Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade of Technology

Sorry that I wasn't able to put together a post this week, but between unpacking from last week and getting ready for my trip to India next week, I've been slammed. I have, however, put together a rough draft of a Toastmasters speech I'm going to be delivering next week, so I thought I'd share before I start cutting it down. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

If someone asked you how you’d characterize the 2000s, what would you say? The 60s had civil rights and the Vietnam War, the 70s had disco and Star Wars, and the 80s had terrible hair styles and the birth of yours truly. The hosts of the trivia game I participate in every week claim that it was the worst decade ever, but I disagree. I think the past decade was dominated by rapid advancements in technology. Instead of the flying cars and humanoid robots we were promised we got iPhone apps and Rickrolled (should I play the Rick Roll video on my Pre at this point? Alternate joke: lonelygirl15), but the combination of developments from the decade has created a very different world from the world of 1999. I humbly ask for your ears so I can prove it to you.

In the year 2000, a little product called TiVo hit the market and gradually gained a base of enthusiastic users, including myself as of last year. The importance of TiVo is evident in the fact that it has become synonymous to the term “DVR” to the layman much like soda has become “Coke”. It gave control of the living room to the consumer in a way that VCRs always fell short of and paved the way for other set-top boxes, like Roku, which are what helps the Amazon Video on Demand business grow, among other things. This idea of control versus watching shows on a schedule also helped give way to audio and video podcasts, and we now stand on the brink of a world where traditional television is dying.

That wasn’t the only box connected to people’s TVs in 2000 that has had a long-lasting effect on history as we know it: the PlayStation 2, or PS2, was also released. The PS2 has grown in popularity to the best-selling console of all time and is still selling fairly well. I’d argue that this is the console that really helped bring video games into the mainstream moreso than any console before it and even lured away many PC gamers who traditionally felt that console hardware was somewhat weak. More importantly though, the PS2 was truly the first device to successfully pioneer the idea of a multifunctional home entertainment system since it also played CDs and DVDs.

From the comfort of your living room, let’s move to the palm of your hand with Handspring, which was later acquired by Palm. In 2003, the Palm Treo 600 was released and blew the door off the mobile computing world. Here was a device that had a touchscreen interface, e-mail, Internet, a camera, and third-party applications, all in addition to a great text messaging interface. It wasn’t the first smartphone, but it was the first smartphone to get it right and fostered the first true mobile platform developer community around Palm OS. Without the Treo 600 there would be no iPhone, and without the iPhone there would be no Pre or Droid or any other nifty smartphone you probably have in your pocket right now and use for everything but making calls. The world has moved away from the personal computer being at the center of our technological lives to the smartphone being at the core of it, and you get to tell your grandchildren that you lived through that.

A general theme that has naturally come out of all these advances is that they focus on improving the life of the average person, which actually gives rise to a collection of technologies that has become popularly known as user-generated content. MySpace was probably the first to take off in this category with its launch in 2003 as a social networking site – a place for people to come together and waste copious amounts of time. It was followed up shortly thereafter by Facebook in 2004. Also in 2004 though we saw the birth of Flickr, which popularized the idea of a community around hobbyist photography. Then, in 2005, we were graced with the phenomenon known as YouTube – which started out as the ultimate way to share home movies and has evolved into a major online video content platform that has impacted pop culture in probably the most significant way of anything else in the past 10 years. Last, but not least, in user-generated content: blogging and microblogging has usurped control of the news as we used to know it and broke down the barriers of entry for many people into mass media, such as Perez Hilton.

What’s even crazier than some of the stuff on Perez Hilton’s blog is that I’ve only scratched the surface of the past decade. I haven’t said a peep about the iPod, the widespread adoption of ultracompact digital cameras and camcorders, Windows XP, the rise of torrents, or a number of other equally exciting developments. The next time someone asks you what your take was on the past decade, I hope you’ll hold your head high and tell them that even though you’re disappointed that the robot apocalypse isn’t upon us, you’re pretty stoked that you can see cats swinging from ceiling fans off your mobile phone. Thank you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Android vs. the World (of Cellphones)

Sorry that this post is kind of late, but when I'm on vacation I pretty much let out my inner laziness, which is what I ordinarily fight on a daily basis to get things done. There is a lot to talk about from the past couple of weeks though so let's get down to it.

Nexus One

The rumors of a Googlephone is probably as old as the initial rumors of an iPhone, but they have finally come to fruition. It started out as a confirmed report of Google "dogfooding" a mobile device, and then Engadget got pictures of it:

It looks to be running Android 2.1 (which includes Google Navigation for free turn-by-turn directions) and looks like it's running on T-Mobile but supports WiFi from the pictures Engadget has. Other than that, all we know is that it has a trackball and is called the Nexus One. Speculation tells us that Google will sell it unlocked, which traditionally haven't done very well because people don't want to spend $400-$600 on a cell phone anymore and the people at the wireless carriers' stores are going to sell the subsidized phones harder. I don't think this phone is really much to get excited about, to be honest. Making a cell phone is not easy if you haven't done one before. Apple had plenty of hardware experience before the iPhone and spent years working on it. I still think the Nexus One is going to be intended more as a developer Phone than a consumer device.

Why do we need a developer phone on Android? Because Android is facing the same problem as WinMo: too many devices. Developing web applications is already a nightmare for small web dev shops because now you have to design websites supported by IE8, IE7, IE6, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome, in addition to mobile devices. Even here though you can push out patches and updates with ease, whereas with mobile applications you're relying on users picking up your update if you make a change that doesn't look right on a particular flavor of Android on a specific piece of hardware. The more Android phones there are, the more configurations big mobile application teams have to keep in stock for testing, which ultimately just makes it less appealing. I think this is unavoidable in a market where you're trying to get on multiple carriers to compete with Apple and RIM and I personally thing there should be a different app store for different Android versions and configurations where it's up to the developers to mark their application as guaranteed to work on certain configurations so that they can limit their quality assurance as needed and provide a better experience overall.

It's too early to tell if this is, in fact, a problem (at least I think it is), but so far Android isn't doing all that hot on market share. It's funny how a lot of my friends downplay webOS and think Android is the future, and yet it's still behind in market share to RIM, Apple, Windows Mobile, Palm, and Symbian (Nokia). To be fair, of course, Nokia, RIM, WinMo, and Palm (via Palm OS) have had cell phones years before Apple or Android, but the original iPhone came out little over a year before the first Android phone and we've had Android phones on multiple carriers for over a year now. While it's clear that RIM and Apple have had stellar growth in recent months with Microsoft taking a tumble, and the US has never been a big market for Symbian, Palm and Android have a more uncertain future. I'm rooting for webOS and Android, but I think Palm's brand recognition/loyalty from consumers gives them a leg up. Hopefully, we can also crack down on ridiculous contract cancellation fees so that people get the chance to try out more phones and find the one that right for them.

Harry Potter and the Mythical Bandwidth Hogs

This has nothing to do with Harry Potter except that I finally popped in my Prisoner of Azkaban Blu-ray last night for the first time so it's still on my mind a bit.

Anyway, one of the arguments for bandwidth caps from the very beginning of the hub-bub about bandwidth caps (how much data you're allowed to consume on your Internet connection before you're cut off) is that there are people out there hogging the bandwidth so it'd be a lot more fair to everyone else to cap that. It turns out that this may not be quite true though. We don't have any proof that the networks aren't already configured to handle these so-called hogs such that other subscribers don't have their usage impacted. In all likelihood, the ISPs are drumming up this nonsense to convince people to fork over more money to them at an amount that's far from commensurate with the expense of the extra bandwidth.

One analyst offered to look at their usage statistics pro bono to prove/disprove the myth of the bandwidth hogs if he's allowed to publish his results, but I doubt that any ISP has responded to that. Maybe we should write in to Mythbusters and see if they have better luck.

The Apple Gestapo

It's fitting that I cover a story about the Apple Gestapo having seen a guy portraying a Gestapo officer get stabbed in the neck last night in Inglourious Basterds (vacation is the perfect time to to break out your new Blu-rays).

