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Ford in Sync, But Out of Step

The Ford Motor Company had an impressive demonstration of its Sync system last night at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. Impressive, but in the long run, Sync has some serious limitations.

Sync, which is written by Microsoft, manages your phone calls, optionally with voice recognition, by a Bluetooth connection to your cellphone. It can also download your phoneâ''s address book, and even manage multiple family cellphones (and address books). Ford cars with Sync come with hard disks for music, which Sync can also play, with voice recognitionâ''a particularly impressive feature that can even handle hard-to-parse artist names like Sade, U2, and AC/DC. The system can even recommend songs, though it does so only by an internal database of genres and subgenres.

Sync also provides navigation, traffic, weather information, and sports scores through an eight-inch screen on the dashboard. In addition, you can query Sync about things like nearby movie theatres and where the gas station with the cheapest gas is. Sync even does emergency 911â''when an airbag is deployed, the car uses your cellphone to dial 911 after giving you a chance to cancel the call.

All in all, Sync was pretty impressive, and Spectrum will have a more complete video report on it soon. But I couldnâ''t help but think of some of its limitations when I went to a panel briefing on Sprintâ''s mobile broadband network, Xohm, which will be rolling out in a number of cities through 2008.

Spectrum picked Xohm as one of itâ''s â''Winnersâ'' for 2008, and more information is available in a feature article in our January issue. Briefly, though, Xohm uses IEEE 802.16e, known commercially as WiMax, to create a 2-4 Mb/s broadband connection that will work in mobile devices, even a moving car. (I'll have more about the panel discussion in an upcoming post.)

Sync, on the other hand, uses a one-way satellite connection provided by Sirius to deliver its information. Some, such as traffic, comes directly from Sirius, but the gas station price information comes from another company's database, while the music recommendations come from a third. Each relationship has to be worked out in detail by Ford and Sirius. If some other company comes along with, say, better music recommendations, maybe using an Amazon-like â''people who liked X also like Yâ'' system, too bad.

Sync, in other words, is a closed system, just like Verizonâ''s or, for that matter, the iPhoneâ''s. Services get added slowly, when, and only when, Ford and Sirius choose to. A Xohm-based service, on the other hand, would offer a bigger data pipe and it would work in both directions, letting you send video to the grandparents or update your blog directly from the car. You could subscribe to a better music system or a traffic information service you find to be more accurate. E911 would probably also be more reliable coming directly from the car than a phone that for many people would fly into the air from the center console in an accident.

I asked a Ford spokesperson whether he wished Xohm had been available at the time it developed the system. â''Weâ''re very happy with Sirius,â'' I was told. It didnâ''t really answer the question. But perhaps Ford really is happy with a closed system it can control and draw service revenue from, just like a traditional cellular phone company. Ford needs to watch out, though. Thereâ''s this thing called the Internet, and itâ''s going to take over the wireless world, just as it did the wired one.

2008 fashions in consumer electronics

The theme of the 2008 International Consumer Electronics show, going on now in Las Vegas, is â''Experience the Art of Technology,â'' overtly acknowledging that this not just a tech business, it is a fashion business. Electronics purchases, these days, are as much about style as technology, a lesson Apple taught the industry with the first Macintosh computers. (Although Philips may have gone a little far this year with its bejeweled gizmos.)

So hereâ''s Spectrumâ''s report on 2008 fashion trends in consumer electronics.

Wires are out. Wireless is all the rage, all sorts of wireless, from wireless USB, to Wimedia, to Wimax, to wireless HDMI, to new extreme proximity wireless like Sonyâ''s new â''transfer jetâ'' technology that is intended for devices actually sitting on top of other devices.

All the cool gizmos use flash. The love affair consumers have with tiny hard disk drives may be coming to an end; the next generation of, well, everything, is wearing flash. And why not? High definition camcorders that can store five or more hours of video on a 32 gigabyte memory card are likely to make disk and tape cameras seem as dated as a poodle skirt. (But those cards will, for a while anyway, carry designer price tags, think $250 or more when they hit store shelves.)

