Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bogus: The DTV Delay

Thank you, House. Not the doctor on Fox, but the bigger part of our bicameral legislature. Today, the House voted down the bill proposing a delay in the switchover from analog to digital television--a bill which passed the Senate unanimously less than 48 hours ago. True, more than half the House voted in favor, but it luckily fell a couple dozen votes short of the required two-thirds needed to pass.

Why am I thanking the House for their sane and reasonable approach to this issue?

For starters, lots of folks have asked for my opinion on the DTV delay. I've been holding off on saying anything publicly, but my cousin tagged me with this question Monday night on Facebook, so I figured I'd finally jump in. Here was my character-limited (by Facebook's number of letters, not by personality) reply...

"Thoroughly a mistake. Giving the disenfranchised four more months simply prolongs the agony all around. I *absolutely* feel for the six million homes at risk of going dark upon switchover. But, Congress would've much better served its constituents to expedite coupon funding, rather than to delay four months. After 37 months to prepare, those who are going to be proactive, have been. Those who are going to be reactive, will be. Until the switch is thrown, the reactives won't, uh, react. Four more months on top of 37 will change little. Once sets go dark, affected homes will take the plunge to purchase a converter box, or a new television with an integrated digital tuner. With millions of converter boxes on store shelves today, the issue facing current analog TV viewers is how to pay for them--and the government isn't solving that with a 4-month delay. Fund the coupons now, throw the switch soon."

And, here's my additional $.03...

I don't want to come across as insensitive to the plight of those who can't afford to go out and buy a converter box--like many of us, I lived paycheck to paycheck for more years than I care to admit; for a lot of U.S. residents, throwing money at something like a converter box could certainly be used for something better. Like food and shelter.

But, let's try to keep a few things in mind, items which the Senate obviously didn't consider, but which many in the House thankfully have.

First off, let's be crystal clear about the fact that the DTV conversion isn't something that's snuck up on us. U.S. efforts to move to a more advanced form of television than NTSC began in 1987. 1987! Let me repeat that, in case you missed it--1987, when the FCC formed the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS). Six years on, ACATS' work led to the formation of the Grand Alliance in 1993. The Grand Alliance collaboration ultimately led to the publication of ATSC Standard A/53 in 1995. Was it perfect? No.

But ya gotta start somewhere.

If you never step off the curb, you'll never cross the street. Sure, you might get hit by a bus, but that's why our parents teach us to look both ways first.

We've been looking both ways for way too long, my friends--we need to cross the street.

The reluctance to step off the analog DTV curb isn't helping anyone, despite what the Senate would like you to believe.

Shall we consider who would be harmed by this four-month charade?

Let's start with broadcasters. The need to continue supporting dual analog and digital transmissions (called simulcasting) is an additional four-month expense that I doubt most TV stations budgeted for, although the wisest ones likely planned for this very outcome. I realize that many consumers don't possess much sympathy for broadcasters, believing that to deep-pocketed folks like ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, the expense of switching to digital is a drop in the ocean--despite the fact that a lot of mom and pop shops in mid-sized and smaller DMAs have had to increase their budgets by alarming amounts, in some cases doubling (or more) typical annual expenditures.

Next, we move to first responders. Public safety groups are receiving 24 MHz of spectrum as part of the digital transition. Why? So that nationally, first responders can communicate on the same spectrum band. You might be surprised that this capability doesn't exist today, but it doesn't. With a delay, public safety users like police and fire departments will suffer a further four-month hiccup in their attempt to provide more efficient and effective first response. First responders oppose a delay. You should too--your very life may be at stake.

How about the environment? You might think that the cutover from analog to digital wouldn't have an impact on the environment, but you'd be wrong--all the gear required to maintain and power simulcasting consumes a tremendous amount of electricity, either directly or indirectly.

You heard it here first--the DTV delay is anti-green.

Finally, consumers lose. As Nielsen notes, the number of U.S. households unprepared for the DTV switch dropped more than a full percentage point in the four-week period ending 1/18/09. Across the board, every demographic measured at least a 9/10ths of a percentage point increase in readiness--white, black, hispanic, Asian, old, young. Congress, this is what we call progess; thankfully, the House appears to understand the meaning of that word. The Consumer Electronics Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, and many other organizations heeded Congress' call to more heavily promote the DTV switchover as the calendar crept up on 2/17/09. They've done a yeoman's job of getting the word out, via television and radio public service announcements, via newspapers, via weekly and monthly periodicals, and even via the CEA's innovative YouTube contest. Everyone is eager to make this cutover.

We're ready. That's what we're here to tell you. The small percentage of U.S. consumers who still rely on over-the-air programming are ready for a better TV experience. Broadcasters are ready to deliver just that, along with looking forward to turning off their simulcasting albatross. First responders are eager to have better methods of interoperable communications. Consumers who've already acquired their DTV converter boxes are ready to go; those who haven't won't be spurred into action until the analog spigot is turned off.

When that spigot is turned off, consumers who haven't made the move from analog to digital will have the impetus to do something--request their pair of $40 rebate coupons, use coupons they already have, or purchase a new television with a built-in digital tuner. If the Senate really wants to do something beneficial, they can work with their House counterparts to immediately pass a bill providing two items: emergency funding for additional rebate coupons, and a provision for those with expired coupons to re-apply.

That's a bill I'd support wholeheartedly.

Let me reiterate this a final time. A delay serves no one's purpose. The alarmists who are yammering about a 2/17/09 cutover being a train wreck would better focus their energy on convincing Congress to pass an emergency bill with my two suggested items--funding and re-application--rather than wasting their breath on further attempting a delay.

If you agree, support your local first responders and broadcasters by forwarding this page (with a conveniently shorter URL: http://tinyurl.com/heycoopdtv) to your Senators and Representatives. Let them know that you're ready for America to take the final small step in a journey launched more than two decades ago. Babies conceived at the same time as ACATS are old enough to drink, more than 21 years on.

Let's stop rewarding inertia. It's time for DTV to have its champagne toast.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

OOBE, Review, and Follow-Up: Joby Zivio Boom Bluetooth Headset

You may recall that at CES Unveiled, the folks from Joby gave me their new Bluetooth headset. The Zivio Boom is an interesting industrial design, a bit different from other Bluetooth headsets I've used. We'll get to that in a moment. For now, let's take a look at the packaging.

Prior to my purchase of the original Jawbone two years ago, every Bluetooth headset I'd bought was similar to that of most consumer electronics devices, packaging-wise--Bluetooth vendors hadn't really thought about how to make their packaging stand out. While I didn't record the out of box experience (OOBE) on my original Jawbone, the OOBE on my Jawbone 2 remains one of the most popular posts here, along with my posts on modding the Jawbone 2 for better fit.

The Zivio experience reminded me of the Jawbone experience--somebody spent a few extra bucks to make a good-looking package, which probably translates into another $10-30 at retail. Good stuff, packaging guys. I like the Zivio's package for the following reasons:
  • Product name is in big freakin' letters
  • Rest of front is free of clutter
  • Black matte finish survives shipping wear and tear much better than black glossy
  • Plastic tab for ease of hanging
  • Rectangular shape enables easier shelving and most efficient shipping
  • "Red light district window" (a teaser for what you're buying) shows product itself
  • Huge image of product on the side
Removing the package's outer case, you're presented with a very cleanly laid-out inner package, broken into thirds--documentation, the device itself, and attachments. Note that the boom on the headset is extended--instant visual gratification! Shipping the product with the boom retracted would have enabled a package smaller by at least a third, maybe more--but Joby is obviously trying to appeal to a market that understands quality, and is willing to pay a premium for it. No, an extended boom doesn't guarantee quality, but it certainly does convey elegance. For me, it works. Beyond that, assuming the manufacturer's ability to secure shelf space, a bigger package equals a bigger product advertisement.

The left side contains a very simple, icon-heavy pocket guide. Color-coded and very cleanly laid-out, the pocket guide is commendable for both its brevity and its clarity. The center contains the device itself, which we'll examine in a moment. The right side contains a plastic insert holding six earpiece attachments and an earhook. Three of the attachments are gel-style; three are etymotic-style, intended to fit firmly inside the ear canal. The earhook is an interesting design--the base of the earhook attaches magnetically to the Zivio itself, allowing 360 degree rotation of the hook's base; the earhook piece rotates in the base's socket, providing further flexibility.

