By Peter Nowak - Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 0 Comments
Every now and then someone comes along and criticizes space exploration – and inevitably makes a fool of themselves in the process. Add NOW Magazine to the list.
The Toronto alt-weekly trashed both Commander Chris Hadfield and space exploration in general as PR-seeking glory hounds and wastes of money, respectively, in a piece that ran this week.
Hadfield – the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station – of course returned to Earth on Monday evening, but not before posting a video of himself performing David Bowie’s Space Oddity… in space. That capped off a 146-day stint aboard the ISS that was punctuated by frequent tweets, photos and even an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit.
Hadfield’s return couldn’t happen “too soon,” according to the article, since he was wasting so much time conducting public relations for himself and space agencies in general, rather than actual scientific research:
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 7:29 AM - 0 Comments
If there’s one thing I love more than anything else on the planet, it’s got to be poutine. French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds – is there anything that is worse for you, but also so damn good at the same time? Its unhealthiness actually makes it even more appealing. It’s like the secret ingredient, along with the main three, is danger, as in what you’re putting your heart into every time you eat it.
It was probably only a matter of time, then, before someone tried to take all that dangerous goodness and put it into liquid form. Score one for Seattle-based Jones Soda, which has done precisely that.
Poutine Soda is the company’s newest concoction, meant to celebrate its Canadian roots and to boost its profile in its native land. I came by a couple of bottles over the weekend and gave it a try. So what’s the verdict? Oh yes, it is absolutely horrible.
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 2:44 PM - 0 Comments
A few weeks back, I wrote about some of the positive developments coming from the Netflix-inspired binge-TV-watching trend. With a growing number of people delving into multiple episodes of TV shows at once on the video streaming service, the way in which actual series are being made is starting to change.
Other than simply eliminating those “previously on…” recaps that many shows used to waste precious minutes on, some series – especially comedies – are going to have to include more variety to keep viewers interested. Binge viewing may thus lead to fewer one-trick-pony shows, which is probably a good thing.
However, with the lackluster critical reception of Netflix’s latest exclusive series, Hemlock Grove, the downside of this trend is starting to emerge. The biggest problem with producing a show in its entirety up front and then releasing every episode for watching all at once is that there’s no room for it to change or grow according to input from the public.
As The Onion’s AV Club notes in its review of Hemlock Grove, regular new shows have to pass through a number of stages in order to survive a season:
Each episode is dissected by audience and critics alike as soon as it airs, and while that doesn’t prevent bad TV from surviving (or flourishing), it does require a certain level of competence. While occasional flukes slip through, for the most part, a badly paced, clumsily acted, increasingly nonsensical season has plenty of time to die by inches when aired on a regular schedule.
That long-term focus group of critics and viewers can organically lead to change and improvement over time, which is essentially what makes television, you know, television – it’s what separates the medium from movies. While films are inevitably tested by focus groups as well, the nature of the medium is that they are ultimately singular and self-contained visions, whereas television shows are largely evolving as they air. Movies, on the other hand, are one-and-done.
Netflix’s series are therefore more akin to really long movies, rather than TV shows. Yet, movie makers – with the possible exception of Peter Jackson – have over the course of decades settled on somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes as the optimum length for those singular visions. Any longer and audiences either tend to get bored, or start finding more things wrong with what they’re seeing.
In that vein, the first “season” of Hemlock Grove is around 11 hours long. I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t comment on its quality, but it is possible that critics are giving it a tough go mainly because it’s horror, a genre that typically doesn’t do well with professional reviewers. Netflix’s other recently released exclusive series, the political drama House of Cards, did considerably better with critics and, apparently, with audiences as well. Netflix recently attributed a big bump in subscribers to the series.
Yet, according to Netflix spokesman Joris Evers, the company doesn’t test screen its series before releasing them. “We do focus groups, but not to test new shows,” he tells me. “We do use the data we have on what our subs like to watch, from many different channels, to determine whether it would make a good Netflix show.”
This may be another case where the almighty algorithm turns out to be less than capable of delivering the goods. It’s still early in the game, but if Netflix makes more series that get panned, the company may have to revisit the idea of focus groups, or possibly even the idea of releasing every episode at once. There is, after all, a reason why television has evolved the way it has.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 11:08 AM - 0 Comments
It’s not every day that potentially historic science news breaks, but it did happen this week with a report that U.S. President Barack Obama is set to unveil a big project to map the human brain.
According to the New York Times, Obama will announce the decade-long plan when he unveils his budget next month. The effort – akin to the Human Genome Project that mapped DNA – is likely to cost at least $3 billion, but will seek to answer some long-standing questions about how the brain works.
It’s hard to overstate just how important and ground-breaking such a project would be. As the newspaper puts it, the plan will bring together federal agencies, private foundations, neuroscientists and nanoscientists in “a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.”
As with the Human Genome Project, the possibilities are endless. In his recent state of the union address, Obama noted how the genome effort has returned huge dividends with better understandings of illnesses and diseases, as well as the drugs and treatments that go with them. In financial terms, he said that each dollar spent has returned $140 to the economy. And the dividends are only starting to accrue.
The Brain Activity Map could be even more lucrative financially. More importantly, it could change everything. In his recent book The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science is Changing Our World, author Zack Lynch goes so far as to say that understanding the mind will usher in a fourth age, to succeed the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions.
The first benefits will come in treatments for things like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and mental illnesses. But they’ll quickly spread to areas that are already being researched, such as neurolaw, neurofinance and neuromarketing. Big companies are already pumping lots of dollars into figuring out how to push neural buttons, while brain fingerprinting – or using an EEG to determine if particular information is in a person’s brain – has been ruled admissable in court. Lynch believes neuroscience will transform the legal system within the next 20 years, with precognition becoming a reality within 30.
A better understanding of the brain will also help create smarter artificial intelligences, bring about entirely new forms of art and entertainment and enable new mind-machine enhancements. All of that, however, means a whole host of new ethical and privacy concerns. Understandably, there are already protest groups such asMind Justice that are seeking to protect individuals’ rights from those who would pry into our most sacred and private places.
Of course, the brain is truly the final frontier because understanding it could bring us within reach of the ultimate goal: immortality. Futurists – notably Singulatarian Ray Kurzweil – have argued for some time that the human brain, with all of its personality, memories and processes, is simply just a machine that works off patterns. When those patterns are understood, they can be replicated, which will allow for the uploading and downloading of brains, or the effective copying of people.
By the time that technology arrives, we’re likely to have a choice of existences – either a biological body, a robot frame or a virtual reality. Or heck, why not all three? Yes indeed, we are on way to becoming Cylons (which is why Battlestar Galactica and Caprica were such relevant science-fiction shows.)
It sounds crazy and fantastical, but it’s important to remember that when scientists started the Human Genome Project, they didn’t expect to see it finished within their lifetimes. The effort went much faster than anyone expected thanks to exponential growth in computing power, data crunching and complementary technologies, wrapping up after only a decade. A brain-mapping effort, with ever better power and significant resources behind it, could go even more rapidly.
It’s tremendously exciting – and perhaps a little bit frightening – to consider.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 8:17 AM - 0 Comments
The latest silly Apple rumour has the company interested in selling a watch. Or, an iWatch, as it would probably go.
According to the New York Times, “investors would most likely embrace an iWatch, with some already saying that wearable computing could replace the smartphone over the next decade.”
It seems the Times, and perhaps the investors it references, have forgotten one simple fact: it’s a freakin’ watch.
