Archive for the Tech category

Do we need WiGig?

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Fastest Wi-Fi ever is almost ready for real-world use | Ars Technica

Wilocity is one of the main proponents of the even faster WiGig (or “wireless gigabit”), which can theoretically hit speeds of up to 7Gbps, with the downside of using frequencies that are easily blocked by walls. Even thin cubicle walls may block signals, Wilocity acknowledged.

I have 5 Ghz 802.11n throughout my home, but I never reach anywhere close to the theoretical maximums because the signal is easily blocked by walls. I don’t see the appeal of faster Wifi if you basically have to be in a line of sight with the router. More than speed improvements, we need resilience to physical obstacles and interference.

iWatch, do you?

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

As everyone waits for the long-fabled Apple television set, a new, and more viable, rumor has emerged. Today, the blogs lit up with discussion of a potential Apple watch. Just as telephony makes up only a small part of the iPhone’s functionality, this project isn’t about a venture into time-telling devices, but rather an move into wearable computers.

What’s the problem that wearable computers solve? Watch wearing has almost certainly been decimated in the wake of accelerated smartphone adoption. Why wear a time-telling contraption on your wrist, when one in your pocket keeps perfect time and can do much more? The problem is that every time you need to check the time, or a text, or an alert, you must rifle through pockets (or purse, or wherever your smartphone lives) to glance at your phone. A wrist-based screen requires just a flick of the wrist.

Today’s watches don’t do enough – they just tell time. Yet a watch-sized screen is too limiting for the range of activities we now demand of our devices. However, low-power short range wireless technologies like the now-ubiquitous Bluetooth 4.0 offer the potential for the best of both worlds. The brains remain in the smartphone, which remains the main device for composing messages, viewing complex information, or other demanding tasks. For quick viewing of information such as short messages or, gasp, the time, the key bits could be wirelessly relayed to the low-power screen.

Watches are not the only option for wearable computing. Google’s Glass project puts the information right in front of the user’s face in the form of high-tech glasses. While this has some advantages, so many of us already have our faces buried in screens as it is. Glass requires you to wear another screen constantly on your face and has a greater potential of being disruptive. Where else could we place a wearable screen? There are few logical options other than the wrist. Unlike Google’s Glass, the watch can be checked as much, or as little, as the user wants.

The category is a no-brainer, but the execution is critical. It’s easy to make a bad watch. It’s exceedingly difficult to create a new category of device that no one realizes they need. But this is exactly the kind of transformation that Apple has been so good at in the past.

In Defense of Twitter

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Many early fans of Twitter are up in arms over recent business-driven changes to Twitter’s rules: limiting the ability of other services to access follower lists and setting future limits on the number of accounts third party clients can have.

I’m not an advocate of these changes – I would love to have unlimited access to follower lists and third party clients. However, I understand the logic behind Twitter’s moves and, frankly, they are not all that surprising given that Twitter is trying to move toward a sustainable business model.

The first limit became obvious when Twitter blocked the ability of users to pull their Twitter follower lists into Instagram. Instead of finding your friends one by one when you joined Instagram, you could leverage its connection to Twitter to instantly follow anyone who you already followed on Twitter. When Twitter blocked this feature, it was excused because Facebook had bought Instagram, and there’s an obvious competition between the two services. When Twitter did the same to Tumblr, the reaction was more fierce. Tumblr isn’t viewed by many as a real Twitter competitor, and one could argue, as John Gruber has, that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two systems. Tumblr can post announcements of posts to Twitter, provided content to Twitter while also directing traffic to Tumblr.

But is that really what’s happening? I’d argue that, in many ways, Tumblr is a Twitter competitor. It’s a system that allows users to make short posts of text, pictures, or links and share them with “followers”. Yes, Tumblr posts can be longer, but they aren’t always, and both services are evolving. Let’s say Tumblr moved more in the direction of Twitter in the future. Maybe some users stop posting to Twitter and rely on Tumblr alone. Or their Twitter stream simply becomes a list of links to their Tumblr. Allowing user to easily copy the list of people they are following from Twitter to Tumblr would make it that much easier to let Tumblr take over Twitter’s business. Many users of both systems would argue that the differences between the systems are too great, that Tumblr’s vision is different from Twitter’s. Maybe so, but what if a true Twitter competitor could do the same? Why should Twitter make it easier for a competitor to leverage the follower lists build on Twitter’s infrastructure? In the case of Tumblr, Twitter felt the risk:reward ratio was too great. In fact, I could see this feature being blocked completely for any service: there’s simply not enough value for Twitter.

