Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Apple is Finally Evil

In case anyone cares, this is my 800th post. Unfortunately, I'm late with it! There's so much to talk about that I can't even get to all of it, but I guess that means that I'll be covered the real cream of the crop news though.

Note: In retrospeect, I think I should explain my title just a bit better. Apple never came out like Google did and said that it wasn't evil as part of how it explicitly branded itself. However, they always maintained the image that they were the good guy pitted against the monopolistic giant known as Microsoft. See the 1984 ad for proof of how early this image started. Their Mac vs. PC ads indirectly promotes this image with the hip, smug Mac being better than the stodgy, but omnipresent, PC. I don't pretend to believe that there is a single corporation that does not do bad things to increase shareholder value, but I feel like Apple is stabbing its own brand in the back, which doesn't upset me because I'm not a huge Mac geek, but I don't like the side effect.

Apple Pisses On Developers

Ok, the gloves are off. What the fuck, Apple? I know how they solve their problems now, they throw an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) at it. Keeping everything they do top secret: an NDA for each employee with terrible consequences informally implicit for breaking it. Keeping the problems with their iPhone SDK secret: have its users (i.e. the developers) sign NDAs. Choking back the bad press because of their biased, conveniently ambiguous, and insulting iPhone application approval process: slap an NDA on the reasons why they reject iPhone apps. In my last post, I mentioned that a guy who made a podcast application was rejected because it competed with iTunes, but since then another guy had his app rejected because his Gmail application "competed" with Mail! My source on the story has since censored that part because of the stupid NDA, but I don't care. Suck it, Apple, I didn't sign an NDA. Oh, and they're not at all consistent: there are applications in the app store that duplicate other things that Apple has on the iPhone more closely that those two apps.

Usually, I don't get this excited, I know. I've just about had it with this nonsense though. I hate seeing developers treated like crap like this. I am incredulous at how they so freely bitchslap the developers who freely devote time to making the iPhone better. To be honest, I think that their NDA is illegal. I honestly think someone should consider legal action. I'm saying this because of the double standard it imposes: you have to keep quiet about your own application and how you created it but they can talk about it as much as they want and even practically steal it! Are developers really so in love with their applications and iPhones that they're willing to keep developing apps for the iPhone? The sad truth is probably. It would take a large scale boycott to try to effect any change whatsoever, but that still probably wouldn't work. Apple is notoriously stubborn and iPhone users simply wouldn't care as much. What it would really take is an awesome Android phone. A true competitor to the iPhone with the rich platform that Android is. It's just sad that the only way for iPhone users, who pay quite a premium in their cell phone bills every month for their iPhone, to realize the phone's full potential is to jailbreak it (i.e. hack it to run any application developed for it, regardless of whether Apple has approved it). That's as if you have a 50" HD TV and a Blu-ray player and the studio behind your favorite movie has the movie but Sony won't sell it to you so you have to go pirate it instead of being allowed to legally buy it (or, to be more realistic, it's like having to pirate Spore so you can play it without dealing with DRM).

Just to even out the above rant against Apple I'll include one in this section in Apple's favor: they've done a great thing in their hard stance against selling songs that must be bought with an album rather than individually. Some artists are stupid and want to force consumers to buy their whole albums because they thing the songs fit together. These artists need to get over themselves and give the people who support them what they want. I don't understand why you wouldn't want to give your customers what they want in as saturated a market as music. That's like if Amazon told people they could only write positive reviews even though one of the main reasons they may use Amazon is for the mix of good and bad reviews. The main reason people use iTunes is that it's convenient, but in close second is the choice it gives them in buying individual songs when they don't care for the rest of the songs on an album. It's market forces at work. Telling them they can't do that partially defeats the purpose of using iTunes! It makes as much sense as when the government subsidizes local companies who are less efficient at making certain products than foreign competitors: if they were good at what they did they people would buy their stuff so the government is doing a disservice to the market and the people by undercutting a superior company. If artists sell albums because one song is good and the rest suck then they get an inflated ego, people get ripped off and will want to pirate, and it doesn't create the kind of competition that forces artists to record the best quality music they can possible create. Without the idea of competition you likely have an aristocracy or communism, and neither one would sound right for the music industry. These artists need to start whining and start earning their paychecks like many of their peers do.

T-Mobile G1

The HTC Dream has been renamed to the T-Mobile G1, but it is still the first Android phone to hit the market. Engadget has some pretty great close-ups of it, but it looks pretty unremarkable. For a phone that's likely intended to compete with the iPhone, it has much to learn. For example, it has a proprietary headphone jack! The memory leaves something to be desired (1 GB internal, expandable to 7 or 8 GB, I believe), too. I have to admit that the software itself looks pretty slick though. I hope that Android really is as solid as videos like these make it look. I don't think this will be the Android phone to buy, but I imagine that this time next year the G1 will be in better company.

The best news about it though is that it will include an Amazon MP3 application to download music directly to the device directly from Amazon! You can only buy songs over WiFi, mind you, but at least you can browse them and listen to samples where ever you have a signal. At the least, it'll help you note down songs you want to buy later. This is the first phone with a direct interface to Amazon MP3 like this, now all it needs is a normal audio jack and support for stereo bluetooth.

Before I move on I just want to quickly note that Mozilla is promising a mobile Firefox by 2010. I don't understand what platform it'll run on though. Will it be for Android? There's no way that Apple will allow it on iPhones with its stringent app store policies, and I can't imagine it would be better than the Webkit-based creation for Android that comes with the platform. Palm OS is probably a dying OS nowadays, but maybe it'll be for Blackberry and Windows Mobile?

Chrome Hangover

Let me stay on browsers for bit longer. There were reports after Chrome's release of its rapid growth, which still amounted to less than 1% market share of the browser market, though it was nothing to scoff at for a nascent browser. Now the reports show the opposite trend: it looks like people aren't using it as much anymore. Take this with a grain of salt because it's hard to gauge this sort of thing over such a short period of time for a browser with such a tiny piece of the pie, but I think it honestly does show at least a small degree of boredom with the browser. It's like when beanie babies were cool and everyone wanted one, except that "everyone" in this case are computer geeks. I personally stopped using chrome because it didn't make sense to use it for work purposes and it was really unstable on my home machine after waking up from sleep mode. Plus, except for select AJAX applications it really isn't faster than Firefox, but which is faster changes with each performance comparison you look at. I kind of feel like I'm not the only person who has experienced these problems, and I'm sure that enough people didn't see a reason to fully switch that they just stuck to their tried and true browser of choice (likely Firefox because IE users wouldn't be ones to dip their feet in the Chrome pool). We'll have to see if Chrome can really hold its own in such a competitive market.