Seriously, does anyone under 50 wear a watch anymore? And of those few souls who do, are any of them doing it for any other reason but to make a fashion statement (that statement, by the way, is “I’m a dinosaur.”)? Surely nobody wears a watch to actually tell time.
Analysts’ justifications for Apple – or anyone – to make a smart watch are collectively some of the dumbest ideas ever put forward:
- “The technology, including bendable glass, is ready for prime time.” Sure it is. You could also build a base on Mars, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
- “Such a watch could be used for phone calls, text messages, navigation and other smartphone-like functions.” Yup, but people won’t do that for the same reasons they avoid taking photos with their tablets (because it makes you look like a giant dork).
- “Wearable computers will be popular in the future.” Most likely, but just because 1950s science-fiction said it’ll happen on the wrist doesn’t mean that’s where they’ll end up.
- “Smart watches could be cheaper than a phone and therefore Apple’s best way into emerging markets.” Yeah, but so could… I dunno… a cheaper phone.
Honestly, where do they come up with this stuff?
Everyone seems to be forgetting one simple fact: Does anyone want to do any of that stuff on a postage-stamp-sized screen that sits on their wrist? And does anyone remember that actually wearing a watch isn’t all that comfortable? And while we’re at it, mightn’t we also remember that all of these functions are already performed quite ably by our smartphones, which have acres of screen size in comparison? And aren’t people already complaining about all the gadgets they have to carry?
Unless there’s a giant Dick Tracey revival some time in the next few years, I’m betting that any smart watch will result in one thing: iFailure.
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 6:04 AM - 0 Comments
It’s a big week for BlackBerry fans as the new Z10 finally arrives in Canada on Tuesday (it launched in the UK last week and is coming to the United States next month). I did a quick and dirty review for CBC last week, with a loooong, in-depth review hitting Canadian Business some time on Monday. (It’s up here.)
Overall, I quite like the new phone. I’ve been using it for much of the past week and have become fond of some of its features, notably the swipe-heavy Flow interface. I’ve also warmed up a bit to the predictive text typing, although I’m still finding it slows me down half the time.
One thing I’m not liking, however, is BlackBerry’s lack of apps. I detailed the 29 apps I use regularly in my in-depth review; fewer than a third of them are available for the Z10. I consider some, such as 680 News (for traffic) and Cineplex for buying movie tickets – not to mention Google Maps – to be mission critical. BlackBerry’s selection is sure to improve over time, but by not having them now, I wouldn’t consider switching yet. Many users will be in the same boat.
Both BlackBerry and Microsoft are preaching quality apps over quantity. As the argument goes, Android and Apple may have 600,000 apps each to choose from, but do those numbers really mean anything when they respectively count dozens of useless fart apps?
Some studies have borne the argument out. Nielsen numbers from last year figure smartphone usersdownloaded an average of 41 apps, yet stats from the fall from Flurry estimated that only about 13 saw regular usage. In that regard, it’s easy to assume importance of apps has been grossly overstated.
On the other hand, that’s a hasty assumption to make, given that the amount of time people spend using appssurpassed web browsing a long time ago.
Further to that, the belief that overall app numbers don’t matter is outdated. If BlackBerry truly didn’t believe numbers didn’t matter, it wouldn’t have padded its 70,000 launch figure with so many Android ports. The company has admitted that 40 per cent of that figure is made up of Android apps that have simply had a BlackBerry wrapper attached to them. In other words, many of those 70,000 didn’t exactly require much time or effort from developers.
Overall app numbers do matter for three reasons, none of which has to do with farting. For one, Apple’s numbers – and to some extent Android’s – include many, many niche apps. There are hordes of apps dedicated to doctors, pilots, cartographers and cinematographers that the average person may not use, but which people in those specialty professions can’t live without. Those professionals won’t consider switching to Windows or BlackBerry for a second if their mission-critical apps aren’t available.
Secondly, the big app numbers also count a lot of places. Many hotels, shopping malls, museums, airports, even amusement parks now have their own apps and they’re usually exclusively for Apple and Android. These are apps the average person may not use every day, but they do come in handy on the odd occasion, which creates an expectation among users. As in, “Do we need a map of Cedar Point for our trip there this summer? Nope, we can just download the Apple or Android app.”
Thirdly, the overall numbers include a quickly growing catalog of apps for things. As usual, a flood of new gadgets were introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, with almost all of them ultimately ending up connecting to Apple and Android apps. BlackBerry and Windows were virtually invisible by this measure. This also creates an expectation as well as additional lock-in; if people end up controlling their lights, TV and washing machines via a smartphone app, they’ll be less inclined to switch to a different brand if they lose those capabilities.
Android and Apple have thus reached critical mass, where their huge numbers are only going to get bigger. App ecosystem lock-in is going to get worse, which means the mountain that BlackBerry and Microsoft must overcome is getting taller and taller. BlackBerry is smart to allow Android app porting, which will help, but that still adds an extra layer for developers to support and maintain. It’s therefore fair to ask whether it’s too late for BlackBerry and especially Windows to really get in the game.
By Peter Nowak - Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 9:13 PM - 0 Comments
It’s easy to tell when a new technology has reached critical mass – discussions over its long-term effects start kicking into overdrive. That’s happening now with robots and how they are going to affect the human job market.
Conventional thinking has always held that automation and robots have historically been good things, because when a machine takes over a task, the human who used to do it is forced to do something smarter and better. This has had traditional repercussions both great and small, from auto assembly line workers necessarily having to upgrade their skills or maybe even start their own businesses, to regular people simply not having to remember minutiae like phone numbers because machines do it for them. Machines have traditionally freed our brains to worry about other, more important stuff.
However, in a recent 60 Minutes interview, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Bruce Welty raised a worrying issue – that robotic development has now reached the exponential phase, which means that machines are taking over human tasks faster than humans can come up with new and better things to do.
“Right now the pace is accelerating. It’s faster we think than ever before in history,” Brynjolfsson said. “So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.”
By that estimation, robots will eventually take over all human jobs, leaving us with nothing to do. This is very bad, says the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, because that means all wealth will be controlled by the people who own the robots (assuming the machines don’t turn on us and kill us all, of course):
Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people — including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.
Wired writer Kevin Kelly, on the other hand, takes a more optimistic approach when he says that we can’t evenimagine the jobs we’ll create because of this increasing automation. Humans’ role in the future will thus be the same as it is now: to create jobs that only people can do at first, with those tasks eventually falling to machines, whereupon the cycle will keep repeating.
This stuff is exactly the meat of the current chapter I’m working on for Humans 3.0, my upcoming book. I’m more inclined to side with Wired because, if there’s one thing we can be certain of when it comes to the future, it’s that it’s very difficult to imagine. As Kelly puts it:
Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flatscreen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort. Two hundred years ago not a single citizen of Shanghai would have told you that they would buy a tiny slab that allowed them to talk to faraway friends before they would buy indoor plumbing. Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers—a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had. In a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs. Each successful bit of automation generates new occupations—occupations we would not have fantasized about without the prompting of the automation.
Where Krugman’s thesis falters is in the notion that it’ll somehow be big entities that own the robots. With even children creating their own Lego robots, that’s highly unlikely. Robots are getting better and cheaper, which means that everyone is likely to benefit from the robotic revolution.
By Peter Nowak - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 8:34 PM - 0 Comments
It’s looking more and more like the Wii U is a flop, with at least one analyst describing it as such after Nintendo revealed disappointing sales numbers this week. The company was hoping to sell 5 million game consoles by March 31, but has now cut that projection to 4 million, with game expectations taking an even bigger downgrade – 16 million rather than 24 million.
