William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, December 31, 2010

Hello, Minority Report UI. Goodbye, touchscreen PCs.

Just a quick note to finish the year: Researchers at USC have developed a method for controlling World of Warcraft with Microsoft's Kinect camera. This is such a better way to control a non-text-based application. Imagine being able to do mouse-heavy work just with finger and body gestures. Imagine triple- and quad-display systems fueled by this sort of interface, with you pushing new windows around with the flick of a wrist.

I wonder if and how Microsoft benefits from open source projects like this apart from the camera sale. Regardless, 2011 should be a crazy year for camera-oriented computing innovation!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ebook Wars: The Superpower Lines Are Drawn

With the official entry of Google eBooks into the e-book space, a fairly clear picture of the hostility landscape has emerged. Numbers from Forrester show that laptops remain the most common device for ebook reading, but Amazon's Kindle devices are a close second. Those two alone account for over two-thirds of the e-reader market.

Let's have some truth in marketing. Google's eBooks buzzline is "It's time to set your reading free." This implies that your reading wasn't free before. In terms of pricing, Google is competitive with the other major retailers. Most bestselling headliners list at $9.99 or less. More to the point, Google's ebooks can be read on a wide range of supporting reader devices as well as in a Web browser. The compatibility list is essentially a who's who of the reader field...with one exception. "Currently," reads Google's page, "Google eBooks are not compatible with Amazon Kindle devices, though we are open to supporting them in the future."

Google also keeps track of what page you're on in a book so that if you start reading that title on another device, you can pick up right where you left off. This is a carbon copy of Kindle's functionality, and remember that Kindle, in addition to being a series of e-reader devices, is also a software platform that spans many physical device formats and operating systems. No big change there.

So the new "free"-dom of Google eBooks must pertain to the retailing arrangement? No, not really. When you want to buy a Google ebook, you can either do it directly from Google or any of over 4,000 retail partners, including the most excellent Powell's. The trouble is that I've never felt any allegiance to an online bookseller other than Amazon. I go where the pricing is cheap and the reviews are informative. Amazon also has a broad affiliate network, so there's no Google advantage here.

What is Google's advantage? Android's momentum. Android already passed the iPhone in 2010, and I expect we'll see the same happen with Android-based tablets over 2011/2012. Google knows that Apple is not the threat in the ebook space. With one-third of the e-reader market and climbing, Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla to subdue. However, Kindle runs just fine on Android, although I wish it was more accommodating of non-Kindle ebook content.

The fact is that, in its first incarnation, Google has no significant advantage over Amazon. This is a me-too event for those who haven't purchased a Kindle. It's not that your reading is now set free, it's that you have a decent Kindle alternative. (Yes, I know the Nook, also available on Android and other platforms, is a decent option, but look at the market numbers. Barnes & Noble simply doesn't have the depth to seize share or leap ahead.)

Forrester expects U.S. spending on ebooks to triple from just under $1 billion in 2010 to $2.81 billion in 2015. The number of dedicated e-readers will leap from last year's 3.7 million to 10.3 million now to 29.4 million in 2015. I suspect that Forrester might be underestimating ebook revenue and overestimating dedicated device adoption. Amazon has proven that the market is ready for ebooks, and Apple has proven (again) what we've seen over and over again for the last three decades: Most things being equal, a multi-function device will beat a single-purpose device every time. The Kindle has succeeded because of its simplicity and low cost. As we've seen with smartphones, Android has the ability to level this playing field. So either Amazon is going to have to make the Kindle into a tablet -- soon -- or Google will eventually slice Amazon down to a Nook-sized piece of market pie.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Brave New LAN Party: Green Edition

The LAN party is a hallowed event in computing, a time and place when gamers convene to show off their biggest, baddest rigs and compete for vendor-sponsored prizes. To walk along the aisles at a LAN event (such as the 500-player PDXLAN, shown here) is to witness system modding elevated to an artform and overclocking cranked to within a megahertz of meltdown.

