Archive for May, 2011

Will FinFETs Save Intel?

Posted: May 31, 2011 in ARM, Intel, Tablet
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I have said before that Intel’s big ace in the hole is its process technology. At the beginning of this month, Intel made an announcement regarding their Tri-Gate technology. They make it sound completely unique to Intel but in reality it exists at several companies although the industry usually refers to it as FinFET technology. Never mind that others also have this technology. The key is that Intel can out process those guys.  Intel consistently has superior real world (volume production ready) process technology compared to anyone. When the world moved to 90nm and below, leakage current became a big deal. Many would say it became the dominant design factor if you are at all concerned with power. This meant that going smaller didn’t necessarily reduce power. It meant complex design choices just to save power. You could design with a low leakage transistor or a low power one. Today designers often mix transistor types to get the best balance of speed and power. FinFETs offer a move back to the old world where smaller meant both faster and lower power.

For decades we have lived in a world where processing speed and cost were the big drivers. What hasn’t been a huge issue has been power. Yeah, we would give it lip service and laptops would have to take it into account but it still took a back seat to speed and cost. That has changed. That is how ARM went from being a niche architecture to threatening the behemoth of the CPU world. Now power is a major focus of Intel. If all things were equal it would be a case of realizing the future too late to stop where things are headed. But… all things aren’t equal and it isn’t a level playing field. Intel has huge resources and access to proprietary process technology. The world won’t move from ARM to Atom just because Intel wants them too. Companies like the fact that they can bake their own chips by licensing an ARM core. The ARM architecture is now standard in both the smartphone and tablet worlds. However, all phone and tablet companies are pushing up against power consumption that runs into the brick wall of battery technology. Batteries are improving but not as fast as the demand for mobile processing power. If Intel can make Atom based chips clearly superior to ARM based approaches when it comes to power then they just might be able to win companies over. They are trying very hard. Stay tuned.

Another Blow to Privacy

Posted: May 30, 2011 in Aviation, Privacy
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The FAA is ending the Block Aircraft Registration Request, BARR, program. This program allowed flight information of general aviation aircraft to be blocked from viewing by the general public. The elimination of this program is not an issue of national security. At all times, government agencies had access to the blocked flight information. Some will see this as a strike against corporate CEO’s cavorting about in corporate jets. In reality it is another blow to privacy for all of us. No longer can a celebrity block flight information to prevent a stalker from tracking a flight. This won’t directly affect most of us. I have never made use of the BARR program. Despite that I mourn the passing of one more bit of privacy. Bringing this closer to home is an idea that keeps popping up and that is taxing automobiles based on how many miles they are driven. This isn’t new. It has been proposed before. What isn’t mentioned is how this would be done. GPS tracking is the usual answer. This means the potential to have the government tracking everywhere you go. Now do you feel a little more sympathetic to those people losing the right to limit tracking of their aircraft?

I was reading about the Asus Padfone and it got me second guessing some of the things I have written. Am I wrong that the phone will be primary with a wireless link to other display devices? Or… perhaps I am correct and these are just steps along they way. That happens when a trend is major as I previously discussed. The problem with my solution is battery life. What the Padfone brings is the large battery in the tablet. Having a full time high bandwidth link will require major improvements in battery technology. That will come but it isn’t here right now. Perhaps each device should be able to stand on its own. If so then what happens to my dream of the phone as the central device? It stays alive in a modified form. Rather than transmitting the display perhaps the devices are sync’d so each has the same programs and all that needs to be transferred is current status and data. This will minimize data transfer and hence battery consumption. Switching from device to device won’t be quite as seamless but the basic idea will be there. As battery technology gets better we will eventually reach full integration but right now we’ll have to be satisfied with incremental steps. As I’ve said before, this is going to be interesting and a lot of fun to watch.

When making tapioca pudding the directions say to bring the pudding to a full boil. They are even nice enough to explain what a full boil is. Little do they say that the volume will increase and potentially overflow the pan. Starting with an inch and a half of room might not be enough. Another lesson learned.

