This weekend I took my mind off the mess unfolding on Wall Street, and the rain outside my window by engaging in an overdue project to repair the LCD panel on my IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad T43p. In the process I recalled why I've owned a succession of Thinkpads and why they represent better value than a lot of other notebook computers on the market.
Even a computer as solidly constructed as the Thinkpad will break eventually, and mine was no exception. In this case the LCD backlight was malfunctioning, sometimes starting up with an orange glow and sometimes refusing to work altogether. Had the warranty still been in force I could have had it fixed in a day, but the machine was three years old and the repair would cost hundreds of dollars. Fortunately, IBM provides complete documentation on their web site for how to fix it yourself, and there are third-party sites that go beyond IBM's extensive documentation.
The majority of manufacturers seem to think that their notebooks are too complex to be serviced by end users, or anyone outside the factory for that matter. Go to the Apple web site and see if you can find instructions for anything more complicated than swapping a disk drive or upgrading RAM. The Dell site is much better, providing instructions for repairs as intricate as replacing the system board. But none go as far as Lenovo, which provides a several hundred page PDF on each individual model with detailed diagrams that describe how to get things apart. More importantly, they provide helpful hints on puting it back together as well - something that I appreciated when trying to recall how a cable was routed or which size screw went in which hole.
An especially nice touch is the way the screw holes are labeled on the bottom of the machine. Notice the icons next to the screws in the photograph, indicating which screws need to be removed when servicing the keyboard, installing RAM, etc. These reinforce the information from the manual and present it right there where you need it. And if you don't have a metric ruler handy to distinguish among the different size screws, a number next to each hole corresponds to a life-size diagram on the back.
In the Thinkpad line IBM estabished a practice of respecting its customers. That practice appears to have carried over to Lenovo when it purchased the IBM business. Now that Lenovo is completely independent of IBM I hope that practice continues.
The first of the long-awaited Google Android phones was announced today by T-Mobile, the HTC G1. Available in the US on October 22 for $179 with a 2-year contract, it is the first serious competition to the Apple iPhone. Like the iPhone it has a large, color touch screen, a real Web browser, 3G data connectivity, 802.11 b/g, Bluetooth, camera, etc. Most importantly, it has a complete application development environment and an application store. Unlike Apple's version, the G1 app store is completely open and does not require a developer to get approval from Google, T-Mobile, or HTC, something that in Apple's case has kept some applications off the market that Apple or AT&T felt would compete with their existing products or services. The processor is the Qualcomm MSM7201A, a 32 bit ARM chip that is slightly faster than the part in the iPhone.
Some other features of the G1 that have been missing from the iPhone are:
Hardware QWERTY keyboard
Multitasking allowing an app to run in the background
Copy & paste
One-click contextual search
Multimedia Messaging (MMS)
Micro SD slot (up to 8 GB)
Some features which are still missing from both the iPhone and the G1:
Ability to tether to a laptop to function as a modem
There form-factor is not as sleek as the iPhone, leading some people to question whether the G1 will have the same mass appeal, and the touch-screen lacks the iPhone's two-fingered "pinch" technique for zooming. The music store is Amazon's instead of Apple's, and the network is T-Mobile, which is still in the process of rolling out its HSDPA network. There are actually two email applications, one that is closely coupled to GMail and the other that is used for connecting to other services via IMAP. There is no desktop or server-based synch to Outlook or Exchange.
There are some features that were planned for Android 1.0 but dropped at the last minute, such as the GTalkService and the Bluetooth API. Some of the missing features, such as video playback, are available from the application store. Presumably others will be provided by third party developers, perhaps testing T-Mobile's commitment to openness with applications that enable tethering or video uploads.
An open question is whether Google and T-Mobile are prepared to spend the kind of marketing money Apple did to create consumer enthusiasm. For now, the enthusiasm is mostly in the tech community which is thrilled to have a phone that offers an open development platform.