Does Obama Really Support Net Neutrality?

EDIT: Thanks to Ian for pointing out the Obama fact sheet that still features the explanation of net neutrality on page 2. Either they were careless and didn't update that, too, or (more likely) they wanted to focus the short form on the website more on education and other issues.

I almost made this into a rant, but reconsidered and decided that I was overreacting. The issue at hand is that he (i.e. the people representing him who manage the site) changed some content on his website regarding his platform for science and technology to remove a good chunk about net neutrality (watch my video if you don't know what net neutrality is). I was at first upset, but realized that he didn't remove the sentence saying that he supports net neutrality, but rather the portion explaining what a tiered internet is and why net neutrality is important. Granted, this is still terrible and very likely on purpose given that Joe Biden has definitely not been one to support net neutrality, but I really hope and don't think that he now is all for the telcos.

This is a big issue for me though, and would cast doubt on who I vote for if it turns out that he has changed his stance. For one thing, I'd be severely disappointed in him, but for another I'd be scared for our future when two candidates both have the wrong stance on one of the most important, but least understood, issues facing this country. I know what you're going to say, don't we have a war and a mortgage crisis and the biggest bank failure ever right now? Yes, we do, and I do not at all want to downplay those issues, but rather I want to highlight the severity of not keeping the Internet neutral. It is one thing to not support legislation and another thing to give the telcos what they want. Aside from putting a lot of people out of jobs it will severely limit the American dream when it comes to the wild west that is now the Internet and put us farther behind in the world economy. When you look at the Internet, American companies are putting out better companies and products online than any other country, and that's important. It creates a very valuable portion of our economy for our long term growth when you think long and hard about it. It's something that we have a competitive advantage in and it's one of the few things that can be a reliably positive part of our economy if we let it. The dot com boom sucked, but it created some great, enduring companies and inspired the creation of many more in its aftermath.

The bottom line is that any candidate that does not support net neutrality does not support the forward progression of technology one of its most important pursuits. He wouldn't believe in people being able to purchase cheap computers like Netbooks that are dependent on online content and give consumers more disposable income and spread computers to more people to help them improve their lives and improve e-Commerce (which supports big companies like Amazon and average people through sites like Amazon and Etsy). Just please, think about this the next time you take a shower.

The Xbox 360 Debacle

This is kind of old news, but I just have to plug it: VentureBeat has an incredible article detailing the problems with the inception of the Xbox 360 that has led to the now infamous red ring of death problem (i.e. its high defect rate). If you bought a launch console then your odds were better than flipping a coin and getting heads that your console would break: 68%. It's a long but fascinating read, and what it boils down is that Microsoft made several compromises in creating the console in being the first to market. Was it worth it? We don't really know. We know that the $1 billion they had to pay to replace defective consoles was more than a couple of things, like the savings in creating their own GPU rather than buying it from someone else and in turn causing some issues. It's kind of a hidden scandal when you really think about it, but did it strategically give Microsoft a foothold that they would've been screwed without? After all, they were facing off a technologically superior console in the PS3, and its launch kind of flopped compared to the Xbox 360 launch. To date there are more Xbox 360s in households than PS3s, but which console is really better and who will go down in the books as getting second place compared to the Wii? I don't think we really know yet, but I imagine that it'll be the Xbox 360 (though I personally like the PS3 better for the Blu-ray player, LittleBigPlanet, and Metal Gear Solid 4). Of course, the Blu-ray market isn't looking too great. I'm happy with my Kill Bill on Blu-ray! I agree that the higher prices for Blu-ray movies aren't always warranted though.

Quick Last Notes

Ok, it's past 1 and I have to get up in like 6 hours, I have to wrap things up here:

Gizmodo has a funny list of great gadgets to have for shady hotel rooms. It's just fun to look at.

eBay is no longer going to accept any forms of payment except for PayPal, aside from big ticket items like cars. There has been a lot of doubt over the years cast over the security of PayPal, and it eBay's roots are in taking money order and checks. I think people really just aren't going to be happy with this level of control being taken away from them, ultimately, rather than the fact that it's PayPal that they have to use. So much for eBay being a big rival to Amazon! This is just one part of a laundry list of things not going well for them in the past few months.

Popular Science has a surprisingly terse article about how computers will get faster via electron spin, graphene sheets, and a better form of memory storage known as memristors. It's a neat read.

I finally got a LittleBigPlanet beta code so I'll likely be posting my thoughts on the game later this week. For your chance to win a code, you may want to tune into X-play tomorrow night. Until then, stay out of trouble everyone!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Advertising Battle Begins

Kill Bill on Blu-ray

Before I jump into the news today, I got Kill Bill on Blu-ray last week, after waiting like 4 years for The Whole Bloody Affair release, and it's really incredible. It was my first Blu-ray purchase (which is funny because the first DVD I bought was my favorite movie at the time, The Matrix, and Kill Bill is my new favorite), and I am really impressed with it. Aside from the lack of special features, it's just incredible. The video transfer is a lot better than what the DVDs were at an output of 1080p and the audio is crystal clear at uncompressed, lossless PCM 5.1. I doubled over with shock when I saw the opening scene of the Vernita Green chapter because of how wonderfully vibrant the colors are. It really made me feel like I was back in the theater again, even though my TV is only 40". If you love Kill Bill, then this is pretty much a must-own. While I don't think you should dump your DVDs for Blu-ray discs, you should know that there's an appreciable difference in quality if you have the TV for it. I know that not many people do, but you'd be amazed how quickly you turn into a videophile when you see a movie like this in Blu-ray.

Misleading Apple Ads vs. I'm a PC

Apple's switch ads and Mac vs. PC were initially rather successfully campaigns. It's no secret that the key to their success has always been their fantastic marketing and that these ads helped the Mac gain market share inch-by-inch amidst the negative press garnered by Vista. Somewhere down the line though the Mac vs. PC ads degraded into attack ads that only fueled Mac enthusiasts' zeal to argue with Windows fanboys. Where's the innovation there?

