Thursday, May 31, 2007

Not My Foleo

Tom Krazit over at CNET has a piece that pretty well summarizes some of the problems that I have with Palm's new Foleo--which is essentially a svelte network computer in a laptop form factor. Although the new not-yet-shipping device has its supporters, the overall chatter has been pretty negative. I hate to pile on, and probably wouldn't, but I'm such a natural customer for this and yet I'm not rally all that interested.

Why am I a natural customer? Well, first of all, I have a Treo 700p, a smartphone that is the intended companion to the Foleo. Second, I am a big fan of Foleo attributes such as small and light. Instant-on too. I used a Jornada 820 for several years for notetaking when I traveled. I only abandoned it when I got a more compact laptop (a Fujitsu P5020) and the lack of wireless networking (and even limited wired networking because of outdated software) became just too limiting. So I get the tradeoffs associated with having something compact and portable; I've consistently tilted in that direction when I've made my device choices.

So why is my initial reaction to the Foleo negative?

Because it's neither fish nor fowl. The Treo is a step function form factor reduction from a laptop (which, of course, brings with it some usability limits). I can pull it out of my pocket to check and respond to email without opening up a "computer." I don't need to carry a bag to transport it. And it gets a full day of battery life or better. In short, it's fundamentally different from a laptop.

This isn’t. It doesn’t have the pocketability of my Treo. At the same time, it’s only incrementally smaller/lighter/faster-to-start than my laptop—while not being able to do lots of things I can do with a laptop. Perhaps if I used a big, high-end “desktop replacement” style of notebook, I’d see this as a more useful intermediate point but as things stand, I really don’t.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Blast From the Past

The 100 oldest dot-com domains. Many are no longer with us. The three oldest are, perhaps unsurprisingly, out of Cambridge Mass with Symbolics obtaining its domain about a month prior to BB&N (the builders of the first Internet routers) who one might reasonably have expected to hold the And, assuming that MCC.COM is Masscomp Computer Corporation, the top five are all out of Massachusetts. Going down the list, one sees the names of most of the computer companies that existed in the mid-1980s in addition to (mostly) other tech companies of one sort or another. Data General (DG.COM), who I used to work for, is about midway down the list.


Via Simon Phipps.

Friday, May 25, 2007

One Thing Netflix Doesn't Do Well

In general, I'm a big fan of Netflix. I'm usually pretty flexible about which movie I watch on a given evening and am happy to choose between what I have checked out from Netflix and what I've purchased and not yet watched. It's certainly not a case of saving money relative to other options. Rather, it's the convenience of sitting down at my computer, listing out what I want to see, and having the rest happen automagically. Over the past few years, I've become of great fan of using the Internet, auto-pay systems, etc. to relegate as many tasks as possible to the "don't have to think about" bin. But back to Netflix.

Another nice thing about Netflix is that if I run across an interesting-looking film on a Website or a Very Short List daily email (very recommended by the way), I can just pop it onto my (long) Netflix queue, for future consideration if nothing else. I was in just such a mode as I was reading an interesting article over on Filmwad called Theatrical Cuts vs Director's Cuts when I was reminded of something that has annoyed me a bit about Netflix in the past. Namely, it often offers just one version of a movie.

To take an example from the article, Alexander Revisited - The Final Cut (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) isn't available from Netflix; only an earlier, apparently out of print version is. There are counterexamples; Netflix offers both cuts of Superman II. However, in my experience, Netflix tends to have just one version of a given film.

I speculate that this decision has more to do with keeping things simple than anything else. After all, Netflix is one of the ultimate "long tail" companies; a few more copies of films popular enough to even merit new, alternative versions would, I assume, be barely a blip in Netflix' DVD inventory. Rather, my guess is that they don't want to risk confusing the average user of their site with film fan minutiae about different director cuts or alternative endings. So, for the most part, they just stock a single version. (As far as I know, Netflix also just stocks the Widescreen version even when a Fullscreen version is also available.)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Does Photojournalism Matter?

In his recent post Elegy for the Photojournalist, Nick Carr writes:

I would agree with Gillmor that this trend [citizen photojournalism] seems inevitable, but I'm not so sanguine about its effects. It's not that I have anything against amateur photographers (being one myself); it's that I think we'll find - are finding already, in fact - that while amateur work may be an adequate economic substitute for professional work, there are things that pros can accomplish that amateurs cannot. We see in the decline of professional photojournalism how the Internet's "abundance" can end up constricting our choices as well as expanding them.

My initial reaction was that Nick had overstated the case. His familiar "Does IT Matter?" has always struck me as a similarly (and, I suspect, somewhat deliberately) overstated argument. The underlying trends are quite real. But the logical extrapolations are a fair bit exaggerated.

Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired, has an extensive and thought-provoking comment in which he makes at least a partial counterargument. Among other things, he notes that:

However, while much of what pro photographers once did can be done as well by the greater collective of amateurs, not everything can. Very specific assignments -- a portrait of a famous singer, or the inside of a new designer's home, or a story on elephant trackers -- simply are not going to show up on Flickr. It takes too much coordination, money, and expertise to pull these off.

But the implications of "crowdsourcing" and the changing nature of the news business on photojournalism are, at a minimum, complicated. Kevin goes on to note, among other things, that Flickr (and presumably iStockphoto and the like as well) will become more common for most uses. To a large degree, it will increasingly only be situations where access is controlled for some reason or another (you can't give everyone a photo pass to the Superbowl)--or where a very specific set of images is needed--you need to hire someone, which is to say you need a pro photographer. And, of course, some photographers will through talent or whatever be able to create images consistently recognized as superior--even if the "masses" have similar access to a scene.

