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Comment Hackability of new Chromebooks (Score 3, Interesting) 283

Evidently, the new Chromebooks don't have a physical dev mode switch (the old ones used to break a lot), but can be put into dev mode via a firmware switch. The price and combination of expansion ports (USB 3.0, HDMI, etc.), make this a pretty appealing target for hacking, although the ARM architecture means that lots of software will have to be recompiled, as the original post mentions.

Comment Personal Assistant Features Via Gmail/GCalendar? (Score 1) 96

While it seems like the early versions of the iOS App may limit voice input to search, it makes sense that Google's angling to compete with Siri's personal assistant functionality by integrating with Google Calendar, Gmail, etc. Using the Google's iOS Voice App to "book an appointment" on an iPhone configured with Google's ActiveSync/Exchange Gmail and Calendar connector could appear to behave identically to Siri.

Siri would presumably trigger a calendar event creation directly on the phone after receiving data from Apple's server, while Google's Voice App could transmit the appointment creation command to Google's server and add the appointment to the user's Google Calendar. The appointment would immediately be fetched by the iPhone's Calendar App, so the two actions would appear the same to the user.

Comment Amazon Also Changes Pricing (Score 2) 157

Amazon also reduced pricing for the service yesterday, which may be good for future subscribers, but is really annoying for those who already had subscriptions and just renewed for more money. Anyone who spent several weeks uploading music files one year ago likely didn't want to let their subscription lapse and have to repeat the entire process. Amazon waited a couple of weeks until everyone up for renewal was billed for a new year, then, less than a month later, they fundamentally changed the service's functionality and lowered the pricing.

I completely understand that Amazon's terms and conditions for the service give them the right to do this, and I also expect that early adopters often pay more for goods and services as prices drop. However, it's clear that Amazon was being quite coy here. They also issued an iPhone cloud player app shortly before "unlimited music" subscribers had to decide whether to renew, incentivizing re-subscribing.

It's clear that the new service is great for Amazon, as it allows them to de-duplicate their data and significantly reduces their bandwidth costs. It also may be a good thing for many customers who can get sanitized versions of their music files. As my original post mentioned, however, some users of the service saw the appeal of uploading and unlimited number of their personal music files (e.g., with meticulously edited album artwork, tags, and the exact compression they wanted). Without notice, Amazon is essentially replacing all these files for paid subscribers with different files, which sets a really bad precedent not just for music, but for cloud storage services in general. While I'm sure some users prefer the new functionality, others don't and it would have been better to allow users to opt in/out.

The other big story here is that at least some of the labels seem to have offered Amazon similar terms to Apple, showing that Apple's agreement for Match is not exclusive. In Netflix v. Amazon (video streaming) and Apple v. Amazon (music stores/matching), Big Content seems reluctant to let any one player dominate.

Regarding the press release: yes, it's official, it's linked from Amazon's more recognizable domain; for whatever reason, they post their press releases on a different domain.

Submission + - Amazon Matches iTunes Match With New "Audio Upgrade" Feature ( 1

bostonidealist writes: Just after the July 6th 1-year anniversary of the its unlimited music storage promotion (and presumably after early subscribers have all renewed their annual subscriptions), has changed the way its Cloud Player and Cloud Drive services work. Starting today, music uploaded to a Cloud Drive will count against its owner's Cloud Drive quota and will not be accessible through Cloud Player. Further, music files previously uploaded to Cloud Player or Cloud Drive are being automatically converted to 256 Kbps audio whenever Amazon "has the rights to do so" and new audio files uploaded to Cloud Player will automatically be checked against Amazon's music database in iTunes Match-like fashion. One of the appeals of Amazon's Cloud Player service up to this point has been that users could pay a flat fee and store an unlimited number of their own music files (with their own tags, artwork, and audio data intact). Now, Amazon is automatically replacing users' previously uploaded data with its own, without allowing users to opt in/out.

Comment Eye tracking could be the killer app (Score 1) 249

Google has been using eye tracking technology in internal product testing for years. If they included electrooculography (EOG) sensors in the glasses, such as those demonstrated in this prototype from ETH Zürich, they could allow wearers to manipulate real world objects just by staring at them.

Some more thoughts on this (think: virtual telekinesis) here.

Submission + - Google Eying Vision Tracking For Glasses?

bostonidealist writes: Google has been using eye tracking technology in internal product testing for years. Given the company's plans to release electronic glasses by year's end, is it possible that Google intends to include electrooculography (EOG) sensors in the product, such as those demonstrated in this prototype from ETH Zürich? A refined integration of EOG, machine vision, and wireless technologies could allow wearers to manipulate real world objects just by staring at them.

Submission + - Where Google Is Going

bostonidealist writes: Soon, we'll be able to move objects just by staring at them.

