Monday, January 26, 2009

Q4 Earnings Reports Madness

Microsoft, Intel, Google, and Apple's Earnings

A lot of tech companies released their quarterly earnings for the holiday season last week (Amazon's will be released this week), and most of them were unimpressive. I was rather shocked to discover that Microsoft's revenues only went up by 2%, which is $900 million short of their forecast. To appease the investors and shore up their profits for Q1, they have decided to lay off 5,000 workers over the next 18 months, with over 1/4 of those jobs cut last week. They're cutting jobs in several departments, so not just in HR and R&D, but also their software engineers. In fact, the entire Flight Simulator team was let go, which is probably their oldest video game franchise. To make matters worse, Zune revenues dropped 54% year-over-year whereas the iPod gained by a few percentage points. The number is slightly more sad when you find out that 54% means about $100 million.

Steve Ballmer sent out a letter to all of Microsoft's employees about the situation, and I actually really liked the letter. Despite his public antics, I thought that it was really honest and heartfelt, and it pretty clearly laid out that they're handling this weakened economy with a good plan. I'm sure that it was not an easy choice for them to layoff any employees given how much they invest in recruiting smart people. I don't think Microsoft has ever laid off people before, but I guess it just goes to show that even they don't have enough money to save themselves when times get as bad as they are right now.

Meanwhile, Google saw a strong 18% growth in revenues year-over-year. They did see a drop in profits, but it looked like it was due to some investments and not reflective of their actual earnings. Another big article that came out last week, maybe a bit ironically, exposed an e-mail thread circulated among ex-Googlers in which they listed the things they loved and hated about life at Google. Some of the biggest complaints were incompetent managers, a ridiculous interviewing process (with 13 interviews for a single position being normal), salaries lower than competitors, and overall bureaucratic difficulties. It's a good thread that I spent far too long reading, and it's just interesting that no company is perfect. I have a lot of fun at my job, but some days aren't as fun as others and some times pager duty can be terrible. I think what's important is that you feel like you're making a difference with what you do, and I definitely get that feeling and it sounds like even some of these Googlers did. It sounded like some of them joined Google for the wrong reasons: the flashiness of the playground that is their awesome Mountain View office, but it's a lure that few can easily resist so you can't fault them for that. Anyway, if you ever wished you could work at Google maybe that article will help you appreciate some things at your workplace.

Intel saw weak PC sales with a rise instead in Netbook sales (something that hurt Microsoft, as well) causing a whopping 90% drop in profits from Q4 2007. They've decided to rethink 5,000-6,000 jobs, which is my way of saying that they're going to either transfer around or lay off that many people. AMD is cutting 9% of their workforce, about 1,100 jobs. They probably won't cut chip prices much since they're already so low, but it is sad to see so many jobs cut because I wonder how much innovation we'll see in chip-making in this down economy. I guess this would be a good time for AMD to swoop in and dominate Intel or a new player with deep pockets to enter the market.

Meanwhile, Apple's profits only dipped a bit with profits just barely surpassing the previous holiday season (a $100 million growth in revenues from $11.7bn to $11.8bn), which is something that no one scoffs at nowadays. It doesn't help that they're also being investigated by the SEC for their disclosures about Steve Jobs's health, which doesn't mean that Apple has necessarily done anything wrong but just that the SEC is doing their due diligence (possibly due to complaints from disgruntled investors). It is kind of odd that Steve Jobs's health didn't decline until just after Macworld, but it could just be coincidence.

One last thing to sneak in here: it turns out that IT workers got a raise of 4.6% overall in 2008 with an average salary of $78,035. Of course, IT managers had the highest salaries at around $111k, but nearly a quarter of those surveyed to get these figures said that they were concerned about staying valuable to their employers and almost the same number fear getting laid off. Those raises only match inflation, and it's still sad to see my fellow programmers so worried, but I think this economy has affected almost every industry. I look forward to seeing us bounce back together, and I hope that people band together and help each other out. I've been spending a decent amount of spending because of my vacation and my new TiVo, but I've definitely been cutting back on things I might've otherwise done (like weekend ski trips) to make sure I meet my target monthly savings amount.

Obama is President, Tech Stories Galore!

In the wake of Obama's awesome inauguration last week, I actually tagged 6 articles that I'm going to run through here about the start of his presidency and the inauguration. By the way, I really liked his speech. At first I didn't as much as I did some of his other speeches, but I thought he brought in some great quotes and it showed that he's very aware of the current situation and will do whatever he can do to help us bounce back. His faith in our country is just awesome.

Anyway, they had a lot of tech ready for security for the inauguration including a reconnaisance plane, tons of cameras, over a hundred intel teams, and, of course, metal detectors. Google took some pictures of the event from space, also, and the sheer number of people who showed up is pretty crazy.

Obama may be our most technologically aware president ever, and that's apparent in the fact that he asked the chairman of Sun for a white paper on how the U.S. government can benefit from open source software. The average American probably doesn't know what open source means, so the fact that he's willing to turn away money from big vendors to look into free, open-source solutions more widely is crazy. A number of government agencies already have gone open source, but the more the merrier. I personally think that the way to go is a balance of proprietary and open source software, not necessarily 100% of one or the other. His staff is so technologically advanced that they were a little peeved at their lack of communication with the outside world through their new computers. Not only that, but the computers they got were mostly desktops running old Microsoft software rather than the Mac laptops they were accustomed to, and the White House site was not very up-to-date last week. It'll be interesting to see what processes are changed and how much the White House will embrace the bigger social networking sites. They've already taken over the White House twitter account and have started updating it with daily updates.