Of course, there's also their product ads, which aim to be creative along the lines of the image that they want to send with that product, so the size of the Shuffle, or the colors of the Nano, or the intuitive touch interface of the iPod Touch. With the more recent iPhone ads for the iPhone 3G though, they've strayed into shady territory much like with their Mac vs. PC ads. The speed with which they show things happening in these ads is near impossible. Silicon Alley Insider replicated what was done in the ad in the most generous way possible and took over 3 times as long to do the same things with a real iPhone. Even if you had really good 3G coverage, it's really unlikely for you to be as fast as the ad. Hell, my computer on cable Internet can't load up the New York Times or navigate Google Maps that fast, but the people that these ads are targeted ad don't know these things. So is Apple being disingenuous?

I know what most people are going to want to say: you have to take all ads with a grain of salt. That's true, but there are laws established against false advertising, and how can you claim that this isn't false advertising with such an extreme disparity from reality without any disclaimer that they had a modified iPhone for the sake of the time constraints of the commercial, or something of that sort? I just feel like they're totally cheating. The entire point of the commercial isn't to sell the iPhone 3G, though that is the desired end result. The entire point of the ad is showing how much faster this iPhone is, which is what makes this so egregious. I'm sure the mainstream won't notice this because an iPhone is just such an exciting product regardless, but I just really don't like it.

What I like a lot better, surprisingly enough, is the new Microsoft "I'm a PC" ads. When I first heard that they were going to do these (early last week), I cringed at the thought. It gives an acknowledgement of the Mac vs. PC ads and I didn't have any faith that Microsoft would understand how to reverse the negative label that Apple has created for the PC. I actually think that they're off to a really good start with these though. It reminds me of when I was entering high school and I was trying to hide what a huge nerd I was to try to look slightly cooler and make more friends, and then by the time I was in college being a nerd was somewhat cool and I didn't have to worry about it anymore. This is kind of an interesting way to get people to see that owning a PC does not make you a businessman or a wuss, it actually makes you quite normal but still quite special. Maybe Microsoft stands a chance in this advertising standoff with Apple, after all. Maybe (hopefully) I underestimated them.

Apple App Store Upsets Continue

Sorry to harp on Apple here, but this warrants further discussion. Someone created an iPhone application to download and manage podcasts directly on the phone, but Apple rejected the app because it competed with iTunes. Yeah, that's pretty lame. Creating software like that takes a lot of time, so to invest all that time into it only to get rejected because it creates competition, what I consider one of the basic tenets of capitalism, is completely absurd to me.

There's a couple of issues to consider here. The iPhone has gotten so big that it's almost stupid for mobile developers to not create apps for it. I know, it doesn't carry a majority share in smartphones or cell phones in general, but it's still a sizeable chunk with an avid fanbase. They can't really be ignored. So Apple can technically do whatever it wants with this app store, as long as it doesn't go out and start disabling people's applications for no legitimate reason, and its customers will be happy because there will still be a selection of great apps available. The other issue is how many developers this kind of moderation will deter. Will it be enough for Apple to change its policies? My guess is going to be no, but it will mean that the iPhone will never live up to its full potential until Apple gets more lenient and much more transparent with how it runs its app store. Until then, you're going to lose developers who could, theoretically, write some of the iPhone's best applications. Apple also loses all the money they could've gained, which stands to be a lot if enough developers rebel. More importantly though, does this create an opportunity for the Android platform to woe these lost sheep and gain a decent number of existing iPhone developers? I'm really curious to see how this all plays out, but I really hope that Apple makes the smart play and loosens up (though given their history of keeping their hardware closed up and being stubborn, it's not likely to happen).

Best Buy Buys Napster

Best Buy's decision to acquire Napster is definitely an interesting one. Why would a well-established brick-and-mortar retail chain buy a failing mp3 download service? I think it has everyone scratching their heads. One likely possibility is package deals with their products, so buy an Insignia mp3 player and get a free month of Napster, or maybe buy the new Muse album and get a free download of a live Muse track. Maybe they're trying to boost their CD sales with deals like this? Or maybe they want to leverage their connections to expand Napster to be bigger and even serve video content? Or maybe they want to diversify because they recognize that digital content is the future? A part of me hopes it's all of the above, because I feel sympathetic for poor Napster and would like to see it go somewhere (though of course, not do as well as Amazon MP3 ;), and I think losing Best Buy would reduce the retail competition that benefits consumers so anything they can do to stay alive sounds like a good move to me. I guess we'll see what happens!

DRM Sucks

I have to always advocate an end to Digital Rights Management (DRM), because it only serves to make life harder for those who buy music, movies, and games legally and makes it harder to do things legally. Mashable waxed on the inevitable failure of DRM in light of the "Buy Once, Play Anywhere" initiative that reminds me of the PlayForSure DRM that didn't really play "for sure". Apple, TiVo, and Amazon are not part of the initiative, but Sony is leading up the effort with the smaller guys and it juts doesn't really make sense to me. If the biggest players aren't at the table then what's the point of talking? It's not clear if the three companies weren't invited or simply didn't want to join, but the real solution for creating media that definitely plays anywhere is to not strap DRM to it! It's just that simple. If people can already easily pirate the content, is selling it to people that actually want to buy it really going to make it harder on them?

Closing Notes

Alright, it's past my bedtime so I'm going to wrap up these last items real quick.

The Techcrunch 50, which lets a bunch of startups strut their stuff for publicity and cash prizes, featured a product that I really want called FitBit. It's basically a fancy pedometer that tracks your activity while you're awake and asleep to generate cool charts and graphs and allow you to share it with your friends. What a useful gadget! (EDIT: See a video of it here)

The game that I've been lusting after since PAX, LittleBigPlanet, has gone gold and so it's definitely going to be out on October 21! I'm so stoked that I even created an ad for one of the LittleBigChallenges (fortunately I got good feedback on it, I just did it for fun):

Amazon has launched a new site (into beta) called WindowShop that allows you to visually browse what's on the site. It gives you quick, very visual, access to the latest music, movies, and books with a fancy Flash application. It needs some more evolving, but I think it's off to a great start.

IMDb has launched full-length movies, TV shows, and movie trailers onto the site, largely supported by Hulu. It makes using the site more immersive than just for quick lookups, and my guess is that they want to keep people on the site longer to help sell more advertising and just improve the overall user experience. I personally like it.

