The Opposite of Vaporware
Monday, Dec 14, 2009
One thing that Google and Apple have in common is that, more than most technology companies, they don't announce things until they're ready for people to see and touch (and in applicable cases, buy). Sure, there are exceptions to this rule; the iPhone was pre-announced by six months, but by and large both companies try to publicize their products and services more than hawk their strategic visions and timelines. Despite this unusually forthright product communications strategy, both companies have at times been called out for vaporware when there's a specific need to announce a planned product months ahead of time, in order to get developer involvement in place in time for product release. With this in mind, I found it amusing that with the probable imminent release of the Googlephone, Google has managed to achieve the opposite of vaporware: having a finished, demonstrable product in a lot of people's hands while not announcing it and even trying to downplay its existence as much as possible at the same time as there are tens of thousands of them 'in the wild'. Sure, lots of companies have prerelease hardware in the pockets or messenger bags of their employees for field-testing, but these people are under strict orders not to be seen with the device or to let on that it even exists. I can't recall any product in history that has had so much anticipatory digital ink spilled in its name, yet is released into the wild in numbers far beyond the few dozen guarded units that might normally be expected, without any sort of formal corporate cheerleading or chest pounding, only a reluctant post on a corporate sub-blog admitting that yeah, employees got some stuff that might be related to some stuff that other people might some day be able to get. It's corporate-speak for "It ain't no thang" and it's the kind of casual tone that draws such a contrast with the typical cockiness of Microsoft or the supreme confidence of Apple. So yeah, there'll probably be a Google phone out next month, but not because Google promised it. This is a fresh dose of reality preceding the corporate hype.
Enderle and Gruber on the Magic Mouse
Friday, Oct 23, 2009
Rob Enderle doesn't like Apple's new multi-touch mouse (and John Gruber surprisingly agrees):
"[The Magic Mouse] will likely go down in history as one of the lamest devices yet as they should know, given the iPhone, that touch is connected to the screen and not anything else."
Enderle must wonder how Apple stays in business at all, what with all those stupid MacBooks and their lame trackpads. Seriously, I get the problem with trying to tie a proximal touch-pointer device to a distal screen -- a touch-based Wacom tablet in absolute mode would pretty much suck. But that's not what the Magic Mouse is. It's just a mouse with a little extra tech to support gestural commands on its surface. Swiping and scrolling are nifty on the iPhone, but that's not evidence that it sucks when you perform the same gesture as a secondary function of your pointing device, whether it's a trackpad or a mouse.
The wonder of parallel stomachs
Monday, Oct 19, 2009
Having lunch with Casey today, we got to wondering about whether cows fabled four stomachs operate in series or parallel. Instinct would imply that series was more likely, but for a system where a cow could regurgitate and chew its cud a serial arrangement seems cumbersome, having to back up the chain to get the cud back into the mouth. A set or stomachs operating in parallel would be AWESOME. Forget for a moment how much it would ease the minds of those who don't like their food touching, and how having several parallel stomachs could ensure that their peas don't mix with their pie even when all is swallowed and done. No, the glory of parallel stomachs is DIFFERENTIATION. You could have stomachs optimized for different tasks. You could have your vegetarian stomach and your protein stomach. Your entree stomach that you can fill to the brim without any worry that you might not have any room left in your dessert stomach. Bulimics would have a whole new set of tools to work with. There would be classes on stomach optimization. Your stomachs and you. Then there's the useful stuff. You could have your 'danger stomach' a sandboxed digestive environment for testing questionable foods without passing on the possible contamination to the rest of the body. A half-fat stomach that has rate-limits on absorption to help your body deal with a world where food is prepared more for taste than nutritional impact. For that matter, you should be able to program your stomachs to absorb the proper amount of nutrients for your anticipated needs for the next several days. Running a 5K? Just let your stomachs know a few days in advance to help you prep your body. Don't forget to put it in your Google Calendar and set up the TummySync in Settings (under Labs, of course). It makes sense that this kind of thing didn't happen evolutionarily, because most stages of evolution involve optimizing to get the maximum value out of any food. Species on the whole rarely exist long in environments where food becomes more and more plentiful with higher and higher fat and caloric content. It might be time for a little intelligent design. And while we're at it, how about that second mouth? The one with limited taste for taking all the stuff that's good for you but tastes bad? Oh, and the cow? Turns out they operate in series, in a digestive train with three steps forward and one step back, like the Hora. Next up: The sandboxed second brain for thinking dangerous thoughts.
The smartphone gap is closing, no matter what Apple says
Monday, Oct 19, 2009
Apple executive Tim Cook, on today's earnings call:
"Frankly I think people are trying to catch up with the first iPhone two years ago. We've long since moved beyond that."
