hardware

The e-book tractor application

Let’s rejoice: French teachers embrace the internet. Well, calm down. I’m not saying they embrace it the way I would like them to. This week saw two technological breakthroughs at my son’s Parisian high-school. The first one is a decision-support tool on the school’s website: it helps parents decide whether or not to send their kids to school when a protest blocks the gates, something that happens several times a year. Usually, my son whips up his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning : “Hey, dad, this just in: a text-message… gates are jammed by a barricade of trash bins (the kids’ touching expression of solidarity to last week’s teacher union action), I can go back to sleep”. Now, I’ll be able to fact-check the SMS alert on the web. (No webcam, though, I’ll have to rely on teachers’ good faith).

The second breakthrough happens as I immerse myself in the Life Science course for the same text-message freak, Abercrombie-clad kid who happens to be my offspring. Then, an epiphany. His science professor is an internet fan. Don’t get me wrong, here. As 90% of the 1.3m members of L’éducation Nationale (the world’s biggest employer after the erstwhile Red Army or, worse, today’s Wal-Mart), I’m sure the lady loathes the internet. You see: the net flaunts apalling attributes of foreign technology, it is the vector of free market ideology. Sorry, Larry and Sergei. Your Google is definitely evil, down here.

OK, the web can be convenient for educators. Actually, there is ample evidence the science teacher I’m referring to doesn’t understand what she teaches but, at least, she tries. Parts of her course come straight form the net. To the point where kids systematically google (sorry) excerpts to see where they come from. Needless to say, this is a powerful boost to the teacher’s credibility — to be found in one of the trash bins at the school’s gates.

Stay with me please, I’m coming back to this column’s subject: e-books. Last week, as my son and I lose ourselves in the genome’s arcana for an upcoming school-test, I get my own revelation. As I struggle to decipher the absurdly complex definition of amino acid in a textbook totally deprived of any practical example, my son browses the web in search of an explanation designed for normal humans. He googles genetic terms, lands on Wikipedia, which sends him to Inserm, a world-class French medical research lab. There, the lab’s site links to a better definition which, in turn, opens the door to a more detailed explanation, and so on. All the beauty and grandeur of hypertext, whose structure a 15-year-old boy navigates as if he were born in it — which, actually, is the case: the browser was invented about 15 years ago.

The e-book needs its tractor application and textbooks might be the “killer” one. Way better than the press (its time will come, but at a second stage). Still, media could benefit from a switch to the e-book form. More

The End Of Megapixel Wars – Part II – The Canon S90

Last August, I wrote about picture quality finally winning against macho marketing. In other words, it seemed Canon, Nikon and Sony were giving up the simplistic escalation: my camera has more pixels than yours, therefore it is better. In the P&S (Point & Shoot) category especially, the facts were that more pixels ended up producing mediocre pictures.

P&S cameras are the smaller (not necessarily simpler…) models you carry in your pocket and purse, as opposed to “superzooms”, bigger lenses with a wider range of focal length, or DSLR, bigger, heavier but also better, more flexible.
As discussed earlier, a look at DP Review’s excellent camera database will make the problem clearer: pixel density per cm² varies from 1.4 million, for high-end DSLRs, to 43 million for some P&S models. The smaller the pixel, the less photons received. The less photons per pixel, the less electrons they convert to in the sensor. This makes it harder to separate the “good” (picture) electrons from the “bad” (circuitry noise) ones. Everything else being equal, the result is higher pixel density means higher picture noise, that is worse picture quality, especially in low light when fewer photons fall on each sensor pixel.
(DP Review, arguably one of the 3 to 5 best photo sites on the Net, is now owned by Amazon. IMHO a smart move considering Amazon’s general reliance on user reviews to help its customers make good choices and, as a result, come back, and come back…) More

The Meaning of Droid

Literally, Droid is the new Motorola phone sold by Verizon and running Google’s latest Android 2.0 release. The early reviews are good and, cleverly, Google issued a new turn-by-turn navigation application for the platform, also well received, complete with voice control and street view pictures. The Droid starts selling later this week, on November 6th, I’ll get one ASAP and report.

Earlier Android-powered phones weren’t so great, I bought a T-Mobile G1 exactly one year ago and wasn’t overwhelmed. I then called it “just a first effort” and wrote: “It’s only a question of time before most phone makers and cellular carriers offer an Android model, 12 months or less.  Motorola, for example, is building a “social networking” Android phone.  This is precisely the beauty of the Android Open Source, it lets phone makers and carriers try different implementations, specialized models, vertical applications.”

