Author: simonmackay

Microsoft answers Amazon and Google without reinventing the wheel

Articles

Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1 with keyboard press image courtesy of Acer

These Windows 10 computers will be part of Microsoft’s smart-home vision

Microsoft takes aim at Amazon’s Echo with Windows 10 HomeHub feature | The Verge

Windows 10 “Home Hub” feature will take on Amazon Echo and more | ARS Technica

How and why Microsoft is stepping up its focus on ‘families’ with Windows 10 | ZDNet

Home Hub, la réponse de Microsoft à Amazon Echo et Google Home | Ere Numérique (French Language / Langue Française)

My Comments

Microsoft and Apple recently built their voice-driven personal assistants in to their regular-computer operating systems rather than confining this class of software to mobile devices. As well, Apple baked in the HomeKit smart-home framework in to the iOS mobile-device operating system to make it work with devices that represent the Internet Of Things or the smart home.

But Amazon and Google went ahead with voice-activated smart-home assistants being part of their network-connected wireless-speaker products. These would work with some of the smart-home devices and offer calendar and similar functionality for the home at your request.

Sony VAIO Tap 20 adaptive all-in-one computer as a desktop

These “adaptive all-in-one” computers like the Sony VAIO Tap 20 can be part of the “smart home”

Microsoft has decided to go another path for integrating the smart home and the voice-driven personal assistant concept by working on another function that will appear in an upcoming major functionality-driven Windows 10 update. This is to be called “Home Hub” which is destined for the “Redstone 3” Windows 10 functionality update, intended to appear after the “Creators Update”.

The software is intended to be able to work on a regular desktop or laptop computer that can run the Windows 10 operating system. Here, it could easily put new life in to the “all-in-one” computer design including those “Adaptive All-In-One” computers of the Sony VAIO Tap 20 ilk, pushing them as a computer that can exist on the kitchen bench. It can also put the midget computers known as the “NUC” (Next Unit Of Computing) devices to use by having them connected to that small flatscreen TV typically used to watch daytime TV content. Let’s not forget that they will earn their keep with all of the detachable and convertible “2-in-1” computers working as a tablet but can make more use out of existing desktop and laptop computers.

ASUS VivoStick press picture courtesy of ASUS

ASUS VivoStick – their answer to Intel’s Compute Stick – can repurpose that small flatscreen TV as a monitor for the central computer

Here, this functionality is centred around a common household account which appointments and other resources can be shared to. It effectively serves the same purpose as the fridge door which ends up as the household’s noticeboard. These events will appear on a lock-screen which shows a calendar, tasklist and other common information. There will be the ability for third-party application developers to develop apps that can share information to this “common display”, thanks to application-programming interfaces that Microsoft will offer as part of the equation.

Users can still log in to their own account using Windows Hello or their traditional login methods that the system supports to see a combined view of their personal information and the shared common information.

Let’s not forget that Microsoft wants to use the Cortana voice-driven personal assistant as part of this solution but the problem with these voice-driven assistants is that they are dows usually trained to one operator and may not handle multiple users.  In the home context, there is the issue of people’s voice changing as they get older, such as a young boy using the system initially, but facing problems with Cortana when his voice breaks as part of him being a teenager.

Like with Amazon’s and Google’s implementations, it could be feasible for you to direct the Cortana implementation to stream music from your favourite third-party music services. This, again would be facilitated with the music services’ apps having API hooks to Cortana and the other software that is part of Windows 10 Home Hub.

But there will be the ability to have the Windows 10 Home Hub also work as part of the smart home by being a control or display surface for compatible smart lights, thermostats and door locks. This will be facilitated through the use of open-frame industry standards for communication between devices and the Windows 10 Home Hub, I would suspect that one of the most common applications for this would be to see status notifications for various systems on the lock-screen or to have the ability to ask Cortana or operate a control on that lock-screen to do things like turn down the heating or close the garage door.

It has been one of Microsoft’s many efforts to provide family-focused home computing like offering some software as household-wide licenses or providing integral parental controls on the Windows platform.

But there are some questions to raise concerning Windows 10 and the Home Hub.

One of these is whether the professional, educational and enterprise variants of Windows 10 will be able toe be equipped with the Home Hub. This is more so for the “work-home” laptop scenario where people use the same computing device between their workplace or place of study and their home.

Similarly, this extends to existing Windows 10 deployments where there is the desire to use existing computers that run the operating system. It is because there will be at least a lot of households that will maintain a few Windows 10 computers in some form. One of the questions is how simple is it to integrate extant computers and user accounts including domain-linked workplace accounts in to a Home Hub setup, achieving the goal to benefit from the common calendar and lockscreen.

Apple could take a leaf out of Microsoft’s book and link Siri, HomeKit and the MacOS regular-computing platform to provide a similar “home-central” service for their platforms while avoiding the need to “reinvent the wheel”.

How Microsoft have approached the smart-home trend and answer Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home wireless speakers is to exploit their knowhow in Windows 10 and allow people to use existing computers and home networks to achieve this same goal.

