Kitchen Stagnation

January 31, 2011

Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen argue that the pace of innovation in the kitchen has stagnated over the last 50 years or so.

The same can be said for one of my favorite technologies, the canoe. The modern day canoe is based on the Aboriginal birchbark canoe. The original design is hundreds of years old and remains unchanged though the materials used in the construction of the modern canoe have changed over time. The birchbark was first replaced by canvas in the 19th century followed by modern composites like fiberglass and Kevlar about 50 years ago. There have been no significant improvements in canoe technology since then.

Is the lack of canoe innovation a sign that we are doomed to technological stagnation?

For me, the canoe is an example of a perfected technology. Within its problem space, it is done. It is complete. It represents the fruits of a long and arduous process, the engineering end-game. It makes me happy. It is the high bar for anything I create.

I admit that kitchen appliances do not give me the same sense of engineering perfection or completeness that the canoe does. They do, however, represent another common engineering measure, that of being “good enough”. It is a waste of time and money to try to improve a technology that is “good enough”. Perhaps that is the definition. A technology is “good enough” when additional engineering resources applied to the problem space result in negligible technological improvement.

One would think that economists preoccupied with the allocation of resources would have a special place in their heart for technology that is either “done” or “good enough” rather than seeing it as a harbinger of middle-class decline.

iPad Outdoors

June 5, 2010

This is my second weekend with my new iPad. The iPad was released internationally (I live in Canada) on may 28th. The device is pretty much what I expected but there have been a few notable surprises.

By far the happiest for me is that it works pretty well outdoors even in direct sunlight. It is on par with the first generation iPod Touch I own. The finger prints standout more in direct sunlight but a little bit of elbow grease resolves that. Mind you it is no Kindle. The e-ink screen on the Kindle and other eReaders is gorgeous in direct sunlight.

My second test outdoors with the iPad was a disappointment. Outdoors is one thing but outdoors with sunglasses is another. I wear polarized sunglasses and many screens washout through a polarizer. The Kindle is not impacted at all. The iPod Touch is fine in portrait mode but suffers a bit in landscape mode. Through my polarized sunglasses the iPad is nothing but black in portrait mode. So sad.

This weekend as I sit outside overlooking the lake, I decided to try it again. Notta in portrait mode but to my surprise it’s fine outdoors with polarized sunglasses in landscape mode. WooHoo!!!

Maybe outdoor posts is the only way to get me to blog in the summer.

Intel Atom

March 4, 2008

atom_rgb_78.gifIntel announced the Atom, a milliwatt x86 CPU that was mentioned here just about a year ago.

These new chips, previously codenamed Silverthorne and Diamondville, will be manufactured on Intel’s industry-leading 45nm process with hi-k metal gate technology. The chips have a thermal design power (TDP) specification in 0.6-2.5 watt range and scale to 1.8GHz speeds depending on customer need. By comparison, today’s mainstream mobile Core 2 Duo processors have a TDP in the 35-watt range.

I find it interesting that the press release does not even mention the word “phone”. I’m guessing this means that the new Atom chips are not low powered enough for smart phones like the iPhone.

Regardless, it looks like we are reaching an important milestone… the x86 architecture applied to the mobile and embedded space on a large scale.

A Shot from the Grassy Knol

December 14, 2007

Google has announced Knol which seems to be a shot over the bow of Wikipedia. I find this challenge fascinating as it matches the Open Source community of Wikipedia against the pay-for-performance model of Google ads.

At the discretion of the author, a knol may include ads. If an author chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads.

The name is pretty weird though. Is it Knol as in Grassy Knoll or Knol as in Knowl-edge? I really wish people remembered to included the pronunciation of new brand names in their announcements.

Wikipedia is entrenched but “getting paid” is a powerful incentive. I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

UnicornCam Update

November 30, 2007

In Imponderable Decisive Moment Compact Camera Challenges I talked about a digital camera I call the UnicornCam. This mythical beast marries a digital SLR sized imaging sensor with a compact camera body to achieve a type of photographic nirvana.

