Cyber culture: Chrome breaks glass ceiling - will it end up as unloved as Windows and Explorer?
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 31 May 2012
Ten years ago, Internet Explorer mercilessly vanquished the opposition in the browser wars when it achieved a staggering 95 per cent share of the market. Almost all our internet activity was seen through a Microsoft-branded window, and this unhealthy state of affairs eventually led to the United States vs Microsoft court case, in which Internet Explorer's (IE) dominance was rigorously examined.
As it turned out, IE won the browser battle. Today in Europe it's a three-horse race, with Firefox, IE and Google's Chrome browser all on vaguely equal pegging. But worldwide – according to the website Statcounter – Chrome is pulling ahead. It reached pole position in March, and now it's consistently ahead of Internet Explorer – a huge achievement for a piece of software that's barely three years old. But with Google already having an effective monopoly over our search queries, do we really want it to preside over our browsing activity, too?
Geeks will argue fiercely about how good Chrome actually is. I'm a Chrome user myself; I love the Omnibox – which deduces whether you're typing a URL or a search query – and it seems fast, secure and devoid of the glitches that have, over the years, caused me to drift away from Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox in turn. But when Google scores a success, hand-wringing discussions about its information gathering habits inevitably follow. When Chrome offers us helpful suggestions based on what we're typing into the Omnibox, what does it actually know about us? What information does it hold about the files we've downloaded? The answer to both questions, in the vast majority of cases, is "nothing worth worrying about". We can even tweak Chrome's settings to turn most data collection off. But it remains a concern for some.
Chrome's market share is destined to grow as creaking old PC systems used across the US and Europe – including many in UK government departments – eventually get upgraded, and browsers such as the ancient and tottering IE6 are eventually abandoned. Chrome has seduced former IE users for two good reasons: it's a great piece of software, and Google is promoting it heavily. But with Chrome reaching the top of the heap, Google's awesome size and power increases further. And that will always prompt furrowed brows among the internet community.
How the Pebble aims to dash the hopes of the other smart watches in town
Wristwatches have remained fairly impervious to the substantial advances in personal technology over the past decade. While our mobiles have become dizzyingly multifunctional, the most we expect from our watches is to be able to tell the time. (And perhaps the date, if we're feeling particularly demanding.) When the watch-sized iPod nano appeared, some enterprising companies sensed an imminent watch revolution and began to manufacture straps for it to slot into – but we remained largely ambivalent.
Perhaps things are changing, though. Crowdfunding site Kickstarter has a new name at the top of its leaderboard of projects it has supported: Pebble. More than $10m has poured in from more than 60,000 investors to fund the production of this new smartwatch, prompting speculation that such devices may soon become essential phone accessories.
The idea of a watch that communicates with your mobile phone via Bluetooth to gather information about calls, messages and location isn't a new idea; Sony Ericsson launched such a thing called LiveView about a year ago. But Pebble, with its e-ink display and compatibility with iPhone and Android, has captured the imagination of early adopters. Other similar devices are also emerging: Sony's own SmartWatch, Motorola's MOTOACTV "fitness watch", and Casio's G-Shock GB-6900 – they're all bridges between the wrist and the mobile phone. In the next 12 months we may find out whether repeatedly glancing at messages on our watches is more socially acceptable than checking our mobile phones.
Update status... change gear... drive into shed. Don’t tweet and drive, kids
I was engaged in slightly stilted chat with an estate agent the other day when she mentioned that she'd recently been pulled over by the police for texting in the driver's seat, even though her vehicle was stationary at the time. It ended up becoming an unexpectedly rich conversational topic; the idea of what and what isn't distracting when you're at the wheel. How complex do radio interfaces have to be before they're deemed hazardous? Is touching the screen of a satnav a risky manoeuvre? Is a satnav app built into a mobile phone asking for even more trouble, with tweet, Facebook and SMS notifications pinging up on the screen every few minutes?
Our compulsion to stay in touch via social media is obviously incompatible with driving. We don't even need stats to prove it, but they crop up regularly anyway: one survey showed 37 per cent of young people in the US admitting to sending messages while driving; another study showed that the 4.6 seconds a texting driver is typically distracted for is, when travelling at 55mph, equivalent to the length of a football pitch; another measured the risk of a crash as 23 times greater when sending a text, while Car & Driver magazine in the US used hefty consumption of vodka and orange to measure reaction times of drunk people against texters. They were roughly similar. Once again, safety campaigners are calling for phones to come with a "driving mode": preserving GPS, emergency calls and music, but shutting everything else down. It's an idea that's hard to disagree with.
Prosecuted for someone misusing your open wi-fi? Time for new wallpaper
During a 12-minute period on 14 July 2010, an audience member at a small theatre event in Finland used the event organiser's open wi-fi network to download some copyrighted material. In a move that had alarming implications for anyone who's kind enough to allow people to piggyback on their internet connection free of charge, the organiser was taken to court, charged with facilitating this illegal act. Last week a Finnish court made a ruling that's being regarded as a precedent: operating an open wi-fi point, like the one pictured, doesn't make you liable for copyright infringement by people who use it.
In addition, an injunction which would have prevented the defendant from leaving her wi-fi point open in future was turned down. You get the feeling that common sense prevailed – one blog comment compared the case to charging someone for crimes committed by someone who stole your car – but there's still a debate about how secure we should be making our wi-fi networks. In 2010 a German court ruled that its citizens would be fined €100 if a third party took advantage of their open wi-fi for nefarious purposes – but what about people who use WEP security, which is fairly easily breached? Or easily guessable passwords? Would they be liable, too?
One potential solution for the security conscious – which could admittedly be seen as verging on paranoia – would be to decorate your home with anti-wi-fi wallpaper. Developed recently at the Institut Polytechnic de Grenoble, it goes beyond the "Faraday cage" approach that blocks all radio signals including mobile phone calls and TV broadcasts; this wallpaper just filters the range of frequencies. When it's available next year it'll be at a price "equivalent to a mid-range wallpaper"; no details are yet available on whether it'll be available in flock or anaglypta.
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