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As the 140,000 CES attendees have been making their way back home from Las Vegas over the weekend, I can’t help wondering if the cost, time, and effort of CES is really worth it.

My wife recently came across my Comdex badge from 1986:
It may have been my first big technology trade show.  The card has no magnetic strip to swipe; the letters were raised to allow an old-fashioned credit-card imprint to be made when visiting booths.  This was pre-internet: no instant exchange of information, no Youtube product demos and product reviews.  A lot of what you saw at trade shows was stuff you hadn’t heard about, and a big reason for going was to see what was going on.

You can still see new products and technology at CES.  Keynotes can be illuminating, and some companies use CES to make product announcements.  But online access to news and product information makes trudging out to a booth superfluous.  In richer times, you could at least collect a healthy set of hats, t-shirts, and other goodies.  Even in today’s challenging conditions, large companies still show up with multi-million-dollar booths and armies of support staff.  The cost is hard to justify from a shareholder perspective, and I understand why Apple pulled out years ago.

One reason to attend CES is to have face-to-face meetings with partners.  That was true in 1986 and is true today, and is the only reason I have been attending for years.  I would love to see CES evolve into a venue that focused on industry networking and enabled high-quality peer-to-peer engagement.

In its current form, CES seems like a giant, expensive science fair.

It’s that time of year again.  Christmas!  What do I buy for whom?

Well, I’m still stumped by a few people on my list (I hope my wife isn’t reading this!) but I really thought I had a sure-fire winner when it came to my mom.

She is an avid reader, absolutely loves books, and lives in South Florida.  The latter is relevant because unlike where I live in Seattle, driving to a bookstore in the Sarasota area is a real commitment, and I would prefer that my mother do as little driving as possible on the region’s byways populated by rather unpredictable drivers.  OK, perhaps I will be 85 someday and drive 25 in a 45 while randomly braking for imaginary objects, but until then, I will be very afraid driving around in that area!

So what better for her than an e-reader!  No driving.  Instant downloads.  No accumulation of dead trees on shelves.  A happy mom.  Yay!

I had already pre-selected the device.  As much as I like to go with less conventional alternatives, I landed on the 3G Kindle.  Why?  First of all, content.  My wife still has a travel mug from back when Amazon was primarily an online book store, and with any device, content is critical.  I respect Sony’s and B&N’s efforts, but Amazon is Amazon, and is king of content.

Second, the e-reader had to be 3G-enabled.  My mom has no PC (imagine!), no internet, and no wifi. Amazon had 3G first, and they’ve had time to perfect their implementation.  Book purchases and downloads had to be super-easy and convenient.  Kindle got my vote.

Third, the device had to be the closest to what a real book was like.  That meant e-ink only needed to apply.

Yes, I know.  General-purpose always wins, and color displays that can render video and web pages and Facebook will ultimately prevail.  Blah, blah, blah.  Whatever.  We’re talking about my mom here.  She reads black-and-white books, and she’s clearly expressed her disinterest in reading on a computer screen.  That means no harsh backlit displays, flickering, outdoor readability issues (it’s Florida!), battery life problems, compromised viewing angle, and other subtle and no-to-subtle annoyances of LCD (and to some extent OLED) display technology.

E-ink sucks in many ways (slow refresh rate, no high-quality color), but in terms of pure comfort for reading text, nothing comes close.  The insane battery life doesn’t hurt either.  Before I forget, props to Sony for being the first company to make an e-reader using a radical new display technology.  Their e-ink-based Japan-only Librie was a truly breakthrough product.  It’s popular in some circles to dump on Sony, but there aren’t too many companies left who actually innovate and take some risks.

Getting back to the story, I visited my mom recently, and asked my sister who lives in the area for her opinion.  Apparently, she had tried with an e-reader pitch before with no luck.

Well, surely I could work my tech-industry charms!  I could explain the benefits or paper-like displays, long battery life, and instant purchase from a vast assortment of books at lower prices.

OK, time for that needle-across-the-record sound.

