On the Eve of iPhone, Verizon Cinches the Throttle

If you believe Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg’s version of events, his company’s wireless division wasn’t even in the running for the iPhone years ago when Apple was first shopping the device around to carriers. Other reports tell a different story, but either way, the fact that Verizon had to wait nearly four years to offer its customers the iPhone had its advantages and disadvantages. On the down side, it really gave a customer boost to its biggest rival, AT&T. On the upside, though, the competition did motivate Verizon to invest in a strong competitor to Apple’s platform, Android, which it’s helped become a major force in mobile.

It also got to sit back and watch as the iPhone’s popularity and AT&T’s response to the pressures placed on its network turned into a nightmare. The volume of complaints about spotty or just-not-there AT&T cellular service reached huge proportions, and pretty soon people were practically begging Verizon to carry the iPhone just so they could get a call through.

Now that day has come — Verizon has started taking preorders, and devices will arrive on the 10th. But Verizon has learned a thing or two from watching AT&T make a mess of itself. Just as preorders were coming in, the company announced a few small changes it was making to its network’s data system.

First, it’s going to make a few tweaks to the way it handles files, which could result in a small change in the way videos look when they’re streamed to Verizon devices. This applies to all data users, iPhone or otherwise.

Secondly, it’s going to start throttling the data hogs. If you’re among the 5 percent of Verizon’s heaviest data users, expect to see slower data transfers on your phone.

If you’re a Net neutrality booster, the word “throttling” might have just given you flashbacks to a few years ago when Comcast was caught throttling heavy BitTorrent users. But remember that Comcast did emerge from that case without too many cuts or bruises, and at least here Verizon’s being upfront about it, rather than secretly doing it like Comcast did. And perhaps Verizon just knows it probably can get away with it. The most recent set of guidelines the FCC has come up with allow for reasonable discrimination of Web traffic, whatever that means, and they allow wireless carriers to get away with a lot more than wired service providers.

Listen to the podcast (15:00 minutes).

Emerging From the Honeycomb Hideout

Google’s Android mobile OS is not a stranger to the world of tablets. Tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab have been around for months. But most of them have been kind of on the small side. Plus they’re running a version of Android that was really designed with phones in mind, not tablets. In order for anyone to produce a true iPad rival with Android, Google would have to release a version designed with tablets on the brain, and that’s where Honeycomb comes in.

That’s Android version 3.0, and we’ve seen a little bit of Honeycomb before, like in Motorola’s demonstration of its upcoming Xoom tablet. But this week was Honeycomb’s big official reveal, and Google explained a lot more about what the OS will include.

Honeycomb will give users new interface options, a tabbed Web browser, a more sophisticated Contacts application, a better notification system, and video chat with image stabilization to smooth out images and cut down on the amount of bandwidth needed to conduct video calls. And, of course, everything will just look better on a large screen.

All that’s fine for users, but the developers are the ones that have some work in front of them. With an OS optimized for a larger screen size, they may need to rework some of the software they sell if they want it to look great on a tablet. Google’s put out a Honeycomb software developer kit, but it’s actually more like a practice SDK, not meant for the creation of apps you’d really want to take to market. The real SDK will come along in a few weeks. And if a developer doesn’t think a special Honeycomb version is worth the trouble, at least the new OS is backward-compatible with apps designed for earlier versions of Android.

The new version is also designed to work on single or multicore devices, and we should start seeing a lot more high-powered, multicore mobile gadgets hit the market very soon. Of course, individual apps may need to be reworked in order to take advantage of multicore power, and that’s not always an easy thing to do.

Finally, Google also widened the money pipeline for developers to give them a few more ways to make a buck. It’s enabled in-app purchases for Android apps, so now app makers can sell users more content even after the app’s been downloaded. It also introduced a Web version of the Android Market. You can visit it from any Web browser, even on a full-sized computer, and create an account that’s linked to your Android device. Each time you buy an app, it’s pushed directly to your Android, no physical connection required. It’s an added convenience for customers and it gives developers a chance to make the sale using a full-sized Web page with screen shots, plenty of text, user reviews and so forth. Some may find it much easier to hawk their wares there than through a little 3.5-inch phone screen.

