Mar 28, 2006

Apple in DRM soup

Digital Rights Management (DRM) laws are still very much in their infancy today. This may be partly because laws just can't seem to keep pace with technology and partly because technology itself is in a state of constant flux. Apple's experience in France is a case in point.

The French Government has proposed a law that would force Apple to open up content from its online music store iTunes so that they can be played on any digital music player. Currently, songs downloaded from iTunes plays only on Apple's own hugely successful music player iPod.

The law would require DRM developers to reveal details of their technology to rivals that wish to build compatible systems. Apple uses FairPlay DRM in its iTune store and iPod players. The law could wreck Apple's current system since it can not control music on players other than iPod. Apple has reacted to the government's move by terming it "state-sponsored piracy".

Experst feel that Apple would be better off withdrawing the iTunes service from the French market completely than give in to the pressure and suffer. If Apple executives had been thinking of this strategy, their worries would have been compounded by news that Denmark will soon be following France in implementing similar legislation. If more countries decide that Apple is locking in customers by abusing its dominant position in the market and follow suit, the entire digital rights managment issue will come under intense scrutiny and companies and customers will soon be needing a universal yardstick to measure what is acceptable and what is not. Shutting down operations in every country that implements the legislation just doesn't seem to be a viable option for Apple right now.

Mar 20, 2006

Does IT matter?

To say that we live in a world of technology would be to state the obvious. Technology pervades every aspect of our lives and transforms it. It influences everyone and everything - from individuals to giant multinational corporations. Technology is after all the means through which businesses deliver value to their customers. It even helps them build and sustain competitive advantage over competitors in a rapidly changing world. Or does it?

In his groundbreaking Harvard Business Review article, Nicholas Carr examined how technology and more specifically, information technology helped businesses build competitive advantage and sustain it in the long run. He argued that the costs of adopting the latest, state-of-the-art information technology was plummeting and this was in fact levelling the playing field for the smaller players, who were till now at a disadvantage. These smaller players, who couldn't afford the technologies that their bigger competitors enjoyed, no longer had to sit back and watch the game. They could also go in for the same, if not better, technology and compete with the Goliaths, and that the playing field was indeed levelled. He says that business can no longer seek to gain an edge based solely on the technology that they employ.

Let us examine this argument. It is indeed true that the cost of adopting the latest technologies in IT have fallen drastically from those of yesteryears. Processing cycles are much more abundant and a lot cheaper, storage even more so. Entire industries thrive on seeking to provide the best solutions at the lowest costs, and this competition has caused a huge acceleration in the diffusion of technology throughout businesses across the world. Concepts in Information Technology like Enterprise Resource Planning have enabled corporations ranging from the Fortune 500s to medium size businesses to integrate their business processes and cut through layers of bureaucracy, increasing efficiency and cutting response time to competition and the market. But that is that.

Even today, no business can dream of surviving, let alone beating the competition, without that necessary ingredient that we all like to preach about but seldom practice, intentionally or unintentionally - innovation. Innovation spawns new businesses, it keeps existing businesses afloat. Without it, your business is as good as dead. Like every other business aspect, innovation helps companies find new ways of better leveraging their existing IT systems, or even better, design entirely new ones. And in doing so, the company pushes itself ahead of the competition. Relentless, non-stop innovation can virtually keep the company there, but that would be too ideal a scenario.

Granted, Information Technology is only a tool that helps businesses deploy their resources at the right time and right place, against competition or in a new market. And as Carr argues, the competitive advantage that the company gains from adopting a new technology is perhaps short-lived. But in a dynamic global business environment, where markets appear and disappear in Internet time, that may be more than sufficient. IT does matter.

See both sides of the argument:

Does IT Matter?

IT Doesn't Matter

Mar 15, 2006

To link or not to link

What makes the World Wide Web such an efficient medium for dispersing information is its non-linear organisation. Unlike a book that you read from one end to end, a web page contains hyperlinks that can transport you from page to page (or indeed, from site to site), thus giving the reader the control of what to read and what to skip. That is good for the reader; not that good for the publisher.

Granted, the quantity and the quality of the hyperlinks in a page is a key factor that determines the quality of the page as a whole. As a reader, you search for something on an engine, find a page and go there. You run through the first few paragraphs and finally find that what you exactly were looking for is not there. What do you do? Yes, you click. You find the nearest hyperlink that you think will lead you to nirvana and you dump the site, just like that.

Now see this from the publisher's perspective. He has been spending hard cash to get you to his site using all the tricks in the book - search engine marketing, search engine optimisation, referral programs and what not. He doesn't want you to leave the site that soon; not before you have taken a look or even better, clicked at some of his advertisers, or browse other articles which drives up his pageview stats, a valuable information he needs to sell more advertising.

Frankly, he doesn't want to put any external links at all on his site. But that is not how the Web is designed to work. If your reader doesn't find quality links, you can be hundred percent sure that she doesn't think it is worth visiting again. On the other hand, putting too many will increase the probability of driving away the reader even before the page has fully loaded.

The solution here, as it is for most things in life, is a trade-off. Keep those links that you think will provide value to the reader, and you can be sure that the reader will reciprocate the feeling by visiting again. Happy linking!

Mar 1, 2006

Spam and the CAPTCHA defence

It is difficult to imagine e-mail without spam these days. The vast majority of the world's electronice mailboxes are haunted by it and an entire industry thrives on it. Companies and ISPs spend billions of dollars to fight it. Not only does it clog the networks due to the excessive traffic, but precious processor cycles and manhours are spent everyday to keep them off our inboxes. It is no wonder that another industry, the ones out to fight spam, is thriving as well. Spam is so much a part of our life that 'checking mail' means clearing up our mailboxes so that we don't lose out on genuine messages. So if everybody hates spam so much, what is being done to stop it?

Stopping Spam

The spam industry works on numbers, large numbers. This means that , say for every 100 e-mails that the spammer sends, his client gets one response. ( A 'response' here refers to a click on a link which either promises you a debt-free life or the woman of your dreams or eternal youth, or whatever.) To get 10,000 responses out of which only 10 may give any returns, he has to send a million emails. It is quite clear that sending that many emails is simply beyond anyone. The solution - automation. A software program, similar to a bulk mailer, is programmed to send out the message to a database of addresses the spammer has harvested from the Web or bought from another spammer. This is where the CAPTCHA defence comes in.

CAPTCHA, which stands for 'Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart' tries to identify if the entity trying to send an email or make a blog post is human or just a robot. It supplies that entity with a graphic, such as the one shown below and challenges it to enter the characters shown in the graphic in a textbox.

If there is a match, the entity is assumed to be a human and the email message goes through or the blog gets published and so on.

CAPTCHA broken

The main problem with CAPTCHA is that it is just a computer program trying to beat another computer program, namely the spambot. CAPTCHA will win as long as the spambot is dumb enough that it can't recognise the characters. But it loses the moment the spambot begins to think like the CAPTCHA program.

How does the spambot 'think' like a CAPTCHA? It is quite simple. Since it knows that there is a valid character sequence in the graphic and it was generated by a computer program albeit distorted and deformed, enough combinations and permutations of the graphic will definitely yield the original sequence. And that is exactly how CAPTCHA is broken. By identifying and learning the distortion patterns of the CAPTCHA program, the spambot is turning the tables around.

A few interesting links:

The CAPTCHA project

Breaking a Visual CAPTCHA

PWNtcha - captcha decoder