Friday, June 20, 2008

Canada Warming Up Its Own DMCA

It used to be so easy. I'd just tell people that as a Canadian (and therefore not under the thumb of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), I could merrily crack DVD encryption for personal use without breaking the law. Reactions would range from envy to applause, or sometimes a mixture of both.

But alas, it's looking like these good things may be coming to an end. On Thursday, the Canadian government finally released Bill C-61, legislation that would give us our very own DMCA, or at least something uncomfortably similar.

Bill C-61 is essentially a series of amendments to the Copyright Act that would ratify the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty, which the DMCA did for the USA in 1996.

Some of Bill C-61's proposals are astonishingly reasonable. For instance, Canada has never, legally speaking, had fair use, but rather the stricter concept of fair dealing. However, Bill C-61 enshrines the right of an individual to make personal copies of copyrighted works to digital devices, so long as only one copy is made per device. Remember when the RIAA claimed that consumers weren't allowed to rip CDs they legally owned for use on their MP3 players, but for their magnaminous generosity? That tactic wouldn't wash up here. Furthermore, researchers would be allowed to crack encrypted media for research and academic purposes, thus avoiding things like the Dmitry Sklyarov fiasco.

But even some of these reasonable measures have unreasonable corollaries. Since contracts between consumers and rights holders explicitly supercede the Copyright Act, then Amazon's non-transferability clause trumps my right to give away any tracks I so desire. Bill C-61 spells out what's legal in giving away any other form of media (I have to really give it away, not keep a copy lying around), but my rights are abrogated when it comes to MP3s I buy if Amazon or eMusic says so. Also, that whole cracking encryption for research thing? It's allowed only if you have the permission of the rights holder. Yeah, let's see how often that happens.

What really burns me is that Bill C-61 will make it illegal for people to crack DVD encryption. Not that I'm a raise-the-Jolly-Roger pirate, but I crack DVDs all the time as a matter of convenience. When I recently travelled to Los Angeles, I brought six movies (and their extras) with me to pass the time. Breaking the CSS encryption saved me the trouble of carrying eight discs with me. And the bill's vague wording makes me wonder: would my multi-region DVD player constitute a "technology, device or component [that] is designed or produced primarily for the purposes of circumventing a technological measure"?

It's amazing. We had twelve years to observe the parts of the DMCA that didn't work or were too ambiguous—and then, with few excepctions, we went right ahead and copied them.

[Originally written for PC World.]

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Self-Destructing DVDs Make a Comeback

Didn't we already go through this ten years ago? Flexplay Entertainment is making good on its threat -- er, promise -- to produce rental DVDs that self-destruct 48 hours after they've been opened.

The technology's not all that new; Flexplay DVDs have been around for about five years, though on a more limited scale. The premise remains unchanged: Flexplay's patented disc adhesive reacts to oxygen when the DVD's package is opened, beginning a slow chemical reaction that renders the disc unreadable in 48 hours.

The idea is that you can rent a movie without having to worry about when you'll watch it -- the disc remains playable so long as it's sealed -- or about returning it. Staples will start carrying Flexplay DVDs this month, for $4.99 each.

But like I said, we've done this dance before. It was in 1998 that a bunch of retailers offered us DIVX (no relation to the video codec), a -- wait for it -- self-destructing DVD format for renting movies, with a 48-hour viewing window. PC World's Dan Tynan echoed the prevailing sentiment when he included it in his 2006 article The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time; the technology was on the market for barely six months before it was yanked.

The Staples and Flexplay folks are probably banking on the fact that unlike DIVX, Flexplay discs don't require a proprietary player. But beyond that, is there really any benefit? People who think it's too much trouble to return a disc to the video store have likely already got Netflix queues as long as my arm. Plus, DVDs that aren't new releases are cheaper than ever -- given the choice of renting a disc for $5 and owning it for $7, a significant number of people will opt for the latter. It looks to me like history will be repeating itself.

[Originally written for PC World.]

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

5 Groovy Sites for Free Music Downloads

Short of "free food" and "free beer," "free music" is one of the sweetest phrases you can hear. But getting tunes gratis doesn't have to mean ending up on the RIAA's Most Wanted list. These five sites will let you easily fatten up your music collection with tracks that creators and recording labels are giving away--all in DRM-free, MP3 format. An extra bonus: None of these sites require an e-mail address or any kind of registration.

What's the catch? Well, don't expect to find much top-40 material here; the four major labels are still pretty tight-fisted with their properties. But that's not really much of a catch: Saying good-bye to Mariah Carey and Madonna means saying hello to independent artists (some of whom have been in the business just as long) who will round out your most-played list quite nicely.

1. Venzero Mixtape

Some audio player manufacturers will happily give you music, on the condition that you buy their product first. German company Venzero is a bit more generous, having launched the Venzero Mixtape: a rotating collection of MP3 tracks by "exquisite bands" that anybody can download. Or at least that's the theory. Since launching the Venzero Mixtape, the company has changed the lineup only once. The nine tracks that make up the current mixtape are a pleasure to listen to, however, so even if Venzero never gets around to picking up where it left off, you still come out ahead.

2. Epitonic

My favorite brick-and-mortar record stores--I can call them that because they still have plenty of vinyl--not only offer a wide variety of music but also have staff who can talk intelligently about what they offer. Even when I walk in just to say hi, I usually end up walking out with a new CD and new knowledge.The closest experience to that in the online world is Epitonic, where you don't get just free music--you get free schooling too. The site features extensive writeups on all the featured artists (including links to similar acts), streaming audio, and at least one free MP3 per album.

Unfortunately, Epitonic hasn't really been updated for almost two years. But the site has enough content that you can still spend hours, if not days, exploring new musical avenues.

