Scott's Viewport

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pen Computing Reborn?

It's 9 AM PST Wed. Jan. 27th, 2010, an hour before Steve Jobs take the stage to announce Apple's newest product. I have no inside information, but I am going to speculate on one thing. What if, after putting pen computing out of business with the iPhone, Jobs uses the finally-here tablet to restart the whole domain? If I have a flat notebook sized computer, I want a stylus for it. I gave up finger-painting in kindergarten. I guess the bugaboo is handwriting recognition. But having experienced the iPhone and seeing what they came up with for touch-screen keyboards, I have a feeling they could do a better job than anyone else has ever done with handwriting recognition at this stage of the game.

Monday, December 15, 2008

iPhone Application Sleeping

When an iPhone application isn't in the foreground, it would be nice if it could be sleeping on arbitrary events, either the arrival of a new packet over the Internet, a timer going off, or other events like GPS-determined proximity. But instead of waking up the application, the event should simply inform the user (with icon counters, interactive alerts, or sounds) that something new would happen if the user chose to awaken that application.

This avoids any thrashing between background apps and a foreground app, because they are never running at the same time. Waking a background app swaps its virtual memory in, but it doesn't have to compete with another app in the process.

It's understood that allowing apps to run in the background is a bad idea. But there is really no requirement to have all alerts and notifications go through the bottleneck of Apple's servers in a device with Unix under the hood and full Internet capability. The trick is to ensure that the sleeping background tasks do very little work if and when they wake up, especially any work that would lead to extensive memory access. This is classic interrupt programming, and the iPhone could use it.

Since I'm sure Apple engineer's understand this idea, I believe they are dragging their feet to either a) erect a sufficient walled-garden for these temporarily awoken processes, or b) gain advantage from being the sole conduit for background events, either in terms of marketing research or satisfying contractual requirements with AT&T.

But at some time in the future I assume Apple will let any server anywhere send events to your phone, either as soon as they can do it efficiently, or as soon as the competition offers it.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Steve Job's DRM Slight of Hand

I've blogged before on Digital Rights Management and Apple, calling for them to openly license their FairPlay music DRM. A friend made the case this would never happen, because handing out DRM secrets would defeat the purpose of DRM, by allowing hackers in. Instead Steve Jobs made moves to help dismantle DRM in the music world, as a variety of record companies have opted for distributing unshackled music. He wrote a letter stating that Apple was only locking up the music they sell because their contracts with the music providers required it. And if there was to be any loosening of restrictions on downloaded music it needed to come from the record companies. And that he was all for it. Steve wrote an open letter, the industry changed, as evidenced by Amazon's sale of unlocked MP3s.

So while Steve was helping to dismantle DRM in the music world, he was secretly building a device that would leverage DRM in the world of high-definition movies in a way that could potentially make him a very rich man. Perhaps richer than Bill Gates.

Steve gave the movie studios exactly what they wanted for content protection on Apple TV, and in the process became a middleman for every Hollywood studio interested in renting HD movies over the Internet. Not to mention the manufacturer of the device you will invite into your home to provide these locked-down HD movies for a finite rental.

That bears repeating. You are going to pay Steve Jobs over $200 to place a movie rental device of his choice in your living room. It does many things, but the movies you rent will be locked to the device, and will only play over an encrypted HDMI link on an HD TV.

Of course this device will be completely Mac and iPod friendly, therefore encouraging more sales of other Apple products.

The guy is a genius of navigating the shoals of digital computing and media. He's already traded some of this genius for a seat on the board of Disney (and the largest pile of shares). I'd list him as a singular example of how a corporate board (Apple) might have acted reasonably in lavishly rewarding the CEO.

He'll be one of the most famous, if not the most famous, of historical computer personages from the first sixty years of computing when looked at a hundred years hence. Up there with Von Neumann I'd guess, as the two names to memorize in middle school. Bill Gates will be like Andrew Carnegie, more famous for the money he gave away then how he made it.

