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Amazon loves to annoy
June 27th, 2013 under Digital Rights, Gadgtes, rengolin, Software, Unix/Linux, Web. [ Comments: none ]

It’s amazing how Amazon will do all in their power to annoy you. They will sell you DRM-free MP3 songs, and even allow you to download on any device (via their web interface) the full version, for your own personal use, in the car, at home or when mobile. But, not without a cost, no.

For some reason, they want to have total control of the process, so if they’ll allow you to download your music, it has to be their way. In the past, you had to download the song immediately after buying, with a Windows-only binary (why?) and you had only one shot. If the link failed, you just lost a couple of pounds. To be honest, that happened to me, and customer service were glad to re-activate my “license” so I could download it again. Kudos for that.

Question 1: Why did they need an external software to download the songs when they had a full-featured on-line e-commerce solution?

It’s not hard to sell on-line music, other people have been doing it for years and not in that way, for sure. Why was it so hard for Amazon, the biggest e-commerce website on Earth, to do the same? I was not asking for them to revolutionise the music industry (I leave that for Spotify), just do what others were doing at the time. Apparently, they just couldn’t.

Recently, it got a lot better, and that’s why I started buying MP3 songs from Amazon. They now had a full-featured MP3 player on the web! They also have the Android version of it that is a little confusing but unobtrusive. The web version is great, once you buy an album you go directly to it and you can already start listening to songs and all.

Well, I’m a control freak, and I want to have all songs I own on my own server (and its backup), so I went to download my recently purchased songs. Well, it’s not that simple: you can download all your songs, on Windows and Mac… not Linux.

Question 2: Why on Earth can’t they make it work on Linux?

We’re not talking about Microsoft or Apple. This is Amazon, a web company that is supposed to know how JavaScript works, right? Why create executables, ActiveX, SilverLight or whatever those platforms demand from their developers when they can do the same just using JavaScript? The era when JavaScript was too slow and Flash rocked is over, like, 10 years ago. There simply is no excuse.

Undeterred, I knew the Android app would let me download, and as an added bonus, all songs downloaded by AmazonMP3 would be automatically added to the Android music playlists, so that both programs could play the same songs. That was great, of course, until I wanted to copy them to my laptop.

When running (the fantastic) ES File Explorer, I listed the folders consuming most of the SDCARD, found the amazonmp3 folder and saw that all my songs were in there. Since Android changed the file-system, and I can’t seem to mount it correctly via MTP (noob), I decided to use the ES File Explorer (again) to select all files and copy to my server via its own interface, that is great for that sort of thing, and well, found out that it’s not that simple. Again.

Question 3: Why can I read and delete the songs, but not copy them?

What magic Linux permission let me listen to a song (read) and delete the file (write) but not copy to another location? I can’t think of a way to natively do that on Linux, it must be a magic from Android, to allow for DRM crap.

At this time I was already getting nervous, so I just fired adb shell and navigated to the directory, and when I listed the files, adb just logged out. I tried again, and it just exited. No error message, no log, no warning, just shut down and get me back to my own prompt.

This was getting silly, but I had the directory, so I just ran adb pull /sdcard/amazonmp3/ and found that only the temp directory came out. What the hell is this sorcery?!

Question 4: What kind of magic stops me from copying files, or even listing files from a shell?

Well, I knew it was something to do with the Amazon MP3 application itself, if couldn’t be something embedded on Android, or the activists would crack on until they ceded, or at least provided means for disabling DRM crap from the core. To prove my theory, I removed the AmazonMP3 application and, as expected, I could copy all my files via adb to my server, where I could then, back them up.

So, if you use Linux and want to download all your songs from Amazon MP3 website, you’ll have to:

  1. Buy songs/albuns on Amazon’s website
  2. Download them via AmazonMP3 Android app (click on album, click on download)
  3. Un-install the AmazonMP3 app
  4. Get the files via: adb pull /sdcard/amazonmp3/
  5. Re-install the AmazonMP3 app (if you want, or to download more songs)

As usual, Amazon was a pain in the back with what should be really, really simple for them to do. And, as usual, a casual user finds its way to getting what they want, what they paid for, what they deserve.

If you know someone at Amazon, please let them know:

We’re not idiots. We know you know JavaScript, we know you use Linux, and we know you can create an amazing experience for all of us. Don’t treat us like idiots. If your creativity is lacking, just copy the design and implementation from someone else, we don’t care. We want solutions, not problems.


Hypocrite Internet Freedom
December 11th, 2012 under Digital Rights, Politics, rengolin, Web, World. [ Comments: none ]

Last year, the Internet has shown its power over governments, when we all opposed to the SOPA and PIPA legislations in protests across the world, including this very blog. Later on, against ACTA and so on, and we all felt very powerful indeed. Now, a new thread looms over the Internet, the ITU is trying to take over the Internet.

To quote Ars Technica:

Some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes introduced a new proposal at the World Conference on International Telecommunications on Friday that could dramatically extend the jurisdiction of the International Telecommunication Union over the Internet.

Or New Scientist:

This week, 2000 people have gathered for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to discuss, in part, whether they should be in charge.

And stressing that:

WHO runs the internet? For the past 30 years, pretty much no one.

When in reality, the Internet of today is actually in the precise state the US is trying to avoid, only that now they’re in control, and the ITU is trying to change it to an international organization, where more countries have a say.