It may seem like I have been mostly regurgitating news. Look deeper. I am trying to point out the trends of convergence and transparency and how they are reaching everywhere. On the surface Google Wallet is a nice tweak to how you pay for what you buy. In terms of those affected it is easy to see the retailers, banks and credit card companies. If you look on the surface at semiconductor companies you might just think about those chips which enable NFC. This is part of something much bigger that affects many more companies. NFC services like Google Wallet will make transactions more transparent i.e. easier and more convenient. They also converge services into the phone and continue pushing the phone towards becoming your dominant computing platform. This is what I started this blog off with. It doesn’t matter if Google Wallet in it’s present form becomes big or not. It’s a symptom of a larger movement. No matter what business you are in you need to evaluate your strategy with convergence and transparency in mind. How will your business play out when the phone is the dominant computing platform? Intel and AMD are reacting to this today. For once the interests of AMD and Intel are aligned. They need to bring the X86 architecture to tablets and then mobile phones. Microsoft is also reacting as they worry about Windows being marginalized. Think how differently this would have been had the iPhone and iPad been based on the Atom processor. For the other chip companies there is the increasing importance of LTE and the cloud. Flash memory will continue to be pushed to grow in density and decrease in price. The world is moving towards one gigabyte of storage in the phone. Remember reading about how over built the global network is? Think again. OLED screens will finally become a mainstream technology driven by the phone. Eventually they will grow to be the dominant technology in both laptops and TV’s.  This shift affects media. The RIAA and  MPAA continue their vain attempts at protecting intellectual property rather than embracing the technology trends and profiting from them. That’s an entire blog (or two or three) in and of itself. Is your company preparing for the upcoming changes? More importantly, have you looked deep to see how convergence and transparency will change your business landscape?

I have mentioned PayPal in not one, not two but three different posts. Yesterday PayPal got upset and filed a suit against Google. It’s the usual stuff about stealing employees and with them intellectual property. What it is really about is Google daring to attack PayPal and PayPal getting scared. I suspect this is a pointless battle. Lawyers will make money but otherwise progress will march on. The system will get more streamlined and efficient. PayPal will ultimately disappear or get merged in with an electronic wallet system. It’s not like this is the only attack on PayPal. The credit card companies are also starting to offer PayPal type services.

Google just finished announcing Google Wallet. This is their NFC based payment system. In reality it is a lot more. You can read the details here. I have talked about this before. I don’t want to regurgitate details already covered but I do want to cover a few obvious items and some not so obvious one. The first involves why Google is doing this in the first place. In the near term (more about this later) they are making nothing on the transactions run through Google Wallet. The seeming financial beneficiaries are the store involved, the credit card company and the clearing house. We must ask our selves what Google’s business model is. It’s advertising. Targeted advertising is more valuable and hence able to fetch a higher price than random advertising. In the near term this is all about knowing who you are, where you are, and how you spend your money. If you are getting a little edgy about your privacy there’s a reason. You won’t have any. Google already knows more about you than the government does and that knowledge base is growing. Google Wallet extends that knowledge base. You do get benefits in return. For giving up your privacy you will gain ease of use and discounts on your purchases.

Watching the players in this was interesting. Each took their assigned segment. Google proclaimed they were the altruistic software provider that happened to make money on advertising but nothing else. Sprint  was happy to be the carrier placing the services on the phone. Citi wants to be the bank involved, Mastercard the credit card company and lesser known First Data the clearing house. Then there was the lineup of retailers happy that it would be easier to part you from your money. In many ways, players like Mastercard, First Data and Citi have little choice. This is going to happen with or without them. All of these players will be near term winners. I wonder, however, if any of them have a little fear about the long term future. The immediate losers are companies like Groupon. The retail coupon business is slipping into a Google business unit. Groupon isn’t a very large outfit nor are the others like it. I doubt many will see this as a big deal. A bigger potential loser is PayPal. Not mentioned was the fact that Google Wallet will quickly pick up the capability of PayPal. All of this is relatively near term. What happens later as mighty Google and it’s rivals Apple and Microsoft seek new avenues for increasing revenues? Google, with the world’s most powerful computer network, will have to ask itself why so much of this process, including the profits, goes to others. Perhaps they will decide to become the clearing house and edge out First Data. After that perhaps Mastercard will be a target. I doubt they will want to be your bank but who knows. Some of those faces that were smiling today might be wearing frowns in ten or fifteen years.

For the consumer, Google Wallet and related moves will mean a further increase in retail efficiency. Generally this is a good thing. Purchasing will get easier and tracking purchase will get easier too. Lost receipt issues will go away. Coupons will be easy to use and not a low paying paper cutting  job as it sometimes seems. While privacy will diminish, it will mean advertising that is relevant and generally useful.