3. Mush Records

Like other independent music labels, Mush Records has artists who cover a lot of stylistic ground (they describe their range as "electronic instrumental, underground hip-hop, downtempo, abstract hip-hop, experimental, indie-rock, jazz-based grooves, turntablist compositions, electronic pop, saturated folk, left-field, dreamy stuff, more versions of hip-hop, and on and on"). And Mush is not afraid of giving away music and videos for free, since the company expects visitors' interest to be piqued enough for them to spend a few dollars on a CD.Unlike Epitonic, Mush Records separates the areas where you learn about artists from where you download media. On the one hand, it makes music discovery a little less organic. On the other hand, the site's extensive archive of articles written about their artists gives a more textured look at their work. Either way, a collection of 70-plus free tracks is nothing to sneeze at.

4. iSound

If you're a musician, iSound seems like a dream come true: The site provides tools for artists to create their own pages to promote and sell their music online. If you're a music fan, iSound seems like a potential nightmare--you'd expect to have to wade through plenty of questionable material to find one gem.Both of those perceptions are accurate, but what separates iSound from similar online services are three features that let music fans quickly zero in on what they like. First is a search tool that finds bands based on their similarity to three artists you enter; second is a list of the 200 most popular tracks; and third is an icon that tells you if a band has any downloadable MP3s before you click through to their page. Using these tools I easily racked up more hits than misses.

5. The Live Music Archive

The top two reasons I love going to concerts are the feeling of camaraderie (I'm surrounded by people who are into the same music, though I run the risk of a Coke spilling on my shirt) and the chance to hear my favorite songs performed outside of a studio setting, sometimes arranged in new and creative ways. The next best thing to being there is a concert recording, but relatively few bands make recordings available for sale, and many bootlegs are kind of iffy soundwise.Then there are the bands that don't mind exploring the gray area in between. The Live Music Archive features high-quality concert recordings from bands that are cool with noncommercial distribution of their performances. Dip into the extensive roster, and you'll find names like Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, and the godfathers of sanctioned bootlegs, the Grateful Dead.

[Originally written for PC World.]

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Texas IT Has Bugs in Its System

We tend to forget that one of the first computer bugs was a real one. Texas computer users are rediscovering that first-hand.

The bugs in this case are crazy rasberry ants, named after the exterminator Tom Rasberry, who first identified them after they appeared in Texas in 2002. (You can see a recent video about the critters here.) The thing is, in the six years since their introduction to the state -- mostly in Houston-area counties -- they've been resistant to most conventional ant pesticides and multiplying like crazy.

Okay, so there are thousands of tiny ants swarming all over the place. It's a little creepy, but what does this have to do with technology?

Everything, it turns out, as the ants have wreaked havoc in the past when they've made their way into computers. Get enough ants on a circuit board and they can cause short circuits. A recent Computer Dealer News story refers to incidents in 2006 and 2007 where the ants shorted out computers in a Texas chemical company, affecting pipeline flow. They also refer to infestations in NASA's Johnson Space Center, which were fortunately contained.

It's like a bad horror movie, but it raises an important question -- what happens if they start infesting Houston proper? As the fifth-largest city in the US, technology disruptions could have a serious impact. Expect sleepless nights and a lot of foot-stompin' in the southwest's IT departments soon.

[Cross-posted from PC World.]

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Top 15 Vaporware Products of All Time

The tech industry has had more than its fair share of products that infamously failed to take off. Some fit the classic definition of vaporware, and were all hype and no substance. A few were simply too far ahead of their time. And others were merely victims of bad judgment about what users wanted. Here are the 15 best examples of products that never saw the light of day (at least in their originally intended form), plus some honorable mentions that we just couldn't ignore.

15. Ovation
The early 1980s was an interesting time in office-software development for IBM's still-new IBM PC and the MS-DOS operating system. WordStar, WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, and Lotus 1-2-3 were just some of the must-have word processing and spreadsheet titles released in the three years after the platform made its debut.

In 1983, Ovation Technologies, a startup founded the year before, announced an integrated package that promised to include word processing, spreadsheet, database management, and communications software. By 1984, though, the company declared bankruptcy, having burned through about $7 million in investor money without releasing a single product.

The problem was one that might be familiar to survivors of the dot-com bust: Ovation spent far more time, money, and energy promoting and selling its product than actually creating it. The software's only lasting effect on the market is that it's supposedly the reason "vaporware" was coined.

14. Duke Nukem Forever
It's hard to come up with something new to say about Duke Nukem Forever, largely because people have had so much time to make fun of it. Last week marked the eleventh anniversary of 3D Realms' first official announcement of Duke Nukem Forever's release, which was supposed to be in mid-1998. That optimistic announcement came before the developer's decision to switch game engines—something the company would go on to do repeatedly in the ensuing years, while occasionally rewriting most of the existing game design from scratch.

Over the last ten years, the developer has released a few trailers (including one last December), screen shots, and demos to show the game's progress. Though 3D Realms wisely stopped providing hard release dates (it'll be released "when it's done"), president Scott Miller did confirm a 2008 release date in an e-mail sent to the Dallas Business Journal back in February. Still, as the years have gone by, each new tidbit has prompted increasing amounts of snide commentary rather than anticipation. The best of the bunch has to be The Duke Nukem Forever List, which documents how the gaming and technology industries—as well as the world at large—have changed since that first announcement in 1997.

If Duke Nukem Forever does actually see the light of day—which may surprise its creators as much as anyone else—its role of whipping boy in the world of tech snarkiness might be filled by Darkfall, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) in development for almost seven years ... so far.