Media outlets are reporting that Google is creating some form of consumer electronics glasses, with the ambitious goal of launching a product based on the technology within the year. While many of these reports have included sketchy details on how the glasses might present information to the wearer, the true novelty will be the way the devices empower their owners to interact with real-world objects.

Many traditional interfaces, from steering wheels to touch screens to voice recognition to computer mice, require a relatively high degree of exertion in order to manipulate objects around us. Comparatively, an interface based on tracking the motion of the human eye could be so intuitive that in many cases the interface itself could be barely perceptible.

Let's consider a simple example to see how this might work. Imagine an elevator designed to be controllable by riders wearing gaze-tracking glasses. When a passenger wearing such glasses enters the elevator, she could look at a panel of buttons to select the floor that she wants to visit. The glasses could identify the wearer's focus on a particular button through eye tracking, could "read" the label of the button she was staring at (e.g., "floor 14") and could overlay a user interface element in her visual field. By simply continuing to stare at the elevator button, she could indicate her desired destination, her glasses could wirelessly transmit this information to a receiver installed in the elevator, then the real-world elevator button's light could illuminate, indicating that the floor was selected as her destination.

To an outside observer watching the above scenario unfold, it might appear that the elevator's passenger had some kind of magical, telekinetic ability. However, the interaction described could be implemented via a refined integration of existing technologies, and there are many hints that Google is working to build and deploy exactly this kind of device.

The human eye performs vergence and accommodation movements to focus on objects of interest nearly every waking moment. During typical use of a modern personal computer, the number of motions made by the eyes dwarfs the number of keystrokes made on a keyboard or the movements and clicks of a computer mouse. These many subtle eye movements constitute a rich expression of the viewer's thoughts and intent. For this reason, eye tracking is second only to direct neural activity monitoring in its capacity to immediately reveal a wealth of cognitive data and many media and advertising companies have been using eye tracking technology internally in product studies for years.

Google blogged about its own use of eye tracking for web search usability testing in 2009. Given the strong potential of this technology, it makes sense that Google and other companies are eager to be first-to-market with consumer products.

It's likely that Google is building a device that will implement electrooculography (EOG). EOG uses small electrodes, which can be incorporated into the rims of glasses, to determine the position of the eyes by measuring the electric potential field of the eyes themselves. Eye position can be measured in a broad range of lighting conditions, even in total darkness and when the eyelids are closed. You can watch a video demonstrating prototype EOG glasses from ETH Zürich here.

There are other eye tracking methods which have better accuracy (e.g., special tracking contact lenses) or which don't require users to wear tracking devices on their person (e.g., video vision tracking). However, these methods have several downsides, ranging from requiring more invasive eye tracking equipment to being subject to interference from lighting conditions to requiring lots of computational analysis that's not currently possible in ultra-portable electronics. For all of these reasons, EOG is the best candidate tracking technology at the moment.

Successfully deploying this technology will require the development of powerful, efficient image analysis and eye tracking software coupled with a revolutionary interface designed for sight navigation. While many media outlets are speculating about augmented reality applications for the glasses, and these are surely a possibility, a successful interface would have to remain unobtrusive in order to avoid blocking sight lines or distracting wearers.

In the above elevator scenario, for example, it might be the case that as the passenger stares at the button for the floor she wants to visit, a red stop sign icon could appear in the periphery of her visual field. Looking directly at the stop sign icon would avert her gaze from the target elevator button and cancel any action. Alternatively, if she continued to stare at the button, the icon could change from red stop sign to yellow triangle to green circle, confirming her selection before transmitting her request to the elevator.

From a marketing and sales perspective, the opportunity for Google to integrate the device with its other technologies (Android phones, Chrome OS computers, etc.) and to license the technology for other devices is huge. Users of the glasses could become eager to replace light switches in their homes with ones that they can sight-activate and purchase new robotic vacuum cleaners that can navigate to a dirty spot on the floor that's being stared at. Paraplegics and those with limited mobility could gain new independence.

Given that wireless interfaces for the glasses could be incorporated into so many other electronics, Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility could be significant beyond enabling first-party manufacturing of Android phones. Imagine Google saying to Sony "You want to make a stereo that can be controlled by Google Glasses? Fine, just buy one of these custom Glasses receivers from us for every unit."

While the expense and immaturity of the technology described may prevent Google from including all the eye tracking features in its first-generation products, considering the difficulty in marketing head-mounted display technology, it's almost guaranteed that Google has vision tracking in mind as a "killer app" that would allow it to overcome the "nerd factor" of trying to pitch people on electronic goggles. Virtual reality and personal display devices have failed commercially in the past because they're perceived as a way of isolating the user and retreating from reality. Alternatively, an eye-tracking system that extends a person's reach and influence in the real world could be celebrated and coveted. That's surely what Google is looking to build.