Below is a shot of all the pieces in the package; apologies for the lousy quality of all these photos, but I wasn't expecting to attempt to document an OOBE in a poorly-lit Las Vegas hotel room. In addition to the insert holding the earhook and earpieces, the package contains a small power brick, a short and a long USB cable, and the earpiece itself. You'll note a plastic bag containing more earpieces; I don't believe that this bag ships in the standard retail package, but I could be wrong.


A few more things to like here. First, the power brick is black matte, very similar in finish to my MacBook, meaning it's relatively impervious to wear and tear. The power brick has two USB connectors, enabling charging of two devices simultaneously, which is awesome. Each connector on the brick has a blue LED, which illuminates when a device is connected, providing very nice feedback. The cables are USB on one end, micro-USB on the other. As I've noted a couple of times, micro-USB is the way of the future, so I'm excited that the Zivio Boom uses micro-USB for its charging method.

The device itself is compact, with a beautiful industrial design. The first shot shows the Zivio without its boom extended; the second shot shows the extended boom, as well as the blinking light during the pairing process. A close-up look shows three simple buttons, used for volume control and for typical functionality. A look at the reverse side shows a polished, reflective case absolutely modeled on Apple's industrial design--"designed in California, assembled in China".

Despite the blatant rip-off of Apple, I agree with this approach to labeling--the former conveying the implicit quality in a U.S.-designed electronic device, combined with the truth in advertising concerning where the device was built. Plus, manufacturers could do a lot worse than ripping off Apple's approach to packaging and design. On the earpiece itself, you'll notice a speaker reminiscent of a Western Electric 500 handset's earpiece--one of the classic phone designs of all-time.

The earpiece swivels around an axle, enabling a range of angles at which the headset may be used once in the ear. Combined with the six gel & etymotic options and the magnetic hook, the range of permutations for fitting your ear are nearly infinite.

And yet, I still couldn't find a comfortable fit. I don't think I have particularly unique ears, although that might be a tough assessment to make without speaking with an otolaryngologist.

But, despite trying all six earpiece attachments and using the earhook in a ton of positions, I just flat-out couldn't make the Zivio Boom work for me. My personal assessment is that the device's evenly-balanced weight across the length of the device actually works against it in my ear--the mouthpiece side kept drooping, no matter which earpiece I was wearing, and whether or not the boom was extended or retracted. I wore the unit for three days at CES, and was always aware of the fact it was in my ear. Contrast that with my Jawbone 2, which (with the Jabra mini-gel) I can keep in my ear for an entire day with almost no realization that it's there.

As I mentioned in my initial look at the Zivio Boom, there's a lot to like about this highly stylish device, particuarly its advertised 10-hour talk time. Lest you think I've thrown the unit into the drawer of tech detritus, fear not. My buddy Vince Murdica recently joined SiBEAM, Inc., running sales in the Americas and EMEA. Vince recently lost his Jawbone 2; as a guy who can easily spend his entire day on calls spanning a dozen time zones, he needed a Bluetooth headset which would provide long battery life and a comfortable fit, as well as minimizing incentives for Officer Friendly to pull him over. I'm happy to say that he's absolutely thrilled with the Zivio Boom, reporting that it's the most comfortable Bluetooth headset he's ever owned.

So, while the Zivio Boom wasn't for me, it's working great for Vince, who's at least as tough and demanding on Bluetooth headsets as I am. I think that I could've eventually made the Zivio work for me, but I would've needed a ballistics gel earpiece (for which I've had molds made) and an adapter to attach it to the Zivio; for now, I've chosen to not go down that path.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

CES: Wireless High-Def Recap

At CES, I met with just about every relevant purveyor of wireless high-definition gear.  Let's go alphabetically...

Amimon (co-founders of the WHDI consortium)
As they did last year, Amimon had a three-room suite at the Hilton--a large living/dining room, with bedrooms at either end.  And, as they did last year, Amimon showed a number of systems working simultaneously, free from interference.  I've been one of Amimon's skeptics, curious about how they're able to send a 1080i/720p signal in 20 MHz of bandwidth, and eventually a 1080p/60 signal in 40 MHz of bandwidth.

Amimon claims that their approach delivers uncompressed high-definition video, and wrote a now-very-long-in-the-tooth white paper on compressed versus uncompressed.  I think that they made some very valid points in their white paper, but A) a 26-month old white paper in a market where companies are already failing begs to be updated, and B) consumers really don't give a damn--they have no religion about compression, but simply want a cost-effective solution.

Which, by golly, Amimon seems to be well on the path to providing.

Of the five systems (Amimon, Radiospire, Pulse~LINK, SiBEAM, and Tzero) I wrote about during CES 2008, and the one that I couldn't write about (Sigma Designs), I felt that Amimon had the best demo in terms of distance--the only demo that one could reasonably call multi-room.  I also felt that they had the worst quality, by a longshot.

What a difference a year makes.  The progress Amimon has made with their existing chipset and continued software development is huge--so huge that Sony is currently shipping a $799 transmit/receive pair under the Bravia Wireless Link brand.  This is not "currently shipping" as in, let's recycle an old press release.  This is shipping as in, I was in the employee store at Sony San Jose last week and was shocked to see it on sale.  The store had a demo of a Blu-ray movie playing across the show floor at a distance of about 25 feet.  I'm not Joe Kane, but I was very satisfied with the quality--so much so that for a fleeting moment, I thought about buying the set, until I remembered that I didn't actually need it.  Amimon is also present in devices from at least a half-dozen manufacturers, including in select high-end Sony, Mitsubishi, and Sharp televisions currently for sale in Japan.


Amimon's next generation silicon promises to be even better.  However, I'm still left with a few niggling questions.  First and foremost, I'm concerned about what happens to performance once the 5 GHz band fills up, just as the 2.4 GHz band has.  When it comes to interference and bit/packet error rates, video is nowhere near as forgiving as data is; consumers (and retailers) won't tolerate a device that either doesn't work out of the box, or gets hinky after a year or two of use.  Second, with the industry's stampede towards higher refresh rates, I'm concerned whether Amimon will be able to scale with the increased demands of 120/240 MHz (usually countries with 60 Hz mains, almost all of whom are/were NTSC) or 100/200 MHz (usually countries with 50 Hz mains, almost all of whom are/were PAL/SECAM) sinks, as well as sources putting out wider and wider bitstreams (e.g., Deep Color).  Finally, I'm just not sure that Amimon knows who they want to be.  Are they an in-room solution?  Are they a multi-room solution?  Are they a whole-home solution?

But, for now, for users who don't mind paying a hefty premium over an HDMI cable, they're the only game in town.

Axar Media
I have to confess that I hadn't heard of Axar, prior to bumping into a buddy who's working for them.  Axar is a division of ProVision Communications, a British company who've been working on wireless video since 2001--which may make them the longest-surviving company in the space.

Axar's solution differs from the other systems I saw in that in its current testing stage, it uses component connectivity, rather than HDMI.  I see this as a mixed blessing.  As a new entrant to the market, they'll need to come up to speed on physical issues (e.g., HDMI 1.3c & 2.0) and content protection issues (e.g., HDCP 2.0, DCP LLC doing away with ART).  But, not having to worry about those issues right now allows them to focus on the development and delivery of their system.  Their demo suffered from some judder issues (which should be fixed in software even as I type this) as well as pretty severe latency challenges, but I think Axar's worth keeping an eye on, based on the price points they shared with me (which I unfortunately can't disclose here).  One final hurdle they're working on is the issue of tying up a tuner in a remote room.  Axar's initial target is European service providers; the application is sharing of living-room set-top box content to other rooms in the house.  In my own home, I don't see a ton of applicability for pausing a stream here in the living room, then resuming it in the bedroom.  Admittedly, this is a feature that's been desired by lots of folks, so maybe I'm in the minority.  But, if Axar could work with the carriers to take existing dual-tuner boxes and allow one of those streams to go to their transmitter while the other stream is being viewed in the living room, they'll have a huge winner on their hands.  Carriers will do just about anything to avoid provisioning another full-price box in a second or third room in the home.