The rising tide of mobile games in Asia is one factor for the slower sales. Anecdotally, the fact that it doesn’t really outshine existing competitors in any way is probably another.
Post Arcade had a telling story on Monday about another factor, the waning third-party support for the console. As with the company’s previous two consoles, the GameCube and Wii, support for the Wii U started out strong with its launch in November, but is now starting to lag.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 6:17 AM - 0 Comments
BlackBerry may have outdone Apple in regards to its frothing fan base.
Two seemingly disparate events are happening this week: Wednesday’s long-awaited launch of BlackBerry 10 and Sunday’s Super Bowl. But believe it or not, they’re not that different. Both inspire fanatical devotion from legions of fans, some of which border on madness.
Anyone who has written anything on Research In Motion during the past little while is surely familiar with the attacks that inevitably follow. It doesn’t matter how scathing or glowing said piece was, the BlackBerry fanboys have been out with a vengeance once reserved only for Apple’s own iCult.
By Peter Nowak - Monday, January 28, 2013 at 10:35 AM - 0 Comments
Does anybody else have the feeling that this week’s launch of BlackBerry 10 doesn’t really matter? It’s not for anything that Research In Motion is or isn’t doing with its long-awaited and overdue handsets, but rather because mobile devices are on their way to becoming commoditized.
With smartphones, it’s Google that’s driving the trend. As with virtually every area of its business, the company isn’t so interested in selling things to consumers as it is in getting them online and using its services, with the money coming from the ads it serves them that way. That’s why Google is selling the Nexus 4 in North America for $300 without a contract, while in the developing world it’s moving smartphones for just $50. It’s also why Android has more than three quarters of the world’s market share for smartphones. If Google knew the first thing about actually selling stuff to consumers, the constantly sold-out Nexus 4 would be an even bigger deal than it is.
Neither the Nexus 4 nor those African phones are as high-powered as most of the “hero” devices being sold in advanced markets, but for many users, they’re good enough. With Google plying this very different agenda, smartphone prices have only one way to go: down.
That’s good for consumers, as it will ultimately change the way phones are sold here in North America. Cheap handsets mean consumers won’t need to sign on for subsidized contracts with carriers. And with no contracts to lock them in, carriers may actually be forced to give consumers better service and prices.
But it’s bad for phone makers. The healthy profit margins enjoyed so far by the likes of Samsung. and especially Apple. are coming under pressure, which is why there’s been so much chatter lately about the possibility of a cheaper iPhone.
Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook has tried to deflect such talk by saying he isn’t interested in “revenue for revenue’s sake,” yet the company’s previous actions speak volumes. Apple did launch the cheaper iPad Mini last year in response to pressure from Google and Amazon, who together set the new price agenda on that category with their own smaller and less expensive devices, the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire, respectively.
Phones and tablets are inevitably following computers into commoditization. Apple may still charge a premium for its products, but it will ultimately have to settle for a relatively small market share as a result, just as it has in computers. There is also a limit to that premium – with the likes of Google and Amazon setting the pace, the respective days of $700 smartphones and $500 tablets are numbered.
Which brings us back to BlackBerry. With shrinking margins on the horizon, why would anyone want to be in the smartphone or tablet market? Monolithic conglomerates such as Google, Samsung and Apple can afford it because such devices are but pieces of their much larger wholes. They can take a bath on phones and tablets since they pay off in other ways, including keeping people within their larger ecosystems.
For smaller, single-purpose players such as RIM or Nokia, which don’t really have anything else to offer consumers, that low-margin future isn’t very appealing.
It’s no surprise, then, that RIM may be looking to pull an IBM, where it would sell off its hardware business to focus instead on software and services. It’s ironic that the same company involved in IBM’s computer spinoff nearly a decade ago – China’s Lenovo – is the latest potential dance partner to be attached to this idea. And it’s not just speculation; RIM CEO Thorsten Heins says he is considering doing exactly that.
The smartest thing currently going on at RIM is the development of BlackBerry Fusion, the toolkit that lets businesses manage all the different phones being brought in by employees. This bring-your-own-device niche is one which RIM’s current competitors are unlikely to enter – and it’s potentially a high-margin business, at that.
Put these trends together with Heins’ oddly-timed comments about a potential hardware sale, and it’s tough to get excited about this week’s BlackBerry 10 launch. It may just be a lot of sound and fury that ultimately won’t matter much, since RIM’s real interests – and future – lay elsewhere.
By Peter Nowak - Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 9:43 AM - 0 Comments
McDonald’s Spam platter is a delicacy in Hawaii. And the new star of my nightmares.
I’ve eaten a lot of crap for this blog. As a guy who wrote a book that’s one-third about how fast food has contributed to technological advancement, I’ve strangely felt it my duty to keep up on the latest developments in the field. That includes sampling a lot of weird, unique and often gross fast-food concoctions.
In Sex, Bombs and Burgers, I spend some time explaining the origin and spread of Spam – the canned meat, not the email – and its ties to food technology and the history of war. The product was invented in the 1930s by Jay Hormel of the Hormel meat empire in an effort to use up the unwanted parts of pigs. Surprisingly, this canned Franken-meat didn’t sell well – until the Second World War broke out, whereupon it became the perfect food for troops: high in calories, completely portable and virtually indestructible (and unperishable).
Spam was shipped by the ton to the Pacific Islands, where American troops ate it up. It also filtered into the general populace and has since become enshrined as local cuisine. Islanders have come up with numerous new ways of eating the canned meat – small slices are placed on top of rice in a sushi-style musubi, or it’s cooked like sausage and served along with rice and eggs in breakfast platters.
As such, they eat lots of it. In Hawaii, where I spent the past two weeks on vacation, the average person eats the equivalent of six cans a year.
Having written about all this, I felt duty-bound to try it, even though the very thought of Spam sends waves of revulsion through my belly. I haven’t had it since I was a kid and really, the idea of meat in a can still seems like one of humanity’s most unnatural inventions.
Nevertheless, earlier this week I sauntered into a McDonald’s for breakfast and boldly ordered the Spam, eggs and rice platter. The cashier didn’t bat an eye. Obviously, a lot of people do this on a regular basis.
At a glance, the tray didn’t look too dissimilar from a regular McDonald’s breakfast. The differences only became apparent upon closer inspection. The yellow, square dollop of “scrambled eggs” were normal enough, but the round scoop of sticky white rice was new. Of course, the real star of the show were the two small rectangles of cooked Spam, which could easily be mistaken for ham or sausage.
I bit into the eggs first. Yup. Standard-issue McDonald’s eggs: flavourless, with a bit of rubberiness to their texture.
The rice was next. Yup, it was rice alright. Not even Mickey D’s can screw up rice.
At last, I cut off a piece of Spam and gingerly took a bite. And then the revulsion hit.
The sensation is hard to describe. It was salty and slightly warm, with a texture sort of like squishy leather. At best, it tasted like dirty ham. Or old ham. Or just nasty, nasty ham.
I hadn’t actually noticed the smell until I bit into it. It was similarly pungent, like someone had cooked ham that had been left out on the counter for a few days. After that first bite, I was forevermore wary of that stench.
I quickly doused the rice with soya sauce and shoveled it into my mouth, hoping to kill the horror that lingered therein, followed by a large gulp of my Fanta Fruit Punch (which is awesome, by the way). The queasiness subsided somewhat.
After mentally regrouping, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I had to take another bite, if only to confirm that the first wasn’t just a fluke. I had to confirm that the cooked Spam was indeed disgusting. I steeled myself and cut off another chunk, then stabbed it with my fork and slowly raised it to my mouth.
