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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

What will the upcoming NBN changes mean for your home broadband?

NBN Co recently announced that it’s spending some $3.5 billion dollars to upgrade parts of the nation’s Fibre To the Node (FTTN) network to full Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) over the next 3 years.

While the NBN itself has been one massive political football, for better or worse, the practical reality of its near-finished state in 2020 is that there’s definitely some “winners” and some “losers” when it comes to the quality and speed (and they’re different matters) of their NBN connection. If you’re already in an area with FTTP connections then you’ve got the current best tech available with the highest likely reliability to boot. However, the majority of the fixed line connections in Australia use the older, slower and less reliable copper network for the last part of the connection.

As such, the news of an upgrade should be very welcome for most of Australia’s broadband users. That’s pretty much all of us, by the way, with recent ACMA figures suggesting that in the financial year 2019-2020, Australian internet usage by population peaked at 99% for the first time.

So if you’re on a FTTN connection with speed or reliability woes, you’re set, right?

Well… maybe. The devil, as always is in the detail, and there’s a mix of unknowns and some catches to be aware of before you start planning for your high speed future. Not shockingly, the rollout (again) of trucks, workers and cabling will take some time, and while NBN Co’s aim is to have at least 75% of the fixed wired broadband network capable of speeds of up to 1Gbps by 2024, their own estimations don’t see much actual accessibility for higher speeds before around 2023.

Then there’s the way the actual rollout is being handled. If you were in an original area serviced by FTTP, then the NBN rollout would hook up to your premises and the choice of plans and providers was then up to you. However, for this upgrade rollout, the plan is to roll fibre down streets where FTTN is present, but only connect up houses or businesses where those occupiers sign up for a higher speed plan.

It’s not at all clear how much of a boost over what you can get you’d have to sign up for, bearing in mind that some FTTN connections barely manage 25Mbps even now. There’s some suggestion that you’d have to sign up to a contract for a decent term as well, not just for a month before settling down to a lower speed, cheaper plan with the better reliability of fibre, either, although again details are scant.

It’s a move designed to make the rollout a little cheaper, although it feels like an odd step from a technology standpoint, because it means NBN Co would be on the hook for remediation in areas that have seen the FTTP upgrade for both the fibre and remaining copper in the streets, effectively running two networks in the place of one.

That 75% figure is important too, because it means that there will still be some premises that don’t even see the option. While some of those will be premises already served by fibre to the basement, there’s still going to be some folks unable to access faster speeds or more reliable connections regardless.

Against this is the rising spectre of 5G networks, with a range of “available” 5G home broadband options. I’m putting “available” in quotes there because while it’s often touted as an NBN beater, 5G has its own challenges in terms of rollout and especially shared spectrum.

A single device on the current sub-6Ghz 5G in an area might be able to punch some impressive download speeds – much less so for uploads, though – but once you saturate an area, as is likely once more 5G phones become available, that spectrum is shared amongst all devices – and you could end up with considerably more variable speeds as a result.

Even the telcos that have built 5G networks have long maintained that they’re more in the space of “complimentary” technologies, with 5G more filling in the cracks where the NBN cannot or will not provide what a broadband user needs.


Will consumer VR ever hit it really big?

Virtual Reality, often shortened to VR is one of those “future tech” concepts, along with hoverboards, jetpacks and teleportation that we always seem to be just on the cusp of… but never quite getting there.

However, unlike teleportation – which conventional physics suggests might be a bit of a non-starter – or the risky nature of hoverboards and jetpacks, VR as a tech has been a reality for some time now, and not just in commercial or scientific research terms.

For some years now, there’s been a push for consumer-based virtual reality in the home. We’ve seen efforts from the likes of Facebook-owned Oculus, HTC with its Vive platform, Google with Daydream, Sony with its PSVR headset and Samsung with its Gear VR initiative.

