Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier (Book Review)

With more of our lives increasingly taking place online, the issue of privacy, especially in regards to our personal data, has never been more important. Without even knowing it we broadcast a wide range of information about our locations, habits, interests, and beliefs just by carrying a smartphone in our pocket or using the web. This data isn’t lying fallow in digital fields though; it’s being collected, collated, and used to build detailed profiles so that companies such as Facebook, Google, and even our own governments can know more about us than ever before.

This isn’t a good thing.

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Bruce Schneier has been a specialist in the data security industry for many years, and in Data and Goliath he expertly outlines the way in which we are being monitored and analysed by a variety of interested parties. Unlike some other books that cover this subject, Schneier is careful not to invoke histrionics or sensationalism in order to sell his story, instead he calmly explains how tracking works and why it is used so widely.

From its origins in the cold-war, he charts the way that government agencies regularly spied on their enemies (not to mention each other), and how this eventually transformed into the digital surveillance culture that Edward Snowden so spectacularly revealed in 2013. Schneier actually handled some of the famous Snowden documents while working with the Guardian newspaper, and even interviewed the whistleblower after he sought asylum in Russia.

Data and Goliath is a fascinating exploration of this post-Snowden world we live in. It shows how the back-doors that technology companies were forced to implement for the NSA, have actually become weapons for other agencies and hackers to use. We’re taken through the murky world of international espionage, and shown how we have all become collateral damage in this digital arms race. Schneier also explains that even when we try to protect ourselves by leaving Facebook or Gmail, the fact that our friends and relatives still use them means we’re caught up in this global informational dragnet.

I’ll admit, at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility. But all is not lost. In the final third of the story, Schneier outlines his manifesto for how governments, corporations, and individuals can change they way they act, thus restoring some kind of trust to the online world. Sadly this is also one of the slowest part of the book, as the governmental and corporate sections really feel more like a utopian call to arms than an actual solution. Data has become so valuable  that the prospect of them surrendering it for the greater good seems a distant and unrealistic possibility.

“…at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility.”

Tips on how individuals can at least obfuscate the data we generate is useful. Schneier advocates software such as the Tor browser, HTTPS Everywhere, plus other helpful tools. He also has some ingenious ideas about throwing in random behaviour to mess with the algorithms that predict our patterns.

In the end you’re still left with the knowledge that big brother really is watching, and won’t be stopping anytime soon. But at least if you’re aware of the facts it could help you make better decision about how much you, at least willingly, share. It might not be a happy read in a lot of ways, but it is an important one.

Data and Goliath is published by W.W.Norton in the UK and USA.

 

 

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Review – Living With the HTC 8X

Windows Phone 8 has been having a hard time cracking the stranglehold that iOS and Android have on customers at the moment. The Nokia Lumia phones have caught the eye with their bright colours and pretty, big icons, but the fact that they weigh the same as a VW Beetle probably hasn’t aided their adoption. HTC though have a much slimmer offering for those who fancy their digital bread buttered Windows side up.

The 8X is the champion set to battle it out among the Finnish heavyweights and from the outset you can see that the design ethos is very different. Whereas the Lumias feel sturdy and fat in the hand, the 8X is light, very thin, and far more of an elegant approach. It isn’t all smiles though as the flush buttons can be tricky to find and holding the unit in your hands sometimes feels a little uncomfortable due to the subtly sharp edges of the slight design.

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The software itself is probably the area that will decide whether you like the phone or not. Windows 8 Phone is very pretty, and the fonts used in the apps are beautiful, but after a while the novelty wears off and you realise that it just seem to take more user selections to get things done than feels necessary. Many of the built in apps are fine for light use and the range is slowly growing to include more mainstream favourites, but when compared to Android or iOS the functionality seems restricted by the absence of high quality applications. The phone does integrate well with other Microsoft software, and the Skydrive app is as useful as ever for storing and sharing files online. A continuing area of concern though is Microsoft’s inability to get developers interested in its mobile platform. In these days of app centric customers this could be damaging in the long run to the success of the OS. One advantage that Windows 8 phone offers is that all the handsets I’ve used that run it are fast and smooth due to the singular implementation of the software – something that isn’t generally true on Android. At the moment Windows Phone 8 does feel like the poor cousin of the other main mobile platforms, but Microsoft is an immense company and has far too much artillery to be counted out easily.

