Friday, August 18, 2006

The Future, Unlocked

This is an abbreviated of a much longer story that I am writing. The best part is that it is not quite over yet.

This is a story of lust. This is a story of dreams. This is a story of good intentions and bad exectution. This is a story about a Nokia N70.

I had finished writing a paper for my class last spring, and was feeling elated. Hey.....I thought....let's go to to Ebay....

Anyone that knows me knows that I like small electronic gadgets. It is a perversity that I decry unusable design but I contingue to fall for little blinky things. I currently have a Sony Ericsson P900 (great phone) and a Blackberry 8700. But I really wanted....a Nokia N90, which is a curious hybrid of video camera and phone. And it costs $600 new.

But hey....what's this? The Nokia N70. Two cameras -- one in front for video conferencing, the other a 2 megapixel camera. Good reviews. And what do you's one for pretty cheap!

Let's bid! Oh, what the heck. I will lowball, and of course lose at the last minute.

What the heck! I won the bid. Cool. Oh wait....what's this? It's locked to Orange in the UK. Oh, that's not a problem. Nokia phones can be unlocked with software. No problemo.

Wow! What a cool phone. It's a little smaller than the P900. The screen is smaller, but that's okay. The camera is quite nice, way better than the P900. And it shoots video!

But wait.....what are all these people asking to get their N70 unlocked? What this thing about BB5?

(Fast Forward to Now)

So, I am looking at this phone these many months later, and it's still sits locked. A reminder of my folly, but also something that has taken me on a journey. I am planning on recounting this in full detail.

But for now, I want to fast forward to the conclusion. That devices that the end user won't be able to unlock are becoming the norm. The iPod bridges the gap between commonly supported commercial and non-commercial media sources, but your cable company's DVR is not yours to do with what you want. That would seem reasonable, since the cable company rents it to the customer.

But what about a cell phone? In the past, it was possible for customers to reuse cell phones, mainly GSM phones (the prevalent standard throughout the world). The Nokia N series (Nokia N70, N90, N93 etc) represent a device that the customer is never able to completely own, even if they buy it. They are at the mercy of the specific cell provider that issued the phone. In my case, it is Orange UK, which charges 20 pounds to unlock, but only if they decide that they want to. They don't have to do it.

So, these cell phones will end up in a landfill somewhere, because they can't be reused by moving to another carrier unless the carrier decides to release the phone, or someone shells out $$. This is really just presaging other devices tied to specific services, things build on "service models" that build in the essentially disposable nature of technology. This is the yard sale WebTV boxes, perhaps the future of Akimbo boxes.

This is not a sustainable future. I mean this from both an ecological viewpoint, but also from a society/culture/futurist viewpoint.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Newton beats UMPC and maybe the $100 laptop

Whew, after the last post I think I need to something a little nicer.

CNet did a comparison between a Samsung UMPC (small form factor TabletPC) and a 10 year old Newton 2000, and the Newton won. This is interesting not just because it is good to still be able to poke fun at new Microsoft products (Vista jokes aren't even funny anymore, it is just too tragic). Face it, Microsoft has done a good job of marketing the TabletPC in education, but it still lacks a lot of basic, day to day functionality. Notice that convertible tables vastly outweigh tablets that don't have a keyboard. It is for the simple reason that the user experience really is not designed around the idea of a purely pen interface -- no legacy thinking tied to a keyboard or even a mouse. I wish I had more time to go into depth here on what that would mean (tie pressure to accelerated navigation, fast forwarding through data, menuing not tied to hierarchies based on linear lists). In a strange way, it is some of the same issues that come up in thinking of computer navigation for accessibility.

I think the important lesson that should be remembered in cnet's comparison is that is ultimately is not the hardware that matters. It really is the software. The newton wins because it is designed around a pen interface. A lot of things flow from that logically, including unique decisions on how data should be stored and represented. What happened to the Newton for myself is tragic, because the world could really use something like it now, using slightly faster hardware, better battery life, built in wireless. Kind of the like the Nokia 770, but more like.....a Newton.

And this is the thing that popped into my mind when I first heard of the MIT project to build a sub $200 PC for developing countries......the one computer per child initiative. While a commodity hardware platform is a nice idea, I prefer the idea of focusing on the software, and make it work on any kind of commodity computing platform that is being mass produced at the moment. Fast, cheap and out of control. For sure.

That would be a nice thing for Apple to do. Give it up, and let people have at it with the Newton. Make it run on the Nokia 770, or my cell phone. It could unlock devices that may be destined for the rubbish heap, and give them new life.

.....and then I woke up.


Blackboard patents LMS, Sues nearest competitor

Start here:

Blackboard LMS patent press release
Blackboard sues Desire2Learn

I believe that while the patent issue is a serious one, it is not what I think is most important. The patent issue is part of a generalized theme of bad decisions by the patent office on software/technology/internet/genetic engineering/etc. -- anything that doesn't end up in a manufactured, finished product (like a pen, bottle opener, paper clip, tank). Give me "Intellectual Property" for $200, Alex.

One potential bad outcome could be that Blackboard's patent is overturned. Whew! Boy, did we dodge that one! Let's get back to work on implementing WebCT Vista.....

The problem is tied to this patent, but it is not just the issue of whether these types of things are patentable, but that proprietary implementations of monolithic learning environments are actually anti-academic. They actually work against the things that are the core of a University's duties -- to teach, promote the expansion and transmission of knowledge. This is done through the free exchange of information. One key emphasis in environments such as Blackboard and WebCT is on *Containment* of information, restriction of access. I am reminded once again of the poor faculty who stated plainly that their course content was free for others to use, until it was pointed out to them that it *was not* free for anyone to use, because it is contained inside of WebCT.

I don't believe faculty have been made aware of the potential dangers here.

I don't mean to single any campus out. I think we are really at a crossroads in education now. What is and what is not important. Do we avail ourselves to the belief that what this university has to offer has to be contained, be treated as "intellectual property" in the lawsuit/licensing/DRM sense, or do we go with the academic tradition of authorship and publication/verification?