IntoNow

Posted: August 1, 2012 in Apple, iPad, Smartpone
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If you like Shazam or SoundHound, you might find another app, IntoNow, interesting. It listens to the sound from your TV and figures out what you are watching. It then presents you with various information relative to the program. I tried it last night and it handled the easy task of figuring out I was watching the Olympics. Among the information offered was current medal count. Supposedly IntoNow can also identify songs that are on TV. I haven’t tried that yet but so far this is one of the more interesting apps I have run across in the past few weeks. IntoNow for iPhone/ipad is free  so give it a try and post back with your thoughts.

AT&T is Trying

Posted: July 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

A while back I was pretty tough on the cellular companies. As they reported record profits I said they weren’t doing enough to improve service. I still feel that way but one issue, the stadium problem, has been getting creatively attacked by AT&T. This video shows what is at least a small step in helping a very tough problem.

At WWDC we got another chance to see Tim Cook in action. Steve Jobs was always the master presenter and many had wondered how Apple would fare with Cook at the helm of events like WWDC. This year’s event brought us iOS 6, OSX Mountain Lion, MacBook Pro with Retina Display and some minor updates to other Apple hardware. By the time it was all done I was in lust wanting the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. I can’t wait for Mountain Lion or iOS 6. Why? Heck I don’t know. I’m sure, however, that it will be great.

As time has passed I realize I can live with my old laptop another year and Mountain Lion and iOS6 will be nice when they get here but I’m doing just fine right now.  You have to admire how great a show Apple puts on. It is polished and has enough hype to excite but not so much that you stop believing. All in all a masterful job and Cook is keeping the tradition alive.

When it comes to Tim Cook at WWDC a few things thing stood out. He didn’t try to be Steve Jobs. He didn’t say “insanely great” every other sentence. He was himself while at the same time being a long term Apple employee. He exuded the culture. He was calm and confident but dressed down. Without mimicking his predecessor, the feeling that great things were being shown emanated from him. Color me impressed.

Oh how Steve Balmer needs lessons from the Apple book on giving presentations. Shortly after WWDC, Microsoft called a meeting to introduce the Surface line of tablets. Balmer looked like a person with a losing hand trying to make people believe it was great. The sad thing is that the Microsoft announcement had more meat than Apple’s WWDC event. Some of the other presenters were pretty good. The point was driven home about seeking perfection in even the small things such as how the stand sounds when you close it. That, however, just served to highlight how important the master of ceremonies is at these things. Every time the event turned back to Balmer, it was like a chill fell over the presentation.  What was needed was a Steve Jobs clone telling me how insanely great this was and making me feel that my life was going to be different because of it. It need someone who could make me believe. Balmer made me lose faith. What is sad is that, in hindsight, the Microsoft announcement is major and has long term implications including putting pressure on Apple and Google. I’ll discuss why in later posts. This post is about form over substance.

One final thought involves the effect this has on the press. After WWDC the press was mostly positive. There was disappointment at no MacBook Airs with Retina Display and some discussion that the rest of the updated MacBook Pro line was a stop gap measure. All of this was done with what Apple would consider appropriate reverence and the tone was, overall, very Apple fanboy in nature. Compare that to the Microsoft Surface announcement which led to many skeptical articles with everything being dissected – power, RT incompatibility, product line confusion, display resolution etc. Where are the raves? It seems to come down to nothing more than the fact that Microsoft isn’t cool and Apple is.

A Chinese View of the Trade Deficit

Posted: June 28, 2012 in China
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An interesting report on the nature of the US trade deficit, How iPhone Widens the US Trade Deficits with PRC, was published by Yuquing Xing and Neal Detert. The premise is that even high tech products such as the iPhone cause an increase in the US trade deficit since most of the value is added overseas rather than in the US. However, beyond the main premise of the authors, there is a lot more that can be pulled out of the report. In particular, data in the report backs up a view of the US trade deficit with China that is different from what Americans are accustomed to hearing.

The US assigns the entire $178.96 wholesale cost (iPhone 2010) to China as a trade deficit. However, the value of the work performed by the Chinese assembly workers is more like $6.50. The rest of the value went to countries other than China. While some have pointed out that components attributed to countries other than Chine may themselves have Chinese labor content, the fact remains that China sees only a small part of the iPhone wholesale cost. Some of the issues with the paper are pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article Not Really ‘Made in China’, 15 December 2010. However, the main point of the paper is that even high tech US goods result in a trade deficit and that premise remains intact even taking the criticism into account. In the book China Airborne by James Fallows, the author takes a different look at the same data. Fallows points out that the Chinese are acutely aware that they actually see only a small part of the iPhone money. While China’s leadership would agree that there is a trade deficit with the US, they would view it as much smaller than the US numbers so widely published. Fallows shows how this is a driving factor behind China’s new five year plan.

