Archive for the ‘Tech World’ category

Where Will Apple Be in Five Years?

April 2, 2010

It was spring 2005, just five years ago, and I found myself standing in front of the Apple Store at Barton Creek Mall.  The big signs advertised the arrival of the new iPod Mini.  I was able to look at one, but they were all sold out.

As a long time Windows user, I had no interest in Mac computers.  I used to make fun of them in fact, because everybody knew that Windows computers ran all of the most popular software.

Well, I went back and bought the iPod Mini, later to be renamed the Nano.  Then, within a couple of short months, I was back in the store.  This time I walked out with a dual processor Mac G5.  Gradually, I became converted.  Every night I started listening to podcasts about the latest Mac rumors.  And I bought Apple stock –  for $43.00 a share.

In that summer of 2005, one of the rumors was that Apple might come out with a video iPod.  Most of the media people doubted it would happen.  Steve Jobs didn’t think anybody would watch video on an iPod.

Fast forward to 2010.  Microsoft, Dell, Sony, Google, and lots of other companies have tried to outdo Apple, or at least catch up with them in innovative product design.  A recent survey found that 22% of Blackberry users want an iPhone.

After the Kindle came out, people began asking if Apple would  develop an electronic book reader.  Most of the media said it would never happen.  Steve Jobs allegedly said that people don’t read enough books.  Now, this weekend the iPad will be released.  It’s a heck of a lot more than a book reader.  It’s a whole new category of touch screen portable device.  Its most popular use probably hasn’t even been discovered yet.  Who ever heard of Facebook five years ago?

So, where will Apple be five years from now?  It’s hard to know for sure, but this week they passed Walmart in total market capitalization.  Some of the things that are coming are pretty interesting.  The Internet may be 100 times faster.  Computers and other devices will zap data back and forth wirelessly.  In the  spring of 2015, people will be lined up around the block at Apple stores all over the world, wanting to be among the first to get “it.”  Whatever “it” turns out to be.

I still remember the panic that I felt that first May afternoon in 2005 when I opened up that big Mac G5 computer.  I couldn’t find my installation disk with all the instructions and software drivers to get my Internet connection set up.  So, I called my nephew who is from an entire Mac family.

He just laughed. “Uncle Bill!”  he insisted.  “You don’t need a software installation disk.  With a Mac you just turn it on and everything works.”  I still use windows every day, but only to look out at the trees, the flowers, and the clouds.

Who’s Driving Your Car?

February 5, 2010

Until all the recent news stories about Toyotas with acceleration problems and brake problems, I never realized how overpowering computer software  is in making a car go these days.  No wonder the guys who grew up with cars as a hobby can no longer look under the hood and fix anything.

Just try to imagine as you are barreling down the highway at 70 miles per hour that Microsoft Internet Explorer is about as reliable as the innards of your hifalutin’ jalopy.  You turn onto a neighborhood street after exiting the highway.  It’s been raining just long enough to make the roads perilously slick.  You start to skid and suddenly you slam on the brakes.  Well guess what?  Those brakes do not engage or fail to engage because some guy with grease on his hands put in a mechanical device and tested it to make sure it worked.  No, what determines your ability to stop is a few million – yes I said million – lines of software code.  According to the New York Times, it’s up to 100 million!

Each computer in a car is called an electronic control unit, and there are about 30 of them in a modern car, more than in some jet fighters.  The recent Toyota problems which have led to serious injury and death worldwide are probably just symptoms of a much bigger problem waiting to happen.  Not only do all of the millions of lines of computer code have to be written correctly, each of the 30 separate computers in your car has to communicate with each other precisely and accurately.

So, from now on just remember.  Whenever you get behind the wheel of a car, drunk or sober, it isn’t really you who’s doing the driving.  Every turn of the wheel, tap of the foot, or finger on a button triggers a whole mess of interwoven lines of software code.  If any of it gets fouled up, sort of like the tangled heap of twisted lines on a fishing reel if your cast is off, then all the computers under the hood and in the trunk will have a quick little chat to decide what happens to you and your car.

And once you back the car out of your garage, you don’t get a chance to plug it into the Internet when Microsoft issues the latest round of updates for Patch Tuesday. That only happens if enough people complain after they leave the hospital, and the car company agrees to do a recall.  In the meantime, happy commuting in your computers on wheels.  (I don’t even own one of the things)!

Here are two interesting New York Times articles on this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/05/technology/05electronics.html

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/02/04/business/AP-US-TEC-Toyota-Car-Electronics.html

Are You Ready for the iPad?

