Wednesday, May 30, 2007

BBC: Microsoft Surface

Its cool, a computer built into a table top display. Takes us right back to the days of Pacman cocktail cabinet video games.

I am not sure about the packaging though, I like my 30" HP monitor but surely a 42" display is what you would want for the table format even if that meant sacrificing resolution, accepting 1920x1080 rather than the 2560x1600 the best 30" monitors can show.

Eventually we will see 60" plus drafting table format displays. So far my experience with the 30" is that more desktop real estate is better. Whether 60" will be a mainstream or a niche market has yet to be determined.

One possible outcome is that cinemas and high end home theatre settles on an ultra-high definition TV format such as 4K or UHDTV, 4K is 4096x2160 which at 100dpi would make a 46" desktop monitor - probably the usable limit. UHDTV is 7680x4320 which would be fine for a 88" wall mounted cinema display.

Saturday, May 26, 2007 Logitech Harmony 880 Remote Control: Electronics

My Logitech remote arrived, it works every bit as well as I had hoped. Setup took a little while, but mostly because I was sorting out the rats nest of wiring behind the TV.

From the purely physical point of view the device feels nice in the hand and has a Lithium ion battery which allows a long time between charges.

Unlike my first two 'universal' remotes the logitech actually does the job as advertised. There are plenty of hard buttons for the main remote functions, including DVR type functions such as skip forward and skip back. If you run out of hard buttons there are eight hard buttons positioned around the LCD display. I used this feature to program a button for the DVR function on the satelite.

As far as programming goes the database of codes is vastly more accurate and complete than any other I have used. It is keyed by the model number of the device, no more poking about trying one numeric code after another.

The one feature that the Logitech is a little wobbly on is tracking power on/power off status. This is not really the fault of the remote, its the fault of the idiot manufacturers who provide only one button for completely opposite functions. The remote has no way to know for sure if the TV is on or off. The Logitech has a 'remote assistant' which provides a pretty decent catch.

The real test for a remote of this type is, can you let visitors use the Home Theatre without being constantly asked how to work it. Here the Logitech passes the test.

Having gone through a couple of programming cycles I now have all my components working (apart from the iPod which does not want to talk to the system anyway). The only thing I have not got completely working is power on/off to the XM radio and the Onkyo Home Theatre, both of which are somewhat finiky with the manufacturer remote. I will program these in later via the learning feature. I think I will also use my spare soft buttons to give direct access to power on/off on each component.

So a triumph for the computer industry approach of mass collaboration? Well partly. The ingenuity of the Logitech should not be necessary at all. It solves a problem that should not exists, that only exists because of the shortsighted incompetence of the equipment manufacturers.

Of the range logitech offers the 880 appears to be the one to get. The cheaper models in the range are not much cheaper. The next model up, the 890 has wireless capability but costs $100 more. This would make sense if you want to rack your gear out of sight (and kids!). Having used tablet format remotes like the 1000 I would not see them as an improvement.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Stupid Password UI experiences

Lets think through the following UI experience:

1) Log in with username and password

2) Your password has expired

3) Please enter your old password and your new password, re-enter you new password

Since we just entered the old password to get to this page, why demand it a second time?

Also why demand that users change their passwords at all? If you need anything more than low level security you should be using more than just a password. If you are guarding low risk assets you should not make unreasonable demands on the user.

Each time a user is asked to generate a new password the temptation to use the same password on every account with a time dependent prefix or suffix increases.

I seriously doubt that forcing users to change their passwords has any beneficial effect on security today.

One more remote will unify your life

With the installation of a new home theatre processor, and docks for the iPod and XM Radio I now have seven remotes to control the media system in one room.

This does not include the two alleged 'universal' remotes which turn out to control some but not all of the functions of the system and have 'learning' capabilities that are distinctly more limited than the manufacturer alleges.

My first attempt at a universal remote was a Sony RM-AV2100, a huge wedge shaped box that nobody would use. In the days before lithium ion batteries and cheap flash Rom the universal remote concept was simply not ready for prime time. The box has to be reprogrammed every few months and so is useless as a replacement for a remote that has been broken (besides being tedious).

A few years later I bought another Sony, a RM-VL1000. This time they got the form factor right but it simply does not have enough hard buttons. In particular there are no buttons for jump forward and jump back, the two buttons used most often on a DVR. also no cancel button for getting out of a menu.