China today is still mostly low margin, low skill assembly labor. This compares to India which has built its success on a well educated work force and has attracted a lot of higher level engineering work. Despite the success of some engineering companies, China remains heavily skewed to blue collar assembly operations. For those of us in high tech who see companies such as Huawei, it can be difficult to accept this fact. There is certainly a lot of high tech in China and it isn’t just low level assembly. The difference, however, is one of scope and percentage.

The Chinese are well aware of the disparity between low level assembly and high value added work. They view this as a problem and are pushing to move up the food chain. There is a big effort underway to strengthen the university system and in the long run build a much stronger industrial base. China wants more of that $178.96 iPhone value to remain in China. To get there they are acutely aware of the smiling curve as proposed by Stan Chin, the founder of Acer. Just as Chin has been moving Acer to more profitable areas of the curve so the leadership of China wish to move their country.

How does this relate to working with the Chinese? It means the US can’t treat the trade deficit as a simple problem. If we throw big numbers at the Chinese they will discount them. They know that little of the cost of an iPhone stays in China and will discount what we say if we don’t make it clear that we too understand where the money goes. There is still a huge trade deficit with China but we must understand their view or we risk being unable to get them to see ours. It will also help us understand the reasoning behind the 12th Five Year Plan’s focus on biotechnology, new energy, high-end equipment manufacturing, energy conservation and environmental protection, clean-energy vehicles, new materials, and next-generation IT. The generic term “high-end equipment manufacturing” covers for their big push in aviation. More on that can he found here. China is serious about changing the nature of their industry and companies who might be in their path to success need to be watchful. If you want to do more reading on the impacts of China’s current five year plane you might start here. Warning: Free registration is required.

When I arrived at Mostek the 64K DRAM was still in design. It was very late. Initially, Bob and I worked on some side projects but the pressure to get the 64K DRAM out the door eventually sucked me in and I was assigned to that project. I would routinely discuss design issues with Bob. It was a great education. Bob didn’t teach circuits as much as how to design and think. A question often got another question in return. I would ask why a circuit didn’t work. Bob would start asking things like “What happens if this transistor is a light year wide?” That would be followed by “Now what happens if that transistor is 0.000001um wide?” He taught insight rather than stock answers. It was a technique I would later blatantly steal when I began to guide young engineers. Bob drove home the idea that a good engineer could design with nothing more than pencil, paper and a calculator. He didn’t put down simulation using programs such as SPICE but he had a huge distaste for engineers who designed through brute force using simulation. To him, simulation allowed better optimization of a circuit that already worked. A circuit should want to work. Time and again, during design reviews, discussing new circuits with another engineer, and when judging my own creations I would come back to Bob’s comments and how a circuit should want to work. So many times I would see an engineer spinning his wheels trying relentlessly to make a circuit work that didn’t want to. Bob’s training helped me avoid that trap and to guid others out of the black hole of circuits that mostly work.

Bob was always an electronics hobbyist. For him work was fun. It always has been for me too and Bob and I became friends and not just coworkers. We would discuss cars, high end audio and the emerging PC area. A number of us decided to build Apple 2 clones. Bob and I spent a late night in his garage, hunched over an oscilloscope, debugging his board. Here was a guy worth millions building a clone not because it was cheaper to do but because it was fun.

I only worked with Bob for about three and a half years before moving on to my next company. I had learned the value of startups at Mostek from working with some of the founders including Bob. I wanted to go to a startup and Cypress was my opportunity. It would be well over tens years before my  career path would again bump into Bob’s. By then I was Director, Atlanta Design Center at IDT. Bob joined IDT as a Fellow to add creativity to the designs done by the company. This afforded an opportunity to renew our friendship. On the work side our interaction had shifted. I was not the manager needing to get designs out the door while Bob was the engineer want to keep making it just a little better. Still, the friendship remained. In his personal life Bob was enjoying time wit Arlene, his truly wonderful wife, and was winning swimming meets in his age group. He had been a world class swimmer in college. His brain was just as sharp as ever and his design thoughts wide ranging. Bob would die of cancer on June 4, 2007.

