In the News Archive

Inside TurboTax’s 20-year fight to stop Americans from filing their taxes for free

But the success of TurboTax rests on a shaky foundation, one that could collapse overnight if the U.S. government did what most wealthy countries did long ago and made tax filing simple and free for most citizens. For more than 20 years, Intuit has waged a sophisticated, sometimes covert war to prevent the government from doing just that, according to internal company and IRS documents and interviews with insiders. The company unleashed a battalion of lobbyists and hired top officials from the agency that regulates it. From the beginning, Intuit recognized that its success depended on two parallel missions: stoking innovation in Silicon Valley while stifling it in Washington. Indeed, employees ruefully joke that the company’s motto should actually be “compromise without integrity.” It always surprises me just how badly designed and openly corrupt US politics really is. Even something as banal as filing taxes is made a complicated, outdated mess just so some scumbags can earn some money.

How US tech giants are helping to build China’s surveillance state

The OpenPower Foundation — a nonprofit led by Google and IBM executives with the aim of trying to “drive innovation” — has set up a collaboration between IBM, Chinese company Semptian, and U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx. Together, they have worked to advance a breed of microprocessors that enable computers to analyze vast amounts of data more efficiently. Shenzhen-based Semptian is using the devices to enhance the capabilities of internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China, according to sources and documents. A company employee said that its technology is being used to covertly monitor the internet activity of 200 million people. IBM, of course, has always been perfectly fine with aiding in and profiting from genocide, so it’s not really surprising that the company jumped at the chance to aid the totalitarian Chinese regime’s genocide against the Uhgurs. Google’s involvement may be slightly more surprising since the company has no real presence in China, but I don’t think anyone should be shocked. Many western companies choose profits over ethics in China, such as Apple, who aides the Chinese dictatorship’s massive surveillance state by handing over all Chinese Apple user’s iCloud data to the Chinese government. Since such anti-privacy measures are legally mandated in China, you can safely assume that any western technology company active in China is just as guilty as IBM, Google, and Apple.

40 years later, lessons from the rise and quick decline of the first ‘killer app’

Remember VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet? Today’s tech giants do, and that is why they buy up and invest in potential competitive threats. It was the first killer app, the spark for Apple’s early success and a trigger for the broader PC boom that vaulted Microsoft to its central position in business computing. And within a few years, it was tech-industry roadkill. Many silicon valley startups basically have only one purpose these days: flaunt their ideas in front of the tech giants, and hope VC funding doesn’t run dry before one of them buys them. They’re not building sustainable businesses; they’re building a corporate advertorials.

How to live entirely in a terminal

But you know, if I’m being honest, the experience was not entirely unpleasant. Sure, I missed certain niceties from the graphical side of things, but there were some distinct benefits to living in a shell. My computers, even the low-powered ones, felt faster (command-line software tends to be a whole lot lighter and leaner than those with a graphical user interface). Plus, I was able to focus and get more work done without all the distractions of a graphical desktop, which wasn’t bad. What follows are the applications I found myself relying upon the most during those fateful ten days, separated into categories. In some cases, these are applications I currently use over (or in addition to) their graphical equivalents. Obviously, among OSNews readers, the terminal is a prized tool many rely on – but I wonder how many of you truly live entirely within the terminal, never touching the comforts of a graphical user interface.

How VisiCalc’s spreadsheets changed the world

It’s the 40th anniversary of VisiCalc, the first popular spreadsheet program, and the anniversary has prompted some new remembrances of the killer app that, true to its “power to the people” origins, got people playing with data — and, by popularizing personal computers, helped to change the world. Something about spreadsheets popularising the PC always fascinated me. Out of all the things computers can do – it’s tabulating numbers that played an important role in their spread.

Why Mazda is purging touchscreens from its vehicles

What an interesting coincidence – a story from earlier this year that lines up well with our story from yesterday. Tablet-like touchscreens have become the ubiquitous interfaces of choice, and they’re seemingly everywhere in daily life, on everything from thermostats to coffee makers and refrigerators. But Mazda really doesn’t think they belong in cars—or at least anywhere near the driver’s seat. It wasn’t a decision that was hastily made, according to company officials. However, as they started studying the effects of touchscreens on driving safety (and driving comfort), it soon became clear what the priorities should be with this completely new system that makes its debut in the 2019 Mazda 3. This is a bold move by Mazda, especially now that touchscreens in cars have become such a hyped supposed selling point. I hope other manufacturers follow suit.