13. Amiga Walker PC
No list of technologies that almost made it would be complete without something from the Commodore Amiga's tortured history—one in which remarkable hardware was often tripped up by questionable marketing decisions, bad circumstances, or some mixture of both.

After Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, the Amiga brand and technology were purchased by the German company Escom Technologies and marketed as Amiga Technologies. In early 1996, the company announced a plan to sell an upgraded version of the Amiga 1200 computer with a strikingly designed dark purple case that stood on four tiny feet—hence the Walker name.

Was it genius or madness? Even the company didn't seem sure, as it also intended to offer the motherboard separately, so that people could buy it and put it in a standard PC case. The reaction of the Amiga faithful was mixed, with some saying the case looked like a beetle, or Doctor Who's K-9.

We'll never know if the Walker would have swayed the Amiga community or not; only a few prototypes were built before Escom went bankrupt in 1997.

12. Sega VR
Before the madness of the dot-com boom really got under way, the serious buzz was all about virtual reality. Aside from the movie The Lawnmower Man and VR cafés springing up in tech-friendly cities, a potential battle was shaping up between two giants of the video game industry, both aiming to bring the wonders of virtual reality gaming to the home.

Sega had decided to create the Sega VR as a virtual-reality add-on to its wildly popular Genesis system. Although the twin-LCD headset made the player look like a cross between Battlestar Galactica's Cylons and Knight Rider's KITT, it was one of the sleeker-looking VR headsets of the day. And, by all accounts, that was the best thing about it. Despite ambitious specs, including 320-by-200-pixel resolution, head tracking, and a color display, the few people who tried the system outside of Sega—mostly at trade shows—were far from impressed. While the Sega VR did meet its specs on paper, in practice the images were a blurry mess. The company scrapped the project in 1994. (But not before making an arrangement to offer the Sega VR as a prize in an Alpha-Bits cereal contest. What the winner actually got is a mystery.)

Sega probably breathed a sigh of relief when a year later Nintendo's Virtual Boy also flopped spectacularly (check out the original Virtual Boy TV commercial).

11. Glaze3D Graphics Cards
Graphics card makers have always played a game of spec leapfrog, with each company squeezing higher resolutions and higher frame rates out of graphics chips as new technologies appear and components become smaller and cheaper.

In 1999, the Finnish company Bitboys Oy announced the first two cards using its Glaze3D architecture, with even the less-powerful of the pair promising render speeds that were spectacular by the standards of the day. They weren't playing leapfrog so much as doing long jumps. The not-so-secret secret behind the Glaze3D family's amazing performance numbers was that the chips relied heavily on embedded DRAM, bypassing the bottlenecks that came from using external memory.

While the numbers were enough to inflame any gamer's ardor—including Apple gamers, as the Glaze3D family promised to be Mac-compatible—the overall reaction to the news could best be described as cautious optimism; many people adopted an "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude. Still, most folks gave Bitboys the benefit of the doubt. After all, the company and the people behind it already had a reputation for their graphics architecture work, and they had partnered with Infineon Technologies to produce the chips. Would Bitboys' unconventional method actually work?

We'll never know. For two years, the company missed release dates. Of course, during those two years the rest of the industry didn't sit still. As new technologies came along (for one thing, DirectX went from version 7 to version 9), Bitboys promised that Glaze3D would support them; the company also increased its performance claims, adding a third, even more powerful chip to the family. Ultimately (mercifully?) everything came to a halt when Infineon stopped producing embedded DRAM in 2001; lacking a manufacturer, Bitboys threw in the towel. Bitboys went on to produce processor designs for the mobile graphics market, and ATI acquired the company in 2006.

10. Atari 2700
Someone at Atari had a great idea: Take the insanely popular Atari 2600 gaming system, put it in a new cabinet, add spiffy new controllers, and call it the Atari 2700.

The end result was almost a license to print money. The cabinet designers skipped the dated 1970s look of the faux-wood panel and went for a then-futuristic sleek, wedge-shaped design with matte and glossy black finishes, topped with a built-in storage container for the controllers at the top.

The controllers themselves were innovative for the time, featuring built-in select and reset buttons (providing even less motivation to get off the couch), a touch-sensitive fire button, and a joystick that doubled as a rotating, 270-degree paddle. The killer feature: The controllers were wireless.

Advertising and packaging were created, but the Atari 2700 never reached store shelves. In quality assurance testing people noticed that the controllers had a broadcast range of 1000 feet. Since the controllers didn't have unique identifiers beyond "left controller" and "right controller," playing a game would affect any Atari 2700 unit within that radius. To top it off, the electronics were based on garage-door openers, so interference with other remote-control devices was a possibility. In the end Atari decided that redesigning the system and the controllers would be too expensive, and it scrapped the 2700 project.

The 2700 didn't exactly vanish without a trace, however. The cabinet design was slightly retooled for the Atari 5200, and the 5200 controllers also used elements of the 2700 controller design. The wireless functionality wound up in an Atari 2600 add-on, which relied on essentially unusable fat-bottomed versions of the classic 2600 joystick.

9. Secure Digital Music Initiative
In the late 1990s, the MP3 format and Napster—the original, bad-boy Napster—had the music industry running scared. While the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was in the middle of its lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia over that company's Rio MP3 player, a consortium of computer, consumer electronics, and entertainment companies got together to form the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI).

The goal was to create a new digital music format that would incorporate watermarking files as a means of digital rights management (DRM), as well as a standard for audio players so that they wouldn't play SDMI-compliant files that the owner didn't have the right to listen to. This arrangement would, theoretically, provide the safety net required for the music companies to start distributing music digitally.

In late 2000, the group offered a $10,000 prize to any person or group that could, among other things, successfully remove the watermarks on four music files they provided, within a three-week time limit.

