Clean Up Your Bookmarks

November 30, 2010 on 4:35 pm | In IdBlog, Tools | Add a Comment

For a long time I’ve wished for a utility that would help me clean up my bookmarks. In 15 or so years of web browsing, I’ve accumulated over 2000 of these links with no good method to identify and erase the bad links.

Most people wouldn’t give this a second thought — ‘bad data happens, so what?’ And really, with faster processors and cheap storage, there’s no real penalty for letting detritus accumulate in your data. Probably it’s a symptom of OCD to even worry about dead links in a favorites file. But I did.

So it was with relief and gratitude that I found Andy Halford’s CheckPlaces add-on for Firefox. According to the write-up on Mozilla’s Firefox site CheckPlaces, “Checks your bookmarks are valid and the pages still exist, checks for duplicates and for empty folders and can restore missing favicons”. It does all that simply and with a minimum of effort. You can download your copy of CheckPlaces here.

So what percentage of the 2000 links were bad? About 10 percent.

Data and the City, Part II

November 22, 2010 on 12:33 pm | In Build, IdBlog, Tools | Add a Comment

Steven Johnson has a fascinating article in the November issue of Wired titled, “Invisible City: What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York.” For those of you who don’t live in Gotham, or one of the 300 or so other American cities that have instituted similar programs, 311 is simply the call center for New York City. It takes about 50,000 calls a day and returns information in 180 different languages. New Yorkers call in with complaints about rats, potholes, sewers and noise (noise is by far the biggest complaint category from 9pm to 3 am) and questions about parking rules, school closures and recycling.

Besides offering a safe way for cranky New Yorkers to let off steam, the 311 service has become an important data-gathering tool for the city. As Johnson points out in his article, “A data-driven approach to urban life makes sense, because cities are in many respects problems of information management.” Read more about Steven Johnson on his blog.

By categorizing incoming calls and tagging them with time and location data, city administrators can identify patterns and pinpoint problems. For example, the first hot days of May or June will bring a spike in questions about the city’s chlorofluorocarbon recycling program as New Yorkers look to dump their old air conditioners and buy new units. Similarly, a cluster of sanitary complaints about a specific restaurant will prompt a visit from the city’s health department.

So far the Bloomberg administration hasn’t made too much of the 311 data-pile public, but the potential for reuse of this type of info is huge. Imagine the suffering that could be averted if 311 data were merged with a public service like The Bedbug Registry.

Groups like Open311 are looking to standardize the system and open all the data to the public: “Open311 refers to a standardized technology for location-based collaborative issue-tracking.” That’s a pretty cool idea — bug tracking software for your hometown.

Dumbphones and the Late Adopter

November 19, 2010 on 1:23 pm | In Build, IdBlog, Tools | Add a Comment

If you pay attention to the popular press, you might believe that anyone without the latest iPhone or Droid was a troglodyte so rare as to warrant a mention on the endangered species list.

While smartphone sales are growing fast, they still only account for about a third of all mobile phones sold in the US, according to a June Gartner study.  And, in the developing world, dumbphones are likely to be the primary mode of communication for years to come. That’s not so much because of the high cost of smartphones overseas, but the lack of reliable data networks.

Even in this country with the recent roll-out of 4G networks in major cities, consumers are staying away in droves. Why is that?

Cost is an obvious factor. Most unlimited data plans are about $30 per month. Add in voice, text and taxes, and you’re looking at about $100 a month.  That’s worth it for a salesperson who travels a lot, but for a student or stay-at-home mom? Maybe not.

Actual utility is another factor. Dropped calls, blank spots and the slow-drip of overtaxed data networks do a lot to reduce perceived value. Most mobile devices are also difficult to use. A study by Jacob Nielsen’s firm last year found that people using mobile devices only had a 59 percent success rate for simple info-finding tasks.

There’s also the wariness of consumers who’ve been through one too many product cycles. Guaranteed obsolescence is great for manufacturers, but kind of a drag for buyers. Or as Don Norman writes in “The Life Cycle of a Technology“, “The vast majority of customers are late adopters. They hold off until the technology has proved itself, and then they insist upon convenience, good user experience, and value.”

In a few years we will almost certainly have a pocket-sized computer-communication device that can take photos, play music, provide recommendations, directions and data while facilitating cheap phone calls and seamless voice-to-text translation. It will probably also be rugged, waterproof, simple to use, and take its power from the sun. Until that day comes, though, many of us cave dwellers will stick with our dumb phones.

The Year the Net Ate TV

November 11, 2010 on 12:41 pm | In IdBlog, Spin, Tools | Add a Comment

Both Hulu and Netflix posted impressive gains in the third quarter. Hulu earned $240 million in revenue in 2010, according to Mashable.  After just three years of operation, the internet-TV service now claims 30 million users and 253 content partners.

“In the third quarter, Netflix saw a 52 percent gain in subscribers to 16.9 million. Revenue increased 31 percent to $553 million,” the Washington Post reported. Most of the gains are in video streaming; in the fourth quarter Netflix expects to deliver more movies via the net than through the postal service.