Comment Apple Not Sharing Any Pie (Score 1) 662

Well, it looks like a lot of what I expected was announced. What's really impressive is how brazenly Apple has dictated terms and cut into other companies' business models.

The terrible notification system in iOS to this point has actually benefited Apple in 2 major ways: it appeased the iPhone wireless carriers by allowing archaic, expensive text messaging to still seem relevant (email alerts didn't appear on the lock screen, but text messages did), and it provided Apple with a future selling point.

Now that they're updating the notification and messaging systems, it's likely that text messaging volume will very, very gradually begin to dwindle for iPhone users. The carriers can't be too happy about this since texting services are their cash cows.

On the web browsing front, integrating Reader into iOS Safari is likely to frustrate a lot of advertisement-subsidized sites. The strength of its implementation will also push publishers into their News Stand platform (the choice will be: "no revenue for you through the web since we'll strip out all your ads or revenue with a commission to Apple through News Stand").

The iTunes Match service is going to trick lots of people into paying for access to music they already have. It'll be interesting to see how Apple authenticates music via Match: will it use some fingerprint analysis from the actual sound stream (à la Shazaam), or will it simply read through tags? Either way, it'll be easy for someone to log into Match once on a system with a huge library to get access to thousands of songs. I wonder if people with huge libraries will sell services to help you "unlock" lots of music on iTunes Match and/or if there will be frequently updated "master" iTunes databases with proper tags and placeholder files posted all over the internet? Apple's basically selling an all-you-can-eat music subscription service (comparable to Napster's) at a low annual rate and making its users jump through hoops or pay more to get access to the whole library. This is going to further kill CD sales and record stores; once Apple moves to Lossless audio, there'll be very little reason for Apple customers to access digital music any other way (perhaps unlimited access to the whole library and lossless quality will be available in a couple of years for a higher subscription price).

Finally, iCloud is going to hurt Dropbox and Google's bottom lines. Google's going to be implementing most of the same functionality once they get Chrome OS off the ground, but Apple's lead is formidable.

Barring any major technical or privacy failures and given the appetites of their fans/customers, it's hard to see Apple failing to pull all of this off. Apple's waving the stampede through their velvet rope and right into their club. Once inside, though, it's going to be awfully hard to get out.

Comment Where Apple Is Going (Score 3, Interesting) 722

Hi, everyone. Reading articles about Apple's Post-PC outlook (such as this one), it's interesting to think about where Apple is headed, as it provides a good context for their recent announcements.

First, it should be clear that Apple wants to extend their walled-garden approach to their entire line of products. This would allow them to provide a consistent user interface and good interoperability (something they'll continue to tout to sell consumers on their Post-PC products). It will also allow Apple to translate success in one area (e.g., strong iPad sales) into other markets (e.g., stronger Mac sales with Lion's interface echoing the iPad's). Finally, it will allow Apple to monetize other services (as they already have with 3rd party application and subscription sales).

At the iPad 2 announcement, Jobs gleefully boasted that Apple has the largest number of registered user accounts with credit cards of any online vendor, and Apple's certainly interested in billing those accounts as much as possible.

One obvious area where Apple could try to pull ahead is in data storage and synchronization. Apple is actually worse at this right now than many other vendors (e.g., using iTunes to get a Word document onto an iPad), as they've avoided implementing simple, consumer-centric solutions (e.g., WiFi syncing to iPhones, iPods, and iPads from Macs/PCs) so they could build the infrastructure necessary to implement an Apple-centric approach. The $1 billion data center they're building in North Carolina is obviously for something bigger than just music streaming.

It's likely that Apple will try to pull more customers into Ping and MobileMe. Whereas Google has to implement roundabout connectors to allow users to synchronize their calendars and office documents, Apple actually controls the OS and APIs used on Macs, iPhones, and iPads. Apple could simply force all applications, including 3rd party applications on the iPad and iPhone, to use Apple's cloud data store by changing the SDKs and development agreements for their iOS devices.

In iOS and in Mac OS 10.7 Lion, a multitasking application is supposed to gracefully "suspend" when a user switches to another application. If the application isn't used for a while, iOS/Lion actually can save its state and reallocate its resources for other applications to use. In Lion, this has even lead Apple to remove the open application indicator lights from the dock. In Apple's new computing paradigm, applications merely have a "state," they're never "closed" or "opened."

Now, imagine Apple extending this paradigm to applications running across devices. An end user could open a document for editing in Pages on her office Mac, then, without doing anything, could leave work, open Pages on her iPad on the train home, continue editing the same document, and so on. If data and application states are synchronized through the cloud, users don't have to worry about file versioning, backup, etc. The possibilities become even greater when multiple applications and file sharing with multiple users are involved.

