Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Year End Wrap-up and Predictions

Looking Back

I covered a number of different topics over the past six months.  NVidia & Apple were mentioned frequently as were the Motorola Droid X, Kindle and the IPhone .  I also did a series of three articles that analyzed Martin Guitars apparent pricing strategy.  Here are brief followup comments on some of these companies & products.
  • Nvidia: Discreet graphic sales have rebounded in recent months and their embedded GPU's are finally gaining some traction.  Publicity wins in the HPC space have been impressive.  They've obviously decided to punt on the X86 market long term since they don't appear to have any plans to develop an Intel compatible processor of their own or acquire VIA for theirs.  I don't see PC's or Windows vanishing any time soon but it's clear that in the future people will primarily interact with the Internet via mobile devices and ARM based solutions fill this space nicely and the NVidia Tegra product is an increasingly credible offering in this space.  With both Intel & AMD offering products with GPU's integrated onto the same packaging as the main processor the discreet GPU is going to be an increasingly niche product.
  • Apple: The IPhone 4 woes have pretty much blown over.   Apple has continued to establish themselves as a premium brand with innovative design wins and great marketing.  This company more than any other understands that the technology is secondary to putting out compelling products that customers feel a connection to.
  • Motorola Droid X: I'm still happy with my Droid X.  The Froyo update added some nice capabilities and overall it's been a very good experience.  Inevitably though it seems like the longer I have a device the more unstable it becomes.  Adding and removing software is always a crap shot.  In theory it shouldn't make a difference but perceptually anyway it certainly seems to.  On the plus side, when I do need to pull the battery to clear the phone I only have to wait a couple of minutes for it to boot up, which is much better than the past couple of RIM Blackberry phones I've used or owned.  In regards to stability, I'm less inclined to blame Android than I am the fact that the more complex a device is, the more difficult it is to get everything to work properly together.  Today's smart phone's are essentially palm sized personal computers and all that functionality comes at a price in terms of reliability.  This is likely one of the reasons Apple is so draconian in how they approach 3rd party Apps for their mobile platforms.  
  • Kindle: Which brings me to the Kindle.  Within the limitations I discussed in earlier BLOG entries it continues to be a pleasure to use.  The recently announced ability to loan books  was a pleasant surprise; as with the text to speech function Amazon has left it up to content providers to say yes or no to enabling this feature on a book by book basis. Simplicity is a wonderful thing in some cases and this is one of those.  There is increasing evidence that the Kindle and IPad fill different enough niches that there isn't currently a lot of overlap.  This is particularly true given the relatively low price of ~ $140 for the entry level Kindle.  If you can afford $500 or more for an IPad you can probably come up with the money for a Kindle as well.  .  
Looking Forward

Here are some fearless predictions on various products and companies and what the new year might hold.
  • IPhone: This is a device that may have reached maturity.  I'm not saying that Apple won't continue to try to innovate, but future functional changes are likely to be much less revolutionary.  Stylistically I'd expect a fairly radical departure from the IPhone 4, likely to a form factor with softer edges like the latest Touch & the first generation IPad.  I also expect a CDMA capable IPhone.  Adding a CDMA IPhone will clear the technological hurdle that has prevented Verizon from selling IPhone's in the past.  I believe the contractual hurdle ends January 1 2011.  
  • IPad: On the IPad front the most likely change is the addition of a back facing camera.   I expect to see some modest price drops and enhancements but nothing earth shattering.  I'm not even convinced that we'll see a substantial increase in the resolution of the display.  Fragmentation is something that Apple has been criticizing Android for recently and with every new device they come out with that has a different display resolution their fragmentation increases.Other credible rumors include a mini USB port. Less likely, at least in the short term is some sort of hybrid display that works both in bright light and darkness.  There is at least one option.  The technology used in the OLPC is available from a company called "Pixel Qi" and features both a color mode similar to LCD's and a black and white mode that shares many properties with E-Ink.  If Apple adopts this or a similar technology for the IPad then Amazon and other companies producing E-Book readers are going to see their sales drop primarily on the high end since there would no longer be a compelling reason for people to buy an E-Book reader in addition to their IPad.
  • Kindle: I don't see dual mode displays being as big a boost for E-Book readers such as the Kindle.  Yes, they would add some nice capabilities but much of the appeal of these devices, particularly the Kindle is their simplicity and cost.  A color display would be a plus, but if it adds significantly to the initial purchase cost or tempts Amazon to try to go head to head with Apple and other tablet producers it is likely to be a net negative long term.  There are no clear answers here but I'd be inclined to move to a hybrid display and keep the functionality of future Kindle's focused on books and possibly other media.  I'd also want to keep the price of the entry level model below $150. 
  • Amazon: In theory Amazon can cut and run at any time in regards to the Kindle.  They already support reader software on the majority of platforms that people care about and it's hard to believe that the margins on the Kindle are very high, or even positive when all costs are taken into account.  However, no other platform makes it easier to buy books from Amazon.  If you're making the bulk of your money selling "media" as most companies do in this situation than clearly facilitating purchases is in your best interest.  
  • Software Patents: I'd like to think that this is the year that software patents will become saner but there is plenty of evidence to argue to the contrary.  Here's just one example.  This is why I'm not a fan of software patents.  The concept of double clicking initiating an action has been around for a long time.  probably decades.  The trivial differences described in this patent required no innovation and little thought.  I don't think it is productive or beneficial to have entities going around filing for and being granted these kinds of patents.  If software patents are legitimate at all than the bar should be MUCH higher than this.
  • Paying For Online Content:  It seems like we've finally turned the corner in regards to paying for online content.  I'm not going to claim that piracy does not exist or that there isn't room for improvement but I'm seeing things happen in this space that I wouldn't have just a few years back.  Minecraft is a simple yet addictive game that is currently in Beta but available for sale.  As I write this they have managed to sell nearly a million copies at about $20 per.  In the bad old days we essentially had a situation where legitimate access to digital content was nearly non existent and expensive while illegitimate copies were readily available and free.  This created a culture of entitlement that has been very slow to subside.  Apple made the first significant dent with the ITunes store and others have followed. Making online payments and purchases easy and reasonably secure by way of services such as PayPal has also helped.  The cost of creating and delivering digital content is almost entirely in the creation part of the process.  The per unit variable costs are essentially nil.  As people become increasingly willing to pay for online content we're going to see more business models that are based off of customers paying directly, rather than indirectly by way of ad revenues.  
Closing Musings

As 2010 comes to a close I've been writing this BLOG for almost exactly six months.  I've had a lot of fun and am looking forward to continuing to make updates in 2011 as time and inspiration allows.