VR is nothing new in a conceptual sense, but the last five years really saw an explosion of consumer-facing virtual reality hardware, much of it designed to work with devices you already had, whether that was a PC, a phone or a games console.

However, while we’ve seen a touch over five years of consumer-grade VR, which is typically enough time for both the technology to mature and for more widespread adoption of a new platform, that isn’t what has happened to a wide extent.

Samsung, for example, launched its Gear VR platform, an affordable VR system built around its Galaxy smartphones slotting into a specially designed headset back in 2015, but despite revisions to accommodate newer phones, it pulled the plug on its VR ambitions at the end of September.

While there were a few smaller competitors – the likes of LG and Alcatel for example – in that phone-driven VR space, the other big competitor in smartphone based VR was Google with its Google Daydream platform. Like Samsung, the Daydream View headset accommodated a smartphone that you’d slot into a headset, along with a controller for managing your virtual experiences, although Daydream compatibility was across a wider range of phones. I’m using the past tense here because, you guessed it, Daydream is dead too, with Google recently pulling the plug on its own VR ambitions too.

Sony has its play in the VR space via its PSVR headset, which works with the PlayStation 4 console and according to reports will also function with the company’s new PlayStation 5 system when that launches on the 12th of November. As you’d expect, the PSVR experience is heavily game-led, and while Sony’s put a fair bit of promotion into the platform since it launched 4 years ago, it’s not exactly set the gaming world on fire. There are rumours that Sony’s working on a PSVR2 exclusively for the PS5, but no confirmation just yet. It’s not uncommon to see the PS4-compatible version on sale at electronics stores at a significant discount, which is rarely the province of a red-hot must-have tech gadget.

All this is not to say that VR is dead; there’s a lot of work going into commercial and educational applications, and platforms like the Oculus or HTC’s Vive are still continuing along nicely. There are some issues with the technology as it stands, especially if you wear glasses or find things like 3D effects disconcerting.

Back when cinemas pushed “3D” movies above all else, I found them essentially unwatchable due to headaches, so I’m not exactly a prime candidate for VR either. However, I can very much see the potential, because right now our tech interactions are increasingly screen based, and VR removes that friction point by placing you essentially “inside” the experience – whether that’s an action game, movie experience or educational activity.


Nuki Smart Lock 2.0 & Arlo Essential Spotlight Camera: Gadgets to keep your home safe

In recent years there’s been a glut of smart home devices with a strong focus on what amounts to self-managed security. Where once you might have paid an external firm for monitoring services – or just bought a large bitey dog – you can now use technology to tell you what’s happening in and around your home. But how well do these products work? I’ve been spending some time recently with a few smart home security products, including a Bluetooth-connected smart lock and mobile smart security camera.

Nuki Smart Lock 2.0
RRP: $419+

Nuki’s Smart Lock isn’t in fact a lock in its own right. It’s a module that you install over your existing lock with your key placed inside. It then uses a motorised turner to flip the key around as required when you tell it to open or close a given door. Because it’s an add-on module, it’s a nicer option than some smart locks that require a full replacement of your actual lock. With landlord approval, you could pretty easily install the Nuki Smart Lock 2.0 on a rental property if you wanted and take it with you when you left that property later on.

The idea is that you install inside your home, so nobody knows it’s there, but then use a Bluetooth connected smartphone to actually unlock the door as you approach. Nuki also sells a Wi-Fi connection bridge, so you could then manage your lock and its status from anywhere on the planet, although of course the Bridge costs extra.

Installation of the Nuki Smart Lock is an interesting one; you’ve to measure up your lock and ensure it will fit, and then either side bolt it into place if it has a protrusion, or effectively “stick” it on if it’s a flatter lock type. One catch I discovered early on here was that if you don’t get good adhesion, the Nuki lock can pretty easily spin itself out of place through sheer motor force. Placement can also be tricky if you have locks and handles above each other too closely.

