Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wireless High Def Video: Do We Have a Winner?

Nope, not so much.

But we’re closer than ever before.

News broke yesterday that Sony has dumped Amimon’s 5 GHz approach in favor of SiBEAM’s 60 GHz solution. While I’m still not ready to call a winner in this race, SiBEAM and their WirelessHD consortium are now firmly ensconced in the catbird seat. Adding another marquee name like Sony to announced customers LG and Panasonic obviously bodes well for the WirelessHD camp. And, despite the fact that worldwide 60 GHz harmonization efforts are anything but final, I think we’ve finally reached a confidence level where consumers can purchase a solution based on silicon from a company who’s going to be around for awhile, and have a product which will work long-term.

While both Amimon and SiBEAM have spent a ton of money forming their alliances (WHDI and WirelessHD, respectively) and working the standards bodies, Amimon’s choice of spectrum location has long been a concern to many of us in the industry. Earlier this decade, one thing we had going for us at Tzero was that our ultra-wideband wireless high definition offering lived in a spectrum slot (3.1-4.8 GHz) with little potential for interference. Plus, UWB’s 528 MHz channel bandwidth ensured that we’d have a whole lot of capacity in case we did in fact bump into interferers. Finally, the fact that we were WiMedia Alliance certified meant that we’d behave properly with Certified Wireless USB solutions we might encounter.

What killed us, of course, is the ridiculously low power output allotted to UWB by the FCC. I’m not faulting the FCC here—simply stating the fact that trying to take a technology designed for very close proximity cable replacement (for wired USB-attached peripherals) and adapting it to carriage of very high bitrate wireless video across a living room was one helluva challenge. To illustrate—put your hands in front of your body, separated vertically by as much as your arms could stretch. Then look at the width of your hands themselves. The vertical distance is the transmission power of Wi-Fi; the horizontal distance (your hand width) is the channel bandwidth (20 MHz with 802.11a/b/g, 40 MHz with 802.11n).

Now, rotate your arms 90 degrees. The horizontal separation is the 528 MHz channel bandwidth of UWB; the height of your finger (go ahead, pick the middle one) is UWB’s transmission power. Would UWB have made a great solution for transmitting high def video wirelessly? Sure…if you had the box close enough to the TV that the signal stayed robust. You know, within a few feet. Like, within the range of a one or two meter HDMI cable.

Which pretty much defeats the entire friggin’ purpose.

While Tzero was marching towards irrelevance, Amimon and SiBEAM were unveiling their solutions for delivering HD video wirelessly. The key capability is that both companies’ approaches claimed and demonstrated robust in-room (or beyond) capabilities—and they actually delivered. Ten months ago at CES 2009, I met with all the relevant players in the space, including Amimon and SiBEAM. I was extremely impressed with SiBEAM’s solution for in-room connectivity, although by their own admission they were not suitable for multi-room use. Amimon’s demo in a four-room suite at the Las Vegas Hilton showed both in-room and whole-home connectivity, which was mega-impressive. Playing a fast-twitch first person shooter game over the Amimon link felt like I was connected via a wire—no perceptible latency. None.

However, I left CES with the same nagging feeling that had bugged me ever since Amimon entered the market—that a 20 or 40 MHz channel in spectrum soon to be occupied by a significant number of high-band 802.11n devices was a recipe for disaster. Did Amimon demo well in 2009? Yes, absolutely. But, we’re on the cusp of dual-band 802.11n devices making their inexorable march from the ridiculously crowded 2.4 GHz band to the currently-light-but-soon-to-be-saturated 5 GHz bands; sure, 11n at 5 GHz has a whole bunch more channels, but I just couldn’t reconcile Amimon’s pitch with real-world performance. Having suffered through stupidly high bit-error rates on my own 2.4 GHz wireless networks, I was and remain hugely concerned that 11n devices are going to wreak havoc on Amimon-based solutions. Does Amimon have a solution for detecting and minimizing channel conflict? Sure, you betcha.

But if I’m Sony, I need to worry about this, in a huge way. Do I believe that Sony replaced Amimon with SiBEAM because the former’s 1080p chip wasn’t ready, as the EE Times article states? Maybe. Of equal or greater concern is what happens when that $2000+ SKU suddenly begins throwing decompression errors due to interference on the wireless channel, one which in 2009 isn’t terribly crowded, but that in two years (only a quarter of the way into the current eight-year consumer keep of a high-end television) will be loaded like the Beltway on a snowy Friday night? That, my friends, is a risk that makes it tough for any TV manufacturer to commit to high-volume numbers.

Was Sony’s introduction of the Amimon-based solution anything but a science project? Well, yes, I believe it was. I was stoked when (with a Sony friend) I walked into the Sony employee store in San Jose earlier this year and saw the Amimon-based solution not only on display, but available for sale. However, in 2009, the high price of a transmitter-receiver pair (>$500) was never going to get Amimon to the volume needed to be wildly successful as a silicon company—a challenge SiBEAM must also overcome. Sony’s migration to 60 GHz gives SiBEAM another punch in the fight to widespread market acceptance, so I’m sure that their investors must be thrilled. SiBEAM now needs to execute successfully to reach sufficient volume that their silicon prices end up low enough to justify the added cost of a wireless solution to not just high-end TVs, but to those more accessible to the general market.

When I can walk into Costco (or Sam’s, or BJ’s) and have a choice of wireless TVs based on a common standard, only then will any company or alliance be able to claim victory.

One dark horse remains in this battle, a horse Amimon is now publicly atop. The performance of 802.11n solutions has improved dramatically over the past twelve months, to the point where I’m finally successfully streaming high definition video in my home using an off-the-shelf Netgear 802.11n access point (based on dd-wrt…w00t!). All my buddies in the connected home world made the move to 11n long ago; call me old school, or just call me a veteran of the ridiculously long 802.11n ratification process, but I’d held off on HD streaming until now. With a ratified spec in place, I’m now comfortable recommending 11n solutions to friends and family—the uptake of which raises the potential for conflict with Amimon’s existing solution with each 11n device deployed.

Now, in the truest sense of sleeping with the enemy, or changing horses mid-race if you prefer, Amimon is now attempting to align themselves with manufacturers of Wi-Fi chipsets, a move I heartily endorse. Fighting 11n was a Sisyphean battle, one that a VC-backed startup could never hope to win. Aligning with Wi-Fi vendors against the 60 GHz camp is Amimon’s best (and likely final) hope for success. Kudos for acknowledging that they need to evolve their business strategy to live, survive, and maybe thrive.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

One final point. Both Amimon and SiBEAM make much of their “uncompressed” video solutions. I put that in quotation marks because I still don’t buy into Amimon’s claims of uncompressed video delivery. Based on discussions I’ve had with them about their unequal error protection and Joint Source Channel Coding prioritization, I’d call their approach lossy compression, not uncompressed. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and shits like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

More importantly, you know who cares about compressed versus uncompressed? Nobody. Let me reiterate that. Nobody. Absolutely, consumers care about wired-equivalent quality, but they care more about a zero or minimal incremental cost to cut the cable. The guys with the golden eyes are still gonna figure out a way to run copper—and I know some guys who still string component, because they don’t like the video quality of HDMI, and are willing to deal with the closing of the analog hole.

Have we reached an inflection point in the wireless video wars? Yes. Is SiBEAM sitting pretty? Yes, but they have to deliver—never confuse selling with installing. Is Amimon dead? No, but Sony’s defection is a serious blow to the gut. Amimon’s bleeding, but they’re not dead yet. Getting in bed with the Wi-Fi camp has the potential to deliver a massive worldwide audience at a relatively small incremental cost. If Amimon can cost-effectively license their IP to the key players in the Wi-Fi world, adding the requisite gates to 11n silicon will be a rounding error compared to the likely cost of a SiBEAM solution over the next 12-24 months. SiBEAM’s atop the heap right now, but to stay there, they need to ship, ship, ship—and make it work.

Friday, November 13, 2009

First Impressions of the MiFi

I love me my MiFi.

I don't mean to wax rhapsodic like some central government-backed campaign, but the MiFi has brought me harmonious and glorifying wisdom, in order that my lymphatic system feels cleaner.

Or something like that.

Ever since Novatel introduced the MiFi earlier this year, I knew that it (or a derivative) would end up in my bag. If you're not familiar with the MiFi, think of a WiFi hotspot, but mobile--small enough to fit in your business card case. Seriously. The device itself is astonishingly simple--a CDMA 3G radio, a WiFi radio, and a battery. Simple, but elegant.

