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Monday, February 28, 2005

Banned Comic

I was really surprized when I saw this comic in today's San Francisco Examiner. Surprized by a couple of things. First, that I was laughing out loud. I haven't laughed out loud over a comic in years. Second, that the cartoonist would have the guts to say this. Good for him.

I was surprized a third time, just a few minutes ago, when I checked out Russell Beattie's blog, only to see the cartoon featured there. Russ featured the cartoon because, apparently (and this didn't surprize me), the cartoon has been banned by three newspapers.

The PSP Launch Countdown Timer

Just discovered this cool application for your desktop. The PSP launch countdown timer. Gear Live. Via Mike's List.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Leica at Deep Discount

When I say "Leica at Deep Discount", just to get this out up front, I'm not talking about a camera - I'm talking about the whole bloomin' company.

I'm posting this wirelessly during a lull in my temp job. (Temp jobs are what happens when you, the freelance photographer, up and move to the big city, as I did recently.) So I'll keep it brief.

Who is going to buy Leica Camera AG? Will it be their partner in Japan, Matsushita (Panasonic)? Or another Japanese firm, perhaps? Leicas are more popular in Japan, and more appreciated, than anywhere else in the world, with the possible exception of Germany. If Matsushita doesn't do it, how about Sony? The Leica name would look better on Sony lenses - some Sony lenses, anyway - than even Sony's own name does. Hell, at the price it could be gotten for right now, even Kobayashi-san of Cosina fame could buy Leica. And probably he should.

Other Japanese photo firms, such as Nikon, or even Konica-Minolta, come to mind, as well. They might find a new Leica division to be a real boon to their own dwindling prestige.

Or will mobile device manufacturers finally wake up and smell the photo chemistry? Nokia, as I've been suggesting? Or Sony Ericsson. Samsung already owns Schneider-Kreuznach. It's only a matter of time before they put that name on the lenses of their 2, 3, 4, and five megapixel camera phones. The Leica brand is worth far more today than the company that makes the cameras.

There's a real disconnect between the camera world and that of advanced mobile device users. But not for long. Face it, if you have a camera phone and use it for taking pictures regularly, you're a photographer. Eventually you realize this. Or else you stop shooting with it.

I mention all this for two reasons. Number one, today is the start of PMA2005 - the international photo gear show put on annually by the Photo Marketing Association. And, number two, because Leica recently announced that its credit lines had been halved by its banks. The company is in hot soup, financially; and yet it still has the preeminent name in the photo world, along with a loyal, well off customer base. All it really needs is some new direction - new leadership - and an infusion of cash. At the very least, the name could be bought cheap.

I'm convinced that some company, somewhere, is going to grab up Leica and grab it soon. I hope it happens, because I would hate seeing this brand, and all it's stood for, fade away. That would amount to needless waste, of all kinds.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Walled Garden Mobile Device

Marching arm-in-arm, into the happy future.

I imagine that sometime early last year, senior Sony Ericsson executives made the long journey to Cingular Wireless headquarters for a meeting. This meeting took place, I'm thinking, inside a special compound. The compound was astroturfed and outfitted with many artificial plants. Gas vapor lights overhead were of a special kind, with a color temperature that resembles daylight. Here and there could be found cheap but shiny patio furniture - and even a barbecue grill or two. The walls and ceiling encasing the space were made of cinder block that still smelled of new construction.

"Thank you for joining us today," began the Cingular execs. "We asked you here to share with you our ideas for the future. As one of our primary partners, we hope that you, Sony Ericsson, will help us arrive at this future."

After some additional preliminaries, the Cingular execs turned to details.

"Our plan is this," they said. "We'd like to use this space - the one we're meeting in today - for containing our customers. They will have their wallets with them . . . and we can provide whatever they might need. They get this delightful environment you see, and we, well, we get a captive audience. It's win-win. And the margins we forecast - killer.

"True, we might run out of space - but that would be a good problem to have, no? We can build out. Now, here's where you come in.

"We'd like for you to make the device that will entice them to come in here, and stay after arriving. We can fill in details later if you agree. What do you think?"

"Well," the SE execs might have replied, "Have you considered that your customers might not be happy here - after having grown up in the larger world?"

"Yes, we did think of that. But only for a moment. Never overestimate your customers. First rule of business in North America."

I'm guessing this meeting took place, because Sony Ericsson has delivered the goods. To wit, the Z500a, a flip phone I picked up from Cingular Wireless, my new provider, this past Friday.