The second bite sealed it: still horrible.
I took another nibble of the “eggs,” a few more fork fulls of the rice and then chucked the whole thing in the garbage, followed by a thorough palate cleansing via Fanta. I’m sure I’ve had worse breakfasts, but I was hard-pressed to remember any.
I understand that Spam in all its forms is an acquired taste that’s enjoyed by millions of people, but there’s simply no way I’ll ever get it. If anything, my inborn revulsion to it has only been strengthened by my Hawaiian adventure. Now, even the thought of it is enough to unnerve me. I think I’ll stick to writing about it.
The things I do for this blog…
By Peter Nowak - Monday, January 21, 2013 at 4:33 PM - 0 Comments
If you follow telecommunications and technology policy, one of the names you’re probably acquainted with is Susan Crawford. If you don’t know her, you should – she’s a professor at Cardozo law school at New York’s Yeshiva University, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a former ICANN member. In 2009, she also co-led the Federal Communications Commission’s transition from the Bush to Obama administration. She’s also a regular contributor to Wired and Bloomberg. When it comes to tech and telecom, she knows her stuff.
Crawford’s recently released book, provocatively titled Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, documents the rise of Comcast from its roots as a humble, family-owned cable provider to the effective “owner” of the internet in the United States.
I recently spoke with Crawford about her book, the state of the U.S. market and its similarities to Canada, and wrote that up in a story, here.
Much of that conversation didn’t fit into the story, of course, so here it is in full:
Q. What did you do while you were an adviser to President Obama?
A. Well, I don’t want to overstate my importance because I was only there for a year. I was brought in to co-lead the FCC transition between Obama and Bush. I was not a political person and this call came out of the blue, but I took it on extremely earnestly. I told the transition team that I didn’t want a job, which is apparently the secret to getting a job. I ended up on Larry Summers’ staff. There are two policy councils that advise the president right inside the White House office. One of them is the domestic policy council and the other is the national economic council, so Summers was the head of the national economic council. I was his staff member on science, innovation and technology policy.
This was the beginning of 2009, so the world was falling apart. The country was falling into an abyss so everybody was very busy figuring out what to do with the banks and the car industry. I think it’s fair to say that technology policy wasn’t high on the ranking of issues at that moment. But Congress, in the stimulus bill, provided $7.2 billion to be given out in grants and loans for broadband in America. The bill’s language was very broad and the amount of money provided wasn’t large enough to make a difference for the country. The other thing that happened was that the money was split between two agencies, the department of commerce and the agriculture agency. So I decided it was very important to make sure those two agencies worked very closely together and make sure the grants were as thoughtful as we could make them. I didn’t want to just sprinkle money across the country for crappy wireless access, but actually finding out what better middle-mile fiber could do to improve the country’s internet access infrastructure.
I worked on that and on the digital television transition, which was just happening. The Bush team had done a pretty poor job getting the country ready for that. There was no permanent chairman at the FCC and no one permanently in charge on the political side at the Department of Commerce, so for a good part of that first I was just helping to co-ordinate activities. It’s amazing – when you first come into a new administration, there is no government. It takes a while to get everybody in, so I just viewed my role as being as helpful as possible in that interim period.
Q. Okay, so fast forward to your book: how do you describe it to people?
A. The way that captures most people’s imaginations is that the same thing has happened to high-speed internet access in America as happened to electricity [many years ago] in that people view high-speed internet access as a luxury and a very few private companies in a completely deregulated context control the pricing and availability. Just as with electricity, it’s going to take leadership, a lot of political will and great citizen involvement to change this picture so that everybody in the country gets reasonably priced, globally relevant high-speed internet access, so that just as today we can rely on turning on a light switch in our home.
Q. In the book, you spend a good deal of time explaining why Comcast is the big problem in this issue. Can you briefly summarize why it’s that company and not someone like AT&T or Verizon that’s the bigger problem?
A. That’s a great question and the book is pretty dense, so I applaud you for reading it. I really wanted to explain where this whole story came from. The reason I focused on Comcast is that for somewhere north of 75 per cent of Americans, their only choice for wired high-speed internet access is their local cable monopolist. For most of America’s big cities, that actor is Comcast. AT&T and Verizon are retreating almost entirely into wireless access and have ceded the field to the cable guys.
Q. You talk a lot about vertical integration. There are other big, vertically integrated media companies in the U.S. – where does Comcast stand in that pack?
A. Among the network access providers – and by that I mean Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon – Comcast is by far the deepest into programming and distribution. It’s the most vertically integrated provider in America. Time Warner Cable split off from the Time Warner, the media megalopolis. They do have some programming holdings and they made life very difficult for Google [Fiber] in Kansas City because Time Warner Cable there owns the local sports rights. But Comcast is much more deeply into programming than the other guys, and it’s been very effective. Comcast is now bigger in terms of revenue and market cap than McDonald’s, Home Depot and some other giant businesses. They’ve been able to use this vertical integration with programming to make it more expensive for anyone to show up and compete with them. Americans demand programming as well as internet access, so anyone who wants to compete has to come into both markets at once. That’s a great upfront investment that’s just about impossible.
Q. I had just finished your book when I saw the news about Intel possibly launching a television set with a la carte channels. Given what you wrote, I couldn’t help but think, ‘That’s not going to happen.’
A. [Laughs] It just plummets its face against these licensing issues.
Q. You also write that Comcast owns the internet in the U.S. That’s of course technically not true, but you do explain the various ways in which it has a sort of de facto ownership. Can you explain?
A. You can think of this as everybody has a pipe into their home and, for most people, that pipe is controlled by their regional cable monopoly. And for many Americans, that’s Comcast. Comcast can turn so many dials on that pipe that it makes life very uncertain for any new business that’s a high-bandwidth business. Take Netflix, for example. Comcast can impose usage caps that make it more expensive for anyone planning to substitute Netflix for their Comcast package. It can make Netflix’s video more uncertain as it reaches consumers, it can raise Netflix’s programming costs in league with the other programming providers. It has a thousand dials to spin that make life uncertain for other online businesses. It has the ability to raise prices for internet access at will, it can place restrictions on that access with no oversight and it can make the terrain uncertain for any new over-the-top service.
Q. How much does regulatory capture play into this?
A. I think it’s pretty clear from the book that I’m not saying anybody’s actually corrupt. Everybody is doing the best they can in a very difficult political situation. Comcast is very well connected politically to municipal, state and national leaders. From a regulatory standpoint, absent public uproar, it’s just too hard to do anything about the situation.
Q. If Verizon and AT&T are pulling back from wired internet access competition and aren’t going to compete with Comcast, it almost seems logical that they’re setting themselves to be acquired by that company. How likely is that?
A. I think [Comcast CEO] Brian Roberts was telling the truth when he said that Comcast is now strategically complete at this point, following the NBC Universal acquisition. Acquiring a telephone company would be a bridge too far for Comcast, it would focus more attention on this issue than Comcast would like. Besides, Comcast doesn’t really need to acquire anybody. They can offer their own wi-fi services in most large American cities and they’ve made common cause with Verizon. By co-operating with Verizon Wireless, Comcast gets all the benefits that it might get by acquiring Verizon Wireless. You can think of these guys as giant actors, each one of which is too big to acquire and each one of which is too big to compete.
Q. I also got the idea from reading your book that Comcast, if it wanted further vertical integration, could acquire Google. Is that unlikely for the same logic you just suggested?
