Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Windows 10 update

Windows 10 Build 10049 was released yesterday and I'm installing it on a "spare laptop" as I write this. It’s been less than two weeks since the last build release, so it looks like Microsoft is living up to its promise of more frequent updates.

As with all builds, this one fixes some bugs and breaks a few things (most notably Hyper-V seems to be broken in 10049.)

The big news with this build is the new browser, codenamed “Spartan”. Here is a brief list of features:

  • It's designed to be a slim, fast browser, without all the legacy baggage
  • Updates to Spartan will come from the Microsoft Store and are likely to be more frequent
  • No legacy support, though Internet Explorer will still be around for businesses that need it
  • New streamlined EdgeHTML engine for better performance
  • Reader mode (suppressed junk, pop-ups, etc.)
  • Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to SIRI, will be built in to the browser
  • Web page annotation which will include “inking." The annotated page will be sharable (maybe with social media)

Windows 10 is still quite a ways from being able to use it for real, but I expect the next couple of builds to fix a lot of the little bugs that are normal this early in the release process.

For more details on Spartan, see Windows Blog.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Remember when hard disks were 10MB?

It still amazes me that Moore's Law continues to work...

Toshiba and Intel (separately) are talking about 10 TB solid state drives available in 2016. Their new 3D chips will make this possible in a 2.5” form factor, popular in laptops.

The advantages of SSD devices are speed, size, weight savings, durability, less noise and the fact that they don’t have to be defragmented. Historically, SSD’s have been more expensive than rotating platter disk drives, but as per usual, as the technology matures prices should be more competitive.

Eventually, much of the big data we use routinely (movies and music) will be stored in the cloud, but for fast, local processing you can’t beat SSDs. 

So, my advice: if you have a choice and can afford them, choose SSD’s over rotating platter HDD devices.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Pocket sense?

Here’s an interesting option for Android phones. As long as your phone is in your hand or in your pocket, it stays unlocked. That way when you want to quickly pull it out and scan it for new messages you don’t have to enter your password. (This feature is only available on newer Androids with 5.0.1 as part of the Smart Lock feature set.)

The feature is called “on-body detection.” 

It will disable the lock screen until you put your phone down on a counter or a table. 

It’s not quite as secure as locking your phone after 20 minutes of inactivity. It uses the built-in accelerometer to determine if it’s moving around. So, if a pick-pocket steals your phone it’s unlocked. (It's much more likely that a thief will grab it from your hands while you're looking at it...)

I use an iPhone and I love the quick fingerprint unlock feature. Do you use this or other biometric security features on your phone? What has been your experience?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Google Keep OCR tip

Google Keep is a note management app – sort of like a simple version of OneNote. It allows you to capture, organize and search lists, notes, etc. and it’s relatively easy to use (http://keep.google.com)

It’s got a cool feature that you might find useful. If you import an image of a document, Keep can convert the image to text. Very handy for indexing and searching. Just open the note in which you’ve imported the image and click the three dot menu button. Choose the “Grab Image Text” option and 

Keep translates the image to text and inserts the text below the image. (You need to have an Internet connection for this to work.)

Pretty handy!

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Greenstone mesh network bridge

WiFi networks use a distributed hub and spoke model – the hubs are one or more access points and the spokes are the WiFi connections to smartphones, PC’s, tablets, etc. The access points are connected to a wired network where connectivity between end points and the Internet happens.

Mesh networks, on the other hand connect end-points to each other. If one of them has access to the Internet, then they all can. Or they can just communicate with each other using the mesh. This could be handy during emergency situations where cell phone towers are down or where there is limited connectivity.

One of the challenges of this kind of communication is range. In a densely packed auditorium with thousands of people and perhaps hundreds of them using a mesh capability it’s not a problem, but with less dense venues people might just give up because they just can’t connect – there’s a roughly 200 foot limit to connect with other users.

An app called FireChat uses the mesh capabilities of smartphones and is used in
large crowds (at a concert or festival setting.) They’re working on a “bridge” device, called Greenstone, to help fill in the gaps in less dense venues. These battery powered bridges can also store and forward low bandwidth messages typical of chats. When you approach one, any messages for you are automatically delivered.

They’re quite a ways from production, but they did have some prototype samples at SXSW last week.

Have you used FireChat or other mesh networks?

