Saturday, January 28, 2006

Mobile Device Convergence

Watching the development and evolution of portable digital devices is the most interesting tech story at the moment. In theory, as I have said before, all media is now digital, so we could have one portable device for a media player, portable game console, media capture, and two way communicator of voice, text and anything else digital.

It is obvious that all the players are working towards this convergence from their own angle, and the phone people have pushed it the furthest. Nowadays it is difficult to buy a phone that does not also have a camera, many phones have simple games and phones are quickly developing their media player capabilities. So why am I skeptical? For example, I have just bought a cell-phone without a camera and an iPod. I expect to buy a new digital camera before the summer.

One problem is form factor. In reality there are different sizes to portable devices, and something with a usable keyboard or screen may be too big and clumsy to be taken everywhere. For example, I bought the iPod Shuffle to listen to podcasts mainly at the gym. The Shuffle is perfect size and weight for listening to audio while working out, but it is too small for most anything else.

There is also some utility to keeping functions separate. For example, I do not want to bring my phone with me when I work out, so I have a have a separate iPod for playing media. At other times, I have my phone with me and play media on my iPod. Another example is that I may have a PDA for work and prefer to have a separate cell phone so that I do not have to bring the PDA everywhere.

However the most important problem is ownership. I do not own my phone, "The Man" owns my phone. In this case the man is the phone company and they are not going to let go. A specific example of this is the experience we had with my son's camera phone with a removable media card. We copied pictures he had taken for a school project to the card and used a USB adaptor to load them on to the computer for editing and printing. There we discover that the pictures are in a proprietary format that a photo editing suite cannot handle. The only way to access the pictures is through the phone companies data service and lame web based picture editor.

I was not in the slightest bit surprised by this. Long ago I had concluded that there is no point in buying media for a phone as I am sure that the media will turn out to be incompatible with the next phone that I will have to get in a couple of years time. I do not like being owned, particularly by the phone company, which is why I will not buy a camera phone or a media player phone, and I will be very leery of using a phone based device for business purposes. End of convergence.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

HDTV - Not

While there is plenty of chatter about HDTV, there is remarkably little action. Pundits say the problem is consumers who have not upgraded to a HDTV set. However there is another more important problem, and that is that there is absolutely no reason to go out and buy a HDTV set because there is no content.

Four years ago, we bought a 16x9 TV set expecting the HDTV revolution to arrive real soon now. So, for four years we watched even the slimmest TV starlet come across as unnaturally broad. Recently, we upgraded the cable box to HDTV with a DVR. I can report that the DVR is a great hit with my family and that the HDTV component is not used.

The first problem is that there very little HDTV content in the first place. We get 11 HDTV channels and most of them only broadcast HD content for part of the day, or only broadcast for part of the day. Today, one HDTV channel from a local station came up with black bars all around. It was a HDTV show that was being broadcast as a normal TV show with black bars top and bottom, and then it was sent out on a HDTV channel with black bars on either side.

However, the serious problem is that the HDTV channels are in the obscure 7-mumble-mumble range on the cable system. So I frequently find my family watching a show that is available in HDTV on the regular channel. Either they do not know, or they have not looked to see if it is available in HDTV. I cannot get my family to change their channel selection habits, and in truth it is inconvenient to go an look for a show that may not be there in an obscure part of the "dial".

There are more problems. For example, I want to upgrade our second TV to one of these new LCD models, however I am not going to pay the rapacious cable company for a second cable box. (Don't get me started, I can rant about the horror, inconvenience and annoyance of cable boxes for hours.) So I am going to hold out for the elusive cable card, whenever that arrives.

The end result is that HDTV is just not happening and everyone is waiting around for someone else to put the pieces together.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

More on Microformats

Don't let the tone of my last post fool you, the Emerging Tech SIG meeting on Microformats was not a waste of time. My problem is that I know what Microformats are, or at least I know what I want them to be, and I am frustrated that they not being presented in a way that is clear and comprehensible to everybody. Microformats are a good thing, and a good clear story will help their broad adoption more than anything else.

Apart from that I took away a couple of ideas of note. Because a Microformat is both human and machine readable, there is only one copy of the information. As a good database person, I know that duplicated data is dangerous. Previous attempts to achieve the same goals as Microformats had the information in a human readable format and the same information repeated in metadata on the same page. This immediately leads to a data quality problem as the software readable form cannot be easily proof read and quickly diverges from the human readable copy as the page is edited.

In this context, the acronym DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself) was used. I keep hearing this acronym, particularly at the Emerging Tech SIG. Perhaps it is the battlecry of the Noughties.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Tonight's Emerging Technology SIG meeting on microformats was a mixed bag. On the one hand there were a lot of clever people in the room, in the audience as well as the panel, who knew a lot about microformats. During the discussion there was some interesting fencing between certain audience members and the panel and they maneuvered to capture the high ground.

On the other hand most of the talks went over the head of the general audience who came along to find out what microformats are. Fortunately there was a person in the front row who after the initial talk baffled most of us, was old and wise enough to be able to ask the question "What are microformats and can you give us three simple examples of how they are used?"

Part of my problem is that I went into the meeting with some concept of what I want microformats to be. I want little pieces of embedded HTML/XML that can go in web pages, emails etc. that both renders as a normal text and at the same time contains structured data that can be interpreted by software.

For example if I am looking at a web page or an email that contains a meeting announcement in a microformat, I would like to both read the meeting announcement and to right click it and be given a context menu that would contain "Add to Calendar ..." amongst other actions. Selecting "Add to Calendar ..." would bring up the Calendar application which then could add the event without further intervention.

To make this happen the browser or email client would have to know that I was right clicking a microformat, and know a list of applications that would be able to deal with that microformat. For example, I may want to add the calendar entry to my calendar or to my blog. Also, the application receiving the microformat needs to know how to deal with it.

From the meeting, I gather that this is close to what microformats are, although they also seem to be something that is elusively more that this. Unfortunately the web site is particularly unwilling to take a position on what they are, preferring to have a completely abstract definition, while at the same time give concrete examples of particular microformats.