Monday, February 22, 2010

Windows Phone 7: It's About Time

A Windows Mobile OS You Might Actually Want

Over the past 7 or so years, Microsoft has carefully dragged the Windows Mobile brand in the mud. Of course, it started out as Pocket PC, but some of us would much rather forget those days. In any case, WinMo has had a lot of issues over the years and got pummeled by Blackberry and Apple in market share because Microsoft simply wasn't being competitive enough in innovation. As such, rumors of a Zune Phone have been around since the Zune hit the market and created a small fan base. While those rumors never quite materialized, out of their ashes has emerged Windows Phone 7, which is more or less a re-branding of Windows Mobile.

I recommend watching the videos that Engadget has posted from the announcement last week because seeing is really believing here - this UI is slick. It very much feels inspired by the same design principles that inspired the Zune, but it's still set apart a bit from the Zune UI in that it clearly looks more geared towards a mobile PC experience. It's visually dominated by clean typography and screens that seem to be horizontally very long to encourage side-to-side navigation. It also aims to plug you into the Internet more easily and automagically kind of like the live widgets familiar to Android users.

While there's no Flash support, it's gotten at least as much good press as the iPad has gotten bad press. I like Gizmodo's wording of the UI as being "function-centric". It's not centered around screens of apps, just a simple interface for exactly what you care about. Despite all this buzz though, I don't know if Microsoft will succeed here. Palm made a big splash around this time last year with webOS and Palm is arguable a more respected name in mobile phones than Microsoft. They released the Pre in the summer and they're still struggling despite critical acclaim for the Pre and Pixi. Microsoft's timeline is this winter, so do they stand a chance in a world where 9 months can mean 1-3 major mobile OS upgrades for Android, webOS, and the iPhone?

Well, I'll admit that they have an ace in the hole: Xbox Live. The way to market phones nowadays tends to be around a specific feature that it does really well. It may do other things decently well but being the biggest player in one specific feature can really help move merchandise. The strategy with Blackberry was for enterprise users and heavy texters and for Palm with webOS it was multi-tasking. I'm sure there will be little independent games on Windows Phone 7 like on other phones, but the real killer feature here would be cross-platform gaming, which is exactly what Microsoft is proposing. Being able to play a casual game on your Xbox 360 from Xbox Live Arcade against someone on their phone is an awesome idea. I can already picture the ad of a dad on a business trip playing Bomberman on his phone from LAX against his son who's at home on their Xbox 360. Past just casual games like this though would be a concept pioneered by Sega with the Dreamcast, which was way ahead of its time. Remember those VMU thingies? Where you could play little mini-games on them? What if you could play a Mass Effect 2 mini-game on your phone that integrated with the storyline from your Xbox 360 Mass Effect 2 saved game? If I had an Xbox 360, I would most definitely buy a Windows Phone 7 for an extended experience like that. Sony has tried to bring together the PS3 with the PSP and had limited success, but it requires people to buy a gaming device whereas everyone needs a cell phone these days.

While we're still in hype mode right now with Windows Phone 7 and the videos show how unpolished it is in terms of speed and bugginess, it's a very cool concept. There's no guarantee that it'll be enough to bail out Windows Mobile, but after seeing all I've seen I really hope it ends up standing a chance.

In Other Mobile News...

Hey, it was Mobile World Congress week so last week was all cell phone news.

Nokia and Intel have teamed up to create MeeGo, a new Linux-based mobile OS designed to work on all mobile devices, not just cell phones, and is basically a re-imagining of Intel's Moblin OS. I think they basically took a good look at the iPhone and Android and decided that they were in big trouble. Given that this is all we know, it's not promising. Nokia doesn't have a great track record for clean UIs, but Intel still has the power to popularize this OS at least among netbooks and tablets and it is going to be an open source OS. The official site says that the development platform will be C++, which may make it more attractive for people used to writing Objective C for the iPhone, but C++ is definitely not as popular a language as it once was.

The HTC has named its successor to the Nexus One: Desire. It's an Android 2.1 device with the same Snapdragon processor and sports a beautiful AMOLED multi-touch screen. I can't get enough of AMOLED - it's too awesome. The main difference from the Nexus one is that the trackball is gone in favor of the Sense UI, which is HTC's UI built on top of Android that was introduced with the HTC Hero. So nothing terrible new here, but it is probably the next big Android phone.

