The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

July 25, 2015

Amazon could wind up turning Walmart into a dinosaur

Walmart looking over its shoulder

It wasn’t that long ago that big box stores were the ones shaking up local economies. Low prices and a wide selection made it hard for smaller stores to compete. Downtowns in some small communities practically died out.

Even bigger department stores are struggling as the middle class shrinks and looks for better deals to maintain its standard of living.

But now Walmart, the 900-pound gorilla of big boxes, is the one looking over its shoulder as Amazon — after years of building — is finally coming into its own. Last week, investors voted with their money for the online merchant and pushed its market value above that of Walmart for the first time.

Amazon’s revenue is still nowhere near Walmart’s, but annual sales growth has easily been outpacing it. Ironically, Amazon is beating Walmart at its own game with lower prices and a wider selection of products. On top of that, they offer fast service and convenience.

CEO Jeff Bezos has been patient since Amazon was born back in 1999, ploughing revenues and profits back into the company to ensure it continued to grow. In the future, Walmart may be left behind with the real competition coming from other e-commerce outlets such as Alibaba — a big name in Asia that is making inroads here in North America.

There’s no doubt that Amazon, Alibaba and others are making it harder for bricks-and-mortar stores — even giants like Walmart — to compete. There has been a spate of retailers announcing store closures lately. And Amazon long ago made it impossible for all but the largest bookstores to stay open.

This of course has a wider impact on local economies. As stores shut down or cut wages and jobs to stay afloat, the employees who are left have less to spend and increasingly turn to the Internet to save money. The downward spiral continues.

There are some stores that should always be viable. It’s hard to imagine people buying a lot of food online, for example. Appliances and furniture are awkward to purchase on the Internet, but it’s not unheard of.

If you can afford it, you might want to think about shopping at local stores that offer good service even if it comes at a higher price. Those places are owned by people who have a stake in the community. For Jeff Bezos, the place where you live is just a dot on the map.

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I hate to be a downer, so here’s a video explaining how Amazon really became a bigger company that Walmart.

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Update: Looks like I was wrong about food stores being safe. Amazon has plans to allow you to order groceries online, then pick them up at drive-up stores. Aside form convenience, the groceries will no doubt be cheap.

Amazon is going to have to muster all the innovation it can find: another competitor, promising even lower prices, has opened in the U.S. asks for a yearly membership fee, like Costco, but promises to find the lowest price on whatever you want, and even tells you how much cheaper it is than what you would get at Amazon.

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July 18, 2015

Online forums could learn from apartment building managers

Lower East Side tenements in New York City

Years ago, when I lived in an apartment building, I was awakened in the middle of the night by someone playing loud music.

I mentioned this to the manager, and he said he would look into it. The next day, he told me that the tenant who disturbed me was being evicted.

I thought this was pretty harsh for one minor incident, and told him so. But his answer was a good one, and it has stuck with me to this day: If you don’t get rid of the bad tenants, then the good ones will leave and you’ll have nothing left but bad tenants.

Employees tasked with running online forums or policing website comment sections know all too well how true this is. If you don’t weed out the trolls and spammers, everyone else shies away and you’re left with a toxic stew not worth saving.

I was reminded of that when I read about Reddit’s solution for its forums devoted to racism and misogyny: don’t ban them, just hide them. So CoonTown and its ilk are thriving with more members than ever, emboldened by tacit approval from Reddit management.

Supposedly, they’ll be harder to find, but if you know what you’re looking for, a search engine will have no trouble ferreting them out.

So what would Reddit look like if it were an apartment building? Maybe the downstairs suites would be blocked off with doors that didn’t have signs on them. You could go down there, but likely wouldn’t because of the thought of it would make your skin crawl.

It sounds like a horror movie: the house with the basement and the horrible crimes that were committed there. I just finished reading a book where one of the characters was accidentally exposed to a movie like that as a baby, and suffered from nightmares well into adulthood.

Sometimes I fear that much of the Internet suffers from the Reddit syndrome. Loud-mouthed louts shout everyone else down, and the promise of open discourse becomes a shattered dream.

I’ve talked to many people who already avoid social media because they don’t want to expose themselves to negativity. To me, their fears seem overblown. Still, the same could be said of neighbourhoods that have bad reputations. They may in fact be not so bad once you get to know them — but perceptions are hard to change once they become established.

