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Sheffield
England

I tell stories and share ideas. I’m a pragmatic idealist fascinated by technology, science, faith, politics, relationships, and what it means to be human.

Technology Archive

A smattering of opinionated technology articles, usually focussed on or related to Apple products and services.

Instagram And The Problem With Free Services

Sam Radford

I won't be quitting Instagram, but the future of free services isn't pretty

I have a lot of geeky people I connect with and follow on Twitter and ADN. And, amongst that group, everyone is in uproar about the new Instagram terms and conditions, specifically this:

Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

As a result, tons and tons of people are literally closing down their Instagram accounts. Triggered by this, I wanted to write down a few thoughts.

First, I want to say that, unlike my fellow geeks - but like most ‘normal’ Instagram users - I won’t be closing down my Instagram account. The truth is, I really like Instagram. There isn’t an equivalent service that comes close to it. Whereas most ‘normal’ users will probably never even realise the new Terms for Instagram has changed, I am fully aware but am still choosing to keep using it.

Why? Because, whilst I don’t like that change and would prefer it not to be there, I would have never used a free service in the first place if I was truly horrified at the thought of my photos being used for promotional purposes. I’m using a free service and, as such, I’m not surprised if they use my photos. I’ve put those photos into the public domain via a free service, and I’ve long accepted that anything I post online this way is something I don’t expect to have full control over. I don’t like it but, until a better, pay-for alternative comes along, it’s not - yet - a deal breaker for me.

The Problem With ‘Free’ Services

That said, this issue does highlight a growing problem for free services. And the more we want our online services and tools to be free, the more we’re going to lose control over the content we create using those services and tools.

One of the reasons I like ADN so much is that I am paying to use it and, as a result, ADN is focussed on meeting my needs rather than the needs of advertisers. ADN doesn’t need advertising to sustain its business and so it doesn’t need to sell my content to them. So, as a user, I benefit.

Truth be told, I would much rather pay a small subscription fee - or pay for the app itself - with Instagram and not have to worry about Instagram needing to sell my content to sustain its business.

This is why I am also more comfortable being attached to Apple’s world rather than Google’s. Google’s entire future hinges on advertising. It is dependent on our supplying them with personal content. They need to track our every move, search, post, and email in order to stay in business. Apple however has no need to sell any of my information to any other company in order to stay in business. And that is why I’m much more comfortable sharing my data with Apple than I am Google. Apple needs my data to improve the services it offers to me; Google needs my data to increase its advertsiing revenue. Who would you rather share your data with?

So, whilst I don’t feel the need to shut down my Instagram account, I don’t like the direction things are increasingly going in with free services and tools. If we want to hold onto our rights over the content we post online, we would do well to encourage and support tools and services that have a pay-for model rather than an advertising dependent one.

Here's hoping there's a high quality pay-for Instagram alternative that I'll be able to switch to in the near future.

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What Does Apple Have In Store For 2013?

Sam Radford

I wrote an article for a new tech blog called Unravelling Technology. It explores what I think we can expect from Apple over the next 12 months:

In the space of six weeks we’ve seen a new iPhone, a new iPad mini, and new iPad 4, new MacBook Pros, new iMacs, and a whole lot more. Apple have thrown everything and the kitchen sink at this quarter. Putting so many major releases into one quarter is risky. This holiday quarter is already Apple’s strongest by far and these releases are likely to make this quarter the biggest in Apple’s history. But where does that leave things for the subsequent quarters as we head into 2013?

Head over to their site, have a read, and feel free to add your own thoughts and ideas in the comments.

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Windows 8: An Interesting Step Forward By Microsoft

Sam Radford

In my previous post I wrote about a trip to Staples where I ended up giving the Kindle Fire HD a try out. I wasn’t impressed. It felt cheap and not nearly as capable a device as an iPad.

On the same visit though, I also spent some time playing with Windows 8 on one of the display laptops. And I was pleasantly surprised. It was a really interesting approach to a desktop operating system. It was both easy and fun to use.

Time didn’t allow me to delve too far into it, but on the surface at least, it’s definitely a fresh look and feel that Microsoft has added. I did quickly find myself getting into ‘old Windows’ mode though which felt more than a little weird and immediately destroyed any sense of consistency.

It made me worry that the new look is little more than a pretty cover on the same ugly book. And I do wonder whether having all that activity going on on the desktop will quickly start to grate. When I think about my usage of a desktop computer, I jump from application to application depending on my needs at any particular time. I don’t see how all the activity tabs (is there an official word for them?!) on the desktop will aid my actual workflow.

My final thought is related to the actual laptop I was using. The HP machine had a touchpad for scrolling and swiping but it was so poor it was practically unusable for gestures. My immediate thought was how much better the Windows 8 experience would be if it was installed on my MacBook Air with it’s brilliant touchpad! The hardware seemed to be majorly letting down the software.

