Google as the 900-pound gorilla

We are in the midst of some big changes, and the biggest competitor today is Google.

We are in a new world, where the lines between print and Web are not so clear. It isn’t a matter of Web pubs competing with print pubs, but the entire Internet is arranged differently and people are getting their information – especially technical information – in some very different ways. Gone are those general news portal sites. Does anyone still bookmark CNN.com and TheStreet.com? Indeed, what is a bookmarked site anymore? I can’t remember the last time I bookmarked a site. So yesterday.

The World of Google has become the 900-pound gorilla for supplying the best technical information. When we survey our engineering audience, they start by googling for some product information. While we would like them to first go to our own Web sites, the reality of the situation is that Google is their default home page.

Microsoft has it wrong: they are trying to extend Windows outward, across the Internet. That is yesterday’s thinking. While the desktop is important, Google has it completely right: take the search metaphor, and extend it downwards so that all of your information has just been merged with the zillions of Internet-based sources.

You can read the entire essay here.

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Automotive DesignLine

This was the first in a series of sites for electronic engineers and chip designers that I did for the Electronics Group when I was at CMP in 2004. There are now close to a dozen different DesignLine sites. We rolled this one out in September to focus on automotive electronics, natch.

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I Want My Airline Seat!

We live in the era of instant gratification. We have instant messaging, instant soup and coffee, instant relationships and even instant lottery winners. And, of course, there’s no place better to get instant gratification than when you buy something online, and can get it NOW.

But what I like even better than the instant rush about online purchasing is the ability to see my choices from inventory in real-time, or as close to real-time as possible.

Get more information about choosing your own airline seat in my column here.

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What happens when you forget your site password

Website passwords are becoming more of a problem, as more of us use a wider number of sites to conduct our daily business transactions. The issue is that the security filters to recover lost passwords are seriously broken, and are biased towards people that frequently return to sites. But think about it. The more often you visit a site, the more likely you are using (hence remembering) the password. The very users that password recovery systems are supposed to help are left in the cold. People’s electronic lives aren’t static, and the password recovery programs can’t keep up as we move about the physical world, change e-mail addresses, and forget which piece of critical data will be used to authenticate our electronic personas.

Consider this situation from one of my correspondents, an experienced computer scientist. She was recently asked to login with her username and password and couldn’t remember either when she went to buy something at eBay.

Find out more here

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On Google’s IPO

When Google went public, there was a lot of commentary. Here is how I weighed in.

I think the financial industry has turned a new chapter. I might even go so far as to hope that a new breed of honest analysts and bankers is upon us. Gone (hopefully for good) are the dark days of the post-go-go years. There are three ways that the Google IPO is significant.

First, we have validation that the days are over in which investment bankers view themselves as above the law, and can dictate terms to their nascent public companies.

Second, given the already superheated hype of this offering, the company has decided to capture more of the revenue from its initial offering by holding an auction for the right to own shares.

The third interesting angle of the Google IPO is how the company has created two classes of shares: one for its executives, and one for the rest of us. The commoners’ shares are diluted, meaning that the insiders retain a tremendous control on the company, even for a public company.

You can read the entire essay here.

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Five Wireless Routers Reviewed

When it comes to the latest crop of wireless routers, the adage, “you get what you pay for,” applies. This product category has gotten wider and deeper over the past year–not only have products become more feature-rich, but you can now find routers that cost as little as $100 alongside others that are more than $1,000. Moreover, this year’s vintage includes products that can handle more than one radio frequency.

Read the complete review that was posted in VAR Business here.

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A look at a very smart home

It takes a former IBMer to design his own home systems like an IBM mainframe. But, although the concept may initially seem 22nd century, once you give it a bit of thought, designing a home system the way you’d design Big Iron might not so far fetched. I realized this when I visited John Patrick, who retired from running IBM’s Internet business several years ago. He gave me a tour of his suburban home earlier this month. It opened my eyes as to the challenges and opportunities that home systems VARs will face in the coming years as more people demand these sorts of technologies. Not to mention the challenges that all of us face when we try to implement advanced technologies in our homes.

VARs face three big hurdles in delivering well-executed home systems. First, people don’t know what they want, and what they do want isn’t something that most VARs know how to provide. Second, the skill sets that most VARs face are enormous, and finding the right mix of people to deliver a solid solution isn’t easy. Third, the problems aren’t technology, but all about usability and execution. Let’s look at each of these.

