Monday, February 23, 2009

This Week in Digital Distribution

Note: I know about the big Facebook scandal from last week, but I'm not going to report about it since it's moot by now. Facebook changed their TOS to own your data for life due to technological issues, but reverted back. End of story :)

Netflix Dethroning Hulu?

Last week had some really juicy stories regarding online distribution that centered around Hulu and Netflix (but we'll throw YouTube in the mix just for fun).

Netflix has a base of over 10 million subscribers, and though only about 10% of their movies are available for streaming, they've admitted that they've seen a significant number of subscribers taking advantage of their streaming services. In fact, they've indicated that they may start rolling out subscriptions that are streaming only as soon as this year. I could even imagine them having tiers of streaming only plans for the amount of content available to stream while keeping the all-you-can-eat model. What's really giving Netflix a lot of power here is that aside from your computer you can get $100 Roku box to stream on your TV or use your Xbox 360, TiVo, or certain Blu-ray players to do the same. Once they get on mobile platforms, they're going to be practically unstoppable. While no one wants to necessarily play movies on their mobile phone, imagine a projector being built into your cell phone or even a large Internet tablet.

Enter Boxee. Nowadays, more and more households are getting DVRs (some being TiVos, of course) because people just don't have the time anymore to be home at pre-scheduled times to watch everything they want to watch, they like to watch multimedia on their own schedule. Boxee makes this a reality without having to get a cable or satellite subscription but rather by pooling together content from sites like YouTube, Netflix, CBS, and others, plus your own computer. It's essentially open source DVR software for your home media PC that doesn't really record TV but instead just takes advantage of what's available on the Internet. Unfortunately, they cannot bring in Hulu content. Why? They haven't really been told why, but they were told that they can't do it.

Of course, this is completely insane. We're entering an era where the idea of television as we know it is being completely transformed, and most of the big guys figured out that piracy was rampant a few years ago because of the lack of legal, online venues of distribution. Bringing in content via Hulu and iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand and such has helped alleviate the problem. While it hasn't overtaken traditional television viewing, we're in an economy where people are favoring getting their media on the Internet over getting cable or satellite, especially with HD channels coming in over antenna if they really want to watch traditional television.

They're starting to change their tune though of encouraging this with the Boxee situation and pulling content from Hulu. Hulu isn't the bad guy here, it's their vendors who are inept. So what's their endgame? It's probably just what you think: cable companies trying to preserve their bread and butter. Time Warner blamed billions of dollars in losses on the Internet, but what they don't get is that their prices are often outrageously unfair compared to just buying the episodes you want for $2 apiece or even renting/buying them on DVD. It's incredible how lazy some companies can be. It's absolutely inexcusable to not innovate in your industry and make your customers suffer for your incompetency. They need to look to the future and get their minds out of the past.

In effect, they're handing the reigns to Netflix. With TV shows on DVD and deals like the one they have with Starz, they're getting a heavy lead on Hulu, and it's not even Hulu's fault. It'll be interesting to see how much these cable companies suffer until they change their minds.

One last quick note: YouTube has been changing up their code a bit to kill off un-approved alternatives to the video download feature I mentioned last week that would enable viewers to download videos without having to buy them, once YouTube starts really rolling out paid downloads. What'll be interesting is if YouTube will work on integrating with TiVo and Roku and others to get themselves on people's TVs past just streaming but rather on the scheduled download model, which podcasts are often downloaded by through RSS readers or iTunes or other such software.

MWC 09 Randomness

I actually don't think I've heard of the Mobile World Congress and only found out about it a few weeks ago when my brother mentioned it to me one day. Apparently, it's somewhat of a big deal, especially now that smartphones are so popular. A few interesting stories came out of it last week.

Let's face it, Windows Mobile 6.5 has always been the weakest link in the Windows family. People who get Windows Mobile phones seem to not stay with them for long and reviewers have never been kind to the OS. Windows Mobile 6.5 is looking to change this trend with a much sleeker, iPhone-like, touch UI. What Gizmodo liked about it especially was that the lock screen had alerts and other useful information on it, but I just felt overall like they were trying to make usability more of a core value of the OS instead of an afterthought.

They also got their hands on the HTC Dream, aka the Android G2. The phone hardware is slimmer and it looks like the body makes more sense, but it is a touchscreen. So while it doesn't inherit the G1's terribly keyboard, it gives you an onscreen touch screen keyboard that you're likely to hate. I think Android is great, but I'm not impressed by this phone. I predict it'll be another flop and the torch for a good Android phone will probably never fall in the hands of HTC.

The last story I've got is for the Palm Pre: aside from copy and paste and tethering (using your phone as a modem for your laptop), it's now confirmed to have Flash. It has joined Adobe's Open Screen Project, which will help deliver Flash for the webOS. Given the wealth of Flash games and other rich content already out there, this would help the Pre take a huge stab at Apple's app store in having a wealth of application right out of the box.

Windows 7 RC Release Set

Neowin has learned from an insider at Microsoft (who I imagine would be in big trouble if they were discovered) that Windows 7 will have their first Release Candidate (RC) ready on April 10, 2009. It's unsure what has been adjusted aside from UAC (see my post last week), but it looks like it'll be a public release and I'm sure will keep buzz alive for the forthcoming OS. If you currently have the beta installed and start getting updates, don't get too excited: they're just test updates that do nothing.