Once it’s installed securely, however, I was quite pleased with how well it typically worked. There’s a button at the back so if you’re inside you don’t even need a phone. A simple tap will get the key spinning and unlock the door. It’s also voice compatible with Amazon’s Alexa Assistant or Google Assistant, but you’ll have to invest in the Nuki Bridge if you want that kind of functionality. Likewise, you can integrate with a keypad if you want number pad entry, but that’s an added cost too.

Arlo Essential Spotlight Camera
RRP: $229

Arlo has been around in the home security camera space for some time, but most of its products to date have relied on the idea of having multiple cameras connected to an Arlo Hub that hooks into your home internet connection. You can do that with the Arlo Essential Spotlight Camera, but it’s also designed to act as a standalone unit if you only wanted the single camera in place.

As the name suggests, it’s camera with an integrated spotlight that fires up if the camera detects movement after dark. Once it’s charged up and set up, a process that’s nicely simple through Arlo’s app for iOS or Android, you then have to choose where to place it. It’s rugged enough for outdoor use, although the further it sits from a decent Wi-Fi signal, the more power it’s going to use. One drawback with this model compared to other Arlo devices is that it uses a sealed battery, so when you want to recharge it, you’ve got to move the entire camera offline, unless you’re using in in a situation where you can keep constant power flowing to it.

Actual video pickup is really good, with nicely crisp 1080p images even in low light situations. You do need to be careful about placement however, because the spotlight is very bright, and a few of my family members did comment while I was testing that it was a tad blinding if it spotted them returning home late at night.

Arlo’s proposition isn’t just for hardware, however, and if you do want longer term storage of your footage, as well as advanced features such as object detection and advanced motion zone setting, you’ve got to pay extra for an Arlo Smart subscription package. You get a 3 month trial with the Arlo Essential Spotlight Camera, but after that plans start at $4.49/month.

Bear in mind with a camera like this that if your core interest is in making sure you get alerts on your property when you’re not there, you’ll also need a decent speed broadband service to send images to your phone or other device when you’re away.


Apple surprises with quick release of iOS 14

Apple typically holds a launch event in September for its new model iPhones. Whenever those new phones launch is when the new versions of its mobile operating systems launch as well.

They all used to be called “iOS”, but this now encompasses iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS. iOS itself covers phones and iPod Touch only.

Usually, you don’t see the new version of iOS until you can lay down some cash for a new iPhone.

This year, that’s not what happened. Apple did hold a launch event with the label “time flies”, but it didn’t announce the iPhone 12. Instead, it announced new Apple Watch and iPad models, as well as announcing that all its mobile operating systems would see an update arrive the very next day.

For iPhone users, that’s iOS 14, and it’s now available for eligible devices to upgrade to.

Which devices are eligible?

Apple’s become a little nicer in this respect over the years. iOS 14 is available for iPhone models released since late 2015.

You can upgrade to iOS 14 if you’ve got one of the models of phone listed below:

  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone XS
  • iPhone XS Max
  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone X
  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone 7
  • iPhone 7 Plus
  • iPhone 6s
  • iPhone 6s Plus
  • iPhone SE (1st generation)
  • iPhone SE (2nd generation)
  • iPod touch (7th generation)

How do I upgrade?

Apple by default tends to push you towards automatic updates. It’s possible even by the time you read this that your iPhone may have upgraded itself. If you don’t want to wait, it’s a very easy process.

  1. Open the Settings App
  2. Tap on General
  3. Tap on Software Update

Software Update will check which version of iOS you’re running, and whether you’re eligible for an upgrade to iOS 14.

You’ll need to agree to Apple’s terms and conditions, as well as download the update file, which can be quite large. It’d be a good idea to be on a fixed broadband connection to do this.

The process does take some time to download and install. You can use your iPhone while it’s downloading and verifying. However, once the device reboots it’ll be out of action for a little while as it installs. It’s a good idea to set the process going when you don’t need your phone active.