One last Obama-related article: Read Write Web has an article linking to 7 things you can do online to help Obama "restore America", and I think it's great. Whether or not you were thrilled about Obama getting elected, everyone can agree on getting your finances together and staying informed and stuff like that.

Blu-ray Here to Stay

I've heard several techies counting Blu-ray out already because of how hot digital distribution is, but they're missing the fact that people like owning movies in a physical format. The problem with digital content is that even if you have a TiVo or Apple TV, you have to store your movies on a hard drive or something if you want to keep them, and what if the next big machine doesn't support that? Conversely, Blu-ray players are growing in popularity and the PS3 will be around for a while, and DVDs are still readily playable, so why turn away from hard formats? CNet has a great article talking about this and more as to why Blu-ray is going to succeed. It had a rough start, I know, but this time next year I would bet that things will be very different. The ridiculous growth in HD TV sales, even if they're lower-end TVs, in this economy means that people don't want to cut out entertainment from their budget, and they're going to start noticing that NBC in HD looks a lot better than any of their old DVDs do. Not only that, but Sony is very invested in the success of this format, so they're in it until the bloody end. Until like their past crazy formats, this one has become the de facto for HD video for the forseeable future, and they're going to aim to keep it that way so they can stay afloat.

The Windows 7 Taskbar Beats the Dock

Gizmodo has a controversial article up claiming that the Windows 7 taskbar has surpassed the OS X dock, and I'm sure it has already incited a vast flame war. In the end, this is really a subjective distinction. Still, the fact that it's really vying for people's love of a taskbar is an impressive feat. Whether or not it's better or not is irrelevant compared to the fact that it's giving the Mac a run for its money as far as having a beautiful and functional access bar to applications. Some of the advantages that Gizmodo cites includes Aero Peek to easily see into what the windows have, the flashing colored glass to grab your attention, the scalability to accommodate running a lot of applications at once while still having them be usable, and jump lists (quick access to the most frequently used pieces of an application). They don't overlook the shortcomings (like no text to describe windows), and they just give a great comparison with the OS X dock.

TiVo Review Coming Soon

I just wanted to note that I love my TiVo HD. It's awesome. If my TiVo could talk to me and asked me to sacrifice the Motorola DVR I've been renting to my fireplace in exchange for its continued cooperation, I'd totally do it. I literally set a high priority series recording for Lost and the stupid thing (the Motorola) totally forgot about recording it! There was no competing recording, it just didn't feel like recording it. To the contrary, I was able to set Season Pass recordings for a few shows at work a few days ago for my TiVo and they recorded that very night! I even set one recording from my cruddy Treo phone using their mobile site and had no problems. Not only does it not miss recordings, but it doesn't record every airing like my Motorola incompetently does and it even records shows it thinks I might like (and actually does a pretty good job of figuring this out, to be honest) to fill up some of my free space. While you can't manage your TiVo's recordings online, you can remotely set it to download online content (like video podcasts). There are so many things to talk about that I'm going to do a video review in late February. Why so late? For one thing, I can't get a CableCARD until February 18 because Broadstripe is ridiculous (I'm using an antenna right now, which works beautifully on TiVo for HD network television), but I'm also waiting for my brother to ship me a tripod for my Flip Mino HD so I can record and navigate the TiVo. Some of the other awesome features is that I can transfer videos super easily (and even on a schedule) to my computer, I can use my computer as a home media server to stream pictures and music and transfer videos, Netflix integration, YouTube integration, Amazon Video on Demand integration, Season Passes that work, Wish lists (that also work), great search (again, it's amazing how other DVRs can fail so terrible at this) that works, and so much more. This is one of my favorite devices ever, hands down. It's just that good. This is the kind of living room device I've always wanted - between this and the PS3 I'm completely set for home entertainment (plus my HD TV, of course). What a great time it is to come home after a hard day at work!

I'm going to piggyback on this with Engadget's rundown of all the ways you can access Netflix's HD content, including the TiVo HD, which is one of their recommended ways to access it even though the interface isn't as flashy as it is on the Xbox 360. I think it's interesting how many hardware devices Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand are on (TiVo, Roku, Xbox 360, certain TVs and Blu-ray players, etc.) as opposed to iTunes (iPods, iPhones, Apple TV). Granted, Apple probably has them beat in sheer numbers because of how many iPods and iPhones are out there, but definitely not in diversity of devices. Plus, iTunes videos aren't hosted online, so you can't stream them from where ever you want as many times as you want with Amazon Video on Demand. I wonder if they'll change their tune or even strike up more partnerships?

Final Notes

I'm seriously out of time here. Just a few last things super quick.

Two-thirds of Americans without broadband couldn't be bothered to get it, even with a stimulus package. This is kind of sad: it means that they don't understand what the Internet has to offer to them, and I hope that over the next few years they can learn how the Internet can help improve their lives (and hopefully not waste too much of their time in the process with Internet memes and social networking sites).