I'm grateful for a lot of things this year, one of which is the fact that at least a few people have apparently taken the time to read some of my musings.  While I'm not writing here to become rich or famous I'd be lying if I claimed that I don't get a bit of pleasure out of every single hit this BLOG gets.  Thank you to everyone who has read even one word I've written.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

It's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (Except at Disneyworld?)

Walt Disney World - Carousel of Progress - cir...
The title of this entry is the theme song from Disney's Carousel of Progress, one of the attractions that Disney created for the 1964 worlds fair. My wife and I just returned from a fairly enjoyable week plus stay at Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big Disney fan.  I'm not alone.  Disney stock has appreciated around 20% this year and they've been on a good run for awhile now.  In spite of this, and in spite of the title I'm going to make a couple of criticisms of the company.

The first is probably a short term thing.  Disney is apparently in the process of phasing in new business process software.  There were many glitches during our ten day stay including the need to issue us a new room key/charge card on average every other day at one point.  Ours wasn't an isolated experience and we heard about other people having similar problems.  As an experienced IT professional I know these kinds of things are difficult to avoid and generally of limited duration.  Based on some of the problems we saw though it appeared that whomever created the new system could have done a better job on gathering requirements.  Some corner cases were not handled well.  For example, we were vacationing with friends and we wanted adjoining rooms.  When we first booked our stay via the Disney Vacation Club we only had enough points (DVC is a points based time share) to book four days at a particular resort.  Later we were able to add two more days to our stay at that resort.  In the process of adding those two days Disney apparently failed to add the additional room even though they charged us the points.  For those familiar with how DVC works we basically ended up with a one bedroom rather than a two bedroom unit for the first two days.

Disney did a reasonable job of salvaging this situation but it took an hour plus to work out all the details and it did have a negative impact on our stay as we ended up with a unit that wasn't quite what we had originally requested.  .There were other problems as well, but they didn't have a substantial impact on the trip.

The second thing I noticed that bothered me was the continued erosion of the on/off stage concept at the.  Those who are familiar with Walt Disney will know that he wanted people to be immersed in the experience of going to the parks.  One of the things that bothered him about Disneyland was that they didn't have the space or the money to prevent cast members from different lands from having to be "out of place" while getting to where they worked.  He was passionate about the presentation of the experience and having somebody destined for Frontierland passing through Main Street USA in costume wasn't something he wanted customers to see.  Walt Disney wanted the customer experience to be as immersive as possible.  

When the Magic Kingdom (The Disneyland equivalent in Florida) was built they actually scooped out a bunch of the nearby dirt to create an artificial lake, and built a mound/hill upon which all the attractions were built.  This allowed them to create tunnels under the park so that costumed cast members could go from place to place without interfering with the magic of the story that Disney was telling in any particular area.  The visible parts of the park are essentially built on the "second floor".  Fast forward four decades and at the Walt Disneyworld parks other than the Magic Kingdom this ideal seems to be largely dead.  More on that in a bit.

Companies should have core values that encourage growth and shape how they develop.  Ideally these core values are simple to articulate and understand.  One of the more famous corporate core values is Google's "Don't be evil", IBM has "Innovation that matters"  and Southwest Airlines has "Great customer experience".   Like most companies Disney has several core values. 
In regards to the Disney context I really like this set of core values and based on comments Walt Disney made during his life they are very true to what he believed in.  The one that is most relevant to the point I'm trying to make right now is "Storytelling".  Imagine seeing a cast member dressed for the Haunted Mansion in TomorrowLand.  If you're familiar with Disney this is not a harmonious image.

At the non Magic Kingdom parks in Florida cast members park right in front on the entrance.  I don't recall this being the case when we were last there a couple of years back, but I might be misremembering.  Costumed cast members are regularly coming and going while customers are entering and leaving these parks.  This seems to be at odds with the story telling aspect of the Disney culture and I doubt Walt Disney would have been in favor of it if he were still alive.  Technically the parking lot is "off stage" in Disney parlance, but it just doesn't feel right to me for things to work this way.

To be clear, I have nothing against the cast members.  Disney should be providing them with parking spaces that are either near the parks (but out of sight) or regular shuttle service if parking is further away.

A lot of people would argue that this is a small thing, and maybe it is.   Companies lose their way all the time though by losing site of their core values.  Apple during Steve Jobs exile would be one example.

My wife and I took a back stage tour at the Animal Kingdom while we were in Florida and I noticed there were signs up anywhere cast transitioned from "back stage" to "on stage".  Those signs reminded cast members of many of the company core values and as a general rule all the Disney staff we interacted with did a great job of living up to them.  On the other hand cast members we saw leaving and coming to work (often in costume) just looked like ordinary people.  Understandably they were not engaged and pretty much looked like anyone else would in those situations and that certainly doesn't contribute to the story telling or magic that is supposed to be at the core of the Disney experience.
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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Segway Thoughts

The Segway PT's detachable wireless InfoKey
I recently had a chance to learn how to ride and operate a Segway.  It's a neat device and I can certainly understand why so many tech types got enthusiastic about the concept when it was first introduced several years ago.  From a business perspective though it is hard to see this as anything other than a niche product, and that is essentially what it has become.  Of course as the saying goes,  hindsight is always 20/20 vision.

There are two primary reasons why the Segway is a niche product and the second actually follows logically from the first.  The primary problem is one of utility.  What value does this device have to a prospective customer?  Of course that question is going to have a different answer for each person.   Realistically we can't take into account everyone's opinion so we aggregate people into groups that we feel are representative of the larger population.  I'll use myself as an example.