Sony Ericsson must be the Toyota of mobile device manufacturers. When you open and close the Z500a, it has the solid feel and satisfying thunk of the door on a well made car. The phone's RF is top notch, and the microphone and speaker likewise. The inside screen boasts a purported 65,000 colors (although it doesn't appear appreciably better than the (larger) screen on my dearly departed 3650) and wide use is made on the phone of Java, for everything from themes, to a couple of on board games in trial version. A VGA camera resides in the outside flip, right above a smaller outside screen. And, best of all, the phone is EDGE capable.

Imagine my surprize, then, when I got the phone home and found that it makes no provision for memory cards. The only storage is 6 MB of on board RAM. Nor does it come with any method of exchanging data with your computer - no infrared, no Bluetooth, not even a data cable in the box.
So how are you supposed to get, say, your pictures off of it? That's what I was asking. And what about a web browser? This phone comes equipped with an advanced WAP browser - but there's no way of getting out to the larger web. I mean, why put EDGE on a phone with no storage and no web browser? And why give it a camera?

Then it hit me. You're supposed to transport data through Cingular, and download games and apps from their WAP site. That's the ONLY reason for EDGE capability on this phone. And for this you can pay by the kilobyte, or, if you prefer, by the flat rate of $25 a month. Yes, my friends, this is the perfect walled garden device.

Of course, Sony gets a piece of the action, too: you can buy a proprietary data cable - costing about half as much as the phone - and move your data, some of it, anyway, via that means. And while you're at it you'll probably want to pick up a headset, too, as none is provided in the box.

I feel like a complete idiot. Well, of course, I did say, didn't I, that all I wanted was an inexpensive, well made phone with a decent mic and speaker, and good RF. This, to tide me over until I can buy a worthwhile converged device. And the Z500a does meet those minimal requirements. So I guess maybe I'll keep it. Outside of Cingular's walled garden. Kee-rist.

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

When Bad Things Happen to Good Phones

Night before last my beloved Nokia 3650 was nicked - cast off into the world naked and alone but for its handsome purple faceplate. Well, it was time for a new phone, anyway, but I'd been holding off in hope of finding a device whose capabilities were sufficiently beyond the 3650 to justify what would no doubt be a hefty price.

I've been sorely tempted by the Sony Ericsson P910a. There's a little mobile import shop down the street from my house that offers the phone for 500 bones with service. If I had 500 to spare I might have bought it by now. But frankly I'm not sure the P910, strong as it is, offers five hundred dollars worth of additional capability over the seminal 3650. And make no mistake, the 3650 is, to Nokia's credit, a seminal device. If the P910 had greater resolution in the camera, or capacity for greater bitrate - 3G or even EDGE - then, it would be worth it to me. But it doesn't.

And there is the issue of UIQ as it currently stands. It seems obvious that a smartphone is neither smart nor a phone if it requires use of both hands for many of its major functions. Even in a smartphone that has a stylus, use of two hands should be mostly optional. Word has it, in fact, that the upcoming version of UIQ will address this very thing.

My thinking was that we could surely expect such refinements and enhancements in the next iteration of the P series, probably this year. So I was holding out for that, or something like it. Until, as I say, night before last.

The theft of my phone left me flat-footed. Low on cash, I needed a replacement and needed it fast. The T-Mobile device lineup in the US is pretty lackluster. The best on offer - Nokia 6600, Palm Treo 600, and a few Blackberries - is ridiculously expensive for what these devices can lay claim to. What I really needed to buy was time - time to look around, save up funds, and wait for something worthwhile to appear. Meanwhile, however, I had to have a phone.

In a big hurry this past Friday, I went for cheap and basic and picked up a Nokia 6010. Big mistake. The 6010 must be one of those phones where the manufacturer's sole criterion is "cost of goods". The RF is poor, and the sound quality likewise, sounding distinctly digitized. (I had to turn the volume to maximum in order to understand what was being said.) The microphone, meanwhile, picks up a great deal of background noise, so much so that my callers commented on it. Because of the poor quality mic, I couldn't even use T-Mobile's (otherwise dreadful) new voice response automated attendant while on the bus - the background noise discombobulated it. And, given the 6010's limited functionality, it's quite large and bulky. The phone does offer the usual menu of functions found in Nokia devices - address book, organizer, and so on; but in a form factor like this one, these are functions in name only, and an exercise in frustration.

Note to Nokia: there is a wide swath of people in North America who want or need, for whatever reason, a basic phone. A basic phone should offer the following.And that's all it should offer. If you can't get that right - and this is the thinking of users - could you be expected to get anything right beyond that? I mean, if the 6010 were my first experience of Nokia, I'd probably never buy another of their products. Simple.

