Weekend news roundup – hacker in residence, Google’s privacy bumbles

23 Apr 2012

In our trawl through the weekend newspapers’ tech coverage, we learn that 20-year-old Cork coder James Whelton has been named ‘hacker in residence’ for seasoned tech investor Mike Hirshland’s new fund Resolute; Google’s privacy battles call into focus its ‘don’t be evil’ mantra; and why do e-books have to cost so much?

Resolute’s new ‘hacker in residence’

According to The Sunday Independent, James Whelton, the 20-year-old Irish coding whiz and co-founder of CoderDojo, has taken up an advisory role with one of the world’s most experienced technology investors.

Whelton has been named ‘hacker in residence’, with Resolute.vc, a new fund founded by Mike Hirshland, a technology investment veteran, who was an early-stage backer of Polaris, a $3bn fund based in Massachusetts in the US.

Hirshland led Polaris’ investments in Automattic, a web developer best known for inventing bloggers’ favourite WordPress, as well as launching Dogpatch Labs, a start-up incubator based in Dublin and the US.

Hirshland described Whelton as “an ambassador to the next generation of great entrepreneurs – the teens who are imagining new ways to build and use technology to change the world”.

Expanding Silicon Valley’s borders

In compiling its Silicon Valley 150 powerbrokers in technology this year, The San Jose Mercury News acknowledged that the Valley has widened its borders to include new nearby regions, including the city of San Francisco.

According to legend, the phrase ‘Silicon Valley’ was coined by Ralph Vaerst, a California entrepreneur, and first published by trade journalist Don Hoefler in 1971. The phrase reflected the notion that Santa Clara County had become home to a growing cluster of semiconductor companies.

Much has changed since then. Over time, tech companies crept further up the peninsula and around to the East Bay. By the early Nineties, the SV150 list, initially focused on Santa Clara County companies, expanded to include San Mateo County and the southern parts of Alameda County.

Not only was the geographic boundary shifting, but so was the technology. Silicon Valley over time has grown to include software, networking equipment, the web, biotechnology and more recently clean tech. Indeed, the chip industry that gave rise to the name has long since ceded its role as the region’s leading tech industry, making the ‘Silicon’ part of the name outdated.

Don’t be evil … by design

In a news analysis focusing on the maturing of Google, The New York Times asked how is it that Google, a company chockablock with brainiac engineers, savvy marketing types and flinty legal minds, keeps getting itself in hot water? Google, which stood up to the Death Star of Microsoft? Which changed the world as we know it?

The latest brouhaha involves the strange tale of Street View, Google’s project to photograph the entire world, one street at a time, for its maps feature. It turns out Google was collecting more than just images: federal authorities have dinged the company for lifting personal data off Wi-Fi systems, too, including emails and passwords.

Evil? Hard to know. But certainly weird – and enough to prompt a fine of $25,000 from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and, far more damaging, howls from Congress and privacy advocates. A Google spokeswoman called the hack “a mistake” and disagreed with the FCC’s contention that Google “deliberately impeded and delayed” the commission’s investigation.

Advertising scam to kill the internet?

According to the Mail on Sunday, the FBI has warned that hundreds of thousands of web users worldwide may lose access to the internet in July after massive hackers’ advertising scam infects computers.

Unknown to most of them, their problem began when international hackers ran an online advertising scam to take control of infected computers around the world.

In a highly unusual response, the FBI set up a safety net months ago using government computers to prevent internet disruptions for those infected users. But that system is to be shut down.

The cost of e-books

The Sunday Telegraph had an interesting story asking why e-books cost so much. Amazon says its e-book prices will fall after three book publishers agreed to change their model of pricing. But why do many e-books cost almost as much as their physical counterparts?

E-books have VAT charged on them, while physical books are exempt, and the different formats have different pricing mechanisms.

The opening of Apple’s iBookstore in 2010 changed how e-books were priced. Prior to Apple entering the market, most e-books were sold via the “wholesale” model, in which retailers would pay the publisher a certain amount per book sold, but set the price themselves, sometimes making a loss. This is the same model as printed books have.

When Apple released the iPad and iBookstore in 2010, they offered publishers a different “agency” model, which allowed the publishers to set the prices of e-books, 30pc of which went to Apple. Many publishers then forced Amazon to adopt the agency model.

The late Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs is quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography of him saying: “The publishers hated (the wholesale model) – they thought it would trash their ability to sell hardcover books at $28.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years