Etc 10/2/11

I’ve got a whole host of things going on lately and really not enough time to think about or write about them all.  I’ve got some cool new projects I’m working on, and work may take a big potential upswing this week (fingers crossed!).

In the meantime, this week there are a few things goin on in tech land.  Tuesday is the launch of id Software’s latest game, Rage, which I have happily pre-ordered like every other id game that I own.  Rage promises to illustrate id Tech 5 the latest incarnation to their engine and probably the only competitor (IMHO) that the Unreal engine has.  I have nerd adoration for id’s Technical Director, John Carmack and the impressive amount of things he has created or envisioned over the last 20 years.  If you do anything with computer graphics you owe this man a lot.

Anyway, Rage looks awesome.  3 discs? 25 gigs of data?  This thing has to rock….

On Tuesday, Apple’s holding some press event.  I expect them to announce a lower-end iPhone 4S model and a top-end iPhone 5 and a release date for iOS5.  While I am in the beta, I’ll report on what others are surmising, namely FaceBook integration at a system level.  Personally I’m more happy about iCloud persistent storage for apps and what that means for devices: Game saves in the cloud anyone?  How about automated push downloading of the Daily without me having to manually fire up the app?  It’s very exciting.

Plus, I’m looking forward to getting rid of the “razor blade” phone that my dropped, cracked, but-barely-there-still-works iPhone 3GS currently us.  I’m due for an upgrade and I’m hoping to hear something good on Tuesday.  Stay tuned.

Apple WWDC 2011

The last couple of weeks have been kind of an onslaught for nerds and geeks out there. E3, the annual gaming expo in Los Angeles happened, as well as Apple’s WWDC (Worldwide Developer Conf.) in San Francisco. Both events were multi-day affairs, and I’ll get to E3 in a later post.

At WWDC Apple unveiled iOS5 as well as some additional peeks at OSX Lion. I’m gagged by an NDA, at least until July when Lion comes out, and September when iOS5 finally launches. However, that doesn’t preclude me from speaking about the features that have already been outed by others and Apple. Up first:

iCloud is a service that has been talked about for almost year now ever since Apple finished building a massive data center in North Carolina. Prior to the announcement I thought that the service would behave much like other cloud services out there: storing remote copies of my data to allow them to be pulled down later. iCloud Logo Backup, simple file storage/versioning, and web services provisioning (considering MobileMe is being killed off).

The reality is much, much different. What I’ve seen thus far is a backup service for all of my apps, and a remote pull for new device restores. As a developer I can store key/value pairs for things into the user’s space on the cloud, and poll to get those items back. This is the credible answer to lack of a “file system” on the iOS. The service also seems to be built around “cutting the cord” when it comes to syncing all of the devices. Snapping photos and storing them in the Pictures app sends them to the cloud to be asynchronously pulled back down to other devices that you’ve pre-selected. It apparently only does this for the last 1000 photos which again suggests that this service is really structured around backing temporary data up as a user background feature rather than an active process.

Music syncing is kinda crazy though: Apple will sync your entire library to the cloud and allow you store 25,000 songs up there. It’ll automatically pull down the iTunes purchased data and those assets will not count toward your file size or count limits. In a twist, the service will also scan your existing library of files (that you may or may not have legitimately acquired) and if it finds a suitable iTunes song match, it’ll let you “store” or at least pull down a 256-kbit AAC version of that same file! Apple only needs to store one version of the file out on the cloud, and we all just have a handle to it. This feature is slated to cost $24.99/year, but I’m wondering if I get to keep those high-encode files once I stop paying.

I’m not sure whether or not this is an “outed” feature yet, but I’ll give my big thumbs up to being able to download or update apps asynchronously. Finally, no in-order waiting for 30 updates to download to my phone.

Notifications: Prior to loading the new OS, I actually had turned off notifications for just about every app except for Boxcar which became badge only. Turns out Apple felt my pain a bit and launched an all new interface for them. You can now swipe them from the lock screen to be taken directly to the app generating the notification, as wel as access them from a “roll-down” interface by pulling down from the clock. They seem like lightweight widgets when accessed from the roll-down, and my understanding from other’s screenshots is that the weather and stocks apps will be updated to store some data in this tray. Nifty!

