The Digital Family

Post ImageMy immediate family is very much what I would call a “digital family”. We each have at least one computer, cell phone, digital music player, etc. There’s lots of electronics in our houses, from TVs to networking equipment. Additionally, each one of us uses email, instant messaging, and the web on a daily basis. My extended family is much less a digital family, rarely using email and counting the TV as their most prominent digital device. When I went home for Christmas, it occurred to me that being a digital family is definitely the way to be. I compared my immediate family and my extended family in a very common setting – the living room – to reach my conclusion. I’m going to share my observations here using the living room as my lab, but rest assured, the same principles can be applied to any environment, which is why I refer to a “digital family” and not a “digital household”. The point is the digital family embraces technology.

First, let’s describe the living room. You might think it’s silly to suggest that an entire family can spend some time together in their living room given that everyone these days is so busy. And normally I’d agree, but the holidays afford a little more time, so I was able to make some observations. What happens in a living room (or family room if that’s more to your liking)? Usually there’s TV, maybe you chat amongst yourselves, there might be some food, and in the digital family at least, there’s at least one computer. In the case of my family this past holiday, there was usually three and sometimes four computers – my parents each have a laptop, I had my tablet, and my brother occasionally brought his laptop upstairs. Also important is that the computers are all connected to the Internet wirelessly.

So let’s describe a typical scenario:

The family is sitting down watching television together. Doesn’t really matter what program is on, just that they are all watching. A familiar face comes on the screen, and someone in the living room wonders who it is. The other family members don’t know, but maybe they recognize the face too.

What happens in a non-digital family? The family all agrees that they recognize the face, but with no way to find out who it is, nothing further is said. The face remains nameless. What about in the digital family? Someone picks up the laptop, heads to IMDB and looks up the show the family is watching. A few seconds later, the family is able to put a name to the familiar face.

If you think that’s a silly example, think again. I was watching TV with my grandparents one time in their living room when just this scenario happened. My grandfather recognized the face, but with no way to find out who it was, the conversation just stopped. Over the holidays the same thing happened with my digital family – my Dad recognized someone. This time we were able to look up the show using one of our laptops, and my Dad realized that the person he recognized was Robin Tunney from the popular show Prison Break. Later that night we decided to watch Vertical Limit, a movie from 2000 that Ms. Tunney co-starred in.

Think about that for a minute, think about how powerful that is! There’s lots of research to suggest that actually going through the process of doing something helps you learn it – my Dad probably won’t forget her name again. We already owned Vertical Limit on DVD, but imagine we hadn’t? We might have decided to purchase it right then and there. The possibilities are endless.

The digital family immediately impacts the world.

Here’s another example. My brother received March of the Penguins on DVD for Christmas, so one night we decided to watch it. The movie was very well done, and very interesting, but the most fascinating part to me was what happened after we watched it. The movie focuses on Emperor Penguins, so we discussed what other penguins also made the march, and how long they lived, and various other questions. We decided to watch another movie though, so nobody picked up the laptop. The next morning my Mom had been searching the Internet and found the answers to all of our questions. What might normally have been unanswered or forgotton questions became information we all learned.

The digital family actively learns together.

These are just two examples of the power of the digital family, and there are many more. I haven’t lived with my parents for almost eight years now, and yet I talk to them every day using instant messaging. Where many families might drift apart, we’ve used the technology available to remain close and up-to-date on each other’s lives (true the phone would work, but that is disruptive and very expensive by comparison). Many people cite our society’s growing reliance on digital devices as a negative thing, but I feel it’s entirely the opposite, and I think the digital family is a great way to illustrate why. Certainly if one person is completely digital but the rest of the family is not, there might be difficulties, but when the entire family is a digital family, there’s lots of benefits.

So here’s my theory in an nutshell:

The digital family embraces technology in all its forms and utilizes it to the fullest extent. As a result, the digital family is stronger, better educated, and has a greater impact on the world around them.