Should I upgrade?

This is always a tricky question, but the broad answer these days should be yes for most folks.

Apple hasn’t always had the best track record when it comes to how well iOS upgrades take on older hardware. Also, you may not get every new feature if you’re using a much older iPhone.

However, what iOS 14 also includes is all the company’s latest software patches and security upgrades. Those are important to have running, given how much we all use our smartphones as an integral part of my digital life.

Does this mean the iPhone 12 will have iOS 15?

No, Apple won’t release iOS 15 until 2021 on current trends. It just means that whatever hooks Apple wants to use to sell its next generation of iPhones will have to rely on hardware more than software – because you can already get the software running on current models of iPhone

What features do I get with iOS 14 that I didn’t have before?

Some of the changes in iOS 14 are subtle, and some less so. There’s an increased focus on permissions, so when you do upgrade, expect apps to ask afresh for permission to do things like access photos, the local network or your location if that’s what they want to do.

iOS 14 features a new App Library view that tries to automatically group your apps by type, as well as a more flexible (and frankly, Android-style) approach to widgets and default apps.

If you’re curious, Apple has the full set of upgrade details over on its web site.


Lenovo’s Duet Chromebook sings a different laptop song

Chromebooks are laptops that use Google’s Chrome browser as the basis for their operating system. We’ve discussed them before but to date most of the models sold in Australia have tended to be low cost models pitched at the education market.

As a much more controlled computer there’s less that can go wrong with a Chromebook, although they can be a touch less flexible as a result. Still, a Chromebook is a basic laptop computer, right?

It doesn’t have to be so. I’ve recently spent some time testing out Lenovo’s clever new Duet Chromebook. It takes a distinctly different look at the way you might want to use such a device.

The heart of the Chromebook Duo is a 10.1 inch tablet. It’s entirely possible if you wish to use the Chromebook Duo just as a tablet device. Chromebooks support running Android apps, so you could just use it as an Android tablet.

However, it’s a bit more than that, because it also ships with a magnetically attached keyboard that includes its own trackpad.

This is rather similar in design as a result to Microsoft’s lower cost Surface Go 2 2-in-1 device. That’s definitely the kind of market that Lenovo’s targeting for this particular device.

The one downside there is that a 10.1 inch device isn’t going to accommodate a large keyboard as standard. You could always connect one up via Bluetooth or a USB C adaptor if you needed that. Still, the idea is to type on the Duet Chromebook’s smaller keyboard, which does take some getting used to.

It has a single input in the form of a USB C socket that’s used for charging and connecting external peripherals. If you do need external storage or to connect up other devices, investing in a simple USB C hub would be a good idea.

The Chromebook Duet runs off a MediaTek Helio P60T processor with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of fixed storage.

That’s quite a moderate laptop recipe, although for the kinds of tasks most laptops run it’s essentially adequate.

I’ve used the Chromebook Duet to create more than a few reviews during my test period using Google Docs without issue. Of course, as a device that can run any Chromebook or Android app, you can stretch it further than that.

You may want to look at external storage, however, because that 128GB of onboard memory can fill up fast if you want or need a lot of apps on board.

Of course, the reason to be keen on this kind of computing is for the portability, and here the Lenovo Duet Chromebook Duet impressed me.

Not only is it nicely small and light, but it’s also got quite a decent battery on board. Lenovo rates it as good for “up to” 10 hours of usage, but with a simple looping video test, I got more than 15 hours of life.

Naturally the apps you use and matters like volume, brightness and network usage could drain it a lot faster than that, but as a go-to portable device there’s a lot to like about the Lenovo Chromebook Duet.

The one drawback is that you’re not playing in that super-cheap typical Chromebook space. Pricing online varies a little, but the Lenovo Duet Chromebook typically retails in Australia for around $599. That’s cheaper than the comparable Surface Go, or indeed an Apple iPad and one of its additionally priced keyboard folios, but still higher than you could pay for a simple laptop.


