Archive for March, 2010

The Phone as App: The End of the Mobile as We Know It

March 31, 2010

We need a new name for our ever more capable handheld computers. “Smartphone” doesn’t do it anymore, nor does Google’s stab at “superphone.” Both suggest that these devices are primarily phones, and that just isn’t so. And it’s becoming less so as new apps let you replace the built-in phone functionality with the service of your choice.

On the newest smartphones, particularly the iPhone and Android, the phone is nothing more than another app, and increasingly users are able to choose alternative phone applications. Unlike Skype, which been around for a number of mobiles for a while, these newer apps look and act like the standard dialer.

The built-in phone dialer is still generally the only one that can make a call using your wireless carrier’s voice network, but as long as we have unlimited data plans and limited voice minutes, that’s no particular advantage. More seriously on the iPhone, Apple has asserted a claim to bar apps that duplicate the functionality of the built-in dialer, but this restriction has been haphazardly applied and seem mainly designed to keep Google Voice off.

I haven’t found any consistent quality difference between standard voice calls and voice of IP calls, though VoIP tends to work somewhat better over Wi-Fi than on a 3G data network. Voice calls don’t take much bandwidth, so the speed of the network isn’t really an issue. But 3G networks then to suffer from high latency–the delay in getting packets across the network–and that adversely affects voice quality

Toktomi’s Line2 for the iPhone is my favorite of the alternative voice apps. The app looks nearly identical to the Phone app. It uses the standard iPhone contact list and even includes its own version of visual voicemail. As the name suggests, Line2 provides you iPhone with a second phone number, which can be in the area code of your choosing. The app is free, but the service costs $14.95 a month after a 30-day trial. That includes unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada, with international calls billed at low VoIP rates (anyone who makes a standard international call is either nuts or has someone else paying their phone bill.)

Goober VoIP for the iPhone isn’t as slick or comprehensive as Line2, but it does let you make VoIP calls at very low rates using an interface that looks very much like the regular iPhone dialer. Like Skype, it works with prepurchased service credits, but a number of prepaid monthly calling plans are also available.

Technology changes a lot more slowly than those of us in the tech business often think and conventional voice calling is going to be around for a long time (along with land lines, fax, cable TV, and other technologies that pundits have declared dead.) But over the long run treating voice as anything other than another form of data makes less and less sense. That LTE 4G service even includes a voice component is probably more a tribute to regulatory imperatives than any technological requirement. (WiMAX carriers seem to be happy providing  VoIP for voice on their networks.)

Google Could End the Argument Over flash

March 30, 2010

Google has announced that it will build support for Adobe Flash directly into an upcoming version of the Chrome browser. In an ideal world, this would end the argument, both passionate and a bit silly, over the future of Flash that has been set off by Apple’s refusal to support Flash in either the iPhone or the iPad.

To understand the significance of this move, it helps to step back a bit and look at how online video works. There are actually three components. At the lowest level is the encoded video itself, which is defined by the codec used to create it. h.264, a component of the MPEG-4 standard, is probably the best known codec; others include Sorenson h.263, Google’s On2, and the open-source Theora. Then there is the container, a wrapper that contains metadata and, in effect, instructions for what to do with the encoded video and audio data. Containers include Apple QuickTime, RealVideo, Windows Media, and Flash. Finally, there is the player, an application or browser plugin that can actually display the video. Some, such as the VLC media player, can handle a large variety of containers; other, such as the Flash player, are specific to a format.

To play video in a browser, at least until the newest generation supporting HTML 5, you needed to have both the correct player plugin and codec installed on the system. For example, much Flash video today is encoded in h.264. The iPhone has the right codec, but lacks the appropriate player  for the flash container, so it’s no go.

