Category Archives: Microsoft

Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.


Joe the Ninja

He’s been called a rogue ninja. And I think he deserves a raise. Whatever he’s getting.

“Rogue ninjas”… I wonder if we can get that on our business cards.

Best compliment ever « whateverblog.

Well, these days, I’m doing “evaluation of quality” surveys over the phone so I often hear about people who apparently deserve praises and raises. Joe Cheng is probably one such person. Chances are that so do other people on the WLW team.

What’s WLW? Windows Live Writer, a blog editor developed as a Microsoft project. Mentioned it in previous entries about blog editors. It’s become the most popular standalone blog editor for WordPress.com:

Obviously some of you have already discovered the coolness that is Windows Live Writer because we found it was our most used blogging client,

Windows Live Writer FTW « WordPress.com

It’s in fact the app I’m using right now to post this entry. It has plenty of neat features including a nicer link management than I imagined.

So, a nice little app that can be useful. World-changing? Maybe not.

Now, why would I want Joe to get a raise? Simple: responsiveness. The keyword that I would associate with getting a clue.

This Joe Cheng character actually posted three (count them) comments on my blog about WLW. True, I had mentioned a bug I got and a report was sent somewhere. But, man, talk about dedication! Not only did he post three separate comments on my lowly blog but those comments were actually useful, straightforward, and at exactly the right tone

Added to this is the transparency of Joe’s own blog. Microsoft seems to have learned something from the Scoble era. Now, I’m clearly not a Microsoft fanboy and some of my comments about the company might have been a bit harsh, on occasion. In fact, I still think that some of Microsoft’s practises were, erm, beyond the pale. Not that Joe and the rest of the WLW team really change anything about this but, you know, I like to give credit where credit is due and I like quality work enough to reassess my opinion of a company based on some things that are done well.

So, for the record: WLW actually comes close to my dream blog editor in terms of accessing a browser history when adding links. If it could actually access my cross-browser history through Google Web History and social bookmarks (including links added to previous blog entries), I might really start singing the praises of that development team.

Until then, I may merely say that Joe deserves praises.

Hey, it’s something!

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Speculating on iTunes Subscription

Yet another Apple rumour, this time about iTunes allowing some type of subscription model:

Media Biz Apple changes its iTune? «

In this case, the comments to the blog entry are, dare I say, more insightful than the entry itself. Movie subscriptions would make more sense than music subscriptions because people are used to rent movies.

OTOH, a WiFi-enabled device which could play any music in  the iTunes catalogue could be interesting in a context of DRM-free music tracks.

Yes, there is a logic to this. If you can buy DRM-free tracks, renting DRMed music can make sense as an advanced music discovery service (complete “excerpts”). Especially if you’re provided with a way to share the DRMed music with people who subscribe to the same service. And use a WiFi connection to get music directly on the device.

In fact, an iTunes version of the Ruckus model could work really well. “If you want to keep this track, as a higher quality, DRM-free file, you can buy it directly.”  And Apple can bring together ideas from Last.fm, Pandora.com, eMusic, Calabash Music, Microsoft’s Zune, Ruckus, the new Napster, the new Bittorrent, and even MySpace.

It probably won’t happen. But if it does, it could be cool.

The “buffet,” “à la carte,” and “table d’hôte” systems can coexist.

Now, I’m getting hungry.


Legal Sense: CMS Edition

This one is even more exciting than the SecondLife statement.

After the announcement that the USPTO was reexamining its patents in a case against open source course management software, Blackboard incorporated is announcing that it is specifically not going to use its patents to sue open source and other non-commercial providers of course management software.

From a message sent to users of Blackboard’s products and relayed by the Moodle community.

I am writing to share some exciting news about a patent pledge Blackboard is making today to the open source and home-grown course management community.  We are announcing a legally-binding, irrevocable, world-wide pledge not to assert any of our issued or pending patents related to course management systems or transaction systems against the use, development or support of any open source or home-grown course management systems.

