The Geek’s Reading List – Week of December 5th 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!
There were good mix of tech news items this week, with no dominant theme. “Low end” (mostly meaning low price) smartphones are gaining attention. Solid State Drives, which will render Hard Disk Drives obsolete in the same manner as flash drives replace floppies, are being recognized for their robustness. The price of cloud services offered by major vendors continues to plummet to zero, and Microsoft is hoping to save the world from Windows 8 by introducing Windows 10, eventually.
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
ps: I apologize for the uneven quality of this week’s GRL. I am in rural Michigan hunting and Internet access is spotty. Next week’s may be delayed, shorted, or simply not come out.
1) The Market For Low-End Smartphones Is Looking Up
I continue to believe the top will drop out of the market for smartphones. By which I mean consumers will eventually realize “high end” phones are wildly overpriced and even carrier locked phones are a waste of money and negotiating position. You can purchase a good quality unlocked Android phone for less than C $200 nowadays and, even though you might have to live with the shame of not having an iPhone, you are paying a fraction of the price for pretty much the same functionality.
“Once upon a time when you walked into a store looking to buy a new cell phone, you were presented with three options. High-end devices like Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy line were cutting edge, but expensive. Mid-range phones like HTC’s Desire series were cheaper, but not nearly as powerful. Low-end phones were the most affordable, but also the most technologically limited of the bunch. Their processors were slower, their screens were less crisp, and their build quality often left much to be, well, desired. Looking at the market today, many things are the same. High-end phones are still pricey and aspirational while the midrange is still middling. Cheap smartphones, however, are in a state of disruption.”
2) The SSD Endurance Experiment: Two freaking petabytes
Solid State Drives (SSDs) are frequently characterized as short-lived, however, such a comment must always be made within the context of the life of the end product and typical usage patterns. SSDs do tend to wear out after a large number of writes but the vast majority of access for the typical consumer are reads, not writes. SSDs are much, much faster, mechanically robust (try dropping a Hard Disk Drive (HDD)) and typically consume much less power. Almost any system benefits from an SSD upgrade and the HDD industry is doomed. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
“More than a year ago, we drafted six SSDs for a suicide mission. We were curious about how many writes they could survive before burning out. We also wanted to track how each one’s performance characteristics and health statistics changed as the writes accumulated. And, somewhat morbidly, we wanted to watch what happened when the drives finally expired. Our SSD Endurance Experiment has left four casualties in its wake so far. Representatives from the Corsair Neutron Series GTX, Intel 335 Series, Kingston HyperX 3K, and Samsung 840 Series all perished to satisfy our curiosity. Each one absorbed far more damage than its official endurance specification promised—and far more than the vast majority of users are likely to inflict.”
3) Amazon cuts the cost of sending data out from its cloud by as much as 43%
From time to time we encounter companies who expect to “disrupt” the cloud services business. Most recently we reported on a company which had figured out a way to get consumers to cover its capital cost, which it paid back with “free” heat. The thing is, cloud services is a race to the bottom: there is little in the way of sustainable competitive advantage, meanwhile the cost of delivering MIPS (processing power) continues to decline. Above all it is a buyers market and may never be a good investment.
“Market-leading public cloud Amazon Web Services is at it again, reducing the price of its services. Today it’s networking costs that are getting lower. The new price cuts affect the process of pushing data from Amazon’s cloud services onto the Internet. Amazon is also decreasing the price of sending data out from its CloudFront content-distribution network onto the Internet. Percentages for the price cuts vary in each geographical region or cluster of Amazon data centers. In the Asia Pacific region, for instance, the cost of transferring data out is going down by 43 percent for the 40TB following the initial 10TB. But in the US West (Oregon) region, the price for that data transfer is falling by 6 percent.”
4) 600 Millions PCs Waiting for Windows 10
The abject fiasco which is Windows 8 continues to affect the PC industry. Microsoft’s efforts to promote that abomination means that if you buy a new PC you will have to learn a new, frustrating, and anti-logical user interface which will become obsolete once Windows 10 is released. So for the sake of all that is holy, do not buy a new PC if you can put it off. That is the real message of this article. That and the fact Microsoft appears to find novelty in listening to its customers.