I’m probably not the first person to come up with such a concept, but I think it’s pretty powerful nonetheless. You might have heard of something called the “digital lifestyle”, but very often I find it focuses on the individual instead of the family. Bill Gates’ recent keynote at CES 2006 definitely mentioned some family aspects, but mostly it focused on the individual. And even more often I find that for the individual to follow the digital lifestyle, their entire family needs to be a digital family. So often there are demonstrations of keeping an eye on your kids, or handling your family’s medical information, but those things all require a digital family, not a digital individual, which is why I think the digital family concept is potentially more powerful.

I’m glad my family is a digital family – imagine if every family was!

Henry Blodget on Google

The infamous Henry Blodget took up blogging last year, and regardless of your opinions about him or your memories of the dotcom bubble and subsequent bust, he has some interesting thoughts. His latest focus on Google, which has been enjoying quite a steady ride north on the stock market lately. Here’s what Mr. Blodget has to say:

No one else is writing this piece, so it will have to be me. I should say upfront that I’m not predicting that this will happen (yet), and I’m certainly not making a recommendation. I’m just laying out a scenario that could kick Google in the kneecaps and take its stock back to, say, $100 a share.

Google’s major weakness is that it is almost entirely dependent on one, high-margin revenue stream. The company has dozens of cool products, but with the exception of AdWords, none of them generate meaningful revenue. From an intermediate-term financial perspective, therefore, they are irrelevant.

So, the question is, what could happen to AdWords, and what will happen to the company (and stock) if it does?

It’s a very interesting read, definitely worth it. One of the bigger problems he mentions is click fraud, but Google’s rapidly growing fixed costs are also a big factor. And he nails the biggest problem of all – they need some other revenue generating products! You can’t run a sustainable business when you only release beta products (I recently posted about betas on the Paramagnus Blog).

I know it’s silly to compare Google with Microsoft and Yahoo and any other company, but if Google “loses”, it will be because the other companies all have numerous revenue streams.

Read: Internet Outsider

Apple to sell SNL skits

Post ImageMacworld took centre stage in the world of technology today, so don’t be surprised if you see a lot of Apple-related items as you scan the headlines. One announcement that I found quite interesting is that Apple intends to sell Saturday Night Live skits through iTunes:

Apple is set to announce today that it will sell a limited number of archived “Saturday Night” skits through its iTunes Music Store for $1.99 each, for viewing on video iPods or personal computers.

The offering is the latest expansion of Apple’s iTunes video library, which includes content from television networks including NBC and ABC.

Seems to me this is an excellent idea; it’s exactly the sort of content most people will want to have on a portable device. There’s a theory that the coming battle between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD for the successor to DVDs will be meaningless, because content will be downloaded instead of purchased on physical media by the time all is said and done. I tend to think the theory holds some merit, and announcements like this one from Apple only make it even more likely. Already consumers download a lot of stuff and not just on the computer – take for example movies on satellite or digital cable.

Imagine if we had wireless everywhere! You could be walking to work or school or wherever, and get a notification that a new SNL skit is available for download. You simply say yes (and your credit card is charged), and pretty soon you’ve got a new video to watch! It’s powerful stuff.

Read: NYTimes.com

Podcasting at IBM

Post ImageI ran across an interesting article today in The Journal News about podcasting inside and outside IBM. Sounds like Big Blue really likes the idea of time-shifted audio:

IBM started to encourage employees to read and create the online journals known as blogs last May. Shortly after, IBM started pushing podcasts — subscription-based audio downloads that can be listened to on laptops, iPods or other MP3 players.

Inside the company, about 50 podcasts have debuted. There have been 15,000 downloads in the past two months.

In addition to making work more fun, there are numerous cost savings that can occur at a company like IBM who adopts podcasting. Take for example a conference call in which one or two people simply dispense information to dozens more, perhaps explaining some documents or figures. That’s the kind of thing that can be very cheaply turned into a podcast, and according to the article, such a podcast saved IBM hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Could 2006 be the year of corporate podcasting?

Read: The Journal News

How many cores do you have?

