My Technology History: Smartphones

This is the first of a series of blog posts where I’ll take a nostalgic look at the technology I’ve used in the past. Today I’m looking at smartphones, and in coming weeks I’ll reminisce about laptops, games consoles, operating systems, tablets and anything else I can think of …although not necessarily in that order!

For the tl;dr crowd, I currently use an iPhone 6. I prefer Apple hardware, but prefer Android as an OS. Bring on the flames!

iPhone v Android

iphone-3g-2o4-800The first “proper” smartphone I ever bought was the iPhone 3G. Up to this point I’d been using an old grey Sagem handset handed down to me by my parents and a Palm Z22.

Downloading apps was still something of a novelty, and I was using this on a pay-as-you-go tariff. New friends I’d made then spent the first six months I was at university trying to convince me Android phones like the Motorola Milestone and the T-Mobile G1 were better by virtue of the fact they had physical keyboards and I’m meant to be a Linux guy. I was having none of it! lol.

But I did eventually accept Android had become a more compelling platform once it hit 2.x. In late 2010 flogged off my iPhone and tried out the HTC Desire. That was a mistake!

Android 2.1 would only let you to store apps on the internal flash memory at the time, and the amount HTC had given it was tiny (at most, you could install about 10-15 apps). As someone who’d come from the land of iPhone this was a deal-breaker, and being told I had to root and re-flash it just to use the microSD was the last straw. It both arrived and was sold off in the same month!

Samsung-GalaxySI’m not going to lie, I reverted to type and picked up an iPhone 3Gs in early 2011, largely out of stubbornness. But eventually I came to my senses and tried the Samsung Galaxy S. This is the device that sold me on the OS, and I kept it until I needed to setup a Belgian contract the following Autumn.

I liked Samsung’s proprietary Touchwiz interface, Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” was a substantial improvement and the device itself felt well-made and lasted most of the day on a single charge. I actually felt quite sad when I finally replaced it!

lgoptimusfrontbackOn balance, it was a poor decision to go for a contract that bundled an LG Optimus 7. But in 2011 Windows Phone was an interesting new platform I wanted to try. To say it was a “step down” is an understatement! In addition, LG had opted for a metal back behind the battery which meant after the Mango update it had a tendency of burning my lap every time it overheated! (It was so bad that while I was in Belgium I picked up a cheap Blackberry Curve to tide me over until I found a replacement, as I figured anything was better than that device).

Needless to say, the first opportunity I had I got rid of it. As it had been a while since I’d last given Apple a chance, I picked up a second-hand iPhone 5. I lasted about six months with it, as it felt to me like iOS had fallen so far behind Android that it was almost as big a downgrade as switching to Windows Phone!

ai2h-800So, in 2012 I ditched it and picked up an LG Nexus 4. I liked it so much that when its successor the LG Nexus 5 came out I replaced one with the other!

These were a fantastic pair of devices that didn’t cost the Earth, vastly outclassed iPhone hardware and (most importantly) provided the latest version of Android in a completely vanilla form without me having to wait for carriers or device manufacturers to catch up.

I liked them so much that were it not for me dropping the LG Nexus 5 on a night out in 2014 I’d probably still be using it! I picked up the first generation Moto G to tide me over until I decided on what the replacement would be.

2014-09-23-iphone6-gallery-1The Moto G worked surprisingly well for a budget smartphone, but it definitely felt like a step down from the Nexus line. It used to hang regularly when I used it as a Sat Nav!

Towards the end of 2014 I was choosing between waiting for the Google Nexus 6 or picking up the newly-released iPhone 6.

As you can tell from the choice of images, I opted for the latter. This is largely because there wasn’t all that much between what was being reported about Nexus 6 and what we knew about the iPhone. What swung it Apple’s way was a compelling finance deal for the iPhone 6, which saved me having to wait a few months before switching.

On balance it hasn’t been a bad decision. Battery life is excellent, iOS 9 doesn’t feel excessively limited and (aside from the Facebook app, which I’ve since replaced with a bookmark to their mobile site) it’s a very stable system. Not going for the iPhone 6 Plus feels like a good decision, given what happened with bendgate!