Which reminds me why I use computers made by a company who build both the software and hardware together.

All in all though, Windows 8 seems like a decent - and interesting - step forward by Microsoft. I definitely liked it more that I expected to.

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The Kindle Fire HD: Cheap In Every Sense

Sam Radford

On Saturday morning my wife needed to do some photocopying at Staples. Whilst Rachel did the photocopying, I was supposed to ensure that my three and a half year old daughter didn’t wreak (too much) havoc around the store. Inevitably, however, I was soon distracted by the in-store technology section.

I noticed a dedicated Kindle display and thought I’d go and have a play with the Kindle Fire HD they had out. I only spent few minutes giving it a test run, but it was enough to form some immediate opinions. And they weren’t good.

Half-decent

Now, to be fair, it’s a half-decent tablet. If you have limited budget and limited needs, I can totally see why you’d be tempted by this device. And, if you’ve never owned or used an iPad, it would be very easy to think you’re getting a great deal. The fact that I do have an iPad though, means I have subconsciously developed very high expectations. These expectations are why I can only ever view that Fire HD as ‘half-decent’. There are so many hardware and software details - some subtle, some obvious - I assumed would be standard with any tablet, that when I found them to be missing, it really, really grated.

Apple made the iPad to feel great when you hold it. It feels like you’re holding something both precious and sturdy. I treat my iPad carefully because it feels like (and is) an expensive, quality device. But at the same time, I never worry about it. And despite all the best efforts of my three year old daughter, my iPad 1 is still undamaged and working perfectly. (I now have an iPad 3 as well.)

In comparison, the Fire HD felt cheap to hold and, unlike with the iPad, I’d be very nervous about my daughter breaking it. It just doesn't seem that sturdy of a device. It uses much lesser quality materials and isn’t nearly as well constructed. Physically, it feels every bit the cheap device that it is.

On the software side I was equally disappointed. Everything felt a little bit too slow. I’m so used to the instant reaction to touch with the iPad, that any lag feels like torture. I can only imagine too how frustrating my daughter would find this lesser responsiveness.

Missing Home Button

The lack of a physical home button on the Fire HD was also quite disorientating. I regularly found myself having to hunt around to try and get out of the particular application I was in. It wasn’t always obvious, nor consistent. And again, thinking of my daughter, this is the sort of thing that would be an even bigger source of frustration.

The lack of a home button, in my mind at least, makes the Fire HD a much less kid-friendly device. I’d say it’s the same for the older generation too. Having one button that you know exactly what it does, wherever you are are, is a big deal. That simple lack of one physical button makes the Fire HD a much less user-friendly device.

When it comes to thinking about how the Fire HD and iPad actually get used, they are also worlds apart. There is no way that the form factor of the Fire HD allows for any meaningful kind of creation. And the lack of creative apps further hammered this point home. The Fire HD only offers you a consumption device; the iPad delivers a true tablet computer that enables you do many full-scale computing tasks.

Ultimately, as with so much in life, you do get what you pay for. Whilst Amazon would like to pull the wool over our eyes and have us believe that the Fire HD is both cheaper and better than an iPad, it really isn’t. It’s cheaper, yes. A lot cheaper. But it feels like it too. If you want the best, this really isn’t it.

Of course, many people don’t need the best. And so I’m glad the Fire HD exists. Just make sure you don’t get fooled into thinking that the Fire HD and an iPad are essentially the same, with price being the only significant difference.

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Amazon Posts Hefty Losses…And Tech Journalists All Talk About Apple

Sam Radford

Reading through the tech press today you might be tempted to believe that it’s all doom and gloom with Apple’s financials. For those who might still be unaware, Apple shared their fourth quarter financial results on Thursday. And, despite making a cool $8.2 billion in profit in the last quarter - yes, quarter - this was still disappointing for some Wall Street analysts. The doom quickly spread to most tech journalists who were soon caught up sharing the ‘disappointment’ in a bid to grab as many page views for their poor reporting as possible.

It was so disappointing in fact that most of the above said journalists barely made mention of the fact that Amazon also announced their quarterly results. You’d assume that, since they hardly got a mention at all, there was nothing much to write home about. And yet there was.

For the first time since 2003, Amazon made a heavy loss of over $274 million. And it strikes me that this is pretty significant. Way more so than Apple’s non-news.

There’s no doubt that Amazon taking such a diametrically opposed approach to Apple’s makes things interesting in the tech industry. Selling Kindle’s and Kindle Fire’s at cost - or even a loss - is great for consumers wanting easy, cheap access to the ebook and tablet markets. It’s a fabulous contrast to Apple’s high-margins approach with its whole product line. But is it sustainable?

How many hits like this last quarter can Amazon afford to take before its entire strategy should start to be questioned? It’s all very well to run a business without making a profit and simply breaking even, but you can’t run a successful business making losses.