Have a great week, everyone!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Apple Event Overload


I have to start out by sending my best to everyone back home dealing with the aftermath of Ike, including my brother and sister-in-law and other family members and Ronak. I hope live returns to normal sooner rather than later and that power is restored to everyone in Houston soon. I may hate the city of Houston itself, but not the people in it. No one deserves to go through a natural disaster like this and I felt really guilty enjoying the beautiful weather in Seattle on Friday. Still, Houston's weather will be much better than ours in a couple of months.

Apple's Special Event

Over half of the articles I tagged for today's post were regarding the press event that Apple had last Tuesday morning! Suffice to say, not a whole lot happened the rest of the week that topped the buzz surrounding this event. What's amusing is that there were no surprises! Kevin Rose, co-founder of Digg and host of Diggnation, actually gets e-mails from insiders and people called B.S. on his predictions (which I didn't post here because I'm tired of posting Apple speculation), which were accurate. I figured they were accurate because he's not one to drag his name in the dirt.

Anyway, you can watch the whole event here, which I ended up not watching because I didn't care about it as much as past events. You can also read all the gritty details here. The above image depicts the biggest thing to come out of the event: the new iPod Nano. It has an oval shape, an accelerometer (so you can turn it sideways and the device is aware of it), and better battery life before. It's also cheaper: $150 for 8GB and just $50 more for double the capacity. I was actually pretty impressed with what you get for this price because even though it still can't play the radio or games at least it has a screen size that makes more sense and that genius playlist feature. Speaking of which: this is similar to what last.fm users may already be familiar with as a plug-in for their favorite music program. You pick a song and it will automatically generate a playlist for you with similar songs. It's part of the new iTunes 8, which also brings back NBC in standard definition and HD. Another announcement is that the 160 GB iPod classic is out in favor of a thinner 120 GB model for $250. I don't know why they don't keep both out there, maybe they feel like demand for it has peaked already?

The iPod Touch also got a new generation with a better speaker built-in, a better wi-fi antenna, a more tapered design, and integration with the Nike+iPod technology (so all you need is the transmitter in your shoe now). Oh, and they come at three price points: 8GB for $230, 16GB for $300, and 32GB for $400. By the way, these price points are all pretty brilliant. They're going to sell a lot of Nanos and 2G iPod Touches at these prices and they actually make sense (unlike the old iPod Touch's ridiculous price tag). They demoed some games for it and I'm not actually sure whether or not they mean to compete with the DS and PSP. It looks like they are when they're putting out great quality mobile versions of Need for Speed and Spore, but I won't believe it until I see an ad campaign. Also, if they were aiming for this then why not go all out and encourage more development of games for Macs? Still, I think this is a smart move. Games like Rock Band and Wii Sports are creating more casual gamers every day who would probably love to play games when they're bored away from home but don't want to carry around a DS. They could be minting money if they play their cards right (not that they're doing bad right now).

The least exciting announcement was some new in-ear headphones with a remote on the cord. Maybe audiophiles will be excited about it, but I don't know if Apple is such a reliable brand for headphones as opposed to Shure or Bang & Olufsen. They do sound like premium headphones though from the specs so I'm not at all discrediting their quality, just questioning their success. Then again, Apple could sell crap in a white box and fans would buy it because it's from Apple. Sorry to be harsh, but you know it's true. I don't hate Apple, just the cult.

Overall, I think it was strategically a great event for Apple. They put out some products sure to be a hit for the holiday season and the games honestly do look pretty cool. I think if mobile gaming has a future in it's the kind of stuff that they were demoing on Tuesday.

The Zune Matures

So I think up until this announcement, the Zune has kind of been a waste. The announcement, which feels more like an approved leak than an announcement, is regarding the updates to the Zune line. Apparently, there will be bigger capacities (120 GB and 16 GB for the hard drive line and the flash memory line, respectively) at price points identical to their iPod competitors and you'll be able to download music using WiFi directly from Zune Marketplace. The really cool part is the ability to tag songs that you like from the radio to download directly to your Zune! Sure, there are devices where you can record directly from the radio, but the quality isn't going to be that great because it's radio so this is actually cool. Also, their answer to the genius playlist thing is MixView (reminiscent of MusicPlasma, from days of yore) where you can also discover new artists based on a better smattering of the albums, artists, and songs involved. If you have Zune Pass, then it's basically like Pandora except that you can keep the songs you listen to and you can seek through them. Oh, you'll also see support for Audible books and a couple of games built in (Texas Hold Em and Hexic). I'm glad that the Zune is finally trying to be a worthwhile product, it's definitely a welcome change from its previous lackluster iterations that don't bring anything new to that table. I think that unlike the iPod line where the inspiration is always extreme simplicity and a limited number of honed features the mantra for the Zune seems to be a more artistic UI and as many interesting features as they can pack in there. Not to say that it's all of a sudden an iPod killer or anything, just that it looks like it will be a more formidable opponent now.

The New Gates-Seinfeld Ad

I'm sure you've seen the Shoe Circus ad that was a fiasco, but have you seen the new ad featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld?

Video: New Family

First of all, the latest TWiT actually did an interesting analysis of hypothetical meanings of things for the first ad where the Shoe Circus store represents PCs where it's a good value and reliable even though it's not as flashy or expensive as Macs. Still, the ad wasn't funny and didn't make sense. This new one makes perfect sense to me and makes sense of what this campaign is about: the Windows brand image. It's about getting people to talk about Windows more positively now instead of repeating rants they heard about Vista from early reports. It's about putting a friendly face on the brand instead of the stodgy, business-like one forced on it by the Mac vs. PC ads. It's about promoting PCs without jumping in your face (like so many ridiculous Mac vs. PC ads) and evangelizing boring features or why its better than the competition. The ad ends with a message that Gates (through Windows) has already connected so many people and how they're going to go out and connect more people. It's really about focusing on real people rather than the stereotypes that the Apple campaign focuses on.

I think it's rather brilliant. I actually laughed out loud during this ad, which I rarely do. I loved the combination of geek humor with Seinfeld humor. They couldn't possibly come out and counter the Apple ads or else they'd be acknowledging them and they'd look like a pissy giant trying to squash poor old little Apple (which is neither poor nor little anymore, but has a fanatical fanbase that could wreak havoc on Microsoft as a result of a move like that). The ads don't have to directly explain why Vista is so great, it just has to get into people's minds enough so that they stop focusing on the bad things they heard about Vista and will be less apprehensive about trying it out. Ultimately, it's about clearing the way for the next version of Windows, which cannot successfully be released until the brand is pulled out of the mud. I actually can't wait to see what the next ad will be and if it will really be in a pink house.