A team at Princeton led by computer science professor Ed Felten did just that. The SDMI threatened to sue Felten, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), when the group learned that he planned to discuss his research at the 4th International Information Hiding Workshop the following year. The Electronic Frontier Foundation backed Felten by suing the RIAA, SDMI, Verance (one of the companies whose watermarking technology was cracked), and the U.S. Justice Department on First Amendment grounds.

Felten presented the paper at the 10th USENIX Security Symposium a few months later—but by then the SDMI's prospects had dimmed, and it soon dissolved altogether.

8. Action GameMaster
Active Enterprises was a gaming company that valued quantity over quality, releasing cartridges for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Sega Genesis jammed with 52 games, each of dubious quality. The Action GameMaster, which Active announced in 1994, was no deviation from the philosophy. The portable game system would not only play its own cartridges but would also handle NES, Super NES, and Sega Genesis games (with the help of adapters), as well as CD-ROM games, via another adapter. Contributing to the kitchen-sink approach were a TV tuner add-on and car and AC adapters. (Even with all that functionality, Active claimed that the GameMaster would have "light weight portability.")

Despite a wildly enthusiastic press kit distributed at 1994's Consumer Electronics Show, the Action GameMaster failed to materialize. Small wonder, considering it would never have been able to license the required hardware from Nintendo or Sega. And even its own concept design revealed that Active's concept of "portable" was clearly different from the rest of the gaming world's: If the company's claim of a 3.2-inch LCD could be taken at its word, the design suggested that the Action GameMaster would be at least 10 inches wide and 8 inches long. The company, which was likely banking on a flood of orders that never came, disappeared soon after.

7. Infinium Phantom
Sometimes a product name is just too perfect. Almost from the moment that Infinium Labs' January 2003 press release announced the Phantom, a console that would "outperform the Xbox, Sony PlayStation 2, and GameCube," it encountered skepticism.

The release was chock-full of tech marketing jargon yet remained entirely free of details about the Phantom itself—while promising a March unveiling and a November launch.

Details did emerge soon after: The Phantom was slated to be, in essence, a PC running the embedded version of Windows XP, which would allow gamers to play PC games—but the primary hook was Phantom's on-demand system, where subscribers could download any game they wanted over an Internet connection. At one stage, the company even planned to give the console away free to anyone who subscribed to a two-year service.

Bloggers and forum posters had a field day with the Phantom, deriding the lack of a physical product or any reliable information on Infinium.

Imagine everyone's surprise when a Phantom unit was actually shown at 2004's E3 trade show, complete with the wireless LapBoard (a keyboard and mouse that fit on a tilting tray), and a new launch date—which, of course, came and went with no Phantom.

A revamped Phantom was on display at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show, but a string of missed and reset release dates eroded any goodwill that its public appearances may have generated. Later in the year, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) gave notice that it would bring charges against former Infinium CEO Timothy Roberts. The SEC filing several months later revealed that Infinium had lost over $62.7 million in three years, with only $3.5 million going to actual development. A few months after that, Infinium officially ended the Phantom project, changed its name to Phantom Entertainment, and focused its efforts on the LapBoard—which, despite an order from Alienware, has yet to materialize.

6. Apple Interactive Television Box
These days we watch movies on game consoles, browse Web sites on our mobile phones, and listen to music on, well, just about anything. But for the longest time so-called convergence was always just out of reach, and the Holy Grail of the convergence craze was interactive television, where couch potatoes could, say, visit a company's Web site when it was displayed during a commercial, or vote on the outcome of a TV show while watching it. (No, American Idol hadn't been launched yet.)

In 1993, Apple partnered with British Telecom (now BT) and Belgacom to produce a set-top box to go along with their interactive television services. The Apple Interactive Television Box was a modified 25-MHz Macintosh LC-475, and, rather modestly, allowed users to download and watch content (and fast-forward or rewind, similar to today's TiVo-style recorders). Future plans included interactive game shows and educational content for children, as well as add-on hardware such as a mouse, a keyboard, and a CD-ROM drive.

In 1994, selected households in Britain and Belgium placed the black set-top box sporting an Apple logo on top of their TVs, and trials began a year later in the United States. Apple quickly learned that consumers simply weren't interested in interactive television.

The trials ended, and the Interactive Television Box was shelved. Fast-forward to 2008 (skipping 1996's Internet-enabled but failed Apple Pippin @World gaming console), and the company's sleek Apple TV media streamer lets you rent HD and standard-definition iTunes Store videos directly from your TV.

5. Palm Foleo
Palm Computing's founder, Jeff Hawkins, is a lucky guy. What few people have done once—define a product category—he has done twice, first with the original PalmPilot PDA and later with Handspring's Treo smart phone. (Both categories existed before Hawkins' inventions, but Palm's products made them accessible enough for nontechnophiles to latch on to.)

On May 30, 2007, Hawkins went for the hat trick when he announced the Palm Foleo, a $499 Linux-based subnotebook designed to synchronize with a smart phone so that business travelers could, among other things, work on documents and e-mail without cramping their thumbs.

Even such notable features as its 2.5-pound weight and its instant-on feature failed to muster more than a collective "Why?" from the digerati. Stuck somewhere between a PDA and a notebook in power and size, it seemed to be only an extra device to carry around, with too much feature overlap.

Our own Editor in Chief Harry McCracken was part of the vocal minority who thought that the Foleo was being hastily prejudged, and hands-on reviews alternated between positive and negative. Barely three months after Hawkins presented the Foleo, Palm pulled the plug on it, citing a need to "get our core platform and smartphones done first." McCracken agreed, writing that the "Foleo was likely to be a distraction at a time when Palm couldn't afford to be distracted—and probably a LifeDrive-like flop, too."

