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!

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.