There's only one problem with Microsoft's PR strategy though in hyping up Windows 7: they have to continue to deal with the fallout from Vista. While I like a lot about Vista, some of my stability issues make me miss XP. One woman misses it so much that she's suing Microsoft over a $60 charge to downgrade from Vista to XP on her new computer, which she downgraded to because of numerous issues she had using Vista. I don't see this lawsuit sticking, but it's just adding to Microsoft's woes.

The Yelp Scandal

I was tempted to pass up this story, but it's far too controversial to not quickly touch on. There are rumors that Yelp is threatening small businesses with negative user reviews to coerce them to buy advertising and that they allow businesses to convert negative reviews to positive reviews for $300 a month. Yelp denies these charges, but admits that they'll push positive reviews to the top for a fee. I love Yelp, so I hate to see this, but the fact they even allowing you to promote positive reviews is shady. Amazon puts reviews at the top based on a very interesting algorithm to help out customers make an educated decision. If Yelp continues to get bad press like this, I wonder if their street cred will fade away?

Final Notes

I'm running out of time here (it's past my bedtime), so I'm going to run through some final stories.

Vint Cerf let loose on some of his thoughts on the Internet and believes that downloaded content, rather than streaming media, is the real future of the Internet. As the father of the Internet, his opinions are definitely valued, and what I found most interesting was what he thought about how we'll interpret our current data and applications hundreds of years from now.

In the Pirate's Bay trial in Sweden, half the charges against them were dropped due to a misunderstanding of how torrents work. That still leaves all the charges related to them assisting in illegally making available copyrighted content.

I've talked about this before so I don't want to hammer in on it too much, but Gizmodo has a great article explaining why more megapixels are not always better. If the sensor is too small, you're actually probably shooting yourself in the foot. If you really need more than like 6 MP, then you need an SLR.

ReadWriteWeb has a fun pie chart on who's hiring in technology, with a lot going to the evasive "Other" field, but second place going to IT/Software.

Last, but not least, I'm a big fan of this short article about what programming language you should learn based on the job you're taking on. I've had the good fortune of interfacing with almost all of them over the past 6 months, so I definitely agree.

Alright, I'm going to watch a bit more of the Oscars before heading to bed. The production value in the show was really impressive and entertaining, but I was disappointed that Slumdog Millionaire won out in a couple of categories where I felt it didn't deserve it, even though I loved the film. Still: best award ceremony in years in presentation.

Since it started raining again in Seattle, I'll leave you with a glimpse of the beautiful weather we enjoyed last week.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Flip Mino HD

Flip Mino HD Review

I've been playing with my Flip Mino HD for nearly two months now, so I definitely feel comfortable finally reviewing it. It may be the world's slimmest, lightest (3.3 oz), and cheapest HD camcorder. Don't quote me on that, but I haven't seen one more compact or cheaper that shoots in true HD. The Mino HD has 4 GB non-expandable Flash memory, which can hold up to 60 minutes at 30 fps in 1280 by 720 resolution, otherwise known as 720p. So let's start with some pictures of it, to get you acquainted:

In that first shot, you can see the thin (cloth), but cute, carrying case that comes with it and has a drawstring. This helps reduces scratches from keeping it in your pocket, although doesn't totally eliminate them. Still, you won't likely notice them unless you're shining a light directly at it. Also in that first shot is the switch above my thumb that pops out the USB connector, which literally kind of flips out in a very smooth motion and plugs into any Mac or PC ready to go (the FlipShare software is stored directly on the device, so no install CD necessary). By the way, the software does very little other than download/e-mail videos and clip the starts and ends of them, but you can edit the videos quite well with iMovie (natively because the videos are .mp4) or in Windows Movie Maker (though you'll need to use Avidemux or similar software to convert the audio to mp3 and the video to .avi - I recommend using the Xvid4 encoding in two passes). The only features missing in the top photos are the power button (on the side opposite the USB connector switch), the tripod mount (on the bottom), and the port for the included component A/V cable (RGB) to watch the videos directly on your TV. This cable is a cool feature to have, by the way, but the cable isn't capable of true HD. However, what's really awesome is that if you have a PS3 or some way of plugging in a USB device to view content on your TV, you can watch the .mp3 files straight from the device. So from my PS3, the videos look pretty incredible on my LCD TV.

Anyway, getting back to the pictures: the controls are extremely simple. The big red button is the one-click record button (assuming it's on). The boot time is literally about 3 seconds, so I can have it out of my pocket and recording within about 10-15 seconds. The screen is admittedly small, but what I love is that it's actually embedded in the device, so touching the screen isn't actually touching the screen. The reason it isn't a little wider is that on either side of the screen are the speakers, and if the screen was oriented 90 degrees clockwise then you'd have to hold the device with both hands, which takes away from how easy it is to record with one hand. The screen really just acts as a digital viewfinder: shows you the borders of your shots. It doesn't give you any idea of detail. Anyway, there are no special menus or anything, the buttons on the device are exactly what you get. While recording, up and down will let you zoom in and out (digital, not optical, so it's just the software interpolating pixels), and that's all you can do. Some people might be disappointed by this, but if you want all the bells and whistles then you might as well shell out for a full-fledged HD camcorder. When browsing through your library, left and right goes through your videos, up and down is volume, delete is the upper right corner (it will confirm your deletes), and play/pause is the upper left corner. There are no other options: so you can't change the video quality or anything, which may have been a nice feature but I'm guessing that no one would want to shoot in anything lesser once they get a taste of 720p. Note that on the back side, the only tactile button is the big red one, the others are just touchscreen-like buttons. Surprisingly, I didn't mind this. They're quite responsive, except for the red one. Oddly, this button sometimes can be fickle and not register your pressing on it. This is one of the few low points of the device - it can get annoying, but doesn't always happen.