Looking on T-Mobile's website, I noticed the Sharp TM150. Offering a megapixel camera, stereo MP3 player, and use of MMC/SD cards of up to 512 MB, this flip phone appealed to me. The camera was a clear improvement over my 3650, I'd be able to use my existing MMC cards, and the price - $49.99 - made it a real bargain. Turns out, however, T-Mobile's advertised policy of honoring new customer prices for existing customers with expired contracts, is not quite real. My price for this phone, T-Mobile told me, was $100. What happened to $49.99? I wanted to know. Well, actually, they said, we have two sets of discounted prices - one for new customers, and one for those already on the hook.

After further discussion, I got this price down to $80 - which seemed fair. All I'd have to do, to get this phone at this price, was return the 6010 to the store, beg for a loaner, then wait for the TM150 to arrive via courier. Great. As good as done.

Then I started thinking how T-Mobile's service has never worked inside my house. (I moved here late last year.) There I am, Mr. Mobile Phone Enthusiast, having to step into the yard, rain or shine, to make a call. It's only due to T-Mobile's generally good customer service that I've put up with this. But enough is enough - and off to Cingular I went.

Of the phones for under $80 offered by Cingular, the Sony Ericsson Z500a stood out. A stylish, EDGE-capable flip model, this phone looks, at first blush, like just what the doctor ordered. In this case, however, the doc works for Cingular - as I'll explain in my next post.

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Technorati Definitely Broken

If you click through my Technorati tags, you'll see that some of them are working, but most are not. This prompted me to do a search in Google, using the string "tecnorati broken", with the following results. Clearly I'm not the only one who's noticed problems with Technorati.

I've emailed the company about this, but so far haven't heard back. Until I do, there's no point in creating tags for my posts; they probably wouldn't work, anyway.

"No-Follow" Already Having Effect

Just stumbled across this discussion among some apparently clueless bloggers. Looks like Google's nofollow tag is already starting to have its intended effect.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Migrating to WordPress

I'm having lately way too many frustrations with Blogger: it's slow, it's limited, the default templates are boring, and I don't have enough control over comments and other things. Maybe I'm just outgrowing it. I've also noticed that, lately, my , or only half work, and I have a hunch Blogger might have something to do with this. Lastly, I'm not all that keen on Google and its associated projects anymore, after years of being a user and somewhat reserved fan.

End result: over the next weeks I'll be migrating Mobile Eyes to WordPress. It's a bit more work, but offers the prospect of having a great deal more control. Given the WordPress Wiki, WordPress Tutorial, and other WordPress tools available on the web, the move should be quite doable. When it happens, I'll announce it here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Photography and the Mobile

Time to talk more about the eyes part of this blog. Up to now it seems like I've talked about everything but. But, I'm a photographer . . . and adding Flickr to this page has inspired me to start talking like one.

First off, a few changes. I've replaced Flicker's Daily Zeitgeist applet with a single random photo from my Flickr pages, added some photo-related links to the sidebar, and added the word "photography" to this blog's description, above. And now to the meat of the matter.

One of the things I most appreciate about digital imaging, is that it's gotten so many people interested in doing photography themselves. Especially camera phones.

In terms of my own photography, I can tell you this. At one time I had probably five or six cameras of various kinds, mostly SLRs. This is pretty much par for the course for serious photographers. But the best thing I ever did, in terms of developing my shooting skills and interest, was to buy and use a Nokia 3650.

The images I made with my 3650 are some of the best I've made period. At one third of a megapixel!

I think that's because the camera phone is more fun to use, and more spontaneous, than a conventional camera. And, because people (my preferred subject matter) are less intimidated by it.

Ultimately, the camera phone - or the converged handheld device - really changes photography in a fundamental way. Especially street photography and photojournalism. The last time photography went through such a fundamental change, was when the ur-Leica was introduced.

ur-Leica, circa 1913

Invented by Oskar Barnack and the Leitz company in 1913, the Leica revolutionized photography when it finally went into production circa 1925. (Production was delayed due to World War I and its aftermath.) For the first time, photographers, using the Leica, could proceed discreetly, taking their shots on the fly. Before this, photography generally involved large cameras, usually tripods, and was a formal, fairly expensive endeavor.

Nowadays, almost a century later, digital is even cheaper than film, and a camera phone even more discreet than a pocket camera. And, of course, you always have it with you. These facts, combined with the web, really do change everything. Now we are all photographers.

The above pics were resized and tweaked in photoshop. Here's a parting shot, straight from the phone.

Two birds with one phone :)

If you're interested in the history of Leica cameras, the history pages of Leica Camera AG are a good place to start. And if you'd like to see the rest of my 3650-made pics, you'll find them here.

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Monday, February 14, 2005

More Mobile News

The Nokia 6680 isn't the half of it. Engadget has several pages of news from the 3GSM World Congress, including news of a Walkman line of music-playing mobile handsets from Sony Ericsson; Nokia's licensing deal with Microsoft (primarily ActiveSync) - a move that was inevitable, and long overdue; a three megapixel cameraphone from Motorola - I guess this means we can stop envying the Japanese and Koreans; Linux-based phones for the Western market; and a whole lot more .

