Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A new interface for Tablets?

I'm fairly skeptical when it comes to tablet computers, I just think windowing interfaces designed for desktop use with a mouse and a keyboard don't really cut it when all you've got is a stylus to play with...

The BumpTop™ prototype

What was needed was a innovative interface, we needed a paradigm shift, and it's possible that BumpTop (via Second Life Insider) might be it. Watch the video, it'll explain the interface a lot better than I could in words, but in summary "Why didn't I think of that..."

Of course if you took the multi-touch hardware interface from the new Apple iPhone and combined it BumpTop with a tablet form factor, and maybe you've got something. Anyone paying attention over at Apple..?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An Apple Special Event on the 20th?

The first rumours of an Apple Special Event on the 20th of February are spreading fast. Most people are guessing that in the wake of the iPhone, and the curious lack of Macs and Macworld, we're looking at the official release of Leopard and maybe new versions of iLife and iWork.

But as Crunch Gear asks, the main question is "...what else are we going to see?", and I've got to agree with them, we probably aren't looking at anything as exciting as a new 12-inch Macbook Pro. But an upgraded Mac mini is probably a good bet.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Is Java the new COBOL?

The lack of a Java runtime on Apple's new iPhone has raised some eyebrows. Especially since we know that Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's CEO, personally pitched Java to Steve Jobs. We also know that Steve said,
Java's not worth building in. Nobody uses Java anymore. It's this big heavyweight ball and chain...
which is an interesting statement to make about a language that was the way to do things only a few years ago. I've never personally liked Java that much, not because I think its a bad language, but because it doesn't fit well with the way I think. After a decade and a half writing Fortran and C code, and a brief couple of years writing Java, I'm at a loss to explain why anyone still writes high level software in a statically typed language. Especially one that forces you into a straight jacket about the way you build objects. I guess that's why I'm a Perl guy, although like a lot of Perl people these days I seem to be writing a lot of Javascript, and Python, and PHP if comes to that...

I'm not the only drop out of course, Jens Alfke has a theory that,
Java desktop apps succeed only in niches where UI design and usability don't matter: development tools and enterprise software. Programmers expect things to be crude and complicated... and the poor users of enterprise software don't have a choice...
which is another interesting statement about the language, obliquely making the point that Daniel Steinberg made in his recent article,
Developers are looking at Flash and at AJAX as platforms for rich desktop applications. If Java becomes irrelevant... then we will enter a new phase in it's life. There will be plenty of uses for Java for a good long while but we are entering the Fortan phase or the COBOL phase.
Of course it's going to be all that C code we wrote in the 80's and 90's that means we'll be pulled out of retirement in 2038 rather than the Java code we were writing at the turn of the millennium, but I take his point...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Single chip for GPS & Bluetooth

The one thing missing from the recently announced iPhone that would change it from merely a "must have" to a "will kill for" gadget, well apart from the ability for me to develop third party applications, is GPS.

So the announcement that GPS and Bluetooth will soon be available on a single chip is somewhat reassuring. Having come this far Apple surely won't stumble at the final hurdle, will they?

The iPhone disaster?

It's now confirmed that the new iPhone will be a closed platform. More of an iPod than a Mac really, which as a potential third party developer I view as a disaster. However I'm still hopeful, the phone has these widgets you see...

Andy Ihnatko of the Chicago Sun Times is one of the select few to have been hands on with the iPhone, and he's managed to confirm that while the iPhone widgets aren't exactly the same as OSX's Dashboard widgets, they do use the same technology. You can also build them using Dashcode, although presumably not the currently released version. As Andy says this really does hold out the hope that the widget layer at least will be open to third-party developers.

A touch screen 12-inch replacement?

In the wake of the iPhone announcement last week rumours of a replacement for Apple's 12-inch Powerbook are once again circulating. However this time people are talking about a touch screen interface or a full blown tablet Mac.