The touchscreen infotainment systems in new cars are a distracting mess

When I’m in charge of a car company, we’re going to have one strict rule about interior design: make it so it doesn’t cause you to crash the car. You’d think this would already be in effect everywhere, but no. Ever since the arrival of the iPhone, car designers have aspired to replicate that sleek, glassy aesthetic within the cabin. And it never works, because you tend to look at a phone while you use it. In a car, you have this other thing you should be looking at, out there, beyond the high-resolution panoramic screen that separates your face from the splattering june bugs. If a designer came to me with a bunch of screens, touch pads, or voice-activated haptic-palm-pad gesture controls, I’d trigger a trapdoor that caused the offender to plummet down into the driver’s seat of a Cadillac fitted with the first version of the CUE system—which incorporated a motion sensor that would actually change the screen as your finger approached it. And I’d trigger my trapdoor by turning a knob. I wouldn’t even have to look at it. I couldn’t agree more. One of the things I dread about ever replacing my 2009 Volvo S80 are these crappy touchscreens that are added to every car these days, often of dubious quality, with no regard to user interface design or driver safety. For instance, I don’t want to take my eyes off the road just to adjust the temperature of the climate control – there should be a big, easy to find knob within arm’s reach. This just seems extremely unsafe to me.

CERN’s Microsoft Alternatives project

CERN has started a project to replace all of the closed source, proprietary software that it uses with open alternatives. Given the collaborative nature of CERN and its wide community, a high number of licenses are required to deliver services to everyone, and when traditional business models on a per-user basis are applied, the costs per product can be huge and become unaffordable in the long term. A prime example is that CERN has enjoyed special conditions for the use of Microsoft products for the last 20 years, by virtue of its status as an “academic institution”. However, recently, the company has decided to revoke CERN’s academic status, a measure that took effect at the end of the previous contract in March 2019, replaced by a new contract based on user numbers, increasing the license costs by more than a factor of ten. Although CERN has negotiated a ramp-up profile over ten years to give the necessary time to adapt, such costs are not sustainable. I always find it strange when scientific institutions funded by public money get locked in by proprietary software vendors, to the point where they are so reliant on them it becomes virtually impossible to opt for alternatives. Good on CERN – although a bit late – for trying to address this issue.

Buying an IBM mainframe

I bought an IBM mainframe for personal use. I am doing this for learning and figuring out how it works. If you are curious about what goes into this process, I hope this post will interest you. Is it just me, or is everyone buying an IBM mainframe these days? What’s with the sudden resurgence in interest?

‘They think they are above the law’: the firms that own America’s voting system

The fact is that democracy in the United States is now largely a secretive and privately-run affair conducted out of the public eye with little oversight. The corporations that run every aspect of American elections, from voter registration to casting and counting votes by machine, are subject to limited state and federal regulation. The companies are privately-owned and closely held, making information about ownership and financial stability difficult to obtain. The software source code and hardware design of their systems are kept as trade secrets and therefore difficult to study or investigate. It’s for this very reason that my own country – for now – of The Netherlands went back to pencil and paper voting with public manual counting by actual humans.

The first picture of a black hole made Katie Bouman an overnight celebrity. Then internet trolls descended.

Katie Bouman, a researcher who helped create the first image of a black hole, quickly gained internet fame Thursday for her role in the project after a photo of her went viral. But internet trolls soon followed, questioning Bouman’s work and floating false claims that she did not have much of a role in the project. Colleagues rallied to her defense, but the situation highlighted the vitriol that women continue to face on the internet, and the continued vulnerability of major internet platforms to trolling campaigns. Isn’t it funny how it’s always men?

Hammerhead: an operating system for bikes

The idea that a bicycle might need an OS might seem silly, but 30 years ago may gearheads wouldn’t have anticipated that cars would become rolling supercomputers. Hammerhead crowdfunded its first product, the H1, and subsequently built Karoo, a “cycling computer” that supports navigation and training. But Morgan told me his ambitions are bigger than that.After all, he sees a future where electric bikes need smart range projections, where bike-share fleets need to be managed, where social training programs like Strava can pull data from the bike itself and where any bicycle should come with theft and crash alerts. Calling it an OS is probably a stretch. It seems to be an Android OS with cycling-specific constellation of apps, originally designed specifically for their own hardware but eventually intended to be licensed to other vendors.

America’s cities are running on software from the ’80s

The only place in San Francisco still pricing real estate like it’s the 1980s is the city assessor’s office. Its property tax system dates back to the dawn of the floppy disk. City employees appraising the market work with software that runs on a dead programming language and can’t be used with a mouse. Assessors are prone to make mistakes when using the vintage software because it can’t display all the basic information for a given property on one screen. The staffers have to open and exit several menus to input stuff as simple as addresses. To put it mildly, the setup “doesn’t reflect business needs now,” says the city’s assessor, Carmen Chu. San Francisco rarely conjures images of creaky, decades-old technology, but that’s what’s running a key swath of its government, as well as those of cities across the U.S. Politicians can often score relatively easy wins with constituents by borrowing money to pay for new roads and bridges, but the digital equivalents of such infrastructure projects generally don’t draw the same enthusiasm. “Modernizing technology is not a top issue that typically comes to mind when you talk to taxpayers and constituents on the street,” Chu says. It took her office almost four years to secure $36 million for updated assessors’ hardware and software that can, among other things, give priority to cases in which delays may prove costly. The design requirements are due to be finalized this summer. This is a problem all over the world, and it’s more difficult than one might think to replace such outdated systems. Existing data has to be transferred, a new system has to be designed, staff has to be retrained – and, of course, since it’s not a sexy subject politicians can flaunt, it has to be done with impossible budgets that inevitably balloon, often leading to doomed projects. It’s easy to laugh at these outdated systems still in use today, but often, replacing them simply isn’t an option.

