Wednesday, December 28, 2011

6 for 12

Six of my predictions for 2012

The end of any year is a great time to think about the year that’s ending, and the year that’s coming up.

2011 was the year in which we got the iPad 2 and the Kindle Fire. It was the year in which social media helped to fuel an “Arab-spring” and in which AT&T didn’t acquire T-Mobile. Netflix did the Qwikster fake-out and then back-pedaled. HP got Meg Whitman. 2011 was the year in which we lost Steve Jobs.

For 2012, I’m prepared to say that the following six predictions are, uh, "sure things." Or at least I think they are very likely.

  1. The four largest, national US mobile carriers, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, will change in a way that results in only three national carriers standing. That may be through an acquisition, through a merger, or through an outright failure.
  2. Verizon will have enough of a 4G rollout in the USA to legitimately call it “nationwide” in 2012. AT&T will be close behind. LTE will win as the dominant 4G technology.
  3. Research In Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry handhelds, will receive one or more legitimate, unsolicited acquisition bids. And they’ll seriously consider them, because they need to. It isn’t clear how much longer they’ll be viable along their current trajectory.
  4. Apple will announce and ship iPad 3 in the first half of 2012. It’ll have the high-density "retina" display. Apple will not release a 7” or 8” tablet in 2012 unless the Kindle Fire or B&N Nook take a big bite out of iPad sales. I don’t think that will happen, because I think the three tablets can share the market quite well for at least another year.
  5. The Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook will continue to sell well, and a second revision of each will be released in 2012, improving in small ways based on early user feedback, while maintaining the low prices that make them a winner in a slice of the market in which the iPad does not play.
  6. No SOPA, no PIPA. We won't even get the OPEN act. None of the US legislation currently proposed and being considered in congress to fight foreign intellectual property theft or copyright infringement will make any real progress, let alone be signed into law. This will be less about congressional caution and more about congressional impotence. But in this case, I'm not complaining.
That's my 6! Do you have predictions to share? Do you disagree with some of mine? Leave a comment and let us know!

See you in 2012.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

No T-Mobile Acquisition for AT&T

Graphic Credit ARS Technica
The AT&T bid to acquire T-Mobile, which I wrote about back on November 29th, has probably run it's course. The deal had run afoul of both the DOJ and the FCC this year and had clearly been on the ropes for some time, and finally fell apart early in the week before Christmas. 

AT&T made it known that they were withdrawing the bid and as a result would "recognize a pretax accounting charge of $4 billion" which is a combination of a breakup fee AT&T agreed to pay T-Mobile plus spectrum rights worth another $1 billion.

How does this play out for the two companies, and how does it play out for consumers? AT&T will pay the $4B and avoid the $39B acquisition cost. They'll continue on as an industry giant, largely unaffected. They'll move on to other approaches to expansion.

What about T-Mobile? T-Mobile, who has been struggling along in 4th place gets some short term cash but their prospects for the future are no better. ARS Technica called it “something of a strategic triumph for T-Mobile and its parent company, Deutsche Telekom,” based on the cash infusion and a new set of roaming agreements likely between AT&T and T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom. But it isn’t clear to me that either of these development would be enough to save T-Mobile. Eweek explores some possible fallout, and it makes for an interesting read.

If the reason to oppose the merger was to avoid too much market consolidation, and to preserve consumer choice (good goals!), what happens if T-Mobile fails or quickly becomes irrelevant even without the merger? Did consumers win?

AT&T makes some of these arguments and I'm not sure that they are wrong in this case.

Do you have thoughts on how this plays out for consumers? Will T-Mobile prosper after this failed acquisition? Please share your comments here.


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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Right Idea, Wrong Time

There are good ideas, bad ideas, and ideas whose time has not yet arrived. We all probably see ideas of all three types all the time. If only we could reliably distinguish among them.

Think back to the Apple Newton, one of the first high-function handheld devices. It was, by any reasonable account, a loser. The interface was clunky, the software was lackluster, the price was high, and so not surprisingly, the sales were poor. A few years later the Palm Pilot came out. It did much better, but it was still only a niche device for a tech audience. At about that time, it would have been easy to conclude that personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other handheld electronics were never going to become the “next big thing.” And then the iPod came along. And then the iPhone came along. Suddenly, advanced handheld computers were mainstream and everywhere.
Think back to the tablet computers first introduced a decade ago. They used pen input and ran a Windows operating system. But they didn’t quite catch on. It would have been easy to conclude that tablet computers were not going to catch on. Until the iPad came along.

In each of these cases, a perfectly good idea came to market too soon, or perhaps was poorly executed. Or both. Eventually a better implementation came along at the right moment at the right price – and the product category took off. I suggest that it’s worth keeping an open mind to this possibility when a product or product category looks like a loser. When prices drop due to falling costs of construction or due to volume, when rough edges get smoothed, when the market itself changes around the product category, sometimes a surprise "winner" emerges.

