30 December 2006

Sad News for us

A brief tribute to my de-facto father-in-law, John ("Jack") Richard Cotterill 18/10/20 to 28/12/06. JR, as we have known him, has been my 2nd Dad for more than 26 years and I have only seen him as a good and wonderful man in all of that time. He will be sorely missed by me, and of course, by my partner, Sue who has done so much to enable him to enjoy a good quality of life these last few years, while he was suffering increasingly from the effects of Parkinson's disease. While this itself is not a killer, it's debillitating effects are incredibly frustrating to its sufferers and ultimately create danger from normal everyday activities such as eating and walking. JR, we'll miss your dry wit, your incredible knowledge, your love of the arts, our 2-3x daily phone calls, your stays with us, our discussions about the test matches...

14 December 2006

Great Movie - Stray Dogs

We get through a lot of movies via our Lovefilm (=UK Netflix) subscription. Sue is very methodical about looking at film reviews each week and noting the ones we should watch, and getting them added to the list.

Last weekend we watched a film called Stray Dogs, and I have to say this is a stunning movie. It certainly isn't a blockbuster, so it may not be one for Christmas Day, but if you like foreign films it is an awesome example. The Director, Marzieh Meshkini, is an Iranian woman who also directed "The Day I Became A Woman", another wonderful and fascinating film.

Stray Dogs is set in Afghanistan, post-Taliban, and almost every scene involves the two children at the heart of the movie. Often in such films, the quality is poor, but this is beautifully shot, and wonderfully mastered onto DVD and displayed very well on screen (especially compared to our next DVD - a US indie film that was atrociously formatted).

There's not a lot of extras, but a text interview with the Director is well worth looking at. Marzieh's viewpoints are incredibly balanced and insightful. The top of the UN should be made up of people like her!

This film strangely reaffirms one's faith in humanity with one hand, while destroying it with the other. It shows that we live in one world with a common set of aspirations. Why do we mess it all up?

Tell me what you thought! Are the two main actors not brilliant?

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Music Recommendations

I think it's been quite a disappointing year for new music on the whole. My favourite album of the last few years - Long Gone Before Daylight by the Cardigans has not yet been surpassed (even by their follow-up, Super Extra Gravity). This is one of those rare albums when each track from first to last is wonderful. If you haven't heard this, give it a shot.

But from this year's (or thereabouts) music releases, I'm going to suggest a few things to you that you may or may not have heard of (all links are to Amazon.com as not all of it can be bought in the UK. Sometimes I've had it from Amazon marketplace, or even from iTunes).

First up is Tanya Donelly - a founder of the indie band Throwing Muses and also Belly. Tanya has made 4 solo albums all of which in my opinion are wonderful. Just last month came This Hungry Life an interesting album in that it is recorded live in a small venue but is all new material (a brave attempt). It starts with a cracking first track. Some might argue the album is a bit too country-tinged, but I like it. If you do like this, you will almost certainly like the first two albums - Lovesongs for Underdogs and BeautySleep. The third album - Whiskey Tango Ghosts is still good but just not quite on a par with the first two. She has a great voice, and some good lyrics too.

Tanya's step-sister is Kristin Hersh who is also of the Muses. I was a bit late to Grotto, but again I really like it, and a new one is due in the New Year. Unfortunately, I missed a performance in a small London venue next month as it was sold out quickly.

Incidentally, while I like the Muses, I'm not an out-and-out fan, so don't think that's a pre-requisite for liking these albums - they're just great albums by themselves.

I've also enjoyed The Dears with their second album - Gang of Losers. Murray Lightburn who fronts the band has a great delivery, and great lyrics. Sometimes you swear you're listening to Morrissey (listen to track3 "Lost in the Plot" off the first album "No Cities Left" and you'll see what I mean). Anyway, this album offers the best of British indie from the late 80's/90's. Not bad for a Canadian band!

When you see Murray live (well, on video), he's not what you expect. The same, in reverse, goes for Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons fame). I also liked "I am a bird now" though this may be an acquired taste.

The Pet Shop Boys are a band I've liked over the years, without having a complete collection. Fundamental (and the 2-disc set with Fundamentalism) shows them at their best with catchy tunes.

Staying with boppy and electronica, one of the albums I played a lot this year was We Are Pilots from the Shiny Toy Guns. I discovered this band on Radio 6 doing a cover of a Depeche Mode song on an album of such covers called Goth Electro
which is also good. I got We Are Pilots off iTunes UK as it was not available here as a CD, but last time I looked it wasn't there. Go figure.

Finally, if you're in to more atmospheric stuff, I saw an excellent review of The Silver Tree by Lisa Gerrard who used to be 50% of Dead Can Dance. I went ahead and got this off iTunes as it was a long album at a good price (couldn't get it on CD for less than about £20 as an import at the time). If you liked the later Dead Can Dance albums, then you'll appreciate this one. Another comparison would be like a good Enya album but without some of the catchy (and later annoying) songs!

I hope you'll manage to sample one or more of these artists and perhaps discover something you like.

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06 December 2006

Microsoft UK rip-off

“The UK’s future competitiveness depends on IT,” said Gordon Frazer, Microsoft’s UK managing director at last week's launch of Vista claiming that Vista and Office 2007 would have a real impact (though I find this hard to see unless other countries don't upgrade as fast - assuming indeed that upgrading DOES help productivity).

The UK has been a huge market for Microsoft, and we have a particularly soft public sector that accepts anything Microsoft throws at it for extortionate amounts of money.

So how come if the UK is so important to Microsoft, and that the company is so concerned with our productivity does it ensure that its software should cost twice what it does in the States?

I was wondering what it would cost for instance to put XP Pro or Vista on a Mac using Parallels. So I checked out Amazon:

Amazon.co.uk - Windows XP Pro SP2 Cost £232.99 (reduced from £289.99)
Amazon.com - Windows XP Pro SP2 Cost $239.99 (reduced from $299.99)

Even allowing for VAT on the UK version that is an exchange rate of £1=$1.21 at a time when the dollar is almost at the 1:2 ratio. Microsoft already makes gross margins of over 85% on Windows. It means in the UK, it makes double the profit.

This is not an isolated case. For Microsoft Office 2003 Professional, the price is £399 UK vs $414 US. It is possible to get both applications cheaper in the US (for instance NewEgg has Office 2003 at $359). Many US stores are also carrying Vista upgrade offers (though I've read some horror stories there too).

To me this is outrageous and unjustified, yet I see no fuss about it. Where is our good media when they're needed? This is a scandal that our competition and consumer bodies should be looking at now!

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What's happened to Adobe?

Adobe is a company I used to admire. I first came across them in the mid-80's when I worked at the investment bank/venture capital company that brought them public (to much fanfare). I was an early user of postscript in the first Apple laser printers which I thought was marvellous (too often I was encouraged to buy technology from one of our "investments", but this one I jumped at myself).

I've never been a user of Acrobat (though I use pdf documents all the time, and think they're great), and I've only touched Photoshop on the odd occasion.

But in the last week, I've witnessed a number of things which make me think that Adobe is no longer a company I admire and has adopted some of the dubious tactics of one or two other software companies I loathe (I'm sure I don't need to mention that one is based in Redmond, but I will).

First off, I had to install Photoshop on 2 machines. My partner had bought the upgrade package for her Photoshop a year ago, and encountered problems installing it due to licensing issues (though she was the original and only owner of the old version she had). It sat on our to-do list for a while, and then the theft of the machine put an end to that!

So, we had to get a new Photoshop license. That was as much as £199 or so for an academic license - and you had to provide serious proof for qualification as an academic - certainly far more than for Microsoft Office for example (available to education users for under £100). This package is not a universal application, and will be obsoleted in just a few months by CS3. Installing it was quite painful with many different applications getting installed, (in applications you get Adobe Bridge, Adobe Help Center, and a CS2 folder which has at least 2 applications; Adobe Reader has its own folder; in Utilities Adobe Reader Manager, Adobe Updater and an Adobe Utilities folder. I have no idea what some of these do (eg Adobe Bridge?). The installer also created two processes to be run at login - one which checks for new updates on login for all Adobe products installed. Removing the application from a Mac would be quite difficult methinks.

Now, the upgrade package was wasted, until I decided that I might at least update my own sad Photoshop v4. I had perhaps used this about twice - mainly for conversion of images, but I decided perhaps I'd try to improve some of my photos. The box made no mention of which Photoshops could be upgraded, so I tried it. The installer wanted the old license to be found, so I pointed it at the old Photoshop application. It did not want to do the upgrade. However, I found that entering the license manually gave me a fully authorised copy. My version DID install Adobe Reader version 7.0 something. After installing, the package needed to install updates as well, and this took an age. Less, than a week later, it was telling me my Adobe Reader was out of date and I needed 7.0.7.

OK, perhaps this is all a bit pedantic - after all it's a complex application. But it was my Adobe Reader experience that convinced me they have some serious problems.