What I have seen is that most of us don’t really know what we want when it comes to high tech homes. As an example, people have only a vague notion of what a ‘smart home’ truly is. Some people want their computers located in strategic places, sharing an Internet connection. But then we that is implemented, they realize that they don’t want to be running around their homes trying to find a document on a particular PC or being able to share printers too. So the home network becomes more than just sharing broad-bandwidth. Some people want a house that they can control via a Web browser. But then they want to be notified when something goes wrong, and have some insight into what is happening in their house when they are geographically distant. And many of us want more sophisticated entertainment delivery or ways to interact with our TVs to save favorite programs, which is why Tivo is so popular. But then you realize when you have Tivo that you need to be able to program the unit remotely, when you aren’t home, for example.

Part of this is just human nature: You get better at defining your needs when you see what the high-tech toys really do. But some of it is because the high tech doesn’t really work out of the box.

The issue in deploying this stuff is that the skill sets are enormous, especially as you demand increasingly smarter homes that bridge multiple needs. I learned from my tour of chez Patrick that you have to segregate your services into the separate components. But before you can segregate them, you have to identify them. This gets back to my first point, and more importantly, this identification process isn’t something that most VARs can deliver.

Let me give you an example. At first blush, electric power seems like a simple system: There is a circuit breaker box in your basement, and each breaker is attached to a series of outlets or switches in a room or a collection of rooms that it controls. But that isn’t enough for a truly smart home. You have power to particular systems that you want to run 24/7, such as your refrigerator and heating systems, and power to other places that isn’t that critical or isn’t even 110 volts, such as portable phones, security sensors and touch panels that can run at lower voltages.

What Patrick did was to segregate his systems into many different discreet categories. Let’s take audio services as another example. The speakers that deliver music are placed in the walls of various rooms. Those speakers are connected to a music delivery system that can play multiple channels, and from multiple sources, including a Linux-based MP3 server that is located in his basement. But you may not want to go to the basement to find the right track to play with dinner: so you have a touch panel in the dining room that you can scroll through your tunes and pick out just the right song to match your mood. But to do this properly, you need to write some code so that your touch panel can access the music library and understand the ID tags of the files stored therein. All of a sudden, you need to have someone who understands:

  • how to rip and encode your entire music library;
  • how to display the ID tags of the songs on various displays, including your PCs and touch panels around the house;
  • how this information gets updated when you add new music to your library;
  • how to access the programming interfaces of your touch panels, music delivery system, and music servers, which all might be running different operating systems and code basis (and may not have programming interfaces either)

And that is just music. The harder ones are security, heating and cooling, propane delivery, computer networks, video, and signaling for various house operations.

Here is where the mainframer came out of the closet, so to speak. Actually, several different closets. The common practice of home systems design is to stick everything that has a wire into a single closet, so that you can access everything from a central place. The problem with that is that you need distributed locations around your home that have some control function. As an example, if you have all your music services in a single closet, you may not want to go to that closet when you want to play a CD or a DVD.

When you hark back to the old Systems/360 days, this is exactly what IBM did with its Systems Network Architecture: distribute some control function, but keep some central processing. For Patrick’s home, he set up separate areas in his basement that would handle each service: his propane gas pipes, for example, all terminate in one area, so he can shut off service to the outdoor barbeque from the same place that he can shut the valve for his stove or water heater. Sure, you spend a bit more for all the pipes to get “home runs” of propane delivery, but it makes for a cleaner and more manageable installation.

This brings us to our final issue, namely that most problems are all about usability and execution, not technology. What Patrick did to improve usability was to define a set of scenarios about how he lives in his home, and what systems “events” need to happen as part of his daily routines. For example, watching a movie in the living room means dimming the lights, bringing down the screen, bringing up the projector and turning on the sound system. What was genius was the way he designed for overrides and controls (you want to shut off everything at night when you go to bed, for example) but still making everything somewhat consistent and logical so you can change stuff on the fly (say if Letterman is actually interested and worth staying up later).

Patrick was most proud of the solutions that he cobbled together himself out of common parts that are available from Radio Shack. While his home integrator was quite experienced, there were some things that he wanted to do differently and the integrator couldn’t quite handle. The various technologies had to be easy enough to operate and debug, and present uniform interfaces so they could be operated from various interfaces, including the omni-present touch panels on the walls, a Web browser, and the video screens that are located around the house.

Even the best designed mainframe needs a little customization. And maybe others will pick up on Patrick’s architectural innovations when they design other smart homes in the future.

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So what if you are a monopolist?

IE has become the defacto operating system environment for the Internet, like it or not. Just about every vendor that has come through lately to show me their latest and greatest software has something that works only on IE, only on Windows, and only on version 5.x or later. Why bother writing code for anything else? It is, after all, what most of us use on our desktops.