Axar...exploiting the analog hole, in a good way.

Celeno
If you caught my post on my favorites of CES 2009, you'll recall that I was extremely impressed with the demo from Celeno, who're taking a little different approach to this market than others.  Celeno is building a Wi-Fi chipset for the transmit (source) side, and is capable of being received by any off-the-shelf draft 802.11n chipset with sufficient radio & antenna chains.  They're also using a compression partner to make the signal bandwidth more manageable; as I noted in my earlier post, their demo at CES was in partnership with Cavium Networks (nee W&W Communications), and looked rock-solid.  I would guess that based on the physical state of the demo, Celeno is probably a year behind Amimon and SiBEAM, whom I'd consider the leaders at this point.  But, keep an eye on them--they count Cisco as an investor, which makes them worth watching above and beyond how great their demo was.

Monster/Sigma Designs
Monster is working with Sigma Designs to bring a unique system to market.  The Monster/Sigma approach combines coaxial cable and wireless to deliver a backbone and access solution--coaxial for whole-home connectivity, wireless for in-room access connectivity.  Since this system is based on WiMedia ultra-wideband, the partners had to face the reality that their wireless solution is at best an in-room technology--meaning, either scrap the idea of whole-home video networking, or come up with an innovative solution.  They chose the latter.  The good news is that the wireless link will co-exist nicely with Certified Wireless USB devices in radio range, owing to its WiMedia compliance.  Further good news is that WiMedia's 528 MHz channels give the partners a lot of bandwidth with which to play, on both the wired and wireless sides.

However, the solution is not without challenges.  While WiMedia has a relatively massive amount of bandwidth, its transmit power is pretty much the noise floor, making in-room connectivity extremely variable, and multi-room connectivity all but impossible over wireless.  Also, while the coax solution operates in the 3.1-4.8 GHz spectrum (avoiding programming, DOCSIS, HomePNA, MoCA, et.al.), the higher attenuation present at those frequencies can be an impediment, particularly in older homes with poor quality coax and/or splitters.  And, like the others, the list price (in this case, $999 for a pair) of the system reinforces my belief that 2009 isn't yet the year for wireless high-def.  But, like the others, the Monster/Sigma solution has its own unique benefits, and could fit the bill for quite a few folks, particularly in North America.

SiBEAM (co-founders of the WirelessHD consortium)
I was fortunate enough to visit both SiBEAM's demo suite at Harrah's, as well as the WirelessHD interoperability suite at the LVCC.  Similar to my feelings about Amimon, I've been very skeptical of SiBEAM's claims.  And, similar to what happened in my meeting with Amimon, the scales fell from my eyes.

Maybe skeptical isn't the right word to describe what I'd been thinking about SiBEAM.  "Disbelief" might be more appropriate.  Over the last 2.5 years, I've heard a lot of claims in this market, most of which have turned out to be malarkey.  And, based on what I've heard from "those who oughta know" (i.e., engineers who are way smarter than me), there's no way that the SiBEAM guys were gonna be able to do all the stuff they wanted to do by using the 60 GHz band.

Wrong.

The demos I saw in the SiBEAM suite had three different sources sending HD content to a sink.  Not only did they work, they looked great, had negligible latency, and only broke up when I covered the transmit antennas by pressing my hand against them--and even then, recovery was nearly instantaneous.  Similarly, the demos I saw in the interoperability suite also looked great, with products from LG, Toshiba, Panasonic, and a host of others all humming along simultaneously.  After last year's demos in the Panasonic booth, which were akin to something you might see in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum (look over there, beyond that velvet theater rope, where no one's allowed to stand...yes, over there...that's the demo...don't exhale), I found this year's demos to be refreshingly robust.  Refreshingly high quality.  And yes, refreshingly real.


Do I believe that SiBEAM is going to hit the magic price point for Christmas 2009?  No, of course not--I'd have to rescind my earlier prediction, and I'm not prepared to do that.  But, do I believe that Wireless HD will begin to show up as a feature in higher-end televisions, just as WHDI has?  Yes, absolutely.

The horse race throughout 2009 and beyond is going to be interesting; I look forward to continuing to cover it.

Recap: Australian Innovation Shoot Out

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the Australian Innovation Shoot Out, held in conjunction with G'Day USA Australia Week 2009.  Each state chose a single finalist to pitch folks here on Sand Hill Road, in hopes of landing further investment.  (I felt bad for the Northern Territory and ACT...hard to believe there's no innovation in the Top End or the capital)

The mix was a little different than the standard pitches typically seen here in the Valley.  Sure, a couple of the companies were nascent, looking for funding to help them take the next small step.  But, a couple others were firmly established companies looking to go big-time.

The format was interesting, although I think it could use a little improvement for next year; more on that in a second.  Robert Joss, Dean of Stanford's GSB, led things off with a talk on (appropriately enough) innovation.  After he spoke, Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat was introduced as moderator; he in turn welcomed the judging panel--Mark Fernandes (Sierra Ventures), Deborah Magid (IBM's VC Group), and Harold Yu (Orrick).  The panelists were responsible for listening to each of the talks, then voting to determine which company won first prize, valued at nearly US$30,000 in services.

Conducted in DEMO style, each company was afforded five minutes to make its pitch--one minute of professionally-produced video, followed by four minutes of presentation.  Upon conclusion, the judges huddled to determine the winner.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a company already publicly traded on the Australian Stock Exchange took home the prize--Impedimed, the entry representing Queensland.  The company makes a medical device used to treat lymphedema, a condition where fluid is retained in various parts of the body.  While each company's video served as an effective demonstration of their offering, Impedimed's enabled the audience to readily visualize exactly what lymphedema looks like.  With a solid business opportunity, investors from both the U.S. and Australia, and a compelling story, Impedimed ended up being an easy choice for the judges.

The other presenting companies were:
  • NSW--Nuix, providing e-discovery and investigation software
  • SA--m.Net, providing mobile Internet marketing
  • TAS--JadeLiquid, providing automated testing for web applications
  • VIC--E Ball Games, providing participatory sports simulators
  • WA--Sensear, providing speech enhancing noise suppression technology
I thought that each presenter had a compelling pitch for a relevant set of potential investors.  All told, the event was two hours well-spent--an opportunity to learn more about the state of innovation in Australia in a very conveniently packaged presentation.

Three thoughts for next year...

First, if the companies are truly striving for coaching and constructive input moving forward, a minute of public feedback per judge for each of the six companies would be very helpful--identified strengths, visible weaknesses, and potential market and partnering opportunities.  As it was, the audience wasn't entirely certain how and why the panel chose Impedimed as the winner--although I think that at least three-quarters of the crowd would've voted the same.

Second, this wasn't exactly a level playing field.  Impedimed should absolutely strut proudly as the winner of this year's Shoot Out.  But, anything less than first prize likely would've (and should've) been a disappointment to the one publicly traded company on the docket.  Six similarly-sized private companies (or six similarly-sized ASX-traded companies) would've evened things out quite a bit.

Finally, with the success of (I can't believe I'm saying this) shows like American & Australian Idol, Dancing with the Stars (U.S. and Australia), and many more, reality TV has demonstrated that audience participation is paramount.  With the rapid growth of social networking tools like Twitter, adding an audience voting capability would be both useful and welcome.  Embracing the audience for some portion (half?) of the voting input would further liven things up.

I'd certainly be interested.  As a Chicago-area native, I'm all about vote early, vote often.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Recap: IEEE CNSV Meeting

Good stuff at the IEEE Consultants Network of Silicon Valley meeting tonight.  I've been meaning to attend a CNSV meeting for at least a year; the stars finally aligned for this evening.  From what I'm told, attendance was way up compared to 2008's meetings--mainly attributable to the economy, I'm guessing.  That said, tonight's topic seemed to be of pretty broad interest to the ~100 or so folks in attendance, so I'm sure that made an impact, too.