One year later, we have a new situation, a real contender for the lead position in the exploding smartphone market. How will Android impact the rest of the industry: Motorola, Garmin, TomTom, Palm, Nokia, Microsoft, RIM and, of course, the iPhone’s meteoric rise?

For Apple, the short answer is: the iPhone will continue to apply the Macintosh method, that is controlling all or most of the user’s experience, with similar results: smaller market share, disproportionally larger profits than the separate hardware-software crowd. More on this later.

Let’s start with a tip of the hat to Motorola. Last year, I questioned Motorola’s strategy and even its survival. Their “mobile devices” business was going to be spun off, the smell perhaps, from the more dignified “institutional” business, selling communications gear to government and enterprise customers. Fortunately, the new co-CEO for the mobile devices business, Sanjay Jha, came in, saw the on-going wreckage, dumped everything, starting with the Windows Mobile anchor. Then, listening to his techies’ advice, Jha bet on Google’s Android. The result is the Droid smartphone, making Motorola a strong contender again. More

Microsoft ambivalence

Lots of earnings reports this week, mostly good ones. Apple did better than expected, even by the most enthusiastic earnings seers, so did Amazon whose shares went up 26.8% today, adding more than $10B to its market cap in one day. I’m happy to see a quality company, one that treats its customer better than the vast majority of short-term oriented businesses, reap rewards for a combination of long-term vision and everyday attention to detail. We’ll get back to Amazon in a future Monday Note, when we discuss the flurry of e-book readers.

You might have heard Microsoft just launched Windows 7 this past Thursday, to good reviews and newish Apple ads, more installments of the ‘I’m a PC, I’m a Mac’ age-old campaign. The gent who plays the PC, John Hodgman, is much more than the character he’s become known for. See the speech he wrote and delivered at the June 2009 White House Correspondents dinner: he roasts the newly elected Barack Obama, calling him the first nerd president. This YouTube video won’t bore you, I’m not sure I can say the same for the latest, somewhat repetitious Apple ads.

As for Windows 7 itself, I haven’t updated any of the four candidate computers I mentioned last week. In part because I want to hear from early upgraders before I take the plunge, I still have the expensive and painful memories of being a Vista early adopter in 2007. I was the first one in line at Fry’s, in Palo Alto, at 8:00 am on January 30th — and proud of it. When the door opened, I turned around and saw I was also the only one in line. Instead of taking the hint, I forged ahead, bought a big HP laptop and the full Office 2007 Professional DVD. I had grown reasonably adept at running Windows Xp machines and couldn’t imagine how painful the Vista experience would turn out to be. I’m more careful, this time.
There is also the money. Upgrading the four machines, including a first install on a Linux netbook will cost me about $800, plus some application software, plus my time. Upgrading five Macs in my family cost me $49 and not too much time as the process was, for me at least, uneventful.
(This said, I plan to write a few short subjects on strange bugs, UI caprice or ergonomics non-sense in Apple’s products. Being a polite optimist, I’ll marvel: if the products sell so well in spite of these kinks, imagine what would happen if these problems disappeared!) More

Processors: More, yes, but better?

Last week’s Intel Developers’ Forum brought the expected crop of new CPU chips. The simplest way to summarize what’s taking place is this:

  • We’re stuck at 3GHz, so we add more processors on the CPU chip.
  • Intel continues to lead with small “geometries”, 32 nanometers today, 22 nm tomorrow.
  • The company pitches its x-86 processors for mobile devices.

More processors: Once upon a time, each year brought a significant increase in processor speed. Not to be too wistful about the early PC days, but a 1 MHz processor ran “perfectly good” spreadsheets. Like many bouts of nostalgia, this one omits important bits of context such as the complexity of said VisiCalc model, what other software ran concurrently, if any, what storage and networking devices were supported, what kind of display and audio devices were offered. Still, I’d love to see the original assembly language version of Lotus 1-2-3 run on a “bare metal” DOS configuration brought up on a 3GHz Intel machine — a CPU clock 3,000 times faster than the 1983 vintage machine.