This post originally appeared as a guest post on Dave Lucas‘ popular blog, Capital Region People.

Post ImageNow that we’re into 2006, my computer is about six years old. I have upgraded certain components over the years (notably RAM and hard drives) but my original processors are still chugging along – dual Pentium III 600 MHz processors (x86 Family 6 Model 8 for those of you who like details). For the most part my computer is pretty responsive, and I do a good job of clearing up temp files, scanning for spyware and viruses, etc. Certain applications and tasks are starting to be noticeably slower though, which means a new computer is becoming more and more likely. My computer probably is doing things just as fast as a couple years ago, but it seems slower because of all the newer, faster machines I come into contact with. Faster machines that more and more frequently have more than one processor core.

To ring in the new year, Intel launched a massive rebranding complete with new logos and a new slogan, Leap Ahead. The company also announced a new focus and direction; one that includes muti-core processors at its heart. Here’s how Intel describes multi-core:

Intel multi-core architecture has a single Intel processor package that contains two or more processor “execution cores,” or computational engines, and delivers—with appropriate software—fully parallel execution of multiple software threads. The operating system (OS) perceives each of its execution cores as a discrete processor, with all the associated execution resources.

Essentially, more execution cores means you computer can do more things at once, and thus accomplish tasks faster. It was April of last year that Intel released their first dual core processor, and research on new multi-core projects (15 currently underway at Intel) has been feverish ever since. There haven’t been that many dual core processors sold yet, mainly because they are a bit too expensive still. That will change in 2006 though, as Intel forecasts “that more than 85 percent of our server processors and more than 70 percent of our mobile and desktop Pentium® family processor shipments will be multi-core–based by the end of 2006.”

Intel isn’t the only company betting on multi-core technology. In a recent interview with CNET News.com, AMD’s Chief Technology Officer confirmed that the company will be shipping quad-core processors by 2007. AMD has a good description of multi-core technology:

Multi-core processors enable true multitasking. On single-core systems, multitasking can max out CPU utilization, resulting in decreased performance as operations have to wait to be processed. On multi-core systems, since each core has its own cache, the operating system has sufficient resources to handle most compute intensive tasks in parallel.

Improvements are being made in software as well. The current versions of Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X will all be able to take advantage of the improved performance delivered by multi-core processors, and new iterations of the operating systems should improve things even more. Mac users will be happy that Apple is switching to Intel this year, opening the door for multi-core processors in Macintosh computers. Windows users will soon have Windows Vista available which will not only support multi-core processors, but other performance boosting technologies like hot-swappable USB key-based RAM too.

Let’s not forget that other system components are being improved too. The speed of memory, motherboards, hard drives, and other components are all increasing along with processor performance. All this and I haven’t even mentioned 64-bit technology yet! When you step back and look at the big picture, it’s clear that we’re on track for a huge performance boost.

If you’re going to be purchasing a new computer, the coming year is as good a time as any. The new multi-core systems that will be available are a far cry from my pokey old Pentium III’s, even if I do have two! The faster computers will usher in new applications and interfaces that take advantage of the increased horsepower, meaning you’ll see improvements across the board, from hardware to software.

Perhaps a year from now you won’t ask someone how fast their computer is. Instead, you might ask, how many cores do you have?

Windows Vista at CES

It’s that time of year again, when all the electonics manufacturers get together at CES to show off their new wares. Microsoft is busy at the show this year too, showing off some of the new capabilities of Windows Vista. Bringing Vista to life is a short but interesting video that shows off some of the features coming in Vista:

Be one of the first to see Windows Vista in use as Gates and Microsoft Group Product Manager Aaron Woodman show off the slick new OS during the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show.

Aaron shows the live previewing, Flip 3D application switching, the Sidebar with Gadgets, and the new Sideshow feature for notebooks. In another Microsoft video, Bill Gates shows off part of his vision for the digital future. It’s a very cool video – I love the screens!!

UPDATE: The blogosphere is buzzing about Bill Gates’ speech at CES. Watch the entire keynote online!