Over the past couple of months (or the last decade, really), I've found myself in airports, hotels, meetings, and conferences where WiFi wasn't available, or was priced annoyingly high. About two years ago, I set up Bluetooth tethering with my 2G T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve, which has three major drawbacks--2G means sloooooow; the battery drains ridiculously quickly; and T-Mobile's network is, uh, lacking. Wednesday afternoon, I'd finally had enough, so I ran to the Verizon store on University Avenue in Palo Alto to grab a MiFi. I only had about 20 minutes between meetings, so I was hopeful that I'd be able to get in and out of the store quickly--something that rarely happens when making a transaction with a mobile carrier.

Lo and behold, I got what I wanted. I walked in, told the sales the guy that I needed a MiFi with the two-year, 5 GB per month contract, and handed him my driver's license and credit card. After a double-take, he walked to the back, came out with the device, and had me out the door in less than ten minutes. THAT'S the way I like things to work.

By the way, for those of you who might ask why I went with Verizon...I seriously, seriously considered going with Sprint, since they'll be shipping a MiFi in Q1 which has both 3G and 4G support; a Verizon 4G MiFi will mean LTE, which will mean a really long wait. But, in weighing the lost productivity of the next few months without a MiFi while waiting for a 4G version, I simply said "Verizon it is". Plus, having suffered with such ridiculously poor mobile coverage (and a brutal UMA experience, which is a diatribe for another time) for the last two years, I wanted to have the best network behind me, dorky "Can you hear me now" guy and all.

One thing which had held me back is that for whatever reason, I've only seen one MiFi in the wild--a friend of a friend bought one the day it shipped, but I hadn't seen one since. I could attribute it to the fact that it's so unobtrusive, you can have it in your shirt pocket and no one will ever know you're a walking hotspot. That, or the math just didn't work for many people, but this one was easy for me to justify.

If you know me, you'll know that I'm a big out of box experience guy, and typically photograph each step of the process. Not this time--I was like a kid on Christmas day. That said, the OOBE is exceptional.
  • Open the box
  • Remove the battery door
  • Insert the battery (which was the toughest part...I see redesign in their future)
  • Replace the battery door
  • Press the power button
  • Plug it into the USB port on my Mac (I assume it works on Windows too, but hey, I don't really care)
  • Launch the disk image resident on the device itself (BRILLIANT--no CD/DVD media to mess around with)
  • Install the software
  • Activate the device using the Verizon Connection Manager (which was great--seamless self-install and activation...again, BRILLIANT)
  • Eject the drive image
  • Unplug from the USB
  • Plug into the wall (I could've just stayed plugged into USB, but I needed to charge the battery for its first time, plus I wanted to get rolling untethered on WiFi)
  • Find and attach to the SSID listed on the sticker on both the device and in the one page box insert
  • Enter the password provided on the sticker
  • Configure security (hello, WPA2; despite the WPA-TKIP I show in the screen shot, WPA2 works just fine)
  • Enjoy!
Seriously, this couldn't have been easier. From box to live in less than ten minutes, which would've taken less time if the battery installation had been a little more straightforward.

Like most folks, I was a little concerned by the 5 GB per month cap, since I really have no idea how much Internet I slurp at any given time. Thankfully, you have three mechanisms to determine your data usage: by logging into your account on the Verizon website; by logging into the device's local management screen when connected via Wi-Fi; and by clicking the "Usage" tab when physically tethered to the device via USB. I'm definitely surprised at how much traffic I'm using just by checking e-mail, but then again, I have 11 accounts in Mac Mail, and I check every minute. I'll likely kick the interval down; at 5 GB a month, that's more than 160 MB a day, but at the rate I'm going, I could envision chewing through that fairly quickly.

All in all, I'm enamored. The device occasionally disconnects, despite the fact that I've set it not to, but I simply pop into the management window and hit the connect button, and all is well in the world again. Further updates as events warrant, but for now, color me a fan. Next up: determining whether an iPod Touch + a MiFi = a Verizon iPhone. Wired did some brief testing this summer, but I hope to be able to dig more deeply soon.

Friday, October 30, 2009 Helping Create the Next Token Ring?


That’s right. I said it—“token ring”. Eight oh two dot five. Everyone’s favorite token passing architecture, unless you were a MAP/TOP guy; if you were, I’m sorry.

Why am I thinking about token ring? Two reasons.

First, I’ve just spent three days at the P2030 (IEEE’s smart grid interoperability workgroup) meeting, hosted by IBM at their Thomas J. Watson Research Center north of New York City. IBM was synonymous with token ring; in the forty year old Watson facility (which, aside from being beautiful, has aged magnificently well), I’d bet money that Types 1, 2, and/or 9 cables are still providing tensile strength, if not actually passing any data. Heck, even today, when I see certain numbers (8228, 3174), I can’t help but think of the elegant (and extremely socialist) nature of token ring. Ethernet allows for serious bogart-age of the contention-based transmission medium; token ring’s deterministic approach ensured that everyone would need to share somewhat reasonably, even if some stations took a few more hits on the token than others.

Second, I just read an article over at Light Reading on the forthcoming International Telecommunication Union Recommendation. I’d encourage you to read the article, which is very well-written but to me is way off the mark. The gist is that certain entities using technologies with which will eventually compete aren’t happy about a new specification coming down the pike.

This is newsworthy how?

Maybe I’ve been in this game too long. Maybe we should just cease development and innovation so that existing technologies can enjoy their hegemony without threat from advancements which, well, you know, make things better.

Maybe not.

Sure, entrenched players want to protect existing markets and customers. If I were the quoted “executive for a major U.S. company using MoCA” who “said, on condition of anonymity that his company is happy with what it has now and has no plans to deploy”, I’d be shouting from the mountaintops, too, in hopes that a new technology didn’t come along and relegate my existing solution to the back seat. Mr. Anonymous has a solution that works well. Coolio. He probably has tens or hundreds of thousands of set-top boxes, maybe even millions, with embedded MoCA chipsets. He wants to ensure the continued success of MoCA, in hopes that the technology won’t go by the wayside, as well as to ensure that any new technology (e.g., doesn’t whack MoCA. Right. I get it.

But, these protests are disingenuous, as are the protests mentioned by the HomePlug Alliance. So there are “tons of HomePlug AV products” in retail shops. Okay. Well, there were millions of ports of token ring in Enterprise America two decades ago, too. From 1991-1993, I had an office at Sears Tower, a building with which I had a love-hate relationship whenever I went from the 19th floor (where I was stationed) up to the 72nd for meetings, a trek which required multiple elevator lobby transitions. But, that isn’t what remains etched most deeply in my mind. As a networking guy, one of my most vivid memories is of the wiring closets on the lower floors, those which had the biggest and broadest footprint. Most buildings have a main distribution frame (MDF) on the main floor or in the basement, and a single intermediate distribution frame (IDF) on each floor.

Not The Tower. No, no, no. The Tower had four IDFs on each floor. If that ain’t bad-ass, I don’t know what is. As you’d expect, each IDF had vertical riser connections back to the MDF; horizontally, each IDF handled one-quarter of each floor’s distribution needs. Literally and figuratively, the common thread was IBM Type 1 cable, the big, thick, shielded black cables with the hermaphroditic connector. Seriously…look it up. I used to comment only half-jokingly that if the Type 1 cable was ever taken out of The Tower, it’d fall down, since the wiring seemed to be such a vital component of the building’s infrastructure—and it really was. Iron might’ve been the spinal column, but the Type 1 cable was the spine itself, the neurological pathway enabling The Tower’s heart to beat.

When I took up residence at The Tower in 1991, a newfangled technology called 10Base-T was just becoming popular; those of us at Cabletron were locked in a duel with our hated enemy Synoptics to land-grab as much of the twisted-pair networking market as possible. The development of twisted-pair transmission freed Ethernet (or eight oh two dot three, if you prefer) from the handcuffs of frozen garden hose, vampire taps, and 50 ohm terminators, so we were all eager to earn more than our fair share.

I recall walking (lumbering, actually) into customers and prospects carrying my MMAC-3 (now with improved FNB!), giving demos of this new twisted pair technology. Many customers were sold immediately. Others, particularly Big Blue shops, didn’t come along quite so easily. 18 years on, I can still remember some of the questions…
  • “How do you ensure that one station can’t take over all the bandwidth?”
    “Well, uh, we can’t.” (This was in the days before per-port switching, so CSMA/CD wasn’t just a good idea, it was the law.)