February 5, 2010

The world of tech is about to change again next month when Apple releases the new iPad tablet.  From the reviews so far, it looks like a giant iPhone with a super fast processor.  The demos make it appear pretty snazzy at delivering books, videos, and all of the apps available for the iPhone.

But there are a couple of interesting questions to ask about it.  What will it be used for?  Put even better, what would you use it for?  That is my question for all of you blog readers.   If an iPad dropped into your lap today, what wold you use it for?

For portability, we use laptops and smartphones to check email and surf the web.  So, does the iPad fill a real need, or is it a solution waiting for somebody to tell us what the problem is.  People don’t watch a lot of videos on the go, although short clips might be nice and even a TV show or movie in the back seat of the car might be handy on a road trip.

It may turn out that the iPad is evolutionary as much as it is revolutionary.  What sets it apart from other so-called netbooks is the touch screen interface.  If you are used to tapping on an iPhone, then using the iPad would not require any new training.  In fact a larger keyboard would be quite pleasant since it would be so much easier to type and there would be fewer mistakes.

But here is Apple’s dilemma as I see it.  They are hoping that the newspaper and magazine industry will jump at the chance to sell subscriptions for the iPad.  But if readership is falling for the print versions, and they’ve been available free online for about 15 years, why would people want to pay for a half dozen or more subscriptions?  Sure the layout would be snazzy, but people who read online are comfortable with their bookmarked news sites.  If those are suddenly taken away, how many people would pay a monthly rate for any newspaper?  I doubt if I would.

The Kindle has proven that people will read books on a portable device.  So, there is a market there, but hiking the price to $15 for new books sounds a little steep.  My guess is that there is a lot of dreaming out there about cashing in on online media sales.

My final thought is that the iPad by itself would be a fun thing to play with.  But its ongoing usefulness will depend on the applications that become popular.  That and the question of whether people would rather run those applications, be they games or browsers or social networking apps, on an iPad badly enough to want to buy one.

Let me know your thoughts.  This will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.

Where Will the Digital Signposts Lead?

January 15, 2010

I got a lot of nice comments on my writings about the big changes from the last decade to the new one we have entered.  So, I decided to do a followup.  If technology is leading us in all of these changes, where are we headed and how will we adapt?

1.  The Implications of a Wireless World

In the big personal computer revolution, we could do things that we never imagined. Like printing in sophisticated ways right from home, chatting around the world, and sending pictures and other things attached to electronic mail.  But we had to be sitting at a plugged in computer to do those things.  Now the portable devices are taking over.  Eventually, the Internet will be with us everywhere we go.  It can be now on laptops, but with a high monthly fee.

When the prices come down and the devices become more portable, such as the new tablets coming out this year, a lot of things will change.  We will stop thinking of the Internet as a unique “place.”  It will be with us all the time, just like a purse, wallet, or wristwatch.  New generations will never know what it’s like not to be connected.

Let’s step back and think about the most immediate form of communication that we used to have – the land line telephone.  The next step after that was snail mail and even the telegram.  And if we wanted the latest news, we would look for a newspaper, or turn on the radio or TV.  In the digital age, all of those things are with us everywhere we go.  But there are still some fractures in the way we access this stuff.

People who have dropped their land line telephones have to remember to carry their cell phones around the house.  The old convenience of extension phones goes away.  When you want to watch a movie or a TV show, you need to track down which remote to use, the DVR one, the TV one, the DVD player one, or whatever.  And this process is played out in whatever room you happen to be in.

What will probably change all that is the disappearance of the physical computer, as we know it today.  Homes will probably have a central box where the guts of a computer are kept.  Sort of like the metal enclosure where your TV cables are set up, or the circuit breaker box in your house.  The guts of a computer will probably be about the size of a paperback book, if not smaller.

Everything that “connects” to the computer will do so wirelessly.  Portable devices will be cheap enough that you could have one in each room for convenience.  You should be able to point one of them at a any screen in any room and use it as  a remote to watch TV, movies, or browse the latest pictures from your camera.  And if you get a phone call, just tap the device and answer the call.

These devices, much like an iPhone, will be used in stores to scan things you buy, and in the car to look up where you are, using GPS.  A lot of these things are already happening, but what will change is the merging of all the complicated ways that we do it now.   It will rapidly reach the point where every device does just about everything in the same simple way,   There won’t be the distinction between a cell phone account, an Internet account, and a cable account.  Cable TV will almost certainly go away, as will anything else that relies on wires or cables.  It will all be done “online” and wirelessly.  Eventually, we won’t even notice whether or not we are online, because we will be there all the time.  This convergence of devices and “always online” state of things will be made possible by citywide wireless services, based on Wimax and other similar competing technologies.   Austin is just now getting one called Clearwire, but I’d advise checking the customer reviews before signing up.