I’ve taken jabs at Facebook for its computer algorithms that promote happy-face news. You can see why they do it, though. Facebook is the apartment building where middle-class tenants feel safe, and more keep moving in all the time.

There are some great forums in Reddit that attempt to be helpful. If Reddit turns into a tenement, those are be the parts that will missed.

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July 10, 2015

Online haters have Reddit boxed into a corner

If Reddit were based in Canada, would the police have shut it down and arrested the owners?

Reddit is an online community made up of hundreds of discussions groups, covering everything from kittens to politics. It famously hosts Ask Me Anything forums, where luminaries — including Barack Obama and Bill Gates — agree to answer anything.

My own, admittedly limited, experience with Reddit has found the people who use it to be generally well-mannered, perhaps a bit snarky sometimes, but certainly not offensive.

Unfortunately, there are darker recesses to Reddit, if you have the stomach to explore them. Believe it or not, there is one subreddit called CoonTown, where members routinely spout the most vile racist garbage you can imagine.

The attitude of management is that everyone is entitled to their “opinion” as long as they don’t act on it in a way that leads to a crime being committed. This appears to keep the San Franscisco-based Reddit in line with hate laws in the United States.

Those laws tend to look at whether a crime, such as an assault, was motivated by prejudice based on the victim’s race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. If so, the justice system might go harder on you. In other words, it appears that you can talk about killing black people all you want as long as you don’t actually do it.

The laws in Canada make it unlikely that you could get away with that. The Criminal Code considers it an indictable offence to promote hatred against any identifiable group. You could wind up in jail for up to two years if convicted.

Also, the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted.” In 2009, the act was used to shut down a website with controversial comments about Roma, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, blacks and Arabs.

This leads me to conclude that Reddit could not exist in Canada — at least not in its present form.

Because they lack similar laws, Americans are reduced to writing articles such as this one — Reddit Is An Incubator Of Hate — that are essentially a plea for sanity. If people are allowed to promote racism, then of course there will be other people who act on it. This shouldn’t be hard to figure out.

Things are so out of control at Reddit, that the CEO was forced to resign after a week of unrelenting attacks over the firing of a popular employee. And, as sadly expected, much of the “criticism” against Ellen Pao was racist and misogynist.

Reddit is steeped in a culture where the people in charge are afraid to do the right thing because the mob could turn on them. Already some members — miffed by even a hint of enforced civility — have moved on to other forums.

No doubt, the owners hope Reddit doesn’t meet the same fate as Digg, which 10 years ago was the most popular forum on the Internet. It fell into disrepute and is now a shadow of its former self. Reddit managers are in the impossible position of needing to find a way to keep everyone happy — including the haters ruining the forum’s reputation.

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July 3, 2015

Apple Music could help streaming music go mainstream

The Beats 1 radio station in iTunes

Napster is now a distant memory, but in its heydays between 1999 and 2001 when the site freely shared pirated songs, it was the scourge of the music industry. Apple opened the iTunes music store in 2003, made it easy to download paid-for music, and now Napster is a distant memory.

Over 10 years later, the music industry is again struggling to keep up with technology. Streaming services have become the more popular way to listen to music, but between ad support and small monthly fees, many musicians are paid less than ever.

So can Apple come to the rescue again? A new Music app and beefed-up iTunes software built on technology obtained in the company’s buyout of Beats may be cause for some cautious optimism.

If you have tried services such as Spotify or Rdio, you already have a good idea of how streaming works. Typically you pay a monthly fee of around $10 for access to millions of songs that you can play whenever you want. These services usually have a free tier with limited selection as well.

Apple Music isn’t hugely innovative, but it does have key features that could make a difference.

One of these is called Beats 1 — a worldwide radio station with live DJs who spin tunes around the clock. They even take requests. If you have iTunes (a free download for Mac or Windows) or the Apple Music app, you can have a listen for free. The music is an eclectic mix, and it’s definitely youth oriented — so oldsters be warned.

(Beats 1 and the other radio stations didn’t work for me at first on iTunes. The solution was to sign out, then sign back in.)

