July 16, 2012

It’s hard to ignore the insane election race underway in the US, awash in ‘dark money’ and over-the-top rhetoric. I can’t say how I’d vote, if it was my choice. But I do have this bit of general advice for all elections:

As long as you vote for the lesser of two evils, you will always have an evil government.

Also: I know there are billions being spent on advertising and propaganda. But you don’t actually have to listen. You could use your own eyes and ears and brain. You could look around, investigate, educate yourself. You could think for yourself. Propaganda only works if you’re too lazy to seek other sources of information.


The Dual Irony of Windows 8

July 16, 2012

I’ve been writing about the upcoming Microsoft Surface, and studying the keynote presentation describing it. It has struck me that with Windows 8, Microsoft has managed to screw up not once but twice, in a single release:

  • Windows 8 RT looks like a pretty good tablet solution. But, apart from the highly misleading name, it offers absolutely no continuity whatsoever with the 30-year-old Windows ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Windows 8 Pro breaks violently with that same 30-year tradition. Yet it fails to deliver a touch-based solution for existing Windows applications, with not even a token effort at making the desktop mode more finger-friendly.

This really is the worst of both worlds. Microsoft has belatedly launched a brand-new mobile OS, that’s going to have to catch up in stability and app support with two huge contenders, iOS and Android. (Even the BlackBerry OS has more of a track record at this point.) Yet it’s squandered its one undeniable advantage, by not playing off of the huge success of Windows on the PC. As Microsoft has pointed out, the potential audience for a truly Windows-like mobile OS was on the order of a half-billion users. The audience for brand-new MetrOS, dramatically less Windows-like than any of its competitors? Who knows.

At the same time, Microsoft has launched a new desktop OS without adding much-needed touch support. Windows 8 slaps on the goofy new Metro mode like a coat of paint… but, astoundingly, offers no improvement whatsoever in touch facilities for existing applications. Simply enlarging the red X ‘close window’ button might have been a start; how hard would that have been??? Microsoft has done so pathetically little to make the desktop more usable by touch that you simply can’t help thinking the company plans to kill it entirely. Thereby discarding its own most important asset: the continuity of applications, skills and user acceptance that Windows has built up over three decades. Microsoft has ensured that Windows users looking for a touch-based solution will find more continuity by switching to a competing OS.

Nice work. It’s not all that rare to see a big company shoot itself in the foot. But both feet with one pull of the trigger? That takes real genius.

Microsoft’s Metro Marketing Madness

June 13, 2012

A lot of people are miffed by Microsoft’s bizarre new UI direction in Windows 8. I explain why they’ve done it, and why it won’t work, over on Marketnews.ca.

Metered Internet in Canada

February 9, 2011

The CRTC set off a powderkeg, when they ruled to allow big service providers to force smaller resellers to impose usage caps and overage fees on their end-users.

Now that the issue has been opened up for debate, it’s time to re-examine Internet pricing in general. As Netflix has pointed out, the big Canadian ISPs are charging overage rates of about $1 (I’ve seen as high as $2.50) for a gigabyte that costs them something like $0.01 to deliver. That’s quite a markup. (My own conversations with smaller ISPs roughly confirm this math. For example, last summer I was told that the average cost per gigabyte is “below 3 cents.”)

Much of the pro-metering argument has hinged on vague, emotional talk about “making the bandwidth hogs pay.” This assumes that the cost of that extra bandwidth is actually significant. At $0.01 per gigabyte, it’s clearly not. The difference between the mythical ‘light user’ and ‘bandwidth hog’ simply isn’t enough to argue about. We need to recognize this reality: that the cost of bandwidth today is insignificant compared to the cost of simply maintaining a connection.

Let’s say the heaviest user grabs 350 gigabytes in a month. (Not easy, even over the fastest Canadian connection.) Total cost: $3.50. That’s what we’re arguing about: $3.50 a month. Given that the ‘bandwidth hog’ is almost certainly on a higher-speed plan, he’s probably already paying more than enough to cover the extra usage. But never mind. Just add the $3.50 to their bill, and we can all move on.

Clearly, the argument isn’t about metered or non-metered billing. It’s about fair pricing.

It’s also not about a few ‘bandwidth hogs.’ Very soon, we’re all going to be ‘bandwidth hogs.’ As services like Netflix open up streaming video, monthly caps of 25GB are going to seem ridiculous. In fact, there’s a general agreement that all television may be shifting to the Internet: ‘IPTV.’ Right now, you can leave the soaps running while you cook. Do that with metered billing, and you’re going to have a very nasty shock at the end of the month.

