Archive for April, 2010

Is There a Mirasol in the eReader Future?

April 29, 2010

The Mirasol technology being developed by Qualcomm hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention, but it has come a long way and  could be a viable contender for ereader displays this year. Qualcomm MEMS Technologies (QMT) is working with Taiwan’s Foxlink Group to begin commercial production of 5.7″ color displays by the end of the year.

Mirasol display

QMT's 5.7" prototype Mirasol reader

I sat down with Cheryl K. Goodman, QMT director of publisher relations, for a hands-on session with a prototype device. Mirasol imitates the way a butterfly’s wings produce color through light interference. Like E Ink and other electrophoretic displays, it is reflective and bistable. That means it depends on external sources for light and consumes power only when the screen is being redrawn. Once drawn, the screen will display an image indefinitely without power.  But developing electrophoretic color has proved to be a big challenge, as has redrawing the screen quickly enough to handle video.

The prototype was an impressive indication of how far Mirasol has come from the postage stamp-sized two-color displays of a couple years ago. When displaying static text, the Mirasol screen looks a lot like an Amazon Kindle or other E Ink reader–dark grey text on a lighter grey background. Color images were a bit undersaturated and a good bit less vibrant than an LCD display, but certainly acceptable. Video, at 15 frames per second, was less than overwhelming, but QMT hopes to get to the standard video rate of 30 fps the time the product ships. The screen could be viewed from a fairly wide horizontal angle, but the acceptable vertical viewing angle was a lot narrower.

QMT says that battery life is actually somewhat better than E Ink in a static text display and 3.7 times that of an LCD. Cost is still to be determined and could be an issue. The good news is that Mirasol displays can be manufactured using semiconductor technologies on modified versions of the equipment used to fabricate LCD displays, creating the potential for rapid price declines with volume production.

The likeliest use for Mirasol displays would be in ereaders that incorporate color images and some video.

iPad Bans: Misinformation from Media Old and New

April 25, 2010

We need traditional media, we are told from time to time, because all blogs do is regurgitate each other’s ramblings while newspapers report real news. I’m a fan of newspapers–I actually get three dead-tree editions delivered daily–but it ain’t necessarily so. The old media can recirculate bad info every bit as badly as the blogs.

A case in point is a meme making its way around the web about how some universities are, for reasons never quite specified, banning iPads from their campuses. This one seems to have started with a mostly correct April 6 Wall Street Journal online article about assorted difficulties that iPads were encountering on various university networks. The story noted that iPads  can’t manage some security feature’s of George Washington University’s network,  that Princeton had blocked some iPads from its network, and that Cornell was worried about the data demands of iPads overwhelming its network.

As the story made the rounds, problems became outright bans. The Christian Science Monitor reported on April 20 that Princeton had banned iPads. And BusinessWeek reports in its current issue: “Princeton University won’t allow its students to use the device on campus Wi-Fi networks because of data security worries.” Of course, dozens of blogs added to the noise.

The problem is that none of this is true. The Princeton story emerged first. The university’s network administrators started having problems with iPads when they first appeared on campus and the difficulty was traced to a disruptive interactions between the iPad and the system that assigns internet addresses to wireless devices. The Office of Information Technology has published and regularly updated detailed information on the status of the problem. At no time did Princeton ever ban iPads, though it has blocked misbehaving units from its network and warned students for a time that they were likely to have problems.

The Cornell situation is more clearcut. ““We have researched the issue and have found no negative impact at Cornell at this time,” the Cornell Daily Sun quoted university IT director Dave Vernon as saying. There is not and never has been a ban, and iPads are sold in the Cornell bookstore.

At George Washington, iPad-toting students do have a real problem, though they are not faced with any sort of ban. “The University has not banned the iPad,” its web site declares. The difficulty is that the GW wireless network requires software–apparently a virtual private networking client, though the web site is not explicit–that does not exist for the iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. No software, no access. The university says it hopes to have iPad connectivity available this summer.

