Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nintendo (Short Take)

Nintendo Gamecube Games Pile
People continue to blame Apple for Nintendo's downward spiral and while there is some truth to the assertion that the iPhone and other similar devices have bitten into Nintendo's revenue that isn't the only issue. Another problem is that the Wii should have been a stopgap, not a platform they depended on for six years. At it's heart the Wii is essentially as slightly upgraded GameCube. The GameCube came out five years earlier in 2001 and wasn't state of the art hardware wise even then. Nintendo built their success on innovative game controllers and great content but that was only going to carry them so far. Their aging core hardware and the rapid mainstreaming of HD Television have made the Wii look anemic and dull visually. The Kinect has added insult to injury by taking the wind out of their sails on the controller front.

Nintendo is still a year away from delivering their new console apparently. That will likely be much to late. They should have had new hardware ready by last year at the latest. Expecting to go a decade plus on the same platform would have been a stretch if they had started from a superior position technology wise. Content is the most important factor in a consoles success but there are limits to how much it can help an increasingly inferior platform.

Nintendo still has several great franchises including Mario. If all else fails they can start making games for other platforms including the iPhone. That will be a bitter pill to swallow if it comes to pass but at least they have something to fall back on.

Right now they are claiming that their hardware is essential to the company and that they won't give it up. If they manage to pull a rabbit out of their hat then they may be able to maintain their presence on the hardware front. I don't see that happening though. For the good of their shareholders I think they should be seriously exploring other options at this point.

Image by digitpedia via Flickr
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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lytro Light Field Camera Part 2

I posted the first part of my thoughts/observations on this topic previously.

I've been thinking some more about the resolution issue. As I mentioned in my previous entry it seems to be the case that the just announced camera, even though it is described as capturing eleven million light rays generates 2D images in the 1080x1080 range. I also speculated that higher resolutions were not possible because not enough information was gathered to calculate each pixel accurately when the resolution is pushed beyond that point. I still think that is true, but I also suspect that we'll see steady improvements in the resolution possible from the data gathered by this first generation camera, at least up to a point. In the typical 2D photography world the quality of images enlarged beyond their initial resolution has improved over the years as computer scientists have discovered better methods of interpolating and computational resources have increased. I'm guessing we'll see a similar phenomena with light ray cameras.

Keep in mind that a decade ago utilizing this technology required a room full of highly powerful computers and many cameras. We're not talking about a mature and well understood field at this point. If I'm right than we may see good quality 2D images being generated from images captured with these first generation cameras at better than one mega pixel some day.

There has been some grousing about the file format of the images being non standard. This is a bit like complaining that Chinese language text files do not use standard 7 or even 8 bit ASCII. Yes, that's a very esoteric and obscure reference. Don't worry if it is meaningless to you. My basic point is that Lytro is doing something that cannot be easily encapsulated in any existing file format.

Don't expect Photoshop or any other image manipulation software to be able to read their image files any time soon, if ever. The most likely short to mid term outcome is that companies like Adobe will utilize Lytro's software to generate a conventional 2D image that can then be edited in Photoshop. You would have to rewrite Photoshop, or any other image editing software from the ground up to deal with the data that Lytro is capturing because light wave photography makes the differences between still images and video seem relatively trivial.

That huge technology/paradigm shift just might be their biggest hurdle. What they are doing is so new and complex that third party support is going to be very hard to come by. I don't see any mention of an API being made available by Lytro to manipulate these images but I'd hope that is fairly high up on their roadmap because even with that as a leg up they're likely going to be an island onto themselves for the next couple years even if things go well.

The last thing I wanted to touch on here is the contention that with phone cameras being ubiquitous Lytro doesn't stand a chance since their technology currently requires a stand alone device. That may be true if Lytro is assuming/planning on this being a mass market device but I don't think that is the case. Not everyone wants/needs a digital SLR camera but enough people do to keep several large companies such as Nikon and Minolta churning out new models each year.

Along the same line of thought; I think people tend to look at the simplicity of Lytro's initial offering and equate it with a simple point and shoot. The thing is, the Lytro camera isn't simple because it's a "cheap" camera, it's simple in large part because the technology allows Lytro to leave out a lot of stuff that a traditional camera would need/have.

Hmm, I suppose the Lytro camera's simplicity might be a liability as well given the price point. If you don't understand the technology at all then the fact that the only things you have control over are the zoom, where the camera is pointed and when the shutter button is pushed might give you pause if you're contemplating spending $400 or more for this camera.