In the early 90’s, luxury was a 33MHz Pentium. Now we’re at 3GHz, apparently stuck there  for the last 4-5 years. (A history of Intel processors can be found here.).
Why?
The faster you move something around, the more power you need. Try lifting and lowering a 10 pound weight. Slowly at first, once every 5 seconds, then every second, then twice per second. Your own body temperature will give you the answer.
Inside a processor, we have transistors. These are logic gates, they open and close. In doing so, they shuttle electrons back and forth at the circuit’s clock speed. These electrons are not “weightless”, moving them consumes power, just as we do lifting weight. As the clock rate increases, more power is needed, the transistor temperature increases. There are more precise, more technical ways of expressing this; but the basic fact remains: faster chips are hotter chips. Knowing this, chip designers found ways to counter the temperature rise such as using smaller gates shuttling a smaller “mass of electrons” back and forth. Air or liquid cooling of chips does help as well. Still, we hit a wall. With today’s (and tomorrow’s foreseeable) silicon technology, we’re out of GHz.
So, what do we do for more powerful CPU chips? More

Technology: It’s Over…

In an “Entrepreneurial Thought Leader” lecture given at Stanford University earlier this year, Tom Siebel argues that all of the great technological advances and development of great companies are behind us – and the growth rate for the tech sector is just on par with the rate of current economic growth.

The previous sentence introduces a segment of the February 2009 Stanford lecture, see here for the event’s full video.

It’s not the first time some killjoy predicts the end of tech fun: in 1899, a Charles H. Duell, none less than the Commissioner of the US Patent and Trademark Office, the USPTO reportedly said: “Everything that can be invented has been invented”.
There is a distinct possibility the infamous quote is nothing but an urban legend but, time and again, some sage comes to a forum and tells us the great times are behind us, the tech industry has now entered a grey era of incrementalism.
I’ve personally heard it a few times. In the early 1970s, at Hewlett-Packard where Bill Hewlett told such skeptics where to file their predictions away. In 1985, when I moved to Silicon Valley to take over Apple’s Product Development. I was told Silicon Valley was doomed, it was becoming a ghost town as unheard of layoffs were taking place. In the early 90’s, when the first Gulf War and a bad economy emptied shopping centers and restaurants.
Soon thereafter, the Internet came out of the research lab closet, the browser was invented and yet another wave of innovation came about.
As for Tom Siebel, his background makes the gloomy prediction more puzzling: he’s not part of the kommentariat, he is an industry mensch, the inventor of CRM, rising to the industry’s firmament and later selling Siebel Systems to Oracle for $5.8 billion. Perhaps he was merely trying to arouse his audience and start a reaction.

Still, is he right? Have we entered an era where all of the great technological advances and development of great companies are behind us – and where the growth rate for the tech sector is just on par with the rate of current economic growth?

Absolutely not. More

Kremlinology For Fun and Profit

I’m quite fond of kremlinology, the metaphorical one, not the literal sort. For me, it started as a hobby and ended up making me decades of fun and money. Allow me to explain before we proceed with an attempted decryption of recent Apple events and statements.

Working in Paris in the seventies, I struck an acquaintance with a Gideon Gartner analyst called Aaron Orlhansky. He came to lunch with a bunch of markitecture papers from IBM and I had fun untwisting the real meaning behind sonorous statements coming from “The Company”. That was my amateur kremlinology stint. One day, he casually mentioned his acquaintance with Tom Lawrence, Apple’s top gun in Europe. And he added: ‘Tom’s looking for someone to start Apple France’. I said I was that man, an introduction was made, Tom and I “clicked” immediately and I was hired on December 12th 1980.
Almost three decades later, I’m in the Valley, a kid let out in the candy store, watching wave after wave of exciting entrepreneurs, ideas, technology, products, cultural changes…

On to a bit of Apple kremlinology.

The biggest news was Steve’s appearance at the iPod event last week: ‘I’m vertical’, he said and proceeded to acknowledge his gratitude to the liver donor who allowed him to be there. He also thanked the Apple teams who kept the ship going while he wasn’t so even-keeled. And he encouraged us to become donors. In California, you do that with a code on your driver’s license. Nothing to decode here, everyone is happy to see Dear Leader back in the saddle. He was met with a heartfelt standing ovation.
Now, we hear complaints he’s back lording over details, putting people under tremedous pressure. Good.