I'm not going to get in to how Verizon/Motorola/Google's new Droid compares to the iPhone because I (like Mr. Cook) haven't seen one yet, but I do raise an eyebrow at the comment that Apple has long since moved beyond the original iPhone. Apple's done a great job at implementing key features like Exchange integration, GPS, and the App store, but the core iPhone experience and hardware product haven't changed much at all in the last two years. It's absurd to suggest that Apple has been widening the gap between the iPhone and its competitors.
Inside Appleblogger Baseball
Monday, Oct 19, 2009
Dan Lyons (Fake Steve Jobs) taunts John Gruber (Daring Fireball), saying he doesn't know about what's coming tomorrow. Gruber takes umbrage and quips back. Maybe I'm the only one who finds this funny, but now I'm just curious which one will be fed crow tomorrow. Just to put some skin in the game and place a bet (the only bet left) with long odds, I'm going to say that Apple's not releasing anything tomorrow and Gruber and Lyons are gonna be so surprised because they don't know what they think they know. There, I said it.
The Higgs Dam: Sending signals backwards in time without time travel
Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009
The New York Times ran a story this week about the radical scientific view that perhaps the Large Hadron Collider broke last year because nature can't handle Higgs particles and any device that could produce them therefore breaks or otherwise doesn't get built because it is 'sabotaged by its own future'. I haven't read the papers by Holger Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya yet, so it's entirely possible that what I'm about to say simply rehashes their own arguments -- and I'm sure I'll hear about it if this is the case -- but it occurs to me that this sort of time travel could take place without anything actually traveling backward in time. What if Higgs particles are like boulders in the stream? If you put boulders in a stream of water it can ripple back and create a backlog upstream, even if no single particle actually travels backwards. This backlog of particles, traveling slower than their peers on either side, and slowing down those that are behind ('before') them in the timestream, could have a causal effect on those particles that are earlier than the boulder in the timestream, even though they have no direct knowledge of the boulder. This is punk science, with the kind of intellectual rigor suitable only for soft-hard science fiction stories, but I thought it was an interesting idea to think about.
Trainblogging again
Thursday, Sep 17, 2009
This morning I find myself on a CalTrain heading from Mountain View to San Francisco. For those of you long-time readers, you know that riding on the train is a special treat for me, and that the year I spent at Yahoo back in 2001 was probably the best blogging year of my life, as 60 minutes of uninterrupted (and back then, unwired) time in an Amtrak car speeding (when not lumbering) down the East Bay was the most productive writing environment I've known. Today I'm attending UX Week in the city, hence the CalTrain ride. I'd intended on catching the 8:13 train from Sunnyvale but my body would have none of it, and I'm glad that its sominal filibuster was only sufficient to force me to catch the 8:37 out of Mountain View. Still, no Chai, no nostalgic cranberry scone. Nostalgia would not lose the day however, as I drove my way to and past the (former) FriendFeed Global World Headquarters to pull in to the CalTrain lot with 10 minutes to spare. No spaces though (apparently the 8:37 train is on the lazy end of the morning commute. Ugh, that real working world, I want no part of it!) and so I pulled back out of the lot and drove a block back, pulling in to my regular space at the (f)FFGWHQ. Now 6 minutes to spare. You'd expect the FriendFeed lot to be empty, but pulling in you'd be hard-pressed to notice that the office was FriendFeed in nameplate only. The parking spaces in front of for Eye-Fi and Evernote were similarly barren (as they're not part of the 'real working world' either) save for one car accompanied by a cross-legged man cradling his laptop by Evernote's side entrance. Clearly today the first one to the office wasn't the one with the keys and alarm code. As I pulled in, got out, and strode out of the lot to the station, I entertained a perverse desire for the laptopped man to chide me and tell me that I couldn't park there for CalTrain (parking is limited and this has been a problem in the past). "How do you know I don't work for," glancing back at the sign on the door next to the space I just parked in, "Friend... Feed?" I was all ready to say, doing my best job of bad acting. Sadly my double-bluff was not called and I could only spend the rest of my short walk to the tracks imagining laptop man digging himself into a hole "I know you don't work there because I do." "Oh yeah? That's funny. I don't remember you. What do you work on there?" Laptop man never enabled me to retort. I am a simple man who amuses himself too easily. Back on tracks, walking to the ticket dispenser just as I can hear the train approaching behind me. I pays my money and I gets my ticket, pulling it out along with three sacabucks just in time to turn around and step on to the train. (Can you believe that term never took off? I wonder how much better the coin might have caught on if the U.S. Mint had sold the naming rights, slapped a mermaid on the obverse and called them 'starbucks') Perfect travel involves being exactly on time, never early or late (unless your connection is also late, in which case you are beyond perfection). I'm surprised by how much room there is on the train, but again with missing the morning rush. I went to eagerly pull out my Kindle which I'd taken off my nightstand in preparation for a nice leisurely read during today's ride, only to find that it had never made it in to my bag. Pulling out my laptop instead, I fired up the text editor and started writing. For all the old ritual this morning was walking me through, how could I have thought of doing anything else? It's like I don't even know me. Now I've got a day in the city to look for. True, most of it will be in an overly-chilled banquet hall sitting in an ass-numbing chair, but hearing people talk about their craft always inspires me to do more with my own craft, both in work and play. UX Week (UX Day to me, as today's the only day I'm going) is also nice in that it gives 90 minutes for lunch, affording me the opportunity to visit friends in the city. I'm hopefully lunching with Jason Shellen today, and returning the Manfrotto monopod I borrowed and took to Antarctica. If I'm lucky I might even be able to visit the Twitter offices that I've just missed seeing so many times. Time to pack it up now. Maybe I'll write more on the way home tonight. Definitely gonna have to pick up a chai on my walk from the station to the hotel. I wonder if there'll be any scones left.