I get this. I admire it. I also think it's a model that belongs in the 20th century. The "bigger, badder" mindset is all about maximum power and copious consumption. How many GPUs can you stuff in a system, each guzzling hundreds of watts? How many fans and cold cathode tubes and drives? Have we really reached the point when a 1,000W power supply is no longer sufficient?

Until such time as we have a major breakthrough in energy technology and we reverse the trend of rising electricity costs, especially with most of our electricity still being produced by depleting fossil fuels, this philosophy of competitive extremism is not doing us any favors. It might help component manufacturers sell higher ticket products, but we don't need this excess. It hurts your wallet as much as the planet.

I suggest a new spin on the old LAN party: a green competition. Same games, same sponsorships, same community, same fun. Only now, let's up the stakes. Pick a maximum number -- say, 300 watts. Each system connects to the wall through a Kill-A-Watt type of power meter. If your system ever exceeds 300.0W during a performance-based tournament, you're instantly disqualified. Alternatively, there might also be contests for hitting set performance benchmark levels with the lowest possible sustained power consumption. Now players will need to pick components that stress performance efficiency, not just raw speed. When (not if) oil once again crests over $100 per barrel, "efficiency" is going to be this industry's favorite word.

Think about companies such as Antec, with its EarthWatts power supplies, or Intel, with its perpetual ability to raise the efficiency bar with CPUs. Such companies pour untold thousands of dollars into LAN party marketing, but clearly they're targeting a different audience with their eco-friendly products. Why the disparity? Why not take this early opportunity before the crowd rushes in to establish a reputation in the gaming world for efficient gaming performance?

Reward those who get creative and discover new ways to play harder with fewer electrons. What's to lose? The competition will become even more challenging, supposedly "green" vendors can put their money where their mouths are, enthusiast consumers will begin to cultivate an appreciation for consuming less, and maybe, just maybe, participants will inspire energy-saving changes throughout the industry that have a tangible effect on computing's carbon emissions.

Whatever its ego-oriented benefits might be, the current fetish with enthusiast excess can only encourage waste. By reversing this trend, gamers can help propel computing in a better direction. And who knows? They might just inspire all of the tree-hugging hippies to start gaming, too.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Rough Crossing" Ebook Released on Smashwords

Once upon a time, before I became a tech journalist, I published poetry and short stories. In many ways, I was a different person then. I had more time to stop and think and roil language about in my head like some dark brew. In those days, I thought I’d soon be cranking out books at Stephen King speed…and then life happened. So it goes.

But good dreams never really die, and with middle age here at last, I’ve committed to finding ways of bringing that old dream into my new life. That process starts today with the release of my first ebook, Rough Crossing. It’s a freshly polished collection of four dozen poems from my former self.

I confess, posting this feels awkward in the extreme. Poetry isn’t something we talk about much in the workaday world. There’s no budget or ROI involved, no quick and easy sensory gratification. You don’t just walk up to a colleague and say, “Hey, did you know I write haikus and prose poems?” without expecting to be treated like you’re a few bulbs short of a lit tree. But I do write poetry…or did in less demanding times…and some of them were pretty good.

So whether you enjoy poetry or you’re just curious about that guy who used to be me, I offer you Rough Crossing. It’ll be on Apple’s iBookstore soon, followed by Amazon’s Kindle store, but for now you can download it from Smashwords for free. I have many more ebooks planned for the weeks and months ahead (none of them poetry), and I’ll drop notes here about them when the time is right. Until then, if you’re inclined, please enjoy Rough Crossing and share it with anyone whom you feel might enjoy it, too.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Beware of Your Batteries

Sitting on a table in a corner of my office, there's a cardboard box literally overflowing with about 15 pounds of AA batteries, most of them alkaline cells. The box also contains a smattering of AAA, C, D, and 9V batteries, plus a few dead rechargeables thrown in for good measure. The box and its nearby satellites of battery-filled Ziploc baggies have been accumulating in my office for several years. Like you, I know that throwing out batteries is bad for the environment. As one AZoCleantech site notes, "batteries are made in the billions with around 180000 tonnes of batteries being discarded in the USA every year." My few pounds may be a drop in the bucket, but they're my drop -- my mess, my problem to clean up.