What makes it interesting is that with talented DJs picking the music, millions of listeners can discover new tunes. After all, even if you do pay for a streaming service, you’re going to wind up playing the songs you’re familiar with. Beats 1 opens the door to exploration.

Another feature that’s intriguing is called For You. You have to sign up to get this, but the first three months are free so why not? If you’re afraid you’ll forget to cancel, here are instructions on how to turn off auto renewal in the app.

For You reminds me of news apps like Flipboard and Prismatic. The more you use it, the more it gets to know your taste in music and is better able to come up with suggestions you will enjoy.

You start off by tapping on the genres you like, then go to pick your favourite artists. This helps For You pick out an initial set of playlists. After that, when a song is playing that you like, you can tap on a heart icon to give the app further guidance.

While the playlists are chosen by some sort of computer-generated algorithm, the playlists themselves are created by humans. That means you get a nice set of songs that blend together well. I’m hoping it also means that you don’t get a lot of repetition — algorithms seem slow to notice that you’ve moved on to other interests.

Jim Dalrymple has put together a good primer on how to use the For You like system.

These two features alone won’t lead the music industry to the promised land of economic sustainability, but there is one advantage that only Apple can deliver — sheer volume. The company continues to sell millions of iPhones, and every one of them has Apple Music on the home screen.

Another thing going for it is the trend toward using Internet-based services for entertainment. If all you did was pay $8 a month for Netflix and $10 a month for Apple Music (or something like it), you’d have pretty much all the diversion you could handle. That’s a pretty good deal.

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June 27, 2015

Flags have meaning, and we shouldn't forget that

Art from

It’s amazing how fast social change can take place sometimes.

Gradually changing public sentiment and major tipping-point events have combined to see a flag associated with hate and segregation banished from U.S. retailers while a flag that symbolizes love and inclusion is flying more proudly than ever before.

Surveys in recent years have shown that attitudes have been shifting in the United States and it was just a matter of time before same-sex marriage was as widely accepted there as it is here in Canada. A Supreme Court decision declaring bans on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional made it official.

Rainbow flag celebrations can be seen all over the Internet. I’ve seen many Canadians change their avatars to show their support for progress made south of the border.

In almost similar fashion, the Confederate flag of the Old South has long been a source of controversy in the U.S., but efforts to have it removed or replaced in southern states have stalled as some people clung to the notion that it was a symbol of heritage.

The truth is, that heritage has always included the idea that society should be divided by race, and that some races are superior to others. As outdated as those ideas are, there are still those who subscribe to them. They are racists.

For many of us, the murders of nine black people at a South Carolina church were a wake-up call. The Confederate flag favoured by the killer was kind of a fun thing used as a prop on TV shows like The Dukes of Hazzard to portray some good-natured rebelliousness.

We can now see the Confederate flag for what it is — something that belongs in museums and history books. It is a rallying point for beliefs that simply do not belong in the modern world.

Interestingly, Canadian retailers were among the first to announce they would no longer sell the flag. Soon an avalanche of U.S. retailers was on board. And we even have once-reluctant Republican politicians calling for its removal from state institutions — perhaps persuaded by their supporters that hatred is not good for business. It also serves as a distraction from gun control efforts.

Thrown into the mix was a decision by Apple to remove all games from its App Store that depicted the Confederate flag. Caught in the scoop were games that aimed to accurately simulate historical events of the American Civil War. Obviously, someone got carried away, and Apple is reinstating those types of games.

Making these decisions is tricky. I used to enjoy playing a game called Wolfenstein 3D. It was a first-person shooter where you are imprisoned in a Nazi castle and have to fight your way out. Of course, there were Nazi flags and swastikas adorning the walls, which made sense because otherwise you could be anywhere.

The goal was to kill Nazis, not glorify them. Still, it could hardly be called an accurate historic depiction, and it might be argued that the game’s cartoonish nature trivialized the undisputed evil of the Nazi regime.

As far as I know, no one as suggested removing this game from circulation. But it may be time to do a little more soul searching about the role of flags and other symbols in our popular culture.

June 20, 2015

If you're into creativity, Ello could be your new Twitter

A Photoshopped image posted to Ello.

Twitter is under a lot of pressure from Wall Street to follow the footsteps of Facebook and become an Internet money-making machine. It’s been like that for the past couple of years.

