Friday, December 23, 2005

X-Mas List Item #6: An Open, Fully-Supported E-book Reader

Pull up a chair and grab an eggnog, and I shall tell you the the haunting tale of the First E-book Migration.

Somewhat ironically for the technology sector, the failure had little to do with over-hyped and underperforming equipment. Text requires minimal bandwidth to transmit, and minimal memory to store. The LCD displays of the day, though drab by today's standards, were perfectly adequate.

But being first type of media capable of making the jump to digital distribution turned out to be a disadvantage. Consumers were still new to the internet, and leery of using it to make purchases. No successful online media marketplace existed that the would-be e-book titans could emulate. Publishers feared a backlash of the brick-and-mortar stores upon which they were dependent for shelf space. And, perhaps most importantly, the venerable scaffolding of contracts between authors and publishers had no accommodations for digital release. Nothing fosters inaction like the prospect of a legal quagmire.

Still. It was morning in dot-com America. E-books were possible, so they had to be done.

Ships under many flags disappeared over the horizon. They had names like Franklin and RCA.

Those who early-adopted their way into the First Migration found themselves in a wilderness both sparse and cruel.

Only a handful of publishers released titles digitally. Most of those who did handpicked a seemingly random fraction of their titles for e-release – probably for arcane contractual reasons or because they were afraid to extend themselves more deeply than their competitors.

Manufacturers and publishers sported a ridiculous array of incompatible formats. They also shared different visions of how the e-book universe should operate. Some opted for a direct-download model in which readers would dial-up content directly. Others thought reading on the computer should be sufficient, and spurned dedicated devices entirely.

The differences went on and on. Should Ebooks be just like regular books, page numbers and all? Or should they act more like the web, with hyperlinks and interactivity? Should they cost more than regular books, because they are more flexible? Or less, because they are intangible?

While the early adopters tried to colonize this wild frontier, the rest of us cuddled up with our dead trees and waited for news of a bounteous harvest.

It never came.

Later explorers tell of the lost colony. It was there, they say, exposed to the elements on a rocky coast marked by the wreckage of the Gemstar. Buy them a drink, and they will show you charcoal rubbings of mysterious inscriptions like “.rb” and “.fub”. They will speak in whispered tones of ghostly modem chirps in the wind.

The numerous sightings of readers gone feral and still living in this devil's land are, of course, the fevered ramblings of codec-sickness, and not to be taken seriously.

Superstition aside, the promise of Ebookland remains. Contrary to popular belief, plain paper is not just plain better. It goes without saying that many books can be stored simultaneously on a digital device. But my favorite features are these: A well designed E-book reader can be held and operated continuously with a single hand because a page-turning happens instantly at the touch of a button. And, because they usually provide their own illumination, e-readers work well in cozy places with poor lighting. You can read in a dark car, a dimmed airplane cabin, or next to your sleeping spouse with the bedroom lights turned off. I find the e-book experience to be smoother and less distracting than the one I get with bound paper.

If consumers are willing to pay a little more, they will undoubtedly see combination gadgets that combine the purposeful design of an e-book with wireless internet browsing capability. Telephony and music playback could be thrown in, too, but with each extra purpose battery life will drop, weight will rise, and the distraction-free charm of e-reading will fade.

But wait! I haven't mentioned the killer ap for e-readers yet. It's surprisingly mundane, and was found in many of the earlier models.

I predict that e-books will become a hit not because of tech-savvy generation Xers, but because of their parents. Baby boomers are realizing their eyes aren't what they used to be. E-books are preferable to paperbacks because they can provide strong backlight and adjustable font sizes.

For this reason I am still agnostic about electrophoretic displays (E-ink is a tradename, but I'll use it anyway). E-ink looks a lot like regular ink on regular paper, and only drains power while “turning the page” or otherwise refreshing the display. This makes e-ink superior for reading in direct sunlight. Less power also means smaller batteries and lighter weight. But e-ink cannot be effectively backlit. You would need some sort of lamp attachment to read in the dark or ease aging eyes, which could mean keeping the bigger batteries around anyway.

