Thursday, 26 November 2015

Digital Gold

A while a go I bought the book Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper. It turned out to be a pretty good read overall.

Cover of the Digital Gold bookThis is not a technology book in the sense of explaining Bitcoin or cryptography. Instead it is driven by the 'story' of Bitcoin. My interest is primarily in the technology but I also understand that to varying degrees people are also interested in the economics and politics of it.

The book reads a lot like the history of the Internet or the development of the Linux OS. By that I mean it starts off with some 'out of the box' thinking and gradually gathers interest to the point at which it draws in a wide range of characters.

So if you go back to 1995 you will find a number of people telling you why the Internet would fail.  I mention this because reading the book was a bit like reading about email in the 1980s, the Internet before web pages existed, Linux in the early 1990s.

So as well as being told the Internet would not catch on, no-one would ever want to shop online and no-one would need email because the fax machine worked just fine I have had it with predicting the doom of different technology people now regard as mainstream. In fact Bitcoin has already been declared dead - several times. You can read them all at the Bitcoin obituary website.

So the book kicks off with the late Hal Finney. He was a respected programmer in the cryptography area. He starts communicating with Satoshi Nakamoto, the author of the initial paper on Bitcoin. Over 400+ pages a range of characters 'discover' Bitcoin and begin to like the idea. Some people are attracted by the lack of government control. Some like the idea of the economic change. Some just want to make money. There are criminals, hackers, drug selling and venture capitalists. The story is global.

You quickly realise it's random, there is no plan but there is a community of global proportions.

No one should 'invest' in Bitcoin. In 5 years it could be worth $1 million per coin or nothing. It really is that risky. The book is very readable and if you want to know more about what it's all about and where it comes from with just the possibility you might quite like some of the characters it is worth a read.

The interesting aspect for me is the idea that it seems to be more than coincidence that Bitcoin arrived off the back of the 2008 financial crisis. It solved some really big longstanding cryptography problems just at the moment. Suddenly IT geeks were trying to find a way for technology to solve the problem of a world deep in debt, bankrupt zombie banks and ordinary people being made financially powerless by the billionaire class. Turning money both digital and personal is, in the Internet age, something people can understand. Being able to send money with the ease of sending email is an idea that should be attractive to a generation who carries their data with them daily on a mobile device.

The book doesn't set out to make the case for digital decentralised money on a global scale but as you read it seems rather obvious.

If you want to know more about Bitcoin please visit Bitcoin.com.


Saturday, 14 November 2015

Steve Jobs: The Movie

I went to see the Steve Jobs movie yesterday.  It's based on the Walter Isaacson biography, which I read last year, and the screenplay was by Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is most associated with The West Wing and the movie Social Network.

The book was a traditional biography. Jobs co-operated and did interviews for the book expecting publication after his death. 

The movie departs from the book in format. The main parts are 3 distinctive product launches in which Jobs is forced to face his responsibilities as a father, an innovator and how to deal with multiple personal and business relationships. The movie is thick on fast paced dialogue as you expect from Sorkin's writing. If you know the technology and the Apple story it helps but the movie is focussed on character.

There are obvious points where things are explained by using a character in the room to represent the audience. Suffice to say you don't need IT knowledge to follow the movie.

The 2013 movie called Jobs starring Ashton Kutchner was more conventional but both suffered from not having a dramatic element that draws in the audience, The main focus is always on the complexity of Jobs himself. Far from being a genius you learn that he had single minded visions and binary view of the world. People were in or out.

The film makes it pretty clear that the Apple world is one of a messianic leader in which a technology company moves from having commercial products to being a religion in which Jobs was content in being the focus.

Having read the book and watched both movies I certainly don't like Steve Jobs. His company was 90 days away from bankruptcy when he came back and, in part, it survived due to $150 million investment from Microsoft. Like the surfer he was able to catch the next technological waves with the iMac, iPod and iPhone better than anyone else. His Mac, back in 1984, was a little ahead of his time.

A worthwhile movie to understand Steve Jobs and Apple a little better.



Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Microsoft's incredible shrinking cloud




The promise of OneDrive (formally Skydrive) was  the cloud service for all your devices and all your stuff. With each iteration of the service, both paid plans and free plans, got bigger and better.

Free users that were first got 25gb of free storage. Later on this was reduced to 15gb at entry but it was still a good deal. Hook up a Onedrive app on Windowsphone, Android or IOS and setup photo uploading and you got 15gb more. If you were a loyal user of Bing or other MS services you might even get bonus storage. It was not uncommon for Microsoft's most loyal users of different services to build up 50gb of free storage.

If you had an Office 365 subscription plan at £79.00 a year then as well as 5 licenses for Office you got a mammoth 1tb of cloud storage.

Microsoft's consumer vision of being the centre of consumers' digital lives, storing their important stuff and connecting devices was, in part, the story of OneDrive.

A series of Lumia Windowsphones and low capacity tablets was released with hardly any onboard storage. This was only really credible by saying that people's stuff would be put in the cloud by default. Office 2013 and 2016 stored your stuff to OneDrive by default too.