Adobe announced that Air is slated to be available on Android later this year (I think in the first half of the year), and they stated their grand plan of developers writing applications on the Flash platform to work on all phones that don't have "iPhone" in their name. As much as Apple doesn't want to admit it, Flash is big. HTML 5 isn't here yet and everyone already uses Flash for mobile video and a lot of casual online games. I think Flash may be in trouble in 2012 when HTML 5 has hopefully caught on, but for right now it's an interesting proposition that developers can put mobile video widgets on their site via Flash that will work on a lot of non-iPhone phones. It's not going to kill Apple, but it would certainly be a thorn in its side if Flash ends up being implemented well (read: stable and power-efficient). Plus, developers could just develop some applications to just be for the iPhone OS and then for Air and that could end up covering an enormous majority of the market. Like any good conference, this is all just pie in the sky talk for right now. It won't be long before we see what happens, especially with the Pre expected to get Flash support in an OS update before the end of the week.

Why You Should be Scared of Apple

This post simply wouldn't be complete without covering this article from Cracked. It grew to be quite popular. Despite all the great things that Apple has done for technology in the past 30 years, they're riddled with problems that people like to pretend don't exist. It doesn't make you a bad person if you have an iPhone just because Apple does a lot of bad stuff, but it's worth knowing the things they do behind closed doors, like run campaigns of fear against their own employees and take extreme measures to combat leaks. When an employee of an Apple contractor commits suicide because he's being tortured over a prototype he accidentally lost, that's a really bad sign.

The real issue with Apple is the amount of control they continue to wield over their products. It's hard to cheer for someone who makes massive innovations in a technology only to cripple it with restrictions that don't make sense. The app store on the iPhone is a prime example of that, but it's not much better that they use updates for programs like iTunes to sneak other unrelated software on users' computers. I think stories like this are important to know because I believe corporations should be held accountable not only by their shareholders but by their customers. Ultimately, Apple is only around because of the people who buy their products, and their lack of regard for what customers really care about kind of sucks. It'd just be nice to see that change because they clearly have a lot of talent in Cupertino and they can really pump out some impressive hardware.

Yahoo Going the Way of Alta Vista

PC World posted a fun little editorial posing the question of whether or not Yahoo is becoming another Alta Vista. I definitely had a chuckle when I read the title because I remember trying Alta Vista back in the days when people thought Yahoo was the Internet. They're really hitting heavy stagnation when it comes to innovation and a home page that's attractive at all, and it's unfortunate to see them fall like this but they're totally being undercut by Bing. Even though Bing isn't a new player under the hood, it's very telling how quickly Microsoft was able to usurp mindshare from Yahoo.

The Rest

And now the stories I have very little to say about.

Flash 10.1 will support porn mode - I mean private browsing. You have to admit that it's kind of funny how quickly the whole "private browsing" feature has caught on.

40% of US households do not have broadband, and 38% of those people aren't interested in getting it. That's really terrible. The industry and the government clearly aren't doing a good enough job helping the Internet fit in people's lives.

Google Gears is dying in favor of HTML 5. I think everyone saw that coming as soon as they heard about HTML 5.

Maximum PC has a really good roundup of useful web applications. They're not all winners, but most of them truly are really good.

Lastly, this image very aptly sums up the truth about how annoying DVDs have become nowadays. Do the studios not watch their own DVDs? How does all that crap not irritate them?

Have a great last week of February, everyone! Oh February 2010, we hardly knew thee.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Buzz About Google Buzz

Google's Social Foray

Be forewarned: I have to talk about a lot of Google news today. They just dominated the media last week - there's no getting around it.

At the center of it all is Google Buzz, which has clearly attracted at least the amount of attention as the iPad from the tech community. Compared to most other Google launches, except for Wave, the amount of buzz it has gotten is kind of uncharacteristic of a new Google product. I don't think it's quite the buzz that Google wanted though.

