Tag » technology

Innovative laptop features from Dell

Given how much I post about Apple products, I really want to give kudos to Dell for the genuine innovations in their latest laptop. This Ars Technica article describes the cool new features of the Z600 laptop:

  • Completely wireless docking (screen, keyboard/mouse, audio) via a compatible wireless station. No need for an ugly proprietary dock connector. I want this.
  • Wireless charging via an induction stand. It won’t charge from your couch, but it’s nice to not have to deal with a cable.
  • Face-aware locking uses the built-in web cam to lock the screen whenever the user steps out of sight. If it isn’t annoyingly aggressive, this is super cool.
  • Always-on functionality to continuously fetch new mail. I wouldn’t use this (real-time is overrated), but clever nonetheless.
  • Gimmicky touch-strip on the side of the screen. Well, they can’t all be winners :)

All in all, a very impressive feature set that demonstrates real creativity. I hope Apple follows suit on some of these, especially the wireless dock.

The Social History of the MP3

The Social History of the MP3 is a Pitchfork article that puts MP3s in the context of previous technological  revolutions. It’s full of interesting nuggets:

When radio came along, its broadcasts created communities of music-listening strangers, physically distant from each other but connected through the knowledge that they were listening to the same song at the same time. Where radio brought listeners together as a listening public, the LP started splitting them apart. The LP and 45 rpm formats took the phonograph, which had been in existence for over half a century, to the masses, right as the American middle-class was going suburban and privatizing their lives. We could then use musical objects like we’d been using literature and art for centuries prior: as collectibles, and signifiers of personal taste. The emergence of the cassette–the first sturdy, re-writeable music technology– allowed us to “manufacture” our own music in the privacy of our own homes and recirculate it at our will, through mixtape trading and full-album dubbing.

How the telegraph created commodity futures:

Weirdly enough, this particular effect of mp3s and peer-to-peer networks– that information travels much faster than physical goods– most closely resembles that of the telegraph on the 19th century commodity markets. Before that innovation– the Internet’s great-grandfather– individual markets based in major cities were separated by hundreds of miles, and goods could only travel as fast as railroads could take them. Yet because information about crop conditions could travel via telegraph exponentially faster than the actual crops, the exchange of money for physical commodities was largely replaced by a futures market, based on what would happen.

On the pace of online music

The ideal would have been that a new network of independent music lovers would have elevated different types of music, or even found new ones, the way nascent rock’n'roll, honky tonk, bluegrass, and R&B benefited thanks to the 45. But online, new genres risk being strangled in the crib before anyone knows they exist, and people are “done” with new albums before the cover art has been approved.

Thanks to Noah for the link. Also, for those of you who have Spotify, I can warmly recommend Pitchfork’s 500 Best Songs of the 2000s playlist.

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Gaussian Goat

Gaussian Goat. For those who don’t use Photoshop, this is a joke on the commonly-used Gaussian Blur feature.

Long-exposure of a Roomba’s path

My friend Noah links to this awesome long-exposure shot of a Roomba’s path.

This illustrates nicely the design insight that made the Roomba successful. Electrolux has a competing robotic vacuum, the Trilobite. It has a sophisticated on-board computer to optimize its path through a room. And yet, at close to $2000, its more of a design demo than a viable commercial product.

iRobot on the other hand (the makers of the Roomba) realized that it wasn’t a big deal if the robot was inefficient. They made a “dumb” robot, that worked its way haphazardly around the room. And by doing so, they got the price down to a couple of hundred dollars.

Guess who was more successful? The Trilobite might be a better vacuum, but the Roomba offers better value. Which reminds me; I need to use my Roomba for more than party entertainment (sadly, I haven’t been too impressed by its performance…).

Durable electronics


I watched the San Francisco premiere of Objectified last week. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a movie about product design (watch the trailer). I really enjoyed it, in particular for the interviews with some of my favorite designers (Jonathan Ive, Dieter Rams, Naoto Fukasawa).

I asked the folllowing question during Q&A:

Will we ever get to a world where products last 5, 10 or 20 years?

Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, suggested that there is a difference between furniture and electronics. A high quality chair or table can easily last decades. Electronics on the other hand are simply vehicles for delivering the latest technology.

While I agree for the most part, I can think of the following counter-examples:

  • I’ve had my Nikon D70 for 4 years now, and have no particular desire to replace it. Newer cameras have higher resolutions and slightly better features, but I’m perfectly satisfied.
  • I have a first-generation iPhone, and don’t feel any particular need to upgrade. 3G and GPS would be nice, but I got most of the upgrade through the software update alone. The only reason I’ll get a new one this summer is that the hardware is failing on me (the mic has an echo).
  • If it hadn’t broken down, I’d be quite happy using my old 12″ Powerbook. With more of my computer usage moving to a super-efficient browser, I might actually use fewer computing resources now than I did back in 2003 (disclosure: I work on Google Chrome).

