The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 22nd 2013

The Geek’s Reading List – Week of February 22nd 2013


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.

Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included, please send them on to me!

I blog at


Brian Piccioni

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1.        Windows 8: Microsoft’s Progress Debated

I find the “numbers of apps” a pretty pointless figure for any platform. Most “apps” are trivia – essentially little more than webpages. This is especially the case for Windows Phone because they are essentially ported from Android and it is quite clear that app development is not the road to riches it was expected to be. In any event, only Microsoft knows how Windows 8 is doing at the moment. My personal view is “not well”.

“If you just read the headlines, it might seem that Microsoft is on a roll with its new Windows products. In the first half of February, Windows Phone posted a 150% year-over-year improvement in market share, Windows 8 users gained access to 750,000 additional apps and analysts speculated that Microsoft Office might be sitting on billions in untapped revenue. The news might sound encouraging to Redmond fans and, in some ways, the enthusiasm is warranted. The bigger narrative, though, is how these developments reaffirm the obstacles Microsoft faces in executing its Windows 8 strategy.”

2.        Exclusive: Millions of printers open to devastating hack attack, researchers say

This could turn out to be a nightmare for HP – although the fire it is a bit over stated because, as HP points out there is a thermal cut off which prevents this from happening (and usually these self-reset, so the printer doesn’t really self-destruct). This hacking problem is a particular issue within the context of this news item from a few weeks ago . So, we have 80,000+ easily hackable online printers which, supposedly, cannot easily be fixed. Excellent.

“Could a hacker from half-way around the planet control your printer and give it instructions so frantic that it could eventually catch fire? Or use a hijacked printer as a copy machine for criminals, making it easy to commit identity theft or even take control of entire networks that would otherwise be secure?”

3.        All to play for

Social media and video games are two things I just don’t understand. Nonetheless, it is a very big business. There is a close relationship between hardware performance and software utility. Software is limited by human factors what hardware proceeds according to Moore’s Law. Early on, hardware limits software, eventually software limits the ability to exploit hardware (I call this decreasing marginal utility). We are probably there with video games. Of course, the platform vendors can simply come out with new platforms and discontinue the old ones, but that is a risky strategy. Ultimately, I believe open platforms will win out, which will marginalize the platform vendors.

“THESE days video games rival films as a form of entertainment. Sales figures are murky, but most estimates put annual revenues at between $60 billion and $70 billion. So the launch by Sony, on February 20th, of the PlayStation 4, its latest games console, was appropriately full of razzmatazz. Those attending the launch in New York were treated to a dazzling light show and images of goblins and ice goliaths from games for the new gizmo, which goes on sale towards the end of the year.”

4.        MIT researchers build Quad HD TV chip

Higher resolution TV requires advanced compression systems in order to fit the signal into the available bandwidth. HEVC is an emerging standard, and this device is actually a decoder, not a compressor. Compression tends to be more challenging, but can be done non-real time for many applications. Decoders tend to have to work real-time (which can be a challenge) but have to be cost effective: after all, in most applications you have many more receivers than transmitters.

“At the International Solid-State Circuits Conference this week, MIT researchers unveiled their own HEVC chip. The researchers’ design was executed by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, through its University Shuttle Program, and Texas Instruments (TI) funded the chip’s development.”

5.        Open Source Storage Changes Industry Cost Structure

Open source hardware is coming along however, as we have seen with open source software, there is considerable resistance among companies and institutions to adopt these types of platforms. That reticence will disappear, eventually. I suspect universities and schools will be more enthusiastic early adopters of Open Source Storage.

“Backblaze made their first generation “Storage Pod” design open source in 2009 and they have just announced the third generation of the Storage Pod.  Prior Storage Pod designs have been built into many build-it-yourself storage systems and some commercial OEMs have also picked up on the design.  The third generation increases storage capacity to 180 TB using 4 TB HDDs and allows multiple boot-drives, including SSD drives.  This product is open source like the earlier designs and the estimated cost of the boxes is $1,950 without drives.  With drives they estimate storage costs are about $0.06/GB, close to the naked HDD costs of about $0.04/GB.”

6.        How Big Business is Stymying Makers’ High-Res, Colorful Innovations

IP protection is good but this article makes a good point. We can consider ourselves fortunate that the use of patents to stifle innovation was not a dominant business theme when the semiconductor industry emerged – I figure we’d still be using 4 bit processors if that was the case. Perhaps some form of enforced licensing scheme is the answer.