Many of us have heard a lot of stories about the culture at Apple and the management style of Steve Jobs, but not everyone knows how Apple has gotten so good at keeping secrets. It turns out that when a leak is suspected in a certain office, a special forces team is sent in for a lockdown operation. People's phones and computers are searched for evidence that they leaked something. In the case that they have, I'm guessing that a lawsuit is in order shortly after prompt termination (from their employment, that is).

It just shows the more extreme side of Apple and the privacy that employees have to give up to work there. Can you imagine some random guy finding drunk texts to friends on phones, or pictures of your wife in a bikini from your recent vacation? It's funny how at Amazon we just sign an NDA and we're trusted to not reveal company secrets - what a concept. Lo and behold, people generally stick to that. I haven't heard of any such gestapo in Redmond either over at Microsoft.

Apple Acquires Lala

In light of that fun-filled article, it's probably not the best news that Apple has acquired Lala. If Apple doesn't care about its own employees then it's scary to think about what they'll do to an acquisition that defies the iTunes business model. Lala allows you to back up your entire music library on their site for streaming through your web browser, and you can also buy tracks from them. Just a dime to stream a specific song forever or another 70-89 cents to be able to download them. They may leverage Lala to let people stream their entire music collections from where ever through Lala, although it uses Flash so it won't yet work on the iPhone. More people are speculating that they'll gut the company for talent and dismantle the service itself. Given that Lala hasn't proven profitable, that wouldn't be surprising. Still, I use Lala on an almost daily basis so I'd be very disappointed if it went away, to the point that I'd be willing to pay an annual or maybe a monthly fee just to use it to stream my existing music collection.

Twitter Gets Hacked

Late last week, the Twitter website was replaced by some text from the "Iranian Cyber Army" for what I believe was an hour or two. Twitter hasn't had the best track record when it comes to general security and this definitely doesn't help their case.

Back during Iran's elections, the US government intervened to keep Twitter available to Iranians to voice their opinions as well as join the world conversation on the elections (at least as best they can on Twitter) and it looks like this group of hackers was not too pleased by this. What they did here was definitely pretty childish and didn't do much other than to show that they can outsmart the ragtag security of the Twitter website. Well, I guess they also got press coverage from it. I'll give them credit for corrupting the DNS tables for to point to their site instead, which isn't the easiest thing in the world, but attacking Twitter doesn't really solve anything. Saying that the availability of Twitter was an interference in their election is like saying that Livejournal being available is an interference because then people can blog their thoughts on the election. It shows a deep lack of understanding of technology and an untargeted take-action mentality that's as stupid as it can be dangerous.

Facebook's Privacy Settings Change

This was a pretty big deal recently: Facebook forced all Facebook users to audit their privacy settings upon logging in to which the defaults were set to everyone or friends of friends. Even I have to admit, this is pretty smarmy. They did this knowing that a lot of people will hit 'Ok' without paying attention and assuming that the defaults are whatever they had set them to. Not only did they do this, but they removed the finer grain control you had over privacy of certain pieces of your Profile. If I was on the team that carried this out I probably would've quit, to be honest. It's unethical. I'm not one of these guys who's really high and might about privacy, but this is clearly not in the best interest of your users and only serves to advance the interests of Facebook.

Facebook and Google have both taken an increasingly privacy-agnostic view of the world, with Facebook being a far worse offender. My personal opinion of why is that the more information they can make publicly available the more they have the index, which means the more time you'll spend time on their sites. This means they'll have more content to target ads around and more page views for eyeballs on ads. No one would admit this if it were true, but I don't see any other good reason for trying to actively take people's privacy away. I'm one of these people who doesn't post super private stuff online because I know that the Internet is inherently insecure and only trust a few very specific sites, which does not include Facebook, so I don't personally find this to be a big deal but I understand the big picture of why it is.

I'll give Facebook one thing though, Mark Zuckerberg's profile and pictures are largely available for anyone to see and he claims this was on purpose. At least they're not being wholly hypocritical, just deceptive.


Alright, it's time to wrap up. Here's what I didn't have time to talk about more:

Google acquired DocVerse, which allows users to collaborate over Microsoft Office documents. Looks like they're trying to take on Office 2010's online services head-on, but I am skeptical that they'll succeed.

Google also launched Google Goggles, a visual search application for Android. It looks cool, but computer vision has only come so far that I imagine it's not super accurate. Still, it's pretty cool.

Congress is coming down on a huge Internet scam that many online retailers are complicit in: post-transaction deals that end up scamming you out of a lot of money. You should check out what retailers are doing this and boycott them, but I'm proud to say that Amazon is not one of them.

This is a hilarious graphic on how different OS users see other operating systems.

If you're looking for inspiration on transforming your office, this is a really fun look at some of the best ones of the year.

Google launched Vevo, a YouTube spinoff for music videos. I had a lot of technical issues with it at launch so I haven't played with it much, but it's linked to from any legal music videos on YouTube.

Java 7 is slated to be available next year and it has several cool features to boot including first-class language support for collections and automatic resource management as the most impressive improvements. I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

If you have Chrome or IE envy in your Firefox browser, this is a pretty impressive list of add-ons to simulate the high points of competing browers.

I laughed so much while reading this list of hilarious WiFi SSIDs that I couldn't help but plug it. Some of them are really quite creative.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone! I'll try to get something else up before the new year!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Inglourious Basterds on Blu-ray

Tarantino's First Blu Treatment

I managed to get my grubby paws on the Inglourious Basterds Blu-ray a day in advance of its release so I thought it made sense to delay my post for the week until now to be able to give my little review on it on its release date. I'm so glad I got Amazon Prime.

This is the first new release from directorial giant Quentin Tarantino that is released on Blu-ray and DVD simultaneously. His previous films on Blu-ray were just adapted for the format and so they don't take advantage of Blu-ray's additional benefits (other than great picture and sound quality) or have high definition special features. It seems like each Blu-ray I buy gets better and better in terms of overall presentation and navigation and picture quality (not counting Harry Potters 3-5, which I didn't get on their release dates, anyway), and Inglourious Basterds takes very little exception to that rule.

I've already gone into great detail about the movie itself back in August so I don't want to get into too much of it here. However, it's a tour de force in cultivating situations around people who are plotting against Hitler and the dialogue surrounding these situations. Not every work spoken is necessary but every sentence is definitely carefully crafted and in the end feels very satisfying even though 30 minutes probably could've been cut from the film without significantly damaging the plot. The experience of that 30 minutes though is well worth it though. The acting is exceptional all around. I understand that there's definitely some contention over whether Brad Pitt did well in his role, which I feel is surprising because his caricature in this movie is one of my favorite things about it. It goes without saying that the Academy would be insane to not nominate Cristoph Waltz for an Oscar and as I watched through my favorite scenes with him again I just re-discovered while I loved to hate his character all over again. Tarantino is no stranger to ensemble casts and I think he really struck it out of the park with this one. While I didn't see a ton of movies this year I did see quite a few and this was definitely my favorite. It may not have technically been the best movie to come out, but I was totally blown away by it and am still surprised that it has already stuck with me to a similar degree that Pulp Fiction has over the year.

I think the overall picture quality of this Blu-ray may actually just barely surpass even Star Trek, but both look so good that it's honestly hard to judge. I don't think I've ever paused a Blu-ray before and had a hard time finding artifacts up close. They're usually not that bad and not noticeable while actually watching the film, but the fact that this movie looks just as crisp and clear when you pause as while you're watching it really speaks for the detail in every frame. Part of why I'm emphasizing pausing the film is that there are some really great shots that are wonderful portraits of an emotion or a plot device that I have to pause to get the full effect of, sometimes. Anyway, the colors always feel true and the detail in faces and objects and settings is unmistakeably meticulous. I didn't realize that my living room could be lit up so much by a movie set in World War II. To put it simply, this is the way a Tarantino film was meant to be enjoyed outside of a movie theater. Without a surround sound setup I'd feel weird to talk much to sound, but everything sounded great on my TV. It comes with subtitles and audio tracks in English, French, and Spanish, by the way.