Why is Google Voice banned on the iPod Touch, and how does Sirius XM get away with breaking the rules?
Wednesday, Jul 29, 2009
This week Apple disallowed Google voice-related applications from their App Store. The (mostly) conventional wisdom is that Apple did this at AT&T's insistence because some of these apps could effectively let iPhone users utilize their unlimited data plan to access Google Voice and forgo AT&T-charged voice calls. Some of the Google Voice apps require a cellular connection to work, but not all of them. For example, Voice Control is an app which gives Google Voice users access to their voicemail messages. One might guess that banning these apps from the iPod Touch is collateral damage because the App Store doesn't have the ability to discriminate in its offerings and/or AT&T's influence extends beyond the products it subsidizes or supports. Even Apple's cover story, that Google Voice apps "duplicate features that come with the iPhone" loses credibility when applied to the iPod Touch, which comes with no such functionality of its own. I'd be interested in hearing what reason Apple would give for denying iPod Touch users access to these apps, if any developers out there have the opportunity to ask. On another front, considering the well-specified set of rules around app monetization, in-app purchases of new levels, titles, or other content, I've started to wonder how the Sirius XM app got approved at all. The app lets Sirius XM subscribers listen to premium radio stations streamed over Wi-Fi, Edge, or 3G connections. For reasons most likely to do with curbing excess data usage through AT&T's network, the app will time out every two hours or so and ask if you're still there. Oddly though this happens even if you're connecting through Wi-fi, while other Sirius XM streaming clients (Pulsar, Sonos, or Sirius XM's web app) will let you play for 6-8 hours before verifying that you're still around. But enough of the trivialities. The interesting bit is that Sirius XM charges a premium above and beyond their regular monthly fee to enable high-quality streaming over the internet. Unlike Sirius XM's webapp, or the various third-party clients out there, which support lower-quality internet streaming as part of the basic subscription package, in order to use the iPhone app you have to pay a few dollars more per month to subscribe to Sirius XM's Premium Online feature. Now if I wrote an iPhone app that I distributed for free through the app store (meaning that Apple wouldn't see a dime from the product) you can bet I couldn't get away with charging users several dollars a month entirely outside of Apple's control in order for the user to reap the benefits of the app. But unless Sirius is secretly paying Apple a cut of the Premium Online subscription fees for the over one million users who have downloaded the Sirius XM app, that's exactly what they're doing. Presumably the argument goes that since the Premium Online service can be used with services other than the iPhone it falls outside the walls of the App Store, but how long will it be before another iPhone app with supplemental content tries to get around Apple's sales commission by allowing the same content to be used by other programs on other platforms? It does seem to be a slippery slope, and an ill-defined one at that.
Are Amazon's book revocations legal?
Friday, Jul 17, 2009
Update: See the end of the article for Jeff Bezos's admirably forthright response
In light of Amazon reaching in to users Kindles and removing their legally purchased copies of 1984 and Animal Farm, the question must arise: Is it legal? A quick visit to the Amazon Kindle License Agreement leads me to believe that nothing in it gives Amazon the right to unilaterally revoke the license assignment without cause. The relevant passage concerning license rights given to the consumer reads:
Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.
Not being a lawyer, I don't know whether an email notification and a credit to their account counts as 'expressly provided by Amazon' or whether it has to be provided in this license agreement. The tone of the paragraph seems to make it clear though that the assignments of the rights described here are permanent, and are made in trade for your payment. In other words, you bought the rights stated, limited as they may be. On the subject of subscriptions, Amazon has a clear policy of pro-rated refunds for subscriptions that are paid for but cannot be fulfilled (for example, if a magazine ceases publication):
Subscriptions. The following applies with respect to Digital Content made available to you on a subscription basis, including, but not limited to, electronic newspapers, magazines, journals and other periodicals (collectively, "Periodicals"): (i) you may request cancellation of your subscription by following the cancellation instructions in the Kindle Store; (ii) we may terminate a subscription at our discretion without notice, for example, if a Periodical is no longer available; (iii) if we terminate a subscription in advance of the end of its term, we will give you a prorated refund; (iv) we reserve the right to change subscription terms and fees from time to time, effective as of the beginning of the next term; and (v) taxes may apply to subscription fees and will be added if applicable.