HTML 5 changes the game by eliminating the player plugin. But it doesn’t really so much eliminate the player as incorporate the functionality into the browser itself. Currently, Firefox will only play Ogg Theora as native HTML 5 video, while Safari only plays h.264. Google has promised support for both formats and now, in effect, Flash as well. Technically, from the description in the Chromium blog, it sounds like Google isn’t really bringing Flash into the HTML 5 standard. But from the point of view of both users and Web site creators, this isn’t really going to make much of a difference. Flash will run natively in the browser. And, Apple’s seeming theological objections to Flash notwithstanding, we really don’t need religious arguments about video formats.

Two likely benefits from this approach are better performance and improved security. The Flash Player was a notable processing power hog, at least until the new Version 10.1, and that’s why Flash is not supported on most mobile devices. The flash Player has also has a number of security issues. Incorporating the code into the browser won’t automatically resolve these, but it will at least eliminate the separate security patch process for the player and subsume it in Google’s automatic update process for Chrome.

Google engineering vice-president Linus Upson summed it up in the blog post: “Improving the traditional browser plug-in model will make it possible for plug-ins to be just as fast, stable, and secure as the browser’s HTML and JavaScript engines. Over time this will enable HTML, Flash, and other plug-ins to be used together more seamlessly in rendering and scripting.”

Spring Break: Patents Gone Wild

March 24, 2010

Over at All Things Digital, John Paczkowski has discovered that the U.S.Patent  Trademark Office has awarded a sweeping patent covering the control of a handheld device by motion to Durham Logistics LLC, a company that appears to consist of a mail drop in Las Vegas. If Durham Logistics, which acquired the patent from the actual inventors while it was pending, choses to enforce the patent, it could pose real problems for Apple, Research in Motion, Palm, HTC, Motorola and just about everyone else in the smartphone business.

Meanwhile, Andy Abramson at VoIP Watch has found that USAPTO has issued extremely similar patents for virtual phone numbers to to a patent holding company called 8X8 and to Vonage. So we can expect litigation over which, if either, of these patents is valid.

Just what is going on here? I don’t want to get into the question of whether there should be software patents or whether it is too easy to get a business process patent–the latter question may be settled by the Supreme Court in a pending case called in re Bilski. And I don;t know whether this mess is occurring because USPTO is misapplying the law or if a flawed statute is leading to these peculiar results. But it is painfully evident that the system just isn’t working. The issuance of overly broad patents, pant

In Honor of Ada Lovelace Day: Emmy Noether

March 24, 2010

Today, March 24, is Ada Lovelace Day. In honor of Ada Lovelace, sponsor of Charles Babbage and arguably the world;s first computer programmer, bloggers have pledged to post about the contributions of women to science and technology.

If you ask a professional mathematician to name the woman who has made the greatest contribution to math, the odds are very high that the  answer will be Emmy Noether. Yet this major figure in 20th century mathematics is all but unknown to the general public, probably because her groundbreaking work is not terribly accessible to non-mathematicians.

Amalie Emmy Noether was born in 1882 in the university town of Erlangen, Germany, and studied mathematics there. In 1915, she was invited to the University of Göttingen by David Hilbert, the preeminent mathematician of the time. The Göttingen faculty, however, to strong exception to a woman joining them, so Noether ended up teaching courses nominally offered by Hilbert. In 1919, her habilitation, the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation, was accepted and she became a privatdozent, more or less an assistant professor.

At Goettingen, Noether joined some of the greatest minds of early 20th century mathematics, including Hermann Weyl, B. L. van der Waerden, Edmund Landau, and Richard Courant. But in 1933, she and many of Goettingen’s other leading lights lost their positions in the new Nazi government’s purge of Jewish academics. American mathematicians, led by Oswald Veblen of Princeton, mounted a campaign to bring their displaced German colleagues to the U.S., and Noether accepted a post at Bryn Mawr. Unfortunately, the new position did not last long; Noether developed serious complications after surgery and died in 1935 at the age of 53.