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Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake ultraportable–check for software updates for best performance

Article

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook - press picture courtesy of Dell

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook – keep this running at its best with the latest downloads from Dell’s Website

Dell XPS 13 (9360) with Kaby Lake gets a suite of new drivers and fixes | Windows Central

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

New XPS 13 Ultrabook

Product Page (Buy Here!) – currently AUD$2299

Support Page

My Comments

You may be pestering your boss about a new ultraportable computer for your work or perhaps your old laptop has been showing the dreaded doughnut for a bit too long and you have enough money set aside for one of the latest and greatest Ultrabooks. Dell has the latest XPS 13 Kaby Lake variant just released with a price of AUD$1899 (Intel Core i5 Kaby Lake CPU, 8Gb RAM, 128Gb SSD, Windows 10 Home) but keep an eye on the Dell website for specials where the machine may be offered cheaper.

This “portable-typewriter-size” Ultrabook will have the latest Intel processor and chipset, Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connectivity and other niceties with the ability to exploit 802.11ac Wi-Fi network segments with a strong reliable signal thanks to Rivet Killer Wireless technology. But are you sure you are getting the “best bang for the buck” once you order it from Dell?

Because this Ultrabook has just been released with drivers and firmware “just out the gate”, you may find that it may not cut the mustard as expected like with equipment that has just been released. But Dell have answered this reality by issuing the latest drivers and patches for this system that have been “tuned up” to bring out the best performance from this Ultrabook.

The article recommended that, as part of getting your new “toy” ready for its full-on use, you make sure it is running the latest drivers and support software for its hardware functionality. Most likely, you will spend time making sure it works with your home and/or business network and peripherals; installing the software that is important for your work and play activities; verifying you can get to your online hangouts from this new device, as well as enabling the features that are so important to you. But you would need to factor in spending time checking for newer drivers so the computer performs at its best.

They may not show up on the Dell Update utility software packaged with this system as “critical” but are more likely as “recommended” downloads. You may find it more reliable to hit up the support page and download the necessary updates here. Some of the drivers listed may be about assured stability with the “expansion-module” docks that Dell has available for this system. Here, you may not think of them as being relevant for you if you didn’t purchase any of those accessories from Dell, but they can be as relevant for any adaptors or “expansion-module” docks that appear under a different brand but use the same electronics as Dell’s accessories for one or more of their functions.

The same situation will also apply to whatever new computer you have purchased especially if it has just been released, whereupon you may have to use the manufacturer’s software update utility to pick out the drivers and support software for your system’s hardware. Similarly, you may have to visit the manufacturer’s support or downloads page to find the latest downloads for your computer such as to update the supplied software to newer and better standards.

A similar situation had crept up when I was doing some support work for a friend of mine who had problems with his laptop not associating with his home network since he upgraded it to Windows 10. Here, it required the installation of drivers and firmware from the manufacturer’s support Website in order for it to work properly under that newer operating system and take advantage of what it had to offer. Again, you may have to use the manufacturer’s software update utility or visit their support or downloads page after you perform a major update on the computer’s operating system.

The same thing can happen if your computer is equipped with a subsystem like a wireless-network chipset or audio chipset which implements software-defined behaviour. This is where the subsystem’s functionality is evolved under the command of driver and support software – newer software could improve the subsystem’s existing functionality, make the subsystem honour new standards and become more compatible, or add extra capabilities to that subsystem.

One of the issues that was raised in the article was whether Dell, like the rest of the computer manufacturers, will make these drivers available through the Windows Update mechanism that Microsoft provides or not rather than having to write and furnish an update utility of their own.

A reality that may be seen more is that the OEMs who supply the chipsets or other electronics that look after a particular function, such as Intel, Qualcomn or other wireless-network chipsets that are furnished with newer laptop computers, is that these OEMs may provide the updated drivers for the electronics concerned and you may find that these drivers haven’t been updated as far as the computer manufacturer is concerned. Here, if you know whom the OEM is for that chipset, something you can identify in Device Manager which will list the the extant software drivers installed on your system for its hardware. This same situation also faces desktop computers that you build or upgrade yourself or have built up by an independent computer store.

Similarly, for computers that implement a recovery image for the operating system and supplied applications, you may find that updated versions of the drivers and supplied software may not make it to the recovery image. This can be annoying if you have to “strip” your computer back to ground-zero and reinstall everything during situations like rectifying faults or preparing to hand the computer over to someone else. This could be improved with the ability to amalgamate newer versions of the same software in to the recovery image.

Paying attention to Windows Update, the software-update software delivered by your computer’s manufacturer or the computer manufacturer’s support / download pages can allow you to keep your computer like the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook to the expectations that its manufacturer placed on it.

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Mobile-device power-supply accessories always a valid Christmas gift idea

It is Christmas time and you want to buy some gifts for those people in your life.

A high-capacity slimline USB power bank - valid as a gift idea for mobile-technology users

A high-capacity slimline USB power bank – valid as a gift idea for mobile-technology users

One gift idea worth looking at for most people would be a power-supply accessory for their mobile devices. These come in the form of power-banks / external battery packs, multi-device chargers or charging devices that use other energy sources. They can also benefit mobile-device accessories like Bluetooth headsets or wireless game controllers that obtain their charging power from USB sockets.

