Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for the ‘Software and Technology’ Category

The Art of Playing Catch-Up

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Palm OS Garnet v5.4.
Image via Wikipedia

As much as I love technology, computers, and cool gadgets, I readily admit that I have never been, in tech terms, an “early adopter” of new products.

I’ve never had the personal budget for it.  I am working on a long-term solution to address that longstanding issue, but I’m not likely to change my buying habits that much in future. About the most cutting edge I can say I’ve been recently with purchases has been with a new quad-core desktop PC with Windows 7 — and that came about two months after Windows 7 systems hit retail shelves.

“New” generally carries quite a price tag.  It can also mean buggy, disappointing, or short-lived, as consumers have learned over the years (Windows Vista or HD-DVD, anyone?)

As I have discovered over the years, patience can be a money-saving virtue when it comes to personal technology and home electronics.  Often, you discover the older item can meet your needs quite adequately, perform tasks very well, and, in some cases such as desktop PCs, can be upgraded or expanded with little pain or expense.

So it was last weekend that I finally acquired something I had truly longed for in the last couple of years, a smartphone.  Thanks to a little legwork and searching in a very non-traditional outlet (a local resale shop), I scored a Palm Treo 680 in perfect working order for just $50, with a car charger.  A trip to Fry’s Electronics the next evening for a wall charger and sync cable was another $30, making the total investment thus far a mere $80.

Not bad at all, even for an experienced last-generation technology shopper.

I’m really pleased with it on several fronts. First, the Palm Treo sports something I’ve never had on any cell phone I’ve had (work or personal), a full QWERTY keyboard.  It isn’t a roomy keyboard, I’ll grant you, but it is a vast improvement for composing text messages or short notes versus a standard alphanumeric keypad, even one with that so-called predictive text mode.  This is a fact that starts to hit home when you have never been much of a text-messaging guy, then find yourself in a relationship with a girlfriend who texts a lot.

Second, the phone is giving me a so-far pleasant revisit with the old Palm OS.  I first became acquainted with this PDA-centric operating system back in 2000 when I purchased a Handspring Visor (again, a rare case of me buying something rather current in tech terms).  I thought it was a greatly efficient, compact OS back then and this version (aka Palm OS Garnet) is much the same.  Dated though it might be, it is still a heavily supported operating system, both with commercial and freeware programs.  I’ve already found and installed a few awesome freeware apps onto the phone.

I have to say I’ve also been impressed with the sound quality on phone calls and with the built-in voice recorder, a great plus when you are a journalist often needing to record a quick interview on the spot.  The camera on the back of the phone is nothing to shout about, but not a concern for me, anyway.  About the only negatives I’ve found has been short battery life — previous reviews were spot on about that and made purchase of an AC charger a must — and the proprietary jack that makes an adapter necessary if I want to use standard mini-headphones with it.

Overall, though, I think I’ve found a smartphone that will yield quite a long time of solid service for me, and for less money than a lot of new basic messaging phones.  Sadly, it is starting to sound like Palm may not be with us much longer despite what is, by most accounts since it was first announced, a fantastic smartphone operating system known as webOS.

Age doesn’t necessarily diminish usefulness or relevance.  I remind myself of that every time I look into a mirror, too.

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Facebook Losing Face With Me

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I’ve joined what I believe to be swelling ranks of Facebook users who feel the social networking site’s heyday has passed.

I think I have been in a period of denial for a few months, but can no longer ignore the stark truth — given that it stares back at me every time I log on and see my “home” page.  For a time, Facebook seemed to be serving a useful purpose, putting me back in touch with former work colleagues, current friends and high school classmates.  But then the latest redesign for the site took hold, shoveling all sorts of lists and application-based doings and pointless information about anybody and everybody on my friends list.

To wit, my complaint and reason for falling out with a site I once appreciated such a short time ago:  I really do not care what everybody’s five favorite (fill in the blank here) are, nor do I need to know what movie character you most closely match.  The same goes for whatever you are searching for or what you got points for in whatever silly game somebody has coerced you into adding to your probably overpopulated applications list.

Then there are the people who apparently see Facebook as yet another avenue to display their personal drama skills and/or utter lack of anything resembling good taste, public decorum or basic mental aptitude.  If you need to see proof on your own, look no further than one of the best examples of Internet-based cynicism I’ve ever clicked a link to:  Lamebook, the brainchild of a couple of Austin residents who are probably as bemused as I am at some of the information that finds its way onto Facebook every day.

What I do care about is occasionally chatting online with other people far away in the physical realm.  I don’t mind replying to a really interesting or witty status update.  I would like to think Facebook still has potential as a work/career/business networking tool (but why will people continue to try using it for that purpose if they have to hack their way through the jungle of application drivel?).

I really wonder about Facebook’s future and its relevance therein to its users.  In my opinion, it has become social networking’s answer to bloatware and may be on the fast track to becoming vanquished in the same sense as MySpace before it.  I still have a MySpace account but only because the site developed something of a niche identity as an online music source and I do love streaming music I enjoy.  Twitter now seems to be everybody’s favorite flavor, but somehow I doubt I’ll be Tweeting anything anytime soon.  I just don’t see the value in it for myself or anyone else.