Are they mad? I spend three quarters of my life sitting in-front of a computer, its what I do, and I'm sure I'm not the only one to scream in horror at the thought of loosing the tactile feedback from a real keyboard in exchange for a touch screen. However what they seem to be missing is the trackpad, why do we need it anymore? The multi-touch technology of the iPhone is far in advance, and much more intuitive, than any trackpad I've ever used including Apple's own scrolling version. So why not get rid of the track pad entirely and make the screen the real interface? Hang onto the keyboard, any decent typist beyond the hunt and peck stage isn't going to like it going away, but the track pad? Nobody likes track pads, or most, if any of the alternatives. No track pad, and we're that much closer to the light weight 12-inch replacement I've been hoping we'd see for a while now.

I very much doubt well see a "real" Mac tablet, other that Axiotron's Modbook, there just isn't the market yet and to be honest I don't think there ever will be, but a laptop with a touch screen interface? You can almost see it coming...

RFID tattoos?

Anyone reading the blog for long enough will know I'm not a big fan of RFID, or at least not a big fan of some of the uses its being put to, the technology itself is quite interesting.

So I have to admit I'm greeting the arrival of RFID tattoos with some trepidation. The Register's Bill Ray reports (via Wireless Weblog) that Somark Innovations has,
...successfully tested an RFID tattoo on cows, mice and rats, enabling an identifying number embedded under the skin to be read from over a meter away.
Cows, mice and rats today. Humans tomorrow?

Update: Slashdot has picked up the story...

The end of roaming charges?

In a surprise move, the UK network "3" has ditched roaming charges for its customers. For those of us who spend half our lives in airports, and you have to hope that the rest of the networks follow suit.

But if not, then depending who gets the iPhone when it ships in the UK, then switching networks is starting to look attractive. This despite the fact that I've been with Orange for the last twelve years and am otherwise perfectly happy with them. So if anyone out there in network land is listening, then yes if you're in any doubt, this is a big deal...

A big "no" to mobile TV?

Apparently the new Virgin mobile TV service released last February isn't proving to be particularly popular, with less than 10,000 subscribers. This really doesn't surprise me, I've never been able to figure out why people would want TV on their mobile phone, despite the industry thinking it was the next killer application to drive traffic over their networks. Remember pocket TVs? I have to shamefully admit to owning one of these little devices sometime in the late 80's, and it was totally useless. While technology has changed a lot, I can't see twenty years having changed how humans behave all that much. Mobile TV isn't a killer application, unless what its supposed to kill is the networks.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The iPhone trademark

When the Apple iPhone was released on Tuesday I'm sure I wasn't the only person confused about the trademark problems this was going to cause with respect to the already released Linksys iPhone.

An Apple iPhone at last...

It quickly became clear that there wasn't an agreement in place between the two firms, but that they had been talking about the issue. However it now appears that Cisco is suing Apple over the trademark infringement, and in an unusual move Mark Chandler, Cisco's SVP and General Counsel, has posted an article on the Cisco blog concerning the suit.

You know what, despite thinking the Apple's iPhone is one of the coolest pieces of hardware I've seen in a number of years, I agree with Scoble, this is going to be a real problem for Apple. What was Apple thinking here?

I think they're counting on trademark dilution, all of that media coverage talking about the Apple iPhone which has been going on for years, without any cease and desist orders from Cisco. Maybe they believe they can sell a judge that Cisco hasn't effectively defended the trademark?

Update: According to the BBC, Apple has responded to the suit, saying that,
We think Cisco's trademark lawsuit is silly...There are already several companies using the name iPhone for VOIP products. We are the first company to ever use the iPhone name for a cell phone, and if Cisco wants to challenge us on it we are very confident we will prevail.
which is a pretty strongly worded response, all things considered?

Update: The Register is reporting that the Cisco trademark is now under threat in both Europe and the States.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The other secret Apple products?

Totally overshadowed by the release of the Apple iPhone something else snuck onto the Apple Store while we weren't looking. Apple's Airport Extreme Base Station has also received a face life to match the Apple TV and Mac Mini.

The new Airport Extreme Base Station

The big news however is that it supports the 802.11n protocol, and while you'll have to have an 802.11n compatible Airport card in your machine to take full advantage of this new hardware, the current generation of Macbook Pros are of course currently shipping with just that. The new base station will ship in February, and is priced at £119.