The Supreme Court has decided that a 1988 law against providing porn online to minors is unconstitutional. As you can guess: the law is too broad. It just didn't make sense and ended up penalizing traditional publishers who do their due diligence already.

This is a wonderful list of the top 10 Steve Jobs quotes. He was always known for saying insightful things, and even though I don't agree with all his ideas I think that he is one of the greatest visionaries the tech industry has ever seen and will be a historical figure long after his death (which I hope isn't too soon).

YouTube has started adding links for downloading some videos, but so far only on Barack Obama's channel. It's amazing how long this has taken.

Is your ISP net neutral? Test them out.

If you're curious as to how zip codes map out, this is a fun web application to find out first hand.

Enjoy your last week of January, everyone!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jobs Takes a Sabbatical

Steve Jobs Out Until Summer

It's kind of hard to believe this headline, and it's really the biggest thing that happened last week. As much as I don't like playing into the cult of Apple, the implications are too enormous for me to not take a bit to talk about it.

The day before Macworld, Steve Jobs publicly stated that he had lost some weight (a fact that reporters were pointing to as a possible reason for why he wasn't giving the keynote) because of some therapy for a hormone imbalance and was clear that he didn't want to say any more on the matter. Early last week, he dropped the bomb that he was going to have to take 6 months off because his health situation is worse than they had previously thought. Other than cancer (a relapse?), I can't think of what would cause him to have to take 6 months off. While I don't respect him as much as I do Bill Gates because his personality bothers me, there's no doubt that he has already made history as a pioneer in technology and I definitely hope that he does recover (for his own health, I mean). He will remain CEO, but COO Tim Cook will take over day-to-day operations.

The Woz (Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple) has stated that what's going to be released over at least the next 6 months will have been under Jobs's supervision as Apple's pipeline is typically 1-2 years out (the size of the production pipeline for a technology company is not nearly as standard as it is in other industries, despite what the Woz says, but I would believe that Apple's is that long). You have to take what he says with a grain of salt because he's totally downplaying the presence that Jobs has in the company. In addition to being the company's visionary he's definitely one to micro-manage, although the extent of this in recent years isn't clear. Not too long ago though, he literally picked the manufacturers of their shirts and the magazines that carried their advertisements.

Some analysts have gone so far as to say that Jobs won't return, but I find this unlikely. I'm not saying that it's not a possibility, but he won't step down unless he absolutely has to. Obviously, his health is first so he won't endanger the company by being an unreliable CEO due to medical treatments and such, but if he gets better at all by June you can bet he will want to come back full-time. He's a passionate guy who I don't think is ready to retire yet. Some are saying that he could come back better than ever. In any case, I think that if he doesn't come back that Apple won't be the same company. It'll still be a great company, but it's future won't be signed, sealed, and delivered. If Jobs is truly a great manager, he's already groomed his successors to run the company competently, and I think he's learned a lot about that since he was overthrown way back when. The only thing you can't learn is the vision he's always had for the company, and I feel like it's been the secret sauce in the company. There are others who think that he's laid all his golden eggs already, but I don't know about that. I think that Apple will do well long after he leaves, but I would worry about their expanding into new territory or getting much bigger, in general. You have to give credit to the great minds they have working there though - their talent means that Apple won't be doomed without Jobs.

I have one last story to bring up on this topic: Dan Lyons (also known as "Fake Steve Jobs" for the blog he started) told off Jim Goldman live on CNBC for withholding that he knew a week before it was announced that Jobs was not in good health and yet he told his viewers that everything was just fine and went so far as to criticize sites like Gizmodo for reporting otherwise. I think Lyons was being kind of a jerk on the show, but it was right to call out Goldman: I don't think that's right. If you can't report on a story then you shouldn't lie and say that the exact opposite is true to cover your ass. I would call that unethical journalism.

Slightly More on Windows 7

If you haven't downloaded the Windows 7 beta yet and have a computer to spare for it, then you have a week yet to download it. Their servers cracked under the pressure of downloaders initially, so they've opened it up to an unlimited number of downloads for a limited time.

Ars Technica has been playing around with the beta and I like their rundown of the features because it's concise and informative. Some of the features are no surprises, like the large icons on the taskbar and the jump lists on these programs so that you can quickly access common features. They sound pretty impressed with how these things are implemented, but a new thing that I think is cool is that they've finally taken a stab at revamping the notification area next to the clock so that it's not a mass of irritating icons. Also cool, but something we knew about already, is how well it lets you focus on using two windows at a time. Anyway, you can read the article for more details, but it sounds like the biggest problem is that IE8 is unstable, which isn't that much of a problem if you just don't use IE (you shouldn't be, anyway). The fact that they even improved annoyances with User Account Control (UAC) tells me that they really did look at what users hate, which is something that I (and any Amazonian, actually) value highly: being customer-centric. Oh, by the way, it performs well, too. Some say even well enough to run on your old hardware you thought was junk in this Vista era.

I'm going to sneak in one last thing in this section: leaked screenshots from the next version of Office (I can't figure out why they're calling it Office 14 though - that math doesn't add up for me).