For a Blu-ray presented so well I was definitely surprised by the lack of attractive features. First off, I liked the case right off the bat and its reflective quality in the light. When I put in the disc I was very happy that Universal didn't decide to barrage me with trailers and other junk like my WB Blu-rays do without fail. It's sad that it's become so prevalent that starting a disc with the main menu or feature film is something worth calling out. Anyway, it's cool that if you have a BD Live enabled player you get a ticker off to the right side with news that you can easily turn off and menu sound effects are optional (and default to being off). This is actually my first movie to take advantage of the 4 colored buttons on my remote: you can use them during the movie to help mark clips of the movie you like for easy reference and sending to friends (who I beleive must also have the disco watch your favorite scenes, which seems a bit silly but I can definitely understand why the studios would want it. Anyway, these options actually show up while your pause or seek during the movie, or if you hit 'down'.

As I alluded to, the special features are definitely lacking. I knew there was something to be concerned about when I realized that a 2-disc edition meant that one had to be a digital copy, which expires if you don't remember/have the time to use it before then. Anyway, only a few of the extras are in 1080p with the rest being in 720i (the box claims 1080i, but it didn't look it) or 480p. The best extras are the trailers, the posters, and the round table with Tarantino and Brad Pitt. The other stuff is surprising unexciting. There are a couple of fun things, like a behind-the-scenes look at Nation's Pride (that film itself is also included, but less than 10 minutes long) and greetings to the editor during takes, and then a couple of serious pieces, like a discussion of the posters in the movie and some interviews and behind-the-scenes looks with the creator of the original Inglorious Bastards and one of its stars, but that's about it. The 3 extended scenes included aren't very exciting and there's still a scene in the trailers that I haven't seen in its entirety so Universal is definitely holding back on us. There's also a trivia game and some BD Live features like live chat, streaming previews of other films, and sending clips to friends, but these are also just little things. If they had just included a commentary track I think it would've helped a lot. But alas, there are a still a few scenes that I'd like to know the original intentions of and I'll never know the intentions of, now.

Despite the failings of the special features, I think the picture quality of the feature film alone is enough to sell it. This is a movie with really great replay value, in my opinion, and that looks good enough that you'll really want to keep putting it in. I highly recommend it.

The Normal Stuff

I am actually way to absolutely exhaused to continue with my normal dose of tech news, but I will try to make up for it in next week's post. Besides, the biggest thing to happen was that Apple acquired Lala and we still don't quite know what the means.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Sprint Launches 4G in Seattle

EDIT: Since writing this post I've tried the card on Windows 7 and was unable to get it to work with Sprint's software. Instead, I had to download Clearwire's software to use it. Also, this card currently doesn't work on Macs.

3G x 3 = 4G

I was fortunate enough to get invited to Sprint's launch party last week of 4G in Seattle so I felt like it would be crazy to not talk about it because this is definitely an up and coming technology that I've been able to experience first hand. In the interest of full disclosure, I did receive a free 4G wireless card that has free service for a couple of months after the event.

First of all, what is 4G? To be honest, it's just marketing speak for WiMax, which is a technology that allows providers to serve broadband speeds wirelessly at a long range. It's the closest we have to bringing WiFi speeds to mobile devices without a hard cable connection involved for the end user. It also operates on a different spectrum so it can live alongside 3G networks like Sprint's EVDO network. The speeds that I'm seeing are 5-6 MBit down, compared to 1-2 MBit down over 3G. I don't know if any phone on the market right now would know what do with that much bandwidth even if it had a WiMax radio, but the bigger use case here is for laptops though. Anyway, by the time anyone has widespread 4G coverage smartphones should have advanced to the point of having better processing power. One of the things that the reps were making a big deal about was that the latency over 4G is half of 3G (bandwidth is how much data can fit in the pipe at a time, and latency is how fast that data gets to you), which is something smartphone owners would definitely be able to appreciate.

I have to say that I walked into the event fairly skeptical that 4G would be worthwhile, but I was definitely impressed by the time I walked out of there. I was able to play Modern Warfare 2 on the Xbox 360 in an online deathmatch without any lag (which would help prove their point of latency being better over 4G). Was I set up? They claim there were no repeaters at the event and they didn't know where the nearest WiMax endpoint was, and they had Tomato running at the Xbox 360 station showing speeds that matched what I was later seeing at home so I think everything was legit. They were even able to stream Transformers 2 in 720p on a Roku box from Amazon Video on Demand without any stutter.

The other booth that I was impressed with was for laptops with 4G built into them. The best part is that there's no contract like with some 3G laptops - you can buy service when you need it and even get day passes to use Sprint's 4G network, both of which are (supposedly) uncapped. I tried a bunch of sites that I figured no one at the event would go to and tried various HD videos on YouTube and Hulu and it was legitimately snappy to the point that it was better than my own WiFi network at home (backed by cable).

The wireless card they gave me has a 3G radio in it, too, and the difference is more than noticeable between 3G and 4G. I was able to VNC into my desktop at work and have a smooth experience, unlike my normal VNC experience. While I don't know if 4G is going to be enough for Sprint to face off with AT&T and Verizon next year, the speeds are definitely something to be excited about. It's still yet to be seen what kind of cell phones come out next year for the network, but $60 for unlimited usage on a wireless card actually tempted me to sign up for a service plan next year after my current contract with my cable provider expires next year because it's been surprisingly dependable. I know the network isn't being used much right now, but they claim that even if it does get pegged that it's easy for them to scale up the network to accommodate the load. Anyway, I hope that 4G comes to your area soon, too, so that you can experience what it's like for your wireless network card to not really suck. It looks like Sprint is pretty serious about it and I hope it works out for them.

AT&T Strikes Back

I have to say that I'm actually pretty happy about this battle between Verizon and AT&T. It's pitting two major carriers against each other for product differentiation in which the consumers are bound to win.

Apple decided to take a little jab at Verizon with ads demonstrating functionality on the iPhone you can't get on Verizon, like talking while using the web. It was pretty roundabout though whereas the Verizon ads were dead-on attacks headed up by Luke Wilson. The ads aren't really all that fair, but they can get away with them because they're half-truths and the average person won't know any better. Still, the damage done by the Verizon ads may already be done. We'll have to see how it all shakes out in AT&T's quarterly results. The fact that they actually paid Luke Wilson to do these ads may be evident that they've already taken a hit from the ads - or it could just be fear.

Holiday Shopping Tips

There were a couple of articles I ran into that I thought were worth passing along regarding shopping for your tech gifts this holiday season. The first is from Tech Freaks and tells you what not to get. Given all the deals we're bombarded with, it's easy to forget the basics, like that the learning curve for a gadget may make it useless depending on who you're getting it for.

The other just gives you a pretty solid rundown of what the hot phones are right now and what their headline features are.

Sprint Feeding Cops Your GPS Location

I wish I had more time to talk about it, but Ars Technica has a great little article about how Sprint has given GPS data about it customers to law enforcement millions of times and the ease of use makes it unclear how many of these requests were backed by valid warrants. While this article picks at Sprint it wouldn't surprise me if other carriers were doing this. Just a scary fact to be aware of and to try to make your congressperson aware of. It's unfortunate how every year we devolve more and more into a dystopian 1984 world.

Other Stuff

I'm way over time here because I was having computer issues, so let me briefly wrap up on a few other stories.

Google and TiVo have reached an agreement where TiVo is providing anonymous usage information to give advertisers a better understanding of who they're reaching. I don't think it's as scary as it may sound - if it brings television into the current decade then I'm all for it.

For the first time ever, Firefox has beaten Germany. Still, it's pretty cool.

Tech Radar has a very thorough review of Office 2010. There weren't any surprises for me given what I've heard from within Microsoft, and I look forward to getting my hands on it.

The White House has gone on record as stating that net neutrality is linked to free speech, which further shows their support for net neutrality. This is in addition the President comparing a non-neutral Internet to Chinese censorship. I really hope they don't back down on this, but I also hope they don't go too far with it and create burdensome regulations.