“Windows 10 is still in development at Microsoft, but Redmond’s partners claim that interest in new PCs has increased lately, especially after the software giant released the very first Windows 10 Technical Preview for testers. What’s more, millions of PCs are waiting right now for Windows 10, as the new operating system is already seen as a breath of fresh air for the collapsing PC industry which has suffered from dropping figures in the last couple of years. Windows 8 didn’t help, many said, so Windows 10 could definitely boost shipments, Intel’s executives explained during a recent press conference.”
5) Google Glass isn’t dead; Intel-powered hardware reportedly due in 2015
Hmmm. Google Glass may not be dead but it sure is coughing blood. Despite early promises to change life as we know it, few people have found much use for it. Somehow I can’t see how this is affected by the choice of the SoC: after all, most software is sufficiently abstracted to get around such a thing. Nope – I think Google Glass is a solution in search of a problem.
“Glass is not dead, though. A report from The Wall Street Journal claims that a new version of Google Glass is on the way, and unlike the minor revision that Google released last year, it has totally overhauled internals. According to the report, Glass will switch from its dead Texas Instruments SoC to a processor built by Intel and will get a full hardware refresh.”
6) Google overtakes Apple in the US classroom
It pains me to hear that scarce education budget dollars are going into iPads. Frankly, it is not at all clear any tablet is a solution to any educator’s problem, but, if you are going to waste money on tablets for the school, at least get more and less expensive tablets. After all, you can get 2 to 3 Android tablets for the price of an equivalent iPad. At least Chromebooks make a bit more sense, and they are somewhat cost effective. One has to wonder where such efforts leave the less well off students who can neither afford computers not Internet services.
“Apple has lost its longstanding lead over Google in US schools, with Chromebook laptop computers overtaking iPads for the first time as the most popular new device for education authorities purchasing in bulk for students. Google shipped 715,500 of the low-cost laptops into US schools in the third quarter, compared with 702,000 iPads, according to IDC, the market research firm. Chromebooks, which sell for as little as $199, have gone from a standing start two years ago to more than a quarter of the market.”
7) Army of Amazon robots ready to help fulfill orders on Cyber Monday
I for one welcome our robot overlords! Seriously though, “robots” in this sense are simply a continuation of the industrial revolution, which has been going uninterrupted for a couple hundred years or more. Despite the bad press, a “robot” is no more of a threat to jobs than the threshing machine was. In any event this makes for an interesting read and a cool video.
“This holiday season, Amazon’s little helper is an orange, 320-pound robot called Kiva. The robots — more than 15,000 of them companywide — are part of Amazon’s high-tech effort to get orders to customers faster. By lifting shelves of Amazon products off the ground and speedily delivering them to employee stations, the robots dramatically reduce the time it takes for workers to find items and put them into boxes for shipment.”
8) Luca Guala: Why “personal rapid transit” evolves into fixed route transit
This is a two part story with the excerpt from the second story, but it makes no sense unless you’ve read the first one. I can see the value of driverless buses, however, bus drivers are as much an authority figure as a driver on a bus. Without drivers, bus passengers would be at the mercy of whatever hooligans decide to do on the bus. Unlike, say, a train, there are plenty of avenues of easy escape on a bus. Its a good idea, if not for human nature.
“So what did I learn from all of this? That driverless cars very likely have a bright future, but cars they will always be. They may be able to go and park themselves out of harm’s way, they may be able to do more trips per day, but they will still need a 10 ft wide lane to move a flow of 3600 persons per hour. In fact, the advantage of robotic drivers in an extra-urban setting may be very interesting, but their advantages completely fade away in an urban street, where the frequent obstacles and interruptions will make robots provide a performance that will be equal, or worse than, that of a human driver, at least in terms of capacity and density.”
9) Google Fiber’s new gear lets you watch more shows on more TVs
It never occurred to me before that Google Fiber would require proprietary hardware in order to tap the full benefits of the service. I had figured the US giant would simply have imported whatever gear was being used in other parts of the world. Of course, from a business perspective proprietary hardware makes a great deal of sense: it would give the company considerable access to user data without the risk of having to share it.
“If gigabit internet isn’t reason enough to tempt Austinites to sign up for Google Fiber, they can chew on this: Austin Texas will be the first Fiber city to enjoy the benefits of Google’s latest in-home hardware devices. Today Google officially revealed its new Fiber router, a single unit that consolidates the existing network and storage boxes into one device. This is the same router that rolled out to Kansas City residents in Google’s beta program earlier this year — but there’s a little more going on here than mere device consolidation. It’s true, the new Network+ Google Fiber box is an amalgamation of the service’s existing router and DVR devices, but it’s also a complete internal redesign.”