It’s the same as what I’ve started to feel lately about Facebook.

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August 3, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Will This Chrome Shine?

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As if it was taking a war from Tolkien and going one better, Google’s announcement that it will enter the operating system market with Chrome OS is somewhat bewildering to me, given the never-ending debate with Windows vs. Mac OS vs. Linux.

John Fontana asks several key questions in his PC Advisor article on the subject.  I heartily agree with him on a couple of points.

One, trotting out a new OS option in and of itself is not compelling enough.  A new OS is a world apart from a successful OS — as ghosts of OSes past and Microsoft’s painful lesson with Vista will show.  Two, once Google does have Chrome OS available for purchase or pre-installed on netbooks (its initial target market), it really needs to already have a few heavy hitters in the application development scene ready to roll out some game-changing apps with the OS launch.  Chrome OS as a “preferred” OS for Web apps is, again, probably not going to be enough of a deal-making aspect for most PC buyers.

With the growing high-stakes rivalry between Microsoft and Google, it’s an interesting move on the chess board by the latter, to be sure.  Whether it turns out to be a very potent move remains to be seen.

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July 9, 2009 at 2:39 pm

The Royalty Rumble And Its Aftermath

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The good news for Internet Radio fans (myself included): The battle over royalty payments to song copyright holders appears to have been settled.

The bad news? Free listening might remain free only to a certain point.

The Pandora site blog has this explanation from founder Tim Westergren.  Essentially, the big webcasters will pay an amount based on either a portion of their revenue (up to 25 percent) or a per performance fee, with smaller players paying based on a percentage of revenue or expenses.

What you will find in Westergren’s blog entry about the agreement is something I expect to become the norm.  You will still be able to listen for free, but the free ride will be capped.  In Pandora’s case, it will be 40 hours per month.

I expect this to become a standard model across the board, Internet stations capping the amount of free listening time per month, beyond which you will be asked to pitch in a small access fee (in Pandora’s case, it is going to be just 99 cents) or upgrade to a paid premium service in the cases of those sites that offer such a service.

There will still be some casualties on the battlefield, especially among the smaller webcasters, some of which were totally dependent on not having to fork over a significant recurring royalties payment.  Hopefully, your favorite station will not be among those going silent.

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July 8, 2009 at 10:17 am

Robot Expressions

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The latest on blurring the line between human and mechanical comes to you in the form of the KOBIAN humanoid robot, a walking, interactive being that can also produce facial movement and body positioning to simulate emotional expressions.  If you have a Del Spooner-like distrust of robots, I’d advise skipping out on watching the video at the above link.

The Japanese technical team behind the robot’s creation says it hopes to develop the robot to a point where it could be useful assisting the sick or elderly with household chores, but that it would probably take several decades to get to that point.  Still, that could mean they’ve got it perfected right about the time I would need one…Exciting.

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July 2, 2009 at 1:07 pm

The Leaden Touch

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ZDNet blogger Tom Foremski has written a thought-provoking short essay on how the Internet potentially devalues the market in every industry it affects.  Being a writer and in the newspaper industry, I’m digesting a double dose of what he’s saying.  I’m not sure I concur with every point Foremski makes — I personally think the devaluation of newspaper reporters started well before the Internet age of mass media when the industry’s focus shifted to splashy graphics and “whitespace” page design — but there is no doubt of the ‘Net’s shakeup power.  Foremski gives several key examples of this in the essay. I highly recommend reading it.

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June 23, 2009 at 7:44 am

Two Systems That Could Change The (Video) Game

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A couple of very interesting announcements I’ve run across this week, both coming out of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco:

OnLive bills itself as “The Future of Video Games” with a device that essentially takes the video-on-demand (VOD) concept with movies and TV shows and applies it to video games. In this case, though, they aren’t talking about classic arcade and home console games a la Gametap (which is a good option for us “golden age” gamers) but current and upcoming new releases – titles that you would normally find for the Playstation 3, XBox 360 or Nintendo Wii.

The service, set to go live later this year, utilizes your home broadband connection to stream the games to a TV set (through a “microconsole”), PC or Mac…no discs, no long downloads, no installing to a hard drive. On the company Web site, I saw they are taking online apps for beta testers starting in the summer.

Then there is Zeebo, which is a gaming console in the traditional sense but which eschews physical game media and instead delivers the games through a 3G network, storing the software in 1GB of flash memory. The thing here is the system is targeting “emerging markets” like Brazil, Russia, India and China, according to its Web site, so I wouldn’t look for it on U.S. shelves anytime soon.

In both cases, though, it raises an interesting question if we may soon be seeing the curtains closing on the age of the disc-based home gaming console. If both of these systems really take off in their targeted markets and broadband and/or 3G networks improve and flourish, it could force the “Big Three” game console makers to give greater consideration to streaming or digital delivery on the next generation of systems.