Have a great week everyone! Stay warm!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Star Trek on Blu-ray

Live Long and Watch Star Trek

It's been a brutal 6 months, which is rounding down on the amount of time since the release of the JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek to its release on Blu-ray, but it was worth the wait. There was literally a shorter wait for GI Joe and Transformers 2, which I only compare because they were big summer blockbusters (not because I think they ordinarily belong in the same paragraph as Star Trek).

I've already reviewed the movie itself, so I'll direct you to that May post instead of going into all the gritty details about the content of the movie itself. I don't pre-order movies very often at all though (hadn't since literally January) because I'm usually ok with waiting for price drops if I liked it enough that I'll want to watch it again sometime, so the fact that I pre-ordered this should be some indication of how blown away I was by this film. Months after seeing it there were scenes that stuck with me (much like my favorite of the year, Inglourious Basterds) and it proved further to me that this is a really fun film for repeat viewings. It puts together a well-constructed story (despite being controversial) with truly dedicated actors/actresses and grand set pieces that feel really worthwhile rather than tawdry reminders that this is a summer movie (that was actually intended originally for a winter release). If you haven't seen this movie then you really need to put renting it at the top of your list for movies to check out - definitely above pretty much anything playing in your local theater right now (at the time of this posting, at least).

Moving swiftly along: I was a little disappointed with the overall presentation of this set. First of all, the slip case for the Blu-ray box had the back side with the run time and pictures and such just tacked on with the junk that credit card companies use to send you new cards. I like the fact that the Blu-ray case itself is full-on Chris Pine's face (the one peeking through the title on the slip case), and on the other side is a close up of Zachary Quinto's face as Spock. I loved the focus in the marketing of the theatrical release on the characters as being powerful enough imagery to sell the film - it's simple and it works. What I was really more disappointed in was the overall menu system. It's not terrible, but I just expected something cooler given that it's Star Trek, especially compared to Iron Man. There's also like 3 trailers (or ads, as I like to call them) and a video game ad to start the feature film disc, but I actually just figured out today that you can hit the 'pop-up menu' button on your Blu-ray player remote to skip straight to the top menu (I don't recall ever hitting any menu button a DVD and going straight to the main menu until I watched all the ads).

Why am I whining about something so trivial? Because that's about all I can complain about here. I was floored by the ridiculous video quality here. I can't recommend it as a gold standard for introducing people to Blu-ray necessarily because it doesn't have bright colors like Planet Earth, but I think the only Blu-ray I own now that looks better than it is Wall-E. Still, the transitions between dark scenes in this movie and those with color are quite smooth with all the colors looking very true to how they should be (the more vibrant they're supposed to be the more awesome they look on your TV). There are a lot of face close ups in this movie and the clarity in even these shots made me want to get up off my couch and just applaud the folks who did this transfer. If you are disappointed with the video quality of this disc, no matter how big or high-end your TV is, there may be something wrong with you (or your TV video settings). I don't have a high-end surround system so I don't want to pass judgement on sound, but it does sound great as far as I can tell. I can't complain about anything except for that maybe it's a bit soft in some places. Clarity is stellar, even in scenes where I was afraid I would be straining my ears to understand what they're saying.

There are so many special feature videos on the second disc that I couldn't get through all of them. What' truly remarkable is that each and every video you see on these discs is in high definition. I think the movie itself certainly looks better than the special features, but we're really talking about shades of gray here because they still look like you're watching an HD channel and whatever the aspect ratio is on them fits my widescreen TV perfectly (whereas the movie has black bars on top and bottom). There's actual more content here (in minutes) than the running time of the feature film, and this is one of those movies that actually has interesting backstories for how every aspect of the production process came about so they're pretty addictive if you have an afternoon/evening to spare going through them all. The deleted scenes are also more interesting than you normally find on a home video release, including the original opening sequence of Spock's birth. The only other features on this disc are a gag reel, all 3 trailers, and 3-d models of the Enterprise and Nero's vessels with details about specific parts of them. As a cherry on top, these features actually have subtitles (which, in my experience, is pretty rare). On the main disc, there's also commentary, which I didn't listen to a whole lot of it but I have to say that it was hard to stop watching once I did turn it on because it's very much like you're peering into the minds of the writers and producers in the format of a candid, relaxed conversation that doesn't feel forced or scripted at all. I don't usually listen to these, but I think I'll have to make an exception here.

Simply put, if you have a Blu-ray player and liked Star Trek at all, you're really doing a disservice to yourself by not picking this up. The studios are trying this crazy thing now where they price Blu-rays equivalent to DVDs instead of price-gouging, so $20 for this one is more than reasonable. They really didn't put this out there to set up for a double dip, or they're doing so with great stupidity because I can't think of what else you'd realistically want from a Blu-ray set for this movie in any sort of re-release. It's going to quickly become one of favorite Blu-rays, for sure.

More Chrome OS Details

It's been quite a few months now since Google Chrome OS was announced. It was a pretty no-frills announcement since they didn't have anything to show for it and very little to say. To keep interest up in the operating system, Google held an event going into more details about the look and feel of the OS, a few of the applications, and the security model. You can get a pretty brief summary of the event here. I don't know if they fully grasp the weight of what they're trying to do, but this event seemed to really hammer hard on simplicity regarding an idea that's really not that simple. Getting users to trust a computer that is wholly dependent on the cloud is a really hard sell, and I didn't see any remarks about what happens if you lose your connection to the Internet or how they're going to ensure the security, safety, and integrity (i.e. that it doesn't get corrupted) of your data. There was a lot of talk about how you configuration is remote so you don't lose it even when switching computers, but that doesn't explain what happens if they shut down their servers one day. I'll admit that the look and feel is pretty nice - for a netbook. It doesn't look to me like a viable OS still for anything but a netbook. Which is fine, but is that really going to be a strong market once this finally ships?

I don't want to be too discouraging of the idea of Chrome OS because it's ballsy and I like that. The security aspect of it is very bold in that it aims to not only have your computer run in a sandbox (since everything lives in the cloud, after all) but aims to do boot time verification of every system element, which is actually a concept that dates back all the way to the creation of the Java Virtual Machine (I'm sure it's older than that, it's just probably the first big implementation of it). It's a pretty good plan that relies on the idea that valid signatures for infected system components can't be forged, but it's too early to tell if Google is doing everything right here. Even with these two big protections, it probably won't be foolproof (it's still built on Linux, after all, which definitely has security flaws in every distribution), but it sounds like they're really taking security seriously.

Palm Pixi Released

It didn't receive a whole lot of press fanfare, as far as I could tell, but the Palm Pixi is now available on Sprint. I know they're a little biased, but Pre Central had an interesting enough review of the Pixi that I actually read the whole thing on my Pre at the airport last week. Their biggest complaints were that it felt a bit small and runs a bit slower than the Pre. I think it looks really attractive and I love webOS so I can't imagine that it's a bad phone for someone who's not a power smartphone user but wants a smartphone nonetheless.

While Sprint launched the Pixi, Verizon was busy launching more AT&T attack ads, which you've probably seen like a hundred times by now. AT&T is still in a legal battle with Verizon claiming that the ads misrepresent AT&T's network, but they don't since it's clearly specified as AT&T's 3G network rather than their entire data network, and the red map really is Verizon's 3G network - it's just that widespread.

And, off in a corner, Samsung launched a new mobile OS called Bada. It's cute that they still think they're a big player. They took too many gambles that didn't pay off and now they're often an afterthought when people shop for a new phone. Fortunately, Bada is an open platform and I have to give Samsung credit for at least trying something new instead of floundering with outdated phone UI designs. I wonder if they ever considered building Android phones?

Bing Captures More Market Share

Claims of Bing's market share being a fluke are now way past us as they sail into grabbing 10% of the search engine market share. It could be their marketing, it could be the quality of their results, or it could be the new features they keep rolling that keeps them in the news and, theoretically, in people's minds. The new feature last week was integrating Wolfram Alpha results. You have to click on a bar on the left side to get to some of this added stuff, but it is pretty neat.


I have to pack for my trip home, so it's time to wrap things up here with some quick stories.

Google has invented its own programming language called Go. It doesn't seem all that exciting to me, but I'll probably come back to it when it's more mature and see if it's viable as a quick and dirty scripting language since it does run so quickly.