Some people might argue that Hawkins could yet be vindicated, as low-cost, lightweight laptops such as the Asus Eee PC seem to be catching on despite being underpowered—good enough for some tasks, but not as feature-packed as a full-featured notebook.

4. Taligent and Microsoft Cairo
Steve Jobs, ousted from Apple's board of directors, left the company in 1986 and founded NeXT Computer. In 1989, NeXT released its first computer to great acclaim. Though the NeXT computer was only a modest commercial success, its launch and the technology it demonstrated (including the advanced NeXTSTEP operating system) galvanized three companies in particular: Apple, IBM, and Microsoft.

What NeXT had done, seemingly out of nowhere, was create an object-oriented operating system. (Among other things, such a design makes reusing programming code easier.) Apple had already started work in 1987 on an object-oriented operating system code-named Pink, but was struggling against internal politics to deliver anything even close to a finished product.

In 1992, the Pink project moved to Taligent, a joint venture between Apple and IBM. IBM, having recently parted ways with Microsoft over OS/2, had already started work on a microkernel called WorkplaceOS. Taligent merged the work on Pink and WorkplaceOS, with the intent of releasing a multiplatform operating system named TalOS.

While the group did eventually release an object-oriented programming environment named CommonPoint for OS/2 and various flavors of Unix, the actual Taligent operating system never surfaced. The company was absorbed into IBM in 1998.

In 1991, Microsoft launched the Cairo project—by several accounts, as a direct response to NeXT. Cairo promised a distributed, object-oriented file system (Object File Store, or OFS) that indexed a computer or network's file structure and contents automatically.

Several versions of Windows NT came and went as Cairo continued development, shifting targets all the while. Eventually the company referred to Cairo as the successor to Windows NT Server, and then as a collection of technologies. Cairo development ended in 1996.

Incidentally, two of these object-oriented ventures ended up generating technologies that lots of people use today. Bits and pieces of Cairo (in addition to conventions from Mac OS and NeXTSTEP) helped inspire the Windows 95 interface, and formed the building blocks for Exchange, Server, Active Directory, and Windows Desktop Search. (The OFS vision morphed into the Windows File System, aka WinFS, which was promised for Longhorn but removed from the feature list by the time it became Vista.) Apple bought NeXT in 1997 and got Steve Jobs with the deal; NeXTSTEP became the foundation of Mac OS X.

Thanks again to RoughlyDrafted.com for the image.

3. Silicon Film EFS-1
At the end of the Digital Imaging Marketing Association (DIMA) show in February 1998, a company called Imagek announced its Electronic Film System unit, the EFS-1, to a small group of journalists. The EFS-1 aimed to fulfill the dreams of many professional photographers: In principle, the EFS-1 would act as a replacement for a 35mm film cartridge in any camera, allowing anyone to use their existing, familiar photo equipment to take digital pictures.

Despite the considerable engineering challenges that the company faced, Imagek expected to have a working demo unit a few months later, and a sub-$1000 unit on store shelves a few months after that.

Observers greeted the announcement with some skepticism, and to no one's surprise Imagek missed its target dates. However, it did release specs, some of which were admittedly modest: The (e)Film cartridge had a 1.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, able to fit 24 1280-by-1024-resolution uncompressed images in its on-board memory before the user needed to offload them to a computer or a CompactFlash card via the included (e)Port carrier. (The entire hardware and software package was now collectively referred to as the EFS-1.)

Because of the sensor size, the captured image would be only about 35 percent of the camera's full frame. And forget universality for the time being: The EFS-1 worked with just seven Canon and Nikon cameras.

Aside from a name change (to Silicon Film), some Web site updates, and a few sample images, nothing new came out of the company until the 2001 PMA show, when Silicon Film publicly demonstrated the EFS-1, exactly three years after the initial announcement.

Skeptics were less inclined to mutter "vaporware," but the projected June release date passed with no product to be seen. That September, Silicon Film suspended operations when Irvine Sensors, a 51 percent shareholder of Silicon Film, withheld further funding over problems with European environmental standards. Irvine Sensors' press release also obliquely noted "present market circumstances," which may have been a polite way of referring to the falling prices and increasing quality of digital cameras, including SLRs.

Silicon Film's last gasp directly addressed that last point: The EPS10-SF, announced the following year, produced 10-megapixel images while supporting more cameras and providing a 2.5-fps burst rate and an LCD preview screen. And then the company was gone.

2. Project Xanadu
In 1960, Ted Nelson first came up with the term "hypertext," which he envisioned as something different from what it has come to mean.

Hypertext as implemented now is unidirectional; you can link to a document without the document owner ever knowing. If the other party moves or renames the document, the link breaks. Nelson's hypertext—which he now calls "deep electronic literature," to avoid confusion—was meant to be bidirectional, so that two linked documents would stay linked, regardless of how they were moved or copied. More to the point, such a setup would allow for side-by-side comparison, version management, and an automatic copyright management system in which an author could set a royalty rate for all or parts of a document; linking would initiate the necessary transactions. In 1967, Nelson came up with a name for his project: Xanadu.

The first working code for Xanadu was produced in 1972, and since then the project has largely been marked by near-misses and flirtations with bankruptcy. It is still remarkable for a number of reasons, however.

First, of course, is Nelson's tenacity: He and his shifting teams haven't stopped working on Xanadu for nearly fifty years, making it one of the few existing computing projects to span longer than the entire history of personal computers and computer networking.

Second is that, even with the advent and popularization of hypertext as we know it, especially on the Web, Nelson's ambitious vision hasn't wavered. (He says the Web as it is "trivializes our original hypertext model.") Third is that, even after all this time, with his undeniable influence on the way we work and play today, he is still, as he puts it, "not a tekkie."