Friday, March 20, 2015

New software architecture

I’m clearly an amateur software developer. I can write some C code, have some experience with ancient .asp and php apps and know enough Linux to be dangerous. So, I don’t often write about software.

But there have been some recent developments that have caught my attention. Docker has been gaining traction the last couple of years and a relatively new software architecture is making some waves called "HSA".

Heterogeneous System Architecture is about efficiently combining multiple processors (CPUs, GPUs, DSPs and ASICs) into a single, virtual, processor. It’s basically a platform that exposes all of the underlying processors in a unified architecture.

Some 60 universities and technology companies have embraced the technology – including board members ARM, AMD, Qualcomm and Samsung (however, Intel, Nvidia and Microsoft are conspicuously absent…)

The “standard” has been under development for a couple of years, but has been getting more attention since the release of Version 1 this month.

In the more advanced versions of this architecture the hardware manufacturers include shared memory between the various processors (in current architectures, GPUs and CPUs have their own memory.) So, unless Intel and Nvidia get on board, this may be limited to ARM, AMD, et al.

Interestingly there are already containers available for running HSA on Docker.

Have you used this technology? What are your impressions?

"HSA-enabled integrated graphics" by Shmuel Csaba Otto Traian. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HSA-enabled_integrated_graphics.svg#/media/File:HSA-enabled_integrated_graphics.svg

Thursday, March 19, 2015

New identity technology

We’re used to using UserID’s and passwords to authenticate to computer systems, but there are some new technologies (and some not-so-new but improved ones) in this space.

Face recognition and eye scanners

Intel is using a technology they call “True Key” – it uses facial characteristics converted into a mathematical description of your face (it also integrates with fingerprint scanning or other biometrics.) It can be used to authenticate you to a password organizer. This is already available on multiple platforms.

Fujitsu is working on a scanning technology that recognizes the patterns in your iris – iris patterns change very little after infancy and provide for very accurate authentication. They’re also very difficult to fake. This technology would be good where hand or fingerprint scanning is inappropriate. This technology uses an infrared scanner so it can work in the dark. It should be available in the next year or so.

Another company, EyeLock demoed such a technology at CES this year.

I’ve used a product called KeyLemon which uses face recognition to authenticate me to my Mac, but found it cumbersome to use. I think the key is to build this technology into the base operating system instead of trying to integrate it as an add-on.


Fingerprint scanners have been around for a while and they’re pretty accurate. Combined with a PIN or password they’re very secure. But there are cases when fingerprints aren’t appropriate – for example in extreme conditions where users must wear gloves or protective gear that would get in the way of fingerprint scanning.

I use a fingerprint to unlock my iPhone and for some payment services. And while it’s possible to fool fingerprint scanners, for this kind of lightweight authentication, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would go to the cost and effort to try to fool my phone. I’ve also used an app called FingerLock to unlock my Mac using the fingerprint scanner on my phone (not very reliable…)

There are a couple of technologies that look like they’ll be even more accurate and difficult to fool. Qualcomm has a 3D fingerprint system that uses ultrasonics to more accurately read fingerprints. They can authenticate your print no matter how you position your finger on the phone and this process can be done through glass, metal or plastic, so manufacturers don’t need to dedicate space to a fingerprint reader. And they even work with sweaty fingers or fingers covered in oil or other contaminants.
This technology should be available later in 2015.

Synaptics has a fingerprint scanner that can be integrated into the side of your phone or tablet – where you’re likely to hold the phone. It could be built in to a power button or just included somewhere in the frame of the phone. This technology does require you to swipe your finger across the scanner, but it’s very slim which manufacturers like. This should also be available later this year.

Voice authentiation

Nuance systems has a voice biometric authentication system that recognizes your voice (after training) and can authenticate you. Since we use our voice for so many things, including interacting with computers, this seems like a natural and transparent authentication vehicle. This system is being evaluated by Barclays for authenticating customers using snippets of natural conversation with an agent.


The Apple Watch is said to have a heartbeat sensor that could be used to authenticate you. There are a couple of other wearables that could be used for authentication using your unique ECG patterns.

Vein sensors

PalmSecure and Fujitsu have been working on palm vein sensors for laptop authentication.

Hitachi has a system that allows them to detect patterns in the veins of your fingers to authenticate you. They’re thinking that this technology could replace keycard badges or PIN entry for building access.

