So Android announced Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), the next version of the operating system with much awaited performance improvements and some new (marginal) features, available to Galaxy Nexus users in mid-July and the remaining 99% of the Android ecosystem sometime between a year and never. Along with the new version of Android, Google announced several other products and services, including their Nexus 7″ tablet, which I won’t cover in this post. What I am going to focus on is Nexus Q, the first product designed exclusively by Google, a ‘social’ media player that is, intriguingly, manufactured in the U.S and costs almost $300. This is not representative of a new class of devices, it’s not even functionally all that impressive either: it’s a device that connects to speakers and TVs, like countless before it. The difference in the case of the Nexus Q lies in its impressive industrial design and the fact that 1. it can stream data from Google Play and 2) it can allow local Android devices to ‘share’ the content they hold in their local memory. Google, borrowing from the Apple cue-card of shoving features into products without really caring about what people really want or need, created a product aimed solely at increasing the impact and the revenue of their online media store (Google Play) and added a small cherry on top that makes use of the networked nature, ubiquity and storage capacity of modern smartphones. Of course, even the ‘social’ aspect of the device is not exactly groundbreaking either. The functionality has been available, one way or another, albeit in more ‘technically challenging’ forms for years. But what’s important to note about the Q is that it doesn’t really cover what is probably the number one request (or, if your prefer, the number one pet peeve) people have about for other locked down devices of this kind (yes, Apple TV is a prime example): the ability to stream content stored in existing home networked devices, such as another computers or NAS devices on the local network, using standard or widely-used protocols such as DLNA/uPNP, DAAP/Airplay or even SMB/NFS. With the Nexus Q, Google demonstrates the same denial it’s got with that of the success, or rather lack thereof, of Google+. And in their attempt to convince people that the botched Nexus Q is worth paying the huge premium they’re asking (other devices of the same kind cost 2-3 times less), their enthusiasm for silly features like overlay mustaches in Hangouts, their desire to marry profits with openness and openness, they lose the mark. They fail to deliver the extremely seductive walled-garden, locked-down experience that allows Apple to thrive at the cost of openness and empowering products and services and, at the same time, they lose the geekcred that made Google so affable in the first place. Google largely knows this and they have been performing a balancing act for years: the ‘openness’ of Android, that of ‘the social graph’, their contribution to the public via open source software. The company is cognizant of its differences to other players of the market; yet, there with today’s announcement of the Nexus Q there is a paradox: today we have so much technology available to us, often of high quality and free, in the form of open source software, powerful and affordable hardware. Google, like Apple and everyone else in between, realise this and have been struggling to trap the cat inside their new shiny new boxes. The Nexus Q could have been a great little device, and maybe it will be one as soon as people start ‘tinkering with its internals’. Yet it would have been much better if Google had shipped it like that instead of ‘tolerating’ hackability by the community. By blatantly promoting its own cloud based offerings instead of trying to marry them with locally stored content, Google is crippling its product.
In the end, like Microsoft a few days ago, Google is copying Steve Jobs’s style and strategy; provide a platform and tools, but focus on content and lock-down as a monetisation technique to counter technology commoditisation. Gundotra’s presentation of Google+ Events reeks of vintage early 2000s Jobsian technique, with the preset graphics and the sildeshow features. With everyone and their dog showcasing complete lack of tech culture in the face of a dominant resurgent Apple, the world treads in dangerous territory: a technology monoculture in the corporate space that bases its profitability on polished jailhouses instead of innovation and increased freedoms. In this context, the cloud remains a key technology that can help liberate us from the burdens of backups and local storage, but also imprison us in a world where a few corporations control all of our information.
Which brings us to Glass. The Sergey Brin, Project Glass segment was super fun and very impressive. If anything, it shows that Google is well-humoured and daring and works on interesting technology. Of course the demo and the features they showed are not exactly representative of the product, its potential or its usefulness. The segment which followed the breathtaking landing on Moscone and Brin’s introduction was stale and unconvincing: I doubt a mom would want to ‘make contact’ with her baby looking like the Borg, or that everyone would think twice before relegating their ‘Glass’ to a drawer and never using it, its novelty quickly overshadowed by its unnatural and intruding appearance. It’d be a shame if Google really thought that people want to look like futuristic soldiers from a second tier sci-fi movie. Sure, the concept is nice and perhaps as technology progresses it will be easier to integrate such functionality in more human-friendly prodcuts, like contact lenses or integrated with optical glasses. As it stands, Project Glass is only an unappealing curiosity that serves better as a tech demo than a product right now.