Today, the DNS and the main IP blocks are controlled by the ICANN, however, Ars Technica helps us reminding that ICANN and IANA are:

the quasi-private organizations that currently oversee the allocation of domain names and IP addresses.

But the ICANN was once a US government operated body, still with strong ties with Washington, localized solely on the US soil, operating on US law jurisdiction. They also failed on many accounts to democratize their operations, resulting in little or no impact for international input. Furthermore, all top level domains that are not bound to a country (like .com, .org, .net) are also within American jurisdiction, even if they’re hosted and registered in another country.

But controlling the DNS is only half the story. The control that the US has on the Internet is much more powerful. First, they hold (for historical and economical reasons), most of the backbone of the Internet (root DNS servers, core routers, etc). That means the traffic between Europe and Japan will probably pass through them. In theory, this shouldn’t matter and it’s actually an optimization of the self-structuring routing tables, but in fact, the US government has openly reported that they do indeed monitor all traffic that goes within their borders and they do reserve the right to cut it, if they think this presents a risk of national security.

Given the amount of publicity the TSA had since 2001 for their recognition of what poses a security threat, including Twitter comments from British citizens, I wouldn’t trust them, or their automated detection system to care for my security. Also, given the intrusion that they have on some governments like the case of Dotcom in January, where national security operations in New Zealand were shared inappropriately with the American government, I never felt safe when crossing American soil, physically or through the Internet.

Besides, Hollywood has shown in Scandinavia and in UK that they hold a strong leash on European governments when related to (US) copyright laws, forcing governments, once liberals, to abide to American rules, arresting their own citizens, when content is being distributed over the Internet. It’s also interesting to remember than SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, mainly driven by Hollywood, were all created within closed doors.

So, would ITU control be better?

No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although, in theory, it’s more democratic (more countries with decision power), this decision power has been sought for one main purpose: to enforce more strict laws. I generally agree that the ITU would not be a good controlling body, but believing that nobody controls the Internet is, at least, naive, and normally a pretentious lie.

A legal control of many countries over something as free as the Internet would impose the same dangers as having it free of legal control, since it leaves us with indirect control from the strongest player, which so far, has been the US. The other countries are only so strongly minded about the ITU because the US won’t let them have their voices, and the ITU is a way to create an UN for the Internet.

In that sense, the ITU would be a lot like the UN. Worthless. A puppet in the hands or the strong players. Each country would have more control over their borders, and that would impact almost nothing in the US, but the general rules would stop being valid, and the US (and other countries) would have to do a lot more work than they do today. One example is the stupid rule in the UK where the sites, including international ones, have to warn users that they are using cookies.

Don’t be fooled, the US government is not really worried about your safety and security, nor your freedom. They’re trying to avoid a lot of work, and a big loss in market in the Middle East and South Asia. With countries (that they like to say are authoritarian regimes) imposing stricter rules on traffic, including fees, taxes and other things that they have on material goods, the commerce with those governments will be a lot more expensive.

Ever since the second world war, the US economy is based mainly on military activities. First, helping Europe got them out of the big depression, then they forced rebellions throughout Latin America to keep the coins clinking and currently, it’s the Middle East. With the climate change endangering their last non-war resources (oil), they were betting on the Internet to spread the American Way Of Life to the less fortunate, with the off chance of selling a few iPads on the process, but now, that profit margin is getting dangerously thin.

Not to mention the military threat, since a lot of the intelligence is now being gathered through the Internet, and recent attacks on Iranian nuclear power plants via the Stuxnet worm, would all become a lot harder. The fact that China is now bigger and more powerful than they are, in every possible aspect (I dare say even military, but we can’t know for sure), is also not helping.

What is then, the solution? Is it possible to really have nobody running the Internet? And, if at all possible, is it desirable?

Mad Max Internet

I don’t think so.

It’s true that IPv6 should remove completely the need for IP allocation, but DNS is a serious problem. Letting DNS registration to an organic self-organized process would lead to widespread malicious content being distributed and building security measures around it would be much harder than they already are. The same is true with SSL certificates. You’d expect that, on a land with no rules, trusted bodies would charge a fortune and extort clients for a safe SSL certificate, if they actually produce a good one, that is, but this is exactly what happens today, on ICANN rule.

Routing would also be affected, since current algorithms rely on total trust between parties. There was a time when China had all US traffic (including governmental and military) through its routers, solely done via standard BGP rules. On a world where every country has its own core router, digitally attacking another country would be as easy as changing one line on a router.

We all love to think that the Internet is a free world already, but more often than ever, people are being arrested for their electronic behaviour. Unfortunately, because there isn’t a set of rules, or a governing body, the rules that get people arrested are the rules of the strongest player, which in our current case, is Hollywood. So, how is it possible to reconcile security, anonymity and stability without recurring to governing bodies?

The simple answer is, it’s not. The Internet is a land with no physical barriers, where contacting people over 1000s of miles is the same as the one besides you, but we don’t live in a world without borders. It’s not possible to reconcile the laws of all countries, with all the different cultures, into one single book. As long as the world keeps its multiculturalism, we have to cope with different rules for different countries, and I’m not in favour of losing our identity just to make the Internet a place comfortable to the US government.

Regulating multi-body

It is my opinion that we do, indeed, need a regulating body. ICANN, ITU, it doesn’t matter, as long as the decisions are good for most.

