Monthly Archives: February 2012

41megapixel camera! Where does it end — gigapixel cameras? Terapixel?

So, a “41 megapixel camera phone from Nokia”:http://www.tomsguide.com/us/Nokia-808-PureView-41-megapixel-Camera-Phone,news-14288.html, pretty amazing. The improvement in camera phones over the last 5 years has been amazing. Moore’s law has driven the cost of camera chipsets into the ground, and their performance has continued to increase. Just like the earlier digital camera wave destroyed the film/processing/prints business, now the smartphone+software combo is destroying the digital point-and-shoot camera market. Moore’s law is a powerful force.

Higher-end cameras are being transformed as well. DSLRs are under assault by the new breed of mirrorless camera bodies. Sensors are getting good enough as are the LED/LCD viewfinders, permitting a shift to these new smaller platforms. This shift will take a little longer because of people’s investments in lenses, but it is underway.

Both of these shifts are about software and silicon, driven by Moore’s Law, eating away the mechanics of the camera. I suspect that we are in for even more dramatic changes, Moore’s Law is still hard at work. There are still a lot of mechanical parts in these cameras, and a lot of error-prone human involvement in composing, aiming, and timing image capture. As the cost of processing and memory continue to drop, how else might be picture-taking be transformed?

* The Lytro (supposed to arrive this month) is attacking some of the lens mechanism via silicon. Rather than having a complex mechanism to direct just the photons you want to the capture surface, the Lytro captures a broader set of photons and does all the focusing post-capture. It is early days but we seem to be heading for cameras that capture all the incident photons (frequency, phase, angle of incidence) and let you assemble the photo you want later.
* Photo timing still requires a lot of human involvement, and is a source of many lost photos for exposure reasons and mistiming of the photo. This seems to be great opportunity area — the camera could use the shutter button as a hint, continually grab an image stream, save the couple seconds around the hint, and use software to find the best one. The realities of battery life may be the limiting factor here.
* Cameras can also take a hint from computers. Rather than making bigger and faster processors, we’ve moved to 4-core and 8-core and beyond. At the whole system level, we get better graphics performance by using SLI or other techniques to do use multiple GPUs. Rather than having bigger and bigger sensors, it seems likely that cameras will move to multiple sensors. Bonded together to create one image, or spread around the camera body. Why? Well this could be used for 3d cameras — Fuji has some commercial 3D cameras, and there are a lot of “research efforts”:http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2010ITEIS.130.1561N. Or to create HDR cameras — cameras that capture multiple exposure images at once. Or crazy “spider eye-inspired 3d and focus”:http://www.petapixel.com/2012/01/27/jumping-spiders-eyes-may-inspire-new-camera-technologies/.
* Maybe cameras can eliminate the whole sighting and composition step, you could just kind of point your camera in the broad direction you want and snap. Maybe the camera can have sensors on all sides, you could just kind of wave your camera cube around. We are headed for a point where sensors are basically free, so I’d expect a lot of innovation in placement and number of them.

So if a future camera is taking kaboodles of images in all directions all the time because sensors and local memory and processing power is free, what will be the constraining factors in taking and using pictures? Well battery life and bandwidth will still be realities. And software. We will need software that can deal with an explosion of photo and video content. I have a lot of photos today, 50K or so, it is a management struggle. What if I have 500K? 5M? What if a business has billions of photos, billions of minutes of video? How do people find their way thru the flood to find the best pictures, to stitch together pictures and videos from different sources into a coherent whole? What post-processing takes place to clean up the pictures, fix up composition, correct errors, etc? And how do you search across everyone’s gigantic photo streams to find the photos you really want to see? Investing in “big data for pictures/video” should be a durable investment thesis.

I’m not clear how it all plays out, but I feel pretty certain that Moore’s law will insure that the way we take and use pictures will be dramatically different in 20 years. A gigapixel camera might be nice but I suspect the silicon and software will be used not to just crank up resolution, but to address the other steps in taking pictures — composition, timing, exposure, aiming, post-processing, finding, sharing, etc.