What else? Well not exactly an Apple product, but almost unnoticed, Axiotron also unveiled the first ever Mac OS X table, the Modbook. If you discount the new iPhone of course...

Update: The interesting thing I failed to point out about the new Airport Extreme Base Station is that it is lets you share your hardrive as a NAS device,
Now you can share an external USB hard drive over your wireless and wired network by simply connecting it to the USB port on your AirPort Extreme Base Station. Called AirPort Disk, it's perfect for sharing files, making backups, and more. You can even connect multiple drives and printers using a USB hub...
I guess my Linksys NSLU2 just became obsolete...

Blogger, not fit for purpose?

Not long after the start of the Macworld keynote last night I started having publishing problems with Blogger. I was expecting some problems, the interface usually bogs down when a really big event like a keynote is going on, but not to the extent that actually happened. I publish via FTP, and with the arrival of the new beta interface I've been made to feel very much like a second class citizen, one they don't care very much about. With the arrival of Blogger for custom domains I'm now a third class citizen.

So what was the problem? I simply couldn't publish my post about the keynote last night, under the new "improved" interface all you get when publishing via FTP is a spinner. When publishing via FTP the Blogger interface just sits there reloading the page continuously until the FTP publication of the pages needed changing are done, and you can get back to work. Last night this didn't work all that well, the interface hung during publication. This is actually less information than you used to get with the "old" interface, which at least gave you a figure indicating the percentage of the file transfer it had completed, not any more.

Weirdly, after many failed attempts at publication, my post started to appear and disappear periodically from my blog, with much older versions showing up to replace fresher versions throughout the night. This was still happening at around half past midnight when I went to bed, some ten hours after I'd started blogging the keynote. I'm guessing what happened that each upload attempt was threaded off onto its own process, and when the upload timed out it got rescheduled to a later date, basically we ended up in a race condition between the threads. Of course this begs the question why the uploads failed in the first place, I had both a secure shell and a command-line FTP connection open to the hosting box the entire time Blogger was having problems talking to it, and it was alive and well.

The really annoying thing is that I don't know what went wrong as there were no error messages, or at least none that got passed on to me by Blogger. The service has always been slow to publish via FTP, and the new improved interface is slower still, but its usually been reliable. Although since starting to use it I must admit to periodically noticing a few "odd" choices of uploaded files, that I had a hard time figuring out why it needed to update, when it provided a final list of changes.

Why can't the interface give us a list of files its proposing to update, and then simply tick them off when it has finished? What exactly is so hard about that? Or at the very least return to the point where we get a "percentage done" counter?

So what am I going to do now? The current situation is clearly unacceptable, last nights debacle made me loose my faith in the new system, at least for FTP publishing. I'm clearly going to have to do something, and I have two obvious choices; move the blog over to Blogger for custom domains, or export the blog from the Blogger infrastructure entirely.

Of course if FTP publishing gets fixed, all bets are off, although I'm still worried about the differences between the classic and the new layout formats. The new formats of course aren't useable if you publish via FTP, and what happens when the Blogger team get bored of supported two disparate formats. Do I suddenly get faced with a very short deadline to make up my mind? Either switch to hosting the blog with them, or getting out?

I thought the new beta was supposed to solve my problems with Blogger, not make them so bad that I'm thinking (for the first time since I started seriously using the service two and a half years ago) of leaving it? Neither of my choices at this stage seem good, so I'm throwing the question to the wisdom of crowds. Any ideas?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Welcome to 2007...

The annual Steve Jobs keynote speech at Macworld 2007 begins in just over two hours, at 5pm GMT (9am PST) today. I'll try and keep this post updated in real time as the keynote runs...

CREDIT: Jeremy Horwitz,
Waiting in line at the Moscone Center

Update (08:30PST): The U.K. Apple Store has gone down ahead of the keynote, here we go...

Update (08:55PST): The VIP's have been let into the hall, but everyone else is still in line outside the hall waiting for the keynote. The conjecture is that something may have gone wrong during rehersals, its looking unlikely that things are going to start on time.

