Broadband Finally Arriving?

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The United States is still lagging behind much of the world in implementing broadband and providing wide range access for citizens. In a significant shift, the Commission has decided to broadly expand the definition of acceptable broadband service.

The minimum broadband speed has been raised to 25Mbps from 4Mbps, reflective an evolution away from dial-up and (hopefully) toward gigabit access. Minimum upload speeds have also been increased from 1Mbps to 3Mbps. The change will more than triple the number of US households without minimum-standard broadband. In effect the move is a bold commentary on the sad state of our digital infrastructure, as bold as you can get from a regulator anyway.

More shockingly, with the new standard over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service. The divide is still greater on Tribal lands and in U.S. territories, where nearly 2/3 of residents lack access to today’s speeds. And 35% of schools across the nation still lack access to fiber networks capable of delivering the advanced broadband required to support today’s digital-learning tools.

Private providers are likely to get riled up from the new standards, but the Commission doesn’t seem to be backing off. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel believes the broadband threshold should be 100 Mbps. Raising speeds to that level would merely put the US on par with many Asian countries like Japan and Korea, and not even in the top spot. (Still feeling like a world superpower?)

Commissioners have also remarked on the requirements of forward leaning technologies like 4K, which require even greater base broadband speeds. The new definitions could play a role in the upcoming net neutrality vote which is scheduled for February 26.

The Google Cop Conundrum

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Disingenuous isn’t a word I get to use that often…given how hard it is to spell that’s probably a good thing. However the recent actions of several senior police people have me reaching for the spell checker. In case you missed it here’s the deal. The fabulous traffic app Waze (which Google acquired in 2013) allows users to mark locations where cops are lying in wait to nab speeding motorists. It’s a terrific feature and one that pretty much everyone I know uses especially on long freeway journeys.  It’s especially fun if you have a passenger and a radar detector to be the first to  tag and flag the cop for others. 
 
In an exercise of staggeringly disingenuous behavior LA Police Chief Charlie Beck (and apparently several other top cops) has written to Google asking them to remove the feature as it might allow criminals to target police more easily….really? is that the argument?  When was the last time you heard of criminals targeting speed traps…off the top of my head it’s never. Waze isn’t used to tag cops going about their business of “protecting and serving” it’s used to tag and flag cops often hiding behind freeway overpass bridges looking to hit their speeding ticket quota and impose massive fines on already over taxed motorists. 
 
Google doesn’t usually cave to this kind of pressure so I’m optimistic this will go away quickly…and even if they did take it away we could still report cops as a “hazard” and flag it police but that will take more than one touch and is actually likely to cause more problems in terms of distracted driving than the original feature. If the police didn’t act as a taxation arm for our local government and stuck to fighting actual crime rather than ticketing moms in minivans doing 7 MPH over the posted limit we wouldn’t have to resort to our technology to counter act theirs. I really hope Google sticks to their guns on this issue….but I’m not holding my breath.

Exploring Mars Getting Easier

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It is looking like Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity will get some company in Mars.

Rovers have a tough time getting across Mars’ vast, unforgiving landscape. They can’t see very far ahead, and the crew back home can only offer so much help by looking at orbital imagery. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory may have a clever solution to that problem, though: an aerial robot scout. Its proposed Mars Helicopter drone would fly ahead of rovers and give operators a much better view of the Martian terrain, helping them plot the quickest route to interesting locales. It could even find a safe spot to deposit samples that future rovers would pick up.

The robotic chopper currently exists as just a tech demo, and it’ll take some testing to prove that this small automaton (it’s 3.6 feet from blade to blade) is ready for the Red Planet. If it makes the cut, though, it could let Mars rovers cover much more ground than they have so far — JPL estimates that these machines could travel three times further in a given day. The project could easily be worthwhile if it means both completing missions faster and discovering things about Mars that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The Mars Helicopter is still being tested at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. and is being proposed as an add-on to future rover missions, but it hasn’t been approved yet. Even if the Mars Helicopter gets approved it will have to wait a while until it is sent to Mars.