I don’t expect that any such governing body would come up with a set of rules that are good for everybody, nor that they’ll find the best rules in the first N iterations (for large N), but if the process is fair, we should reach consensus (when N tends to infinity). The problem with both ICANN and ITU is that neither are fair, and there are other interests at play that are weighted much more than the interests of the people.

Since no regulating body, governmental or not, will ever account for the interests of the people (today or ever), people tend to hope that no-rule is the best rule, but I hope I have shown that this is not true. I believe that instead, a governing multi-body is the real solution. It’s hypocrite to believe that Russia will let the US create regulations within its borders, so we can’t assume that will ever happen from start, if we want it to work in the long run. So this multi-body, composed by independent organizations in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and Americas would have strong powers on their regions, but would have to agree on very general terms.

The general terms would be something like:

  1. There should be no cost associated with the traffic to/from/across any country to any other country
  2. There should be no filtering of any content across countries, but filtering should be possible to/from a specific country or region based on religious or legal grounds
  3. It should be possible for countries to deny certain types of traffic (as opposed to filtering above), so that routing around would be preferred
  4. Misuse of Internet protocols (such as BGP and DNS spoofing) on root routers/DNS servers should be considered an international crime with the country responsible for the server in charge of the punishments or sanctions against that country could be enforced by the UN
  5. Legal rights and responsibilities on the Internet should be similar (but not identical) as they are on the physical world, but each country has the right and duty to enforce their own rules

Rule 1 is fundamental and would cut short most of the recent ITU’s proposals. It’s utter nonsense to cross-charge the Internet as it is to do it with telecoms around the world, and that is probably the biggest problem of the new proposal.

Rules 2 and 3 would leave control over regional Internet with little impact on the rest. It’d also foment creation of new routes around problematic countries, which is always beneficial to the Internet reliability as a whole. It’s hypocrite to assume that the US government has the right to impose Internet rules on countries like Iran or China, and it’s up to the people of China and Iran to fight their leaders on their own terms.

It’s extremely hypocrite, and very common, in the US to believe that their system (the American Way of Life) is the best for every citizen of the world, or that the people of other countries have no way of choosing their own history. It’s also extremely hypocrite to blame authoritarian governments on Internet regulations and at the same time provide weapons and support local authoritarian groups. Let’s not forget the role of the US on Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the Gulf War, as opposition to Russia and Iran (respectively), and their pivot role on all major authoritarian revolution in Latin America.

Most countries, including Russia and the ones in Middle East would probably be fine with rules 2 and 3, with little impact on the rest of the world. Which leaves us with rule 4, to account for the trust-worthiness of the whole system. Today, there is a gang of a few pals who control the main routers and giving more control over less trust-worthy pals over DNS and BGP routes would indeed be a problem.

However, in fact, this rule is in vigour today, since China routed US traffic for only 18 minutes. It was more a show of power than a real attack, but had China been doing this for too long, the US would think otherwise and with very strong reasons. The loose control is good, but the loose responsibility is not. Countries should have the freedom to structure their Internet backbones but also do it responsibly, or be punished otherwise.

Finally, there’s rule 5. How to account when a citizen of one country behaves in another country’s website as it’s legal for his culture, but not the other? Strong religious and ethical issues will arise from that, but nothing that there isn’t already on the Internet. Most of the time, this problem is identical to what already happens on the real world, with people from one country that commit crimes on another country. The hard bit is to know what are the differences between physical and logical worlds and how to reconcile the differences in interpretation of the multiple groups that will take part on such governing multi-body.

Conclusion

ITU’s proposal is not good, but ICANN’s is neither. The third alternative, to lack complete control is only going to make it worse, so we need a solution that is both viable and general enough, so that most countries agree to it. It also needs to relinquish control of internal features to their own governments in a way to not affect the rest of the Internet.

I argue that one single body, being it ITU or ICANN, is not a good model, since it’s not general enough nor they account for specific regions’ concerns (ICANN won’t listen to the Middle East and ITU won’t regard the US). So, the only solution I can see possible is one that unites them all into a governing multi-body, with very little in global agreement, but with general rules powerful enough to guarantee that the Internet will be free forever.

The American constitution is a beautiful piece of writing, but in reality, over the years, their government have destroyed most of its beauty. So, long term self-check must also be a core part of this multi-body, with regular review and democratic decisions (sorry authoritarian regimes, it’s the only way).

In a nutshell, while it is possible to write the Internet Constitution and make it work in the long term, humanity is very likely not ready to do that yet, and we’ll probably see the destruction of the Internet in the next 10 years.

Sigh…

 


Google knows what you searched last summer
March 3rd, 2012 under InfoSec, rvincoletto, Web, World. [ Comments: 3 ]

Despise all the controversy, Google started his new Privacy Policy last Thursday and whether you like it or not, you are being watched.

Being realistic, this is not far from what they were already doing: Google already tracked your searches, what you are watching on Youtube or your emails.

But before March, 1st, Google Plus, Youtube, Gmail and almost 60 Google products, were in different databases. With this change, Google guys are giving themselves the right to put all those products in just one big place, put one and one and one together to build a better and more complete online behaviour of YOU. And use it to chase YOU with their ads.

And you can’t opt out. If you want to use any Google product you are under their privacy policy.

It should be nonsense for me to tell you to stop using Google products. Almost everything you do in the internet today, from searches and emails, to finding a street and comparing products’ prices, is somehow through a Google product or related to it.

