Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Update on my Xoom

I rooted my Xoom last night. After a fun weekend in D.C. where I managed to get a lot work done I had a minor setback when Launcher Pro rejected all of my widgets.  I had been planning to root the Xoom so this was a good a reason as any.  The process was fairly easy. A couple restarts but all in all, under half an hour.  I'm still not up to the latest version because there were some recent advances and I wanted to let the dust settle a bit.

One big shock.  The first time I set up the Xoom, almost all my apps from my phone were automatically synced.  This time, only the apps that I installed after getting the Xoom were synced with a few mind numbingly stupid exceptions. For some reason, the apps designed specifically for hacking my phone got synced to the Xoom.  Even after I uninstalled it, it went back on the market list to be reinstalled. Weird.

Update two:
Just wanted to add some more thoughts on the hardware after running into my first roadblock on video.  While the Xoom is definitely capable of rendering decent video, the lack of high profile decoding debacle is going to be a sore point for a long time with Tegra 2 devices.  The problem isn't so much the lack of decoding capability as it is the lack of an easy way of getting an incompatible file onto my Xoom in compatible format.  The folks over at XDA forums already have the Handbrake config file designed to get a compatible format conversion but having to manually go through folder structure, set an output directory, then upload a half hour or more later for each file isn't very convenient.

I do have a solution in mind although it may be beyond my meager programming abilities.  Basically, it would involve creating a  script in XBMC that if the video quality is Xoom-incompatible queues any file selected in Handbrake with the Xoom profile and a specified destination folder.  A potential option could be to sync that folder to cloud storage but there's nothing I'm aware of that works for cloud storage of large video files, at least not cheaply and reliably (Dropbox is expensive and does not resume downloads).

Changing gears, I've now gotten the sdcard on the Xoom working and its made me wonder, why the hell would Motorola go with a MicroSD option on a 10 inch device. Miniaturization is wonderful and all but for a device that is going to be a potential laptop replacement the ability to interface with standard size cards would be a major selling point to photographers and video editors. Sadly, this seems to be  part of Motorola's corporate culture.  They have a mentality of implementing what they can and deliberately cauterizing the rest.  In the case of the Xoom, it is fortunately limited to the hardware only.

While this new update is for the most part negative, I'm not sour on the Xoom.  I've been having tons of fun with it.  I'm close to having my interface tweaked just the way I want it, which point I'll post up some screenshots and a few how-to guides.   I expect to have a more positive post coming up soon (Doctor Who) and a much darker post that I've been wanting to get off my chest for a long time now (migraines) in the next week or so.

Friday, April 15, 2011

How Microsoft could win the next round of the ecosystem wars

Computing paradigms have shifted dramatically over the last thirty years.  From the battle for the desktop, to the battle for the browser, the battle for the phone and so on.  While these battles raged there were longer term wars that can better be termed wars over ecosystems.  Microsoft didn't just have the Windows OS, they had Office, DirectX for gaming, IE as the default and most support browser and millions of windows applications and users settled into their system.  While their influence in the browser realm has waned significantly they are still the king when it comes to business desktops and the vast majority of home users.  However, in the server marketplace they got their clocks cleaned by Linux.  In the gaming world, consoles dominated but the hardware stagnated and cheap to develop phone games now compete against blockbuster budget titles running on six year old hardware.  Their new Windows phone has to compete with already established Apple, Android and Blackberry.

It would seem the only way for Microsoft to go is down.

 In fact, that's probably the direction they'll take and its because they're losing the ecosystem war for the home.  Microsoft's big plus has always been the desktop but Google and Apple have both whittled away at the features that a desktop provides.  Of course, Apple offers a desktop, or laptop, or tablet. They also offer products to do backups, play from the apple library on TV or a speakers and sync with phones and iPods.  Its the Apple ecosystem.  Google's ecosystem also exists but its not as coherent.  There's tablets and phones, and GoogleTV, and ChromeOS on tablets, and the Chrome browser with its app store and the various Google apps.  Its more reliant on third parties and the software is still forthcoming (the mythical "Ice Cream" successor to Honeycomb that will tie everything together).  If Apple is the threat that's staring Microsoft in the face, Google is the one that's  fumbling around behind it maybe about to drop a really big axe.