…the biggest threat to innovation is the lack of single payer health…

“Rob (@mtnspring) is onto something here”:https://twitter.com/#!/mtnspring/status/173485019560558592. Health insurance is a huge lock-in for corporations. If an employee has a family, and/or ongoing health concerns, it is very hard for them to walk away into the morass of COBRA, pre-existing conditions, etc. I have to believe that people would be far more willing to take startup risk if they knew it would have no impact on health care for themselves or their family.

Finished my first week of Udacity coursework

Taking “CS373, Programming a robotic car”:http://www.udacity.com/view#Course/cs373/CourseRev/feb2012/Unit/2/Nugget/1002. Don’t really love the topic, but good material to practice some Python and some statistical inference. So far, the course website seems to work very well, nice intermixing of video with interaction, nice breaking of instruction into short easily consumable pieces. And seems to scale well — in the forum, the most popular posts are approaching 4K views, so a pretty large class size, but pretty effective so far.

The material is early/middle undergraduate level at this point, but purportedly will ramp up.

This month’s advice for B&N — put those Nook dudes to work

Scene yesterday afternoon at the Local Barnes & Noble — 5 of us in line waiting to pay for books; 1 sales clerk working hard (and telephoning back for help that never came), and the Nook salesperson at the Nook counter waiting sadly for someone to ask him about Nooks, straightening and dusting all his Nook accessories. The line moved so slowly that I called the store — someone picked up — I said “hey you need help up front checking people out” — the person on the other end said everyone was busy helping customers.

A simple proposal — get a payment app working on a Nook with a card reader. If the Nook salesperson isn’t helping anyone, have him wave over a retail customer and check him out on a Nook. For the customers, a win — they get thru the line faster and aren’t annoyed by seeing the Nook guy just stand there doing nothing. For the Nook sales effort, a win — you get a customer over at the Nook counter and you can softly sell him on the attributes of the Nook while checking out.

Last month I whined about in-store presentation. This month checkout. I’d really love to see B&N thrive, I love books and I like bookstores. So I will keep tilting at the windmill.

How many cupcakes do they expect us to eat?

We now have 3 cupcake stores in downtown Bellevue — stores that feature cupcake in their name, and sell primarily cupcakes. In addition to all the bakeries and other establishments that offer cupcakes, and the giant cupcake display counter now at QFC.

I like baked goods as well as anyone, and I estimate that, prior to the flood of cupcake stores, I ate cupcakes about once every 5 years. This does not bode well for the cupcake retailers. I feel badly for the store owners who have sunk a lot of money into their efforts, but my gosh, with a little forethought you might have anticipated that a cupcake store was not a great idea. When I walk thru the grocery store, before the current cupcake craze, I saw darn little in the way of cupcakes, which is a hint that people just don’t eat that many cupcakes. Contrast with the amount of space in the grocery dedicated to ice cream or to sandwich makings, and you can see why sandwich shops and ice cream shops might endure (though we are awash in frozen yogurt places at the moment as well).

Maybe the theory was that the cupcake’s time had arrived, that we were going to see a massive increase in the consumption rate of cupcakes. You would have to assume that something fundamental had changed about cupcakes or about human nature to believe this. As near as I can tell there has been no breakthrough in cupcake science or cupcake production costs.

I will try to do my part, I might even double my cupcake consumption rate and buy one every couple of years. But the first rule for a business should be — try to target a frequent and durable need of your customers.

Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?

Relating to my post about effective business communication the other day, here’s a “great post on being right vs. being effective.”:http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2012/02/do-you-want-to-be-right-or-do-you-want-to-be-effective/. Of course it is best to be effective AND be right — being wrong and effective leads to epic disasters.

Reminds me of the classic 4 quadrant chart of ambition vs competence. Being competent is good, but you need to have a dollop of ambition. And you have to get the ambitious and incompetent people out of your org as quickly as possible.