But you can at least reduce the amount of information that Google will be able to collect from you.

You can, for instance, delete your Google history going to https://www.google.com/history/ and clicking the button “Remove all Web History”

You can also configure your advertising settings here:  https://www.google.com/settings/u/0/ads/preferences/

You can edit your settings or even opt out.

 

Another way to “confuse” Google is creating a different account for each Google service (if you can keep up with all usernames and passwords).

Or, when watching a video on Youtube or searching the Web, make sure you are not logged in to your Google account.

There is also the possibility to use browser plugins that work to protect your data, or even anonymous proxies.

But, the truth is, as soon as you type into your computer, click anything, visit at a page, talk through Skype, or even talk on a telephone, (mobile or fixed), those who want to, can spy on you.

At least now Google is coming clear and telling you that they are spying on you. It makes better sense to me than living in a fool’s paradise, where you still believe that you have control over your life.


Eventually everyone wants to be AOL
January 25th, 2012 under Articles, Corporate, Media, Politics, rengolin, Web. [ Comments: none ]

After a good week battling against SOPA, it’s time to go back to real life, to battling our own close enemies.

As was reported over, and over, and over again (at least in this blog), Google is dragging itself towards a giant dominant player it’s becoming, much like Yahoo! and AOL in previous times.

Lifehacker has a very good post about the same subject (from where the title of this post was deliberately taken), around Google+ and the new Search+ (or whatever they’re calling that), and how the giant is loosing its steam and trying so solidify its market, where it’ll comfortably lay until the end of its days.

True, Google has a somewhat strong research department, and is working towards new TCP/IP standards, but much of it was done by Yahoo! in the past, towards FreeBSD, PHP and MySQL. Yahoo! actually hired top notch BSD kernel hackers (like Paul Saab), MySQL gurus (like Jimi Cole and Zawodny) and the PHP creator, Rasmus Lerdorf. And they put a lot back to the community. But none of that is true revolution, only short reforms to keep themselves in power for a bit longer.

The issue is simple, Google doesn’t need to innovate as much as they did in the past, as did Yahoo! and AOL. Even Microsoft and Apple need to innovate more than Google, because they have to sell things. Software, hardware and services, not only cost money, and time, but they age too rapidly and it’s not hard to throw loads of money at a project that is borne dead (like Vista). But Google get its money for free (so to speak), their users are not paying a penny for their services. How hard it is to compete with that model?

Like Google, Yahoo! had the same comfort in their days. They had more users than anyone else, and that was the same as money. They did get money from ads, like Google, only not as efficient. And that put them in a comfort zone that it’s hard not to get used to, which was their ultimate doom. This is why, after 25 and so years failing, Microsoft is still a strong player. This is why Apple, after being in the shadow for than 20 years, got to be the biggest Tech company in the world. The must innovate at every turn.

Yahoo! displaced AOL and bought pretty much everyone else because they’ve outsmarted the competition, by doing the same thing, but cheaper and easier. Google repeated the same stunt, on Yahoo! and is beginning to age. How long would that last? When the next big thing appears, making money even easier, Google will be a giant. An arrogant, slow and blind giant. And natural selection will take care of them as quick as it took of AOL and Yahoo!


Post-SOPA-protest, what’s on?
January 19th, 2012 under Corporate, Digital Rights, Life, Politics, rengolin, Web, World. [ Comments: 1 ]

So, the day has ended and we’ve seen many protests around the world. Did it help? Well, a bit, but don’t hold your breath right now.

European citizens are still being sued by the American government and being extradited to the US because their sites had links to copyrighted material. So, in a way, what SOPA and PIPA stands for is already reality, but it takes the US government a lot of effort and money to do so. With SOPA and PIPA, enyone in the world could end up in Guantanamo Bay, as easy as any American.

While I welcome the protest, and feel that Americans did a good job converting 30 more senators to their cause (it was 5, now it’s 35), it’s far from enough. I think people still haven’t realised that this is not an American issue. Just like American copyright laws have bankrupted creativity around the world (think Mickey Mouse effect) and the American patent system has destroyed technological advancement (patent trolls, et al), SOPA and PIPA will spread throughout the world and be the icing on their cake.

The people that are so desperate to preserve their profits by breaking the rest of the world are the people that already have more than anyone. Last year, Viacom’s CEO had a 50mi raise in his salary. Not a bonus, mind you, a raise. To protect those people’s profits, we’re letting them destroy the entire world, stop technological advancements (that don’t give profits to them) and kill all the artists in the process.

If you, like me, are outside of the US, please make sure your government stops short of bending to the US government, as they always do. Europe, and particularly UK and France, has been America’s puppet for far too long. The US is not the only country in the world, and nowadays, it’s not even the most important one. We need to change the world to multi-polar and promote countries like China, Russia, Brazil, India. Not that I like any of them, but we must not put all our coins into one crazy country, we need more crazy countries to re-balance the world.

Now, for some of the protests

Apart from the obvious Wikipedia, Google, WordPress, there were some others I’ve seen that are worth mentioning.

It was not just that, some people actually went on to the streets (NY and SF) and it seems most senators’ phones and websites went dead for the traffic. It’s working, but this is not the end, nor this is just about copyright. This is about freedom of thought, freedom to share, freedom to be a human being. Stopping SOPA/PIPA is just the first step, we need to undo most of what the media/war/oil/tobacco industry has done for the past 80 years, unless you like dictatorships, of course.