Personally I like Lytro's chances but I have to weight that opinion against the fact that I'm a lifelong technology geek that gets easily excited by stuff like this. Most of the people backing Lytro seem to fit into the same profile. The proof of this technology will come in the marketplace. I have my fingers crossed that they'll do well because I'm really interested in seeing what a third or fourth generation product might look like.

Image by Road Fun via Flickr
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lytro Light Field Camera

The @Lytro camera in action (apparently it's s...
Lytro announced and showed their first product yesterday. The shape was a bit of a surprise to me. If you haven't seen it looks a bit a matchbox that stores the long wooden matches people use to light fire places. It's actually very pleasing aesthetically with only three controls. An on off button, a shutter button and a touch sensitive zoom area that didn't appear to be visible in the video I saw. The square shape translates into square pictures as well which is an interesting choice. I'm not sure if the square aspect ratio is a result of the industrial design they chose or the technology being used. It may be a bit of both.

If you don't know anything about Lytro then you owe it to yourself to do a bit of research on light field technology which is at the heart of what they are doing. Essentially it allows this camera to capture much more information which in turn allows you to post process the images it captures to be 3D or change the focus to be at any depth of field. It's very cool.

Of course all this power does have a trade off and that is resolution. The people at Lytro got noticeably uncomfortable any time that topic came up in the video I saw and tried to change the discussion to focus on "mega rays" rather than "mega pixels". It turns out the first Lytro camera is capable of capturing around eleven mega rays. Based on what was said, that translates into a traditional 2D picture that is about 1080x1080 which doesn't sound very impressive until you take several things into consideration.

First, you aren't capturing just one image at that resolution; you're capturing many. Being able to change the depth of view after taking the picture is a huge advantage. It also seems likely to me based on the ability to do 3D images and video on this technology that I've seen on YouTube that you can somewhat play with the perspective of the picture as well. If you're a photographer this means you have a lot of additional flexibility and control.

Next, it's almost certainly the case that you can in fact generate higher resolution images from the data that is gathered. The problem you're going to run into though is the resulting image will become less and less sharp as you up the resolution. This is what happens when you increase the resolution of any digital image of course. The difference here is that the images generated from Lytro pictures are composites created from the database of rays that the camera captured when the image was initially captured. It seems like at a ratio of ten or so to one you have enough rays to create a picture that is clear and sharp. As you up the resolution beyond that point there are not enough rays to calculate every single resulting pixel with certainty so the sharpness of the image drops. I'm going to guess that the resulting loss of clarity is actually less severe than when a traditional image is upscaled but that is pure speculation on my part, as is most of this paragraph.

One interesting thing they've done is make their initial offering available in three different colors and two different storage capacities. Normally this would mean


Different choices, but there are only three. Two of the three colors are available with eight gig only while the third color choice is only available with sixteen. I suspect this serves two purposes. First, it reduces the number of product variants they need to get to market. When your a startup that is a good thing from a logistics and operational standpoint. The next is it makes it very easy for people in the know to tell the difference between the top of the line model (available only in red) and the standard models. It's fashionable to deny it, but a lot of people prefer it when they can somehow differentiate themselves from the masses and this setup allows for that.

The base 8Gig models are $400 while the $16 gig model is $500. I saw some grumbling online about this but the prices seems about right to me. Hard core geeks are going to buy one due to the cool tech factor and serious photographers are going to buy them because the capabilities of the camera are interesting and potentially revolutionary. I don't see either group worrying too much about a $ four to five hundred purchase. Heck, lenses can run many times that cost.

There were a few more topics I wanted to talk about but I'm running out of time. I may make another entry tomorrow. I've put  in an order for one of the eight gig models. It should be hear by March 2011 based on their current estimates. I'm really looking forward to seeing how this technology works.

Image by TheNickster via Flickr
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Saturday, October 15, 2011

One Month And Counting Until Kindle Fire

Amazon warehouse in Glenrothes, Fife; source M...
I should be coding but that part of my brain appears to be fatigued right now so I'm taking a short break to write a few things down here about the upcoming Kindle Fire.

First up is the fact that I realized we're just one month away from the scheduled debut of the Fire. The coverage in the press has been kind of fascinating. It's an iPad killer, it's a panacea, it slices bread and does the dishes. On the flip side there has been some grousing about the fact that it only comes with 8Gig of storage and lacks things like cameras and SD card slots. Apparently the $199 price tag isn't enough of a clue for some people that this is a no frills device intended primarily for the consumption of media sold by Amazon.