Made my first contribution to a Kickstarter project, the Zooka

Seems like a nice speaker — “the Zooka”:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1733547063/zooka-bluetooth-speaker-for-your-ipad?ref=email — (though they probably have a trademark issue to resolve) and I’m glad to support a Northwest project. It is also exciting to see the diversity of projects up on Kickstarter, and nice to see that people are willing to pay for value and creativity. After 15 years of people demanding more and more free content and service on the Internet, any shift back towards sustainable business models seems good. Personally I feel way better about paying for something, rather than getting “free” content and having my attention sold to the highest bidder without my involvement and consent.

You might want to develop a weapon besides the bazooka

In my first job after grad school, I was giving a client presentation when a junior staffer at the client asked me a question that I felt was dumb. And so during the presentation, in front of his boss and his boss’s boss, I ripped his question apart.

After the meeting, my mentor and manager pulled me aside and said “You know, you might want to develop a weapon besides the bazooka.” And pointed out how I had humiliated the client staffer, and that I was unlikely to get a lot of cooperation from him in the future. Oops.

I’ve gotten better at this over the years, but I was reminded of this recently when one of my partners and I sat through a pitch. At the end of the pitch, I pointed out a number of flaws in very terse fashion. My partner shared his own experiences, mentioned some challenges, and asked some gently-pointed questions. The team likely left the room thinking that my partner was really wise, and that they’d like to sit down with him. In contrast, they probably thought I was a d*$k.

I have to keep reminding myself — the goal of business communication is to make yourself understood, and to hopefully effect positive change. If you communicate in such a way that people write you off, well, hard to make progress from that point on.

Ninjablocks look kind of cool

“Ninjablocks”:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ninja/ninja-blocks-connect-your-world-with-the-web — looking back at my article on “MSFT and the hardware ecosystem”:http://theludwigs.com/2012/02/msft-and-the-decline-of-the-pc-hardware-ecosystem/, this is the kind of innovation and brainpower MSFT needs around the PC platform.

MSFT’s biggest miss — another facet of MSFT’s stagnation

“Microsoft’s biggest miss”:http://minimalmac.com/post/17758177061/microsofts-biggest-miss is a nice discussion of another issue for the company, the slippage in relevance of Office.

I can’t speak to the whole market, but my document composition has moved almost entirely to vehicles like Evernote, Dropbox-hosted apps, Google Docs, and draft emails because the absolute #1 feature I need is document availability from everywhere — work machine, home machine, iPad, phone, kiosk, etc. No other document composition feature even comes close for me, I’m happy to use simple Markdown syntax for formatting. Office has started to embrace this issue but it is a little too late, I’ve kind of moved on.

The individual Office apps are still great apps. And it is still hard to not have Office on a machine with all the inbound Excel and PPT files, so I am still an Office buyer. But it feels like this kind of buying behaviour will collapse at some point — the viewers in Mac Mail for instance aren’t terrible.

MSFT and the decline of the PC hardware ecosystem

In the late 80s, IBM attempted to reassert control over the PC hardware platform with the introduction of the PS/2 and its proprietary “MicroChannel”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Channel_architecture architecture. The cloners fought back, customers voted with their feet, the PS/2 initiative failed, and the era of open PC hardware continued and flourished. This was hugely beneficial for MSFT as a thousand PC OEMs bloomed, PC-based innovation surged and costs dropped, and MSFT software rode the wave of market expansion.

And it was great for end users. Not only because it drove system costs down, but it also created a rich market of add-on products — everyone could mix and match hardware to create their optimal system, whether they cared about cost or performance or maintainability or upgradability or whatever. Corporations could spec out and build standard low cost machines, enthusiasts could build super-tweaked machines, verticals could build out specialty machines, all on the same open hardware platform.

In the last 15 years, though, the market has shifted dramatically towards the laptop form factor. This shift has been a relative disaster for MSFT. The industry has moved away from an open hardware chassis with mix-and-match components, to closed tightly-engineered all-in-one machines. This shift has played to Apple’s strengths in design and integration and has negated many of the benefits of the PC ecosystem. The PC industry is still struggling to figure out how to regain design and profit momentum — Intel’s “Ultrabook”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultrabook effort being the latest scheme. But the Ultrabook is just a direct response to the MacBook, it does nothing to recapture the open hardware experience of the 90s.