It feels really good in your hand. It's quite sturdy and feels really polished, which may partially because it's glossy. It won't attract any more finger smudges than your iPhone will though. I've dropped it on accident a couple of times (though the wrist strap, included in the box, helps prevent this) and it survived without issue, and I took it to Whistler with me where moisture didn't bother it. Despite all the snow I got on me, it was quite safe in that little black cloth case, so I guess it has some degree of water resistance. It's not heavy at all and fits really nicely in even my pants that have smaller pockets or in pockets I keep other junk in. It's probably about as thin as an iPhone, but not as long.

Ok, on to the video quality now. One of the reasons I wanted one of these is because I didn't like recording movies on my Canon Powershot SD450. It's a great point-and-shoot camera with enough options to keep me happy, but the movie mode produced movies that sucked up too much space on my memory card and didn't look very impressive, especially in low-light situations. It's comparable or better quality to other cell phones or digital cameras in the price range of the Mino HD. So I decided to shoot the exact same footage on both cameras last week and mash them together to see how the looked in a comparison of standard definition of high definition. Maybe this will convince you why having a digital camera just isn't enough (I recommend opening it in a new window so you can watch it in HD and then full screen it - Vimeo doesn't allow me to embed in HD):

Standard Definition vs. High Definition from Eptiger on Vimeo.

My overall goal was to get a number of different lighting settings and things to shoot that show you where the Mino HD excels and where it can fall short. A more fair comparison may have been comparing it with a real standard definition camcorder because the quality is just that good, but I feel like it's really competing with other point-and-shoot video recording devices. You can see how sharp it is right off the bat in my first example, where making out the "Edgewater" sign is hopeless in SD but you can make it out if you pause in HD. The sky may seem duller in the Mino HD's version, but it's much truer to how it looked outside and you can even see more detail in the clouds. The second example shows that it actual does a decent job of digital zoom. Remember, this is the software guessing at how to zoom in, but it does a lot better than the PowerShot did. Both do pretty well in the cityscape shoot, but you can see more snow on the mountains in HD than in SD, and the cars are much sharper. Plus, if you have a family member who thinks that you get less in widescreen than full screen, that example pretty easily nullifies the argument. The Christmas tree shot was trying to show a couple of things (besides that I'm too lazy to put up a Christmas tree): it handles edges really well and it's not afraid of a lot of light. You can even see the brick on my building outside the window from the Mino HD's perspective. The pasta doesn't look all that tasty, I'm afraid, but it really is quite good. Anyway, the colors did look better from the PowerShot because it made the light look less artificial, but the Mino handled smoothing better. I wish I had a better low light example, but the bedroom shot has virtually no light aside from the window with closed blinds, but you could barely tell there was a bed in the PowerShot's version and there was way more noise in the picture. Speaking of which, the Mino HD does a great job of filtering out ambient noise, like wind when you're outside (which is why I kept the original audio in all my examples). Anyway, I've been astounded overall that the Mino HD works at all in low light - this is very useful for concerts. The last example is from my favorite movie, and it also proves that the Mino HD is a lot better at handling a lot of light. Uma Thurman doesn't even seem to have a nose if you believe the PowerShot, but the picture clarity really shines on the Mino HD and the colors look much better and truer to the source material. The only downside was that some of the fast transitions that involved a lot of light did look a little washed out on the Mino HD, but I'm willing to accept that from a camcorder that fits in the palm of my hand.

I haven't yet mentioned my biggest gripe with the Mino though: it really requires a steady hand. This has become a constant concern for me now when using it (which may have shown in my examples in how much slower I moved the camera in the HD shots), but it's a consequence of the fact that it's shooting at 30 fps and the quality is so ridiculous that your eyes are much more likely to notice the slightest jitter. Here is an example of when it can become nauseating. Fortunately, you can get a tripod for about $15 with bendable feet (I've heard great things, and I'll be getting one very soon), so that can help if you need to take videos where you don't have to move around.

I think I've gone on long enough on this camcorder. The final verdict? I love it. It's a great device and it's pretty much exactly what I was expecting and wanted it to be. If you can get over the lack of manual controls and having to have a steady hand (maybe the next iteration will include stabilization software on the device), it's well worth the $200. It's no-fuss video shooting that may restore your faith in it's ability to automatically shoot scenes with the best settings, something that I never trust my PowerShot to do because it always wants to use flash. If you want to dabble in video podcasting or video editing, this is exactly what you want. If you get a bigger camcorder then it'll become a chore to carry it around for shoots (I know this from personal experience) and you're not as likely to play around with it. When you use the Mino HD, you can literally have it with you at all times and it looks like a cell phone so you take secretly film for your explosive documentary or at a concert where you want to record your favorite song. If you have baby, then you owe it yourself to get one of these because kids to fun/funny stuff in the blink of an eye so you want to be ready to snap those moments. Life's too short to leave great memories behind, and that's why I love this device. It's the epitome of an easy-to-use camcorder. Oh, and if you want to see more video I shot with it, check out this video from my ski trip.

Kindle 2

The Kindle 2 was finally announced last week! The list of improvements is short and sweet, and I kind of like that. They didn't add a bunch of random features, but they listened to user feedback and really responded without trying to make the current Kindle totally obsolete. Battery life is a lot better (lasting up to 2 weeks), page turning is more responsive, it's thinner, it includes 16 shades of gray (as opposed to 4) to handle images better, and, if you really like computer voices, it can read your books to you with text-to-speech technology. You can see videos of it in action at its product page. It's still another couple of weeks otu from being shipped, but all unfulfilled Kindle 1 orders have automatically been upgraded (or can be canceled if, for some reason, you don't want a better Kindle).