  • “So, if you can’t prevent one station from taking over all the bandwidth, how do you ensure that each station gets a reasonable share?”
    “Well, uh, that’s kind of self-policing in the CSMA/CD protocol…random back-offs give each user a chance to jump into the conversation, like if you’re on a telephone conference call.”

  • “So, if I’m not guaranteed a time-slice like I am on token ring, how can you guarantee response time for my latency-sensitive SNA applications?”
    “Your 3270 terminal emulation package will provide whatever spoofing and keep-alives necessary.” (Fingers crossed)

  • “Seriously?”
    “Wow, will you look at the time…lunch?”
My point here is that token ring was what it was all about, but time marched on. While token ring evolved from a 4 mb/s to a 16 mb/s specification, and while the dual counter-rotating 100 mb/s FDDI came out for those who really, really liked their data to run in circles, token ring didn’t win. Ethernet/10Base-T ended up being cheaper, easier to deploy, and had much broader appeal. Was it the best technology? That’s debatable—once the world moved from shared to switched bandwidth, the argument became kind of irrelevant. But, Ethernet had the broadest industry support, and its simpler architecture enabled the economies of scale so vital to any semiconductor solutions success.

This isn’t a technology argument, folks. This is a business argument. Yeah, Betamax and 1394 might’ve been good, even technically superior, solutions in their day—but they were each surpassed by solutions that were as amenable from a business standpoint as they were from a technical one.

Plus, as CopperGate notes in the article, none of these solutions are going away tomorrow. Hell, even token ring needed a decade or so to drift into irrelevance. MoCA and HomePlug (and other solutions based on the coax, phone line, and power line media supports) aren’t being thrown into the rubbish bin just because the ITU has defined a new technical standard. Many wars remain to be fought, most importantly on the business side. If is truly better than other solutions from a technical standpoint, it has a solid shot at success—but so did token ring, Betamax, and 1394. But’s truly worldwide appeal could (and should) enable semiconductor manufacturers to deliver compelling solutions in the volumes required to make ubiquitous across the planet. If and when that happens, THAT’S when incumbents really need to worry.

One final thought. HomePlug’s president states that he’s “disappointed that they think it’s a good idea to create a standard that is incompatible with what’s out in the market.” Hogwash. If that were the case, we’d still be using 802.4 on the manufacturing floor rather than industrial Ethernet. That’s right—eight oh two dot four, the token-passing bus, also referred to by some as “the worst of both worlds”. Sometimes you’ve gotta eat your young. The industry might, and I stress might, be doing so with Hurdles remain; end user products won’t be out for at least another year, likely longer. But the race is underway; as consumers, we’ll all benefit from products which perform better, at price points which should be lower than we’re used to. If the ITU hadn’t undertaken its effort to unify under a single chipset the three wires found in the home, we’d likely see years more of geographical isolation per technology, hindering existing solutions from ever achieving the critical mass so desirable in the semiconductor world.

This is a volume ballgame. Crank it up.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In Praise of Low-Tech Elegance

Sunday night, Sony finally announced their long-awaited streaming relationship with Netflix, enabling PlayStation 3 gaming consoles to access Netflix’ Watch Instantly—now, PS3 users who subscribe to Netflix will have access to thousands of movies at a moment’s notice. As a guy who’s been streaming video throughout my home for years (at varying bitrates and with varying degrees of success), my kneejerk reaction to the Sony-Netflix announcement was summed up in a single utterance.


I mean, I have a reasonable amount of gear in my home--as many as five wireless routers operating at any given time (ah, the joys of channel conflict at 2.4 GHz), gigabit Ethernet, a VPN, terabytes of network-attached storage, a couple of media-centric servers, boxee, Front Row, multiple TV-connected media players, a couple of MagicJacks, a few SIP phones, and other stuff I’m likely forgetting, mostly wrapped up in the warm hug of DLNA and UPnP. Why the heck would I do something as low-tech as ask Netflix for a physical disk to enable streaming through a PS3? What are these people, Luddites?

Well, yeah. Which turns out to be the point.

When I look at the amount of time I’ve spent building routers (using dd-wrt and tomato), configuring devices, downloading and upgrading software, and generally being a geek, I shudder. Why the heck does this stuff have to be so hard? The good news is, UPnP makes device and service discovery dramatically easier than using proprietary point solutions; DLNA provides similar efficiency for content sharing. The bad news is, none of this stuff is as easy as dropping a disk into a DVD player.

Until now.

Kudos to Netflix and Sony for not over-engineering a solution from the get-go. In the desire to deliver on the promise of the fully-connected home, manufacturers and service providers all-too-often deliver a wedding cake, when a cupcake would suffice. Netflix already has arguably the world’s coolest snail mail distribution network, so it’s a negligible incremental cost to ship a single disk to enable this capability. At some later date, you should certainly expect to see a Netflix widget on your PS3.

But, for now, enjoy your cupcake.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

BlackBerry Desktop Manager for the Mac, Part 2

I've received a number of questions regarding my earlier post on my experience with RIM's BlackBerry Desktop Manager for the Mac...
  • Yes, I tried different USB cables of varying lengths--short and long, retractable and non.
  • Yes, I made sure I was signed out of Spanning Sync on all my machines before going down this path.
  • Yes, I ensured that my "Import:Address Book Archive" executions were all into an address book totally devoid of entries, with iSync reset when I did so.
  • Yes, in addition to meeting the system requirements of OS 10.5.5 or above (as noted, I'm running 10.5.8) and BB OS 4.2 or above (as noted, I'm running, I'm running a version of iTunes (9.0.1) newer than the required 7.7.1. What that has to do with my contacts sync issue, I have no idea--I'm not running a friggin' iPhone here, folks.
  • Yes, I deleted, rebooted, and reinstalled the BDM application on my Mac multiple times, doing an iSync reset every time.
  • Yes, I tried both the single Mac (syncs faster) and multiple Mac (syncs safer) method. Same inaccurate and incomplete results.
  • No, I didn't have PocketMac on this machine. Ever.
  • No, I didn't try posting anything to BlackBerry's support forums. With all due respect, with nearly 25 years of personal computing under my belt, if I can't figure out a piece of consumer-focused software without turning to a manual, you've committed a serious design flaw, delivered a lousy implementation, and have little hope of Joe the Plumber enjoying a sufficiently simple and straightforward experience.
In an effort to further troubleshoot this problem, my buddy Anton dropped off an extra Curve. Like my own, this is a T-Mobile 8320 Curve, unlocked with a TMO unlock code. Anton wiped out this unit (which we'll call Curve B), ensuring that it was as close to factory fresh as possible.

I fired up my sandbox HackBook, which is an MSI Wind U100 running OS X 10.5.7. This too is as close to factory fresh as possible, with an address book which has never been populated. I used the same address book archive with which I'd started this most recent round of syncs. If the sync performed somewhat as expected, I'd end up with the same number of contacts on Curve B as I had in the HackBook's address book--2336.

Voilà! We have liftoff. Or do we? If you recall, in my previous post, I looked at five Karens, a Vince, an Anton, and myself. How did we fare this time around?

Better--but still far from perfect. All five Karens have physical addresses this time--definitely an improvement. Vince, Anton, and I all have physical addresses. Cool. But, one of Vince's three e-mail addresses is missing, as are three of my five; Anton is also missing one of his two mobile numbers.

On Curve B, I looked at about two dozen other records and detected the exact same thing--no more than one instantiation of a given type makes it through the sync process. Have a friend with two home e-mail addresses? Sorry--only one of those will make it from your Mac to the BlackBerry. Have a client with two office numbers or two mobiles? Forget about it--you now have a 50% chance of reaching him from your BlackBerry. Have a listing for relatives which contains both of their cell numbers? Oops, sorry BlackBerry has decided you're not important enough to sync, so I'll have to ask Mom to pass her phone to you. Nothing personal, mind you. I'll call you from my desk on Father's Day.

Honestly, I don't know if Windows BDM has this limitation, but I'm pretty certain it doesn't--I think I'd recall such a shortcoming from my earlier (admittedly limited) experience with the Windows version. Plus, the fact that I ended up with two different forms of inaccurate sync results in my two tests speaks further to the fact that the architecture of the product may be fundamentally broken.

Let me be crystal clear on something here. I'm a HUGE BlackBerry fan. I'm a ridiculously heavy mobile e-mail user, so the iPhone (despite its vastly superior browsing experience) isn't an option for me--I need a keyboard. Plus, like many consultants, I run my business on my BlackBerry and on my Mac, so I've come up with workarounds (as I described in my earlier post) in an attempt to somewhat mimic the behavior and capabilities Windows BlackBerry users have enjoyed for years. While it's easy to dismiss the Mac as a small portion of the computing landscape, a company like RIM which is targeting consumers simply can't ignore the Mac community--one whose computer choice reinforces that they're willing to pay a multiple to enjoy the best possible computing experience. That's a vital demographic, no matter how you slice it.

