Monday, October 22, 2007

Let My Platform Go

Walt Mossberg, "Free my Phone"

I have been watching the progress of Apple's iPhone for some time. A good friend of mine has one, and aside from my difficulty with typing on its touchscreen keyboard (which would vanish with practice, no doubt), it's one of the sweetest pieces of hardware I've encountered. My buddy has said that the iPhone is one of the first devices actually to look like it's come from the 21st century. I agree.

The progression:

  • the incredibly hyped "JesusPhone" release
  • the far-too-soon-for-comfort $200 price cut to maximize the Christmas numbers
  • the $100-in-store-credit "apology" to early adopters for the precipitous price cut
  • the explosion of software unlocks that both freed phones from AT&T's network hegemony and allowed third-party applications to be loaded
  • the 1.1.1 firmware update that "bricked" many unlocked iPhones and blew away said apps
  • the re-unlocking of the phone by not-to-be-denied hackers
  • the decision by Apple to (finally) release an official software development kit (SDK)

I've also seen and seen reviewed some of the amazing third-party applications that have been cobbled together while the world waited for Apple to come to its senses.

Tipping Point
But it was the last bullet-point there, the SDK, that finally cemented my desire to buy an actual iPhone. Until Apple declared its intentions NOT to destroy the efforts of (or otherwise make life difficult for) anyone trying to develop for the iPhone, they prevented the well financed eBook reader makers, the custom-calendar makers, the e-mail-client makers, the RSS-feed-reader makers--all the myriad developers out there, most of whom have been salivating to port or develop their applications for the pretty little device--from ever taking the risk of adding value to Apple's new flagship product. Stupid, and shortsighted.

Until an SDK was announced, there was no way Apple was getting my money, no matter how sexy the device. And I'm sure I'm not alone: there's too much functionality on which I rely on my current smartphone that Apple either didn't implement, or implemented incompletely. Without third-party developers being allowed to develop fixes for or alternatives to these omissions, I wasn't going to spend good money to lose capabilities to which I'd grown so accustomed.

Why This Matters
I'm going to go with many of the prognosticators and pundits out there and declare the desktop computing world as having reached a plateau. There will always be a market for powerful workstation-class machines, but for the most part it's been saturated. The laptop computer market is still growing well, but in my assessment that's because most desktops are being replaced, and when you can get cheap, very capable lappies from Dell, Toshiba and Gateway for about what you probably paid for your dying desktop PC, why not get the smaller, sexier device?

The real growth is happening in mobile devices, finally. People (me included) have been preaching the gospel of "convergence" for years now, and at long last, hardware is beginning to make possible the holy grail of a phone-GPS-camera-browser-emailer-organizer-photo album-music player-book reader-calculator-otherwise generic miracle widget in the pocket, that will run for a day or several on a charge and talk to almost any wireless LAN or cell network. For a few hundred bucks.

In ten years (possibly five), my prognostication is that sales of thumb drives (small flash-memory devices that have replaced the floppy disk for "sneaker-net" file-carrying purposes) will begin to decline, because everyone will be carrying around several gigabytes of general-purpose, compute-enabled storage in their cell phone.

The iPhone, and especially its next generation with 3G speed and more storage capacity, is the current most complete realization of this dream, because the software doesn't suck. It's no use having all the capability in the hardware, if it takes a bull geek like me to keep the thing running, as my current Cingular 8125 [still] does. The iPhone's interface is so elegant, so "well, of course" obvious for most of the things it does, that people literally play with them in the stores and giggle with delight.

The hardware for these devices was coming all along: it took Apple to make them accessible to the ordinary person. The iPhone, simply, is a platform--the best one--upon which the next generation of mobile applications is already being built. Two minutes of play with Apple's Mobile Safari browser ought to be enough to convince anyone: this is how everything should work, and will work in the not-too-distant future.

(The unit is actually amazingly rugged, too: it's built to take real punishment. There are videos and testimonies out there of people doing horrible things [drops, slides over pavement, runnings-over with cars] to their iPhones that I wouldn't dare try with my 8125, and the iPhones not only working perfectly afterward, but showing barely a scratch.)

Fly in the Ointment
...All of which brings me to the reason I cited Mossberg's article at the top of this one. There are lots of reasons why the United States' cell network is one of the least impressive in the industrialized world, but foremost among them is the fact that cell service providers today get to treat their networks like Ma Bell did its own back before deregulation in the 1970s and '80s. They dictate what capabilities the devices on their networks have; what hardware features are crippled or half-enabled; they impose service contracts of such length as to be almost punitive to prevent customers voting with their feet. Did you know that we wouldn't even have our own answering machines (or their successors, voicemail boxes)--they had to be rented from AT&T itself; sound familiar?--without Ma Bell's rules having been first ignored by consumers, then brought to heel by antitrust legislation?