The problem with the Sony is that it is developed by a consumer electronics company and is designed by people who have a particular idea as to the way the product should work. Sony does not make a DVR so there is nobody to push for the DVR buttons. The menus on Sony systems work in a particular way and their universal remote reflects the same philosophy.

Consumer electronics companies don't want to make it easy for people to connect to other brands of equipment. They all want to lock the consumer into their own brand of equipment. The fact that Sony's TV does not work particularly well using the remote supplied with their DVD recorder/VCR combo is overlooked. In fact even the universal Sony remotes are not complete replacements.

This is why I have become interested in the Logitech Harmony remotes and have an 880 on order. The Logitech people are computer people, not consumer electronics people and they are comming to the problem from a computer people point of view. Instead of poking about trying to program the remote from the remote the Harmony plugs into a USB port for programming. Instead of comming with a fixed memory of pre-programmed codes the logitech connects to a database of tens of thousands of codes. And they use the distributed collaboration technique of allowing one customer who has programmed a new device to share the codes they have programmed in with other users.

It should be interesting to see whether expectations are met or whether the logitech will prove to be yet another universal remote that ends up being one button short of a full set.

What really needs to happen of course is that the consumer electronics companies need to get a clue and start building consumer electronics that work well together as a system regardless of who built the parts.

I don't expect this to happen of course but I do note that Dell and Gateway are both selling own brand TVs. The collision between the consumer electronics world and the computer manufacturing world is almost upon us. If sony and the incumbents do not get a clue quickly they will find themselves facing a disruptive change.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Why is it that...

when a Web site presents a list of 'Frequently Asked Questions' what they actually provide is a list of questions they would like to be asked frequently, like how to upgrade service, switch to paperless statements and so on?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Buying a Dell Hell

The time has come when the kids start fighting over the computer. Today's solution: J1 plays with Daddy's VooDoo in the office. Is 18 months too soon for a PC?

The American society of pediatrics have an idiotic comment on their Web site asserting that there is no proof that television or computers are educational for under aged children, therefore they should never use them. There is of course no evidence that they are harmful either, which is admitted but why let facts get in the way of a good prejudice?

Professional bodies should not be issuing warnings or advice without the facts to back them up.

J1 taught himself to read using the computer at age 3. The main challenge in learning at an early age is motivation. Reading to children (something earlier generations of pediatricians would also no doubt have advised against) is a good thing, but don't expect reading to a child to motivate the child to read themselves.

What worked for J1 was I-Spy Spooky Mansion on the PC. After playing the game with Daddy J1 eventually decided that he might like to play when Daddy was not around. Listening to Daddy read did not motivate him to learn, listening to the computer read did. Daddy read the clues himself: that was the proper way to play.

So off to the Dell site to find a machine for J2 only to find that the configuration choices on offer are bizare. The options on offer depend on the model of machine you choose (almost sensible) and whether you describe yourself as a Home user or a Small Business (less sensible). This might make some sense if it was a clever way of tailoring the machines on offer to specific markets but it isn't.

If you are a Home user you can choose a compact machine with an AMD processor but not an Intel. If you try to buy the Intel machine in the compact case you can buy the low rent Vista Basic version, or upgrade to Business or Premium, Vista Home Premium is not an option.

If you opt for the Dimension in the smallcase with an AMD processor you can get a monitor that has direct DVI input and a speaker bar. If you get the Dimension in a larger case you can buy the same monitor but the speaker bar is not offered so you have to buy it separately as an accessory.

You might imagine that this is clever marketing ploy to get people to buy bigger machines than they need. Only it isn't, its just the result of someone not updating the Web site properly.

Back in the 1980s Digital had an AI based configuration system for Vaxen called XCON. Looks to me like the Dell folk could really do themselves a favor by reading up on it and see what a rules based constraint system could do for them.

The whole Dell approach is obsolete. Instead of asking me which machine I want to buy and adding options it should let me specify the characteristics of the machine I want first. That does not mean telling Dell that I am a home user, it means stating the type of programs I want to run, the amount I want to spend, whether my priorities are size, speed or noise.

In other words the computer interface should work the way that a traditional salesperson would.

Applying this type of approach would also allow Dell to determine which features to target in future machines. If people are making noise a priority over performance then act accordingly. I am pretty sure that a huge number of personal buyers would pay for RAID-1 if they knew it would protect their files in the case of a disk crash.

The VooDoo site has an attempt at something like this approach but they only have three desktop models and not a large variety of options.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Friday, May 11, 2007

Anyone know how to reset a crashed iPod?

