The Geek’s Reading List – Week of November 30th, 2012
I offer a welcome back to my earlier readers and an introduction for my new ones. I am an independent analyst and consultant with 19 years of experience as a sell side technology analyst, and 13 years of prior experience as an electronics designer and software developer.
The purpose of the Geek’s Reading List is to draw attention to interesting articles I encounter from time to time. I hope that what I find interesting you will find interesting as well. These articles are not to be construed as investment advice, even though I may opine on the wisdom of the markets from time to time. That being said, it is absolutely important that investors understand the industry in which they are investing, along with the trends and developments within that industry. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon.
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1. Microsoft Windows 8 makes lukewarm debut: sales tracker
I don’t understand how anybody with a brain could have expected Windows 8 to “revive slack PC sales”, though I did expect Windows 8 to be a flop. Hover, if these figures turn out to be correct, this is a very, very bad sign for the semiconductor industry overall.
“Consumer sales of Windows-powered personal computers fell 21 percent overall last month, figures released by a leading retail research firm showed on Thursday, indicating a lackluster debut for Microsoft Corp’s Windows 8 operating system. Many in the industry said Windows 8 might revive slack PC sales, but a report by NPD Group, which tracks computer sales weekly using data supplied by retailers, dampened those hopes.”
2. Microsoft Surface RT tablet orders cut in half says supply chain source
As much as I predicted Windows 8 to be a flop, I simply can’t understand the appeal of a Surface RT Tablet: they are damned expensive, even for a tablet, and, as a late entrant don’t have much else going for them. Why would anybody pay top dollar for such a thing? In any event, tablet pricing is headed towards $150, not $1,000.
“Sometimes it seems Microsoft believes people will buy simply because it’s a Microsoft product. Sources in Microsoft’s upstream supply chain are claiming that orders for Surface RT tablets have been cut in half. The sources are claiming that the new operating system may not be performing as well as Microsoft expected on the market. Originally, Microsoft predicted that it would ship 4 million Surface RT devices by the end of 2012. However, the software giant has recently slashed that prediction to 2 million.”
3. Windows 8 PCs finally move to on-chip product keys
This is not necessarily a bad move by Microsoft, however, it has nothing to do with the public interest – it has to do with reduction of piracy. The idea that this would somehow filter down to lower costs to consumers is laughable: as a monopoly, Microsoft regularly rasies prices, just because it can.
“The biggest benefit, however, could be reducing the cost of future versions of Windows. An integrated product key should make it more difficult for shady PC vendors to pilfer keys.”
4. Dell releases powerful, well-supported Linux Ultrabook
As a company centered on the PC business, Dell is in a lot of trouble. I like the idea of a ‘supported’ Linux platform, but I don’t like the premium cost point. I could buy a Windows equivalent, install Ubuntu as a dual-boot option for less money.
“The laptop comes with Ubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS plus a few additions. Dell worked closely with Canonical and the various peripheral manufacturers to ensure that well-written, feature-complete drivers are available for all of the laptop’s hardware. Out of the box the laptop will just work. They also have their own PPA if you want to pull down the patches separately, either to reload the laptop or to use on a different machine.”
5. Rumor: Intel to stop offering socketed desktop CPUs
If this is true – and it could be – this could cause major problems for the PC industry. High end Intel processors are expensive and pricing (or, more correctly) value is adjusted continuously. A socketed motherboard allows the manufacturer to remove the most expensive component, the CPU from segregated inventory, or even at point of sale, as the system is prepared for sale. If the devices were soldered, the manufacturer would have significant inventory risk and very carefully gauge demand for select models well in advance of shipment.
“PC Watch is talking about Broadwell, the 14-nm successor to Haswell (which will itself supplant Ivy Bridge next year). Reportedly, Broadwell will only be available in BGA, or ball-grid-array, variants. If I’m reading this right, you’ll only be able to buy Broadwell processors soldered onto motherboards—no more retail-boxed, easily interchangeable CPUs.”
6. Why the ARM architecture is shaped the way it is
An interesting bit of history which sounds like the sort of things most engineers were up to back then. The bit about the 6502 having single clock memory access is silly, however : it had a much slower clock and this mechanism presented challenges with DRAM (Dynamic RAM) because you really didn’t know when the address and control signals were stable.
“To understand why the ARM architecture and culture is shaped the way it is and is different to processor trailblazer Intel, let’s go back to a time before the formation of ARM; to Cambridge, England in the mid-to-late 1970s, in the early days of EE Times.”