It's also worth noting that Project Xanadu isn't completely vaporware. Nelson released the Xanadu source code in 1999, and XanaduSpace 1.0 released last year.

1. Apple W.A.L.T. and VideoPad
Before there was an iPhone—in fact, before there was an "i" anything—Apple attempted two ventures into "portable" communications. Developed between 1991 and 1993 in conjunction with BellSouth, Apple's W.A.L.T. (Wizzy Active Lifestyle Telephone, easily the worst name the company has ever come up with) was a tablet that doubled as a PDA; its killer app was the ability to send and receive faxes from the screen. The W.A.L.T. was never released to the general public.

Tenacious as ever, Apple offered up the possibility of a new portable videophone/PDA concept at 1995's MacWorld Expo. The Newton-like VideoPad three-in-one prototype combined a cell phone, PDA, and videophone, and (get this) sported an integrated CD-ROM drive. While the idea of holding a phone with parts of a CD-ROM unit sticking out of the sides was a little questionable, it was more ambitious than the W.A.L.T. It too failed to pass the prototype stage, however, and Apple would stay away from telephones until 2007. Of course, we all know what happened then.

Honorable Mentions

Apple Copland
While "Pink" continued to slowly run aground as Apple/IBM's Taligent, Apple still found itself needing an operating system that took a great leap forward from System 7.5. Code-named Copland, this new operating system was to include preemptive multitasking (the type of multitasking we enjoy today, versus the less-efficient cooperative multitasking that earlier versions of the Mac system software offered); a full-color, shaded interface (up to that point, Macintosh GUIs still echoed their black and white origins); and multiuser capabilities. As time progressed Copland picked up more planned features, such as QuickDraw GX, themes, and user interface improvements, while the development team's productivity dwindled, bogged down by the increasing requirements and the need to get a growing number of developers up to speed.

In 1996, Apple—most notably, CEO Gil Amelio—was referring to Copland in public as the forthcoming System 8, and the usual prerelease hype—including trade-show demos, T-shirts, and other swag—got into gear. Apple eventually had to give up on the unworkable Copland, with its technologies only starting to appear in Mac OS 8. Apple got its great leap forward a few years later with Mac OS X.

Sky Commuter Cars
What are the persistent, defining visions of the future? Marauding mutants, to be sure, but also jetpacks and flying cars. Though the jetpacks are (mostly) on hold, researchers continue to tease us by working on various kinds of flying cars, envisioning a utopia of uncluttered roadways and conveniently forgetting the first 20 minutes of The Fifth Element.

One such attempt was the N2001C—the Sky Commuter car, a personal vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) plane designed by Flight Innovations. The details are sketchy, but the upshot is that after more than $6,000,000 in funding, the project was shelved. An eBay auction claiming to be of the last Sky Commuter prototype in existence caused some excitement (and raised some skeptical eyebrows) in January, but you can see one yourself by taking a trip to the Halsons Helicopter Museum in Tennessee.

Oh, well. No Sky Commuter, but at least there's still the Falx Stalker or the Transition (a light aircraft that folds its wings to drive on the road) to look forward to.

XtremMac MacThrust G4
In 1999, Swedish company Xtrem promised the XtremMac MacThrust G4—an overclocked Macintosh (a rarity in the Mac world) that could hit 1.2 GHz. There was just one problem: The fastest PowerPC G4 processor at the time was a mere 500 MHz. Xtrem claimed that it could achieve the incredible speed increase by exploiting existing features in Apple's hardware, and, of course, by cooling the daylights out of the CPU.

Xtrem missed its August shipping date, and then its January shipping date. By February the company had relaunched its Web site and retrenched on specs: The new XtremMac would hit only 1.066 GHz. Meanwhile, Mac G4s had climbed to 733 MHz, and the few Mac users who weren't skeptics collectively shrugged. If it ever got released, no one noticed.

[Originally written for PC World.]

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Google Maps Mashup Makes London an Open Book



Finally, a Google Maps mashup I can get into. Tracking new big box stores, U.S. lakes, and that old standby, celebrity maps? Beyond the first bits of noodling, well... meh.

But local history, geography, and especially reading -- now we're talking. Booktrust, a British organization devoted to encouraging reading, has cooked up a mashup that combines geography and literature. Get London Reading positions thumbnails of over 400 books related to or that take place in London over their relevant locations, right down to the relevant street corner. (It's like a significantly less creepy version of the cabbie's tour of the city in Eddie Campbell's From Hell, the source of the Johnny Depp movie.) Each thumbnail has a popup with a user-modifiable summary.

This is a classic win-win situation. Publishers get a boost from people who are curious about books written about where they live. The City of London gets a boost from tourists -- or even its own citizens -- having more reasons to explore and learn about the city. Avid readers get great suggestions for new reading material. (Considering my creaking shelves of as yet unread books, maybe that last one isn't a win.)

People respond to seeing their hometown represented in the media, especially when it's done right. My first thought after seeing Get London Reading was that I'd like to see something similar for here in Montreal, though it would probably be dominated by Kathy Reichs and Mordecai Richler. My second thought was that, given the amount of Hollywood films that are shot in this city, it would be kind of cool to show where different movies were shot -- though the warehouse that served as 300's set might be anticlimactic.

Going back to books, this also makes for a good educational tool. The constant lament of the student, especially in high school, is that they can't relate to what they learn. Putting dramatic literature and history in the context of their own neighbourhoods might do more to pique their interest than field trips to museums and forts.