But even in this case, there's nothing that implies Amazon has the right to touch the portions of the subscription that you have already downloaded. And books aren't subscriptions. Amazon also makes a clear distinction between the "Device" (the Kindle) and the "Service" (the content delivery mechanism):
The Kindle Device (the "Device") is a portable electronic reading device that utilizes wireless connectivity to enable users to shop for, download, browse, and read books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and other materials, all subject to the terms and conditions of this Agreement. The "Service" means the wireless connectivity, provision of digital content, software and support, and other services and support that Amazon provides Device users.
This is important because the agreement makes clear that the Service could go away at any time, and you're not entitled to it:
Changes to Service. Amazon reserves the right to modify, suspend, or discontinue the Service at any time, and Amazon will not be liable to you should it exercise such right.
This would be as if you turned off the wireless switch on your Kindle forever. No more updates, no more downloads, but anything on your Kindle would stay. But what if you violate the terms of the agreement?
Termination. Your rights under this Agreement will automatically terminate without notice from Amazon if you fail to comply with any term of this Agreement. In case of such termination, you must cease all use of the Software and Amazon may immediately revoke your access to the Service or to Digital Content without notice to you and without refund of any fees. Amazon's failure to insist upon or enforce your strict compliance with this Agreement will not constitute a waiver of any of its rights.
First, it's clear that Amazon can only enforce this clause if you the customer are in breach of one or more terms of the agreement. If you are, Amazon insists that you stop using the software on your device (the Kindle OS or your iPhone Kindle app) and they may not only revoke your access to the Service but also to the Digital Content as well, presumably by reaching in to your Device and de-authorizing a key. This is clearly not what happened to purchasers of Orwell's books, since there's no allegation that they violated the usage agreement in any way. So what in the agreement allows Amazon to cancel the agreement unilaterally? There's the standard amendment clause, which lets Amazon amend the agreement as it sees fit:
Amendment. Amazon reserves the right to amend any of the terms of this Agreement at its sole discretion by posting the revised terms on the Kindle Store or the website. Your continued use of the Device and Software after the effective date of any such amendment shall be deemed your agreement to be bound by such amendment.
With this clause, Amazon could give themselves the right to take books away, but they would have to amend this agreement in order to do so, and the user would have to then use the Device and Software to give implicit agreement to the amendment. Set aside for a moment the conundrum of an agreement method that effectively says "If you try to read the book, you agree to our right to take it away, and if you don't try to read it then you can keep it." The fact is that if Amazon plans on amending their agreement to allow this, they haven't done it at the time of this article. I freely admit that I'm a layman and not a student of law, so if someone more well versed than I can see what I missed, please let me know so I can update this post. Until then, always keep a backup of your book files on your computer or other media that is beyond Amazon's grasp, so you can at least finish reading a book before Amazon takes it away or refuses to let you download it again (but that's a whole other issue).
Update: Jeff Bezos left an admirable response on the subject in the Kindle forums:
This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission. With deep apology to our customers, Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO
As far as I'm concerned, that's that!
Amazon's final message to its creation
Friday, Jul 17, 2009
I bought The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for my Kindle several months ago, and I recently got an email from Amazon:
We've been made aware of an issue with the title 'The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' by Douglas Adams. We worked to correct the issue and have sent a new version of the title to your Kindle.

The next time the wireless is activated on your device, the new version of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' will be sent to your Kindle.

While not as Orwellian as Amazon's recent revoking of Animal Farm and 1984, it's still a bit odd to have Amazon reach into my book and fiddle with the words. I'm saving my current version so that I can track what change was important enough to retcon the book. That said, the slightly disturbing message from Amazon is tempered by either coincidence or a tremendously witty Douglas Adams fan, as the letter closes with
We apologize for the inconvenience
which, in the Hitchhiker's universe, is also God's final message to his creation. I think I feel good about it.
Also on Fury: Are Amazon's book revocations legal?

Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
I've been blogging at since 1998.
I can be reached at .

I also have a resume.


I'm co-founder in
a fantastic startup fulfilling the promise of the Internet of Things.

The Imp is a computer and wi-fi connection smaller and cheaper than a memory card.

Find out more.

We're also hiring.


I post most frequently on Twitter as @kfury and on Google Plus.


I've led design at Mozilla Labs, designed Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, FriendFeed, and a few special projects at Facebook.

©2012 Kevin Fox