Otherwise the 8X offers a reasonable camera, all day battery life, and a rather fetching purple livery. Performance is snappy and the 8X does catch the occasional eye when you’re out and about due to its unique appearance. With Windows Phone 8 not yet drawing the crowds it also means that you can pick one of these up rather cheaply (we’ve seen them go for £150 barely used through online retailers like http://www.smartfonestore.com).  As long as you’re happy with the currently limited nature of the platform, then the HTC 8X is a smartphone that’s dependable, cool, and will run Facebook, Twitter, while gathering your emails without fuss. Pretty much what most people need, without the big bills to match.

Living with the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon Touch

Since Windows 8 first made its way into my life it’s fair to say that we haven’t always been on the best of terms. My desktop machine, replete with non-touch controllable screen, felt hampered by the OS and took me back to those grand old times when people would swear loudly at their computers with gay abandon. Even after spending time with the Lenovo Yoga 13, a purpose built machine that literally bent over backwards to make Windows 8 work, I was still left cold by the whole experience. Thus, it seemed, I was destined to leave behind the progeny of Redmond and head back to the safer lands of OSX.

But, well, I’m kind of the stubborn sort. You see although Windows 8 does cause me to gouge my eyes and scream out in wild frustration, I do like some of the things that Microsoft are trying. It’s new for starters, which is always interesting, and as we become more attuned to the idea of touch on a laptop, possibly it will actually click into place. I have to admit that these are more idealistic rather than confident ponderings, but maybe it could just came down to a matter of decent hardware in the end.

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The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon Touch carries on the long tradition of utterly dependable, workhorse Thinkpad machines, albeit with styling that looks more like it came from the thoroughbred stables. From the very first moment you set eyes on the matte, rubber-like coating over the carbon shell you know that this is a serious machine. Not in the stuffy, pink shirts with white collars type serious, rather the ‘let’s stop mucking about and get stuff done’ version instead – and that’s something I like. Opening up the case reveals the glorious keyboard, which in short order became probably the favourite surface to type on that I’ve encountered in ages. The keys are spread apart by more than I’m used to on my old MacBook, but they feel chunky and solid under the fingers, almost old school.

One of the Achilles heels of many Windows machines is the trackpad. All too often they drive users to despair with their unresponsive and somewhat random behaviour. Thankfully the generous and smooth offering here just gets on with it, while displaying a good deal of palm cancelling intelligence. The Windows 8 gestures did become a problem though, as far too often I’d move the cursor only to see the Charms bar appear, or the background app leap to the front. Disabling these features in the settings swiftly cured me of these ills, while still retaining two finger scrolling and general pointy duties.

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This led me into the previously painful territory of actually having to use the touchscreen. Well, I have to report that the implementation of these features on the X1 is excellent. Navigating via touch felt smooth and far more tempting than anything laptop based that I’d used before. The 14″ screen provided decent sized touch targets, responding quickly and accurately to the majority of hits. Glory be! Finally Windows 8 is beginning to make sense, in no small part due to the X1.

It’s not all roses and unicorns though. The touchpad was very hit and miss when I used the tap function to select anything, usually making me resort to the clickable section of the pad to execute commands, and although the screen is good it’s also not full HD (1600×900 instead), which is something of a surprise when you see the price tag that Lenovo have hung upon the X1.

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The model I have here, which boasts an i5 processor, 4GB RAM, and 128GB SSD retails for a wallet trembling £1479 including VAT. That really is quite a price. Compare that with the MacBook Air, which is the dominant player in this part of the market, and for about £100 less you could build a 13″ model to order which would sport an i7 (Haswell chip), 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, and the remarkable 13 hour battery life that has taken the tech world by storm. That’s not an easy comparison to keep.

Maybe the touchscreen does add quite a bit to the cost? Carbon fibre is also certainly an expensive material for construction. At the end of the day though the price is just too much of a hurdle for most of us to get over. The machine itself is absolutely gorgeous, and I think looks far better than the rather boring ‘any colour as long as its grey’ that Apple currently offer. There is a non-touchscreen version of the X1, which retails on the Lenovo site for £1,119, but it would seem a shame to have the machine that finally solved the Windows 8 conundrum revert back to a standard, albeit very lovely, laptop. Of course a Windows 7 version would be a very tempting alternative.

Do I want one? Absolutely. Can I afford one? Absolutely not, at least not the touch version.