Now, Microsoft has an ecosystem too, but its the Hawaii of ecosystems, fragmented into dozens of pieces that really don't interoperate to any significant extent beyond attracting the scrutiny of the EU Antirust commission.  There's the Xbox 360, which does do a good job of incorporating MS's various video, game and music services together in its marketplaces.  The music marketplace, the Zune marketplace is named for the now defunct music player that was killed off by MS in the warm up for the Windows Phone 7.  There's Office, which is the golden goose, not even worth discussing really, they rake in their cash and don't want anything to do with anyone else.  Then there's search, email and social networking.  Extra emails are fine, maintaining extra networks are annoying and bing search is like google with different ads.

This leaves what I want to talk about, media center.  Now, there's been rumors that MS might be ditching media center on the PC for the embedded market.  This is half smart.  Its half smart because MS has the only good OS that can work with CableCards and it lets the cable companies offer a product that's competitive with Tivo and the networked Blu-Ray players.  Its only half smart because an embedded device will 90% guaranteed be a POS locked down slightly fancy cable box when instead it could be Microsoft's tour de force in the ecosystem wars.

Here's how it works.  Microsoft just happens to have a best of both worlds solution.  The Windows platform is open enough that you can run all kinds of software on it but its also very DRM friendly so it can play just about any DRM'd file without a problem.  Its also very app friendly, there's no need to have a separate market for it. The one difficulty is in keeping the secure area secure, but that's something that Microsoft appears to have managed very well so far with their DRM'd media.  The key feature is that the device could offer a Cablecard and video recording.  Having played with media center, its a step up from a regular cable box but still not great.  However, there's nothing preventing Microsoft from taking good software like XBMC and making it work seamlessly with multiple sources including recorded video.  One of the things that's just fantastically, stupid is organizing files by source rather than title and if MS could pull their weight and provide the kind of interface where you just pick the TV show or movie you want and then pick the source rather than having to pick Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Local  first, it would be a game changed..
Another thing that Microsoft could do is smart syncing of media.  For example, say you have an iPhone, Xoom, and Droid Incredible and you are browsing a TV show and want to sync it to the Droid Incredible, the software could identify whether or not the file is natively playable, if not create a playable conversion and then sync it.  Apple could never do this because they don't play outside their ecosystem.

Its wishful thinking at this point and honestly, I don't know that there's anyone still at Microsoft with the personality to pull off this kind of project.  It would be a shot across the bow of pretty much every cable company in America, basically saying rather than pay $15 b a month for a crap cable box you can pay $4 for a CableCard, store hundreds of shows and movies, sync your shows to your phones, play your shows in any room in the house, play Xbox 36o Games, get Itunes, get Rhapsody, get Netflix, get Hulu, get Youtube, video chat, check Facebook/twitter/email, etc.  Or they can shitcan media center for PC and make the crappy embedded windows box for the cable companies you end up paying $15 a month for.

American Gods could become an HBO series,54645/?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=feeds&utm_source=avclub_rss_daily

This was a surprise.  I liked American Gods when it came out and on reflection its definitely better suited for an episodic format.  The company being pitched, Playtone, has a solid track record with HBO, Band of Brothers, John Adams, etc, so if it gets greenlit it should do well.  I think that the likelihood of it being made and receiving a good budget will depend on the success of a A Game of Thrones this month.  Everything I've heard so far about A Game of Thrones has been very positive so I'm hoping it does well and can't wait to see it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First Thoughts on the Xoom

The Motorola Xoom is the Android answer to the iPad, or at least its supposed to be.  Its the first device to have Google's new Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system optimized for tablets on it.  I've had the Motorola Xoom for a few weeks now, just long enough to have formed an opinion about it.  While in some ways its still far from being at the stage it should be in order to be competitive with the iPad, the device and platform is showing a tremendous amount of potential and it really is very fun.