So when CEO Dick Costolo wasn’t able to deliver the goods, he had to step down.

Despite being a household name, Twitter is not as popular as you might think. Statistics I’ve seen show that at most 20 per cent of people have an account. This compares with the mighty Facebook, which boasts rates as high as 80 per cent in some countries.

Twitter has been trying desperately to get more people signed up, but growth has been meagre at best. It doesn’t help that some of its attempts at increasing revenue — such as video ads — have turned people off. And then there’s the constant battle with trolls who target users they don’t like with barrages of hate-filled messages.

So it shouldn’t come as surprise that there are entrepreneurs who believe they can do Twitter better. One recent effort was called As a mainstream social network, it didn’t last long. It has now morphed into a platform for software developers. That makes sense, since it was mainly developers who were using it anyway.

Which brings us to Ello. This Twitter alternative has been invitation-only for several months, and is now open to the public with an app in the iPhone App Store. An Android version is expected soon. Or you can use their website.

It’s been getting a lot of attention in the tech media, so of course I signed up to see what all the palaver was about. My first impression? You can really tell it was created by artists.

Yes, what was to software developers, Ello is to creative types.

To get started I followed some topics that looked like they might be interesting — tech, writing, architecture and design came closest among the choices that were presented. So now I can scroll through my feed and see the boundless creativity and inspiration of those who post to those curated topics.

Perhaps the biggest difference from Twitter is that there is no limit on the length of posts. You might find an entire short story or a chapter from a novel. On Saturday morning, someone claiming to be an androgyne posted 11 selfies in various states of undress so we could see all the tattoos. This person gets points for being avant garde, and the pictures were indeed within the bounds of good taste, but I suspect the audience for this sort of thing must be niche at best.

It can add up to quite a workout for your thumb if you’re not in the mood for reading a short story or viewing tattoos and want to move past them. On the other hand, I did stop to admire and appreciate some Photoshopped images of interlocking cars. Clearly, these were done by a person with talent.

You can also see the influence of artists in the choice of font, which reminds me of the letters from a typewriter but not monospaced. (Correction: it actually is monospaced, as it would be with a typewriter.) It’s nice to look at, but — to my eyes — hard to read on an iPhone. If you want to give Ello a try, you might be better off using their website. The legibility is better, the pictures are much bigger, and it’s easier to scroll with a mouse.

Ello bills itself as beautiful and ad-free. And indeed both the app and the site are aesthetically pleasing. I’m not sure, though, how far this will go toward enticing new users. Twitter’s app and website aren’t exactly eyesores. And if you don’t like the ads, you can use a third-party app such as Tweetbot.

Meanwhile, Facebook has long been a jumbled mess filled with annoying auto-start video ads — yet it remains the unchallenged juggernaut of social media.

The big question is whether Ello can succeed where Twitter — at least according to investors — has failed. Ello is apparently going to try to make money by setting up a system where users can buy and sell from each other. This could be a real strength, because for starters many of the current users would love a forum for selling their art. Plus, it could bring in more people interested in a market for their wares. Ello would make money by taking a cut of the transactions.

I’ve already been followed by an antique dealer. Hmm. I wonder why . . .

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June 13, 2015

Apple throws a lifeline to the news industry with News app

I signed up for Apple’s News Publisher today. Why? Because when iOS9 debuts on millions of iPhones and iPads this fall, newsonaut will instantly be available to a massive new readership.

Of course, signing up was the easy part. Whether I gain anything from it remains to be seen. For a number a reasons, it seems worth a shot for any publisher — from lowly blogs like mine to some of the biggest in the industry.

In fact, Apple already has a bunch of major publishers on board, including The Economist, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and BuzzFeed.

What they gain is an appearance a new app that will be installed on every device that upgrades to iOS9. It will be called, simply, News. Readers are being promised beautifully presented articles about topics of their choice. And publishers will get 100 per cent of the revenue from ads they sell to go along with the articles. That amount is reduced to 70 per cent if Apple sells the ads for them.

Imagine a version of Flipboard, which is one of my favourite sources of news, but with a wider selection of sources and a richer presentation — i.e., more graphics and videos. If the app takes off, it could represent a good source of revenue for publishers and help them pay for better journalism.