None of these are measures are illegal, by the way, and I'm not sure they should truly be illegal, in my opinion; but the fact remains that countries like Japan, and most of the nations of Europe, and dozens of others, have prevented situations like these either through regulation or trustbusting, and they have had 3G networks for nearly a decade, while we're barely getting them rolled out now. They've had excellent signal coverage, excellent 3G rollouts, the ability to switch from network to network, from phone to phone, from provider to provider. They've had reliability; cheap unlimited data plans; shoot, the Japanese have had TV on their phones since the late '90s, while Cingular/AT&T's best marketing campaign--since dropped for being less than completely truthful--advertised the fewest dropped calls! (Hey, we suck the least!)

Mossberg makes the point that our wired Internet situation is pretty much exactly as it should be (leaving out questions of broadband speed and availability, where we're also getting our booties kicked worldwide; it's still pretty good for all that): your ISP by and large can't and doesn't dictate what programs you run; what computers you buy; what sites you visit.

Cell carriers can dictate those things, and do.

(It's perfectly legal in the U.S., by the way, to unlock one's phone from its current carrier network. Sadly, it's also perfectly legal for the carrier to penalize you monetarily for doing so, or to implement software or hardware measures to make it extraordinarily difficult to do.)

Arguments can be made about the vast distances over which American cellcos have to extend service; the daunting costs of tending and extending service. To all of which I say pish-posh: if everyone could buy any cell phone and download any amount of data for a low, low price per month, the market for such data services would explode, and money to make the upgrades would be pouring into coffers.

The toll-road, "walled garden" approach of downloading only XYZ company's content on only XYZ devices, and then pay a penalty for using anything of ABC's, or even for using up too much time on XYZ's network, has been proven unintelligent and short-sighted. It didn't work for AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy or any of the others in the wired world; why should it be looked upon as an advantageous business model for the wireless?

The Exception that Proves the Rule
The iPhone is unique among cell phones because Steve Jobs demanded freedom from most of the constraints that cellcos impose on their device manufacturers. Verizon Wireless is said to have turned down the iPhone for precisely that reason. AT&T Wireless was willing to do the deal (possibly setting a business-model-endangering precedent); and so they got the device.

Not without hooks, though; much as AT&T entered into a Faustian deal, so did Apple. Apple has been aggressive in protecting the iPhone's carrier-lock-in to AT&T, both through software updates that relock or break unlocked phones, and through denying warranty service to customers who have run unlocking software. Whether this is catering to AT&T's wishes or Apple's is debatable (Apple's widely known to be receiving a percentage of AT&T iPhone subscription revenues, so both companies profit by keeping the unit carrier-locked), but it's an ugly note in what could have been a beautiful, unspoiled melody.

There's hope, though: all the hubbub around the iPhone's lockdown, in both the hardware and software realms, has attracted the attention of the gadget-buying public. Several class-action suits are pending as regards both the locking of the phone to AT&T's network and the lockout of third-party apps that still applies until Apple's SDK is released in February. It could be the iPhone's sheer awesomeness that heralds the downfall of carrier lock-in for good.

Well, maybe. It could happen.

My Plans
Luckily, I don't particularly care about the lock-in to AT&T: they're the only carrier in the area that has halfway-decent coverage at my house (this only makes AT&T the best of a bad lot, however; see above). As I mentioned, though, I was waiting for the SDK. An iPhone without third-party app support was one I wasn't ever going to spend money on. Yes, ever. But that's fixed, now. An iPhone is in my future.

I'm not getting one immediately, though: I want at least 16 GB of flash RAM and third-generation network speed, which will mean I can truly replace both my current Windows Mobile smartphone and my iPod. That will make the iPhone pretty well my ultimate device, but it'll also mean that I'll be waiting until sometime next year. Next summer, possibly, which will also mean that the third-party, well, party will have started in earnest, and that apps should be available by the dozens.

Can't wait.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In which the narrator wonders whether he's a prima donna

In recent months (specifically, since I got serious about attending the Dragon*Con Writer's Workshop last month), I have been organizing my computers and retooling my computer room into a writing study and office instead of a glorified server closet.

In this vein, I've rebuilt a secondhand Windows 98-vintage Compaq laptop (dubbed "Whitman") that I bought on the cheap from Hunter, spent some time revitalizing machines around the house, new and old, for writing: the Mac laptops (Tangy and Galactica) and my Mac Mini (Frost), and then came up with an effective set of methods for synchronizing them all through the use of a thumb drive.