My partner was experiencing difficulties with some PDF's, so to find out if it was Preview or Safari, I thought we should download Adobe Reader on her machine. It so happened this was the day that Adobe Reader 8.0 became available. Now, I tend to think of Adobe Reader as a somewhat simple application. But it has become a monster. To install it, you have to download the Adobe Reader Installer. When you install this, it in turn starts an Adobe Reader download which gives you a second installer that you must run. The application itself was over 20MB. Having installed that we noticed that it had taken over the role of displaying PDF's from Preview without asking. I opened up the application to see what was new. I always like to look at an applications Preferences as a guide to what it can do. Adobe Reader has 24 categories of preferences! Adobe has lost the plot I'm afraid. Reader should be a simple pdf viewer that the average user can understand. Anyone without a computing qualification is going to immediately turn off when they see this (incidentally, the preferences categories are just a list of text items - no icons).

Since installing all these things, I've also had to turn off and reject numerous annoying questions/reminders etc from Adobe about everything from making the application(s) default, to checking for updates, etc.

Am I being too harsh on them, or have they forgotten how to put the user first?

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03 December 2006

Christmas Gift Idea (A Book!)

In a diversion from the usual stuff I write about here, I wanted to pass on a recommendation for a cookery book to those interested in such things (or, better perhaps, know someone who is).

The book is called Silk Road Cooking - A Vegetarian Journey (and that's the Amazon US link) by Najmieh Batmanglij. It's also available in hardback. I got it in a real bookshop - at Waterstones in fact - so it is certainly available in the UK too.

Sure, it's a vegetarian cookbook, but don't let that put you off. This book covers recipes from Italy through to China via many countries in between (including just about every -stan you can think of). There are herbs and spices in this that I've never had before. We've tried many dishes from the book and all have been very enjoyable. Not only that, the recipes are quite quick to make too. An additional benefit is the beautiful layout of the book.

You may need access to a Mediterranean or Middle East food shop for some of the more esoteric ingredients, but most you should be able to find at a good shop. (I got one or two from thespiceshop.co.uk in Notting Hill Gate whose proprietor noted she's never seen a savoury dish using Angelica powder!).

This would be a popular gift for any cooks you know! Highly recommended.

(Edited post to add author's name!)

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30 November 2006

Microsoft's Vista will be a humongous success

You may not have expected the title to come from me, but really I wanted to state the obvious.

According to the FT, there are 8 times the number of PC's in use compared to when Windows95 was released (800 million vs 100 million). Furthermore, it has been a full 5 years since the release of Windows XP. That has to provide a pent-up demand itself. Previously, Microsoft had updates every few years, so many Windows 2000 users didn't upgrade to XP for instance, even if Windows 98 users did.

So, there is little doubt that Vista will break all records that Microsoft chooses to use to publicise its success, and we will see plenty of such mentions over the next year. And anyone fighting such statistics is basically delusional. (The only question will be whether it is "phenomenally, fantastically successful", or just "successful"; and that will depend on personal interpretation).

But Vista's release is important in many, many ways beyond just number of installations, including:
- It lets Microsoft plant a stake in the ground saying we DO understand security and we've SOLVED it - calm down. You can trust us, after all.
- In the past, you had to have strong reasons NOT to go Microsoft - you were shutting yourself from all sorts of compatibility and functionality. Nowadays, the proliferation of devices including mobiles, laptops, media extenders, and general consumer electronics, blurs the boundaries of the past. The internet and the general "connectedness" of everything means that the average user no longer HAS to go Microsoft. They increasingly have a choice again. Whether Vista is on 80%, 90% or 98% of PC's may not matter when there are many more devices than just PC's.
- It is the basis for Microsoft's one shot at dominating the living room. More than any other company, Microsoft's home strategy needs people to welcome Vista AND to actually use it the way it was intended.

Vista is MS's best shot (and a compromised, late one at that) at keeping and extending it's virtual monopoly on devices that are primarily computers. But Vista enters the market at a different time than XP. A time when a new set of competitors and new technologies have emerged. A time when we use many devices that each have a processor inside running an OS of sorts and providing various bits of functionality. A time when the OS itself no longer provides the true differentiation or, particularly of concern for Microsoft, the lock-in.

In time, Vista will be considered as the last great hurrah of the proprietary OS. There will never be a software release as significant to so many people and businesses. Even Microsoft, by all accounts, never wants something so big again. Reading some recent blog posts about how it took a team of 24 people plus managers (for a total of 43) to decide and code the Shutdown/Sleep functionality, is evidence enough that such an approach is unsustainable.

From here onwards, Microsoft's financial success will be based around how it milks it's huge (and still-growing) installed base, how it maintains the massive intertia and slows the switch away from it's dominant software, and whether it can truly make profitable it's newer initiatives. (My own views are that on 1 and 2 it will do well, and on the 3rd will continue to disappoint).

The next key battleground is in the Office software space. With Office 2007 released simultaneously with Vista, this is symbolic. Until now, anyone who wanted to co-exist in the business space would have been forced to use Microsoft Office. I know that without Office for Mac, I would not have been able to hold out on the Mac platform. The key to this was not unparalleled functionality but closed file formats. If you could not receive a Word document, edit it and send it back to be read without issue by the sender, you would be considered IT-defective. While OpenOffice has made some inroads here, and allowed Linux users some ability to co-exist, it has not been a good enough substitute for many business users for many reasons. With the Office file formats now becoming open, this barrier will now be significantly reduced - a key reason why Microsoft resisted it for so long. Between Google, OpenOffice and other similar initiatives, if the monopoly that is MS Office is broken, then that is the last key blockage towards true interoperability and collaboration across hardware and software platforms (Microsoft came close to establishing both IE and also Media Player as similar monopolies, but has probably failed to do so).

Microsoft has proven itself ruthless and astute at building monopolies and virtual monopolies, and maintaining those in the face of new competition. It has done this on the back of two dominant franchises - DOS/Windows and Office. Both were more than just compelling products - they caused problems to users who did not assimilate. That is not a way to win long-term friends and supporters. But there has been no major new technology from Microsoft that is truly outstanding and field-leading since at least XP, and possibly before that. The parallels are greatest perhaps with IBM - that indisputable champion of the late 70's and early 80's, but that remains a strong, profitable and influential company today. That is Microsoft's fate. It's timing will depend as much on it's competitors failings (e.g Sony's failure with PS3 giving XBox360 a window), as it's own management of that decline. It will no doubt have many successes in the future, but hopefully nothing that is so dominant and that results in such mediocrity from itself and the rest of the IT world hangers-on or leads to grudging acceptance from the worldwide PC userbase at large because they have no alternative.

For me personally, I expect I will buy a copy of Vista eventually to run on a Mac under Bootcamp or Parallels for the same reasons that I had an on-off relationship with VirtualPC at times. I also expect to buy Office 2008 for the Mac. But I truly expect and hope that these will be the last pieces of Microsoft software that I ever HAVE to buy.

History may well look back and see IBM as THE hardware monopoly and Microsoft as THE software monopoly. Let's hope that history doesn't write about a services monopoly, as there's only one name in the frame for that at this time.

Welcome, Vista, may the best man win (but not win big enough to be another monopoly).

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26 November 2006

Mac anti-theft Software

My friend Tom mentioned in a comment to the post on the theft of one of our Macs about LoJack software that he'd installed on his machines.

I've been meaning to write about something similar I found called Undercover from Orbicule. Should I be paranoid and not write to the world at large that my Macs have anti-theft software installed? Well, dammit. I'm sure the 3 of you that read this blog are honest people! And, is it not a good test of such software that it can't easily be disabled?

Undercover looked interesting to me as it is specifically Mac software. Among other features, Orbicule make the claim that, once activated, their software will make use of installed iSight cameras to take photos of the machine user! Cool (if our police force can be bothered to do anything with the information of course!). Such features are on top of the ones we would expect such as IP address reporting, etc.

I was also intrigued how Undercover would work if the thief just erased the disk. Using firmware passwords in most recent PowerPC and Intel Macs makes this quite difficult to do (though the user must set these up).

An attraction of Undercover was the family pack license for up to 5 Macs for just $10 more ($49 instead of $39).

However, the proof with both LoJack and Undercover is when they're needed. I hope neither Tom nor I have to experience that! I'd welcome comments from users of either of these pieces of software - especially about experiences good or bad when they really needed it. Both products are welcome entrants to the MacOS software marketplace.

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23 November 2006

Stolen Powerbook QT2010P3M2N & Reward!

I mentioned a few weeks ago about my partner's stolen Powerbook model. I've now been able to retrieve the serial number.

We would be very grateful if someone locates and returns this model and will make it worth their while. It contains some important scientific data on it which unfortunately has not successfully been retrieved from backups.

The model is as follows:
Apple Powerbook Titanium G4 667Mhz DVI/higher res screen.

There is the standard 30GB hard disk, but with 512MB RAM and an airport card. I can provide the airport MAC id for this machine.

The serial number of the machine is QT2010P3M2N

There is also a higher capacity battery present by Newertech, giving excellent battery life. The power supply was also stolen and is a later model Powerbook charger (white end rather than silver).

The machine is in generally good and working condition. However, the casing is very worn above and around the CD insertion, and there is a noticeable scratch on the right side by the airport. The screen is fine but with markings from the keyboard as per normal with such models.