Tonight was the third in a series of "Consultants Forum" sessions; this evening's meeting focused on four different approaches to marketing, addressed by Brian BergSean MurphyAhmet Alpdemir, and Peter Salmon.  As a guy who's spent 20 years in the marketing and selling of technical solutions, I was a little bit surprised at some of the seemingly basic (to me) questions that came from the audience.  But, I know how out of my league I am at engineering presentations where much of the audience would've been right at home; putting the shoe on the other foot, I readily understood where a lot of the questions were coming from.  I'm the one asking (or not asking, due to embarrassment) the really basic questions at a lot of technical sessions, so I absolutely felt empathy with the extremely bright engineers posing the queries.

Brian focused on the importance of:
  • a well-linked website
  • involvement in relevant professional organizations
  • public speaking
Sean talked about:
  • being involved in relevant professional communities
  • the importance of consulting being a two-way street--help others as you wished to be helped
  • Bootstrapper's Breakfasts and other professional networks
Ahmet covered social networking by sharing:
  • statistics on social networking sites, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace
  • do's and do not's for what to do in LinkedIn
  • how to expand your professional network on LinkedIn, as well as suggestions for setting up your own network on a site like Ning
Peter discussed:
  • his authorship of articles and white papers as marketing tools
  • recommendations on negotiating publication agreements with editors
  • how writing an article led directly to business
Each approach resonated on a different level with each audience member, leading to an in-depth Q&A session at the end of the presentation.  Slides can be found here; whether you're a newbie consultant looking for ideas on how to market yourself, or whether you've been at this for decades, I'd encourage you to have a glance at the presentations.  As I noted, I've been marketing technical solutions for two decades, and I still found nuggets of wisdom from each speaker.

If you're a technical consultant in Silicon Valley, or in one of the other ~30 geographies where IEEE consultants' sections can be found, I'd encourage you to investigate your local chapter.  Tonight's meeting was very informative, as well as being a great opportunity to expand your personal network.  I met a number of folks whose cards I requested, to file away in the virtual Rolodex for when a project comes up requiring unique expertise.

I look forward to next month's meeting.  One final tidbit--I have no idea about the policies of other IEEE consultants' sections, but the IEEE CNSV meetings are free, and don't require IEEE membership to attend.  So, show up at one soon--and tell 'em Coop sent you!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

magicJack's CEO Responds

For those of you who may've missed Dan Borislow's comment in response to my post on magicJack's Terms of Service (TOS) agreement, I'd like to highlight it here, as well as provide a couple of follow-on thoughts...

Here was Dan's response:

"I can appreciate this post. Why you ask? Because The Parent company, which I am the majority shareholder of, also has to subscribe to terms of Service with verizon, AT&T and many other companies we interconnect with. So if we have a few pages of TOS, what I subscribe to is thousands of pages of a TOS, but it is never shown to me, but filed as a tariff in most cases. I am sure that most readers did not know, when they buy there home service from Ma Bell, that they also subscribe to thousands of pages of a TOS in the form of a Tariff. So whatever I have made available to show my subscribers, is light years better than what they commit to with tariffs to there home service, wireless, etc. which they do not know about. that is the real sneaky way out of it, not what we show you with magicJack. There is various ways we try and protect you including making it an option to elect getting you a free service mentioned above. That comes with being in the business for over 20 years and knowing what the FCC rules and State rules are all about. There is so much legal mumbo Jumbo in providing 911, because that is the way it is designed to be with all the regulatuions in place and lawsuit happy people. We do not dream this stuff up, regulators or lawyers do it first then we have to respond with what appears or is an unusual TOS. Then to top it off, we have to protect ourselves from the millions of lawyers we have in the US, the great majority ethical, but many who are not. So the best way to protect you and I is to say we are the boogey man-although we are quite the opposite, and spell out the worst it can be, but of course, be mindful that we want as many customers as we can get, treat you right and protect your privacy. Customer care is priority one for us. The service is very straight forward, works great, is very inexpensive, easiest to use, has a hell of a following and there is nothing funky going on. It is unfortunate that we have so many legal issues in the US, adding great costs and agg for all of us and we have to have a TOS that looks like this. The alternative, is Ma Bell, that costs 50 times more and there TOS is thousands of pages long in the form of a Tariff, and little does anybody know, that you have given up everything but your first born to these companies. Again, the other thing we must do, is protect the base and us from these ever hungry, lawsuit happy sharks out there. I wish life were easier, and I try my best to make it that way for all my customers, and am proud of the fact that we have built something nobody is close to copying that provides such great savings and benefits to so many people."

Dan, first off, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comments, and thanks to Beth for her coordination.

I agree with you on about 98% of what you're saying. Absolutely, most customers who subscribe to any service never read the relevant terms, just as few if any customers ever read the end user license agreement (EULA) accompanying just about any piece of software. Thanks to the transparency of the Internet, tariffs are much easier to track down these days, but as you note, they're still full of mumbo-jumbo which taxes the patience of pretty much everyone.

Here's my first point of contention--I agree that the TOS you show your subscribers is light years better than what a traditional telephony provider offers, from a brevity standpoint. Absolutely. But, the verbiage you use as part of the sign-up process is confusing. Obtuse. Borderline deceptive, particularly to those who aren't used to reading TOS agreements. I mean, I'm a geek, and I know a little bit about privacy, so I tend to look at TOS agreements when they're presented. This one, I found to be particularly annoying. If you're not a geek, or not privacy-aware, you're probably going to ignore the TOS completely. Fine. But Dan, since you obviously need to have a TOS in the first place, make it accurate, make it useful, make it clear. You'd be doing a great service to magicJack by cleaning up your already brief TOS, and you'd be in much better stead with privacy advocates who truly are concerned about what magicJack does with consumer data.

Second, I agree that 911 service requirements are a mess for VOIP providers. But, clarifying the language you use could make this a lot less messy for magicJack. A few sentences in the TOS defining what information the FCC requires consumers to provide to their VOIP provider would both clarify why magicJack's asking for the information, as well as take a target off magicJack's back. This shouldn't be difficult, assuming you can get a good marcom professional and a good lawyer in the room at the same time.

Third, you have made life easier for the vast majority of your subscribers. In admittedly limited testing over the past few days, I've made a handful of calls--all of which were easy to place, most of which were nearly toll-quality (with occasional audio clipping which eventually disappeared), and all of which were absolutely free. A couple more simple steps would make life even easier.

So, here's some constructive criticism to remove (or at least mitigate) those final percentage points of concern...

First and foremost, during the sign-up process, your TOS page comes up after the page where consumers enter all their personal information. That's wrong. Move the TOS page before the personal information page, and you'll relieve a lot of pain, both surrounding the perception of magicJack and around consumers' concerns. You own the software company; further, the software is dynamically downloaded to the computer upon initial connection of the magicJack device, so changing this in the code tomorrow means it's fixed in new consumers' hands tomorrow. I can't imagine that recompiling the code to flip-flop two screens would be all that difficult. If magicJack has nothing to hide (and I'd like to believe you don't), you should do this, pronto.

Second, clean up the references (e.g., Section 19 referring to something in Section 5 that doesn't exist). The updated TOS is a web page, so cleaning up the entire document should take little more than a business person, a marcom person, and an attorney. Seriously, you could do this over lunch. Posting it to the website URL would take another minute for your webmaster. Easy fix, tangible results.

Dan, your passion as an entrepreneur comes through in your response. And, the fact that you've created a device and a service that for the most part just works is hugely admirable.  It's awesome.  Fixing these items would go a long way to further removing concern about magicJack and its intentions.

As you state, there's "nothing funky going on", and that you want to protect customers' privacy. I urge you to back those statements up by correcting and/or clarifying your Terms of Service statement to that effect.

Selling Government-Grade Security? Stop. NOW.

While thumbing through one of the myriad of show publications at CES last week, I happened upon an ad from Honeywell, touting their product's "government-grade security".

What a crock.

Lots of vendors who understand nothing about the government's security requirements like to advertise that they offer "government-grade" security, or the even more impressive-sounding "military-grade" security.

Neither of these terms means a thing. You're validated, or you're not. Period. Typically, vendors using these terms are trying to promote their use of 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard for privacy.  Since just about anyone outside the Axis of Evil can readily access 128-bit AES, I don't really see the point.

