Thursday, March 1, 2012

Opinion - The Controversy of Google's new privacy policy

If you keep up with the BBC news, you’ll have heard have the controversy surrounding Google’s new privacy policy. BBC news is a great resource, and although inevitably biased, I have found compared to the newspapers it is by and large a lot more objective. So it was with some dismay this morning when I witnessed a rather embarrassing interview on the morning news with a Google representative.

This representative explained these four points:

  1. The different platforms owned by Google are combining privacy policies. This simplifies things making it clearer to the customer (i.e. us) while allowing appropriate adverts to reach the customers based on what they’ve searched for. If I search for a Spice Girls video on Youtube, then I might find an advert on Gmail for Spice Girl albums (that’s my example, not his).
  2. The advertisers themselves don’t see any of the data collected by Google; they provide the advert and Google chose where that advert appears.
  3. The whole process is sorted with algorithms. You don’t get actual Google employees stalking your online activities and picking adverts for you. If you consider a moment just how many people use Google then you’ll realise this just isn’t feasible.
  4. This system only works if you’re signed in to these platforms with a Google account.
The Google representative had to repeat these points several times to the beleaguered reporters, who didn’t really seem to know much about the issue at large. Worth noting here is the representative was not using jargon speak. Misunderstanding is one thing, but the accusing tones the reporters progressively used in their questions were highly inappropriate. I guess nothing attracts viewers like inviting in a representative of a giant, evil Big Brother corporation right? In reality I think the aggression mounted because they simply weren’t listening to what he had to say.

That’s not all. On the BBC news website ( they display some figures which are obviously meant to shock:

“A poll of more than 2,000 people conducted by the group in conjunction with YouGuv suggested 47% of Google users in the UK were not aware policy changes were taking place”

This is surprising; for the last month at least there has been a banner at the top of the Google platforms announcing the change and inviting the user to view it. I’m not quite sure how the 53% percent of this sample failed to notice this but I certainly wouldn't blame Google for the observational skills of these people. Google's alternative would be to introduce a giant flashing pop-up and I can only imagine how people would react to that.

“Only 12% of British Google users, Big Brother Watch said, have read the new agreement”.

Assuming the sample was truly representative of the whole British population, I’m proud to be amongst that 12%. I use the Google search engine, Youtube, Gmail and of course this blogging website, so I guess it was pretty inevitable. What strikes me however is that 12% actually seems quite high; when you install a program on your computer or sign up to a website, how many of you can actually claim to reading the terms and conditions? Facebook are infamous for changing theirs, but when was the last time you checked?

"Let us not forget that Google is a free service"

It seems to me Google are being attacked for an action despite of which seems to be in the favour of all parties. We the customer only have one privacy policy to read (which should increase the chance we actually read it rather being presented with lots of sporadic pages), and we’re presented with adverts tailored to our interests. On the flip side, an improved advertisement service should also increase Google's revenue. Let us not forget that Google is a free service. If you don't like it then you are free to use other services, and unlike Facebook there are plenty of viable alternatives.

Google is part of a wider trend of merging platforms. My first blog post discussed how the Xbox 360 dashboard and Windows Phones are merging together for a more integrated experience. It seems rather ironic that by keeping their privacy policies on the low these changes managed to escape the notice of mainstream reporters. I can’t help but question just how much fact checking and proactive measures are made in the news industry. Reacting hostilely to measures which Google have pre-warned users about well in advance just isn’t acceptable. You know what they say: you fear what you don't know. You can read the new privacy policy right here:

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Opinion – DLC and why I won’t be buying KoA: Reckoning any time soon

DLC, for the non-gaming literate, stands for Downloadable Content. Often after a video-game is released the developers continue working on future content which gamers can then later download. Such content serves different purposes – in ‘Halo Reach’ the developers work on bringing out extra multiplayer games to refresh the experience for players, while in ‘Guild Wars’ the developers released some bonus missions so that the game ties into the sequel Guild Wars 2, which we are expecting to be released later this year. Some DLC costs money and some is free; e.g. the formal and latter examples respectively.

This is all well and good. Generally speaking, paid DLC helps to retain fans of the game while generating some instant revenue, while free DLC increases customer loyalty and bring in new players resulting in longer term revenue.

A beautiful DLC map for Halo reach - whose design is clearly the result of skill and effort.

However, a worrying trend is emerging: DLC is more often than not being released alongside the release of the game. Take the game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which was released yesterday. I logged into Steam to check the price (Steam is a PC platform for buying and downloading games online) only to find I could also buy a DLC for a ‘weapons and armor bundle’. This essentially means that if I buy KoA: Reckoning, I am not buying the complete, finished product; the developers also made some extra content but they’re selling it separately.

DLC on Steam - the first of many?

Consider this within the content of the game for a moment. Part of the experience of games such as these are completing challenging quests or discovering hidden location, and you are typically rewarded with some legendary sword or armour. Yet, if I can buy with real money weapons and armour anyway, instantly this reward is cheapened. Furthermore resources spent on fine-tuning and removing bugs and glitches was instead used to make DLC.