Let’s turn to the iPod announcements and to the howls of disappointment over the lack of camera in the new and improved iPod Touch. How could He do this to us, His faithful followers? When questioned, the spinmeister lets its be known the absent camera makes a lower entry price possible, $199. The iPod Touch has emerged as a major game console, you see, and you don’t need a camera on such a device.
I’d say two out of three.
Yes, the games on the 20 million iPod Touches (and 30 million iPhones) shipped so far surprised everyone, Apple first. Games aren’t a side show on the platform, they’ve become a big money maker for developers and a threat to the likes of Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP. Commenting this graph, from Apple’s presentation, Business Insider says ‘the iPhone platform has almost five times the number of game and entertainment titles that Sony and Nintendo’s portable systems have combined.’
Removing the camera to get to a price point? Not convincing, camera modules cost very little, they’re everywhere on cheap cell phones. More

The End of Megapixel Wars

Finally, reason is about to prevail over marketing machismo. Specifically, Canon and Sony are coming up with more advanced cameras featuring less pixels.
Why? In these new cameras, less pixels translates into better pictures in low light. (You might want to refer back to two Monday Notes on digital photography: Pixels Size vs. Number and More on Sensors Digital Photography.)

So far, the selling argument has been more pixels equals better pictures. A higher number conveys an image, so to speak, of higher quality. This is not entirely untrue: it’s nice to have lots of pixels when you need to “crop”, to throw out a large fraction of the original image in order to concentrate on a key detail, a face for example. If you have enough pixels left in the “crop”, it will print or display with good detail.
But there is an important downside: for a given sensor size, more pixels means smaller pixels. In turn, this means each pixels will receive less light energy, less photons to be converted into electrons. The smaller number of electrons will have to “fight” against the background electrical noise in the sensor. The lower signal-to-noise ratio means lower quality pictures. This is particularly true in low-light situations where, to begin with, the number of incoming photons is smaller. More

War in the Valley: Apple vs. Google

It was long overdue: Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) finally resigned from Apple’s Board of Directors. Usually, these resignations are handled in the smoothest of ways: Thanks for the distinguished service and the like. This time, Steve Jobs issued a pointed statement: “Unfortunately, as Google enters more of Apple’s core businesses, with Android and now Chrome OS, Eric’s effectiveness as an Apple Board member will be significantly diminished, since he will have to recuse himself from even larger portions of our meetings due to potential conflicts of interest.” Full officialese here.

This is the Valley and its cozy relationships. By which I mean executives and directors sitting on one another’s board, competitors enjoying the same directors, venture firms “sharing” their partners around portfolio companies. For example, besides Eric Schmidt sitting on both Apple’s and Google’s boards, we have Arthur Levinson, head of Genentech, a director of both companies. Or partners at Sequoia (a very successful venture capital firm)
 sitting on boards at YouTube and Google, which might have help a successful “exit”, that is the sale of YouTube to Google.
Back to Apple, there are also lingering allegations of a no-poach agreement, one by which the companies agreed no to hire each other’s workers.
Closer to home: Be, Inc., the operating system company I founded with a few friends from Apple and elsewhere. For a while, one of our investors (and director) also sat on Microsoft’s board. Microsoft executives were investors in his firm and we ended up with Bill Gates (indirectly) owning a piece of Be. Ah well… That was a decade ago, the statute of limitations ran out.
The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), the stock market regulator, has become more aggressive in watching out for companies engaging in collusive behavior through cross-directorships. See here .

Back to Dear Leader’s words: Google enters more of Apple’s core business. More

Apple’s Jesus Tablet: What For?

If you went on vacation and renounced Internet access for the duration, you might not have heard the latest rumors concerning the iTablet a.k.a. the Jesus Tablet, Apple’s eagerly awaited entry into the putative bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a MacBook segment. I’m avoiding the n-word: for Apple, this is the no-book category…
As for the religious nickname, let’s go back to MacWorld, in January 2007. Steve Jobs walks on stage and demonstrates the “iPod of phones”. The audience reacts with such religious fervor that, for a while, wags call Steve’s latest miracle the Jesus phone. (I could go on and call AT&T’s network the iPhone’s cross, but I won’t.)

Back to 2009, for the past week, we’ve had the strongest wave to date of rumors and speculation regarding Apple’s second coming (after the Newton, see below) into the tablet space. Putting such froth down would be ignoring the desire, the hope behind the agitation. The Greater We seems to want something bigger than and iPhone and smaller than a 13” MacBook, currently Apple’s smaller laptop.

Great, but what for? More