Apple iMac 2020: The last great Intel iMac?

When Apple announced recently that it was going to shift from producing computers using Intel processors to its own “Apple Silicon” it also said that it would still produce some Macs with Intel inside over the next couple of years.

That’s just what’s happened with the very first Mac Apple’s released since dropping its Apple Silicon news being an Intel-based upgrade to its venerable iMac line. I’ve been testing out a review iMac for the past couple of weeks to see where it still impresses – and ponder on whether it’s worth buying what might be the last of the Intel iMacs at all.

Design:

Physically Apple’s done very little that you’ll notice at first with the 2020 iMac line, for better or worse. Apple isn’t alone in the all-in-one desktop space, but its iMac design remains quite eye catching, with a thin profile and simple but durable aluminium stand that looks great. The 2020 iMac ships with either a 27 inch or 21.5 inch display, and it’s the former I’ve been testing out.

While it’s a design that looks nice, there are elements that irk me that have never changed, and probably never will. The iMac isn’t particularly upgradeable, with only the included RAM being user changeable, because everything else is fused to the primary motherboard. This means choosing your storage is vital when buying, because if you want more onboard storage, you’ll have to plug in an external drive. Apple has shifted over purely to using SSDs in this year’s iMacs where it used to offer “Fusion” drives that combined SSDs and traditional mechanical hard drives, which does give them a potential speed boost.

I’m also not a fan of the way that Apple hides all the ports at the back of the iMac. I get that it’s aesthetically nice, but if you do add or remove USB peripherals or plug headphones in or out, it’s a chore to stretch around to the back, or play the guessing game as you try to negotiate them by feel.

Screen size aside, there’s one other upgrade perk with the new iMacs, in the form of an anti-reflective nano texture coating on the primary display. My review model had it, but after several weeks I can’t say I can entirely see the $750 upgrade in it, but I suppose if you were constantly annoyed with reflection on the standard glass of an iMac in a very bright area it might be worth it.

Performance:

The real changes are of course underneath the display, where the iMac sells with a variety of 10th generation Intel processors, and optionally AMD graphics processors in the higher end models. My review model featured a 3.6GHz Intel Core i9 processor and a hefty 32GB of RAM, which is on the pricier side of the iMac family.

Predictably it means it’s a very fast machine that tends more towards the professional end of the spectrum. Also on the welcome side is a Full HD webcam where Apple’s “FaceTime” cameras on Macs have been only 720p in prior years. In a year where I’ve been doing a lot of remote working and video conferencing, the difference in video quality jumping from 720p to 1080p is quite noticeable.

Still, there’s that prospect of this being perhaps the last Intel iMac looming over the whole enterprise. Apple has said that the next generation of macOS, “Big Sur” will work across both Intel and Apple Silicon Macs, and while it won’t be drawn on precise timelines, it seems likely that there should be at least 3 or so years of actual macOS upgrades that will still work in an Intel world.

Verdict:

The 2020 iMac is, ultimately, a very nicely built Mac, and a good upgrade if you’ve got a much older iMac.

For those looking long term it’s probably wise to hold off at least until the first Apple Silicon Macs emerge. Given the late in the year announcement of this iMac, and Apple’s statement that it will release a Mac running Apple Silicon before the end of 2020, that’s likely to be a MacBook of some stripe, but at least that will give us an idea on pricing and capabilities – and it’s not as though the end of 2020 is all that far away anyway.


25 Years Since Windows 95 Changed Computing For The Better (Mostly)

We live in an age where it’s absolutely assumed that the vast majority of your interactions with computers will be with visual interfaces – strictly speaking Graphical User Interfaces if you want to get on the jargon bandwagon – but it certainly wasn’t always that way. To get to the touch, voice and mouse-activated interfaces we enjoy today, large scale steps had to be taken.