I don’t feel any immediate need to replace it, but I think if I did decide to change phones I’d go back to the land of Android. Cyanogen-based phones from OnePlus and WileyFox are intriguing, although I strongly suspect it’d probably be the FairPhone or a model from the Google Nexus line that I’d go for. I’d also seriously consider going back to the Samsung Galaxy range.

Why would I return to Android? Well, I miss the raw power and the ability to customise my experience and add my own apps for free (among other things). iPhones behave more like appliances, which is completely fine if you just want something to do what it’s designed to do. But I vastly prefer platforms I can tinker with and tweak.

I am however still wary of the way Google treats user privacy so I suspect I’d continue to limit how many of their services I use so they don’t control my entire digital life!

 Update: Back to Android

Samsung-Galaxy-S6-White-Pearl.As you can perhaps guess from the image to the left, in November 2015 I switched to a Samsung Galaxy S6.

As expected, the ability to customise and deploy my own apps on my phone without hindrance has been something I’ve taken full advantage of, but the stock UI (Touchwiz) is very usable. Although the need to constantly reshuffle the app drawer so it remains alphabetical is a bit annoying, that’s all I can really fault with it.

I find with the wider shape I’m more prone to dropping the device, which I guess is part of the reason why Apple chose to keep the iPhone tall and thin as it expanded screen size. Also, within a couple of months some manhandling during an airport security check led to a cracked screen despite my having a rugged Spigen protective case fitted, which was a shame. Certainly it feels in many ways a little cheaply made, but I expected this when I bought it as it is essentially the budget version of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.

However the device itself has done everything I’ve asked of it and more. Everything I could do on my iPhone I can do on Android now thanks to Apple’s decision to bring Apple Music to the platform.

The only real day-to-day annoyance is the poor mobile signal. It’s a common problem with the device, and this has led to me missing some important calls I’d rather I hadn’t, and in some cases I now point people at Skype or my landline number instead “just to be safe”. It could be down to the short antenna, or it could be an OS issue. I’ll try a factory reset at some point to see if this fixes things.

But on balance, I think this was a great introduction back into the world of Android. I’m waiting for prices to come down for now, but at some stage I expect to replace it with its natural successor the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which has received rave reviews.

(This post was updated 2nd April 2016)

BT Graduate Story

This was originally created for the new “class of 2015” intake of BT’s graduate scheme, which I have just completed. My apologies for the sucky audio (the microphone on my DSLR is awful!) but thought it wasn’t bad for a first effort with Adobe Premiere Pro. 🙂

BT TV clips are the property of BT Group Plc. Challenge Cup clips courtesy of Richard Norris. ©2015 Bobby Moss. All Rights Reserved

Life, volunteering & IPTV

It’s been a busy six months. ibc2015_logoIn addition to day-to-day projects I’ve been learning about the technical aspects of broadcast infrastructure, digital media, 4K and IPTV at work. To augment this learning I’m planning to attend IBC again for a couple of days later this week. I learned a huge amount and met some great people there last year, so I’m heading back this time with a bedrock of supporting knowledge so I can hopefully ask the right questions!

While we’re on the subject of conventions, I’m also planning on attending FOSDEM in 2016. This’ll be the third time for me, and hopefully I’ll actually attend some classes! Usually I drink great Belgian beer the night before, mooch around the FOSDEM exhifosdem16bition for a while then meet up with former colleagues from Linux Format (they now work on Linux Voice) and The British School of Brussels. If you see me around, feel free to introduce yourself.

I also have some big plans for the site. I’m deciding if WordPress is still the way to go or if I should try building a replacement as a learning exercise. I’m also in negotiations to buy bobbymoss.com, but I’m not holding out much hope for that particular initiative. Despite the owner not hosting a working website on the domain for some time now, they’ve informed me they don’t want to part with it because they still use it for their personal email! Regardless of how things turn out bobstechsite.com will continue pointing at this site for the foreseeable future.