For once, this isn't even procrastinating behavior! I've been brainstorming and organizing story ideas for use in next month's NaNoWriMo (not allowed to write any actual prose, though, until November 1), working on critiques of the manuscripts submitted by other members of the writing group that formed from the attendees of the Dragon*Con workshop, and continuing to read SF both new and old, and now trying to supplement my fiction diet with true classics, like the Iliad type of classics.

I have found, though, that I truly do love writing more when my tools are beautiful ones. When I hand-write, I use a Waterman Philéas fountain pen in a Moleskine or similar notebook; when I type, I increasingly want to use one of my Macs, and specifically using a truly wondrous bit of writer-oriented software called Scrivener.

I also am working hard to convert my office, as mentioned above, from a very technoid server room with fans a-whining into more of a study, a writing nook, a library. I'm not certain as yet what I want to do about the whining-fans thing (the house's computers have to go somewhere), but the environment in which I create has begun to become important to me, and optimizing the place where I do my thing does make sense: the more comfortable I am writing in a place, the more of it I'll do, and most likely the better I'll do it.

Excellent Article, and one of the things that got me on this writing-space kick: Writer's Rooms.


Monday, October 15, 2007

An Omnibus Post to Bring Everyone Up to Speed

Abject apologies for the dearth of posts lately. It was a full and trying summer, though the fall is looking much better.

Here's a partial list of all that's happened in our lives since last I blogged.

Death of Sebastian, our dog
Sebastian was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer called hemangiosarcoma that usually manifests first in the spleen, but spreads quickly to the rest of the body. The lesions/masses can grow so quickly that they deplete the body of iron, so the primary symptom Sebastian showed was acute anemia.

After the first occurrence of anemia (in June), we had the vet remove his spleen and put Sebastian on a plan of iron supplementation. This bought us another four or five weeks with him in good, jumping-around health.

We came home the night of July 6th after a night out to discover that Sebastian was unable to move well, and had obviously had a seizure during the day. Seizing typically means that the end is near, so we made him comfortable and prepared for the inevitable. Around eleven o'clock he began seizing regularly. The emergency clinic was far enough away that making the drive might take longer than Sebastian had, so we decided to keep him in familiar surroundings.

Sebastian died gasping, at about three on the morning of the 7th of July, after many seizures. It was fairly horrible to watch.

We buried him in an area of Amy's parents' property reserved for pet graves. It was raining--the first rain showers Birmingham had seen in nearly two months.

Acquisition of a new puppy: Shasta!
About two weeks after Sebastian's passing, Amy suggested that we go puppy shopping. Reese (our other dog) hadn't shown too many symptoms of grieving or pining, but he did seem confused, often, when Sebastian would ordinarily have popped in front of him on the way to the back yard, or sat next to him on the couch, and failed to. In short, Reese was coping well, but we didn't want him to become too used to being the only dog around the house. At over twelve years old, Reese is an old dog, and was becoming a bit set in his ways.

Amy and I had discussed another puppy, and I was definitely all in favor, though only two weeks seemed fairly short to grieve properly--the topic was still painful. Anyway, we went to the local humane society and visited with a few dogs, but we eventually settled on Shasta, a black lab/husky mix with white toes and a shock of white on her chest. She also has one pale blue and one brown eye--very striking. :-) Amy was particularly taken with her because she was more easygoing and loving than most of the puppies we "interviewed," without being too energetic or overly fearful.

Shasta is a wonderful dog: extremely intelligent, and quite affectionate. It took her a few weeks to sleep through the night reliably, and to be sufficiently housebroken not to require "puppy pads" or frequent towel changes in her crate.

She's also been good for Reese: he's a bit arthritic, but now that we've got him on glucosamine supplements he's able to tussle and play, and honestly I think he enjoys wrestling with Shasta more than he ever did when he was a puppy himself.

The plan for Amy to leave her job
Amy had been eager to leave her desk job for some time--the commute from our house in Alabaster to her office downtown was punishing. Several factors both financial and interpersonal came together to allow us to have her leave her job in mid-August, having given notice in mid-July.

This would have worked out better if the beginning of August through the middle of September hadn't become a constant march of expenses, repairs and travel needs. Of course, this came after spending some impressive money on the first heroic rescue of Sebastian from the effects of his cancer, and after the wedding and honeymoon expenses of the spring.

The air-conditioner breakdown
The summer of 2007 contained one of the longest streaks of 100-degree-Fahrenheit high temperatures in recorded history. It was also an extremely dry summer, in terms of rain, but with periods of high humidity, to make the heat interesting.

Naturally, once Amy came home, the house's air conditioning began to malfunction.