What really struck me, however, was how something like this could -- no, should -- be an extension to cities' existing tourism strategy. It works well because it's maintained by its user base; do a good job with the initial tools and subsequent promotion and it can become almost self-sustaining. It's been 26 years since my last visit to London and I'm not sure when my next one will be, but I know I'll be taking some time out to do a little literary exploration the next time I'm there.

[Cross-posted from PC World; thanks to Shiny Shiny for the link.]

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

5 Habits for Greener Computing

With Earth Day approaching you're probably thinking about the different ways you do your bit for the environment. Okay, so maybe you drive a bit more than you should, but you put your blue box out on the curb every week, right? Well, if you're reading this it's a pretty safe bet you're using a computer, and computers generate waste in all kinds of ways. But by just changing a few habits, you can keep more stuff out of landfills, save energy, and even tuck a few extra dollars in your wallet. Here are five ideas to get you started.

1. Save paper and ink

I get a lot of press releases and other printed documents I never read more than once (if ever), so when I can get away with it I print on the reverse side of these, reserving my pristine sheets for letters and other important documents. The savings are tangible: I've bought exactly one 500-sheet pack of paper in the last two years.

You can save more paper by shrinking your text and printing two pages side by side on one sheet of paper, if your printer driver allows it. (You'd better have good eyesight, though.) On Windows XP, choose Print, then choose Preferences or Print Setup. Look for an option called 'Pages per Sheet,' and set it to 2.

If you print a lot from the Web, then you should absolutely download a copy of the ad-supported GreenPrint World so you can trim the stuff you don't need printed, which saves both paper and ink (or toner).

You can also save ink—easily the most expensive part of any inkjet printer—by printing in draft mode whenever possible, or using a utility like Inksaver.

2. Stop wasting CDs/DVDs

I can't count the amount of times someone has burned a disc for me just to give me, say, 100 MB of data, leaving the remaining 600 MB (or, worse, 4-plus GB) unused. Rewritable discs cost more and take a little longer to burn, but they're perfect for passing data back and forth without throwing out all that metal and plastic.

When you're done with your discs you can recycle them by sending them to GreenDisk for responsible destruction and reuse. There's a small fee--$6.95 for boxes 20 lbs. or lighter—but you can also cram in any other electronic waste you have lying around. While GreenDisk guarantees that the material on your discs won't fall into the wrong hands, the extra-cautious can protect their data beforehand using Aleratec's CD/DVD Shredder. Despite the name, the CD/DVD Shredder pounds thousands of tiny pits into the surface of a disc, rendering it unreadable. Aleratec doesn't sell them anymore, but they do turn up on Amazon and eBay.

3. Tweak your power settings

If you're like me, your computer is on all day, but you don't work on it continuously. Turning it on and off isn't an option, but a quick trip to the Windows control panel's Power Options can shave your usage down a bit. There, you can set your monitor and hard disks to power down when you haven't been using the computer for a while. It only takes a second for them to power up again, so you can take that time to get comfortable in your chair.

Most important, you can set the computer itself to go to sleep or hibernate after a certain period of inactivity. Sleep mode is a low-power mode, and like the hard disks and monitor, has everything up and running in just a few moments when you want to get going again. Hibernation actually switches the computer off, but saves your current work environment first. As you'd expect, waking the computer up from hibernation takes a bit longer.

Tip: Windows XP SP2 sometimes has a problem getting hibernation to work when you have more than 1 GB of RAM—paradoxically, it generates an error message saying that you don't have enough resources. A quick visit to Microsoft's Knowledge Base provides a patch that fixes it right up.

By the way, these tips also apply to your portable devices. MP3 players, cell phones, PDAs , and handheld games have settings for powering down or adjusting their screens, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi. Switching off what you don't need (or even just turning down screen brightness) extends battery life, which means less recharging.

4. Turn it off!

Printers, scanners, speakers, monitors—your computer comes with a multitude of peripherals that will happily keep on sucking power even when the computer is switched off. It doesn't seem like much, but even an idling printer is a drain on your utility bill. The simple rule of thumb is to turn anything off when you're not using it. That includes turning off your monitor rather than letting it sit in low-power mode when the computer's off, and only turning on your printer when you actually have something to print.

The trouble is that some devices have hard-to-reach power buttons, or worse, no power buttons at all. Power bars like the Smart Strip and some of APC's SurgeArrest products can help: the Smart Strip switches off devices plugged into specific outlets when the computer is switched off, and several Professional SurgeArrest models have a few “always-on” outlets that deliver power even when they're switched off.

Also, don't forget to unplug your phone, camera or any other rechargeable device as soon as it's finished juicing up—even though the batteries are smart enough to stop drawing power when they're full, electricity is still being drawn through the cable. Some Nokia phones will even nag you to unplug them when they're done.

5. Find a new home for your old tech

So you're getting ready to upgrade to a new computer, but you've discovered you've got no room in the closet for the old one because it's already filled with a decade's worth of obsolete technology. What to do? One solution is to recycle you old gadgets by bringing them somewhere they'll be disposed of properly. You can find a list of services in your area by checking out Earth 911's website, which tells you where to dispose of everything from batteries to toner cartridges to that 386 you've had knocking around since the first George Bush was in office.

Better still, you can Freecycle your old equipment. Freecycle is a network of local mailing lists (there are over 4,000 globally, from Andorra to the Virgin Islands) for people who want to give stuff away, or are looking for free stuff. Just post a message about what you want to give, and someone will probably offer to take it off your hands—and isn't finding your old computer a home that better than just having it dismantled?

Whichever method you choose, don't forget to wipe your hard drive clean first. Use a utility like File Shredder to delete any sensitive data from your hard disk before it goes through your door.

[A slightly different version of this appeared on PC World.]

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

5 Gadgets That Make You Seem Artistic

"Everyone is an artist." Those are the words of the controversial German artist Joseph Beuys, and I happen to agree with him.