So what is Google Buzz? Simply put, it's Google's take on social networking. It's a tab in your Gmail account that lets you connect with your friends as they interact on a number of services including Twitter, Picasa, YouTube, Blogspot, Google talk, Google Reader, and Flickr. It basically gives you a feed of the people you follow ala Facebook and lets you update also kind of like on Facebook where you can say stuff or post a link or photo. You also get some finer controls on privacy. Their vision for this is a little bigger than what you see in your web browser though since you can have a Buzz layer on Google Maps to see where your friends are (I guess like Latitude but on speed?), and the mobile apps do voice recognition. If you're on webOS though you're out of luck - Google didn't show any love for Palm.

Why would you want this thing? Well, Google is selling it on the premise that it hooks into your Gmail so if you're on Gmail then you get it for free and it just gives you the stuff you care about, but I don't know how it figures out what you care about unless it strictly bases that off when you click to "like" stuff. In my opinion, it's kind of silly and unnecessary. And I'm definitely not alone in that camp. For one thing, it doesn't really add any value except for the Google Maps layer, which I can't vouch for and is something you can kind of already do with Latitude and Foursquare. I can understand that Google doesn't want to get left in the dust with social networking (as they've already shown with domestic failures Orkut and Dodgeball), but this isn't really great timing for it. My running opinion of technology is that it should solve a problem or fill a need, but I don't think this does either.

To make matters worse, there have been serious privacy concerns called to attention. For example, the default when it launched was that the people you followed was public and you were auto-following a bunch of people from your Gmail contact list, so this was basically revealing part of your address book to the world. They've fixed that, but as CNet aptly puts it, using Buzz is still kind of awkward and not compelling.

The most insightful thoughts on Buzz though, in my opinion, have come from Digg co-founder and Internet celebrity Kevin Rose. In a nutshell, he believes part of the intent of Google Buzz is to hook directly into Google Search and provide real-time relevancy for up-and-coming sites and news articles. While Digg already does a great job of people-driven news promotion, Google Buzz is a wider base, is intended to be as easy to interact with as Twitter, and provides data that other sites can farm to improve what they do, assuming your feed on Buzz is public. This theory is actually further supported but Google's acquisition of social search service Aardvark, which lets you pose natural questions to real people in your social network so you can get real answers instead of having to search for information yourself. In the end, it all ends in beefing up Google Search. Of course, that's just one theory though.

I don't think it's fair to write off Google Buzz already. It's not that exciting right now, but this is Google we're talking about. They tend to not settle for developing mediocre products. Plus, sometimes these things just take a while to catch on. Facebook and Twitter didn't get so big overnight.

Google Broadband

While we're talking about Google let's move on to something that's actually much cooler than Buzz. They're planning on building an ultra high speed broadband network with speeds up to 1Gbps (which is probably 150x faster than what you have right now) at competitive prices. I'm totally salivating at this idea. They're only going to test it out in a few markets to start out with for 50,000 to 500,000 people. Google claims that their interest in doing this is to test out applications that would need lots of bandwidth to perform well. Still no idea what markets they're looking into, but this is the kind of competition we really need in the broadband market. Verizon is the only company out there really pushing the envelope on a large scale and it's all kinds of exciting that Google is taking an interest simply because they have enough resources to actually compete. Even if they end up canning the program, if they get Comcast and Time Warner to wake up and try to provide better products then it'll be a success in and of itself.

Is Google Killing Startups?

This is a really interesting story that I'm really at odds with. Business Insider has an editorial up claiming that every engineer Google snatches up is a missed opportunity for a startup. They would probably include a couple of other companies hypothetically, but the most obvious example is Google. Ultimately, the security blanket of these larger companies is bringing in top talent rather than a market where people have to be entrepreneurs and create their own jobs.

The thing is, most startups don't succeed. It's an extremely risky venture and I vehemently protest that idea that any developer has the chops to start their own company. It's like when the government said that anyone is entitled to a house even if they can't afford it. Starting a company is hard work and requires a certain type of person, and not every developer that goes to Google has that even though they're really smart and work great as a cog in a much larger machine. I love that the US is a place that encourages entrepreneurial spirit and I'm not disputing the value of startups at all, but I don't think Google is killing them. I've heard plenty of stories of people leaving places like Google and Microsoft to start their own company. The experience they got in a larger company ends up being invaluable to their venture. Not everyone can come out of school and go straight into creating a startup because not everyone is Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but more people definitely can after being in the industry for a while and learning from the brilliant people out there, who have tremendous influence on the industry by impacting these individuals at places like Google.