Steve Jobs rode an idea into the future, and he's remained focused on the possibilities for new uses over the opportunities for economic growth. Both are necessary. Just a matter of which hand you let steer.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Reconsidering Computer Science

I have a degree in computer science, and have been programming computers all of my adult life. In my first job I met an interesting fellow with ambitions of rethinking computer science by adopting a different perspective than those handed to us by the founders of the discipline. He saw the possibilities of considering it a natural science that described how processes work, from physics to biology to digital computing. As it turned out, this became a very fruitful area of investigation, and out of this attempt to discover a new theory there have been many benefits, including a new self-timing logic and a new concurrent programming language which transcends hardware and software.

In 2007, my friend published a book titled "Computer Science Reconsidered: The Invocation Model of Process Expression" which fleshed out the theory that led to the logic and the language. A small brou-ha-ha broke out in the blogosphere over it. A review of the book (or probably more accurately, a review of the first chapter of the book, which was made available online for free) chose the headline "Want to be a computer scientist? Forget maths". This headline was picked up by Slashdot and Digg and commented on vociferously by many people who made it fairly obvious they hadn't read anything more than the headline. But it was easy to tell that the relationship of mathematics to computer science was a hot-button issue for many people.

And I can understand, I can imagine I could get worked up about someone implying the mathematics that I absorbed, both theoretical and applied, had no utility in my professional life. But that's not what Karl's work is about. It's about finding a new paradigm for computing that encompasses more of the processes in the universe, man-made and otherwise. It's about leaving behind the tangled web of sequential processing and clocked circuitry that built the wall we've hit. And, for me at least, it's about the fun of a fresh start in computing, like the fun of the first program you ever wrote.

Many steps remain on the future path of this technology, but I've had the privilege to talk with Karl about it for a long time, and more recently have bootstrapped a programming environment for the language described in the book. Think of it as a particular kind of clockless circuit design becoming a new way of programming as well. All made possible by a new underlying theory of computing. Whether you do or don't have a degree in electrical engineering or computer science, you might enjoy this stuff.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Democratic Foot Shooting Contest, 2008

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Above is an idea for an editorial cartoon. It shows a "Toy Story Woody" Obama and a "General Patton" Hillary engaging in a contest at a county fair. The goal is to see who can last the longest without shooting themselves in the foot. Obama's six-shooters are labeled Rezko and Wright. Hillary's big military gun is labeled "Kosovo snipers". Feel free to render the whole thing more artistically.

This cartoon would be ripe for some Oliphant-style miniature commenters, like a miniature McCain trying to enter the contest with his antique Gatling gun.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Apple Suggestion Box

I'm glad to see that iTunes store offered movies for purchase and download in 2006. I've been impressed with the performance of video streaming using 802.11g from Mac to Mac inside my house. I'm looking forward to the launch of Leopard and the "iTV" product. Apple has a large chunk of my computing and media bucks for the foreseeable future. Because I care, here are a few things I hope Apple gets right in 2007:

  • Front Row Able To Play DVDs From Any Hard Disk

    I keep a whole collection of iDVD-authored DVDs on my 500 GB iMac disk, and I want to be able to browse them from my living room couch just like I'll be able to browse my music or photo collection. Allowing access to only a single physical DVD through Front Row is a real shortcoming, and doesn't respect what people are doing with the iLife products.

  • More Support For Lean Back Computing

    I want to do a lot of things through Front Row I can't right now, whether I'm sitting on my exercise bike or the living room couch. And I don't care how it complicates the menu. Add a button to the remote if you have to. Here's my list:

  • check the time and date
  • check the Calendar and Address Book
  • read e-mail
  • video iChat (with an integrated iSight camera)
  • manage iTunes library (search for Artwork, set rating, copy from/to shared library, make playlist)
  • manage iPhoto library (adjustments and effects, make albums, delete, rotate, copy from/to shared library)
  • access Dashboard widgets
  • browse the web using bookmarks for starters

  • Wireless Keyboard Option

    And while I'm at it, I'd wish for a wireless keyboard for the "iTV" so surfing and e-mailing from the living room couch is easy and fun. I don't want a full Mac up there on my TV, I just want Front Row on steroids.