But how? The page referenced above notes that most single-use household batteries can't be recycled. I've heard from a couple of friends that Radio Shack is supposed to recycle batteries, but calls to two local stores proved otherwise. Lowe's, Office Depot, and BatteriesPlus are both supposed to accept rechargeable cells, but must of my collection is alkaline. 

I spoke with Brent Young, director of business development at E-Tech Recycling out in Hillsboro, OR. E-Tech does take alkaline batteries and just about any other type of e-waste -- for a price.

"Batteries are difficult to get rid of because they're universal waste and there's only so many places you can go with them," said Young. "There's a non-profit, Call2Recycle, and it's the only place where you can send your rechargeables for free."

E-Tech charges 60 to 90 cents per pound for recycling alkaline batteries. Lithium button cells will run $2.75 to $3.25 per pound. 
"Those little button cell batteries with the mercury in them, we don't want those buried in the dirt because they crack and leak," said Young. "Mercury is extremely poisonous, fluorescent tubes especially. If you break a flourescent tube in any place of business, it should be considered a hazardous material that requires a hazardous determination and a hazardous cleanup. Once it's cleaned up, inside a box, and taped up -- so the powder is no longer exposed to the air -- it goes back to being considered a universal waste. If I took 25 four-foot fluorescent tubes out into the middle of a 2-acre lake, broke them, and dumped them in the lake, nothing's gonna grow there for at least a decade. That's mercury."

Lithium-ion batteries also need to be handled carefully, with tape placed over each end. (The labor of removing this tape is part of why the cells cost more to recycle.) 

"Why don't we want those button cells touching each other? Because they heat up, short out, and can crack. Take five or six of them, stick 'em end to end, put 'em in your pocket, and see how long you can go. You'll be blown away by how hot they can get. When lithium shorts out, it starts burning. It feeds on air and water. You take a lithium fire, throw water on it, and whatever building you're in will be gone in about two hours."

PC enthusiast readers should remember the recent spate of lithium-ion battery recalls owing to some notable media coverage (see image above). In case you missed the connection with flammable lithium along the way, watch this little video clip. And not even I made the connection with lithium cells and the hazards caused by accidental ingestion. Check out this Consumer Reports video. That's not cool.

I originally looked into this topic when researching a story on e-waste handling in enterprises. But as with so many other tech issues, the problem eventually comes home. E-waste disposal is a serious problem, and these items absolutely shouldn't be going into our landfills. Contact your local recycler and find out where you safely dispose of your hazardous substances. Anticipate that when you buy technology, there will also be a disposal charge when you're done with it. Perhaps if we bore these costs (and the dangers behind them) in mind more often, we'd be less inclined to buy so much.

For more on toxic tech manufacturing and recycling, check out the later chapters in my ebook, Strange Horizons Retrospective, available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sex, Drugs, and Stating the Obvious

This bit of brilliance arrives today courtesy of the AP: "Teens who text 120 times a day or more — and there seems to be a lot of them — are more likely to have had sex or used alcohol and drugs than kids who don't send as many messages, according to provocative new research."

So at a time when online communications are now a normal part of how teens interact, it's somehow surprising that kids who text less, indicating that they're less social, are less prone to be involved in socially risky behavior?

"The study found those who text at least 120 times a day are nearly three-and-a-half times more likely to have had sex than their peers who don't text that much." Yeah, probably because if you're texting that much you know three-and-a-half times as many people to potentially have sex with!

"Hyper-texters were also more likely to have been in a physical fight, binge drink, use illegal drugs or take medication without a prescription." When do they find time for these activities? I thought they were busy texting!

Be warned. The sending of kitty picture messages
could be an indicator of dangerous teen behavior.
This is where the AP story starts to fall apart in earnest: "The texters estimated they average 118 texts per day." So the difference between normal/average and having a 3.5X greater chance of engaging in teen sex is two texts? That's two extra LOLs or OMGs. Maybe we should do a study that correlates teen drug use with the use of smileys, because each of those ominous, round symbols can make up an entire message.

