Opinion

John C. Abell

Touchfire: All keyed up and ready to go

Jan 25, 2013 17:30 UTC

Go Bag LogoApple’s iPad could be the perfect device for a road warrior, but it has one glaring shortcoming — the lack of the perfect keyboard. The built-in onscreen keyboard is workable, but no tactile feedback means that you look at your fingers as you type, instead of the words on the screen. That makes typing on a tablet slower than on a laptop, and that means you avoid your iPad for typing-intensive tasks, even though in every other respect it might be the perfect choice for communicating on the road.

Touchfire solves this problem in a novel way: It’s an extremely thin, clear plastic overlay with raised keys that rests on top of the onboard keyboard, mapping to each onscreen key. Unlike other aftermarket keyboards, it doesn’t add weight, bulkiness, or require batteries to recharge. This little piece of plastic doesn’t look like it would make much of a difference, but it does.

All hail the Kim (Dotcom)

Jan 24, 2013 20:20 UTC

Piracy means never having to say you’re sorry.

That might as well be the mantra of Kim Schmitz, better known as Kim Dotcom, the most flamboyant internet character this side of John McAfee.

For those who’ve missed this story so far, until about a year ago Kim Dotcom ran a wildly popular site called Megaupload from his New Zealand mansion. Megaupload allowed people to upload massive files – you know, like movies and TV shows the uploaders don’t own and don’t have the right to share. Which probably explains both the site’s wild popularity, and the Justice Department’s prosecutorial zeal.

Things were going great until local authorities raided the joint, arrested him and shut down the site on behalf of the United States, which has charged him with 13 criminal counts of conspiracy, infringement and wire fraud. The upshot of the indictment is that those uploads amounted to piracy, and Megaupload was enabling it.

Small is Big: the iPad Mini

Jan 18, 2013 17:30 UTC

Go Bag LogoSmall tablets are tailor-made for road warriors. They’re easy, light, portable, and have all the power you need to access the internet or write an email on the go. More functional than smartphones, less bulky than laptops, they’re quickly becoming a must-have in every go bag. Now the only question is: Which smaller tablet should you carry? For me, there are two serious contenders — the Nexus 7 that’s already in my go bag and the iPad Mini Apple shared with me to review.

The iPad Mini comes with a legacy advantage. Apple is the market leader in tablets, selling more than 100 million iPads in fewer than three years. By one recent analysis, iPads account for 98% of all web traffic originating from tablets — and 54% from all mobile devices, including smartphones. It’s not as if no other tablet comes close: It’s more like every other tablet combined doesn’t come close.

Still, the iPad Mini was only introduced last October, which meant that competitors could beat it to the small tablet market. The Nexus 7 was released earlier in 2012, and, for all intents and purposes, introduced the category*. Cheaper worthy tablets like the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook also joined the fray, creating need for Apple to create the iPad Mini, and the appealing chance for price pressure on the iPad premium.

Facebook’s search has been found

Jan 16, 2013 21:04 UTC

With “Graph Search,” Facebook’s newsearch engine announced Tuesday, the world’s largest social network has finally begun to index a trove of Big Data that’s been piling up for years. Even Facebook probably doesn’t know what’s been deposited in by its 1 billion members. Suddenly there is a way to find out. 

For all its popularity, Facebook has lacked something that could be described as “purpose.” For co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, sharing isn’t a platitude ‑ it’s world-altering. As he once said: “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” Yet Facebook is, for the most part, fun and games. It’s also, in the opinion of some, including me, a Faustian bargain that gives the company valuable information with which to make money, and its members the ability to do things they can do any number of other ways. 

For all the information Facebook members share with one another — pictures, opinions, “likes,” preferences, the companies and celebrities they follow — none of it has been searchable. So if you have friends who like science fiction and live nearby, you wouldn’t have known it (unless you, you know, knew it), and that Avatar movie night wouldn’t have happened – or, worse, would have happened alone, like always.

Surface with Windows RT: The prettiest thing you’ll never want to touch again

Jan 11, 2013 18:00 UTC

Go Bag LogoMicrosoft’s Surface with Windows RT is a gorgeous device that under different circumstances might have been a gloriously unexpected mutation in the evolution of hardware. But beauty can’t conceal the blemishes beneath. The promise of the Surface, and hybrids in general, is that they can credibly replace both a laptop and a tablet. Surface disappoints as either.

Much of what isn’t right is due to the operating system on the device. This version of Windows 8 dramatically changes the user experience by co-mingling a traditional Windows desktop with a separate universe dominated by “live” tiles that allow access to information and apps.  The interface doesn’t impress, complicating appreciation for the hardware itself. For whatever reason, the OS seems slow and unresponsive. And the “full” desktop is crippled: It’s not possible, for example, to install desktop software — like a different browser or software you might need for a 4G dongle — even in the “desktop” mode. It feels like a device that was dreamed up to have one revolutionary new interface instead left the factory with two broken ones. Surface RT with the "type" keyboard

Surface RT with the “type” keyboard

Further, in the one place where the design is spot on, Microsoft’s marketing and sales pitch is out of sync: Surface’s keyboard-as-cover is truly innovative, which makes the significant extra cost for this “option” a bit insulting. As questionable as Surface is, it is outright incomprehensible without it. I tried both the “touch” — which doesn’t have raised keys — and the “type” version which can be used to touch type. Only the “type” makes any sense, and Microsoft seems to be driving us to this patently superior model by charging only $10 more for it than the touch model (MSRP $120 vs $130). I didn’t use my touch keyboard enough for it to come apart at the seams, but there were early reports that it does.