They're not terribly revolutionary, but I do like the improved feedback UI. I wonder if it'll run on Vista and/or XP? It'll likely be released alongside Windows 7, which means probably not before Q4 2009, at the earliest.


When will companies who make inferior products learn that being unethical doesn't pay? A blogger discovered that a Belkin Business Development Representative had been taking advantage of Mechanical Turk (an Amazon Web Service where you can pay trivial amounts of money to have people solve simple problems that are just too difficult for computers to handle but easy for people) to generate falsely positive feedback for their products, like their second-rate routers (which you shouldn't buy regardless of this scandal - they suck, Linksys routers are almost always better). The president of Belkin responded by condemning these acts and claiming that this representative was not actually acting on behalf of the company. They took down the postings (HITs) and fake reviews and he was even nice enough to say that the sites in question (Amazon and, among them) were not responsible so they shouldn't be held responsible for them. I'm kind of surprised that there was no talk of reprimand for the cheating jerk that did all this or an investigation as to whether his superiors did, in fact, tell him to do this.

I ordinarily wouldn't talk about a story like this, but there are a few reasons why I wanted to. The main one is that I find it amazing that a blogger discovered this. Not an investigative journalist, but just some dude. And it spread fast enough to warrant people to actually take action and scar Belkin's image. That just speaks to the fact that we really are seeing a revolution in the media in that things are shifting more and more online. There are people with day jobs that are better journalists that some working at major newspapers, and I haven't see the newspapers take any aggressive actions to compete much better in this regard. Also funny, I think, is how ingrained the Amazon brand is in people's minds that they're outraged that someone would tamper with Amazon's customer reviews. They're really trusting Amazon to be responsible and the people who write these reviews and it demonstrates that retail has changed drastically. The bar has been raising by not only Amazon but several different retailers and it has really enriched the customer experience online and offline to the extent that people really care about what their peers have to say about a product as opposed to just some guy in a store. Anyway, I'm glad that this story has a mostly happy ending.

Google Cuts Back

I think that before the economy really went south a few months ago (marked by banks defaulting), the technology industry decided that they were going to weather this recession with just some minor bumps and bruises. I'd probably have even said to someone that we're not in trouble until Google starts laying off people. Guess what Google has started doing? They've cut about 100 people from HR. They've also cut contractors and temporary workers before this, but this is their first round of layoffs for full-time employees. Of course, I don't want to exaggerate the situation: this was probably just an indication that they're being responsible and not hiring as much as they have been in the past several years. This probably is not a sign of more layoffs for them, but it does show that they're being smart.

In the same day, they also decided to shut down several services including the Firefox extension Google Notebook for web clippings, Jaiku for social networking, and video uploads to Google Video, which I don't think anyone cares about anyway. Like I said before a while ago: the best way to get through tough economic times is to innovate. Part of innovating is taking a step back and focusing. For a very long time now, Google has been releasing more and more random products resulting in a dizzying array of hits and misses, but they did manage to stay ahead of the curve in a few instances. Initially, I was shocked that they felt that these products were really affecting their bottom line, but now I realize that this is simply a re-organization. They're re-doubling their efforts in the products they believe they'll be most successful in, and this is very smart. Neither of these things is about the money, it's about using their talent effectively.

I'm going to sneak in one more thing real quick into this section: Yahoo is still not really improving. They decided to hire 60-year-old Carol Bartz as their new CEO (to replace Jerry Yang) and investors were not happy dropping the stock to $11 a share.

Facebook Sacrifices Burger King Ad Revenues

This story just boggles my mind so much that I have to talk about it a bit. Burger King started an ad campaign on Facebook the week before last that I didn't talk about last week because I didn't think it was all that important, but it was very creative. If you deleted 10 of your friends you'd get a coupon for a free Whopper and they'd do the honor of telling your friends that you sacrificed these people for a burger. So the strangest thing happened: people thought this was hilarious and it seemed to almost endear people to the Whopper brand.

Facebook decided that advertising your sacrifices violated their privacy policy and they couldn't allow it. Is that not the picture of irony? The company that has exposed more and more information about their users to other users and to advertisers since its climb to fame first began over 4 years ago has decided that a creative advertising campaign has gone too far in publicizing information that's clearly a part of the tradeoff for a free burger. I didn't see a public outcry over this, especially since it was voluntary and there was no secret that people would know about these friend removals. I just can't believe how stupid they are. I'm sorry, but that's what they are. They've now sent the message that despite all the cool things you can do with their platform that they're the gatekeeper for any ideas that come close to pushing any of their policies with regard to advertising. Ordinarily, I would respect this resolve but I felt like this was the wrong situation to demonstrate it in since it wasn't a flagrant offense. Now they've endangered their business model: congratulations, Mr. Zuckerberg.

More on the Palm Pre

I didn't really have a whole lot of details on the Palm Pre last time, which was definitely the talk of CES and of my heart (I really want a phone I can love), but Engadget has been kind enough to condense most of the knowledge that's publicly available on the device now. Unlike the G1: the keyboard's keys are not flat (the keyboard is the only thing Palm ever consistently gets right in its phones) and there is a standard headphone jack. The charger for it is inductive, so no need to plug it in (there was quite a bit of this inductive charging shown off at CES, and it's just a platform for you to place a device on that charges it efficiently), which I think is a great feature for a phone (I knock mine off the nightstand quite often when it's plugged in because of on call issues). Unfortunately, there's no expandable storage, but you do get a removable battery, WiFi, and EV/DO Rev. A or 3G (depending on your carrier)!