AT&T Starts to Throttle

AT&T has decided that rather than improve their infrastructure that if the network in your area is congested then you will see slowdowns. I guess this isn't a new concept, but it's specifically for higher tier users, so you're already paying a premium for your Internet and it's not even going to be all that reliable. Isn't that just peachy? I don't understand these people and how they're so terrible at managing their network that their best solution to the growth of the Internet is to screw their customers. Bandwidth usage is only going to go up with each passing month, so why not try coming up with a plan to upgrade your network with your ridiculously deep pockets?

Creating a Facebook Botnet

I've explained this before, but I don't expect most people to remember: a botnet is basically a network of computers that have been infected with malware that makes them zombies awaiting commands from a master. They're often unaware of the infection and can be used for sending spam or denial of service attacks (hitting a site hard enough to bring it down), among other things. Some Greek researchers have developed a Facebook application that could be used to launch a denial of service attack under the hood. It seemingly would just show you a National Geographic photo each day but really hit their site each time it was loaded for 3 other images, and at 1,000 users led to 300 requests per hour at its peak. What if it had a million users? It's a really interesting new form of social engineering, but you have to question how far it will get before it's discovered. After all, once someone discovers it Facebook can remove it and the zombies are no longer infected since no malware is installed directly to users' computer. If you put out enough of these though, it would devolve into a race to find them all before they inflict real damage. If you use it for spam then it wouldn't need to be out there for long to be profitable.

Closing Tidbits

I wanted to end with a few quick items.

If you've seen The Dark Knight and want to know if one particular character will be back in the next movie, then click here. I don't want to reveal anything for those of you who haven't seen it, though there may be something wrong with you if you seriously never saw this movie despite the amazing press and my delirious ravings.

Next year, Panasonic will put into production a 150" LCD television! Not only that, but it can recognize your face to have the picture follow you or customize itself to your individual preferences. It's called the Life Wall TV and you can see it in action here.

Lastly, HP claims that its EliteBook laptop has a battery life of 24 hours. This obviously surpasses that of any notebook on the market and would make it of extremely high value to business customers (and software developers who are on call). It has a solid state drive and a mercury-free LCD panel to help with keeping the power consumption low. Starting at $1200, it makes me want one so I can have a computer to play Starcraft 2 for hours on end (not sure if my current laptop, though I love it, can handle the graphics).

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Google's Chromed Crusader

Random Musings

I spent half the week recovering from my PAX hangover (of awesomeness, not booze), but I think I'm ready to get back to the normal news now. Speaking of which, if you were interested in the games I talked about last time but don't have a console, I got a request to plug a contest where you design a shirt for the chance to win an Xbox 360 or a PS3. It's worth a try because I love my PS3 and I'm sure that Xbox 360 owners feel the same (except for that they can't play Blu-ray movies or LittleBigPlanet).

I just finished watching This Film Is Not Yet Rated, by the way, and it's excellent. I highly recommend giving it a rent sometime. I mistakenly switched from that to the MTV Video Music Awards, which I could not take more than 10 minutes of. I mean wow, how could the dialogue get any worse? Anyway, I wanted to mention this last week, but Amazon is finally listing The Dark Knight [Blu-ray] (for Blu-ray and DVD), but they don't have a release date yet. You can sign up to get updated on when it's available, but the rumors point to very early December. They'd be stupid to not release it before Christmas. I'm definitely going to pre-order it, and Amazon guarantees the lowest price from when you place your order to when it ships so I don't understand when people pre-order at Best Buy. Oh, Amazon also has the exclusive Blu-ray set for my favorite movie of all time: Kill Bill. I didn't mean to talk about so much amazon stuff, but I don't think the fabled uncut Whole Bloody Affair set is coming stateside so I'm settling for this. The DVD transfer wasn't very good, so I have high hopes for this release (it comes out this Tuesday) (UPDATE: reviews here and here; PCM 5.1 for the win!). One more thing I wanted to bring up was the red band trailer for Zach and Miri Make a Porno. I think it's a quirky, funny trailer, but I feel ambivalent about it. Kevin Smith tries real hard with his comedies though, and I think the premise (a couple out of money who make a porno to raise some money) as well as some of the dialogue from the trailer was great. I'll post it here if I find it again.

The Chrome Craze

In case you haven't heard that Google has released a new browser called Google Chrome, then you must've been under a rock somewhere last week. Literally everywhere I turned was giving their own spin on the browser. So, naturally, I do, too. ;) Sorry, but it was a big deal and I have to talk about it. If you're a real nerd and you just have to know all the details, Google has an infinitely long comic book about it. It's based on the open source Webkit initiative (the same technology used for Android's browser). and what's cool is that it makes each tab you have its own process to make the browser easier on a multi-core processor and to allow you to kill a hung tab without losing your browser. Not only that, but you can see which tabs are taking up more memory and what plug-ins are consuming more resources. It adds a lot of transparency to the classic memory leak issues in Firefox that leave people scratching their head at who to point the finger at. Another benefit is that Chrome seems to handle Javascript better so it's a lot faster on Web 2.0-like sites, but Mozilla claims that the next Firefox release will be more on par with the speeds you see in Chrome (supposedly even faster). Supposedly, it's more secure because it runs in a sandbox environment, but I can't verify that and I'm awaiting more confirmation on that. Apparently, it is susceptible to a social engineering attack though known as carpet bombing that tricks you into opening an automatically downloaded file, which you would fall for if you're not familiar with Chrome's interface.

The browser has a lot of great features, but the bottom line is that it doesn't have a terrible amount more than Firefox except for the process management thing. Firefox has a great base of plug-ins that can do most of Chrome's niche features, and why would its developers turn to Google Chrome instead? The Mozilla Foundation is truly all about open source whereas Google's main purpose is always going to be to drive the Google brand and fuel traffic to their services. Their EULA showed signs of this with language presuming to own any content you transmit using Chrome, but this was later revised. Their omnibar, a knockoff of Firefox 3's awesome bar, is rumored to be transmitting data to Google (UPDATE: source). This means that no large company can possibly trust Google Chrome. Sure, they could add in some options to disable this kind of stuff (I think they already have a couple of the sort), but Google does not have the best track record when it comes to privacy. Why trust them when Firefox works just great and Internet Explorer already has a majority share of the market? They'll just have employees stick to IE and Firefox, it's not like people are going to revolt over this. Let's face it, people spent most of their time at work so if you lose that market then things kind of suck for you.