User accounts are password protected and login is required. A smart thief will just have re-installed the OS. It was probably running 10.4.8 but might have been on 10.4.6 or 7.

If you do spot this machine on eBay or somewhere else - perhaps being sold by someone who clearly doesn't know a Powerbook from a Dell Crapitude, please contact me via this site.

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14 November 2006

MacBook Pro C2D Video Performance

In my recent quick first impressions of the MacBook Pro C2D I mentioned about doing some video tests. Here are some results.

Test Machine 1: MacBook Pro C2D 2.33Ghz, 2GB, 160GB 5400 rpm drive.
Test Machine 2: Powerbook G4 1.67Ghz hires, 1.5GB, 120GB 5400 rpm drive.

The Powerbook had been running for some time, and dashboard apps had been loaded. But all other apps had been quit. Free disk space is down to about 11GB though. On the MBP, no other apps were running in my space, but I was in Fast user switching mode with mail and safari running in the other user's space.

I took a 1.32 minute DV file from a camcorder and converted it to H.264 at 640 by 480 resolution with "Go Nuts" quality (ie ultimate) using the wonderful utility iSquint (v 1.5). I also specified De-interlace (otherwise a PAL DV looks real bad), and set size to 1500kbps (max possible for iPod ready movies). I checked both movies for quality and compatibility with a first gen iPod video. Both movies were superb, similar in end size and were sharper than the DV file though lacking in a bit of detail (eg trees were sharper, but tyre treads were less detailed).


The MBP completed the conversion in 2 minutes and 24 seconds. The Powerbook G4 took 10 minutes and 53 seconds. A factor of 4.5 times slower. In addition the MBP had around 20% idle time for most of the test. The Powerbook had zero idle time throughout running on max. Presumably (though I did not try) I could have done a few less demanding tasks on the MBP.

When performing the same task at 320x240 resolution (native iPod) the file was converted in faster than realtime on the MBP - 64 seconds (for a 92 second file) versus around 5 minutes on the Powerbook G4. An interesting aside is that the end result files whether 640x480 or 320x240 are the same total size - the key being the data rate I guess which is the same 1500kbps. So, no disk space penalty for having iPod-compatible files at 640x480 resolution (though a time penalty for conversion).

While limited to one application (iSquint) this confirms my original view that the new MBP's are massively improved over the last generation Powerbook G4s. This factor of 4.5x plus headroom is very impressive indeed.

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Congestion Charge Rant

Those who don't know me may think the following rant is from a car-loving, card-carrying-Conservative. But while I do confess to having a rather nice car, I would like to point out that my travelling around London is done almost exclusively by bicycle with a bit of public transport thrown in (therefore 5.5 years = 26,000 miles). I have never once needed to pay a congestion charge fee (and nor have I ever needed to pay a parking fine in the UK). Furthermore, I think driving into and around Central London needs to be curtailed and I am in favour in principle of schemes which try to ration that space especially for purposes of aiding efficient commerce. Finally, I am of course in favour of finding ways to reduce environmental damage.

Last year, I spent many (angry) hours over my keyboard writing to my MP and local councillors about the scheme to extend the zone westwards to include Kensington and Chelsea. Not that I am averse to this in principle, but it's implementation is in my opinion, brain-damaged. You may criticise my views as nimbyist, but I reassert my GENERAL support for such a scheme. My particular beef concerns the ability of vehicles to use the Embankment on the river to travel the East-West direction outside of the zone. Apart from obvious bottlenecks that will be made worse, I have observed that for a resident of Battersea, they can make a journey out to, say, Heathrow, without entering the congestion charge zone, as indeed can most residents of South London and out to Kent. But the Battersea resident returning home will be signposted through about 200 metres of congestion charge zone in order to access either of the bridges into the area. A right turn is not permitted. I have been told that such a driver should make a detour of approximately 3 miles to enter the area turning right over Chelsea Bridge (which will be even more congested). So much for congestion charging being an environmental measure when a detour of 3 miles is required (or payment of £8 and see next paragraph). The driver going further to more eastward parts of South London however, would not have to make such a turn and therefore pay no penalty. Therefore the scheme is unreasonably discriminatory towards Battersea residents. The obvious solution was to allow a right turn on Battersea Bridge. An alternative would have been to eliminate the final southwestern block of about 200m by 100m from the charging scheme. Neither were done despite "extensive consultation". White van man will find a way of course to turn right, and over time even law-abiding citizens will do the obvious thing and make a u-turn on the main embankment past the first bridge so they can legally turn left over the bridge. Not a particularly safe thing to do, but better than 3 miles+20 minutes, or £8.

But today, what has got me more incensed is this news from the department of Red Ken. By 2009 the congestion charge for Category G vehicles will be increased by a factor of 3x such that it costs £25 to enter the zone no matter how far you drive or drive in it. A Category G vehicle includes many of the SUV, 4x4 type of vehicle as well as many people carriers. Of course, many sports cars and higher performance vehicles also come into this category. Strangely it would not affect me because (even if I did use my car) my vehicle is older than the cutoff date (another weakness with the scheme in principle). Now, I believe London would be better for less 4x4's and people carriers. But I believe London would be better off with less cars in general (at least moving ones). Sure polluters need to pay, but to have a scheme which is so black and white as to penalise a car emitting a theoretical 224g/km £8 when penalising a car emitting a theoretical 225g/km £25 is plain ridiculous. It is no longer a tax on congestion or an environmental tax, but the worst sort of tax - a tax borne out of chip-on-the-shoulder left-leaning cheap politics. You're better off having an £8 car and driving it like mad than you are having a £25 car and driving it carefully. Other bad behaviours are encouraged - drive as much in the congestion charge zone as you like for instance. (Aside: Why should taxis and users of taxis make no contribution towards congestion charge for instance? Answer = taxi drivers lobby pressurising Ken)

It is quite obvious what the right thing to do. For the environment it is to tax consumption - therefore the price of fuel. This penalises bad drivers, those who maintain their car badly as well as bigger/heavier/less fuel-efficient vehicles. It also encourages good behaviour. For congestion, the logical response is to penalise movement - especially movement at bad times of the day. By all means make that cost higher the larger/heavier the vehicle (we all know people carriers and large 4x4s are less efficient at navigating narrow roads and junctions and therefore make congestion worse) and by all means have an environmental factor applied. But to make it so ludicrously out of proportion does not fix the problem. A 224g/km driving 5 miles in the zone is far more polluting and congestion-generating than a 225g/km car driving just 300m. Attack the problem head-on if you want to change the behaviour!

It will neither make London a cleaner or less congested City to live in, and nor will it help the environment (note significant increase in new cars bought to squeeze under congestion charge limit will benefit the German economy and damage the German environment where they are primarily built!).

It is Ken at his worst and most vindictive.

[/End rant]

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Cheeky Little Apple Announcement

On Zune launch day, Apple announced that six major world airlines would be providing direct iPod support into their entertainment systems over the next few years.

Once again, Apple moves out ahead, and makes it harder for other entrants. Openness in the consumer electronics world is something different than in the PC world. If I can play my music wherever I need it - in the home, on my computer(s), on my phone, in my car, on an aeroplane, is this worse than having a multitude of choice but needing a different device for each activity? If the price for having music everywhere is a £179/$249 iPod is that so bad? The resounding answer is "No". And such an announcement just makes the investment more compelling.

In the good old days you bought a multitude of playback devices for each purpose (each room you wanted music in, a portable for on-the-go; and a car player as well as one or more recording devices to convert to a different format). You also needed to carry your media around too. Now all you need is your computer and one (or more) iPods and you've got it all covered. Your music, your photos, your videos, your life, wherever and whenever you need it - at home, on the train, in the car, and even in the air.

This is a bigger announcement than it looks right now.

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Just one more...

Okay, you've twisted my arm, so I shall twist the knife one more time...

An hilarious CNN TV review of the Zune hijacked by the with-it anchorwoman.

It's so sad we'll be waiting until 2008 to get Zune in the UK and Europe. It appears to be so bad that even Jack Schofield of Guardian fame would have had to write a negative article on it.

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Microsoft, what were you thinking (3)?

Hilarious (though long) account of the Zune installation process over at Engadget.

Did they really think it would be so easy (to topple the iPod)? What's with these awful images on the install process? After all the fuss about WMP11, they don't even use it - preferring yet another flavour of jukebox software. I can see transitive versions of the verb Zune becoming quite a derogatory term, as in "My PC got zuned". Not a very good start.

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10 November 2006

Microsoft, what were you thinking (2)?

Ars Technica covers this one well. As usual, the comments give a good idea of the views of the geek community. If it's 90% in one direction, that's usually a good pointer.

This is a ridiculous move. If I buy my music legally (as I do) why should I support this? And what happens to the small independents, or the average independents? Why should I pay twice?

I think this shows how things really would go if Microsoft owned this market.

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Microsoft, what were you thinking (1)?

Jack Schofield at the Guardian just reported the facts a few weeks ago (see my critique then). And since, we understand, Zune won't come to Europe for another year plus (!), he won't (shouldn't) be reviewing it anytime soon. But here's a few mainstream US reporters on the Zune:

Walt Mossberg at Wall Street Journal.