If you're interested in learning to program, Lifehacker has a surprisingly good guide. Knowing how to program is definitely only one facet to being a good software developer, but that article covers great ways to see if you have an interest in it that you may want to pursue with formal education or side projects.

SquareTrade pitted a bunch of laptop manufacturers against one another and found Asus and Toshiba at the top in reliability. I wasn't surprised about Asus since they've been a little-known excellent brand for a while now, but Toshiba has definitely come along.

If you want to know what not to ask in an interview, check out this story from some bad Google interviews. If you're still asking riddles in your job interviews then you need to hop in your time machine and go back to 2006 where those questions weren't considered useless.

The PS3 saw some interesting improvements this month including Facebook support and Netflix support.

If you've ever fallen for one of TechCrunch's crazy stories, you'll like this PC Mag editorial about Michael Arrington.

YouTube is adding auto captions for deaf views - goodonya Google!

Skype bought itself back from eBay.

Amazon Fresh is now more usable on the iPhone - grocery shop on your work commute so you can spend more time sleeping instead of shopping.

Have a fantastic Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Facebook Cons

The Latest Facebook Scandal

What is it about Facebook that gives it such a celebrity status among tech journalists? It seems to get a lot of coverage despite at its core merely being a platform to communicate with friends and post embarrassing pictures of your friends. The problem with being in the spotlight is that you get at least as much negative press as positive press (unless you agree with the adage that any press is good press). Typically, Facebook is bitten by UI changes or some critical privacy discrepancy at least once every 6 months. This time, the big news is a bit off the beaten path.

Techcrunch was probably first to the scene here with an expose from an insider who used to be a part of spreading spam on Facebook. It turns out that there's a whole seedy underbelly to the world of Facebook Applications. Facebook users typically aren't fans of buying stuff on Facebook, but it turns out that they are gullible enough to do things like download toolbars or give up personal information when prodded with the right incentive, which leads to conning them into paying the shady company money. Computerworld has a blogwatch compiling quotes from other articles weighing in on the scams calling out Farmville and Mafia Wars and decrying the offenses of virtual currency and hidden ponzi schemes.

So what happened? I guess this was really inevitable. You have a network that's growing like crazy, has an open platform, and users seem to put a lot of misplaced trust in. Facebook is a believer in small government and so they have tried to be hands off, which is an even better situation for scammers looking to make a quick buck. Now they're locked in an arms race as advertisers are finding more creative ways to cheat the system. It's not a very hopeful situation right now, but it's possible that legitimate advertisers will become more prevalent on Facebook and edge out the shady ones. In my opinion, Facebook still needs to make a more active effort to police these shady application owners. I hesitate to recommend a vetting process because we don't want another iTunes App Store situation, which is irritating despite being successful, but Amazon and eBay and many other sites have whole teams that work to expose fraud, why can't Facebook? If they already do have such a team then they may need to make it bigger because this is going to hurt the long-term growth potential of Facebook (the little they have, in my opinion) if people trust Facebook less and less.

Google Feature Bonanza

Last week really demonstrated how big Google has become as they managed to release 3 new features/products.

The smallest additions were options to allow more text to show up in your search results and/or thumbnails from the pages in the results. Some people went so far as to create Firefox extension to simulate this functionality so there was clearly a demand for them, though I've never felt the need for either feature.

Arguably the biggest thing to come from Google was Google Dashboard, which brings together all the data attached to your Google account into an easy-to-use interface. It is kind of cool, but I don't think it's especially useful and is creepy in a way. While it does force you to login again before using it, like when you try searching your history, it tells you stuff like how many calls you've made in Google Voice and the last video you favorited in YouTube. It's more a frightening reminder of everything Google knows about you than a great utility. However, the fact that it does give you this view of what Google has on you may encourage you to clamp down on areas you're more sensitive about.

The last thing Google announced was Commerce Search, which is a cloud-hosted search appliance targeted at retail websites. While it's not a bad idea I definitely question their ability to turn it into a successful product given that people barely remember that Google Checkout exists nowadays.

Selling Software With One Hand, Laying Off With the Other

Microsoft has sold a few copies of Windows 7 since it's launch a couple of weeks ago to the tune of 234% more copies in its opening week than Vista's opening week, and 84% more revenue. Despite the strong sales of Snow Leopard it's clear that Windows 7 came out on top as it already has more market share than Snow Leopard or all distributions of Linux combined. Granted, that's only 2% of the market but the other 89% of the market is Vista and XP. Still, not too shabby for its first two weeks.

Unfortunately, it's not all good news in Redmond: Microsoft announced that they would conclude the layoffs they began at the beginning of the year with 800 more layoffs. I'm guessing that some of these laid off employees can transfer to other teams within the company, so it may not be as bad as it sounds, but I'm sure that more than a few will have to look for work elsewhere.

Maybe they can find work at a much-criticized Microsoft retail store. The first one has opened in Scottsdale, AZ, which somewhat makes sense since there's not much to do in Scottsdale but shop. It doesn't look much better or worse than it has in the leaked documents but who knows, it could be a runaway success.

It's All About Android

Even though the iPhone still rules the smartphone roost (at least in America), Android 2.0 has turned more than a few heads. It turns out that it has more cool features than just Google Navigation, and Tech Radar has a pretty concise rundown of what's new. Some of the highlights are contact sync with external services, Microsoft Exchange support (took long enough), multiplayer gaming via Blueooth, and a much enhanced camera application. If you want a more in-depth look, Gizmodo has a pretty well-written review but be forewarned that they sneak in feedback of Droid in there since it's the only device you can get your grubby hands on running Android 2.0 so who knows if the sluggishness would be better on a better processor. What I'm disappointed in is that only certain devices can get this upgrade. I can understand if there are hardware limitations, but some of these features shouldn't be so tightly coupled with the hardware. It creates a world like Windows Mobile where you have different versions floating around where someones experience with an older version makes them think that the newest version is just as bad because they don't understand they're different. Or maybe Android users are savvy enough to understand this (no disrespect to Android users, but it's not likely that they all realize this).

Meanwhile, Verizon launched the HTC Droid Eris last Friday, which will actually run Android 1.5.

I think it's a pretty nice-looking phone, but it's really just a reworked version of the HTC Hero made compatible with the Verizon network. I understand that they want this phone out there to fill out their line some more for the holiday season, but, as I cited above, it's going to cause customer confusion having two different Android phones running two different versions of Android that are both brand new to the Verizon network. They ideally should've released Droid Eris earlier or delayed it until Android 2.0 was ready for it.


Just a few brief stories left...

Apparently there's a new format already in the works to follow HD called UHD, or Universal HD. A resolution of 3840 x 2160 sounds downright crazy, but I'm sure in the year 2023 I'll be eating my words when we all have a UHD set.

For those of you living in the present, Sound and Vision Magazine has a pretty cool guide to LED.

Joel Spolsky put up a blog post I liked that starts out explaining warning signs that you should quit your job and ends selling a product I'd endorse if it does what he says called Stack Overflow Careers. It's basically a simplified LinkedIn for getting your resume out there. It's not a bad idea.

The forthcoming version of uTorrent stops competing with ISPs' packet shaping strategies and cooperates with ISPs to adjust download and upload speeds for clients according to network congestion. Apparently, this will affect upload speed more than download speeds and is supposed to end up resulting in faster downloads overall. Very cool stuff.

In the October browser market share statistics, Firefox has finally bested Internet Explorer 6, which has more market share than IE7 or IE7 so technically Firefox as a whole has more users than any single version of IE.

Have a great, illness-free week everyone! *cough* Time for some TheraFlu...

Monday, November 02, 2009

Motorola Names its Comeback Kid: Droid

Droid Details Announced

I've mentioned Droid a couple of times recently and my last word on it was that it was probably going to be a line of Verizon phones instead of a single phone. Fortunately, it looks like that's not true and there is an actual Droid phone from Motorola that's due out later this week. Other than the gold colored square on the keyboard that I still haven't figured out, this is a pretty attractive phone and the first to market with Android 2.0. I personally don't think the aesthetics are as solid as the Pre, but it sounds like it feels solid and features a physical (landscape) and virtual keyboard. Plus, the screen looks like it's pretty awesome quality.