In 2014 Microsoft announced that Office 365 subscribers could have unlimited storage. This meant that £79.00 per year bought you as much space as you can use and 5 Office licenses. Forget Office this was a great cloud deal.

Yesterday (2nd Nov 2015) this all ended with a OneDrive blog post. Microsoft said that people were 'abusing' the the unlimited plan by storing too much. Up to 75tb in some cases. There is the obvious point that if something is unlimited you can't abuse it by storing too much. Most Internet providers and mobile operators have "acceptable use" clauses in agreements defining what they regard as abusing 'unlimited' plans. Microsoft could have quite easily announced a variation of their user agreements to put an "acceptable use" clause in so as to curtail the almost industrial use of OneDrive. They didn't do that.

What Microsoft actually did was change the whole structure of their offer from top to bottom. Some plans disappeared and doubled the cost of the storage. The free tier would be reduced to 5gb next year. So this removed all the bonuses of loyal Microsoft supporters in one hit. Users of low cost Lumia devices will find their photos won't backup to the cloud because it will be full. Users of other devices will have their cloud storage reduced too.

In effect the Microsoft cloud just shrank by around 75% for normal users and 90% for many of Microsoft's loyal crowd.

The first effect of this is to make the 'cloud first, mobile first' strategy of CEO Satya Nadella look a bit weak and probably undermines it. This also kills trust in Microsoft's cloud strategy for consumers and is a big boost for other players. The reason why its a boost is technical. The OneDrive sync was terrible. It was slow and sometimes literally took hours to catch up. You could overlook this in a free tier but not when you are paying.

The best general storage deal for consumers now is Kim Dotcom and Mega. Accused by the US motion picture industry of being home to pirates  his site offers 50gb of free storage. The added advantage is all the storage is encrypted so he is portrayed as an Internet freedom advocate. The storage is located in New Zealand for those concerned about privacy and spooks monitoring data.

Android phone users get unlimited photo storage from Google if you put their photo app on you phone. Google also provides 15gb of free drive storage. Now a better choice than OneDrive's free tier.

Amazon are also in there. Prime membership also gives you unlimited photo storage and for £6.00 a year there is 20gb of storage on the Amazon drive. Not free but a better deal than Microsoft are offering.

If you need to move your cloud then consider Mover. A free service for home users to move their data between providers.

OneDrive is about to get smaller and less useful in the free tier. Microsoft seem to have created a self-inflicted publicity nightmare with the Twitter tag #onedrivegate by hitting their most loyal users After years of trying to shake off a reputation as corporate monopolist and having a self-declared aim of wanting people to 'love Windows' this announcement surely sets them back years.



Sunday, 1 November 2015

Talktalk breach tells us something about bank account security

Last week hackers broke into Internet and communications provider TalkTalk. This was bad for TalkTalk but also bad for banking.

One of the problems of ecommerce is that we are using a credit card system that is now 50+ years old. When it started almost no-one had a card, everything was on paper receipts and you had to present a card and have signature that looked a bit like the one on the card. Not today. Card not present fraud is big. Chip and pin has helped but the card industry is mostly electronic. The costs of transactions to the issuers have plummeted but the costs to retail and customers have mushroomed. Good business for the financial sector.

However lets get back to security. To make a payment via credit or debit card you need the following;

Your name
Your billing address
The delivery address
The card number
The expiry date
The security code number

In fact not just everything to make a payment but also everything someone needs to make a payment on your account. Whoever you buy anything with, no matter how casual or "one off" the payment, they have your details. If anyone, hacker, call centre worker or whoever can access your records they can make payments on your card. Hence the millions spent each year by business to secure the data, pay compensation and generally keep the bad guys away. This is hugely expensive security.

So I did an experiment. I often buy used DVDs from CeX at webuy.com . Unlike many retailers in the UK they accept the Bitcoin digital currency. Urban legend says that Bitcoin users are drug dealers, dark web merchants or criminals. So as a used DVD buyer I don't exactly fit the mould of the criminal classes. But lets think about this. To make a payment I need to provide CeX with the following;

My Name
Delivery Address

That's it. The payment is sent to their public address generated once only to make the payment. I push the payment to them so they don't need my payment details. They issue a receipt.

Whether or not you think Bitcoin is a banking revolution, will change the world or will make banke redundant is not relevant. This process of payment means my financial information is secure by default because I don't need to provide them. As it happens the merchant doesn't pay credit card fees either and it's just like using cash.

The key issue here is that if a merchant doesn't have your bank details they are secure. So obvious it is crazy. This could reduce fraud, save millions and make ecommerce much more secure for customers. If Amazon ever went for Bitcoin then consumers would immediately understand the benefits but most journalists like a good click bait story of fraud involving Bitcoin despite the fact that billions are stolen from credit cards every year.

I will continue to use Bitcoin for my DVD purchases if only to provide greater security to me on one retailers site. I wish others would go more secure and accept Bitcoin.