David Pogue NY Times (hope this link works, but I'm sure you can find it)

David Ewalt, Forbes

Of course, if you read Daring Fireball, you'd have known most of this back in July with the wonderful Magic-8-ball interview! Amazingly, it seems that it is even worse than predicted!

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09 November 2006

MacBook Pro C2D First Impressions

As I mentioned last week, my partner's tired old Titanium Powerbook G4 was stolen on about the same day the new Core 2 Duo MacBook Pros (MBP) were announced - perhaps the only silver lining to that event.

We eventually placed her order on the Apple Education store last Wednesday, and received the machine yesterday - under a week, and all the way from Shanghai. The machine is a 2.33Ghz, 2GB RAM model with 160GB hard drive.

I was interested to do a quick comparison with my last-generation Powerbook G4 Hi-res that I got about a year ago to see how much things have changed. My, what a difference!

To look at, there's very little that's obvious, though the new model is noticeably thinner (and a tad wider). Due to the addition of a Firewire800 port on the new MBP model, it actually looks closer to the Powerbook than the first MBP model. Because of the thinness, the DVD slot is quite low - which looks a little odd. With the PB, the slot and screen-release button are aligned neatly, something which I'm sure makes Jonathan Ive happy. But only a true geek would be able to instantly identify a MBP over a last-gen PBG4 from a glance.

Inside, of course is a different story. I was interested in the hard drive model used. There has been a bit of criticism of Apple's failure to provide a 7200rpm option in the new model. But I had guessed that the 160GB option at 5400rpm would use perpendicular technology. By closer packing of the bits, this actually means the 25% slower rotation is essentially negated by the being able to read more bits. While I don't have the data to prove it, I would imagine a 5400rpm 160GB drive would perform not far off a 100GB 7200rpm drive for most situations.

Well, I'm pleased to report that the drive in this model is a Hitachi perpendicular device, and it's XBench disk scores were considerably better than my 1 year old Seagate 120GB 5400 rpm disk (which itself was well-reviewed). While some of the difference is undoubtedly down to my disk being much fuller than the MBP, I'm sure the Hitachi performs admirably indeed. Sure, if someone made a 7200rpm 160GB disk, that would be great. But right now, I don't think they do. So, with the 160GB I think most people will be happy, and it would make sense for Apple not to offer a lower capacity 7200rpm drive. (Not sure about the 200GB 4200rpm drive though).

The new MBP screen (we went for the matte one), is just wonderful, and seems quite a bit brighter than my hi-res Powerbook (which itself was supposedly much brighter than the previous PB). It does lack 60 pixels in height (due to inclusion of the iSight I guess), but that gives it a slightly better fit to wide-screen movies.

Airport reception seems much improved. I've never been able to see other networks from our home with our powerbooks or mac mini. But I saw 3 others with the MBP. It's a pity the Apple Airport Monitor application does not seem to work on Intel macs (well it works, but it doesn't graph). So I can't see it's real throughput.

But of course, the key differences are not about the hard drive, screen or airport, it's about performance and there is no question this machine is massively faster. Xbench scores were nearly all around 2x better, with many between 3x and 4x improved. The user interface test gave a 10x improvement. While my Powerbook has slightly less RAM (1.5GB) and had a couple of apps running, with an 80% full hard disk, I don't think this would have accounted for too much of the difference (and I'm not about to do a clean install to find out).

But I'm not interested in benchmarks like this per se. Real world use is what's important, and the new MBP flies. Web pages are rendered incredibly quickly. Perhaps that will slow down as caches etc fill up (at least that's my past experience), but it is really near-instantaneous now. I converted an MP3 file at 168kbps VBR to a 160kbps AAC to see how quickly it would do it. All done in 8 seconds. The exact same operation took 25 seconds on the PB. The whole user interface felt very responsive indeed including using Dashboard.

I'm quite critical of a lot of the performance tests run on by many publications. For instance, I've seen a lot of stuff written that multi-core computers don't help much if the application isn't properly multi-threaded. But that completely ignores the fact that most people these days are doing several things on their computer at once. My ideal Mac would be something that converts video/music quickly while letting me surf and work as fast as usual. I'd like a Mac that can record off EyeTV while letting me do my usual work without penalty. Mixing usage like that slows my current PB down significantly, and I have avoided doing much video work. Right now I have 10 applications open and some of those are doing simultaneous work. So, a note to testers out there - create some real-life performance tests with mixed usage, please!

I'll be doing a few H.264 conversions over the next few days and seeing how those stack up. I think there will be a huge improvement there.

But right now, I'd say this machine is an incredible leap forward - by both Intel and Apple. For a quite a bit less than I paid just 12 months ago (helped by a great education price admittedly), there's a machine with 2-3x real-world performance improvements, 40GB extra storage, 0.5GB extra RAM, built-in iSight and Magsafe. I don't think it's just about the PowerPC G4 being long-in-the-tooth - I suspect similar performance gains would be seen against last year's single-core Pentium M models.

I made my own decision last year (failing to anticipate that the MBP's would come along so quickly!), and so will stick with my existing PB until next year. Then we should have the Intel "Santa Rosa" platform inside bumping bus speeds to 800Mhz, adding flash storage for performance/battery life gains, as well as 802.11n, WiMax and other wireless technology support. Perhaps with Leopard supporting resolution independence, we'll also see some full HD models too? I'm looking at around Easter for all of this excitement, assuming I can wait!

If there's anything you'd like to know, do post a comment here and I'll see if I can "borrow" the machine again for a bit of "investigative" blogging!

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07 November 2006

Nice Photo (2)

On Monday evening I was cycling back over Battersea Bridge, and observed the moon rising over Albert. I rushed back to get my camera (and tripod) and snapped another load of shots of my favourite Thames Bridge. If you look carefully below the moon in the second shot, there's a glimpse of the London Eye.

I'm a bit disappointed about not being able to capture the moon's detail - I think that's a dynamic range issue that I can only overcome with a much better camera of som clever multiple shot/combination image. I have managed to get a good moon shot - when in India, but in daylight. You can see this on my webpage linked to here if you're interested. Any good photographers who are willing to share the secrets of how to do a good moon photo on a landscape are welcome to comment here!

Nice Photo (1)

Out in Herefordshire on Sunday was an amazing sunset across much of the sky. I took lots of snaps, none of which can capture the true beauty, but here's a couple to give you an idea.

03 November 2006

MacII heads to landfill

It was a sad day today when, while visiting my mum, I took my old MacII down to the recycling centre (c'mon, I just wrote the headline to attract the Greenpeace brigade).

It had sat in a cupboard since being replaced by the iBook G4 last year, and hadn't been used for a few years previously by my mum. Nevertheless, as a machine that was manufactured in February 1987 - so almost 20 years old - it has had a long life. I know the manufacture date because I took the lid off to remove the hard drive - an 80MB superfast model that I bought separately at the time. Inside the top was written the date of manufacture with a marker pen! It struck me how well-engineered this box was - particulary the way the top came off and how the Nu-bus cards could be added/removed - neither actions requiring a screwdriver. The monitor, keyboard and box itself where all of very solid construction indeed.

I think this was my second (or maybe my third) home Mac, but my first colour one (was it the first colour Mac?) and cost upwards of $5,000 at the time when I was in the US. At then exchange rates, that was around £4,000!

In an ideal world of course, I'd have kept this, but really it wasn't in good enough condition to be a museum piece. For my mum, I think the last straw came when she opened the cupboard and had the monitor fall on her head! So, out it went. In disposing of it, I was amazed at the lack of options available to us for recycling such devices in this country, and I hope that will soon change.

I had a great time with my MacII and it was a revolution at the time. Next week we should be welcoming a MacBook Pro CD2 into the household (though not for me unfortunately - it is to replace a Titanium G4 PowerBook stolen from my partner's workplace). It makes me realise how much things have changed. 2,000times the disk storage, 500 times the memory (I think I had 4MB), and a processor that is clockwise 300 times more powerful than the 16Mhz Motorola 68020 (but not allowing for other chip improvements), all in a portable device a fraction of the size and weight, and for a price about 1/4 of what I paid for the Mac system!

I apologise for the quiet posting lately. Got a few articles in the works, so stay subscribed...

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23 October 2006

The Media and Science...

Heard at the end of a BBC Oxford traffic announcement while driving down from a weekend in Edinburgh (more on that soon):

Scientists say eating a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of Alzheimers Disease; for the truth, we speak with a nutritionist.

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18 October 2006

Once a monopoly....

There is a big brouhaha going on around the blogosphere about Microsoft's new EULA (license agreement) for Windows Vista. The basic issue is that a user license (not an OEM license which is even more highly restricted) will no longer allow you to transfer the license as you see fit. You will have just one opportunity to move the license to another machine after de-activating it on the original machine it is installed on. Thereafter you have to buy another.

Credit to Paul Thurrott (who originally said it wasn't a big deal) for giving space to Koroush Ghazi who has written an excellent rebuttal of why the new EULA is actually very unreasonable and will hurt the very people that are some of Microsoft's biggest customers (and fans).