7. Droidfooding: After Years Of Giving Employees iPhones, Posters At Facebook HQ Beg Them To Test Android
It makes perfect sense for a web based business to want to ensure that its product runs well on all the major platforms. Why they waited this long is another question – maybe Facebook really doesn’t get mobile.
“That caused a disconnect, though. Most people do have to think about the cost of their mobile handset. They might not be perfect or have micron-precision industrial design, but Androids get the job done. They surf the web, manage email, provide maps, and offer access to Facebook. If the social network wants to give Android users the best experience, it needs a fair portion of the company testing its Android apps and brainstorming what could be done next with the operating system’s flexibility.”
8. Is It Time To Conclude That Android Gadgets Are Bought By People Who Don’t Actually Do Anything With Them?
No it’s not and, in any event, it doesn’t matter, unless you are a merchant. In order to properly make sense of these data, you’d have to know 1) whether they are, in fact accurate; 2) what the demographics of the respective markets are; and 3) what devices represent the Android share in particular. Demographics is important because ‘Black Friday’ online shopping would be expected to concentrate in certain ages groups which may or may not correspond to device ownership. It may be that a significant number of Android users are not ‘power users’ and are content with non-cutting edge phones – after all the caricature of a ‘smartphone user’ addicted to their device is largely a marketing tool.
“In the U.S., Android is clubbing iPhone 53% to 34%. Given such a disparity in phone sales and usage, you would think that things people do with smartphones–smartphone-based activities–would be equally dominated by Android. But they aren’t. They’re not even equal. In fact, iPhone users completely dominate Internet-based smartphone activities.
9. Wireless waves used to track travel times
This actually makes a surprising amount of sense – the idea could be applied to other applications such as store traffic, and so on.
“The City activated the Travel Time Information System along Deerfoot Trail on Monday morning. The system collects the publicly available data from Bluetooths to estimate the travel time and congestion between points along those roads and displays the information on overhead message boards to motorists.”
10. Engineers pave the way towards 3D printing of personal electronics
This will come, and it will revolutionize the production of prototype circuit boards. However, as appropriate as a conductive polymer might be for existing 3D printers, it would have pretty limited applicability inn most electric circuits. What is needed is a printable metal.
“The University of Warwick researchers have created a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite that can be used to produce electronic devices using the latest generation of low-cost 3D printers designed for use by hobbyists and even in the home.”
11. Staples to offer 3D printing in European stores
This could be an important development providing consumer and small business access to commercial grade 3D printers. Looking at the specs, however (http://www.mcortechnologies.com/products/mcor-iris/) it is not clear to me what the printer actually is: it seems to have very modest Z-axis (height) capability, which suggests it may be better for making contoured surfaces than actual 3D models.
“Staples’ Easy 3D will offer consumers, product designers, architects, healthcare professionals, educators, students and others photo-realistic 3D printed products from Staples stores. To do a print job, customers upload electronic files to the Staples Office Center and pick up the models in nearby Staples stores, or have them shipped to their address.”
12. Kickstarter, Trademarks and Lies
Kickstarter is an interesting idea, however, you can’t help but wonder how many of the projects are simply scams. I certainly understand the outrage felt here: Kickstarter should provide some form of ‘pull down’ process when claims are false, misleading, or outright fraudulent.
“A few weeks ago somebody launched a kickstarter for a project called smARtDUINO (notice the choice of lowercase/uppercase letters) that is supposed to be a better Arduino and all the rest. There is one of them every week so nothing new there. The first issue that struck me was that right in the project title they claim to be the “former ARDUINO’s manufacturer””
13. Augmented Light Bulb Turns a Desk Into a Touch Screen
It sounds silly, but it’s not: the idea is, thank to Moore’s Law, you will be able to affordably cram a complete projection, camera, and user interface into something the size of a light bulb. You may not want to use this to control your PC, but maybe an outdoor sign, or even the lighting itself, might make sense.
“Powerful computers are becoming small and cheap enough to cram into all sorts of everyday objects. Natan Linder, a student at MIT’s Media Lab, thinks that fitting one inside a light bulb socket, together with a camera and projector, could provide a revolutionary new kind of interface—by turning any table or desk into a simple touch screen.”
14. EcoSmart CR6 LED Recessed Light with Integrated Trim
I predicted the rise of white LED as a replacement lighting technology a number of years ago. It is here: I am renovating my living room and had to replace pot light trim, so I figured I’d give one of these a try. When on it is indistinguishable from an incandescent floodlight, and the integrated trim actually looks better. It is about 4x the cost of new trim plus a good compact fluorescent (which is slow to turn on), but it works better and should last much longer. The price is about 40% lower in the US, so I’ll be taking a road trip in a few days in order to stock up.