If you want to blame anyone blame our country's educational system for its failings in properly promoting science and technology, and cutting back on scholarships. I don't know who this guy has been talking to, but the talent pool is definitely limited out there compared to the positions available within computer science. I do think it makes sense, however, having entrepreneurs go to schools and teach them about starting a company so that they have that option, but I don't think it's productive to call Google the bad guy in this situation.

Google Stands Up to Australian Censorship

See? I told you it was a ton of Google news. It happens sometimes.

Let me sneak in an only slightly related piece of YouTube news: they've created a safety mode to help filter out objectionable content, presumably so YouTube can be whitelisted for educational uses and even children's use at home (or adults' use in the office).

The real provocative story is that Google is refusing requests for censorship on YouTube from the Australian government. This may be part of the motivation behind their threat to pull out of China: their censorship cessions have opened a Pandora's box of requests for them to censor elsewhere. What you really have to consider is what an impact Google can make in these countries. I'm not a Google fanboy, mind you, but I think they could have the power to change things in some of these countries. Right now, the requests that the Australian government are making are due to their self-interest rather than law, and Google has pledged to abide by the laws in the countries it's in. If Australia decides to change their law and Google refuses, what happens? If Google pulls out, will people get really upset and question their government's censorship? I'd hope so, but it's a hard thing to measure.

The Last Bits

What a terrible pun. Wow. Anyway, just a few quick stories before I sign off and get back to playing some guitar - my V-day treat to me.

A new Russian crimeware called Spy Eye has an option to remove competitor Zeus software from the users machine, along with stealing banking credentials. The intent of the program is to create Trojan horses so the person who installed it had it coming, but just a funny way to try to kill off a rival.

AOL has integrated Facebook Chat with AIM. Do people really use Facebook Chat on a regular basis?

Google Maps has added 9 new experimental features including rotatable maps and aerial imagery. Very nifty stuff!

The founder of 4chan, the least well-known gigantic cultural influence in the world, spoke at TED. Very interesting talk about privacy.

Google Street View did Whistler! Check out this sucker:

Have a great week everyone!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Gone Phishing on the iPhone

Cybersecurity Shmybersecurity

There was a pretty good amount of security news last week but not much of anything else. Given that I'm kind of tired from yesterday (worked all day and night), I'm going to keep this kind of short since it was a slow news week anyway.

Network World kind of informally posted what they think the 10 best IT jobs will be in 2010. I don't know that they had hard evidence to back their list, but it's actually a pretty good list. Guess what's at the top of that list? No, not a shmybersecurity expert but a security specialist. The list has some other cool choices, like open source evangelist and service assurance manager (super important), but let's stick with security specialist.

Almost every week for the past several months I've had at least one security issue a week to talk about. Sometimes I don't cover them just because they get repetitive. Last week alone there were two biggies. Google was at the center of a corporate espionage attack a couple of weeks ago and so last week they teamed up with the NSA to get to the bottom of the attack, which is believed to have originated in China. It was so serious that Google decided that they're not going to filter search results in China anymore. I'm not sure if they've stuck with this policy or not since then, but they were clearly frazzled by this. Given that the accounts violated were active human rights supporters in China, it's very likely that the attacks originated within the Chinese government.

More recent than that was that a security flaw was discovered in the iPhone opening the door to phishing attacks. I wonder if this will make security on the iPhone a big deal like it is for Internet Explorer on PCs? It basically allows someone to easily modify your mobile configuration files over the air and make it look like it came from Apple. Someone who didn't know about this exploit could do something like connect to a malicious server instead of a VPN and have all their transmissions compromised.

With all these stories cropping up, it's not surprising that a security specialist would be in demand. Coming full circle back to this section header, a lot of people don't understand cybersecurity at all. However, it's not easy to understand if you want to be safe from every kind of attack you're likely to come across. Even the tech savvy get tricked. It's an arms race because the bad guys get more and more clever as we figure them out - like a polymorphic virus. I don't know if it will pan out since often things don't in a government as complicated as ours, but the House has approved legislation to authorize the NIST to develop a cybersecurity education program. This would be not only for the government but also for businesses and consumers to make our economy stronger against security scares. I hope that it ends up leading to real results, because it's something that we've needed for a long time now.