Ars Technica has posted an article on the subject too with it's usual impartiality, though I think it's being a little trusting when assuming that just because Microsoft didn't enforce some of the restrictions with XP, that it won't enforce some of them with Vista. As usual, the comments to the Ars story give a good idea about what the majority think. When the comments are 90% plus against something, perhaps it's time to take notice!

My impression is that it will hurt a lot of enthusiasts who build their own machines, as well as those who use one or more Windows environments in a virtual setup. That will include some Mac users too who wish to use either BootCamp or solutions such as Parallels to run one or more Windows environments.

Could they have done it differently? Well, yes, of course they could. It seems to me a much fairer choice would be to allow people to deauthorise a computer and then re-authorise another as many times as you wanted (within reason). That's the way the iTunes Store works.

For someone to pay good money for a software license and have it limited to only running on the next 2 computers they own (and reduce that to just one if you have a catastrophic hardware failure) seems like the Microsoft of old - taking its customers for granted. I know of no other software company that would impose such a limit on retail software. Shame on you Microsoft.

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13 October 2006

How (not) to fix Airbus

As a European (and an ex-plane spotter!) it is sad to see the situation that Airbus has found itself in lately. It managed to take the talent of wilting country civil aerospace programmes and show that such talent with reasonable investment could compete with the best. (The ongoing debate about tax breaks is too much for here, but I would argue that the US companies have benefited from effectively similar breaks at state level, and particularly through Federal defence spending).

While Boeing descended into despair with its own management failings, corruption and older aircraft, Airbus seemed to go from strength to strength - and in the process perhaps vindicating that the Chirac/French Establishment view of European industrial collaboration COULD be successful.

Now, as most of the problems appear out in the open (I hope), it's quite clear that all is not well and hasn't been for some time. The business of civil aircraft development is a tough one indeed. But success and change can only be talked about in terms of decades, not years. What is worrying however is how when problems happen governments resort to interventionist behaviour.

Read this article from the BBC to see what I mean. The focus is on Chirac (as usual) supposedly batting for the French worker, but in fact undermining efficient corporate governance which in the long run will cost the very jobs he so wants to protect. But, he's not alone. Even right wing Angela Merkel is considering the German government intervening to buy the shares from Daimler Chrysler (that will help their debt problem). And, of course, Spain is considering doubling its stake to safeguard the jobs in its own country.

Nothing of course from the UK. I come from near the main factory that builds the wing assemblies for most Airbus aircraft. They have transformed themselves from a business jet building factory to an efficient provider of leading edge (sorry for the aviation pun) wings, even as the pound has risen. There will probably be no UK government help for them (as indeed there shouldn't be). But how that must irk when their supposed colleagues are getting taxpayer subsidies to put them out of a job.

Will France ever get a government that is prepared to be honest with its population and show that it must grasp change not fight it? How long can the average French citizen really believe that massive subsidies to small contingents (farmers, state-run firms, etc) are really a good use of their taxes? I have a high regard for most French people I've met as individuals. They're not stupid, and their country has a great amount to offer the world.

But, if Chirac goes ahead with his plans and dictats, Airbus will be a weaker international competitor in a market of just two companies. That will be a waste of an opportunity that has been won by hard work and European ingenuity.

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12 October 2006

Imaginative Terrorism

While terrorism is not of course to be laughed at, I had to confess to a snicker or two as I read this story at the BBC today.

The defendant also plotted to blow up three limousines "packed" with gas cylinders and explosives in underground car parks in the UK, the court heard.

The story goes on to say how the plot was known as "the Gas Limos Project". Thus distinguishing it from the parallel "dirty bomb project". I haven't been to terrorism school myself, but I might take a guess that one of the first lessons learned should be about how to conceal your activities, and that perhaps a little more invention is required for naming projects than this?

11 October 2006

Bad Decision #2: Science Education

The second bad news story of the day was about changes to science education in the UK.

It's not often I agree with Richard Sykes, rector of my alma mater, Imperial College, but his comment was exactly my initial reaction:
"Science should inform the news agenda, not the other way round"

Is it too cynical to suggest that at least some of this thinking came about along the following lines: "How can we solve our problem of lack of science teachers?" "How about changing the curriculum so we can use all those unemployed media studies students?".

If you want to write an essay about how bad GM is, then that's for English classes. If you want to understand, that's science. The consequences of this sort of change are monumental and will only be felt by subsequent generations. We need the Royal Society and other bodies to stand up and fight such changes NOW.

Bad Decision #1: Alzheimers Drugs

News from the BBC today about the Government's refusal (via it's cost/benefit arm - NICE) to sanction the use of certain drugs in combating Alzheimer's.

I have first-hand experience of this situation, and all I can say is the reaction from one person after finally getting the treatment "I've got my husband back". Sure, it wasn't for a long time, but the benefits were tangible. The costs, at £2.50 a day, are surely trivial compared with the other costs both obvious and hidden? Indeed, subsequent costs such as attendance allowances, were way in excess of this sum. Independence and relief was given for £2.50 a day. My regret is that we didn't search this treatment out much sooner when the benefits could have been greater. Again, I have serious concerns that policy is to avoid for as long as possible producing a rational diagnosis that places costs on the system that does the diagnosis. Getting appointments at so-called "memory clinics" is a far-too-torturous process and allows the disease to progress from mild to moderate before any treatment can be attained.

Contrast this with NHS Breast Enlargement Treatment, or NHS IVF and we have I'm afraid lost sight of our priorities.

10 October 2006

Upgraded to Beta Blogger

I've just upgraded Hobsblog to try out some of the new Blogger.com features (on beta of course in usual Google style) which include a comments feed, and also categories (finally). I'll be using these and other features over the coming weeks. Do let me know any questions/comments on the changes.

The url for the dashboard is "beta.blogger" (beta blocker!). Typical Google.

05 October 2006

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

A couple of notes about Jon Stewart's The Daily Show (which, Charles, I know is on Freeview More4 - channel 13 - at 8.30pm most weekday nights, but I'd still like to be able to buy some shows from iTunes!).

Today, "scientific" research has been reported via Ars Technica proving that The Daily Show's news content is as substantive as "real news" (but also a whole lot funnier)!

Last week, Jon got the scoop with an interview with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan! I can't imagine Tony Blair being interviewed on this, and neither would he come off as cleverly as did Musharraf. It was better and more enlightening than most other political interviews I've seen in recent years.

Do yourself a favour and watch the Monday night highlights - World Edition - from the previous week's shows! 20 minutes very well spent.


The Weather

Back when we had the scorcher in July, my blogging friend otan2 beat me to the punch with this post noting how much higher the average temperature had been for the WHOLE of July in Scotland. I commented that the England figure was slightly higher still at 3.6Celsius over normal.

August of course was a different kettle of fish entirely - a real washout and disappointment. But strangely, the average temperature in England was still above normal - though only just. Given one of the worst Augusts that I can remember, that was amazing to me.

Now the September figures are in, and once again the month was 3.2C above the normal average in England and Wales.

These are statistically massive variations, and we should be very worried indeed by the range of variation and especially that even cool wet months are warmer than typical good summer months.

While I know that this is just the English weather and doesn't get too much attention outside these shores, I'm assuming these extremes are being regularly repeated elsewhere around the globe. George Bush: How many Katrinas is it going to take for you to wake up? (or to put it in a completely different American-only context: Do you not think the negative influences of states like Iran and Venezuela would fade if America made major strides to reduce its dependence on oil?).

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Boris Johnson - Eccentric or Prat?

Those who know me, know that I am NOT a Tory - at least of the Thatcher kind. I sit somewhere in the middle ground - perhaps a ground that used to be occupied by the Lib Dems until they lost touch with reality. Neither am I a supporter of privileged private school educations - especially Eton.

So, on the surface, I should think that Boris Johnson is a complete idiot who represents the worst type of private-school delusional right wing views imaginable.

Recently, Boris has come under sustained fire for a number of "gaffes", encapsulated here in the Guardian recently.

William Hague - former Tory leader for my American friends - called him eccentric in a niceish way.

But I actually think "eccentric" is an unfair term and shows just how politically correct our politics have become, stifling debate because we won't call a spade a spade. Do we have to label people as eccentric just because they say something controversial. Boris may be eccentric, but not for much of what's he's said.

A couple of years ago, Boris was forced to eat humble pie in Liverpool after criticising the people for wallowing in "disproportionate grief" over the murder of Ken Bigley in Iraq. But, Boris was absolutely right. I am, of course, a scouser, and therefore able so say such things (another indication of our politically correct society when only a person of that group is allowed to criticise it). Liverpool is a wonderful place, and there are wonderful people there. But for too long it HAS wallowed in self-pity. It would rather receive handouts than do what it has to (I can list a few other parts of the UK similarly). I made my decision as a teenager to get the hell out of there, and I have no regrets. Score 1 to Boris.