I'm male, live about a mile from work and own a car that gets thirty three miles to a gallon.  Everything I need is within a five mile radius of home so I seldom need to travel further than that.   In some ways I sound like the perfect customer for a Segway.  The Segway would be great for commuting back and forth to work and running errands.  The issues for me are that if the weather is bad I'm going to want to drive and if it is good I'd be thinking "Why the heck am I not walking?  I could use the exercise." particularly in the case of my work commute.  Carrying capacity is somewhat limited but it wouldn't be bad for most errands.  Sidewalks are not universal however and riding on the street is unappealing to me.  I was once hit by a pickup truck while in a cross walk and while my injuries were relatively mild the experience was enough to make me very cautious in regards to situations where automobiles and my body could have a negative interaction.  Finally, my wife and I often like to go places together.  That would require two Segways.

Which leaves me with the question, what the heck would I use one of these for?  I suspect this is the question most people ask themselves once the initial wow factor wears off.

The base Segway costs just under $6k.  For that kind of money most people are going to need to get a lot of utility to feel properly compensated (assuming they have that kind of money to spare which many do not).  I couldn't justify buying a Segway at half or even a third of that cost.  I don't think I'm alone in that assessment. Oddly this provides the people who make the Segway with a powerful incentive not to lower the price even if they can; assuming of course that they can find enough customers at the current price to justify their share holders investment in the company.

So who is buying these things?  As near as I can tell they are popular primarily with the following groups.
  • Wealthy consumers with a lot of money who like high tech gadgets (See Steve Wozniak)
  • Tour Companies (They are a nice differentiator and equalizer as in theory every one on the tour should be able to go the same speed)
  • Police departments (A nice compromise between in car and on foot patrols)
  • On campus transport for companies and universities (Disney uses them at Epcot extensively)
  • People with certain forms of physical disability
I'd be very surprised if Segway doesn't have very healthy margins on their products.  The computational power needed is modest by todays standards and the rest of the components aren't all that exotic.  The rechargeable battery is likely the single most expensive item.  When companies have high margins and low volumes they basically have two choices.  Lower the price in the hopes of increasing sales more rapidly than profits drop off as a result of the lower prices or keep prices high and stay/become a premium and/or niche product offering.  Segway has apparently chosen to take the second path.  Either choice is equally valid depending on the circumstances.  Given the apparent limited utility of the Segway,it's easy to see the wisdom of the premium/niche play.  Which is why the second reason the Segway is a niche product is price.  I realize that this is essentially circular reasoning but it does show the interrelationship between the various factors that determine product strategy.

Speaking from my own experience this thing is murder on the knees, at least when you first start out.  If you are prone to joint pain I'd recommend some sort of anti inflammatory prior to your first ride.  The picture at the left is of the Segway I got to call mine for a couple of hours recently.  Overall the experience was very good.  After about thirty minutes of instruction and training I was able to get around fairly well in "Turtle" mode.  Turtle mode limits the Segway to six miles an hour.  For most uses this is plenty, at least for a beginner.  Almost all the work of controlling the Segway is done by the legs.  You can tilt the vertical column from side to side to steer it but for most turns even that isn't necessary as a slight shift in weight left or right causes the Segway to slowly turn.  If all this sounds complicated, not to worry.  It quickly becomes a very automatic process.

The picture near the top of this entry shows the "key" of a Segway.  The icon on the right is a "smiley" face that shows the Segway is functioning properly. The buttons control various features including placing the Segway into "Turtle" mode. If the key falls off or is removed more than a short distance the Segway will go into shutdown mode.

Segway has faced a number of challenges since its inception including most recently the death of its than current owner while riding the all terrain model.  For certain uses I really like the Segway but I'm not convinced that it has long term viability.  That question will be answered by how many units they can sell to the various relatively small niche markets that gain positive value.  If I won the lottery I'd think seriously about purchasing one just for the fun of it.  Otherwise I'll be more than happy to reminisce about my recent experience if the urge to buy one ever strikes me.

Top Image via Wikipedia
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Monday, December 6, 2010

Eliminating Utility In The Name of Revenue

"594" is part of the registration &q...
I'll be honest, I'm not a big fan of advertising.  I know I'm not unique in this, with the exception of the clever and/or funny commercials that get shown during the Super Bowl it's rare that most of us have anything positive to say on this topic.

If you own a DVD of an old TV series you can tell that commercials were much rarer thirty years ago.  Half hour shows last twenty five minutes plus.  These days twenty minutes or so seems much more common.  Maybe this is why I seldom watch TV.  It seems like every time I'm getting interested in a program there  will be a commercial break.  Even the networks apparently realize that this is a problem as many shows spend a bit of time after each break reviewing what has gone before.  A cynic might think the real reason for this is that it allows them to stretch ten minutes of actual content into an hour but I'm certain they are just being courteous to their viewers.

My wife and I recently flew across the country on Jet Blue.  I'll say up front that my experience with them over the years have been almost exclusively favorable.  One of the things Jet Blue did early on to differentiate themselves from other airlines was to provide everyone with a small TV screen inset into the back of the seat in the next row up.  You can either use your own headphones or purchase a pair for $2.  There are thirty some odd TV channels available for your viewing pleasure.  The best channel for me, at least prior to this last flight was the one that showed the progress of the flight. To the left/above you can see an example of what I'm talking about.  The problem this time was that Jet Blue apparently decided this was a great place to insert some advertising.  And not just a little advertising.  I timed it and forty seconds of every minute featured an ad.  This meant that I often had to sit and watch for fifteen seconds or more before I got to see the information I cared about.  Eventually I just turned it off as the utility I used to get was now gone.

Maybe most people don't care.   To the best of my ability to judge I don't buy anything based off of the imprecisely targeted at best ads that are propagated via most media sources.  Word of mouth, research and the occasional well targeted Google ad are my sources.

OK, so maybe I make an occasional impulse buy as well.

Given that background it doesn't matter much that I'm not seeing those TV &  Jet Blue ads.  I have other ways of making product decisions.  However, while it might not matter to the products being advertised it should matter to the outlets.  I'm now a tiny bit less favorably inclined towards Jet Blue.

There was a time when a national brand could get coverage of nearly everyone in the United States by placing an ad on the three major networks.  The ever increasing fragmentation that cable brought has made that sort of coverage impossible; and yet based on what seems like steadily increasing ad volume advertisers still seem hell bent on reaching everyone.  This is disconcerting given the fact that much better approaches exist today.

