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My wife Maggie was recently looking for pictures of our old dog Pluto for her blog, and she came across a lone CD loose in a photo box full of old, uncategorized photos.  The disk had a Ritz Camera logo and was “Powered by Microsoft PictureIt 2000.” Back when the photo world was just starting to transition to digital, you could get your film pictures put on a CD when you got your film developed.

We do not have many pictures of Pluto; he was not one to hold still too long, but 2000 was the right time frame for Pluto pictures.  The box turned out to have only a few shots of him, so she put the CD in her laptop in the hope that it would have a few more pictures of our first dog.  Her Panasonic laptop did not even recognize that there was a CD in the drive.  I figured I would try the CD with a different PC, and stuck it in the DVD drive on our desktop.  I immediately heard bad sounds coming from the drive.  I took it out, and tried sticking the CD on the PC’s second DVD drive (yes, two DVD drives since the desktop machine is a Dell XPS gaming rig).  Same bad result, with ugly sounds coming from the drive as it tried in vain to read the disk.  I popped the disk out to do a visual inspection that in retrospect I should have done sooner.  It turned out to be seriously warped.

Maggie’s assumption was that the CD was toast, but I was more hopeful.  After all, the bits were probably still there.  And something warped can be un-warped, right?  After thinking about the problem for a bit, I concluded that some time in the oven might do the trick.  An Internet search revealed nothing consistently useful on the topic of un-warping CDs or DVDs, so I thought I’d improvise.  First, I needed a flat surface.  My son was recently home from college and had taken apart an ancient hard drive.  He likes to see how things work and had plenty of time on his hands.  Hard drive platters are incredibly smooth and rigid, so I though that would make a good straightening platform.  I also needed something heavy to place on top of the CD to help the flattening process.  I settled on a flat-bottomed drinking glass filled with water.  I put the platter-CD-glass sandwich in the oven, and set the temperature to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.  It was a guess that it would be hot enough to soften the DVD but not cause damage.

I meant to set a timer for perhaps 30 minutes, but then promptly forgot about the whole affair.  About an hour later, I spelled the faint but distinctive odor of hot plastic.  I peeked in the oven expecting to see a gooey mess, but things actually looked pretty good.  Whew!

I wanted to make sure the CD stayed flat as it cooled, and I settled for a piece of scrap Melamine with a few sheets of paper to avoid scratches.  I put the hot CD on the Melamine slab, and then put three volumes from an encyclopedia on top to keep the thing flat.

About 30 minutes later, I took the now-cool CD and put it into the desktop drive.  No bad sounds, and I could access the directory!  There were a bunch of random folders and icons all ready to install PictureIt 2000 Express, but there was a folder in the mix that had our actual pictures including some of Pluto:

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…

I had the opportunity to be part of the opening of the Microsoft Store at the Mall of America in Minneapolis today.  The energy and the excitement was amazing, and the store itself is gorgeous.

 

 

 

The Mall of America has an amusement park in the middle including a roller coaster.

The day before…the store was still under wraps.

At a separate Kinect experience demo in the mall, people were lining up and having fun trying out the controller and some of the new games.

The dancing title was very popular but my colleague and I chose table tennis.  I lost on match point.

Next day…ready for the opening.  A very large crowd showed up.

Microsoft cut some big checks in support of community groups like this $300,000 gift to the High School Technology Program.

The curtain was finally removed and the store was revealed and officially opened…

…and people who had invested a lot of time in line started to make their way into the store.

The store staff greeted everyone coming in with high-fives.

This view shows the competition directly across from the store.  They were looking rather empty today.

No, I don’t mean the software – that’s a different topic.

I mean the actual physical hardware.  Let’s take mobile phones, or more specifically, smartphones with increasingly large touch-based displays.  They’ve got a lot of glass (the display), and more glass (the touch panel).  Here’s an idea – in addition to all that glass on the front, let’s add glass to the back as well (Yes, I mean you, iPhone 4; check out the preliminary iPhone 4 failure rate).  Don’t you dare drop that thing onto something like a concrete sidewalk!  Apparently, when you buy a new phone, you’re supposed to immediately bury it with rubber bumpers, skins, and covers, and as a consequence, destroying the original aesthetics and design intent of the phone.

This phenomenon is even worse with iPads.  They’re unrecognizable by the time they’re festooned with covers, folios, and other protective contraptions to make them usable in the wild.

Even larger form factors like laptops?  Well, they just break.  Drop the average laptop: it likely suffers some serious damage.

Hey, manufacturers!  Devices that people hold, carry around, use on the move, and put in their pockets, bags, purses will get dropped, crushed, scraped, and bumped.  I’m old enough to remember when phones were leased, not purchased, and breaking Ma Bell’s equipment was virtually impossible.  I also remember that early generations of mobile phones were built like tanks.  Were they as thin as crackers?  No.  But dropping them was not a big deal.

A few companies have specialized in building products engineered for real-world environment, perhaps most notably, Panasonic.  We recently bought our second Toughbook, model S9.  Our first Toughbook was the R5.  The Japanese-only model R5 outlived a number of other laptops from large manufacturers that I won’t mention, and it wasn’t because it was cared for gently.  I was shoved into cramped bags, dropped, bumped, and user heavily.  It just kept working and working.  In addition, both laptops are very light (the S9 is 3.2 pounds), and both have great battery life that’s enough for all-day use (the S9 is rated for 11 hours).