Now, Boris also got criticised for making remarks about that wonderful pillar of the establishment, Jamie Oliver. So much so, that the Tories were forced into allocating time at their conference to introduce an emergency motion praising Mr Oliver. Whether you support Jamie's school dinners campaign or not (is there ANYONE who is against in an argument that goes something like "would you like good, wholesome school dinners, or crap?"), one can't help thinking that Mr Oliver's own self-publicity had just a little to do with the whole scheme. The people who should be praised are those who have fought unsung for such changes since times when Jamie Oliver was himself still at school. But who are, of course, ignored by the very media who will only give the airtime to a celebrity.

Politics needs Boris Johnson like it needs Tony Benn, Tam Dalyell, and, dare I say it, Anne Widdecomble to name a few. Heh, maybe even that dour Jack Straw could make it into that group if he continues to say what needs to be said.

And, I'll take the Tories more seriously when they don't resort to spin to protect the reputation of a celebrity who is quite capable of looking after himself.

Boris, I'm not going to agree with you on many things, but on the prat vote, Jamie Oliver wins over you anytime. And, you may be eccentric, but not because of these things. Keep speaking out!

Too Quiet

Sorry it's been a bit quiet here. I lost the will to live a bit after Charles' last comments! (only joking - just the will to blog!). But I've been working on a Hobsblog vs Guardian riposte, and it will be here real soon. In the meantime, I've posted some views on mp3 phones - following a (dire) review of an LG model. Let me know what you think on these. Do you love your music phone? Has it replaced an iPod or similar device? How well does all the software work in terms of keeping it in sync? How well does it fit into other aspects of your life - gym usage, car usage, home usage, etc? And, have you bought music with it? If so, how was that experience?

A couple of other brief stories that have got my attention recently will also be posted shortly!

How not to make an mp3 phone...

Excellent review/case study by Joel Spolsky on his experience with an LG phone from Sprint (via Daring Fireball link).

I'm not going to say that ALL mp3 phones are as bad as this - I know they're not. But when faced with simple stats like "100million phones sold with music players built in", it's important to remember that the vast majority of them have not been bought with that as the major feature, and also that it is highly doubtful that the vast majority of such phones are regularly being used for music (or other multimedia).

Joel highlights some of the fundamental problems here - the manufacturer and the network operator with misaligned business objectives being key. While the networks are struggling to find revenues to pay off their foolish investments in 3G, others are going to come from behind and deliver a compelling mobile strategy that makes sense. The networks don't get the internet, and nor do they get media. While their thinking is focused on how to use and ringfence that network to maximise revenues, others can come along with a clean slate and deliver a mobile strategy that is integrated, affordable and genuinely compelling.

What could a company without the ties of a network operator do differently?

1. Supply a multi-network phone that worked and that didn't try to force you into using an expensive data network all the time. By this I mean a phone that automatically picked up Wi-Fi (WiMAX? and other) networks first for its default connection.
2. Provided VoIP client and IM on the phone - eg through a Skype partnership and/or the Gizmo (SIP) approach. Make it work as cheaply as possible (eg using wifi when it can), giving you the option to switch manually or automatically into higher cost networks depending on availability.
3. Easily let you manage your data connections between free and paid.
4. Supply content to the phone as part of an overall strategy of supplying content to ALL your devices.
5. Provided a number of additional services - free/ad-supported/paid that genuinely added value to the device and encouraged use - both on the device itself and on your other devices.
6. Support access to your normal email service in a synchronised way and possibly access to your data via a virtual hard disk (or vpn to a server).

Who could do all of this? Well, Nokia can today. But something seems to be stopping Nokia from completing the picture. My guess is that it is the networks themselves, who, after all, are Nokia's customers in reality (not you and me). While most of the pieces are there on current high end Nokia phones, and the reality is much better than Joel's review, things are still a bit all over the place. My phone for instance always establishes an orange data connection after being switched on (which is often the case because it switches off frequently of its own accord!) without giving me a chance to stop it. Fortunately, I don't have any apps running that take the data, but it is annoying to find a data connection active. Also, I can't turn wi-fi off and save battery. If there's a wifi network I've setup, the phone detects it when within range. Experiences with the music player and media player leave a lot to be desired.

I'm sure Sony Ericsson is up to the task too, but has the same problems as Nokia. Motorola, while making the best looking phones at this time, doesn't seem to understand UI, so I'm not sure about them.

I know which company you think I'm going to suggest, but actually you're wrong! Microsoft is the company that had most to offer in this area and had the capability to deliver it. It is far less tied in to the network operators than Nokia and the other manufacturers, it had much of the technology in place with Windows Mobile, and with all it's back end infrastructure - MSN, WindowsLive etc, probably could have delivered some compelling services (finally finding a way to monetise MSN better). And Microsoft also has/had the resources to throw money at this area. It could probably have found good partners in the network operators that are least successful, and/or piggy-backed on a good virtual network operator. In the UK for instance, could a Microsoft-BT partnership or a Microsoft-Virgin partnership not delivered a compelling mobile service? It probably wouldn't have faced huge regulatory hurdles because there is lots of competition already and a dynamic space.

Instead, Microsoft has focused on XBox, and, now on trying to hurt the iPod. It may well have defeated Sony in the games market - time will tell. But if so, I think that's more down to Sony's rash of disastrous mistakes and poor execution. By the time they land significant punches on the iPod, I think the world will have moved on.
Sure, they will no doubt be working on a Zune phone etc. and you might make the (fair) argument that they've still not worked out how to be a hardware company, but I really think this is a space they could have owned or at least muscled into a strong position next to Nokia and the like.

So that brings me to the company you first thought I was going to say! Of the other capable companies out there, only Apple has the design skills to bring all this together. But Apple doesn't have at least two things that Microsoft has. It doesn't have a phone OS. Symbian and Windows Mobile have both cost huge amounts to develop, and this is not a trivial problem to overcome. Perhaps Apple has something up their sleeves, or perhaps it will do a deal with Symbian or somebody (though that is quite un-Apple-esque).

Neither does Apple have a great services strategy. Sure, it can deliver media content and that is one of its compelling angles in this space. But in services it is WAY behind others. .Mac I find useful, but it is certainly not free and not for everyone. And, it doesn't offer many of the things that people like Yahoo, Microsoft and, of course, Google bring.

I touched on this when talking about Eric Schmidt joining Apple's board, but it is increasingly clear to me that Apple's next push will be into the mobile space and that it will do this with Google's help. Google has a lot to gain by getting searches done on mobile devices and increasingly using its location services. To say nothing of GMail, Blogger.com, GoogleTalk, Picassa, GoogleGroups, Calendar etc. It must be frustrated that such services are not being used by mobile users more frequently. Only Google has the clout to provide many of these data services for free or at least at low-cost. It might even be able to make a dent in handset costs too - given that most people pay nothing or close to nothing for their handsets due to subsidies, this is another obstacle Apple and Google will have to overcome.

If I was a network operator, I'd be courting these guys very closely, no matter how successful I currently was. But for turnaround situations (eg Softbank in Japan who took over Vodafone's failing service) or virtual network operators (Virgin, BT), it is a no-brainer.

I used to think that Apple had no chance in this space and wouldn't try. But how things have opened up through greed and incompetence. And, Microsoft, who could have seized this easily, will as usual be playing catch up from behind by throwing money at it until their dominance is established.

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19 September 2006

(Old) Football News...

I've been a bit late in reporting on this - general tardiness combined with the hope that last Saturday things were going to get even better. But a 2-2 draw with Wigan ruined that hope and the brief top of the table stint from the previous weekend was not repeated.

Nevertheless, I would just like to trumpet the performance of Everton in the first few games of this season and in particular, to celebrate the 3-0 defeat of arch-rivals Liverpool - the best scoreline seen since 1964 (which pre-dates my memory, if not support). Well done David Moyes and team!

If only the glory days of the late sixties and the mid-eighties could be recaptured!


Guardian, Apple, iTV and Ignorance

Charles referring to my article on the new Apple announcements (and specifically about my criticism of the Guardian) posted in the comments to that article the following which I'm reprinting so it doesn't get lost:

You don't specify what, though, which is quite a clever way of disagreeing without having to do the difficult stuff, like being specific. Bobbie Johnson and Jack Schofield have also posted followup posts. Perhaps you'll find criticisms in those too.

The key point though is this. You can buy a DVD player for £30. You can join a DVD rental scheme, or just go down to your local library. With those you can watch the films as many times as you like (which is generally going to be once) or just buy the DVD, in which case you have a physical object that you can rip to your HD and watch on your PC etc.

And you'll have a wider choice. And lots of people also have VOD through Sky (which is NVOD) or NTL (which really is VOD). No waiting for the download to happen and hoping your broadband line doesn't crap out (mine runs now at 128K and falls over a couple of times a night).

This all leaves aside the iPods, which obviously are going to sell big. It's the other things - the movies and the "iTV" - which seem like squibs. Unless the movies get a lot cheaper, there's no point bothering. Unless the iTV has a lot more capability, there are other things which do the job just as well or better already, and have been for years.

This article is VERY long and represents a detailed piece of research and writing that I've conducted in order to answer Charles' criticisms.