Makes sense really. I find the laptop that can make Windows 8 work for me at last, one that has killer styling, a great keyboard, and is a joy to use. Then it gets undercut by Apple. Still, if the Microsoft path is the one you walk then this laptop is about the best there is.

Does it come in black?

I’m struggling.

For years now I’ve been one of those small minority that chose a different path. It meant  investing financially and emotionally in an alternative to the mainstream, contenting my inner rebel with the knowledge that I was eschewing convention and embracing the fringe instead.

For years I walked this line, until recently something changed.

Apple got really popular.

Where once I would smile inwardly when chancing upon someone else who held my beliefs, possibly in a coffee shop where both of us would be working behind the cool glow of our machines, now I find the proliferation of Macbook Airs and Pros somewhat disconcerting. In fact it’s almost a curious fascination when I see someone using a PC – a refreshing splash of black in the otherwise unrelenting sea of brushed aluminium.

Shouldn’t this make me happy? After all it means that my choice of hardware is being vindicated. Well, possibly, but I have to admit that in a perverse way it actually makes me want to move away from the big fruit and find a new underdog to champion.

I know. I’m an idiot. You don’t have to tell me, deep inside…I accept this.

The problem is that with technology playing such a central role in my life I feel that the buying choices I make reflect my own set of values. Whereas in the past I saw Apple products as excellent tools to create with (which I still believe strongly), and a company which fought against the behemoth of Microsoft to offer a product that was better to me in many ways. Now the sheen has lost its lustre as I find the popularity of the brand making the machines they produce seem more and more based on looking good rather than being built to last. (Regular readers will know my recent disappointment with the new iMacs, as chronicled here)

Before you leap to the conclusion that this is some kind of superiority thing, I can assure you that buying something expensive to differentiate myself from others has never been an option. Journalism is fun, but it really isn’t a well paid gig when you’re freelance.

In fact one of my main reasons for switching to Macs in the first place wasn’t their premium brand status, rather it was the amount of keyboard shortcuts the OS employed (I was recovering from a bad RSI injury) and the fact that putting together a home video on my old PC felt like doing battle with an evil warlord whose magic was old and very deep.

I purchased a refurbished iBook and set sail on the goodship Cupertino, very happy with this brave new world of computing. After a couple of years I upgraded to a shiny new Macbook, which proved a mighty workhorse, until a few months ago when age finally began to catch up with it. Now I stand on an ethical precipice. Do I replace my faithful servant with a newer model or make the leap to another platform?

Why would I change?

As we’ve already established, it’s because I’m an idiot.

Macs are great. They’re stable, fast, very pleasurable to use, and the iLife suite really is worth buying the machines for alone. The problem I’m having is that whereas in the past I felt like I was part of some kind of counter-culture, mainly due to the tiny sales figures of Apple machines  compared with Windows machines, now Apple laptops almost seem the norm. I love my iPad, it’s a constant companion, yet in my heart I find myself yearning for a viable alternative. I bought an iPhone last year for the first time – it’s great. The battery life is amazing, the camera is incredible, and the damn thing just works.

So is it some kind of perverse logic, or subconscious desire to bring pain upon myself, that I am even considering a leap into the unknown? Yes, that’s probably it. Well, some of it.

The thing is, to me, Apple products are still the best that (lots) of money can buy, but when you don’t have lots of money washing around your bank account the need for value becomes a more sharpened sword. I don’t want to buy a product that has a built in redundancy due to the low RAM allocation or curiously under powered hard drive. I don’t want to have to pay all my upgrade costs up front, rather than spread them across the years of ownership due to devices that can’t be opened by customers. At the heart of it though, if I’m honest, I just don’t want to buy something sensible.

When Apple released the original iMac one of the things that immediately caught my eye was the range of colours. Previously I had bemoaned the lack of spark that the relentless procession of beige boxed PCs had wrought upon the computer landscape. Now there was this spectrum of hope that put the fun back into using devices that, I believe, are still the greatest creative tools ever invented. Skip forward twenty odd years and this visual splendour has been replaced with the cold, stark silver of brushed aluminium. What happened? Did Steve Jobs get offered a job-lot of the stuff cheap from the digital community’s equivalent of Derek Trotter?

Where once there was colour and rebellion, instead we find uniformity and stock dividends.