Panasonic S9

Downsides of the Toughbook?  It’s very expensive, and you won’t find it any mainstream retailer.  It is the embodiment of a niche product.  Wait, a laptop with great battery life, decent performance, light weight, and robust design intended to withstand real-world use is a niche product?  Yes.  Heavy, fragile laptops that are addicted to wall outlets are the norm.  This is completely backwards, and contrary to what real people need.

If form really does follow function, then mainstream products have gone seriously off track.



People ask me constantly why I don’t have an iPhone.  After all, “it’s the best phone”.  Some people assume that I don’t have one because I work at Microsoft.  Given the prevalence of iPhones on Microsoft campus, that is certainly not the case.  Perhaps I’m using some Android phone?  Nope.  A pre-release Windows Phone 7 device?  Nope.  I got to use one for a few weeks (I really liked it), but the hardware is not yet broadly available.

 

A primary reason I don’t have an iPhone is that as a consumer, I detest service contracts and lock-in.  If at all possible, I like to own my devices free and clear, and to be able to walk away from a service without punitive early termination fees.  I also want the freedom to be able to switch from one phone to another when I want, not based on a service provider’s schedule.  The data plan for what I need (email and the occasional search) is also inexpensive, and the phone plan options seem much more flexible outside the iPhone plan walled garden. 

 

 Another reason is that I like having a physical keyboard.  I have tried using touch-based keyboards and I find them error-prone and hard to use.  I know that some people like them; I am not one of them.

 

Battery life is a big deal for me.  I don’t want to have to worry about making it through the day; I prefer to have phones with 2-3 days of battery life.  That won’t happen with an iPhone, or any smart phone with a large display. 

 

 

I also like phones that are relatively small.  I consider the iPhone to be too large for me to have in my pocket and forget about.

 

I need my phone to have robust Exchange support with full push email and bug-free scheduling.  iPhone is weak in that department.  My friends with iPhones are constantly battling with missed meetings, meetings that don’t get properly updates, etc.  No thanks.  It’s the one thing I need my phone to get absolutely right. 

 

I am also not interested in apps.  I need some basic functionality, and that’s pretty much it.  If I want to do real work or real play, I need a real display.  I find small display maddening for anything other than basic functions.

 

Last but not least, I don’t want to belong to the Church of Steve Jobs.   The iPhone smacks of a somewhat totalitarian approach to products – the people shall all have one phone.  I find it boring and predictable, and life’s too short for that. 

 

After all that, I should mention that my current phone is a Nokia N72 available unlocked directly from their online store.  My other source for unlocked phones is www.mobilecityonline.com.  It satisfies all the requirements above, and also has free voice-assisted turn-by-turn GPS which is great for traveling, is very pocket-friendly, has a sunlight-readable display, and doesn’t drop calls.  The Symbian OS is pretty much a joke and the UI is evocative of the early ‘90s, but the phone does do what I need:

 

 Nokia E72

my E72

A number of people have asked for my reaction to the iPad.
 
I will skip over the name which I think is terrible.  iPad?  Really?
 
Apple gets credit on execution and good packaging of available technology.  That said, their thin slate is an unsurprising product in the context of an evolutionary timeline that spans decades of innovation and effort chasing the slate computing dream.
 
My perspective is also somewhat unique.
 
At WinHEC five years ago, Bill held up a non-functional model of “Haiku”.  It was a concept design effort that I had led as part of incubating ultra-mobile PC, and was aimed at illustrating the type of full-fidelity, device-like mobile PC design that would be achievable in the 5-6 year time frame.

Ultra-mobile PC concept circa 2004/2005

Some key attributes of the class of consumer slate PC envisioned: thin (under half an inch) pure slate form factor, all-day battery life, fully solid-state, fanless, always on/connected, LED-backlit display, WWAN capability, docking connector, pen+touch NUI, and a sub-$500 price point.
 
The Origami ultra-mobile PC effort made progress toward the “Haiku” end-state target, and among other things, created focus on touch as a primary form of display interaction and catalyzed the development of low-power, low-cost Atom CPUs and chipsets.  Those Atom CPUs were subsequently incorporated into small, low-cost laptop designs which Intel dubbed “netbooks” and sold like hotcakes.  The race chasing volume was on.  Building small, cheap laptops was easy and virtually guaranteed to achieve large volumes as an extension of a mainstream category.  By contrast, getting slate right required ongoing investment, and the slate category was still emerging.  The PC industry took the path of least resistance to large unit volumes.
 
Steve Jobs has said that he didn’t know how to build a cheap laptop that wasn’t junk.
 
His answer to a highly mobile computer at a reasonable price point that isn’t junk and isn’t a race to the bottom is a slate.
 
I agree with the logic.
 
As a device, the iPad seems somewhat large and ungainly to me.  With the 7”-display-based Haiku/Origami, I aimed for greater mobility in the tradeoff between mobility and display real estate.  Not having a way to write on a pure slate device the size of piece of paper also seems pretty unnatural to me.  One of the iPad demos shows a legal-pad background for note-taking, but then you have to use the on-screen keyboard.  Say what?  There’s a real cognitive disconnect there.  Of course, display size is highly subjective (hence the many variations in laptops) as is the relative importance of stylus functionality for different users and uses.  There is plenty of room for continued development of and innovation with the slate form factor, and it will be interesting to see how the industry responds to Apple’s interpretation.

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

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/jobs/18pre.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

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!