Tag Archives: Technology/Internet

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Most of us still have a telephone diary at home. Even in this age of smart-phones, tablets and ultra-books, the humble telephone diary remains a steadfast backup of contacts and business cards. Now imagine a scenario. You go to a convenience store. The clerk at the checkout has a simple proposition – you let him have all the information in your telephone diary and he will give you a discount!

How many of you will take him up on that offer? I asked my mother and she told me to shut up and pay him full in cash. She is a technophobe. She can use the TV remote and make calls from the cellphone. That’s about it. So why is it that apps like Truecaller have between 1 to 5 million Android users?

Exploiting a user’s contacts list is an old tactic. All social networks and email hosts have a module where they ask you for your email account details (“We never store the password! Honest!”) and siphon off your contacts. These are then stored, analyzed and warehoused for further use. Mobile apps make it even more easier. The mobile OS provides a convenient API to get access to contact details. The intent to read contacts is mentioned in the application’s app store page. No one ever reads that page. Once you install the app and give it a data connection, it siphons off your contacts list. It doesn’t matter if you remove the app later on.

When I know a person enough that I have his contact details with me, I do not give up that information willy-nilly. It is sacrosanct and I expect that he will not give up my contact details to a third party either. Would you give up a friend’s contact details to get a free lunch at a restaurant?

This is the complaint that I have against applications like WhatsApp and Viber. It is fine if the person who is installing the app wants to sign up for WhatsApp. But it has no business siphoning off his entire contacts list in the name of  “finding out which of your friends are already on WhatsApp!”

Truecaller is an even more brazen violation of trust and privacy. Truecaller mentions straightaway that it is maintaining a directory of contacts. How does it work?

Let’s say Tom and Dick are friends with a presence in each others’ contacts list. Dick installs Truecaller, which siphons off his contacts. For some purpose Tom happened to call Harry, and Harry has Truecaller installed. Truecaller will intercept the call, extract the incoming number and match it against its own directory. Viola! Its Tom calling!

Does Truecaller have Tom’s permission to list his number? What other things is it going to do with its directory? What are the security protocols in place to protect all that information? What is the protocol for when government agencies ask for information and logs? Will it notify users about such requests?

Are the users made aware of these issues when they install Truecaller?

There is no free lunch in life. Nor online.


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Technology IPOs – Who is to to blame for the hype?

Facebook‘s IPO hype vaporised within a few hours of exposure to reality.

Of course, many self-proclaimed experts will be crowing that they correctly predicted this bubble. “Why, look at LinkedIn! Look at Groupon! We knew Facebook was going to go flat,” they will say. These experts conveniently ignore the fact that it is they and their brethren who drive the hype. The founders and management boards of these companies share some of the blame, true. But it is the investors, the bankers and the marketing machine that drives the hype. And blog authors with no comprehension or love for technology, but with a head for marketing and data analytics spread the hype with talk of valuations, monetization strategies and acquisition plans.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say technology has no value (come on, you expect me to trash talk technology?) or no cost but in itself, this sector is not to blame. Yes, it needs money; for which an IPO is very useful. It is the usual suspects – investment firms, bankers, non-technology bloggers and their ilk – who poison the well.

Without the hype, an IPO will raise only enough money to meet the real needs of the IPO. It will not make instant billionaires, or even millionaires. A non-hyped IPO should escape the clutches of predatory investors who want nothing more than to pump up the stock, make a killing and get away from the scene.  This will also protect the company from returns-oriented shareholders who push for aggressive quarterly profits over progressive long-term returns. Such aggression often forces the company to take decisions that seem good in the short-term but impact the company negatively in the long-term. Of course, the vultures on Wall Street never allow that to happen.

I would say this is not a technology bubble, but an investment bubble. Let the blame fall where it is due – on the banks and investment firms. Wall Street has not learnt its lessons. May be, it does not want to. Those who deal with technology every day – those who build it, use it and nurture it – know its true value.


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