According to some recent projections the Kindle Fire could ship five million units in Q4. That would be about 40% of what the iPad 2 is projected to ship during that same time period which may not sound impressive until you consider Amazon started from zero and that ASUS was overjoyed to sell just under three quarter of a million EEE Transformer tablets in the April->June quarter which put them at number two behind Apple.

Amazon isn't going to be able to deliver as polished an experience as Apple but they don't need to. So long as their build quality is decent and their custom Android launcher and apps are reasonably bug free they'll be off to a great start.

Actually another concern will be can they meet the demand? Limited delays in shipping are going to be OK, heck Apple thrives on 'em but Amazon doesn't want to leave too much money on the table here or cause excessive frustration to prospective buyers. They would be better off suspending pre orders once they get to the point where they aren't confident they can ship in time for Christmas.

With ten inch tablets rumored to be coming early next year Apple might finally have a legitimate competitor. (Or not, more on this topic below). 

It's not surprising that Apple chose not to compete in the 7 inch tablet space. It is a little ironic though that Amazon may use that hole in Apple's product line to leverage their way into a market that Apple has owned since the debut of the original iPad.

All this apparent success has led to speculation that Apple will come out with an iPad "mini". I'll say two things about that possibility:

  1. They already have one. It's called the iPod touch. 
  2. Apple is a premium brand. They don't and won't compete on price. Steve Jobs may be gone but it's going to take more than a few weeks or months for the people in charge to forget his vision and guidance.
Apple has always been content to let others chum at the bottom of the revenue pool. Amazon has thrived on low margins since its inception. These two companies couldn't be better suited to share the tablet space. Yes, there will be some overlap but I doubt it will be substantial enough for Apple to worry.

So basically Apple isn't losing here but the life of pretty much every other tablet vendor just got a lot more difficult.

I have Amazon prime and ponied up the nominal additional money for next day shipping when I ordered my Kindle Fire. I'm hoping to get it on day one of availability since I ordered within the first few days of the announcement. I'm sure I'll be one of about a million people posting first impressions within a few hours of getting mine.

Image via Wikipedia
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hiatus/Facebook Page/Twitter/Google+ (Short Take)

I've decided to put the BLOG on semi hiatus for now. How frequently I contribute will depend on what is going on in my life and when inspiration strikes. I've been very busy with the side project I've talked about and most of my creativity and time is being spent there. I do post fairly regularly on my Facebook page and Twitter still. I find the two platforms work differently enough that I seldom end up with the same stuff on both. I'm also still posting on Google+ as well.

FB Page:

Now I don't have to feel guilty about not updating here. Life is good, time to get back to work!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Goodbye Steve Jobs And Thank You

I posted the following on both Google+ and my Facebook page.

The things I learned from observing Steve Jobs career are that technology is secondary to the experiences it creates and that details matter. It's very sad to see him gone so soon but oh what a legacy he left.

Like pretty much everyone else I'm greatly saddened by Steve's passing. I've loved technology for as long as I can remember and while I was never an Apple fan boy I've grown to greatly admire Steve Jobs and the company he built over the years. He always pushed the status quo and while sometimes it pushed back more often than not he came out on top. He has been described as relentless, painfully honest and focused. He was in short exactly who he had to be to accomplish what he did.

I suppose that last sentence is a truism, but it says what I wanted to say so I'm going to let it stand.

Nobody did it like Steve Jobs. A Quintessential American original from start to finish. The world became a little less exciting today.

Apple iPhone Aftermath, Bad Labeling?

Image representing Siri as depicted in CrunchBase
I wasn't as accurate on my predictions yesterday as I would have liked but Thats part of the fun when trying to guess what Apple is up to. I did get some things right including my conclusion that people would be disappointed if the new iPhone just turned out to be a rehashed iPhone 4. The ironic thing is that this iPhone is arguably as different from the previous generation as any other has been with the possible exception of the original iPhone 4 when compared to the 3GS. This illustrates the importance of getting every detail right when launching a product, including the naming.

Apple apparently doubled the RAM from 512 meg to 1 gig(I'm seeing conflicting reports on this), significantly upgraded the rear camera, upgraded the CPU and graphics and integrated both CDMA and GSM into one phone with HSPA+ thrown into the mix for those on GSM networks that support it. Would anyone have blinked if they had called this the iPhone 5? I certainly wouldn't have.

Part of the problem is the amount of time this phone took. We waited an extra four months for this. People were expecting something awe inspiring. Calling it the 4S may have been a misguided attempt to manage expectations?