2005 is definitely turning out to be, as hoped, the year of the mobile in North America.

Meet the Nokia 6680 Video Phone. The Future Has Arrived.

A good number of people have been awaiting this announcement from Nokia for quite awhile now, and finally they've made it. The Nokia 6680 is official.

Mobile Tech says, "Lets hope this phone is the perfect phone the Nokia 6630 promised to be" - but a quick glance at its specs reveals that, like the 6630, it will have only ten MB of RAM. And wasn't disappointment with the 6630 based largely on that same figure for RAM?

With a multitude of new phones still to come from Nokia this year, it's likely we'll see one that really blows everybody's socks off. The 6680, while a terrific looking device, is probably not quite it.

Still, a real device that allows two-way wireless video calls is right up my alley, and reason enough to be excited. Reminds me of something my son said to me a few years ago. "Dad, do you realize that we're living in the future?" Via Mobitopia.

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FLICKR Finally Added to My Weblog

A few months ago I signed up for a Flickr account. Seemed like a great idea - but one I didn't pursue because I already had my regular photos online at a photo blogging site called Fotolog, as well as here and here; had started a Blogger photoblog here, had my mobile photos here, and later added a small portfolio at Americanphotojournalist.com. Five spots on the web (later six, counting the portfolio) for my photos was already too many. Adding Flickr seemed a bit excessive. Plus, I feared Flickr might be yet another version of Fotolog and Buzznet - a great place for casual photographers interested in making friends, but not well suited to serious work.

Since then, Fotolog has gone offline entirely (which is just as well, since it basically sucked) [not offline - just slower and buggier than ever] while Fotopic.net (hosting two of my sites) is often slow (though free), still firmly aimed at the occasional snapshooter, limited in functionality, and more crudely commercial than ever. My Blogger photolog never went anywhere, when I realized that blogger isn't natively suited to photoblogging (though some of my images still languish there in a kind of blog purgatory). And Buzznet, meanwhile, is still boring - an exercise that has more to do with the fun of tagging than the delight of good photography. All of which led me back to Flickr.

Flickr is amazing. There's some seriously interesting work on Flickr, the features are truly innovative, and the speed and functionality first rate. Tonight I finally uploaded pictures to my account there. You can see some of them in the little Java thing I've added to this weblog. The Java applet, where I have it, seems maybe a little too obtrusive; but in a few days I'll move it to the bottom of the sidebar, where it should be fine. For now I just want to give it some visibility.

I guess it's pretty obvious I like Flickr. If you haven't tried it, I suggest you check it out.

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Saturday, February 12, 2005

Apples in the Microsoft Carcass?

Trying to catch up on my blogging here after a few days away. If you read the news yesterday, you may have noticed Michael Malone's commentary at ABC News, in which he asks a tantilizing question: "Is Microsoft dying?" Says he can smell rot in the air. (Balmer and Gates are probably having the campus fumigated as we speak.)

He might have something there. Despite Microsoft's big strategy in mobile electronics, the key component of their business is of course Windows - and Windows is taking a beating from Linux, viruses, its own licensing cost; and, most of all, from the commoditization and nano-size margins of the Wintel business. Not to mention the lateness of Longhorn. And then, of course, there is IE's sudden loss of user share, for which Microsoft has only itself to blame.

If you've seen the tech news yesterday or today, then you've also probably read something else that's surprising - or will be if it happens. Steve Jobs mentions that he has been approached by three major manufacturers (reportedly Sony, HP, and, maybe, IBM - though this last is hard to see, given that Lenovo is now the IBM PC ) about licensing OSX. Now that would be a shock, wouldn't it? Mr. Own-the-Whole-Widget himself, allowing his OS to be run on PCs. But wouldn't it be a brilliant move on Apple's part? And at just the right time? If Jobs did this, Apple's OS market share would suddenly zoom ahead - from whatever it is now (3-5%?), to - who knows - maybe 35%? If I were Jobs, I'd practically give it away - pull a trick from Gates' own lair - at least until market share is in double digits. It - Mac OSX - is exactly what PC makers need - stable, virus free, and, most importantly, sexy and sought after - everything, in other words, Windows isn't, and something that would differentiate these makers' boxes from everyone else's.

It's way too soon to write off Microsoft, obviously. The company hasn't changed its hyper-aggressive, clever spots; they have vast resources; and they still own the desktop. In this latter regard, however - owning the desktop - licensing OSX could represent a sudden, profound breach in the wall, a breach that could begin changing Microsoft's fortunes overnight.

Real competition. Now that would be exciting.