Choosing the ‘just right’ go bag

Jan 9, 2013 17:50 UTC

Go Bag LogoBefore you can properly stock a go bag, you have to, well, have one to fill. For a while, I tried to mix it up — one go bag for the weekend (fewer things needed) and another for the week. Dumb. Trust me: You’ll always forget to decant. You’ll need some obscure dongle or cord you didn’t anticipate. So aim for the Go Bag Golden Rule: Have only one.

The bag itself is the most visible decision you’ll make, so you’ll want it to reflect your style, just keep practicality in mind. Thin and streamlined is sexy, but too small invites overstuffing. Nothing that looks good still looks good if it won’t close neatly. Too big is can become bulky and might lead to extraneous items. You want it to fill out just right.

Don’t be afraid to pay for quality and invest in a bag that feels right and looks good on you. I paid nearly $200 for the messenger bag I use now, but have paid as little as $50 and everything in between. Above $200 you are likely paying for cachet rather than carry, but who am I to object?

Stop the CES madness

Jan 7, 2013 17:40 UTC

NEW YORK – That dateline is right: I’m not at the Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I’m in good company: Apple, Amazon, Google – global superpowers in tablets, the dominant tech of our time – aren’t there this year, and have never been any other. Microsoft gave the primary keynote last year, but that was its swan song at this relic in the desert. Somebody else will have to take its space on the convention floor this year.

Truth is, I’ve never made the Hajj to CES. Nevertheless, an estimated 150,000 people are attending (if there’s a God in Heaven CNET’s editorial team of 90 is the most representatives from any single publication). They’re gathering to be dazzled by 33,000 exhibitors there to make sure you understand they are about to revolutionize [their industry here]. Everything from self-driving cars to fast USB sticks will be touted.

The journalists who are there are hoping to press some flesh and discover something in the vast ocean of minutia that that they alone will recognize as truly amazing. But that’s foolish. We no longer need to go anywhere to keep up with technology. Technology ensures everything keeps up with us. When nearly every tech blog on the Internet is flypaper to tech companies, why commute to the hype?

Cache and carry: Why you need a go bag

Jan 7, 2013 17:30 UTC

Go Bag Logo

You’re supposed to have one when you’re awaiting your orders. When you’re having a baby. When you think you might need to outrun a zombie herd. Full of essentials, and a few goodies, a Go Bag is what you grab when you need to get gone, fast. The thing is, natural disasters and life-changing events aside, most of us already carry go bags, without calling them such, just to do our daily jobs and live our lives.

Whether we choose a sleek shoulder bag or bulky backpack, we stock our go bags with the technology tools (and yes, toys) to get our jobs done, stay online, and maybe watch a movie or listen to a book on the commute home. We make sure they have the right apps downloaded and enough juice to last the day. The right devices can handle our business in any environment, and in all the spaces in between them, whether it be the Metro North, the Subway, a passenger seat on I-95, or the JFK-SFO direct.

Properly stocked, a good go bag can help us realize our wireless dreams — letting us work, play and travel from nearly anywhere in the world, making us feel just a little bit in the future. But a bad, poorly thought out, or, heavens, slapdash go bag is less mobile office than modern-day albatross. What should be in a good go bag? That’s the question this new column was born to tackle.

In search of Google’s dark side

Jan 4, 2013 20:13 UTC

The Federal Trade Commission Thursday dropped a two-year investigation into allegations that Google was gaming search results to drive traffic to its own sites. In a press conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz allowed that the charges came from a staggering number of Google’s competitors, and at face value they are plausible: Google essentially controls search with something like 70 percent of the market share and, like any company with near monopoly power, might be tempted to use that advantage to slyly divert traffic away from competitors. But in a unanimous vote all five FTC commissioners agreed there was nothing to see here.

Allegations of search bias strike at the heart of what Google purports to be: an honest curator of what’s available on the web. If the FTC ruled that Google was even a little dishonest, it could have altered the public perception of the company. It might have even been something akin to an Arthur Andersen moment.

The ruling could conceivably embolden Google to push the envelope. And it certainly makes it tougher for competitors to weaken the search giant on penalties rather than fight on what the FTC has now declared is a level playing field.

Three tech predictions for 2013

Dec 27, 2012 21:06 UTC

Sometimes the most important ideas in tech are hiding in plain sight. In that spirit, here are three predictions for 2013 that are just waiting to happen. No 3D TVs, wearable computer or jet packs for me — at least not this year.

The Kindle Offer You Can’t Refuse

Demand is rapidly shrinking for e-ink e-book readers. IHS iSuppli predicts that when the books close on 2012 some 15 million will have been sold — down 36 percent from 2011.

And why not? Tablets are getting cheaper. Sure, you can pick up an ad-supported Kindle for as little as $70. But why shell out even that when $200 gets you an e-reader, and a media player, and a gaming machine, and everything else?

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