Personally I'd like to see companies take a more disciplined and targeted approach to advertising.  Advertising is only one means of building a brand or product.  Providing customers with real value and good customer service are at least as important, particularly if the goal is long term growth and sustainability.

Image via Wikipedia
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Monday, November 29, 2010

Kinect'ing With The Future

An Xbox 360 showing the Ring of Death.
While early indications for the Microsoft's latest phone OS seem less than promising it does appear that they have a big hit in the Kinect.  There has been a lot of press on this item and if you're Microsoft than you have to be pleased with the reception.  The XBox 360 is getting a bit long in the tooth at this point and finding a way to excite shoppers about the platform heading into the always important holiday shopping season is a big win for them.  This is very analogous to what Nintendo was able to do when they released the Wii, which sans the Wii controller was really just a minimally upgraded and repackaged Game Cube.  In both cases the controller and what it makes possible are more important than the technology in the console.  In fact, in the case of the Kinect I'm more interested in what significance it has when used on platforms other than the 360.

If we look at the history of human computer interaction there have been several steps.  Roughly speaking we went from toggling information in via
Each step made it easier to interact with computers and widened the audience for them.

There have been other specialized controllers of course.  the joystick, track ball, and the previously mentioned Wii controller to name just a few.  From a technical perspective the Kinect is a much more complicated and interesting device than any of those as the image below shows.

According to Wikipedia the Kinect is essentially a combination of software and hardware that makes it possible for the XBox 360 to track multiple points (AKA body parts) on multiple people in 3D space.  This in turn allows game designers to create games that require only input that a human can provide by standard movements .  This means that players could for instance interact with a virtual world via detailed 3D avatars.  From a gaming perspective the possibilities are extremely intriguing and game designers are already putting the technology to use.

You could argue that the Kinect isn't a controller at all in the sense that it isn't something you hold in your hand; and that is the revolutionary thing about it.  When combined with speech recognition it allows human beings to interact in fairly complicated ways with computers while never having to touch a controller of any kind.  Which is why I think that the XBox-360 is just the beginning.  This device, or it's descendent's are likely going to start popping up in a lot of different contexts over the next few years.  The technologies involved aren't that expensive and the CPU power needed to drive the software that fills in the gaps and knits things together isn't either.

So what is possible?  If you search on YouTube for "Kinect Hack" you'll come across many videos that show what people are up to already with the Kinect.  A couple that I especially like are...

Kinect Augmented Reality
Kinect 3D Video Capture

In the case of the second video I'm intrigued by the possibility of combining two or more similar devices to get a true three dimensional mapping of a person or place that could than be displayed and explored.  Along those lines here is another YouTube video where that sort of thing is discussed...

Multiple Kinect Coordination Ideas

And finally, one more that actually shows some early results of two Kinect's working together...

Two Kinects Working Together

It will be VERY interesting to see where this all leads.

For as long as I can recall Microsoft has claimed to be a technology innovator.  In reality they've tended to be much better known for making refinements on ideas first popularized by others.  In the case of the Kinect they clearly have a revolutionary and innovative product.  

Image via Wikipedia
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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Some History

Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Kn...
One of the many nice things about this time of year is that it often means a short break from work.  This in turn means I not only have extra time to hang out with friends and family, I also have a bit more time to think about stuff that isn't directly work related.  That in turn leads to more BLOG posts.  Today I'm thinking about big discoveries/inventions and how they impacted our lives and the lives of people doing business at the time.

Arguably the most important invention of the past seven centuries was Gutenberg's movable type printing press.  Prior to that books and papers had to be copied by hand.  The printing press played an important part in the protestant reformation but if you were a scribe it had a more personal impact.  After awhile it put you out of a job.  This wasn't the first disruptive change that humanities inventiveness brought to the world and it certainly wasn't the last.  Wars and disease get a lot of press in regards to shaping human history but innovation in both times of peace and war has played a significant role as well.

As human beings I think we have a tendency to either exaggerate or understate the importance of the events that are going on around us in comparison to what has happened in the past.  With that caveat in mind, the Internet may be even more important than the printing press in terms of the changes it has and will bring about.

I have a modern reprint of a very early Encyclopedia set that was originally published in the mid 18th century. The three thick volumes that make up this Encyclopedia do a pretty good job of representing the sum of human knowledge (at least from the western European perspective) at the time.  Books such as these were often funded by way of subscriptions and the publication of multi volume sets took several years.  It's hard in some ways to imagine a time when so much of humanities knowledge of science and nature could be summarized in three volumes that took several years for the publisher to complete.  At that point in time it was possible for a well educated person to have a good grasp on the entire breadth of the sciences and philosophy and to have mastered more than one.

Today discoveries are being made at a much more rapid pace and the amount of human knowledge has reached a scale our ancestors couldn't have hoped to comprehend.  Truth be told, neither can most of us.  Wikipedia reports over five hundred thousand topics covered in the English language with more being added all the time.  Imagine trying to read every single one and retaining even a smattering of the knowledge gained.  Human inventiveness could cease tomorrow and this would still be an impossible task.

Now we specialize in increasingly narrow areas and when we don't know the answer to something we open a browser, head to our favorite search engine and start doing a bit of research.  We may not be experts but within minutes we have a superficial understanding and if we're diligent than within hours we've gained a level of understanding that would have taken our ancestors days to match because they didn't have the advantage of having so much of human knowledge available in a a quickly searchable format.  Anyone who is old enough to remember card catalogs and the Dewey Decimal system will have a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about, as do those doing serious academic research as not everything is digitized and online at this point.

Circling briefly back to the printing press, it is not a coincidence that the renaissance started at about the same time as the printing press came into being.  One of the changes it brought about is that it made it much easier for knowledge to be shared.  No longer did a highly skilled human being have to labor for weeks transcribing a single copy of a book.  The labor involved in setting up the movable type in the press also required time and skill but once it had been done many copies of a particular volume could be made quickly.   In the case of shorter documents that took only a single page the work involved was much less.   Martin Luther launched what would become the Christian Protestant reformation as his ninety five theses was quickly replicated and circulated throughout Europe.