Location-based alerts sound awesome. Being able to pinpoint a 4D point in space/time and have your device remind you to “Pick up a book of a stamps” or whatever you need is perfect. Again, building these things in at the OS level is incredibly smart because developers will be able to bring the best representations of these services to the surface.

There are a gazillion more features in the pack including AirPlay mirroring (which I’ll talk about in a later post) but these are the few most important to me. Moving onto Lion for a second, I’ve noticed that OpenGL 3 is not one of the big features mentioned in their list. Snow Leopard’s feature doc listed OpenGL (as well as OpenAL) prominently. Why does this matter? Sadly, the current version of Mac OS only supports Open GL 2.X extensions, and none of the newer shader programming that accompanies today’s rich media applications. Literally, they are two versions behind which is odd for an OS that could easily integrate these libraries into the OS considering they have a specific hardware target. Hopefully we’ll find that all out in a few weeks here when Lion drops on the App Store as a digital download.

Digital Wallet: NFC’s, Google, and Square

I’ve written about the coming of Near-Field Communication (NFC) devices a few times here. You can refer back to these posts for a bit of a primer. In the past few weeks though everything has really started to take off, and in an area that I really don’t plan to use that much.

 

First, meet Google Wallet.Google Wallet Logo Google’s new service allows you to essentially embed the same data that would be transmitted using prior NFC technology, notably MasterCard’s PayPass system except this time the data is phone accessible and put out by the phone’s internal NFC chip. Cool, eh? Instead of wiping my debit card over a PoS terminal, I could wave my Android-based phone. Aside from the geek factor, or perhaps more aptly put: the novelty factor I find myself wondering how this could be extremely useful. I’ve done the PayPass thing once at a 7-Eleven to pay for my slurpee– it was odd, the checker had no idea what I was doing, and still I had to do it twice for the thing to go through– he had to manipulate something on the terminal first. Couple things I learned that day– It was only useful for purchases under $10, and aside from using it someplace small (like 7-Eleven) where the hell are you only spending $10?

Of course, this is good for MasterCard and other CC companies– they charge upwards of 5-10% of each transaction that runs through that terminal. By making it easier I’m sure they’re gaining an impressive revenue streamer. If you’ve got a friend who owns a small business (like me) ask em what they lose on CC transaction fees. It’s quite ridiculous.

So your credit card company gets some good stuff out of it, but what about you? Google Wallet aims to make it easier to track fraudulent purchases or inspect some of the data about your purchase. Of course, Google has to get their’s too so somewhere that data can be anonymized to help make the Google system better. Do you want that? It’s up to you– I use Google Checkout and a host of other services provided by the big G, and while I am cavalier about it…somewhere you’ve gotta draw a line.

On the other end you have a (relatively) new kid on the block, Square. Square provides a cool headphone-based dongle that allows anyone, anywhere to record a transaction with a credit card and get money.Square in Action For the small biz owner, or the need to grab funds from an acquaintance or friend is quite useful. Square charges 2.75% of the total transaction, much less than owning a CC terminal with any of the “Big Three”. I myself own a dongle (partially because it was free to get), but have yet to use it in a biz transaction. It seems much easier to send off invoices and wait for folks to pay you.

A couple of weeks ago the Apple rumor mill went active with mutterings that Apple would start using the Square devices in-store to replace their handheld POS-CC readers that are packaged as “gloves” around the iPhones in store. Square did indeed launch something, but nowhere near as large as “teh interwebs” were making it out to be. A digital wallet sure, but in essence many virtual cards that were to be used at specific retailers. Personally I think that’s the wrong way to head, but I’m not an investor in Square. Anyway, I thought this would be a huge mistake because I feel that Apple will have to include NFC capability in the next iDevice they release. Google’s Nexus S already has the tech built in, and I think they’d be stupid not to include it in the next iteration.

Can I let slip what I really want this tech for? Identification. Screw payment stuff, it’s got higher-than-normal security issues, and someone else is making the cash. I looking to abolish things like Tradeshow badges, stickers that say “Hi, My Name Is”, and create some really cool uses for this extra bit of data. Think about it: It’s Bump without Bumping, it’s Bluetooth transfers finally, the way they were meant to be designed. It’s the old several connected devices. It’s your personal cloud, all the time. Sure it has some risks, but the first uses of this technology are going to be nifty.

Disclaimer: I own Apple and Google stock.