I’m a semiconductor guy. What does this mean for the chip business? It means volume in everything related to this process. It means smartphone sales, and the chips inside them, will increase. It means lots of readers being deployed so stores can accept Google Wallet. The reach doesn’t stop there. Behind all of this will be massive data centers and a lot of network bandwidth. That means all of the chips that support these areas have a bright future.

A Tasty Mango

Posted: May 26, 2011 in Apple, Google, Microsoft
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Microsoft just described some of the changes in their next release of Windows Mobile 7 which they are calling Mango. If you have been following along with me then you know I haven’t been kind to Microsoft. If this was a horse race, the gates opened and the Microsoft horse just stood there. However, Microsoft is a strong horse. Once you get Microsoft’s attention, they can be a tough competitor. Just ask Netscape. This shows with the introduction of Mango.

At one time Microsoft had a large share of the smartphone world. With Windows Mobile 6 they had a powerful if flawed basic platform. However, it was conceptually trying to be the desktop version of Windows crammed into a phone and it could be a real pain to use. The browser was next to worthless. Then Apple introduced the iPhone and changed the landscape. While late, Microsoft released Windows Mobile 7 in an attempt to become relevant again. It takes a bit of a different approach and isn’t as “me too” as one might expect of a product coming from Microsoft. However, there were major limitations. Heck, even cut and paste wasn’t supported. That was fixed in a patch release but yesterday Microsoft showed more than patches. They showed that Microsoft can actually have some vision. I’m not going to go over all that was presented. Microsoft is claiming over 500 changes. I suggest you read here and here. What I want to comment on is a theme that I see in Mango and perhaps the long term direction of Windows Mobile. That theme is integration. This means integration of social networking and integration of search. More importantly, the underpinnings are there to enable deeper integration as developers take advantage of the new hooks in Windows Mobile. Here are a couple of relevant comments direct from Microsoft:

Threads. Switch between text, Facebook chat and Windows Live Messenger within the same conversation.

Hands-free messaging. Built-in voice-to-text and text-to-voice support enables hands-free texting or chatting.

App Connect. By connecting apps to search results and deepening their integration with Windows Phone Hubs, including Music and Video and Pictures, “Mango” allows apps to be surfaced when and where they make sense.

Improved Live Tiles. Get real-time information from apps without having to open them. Live Tiles can be more dynamic and hold more information.

I suspect we’ll see more voice to text and text to voice in upcoming releases of Android and iOS. The ability of search to interact with other apps and the merging of threads form Facebook, text, and Messenger hint at something bigger. Microsoft is breaking down app isolation. This is a very interesting trend they are pushing. I have been thinking of transparency of data and use but this is different. It means doing what you want when you want and thinking less about which app you are using and more about what you want to do. It compliments what I have been discussing and, in hindsight, seems obvious. It made me think about how isolated apps are in iOS and how nice it would be if they weren’t.

I still see Microsoft in a weak position. They are a distant third in the phone OS war and don’t have an entry in the tablet area. As far as the TV set, Windows Media Player seems stagnant and still focused on the PC. Still, Mango adds excitement to Windows Mobile. We’ll have to wait and see if Google and Apple offer compelling moves in the app integration area. This “Post PC Era” battle is going to be interesting and a lot of fun to watch.

Did Intel read my blog? Interesting posts about Intel here and here and here.

Of the Android tablets, the Xoom was the first to look reasonable but the iPad 2 made it look dated. The first real iPad 2 challenger appears to be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Don’t confuse this with the thicker 10.1v. Engadget has a good review here. They also have a review of the HTC Flyer posted here. While not as positive as the Galaxy Tab review, I think the integration of audio and notes on the Flyer has a lot of promise.

Does anyone else think Microsoft buying Nokia’s smartphone business is a bad idea? That would make Microsoft like Apple but still trying to be like Google. Pick an approach! If Microsoft tries to straddle the fence then they will fail. Why should HTC or anyone else make a Windows Mobile phone if their direct competition on the Windows Mobile space will be Microsoft. Microsoft could wind up being the sole manufacturer of Windows Mobile phones. At that point I give a big advantage to Apple.

I haven’t talked much about Chrome and the Chromebook. A good article on them is here.

If you are following what I am saying about transparency and convergence I suggest you read  Sarah Rotman Epps’ Blog.