Volunteering & Recognition

yrs logoJust like last year I took some awesome teams of teenagers to the YRS Festival of Code 2015 finals in Birmingham, and I’m excited to say that a team from Adastral Park centre called Refresh reached the Grand Finals of the competition for “best example of design”, which is a first for us. A big thanks to Rika Nauck, Sandra Stincic Clarke & Mohammad Zoualfaghari for helping make this a successful event once again.

In other news I seem to have been made the “Face of TSO” at work, so for the rest of September my face will be stamped on corporate mail blasts, parts of BT’s internal intranet site and some of my colleagues’ PowerPoint presentations.

As a socially awkward person I’m deciding if this means I need to wear some kind of disguise until October… lol. But in all seriousness, I’m very grateful for the recognition and would like to thank those involved in making it happen at BT.

Current Projects

Very recently, I’ve been moving flats! Not a very techie thing to do, but it’s definitely the main reason this blog hasn’t been updated for a while. Thankfully it’s all over now and I’m slowly but surely settling in.

In coming months I’m looking to teach myself Ruby and Ruby on Rails, as it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for some time now. This is largely because I was introduced to Cucumber and behaviour-driven development at work, and I figure if I actually understand the language I’m writing step code in I’ll probably write better behavioural tests!

And finally, I’m planning to finally embrace vlogging on YouTube. People have been suggesting for years I should create some video tutorials on Linux, so I’m just looking into the technologies I need to do screen casting and the time it’s going to take for me to do it to figure out when would be a good time to launch a channel. Fortunately I’ve had some practice video-making at work recently, so hopefully I can use some of those skills to create my own content.

An update on life, the universe and FOSDEM

It’s been a few months since I last posted on this blog, so here’s a digest of what I’ve been up to during that time.

Bobby Moss collecting award in front of applauding crowd
Picture credit: Buket Nazlican

Collecting the RTS Young Technologist of the Year award

While it was announced earlier in 2014 and those of you following me on Twitter will have seen various tweets about IBC2014, a convention I attended as part of the award, the perspex trophy itself was formally presented to me at the Royal Television Society’s annual Craft & Design Awards event at the London Hilton in Park Lane.

RTS Young Technologist Award trophy
In case you were wondering what it looked like!

I was selected by the judges based partly for my career up to this point, partly because of the fairly extensive volunteer work I do with organisations like STEMNET and Young Rewired State and also because of the impact the award would make as a learning exercise/motivator for me and my fellow colleagues (who work in an organisation that is, after all, relatively new to sportscasting and IP-based pay TV!).  I imagine my work in BT’s internal challenge cup competition may also have played a part (more on this shortly).

I attended the RTS London Conference, compiled a presentation based on what I’d learned at IBC and presented this at a formal round-up event hosted by the Royal Television Society later in the year. The awards ceremony itself took place in early December.

Outside broadcast van from BT's TV and Sports division
Out on the show floor at IBC2014

My thanks go to my line managers for nominating/endorsing me for the award, the folks in charge of BT’s graduate scheme for putting me in contact with STEMNET (in so doing giving me the volunteering bug!) and the Royal Television Society for what’s been an amazing experience. Also, a big thank you to the awesome people I’ve worked with/studied with/been educated by up to this point, without whom this would not have happened. 🙂

Elevated view of Monte Carlo
Despite the slightly gloomy December weather I had a great time in Monaco

 The ‘TV Time Savers’ in Monte Carlo

A project that started out as a training exercise (along the lines of “Hi Bob, here’s a Raspberry Pi. See if you can subscribe to IGMP feeds and sniff RTP packets with it!”) has evolved into a device TV engineers heading out into BT customers’ homes were raving about.

The aim of the device is to give TV engineers a testing box they plug in at the same place the YouView/BT TV box is to verify if problems customers’ problems are related to the network/connectivity or if it’s the box under their TV that’s the problem. Up until this arrived engineers were left with only their own ingenuity to figure this out, and so would sometimes swap out a box by mistake. This is very annoying for customers, who are usually quite attached to their recordings!