An promising hybrid may exist in a type of LCD from ZBD that, like e-ink, only uses power to change content. (It is mentioned in this recent ElectronicsWeekly article.) It won't be quite as easy to see in direct sunlight as e-ink, but it can be backlit.

Clearly, technology is giving us even more options than we had during the First Migration. This may just mean more crippling confusion, but it might spark a new wave of interest in e-reading.

The Second Migration recently got off to a slow start with the first commercially available e-ink based reader, the Sony Librié. The Librie has frustrated many consumers – not because of the technology, but because of the draconian copy protection scheme used. I suppose Sony did this to allay the fears of Napsterphobic publishers. After all, you can't have a viable e-book reader if you don't have any publishers on board. But Sony has resorted to making the Librié useless for viewing files you already own in other formats, like .html and .pdf. Early adopters are very turned off by this; support for common file types should be a no-brainer in a product that as yet provides little content of its own.

In fact, people like me enjoy “open” e-readers without any e-books at all, because we can take long digital documents away to more comfortable reading locations.

So, for X-mas, Quantum Future Santa, bring me a future where publishers and manufacturers have at least agreed to support each others' formats if they can't settle on a single standard. Bring me a future where every title ever written is conveniently available as an inexpensive e-book. I'll be overjoyed if you can also bring me a backlit ZBD reader, but I'll settle for e-ink (with a built-in lamp of some kind) or even a standard LCD or OLED display. If worse comes to worse, I can make due with the old REB1100 I use now.


This concludes my QFS X-Mas Wish List for 2005. (What, you thought I had to go up to ten?)

As a token of my gratitude, Santa, I have left you a sealed box. It contains cookies or milk, depending on the unobserved outcome of a random single-bit operation. I thought you would appreciate it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

X-Mas List Item #5: Any Katamari PC Component

In order to get me this gift, Quantum Future Santa, I'm sending you to a somewhat less probable future. I will probably never find myself there.

But I might. Let me explain so you know what the heck I'm talking about.

Speedbumps on the road laid by Moore's Law – especially excessive heat – have pushed manufacturers to push chips outward rather than inward. We are seeing many new dual-core chips. Computers with two dual-core processors are in the works.

Nowhere is the new multicore mentality more pronounced than in the new generation of gaming consoles. The Xbox360 has three cores that can each act as two, handling up to six “threads” of code simultaneously. The Cell processor under the hood of the upcoming Play Station3 has eight separate cores connected to a general purpose CPU that can act as two, for a total of 10 simultaneous “threads.”

I'm emphasizing the threads, because from the progarmmer's standpoint, this multithreading means much more than the details of the hardware itself. Historically, most programs could be written with the assumption that a single very fast processor would handle each piece of the program in order. (In actuality, smart processors rearrange small groups of instructions for greater speed, but they send the results back in the original order, maintaining the illusion.)

The new multicore systems can run simple programs just fine. But to harness the power of extra cores programmers must write their software in such a way that it can split tasks up into different threads. Some coders have been doing this for a long time. Many more have not.

The ones that have not tend to be the ones writing software for personal computers like yours.

But we can hope that, before long, nearly all software will take advantage of as few or as many cores as it can find. At this point, the Katamari PC becomes an interesting possibility.

The Katamari PC is the promiscuous country cousin of the corporate 'blade server'. Your current PC is basically a single motherboard with slots for a single CPU, a few strips of memory, and a few other addons. A 'blade rack', on the other hand, acts lie a giant grandmother board that can hold a large number of compatible motherboard 'blades' while coordinating power, communication, and cooling. When a corporation with a blade server needs more power, memory, or storage capacity, they don't go out and buy a whole new system. They just plug in some more blades. Thanks in part to multi-threaded programming, the results are immediately felt.

What if we could do this at home, with smaller components and an even more flexible arrangement? What if instead of a bunch of chips in a single metal box, we had packets of PC functionality that could be linked together ad infinitum?

Each packet would be built around a universal pipeline through which power, data, and ventilation would be received and transmitted to adjacent bricks. Some packets would be specialized: more cores, memory, cooling, etc.. Some might have a little of everything.