I have tried to post about what was unique about my interaction with Bob. There is so much more. Some information on his swimming and early fight with cancer can be found here , here and here . These links also show some of Bob’s swimming records. On the design side, Bob is the father of the modern dynamic random access memory (DRAM). This is the main memory in the computers we use today. Bob didn’t invent the DRAM but his advancements drove the DRAM to dominance and changed the face of computing. He also changed the career for the better of one new college physics grad.

For more information on Mostek check here. I hope to post later on the influence Mostek had on both myself and others. Many people there went on to become major players at other companies.

Sometimes small events lead to big changes. In my case a couple of small comments resulted in big changes in my life. I was reminded of this when I ran across an interview, click here, with Bob Proebsting. Bob was one of the major players in the history of the semiconductor industry and a person who had a major impact on my professional life.

It started while I was a graduate student at LSU. I was getting burned out on school and figured it was time to get out and get a real job. What do you do when you have been working on a gravity wave detector? The market in that area seemed pretty limited and already saturated. Fortunately, LSU had a very good career center. I interviewed for just about every job at the career center. The result was a wide variety of company visits and many different opportunities. Several were in electrical engineering. I have been an amateur radio operator since age 13 and have always loved electronics. In high school I would check out books on electronic design and read them from cover to cover. Other opportunities were in software. I had taken some programming courses and was familiar with a wide array of languages. Anyone else remember APL, LISP or SNOBOL? At this point there were so many different directions my life might take.

I wound up with a lot of company visits and dutifully arranged them in the most efficient fashion. That meant flying from one company to the next. One series of visits ended with Motorola followed by Mostek and then a flight home to visit with my family for Thanksgiving.  It was at Motorola that serendipity began to set in.

Since my background was physics and not electrical engineering, I was lined up by Motorola human resources, HR, to interview for jobs in process engineering and product engineering. As the day was coming to a close I was asked what I wanted to do. I mentioned design. A person whose name I have long since forgotten was gracious and arranged for me to talk to the design manager of Motorola’s SRAM design group. During that interview I mentioned that I wanted to do design but that I guess people thought it wasn’t a good fit because my degree was in physics. The design manager said “The best designer in the business is Bob Proebsting over at Mostek and he is a physicist. The physics degree isn’t a problem.” I was excited. That ended my Motorola time. I had to rush to the airport in Austin and catch a plane to Dallas to visit, fortunately, Mostek. Today many people don’t recognize the name but back in the late seventies, Mostek was a very influential player in the emerging semiconductor industry.

The Mostek visit was a repeat of the Motorola visit. I talked to people about process engineering and about product engineering. Late in the day another nice person asked the me what I wanted to do. Just like at Motorola, I mentioned design. The Mostek engineer called around but it was getting late and there was a long holiday weekend ahead. Most people had left. He found an SRAM design engineer, however, and I went to talk to him. That interview was deeply technical. At one point there was a complex schematic on the whiteboard and I was asked some voltages and currents. I remember saying that an electrical engineer might be able to write a network equation but I couldn’t. However, I could simplify it down using simple principles including symmetry. I was told to go ahead and I solved the problem. When I was done the interviewer, a man named Vern McKinney, said that that was how it was done in the real world. I felt better and proceeded to answer all except one of the other questions. Time was getting tight and I had a flight to catch. I followed McKinney as he left work and he showed me how to get on the highway to head to the airport. At the last minute I figured out the answer to the question I had missed. I rolled down the window and yelled it out. From there it was home for Thanksgiving and a bit of chill time before starting to cram for finals.

The next week I got a call from the head of HR at Mostek. He wanted me to return for another round of interviews. The problem was I had finals coming up and needed to study. In addition I already had five job offers. I declined the visit. The HR person said I should really make the trip. Again, I said “No.” He said I REALLY needed to return because one of the founders of the company was impressed by me. I said “What?!” He said “Didn’t you interview with Vern McKinney?” I said I had. He then explained that McKinney was one of the founders of the company. At that point I stopped being stupid and agreed to return for more interviews.

Upon my return visit I was met by Bob Proebsting. He started explaining the Mostek culture. At one point he said I was free to walk the halls by myself and stop anyone and ask them how they liked Mostek.  It was clear he was very proud of the work environment. He showed me his business card which listed him as a design engineer. He said that, if I joined, mine would say the same thing. Somehow I didn’t think the equality would go beyond that. My only interview that day was with Dr. Proebsting but it was an interesting one. He picked a complex circuit and explained it to me. He then asked if I had any questions which he then answered. Next, he turned the tables and asked me to explain the circuit to him. This was my first bit of insight into how Bob thought. At the end of the interview he asked me to come work with him on special projects. Here was the guy that the design manager for SRAM’s at Motorola thought was the best design engineer in the business. In a rare bit of intelligent thought, I immediately accepted. We went to see Bob Owen, then design manager for the DRAM group, and I signed the offer paperwork. This would turn out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss working with Bob Proebsting and learning how to be an insightful design engineer.