But, thanks to having a device that performs a variety of network tests (which lights up different parts of a PiGlow based on results and hosts a webpage with more in-depth logs) there has already been tangible improvements in customer satisfaction levels and fewer repeat visits needed from TV engineers.

Custom Protocol

PiGlow unit
Flashing, spinning and showing different colours are a great way to indicate to engineers visually if there’s a problem or not.

The device also performs a variety of other tests beyond network ones (such as verifying a customer has the right packages). For this I designed a custom network protocol to handle client verification, software updates and receiving yes/no answers to certain questions. For obvious reasons nothing sensitive or personally identifying is ever transmitted (all look-ups are performed server-side) and because we aren’t releasing the protocol specification it’s not practical to decode the byte stream sent over TCP without access to the relevant source code.

I found having to write my own protocol specification and go through the drafting & revision process with someone who’s been involved with them before has given me a whole new appreciation for the work that must go into RFCs, format specifications and document standards!

Monte Carlo

So, what’s Monte Carlo got to do with all this? Well, BT has its own internal challenge cup competition. As part of this a team was formed of engineers, interested parties and business/accountant types and by pitching the benefits to judges from around the company we reached the finals. As BT appreciate that employees are essentially doing these projects in their own time (but are saving the company millions, which they can spend on things customers prioritise) they flew us all out to Monaco to both compete with other teams and take in the atmosphere there.

While we didn’t win the competition, I’m proud to have worked on this project with some amazing people and to have got through the various rounds up to that point. Over the coming month(s) we’ll be finishing things off by rolling the devices out to all the TV engineers in the field and planning how the solution will be supported/expanded/incorporated into other systems over the longer term.

FOSDEM 2015 promotional poster
A great event where Linux, BSD and open source types catch up with friends and what the community is up to

Geeking out at FOSDEM ’15

This was a great chance to catch up with former work colleagues, see what the world of open source is up to and re-acquaint  myself with fine trappist beers!

I’m not going to write an entire blog post on the event as it’ll be covered in-depth by people who are paid for such things (and sat in the lectures!). However, the stack of DVDs filled with Linux/BSD and desktop variants will no doubt feed into future blog posts 🙂

the-future

What’s coming up next?

I intend to at some point finish the Coursera MOOC I started on Scala. It was largely the RTS Young Technologist award that derailed this due to the need to attend IBC2014 mid-way through the course. (Not that I’m complaining! :D). Also later this year I’m hoping to enrol on CompTIA Linux+ so I can get LPI accredited for my Linux skills. Who knows, maybe I’ll be taking my LPI exams this time next year at FOSDEM ’16?

When it comes to personal projects outside of work I’m still playing around with VPSs to see what I can host myself ‘in the cloud’. I’m bouncing around the idea of writing a light-weight office suite that hooks into other cloud services you can use through your browser. More on this if something happens! 🙂

I’ve also been finding imaginative uses for Raspberry Pi units on my home network. I have a Model B acting as a print & backup server, and I’m in the process of setting up a B+ as a retro console emulator for my living room.

Taking back the cloud

For the past month I’ve tried to see how much of my digital life I can switch from mainstream providers of cloud services to my own personal self-hosted VPS (Virtual Private Server) appliances without inconveniencing myself . Why? Well, partly out of curiosity and a desire to experiment, but mostly because I’ve read too many security scare stories recently to fully trust companies not to mess with me by claiming copyright on my own documents, fully safeguard my data and credentials from targeted breeches and resist government attempts to mass survey (what should be) private data.

For those who don’t know what a VPS is a virtualised (or ‘pretend’) server instance that runs on top of a single virtual/physical host. This is a great way of getting more “bang for your buck” when you buy real server hardware as you get several servers out of one piece of server hardware, it makes backup and duplication of those servers very easy and it means for those of us who don’t have hundreds of thousands of pounds in our back pocket to buy our own server hardware/firewall boxes that we can rent own ‘servers’ cheaply from providers like Digital OceanAmazon S3 and OVH.