Wikipedia Blackout (a.k.a. SOPA strike)
January 17th, 2012 under Digital Rights, Politics, rengolin, Web. [ Comments: none ]

To protest against absurd piracy counter-measures in US, the Wikimedia foundation (and others) will be shutting down this Wednesday.

We’ll be supporting the act by shutting down our blog, too. Not that our blog makes any difference, it’s more for the protest than anything else.

UPDATE: More sites, including Google and WordPress, are joining the strike.


Google+ and the Yahoo-isation of Google
July 1st, 2011 under Corporate, rengolin, Web. [ Comments: 3 ]

Almost a decade ago I joined Yahoo to work on the search team. At that time, Google was giving Yahoo a hard time with their amazing search, while Yahoo was mostly based on directory search and some ad-hoc buyouts (AltaVista et al). Yahoo came with its own search, then bought Inktomy, then re-wrote the search engine, and they’re now using Bing. They were late on the search business. Too late. Not that Inktomy was bad, but it wasn’t better than Google and certainly wasn’t a novelty.

When Google came with Gmail it was a shock to all of us, Yahoo workers. How can they offer 1GB free mail and we only offer 10MB? How can a (then) small company provide such massive storage while the behemoth of the Internet could only afford peanuts? It’s all in the administration. Yahoo, for some reason I still don’t understand, had to have all user’s emails on filers (very expensive storage), and had to reserve the whole storage, even if less than 10% of the users actually used more than 50%. There was a lot of very expensive idle disks at Yahoo Mail…

Another case was social networks. Yahoo was never able to write a single decent social network that wouldn’t close an year later. Several internal attempts were made (during years of development) before the first Yahoo-360 came out, only to die a few months later of starvation.

Yahoo-style

When the internet was young, and Yahoo was at the top, they could do anything, people would just love. Yahoo mail was free and came with a calendar and some bits. It was horrid, but it was free, and we all used one day (especially after Hotmail was acquired by Microsoft). Somehow, the directors of Yahoo decided it was better to have it all, even if the quality was unbelievably low. They were so famous and so ubiquitous that anyone wanted to advertise on their websites. The more they had, the more people wanted.

That cycle made Yahoo create a huge number of useless pages and verticals (content website like weather, mobile, etc), just because people would pay loads of money to advertise there. I’ve seen many pages going live without proper review or a decent market analysis, and some were still with bogus content (non non non) and broken links after years. Yahoo had spread their butter so thin that it was impossible for them to compete with any other company.

Google came, Google destroyed Yahoo, Microsoft came and bought it. It may not be in paper, but Yahoo is the new Microsoft garden, where they put their feet up when they’re tired of working.

Facebook

With Facebook, the story is not completely similar. Google is still not where Yahoo was 8 years ago and the Internet is not as naive as it used to be. It’s true that Facebook killed every other social network website, but it’s not true that they’ll be able to do with GMail, what Google did with Yahoo Mail. Part because GMail is really good, and part because Facebook guys are not that good.

But there’s one trend that is happening to Google that is similar to Yahoo of the past: legacy. Google has a decade of code, normally more bad than good, and the new systems have to integrate with it. But that’s not the worse, by far. As Yahoo, Google started from ground-up, so they always had the start-up mentality. When the company wasn’t a start up any more, they still tried to do things the same way.

Two things happened during the last few years that put Google in a bad situation: first, because in the golden days they had truly done remarkable systems (simple, yet efficient), they thought (and carried on thinking) not only that they were the best of the best, but that they could do anything and anything they did was automatically better than any one else. Second, the lack of process and reality check only made things worse, by kludging infrastructure on top of infrastructure, by solving every problem as if it was map-reduce and by doing everything in-house, it was difficult to use off-the-shelf applications for things that weren’t really that relevant, and move on when it was, indeed, relevant.

Facebook is still a young company, but I hardly believe their fate will not be the same. It was also clear from the beginning (8 years ago), that Google would have the same fate. However, I don’t think that Facebook will overrun Google as the latter did with Yahoo, but that’s neither fault. The market is not the same, the Internet is not the same.

Google+

In the same style as Yahoo-360, Google is trying to use their own user-base to compete with Facebook, and for that, it’s very likely that they’ll fail. Not as bad as 360, but they won’t kill Facebook.

Hangouts, Circles, Huddle are just different names for the same functionality in Facebook, Twitter, etc. Even the layout of Google+ is identical to Facebook. 360 was exactly the same thing and that’s where I draw the line. That’s where Google is getting ludicrously similar to Yahoo 8 years ago and that’s why they’ll start failing more and more often from now on.

They stopped being creative. Their creative innovations (wave, buzz) is average at best, their copied products (chrome, android) and similar to the competition with no clear game changer and the old stuff (search, gmail) is still the same. Not bad, but not creative any more.

From now on, is only downhill. In a decade or so, Apple will offer to buy them, and fail to, but enough to dismiss the general trust people have on them and that will be the end. Zombies of the Internet…


Why no MMORPG is good enough?
March 8th, 2011 under Devel, Fun, Games, rengolin, Software, Web. [ Comments: none ]

Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) are not new. The first I remember playing is the Legend Of the Red Dragon (LORD), but before that, of course, I’ve played other (real-life) multiplayer RPG games as well, and they were never quite the same thing.