Whatever technology is used, it needs to be friendly, reliable and accurate. Since this space is so competitive, this technology should mature rather quickly. I would expect to see more of these systems integrated into phones tablets and PC’s in the next year or so.

Have you used any of these technologies? What has your experience been?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New 3D printing technology

Typical 3D printers produce objects a layer at a time, either by melting plastic, sintering metal, or solidifying light cured resin – basically 2D printing iterated into 3D objects... 

A startup called Carbon3D just announced a new process (it’s the March 20th cover article in Science and a Monday TED Talk) that allows for much faster (25-100 X) “printing.”

The new process called Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) uses a combination of oxygen and laser light to produce complex shapes much more quickly. The end products are apparently much stronger than those produced using layer-by-layer technology. Feature sizes down to 20 microns(!) are possible.

Carbon3D has raised $41M in venture funding (Sequoia Capital is one of their funding sources.)

I'll be playing with a much simpler 3D printing technology over the next few weeks and I'll be blogging about the experience.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Internet of Things needs to be a whole lot smarter...

Ben Kaufman, CEO of Quirky, has some interesting things to say about the
Internet of Things. Quirky is a "Smart Home" supplier and Kaufman was interviewed at South by Southwest by Andreessen Horowitz partner, Scott Weiss, at the conference this week.

As I've mentioned before, there are considerable challenges for people that want to get into a Smart Home – and these challenges will keep Everyman from implementing a lot of these helpful tools.

He discussed 7 problems.
1.Installation. Some people will have difficulty with this piece. A door lock, for example, may not be the easiest thing to install. A thermostat has a number of wires to connect and messing it up could damage your furnace/AC or thermostat.

2.Connecting to the Internet. This could be more or less complex depending on how the end-user has set up his/her WiFi or Ethernet environment. 

3.Battery replacement. People have problems remembering to change the batteries on their smoke detectors… While these devices can typically tell you when they need new batteries, it's just another task that people would rather not do.

4.Maintenance. The typical old-fashioned thermostat doesn't need any maintenance – it just works. With IoT devices, they will require periodic software updates, at least. They could also require other types of maintenance that their "dumb" cousins don't.

5.Security. Like any computer, you're at the mercy of whomever wrote the software for your device. They may have included features that a hacker could exploit. If these are discovered – you need to patch them.

6.Interaction. The software that each of these devices use can be more or less difficult to use. And, many of them don't really know how to talk to each other – so data from your thermostat can't interact with data from your security system or video camera. 

7.Support. Retailers may not have the appropriate skills to help you with these devices. Particularly big box stores whose idea of service is telling you what aisle a product is in…

In the Q&A someone asked "How can you get to the point that your grandmother can use these things?

Weiss said that smart home evolution is like the early days of the PC. We may be past the hobbyist stage, but it still takes some technical knowhow to get a smart home connected and functioning.  Until the day when most of these activities are automated, it will take a nerd to make them work. Kaufman said, "In general, there is a belief that the internet brings functionality to devices you could not have without it. Trying to crack the code is interesting - we're not super there yet..."

What do you think? What has been your experience with Smart Home products?

Monday, March 16, 2015

New battery technology

It seems like there are announcements every month about some new, more efficient battery technology on the horizon (...the 5 year horizon…)

Last week, Dyson, the vacuum cleaner company, announced their support ($15M worth) for a battery by start-up, Sakti3, that may be able to shrink that horizon.

They're working on a lithium ion battery that lasts twice as long as the current li-ion batteries. Dyson is interested in the technology for a cordless vacuum, but the battery could also be used in automotive applications. A challenge with solar technology is efficient storage technology, to store electricity during peak production hours. This technology could be used there as well.

One of the innovative techniques that Sakti3 uses is to use standard manufacturing equipment – instead of specialized lab tools – for their prototypes.

This could be the-next-big-thing...
Ann Marie Sastry, CEO, Sakti3

Friday, March 13, 2015

Chromebook Pixel - still too expensive.

This week, in addition to the new products from Apple, Google released its latest: the new Chromebook Pixel.

This one is a little cheaper than the first one that came out a couple of years ago. It starts at $1000 for an i5 version and tops out at $1300 for an i7 – about $1000 more than low end Chromebooks. 