One camera that gave hope to the UnicornCam enthusiasts was the announced but unreleased Sigma DP1.

Today, Sigma announced that the DP1 has entered alpha testing and the final specifications will differ than those previously announced.

After a careful evaluation, we found that the image processing pipeline we had developed for the DP1 was not ideal for achieving the best image quality as it was intended for the faster image processing speed, and we needed to make major revisions to it. At that time we had a choice between compromising image quality and moving forward or taking a different path. After long and sometimes intense discussions, we finally decided to change the entire image processing pipeline. When we decided to change the entire image processing pipeline, we also decided to return to the simple and original product concept of “a camera with the best still image quality in a compact body” and dedicate all of our DP1 development resources to that concept. Because of this change, we had to change some of the specifications that we had announced.

The final specifications will be released at a later time. I’m guessing that the APS sized sensor is gone.

Giving Thanks to Microsoft

November 23, 2007

As our American friends south of the border celebrate Thanksgiving this weekend I would like to give thanks to Microsoft. I would like to give thanks to Microsoft, not for their role in personal computing, not for their operating systems, not for their file or e-mail servers, not for their Office products, but for the Internet. I would like to give thanks to Microsoft for giving us the Internet.

Now this is not an Al Gore Invented the Internet moment. I am not claiming that Microsoft invented the Internet or even championed it. What I am saying is that Microsoft made the most important decision that shaped the success of what we now think of as the Internet and they didn’t even have a clue they were doing it.

At some point in the 90’s Microsoft bundled and embraced the TCP/IP protocol in their operating systems. They did this for a simple reason, to give them a competitive edge over the then dominant market leader Novell. That simple choice driven by fierce competitiveness enabled the ubiquity of the Internet that we know today and, I dare say that, it would not have happened without it.

For this, I give thanks.

Another one of Pogue’s Imponderables is:

I’m told that they could make a shirt-pocket digital camera that takes pictures like an S.L.R., but it would cost a lot. So why don’t they make one for people who can afford it?

This is a long running meme that I think started with Mike Johnston’s Decisive Moment Digicam and continued with Thom Hogan’s Compact Camera Challenge. Both Mike and Thom want a pocketable digital camera with: Read the rest of this entry »

Tools of Creativity

October 15, 2007

Ray Kurzweil of The Atlantic writes:

The means of creativity have now been democratized. For example, anyone with an inexpensive high-definition video camera and a personal computer can create a high-quality, full-length motion picture. A musician in her dorm room commands the resources once available only in a multimillion-dollar recording studio. Just a few years ago, a couple of students at Stanford University wrote some software on their personal computers that revolutionized Web searches and became the basis of a company now worth $150 billion. Individuals now have the tools to break new ground in every field.

And Nicholas Carr adds a healthy dose of cynicism:

Yep. Just as the invention of the pencil made it possible for anyone to write a high-quality novel. And just as that power saw down in my cellar makes it possible for me to build a high-quality chest of drawers.

There is a great deal of truth in both points of views. The class of creative tools impacted by Moore’s Law are becoming very affordable. Creativity, however, is not often limited by cost of the tools. The example of using a HD video camera and a PC to create a motion picture is unfortunately a bad one. Movie creation is a team sport. The creation of a movie is multi-disciplinary and seems more like a large scale engineering project than a creative exercise for one person. The cost savings of HD video and inexpensive non-linear editing are small in the overall cost of creating a movie.

As with all discussions about creative art, we lump creativity and craftsmanship together. In my view, the “democratization” of creative tools impacts two important dimensions:

  1. The tools allow creative individuals to accelerate their mastery of craftsmanship.
  2. The low cost allows more individuals to explore a variety of creative mediums.