A. I don’t think Comcast is going to be buying any of the other giant players. Each one of these giant players has carved out its own niche and they don’t face any real competition in that niche. Verizon and AT&T are doing fine in the wireless world, Facebook, Apple and Google are all doing fine in their corners. They may jostle up against each other, but none of them is going to acquire any of the others. The contrast is so amazing. I was speaking to someone here [in Seoul] yesterday and they said, ‘If you ran an apartment in Seoul, you have the choice for fiber access – 100 megabit symmetrical access – from three or more providers and it costs $30 a month. That’s pretty different.
Q. The counter to that, however, is that while internet access may be cheap in a place like South Korea or Japan, the cost of things like fruit is through the roof.
A. That’s true. There are definitely trade-offs. But people today are likely to give up their fruit before they’ll give up their cellphone contract, so when it comes to essential needs, it’s like electricity. You can’t survive in the world without it.
Q. One last question about possible Comcast acquisitions. You mention 30 Rock a few times in the book: how about a couch maker for full vertical integration of the living room, as on the show?
A. Ha! Slightly different from that but also interesting is that Verizon was said to be seeking a patent on a DVR [with a camera] that would allow them to watch the living room and see what you were most interested in. All of that is definitely possible. The screen can also be a sensor network that is aware of your reactions to everything you watch. Notice that Comcast is also deep into the home security business. They’re going to continue to look for more ways to make more money from the same number of people. To the extent that that’s based on knowing more about you, that’s a good direction [for the company] to go in.
Q. Is vertical integration cyclical? It seems like competitors are always destined to consolidate and become monopolies, only to eventually be broken up. How is this situation going to shake out in the long run?
A. In the long run, for America to be successful as a country, we’re going to need to take this policy problem head on. We’re going to need a basic fiber utility for all Americans that’s reasonably priced. To get there, we’re going to need to carry out some divestitures, some structural separation, dividing content from conduit, to make sure cities can do this for themselves and that it’s legal for them to do so. You need to make sure that local and national governments have oversight power over this utility. All of these steps are necessary. Right now it seems politically difficult, but my guess is that in the next five years, the public will be sufficiently exercised about this that change will occur.
Q. People complain about prices creeping up slowly in everything from gas to internet service, but they don’t do much about it. What do you think needs to happen to instigate this sort of public revolt?
A. There are already a lot of Americans who are angry that these bills are so high and that they’re cutting into their paycheque. It’s just a matter of connecting those people to each other. A movement already exists, it’s just a question of making it more visible to itself. I don’t think we need a crisis for that movement to spring into action, you just need more connected tissue.
Q. Do you have any idea as to what the President thinks about all this, or is he just busy with other things?
A. I don’t know. I think he’s probably being told that this is a luxury item and not something he should be focusing his energies on. But he’s being told that by people closely tied to the telecommunications industry. My hope for Obama 2.0 is that he will see this issue as the fundamental problem that it is for America. Just as we need a functional banking system and a functioning housing system, we need a functioning communications system. This should be high on his radar screen. As well, Congress is not exactly co-operative, but FDR took on the private electric companies for decades and that’s what changed the electricity picture in America. Similarly, this could be a legacy project for the president.
Q. You talk a bit about Bell Canada and usage-based billing in the book. How boned up are you on Canada?
A. Canada, if anything, looks worse than America. With the power of the cable companies, it seems to be unrestricted. The ability of new Canadian companies to address very large markets at very high speeds is being constrained by the current communications picture. From everything I read, it seems to be even worse.
Q. On a personal level, do you find this stuff depressing or does it make you angry?
A. Ha! Neither. Life is short. I have no commercial ties to this question so I can speak plainly. I think I’m lucky to be in a position to explain what’s going on. It’s not depressing. Americans are smart and energetic and they can understand the public good. I’m actually optimistic about this.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 1:46 PM - 0 Comments
Brazilian burger chain Bob’s recently got a lot of press for introducing edible wrappers made of rice paper. With the tagline of “there’s no need to control yourself” emblazoned on the wrappers, the chain said it was testing them for environmental reasons. Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Monday, January 14, 2013 at 4:38 PM - 0 Comments
It’s not much of a stretch to predict that we’re going to see some new video game consoles this year. It might be a little surprising, however, to suggest that Microsoft is going to jump to a commanding lead in this ongoing console war and that the battle may go from the current three players to four–at least for the time being.
The writing on the wall couldn’t be more obvious in regards to new consoles, at least from Microsoft and likely from Sony as well. Slowing console sales are one indicator, but perhaps the most telling hint is Microsoft’s first-party release schedule.
The company has typically rotated its two biggest franchises, Halo and Gears of War, over successive holiday periods, with the former coming one year and the latter the next. Yet this time around, Halo 4 saw its release this past September while Gears of War: Judgment is scheduled for a March, 2013 launch. The two biggest franchises released within months of each other? What’s going on?
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 10:16 AM - 0 Comments
Who’d have ever thought Knight Rider would almost be reality?
It’s unlikely that robot cars will become commercially available in 2013, but it’s a certainty that they will take big steps forward. So far, Google has been pushing forward with the development of self-driving vehicles, but the search company is not alone. Toyota is the latest to officially join the fray.
The Japanese car maker will be showing off its “active safety research vehicle, Intelligent Transport Systems and 2013 Lexus LS,” which is “equipped with the world’s most advanced pre-collision safety system,” at the Consumer Electronics Show this week. I’ll be checking it out and speaking with Toyota executives. Watch for more on this next week. Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Monday, January 7, 2013 at 9:37 AM - 0 Comments
With the start of a new year, there’s no better time to review and reflect on the federal government’s complete and utter failure in providing leadership on digital issues. The country has been waiting on a digital strategy–a comprehensive plan for how Canada intends to compete in the global information economy–for years. For example:
“More than one hundred representatives from libraries, museums, archives, publishers, copyright collectives, the education community and government gathered last week in snowy Montebello, Que. for a national summit on a Canadian digital information strategy. The by-invitation-only event marked the culmination of a year-long cross-country effort to ensure that Canada is not left behind as our trading partners race to develop their own 21st century digitization plans.” – Toronto Star, Dec. 11, 2006
“Free access to government data and equitable access to the Internet itself are key to a prosperous digital economy, say many of those who took part in recent federal consultations. For two months, the government has been seeking public input on its strategy for a digital economy… [Industry Minister Tony Clement] did not provide a specific timeline, but suggested Canada would take about the same time as other countries, who have typically developed strategies in six to 18 months.” – CBC, July 14, 2010
“For over a year Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government have been talking about the need to create a digital economic strategy for the nation, with Industry Minister Tony Clement promising to reveal details this spring.” – IT Business, Mar. 23, 2011
“I will launch a Canadian-made digital economy strategy by the end of the year.” – Industry Minister Christian Paradis, Aug. 28, 2012
If the government’s latest broken promise is any indication, the wait is going to continue, despite numerous consultations and reports having already taken place. For those paying attention to other countries and their digital strategies (New Zealand had one in 2005, Japan in 2001), it’s exasperating at best, infuriating at worst.
Yet, the government could do worse. It could, as many fear, release a digital strategy that is low on specifics and without any real teeth. Such a plan would be a disservice. Canada is already behind in many ways, from web usage by businesses, to Internet access pricing, to research and development spending, to venture capital access. There are many problems to be fixed, so any digital strategy must take specific actions to get the country back on the right track.
The other danger with any sort of digital plan is the tendency to throw money at a problem in the hopes that it’ll fix itself. That’s also the wrong way to go, since government-provided funds are often squandered without any concrete results to show at the end.