One of the first surprises on unboxing the Xoom was that the power plug is surprisingly thin. Smaller than a headphone jack thin.  While some people rave about the Honeycomb boot animation, my eyes were bothered by it (migraine sensitivity sucks).  The real surprise was putting in my google log in info and having all of the apps I'd ordered on the Android market automatically download to the Xoom.

Well not all.  While apps that require root downloaded, some apps that were listed as incompatible, especially alternative launchers did not download.  (Launchers, are also known as home screens.  They are a special kind of app in that they are the phone's main interface for the phone and also launch apps.) Also, not all of the apps that downloaded worked or worked well.  Not unexpected really.  Its unlikely that all the apps even work on my original phone.

Overall, the Android Market on the Xoom is a huge improvement over what I have on the Droid X.  Updating apps is simple not glitchy.  Whats disappointing is how sparse the tablet specific selection is.  While many non-tablet specific apps work fine there really should be more out there by now.  In particular, Skype is still not finished yet.  This among other still missing features makes the Xoom feel as if it were rushed to market to beat the iPad with full functionality left for a future release.

I do want to note that side loading apps is pretty much a requirement to get the best experience out of the Xoom.  Side loading is when you load an app without using the market, either through a file manager or another method such as emailing to yourself.  While the stock launcher is nice, the app drawer moves through apps page by page, something that takes forever if you already have a phone full of apps that gets synced to the zune.  The launcher apps I mentioned above can actually be installed, just not through the market.  For me, Launcher Pro works best.  Oddly enough, I just switched out Launcher Pro for ADW EX on my Droid X because Launcher Pro had too many resource issues.  With the Xoom's far greater firepower it isn't an issue.  Launcher Pro fixes the app drawer problem, provides better widgets, allows icons to be resized and lets more screen real estate get used up. Its pretty much perfect for a tablet.

Another side load app, is the Amazon App Store. I did run into a few issues, the free version of Backbreaker was not Tegra enabled so did not play properly.  Otherwise, it was great to get some free apps that would otherwise be paid.

While the Xoom can't match the iPad for brightness its home page UI is way more useful and beatiful.  The Xoom has the horsepower, screen real estate and battery life to run the best of the live wallpapers on the Android Market without concern.  Scrollable widgets allow you to go through recent emails, facebook posts, twitter, news, etc directly from your homepage.  The gmail widget works well, as do the  Launcher Pro Plus widgets and Colorize widgets.

The large screen makes Circle Launcher widgets very effective means for accessing various apps. Its no problem at all to put 12-15 games in one Circle Launcher and be able to easily see each icon. For those of you unfamiliar with Circle Launcher, its a widget that looks like an ordinary icon until you press it, at which point it creates a ring of icons for other apps, or contacts or bookmarks that you can select from.  The layout's for the launchers can be saved so you can backup and restore the launchers from crashes or if you need to wipe the device.

One more app that needs mentioning is Rock Player lite. Video playback on tablets is essential and Arc Media, which was the first app I tried was completely worthless, under both rendering settings. I'm not sure if its something particular to the Xoom or just difficulties in handling formats not prepared for phones. Rock Player had no difficulties in playing files moved directly off the media server onto the Xoom.  I'm still looking for a good organization tool however.

So far Xoom development is still in its infancy.  A big recent announcement was that SD card support was just enabled.  The developer community on XDA were the ones to make the breakthrough, beating both Google and Motorola.  The Xoom is rootable but custom roms like Cyanogen or Liberty are a long ways off. I'm hoping that Google and Moto don't let this slide and try to keep pace with the hacker community.  Right now the Xoom feels like its still in release candidate, fun for geeky types but just not polished enough to be commercially viable.   The game changer that I think would make it no contest would be, ironically enough, windows. There really is no need for a ten inch screen on a remote.  If Google can somehow manage to split the screen so that you can have two apps side by side it would be huge.

Google and Moto need to get their acts together and do more than just make this a proof of concept device.  Its been pitched as Honeycomb, Android on the Tablet and the shortfalls in kludging Honeycomb into a usable form in time to get on the market have to be resolved before the shortfalls define the Honeycomb experience.