It also represents a shift that has become apparent in the past few years toward what is being called distributed content. As explained by Nieman Lab:

Individual news apps and individual news brands aren’t the primary point of contact with news any more. They’re raw material, feeding into broader platforms. The loss of power for publishers in that exchange is obvious; the potential benefits remain mostly undiscovered.

One thing I’m not clear about is whether you will be able to choose individual publications to read, or whether you’ll just choose topics and have articles show up based on what the software thinks you’ll find most interesting. If that’s the case, the chances of newsonaut showing up in someone’s feed may be slim. Still, even a little extra exposure would be nice.

At Macworld, Glenn Fleishman says the app is going to be all about pushing content to readers. You won’t be able to pull in specifically what you want.

Apple is relying on machine learning to sort incoming articles into a million search terms and categories. Machine learning relies on massive datasets that allow neural-network software to be trained in subtleties and pull out patterns it can apply.

I can see where this would be troubling for smaller, struggling publishers. After all, how can they hope to get attention when there is a flood of content from much bigger competitors. I’m hoping Apple can get this sorted out, because in addition to keeping established voices viable, it would be in everyone’s interest to help nurture new ones.

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June 6, 2015

Increase in popularity of ad blockers another headache for web publishers

It’s tough enough for publishers to make money to run a website, but things are getting worse with the rising popularity of ad blockers.

Digiday has put together some charts that show Google searches for the terms “ad block,” “adblock plus” and “ad blocker” have been rising steadily in the past couple of years. And so have downloads.

An ad blocker, for the uninitiated, is a plug-in or add-on for your web browser that — as you might expect — blocks out ads. They disappear as if they never existed.

The tech savvy among us have long known about ad blockers, but the rise in searches and downloads suggests they are going mainstream. It’s not often anyone feels sorry publishers, but you have to see where they’re coming from. They need revenue to pay the bills, pay the staff and pay themselves.

In Germany, some publishers have pursued court challenges, claiming that Ad Block Plus is anti-competitive and hurt their revenue. They lost.

In any case, studies have shown that Internet users already block out anything resembling advertising with their minds. Designers know this, and make sure important elements on a web page don’t look like ads — otherwise people won’t notice them.

Advertisers know this, too, but they often go to the opposite extreme, creating ads that are ever more intrusive. Some take over the page for a few seconds before you can see the content behind them.

With irksome tactics like these, it’s no wonder people are turning to ad blockers.

You might think Google, which is essentially an Internet advertising company, would be upset about the rise of ad blockers. Not just because their ads go poof, but also because the makers of ad blockers have a nice little system of ransom — forcing companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft to pay huge fees to have their ads whitelisted.

Even so, Google CEO Larry Page is surprisingly sanguine. The answer, he says, is to make ads more attractive. Talking to shareholders recently, he said:

Part of it is the industry needs to do better at producing ads that are less annoying and that are quicker to load, and all those things. And I think we need to do a better job of that as an industry.

That’s good advice, but I’ve long thought that it would be better to go with a sponsorship model. I appreciate it, for instance, when I see that a company has sponsored an app for a month in order to keep it free. It shows they trying to do some good in the world, not just extract a few quick bucks from my wallet.

Of course, the downside would be that the sponsor might be seen as having undue influence over the content of the publication. This also happens with regular advertising, but at least publishers have more flexibility in turning to other advertisers.

The truth is, there are no easy or pat answers. The people have spoken: they love the Internet but they don’t want to pay for the content.

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May 30, 2015

How much are you willing to pay for Google's new photo service?

A new service called Google Photos is pretty much everything you could ask for — free unlimited storage of your photos and videos, accessible from any device. Everything is automatically backed up and tagged so you can easily find it with a search. There’s even built-in editing for touch-ups.

So what’s not to like?

Google Photos was only released a few days ago, but already plenty of people are jumping on the bandwagon. Other than a few naysayers, the App Store is full of four- and five-star reviews.

Some people are already talking about dumping the Photos app that comes with their iPhone and replacing it with Google’s app. At Fortune magazine, Philip Elmer-DeWitt says “Apple should hate itself today.”