Most importantly, a digital strategy must be bold. There is no sense in aiming for the future if you’re not aiming high. Timidity has no place in such a plan.
The government has already heard from a broad range of Canadians as to what the country’s strategy should contain. Here is a list of 10 suggestions, some of which are repeated from submissions and some of which are my own additions. The list–sort of a set of New Year’s resolution for government–is by no means comprehensive, but it would make for a good starting point.
Technology Minister: Creating a cabinet ministerial position that would deal with all things technological would go a long way to showing the public that the government does indeed take digital issues seriously. Which it currently doesn’t, obviously.
Merge Telecom and Broadcasting Acts: Telecom and broadcasting technologies have converged, as have their owners, so why are the laws governing them still separate? Indeed, the government should move to liberalize foreign ownership in broadcasting the same way it did last year with telecom. Maintaining the restrictions does much to counter any positives introduced by telecom ownership liberalization.
Infrastructure regulatory holiday: Any new company that wants to build a telecom network in Canada, whether wired or wireless, gets a 10-year exemption from any regulations affecting access to that network (in other words, they won’t have to give access to third-party independent internet service providers). The holiday could be even longer for northern Canada, where things are even more dire. Some might say this is unfair to the likes of Bell or Rogers or Northwestel, but those companies got to build their networks and customer bases with government-granted monopolies. Such an exemption might seem especially intriguing to certain search engine companies that are currently building fibre networks in the United States.
Broadband targets: Speaking of which, the government should institute pricing, speed and usage targets that ISPs must reach within three years. The targets would be set based on projections of what will be needed to measure among the top countries at that time. Failure by the ISPs to hit the targets would result in the government launching consultations on how to structurally separate network owners from retail operations, and/or the feasibility of building a nationally-owned fibre network. Is this de facto regulation? Yes indeed, but it’s market forces that have caused Canada to fall behind. When the carrot doesn’t do the trick, sometimes you need to turn to the stick.
Internet access subsidies: With broadband simply being too expensive for many poorer Canadians, a simple subsidy program is needed –- if your household income is under a certain amount, the government pays part of your monthly Internet bill. Not only would this connect the people who need Internet access the most, it would also saddle the government with a continually escalating tab. If that doesn’t cause politicians to spur better Internet service and prices, nothing will.
Computer programs: In that vein, there are also too many households that don’t have computers, wherein Internet access would obviously not make a lick of difference. The digital strategy should outline a specific plan to work with private-sector companies to provide such households not just with computers, but with the training required to use them effectively. Certain individuals have expressed a desire to help on this front; these people should be sought and hired to lead such projects.
Tech export credits: Canadian businesses aren’t using the Internet enough to reach global markets, so applying further tax rewards on sales specifically made using digital means might spur some to finally take online expansion seriously.
Foreign recruiting: Going the other way, the government should step up recruitment in countries that have large numbers of the sorts of skilled people needed here. Universities have tried various recruitment drives over the years, but they can only promise students so much. Government is much better positioned to deliver such workers jobs, not to mention a life in Canada.
Incubators, incubators, incubators: The venture capital problem might actually be one that can be helped with money. With early-stage investment identified as a real issue for Canadian startups, the government could accomplish much by funding lots of technology incubation projects, where entrepreneurs can cut their teeth until they get noticed by proper VCs.
R&D tax breaks: The federal government should take a cue from the provincial governments of Quebec, B.C. and Ontario, which created a vibrant video game industry through tax breaks. Those governments attracted large multinationals by giving them big discounts on labour costs, with the result being thousands of new jobs. More importantly, an ecosystem of very talented developers has formed, with Canada now becoming a leader in independent game design. The same model should be used to attract multinationals to set up research and development centres, with similar benefits likely to result.
By Peter Nowak - Monday, December 31, 2012 at 10:02 AM - 0 Comments
Back around Halloween, I became a convert to Hailo, an app that connects taxi drivers and people looking for cabs via smartphone GPS. Ever since, I’ve been taking more taxis than ever, simply because the app is so slick, convenient and easy to use.
The company behind the app was started 18 months ago in London by a sextet of founders: three cabbies and three financiers and tech experts. Hailo has since grown explosively — first expanding to Dublin and then Toronto on Sept. 26, with Boston and Chicago following soon thereafter.
Ahead of New Year’s Eve, the busiest night of the year for taxis, I sat down with Toronto president Justin Raymond to find out more about the company’s impressive growth. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
How did Hailo choose the cities it did?
They’re big cab markets. They look at the regulatory environment as well to see if there’s an opening for us to get in. We don’t like to barge in and not be licensed, we like to work with the regulator to help the city create a better transportation matrix. Toronto is an amazingly sophisticated town, it has a number of different transportation options, but it when it comes to taxis it’s antiquated. It’s ripe for change, which is the reason why it was the first foray into North America. It also comes down to having access to the right people.
So you have to have a pool of technically competent people to make it work?
The way we go to market is to find three cab drivers in each city – influential thought leaders in the taxi cab space because, as much as I wish that I’d be a great taxi recruiter, I’ll never be as good as a cabbie. I don’t speak cabbie and they do. They have mutual respect for each other and they listen to each other.
What’s your background – how did you get involved with this?
I was approached by Jay [Bregman, co-founder and chief executive]. I’ve started other companies that have touched on the taxi industry in Canada. I started TaxiGuy, which is a national network of 400 cab companies that was really cool 15 years ago because they were linked together through a toll-free phone number and now it’s moved to an app system. I also started #Taxi [through CellWand], which is on 250 million cellphones right now.
How do the regulations work?
Anybody who dispatches or connects a passenger and a taxi through any means in Toronto has to be licensed. There’s no room for interpretation. I went and sat down with the regulators and said, ‘This is what I want to do, what do I need to do to make it official?’ So I jumped through the hoops. The existing system is focused on the vehicle or the plate, whereas Hailo is focused on the drivers, so it basically turns the industry on its head because you focus on the independent contractors who bring the value. You don’t have to worry about all of the other issues with plates and garages and maintenance and all the other things that come with the old standards.
How does Hailo make money?
It’s a pay-as-you-go model, which is also unique. We take 15-per-cent commission [on each fare] and inside of that, we guarantee that all credit cards are accepted and we pay for all of the back-end of the transaction costs.
And that commission is lower than what traditional dispatchers charge?
Our model is working directly with drivers. So we send you a job through your phone, you take the job and take 85 per cent of the total, we take 15 per cent. Drivers on the other model go and pick up their car every day at a garage and they have to pay a weekly fee up front for either the day shift of the night shift. They pay between $550 and $700 for that weekly shift and for the opportunity to work themselves out of that hole over the course of the week. On top of that, they also pay seven to 10 per cent on credit card charges that they process, they have to pay for the terminal rental and seven to 10 per cent on any corporate charge accounts that they accept.
The garages end up paying the brokerages for the terminals that are in the cars, the radios and computers. When you net it all out at the end of the day, between 35 and 40 per cent of all the money [drivers] make goes to pay for all those services.
Do you have corporate-owned taxis? I’ve seen some with your branding plastered on them.
Those vehicles are operated by Ambassador drivers. There are about 1,500 Ambassador plates issued by the city, which is one car, one driver. They’re more often than not seasoned drivers who have been around for a long time and they have control decisions over that car. A lot of the guys in the Ambassador program work with Hailo and are enthusiasts and they let us wrap their cars as an advertisement.
You seem to have rubbed some traditional taxi companies the wrong way. How do you view this issue?
