The Geek’s Reading List – Week of January 10th 2014
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 10 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
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. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
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1. BlackBerry sues Typo over its familiar-looking iPhone keyboard (update: Typo responds)
A patent on a keyboard? How do you get a patent on a keyboard? What is wrong with the US patent system that you can get a patent on a keyboard?
“If you thought Typo’s iPhone keyboard looked an awful lot like the keyboard from a BlackBerry Q10, you’re not alone. BlackBerry has just sued Typo in a Northern California court for alleged patent infringement. The slide-on peripheral is a “blatant” copy of BlackBerry’s signature input feature, according to the company. We’ve reached out to Typo for commentary, but it may not have many options — the crew in Waterloo has patented a lot of keyboards, and it’s hard to deny the strong resemblance.”
2. Nearly all cars to be autonomous by 2050
I am a big believer in self-driving cars, but at the same time skeptical of industry research. That being said, this is interesting.
“Well, fellow humans, we’re going to obsolete soon. A new study by IHS Automotive claims that by 2025, a mere 11 years from now, there will be 230,000 self-driving cars on world’s roads. 10 years beyond that, the number will swell to 11.8 million, although only select models will do without any traditional means of human control by 2030. By the middle of the 21st century, nearly every vehicle on the road will be of the autonomous variety.”
3. Several European manufacturers spawn NSA-proof Android “cryptophones”
So they are selling cryptophones or ‘honey pots’, you never know. After all, the spies want to spy on the people who try to hide their secrets. Unless a system is open it should be viewed with suspicion. Even then it should be viewed with suspicion.
“The NSA spy scandal caused an uproar in many countries, whose leaders’ smartphones were being spied upon, most notably Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. The intelligence scandal greatly increased the demand for encrypted mobile devices and communications in Europe. Many European political leaders will most probably ditch their high-end iOS and Android devices for a new breed of smartphones – the “cryptophones”.”
4. Ubuntu Will Add Torrent Search to Embed Free Culture Into User Experience
Hollywood and the media have managed to equate torrents with piracy, which is nonsense: it is an effective mechanism to transfer large amounts of data. Torrent search will be a useful addition to the OS.
“In early December 2013 there was a nice announcement for Ubuntu users. Software developer David Callé revealed that a new torrent scope (search addon) for the Debian-based Linux OS was now available. In the first instance Callé was skeptical about having the scope included in Ubuntu by default since it would inevitably turn up unlicensed content, something he feared would “generate a lot of FUD for Ubuntu.” However, Callé’s fears were quickly addressed by Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth.”
5. IRTF Chair Won’t Remove NSA Employee as Co-Chair of Crypto Working Group
Back in the olden days, people would have assume the NSA’s input would help improve security, whereas now it is assume NSA is interested only in backdoors, etc.. You would think the organization would be sensitive to the perception of the industry, instead they are eroding their relevance.
“An NSA employee who is the co-chairman of a cryptography working group affiliated with the IETF will remain in that position despite calls from members to have him removed. The chairman of the Internet Research Task Force, the body that oversees the research group, rejected requests for the removal of Kevin Igoe of the NSA, saying that his position gave him little real power over the development of cryptographic standards and his removal would set a dangerous precedent.”
6. Intel Edison: an SD-card sized PC for wearable computing
Assuming this actually works, and will be a real product, the price is unkonow, and that is pretty much all that matters. Unfortunately, PCs are lousy at the sort of I/O needed for embedded applications, so I am not clear of market demand unless the price is very compelling. Mind you, Intel could always add the appropriate I/O, and, at the right price, these would fly off the shelves.
“Intel CEO Brian Krzanich has revealed the company’s vision for wearable computing – and at its core is an SD-card sized PC called Edison. Edison is based on Quark technology, the tiny, low-power system-on-a-chip that was designed for wearable computers, such as smart watches, and the Internet of Things.”
7. Report: Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Lite to be priced at $129
I have maintained for some time that the pricing of tablets and smartphones will come under pressure. This sort or price point is very bad for high-margin producers like Apple.
“While Samsung’s new PRO range of tablets is what has us excited, Samsung’s upcoming – and likely to be announced at CES in a few hours – Galaxy Tab 3 Lite is perhaps the most important tablet in Samsung’s ambitions to rule the tablet market in 2014, as it is expected to be the cheapest Samsung tablet ever, a fact that will help the company rake up sales in emerging markets and compete with local manufacturers.”