Apple is in the best position to make this sort of computing paradigm possible, since they already have such large markeshare across multiple devices.

Having wireless carriers' cooperation in providing lots of cheap bandwidth to customers will be critical in enabling their vision. In this regard, Apple has recently moved from being at the mercy of a single carrier (AT&T) to having leverage over two carriers (AT&T and Verizon). The WiFi hotspot feature that Apple has just added to the iPhone 4 is the first salvo signaling this shift. Apple would prefer that its iPhone owners could pay for a single iPhone plan and then share that data plan with their MacBook and iPad when they're away from WiFi, so all their devices can remain connected to the cloud. The WiFi hotspot feature on the iPhone 4 that Apple has just added allows this. Further, Apple wants end users to be able to run high-bandwidth services (such as FaceTime) over their wireless carrier's connection. At the moment, you can't FaceTime over 3G, but you can set up an iPhone 4 as a WiFi hotspot and then connect another iPhone 4 to it over WiFi and use FaceTime through 3G (the absurdity of this scenario illustrates the tension between Apple and the carriers).

Apple will try to play Verizon, AT&T, and other carriers off each other to force the carriers to offer more bandwidth at lower prices going forward. They also may try to simplify their software and hardware development (and increase their leverage over Verizon and AT&T) by having a single universal iPhone that works on both carriers. The existing Verizon iPhone 4 doesn't seem to be Apple's favorite child at the moment (Apple is releasing iOS 4.3 this Friday for all current iOS devices except the Verizon iPhone, and it probably irks Apple that they have to complicate their software development by supporting two versions of the iPhone 4). However, getting Verizon on board and getting all those Verizon customers was worth it to both Apple and Verizon, and Apple has been willing to re-engineer the iPhone 4 to act as Verizon's flagship for a paltry 6 months and sprinkle some WiFi iPads as crumbs to Verizon to feed their 2010 holiday sales.

Things will really take off when Apple can synchronize its iPhone releases (something they'll probably do around June this year when they launch the iPhone 5 on Verizon and AT&T) and when the carriers have higher-bandwidth services (given the slow deployment of 4G services from Verizon and AT&T, Apple may delay 4G phones until 2012, but they could surprise everyone this year, especially with pressure from other 4G devices).

So where does this all leave Apple?

Well, it's likely that Apple will settle into the predictable, annual refresh cycle for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod products they've been moving towards for the past several years. Their schedule allows them to maximize sales of old inventory around the 4th quarter holidays while selling new iPads in the 1st quarter, new iPhones in the 2nd quarter, and new iPods in the 3rd quarter (they clear out their old iPod inventory by bundling old iPods with their Macs during back-to-school promotional sales in the early 3rd quarter - the "quarters" designated here refer to the calendar year, not Apple's official fiscal calendar).

Regarding their Macs, Apple can continue riding Moore's law along with the rest of the industry and can simply keep producing faster machines over the next couple of years. Their recent moves to discontinue the XServe and Lion Server signal that they're really shifting their focus towards their other products and, unless they allow virtualization of OS X on non-Apple hardware or distribute Mac OS X for generic x86 PCs (both of which are unlikely at this point), their interest in the Mac seems to be waning a bit.

Regarding services, growth in that area would be a boon for Apple, as successful deployment and wide adoption of the cloud services outlined above would provide a huge new revenue stream (via tiered subscriptions and/or advertising) that would add to Apple's bottom line.

So, Apple can incrementally update its hardware on a predictable annual cycle and can use the popularity of its hardware and online services to synergistically expand in both areas.

Where does this leave Apple's end users?

Well, the simplicity and integration of Apple's solutions have been favored by consumers recently. It may be, in the short term, that end users prefer having Apple do all the legwork of backing up and synchronizing their applications and data, and this very well may yield more productivity for Apple's users, in aggregate.

In the long-term, however, end users may decide that they are overly reliant on Apple's proprietary solutions. Apple's new iOS 4.3's Home Sharing features are easy to set up, but requiring an Apple ID log in to simply stream music and videos between devices on the same WiFi network is a bit alarming (especially when Apple's Remote App used local authentication to do this). If users feel that they increasingly need to ask Apple's permission to do things with their own data, or they see that there are other popular services that aren't interoperable with Apple's, they may defect.

Finally, while Apple is pitching their new initiatives as Post-PC, they're really just simplifying existing computing paradigms for their end users. The true Post-PC era will arrive when the computer becomes a more active agent: it's one thing if all your devices can show you the paper you wrote; it's another if your devices can actually write papers for you.

That is perhaps the biggest danger for Apple: at some point in the future, the relatively simple problems that Apple is good at solving may not be enough. End users may want to have computers that can answer any question or drive their car. In the short term, though, Apple is far ahead of everyone else in mind and market share. In the short term, simple might just be good enough.

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