I’m not suggesting Amazon is suddenly in danger of collapsing or anything at this point, but you’d of thought that such a big media company making a hefty loss would have the tech media delving into this story like nobody’s business. It’s a big story. And it’s highly relevant. But instead we have excessive, tedious, and context-free, reporting of Apple financials by journalists and media companies desperate for hits to keep their advertisers happy.

Am I foolish to hope for something better?

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New iPad, iPad Mini, iMac, Mac mini, and MacBook Pro

Sam Radford

Well, well. Apple’s last event of 2012 turned out to be quite a bumper show. Lots of announcements confirming that pretty much all of the rumours were true. I’m not sure if anyone truly expected this full array of updates. So what do you need to know?

iPad Updates

Let’s start with the iPad. First off, Apple have announced the next version of the iPad (4th generation) just six months after the release of the 3rd generation iPad. The form factor is the same but it gets a brand new chip in side making it up to twice as fast. It also comes with the new Lighting connector.

Then, as predicted, Apple announced the iPad mini. This is - surprise, surprise - a smaller iPad, designed to fill the gap currently being filled by the likes of Google’s Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HD. The screen is 7.9” as opposed to the 9.7” of the current iPad and fits easily in one hand. It seems significantly smaller that the numbers suggest. Next to the original iPad, it looks, well, cute really.

It is worth noting that the iPad mini does not have a retina display. The screen quality isn’t on a par with the latest 3rd (now 4th) generation iPad. That said, due to the smaller screen, the quality will be better than the iPad 1 and 2 since it shares the same resolution as those devices.

You probably want to know the price. Here, sadly, the rumours proved to be accurate. The iPad mini starts at £269 / $329. Whilst many - myself included - were hoping for a price that competed with the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, that’s not how Apple operates. And, truth be told, Apple have done what they usually do. They make high quality products that come with a premium price.

No doubt the price will keep some people away and choosing the rivals, but Apple doesn’t seem too bothered about that. And I’m pretty sure Apple are going to sell a ton of these beautiful new devices.

Mac Updates

Prior to announcing the new iPad’s, Apple announced several new Mac updates. These included a gorgeous, unbelievably thin new iMac. This also comes with a new type of hard drive that Apple are calling a Fusion Drive. This is a combination of both Flash storage and a traditional hard drive. It essentially gives you the best of both worlds: high speed performance alongside huge storage. This looks like a significant new innovation from Apple.

As well as the new iMac, Apple also announced a 13” version of the new retina MacBook Pro. This is simply part of Apple’s ongoing rollout of retina displays to all their devices. I’m quite sure that, in time, the entire MacBook line up will have these gorgeous new displays.

Finally, there was a refresh of the Mac mini. As with the iPad, this is all internal updates. It comes will an updated chip bringing up to twice the performance. All in all, it’s a very nice update to Apple’s entry level Mac.

Ready For Christmas

There’s no doubt that this is a strong conclusion to 2012 for Apple and sets things up nicely for the run in to Christmas. With several products getting upgrades but no price changes, it also means everyone buying in this Christmas run in will be getting significantly more for their money.

I’m pretty confident that the iPad mini will be a real hit as a Christmas gift, even if there’s some disappointment that it’s not got a retina display.

Once again, Apple is going to have created a whole load more happy customers!

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Social Networks, App.net, And Freedom

Sam Radford

I’ve been thinking lately about social networks. No doubt this is in part triggered by my recent participation in the all new ADN/App.net service. It’s always interesting to be involved with something in the early days as that is when so much of the vibe and ethos gets shaped and formed.

The more I think about the idea of a social network though - whether that be Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or ADN - the more I’m reminded there’s no such thing as a social network. There are only social networks.

The same is true for real life social networks too. Each of us is connected to multiple networks; none of us share the exact same social experience. There are as many social networks as there are people on our planet.

This is not a particularly profound observation, but it’s an important one. Something I’ve noticed in the early days with all new social networks is idealism. We form a new group and we have high hopes of this being ‘the one’.

But it never is. Why? Because humans are involved. And humans are diverse, complex beings who all want different things. The idea of there ever being one social networking service that everyone sees and uses in the same way is, frankly, ludicrous. And, whilst we may be reluctant to admit it, it’d be a pretty horrible experience.

The danger of early stage idealism with any new social networking service is that it can turn into controlling, manipulative behaviours. Because something is new - and still small - we all feel that there is a greater chance to shape and to influence the network to become what we want it to be. We think that some behaviours in this new service are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and try to dictate that others adhere to our standards.