It kind of pisses me off when I see tech pundits criticize the Kindle as if no one likes it, but the people I know (not just Amazonians) who have a Kindle really love it. It's made for people who love reading, not for people who love gadgets. It's definitely not for everyone, but it's incredible how thin it is and how easy-to-read the screen is. It's expensive because of the e-ink - if it was just a laptop screen your eyes wouldn't be able to tolerate it for long and it would be terrible on battery life.

Windows 7 UAC

User Access Control (UAC) was quite the controversial feature in Windows Vista. On one hand, it really was a great tool in keeping your computer secure from viruses launching programs on your behalf, but people got tired of it quick. However, Windows 7 has received a surprising amount of backlash for dialing down its UAC defaults to a pretty insecure level. Aside from that, it automatically elevates Microsoft-signed application to administrative privileges rather than ever asking you to do so, which means that an exploit could easily turn off UAC completely to do its own damage (like allow itself to corrupt system files on startup). Fortunately, after much urging from some bright bloggers, Microsoft agreed to fix the issue, although current beta users are still vulnerable to the issue.

While I'm on Windows 7: some in the hardware industry are saying that Windows 7 is slated to be released before this holiday season and may start a program in July to allow people who buy new Windows desktops/laptops to upgrade to Windows 7 for free once it comes out. This is very smart, and I don't that they've ever done this before (not to my knowledge, at least). This answers a question I posed last month as to how PCs with Vista were going to keep selling in the face of all this great press for Windows 7.

One last bit of Microsoft news, the boys at Boycott Novell have posted the transcript from a hearing that exposes a lot of Microsoft's dirty corporate secrets with regard to its often cutthroat business tactics. It's kind of a scary read, and I don't know what to say other than it's shocking. It shouldn't be too surprising though: Microsoft has been taking flak for anti-competitive practices for years. Most of the things are unethical rather than illegal, but still kind of sad to read.

Location Awareness

I sometimes wonder if Google and Facebook are in a race for who can try to reduce your privacy the most. You can now publicize your physical location in your Gmail signature as broadcast in your Google Latitude profile. I can't think of why you would ever want to do that. The one thing that I've always had a problem with in Google Labs stuff is that they're often solutions looking for a problem. I think that one of the cardinal rules of good software design is that you need to have a specific use case and audience for a feature or product before you develop it. Who was clamoring for this? Even if it's easy for you to do it, why even bother? That's still time wasted.

If you're really scared of big brother, then don't look directly at Epson's new tiny GPS receiver. At a size smaller than the end of a matchstick it puts us one step closer to having GPS received embedded in your ID card or, God forbid, subcutaneously.

YouTube Dabbles in Paid Downloads

YouTube is still actively looking for a hearty revenue stream, so they've decided to turn to paid downloads. Some of YouTube's partners now have the option to make their videos available to download for free or for a nominal price as .mp4 files. It's an interesting idea, but I don't know if YouTube has enough good premium content right now to make this work. I'm rooting for YouTube, but they need to get more partners on board. The fact that they've started actually allowing you to watch videos in HD has already impressed me, so I wonder how many partners with HD content they can get on board with this. That may give them a slight advantage over iTunes, especially if it's DRM-free (then again, what big players will sell their videos DRM-free?).

R.I.P. Palm OS

The Palm Operating System, made famous by the Palm Treo and Palm Centro, has been in existence since 1996 in the heyday of PDAs, but it is about to head to the beach for retirement. After 12 years of service, it is being replaced by Web OS and so none of Palm's future models will feature the OS. As the unfortunate owner of a Treo 650 I have very little good to say about Palm OS. It has been unstable, antiquated, and annoyingly doesn't juggle applications very well at all. You have toEv give credit to it for spurring innovation in smartphone operating systems though and the fact that it was one of the first big players in touchscreen cell phone technology.

More Economic News

Every week brings with it new grim economic news, and last week was no different, although it was less than usual. Japan's Pioneer is laying off 10,000 employees worldwide and really ramping down its plasma TV production. I guess between car entertainment and televisions, they sell a lot of luxury items that don't fare well in harsh economic times.

Likewise, satellite radio isn't faring well. Sirius XM needed a growth in subscribers last year to stay in business and they just didn't get it. They're preparing to file for bankruptcy due to their ridiculous amount of debt. The lackluster sales of new cars has really hit them hard, and I guess that would make the only true competitor to terrestrial radio then Internet radio such as Live 365, Pandora, and

To help cope with the downturn, Intel has decided to spend $7 billion on factory upgrades. Part of the funding for this comes from shutting down overseas plants and cutting some 8,000 jobs, but allows them to stay competitive in the market and deliver cheaper, better products thanks to recent advances in manufacturing equipment. I've talked about this before: the only way to truly brave a rough economy is to innovate, and when you're in hardware that may involve re-investing in your manufacturing.

Final Notes

Ok, this post has run way too long and it's past my bedtime. Time to wrap things up!

Business Week has a really good article on how Apple designs new products. It's really fascinating and may expel some negative myths you've heard in the past.

Information Week also exposes some myths in explaining a lot of stuff about Solid-State Drives (SSDs) and their drawbacks: they don't expand your battery life despite requiring less power and they're really expensive, but at least they don't have any pesky moving parts like traditional hard drives. However, some do provide a fast erase feature for high security uses.

Twitter is considering charging business accounts, but they face the risk of scaring them off. I hope they don't jump into the kind of mess Facebook is in now with advertising.