It's another solid touchscreen laptop, but I honestly couldn't see paying $1300 for a Chromebook – Chromebooks are supposed to be cheap laptop replacements. I suppose if you were a developer and really needed a screaming laptop, you might buy one (and convert it to Linux…)

It does have USB Type-C connectors (2 of them)…

What are your thoughts? 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

USB Type-C

The recently announced Type-C USB port on the new MacBook and the new Chromebook Pixel is a big deal. 

Here are some of its features:
- It’s reversible; right-side-up, or upside-down, it doesn’t matter
- It’s fast: 10 Gbps
- It works for Video
- It can be used to deliver power (up to 100W)
- It’s open – anyone can include it in their equipment
- Compatible with old USB (with an adapter)
- It’s small – it will likely make its way into phones as well as PC’s

Finally - I just hope it takes off!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cannot connect to iTunes Store

If you're getting the "Cannot connect to iTunes Store" message when attempting to download content, you're not alone...

There appears to be an outage at Apple this morning.

I don't know whether this issue is related to the recently released iOS 8.2 update. I haven't seen any other problems since upgrading.

Have you?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Apple Spring Forward event

Apple's Spring Forward event happened yesterday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco – the big news at the event was the Apple Watch release date and cost, but there were a few other interesting announcements as well – here's a quick rundown in case you missed the event:
• Apple Watch coming April 24 starting at $349
• Apple TV price drop from $99 to $69.
• HBO Now - $14.99/mo. will start out on Apple TV
• Apple Pay now works with 700,000 retailers and 2500 banks (Coke machines next)
• New MacBook

  • Thin (1/2 inch)
  • Retina display
  • Fanless
  • USB-C port (USB, DisplayPort, HDMI, VGA, charging in one port)
  • Force sensitive touchpad (press harder for different options.)

• iOS 8.2 (mostly for Apple Watch support – started rolling out yesterday.)
• ResearchKit – a tool for diagnostic insights based on anonymized consumer info.

For details: Apple.com

Monday, March 9, 2015

3D scanning

One of the challenges of 3D printing is creating designs to print. The CAD software typically used by engineers to develop 3D designs is often difficult for non-professionals to use.

There is an easier way to capture 3D images using a 3D scanner. The iSense from Cubify is one of these. 

It attaches to your iPad and provides for 3D scanning of real world objects. It uses multiple cameras to capture 3D images of people, objects, etc. Since it can sense distance, it can isolate your subject from complex backgrounds.

It’s designed to integrate with Cubify 3D printers so going from image capture to printing can be done in a few minutes. It’s not cheap at $500 (about the same price as a cheap 3D printer) but it could save time digitizing physical objects for replication.

As 3D image capture takes off, expect additional enhancements improving the image-to-print process.

Monday, March 2, 2015

New smartwatches

​​I find the Pebble smartwatch to be a handy tool – it alerts me to upcoming meetings, shows me incoming text messages, and tells me who’s calling. I have a plug-in that talks to the Endomondo exercise tracking app that shows me how far I’ve walked and how fast, and I use it to receive SMS messages with security codes for several apps I use – all without hauling out my phone and logging in.

Pebble is releasing a new watch this spring called Pebble Time. It’ll be out sometime in May for $200, just in time to compete with the Apple Watch (that will probably go on sale in April.) The Pebble kickstarter campaign for the new watch is off to a roaring start - $12 million on a $500,000 goal, so interest is definitely high.

The biggest difference between the new Pebble and their older models is a color e-ink display - the e-ink display is great for outdoor use. It also has a built-in microphone for dictating responses to texts, or making quick reminder notes (up to 15 seconds.) And, unlike the Apple watch it can go up to a week between charges (mine typically lasts 3-4 days.) There are some new software features to let you scoll through notifications, appointments, etc. In addition to showing up on their new product, they’ll also be releasing this feature to existing Pebble watches.

Pebble is also working on “smart bands” (from third party suppliers) – bands that contain additional features, like batteries, heart-rate monitors, etc.

The Apple Watch will have a touch-sensitive display, a higher resolution screen and intimate integration with the iPhone – but it’s considerably more expensive starting at $350. It may have some of the “smart band” features of the Pebble built in.

Have you used any of the current crop of Smartwatches? Are you interested in these new products from Pebble or Apple?

Feel free to chime in, below.