This is a major victory. Not only for developers of Moodle, Sakai, ATutor, Elgg, and Bodington course- and content-management solutions, but for anyone involved in the open and free-as-in-speech approach to education, research, technology, and law.

Even more so than in Microsoft’s case, Blackboard is making the most logical decision it could make. Makes perfect business sense: they’re generating goodwill, encouraging the world’s leading eLearning communities, and putting themselves in a Google-like “do no evil” position in the general public’s opinion. Also makes perfect legal sense as they’re acknowledging that the law is really there to protect them against misappropriation of their ideas by commercial competitors and not to crush innovation.

A small step for a corporation … a giant step for freedomkind.


Web 2.1 or Internet 7.0?

Speaking of Web technologies getting together to create tomorrow’s Web. It’s all about puzzles.

It’s really not that hard to visualize the completed picture of a Web 2.1 puzzle merging most of the advantages from the main Web 2.0 players: Facebook meets YouTube, Wikipedia meets WordPress, PodShow meets Digg, Flickr meets SecondLife… Smaller players like Moodle and GarageBand are likely to have a huge impact in the long run, but the first steps have more to do with the biggest pieces of the puzzle.

In fact, if I were to take a bet on the near future of the user-driven Web, I’d say Google is the one institution with most of the important pieces of the puzzle. Google owns YouTube, JotSpot, MeasureMap, Writely, SketchUp, Blogger, etc. They have also developed important services and features like Gmail and Google Maps. In many ways, their management seems clueful enough. Their “do no evil” stance has helped them maintain much of the goodwill toward them on the part of geeks. They understand the value of the Web. And they have a fair amount of money on hand.

Because of all of this, Google is, IMHO, the most likely group to solve the puzzle of redesigning the Web. To pull it off, though, they might need to get their act together in terms of organizing their different services and features.

On the other hand, there’s an off-Web puzzle that might be more important. Internet 7.0 needs not be Web 3.0 and the Web may become less important in terms of digital life. Though I don’t own a cell phone myself, a lot of people are surely betting on cell phones for the future of digital life. AFAIK, there are more cell phone users than Internet users in the world and cell phones generate quite a bit of revenue to a lot of people. The connection between cell phones and the Net goes beyond moblogging, VoIP, IM, and music downloads. It’s not hard to envision a setup combining the advantages of a smartphone (à la Tréo or Blackberry) with those of a media device like the Apple iPod, Creative Zen, or Microsoft Zune. Sure, there’s the matter of the form factor difference between smartphones and portable media players. But the device could easily have two parts. The important thing here is not to have a single device doing everything but having a way to integrate all of these features together, without the use of a laptop or desktop computer.

There are other pieces to that second puzzle: MVNOs, voice navigation, flash memory, portable games, Linux, P2P, mesh networks, media outlets, DRM-freedom, etc. And it’s difficult to tell who has the most of those pieces. Sony would be a good bet but they have messed up on too many occasions recently to be trusted with such a thing as a digital life vision. Apple fans like myself would hope that the computer company has a good chance at shaking things up with its rumored phone, but it’s hard to tell if they are willing to listen to consumers instead of WIPO member corporations.

It’s also difficult to predict which scenario is likely to happen first, if both scenarios will merge, if we will instead see a Web 2.0 burst, etc.

Puzzling.


Zune Debacle: Worse Than Expected

Microsoft’s Zune media player is out:

BBC NEWS | Technology | Zune goes head to head with iPod

We already knew the sharing feature was crippled, even for non-DRMed user-created files and that Microsoft’s own “Plays for Sure” DRM will not play on the Zune. The Zune is crippled in other important respects.