With digital technology, prices should be going down, not up. Yes, digital is better. But it’s also cheaper. A CD sounds better than an LP (get over it), but it’s also cheaper to manufacture. Digital TVs are better than analog, but are also cheaper to make. DVD players (or digital video recorders, in so far as they’ve been allowed to exist) are better, simpler and cheaper than VCRs.

Unfortunately, the markup on delivery of traditional TV services (cable and satellite) is much, much larger than anything ISPs can ever hope to make on Internet service. The big ISPs who are in both businesses are going to be reluctant to abandon their role as gatekeepers of content, in favor of one as vendors of commodity connection services. But that’s where things are headed, and Canada needs to keep up.

One way to help is to speak up.  The Internet is vital to our entertainment, our livelihood, our democratic process. Canadians don’t mind paying our way, but the price has to be a fair one, not a crippling penalty specifically aimed at holding back the future.

The CRTC has asked for input. We need to give it to them. OpenMedia.ca is the group that’s done most to champion this issue, and they have all the info about how to send comments to the CRTC on this page. Do it now.


August 18, 2010

Well, I’ve seen it, and I’ve tried it. And I am not blown away.

On the positive side, yes, it does work. Wave your hand, your little avatar waves back. Squat. Kick. Jump. Stick your head between your knees. No problem… the little onscreen goof follows right along.

Furthermore, Kinect can be a great workout. From a standing start, I was quickly breathless as I side-stepped and hopped my way through a white-water rafting course. Then ducked barriers as my little trolley rolled along a roller-coaster track. And finally, batted balls in a 3D version of Breakout. (The latter, oddly enough, was by far the most interesting part of the demo.)

On the downside: the Kinect doesn’t seem to work any better than, say, the Wii controller. Movements are registered approximately at best. If there’s any forward-backward tracking (‘into’ the screen), it was not in evidence. And worst of all, there was massive lag — a near-half-second delay between body movement and onscreen echo.

You adjust pretty quickly, and the Kinect seems to do a pretty good job with the Silly Sports games that Microsoft is using to promote the new controller. But if you’re dreaming of a first-person shooter where you go “Pew! Pew!” with your finger, I think you can forget it. From what I experienced, targeting would be neither fast enough nor positive enough to make the experience anything other than an exercise in frustration.

Of course, that’s only a ‘first look.’ The Microsoft demonstrator had no idea whether we were using alpha or beta software. He did attempt to deny the existence of what I called control “lag” — while seeming to be well aware of the effect I was talking about. Only the one game was running, and I was not able to try using the Kinect with the Xbox Live interface.

Based on this limited trial, I’d give the Kinect a cautious passing grade for existing Xbox 360 owners who want a more physical gaming experience, but don’t want to shell out for a Wii. And a tentative failing grade for anything else.

More to come…

Bethesda Buys id

June 24, 2009

Weird corporate news: Bethesda (or its parent company, ZeniMax) has bought id Software. It’s a surprising union, but I think an overwhelmingly good one for both companies, and for the gaming world as a whole.

  • Bethesda will publish id games, which should be a huge step up from the sledgehammer corporate approach of an Activision or Electronic Arts.
  • The cultures should be a good fit. Both Bethesda and id are companies that have deliberately stayed small, and kept tightly focused on a particular style of game.
  • Bethesda may pick up on some of id’s top-notch 3D coding expertise, and id may be reminded how to do games with a bit of depth.

Doom RPG, anyone?

Y I h8 IE8

March 13, 2009

I’ve just attended a Microsoft LiveMeeting briefing talking about the new version of Internet Explorer. The comparisons to Firefox were fairly contrived, as you might expect, and even so, the pitch still came off as fairly underwhelming.

Here’s a quick run-down:

  • Pages render faster in IE8 than in other browsers. Maybe. Under some circumstances. But in any case, the difference is “pretty small.” (Getting excited, yet?)
  • Interesting statistic: Microsoft claimed that Mozilla itself admits only about 20% of Firefox users install add-ons. If true, having more stuff built-in would certainly be an advantage. As long as that stuff was equally ‘rich’ (to use Microsoft parlance) and far-reaching. Well, Microsoft’s main alternative to add-ons are Accelerators, which are like mini-add-ons specific to certain services — Gmail, Facebook, etc. But of course, the functionality is pretty restricted too — mostly they show little pop-ups, like a Live Map. Or instead of cutting and pasting a bit of text into an email, an Accelerator might allow you do it with one right-click. Cute, but hardly Earth-shattering. And it still depends on third parties cooking up the dowloadable modules — just as with add-ons.


