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Wayback Wednesday: Sometimes it really ISN’T your job

A new bowling alley opens up near the office where this IT pilot fish works, so he and his co-workers decide to try it out — and their manager tags along.

“Unfortunately, we managed to break out of the screen while entering our names,” says fish. “We decided the best course of action was to leave it alone and get the people at the alley to fix it.

“This wasn’t good enough for our manager, who decided since he worked in IT that he could fix it. At this point we tried to hide and pretend he was not with us.

Result after much typing and hitting of the screen: All games in the 24 lanes stopped for 20 minutes. Every game is cleared and has to be restarted from the first frame.

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Memory-Lane Monday: Why isn’t everyone looking happy to hear that?

Support pilot fish gets an escalated trouble ticket: A division’s web-based application has stopped working, and it’s critical to get it working again.

“It stopped working about the same time that engineering implemented some new security settings,” says fish. “Some checking and testing shows the new security settings are to blame.

“Engineering’s recommendation: Add the web server to the ‘trusted sites’ list. That’s no good, says the on-site IT guy.”

But if that’s no good, there’s going to be a lot of red tape involved in getting a security setting reversed once it’s been directed by headquarters. A manager in engineering tells fish privately that he has never gotten one of these requests past the security group. 

So a big meeting is called to look for solutions. Several layers of management are called in from the division that has the problem, along with several layers of engineering’s management and everyone else who might be able to help.

Headquarters even sends an incident management guy to play referee. All told, fish figures the cost of the people on the conference call comes to a couple thousand dollars per hour.

“So the big call starts,” fish says, “and the very first thing said is from the on-site IT guy at the division: ‘About an hour ago I tried adding the web server to the trusted sites list. Everything works fine now.’”

Don’t stall. Send your true tales of IT life to Sharky at [email protected]. You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Google’s greatest worry in 2020 isn’t what you’d expect

Goodness gracious, Google sure is going through an awful lot of grumbling these days. From internal unrest to external detest, the start of 2020 is anything but calm for the company behind our favorite mobile operating system.

But hefty as those most frequently highlighted hurdles may be, there’s another looming threat that’s even grander for Google to get over — one that represents a serious challenge to its core business and the primary principles that allow it to thrive.

I won’t draw it out any longer: The threat is Amazon. While other companies have traditionally been painted as being Google’s primary competition — Microsoft on the productivity front, Apple or maybe even Samsung on the mobile end, and Facebook or any number of messaging apps from a social, news, and general time-spent-online perspective — Amazon, above any other entity, has the power and reach to drive a spear straight into the center of Google’s heart. And as 2020 gets going, that possibility seems more pressing than ever.

Sound like an overly dramatic proclamation? Maybe. But when you really start to think through some of the areas where Amazon’s shadow is showing up on Google’s horizon, it’s hard to deny there’s something to it — something that’s bound to become even more significant as the months move on.

Think through this with me, and you’ll see what I mean.

Smart assistants, fight!

First: We’ve talked endlessly about how we’ve entered a post-OS era, where what operating system you’re using is less consequential to a company than what digital assistant you rely on. And it’s no wonder: Once you’re tapped into a particular assistant ecosystem — Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, or whatever the case may be — you tend to rely on that service for an ever-increasing amount of information seeking.

For Amazon, that means you’re always one step away from ordering stuff — that company’s ultimate currency. For Google, it’s more about data and keeping you closely connected to Google services — because the more Google knows about you, the more effective ads it can serve you both within those services and around the web.

And boy, is the battle between those two approaches booming. Amazon is frantically working to get Alexa in every part of your life, with what appears to be a spaghetti-against-the-wall strategy of throwing everything imaginable out there — speakers, clocks, headphones, eyeglasses, rings, even microwaves — to see what sticks.

On the smart speaker front, specifically, the company’s philosophy (and perhaps also its advantage in beating Google to the market by a meaningful margin of time) appears to be paying off: In the third quarter of last year, Amazon shipped almost three times as many voice-activated speakers as Google — 10.4 million compared to Google’s 3.5 million — according to market analysis firm Canalys.