  • Doesn’t use Windows Media Player.
  • No podcasting support.
  • The Zune software doesn’t allow for sharing between computers (the way iTunes does).
  • No PDA features (not even the iPod’s calendar and contacts).
  • Apparently no recording feature.
  • Apparently no add-ons.
  • Some music studios are asking for a share of the profits on unit sales, even though the device could be used with non-studio content.
  • The store’s “point system” is even more confusing than it first seemed. (A song is worth 79 points, costing $0.99, the minimum number of points is rather high…)

Actually, I just read Duke University’s report on their early iPod initiative. Since that report, the iPod has improved a lot and several features and services are especially useful for educational or academic use. Podcasting support in iTunes and iTunes U is far from perfect but makes the iPod a very desirable device for course-related use. With the help of an inexpensive add-on , the latest iPods can record in much higher quality audio than the version Duke had for its iPod initiative. Since recording was the most appreciated feature through that initiative, the iPod is a much better academic tool now than it was at the time of the Duke initiative. In fact, my iRiver H120 lacks many of the feature expected from the latest generation of media player but has proven an extremely valuable tool for academic purposes due to its recording abilities and the bookmarking features of the Rockbox firmware (ideal for podcasts).
Microsoft Zune’s goes in the opposite direction. No podcasting features, apparently no support for recording.

Too little, too late.


The Big Zune Debacle

The device isn’t out yet but it’s generating a lot of negative reaction.

Partly based on this:

Zune Insider Blog: Answers to (some) of Your Zune Questions

“I made a song. I own it. How come, when I wirelessly send it to a girl I want to impress, the song has 3 days/3 plays?” Good question. There currently isn’t a way to sniff out what you are sending, so we wrap it all up in DRM. We can’t tell if you are sending a song from a known band or your own home recording so we default to the safety of encoding. And besides, she’ll come see you three days later.

Not to blame Cesar Menendez (Robert Scoble might have done the same thing), but the answer itself really shows that there is something missing in Microsoft’s understanding of music.

This post provoked a number of comments on the same blog and elsewhere:

Medialoper » Zune’s Big Innovation: Viral DRM

Boing Boing: Microsoft Zune will violate Creative Commons licenses

 Buzz Out Loud 314 Shownotes

As a more recent post answers several questions without even paying lip-service to the issue of Digital Rights Management, Microsoft gives the impression that it’s suddenly stonewalling:

Zune Insider Blog: Introducing, and Some More Q’s Answered
Having suffered from the over-restrictive DRM of Sony’s MiniDisc recorders, I think that DRM is one of the main reasons a device might succeed or fail in the consumer marketplace. The MiniDisc had the potential to be the ideal device for those who involve themselves in music (musicians, musickers, music lovers, music researchers…). But even music you recorded yourself was tagged as restricted and required a very expensive “professional” device to transfer digitally to another device, such a computer. Sony changed this only very recently and only for recordings made with current recorders.

In the Zune case, the wireless capabilities have been dreamed of years ago. As a musician, a researcher, and a lecturer, I would be delighted to be able to distribute my own content wirelessly. Just imagine: you record your own lecture, then you transfer it wirelessly to your students. Elegant, selective, seamless, intelligent, efficient. Lecturecasts at their finest. But if that content is to be crippled with an incredibly awkward DRM system, I would much rather use the much less efficient method of posting the audio file to a central server (possibly controlled), give instructions on how to retrieve the file, and wait until the next lecture to hear the complaints.

Of course, even if the Zune did not apply over-zealous DRM on my own content, I would still have to post the file. And one (who probably never taught) might think that the three days or three times restriction is perfectly reasonable for this use. But in terms of putting a product on the marketplace, one must get more insight than this.

It just shows that people at Microsoft sees their users as mere consumers of “content” and big media companies as “owners of content.” Yet the trend now is for “user-generated content,” “social networking,” “viral marketing,” and personal interactions through electronic devices.

Despite all of its flaws, the DRM on the iTunes Store (formerly iTunes Music Store) has imposed itself as a decent enough solution for a lot of people.