Of course, at that time the graphic cards couldn’t quite compete with our imagination (not to mention connection speeds), but a lot has improved in both fronts, and lots of very good looking games have arrived, but still, there’s something missing. For years I couldn’t put my finger on it, but recently I think I nailed the issue: user driven content.

The interface

Most of the MMORGP are war games. World of Warcraft, LOTR online, Vendetta, Star Trek Online, Regnum and so many others rely on war to be fun. Of course, all of them have the side issues, some trade or silly missions, but the real fun is going to the battlefield.

If you look from the technical side of things, this is not surprising at all. Aside from good graphics, one of the hardest things to do in a game is a good interface. Very few games are perfect like Tetris. I gave Tetris to both my sons when they were about 2 years old and after about a minute they were already playing. There is no need to instructions, tutorials or any training and still today I find it quite fun. This is why it’s probably the most successful game in history.

But it’s all about the interface. It’s easy to create a seamless interface for Tetris. Try to create an interface for a strategy game that doesn’t require some hours of training, or an interface for first-person games that actually allows you to know where you are, or an interface for adventure games that doesn’t make you click in half-dozen places to get anything. Many have tried, all have failed.

At the dawn of internet games, strategy and quake were dominant. That’s because the internet wasn’t so fast and both were quite good in saving bandwidth. Quake had a special fix to avoid sending one packet for every bullet and only one packet when you press the trigger and another when you release it, the rest was up to the client.

But in war games, the interface is pretty much established. World of Warcraft didn’t invent anything, they just mixed Warcraft with Lara Croft (rubbish interface, by the way). Space ship games got the interface from Wing Commander (Vendetta got it from W.C. Privateer), Lord of the Rings and Regnum mixed Second Life with old-style RPG (even with the same deficiencies) and Star Trek Online copied from everyone above.

Now, the interface for a good strategy or adventure game is somewhat complicated. For a first-person 3D RPG, even worse. It doesn’t have to be mind controlled to be easy, nor you have to use 3D glasses or any immersion technology to be fun. Simplifying the game is one way, but then it’s even harder to make it more interesting.

It’s the user, stupid!

I can see only one way to add value to a game that is simple but still fun: user driven content.

You can enrich the world in which you’re immersed into. For instance, Zynga is quickly gathering an impressive amount of users by adding a lot of content. I don’t play those games, but people around me do and I can see why it’s so addictive. There are so many things to do and the frequency of updates is so impressive that it’s almost impossible not to be driven to it.

You might think that the games are too simple, and the graphics are average, but the interface is extremely simple, the challenges are simple, yet still challenging, and the number of paths you can choose for your character are enormous. In this case, the user experience is driven by his own choices. The content is so rich that each and every place is completely different from every other, solely driven by user choices.

Not many game companies (certainly not the indie ones) have time or money to do that. So, why are indie games generally more interesting than commercial ones? They go back to square one, simplify the game and optimise the interface. EA would never release something like Angry Birds or World of Goo, and yet those are the two best games I played in a long time. But, world of Goo is over and Angry Birds require constant attention (seasonal versions) to keep selling or making money (from ads).

They are missing the user content. It might not be their style, nor objective, but that’s a difference between Deep Purple and a one-hit-band.

Back to MMORGP

So, from all MMORPGs, there are many good looking, some with good challenges and a lot of slaughtering fun, but I tire quite quickly from playing them. The last I played was Vendetta. Quite good graphically, it has some reasonably accurate physics simulation (what drove me to it) but not accurate enough to keep me playing. The content tires too quickly to be fun after a few hours and even though I had 8 hours of free play, I spent less than two and dropped it.

This was always a pain, since Final Fantasy and the like, building up the character, hitting slugs for XP, fight-heal-run until you level up. Though Final Fantasy was better, as it normally would throw you on level 10 or so, so you didn’t need too much of levelling up. But why? Who likes beating 253 slugs to get 1000 experience points, going to level 2 and being able to equip a copper sword that doesn’t even cut a snail’s shell?

One of the best MMORGP experiences I had recently was Regnum. This is a free game made in Argentina and has a lot of content, good interface and a healthy community. They do the normal quest levelling up technique and it works quite well until level 15 or so. After that, it’s hitting bears, golems and phantoms for half a year until you can go outside and beat other users.

I got outside prematurely (couldn’t bother to wait) and the experience was also not great. Huge lag on big crowds, people disappearing in mid-air and appearing a few meters away, etc. But the most annoying of all was the content. It was always the same fort that we had to protect, always the same keep we had to attack, always the same talk on how our race is superior to your race, etc.

I haven’t seen Lord of the Rings (which sucks on Linux) or Star Trek Online (which doesn’t even run), but I bet they can get a bit further. They’re there to compete with World of Warcraft, not Regnum, but the fate will be the same: boring.

So, after quite a big rant, how would I do it?

User content

First, a memory refresh: all free first-person shooter I know of are a re-make of Quake. They use the same engine, the same world builders, the same techniques. On Debian repositories you’ll find at least a dozen, all of them running on some version of Quake. Nexuiz, Tremulous, Open Arena, Urban Terror, etc.

Not only the Quake engine is open source, but it was built to be extensible and that, even before the source was opened by ID. I made some levels for Doom, there were good editors at the time (1994?), probably there are full development suites today.

