to be a few seconds over two minutes.

Early back-up software, including earlier versions of True Image, could hurt system and network performance. I found this year’s edition of Norton LifeLock ties up all system resources when in full flight and then some. That is another story for another time.

True Image 2021 has no noticeable impact on performance. Automated back-ups can happen while I’m on a Zoom call and I’d never know. I haven’t seen a spinning Mac beachball while using True Image. This is in part down to plenty of headroom on a fibre connection and Wi-fi 6 local network, but, as mentioned, Norton struggles with the same resources.

True Image 2021 verdict

I can’t think of any other application that combines back-up and security in the way True Image does. The price is on a par with buying separate applications to do the two jobs.

You won’t need to pay for Acronis back-up and a separate security suite. You won’t need to learn two user interfaces. This is important if you don’t have full time IT professionals to call on for help.

Getting both back-up and security in a single integrated package from one source simplifies both.

Today, True Image is comprehensive to the point of providing more protection than everyday users or small businesses need.

It could be overkill for your needs.

If your data is precious or your work makes you a security target you should consider True Image.

If you handle other people’s data it could be essential. It makes sense if you work for a company or agency that requires high levels of security. Choose it if losing your data for more than a few minutes will cost you money.

Footnote:

I took my time testing Acronis True Image 2021 for a good reason. The software came the same time as Norton Lifelock, which is an indirect rival. Lifelock trashed my computer. I wanted to give Acronis enough time to screw up before telling readers one is better than the other. After two months, I’m happy to report nothing untoward happened.

Working from home surveillance arms race

The move to working from home means there’s a boom in employee surveillance software. Bosses can check workers are hard at it, not leaning back for a Netflix binge.

Companies have used technology to snoop on workers for years. It ranges from spy-in-the-cab devices used to measure truck driver movements to key-loggers counting the number of keystrokes a desk bound employee makes every hour.

If you want you can check if an employee takes many tea, toilet or lunch breaks. There are even home detention style ankle bracelets used in warehouses and similar workplaces to track where everyone is.

Counter productive

Keeping close tabs on workers can be counter productive. If the metric is measuring the number of mouse movements per hour, employees will focus on moving mice, not on doing what they are paid to do.

What you measure is what you get.

For many tasks surveillance is plain dumb. It’s easier to measure a worker’s output. That’s what matters.

They earn their pay as long as they add value, serve customers, clear call backlogs or otherwise improve profits. It shouldn’t matter how many key strokes, phone calls or trips around the warehouse floor they make to get there.

Snooping

Now companies use similar employee snooping technology to watch staff working from home. The companies who sell these systems have seen their business grow at a cracking pace.

The names of these products say a lot about the mindset of companies using the technology:

  • Time Doctor,
  • ActivTrak,
  • StaffCop.

That last one is vile.

On top of everyday snooping there are products which let bosses watch what is going on through the webcams on home computers.

One product that does this goes by the name of Sneek….

There’s a naming pattern emerging here, at least the people who make this software are self-aware. You’d have to worry about managers leafing through brochures for products with names like Sneek and StaffCop.

Listening in

Others products let managers listen in on people’s home. There are tools that automate camera watching or listen in case trigger words are used.

And then there is this example from the Wired story

“PwC has developed facial recognition software that can log employees’ absences from their computer screens – including for bathroom breaks. The accounting firm insists the technology is to meet compliance regulations as the financial world adjusts to home life.”

Much of this is thought of as normal in the US. The products can be illegal elsewhere in the world. This review of StaffCop in PCMag) evaluates the product without any reference to ethics or morality.

It’s one thing for a company to put this software on computers in its offices, or even on computers that it buys and distributes to staff working from home. Asking people to install the software on their own hardware is another level of evil.

The idea of watching people in their homes using a screen was talked about 70 years ago. That’s when George Orwell wrote 1984. In the book Big Brother has a screen where government spies watch people in their homes all the time.

Orwellian

In other words, it’s no exaggeration to describe these applications as Orwellian. We overuse that term, but it applies here.

Once again we are at a point where 1984 is a training manual, not a warning.

Where they can, workers are fighting back. Wired magazine’s story is about the resistance movement fighting home employee surveillance.

As with the bosses, many of the weapons workers use to counter surveillance are digital. It’s an arms race. A range of new software helps workers get around surveillance. Surveillance software companies respond to block the blockers then the blockers block back.

One trick mentioned in the Wired story, which works if you have a powerful computer, is to use a virtual machine. That is, in effect, a software computer that lives inside of your computer. It can fence off the surveillance software.

There is software to fake mouse movements and software to emulate keyboard use. People even stick tape over webcams or microphones and then claim the hardware isn’t working. The potential to fight back is as unlimited at the potential for snooping.