Regarding third party clients, the situation is more complex. Twitter has announced that future clients will be limited to 100,000 users each, and that existing clients max out at twice their existing user base if they are already over the limit. I use Tweetbot on the Mac, iPad, and iPhone, and far prefer it to the web interface and Twitter’s own apps. I’ve paid for the iOS clients despite the fact that the “official” clients are free for one reason: they’re better. The diversity and added functionality that these third party clients have added to Twitter have made the experience far richer…for the users. But does it help Twitter?

I’d argue it did, in the early days of Twitter, because it reduced the friction to adding posts to Twitter, and made the community much livelier than it otherwise would have been. Times have changed now, though, and Twitter wants to make money. Their plan includes “promoted tweets” (ads) and more complex tweet structures called cards. There may be additional features in the works, and you can be sure that Twitter’s own clients will promote these heavily. But what about third party clients? How excited would an advertiser be if they knew that their ads could be avoided by using a popular third-party client? Maybe Twitter could take an Apple like approach, adding requirements that third-party clients support promoted tweets, cards, and whatever else they have in store. But how would this work in practice? Each time Twitter wanted to add a new feature, they would have to give developers time to respond to new guidelines instead of just pushing out an update to their own software. They would have to review the software to make sure it complies with the rules. If it didn’t, they’d have to pull the plug on a potentially popular piece of software. Twitter wants to control the experience of what Twitter is, and this necessitates blocking, or at least limiting the audience of, third party clients. These changes are a consequence of the business model that Twitter has chosen.

App.net has chosen a different model: charging customers directly. Will this model succeed? Probably not, but who knows. Maybe if it becomes cheap enough, and allows for a better experience, it will catch on. It’s up to Twitter now to ensure that the experience for the users remains compelling. Or at least, compelling enough.

Time to leave

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Complaints about AT&T have been rampant since the iPhone launched, but I have been relatively happy with the service over the years. Even after the iPhone launched on Verizion, I’ve stuck with AT&T. AT&T’s 3G has faster data and allows simultaneous data and voice, which kept me away from Verizon despite the widely touted coverage advantages.

With the upcoming iPhone 5, the calculation changes. The new phone is almost certain to support LTE, and Verizon’s LTE coverage is far superior to AT&T’s. LTE on Verizon also allows use of data and voice at the same time. Furthermore, there’s the little issue of actually being able to make calls.

No cell provider is perfect, and dropped calls can be expected with any. However, AT&T has worsened significantly over the past year, at least in the Boston area. I routinely first find out about missed calls via the sudden appearance of voicemails, and there have been several instances over the past months where I’ve been unable to place calls.

Today, AT&T dropped the bomb that FaceTime over cellular, a signature feature of the upcoming iOS 6, will only be available for purchasers of their “Mobile Share” plans. This is not an isolated incident. AT&T was also one of the last carriers to support the mobile hotspot on the phone, and this too was accompanied by an extra charge (though eventually included extra data as part of the package).

I’ve had enough. The ETF is intimidating, but offset by the new user discount obtained by signing up with Verizon.

I hate my remote

Friday, April 27th, 2012

The Logitech Harmony 880 is a hugely popular universal remote control. After reading rave reviews online, and extensively reviewing the alternatives, I decided to purchase one several years ago. It’s not inexpensive, currently selling for $229.99 at Amazon. That’s more than an entry-level, current-generation iPod Touch. I paid a bit less, but it’s a lot of money regardless, especially for a remote that was released in 2005. Most reviews justify the price by highlighting its extensive programmability via a relatively friendly computer-based interface. The remote is oriented around “actions”, so I can press one button (e.g. “Watch Apple TV”) and my remote will send appropriate commands to turn on my TV, set it to the correct input, turn my receiver to the correct setting, and turn on my Apple TV. Sounds wonderful, right?

IMG 0083

Wrong.

If I don’t have the remote pointed in just the right direction, one of the devices might miss the signal and my setup ends up in a Frankenstein-like mishmash of settings – the Apple TV’s on but the receiver is still set for my Blu-Ray player while my TV remains off. Even though a failure is usually evident early in the process, I have to wait for the remote to complete it’s sequence before I can turn everything off and try again.

The lady doth protest too much, right? I should just get off the couch and set everything up manually. Unfortunately, that’s not even possible – many of today’s components require the remote to access many functions (including, in my TV’s case, turning on from sleep mode).

The remote is frustratingly sluggish, often causing me to overshoot while attempting to navigate a list of options. While the Harmony comes with what should be an elegant charging cradle, the contacts often fail to connect, requiring ginger repositioning to successfully initiate a charge (during which the remote makes a series of annoy and incomprehensible beeping sounds while displaying a “screen saver” – does a remote really need a screen saver?).