The power banks or external battery packs have their own high-capacity battery but are charged from a USB-based power source like another USB battery charger. There are some of these battery packs that can work from four AA Duracells, which can allow you to charge up your phone from a set of batteries you buy at the local convenience store.

The USB external battery packs do come in a variety of styles from a small cylindrical style similar to a lipstick tube, through something as big as a small padlock, to a flat “candybar” style that doesn’t take up much room in your pants pocket while it powers your smartphone. But most of these units have differing battery capacities and power outputs and the units with a large battery capacity and 2.1A power output can earn their keep with the tablets or the high-end smartphones. As well, those battery packs with the high capacity can work well with situations where you make heavy use of your phone’s features like using the maps and navigation function, play music, use workout-tracking software or play games.

Similarly, these battery packs will earn their keep with those of us who spend a lot of time talking on our mobile phones because this can eat in to the phone’s battery’s runtime and the external battery will typically give you that extra battery power so you can talk longer. For example, I have used one of my USB battery packs to allow someone who was using their smartphone to counsel another person over the phone to talk longer with that person without fear of being cut off by a dead battery.

Another power-supply accessory worth considering are the multiple-outlet USB battery chargers, devices that I often refer to as “charging bars” but are also referred to as “charging stations”. These devices plug in to the AC power and can charge at least four USB-connected devices at once. What’s more is that they have a very high power budget with some of these devices even having the ability to give at least one of these sockets a dedicated supply of 2.4 amps. This can allow the device to comfortably charge one or two tablets and many smartphones concurrently, with the ability to provide the right amount of current to charge them quickly.

These “charging bars” avoid the need to plug multiple USB chargers in to a powerboard to charge or power many personal-electronics devices at the same location. One area where these devices earn their keep is the kitchen bench where a household will be “topping up” their mobile devices’ batteries for the day while they are having breakfast for example. Or, you may find that in an office a group of workers have their smartphones or tablets nearby and want to run these devices from external power to avoid compromising their devices’ battery runtime.

They also can be useful for charging up USB external battery packs and other accessories in such a way that you could charge your smartphone, a Bluetooth headset, an external battery pack and something else at the same time.

There are some other mobile-power-supply gifts out their that harvest energy from other sources like the sun or heat from a fire. A lot of these devices have been pitched as “novelty” devices and some of them won’t provide enough power to your smartphone or tablet from that energy source. Here, you need to be sure that the device can store a significant amount of power in an onboard battery because the energy source can easily fluctuate which is more so with solar panels or you have to hold it in a certain position to get the maximum power in to your mobile device.

As most of us use mobile devices “to the hilt” for multiple purposes, especially online, gaming or multimedia activity, we are going through our devices’ batteries very quickly. This is where devices like USB battery packs or multiple-USB-outlet “charging bars” are becoming very relevant as gift ideas.

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Samsung implements auto-focus on the Galaxy S8 to make it a selfie smartphone

Article

Samsung Galaxy Note Edge press image courtesy of Samsung

The front camera on the next premium smartphones could end up being equipped with auto-focus technology

The Galaxy S8 may provide better selfies thanks to autofocus implementation | Android Authority

Previous coverage on “selfie” smartphones

What Makes That Smartphone A “Selfie” Smartphone

My Comments

Increasingly smartphone manufacturers are paying attention to the kind of photos a smartphone’s or tablet’s front-facing camera takes. This has been driven by the phenomenon where young people are using these cameras to take “selfies” – pictures of themselves. Even venue owners and event hosts are catering to this trend by providing “selfie photobooths” with the appropriate decorations and props so they can take the funniest-looking selfie.

The way most of the manufacturers have approached this issue includes front-facing cameras with a resolution not dissimilar to the rear-facing camera, use of a wide-angle lens on the front-facing camera or even integrating software logic to remove blemishes from the photos that are taken.

But Samsung has gone further with their front-facing camera by implementing an auto-focus mechanism. Typically, a smartphone would be equipped with auto-focus on the rear-facing camera because this is the one used for general photography but the front-facing camera gets a fair bit of use for both videocalls and selfies. But implementing an auto-focus camera for both of the smartphone’s cameras would be costly and not worth it due to the close proximity of the subjects.

Here, they have implemented an auto-focus cameras on both the front-facing camera and the rear-facing camera for their new Galaxy S8 Android smartphone. This will be seen as a way to differentiate their premium smartphones from the rest of the pack due to the ability to yield that sharp videocall image or selfie.

As the cost of auto-focus cameras for smartphones and tablets that yield acceptable resolution goes downhill, it could become a trend for front-facing cameras on the smartphones, tablets, laptops and similar devices to have this feature for the best Skype videocall or selfie.

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Keeping the download-to-own music market alive

A lot of Millenials are preferring to use Spotify or similar “online jukeboxes” as their main music source, having the music play out of a wireless speaker or a network-capable audio system that supports these services.

What are these online jukeboxes?