Now, if a teen has text-crazy parents, this could explain the correlation. "Gawd, my mom will not stop texting me! She drives me insane -- I need a beer!"

But we can't make this correlation because the study doesn't break down how much of that 120+ daily texting happened with parents. Or what the nature of the messages were. Or how many smileys they contained. The article sets up technology to be the Agent of Evil, even if the author explicitly tries to state the contrary. A less "provacative" approach might have been to say "More Social Teens Do More Social Things, Including Bad Social Things."

Do teens who text over 120 times each day also play more sports? Are they more involved in student government or other positive extracurricular activities? Do they score higher on standardized tests?

This article and many others like it look to plant fear in the minds of parents and turn them against the technology that could also be used to enrich their children and give them key social and academic advantages.  If parents are doing their jobs properly, their kids will already be behaving like normal, reasonably well-adjusted teens, with or without higher than average amounts of texting.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Google TV: Finally, the Cloud Comes to Your Couch

In 1999, at the height of dot-com craziness and imagination, I wrote am article about how we might someday use tablets to control this seamless living room experience, where the Internet and movies and communications all swirled together in this intuitive, entertaining, productive Utopia. This was a common vision back when "home theater PCs" were coming into vogue and the cable/satellite providers had yet to reveal their true hatred for the PC world. 

So for over a decade, we've been trying -- and failing -- to achieve that home convergence dream. I think that all may have just changed today with Google TV. At last, we have movies, TV shows, countless media services, the entire Web (although that term is quickly becoming a cliche), and soon an avalanche of Android apps all pouring into into your living room, and it's all no harder to manage than running a Google search. Insane.

In this photo on the left, you might notice two things: 1) the dad is conducting a Google Search of the Web and his subscribed services, such as Netflix, and 2) there's no PC in the picture. Instead, there's a little box called the Logitech Revue tucked under the monitor, and it's basically a tiny intermediary between your set-top box, the Internet, and your TV. The PC has vanished back into Google's cloud data centers. In fact, you don't even need the Revue. The Google TV platform can be built straight into your next flat panel.

And what about the tablet part of that converged Utopia? Well, your Android phone or iPhone can becomPublish Poste your universal home theater controller, complete with touch and voice control. And if Google TV will work on a phone chances are it'll work on tablets, too.

My in-depth walk-through and analysis of Google TV just went live on Tom's Guide here. If you're interested in seeing the future of home entertainment and computing today, don't miss it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Salman Khan of Khan Academy Questions Viability of University Lectures

I just turned in my Q&A to CPU magazine, which will appear in the next issue's Back Door column. A little behind the scenes story on this one:

I originally became aware of Khan Academy when Bill Gates tweeted about how much he and his children were enjoying the site's classes. I looked into it and was stunned at the wealth of knowledge just laying there. It was like YouTube had spent its whole existence just waiting for this man. The first time I queried Mr. Khan about being interviewed, I received no reply. In my second attempt, I promised to only ask five questions and not require more than 15 minutes of his very precious time. That got an answer.

In the prelude to my five -- OK, six; I cheated -- questions, I wrote the following paragraph. I repeat it here in the hope that it might inspire some others to enjoy Khan Academy and give it the use it deserves.

"The longer I think about this interview and the more I read and watch about your work, the more daunted I am at trying to do any justice to your accomplishments. I'll be totally unprofessional for a second and admit this: When I was about nine, my dream was to stay in school forever and just learn everything. Two decades later, part of what drew me to journalism was a desire to share what I could learn and hopefully help millions of people through enriching their minds. But you've managed to fulfill both of these dreams in a simple, elegant, and fundamentally powerful way. My admiration for what you've done cannot be overstated. I wish I could shake your hand and convince you of my sincerity. At age 39 with two children, I'm not above still having heroes...and you are a hero to me. Thank you so much for what you do every day."

Here is a snippet of our email conversation. Watch for the full piece in CPU soon.