In both the Princeton and GW cases, correct information was readily available on the universities’ web site. In the case of Cornell, there was no statement because there actually was no issue. The fact that there has been massive misinformation on the subject reflects the sorry fact that traditional media reporters and bloggers alike are far too ready to repeat each other without doing some basic reporting.

Can AllVid Work Where CableCARD Failed?

April 22, 2010

Way back in 1996, Congress told the Federal Communications Commission to “…assure the commercial availability to consumers of multichannel video programming … of converter boxes … from manufacturers, retailers, and other vendors not affiliated with any multichannel video programming distributor.” In other words, if you wanted something other than the miserable set top box your cable company wanted to rent you, you’d be able to pop over to your local BestBuy and pick one up.

The cable industry’s answer was the CableCARD and a software package called Tru2way. But 14 years later the number of retail cable boxes–mostly TiVo Series 3s, HDs, and Premieres–remains minuscule and Tru2way is little more than a notion. It’s a pain to get a cable company to support CableCARD installations and once you do, you lose such features as video on demand and pay-per-view. In other words, the whole project has been an abject failure.

Now, as part of the National Broadband Plan, the FCC is trying again. It has published a Notice of Inquiry as the first step toward implementation of a concept it calls AllVid, a sort of universal gateway that would connect your TV to cable, satellite, or cable-like (i.e., Verizon FiOS or AT&T uVerse) services as well as Internet video. “This approach,” the notice says, “would provide the necessary flexibility for consumer electronics manufacturers to develop new technologies, including combining MVPD [multichannel video programming distributor] content with over-the-top video services (such as videos offered from, for example, Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, or NetFlix), manipulating the channel guide, providing more advanced parental controls, providing new user interfaces, and integrating with mobile devices.”

Much of the notice is a recitation of the failures of previous approaches and the rest with proposed technical specifications for AllVid. But far more important than any details is how the FCC will overcome the genius of the cable industry in its CableLabs research arm to turn arguments over technical specifications into years of delay and inaction. The FCC proposes  that cable operators should offer AllVid options to their customers by Dec. 31, 2012, an outcome I regard as about as likely as the sudden outbreak of world peace* and universal harmony. For the moment, though, interested parties have 60 days following publication of the notice in the Federal Register to submit their comments to the FCC.

*–Originally appeared as “world peach,” which explains an otherwise mystifying remark in a comment.

Getting a Book on a Reader: Why Is This So Hard

April 20, 2010

I’m working on a research project that has me reading a lot of oral history transcripts from the computer History Museum (a fabulous resource, by the way.) And I’ll be spending a lot of time on airplanes in the next few days. So I thought it would be nice to be able to do my reading on either my Kindle 2 or my iPad.

I tried the Kindle first. I connected it to a PC and dragged one of the transcripts, which are in PDF format, into the documents folder on the Kindle. Sure enough, the transcript appeared immediately as a “book” on my home page.Unfortunately, the Kindle fits each PDF document page to the screen of the device, rendering the text unreadable. If I had a Kindle DX, it probably would work, but not joy on the Kindle 2.

The PDF would probably work on the bigger screen of the iPad’s Kindle Reader, but if there is a way to sideload a PDF into the iPad’s Kindle library, I couldn’t figure it out. And unlike books from the Kindle bookstore, sideloaded content does not move from one device to another over WhisperSync.

So I decided to the Apple’s iBook app. I used Calibre, a free open-source e-book formatting program, to convert the PDF to the ePub format the iPad wants. Then, following the directions, I dragged the converted book to the iPad’s Books folder in iTunes. Each time I tried this, iTunes crashed. I could use

I know there are other format conversion programs, and I’ll get around to trying them, but I have run out of time for this little project. Stanza might work, if they do an iPad version. For now, I guess I’ll have to settle for reading the documents in the iPad as in PDF Reader Pro  or on a laptop in Acrobat Reader. Neither is a very satisfactory solution, but at least you don;t have to scroll pages.