I can't really point to any single thing that the Internet has contributed to that has had as profound an impact at this point, but the Internet age is still relatively young and there certainly are many emerging trends and changes underway.  The US postal service is feeling a lot of pain right now and while I believe that some of that is self inflicted it is still the case that they are in a situation where the world has changed in a way that brings into question their continued viability as currently structured.   They are not alone; an increasing amount of commerce takes place online which has brought additional challenges to brick and mortar retail chains.  Well run companies have so far weathered the storm well.  For weaker ones the results haven't been favorable.  The current economic troubles have no doubt contributed to the demise of many of these companies but increased competition has played a part as well.  It used to be the case that your primary threats were local.  Now competition can come from anywhere, even the other side of the world.

Image via Wikipedia
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Kindle V3 Extended Impressions

The Reading Room of the British Museum
I've had the Kindle V3 for a couple of weeks now.  I've read two short novels, browsed some technical books and made a dent in the recently released Mark Twain Autobiography.  I've also spent some time using a couple of Kindle applications.  At this point I feel like I have a pretty good feel for the strengths and limitations of this device.

Nothing is perfect, particularly when it is aimed at a very specific use/niche.  The Kindle is not a games machine.  It is not a great PDF viewer.  It is not a direct competitor to the Apple IPad.

I have almost no experience with other EBook readers, so I won't be doing any comparisons to Amazon's competition in that space.

The Good
The Kindle is great for reading novels.  The ability to adjust the font size, line spacing and switch between portrait and landscape makes it easy to find a comfortable configuration for casual reading.  The screen looks great in sunlight and works fine in most artificial lighting situations.

The battery life is great, even if I don't make it a habit to go around for days without plugging in my electronic toys.  With the wireless on and occasional use of the integrated light that came with my protective Kindle case I've gone several days and been nowhere near exhausting the battery.

Syncing of data (book positions for instance) works well between the various Kindle readers I use.  These consist of my Droid X, PC & Kindle.  When I open a book I've been reading elsewhere I am prompted if I want to seek to the furthest position I've read, assuming that position is different from the last time I accessed the book from that device.

Another nice feature is the ability to email PDF's and E-Books to your Kindle device.  It costs a little money, but may be worth it depending.  If you don't want to pay and are willing to wait for delivery until your device is connected to Wireless you can simply send the document to


In regards to applications, the Minesweeper application is free, and pretty much what you'd expect if you've played the one that comes with Windows.  It's a pretty good demo of what is possible with the Kindle.  the slow refresh rate on the screen and relatively meager processing power means that developers are fairly limited in what they can do so I don't expect to see a huge number of applications for the Kindle.

If you're willing to pay money Scrabble is pretty good with "Play against the computer" and "Play and pass" modes along with several variants on the standard rules of the game.  I recommend it.

The Bad
The Kindle is very poorly suited for books that use multiple fonts and odd spacings.  It's really optimized for simple text documents and does poorly in situations where the source material is complex and full of graphics. Kindle editions of technical books are OK, but not great.  The quality of the experience will depend on how detailed the graphics are.  While the PDF viewer has the ability to scale, the EBook reader does not so far as I can tell.  For small simple figures/graphics this works OK.  As you get into more complicated images it becomes a real problem as it is impossible to actually see any detail on the Kindle's small screen.  I don't know if things are improved on the DX version of the Kindle.  I hope so but am doubtful. It looks like images in the Kindle format are of a fixed size.  What you see is all you get.  If this isn't true than I question why after three generations of this thing Amazon hasn't added the ability to scale in the EBook reader.  Actually given how these books look on the PC Kindle Application I'm fairly sure images are of fixed size and resolution.

Reading the Twain autobiography has been confusing and difficult at times as well.  This book is really a scholarly collection of various Twin writings that in total tell the story of his life in his own words.  There will eventually be three volumes, but for now there is only one.  After a lengthy but interesting introduction that relates the history of Twain's efforts to write his autobiography there is a section of sometimes incomplete texts that he wrote at various points in his life.  Sometimes the texts are incomplete and stop in mid sentence.  This can be confusing when reading on the kindle as it eliminates the extra line breaks that are present when reading on the Windows Kindle viewer.  The abrupt endings are jarring but inevitable since Mr. Twain has been dead for a century now and cannot be expected to fill them in.  The poorly realized transitions when reading on the Kindle however appear to be due to limitations in the EBook format and the device itself.  It is possible that the publisher might have done a better job but given other texts I've sampled this is a common problem when dealing with anything more complicated than fairly basic text.  The transition from Twain's words to those of the collections editors should be much more visually obvious than they are on the Kindle.

That is my only significant complaint.

The Verdict
In spite of the issue mentioned in "The Bad" section I still like the Kindle.  It is great for reading novels and other simple texts.  There is still room for improvement though and I'll be looking forward to future generations of this product.  I generally try to get at least two years use out of a gadget like this so I'll likely be in the market around the time that the Kindle 5 comes around.  The DX might be tempting at some point as I have a real need to read and reference technical books and would prefer not to carry them around with me.  this assumes of course that the larger size makes complex documents easier to deal with.

Image via Wikipedia
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Outsourcing & Work Place Changes

information technology lesson :P
I spend a fair amount of time monitoring various technology and business related RSS feeds and reading articles that catch my eye.  Here are a couple of links to articles that I recently read and found interesting along with some of my thoughts.

A Revolution in The Works

The concepts discussed/hinted at here have interesting implications.  In particular I wonder what the future might be for working people if the revolution the author discusses is in fact underway.  Locality is important in the sense that there is a lot of synergy and relationship building that takes place when people are located close together.  Having a company or project strewn across the globe makes it much more difficult to generate those kinds of dynamics.  However technology continues to march forward and as we've seen before, technology often shapes culture.  For instance the introduction of the automobile, radio & television all had profound impacts here in the US and elsewhere.

Today we're seeing new technologies introduced much more rapidly and across far larger geographic regions simultaneously.  Acceptance of these changes has tended to be more rapid than in the past in many areas as the changes are generally not at odds with existing cultural norms or can be easily adapted.  I'd argue that these innovations, primarily in the area of information technology are making locality less important both from a practical perspective as well as from the perspective of culture.  Across the globe younger people in particular have a much broader common ground because of this than they did in the past.  That shared experience is going to make communications and collaboration easier in the future.  The productivity of a highly mobile and geographically dispersed company of work group is only likely to increase in the future if these changes take place.

