blarg?

A Dandelion

Cult Following, I have not forgotten that I love you. And therefore I have some advice: if you are thinking about purchasing a portable computer-widget in the next few months, here is what you should do:

Nothing. For now, do nothing.

Allow me to explain.

First of all, it should be clear at this point that, provided you’re not buying third-rate off-brand knockoffs or anything that says “Motorola” on it, everything is pretty awesome right now. Netbooks, especially last-gen ones, are super-cheap, computers in general are universally powerful and reliable, that sort of thing.

However!

A couple of rumors, trends and bits of news are coming together here in a way that you should be aware of. We appear to be at the tail end of a couple of different product cycles, and the following things are expected to happen in the next few months:

  • a company called Pixel Qi will begin shipping screens. This doesn’t sound like much, but their CEO Mary Lou Jepsen was the quite-substantial brain behind the OLPC’s screen, and the original OLPC screen is a ridiculously amazing piece technology. In addition to being an extremely low-cost and low-power-consumption screen, it manages to flip from being a high-resolution LCD to being a sunlight-readable, medium-resolution electronic-paper-like thing. It’s hard to describe (or even take a video of) but once you’ve seen in front of you, it’s obvious that all portable displays will be like this someday. The OLPC project wasn’t willing to share that tech, but Pixel Qi sure is, and they will likely start to appear in netbooks (the 10″ size is their first production run, I think?) soonish.
  • Also, a new (in this space, at least) processor type is on the way, an ARM processor. The short story here is that in the personal-device space there have been two major types of processor, x86 and ARM; x86 was fast but power-hungry, and the ARMs were lightweight but very efficient; traditionally in the portable space this meant x86 for the laptops you could put a much larger battery in and ARM processors for PDAs and smartphones. But recently the ARM side has been steadily catching up speed-wise, and now they’re on the threshold of good enough too, for this new netbook category. But their power consumption is still great, and so we’ve started to see a few different options in that space (I’ve had my eye on this clever little hybrid thing for some time now, though I’m wary about the beta-ness of it) and there’s more on the way. At this point, Windows isn’t built for non-x86 processors, these things will all run some variation of Linux (the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, or possibly Android). But:
  • NVidia, best-known for their graphics cards, have created a platform called “Ion”, which is part of the x86 camp and promises a much better media-viewing experience for netbooks that adopt it. These are expected to start showing up at stores in late June to early July, after Computex 2009.
  • As well, Windows 7 is likely going to ship late this year, presumably October, and from the betas I’ve played with it will be a very, very good OS. It’s still Windows, so if you have some visceral objection to that then hey, but it looks like Microsoft is going to ship an attractive, eminently usable OS here, one that will be a substantial improvement over Vista and a compelling reason to stop holding on to XP in a way that Vista wasn’t. And it there’s going to be a pared down, lightweight version of it to run on netbooks, which is probably a good idea, though ARM compatibility is apparently either undecided or extremely unikely (which is my own belief) depending on who you ask.
  • Apple is rumored, from a variety of sources, to be coming out with one (maybe two?) of three things; a next-gen iPhone, a media-tablet or netbook of some kind, or (possibly, I think unlikely) an entry-level 17″ iMac. If you (like me, sadly) are willing to pay the admitted premium for multitouch and OSX, then you will want to watch the Apple space around their WWDC (where iPhoneOS 3.0 is due and OSX 10.6 (“Snow Leopard”) is rumored), and possibly a September event if nothing exciting happens then. I’m expecting a user-facing camera and built-in videoconferencing on next-gen iPhones.
  • Palm, who’ve needed a home run for some time now, might just have two of them; the Palm Pre and, later, the Palm Eos both look like the first legitimate contenders for the throne the iPhone currently occupies, not to mention the first Palm product worth buying at all in maybe five years. If they ship, and it does what the mockups seem to say it does, it’s going to be a very, very good product. The Pre is scheduled to arrive first-half of 2009, the Eos at some unspecified later time.
  • Nokia is likely, though this is unconfirmed, releasing something that actually runs the Maemo platform they’re continuing to work on. The Maemo 5 alpha release came out in February, and Nokia is still throwing time, money and effort at it, but they’re not actually shipping anything that runs it. Watch this space, as they say. Also watch for their quite compelling N97, though that looks less interesting and way more expensive than anything else I’ve mentioned so far.

(Also, psst: the economy is still kind of in the toilet, so wait for the good sales!)

So if you’re shopping for computer now and can bring yourself to heed my advice, it is that you do nothing. Not for at least two, possibly as many as six, months depending on what you’re looking for. There’s a lot of great stuff on the way, not just in terms of incremental improvements but really revolutionary technology.

Galactus or Unicron?

Show your work.