  • Web Slices are like a proprietary take on RSS feeds. They can let you track specific parts of a favorite Web page — but of course, they require the page to enable this, using special markup on their site. Slices look easier to use than most RSS feedreaders, perhaps, but RSS is a widely-adopted standard, while Slices are all custom Microsoft. (See below about how Microsoft is now playing nice with standards…)
  • IE8 clones the Firefox URL “amazing bar,” where it can now offer extensive suggestions as you type, from both your recent sites and quick online searches. There are some minor tweaks, mainly by virtue of working with specific providers, like Amazon and Wikipedia.
  • IE8 has a cross-site scripting blocker, which Microsoft admits is similar to the Firefox NoScript add-on. But they called NoScript “extreme” in that it blocks all scripts. (As if that weren’t a good thing!) IE8 InPrivate Filtering is not unlike Firefox AdBlock — but with a simpler dialog, I’ll give them that.
  • IE8 allows tabs to crash individually, without bringing down the browser. Cool. This would be a huge help — about twice a year.
  • Another big feature: IE is now supporting standards. (As they admit Firefox and Safari have been doing for some time…) Gosh! But the real beauty of IE8 is that it has a Compatibility View, to correctly render all those pages that have already been built for Microsoft’s previous rogue non-standards. Microsoft has even created a new XML tag that can tell IE8 to render in IE7 mode. (Just one more new trick for developers to learn… assuming they still care what IE does with their pages.)
  • Not discussed in the demo, but Tabs in IE8 are still horrible, horrible, utterly useless and horrible. Microsoft seems to feel no one will ever open more than about 6 tabs. In my case, their estimate is out by at least an order of magnitude.

All in all, the final release is looking no more amazing than early betas suggested it would be. The new features are all swell, but limited in quantity, and mostly just catching up on features already available in other browsers. The user interface remains by far the worst of any browser, ever. Overall functionality is light-years short of what Firefox can do with a few well-chosen add-ons. (And you can bet that Firefox will remain the more attractive platform for add-on developers.)

This is a far cry from Microsoft’s glory days. When threatened by Netscape Navigator, the company really moved browsing forward in a big way. Overall, there’s nothing in IE8 that would cause anyone to switch back from an alternative browser. Nor anything that would slow the steady trickle of IE users who try something else and never come back.

DRM hoses TV

August 14, 2008

I’ve just been to a preview of new products coming from Belkin. Among these was a really nifty item they’re calling the FlyWire. It connects to your HDTV sources (cable box, Blu-ray player, whatever), then broadcasts the signal to a smaller receiver box that connects to your TV. Basically, it’s wireless cabling for your flat-screen.

Belkin FlyWire - rear showing inputs

Belkin FlyWire - rear showing inputs

Even neater, it can transmit to multiple receivers, allowing you to switch, say, your favorite TV show up to your bedroom TV. It includes an infrared ‘Blaster’ to relay remote-control commands back to the cable box.

Cool idea. But: one thing this $1,000 product can’t do is transmit one digital source to multiple TVs. For example, to allow you and the wife to watch upstairs while the kids watch downstairs.

With analog cable, this is easy: just insert a splitter in the wire. (You might need a signal booster.) Network players do it too; I’ve had no trouble streaming the same video clip to multiple PCs over our home network. With the new HDMI digital high-def connection, however, it’s impossible. (And just for good measure, will soon be illegal, under Bill C-61.) The HDCP copy-protection built into HDMI won’t let you view one source simultaneously on multiple TVs.

Does it make sense to limit usage in this way? Sure: provided you’re a Hollywood accountant. If I ‘own’ a DVD, I have a right to watch it. My whole family has a right to watch it simultaneously. Do they all have to be in the same room to do so? I’ll leave that question to the lawyers. But what’s clear is that HDCP is not protecting the content from being “stolen.” It’s protecting the business model of the owner — or, rather, creating an entirely new profit opportunity, moving us to per-room licensing for content, and away from the old 1950s per-household model.

Just another example of how technology is being used to de-feature our entertainment experience. Deliberately crippling premium products in awkward and arbitrary ways is not how you build a market. It’s just one more delay preventing us from reaching that rosy digital future we keep hearing about.

Meeting with Bob Rae

August 8, 2008

(A slightly different version of this report was also posted to the Fair Copyright for Canada, Toronto Chapter, Facebook group.)