Goodbye Flip

Goodbye Flip

Disclaimer: I do own Cisco stock.

So Cisco has decided to axe some of their more prominent consumer products, namely the Flip camcorder, and possibly that home video-conferencing device, the Umi. As a shareholder, I think its good that they’re thinking critically about pursuing other options that will make the company money rather than slightly foolish purchases that don’t coincide with a plan.

Flip MinoWhat does Cisco do these days? I know they make high-end corporate networking equipment: Border Gateway Routers, high-speed interlinks, etc. There’s a good portion of the Internet and its packets running through Cisco hardware right now. On the consumer front they bought Linksys which was ok– I wrote them off a long time ago and typically recommend NetGear products to my clients.

But the Flip, now that was cool. A handheld video recorder supporting H.264, loads of battery life, and a flip out USB port eliminating the need for you to pack one in your bag (as if you don’t have 4 in there already, right this second). Cisco claims the reason why they left this market is that they were under direct competition from the iPhone (and child devices) that already had video cameras embedded in them. That might be true; I don’t know, I still haven’t done much video recording on my iPhone.

On the home video conferencing front those humorous commercials for the Umi starring Ellen Page were interesting. But didn’t we try home video conferencing in the past? Is that really the device that we want to send to grandma? Doesn’t she already have Skype, with better quality?

 

Don't they look happy?

Don’t they look happy?

Is this the communication of the future? I’m not sure I need to video conference with everyone. FaceTime is a novelty, and when I fire up Skype short of the novelty of “seeing” someone I haven’t seen in a while, I’m probably leveraging their (superiorly awesome) audio codecs rather than wasting the bandwidth with video.

But, I digress. Good for you Cisco. You’ve proven that you’re trying to take steps to change your image. As a shareholder that’s nifty, but as a consumer: I’m still not sure what you do.

Apple Thunderbolt

Seems like almost one year ago I was writing about the merits of Intel’s Light Peak technology, a promised fiber-optic based interconnect that enable fast connectivity to a variety of bus interconnects.
Thunderbolt Logo
Finally, Light Peak is here, however it has been rebranded as Apple’s Thunderbolt technology and the current infrastructure in the launch is still…copper. :(, yeah big frownie face. Essentially what they’ve done is rebrand their Mini-Displayport interface port as a an all-in-one Thunderbolt interface. Good news is this means that existing cables and accessories that use this port can continue to be used, and in theory more bits can be pushed down that port. The bad news is…well…there aren’t any devices yet to take advantage of this port and its boost in speeds.

I’m also thinking that this could be a big boon to new, incredibly fast serialized devices that push standards forward. Apple helped pioneer the FireWire port back in the late 90’s– I’m hoping they can do something about how long it takes me to dump 250 gigs of data to my external hard drive.

And yes…I’m a wee bit jealous about those new fast 17″ MacBook Pro’s.

One area that I didn’t touch on in my last post was the increased bandwidth available for audio applications such as Pro Tools or Logic. Most of this stuff comes in FireWire now, and while I haven’t really seen anyone complain about a bandwidth crunch on the bus while doing recording, I’m sure having more lanes to cram more bits down can’t really hurt.

main_image_1993Finally, Intel also reports that Apple has a one-year head start on using the technology. I’m assuming that means that Apple will have one year of exclusivity before the technology starts being available for use in other competing devices. I’m not sure what that gets Apple considering there aren’t any peripherals currently that can really take advantage of this. If I were to hazard a guess, you’ll start seeing manufacturers support the port during CES 2012.

ATT Ups iPhone Tethering Cap

Apparently ATT has decided to see (some) of the light when it comes to user accessibility and has upped the cap from 2 GB of transfer of month in the DataPro plan, to 4 gigs.  As an iPhone 3GS user on ATT, with both the DataPro plan and tethering enabled, I’m very happy about this.ATT Logo I spend about $45/month on the “data” portion of my plan which is complete BS.   While it is capped, I don’t nearly use enough of that bandwidth– I think my lifetime stats over two years is something like 3 gigs total.

I use my tethering mainly when I’m out of town– when we head to the beach for a weekend to veg out, or when I’m traveling globally for work it comes in very handy.  Lately I haven’t done either of those things so I’m definitely not getting my money’s worth on that use.  However, in reading some of the forums at Engadget you’d think these people were looking for an unlimited cap or something….I don’t get it.  The speed is definitely nowhere near fast enough to do what I want– downloading videos, transcoding, uploading of digital assets, and having enough speed available to be pumping a lot of data down the pipe.  Why one would attempt to push all that down a 3G pipe rather than say, a speedy home Comcast pipe…I don’t get it.

