Archive for the ‘Gadgets’ Category

Kindle: My Next Notebook?

composition_book_business_card-p240049682448575295uffl_400.jpgkindle_dx_hands.jpg I’m a big fan of my Kindle 2, and I use it nearly every day. I like to read, and I like to read several books at the same time. I also travel frequently, and often I find myself reading new releases, which meant I’d find myself trying to cram multiple hardcover books into my shoulder bag, which was bad for my shoulder bag, not to mention my shoulder. I’m even contemplating acquired the new, larger-screen Kindle DX.

But, the feature I really want will have to wait for the Kindle 3: I want a touchscreen on the Kindle that responds to a stylus so I can write on my Kindle. This could mean allowing me to take notes on the margins of a book I’m reading, but the main reason I want it is so I can get rid of the last analog vestige of my day-to-day-life: the composition book. I simply want the ability to create blank pages on my Kindle and then scribble upon them.

I started using composition books back in 1995 to take notes, jot down ideas and generally manage my day-to-day life and have continued using them to this day. If memory serves, my inspiration for using the composition book came from Vinod Khosla, who at the time was at Kleiner Perkins and was an investor and board member at Excite. If the lowly composition book had any part in making Vinod so effective, I figured I couldn’t go wrong by trying to integrate habitual note-taking into my life. It turned out to be a remarkably effective tool for me, mainly because I find that (for me, your mileage may vary) the simple act of writing something down really helps organize and cement that thing in my mind. I still keep a stack of all my old composition books in my office drawer and sometimes refer back to a filled-up book months or even years later.

If I could simply take notes on my Kindle with a stylus, I’d be a happy man. I’d effectively have a composition book with an infinite number of pages, and, ideally, it would be backed up online and accessible on the web as well. I’d ditch my composition book, save a few trees and have a digital archive of my life available online. I don’t even need the Kindle to give me character recognition or anything like that. My handwriting is so bad anyway, I doubt any algorithm could ever be up to the task. But as long as I had the ability to tag pages, search and browse through them on my Kindle and online, possibly share individual pages with others, and perhaps even farm out some of the pages to be transcribed (no doubt via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), I’d be even more enamored with my Kindle. Amazon, are you listening? This is my number one feature request for the next-generation Kindle. Whaddya think?

August 17th, 2009     Categories: Gadgets    

New Gadget: Verizon MiFi

While I wait with eager anticipation to get my hands on the new iPhone 3GS, I’ve been enjoying a new gadget: the Verizon MiFi. The MiFi is a combination wireless 3G EVDO modem with an integrated router/hub and wifi, all delivered in a sleek black unit the size of a small stack of business cards.

I use a MacBook Air, and I had a Verizon EVDO USB modem, but the aesthetics of having the dongle hang off the side of my MBA bothered me, and then the unit stopped functioning, giving me an excuse to jettison it. The beauty of the MiFi is the ability to share the connection with up to 5 users — very handy (and a great way to make friends) while in the back of a car with colleagues, at a local coffee shop or anywhere that lacks free wifi. The connection is really zippy and Verizon’s coverage puts AT&T’s to shame.

Ironically, I sometimes even connect my iPhone to the MiFi because it enhances the performance and coverage I get over using AT&T’s 3G crappy network, which brings me to an opportunity to rant about just how bad AT&T is. AT&T is lucky the iPhone is a such a great device – the iPhone is so good it is succeeding in spite of the inferior network users are forced to subscribe to.

Apple’s iPhone 3GS announcement this week really put AT&T’s weakness in focus — they announced that iPhone software 3.0 would support MMS messaging and tethering functionality, two oft-requested features, yet Apple had to footnote their announcement to mention that both features were “coming soon” for those of us unlucky enough to be stuck with AT&T’s lame service.

I can imagine that Apple will be more than eager to jump to a new carrier when their exclusivity with AT&T ends. For shame, AT&T. You’ve got the most popular mobile computing device ever created tied to your infrastructure, yet you are squandering this opportunity with your lame network. I’m no network architect and I’m sure I don’t appreciate the complexities around build-out and capacity planning, but I’m guessing AT&T’s crappy network is not a result of unsolvable technical issues, but rather lack of will and general organizational inertia and incompetence. Or maybe a calculated decision to enhance profits in the short term by delaying capex. But neither scenario puts AT&T in a good light.