And red is the new black. Or white. Or tangerine. glassesetcd.JPGOr pick your favorite color trend; red is in.

For once, this was a fashion trend I jumped on early. Last year I fairly randomly bought a pair of glasses in a red metal case. Then a Krzr cell phone. Then an ipod nano. (See photo, right.) And then I got to CES and am suddenly seeing red everywhere.

Hereâ''s a sampling (photo below, clockwise from top left): The Ladybug iPod speakers from Vestalife, a 160 GB portable hard drive from Iomega, a Sharp Aquos HDTV LCD TV, the SW20 waterproof and shockproof flash-based camcorder from Panasonic, an Everio HDD camcorder from JVC, and Rolly, the audio robot from Sony.

The red accent on a television (Sharp wasnâ''t the only manufacturer doing it) is the one touch of red that didnâ''t work for me. Hard to imagine lipstick red will coordinate with many living rooms.

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Also hard to imagine TV as a fashion item; the last time I bought a television was nearly 20 years ago. But it would only be good news for the TV industry if consumers replaced televisions as often as they do computersâ''for one, they might stop asking nasty questions about fading colors in displays.

Home, Sweet Home Automation

When you put more than 100 000 professionals and marketers together for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the convergence of telecommunications and consumer electronics can show itself in unusual ways. Home automation turns out to be one example.

Home automation is already an unusual topics of discussion here. Televisions, cellphones, even automobiles, yes. Home entertainment, most definitely yes. But thermostat controllers, Zigbee, and home alarm systems... well, most people will go the whole show without hearing about them.

And there are reasons for that. For the homeowner, automation is expensive, hard to install, and too hard to use. For system manufacturers, thereâ''s no killer application driving the market. Thatâ''s not just my opinion, itâ''s that of industry leaders, as offered during an unusual technical panel session held in a far corner of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Yet, thereâ''s a big market out there, and thereâ''s room for it to grow considerably. According to Paul Dawes, CEO of iControl Networks Inc., 23 percent of all North American homes have a monitored security system. That is, homes that pay a monthly fee to a company like ADT or Brinks or, increasingly, to their telephone or cable provider. Those fees add up to $7 billion in recurring annual revenue, Dawes says. And naturally, he and the rest of the industry look hungrily upon the other 77 percent of homes.

Dawes agrees thereâ''s no killer app, but he and his fellow panelists see two other areas along with security that will drive the home automation market. The first is energy savings. In an automated home, windows will report themselves open, saving heat in the winter and A/C in the summer. Lights will shut themselves off when motion detectors report that no one is home.

The other point to automating a home is entertainment. When every appliance and device can communicate with every other one, a single remote can control all of them.

iControlâ''s corner of the markets consists of software that gives home systems the ability to communicate with PDAs, laptops, and cellphones. So when your kid comes home from school and unlocks the front door, a text message is sent. A camera can be set to take a picture if a car drives up to the house, and the picture, or again a text message, is sent.

iControlâ''s software costs less than $100 and comes in the form of a device that attaches to a home network. The software is compatible with both GEâ''s and Honeywellâ''s security systems, which together currently hold more than 80 percent of the North American market. That duopoly may not hold much longer, though.

â''Weâ''re seeing huge demand right now from broadband operators to get into this space,â'' says Dawes. â''Security market is growing at 6 or 7 percent a year. Itâ''s more profitable than telephony. Either by partnering with someone like ADT in offering a bundled service or by doing it themselves. Time-Warner, for example, is doing it themselves. Theyâ''ve got for divisions launched doing security.

That brings to mind some ways for products like iControlâ''s to move beyond securityâ''for example, to controlling the home entertainment systems that are already connected to a set-top box or DVR. Dawes says heâ''s already working on it, as well as communicating with thermostats. Today, you can set your air conditioning to kick on at 6:00pm every weekday, but what if you often work late? Just send it a text message.

Out of Africa: White Man's Burden?

The latest flap between Intel and Nicholas Negroponte over how best to deliver computers to the world's poorest children strikes me as an honest disagreement between two parties with very different conceptions of technological change. Negroponte's "One Laptop per Child" (OLPC) initiative is a striking marriage of innovation with altruism, leavened with a healthy layer of technocratic zeal.

