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.