Does your laptop battery suck? Maybe you should change how you use it when it's not plugged in.

Last, but not least, the Oregon Trail may be coming to the iPhone! I usually don't write about such trivial iPhone app news, but I have fond memories of that game from elementary school so that's just really awesome that so many more people get to experience a truly classic game.

In another week or two, you can look forward to a full-on video review of the TiVo HD! I'm definitely looking forward to it and it should be a fun experiment to see how well a video format would work on this blog.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Facebook on the Decline?

Mino HD Review: Next Week

I've been putting this off for far too long so I promise that I'll have a review for my Flip MinoHD next week. I've heard some interest for one and I keep putting it off, so I've already started shooting footage on it and on my Canon PowerShot SD 450 as a comparison of HD vs. SD to package with the review.

I want to do a review of my TiVo HD by the end of the month, but I still need a tripod for my camera to pull it off right. I'll keep you guys posted when I'm ready for that.

Everybody Loves Hates Facebook

I've covered this topic before, but I ran into too many good articles about it last week to not jump into it once again.

Facebook has enjoyed a tremendous amount of growth over the past 4-5 years, but is their ride on the gravy train over? Let's face it, at a certain point it has to stop growing as people run out of people to tell to join the site, and at that point it's all about keeping eyeballs on the site. As the article I just linked points out quite eloquently: it's like a pyramid scheme, in a way. At some point, dummies stop getting recruited in and the people at the top make all the dough. Of course, Facebook users aren't dummies (not all of them, at least), so their eyes are valuable for ad revenue. The only way to keep advertisers in this market is to prove that you're producing results through engagement (kind of like the Burger King ad campaign Facebook shut down last month), not brute force page views. They claim that their key demographic is people in their 30s, but this is an age group that's clearly LinkedIn, not Facebooking. It's an important group: the 30-somethings that have money to burn and are first adopters.

Nowadays though, Twitter is social networking's golden boy. They are the next Facebook, and Facebook's latest efforts to open up their platform further so that third parties can use wall information and status updates may not extinguish much in the fiery blaze Twitter has left in its path. First off: Facebook status updates are now public. Did its users really want that? If anything, I think all these changes that Facebook has made has only served to alienate its users from the site. If the user experience changes every few months, you're going to lose people at each iteration despite how many you also gain.

It's funny how the two services have grown to be such polar opposites. Facebook is trying anything and everything to bring in ad revenues, including telling your friends about the ads you click through. Talk about a disincentive: what if it's an ad for condoms or something and then everyone knows the brand you like? Can you imagine your boss seeing something like that about you on their home page? Twitter, on the other hand, isn't trying anything at all. This isn't the smartest strategy, but they haven't lost any users to anything other than any given user's lack of interest to twitter. Some have suggested engagement ads in Twitter could be subtle messages that appear in your feed, but that could be risky if users confuse it with actual status updates. Of course, Twitter could data mine your updates and those of your friends to really target the ads it shows you. It'll be interesting to see where they go and it's funny how many investors are willing to back them on the sheer size of their audience - much like investors were jumping on the Facebook boat just a couple of years ago. Has Facebook already failed though? Not really. This was bound to happen. Twitter was bound to see growth and popularity like this, and Facebook was bound to see a tremendous slowdown in their growth. If they want to survive, they need to really focus on keeping their users happy and not introducing advertising techniques that upset anyway. Conversely, Twitter needs to start experimenting - nothing too crazy, just enough to get the ball rolling.

Layoffs Go Global

The United States isn't the only country to get hit hard by layoffs - we're now in a global economy. A downturn in any of the bigger economies is a downturn for everyone else. Japan's Sharp, inc is going to be cutting 1,500 contract workers and is facing a billion dollar annual loss. Fortunately, none of their 55k full-time employees are facing the chopping block, but a number of managers and executives are facing salary cuts. They're actually the leading cell phone maker in Japan, and even their cell phone sales took a serious, partially due to Japan's weakened economy and partially due to the foreign exchange (FX) market.

Panasonic came out much worse: they're cutting 15,000 jobs and shutting down 27 plants worldwide. They're forecasting a $4.2 billion loss through the remainder of this fiscal year, which is their first annual loss in 6 years. They're still trying to reshape their business for this economy, but it's an uphill battle. Sony is also cutting 8,000 jobs worldwide and letting go of 8,000 more temporary workers.

If you get laid of at IBM stateside, they're giving you the option to have them move you to another country for less pay. I guess it's a cool opportunity if you want to see more of the world and you have no better prospect here for a couple of years, but it still seems like a raw deal. Of course, it's kind of cool that they're interested in keeping American labor even if they can't afford to stay in business and pay American wages.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a pink slip then, first of all, my heart goes out to you. My heart goes out to anyone who works hard and gets laid off, especially if they have a family to support. I count my blessings every day that I've been fortunate enough to work at one of the few companies still seeing growth in this financial climate. Fortunately, the Internet is around to help you dust yourself off and go job hunting. Not everyone is a fan of Guy Kawasaki, but I do like his post on 10 ways to make LinkedIn work for you. Finding hiring managers and startups and getting recommendations and such is definitely a great start, and hopefully it'll lead to a happy ending.

No More Windows 7 Betas

Microsoft has announced that there will be no more beta releases for Windows 7. They've seen a lot of great press come out of the beta with many reviewers even telling people to hold on to their sluggish Vista machines for a Windows 7 speed boost. Their next step, instead of a second beta, will be a release candidate. I doubt that it'll be public though - it'll probably be an internal milestone for no more than fatal bug fixes changed in the code base. the rest of us still have a long wait ahead of us: the earliest we'll see Windows 7's final release is this coming winter, but an early 2010 release may be a more reliable time frame to look forward to.