They didn't talk a lot about the software, but they did mention that the contact syncing would work seamlessly across several sources (e.g. Gmail, Facebook, and Outlook) and there would be several touch gestures involved in navigating around. Oh, and applications for the phone will be developed in CSS, XML, and Javascript on top of system calls to Web OS specific features. I wish we had a price and a release date other than the first 6 months of 2009, but hopefully we'll get more details in the coming weeks.

Final Tidbits

It has taken me two nights already to put together this post because I've been distracted with reading new news and watching the inauguration coverage (very exciting stuff), but it was so hard to reduce the stories for this post into the bare minimum. I've been trying to keep my story count low, but some weeks it just seems impossible. Anyway, here's a quick rundown of the other stories I tagged.

While iTunes is now DRM-free you should note that you still pay a price in your privacy. Aside from being .aac and not .mp3, your e-mail address is encoded with every song. I assure you that Amazon MP3 doesn't do this.

The NSA has released their list of the top 25 most dangerous programming mistakes in 2008, which includes improper input validation (a concept I hammer on all the time), race conditions (multi-threading is hard), downloading code without integrity checks, hard-coded passwords, and many more. It's pretty much a must-read for any software engineers out there.

Obama's president-elect site (which I think is still going to be used going forward) has a list of issues that you can vote on based on the ones you care the most about, and net neutrality is one of them. Please be sure to vote this up, and if you don't know why then you must be new to my blog :) You can start by watching this short documentary presenting both sides of the issue. I feel that it's still one of the most important issues facing the future of this country and has farther implications for the whole world.

Brussels (aka Bruxelles) will be banning the sale of plasma TVs in the country due to how terrible they are about power consumption. This makes me glad that I bought an LCD - my power bill really is extremely low.

Apple has started allowing 3rd party web browsers into the iPhone app store! Will we see Firefox on the iPhone soon?

YouTube has started muting videos that violate copyright only in their background audio, which is kind of a strange approach.

I got my TiVo HD last week and I wish I could tell you guys all about how awesome it is, but that wouldn't quite be right until I get TV on it. Broadstripe blows and won't install the Cable CARD for it until February 18, so until then I can only use TiVoCast and other applications on there, which are very cool. The features in the manual and the few I can use right now on these videos are pretty ridiculously awesome. Anyway, the point is that they've released a beta version of their search that is optimized for HD TVs, auto-completes like the Firefox awesome bar, and simply offers smarter results. I may try it out myself...once Broadstripe gets its act together.

Ok, time for bed (and possibly more playing around with my wonderful new TiVo). Enjoy all the TV premieres (Lost, Burn Notice, United States of Tara, Family Guy, etc.)!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire Sweeps the Golden Globes!

Trip to Whistler

Last week was the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but I didn't really run into as many articles about it as in past years so I wonder if that's a bad sign for the future of the conference? Anyway, there's still plenty to talk about. Before I get down to it, I wanted to share a video I put together about my trip the week before last with my brother and sister-in-law to Whistler, B.C. for my first ski trip ever:

The Pintos Go Skiing (Public Cut) from Eptiger on Vimeo.

If you have a decent computer, I urge you to please click through to watch it in HD (they don't allow HD embedding). I shot the footage in 720p with my Flip Mino HD (and the pictures are from my standard Canon PowerShot SD 450) so the quality is pretty awesome. I had a lot of fun on the trip and it was really beautiful out there, so I hope you enjoy the video!

It was my first time editing with Windows Movie Maker HD, which came with my copy of Vista Home Premium, and I was impressed. I was skeptical starting out because it defaults to a mode where you drag and drop pictures/videos and transitions (Storyboard mode), but I later figured out that there's a drop down to toggle to Timeline mode, which is what iMovie users will be familiar with. Overall, I liked it more than iMovie. I last used iMovie on a Mac Pro with 8 cores and 8 GB of RAM, and it was quite unstable and prone to crashing. Conversely, I worked with Movie Maker on this laptop, which is a Core 2 Duo with 3 GB of RAM, and it was very stable. The main features that iMovie seems to have over Movie Maker are with regard to sound: volume control in particular. However, I liked that Movie Maker had 4 layers: video, text, video sound, and music. So I could modify text without having to re-render video, and transitions could also be modified without having to re-render video. Little things like that helped really speed up the editing process, though playback was choppy on my computer, which I'm guessing is just because my computer only has two cores. Plus, Windows DVD Maker works just as well, in my opinion, as iDVD. I'm actually shocked as to how much more popular iMovie is (granted, I was using an older version, not one of the newer ones) when editing feels so much more fluid in Movie Maker. Anyway, hopefully I'll be able to do videos more often now.