The Hidden Dangers of Outsourcing

Like the author of the above link I feel that outsourcing does in fact make sense in some cases.  I also share the authors feeling that companies often choose poorly in outsourcing.  I don't know this for a fact, but I'd be moderately surprised if Apple has outsourced their janitorial services for instance.  Given their legendary secrecy having an outside vendor performing this function would greatly complicate the task of keeping planned products under wraps.  Having this function in house doesn't assure that no information leaks out by way of a carelessly discarded document or overheard conversation but it does give a company much more immediate control.  When dealing with outside vendors there is always additional overhead in making changes as all interactions are governed by carefully worded contracts.

Core competencies, and functions that contribute to core competencies should almost never be outsourced as these are the things that differentiate companies from each other and create the competitive advantages that make a company viable.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Kindle V3 First Impressions

Three Generations of Kindles
OK, so I'm not the first, or even the thousandth person to review the Kindle 3.  And this isn't really going to be a formal review, just a series of jumbled and somewhat random thoughts that occur to me while spending my first day or two with the Kindle.

Day One

First of all, the ease of use isn't bad and the screen certainly looks nice at normal indoor lighting levels.  I really do miss the ability to use the screen to interact with the device though.  Once mouse driven UI's became popular most people didn't want to go back to simple keyboard/CRT based interfaces and the transition to touch screens is a similar paradigm shift.  I'm not saying I hate it.  The cursor/select button is fairly easy to get used to and works reasonably well, particularly for book reading.  It just isn't as flexible/efficient as a touch screen.  I really hope Amazon adds touch screen capability to the Kindle 4.  It would add cost so the odds are against it.  Particularly given how well the current and previous generations have sold without this feature.

The form factor of the Kindle isn't bad.  With the leather case it feels a bit awkward compared to a paperback but it's much easier to hold than most hard bound books.

OK, I just read a couple of chapters in a book.  The overall experience was fine.   I don't know how it is for others, but for me, when I get into a book the pages vanish and I'm not even aware of transitioning from one to another.  That experience was intact on the Kindle.

The ability to email documents to the Kindle is kind of nice.  15 cents per megabyte doesn't seem out of line given that there is no charge for the 3G service beyond the initial $50 or so delta in cost between the Wifi only and 3G models.  AT&T, the people who provide the "free" 3G service and Amazon no doubt split that revenue. I like the fact that they require authorization on a per domain basis for incoming messages to this service.  It's a simple and reasonably secure way of preventing random spam from showing up on people's Kindle's.  There are of course ways to spook source email headers but this can be made fairly difficult if various checks are made.  I don't have a lot of experience with this feature but I assume Amazon is "doing the right thing" here.

Day 2
The ability to read PDF's is nice, but not very useful in most cases given the size/resolution of the standard Kindle.  The DX would almost certainly be a much better experience.  I'd love to have one of those, but they are spendy and it really would be limited to use around the house given the size.  I'm not sure why Amazon decided the DX should be 3G only given this.  Wireless only would drop a few bucks off the price while minimally impacting functionality.  Of course that is my use case.  Students might have a very different opinion.  Wi-Fi is widely available but there are often manual steps involved in getting authorized to use a particular hot spot.    The 3G service is almost always available without additional actions.

Hmm, I just looked at the Kindle app on my Droid X, why don't books emailed to the Kindle show up on the Android Kindle app?  That seems sub optimal.

The real value in buying Kindle editions of technical books, which tend to have a lot of graphics and charts is that they are properly formatted for the smaller screen.  It is often possible to purchase PDF's of these books, but as noted earlier the PDF's just don't work well on the small screen of the standard Kindle.  I'm working on my Cisco CCNP certification, and reading PDF's of some of the Cisco Press books is difficult.  It can be done if the contrast is turned all the way up and the page is switched to landscape mode, but barely.  Natural light certainly helps in marginal situations like this.

Final Thoughts (For Now)
Some things I'd like to see in a next generation Kindle
  • The 800x600 resolution is OK, but there is certainly room in the current form factor for both a larger screen and higher resolution.
  • I may be odd, but I don't care that much about battery life.  I'm already conditioned to plug in my mobile devices every chance I get.  I'd be willing to sacrifice at least 50% of the battery life for a larger display.
  • An SD card slot would be nice, but given the small form factor it is probably impractical.
  • Color would be very cool to have.  See link below for more info on this possibility.
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Friday, November 12, 2010

IPad, Android Tablets

Sandpaper in different grits (40, 80, 150, 240...
It's too early to tell if the plethora of 7 inch android based tablets that are starting to emerge will compete directly with the IPad, open up a new market segment of some combination of the two.  I do know that I find Steve Jobs recent comments that the smaller tablets should come with sand paper to reduce the size of the owners finger tips somewhat absurd given the success of the IPod Touch, IPhone and Android phones.  Having devices somewhere in between smart phones and the IPad in terms of size doesn't seem like market suicide to me.  I strongly suspect Jobs is just attempting to differentiate the IPad and marginalize an emerging adjacent segment to it.  Apple is successful not because they sell more devices than anyone else, but rather because they sell enough product and have superior margins.  They have established themselves as a premium brand and charge accordingly.  I'll be that the main reason they are shunning the 7 inch form factor is that they want to delay as long as possible competitive pressure to lower their prices and thus margins.   On the flip side, Apple's competitors don't seem that anxious to bring out devices that are similar in size to the IPad.

Of course somewhere between collusion and random chance is the place where most businesses operate in terms of communicating intentions to their competitors.  You sometimes have to read between the lines to see what is going on.  It isn't outside of the realm of possibility that the various product offerings and public statements being made from all sides essentially boil down to the following imagined dialog.

APPLE: We're happy with the 10 inch space for now.  We won't be bringing out a smaller version of the IPad.  To reassure you that this statement is true we're going to ridicule the whole concept so we'd have to eat crow to change course.

APPLE COMPETITION:  OK, we can live with that for now.  We think there is a viable market in the form factor between smart phones and the IPad.

APPLE: Cool, of course it goes without saying that we're going to beat the snot out of you if you invade our space.  Oh yeah, if that seven inch form factor proves lucrative enough we'll be making a future offering.