Add this to the recent news that YouTube users are now uploading 35 hours of video every minute, and it’s not hard to predict that 2011 will be the year that the internet swallowed television. From a user’s perspective, this is great news. For the cost of a broadband connection and a Netflix subscription, couch potatoes everywhere can select what they want to watch from an expanding universe of movies, TV and homemade video. Cable companies and telecom ISP providers are less than thrilled by this trend. They have been busy lobbying the FCC to carve out a space for “specialized services” on the net.

This bid for an exception to the principles of network neutrality is just the latest bit of Orwellian obfuscation from the telecom lobby. Sadly,  it appears to be gaining traction with the Federal Communications Commission, if this muddled ArsTechnica piece is to be believed.

Netflix management was not deceived. In a recent statement to the FCC they wrote:

Netflix continues to believe that the risks posed by specialized services being provided over the same physical network as the public Internet heightens the need for oversight of such services. The Commission must assure that specialized services do not, in effect, transform the public Internet into a private network in which access is not open but is controlled by the network operator, and innovative Internet-based enterprises are permitted effective access to their consumers only if the enterprises pay network operators unreasonable fees or are otherwise seen by such network operators as not threatening a competitive venture.

Netflix and Hulu are just two examples of new companies that would not exist without a free and open network. Tens of thousands of other companies depend upon an open network to do business. What’s it going to take to get Congress and the FCC to codify the principles of network neutrality in law and enforce them with an administrative rule?

The Master Switch

November 5, 2010 on 6:48 am | In Books, IdBlog, Spin, Tools | Add a Comment

In 1994, when I was  introduced to the WWW portion of the internet, my first question was, “Who owns it?”

“Everybody does,” was the answer at the time.  For the first two decades of the web’s existence, that was true. Now that may be changing.

Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu’s new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires looks at the cycle of creation-chaos-and-control in communication systems.  “Information technologies give rise to industries, and industries to empires.” Wu said.  This cycle ultimately destroys the innovative spirit that creates new information technologies and the openness that typifies them in their early years. This pattern appears to be replicating itself with the internet, Professor Wu said in a recent NPR interview. For more detail, see The New Yorker for a series of video interviews with Tim Wu and Jefferey Toobin.

Wu has also been an advocate of network neutrality, the principle that all information carried on a given network is treated the same. For more of Professor Wu’s writing on this topic, see the Network Neutrality FAQ.

The issues of network neutrality and big capital trying to control information systems are not unrelated. Like the collusion of Western Union and the Associated Press 150 years ago, several players have been trying to consolidate content and its distribution over the net into one system.

A pair of articles, in the September issue of Wired ( “The Web is Dead” ),  by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, persuasively makes the case for an emerging class of applications and proprietary software supplanting HTML in the next few years. As the authors write, the devices and software used on the net will shift from open (HTML, XML, etc.) to closed systems (apps, iTunes, video codecs).

“Indeed, there has hardly ever been a fortune created without a monopoly of some sort, or at least an oligopoly. This is the natural path of industrialization: invention, propagation, adoption, control, ” Anderson writes in his piece. Oddly, Tim Wu is never mentioned in the article.

Traffic in the WWW portion of the net has seen a consolidation with the big players. As Wolff write in his Wired article:

“the top 10 Web sites accounted for 31 percent of US pageviews in 2001, 40 percent in 2006, and about 75 percent in 2010. “Big sucks the traffic out of small,” Milner says. “In theory you can have a few very successful individuals controlling hundreds of millions of people. You can become big fast, and that favors the domination of strong people.”

That may be result of Google’s indexing of the web, which favors already popular sites, or a natural laziness on the part of readers who just want to get their info in a coherent package and move on to the next thing.

Both Anderson and Wolff cite the failure of internet advertising as a major force behind the move to closed systems and subscription services.  But they overlook the importance of open repositories — Wikipedia content, KML annotations, Yelp reviews, Twitter feeds — in supplying the information that makes apps worthwhile. Oligarchs may be moving the web toward closed systems, but they still need the rabble to provide the bulk of content.

Certainly the internet is evolving.  The web itself — the information wrapped in HTML and related languages — is a declining portion of all traffic online. Video content now accounts for 26 percent of traffic online, according to an October 25 usage study by Cisco, while P2P file sharing claims 25 percent of IP traffic and HTTP (primarily web pages cast in HTML) retains 26 percent.  In June, a Cisco study predicted that by 2014, 91 percent of all consumer traffic on the net will be video. The same report forecast a four-fold increase in internet traffic:  “In 2014, the Internet will be four times larger than it was in 2009. By year-end 2014, the equivalent of 12 billion DVDs will cross the Internet each month.”  The “Internet” is the now-40-year-old set of standards  (notably Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP) that facilitates the transmission of all data types on the net.

All of these tools are transitory. The hardware and software we use now will seem quaintly absurd in a decade or so, but the idea of a global network open to everyone is concept that capital alone cannot kill.

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