Finally, ATT also seems to be readying WiFi tethering which sounds great.

WiFi Tethering Coming Soon?

Hopefully coming soon?

This is a feature many other mobile devices have had for years, and I understand ATT’s reluctance to offer it– they’ve been forced to play ball with Verizon because the playing field is about to get much more level.  With two huge telcos offering the same device, and in theory operating the same technologies for “4G” the only thing left to differentiate the two is network features.  Oh, and can I make a bet here and now?  The iPhone 5 will have a slight edge on ATT, because they’ll pay for a timed exclusive.  After all, Verizon is just now nabbing the iPhone 4 or 4.5.  In 6 months I fully expect to be holding a new iPhone 5, and I doubt that Verizon customers will be excited to see a new device coming their way ater plunking down for that shiny 4.iPad

With WiFi tethering comes an interesting loss on the iPad side.  Previously while you could tether your iPhone over Bluetooth to a device, the iPad was not one of them.  ATT instead opted to sell you their selective data plan over 3G which made the top end iPad very expensive. I’m hoping with the launch of WiFi tethering that I could put out a network to get my iPad some connectivity as well.  THAT is what would keep me as a happy ATT customer.

Anyway…I guess I should be out there using my phone more!

NFC’s becoming Mainstream!

NFC’s or Near Field Communication devices are apparently becoming more and more mainstream.  In short, they combine both an RFID antenna and a tag in one unified device.  When interrogating another device, it can quickly swap information: URL’s, image data, text, etc.  Perhaps another way to describe it is to say that its like extreme short-wave Bluetooth, without the authentication.  If I wanted to go someplace and hand a piece of digital content to someone today, I’d typically use Bluetooth (yuck: pairing, passwords, acceptance screens) or an app like Bump (fun: but needs specific devices).  Hopefully in the near future you’ll be able to swap data with other NFC devices with no authentication.

Nokia NFC Trial

Imagine being able to hand out a PDF automatically on the show floor.  You could set your device to automatically receive these items and put them in stasis somewhere until you were sure you wanted them.  Or maybe a clothing item has some detail in the tag that allow you to store it online in the digital storefront for later retrieval?

Google’s Nexus S is the only smartphone I know of to currently have an NFC system built-in, or at least expected to in 2011.  Rumors here, apparently point to Apple potentially hiring some folks to participate in this development.  (Disclaimer: I own some Apple shares.)  I think this is great…the more widespread this technology gets, the better.

In fact, I used NFC’s as the core of a recent RFP I did.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find NFC-equipped devices that would work so I had to make my own: I coupled RFID cards together with an intelligent media player.  Assuming it lands, I’ll get  a chance to show you exactly what it is.

Day Before CES

The last place I should be is in front my MBP right now considering I need to be up at 4:30 and on-site at 5:45. However, I saw a lot of cool shit today and wanted to note some of it down before I experience complete sensory overload tomorrow and Friday with the masses at this show.

First off, everyone and their grandmother is afraid of the iPad. Any company that has a foothold in computing devices has some sort of new tablet device here, I kid you not. Vizio, a TV manufacturer is coming out with a Phone. Google announces yet another fork of the Android platform, called Honeycomb specifically designed for tablets. Sony demos a 4k resolution 3D LCD TV.

There’s just way too much shit to see here. In between some meetings that I’ve got set up, I have roughly 8 hours across two days to see what I’d like and given how large this show is, its just not possible. I’m hoping to binge a bit and then digest and spit out some useful data on the way home.

Kinda crazy to think that last year I was writing about what Intel was bringing to CES by consuming data on the web. This year I’m actually on the show floor and I can get some hands on time with the new Sandy Bridge family of processors.

Rambling. Should probably get some sleep now.

Kinnect Hacking: The Future of NUI

Kinnect Hacking: The Future of NUI

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently you’ll undoubtedly have seen the massive marketing push behind Microsoft’s latest offering, the Kinnect an add-on unit for its Xbox 360 console.  The Kinnect combines (in a very small package) an infrared camera, a VGA camera, a microphone array, and a pan-tilt motor assembly for creating image stabilization. All this to allow your Xbox to respond to gestural input, voice commands, and ushering in the new era of user interfaces: the buzzword NUI or Natural User Interface.