The G1 and other Android phones that are sure to follow are a test of whether the openness of the Android platform will result in a cornucopia of useful applications that will prove more attractive than those arising from the more restrictive model Apple has enforced or whether they will just create mass confusion and a longing for a world where Steve decides what apps are good for us. And the real test is whether either platform expands the "smart phone" category beyond the current hipster niche into the mainstream of mobile phones.
The complete specs of the G1 can be found on the HTC site.
Since Skype petioned the FCC in February, 2007 for a wireless version of the Carterfone decision to order the wireless carriers to allow their customers to escape the "walled garden" and use the handset and applications of their choice, more than 4,000 comments have been filed, and the carriers have taken some voluntary steps towards openness. Verizon announced their Any Apps, Any Device option in November, although details have been slow to emerge. AT&T followed up with a similar announcement, although since their network uses GSM it has always been open to any phone that would accept a SIM card. And of course the FCC auctioned off some 700 MHz spectrum under rules requiring open access.
Last week Skype submitted a strongly worded letter complaining that the carriers were backsliding, citing speeches at the recent CTIA Wireless I.T. and Entertainment show such as by Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse, who said "The big Internet can be daunting...There can be too much choice" and T-Mobile U.S. Chairman Robert Dobson's "Unfettered access would be a pretty bad experiment. There needs to be some stewardship or control."
The Skype letter includes a Reuters report which describes the mood of the meeting:
"Let's take a poll of the audience," said Lowell McAdam, the chief executive and president of Verizon Wireless. "Would any of you like to put any device and any application on any network?"
McAdam was caught off guard as the audience erupted into cheers, applause and a significant number raised their hands.
"I think we have to be careful to not all run to one side of the ship," he said, and then painted a picture of a "Wild West" frontier with unbridled open access.
Meantime, the conservative think tank, the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, issued a policy bulletin which purported to show how decoupling handset purchases from long-term contracts would probably raise handset prices more than it would reduce monthly service bills. I think their model makes too many simplifying assumptions which just happen to support their point of view, but they do make a case that part of the handset subsidy comes from the carriers belief that by restricting the user's choice of handsets they can sell more expensive services, e.g. by keeping VoIP off the handset they can sell higher-priced voice services. The issue the report does not address is the long term benefit of innovative products and services which might result from greater freedom to interconnect devices and applications.
One is reminded that the FCC's 1968 Carterfone decision set in motion the events which led to the growth of today's telecommunication industry. One doubts that Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint would rather that had not happened. Sort of like the way the movie industry must be glad that they did not succeed killing the VCR and DVD.
Note: You won't find the relevant documents on the FCC site by searching for "Skype" or even the Docket Number, RM-11361. Instead, you need to go to the Search for Filed Comments - ECFS page and under Proceeding, enter RM-11361.
I had an enlightening conversation yesterday with a class from Texas A&M University.
Back when I was a graduate student at MIT, the focus of my research was on computer recognition of hand-drawn sketches. This was in the Architecture Machine Group, part of the Department of Architecture, and the work was part of an ongoing effort to advance the state of tools for architects and designers. (This turned out to be part of a much larger problem in how people interacted with computers and digital media, and the Architecture Machine Group morphed into what is now the MIT Media Laboratory).
Sketch Recognition, like machine vision, is the process of taking raw data, in this case from a data tablet, extracting features such as lines and curves, and ultimately determining what three-dimensional objects those lines and curves represent. The initial part of my work was developing algorithms that crunched the data streamed from the tablet, using not just the resulting two-dimensional image but also looking at how fast the pen moved and how hard it was pressed onto the tablet. For example, it was possible to detect a corner by finding where the user had slowed down to turn it. This bottom-up approach worked pretty well for extracting low-level features, but it became apparent that understanding the user's higher-level intentions required a top-down application of the context in which the drawing was made, e.g. knowing that the user was designing a house meant the program could look for patterns resembing a wall or a door. Also like machine vision, this was a problem in Artificial Intelligence and I took my data over to the MIT AI Lab's PDP-10 and wrote some programs in Sussman and McDermott's CONNIVER language. The results were promising, but even for a simple drawing the amount of computation required was prodigious. I recall Carl Hewitt coming up to the computer room to find out why the PDP-10 was so slow and suggesting I not run my program during the day. I finished my thesis, published a paper at the SIGGRAPH conference, and concluded that further advances in sketch recognition would await advances in AI and in Moore's Law. Meanwhile I moved on to more tractable topics such as how people would use digital media.