It's not all sunshine and lollipops though: it looks like there will be six different versions of Windows 7: Starter, Home Basic (for developing nations), Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate. To be honest, there should only be 3 versions: Starter, Home, and Professional. The fact that Enterprise and Ultimate are the same, just offered in different markets, is mindboggling. Also, why have Home Premium and Professional if home users who want more features are probably going to just look towards Professional anyway? And for that matter, why sell big companies Enterprise instead of "Professional"? I'm sure they have a bunch of marketing guys convinced that this is a great idea, but I think it only serves to confuse and irritate their customers.

One more bit of bad news for Redmond: IE has now dropped to 67.55% of global browser market share, which is a staggering figure when you consider the chokehold it once had on the market. Firefox is now at 21.53%, which leaves little room for Safari, Opera, Chrome, and friends.

Of Veins and Scams

Sony has unveiled a new type of really cool biometric authentication technology: vein recognition. That's right, like the ones in your fingers. Biometrics has been kind of a bastard child of security research yielding products that seem cool in movies but are often impratical due to costs or being too easy to break. The hardest to fool, at least up til now, is ocular scanning. This new technology uses a CMOS sensor to capture scattered light inside a finger, and they claim that this is fool-proof (famous last words). I don't see why someone couldn't make a fake finger that created the same light pattern as someone else's finger if they severed it. The problem with passwords that are parts of your body is that they put your life in risk if they guard something valuable enough and they sometimes don't have another key, so once you lose your valued body part you're also locked out of the car/data/house/panic room/etc. Who knows, maybe Sony has really thought this through - I just haven't seen much more detail on it.

Social engineering scams are tricky, so maybe this list of the top 5 Internet scams will open your eyes to what you should be aware of as being possible out there. As a general rule of thumb: if it's too good to be true then it probably is. Getting something great for little or nothing is probably a red flag. Instead of reading forwarded warnings of new virus outbreaks (or forwarding them yourself, for that matter) how about using your instincts and thinking hard before volunteering sensitive information to someone or clicking on a link that seems shady? We all make mistakes, they important thing is that you learn from everyone else's mistakes and take the proper precautions.

YouTube Filtering and Popularity

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is reaching out to those of you who pride yourselves on making mashups with bits of otherwise copyrighted material to talk to them and allow them to help you stake your claim against Warner Music if you've recently had a video muted or taken down even if your use of the copyrighted content is considered fair use and, hence, legal. In a world where mashups like this and pervasiveness of the music is the key to selling said content, it amazes me that Warner Music would prefer legal fees to legitimate sales.

YouTube has done something right, fortunately, in changing the home page recommendations from "Most Viewed" to "Most Popular". Popularity includes factors like how long people watch your video for after they go to it and how good the ratings are. They're hoping that this will stop the gaming of pushing videos to the front page off of sheer page views. After all, it's in YouTube's best interest to keep people coming back for more by showing them the good stuff from the get-go.


There was so much news last week that even the following is a paring down of what I had tagged to talk about. In the end, I think this post as a whole reflects the most important and interesting news from last week.

Amazon launched a new store within the main retail site:

That's right, video game downloads. You don't have to wait for the mailman to blow off some steam. They have hundreds of games that you can try for free and then buy for $10 or less. I imagine this will appeal to children and bored businessmen. It's not quite like Gametap where you can get next-generation quality titles, but the site just launched last week so anything's possible.

Speaking of video games though, the Final Fantasy 13 trailer is online and it's spectacular. J-RPG fan, unite! You can also download it from the PlayStation Network.

Google Latitude came out last week allowing you to use your iPhone or Windows Mobile device to record your location for your friends to see where ever you are, or you can enter it in by hand. At first, I was skeptical, but you have total control over who can see where you are and how much they can see (i.e. a 1 mi. radius of where you are or just the city?). It's kind of like Twitter with GPS. I wonder if it'll take off or just be a novelty?

Intel spoke at a chip conference that the future of microchips is not in GHz but in on well integrated it is with wireless devices by including more functionality in the chip itself that would otherwise be in other parts on the motherboard. The future is definitely the increased mobility of computing, so it'll be interesting to see what Intel comes out with next after the Core i7 series.

Computerworld has a great article on why e-Books truly are the future, despite what naysayers think. People may cling to books, but they've already started shedding newspapers and how often do people buy paperbacks only to turn around and sell hem after they're done to conserve space?

The creator of MySQL has left Sun over creative differences to launch his own company. It's no secret that MySQL innovation has been kind of lagging behind competitors, and his new company will be focused on a new SQL storage engine called Maria. He's also hinted at a restaurant side project. I definitely look forward to seeing what Michael Widenius comes up with next - he's a very smart guy.

GMail added some new features like better drop downs and more auto-complete, so go check it out!

Do you know what binary is? If you don't think that 10 is equivalent to 2, then maybe this 1-minute primer will help you out. Understanding binary is one of the most fundamental concepts in computer science, and something I not only came back to again and again in school but even in industry.

The forced digital transition has been pushed back from February 17 to June 12. While I did say last time that the delay failed in the House, they re-voted with the provision that stations can turn off analog signal before June 12 if they were already planning on it, but they don't absolutely have to until June 12. This seems kind of pointless to me and just further confusing because now not everyone will have to transition and they're not going to know if they have to or not because of this optional delay of sorts.