One such step was the release of Windows 95, which happened almost exactly 25 years ago as I’m writing this. Windows 95 was made available for consumers to buy on the 24th of August 1995, and it sold well. Microsoft’s estimates suggest that around a million copies were sold on the first day of availability, which were huge numbers for what was an operating system.

Windows 95 wasn’t Microsoft’s first GUI – far from it – and Microsoft didn’t even invent the GUI either. That credit strictly speaking goes to a team at Xerox Parc, whose ideas were then either stolen or iterated upon by Apple with the first Macs, depending on your perspective, as well as by platforms such as the Commodore Amiga or Atari ST in the 1980s. Microsoft had Windows up to version 3.11 before it launched Windows 95.

These days many look back on Windows 95 as a land of broken promises and badly working software. That’s a little unfair, I think, because what Windows 95 was trying to do was pretty revolutionary at the time. It couldn’t quite live up to all the promises Microsoft made for it, but it was a definite stepping stone towards the computing experiences we have today.

Windows 95 saw Microsoft more fully embrace a graphical user interface and a future not dependent on its frankly very-creaky-by-then DOS underpinnings. That emerged in a number of ways in Windows 95, from the Start button that was at first a curiosity but became such an expected part of everyone’s Windows experience that when Microsoft looked to remove it in Windows 8, there was an uproar.

Windows 95 also made adding hardware to a PC – whether that was an internal card or external peripheral – considerably easier through the use of what it called “Plug and Play” drivers. These largely 32-bit drivers replaced an archaic and often befuddling array of ISA card switches that you had to set before putting a card in, then config.sys and autoexec.bat settings you had to configure before hoping that your application would actually see your new device.

In its early days, Plug and Play was derisively called Plug And Pray, because it did have problems, but those were in themselves stepping stones to the days of USB peripherals. These days, you can grab just about any USB device, plug it into your PC and after some quick but essentially invisible configuration, it’s good to go. You don’t get that without the work laid down in Windows 95.

What’s more profound was the huge push that Microsoft put forward to sell Windows 95 as a consumer-level operating system for everyday users. Sure, there were home computers in the late 1970s (if you were very keen) and through the 1980s, but it was still very much an environment where home computing was the exception, because it was either a business tool or the interest of the seriously geeky.

Microsoft took what it had in its existing Windows and worked very hard to make it considerably easier to use for most users. By no means flawless of course. You could still hit a classic Blue Screen of Death if there was a driver or memory issue, typically right in the middle of preparing a vital document. Still, that ease of use and stronger reliance on visual metaphors that have largely been retained to this day form the basis of what we’re accustomed to right now.

Should you still be using a Windows 95 PC? By no means at all, especially if you wanted to take it online, because the list of security nightmares and online exploits you’d hit would be immense. There’s a small community of folks who run it in emulation, largely in virtual sandboxes to protect the host machine it’s running on, but that’s largely if they’re keen on older software – mostly games – that only run in those older operating system environments.


Why is Google saying that its search is at risk?

Google recently started adding something to its search results in Australia. If you’ve searched with Google or watched YouTube in Australia, you’ve probably seen a small alert or popup window telling you that “a new law will hurt your search experience”.

If you’re a YouTube creator in Australia you may have had an email from Google. Same story in place, telling you that the same new laws may mean that you earn less from your YouTube channel.

I’ve had that one myself for my own YouTube channel, but then I knew what Google was getting at.

Click on any of the links and you’ll see an open letter than Google’s penned. It relates to the proposed news media bargaining code that the ACCC wants to put in place.

The code means to support Australian media businesses, especially the big players and owners of the larger newspapers around the country.

Many of them have seen revenues dip in recent years as news gathering and propagation has proliferated online. They have struggled to come up with workable market models in an arena where so many consumers expect information itself to be free. News gathering certainly isn’t free.

At the same time, advertising revenue has shifted almost entirely to two companies. Google and Facebook have an absolutely dominant market position in this respect.