8. Strap This Wind Turbine To Your Electric Car To Stay Juiced in Park
They changed the headline heavily edited this story after so many people made fun of it. At least they note the headline change at the bottom of the article, though the original article was not ‘tongue in cheek’. This is a dopey idea regardless and shows how profoundly ignorant people are about basic physics, which may explain the level of interest in “renewable” energy. Hat tip to my son, Ali for the original link.
“Electricity-generating windmills churn out free energy as long as the wind is blowing. So strapping one to the roof of your car where there’s always a breeze as long as you’re driving just seems obvious. The Transport Turbine—seen here as a 3D printed proof of concept—puts four small wind turbines on the roof of your car that generate electricity.”
9. The 3D printer that can build a house in 24 hours
This is an update to several articles we’ve carried on this technology. I live in a concrete house and it is hard to see a downside, besides construction cost. 3D printing would significantly reduce construction costs, so, if they can commercialize the system, it could be a big deal.
“The University of Southern California is testing a giant 3D printer that could be used to build a whole house in under 24 hours. Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis has designed the giant robot that replaces construction workers with a nozzle on a gantry, this squirts out concrete and can quickly build a home according to a computer pattern. It is “basically scaling up 3D printing to the scale of building,” says Khoshnevis. The technology, known as Contour Crafting, could revolutionise the construction industry.”
10. Canada courting U.S. web giants in wake of NSA spy scandal
Except that the Canadian security services do pretty much the same things the NSA does, with the NSA’s help, and they share the data with the NSA. Other than that, this makes perfect sense.
“The Canadian government is trying to profit from the National Security Agency spy scandal south of the border by luring frustrated American web titans such as Google and Facebook into storing sensitive banks of personal information outside the United States, the Toronto Star has learned.”
11. Welcome to the era of radical innovation
Not the greatest article – after all, supercomputing is more of an oddity than anything else, unless you happen to be a spy or working on climate models. I would have observed that Moore’s Law allowed people to be pretty lazy with respect to exploiting the available technology and the end of Moore’s Law will simply move the focus of engineering away from semiconductor engineers and towards system engineers.
“Moore’s Law created a stable era for technology, and now that era is nearing its end. But it may be a blessing to say goodbye to a rule that has driven the semiconductor industry since the 1960s. Imagine if farmers could go year to year knowing in advance the amount of rainfall they would get. They could plant crops based on expected water availability. That’s the world that device makers, who are gathering this week in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), have long been living in, and every year has been a good one. Droughts haven’t been part of the forecast, yet.”
12. A Group Of Miners Has Exposed One Of Bitcoin’s Fatal Flaws
Flaws? You want flaws? How about the fact it cost more in electricity to ‘mine’ a Bitcoin than the Bitcoin is worth? Or how about the fact people exchange actual currency for a magic number. Oh, and the almost complete certainty the whole thing is a fraud and most exchanges are run by the mob. Those are some of the other flaws.
“Lots of people believe Bitcoin is impregnable. Yesterday showed it may not be. GHash.io, the world’s largest collective of bitcoin miners, gained control of more than 42% of all the computer processing that powers the Bitcoin network. (Because of the expense now involved for a single miner to create bitcoin, lots of people now pool their computing power.) It’s the first time they came close controlling more than 50% of the entire network. Were that 50% threshold ever crossed, a host of problems have the potential to occur. We’ll get to what those are in a moment.”
13. Smart Contact Lenses Will Give You Superhuman Vision
I really don’t see the point of this: contacts and eyeglasses? Why not make adaptive optics into the eyeglasses? Regardless, I don’t know anybody who actually likes contact lenses. It is worth noting that the limiting factor to extreme amounts of information is the human brain: we just lack the power to process five windows concurrently.
“Your future contact lenses could give you superhuman vision. Just one year after eyewear startup Innovega announced a prototype of its high-tech iOptik lenses, the company is showing off the product at this year’s International CES. The Innovega eyewear system is made up of two parts: glasses and contact lenses. The contact lenses give you enhanced focusing abilities, so you can see near and far at levels beyond what the normal eye can see. For example, if you put a finger up to your eye while wearing the contacts, you can actually see the fine details of your fingerprint; whereas, the natural eye can’t focus on an object so close up.”
14. Microsoft has a killer advantage against Android on the desktop
Well – yes and no. Sort of. Currently. It may be true that a Windows PC costs the same as an Android PC, but the ‘cost of ownership’ of a PC includes things like applications (Office, etc.) which is where the gap really opens up. I am not convinced that Android, which is touch centric, will resonate any more with the folks, like me, who have no use for a touch centric laptop or desktop. However, Android (i.e. Linux) can change, as can Windows, in theory. Windows and related applications are unable to ever be free, however.