CREDIT: Jeremy Horwitz,
The VIPs taking their seats

Update (09:10PST): Although some people are still taking their seats, it looks like they're starting, people are now being told to turn off their cellphones and other devices.

Update (09:14PST): Steve is on stage...

Update (09:15PST): It looks like I'm not the only one using Blogger as the new beta isn't performing that well right now, I'm getting a really poor response out of the interface and am having publishing troubles.

Update (09:19PST): "We're only talking about the Mac today..." and "We're going to make some history together today...", which is an interesting lead in to the keynote. This must mean that we're not going to see an iPhone after all?

Update (09:24PST): Talking about the iPod and how successful its been, and how unsuccessful the Microsoft Zune has turned out to be, with only 2 percent of the market share.

The new "Apple TV", looking the same as before.

Update (09:37PST): Moving on to the iTV it looks the same but is now called the "Apple TV". It offers 720p HD resolution, a 40GB hard drive, 802.11 wireless supporting all three (b,g and n) standards and an Intel processor. Video, photo and audio content can auto-synched with one PC, but streamed from up to five computers. Will have RCA component, USB2, Ethernet, and HDMI ports.

New name, new logo...

Update (09:43PST): Here we go! Steve has just announced a widescreen iPod with touch controls, an Apple mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device... all in one device.I'm totally knocked to the floor, we've been waiting for this for two years, but nobody really predicted it all be in one device.

An iPhone at last?

Update (09:43PST): Despite being touchscreen, it looks like they've gone with a finger driven interface, so no stylus. What's the screen going to be made of, I've never seen one yet that'd survive that? It's going to have a 3.5-inch screen, with the highest screen (1660ppi) resolution yet shipped

Update (09:54PST): Interestingly the news is that the device isn't running a custom operating system, its going to be running Mac OS X? It's slim, 11.6 mm with a built in 2 megapixel camera.

Solving all of the problems, all of the time?

Update (09:58PST): Steve is making a lot of the user interface, claiming its five years ahead of the crowd. The device has an accelerometer, and can tell whether its being held in portrait or landscape mode.

You have to admit the UI looks good...

Update (10:10PST): So they've released it on Cingular in the U.S., does this mean it isn't going to be available at all outside the continental United States? On the up side it's a GSM quad band phone supporting both Bluetooth and WiFi. So that's a WiFi iPod at last, so much for Microsoft's advantage...

CREDIT: Engadget
Cover Flow on an iPod, you have to love it...

Update (10:12PST): The iPhone is also an iPod of course and it offers widescreen video, with the new Cover Flow interface and full 3D effects and full-screen album art. The "best iPod we've ever made..." says Jobs. It's got 8GB of storage though, which seems somewhat low?

CREDIT: Engadget
The phone's UI looks good...

Update (10:12PST): Now demonstrating the phone interface, it does look good from what I've seen, They're basically introducing the gadget we've all been talking about for the last two years...

CREDIT: Engadget
The phone's email interface

Update (10:21PST): The phone has a full Safari web browser, which supports rich HTML such as Google Maps. Yahoo to provide free Push IMAP email service for iPhone users, so much for the Blackberry, and the phone will support both IMAP and POP email. The device should switch between WiFi and GSM connections seamlessly for data.

Update (10:29PST): The device also supports widgets. Does this mean we can just take our Dashboard widgets and drop them directly onto the new phone? If so then they've just become infinitely more important, writing software for mobile phones is traditionally a very hard thing to do, but writing Dashboard widgets is relatively easy.

CREDIT: Engadget
Google Maps is integrated into the phone

Update (10:35PST): Google Maps is apparently heavily integrated into the phone (not via the normal browser?) and Apple has been working closely with Google on this one. Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, appears briefly on stage followed closely by Jerry Yang, Yahoo's CEO, who both say nice things about Apple.