Noether worked in many fields of modern mathematics, but she is best known for her efforts in abstract algebra, the study of the fundamental structures of mathematics, particularly the study of rings and ideals. (As a really simple example, the integers form a ring, a structure with two operations–addition and multiplication–that meets a number of other conditions. All of the multitples of 5 form an ideal. And to be really precise, the integers are an example of a Noetherian ring, a concept that is too complex for this post.)

Noether also made important contributions to mathematical physics. Her work there is best known for Noether’s theorem, which states that every symmetry of a system is associated with some quantity that is conserved. For example, symmetry of rotation in a  physical system is associated with the conservation of angular momentum.

Although women are still underrepresented in the ranks of research mathematicians, they are hardly a rarity anymore. Emmy Noether helped lead the way.

Kylo Browser: A New Front in Hollywood’s War With Consumers

March 22, 2010

One of these days, TV and movies have resisted giving their customers what they increasingly have made clear they want: content where they want it, when they want it, and on the device of their choice. The latest front in this long twilight struggle opened Monday when Hulu, the leading Web site for full-length TV shows, blocked yet another attempt to make it easy to get Hulu content onto television screens.

Hulu, which is owned primarily by NBC Universal, Disney*, and News Corp., has been in a very public fight with Boxee, an application, soon a set top box,  that serves as an aggregator of and program guide to video content, barring Boxee’s custom browser from loading the Hulu site. Monday, added Kylo, a new browser from Hillcrest Labs, to the banned list.

Kylo is a new browser, built on the Mozilla engine used by Firefox, is a browser specifically deigned to work well on a TV display. Kylo is intended for use with Hillcrest’s  Loop Pointer, an accelerometer-based “mouse” that you use by pointing it at the screen. You install Kylo on a PC connected to a TV display and use a Loop to control it. Kylo addresses the problems of working with conventional browsers on a TV: The user interface is designed to work well from across the room. There’s an easy way to scroll in so that small type becomes readable form  feet away. There’s an on-screen qwerty keyboard and built-in compensation for overscan, a feature of TV design that causes the edges of a window designed for a computer to fall off the edges of the TV screen.

Hulu, of course, is natural content for Kylo and Hillcrest CEO Daniel S. Simkins was all set to demonstrate Hulu on Kylo at the DEMOspring conference in Palm Desert, CA. But on Monday morning, Hulu suddenly stopped working on Kylo/ Some frantic conversations between Hillcrest executives and Hulu confirmed the bad news: The browser was being blocked from the site.

TV studios get a large part of their revenues from the fees cable and satellite companies pay to transmit their content, so they are reluctant to anger powerful customers by making content available through alternate channels. This situation is not likely to get better if the proposed merger of NBCU and Comcast goes through. The bottom line is that studios are increasingly comfortable with making their content available on the Internet, but only as long as it stays on PCs or mobile devices. But they will do everything they can to block easy ways of getting that same content onto TV screens, where it competes directly with cable or satellite service.

Caught in the middle are companies like Hillcrest and, of course, consumers. Eventually, consumers will win, but victory is likely to be a long time in coming.

*–Corrected to add Disney as an owner of Hulu.

Why the Census Is Stuck With Snail Mail

March 21, 2010

I saw a tweet this morning from Natalie  Fonseca (@TechPolicy) of Tech Policy Central, who poses the perfectly reasonable question of why in 2010 we are still conducting the census using paper forms and snail mail. The answer is a lot more complicated than the question, but the bottom line is that we can’t do a census by mail for the same reason that we  cannot vote by mail. The state of online authentication simply doesn’t allow it.

The problem is that the census isn’t like American Idol voting. It really matters. Small differences in the population count, sometimes a matter of a few thousand people, can move a seat in the House of Representatives from one state to another. Population totals are also used in formulas that allocate federal funds to states and localities. Enough is at stake so that there is an incentive to cheat.

