Sunday, July 30, 2006

Comment and ratings control

Many websites, from user forums to commercial sites with ratings systems, have this problem: how to vet the content users are putting on their sites to avoid being involved in libel suits. However, my experience of several forums would suggest that policing structures quickly evolve, whose main means of punishment is intellectual disgracing (often expressed as "RTFM" or "Google is your friend").

I have also wondered whether online shops such as Amazon manipulate their reviews. Again, it seems they don't, in order not to cause such rumours among their customers, although IP-range and cookie based action could circumvent the problem of people checking their own reviews still exist. Note that I am merely pointing out the technical possibility of this - Amazon has enough negative reviews on some items to suggest it's not greasing its wheels.

It does strike me that in some sinister "brave new world" (just read William Gibson), content transmission will be policed by the control freaks hired by forums and other websites to suppress the undesirable. To the best of my layperson knowledge, there is no legal requirement for private companies to give accounts of such content censorship. I do wonder, though, whether Amazon's terms and conditions have anything to say on the matter. Perhaps we should request this.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Online rating systems: better based on cash

One may wonder why Amazon has various rating systems built in (one is customer reviews, another is "did you find this review helpful?", and finally, there's one for rating sellers), whereas and Wikipedia do not. Even eBay has a rudimentary one.

You might also wonder book authors and electronics manufacturers don't spam the amazon rating system somehow. Even Wikipedia gets spammed. In the case of eBay, this is fairly clear: to rate, you have to pay. You could sell your friends stuff and they would up your rating, but you would still have to pay the eBay fee. Similarly for Amazon sellers: without a sale, you don't get to judge the seller.

Basically, the only way to be safe from spam is to force the rater to surrender cash. A possible alternative is to get his credit card details (although any one person may have more than one credit card), and a third alternative is to keep track of IP addresses (with internet cafes and dynamic IPs, this is a weak one, though). Email addresses, obviously, forget it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Open source, stability and release cycles

Windows releases every, erm..., six years. Mac OS X releases nearly once a year. Ubuntu Linux releases every half year. Fedora Core is now releasing every seven to nine months.

My experience with both Fedora Core in the first three releases, and Ubuntu up until now, is that system updates break things. The final release has always undergone such thorough testing as to work really well, but it seems that the updates following are sent through relatively unfiltered from the upstream projects, and this is typically where things break. OS X has much less frequent updates, and these are generally better tested, and rarely break things (never for me).

The problem arises as much from the fact that servers need first and foremost to be secure (whereas desktop systems need first and foremost to be useable) as it does from the fact that desktop systems have more complex package dependencies. I hope that the software industry can get to the point where desktop systems need only be upgraded sporadically, and where the upgrades are thoroughly tested. This should be just as possible for Linux to achieve as it evidently is for OS X.

Closed source and reinventing the wheel

It's not great news to anyone that closed source code leads to permanent reinventing of the wheel. Nonetheless, I am impressed by the number of programs out there, especially on the Mac platform, that all do the same thing in only slightly different ways. There are at least a half dozen each of RSS readers, notebooks (think OneNote), launchers and web browsers for Aqua/Cocoa. I've no doubt there is a lot of innovation going on and that there are advantages to the approach in that it enforces having completely separate projects, each with complete freedom to develop (after all, some basic components, such as html rendering, are usually provided by the OS, meaning developers need merely wrap a GUI around it). However, it does strike me that the creators are often unaware of other people's existing creations. This does not usually happen with open source, as first versions are released early, and newcomers tend to join the fastest-developing projects, so that even competing lead developers sometimes abandon their projects and join their prior rivals. Nonetheless, as we see with jukebox applications, projects periodically replace each other as something better gets developed from scratch (for an example, see how Amarok is taking over from XMMS - with several others waiting in the wing for their chance - or how gnome is replacing KDE as the main Linux distributors' favourite). I have yet to see this approach stifle innovation, although it has to be said that OS X remains the most technologically advanced environment.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Google Earth will not go South

Anyone ever tried to surf Antarctica using Google Earth? I was disappointed to find that the satellite pictures are apparently organised to converge on the poles, leading to Antarctica being displayed in slices, besides the low resolution. I hope this will be improved.

Listened, not bought

I've just been reading about the new technology that's supposed to let you download any song that the radio happens to be playing. This is meant to be put into mobile phones and stationary digital radios, and a song would cost 1.25 GBP. The way it's described, it sounds like a client side technology, where the client knows the identity of the song playing on any given station. This would mean your client could continually pick the stations playing your favourite songs at that very moment, without any purchase ever made!

I really hope for their sakes that the inventors implemented this as a server-side technology, otherwise... oh dear!

Laptop makers supporting Linux

Just as I predicted, PC makers are being driven to increasingly support Linux as the only other notable operating system available to them, Windows, falls behind competitor Mac OS X.