I give props to Google for trying something new though with this browser. My sources tell me that it's been used internally for quite a while so it should be relatively stable and who knows, it could become their platform (their operating system) that people have been buzzing about for years. Don't buy into the hype too much though that it's going to cure cancer or anything, but try it out for yourself and give it a fair shake (strangely, it's only out for Windows with the promise of Mac and Linux releases down the road).

Apple Event Tuesday

Apple announced last week that they're having a press event on Tuesday at 10 AM (PST) with the theme "Let's Rock." Hmm, I wonder if that's an obvious tip of it involving updates to iTunes and/or the iPod line? I'll post links here on Tuesday morning (or Monday night) with who's live blogging it. Of course, a video of it will most likely go up Tuesday evening. I don't want to get too caught up in predicting what they're going to announce, but I'm almost positive that we'll see an iTunes update and a new iPod of some sort (most likely a new Nano, it's been a while since its last update). I think they'd be crazy to not release, or announce the exact day of release of, an iPhone update. I wonder how Jobs will counter the bad PR the iPhone 3G has been getting recently from fans? Several geek celebrities have written off their iPhone 3G, including Attack of the Show host Kevin Pereira.

Rather than take advantage of Apple's recent PR issues, Microsoft has released a stupid, long ad with Jerry Seinfeld that doesn't promote Vista at all. I mean come on, a 1:30 spot about Bill Gates buying shoes? Is this some sort of sick joke? Supposedly, it's the 'teaser' to the ad campaign, but since when did people anticipate an advertising campaign to the point where you need a teaser for it? I hope the next ad turns out better.

Comcast's 250GB Cap

It's not a particularly big secret that Comcast has always had a bandwidth cap for their customers, which means that they can only use their Internet to transfer a certain amount of data. Several people have reported it. Now Comcast has decided to come clean about it (probably because of the recent FCC ruling against their secretly throttling of torrents) and enforce a 250 GB bandwidth cap. If you reach this cap then you can't pay for more bandwidth, you just don't have access to the Internet for the rest of that month. Is that not completely ludicrous?

It's nice that they're not hiding it anymore, and I know that a lot of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in other countries have much tighter caps, but they usually throttle you after that point rather than cut you off. Why don't they just let you pay for more bandwidth? Wouldn't they make more money that way? I believe that this is just the first step towards having to pay for different tiers of Internet service where you pay by how much data you use. This is still a net neutral policy, but it can screw the consumer depending on how they handle the pricing, and it can screw online media (often called "new media") because people won't be so inclined to turn to online news sites for video clips and podcasts and such if their Internet costs would go up. I wish I could say that since most people don't consume a lot of content that they'd save money, but I know that the ISPs are typically super greedy so they'll probably pay the same as now while the rest of us pay more, and as the Internet gets bigger and new media becomes more prominent we'll be paying for $200 cable tv/Internet packages. I wish these stupid telecom monopolies could implode and form more reasonably sized, competitive firms.

Closing Thoughts

It's almost bed time, so I have to wrap this up. I just had a few more stories to go:

Google put out a beta of Picasa 3 that does smart tagging of people's faces (it's as cool as it sounds), adds more editing features, and has some great syncing capabilities with Google Web Albums. This will probably help them sell some premium accounts (I think that Web Albums is a great product, right up there with SmugMug, which is backed by Amazon S3).

Smashing Magazine has an incredible article about the importance of simple web design that I highly recommend checking out if you have any interest whatsoever in web development. You'll learn a lot about great design that you probably knew but didn't even realize it. They pick out some really nice examples, too.

Last, but not least, this is a fun little read on using ASCII art to subvert spam filters. It's definitely clever, but slimy, nonetheless. Spammers are a sickening breed, but I have to admit that they're often rather clever.

Have a great week everyone!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Penny Arcade Expo 2008

My First Con

When I was little, I always wanted to go to E3. Heck, I would've settled for any event where I could go around playing video games that hadn't come out yet. PAX was that and so much more. Lots of people will probably say this, but I have to say it as well: the crowd at PAX is just incredible. I definitely felt like I was at home waiting in line for panels and video games, and for 3 days it was like the nerdier you were the cooler you were. Isn't that a funny phenomenon? A lot of nerds spend their adolescence hiding their hobbies and interest whereas at PAX people literally wear them on their sleeves (I actually saw several of these people). There was something cool and refreshing about that (even though you also get the bad aspects of nerds, like being occasionally condescending and typically sarcastic). It was an incredible experience and I often felt as giddy as a 12 year-old at, well, a gaming convention.

Before I get to my picks from the show floor, there are a couple of other neat things from the weekend I want to quickly touch on.

The nerdcore concerts felt like rock star concerts - the energy was palatable. Except for Jonathan Coulton, I hadn't heard of any of the groups but they seemed to have sizable fanfare, and I couldn't help but flashback to Rock Band (I guess I've played it too much). Freezepop, a veteran synth pop group, had a pretty impressive cover of "The Final Countdown" that I really enjoyed but cannot find a recording of (let me know if you do, please). Jonathan Coulton was really awesome (I got an autographed copy of his Thing a Week Box Set and I love it), and he did most of his hit songs except for his excellent cover of "Baby Got Back". One of his best was when he brought out Felicia Day (from The Guild and Dr. Horrible) to sing "Still Alive" from the Portal video game. I loved his performance of "Mr. Fancy Pants" (he wrote it during his campaign of writing a song a week when he was close to his deadline for one week and had to get a Zendrum to stretch out the 1:15 song for live performances), and he also Rick Roll'd the audience after performing "Flickr". I never imagined that someone could perform so well with just an acoustic guitar (and a Zendrum), but JoCo put on one of the most fun shows I've ever had the good fortune of attending. I can with confidence say that at least 90% of that audience was having a great time and we even managed to get two encores out of (before the second one he told us that he just wanted to go to bed). I think you had to laugh at least once every 5 minutes, especially when the audience started calling out song titles, to which he told them that he had constructed a set to maximize our entertainment and (comically) that we weren't the boss of him.