Apple really should make it much easier to get content, including user-created content, onto the iPad. Until they do, the iPad will not live up to its potential even as a content consumption  device, unless your idea of content consists solely of things available  in iTunes or the iBook store.

Be Careful What You Wish For: Broadband Regulation Could Aid Incumbents

April 14, 2010

Advocates of network neutrality, frustrated by a court decision limiting the Federal Communications Commission’s regulatory authority, are pushing for a simple solution: The FCC should “reclassify” broadband, now treated as lightly regulated “information services,” as much more strictly supervised “telecommunications services.” But if the FCC were to do this,  it could very well have the perverse effect of strengthening the dominance of incumbent carriers, especially AT&T and Verizon Communications.

Of course, there’s  the question of whether the FCC could actually get reclassification past the inevitable lawsuits. The traditional voice offerings of AT&T and Verizon are still regulated as telecommunications–or Title II–services. Cable broadband, however, has never been treated as a telecommunications service and it is far from clear that the FCC has any authority to do so. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that  such a move would pass legal muster. What might be the consequences?

Title II requires operators to act as common carriers, transmitting all traffic without  discrimination. This sounds simple and highly desirable in principle, but it practice it involves reams of regulations that keep the large and prosperous community of lawyers specializing in FCC matters very busy.  Michael Powell  grappled with these issues as FCC chairman from 2001 to 2005, a period of deregulation and enormous growth of broadband. In a recent interview with Cecelia Kang of The Washington Post, he said: “I hate the idea of Title II for broadband. I think we would really regret it because for a regulator versed in what it means, it means thousands and thousands of pages that would fall into this space and we would spend our lifetime trying to clean it up. And the real worry is that we will enter another prolonged period of litigation.” (more…)

Cpedia Proves We Still Need Humans

April 13, 2010

The idea that a machine could some day match a human being at the highest level of cognitive tasks–processing language–has tantalized computer scientists since the days of Alan Turing. Cpedia, a new project from the folks who brought us the ridiculous search engine Cuil, shows how far machine language has to go.

Cpedia claims to be an automated encyclopedia that assembles its entries by gathering relevant snippets from sites all over the Web. (For a full review, see this Technologizer post by Harry McCracken.) What it actually produces is mostly gibberish that barely qualifies as language, let alone coherent thought.

As a human being and a writer by trade, I find this immensely gratifying. We are brilliant at understanding language, but we lack the meta-understanding that would let us convert language into a set of rules or algorithms that would make human-quality machine language possible. The commercial state of the art in natural language understanding today is Google Translate, which can take arbitrary text into something mostly comprehensible, while leaving no doubt that that the translation is either the work of a machine or someone considerably less than fluent in the target language. Google Translate chokes on the chestnut “Time flies like an arrow, Fruit flies like a banana.” Rendering it from English into German or French, it misinterprets the second “like” as a preposition rather than a verb. Even when presented with the less contrived “Fruit flies like bananas,” it cannot correctly parse the meaning of “like.”

This stuff is really hard; natural language understanding remains one of the great challenges of computer science. Google, at least, has been honest in its claims about what machine translation can and cannot do. I just wish others, such as the promoters of Cpedia, would be a bit more modest in their ambitions.

Running a PC (or Mac) from Your iPad

April 12, 2010

Apple has made it very clear that it intends to keep a very tight rein on just what software you can run on your iPad. But if it runs on Windows or Mac OS X, you can  get it–sort of–on the iPad.

The key is LogMeIn Ignition, a $30 app that brings full-featured remote desktop access to the iPad. Ignition has been available for the iPhone since last year, but the small screen size made it not much more practical that running the Windows Remote Desktop client that’s built into Windows Mobile phones. The iPad’s big screen makes a huge difference, in short, the difference between practical and unusable.