What has changed in the dorm room musician’s case is the mastery of music production (a craft) not his or her ability to compose (a creative art). HD video and non-linear editing does the same for video production (a craft). Digital SLRs and photo quality ink jet printers have allowed photographers to create gallery quality prints. The tools help the artist spend less time and cost on the nitty gritty and focus more on the creative aspects of their work.

Creativity, however, is something that requires aptitude, passion, and practice. The advancement of the creative tools allow an individual to explore a specific discipline easily. The advances in video technology will do more to help develop/render budding movie makers than it will to allow more movie flowers to bloom.

I’m not sure if the “democratization” metaphor is a good one but I think it is hard to dispute that the new tools of creativity are changing the artistic landscape.

Google Presently

September 18, 2007

Google officially released Presently, the presentation application for Google Docs. I’m not sure if I’m more enamored with the application or the nifty little YouTube presentation about Google Docs.

In an earlier post about Google Presentations (since renamed) I wondered out loud if Google would remember to provide an “export” feature to support offline presentations. They have in the form of “Save as Zip”.

From a techie point of view, Presently is HTML styled with CSS and tied together with Javascript rather than using a “richer” environment like Adobe Flash. Good for them. At first glance, Presently does seem to be the first truly web centric application for presentations.

Given that the underlying format is HTML/CSS, Presently has a few very powerful editing features. Presently allows “Text Boxes” to be inserted into a slide. These Text Boxes look and behave like their equivalents in PowerPoint. When selected, a Text Box is surrounded by a dashed line with grab handles at the corners allowing you to resize. If you mouse over any of the enclosing dashed lines the cursor changes to a “move” icon and you are allowed to change the position of the entire box. Depending on your chosen theme, a slide will have default Text Boxes, say one for the title and one for the body.

Editing text is similar to many visual online HTML editors for things like Wikis and Blogs. You can change the font, add bullets or numbered lists, change paragraph alignment, and indent/outdent. The only pecularity I found was that “TAB” adds an indent rather than switching from one text box to the next (say title to body).

Where Google Docs really shines is collaboration. Microsoft has its Sharepoint offering which targets enterprise intranets, but Google Docs allows ad hoc groups to collaborate from anywhere with internet access.

Presently takes collaboration one step forward not only allowing collaborative editing (like Docs and Spreadsheets) but allowing live presentations. Once you click “Start Presentation”, you get the full window presentation as expected but you also get an “Audience” GTalk-like buddy list with a generated URL. You can send out the URL to the audience members and when the presenter changes the slide it is automatically changed for everyone in the audience.

So Presently is also a very simple but useful Web Conference application in addition to a collaborative online presentation editor. If you don’t need the whiteboard and/or application sharing features of more powerful Web Conference applications like WebEx and Microsoft Live Meeting then Presently is a simple and inexpensive way to host meetings.

I’m liking it. Kudos to Google.

Palm Foleo Mothballed

September 5, 2007

Palm CEO Ed Colligan announced that he has mothballed the Palm Foleo.

Jeff Hawkins and I still believe that the market category defined by Foleo has enormous potential. When we do Foleo II it will be based on our new platform, and we think it will deliver on the promise of this new category. We’re not going to speculate now on timing for a next Foleo, we just know we need to get our core platform and smartphones done first.

In a previous post I mentioned that the Foleo reminds me of the HP Jornada 820 circa 1999. It still does.
Does this market category have “enormous potential” as claimed?

Well, the Foleo seems to target two types of people: 1) people on the go that currently only carry their Treo, and 2) people on the go that carry a laptop and a Treo. So the question in my mind is what added value does the Foleo provide over a “companion laptop” for the Treo? What customer pain point does the Foleo address?

In its day, the Jornada 820 had the nice keyboard, it was lightweight, and it was instant on. The stand-by feature on modern laptops is actually quite good so “instant on” isn’t a big issue anymore. Single spindle (i.e. no DVD drive) laptops can be very lightweight. Solid state drives are coming down in price but for the amount of storage required for Windows or Mac OS X the solid state drive is very expensive compared to a limited OS like Windows CE. The key to keeping the price of the Foleo down is keeping the amount of persistent storage to a minimum.

