Thursday, December 30, 2010

My First Android Tablet

I recently purchased an Android tablet, and I wanted to share some of my initial thoughts and reactions.  I did a good bit of research and finally decided on the Viewsonic gtablet.  The reason I decided on this tablet was that the hardware in the unit looked great on paper.  I was able to pick it up at the last minute from a Sears for cheap ($370 at the time I bought it).  But anything that I can list out here can be found at the above link.  There seem to be a lot of varying images for the tablet, but the one we ended up with looked like this

My motivation for this purchase was to entertain our twins (1 year old boys) on a long drive (28 hours in the car spread out over 4 days of driving).  We had borrowed a in car DVD player from one of my wife's co-workers, but the engineer in me spotted some immediate problems.  

  1. Keeping up with, changing, and dealing with fragile (prone to scratches) DVDs was not going to make our drive any easier.  
  2. They each get their own screen, but the screens are poor quality, only 7 inches, and only show the same image.
  3. There are a lot of wires running all over the place with these things, and if you have a toddler you know how irresistible a draping cable is!
  4. They don't have a battery (stopping for gas?) so turning off the car resets everything.
  5. While I could go on -- they are just pretty lame too...

What  you see on the screen above is the Tap-n-tap firmware that comes loaded on the tablet.  This is probably the source of most of the issues, but more about that in a bit.  For now here are some of the pros and cons for this tablet.


  • Resolution - The screen looks great when viewing it close up or even at a modest distance at a narrow viewing angle.
  • Speed - Compared to my first generation Motorola Droid and even when compared to my wife's second generation Droid the hardware (at least on paper) is quite adept.
  • Size - This thing is stylish and svelte even compared to the iPad.  The screen ratio is even better for viewing widescreen movies.
  • Battery life - The battery on this thing lasted for about 6 hours of continuous use.  We were either playing mp3s on it or playing a movie for the kids, and we did not have to charge it in the car once.
  • Sound - My wife and I watched a movie on the tablet at the in-laws one evening and much to our surprise the tiny speakers on this made a reasonable sound.  We were impressed enough that we even used it to play some holiday tunes one morning.  
But for all the pros that this tablet has there are some problems that one has to contend with.

  • The software on the tablet as it comes out of the box is not usable.  This is not and exaggeration, and keep in mind that I bought the first Android phone with the first version of the software.
  • The touch screen has issues with sensitivity.  Even once the available adjustments are set such that the screen is at its most sensitive, it is difficult to get it to register a touch.  This is especially true around the edges of the tablet.  Given the wide spread nature of this issue and the fact that it is consistent across different versions of software, I believe that there are obvious hardware limitations at play.
  • While the screen looks fantastic from strait on, the viewing angle is somewhat limited.  If you have never owned or used a slate style tablet before, then you probably aren't expecting that the tablet is a social instrument.  I was surprised by the fact that unlike a phone, the tablet provides a comfortable opportunity for collaboration.  The twins were far enough away from the tablet so that it wasn't too much of a problem, but when viewing a movie with my wife I found that the angle needed to be fine tuned frequently.

The update from Viewsonic was a vast improvement over the firmware that was on it out of the box, but the interface was still very poor.  I used a couple custom roms (Cyanogenmod and TNT-lite) and I am sure that more can be found with a quick Google search.  They made the tablet much better, but there were some lingering issues like the battery meter always reading 100% and force closes.  One piece of software that I did not get to test, but that sounded very cool was GPS tethering.  The idea is that you can take advantage of the large screen for navigation.

In preparation for our trip we needed to find a good mounting location that provided easy access from the passenger seat with a good view from the back seat.  I thought long and hard, and finally I decided that the front sunroof of our Discovery II was the solution.  I bought a cheap cell phone mount at a box retailer, and cut off the part that held the cell phone.  Then I cut a piece of plywood so that it was about 1/2 inch bigger on all four sides of the tablet.  I drilled holes at the four corners of the wood to thread elastic straps through.  The last step was to mount the stub of the phone mount to the back of the plywood.  This allowed for a lot of flexibility in placement, and held sturdily.  I will be making another one, but this time I will not be using a cheap phone mount.  The one I had used a stiff, but pliable adjustment.  The next one I build will have a hinged mechanism.

For a car charger you can't use a USB charger (not even with some custom wiring) because the output is too low.  SO I had to buy one at Radio Shack.  Not a big deal, but still an annoyance.

All in all I think the tablet fulfilled it purpose of entertaining our twins, but the thought of trying to use it for anything other than viewing media was going to be a nightmare.  The touchscreen issues killed it for me, and in the end it was returned.  Sears was great at returning it.