The Golden Globes

Tonight was the Golden Globes, and I actually turned on the TV in just the nick of time to catch all of it. I felt like the winners were pretty worthy overall, and I thought it was really awesome that Slumdog Millionaire swept the Golden Globes winning 4 awards: Best Picture (Drama), Best Director, Best Score, and Best Screenplay. I never would've predicted that a film pretty much exclusively starring Indians would sweep the American Golden Globes so soon in my lifetime, and it just makes me proud that people can see a movie that more accurately reflects life in India. Plus, even though it's a British film it shows that Indians can make better films than 3 hour musicals.

Another great part of the ceremony was Heath Ledger winning Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight, but I was disappointed that it wasn't up for any other awards. If he lost to like Tom Cruise for Tropic Thunder though, I think that even Tom would be a little pissed. They just showed one scene from the movie when he won, but I was hoping for a collage of scenes from all his movies. Anyway, Nolan spoke very well on his behalf, and I was moved. The other award I was excited about was Wall-E winning Best Animated Film, because it was one of my favorites from the year. Lastly, I have to say that I was surprised, but pleased, that Anna Paquin won for Best Actress in a TV Drama for Tru Blood. I thought the show could've been better, but she was definitely great in her role.

Apple's Macworld Keynote

It's funny how many people predicted that Jobs would be part of the Macworld keynote, and yet he didn't make an appearance at all. Instead, the keynote was a Schiller-only affair. Still, there wasn't a whole lot announced. The biggest thing was that iTunes is now fully DRM free, which I guess is bad news for Amazon MP3 (except for that I think the customer experience is better on Amazon than in iTunes), with variable pricing: $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29 (with more supposedly falling in that first one than the third one). If you want to convert your already purchased songs to be DRM-free, just pay Apple $0.30 more per song. I don't think that's a very good customer experience, but I guess Apple doesn't really care since it took them this long to go DRM-free anyway. One last thought on the subject: I think that Amazon has been raising the bar on the retail customer experience for years now (and competitors have done the same to us), and I would definitely say that Amazon contributed to this happening. Part of the beauty of a free market economy, I suppose.

If you're an iPhone owner, I guess you'd care that you can now buy songs over 3G instead of just WiFi, which I'm guessing wasn't possible before because AT&T didn't want the traffic on their network. Aside from a boring iLife presentation (although it is cool that you can learn how to play music in GarageBand now), the only other big thing was a new 17" MacBook Pro built of aluminum, which they claim is the thinnest laptop of its kind and costs $2800. The coolest thing about it is a non-removable battery that they claim lasts 8 hours on one charge. They made a big fuss about how revolutionary this battery is, but many are saying that it's really the same Lithium-polymer technology that has been around just molded out of more of it to fit in this small form factor. Regardless, it's very clever and gives consumers something that they really want and often need. It was the most impressive announcement they made at the keynote, in my opinion.

Are the days gone of flashy Apple keynotes with lots of exciting new stuff? Not necessarily, but I think that Apple has run out of cards and is now having to try to innovate once again, something that's challenging and time consuming.

Phone News

I guess that CES brought out a lot of phone news. I was kind of surprised to see LG's Watch Phone, which is a fun novelty and a bit utilitarian, but doesn't seem entirely usable. It is just what it sounds like: a phone in a watch, but it's controlled by a wheel button (and has two normal buttons on either side of it). Still, it does look very Bond-esque.

Palm has produced a phone that, I'm completed shocked to say, looks impressive: the Pre. It's a slider phone with a full Qwerty keyboard and an atractive form factor. It is not the same OS that has been on its Treo series and includes a browser based on Webkit (just like the Android browser) rather than the craptacular Blazer. As an owner of a Treo, I can tell you that I didn't think I'd ever buy a Palm device again, but these pictures made me think twice: the Web OS seems quite slick and almost like Mac OS X with the way the "gesture bar" allows you to choose applications. You can see the CES demo here, which makes it looks like an iPhone with a keyboard, but that's exactly the phone I've been looking for (well, on an open platform like Android though, ideally). I guess the lesson to be learned here is Palm is not out of the market yet. I'm sure I'll be talking about the Pre soon (heck, I may even buy it if it ends up being as good as it looks).

Sling Media did a demo at Macworld of the SlingPlayer Mobile that will basically let you watch TV on your iPhone and control your SlingBox-enabled DVR through it, I suppose with maybe a more advanced interface than TiVo's interface for controlling its DVRs. It's a cool product, but I have to know more, including price points, to pass judgement on it. I can see the value in being able to watch TV on my phone, but I don't know about paying a monthly fee for it (or would it piggyback off of your home service so that they only cost would be the one time price of the application?).

One last piece of phone news: Garmin is coming out with a phone called the nuvi Phone, and even premiered a video about it at CES. As you can imagine, it's centered around its GPS functionality. The deal here is that you can do something like send a friend a picture of where you are and their nuvi Phone could take them exactly to where that picture is, or stick the phone to your windshield to be your car GPS. It'll be interesting to see if they can pull off a good phone UI, and I wouldn't underestimate them since they built such solid GPS products (I love my nuvi 660).