I call this the Katamari PC after the video game 'Katamari Damacy', in which the player must grow a gigantic ball of debris by snowballing anything and everything in its path. A Katamari PC would allow people to upgrade by endlessly adding to their existing components instead of replacing them.

I thought about calling this a 'Lego PC', a term I've heard on other occasions. But 'Lego' implies a single proprietary format for every brick. Your Apple bricks might only connect with other Apple bricks in a lego PC. Acer to Acer, Dell to Dell. Amen.

The Katamari PC is more flexible. It specifies the architecture of the pipeline and nothing else. If you want to connect ugly Dell bricks to stylish Apple ones, you can. If you want to keep your 300GB doorstop running alongside your holographic petabyte crystal, you can.

Is this an efficient way to operate? Not really. Not every type of program benefits from multiple cores. Some types of old gear tend to hog space and electricity compared to new gear. And every now and then the pipeline design itself would need an upgrade.

But the Katamari PC would be fun! You could build your own home supercomputing clusters with ease! You could arrange your computer into fun shapes that fit in unlikely places! Upgrades could be sold in the checkout line as impulse purchases! (They would sell like hot cakes, too, to hapless users compensating for their growing burdens of viruses and adware.)

Is Katamari likely? Sadly, I don't think so. Manufacturers would have difficulty agreeing on a common standard. And while they would love selling more upgrades, the major brands would miss selling you a complete machine every few years whether you need it or not. (They could probably keep doing this in the portable market, though, where beauty and compactness command a premium.)

Still, if you could bring me back just one piece of Katamari, Santa, it would make a stupendous souvenir from a geeky future that might have been.

Monday, December 19, 2005

X-Mas List Item #4: Nifty New Input Device

We use our computers today for much more than work. We chat with our friends and family. We shop. We bank. We read articles, essays and blogs.

But limits of earlier technology have given us this idea that such things must be done while sitting upright in front of a flat service.

It's high time we took computing off the desk.

Laptops don't really count; their design pretty much requires users to be sitting upright. I find using a laptop on a couch less comfortable than sitting at a desk; from a comfort standpoint, the laptop is a step backwards.

So, for X-Mas, Quantum Future Santa, I want a new way to point, click, and type that is efficient enough to use at my desk, yet portable enough to use anywhere.

One promising early alternative is the AlphaGrip: essentially a keyboard wrapped around a video-game controller with a trackball built in. The AlphaGrip appears thoughtfully designed, but, alas, at the time of this writing remains vaporware.

And anyway, I don't think a one-piece device for two hands will prove the best way to go. I would prefer to see a pair of wireless one-handed devices. Apart from greater freedom of movement, I want the option of mousing and clicking with one hand, like I do now. I need that free hand for snacks of a salty or greasy nature.

There are ways to eliminate the need for a second hand altogether. Take a look at the Twiddler2, a pricey little gadget that combines some kind of mouse-nub with a chorded keyboard. I wouldn't mind learning chord-keyboarding. It's supposedly not that hard. But the top speeds one can reach are relatively limited. And anything that's not immediately obvious to a beginner will always be underdeveloped thanks to its inherent disadvantage in the marketplace.

Voice recognition could become a major player in input. This would eliminate the need for both hands. But I'm really a quiet, hands-on kind of guy, and I think a lot of other people are, too. Besides, who wants to be sitting in a train car or cubicle next to three other guys enunciating, in their computer-friendliest voices, "Window Maximize. File Open. Budget. Column D, Row 11...?"

So here's my proposal: Start with an AlphaGrip. Split it in half. Make it wireless. And instead of a trackball, allow one or both hands to point by aiming the handpiece itself. (See my image, above right.)

(Yes, this is the kind of pointing we will be able to do with the upcoming Nintendo Revolution controller. It would be intuitive to aim the controller at the screen as though it were a laser beam. But, if you've ever played with a laser pointer you know that human hands are surprisingly shaky when magnified over distance. I suspect that the Revolution controller pretends the screen in front of you is far bigger than it really is. The feel will still be very intuitive, and you won't have any trouble keeping the pointer trained on small targets.)

This pointing feature would require motion detectors inside or detachable reference-point doodads. People would always be losing the latter, so the first option makes more sense, even if it adds a bit to the price tag.