Update (10:45PST): Accessories will include stereo headphone, the same set that currently ships with the iPod, but with a tiny microphone built-in and an incredibly small bluetooth headset which automatically pairs with the iPhone. The predicted battery life is 5 hours while talk/video browsing, or 16 hours for playback of audio. Critically he hasn't mentioned the standby time, something which is really important when it comes to phones!

Update (10:47PST): He's stalling, he really doesn't want to tell us the price...

CREDIT: Engadget
Ouch! That's a lot of money...

Update (10:48PST): Expensive! The 8GB model is US$599 while the 4GB model is US$499 and will be available in June from both Cingular and Apple stores, but only in the States and only with a two year lock in contract with Cingular. But the good news is that the phone will also be available this year in Europe by Q4 and in Asia by 2008. No mention of partners, although hopefully Apple realise that a two year lock in contract isn't going to fly over here no matter who they partner with? Stan Sigman, Cingular's CEO, appears briefly on stage.

Update (11:01PST): Steve is changing the company name from "Apple Computer Inc." to "Apple Inc." to reflect the fact that they now make a lot of devices that aren't really computers. That really shows how seriously Apple is taking the move towards consumer devices. Wrapping up now, but is there going to be "one more thing"?

Update (11:07PST): Doesn't look like it, does it? I think it's interesting what we didn't see; a ship date for Leopard, or a new iWork or iLife release. There also wasn't any computer hardware outside the new iPhone, or a .Mac updates or revisions.

CREDIT: Engadget
No "one more thing"..?

Update (11:12PST): Steve is back on stage after a break for some live music, is this one more thing? Nope, the keynote is over...

With thanks to Apple Matters, iLounge, TUAW, Engadget, Mac Rumours and UNEASYsilence.

Pre-Macworld'07 Rumours

Update: Live coverage of the keynote

We're in the final hours before Macworld and the rumour mill is running full steam ahead, with yet more iPhone rumours.

CREDIT: Laurie Duncan/TUAW
Posted via Flickr by tuaw

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Second HDD for your Macbook?

I don't really understand why Apple are still shipping laptops with an optical drives. Actually I don't really understand why anyone is shipping laptops with CD or DVD drives or writers anymore, low cost flash disk have made them as much yesterday's technology as floppy disks. When I can have a 4GB USB flash drive for only £24.99 remind me why I want a DVD burner?

So replacing the optical bay with another hard drive on a Macbook or a Macbook Pro seems like a decent idea to me, even if it does inevitably rip your warranty to shreds.

Interestingly, it appears that there is also a kit for my trusty old 12-inch Powerbook. Taking the optical drive out and putting in another disk drive is an attractive idea. Not necessarily for the extra disk space, but having an additional disk onboard for backups could be a life saver, and an especially attractive thought with the appearance of Time Machine later in the year. Also according to MCE's site it'll actually weigh less than the optical drive its replacing, which I'm not going to complain about at all...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

First launch for Blue Origin

You have to give it to Jeff Bezos, he's managed a top flight skunk works project and kept it out of the media to an astonishing degree. Despite the relative secrecy surrounding places like Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, or for different reasons Bigelow Aerospace, I've got an educated outsiders idea of what's probably happening on the inside. Of course places like Armadillo Aerosapce are running with a fairly open business model to begin with, but not Bezos' Blue Origin.

CREDIT: Blue Origin
Blue Origin's Goddard vehicle, the first sub-scale development vehicle in the New Shepard programme, coming out of the "barn" before its launch from Van Horn, west Texas, early in the morning of November 13, 2006.

On the 7th of November last year the FAA issued a NOTAM for a series of test flights by Blue Origin between 10th to the 13th of November. While the first test was reported to have taken place on the 13th, at 6:30 am local time (12:30 UTC), very little was actually known as to what happened other than the test flight was judged successful, and the vehicle had reached an altitude of 285 ft.

So the story on BBC news today which gave the first details I've seen of the test flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard, a vertical take-off, vertical-landing vehicle, came as a surprise.

Video of the initial test flight

They're a lot further on than I, or I guess a lot of other people, thought they were. They seem to have replicated a good deal of the work done by McDonnell Douglas on the DC-X programme and might even have push beyond that, perhaps we should have expected this as the rumour is that several of the engineers who worked on the DC-X have since been hired by Blue Origin.