Edit: I was working on this late last night and didn't bother with de-jargoning.  I will be going back and explaining in more detail what some of this stuff means for those of you who are interested in learning more about the Xoom and Android. Pretty much done now.  One thing I learned along the way was that both the iPad 2 and the Xoom have some fundamental design issues that make them ill suited to being everyday couch TVs.  Apparently there's a hardware issue integral to the Tegra 2 chip that means that one of the most popular formats for hi def video won't play. Its no problem to load up the Xoom before a trip and make sure everything is properly converted but its too much to convert large files just for everyday viewing.

2011 SF and Fantasy Books

Pretty much since I started reading I've been a fan of science fiction and fantasy.  For the last few years, I've put together reading lists of the upcoming books I'm eager to read.  Sometimes they are part of a continuing series, other times they are just the latest from authors who have captured my interest.  Below is a short list of the SF+F books that have come out or will come out this year that I'm interested in reading.

A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin
I put this first because there are a few other entries on this list that are the progeny of the style used in this series. George RR Martin's Game of Thrones made a huge impact on the fantasy genre.  Complex politics, intertwining plot threads and an engaging writing style were a big part of the appeal.  The frequent deaths of significant characters also differentiated this series from much of its peers when it came out.

The fantasy market tends to reward sticking to formula.  A clear divide between good and evil, a cast of static characters who are guaranteed to make it through to the end of the book with only a few exceptions (the aged mentor, the big bad guy).  A Game of Thrones was a break from the formula and it earned a massive following.  Unfortunately, the series has been delayed over and over again and has lost quite a bit of steam as a result.  The last book to come out moved much slower than its predecessors and my hopes aren't too high for the coming volume to pick up the pace.  Still, with years of waiting through delay after delay, I'm excited to finally have a bit more of the story.

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
This one came out earlier this year and I recently finished it.  Its the fifth book from Joe Abercrombie, with a cast drawn heavily from his books.  Those books drew attention for their gritty take on the typical fantasy setting and grim outlook.  The Heroes is the weakest of Abercrombie's books so far.  The setting is far more contained than the previous books, essentially one hill in a decisive battle between two armies. The characters are primarily two-dimensional with many variations of the same few personas.  However, what detracts most from this book is the very element that made the original trilogy so memorable.  Without getting into spoilers the trilogy that established the setting for The Heroes had a crushingly downbeat ending.  It also takes much of the suspense out of The Heroes.  It was still an enjoyable book but nowhere close to its predecessors.

The White Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker.
This book is the middle book of follow up trilogy to the series that gave the author his big break.  The original trilogy had a fantastic premise with a unique anti-hero lead.  Starting from the familiar trope of the ancestor of royalty who had defeated an ancient evil, the lead character was set up as the noble prince searching for his missing father.    Worse, he's described as a warrior-monk, able to think steps ahead of any opponent and practically unbeatable in battle.  However, the author drew heavily from science fiction, notably The Golden Man and Dune.  The lead is charismatic to the point of mind control and as the story progresses his manipulation of those around him never ceases.  In a way he ceases to be human, even those closest to him are pawns that he destroys when they best suit his purposes.
The second trilogy is set after the lead character from the previous books has risen to power and is viewed by his followers as the messiah.  The first book was so-so, introducing new cast, reprising history and lots of travel but little substance.  I'm hoping that the second book will pick up the pace some and move the story faster,

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson.
This is a series that hasn't disappointed. The Crippled God is the last volume in a ten book series by Steven Erikson.  Its epic fantasy with the epic side taken to an epically epic extreme.  The series is about 10,000 pages long with dozens of characters and tons of plot threads.  Much of it covers the story of an army fighting their way over a multitude of lands but there are many side stories that are interwoven.  All of these threads start coming together in the last three books or so.  It gets a little overwhelming keeping track of  what's going on, particularly as Erikson often drops the reader into a new narrative without mentioning which character's it is.  Having just finished this book last week, once I hit the last two or three hundred pages I couldn't stop reading until I got to the end (I had actually started this post while I was in the middle of the book but got too immersed in it to continue here) The author did a very good job of pulling all of the threads together and involving almost every character in the ending.  While this series is a major undertaking to read through I'd definitely recommend it to any fan of the epic fantasy genre.  The best place to start is with the second book Deadhouse Gates and then going back to read the first book in the series.  The first book was written before the author had a deal to do the whole series and is safer and more generic than the rest of the books.