In the longer run, we'll get rid of the handpieces entirely and replace them with a system of finger cots or clip-on nails. But I think that would push you out beyond my chosen ten-year horizon, Santa.

P.S. In case you're wondering, I do indeed plan to combine this with the keychain PC and the VR display on my list. It's a good thing I have you, Santa, because otherwise I think this wearable getup could be a long time coming.

For despite my high confidence that each of these items will appear within the next ten years, the early forms they take could make integration difficult. Manufacturers may use proprietary formats or fail to agree on standards. And probability kind of demands that I have less confidence in a complete wearable setup than I do in any one of the parts.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

X-Mas List Item #3: Keychain PC

This won't take up much room in your sleigh, Quantum Future Santa. But I'm sending you a bit farther out for this one.

Computers are getting smaller. Nothing new about that. But we've gotten to the point where a capable computer can actually be much smaller than the screen or the keyboard we use to interact with it.

This raises tough questions for designers of portable devices, who can, and sometimes do, make cell phones and PDAs that are too tiny for average fingers.

Fortunately, those who manufacture desktop machines can simply have fun with the shrinkage. Take the Mac Mini, for example. It's not portable in the sense that a laptop is portable, because it has no display or keyboard. But, as a result of these omissions, it is actually much smaller than most laptops. It's useless on an airplane, but great in a carry-on bag.

Mobile computing now has two flavors; devices that you use on the way to Grandma's house, and devices that you bring to grandma's house.

If you're the one driving, like I usually am, the first kind of portability doesn't do you much good anyway. So I'm looking at the second. Fast forward five or seven years and watch as the Mac Mini or its inspired rivals shrink even farther. Watch as a robust PC comes to fit on a keychain.

The keychain PC will be a beatiful thing. Its only interface will be a wireless communications chip with ethernet and bluetooth capabilities. The only blemish on its sleek surface will be a recharging oriface. Being mostly battery, it will also be a cold dense lump in your pocket when you're not using it, and a hot dense lump when you are. You can't win 'em all. (I won't ask you for mini fuel cells this year, Santa. You're busy enough already.)

What kind of person will use this? The kind of person who travels between two or more locations where displays and input devices can be borrowed. The kind of person who doesn't trust or understand the local network well enough to want to try and access his computer remotely over the internet.

I know, Santa! You're saying, “Ho, Ho, Ho. This is silly. What kinds of places have keyboards and screens lying around for people with keychain PCs to link into?”

Few, if any right now. But I'm looking ahead.

When the time comes, I'll use my keychain PC on any modern television – which is to say, any High Definition set. Unlike classical color sets of yore, HD displays have enough pixels to show text without wooly, mammoth fonts.

Many sets by this time will have builtin-wireless receiving features. Those that don't will probably be connected to something that does.

The same will be especially true for keyboards and mice. I'll just grab what I need from a desk that's not using it at the moment.

But I don't consider keyboards and mice to be the optimal solution to my keychain drive, which is why you'll need to get me the next item on my list. (Stay tuned!)

It goes without saying that I'll need operating systems and devices to become a little smarter. For example, it would be nice – and kind of kinky – if I could slave a device to my keychain simply by touching them together in a special place.

I also understand, Santa, that my keychain PC may never become more than a geeky novelty, because I know as well as you do that remote computing is the wave of the future. Within a couple years, Microsoft and Google will be locked in an epic struggle to win users over to web-based office suites. Before long, the browser will be the only piece of software most machines will need to run.

And when that happens, we may just see browsing capability built in to anything and everything that uses a screen. Like the digital clocks of an earlier era, PC functionality is destined to become a cheap, ubiquitous commodity.

Which is why it should go on my keychain. At least it won't have a blinking “”

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

X-Mas List Item #2: Flash Hard Drive

Here's another easy one for you, Quantum Future Santa. Hard drives made of flash memory are at most a few years out. Let me tell you why.

From an engineering standpoint, they can be built now. I have no doubt that some hacking power users are doing this as I write (the kind of people that would buy this fun little drive based on ordinary PC ram). 2GB flash chips are the hot sellers today. If you stick five of those together you can make a 10GB drive.