Spotify

Spotify – the preferred only music source for many Millenials but can be used as a music discovery tool

These “online-jukebox” music services all work work primarily on a subscription basis where you don’t effectively own your music library, rather you stream down the music from these services after you pay a nominal amount per month or year to use these services. Some of them offer a free ad-supported variant of their music service, usually as an on-ramp to the main subscription-funded service.

But some of us, like myself, use the above-mentioned “online jukeboxes” more as a music-discovery tool so we can identify musical content that can fit in to our library. Examples of this include playing playlists that convey particular musical styles or moods, or discovering and “trying out” artists, albums and tracks that pique our interests.It includes situations where a company may offer a branded playlist with songs that represent what they are about.

In my case, I showed some interest in one of the “yacht-rock” playlists on Spotify and there had been a few songs that piqued my interest, some of which would be hard to find on CD in Australia. What I had done was to visit one of the transactional download-to-own music stores that is run as part of a platform’s app store and subsequently bought these songs as audio files that I could download. This meant I could add them as part of a personal playlist that existed on a microSD card as well as on a NAS that is available on the home network.

How can the “download-to-own” music services fit in

iTunes Store

iTunes – still going strong as a download-to-own music store

The way some of us add this content to our libraries is through a transaction-based “download-to-own” service like iTunes or Amazon Music. Increasingly most of the app stores associated with particular regular-computing or mobile platforms like the Windows Store and the Google Play Store are adding “download-to-own” music as part of their offerings.

Such services allow us to buy songs or albums as common media files to download to our computers or NAS drives, with a similar experience to buying the physical media where we effectively own it, but in a digital form. There used to be many of these services before the subscription-based music-streaming services took over the online music marketplace.

Microsoft Store - Muisc

Microsoft Store -Microsoft’s latest entry in to the “download-to-own” scene, providing music as MP3 files

What used to be an advantage was for these services to sell most of the songs as single tracks rather than require the user to buy a complete album. This was very similar to the era of the 7” 45rpm single where people could buy these records for cheap if they are after a particular song. This appealed to people who were buying to build up playlists of particular songs typically to set a particular mood.

There is also the value that you are not dependent on whether the content you like is still available at the online streaming music service or whether you have burnt up your mobile download allowance by streaming your music while on the road. Some of the online music services provide for offline listening but the files that are stored are kept in a proprietary form that can’t be readily played with anything other than the software provided by the online service.

Viable niches that these services can answer

Some of these services still exist but could be taken further to support a range of viable niches whether in the form of content types or audio-reproduction standards.

Answering new and upcoming talent

The typical answer to this issue is to offer these services as an “on-ramp” for upcoming talent like new musicians, basement bands and DJs. Here, these artists who typically have a handful of content but aren’t discovered could be able to sell their content through these services. They offer a simplified “on-ramp” for this kind of talent and may even provide the promotion that it needs to be exposed.

You may find that some of these “download-to-own” music stores will have their “artist and repertoire” teams who “suss out” local gigs, buskers and community radio to hunt down the new talent whose material they can sell.

Supplying particular kinds of content

To the same extent, there are some suppliers who sell particular kinds of “download-to-own” music that suit particular tastes.

Beatport

Beatport – the dance-music download-to-own store

One of these is Beatport who sell electronic dance music to DJs and those of us who like that kind of music. This is similar to how some dance-music record stores like Central Station Records in Australia existed, catering to this user class and were pulling out the stops to hunt down the latest beats.

Sometimes some record labels that specialise in particular kinds of content may run their own shopfront instead of or alongside the traditional distribution channels. It may be seen as a way to bypass import controls that some distributors and retailers value highly for controlling what is available in certain markets. As well, this approach effectively provides direct access to the talent the labels represent.

High-quality file-based audio

Another way would be that file types that represent high-quality audio could be available either as a standard or premium option. This can appeal for those of us who value high-quality audio or regularly use a top-notch hi-fi system. As well, there could be the ability to obtain high-quality masterings of the recordings that are available, including the ability to obtain a version prepared with or without high dynamic range.

Here, such recordings can be seen as a premium option for those of us who want something that is more special than what the online streaming services offer. An example of this has been the PonoMusic store that Neil Young started out with but is undergoing some renovation.

How can they complement Spotify and co?

But to continue making sure that these services maintain popular appeal, “download-to-own” music stores that want to cover a large market base have to have access to the current and back catalogue offered by most, if not all, of the major labels across the world. This includes being able to sell these recordings in to other countries, which may raise concern with music labels who don’t like the concept of parallel-importing of content in to other markets.

Similarly, they could partner with the likes of Spotify to offer the recordings that these subscription-based “online jukeboxes” provide for playback as a premium download-to-own option. For example, a media-management program that works with a “download-to-own” store and one of the “online jukeboxes” could offer a “buy this playlist offline” function where you can effectively buy your own copy of a playlist. Here, it would check which of the songs are downloaded or “ripped” from your CDs, then allow you to buy the remainder of the playlist from the “download-to-own” stores.