Yes, I give RIM credit for delivering a product that doesn't wildly screw up my contacts like PocketMac did. Primum non nocere. Thank god for small victories.

And yes, sync is hard. Absolutely. But, with more than 80% of RIM's new customers in Q2 coming from the consumer sector, RIM's going to need to get BDM for the Mac right, and quickly. RIM's new advertising campaign is pretty impressive in terms of reach, although I can't say much about conversion--the effort at the Soldier Field kickoff of U2's North American tour was particularly underwhelming. RIM's making a ton of impressions, at concerts, on websites (as above), sporting events (where I'm getting a little sick of seeing Ernie Johnson's tap shoes), and in print. But, all of that spend, all of it, will go for naught if the product doesn't deliver on some pretty basic features like easy, accurate contact and calendar sync. Don't believe me? Then you haven't been keeping up on the Microsoft/Danger/Sidekick fiasco of the past two weeks. Content is king--and personal data like contacts and calendars are the royalty of content.

In the Q2 earnings call, RIM's CEO said "I really want to make it clear that this stuff is going much more mainstream, and we're teed up to go much more mainstream."

Not yet, you're not. Not yet.

Hey, Bay Area Baseball Fans!

In case you're not aware, this Saturday in San Jose the California Vintage Base Ball Federation is hosting the Legends of Baseball Vintage Showdown in San Jose. Every Giants fan should be there--Willie Mays, Willie Mac, Gaylord Perry, and Juan Marichal are on tap, as are other hall of famers including Bob Feller, Fergie Jenkins, Brooks Robinson, and many more.

Looks like the weather's gonna be good, so get your tickets now! Learn more at the CVBBF website.

Lefty O'Doul Chapter SABR Meeting and 1949 Japan Tour Exhibit Preview

A week ago Saturday, about 50 members and friends from the Lefty O'Doul Chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research met for our quarterly meeting, at a very cool venue--the aviation museum in SFO's international terminal. This wasn't a coincidence...we were there to see an awesome exhibit on the Pacific Coast League, the West Coast's major league from 1903 until westward expansion in 1958.

I wasn't even aware that SFO has a museum; through the years, I've seen any number of impressive exhibits at SFO (particularly in the F concourse connector), but I didn't realize that there was a physical museum, which is modeled on SFO's 1937 passenger waiting room. I don't typically think of airports as me, they're portals as I move from A to B. But, the SFO museum is a destination worthy of arriving an hour (or two) early for a flight.

Marlene Vogelsang (chapter chair) led us off, introducing Tim O'Brien and his team from the SFO Museum. Tim spoke about the challenges in pulling together the exhibit--good challenges, from the sound of it, as the biggest issue seemed to be determining just how many lender artifacts they could squeeze in. Mark Macrae then provided an overview of the league, with Bill Swank, Ray Saraceni, and Alan O'Connor sharing knowledge on their own areas of expertise; each was brief, as we were all eager to see the goods themselves.

We then headed out to the exhibit, which is dead center in the middle of the international terminal. Thank god for SABR, as I would've never known that the exhibit was here; in fact, when I flew to Shanghai last month, I absolutely would've shown up an hour early, just to enjoy the PCL exhibit. The museum staff always has a compelling range of artifacts displayed, but an exhibit on baseball is obviously in my sweet spot. The exhibit case itself is quite large, probably 50 feet from end to end. Chock full of material primarily from Macrae, Saraceni, Swank, O'Connor, and Doug McWilliams, I readily understood the difficulty Tim and his team had in choosing which items to include in the exhibit--a wealth of artifacts is pretty uncommon, I was told.

Mark took us through much of the history of the Pacific Coast League, covering players, stadiums, uniforms, and much, much more. My favorite story from Mark concerned old Recreation Park in San Francisco. During Prohibition, SF's finest turned a blind eye towards consumption at the ballpark; as a result, even at otherwise poorly attended dates, the "club level" behind first base was always full, thanks to the bargain of a game ticket and a shot of whiskey for 75 cents.

Bill followed up with an overview of PCL in the Southland, covering the Hollywood and San Diego teams. As you might expect, Hollywood had lots of actors and actresses who followed the team; Bill shared stories on a few of them, while showing numerous photos from a book he authored. Bill was one of a number of SABR members who flew in for the meeting--another great reason to meet at SFO.

Alan wrapped up with an overview of baseball in Sacramento; each answered a steady stream of questions from the group. At the end of their talks, attendees hung around for another half-hour or so to speak with two former PCL players who'd joined us for the day.

As we were winding down, Marlene mentioned that Mark was taking a few folks down to the Society of California Pioneers Museum in the city. I wasn't aware that the SCP was putting on an exhibit commemorating Lefty O'Doul's 1949 baseball goodwill tour of Japan. Even though the museum wasn't open this particular Saturday, they'd agreed to allow SABR members in for a preview, particularly since we had members who'd traveled from as far as Vancouver (Lefty's hometown!) for our meeting.

So, up 101 we went, heading for the SCP Museum at Fourth and Folsom. Despite its ideal location, I'd never visited the museum before; now that I've seen a tiny glimpse, I'll definitely be back. The O'Doul exhibit isn't huge in terms of footprint, but it's unbelievable in terms of what's been saved--a fitting homage to the guy who resurrected the relationship between U.S. and Japanese baseball.

We obviously weren't on the best of terms with Occupied Japan in the late '40s. General Douglas MacArthur thought that a goodwill baseball tour of Japan would be healthy for the country's morale; in short order Lefty was tapped, bringing the San Francisco Seals across the Pacific for a month of baseball.

Starting in 1932, Lefty barnstormed through Japan multiple times before the war, so he was well-regarded by Japanese baseball fans. The 1934 barnstorming team led by Connie Mack was particularly impressive, with luminaries like Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx joining Lefty on the tour, but it was Lefty who returned time and again to the Land of the Rising Sun--making him the perfect choice to lead the 1949 effort.

MacArthur had suggested the tour, but Japanese industry (including many newspapers) footed the bill. And, as I learned at the exhibit, no expense was spared. Holy cow...the amount of time and effort (and money) that went into the tour is amazing. Ticker tape parades? Check. Huge fêtes in Ginza? Check. Special baseball cards issued just for the tour? Check. Bunting? Check.

(An aside. Man, I love playoff baseball. Gotta be the bunting.)

Just like most kids growing up in the Midwest in the '70s, I had a pretty healthy baseball card collection, but the range of memorabilia in this exhibit is mind-blowing. The museum has reproduced (and thankfully greatly enlarged) a set of menko, baseball cards issued specifically for the 1949 tour. I managed to make it to SCP when the only other person who'd arrived was Ray Saraceni, the lender for the menko set (and many other items on display). Ray's stories about the cards, photos, playbills, and other memorabilia are awesome. Lefty's cousin Tom O'Doul had been at the SABR meeting, but wasn't able to make it over to SCP; walking around the room with Ray and other lenders was great, but I wish we'd also had Tom to add familial color.

All in all, a great day out, even though we saw no baseball on the final weekend of the regular season. If you're in the Bay Area and love baseball, you must get to SFO in the next couple of weeks before the exhibit comes down; call the museum at (650) 821-6700 to make sure the PCL exhibit is still up. You'll find it in the G1 case on the departures level of the international terminal. Tim O'Brien mentioned that due to its popularity, the exhibit might survive a few weeks longer than planned. Then, take the 15-minute (non-rush hour) drive to the city to the Society of California Pioneers museum. They're open from 10-4 Wednesday through Friday, and on the first Saturday of each month. Learn more about visiting SCP here.

Curious to learn more about Lefty O'Doul? Read Tom Hawthorn's excellent article here. Want to learn more about Lefty and his experiences in Japan? Read John Holway's thorough history here. Finally, want to learn more about the 1949 Japan trip? That's easy. As I just said, get to the Society of California Pioneers museum here.

Oh, one more thing. Not a SABR member yet? Why not? Join here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

BlackBerry Desktop Manager for the Mac

(After reading, find a follow-on to this post here)

Friday October 2nd will be remembered for two epic failures--Chicago's elimination in the first round of voting for the 2016 Olympics, and for the release of RIM's horribly incomplete Desktop Manager for the Mac. I had high hopes for both; both ended up poorly. The good news is that RIM has a chance to fix this in short order, whereas Chicago just goes back to being a great city that isn't going to get a second chance to host the big games in seven years.