USB 3.2 is going to make the current USB branding even worse

USB 3.2, which doubles the maximum speed of a USB connection to 20Gb/s, is likely to materialize in systems later this year. In preparation for this, the USB-IF—the industry group that together develops the various USB specifications—has announced the branding and naming that the new revision is going to use, and… It’s awful. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s really, really bad.

Linus on why x86 won for servers

Responding to a forum post on upcoming ARM server offerings, Linus Torvalds makes a compelling case for why Linux and x86 completely overwhelmed commercial Unix and RISC: Guys, do you really not understand why x86 took over the server market? It wasn’t just all price. It was literally this “develop at home” issue. Thousands of small companies ended up having random small internal workloads where it was easy to just get a random whitebox PC and run some silly small thing on it yourself. Then as the workload expanded, it became a “real server”. And then once that thing expanded, suddenly it made a whole lot of sense to let somebody else manage the hardware and hosting, and the cloud took over.

Announcing a new site sponsorship program

When we re-launched the site at the beginning of the year, I mentioned that I’d considered shuttering OSNews as a response to needing such a major overhaul, since conventional advertising was no longer sufficient for covering expenses. A few weeks ago, I decided to experiment with offering a sponsorship, wherein a patron pays a fee to be the exclusive sponsor of the site for a week. It was all just a pipe dream until someone agreed last week to be our first sponsor. So we’re cautiously optimistic that this may be a viable way to keep the site running and maybe even expand. It won’t work, though, unless we can fill our pipeline with sponsors. I doubt we’ll be able to do that just by putting up a shingle and hoping people contact us. So I wanted to reach out to you, beloved readers, to see if you could help. If you know someone, maybe your employer, who offers a product or service that might be interesting to OSNews readers, see if they’ll be willing to sponsor the site. We’re open to ideas on how to structure the sponsorship program. If you were to sponsor the site, what would you want to get in exchange for your money? We’d love feedback on the terms of the sponsorship. Do you know of any ways that we might be able to publicize the availability of sponsorships? Would you be interested in acting as a salesperson and reaching out to firms to solicit sponsorships? Let me know. And finally, sponsorships will be desirable if OSNews itself is popular and vibrant. You can do your part by reading the site, commenting, submitting news, and contacting us if you’re interested in writing a feature.

A dive into the world of MS-DOS viruses

But sometimes life using DOS was not so great, sometimes you would be using DOS and all of a sudden things like this would happen. This sample also plays a small tune on the PC speaker while it’s printing, so this could be really embarrassing in a office environment. Those bootsector viruses were incredibly resilient – your computer would be just fine, until you put in an older floppy that apparently still had a virus on it. Good times.

What happened here?

Regular readers will have noticed that we’ve been offline for several days. As you can see, during that time, we’ve made some major changes to the site, and though the design has changed substantially, we’ve made even more dramatic changes in the back-end. We are now running our 6th major iteration of OSNews. It all was precipitated by messages from readers we’ve received over the past few weeks alerting us that they’ve been getting spam, phishing attempts, and some weak-sauce cyber-extortion emails at addresses that were unique to their OSNews accounts. Read on for more.

How Amazon, Apple, and Google played the tax-break game

It took about 30 minutes for Williamson County commissioners to unanimously approve a roughly $16 million incentive package for Apple Tuesday morning, bringing the total amount the tech giant is likely to receive in exchange for choosing Austin as the site for its newest campus to a cool $41 million. The new addition is set to be Apple's second campus in the Austin, Texas, area - located less than a mile from the company's existing facility, established five years ago. It comes with the promise of a $1 billion dollar investment from Apple in the area and the addition of up to 15,000 new jobs.

But the details of the incentive package Williamson County whipped up to woo Apple tell a slightly different story. In the contract approved by county officials, Apple committed to spending at least $400 million on the new campus and creating 4,000 jobs over 12 years. The contract says the jobs don’t necessarily have to be on the new campus in order for Apple to receive the promised incentives, but rather can be anywhere within Williamson County.

Shady and shoddy deals like these are only the tip of the iceberg - and don't think this is merely an American thing. This entire past year in The Netherlands has been dominated by our newly elected government wanting to shove through an incredibly unpopular tax cut specifically designed to appease major (partly) Dutch multinationals like Shell and Unilever - a 2 billion euro tax cut while various important social services like police, education, and healthcare desperately need better pay and working conditions.

In the end, under immense public and political pressure, the tax cut was cancelled, but it goes to show that these things happen everywhere - in large, powerful nations like the US, but also in small, insignificant welfare states like The Netherlands.