Saturday, October 27, 2012

Instagram Coming to Linux

For the most part, social software sucks. They all seem to be a clone of Facebook or Google+ and nobody is doing anything exciting with it. Except Instagram. Instagram is revolutionary and it's completely changing both the way and frequency that people are sharing pictures from their lives. But there's one thing that really sucks about Instagram: it's only available on iOS and Android and, as far as I know, the company has no plans to bring the program to desktop users.

That's why I'm excited to announce that I'm starting a project to bring Instagram to Linux. And by 'bring it to Linux' I don't mean some crappy app that barely works when it chooses to actually start up. I mean doing Instagram the right way; beautifully. The software has brought beauty into our lives, a Linux client featuring it should be equally beautiful.

I'm beginning work on FriendlyPhotos today and will make regular announcement via this blog as I progress. I'll have something soon so keep your eyes open for updated postings.  Oh, and just in case you're wondering, FriendlyPhoto's is not an Instagram official app. I have nothing to do with the people who make Instagram. I'm just a user who loves the program and wants to bring it to Linux.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Who Owns The Content You Buy?

Update: this issue has been solved and the woman in question has had her purchased content restored. However, that isn't the point. The idea that a company who sells you a product still has ultimate control over that product is the overriding issue that should concern us all.

It was a story that shocked many but really shouldn't have. Last week, online bookseller Amazon.com decided that a Norwegian woman was in violation of their terms of service and decided to terminate her Amazon account and wipe the books she had legally purchased off of her Kindle ereader device. Worse still, when the user challenged Amazon on the decision she was met with a complete unwillingness from the company to even tell her why they'd taken the drastic steps and was basically told that the issue was closed.

As I said, this story shouldn't surprise anyone. Amazon has been very upfront about their ability to remove things from your Kindle and has even exercised that power at least once, removing legally purchased copies of the George Orwell classic 1984 from users devices.  In that case, the book had been put up for sale accidentally and in violation of the publishers wishes. It was, in essence, a copyright issue. But this is different. This is Amazon saying that if you ever break their terms of service or do something they don't like, they can punish you by removing everything you've ever bought from them from your device.

The message here is clear: you might have bought your digital content legally and followed all the rules, but you don't own or control it. Amazon does.

Such is another example of the problems with Digital Rights Management. It gives whoever holds the rights to the content you own (or whoever they say can exercise those rights) complete control over your property. If I purchase something that I don't fully control then can I really say I own it? No. In reality, I am simply paying a fee to use it. I'm renting and there's no requirement for the entity who controls the content or device to treat me fairly. They can do whatever they want. If I don't like it, I can go elsewhere, maybe, but I'm going to have to start over because they control the content I currently own.

DRM isn't about expanding freedom or protecting rights. It's really about giving the rights holder control beyond anything they could have in the non-digital world. Imagine buying a physical book from Amazon and then having an Amazon representative show up at the door a few months later to repossess the book because you'd used it in an unauthorized way. That's insane! But that's exactly what Amazon did in this case. Why? Because they could. DRM gave them the power to do it.

It's events like this that make fighting the imposition of DRM on our digital content so important. It's time we reject DRM and the businesses who impose it upon us completely. We need to refuse to do business with these companies and refuse the purchase products that are encumbered with the technology.

We would never accept DRM in the real world, why the hell are we accepting it on our digital content and devices?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Think no one can listen to your Skype calls? Think again!

For many years, Skype has served as the workhorse of Internet telephony. Not only was it used by grandmas wanting to keep in touch with their grandchildren who lived thousands of miles away, but it was also used by security conscience dissidents in repressive regimes to communicate because it was widely known as untappable.  Last year, American software giant Microsoft bought Skype from the group who held IP rights to the system and it looks like they've made some subtle changes that may have rendered the software's legendary security a thing of the past.

As an article published in July by Slate magazine states, Microsoft has refused to say whether it can listen in to Skype calls or not. But the new Skype privacy policy seems to indicate that, under certain circumstances, Microsoft may provide law enforcement with personal information about you including the content of your communications. Microsoft has since come forward and admitted that they log ever single text message sent through Skype but it's reasonable, in light of other changes, to assume they might have access to substantially more.

Shortly after the acquisition, Microsoft began phasing out Skypes 'super nodes'. Super nodes are what, in essence, gave Skype the ability to punch through firewalls. But they also helped make Skype harder to tap. Over the course of a few months, Microsoft centralized Skype around a series of servers that replaced super nodes and implement other technology to keep Skype's firewall punching abilities active. Since we really don't know what all of those changes were, we can't say how vulnerable Skype has become but we can say this: Skyoe calls are most likely able to be listened to and Skype should no longer be trusted for secure, important, or sensitive, communications. Certainly nothing where life or death might be involved should ever be discussed over Skype.

Thankfully, there are alternatives for people looking for a truly secure alternative to Skype.  Personally, I run and recommend the Jitsi program.  Formally SIP Communicator, Jitsi offers users the ability to use a variety of networks (Google Talk. Yahoo, AIM, Facebook, SIP,. etc) while securing communications through those channels using strong encryption. So, while a normal text, voice, or video, call made using Google Talk is not secure, doing that same call through Jitsi using its built in encryption makes it so secure that even Google can't listen in to your calls. It's easy to use, runs on all platforms (it's written in Java) and installs in minutes.