10) Intel Upgrades Stephen Hawking’s Portal to the World
Intel has been working with Hawking for some time to maintain his ability to communicate despite his ongoing loss of ability. It is both heartwarming that Intel should do this and encouraging for others with major neurological deficiencies. The decision to open source the effort is particularly promising.
“Movie audiences who went to theaters this fall to see The Theory of Everything got a glimpse of the challenges physicist Stephen Hawking has overcome to deliver his groundbreaking insights into the nature of black holes, space and time. Tuesday the world gets a peek at how new technology will let the scientist and author continue to share his discoveries with the world as he battles the degenerative motor neuron disease that has degraded his ability to communicate over the past five decades.”
11) See it, touch it, feel it
This technology is probably the sort of thing which has to be experienced to believe. Essentially it adds “touch” to the image which you might be presented through virtual reality goggles. One can easily imagine applications in training (simulators) as well as games. Of course, it would take a Sony or Nintendo to commercialize something like this.
“Technology has changed rapidly over the last few years with touch feedback, known as haptics, being used in entertainment, rehabilitation and even surgical training. New research, using ultrasound, has developed a virtual 3D haptic shape that can be seen and felt. The research paper, published in the current issue of ACM Transactions on Graphics and which will be presented at this week’s SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 conference [3-6 December], demonstrates how a method has been created to produce 3D shapes that can be felt in mid-air.”
12) Apple removed songs from iPods without telling customers
In an era of legal scrutiny of the efforts by large corporations to use dirty tricks to maintain market share it is rather hard to believe a company would do such a thing, however, megalomania causes people to do strange things. Time will tell whether or not this actually happened, and, if so, whether it broke the law. If it did, then it should have.
“The Wall Street Journal reports that between 2007 and 2009, Apple deleted music from users’ iPods that originated from competing digital music services. It didn’t just remove the music, instead it produced an error message that instructed users to restore their iPod when music from rival services was detected. Once the restore was complete, the music from competitors would not sync back with the iPod.”
13) Discarded Laptop Batteries Keep the Lights On
At first blush this seems like a pretty stupid idea: after all, who is going to collect and reassemble all those batteries. Nonetheless, recycling is a comparatively big business in some developing economies and why not use that to re-purpose batteries to a higher use?
“Many of the estimated 50 million lithium-ion laptop batteries discarded every year could provide electricity storage sufficient to light homes in poor countries, researchers at IBM say. In work being aired this week at a conference in San Jose, researchers at IBM Research India in Bangalore found that at least 70 percent of all discarded batteries have enough life left to power an LED light at least four hours a day for a year.”
14) DIY Exoplanet Detector
Not quite the sort of DIY the average person would be able of pulling off, but probably the sort of thing a dedicated star-watcher could do. One can imagine that many parts of the solution could become consumer grade products without too much effort, especially if accompanied by complete instructions. To think that it wasn’t even 20 years ago the first exoplanet was discovered and now an amateur can replicate one such discovery. Ain’t technology wonderful?
“Since 1995, when astronomers announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi, exoplanets—which orbit stars other than the sun—have been a hot topic. I knew that dedicated amateurs could detect some of these exoplanets, but I thought it required expensive telescopes. Then I stumbled on the website of the KELT-North project at Ohio State University, in Columbus. The project’s astronomers find exoplanets not with a giant telescope but by combining a charge-coupled-device (CCD) detector with a Mamiya-Sekor lens originally designed for high-end cameras. That got me wondering: Might I be able to detect an exoplanet without a telescope or a research-grade CCD detector? I discovered that one amateur astronomer had already posted online about how he had detected a known exoplanet using a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera outfitted with a telephoto lens. He was able to discern the dip in the brightness of a star as an orbiting planet passed in front of it—a technique known as transit detection.”
15) Adblock Plus can now prevent Facebook from telling senders you read their messages
I avoid social media as much as possible so I can’t say how profound a development this is. What I can say is that it would be pretty straightforward for Facebook to develop a counter-measure which would simply limit your access if you enable this feature. Frankly, I figure if you have trouble with Facebook spying on you then you should hang up on Facebook.
“Adblock Plus, an open-source content-filtering and ad blocking plugin for all major browsers, today announced a new feature for Facebook users: the ability to turn off read receipts. In short, you can now prevent Facebook from telling senders you saw their messages. If you already have Adblock Plus installed, all you have to do is click here and then hit “Add.” Doing so will enable the “Message ‘seen’ Remover for Facebook” filter in your Adblock Plus preferences.”