First of all, I would acknowledge (and did acknowledge in the article) that it was a QUICK reaction to that day's news and I apologise for not posting the usual links that I do. At the time, the only Guardian commentary was from Victor Keegan to my knowledge which was featured heavily on the Guardian site. There was no intention for it to be "a clever way of disagreeing without having to do the difficult stuff, like being specific." But now as you ask....

(Before I launch into this, I should point out that my research has been hampered by the inability of me to browse parts of the Guardian weblog using either Safari or Firefox; at the time I tried - selecting the category Apple, Safari would freeze completely and had to be force-quitted; the behaviour was repeated 3 times before I moved on to Firefox; with this, cpu use went to 100%, and the display was quite garbled; after numerous attempts, I was able to copy and paste Charles' post so I could look at it in more detail and/or get to the permalinks. I've never had this experience with Safari before or Firefox. Is this another subtle anti-Apple ploy by the Guardian or just incompetence in adhering to web standards?)

Let's take all the articles one correspondent at a time and expose the ignorance:

First off, Victor Keegan, whose remarks were the only ones I'd seen at the time of my first article. I know Victor's not anti-Apple per se - I think he was the only journalist I know who praised the Motorola iTunes phone which even Steve Jobs is rumoured to believe was a POS. But...."Every Empire Crumbles" tagline "Apple is losing its hip and unpredictable edge as it risks being left behind by the very technology it helped to proliferate"?

Just what is the basis for this? It seems like a follow-on to the previous Sunday's Observer full one pager in the MAIN paper saying that the iPod was no longer cool. You know, Guardian/Observer Group, if you write it enough, you will believe it.

But what is Victor's evidence of the decline of the empire? It's not Apple's stock price obviously, or their recent financial performance (the last quarter of which had revenues up 24% over last year and 117% over 2 years ago). Neither of which are mentioned. It's not Apple's market share of music players, which is not mentioned. Instead, Victor uses 2 quarters of consecutive sales drops on iPods and refers to the number of mobile phones sold which have music playing capabilities. I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that Christmas comes but once a year, and that last year, new nanos AND 5G iPods had been introduced in that quarter causing a truly huge leap in iPod sales resulting in a baseline from which consecutive drops were inevitable. If Apple had not expected this, it would be sitting on huge inventory which it would now be writing off. Instead iPod sales in the last quarter were 32% ahead of the same quarter in the previous year. Hardly an empire crumbling.

But what about Victor's point on mobile phones with media player capabilities? Just because a mobile phone has a built-in media player, does not mean its being used in that way. If mobile phones had crept up and taken over the iPod mantle, would we not be seeing a massive drop in iTunes share of music downloads? I know many people with mp3-capable mobile phones, and the vast majority do NOT use the music player capabilities. Of course, that may change, and Apple knows that and has admitted that. It has a huge chasm to cross, but since the mobile phone manufacturers and the operators have collectively failed to find a business model that works for both of them, there is still a gap for someone to come along who does it right.

To Victor: If this holiday season's iPod sales fall significantly below last year's, then maybe you're on to something. If the iTunes music store nosedives in its sales, then maybe you're on to something. If some other music players get into 2 of the top 5 best sellers on Amazon UK (let alone Amazon US), then maybe you're on to something. But at this time, your story is without foundation.

Let's move on. I wouldn't normally bother with Jack Schofield as we all know he hasn't a clue and writes the most ridiculous anti-Apple comments. But let's just focus on some of the stupid things he says (and believes) about Apple's announcements and what's out there from the company behind the market-leading, virus-ridden OS.

First off, Jack comments on Zune - as pre-announced as the iTV product, but with less detail. We don't know the price and we don't even know whether it works in the Plays-for-(un)sure universe, though the answer to the latter appears to be an unbelievable "NO". There is not a single criticism of Zune in Jack's piece, nor even some critical questioning. What about battery life? What about price - originally the 30GB was rumoured at $399, then matching the 30GB iPod at $299. But then Steve went and dropped the price of both 5G iPods (something no Guardian commentator noted in any article I saw) so, it will now have to be $249 surely? No questioning of the music sharing feature which seems (from what I read) to be very limited - even assuming you run into another Zune-carrier. No questioning of Plays-for-Sure. Jack, can you not think of ANY faults with this device or Microsoft's strategy?

Then Jack talks about iTV in "How much is a Media Center PC, Bobbie". Jack makes numerous points to show how far Apple is behind. He quotes media centre PC's being available for $399, then goes on to say that the iTV is not a media centre PC. So why mention the comparison, Jack? Then he says that "Media Center capability is built into Windows Vista, so most standard PCs next year will be Media Centers too." Yes, indeed, Jack, key words "next year". And, actually it is not buit into Windows Vista, it is built into the more expensive versions of Windows Vista. If you buy a machine today (assuming it can really handle full-blown Vista next year), then expect to pay another $159 just for the software - that's half the price of an iTV before any hardware is considered. And, we're mixing the future with today, yet again. How many media centre PCs are even four times the size of the iTV? How many are quiet? How many can sit in your living room and look the part?

Jack then talks about the Linksys Media Centre extender, a device which costs a similar amount to Apple's proposed list price for iTV at $313 according to my searches. Jack calls it "similar". Well, perhaps it's closer in looks to the iTV than any of the media center PC's he talks about. But, the Linksys doesn't do HD, nor does it do H.264. Both of these are very demanding applications requiring state-of-the-art chips. Neither does the Linksys have a HD port - either DVI or HDMI. The iTV has an HDMI port meaning it can provide a digital signal to a digital TV. The Linksys uses 802.11g standard. It is highly likely that the iTV will use the new 802.11n standard, and indeed a key reason why the product is not released yet, is because that standard is still not ratified, and Apple would be opening itself up for major problems if it shipped a pre-N consumer device which couldn't be made compatible with the final n standard. Jack, as always, fails to appreciate these differences. They are not mere subtleties, they are fundamental differences affecting price, delivery date, and overall user experience. Failure to read a spec sheet and/or to understand should disqualify you from writing about technology in an opinionated way.

Then, he notes the XBox360 as a media centre extender. A device significantly bigger than the iTV, with a large external power brick and reportedly high heat output (from both brick and device). Is this the device you want next to your plasma TV? Will you leave it on all the time? What about the noise from the fans? Hardly audiophile is it? Only the basic XBox360 is at an equivalent price to the iTV. And it's at that price because Microsoft loses money on everyone it sells. Sure, you could be clever and pay that and never buy a game - ha, ha, Microsoft. But if you want a media centre extender, get one that is designed for the job - not doubles up as one.

Then Jack comes up with this amazing statement
"But by the time iTV gets going, millions of homes could already have PCs running Vista beaming movies to Xbox 360 consoles attached to TV sets, synchronising with portable media players (Archos, Creative etc), PDAs and Windows Mobile phones, among other things. Maybe even the odd Tablet PC!"

What? VIsta isn't shipping either, Jack. Same sort of timeframe as iTV for home users. And if Apple is late to the party, why is not everyone doing what you suggest with XP today? The fact is they're not, and Vista by itself is not going to solve that. And, if Microsoft thought it had it nailed, it wouldn't be converting itself to Microhard and creating its own incompatible music players, and potentially its own Microsoft phone.

Jack finishes with this final dig at Steve and Apple
"The one thing you can bet on is that most of these users won't be paying Steve Jobs-style prices to download movies."

What (again)? As far as I know, Apple's prices for online movies are the lowest there are. The reason they aren't lower has been well-publicised. Does Jack think that a key reason the other movie studios have not signed on for the Apple vision is because Apple priced them too HIGH? If you don't like the price, then don't buy. But, Jack completely misses or avoids the point that iTV does not force you to use the Apple movie store any more than Microsoft's MediaCenter technology forces you to use Amazon (rip a DVD, play a recorded TV show off Elgato EyeTV etc). Movie stores all have DRM, and all provide limits. Apple has been careful to come up with limits that seem at least reasonable for the typical family home situation.

Finally, let's move on to Charles himself. I like Charles, really I do. And he visits here regularly to give his comments. He's a bright guy. But he doesn't get video. Plenty of people have commented on the Guardian blog about his factual errors in this piece. But let's just cover this paragraph:

"Movies? In 640 by 480, it's a giant leap forward to 1985, and VGA, isn't it? Jobs called it "near DVD quality at 640x480 resolution". Yes, but the average TV screen roughly equates to 1024 x 768. Anything less isn't "near" DVD. It's a quarter the size. The rights will be the same as the TV shows - so no burning to disc. It's hardly terrific for a backup strategy. We think that at those prices, the likes of Netflix - and indeed Amazon - can sleep easy. When the physical product is cheaper than the virtual one, it's only a contest where people won't travel. And even then, the file-sharing networks haven't gone away."