Remember the Segway? The personal transportation device was going to transform cities and change the way people get around. Except it hasn't done so. 

The Segway occupies an odd place culturally. Not a success, but not forgotten. It’s a central element in odd stories like a modern Santa delivering Christmas trees, or an accident ending a college career. It’s typical to see stories about how the Segway failed to deliver on the huge initial hype. It hasn’t changed the way cities are planned and the way people get from place to place. At least not yet. But what if the Segway is like the Newton or the Palm Pilot or the Windows Tablet? What if it is almost the right idea but introduced a little too soon and at too high a price to catch on? 

I can't say that I'm convinced that the Segway (or some derivative work) will catch on, but I'm open to the possibility. I've learned that some things start out looking like a bad idea and later turn into a good one.

What do you think? Is the Segway an idea whose time has not yet come? Please leave a comment and let us know.


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Friday, December 16, 2011

Wild Cranberry Sauce

Sauce for the goose

It’s been a while since I posted a food blog. With Christmas coming up, I wondered whether some of you might be cooking turkey or goose. Cranberry sauce makes a great addition and is surprisingly easy to make.

A friend often tells me of a bog where she picks wild cranberries, and the cranberry sauce she makes. Sadly, I don't have a bog so I have to buy my cranberries at the grocery store. But cranberries are cranberries (I hope), and I think this will work whether your cranberries are wild or tame.

  • 4 cups (wild) cranberries
  • 1 cup apple juice and water, mixed
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 pears (or apples), cored and sliced/chopped
  • 1/2 cup raisins (optional)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
  • orange zest (optional) or cinnamon (optional)

Rinse the berries in a colander and remove stems and any bad berries. Bring juice/water and sugar to a boil in a medium-sized, heavy saucepan. Add cranberries, pears, raisins, and nuts and bring the pot back to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While simmering the berries, additional ingredients can be added for more flavoring such as orange zest or cinnamon.

Take the sauce off the heat at this point, or simmer it down to the desired thickness. Remember the sauce will thicken a little more while cooling.

Chill the sauce completely (a few hours) before serving.  Leftovers will keep well in the fridge for a week or more.

If you try this recipe, or plan to, let me know by leaving a comment!

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Robot Companion

(and Concierge)

How long until you can have the kind of “droid” companions and helpers that Luke Skywalker, the poor farm boy from Star Wars, had? Luke could speak very naturally with C-3PO and get his help. C-3PO could listen and talk, but he could also walk and interact with his environment.

Siri for the Apple iPhone has shown us not only that natural language interaction with software is cheap and practical today, but that the technology can be applied as an “assistant” – Siri helps you get things done! Find your way, send a text message, listen to your music, and much more. With a little time to mature, that technology might become very sophisticated and very reliable.

A technology mashup that keeps occurring to me is the verbal interaction of Siri and the motion and interaction of emerging robots. Robots like the Nao from Aldebaran are becoming more capable all the time, and there are signs that costs are falling. Within a few years, a very capable robot will be commercially available and financially within reach of many.

Doesn't it seem very likely that some of these robots will be equipped to assist us in the ways that Siri does? Doesn't it seem likely that both the robot motion and the natural language interaction and assistance will improve fairly rapidly?

How long until you can have a robot companion and concierge, in your chosen (robot) form factor? A robotic parrot perched on your shoulder? How about a robot dog or cat following you around the house? Would a robot spider hanging from a thread over your desk suit you better? 

Now imagine that this companion is really very helpful and speaks in a voice of your choosing. Since software can be configured, let's imagine that the robot uses phrases that are appealing for you, and is as talkative (or quiet) as your own preferences dictate. Doesn't this sound like a helpful and pleasant companion?

Want to find a restaurant, call or text a colleague, check your calendar? Easy. Today's technology can do that. But there might be something satisfying about getting help from an assistant that is a self contained, mobile robot that appears to look you in the eye and knows you by appearance as well as by voice.

Maybe you’ll be able to have what Luke Skywalker had within just a few short years – but hopefully more capable and less neurotic when compared with C-3PO. 

What do you think? Would you want one? Please leave a comment and let us know.


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Friday, December 9, 2011

Tracking Shoppers

It’s not just for browsers anymore

I've been doing a lot of shopping this holiday season. I'd bet that some of you have, too.

If you are at all tech savvy, you know that as you search the web and shop for things online, a rough profile of your activity is established through the use of a few web server and browser tricks. The result is that you get targeted ads, and the online stores get a better chance of making a buck. It can be creepy and in some cases it could result in what might reasonably be considered a personal privacy breach. But it’s old news. And if you want to avoid it, you can just close your laptop, hop in the car, and go to the mall. Right?

Not so fast.