Hero, this sword could be yours for only £3.99! No wait, £29.99 + £3.99. You need the buy the game as well remember.

What is the purpose of this DLC? It isn’t to reward fans; the game has just been released. It isn’t to draw in new customers, the game has just been released. Presumably the only and sole purpose is to milk the cash cow for customers who do want the full experience.

So what does this tell us about the game? It implies that the developers and producers are after short-term financial revenue, which raises doubt to the overall experience of the game. It also suggests that for hefty profit margins, sub-standard DLC will be frequently released. I have to ask, why would I want to buy the game now, when I know you’re going to be asking me for a lot more money? As far as I’m concerned, it makes more sense for me to wait when all this inevitable DLC has been released and I can finally buy the complete and finished package in one, genuine bundle.

There you have it. As you can tell, I am not a happy man right now. I enjoyed the demo of the game, despite its glitches. Typically glitches experienced in a demo have been fixed by the time the full game has been released, but I gain the impression that in Reckoning they’ll still be present. In my eyes at least, game developers and producers need to start considering their perceived credibility and where their priorities are when making a game.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Future tech - Mass Effect's omni-tool in real life

Sci-fi, be it in novels, games or some other art form, has been remarkable at predicting future technology which once-upon-a-time seemed completely impossible. Here's one which might not be as far off as you might think.

The arm controller thingy
Ok, so the name I've given it isn't great, and assuming Apple don't fall from their pinnacle with the loss of Steve Jobs we might witnessing the release of the iArm.

For this blog we'll call it the omni-tool; the piece of kit which is used repeatedly in the game Mass Effect. These devices are a computer microframe packed with holographic display, sensor analysis system, the ability to modify remote equipment, and the latest version of Powerpoint. Well, perhaps not Powerpoint but you get the idea. If that sounds familiar that's because smart-phones are practically just as functional for the needs of yourself, member of the public.

A further benefit is that the omni-tool makes you look badass. Hood not included.

What makes it so nifty in Mass Effect is that holographic projection of the display. Now even though almost everyone by now knows that 3D is a declining fad and should probably be kept away from smart-phones and TVs, it could be a substitute for the hologram. What would be necessary to include would be a hand and finger recognition system - akin to a miniaturised Kinect - allowing you to interact with the 3D display rather than jabbing your fingers on the screen like its 1999. Throw in the rapidly developing voice recognition software and the iAr- I mean omni-tool isn't quite as obscure as you first thought.

So when it comes down to it, our equivalent of the omni-tool is simply a smart phone attached to your arm. If the idea is peculiar to you, consider how the pocket watch was transformed with the simple addition of the strap. Given the increasing reliance on smart-phone technology having the device strapped to your arm might actually be more convenient than fishing it out from your pocket. Wirelessly controlling mentioned Powerpoint, transferring money across device accounts, playing angry birds: you name it; all achieved with greater access.
You'll just have to be patient with people while they make some calibrations.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Desire - The new Alienware X51. Console'd.

From the first glace you can be forgiven if you think this is the next Xbox, or 'Nextbox' - chuckle chuckle. Designed by Dell-owned Alienware, this computer has been designed to fit into a small chassis typically attributed to modern gaming consoles. Alienware have been long known to build the most powerful gaming machines known to man, so announcing a computer with some of the lowest specifications in their current portfolio has disgruntled those expecting a machina god.

Do not despair, this may be something you may well want. I'm certainly tempted: currently being in the situation of having to relocate fairly frequently the thought of chugging around a giant desktop PC doesn't quite appeal, but the issue with high spec laptops is their lack of upgradability. I've happily maintained my current desktop for over five years now through upgrades. I've begun to feel however that something new is needed to reflect the end of my student-life and the start of an exciting and brilliantly successful career. Cough.

Supreme Commander
But less about me, why compare it to the consoles at all? Well, these "next-gen" gaming platforms sport hardware around five years old. Ironic considering when released the battle between Xbox and Playstation centered largely around which boasted the better graphics. Unlike my own aging computer, consoles can't be upgraded with what really matters - don't be fooled by the Xbox 360 variants: arcade, premium, elite, coolname. 'Hardcore' games (think Gears of War 3 for a modern reference) have historically boasted of cutting edge graphics, but game developers simply can't build games to their full potential anymore while consoles remain stagnant despite our age of rapid technological advancements. Take the game 'Supreme Commander': in the (PC only) original you could wage battles on continent-scale worthy maps which required an incredible amount of processing power. SC2 was decreased in scale, complexity and given cartoonier graphics to make it also available for the consoles, enraging many who loved the first game.

Computers such as the X51 won't kill off consoles. Prices starting from £699 means it simply isn't a price-tag parents will consider for their childrens' Christmas present. It is a sign however that a market does exist for those consumers no longer satisfied by current gaming standards, and may well reflect a growing trend of mature gaming. More on that another time.

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