The open hardware community still exists in various forms, but is no longer focused on the PC platform and is not much of an asset for MSFT. Enthusiasts still build PCs, mostly for gaming — “Maximum PC”:http://www.maximumpc.com/best-of-the-best for instance has a good guide to components, “Newegg”:http://www.newegg.com is the place to buy. But this isn’t mainstream any more. The “maker” community is vibrant but is focused on other platforms largely — “Arduino”:http://www.arduino.cc/, the “Kickstarter”:http://www.kickstarter.com community, etc. The vibe and energy around open hardware is great, but it is no longer tied to the PC experience and is no longer an asset for MSFT.

MSFT has always been great at chasing taillights and is hard at work supporting the Ultrabook, competing with the Apple stores at retail, pushing Windows Phone, etc. But chasing Apple’s taillights results in products that are more and more like Apple’s — fully integrated hardware/software/services, a captive retail experience. MSFT has to do all this, the mainstream of the market is here, but there is nothing distinctive about the resultant products and experience. The Ultrabook/Windows/Microsoft Store products may equal the Apple experience, and may offer users a few more choices of hardware brands (does anyone care?), but the experience won’t stand out. Necessary work but not sufficient to recapture thought leadership in the market — at the end of the day, MSFT will be able to claim parity but no more than that.

If I was in a leadership role at MSFT, I’d invest in strategies to recreate the open hardware platform dynamic around the Windows platform. It is not obvious how to do so with the laptop and tablet as the mainstream platform, but I would spend $100s of millions trying. MSFT clearly has the cash to spend on new frontiers and new adventures, a couple hundred million on an effort to change the basis of competition in the PC market seems like a wise bet, even if it fails.

How about putting a “maker’s corner” in every retail store with modified cases and modified machines, maybe even workshops? Get the energy of the PC gaming community into the store, let people see this energy. How can the laptop design be modified to support add on hardware — super high speed optical expansion busses, wireless high speed expansion busses, novel expansion chassis ideas? Sifteo cubes are kind of cool, can this idea be used to provide hardware extensions to laptops? Are there other ways to “snap on” hardware to extend the laptop or tablet, using bluetooth or induction or other mechanisms? Can MSFT seed the maker community with funds or tools? Can MSFT embrace Arduino somehow, or Kickstarter? Could the PC be the hub for thousands of Arduino-based sensors and actuators and gadgets? These ideas are all admittedly poorly thought out, and I am not sure any one idea is right, or if any will work.

But I would spend a lot of money chasing after any idea that would move away from closed all-in-one hardware designs, and I would experiment with many ways to reinject open hardware dynamics back into the PC/tablet market. Ultrabook is not this — it is a fine and adequate taillight chaser, but it won’t shift competitive balance back in MSFT’s favor.

This is not the only reason for MSFT’s stagnation in the last decade, there are many other aspects to consider, but the dwindling of the open hardware ecosystem has been a loss of MSFT. For another take on Apple’s success against MSFT in the last decade, check out “Rich’s analysis”:http://www.themarketingplaybook.com/2012/02/stocks-bonds-commodities-and-apple/ — the observations about vertical vs horizontal integration ring true.

Coming to your car in 2025

“Bessel beam headlights with Virtual Ghost Imaging”:http://apl.aip.org/resource/1/applab/v100/i6/p061126_s1?isAuthorized=no — perfect visibility in rain, fog, or snow!

OK might be a reach but really cool stuff.

