Tablet computing then and now

People who've known me a while usually know me as a computer guy. Back in the mid to late nineties, this was especially apparent because I carried this odd looking hand-held computer around with me -- the Apple Newton MessagePad.

This is long before Apple started work on the iPhone or even iTunes, and most certainly before the iPad, but the functionality was incredible for the time and when I pull it out and play with it from time to time I'm reminded there are features still not well replicated on modern devices.

Newton vs Android

Sure, my new Dell Streak (shown overlapping my MessagePad 120 here) is in full colour, has Wifi, 3G and Bluetooth, but neither Android nor iOS replicate some of the core functionality found on a Newton.

I could pull up the notepad screen for instance and write out (in longhand) "Remember Cindy's birthday next Wednesday" and then click the 'Assist' button on the screen to have the Newton open the calendar, scroll to next Wednesday, and create a day-long reminder named "Cindy's Birthday". Other functionality such as customized business card styles on a per-contact basis were very nice for personalizing individual contacts. It understood the difference between business entries ("Microsoft Support") and people ("Bill Gates").

I could start drawing free-hand on the notepad screen and it would interpret the shapes I was drawing -- freehand circles became perfectly round (and had editable edges that could be dragged to accurately fix sizing), lines and other shapes properly aligned and closed, etc.

Do I want to go back to using it for my day to day routine? Of course not, its slow and bulky compared to modern devices. But do I wonder why after fifteen years I don't have functional handwriting recognition and basic AI on my new tablet phone? I sure do.


Bandwidth lies and video streaming

I have the joy of living in a great forward thinking country with excellent amenities and pretty good access to services.  I love my country, I'm Canadian through and through.  I've gotta say though, like any one else, I get a little annoyed when my tax dollars get spent on utter stupidity.  For example, an arm's length regulator like the CRTC that has far exceeded its mandate and is trying to regulate things like whether Bell Canada can impose their bandwidth usage limits on third parties who access their system.  This has been in the media lately as Usage Based Billing.

First, we need to define the situation.  Many people don't understand how this works, so I'll try to explain.  High speed phone line internet service (ADSL/DSL) requires that your Internet provider (ISP) be able to communicate at very high speeds over your phone line.  This requires that they have equipment connected as physically close as possible to your home.

Since your local phone company owns the copper lines where you live (probably Bell), your Internet provider needs to work out an arrangement with them to offer you Internet service over those lines.  Now if Bell were just another company that had private property involved, this would all seem much more simple, but that's not the case.  Bell has over the years been given fantastic amounts of taxpayer money by the government to help them provide phone service to Canadians.  As a result of this government-granted monopoly on the service, they're required to allow third-party Internet providers to use those lines at a fair price.

As it stands however, the price Bell charges a third-party ISP is not fair.  And on top of that, with the recent request the CRTC granted, Bell gets to impose bandwidth limits on those ISPs who then end up having to pass them on to you.  Here's the rub: it costs Bell nothing to handle your Internet for that ISP.  Bell has equipment they're renting out to your Internet provider, and the Internet service itself is 100% handled by your ISP.  Bell's feelings about your Internet usage shouldn't be relevant at all.

I'm glad some in our government understand how unfair and incredibly biased the CRTC decision was and have vowed to overturn it.  If the CRTC is going to regulate anything with regards to Internet billing, maybe they should look at usage limits ISPs impose unfairly on consumers in the first place.  But that's another issue altogether.


Open is better than closed

I like open systems, I prefer them, for a few reasons. I use both open and closed systems by necessity, but I prefer open. If your'e totally lost, in the software and hardware world, we consider platforms and systems to be closed when they're only managed by a private entity. A system is open when it can be changed or edited or modified by anyone. Some systems are also called open because their specifications are fully published and not hidden. This isn't what I'm talking about though.

In this case, the open system of the day is Android's phone and tablet platform. The closed system it takes on is Apple's iOS. Totally ignoring Apple's product for a moment, because you're all aware of it I'm sure, lets look at some interesting things happening on the Anrdoid front.

LG has created an Android phone with full 3D display and true 3D camera with dual lenses. It can create and display full 3D content. Instead of inventing their own competitor to the iPhone, software and all, they were able to just create hardware capable of doing what they envisioned and then modifying Android to understand their hardware.

Elsewhere, Android devices are being made hardened for Military use. This isn't a market most consumers care about, but it allows the Military contractors to use a known platform for their hardware and save effort on that front, while creating something familiar for the soldier.

The argument against open platforms like Android is so-called fragmentation. That the system isn't static, that it changes from device to device. This makes it moderately harder to write software for the system and to maintain the operating system (Android) itself. The benefits outweigh this issue, in my mind.

Will Apple release a 3D camera and display for their iPhone? Perhaps. What if you don't feel like paying for that feature if and when they did? They might make two versions, but then there'd be fragmentation on their platform too. They might force everyone into the 3D version, in which case you lose the cost-saving choice. They might ignore 3D as a platform, and lose you the option of having it.

Personally, I prefer dealing with companies that offer me choices and create devices that entice me personally but also don't limit my options. That means even if an iPhone did everything I wanted it to do, being dependent on Apple to maintain it in the future is a problem for me. As the twice owner of Newton Messagepads, I'm well aware of how Apple maintains products it stops caring about.