I'm not sure if I should give RIM a D, an F, or an incomplete. Maybe by the time I'm done writing this review, I'll have made that determination. In fact, I've held off writing this recap; I've hoped that each of the last 10 days, I'd wake up to some magic button that allowed synchronization to occur accurately. Nope.

A little background...I'm not exactly a newb when it comes to matters of syncing a BlackBerry and a Mac. When I launched my consultancy in 2007, I knew that the BlackBerry and the Mac were my two platforms of choice, so I set to work to determine the best approach to keep my e-mail, contacts, and calendar in sync. For e-mail, I chose Google Apps for Your Domain, as its IMAP capabilities make e-mail work the way e-mail should work. As in, it just works. Meeting my other two needs was a little more challenging.

BlackBerry Desktop Manager for Windows was obviously the slam-dunk choice if I'd been on a PC, but I wasn't--nor was I willing to run a Windows virtual machine just to run BDM, particularly since moving contacts and calendars between my Mac and Windows would be a process in and of itself, rather than having that synchronization occur as part of my normal workflow on my Mac. So, for contacts and calendar sync, I went with RIM's offering at the time, PocketMac.

Which could not have been worse. Let me remove any doubt from the equation--PocketMac was without question or hyberbole, the unequivocally worst PIM sync solution I'd ever used. Starting with my Franklin REX in 1997, I've used portable devices running operating systems from Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft, Palm, BlackBerry, and maybe one or two others I've forgotten--none of which polluted, duplicated, corrupted, or flat-out deleted data like PocketMac did. Luckily, I had backups of my data files, but PocketMac proved to be an enormous waste of time and effort.

Poking around in the blogosphere, I learned that A) PocketMac sucked (which I'd figured out on my own); B) Missing Sync for the BlackBerry seemed to be the solution of choice for tethered contacts and calendar sync; and C) Spanning Sync was the way to go for cloud-based calendar sync with Google Apps.

So, I bought licenses for both, using Missing Sync to keep my contacts sync'd to my BB via USB, and using Spanning Sync to enjoy two-way cloud-based calendar sync via Google Apps. That worked great until February 2009, when all hell broke loose. I upgraded my BB's OS from 4.2 to 4.5; for whatever reason, Missing Sync broke like eggs in the colander above Jeremy Clarkson's head. The OS upgrade caused contacts to be deleted from my Mac, but not from my BB; vice versa; and for individual contacts to duplicated up to a dozen times. The solution from Mark/Space (Missing Sync's publisher) to try to correct my data? Pay for an upgrade to the next version of Missing Sync--a lousy policy for a piece of sync software. Yes, I pay for updated software regularly. But, a crucial part of the implied contract between a sync software vendor and a sync software user is that the software won't f-up my data.

Heck, I'm perfectly capable of doing that on my own.

So, sadly, I threw Missing Sync to the trash. I'd started this journey with about 3500 contacts. After the sync collision, I had nearly 6000 contacts, with little trust in the veracity of the data in any of them. But, I had a backup! Since I'd needed to fire up Fusion to use BDM to perform the 4.2 to 4.5 RIM OS update, I had a backup. Lordy me. I figured that I could simply roll back my contacts database to where I'd been in the good ol' 4.2 days, then wipe out my Mac address book (after backing up, of course), then use Missing Sync to push my contacts from my BB to my Mac.

Sadly again, that didn't work. Something in the move to Missing Sync 2.0 beta was throwing all kinds of sync errors; working with the Mark/Space tech support team to resolve this was sadly an exercise in futility. But, with the lemons dealt, I chose to make lemonade, using this as an opportunity to upgrade the quality of my contacts database by deleting stale contacts. Over the next couple of months, I dealt with the frustration of having a BlackBerry and a Mac without a good copy of my contacts. Sure, I endured some extremely annoying moments, but at least I usually had a copy of contact data somewhere, even if I had to go find it. After about six weeks (and a requisite amount of red wine), I had a contacts database with about 2300 sanitized contacts, one which I now back up every 30 seconds or so.

Okay, not that frequently...I back up every time I'm about to do something new and/or questionable--like installing BDM for the Mac. With that saga as background, here's the good, the bad, and the ugly on the new BDM for the Mac...

The good:
  • Installation is a breeze, notwithstanding the need to reboot the Mac upon completion. I can't really argue with a reboot, as the process/daemon that needs to watch the USB port for device connection has to get cranking.
  • The ability to back up your BlackBerry with a single click is awesome, and long overdue on the Mac platform; similarly awesome are the capabilities to selectively backup and/or nuke selected device databases, like the address book or calendar, and to install/remove/update applications.
  • iTunes synchronization is seamless, save for a few inconsequential errors relating to unsupported file formats.
The bad:
  • Sync is slow. And when I say slow, I mean slooooooooow. Not, pop up for a spot of tea slow. I mean, drive over to Costco for another cube of Diet Pepsi slow. I can deal with the two-plus hours the app took to initially sync 3.5 gigabytes of music from iTunes to my Curve; what I can't deal with is 10-15 minutes on each sync, just for the app to make sure that my contacts haven't changed.
  • Logs aren't horribly useful--the fact that the log seems to have some kind of a maximum size means I can't debug the beginning of most of my sync sessions, as the first n hundreds of lines simply scroll out of the log and aren't available to be saved. I have logs with more than a thousand lines that're still incomplete. Yes, I want logs that tell me what happens to each (e.g., contact) record during the sync process, but incomplete logs are nearly as worthless as no logs at all.
The ugly:
  • Sync doesn't freakin' work. Full stop. Now, I can't validate this on any other platform than a T-Mobile 8320 Curve running and a black MacBook running 10.5.8. But, I'm not exactly an edge case here. I asked BDM to sync my contacts and iTunes. Nothing else. iTunes works great. Contacts sync doesn't. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.
Now, you may ask yourself "Coop, what doesn't work?" Lemme tell ya...contacts sync doesn't work. Let's break this down. The number of contacts on my Mac matches the number of contacts in my BlackBerry. Woohoo! A point for BDM!

And that'd be all. Examples? I have five Karens in my address book. For two of them, their physical addresses don't sync onto my BlackBerry. (Thankfully, BDM hasn't deleted them from my Mac, but for that, I have backups!) I have two Vinces. For the one that I care about (and yes, that's a stretch if you know who I'm talking about), one of his e-mails and both of his physical addresses are missing on my BB. I have two Antons. Like Vince, my local Anton is missing one phone number and his physical address. Even on my own contact information, BDM has managed to truncate my information by three e-mail addresses, two physical addresses, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Let's be crystal clear on this--a partial sync (with even a single record being off) falls into the same category as being a little bit pregnant, the challenge being, on a partial sync I have no idea who was the culprit or what kind of further symptoms I might expect. And yes, I've done all the stuff you would hope I would've--resetting iSync multiple times, wiping out the Mac and BB address books and reloading clean copies, etc.

I really, really, REALLY don't think I'm asking for too much here. I'm pained every time I hear my local Anton talk about how seamlessly Windows BDM syncs his 40,000 contacts...and how quickly, too. I'm familiar with garbage in, garbage out. But, when I'm providing a 48 ounce porterhouse on one end, I expect a 48 ounce porterhouse on the other, not a slider made of Hamburger Helper.

So, last night I went back to Spanning Sync to synchronize my contacts between my Mac and my BB. I call Spanning Sync "the poor man's BES"--using their over-the-air sync of Google Apps contacts and calendars in conjunction with Google Apps' IMAP functionality gets me pretty darn close to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server for the stuff I care about.

And, yeah, contacts sync worked great last night. I'm glad to be back to Spanning Sync.

Truthfully, I was a little worried about the fate of Spanning Sync (and yes, Missing Sync, too) with the arrival of BDM for the Mac. Unless BDM for the Mac gets way better, way quickly, they have nothing to worry about.

So, yes, BDM for the Mac is a vital piece of software, for its ability to back up and restore your BB; for its ability to selectively whack individual databases on your BB; for its ability to let you upgrade the OS, or upgrade or delete applications; and for its iTunes sync capability. But, until they get contacts sync right, BDM for the Mac will remain a backup tool--literally.

Grade: D+ with an incomplete.
Homework: Correction of sync capabilities to work as assigned to remove and resolve incomplete tasks.
Prognosis: B+ upon resolution.

(Find a follow-on to this post here)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A New Home Networking Powerhouse?

Not exactly.