10 GB is tiny by today's standards (200-300GB is typical for new drives now). But 10GB is enough room to store an operating system and the applications you use most. Your documents will also fit very comfortably.

So, a 10GB flash-based hard drive you can probably handle 70 to 100 percent of your computer related activity. If you store massive amounts of music or photographs, or any number of videos, you'll probably need a traditional hard disk standing by. But there's no reason you can't have both. In fact, Flash-n'-Platter will be an ideal marriage for a number of years ahead.

What's the appeal? Flash drives have no moving parts. They are faster, quieter, and more rugged than the spinning platters we use now. They also consume less power. All of the above make flash attractive for desktops and a slam-dunk for laptops. (Interesting side-note: You're not crazy if you think hard drives are getting noisier. A lot of that has to do with the software we run today. This little article explains how something as simple as an instant messenger buddy logging out can cause four or five different programs to thrash about on your drive, all for good reasons.)

So, I will accept this x-mas gift in either of two forms: a standalone flash drive that I can mount alongside my platter drive, or a hybrid drive that contains both types of storage. (Hybrids are already said to be under development.) As one who is comfortable pulling stuff in and out of my machine, I would prefer the pure flash option. But the hybrid has its charms, too.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The problem is the price.

If you shop around you can probably get 2GB of flash today for just under a hundred bucks. Assuming manufacturers can get steep discounts, let's say they can build a 10GB hard drive for $400.00. (Remember there's a little more to making a drive than sticking the 5 chips together). That's 40 dollars per gigabyte.

A discounted traditional 250GB drive goes for about 110 bucks today. That's about 40 cents per gigabyte.

So, gigabyte for gigabyte, flash is a hundred times more expensive! Ouch.

But one good reality check deserves another. How many people can actually put 250GB to good use? The runaway technological arms race among storage manufacturers has left us with these cheap, cavernous drives that home users have to work to fill. Video is about the only thing that can do it.

So give us a 10 or 20GB flash drive, and we can save spinning up our platters for when we're playing with video.

Oh. Right. $400.00 for 10GB is still much too expensive.

Fine. Let's look at the state of the flash memory industry.

Nearly all flash chips today go into portable gadgets. These include cell phones, digital cameras, and, especially, music players. In fact, Apple, maker of the dominant iPod brand, is expected to suck up 25% of the entire global output of flash memory in 2006 all by itself!

But Apple is running out of room to grow here. The portable player market will soon be saturated. How do I know?

The video iPod.

Let me explain.

The iPod has sold phenomenally well, and inspired a huge variety of offerings from Apple's competitors – not all of them garbage. But when everyone who wants a music player has one, the only thing left to do is sell them a better one. Apple has done this. It has moved beyond its classic iPod – which has a tiny spinning platter drive inside – and into sleeker flash-based models. Each new generation has been smaller and had more capacity.

The problem for Apple shows up when capacity outstrips the size of the buyer's music collection. Admittedly, I'm not a conossieur, but my complete collection barely fills 2GB in mp3 form. Why would I buy anything bigger?

Maybe because there was other stuff I wanted to put on. Or to satisfy a techno-macho urge. Apple is trying very hard to give me both.

The iTunes Music Store doesn't make a huge profit; that was never the point. The idea behind ITMS was that there should be a way to buy music for an iPod that was as slick and stylish as the 'pod itself. Apple then makes the real money selling more – and bigger – iPods as people increase the size of their collections.

But the capacity of flash chips is growing much faster than the length of peoples' play lists. Filling the largest iPods takes more than music.

Steve Jobs always used to say he disliked the idea of a video iPod. I agree. It really is silly. But it is sexy, and Apple is all about the sexy. Macho geeks need to show off. And Apple needs to create a need for higher capacity iPods. The video iPod was born.

What does all of this have to do with the price of flash?

Well, Apple has so successfully stoked demand for flash that production capacity is going through the ceiling and prices are plunging towards the floor.

And while there is much to be said about Apple pushing video content providers into the internet age, I expect the cachet of watching video on the tiny screen of an iPod will be short-lived. It won't die tomorrow. Maybe not even next year. But it will die.