The disparity on the smart screen side of the picture is even more dramatic: According once more to Canalys, Google sold 700,000 Assistant-enabled displays during that same period while Amazon moved 2.2 million units. Ouch.

And it isn’t just speakers and displays we’re talking about, either: With Nest and the now-Amazon-owned Ring and Google Wi-Fi and the now-Amazon-owned Eero, the companies seem to be locked in step with practically every assistant-related area they’re after. Heck, even with phones, Amazon may have flopped fantastically with its attempt to create its own independent ecosystem in 2014, but it’s quietly racking up Alexa customers via its Prime Exclusive Phones program — which sells phones by the likes of Sony, LG, and Motorola at substantial discounts for members of its $119-a-year Prime initiative.

The catch? The phones come with boatloads of Amazon apps preinstalled, including — yup — Alexa. And while some of the apps can be removed, Alexa typically cannot. In fact, lots of the phones in the Prime Exclusive lineup even ship with Alexa set up to handle hands-free commands right out of the box.

Amazon has effectively come up with a way to position its virtual assistant as a primary part of the Android phone-using experience, in other words, even without having its own self-made device in the picture. That’s quite a feat to pull off and goes a long way in emphasizing Alexa as the interface you turn to for finding whatever you need.

And all of that is still just leading up to the two underlying areas where all of this makes the most immediate and alarming difference.

Entering the advertising arena

All right — here’s where things really start to get serious. At the end of the day, regardless of all the talk about hardware and assistants and everything else in between, Google is an advertising company. That’s where the lion’s share of the company’s cash is generated, and it’s consequently the heartbeat that keeps the Google machine running.

For a long time, with all due respect to the Jeeves and other assorted yahoos of the world, Google’s position as the gatekeeper to the world’s information has seemed untouchable. But guess what? Amazon is little by little breaking through that barrier and — on some level, at least — threatening to make Google far less relevant than it is today.

Consider: A forecast assembled by eMarketer suggests that Amazon will be the sole company to increase its revenue related to U.S. search advertising over the coming two years. Amazon, the organization believes, will jump up to represent nearly 16% of money earned from search-related advertising in America — up from about 13% in 2019 — while Google will fall from 73% in 2019 to 70.5% in 2021.

Already, Amazon’s ad business is believed to have grown by somewhere in the ballpark of 50% from the end of 2018 to the end of 2019, according to AdWeek, and prices for advertising on Amazon have reportedly gone up by 200% over the past couple years — all while prices for advertising on Google have remained relatively constant.

And if numbers aren’t enough, a report in The New York Times last year truly emphasizes just how serious Amazon’s advertising ambitions are getting. The company, the Times explained, has a treasure trove of data about what products we all buy — and that’s just the start:

In addition to knowing what people buy, Amazon also knows where people live, because they provide delivery addresses, and which credit cards they use. It knows how old their children are from their baby registries, and who has a cold, right now, from cough syrup ordered for two-hour delivery. And the company has been expanding a self-service option for ad agencies and brands to take advantage of its data on shoppers.

All of that means Amazon can show ads to incredibly specific subsets of people — categories that include, according to the Times, people who have bought acne treatments in the past month, people who live in households with children ages four to six, and people who have recently streamed fitness and exercise videos on Amazon. And when you consider that Amazon’s ads appear in an environment where those same people are actively seeking to make purchases, well, you can see why this might be worrisome to a company like Google (and might also be why Google has been trying for ages to grow its own Amazon alternative — an effort that’s apparently easier said than done).

And then there’s the biggest, most existential threat of all.

Google it — or Alexa it?

For years, Google has basically been synonymous with search. (Seriously. Go Bing it.) But with all of Amazon’s aforementioned intrusions, there’s a very real risk now that Alexa, not Google, could become the de facto search system of the future.