It’s fair to say that Google isn’t so much a search company as an advertising agency that gives search away for free.

Google’s position is that there are troubling aspects of the code. It’s also not particularly interested in sharing any of its advertising revenue, and that’s business for you.

The code isn’t signed and sealed just yet, with a consultation period for the draft code that will conclude at the end of August.

Google’s taking its complaints very public to drum up support for its position. It states that its search activities bring traffic to news sites, not take it away from them. Moreover, it posits that parts of the code are unworkable.

Google may have a point.

There’s a provision within the code that states that Google would have to make changes to its search code available to media companies in Australia 28 days before they’re implemented. That’s worrying both in the context of feasibility and impact.

The underlying search algorithms at Google are its “11 secret herbs and spices”, but unlike Colonel Sander’s recipe they’re constantly undergoing changes.

Some of that is the nature of software, where it’s always possible to tweak code for improvement alone. It’s also because there are entire industries built around what’s called search engine optimisation (SEO).

Making it clear that changes are coming, let alone that what they’re going to be ahead of time would make it much easier for firms to game SEO.

That could push results up the Google ladder even if they’re not accurate or the best match for a given search term.

There’s also the added complication that the code only applies to larger media firms. That brings with it questions around accuracy and impartiality. Then there’s the question of how smaller operators might compete if the larger media outfits can outfox them on SEO before any actual news gathering happens.

Not that Google isn’t guilty of a bit of hyperbole. Google’s claims around “free” services being at risk aren’t held up in the code as the ACCC notes. Neither are claims around having to share user data either within the code.

It’s somewhat alarming to be pestered with Google’s position if you’re not ready for it. Once you are, it shifts to being a tad annoying once you’ve seen it 50 times in your working day and you want to get to your search results. Ultimately, it’s a question of big businesses jostling for position, with the truth of the situation lying somewhere between both camps.


Epic Games takes on Apple and Google, but there’s more than gaming at stake

Chances are decent that even if you’re not a gamer, you’ve probably heard of Fortnite, the massively successful online battle shooter game produced by Epic Games that has earned millions upon millions of dollars for its creators. Fortnite is very big business, and it’s a game that’s available across just about every potential gaming platform you could name, from dedicated games consoles like the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One to PCs, tablets and mobile devices.

Fortnite is itself free to play, but it makes its money by selling a virtual currency that can then be exchanged for what are essentially visual flourishes for your player avatar, most infamously dances that the characters can do when they win.

Epic Games has made a lot of money out of selling Fortnite’s inhouse currency, but if you were buying that currency on Apple’s iOS (iPhones, iPads) or Google’s Android platforms, then 30% of that asking price went directly to Apple or Google respectively. That’s the rate that either firm imposes on any app purchases through their stores.

Epic Games wasn’t entirely happy with that set split and engineered a way in-game to sell currency itself, offering up distinct buttons in-game for purchases either directly from it, or from Apple/Google. However, the Apple/Google prices were higher, which naturally would prompt any keen gamer to opt for the better value deal.

That 30% cut is the basis of how Apple and Google run their app stores, however, and neither was happy with Epic Games, promptly booting Fortnite off their services entirely.

That doesn’t mean that if you have Fortnite on your iPhone or Android tablet that it’ll stop working, although future OS upgrades might make that happen.

It’s also very important to note that if you don’t have Fortnite but want it, you should under no circumstances just download the first installer package you find online on a web site. That’s very likely to rapidly become an avenue for malware on your device. Epic Games does still offer an Android installer that you can “sideload” onto Android devices, although it lacks the same ability to offer an installer for any iOS phones or tablets.

Epic Games very clearly knew that the ban would happen, almost immediately (and simultaneously) launching a legal challenge to their ban as well as a PR/charm offensive, using a take on Apple’s own classic and iconic “1984” themed Macintosh ad.