So my quandary is such – I love OSX, have always found Apple laptops to be perfect for me, and over the years I’ve invested in various pieces of software that only run on the fruit flavour of machines. But the excitement of being part the alternative has slowly ebbed away as success has transformed the perception (and choices) of Apple. Strangely I feel more of a corporate customer than I ever thought possible.

When Steve Jobs famously gave his ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’ speech at Stanford I wonder if it ever occurred to him that his own company would have need of this wisdom in the coming years?

They’re still the best in terms of user experience and hardware manufacture in my eyes, but what I wouldn’t give for Apple to have some hungry fools in their design and decision making departments right now.

You’re either for us or against us!

It’s fair to say that the divides caused by our choices of computing platforms has been around since the beginning.

When the first apeman lifted a sabre-tooth tiger’s jawbone aloft and declared it, through the language of Ug, to be the pinnacle of design, you can guarantee that another hairy proto-chap nearby raised a mammoth’s tooth and said, again in Ug, that this was superior due to its cutting edge functionality and open source architecture.

Ok, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, after all we know that the do-it-yourself flint supporters would have had their say, but the apeman analogy is one that seems strangely fitting even today. Visit an internet tech forum of any kind and it won’t take long for a massive argument to break out, eventually reaching its inevitable climax in accordance with Godwin’s Law (The law, first proposed back in 1990, states that  “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”). The root of these disagreements usually boils down to the opposing tech camps to which the combatants belong. Android Vs iOS, Windows Vs Mac, Linux Vs everyone.

So it is, and thus it ever was.

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a magisterial symphony of plastic and rubber. The tiny, British device became an obsession with me and I’d spend hours playing games, trying to write music, and failing to learn how to program on it. This period in the early eighties was when the home computer industry was in its infancy (I actually wrote a potted history of the period for PC Advisor recently – which you can view here)  and many competing platforms vied for dominance. Most fell by the wayside (Oric, Dragon, Amstrad, etc) but the Spectrum held firm and ended up slugging it out with its big American rival the Commodore 64.

Fight!

These two machines prompted passionate responses from their owners and gave me my first taste of tribal colours. If you had a Spectrum you would somehow fail to notice the appalling graphical shortcomings of the machine, not to mention the useless sounds it generated, and instead focus on the wealth of games available, the friendly feel to the machine, and the fact that it was British. Commodore owners would strike back with a completely oblivious view of the washed out screen colours, corporate looking body, and lack of spectral stripe on the front, while positing its powerful internals and ability to render sprites without turning two conflicting images into some kind of rainbow hallucination.

Of course now, with three decades of distance between myself and those days, it’s clear to me that both were excellent machines. Although the Spectrum was obviously better…because I had one.

So, we like to fight a cause? Surely there’s nothing wrong with that? Of course not, until people find ways to control our causes, then direct us towards their ends rather than our own. Then it becomes something more sinister.

Mac and Windows have fought the OS battleground for as long as I can remember, and for most of that time Windows has been victorious. Their percentage of the computer market is estimated to be around 90%, with Mac holding a rather lowly 6% (although in laptops they are thought to be slightly higher). This meant that for years certain software wasn’t available on Macs due to incompatibility issues. In recent years this has improved, as Apple has grown in popularity, and now the Mac boasts some enviable software of its own – the iLife suite being a fine example. But with a few notable exceptions users could choose which programs they wanted to run, and even dual boot their machines to run both operating systems on the same machine if there were programs they couldn’t live without. But times are changing.

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

With the advent of tablets we’re seeing a lessening in the options open to users. The eco-system is beginning to define how we behave. Now our tribal allegiance is no longer necessarily a voluntary one, but something subtly forcing us to remain in place. The major manufacturers don’t want us moving freely from device to device, unless they are all ones they make.  So we’re seeing something happening called lock-in, and as the convergence of tablets, phones, and computers continues this could be a problem in the future.

Say you buy an iPad. It’s maybe your first Apple device. It doesn’t take long to realise that you need apps to make it do interesting things. Before you know it you’ve spent a fair bit of money on games, calendars, photo apps, and maybe some magazines. Then a year later you want to try out an Android tablet, you check to see if the same apps exist (which mostly they will), only you discover that even though you bought the apps on iOS, the same company wants you to pay again for basically the same app on this opposing platform. This is enough to make you pause before clicking on the buy button for that Nexus 10 tablet.