The Dervish House by Ian Macdonald
The Dervish House is the third novel by Ian Macdonald set in the mid 21st century and covering a particular region.  The first novel, River of Gods was set in India and had a technological focus on AI, while the second was set in Brazil and was focused more on quantum computing and parallel universes.  This novel is set in Turkey and in terms of structure falls in between the first two books.  The cast is not as numerous as in River of Gods however the focus on nanotechnology is similar to how the earlier book was connected to artificial intelligence.  (Note, I got sidetracked once more and finished the book before finishing this post). I ended up really enjoying this book.  It was more tightly focussed than River of Gods but the various story threads came together very elegantly.  I still have Ares Express left over from my reading list from last year and on the strength of this book I don't plan to let it slip another year.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett
Another wildly popular series and with good reason. Terry Pratchett has been writing the Discworld series of books for many years.  Mixing satire with highly memorable characters while spoofing the fantasy genre, the Discworld series is consistently great.  Sadly, Terry Pratchett has a rare form of Alzheimer's that has progressed to the point where he needs an assistant to help transcribe his words.  However, I'm glad to see that he hasn't stopped writing and has another book due to come out this fall.  In particular, its a return to one of his most successful characters Sam Vimes.    In the Discworld series, Sam Vimes is essentially the chief of police for the city of Ankh-Morpork, the setting for most of the books.  The novels which have focussed on Sam and his crew are some of my favorites in the series so I'm hoping this one will be a winner as well.

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds does big idea science fiction very well.  A former astronomer, he has a knack for bringing high concept physics into his stories.  While I thought his latest novel, The Terminal World didn't hold up well, the book before that one, House of Suns is one of my favorites.  Having just signed a three book deal, Blue Remembered Earth is the first of  a new trilogy.  I'm not sure what to expect from it but he's stated that the trilogy will cover a period of 10,000 years which means that there should definitely be some interesting ideas.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross
Using an internet meme as a title is exactly what I'd expect from Charles Stross.  While I've found his books to be a bit inconsistent he does have good ideas even if the execution doesn't always come through.  His books are usually quick reads which is a good thing as a few other books on this list are coming out the same month.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
I really don't know what to make of this one.  This book has been out in the UK for a while now and has received tons of hype there as was as few not too flattering reviews. Its hallucinatory far future hard SF.  I'm intrigued but I expect it will be very much a matter of personal taste.  Just the same as how I like some virtuosic music but find other similarly talented musicians unlistenable it will depend on whether I can find a good rhythm and enjoy reading through it.

Embassytown by China Mieville

I have high hopes for the next book from China Mieville. His last novel, Kraken wasn't as good as I'd expected it to be.  I'm also interested in seeing how he handles more of a science fiction setting, in fact that's my main interest as he's stayed in a relative comfort zone up until now.  One of his core concepts has been the mystique of cities so moving to a far future alien setting could be a way of depriving himself of what has become a crutch.

At this point there aren't a lot of new authors that I've heard much buzz about. The big releases are all coming out in the next 2-3 months so hopefully some interesting stuff turns up around August or so.   Outside of the above list I'm interested in Cathrynn Valente's Deathless which I saw received some good reviews recently, although she is no newcomer.  Dan Simmons also has a new book coming out, Flashback, that looks interesting.  Its set in a near future where the country is addicted on a drug that lets you relive parts of your life, very PKD.  Frederik Pohl just came out with a near future/bioterrorism novel All the Lives he Led.  Only one review so far on Amazon from the SF Book Review, 3 stars.  Deathless is on my Kindle queue but I'm waiting for more reviews and free time before thinking about readng the other two.