The user has the power to extend, create, evolve and transform your game in ways that you never thought possible. To think that only the few people you hire are good enough to create game content is to be, to say the least, naive.

Now, all those games are segmented. Nexuiz levels don’t connect to Tremulous levels. That’s because the mods (as they’re called) are independent. To be able to play all those different games you need to download a whole lot of data (objects, music, game logic, physics settings, etc) and each game has it radically different. Sarge with a rocket launcher would be invincible in most of other quake variants.

But that is, in my opinion, the missing link between short spurs of fun and long lasting enjoyment. I want to be able t build my world (like Zynga), but in a world with free movement (like Quake) with quests (like MMORPGs) made by the users themselves (like no FP-game I know) in a connected world. It cannot penalise those that connect seldom, or those that connect through text terminals, Android phones or browser users in any way.

As some games have started to understand, people like different things in games. I like building stuff and optimizing structures, some like carnage, others like to level up or wait 45 minutes for a virtual beef pie to be ready. You cannot have all that in one game if you’re the only content generator.

Also, if the engine is not open, people won’t be able to enhance it for their particular worlds. It doesn’t have to be open source, but it has to have a good API and an efficient plugin system. Tools to create mods and content is also essential, but the real deal is to give the users freedom to create their versions of the game and be able to connect them all.

If every game is also a server, people can create their small worlds inside the bigger world, that is in the central server. A business strategy would be, then, to host those worlds for people that really cared about them. Either host for free in exchange of ads and content generation, or paid hosting for the more serious users. You can also easily sell content, but more importantly, you can create a whole marketplace of content driven by the users! Read Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash and you know what I mean.

I think Apple and Google have proven over and over that a market with apps generated by the users is very effective indeed! Intel is just following the same path with their new App store, so yes, this is a good business strategy. But, it’s still fun for a wider range of people, from game addicts to casual gamers, from heavy modders to passive Facebook users.

There are many ways of doing that, maybe not all of them will be successful, but at least from my point of view, until that day arrives, no game will be fun.


The Wikipedia Game
January 26th, 2010 under Fun, rengolin, Web. [ Comments: none ]

There was a time when the gods were bored to death, but because they couldn’t actually die, they started writing down all their knowledge to pass the time. Virtually everything known to them was written on the ancient manuscripts and organized by topic, cross-linked with other topics, in a very simple yet complete language that described everything to the last detail.

Time passed, universes were created and in some of them, creatures developed critical thinking. With that, came science and with science, the logical conclusion that gods didn’t actually have to exist was inevitable. So inevitable that finally, without delay, the gods actually died. For the curious minds, that fact is based on the quantum principle that, if no one sees it, it doesn’t actually exist.

Yet, for the great benevolence of the Universe, the manuscripts were kept and for billions of (Earth) years (relativistically speaking, of course), they were forgotten. But everything that is lost is waiting to be found, and in a very small speck of dust, in a completely irrelevant galaxy on the (multi-dimensional) margins of one of the universes, a yet-to-be intelligent race found a way to the manuscripts. However, their intelligence was not enough to uncover the whole truth. They could only gather hints and pieces of what once was the complete knowledge of everything.

It was much more of a coincidence, really, that so many of those beings would channel the truth through their fingers and type them, guided by the manuscripts themselves, on a remote system that all the other beings would go and search for knowledge. Some would misguide them, of course, and others would fight over the truth, for no one really know how to interpret such manuscripts. Seeing such confusion and regress, the Universe decided to create a game, on which such frivolous beings could channel their good side instead, even if not consciously knowing so.

The Game

The game is very simple and is meant to beings with very limited mental and social capacity.

The younger member starts by clicking on the “Random Article” link on any Wikipedia page, or by choosing a subject from the main page. After that, the following rules must be repeated until the players are tired or bored to death:

  1. The current player must explain (out loud) what the article is about and think of a related subject. The relation can be of any kind.
  2. The other players would then decide if the relation is valid and the player should then go to the related page.
  3. If the relationship is valid and approved, the points are counted on the following manner:
    • 1 point if the article exists, +3 points if the player enhances it.
    • 3 points if the article doesn’t exist, +9 points if the player creates it with a stub.
  4. The player on the right goes next.

Of course, at least one access to Wikipedia is necessary, but many can be used simultaneously. It is considered foul play to tamper with the contents of the pages just to get extra points (remember, the gods won’t be pleased at all!).

In between games, there is a way to get extra points for the next round. If the player proves that he/she enhanced Wikipedia pages quoted from a previous game (change logs suffice), he/she gets +3 points at the start of the next game for every considerable change (10 or more words) in a single page. Multiple changes in the same page counts as one change and the points can only be counted if the change happened between the last game and current, so the same change cannot be considered twice. Creation of new pages related to the subjects mentioned also count as change.

The Winner

The winner of the game is obviously the one that gets most points, but the real winner is the society. Knowledge has no owner, no boundaries, no limits. The more you share, the more society benefits. Knowledge is power, and you can give it for free, as easy as writing an email… to the world.


Spam is good for you
April 27th, 2009 under Digital Rights, InfoSec, Life, Media, Politics, rengolin, Web. [ Comments: none ]

Spam is good for you, at least better than you may think. Spam accounts for three quarters of all emails sent worldwide and some even attached carbon footprint to it (and here one of the reasons why it’s nonsense). But it’s good for you in ways that does not meet the eye very easily and very few people would even consider it as good in the first place.