And when it dies, the earth will flood.

The market will be awash in 2GB, 4GB, even 16GB flash chips. They will show up in frivolous and unexpected places. Cell phones that record hours worth of video? Check. Whimsical children's toys with more memory than common sense? Check. Hybrid and fully flash-based hard drives?

Check. And check.

I'm not being especially clever in this prognostication. The CEO of Samsung, a giant in flash manufacturing (among other things), has said he expects upcoming flash chips to make hard-disk drives “obsolete”.

Even Microsoft seems to see the handwriting on the wall. Their upcoming Vista operating system is supposed to able to use the memory in a standard USB 'keychain' flash drive to store core system files. That means that even a 'small' 2GB drive can speed things up if you have it plugged in. Cool!

It's not quite the gift I'm looking for, Santa, but it's a start.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Quantum Future Santa X-Mas List Item # 1: A Viable VR Helmet

(From my Quantum Future Santa X-Mas List of 2005)

I don't think I'm being at all unreasonable here. In fact, I think the pieces are in place for a viable virtual reality display as early as next year.

Why? The new generation of game consoles packs plenty of punch. But most notably, Nintendo’s upcoming Revolution console has a motion-tracking controller. Since motion tracking is one of the essential components of a head-mounted display, mass production of these controllers can be expected to drive down the price of this technology. Given that the Revolution will also come with the stationary reference point devices that the controller uses to determine its orientation, this console would make a logical first home for VR.

The more difficult challenge is the display itself. The obvious choice is LCD or OLED, which are not known for combining high refresh rates and tiny pixels on inexpensive screens. Low refresh rates would mean blurriness anytime the head is moved, since the entire frame must be redrawn to reflect the change in perspective. Large pixels would mean a large screen, with a correspondingly bulky helmet.

There are more exotic options: A scanning beam can be aimed directly into the retina of the viewer. It's not as dangerous as it sounds; the power levels involved are so low that being out in direct sunlight is probably far more taxing on the eye. Direct-scanning devices are currently used in a small number of applications – mostly military and medical – but provide only low-resolution text and diagrams of a single color. So it will be a while yet before these displays capable enough and cheap enough for consumer VR. But the technology is essentially the same as that behind DLP, one of the popular new flavors of large-screen TV. This may help bring down prices, and your second-generation VR display may well be a lightweight pair of direct-scan glasses.

In any case, we clearly can’t expect first generation VR to match the resolution of high-definition television sets – resolutions the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation3 are designed to make use of. This may be yet another reason the Revolution, lacking HD support, would make a logical first home for VR.

Videogame developers have been in a creative funk for a while. Gamers are hungry for titles that don’t just look or sound better. They want something truly new. The Revolution’s controller will tap into this desire. A VR display could do the same. It might have to be bulky the first time around, but Nintendo can make that a feature; all they need to do is roll it out with a special Metroid title and it can look, from the outside and in, like the battle helmet worn by hero Samus Aran.

The Virtual Boy was a long time ago. It's time to get over it and stop chickening out.

Dear Quantum Future Santa,

What do I want for X-Mas? It's a tough question. One problem is money. Neither I nor the people who might buy me gifts are made of money. The bigger problem is my farsighted technolust. If only a Santa Claus from an Everett Branch between 1 and 10 years in a fortunate future were getting my mail. Surely he could find a way to push Rudolph superluminal and through whatever quantum wormholes necessary to bring me my toys.

But lest I drown myself in a quantum foam of near-infinite possibility, I've decided to pare down my options. Each item on my list will meet the following criteria:

  • It could actually fit under my tree.
  • It wouldn’t be so expensive that nobody would ever buy it for me as a gift.
  • It could actually be found under my tree in the next 1-10 years because the technology is either here already or just around the corner.
  • It wouldn’t require earth shattering breakthroughs like strong nanotechnology or a technological singularity. (But modest changes in the socioeconomic status quo are fair game.)

I will build up my list over the next few posts.

Thanks in advance, Quantum Future Santa!

P.S. Somewhere, in some universe, I'm sure I conformed to locally accepted morals this year. Wink wink.