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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

On Monday, the Tech Club brought David Pogue to the Stanford GSB where he delivered a talk on failed consumer devices.  I had the pleasure of driving David from the city where he was keynote speaker at FailCon to the Stanford GSB for the talk.  The talk was exceptionally insightful and also funny in Pogue’s unique style.  I think his background as a Broadway guy really helps when he’s giving talks as he is able to make them very lively and entertaining.

David talked about his problems with the New Office for Mac 2011 (which I had a chance to quiz him on the ride in the car as well) and the first Blackberry Storm that was riddled with bugs.  It was a great opportunity to hear from someone who is an expert at judging the consumer experience on devices.  David seemed to have strong feelings about engineers not being well suited for designing products as well, I was not completely convinced by that argument.

He was gracious, took a lot of time to answer questions and was amazingly nice to every person who spoke to him.  I’m officially a fan.  A lot of things didn’t go super smoothly, we went a lot later than planned, food was late, etc. but David never complained about anything.

Talking about food, I actually served the 200 or so people who showed up Sri Lankan food from Kadupul (Lakdiva Foods).  It was good, only if they had shown up within an hour of the agreed upon time!

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I’ve been comparing the VOD services offered by Amazon and Netflix. Both services definitely have value but for someone comparing them, its important to know the key differences.

I used my PS3’s Netflix Streaming disc to check out the Netflix service and used Panasonic’s Vieracast on my TV for Amazon’s VOD: both using the same network connection via wired ethernet.

Interface: Netflix has really figured out a great way to show your queue (on the PS3 streaming disc) and show selected movies available for viewing. This looks almost like the cover flow on an iPod. As long as what you want to watch is in the selection Netflix shows, the interface works well. However, I couldn’t find any way to easily search for movies or go beyond the few shown on screen. Way around this is to add to your queue on a PC before starting things up on the PS3 disc.

Amazon’s interface is not that smooth. Buying a new episode required getting an additional “key” from amazon. But once you had the material on your list, Amazon interface was a breeze, easily utilizing the remote for pausing, forwarding etc. However, I preferred netflix’s approach of showing where you are forwarding to rather than going back or forward by minutes without knowing where you would jump to on Amazon.

Content:

Amazon is a clear winner on this. Netflix has a lot of older, less popular titles and some badly encoded (low quality) starz streams while Amazon has the latest available content and typically what you really want to watch is on Amazon.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the cost difference is HUGE. Netflix charges as little as $9 a month for unlimited access to their database of streamed content, while Amazon charges individually. $1.99 for a TV episode, $2.99 in HD, $3.99+ for a movie etc. These can add up very quickly. So as I said before, both services have a place in the overall value landscape.

Video Quality:

Amazon at least during my tests came out as clear winner. There was almost no buffering and the experience was just like watching HD TV. Netflix buffered and the actual content seemed to be more compressed, coming out slightly grainy. I’ve tested out Netflix before using a laptop connected to a TV with Heroes and been very impressed with the quality. But high quality content like Heroes or Dexter is few and far between. Starz where you will find most of the things you want to watch on netflix seems to deliberately lower the quality making the content grainy.

Panasonic has still not incorporated Netflix into Vieracast for 2009 model TVs, which is unfortunate. They do have a box labeled “coming soon” but no indication of when Netflix will actually make that transition. Panasonic, get on it!

Look forward to hearing your thoughts on either of these services or any other alternative VOD services you use (except Comcast: long story but Comcast has so many billing errors [some might even be deliberate] that the user experience is miserable).

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Amazon recently acquired the New York based start-up Touchco, which was working on a revolutionary new touch screen technology at the time. Coming right on the heels of the iPad announcement, it’s easy to assume what this means for the Kindle: potentially color and a touch screen.  If Touchco’s technology is what it was promised to be, this could also come at a relatively low-cost (apparently the touch screen technology only costs about $10 a square foot and is remarkably power efficient as well). In addition the technology can distinguish between finger touches and pen marks, which may lead to a device that incorporates handwriting recognition as well as gestures.

There’s one catch. As of last year Touchco was a small company with a technology that seemed promising but not quite commercial yet. So, how soon can the benefits of the acquisition be realized? The iPad as we know will be in the hands of consumers in about 60 days.  It’s important that Amazon not give up the momentum that it has built-in the e-reader space and allow the iPad’s ebook marketplace to take market share.