The photo below was taken prior to my joining. It shows Vern McKinney and Bob Proebsting who I have mentioned. In a later post I plan to discuss the impact of L. J. Sevin. He is a person who not only influenced my professional life, but indirectly my personal one.

Tenth Anniversary Photo: left to right, Vin Prothro, Robert Palmer, Bob Proebsting, Berry Cash, Vern McKinney, and L.J. Sevin

The toughest bandwidth problem to solve is the stadium conundrum. Imagine one hundred thousand people in a football stadium all wanting to watch concurrent games on their mobile devices. Even if you put a cell tower at the stadium you run into Shannon’s Law. There is a limit to how much data can be carried by a cell tower. The amount is directly proportional to the bandwidth, i.e. the spectrum space, allocated. You have probably run into Shannon’s Law and its consequences while staying at a hotel when a supposedly high bandwidth WiFi connection yielded slow data speeds. That’s because the bandwidth was being shared with many others and you were only getting a small percentage of the available data speed. Some attempts have been made at mitigating this. Today we see WiFi systems with beam forming and MIMO. These help but not enough. However, understanding the basic concept behind these techniques points the way to better solutions.

To understand how this can be attacked, start with the fact that a laptop connecting to a wireless network access point in San Francisco doesn’t interfere with one connecting to an access point in New York. Both laptops get the maximum speed. While Shannon’s Law applies to each individual connection, one doesn’t impact the other. The same is true in the cellular system. A cell phone in San Francisco doesn’t impact the data link speed of one in New York. Now imagine if each laptop in a hotel had a very directional antenna pointed at a wireless access point with that access point also having a very directional antenna pointed back at the laptop. Each laptop would be linked to its own access point and because of directional antennas wouldn’t see, i.e. interfere with, the other laptops in the hotel. The result would be full data speed for each laptop. As just described this is impractical. Some attempts are made at this by having access points generate a more directional signal or by using multiple antennas in an access point and the laptop to generate phased arrays and thereby a directional signal. However, this is woefully inadequate.

I need to digress and talk about some of the problems with other approaches I mentioned in earlier posts. Just putting in a bunch of femtocells can cause problems. The cells can interfere with each other. To properly utilize dense populations of cells, they need to be intelligently aggregated. One method is to have adjacent cells use different channels i.e. different parts of the spectrum. That way interference is reduced. If you think of spectrum spaces A and B then a string of towers in a row can be assigned A-B-A-B-A-B and so on. In a two dimensional system, the four color mapping theorem tells us we need only segment the spectrum into four channels to make sure no two adjacent towers are on the same channel. None of this is new to either the cellular providers or the equipment manufacturers and there additional techniques for handling cell to cell interference. Companies like AirWalk and Ubiquisys have attacked the issue. Tied into this is the problem of cell to cell handoff. This can be a particularly difficult problem for small, dense arrays of cells. The handoff issue is most easily solved when cell to cell movement is slow such as in an office space. A stadium is another place where movement is slow.

An interesting alternative approach to the above problem has been generated by Rearden Wireless. Rearden calls it DIDO for  Distributed-Input-Distributed-Output Wireless Technology. The concept is to use massive numbers of access points but to use them in concert. By timing the transmissions of each one, the radio waves from each antenna will sum but only at the desired location i.e. the desired device. Simultaneously, similar phased signals are overlaid to communicate with other devices. The available bandwidth is directly proportional to the number of access devices. Think of it as phased arrays taken to the next level. A more detailed description can be found here. There has been some hype surrounding DIDO and some of it may be self promotion by the inventors. The hype usually revolves around a claim that Rearden has violated Shannon’s Law. However, that is far from the case. Just like multiple cells circumvent Shannon’s Law to some extent, DIDO uses multiple access points to do the same. The method is very creative. It remains to be seen how well DIDO competes with other methods of using large numbers of access points in a relatively small area.

There is no silver bullet for the stadium problem. Even innovative approaches like DIDO will require massive numbers of access points and even then functionality will depend on only a small fraction of the people in a stadium streaming data at the same time. As smartphones combine with data in the cloud to drive cellular data usage, we can’t afford to wait for the perfect solution.