When I left Sears though I stopped by the Apple store to play with an iPad.  I still don't care for iOS, and the arrogant Apple clerk made me want to run screaming out of the store (full disclosure we have 4 macs at home and two more at our jobs).  That being said, there is no comparison between the responsiveness, and how smooth the iPad operates.  Maybe jailbreaking would make me feel better about the closed nature of the iPad, but that won't help me swallow the price.  Still this just reinfoces the idea that you get what you pay for, and after this experience I am going to have a hard time buying another Android tablet.  I just don't feel good about being an iPad owner.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

k-Anonymity for Our Public Lives

I was just reading a paper that proposes a way to provide anonymity for location based services, and it really got me thinking about the priorities in information security and privacy.  The authors are in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and cite information leakage and a slippery slope slide into a 1984, George Orwell inspired, world where large amounts of location based information combined with public records provides a complete picture of the individual.

Take for example that a particular mobile device always looks for places to eat near a rehab hospital, that same mobile device begins long trips (GPS data) from a particular (home) address, and that home address is linked to a name in the white-pages.  This contrived example is not bullet-proof, but it illustrates how information leakage can, over time, expose a lot more about ourselves than we originally thought.

While all of this is well and good, and I appreciate the efforts of academic researchers; however, I can't help but think that we are not addressing the real problem.  If you are worried about data leakage, then you should be terrified about the way that most of us throw lots of information about our professional and private lives into the public domain readily.  Facebook is the prime example, and to their credit they have taken steps to remedy the data disclosure problems in older versions of their system.  People just have no notion of how the things they publish can effect them later on.  I even have an example where the person in question didn't even intend on providing a lot of information...I give you as an example the 

Jack and Jane Smith case...

Jack and Jane Smith think they are a clever pair, because every-time there is a marketing or signup sheet that asks for an email address they list mine instead of their own.  This seems innocent enough, but what they don't realize is that every piece of solicited junk that shows up in my inbox fills in more details about their personal and private lives.  This compounded with the fact that they have chosen to use their real names in coordination with these mailings accelerates this process even further.  The real funny part is that Jack fancies himself as an IT professional (don't get me started on this).

This project all got started when I got a "happy thanksgiving" email from Freedom Toyota in Hamburg, PA.  This got me to thinking that maybe this wasn't random internet spam, but that maybe all the emails that I keep getting for Jack and Jane are substantiated in some way.  Then I decided to do a bit of googling to find out more of who these people are...

Jack Smith is a 49 year old IT guy who lives in Schuylkill Haven, PA (I have the exact address and phone number) and I know when and where he went to high-school (Facebook), where he has worked (Linkedin), and lots of seemingly benign things like kids names and relatives (mom?).

Jane Smith is the 45 year old wife of Jack and lives with her husband in a modest home in an relatively urban area.  Not to be outdone by her husband she also provides lots of personal information on her website.

They have some kids and here is where things aren't quite so clear, and this is probably a result of multiple marriages and kids with former spouses, but they definitely have a kid named Jen.  What is interesting is that Jen is probably not Jane's daughter, because the Name Donna pops up quite a bit.  Jen lists a number of siblings on her Facebook page that don't show up on Jack, Jen or Donna's pages (family relationships can be quite complex).  But what is clear is that we know who Jen's main crush is.  She is also quite the aspiring photographer and fond of the UK...

If you still think all of this is pretty innocent then let me propose the following...I know names, and addresses and phone numbers, mothers, daughters, maiden names, high-schools cities/dates of birth and what kind of house/cars they own.  These sound a lot like the types of security questions that get asked when you call a customer service desk right?  Further all of this was acquired without spending a dime of my money.  I can't fathom the information I would get by paying a few dollars for background and records searches or the parents!  This could all lead to identity theft or worse.

When I got to this point I realized that I should go back and change the names...If their is a real Jack and Jane Smith, then you know that your name is just too common and generic and should have expected this or at least seen it coming...

A broader perspective...

The point is that there is no point in comprising intricate and complex algorithms for hiding personal information if people are going to be stupid and give it way.  This is a new area of concern for adults, but what will it mean for our kids who's photos and lives have been the subject of baby blogs and Twitter feeds since before they were even born?  Will the definition of privacy change as the founder of Facebook claims?  

In design/engineering you are taught to tackle the problem that has the greatest weight (opportunity for improvement) first.  Said another way...if you are drowning and holding onto an anvil, let go of that before you attempt to save yourself by emptying your pockets of lose change!

PS:  I have no intention of releasing the information about the Smiths, but I do intend to continue collecting information about them for as long as they are dumb enough to use my email address for marketing signups and spam likely forms...