Tag Archives: new stuff

The easy job was inventing wearable computing

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

It takes mojo to make the glasses and cuffs work, baby.

Expect entrepreneurs to bring the best not-ready-for-prime-time wearable computing concepts to CES.

Samsung's flexible touch screen and Google's Glass project could be ready for market as early as CES 2014. The prototypes that'll be floated next week will show us if they've narrowed the gap between the clunky toys that are available today and the sleek artwork that designers have been teasing us with for years.

Nonetheless, the clunky toys offered by garage scale start-ups and small overseas manufacturers will be the most interesting products to see. Not for the technology, but for the usage cases and applications.

It's one thing to make a touch screen device that slips around your wrist like a shirt cuff or eyeglasses that put a video overlay onto the real world. It's another to give consumers something compelling to do with it.

Hungry and nimble, good start up companies substitute imagination for capital and squeeze the maximum juice out of wild ideas. It doesn't matter if their products can't deliver. It's enough if they can figure out what the promise needs to be.

Even if it doesn't guarantee their own success, it'll be enough to give the wearable computing category momentum to accelerate into the mass market. That's what I'll be trying to find in the back alleys of CES.

You can sell a few hundred thousand units of any cool, geeky gizmo to the boys and girls who love anything innovative. If you want people to buy hundreds of millions of them, you need the mojo to know why.

Get out of town to see new broadband horizons

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

One trend to watch for in 2013 is consolidation and growth in rural broadband in the U.S. AT&T and Verizon are backing – sometimes running full speed – away from the wireline business in less densely populated markets. That's an opportunity for entrepreneurs with rural telecoms experience to create their own kind of economies of scale.

Frontier Communications is well down that road, with five million phone lines under its management nationwide. Like Google, Surewest is looking to Kansas as a growth opportunity. Here in California, Sebastian is expanding from its home base in Kerman, acquiring another small telco in the Sierra foothills and positioning itself as the go to company for rural telecommunications construction. Suddenlink has discovered how to run geographically scattered cable systems with a lean and mobile staff.

But that's just the first wave crashing on shore. The one built on legacy systems. It's the next wave that will run up and over the beach.

Fiber backbones are easier to build outside of metropolitan areas, when people are of a mind to cooperate. The options for last mile service – wireless, legacy copper and maybe even fiber – are gaining in effectiveness while holding steady on costs.

Dispersed and fully digitally native, small management and operations teams have no trouble keeping in touch with networks, customers and each other. Networks can scale up while head counts and costs stay relatively flat.

This coming year, watch for one or two embrace these advantages introduce new service delivery and business models that overcome the high fixed costs of broadband infrastructure and the low marginal revenue of rural markets.

Five Geek ways to celebrate Boxing Day

by Steve Blum • , ,

Like a calm, sunny morning after a hurricane, Boxing Day is a time to wallow in the luxury of nothing so urgent to do as yesterday and dream of the future without worrying about tomorrow.

Some don’t look at it that way, preferring instead to run frantically around the beach tidying up. Let them be.

The day after Christmas is a day off work in much of the erstwhile British Empire, originally an occasion to give gifts to people who work for you: a Christmas box of hand-me-down clothes and left over food bestowed on grateful servants by the lord of the manor.

But few of us have servants, grateful or otherwise, and holiday bonuses come as direct deposits with taxes and withholdings neatly trimmed out. So we can relax and enjoy a day with no particular obligations except those we choose to savor.

For me, it’s a chance to achieve inner peace through simple Geek pleasures.

  • Play with a new language. Whatever it is – Python, php, Pascal – hack at it until you grok.
  • Read space opera. Whether it’s the rigor of Alastair Reynolds, the omnipotence of David Weber or the pulp nostalgia of Doc Smith, embrace the guilty pleasure of star spanning adventure with a thick book in a quiet place.
  • Ride a bike to the shopping center, cruise around back and see what’s being thrown out. You never know where your next big idea will come from.
  • Transform a gift. Take a screwdriver to an old gizmo, reverse engineer it and make it do something new. Turn a digital frame into a weather station, a talking doll into a remote control, a Princess phone into a zombie detector. Then give it to a friend with a sense of humor.
  • Show a kid how to make a crystal radio. The hardest part is finding a kid with a sufficient attention span. If you can, the sense of wonder at building working electronics by hand with raw materials will last a lifetime. For both of you.

Happy holidays, and may the Great Bird of the Galaxy bring serenity to your planet!

The weather is here

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

A stormy morning on Monterey Bay got me thinking about Blueseed, a plan to anchor a high-tech haven twelve nautical miles off the San Mateo County coast, in international waters.

It looks like a floating city in conceptual images, but if it actually puts to sea version 1.0 would have to be a converted cruise ship. If it takes off, then maybe enough capital will be there for custom ship building. For now, they’re working with a six-figure seed fund.

Days like today would be the most serious natural challenge to the project. Half Moon Bay, the nearest landfall, is home to Mavericks, “a winter destination for some of the world’s best big wave surfers.” Maneuvering capability would be essential, unless Blueseed accumulates enough experience and baseline data to figure out how to keep something stationary in a far from benign environment.

A ferry connection is planned, weather permitting. A rough ride at times, but probably as predictable as any other commute along the U.S. 101/I-280 corridor. Not particularly, in other words.

Internet access would be a challenge, for the same reason. A microwave link from shore would have to shoot through 12 miles of muck occasionally. That’s a lot of signal attenuation. A submarine cable might be the ultimate solution, if a regulatory nightmare can be avoided.

The stated purpose is to provide a location within day trip distance of Silicon Valley that doesn’t require foreign nationals to get a work visa. On board, the laws of whatever flag of convenience it flies will apply – the Bahamas and Marshall Islands are given as examples.