Where to start, really. The average TV screen is certainly not 1024 x 768, though this may be the average computer monitor. The average TV screen has a resolution of something less than 576 lines in this country and 480 lines in the US. Until very recently, most top-end plasma screens sold in this country from even good names like Panasonic were 852 x 480. Oh, 480, isn't that a coincidence? Of course not, it's what NTSC is built upon. So, even top end TV's have not supported the 576 lines of real resolution offered by PAL. Resolution of 640 x 480 for videos is in theory as good as US DVD's. We can get into esoteric arguments about PAL vs NTSC (number of lines, frame rates) etc, but it doesn't belong here and has little to do with Apple's movie store. In the US, it would be relatively easy for Apple to deliver near-DVD quality with a 640 by 480 video, because the resolutions are very similar indeed. In fact, it could probably exceed DVD quality if it was able to re-master from the original using better H.264 compression than the older and less efficient MPEG2 compression used on DVDs. Most likely however, much of the material available on the store could come from DVD's converted. In which case, there would clearly be some loss going from a lossy scheme like MPEG2 to another lossy scheme like H.264. From the demos we saw on a large screen, I don't think quality will be an issue. In reality, there is massive variation between the quality of DVDs available in both NTSC and PAL (I watched a truly badly encoded Japanese movie last night on DVD). I see no reason why the choices Apple has made and with appropriate quality control should not lead to a quality output to both computer screen or to TV monitor that most people would find indistinguishable from the equivalent DVD.

In Europe (once we get such videos) maybe things are not so simple, and it will be interesting to see whether the European stores will offer different resolutions. But 640 by 480 on 30 frames a second with a progressive output and a decent quality master to start with, should again be able to provide excellent quality output to most computer monitors and TV sets (even here). To improve from this would really require a jump to High Definition. Is this what Charles wanted? But no one else offers HD movies digitally today. And, as Charles alluded to with his broadband comments, many people would find their download speeds the obstacle for true HD delivery, even if their computer could handle it, and their tv screen display it (true HD is at least 7-8 times the data size of Standard Definition TV). The point you have missed Charles, is that 640 by 480 is NOT "quarter the size", and you have given people a very bad impression because of this serious factual error. Apple's movie resolution choices are as good as any other digital delivery service available today, and their choice of H.264 probably will lead to it being better than any of them and/or with a lower file size. Furthermore, it requires just ONE download to serve computer, tv, AND iPod. Contrast with the Amazon Unboxed store which requires two files to be downloaded, stored and managed. (Most other stores to my knowledge don't even support portable devices at all) Is it for everyone? I'm sure not. I'm a rental user, and generally do not own videos. But I can see times when I would buy it this way (DVDs of concerts for instance). And, for people with kids, having a digital version may be a lot safer than a physical one. The movies can be copied to DVD, and can be copied to other hard disks. So, there IS a backup strategy - one that is arguably better than a single flimsy disk). It's not one where you can create a playable DVD directly. Whose fault is that? If you don't like the rights and you don't like the price, the way to change it is not to boycott online sales, it's to boycott ALL movie sales - physical and digital - until the studios wake up to give you products and rights on those products that are more reasonable. What Charles also doesn't mention is that with a simple cable it will be possible to watch the movies at 640 by 480 on a TV straight from the iPod (and in fact last year's 5G models too with a software upgrade). Imagine the convenience of carrying an iPod on holiday and connecting into a hotel TV? There's a convenience and simplicity about all this that IS absent from a physical product, and from other stores. Apple has made some good choices, despite the limits put on it by those studios (and by companies like Walmart who are rumoured to have threatened the studios). Another point Charles made (in his comments to my blog) is to infer that videos cannot be played until they have been downloaded. But from my interpretation of the keynote, they are available within a minute of downloading starting. That is pretty much VOD. Sure, if you've got an unreliable broadband, you may want to wait till there's a decent buffer. But I think again, Charles, you've erred in your criticism, and your poor broadband is another story altogether.

Now, let's come on to iTV. What Charles seemed to gloss over is that iTV CAN do HD as far as I am aware. So, we are not talking a technology limitation here - we are talking about the practical implementation of the movie store to meet the needs of the studios, and matching that to the practical limitations of the average person's broadband line (and also not forgetting pricing!). Photos, HD movies from other sources (including likely Blu-ray players next year) should all be capable of being displayed at the maximum resolution of the TV connected to the iTV. I can assure Charles that my projector at 1280 x 720 does a great job of displaying both DVD's from a Mac as well as my photos using a DVI (digital cable). So, apart from the errors in the statements, there is also a considerable misunderstanding of the issues involved and the choices made by Apple - which on the whole seem to be good (and why I praised it). Also widely unnoticed is the promise that iTV is multi-platform - a PC AND a Mac Media Centre Extender. Who else provides one of them today?

You can all look on and say this is all dull and me-too, but it absolutely is NOT. Apple has bided their time and waited for technology to come together to provide the key ingredients to build a quality integrated video delivery system. Those bits of technology include H.264 (don't underestimate this), appropriate and affordable H.264 decoders and encoders (faster Macs/PCs; lower cost system-on-a-chip for iTV and iPod), decent, ubiquitous broadband, and (almost certainly) 802.11n. Without ALL of these pieces, any solution WOULD be a compromise. With these pieces and Apple's legendary integration skills, it is possible to come close to high quality, reliable handling of music, movies, tv programmes and photos on both portable and home devices. And it will be possible to move into HD as that becomes established. I know of no other technology that can do that today. The closest will be the XBox360 (but it's hot and quite large - certainly not suitable for many living rooms), and perhaps the PlayStation3 if/when its available here (but with many of the same weaknesses of the XBox360). Both would require Vista (to accomplish what the iTV does), and both will be Windows only, and also come with their own proprietary DRM's. I'm not saying Apple is light years ahead - in some ways they've come from behind. But they are delivering a solid, affordable, attractive and practical solution that is multi-platform and extendible for the future. Apple is taking on the home network - that is a big commitment for the company when the average person knows nothing about networking. And just as Airport made it easy for the masses to share broadband wirelessly, then airport express for music, iTV and the FrontRow strategy will make it easy for everyone too.

Is it ALL rosy? No. Are there questions that COULD have been asked by an intrepid reporter? Yes. Here's what I'd like to know:
Movie Store:
1. Are movies re-mastered from the original film, or are they taken from DVD?
2. Do we get DVD Extras?
3. For Europe, will we get PAL-style movies? If so, will they play on iPods? Or is this pushing us all towards an NTSC-led world?
4. What will be the European pricing?
5. When are we going to get UK TV shows (even ones offered on iTunes in the US such as CSI, Jon Stewart Daily Show).

1. Component and HDMI output is supported. But what about composite signals, S-Video or (Europe) SCART? Without these, many TV sets will not be capable of being supported.
2. Will it also work as a wireless base station (ie is it REALLY the Video version of the Airport Express for 802.11n)?
3. How will PC's work with it - they don't have Front Row, so is it limited here to iTunes-managed content only?
4. Will it be able to route video signals to a TV and separate the audio to a surround sound system in all cases or will we need cables back out from the TV?
5. Can I plug my iPod into the USB port of the iTV and use it to play video, or must I connect the iPod to a TV separately?
6. What other uses has the USB port (printer output, iPod sync to a remote PC/Mac, TV tuner input?)
7. Will 3rd parties be able to send content to an iTV?

I don't expect the first version to do all these things, but if the device can do some of them, then it will increase its utility value to most people.

And criticisms? Yes, I have those too. I think those who've bought TV shows in the past should be able to download the higher resolution ones now available. Kicking early adopters in the teeth is not a good business strategy. While I love the new iPod Shuffle, I think it's a mistake to require a dock to connect it (I use my current one as a USB disk frequently, and its utility would be reduced if I had to have the dock with me). Finally, use of Dolby Surround is disappointing when compared with DTS and Dolby 5.1 which are on most DVD's. (This is mostly a technology limitation within current video/audio compression systems, but Apple will have to work with MPEG and others to improve this situation).

So, that's my rather long-winded response to the articles that were written. I should point out in fairness that Bobby Johnson of all the journalists seemed to get most of the points. It's taken me a long time to go through this, and, yes, I could probably write even more (heaven help you!).

If you're going to write about technology, do your research first. A good read of projectorcentral.com and/or the AVSForums is a great way to learn about video - PAL, NTSC, SD,ED and HDTV, interlacing, progressive scans, HDMI, DVI, Component etc. Then I'd advise reading the spec sheets of products you compare. If one product has something that another doesn't, then why is that, and who will it affect?
And, while business and economics is perhaps only tangential to the stories, understand that it has a huge effect on what is being offered and why. Educate your readers on who they should be aiming their anger (eg at movie prices, or digital rights).

Yes, I know I love most things Apple does. Yes, I want them to succeed (and not just as a small shareholder). At some point, Apple may well need taking down a peg or two. But if we, as consumers, wish to see a credible contender to the Windows world in which WMP was (pre iPod/iTunes) about to become Microsoft's next monopoly product together with a single Microsoft-owned DRM, we need to welcome competition. Apple has a long way to go still - even with its iPod marketshare - before it can be a long-term credible contender. Perhaps Sony once could have been. But right now, it's a two horse race (unless you believe that Linux is going to come up with the goods), and Apple is still the big underfunded underdog against a cash-rich Redmond. We need to welcome advances that make it easier for us to use our paid-for and self-generated media in our homes whoever provides the technology. Criticism is just - but only if its founded on a solid understanding. Hopefully, I've pointed out here that there has been a woeful lack of understanding behind the Guardian/Observer's recent spate of criticisms.

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