This depends on how Amazon plans to use the acquisition and Touchco’s technology. If Amazon was already working on the next generation Kindle at its Cupertino based Lab126, and is really looking for some final touches and people from Touchco, we could see a new product relatively soon. Lab126 which introduced us to the Kindle and has played a significant role in revolutionizing the e-reader market, has been recruiting aggressively over the last few months. This suggests that something big is definitely in process.

If I were to make a guess though, I would guess that Amazon was not working on the touch aspect and this is an attempt to get up the curve quickly there. Unfortunately, that would put the development of a touch screen based Kindle at least an year away (likely longer).

I think from Amazon’s perspective, it’s important to get this right. We’ve seen what poorly implemented touch screens can do to the reading experience with the Sony reader. I for one am interested to see what the new device looks like. Lab126 has several former Palm and Apple executives in its ranks, so they should be able to come up with something that competes with Apple’s world class industrial engineering and user experience focus.

Amazon is probably also working hard to improve its Kindle for iPhone app to work on the iPad. Although the app should work as is, almost with no changes at all, it’s important that the company focus on the demands of a big screen. Users are unlikely to be happy with the current blog, magazine and newspaper reading layouts when they have flashy competing apps on the iPad. Amazon must come up with something like what the New York Times did with the great Times Reader app which is an amazingly cool way to show newspaper content on a computer screen.

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iPad: Image from Engadget.
iPad: Image from Engadget.

Earlier this morning, Apple unveiled the iPad, a 10 inch, 1.5lb  “tablet PC like” device that Apple promises will revolutionize media. You’ve probably heard a lot about the iPad already but I wanted to share what I thought about the device and what I think might actually make it a success.

First, the bad:

– It’s basically a larger iPhone (or iPod Touch if you are looking at the lower priced wifi only version)

– No multi tasking capabilities at all, no looking at email while working on a document, no multiple windows of things running etc: this ones a bummer.

– Still running a version of iPhone OS, so if you had hopes of a more general version of OS X, you’ll be disappointed.

The pluses:

– The biggest positive for the Apple iPad is its pricing. The pricing is REALLY aggressive. Starts at $499 and costs $830 for the high end 3G model. On the face these do look like much higher numbers than the iPhone, but what makes this remarkable is that there is no required contract with a wireless carrier. With the iPhone you would basically be putting thousands of dollars into a cell phone carriers pocket and would be locked into a long-term contract, no longer the case!

– Amazing battery life: if we believe Apple, it’s 10 hours!, and Apple seemed to suggest that you could get significant numbers of hours for just video play as well. The new A4 processor seems very power efficient while providing very responsive performance levels.

– AT&T is offering it’s $30 unlimited data plan on the iPad. I’m really curious to see how that will work out. If the iPhone put strains on the network, this device with a 10 inch screen will really tax AT&T’s network. It’s aggressive, but they probably see how much the iPhone did for them as a company and are hoping for more of the same from the iPad.

– So, although this runs iPhone OS (apparently version 3.2..), the larger screen does open up the App market for much more “serious apps,” as Apple showed with the iWork app for the device. And this could really be the market that Apple is going after. When you think about it, the Kindle DX costs only $10 less than the basic iPad and provides drastically fewer features and services. Possible markets based on what Apple showed could include: iWork/Office type stuff, graphic design/photo editing (using the multi-touch screen)

– This could be the dream gaming device. With 10 hours of battery life (according to apple), think of Starcraft or Warcraft running on this, with the touch interface. This thing was made to run real time strategy games. With the web connectivity MMORPG – massively multiplayer online role playing games could also find that suddenly their addressable market is much larger if these sell. Obviously, there’s also a lot of more traditional action games that will run comfortably on this device as well.

– ebooks: Apple is really going after Amazon here, anyone who looks at a kindle for a few hours and then looks at the same book on the iPad will be wowed by the color, the vibrancy etc. I still love my Kindle and the eye strain that comes from looking at a non e-ink screen I think will be overlooked by consumers who largely spend all day looking and reading things on computer screens anyway. Pricing here was a little more iffy, it sounds like Apple will not be pricing books to compete with Amazon (they seem to be targeting a $15 price. But because of the additional functionality, the color displays, ability to display textbooks correctly etc, they might be successful there too. We’ll have to see what the software looks like, but any problems can easily be corrected with updates to their book reader software so, this will be big on the iPad I think.

