Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Losing a Legend

By now, you undoubtedly know that George Carlin died last Sunday. So what is some technology wonk doing writing about him? About ten years ago, after I left Netscape, I ran an Internet radio website called Comedyaudio.com. It was the first 24-hour Internet comedy radio station. For a while, we ran commentaries from Merle Kessler (Ian Shoales) and Kelly Carlin-McCall, George Carlin's daughter. I never had the opportunity to meet George, but I spent some time with Kelly and some of her relatives. She told me stories about growing up with George and Brenda (George's first wife and Kelly's mother), most of which were hilarious.

Brenda died of cancer in 1997, a day before George's 60th birthday. The loss struck both George and Kelly incredibly hard; this was a very close-knit family that had gone through things that most people couldn't even dream of. It seemed to me that George's comedy and commentary turned darker after Brenda's death, but it was something that he never talked about on stage.

I wish Kelly and Sally Wade, Kelly's stepmother and George's surviving second wife, my deepest condolences. I know that George loved his family very deeply, and there will be no way to replace him. The world has lost a genius, both a comedy legend and, in his later years, a social commentator of the first order.

Comedy seems to have lost its ability to comment on deeper social issues. When comedians like Carlin, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce used offensive language, they used it to make important points, not just to shock or titillate. Jon Stewart and the Daily Show team take on politics, but it's inconceivable to me that they'd talk about religion like George Carlin did. Bill Maher is closer, but even he doesn't have Carlin's intensity or, in Carlin's later years, willingness to tear down his audience in order to make an important point.

I can't help but compare the coverage given to the recent deaths of Jim McKay, Tim Russert, and now, George Carlin. I was deeply disappointed by the paucity of coverage of McKay's death; the network that did the best job wasn't ABC, where McKay spent almost his entire career, but CBS, whose news and sports divisions are run by Sean McManus, McKay's son. Carlin has gotten a few minutes on the news here and there. Russert, on the other hand, got wall-to-wall coverage on all the 24-hour newschannels, including six straight hours on MSNBC and a half-hour of prime time on NBC. With all due respect, McKay and Carlin deserved better.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Lesson from Tim Russert's Death

The sudden death of NBC's Tim Russert last Friday has been covered extensively, but the details of what could have caused his heart attack are starting to emerge. According to the New York Times, Russert had a history of coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and an enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy). In particular, cardiomyopathy and coronary artery disease are linked to sudden cardiac death syndrome, where death occurs within minutes of the first symptoms of heart attack.

There's a question as to whether or not an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) was present in NBC's newsroom. According to Russert's cardiologist, in an interview on CNN, there was an AED present, but it wasn't used; according to other reports, there wasn't an AED available, and CPR was administered by an intern. In either case, by the time paramedics arrived and defibrillated Russert, it was too late. One of the big advantages of AEDs is that they sense the presence or absence of a heartbeat and only shock the heart if a shock is needed, so there would have been no risk to Russert in using it.

In any event, there's an enormous lesson in this tragic event: An AED should be in every television station and in every electronic newsgathering truck, and all full-time station employees should be trained on how to use them. AEDs can be purchased for as little as $1,000; they're cheap insurance. I'd like to see either the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) or the Radio and Television News Directors' Association (RTNDA) get behind an effort to distribute AEDs in Russert's name. If even one life is saved with an AED, the effort will be worth it.
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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Here Comes Everybody

According to this article from OneTRAK, Verizon has begun construction (overbuilding) that will enable the company to introduce its FiOS service into two Texas cities (Frisco and Allen) already served by AT&T's U-Verse service. This announcement could also have implications for the five other states (Florida, California, Indiana, Washington and Oregon) that Verizon shares with either AT&T or Qwest.

Historically, overbuilding phone systems simply wasn't done; each city had one and only one telephone franchise. However, now that local franchising is no longer an issue, the decision about whether or not to overbuild is driven by economic and technical issues. It's a lot less expensive to overbuild when you already have a telephone network built in an adjoining city, and that's what's enabling Verizon's encroachment into AT&T territory in Texas. (Why is Verizon in these states, you ask? The company was formed by the merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE, and it's some of the old GTE systems that are in play for expansion.)

By and large, AT&T has three video competitors in every market: The incumbent cable operator (Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, etc.), DirecTV and Dish/Echostar. The last thing they've expected is head-to-head competition with Verizon, but they're going to get it, and in their home state (Texas). Verizon apparently believes that in FiOS, it will have a superior product to U-Verse for the foreseeable future, thus justifying the capital investment necessary to compete on AT&Ts turf.

In the past, I've talked about how Verizon's big bet on fiber to the home is turning out be much more "future-proof" than AT&T's smaller bet on fiber to the node. That's great if you live in a Verizon territory, but meaningless if you're an AT&T customer...until now. Here's an example: I live in Campbell, California, just north of Los Gatos, a Verizon city. FiOS isn't in Los Gatos yet, but once it is, one could easily envision Verizon expanding from Los Gatos to Campbell and San Jose, and from there throughout the southern part of Silicon Valley. Other Verizon outposts in Northern California could also expand, until the entire San Francisco Bay Area, or at least the most profitable parts, are covered.