The statement is especially true in our modern age of techno toys. With off-the-shelf hardware and software breaking the world down into so many ones and zeroes, it's getting a lot easier to experiment with things that used to be expensive or time-consuming (digital photography eliminates the money and time required for film and processing, for instance), or to unleash brand-new creative ideas (hello, Pikapika).

If you're itching to create sublime, meaningful works of art—or at least something with a good beat you can dance to—consider the following five gadgets. Oh, and one disclaimer: Remember that no tool automatically makes you a good artist. Don't blame me if none of these items get you into MoMA.

1. Wanna See My Etchings?
It's been said that everyone has a few thousand bad drawings in them, and that the key to becoming a good artist is to get those out of your system as fast as possible.

I know from first-hand experience that working through all that awful art can make your house a fire hazard—and while paper is cheap, buying a steady supply of pens, pencils, paints, and other materials quickly adds up. Wacom's graphic tablets handily eliminate both problems.

Wacom tablets range from the budget-friendly Bamboo series (starting at $79) to the more checkbook-breaking but drool-inducing Cintiq line (which tops out at $2499).

They all operate on the same basic principle: Drawing with a stylus on the tablet translates directly to your pointer's movements on the screen, providing the most natural way to draw on a computer. (How natural? There's a working eraser on the end of the stylus that functions just the way you'd expect.) The stylus is pressure-sensitive, which can lead to thicker or thinner lines as you press down—or it can do whatever you customize it to do, depending on your software.

2. Move It Like Wallace and Gromit
Stop-motion animation is the art of animating using real-world objects instead of drawings. People often refer to it as claymation, but as fans of Robot Chicken and Oedipus the Movie know, anything and everything can be fair game for stop motion, from your collection of Smurfs to fresh produce.

The principle is easy: Take a picture of something, move it a little, take another picture, repeat. Play the still frames back, and your object comes to life. (Just for fun, you can use people instead of objects—the technique is called pixillation—as in the film Neighbours.)

That's the idea, anyway. If you're just starting out (or if you're doing ambitious Taras Bulba-like scenes), you quickly discover how hard it is to keep track of exactly how you moved something in the previous frame.

Nikon to the rescue: Many of the company's budget-friendly Coolpix digital cameras, as well as its feature-laden (but pricier, at $749 with lens) D60 digital SLR, have a little-heralded stop-motion feature. Once activated, the camera overlays faint versions of the previous images on your LCD preview, allowing you to line up your next shot accurately.

Once you're done shooting your masterpiece, the camera will automatically assemble the images into a QuickTime file, but if you prefer more control over editing your shots, you can use the $29 QuickTime Pro for the task.

3. Don't Try This at Home
Are you looking to make the next indie action flick on the cheap? (Hey, don't laugh—Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, the prequel to Desperado, was made for $7000.) Camcorders are inexpensive, but dunk one in water for your scuba-diving fight scene, and you'll be hitting eBay for a replacement. Ditto if you try to remake the French Connection car chase with skateboards, or shoot during a dust storm at Burning Man. Face it: The most exciting films are the most punishing on the equipment used to shoot them.

Much of the problem can be traced to the cameras' many moving parts and fragile recording media—but for a spate of low-cost, flash-based camcorders, it's a nonissue. Two Sanyo cameras, the $419 Xacti CA6 and the $399 Xacti E1, are splashproof and waterproof, respectively. (The E1 can survive for an hour at depths up to 5 feet.) Both cameras record on SD Card.

Panasonic's similar line of SD Card-based cameras includes the water-resistant $249 SDR-S10P1 and the $399 SDR-SW20, which is waterproof, shockproof, and dustproof. And unlike the Xactis, both are capable of shooting wide-screen video.

All of these cameras shoot only standard-definition video. For a roundup of upcoming flash-based HD camcorders, check out Ramon McLeod's report from this year's CES.

Let the extreme cinematography begin!

4. Rhapsody in Blue
Ever seen the 1983 cult animated film Rock & Rule? Set in a post-apocalyptic, unnamed future, it's filled with technology both old and new. Toward the end, rock god Mok Swagger performs a song with an instrument that he plays by waving his hands in the air over glowing tubes. Fortunately, we didn't have to go through a nuclear war to get the same gadget in real life. Two of the results of ToyQuest's partnership with the Blue Man Group are the $79 Percussion Tubes and the $69 Keyboard Experience.

Loaded with a handful of preprogrammed Blue Man Group drum sounds, the descriptively named Percussion Tubes are an array of eight motion-sensitive tubes that you can play—and that includes altering volume and tempo—by waving your hands in the air above them. You could just use the included drumsticks, but where's the fun in that?

The Keyboard Experience has two fewer tubes but includes a 37-key synthesizer. Both toys sport an input for an MP3 player (for playing over your favorite tracks), a recording mode, and an audio-out jack.

5. The Only Scratch You Want on Your iPhone
In the early 1980s, I had everything I needed to be a DJ: two turntables, a microphone, and a massive collection of records. The only problem was that the turntables (and most of the records) were my father's; if I had actually performed any kind of scratching with either, I wouldn't have lived to see my 14th birthday.

Wannabe turntablists have had several, um, scratch-free options in the digital era, including CD turntables and an assortment of software DJ tools. MixMeister is one of the companies that makes DJ software, but MixMeister Scratch—soon available as a free download—is quite possible the only truly portable scratching tool you'll find.

MixMeister Scratch runs on the iPhone or the iPod Touch. Just play a song from your collection, pick a scratch type, and spin your mix right on the screen. It's quite possibly the only DJ-ing you can do during a train ride.

[Originally written for PC World.]

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