CPU: While you can't offer the science labs and fevered English Lit. debates of traditional schools—yet—do you foresee Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, and similar programs ultimately transforming America's higher education system?

SK: Yes. At the simplest level, it calls into question whether the 300-person impersonal lectures that occur at almost every university are even necessary anymore. On-demand video is better in almost every way. It also makes us think harder about whether current schools are learning institutions or filtering institutions. Is a Harvard degree impressive because something magical happens in the four years at Harvard or because we know how competitive it is to get in to Harvard? I think students will help transform what goes on in the physical environment once they see that they potentially learn more from these free, online tools.

Friday, October 8, 2010

IBM: Want a Job? Ditch the Desktop

If you're one of the many millions of Americans pining for your old desk job, IBM has some harsh advice: get over it. The desktop is done. The future belongs to ultamobile devices and the cloud.

Of course, this is nothing new, right? We've been watching notebooks eat into desktop PC market share for well over a decade. At mid-year, CNNmoney.com ran this IDC chart showing skyrocketing smartphone sales while desktops will stay flat until the end of time, or at least 2014.

Now we have IBM releasing survey data declaring that "more than half of all IT professionals – 55 percent – expect mobile software application development for devices such as iPhone and Android, and even tablet PCs like iPad and PlayBook, will surpass application development on all other traditional computing platforms by 2015."

Naturally, developers follow the market. If people are dropping desktops and signing in with smartphones, then that's where developers will put their time, effort, and money. However, the more interesting part of this survey news is this:

Additional IBM Tech Trends Survey findings include:

  • 91 percent anticipate cloud computing will overtake on-premise computing as the primary way organizations acquire IT over the next five years
  • Mobile and cloud computing are followed by social media, business analytics and industry-specific technologies as the hottest IT career opportunities beginning in 2011
  • 90 percent believe it is important to possess vertical industry-specific skills for their jobs, yet 63 percent admit they are lacking the industry knowledge needed to remain competitive
So imagine that you want a new job. If your resume showcases the fact that you know Microsoft Office and can answer phones, is it any wonder that no one is hiring you? Employers want you to use phones, not answer them. They want you savvy on next-gen cloud apps, not last-gen programs sitting on your hard drive, and those cloud apps better include a wide range of social media tools.

Now, consider the source. IBM released these survey results because "IBM today announced additional resources, through IBM developerWorks, to help professionals build skills to prepare for the next generation of IT and application development opportunities." So there's an agenda. There's always an agenda. But that doesn't mean that the message is invalid for anyone looking to find a role in the next decade.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Born to Couch: Americans Spending 5 Hours Watching TV Daily

"No way," you're probably thinking. "I don't watch anywhere near that much tube."

Well, maybe you're not, but odds are that your neighbors, friends, and family are. Recent data from Nielsen's "Snapshot of Television Use in the U.S." shows that we the people now average 35 hours and 34 minutes of TV viewing per week. If you figure 16 waking hours per day, that's 115 days we Americans spend watching TV every year, or over 24 years of our average waking lifespan. The last age breakdown I could find of this estimate was in Nielsen's 1st Quarter 2009 Three Screen Report:

The crazy thing here is that kids tend to get a bad rap for all of the TV they watch, but it turns out that kids actually watch less television than any other demographic. The older we get, the more we watch. Think how awesome it'll be to hit that 65+ group, when we can draw Social Security and spend 158 waking days of every year -- almost half of our conscious existence -- watching TV.

It's easier to rack up those viewing hours when you have more TV sets to watch. More Nielsen data shows that the majority of American homes have at least three TV sets. Over 30% have at least four.

I've heard that in some cultures, the elderly are prized for their ability to volunteer in social causes and mentor children. I wonder what the education trends are like in those countries compared to ours. It's probably a fair guess that they're watching a lot less television than we do. Of course, if you don't feel like guessing, look here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Visualize the Ebook Format Wars

Andrew Savikas at O'Reilly posted an interesting chart today showing his company's ebook downloads broken down by format over the past two and a half years. Clearly, the dominance of Adobe's PDF is thinning under pressure from EPUB and MOBI.