UPDATE: Ian Hurst notes:

“Will Galactus also be voiced by Orson Welles? Cause otherwise there’s really no contest.”

I find this a very compelling argument.

Please Hold Something

I was crying into a beer the other day with a friend, lamenting the state of open software on portable devices, and I thought I’d make a list.

iPhone OS: Very good, very portable. Closed source, semi-closed ecosystem, hardware-locked. Can be hacked to some semblance of openness via jailbreaking, but this is a running battle.

Windows Mobile: Closed, not very good. Marginal ecosystem. Lots of apps out there for it now, because there wasn’t anything else you could develop for in that space until recently, but there’s not a lot of love out there for it now. In the future it’s supposed to be awesome, but in the future everything is supposed to be awesome. Right now, not so much. But there’s a large install base, and you don’t need to get your app approved by some arcane, opaque process to ship something that people can install and run.

PalmOS: See “Windows Mobile”, except without any prospect of a future. Possibly like Palm itself, if the Pre isn’t a monster success.

Palm’s WebOS: The Linux-based successor to PalmOS. Looks awesome, reportedly based on open standards (whatever that means), hasn’t shipped yet.

Blackberry OS: Closed, crappy. Does email less-badly than everything else in that space, is bad at everything else. They have an app store now, because everyone needs to have an app store, but what everyone really wants as far as I can tell is a much better mail client for the iPhone.

OpenMoko: Open, nominally portable but with power management so bad that it might as well not be. Also ugly, awkward, two years late and effectively over. They re-skinned the interface at least three times, but never managed to get power management or calling right; totally open, completely unusable, classic open source.

Maemo: Open source, open platform and actually pretty good. Ships on minitablets (but not telephones) that only Nokia makes and that Nokia doesn’t make anymore of, I am just now finding out. I’m not sure how many new Maemo devices Nokia actually ships now, but from the deep discounts I’m seeing on N810s, I believe the answer is “none”. Something might come out late this summer, and hopefully Nokia will have come to its senses regarding its crappy MicroB browser and gotten behind Fennec by then but in the meantime very much like WebOS: the mockups and demos are awesome, but the product isn’t actually shipping yet.

Android: Ostensibly open-source, but not in any way that actually matters; the OS is cryptographically locked down by the phone carriers providing it. You can’t actually change anything on the OS; or write code for it in anything but Google’s Java API. It’s nominally open-source, but with the basic problem of closed-source baked right into it – you can’t make the changes you want to something you presumably own.

S60: Becoming open, but slowly, so slowly. Runs on an awful lot of the phones in the world, though, so we’ll see how that shakes out, but its got the smell of PalmOS on it – does incredible work on the smaller, lighter-weight platforms that the world is steadily moving away from, coasting towards irrelevance by standing relatively still. But some of the better cellphones in the world still run it, and it looks like it might still have some legs, so it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen here.

The thing that really hurts me about this is that there’s no obvious correlation between open-source software and an actual open platform, much less an open ecosystem. Some open-source products ship on only closed-off devices, and some of the closed-source devices have the most open ecosystems around, if not a scrap of open code. Worse, some open-source devices are actually more closed-off than some of their closed-source competitors.

I would have thought those things would be related, but I guess not.

I’ve just finished Mass Effect (while wearing jeans, no less, vive le basement libre!), and I am here to say this: Wow.

That’s all, really. It’s a very good game.

It’s not perfect, sure. There are some soft points – very verbose cutscenes you can’t skip, which are fine when they advance the plot and not so fine when they’re the leadup to a battle you keep getting killed in, and the thankfully-brief vehicle sequences that Ben Croshaw has accurately described as handling like a fat man on a unicycle. it’s a bit distressing to find out that in the future, we’ll be sending our finest men and women to war in something that drives like a cross between a Halo Warthog and a willful and particularly stupid puppy. But aside from that, this game is a bucket of awesome.

Thankfully the variety in character creation lets you find a style of gameplay that suits you; anyone’s who’s played Halo with me, or even just discussed urban planning after a few drinks, knows that my preferred perspective on the human condition is through the scope of an overpowered sniper rifle from the shadows behind a rock two area codes away. I have problems with intimacy when it comes to grizzled, heavily-armored alien Space Marines that are enthusiastically trying to kill me with whatever they have to hand. It’s not a thing I get hung up on during a typical day, you understand, but it’s good to have your preferred method of interaction available when things get stressful; I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person with this problem. The only real challenge with it is that there’s a pretty long walk between “I’m trying to shoot you in the head from two kilometers away” and “I’m trying to sneak up and shiv you in the back”. Think of it as an awkward pause in the conversation, if you like. Don’t worry, the punchline’s coming; stay still for one more second.

