Miscellaneous and Useless Information

Computers and technology

Congratulations to the HCI researchers in MIT Technology Review’s list of top 35 innovators under 35: Jeff Bigham, Jeff Heer, Shahram Izadi, Shwetak Patel, and Jamie Teevan. Represent!

As I was cleaning out my papers, I came across some old receipts for various tech gadgets. While I’m used to high-tech stuff getting cheaper and cheaper, I still find it stunning how quickly prices have fallen for certain items:

Item Purchase date Purchase price Current price Annual depreciation rate Annual overall inflation rate (CPI)
1 GB USB flash drive Dec 16, 2005 $69.99 $7.99 −43.8% +2.4%
2 GB SD Flash card Nov 24, 2006 $84.98 $9.99 −57.6% +2.4%
Canon PowerShot 7.1 megapixel camera Nov 23, 2006 $361.49 $179.99
(8.0 MP)
−24.4% +2.4%

Well I did it: I’ve bought a 13″ MacBook. Its size and portability won me over. So far, it’s been pretty smooth: I had no problems setting up my mail accounts in Mail, and it connected to my home wireless network effortlessly. On the other hand, I had to search the web to find out what the Mac equivalents of the Home and End keys were.

This is a big deal for me. The last time I switched computer platforms was in 1985, from a Commodore 64 to an IBM PC XT clone. I’ve used Windows since version 3.0 in 1990, and not surprisingly, I’ve built up a huge set of habits that I’m probably not even aware of. (For example, did you know you can double-click the icon in the upper-left-hand corner of a window to close it?)

The next step for me is to get acquainted with a whole new set of programs. For now, I’ve decided to use iWork ’09 for my office suite, which can import and export Microsoft Office files. For those tricky files that iWork can’t handle, I’ll install Windows Vista and Office 2007 in another partition, and then run them inside Parallels Desktop.

For photos, iPhoto would be fine, except I’ve built up years of metadata inside Adobe Photoshop Elements on Windows, which iPhoto can’t read. So I’m getting Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which can import Photoshop Elements metadata and runs on both Windows and Mac. Lightroom isn’t cheap, but luckily I’ve accumulated enough reward points to pay for it.

By the way, I’m still looking for a (cheap) image editor for the Mac, as well as blogging software, so I appreciate any suggestions.

There is one Mac app I look forward to using: Delicious Library (no relation to the social bookmarking site Delicious). It lets you catalog your book and media collection, but instead of typing in all the data by hand, it uses the camera in your Mac as a barcode reader, and then automatically retrieves that data over the net. I’ve known about this app for years, and I look forward to actually being able to use it.

Eventually, I’ll get around to doing what I said I’d do on my new Mac: create iPhone apps.

[Photo of 13" MacBook] I am seriously considering getting a Mac, because I want to do something that Macs can do and PCs can’t: write iPhone apps. I’ve narrowed the possibilities down to two models: the 13″ MacBook or the 15″ MacBook Pro. The 15″ is 22% heavier (4.5 vs 5.5 lbs) but it also has 27% more pixels (1280×800 vs 1440×900). So it really comes down which I value more: portability or screen real estate.

To make a really informed opinion, I need to go to an Apple Store and play around with them myself, but meanwhile, does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Palm PreToday Palm announced its new smartphone, the Pre, and just as importantly, its long-awaited new software platform, WebOS. Reading the Engadget live blog on the announcement and watching videos on Gizmodo, I am quite impressed by what I saw. Not only is the hardware slick, the software is too. Wall Street liked it as well: on a day when the Dow Jones fell 0.31%, Palm’s stock shot up 35%.

And in a master stroke, native apps for WebOS are written in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, the same technologies used to create web sites. This dramatically lowers the barrier to entry, and makes it much more likely that developers will create webOS apps, something Palm desparately needs.

Alas, I have already switched from Palm to the iPhone, and at this point I don’t think I’ll be going back. But the smartphone market is still growing, and I’m rooting for Palm to make a comeback, if only to give the iPhone some much needed competition. Will it be enough? I’m not sure, but I am sure that if Palm hadn’t done everything it showed today, it would have been doomed.

The British band LushLast night, an old song that I first heard in high school suddenly popped into my head. I didn’t know the name or any of the words, but I could distinctly hear in my mind the haunting melody and the clear singing but the indistinct lyrics. I also knew it was by the ’90s British band Lush.

So I went on a little quest: how could I figure out what that song was? Two iPhone apps sounded like they could help.

