Cyber Culture: They're written in the stars, but should we listen to iffy app ratings?
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 28 June 2012
Downloading apps, fiddling with them and filing or deleting them is something of a hobby of mine, and as hobbies go it's pretty harmless. Deciding which one to try next is often influenced by the five-star ratings bestowed by its users, but it struck me this week that it's an inherently flawed system.
I recently downloaded app called Air Display which connects to your Mac via wi-fi and extends your desktop on to your iPad screen. The three stars indicated that it might not be worth the money – but, on closer examination, this was an average of a number of five-star and one-star reviews, with barely anything in between. The app can't be great and abysmal simultaneously, so who was right?
In this case, the bad reviews were along the lines of "this is stupid", while the good ones were more considered. And therein lies the fault; people who make incorrect assumptions about the app, or are having trouble getting the hang of it, can drag down its rating by filing complaints. And while it's fair to criticise vendors for providing poor documentation, these grievances – which should really be support requests – can reflect badly on what might be a decent piece of software.
It's tough for developers. People with gripes will be quick to post bad reviews, but it's hard to persuade satisfied customers to post positive ones; if something's working we'd rather just get on with using it. And there's no way for developers to contact upset reviewers to explain how to fix things, or tell them that the bug is about to be ironed out. Google, however, having trialled a new system on the Chrome store, are due to introduce a separate bug report section for Android apps which should siphon off many unhelpful "reviews". Will Apple follow?
The problem of being in the loop, when you want to be out of it
Social media brings people together, and despite concerns surrounding privacy it has to be considered a force for good. But severing social media ties can be difficult; sometimes real-life situations compel you to remove yourself from certain social loops, only to find yourself still maddeningly included.
These days, relationship breakdowns are inevitably followed by acts of unfollowing, unfriending and blocking on social-media sites – not necessarily out of spite, but in order to avoid unhelpful reminders of times past. But Facebook tickers can still bring you information from outside your immediate social circle about who is doing what and with whom, and you can never legislate against people contacting you and saying "Oh! Did you hear about so-and-so?" when so-and-so is the last person you want to hear about.
A recent New York Times piece about modern family estrangements concentrated on one aspect of this. "There are things that parents assume all their lives they'd be there for," says psychologist Joshua Coleman. "Then they hear in a very public, third-hand way about it, and it adds an extra layer of hurt and humiliation."
Sadly, these unexpected reminders of people we're no longer in touch with are an unfortunate consequence of using social media, especially on Facebook. Of course, you could quit entirely – but for many it's now a lifeline that they couldn't bear to be without.
A trawl through the digital sea which takes the fun out of fishing
We're seeing ever more inventive ways of tapping into the processing power of smartphones: attachments that transform them into blood pressure monitors, universal TV remotes, pianos, projectors and much else besides. But now we have the Deeper FishFinder, an accessory for Android and iPhone in the shape of a "sonar-enabled waterproof ball" that connects via Bluetooth. Currently being crowdfunded at indiegogo.com/deeper, it promises to take the hassle out of angling by telling you where the fish are. In my mind this would also take the fun out of angling – but its makers are already halfway to raising the $49,000 (£31,400) they need to produce the first thousand FishFinders, so what do I know?
Lines of litigation — how the tumbling blocks of Tetris became a legal battleground
Tetris, the ubiquitous block-dropping arcade game, has a curious history. It was originally developed by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 while he was working for a Soviet government research and development centre, and the rights were held by the authorities for many years; Pajitnov only began receiving direct royalties for his wildly popular creation when he formed The Tetris Company in 1996.
Then, with Tetris widely imitated across hundreds of platforms, Pajitnov understandably began a process of cracking down on those who he felt were violating his copyright. In recent years dozens of Tetris-like apps have disappeared from app stores, either for being illegal or simply because the developer didn't have the legal muscle to fight the order.
But the violation of copyright by so-called Tetris clones is far from clear cut. In US Copyright Office document FL-108, it explains that "Copyright does not protect the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it…
Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles." This puts developers of new computer games in a tricky position; other people are free to use their ideas, but not the expression of those ideas – a concept that can be hard to define. In a case recently brought in New Jersey by The Tetris Company against an offending game, Mino, the judge had to come up with an explicit definition of Tetris in order to make his judgment; bafflingly, it transpires that developing a game using descending blocks that you rotate and drop doesn't violate copyright, but having a board fill up with squares when you lose – as happens in Tetris – would.
The Tetris Company won this particular case, but adjusting Mino to avoid further prosecution would be very easy. And the game would still play exactly like Tetris.
Welcome to the bizarre world of copyright law.
Say ahoy, matey, to a game of copyright pirate whack-a-mole
British internet users keen to download a film or an album without paying might instinctively head to The Pirate Bay website (thepiratebay.se). But if your ISP is Orange, Virgin, Sky, TalkTalk, O2 or BT, you'll now be met with a splash screen telling you that the site has been blocked to protect against copyright infringement. The success of the Pirate Bay was down to it having made file-sharing simple; the effectiveness of these blocking measures depends on how simple it is to get around them. And, by all accounts, it's pretty simple.
A cursory internet search reveals that The Pirate Bay quickly added a new IP address, so typing 18.104.22.168 into your browser would take you to the site instantly. That IP address was then blocked by British
ISPs, so The Pirate Bay added another. And another, and no doubt there are many additions still to come. This whack-a-mole game highlights the absurdity of the block; not its intention, which is arguably in the interests of copyright owners, but the impossibility of implementing it. If you can't access The Pirate Bay via these helpfully-provided alternate IP addresses, determined file-sharers can always do so via proxy servers or virtual private networks (VPNs). Whether the mild inconvenience of doing all this is enough to make some people obtain their audio-visual entertainment legally remains to be seen.
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