Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thinking of a camera for Christmas?

If you think it's time to upgrade your old 15 megapixel camera, this may be just what you need. A camera company you've never heard of - Leaf Technologies - just announced their 80 megapixel monster. That's no typo. You need plenty of memory cards though because each image takes nearly one-half gigabyte of storage. Oh, and you also need plenty of money; the basic model is $31,387 - also not a typo. And of course if you want to take any pictures, you need to buy lenses; they aren't included with the camera. If you keep your eyes open, you can probably pick one up for 10% off on e-bay. Actually, when you think about it, it's not such a bad deal. The previous model cost the same amount and had only a lousy 56 megapixels.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The future of paper: how long will it survive

There are many sides to the debate about ebook readers (e-readers) compared to "real" books. Often the question of environmental impact centers around the fact that paper comes from trees therefore real books are bad. As in most such debates the reality is more complex.

Much of the impact of both types of books - and other products as well - occurs long before you even see them. Rare minerals and hazardous chemicals are used in the production of electronic devices as well as printers ink. An excellent article by Brian Palmer discussing this subject in depth in Slate Magazine is well worth reading.

Many discussions center around the "readability" factor. E-readers are said to be easier on your eyes than tablets like the iPad because they do not flicker. Some say curling up in bed with a computer of any kind is unnatural. Others prefer the physical connection with a nicely bound paper book as well as the ability to peruse a real library.

I believe that as desirable as real books, magazines and newspapers are for many, the battle is over almost before it has begun. Young people have grown up with electronic information sources of all types; the Internet has been used by the public for fifteen years. I'm confident most types of printed material will go the way of written correspondence, newsletters, technical journals, phone books, dictionaries, encyclopedias and reference materials of all kinds. These have disappeared with barely a whimper. The days of young children carrying thirty pounds of text books to school are numbered.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Friends don't let friends give out unreadable business cards

Type designers and page layout professionals go to great lengths to make sure their results are - above all - readable. Why can't the rest of us do the same with our business cards?

How often do you see an email address like this?

What are they thinking! Now try this -

This may be an absurd example but it illustrates the point. Cards are distributed to exchange contact information. If the artwork, type styles and other design elements make that difficult they should be changed. Specifically email addresses ARE NOT CASE SENSITIVE - EVER. Once more - email addresses ARE NOT CASE SENSITIVE - EVER.

Ask someone you trust to tell you whether your business cards are readable - without a magnifying glass and without several guesses as to whether that is a "1" or an "l". If that last phrase doesn't make the point, I don't know what would.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A hornet's nest - what a difference a year makes

You have to give Apple credit for one thing - they've really stirred up a hornet's nest in the tablet computer business. Think back just one year - does anyone remember a single mention of "tablet computer?" Probably not unless it was an historical reference to Alan Kaye's Dyanabook design (1968), the Apple Newton (1993) or Microsoft's tablet announcement (2000). With the exception of "convertibles" and other variations on the PC notebook theme, major computer companies did not appear to have a tablet device under consideration - much less development.

Fast forward to the present. Technologizer just published a list of 32 tablets from 26 companies. A few are available; most are "coming soon". Vendors include the big names - HP, Motorola, Dell, RIM, Samsung, Sony, Cisco, Lenovo and Toshiba - but others are really a stretch - Nefonia and Fushion Garage for example. Very few are direct competitors to the iPad; some are aimed at students with very low cost and others are directed specifically toward businesses. Some are as small as 5 inch screens; the iPad is 9.7. CIO has a discussion of 15 Apple iPad Rivals as well. It's phenomenal that a category of product that did not exist a year ago is all everybody is talking about - not just a gadget but a whole category of gadgets. Certainly the personal computer was a new product category but it took ten years to catch on (1975-1985).

A look back at the Internet
This situation reminds me of the time way back in 1995 when I wrote an article on the "new thing" called The Internet ("The" was capitalized in those days). Now the Internet wasn't really new then; it had been in wide spread use in the Defense Department, universities and research institutions for years. In those days mere mortals could search specific locations on line using Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy. You couldn't Google or search Web sites since Google and the Web had not been invented.

I did search the archives of the Minneapolis Star Tribune using Compuserve and saw that three years earlier there was only one mention of the Internet; a year later it was less than a hundred; from then on it exploded into the thousands. That's the trend I see happening now - not just due to the iPad - but the Mobile Internet in general which includes smartphones and other devices yet to be named. I predict that in three years most people will find it hard to imagine a world without tablet computers.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A technology refresher - back to the basics