At the Fair Copyright for Canada, Toronto Chapter, strategy session with Michael Geist, on July 24, attendees were broken into groups by riding, and asked to contact local MPs and speak with them in favor of amending Canada’s absurd Bill C-61 (essentially an ‘improved’ version of the US’ disastrous Digital Millennium Copyright Act).

This morning, Lukasz Kosewski and I met with Bob Rae, at his office on Parliament Street. Lukasz very eloquently presented the perspective of the open-source community, and its problems with highly restrictive legislation such as Bill C-61. (I’ve emailed him this report, and hope that he’ll expand with comments of his own.)

I attempted to present the point of view of the consumer electronics industry (which I cover in my day job as a technology journalist). My efforts met with only modest success. It seems that I was the very first person to actually present this perspective to Mr. Rae! He mentioned that ACTRA had been in to see him earlier that very morning, to plead for more copyright protection. But meanwhile, powerful companies such as Toshiba, Samsung, LG, Sharp and others – all of whom stand to lose bigtime from C-61 – are nowhere to be seen. Very odd.

My main point was that any gains for the content industry will be losses for the consumer electronics industry. The former is stable, whereas the latter is poised for explosive growth, given a halfway reasonable legal climate. I think I took Mr. Rae’s thinking about as far along this path as was possible from a standing start. But much more remains to be done. (I’ve attempted to spur consumer-electronics companies to action in my writings, and will continue to do so. I suspect these folks may be taking a needlessly deferential attitude to Big Content.)

Throughout our conversation, Mr. Rae’s stance seemed to be far less than enthusiastic to the points of view presented by Lukasz and myself. If I had to guess, I’d say that various parties from the content industry had been hitting him pretty hard. He spoke several times about the need to protect creators’ rights. When I noted that most of Canada’s prominent music creators seemed opposed to this type of legislation, he countered that only ‘some’ were opposed; others were not. (ACTRA was mentioned as an example of a creators’ body that at least generally favored the bill.)

On the other hand, Mr. Rae did speak very encouragingly about the need for “balance.” And he acknowledged that the playing field had changed in the Internet world. He also said that when the bill (likely) goes to committee, the Liberals would push for changes. He further suggested that a fall election was very possible, and that in that event, Bill C-61 would very likely go back on the drawing board, with time taken for proper consultation with all parties.

Anyway, huge thanks are due to Lukasz for persisting with Mr. Rae’s office over many days, in order to set up our half-hour chat. I believe we did move the ball a few feet, if not much more. Clearly, there’s a need to keep up the pressure. There’s a long way to go, even though Bob Rae has already spoken out in favor of amending C-61, and is theoretically on our side.

On a more positive note, I’d have to say that Lukasz and I both emerged from the meeting energized and quite a bit more aware of the political realities involved. I hope that other attendees of the Strategy Session are having at least equal success in setting up similar meetings. We’re really going to need to do a lot more of this, if our voices are going to be heard above all the others clamoring for attention.

Sharing <> Stealing

July 2, 2008

I just saw this story on TorrentFreak, about how the FBI busted the EliteTorrents.org tracker site. Inevitably, a few commenters tried yet again to push the tired notion that everyone reading the page should feel guilty for “stealing” all that content. To which I would make the following final and irrefutable reply:

The law has always been perfectly clear: “theft” and “copyright infringement” are not the same thing.

That was true long before the Internet and digital sharing, and it remains true today, even under ludicrous legislation like the DMCA. This is largely because ‘intellectual property’ is not the same as actual physical property. The similar terminology is deliberately misleading, but creators have never ‘owned’ their works, they way you own your car, your computer or your pants.

There are good reasons for this, which you can learn very quickly by doing a search on the history of copyrights. But at least take a moment to notice that taking a unique physical object away from someone is quite different from making yet another copy of something that’s infinitely copyable in the first place. The act of copying may reduce the copyright-holder’s revenue from the work, but this is not a given. (It may actually increase the value of the work, for example.) True, the basic intent of copyright laws is to allow creative works to achieve some “reasonable” value. But that actual value is determined by market forces and negotiation, not by any absolute moral principle.

The point is, the debate over copyrights is never going to be simple. So let’s at least insist that everyone chooses their words appropriately. If you want to argue that copyright infringement is a scourge on the economy and the creative landscape, go ahead, make your case. But don’t get off to a bad start by trying to claim that it’s the same thing as stealing. Because it’s not. Never has been. Never will be.

(Updated 11-01-03, mainly for clarity.)