Ultimately, the Foleo tries to fill the gap when connectivity is limited. The Foleo has WiFi and Bluetooth. The Bluetooth is used as a two-way sync for e-mail/calendar/contacts between the Foleo and the Treo. You use the two devices tethered together where you have a table top (for the Foleo) and no WiFi. The Treo acts as a wireless modem while the Foleo gives you a laptop-like screen and keyboard.

So why not just write the optimized e-mail/calendar/contacts application for Windows with two-way sync to a Treo via Bluetooth? Real Windows running on a laptop?

If this market category has enormous potential for a specialized hardware + software solution then why is there no potential for the same kind of software solution running on a normal laptop that tethers with a Treo?

Would you pay for Palm SuperDesktop for Windows? Then why Palm SuperDesktop for a revamped Jornada 820 clone. I dunno.

applekeyboard_web_wireless_1_20070807.jpg

Apple announced two new keyboards this week. The Bluetooth mini-keyboard is beautiful but it has one major flaw, the CONTROL key is in the wrong place.

applekeyboard_fncrop2_wireless_1_20070807.jpg

The Fn key is in the bottom left hand corner where the CONTROL key normally goes. My brain has been unconsciously conditioned to expect the CONTROL key in the bottom left-hand corner. It is one of the anchor positions that we depend on but don’t realize it until it changes. I think it was an oversight on Apple’s part to put the Fn key there but time will tell.

Well it looks like Google has been partially successful in influencing the FCC rules for the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction.

The agency approved rules for an auction of broadcast spectrum that its chairman, Kevin J. Martin, said would promote new consumer services. The rules will let customers use any phone and software they want on networks using about one-third of the spectrum to be auctioned.

The F.C.C. did not approve a provision that would have required the winner of the auction to sell access to its network on a wholesale basis to other companies. Google favored the rule as a way to hasten competition and innovation in the cellphone industry, a market it is considering.

I wonder if the “open phones” idea would have taken off if Microsoft had proposed it.

iPhone Hands On

July 23, 2007

I had the opportunity to play with an iPhone for half a day last week. It was interesting mainly because of how few suprises I found. In my last post about the iPhone I made the claim that it represents a new mobile form factor, although a highly compromised one. I have not changed my mind after playing with one.

I was surprised by several things. The screen is much brighter than anything I have used, including the screen on my laptop. How Apple accomplished that without negatively impacting battery life is a mystery to me. Are LED back lights that bright? The other thing i noticed was that the touch screen seems to have issues registering single clicks. Swipes work well but I have noticed this on different videos as well, having a button click register is hit and miss.

The interface is inconsistent and downright odd at times when it comes to text entry. Typing is generally hard but it is easier in landscape mode but many screens do not switch modes when you flip the device sideways. As well, the pop-up keyboard does not have a way to close so once you start filling out a field you are stuck with the keyboard. Other usability issues could easily have been addressed if Apple simply looked at competetive products. For example, when typing on a Blackberry typing space twice adds a period providing a quick way to complete a sentence. The iPhone, on the other hand, requires that you switch back and forth between the alpha and symbol keyboards to add a period which gets old real fast.

The browser can be frustrating. Multi-touch works well to zoom in and out but working with something like a web based e-mail application with links used for menu actions and folder navigation is maddening. The browser is ultimately let down by the network limitations. Complex web pages are just usable with a WiFi connection but useless with EDGE. You can access POP or IMAP e-mail but the address book on the device is used.

So enough nit-picking, the interface is a huge breakthrough that works well in a narrow set of scenarios. Some people will love this device but I see it as a great conversation piece and mobile entertainment toy but it fails as a productivity tool.