Remember that friendly computer-based interface for adjusting your remote? Granted, it’s not frequent that I’d need to adjust a setting, but there’s no way to do this from the remote itself. When I do need to make a change, I need to ensure some custom software from Logitech is installed, remember my rarely-used login to Logitech’s website, and find the mini-USB cable that I know was just here somewhere.

I hope there is something better out there, but I haven’t found it yet.

Speaking with machines

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Nuance Communications Wants a World of Voice Recognition – NYTimes.com.

Here, Mr. Sejnoha, the company’s chief technology officer, and other executives are plotting a voice-enabled future where human speech brings responses from not only smartphones and televisions, cars and computers, but also coffee makers, refrigerators, thermostats, alarm systems and other smart devices and appliances.It is a wildly disruptive idea. But such systems are already beginning to change the way we interact with the world and, for better and worse, how we think about technology. Until now, after all, we’ve talked only to one another. What if we begin talking to all sorts of machines, too — and, like Siri, those machines respond as if they were human?

I’ve accumulated increasing faith in voice interactions ever since I acquired the iPhone 4S. I use Siri on a regular basis and, for the most part, it’s a great time saver. However, speech recognition is far from perfect, and it’s that lack of faith that it’s going to work that often limits my use of it. I think there’s a threshold with this technology that needs to be passed. The faith that a command is going to be correctly interpreted needs to outweigh our annoyance when there are errors. Siri is right at that boundary. For simple commands and common phrases, it works very well. For more complex queries with unusual words, it often stumbles.

In a way, though, a phone is more of a stress test. An appliance with a more limited set of options (e.g. a thermostat or coffee maker) is more likely to succeed with speech recognition because the potential vocabulary is more restricted.

Lytro needs work

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Lytro review | The Verge.

But the first iteration of the Lytro isn’t quite there yet: it’s hard to use, its display is terrible, and outside of a few particular situations its photos aren’t good enough to even be worth saving. It’s not even close to being able to replace an everyday camera, and at $399-$499, for most people it would have to.

Lytro is the camera based on new technology that lets you focus the picture after you take the shot. I’m definitely improving as a photographer, but I have my share of out of focus shots. Digital photography has a number of advantages over conventional photography, but one of the biggest appeals is that you can fix so many issues after you take the picture. The Lytro appears to add incorrect focus to the list.  However, it sounds like the technology just isn’t there yet to replace something like a dSLR.

Motorola fails in patent block

Monday, February 27th, 2012

FOSS Patents: Motorola can’t enforce standard-essential patents against Apple in Germany while appeal is pending — huge victory for Apple, bad news for Google

Apple scored a breakthrough court victory today against Motorola (Bloomberg was first to report). Its importance can hardly be overstated. This is so huge that it even begs the question of whether Google’s strategy for its $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility has failed before the deal is even formally closed (they’re still waiting for some regulatory approvals).

Seems like a pretty big deal.

iPhone 4 Ship Times Lengthen

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

AppleInsider | Apple’s iPhone 4 ship times slip ahead of iPhone 5 debut

All new iPhone 4 orders in the U.S. now take one to three business days to ship through Apple, a sign that the company is running low on inventory ahead of introducing its fifth-generation model.

More importantly, this is a sign that Apple is not following the prior model of continuing to sell the “old” version of the iPhone as the low end model. Further supports the idea that we’ll see a new low-end device (perhaps off-contract) and a higher end iPhone 5.

Most intriguing theory I’ve heard is that an off-contract iPhone will replace the iPod Touch, though I’m not sure if that’s financially viable.

Amazon and Music

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Amazon goes big with unlimited cloud music storage ($20/year) and iPad optimized web player | 9to5Mac | Apple Intelligence

Amazon today announced unlimited storage for music in its cloud drive.  The catch is you have to upgrade your overall Cloud storage (also includes Docs, Pictures, movies, etc) to the 20GB plan which is $20 per year.  Once you do that, you can upload “Unlimited” amounts of music and play it anywhere.

I’m not sure I get the appeal of what Amazon is offering here. I have to upload all my music to the cloud drive and then I can…stream it? If I had vast amounts of music that wouldn’t be practical to take portably, I could potentially see the utility, but the reality is that much of music listening is mobile, and a streaming solution isn’t really practical yet (certainly not one that requires a web browser). There are always dead zones and the whole process is generally slow and cumbersome. It makes more sense, unless you have a really mammoth collection, to store the music locally on your portable device.