That makes it important that every household in the U.S. be counted once and only once. You have to think about how this might be done electronically. You can’t have people just go to a Web site and fill out a form because we have no way to verify that the people filling out the forms are who they claim to be. There is no particularly good way to stop someone from filling out multiple forms.

In one important sense, the census is easier than voting because census forms, unlike ballots don’t have to be anonymous. But in practice, this doesn’t help much. An online census would require distributing some sort of token to each household so that the token could be used to retrieve an online form. Even if email were secure enough for this purpose, and it really isn’t, the government has no way of matching email addresses to housing units, and that’s probably a good thing from a privacy perspective.The one thing the government does have a pretty good idea about is the location and street address of housing units. This isn’t perfect: Every community has off-the-books housing, and there are homeless people and people in institutions who are harder to find. But it’s a very good starting point.

There’s a halfway solution that might help. The government could include with each mailed census form a token of some sort–probably a unique ID number–that could be used to retrieve and submit an online form. People would then have a choice between online and paper forms. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this done for the 2020 census. But one way or another, paper census forms are going to be with us for a long, long time. Technology marches on, but it often does it surprisingly slowly.

The Missing Ingredient in the STEM Education Debate

March 17, 2010

Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and Harvard/Duke professor Vivek Wadwha recently debated on TechCrunch whether there is a crisis in U.S. science and technology education.  Wahwha argues that the shift of research and development efforts to places like China and India is a natural consequence of market conditions and that labor market conditions suggest that there is no shortage of engineers and scientists in the U.S. Barrett argues that the U.S. is underinvesting is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and that many of the most promising graduates of STEM programs in our top universities are foreign who take their knowledge home with them.

This is very well-trodden ground for both men and they are thoughtful and effective advocates for their respective views. But I think both are missing something important.

Photo of Erika DeBenedictis

Erika DeBenedictis receives top awards at 2010 Intel STS (photo: Intel)

Last night, I was honored to attend the annual awards gala for the Intel Science Talent Search and over the weekend I was able to talk with some of the 40 finalists during an open house at the National Academy of Sciences. What distinguishes these high school seniors is not their intelligence, which is awesome, nor their extremely impressive research projects. It is the passion they bring to whatever they do that really sets them apart.

I have known many researchers in academia, many entrepreneurs, and many folks who have done great thinks as technical executives in big corporations such as Microsoft, IBM, and Intel. They too are distinguished by their passion, their belief that what they are doing is important, that it might just change the world.

U.S. industry needs a steady supply of engineers and technicians to keep things humming, but the fact is that those who will really make a difference, who will come up with the products, or ideas, or research results that really mean something are a  very thin veneer at the top. The challenge is not a numbers game but getting the best of the best to develop a passion for STEM careers.

In recent years, it has been fashionable to bemoan the fact that many promising STEM graduates have chosen careers on Wall Street. My suspicion is that the most them weren’t much of a loss to the world of technology. A newly minted who chooses a career in finance over research and teaching probably wasn’t going to be much of a researcher anyway. It is, or was, a good way to get rich, but getting rich seems to me to be one of the last things motivating passionate researchers or even many entrepreneurs. It’s nice if it comes, but the real dream is discovery and building.

What we need in education is a way for our most promising students to find and pursue their passions. This takes great teachers and mentors who have the skills and are willing to take the time  to help talent blossom. That’s where the next generation of STEM leaders is going to come from and there is no magic bullet for doing this. It is a lot of hard, but hardly thankless, work. The parents and  teachers who saw their children and students on the stage at the STS gala got a physic reward that no amount of money can measure.

Fore! Comcast To Offer Masters in 3D

March 15, 2010

Great news for the 37 U.S. golf fans who have run out and purchased 3D televisions. Comcast announced today that the cable service will be offering two hours a day of live 3D coverage on a dedicated channel during the Masters Golf Tournament April 7-11. In a blog post, Comcast Senior Vice President Derek Harrar said that Sony and IBM will be providing technology assists for “the industry’s first live multi-camera next-gen 3D production.”