In closing, I'd like to urge anyone who relies on Skype to stop doing so immediately. Especially for any kind of secure communication. Find something else but do not trust Skype with anything sensitive. It's too big of a risk to take and the stakes are simply too high.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Break The Chains of Digital Rights Management

We've all run into it. Whether it's trying to play a favorite song we purchased on iTunes on an 'unapproved' device or trying to read an ebook on a device that doesn't support whatever locked down format that the publisher has decided to use, we've all encountered the scourge and chains that we lovingly call 'Digital Rights Management' or "DRM".

"Digital Rights Management" is really a bit of a misnomer. It's really not about managing your rights as much as it is about restricting them. DRM is all about taking control of our digital products out of our hands and placing it in the hands of strangers who's sole interest in controlling how we use those products is squeezing every last cent out of them. It's not enough that we've bought the product, they want more.

Unfortunately, this need to never miss a paying customer and never lose a dime is wreaking havoc on users. Many users have found themselves unable to play thousands of dollars worth of purchased music once they switched from Windows or Mac (which supports iTunes) to a free system like Linux. People who are more than willing to pay for content on NetFlix are being told 'we don't want your money' simply because they're running Linux and the studios fear that users might find a way to share their content and take away a few sales.

But it's worse than that. Disabled users are being shut out of entire realms of content simply because they don't use approved devices. Ask your sight impaired friends about their experiences buying commercial ebooks online. You're likely to hear many stories similar to this one.  While DRM sounds like a 'good idea', the actual implementation is harming innocent people, costing content providers money, and hurting society as a whole.

"But Anthony", I hear you say, "how will content creators make any money if they don't use DRM? Everyone will simply go and download the book from The Pirate Bay". Ask bestselling sci-fi author and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow how he makes money? Copies of all of his books available for free download on his website. He also sells them on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and, you know what? People buy them. Users are more than willing to pay for good content. But we don't want to be made to feel like we're criminals before we've even bought a product.  Regardless of what the big DRM advocates think, most of us don't want to "pirate" their content. We want to control what we purchase.

The current climate surrounding DRM and related technologies pits consumers against content and device creators. But the tide is slowly changing. Thanks to efforts of organizations like The Free Software Foundation and the campaigns they run like Defective By Design, users are revolting against the arbitray demands to control their machines and purchases by content creators. They're refusing to purchase DRM restricted music, books, and software. They're writing letters to their Member of Parliment of Congressman and expressing their feelings about being treated like a criminal and, slowly, the culture is starting to change. Slowly.

So what can you do to help speed the change along? Stop accepting being treated like a criminal by the people you buy from. Stop giving your money for the people who will turn on you and put you in jail for the slightest misstep. You deserve better! You're the customer; you're King! Start acting like it. If a company wants to tell you how you can use what you can purchase from them make a clear and simple decision: don't do business with that company. More importantly, let the company know that you are not doing business with them and why. Write and email or make a phone call. Don't let them off the hook for abusing their customers. Don't give them your hard earned money!

Also consider educating others. You don't have to be militant about it like some in the movement are. Just reach out to friends and collegues when you seem them using or buying restricted items and let them know they have a choice. When you're in the store and see someone struggling to find the money to purchase Microsoft Office,. speak up and point them to LibreOffice or OpenOffice ;and tell them the benefits beyond costs.

All of us can do something to help bring this lunacy to an end. It's just about standing up and realizing that companies are not doing you a favor by providing products to you. You are King/Queen! Start acting like it!


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Taking the plunge and writing a book

Most of my life, I've dreamed of being a writer. When I was a child, I spent untold hours toiling away at simple stories that my family was gracious enough to read and dutifully oooh and ahhh over. As I moved into adulthood and got into technology, my passion for writing hasn't changed and I've finally decided to combine both of my passions, writing and technology, and write a book.

My upcoming book, 'Hacker' will be an exploratory fictional journey into what happens when governments and corporations destroy privacy and how a small team of committed people working in the shadows can help level the playing field.  It's a journey into what-if world of unintended consequences and I'm having a blast writing it.

I'm also finding the process of writing a book very different than blogging. When I blog, I often have typo's, horribly written and weak sentances, and a lot of stuff that just doesn't make sense. As I work on Hacker, I'm finding myself having to be much more dutiful and careful and it's teaching me to pay more attention to the process of writing.

So that's that. Look for the book in January 2013 and will be self-published on both Amazon (Kindle version) and LuLu (paperback version). It will be released under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Web is Changing. WebPlatform is Documenting It

There are a lot of bad web developers out there. No, I'm not talking about people creating ugly sites, I'm talking about people creating sites that simply don't work or barely work.  Bad code seems to be a sad causality of everything moving to the browser. It's made programming immensely easier and simpler but it's also enabled really bad programmers to write really bad code.

A new initiative between some of the heavy hitters in the tech industry (Microsoft, Google, Apple, Mozilla, etc) aims to change that. WebPlatform.org is a site that provides tutorials, sample code, chat with other developers, and other things and has the goal of 'documenting the web' and providing web developers with the tools they need to write better code.

I spent some time on the site last night and, I have to say, it's pretty great. Their JavaScript tutorials cover just about everything a developer needs to know, and their HTML5 documentation is easy to understand, accessible to all skill levels, and very well written. It all comes together nicely into a site that should be the de-facto starting point for anyone getting started in web development or even those who've worked in the field a while but want to beef up on their coding chops and, maybe, learn something new

Sites like this are important. With more and more 'traditional' applications moving to the web and mobile and with major operating systems like Windows 8 and Ubuntu integrating web applications right into the desktop, strong web development skills are going to become the deciding factor that either enables developers to continue to develop for these systems or locks them out completely.

It's not your fathers Internet anymore. Everything is changing. WebPlatform seems to be ready to document it all.