Big Twitter Hack

I'm really only reporting on this because this article has an image where someone wrote on the FoxNews feed "Breaking: Bill O'Riley is gay". That's just way too funny. Anyway, they were one of the victims (which included BarackObama) of a hacker who hacked into the account of someone on the support team who had the authority to change the sorts of settings on people's accounts that could have their passwords resent to the hacker. The 18 year-old hacker responded to requests for access to accounts readily and didn't post on any feeds himself, but probably just did this for fun and to prove how insecure the site was. The fact that a simple dictionary attack (yielding the word 'happiness') worked means that they didn't think through security at all - why didn't they impose a maximum limit on bad password attempts? Even 10 would be reasonable enough to prevent an attack like this.

I'm going to sneak in one more bit of security news: Netcraft has discovered that 14% of SSL certificates online are potentially unsafe due to the ability to create a fake Certificate Authority (CA) to verify certificates based on the slight vulnerable MD5 hashing algorithm. I know, that's a lot to explain. SSL (Secure Socket Layer) allows one to talk to someone else online (like a bank) over an encrypted connection (i.e. no one can eavesdrop). A third party CA issues certificates vying for the identity of that someone else as well as providing public keys: one half of the encryption equation. Anyway, part of this handshake to get keys in place for the encryption process involves a hash function (a function that provides a fixed-size output for a variable input, which is a one-way function or else you could know the input from the output), and the fact that it has become easier and easier to find collisions in MD5 (i.e. find possible inputs for a possible output), it is not so hard to fake being a CA for SSL ciphers that use MD5. The risk to you is probably minimal, but the percentage of MD5 certificates out there is just kind of shocking since SHA-1, an alternate hashing function, has been preferred for years now.

Final Notes

Ok, it's past my bedtime so now for the rest of the news.

This is a great video if you ever wondered how the Internet works. It's really quite accurate and interesting.

I love listening to TWiT, so I have to plug this article about why Leo Laporte's online empire represents the future of TV.

Polaroid is bringing back its flagship camera with a digital camera that basically has a small color printer built into it. I don't know if I really see the demand for this product anymore though, especially since they're going to be lower quality than taking your memory card to Wal-mart or some other store with machines that can print out your photos in really good quality for a few dimes each.

LG has started a partnership with Netflix where their new TVs will have integrated access to Netflix's streaming service, which is similar to Amazon's partnership with Sony. Of course, you have to subscribe to Netflix to take advantage of this.

Obama has asked to push back the transition from analog to digital for television, which you could claim is so that people who don't know better don't lose TV access months after he becomes president, but it's also because the PR for explaining the situation to people has not been very good and could use some more work.

I'm pretty sure that I'll be buying a TiVo HD tomorrow, so maybe I'll have it in time to talk a bit about it next week. Of course, I'll also be getting Burn Notice Season One and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 3 tomorrow, which are both awesome shows, but I'm sure you're all less interested in them. Until next time, I hope you all have a good week!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Got a Camcorder!

After the snow storm cleared up, I headed to Houston for Christmas and didn't really get a chance to sit down and blog about the news I had marked (you can blame a House marathon), and I don't want to talk about month-old stories so I'm going to fill this short post with original content and do a normal post next week. My coolest Christmas gift was this baby to the right here (in black): the Flip Mino HD camcorder. It's a pretty sweet pocket-sized camcorder that shoots in 720p HD, and I love it so far. I want to keep playing around with it and do a full review probably before the end of this month. I didn't post last week because I was skiing in Whistler, B.C. with my brother and his wife, but I took plenty of video so I'll try to post one big video with all that footage stitched together next week - all shot with my Mino HD. I'm trying to see if I can put it together for free using Avidemux and Windows Movie Maker, but we'll see how that works out in the days to come. I'm also going to be getting the tripod for it soon, so hopefully I'll be able to do more video content on this blog, which is the most exciting thing to happen to my little corner of the web since I got a digital camera a couple of years ago.

Who Wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

Rather than try to set up the plot of this movie, I think I'll just show you the trailer:

The trailer may even give you more information than it should, but if it motivates you to go see this movie then I'd say it was worth it. Essentially: it's about a bum who rises to become a millionaire through a famous TV show that was all the craze in India shortly after it was big in the US. Other than being set in India, I never felt compelled to see this film, especially after the Totally Rad Show's verdict was not to seek it out, but my sister-in-law loved it enough to convince us, and it was definitely a pleasant surprise.

Though the director isn't Indian so technically this isn't a Bollywood movie, I really wish that we had more Bollywood movies like this. A movie like this could definitely make an Indian man feel more proud about his country's cinema. I understand that Bollywood musicals have their place and I'm fine with that, I just wish it would produce films like this that cast India in this light that the world doesn't see: ugliness and beauty all at once permeating the streets. Any scenes that were set on the streets definitely gave me that vibe, and the cinematography was a big part of that. I didn't like how often the camera tried to give the audience a vertigo effect, but other than that it was quite impressive. The casting choices reminded me of Pan Labyrinth in that each one seemed to fit perfectly since these are actors/actresses you've never seen before and they do such a great job of portraying these characters that you don't imagine them in a world outside this movie. The music in this movie was also something that stood out to me: every song really held its own and they've since been stuck in my head at random times because their poignancy really resonated with me.