2. What Will Happen to Online Media?

When newspapers, magazines, and printed materials went online in the early 90’s, we all got used to it.  Mostly because the established brands were portable enough to just move to the new medium.  The same publishers were in charge, so there was a logical structure in place to lead the change.  However, the profits are not as high as anticipated and the publishers are in a quandary. The profits from the print editions are fading away as those operations go away.  And they are hoping that new tablet devices will open a new paid subscription market.  But, will people be willing to pay for something they are used to getting for free?   Nobody knows yet how that situation will play out.

Music is an even more complicated story.  The old model of the record labels calling the shots did not adapt well to digital distribution, and the industry is still in a state of disarray.  There is plenty of music available online, from iTunes, Amazon.com, and other sources.  But who’s in charge of marketing and promotion?   And where do the music buyers get exposed to the new music?

There are plenty of scattered websites offering new music.  But old models die hard.  Just like it’s difficult for the music industry to give up CD’s, the movie industry is struggling to adapt to streaming music.  A Netflix movie played over the Internet looks just as good on a big screen TV as a high definition DVD or cable TV signal.  So, both CD’s and DVD’s will probably become obsolete.  Imagine the cost savings of never having to manufacture, package, or distribute those anymore.  Hopefully, we consumers will be exposed to many more choices at a much lower cost.  The biggest challenge, especially for musicians, will be to organize some sort of popular system to replace traditional radio.  An early example of that is the Pandora style radio software, where you create your own stations by selecting your favorite artists or genres of music.  But the so-called “Killer App” for music that replaces all the traditional marketing, promotion, and distribution has not come about yet.  That industry is still lost on the digital highway.

3. Taking Wireless to the Next Level

Today, wireless is primarily used to deliver content from the Internet to your computer or handheld device.  The next step, which is getting close to happening, is wireless communication between devices.  Bluetooth does that, but only at short distances.  When wireless expands to connect devices, you won’t have to use cables to set up printers, hard drives, scanners, etc.  And people will be able to share information just be pointing a device at their friend’s device and tapping, swiping, or jiggling the device.  An iPhone app called “Bump” can do some of that already.

And by the way, batteries will be charged automatically.  The technology to charge them over the air is already on its way to development.

4. The New World of Interactive Video

When you throw cameras into the mix, it really gets interesting.  With high speed video conferencing, the home user can have lots of fun.  You should be able to whip out an iPod on a vacation and show your family back home a live video of the white cliffs of Dover.  They’ll be watching it live on their HD TV.

A logical extension of that idea involves face to face contact.  People in large numbers have not taken up the use of video phone technology.  It can be done on computers quite easily with cameras that come built-in.  But I can think of one scenario that might make it more appealing.  Right now, if you sit on the couch with your laptop and play Scrabble through the Google website, iGoogle, you can see and talk to the person you are playing with.

But your opponent’s face is in a little box on the screen and it may show up at a weird angle in crummy light.  The ideal situation would be a full screen Scrabble board, with a formatted image of the person you are playing with, sitting on the other side of the game board.  On the screen, you would see them sitting in a chair, facing you, with the game board on a table.  That would look a lot more natural.  Perhaps what we need is some software to upload some pictures of our friends, so that simulated, realistic images of them could be put into the game playing “scene.”  Then the computer camera would pick up the live facial expressions and eye contact, making it appear like you were in the same room playing together.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that type of real world simulation to allow people to interact in natural ways in lots of situations.  Beyond playing games, people in different cities could go shopping together at virtual stores, and check out what each other is wearing.  The computer would have stored images of you.  So, if you clicked on an outfit in a store, you and whoever you were shopping with would see a live simulation of you wearing it.  Or you could both take a walk along a Hawaiian beach and have a nice chat.

All of these thoughts leave me with one final question.  How long will it be before we’ll be able to substitute our own selves for the lead role in a movie?  I wouldn’t mind watching a good Sandra Bullock movie with me in the male lead!

New Changes for the New Decade

January 15, 2010

As we enter the new decade, it’s mind-boggling to think of some of the longtime traditional aspects of our lives that will be changing forever.  Whether these changes are good or bad depends in part on how we adapt to them.  But, ready or not, here they come!