You don’t have to live with a tiny amount of space on someone else’s server to run your own website/web-based application and you get exactly the same level of control you would with a dedicated server, but it’s your responsibility to maintain the system and keep it secure/backed up. In short, it’s the “big bazooka” solution to the problem …and like a big bazooka, if you use it wrong you can blow your own face off!

Website/Personal blog

As you may have noticed from this post and this post I’d recently been having serious problems with my web host. Not only did they seem to have issues keeping their own infrastructure ‘up’ but they seemed to be allocating a very paltry level of hardware resources for the money I was spending on it (with the net result that if I had more than a few visitors hitting my personal blog at the same time, either PHP would crash complaining about lack of memory or MySQL would crash).

So, not being particularly satisfied with this I switched to another service and configured a VPS. On this occasion I used a pre-packed image with Ubuntu server as a base, imported all content across, re-setup various plugins and hardened the box against attacks. I suddenly found I was paying a fraction of the price but had a robust solution that wasn’t falling over every time it got hit by fairly modest demand.

It wasn’t perfect though. Ubuntu Server seems to not be the best system for availability as it seems to fall over periodically due to intermittent problems. This makes sense, given Ubuntu normally exists as a desktop Linux distribution. Debian and CentOS are the Linux distributions we’d normally choose for server applications as they’re focussed on providing stable tools from the ground up instead of providing the  ‘shiny new features’ developers like myself usually want to play with!

Rather than completely rebuilding the VPS, my quick and dirty solution was to mirror the server out and setup as a ‘failover’. This means if Ubuntu does flake out/get DDoSed (or if the data centre catches fire/drowns in a flood/gets looted by an angry mob) no one will notice because a second server that’s almost exactly the same as the first (located on another continent with a different IP address and security setup) takes over. I can then ensure the user can still trust the server I’ve swapped out to by ensuring both servers provide the same SSL certificate infrastructure.

So far this failover solution has worked extremely well – you normally can’t tell the difference if I pull down the primary server temporarily to do maintenance tasks. If there’s a problem it takes my DNS setup anywhere between 30 seconds to a minute to spot there’s a problem and swap servers, and a similar amount of time to figure out the ‘primary’ server has been fixed or not and swap back.

Edit: I later discovered the reason the Ubuntu Server VPS was falling over was I’d only allocated 512MB RAM when it was probably advisable to allocate 1GB. Since fixing this I’ve been able to do away with the VPS mirroring solution, and Ubuntu Server has been really very stable!

Owncloud-logo

Cloud file storage

So, by this stage I had my website hosted in a fairly reliable VPS solution. But I wasn’t satisfied with this – my files were still scattered across a multitude of free file storage services like Dropbox, OneDrive, Google DriveiCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive and others. While this wasn’t costing me any money (and are all very convenient), for the problems I mentioned at the start of my blog post it makes sense to have a go at hosting this kind of service myself.

After doing some research and experimentation with a Raspberry Pi connected to a 1TB external drive the system I found most closely mirrored the same functionality is an aptly-named tool called OwnCloud. This is a tool you simply download, extract, shift to a web-based directory and configure/harden as you like, after which it exposes both a browser-based interface and interacts with a desktop client in much the same way Dropbox and others do.

By default you can make sure all files stored are encrypted on the server side, and the system also seems to host calendars quite well (providing CalDav & WebDav) access. And recent changes in Version 7 give us some really useful features like the ability to share files and preview/make minor edits to documents in the browser. I seem to be having trouble getting it to import contacts, but apparently it’s a known bug that’s being worked on.

You’ll notice that after extensive testing/hardening the server I’m so confident in this setup you’ll spot the files I normally host publicly from Dropbox on my More Articles page is now being served by my OwnCloud VPS. As you’d expect I’ve taken SSL technology as far as I can to make sure file transfer/downloads are as secure and private as they can reasonably be.

