Sunday, September 08, 2013

Can I have the version without backdoors and built-in defects?

Last week, The Washington Post reported that the NSA has gotten hardware and software vendors to implement backdoors and exploitable design defects in their products. In one case, the NSA learned that an unnamed country had placed an order with an unnamed U.S. vendor for networking hardware, and the vendor agreed to install NSA-designed backdoors in that hardware.

Despite the fact that the NSA has no business doing mass interceptions of Internet communications and phone calls that both originate and terminate in the U.S., I'm not terribly worried about the NSA using backdoors into my network hardware and software. However, the problem with backdoors and intentional design defects is that anyone that can find them can use them. By making its job of penetrating networks easier, the NSA has also made hackers' and foreign countries' jobs of penetrating those same networks easier. They've compromised everyone's data security. This is what's called an unintended consequence, but it's very real.

The NSA may very well have also compromised the U.S. Government's own security. Consider that compromised hardware and software may be in use at U.S. defense contractors, and that those "engineered defects" could be exploited by China, Russia and who knows who else. That's why it's so important that companies not give in to the NSA's demands to build backdoors and design defects into their hardware and software, and that the NSA not make the requests in the first place.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Samsung's Galaxy Gear Smartwatch: A placeholder for the real thing?

Yesterday, Samsung announced its thoroughly leaked Galaxy Gear smartwatch at simultaneous presentations in New York and Berlin. It immediately became the primary topic of conversation on cable business news channels. On Bloomberg TV, as an example, the split of analysts' and reporters' opinions about the Galaxy Gear was, by my count, about 25% positive and 75% negative. I've come down on the negative side as well, because at the end of the day, the market for a device with all of its limitations seems very small:
  • At its release on September 25th, the Galaxy Gear will work with only two devices, both of which are also being released the same day: The Galaxy Note 3 "phablet" and the updates Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet, both of which run Android 4.3, which is apparently required for the Galaxy Gear to work. The Galaxy S4 smartphone will be updated with Android 4.3 some time in October, but if you own an earlier Samsung smartphone or tablet, or an Android device from any other vendor, you're out of luck. (Compare that to the Pebble smartwatch, which works with a variety of Android and iOS devices.)
  • The Galaxy Gear has to be recharged every day. That means taking the custom charger base with you whenever you go on a business trip. (Again, compare it to the Pebble, which runs for seven days on a full charge.) Your average quartz watch needs a new battery once a year or so.
  • The Galaxy Gear has a built-in 720p 640 x 640 camera, but it's built into the band. The camera's position is fine for taking pictures of other people, but you can't take a selfie without twisting your wrist into an unnatural position, which doesn't allow you to view the watch's screen and take the picture simultaneously.
  • As a Mashable editor pointed out on Bloomberg TV, the Galaxy Gear is too big for most women's wrists--which immediately eliminates more than 50% of the potential market.
  • Reviewers are criticizing the performance of the Galaxy Gear's user interface, which is most likely caused by the use of an 800 MHz processor in order to keep power consumption down. 
  • The Galaxy Gear is priced at $299 (U.S.). That's twice the price of the Pebble, and the same price as a high-end smartphone on a two-year contract from most carriers. How many people are likely to buy a smartwatch that adds very little functionality and is the same price as (or even more expensive than) their smartphone?
It's very likely that Samsung already knows that the Galaxy Gear has all these problems, but it's more important to get customer feedback on the first-generation model--and to get it out before Apple--than it is to get everything right. For now, the target market, consisting of obsessive-compulsive male contortionists who'll charge their Galaxy Gear every day, are prepared to buy a new smartphone or tablet in order to use it and don't care about performance or how much money they spend, seems awfully small.