Alright, I'm on call for one last night and this month so I want to wrap up a few things before my weekly report in the morning. Have a good week everyone and don't be too afraid of Friday being the 13th! We don't burn nearly as many witches at the stake anymore.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Are Netbooks Killing Notebooks?

Netbooks vs. Notebooks

Microsoft and Intel (and I'm sure others) contributed part of the blame for their weak Q4 results to increased netbook sales (see my last post), but is this really true? Computerworld is not convinced. I'm inclined to agree with them. I can't remember the last time I've seen a netbook, and I've spent the past year and half in several cities: Austin, Houston, Seattle (current), Paris, Rome, Brussels, Florence, and many others. No matter where I've gone though or how many buses I take, I haven't seen anyone using one of these things. Given how techie Austin and Seattle are, it's hard to believe that there's all of a sudden this huge shift towards netbooks. After all, how many people realize what a netbook is?

So what's to blame for weak OS and PC sales? For starters, we're kind of in a down economy. People are scaling back large purchases, including new computers. I don't think that means that they're going to go and buy a computer that worse than the one they currently have (a netbook) because it's more portable - the idea of owning a netbook seems to just be a cheap luxury item rather than a replacement or an upgrade. I can't imagine anyone thinking that having such a tiny keyboard and screen would be an upgrade, even if they don't notice the weaker specs. Let's be honest though, what's the point in upgrading unless your computer is totally falling apart? My home laptop has been flaky lately (Firefox not loading pages and forcing me to restart the browser or the computer), but I'm still not prepared to replace it. My reasoning is that Windows 7 is going to be out next year (most likely) so to get a new Vista machine wouldn't make sense, but I think for most people they just don't see a much better machine out there that's affordable that they really need. How much do people do nowadays on their computer that isn't browsing the web, word processing, e-mails, listening to music, or looking at photos? There haven't been any great advancements in hardware to make these things better. I think that chip makers should really be optimizing their architectures for these things because my laptop is supposed to be a home entertainment machine but I don't think it does multimedia especially well (aside from having a nice screen).

The other factor to consider is that people really aren't interested in buying desktops anymore. I can't think of any reason to buy a desktop unless it's strictly for office use or you're a hardcore gamer. Of course, when I say strictly for office use I think if you only have one computer for work it's going to be a laptop so you can take it on trips and work from home and stuff - I'm referring to your second work computer. I think that Apple had the right idea with their latest MacBooks: optimize for the notebook market. They put in batteries that aren't replaceable but give you twice the battery life: people are willing to upgrade their laptops because of something like that. They're not going to upgrade just because you make the case shinier or something. It's really all about innovation and knowing your market. You need to bring out the features that your audience has a use case for and then price it competitively. The problem is that not enough people in the market are doing that right now, and Microsoft is going to be in a rut with Windows until Windows 7 comes out.

In fact, the impending release of Windows 7 has probably dealt a bigger blow to notebook and PC sales than netbooks have. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), this may not influence enterprise users that much. On one hand, they haven't been marketing it very well at all for businesses and have instead been trying to generate excitement from general consumers. I don't think this is a terrible thing, and maybe they'll pull more features out of their hat later in the year. On the other hand though, Windows 7 will probably work on older hardware so businesses can afford to buy lower-end or older computers. So this goes back to the innovation part: computer manufacturers need to be cost-effective and need to really think about how to satisfy their customers. The only way to survive this economic downturn is to innovate, not to point fingers at external factors and hope that it inspires investor confidence. We'll see how well everyone does this in the next couple of quarters. Speaking of which...

Grim and Good Quarterly Results

Sprint Nextel had a terrible quarter and have decided to cut 8,000 jobs and possibly replace some of them through outsourcing. Plus, they've frozen 401(k) matching for the year as well as any salary increases. Their 2008 net loss was $1.1 billion and lost 1.3 million customers last quarter. While I feel bad for the people who lost their jobs, Sprint had this coming for a while. Aside from the fact that they have crappy phones so AT&T probably drained a lot of subscribers from them, their service is unimpressive as is their customer service (I currently am on Sprint). They haven't been trying at all as far as I can tell over the past year to make anything better for their customers, and I almost quit a while ago for AT&T. I decided to wait a bit longer to see who gets a phone I really want, and hopefully the Palm Pre will be that phone. Sprint really needs the Pre to not fail. Given that they're at the point of selling off Nextel, I don't know how many pieces they'll be in this time next year if the Pre fails. It's not going to single-handedly save them, but it'll at least stop the bleeding.

The other company that announced a bad quarter last week was AOL. They saw a decline in revenues that has led them to lay off 700 employees. AOL has been going downhill for a long time now though and could stand to be acquired by someone who can cut it up and make its pieces work well separately. It really is sad to look at the list of companies laying off employees, and I really hope and pray that this year will see some sort of rebound. I know things won't be vastly different this time next year, but I'm hoping we can see the start of an upturn before the end of the year. More realistically though, it could take 2 years.

It's not bad news all around though: Netflix posted a ridiculous 45% growth in profits with a 27% growth in their subscriber base to over 9 million people. They say that people don't tend to cut out entertainment from their budget though when times are tough because it's an escape from reality, and I guess paying $9 a month for Netflix is just a lot cheaper now than renting from Blockbuster is. Even I'm extremely tempted to sign up with them and I'm never lacking in content on my DVR (Motorola or TiVo HD).