Negroponte's wizards have created a fascinating little machine, loaded with novelty, and built for a eye-catchingly low cost. The only trouble I see is that Negroponte and friends never asked either poor youth or the governors of the countries they live in about what they want. In short, OLPC is an example of fire coming from the gods, and the gods in this case are rich white men from North America.

Intel's approach is very different. The company's leaders think that, at least when it comes to personal computers, rich and poor people aren't very different. The kinds of laptops that kids use in America are probably the kinds that kids will use in Nigeria, Libya or Peru. Call Intel's way of thinking (which I gathered from a long interview with Sean Maloney, Intel's no.2 last year) "techno-universalism," or one-size fits all.

Universalist approaches to innovation have great strengths, especially because they solve the equity problem out of the gate. Negroponte's challenge is to prove to skeptical Nigerians, about 5 percent of whom have incomes approaching those of Norwegians, why they should settle for a half-baked laptop that seems tailored for street urchins, not the bulging middle-class of the developing world.

The weakness of Intel's approach is of course cost and appropriateness. Conditions in Africa really are different. Heat and power shutoffs are only two of the stresses on computers in the region. Why can't a standard laptop possess regional variations: a flavor for Africa, a different one for Peru, a third variant for Laos and Cambodia?

In principle, the debate is highly interesting. Techno-universalism is easily viewed by some in the developing world as a new kind of imperialism. Negroponte's approach, however, carries the burden of good intentions gone awry. Because he aims to put his laptops into the hands of the poorest children, only governments or aid donors can buy them. Governments tend to be corrupt in poor countries, and aid donors are stupid -- or at least they are stupid when it comes to choosing computers.

I don't think that either Intel nor Negroponte has the right idea. A few years back, I wrote a profile for Spectrum magazine about a creative code writer from Ghana, Herman Chinery-Hesse. He talked a lot about "Africanizing" information technology. He saw ways in which "tropical" conditions could give rise to new forms of computing and telephony. He imagined himself and other "African hackers" as creating these forms. In China and India, many of the best brightest also dream of creating new tools for the world's poor, reasoning that since they are poor they are better positioned than rich engineers in the West to conceive of useful innovations.

Who is best at delivering innovations for the poor is an open question. The good news is that for the first time in a century the focus of many great innovators is on the needs of the have-nots. That may lead to some strife, but inevitably will deliver fresh ideas, products and services.

The sun is setting on high definition disk format war, but is yet another battle beginning?

Format wars. Theyâ''ve been the Achillesâ'' heel of the consumer electronics industry, and the bane of consumers, since the classic VHS vs. Beta battle of the early 1980s. Standards setting organizations and industry consortiums hold endless meetings to avoid them, yet still they break out with astounding regularity.

The battle of the blue disks seems, finally, to be over. For several years now, two separate industry alliances, one led by Sony, Panasonic, Philips, and others; the other by Toshiba, NEC, and others have battled over the next generation digital disk format. Both contendersâ''Blu-Ray Disc and HD-DVDâ''use blue lasers to read and write data, but differ in other key characteristics. Neither have obvious advantages to consumers, so most consumers simply didnâ''t purchase either.

On the eve of the International Consumer Electronics Show, now taking place in Las Vegas, Warner Bros., a movie studio that previously had been producing high definition movies for the home in both formats, announced that it was no longer going to support HD-DVD. The HD-DVD coalition immediately canceled its long-scheduled CES press conference, a move that seemed to signal surrender.

However, on Sunday, Toshiba executives, while admitting that they had had what was the worst 24 hours of their careers (and, if the hastily printed press releases handed out touting their broad line-up of standard DVD products were any indication, a number of those hours were spent at the local Kinkoâ''s), denied raising the white flag. They said that Toshiba continues to believe that HD-DVD is the best format for consumers. Many consumers are passionate about the technology as well, but that was also true for Betamax. So it seems that if youâ''ve been sitting on the proverbial fence before upgrading your home video system until now, you can go ahead and safely climb down on the Blu-Ray side.

