Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Unix Wars: The More Things Change...

Writing from the O'Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON) a couple of days back, I noted that many of today's debates are taking place in a very different milieu than the Unix Wars that helped spawn Open Source (or more precisely Richard Stallman's "Free Software" in the first place.

However, as Dennis Byron, notes:

Truth in advertising, Gordon--like me--is a "Grey Eagle" (Data General alum), which in addition to meaning that he went through the minicomputer wars, also means that--like me--he has probably seen it all before. It is not surprising then that his and my sense of OSS history agree even though we have never spoken about it. There is one place we differ. He says, "We’re now moving to a world increasingly distant in time and place from the Unix wars." I think the interminable debates about GPL vs other licenses, the Novell/Microsoft agreement, free vs. open, and so forth are just a continuation of the UNIX wars. The AT&T legal issues he talks about have never really been settled.

There's a lot of truth in what Dennis says. There are threads of past debates in today's discussions. For example, the heated debates over attribution clauses in Software as a Service (SaaS) licenses merely recapitulate ancient fights over the so-called "advertising clause" of the original Berkeley license. However, there's even more truth in the macro sense--the sense in which enormous energy is expended over niggling details. To be sure, some of those niggling details can turn out to be incredibly important down the road, but more don't.

Not that this fault is especially the province of the software industry. HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, anyone?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Five Input Devices for the Future. Part 1.

[This was getting a bit lengthier than I intended. So I'll begin with the first two for now.]

There are lots of gadgets out there that people use to communicate with their computers. However, only two--the keyboard and the mouse--are really in broad, mainstream use. If you add controllers for games, there are a few more input devices depending on the genre: game pads, joysticks, and steering wheels. However, although game pads of one sort or another are the predominant way to communicate with gaming consoles, their use on PCs is far more limited and specific to a limited set of uses.

So is it the keyboard and mouse forever? I would be surprised, shocked really, if we were to see anything replace the keyboard and mouse (BTW, I lump trackballs in with mice because they're different ergonomic takes on the same basic function) on the desktop anytime soon. But could one or more of the devices that we see at the fringes today become something truly mainstream--if not universal, then at least a common site on your typical desktop. I think the following are potential candidates.

 1. 6 Degrees-of-Freedom (DOF) controllers. Like most of the things on this list 6-DOF controllers aren't new. They've been used in 3-dimensional computer-aided-design (CAD) applications for a while and they've had price tags to match the pricey software that they've been used with. How they feel to use is a bit hard to describe but it's essentially a sort of knob that you can push down, pull up, rotate, and push or tilt in any direction. Essentially this lets you move and adjust your view through 3-D space using  single control. 6-DOF controllers are interesting today for two reasons. First, we're starting to see inexpensive examples. The 3Dconnexion SpaceNavigator PE (Personal Edition) 3D Navigation Device USB ( 3DX-700029 ) is about $55 for a little device with a great feel. Second, we're starting to see 3D environments--other than space battles--where such a device could be really handy. Virtual worlds are one future possibility--especially if they get to be as important as some think they will be. But, even today, navigating through Google Earth with a SpaceNavigator is truly eye-opening. It transforms it into a whole new experience.

2. Write-able screens (most likely multi-touch). I have a basic Wacom Graphire tablet. It's just the latest in a string of tablets that I've owned over the years, but it mostly sits gathering dust. I bought it mostly to edit photos in Photoshop, but I just don't find it all the useful. The problem is that there's essentially a physical disconnect between writing on the tablet and what's happening on the screen. The two things aren't happening in the same place. Tablets are fine for tracing but I don't find them much use to create or edit something that's being displayed on the screen. I imagine that one can develop a better feel, but FWIW I've heard the same thing from professional artists. The best solution is to write on the screen. We've seen some impressive multi-touch demos of late (to say nothing of the iPhone). However, even just having affordable modest-size LCDs we could write on would be a god start. Wacom makes the very snazzy Cintiq, but at $2500, it's clearly a tool for graphics professionals. Why does this matter? I'm happy to make the argument that this is a key missing ingredient to having distributed meetings and discussions. Where's the whiteboard in such a meeting? (Please don't tell me to either do a napkin sketch using a mouse or to draw something, scan it in, and then send it to people. Ick.) A low-end and more-affordable version of the Cintiq would be invaluable for people who need to sketch out a quick idea or a concept. Add in the fact that more and more people have multiple monitors and having one of them be a writable version is a natural.

[More to follow...]

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Podcasts and WiFi

Now that people have had a breather of a week or so from the endless iPhone hype, I see it's time to start of the 6G iPod rumor cycle. I'm sort of vaguely interested in this. I have a 4G and have started to think that maybe an upgrade is in order one of these days. The current generation didn't have enough new to make me plunk down a few C notes but I'm definitely curious about what comes next.

The betting money seems to be on something that looks similar to an iPhone but without WiFi or phone capabilities. That makes a lot of sense, but WiFi could be nice. Here's why.

As I've written about previously, one of my personal problems with podcasting is that:

It's not exactly hard to get a podcast onto your portable flash memory music thingamajig. But it does take several steps more than just turning on the freekin' radio. When we get to the point that your home computer handles this all automagically between itself and its counterpart in your car, OK.

I just don't sync my iPod on a regular basis. It's not a big deal to do but I just don't do it. That was always my issue with PDAs as well. I didn't get around to syncing them--which is one reason that my Treo 700p is the first "PDA" that I find truly useful. As a result, I don't have current podcasts on my iPod, which means I don't listen to them, which means I don't think about syncing my iPod to get new podcasts, and so forth.

Automagical syncs though. That would be interesting. I'm afraid it might not be as automatic as I would like in any case (for one thing I don't generally use iTunes as my preferred music organizer) but WiFi would at least open up the possibility of some sort of fairly transparent syncing to a PC on the same wireless network.

(Embarrassed as I am to admit it, this thought got kicked off after running across this digg comment that said: "All I want is an iPod that auto updates all my podcast feeds without needing to connect to a computer. Give it WiFi and let is start downloading as soon as I walk into my house at the end of they day or anyplace that WiFi is connected.")

A Blast from the "distant" Past (c. 1994)

Richard Seltzer notes that:

This video was created by me (Richard Seltzer) and Berthold Langer in February 1994, when we worked at DEC. NCSA (creators of Mosaic, the first Web browsers) and dozens of other organizations, distributed thousands of copies of this video, using it to help spread the word about the business potential of the Web, which, at that time, many business people found difficult to imagine. Thanks to David Wecker and Gene Kusekoski for converting it to avi.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Ultimate AT&T Takedown

I really didn't mean to even mention the iPhone. The story was becoming almost (but not quite) as annoying as the incarceration of certain hotel heiresses that shall remain nameless. But I ran across a truly wonderful line yesterday.

As my colleague John Webster notes in Am I Too Old to be in the iPhone Line?, the biggest problem with the iPhone is AT&T (the only network on which it runs)--and more broadly the telco model of the world where they MUST OWN EVERYTHING. Think of it as Microsoft on steroids.

I'll leave you to read John's piece for the rest. However, for a more succinct (and somewhat less family-friendly) description of AT&T's deficiencies, I refer you to Gizmodo:

Signing up for the iPhone is like being tossed into a menage a trois with Angelina and Rosie O'Donnell. You want the beauty, you have to sleep with the beast.