Another company to post gains was with an 18% growth in revenues and 24% increase in gross profits worldwide, partially thanks to lowered tax rates, and a customer base of over 88 million people. However, gross profit margins didn't get much better. You can read all the gritty details, including the Q&A session with Jeff B and friends, here. It's quite an epic read. I think people are just gratefully and happy that our hard work through Q4 really paid off, and it's a testament to the strength of our customers. Amazon truly does focus on the customer, and I think that's an enormous part of why we're able to survive this downtown. We'll keep working hard on making our products better and better and hopefully our customers will continue to support us. I can assure you that Amazon is not going to be squandering these profits - they're going to be invested wisely.

DTV Transition Still On

This is a short story, but I thought it was kind of funny. Remember a while ago when I said that Obama wanted to push back on the Digital TV transition because the coupon program was underfunded and he didn't think people were ready for it (and it would look bad for people who were uninformed if their TVs stopped working soon after he took office)? Well, the Senate had no problem agreeing with him. A lot of techies weren't happy with this though citing that it'll only create more confusion to change the date and if people aren't prepared now then a few more months won't help. After all, people will just go to their local electronics store I'm sure and figure it out, or read a newspaper or something. In a rather shocking move, the House agreed that changing the date would be futile. The margin it lost by isn't that big, but only 6.5 million being unprepared isn't that big of a deal. That means that it's likely that they'll talk to a neighbor on the morning of February 18 or a co-worker and figure it out. I don't expect riots in the street or anything. Coincidentally, I'm getting my TiVo's CableCARD installed on February 18, so I'm sure it'll be super easy to get in touch with Broadstripe to find out when the cable guy will be coming.

This Week in Google

There was a decent amount of Google news last week, so let's start with the bad: YouTube users are pretty unhappy about the audio being muted on their videos. YouTube has been flooded with protest videos and profanity against Warner Music and YouTube. Some people are even hoping that Warner Music folds. It's gotten so ridiculous that even some of Warner's own artists (like Metallica) have had to move their content off of YouTube onto their own websites. There is such a thing as fair use for this copyrighted music, and this purge is completely ridiculous. Hopefully they'll come to their senses, but I don't see how discouraging people from listening to the music you're trying to promote is going to help you survive the current economic climate.

Google is responding to the economy by increasing the number and frequency of some of their advertising. Some of their products have little or no advertising as it is, so I think it totally makes sense to experiment more with those properties. I guess that we'll see what happens at the end of the quarter in their earnings call.

Now onto the really good Google news: they're trying to help in the fight for net neutrality by backing M-labs in providing free tools to see how net neutral your ISP really is by checking how your connection responds to BitTorrent traffic. Aggregating this data could prove to be very useful in giving consumers more information in choosing their ISP and discriminating against those who unfairly block or restrict certain traffic on their networks.

Lastly, Google has released offline Gmail access as a Google Labs extra. I haven't tried it out yet personally, but I know that this is going to definitely push Outlook huggers to the edge when they realize how much lighter and accessible Gmail is. It basically syncs with Gmail regularly and stores items locally when offline to be sent when your Internet connection is restored.

Free Your Phone

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is tired of locked cell phones and the way that gross telecommunications monopolies dangle them as carrots in front of their customers. They've started a campaign to add a clause to the DMCA to make unlocking your cell phone a legal act. It's actually pretty disgusting that it's considered copyright infringement to be able to use that $300 phone you bought however you want. It sounds like Apple's locked-down app store is also in their crosshairs. I'll definitely keep you posted as more develops on this battle, which I'm very excited about.

One more quick piece of cell phone news: Congress is trying to ban the sale of cell phones with cameras that do not make a sound when you take a picture. It wouldn't take effect until a year after it's passed, but it doesn't sound like it's even near being up for a vote. I think it's a pretty good idea. Granted, you can buy an ultracompact camera that can be muted, but that's harder to aim under women's skirts and people who own those don't have them nearly as readily available as their cell phone. Only two small things that should be considered: people should be able to at least choose the sound (they've already thought about this) and the camera should not be such that it can take pictures accidentally in your pocket even when it's on vibrate (my old phone always took pictures in my pocket).

Last Notes

Ok, time for the one-liners!

Network World has a great list of online privacy tips that are just as applicable for adults as they are for teens/tweens. It's amazing how much information people who should know better volunteer online without giving it a second thought.

Kind of related to that: you should always log off of your web accounts when you're using a computer that someone else has the potential to use. College Humor has a fun series of pictures about what stands to happen to you if you don't.

Seattle is now the most wired city in America, according to Forbes! Eat it, Atlanta! Also, Austin has finally made the list at the #30 spot. That's great news for two of my favorite cities in the world!

So much for theories that Apple doesn't want Flash on the iPhone: they're working with Adobe to get Flash working on the iPhone. So I guess iPhone users will have to continue to be patient and keep hope alive.

Lastly, I got my computer working as a home media server for my PS3 after 6 months and I'm really stoked! I thought I'd share this forum post that may help other PS3 owners who have had the issues I've had. I actually had just turned off my firewall because my TiVo was having issues playing music from my computer (though transferring videos from my TiVo works wonderfully), and all of a sudden Windows Media Player asked if I wanted to let "Unknown Device" see my media library as soon as I turned on my PS3! Unlike TVersity and PlayOn, it wasn't laggy for me at all. I just figured out that in Zone Alarm if you go to "Alerts and Logs" you can see the IP addresses that are being blocked and add them to your trusted zone if you want to. My PS3 was one of those IPs. Just a fun tip for any other Zone Alarm users having home media server issues.

Have a fantastic week, everyone! I'm on call for work so I'm counting on a rollercoaster of a week ;)