We attended both Penny Arcade Q&A sessions (plus a live drawing of the Monday comic), and this is how they came onstage for both of them:

That was from the second, but I wish I had recorded them coming out for the first one because it actually started out with a live orchestra before that song came on. It was pretty epic. It's kind of scary how much some people idolize them (to the extent that one guy referred to them as "m'lords"), but I realized that they've come to be the mascots for gaming that gamers seem to really need. They've become an outlet for the spirit of the community (criticisms, joys, and charity), and PAX is truly a culmination of that. The Q&A sessions were hilarious, and one of my favorite parts was when Tycho (Jerry) didn't know who Dr. Manhattan one so Scott Kurtz (from PvP) yelled out, "He's from Alan Moore's graphic novel The Watchmen you fucking noob." Also great was Tycho singing. The most impressive gifts given to them was a plush doll of Broodax and a mosaic of buttons that spelled out "PAX 08" (I couldn't get a good shot of it, I was too far away) (EDIT: thanks to Ben for sending me this link to pictures of him and a fellow member of the button exchange presenting this).

Also great was the Totally Rad Show meetup on Saturday night! We got a picture with Alex Albrecht (from Diggnation and the Totally Rad Show, and who was formerly on TechTV's Screensavers):

I purposely did the Longhorn sign because it was the eve of UT's first victory of the 2008 season (52-10 against Florida Atlantic), I know that Alex was doing the rocking out sign. Anyway, at first we sat at the only table in the area with two guys not there for the meetup, who were kinda being dicks and telling the waitress like 3 times that they weren't buying our drinks even though the waitress didn't ask if they were. So we moved to a table with guys that had PAX badges and they were really cool (though younger than us). The TRS guys were going around to each table and chatting for a few minutes, and it was so awesome talking to Dan and Jeff because they acted pretty much just like they did on the show. It was very nerdy and surreal for me, like I was meeting Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid or something. They were super nice (though I felt like kind of a buzzkill when I explained to Dan that my job at Amazon was not one of the cool customer-facing things he liked but something behind-the-scenes that I still think is fun), and even brought attention to a guy proposing to his girlfriend. Surprisingly though, both of them made Dead Space their first choice from the floor though I ended up not liking it (keep reading for more on this). Alex I think kept getting held up during his rounds with the tables so we left before he made it to our area and got a picture with him, though he definitely acted exactly as he would on Revision 3, which I thought was great. He has a great personality for video, though I wish we could've gotten a picture with all 3 of the hosts.

I'm dragging this on too long, but there were two more things I have to mention before getting to the games. The first is this 3rd Space gaming vest to the right that rumbles as you shoot or are hit in a first person shooter (FPS). I tried it on and was definitely impressed. I think it's a tad expensive at a $169 list price, but I think it'd be worth it for like $100 if you love PC gaming. I know it sounds like a lame peripheral, but it really helps put you in the game (it's compatible with all the big FPS games). The other thing was that I played Gears of War on a PC with 3-D glasses and it was pretty crazy. I felt like it was more gimmicky though than the vest because it really didn't help put you in the game by much, and it's not true 3-D because it just pops out 2-D figures rather than rendering them in true 3-D, but it was still neat.

Top 5 Games to Look Out For

Now for the good stuff: the countdown of the 5 games I saw on the show floor that you may be shelling out for very soon.

5. Prince of Persia
I beat Prince of Persia: Sands of Time for the PS2 and loved every minute of it. The combat system could've been better, but being able to manipulate time in a way that didn't copy The Matrix was very revolutionary and handled really well as an important part of the game. Now Ubisoft is re-imagining the series in a big way with Prince of Persia (for the PS3 and Xbox 360), which follows a different prince's story from the previous two games. I saw a live demo of it (it was a demo demo, so he followed a pre-determined path), and the art style works a lot better than I thought in the first cinematic trailer that was released. I was concerned that it would look too much like a cartoon, but they really executed it well and it's just beautiful, especially when Eleka (your new sidekick) breathes life into an infected land. Speaking of which, she becomes an important part of helping you get through the puzzles in the game, fighting enemies, and finding your way if you get lost. They've created a semi free roaming world and I just love how they're getting creative with really giving you an innovative adventure title. I was a little concerned by him saying that you can only fight one enemy at time, but the combat looked super cinematic so I think the coolness factor outweighs my concern. By the way, the Penny Arcade guys are making a 32-page comic about a story Eleka hears as a child, and they announced that you can get it for free if you pre-order.

4. Left 4 Dead
This was probably my biggest surprise from the show since I hadn't heard of it and we totally ignored it until we heard rave reviews from the Totally Rad Show meetup. Valve's multiplayer co-operative survival horror game puts you and three others right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and is what Resident Evil Outbreak should've been. It actually requires teamwork (especially when you get mauled by zombies) and the zombies really do react to what you do (if you're too loud they will overrun you). I was completely blown away by how much it feels like you're in a George A. Romero movie, and I'm really jealous that it's only going to be out for the Xbox 360 and PC. You might be able to find some bootlegs online, but they don't do justice to how nice it looks and how real the zombies feel. I wish I could say that I played it, but the line was crazy long and we just didn't have the time to wait.

3. Far Cry 2
The only things I knew about Far Cry before checking out the demo for Far Cry 2 was that it was set in the jungle and had revolutionary graphics. This new iteration uses what looks to be a more advanced graphics engine than even the one used for Crysis, and the physics engine is at least as impressive. I went to a demo that was actually him playing the production build live, and I was caught off guard by how great this game was. Mind you that it's hard to impress me with an FPS since every other booth was pimping an FPS game (the worst offenders being Resistance 2 and Gears of War 2) and I've played many FPS games, but the second he started a fire and I saw it dynamically spread based on what kind of vegetation was around it and the wind I was in awe. Everything that could realistically be destroyed could be obliterated in-game, especially when it comes to blowing up cars to kill enemies (you can do this in games like Metal Gear Solid 4, it simply looks more realistic here). The game puts you in a free-roaming world where you rely on missions from your "buddies", and if you get taken down in battle then a "buddy" (a non-playable character (NPC) who you designate as such) helps get you out of harm's way. The game is so realistic that if you let a buddy die in combat, he is really gone for the rest of the game. It was interesting how he had to play attacks by scouting, and how he could draw out the enemies with distractions and even create walls of fire to keep them from getting too close. To put it bluntly, the battles evolved into controlled chaos in the way that a battle should. This wouldn't be enough to put it at #3, except for that the map editor was incredible. It looked fairly easy to create a believable, natural environment, complete with weather controls, and he could jump into his map at any time to see it first-hand. He was even able to create a freaking swamp! If you thrive on FPS games, don't leave this one out because it'll be out for the PS3, Xbox 30, and PC this October.