One of them is Shazam: hold up your phone to a recording of a song, and Shazam will figure out the song. It works well at weddings (American Boy by Estelle featuring Kanye West), bookstores (Midnight Sun by Ivy) and even while boarding airplanes (Taking You Home by Don Henley). But it doesn’t work if you don’t have a recording, so it wasn’t going to help in this case.

Another iPhone app, Midomi, is supposed to detect songs that are played on the radio or even hummed. But I’ve found that it doesn’t work as well as Shazam for recorded music, and when I tried humming the Lush song, it didn’t display any songs by Lush in its results.

So I tried something else: I went to Amazon and searched for Lush. Eventually I navigated to the Amazon MP3 store, where I could press one button and hear 30-second previews of virtually all of Lush’s songs. Finally, at #23, I heard it: For Love. And also thanks to the web, I finally figured out what the heck they were singing.

The long-awaited iPhone software development kit is here, and overall I’m pretty impressed with the amount of power and flexibility Apple is giving to third-party developers. Beating Daniel’s expectations, Apple is giving access to the iPhone’s native API. There are a few gotchas though. For example, only one third-party app can run at a time, and it can’t run in the background.

There was another disappointment from my point of view, and this is because I work for IBM (although the following is not necessarily IBM’s opinion). Where was the Lotus Notes announcement? About a month and a half ago, the web was abuzz with IBM’s plans to introduce a native Lotus Notes application for the iPhone. IBM then said it wasn’t ready yet, and during yesterday’s announcement, all the enterprise hoopla centered around Microsoft’s Exchange and ActiveSync. I think IBM missed a chance to show “enterprise” also means Notes and Domino, not just Exchange. (Whether this is because Jobs was unhappy IBM was jumping the gun and upstaging Apple’s own announcement, I don’t know.)

One more amusing anecdote from Morris Chang. The initial funding for TSMC came mostly from the Taiwanese government (48%) and Philips. There were also a few key individual investors who put their own money into the company. But TSMC was proposing to be a silicon foundry, a brand new business model. How did the company convince those people to invest?

Dr. Chang said the government essentially coerced them to put their money in. One person was asked to take a 5% stake, and he started getting cold feet. The premier of Taiwan actually called him and said, “It is government policy to get this company started. Don’t you want to support government policy?” It turned out to be be pretty enlightened coercion.

This was back in 1987, when Taiwan was just starting to transition from an authoritarian government to a democracy. I doubt it could get away with that now.

[Photo of Morris Chang] I just got back from a Computer History Museum event: a conversation with Morris Chang (張忠謀), founder of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, better known as TSMC, and Jen-Hsun Huang (黃仁勳), co-founder and CEO of Nvidia, the last independent graphics chip company. Morris Chang is a pioneer in the computer industry: TSMC was the first dedicated silicon foundry, which manufactures integrated circuits for customers — it does not have any products of its own. Not surprisingly, Nvidia is one of TSMC’s most important customers. Dr. Chang made a couple of points that struck me.

TSMC is fundamentally a customer-focused company. One of the most important metrics for evaluating its fab managers is how many complaints that manager gets from its customers. Dr. Chang said this makes the culture of his company totally different from other semiconductor companies such as Intel, and this would impede their entry into the dedicated foundry business.

Dr. Chang also said Americans and Asians start companies for different reasons. Americans want to promote a new idea. Asians want to be their own boss. As an example, Dr. Chang used to go to a barber shop in Taiwan with two barbers. The younger barber decided he wanted to be his own boss, so he left and started his own barber shop, three doors down. Each of them had to work much harder than before, for the same number of customers. On top of that, the two barbers got into a price war, so they also made less money. Not surprisingly, the former partners became very bitter. The atmosphere became so unpleasant that Dr. Chang now doesn’t go to either barber. He joked, “That’s entrepreneurship, Asian style.”

Both were eloquent and humorous speakers. I’ve heard that Dr. Chang’s reputation is that of a very strict, demanding businessman, so this interview showed a more human side.

As an aside, the food at the reception for Computer History Museum members was great, too: seared tuna, crab cakes, and crostini with brie. Oh yeah…

Looks like my prayers (and those of many others) have been answered: Apple will release a software development kit for the iPhone and iPod touch in February, enabling developers to write their own native apps for those devices. I’ll be curious to see how the third-party iPhone/iPod app market will develop; I bet it will be huge.

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