16) Fraudulent apps stalk Apple’s App Store
This is another surprising Apple related story. The purported “protected sandbox” offered by Apple is part of the reason people pay 2 to 3x the value of their products. However, scammers are endlessly imaginative and will always find their way through. The good news is, victims in a sandbox are the most gullible victims of all: they may not even realize they are victims.
“Many people think that the sort of scams Microsoft cleared out of its mobile app store this year could never affect Apple. But how tight is Apple’s review process for the App Store? If you’re competing with Apple, it seems to be very tight, and the rules are constantly changing. But if you’re a scammer looking to make a fast buck, it appears that Apple process can be defeated. The scale of the problem became apparent in an open source project where I volunteer, the Apache OpenOffice community. For several months, the user support mailing list has been bothered with apparently random questions — some very angry — from people seeking support for an iPad app. The community has been confused by these questions, since they have nothing to do with any work at Apache; Apache OpenOffice doesn’t even have an iOS version.”
17) Driverless cars set to be tested in four English cities
It is going to take a lot of testing and retesting before any degree of driverlessness is permitted in the wild. Therefore, this announcement is welcome but is simple a small step in a very long journey. I continue to believe driverless cars will become mainstream, but more likely on a 20 year horizon than a 10 year one.
“The four English locations picked to test driverless cars have been named. Greenwich, in south-east London, and Bristol will each host a project of their own, while Coventry and Milton Keynes will share a third. The decision was announced by the quango Innovate UK, after George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. The chancellor also announced an additional £9m in funding for the work, adding to the £10m that had been announced in July. The businesses involved will add further funds.”
18) Google is killing CAPTCHA as we know it
I can’t wait for CAPTCHAs to be eliminated. I don’t think they work that well and they can frustrate the heck out of me – I can take three or four tries to “get it right” while any self respecting bot is much better. Besides, they make the web hard to use for people with disabilities and that hardly seems fair. Perhaps people should develop bots for the disabled if they haven’t already done so.
“If you’ve signed up for an account recently, you’ve probably seen it: a quick test that gives you a few distorted words and asks you to type them back in plaintext. The official name is CAPTCHA, a test designed to weed out the automated scripts used for spam, but it’s been broken for a long time. Google recently showed off a system that could crack it 99.8 percent of the time, and most spammers are happy to run their scripts knowing just one in ten will slip through. But even though everyone knows CAPTCHA is broken, there hasn’t been a clear idea of what might replace it. This morning, Google is unveiling the best answer yet. It’s called No-CAPTCHA, a new approach built on a new API, and it’s already been adopted by Snapchat, WordPress and Humble Bundle, among other partners.”
19) Atmospheric carbon dioxide used for energy storage products
When I see headlines – and articles – like this I have to wonder whether the scientists are so humiliated by what the publicity people have done to their research, or whether it is some sort of game which is played to make fun of the rubes who write this stuff. You see, the tricky bit is not where you get the carbon from. Carbon is surprisingly abundant. And cheap. You can get carbon from potatoes, or cat litter, or fast food wrappers. The tricky bit is not where you get the carbon for the nanomaterials from, but, rather, making the actual nanomaterials. Folks who figure that out will go down in history while the folks who claim some sort of advance in making a few nanograms from using atmospheric CO2 will be justly derided by their peers.
“Chemists and engineers at Oregon State University have discovered a fascinating new way to take some of the atmospheric carbon dioxide that’s causing the greenhouse effect and use it to make an advanced, high-value material for use in energy storage products. This innovation in nanotechnology won’t soak up enough carbon to solve global warming, researchers say. However, it will provide an environmentally friendly, low-cost way to make nanoporous graphene for use in “supercapacitors” – devices that can store energy and release it rapidly. Such devices are used in everything from heavy industry to consumer electronics.”
20) World’s First Artificial Enzymes Created From Synthetic Genetic Material
The last paragraph may be the most interesting one: if you can use XNAs therapeutically, you might be able to do so with less concern over the possibility these “unnatural” genes would affect regular ones.
“Scientists have made a breakthrough in the field of synthetic biology by creating, for the first time, enzymes from artificial genetic material that does not exist in nature. This exciting new work not only offers new insights into the origins of life on Earth, but also has implications for our search for extraterrestrial life on other planets.”