My poor eyes, Sony!

So its E3 this week and all the major console makers are announcing their new gaming hardware or software and Sony has thoughtfully decided to put E3 announcements and trailers up for download in HD on their Store interface from the PS3/PSP. For some reason however, they've changed the background to be mostly white so that the list interface is now essentially white on white making it practically illegible on my very bright HD CRT. The normally slick and easy to use interface is almost impossible to read now:

PSN E3 Store

Excuse the redraw effect, its hard to take photos of a CRT and I was in a rush to get this posted. You know, there's a place for interfaces like this. I'll have comments about what I see when I figure out what I've chosen to download and can see again.


Privacy while surfing

A Canadian judge recently ruled that police did not need a warrant to request the information on an Internet subscriber from an ISP based on their IP address. The judge said that one's actions on the Internet have no expectation of privacy.

Most people I know would be very unnerved to think their behaviour online is somehow public data, or that their surfing habits could be linked back to them with a simple unwarranted request. While the case in question was one of child pornography for which many would feel this action was justified, the judge's ruling did not take this into any consideration as far as I noticed and as such this warrantless personal data request may be repeated for any type of online investigation. I am not a lawyer mind you.

Some people have been asking what the difference is between an IP address and a physical address. Everyone should expect their phone number or address will lead back to their personal information via a simple reverse directory of course. As I said on a discussion about this story on Slashdot though,

One of the primary differences is that IP addresses are left behind as cookie crumbs everywhere you go online. In real life, you wouldn't leave your home address and telephone number on business cards laying on the street at every intersection with a date/time stamp indicating that you'd been there, would you?
While the type of information seems similar, the resulting availability of personal behaviour data that is discoverable as a result is unnerving.

While I feel that most peoples' behaviour on the Internet is reckless an that people should take their personal information more seriously (by using encryption on E-mails, anonymizing proxy servers, etc.), I think the very fact that people do not take this seriously is proof that there is, contrary to this judge's opinion, an expectation of privacy online, however unwarranted.


The great DTV transition

So you have a kitchen with several ovens. You make roasts in those ovens, but your roasting pans are huge, and you could really get away with smaller ones. You decide you'd like to be able to fit two or three roasts in each oven instead of one, by using smaller roasting pans. Not too difficult is it?

Just like the old roasting pans, analog TV signals take up a lot of 'space' in the radio spectrum used for broadcast television. Digital TV signals take up less, because of the ability to compress the data somewhat and other efficiencies. Unfortunately, unlike roasting pans, switching signal types means breaking all the TVs in America. Not as easy of a choice.

The FCC and government decided that to make room available for more high definition broadcast programming, the switch to Digital TV ought to be made. Industry groups didn't want to change, people don't like change, but its a good change to make eventually, so they went ahead and set a deadline -- February 17th, 2009 in the United States of America. As of today, most people don't seem to yet be ready for the transition or don't understand what it is or what they need to do so Congress has agreed to delay it until June 12th of this year. In Canada, this isn't relevant until August of 2011.

There will be more annoying commercials until then, referencing the government's website about the transition. There will be retailers griping and consumers worrying, but its all very simple really: it probably doesn't matter to you.

Do you have satellite TV, or cable? Then it doesn't matter, breathe a sigh of relief and ignore all the commercials and warnings.

If you don't have either satellite or cable, you're watching TV through an antenna (either built-in or not). In that case, if you have it nearby or can find a copy elsewhere, check your TV's manual to see if it has an "ATSC" tuner. If it only has an "NTSC" one, you don't have digital TV support on it, and will need a digital tv 'box' unless you want to buy a new TV. No ATSC tuner, no free TV after June 12th.

If you can't find the manual for your TV, and you don't have satellite or cable, and you're worried you won't be able to watch TV, then call the manufacturer of your TV and ask them. The technicians at Sony or Panasonic or whomever should be able to assist you.

Now there are a whole bunch of other issues involved in the switch to digital, but very few of them will be beneficial to you, the consumer. Mostly, this is to make the FCC's and other regulators' lives easier and they threw a bone or two to the broadcasters as well to grease things along.


Little Big Awesome Planet

Okay so its Little Big Planet, but its pretty awesome, actually. A 3D sorta 2D platformer puzzle game with layered depth and online scores and collaboration and gestures.

Yes, gestures. Playing a game and being able to make your character dance or give thumbs up or stick his tongue out is remarkably entertaining on its own. Even more so when playing in a group with friends online.

Now, I've got a little more LBP experience than many people these first few days after its launch since I was in on the beta and got to play it with friends and family then too. My daughter is only 6 and loved it, especially playing community levels and then assigning words to describe them.

The community aspect of the game is very well done, and this is most apparent by how upset everyone was the last day or so with the servers not connecting well -- it really affects things being able to play together and share levels.

Yes, you can create your own levels, with logic and puzzles and stories and characters and movement and vehicles and and and ... its very complex and huge and entertaining if you're the creative type.

Speaking of playing online though, in case anyone else ran into this problem, I had to port forward UDP port 56759 on my router to my PS3 to invite friends into my session. It would appear LBP doesn't make use of UPnP port forwarding functionality, which is somewhat disappointing.