As a Droid owner, I find it interesting that Android as an OS is on fire but Android as an ebook format is pretty lackluster. Perhaps this is because Android has yet to make its initial splash in the tablet space. EPUB, in contrast, is the native choice for Apple devices as well as Sony's Reader, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and the Kobo eReader. Kindle uses Amazon's proprietary AZW format, which is based on MOBI. Interesting that in the last few weeks you can see MOBI eating into EPUB share. Looks like Santa Clause may be heading down Amazon's lane.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do You Unplug? 94% Don't.

Here's my dirty laundry: The last time I disconnected, meaning the last time I went totally off-grid, off-Internet, off-everything for more than 48 hours, was in December of 2000 while on an adventure tour in the jungles of Belize. I haven't unplugged for an entire decade.

Most days, I feel guilty about this. It's not right. Intuitively, we know that downtime is healthy. All those screens and links and messages are tools, but sometimes it's necessary to set your tools back in their box and enjoy life...real life...without distractions.

Apparently, though, I'm not alone. According to the August 2010 iPass Mobile Workforce Report, over 94% of workers do not completely unplug while on vacation.

"The majority of respondents (53.6 percent) never truly disconnected from technology," notes the report. "For the 46.4 percent of mobile employees that did disconnect from technology, their reasons for completely disconnecting were mostly situational, (e.g., in a location with poor connectivity) rather than purposeful."

Three out of every four respondents state that at least half of their "vacation" connection time is spent on work, and I'd wager that the 38.6% who classified their connections as "equal work and personal" are lying in an attempt to hold that guilt at arm's length. It takes a lot longer to carefully answer a client's email than to post "cute! lol!" on a Facebook picture.

I can't throw stones here. I'm just as technologically distracted as most people. But that doesn't make it right. The older I get, the more I value technologies that will help me minimize distractions. Unfortunately, they are few and undervalued by the market. There's no sex appeal and impulse to buy generated by quiet simplicity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Save Us From "Solutions!"

In the tech industry, the words "product" and "solution" have become synonymous and interchangeable. I dislike marketing buzzwords in general, and "solutions" in particular, because of what it represents for those with fewer resources to spare in a challenging economy. Here's a snippet from my book-in-progress on personal finance:

In traditional marketing, demand was driven by “the four Ps:” Product, Promotion, Price, and Placement. Imagine a pint of blueberries (product) advertised on special in the Sunday paper (promotion) for $1.99 (price) and showcased on a table at the grocery store’s front entrance (placement). You can apply this model to practically every good or service. In an economy where we were buying mostly essential goods, it was important to create a high quality product, promote it by exposing consumers to the product, make sure the price was competitive, and have the product be readily available.

However, as the things we’re buying move from essential to non-essential, marketers are shifting from the four Ps to SIVA: Solution, Information, Value, and Access. In a consumption-based age, the old paradigms need updating. Now we have solutions to problems that you may or may not have, information (such as the “news”) that you may not need, value that may not exist, and access to a world of stuff you may not want. . . .

Do you see the difference between the two marketing models? Before, a product had to stand on its own merits, and that was fine when products met essential needs. But now we all have problems, and we all want to get rid of problems, therefore a “solution” must be the answer. Whether or not that solution addresses an actual need is irrelevant. How can you tell the difference between real and false needs? If you repeatedly felt that a good or service would be beneficial to your life before seeing an advertisement for it, you probably had an actual need. If the desire for that good or service never passed through your head until seeing its advertisement, you're dealing with a fabricated problem.

As an ironic aside, I can’t be the only person who’s noticed that Siva (also spelled Shiva) is the Hindu god of destruction. Clearly, marketing courses don’t include comparative religious studies, yet the link between modern marketing and destruction of personal finances remains.

Monday, September 27, 2010

When Can (and Do) Our Kids Get Cell Phones?

I have two boys, ages five and eight. Neither own a cell phone -- yet -- but I occasionally wonder how far off that day might be. While wondering, I came across some study results released in the first part of this year. This totally blew my mind.