1. The Post Office.  Get ready to imagine a world without the post office.  They are so deeply in financial trouble that there is probably no way to sustain it long term.  Email, Fed Ex, and UPS have just about wiped out the minimum revenue needed to keep the post office alive.  Most of your mail every day is junk mail and bills.

2. The Check.  Britain is already laying the groundwork to do away with checks by 2018.  It costs the financial system billions of dollars a year to process checks.  Plastic cards and online transactions will lead to the eventual demise of the check.  This plays right into the death of the post office.  If you never paid your bills by mail and never received them by mail, the post office would absolutely go out of business.

3. The Newspaper.  The younger generation simply doesn’t read the newspaper.  They certainly don’t subscribe to a daily delivered print edition.  That may go the way of the milkman and the laundry man.  As for reading the paper online, get ready to pay for it.  The rise in mobile internet devices and e-readers has caused all the newspaper and magazine publishers to form an alliance.  They have met with Apple, Amazon, and the major cell phone companies to develop a model for paid subscription services.

4. The Book.  You say you will never give up the physical book that you hold in your hand and turn the literal pages.  I said the same thing about downloading music from iTunes.  I wanted my hard copy CD.  But I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that I could get albums for half the price without ever leaving home to get the latest music.  The same thing will happen with books.  You can browse a bookstore online and even read a preview chapter before you buy.  And the price is less than half that of a real book.  And think of the convenience!  Once you start flicking your fingers on the screen instead of the book, you find that you are lost in the story, can’t wait to see what happens next, and you forget that you’re holding a gadget instead of a book.

5. The Land Line Telephone.  Unless you have a large family and make a lot of local calls, you don’t need it anymore.  Most people keep it simply because they’ve always had it.  But you are paying double charges for that extra service.  All the cell phone companies will let you call customers using the same cell provider for no charge against your minutes.

6. Music.  This is one of the saddest parts of the change story.  The music industry is dying a slow death.  Not just because of illegal downloading.  It’s the lack of innovative new music being given a chance to get to the people who would like to hear it.   Greed and corruption is the problem.  The record labels and the radio conglomerates simply self-destructed.  Over 40% of the music purchased today is “catalog items,” meaning traditional music that the public is familiar with.  Older established artists.  This is also true on the live concert circuit.  To explore this fascinating and disturbing topic further, check out the book, “Appetite for Self-Destruction” by Steve Knopper, and the video documentary, “Before the Music Dies.”

7. Television.  Revenues to the networks are down dramatically.  Not just because of the economy.  People are watching TV and movies streamed from their computers.  And they’re playing games and doing lots of other things that take up the time that used to be spent watching TV.  Prime time shows have degenerated down to lower than the lowest common denominator.  Cable rates are skyrocketing and commercials run about every 4 minutes and 30 seconds.  I say good riddance to most of it.  It’s time for the cable companies to be put out of our misery.  Let the people choose what they want to watch online and through Netflix.

7. The “Things” That You Own.  Many of the very possessions that we used to own are still in our lives, but we may not actually own them in the future.  They may simply reside in “the cloud.”  Today your computer has a hard drive, where you store your pictures, music, movies, and documents.  Your software is on a CD or DVD, and you can always re-install it if need be.  But all of that is changing.  Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all finishing up their latest “cloud services.”  That means that when you turn on a computer, the Internet will be built into the operating system.  So, Windows, Google, and the Mac OS will be tied straight into the Internet.  If you click an icon, it will open something in the Internet cloud.  If you save something, it will be saved to the cloud.  And you may pay a monthly subscription fee to the cloud provider.

In this virtual world, you can access your music or your books, or your whatever from any laptop or handheld device.  That’s the good news.  But, will you actually own any of this “stuff” or will it all be able to disappear at any moment in a big “Poof?”  Will most of the things in our lives be disposable and whimsical?  It makes you want to run to the closet and pull out that photo album, grab a book from the shelf, or open up a CD case and pull out the insert.

8. Privacy.  If there ever was a concept that we can look back on nostalgically, it would be privacy.  That’s gone.  It’s been gone for a long time anyway.  There are cameras on the street, in most of the buildings, and even built into your computer and cell phone.  But you can be sure that 24/7 “They” know who your are and where you are, right down to the GPS coordinates, and the Google Street View.  If you buy something, your habit is put into a zillion profiles, and your ads will change to reflect those habits.  And “They” will try to get you to buy something else.  Again and again.

Welcome to the new decade!