Image via Wikipedia
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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Some Random Bits

Cybertool knife by Victorinox
Droid X
My Android based Droid X phone continues to be the swiss army knife of electronic gadgets.  I recently found that it makes a pretty serviceable book light.  Given the battery drain this particular use is best saved for situations where the phone can be plugged in.  My wife gets car sick and prefers to drive, so I often find myself in the passenger seat with little to do, particularly now that navigations systems are pretty much ubiquitous.  It is getting dark early these days so having an always available book light is a good thing.  Which leads me to my next topic.

I'll be getting my very own third generation 3G enabled Kindle soon.  It'll be accompanied by the nice leather case that Amazon sells with the integrated book light, so my Droid X likely won't be spending very much time in the future doing this duty.  The Kindle isn't cheap, but for E books it is a much better value than an IPad.  The IPad is of course a more flexible device.  I do have an urge to do a TCO (Total Cost Of Ownership) on both devices though and post it in the future.

I'll no doubt be talking more about the Kindle in the fut

China & High Performance Computing
This has been discussed a fair amount in the HPC community.  China now has the worlds fastest super computer.  This is a distinction that had been held by the US since 2003.  If China had simply used commodity parts this story wouldn't be that interesting. What is notable however is that they are using a "home brewed" interconnect.  The interconnect is really the heart of an HPC system.  Bandwidth is important, but for most applications latency is even more of an issue as no work is getting done while the parts of a massively parallel application are communicating.  This interconnect is twice as fast as quad data rate Infiniband which is the current state of the art in HPC applications.  I haven't been able to find a reference that quantifies that any more precisely.  Twice the bandwidth is nice, but if the latency is similar the speedup isn't going to be anywhere near as significant for many applications.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Disneyland/Disney Vacation Club

The Roy O.Disney waiting at Mickey's Toontown ...
My wife and I had the good fortune to spend a few days at Disneyland recently.  Dis ney is an interesting case.  They are both a large corporate entity and a world wide institution.  The company fell on hard times for a number of years which eventually led to long time CEO Eisner stepping down.  The main impetus for this change in power came from an effort spear headed by Walt Disney's nephew Roy E. Disney.  In early 2004  Roy E Disney was able to get enough proxy votes to essentially deliver a no confidence vote in the next round of board elections.  It's hard to believe that this success didn't play a part in Eisner announcing his retirement.  Eventually a compromise was reached and things have been going well for Disney ever since.

One thing I recall from late in Eisner's stewardship of the Disney corporation was the obviously deferred maintenance at Dinsyland.  That didn't sit well with me and I don't think I was alone.  Some of my best childhood memories are tied to Disnyland and seeing it in anything less than tip top condition was jarring.  I was annoyed. I wasn't alone.  The number of people and insitutions that Roy E. Disney was able to sign up for his proxy fight showed that a lot of people were unhappy with the way the company was being run.  Branding provides great benefits but it also incurs responsibilities.  Neglecting those responsibilities can be very risky both to the people in charge and the long term health of the business.

As a brand Disney has an amazing range of appeal.  At the parks you'll see people from a wide range of demographic groups.  A visit isn't cheap, but it is possible for most people to make the trip and ejoy the parks.

There are things though that a compnay like this probably shouldn't do.  Imagine Disney building tall condos near the park that included free admission to the parks and other perks and selling them for top dollar.  It would potentially mean a big influx of cash in the short term but how would most people coming to the parks feel about seeing those buildings?   What kind of message would this send?  They would have more flexibility in Florida as it is a much larger area.  Disney actually does something along these lines with their vacation club.  The Disney Vacation Club (DVC) is a points based time share.  The original DVC resort and several subsequent ones were opened at Walt Disney World but today DVC has many different themed resorts that span an ever increasing geographical area.  They added Disneyland a year or two back and will have a resort opening in Hawaii soon.

I'm always fascinated by brands that somehow manage to appeal across a broad spectrum of consumers.  To me they prove that branding is not science with hard and fast rules, but rather a series of approaches that when exectued properly can nudge public perception in a particular direction.   Disneyland was Walt Disney's vision.  Having read a fair bit about his life, it seems clear that he wasn't much of a business man.  That was the provence of his older brother Roy, who was Roy E. Disney's father.  In addition to being the visionary, Walt Disney was essentially the Disney brand manager, though I doubt he'd have used those words to describe his role.  He was very good at instilling in people the idea that the Disney company was there to provide quality family entertainment and Disneyland was meant to be the physical embodiement of that concept.  This essentially made Disneyland a part of a lot of people's families.  Given that, it isn't surprising that Eisner ran into serious opposition when people felt that the company was being poorly run.

Walt Disney has been gone for nearly forty four years now, but clearly his legacy lives on.

Image via Wikipedia

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Google By The Borders

Gmail's logo
In my last post I speculated a bit about what Google might be doing with all that data they are gathering from Android phones.  Earlier this evening Rea and I were heading to Borders books to purchase the book that the movie Secretariat is based on.  Borders sends us coupons regularly in email and as we were getting close to the store I decided to search for the coupon in my GMail app so I'd have it handy.  Before I'd typed a single character the helpful search feature had put up three options.  I don't recall the other two, but one of them was Borders.  I touched that option and within seconds I had located the latest coupon in my saved mail.

On the one hand I loved the convenience and speed of the experience.  On the other, it was a little spooky.  Was it just a coincidence or did Google make a quick guess where we were going based on where we were and our previous destinations in that area?

Artificial Intelligence has been around as a field since at least the 1960's.  I have a set of books I bought used in a box somewhere.  They are from the early 70's and outline the state of the art and history of the field up until that time. It's interesting to contemplate the hubris of those early pioneers.  They thought that translating between human languages would be trivial.  Even today relatively simple translations between English & Spanish are imperfect and as the two languages being translated diverge errors tend to become more common and occasionally very amusing.  What Google has now isn't really AI but there are times when it sure seems that way.  Essentially Google's tools are very good at tracking and understanding context and making associations.  This isn't intelligence per say but it can sure look that way at times.

My mother was born before the first electronic computer was built.  I've sometimes wondered what it is like to have lived through that much change.  If I live another couple of decades I strongly suspect I'll get to see more change than she has over the course of her life.  I find that thought both a little scary and very exciting.