It seems pretty apparent that Amazon’s aim is to make that happen — to get you in the habit of thinking about Alexa anytime you have a question or command, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. That’d serve Amazon’s interests in all the areas we just finished discussing, and it’d also render Google irrelevant in the fields most important to its ongoing success.

I mean, think about it: If Alexa is available wherever you go and you learn to rely on it for answers to everything, what role does Google serve? Sure, you might still use apps like Gmail and Google Docs, but those sorts of services don’t help Google understand who you are and what your interests are — the type of understanding that enables effective advertising. Look at your own Google advertising profile. If you click through the qualities Google knows about you (or thinks it knows about you, anyway), you’ll likely see that the vast majority of the info is derived from some form of search.

Amazon may not have built its own traditional search engine, but it’s effectively found a way to get around the very need for that by focusing on the non-traditional search of the future — voice interaction — and training countless people to turn to it before Google. And at the end of the day, if you don’t search through Google in some manner or another, you don’t exist to Google in any measurable way.

Now, all things in perspective: Google’s nowhere near becoming a cooked goose. By most counts, the company is thriving — or at least doing reasonably well.

But we all know that trends matter — and if I were Google, good golly, this is one trend I’d be watching and working to correct as if my life depended on it.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Saying goodbye to Windows 7 isn’t easy, but you must

Listen, I get it. Windows 7 has worked really well. After the Vista fiasco, you were so happy to get a decent version of Windows. You dodged the Windows 8.x sinkhole, and, boy, were you glad! Then, you thought about Windows 10, but 7 just did the job so you stuck with it, and then you felt vindicated because of Windows 10’s dodgy upgrades and patches. Now, today, Jan. 14, 2020, Windows 7 has reached its end of life, and either you’ve upgraded to Windows 10 or you’re working on another Windows 7 alternative like Chrome OS, macOS or Linux, right?

I mean, you’ve moved on. Right?

Oh, no! What’s this!? According to the most accurate survey of who’s running what on the internet the running totals of the U.S. government’s Digital Analytics Program (DAP) — on Jan. 9, five days before Win7’s end of life, 19% of Windows users were still using Windows 7.

People, people, people. It’s time to switch. Even the simplest update scenario, upgrading to Windows 10, takes a minimum of three hours. Moving your data and applications to Windows 10 can take anywhere from hours to days. It’s long past time to move. If you want an alternative operating system, it will take you even longer.

Of course, many companies are simply retiring their old PCs and replacing them with newer models running Windows 10. That’s the easiest way forward. But, as DAP’s numbers show, lots of people still haven’t made the move.

Indeed, just as in a lame action movie with a bomb countdown, as the clock ticks to zero on Windows 7, I’ve met some people who don’t plan on updating at all. Shudder!

They tell me they’ll be fine if they just keep updating their antiviral software. No! Just no! Where to begin?

First, antivirus (A/V) programs only protect you against known malware. There’s a lot of new trouble coming along every day. A/V programs don’t have a great track record of keeping up with the newest and nastiest malware. One of the best, Microsoft Security Essentials, dies on the same day as Windows 7 — today, remember? Windows Defender Antivirus? It was never available on Windows 7 and it’s sure not going to be ported over now!

Second, as former Firefox developer Robert O’Callahan and Google Chrome’s security chief Justin Schuh have pointed out separately, there is a lot of rotten code in A/V programs. In fact, many developers see A/V programs as more harmful than helpful. That’s because to protect a system they get so deep into it they can also be easily used as an attack vector.

Let’s also not forget that if something goes wrong and you call for help, it’s doubtful that you’ll get a helping hand for troubleshooting problems on an obsolete operating system.

Last, but not least, when new security holes are found in Windows 7 — and they will pop up — you’ll be wide open to attacks.

If you really, really must keep running Windows 7, I can only suggest you run it on a virtual machine (VM) without networking on another operating system. I recommend using Oracle VirtualBox on Linux Mint. It’s what I use for dodgy operating systems. That way you can still run your old apps and be relatively safe.