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Stalking the Wild Handtop

We're still a few years away, at best, from my ideal device - which would be something about the size and shape of the Sony Ericsson P910, but with the power and capability of a good notebook - with functionality as a camera, mobile phone, mobile media center, and GPS unit, thrown in. While I'm awaiting this magical converged device, I need a smallish computer to tide me over.

I keep hoping to hear news of the FlipStart (pictured above) from Vulcan Ventures, but things might not be looking good there - a quick check of the company's site indicates that there hasn't been any press coverage since the middle of last year. And no press releases, either. Probably, they've gone back to the drawing board to update their specs, which by now are out of date.

I've considered the OQO and Sony's Vaio U computers (U70/U750P). But after looking at the specs of each, compared, not to mention their price (two grand each), the phrase that comes to mind is "not ready for prime time". And I'm a little put off by Windows XP, too, which, of course, is what all these devices (will) ship with. I'd pay someone not to use XP.

All things considered - specs, price, operating system - the device that holds the greatest interest for me is still the Sony PSP. Granted, it isn't a full blown computer by any stretch - doesn't have (or need) an operating system; but the price is reported to be right (circa $300), the functionality is exciting, and it'll be here next month.

Who knows, though, maybe by this time next year I'll be posting here, wirelessly, from my new FlipStart - or something better - and you'll be reading it on one.

I guess this post was just a roundabout way of saying there isn't really that much to say yet, when it comes to real, usable handtops. Which makes it kind of tough for sites like ultranote.com and handtops.com - not that this stops me from reading them.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Cracked Apps and Broken Groups

For years I've seen Yahoo's groups feature as something with immense possibilities. For Yahoo, there is the promise of building and driving a huge, loyal user base. And for users, of course, the groups' interface is potentially a powerful thing. Offering a mailing list, photo and file storage, a chat interface, calendar, links area, and more, Yahoo groups tools seem tailor made for finding and working with like-minded people worldwide. (Though it's true the tools are in great need of updating, but I'll get to that below.)

That's why I could never understand why Yahoo doesn't take it more seriously. The groups feature seems to have been put in place and mostly forgotten about. And until recently I didn't get why users don't seem to really use the features offered. In most of the groups I've seen - and I've seen several hundred - the discussion area is run over with spam and long since abandoned, and the links page likewise.

It seems as though serious groupings - such as, for instance, the official Symbian and N-Gage folks, as well as those groups devoted to people such as avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, all of which were Yahoo groups at one time; it seems as though such groupings try Yahoo groups and then move on - in the above examples, respectively, to their own webzine, to Google groups, and to an independent server.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I couldn't understand why all this potential - these neat group tools - should go so mysteriously underutilized, so I decided to start my own groups. And I did, back in June. Both groups were dedicated to Nokia devices, one to my beloved 3650, the other to the (then) just announced 6630. Glad I thought to make screen shots of them.

My 3650 group in its younger days

I went to no end of time and effort creating and maintaining these groups - creating files of various kinds, tweaking this and that, facilitating discussion, recruiting new participants, and so on. The effort was ongoing and, as of yesterday, had met with considerable success. Developers, engineers, mobile execs, journalists - and enthusiastic mobile users - from Europe, Asia, North America, and elsewhere, were part of each group. What I liked most about this was that we were all there with a common purpose, and equal in that. That was yesterday.

6630 group, 1500 strong and adding 250 users each week

Today I got a curt email - strictly boilerplate - from Yahoo. According, it said, to a complaint received, I'd violated Yahoo's terms of service. No indication as to which term of service, though. The email warned that if another complaint was received, they'd terminate my account. Of course, I immediately went to check my groups - only to find that the more popular of the two - the group dedicated to the 6630, with about 1500 participants - had been deleted. My response to this was to delete the other group, as well, followed by my own Yahoo account.

I'm frankly ambivalent about so-called cracked applications. And that - cracked applications - very likely figures into this. There was a cracked app or two in the 6630 group, and I suspect one of the more recent joiners - probably a developer - complained about it. Of course, it could have been someone else. It could have been one of the innumerable spammers I chased off, or someone from a self-styled rival group. It might have been that fellow who kept sending announcements about his new forum. I told him we were glad to hear of it and wished him luck - but that any more than one announcement in a week's time was SPAM - then deleted the last two he'd sent. Hell, group messages were available to the public, even via RSS, so it could have been anyone at all.

But the point is, Yahoo's strictness about their "Terms of Service" is a JOKE, and not a very good one at that. If you do a search of their mobile-related groups - using such strings as "symbian", "nokia", "sony ericsson", as well as the model numbers of various devices, you turn up well over a thousand groups - at least. Each of these groups, almost without exception, is nothing more than a repository for cracked applications. And spam. Try it. There really isn't any group quality to these groups at all. But you can find, gratis, any application or game you ever thought about maybe wanting, and a great deal more besides.