And yet, despite all this, I’ll be stuck with AT&T since I plan to upgrade to the new iPhone as soon as I can. I just wish I had a choice in carriers.

June 12th, 2009     Categories: Gadgets    

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System

I just finished reading one of the most nerdtastic books I’ve read in a long time, thanks to Kwin Kramer at Oblong, who generously gave me the book he had just acquired at the MIT Press bookstore while in Cambridge. Kwin hadn’t even read the book yet, but I think he saw me salivate (and therefore judged me more in need of the book than himself) as I thumbed through the pages and saw snippets of assembly code and discussions regarding the coding necessary to perform game calculations in the processor cycles available during the analog/CRT video horizontal and vertical sync intervals.

The book was a true pleasure to read and made for a nostalgic trip down memory lane since I was an avid Atari 2600 gamer as a kid. Guilty childhood confession: I once even made friends with a kid I probably wouldn’t have otherwise hung out with because he was the first one on the block to own Activision’s Pitfall!

Reading this history of this seminal home video game system and technical discussions of the constraints and idiosyncrasies of the platform gave me tremendous respect for early Atari game designers like Warren Robinett, David Crane and Howard Scott Warshaw. First, these guys did it all — graphics, sound, gameplay, design, etc. Each game was a one-man show. Even more impressive was how they were able to produce great games with technical constraints that today sound totally ridiculous — these guys had to confine themselves to 2K of ROM for games and graphics, no frame buffer for rendering a screen (they had to render each CRT scan line in real time in code) and a laughable 128 bytes of RAM.

Some of my favorite programming tricks covered in the book involved the arduous process of code-size optimization. 2K was not much to work with, so programmers often had to squeeze every last byte out of the code and graphic sprites in order to get them to fit in the highly constrained space. This often involved hand-optimizing of MOS 6507 assembly code, and economizing via clever hacks. For example, in Yar’s Revenge, Howard Scott Warshaw need to create a random-looking field of blocks on the screen, but he could not afford the space or computational time needed for a pseudo-random number generation algorithm, so instead he just used sections of the code itself to produce a string of seemingly random patterns on-screen. So cool.

In another game, a programmer was able to save a byte of space when the final byte of a subroutine happened to be identical to the first byte of a sprite bitmap, which happened to immediately follow the previous portion of code in the ROM. So the programmer cut one of the duplicate bytes out and pointed the sprite bitmap to an address one byte earlier in the code to enable both the code and the graphic asset to share a single byte. That is a hardcore level of optimization, possible only when programming so close to the hardware.

The architecture of the system was originally designed to enable games like Pong and Combat, so the system was given two controllers and assumed head-to-head-play, and a video rendering subsystem that included two moveable sprites, a cursor and a missle and hardware support for things like symmetrical playing fields, scaling and mirroring of sprites and collision detection of onscreen objects. The book does a excellent job tracking the evolution of the games developed for the system, with programmers taking the system to a level of sophistication and functionality likely unforeseen by the architects/designers of the platform, a remarkable feat given the simplicity and constraints of the system.

And perhaps most unforeseen by Atari was that their console sparked the rise of an ecosystem of developers and publishers around a game platform, presaging the modern videogame market. Atari hadn’t anticipated this, never published a spec for their proprietary system and assumed all games would be developed in house. In fact, they initially tried to prevent third-party developers from releasing titles for their system. Several early Atari programmers who felt under-compensated as a result of their $20k salaries and no participation in the multi-million dollar profits their games generated for Atari spun out to create Activision, the first third-party game developer. Parker Brothers even made games for the console and had to hire a team of programmers to reverse-engineer the system by disassembling the code in existing game cartridges, since Atari wasn’t interested in publishing a spec or providing tools to allow third parties to develop games for the platform. As a result, they lost out on lucrative licensing revenues from third-party publishers, an error Nintendo wisely learned from when they launched the NES in 1983.