Sports bra monitors your heart

Health-related technology seems to be one of the most popular and innovative areas of research lately, with really interesting projects like this sports bra from Numetrex:

A sports bra from Numetrex picks up a runner’s heartbeat and sends the signal down to a computer attached onto a waistband or worn on the wrist. The system effectively cuts out the sometimes uncomfortable attachable sensors that runners and cyclists generally have to use if they want to monitor their heart.

The bra sells for $45, or $115 in a bundle with a Polar watch and transmitter.

Seems like a very good idea to me, makes a lot of sense. It also looks pretty much like a normal sports bra, which means there shouldn’t be too many reasons to stay away (except, presumably, price – though I have no idea how much sports bras normally cost). It’ll be interesting to see what other kinds of electronic fabrics we see. Even something like a pedometer built into your pants or shoes would be useful!

Read: CNET News.com

Paper thin batteries!

Post ImageLike everyone else, I have far too many battery powered devices and not enough long lasting, reliable batteries! As a result, I am quite interested whenever I hear about some sort of advance in the battery market, like the new paper thin batteries developed by NEC:

NEC has debuted some ultra-thin and flexible quick charging batteries named ORB, for Organic Radical Battery. We’re having a hard time deciding what is the coolest part about these; their 0.3mm thickness that allows them to be flexible, or the fact that they can be recharged in about 30 seconds. The organic radical materials inside the battery are in an “electrolyte-permeated gel state,” which is supposedly about halfway between a solid and a liquid. This helps ions make a smooth move (no, the other one), reducing resistance, allowing the batteries to charge faster. 1 square centimeter will give you about 1 miliwatt hour.

These batteries will be useful for things like RFID tags, electronic paper, and wearable computers. If they can boost the power though, maybe they’d make their way into normal laptops and other small computing devices. Even something like the iPod Nano would benefit from super thin batteries!

Read: Engadget

Xbox 360 Shortage?

Post ImageI am lining up tonight, despite the chance that I may end up leaving empty handed. Seems that lots of stores have already sold out their initial orders simply from Internet pre-orders. I would think that the stores opening up at midnight would have kept some aside though. If it turns out that Futureshop doesn’t have any more at midnight, I’ll line up at Best Buy in the morning!

Wall Street analysts expect a shortage in the United States, with some saying Microsoft has purposely stoked demand beyond the company’s ability to meet it.

Microsoft is “trying to turn this into the Cabbage Patch Kids,” said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. He said he expected Microsoft to constantly publicize stories of stores that were sold out to inspire press coverage and water-cooler talk of when the next shipment would arrive. “It’s brilliant marketing.”

I think I was too young to remember the Cabbage Patch Kids craze, but I would guess it was similar to the Furby or Tickle-Me Elmo crazes that were more recent. I remember searching stores for both, just to sell on eBay. Of course I wasn’t quite old enough to do it myself, so it was a team effort with my Dad.

In any case, such demand would be very good for Microsoft and the Xbox 360.

Read: New York Times

Hand-crank powered laptop

Post ImageThere are some very creative and serious efforts underway to bridge the so-called “digital divide.” One such effort is a hand-cranked laptop developed at MIT that will hopefully be available to schoolchildren in poorer countries a year from now:

In principle, the project seems simple: Design a laptop with built-in wireless and minimal power consumption, find manufacturers willing to build it for about $100, convince governments to buy it in quantities of at least 1 million as an initial order, and give it to schoolchildren to keep as their own property. (The goal is tens of millions produced and distributed within two years.)

But negotiating with governments has proved to be strenuous–Negroponte called it “very hard”–and the price quotes to build the machine remain closer to $110 than $100. “We’re not even going to promise they’re $100,” he said. “They may be $115. What we’re promising is that the price will float down.”

There are other concerns that must be overcome as well, such as the desire to resell the laptops. I hope it works out though, because it’s a very interesting project that would likely make a real difference. There are roughly six governments that have shown great interest thus far, including Brazil and Thailand.

Read: CNET News.com