This possibility has to scare AT&T silly, since the company needs those same highly profitable customers in order to pay back its capital expenditure on U-Verse. Verizon's first moves in Texas likely presage a battle that will take years to play out, but it's entirely conceivable that Verizon could end up as the sole national wireline (or "fiberline") carrier in the U.S.
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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Snow Leopard: Apple's "Big Bang" for Next Year's Developers' Conference?

(Revised June 16, 2008) Yesterday, Apple announced its next version of OS X, but it did it so quietly that the announcement seemed more like compensation for a mistake (a premature press release from Apple Canada) than a planned event. The new version, named Snow Leopard, is intended to improve performance and stability rather than introduce lots of new features. However, a new feature appears to be "priming the pump" for some major new hardware announcements at Apple's 2009 Worldwide Developers' Conference next June.

It's called "Grand Central," and it appears to be a rewrite of those portions of OS X that aren't multiprocessor- (or multicore-) aware. The issue is that we've gone about as far as we can go with increasing clock speeds in order to get better performance, so the approach favored by Intel, AMD and just about everyone else is to add more cores to each processor. However, unless the software is designed to take advantage of multiple processors/cores, you don't get any performance advantage. Even in those cases where the software is fully multithreaded or multiprocessor-aware, the performance doesn't scale linearly as more processors are added; typically, the second processor or core only improves performance by 80%, and adding more processors results in even smaller incremental gains.

Apple claims that Grand Central will make all of OS X fully multiprocessor-aware (in essence, fully multithreaded,) and it will also make it significantly easier for application developers to write fully multithreaded software. Intel's Nehalem family of processors is scheduled to be released in Q4 2008, starting with four-core/eight-thread models for servers and high-end desktops. The performance kick from Nehalem over Intel's current Penryn generation of processors is expected to be big--approximately 20-30% overall, but closer to 70-80% for multithreaded applications.

I expect to see a dramatically refreshed, or possibly even completely redesigned Mac Pro at or prior to the Worldwide Developers' Conference next June, released concurrently with Snow Leopard. Apple should be able to stay with its existing two-processor/eight-core designs, but get big performance boosts at lower power consumption with Nehalem. At this point, unless you need to get a Mac Pro in the six months, you're probably wise to wait until next June for a Nehalem-based system. Snow Leopard will provide significant performance advantages even on current-generation systems, but it will need Nehalem in order to take full advantage of what it will be able to do
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Monday, June 09, 2008

The Real News from Apple

Today's announcement of the iPhone 3G at Apple's Worldwide Developers' Conference has been rehashed and dissected by reporters and news anchors all day. However, the iPhone announcement itself was fairly anticlimactic; the new features had been well-covered in leaked reports prior to the announcement. (In fact, the lack of new features beyond 3G and GPS was somewhat surprising.) Even the dramatic price drop had been foreshadowed by widely-publicized reports.

I think that the real news wasn't the iPhone announcement, but what came before: A slew of application demos, plus the announcement of Apple's MobileMe service. Let's take the applications first: While they were being demonstrated, some of the live bloggers griped that they were tedious and just went on and on, but that was the point: In just a few months, Apple has built a bigger, more productive developer ecosystem than Symbian has been able to do in years, and no one else (including RIM, which just recently launched its own developers' program) is even in the same ballpark. Even Microsoft's smartphone platform can't deliver applications with the quality of experience of those designed for the iPhone.

Over and over again, the story was: "We've covered all the bases." Enterprise applications? Check. Exchange integration? Check. Desktop application support? Check. Location-based applications? Check. Games? Check. All of this was on top of the basic capabilities of the iPhone, now fortified with sufficient 3G speed to make heavily data- and media-centric applications work.

The other part of the story is MobileMe. At its heart, MobileMe is a centralized storage and synchronization application that allows iPhones, Macs and PCs to be synced to a single, central database that's managed by Apple. Now, all of the capabilities of MobileMe are available in some form from a variety of vendors, but they don't necessarily work very well. As a long-time ActiveSync user, I can tell you that getting my PC notebook to stay in sync with my old Windows Mobile PDA and current Windows Mobile Smartphone (let alone my MacBook) can be an exercise in frustration.

MobileMe is aimed at two targets: The large body of Windows Mobile users who are frustrated to death with ActiveSync, and everyone who has held off on buying an iPhone because it doesn't have the "it just works" syncing capabilities of RIM's Blackberry. It's far too early to tell just how well Apple has implemented MobileMe, and it may very have its own frustrations and limitations. However, it has the potential to be a very appealing alternative to Microsoft's and RIM's offerings.

The one big frustration that I have with the announcements is that the iPhone 3G still doesn't have video camera capabilities. A 3G iPhone with the video capabilities of, say, a Nokia N95, would be a multimedia killer product, and I'm still not giving up hope that Apple with do something in this space in the future.

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