Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade of Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Android vs. the World (of Cellphones)

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

Nexus One

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

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

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

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

Harry Potter and the Mythical Bandwidth Hogs

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

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

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

The Apple Gestapo

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

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

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

Apple Acquires Lala

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

Twitter Gets Hacked

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

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

Facebook's Privacy Settings Change

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Inglourious Basterds on Blu-ray

Tarantino's First Blu Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Normal Stuff

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

Monday, December 07, 2009

Sprint Launches 4G in Seattle

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

3G x 3 = 4G

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

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

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

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

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

AT&T Strikes Back

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

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

Holiday Shopping Tips

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

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

Sprint Feeding Cops Your GPS Location

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

Other Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week everyone! Stay warm!