Conclusion

What has to happen is that, like the way radio and packaged pre-recorded music complemented each other, the download-to-own music services and the “online jukeboxes” of the Spotify kind need to be positioned in a manner to complement each other in the file-based music world.

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Z-Wave to be the first standards group to mandate secure IoT

Article

Nest Learning Thermostat courtesy of Nest Labs

Z-Wave now requires a secure-by-design approach for Internet Of Things devices using its technology like these room thermostats

IoT gear will need better security to win a Z-Wave badge | PC World

Previous coverage on this topic

A Clear Reality Surfaces With The Internet Of Things

EU wants to establish a security baseline for Internet Of Things

August responds to its smart lock’s security weaknesses by patching its software

My Comments

The recent Mirai botnet denial-of-service cyber-attacks including an attack against a data-security journalist have raised serious questions regarding designing the software for dedicated-purpose devices like network-infrastructure devices and the “Internet Of Things”. Here, it raised concern regarding default or hard-coded passwords along with poorly-maintained software as being a few of the issues that lead to lax security proactices for the dedicated-purpose devices.

This led to the European Union wanting to call a baseline standard for device-software security, with a customer-facing indicator similar to energy-efficiency labels on appliances or nutrition-rating labels on foodstuffs. Here, the standard wanted to look at “default-for-security” setup routines along with the issue of software maintenance.

But Z-Wave who establish a short-range wireless-connectivity standard for home-automation devices have had to answer this issue by requiring that devices using this technology implement their Security 2 (S2) secure-operations framework before the device can wear the Z-Wave logo. It is similar to various standards logos like Dolby noise reduction, DLNA or HDMI where equipment has to be compliant to these standards before they can show these logos and customers can see that logo as an indicator of compatibility.

Here, the requirement includes the use of a human-readable PIN number and/or a machine-readable QR code for authenticating devices to a Z-Wave network. As well, Z-Wave setups must implement a strong secure key exchange along with implementation of a Transport Layer Security 1.1 data tunnel for IP setups. It is mandatory for the endpoint devices like light bulbs, light switches and thermostats along with “hub” and similar devices that connect Z-Wave devices to the home network and Internet.

A question that may be raised with certain device classes like smart locks or security systems is whether a PIN number that you set using the device’s control surface, especially an “administrator” or “master” PIN number, does constitute a PIN number for the Security 2 (S2) framework.

At the moment, what Z-Wave have done is to address the issue of “secure setup” for this class of device. They haven’t dealt with the issue of software maintenance which is still a thorn in the side for dedicated-function devices and this may be something that others in the industry may need to deal with.

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Silicon Valley starts a war against fake news

Article

Facebook and Google to block ads on fake news websites | Adnews

Facebook Employees Are In Revolt Over Fake News | Gizmodo

Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites | New York Times

Does the internet have a fake-news problem? | CNet

Google CEO says fake news is a problem and should not be distributed | The Verge

Want to keep fake news out of your newsfeed? College professor creates list of sites to avoid | Los Angeles Times

My Comments

Since Donald Trump gained election victory in the USA, there has been some concern amongst a few of Silicon Valley’s tech companies regarding the existence of “fake news”.

This is typically a story that is presented in order to refer to an actual news event but doesn’t relate to any actual news event. In some cases, such stories a hyped-up versions of an existing news item but in a lot of cases, these stories are built up on rumours.

The existence of Internet-distributed fake news has been of concern amongst journalists especially where newsroom budgets are being cut back and more news publishers and broadcasters are resorting to “rip-and-read” journalism, something previously associated with newscasts provided by music-focused FM radio stations.

Similarly, most of us are using Internet-based news sources as part of our personal news-media options or or only source of news, especially when we are using portable devices like ultraportable laptops, tablets or smartphones as our main Internet terminals for Web browsing.

Silicon Valley also see the proliferation of fake news as a threat to the provision of balanced coverage of news and opinion because they see this as a vehicle for delivering the populist political agenda rather than level-headed intelligent news. This is typically because the headline and copy in “fake news” reports is written in a way to whip up an angry sentiment regarding the topics concerned, thus discouraging further personal research.

But Facebook and Google are tackling this problem initially by turning off the advertising-money tap for fake-news sites. Facebook will apply this to ad-funded apps that work alongside these sites while Google will apply this as a policy for people who sign up to the AdSense online display-ads platform.

There is the issue of what kind of curating exists in the algorithms that list search results or news items on a search-engine or social-media page. It also includes how the veracity of news content is being deemed, even though Google and Facebook are avoiding being in a position where they can be seen as “arbiters of truth”.

The big question that can exist is what other actions could Silicon Valley take to curb the dissemination of fake news beyond just simply having their ad networks turn off the supply of advertising to these sites? This is because the popular search engines are essentially machine-generated indexes of the Web, while the Social Web and the blogosphere are ways where people share links to resources that exist on the Web.

Some people were suggesting the ability for a search engine like Google or a social network site like Facebook to have its user interface “flag” references to known fake-news stories, based on user or other reports. Similarly, someone could write desktop or mobile software like a browser add-on that does this same thing, or simply publish a publicly-available list of known “fake-news” Websites for people to avoid.