– docking capabilities: including a full physical keyboard. Apparently this will also work with standard bluetooth keyboards. I think this is a big positive as well. Also includes a “camera kit” that will allow you to transfer photos from camera SD cards to the iPad.

The bottom line is though, the price is low enough for consumers to bite at this thing, and it will have enough to keep early adopters satisfied. I for one, plan to line up for this when it releases in two months (three months for the 3G version).

For those who are willing to wait, faster online connections and multi tasking can’t be that far away.

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Apple Tablet? Image: Slashgear.

Apple Tablet? Image: Slashgear.

In an article today the NY Times positioned the new device Apple is expected to announce tomorrow as the last hope for old media. The article also revealed some details about the device that had previously only been rumor.

Quoting “analysts and others who have been briefed on the device” the Times laid out the following:

– Persistent wireless connection over 3G and WiFi

– 10 inch color display customized for “newspapers, magazines and book publishers”

– It will run all current iPhone and iPod Touch applications  (which would suggest some form of the current iPhone OS running on the device)

– Quoted EA as saying: “Big media companies should be all over this like a cheap suit”

– NY Times is building a version of its newspaper for the tablet already

– Apple will market it not just as a way to read news, books and other material, but also a way for companies to charge for all that content through iTunes

– The Times has considered this an important enough device to create a special segment called “Reader Applications” for it with Yasmin Namini as head

Some interesting quotes: “Steve believes in old media companies and wants them to do well” but also “This opportunity, however, comes with a sizable catch: Steven P. Jobs”

Anyway, we only have a day to wait for the announcement: tomorrow should be exciting!  I for one am hoping for something a lot better than just a gigantic iPhone.

Outside of the NYTimes the rumor mill is still churning:

One strong rumor is that Barnes and Noble will be the book provider for the tablet, and this has Barnes and Noble stock going through the roof today. After B&Ns recent attempts to defraud the consumer, I hope this one is NOT true. Partner with the kindle store! please?

Also, apparently Verizon is the provider of choice, hmm.

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Facebook Logo.

Facebook Logo: Copyright Facebook.

Yesterday, I gave my Facebook password to my wife and asked her to lock me out of Facebook for a week.  I was spending too much time on Facebook, it was all too easy to spend hours online catching up, especially during exam season or recruiting season where there’s plenty of other things to do.

As I was thinking about this, I was wondering what would happen if the disgruntled parents of teenagers or employers unhappy with unproductive employees got together and a social resistance emerged against Facebook kind of like the way smoking or illegal drugs etc are looked down upon.

The more I thought about this, the more realistic the possibility seems. How many of us thought we would spend this much time on Facebook, even two years ago? I for one did not. The growth is still exponential, and Facebook has added in a lot of new claws to keep you engaged once you are on, games, apps, etc. How dissimilar is it really to lets say smoking? Can we quantify the benefit we get from our 600 online friends? What it takes away can definitely be quantified.

Anyway, this is not an anti-Facebook post, I love Facebook, it’s just that it just feels a little uncontrolled right now. And with anything uncontrolled, anything is possible.  I can’t imagine this is not something that Facebook has thought about as well, as “Facebook Addicts Anonymous” type groups have sprung up. How then would they tackle this? Would they take away the little social apps and games that everyone loves and have a 1,000 startup companies excited? I can think of a lot of people cringing at that idea. What then?

Let me know what you think.

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I wanted to write a couple of words about my experience with Amazon VOD on my Panasonic Viera Cast TV.

I used an HD episode of Dexter to test things out and came away very impressed.  Obviously, I’m connected to the Stanford network which I’m sure has a lot more bandwidth than most home connections do, but even then Amazon delivered pristine picture quality that I could not tell apart from OTA HD delivered to my TV. The sound quality was great too. Viera Cast did change my color/display settings on the Panasonic G10 a little bit but I was able to manually tweak it back. I wasn’t super happy to see that the “THX”, “factory configured” display settings were not available for Viera Cast videos.

The user interface for Amazon on Viera Cast is not amazing but it’s functional enough, with links to my video library and previous purchases available.  The reason I decided to check Viera Cast out now was because I was told that Netflix was now available on Viera Cast. Unfortunately it appears that at least as of now, there is NO viera cast Netflix support for pre-2010 Panasonic TVs: hopefully this will be remedied very shortly with a firmware update, fingers crossed!

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