Google Calling

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It feels like Google is trying to control all aspects of our lives.  They have had designs on the ISP market with Google Fiber and they have been rumored to be circling the wireless industry for a good while.  Those rumors appear to be in danger of coming true some time real soon. If the leaks are to be believed Google is about to strike a deal with T-Mobile and Sprint to become a re-seller of their networks under the Google brand. Google has been tinkering with handsets ever since the GI more than a decade ago and as the parent of Android they are already on the largest share of end user devices. It looks like pretty soon you will be able to use you Google branded or android powered phone on the Google branded cell network. It’s not likely to be a terribly good service right away because it will be limited by the somewhat patchy networks those guys currently have. Having said that there are very few companies with the intestinal fortitude to take on giants like Verizon or ATT and Google is certainly one of those few.

What’s interesting to speculate about is what impact their entry is likely to make on the incumbents who have already suffered at the hands of the aggressive pricing offered by the upstarts. T-Mobile had a huge 2014 mostly because it was offering both aggressive pricing and offering to buy out the contracts of converting customers. It’s even possible that Google will be able to offer service and equipment essentially subsidized by advertising run on their network to their subscribers. The idea of Google being able to truly take advantage of tier massive Android base has been around for a while…but not as yet come to fruition. Google makes dollars per click on many of their ads. an aggressive ad presentation in exchange for a more or less free wireless service may prove attractive to users on tight budgets. In any event it’s likely that their entry into the market is going to make the incumbents look hard at the value they are offering and that has to be a good thing for all users.

Google Shooting For The Stars?

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If the very well authenticated rumors are to be believed Google is about to invest a billion dollars into Elon Musk’s SpaceX program. If they do it will be another step along the road Google has set its self on to bring the Internet to everyone. The plan would almost certainly involve developing and launching a network of low earth orbit satellites which would be capable of beaming web signal up and down so that users withing reach would be able to connect. It’s a grand idea and one fraught with many technical challenges but one that fits Google’s affection for “moonshot” programs with huge goals. Google is already investigating supplying internet service through high altitude balloons and drones so it makes sense to add satellite to the equation.

I had the distinct misfortune of being at the receiving end of Internet delivered by satellite a couple of years back and it was just awful. I’m sure Google plans to do it differently or better but the experience I had was so bad that I simply got used to not having Internet at home most the month….it was weirdly freeing.

Given that much of what we think of as the civilized world is already served by ISPs of some kind some might wonder why Google would bother. The fact is that there is a big win to be had. Much of the emerging world wants to get on line but lacks the infrastructure to do so. The Impact of cell service bringing phones to areas without any copper wire in place has been dramatic. Whilst it would be nice to think that Google’s motives are humanitarian (and they probably are in some part) the commercial opportunity is considerable. New internet users means long term usage fees and more search users means more advertising dollars to fill Google’s coffers. Google holds such a strong monopoly in most markets that the only way they can make more than relatively minor incremental increases is to generate new users themselves. Even though emerging markets lack the kind of marketing dollars we see in the west they are …well emerging. eventually there will be huge revenue opportunity and Google wants to the guy in charge and benefiting from that growth.

Oh, How Apple Has Changed Since Steve Jobs

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Sticking to his guns typically paid off dividends for Jobs and Apple, even when vocal critics mocked the company’s decisions. But since Jobs’ death in 2011, Apple has been slowly pushing back against some of its founder’s most strongly held beliefs and doing things Jobs said he would never consider. Here are a few things that he strongly disliked that Apple decided to incorporate into their products:

Stylus: This week, an Apple analyst suggested that the company’s forthcoming iPad will ship with a stylus. One of Steve Jobs’ most famous rants was about how much he hates styluses. In 2007, while introducing the iPhone at the Macworld convention in San Francisco, he mocked other smartphones of that era that featured styluses.

“Who wants a stylus?” Jobs said while introducing the iPhone. “You have to get ‘em, put ‘em away, you lose ‘em. Yuck! Nobody wants a stylus. So let’s not use a stylus.” “God gave us 10 styluses. Let’s not invent another,” One of the first things Jobs did when coming back to Apple in 1997 was to kill the Newton, a tablet-like device that used a stylus.

Yet Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI Securities said the widely expected 12.9-inch “iPad Pro” will come with a stylus when Apple announces it in the spring, according to reports.

Small tablets: Another epic Jobs rant came in October 2010, when he discussed his disdain for a new wave of smaller tablets coming to market. On the company’s earnings call with analysts, Jobs said the iPad’s 10-inch screen was “the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.”

He said even making images appear sharper on the screen wouldn’t help smaller tablets become usable “unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of the present size.”

“There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touch screen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them,” he said. A year after Jobs died, Apple introduced the iPad mini — by far the best-selling iPad in the company’s lineup.