It’s crazy enough to work.


by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

The set top box is on the run, harried away by television manufacturers. Toshiba sounded the hunting horn this morning, unveiling its Cell TV product line. Don’t be fooled by the name, it’s a classic case of branding in a vacuum. It has nothing to do with mobile phones. It’s a computer morphed into a set top box and wrapped with a big screen TV. The set top box is the TV.

Toshiba Cell TV
 Spot the set top box
Toshiba calls the chip that powers it the Cell TV Broadband Engine, which was developed in a joint venture with Sony and IBM. Details were sketchy at the press conference. All Scott Ramirez, Toshiba’s marketing VP for television, could say was “maybe you can ask one of the Japanese guys.” That I’ll do at their booth tomorrow.

They did know that the chip has 8 cores and is capable of 200 GFLOPS. The TV set that’s built around it also has a 1TB hard disk drive and all the networking capability – wired and wireless – anyone could want. It does Internet TV and social networking, works as a home media server and a video phone, and, they say, can convert standard 2D television into 3D. One highlighted feature is its ability to filter Internet noise and process video streams in real time, to narrow the gap between cable/satellite and Internet delivery.

Quite the change from last year, when all the TV set guys said they were putting an Ethernet port into all their products, but didn’t quite know what anyone would do with it. This year, it looks like Toshiba, at least, is getting it right. Take a ton of computing power, use most of it to enhance video quality, save a tiny bit for networking, navigation and sharing, and give it a consumer-friendly user interface that actually does the job.

They’ve turned set top box technology into just another feature set, and integrated it into their product line. Fewer gizmos in the living room and fewer start-up plays in the consumer video space mean content creators and online services will have the same direct path to the living room television that they do to a desktop computer.

The buzz from CES Unveiled

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

CES Unveiled was the usual mob scene. Maybe even more so this year. But its a good first look at what has the buzz and what doesn’t.

 Lenovo tablet computer becomes a laptop
Lenovo was the only computer maker showing a genuine tablet computer at the event. And its a beauty.

It’s really two computers in one. The tablet runs on a mobile processor and has good, basic functionality. It docks into a laptop-like device. In fact, when it’s docked, it is a laptop.

The tablet becomes the screen and the laptop unit powers it with a full-on Intel processor and a keyboard. People were stacked three, four, sometimes five and six deep trying to get a look.

 Entourage’s e-book reader
E-book readers were surprisingly hard to find, but there were a few. Marvell had some cool reference designs.

One was a dead ringer for a gizmo I’ve been waiting years and years to get: a wafer thin tablet maybe 15 cm by 20 cm, that I’ve been lusting after ever since I first saw one on Star Trek Deep Space Nine.

Entourage was showing a dual screen model. It opens like a book and has an e-book screen on one side and a smaller computer display, suitable for video and multimedia on the other.

The set top box business is losing its pizzaz. Not in terms of product – the user interfaces and on-screen navigation keep getting better and better – but in terms of it representing something cutting edge. Everybody knows you can get TV on the Internet, and you don’t need cable or satellite to get all the movies and television shows you want.

 Marvell’s Deep Space Nine
 reference design
The two best STB products on display, the Popbox and D-Link’s Boxee unit, seamlessly integrate social networking functionality so you can watch TV with your friends, no matter where they might be.

The unexpectedly hot category was small projectors. Palm-top devices that let you watch TV or whatever from your mobile phone or share a video quickly were being demonstrated by 3M and Microvision.

Sharper Image was showing a prototype home projector that’s supposed to start selling for $149 in August. These small, inexpensive projectors are based on LED technology that will only get better over the next two to three years. The days of the $1,000 video projector are numbered.

ASUS aims for design and lifestyle driven brand positioning

by Steve Blum • , , ,

ASUS chairman Jonney Shih gambled that he could set a meet-or-beat benchmark with an early Tuesday news conference at the Consumer Electronics Show. Risky strategy, because if he doesn’t have a game-changing announcement, ASUS will end up looking diminished with every comparison made during Wednesday’s wall-to-wall press events.

Didn’t happen. No tablet computer or e-reader or smartphone to announce.

Turns out, the game they’re trying to change is their brand positioning: shift the ASUS brand from representing smaller, cheaper, geekier laptops and netbooks to being a full-on, mainstream portable computer maker, with a design-driven, consumer electronics edge. Nowhere near, say, Sony’s level, but they’re certainly taking their first steps along that road. The goal is to become one of the top three portable computer makers by 2011.

ASUS bamboo computer, CES 2010
 World’s first panda-recyclable laptop
Shih supported the positioning with new products. A streamlined product line for gamers and power users, with a full sized, full powered, Darth Vader-look laptop. High concept netbook styling by a brand name designer intended to appeal to women. Social responsibility and lower carbon footprints across the product line. Computers made out of bamboo. A big laptop that’s trying to evoke the black tie aura of an orchestral instrument.

More powerful, better looking, greener, more this, more that. Unfortunately, Not news, unfortunately. It would be news, albeit bad, if this year’s stuff ran just like last year’s.

They have good stuff to talk about, and likely will move into the top three in their category in the near term. The mobile computer sector, Shih said, grew by 25% in the third quarter of 2009, while ASUS grew by 56%. That’s exactly what they need to do.

From a concept perspective, Shih introduced Waveface, which might someday be a line of wearable, stuffable, mountable computing and communication devices, tightly integrated with a networked suite of lifestyle services. Think of a smartphone that wraps around your wrist like a bracelet, or a tablet computer that folds up like a piece of paper. Game-changing stuff, if it ever becomes actual stuff.