“The past year was a breakout for desktop 3-D printing. MakerBot released two new models, Formlabs debuted the first prosumer 3-D printer to use high-accuracy stereolithography, and a slew of innovative, printed projects lifted awareness and desirability of additive manufacturing for the general public. But the year ended with a legal hiccup. Formlabs will be dealing with a patent infringement lawsuit brought against them by 3D Systems, one of the biggest players in the industry. The hobbyist segment of the industry has been built on the back of expired patents, but as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, many patents that will be required to advance the state of the art will not expire for years or even a decade.”

7.        For $19, An Unlimited Phone Plan, Some Flaws

I don’t really understand why there should be a problem with mobile phone which prefers VoIP over WiFi: my home phone uses Vonage and audio quality is not a concern. Besides, most smartphone use is not for voice.

“But I’ve been testing an Android smartphone from an upstart carrier that charges just $19 a month for unlimited data, voice and texts—with no contract. That’s right: $19 a month, unlimited.”

8.        BlackBerry Z10 sales estimate slashed by 83% due to slow launch, upcoming competition

Channel checks #1 of #2. When I was an analyst, hearing the words “channel check” was equivalent to hearing “this is some bullshit I just made up”. Of course, occasionally “channel check” was a disguise for release material non-public information (which happens more often than you would like to believe). To be fair, few analysts have a grasp of basic statistics, so you can’t blame them.

“Some industry watchers had high hopes for BlackBerry’s (BBRY) first next-generation smartphone in its debut quarter, but it looks like they may have gotten ahead of themselves. Now, the Street is revising its estimates in light of a slower than expected rollout and what appears to be a softer launch than many had hoped for.”

9.        Don’t Believe Everything You Hear, The Z10 Sales Are Going Strong

Channel checks #2 of #2. Of course, I’m not saying the analyst is wrong – sometimes dipping you hand in the ocean actually does pull up a representative sample. Nonetheless, one should use caution when reacting to such news.

“What is strange to me is the timing and the fact of how erroneous that statement is. This piece of “news” actually has affected the stock negatively. According to our checks BlackBerry has sold out in many countries including the United Emirates. Pre-orders in Saudi Arabia are extremely high and most of the United Kingdom was sold out on day 1. Canada has seen a large volume of sales and some people are still on a wait list for Rogers. Also keep in mind the device is constantly being introduced to more markets.”

10.   FCC votes to ease Wi-Fi congestion

I believe an emphasis should be placed on freeing up as much spectrum for unlicensed use as possible as there will be a great need for more such spectrum in the coming years, if just to support machine to machine communications.

“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously on Wednesday to move forward with a plan to set aside additional frequencies for Wi-Fi devices. The commission said the proposal would increase the capacity of Wi-Fi networks and would help to relieve congestion on hotspots at hotels, airports and other crowded areas.”

11.   Firefox 19 launches with desktop PDF viewer, Android themes and lower CPU limits to support 15m more phones

This is a great upgrade because of the PDF viewer. I have finally uninstalled Adobe’s PDF reader because it was sucking up bandwidth and demanding an update every few days (or so it seemed). For a standalone reader, SumatraPDF or Nitro (which is more full featured) are much superior to Adobe’s product.

“Mozilla on Tuesday officially launched Firefox 19 for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android. The improvements include a built-in PDF viewer on the desktop and theme support on Google’s mobile platform.”

12.   Media mafiosos: Is Adblock Plus shaking down websites for cash to let ads through?

If true, this is pretty disgusting behaviour. I use Adblock, but bock all ads (it isn’t that hard to do). In any event, there is nothing complicated about Adblock and there is no reason a ‘fair’ Adblocker will not emerge to get around any abuses.

“Now, according to a source who works for a major online publisher (and would only speak on the condition of anonymity), Adblock Plus approached the company and offered to push ads through the extension’s filters in exchange for a third of the profits generated by the advertising. Put another way, the Adblock Plus allegedly will allow its definition of acceptable advertising to be determined by a dollar amount.”

13.   Retinal implant restores vision for eight blind people

This technology has been advancing in leaps and bounds, as befits any semiconductor process driven by Moore’s Law. It is hard to evaluate whether the patients have a significant improvement to their lives. Nonetheless, we can safely assume that pixel counts will be in the millions within a few years, and that should begin to approximate ‘normal’ sight.

“Developed by researchers at the University of Tübingen, Germany, the Alpha IMS has a few benefits over the Argus II. It has 1,500 electrodes compared to the Argus II’s 60, offering much higher resolution and clarity. Because it’s implanted behind the retina, patients can look around naturally by moving their eyes — the Argus II requires its wearer to turn their head. It’s also able to take advantage of the “natural processing power” of the neurons in the retina, which help to process motion and contrast.”