These three examples lead me to wonder if we might someday reach a state of “great enough” in electronics. This is different from “good enough”: I mean a state where the hardware is powerful and flexible enough that we no longer feel the need to upgrade for incremental improvements. At that point, we’ll want these devices to last longer than a couple of years.

So how do we incent manufacturers to make more durable products, when their business models depend on selling us new stuff? I can think of three alternative revenue streams, and Apple conveniently illustrates all of them:

  • Software. I got my iPhone software update for free, but I would definitely have paid for it (iPod Touch users did). I also spend money on iPhone Apps, from which Apple takes a cut.
  • Content. Apple sells music and movies through the iTunes store. Digital content is a perfect sustainable good, for which there is ever-renewed demand.
  • Services. Apple’s MobileMe services offers access to cloud storage, sync and access for a yearly fee. I get Gmail for free, but would pay for it if I had to.

Of course, Apple’s hardware margins still make up the bulk of their profits. However, as these other revenue sources grow in volume, the hardware might eventually become a loss-leader, as is commonly the case for new gaming consoles. At that point, we would expect them to shift to more durable, “great enough” hardware. (In the particular case of Apple, don’t hold your breath).

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Do you ever see us shifting to a world where electronic devices last more than a couple of years? And if so, how would that happen?

Bonus: check out the recently launched lastyearsmodel.org:

We love cool gadgets as much as anybody else. We just want to be thoughtful about the stuff we’ve bought. Even the most cutting-edge, tech-savvy geeks in the world are choosing to hang on to their phones or their iPods that still work just fine.

Also, thanks to  Noah and Matt  for discussing the ideas in this post with me.

The future of music is now

Shazam Listening

Image by ipresents via Flickr

The future of music is now:

None of this would have been possible a few years ago. At least sometimes, technology does make our lives easier and more magical.

What will the next iPhone look like?

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Every year or so, Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone. Last time, they added the much requested 3G and GPS. At this point, most people I know who own an iPhone (i.e. half the people I know) are pretty happy with it. So, apart from better battery-life and more storage space, what are some thing we can expect to see in the next iPhone?

  • Video.
    This is probably the most obvious improvement. Record video, post video to YouTube, and perhaps video conference via a front-side camera (already rumored for the 3G).
  • A real camera.
    The iPhone has already taken one gadget out of my bag (my iPod); now it’s time to replace my point & shoot camera. Cameras in phones have usually performed poorly because the chips and lenses are so tiny that they don’t capture light very well. It’s not clear that Apple has the in-house expertise to do something better, but then again, no one knew they could build a phone either :)
  • A better display.
    The current display is wonderfully bright and crisp. However, a screen with twice the resolution would reach 320dpi, better than print. Such displays are probably still prohibitively expensive, but Apple’s volumes could drive those costs down. Another possibility is using an OLED display, which wouldn’t require a backlight (drastically improving battery life).
  • A better keyboard.
    The Blackberry Storm innovated with a single button keyboard. I’m sure Apple engineers are working hard to discover a technology that simulates the tactile feel of keys in a satisfying way.
  • Everything wireless.
    Wireless audio via bluetooth. Wireless sync to your computer via wifi or bluetooth. Wireless music streaming from the iPhone to your Airport Express. Wireless streaming to the iPhone from your home computer. Maybe even wireless charging via a mat replacing the dock.
  • On-the-go.
    An iPhone connected to a friend’s laptop could let you log into your own account. On a Mac, you could run Safari with your bookmarks, Apple Mail with your mail, iTunes with your Music, iPhoto with your pictures, and so forth. On a PC, it could run a scaled-up version of the iPhone OS X, giving access to the same apps. And AT&T willing, the computer could even use the phone’s 3G connection.
  • Coffee-maker.
    I don’t expect them to fit a full coffee cup, but an espresso should be possible, no?

We may not see all of these ideas in the next iPhone, but I would be suprised if most of them weren’t there a few years from now. If you have other suggestions, post your  idea in the comments!

Virtual barbershop

Virtual barbershop

It’s amazing what you can do with clever algorithms: virtual barbershop.

Photo by Esthr.

The technology of the $100 laptop

The technology of the $100 laptop

Signal vs. Noise posts about the technology of the $100 laptop.

You can pour water on the keyboard…You can dip the base into a bathtub. You can carry it the rain. It’s more robust than your normal laptop. It doesn’t even have holes in the side of it. If you look at it: dirt, sand, I mean, there’s no place for it to go into the machine.

I got a chance to play with one of these the other day. The hardware is indeed very nice, with a distinctive design and a very solid feel. Unfortunately the software is horribly unintuitive. Maybe it’s still in development, maybe I didn’t spend enough time with it, or maybe I’m just too used to regular interface paradigms. My guess is that it’s a consequence of trying to reinvent the wheel, in the process disregarding decades of accumulated user experience knowledge.

I’ve posted about the $100 laptop before.

Laser Tag Graffiti

The Graffiti Research Lab’s latest project: Laser Tag Graffiti. Photos on flickr, video on YouTube.