If all those things weren't enough, it was one of those movies where we were talking about it long after we left the theater and debating motivations and plot points and such. Even though it can try to be too obvious at times with themes and symbols, you can forgive it because it tells the story so well. I was worried that parts of the movie would feel contrived, but I thought that things flowed rather smoothly. If I had one complaint about this film, it would probably be that the pacing felt a bit off. It definitely felt like a long movie, and it was only 2 hours long. I strongly recommend running out and catching this movie if it's playing in your city, or keeping it in mind to rent later this year if you can't see it now. I give it an A+ and say that it's worth seeking out because I feel like it tells a very unique story in a great way and it does suspense so well that I'd compare that element of it to the likes of 24.

The Dark Knight Live Chat

I mentioned a while ago that The Dark Knight blu-ray had a special live chat for 100,000 people with director Christopher Nolan, and I did, indeed, attend it. I was pretty satisfied with it overall.

It was text only, not video. At first I was disappointed, but actually text chat lets you enjoy the movie fully and only tune in to what Nolan is saying when/if you want. It's actually a text box at the top of the screen that's readable without being too big and has a somewhat transparent background so that you can see whatever part of the movie it covers. We asked questions on the WB BD Live site (you had to be logged in, so only people in the chat could ask questions), and Nolan (or perhaps a third-party moderator) goes through and asks as many of the best as quickly as possibly.

Sometimes, he picked ones that I thought were kind of dumb or already answered in other features on the disc, but there were a lot of insightful questions answered about the casting, nuances of the story, origins and inspirations, etc. I didn't get any of mine answered, unfortunately, but the event could only support 100,000 people and with 600,000 copies sold on the first day alone (I imagine a significant number from pre-orders), I imagine a number of people were excited about this event a week afterwards.

I don't know how often they're going to be doing this, but it was cool. It was the only BD Live feature that I thought was creative and on par with some of the stuff Disney is trying out. I'd love to see them do more live events with actors from the film or even Batman comic experts.

For the curious, some have posted rough transcripts of the chat, but here are my highlights (beware of spoilers if you haven't seen the movie):

-Heath Ledger improvised certain voice qualities and gestures (like clapping for Gordon's promotion).
-The Hong Kong tanker plane was real.
-Nolan admitted that Rex Reed is his worst critic.
-The joker card in the judge's papers is how the Joker sources her DNA (this was a big mystery to me).
-The Long halloween and Batman Year One are Nolan's favorite Batman comics
-The assassination sequences were inspired by the Godfather
-Nolan's favorite scene was the very last one
-He took some funny questions, telling "spencer, [to] get over floren", and admitting that "it’s a 2-pee movie - I gotta make a shorter film next time".
-Someone proposed during the chat (and it worked)!
-A lot of people asked about casting choices and how good they were.
-Two face is dead.
-Dent killing 5 ppl (aside from the 2 cops) is still a mystery.

Prince of Persia First Impressions

I just wanted to real briefly talk about Prince of Persia since it's a new game that has probably been lost amidst all the December releases. I really like it so far. I've only past the prologue and healed one area, but the game is gorgeous and the animation is wonderful. I'm also impressed by the short load times. I have to admit that the game mechanics take some getting used to because action-adventure fans, including those of previous games in the 3-D leg of this franchise, will probably hit jump twice and end up jumping three times, for example. Once you get used to them though, the game feels like a ballet of parkour and stylized fight sequences. The fighting may not be very difficult or very varied, but I liked that the focus is on exploration and puzzles rather than fighting because I see it as more of a platformer/adventure title, and adventure games that rely too much on combat end up failing in that regard. This game definitely isn't for everyone, but if you can appreciate the finer points then you'll probably enjoy it. We'll see if my opinion changes as I get farther in the game.


And now for some random last notes:

I finally created a Listmania list of my top 10 favorite movies of all time, which typically changes a couple of times a year so this ought to be a good, central place to keep it. This is not the 10 best movies of all time, just the 10 that I enjoyed the most. A movie's quality is subjective anyway, so I judged them for my list just based on watchability rather than technical quality. For example: Traffic is an awesome movie that I never want to see again because it's too depressing.

Has anyone heard of a site called Honeyshed? I saw a commercial for it on TV and was disturbed when I finally visited it. It's a digital home shopping network targeted at teenage hipsters that seems like a giant joke. It is a real site, unfortunately. I can't imagine how it got funding to be created, but I'll give it credit for being somewhat polished.

Now that Konami is releasing Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid for the iPhone, I have to admit that it's actually trying to compete with the PSP and the DS, because now it's going past the standard cell phone game fare. By the way, has anyone played the Metal Gear Solid pack for Little Big Planet? I'm thinking of downloading it.

VHS is dead, but will not be missed. Well, not by me, anyway. I never bought stuff on VHS because I never saw the point in it, but I remember being convinced by DVD because of the quality and extras. It's kind of funny how times change like that.

I didn't want to mention this, but I feel compelled to since everyone else has been: Apple will no longer be at Macworld after this year, and it's because they always wanted to, not because Jobs is retiring. I thought that making accusations like was irresponsible on the media's part. Jobs is obviously going to retire in the coming years, but that doesn't mean in the next couple of months just because this is his last Macworld.

Hope you all have a good, snow-free week (it snowed a bit tonight in Seattle)!