Of course, the really smart thing to do if you refuse to leave Windows 7 is to bite the bullet and pay for Windows 7 Extended Security Updates (ESU). If you can get it.

First, it’s only available for those with Windows 7 Professional, Windows 7 Enterprise or Windows 7 Ultimate. Windows 7 Home? So sorry, you’re out of luck.

If you have a small business, you can get ESU, right? Sure! That is, Microsoft claims you can get it via a Microsoft cloud service provider (CSP). In practice, users are saying CSPs don’t want their business. They don’t want your custom because if you only need 30 or fewer ESU units, they can’t make a profit.

The bottom line is Microsoft really wants you to move off Windows 7 to Windows 10 right now. I know, I know, Windows 7 still works and it’s going to be a major headache to upgrade or migrate, no matter what you do. It always is. Nevertheless, the time has come. Move off Windows 7 today or feel a lot of pain tomorrow.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Why isn’t Apple (yet) supporting Tim Berners-Lee to ‘save the web’?

Apple isn’t (yet) among the signatories for a global campaign to save the web launched by Tim Berners-Lee.

I hope this is something the company plans to change.

What’s the story?

Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, is concerned that the web is becoming a forum for political manipulation, fake news, privacy violations and other harms that he fears may plunge us all into what he calls “digital dystopia.”

He’s launched a new global action plan and is asking governments, companies and individuals to commit to protecting the web and ensuring it benefits humanity.

“The power of the web to transform people’s lives, enrich society and reduce inequality is one of the defining opportunities of our time,” he said.

“But if we don’t act now – and act together – to prevent the web being misused by those who want to exploit, divide and undermine, we are at risk of squandering that potential.

“At this pivotal moment for the web, we have a shared responsibility to fight for the web we want. Many of the most vocal campaigners on this issue have already recognised that this collaborative approach is critical.”

It strikes me as odd, given Apple CEO Tim Cook’s leadership when it comes to privacy, that his company is not among the initial list of signatories to the commitment.

It strikes me as equally odd that Google and Facebook are signatories, given my low opinion of both firms when it relates to some of the commitments given in what Berners-Lee calls the “Contract for the Web.”

What’s in the Contract for the Web?

“The web was designed to bring people together and make knowledge freely available. Everyone has a role to play to ensure the web serves the public good,” the website declares.

It consists of a number of commitments, including:

  • Everyone should be able to get online.
  • All of the internet should be available to all.
  • Privacy should be respected
  • Web users should have access to any data held on them.
  • Users should be able to object to data being held.
  • Users should be able to prevent their data being processes.
  • The Internet should be affordable.
  • Web services be accessible.

There are also commitments to creating simple user interfaces with which to access privacy settings, to ensure workforces are diversified and that tech firms assess the risk of the technology they provide.

In addition to commitments to government and companies, there are individual commitments to the creation of content, online communities and a commitment to the open web.

It is true to say that at present we are a long way from unified simple UIs with which users can control their privacy and data. I use a fantastic app called Jumbo to keep my data private and to undermine the surveillance-based businesses of some of these firms).

You can learn more about the Contract for the Web here.

Why hasn’t Apple signed-up?

I don’t know why Apple hasn’t yet lent its support to what seems at first glance to be quite positive commitments around the future of the web. After all, I feel that the vast majority of the commitments made in the contract seem to reflect Apple’s public commitments and activities around privacy – promises I sometimes feel its competitors match, at best, reluctantly.

That’s why it seems strange Apple isn’t in the vanguard of these commitments – instead allowing others to burnish their reputations with lip service to such support. After all, when it comes to accessibility, multiple language support, and user privacy Apple has a strong story to tell. 

Ultimately, the campaign message really reflects what Cook was saying when he spoke to European privacy commissioners in 2018:

“Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies,” he said then.

“Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated or crazy.”

It makes sense for Apple to lend its support to Berners-Lee’s campaign on  the strength of that statement alone. It makes less sense for it to fail to support this campaign.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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