It really looks like Blue Origin is pushing the boundaries, and this certainly re-enforces the idea that all the interesting work on reusable spacecraft is happening in the private sector these days. My only regret is that both on the skills they need, and my obvious problems with ITAR since I'm not a U.S. citizen or resident alien, they wouldn't be interested in yet another software person. Even one with a somewhat exotic skill set...

Update: There is a good article over at MSNBC covering the flight, and they've come pretty much to the same conclusion I did. That Bezos' has only released this footage so that he can recruit some new people with heavy lifter experience. He's looking for people with experience with Delta IV or Atlas V, and those aren't small vehicles. Blue Origin isn't in the sub-orbital business like Scaled Composites and Branson, no matter what Bezos is saying right now they're playing a longer game and working towards an full blown single stage to orbit lifter.

Update: I'm in good company, as it looks like John Carmack thinks that this might be a sub-scale prototype of a SSTO vehicle as well,
When we saw the weight listed in the papers filed with the FAA, I thought that the only reason to build a suborbital vehicle that large would be if you intended to also boost upper stages for orbital work, but it doesn't look like the shown design would be appropriate for that. Maybe it is a subscale version of an SSTO, or a nearly-SSTO upper stage intended to be boosted by an even larger straight-up-straight-down VTVL. - John Carmack, Armadillo Aerosapce
Update: John Carmack's comments on the Blue Origin test have got me thinking. Unlike Blue Origin's Goddard, Armadillo's Pixel and Texel don't have an aeroshell. I'm wondering why that is? We know that Blue Origin's FAA permit allows them to go higher than Armadillo, but how high? I guess I need to dig out the permits and compare them, but I'm thinking the aeroshell is significant. Perhaps not technically, but it shows that the two companies are taking very different approaches to the business, if that wasn't immediately obvious from the way they approach publicity. It'd be hard to find a more open approach to prototyping than John's in-depth discussion of the design work going on at Armadillo after all. But ignoring that you can tell a lot about Pixel's design by looking at pictures, but there is very little you can get out of the pictures of Blue Origin's Goddard. So my bet is that Blue Origin will retreat back into their "cone of silence", as Carmack puts it, after they manage to recruit the people they need and it'll be a while before we hear from them again...

Update: I just dug up the environmental impact statement (19.5MB, PDF) from the FAA's web site. I'm not going to trawl through the 200+ pages in too much detail, but it does confirms its use of a high-test peroxide mono-propellant which is something I was wondering about as the burn looked way too clean to be a bi-propellant.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Macworld'07 rumour mill


As always in the lead up to Macworld, the rumour mill must roll. It looks like this year TUAW is leading the pack with their predictions for Macworld 2007.

However the mill has been spun up to full speed by the teaser image now being displayed on the Apple website. As Mac Rumors points out this is the first time that Apple have run a pre-Macworld teaser since 2002 which brought the arrival of the first flat panel iMac, the 14-inch iBook and the arrival of Mac OS X as the standard boot OS for Apple hardware. Are we really looking at something as dramatic as that next week?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Friday the 13th

On Friday the 13th, April 2029 the asteroid 2004 MN4 will make its closest approach to us and, despite the conspiracy theorists, it will miss the Earth by some 18,600 miles. However that's well inside geosynchronous orbit at 22,300 miles, and one of the closest approaches we've seen yet.

It certainly beats the approach of 2003 SQ222 in September 2003 which flew by at around 54,000 miles, or even 2004 FH which went by at 26,500 miles. Of course 2004 FH was a lot smaller than 2004 MN4, at around 30m, and we only spotted it the day before its closest approach which conisdering objects of 2004 MN4's size pass close by us every couple of year, mostly unnoticed, wasn't actually that bad. Of course sometimes we don't even spot them until after they go by...

It's always suprised me that the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact with Jupiter in 1994 didn't cause more comment. After all, what sensible species would watch a rock the size of a large mountain strike a nearby planet and then make only token gestures about doing anything about it?