The setup itself is extremely straightforward, and you can find some great tutorials online that take you through the basics step-by-step (here’s an example I initially followed on a CentOS 7 VPS setup). The only complexity has been making sure my SSL certificate infrastructure was working properly in all browsers after I moved from my own self-signed setup to one offered by an approved authority! So far the only downtime has been when I’ve configured with the server wrong while tinkering – as you’d expect from a Linux distribution based heavily on Red Hat Enterprise Linux it’s an extremely robust and stable system.

 

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Email/Webmail

As you may (or may not) be able to tell from the logo above this title I used iRed Mail as a base setup for my self-hosted system, using this tutorial as a starting point. It’s particularly useful as it helps install & configure various security tools that would otherwise take many hours to setup, has a good control panel and installs Roundcube (an open source webmail interface) by default.

There are a few annoying limitations though, such as the fact it doesn’t support CentOS 7 yet and the developers apparently think it’s fine to not support SELinux (an important security subsystem used in Fedora/CentOS/RHEL to limit the impact of malware or hacks by only giving apps & processes the bare minimum permissions they need to perform their particular function). In fact, they actually tell people to turn it off in their own tutorial which just adds insult to injury! My current test setup therefore uses CentOS 6.x and has a whole host of other security measures setup to make up for the lack of SELinux support.

I’ve not ‘gone live’ with my self-hosted email just yet as I have some issues still to iron out. One such issue is PGP-encrypted email; while I’m fine doing this in client-side mail applications, it would make Roundcube less useful unless I can figure out a smart way to do it in-browser/without storing keys on the server. Similarly, I’d like to get two-factor authentication setup for Roundcube before I start trusting it with my personal email, but I’ll need to devote some time to working out how to install extensions to make that happen.

Edit: I have since gone live with my self-hosted email! By and large I’ve had no issues with it, although some Exchange servers still seem to insist my emails are spam, even with the relevant measures I took (see next paragraph)

Finally, this week I also managed to ensure email sent from the email address this serves didn’t automatically end up in people’s’ spam folders! Doing SPF and DKIM checks went a long well to helping reassure other mail systems that my emails came from a legitimate source, as did providing an SSL certificate chain from a reputable source rather than relying on the automatically generated self-certified SSL configurations generated by iRed Mail.

Aren’t you missing something?

Yes, I am! Information I’ve deliberately missed out here are things like:

  • Who’s hosting my VPSs
  • Who I registered domains with/who’s managing my DNS records
  • How I secured/hardened the servers and domain names
  • Domains/subdomains I use for my VPSs
  • The IP addresses/URLs of said servers
  • Which online and offline services I may or may not intend to link to my self-hosted email

With some effort you can probably find some of these things out, but for security reasons I’ve not explicitly disclosed them. Try reading Mat Honan’s tale of woe if you’re still not convinced how badly things can go wrong with seemingly innocuous information which (when put together) can be used for malicious intent/annoyance.

Next steps

Once I’ve finished migrating much of my digital life to these setups, there are a few ideas I have bouncing around in my head about where to go next. I still need to assess merits of each, as every system I self-host comes at the cost of my own time and money!

One idea I’ve had is to set up my own self-hosted VPN. This would be a trusted source I could use to encrypt traffic to and from devices I use on public WiFi or tether to cellular networks to foil hackers/snoopers. If I want to share files between specific people/offer remote assistance between machines/play online between friends I could just ask them to connect to it. However I could just setup Hamachi and Privoxy and/or a SOCKS proxy to accomplish similar results, so I’m still giving this some thought.

Another idea is self-hosting my own Firefox sync account to propagate bookmarks between devices instead of relying on Mozilla doing it for me (or Google/Apple/Microsoft in the case of other browsers). I still need to see what would be technically involved with making this happen, but on the surface at least it doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

I’m also tempted to develop my own secure self-hosted alternatives to apps I use regularly like Evernote/OneNote and Things. If that actually happens, I will open source my work.