Of course this has always been the case with Macs and PCs, but most of us didn’t buy that much software. In the 8 year of using Macs I think I’ve bought possibly one or two programs. In two years of using my iPad I’ve bought a few hundred – admittedly at a much cheaper cost per program, but it soon adds up.  This investment makes it harder to switch away from your hardware, and as companies like Apple are seemingly increasing the rate at which they want you to upgrade it can become difficult to remain happy with your purchase before you feel the need to change. Another factor is that new features are added which only work on the latest version of the operating system, meaning you need to keep your different pieces of hardware current if you want to have this smooth experience. But as most of us don’t want to upgrade our computer, phone, and tablet every two years we end up with hardware on different versions. This means some features work across the board, while others – usually the most useful ones – don’t, and once again the pressure to upgrade increases, further deepening our financial commitment to the company and reducing our motivation to move to another platform.

Ha Ha Ha, you’re my customers now!

Then, as we saw recently with the Google Maps debacle, inter-company disputes are beginning to reach down to consumers as we are are denied superior services just to satisfy the egos of the manufacturers involved. Another example is that Apple doesn’t have the Amazon MP3 store on iOS, presumably because they don’t want you buying music from stores other than iTunes. This isn’t the optimum experience for the user, rather the best financial opportunity for Apple. Amazon’s Kindle books can be read on tablets, phones, and computers, but not on other ebook readers. So if you buy into their eco-system then you’re unlikely to come out again without losing your investment. Now with Windows switching to the app store model for Windows 8 it can only be a matter of time before the systems finally close off our ability to install software from external sources – citing security as a major factor in the change.

It’s a troubling thought that the technology we buy today, may well define the ones we’ll be buying ten years from now, and to protect ourselves from the feeling of being coerced we may well develop a heightened sense of allegiance to our tribe rather than taking up arms against them.

It Just Borks…

It’s a strange time to be an Apple user.

After years of being the underdog company, and very nearly going out of business, it now sits proudly on the top of the hill with more money than most countries. Its latest iPhone sold over 5 million units in the opening weekend alone (which is extremely impressive when you think that it’s pretty much the most expensive phone you can buy and we’re in the middle of a recession) while the rumoured 8-inch iPad could appear at any moment and sew up the tablet market completely. The Macs that Apple are currently producing are impressive, especially the Airs, and have spawned countless imitations from the rest of the industry. Even Apple TV, which Steve Jobs referred to as a ‘hobby’, is now a very viable and useful product. You’d think that we’d had never had it so good. But that’s not the full story.

A troubling trend is developing and it questions whether the big A really has any more ideas up its wealthy, hand tailored sleeves?

A rarely seen full Apple eclipse.

Beta. There I said it. Beta.

In computing terms a Beta release is a product or service that you let people use under the proviso that it isn’t actually finished. It’s a ‘work-in-progress’, something full of bugs and problems that you hope to iron out with help from Beta testers – brave volunteers who use the software and report back on any problems they encounter. This is standard practice, and a good one, as it allows real-world testing of a product before you release it into the wild. The idea is that you discover any glaring errors and fix them, thus saving your customers the aggravation and confusion when the software finally goes on sale. Microsoft do it, Google do it, even educated fleas do it, so it’s no surprise that Apple do it too. What is a surprise though is that Apple has started doing it with the flagship features included on its devices.

When Siri came out for the iPhone 4S it looked, or rather sounded, incredible.  A voice interface that seemed to have an answer for everything. Apple made it the absolute sole reason to buy the iPhone 4S. The adverts were only about Siri, showing how it could arrange your diary, remind you of anything, and offer light entertainment like some kind of electronic court jester. To make the product even more attractive the company carefully selected celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel, Martin Scorsese and Samuel L Jackson to interact with the faceless wonder and turn the service into a celebrity in its own right. Websites and Youtube videos popped up displaying the answers Siri generated to weird and wonderful questions, while it seemed only a matter of time before the whole world would be talking to our phones rather than those troublesome people that we currently have to deal with.

Then people got the chance to use this technical marvel…and found that it wasn’t really that good. Sure it could do some stuff, and was pretty cool as a party trick, but the effortless lifestyle manager that the ads portrayed never materialised, and for those of us that live outside of the US, which is nearly everybody, the services were missing vital local information so that no matter how much we tried to sound like Zooey we just couldn’t get soup delivered to our houses.

Siri, how much am I being paid for this ad?