“Now that CES is in full-flow, we know that Lenovo is pitching an Android PC desktop, and HP are pitching a whole bunch of different Android PC form factors including all-in-ones, a minitower, a detachable screen hybrid, and a traditional laptop.”
15. Gartner: PC shipments slip 6.9% to 82.6m units in Q4, as 2013 sees the worst yearly decline in history
The PC industry is a saturated market and most computers are powerful enough to do whatever you want them to do since software innovation stopped in 1995, more or less. You replace a laptop when it breaks, not because you can’t get it to run the software you like. And then there is the fact that buying a new PC means you have to give up Windows 7 for Windows 8 …
“The PC market continues to be in free fall, having now seen its seventh consecutive quarter of declining worldwide shipments. Worldwide PC shipments dropped to 82.6 million units in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to Gartner, a 6.9 percent decrease from the same period last year.”
16. CES: 4K TV Study Based On Fuzzy Research
It’s nice to see that I am not the only one who is critical of industry research. I wonder what the percentage would be if the question was “4K TVs are much more expensive, only give a slightly better picture, and there is no content and no standards for distributing the content. Do you plan on buying one? Why? What is wrong with you?”
“Strategy Analytics released a study yesterday proclaiming that 56 percent of U.S consumers would buy a 4K TV in the next two years. The study’s headline: “56 Percent Of US Would Buy UHD TV (4K) In Next Two Years.” That’s an amazing result — and an amazing headline — considering that many 4K TVs now cost thousands of dollars and some display experts say the new set offers only a marginal picture improvement over today’s 1080p HDTVs.”
17. CES 2014: Cars powered by solar, hydrogen roll into Las Vegas
Most of the articles I read about these “solar powered cars” were the typical fawning silliness associated with any “renewal energy” article. At least this one is a bit critical, but making fun of the whole concept is even better. I mean, sure, everybody is going to have the real estate to build a Fresnel lens topped garage, with no shade, along a particular axis. Of course, the garage is going to cost you a lot more than whatever electricity you’d save, but that’s not the point, is it?
“While autonomous driving is a major theme at the International CES gadget show, cars that use futuristic sources of energy are potentially much closer on the horizon. Ford showed off a prototype solar hybrid car called the C-MAX Solar Energi, which has a gas engine along with rooftop solar panels that also power the engine. The car is designed to park under a 15-foot-tall carport made of a thin magnifying glass called a Fresnel lens that concentrates the sun’s rays onto the panel to efficiently generate electricity. The carport isn’t portable. So the car has to stop and recharge.”
18. Flash Drives Storage Innovation
Not the greatest article, but some useful information regarding non-consumer applications for solid state storage.
“There has been a good deal of investment in flash storage in recent months — from acquisitions, to IPOs, to the funding of new private companies. The reason for this is simple. In the last decade, the tremendous growth of datacenter virtualization has caused an increase in storage performance bottlenecks. This, in turn, has hurt application performance, turning a key IT enabler into a potential business liability.”
19. Organic Mega Flow Battery Promises Breakthrough for Renewable Energy
Flow batteries are interesting because they store electricity in the electrolytes, meaning you can have as much capacity as you have storage, so there is some promise. Such large capacity batteries are not exclusively useful for alternative energy as the grid normally requires smoothing of production and demand. That being said any battery technology needs to meet a variety of parameters (cost, durability, etc.) and few novel battery technologies ever become commercially viable.
“A team of Harvard scientists and engineers has demonstrated a new type of battery that could fundamentally transform the way electricity is stored on the grid, making power from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar far more economical and reliable.”
20. Toyota announces FCV, a commercially viable fuel cell vehicle
And why not another alternative energy story, assuming, of course, you don’t know that hydrogen is an energy carrier and not ‘alternative energy’ per se. I wrote a report in 2004 which was highly skeptical of fuel cell vehicles and I would not change much of that report today. The problem is not the fuel cell, but the fuel: hydrogen is made in vast quantities and it isn’t going to get any cheaper; it is extremely low density, making distribution expensive and, in general difficult. There are applications for fuel cells, but cars ain’t one of them.
“Fuel cell vehicles have been a technology in waiting for decades now, but Toyota thinks we only have another year to wait. At CES, Toyota provided some more details about its plans for how it will bring its FCV concept into the real world. Working in collaboration with several state and local agencies as well as the Advanced Power and Energy Program at the University of California Irvine, Toyota announced plans for the installation of fuel cell recharging stations scattered in an area that would stretch from San Francisco down to San Diego. Toyota expects the network to be able to service upwards of 10,000 fuel cell vehicles by 2024.”