In short, there’s some cool directions I can continue to go with what I’ve learned through all this that I’ll be exploring over the coming year. Or at the very least will form a more constructive use of my time outside work/STEM volunteering/occasional travel than binge-watching Netflix and playing Civilization V, SimCity 4 and Minecraft!

Oh no, not again!

(I was going to go with a bowl of petunias here, but wasn’t sure how many people would get the reference!)

To put it simply, yesterday on Thursday 25th September 2014 we had a catastrophic amount of downtime. Apparently our friends at HostPresto! had another server issue. While their failover apparently worked, the server handling this site needed a disk check. This meant that the site was down from 3:30am BST and didn’t come back up again until 6:45pm BST, meaning 15 hours when this site wasn’t available.

Some of you may remember we had problems earlier this month too. My apologies to those of you who had been trying to access the site and couldn’t – there wasn’t much I could do about it!

In short, I’m currently looking into potential failover plans in case of future outages/whether this site needs to move hosts again.

I’ve also had a few people point out this site occasionally fails to load pages, giving users an error message about PHP/MySQL not being allocated enough RAM. It’s only happened a couple of times to me (eg. logging into admin panel or when trying to access site during automatic updates), but I’m keeping an eye on this…

UPDATE 27/09/14:

I’ve now shifted this website from a generic web hosting package to a VPS hosted by another company. No issues with missing memory allocations and I have high hopes we’ll get much better uptime. This site is still based in the UK (as it has been since I originally migrated the site earlier this year) and I made a few tweaks to the layout. Enjoy!

A brief note on internet harassment

There are people out there with a lot of hate to share for those who voice opinions outside their particular world view, and who (rather than engaging in sensible debate) will spout abuse, impersonate their target to defame them, publish their address online and send them death threats. If their victim has the temerity to call them out on it, they’re accused of “attention seeking” or “making it all up” even when proof is provided of what’s happening.

All it takes is a couple of people to post accusations (of varying accuracy) on certain platforms and it’s ‘open season’, where others pile on and escalate the situation to the point SWAT teams are called to their homes, people quit their job or social media, and some even end up fleeing their homes in fear of their safety.

You may be thinking from the above that the views that are triggering this kind of reaction are extreme. But in most cases the only thing these people have done to merit such a harsh sanction from certain segments of the internet is something as trivial as beating someone at or criticising a video game.

While it’s great people to see people passionate about the games they play and causes they believe in (there are plenty of legitimate points of discussion in the cases I’ve linked to above), what seems to get forgotten is that people at the other end of the phone line tapping away at their keyboard are thinking, feeling human beings who want to be treated with dignity and respect. These actions aren’t about “making a point”, they amount to a hate campaign.

Games and social media are meant to be a fun diversion from the mundane aspects of reality, not something taken so seriously it has people fearing for their lives.

How do we combat a problem like this?

Call out and condemn this behaviour publicly when you see it. By all means disagree with and freely discuss the views being expressed by the victim of this online abuse if you have a mind to, but the important thing is that by working together as decent human beings we can tackle the legitimate issues raised, and stamp out this dangerous behaviour before something terrible happens.

Why do we need smartwatches? (Hint: We don’t)

After having discussions about this on more than one occasion on social media ( and given the hype of the newly-announced Apple Watch) I figured it was probably time to lay out the case for why we don’t not need to buy smartwatches.

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You already have one right now: In your pocket

Your smartphone lock screen already provides the time and all the same notifications you can get on a smartwatch. The only trade off is you have to put your hand in your pocket to see it, which takes 3 seconds more effort than glancing at your wrist.

They’re expensive & ruin the planet

Smartwatches need to be charged overnight (rather than using a standard watch battery which needs to be replaced once every couple of years) which doesn’t seem particularly efficient.

Essentially you’re paying for someone to dig up rare earth minerals and burn oil just so they can assemble and deliver an ancillary device that doesn’t do anything you couldn’t do already (monitoring heart rate/health data could already be accomplished with much cheaper accessories). This doesn’t seem very smart financially or ecologically.