Are you marketing security products?  Are you eager to use terms like "military" or "government" in your collateral?  Here's a handy checklist to see if you qualify...
If you can't answer "Yes" to one or more of these questions, you're not selling government-grade or military-grade security.  The government won't buy your product until it's undergone some form of validation or certification, which looks at issues like key generation and management, integrity, entropy, and a whole bunch of other items--not just key length of your encryption algorithm.  If you're not submitting your product through the processes required to validate compliance, you have nothing which can be legitimately marketed or sold as government-grade or military-grade.

So knock it off.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coop's 3 Tech Predictions for 2009: #1--Wireless Goes Over a Cliff

My #1 tech prediction for 2009 is...

Late.

A week late in fact. You'd think that I'd done enough shows in Vegas (CES, NAB, NATPE, N+I) that if anyone, I'd understand the futility of trying to get an in-depth analytical piece published once I physically arrived in Sin City. Whoops.

Thanks to those of you who've been hounding me about when I'd finally have this prediction finished; particular thanks to the one of you who used to work for me who's been on me like white on rice about getting the piece finalized and up. I hope that I can make it up to you by including heyCoop's very first embedded YouTube interview (conducted by Intel, not by me); look for more in the future.

So, my number #1 tech prediction for 2009? Cliffside, Cliffside, Cliffside.

What's that, you say? You've never heard of Cliffside? Well, that was kind of my point. I could've come out and said "TVs will get thinner! Blu-ray will get cheaper (and still not sell well)! Ballmer will talk about Windows 7! Circuit City will fold!" But, c'mon...that's not very insightful. I wanted to go out on a limb and predict the arrival and growth of something few people had heard of.

Cliffside.

Ironically, Intel publicly announced Cliffside at the show, which A) makes me look like a genius for having chosen this as my number 1 tech prediction for 2009; B) makes me look like an idiot, since I didn't get the post up before the announcement; and C) didn't get nearly the coverage you might've expected, since they chose not to use the project's code name, but rather chose to label it Intel My Wi-Fi Personal Area Network, or Mobile Wi-Fi PAN, as the sign called it.


I suspect that a committee may've been involved.

But here at heyCoop headquarters, we're gonna keep calling it Cliffside, rather than IMWFPAN, or however that acronym plays out.

Great. Now I'm on record. What the heck is this Cliffside thing, anyway?

You might call it a competitor to Bluetooth, Wireless USB, or TransferJet.

Let's start with a comparison to Bluetooth. I don't know the numbers (and I probably should, since heyCoop, LLC is a member of the Bluetooth SIG), but I'll take a guess and say that >99.99% of Bluetooth pairs worldwide are between cell phones and earpieces. Cool. But, I really wish that the pairing between my MacBook and my BlackBerry allowed me to do everything I wanted to, rather than still needing a USB cable. Yes, I can tether via Bluetooth, enabling my MacBook to use my Curve as a wireless modem. Very useful. However, I'd also like my contacts to sync over Bluetooth; since RIM's Mac support is still sorely lacking, I use Missing Sync for the BlackBerry to synchronize my contacts. For e-mail, I use Google Apps' IMAP; for calendar, I use Google Sync. But, there's no clean way to get contacts on my Mac synched to my BlackBerry except by physically connecting my device.

Which I detest. Sure, I could attempt to connect my BlackBerry and my Mac via an access point (infrastructure mode), then get them to communicate. Unfortunately, I've tried that, and they won't sync.

So...where does Cliffside come in? Well, much as Shimmer was a desert topping and a floor wax, Cliffside does two things well--infrastructure support and ad hoc support.

Cliffside...
  • Supports four modes on the LAN side--11a, b, g, and draft-N
  • Supports three modes (currently) on the PAN side--11a, b, and g
  • Supports 450 mb/s or 300 mb/s of capacity on the LAN side, depending on chipset
  • Supports 54 mb/s of capacity on the PAN side
  • Supports separate networks on each half of the MAC, with a DHCP server for the PAN side
  • Already has Avega Systems, G2 Microsystems, and Ozmo showing demos 
Let's start by looking at infrastructure support; that's the Wi-Fi we all know and love. Embedded in a bajillion devices, Wi-Fi has become a way of life for connecting devices to the Internet. With a wide range of silicon options available from a number of vendors, Wi-Fi is the world's most popular wireless local area network technology, hands down. Infrastructure mode requires an access point to function, which is fine when you're looking to connect back to the big bad I.

However, for ad hoc support, Wi-Fi hasn't been quite so good. Ever tried setting up an ad hoc, peer-to-peer network using Wi-Fi? Easy, it ain't. Bluetooth rules for personal area networking applications, with more than two billion chips shipped. All the cool kids here in Silicon Valley wear their Bluetooth earpieces all the time. (Wait, what? Huh?) But Bluetooth hasn't been great for synchronization, since much of the profile focus has gone towards applications like headsets and hands-free use. Wireless USB shoulda been a contender, but hasn't made it yet; skeptics believe it may never make it. Bluetooth 10x and 100x are going to be interesting; I look forward to the further development and delivery of both.

But, what I really look forward to testing is Cliffside. By using a split-MAC architecture, Intel's new Centrino 2 chipset enables a single chip to perform both infrastructure and ad hoc duties, delivering some very compelling new use cases. Synchronizing content between Wi-Fi enabled devices is now not only possible, it's easy--and doesn't require an access point. Local network access while on a VPN is now both safe and secure. Have you ever wanted to print something to your home printer, but you were connected to your enterprise VPN, which doesn't allow split tunneling? Cliffside's split-MAC capability would allow exactly that use case--secure local wireless connectivity in ad hoc mode, and secure infrastructure wireless connectivity while using your VPN.

I spent some time on Sunday with Scott Doenecke, who looks after Cliffside for Intel. He took me through a full demo, and seemed pretty excited that I'd actually sought out Cliffside on the show floor. I certainly wasn't the only one, but having dealt with split-MAC issues in conjunction with remote access using FIPS 140-2 validated cryptographic modules in a past life (buy me a beer), I'm digging what Cliffside enables.

In addition to the cool features mentioned above, Intel has both a Flash demo and an interview with Scott which will educate you on Cliffside.



No, Cliffside's not perfect. In fact, the capability isn't even available yet, but expect to see it enabled by the end of first quarter. The Centrino 2 chipset itself is shipping; look for a software download in the next couple of months to enable the split-MAC functionality. Cliffside will be available on a device-by-device basis within laptop manufacturers' lines, geared towards consumer (rather than enterprise) platforms initially.

And, since Apple doesn't use the Centrino 2, don't expect to see this on a Mac anytime soon, darn it anyway. Hopefully Cliffside will prove itself to be so useful that Apple will see the light; the iTunes remote control demo that Scott showed me made me want to call Apple and suggest that they have a look post-haste.


Use cases abound for Cliffside. No, this isn't as sexy as a TV the thickness of a hair, or of a Blu-ray promotion where I receive a free disc every week for the rest of my life, simply for buying a Blu-ray player. But, in terms of dramatically simplifying users' interactions with their devices, Cliffside has huge promise.

And might save us a bunch of time so we can go watch Blu-ray movies on our paper-thin TVs.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Waiting on Ponch and Jon

Trying to get caught up on some testing, post-CES. My desk feels like an episode of CHiPs--crashes all over the freakin' place. I've done a ground-up, ISO-image install of Windows 7 build 7000 on VMWare Fusion, running on Leopard (Kalyway), running on my 2 GB MSI Wind netbook--the ultimate in kink. Forget the feather--I'm using the whole chicken. Generally, Win7's running nicely, but I can't get the network stack to come up--neither NAT nor bridged are working, so I can't get to the 'net. For my 1 GB MSI Wind netbook (msiwindosx86.iso), I'm pulling down a torrent of a pre-built Win7 VMWare appliance to do a similar style install to see if that makes a difference; I'm sure that there's just a setting I'm missing somewhere, but this is annoying.