I may be a little out of touch or whatever, but...WHAT?! Twenty percent of U.S. kids between the ages of six and eleven own cell phones? One in five? Can this be right? Are these numbers fabricated by Nokia and LG?

No, the numbers seem to be legit, stemming from research done by Mediamark Research & Intelligence. Moreover, this 20% average is potentially misleading. Here's a further breakdown by smaller age groups:

So according to national averages and these incredible adoption rates, my eldest looks to be in line for his first phone two birthdays from now.

I have to wonder if this is a good thing. I don't mean that in a "By gum, back in my day we used smoke signals to call home!" sort of way. I mean really. Is it beneficial to both the child and family for kids to have phones at this age? After all, I'm the one who nearly a decade ago got into it with my wife as to whether GPS implants for children was a good idea, with me advocating for the implants. Perhaps knowing exactly how kids are using these phones might shed some light...

All told, that's not a bad list, although it clearly ignores what kids who own smartphones with unlimited data plans are doing. If I could get a phone with Google Latitude enabled but none of the other data features-- Oh, who am I fooling? I want my children to be brilliant and succeed, and if that doesn't already mean putting the Internet in their pockets it will very shortly. To counterbalance MySpace, there's Khan Academy. For every bikini model, there's an edifying Wikipedia (or Wapedia) article. My job as a parent will remain unchanged: teaching my children how to approach what they find in the world with open, cautious, and discerning minds. I'll just have to teach some lessons a little earlier than anticipated.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Netbooks Crash and Burn As Predicted

A year ago, I did a piece for Tom's Guide called Why Netbooks are Doomed. The op-ed piece was based on my own experience with netbooks and led to this parting shot: "If netbooks don’t die soon simply from evolutionary stupidity, smartphones will rise up from the seas to devour them." Most readers disagreed with me. One anonymous poster started with, "This guy is a complete idiot..." Another finished with, "It's lame biased opinions like yours that turn me off Tom's Guide."

Duly noted.

I admit I had my moments of doubt, especially when Paul Thurott, whom I respect immensely and read regularly, wrote in May of this year how netbooks were still thriving despite the iPad craze. He cited new numbers from IDC showing stratospheric growth projections for netbooks through 2013 alongside glowing remarks from the Wall Street Journal by way of NPD data.

Fast forward a few months, and now you have this:

CrunchGear deserves credit for its perspective on these numbers. Admittedly, the Morgan Stanley chart shows the total notebook market, of which netbooks are only a subset. However, netbooks were what spiked those notebook numbers a year ago, making them the "it" gift for a recession holiday season. So if notebook numbers are crashing now, at a time when the recession is allegedly over, it's fair to surmise that abysmal netbook sales can shoulder a large part of the blame.

My anticipation of the netbook's fall had nothing to do with the iPad and everything to do with ergonomics. The netbook was propelled by hype and price point. ASUS was in the right place at the right time and enjoyed more than a moderate dose of luck. In the end, though, you can't escape the fact that 10-inch screens in a clamshell form factor combined with a cramped keyboard are anything better than light torture for prolonged use.

This is not me wallowing in an I-told-you-so. (Not much, anyway.) This is me issuing a plea to vendors and buyers across the tech market to think twice before committing money to something so obviously unwieldy. Netbooks will not be the last uncomfortable craze we see in this industry. I just want to see fewer people get burned next time around.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

You Know a Technology is Mainstream When It Can Kill You


Can there be any question that a Kindle will be in millions of stockings this holiday season? When a normally responsible public transit driver with over a decade of experience lets e-reading overcome good judgment -- not only reading his Kindle while driving but having the damned thing out where patrons could see it in the first place -- then clearly we're dealing with a seriously addictive technology.