To use Ignition you first need to install the LogMeIn service on any Mac or windows PC that you want to control. The Pro version costs $50 a year for up to five computers, but if you only plan to use it with Ignition, you might as well stick with a free account because advanced features of Pro, such as file transfer and remote printing, won’t do you any good with an iPad.

When you fire up the Ignition app, you first log in to the LogMeIn service and then to the computer you want to control. The target computer must be powered up and have the operating system loaded, but no user need be logged in.  You can skip the second step by remembering the credentials, but I don’t recommend it. Once in, a remote user has the same rights as someone sitting at the keyboard, so the security of requiring a second login is worth the little bit of extra trouble.

Within seconds, the whatever appears on the screen of the target computer is duplicated on the iPad. Depending on the resolution of the computer display, text may or may not be readable on the iPad, but you can easily stretch and shrink the image and pad it around as needed with the usual iPad gestures. Wide-screen displays are letterboxed to fit the iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio.

Ignition DesktopActually working on the remote computer takes a little getting used to. The biggest challenge is navigation. Your computer wants a mouse and the iPad doesn’t have one. Instead, you have a choice of using your finger to move the mouse cursor around the screen or dragging the screen image under the cursor. I found myself switching back and forth between these modes without a clear preference. Then you tap to activate; a two-finger tap gives you a right mouse click. This is all a little unnatural on an iPad. I had hoped that using a touch-equipped ThinkPad T400s would let me simulate windows 7′s touch features with taps on the iPad screen, but it’s no go. LogMeIn only recognizes mouse and keyboard control. You also have to get used to the fact that screen dragging works as though you had scroll bars–a flick to the right moves the screen to the left.

Screen refresh rates are low, which can be an issue with some uses. Yes, this is a way to run Flash on your iPad, and it works fine for relatively static Flash Web pages or Adobe Air apps such as TweetDeck. But don’t even think about Flash video. You’re going to see one frame per second at best and there’s no audio.

With these limitations in mind, Ignition can be a very  handy tool. One of the most obvious uses is for remote administration of servers, something for which I have long used the desktop version of LogMeIn. You can also run most desktop apps with relative ease.

The Masters in 3D: A Good Start, a Long Way to Go

April 9, 2010

There may be only a minuscule number of customers set up to watch 3D television in their homes, but Comcast is treating them to live 3D coverage of the Masters golf tournament (Comcast is making the feed available to other carriers, so it may show up on Time Warner Cable and Cox systems, plus Shaw in Canada.) Yesterday, Comcast hosted a demo of the service at the Newseum in Washington and I stopped by for a look. The bottom line: It’s interesting, but there are lots of glitches in live 3D that make it less appealing than it might be.

The demonstration showed off four different types of displays: Panasonic plasma with active shutter glasses, Samsung LCD with active glasses,  JVC with passive circular polarization glasses, and an NVIDIA GeForce 3D Vision system for the Internet feed. I thought the Panasonic and Samsung systems looked the best, which the choice largely coming down to your preference of plasma or LCD. The JVC looked less natural, but severe glare on the highly policed surface of the display made it hard to judge. The NVIDIA system seemed to suffer from a convergence problem–nothing ever seemed quite in focus–which may have been the result of either poor calibration or a badly encoded Internet feed; I’ve used this system and it can be very good. UPDATE: An NVIDIA spokesman says the problem might have been solved by adjusting the convergence in software.

The good news is that 3D really enhances the experience of watching golf on TV, though not in the way you might expect. The big gain is that 3D makes it much easier to see the slopes and contours of the course. When golf commentators speak of the break of a green, it;s often hard to get any visual sense of what they are talking about; in 3D you can see the break almost as clearly as the golfers on the course. Speaking at the Comcast event, golfer Greg Norman noted that the only place at Augusta National you can get a flat lie in on a tee; the 3D images made it clear what he meant in a way that normal television never could. (more…)

iPad Reactions: Experience vs. Ideology

April 8, 2010

An interesting pattern is emerging in assorted pundits’ reactions to the iPad. The large majority of commentators who like the iPad are reacting primarily to the experience of using it. The more disdainful, including Ed Felten, Jeff Jarvis, and Cory Doctorow seem to object mostly to some of the ideas behind the iPad. In other words, the objections are more ideological than experiential.