Superbowl Ads

Internet video has gotten really big. It's exciting. I remember blogging about IP TV a few years back and looking forward to a future where people control what they watch and have a much larger platform of content in the Internet. We're not quite there yet, but it's promising that 178 million US Internet users watched 33 billion online videos in December. It's crazy that 40% of those videos were on YouTube and 3% was on Hulu, which was the next highest percentage. The times have really changed from a world where the Internet wasn't a big deal and no one was using much of their bandwidth unless they were pirating stuff.

Anyway, it's cool that I could turn to Hulu for Superbowl ads since I missed the game. A couple of my friends had planned on doing that since they don't like football (I know, blasphemy). Hulu did this last year, too, but I think they improved this year with showing you how much people liked each video (at least I think that's new). I had the game on in the background and actually managed to catch the really good ads live because they happened to catch my attention. My favorites were definitely the eTrade one, the Doritos House Rules one, and the Megan Fox one. Honorable mentions though to Snickers and the Doritos Underdog one. Jeers to Prince of Persia (stop embarrassing good video game franchises, please) and The Backup Plan. Am I crazy or were the movie trailers last Superbowl much better? This year also saw Google's first Superbowl ad, and it was creative.

Let eBooks Grow

I don't want to talk to this too much since I have a vested interest in Amazon (I assure you that I have 0 insider knowledge on this thing), but I have something to say.

A part of me is stupefied by how book publishers are dealing with eBooks, but a part of me is glad because it's exposing them for the inane people they are. Amazon is selling eBooks from HarperCollins, for example, for less they pay HarperCollins and now Rupert Murdoch is bemoaning the death of paper books and wants to force prices of eBooks up like Macmillan does. When is this guy going to retire? He's so out-of-date he probably etches his notes on stone tablets. This is the same guy who didn't want Google indexing his news articles, mind you, because he can't see the writing on the wall. Book publishers have gotten away with over-charging people for books and under-paying authors for too long and these arguments with Amazon are only surfacing how shady they can be. I don't understand what's so wrong with trying to sell eBooks for less money than a physical version. It's all profit as a digital copy! First they didn't want a computerized voice reading their books on the Kindle, and now Amazon is offering them a better revenue split at the $10 price point but they're still recalcitrant! Whether they like it or not, paper books as we know them aren't going to last forever. I know you're clutching your copy of Catcher in the Rye and staring blankly at the screen but it's true! We don't even live in a world anymore where everyone reads newspapers on paper.

Ok, stepping off my soapbox. Thanks for indulging me.

Last Notes

Just a couple of items before I sign off here.

This is a really fun article about 18 gadgets that used to be high-tech. It's so enlightening sometimes to think about the past and how far we've come and how we got here.

The CEO of Sun resigned following the heels of their acquisition by Oracle. Kind of sad that Sun has fallen so far from grace, but it happens. At least he resigned in style via haiku.

Are relational databases dying? Very interesting thoughts from Computer World.

Enjoy the sunny weather outside while you can! I'll see you next week. Same bat time, same bat channel.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Apple iPlop

The iPad

I don't know how many years it's been since we've had rumors of an Apple tablet. When people saw the Modbook - OS X running on external tablet hardware - I think that really fueled the fire. I never really thought it'd be more than a giant iPhone given how much Apple had invested in the iPhone, and it looks like I was right. Instead of a Mac-based tablet we got an iPad. Engadget did their normal great job of liveblogging the whole event, but it was all about the iPad. It's funny because when you look through the pictures and read about the iPad it actually sounds pretty good. I'm sure seeing Steve Jobs demo it made it even more enticing. However, it's not long afterwards that you start to realize what's wrong with it.

In case you've been living under a rock: the iPad is literally almost just a big iPhone at about 9.5" x 7.5". It can do everything an iPhone can, other than make calls (or send texts), take pictures, or take videos, but it can show you eBooks natively, comes with iWork, and supports painting. Some of the other native apps are a bit varied from what you'd see on the iPhone but just to take advantage of the larger size. I don't think it's bad at anything that it does, but at $500 it's too expensive for the need people don't have for it. It's more or less a toy device for people who already have an iPhone since it's limited by the Apple App Store. You can see some videos of it in action here.

