by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XXXIX

This Week's Clue: Privacy and Technology

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This Week's Clue: Privacy and Technology
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
Tiny Bubble
Internet Explorer Is Dead
One Linux To Rule Them All
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of September 27, 2004

Our view of privacy changes as we age.

Young people, even middle-aged people, have secrets they wish to keep private. Some aren't so bad. Others are. But the secrets have ways of seeping out of our heads, and so we try hard to protect the artifacts that are created as a result - phone calls, papers, magnetic ink.

It is right and proper that we do this. Without some privacy most people can't function.

But older people have other fears. They fear being alone, especially if something happens. And something will. It happens to all of us. We fall, we have an attack, we forget things and disaster happens. As infirmities grow privacy can become positively dangerous, so millions of us will end our lives in public, in a nursing home or other "assisted-living facility."

Medic Alert had a classic campaign in the 1980s which spoke to this fear. You remember it. Old lady falls on the floor, grabs the radio on her wrist and moans into the phone, "I've fallen and I can't get up." Help is on the way.

You think she worried about privacy?

Fact is, privacy is a conceit of the young. As we age we need people to know us, intimately. Even strangers. And we're all going there, the lucky among us anyway.

But privacy has become a roadblock on the road of progress. We can't have Always-On applications, measuring our health and the condition of our things, if we can't feel secure in the knowledge that our privacy is being protected.

The principle should be simple. The data you create belongs to you. No one gets it without your consent, or at least the same court order needed to rifle through your closet.

Europe has a degree of these protections. American privacy law is about the worst in the world. Not only is it riddled with holes, but it's routinely violated, by salesmen, by government, and by con artists of all kinds. When was the last time you saw a salesman go to jail for a privacy violation?

Thus whole organizations exist to stop Always-On technologies. Among the more effective is CASPIAN , which calls RFID tags "spy chips." They are spy chips, but only because the law doesn't protect your right to the data they contain. So people worry about Proctor & Gamble measuring their use of toothpaste inside their houses.

On the other hand I know a lot of people who'd love someone or something to measure their toothpaste, and warn them before they run out. (Maybe you could get some at the store on your way home, sonny.) I know people who are constantly losing their keys, their eyeglasses, their wallets. And it's going to get worse. You're going to start forgetting where your medicine is, and whether you took it.

RFID creates what we call an "Internet of Things," and if you control that Internet of Things you can stay independent longer. If you're not worried about finding your medicine, or your chores getting done, if your kids can visit you via webcam at any time, if your medical condition can be constantly monitored (and someone warned when there is danger) then you don't have to go to a nursing home. You can stay where you are, secure and happy, until the end of your days.

But this Always-On world can't exist if we're going to be paranoid about Big Brother, and Little Brother. Yet we are, quite rightly. I share all the concerns of the privacy advocates.

For the last four years the copyright industries have been taking increased control of the technology their work plays on, often to a ridiculous degree. It has become a one-way street, and their business has suffered for it.

The Always-On world would benefit from its own legislative activism, but this activism needs to go the other way. You protect the privacy rights of your customers because it's in your self-interest to do so. You protect their rights to own their own data because, that way, you can sell them the networks, and the applications, they need to get value from that data.

Until you do that you don't have a market.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout , a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Takes on the News

Tiny Bubble

The stock market is like a soda. There are always bubbles. What made the late 1990s so remarkable was simply that there were so many of them.

But there are always bubbles, sometimes just tiny bubbles. And there's one going on right now, in the stock of Travelzoo.

The reason is that Travelzoo has a tiny float (1.9 million shares), real profits (gross profit of $17.5 million on sales of $23.6 million), and dedicated fans. When the company was launched, in 1998, it gave away shares to anyone who signed up for its e-mails. These people haven't sold. (Some may have bought to get to an even 100 shares.)

So this is a going concern with real plans that only got onto the main NASDAQ pages a month ago . The result was a bunch of "shorts," who sold the stock when it wasn't theirs'n, and must now buy it back of go to pris'n. As they're squeezed, they surrender at higher-and-higher prices. And insiders sell out like air coming from a tire , slowly but steadily.