A British company called Path Intelligence is “bringing online analytics to the offline world” (a quote from their web site). They have a product called FootPath that uses cell phone signals as input to determine the movement of consumers through a retail space.

ARS Technica reported that two US malls – one in California and one in Virginia – are trialing this technology. They also reported an interpretation of US Law that would make this sort of thing illegal. It may take some time for technology and law to come to terms. You might want to watch your privacy while that plays through.

Would you be inclined to turn off your phone to protect your privacy if this technology were in place in a mall near you?  It might not be so easy to do. Especially when you are now so accustomed to “checking in” on Foursquare and Facebook, reviewing your Groupon deals, using your new Amazon Price Check app, and texting your friends about the cute outfit you just got.


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Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Half way to 100

I’m resisting the urge to write about Carrier IQ, the end of the Dell Streak, and a new round of Apple TV rumors in order to write about something of much more universal interest.

Late this year I turned 50. Half a century! Some of my friends felt anxious about turning 30 or 40. Not me. Those ages seemed like no big deal. But 50? I have to admit that 50 is a bigger deal for me. I don't think it makes me "old," but I know that I'm no longer young.

I don’t feel much different from when I was 5 or 15 years old. My inner voice, my sense of myself, is still the same. The same things make me laugh. The same music catches my ear. But I can't pretend that being 50 is no big deal. There are signs everywhere. My life insurance costs keep going up. My annual checkups are more "interesting." AARP wants me to have discount dinners, but the restaurants want me to eat them earlier. I've become invisible, at best, and "way old" at worst, to the 20 year olds that walk around the campus where I work. 

And though I'm not as strong as I once was, my years on the planet so far have served me well. My life experience and the sum total of my reading, of the problems I've seen and solved, and the lessons I've learned from the mistakes I've made, have all helped me to feel like I understand a little more about life and the world I live in.

Being 50 clearly puts me in the later stages of my career. It makes me pause to think about what I've accomplished and what I'd still like to accomplish. It also encourages me to be more interested in the careers of others than ever before. One of the best ways for me to do some long term good is to help those who will still be in the workforce when my time is over.

Reflecting on your days can be worthwhile if it's done with self-improvement and fresh goals in mind. I have several goals for the months and years to come. I'm happy to admit that I'm no longer young. But I'm also quick to point out that I'm not quite done yet. 


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Friday, December 2, 2011

Kindle Fire

Pocket tablet for pocket change

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire is a mini-tablet with some great features at a very reasonable price. At just $200, it may be more within reach for those who want a touch tablet device but don’t want to spend $500 to $800 on today’s gold standard tablet, the Apple iPad 2.

I’ve been using an iPad 2 for a few months and have only used the Fire for a few days now, so the rest of this blog entry will be just quick initial impressions and a comparison based on what I know so far. I can easily say that both are great high function devices.

The iPad runs Apple’s iOS operating system which is by now very mature and functions well at home and in the enterprise. The Fire seems more suited to home (only) use, and is running a modified version of the Android mobile operating system. The OS works well enough on the device, but I'd look forward to some improvements such as seeing more options and more flexibility in the Settings to accommodate more complex connectivity and application tuning. size comparison
The Fire cuts corners in several key places in order to hit that low price point. It has no 3G wireless, no camera or microphone, and no GPS. It has only 8GB of storage, and no expansion slot. It relies on streaming from Amazon for larger media objects such as movies.

The iPad is by far the larger tablet. It measures 9.5" by 7.3" and weighs 21.3 oz. The smaller Fire (7.5" by 4.7") is actually a very handy size for carrying around, sticking in a coat pocket or purse. It’s probably the perfect size for watching video on the snack tray on an airplane – but then a device without much on-board storage may not be the best choice for offline operation on an airplane. For offline operation, the Fire is going to be better at storing smaller media objects such as books and music, relying upon streaming (and thus Wifi access) for larger media such as movies. At 14.6 oz it weighs only about 2/3 as much as the iPad, but it somehow feels a bit heavy for its small size. I've heard some say they appreciate the "heft" as it makes the device feel substantial.

The Silk browser seems to perform very well in my browsing so far. It renders even fairly complex pages accurately and quickly, it has a nice tabbed-browsing interface, and it supports active content including Flash. The included Mail app is simple but functional. I'd hope for some additional functionality in the Mail app, or the ability to load some alternative mail clients. Other apps are available through the Kindle Fire app store, but these are only a subset of the larger pool of Android apps. Amazon is curating that larger pool down to a set suitable for the Fire and presumably also to select those apps which are consistent with Amazon's goals for the Fire. By contrast, the iPad has the legendary Apple iTunes/App store. Lots of music and movies, and the largest selection of mobile apps. 