Big phones: During Apple’s iPhone 4 “Antennagate” nightmare in 2010, Steve Jobs derided big phones. When a reporter asked him whether Apple would consider making a bigger iPhone to improve antenna reliability, Jobs scoffed. He called Samsung’s Galaxy S phones “Hummers.”

“You can’t get your hand around it,” Jobs said. “No one’s going to buy that.” Apple finally debuted a taller iPhone 5 a year after Jobs died, and a much larger iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus last year.

Life-like software design: Steve Jobs wanted the iPhone’s software to mimic real life. For instance, he told Apple’s designers to model iCal’s leather after the seats on his Gulfstream jet.

Apple’s Mail app had a linen background, the iBookstore featured wooden shelves, and the Notes app was made to look like a legal pad. A year after Jobs died, Apple fired Scott Forstall, a software executive who was a champion of Jobs’ design preferences. A year later, Apple introduced iOS 7, which did away with any ties to real-life objects.

Ding Dong The Glass is Dead

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I like wearables…I think there’s a huge market for tech attached to our bodies which enhances our lives with form and function in harmony…but not Google Glass. Yesterday Google stuck a well deserved stake through the heart of this monster and retired it to the “Moon Shot” division where big ideas go to die.

The writing was on the wall for Glass a while ago when Sergey Brin stopped appearing with Glass at high profile events. In recent years you were more likely to catch him in public without his pants than without Glass…but when he stopped toting Glass recently many Glass watchers drew their own conclusion. The early adopters who shelled out 1,500 bucks (and in some cases had to write essays on why they wanted to be allowed to buy Glass) will be understandably pretty ticked off. Fortunately their disposable income will likely be at a level where they won’t feel the pain…and that speaks in good measure to why Glass failed.

It wasn’t the battery life (which was less than very useful). It wasn’t the generally clunky usability.It wasn’t the fact that it apparently wasn’t really evolving, adding features or uses. It wasn’t the lack of a “killer application” to drive adoption…it was all of the above…and the “squeak-out” factor it caused.

Glass was an elitist, intrusive, ego trip for the arrogant Technorati to wear to show that they knew someone at Google, had more money than sense and were cooler than thou. If your wearable brands your users “Glassholes” you have a major marketing problem. Compare with GoPro…a bit clunky early on, rapidly evolving features, a killer reason to exist (showing off sporting prowess on YouTube) and affordable to pretty much anyone that wanted it. Nobody thinks GoPro users are secretly recording them, or taking pictures or checking up on them online. GoPo cultivates a young, cool slightly crazy vibe and produces organically share-able content. It also has great battery life and my dog could operate it.

Our faces, especially our eyes are intensely personal.  Adding any tech to them is tricky and typically looks weird or threatening.   Any wearable, which engenders mistrust in those around it and contempt for the “Glassholes” who wear it is doomed…and good riddance. Hopefully lesson learned.

Google’s “Outside the Box” Phone

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From Wi-Fi balloons to self-driving cars and its famously free and healthy staff meals, Google is known for doing things differently. Now it’s looking to change the way smartphones are manufactured and bought, creating a scalable consumer smartphone with fully customizable hardware.

The tech giant stepped up the development of Project Ara on Wednesday, announcing a market trial of its modular smartphone to begin in Puerto Rico later this year with a global launch soon after. Google also unveiled a new prototype of the Ara, given the name “Spiral 2″, with the yet more sophisticated Spiral 3 set to be released later in the year.

Created by Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects (ATAP) group — formerly part of the now-offloaded Motorola hardware division — the Ara is not like anything consumers are used to. Essentially, it’s just a shell — an “endoskeleton” — into which various modules of hardware can be inserted and connected.

These could include anything from a battery, processor, your ideal camera and speakers, a beefed-up storage card, or a replacement screen for the one you just accidentally broke. Modules of varying sizes slide and in and out of the frame, while the exterior panels — also customizable using the Ara Configurator app — create a striking aesthetic.

Previously it had been reported Google would sell the basic endoskeleton for $50. Smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and Apple traditionally center production around flagship models — such as the Galaxy and iPhone, respectively — with customers upgrading their device with new releases.

The Ara looks to do away with the upgrade cycle completely, with owners able to add brand new modules to the original endoskeleton as they come onto the market. Part of the philosophy behind the approach is to reduce electronic waste. However, questions remain as to whether Google will need to release upgrades of the endoskeleton itself, resulting in the modules having to be upgraded too.