The condensation overflow pan under the refrigeration unit kept filling up, so the floater switch that kept the pan itself from overflowing kept tripping, meaning no chilling of the air. Temperatures in the house routinely reached 85 and higher. I rigged up a siphon system to drain the pan until we could afford repairs, but I wound up having to empty the pan about every other day. Very trying conditions for Amy, and our animals.

At long last we determined (with the help of my new brother-in-law Greg) that a pipe that normally allowed the condensation to drain had become clogged, and after flushing that pipe all has been well.

Breakdown of Gladys, the Mercury Mystique
Gladys, the Mercury Mystique, was bought with several known problems. Electrical issues--check. Leaky tires--check. "Moosing" hum that emanates from under the hood when the car's not yet warmed up--check.

In late August, though, Gladys's alternator died, taking her battery with it. I appear to be hard on car alternators--I seem to lose them at a disproportionate rate to the rest of the car-driving world.

The Mercury Mystique, however, seems purpose-built to cause alternator pain. Not only is the alternator located near the bottom of the engine (and exposed to the elements, making it more prone to failure than other placements would make it), it's located such that one actually has to remove the car's front axle and hoist the car's engine to replace or otherwise service the part. Thus a $160 part can require $500 or more in labor to replace.

Luckily, having family in town who's been in the area for generations enabled us to find an alternator-specialized place that would cut us a deal on the part (repairing it rather than replacing it) and the labor. We made out for hundreds less than we were originally quoted by a more conventional place.

After waiting for the following payday, we got the alternator repaired, and all has been well.

Breakdown of Betsy, the VW Beetle
...which was just in time for Amy's beetle to lose its battery, another $90 expense and bit of installation headache right on the weekend where she was going to drive out to Atlanta to join me at...

Dragon*Con was actually an enormous amount of fun, if getting Amy there was more grief than planned. We got to visit with my brother Matt and his wife Amy, hang out with throngs of our fellow geeks, and generally relax among the rampant absurdity.

I also got to attend a writing workshop taught by Ann Crispin (aka A.C. Crispin) as regards the craft of writing the science fiction novel. Very, very, very useful time had, there. And yes, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. :-D

There was also a brief workshop, off in one of the rear rooms of the Hyatt, where there was an impromptu homebrewing discussion that cropped up...

Gentleman Meadmaker
One of the stars of the Dragon*Con homebrewing panel discussion was a quiet guy who had brought three bottles of mead (a beverage made by the fermentation of honey, and sometimes described as honey wine) to the con, and of course pulled the corks on them for the audience to sample. One of the samples Amy and I didn't quite care for, but one was sublime: exactly the sort of taste you'd expect from a fermentation of honey: sweet, alcoholic like a wine, aromatic like... well, like honey. :-)

About two weeks ago I dropped by Alabrew, my local homebrew supply store, grabbed 25 pounds of truly excellent Alabama orange-blossom honey and some suitable yeast and other sundries, and then went home and broke out the fermenting equipment.

Amy and I have two batches going: the first is a six-gallon batch of "traditional mead" that's just eighteen pounds of honey, water added to six total gallons, yeast nutrient and yeast. We didn't boil it, didn't filter it, didn't even heat the honey: we just sanitized the heck out of all equipment, dumped the honey, water and nutrient into the fermenting bucket, agitated with a stirrer that was driven by power drill, added the yeast and covered. The bubbler's still going at a pop every two seconds or so, weeks later. (Mead takes a good while longer than beer or wine to "ferment out," or exhaust the yeast.) Should begin to be drinkable at around six months, sometime close to St. Patrick's Day.

The second batch is much smaller (just one gallon), but also more elaborate. It's a melomel/metheglin-style mead (containing fruit and spices) called "Joe's Foolproof Ancient Orange, Clove and Cinnamon Mead," found here at It should be ready by Christmas, and Amy and I can't wait to try it--we scored whole nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and other spices from our local Whole Foods grocer, not to mention a decent bottle of Chaucer's Mead to sample while we set up the ferment.

Wedded Bliss
Amy and I are, despite the craziness of the summer, doing better than ever. People frequently say that the first year of marriage is the hardest to get through, and if this is the worst we ever see, then we're in good shape. Certainly it's been external problems that have caused the most commotion: coming home to my new wife has been the easiest part of this past summer by far. :-D

Well, I feel better
Whew! Lots of history to get through, but this covers the high (and low) points. I plan to do more blogging about issues great and small from now on (knowing that I had this huge thing to do made it easy to procrastinate on other posts I want to do), so keep an eye out!


[Edit: Wanted to make a note for precision's sake that the batches of mead were started on 9/30/07. Just for my own future reference.]