Also, aside from the notable exception of the Pebble smartwatch almost every mainstream smartwatch is tied to a specific smartphone/ecosystem (which means you may have to replace your smartwatch as often as you replace your smartphone and/or if you switch between Android and iOS). This restricts consumer choice, adds to the expense/increases the carbon cost of upgrading.

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Privacy would be nice

Not only do most smartwatches now collect health data such as your heart rate/pulse and statistics on all your physical activity, anyone nearby can see all your latest emails, texts and app notifications at a glance on your wrist. While before onlookers may have had to peep for a while to glean information, your smartwatch now delivers that same information in a short, sharp bursts. Whoops!

Smartwatches can also function as listening devices (otherwise you wouldn’t be able to use them to take calls) and there are already models with embedded cameras. This means people with smartwatches could be filming you or recording what you’re saying without you even realising, and then syncing those recordings to other devices/cloud services with varying degrees of security.

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Doesn’t offer a better experience than an actual watch

If you leave your smartphone at home, your smartphone’s battery dies or you misplace it then your smartwatch suddenly becomes very stupid. It’ll be like a watch …only worse. Because it’ll drain power more quickly and won’t keep time too well because it doesn’t have a smartphone available to sync with.

Also, as Pebble has discovered using screens akin to a smartphone doesn’t work too well in real world operation. Glare from the sun could make your screen utterly unreadable, your watch will be damaged more easily by impacts and (while some models are splash-resistent) will not be waterproof. Which makes the device less than ideal for cycling/jogging outdoors or leaving by the pool while you’re on holiday. It also means if you try and wash some dishes without remembering to take your smartwatch off, that could be quite an expensive mistake!

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Does anyone actually wear a watch anymore?

Yes, I get it – watches and smartwatches can be elegant fashion statements that convey an air of sophistication and education. But for many of us we actually stopped buying watches when we started buying smartphones. When you can check the time on your smartphone’s lock screen it doesn’t make much sense to have an extra timepiece strapped to your wrist.

Perhaps it is just this writer, but surely the idea of buying a device for your wrist that’s already been made obsolete by an existing device in your pocket seems a little strange. The conversation the tech industry has had with manufacturers about this seems akin to the following situation:

Blogger: “I’d like to buy a horse to drag my car along!”

Device Maker: “You realise your car already has an engine that can get you from A to B in a fraction of the time a horse can, right?”

Blogger: “But… But… the convenience of having a horse IN ADDITION to my car would totally be worth it and would also open up whole new markets in horse grooming, horse-shoeing and road-cleaning! If you don’t make it, I’m sure someone else will and I’ll be their customer instead because I like shiny things, but if you make it I’ll tell everyone how super-awesome you are.”

Device Maker:  “Erm… Okay! if that money’s burning a hole in your pocket…”

End of Rant

Let’s be honest here. Apple, Google, Samsung, Pebble, Motorola et al aren’t daft. They have substantial marketing departments, a dedicated following and hype on their side so I’m sure millions of these devices are going to get sold regardless of the opinions of people like me. However, for the reasons outlined above my prediction is smartwatches will be a niche fad that’ll disappear over time (in much the way Bluetooth headsets and Netbooks did), rather than a craze (like Beats headphones).

Of course, I may yet be proven wrong. Particularly if over time smartwatches come to have similar hardware power than smartphones (i.e. something that would actually make them useful replacements rather than an ancillary device). If there’s something I missed or you have a rebuttal for any of my points, feel free to comment below or bug me on Twitter!

Gremlins in the system

My apologies to those of you trying to access this site yesterday (Tuesday 9th September 2014) between the times of 12:45pm-3:34pm BST and 3:51pm-4:24pm BST.

Unfortunately HostPresto! (the service I use to host this blog) suffered a power distribution failure with their server infrastructure which took down every single site they were hosting. As you can imagine this is no small fault and it took them a few hours to fix it.

I should stress that aside from this downtime I’ve had a great experience with this company and hopefully we shouldn’t see any more gremlins emerge!