But, published reports that Sigma Designs is looking at buying CopperGate intrigue me. Both do a ton of business with AT&T, both have recently joined the HomeGrid board of directors, both are looking to expand their IPTV footprints worldwide, and both would benefit from sales synergies in terms of current and targeted customers. Plus, the combined entity would be well-positioned to attack many aspects of next-generation connectivity between homes and utilities, as we continue the inexorable march towards a smarter power grid.

That said, I've been less than impressed with Sigma's overall messaging of late, particularly as it relates to...well...pretty much everything they do. Not a single new press release in four months? This, from a public company? No press releases on quarterlies in the last ten months? Wow. Sigma acquired Zensys in December, 2008, and we've heard not a peep since. Zensys' website has been in zombie mode since shortly before the Sigma acquisition, too.

The ZigBee Alliance continues to expand their messaging and reach in the home control world, particularly in the smart grid arena, where their combined messaging with the HomePlug Alliance resonates extremely well. Pun intended.

Meanwhile, the Z-Wave Alliance continues to pump out press releases (in both English and German!), but they've been noticeably absent from high profile events (e.g., GridWeek) in the U.S. over the last year. I can certainly understand Z-Wave's focus on Europe, as the EU is ahead of the U.S. on a number of smart grid initiatives. But, I can't reconcile the fact that Sigma acquired Zensys--the creator of the Z-Wave specification--almost a year ago, and they've done so little to progress Zensys' products or the Z-Wave Alliance, at least visibly.

HomePlug and ZigBee's names are all over the first draft of the NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, yet Z-Wave is nowhere to be found, save for a few letters as part of the consolidated comments process...sadly, not convincing enough to prompt NIST to include Z-Wave as one of the 31 identified standards, or one of the 46 to be considered as part of the further review process. True, this is the first draft, with two more revisions to follow before finality. But, this is symptomatic of the lack of industry momentum for Z-Wave, and speaks well to the efforts of other standards organizations and alliances--heck, G.9960, which isn't even finalized yet, managed to be recognized as an identified standard.

My belief is that a Sigma-CopperGate combination would be able to deliver a compelling silicon platform for whole home connectivity at rates from kilobits to gigabits per second, while also having the brains (in their 86XX series) to display and control the home. But, Sigma must do a better job of integrating CopperGate than they have with Zensys.

Otherwise, why bother?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Want a Quick $250,000?


Note that I didn't say easy, but I did say quick.

Next week, I'll be at the Computer Forensics Show in Santa Clara. Today, I learned that there's a bit of a throw-down going on between the keynote speaker and a number of industry experts, which has led to the experts offering some serious coin to the keynote speaker to back up his claims--to put up or shut up.

The keynote has been advertised as follows...

'"When No One Else Can": Data Recovery from a completely overwritten hard drives. Sample Forensic recovery from over written drive from Turkish assassination case, 2007. - Presenter - Alfred Demirjian - CEO at TechFusion' (sic the whole thing--typos are in the original text)

I've spent a reasonable amount of time recovering data off damaged disks, so I know how tough it can be. Of course, those were 3.5" disks at Northwestern in the late 80s, but who's counting? (Where'd I put my remote archival backup of MacTools, anyway?) And, to the co-ed whose disk I over-wrote by transposing the source and target disks, I apologize, a couple of decades late.

If anything stuck with me from Scott Moulton's excellent talk at ShmooCon 2009, it's that a single-pass erase using a proper tool is sufficient to wipe a drive. That's it. Full stop. Scott was pretty confident in his assessment, as were a number of the...uh...ahem..."security practitioners" in the overflowing conference room.

So, I was pretty surprised to learn that the keynote at Computer Forensics was going to be about data recovery from completely overwritten hard drives. Even more surprising to me is that a couple of forensics experts have said that the keynote speaker is selling snake oil.

They're calling shenanigans.

They're calling bullshit.

And they're throwing $250,000 into the pot to get Mr. Demirjian to prove that he can do what he says. The suggested challenges are pretty simple--take a couple of files, do a single random wipe, get 'em back, prove how he did it.

And you thought forensics was dry. Stay tuned throughout the week for further updates. I don't think we're done with this story just yet.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I Want My WebTV

Well, not exactly.

I’m not sure what’s tougher to believe—that I started at WebTV almost 13 years ago, or that I still have t-shirts stating “I Want My WebTV”.

Maybe I should hit the gym more.

The past week saw two get-togethers near and dear to my heart—the Intel Developer Forum and the DLNA Members Meeting. IDF is Intel’s new technology showcase; the DLNA meeting is a chance for representatives from the ~250 member companies to convene to review progress and continue advancing the cause for the connected home.

I often think back to what we bit off at WebTV, and continue to be amazed by the vision of TV that Steve, Bruce, and Phil had waaaaay back in the mid-‘90s. No, WebTV didn’t end up taking over the world. And yes, I think that we proved empirically that consumers don’t want to surf the Internet on their televisions…which might not have been what we set out to do, but we accomplished so much more in those early years on the WebTV platform, whose DNA lives on in millions of IPTV set-top boxes around the world.

The original WebTV was all about the Internet on your television—the simplicity of a compact set-top box, a phone cord, and a connection to the TV. Contrasted with the PC Internet experience of the day, WebTV was revolutionary, cost-effective, and ridiculously easy to use. A year later, the WebTV Plus integrated a TV tuner, an electronic program guide, and honest-to-god interactivity into the television viewing experience. I spent so much of 1998 and 1999 talking about interactive triggers, I could probably still teach analog TV fundamentals classes in my sleep.

VBI Line 21. Crossover links. Good times.

Snapping back to present day, I’m always excited to see additional functionality brought to the television. Whether you believe that the heart of the home is the set-top box, the game console, or simply the display itself, the main television continues to be the family gathering place. Intel has been working diligently on adding additional value to the TV platform, in a manner both visible to consumers and (hopefully) attractive to manufacturers.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Kevin Hattendorf, Platform Marketing Director in Intel’s digital home group. Kevin was kind enough to fill me in on Intel’s goals with their consumer electronics-focused system-on-chip (SOC) platform, and to provide some insight on how Intel views future opportunities in the living room.

In the beginning, there was “CE 1.0”, or analog television. Interactivity and high quality video and audio were difficult or impossible in the analog world, making the introduction of digital television at the beginning of this decade so exciting—“CE 2.0”, as Intel calls it. In the decade or so since digital television delivery came into play, consumers have become used to enhanced services such as electronic program guides, digital video recorders, and video-on-demand.

“CE 3.0” adds Internet connectivity to consumer electronics, providing tremendous value-add to both content and CE usage models. Intel views the combination of Internet capability and a standards-based browser on the television as a mechanism to open up the TV, to bring the freedom of the Internet to the big screen. I agree, for the most part—again, I think that we proved at WebTV that consumers do not want to browse the Internet on their televisions, but that they crave their information, when they want it, presented in a fashion that’s both useful and unobtrusive.

Let’s draw a parallel to mobile devices. Prior to the introduction of the iPhone, most “smart” phones were little more than e-mail devices with lousy browers. Today, the iPhone and devices based on Palm’s webOS and RIM’s OS 5.0 enhance the e-mail experience with a fully functional browser and an application framework which opens up a wealth of customization options. The App Store is the biggest and bestest example of a consumer’s ability to personalize a service-backed device, with more than 75,000 widgets of every flavor; expect application stores from RIM, Palm, and (especially) Android to also begin making their own marks over the next 6-12 months. The great thing about this personalization capability is that it allows each user to create the experience they want, not that the service provider wants. Despite the resultant value dilution of on-deck applications, carriers love the stickiness this capability creates—particularly when the carrier has an exclusive carriage window on the handset (see AT&T + iPhone).

Apple revolutionized the mobile experience by creating a platform for developers to deliver low-cost or free applications to the ever-growing user base of iPhones and iPod Touches. Intel is looking to create a similar framework on the television with their SOCs.

A year ago, Intel introduced the CE3100 processor, a.k.a. Canmore. This week, they followed up with the CE4100, a.k.a. Sodaville. While Kevin and I spoke primarily about Canmore, he stressed multiple benefits from the CE family of Intel Architecture (IA) SOCs—scale, performance, and throughput advantages leading to enhanced user experiences, not to mention the CPU speed we all expect from Intel. Canmore was very much a first generation platform, enabling manufacturers to get their feet wet with Intel Inside of living room devices. Sony, Samsung, LG, and Vizio have all announced TVs built on the Intel architecture, as have other vendors delivering consumer electronics devices; while current products ship using the first generation Canmore platform, future systems will use Sodaville and successors—delivering even more functionality to the living room, and beyond.