Over the next few decades, AI remained a long-term problem, but Moore's law made computers considerably faster and reawakened interest in sketch recognition. recently, I heard from Tracy Hammond, Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University and director of its Sketch Recognition Laboratory. She invited me to talk with her class, which I did yesterday. As happens in a lot of fields, what used to be a multi-year research project is now just a homework assignment. In this case, the class is Special Topics in Sketch Recognition (CPSC 689-608), and the first assignment is to write a simple sketch recognizer. The answer of when we will have an artificial intelligence as smart as a human is as elusive as ever, but a lot of progress has been made in domain-specific areas, and the students were very interested in applying AI to this domain. I look forward to visting the lab next time I am in Texas. In the meantime, you can look at their work here. (Shown at right are the raw data and the output of PaleoSketch.)
First it was Continuous Partial Attention. Now it's Ambient Intimacy. Both terms refer to the effect of a continuous flow of information via networked computers and wireless devices. The former term, coined by Linda Stone, captured the human desire not to miss anything. Modern technology and affluence have allowed us to more than satisfy the craving for information just as they have met our our craving for fattening foods, with results that are also deleterious, even if they don't shorten our lives. More recently, Leisa Reichelt coined the latter term to describe how services such as Twitter allow us to keep in touch with other people, a larger scale and with more frequency than could be done before.
In a thoughtful and well researched article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Clive Thompson describes how Facebook, Twitter and similar products have allowed people to exceed the Dunbar Number - a limitation of the brain on how many people we can stay connected with at once - mostly with beneficial results. He uses Boston's own Laura Fitton as an example of someone who used Twitter's ability to make use of "weak ties" to do everything from finding an accountant to building a consulting business. (She's @pistachio.)
Unlike some journalists who tried Twitter for a few days and, not having figured it out, dismissed it as a fad, Thompson signed up (@pomeranian99), used it for more than a year and interviewed some of them. They described a number of positive effects Twitter had on their lives, such as keeping up a social life while working, traveling and raising a family.
Chrome puts each tab in its own process and starts a new process each time you go to a new web site. While this approach consumes a little more time and memory at the beginning, it is more efficient in the long run. It also means that if there are problems in one tab, the rest of them can continue on their merry way, and it's easier to indentify the culprit, such as a misbehaving plug-in, illustrated at right.
As Mark Waks points out in a comment to a previous post, this brings us closer to the day when the browser becomes the computing platform.
If you do a lot of research on the Web you've probably come to depend in the tab feature of Firefox - now widely copied in other browsers. But if you open a lot of tabs you've probably also seen your machine slow down to the point it becomes almost unusable. The Windows Task Manager shows the CPU is close to 100% used, but the only thing you can do is kill the browser and start over.
Now Google Chrome as addressed the problem with its very own task manager. Just open the "Control the current page" menu and select Developer>Task Manager. Or hit SHIFT+ESC if you are in a hurry. The resulting window shows each task and how much memory, CPU, and bandwidth it is using. There's even a "stats for nerds" that shows the process ID and memory breakdown.
The culprit usually turns out to be the Flash plug-in, which consume more than half of the CPU even when the offending pages are not on screen. One wonders if this discovery will cause more people to use FlashBlock.
I've been playing around with Google Chrome. One feature, which was inspired by Safari and is also in IE8, is Incognito mode - a way of opening a new window such that no trace of the sites you visit is left in the history and no cookies are retained. Google puts it own spin on it with the warning they display:
This is a good list. While pretty much everyone is aware that web sites can collect information about their visitors, most don't know that ISPs routinely sell their subscribers' clickstreams to companies doing market research. And of course the most likely spying will come from the person looking over your shoulder.