Many of the new technologies and “gadgets” we encounter today are related to the “Mobile Internet”. You’ve probably heard the term and have some vague notion what it’s all about. It can be embarrassing though, to ask questions in this area when everyone in the room seems to understand what’s happening – except you! Believe me, you’re not alone; most people have little comprehension of the dramatic changes that are occurring today – changes that will completely alter the way we work, play, learn and communicate in the very near future.
A little background
The Internet is a collection of millions of computers connected by a complex collection of cables. A set of programs - often called protocols - make these computers work together. The World Wide Web (the Web) is collection of files that are stored on Internet computers (called servers). These files can be viewed on your computer using a browser program and they are sent to your computer by a program called a Web server.
There are numerous programs besides the Web that use the Internet – an email application such as outlook would be one; file download using FTP is another non-Web application that uses the Internet. Incidentally, your computer can have a Web server installed allowing people all over the world to access files you want to share – you can host your own Web site and it is really not that difficult to do.
Now some basic definitions
A Feature Phone is a cell phone that can store your contacts, send and receive email, browse the Web, play music, etc. It comes with a built-in set of programs (called apps – short for applications).
A Smart Phone is a step up from a feature phone since you can easily install apps yourself. The Apple iPhone 3G released in 2008 was the first true smart phone but many others have been introduced since that time. The MobileBurn Web site contains a searchable database of recent phones. Apps on these phones use the Internet and may or may not use the Web. The important point is they are very simple to use and do not involve a browser – they connect directly to various Internet/Web services with the simple touch of a button.
A Netbook is a small, low powered, low cost laptop computer. They are light duty computers intended for mobile tasks including email and Web surfing. Their low powered processors can not handle video production and their small screens and keyboards also limit their uses.
An eBook Reader - or just e-reader - such as the Amazon Kindle is primarily used for reading books downloaded from the Internet. Their specialized “eInk” displays are said to be easier on the eyes than a traditional display for extensive reading. They are very lightweight and some can also surf the Web.
A modern Tablet Computer is a “real” computer since it has a general-purpose operating system and the basic hardware elements of a PC. The Apple iPad is the best know example at the present. Virtually every major electronics company would like to produce an “iPad killer” and there are announcements every week by somebody who will make one “soon”. Recently discussed and announced models have included smaller screens than the iPad, have been directed toward business more than consumers and are promoted for content creation and not primarily consumption. Most tablets discussed so far use smart phone operating systems but others will use a mobile version of Windows 7 to mimic a standard PC.
What Lies Ahead
·  Confusion will be rampant in the near term since it will be difficult to distinguish one category from another. Is a device with a five-inch screen a large smart phone or a small tablet?  As new devices come out, new categories will emerge as well.
·  The typical wireless data plan has allowed users unlimited data downloads for a fixed fee of $30. That will change soon since smart phone and tablet usage is overwhelming the infrastructure of the carriers. Some are already moving toward “tiered” pricing where you pay for different levels of capacity.
·  Many of the specialized “gadgets” we have today will be “rolled into” smart phones and tablets. You will no longer need basic cameras, GPS navigation devices, MP3 and DVD players, calculators and a host of other devices since these can easily be incorporated into smart phones and tablets.
·  Since tablets are general-purpose devices, they pose a serious threat to both netbooks and ebook readers.
·  Just as a few companies have dominated the PC industry, it is likely that many smart phone and tablet makers will be knocked out of contention in the next few years; Investors and consumers are already placing their bets.
·  Speech recognition will be widely used to dictate text, search the Web and perform other basic data entry tasks. Versions available today are very accurate, easy to use and inexpensive. Users will find that the best keyboard may often be no keyboard.
The new world of the Mobile Internet is here and the fast pace of change occurring now means our information society will be completely remade in ways we can barely imagine today.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Dark Side of the digital age

Many of us take more photos on a long weekend than we did the entire time we used film cameras. Arguably the quality is improved based on immediate feedback and numerous retakes. We also avoid finding out when our film is developed - and our vacation is over - that an entire roll was poorly exposed due to unusual lighting conditions or an improper camera setting. All in all we feel like we've solved one of the world's greatest problems - documenting our lives for future generations. After all we repeatedly view, sort and arrange those precious pictures taken a century ago. We hang them on the wall and proudly point to great-uncle Eggbert as we relate our family's illustrious or not-so illustrious history. But there is a looming downside to the digital age and it affects much more than our photo libraries.

I'm often ask about the best way to store/archive photos and other files for the long term and I give the same simplistic answers as every other "expert" - make copies on CDs, store them off-site, etc., etc. But the very serious problem of long term storage of files of all types was discussed recently in Computerworld and here is a hint of the problem.

The Domesday book - a detailed property ownership survey in England commissioned by William the Conqueror - was published in 1086. It was recorded on sheepskin and written in Latin. In 1986 an updated version was prepared using the latest technology - laser discs. Guess which one was readable fifteen years later - assuming you or a friend could read Latin. That's right, the 935 year old book could be read but the "modern version" could not because the laser disc players and software were obsolete. Reading the 1986 version required significant custom hardware and software engineering.

Reading at least part of the the article by Lamont Wood is informative. Organizations with substantial concerns include the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the U.S. Geological Survey and you can forget about gigabytes; they talk in terabytes and petabytes (one thousand and one million gigabytes respectively.) The problem is reminiscent of the Year 2000 Problem but this one will not be over in five years. Digital data has the potential to last literally forever - it's all just collections of zeros and ones - providing archiving strategies are developed to store those quadrillions (petabytes) of bits.