Not only emails, think on how much regular mail you receive is really worthy and how much is spam, it’ll probably account for three quarters as well. How much of that is really mean, how that really hurts you so bad that you’d put the sender in jail for it?

Sure spam is a nuisance, sure it gets in the way of the real work, but at what cost are we, the society, willing to pay to eradicate such problem? Well, lets take a look on how spam really started…

Local business

You’re a window cleaner and recently moved to Shlobershire in a very quite little village. How would you let people know about your business? You can go on, talking to each one of the local residents but that’s a nuisance, so you print some pamphlets and post through the door of everyone.

Some will read and call you, some will be pissed off but most will just ignore you. You’ll figure out pretty quickly about those that got pissed off (if you live in a small village you know that already), but then you buy them a pint and everything is settled.

What’s the final cost? A few pamphlets, a couple pints and you got two great things: one or two windows to clean and the whole village knowing who you are. This is, by far, the cheapest marketing ever. The rest of us that can’t afford a real marketing campaign have to find ways to promote our business.

With all the fuss about global warming, organic farming and fair competition in business (if there is such thing), we want to promote and use more of local business than big brands. We’re loosing creativity, diversity and quality if we don’t.

ROI

Just like the local business, some people can’t afford big marketing campaigns. Either because they’re poor or because their business is not so legal in every country.

So, why people still send those stupid ill edited loosely formatted emails, even when it’s obvious what they want? Who wants pills, fake degrees or enlarge their penises? Well, apparently some do and the do reply and may well get what they want!

The return of investment is much, much better than most marketing campaigns. Take Microsoft’s campaign with Jerry Seinfield or the “I’m a PC” thing? It was the most expensive piece of crap ever done. Seriously, I prefer spam than that!

The return rate is very low, one reply in millions of email, but if they send billions of emails, go figure.

But that’s clearly bad, isn’t it?

Well, illegal activities are bad, of course. Either on-line of off-line, drug dealing is bad, banking scams are bad, but not all spam is a scam or a drug selling point.

First, people receive so much spam from normal companies (even those that they have explicitly opted-out) including broadband providers, software, telephone and TV etc and etc.

The smaller companies are still sending physical spam and it’s probably working much better than the electronic spam, but that’s the deal: it works and it’s cheap.

Second, what’s really illegal? Downloading a music you haven’t paid for is illegal? What if you will pay later? What if the author allowed you to? Ripping your CDs to MP3 to listen in your car is illegal? You have paid for it already!

Google has become target of many accusations of illegal behaviour because they host a number of websites, videos, personal profiles on social networks. If people started to massively upload child pornography to YouTube, would the Google guys be in jail? I bet my little finger they wouldn’t.

RIAA kills a kitten every time you download (or rip) a CD while governments detain people for years on maximum security prisons without a single charge, what’s really legal?

Pirate Bay scam

I still don’t believe it happened, even though it was on all major journals for a week, but the Pirate Bay guy actually got a jail sentence for owning a website that allowed people to share files. They’re not criminals, they’re not killing people or (more importantly) getting in the way of the course of business (after all, money is more important than peoples lives nowadays). They just set up a list of things.

File sharing is one of the biggest revolutions of the recent internet and more and more people are asking the industry to finally adopt the technique rather than fight it. Whether they like it or not, it will prevail.

What is worse, a few old ladies downloading very old music (unavailable from any shop in the world) or the fear that the recording industry poses on most governments today that allowed such a scam to ever being turn into reality?

One mistake does not justify the other, but many (sane) people are already saying: Stop fighting reality, come back to it, be part of it.

You can’t fight them, help them!

I can’t imagine a world where we wait people to deliver a pamphlet to hand-cuff them, or where someone is jailed for listening music in his player’s speakers. Unfortunately, we’re not that far from it.

Why spam works? Because there isn’t any other way for those people. Yellow pages? Who reads them? Journal advertisement? Banners? People got used to them and can ad-block automatically. Our brains are trained to ignore them, it’s just not effective any more.

Some companies say they can provide a much better ad experience for the users by spying their lives closer than their lovers. I would object that approach…

There are many (free) systems for local business, but none of them seem to cut it. Maybe because people are always trying to get money in return (weird world, isn’t it?) and end up putting paid ads bigger, colourful and in the front page, and let the real local business somewhere between marriages and obituary.

I have no idea how a system would get rid of spam once and for all and it’s not my cup of tea to think about it, but I’m sure there are many people that could tackle this problem, they just need a bit of money (from the government) and time. It’s not a matter of filtering emails, it’s a matter of removing the need to send them in the first place!

If governments are really worried about spam, let them be creative and help freedom, privacy and good relationships rather than the totalitarianism we’re seeing around the world.

A new world is rising, new machines are taking life much faster than most governments would like and the digital hand-cuffs are showing that none of them understand a bit of what’s going on. All blinds, living in their caves watching the shadows on the wall. Whoever cry wolf is right for no one knows what wolf really is and where is it. Technology is like children, the more oppressed they are, the more you loose control over them.

Einstein didn’t go to the US because he liked the land of freedom, he moved because he hoped (in vain) that they would know how to use wisely the technology he knew how to build. He knew that others would be able to build it and it was just a matter of time before any bomb was actually available. Holding it back was not the answer and he knew it.

I just hope people figure it out sooner rather than later, or 1984 will seem like a pretty boring fairy tale for our children…


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