The newest build (4825) in the Boxee private alpha is now wicked fast, but is choking on the 5543 artists, 36192 songs, and 205+ gig of music I'm asking it to grok from iTunes. Having built an XBox Media Center using XBMC on an original Xbox in what was my most involved hack of 2008, I'm a big fan of what Boxee's doing, but this is also annoying me. After a bunch of ~10 second hangs, I'm just gonna let it run overnight to see if it somehow manages to recover. The Boxee team rocks, so I know that they'll have a fix for this soon, but I'm bummed that I picked tonight and this build to try to make some progress.

And, most annoyingly, I'm setting up magicJack on one of my sandbox machines, and it's asking for a raft of personal information. I absolutely understand the need for VOIP providers to map IP telephony services to physical addresses for 911 service resolution. However, with no link to magicJack's privacy policy, I have no way to know how they're going to use this data, which pisses me off thoroughly. Gimme terms of service and disclosure, and I'm happy to give you some information about me. No terms of service and disclosure? I'm John Q. Public, at 123 N. Any Street, New York, NY, 10001. Further, the "I elect to accept free outgoing service (recommended)" checkbox that's pre-checked...what the hell is that? Recommend by whom, exactly?

magicJack, you guys caught me on the wrong night. After filling in Mr. Public's information, I did finally reach a Terms of Service page. I do appreciate the fact that you've put in a TOS page; I don't appreciate the fact that A) when I select all the text in the TOS to copy and paste into a word processor for easier reading, I can't actually copy & paste, and B) the link to the TOS page on your website isn't clickable. Silly.

But wait, there's more.

Have you guys read your own TOS lately? I mean, I know that manufacturers don't expect users to actually read the TOS, just as few people read EULAs. But, whenever I'm suspect about information disclosure, I read 'em. In this case, I'm not sure what I'm most concerned about, but I'm concerned. I'm annoyed that Section 19 talks about "Upgraded Software described in Section 5 above", but that Section 5 doesn't actually talk about upgraded software, or software at all. What Section 5 does talk about is mandatory enrollment in magicJack's voluntary 911 service. Yes, gentle reader, you heard that right. Here's the exact phrase from Section 5 of the TOS: "when you register to use the magicJack device, you will be enrolled in magicJack's voluntary 911 service, if you register a U.S. service address". Uh, seriously? I'm enrolled in a voluntary service, that if I don't enroll, I can't use magicJack? Where's the 'voluntary' part of that equation?

I love the privacy policy, too: "Your registration data and certain other information about you are subject to this Terms of Service. You understand that by using the magicJack device you consent to magicJack's collection and use as set forth in these Terms of Service, including the transfer of this information to and from the United States and/or other countries for storage, processing and use by magicJack, its affiliates and business partners to provide you with information about communications-related service."

Yeah...not knowing which information is heading overseas gives me a real warm fuzzy. Brilliant.

The real catch-22 here is Section 20, which says "You represent and warrant that (a) all of the information provided by you to magicJack to use the magicJack device and Software is correct and current..." Well, no, actually, I don't. You play games, I play games.

Honestly, I want magicJack to work, and to be successful. Prior to picking up magicJack at the blogger party on Friday night, I'd heard very little about the product/service, aside from a few TV ads and random comments on the 'net. On Friday afternoon, I read an article about the founder's response to a number of stories relating to magicJack's business practices, its interaction with the Better Business Bureau, and its customers. I was so impressed by how straightforwardly the company founder seemed to honestly and accurately address each issue that I specifically mentioned it to magicJack's PR representative at the party.

Now, I'm having second thoughts.

magicJack, this is an easy fix. Hire an attorney with some background in online privacy law. Rewrite the nefarious (or potentially nefarious) parts. If there's truly nothing to worry about for the user community, don't leave in TOS loopholes large enough to allow you to introduce spam, Trojans, and other types of malware.

Consumers just want stuff to work. If magicJack works as promised, you'll have a happy and loyal customer base. If it doesn't work as promised, you'll go the way of the Gator, which I doubt is the outcome you're looking for. I hope that in my testing, it works beyond my wildest expectations. Heck, who can beat a year of calling using a USB analog terminal adapter? That's worth money, absolutely, but only if there's nothing hinky involved. Despite public assurances that there isn't, I'm wary, and will be until I've shaken down the product.

The shame here is that in the time it's taken me to write this up, I've gone through the activation process and made my first couple of phone calls, and the quality is great--my non-golden ears would probably assign a MOS right around 4.0, which is fantastic. But, there's one more voice in this conversation--the one in the back of my head that believes I should be running a port scanner in the background to see what's happening on my machine.

I'm in touch with magicJack's PR person, so I hope that they'll be able to provide some clarification as to when they expect to resolve (or at least address) these topics. I'll pass along what I hear as soon as they're back with me--they seem like good people, which is why I'm a little weirded out by the reputability issues.

Like I said, magicJack, you caught me on the wrong night. But, this would've been an issue any day of the week. Seriously.

CES: Recap, Thoughts and Favorites

CES rocked. CES always rocks. Sure, this year it may've rocked less than the past couple of years, but if you're in the consumer electronics market, you need to be there, full stop. This year flushed out quite a few companies that didn't belong over the past two years; I wouldn't be surprised if next year's show remains a similar size, although if rumors of Apple moving its trade show presence from Macworld to CES 2010 hold true, we might see some growth.

Show floor traffic was down, absolutely. The first and last hours on the show floor each day were lightly attended; mid-day traffic was decent, although not nearly overwhelming. Friends and colleagues reported in via e-mail, IM, and Twitter (@heycoop) throughout the course of the show; it's fair to say that no one in my crowd was disappointed by the fact that CES was less busy, to the point where the show was actually manageable this year.

That said, traffic to and from the convention center still sucked, even with tens of thousands fewer attendees than the past couple of years. Remind me again why I didn't stay on the monorail this year?

And, yet again, I totally missed the Sands. I'd love to see CEA open the Sands on Wednesday, a day earlier than the LVCC. They'd enjoy better traffic for Sands exhibitors, better attendance at the (excellent) keynotes, and enable attendees to have a more thorough CES experience overall.

Also, I didn't see anything earth-shattering this year in terms of serious break-through technologies. Inductive charging pads like Powermat are very cool, but they require either new industrial designs or new carrying cases to function. Yes, I want that technology, but it's not showing up in my house this year. A better option might be a charging station like the one from Idapt, providing a wide range of charging tips for drop-in charging. On the one hand, it's a very cool capability, to simply drop your device onto the charging tip. Further, this design enables me to keep my gadget chargers in my bag so I never forget them when I'm on the road. On the other hand, I'm not sure I need to spend cash and space for a charging unit like this, since I can just keep plugging my devices into their respective chargers, assuming I can remember to grab all the chargers when I do hit the road. Beyond that, with the vast majority of the industry moving to micro-USB (again, I reference Anton Wahlman's excellent post on the topic), I'm not sure how long I'd need a charging unit like this. I mean, my life is all about gadgets, all of which need to be powered somehow; I really do like the Idapt offering, but I'm not sure I'll be jumping on it anytime soon unless they offer me a review unit.


So, onto favorites...
Favorite software application: AstoundStereo, a stereo expander for Macs and Windows PCs. Lots of folks don't realize that the process of ripping/encoding a CD (or downloading music from iTunes, et.al.) in MP3 format delivers a song with dramatically less information than the original, due to the lossy nature of MP3 compression--the tradeoff being, MP3 files take a fraction of the space of the original songs. The resulting file is much smaller, delivering a correspondingly narrower range of fidelity. Expanders attempt to re-create the higher fidelity experience present in the original audio track. I've downloaded the free 30-day trial from Astound's website, and am running it on my MacBook, my Mac Mini, and my MSI Wind netbook. On each, the audio experience is dramatically improved; on the netbook, whose speakers deliver output that's generously described as tinny, the experience is night and day. I was listening to my netbook in my hotel room in Las Vegas, and couldn't believe how bad the sound was; after installing AstoundStereo, I was able to move beyond the lousy sound and actually enjoy my music. Definitely worth the $29.95 license, which they're knocking down to $19.95 through the end of January.