I figured that everyone else would be drooling over it, but not so much. At least not among the tech journalists. I think it's a neat niche product that will sell a few units, but it won't be a smash hit with this many people disappointed almost to the point of being offended by it. It has plenty of things wrong with it. It's locked to the Apple App Store, there's no HDMI, still no support for Flash (supposedly because it's buggy), and you can't really multitask. On the plus side, it's fast and it does has affordable data plans starting at $30 a month. Oddly enough, they partnered with AT&T again for the data service, which may be just that AT&T gave them the best deal. Plus, AT&T has a more widespread WiFi network than Verizon.

I wonder if this will end up being the nail in the coffin for the tablet PC? It's a niche market that has never taken off and maybe it's a product that's cooler to think about than actually develop? Or maybe it's still ahead of its time? If there was an iPod or iPhone of tablets though, I don't think anyone is going to look back on he iPad and consider it that thing. I think if it was $300 cheaper it would be a really awesome device, but at $500 it keeps it out of reach of the average person. We'll have to see when it comes out if people forget its negatives and buy it anyway. Until then, if you watch one parody video you should definitely watch College Humor's.

CES 2010

I missed out on CES being in India, but if you missed out also then it's never too late to catch up. I don't think there was a lot of really impressive stuff, but Robert Scoble put up a pretty impressive roundup of the biggest articles around CES. One of the more high profile announcements was Microsoft's tablet, which was seen as a flop, as well. Microsoft keeps trying to build tablets without carefully thinking about what the user interface should be like.

The coolest thing I saw was the Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus coming to Verizon (just a week ago, actually), which feature tethering in addition to more RAM and more on-board flash memory. With the new webOS coming out next month though all Pres and Pixis will get video recording, video editing, and Flash support. This will either support Apple's criticism of Flash or debunk them. The new webOS update is coming later this month.

Apps on the Kindle

Amazon recently announced an SDK for the Kindle to allow for third-party apps on the Kindle. Some people have criticized the Kindle as being a one-trick pony (even though it does do that one trick very well), so this touches on that a bit. I think it'll be neat for really simple applications, like word games and restaurant guides and stuff. It's not the reason you'd get a Kindle, but I'd file it away in the "nice to have" category.

Firefox 3.6

We now have Firefox 3.6, which has HTML 5 support, form auto-completion (like entire forms, not just individual fields), personas, and significant performance improvements. It's still not at Chrome's level yet, but I'm glad that they're at least trying to close the gap.

Ready for 3-D?

Digital Trends put up an article that I wanted to talk about because it's an issue that keeps coming up: do we really need 3-D TVs? Will they sell? Well, as I understand it, it's not very expensive to add to TVs (at least the kind where you need to put on 3-D glasses) but helps drive sales to buying new TVs for folks who don't have high definition yet and just needed that one more reason to upgrade. In reality, it'll still be at least another couple of years before people actually seek out 3-D TVs. The content just isn't there, which I think makes sense. Why invest in 3-D content if no one can view it? That would be like creating a bunch of HD channels when no one has an HD TV. HD TVs didn't make a whole lot of sense when they first came out but it wasn't long before they did become useful. I think we'll see the same with 3-D, we just haven't reached the point yet where it's really desirable.


I'm surprisingly exhausted so I need to end this post rather quickly and pass out. Here's some quick last notes.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (still weird to say that) is taking a hard stance for cybersecurity and the free flow of information. This supports Google's decision to stop censoring their Chinese site and tries to combat censorship in other countries as well. It may be a little overreaching, but it is important for the portion that seeks to punish those who do hack the United States military.

Samsung threw its hat in the e-Reader game. It doesn't impress me, but it's just YAER (yet another e-reader).

After a long courtship, Oracle now owns Sun, he creators of Java among other things. In other news, Oracle is slowly taking over the world (it wasn't long ago that they acquired Linksys).

If you want to know how secure the identity of your browser is, this is a really cool tool to find out.

Have a great week, everyone!