15. Fast Forward To The Past: ‘Game-Changing’ Data-Processing Technology Tested By NASA Technologists
As the article suggests, analog processing is an old idea, and it has considerable merits in very specific types of applications. Unfortunately, is has much greater drawbacks such as a lack of ability to implement complex programs, limited noise immunity, and lack of memory function. In other words, great for docking spacecraft and other feedback related functions but not much else.
“The new technology is an analog-based microchip developed with significant support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Instead of relying on tiny switches or transistors that turn on and off, producing streams of ones and zeroes that computing systems then translate into something meaningful to users, the company’s new microchip is more like a dimmer switch. It can accept inputs and calculate outputs that are between zero and one, directly representing probabilities, or levels of certainty.”
16. UMass Amherst Research Develops ‘Second Skin’ Military Fabric to Repel Chemical and Biological Agents
I always find these ‘high tech’ military make work projects interesting. Yes, it would be nice to have a uniform which magically protects against chemical and biological weapons. However, the guys the US tend to fight do have high tech weapons – they make do with bombs and small arms. And they win.
“UMass Amherst polymer scientists Kenneth Carter and James Watkins, collaborating with team leader Francesco Fornasiero of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), recently received a five-year $1.8 million grant to design ways to manufacture the new material as part of a $13 million project funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. It’s estimated that the new uniforms could be deployed in the field in less than 10 years.”
17. Your e-reader is watching
Your e-reader is spying on you. Do you really want somebody to go through everything you’ve read and know every part you have reread, or highlighted, of every book you have every consumed? Did you read Mein Kampf because you had neo-Nazi sympathies when you were 19, or because you wanted to understand the madness of the greatest criminal in history? Did you annotate Das Kapital to critique the roots of communism or because of Stalinist leanings?
“Before ebook readers became popular in 2010—when e-reader sales quadrupled within months—publishers had only one way of measuring a book’s success: sales. Back then, it was almost impossible to do detailed market research that didn’t involve direct feedback, either through letters to the publishers or reader surveys. But the information didn’t tell the whole story about what readers wanted to read, and they said nothing about how they read. Did they read the whole book, or lose interest after a few pages? Did they skip certain chapters? Did they highlight and revisit favourite passages? Now the makers of the Kobo, Kindle and Nook are collecting hard data about exactly how their customers read.”
What EULAs Lead to: Monty Python Liver Donation Bit (Gross)
18. Micro fuel cells made of glass: Power for your iPad?
I like the idea of micro-fuel cells as a charger or backup solution because you can get a huge amount of electric power from a modest amount of fuel. Unfortunately, thus far, all the vendors I have seen have gone with a proprietary fuel cartridge. This is a Kamikaze business plan: people won’t buy them for want of fuel and retailers won’t stock the fuel for want of demand. It’ll only work if you use a common, preferably liquid, fuel and is user refillable.
“Major components of the new device are made of bulk metallic glasses (BMGs)—extremely pliable metal alloys that nonetheless are more durable than the metals typically used in micro fuel cells. BMGs can be finely shaped and molded using a comparatively efficient and inexpensive fabrication process akin to processes used in shaping plastics.”
19. Casio’s touchscreen graphing calculator arrives in 2013, makes the TI-84+ look dated
It is funny to think that the calculator market should be a “battleground,” especially at the high end. There is no mention of pricing, but it had better be cheap: there is little difference between a low end tablet and a high end calculator other than a bit of software.
“Everything’s a battleground these days, isn’t it? Even the makers of humble graphing calculators can’t resist a scrap. Casio is now throwing down the gauntlet, announcing that its fx-CP400 will arrive shortly after rival TI’s color-screened TI-84+. Casio’s offering comes with a 4.8-inch, 320 x 528, stylus-driven display and can switch from vertical to horizontal modes at the touch of a button. If you’re planning on some illicit classroom movie-watching, however, then you should know it only has around 30MB of storage — but hey, that might be good enough for one thing.”
20. What If NASA Could Figure Out the Math of a Workable Warp Drive?
Seriously? Zefram Cochrane hasn’t even been born yet …
“That’s why a new number, care of NASA physicist Harold White, is so stunning: Two weeks. Two weeks to Alpha Centauri, he told io9, if only we can travel by warping space-time. Of course, of course, easier said than done, but White thinks it’s possible, and he and a team at NASA are at the very early stages of making it so.”