In surveys conducted a few months later it turned out that most iPhone users were hardly using Siri at all, which really isn’t that much of a surprise. Apple’s explanation for the limited use of their flagship feature…it was in Beta. That’s right, the one single aspect of the iPhone 4S that you single out for an expensive ad campaign, and which heralds a new era in communications software is in fact not finished, not ready for prime time, not even ready to be called a full product.

While still scratching my head on this one Apple then brought forth the iPhone 5, now with Apple’s own maps – which show 3D Flyover features of major cities. Wow. Except if you live outside the US. Oh. And as the standout feature on the phone (let’s just look at those 3D views of American major cities once more…oooo, that’s useful) it was trumpeted by Apple as the ‘most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever’, that was right up until people used it and found that towns and cities didn’t exist, bridges looked more like Dali paintings, and the directions would quite happily lead you somewhere totally different to your intended destination. People complained, the media collated some of the hilarious gaffs, and Apple had to issue a formal apology and direct users to third party map replacements.

Apple hires Salvador Dali to head up its maps division.

The strange thing is that Apple told consumers that the product was still being developed and that if users would send in the errors they found then the service would improve. So what that really means is…it’s a Beta. Again. Two years running the most profitable technology company on the planet releases unfinished products and expects customers, who paid a small fortune to have the ‘best’ phone experience lots of money can buy, to road test their experimental products. That’s not innovation…it’s just plain lazy.

It used to be the case that you paid the top money for an Apple product but were sure you were getting one of the best machine and software combinations around. Now it seems like the money is nothing more than a high entrance fee for a  focus group product test. At least have the decency to buy us lunch next time…

It’s not me, it’s you…

It wasn’t always this way.

I’d recently emerged from a long term relationship with a sophisticated, but controlling, partner, and was looking for something fresh, different, and exciting. I knew that I’d had my fingers burned in the past, but the allure of change was proving too hard to resist. Then, almost by accident, it happened.

She was gorgeous, came from a wealthy background, and was trying hard to shed the difficulties of her past. It was a dangerous but intoxicating combination. Before long she was installed in the heart of my life and things seemed like they were finally looking up. But little did I know that there were two sides to her personality…two incompatible entities that would war internally to gain control of her…and that their ire would be turned upon me. Alas, Windows 8, you are a complex soul…

Oh you pretty thing…

Microsoft is three years short of it’s fortieth birthday and, as is not uncommon for those approaching this difficult age, seems to be going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Normally you’d expect them to buy some young startup with cool features and little baggage. They’d be seen around town with their new muse, laughing a little too loudly and lavishing an embarrassing amount of physical affection on them in public spaces. In many ways that would have been preferable. A dalliance with Twitter or Steam would have provided column inches for the gossip sites and made those of us who remember their better days think ‘good on you, if I could pull that off I would too’. Sadly that’s not the case.

The Redmond giant instead decided to make its offspring live out the dreams that it never managed to attain. Each day they drove their sad-faced progeny to Bauhaus design rehearsals or Feng Shui workshops, when all the youngster really wanted to do was play games, instant message her friends, and crash at the weekends. Over time she was moulded into this new, beautiful vision, but inside deep fissures had formed which would become more evident when she left the overbearing clutches of her home and travelled out into the world.

Of course, as is usually the case, someone else has to pay for the sins of our fathers. That, grammatically incorrect, someone is you and I.

When I first installed Windows 8 I was quite taken aback with how visually delicious the layout was. Gone was the reliance on a cool wallpaper, replaced instead with multi-coloured blocks floating in a sea of pleasingly toned blue. Was this truly Windows? Clicking on the blocks, each replete with equally aesthetic icons, resulted in a fluttering box that expanded quickly to fill the screen and beguile the eyes. The design was consistent, different to any I’d encountered, and for the first time in living memory made Microsoft the ones with the coolest looking operating system. I checked my arms several times to ensure that I hadn’t, unbeknownst to myself, injected huge amounts of cocaine directly into my bloodstream, but the absence of any tracking only deepened my confusion. How could this be?

Closing down the app I’d opened proved something of a poser, and when I look back now I can see that it was a warning sign my amorously forgiving heart should have heeded. You see Windows 8 is somewhat coy and requires you to work a bit harder to reveal her charms. She’s an indomitable spirit that will not be tamed by any man…unless you have a touchscreen, then slowly her mysteries are opened to you.