This is infact an angle that a US-based college professor had taken where she prepared a Google Docs resource listing the Websites hosting that kind of news, in order to help people clean their RSS newsfeeds of misinformation, with some mainstream online news sources including the New York Magazine providing a link to this resource.

The issue of fake news distributed via the Internet is becoming a real problem, but Silicon Valley is looking at different ways to solve this problem and bring to it the same level of respect that was associated with traditional media.

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Keeping hackers away from your Webcam and microphone

Article

Creative Labs LiveCam Connect HD Webcam

Software now exists so you can gain better control over your Webcam

How To Stop Hackers From Spying With Your Webcam | Gizmodo

My Comments

A privacy issue that is being raised regarding the use of cameras and microphones connected to your computer is the fact that malware could be written to turn your computer in to a covert listening device.

Those of us who use a traditional “three-piece” desktop computer and have a physically-separate external Webcam may find this an easier issue because you cam simply disconnect the camera from your computer. But the issue of your Webcam or your computer’s microphone being hacked to spy on you would be of concern for those of us who have the camera or microphone integrated in the computer as with portable or all-in-one equipment, or the monitor which is something that could be offered as a product differentiator by display manufacturers.

The simplest technique that has been advocated to deal with this risk is to attach an opaque sticker or opaque sticky tape over the camera’s lens. Some computer and monitor manufacturers have approached this problem using a panel that slides over the Webcam as a privacy shield. But you wouldn’t be able to control the use of your computer’s integrated microphone unless it had a hardware on-off switch.

Most of the mobile computing platforms require that newly-installed software that wants to use the camera, microphone, GPS device or other phone sensors have to ask permission from the phone’s owner before the software can be installed or use these devices. The Apple iOS App Store even vets software to make sure it is doing the right thing before it is made available through that storefront and this is also becoming so for software sold through the Google Play Android storefront and the Microsoft Store Windows storefront.

Lately there have been some software solutions written for the Windows and Macintosh platforms that allow you to take back control of the camera and microphone due to the fact that these regular-computer platforms have historically made it easier for users to install software from anywhere. But I would also suggest that you scan the computer for malware and make sure that all of the software on the computer, including the operating system, is up-to-date and patched properly.

One of these solutions is Oversight which has been written for the Macintosh platforms and can detect if software is gaining access to your Mac’s Webcam or microphone. It also can detect of two or more programs are gaining access to the Webcam which is a new tactic for Webcam-based spyware because it can take advantage of people using the Webcam for business and personal videocalls and record these conversations. The user has the ability to allow or block a program’s access to the Webcam or microphone.

For the Windows platform, a similar program called “Who Stalks My Cam” detects events relating to your computer’s Webcam such as software wanting to acquire material from it.  This has the abilities for you to stop a program that is using the Webcam running or to shut down the Webcam process. But there is also the ability to track processes that are running while the computer system is idle because some spyware processes can be set up to come alive when the system isn’t being actively used. The program even allows you to “whitelist” programs that you trust like over-the-top communications programs or video-recording software so that it doesn’t get in their way.

The ability to track usage of attached / connected cameras and microphones or similar hardware like GPS units by software running on your computer will end up becoming part of a typical desktop/endpoint security program’s feature set as people become concerned about the use of these devices by spyware. This is in conjunction with operating systems also hardening access to devices that can be used to spy on their users by implementing software certification, sandboxing, privileged access and similar techniques.

It is definitely another threat vector that we are being concerned about when it comes to data security and personal privacy.

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Celebrity gossip sites–attractive to malware distributors

Articles

Who Weekly celebrity-gossip-magazine Web site

Be sure you stick with trusted news sites when you are after celebrity gossip

The most dangerous celebrities to look up on Google | BGR.com

Searching for celebrity news on Google can be dangerous for your computer | Panda Security

Malware parasites feed on PerezHilton.com gossip fans | BBC News

My Comments

An issue that has been raised is that searching for the latest news and gossip about a celebrity can be risky for your computer’s security. Panda Security even described it as being of risk to a business’s computer systems because office workers would do it during slow times in their workday. It is though this activity is still today’s equivalent of looking through the gossip magazines at the supermarket checkout or in the doctor’s waiting room.

This is because the Internet has made it easier to push up “fly-by-night” gossip Websites that are laden with malware and have these advertised.

Online ad - to be respected like advertising in printed media

Ads on sites like here need to be secure to obtain the same respect as magazine ads

It is also because there is a weakness that exists in the online advertising marketplace is that ad networks and publishers don’t subject the advertising that comes to these networks to thorough scrutiny on a safety perspective. This then allows online advertising to become a breeding ground for malware with such things as “malvertising” where scripted ads are used to “push” malware on to users’ systems. This is a topic I have raised because I am wanting to see the rise of a quality online ad marketplace that has the same level of respect as the advertising seen in traditional print media.