Recent books — Ebenezer Le Page, Inside Apple, Calvino, Atom Chips

* “The Book of Ebenezer Le Page”:amazon by G. B. Edwards. Well this really grew on me. The life tale of a Guernsey resident over most of the 20th century, it was rough sledding at first, but I was in love with Ebenezer by the end. He knows every person and every scandal on the island, many of which touch his life. Great tale.
* “Inside Apple”:amazon by Adam Lashinsky. Much more interesting than the Jobs biography, gives some insight into the operations of Apple and speculation about how it might fare with the loss of Jobs. Really useful operational insights for any company.
* “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler”:amazon by Italo Calvino. A novel that explores the nature of reading and the nature of books via a very unusual structure. I didn’t really enjoy the fabulist elements, not my taste, but a unique structure.
* “Atom Chips”:amazon, edited by Jakob Reichel and Vladen Vuletic. After the navel-gazing of the Calvino piece, I needed something much more definite. This is a pretty dense graduate-level text on chip-level designs to manipulate individual atoms. I am wading thru it, not a quick read.

I might as well just publish my SSN and credit card numbers on my blog

“Taking your computer or phone into china”:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/11/technology/electronic-security-a-worry-in-an-age-of-digital-espionage.html?pagewanted=all is a bad idea, and I assume you are at risk in other countries as well. And why do we think we are safe here, when “someone can just litter around these sniffers”:http://www.theverge.com/2012/1/27/2753176/f-bomb-diy-darpa-funded-spy-computer, and “squadrons of these things may be flying around”:http://www.realdanlyons.com/blog/2012/02/01/these-mini-copters-flying-in-formation-are-the-coolest-thing-ive-seen-all-day/, and not that far in the future — the “FAA is letting these things in domestic airspace this year”:http://www.allgov.com/Controversies/ViewNews/Arrival_of_Domestic_Drones_Challenges_Air_Safety_120207.

Probably time to radically rethink my approach to data security.

UPDATE: and of course today I got a call from my bank and my credit card has been compromised. Somebody trying to sneak in $1 charges repeatedly. I don’t need to even put my card numbers up here, I should just assume that they are compromised from the get-go. In some sense it makes life easier — I don’t worry about giving my credit card numbers out to anyone because I assume they are already in circulation. What is important is watching my account statements carefully.

An alternative view on Apple and TVs

Lots of rumours this week about an upcoming Apple TV reintroduction.

The partnering with major cable players makes sense to me, that is just the iPhone playbook all over again — pick off one carrier, create a great experience with them, help them gain share, and then the rest of the providers will crack. I’d think that Apple would go after the satellite guys first as a solution with them could be marketed and sold nationally, tho of course the internet side of a satellite solution kind of blows. But whatever, Apple will certainly try to work the iPhone playbook again.

On the device side, maybe Apple will roll out a super-TV with iOS embedded in it, but I kind of wonder about this. Apple is already a central part of my TV experience — I sit on the couch with my iPad and use it to fill voids or augment what I am seeing. And the iPad is the best remote control for a Tivo or Comcast box — just install the respective apps, way easier to navigate the guide. So I kind of wonder why Apple just doesn’t hollow out the TV and STB — let them stay as dumb tuners and a display surface, but all the app smarts migrate to the iPad and the cloud. This is basically what has happened to in-car electronics — nav systems and fancy cd players have been replaced by the phone. I’m not convinced jamming iOS and apps into the TV or STB makes for a better experience — my new TVs have all kinds of internet and streaming junk jammed into them and I never use.

I wonder if the upcoming iPad 3.0 will have more features for augmenting TV viewing. Seems like it should.

Samsung NX200 first impressions — man that AMOLED screen!

The Samsung NX200 is my 2nd try at moving to a mirrorless camera for my main camera. I previously tried a recent Olympus PEN and it is ok but feels cheap. And with all of Olympus’s corporate woes, hard to feel good about settling on it.

The Samsung tho feels rock solid, a great body. The flash unit is slick. I am still grinding thru all the controls and don’t have an opinion yet on them. But one feature stands out — the AMOLED screen is gorgeous. Great contrast, vibrant, good in daylight. Really beautiful.

Now I just need to pick up some lenses for it — like the “long zoom lens”:http://www.amazon.com/Samsung-Movie-18-200mm-lens-Cameras/dp/B004W82I1K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1328457973&sr=8-1

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