Kinnect Unit

Microsoft's Kinnect head-on

So why don’t I have one? I’m broke for one (ha ha).  But the idea of playing games using this format didn’t appeal to me– I owned a Nintendo Wii for 9 months before pitching it to my sister.  She gets way more use out of it then I ever did, and I’m what you’d call a “hardcore” gamer.  For $150 bones you can add this USB-device to your Xbox and impress your family and friends with its ability to surf your Netflix Watch Instantly queue using just the power of your arm muscles.

In the two weeks since its launch, a bounty was issued for an open-source compatible driver for the Kinnect.  One appeared within days and the explosion of development we’ve seen since then is a bit nuts.  I’m not entirely sure Microsoft cares how many units they sell that are attached to X360’s–I think they’ll continue to sell like hotcakes regardless of where they’re plugged in.  Yesterday I spotted an online guide as an intro to USB hacking using the Kinnect as an example.  It’s by far one of the nerdiest things I’ve seen online lately and it rubs two critical spots for me: teaching the masses, using brand-new shiny hardware for new and different things.

Trolling USB messages for relevant memory addresses...

Trolling USB messages for relevant memory addresses...

Be warned, the guide is not for the faint of heart but it goes into some critical detail for those of you who want to get your hands dirty.

Kinnect represent like all things Microsoft a veiled attempt to push their vision into your life.  15 years ago when Bill Gates was talking about WebTV (shudder) he wanted one in every living room.  While WebTV died, a lot of living rooms contain a gaming console of some type.

Star Trek Holodeck

Star Trek Holodeck

The X360 with Microsoft’s mighty weight behind it is morphing from a game console to a  living room media playback device, and now even more so.  By taking the traditional user interface off of a gamepad and turning it into gesture recognition, Microsoft is showing folks the way forward.  After all, isn’t this just pushing us closer to the Holodeck?

Netbook OS Refresh

My poor little Netbook has been gathering dust since I picked up my shiny MacBook Pro back in April. Soon after receiving it I left it as a beta device for some random Linux installs I was trying out. I eventually settled on trying both MeeGo and Jolicloud for a bit which I last wrote about some months ago.

I decided to poke around and see if there were any new updates and tools out there for both OS’s. Unfortunately, MeeGo seems to be languishing with no new updates to it’s preview build but lots of announcements for new hardware formats that the OS will support such as BMW Group’s line of autos.

On the Jolicloud front I found that I longed for the OS to use some of my hardware in a more useful way. In its effort to provide a repeatable experience across a large slate of devices, they neglected to actually allow the OS to interact with the hardware in a more useful way. I had loads of web apps, shell based front-ends, but not a lot of actual useful applications. One of the more strange bugs was certain apps would be installed through the JoliCloud loader, but show up as slightly opaque even after a reboot. Dropbox was one of those apps that I couldn’t get to work properly no matter what I tried.

So I finally decided to wipe it. Ironically, I went back to an OS that was on the device when I first received it almost 2 years ago now: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is one of the nicer Linux distributions around and from what I’ve read about it, one of the most stable and easiest to use coming from a Windows environment. Aside from a horrible name for the most recent release, Maverick Meerkat, version 10.10 is very stable and runs fairly well on my aging Netbook.

Setup was a breeze– I did the USB stick install through Windows and was up and running in about 15 minutes. I did experience a bit a hiccup with proprietary wireless drivers (Broadcom) and had to hard connect over Ethernet in order to get new drivers. Once I did, everything was fairly straightforward.

As far as the Netbook build goes there’s a new UI called “Unity” that includes support for larger icons and some included service-like apps that make it easy to get back online and tapped into your social streams: Twitter, IM, Email, and other “broadcast” services are bundled in right out of the box.

Social Features in Ubuntu

Twitter support right out of the box.

So far its been very smooth sailing. I think my biggest realization is that I just don’t need a portable device this small and wimpy anymore. I can get by with my iPhone, and I guess I’m one of the few people left who don’t mind toting a 17″ laptop around everywhere. I’m expecting an iPad under the tree this year for myself so I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be fooling around with this thing.