Nor am I telling tales out of school here. Everybody in the mobile world, from the executive to the developer to the most casual user, knows about this - if they've bothered to do any looking at all. And it isn't just Yahoo groups. There's a plethora of forums and sites offering up the same material, in the same way. All it takes to find them is a simple search engine query. And never mind IRC, which is a haven for such things, so I'm told.

Clearly, this is an implicit part of the business model for companies like Nokia. And you can see why - it drives enthusiasm for, and sales of, their products. I'm not so sure that, in the aggregate, it's bad for developers, either, as it does the same for them. That's why I'm ambivalent about it. In my own case, the use of a few cracked applications has led to my purchase of software. I never mind paying for software, if it seems worthwhile. But back to Yahoo groups.

I think people don't use all the tools in the groups because of the jangling, jarring advertising encountered there. This is especially true today, when they have the Google model to compare it too. Sad, because Google's group interface, while pleasantly devoid of overbearing advertising, is noticably deficient in features. The obnoxious advertising in Yahoo groups is the reason I've heard most people give for wanting to go elsewhere. I was willing to put up with it, but it certainly didn't facilitate spending time in the group pages, and led to a nagging sense that I was thought stupid by Yahoo. When you couple this sense with Yahoo's ham-handed way of dealing with complaints and "enforcing" its terms of service, you're left with the very real feeling that Yahoo groups isn't the place for any kind of serious work, but rather a place for adolescents and those who are developmentally arrested. Which probably accounts for why, when the going gets serious in a Yahoo group, the serious group gets going elsewhere. If it isn't deleted first, that is.

Some obvious things Yahoo could do to reinvigorate its groups: Turn the email list in the groups into a PHP-like forum, or maybe a group blog; add tagging, so that various groups could more easily link to each other; communicate with group owners - I'd have been happy to delete anything that was objectionable, had it been brought to my attention; change the advertising to something a little more subtle. If Yahoo did some of these things, they might find the overall caliber of the groups improves considerably, along with the company's relationship with its users.

As it stands, everything at Yahoo groups, after a time, shouts AMATEUR HOUR. And I've thought this for a long time now, not just since this morning. Yahoo really needs to devote some effort to FIXING it. Or else delete it altogether, because right now, it turns off more people than not. And this from one who tried to make some part of it worthwhile.

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One Digit Short of a Googol: The Brief Blogging Life of Mark Jen

Just saw the news that ex-Microsoft employee Mark Jen, briefly famous for ninetyninezeros, his weblog at Google, has been fired - less than a month after joining Google. Now this is interesting for several reasons.

I've been following Jen's blog off and on since it started, and I have to say I'm not surprised. Anyone who thinks that having a personal weblog gives them license to be totally frank - even partially frank - when they work for a high profile company, is in for a "Jen" awakening.

Weblogging changes nothing. A corporate career can mean, of course, a lot of money - or at the least material comforts. But it's always come at a price and still does.

The rule of corporate life yesterday remains the rule now. If you can't say something that avoids putting your employer in a less than favorable light, say nothing. This is the same iron dictate senior execs follow (which is why so few of them have blogs - and when they do have them, they generally say nothing of substance).

Jen's firing does reveal something about Google, though, if it needed revealing yet again. For all its pretentions otherwise, Google is a company like any other. At best.

The real danger in blogging is that few companies have in place any policies about it. Bloggers often make the mistake of thinking that no rules means they can say whatever they like. But unwritten rules are even more constraining than written ones.

Take a lesson from Mark Jen. He is unemployed today so you don't have to be.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

The Pentagon's New Model Kit

Speaking of model airplanes (see previous entry). Picture this: you're invited to participate in a super secret experiment that involves going into hibernation for twenty years. You want to see the future now, so you accept. Soon the day comes for the experiment to begin. After arriving early at the test center, you say goodbye to loved ones, change into your jammies, then lay down for the big sleep. You close your eyes, and a short time later open them again, wondering when they're going to put you under. You look around the room for the doctors who were just there, but the room is empty and dark. After a short while, a gentle disembodied voice says, "Good morning. Welcome to 2025."

After breakfast, a shower, and a bit of briefing on recent changes in society, you get dressed and go out to greet your new world. Upon seeing it, the first words that pop into mind are, "Christ, looks like a Blade Runner / Terminator mashup. Wonder if it's too late to go back?"

The scenario is fiction - as far as I know. But the future it describes is fast becoming fact.