Flashback: I remember the first time I visited Samsung’s TV lab in Suwon, in February, 1997. Bill Keating, Jackie Friedman, Spencer Tall, and I strolled in with a handful of WebTV boxes to discuss and demo our wares, to compare and contrast ourselves with the “net-TV” prototype Samsung had built. Keep in mind that these were the days of the tube and the modem, not the broadband, flat-panel landscape we enjoy now. The Samsung engineers rolled in a ~36” tube that must’ve weighed 200 pounds, and lacked a plastic case at the rear of a typical production TV. Wedged behind the screen was a compact (by 1997 standards) PC running Windows 95, with a web browser displaying TV-related Internet content in Korean.

Which looked like crap.

I relate this story not to indict Samsung—in the last decade, they’ve become arguably the most innovative TV manufacturer in the world. I provide this recap to demonstrate what an iterative process product development is, and how far we’ve come in the last dozen years. In 1997, manufacturers were trying to figure out whether to build PCs into their televisions—taking a device with an average selling price of a couple thousand dollars, duct taping it to another device with an average selling price of a couple thousand dollars. Remember that these were the days of a 15-20 year refresh cycle on living room televisions, so two plus two definitely didn’t equal four. As we’ve seen time and again in the consumer electronics industry, the sole successful combo product to date has been the clock radio; camera phones will eventually get there, but it’s been a long slog through a lot of grainy photos en route.

Now, we may’ve turned the corner on the next generation of consumer electronics devices—CE 3.0, as Kevin told me. The poorly executed Internet and walled garden TV content experiences of the last dozen years have given way to televisions with powerful hearts and souls in the form of chipsets specifically designed to provide exactly what consumers want on their TVs, when they want it, with a sufficiently good user interface to not impact the TV watching experience itself. Yankee Group forecasts 91 million connected devices in U.S. households by 2013. If Intel successfully executes on the roadmap Kevin laid out for me, I believe that number is dramatically low. Consumers have shown that they want Netflix on their TVs, that they want Hulu on their TVs. Intel's architecture is ideally suited to provide these types of capabilities via their widget architecture, particularly in partnership with Yahoo. Soon, I expect to create my own personalized walled garden using widgets from Intel's and Yahoo's partners, and hope to have an experience replicating that of Apple's App Store, of Nokia's Ovi Store, of the Android Market, of BlackBerry's App World. Combined with DLNA widgets enabling me to access my content whenever, wherever? We're talking serious nirvana.

As Intel showed with the introduction of Canmore last year, and Sodaville this week, they're working diligently to provide a platform delivering applications (such as Flash-based widgets) of unique interest to individual consumers. I appreciate Kevin's time and insight, and eagerly look forward to what the living room holds over the next couple of years for platforms based on Intel hardware and widget software, enabling each of us to get the TV we want, when we want, how we want.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

R.I.P. Rosemary Stasek

I was saddened today to receive the following note about the untimely passing of Rosemary Stasek. Our paths crossed all too briefly during our time together at WebTV, before she went on to bigger and better things as mayor of Mountain View, and ultimately her move to Kabul a few years ago. Rosemary was a woman who believed she could do more than a little bit to change the world--in particular, to improve the lives of Afghan women. ...a little help, her charity, will hopefully live on to continue and honor her work.

So, if you wonder why flags are at half-staff in Mountain View this weekend, please think of Rosemary and her family.

Rosemary, we'll miss truly were the change you wished to see in the world...

Subject: Passing of Rosemary Stasek

I am very sad to have to report that Rosemary past away very suddenly on Thursday night, 24 September in Kabul due to complications linked to her illness. Some of you may not have know that Rosemary was diagnosed with being in the early stages of MS in March this year

For those that do not know me, my name is Morne du Preez, Rosemary's husband of the past 2 years and four months. Rosemary and I met in Kabul and married 6 months therafter, shortly after Rosemary became ill. Some of the happiest years of my life and a time in my life that I will never ever forget.

My apologies for sending out this message by Facebook, but Rosemary had so many friends all across the world and to be able to try and contact every person individually would be impossible.

Arrangements are being for repatriation to the US and we intend to have funeral arrangements in the next few days for a funeral in Rosemary's hometown of McAdoo, PA. Details will be made available.

I would like to encourage friends and family of Rosemary to visit the newly put up tribute blog for Rosemary to add their memories of this special special lady we have all lost.

Decisions are yet to be made regarding the future of A Little Help, Rosemary's NGO in Afghanistan, but for now I have fantastic support from the young Afghan ladies who have been assisting Rosemary in Kabul and the ongoing projects will continue at this time.

Rosemary was such a fantastic partner and from the day we met I fell in love with her and wanted her by my side for the rest of my days.

I wish to thank everybody for the emails, and calls and ask that you keep Rosemary's parents, Andrew and Patricia Stasek and family and friends in your prayers during this tough time.

Andrew and Patricia can be contacted on email:

Mail can be sent to:

241 W. Blaine street

Thank you,

Morne du Preez

Monday, September 14, 2009

IEEE-CNSV September Meeting

Just a quick reminder that the IEEE-CNSV's first meeting of the fall is tomorrow night (15 September) at the usual time and place--7 p.m. at KeyPoint Credit Union in Santa Clara. Special interest groups will meet at 6 p.m. More details on the meeting can be found here.

China Musings, Day Five (1 September)

I started today in first gear. Er, one uses first in China. Right. The good news is, the room at the Grand Metro Park lived up to the hotel’s five star ranking in just about every aspect. The only downside is that in calling their beds firm, they mean firm. As in, sleeping on a box spring, which my neck didn’t particularly like. I spent the first couple of hours of the morning walking around with one flap down. Where’s Jeffrey Leonard when you need him?

After a quick buffet breakfast, we loaded up the bus and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. No, wait...we moved to yet another new development--Suzhou Science & Technology Town (SSTT). The bus toured the expansive industrial park before arriving at our meeting location, a brand-spanking new office building, one of dozens sprinkled throughout the park. And, again, when I say “industrial park”, I don’t mean the low-rise stuff we have in the States. I mean an enormous number of very impressive-looking high-rises just waiting to be filled by industrious folks hoping to add to the local GDP. The education-cum-employment cycle here is pretty astounding. In the U.S., we often hear anecdotes about how China and India are churning out engineers and other technical graduates at a rate that leaves our own levels in the dust. Well, based on the numbers we’ve heard and what I’ve seen over the past couple days, I can confirm that--we’re getting our asses kicked. Part of it is the sheer numbers of college-age students; part of it is the importance that parents here put on their child’s (and yes, it’s almost always a sole child, based on the one-child-per-family policy) education; part of it is on the government’s unabated pace construction of schools at all levels; and, frankly, part of it is China’s desire to become the number one country in the world, to be recognized up with (and to eventually surpass) where the U.S. is today.

On our way in and out of the SSTT, we passed a newly-occupied building with a WebEx sign on it, which was pretty cool--a Cisco outpost, this far from home. During our meeting, we also learned that companies like Motorola, Siemens, and Philips were already here, among many others. The competition to attract investment is pretty insane--if I were to form a company in the Suzhou region, I’d be hard-pressed to determine where to do so. Suzhou Wuzhong is freakin’ GORGEOUS, looking like something off of a Hollywood set...Wisteria Lane West, if you will. SIP has the attraction of 15 years of operation under its belt, with a remarkable track record of success and continued input from the Singapore side, which I have to believe can only be beneficial to the cause. And, SSTT looks to be on the same success path as the others.

So, how’s a guy to decide where to put a company, either a China outpost of a foreign firm, or an actual Chinese company? Each of the places we’ve been, we’ve heard about tax breaks, free land and office space, cheap or free administrative support, etc. The problem is, I can put all this stuff into a spreadsheet to see who wins on paper, but that’s a one-dimensional look at the matter. How to really determine who has the best mix of ingredients to enable a company to be successful? Maybe it’s as simple as determining where you as CEO want to live, then siting the company there--that happens a ton in the U.S., so maybe that’s the way to play it over here, too. Frankly, I doubt it, as I’d think that certain regions would do a better job on software, or chip design, or outsourcing, or solar (which EVERYONE over here claims to be experts on), so maybe it’s just a case of continuing to ask a ton of questions--I know how I’d go about deciding on choosing Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View,, so perhaps the math translates fairly similarly here.