Every time I say, "I mourn the passing of paper," I wonder if there were once people who thought the same thing about clay tablets. "Paper sucks!" they might have said. "You get too close with fire or water and look at what happens!"
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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kindle Ad: A Polarizing Force in E-Readers

Perhaps you've spotted the new and most excellent Amazon Kindle ad showcasing how iPads are glorified mirrors under direct sunlight while the Kindle, with its E Ink display, displays text beautifully. As far as commercials go, it's brilliant. The ad alone will probably sell hundreds of thousands of extra Kindles this holiday season.

Most of the buzz circling about this ad has focused on the outdoor readability of the two devices. What caught my eye on the second viewing was the fact that the woman is wearing sunglasses -- and probably polarized sunglasses in particular. 

As you probably know just from trying to read your phone with sunglasses on, shades and LCD screens don't mix well. This is because the polarized light emerging from the LCD gets partially blocked by the polarized filter on the sunglasses. However, E Ink displays don't use polarization, so they look great no matter what kind of glasses you wear. I wear prescription sunglasses and am more sensitive than most to bright light, so this is a huge selling point for me. Why we haven't seen this aspect of E Ink-enabled readers publicized yet is beyond me, but it shouldn't be ignored.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Toxic Tech Improving

One of the ebook projects I'm working on is a compilation and updating of the Strange Horizons column I wrote in various regional tech magazines from 1997 to 2002. One entry from 1998 discusses the toxic waste created in tech manufacturing and how companies such as Intel and Texas Instruments were generating EPA Superfund hazard cites and gobbling down mountains of natural resources. Now, a dozen years later, the situation has improved in many respects.

In the '90s, as scant pressure from the U.S. government failed to force positive changes in the tech industry, Europe took the lead with mandates such as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and ongoing TCO certifications. If American tech manufacturers wanted to sell products in Europe, they had to comply with these standards. Such changes lent more strength to ENERGY STAR and helped enable new programs, such as EPEAT from the Green Electronics Council and the 80 Plus Energy-Efficient Computing program.

As for EPA Superfund sites, we can take cues from Scorecard.org. Just looking in California, it seems that Intel only has one location still on the list: the Mountain View plant in Santa Clara County. HP has one listing. AMD has two. Ignoring private contractors to the military, the U.S. military itself has 15 sites on the California Superfund list. This national defense is supposedly keeping us safe, right?

Monday, September 13, 2010

New Ways to Press "Play"

Just finishing up a roundup piece for CPU on media players/manager applications. This was my first look at Microsoft's Zune software in the last couple of years, and I was really pleasantly surprised. I actually prefer Zune 4 to the Windows Media Player built into Windows 7. It's got all the same functionality but a much better, sexier layout that stays consistent with the Xbox 360 and Phone 7 type of styling. Will Phone 7 kill off Zune? Perhaps, but I'd like to see Zune evolve into a major piece of the Phone 7 software platform, even if it means losing the Zune name...which might actually be a good thing given the handheld player's (embarrassing lack of) sales.

iTunes 10 remains my default media player, but only out of habits derived from years of using an iPod. Nowadays, I use my Droid phone for nearly all portable audio. For anything that iTunes doesn't handle, I turn first to VLC. I was also impressed with Helium Music Manager 7, although the fact that Helium costs $29 raises an interesting question.

With so many free player/manager options available, how many people actually feel it worthwhile to pay for features such as advanced tag editing? I'm not asking this facetiously. I'd really like to know. I consider myself a "power user," but I rarely take the time even to correct album cover art glitches in iTunes, never mind other metadata errors. Maybe I'm 25 years older than the average user who gets worked up about having accurate lyrics data and proper genre tagging and am simply missing the point.

The thing about Zune that seems really enticing to me is how you can get unlimited radio stations personalized for yourself if you have a Zune Pass account. This is a $15/month, all-you-can-stream-and-download subscription. Imagine Pandora radio tapping into the iTunes music store -- no ads and almost unlimited music -- and that's about what you get with Zune and Zune Pass. I'm not endorsing the Zune player or even the Zune software. I'm saying that having a strong player app backed by this sort of functionality will prove too persuasive for most people to resist. Even great players like Helium will have a difficult time surviving unless they can hook into equivalent online services. Once more, cloud integration will become the deciding factor in another software niche.