Yet perhaps the biggest quirk in the Ara’s unique approach is that Google is outsourcing the manufacture of the phone’s key hardware parts to anyone willing and able to make them. Thanks to big data, consumers are increasingly getting used to personalization and customization when they engage with products and brands.

But Google’s pitch to break the status quo in smartphone manufacturing is still a big risk. For starters, no one’s really done this before — at least not on such a scale. And secondly, do consumers really want what Google is offering?

The Greatest Idea of All Time

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This post has nothing to do with our industry or the almighty Google, I just wanted to share this discovery. I love podcasts…it’s a good chunk of all the entertainment I consume. The other day I stumbled across “The Worst Idea of All Time” and my world was rocked. The premise is simple and insanely brilliant. Each Monday two young New Zealand based comedians gather to watch and review the appalling Adam Sandler movie Grownups 2…each week for a year!

I truly can’t stand Adam Sandler, I loathe everything about him and all of his films (OK Punch Drunk Love was alright and Happy Gilmore was fairly watchable…but anyway). I would rather do almost anything else than watch any of his movies especially one as famously vacant as this one. So the concept of voluntarily subjecting myself to watch and review this piece of garbage every week is in of itself a surreal idea….but these guys are doing it and it’s amazing.

Part comedy act, part social experiment, part hostage crisis each week they trudge through the mire of this movie like WWI soldiers; half blinded by gas and driven mostly insane by the constant shell fire. Part of me wants to ask them to stop for the love of all that is human Stop The Madness!…and part of me is wildly entertained. The idea is a train-wreck of monumental proportions, it shouldn’t work…but it does. It’s consistently very funny in the way that Sandler movies aren’t.

I came across this brilliant record of what almost amounts to a crime against humanity about 40 episodes in and I have been binge listening ever since trying to catch up so I can share the horror of their efforts in real time. It’s more addicting that “Serial” and funnier than anything else I know of right now. I thoroughly recommend to all of you to try out this comedic form of performance art, you will not be disappointed.

Transitioning the Translation Barrier

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Last month, Skype, Microsoft’s video calling service, initiated simultaneous translation between English and Spanish speakers. Not to be outdone, Google will soon announce updates to its translation app for phones. Google Translate now offers written translation of 90 languages and the ability to hear spoken translations of a few popular languages. In the update, the app will automatically recognize if someone is speaking a popular language and automatically turn it into written text.

Certainly, the technology of changing one language to another is rather difficult. The Skype service also requires a headset and works best if a speaker paused to hear what the other person had said. Sometimes the translation doesn’t work directly from one language to another.

However, those language mistakes are a critical part of how online products get better. The services improve with use, as tinkering with so-called machine learning by computers examines outcomes and adjusts performance. It is how the online spell check feature became dependable, and how search, map directions and many other online services progress.

Just a few thousand people are using the service on Skype. As it learns from them, it will bring in more of the nearly 40,000 people waiting to try the Spanish-English service. Even in these early days, it elicits the possibility of social studies classes with children in the United States and Mexico, or journalism where you can live chat with a family in Syria.

Google says its Translate app has been installed more than 100 million times on Android phones, most of which could receive the upgrade. They have 500 million active users of Translate every month, across all our platforms. With 80-90% of the web in just 10 languages, translation becomes a critical part of learning for many people.

Automatic translation of web pages into some major languages is already a feature on Google’s Chrome browser. There are also 140 languages in which it is possible to change things like Gmail.

Microsoft’s Bing Translation engine is used on Twitter and Facebook. Facebook, which also features communication across the borders of language by operating the world’s largest photo sharing service, also has its own translation efforts. It has also signed up thousands of people to a waiting list for Skype to offer other simultaneously translated languages, like Chinese and Russian.

Feeding the “corpus,” as linguistics engineers call their database of language, has become critical for some countries as well as for the sake of machine learning. Google, which uses human translation to initiate its service, recently added Kazakh after a government official went on television to ask people to help out.

Still, some experts worry as machines look more deeply at individual uses of meaning through things like intonation and humor. What will it mean if, as with our search terms and our Facebook “likes,” these become fodder for advertisers and law enforcement?

Currently, just 1% of consumers consent to having their data recorded. That is what people do when they help machine learning of translation, or when they use voice-based assistants like Siri. Individuals will become better at managing their own privacy, and not outsourcing it to the providers of services. But for now, all kinds of information is surrendered for convenience.