PC Magazine already has a review up and they sound somewhat impressed with it. They point out some pretty big failings in the physical keyboard, call quality, and slowdowns despite the powerful guts of the Droid, but it does sound like the multimedia software is strong as is the camcorder. Even though this may not be the most impressive phone on the block, I think it can do well if Verizon's marketing works and people do perceive it to be a good alternative to the iPhone, and I'm sure that it is a worthy alternative.

This is the first big release from Motorola in quite a while. I'm not counting the Cliq since it's not out yet and doesn't sound like it's as well-rounded of a smartphone as Droid. It's pretty clear that Motorola is changing their tune so that they can start making real money again and jumping in bed with Anrdoid. Their plans for 2010 are pretty firmly rooted in Android, and it's quickly starting to look like 2010 may be the year of Android for mobile phones, in general. The iPhone will still be popular, but I predict Android phones to pick up steam and could outsell iPhones as an aggregate. Given that Droid doesn't really undercut the iPhone on cost I don't think it's going to be a huge hit, but as the first worthy Android phone on Verizon I think it's the start of a crusade from Verizon to strike back at AT&T in the wake of AT&T chipping away at Verizon's subscriber base differential.

Google Navigation

One big feature of Android 2.0 that I neglected to mention above is the inclusion of free turn-by-turn directions. Given the ridiculous price of turn-by-turn on the iPhone, this is a pretty decent leg up that Android now has on the iPhone OS. I don't have a read on how much people care about turn-by-turn on their phone since I have a dedicated GPS, but I can see people using a feature like that to help justify buying a new phone. As demonstrated by the stock market, this is a pretty big blow to Garmin and Tom Tom as this application has a robotic voice, POIs, traffic and other common, rich navigation features, plus Street View (though the usefulness of that is debatable). If more Android 2.0 phones have car docks (like the Droid does), this could end up being a pretty popular feature, especially given that Android has voice recognition.

The only catch is that it sounds like this application requires data access, which is the only thing giving the GPS companies a fighting chance. When you're taking trips outside major cities and you have spotty 3G, you definitely don't want to get lost because you need Internet access. Of course, if you could pre-load the data you need for your journey and destination surroundings this wouldn't be so bad, but may be an expensive burden on the network.

The really good news about this though is that it's a pretty aggressive move that's going to really benefit consumers. This is going to drive down the prices of competing cell phone navigation products and probably of dedicated GPS devices, as well. Plus, you'll see more innovation across the board now that everyone knows Google is going to try to give them a run for their money.

Other Google Releases

There were a few other releases from Google last week.

You now get a link in image search results to find images similar to a given result, which is a pretty complicated feature when you consider the problem of establishing links between images.

Less surprising but still cool was the release of Google Music Search, which allows you to preview songs directly from your results and subsequently buy them.

The last thing Google talked about last week was that you can actually set up Google Voice on an existing number if you're ok with the fact that it's a lighter version of Google Voice with only a subset of the features. The main features it looks like you get are international calling and Google Voicemail (including transcription and usage of the online interface for managing it). I love the transcription and think it makes Google Voice valuable all on its own, so I tihnk it's cool that they're able to pull this off.

The Case Against Net Neutrality

I've spoken a lot in favor of net neutrality recently, with this picture being a pretty good depiction of what the world could be like without net neutrality, but there's definitely been a lot of concern with allowing the FCC step in. CNet posted an editorial that I don't agree with but I think poses some worthwhile alternate points. The jurisdiction argument is a tough one since the FCC is skating on thin ice in trying to legislate the Internet, but I definitely don't think such protection would be as paranoid as the CNet editorial seems to hint at.

Congress is starting to side with the dark side though an both houses are putting up bills to kill any possible net neutrality legislation, one of which was authored by John McCain (one of the reasons why I was really against him last year). Their motivations are definitely misled claiming that regulation kills innovation, in which case you could argue that monopolies should be allowed because they foster innovation being unregulated. Their bills sound a bit heavy-handed and I think you go to an extreme opposite the FCC in possible overstepping its bounds. I'm not sure how well either bill will do, but hopefully not very in a Democrat-run Congress.


I'm literally at the point of dozing off here so time for the last bits I have here.

Joel Spolsky put up a really good essay about capstone projects that mostly hones in on how undergraduate CS programs are not focusing enough on skills needed in the industry with regard to time management and some of the biggest parts of the software development process (almost feels like an extension of my recent essay). It's misguided at times but still great overall.

Did you know there was a new Magic Mouse with multi-touch gesturing functionality? Cool. Not sure if I really need gesturing in my mouse, but still nifty.

This is a pretty awesome, comprehensive guide to using HTML 5.

The UN has approved a universal cell phone charger, which could be a great win for consumers tired of being over-charged for their charger should the lose/forget theirs on a trip away from home.

You can now buy stuff on Amazon and some other partners with just a single phrase to confirm who you are. It's a pretty cool concept and adds a layer of security on top of normal 1-click so go set up your phrase. If you don't pick a good phrase though then it's just adding a weakness to your security, so be careful.

Inglourious Basterds on Blu-ray is now $20, which is cheaper than its DVD equivalent. Times have really changed! This is almost certainly a pricing strategy to encourage Blu-ray sales in the holiday season, and I hope it works because I love my Blu-rays and wish more people had the players.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Net Neutrality Heats Up

Net Neutrality in the News

Net neutrality was in the news quite a bit last week. If you don't know what that is, you can use my short documentary from last year as a primer. It's been in the news off and on in the past 4 years or so but there were quite a few articles last week regarding some rules that the FCC is proposing to preserve net neutrality. Interestingly enough, the EFF is pretty pessimistic about these proposals as giving the FCC power that it doesn't actually have. The so-called Four Freedoms that the FCC is trying to support are venerable ideals: that consumers are entitled to access to legal Internet content, to run applications and services of their choice, to connect to the Internet on their choice of lawful devices that don't harm the network, and competition among content providers as well as service providers. They're simple but elegant principles to stand behind and I'm definitely glad that the FCC is at least not going the other direction and favoring Comcast et al. Even if they don't have the power to foster net neutrality I hope that in investigating their authority the issue gets enough visibility to become something that ISPs don't sweep under the rug before people wake up and figure out what a problem it is when content providers don't get a fair shake at distributing their content.

It's a common misconception that net neutrality means that consumers are entitled to pay a flat rate for unlimited Internet usage as well, but that's actually not the case. It's not as big of a deal to created tiered packages for Internet access as long as each tier has access to the exact same Internet as any other tier. This is what AT&T and Time Warner want to bring about - pay as you go Internet. Charging by the bit for your Internet consumption. This isn't so crazy considering that your water, electricity, and cell phone usage are metered, but in a country that has a long way to go in improving broadband penetration and where the Internet has become so vital to some people's lifestyles it can definitely be detrimental to everyone to have crappy tiers, and that's what I'm worried about. The world that Time Warner envisions where most people are using very little Internet and they want to charge more money to the Internet hogs isn't the future that's ahead of us anymore with things like Hulu and Netflix and YouTube growing in subscribers and content every day. If you have to pay by the bit you may be less likely to stream that movie on Netflix, and I think the Internet could see somewhat of a dip in profitability with less eyeballs. I can understand the ISPs' argument that Internet plans with unlimited access are unsustainable in the long-term, but they still need to work on upgrading their networks and coming up with affordable pricing plans, unlike the ones proposed in Texas not too long ago by Comcast that they had to pull out of because they were so unreasonable. 150 GB is definitely too small of a cap when you consider a family of four using the Internet, especially if one of the parents have a job that involves using a VPN and/or a VNC viewer when working from home.

It's good to see these issues getting slightly more exposure and I hope that we reach an agreement on a future for the Internet that makes sense for companies and for consumers.