But this does not mean that format wars are over for now. Because a new format war seems, quietly, to be heating up. Oh, the two sides are still in negotiations, and are

politely murmuring about working with industry groups towards a unified standard, but those murmurs might also be the sounds of players choosing up sides and gathering ammunition.

At stake? Mobile broadcast TV for the United States. Thatâ''s free, over-the-air local television, broadcast to a wide variety of consumer electronics devices, sent over broadcastersâ'' existing spectrum; not pay-for-service streaming video sent over a cell phone or special purpose network.

The idea has a lot going for it. With a tuner chip added to your cell phone, iPod, PDA, or other portable device, you will be able to watch local news, sports, weatherâ''anything you can receive over the air. Itâ''ll be a cheap add-on to consumer products for manufacturers and a nice feature for consumers. Itâ''ll cost broadcasters a bit to add the necessary equipment to their towers, but theyâ''ll benefit by gaining a bigger audience for local programming and advertisements.

No surprise these days, there are at least two competing technologies for a territory that only one can winâ''no broadcaster is going to put two different sets of equipment on its towers, no consumer is going to want to change devices or swap out cards when drives down the highway.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, both camps put up a flagâ''politely and briefly, but just long enough to make it clear that they are moving ahead with the technology, and will continue to do so, whether or not standardization efforts broker a compromise.

At the opening press conference of the Consumer Electronics Show, Woo Paik, president and CTO of LG Electronics brought out prototypes of what LG calls MPH devicesâ''that stands for Mobile Pedestrian Handheld. He said the company has run field trials in Chicago and Washington DC, is demonstrating in Las Vegas, and will be ready to ship products in February of 2009. Later, at the Samsung press conference, Samsungâ''s director of digital media J.W. Park brought out a parade of models (the human kind) carrying models (the prototype kind) of what Samsung calls Advanced-VSB devices. He reminded listeners that Samsung, demoâ''ing the technology at CES last year, was first out of the gate on this one. Both technologies modify the US digital broadcast system to receive a strong signal at normal auto speeds, not possible with the current digital broadcast technology.

Weâ''ll likely hear a lot more from both camps as the year goes on.

Lucy Lawless asks Dean Kamen: Can our technologies become self conscious?

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Geek pop stars Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, and Lucy Lawless, aka "Xena the Warrior Princess," sat together on a panel today at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; and Lawless quizzed Kamen on his thoughts about computers and consciousness. Kamen redirected the subject to the fact that technology empowers evil as well as good, and never actually answered the question.

Panasonic's Toshihiro Sakamoto shows latest leap in TV screen sizes--to 150 inches

In his keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show here in Las Vegas, Toshihiro Sakamoto, president of Panasonic AVC Networks and senior managing director of Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, went for the wow factor when he unveiled a 150-inch plasma TV screen, the largest demonstrated by any company to date. (The previous record for plasma was 103 inches, held by Panasonic; Sharp has gone to 108 inches in LCD technology.) These giant screens arenâ''t big sellers, but they do win their manufacturers bragging rights.

Sakamoto also unveiled a gizmo that has long been wanted and possible, but attempts to create it have raised copyright concernsâ''that is, a Tivo-like television recorder that can leave the house and make recorded content portable. Developed in partnership with Comcast, the device is a combination cable box, hard disk recorder, and portable DVD player. The hard disk recorder/DVD player component snaps off of a base station for use on the road, in the plane, or whereever. I donâ''t have all the details yet, but my guess is this product will avoid the fate of previous attempts to space-shift as well as time-shift TV because the recorded television is locked to the box, that is, cannot be copied over to another device, like a computer or ipod.

Sakamotoâ''s presentation featured a successful demonstration of in-room wireless networking of high definition devices, sending data without compression. (Sony, at its press conference yesterday, attempted a demonstration of a new technology for close proximity networking of high definition gizmos, it didnâ''t work on stage, but redeemed itself at its booth.) Wireless HDTV networks are likely to emerge as a major theme of the Consumer Electronics Show, which opened this morning.