They just don’t really know how to react. We came to the market pretty fast and have grown our driver network very quickly. The old incumbents don’t really want to admit or recognize that drivers aren’t necessarily as happy as they think they are. The drivers are open minded to a new way of doing things, which is the foundation of innovation. If you can bring a model that is efficient, that creates no losers, it’s going to be successful, especially when it comes down to this industry, where drivers just want to be treated fairly. Our model is resoundingly being accepted as being fair to the drivers, to the company and to the passengers. I think it’s a period of adjustment for [traditional companies] and it’s interesting to see how it’s being accepted.
How are you positioned for growth?
London just celebrated its first anniversary and when they launched, they started with 600 taxi drivers. One year later, they had just under 10,000. Hailo is doing a job every seven seconds around the world. It’s amazing growth with amazing uptake and markets around the world are clamouring for it. The roadmap is already built for 2013. We’re launching in Madrid, Barcelona, Tokyo, Washington D.C. and New York City will be a big one. We’re also going to test some smaller satellite markets to see if it can be self-fulfilling.
Anywhere else in Canada?
Yeah, we’re doing the research now and are looking at several markets: Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal and some satellite communities as well, like the entire Greater Toronto Area.
What sorts of numbers are you seeing for Toronto?
We have over 600 drivers now that have the app and are trained and are actively using the system. We have over 30,000 downloads [on the user side]. The real indicator of growth is that word of mouth is really happening, people are becoming advocates of our system. Drivers love it, they love coming here and they feel welcome, like they belong. Technology can’t do anything unless you have the supply side.
There’s like 11,000 licensed taxi drivers in Toronto, but a lot of guys use it as their secondary source of income. In reality, there’s probably about 8,000 or 9,000 who are really making it their primary source of income. Smartphone penetration among drivers is pretty low. There’s the smartphone chasm where drivers have to get across in order to join Hailo. We don’t believe in providing them with a smartphone because that’s not a sustainable business model and we want them to put a bit of skin into the game. I think by this time next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had 2,000 drivers.
What’s your estimate on smartphone penetration among drivers?
From our research, I’d say it’s about 20 to 30 per cent.
Will traditional taxi companies have to try to out-innovate Hailo in order to stay in the game?
They [Beck] have an app. It’s a different system and it doesn’t do everything that ours does, but they are attempting to innovate. This is going to be a pretty intense competitive environment.
One of the things that drivers love about our app is that distribution of work is fair, it’s not based on picking and choosing, it’s based on GPS proximity. Some of the old traditional brokerages have been accused of playing favourites, like sending the good airport jobs to their friends and holding back opportunities for others. With Hailo, it’s the closest taxi gets the job first. They have 20 seconds to accept the job [after which it goes to the next closest].
You recently announced a deal with Molson Coors. How is that working?
We’re underwriting the $1 million [in fare discounts] and what Molson’s is doing is putting the actual promotional cards into licensed establishments around Toronto. Those people there get trained in the app and they distribute the cards. It’s a promotional code so you just go into your profile on the app and punch it in and you have $10 instantly come off your next ride.
How do you think this sort of thing is going to fit in with robot cars, which are now street legal in several U.S. states?
We talk about that and it’s fascinating. I love all of the environmental benefits that come with it… but do we see ourselves becoming part of that? It’d be interesting to be part of a test, but the fundamental part of Hailo is actually the drivers. So if you replace the drivers with someone with no personality, you’re sort of taking away from the overall experience.
But it’s funny because with the advent of systems like Hailo, you start to see what’s possible. We’ve taken all of the human error element out of it. It’s not like eliminating jobs is a priority but creating efficiencies is, and sometimes that’s just the reality of business.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 7:59 AM - 0 Comments
With technology advancing exponentially, so too are the number of new gadgets flooding the market. There are indeed so many gizmos coming out on a daily basis that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them.
That’s why, love them or hate them, top-10 lists are especially useful when it comes to this particular theme. All such lists are purely subjective, as is the one I’ve put together below, but they are handy in identifying some of the standouts amid the sea of stuff out there.
Here are the 10 gadgets I liked best – or that I thought were important – in 2012:
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 6:08 AM - 0 Comments
The whole concept of gift-giving around Christmas seems to get tougher with each passing year. It’s not that I have trouble figuring out what to get friends and family – that’s usually pretty easy – it’s the reverse that’s always a challenge. I’ve been pretty lucky in life, so I have most of the things I want or need. The few things I do desire are usually so expensive or frivolous that I have no business in asking anyone to get them for me.
Case in point: the Star Wars Lego Super Star Destroyer. Here’s a $500 toy that no sane adult really should be playing with, much less coveting. Yet, if you’ve followed me on Twitter at all this year, you probably know that Star Wars Lego is something of an obsession for me (original trilogy only, none of that Jar Jar-era or Clone Wars crap for me).
It turns out I’m not crazy – or alone – in having this offbeat hobby. I wrote a story about adult Lego aficionados earlier this year and, in speaking with company designers and toy industry analysts, found that the brick sets are actually pretty popular with more than just kids.
Adults like Lego for the same reason that other grown-ups are attracted to gardening, car mechanics or wood carving – it’s a physical hobby that lets you work with your hands. For those of us who deal in the digital world and stare at screens all day, it may be even more important to actually exercise our tactile capabilities. Yes, it’s nerdy, but it’s better than completely zoning into the Matrix, right?
I put all that together as my official rationalizations for finally buying the Super Star Destroyer a few weeks ago. So yeah, I’m not ashamed.
Regular readers may remember my adventure earlier this year with the Lego Death Star. With a similar price tag and total pieces (3,803 compared to the Star Destroyer’s 3,152), the two sets represent the height of Lego’s Star Wars line.
I’m pleased to report that building Darth Vader’s flagship was almost as fun as the Death Star. As with that set, the Star Destroyer comes in a giant box that actually houses four sub-boxes:
It’s a little intimidating, given that most Lego sets come in just one of these, but for us Death Star veterans, it’s not as daunting once you learn that the fourth box is just for the instruction booklet. The book itself is a whopping 221 pages, but it’s shorter than the Death Star’s 260. Still, it’s no less impressive to dump the box contents out. This is the first box only:
The Death Star took me about 15 hours to build. Halfway through, the Star Destroyer started to take shape:
One thing that quickly became apparent about the ship is that it’s hard to photograph – at least with the lens I have – because of its length. It’s hard to get the whole thing in focus:
How long is it? It’s about four feet, or the entire length of my desk:
After 10 hours or work, I finally finished it. I had originally planned to put it on one of my book shelves but I grossly underestimated its size. Fortunately, I had some free-floating shelves lying around, so I put them up as the perfect stand:
The detailing on the ship is pretty impressive, even though some of it was a little monotonous to put together. Over all, the lower number and variety of pieces explains why it only took about two-thirds of the time to build as the Death Star:
The underside is just as cool as the top, with the support legs being a nice touch. They make the ship feel more like a model than a toy, as in more respectable?
For the uber-nerds, there’s also a plaque describing the Executor’s technical specifications. This is a little overboard, even for me:
The engines were among the most fun parts to put together. They sort of invoke the opening scene from the very first Star Wars movie, where the giant Star Destroyer flies overhead for seemingly forever:
It wouldn’t be a proper Star Wars set without some mini-figures. Here, you get Darth Vader, Admiral Piett, Bossk, IG-88 and some other dude. It’s nowhere near the 23-minifigure haul of the Death Star, but it’s impressive the designers managed to work in a bridge at all, given that the ship isn’t built in minifigure scale:
All told, the Super Star Destroyer was great fun to build, although with fewer pieces and less variety than the Death Star, there was a bit of repetition in some of the detailing. And with very complex interlocking pieces built into its supporting structure, I’m not sure how I’m ever going to disassemble the thing.