A similar situation happens whenever a new album or movie featuring a popular entertainer is released because sites and torrent files would pop up claiming to offer the material for free. To the same extent, this could include offers of “exclusive” photo, audio and video material relating to the content or its performers for free. The same thing also can happen with surveillance, personal-album or similar material that features celebrities in compromising situations and ends up being “leaked” to the public arena. Again these sites and the torrent “file-of-files” available to download would be a minefield of malware files if you aren’t careful.

The situation becomes worse during the time surrounding entertainment-industry awards events, the release of new headline content featuring the celebrities or whenever there are major personal events affecting these people such as new relationships or relationship breakups. The articles cited that people involved with the Hollywood entertainment scene are more likely to be targeted with fly-by-night malware sites, malvertising attempts and similar skulduggery. but I also would place at risk of this treatment the British Royal Family or past and present popular Presidents of the United States.

What can you do?

  • Make sure your regular or mobile computing device is running the latest version of the operating system and you are using the latest version of the Web browser(s) and other software that you surf the Web with. It may also be a good practice to run an up-to-date version of a desktop / endpoint security program which can scan for flaky links and files.
  • Most importantly, think before you click! When you are searching for information about a particular show, recording or star, get it “from the horse’s mouth” – go to the publisher’s or broadcaster’s site that relates to what you are after. Also visit the online presence of the mastheads that you know and trust when you are after the celebrity or entertainment-industry news. Examples of these would be those magazines available at the supermarket checkout
  • But be careful about anyone offering links to resources that are too good to be true, especially where words like “free” and “exclusive” are bandied around. These sites are the ones that are the malware traps.
  • You may find that using tools like search engines or browser plugins that verify Websites’ reputation may be of assistance when it comes to staying away from flaky Websites.
  • As for online advertising with sites that are suddenly popular, be careful about following through on these links or make sure you are using desktop security software to protect your computer against malware.

Conclusion

You can engage in the digital equivalent of browsing the gossip mags safely as long as you are sure of the resources that you are heading towards and don’t fall for the bait.

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Advanced business Wi-Fi–what needs to be done

OpenMesh managed access point product picture courtesy of OpenMesh

OpenMesh managed wireless access point

A class of Wi-Fi network setup that is appearing in the business networking market is what I would describe at best, “advanced” Wi-Fi. This typically is positioned as “managed Wi-Fi” or “virtualised Wi-Fi” due to the way these systems can be managed to suit business requirements or set up to serve multiple networks.

What does advanced Wi-Fi offer

But what does it offer? These networks are dependent on a Wi-Fi network controller that connects to compatible Wi-Fi access points using a Cat5 Ethernet wired backbone which also links them back to the Internet and other business network resources. Some of these systems may provide this kind of management through a cloud-hosted controller rather than a controller appliance installed on the premises.

The IT department can control these systems using a single dashboard, whether this is in the form of a Web-based front-end or a native client program.

The tricks that these systems have up the sleeve include:

  • the ability to adjust the operating channel, transmit power and other parameters of the access points to achieve the desired network coverage and bandwidth for the whole network;
  • to implement a combination of VLAN (virtual local area network), multiple ESSIDs (wireless network names) and related technologies to allow the same group of Wi-Fi access points to serve multiple networks thus creating a “neutral-host” or “multiple-host” Wi-Fi network; and
  • to work as Wi-Fi intrusion-detection/prevention systems to protect the network’s users against rogue wireless-network activity.

What are the current limitations

But there are limitations that need to be looked at to make this technology viable across all business types.

Lack of vendor independence

One is the lack of vendor independence and interoperability. Here, most of these systems are dependent on hardware and software offered by the same vendor which can be very limiting when a business wants to expand their Wi-Fi network’s footprint or replace end-of-life equipment in their system. It can be especially very frustrating for situations where their vendor doesn’t have an access point that ticks the necessary boxes for a particular application such as, for example, a weatherproof outdoor design that supports dual-band 802.11ac or the software doesn’t support the functionality that a customer is so after.

The same situation can be very frustrating whenever a vendor declares end-of-life for a particular managed-wireless-network platform, ceases to trade or is taken over by someone else. This can raise various support issues whenever you need to replace older equipment or improve on your existing system.

Here, you could end up dumping all of the access points that you bought for an advanced-WiFi setup if you had to change to a new platform or vendor, rather than allowing for a gradual changeover where you can keep existing equipment going.

Systems placing small business out of the equation

As well, not many systems are designed to cater to small-business users who want to effectively “start small” and “grow up”. A classic situation that may occur is for the business to use a single access point or router but as they grow, they add another access point to obtain an increased footprint such as to cover the neighbouring shop they just leased.

Typically, most of the managed Wi-Fi systems require the use of an access-point controller and the compatible access points for them to work. But this could be facilitated through the use of software-based enablement of this functionality for business-grade access points and routers where you only need to download particular software to these devices to add on this functionality.

Such a concept can be facilitated through network-hardware vendors adopting an “app-store” approach where they can offer additional software that a user can download to their network hardware, similar to what happens for smartphones and tablets.

Lack of secure inter-network data exchange abilities

Small businesses - Belgrave shopping strip

Shopping strips and similar developments could benefit from open-frame advanced Wi-Fi setups

Another missing feature is the ability to exchange data between multiple managed wireless networks to permit cohesive operation amongst the multiple networks. What could this feature offer?

