The eyes boggle

I’m sitting at Chipotle putting the finishing touches on an article about deciding between using thick clients (Word, Outlook) versus thin clients (Google Docs, Gmail) on netbooks, and a guy walks up to me and stares until I take out my earbuds (one of the reasons I love writing at Chipotle is that between my hearing damage and my –20db headphones, it’s actually less distracting here than at home).

He points at my HP Mini-note. “Where do you get a computer like that?” He explains that he needs to get a PC for his daughter in high school.

I tell him that for a high schooler, I wouldn’t actually recommend the HP, as it’s a little pricier than the competition. I tell him about the Asus eee 1000, which has a 10” screen, comes preloaded with XP and could run all the stuff she needs for school. Then I tell him he can find it locally at Best Buy for $399.

His eyes nearly pop out of his head, and he starts grinning widely. I make note of this, and he says, “Wow, that’s such a great deal.” He booked out of the restaurant and I’d bet dollars to donuts he was headed straight for Best Buy.

I see this sort of thing all the time. I’ve talked before about my 12-year-old niece’s netbook-lust, and the other day when she brought her friend over while I was at my sister’s for the Broncos humiliating defeat by game against the Patriots, her friend was also star struck at the possibilities afforded by a computer of her very own that she could take anywhere.

Paul Thurrott and Leo Laporte discussed netbooks in this week’s Windows Weekly podcast (along with soundly thrashing Windows Mobile) and dismissed them as a temporary bridge between traditional laptops and future smartphones running desktop-class operating systems. While I like the idea of a Windows smartphone running the same Windows kernel as the desktop version, using the same API for programs and having binary compatibility with desktop Windows, but using a user interface optimized for mobile use, that doesn’t obviate netbooks.

I’ve used mobile phones for years as stand-ins for ultra-mobile PCs, and the problem isn’t the operating system or applications. As evidenced by the popularity of not only netbooks but devices like the Celio Redfly, form factor matters. A clamshell device with a larger screen and touch-typable keyboard is just better for some things. I post blog entries and read Google Reader from both my Treo and my Mininote, but I read ebooks exclusively on the Treo and write longer form work exclusively on the Mininote. It’s about using the right tool for the right job, and it’s becoming increasing obvious every day that netbooks are the tools a lot of people have been waiting for.

A plague of netbooks

Spent most of the day running around with my dad looking for netbooks retail. Best Buy has the Asus eee 1000HD and the MSI Wind, both running XP, along with the older 7″ Linux-based eee.

The eee 1000HD is actually pretty impressive, and would be a contender if it weren’t saddled with a last gen Celeron M processor. Granted, my trusty HP Mini-Note runs on a Via C7-M, so who am I to criticize, really. Keyboard’s nice, though.

The MSI Wind, on the other hand… I can see why this seems to be the runaway success of the netbook set. It’s nearly indentical in size to my HP, with a comfortable keyboard, a spiffy Atom processor and even one more USB port than I have on my HP. It’s impressive, and upgradeable to the capabilities of a “real” laptop, given that Josh just upgraded his to 2GB of RAM and a 200GB 7200rpm hard drive.

There’s a reason this is the only segment of the PC market that’s actually growing. Should be interesting to see what Microsoft has to say at PDC this week about how Windows 7 will run on lower-power PCs.

Maybe if it weren’t so freaking ugly

With Amazon’s Jeff Bezos pushing the Kindle like it’s chicken-fried Jesus and media heavyweights like Oprah on board, ebooks are finally getting some respect in the mainstream media.

Perhaps with Oprah’s help and a new and improved version due next year, the Kindle will achieve escape velocity and Amazon can stop showing me the annoying Kindle ad and disclose how many units have been sold. As for eliminating physical books from the warehouses, books are lagging music and video. The end of print is not near, but the writing is on the virtual wall. The economics of the Internet, as well as technology innovations such as improved virtual paper, instant translation, and always on, fast connections to a universe of knowledge indicate that Bezos is on the right track, just as he was in creating a virtual shopping mall for physical goods in 1994. And, he will have lots of company, or competition, as the digital age gets into full swing.

Amazon’s Kindle obsession: Bury the printed book | Outside the Lines – CNET News

I’m on record, many, many times, as saying standalone ebook readers are a dumb idea. While I haven’t yet seen a Kindle “in the wild” I have seen several Sony readers and I remain unimpressed by e-ink technology. I read more books on my Treo, I’d wager, than even the most avid Kindle fan. And eReader on the iPhone has become the most widely used ebook reader on the market (what the heck, the iPhone may as well be good for something).

