Computers and technology


I just watched Steve Jobs’ Macworld keynote introducing the iPhone. Boy, he is a great speaker. His reality distortion field was in full force — an article in Palm Infocenter argues that iPhone’s phone features aren’t new (but they’re sure slick). In contrast, the CEO of Cingular was stiffly reading off of index cards for five minutes. I think any CEO should be able to talk that long without notes, or at most one index card.

Unfortunately, I read in Mobileburn.com and Gizmodo that the iPhone will indeed be a closed platform. Boo! Even lousy low-end phones can download Java apps. I hope Daniel is right and that Apple backs down somewhat by next year. I’ll settle for HTML and JavaScript Widgets at this point…

It’s a geek’s dream week: CES and Macworld. There have been two announcements that have caught my attention.

A photo of HP's MediaSmart ServerThe first is Microsoft’s Windows Home Server, which will be sold by HP and other vendors. It makes it easy to share files and stream video, music, and photos to PCs and Xbox 360s at home, access your files remotely, and automatically backup your data onto the server’s hard drives, which you can add or replace while the server is on. It’s aimed at homes who have more than one PC. The server does not have a display, keyboard, or mouse; you administer it on the PCs you already have via a web browser. And you wouldn’t have to do much administering at all — the user interface looks to be quite simple.

Some geeks are already proclaiming that there’s no need for Windows Home Server, since there are already open-source NAS that you can install on top of a Linux box. Give me a break: Windows Home Server is meant for people who don’t know what “NAS” stands for and don’t want to administer a Linux box. I want one.

A photo of Apple's iPhoneThe second announcement is, of course, Apple’s new iPhone. It looks absolutely stunning, and the user interface looks way beyond any other phone or PDA out there. But now I have a few burning questions.

  • Can I write my own programs for the iPhone? It has some version of OS X.
  • How does the iPhone’s OS X compare to Mac’s OS X?
  • Can I upgrade the iPhone’s software like I can upgrade a Mac?
  • Can I get access to the accelerometer, proximity sensor, or ambient light sensor?

If I can write iPhone applications, then the iPhone would make a wonderful research platform for mobile devices. If not… well, it wouldn’t surprise me, since Apple has a history of being closed (see the iPod). I hope they prove me wrong.

Soon after I started working, I noticed I was even less physically active than as a computer science grad student (which is saying something), and I’ve dreamt of putting a treadmill in my office and walking while I worked.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one with this brilliant idea: Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic and his team have created a workstation combining a treadmill, desk, and computer. At 1 mph, it’s not enough to break a sweat, but it is enough to burn an extra 100 calories an hour, or, at 10 hours per day, more than 50 pounds a year.

Ping points out how computer people love to use the word "performance" when they really mean "speed," and that performance is about way more than just speed.

I finally read an essay that Daniel e-mailed me over a year ago. Professor Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, has written about fan fiction as a medium through which ordinary people change their relationship to popular culture from being passive consumers to active participants in its creation. He uses fan films of Star Wars as the primary case study. The essay is long (it’s literally a book chapter) but a good read.

There would be more innovation in mobile phones and services if they were as open as personal computers and the Internet are today. A grassroots movement of Silicon Valley tinkerers are pushing such an agenda, the Homebrew Mobile Phone Club, whose name pays homage to the famous Homebrew Computer Club (where the Apple I was first introduced). I'm sure the wireless carriers will fight this tooth and nail to protect their "walled gardens," just like AOL and Prodigy did back in the day, and I hope the results will be similar.

Another sign of technological change: grainy amateur viral videos posted on the web, and then broadcast on TV for your viewing pleasure.

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