Favorite hardware: I'm not a DJ, but I absolutely loved the Pacemaker, a handheld DJ system from Stockholm-based Tonium. DJ friends of mine have evolved from carrying turntables with milk crates of LPs, to compact disc players with milk crates of CDs, to laptops, to multiple iPods, all of which have typically required some type of external board to enable proper mixing, cueing, fading, etc. The Pacemaker embeds all of those capabilities in a single, 120 GB hard drive-based device, while adding useful features like beat matching, independent mixing, and a whole bunch more--all in a single, hand-held unit which can live for 5 hours on battery power. Freakin' cool.



Favorite accessory: Cocoon's Grid Technology. Cocoon Innovations launched a number of items at the show; while their bags are extremely cool, the technology inside them was even cooler. Cocoon's patented elastic organization straps offer endless flexibility for organizing everything in your bag. I carry too much stuff, all of which is typically at the bottom of my bag. With Cocoon's Grid, I finally have a place for my stuff. George Carlin (R.I.P.) would approve.


Favorite cell phone case: I didn't attend Macworld (or as Dean called it, iPhonecaseworld), but CES did have its fair share of mobile device cases. For the second year in a row, my favorite device case comes from OtterBox. I'm not Victor Kiam, but I like their stuff so much that I use an OtterBox case for my BlackBerry Curve. I drop my Curve about once a month, whether I need to or not; I hope I'm not jinxing myself here, but to date, the OtterBox case has saved me multiple times. Pictured here is OtterBox' new case for the BlackBerry Storm. Despite the fact that I absolutely cannot use virtual keyboards, I highly recommend the OtterBox case for those who do--the typing experience on the Storm (or on an iPhone) is exactly the same in an OtterBox, with the added value of drop protection. As with their other cases, OtterBox has designed a case that makes a good tradeoff between robust protection and bulk; the Storm case isn't on the website yet, but keep an eye out over the coming weeks.




Favorite building block: FlatWire's flat HDMI wire. The wire is, uh, flat. You're gonna look at this and decide whether you think it's cool or not. If you don't think so, move on. If you do, look at the photos, then hit their website for more. To summarize, they're taking their existing flat wire technology and adapting it for carriage of HDMI. The wires require a physical connector to be punched into the wire itself, hence the white junction box with the HDMI connector at either end. I was so speechless at how cool this was that I forgot to ask about the maximum distance supported, but you can paint over it, mud over it, and more. With a price point expected to be at least double that of regular HDMI cables, this won't be for everyone, but a lot of folks will immediately understand the value simply by looking at the above images.



Favorite device for my parents: While I saw lots of network-connected photo frames, I still don't think they're ready for me to have a point-and-click dashboard where I can determine which photos to sync to multiple remote frames over the cloud. So, while I know that this category has huge legs, my favorite device this year is the LG Decoy, a cell phone with a built-in Bluetooth headset. No, this isn't new--in fact, the Decoy has been out since last summer. And no, it's not perfect--many reviewers have commented on the shortcomings of the device in terms of audio quality and battery life. But, in a world where more and more states are mandating hands-free cellular phone use, and where we all hate having to remember to charge yet another device, a phone with an embedded, detachable headset is a great idea. Your neighborhood geek won't like the Decoy, but your parents will--assuming they're Verizon customers, of course. I asked LG if they hold patent protection on this design; they said they didn't, which shocks me, as I'd've expected other companies to have introduced similar designs by now. Maybe they will in 2009.

Favorite reception/party: It Won't Stay in Vegas, the blogger party at the Atomic Testing Museum. I had a ton of interesting conversations with bloggers and vendor sponsors from across the consumer electronics spectrum; look for upcoming reviews on Burton's Acoustibuds, magicJack, Monster's Outlets To Go, and more. I hope I make the cut again next year.

Favorite TV: All of 'em. Thin to win. 240 Hz. Local dimming. Lower power consumption. Built-in DLNA. Widgets. Over-the-top delivery. I want 'em all, and I want 'em now. I want 3D while I'm at it. Hell, why not.

Favorite demo: I saw a lot of wireless high-def demos this week; in fact, of the 100,000 plus attendees at CES, I can say with a high (def?) degree of confidence that very few if any people saw more wireless high-def demos than I did. I'll have a full recap and comparison of each solution in the coming days; for now, I want to focus on the most compelling demo I saw, from an Israeli company called Celeno. Having spent 18 months in a previous life traveling the world with TVs, DVD players, and wireless devices for demo purposes, I thought I'd seen most methods of doing a wireless high-def demo.

I'm not ashamed to admit I was wrong.

This year was my second-busiest CES ever, so I didn't make it to Celeno's booth till 3:30 on Sunday afternoon. Weaving and wending my way through South Halls 3 and 4, the aisles littered with the detritus of early tear-down, I hoped against hope that the Celeno guys would still be at their booth. Thankfully, they were. I spent a couple of minutes speaking with Kapriel Karagozyan, Celeno's Boston-based VP of Sales. Kapriel then showed me a demo, which was anything but the same ol' same ol' wireless high-def demo; instead, we went on walkabout.


Celeno's transmit-side demo was a Blu-ray player connected to a reference design they've built in conjunction with Cavium Networks; the design uses Celeno's Wi-Fi chipset combined with the PureVu H.264 chipset from Cavium (nee W&W Communications). The receive-side demo was a Samsung TV connected to the PureVu system, using an off-the-shelf 802.11n MIMO chipset. Most interestingly, the receive-side demo was mobile, sitting on a battery-powered cart. Actually, the demo was battery-powered; the cart was Kapriel-powered.


This view shows us after rolling about 30 or 40 feet from the Celeno booth, which was in the second blue-carpeted aisle, to the left (as you look at it) of the support post. This was interesting, particularly knowing that the high ceilings of the convention center don't provide much of the reflection needed to optimize 11n's MIMO capabilities, but I wasn't that impressed.


Onward we pushed. (Actually, Kapriel pushed; I just kept saying "Dude!" every 10 feet or so.) When we were finally about 140 feet from the Celeno booth, the demo began to break up. Knowing just how difficult it is to deliver high definition TV wirelessly, I was absolutely flabbergasted. To give you some idea of just how far away we were, see if you can find Kapriel in the following picture.


If you click on the final image, then look very closely, you'll be able to see a TV screen in the middle of the image, a loooooong ways away. That's the receiver. I'm standing about 140 feet from the booth, where the HD video signal finally broke down; Kapriel is ~90 feet from me, waving, on his way back to the booth. Mind-boggling.

Kudos to the Celeno team for delivering a hugely compelling demo, one that won over even me, a guy who's seen just about every wireless high-def demo in existence.

In the next couple of days, I'll give you the rundown on many of them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

CES: Why Not To Tear Down Early

Over the years, I've had some of my most interesting conversations in the waning seconds of CES. That happened again this year, although I was the one approaching the booth, rather than the one waiting for the final bell. With less than 30 minutes to go till closing, I experienced the most compelling demo I saw this year. Stay tuned for who I'm talking about.

CES: With a Half-Day To Go...

I feel like I have the show floor to myself...and that's not necessarily a good thing...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

CES: Windows Coffee Maker?

Somewhere, Joe DiMaggio is rolling over in his grave.

For those of you too young to remember, Joe D was the face of Mr. Coffee; when I was a kid, there was no Starbucks, no tall soy latte, no "lifestyle" associated with coffee. You made it at home, and were looked at funny if you were too rich or too foolhardy to do so.

Coffee came pre-ground in a big can, and you used one of Joltin' Joe's coffee makers to brew it. You just did.

Now, coffee and everything surrounding coffee has evolved. The old coffee ecosystem was a can of coffee, a Mr. Coffee, paper filters, an old mug, and maybe some cream & sugar and a wooden stir. Today, it's obviously a whole different world. And, yesterday, the coffee ecosystem got a little weirder.

That's right--the networked coffee maker.

I'm actually a huge fan of the capabilities Microsoft and their partners are bringing to bear here, and it's certainly generating enough discussion to get folks writing about it. (Guilty)

Don't focus on the coffee maker. Focus on the serious, useful, real-world applications like digital photo frame synchronization over the network. That's awesome, and it's coming soon.