But they will all be squeezed out in time, or enough will so that the price can find its natural floor, which given the huge overhang of customer stock out there may be at pennies on the current dollar. What might cause the fall? How about its two "rivals," Cendant and IAC, making kissy-face. Or how about Yahoo launching a fare database .

What's the deal? Travelzoo is really just a database of travel listings, bargains offered for money to the trade. The key is its newsletter, which takes the best of the lot and pushes it toward a host of travel agents and ordinary citizens. The man in charge is a 38-year old German, Ralph Bartel . (The "Dr." he uses in his name comes from a PH.D in communications he got from the University of Mainz. But isn't it fun to be Herr Doktor.)

What happens next? If you've got any of that giveaway stock around, sell it now. I don't care if it's falling, sell it now. But is there a real business here? Yes, there is. It's just worth 100x its real value now, and will be swallowed-up by someone like Cendant or IAC once the bubble bursts and it's trading at 1/10x its real value.

And that will happen. Count on it.


Internet Explorer Is Dead

Microsoft is deliberately letting Internet Explorer lose the browser market to Mozilla's Firefox.

Microsoft won't admit this publicly but it makes sense. The company hasn't had a major upgrade to the program in years. It was relatively trivial for Mozilla, descended ultimately from Netscape, to match those features, even go slightly beyond them.

The question is why.

The answer is liability.

Microsoft has learned, to its financial cost, that leadership carries with it a requirement to fix bugs. And there are more bugs in Explorer than there were in Dreamworks' Antz.

Microsoft doesn't mind fixing bugs in Windows or in Office. It can get its money back from users for that work through upgrades. But, in order to beat Netscape in the 1990s Microsoft never attached a business model to Explorer. It was given away.

In the last few years leadership has evolved away from the browser. It was once thought that the browser would be a platform, like an operating system, and control of that browser would define Internet applications.

This turned out not to be the case. Once a standard method was developed for "plugging in" other applications to the browser, control issues passed to those applications. Applications like Media Player (in Microsoft's case).

So that is where it's putting its money, in Media Player. There are business models that can be built around Media Player. You can sell content through that conduit.

Until someone creates a business model around browser dominance Explorer is dead.

One Linux To Rule Them All

The problem with Unix has always been that there were many different versions of it. As a result you couldn't shrink-wrap applications, as you can with Windows, because no one package could reach the whole Unix market.

Linux is changing that . The new Linux Standard Base 2.0 will unify Red Hat, SuSE Linux, MandrakeSoft, Conectiva, ThizLinux Laboratory, Sun Wah Linux, Turbolinux and Progeny. It has the backing of IBM, H-P, and Dell, along with chip-makers AMD and Intel.

The real goal, said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Free Standards Group, is to make Linux as stable as Windows, and eliminate the "total cost of ownership gap" that Microsoft has been trumpeting as Windows' advantage.

The gap is caused by the fact that the Linux market is fragmented, and incompatibilities among Linux versions make it difficult to get updates and patches.

It represents a real change for Linux, whose advantage was originally the fact that it was freely licensed. If it's standard Unix, and if Unix is just as powerful (and more stable) than Windows, Microsoft could be in real trouble.

Of course Linus Torvalds still won't be rich.

Oh, and in a recent entry a reader asked what's in it for IBM with this Linux strategy? Well, unity for one thing. Enough unity so IBM was able to announce a new Power5 chip that runs only Linux.

Of course those with evil intent might prefer to call Linus Torvalds the Sauron of Unix.

One Unix to rule them all,

One Unix to find them.

One Unix to bring them all

And as Linux to Bind them.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in are Carnegie-Mellon and Cal-Berkeley, who will spend $1 million on a three-year effort to standardize single-chip speech recognition . Thus will the voice interface come to Always-On applications.

Clueless are Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak for naming their computer company Apple . Of course if their lawyers had served them well 20 years ago this never would have happened.


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