The other issue here was of course the absence of Steve Jobs. This was Apples first chance to shine with Jobs not on stage. Put simply, they didn't  there were some bright spots.

Siri is a nice piece of technology. More importantly to Apple's long term bottom line though it is also going to make them a part of the "conversation" people have with their phones. Currently a big chunk of that conversation takes place with Google or Facebook. With Siri Apple has displaced Google for many tasks and will likely displace them further as this technology rolls out to more devices and becomes more refined. There is speculation that Google has similar functionality in the works at its easy to see why they would. This is the way many people have dreamed of interacting with their phones for awhile now.

Another thing that impressed me was "Find my Friends". Not so much the technology itself, which has been done before; but instead the fact that APple actually thought to give people the ability to turn it on with an expiration day/time. If you're on a family trip to Disneyland then you might be willing to turn on that tracking just for the convenience of being able to keep track of where everyone in your group is but that doesn't mean you want your personal space invaded that much normally. It's that kind of design decision and attention to detail that separates Apple from their competition.

While there was a disappointment in the short term I don't think it will linger much. This does put additional pressure on them though for the next big announcement. Apple's growth over the past several years has been nothing short of phenomenal and maintaining anything close to that pace is unrealistic. With Jobs role being deemphasized Apples current management is likely going to get a lot of blame for any slow down even though it may be part of the normal growth cycles that companies go through. Steve Jobs is going to be a hard act to follow not only because he is brilliant but also because of when he stepped aside. I don't envy Tim Cook one bit. He's in an almost impossible to win situation.

Image via CrunchBase
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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Apple Day Predictions Fall 2011 (Short Take)

Apple iPhone 5Image by tychay via FlickrIt's a bit like an international holiday any time Apple is announcing new products. All the speculation and rumor mongering of the previous several months finally hits the wall of reality as Apple reveals exactly what they've been working on recently.

Speculation this time around has been typically rampant with contradicting stories circulating on what exactly the iPhone announcement will be. Could it be an upgraded iPhone 4? Will it be a totally new phone? Will Apple in fact announce two new iPhones, an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 4S with some upgrades and a lower cost? We'll know soon of course but my speculation is two new phones, one completely redesigned and the other a rehash of the previous generation. Both will be capable of running all the latest iOS5 features. The iPhone 4S will be dual mode CDMA/GSM while the iPhone 5 will also be dual mode and support HSPA+. The iPhone 5 will have a somewhat larger display both in terms of size and resolution while the iPhone 4S may only have a 5 megapixel camera instead of the iPhone 5's 8 megapixel.

I don't think we'll see Steve Jobs make an appearance but it would certainly be a welcome surprise if he did. Speculation on his health continues to run rampant and a personal appearance could potentially help ease shareholder and fan fears.

The big risk for Apple today is that people walk away going "Eh, not that impressive". If the new iPhone is just a rehashed iPhone 4 expect major disappointment.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Thoughts On The Kindle Fire

fireImage by matthewvenn via FlickrI'm fairly sure it's possible to be tired of being tired. In fact I'm pretty much there. The past couple of weeks have been very productive which is good but I'm going to allocate a few more hours to sleep over the next week or so. The deficit is contributing to lousy coding quality and an enhanced tendency to wander off the point and babble on incoherently. This opening paragraph is probably a case in point.

I just preordered a Kindle Fire. I may change my mind before shipping time which is mid November. I thought very seriously about the 3G E-Ink touch pad Kindle. It's fifty dollars cheaper and for reading I find a non back lit display much more pleasant. My year or so old 3G Kindle is working fine though and its occasionally nice to have the physical keyboard so I'm going to stick with it for now.

One of the big questions in my mind in regards to the Fire is how much of the current Amazon Android app store is going to be available to run on the Fire. One way Amazon could win my heart and mind on the Fire is to at least provide the option of seeing only applications that have been specifically tested on the Fire and verified within a reasonable level of certainty not to contain viruses or malware. If that means there are only a few hundred apps to start out with than I'm totally OK with that. I'd rather have a few hundred optimized and tested applications than thousands of half baked and possibly malicious ones. If the Fire is a success than app availability will grow steadily over time. Developers will follow the money and a platform with tens of millions of potential customers would be attractive, particularly since the issue of fragmentation, at least initially would not be present on the Fire platform and it shouldn't be that difficult to optimize Android Apps for Fire.