It’s nice that the game accommodates these little quirks I have. It beats existential dread, I guess; I don’t think it’s a spider.

So I’m playing through it again, because if you play through and pick some different options, different things happen. The only thing I found even vaguely disappointing about the game was that when all was said and done, you couldn’t pick up after you’d won and go screw around finishing up all the side quests you didn’t quite get to the first time around.

I have to confess (and this will make me seem extremely old, but that’s likely OK, because I am literally older than video games as a medium) that my opinion on this was formed back in the stone age, by an Apple ][c Car Wars knockoff called called “Autoduel” – after you’d actually won that game, you could keep playing, because the job of being a courier and driving stuff from city to city didn’t go away, so you could rattle around the very-tiny-in-hindsight world all you like. I can forgive that this option wasn’t available – that final battle changes the fundamental topology of the universe – but it was still such a great game that I wanted to keep playing regardless.

(So I did!)

I mentioned the impending death of the old-media institution the other day, but somehow I overlooked this tender little morsel. From atop his pedestal at the Washington Post with every topic in this modern world to choose from, what pressing issue does George Will choose to address?

Jeans.

Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults [...] Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy’s catechism of leveling — thou shalt not dress better than society’s most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism — of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.

Achievement Unlocked: Irrelevance.

Capital-N, Capital-T

(Update: The Shorter Daring Fireball.)

An anonymous friend of mine has mentioned to me a couple of times, particularly following the regularly-scheduled brouhaha surrounding MacHeist 3, that Mac developers seem to have a pretty bizzare relationship with things like customers and money. Via noted Apple fanboy John Gruber of Daring Fireball, he referred me to one Marco Arment arguing that:

I’m not interested in arguing the specifics of the MacHeist deal with developers. I’m sure that nobody will argue the core of it: these applications are being sold at a steep discount. My point is whether it’s a good idea, as conscientious consumers, to accept such steep discounts on The products that we use and love. My argument is that it’s not.

And Simon Manganelli arguing that

“If you’re buying MacHeist, you’re a cheap fucking bastard, and it makes me queasy that so many in the Mac community would buy into such a thing.”

I figured this might just be two people who were either dumb or shortsighted or both, but then I came across this today:

This kind of thing continually reinforces something I’ve thought about a lot since the App store was released, which sounds horrible to say but it might be true: Apple is creating an ecosystem of the kind of customers I don’t want.

The story, as he describes it, is that he has created an iPhone application that sold through the Apple’s App Store and depended on Google Analytics. Then at some point Google cut off the app’s unsupported access to its data, causing people to report that it was broken, because it was. He contacted Google to sort out the problem, which took some time, and then resubmitted his app to the App Store approval process, which is also taking time. In the meantime, people are giving his current app bad reviews; it doesn’t work, after all. And when a customer fails to look over the problems marked “resolved” before submitting his problem (“Sorry. It’s still not resolved for me.”) he brings the snark: “Apparently they didn’t understand that “solved” was a relative term.”

It’s the strangest thing: It’s not Google’s cutting off the app (called “Ego.app”, pegging the irony-meter at delicious), it’s not Apple for not being willing or able to rush the update process, and it’s certainly not the developer’s fault for shipping a broken product. It’s irrelevant that the developers involved in MacHeist got involved freely, knowing what the deal was up front. No, the person in the wrong here is the customer. Those cheap bastards, who buy things on sale or complain when they don’t work, they make me sick.

Garrett Murray, the developer of Ego.app, concludes “I’m far more likely to get 15 one-star reviews when something goes wrong than I am to get 15 five-star reviews when everything goes right.”

Well, yes. You shipped a broken product. Welcome to the human experience, here’s your sign. You want all your customers to be warm, fuzzy, extraordinarily patient people with marginal technical savvy and pails of money? Yeah, me too. Sounds awesome.

Way to fight that stereotype, Mac user.

I think my friend might be on to something here; that’s… pretty weird.

Automatic Deluge Valve

Remember what I said a while back about Dick Cheney?

So, on top of the document shredding he’s already done, he’s got boxes too heavy for him to lift that contain stuff he doesn’t trust anyone else to touch.Whatever’s in those boxes, you can be sure that it’s something that he has on somebody else, lots of somebody elses. And it must be awful.

Well, funny story; turns out that according to Congressional Quarterly, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif), after having been “overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee” subsequently cut a deal with Alberto Gonzalez to have the charges dropped; in return (by which I mean, “or else you go to jail”) she helped convince the New York Times to scuttle a story about the illegal wiretapping that she herself had been caught in prior to the November 2004 elections, in all likelihood preventing her party’s candidate from winning that election.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is the first of a couple of these reports that we’ll be hearing about in the next few years, and that there are dozens the public will never know about.