CES 2008 kicks off with 9 mm TV and crystal-laden USB drive

From Senior Editor Tekla Perry at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show:

Last week, getting ready for CES, I made a few predictions. The show has yet to officially open, but already a couple of my predictions came true, during the press conference day that precedes the show.

--The first extremely thin TV appeared at the Pioneer press conference, in the form of a 9 mm thick plasma TV, thinner than an iPhone. It was indeed a prototype. One point.

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--There indeed was a product demonstrated today that got a lot of buzz (mostly of the â''what are they thinkingâ'' kind) and will likely not make it to retailers shelves (or at least never get off those shelves into a shopping bag). Thatâ''s the Active Crystal pendant from Philips. Studded with Swarovski crystals and priced at around $150, this pendant, either shaped like heart or a lock, pops open to reveal USB thumb drives. The coordinating crystal bedecked earbuds might, however, have a chance in the market. Another point.

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--Bill Gates, for his keynote speech, abandoned his traditional Martha Stewart Living type set for a giant screen and virtual scenery. No score.

--As for not getting a free lunch, Iâ''ve got a ticket that says Iâ''m entitled to a free lunch as long as supplies last. I think Iâ''m safe giving myself the point there.

Finally scoreâ''three out of four. Not bad.

Prejudice in nanotechnology is just as ugly as it is anywhere else

Despite a rather feeble attempt to point out that it was not â''Saudi Bashingâ'' in its comments section, the Foresight Institute in its blog managed to do a pretty fair approximation of exactly that, when discussing a recent announcement that Saudi Arabia would be funding nanotechnology research through one of its universities, King Saud University in Riyadh.

It seems that the Foresight Institute doesnâ''t like the idea of a King announcing the funding of nanotechnology research. Itâ''s better if it comes from a government or a CEO to their mind. To them the idea of Kings and Princes harkens back to â''oldenâ'' timesâ''not their preference.

I suppose it wouldnâ''t help to point out that many countries today are in fact â''constitutional monarchiesâ'', like Spain, for instance. Hmmhâ'¿doesnâ''t the UK stand for the â''United Kingdomâ''.

But if this kind of announcement really offends their sensibilities, perhaps they can do themselves a favor and just replace the term â''the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulazizâ'' with the term â''Federal Governmentâ'' as it more or less equates to the same thing in terms of how the funding mechanisms operate.

I am guessing though this is not the real root of their issue with the announcement. It seems to reveal itself later in the comments section when they surmise that the research scientists that they recruit will likely not be female scientists â''who might like to â'' for example â'' drive a car, or be able to work with their male colleagues.â''

Not sure if this is altogether true, I am not an expert on Islamic law. But even if it were, I guess for the Foresight Institute this suffices for denigrating their nanotechnology initiative.

I personally find the US cultural tradition of getting obese on fast food pretty reprehensible, but I am not sure of what that has to do with its nanotechnology funding.

Watching the California storms from your desk

storm2.pngSilicon Valley is in the thick of the biggest wettest windiest storm weâ''ve had in a long time. But you donâ''t have to be here to share the experience. All sorts of web-based tools let you watch the stormâ''s effects online.

The U.S. Geological Survey operates a streamgage network, regularly checking the water levels in rivers and streams around the country, some in real time. You can look at data for individual or aggregated sites here, or download a widget to track the change in water levels from your own web page here. Some individual cities operate their own flood monitoring network; Iâ''ll be checking Palo Altoâ''s regularly here, particularly the San Francisquito Creek at Chaucer Street, where the creek level can climb unbelievable fast as water sheets down from the mountains, and, if it goes over, will affect a fair number of people I know (who are likely spending today sandbagging). People in Napa, worried about the Napa River and nearby creeks going over their banks, will be watching here.

If you want to watch the progress of the storm itself, checkout the USGSâ''s webcams, like this one set up at the Truckee river. You can actually control the cameraâ''s position yourself. Or watch the raging surf here or here.

Finally, on Mount Hamilton, visible on a clear day from Silicon Valley, operates the HamCam. I checked it today, thinking I might catch a snowstorm up at the peak. Something is coming down heavily, at this point itâ''s hard to tell. You can check when the weather clears a little here.

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