Blood on the Pages?

Sony was sent home crying from Apple’s App Store this week after being told that its e-reader app wasn’t up to par. The app would’ve allowed users to access and read e-books purchased from Sony’s own e-bookstore, but it was rejected based on how it carried out its sales. This has left some app makers wondering whether they might have to make some very tough decisions soon.

When you buy an app for an iPhone or iPad, you’re not necessarily getting everything that its developer hopes to sell you. Some app makers have built most of their businesses around in-app purchases — you get the app for free, but stuff like upgrades or additional game features cost a few bucks more.

Of course, Apple must have its taste of the action. It takes a 30 percent cut from all in-app purchases. That’s fine for some developers, but for others it just won’t stand. Take e-book sellers, for example. Amazon has its Kindle reader app for iPhone and iPad, which is free, but if it sold new e-books as in-app purchases, it would have to either make those books more expensive to account for Apple’s cut or take a 30 percent cut in the revenue it gets from those sales.

So that Kindle app and others like it skirt the rule by kicking you over to the device’s Web browser if you want to buy something. Then the sale is done over the open Web, the book you bought is accessible through the app, and nobody has to give Apple anything.

That’s apparently what Sony wanted to do, but Apple sent it packing. Apple says that it’s now starting to enforce a rule that requires apps offering e-books for sale via a channel outside the app to now also provide an in-app option. That rule won’t necessarily prohibit the old method of punting users to the browser, but an instant purchase option will probably be more convenient to users, even if it means big trouble for vendors’ bottom lines.

So if this rule compels high-profile e-reader apps to decamp from iTunes entirely, does that mean no more e-reading on iPads? Not really — Apple has its own bookstore and an e-reader built into iOS. But ask a loyal Kindle app user what the difference is and get ready for a long lecture.

Enforcing this in-app purchase rule now doesn’t seem to fit Apple’s usual focus where profits are concerned. Historically, sales of anything through iTunes haven’t been huge moneymakers for Apple, whether you’re talking apps, music, TV shows, etc. They earn their keep and all, but the stuff that really pumps Apple’s earnings reports full of steroids each quarter is hardware sales — iPads, iPhones, gizmos and stuff. Having a well-appointed shop like iTunes integrated into the platform just makes its stuff that much more attractive. Cracking down with an insistence on in-app purchases may squeeze a few more bucks into iTunes’ bottom line, but if it ends up alienating very popular apps like Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s reader, that could alienate users and make hardware sales suffer.

Information Underload

Online social media tools like Facebook and Twitter have once again played a part in a major round of social unrest in the Middle East. Last time it was Tunisia, time before that it was Iran, this time Egypt, where marches and demonstrations have filled the streets for well over a week in an effort to force Hosni Mubarak, who’s been the country’s president for three decades straight, to step down. Mubarak has budged just a little — so far he’s agreed to leave office, but not until September. That failed to satisfy many protesters, and in fact the activities in the streets began to turn even more violent after Mubarak made that promise.

As a set of communications tools, online social media helped the protesters share ideas, organize and communicate, even while actually carrying out their demonstrations. In the earlier days of the uprising, it helped them gain critical mass and get enough people together to catch the world’s attention. Once things really got going, it was a very easy way for protesters to share what was going on with the outside world.

But it seems that the Egyptian government has something that’s been discussed for some time in the United States: An Internet kill switch. Last week, Egypt’s Internet went dark. So did most cellphone networks. The exact reasoning behind the action is unclear. It’s possible that government officials actually thought that without Twitter, protesters wouldn’t be able to figure out other ways to organize and everyone would just settle down. Remember, this is the same government that ordered the slaughter of all pigs during the swine flu scare. No pigs meant more garbage piling up in the streets, and public health just got that much worse.

Or maybe the Internet shutdown was a just another scare tactic: Look what we can take away from you if you don’t behave — now everyone calm down. Because when someone starts getting really mad, the best way to get them to chill out is to blindfold them.