My iPod has crashed and there is no reset button.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Botched technology: Hertz Neverlost

One of the most disrespectful things a computer can do is to forget information that the human operator has entered.

When Hertz Neverlost first appeared the fact it worked at all was amazing. Today I have a much faster, more capable and considerably cheaper device at home.

To see how clueless the Neverlost designers were do as I just did in the airport. I put the key in the ignition, program my destination into neverlost then start the car. At this point neverlost reboots and forgets the address I just entered.

There is no excuse for this, none. There is no reason for the device to lose its memory in the few seconds it takes to start the car.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Circuit City and the Plasma TV mess

Digby blogs on a Washington post report that Circuit City's scheme to cut labor costs by firing its best salespeople is backfiring.

What a surprise! On one hand we might simply chalk this down to clueless 'Chainsaw Al.' Dunlap style management of the type that drove Sunbeam into bankruptcy.

There is a deeper problem though, profits at the electronics retailers have been soaring on the back of roaring sales of Plasma TVs. As the price of Plasma has come down the number of units sold is continuing to rise but revenues are falling and the margins are falling even faster.

A couple of years ago plasma was still an exotic technology that people would make a point of buying from a premium retail outlet together with an expensive purchase protection plan. Today plasma is being displaced by LCD and prices for both have dropped below $1000. Flat panel TV has entered the curious no-man's land between niche consumer and mass commodity. Buy now and you can be more or less certain that the price will drop by a half in the next two years.

As the price of plasma drops buyers become more intent on bargain hunting, not less. They are also less likely to pay for overpriced product protection plans or buy online. The lower the price, the more willing consumers will be to purchase through discount channels.

Few people have a desperate rush to buy plasma at this point, they are no longer rare enough to be 'must buy', not yet cheap enough to make replacing a perfectly functional TV worthwhile. There is also a technology transition in progress, True high definition 1080p displays cost substantially more than lower resolution 720 displays. This is clearly a temporary phenomenon as the essential cost of manufacture for the two technologies is the same. Once the existing stock of 720 panels is exhausted, all the TVs being made will be 1080. At the same time upper end manufacturers are abandoning plasma for LCD.

One issue I do not expect to be a significant factor is the federally mandated switch to HDTV. People who buy $1500+ TVs have cable or satellite. And anyone who thinks that Congress is going to cause poor folk's TVs to suddenly stop working for real needs a stiff working over with a cluebat.

The net effect here is that it is reasonable to expect to be able to buy a 42" large panel TV for $500 or so within a couple of years with mid range models fetching $750. In order to meet those numbers the manufacturers will have to cut their own margins significantly and retail will have to accept lower margins as well.

Unless people suddenly start to find new uses for large panel displays for showing wall art the outlook for middle market retailers like Circuit City is bleak. Their cost base is too high to compete in the discount sector and their value add is too low to compete with boutique high end 'Home Theatre' installers. Circuit City in particular has far too many stores.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Thats not confusion...

The BBC reports the usual industry take on the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format battle. 'Consumers are confused!'.

Consumers are not confused about the merits of Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD. It is the idiot executives of the companies behind the battling formats who are confused.

Anyone who buys either format today has at least a 50% chance of betting on the wrong horse. Not only will their exorbitantly expensive player be an obsolete pile of junk, so will their even more exorbitantly expensive collection of disks. It is quite likely neither format will succeed.

At this point it appears that Blu-Ray is more likely to be the Betamax techology. The Sony execs refuse to allow porn on their format. Blu-ray continues the 'region' system that allows differential pricing of DVDs according to market, HD-DVD is region free. The other differences in the technical specs are irrelevant.

Someone who spends $800 plus to get the latest gadget wants their friends to be coo-ing in admiration, not pointing out that its likely to turn out to be a pile of junk.

Sony's wheeze of tying the Playstation to Blu-ray may turn out to be the worst move of all. The additional cost might well end up killing the Playstation franchise and how many adults hook the kids' playstation up to the best TV in the house?

It might well end up that this market is eventually decided by the computer backup market, while this may seem to favor Blu-Ray with 25Gb vs 15Gb, another possibility is that the computer market skips a technology generation and heads straight to a UV laser technology that delivers 100Gb or more.

You know its a bad day when... start Powerpoint, someone hands you the slide advance thingy, you press the laser button and it slices the projection screen in half.

Not that it has happened to me recently, but its one more thing to worry about.