Rolling out of SSTT on our way back downtown, we passed the same rock formations (buttes?) that’s we’d passed on the way in. This time, we saw a handful of climbers out for their late morning exercise. Very cool. I’ve heard that Suzhou is the “Venice of the West”, with canals and character a plenty. We certainly haven’t seen that so far in our visits to high tech areas of various ages (infant to teen), so it’s at least good to see something aged--if not canals, at least really cool rocks.

Unless, uh, they just built those, too.

No canals on our way into downtown for our pre-luncheon meeting with one of the senior government officials in Suzhou. My Chinese-American colleagues have been helping me try to understand the structure of provincial and local government here, but it’s tough. I’m used to governments at the federal, state, county, and local levels. Here, it’s quite a bit different. Below the federal government sits the provincial government (little different than us), but then you move to the city level, and finally the county level. That’s right--cities are larger than counties. To make matters even more confusing, China also has four regions (districts? cities?) that are autonomous--Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing (where we head on Sunday). Today, we met with Mr. Cao, the Executive Vice Mayor of the Suzhou City Government. Cities here are governed somewhat like corporations, where the mayor is similar to the chairman of the board, and the multiple vice mayors are like board members, the Executive Vice Mayor being the topmost.

When we arrived at the hotel where our meeting and luncheon were being held, we were ushered into a room with two luxurious chairs at the front of the room, with three rows of six overstuffed chairs apiece on each opposite side, facing one another. The UCGEC contingent was seated on the left side of the room (as you enter); the right side was reserved for the local contingent. We stood in front of our seats according to where our name tags indicated; shortly afterwards, Mr. Cao and his staff arrived. After a very brief series of nods and smiles, we all took our assigned seats, in chairs which can be best described as “comfy”.

No shrubbery, though.

Mr. Cao delivered a series of remarks; Jessica Zhang, who led the UCGEC delegation for this part of the trip, translated for us--thankfully. The SSTT meeting had consisted of a series of presentations delivered entirely in Mandarin, making the time block pretty much worthless for the three of us who don’t speak Mandarin. Word to the wise--if you’re hosting a delegation from a foreign country, ensure availability of both time and personnel for translation. Otherwise, you’ve reflected very poorly on yourselves, as well as made it very difficult for the non-local speakers to consider investing--if you can’t provide translation support for a 90-minute meeting, I have to question your ability to provide other necessary support functions to a foreign-backed startup.

After Mr. Cao and Jessica Zhang delivered their respective remarks, Mr. Cao opened the floor to questions. The first few were posed in Mandarin; again, Jessica summarized both the questions and Mr. Cao’s answers. He then asked if any of the English speakers had any questions; never one to shy away from a query, I asked Mr. Cao the question I’d been pondering--with each investment area painting such a rosy picture of opportunities and upside, how was a guy like me, with no local language skills and no direct ties to any of the local areas, to evaluate my options and choose the location with best potential for success?

Mr. Cao responded as I expected--that each area had its own strengths; that each area had its own attractive package of financial incentives; and that each area had a team of experts available to work with each of us to determine the best possible offering to meet our needs. His answer came across as both legitimate and extremely sincere, but I still wasn’t any closer to figuring out which of the three Suzhou-area parks we’d seen would be the best location for a Silicon Valley/China joint effort.

After a few more minutes of Q&A, and after a few last shots of audio and video from the news media covering the meeting, we adjourned for lunch. For the first time this week, we didn’t have a massive luncheon at a huge round table. Instead, we had a massive luncheon at a huge rectangular table. A sit-down lunch for 36? WAAAAY impressive.

Mr. Cao led off the luncheon with a wine toast; like our other toasts, we enjoyed (?) about a third of an ounce of wine in a cordial glass. Now on our third banquet where I couldn’t smell the wine in my glass (both due to lack of quantity and size/shape of glass), I decided I needed a proper glass of wine. I asked the SSTT lady sitting next to me if it would be possible to have a serving of wine in the big goblet in front of me--the one that I’d use as a wine glass. She immediately instructed the wine server to provide me a proper (~4 ounce) pour of wine. Sweet mystery of actual Great Wall bouquet! No, not odor from the horde-repelling rampart--the Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon I’d been drinking (but not tasting) our previous two banquets. Sweeeet.

I think I ate less at this luncheon than I had at our previous two banquets. Maybe it was the rectangular table instead of the round one, but I didn’t feel sick from eating too much. I merely felt fat.

We thanked Mr. Cao and his staff for being such gracious hosts, then waddled onto the bus for the drive to Nanjing. After grazing for a couple hours, what better way to digest our meal than by sitting on our behinds for a few more hours?

The scenery on the way to Nanjing was pretty cool, with reasonable-sized mountains and lots of trees on the three-plus hour drive. As we entered Nanjing, Jessica filled us in on some of the city’s history. Best known in the West due to Iris Kang's The Rape of Nanking, Nanjing was the seat of six dynasties, and was the first capital of the Republic of China after its founding in 1912. Jessica went to college here, so she knew quite a bit about the city; after two days spent in largely brand new developments, arriving in a city with some actual history (and five million residents) was extremely refreshing. Nanjing was loud, crowded, developed, and old--characteristics we hadn’t necessarily seen since leaving Shanghai almost 48 hours earlier.

After working our way through the challenging rush-hour traffic, we arrived at the four-star Ramada Plaza Hotel, where I had just enough time for a quick shower before heading out for dinner. While just about anything would’ve been a disappointment after our lodging the last two nights, the Ramada Plaza is a pretty big step down. But, the bed’s good (and not a box spring), the shower has good water pressure, and the air conditioning’s sufficiently cold. As Martin Mull used to say on Red Roof Inn commercials, “All hotel rooms look the same in the dark”. Generally, he’s right.

In keeping with the day’s four-sided theme, we enjoyed our dinner banquet at a large rectangular table. In a special treat, our hosts had arranged for traditional Chinese entertainment, including songs; instruments, including a flute, a violin, a lute, and a guy playing a tune on a piece of hollow balsa wood and a long string; and most impressively, a paper puppet show called The Tortoise and The Crane. Tonight, we were fortunate enough to have nearly an hour to walk around the center of Nanjing’s cultural and tourist area; the opportunity to walk off one of these huge meals was more than welcome. As we walked around the pedestrian-only area, we found the scenery to be beautiful, as well as extremely crowded, with almost no Westerners around, which was nice. The only downside is that the lack of Westerners also translated into a lack of diet colas--after no caffeine whatsoever yesterday, I spent much of the day yearning for a Pepsi Max or a Coke Zero. Sadly, in the two dozen locations I checked after dinner, not a single one had diet soft drinks, although regular Coke was in plentiful supply.

We hopped back on the bus for the short ride back to the hotel; before arriving, we were told what time we needed to be at the bus for departure tomorrow morning. I asked if anyone wanted to take a post-dinner walk (so I could find a supply of diet cola), but everyone opted out. I popped over to the concierge to ask where I could find a Lawson’s or a Family Mart--two chain stores (similar to 7-Eleven) which I’d seen plenty of as we drove through Nanjing. After more than a dozen years of doing business in Asia, I’m pretty good at boiling my questions down to tight sound bites, but even my simplified request for a 24-hour store met with blank stares from the concierge. And from the bellman. And from the valet. And from the front desk. Finally, they called the assistant manager, who arrived promptly. She spoke enough English to inform me that if I simply crossed the street and walked to the right for about five minutes, I’d come upon an all-night convenience store.

An aside. People often ask why I stay with Western chains (Marriott, Hyatt, Starwood, Hilton) when I travel internationally, claiming that I’m robbing myself of immersion in the local culture by not patronizing hotels geared towards locals. The above story is exactly why--when I’m traveling on business, efficiency is vital. If I need to repeat a question a half-dozen times to a half-dozen people, I’m wasting time. U.S.-flagged hotels have staff with better English skills, and are better-equipped to handle the needs of American business travelers. No offense intended, and no opinion or judgment passed. That’s merely a fact.

I headed out the door, walked about 50 yards to my right, then prepared to cross the street. At this point, I realized that walking in Nanjing seemed different than walking in Shanghai or Beijing. In those cities, I expect to get hit while crossing the street. The problem is, in Nanjing, I also expected to get hit, but had no freakin' idea from which direction or by what form of conveyance. In a walk that couldn't have been more than 200 yards, and which required crossing a single intersection, I must've had traffic come at me from eleven different directions, in the form of bicycles, motorized trikes (tuk-tuks, if you've been to India), scooters, cars, vans, trucks, and buses.

But it was worth it--a six-pack of Pepsi Max for my troubles. Breakfast tomorrow will be good.