My suspicion is that the 99.99% of you whose lack of 3D displays will force you to watch the tournament in plain old 3D probably won’t miss all that much. Even more than other sports, golf relies on a lot of very long shots–of the photographic variety–and  the 3D effect is limited when using long telephoto lenses (for the technically minded, think parallax angles). Nonetheless it should be an interesting experiment and a way for broadcasters to ease into live 3D event coverage: The relatively slow pace of golf and the ability to use fixed camera positions on the Augusta National course make the 3D production of the tournament a lot less complicated than a live 3D broadcast of, say, an NFL football game

Where Are They Now? The 25 Oldest Dot Coms

March 15, 2010

As part of this week’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of .Com, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation has published The Internet Economy  25 Years After .Com, which includes a list of the 100 oldest (by date of registration) .Com domains. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what has happened to them and how many are still around under their original names and serving the original purpose (table after the break). The answer: Not too many, and companies we might tend to think of as industrial dinosaurs showed a lot more staying power than tech hotshots.

Of course, there was no World wide Web when these domains were first registered in the mid-1980s. Back then, the Internet consisted of email, ftp for file transfer, telnet for remote login, and mostly forgotten services such as Gopher, WAIS, and Usenet.

Some tech giants  such as IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and Texas Instruments have been using the same domains continuously for a quarter of a century.  So have some giants outside the info tech industry such as General Electric, Siemens, and FMC.

Some of the earliest companies on the net have disappeared in acquisitions. Digital Equipment Corp. was acquired by Compaq and in turn by HP. BBN, the engineering firm that built the original Internet Message processors, was acquired by Verizon Communications, spun out, and acquired by Raytheon. Bell Atlantic became Verizon, while AT&T was acquired by its former subsidiary SBC and became AT&T again. Sun was recently swallowed by Oracle.

Some Internet pioneers have disappeared. leaving little or no trace of their former existence. Think.com, the domain name of parallel computing trailblazer Thinking Machines, now belongs to the Oracle Education Foundation. Symbolics.com, the very first domain registered, was originally owned by a company that developed workstations for object oriented programing but now belongs to a “domain investor.” MCC.com, once the Austin-based Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp., is now a landing page for a bunch of community college Web sites. GMR.com is still registered to General Motors Research, but appears to be dead, while Northrop Grumman Corp. appears to have let Northrop.com lapse; it now belongs to white label email provider Hover.com. UB.com, the domain of network hardware maker Ungerman-Bass (which was swallowed in turn by Tandem Computers, Compaq, and HP), now belongs to Ultimate Bet, an online poker site.

Sic transit gloria mundi. (more…)

Plastic Logic Delays Que Launch to Summer

March 12, 2010

Que proReader photoDelivery of Plastic Logic’s Que proReader is slipping to summer. The company had announced a April launch of the business-orented ebook reader at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and had begun taking pre-orders. In an email to customers (after the break) Plastic Logic CEO Richard Archuleta said the delay was to “fine-tune the features and enhance the overall product experience.”

The Que is a large-format reader with a monochrome E Ink display. Plastic Logic’s unique technology, which uses logic components printed on a plastic substrate, allows the Que to be exceptionally thin and light. It is priced at $649 for a 4 gigabyte Wi-Fi model and $799 for an 8 GB version that also features  AT&T 3G wireless.

The delay is embarrassing for the company, which had once talked of shipping the product in early 2009. But it may prove fortunate. Apple’s iPad, for which pre-orders began today, is scheduled to ship April 3 and it has sucked all the oxygen out of the atmosphere around the e-book market. The Que competes much more directly with Amazon’s Kindle DX than  the iPad, and features such as easy loading of business documents and BlackBerry integration target it firmly at a business and professional market. But it would have been hard for Plastic Logic to get much attention in what is certain to be an obsessive flood of media coverage, not to mention Apple marketing, surrounding the iPad launch. (more…)


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