The longer we were together the more it felt like she was using me rather than the other way around. It was as if I was living within a Philip K Dick novel but without the happy endings. I’d go to explore the web with her, only to find that she’d hidden the search bar at the bottom of the screen. Conditioned, as I have been, by nearly twenty years of looking up to the top of a screen to search this seemed a cruel deceit, like a cat freeing a mouse only to catch it again seconds later. Further exploration also revealed more intriguing possibilities that were soon brutally quashed. Contacts would promise an elegant solution to the perennial mess that they have increasingly become over the years, but when I sought to add images of others she flatly denied…hers would be the only face I would be allowed to see.

Frustration mounted, but her coquettish nature drew me back with the hope that things would improve…then it happened. I found her secret. Desktop. It was a simple tile among the many, but by selecting it I found that she wasn’t really a new creation. Here was her heart, and the stripped down, elegant facade gave way to the workhorse that lay under the surface. She had played her cards well, but now I knew how she was wired.

Behind the mask…

It became a subtle game from then on. I’d see her face, marvel at its beauty, then spend the rest of my time with her avoiding its offerings. Soon it faded to nothing more than memory, and while she often fought to drag my eyes into hers, I would not be moved. And that’s how I realised it was over. The thing that had captured me was the thrill of the new, but when the infatuation lost its lustre I discovered that what I really wanted was something that could run a decent email client without making me scream in pain at the screen for the fifth time that morning.

How many times have we heard that old story?

Free, free at last!

I have a confession to make.

Give me a minute to compose myself.

*deep intake of breath*

Ok, I’m ready now.

Due to work requirements I recently found myself in the position of having to load Windows onto one of my home machines. It’s been 7 years since I escaped the driver incessant, pop-up window collage that was XP, and hopes weren’t high when the first two attempts to install it ended in failure. Like a dark cloud floating in front of the sun the ominous feeling of doom that had followed me for so much of my early computer life returned.

Weary of spirit, but stout of resolve I soldiered on and eventually, via the kindness of a friend and the privileged position of being a tech journalist once more, I installed Windows 7 Home Premium and braced myself for impact.

Then it happened….

This Windows…it’s different. It’s…….nice.

 

Where were the demands for answers that Microsoft previously made on me every time I wanted to accomplish even the simplest tasks? What’s this Dock-like area at the bottom of the screen where I can helpfully pin my favourite apps? Could it be true that the paperclip of interminable cheeriness had  finally been put down?

This indeed was a different country.

The visuals were smart, but tasteful. The system was snappy and efficient. Even the built in security features seemed unobtrusive. What sorcery was this?

Briefly the amazement held, then I tried to play a DVD. Ah, there they are. Error messages aplenty. DRM, drivers, codex, all those old birds coming home to roost. Several downloads, updates, and restarts later left me no better off. My short lived euphoria was shattered. Windows, you cruel temptress.

But before I could safely consign Microsoft to the backwaters of my mind a thought occurred. In the past year I have dabbled heavily in Linux. If nothing else it’s taught me that open source software can often fix the ills of the technological world. And so it proved. After ditching Windows Media Player in favour of VLC the DVD played first time. Then I downloaded Chrome, giving me access to all the apps I tend to use now (Google Docs, Tweetdeck, Google+, etc.) and installed Thunderbird for my emails.

 

It all worked brilliantly, and behaved in many ways like my Mac and Linux machines had. In addition I now had access to Steam, with it’s plethora of cheap games, and was able to complete the work tasks that began the process in the first place. All within an environment that I actually found pleasurable to use.

So, Windows…we’re friends again. Which is nice, as I don’t like to harbor grudges or miss out on cheaper hardware.

As I considered this strange turn of events it had made me realise that since I moved from PC to Mac I’d pretty much thought that was the end of it. But thanks to open source software the world is available to me again.  Now I can do anything I need on almost any platform. Could it be that I’ve become OS neutral?

I can choose whichever machine serves my purposes and budget without the need to conform to the tribe to whom I’ve swore my allegiance. Surely these are the dreams of fools and madmen? But no…

I never thought that I’d make a profound discovery while musing on the Windows OS, but it seems that fate is tricksy and not devoid of a sense of irony.

The digital landscape is wider for me today, and I like what lays ahead. It’s…liberating.

Just as technology should be.

 

How do you use computers today? Are you dedicated to one platform or do you wander like a harlot? Let me know by leaving a comment below.