The common theme is that the iPad is somehow anti-creative. Felton, whose blog is tellingly titled “Freedom to Tinker,” complains: “To me, the iPad is Disneyland.” In other words, bright and shiny but bland and mediocre, locked down by Apple’s “central planning.”

“The iPad is retrograde,” says Jarvis. “It tries to turn us back into an audience again.” And in his now famous BoingBoing rant, Doctorow accuses Apple designers of ” a palpable contempt for the owner.”

The problem with these complaints is that they are mostly nonsense. There are certainly things I would change about the iPad. I wish Apple were a lot more transparent about just what the rules are for app approval at the iTunes Store. I wish it were a lot easier to get data files in and out of the iPad. I wish there were a better way to move back and forth among apps. But I don’t want Apple to open up the iPad to the point where it becomes as complex and failure-prone as PCs, no matter what operating system they run. And complexity and instability will be the inevitable result if Apple allows apps much room to move out of the strict sandbox it has imposed or adds a USB port to allow the use of driver-dependent peripherals.

But beyond that, the notion that the iPad turns its users into passive consumers of content flies in the face of of experience. Brushes was a good enough painting app on the iPhone to allow creation of New Yorker covers and the big screen makes the iPad version a lot better. I’m writing this post on a Mac because I work much more efficiently with multiple windows open simultaneously on the display. But the iPad is terrific for reading and commenting on blogs and other online content. I think it is that ability to comment that changes the nature of the media audience, and Jarvis’ mourning its disappearance on the iPad just doesn’t compute. Nor does his complaining about the lack of a camera. A front-facing camera would be great for video conferencing, but the ergonomics of using a device the size, shape, and weight of an iPad as a camera are  awful.  Besides, how many people are walking around with an iPad who aren’t also carrying a camera-equipped phone? If so, just what is lost?

As was the case with the iPhone, the incredibly creative developer community is going to come up with uses for the iPad that Apple never imagined. iPhone surprisingly became an ocarina; the iPad has already become a pretty decent piano. There’s a lot more to creativity than being able to run a terminal window.

Can Net Neutrality Be Salvaged? Should It?

April 6, 2010

A unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals appears to have dealt a severe blow to Federal Communication Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski’s to codify and expand the FCC’s enforcement of network neutrality on the Internet. The idea of expanding non-discrimination rules, especially extending them to cover the wireless Internet, isn’t dead, but the FCC is going to have to work a lot harder to make it happen. But strangely enough, its best chance may be to save the most controversial part of Genachowski’s program, net neutrality requirements for wireless carriers.

In a sense the decision was the result of a rash decision by the Bush Administration FCC. After Comcast was caught clumsily throttling bandwidth used by the BitTorrent file sharing protocol, the FCC moved to sanction the cable operator under its informal net neutrality rules, even though Comcast by then had long ceased messing with BitTorrent. (FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was no big fan of net neutrality regulation, but he really didn’t like Comcast.)

When Comcast appealed the FCC’s wrist-slap penalty, the Genachowski position was left to defend a relatively weak case. In the end, that may not have mattered much because the judges flatly rejected the crux of the FCC’s argument that even though Congress may  never have given it explicit authority to impose such regulations, it has “ancillary authority” to do so under the 1934 Communications Act. The FCC could try to appeal to the Supreme Court, but if I were the Solicitor General, I’d advise Genachowski to save his time and the public’s money. Not only did the FCC lose in a forceful opinion signed by three of the D.C. Circuit’s most respected judges, but the decision was consistent with a long string of legal setbacks the FCC has suffered every time it has tried to expand its reach without congressional approval. (more…)


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