In looking back at my comments on transparency I realize I might be giving the wrong impression. Data transparency is moving along. However, creating software that makes moving from one device to another transparent is very hard to accomplish. It involves making the transition from one UI to another transparent or, coming from the other direction, involves making one UI work across several devices. Consider where this has been most successfully done i.e. the iPad and iPhone. Both the iPhone and the iPad use the same OS with the same UI. However, in accomplishing this, the tablet version of iOS has been hindered by the need to work well on the much smaller screen of the iPhone. Google has taken a different approach. Their tablet version of Android is noticeably different from the phone version. The result is that Apple and Google are coming at the problem from opposite directions. With Ice Cream Sandwich, Google will try to unify the tablet and phone experience and thereby improve transparency when moving between the devices. Apple, with iOS 5, will try to bring better functionality to iOS so their tablet offering is less restricted by the OS and is able to come closer to the functionality of a full blown laptop.

But tablets and phones are closely related. Any problems encountered while working to achieve transparency between the two pale compared to merging the experience with other devices. Consider the TV set. It lacks a touch screen. Any keyboard linked to the TV set will almost certainly be less than full sized. It would be easy to claim that the TV is fundamentally different and to forget transparency altogether.  That would be a mistake. There is too much money at stake to take the easy way out. Here is where human factors specialists will have to shine. They will have to craft a different OS interface than that on a phone or tablet but one which feels very similar to the phone OS interface such that knowing the phone OS takes the TV OS learning curve to zero.The same will be true when looking at the man-machine interface in the automobile. Here, minimizing driver distraction will be the main goal. There are two aspects to driver distraction and they will sometimes work against each other. On the one hand, making the automobile UI look like the phone UI will allow use to be more second nature and thereby require less conscious thought on the part of the driver. The problem is that a phone OS will sometimes require that the driver look away from the road. That’s not good. A compromise will have to be reached. Like the TV, there will be other ways of interfacing to the UI than just a touch screen. There will be voice, steering wheel controls and probably a mouse like device similar to what BMW uses on its infamous iDrive.

This high difficulty level extends to applications. I really like those iTunes store apps that have the plus sign next to the price. You pay once and you get something that works on both your iPhone and iPad. I hate paying twice for an app just because I want it on my iPhone and my iPad. Down the road I want to buy an app once and use it on whatever device is handy. This trend is already in full play. Just take a look at Steam. When you buy a program through Steam, you can download and install it on any machine you like. You log into your Steam account to gain access. The main problem here is that you have to download a large program for each device but that could be easily automated. Also, as more programs exist in the cloud, this will be less of an issue. Already some programs allow the user to start playing while sections of code not in use continue to download. The big problem is interface design. Imagine making Crysis work on everything from a phone to a TV set. That’s not easy. It is particularly difficult if the user wants to pick up a game in progress on one device, say a TV, where he left off on another such as his phone. To get an idea of the scope of the problem look at Foreflight. This is a great aviation app with an excellent user interface. However, their iPhone and iPad apps are two completely different animals. With Foreflight this isn’t too big of an issue since the apps are free and the database subscription allows use on an iPhone and an iPad at the same time. The photos below show how different the interface has to be because of screen size.

The iPad version of Foreflight allows selecting different pages from any current page. Look at the bottom of the picture below.

Sections like AIRPORTS and DOWNLOADS can be selected on the bottom. Now look at these screen captures from the iPhone app. The first shows the page equivalent to the iPad page shown above.

Here you select CLOSE which takes you to this page:

Now you can select the page you want.

I am not picking on Foreflight. Rather, I am highlighting what they have done as an example of adapting to the different screen sizes of the two devices while maintaining a lot of the same feel so that the learning curve is low. However, this is the easy part. Adapting to TV, car, laptop etc. will be a lot more difficult. If you are a pilot you might be wondering why anyone would want to use this program across so many devices. But, if transparent use and data is really achieved then imagine the following scenario. You are watching TV with some friends when the talk turns to playing golf on Hilton Head the next day. You bring up Foreflight on the TV and flight plan the trip to find out the flight time and take an initial look at weather. The next morning you quickly update and file the flight plan using your laptop. On the way to the airport you notice that the morning clouds haven’t burned off as expected so you decide to check the current airport weather. Your car interfaces into the Foreflight app on your phone and you are able to bring up the weather. In the air passengers follow the flight’s progress on the iPad using the same program. You have bought one application and used it across numerous devices. It feels easy and natural to do but it was only easy for you. For the developers it was a tough task. They had to sweat the user interface and how it would appear on different devices. The device manufacturers had to sweat the user interface of the OS to make sure this transparent usage would , well…, really be transparent.