Apropos of nothing, you know that impending death of Old Media? About that: Dear Old Media, if you hadn’t gotten into bed, over and over, with these mendacious, corrupt motherfuckers, if you hadn’t sold out your reading public for whatever extra access you thought it was getting you, somebody might be mourning your loss right now. But now there’s nothing left to do but shovel the dirt over the bed you’ve made for yourselves, tramp it down and build something on top of it that actually aspires to the ideals you’ve been mouthing for so long.

Touchdown

This is another story I’ve told a few people recently, so I’m going to tell it to you to get it out of my system. It came up in a conversation about Alberta, and I mentioned that people in cowboy boots and suits creep me out. So, of course, somebody asked me why.

This is why. It adds a certain flavour to this story a little bit if you know that there’s a strong resemblance between me and my dad.

When I was maybe fourteen, my family went on a trip to Mexico. It was a great trip (to my hazy memory) but on route we had a stopover at DFW, and got snowed in. So we stayed at the hotel at the airport to catch a flight the next morning; we checked in pretty late as I recall it, so dad and I went out to reconnoiter the place to see if there was any dinner around.

On our way back to one of the top floors, this slow elevator stops and in walk two skinny, oily Texans, shiny suits, cowboy boots, big belt buckles and bolo ties, the works. Greasy moustaches and slicked back hair, it was all there. And between them, one absolutely stacked brunette, shrinkwrapped in a black dress that didn’t leave much of what little it covered to the imagination. The doors close, and up we go.

Now, I’m fourteen, so I probably looked at this woman a little longer than I needed to. But the way a lot of fourteen year olds do, I figure I can deal with the world, right? But it still caught me more than a little off guard when one of the Texans looks at my dad and I, nods his head over at the brunette and drawls, “you wanna get in on this?”

There is no way they could not have known that I was standing next to my dad. None. I don’t believe I have ever been more skeeved out in my life. The other Texan looked over, like he was genuinely curious about our decision. The brunette looked as bored as if the guy had just ordered a pizza, and here I am, paralyzed with skeeve.

But my dad, he’s not always the calmest guy around, but somehow right then he’s as cool as the weather outside; he just looks the guy in the eye and shakes his head.

“Alright”, says the Texan. And the elevator stops at their floor, and off they go. My 14-year-old brain, of course, was still trying to digest what had just happened. “Wait, what? You… aaagh! Eew!” And ever since then, man, I’ve found suits plus cowboy boots creepy as hell. The last time I had a flight lay over in Calgary was brutal. Every time I see that outfit, that’s what I think of. You wanna get in on this?

Smile

I have a critical piece of advice here for hobbyist photographers.

Let’s say that you want to take some pictures of your wife in the full convexity of late pregnancy. Not unreasonable, you might say! And let’s say for the sake of argument that you have a selection of camera lenses available to you. If so, listen up: two things here are important.

The first is that the wide-angle lens should probably stay in the bag. But failing that, at no point should you tell your wife that you “need the wide-angle lens to get the shot you want”.

Seriously, avoid. The consequences can be severe.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Chainlink

The futurekid hasn’t arrived yet, so I haven’t had the full effect of this being pointed right at my face, but early evidence points to there being something about babies that makes people’s brains turn off. It’s worse than kittens.

There are eleven separate warnings decals on our carseat. They are a variety of shapes and sizes and they all say the same thing, the gist of which is “Warning: an infant car seat is for infants, and when you put an infant into an infant carseat, you will have an infant in your carseat. Warning: If you do not buckle your infant into the carseat, your infant will not be buckled into the carseat. Warning: If you place the infant in the carseat and then place the carseat in the car, the infant will also be in the car.” Apparently in the event of an accident my child will be protected by a thick barrier of warning messages saying I shouldn’t have done that.

Honestly, the surface area of this thing is about 30% warning label, and this is ridiculous. This isn’t helping anyone, it’s the mindless graffiti of a culture of litigious fear. I’m not a rabid opponent of nanny-state measures, but I hate stuff like this. It has nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with avoiding culpability; it makes the world ugly. Did somebody think “The first eight warning labels, those might not take. But these next three! Boy, those’ll do it for sure!” No, of course not. Nobody thought about this; there was no thinking involved. Just a spasm of ass-covering, some vestigial corporate reflex.

Of course, I have not only not read all of them, I have barely read one of them. This thing has one lever in it, and one clip for the kid’s seatbelt. It clicks when it is properly operated, and doesn’t when it doesn’t; a golden retriever could operate this thing. I’m going to install it, and then ask somebody at the fire station check to see that it’s been done properly, and then I’m going to go about my day.

Futurekid, I hope that I will teach you to have a very low tolerance for this kind of nonsense.