But I was predicting the end of print over a decade ago, and that was before a whole new generation was introduced to Harry Potter. While I don’t have much use for them myself, printed books aren’t going anywhere for a long time, and the Kindle, for all its advantages (e-ink, great battery life, built in EVDO connection for buying and downloading books directly) isn’t going to get bibliophiles like my mom to stop lugging tree pulp around.

As for me, I’ll stick with smartphones. I like the look of the rumored second generation Kindle (and was it intentional to name this thing after paper used to start a fire?) but I’m already lugging around a smartphone, netbook and all the associated power cables, sync cables, batteries and whatnot for those. I have room to add a Kindle to my Scott e-Vest (seriously!) but I don’t honestly see the point when I can read perfectly comfortably on my phone.

Blackberry Blah

While I will concede that Blackberries have become real smartphones rather than the uppity pagers of yore, I have to wonder at the thought behind this particular announcement.

AT&T Relevant Products/Services is preparing for a Election Day sales surge on Nov. 4, when Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Bold will launch at AT&T’s stores nationwide for $299.

Communications – BlackBerry Bold Set for Election Day Launch

So they’re releasing a new product on the same day as the most important election in many of our lifetimes? Because that won’t be a distraction.

There have been rumors floating about for a while that RIM has some serious problems with the Blackberry Bold, among them heat and battery life. Despite the hopeful, happy tone of this press-release-masquerading-an-article, I have to seriously wonder if RIM/AT&T picked this date in hopes of turning what had been a hotly anticipated launch into a safer, lower-profile “soft launch” in hopes that any early adopter complaints would be lost in the hubbub around Obama’s election. And if there really isn’t anything wrong with the Bold, why choose to launch it on a day when absolutely no one will be talking about it?

New service pack for Office 2007 on the way

Office 2007 SP2 will be here early in… 2009. Uh, okay. Good stuff, though.

To be fair, this is not the first time we have talked about SP2.  Several months ago, we announced that we’ll be further demonstrating our increased commitment to interoperability by including support for Open Document Format (ODF), XML Paper Specification (XPS), and Portable Document Format (PDF) in SP2.  In addition to those file format additions, some other highlights that you’ll find in SP2 include:

For Office Desktop Programs:

  • Improved Outlook Calendaring Reliability
  • Improved Outlook Performance
  • Enabling Object Model support for Charts in PowerPoint and Word
  • Improved cryptographic functionality by supporting all cryptographic algorithms offered by the operating system
  • Improved functionality in Excel’s charting mechanism
  • Ability to ungroup SmartArt graphics (and as a result, the ability to add animations to them in PowerPoint)
  • Ability for Visio to export UML models to an XML file compliant with the XMI standard
  • Tool that enables the uninstall of Office client Service Packs

Now that I’m using a netbook as my primary computer, I’m really looking forward to the improved Outlook performance. Yay!

October surprise?

Help me out with something, people.

Conventional wisdom says that one of the reasons Obama is doing so well now is that the economy is in the tank, and Democrats are generally thought of as doing better on economic issues (remember the Clinton years? wasn’t that great? ahhhhh…). So naturally the topic floating to the top of the punditocracy now is what could possibly happen to topple Obama in the two weeks we have left. They need something to fill up the 24-hour news cycle now that any talk of a “horse race” causes spontaneous spit takes. So people are talking about an October surprise, a foreign policy issue that could tilt things back to McCain. And the number one item on everyone’s list is another terrorist attack.

So here’s my question. In a country where we were attacked on 9/11 under a Republican administration, by the very guy the previous Democratic administration kept warning them about, and we turned around and made the attacker stronger by providing millions more recruits to his cause, why would a second attack make us vote for another Republican?

Sorry, but this just doesn’t make any sense to me. I know McCain’s supposed to be tough on foreign policy, but it’s “tough” Republican foreign policy, Bush’s “my way or the highway” attitude that blinded him to Bin Laden while Bush was focused on missile defense (al Qaida, at last count, had zero ICBMs, btw), that got us into this mess in the first place. Obama’s measured, balanced and yes, nuanced approach to foreign policy, being willing to talk to our enemies and then bombing them if they don’t get with the program, seems like a much better way to respond to another terrorist attack than just having McCain blithley reaching for the nuclear launch button while humming Beach Boys tunes.

So please, explain. Why would another attack help the candidate for the same party and the same policies that have given us the last disastrous eight years?

A nation of hopeful idiots

Far be it from me to blame a fellow novelist for our troubles, but Horatio Alger may have done America more harm than good.