But this will never work. We cannot impose our wishes on others without destroying the social network. ADN, for example, is a social networking service that plays host to the multiple social networks we as members create. Why would we want to control what others can and can’t do? No, the beauty of a healthy social network (and indeed civilisation as a whole) is that it should, as freely as possible, allow everyone to craft and cultivate their own social network to suit their needs and wishes. This, for me, is what gives ADN a significant advantage over other social networking services.

There is no right and wrong. If we don’t like what someone is doing, we’re free to keep them out of our social network. If we don’t like the idea of following and followers, we’re free to simply jump in and out of conversations as we see fit without ever ‘following’ them. If we don’t like hashtags, we don’t need to use them and are free to unfollow anyone who does. It’s our social network, we are free to use it how we want—we just mustn’t then complain about everyone not seeing things the way you do.

My high hopes for ADN are linked to the reality that there are so many different ways for people to cultivate their social networks here. Different third party apps are free to create vastly different customised experiences, based on different peoples’ needs and wants. ADN is a great space to build the kind of personal social networks we (as individuals) want. No other social networking service comes close to offering that level of personal social networking customisation. The only thing that’ll kill it is if we try and take what we as individuals want and project that on everyone.

Freedom baby!

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Some Thoughts About App.net (And Why It's So Much Better Than Twitter)

Sam Radford

Back in August I signed up to join App.net, a new ‘real time social feed without the ads’. It was founded by Dalton Caldwell who, like many, has grown disenchanted with the direction Twitter has taken over the last year or so.

For those of you who don’t know, Twitter has become ever-increasingly about satisfying the needs of advertisers and much less about creating a better experience for users. On top of this, Twitter has been very heavy-handed with many of the third-party developers who have created applications built upon or around the Twitter ecosystem. In short, Twitter is screwing users and developers.

Whilst for many the implications of these changes won’t have been felt yet, the time will come. Some of us can see the future though, don’t like where it’s heading, and are considering what alternatives there might be. Caldwell’s App.net is one such alternative.

App.net - commonly referred to as ADN - is on many levels a Twitter alternative that users pay to use ($5 per month / $36 per year). And by creating a pay for service, ADN guarantees that the service will always be free of advertising and that users data will never be sold. They are choosing to build a social platform that prioritises users and developers, one that doesn’t need to rely on advertisers for sustainability.

Of course, an advertiser is free to create an account on ADN, but they will only be able to influence those who choose to follow them. Advertisers can’t buy influence through the network itself. There won’t be anything along the lines of ‘sponsored Tweets’.

This is what appeals to me so much about this new service. When we don’t pay for a service - like we don’t with Twitter and Facebook - we as users effectively become the product. That’s to say, we become the product that Twitter and Facebook sells to their advertisers. And that sucks.

Twitter and Facebook don’t have users as their priority any more. Now that they have critical mass, they are focussed on using their users as bait for advertisers. We exist to help them keep advertisers happy (and, in Facebook’s case, the stockholders too).

Wouldn’t it be great if there was another way? ADN is one approach to doing things differently. I want a social service that will never sell my personal data, content, feed, interests, clicks, likes, or anything else to advertisers. ADN makes this promise. By paying to use the service, we are creating a financially sustainable model that doesn’t need advertisers in order to survive.

Is ADN Any Good Though?

But what about my actual experience of using ADN? It’s all very well having a different financial model for a social network, but is it any good?! Well, until October 3rd, I’d have to say that my experience with ADN was…quiet. There were very few people actively using the service who I’d connected to and, truth be told, I very rarely went to check what was happening. There wasn’t a compelling enough reason to pull me back each day.

On October 3rd however, Tapbots (the company who created the hugely popular Tweetbot app for iPhone and iPad) released a dedicated app called Netbot specifically for the ADN platform. All of a sudden there was a great app to connect with this new network and I - and countless others - all immediately started to actually use the network. Not only that, it seemed to trigger a whole new wave of signups to the service too.

Having easy access to ADN via great iPhone and iPad apps, plus discovering the fabulous desktop app called Wedge, has meant that I’m using ADN all the time, interacting with people, having great conversations.

Conversation is a good word. Because despite having over fifteen times more followers on Twitter, I am finding people interact and converse way more here at ADN. I’m sure it is partly the fact that ADN is new and people are having to interact and respond in order to connect with people, but there is a depth, diversity, and civility to the conversation here that is so appealing and wonderfully refreshing.

The fact that there is a larger character limitation (256 rather than the 140 with Twitter) makes a difference too. Whilst many posts still come in around the 140 character length, that little bit of extra allowance really seems to make a difference in being able to actually converse in a meaningful way.

All in all, I’m hugely impressed with ADN. I like the financial model, I like that my data isn’t being sold, I like that the mere fact you have to pay seems to detract the idiots(!), and I’m really liking the interactions with the people I’m connecting to here. Here’s to hoping this becomes a real, long-term success.

For those of you who are interested, you can follow me on ADN: alpha.app.net/samradford.

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