Precious few of you likely remember the SNMP toaster, so we'll save that discussion for another time. Good stuff here from Microsoft...I look forward to being able to buy some of these devices embedded with smarts--but I think I'll take a pass on the coffee maker. I might be a Cubs fan, but I'd feel weird slighting Joe D.

Friday, January 9, 2009

CES: It Won't Stay in Vegas

With a half-hour left to go in the blogger party, it's safe to say this has been one of my more enjoyable CES parties ever. Lots of folks who're excited about consumer electronics, great vendor support (thanks!), and a totally enthusiastic vibe.

Plus, nice schwag. Reviews to come over the next week.

CES: Vizio Visit

I was fortunate to spent an hour with Ken Lowe, one of Vizio's co-founders. Like so many companies this year, Vizio isn't on the show floor, but has taken a ballroom at Wynn.

As you'd expect, I saw a lot of TVs. LCD, plasma, high-end, mid-range, value, 120 Hz, 240 Hz, big, small, and in-between.

Of the two dozen or so models they were showing, I coveted three. One is a prototype/proof-of-concept device that I referred to as the BFI--big (friggin') iPod. Seriously...take an iPod, blow it up to TV size, and stick it on a pole. I didn't think to ask, but I believe it was a 47". And it looked WAAAY cool. Of course, it didn't have a touch-screen...that'd be a little counter-productive. Fingerprints on a TV aren't a very good idea.

The second was a 240 Hz LCD, which showed zero blurring motion. The demo didn't necessarily make me covet a Vizio TV, but as with every 240 Hz demo I've seen, I came away favorably impressed.

The third was a 55" LCD in their XVT line, which I'm seriously considering as my next TV. Blacks still aren't *truly* black; forthcoming XVT models using hundreds of local dimming regions will get to true black, but it'll be a few months before that's available. Despite that, the 55" panel has an MSRP of $1999, meaning you can pick it up for less than that at your local warehouse store. I expect to see aggressive price offerings from all TV manufacturers and retailers across the board in the next couple of weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, so you might want to keep your eyes pealed.

All that said, the Vizio device that I covet most (and WILL be buying) isn't a TV. It's a sound bar. Vizio announced a (IIRC) $349 sound bar last summer, whose shipping is imminent. When you consider that as of last summer, a lot of folks considered the $1000+ Yamaha sound bar to be state-of-the-art, a price point of less than half that makes a lot of folks stand up and take notice. The price point alone is compelling, but it's the capability that I find so cool--the sound bar delivers the 5 channels via the stylish bar placed below the TV, but the fact that the subwoofer (the .1 part of 5.1 sound) is wireless seals the deal. This isn't crap wireless, either--this is high-quality wireless audio delivered using award-winning silicon. The flexibility of combining a sound bar and a wireless sub is exactly what I need in our home, since pulling wires to do a proper 5.1 install is difficult and pricey. True audiophiles typically consider sound bars to be heresy, but this is the best option I've found for our home.

Vizio's done an awesome job of working their way up the value chain over the past couple of years. I think that a lot of the marquee names in TV have been napping while Vizio has somewhat stealthily made themselves into not just a company providing value-priced TVs, but one providing high-quality TVs at great price points. No, you won't confuse a Vizio TV with a Pioneer Elite TV, but you won't pay nearly as much, either. In today's economy, Vizio's looking better than ever...wow factor isn't the most important factor for success. The mix of a wide range of choices, at a quality/price-point combo that's considered sufficient for each buying demographic, should lead to further success for Vizio for years to come.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

CES: Some Points From Day Zero

Day Zero trends of interest at CES--still trying to grok everything I saw before the doors opened.

Green, green, green. I’ve asked a couple of cab drivers and a number of fellow blackjack players what they think green means. Pretty much universally, no one has a clue. But most folks think it’s a good idea, whatever it is. Me too.

Wireless high-def. Even more people talking about wireless high-def (including announcements by LG, Panasonic, and others), but I stand by my earlier prediction--nothing that’ll blow your socks off value-wise in time for the holiday 2009 selling season. I specifically asked the panel at this morning’s Parks Connections Summit when we would see a $30 BOM to enable a $100 (at retail) embedded TV receiver and a $100 external sender. I received the same answers I’ve received over the last year (which were the same answers I myself gave in 2006-2007). Volume will drive this, certainly, but the answer I wanted was “Holiday 2009”. I didn’t get it.

Local dimming. The ability to turn off power to regions of the screen (enabling LCD blacks to actually look as black as plasma’s blacks, rather than a really dark gray) is being embraced much more widely this year. I saw a soon-to-ship LCD TV yesterday whose black actually looked black. Shocking! Demos in 2006 and 2007 were science projects, while CES 2008 demos from Dolby, Sharp, Toshiba, and others were basically educational in nature. This year, local dimming really seems to be hitting home. I’m not nearly well-educated enough on TV manufacturing technologies to claim that this is another nail in the coffin of plasma, but the weight and energy savings of LCD combined with real blacks and reduction/elimination of motion blur by moving to 240 Hz makes me question how plasma responds to stay relevant.

Over-the-top content. Whether we’re talking about Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Unbox, Intel/Yahoo widgets, and lots more options, over-the-top content delivered via IP is finally here to stay. I will admit that I’m NOT a huge fan of all sorts of technology embedded in the television itself that isn’t the television itself. I remember sitting in a lab in Suwon in early 1997, looking at a TV with a PC inside of it. Then, it made no economic sense to take a component with a four-year useful life cycle (the PC) and put it inside of a device consumers purchased and kept for an average of 15 years. Today, with replacement cycles in the living room less than half that, one could argue that embedding isn’t such a bad idea; one could also argue that it’s a helluva lot cheaper to not burden the TV with the cost adder of the feature. I’m in the latter camp. To date, the only truly successful consumer electronics combo product has been the clock radio, although camera phones are getting there. I have no doubt that network-connected TVs are the wave of the future, but I question how many “services” TV manufacturers should bundle in, due to their added cost. I’m sure I’m sounding like a Luddite here, but I think that replacing a media adapter (to deliver more functionality) every couple of years is preferable to just having a TV’s services die on the vine after a few years. That said, the TV guys have rushed to include these features; since we’re now getting to the point of Netflix & YouTube connectivity being checkbox features, manufacturers ignore this trend at their peril.

Lots more to come. Gotta run.

CES First Look: Joby Zivio Boom Bluetooth Headset

  • Great industrial design--looks very cool, boom seems to provide good audio pickup
  • Advertised 10-hour battery life would be an absolute godsend
  • LOVE, and I mean LOVE the use of micro-USB; check out my buddy Anton Wahlman’s post on what to expect with micro-USB
  • Nice slim charging block with 2 USB ports, enabling charging of a second device
  • Great industrial design--looks very cool, boom seems to provide good audio pickup
  • Telescoping boom may enable better sound quality; rather than requiring a physical connection to the cheek for noise canceling (a la the Jawbone), its proximity to the mouth itself may prove to deliver better audio quality on the other end
  • Earpiece’s ability to swivel 360 degrees around an axis allows for great customization
That said, I haven’t found a fit that I like yet. If you’re a long-time reader (and if not, where’ve you been?), you’ll know that I’ve taken Aliph to task for the crap earpieces they ship with the Jawbone 2. However, once I put the Jabra mini-gel on my Jawbone 2 (about 10 seconds after I bought it), I was able to remove the earhook and use the JB2 by itself. Joby seems to have learned from Aliph’s shortcomings; they ship 6 different earpieces, along with an earhook that’s magnetic, allowing even further customization. 3 of the earpieces are rubbery eargels; the other 3 are thin rubber designed to fit in the ear canal itself, similar to etymotic earphones. I’m on my fourth earpiece in the last day-plus, now using the medium-sized thin rubber piece. Sound quality on my side has been good, with volume being outstanding. I’ve been limited time-wise in my ability to do much audio testing the last day-plus, but on a call today between two of us using Zivios, we were both very satisfied with the audio.

Of course, with the Zivio boom extended, I think I look like the 2009 version of Ernestine. But, since I have a face made for radio, one ringy-dingy may be an improvement.