2. Little Big Planet
I cannot say enough good things about this game - it's fun and joy on a Blu-ray disc (yes, it's a PS3 Exclusive). It's a platformer like no other, and there are plenty of videos out there to bear witness to that. The humbling art style is consistently cute yet creative, and the levels are just so clever. I saw a demo of the level editor and got to play it (after a 40-minute wait). The level editor lets you create your own levels and share them online (I think they'll pick some of the better ones every once in a while, polish them, and release them as features levels). It's pretty simple to create a map: you are just Sackboy (the main character) going around an empty space and creating things out of thin air and arranging them as you'd like. It looks like a pretty fun process and quite intuitive. While I waited in line to play the game, I saw one group of people (they let us try it out in sets of 3 people, it's a 4-player game via online or local multiplayer) play a mini-game where you have to fight each other and one where you have to stay on a cow. So I guess there are several mini-games ideal for a party atmosphere, but also a ridiculous amount of just levels to explore various worlds. The controls took all of 30 seconds to learn, and the simplicity is part of what makes this game so great. The customization of your character truly is fun (much like it is on the Wii) and easy, and everything looks really clean. The prospect of a game with seemingly limitless potential as far as number of levels (I think Mm themselves will be releasing some levels every once in a while) is wonderful and it makes me really glad I have my PS3. So if you have a PS3, keep an eye on this game (it's released in October, just a few days after my birthday so I may pre-order it to play on my birthday).

1. Fallout 3
I first saw some footage from this game on G4 and didn't bother watching for long because I didn't see anything special about it (I never had any exposure to the previous games in the series). Man, was I wrong. I went to the demo because it followed a Penny Arcade Q&A and ended up being very glad since it was standing room only (some people who had been waiting in line had to be turned away). They were playing the game right in front of us based on audience input on what should be done, so it was not a fixed demo. The best way to describe the game is as a mix of a role-playing game (RPG) and an FPS with a touch of third-person action. It's comparable, in a way, to Deus Ex. You emerge from one of a small number of vaults in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and you enter a wasteland. From there, it's a free-roaming world where you take on missions and the story advances based on your interactions with the characters. The other RPG element it borrows is level-ing up to improve your skills. What's really impressive is that besides having all these great RPG elements, it handles combat wonderfully. You can fight in first-person, third-person, or, if you haven't done it too much already, using a targeting system where you target a specific body party and a very brief in-game cutscene shows you the attack. The animation in these sequences are amazingly realistic and gratuitously violent. Make no mistake about it, this game is not intended for younger audiences in the least. There's so many other little things about this game that make it cool, like the fact that you can get addicted to drugs, or that you can do things like sneak up behind people and shove live grenades in their pockets, or how you can mod your weapons. For these reasons and many more, Fallout 3 stands to be the best game you have ever experienced, whether you love action or RPGs. By the way, they gave out swag by giving everyone in the audience a card with a skill on it where each skill had a prize, and mine ended up being an awesome hand puppet from a comic they commissioned from Penny Arcade:

Honorable Mentions

There were some other games I saw that I liked a lot, but didn't make my top 5.

Project Origin takes what was great about F.E.A.R. and improves it. I got to play this one personally and had a blast with it. The ability to slow time was not as gimmicky as Max Payne, the destructible environments were great, and it just handled nicely overall. It didn't stand out as much as Far Cry 2 did among the sea of FPS titles on the floor, but I think it's worth keeping in the back of your head.

Starcraft II was playable, but I didn't bother waiting in line for it because I knew I'd suck. It's probably best to check out the Protoss gameplay video they have at the official site and prepare to be dazzled if you were a fan of the original. I don't think they're likely to botch this sequel to one of the most celebrated video games of all time, and I look forward to seeing more of it.

Mirror's Edge was also playable, but I didn't want to wait in line for it. I didn't see what was so great about it until I saw a normal gamer playing it at the show. The art style is definitely something to behold, and I think that it feels almost like a first-person adventure title. I have to reserve judgement for it though for when I see more footage though, because the demo on the show floor was not very long.

There's really nothing to say about Rock Band 2 other than what's already out there about it: it'll have 100 songs by the end of the year and the instruments are better. I didn't play it at the show because I'm not good enough to play it publicly in front of as large of a crowd as the booth had amassed, but they didn't really show the stuff that's different from the first game, like the music video mode or the online world tour mode or the drummer training stuff. Still, the songs I saw performed looked pretty fun and were easily recognizable (though I cannot for the life in me remember which songs they were that I had seen). I'm definitely going to buy it, I just have to decide if I want the disc or the whole set.

Dishonorable Mentions

There were a couple of games that I didn't like at all.

They were promoting SingStar with little contests where they'd have people get on stage and perform a song, and they'd give a prize to the best of like 6 singers. I actually wanted this game a little before I saw people playing it (I was forced to because it was right next to the line to play LittleBigPlanet) - these people were terrible singers or just plain embarrassing. The bottom line is that I did not want to be them or have people in my home singing like they were. It's better in Rock Band when there's a drummer and guitarist, but with the singer singled out it's just not quite as cool.

I don't know why so many people loved Dead Space because I found that the controls weren't intuitive at all and that it seemed to copy Half-Life 2's gravity gun without thinking it through properly. The guy was basically holding my hand through the demo as I was playing it, which was kind of insulting because I had waiting for like 45 minutes and should've been allowed to figure things out on my own, but it also made me realize that the game was too complicated if the best demo they could come up with involved people talking you through how to play it in that amount of detail. I'll admit that part of it was probably that I'm not used to the Xbox 360 controller, but even if I was, the gameplay mechanics simply didn't impress me.

So where's the real news?

Yeah, about that...I'm too tired to keep writing. There are only a couple of news items that I was chomping at the bit to get to anyhow, so I'll save them for next week. Have a great week, everyone! I always love posting original content so I hope that you found this post at least somewhat informative.