Apple and Google’s position is that it funds running their app stores and applying security and oversight through those funds, so it’s not likely to shift any time soon, even though Fortnite is a very significant title. You may think that you’re not a gamer and this isn’t a story of interest to you, but if you’ve got a smartphone and you buy apps of any sort, there could be some very wide-ranging implications down the track.

In one sense, this is just the jostling of billion dollar corporations trying to seem like the “good guy” to regular consumers, but Epic Games has stated that it doesn’t intend to settle for just a smaller cut for its own products, instead looking for a general lowering of rates across the board.

If that happens – and legal processes being what they are, this could roll on for years through the US legal system – it would alter the economics of app stores markedly, because it could lead to slightly cheaper apps, or developers having slightly more funds to put towards long-term support of their products.

On the flip side, it’s feasible that it could also lead to legal pressure for a more “open” app store setup, but that’s not necessarily a totally desirable outcome. Apple’s position on this – not entirely unjustified – is that its closed model app store encourages security, because it can rapidly block misbehaving apps, as it’s done with Fortnite. Conversely, Google’s more open Google Play Store environment has seen more than its fair share of impostor apps and outright malware.


What to expect from Mac OS Big Sur

Apple has a major update to its macOS operating system coming, although if you’re particularly keen — and happy to take on a few risks — you can install the next generation of macOS onto a qualifying Mac computer right now. I’ve been testing out the new macOS in its beta form for a little while, and Apple’s just made it possible to install as a public beta for anyone who wants to sign up over at Apple’s beta software site.

Be warned however that when Apple says it’s in beta, it’s not kidding; it’s not really a good idea to install this on your work Mac, or a personal one if it’s the only machine you’ve got, because as early software it can be a little buggy at times. In all cases you absolutely must back up your personal files before switching to Big Sur, and that’s advice that will be true once the final version arrives as well.

Formally, it is called macOS Big Sur, but also Mac OS 11, the first numerical update to Mac operating systems in more than a decade. Apple’s been rolling out annual updates over that time, but they were all Mac OS X.1, X.2 and so on.

It won’t take you long once it’s installed to see why Apple’s decided that this release deserves the full numerical point release, though, because it’s both a major visual overhaul of the way the Mac looks, as well as a pretty big revision under the hood.

In terms of the user interface, everything is a lot more reminiscent of Apple’s iOS in terms of the way icons are laid out, as well as the use of colour — and a lot of white space — around application menus. Elements that you might not need are popped out of view until you mouse over them, and design ideas like the control center from iOS are now present for quick checking of WiFi, Bluetooth, volume and battery status on laptop Macs.

It’s a design that’s meant to make you focus more on the apps you’re running, although long term Mac users may find it a bit disorienting at first because it feels like all the menus are missing. Although if you are a long term Mac user, you might be pleased to find out that the classic Mac startup chime is back when you first fire up your Mac running MacOS Big Sur.

There’s a raft of new changes to the core Mac apps such as Safari, Mail, Photos and Calendar of course, and because it’s still in beta there’s some small scope for further changes to appear there.

Under the hood there’s a slew of software upgrades, with a strong focus on security. Apps that run on Big Sur are meant to tell you more about the information they’re sharing online, especially when surfing the web. What you do with that information is up to you, and there may be some balancing required for some sites that rely on tracking cookies for matters like simple sign-in to consider.

Apple’s MacOS Big Sur also looks forward to the next generation of Mac hardware that will run on Apple’s own ARM processors. Current Intel-based Macs will run macOS Big Sur now, but it’s also the software foundation for the Macs that Apple will release in years to come.

The full upgrade to MacOS Big Sur is scheduled to appear as a full non-beta upgrade later this year; Apple typically releases it around the same time we see new iPhones hit the market, but there’s a lot of indications that the pandemic issues of 2020 may see that schedule disrupted a little. It will run on most Macs from around 2014 or later, but 2012 and some 2013 models will not be able to install it when it becomes fully available.


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