If I had to settle for one or the other, I’d go with the Death Star. But, if anyone out there has their eye on both, I’d get the Executor first – it’ll serve as a nice warmup to the main event.
And no, I have no intention of crashing one into the other, like in the movies. The lunatics over at Tested have already done that.
By Peter Nowak - Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 7:42 AM - 0 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the case for laws governing armed robots is growing. The post was in response to a report issued by Human Rights Watch, which advocated for an outright ban on autonomous armed machines before they become a reality.
I argued that an outright ban was impractical and perhaps undesirable, with different countries having different needs. Some very much want to take human soldiers out of harm’s way while others might be looking at armed robots as a way of evening the odds against vastly bigger enemies.
One of the things that stood out for me in regards to the report were the claims that robots won’t be able to differentiate between an armed soldier and an innocent girl holding an ice cream cone. I suggested that the technology to do exactly that is developing quickly, so it won’t be long before it’s actually put to use.
A few commentators over at the Lawfare blog, however, took it a step further by suggesting that not only will robots be able to identify hostile targets over innocents, they’ll actually do it better than humans. As Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote:
“The report’s authors make a lot of assumptions about the technology that may well prove wrong. Most importantly, they reject without much examination the possibility that fully autonomous robots might, in some environments and for some situations, distinguish military targets far better and more accurately than humans can. To call for a per se ban on autonomous weapons is to insist as a matter of [international humanitarian law] on preserving a minimum level of human error in targeting. That is defensible only if one is certain that the baseline level of possible robotic error in civilian protection exceeds that baseline level of human error… I, for one, would not bet against the possibility that for some military applications, we will some day come to see mere human judgment as guaranteeing an unacceptable level of indiscriminate and disproportionate violence.”
It is indeed wrong to assume that robots won’t be able to do a certain task better than humans simply because they can’t right now. The list of things that humans can do better than robots is literally shrinking every day, with cutting noodles being the latest addition.
By Peter Nowak - Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 8:02 AM - 0 Comments
The other day, I was fiddling with the new Lynx car receiver from Sirius XM. My previous satellite radio receiver had a bunch of actual physical buttons on it, while the new device is all touch screen. That got me thinking about how interfaces have changed over the years and how they’re going to continue evolving, particularly in how we’re having to put less and less effort into listening to music.
Rather than expound on it, I made up this short graphic that I think explains it all:
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 12:28 PM - 0 Comments
Way back yonder in journalism school, oh, about two decades ago, there was a funny division of students. In the undergraduate program, you had to choose a specialty stream at the halfway point of your four years. In those halcyon pre-internet days, that meant picking either broadcast, magazine or print. The problem was, the first two accepted very few students, so those who didn’t get in were shunted off to print where the majority of unwashed journalism students resided.
As a result, there were a good number of disgruntled wannabe broadcast and magazine students in print, but a good portion of us were also hard-core newspaper fans for whom the stream was the first and only choice. We jokingly considered broadcast students to be shallow people who only wanted to be on TV, while magazine students and their high-falutin’ big words and surfeit of adjectives were just artsy hipsters. To us, the people who were “print by choice” were the only real journalists.
As funny as those youthful days now seem, it’s doubly humorous to see a large company adopting that same sort of borderline immature stance in its marketing. If you follow the smartphone field, you’ve probably recognized that I’m talking about Research In Motion’s “BlackBerry by choice” campaign.
Earlier this year, RIM insisted that many of its woes stemmed from poor marketing – that it simply wasn’t doing a good job at pointing out all the positives of BlackBerry. To that effect, the company went out and hired a new chief marketing officer, Frank Boulben, to fix the image problem.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 12:33 PM - 0 Comments
The imbroglio that erupted earlier this week over Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawai is really quite funny. No really, it’s funny—and not at all scary, as some supposed experts would have us believe.
The company is being shut out of deals in the U.S. on fears that it may enable Chinese spying on Americans and the U.S. government. Security experts are also warning that Canada faces the same threat, given that Huawei has supplied a number of telecom companies here—including Telus, Bell, SaskTel and Wind—with their network equipment.
In fact, it looks like the Canadian government is strongly considering banning Huawei from bidding on national projects too, which only heightens the absurdity. Just about every phone and computer used in North America is made in China—should we start considering whether those too are bugged?
The fear-mongering is having its expected effect, with readers over on CBC predictably freaking out over the potential threat.
The problem is, there’s little proof of said threat while the fears themselves are totally bereft of logic.
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
Last week, SiriusXM showed off a slew of new products at an event in Toronto. The company’s new iOS and Android apps were on display. Any day now, subscribers will be getting the new app, which will finally give SiriusXM a proper tablet presence (untill now, the smartphone version has had to do). The service is also introducing a bunch of new features such as pausing music, starting a song from the beginning if you’ve tuned into it in the middle, and going back into programming by up to five hours after it’s been broadcast live.
I finally got hooked on satellite radio last year. Frustrated by the increasing number of ads and dwindling amount of music—much of which is overplayed, CanCon-enforced drivel—on the rest of radio. I haven’t looked back since. Indeed, nowadays I cringe when I get into a car without satellite radio.
It was with dismay, then, that I read a story this summer on SiriusXM’s financial troubles. The Canadian operation, majority owned by John Bitove (the same entrepreneur who runs cellphone provider Mobilicity), has asked regulators to decrease the amount of money it must funnel to Canadian content development. With losses having mounted over the seven years since Sirius and XM launched—they merged last year—is the company is in trouble?
I sat down with SiriusXM Canada chief executive Mark Redmond and discussed the company’s financial woes, as well as its general competitive situation. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
By Peter Nowak - Friday, September 28, 2012 at 9:27 AM - 0 Comments
In light of yesterday’s post about how the expensive iPhone may be counter-productive to societal goals, I thought it might be prudent to also touch on the other side as well.
When the first device powered by Google’s Android software was unveiled in 2008, it was intended to shake up how phones were made and sold and also how the mobile Internet would be used.
Four years later, Android is on the cusp of global domination and Google is well on its way to accomplishing those goals. While it’s customary to fear a rising power, this may just be a positive development for phone users, especially those in poorer countries.
“It’s about being better connected with the knowledge of the world and democratizing forces,” said John Lagerling, director of global partnerships for Android. “These are people who have never had a computer.”
Google’s foray into the phone game, however, isn’t exactly altruistic. In the early 2000s, the company realized that the computer-based Internet it dominated was quickly shifting onto mobile devices. Not wanting to cede its command of the online advertising market, it offered Android, an operating system on which Internet-enabled smartphones could run, to any device maker that wanted it.
While Android enabled web surfing, email and other Internet applications just like its competitors, it was radically different because it was free. Both Apple and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion keep their software to themselves, while Microsoft charges manufacturers to use a mobile version of Windows. Estimates have pegged its licensing fee at $23 to $30 per phone, which in the developing world is enough to make the devices unaffordable.
Manufacturers such as Samsung, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have since run with Google’s free option. As a result, Android is the market leader in the United States and Europe. In developing regions such as Africa, Latin America, China and India, where Android phones can sell for $80 or less on contract, Google either claimed market leadership in 2011 or will in 2012, according to tracking firm Gartner.
The secret, Lagerling says, is that Android has made Internet-enabled phones much cheaper to produce. Not only is the software free, it also drives competition between device makers, which further brings down prices.