Image via Wikipedia
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Friday, October 15, 2010

Google/NVidia/Word of Mouth

The stop sign design currently used in English...

One of the things I really like about my Droid X phone is the navigation app. It's essentially eliminated the need for me to worry about having a navigation system in any car I buy or rent. I'm highly prone to making wrong turns, so having an electronic genie available at all times that can instruct me in minute detail on what to do is excellent. On thing that occurred to me earlier this week as I was driving home from a meeting about thirty miles from my home is that Google is getting all sorts of interesting information by providing that App. They can get a pretty good real time perspective on how slowly traffic is moving on a particular freeway. Over time they can get an idea of traffic flow on surface streets and where stop signs and traffic lights are. As Android based phones become more common they are going to have more and more data points to look at. I wonder what all those clever people at Google are planning on doing with this information? One thing they could do is reroute in real time based on traffic flows. That information is already available for most freeways and some major roads, at least hear in the SF Bay area, but coverage seems to be a lot less common for surface streets. You wouldn't even need to be in the navigation application. All it would take is the GPS being enabled. Even without the GPS they can make a pretty good guess based on cell tower triangulation and the maps of wireless hot spots that they've built.

Google started out with a fairly simple idea, to help organize the worlds information. Even a fairly simple idea can lead in an amazing number of directions.

The big news on the the NVidia front recently has been their decision to directly sell finished boards.  Historically NVidia has sold GPU's to partners who have then created boards that were in turn sold to customers.  It's nearly always the case that being closer to the final sale means higher margins, but undermining your partners in this way can be  a very bad thing as they tend to take such changes in the way the world works very negatively.  Several years ago NVidia acquired the assets of a competitor called 3Dfx for song after 3Dfx essentially did the same thing, thus alienating their partners and accelerating their demise.

So, is this an act of desperation or a change in business strategy with potential risks and rewards?  I've seen both theories advocated by various technology pundits.  I'm honestly not sure which side is right.  Having signed up Best Buy to sell their cards certainly wasn't a bad move.

(Word of Mouth)
Recently my wife and I have been shopping for an alarm company.   Some friends of ours have a more immediate need and have thus been a bit more aggressive in pursuing a solution.  We've been sharing information during the search and one thing that struck me is how common this is and how positive or negative information about a particular company is magnified.  Our friend got a big time hard sell and bad attitude from one of the major national players in this space.  Instantly I removed that company from our list of prospects.  Another company that I heard about while having lunch with some coworkers faired much better when our friend contacted them by being professional and customer focused.  Rather than trying to sell our friend as much equipment as they could they made suggestions on how to get the best possible coverage without spending too much up front.  It's probably not a surprise that this second company is currently the odds on favorite to get both our friends business and ours.

Word of mouth is hard to measure, but it is likely a significant factor, particularly in situations where a company is trying to acquire new customers.  It's kind of amazing to me how many businesses drop the ball in this area.  Bad interactions multiply.  Customer facing employees are extremely important to the long term health of any enterprise.  This concept is often ignored by companies that are looking for a short term improvement in their bottom line by outsourcing.  I suspect that most of us have had sub par experiences as a result of such efforts.

Really though, outsourcing isn't the problem here.  The problem is the fact that some companies don't seem to value the contribution that customer facing portions of their business provide to their bottom line.  Bad customer experiences can come just as easily from employees who are some combination of badly trained, badly treated or badly paid.

In general it seems to me that companies don't always have a very good idea of where value is created.

Image via Wikipedia

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Droid X + Android 2.2 + Kindle

Android robot logo.
The Droid X update to Android 2.2 (Froyo) finally came out just before the last minute of summer had expired on the west coast of the US so technically Verizon met their promise of a late summer release, albeit barely. I waited a week or so to do the install so I don't have a lot of mileage on this release. So far however it certainly seems like an improvement overall. My phone is more responsive and the built in on-screen keyboard is a big improvement over the previous one as I don't commit anywhere near as many typos.  It just looks nicer as well.  The built-in market place app is also improved with the ability to do batched updates of installed applications.  One nice feature related to this is the fact that it won't batch update applications that have had changes in their access permissions since the previous install/update.  This means you have to go in and look at the changes and be sure you're happy with them.  The number of things some applications want access to has caused me to abort installs before so this is a nice and useful thing.

Overall I'm still very happy with this phone, though I have had one hard lock since the update which is something that I don't recall having happen with the 2.1 release.

One of my favorite activities on the X is using the Kindle app.  There has been a saying going around for a couple of years now in relation to photography that goes "The best camera is the one you have with you" and that is certainly true of books as well.  The screen of the Droid X is big enough that I don't have to page constantly and the text is very readable.  Much like a real book, after awhile I don't even notice that I'm "turning the pages".

My wife bought one of the current generation Kindle 3G's right when it came out and I really like it.  For $189 with free 3G wireless it is hard to complain about the value.  The screen is great, and being able to do casual web surfing via the built in web browser is a nice bonus.  There are also some games available which makes it an even better value.   The battery life is good, but not as good as the ads imply.  I'm not saying they lie, but as is generally the case the maximum numbers are probably based on a very unrealistic usage scenario.

I love the IPad, but given the fact that you have to subscribe to a monthly service if you want to use the 3G model I'm just not seeing the value, at least for me.  The 3G model is three times plus the price of the Kindle up front.  It's a much more capable product, but I'm not willing to pay that kind of money.   The IPod Touch on the other hand is on my radar.  The 8G version of the latest touch is $229.  I don't plan on having any music on it, so 8G is more than enough for any applications I'm likely to install.  It isn't quite the same, but I think of it as a "IPad Mini", and that will be just fine for me.

If Apple comes out with an IPad 3G with 16G of storage and no monthly 3G I'll be very interested.  Particularly if it's the next generation of the product.  With all the Android based pads coming out it will be interesting to see what Apple does.  I think they'll come down a bit in terms of pricing, but they don't generally have a lot of interest in competing on price.  They are a premium brand and they can and do charge based on that.  Even so, I really feel that the IPad prices as of today are not sustainable in the longer term.  They've been doing great with the early adopters but I don't see that lasting.

Image via Wikipedia

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