Meet one of the Pentagon's more recent efforts, a fully automated, robotic death jet. According to an article in Technology Review, the X-45, above, is one of two prototypes (the other being the Navy's X-47) for the device that will replace the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the magazine says is "widely regarded as the last manned fighter jet".

The essential part of this program isn't this or that robotic jet; the essential part is development of an atmospheric internet that is sufficiently efficient for command and control over the jets - while developing, at the same time, A.I. in the jets sufficient to provide them with some autonomy. As the article in TR has it,
. . .the unmanned planes will require new ways for information to change communication pathways on the fly — literally. 'We will not always have perfect communication and, in fact, will always have some form of latency,” says Paul Waugh, a DARPA deputy director of the X-47 program. 'Thus, the system, in all its parts, demands some level of autonomy, which means we will need smart platforms, smart sensors, and smart data processing.' The plane needs to think for itself, at least during the gaps. 'We recognize that we have entered perhaps the richest, deepest part of the information revolution that deals with mobile, wireless computing,' Waugh says.

The first of these robotic fighters is set to go online in ten years time. Part of a grand strategy called Future Combat Systems, the idea is to link robotic aircraft with other robotic devices such as artillery, ships, land vehicles, soldiers, and even actual humans in the field.
'The long-range vision is that the president will wake up some day and decide he doesn’t like the cut of someone’s jib and send thither infinite numbers of myrmidons — robotic warriors — and that we could wage a war in which we wouldn’t put at risk our precious skins' is how John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a leading defense policy website, puts it.

Coming soon to a planet near you. And, yes, it probably is too late to go back.

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

DRM Thinking Strikes Again: Model Kit Industry R.I.P.

Remember those model airplane kits you put together as a child? Thanks to the legal thinking that flows from (or as) Digital Rights Management, they are now, it seems, a thing of the past.

For over half a century, kits have been sold that enable military history buffs to assemble scale models of military ships, aircraft and vehicles. But that era is coming to an end, as the manufacturers of the original equipment, especially aircraft, are demanding high royalties (up to $40 per kit) from the kit makers. Since most of these kits sell in small quantities (10-20,000) and are priced at $15-30 (for plastic kits, wooden ones are about twice as much), tacking on the royalty just prices the kit out of the market. Popular land vehicles, which would sell a lot of kits, are missing as well. The new U.S. Army Stryker armored vehicles are not available because of royalty requirements. Even World War II aircraft kits are being hit with royalty demands.

These royalty demands grew out of the idea that corporations should maximize 'intellectual property' income. Models of a companys products are considered the intellectual property of the owner of a vehicle design. Some intellectual property lawyers have pointed out that many of these demands are on weak legal ground, but the kit manufacturers are often small companies that cannot afford years of litigation to settle this contention. In the past, the model kits were considered free advertising, and good public relations, by the defense firms. The kit manufacturers comprise a small industry, and the aircraft manufacturers will probably not even notice if they put many of the model vendors out of business. Some model companies will survive by only selling models of older (like World War I), or otherwise “no royalty” items (Nazi German aircraft) and ships. But the aircraft were always the bulk of sales, and their loss will cripple many of the kit makers. Some of the vehicle manufacturers have noted the problem, and have lowered their demands to a more reasonable level (a few percent of the wholesale price of the kits). Link. Via Overlawyered.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that such increasingly narrow assertion of "intellectual property rights" could threaten the web itself? Here's what I mean:
The linking policies carried by many corporate sites - wherein one must secure permission before linking to a company's site - have some intent and some meaning. The intent is to establish that such requirements are legitimate, and stronger than any claim to fair use. The meaning, if these companies are successful in their efforts, could very well be that the substance of fair use doctrine is effectively gutted. The web depends for its webness on linking - something that often involves fair use of trade names; and such linking could be construed as somehow incorporating protected material into one's own site. I know that may sound strange - and of course the case at hand (commercial model kits) has nothing to do with fair use; but, these days, "strange" seems often to be no barrier to implementation.

In any event, this is a disturbing trend, and not good news for anyone, not even corporations - who at this point clearly have too much lawyer, not enough brains.TM

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Friday, February 04, 2005

N-Gage NEO

UPDATE: Guess I was a little slow on the uptake with this one. Engadget points out here that this is a fake. Though a hopeful one. Thanks to Peter Rojas for pointing this out to me. I'll second Engadget's recommendation to Nokia: Find the person who did this. Hire him as a consultant.

i-Symbian has an exciting piece on a possible new N-Gage. Called N-Gage Neo, it has, interestingly, the very features I've been calling for, for months - though I'm quite sure no one at Nokia read any of my posts here, or my comments in other blogs, or cared, if they did. The features of the purported new N-Gage are just common sense fixes for widely discussed deficiencies in the previous two N-Gages, and the way the thing should have looked when it first loped out of the gate.