Another question is the browser. Great, it's optimized because some of the page rendering takes place on Amazon's cloud. If I'm recalling correctly Opera has been doing that for awhile with their mobile browser. It's a nice enough feature but how well does the browser work and how much advertiser friendly information is Amazon going to be able to grab while they are doing that rendering? Will they allow other browsers to be made available in their app store or will I be forced to use Silk?

Is eight gig of local storage going to be enough? It's clear that Amazon wanted to keep costs down on the Fire. They cut a number of corners including leaving out an SD card slot and only providing eight gig of local storage. For books this will work great. You're not going to get a whole lot of music or streaming HD video on there though and that may be an issue for some people. The free cloud storage is a nice feature so how big an issue this is will probably come down to an individuals ability to consistently find affordable/free WiFi.

Even with these and other questions surrounding the Kindle Fire I'm still likely to let the order stand. I'm thinking my biggest possible regret will be the announcement of a ten inch Fire early next year. On the one hand that would be a more useful form factor for some use cases but the smaller size is much more convenient to carry.
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Early October Venture Update

Venture ProcessImage by Michael Lewkowitz via FlickrIt's been a few weeks since I wrote about my side project. I'm willing to share a bit more information at this point but I'm still going to be vague.

I've continued to explore the technical side through coding and the business side through thinking and my enthusiasm remains. This is  a record for me at this point. Generally I run into some sort of issue that causes me to lose interest much more quickly. More often than not the walls I've hit have been related to pursuing ideas outside of my own area of expertise. I'm pushing the boundaries a bit with this one but I'm capable of doing a lot of the initial prototyping myself and thats a big bonus.

One thing I am willing to share at this point is that the basic idea is centered in social networking but is not a social network in and of itself. With Google entering the market this year we have all the social networks we need. There are probably opportunities for niche players similar to LinkedIn but going that route would take deep pockets and a lot of luck.

This doesn't mean that there isn't still some potential to build interesting and useful products in this area though. The tricky bit is figuring out the where and the how. I think I may have done that. Time will tell.

To date the big challenge has been finding time to work on my idea and developing or dusting off the skills I need to create the prototype. I feel a bit like I'm back in school working on my MBA. It's tough to do something like this while working full time. It's mostly fun, but there are times when I'm frustrated and tired. The same was true of completing the MBA though and I made it through that.

Yesterday I finished the initial implementation of the first part of my project. It still has some warts but it more or less appears to do what I want it to.

I'm at a bit of a crossroads right now in terms of what is next. Right now I'm leaning towards spending a few days formalizing the business side of the equation. Figuring out if I should incorporate, if I should look for people to partner with at this point and the all important question of how I will monetize (make money) if this were to become a company. I've been giving those questions "back of mind" cycles for awhile now but I think its time I sit down and "do the math".

It's been a great experience to date and at the very least I've learned a lot. I'm excited to see where this thing leads. Wish me luck.

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Barnes & Noble Email

Barnes & Noble's Union Square store in Manhatt...

I woke up this morning to find an email from Barnes & Noble informing me that...

"As part of Borders ceasing operations, we acquired some of its assets including Borders brand trademarks and their customer list. The subject matter of your DVD and other video purchases will be part of the transferred information. The federal bankruptcy court approved this sale on September 26, 2011."

It's not clear what if anything B&N acquired beyond the items listed explicitly in the above statement.

When I read something like that I start to wonder what the thinking was behind the acquisition of the assets. Why DVD and Video purchase information in particular? Did they bid on other items and lose, did they actually win and choose not to disclose? I'd expect this information to be a matter of public record but if it is, I can't find any reference on line right now so I'm going to have to do a lot of speculating. That's pretty much par for the course though so onward.

The acquisition of the brands and trademarks were probably a defensive move. The email did include the Borders logo at the bottom but I suspect that was done in an attempt to smooth the transition by providing a visual reference with the B&N and Borders logos together. For now you can see the image below this text and before the next paragraph. There is no telling how long B&N will make it available though.

In the longer term I don't think we'll see much if any additional mention of Borders. Acquiring the name and marks was likely a defensive move to prevent somebody else from picking them up and possibly providing continued competition to B&N. One source quoted the sale price of the Borders assets that B&N acquired at $14 million. That's a small price to pay to prevent the potential rebirth of a competing brand, particularly when you include the customer lists and information on DVD and video sales.

Understanding why B&B only bought the video/DVD customer information is tough. I don't have any ready theories. It would be interesting to know who did get that information and how much they paid. The basic question in my mind is did B&N intentionally pass on everything else or did somebody simply out bid them?

Image via Wikipedia
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