14.   Wireless Electricity Transmission Being Deployed to Power Korean Mass Transit

One has to assume the Internet hasn’t ever heard of ‘transformers’ because there is no magic here. The problem is that you’ll have to place a coupler every so many meters along a train track so the cost wold be astronomical.

“Engineers say the transmitting technology supplies 180 kW of stable, constant power at 60 kHz to passing vehicles that are equipped with receivers. The initial OLEV models above received 100 kW of power at 20 kHz through an almost eight-inch air gap. They have recorded 85 percent transmission efficiency through testing so far.”

15.   Audi’s New Matrix Headlights Face Opposition In The US

The interesting thing is, the problem is with the fact the headlights steer, not whether they are LED or traditional. This issue has been brought up in the past: Citroen introduced tracking headlights which were required to be disabled in North America. Those where mechanically controlled, which make a lot more sense to me than running them off the navigation system. LED headlamps will be common within a few years as they should permit much greater design flexibility and even fuel savings along with a longer life.

“The new Matrix LED headlights unveiled by Audi January 2013 are a great example of how LED lights on a vehicle can help make the driving experience safer. The headlights consist of several LED lights in a grid pattern that work in conjunction with reflectors and lenses and function as the cars high beams. They can detect when there is an oncoming vehicle and dim or shut off individual LED bulbs accordingly, giving the driver one less thing to worry about while on the road.”

16.   Perils of the long range electric car

Building an electric car is not hard. In many ways it is easier than building a gasoline powered car. The hard part is the battery and the battery pack on an electric vehicle is the most expensive part, by far. It is the equivalent of double the cost of a new engine and transmission for a gasoline power car. All batteries wear out after a certain number of charge cycles. Battery technology, being chemistry, evolves very, very slowly. Unlike an engine, when a battery is used up, it is finished – you can’t repair it. I have put over 300,000 km on several cars. The most expensive repair I have ever done (replacing a head gasket) would have cost about $1,000 at a dealer. Even an engine replacement would cost well below $5,000. There is a good chance that, within 5 years an electric car will need a new battery, and it will almost certainly need a new battery within 10 years. The cost to replace the battery is $10,000 or more (much more). That means that a 5 year old electric car has very little value, while I can keep any gas powered vehicle going for decades provided I do occasional repairs. The trailer idea surfaces now and then. It is silly: beside the difficulty of driving with a trailer rather than renting a trailer, you could just rent a normal car. If you needed a trailer often, you’d be better off owning a normal car.

“You’ve probably seen the battle going on between Elon Musk of Tesla and the New York Times over the strongly negative review the NYT made of a long road trip in a Model S. The reviewer ran out of charge and had a very rought trip with lots of range anxiety. The data logs published by Tesla show he made a number of mistakes, didn’t follow some instructions on speed and heat and could have pulled off the road trip if he had done it right.”

17.   The Future of the Internal Combustion Engine – Inside Koenigsegg

An interesting video of an experimental technology which forgoes the camshaft of an internal combustion engine. This has been tried before, however the approach seems novel. It gets really interesting at the end when he discusses regenerative breaking. The one question I have (besides cost) is where the compressed air would come from to actuate the valves at start up.

18.   France to invest €20bn in high-speed broadband for the entire country

It is hard to believe that Canada and the US once ranked at the top in the world for telecommunications infrastructure at the same time it took a year to get a phone line installed in Europe. That era also, coincidentally, saw the emergence of North American global leaders in telecom equipment. The fact France, of all places, is making catching up’ a national priority simply underlines the decline in competiveness here.

“”High-speed broadband strengthens [France’s] businesses competitiveness and the quality of [its] public services. [It] will bring more fluidity, more simplicity for communications between business, their customers, and the public sector as well,” Hollande said on Wednesday, adding the rollout could directly generate 10,000 jobs.”

19.   Why do Canadian broadband rates vary so much?

We not only pay too much, we get terrible service. It’s hard to believe Canada once had a world leading telecom infrastructure (oddly enough, that was when population densities were even lower than they are now).

“When comparing the price of internet services with those in other countries, Canadians think they’re paying too much for too little — but in some ways, it’s the variance in rates across the country that really stands out. Compared with similar telecom services like wireless and television, the cost of broadband internet across Canada varies greatly between provinces. Western Canadians tend to pay the least, while prices in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are the highest.”

20.   The Stupidest Thing Ever Said

I stopped watching Mercer after he did those advertisements for the government because I figure you are either a comedian, or a shill. Nonetheless, thanks to this, I just might start watching again. Interestingly, the CBC has had two items on Canada’s abysmal telecom infrastructure and market recently. Given the reticence of the media (largely owned by the telecommunications oligopoly) to take on the telecommunications oligopoly, it is refreshing.

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