Seeing the Microsoft Surface [really Microsoft? You guys couldn't find a new, unique name?] Keynote reinforces my belief that the company has long lost the capacity of creating and projecting a genuine, unique and interesting image, products and services.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, it quickly did away with most of the product lines the company was making that weren’t very successful. It ended printers, clones, the Newton and many other products and services and focused on creating a few, exceptional products. In the early 2000s Apple had started gaining mindshare, both in the computing world with OS X and generally with the wildly successful iPod. At the time, given Microsoft’s tendency to copy features, ideas and æsthetics from Apple, I thought that Apple, being a much smaller company, was serving as some sort of research facility for Microsoft, which then took the successful ideas and commoditised them. Even though Apple is now much larger than Microsoft, the trend continues; the Surface Keynote event was a cheap copy of Apple’s events, down to the ‘How we made it’ interlude videos, the speaker rotation and style, while the products — still — better designed and refined, oozing with much needed quality in a ever-cheaper industry, sadly fail to go beyond marginal improvements to existing, commonplace technology, a few technical features most people don’t know or care about (MIMO antennæ, optical bonded display, etc) and lacklustre features and presentation. Sure, Surface is new, it introduces what Windows 8 is all about: a tablet form-factor with a full-featured OS. But Surface didn’t really create excitement in the audience, people didn’t seem enthused, the presenters tried too hard to convince everyone of “how you’ll fall in love with it” etc, when the device didn’t seem all that great. No matter how much this company tries, it tries too hard to ‘copy’, instead of ‘creating’. To ‘replicate’ concepts, features and products, instead of cultivating their own culture, their own vision. The result shows that; by trying so hard to adopt the Apple mantra of style, quality and innovation, when they don’t really believe it, they come out with mediocre products, like the Zune player and, now, seemingly, the Surface tablet. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Microsoft doesn’t ever innovate or that it inherently could not. It is a company that has both resources and technology to revolutionise computing, a company that has introduced countless innovations over the years, but on average it suffices to releasing second-rate products, it cares more about the economics of doing business than the passion, quality and enjoyment of creating technology and products.
Surface, a tablet that wants to replace not only devices primarily aimed for consuming content, like the iPad, but, eventually, your laptop probably tries to do too much at once, while being mediocre at both. With a schizophrenic cover/keyboard device, it’s presented as a notebook replacement; with Metro, it competes with the iPad. But Surface Pro will also be able to run classic Windows programs, where the plain model won’t (it’s ARM-based). How about battery life? I think that Google/Apple got it right when they separated PC and post-PC devices. In terms of productivity nothing, let alone a tablet, beats a workstation, with its massive real-estate, ergonomic size and positioning and greater power, but Microsoft desperate attempt to differentiate the Surface from the iPad and Android tablets by invoking ‘creation’ rather than ‘consumption’ and pointing to the keyboard and higher performance is ludicrous. I’d take a brand new MacBook Air anytime, even running Windows 8, instead of the just-released Surface. Sure there’ll be cases when the full power of a notebook might be useful in a tablet form-factor, and there’ll be cases where the presence of a touch-based keyboard will be better than its absence, but in general this is not anyone’s vision for a productive portable consuming experience.
I found this article on EFF to be a very concise summary of many of the issues I’ve written (and often talked about) in the past, pertaining to the freedom to use the devices you have paid for and own as you see fit, and the increasingly worrying trend of manufacturer lockdowns that largely define what you can and cannot do with them. While Apple with its popular iOS may be the most well-known (and most successful) ambassador of the lock-down platform, the trend has been on the radar well before Apple managed to escape the threat of extinction in the late 1990s; Microsoft, with Windows RT and the Secure Boot flag in UEFI only manages to actually implement all those technologies they initially developed, studied and proposed more than ten years ago with Palladium/TCPA.
The cat is still out of the box, but technology ages quickly and the threat is quite real: a combination of a cloud abused by the Valley oligopoly, lack of the computing storage ubiquity and locked down devices would be a nightmare scenario that would strip the computer of its fundamental differentiating quality from appliances of yore: its malleability, the power derived from its programmability and its ability to solve countless problems, to achieve infinite different tasks and not perform a single function, as manufacturers would most likely want.
Check out this table. A bunch of modern, high-quality, high-performing codecs. AAC+, AAC LC, enhanced AAC+, MP3. All decodable by Android, on all devices. Sadly, Android devices can only encode on AMR-NB at the sad sampling rate of 8KHz. At the miserable bitrate of 4.75 to 12.2kbps. At qualities unheard of since the early days of the telegraph (ok, I’m kidding — AMR-NB is the voice codec most GSM and UMTS phonecalls are carried over).
Now, you may be asking: Couldn’t the manufacturer add encoding support for more audio codecs? Sure, and some do. Others, like HTC for example, don’t. Even on high-end devices like the Desire. Devices with Qualcomm Snapdragon CPUs clocked at 1GHz. With hardware support for stereo AAC encoding. No, really, what on earth is wrong with these people.
At the same time, HTC went into the hassle of adding encoding support for h.264 and 720p (using MPEG4). And it makes me wonder: that they added h.264 encoding support means they are at least clued up with respect to paying royalties, adding the codec to the system and making use of it. That they introduced 720p using MPEG4 on the other hand makes no sense: how useful is 720p video recording — recently introduced with HTC’s Froyo build for the Desire — or the capability to record audio as a whole come to think of it, when the recorded audio on this phone sounds like a wax record from the 1880s, not least because of the totally backwards codec they use throughout, while one of the most powerful mobile device CPUs in the market today just sits there idling. Idiots.