Search Deals

There were a few high-profile search deals struck last week. The first one was Bing acquiring non-exclusive rights to search Facebook and Twitter for their real-time status updates. For a few hours, Bing had something that Google didn't. It wasn't even a day though before Google announced a similar deal with Twitter, but they had not struck one with Facebook. Given that Twitter has more public updates than Facebook, it was the bigger deal anyhow. As a cherry on top, Google whispered to the API that they plan on adding music pages to search this week with direct links to download songs and rich content for artists with images, lyrics, song previews, and other goodies. This is akin to the artist pages you find on Amazon when you search for big artists.

The real story on this is between the lines: we have actual competition in search again. Hooray! We have two giants pitted against each other to deliver better sites that ultimately benefit consumers. I'm fairly certain that Yahoo still has a bigger share of the market than Bing, but I don't think that their terrible advertising campaign is making many inroads compared to the good fortune that Bing has had in recent months with drumming up traffic (probably thanks in part to their controversial ad that involved vomiting).

Blur, Droid and a Watch

There were 3 mobile phone stories last week, but none of them were really that big.

Boy Genius posted pictures of Motorola Calgary, which is the codename for the Motorola Blur-branded handset that's coming to Verizon. It looks like a plasticky, low-end smartphone, which isn't a bad thing but that's just what the design tells me. If it's not intended to be that then they need a better design team at Motorola (that's not really news though).

You've probably seen the stupid Droid ads now, so does that mean Calgary is "Droid"? In a manner of speaking, I believe so. It turns out that Droid is not a single phone but a series of Android phones coming to Verizon. Lame. They're re-branding Android as "Droid"? That doesn't make any sense to me. Engadget believe that the Motorola Sholes and HTC Eris are the first of the line and the Sholes may, in fact, end up being called just "Droid". I imagine that we'll hear more from Verizon about this later in the week as the ads now indicate a release of something in November.

Lastly, how stupid does this thing look?

It's a Bluetooth-enabled watch for your Blackberry. They had a bad quarter but decided to sustain development of a dumb-looking watch so you can be even more connected to your Blackberry? How about making a phone that innovates instead of these handsets they put out that are just marginally better than the previous model? Besides me, who uses a wristwatch anymore anyway? I love wearing a watch because I never know what time it is and like quick access to it, especially during meetings where there's no wall clock, but I recognize that most people don't think they need one.

Amazon Tidbits

Amazon had a really great Q3 and posted a 29% increase in sales compared to Q3 2008. There was definitely a lot of hard work behind it and relentless customer obsession, I hope our good fortune and blessings continue.

There were a couple of other recent announcements that I thought were cool. Last week, Amazon announced a free PC application for Kindle owners to read their books on their PC for free and even includes touchscreen functionality for Windows 7 users with multitouch devices. The other thing was same-day delivery in seven major cities, which is just $6 for Prime users on any order. Also, Prime users formerly didn't get Saturday delivery without paying extra but can now get Saturday delivery on orders placed before cutoff on Thursday. If I'm not mistaken, this is the first year ever that Amazon is offering shipping options so that you can order a last-minute gift on Christmas morning and have it at your doorstep in time for dinner.

The Short Stuff

Alright, time to wrap up with some quick stories.

Windows 7 launched last Thursday and hardware manufacturers are hoping to benefit from the release with a sales boost this holiday season.

If you're not sold on Windows 7 yet, I've talked plenty about it already so I'll direct you to Ars Technica's rather thorough review.

If you plan to upgrade to Windows 7 but are worried about re-installing your core base of applications, then you have to check out Ninite. It's a really cool program that allows you to create a single installer based around a list of applications you can choose from. It features a lot of apps that I love.

Gizmodo has a slew of images and a video of the Nook, which is the terrible name Barnes and Noble has decided on for their e-Reader, and you can find even more pictures at Engadget. The price point is $256, I wonder where they got that from.

Inglourious Basterds (see my review) was finally given an official DVD and Blu-ray release date last week of December 15, which is a few days after the UK release. It's available on Amazon for pre-order now! I already ordered my copy and can't wait for the extended scenes and the full version of Nation's Pride.

AMD announced the first triple-core processors defying the longstanding tradition in computing of sticking to powers of two.

Lastly, if you're looking for Google Chrome extensions to install then check this out.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cell Phone News Galore

Mobile News Overload

Last week was kind of slow (news wise at least, busy for me), except for several stories about cell phones - so let's dig into those.

Verizon has started an odd ad campaign for a new cell phone. They gave Apple a backhanded slap a couple of weeks ago by kicking off a cell phone ad (that I see all the time now - see last week's post) mocking the terrible 3G coverage you can expect in a lot of places if you're on AT&T with an iPhone. Now, they have an ad that even more clearly mocks the iPhone ads by copying Apple's style in order to call out the iPhone's foibles as features for what "Droid does". Normally, I'd be in support of this, but it seems a little silly. This is something the Palm Pre does and didn't have to advertise with such secrecy. It's surprising how many people notice that I have a Pre (then again, I live in Seattle), so I think the message is pretty clear that the Pre has a physical keyboard and supports background processes. This ad does nothing but attempt to drum up hype for a phone that doesn't exist yet (but, by some people's count could be here by the end of the month). I love cell phone competition, I just hate it when marketing overtakes selling the features of a product. I can understand the importance of brand image, but ads like this make me feel like I'm being tricked into caring about a product. Anyway, I really hope this ends up being a good phone, but it's risky to talk smack like this because people (like Apple and their cult of followers) will call out Verizon if they don't deliver.

Speaking of Apple, they're continuing to fight jailbreaking by quietly selling 3GS devices with a fix that kills the latest jailbreaking hack. This isn't going to stop jailbreaking, but it's probably going to hit it harder than previous updates. I really don't get this. I can understand vocally standing against jailbreaking an iPhone, but if they believe it's so widespread that they have to work this hard against it, why don't they take a step back and understand why people want to jailbreak their iPhone? I'm just surprised by how customer-unfriendly a company is being that owes its success in part to a strategy of trying to give consumers what they want. Yes, part of what consumers want is what Apple tells them they want (I'm not being caustic, it's true), but it's clear that a lot of people have fallen in love with Apple products for good reason despite the bad stuff - why not work more towards that strategy?

One thing Apple did do right last week was to allow in-app purchases in free applications. This means you could be playing a free game and then purchase level packs in game. I really hope other platforms follow from this model, because I think it's hard to buy mobile applications, as cheap as they may be, compulsively without taking a few minutes to give them a test run. Their benefits aren't as long-term as computer software normally is, so they're harder to justify without a test run, in my opinion. Obviously, there are other uses for this than shareware, I just like that use case best.

Boy Genius got their grubby paws on screens of Android 2.0, which seems soon to some folks but apparently is coming with some really cool features for Android users including the highly-awaited Microsoft Exchange support, more voice control integration, double-tap in the browser (which is now becoming as common as middle-clicking on computer browsers), Facebook support in the contacts list (likely taking a page from Palm webOS), and is apparently snappier all around. Android phones may become hot in the next couple of years if hardware manufacturers can wake up and put together a solid phone for Android.

Lastly, PC Magazine posted their review of the Blackberry Storm 2 (the first review of it that I've seen) and they seem to have confirmed what people were saying about it a couple of months ago: it improves on a lot of the original Storm's downfalls. Apparently, the haptic feedback promised in the original actually shines here. Apparently, the web browsing isn't as strong as some other smartphones, but it does have the text messaging features that Blackberry owners cling to.

Security Brief

I have a couple of security stories that I don't have a lot to say about but I think are still worth bringing up.

IT Security put up a really fun read: 10 very short stories about teenage hackers. The most infamous story is probably Mafiaboy's Denial of Service attack that took down some of the biggest websites on the Internet in 2000.

It's a bit technical, but I liked Dark Reading's explanation of how to defend against a Distributed Denial of Sevice (DDoS) attack. When a lot of computers from entirely different places are hammering your servers, there's a way to tell them you're so backed up that you can only accept a byte of data at a time, effectively overloading the attacking machines in their attempts to flood you with requests. It's called tarpitting and it's a fascinating idea that probably won't become popular in the industry for a while, but I hope it does.

