Category Archives: Tech Reviews

Tech Reviews

This Google movie won’t be seen in the U.S.

There is a revelatory moment in the movie “Google and the World Brain” that is excruciating and fascinating. In the mountains above Barcelona, Spain, Father Damià Roure, library director of the ancient Monastery of Montserrat, shows us one of 23,400 books in his library digitised by Google.

Father Damia Roure
Father Damià Roure

“This was a way of spreading our culture. It gives us great satisfaction that they are available to everybody,” he says as he slowly turns the pages of a 16th century prayer book. The interviewer’s rejoinder is sharp:

‘”Google didn’t pay you to scan your books. Was that fair? What if someone turns this all into a business and makes a profit?”

Father Roure’s lips move; no sound emerges. He bites his lower lip. His chin dimples. His head shakes quickly back and forth and his shoulders take a dip. Still no sound.

“Perhaps the question is too difficult?” says the interviewer.

And so it is. If Father Roure failed to consider that this might be exploitation, instead of charity, then we are all a bit like Father Roure. Are G-mail, YouTube, Picasa, and Android all something for nothing? Is there such a thing as a free lunch after all?

Digital technology has turned traditional notions of value on their head as surely as printing multiplied the power of the written word, or steam trains moved passengers faster than horse-drawn carriages. Ben Lewis, director of the film, says the out-of-print books that are a focus of his film had virtually no value before. But in the new digital economy they are highly valuable, just like Montserrat’s prayer books.

Lewis explores how Google is trying to exploit this value before everyone else wakes up. I once spent time as a Reuters journalist working on the story of the Google books settlement, yet Lewis’s film had new things to teach me.

At the same time that a new Hollywood comedy about Google is being released with great hullabaloo, Lewis cannot get his film distributed in the United States, even though it was a BBC production and exhibited at the Sundance Film Festival.

It would make us question Google’s values, and the value of data we give up willingly every day.
(Disclosure: One of my clients actively opposes Google business practices which have been identified by the European Commission as anti-competitive; I work on this case)

Phones and flamenco dancers show their stuff at Barcelona Mobile World Congress 2013

The Mobile World Congress 2013 in Barcelona attracted 72,000 visitors in February. Even with eight airplane hanger-sized buildings the Congress felt busy as central station at rush hour. Nokia, Samsung and other big players had elaborate temporary buildings within the hangers. Apple and Google stayed away. Mozilla created a buzz with its new mobile operating system, modeled on the Firefox browser and meant to compete with Android. I tried a small, full-function ZTE smart phone running the Mozilla OS and found it smooth and intuitive. Telefonica will sell it in Brazil for €60 to €75 ($80 to $100), and that seems to be without a contract. Europe comes later.

After two-and-a-half days working for my client I took a few hours to wander around. Tucked away in the far recesses of the cavernous buildings were quirky gems, like tiny solar cell arrays that charge an iPhone 50 percent in six hours, Chinese knock-offs of Samsung phones one generation behind and a whole lot cheaper, and a flamenco dancer in full regalia dancing for a well-known chip maker (not precisely sure of the connection, but it was entertaining). Between the buildings I sat in the driver’s seat of a modified Ford, let go of the steering wheel, and it parked itself.

One of my favourite finds was a Korean company displaying tiny add-ons for Samsung and iPhone mobiles, none much larger than bud earphones. One is the A-Scan portable breathalyzer, which plugs into the headphone jack. Blow gently and it displays your blood alcohol level. Mine was zero until I took a sip of the excellent Catalan wine they provided, and then it shot up to levels that would have prohibited me from parking the Ford.

The iLucir portable body fat analyzer requires you enter your height and weight into the phone. Pinch the left side with your left thumb and forefinger, do the same on the right, and your body fat-to-weight ratio pops up. What did it show? I’d better head to the gym more often.