  • Better Synching All Around

    I hope multi-Mac synching takes a quantum leap forward with Leopard. I want to be able to flexibly synch my iPhoto and iTunes libraries with nothing more complicated than a single preference panel to control it. I acquire photos and tunes on both my laptop and my iMac, and it takes a good deal of disclipline to make sure I have a copy everywhere I want it. A simple all-or-nothing synching strategy wouldn't work for me, because the laptop hard disk is pretty full.

    And how about synching Calendar, Address Book, and Mail without resorting to .Mac or third-party products (which leads me to my next point)?

  • Drastically Restructure .Mac

    To me, the whole .Mac thing is a big annoyance in the otherwise user-friendly Apple world. Either halve the cost (for that much money I can rent over a 100 Netflix DVDs in a year) or restructure OS X to allow full functionality without using .Mac. That would mean allowing direct Mac to Mac synching for everything that currently uses .Mac, and more support for the 3rd party web servers in iWeb, etc..

  • Decouple the iPod and the iTunes Store

    And finally, I'm going to ask for something I'm pretty sure I won't get without intervention of the U.S. Justice Dept.. Apple should pre-emptively declare that they have an effective monopoly in the MP3 player market (how could that hurt sales?), and pro-actively decouple the iTunes store from the iPod. They need to figure out the politics and the technology, but it is the right thing to do.

    From the consumer viewpoint, no one thinks they are buying a piece of Apple-only software when they purchase media from the iTunes store. But in effect, they are, because they have no option other than Apple players for that media for the rest of its digital life. Figure out how to open up FairPlay.
  • Thursday, April 20, 2006

    Mandatory Licensing of Digital Rights Management Technology

    I think the French have taken an important step in protecting the freedoms of digital media consumers in this millenium by drafting a law requiring the sharing of DRM technologies between companies that sell media and media players.

    Although an advocate of open source and Creative Commons copyright, I am not one who buys into the fundamentalist arguments of the libre information crowd. Just as I'm comfortable having password restricted access to my own personal information, I am comfortable entering into an agreement with a provider of entertainment media to not redistribute their work product globally. I feel differently about scientific facts and works of nature, but that is for another blog another day...

    But I would go so far as to say it is not in anybody's interest for Apple to oppose the proposed French law (the opposite of what Apple said in their recent quarterly report), not Apple, not the artists, and certainly not the public. Allowing Apple to restrict the use of their FairPlay DRM to iPods harms Apple, because it keeps them from selling songs and videos to owners of competive players. By untying the iPod from iTunes they could have two de-facto monopolies the public would grant based on merit. Until they do that the public will always look for a way out, for a choice.

    The iTunes/iPod tying is bad for the artists as well, because now every song bought on iTunes that makes its way to a Creative (or other) player is cleansed of its DRM via burning to a CD. Why is that helpful?

    And finally it is simply not in the public's interest to have purchased digital content restricted to players made by one company. What if Apple stops selling iPods at some time in the future, and starts requiring everyone to use a hand-held Mac to listen to their music? I thought I was purchasing music, not a software application restricted to Apple hardware.

    I'm sure there are quality-of-service concerns and technical barriers to licensing out FairPlay to 3rd parties. But FairPlay is in no way similar to an Apple operating system, and the justification used to rule out Mac clones does not fly in the case of digital content in standard forms.

    You might say Apple doesn't really care about selling music, they're a hardware company. But for a hardware company to generate 50% of their revenue from selling music is quite notable, no matter how thin the margin. And I'm sure there is a margin. Time for Apple to think different.