It’s easy to forget that Google’s entire existence is based on collecting data, analyzing it, and selling the results. Making it easy, even desirable, for people to give them billions of photos from all over the world fits right in with the company’s business model. Rene Ritchie puts it this way:

Google is pushing out fantastic new features at a breakneck pace, but all of them are ones I need to go into with eyes wide open.

Google wants to organize the world’s data. To do that, it needs the data. It needs us to provide it, and it needs us to want to provide it. Everything Google does is based on that single truth.

Over at The Loop, Dave Mark advises us to read the licence agreement carefully:

The way I read it (and I’m no lawyer, so take this with a grain of salt), at the very least, Google has the right to use your photos in its advertising.

Well, you might say, Google has been using our stuff for years and really what harm is there in it? Every search we make with Google, every email we send with Gmail, is catalogued in massive banks of servers somewhere — they are just tiny drops in an ocean of data.

Even so, many people resent that Google is taking liberties with the things they create. Some, for example, insist on using Duck Duck Go for search, because it’s totally anonymous. I’ve tried it a few times but always come back to Google for the simple fact that it gives better results.

Plenty of good alternatives make it easy to do without Gmail, but time and again I find Google presenting simple solutions to things I want to accomplish. For example, I was looking at creating an online guided tour, and — lo and behold — there is such a thing as Google Tour Builder that does just that.

Google also makes it easy to create calendars and charts and embed them on websites. The list goes on and on. In the end, the loss of privacy may be a small price to pay for such a long list of features.

So what’s the bottom line with Google Photos?

One of the big promises of the service is that your photos are automatically organized and searchable. The price you pay is that Google is busy organizing and searching every photo and video not just for you, but also for its own purposes.

It’s something to think about.

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May 23, 2015

Technology promises relief for families worried about elderly relatives

During the four-hour drive to Vancouver, all kinds of scenarios played through my mind. None of them were good.

My 90-year-old mother had fallen and suffered a big gash on her forehead. She was found blood all over her and taken to the hospital for emergency treatment.

She survived all that and was apparently ready to go home, when my sisters realized she was talking gibberish — random words with no meaning.

Something else was going on. Hospital staff soon determined that she was having a stroke. Worse, there was nothing they could do about it because of the risks involved from the injury to her forehead.

All they could do was monitor her. She might pull through, she might not. And if she did survive, she might never again be able to communicate intelligibly.

As I walked into the hospital room, many family members were already gathered, and I was expecting the worst. Final goodbyes, maybe?

But no, there seemed to be a normal conversation going on.

Mom didn’t know I was coming, so it took her a few seconds realize it was me.

“You didn’t come all the way down here just for this,” she said.

It was hardly the joyous reception a son might have hoped for, but it was classic Mom and I knew the miraculous had taken place. She was OK.

There was massive relief, but of course the story doesn’t end there. How can we prevent this from happening again? Ultimately, she will die as we all must, but as with most families we feel compelled to ensure there is as little suffering as possible.

In a society where people are expected to move to where the jobs are, families have become fragmented by distance — making it difficult to care for elderly relatives who need someone to keep an eye on them.

Even when you’re in the same city it can be tricky if you have a full-time job and children to worry about as well. People in these circumstances are known as the sandwich generation.

The human touch can never be replaced, but technology has come a long way toward filling the gap. A wearable medic alert system, for example, has a button on it that can be pressed in case of emergency. It sets off automatically in the case of a hard fall.

That’s fine for emergencies, but what about the everyday stuff that can lead up to an emergency? An encouraging sign came with the recent announcement of a partnership between Apple, IBM and Japan Post to provide iPads to Japanese seniors loaded with apps that connect them to health services and their families.

The purpose of some of the other apps is bit vague, likely because they’re still under development, but they appear to be oriented toward monitoring and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Knowing that many seniors might be resistant to using iPads, the aim is to make the apps easy for them to use. This in itself could be a big hurdle, since some elderly people simply have no interest in learning how to use anything computer related.

When iPads were first introduced, part of the Internet went berserk with people decrying how it dumbed down computers. At the time I wrote a defence of simplified computing, and received a screed via email foretelling how iPads presaged the doom of human kind.

They have indeed brought about many changes — some good and not so good. But if this experiment in Japan works out, we’ll see that putting useful technology in the hands of people who otherwise have shunned it will improve the lives of two, sometimes three, generations of families.

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