My mom told me she just like books.  Real books.  She likes to be able to find her place in a book by skimming through it, or if using a bookmark, have a real feel for where she is in the book.

She didn’t want to lose was the full analog nature of the physical object.  OK, I get marks for trying with an e-ink based solution which as close to “analog” as we’ve gotten with commercial display technology.  Remember digital displays in cars in the 80’s?  They died a horrible death because they were to…digital.  What’s the difference between 55 and 95?  A single LED segment in on one of those seven-segment displays.  Telling how fast you were going was infuriatingly difficult.  Unless you were in a K-car, in which case every speed seemed to fast and unsafe.

So paper still won with my mom.  I haven’t given up though.  She still loves the electronic picture frame I gave her a few years ago, but then again, it’s filled with pictures of her grandkids, and there’s no book with that…

Read this if you feel like most meetings are a waste of your time:

My wife reminds me that I have an old story about fixing things which serves as a cautionary tale for those who would, like me, go past the sticker that says “No user-serviceable parts inside.”

In early September 1990 we were waiting for the birth of our first child, and he was a week overdue.  We saw every movie we could, we hung out in sidewalk cafes, and we bought a Pentax point-and-shoot camera. It was the first film camera we had owned that did everything for you; having a baby seemed like a perfectly good excuse to get a new toy.  It was the camera we used to take all of his baby pictures, and we took a lot of baby pictures since he was our first baby.

In late October of 1994 we had that camera with us at a pre-school Halloween party and it was dropped while it was on and the camera lens was fully extended; it fell from table-top height to a linoleum-covered concrete floor.  It probably goes without saying that the fall broke the camera, but it was not smashed to bits, it sort of seemed to want to work, and I took it upon myself one afternoon to open it up and see if I could fix it.

The lens was stuck in the extended zoom position, and no attempt to dislodge it seemed to do any good, so my goal was to get to the motorized mechanism that did the work of moving the lens in and out, and I imagined that there was some piece of it that had been jarred out place by the impact and could be re-adjusted and functional again.  It made no sense to get it repaired, since it would have cost as much as getting a new camera.  I got out my set of tiny screw drivers and opened the camera up.  Just beyond the outer plastic outer case there was a noticeable sticker with black and yellow lettering warning “Caution: High Voltage.  No User Serviceable Parts Inside.” 

I thought, “Well, of course it should say that.  It has a self-contained flash circuit which requires the use of high voltage.”  Besides, I’m an engineer and I know what I’m doing.  The batteries had been removed at this point, and I assumed that the flash charging circuitry would not retain enough charge to shock me, and after all, what were the odds of touching the circuit board just at the right contact points?

I got a shock from that puppy that made me yelp and drop it on the floor. My wife yelled at me and tried to take the whole pile of parts away from me to put it in the trash.  I explained that the shock had been delivered by the flash unit, which obviously stored a bigger residual charge when not in use than I had expected.  I picked up the pieces, found the offending jam in the lens motor and went about the task of reassembling the camera’s guts while avoiding touching the circuit board completely.

Then I got shocked again.

This time, I dropped it only a couple of inches.  Expletives erupted from me.  This time, my wife laughed and left the room.

In the end, I did not shock myself again.  I was able to put everything back together, and the camera worked just fine.

And within a few years we switched to digital.

Around the 18th of December in Seattle it started to snow and it kept snowing on and off for days.  Seattle is a city that doesn’t normally get much snow, so the city has only enough plows to say they have plows and they’re doing the best that they can, but not nearly enough plows to make any kind of difference.  Most of us had to walk or take the bus or just had to stay home and wait it out.  UPS and the USPS slapped chains on their trucks, but FedEx did not rise to the occasion.  We didn’t know early in this siege that we would not be getting any FedEx deliveries (and by the 27th no deliveries had yet to be made).  But 9 days at home did give me the chance to catch up on lots of Mr. Fix-it projects. 