Such a feature would benefit building-wide or development-wide wireless-network optimisation for multiple-occupancy developments including to create a “ring of protection” around the building for the occupants’ wireless networks. But it would require that the individual occupants can be able to have control of their networks.

The feature can also support secure authenticated access to private wireless networks via other trusted wireless networks. Such a setup could cover a multiple-occupancy building’s communal areas like lobbies, food courts or garden areas; or for extending private Wi-Fi coverage to business partners’ offices or local “watering holes” like hotels, bars and cafés. The concept here is about creation of a “neutral-host” or “multiple-host” Wi-Fi network in the communal areas or “watering holes” where all of the occupants have access to their networks in the same manner as what would happen when they discover and log in to the Wi-Fi network on their premises.  This situation is becoming increasing real as an increasing number of multiple-occupancy developments are heading towards the “mixed-use” direction where there is office, shopping, entertainment, residential, hotel and/or other space within the same development.

This functionality would require the use of tag-based or port-based VLANs (virtual local-area networks) as a way to link private LANs to the access points, and this may be already in place with multi-occupancy buildings where a business may occupy office and/or retail space across differing floors. Or it can be facilitated on a WAN-based effort through the use of box-to-box VPNs, typically used to link business locations across the world.  There could be the opportunity to have this kind of private-network-access enabled on a long-term basis such as through one’s tenancy or business partnership; or on an “ad-hoc” basis where it is enabled as required such as for a conference.

Less relevance to home-network users

Yarra's Edge apartment blocks

Apartment blocks and other residential developments can benefit from advanced Wi-Fi setups

At the moment, advanced Wi-Fi network technology is not being perceived or pitched as being relevant to home network users even though there is a use case for this technology amongst this user class.

This technology can be made relevant for home networks established in high-density or multiple-dwelling environments including the “mixed-use” development reality that I have outlined above. This is because these kind of environments involve many home and other Wi-Fi networks operated close together through that development.

Such networks can be set up for automatic channel and signal-strength optimisation across a block or street while these networks can be integrated with access points installed in common areas that can provide access to the development’s occupants’ networks on an ad-hoc basis. As well, if a development has one or more businesses or facilities of benefit to all the occupants like a food court, café or bar, the households could “extend” their Wi-Fi network to the meeting place for the duration they are in that location.

What needs to happen

Standardised secure data exchange within and between networks

The main requirements that would improve advanced business Wi-Fi would be the network to exchange configuration and instrumentation data in XML files that are defined by the industry for this application.

Rydges Melbourne

Hotels can also benefit from an open-frame managed wireless network so that it is easier for businesses to securely “extend” their networks to these places when they organise events or lodge employees at these facilities

As well, the established secure-data-interchange standards need to come in to play for exchanging data between the devices in a managed Wi-Fi network and between managed Wi-FI networks. For inter-network access, the ability to implement VLAN connections via Ethernet, xDSL or fibre-optic setups using the same physical link as an Internet service link can be investigated for intra-building setups while manufacturers need to research simple-yet-secure VPN setup procedures for setups that traverse multiple buildings and logical networks. This also can appeal to convention / exhibition facilities and hotels which businesses make use of very frequently to host their events or lodge employees who are attending business events.

The secure-data interchange could be based on SSL standards for data-in-transit encryption while a set of XML data schemas and filetypes can be used for defining the data that is transferred.

Similarly, a system of trust needs to be established to permit exchange of data between networks especially where inter-network instrumentation is involved. It also includes determining an effective “range of influence” for managing Wi-Fi networks from outside the logical network. This could be based on a “hop-count” or similar mechanism for inter-network data exchange and may require that a high-density or multiple-occupancy development be equipped with its own network electronics that covers all services in that development.

Shared network discovery

In the case of high-density or multiple-occupancy developments which have common areas, there needs to be a way to discover the existence of configurable common-area wireless networks that cover these areas. Once such a network is discovered by a building occupant’s network, it could then be feasible for the occupant to establish or configure an extension network to cover the communal area.

This would primarily be about a “publish-and-subscribe” arrangement where the building’s management or businesses who want to offer fellow occupants use of their Wi-Fi networks can share the data about these networks on a development-wide basis while the occupants can discover the communal networks they can benefit from when they configure their network equipment.

To make it work effectively as far as the end-user is concerned, it may involve knowledge of a particular Internet-based URL which may carry the data for a particular communal network or a particular development with many communal networks. A “hop-count” discovery protocol may also have to be investigated for automatic development-wide discovery of these networks.

Conclusion

So it seems like that there needs to be a lot of work to make the advanced Wi-Fi wireless network earn its keep amongst a large user base rather than just a sole-occupied corporate office.

Update (1 December 2016): A reference to “neutral-host” Wi-Fi networks which are a single Wi-Fi infrastructure set up at the order of a venue, but is set up to provide a logical-network link to other networks like business-partners’ / occupants’ own networks or public-access Wi-Fi networks.

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