Well now, today’s news is that Microsoft is considered a European monopolist. Ironic, isn’t it, after all these years of investigation for locking up the browser market by bundling Internet Explorer with the Windows desktop, the Europeans nail Microsoft for being piggish with the Media Player? Doubly ironic, when you consider another operating system vendor that bundles its browser and media player software on its desktops, and nobody is going after it. Of course, I refer to Apple, with its Safari and iTunes applications. I guess having a two or three percent market share is the best way to keep the government lawyers from tying you up in legal knots.

The trouble with Apple is that the company still thinks it can go this alone and forget that there is a hungry world of partners and developers out there, anxious to license and embrace and extend the company’s work. As Chris Stone, the CTO of Novell told me not too long ago: “If Apple just could put Aqua in open source, Microsoft would be in deep trouble, and the game would be over. People would rush to develop apps using that software.”

Indeed.

Instead, we say, “So what?” Say the Europeans fine Microsoft a bazillion dollars. Microsoft cuts the check. Its corporate treasury makes back the dough in about 3.5 days’ worth of sales. Life goes on. Meanwhile, more and more ISVs write to Windows Media Player and IE. Eventually, the alternatives die on the vine, like an overexposed Netscape that has been through too many corporate acquisitions. Do you remember Netscape?

The problem is that the world court of opinion doesn’t evolve fast enough to keep up with technology. In the meantime, we are stuck with IE. And soon we will be stuck with Windows Media Player too, Europe notwithstanding.

You can read the entire essay here.

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Test your digital IQ here.

Most adults are OK at turning the machine on and doing simple tasks like collecting email and writing documents — anything more than that is time to call in the kid. So let’s see how you stack up with this test of your computing IQ. I wrote these questions back when I was a part-time high school computing teacher, and for the most part they have held up over the years.

1. What are the steps you need to take to upgrade your PC’s firmware?
2. Do you have a firewall/router on your home network or personal firewall software on your computers? Bonus points: have you ever upgraded this firmware?
3. Are you sure your anti-virus definitions are up to date on your entire collection of home PCs? Did you check this within the last week?
4. Do you know how to share files and printers on your home network?
5. Can you successfully attach a Word document to your email, and successfully detach one that is sent to you?
6. Do you know how to change your displayed name on the header of your email messages?
7. Can you retrieve your email messages over a Web-based client remotely from the machine that you usually use at home or at work? If you can, do you know how to do it?
8. Can you password-protect one of your Word documents?
9. Can you add comments to a Word document and share them with a co-worker so that both of you can see them?
10. Can you successfully synchronize your Palm PDA between two different PCs? Bonus points for being able to synchronize your contacts with a third program, such as ACT, Outlook, or Notes.
11. Can you add additional software programs to your Palm?
12. Can you rip several of your music CDs onto your computer and burn selected tracks onto a new “mix” CD?
13. Do you pay your bills online and check the balances of your accounts? Bonus points if you also use the Web-based tax preparation software too.
14. When you need to lookup a word in a dictionary, find a phone number, get directions on a map, check a train timetable or a movie listing, do you first go to the Web or a paper-based resource?
15. Do you have more than 25 people on your Instant Messaging buddy list? Bonus points if you use IM at both work and home.
16. Do you know what FTP means and how to move files between your computer and a Web server?
17. What is the port to block for AOL IM traffic? If you know the port number, do you know how to do this on your home network?
18. Have you ever downloaded a ring tone for your cell phone? Have you ever used your phone to send an email, an IM or to view a Web page?
19. Have you ever used an online service to print your digital photos?
20. Have you ever connected to a wireless network at a Starbucks or someone else’s home?

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Aiding and abetting Adrian Lemo

There is something about harboring a confessed criminal in your house that can bring new excitement to your life. Within minutes of meeting the so-called “homeless hacker” Adrian Lamo, he was showing me how to reprogram my cell phone. That is the kind of guy he is — someone who has broken into numerous computer systems around the world and knows his way around the cell phone firmware, yet isn’t afraid to share his knowledge with the common reporter. The funny thing was, he could remember the codes to get it into programming mode, but had trouble finding the phone’s power switch. It was sort of cute, in a way.

You could say he is a criminal with a conscience, and I mean that in just the nicest way. When I told him to help himself to whatever he could forage in my fridge (which is always a risky proposition in even the best of times), he told me he boosted a yogurt. No, you didn’t steal it, I offered it to you, I said. Then he told me his credo: “If you are going to be a criminal, you might as well be a trustworthy one.” I completely agree. So have all the yogurts you can find, Adrian. In the meantime, I got to watch him in action and spend more time with him doing normal (i.e., non-computer-related) activities. It was a gas.

You can read more of this essay here.

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