Whatever the reasoning behind it, the shutdown of course did nothing to convince people to go back inside and get back to business as usual. Yes, you can still have an uprising without Facebook, and many Egyptians simply resorted to older technologies in order to communicate effectively with each other and the outside world. With WiFi and Ethernet out of the picture, they fell back to fax machines, dial-up modems, even Ham radios.

One ISP was still allowed to operate a little longer — Noor, the one responsible for keeping the Egyptian stock exchange online — and it’s suspected that at least some of its bandwidth was being shared by anti-government activists before it was unplugged Monday.

The modem lights have slowly come back on. That hasn’t really served to tone down the protests, though — there was actually an escalation of violence right around the time the Egyptian Web got back on its feet, and things kept getting worse as the week drew on.

It’s difficult to know what prompted this about-face from Mubarak’s administration. And his statement regarding the blackout didn’t exactly sound contrite or even conciliatory. One bit about how “the future of the Internet is unpredictable” sounded a little like “don’t make me do that again.” He also talked about “taking the side of citizens’ freedom to express their views,” yet this was the guy who pulled the plug in the first place. And that sentiment started sounding like even thicker BS later in the week when it was reported that several journalists in Egypt had been attacked and some arrested.

Anonymous Speaks

Nobody knows who they are or where they are or how many of them are out there. But they’re going to war. At least they were good enough to offer up a formal declaration.

To refer to Anonymous as a hacker gang or organization isn’t quite right, because those words imply it has some kind of structure. Or that its members actually know each other. Or that the concept of membership is there at all. Wikipedia uses terms like “mass noun,” “meme” or “anarchistic amalgamations of hacktivists.”

Basically, Anonymous is anyone who takes part in an Anonymous activity, and an Anonymous activity is anything Anonymous says it is. For the sake of establishing some kind of linguistic foothold, I’m just going to go ahead and call it a group, in the loosest meaning of the word.

Acts associated with Anonymous usually take place online, though not always. They include pranks, both relatively harmless and otherwise, as well as protests for and against various causes.

One cause Anonymous has been generally very supportive of lately has been the survival of Wikileaks, the site that recently made public thousands of secret international messages sent between diplomats from various countries. Much embarrassing information was revealed, some officials in the U.S. and elsewhere began calling it an act of espionage, and some organizations like PayPal, Amazon and Mastercard decided to cut off any business arrangements with the site, whether providing it server space or processing donations from supporters.

Those organizations may have done what they did out of what they saw as patriotism, or at least an effort to shake off bad PR at a time when Wikileaks was drawing a lot of fire. But to Anonymous, turning away from Wikileaks was an attempt to cut off freedom of expression, so it launched a series of DDoS attacks that in some cases took the targeted sites offline for a while.

Now, weeks later, UK officials have arrested five people suspected of participating in those attacks. In the U.S., the FBI is hunting its own list of Anonymous suspects. And in response to this police activity, this loose group of hacktivists — or at least someone claiming to represent it — has released a statement. Directed at the UK government, it reads: “We take this as a serious declaration of war.”

The UK arrests were apparently made under the Computer Misuse Act, which prohibits impairing the operation of a computer or the readability of data. But Anonymous’ message explains that the group sees DDoS attacks as the 21st century equivalent of sit-ins.

“As traditional means of protest (peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins) have slowly turned into nothing but an empty, ritualized gesture of discontent … people have been anxiously searching for new ways to pressure politicians and give voice to public demands in a manner that might actually be able to change things for the better.”

So far, it doesn’t seem like Anonymous has pulled off any further mass attacks, but we’ll see whether anything happens if the arrests continue.

1 Comment

  • I’m not entirely sure what to feel about this throttling business. Initially a lot of bad words leap to mind, cause seriously! That can’t be right. And as far as being ‘up front’ is concerned, they never made any public statements about controlling network speeds on heavy users…they almost got caught out. But on the flip side, being an iPhone AT&T customer, I’ve kept a CDMA tracfone close by to make, and take calls. This would however be pointless if even the Verizon network starts suffering. So from that point of view, I like the throttling.

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