Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Occam's mobile

Mobile phones are making too many assumptions. I got an iPhone 6 back in October, and a refurbished iPad mini 2 for Christmas. So I've been pondering this for a while... In this age of miniaturisation it may have struck many people as odd that Apple increased the size of their latest iPhone version. The iPhone 5 had a 4" screen, and now the iPhone 6 has a 5" screen, with the iPhone 6 plus having an even larger screen. Whatever Apple's actual reasoning, it's evident that big, flat phones are selling, as shown by the popularity of the Samsung Galaxy range of phones, some of which border on comedic in size.

But why?

Mobile phones have always been about portability, which is a combination of size and weight. But smart phones add another, much more complex dimension: functionality. Fundamentally, this is about 'the potential to do more', and has always been a key aspect of computing. For years the attractiveness of personal computers was deemed, at least by PC and software marketing people, to be about functionality: just look at all the stuff you can do with this thing!

The fact that most of us didn't use most of these features (an oft-cited myth was that no individual used more than 10% of any given Microsoft Office app) didn't seem to matter. It was the potential.

It seems that those same marketing people have migrated to the mobile space and have opted to hit the same buttons: more speed, more functions, more, more, more.

Less, please.

My iPhone 6, for all its curvy, groovy, big-screen, slim, slick styling, is too big. It's too big for me to hold securely while my thumb touches the button at the bottom to unlock it. It's slightly too bulgey in my trouser pocket, looking either like an armour plate or a dislodged codpiece, depending on my self-esteem that particular day. Initially, I liked the larger screen: bigger than my iPhone 5, so easier on the eyes. A bit easier to read a book, type a decent length email, or watch a video longer than a couple of minutes. But only a bit.

I wasn't planning to get an iPad. I had an iPad 2 and found it too limited to be a laptop replacement, and too bulky to carry around with the laptop. But I saw a refurbed iPad mini going cheap, so bought it. Now the iPhone 6 screen feels too small. The iPad mini is roughly paperback book size. I've carried paperback books on my travels since I could read. "Always have a book". It was ingrained into me as much as brushing my teeth. The iPad is that book in multimedia form. What's more, I have found that I use it for tasks that I would previously have done on my phone. So I've removed those non-essential apps from my phone in favour of the iPad.

I've dumbed my smart phone down. Now the functionality of the device is much more aligned to its portability. Notifications, quick replies, handy utilities, like maps and calculator, small games - all fine on the phone. Anything else deemed worthy of delving into a bag for goes on the iPad mini.

So what's the point of that bigger screened iPhone 6? No point. I'm eying up my old iPhone 5 and contemplating switching back.

Cybersecurity: quis custodiet ipsos custodes

This article caught my eye this morning. The first clear example I've seen, beyond glib soundbytes, of a prominent politician opposing an increase in government monitoring powers. The article includes quotes from Boris Johnson (mayor of London) and David Cameron (UK Prime Minister) justifying reasons for increased govt monitoring of its population.

The phrase 'in principle' seems to abound in such discussions. With good reason. I don't think anyone opposes the notion that all terrorists should be monitored closely. The trouble, for the government security people, is that they don't know who all the terrorists are, and by the time they know it's usually too late: membership is typically indicated by the wearing of explosives and/or the bearing of automatic rifles. So the simplest solution advocated by government security people is to allow them to monitor all communication, even the encrypted stuff. Fine in principle (if you're not a terrorist), but it has some severe practical issues.

The most often cited issue is privacy.
"What right does the government have to spy on me?" says Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.
It's irrelevant.
If your neighbour was a terrorist then I'm sure that you'd advocate that they have every right, along with the right to hang them. In order to mitigate acts of terrorism government security people need the capability to intercept terrorist communications. So the issue is not the powers, it's the use of those powers or, more specifically, the potential for abuse of those powers.

Who watches the watchmen?
That's the translation of the latin in the title (taken from Juvenal's Satires). Evidently this is an issue as old as civilisation - arguably, a defining attribute of civilisation. By advocating such surveillance powers, a government is asking its demos, its populace, to trust it. It is implying that it is not interested in your personal life: your medical or financial history, your tax returns, your infidelities or predilections. Just your security. And, in principle, it may be right. But in practice, the government is nothing more than a body of individuals, with personal agendas, of whom significantly less than 10% are publicly elected. Who is to say that my information will categorically not be abused?

If democratic governments are serious about requiring the powers to intercept (even encrypted) communications, they need to demonstrate how they plan to protect those powers from abuse. So far, there seems to be a suspicious reluctance to do so.