From the few images and videos around, the device seems beautiful, but that’s not the point; as the Mac and then the iPhone have demonstrated, it’s all about the software and Courier seems to have a great combination of writing recognition using a stylus, a great touch user interface including multi-touch support for hand gestures and a great visual and ergonomic user experience paradigm to manage it all.
Most of the concepts and paradigms found in the Courier were introduced by Apple, yet Apple recently introduced the iPad, a device definitely more limited — from what we can tell without having used either — than Courier1. Apple introduced a great ‘touch’ interface with the Newton and then redefined the whole industry with the iPhone. Apple Inc., the pioneer, is effectively doing all the applied research work for Microsoft — something I’ve also argued in earlier posts; concepts that the company comes up with and realises in the form of amazing products are, a few short years later, found — sometimes successfully, others in more kitsch, mediocre and definitely tasteless versions of their former self — in Microsoft products and technologies. At the same time, the one, single segment where Microsoft is truly and firmly leading the pack is basic research, the kind of stuff that is high risk, that may not lead to profit in the next five years, the kind of thing that costs a lot, that startups don’t have the money, need or desire to do, the kind of thing that idiots waving their MBAs would probably dismiss without a second thought, but — ultimately — the kind of stuff that changes technology and as a consequence the world we live in.
If the Courier is anything like what we see in the video (see below) then I think they’re on to a great product and I’m very interested in seeing how it’s going to play out between them, the various Android and Chrome OS devices coming out soon and of course Apple, the company that everyone uses as a point of reference and that which will most probably will continue to surprise us all in the coming decade.
1. Of course Courier is merely a demonstration while the iPad is a real device hitting the Apple Store[s] very soon.
It must have been sometime near mid-December when I first actually saw and used — albeit briefly — a Nexus One. A Googler, the owner, graciously let me use it for a bit after receiving it as part of the Google corporate gift that the device got — more a publicity stunt rather than an actual trial in my opinion. More encounters with the phone, again owned by friends or acquaintances working for Google, let me get a clearer look at what widely became an online sensation over the holiday season, generating too much buzz, well before sites like techcrunch, gizmodo, engadget et al. started publishing early, unofficial reviews.
And what I saw was good, even great in some respects, although far from what Google tries to make it seem. The Nexus One is far from just another smartphone; it is a message and a demonstration. A message from Google to the telcos, that the company is seeking a departure from the status quo. A demonstration, to everyone, but mostly perhaps to manufacturers, and Google’s competitors, that the platform, in this crucial moment where expectations are high and the mindshare is there and the spotlight is on them, of the standard that Google is seeking with regards to device design and also regarding the control it has on the software that runs on those devices.
In 2004 I was asked to design a HPC cluster by my supervisor at Imperial; for a long time this process resembled choosing components for an enthousiast microcomputer in the 1970s and 1980s; choosing the right components that, together, would provide the best platform (processor, storage, memory bandwidth, interconnects) for your cluster. Even in 2004, five years ago, this wasn’t as forthcoming as it is in the server or home computer market today: Apple had pretty good performance/price ratios in the XServe G5 (remember Virginia Tech?) and the performance per watt wasn’t that bad either — at least in the small window of time I got to come up with the spec. Intel had a Titanic Failure in the Itanium family and the Xeons and Opterons were having a field day.
But it was choosing the interconnects, that is the technology that networks the computers together, that was the most interesting; the two proprietary technologies that were most prominent among vendors in supercomputing at the time were Myricom’s Myrinet and Mellanox Infiniband (other options were Quadrics, SP Switches and other proprietary solutions). The former was much cheaper, but also had a strong, but dwindling presence in the top tier of supercomputing clusters, a bad sign; the latter was an up-and-coming competitor, faster, but also much more expensive. And Gigabit Ethernet was rapidly becoming the ‘Open Standard King’.
In my proposal I went with Infiniband, not only because it had the best performance, but also because it seemed futureproof enough for the needs of the group. While the design was approved, the cluster was never funded, partly due to the marginal needs of the research group (I was probably one of the very few people around that would make use of it and I left a year later) and partly due to the fact that a much larger network-simulation cluster had been installed less than a year earlier and many thought that yet another cluster was pointless (even though the two systems were completely different in architecture and scope).
Nevertheless, the experience of designing the cluster was great and five years later I’m reading that Infiniband, the technology I had chosen in 2004 for a supercomputing cluster is now more ‘readily’ available in two boards by MSI and Asus. With 10GE slowly entering the mass-market, technologies like Infiniband seems increasingly uninteresting, but it’s great when good technology trickles down to commodity hardware and at such lower prices, making the acquisition of HPC cluster hardware easier than ever before.