Gadgets Galore

There were a few stories about gadgets (other than cell phones) that caught my eye.

Gizmodo got exclusive first shots of Barnes and Noble's forthcoming e-Reader. It has an e-Ink screen and a multitouch LCD screen (for navigation), but I'm not sold on it being better than the Kindle. I know that I'm a little biased, but B&N is a little late to the game and I don't know that I'm a fan of navigating a book without buttons. Even on iPhone and Pre screens, which are excellent, I get misfires. I've come to accept that because it's worth the tradeoff for the improved interface, but I don't think I'd be so forgiving with a book reader.

I kind of wish I was kidding about this next story: Nintendo is going to sell a Wii Exercise Bike. It looks exactly as you'd think it would: a minimalistic, white electronic exercise bike. This really shouldn't be a huge surprise given that Wii Fit did so well, and Nintendo has done crazier things (remember Virtual Boy or, better yet, the Power Glove?), but I was hoping they were beyond stuff like this. Why someone would want to buy this instead of an exercise bike you don't need a game console for is beyond me.

And finally, Maximum PC got their hands on the Western Digital TV Live digital media player and seemed to like it. It aims to integrate your media library with online video offerings, and is probably worth the $150 instead of a new computer if that's all you use your home computer for.

Final Notes

Ok, I'm fading fast here so time to run through the remaining stories.

This video
of a possible next-generation Human Computer Interface (HCI) is pretty awesome - it replaces the mouse with a multitoch pad. Unlike the new MacBook trackpads, this maps directly to your screen so it can be used all around instead of just pictures. Definitely worth a watch - hope it actually gets implemented!

Wonder what Google Wave is for? Lifehacker has a pretty nice list of possible use cases.

Six Revisions has a good roundup of performance benchmarks for the latest round of the biggest web browsers since they all have claimed performance improvements recently. Not surprisingly, Chrome dominates while Internet Explorer was exposed to run like a cow.

Acer is selling more PCs than Dell. That's kind of crazy - I guess Dell's brand has weakened, but when did people start having more faith in Acers?

Blockbuster Video on Demand is now on TiVo! Yay!

I don't typically plug Google Office tours because I feel that they make Google look like a wonderland while making people forget the cons of working there, but I have to say that the Chicago office does look pretty cool.

Have a good week everyone!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Flash on Mobile Phones: Coming Soon?

Mobile Flash in 2010

You know it's a slow news week when the biggest thing to talk about is an article from the BBC regarding Adobe's commitment to have Flash available on "most higher-end handset" by 2010. I feel like I'm back in 2007 when people thought Flash would come out on the iPhone (despite no official promise from Apple, of course). The manufacturers Adobe has on board when they say "most" are Windows Mobile, Palm webOS, Google Android, and Nokia Symbian. If it weren't for a demo they put together of Flash running on the Palm Pre, I honestly wouldn't have believed it. It looks really nice in the demo, but until we get it in our hands there's no telling how well it will actually perform. I hope it's not telling that the demo starts out with full battery life and the phone is in the red by the end of the demo.

There's a reason why Flash Lite was first released: Flash is really heavyweight. Flash is predicated on vector graphics, which are pretty CPU intensive and need solid hardware to perform well. Flash barely works on some modern-day computers without crashing - fitting it on a mobile device with the hardware available today almost seems unreasonable. Is there not a distinct possibility that Flash is something that just can't can't work well on mobile devices? I want Flash on my phone just as much as the next guy - having access to Lala at all times is really attractive. However, the Palm Pre has formidable hardware and struggles at time over even Sprint's strong 3G network to load long pages and can be sluggish in loading pages with heavy Javascript. Will heavy Flash objects lead to terrible battery life and painstaking wait times? Adobe would have you believe that Apple hasn't jumped on their ship because they're being arrogant, but I imagine that Apple has these same concerns. Why is everyone else on board? Because they're all trying to get a leg up on Apple and think that this is the key. To be honest, if Flash can be tweaked to work well on a mobile phone then it just may be a boon to some otherwise less-popular phones. However, the bottom line, in my opinion, is that Flash on mobile phones is a little ahead of its time given our current situation in hardware and wireless connectivity. I'd like to think that it will work seamlessly well someday, but I'm very wary of that day being later this year.

It could be that the way to get around having to have a phone fully support Flash is to be able to simply port your Flash-based applications into native applications for your favorite mobile platform, like you now can for the iPhone. Obviously, for sites with navigation and features entirely based in Flash rather than just games and widgets, this won't work so well, but when you go to a mobile device I think you have to accept some compromises.

Verizon Gears Up For War

Last week was a fairly big week for Verizon. They did multiple things that indicate their dedication to trench warfare against AT&T. The first thing I noticed was during the new House last Monday: a commercial that blatantly pokes fun at the "there's an app for that" commercials from Apple by using the popular perceptions of AT&T's weak 3G network against them. I was so impressed that I got up and clapped for Verizon - it was a pretty stiff jab and is exactly the sort of stuff Verizon needs point out if they're going to stand a chance against AT&T. It may not endear them much to Apple to strike a deal to bring the iPhone to Verizon, but who knows if Apple would even consider such a thing (though they really should).

The other major piece to fighting AT&T is having a solid base of competing handsets, which Verizon just doesn't have right now due to the stifling requirements they tend to impose on hardware manufacturers. There's been a lot of buzz for the HTC Hero, the first Android-based touchscreen smartphone to reach the U.S., and Verizon announced last week that it will be available on their network in November. This got little press coverage, but it's probably going to be a big deal to Verizon loyalists and I'm sure will become Verizon's crowning jewel since the Storm was such a disaster and they've still been mum on details for getting a Palm webOS-based smartphone.

There's even bigger news for Verizon though: they've reached a partnership with Google many months in the making to co-create Android-based handsets with them, which I presume will be Verizon-exclusive. Verizon was so interested in making this deal happen that they even agreed to support Google Voice. I'm not sure if that means anything other than allowing someone to install the Google Voice application on their Android phone (maybe it will pre-loaded?), but this is probably partially Google looking for solace in Verizon since AT&T unexpectedly did not approve Google Voice on the iPhone a while back.

Touchscreen Innovation

Enough about mobile phones, let's generalize a little bit and talk about touchscreens for a minute. Among other things, the support Windows 7 is providing for multi-touch has served as an impetus for advances in touschreens for PCs. I found the demos fascinating and nifty, but I don't think that they're necessarily the future of desktop PCs or even laptops. I've never had the desire to touch my laptop screen rather than use my mouse, or reach across my desk at work to open a program. Where touchscreens really shine are in collaborative environments. There have been plenty of meetings I've been in where I wish I had a touchscreen to draw on and access data on my computer from rather than dealing with projectors on whiteboards. I love whiteboards and can get along just fine without giant touchscreens, mind you, but I can see them enhancing the experience.


I'm starting to nod off here so it's time for the remaining tagged stories I have here.

IBM has decided to offer a cloud computing e-mail service to compete with Gmail. They're a little late to the game, but they are still a major player, even if they aren't as sexy as Google.

nVidia has stopped development on future chipsets due to an injunction from Intel caused by a misunderstanding in their chipset agreement.

Microsoft is replacing Microsoft Works with Microsoft Office Starter, which has ad-supported versions of Word and Excel. It's an interesting choice, but it's not like anyone uses Works anymore anyway who's not on a 486.

Kevin Rose (co-founder of Digg) posted his FOWA talk on taking your fledgling site to 1 million users. I consider it an interesting depiction of how different getting eyeballs is now than it was even just 10 years ago.

Digital Trends has a round-up of multi-function devices, and I wanted to plug it because it turned me on to some gadgets I had no idea about - like the new Canon PowerShots that shoot in HD.

Conan hunted down the real Ajay Bhatt (co-creator of USB) as popularized by the recent Intel ads, and did a hilarious interview with him. It's definitely worth watching.

I'm not a violent person, but I still enjoyed this photo gallery from Newsweek of high-tech military weaponry.

If you're a huge nerd like me and tried to figure out how to crack a Master lock when you were bored in middle school, wonder no more.

Get on those rain coats and enjoy the week, everyone!