To wit, a bigger, landscape-aspect 262k TFT screen, and these other features:No mention of radio, or whether it will be Edge or 3G capable.

i-Symbian got this info from a Chinese site, here, and presents the N-Gage Neo as a rumor. However, we know that Nokia has repeatedly commited to maintaining the platform in the long term. And it's pretty clear that in a world of Sony PSPs, the N-Gage QD is just not on the QT. It's also obvious that such detailed images as we have here aren't likely created on someone's PC at home, just because they have a little time to kill. So I'm betting (hoping) that this is for real.

The i-Symbian site shows this other, entirely different N-Gage concept (left), one that looks much like an elongated Gameboy, but with the phone keypad obviously on the obverse side of the screen, a la Communicator. I've seen this N-Gage concept picture elsewhere, and to me it looks like an orphan idea. The pics above are of a device that shows its lineage, and look, conceptually, much more mature.

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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Hide Your iPod, Here Comes Bill

"About 80 percent of Microsoft employees who have a portable music player have an iPod." This according to an anonymous Microsoft executive, says Wired, in an article called, "Hide your iPod, here comes Bill". It seems that Microsoft employees want to be cool, too. Or, at the very least, to own well designed products that work.

Management is apparently up in arms about this. I guess you can understand that, given we're talking about Microsoft. It would be so much cooler if they just acknowledged that the iPod is a desirable, best in class product. But of course they can't do that.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Bell System - Coming to a Wireless World Near You

I joined AT&T shortly after the breakup of the Bell System. The interesting thing about this - one of them - was that I got to see a great deal of the culture, attributes, and people of the century old monopoly, while watching this same company turn itself into a competitor.

Most of the people inside the vast apparatus called AT&T, from linesmen in the Bell Operating Companies, to execs in New Jersey, regarded the company as something of a public trust. This thinking continued for a time even after the breakup. The idea was that the company had certain responsibilities to the public. The main responsibility, one which was never forgotten, but, believe it or not, also never quite achieved - was called universal service - the idea that every household in the U.S. should have a working telephone. Beyond this main goal were quality of service, fair pricing, and innovation. In fact, in this latter regard it could easily be argued that Bell Laboratories was responsible for much of what we know as the twentieth century (except for the war and bloodshed part). The whole history of the Bell System gives the lie to the claim that competition is always better. If properly funded and then left alone, AT&T could have - and probably would have - had us all using wireless video telephony by the 1970s, if not before.

There are lots of reasons why it didn't happen this way, and they all add up to complexity. But the main reason isn't complex at all: the company was hamstrung by its ongoing battles against being broken up. And in the end cut the process short by doing the job itself.

After the breakup, the thrust quickly turned from one of being a public trust to that of creating shareholder value. In this, AT&T was continually carving off parts of itself to unlock the share value that could supposedly be found in its so-called core business - long distance. Needless to say, this value was never uncovered, much less unlocked, and now one of its spinoffs - a Baby Bell - has bought the diminished parent.

Butchering itself was only part of AT&T's service to short-term results. In her recent book, Optical Illusions: Lucent and the Crash of Telecom, author Lisa Endlich blames the fall of Lucent on its failure to take the culture of AT&T with it, when it was spun off. But in fact, having worked in sales for the part of AT&T that later became Lucent, I can tell you this is exactly wrong. Lucent's problems lay precisely in the fact that it did take AT&T culture - the newly inculcated culture of aggressive price cutting, inflated sales figures, and accounting slight-of-hand. AT&T execs began imbuing the company with these concepts shortly after the original breakup was announced. Lucent came by it honestly. They thought they could pull it off, perhaps, because they had an asset unique in the industry - Bell Labs. But even that brilliant institution couldn't save the company from having to worship at the same alter as Wall Street.

Some idiots - or the misinformed - will make the argument that telephony as we have it today - including wireless networks, the internet, and video calls - is the result of "competition unleashed"; but in fact, of course, these technologies and more are the product of Bell Labs, which pioneered them long before the breakup. Far less true innovation has taken place since then; competition has proved to be a brake on development and not an accelerator of it. One wonders where we might be today, if the juggernaut that was Bell Labs hadn't come under the spector of the quick and dirty bottom line.

In any event, I've had my eye on Ed Whitacre and his SBC for many years. In my view Whitacre is the best CEO AT&T never had, and something of an unsung hero. I wonder if his next step will be to buy Lucent Technologies? If he does, he will have succeeded in doing what most thought couldn't be done: putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Of course, it won't be the same Humpty Dumpty, but a smaller and maybe wiser one. I hope this time it doesn't jump off the wall.

If you're interested in the history of the Bell System, I found a great web site while writing this entry: Link. I'm sure it's only one of many.

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