You’re probably familiar with Alger’s legacy if not his work. He wrote over 270 dime novels in the nineteenth century all based around a central theme: that in America, anyone can become rich through hard work and dedication. Alger was as responsible as anyone for the meme of the “rags to riches” can-do American spirit that has become so central a part of our culture that it influences people to act against their own best interests.

A good example of an Alger story would be Barack Obama. Raised by a single mom and her working-class parents, Obama has gone from foodstamps to the favorite to become the next President of the United States. Obama himself will tell you that his story is an American story, that things are possible here that are possible nearly nowhere else on Earth.

Possible. Not necessarily probable.

See, that’s an important distinction. Just because someone like Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher might be rich someday doesn’t at all mean that he will be. In fact, he almost certainly won’t be. Because the game is now stacked against him like it hasn’t been since the Guilded Age, the last couple decades of the nineteenth century dominated by robber barons with names like Vanderbilt and Astor. Today the robber barons are called Exxon-Mobil and Haliburton, but the situation is largely the same. There’s the rich, there’s everyone else, and very little way to get from the latter to the former.

But that doesn’t deter most Americans from voting in favor of the rich, on the theory that they’ll be rich themselves someday. For the vast thundering majority of them, that never happens, but in the meantime we get increasingly regressive taxes (I’ve heard middle class people who are damn well capable of doing the math speaking out in favor of a flat tax as though it was actually a good idea for them), healthcare we can’t afford and ever rising costs of living. Most Americans have been duped into thinking that they’ll be millionaires any day now, and then it’s fat cat city.

Which just goes to show you how far we’ve fallen. Millionaires are just barely rich anymore. The middle class has been frozen in the $30-90k range for most of my adult life. But let’s face it. If you’re only making $50,000 a year with a family to support, you’re not middle class anymore, you’re barely getting by. The rich are now multi-billionaires, not paltry millionaires, and they’re so far away from the rest of us that they may was well live in another country, and in a very real way they do.

Don’t fall for the hype, people. You may do well for yourself, you may have a comfortable and productive life. But most of you will never, ever be financially rich. So quit voting to support those who already are. Vote to help yourselves, right now, in your current circumstances. Or none of us is going anywhere.

Joe the plumber, tragic figure

Much has been made of Samuel J. Wurzelbacher since his repeated mention in the third and final 2008 presidential debate. Despite John McCain’s propping him up as an everyday American who would be hurt by Obama’s tax policy, the truth has turned out to be anything but.

We now know that Wurzelbacher is not licensed as a plumber and can’t do any plumbing legally. He’s instead a general contractor. The business he said he’d been planning to buy, currently owned by his boss, doesn’t make the $250,000 a year that would bump up into a higher tax bracket as he claimed. Instead it makes less than half that, about $100,000 a year. Joe himself only makes about $40,000 a year, and couldn’t afford to buy the business anyway, even at the lower valuation.

In short, Joe Wurzelbacher lied on the national stage, misrepresenting himself in order to pose what John McCain might term a “gotcha question” to Obama.

What’s really tragic about this is that Joe is just a poor dupe conned by the Republican party into acting against his own best interests. At his current rate of income, Joe would actually get a tax cut under the Obama plan, allowing him to save more to buy a business of his own someday. But Joe isn’t working towards that. Instead, he’s working to pay more in taxes (since McCain will tax his medical benefits) and get further and further from his stated dream.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you make less than a million dollars a year, you have no business being a Republican. They are not looking out for you.

Give Fennec a spin

While it’s not actually available for Windows Mobile yet, you can download an emulator of Fennec, the new Firefox Mobile (a fennec is a small desert fox) and try it out on your desktop. I’ve played around with it a bit and I’m really, really impressed. If this runs at reasonable speed on a Windows Mobile phone, it’s going to make people forget all about Opera Mobile, Iris and Skyfire, not to mention the Internet Explorer 6 that we’re not likely to get without buying new devices.

Fennec M9 (user experience alpha) for Maemo release notes

Easy navigation to Web content:

* Bookmarks, including tags
* Smart URL bar (“awesome bar”)
* Tabbed browsing with thumbnail images
* Integrated Web search – built into the URL bar
* Easy access to multiple search engines

Web content:

* Maximize content by auto-hiding controls and URL bar
* Zoom in and out

Security:

* Instant Web site ID (“Larry”)
* Password manager
* Popup blocker
* Clear private data

Devices services integration:

* Click on a phone number to initiate a call
* JavaScript API to get device location
* Popup blocker
* Clear private data

Also:

* Searchable download manager
* Preferences pane