What's really clear about the Fire is that its integration into the overall Amazon ecosystem is very strong. Amazon makes it easy to use the Fire to buy online books and magazines, music and videos. They go so far as to strongly suggest one-click purchasing be turned on for this device. They give away one month of Amazon Prime (free 2 day shipping on Amazon purchases, and free online access to some content) and then take advantage of the free access to movies and books – though of course once your free month is up they are counting on many of us signing up for the $79/year service.

So far, I like the Fire. It's very portable and very easy to use. If Amazon continues to refine the software and continues to use smart marketing practices, I think they'll put a lot of Kindle Fire tablets in the hands of a lot of users.

Is a Kindle Fire on your holiday shopping list, or the list of a loved one? Leave a comment and let us know!


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Tuesday, November 29, 2011


And then there were three?

In the US, the four largest cell phone carriers in order of size (both customer count and revenue) are Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Together they account for a little more than 90% of the US market. 

Back in March 2011, AT&T announced its intent to acquire T-Mobile. The combined company would be larger than Verizon, and so would take over the number one spot. And consumers would be down to three practical choices when it comes to national-scale carrier networks. That was the theory, anyway; it has not been smooth sailing for the proposed merger since.

A detailed timeline is long (and boring), but here are the highlights:
  • March 20: AT&T announces intent to acquire T-Mobile for $39 billion. Within days, Sprint opposes the merger, saying that the deal would create an "AT&T/Verizon duopoly" in the marketplace.
  • Aug. 31: The U.S. DOJ files suit against the proposed merger, saying that it would result in “higher prices, fewer choices and lower quality products.”
  • Nov. 22: FCC Chairman Julius Genochowski calls for a hearing, signaling that the FCC believes the merger to not be in the public interest.
  • Nov. 24: AT&T informs the FCC that it is withdrawing its request for a spectrum merge in order to focus on the DOJ suit. AT&T and T-Mobile say they intend to continue pursuing the merger.

Though AT&T now will propose a variety of asset sales to get regulators to view the merger more favorably, the merger/acquisition is clearly in serious jeopardy and AT&T will have to pay a charge of $4 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of this year to pay a "breakup fee" it owes Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile's parent company) if the deal falls apart.  

If only that $4 billion had been spent on AT&T network upgrades! More data and voice capacity, and a quicker 4G upgrade would benefit AT&T customers in a real and direct way, and would help to push Verizon and the other carriers to upgrade more quickly.

I can't say whether T-Mobile is viable long term without AT&T. A sale to AT&T now was probably a very good option for them. There might be other suitors, including cable companies like Comcast or perhaps other big players interested in the carrier space, such as Google.

It would have been better if AT&T didn't attempt this merger but now having done so, I think I'm hoping that they somehow succeed. I'm usually against consolidation that limits user choice, but this case might be different. With the merger AT&T would get some good spectrum and put it to good use to benefit consumers. Without the merger, they'll pay the $4B to Deutsche Telekom and probably delay the needed network upgrades, while T-Mobile could continue to shrink and slowly become less relevant as market competition for AT&T and Verizon. 

Do you agree? Please share your opinion in the comments below!


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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

In the US, this coming Thursday is Thanksgiving. It's a favorite holiday of mine for a number of reasons – family, football and feast topping the list.

For me, Thanksgivings are either driving holidays or cooking holidays. Since I don't have local family, a Thanksgiving at the house of other family members involves a multi-hour drive (each way). Given that, I much prefer a cooking Thanksgiving. Family comes our way and we cook the feast, and we arrange the annual kids versus adults "Turkey Bowl" football game.

Family - We'll host as many members of my wife's family as will come our way. We'll have a great visit, with football and feasts playing a big role, but we'll go to the movies, play some music together, maybe play a few board games, and sit around and visit.

Football - We'll watch some football on TV, but one of our best traditions is that we play a real football game. We mark out a good-sized football field and play older generation against younger generation. Many years ago, the adults would work hard to keep the game close and then engineer a tie at the end so that the kids could feel good about their efforts. About four years ago the "kids" started winning outright. They are now teens and young adults, and we are, well, "older adults." They are fast and athletic and we are slow (and athletic!). But the game is always fun, always exciting, and there are always hot chocolates, beers and glasses of wine after.

Feast - Ours is an all-traditional American Thanksgiving feast. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, root veggies, dinner rolls, red and white wine. A main table and a kids table. Many hours to cook, an hour or more to clean up, and 30 minutes at most in between prep and cleanup to actually eat the feast. Once around the table(s) for everyone to say a few words on what makes them thankful this year. Bliss.

Facebook friends can expect to see a few photos of the feast and the football game later this week.

I'm guessing that my Thanksgiving sounds a lot like yours. But I might be wrong about that. Whether it does or it doesn't, please share your plans/hopes, or if it's after the fact when you read this, please share your experience.

How will you spend your long Thanksgiving weekend? Do you have some wonderful Thanksgiving traditions? Post a comment here and share it with us all.

Most of all, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

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