First, I fixed the Dualit toaster (half of the elements of which have not worked for more than a year) by carefully tucking the end of the broken winding under the next loop of the heating element.  Leave it to the English to build an appliance that can actually be disassembled and repaired rather than just thrown away.  A replacement element is on order to make the repair permanent. 

Somewhere along the way I fixed several strings of Christmas lights; each was a simply traced problem (burnt-out bulb, loose fuse).

I then debugged the treadmill which mysteriously stopped turning on.  Working my way from the base with the motor, fuse, etc. up to the top section which houses the microcontroller, display, and switches, I determined that a ribbon connector that had been improperly placed during a repair early in the life of the treadmill caused the problem.  Over time, it had been bent past its tolerance, breaking one of the traces.  I used a bulldog paper clip to temporarily hold the broken traces together until I can get a more permanent solution in place. 

Finally, I tackled the Sony DVD recorder that had an intermittent problem of the left audio channel randomly cutting out.  It is only about three months old and is still under warranty but good luck finding all the receipts, sending it back to some service center who knows where, and waiting an indeterminate amount of time to get the problem fixed.  Or worse, having it work when someone on the other end tried to duplicate the problem.  Instead, I took the cover off, and went to work with a voltmeter to find what I was hoping would be a simple mechanical problem since the audio problem would come and go as the connector was jiggled around.  As it turned out, I traced the problem to a cold solder joint on the bottom side of the main circuit board which I easily re-soldered to be nice and shiny the way a good solder connection should be.  Typically, the external connectors are hand-soldered after the rest of the circuit board is manufactured by automated component-placement and wave-soldering processes.  I just got unlucky, and my unit got through the test process since the problem is an intermittent one.  It was easy enough for me to fix the problem, but I can only guess at the horrors that a more typical consumer would face (“sir, your cable may be bad; sir, did you check the balance on your amplifier; sir, did you try using another input on your amplifier”) in trying to get something like this fixed.  Just wish me luck when I try to explain how the improper placement of a ribbon cable on a treadmill caused a failure seven or eight years later!

The Asus EeePC got a very positive review in my house.  It is small, light, well-built, and started up fast.  Yes, the display is a bit cramped, as is the keyboard.  And yes, it runs yet another weird variant of Linux.  But it has a real browser, connects effortlessly to the internet, and comes with a pretty broad suite of applications.  It is available in a variety of colors.  Battery life is OK – no worse than a typical laptop.  The girls at the high school where my wife teaches think it’s really cute – a good thing if you’re Asus.

What doesn’t the Eee have?  For starters, it doesn’t have a high price.  The entry-level model is a mere $299.  It also doesn’t have a hard drive, high-speed CPU, boatloads of memory, or the latest graphics processor.  It doesn’t show you a sequence of coming attractions of corporate logos when you turn it on.  But what it does, it does well – certainly, well enough to make you think – “Hey, for this price, why not?!”  It wasn’t designed as a replacement for a desktop or traditional laptop machine.  It was designed to fill some of the gaps where a big bulky expensive laptop was inappropriate or unfeasible – for example, a kid’s computer, or an on-the-go companion device.

The Eee adheres to some of the core tenets of the ultra-mobile PC – a low-cost, highly mobile, full-fidelity companion computer.  In fact, the Eee PC hits one of the key UMPC targets dead on; there’s one place where all of the other UMPC products missed – price.  People expect mobile devices to be affordable!  Asus’s R2H UMPC launched at a price point two to three times higher than the Eee, but the basic technology backbone was similar, with a 7” display, low-end Intel CPU/chipset, standard PC I/O and hardware compatibility.  Sure, the R2H also has a hard drive, GPS, Bluetooth, a fingerprint reader and runs real Windows but the additional features don’t justify significantly higher cost.  A $1000 companion device will have few takers regardless of functionality.

Good product design is ultimately as much about what to leave out as what to include.  And with the Eee PC, Asus got a number of things right that they got wrong with their R2H.  It’s small enough to toss in a backpack or bag, light enough to carry all day, inexpensive enough to afford as a secondary computer.