Kevin also notes that "The truth is that there were never very many professional make-their-living photographers." In a sense, we've been having this argument for a long time. Life Magazine died recently. But it died before in 1972, prior to which it had essentially defined the category of photojournalism. The competition that time wasn't crowdsourcing. Rather it was the more immediate impact of television news taking the place of a weekly magazine of photographic journalism.

At the end of the day, I'm not (yet) convinced of Nick's argument. There always has been and always will be a tendency for for-profit businesses (especially if those profits are being squeezed) to substitute free, even if it brings the quality down just a bit. And both businesses and individuals have long had to compete with all sorts of free content and with people whose hobby skirts very close to another's profession.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

IRIS for Flickr

Bob Brewin's keynote here at JavaOne is San Francisco yesterday was packed with loads of cool demos. For example, a geospatial browser based on NASA's World Wind (using the Java OpenGL API) deservedly received lots of applause. From a personal perspective though, the one that really stood out for me was IRIS, a "rich client" app that uses Java applets to browse and edit photos stored on the Flickr online photo service. There seems to be some roughness around the edges with the login process (try just browsing a user's photos if you have trouble actually logging in) and Sun's servers hosting the project got hammered by the load after the demo. However, the application is just an amazing advance over Flickr's own fairly crude tools such as Flickr Uploader. It uses Java graphics capabilities to full effect to both edit and show the photos in a Flickr album. What's more, the user doesn't have to explicitly download anything.

Congrats to Ken Russell and his co-workers for putting together this very impressive demo.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Best of Science Fiction Film and TV

Many moons ago, I put together a list of my favorite science fiction books. It's a bit long in the tooth at this point; I'll have to update it one of these days. I'm not as hardcore a science fiction fan as I used to be but I still enjoy the genre when the work is quality which, of course, is far less frequently than otherwise.

I mention this because the other day I ran across a pointer to a best-25 of the last 25 years science fiction projects (LA-speak for TV series and films). I don't find most of these things particularly worthy of comment or even the time to read. They're typically either grindingly conventional or just weird. This one (from Entertainment Weekly of all the bizarre places) however was really quite good. It had a few unconventional choices (such as Galaxy Quest) that I might not have thought to put on such a list, but I actually pretty much agree with them. In addition, one of the nice things about the 25-year cutoff for the list was that it excluded various films and TV shows that were inarguably influential but that are perhaps best enjoyed with a degree of "historical perspective."

So, no real disagreements. Just a few quibbles.

On the film side, I'm not a huge fan of E.T. but I appreciate that it was a hugely popular film. And, on the absolutely opposite pole of filmic character, I didn't really buy into the unremitting darkness of last year's Children of Men. But it's clearly a well-made film. I would probably be inclined to include other films instead however. Possibilities that come to mind are Jurassic Park, Minority Report, eXistenZ, The Abyss, and perhaps a superhero double feature of Batman Begins and Spiderman II. (Superman II misses the 25-year cutoff.)

I have even less disagreement on the TV side. I would be inclined to list Star Trek: Deep Space 9--a darker, deeper, and more serialized series in many ways--along with Star Trek: The Next Generation. (A number of the entries group related projects.) And I'd like to find a spot for Babylon 5. The series has its problems. Some of the acting is pretty stiff and the computer graphics are obviously computer graphics. Uncertainties associated with its renewal at various spots also made the final season feel a bit tacked on. But the strong writing, well-developed story arc, and complex backstory made this series worth watching. It does take some work to get into and, at the end of the day, isn't up to the standards that a newer series such as Battlestar Galactica has set so caveat emptor.

In any case, pretty much everything on the list is worth watching. If you're a science fiction fan, check it out.

Friday, May 04, 2007

THE NUMBER and the law

I normally stay away from commenting, linking to, or otherwise getting involved when tsunami-class memes envelop the Internet. I'm talking, of course, about the AACS decryption key and the subsequent takedown notices associated with it. However, I did want to take the time to point to a post that deserves to be at the top of the pile.

09 f9: A Legal Primer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is succinct, readable, and provides a nice overview of the legal landscape associated with this firestorm. It's important because probably 90 percent of what's been posted about this assumes that the takedown notices are about copyright. However, as the EFF explains:

Is the key copyrightable? It doesn't matter. The AACS-LA takedown letter is not claiming that the key is copyrightable, but rather that it is (or is a component of) a circumvention technology. The DMCA does not require that a circumvention technology be, itself, copyrightable to enjoy protection.

The EFF also notes that:

The AACS-LA presumably would argue that the key is a "component" or "part" of a "technology" that circumvents AACS. Moreover, AACS-LA would likely argue that the key was "primarily ... produced" to circumvent AACS, that is has no other commercially significant purpose, and that it is being "marketed" for use in a circumvention technology. The takedown letters seem to take the position that both the poster and the hosting provider are engaged in "trafficking."

The AACS-LA will also doubtless point to the DMCA cases brought against 2600 magazine for posting the DeCSS code back in 2000 (EFF was counsel to the defendant). In that case, both the district court and court of appeals concluded that posting DeCSS to a website violated the DMCA.

In other words, you may disagree with the current state of US copyright law as embodied in the DMCA. You may think the the DeCSS (the encryption code for non-high def DVDs)case was wrongly decided. You may think that much of what the content producers do in attempts to protect their intellectual property is stupid and counter-productive. I'd agree with more than a little of that. However, as the EFF explains, the legal effort to quash the publication of this number may be vain but, as a matter of current law, it's probably on reasonable ground.

Which isn't to say that it should be.