If you are a gamer interested in the history of video games or have an interest in how software design and programmer interacts with hardware design, this book is for you. My only complaint is that this book is not available on the Kindle. C’mon MIT Press, get with the program! I understand the subject matter of this book is retro, but think of your audience here in the 21st century.

June 4th, 2009     Categories: Gadgets    

High Job Satisfaction Week: Gist, Glue, Medialets, Pogoplug, Cohen, Eminem and more…

When work is going particularly well, my partner Jason Mendelson and I like to say, “today is a high job satisfaction day”. Well, this past week has been a high job satisfaction week. (Of course, in general I feel like an insanely lucky guy to have the job that I do, so my job satisfaction stays at a pretty high level most of the time.) But this past week was a particularly good one for Foundry Group.

First off, I’m very excited about the three new investments we’ve announced in the past week: Gist, Medialets and Pogoplug. Second, we are in the final hours of the Glue Conference here in Denver, put on by the indefatigable Eric Norlin (who also runs the equally excellent Defrag Conference), with the help of my partner Seth Levine who also put a ton of work into making this conference a great one. Highlights of the conference for me including having the opportunity to have dinner with Mitch Kapor last night, followed by listening to him give a great keynote this morning that nicely outlined the history of innovation/disruption in the technology work from the mainframe era to the present date.

I’m also happy to say that David Cohen, founder of TechStars, has announced the close of a $2.5m seed fund today. Having worked with David and TechStars over the past several years, I’m excited to welcome another fund addressing the very early stage into the mix, and I’m delighted to be a personal investor in the fund as well.

Finally, in other news, Topspin Media, is now supporting the release of Eminem’s new album, Relapse. This is a big deal for Topspin, since Mr. Marshall Mathers is definitely the biggest star the company has worked with to date. You can buy it here, or listen to it below. Enjoy!

May 13th, 2009     Categories: Gadgets, Music, Venture Capital    

I Need One of These

I’ve written in the past about our Human Computer Interaction (HCI) investment theme at Foundry Group and have mentioned our portfolio companies that fit into that theme: EmSense, Oblong and Smith & Tinker.

Well, pictured above is a delightful faux-advertisement I discovered via Thomas Dolby’s blog. I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas years ago (back in the Beatnik era) and then again around 2006 when he returned to the music world, and spent some time rehearsing for his tour at my friend Heidi Roizen’s place in Atherton. Thomas started blogging a while ago and I’ve been following it with great interest since. He’s moved back to the UK and has been working on a new album, which I can’t wait to hear. He is recording in a studio he built into an old retired boat that is sitting on his property that has a view of the sea, which seems to me a brilliant and delightfully wacky enterprise, and strikes me as a quintessentially English sort of thing to do.

Anyway, this ad was created by the folks at Status Graphite guitars, and it seemed to fit into my fascination with all things related to HCI, even if it is, sadly, not yet a real piece of gear. It is now on my fantasy product wish list.

March 31st, 2009     Categories: Gadgets, Humor, Music    

CES 2009 and News from Sling Media

I made my annual pilgrimage to Vegas last week for CES 2009. While the CEA claimed only an 8% decrease in attendance this year at the opening of the show, I’m thinking they came up with a non-obvious means of measurement to whitewash what must have been a much bigger drop in attendance — perhaps they measured sign-ups instead of how many people actually showed up, for instance. Given how much less crowded it felt there — in previous years, taxi lines at the major hotels were at least 30 – 45 minutes long, and it was difficult to get a dinner reservation — I’m thinking the attendance drop had to be much bigger than 8%. And some articles out today peg the decline in attendance at 23%. Bad for the show and a troubling sign of the times, to be sure, but it sure made the overall experience as an attendee much nicer.

Several of my partners attended this year as well and we just posted some of our observations about the event over on the Foundry Group blog. One thing we didn’t mention on that blog, probably because we are all smitten with the iPhone, was Palm’s announcement of the new Palm Pre. I have to say, it looks pretty damn intriguing to me. My wife still uses her Sidekick, but wants a new phone, yet can’t get her head around using the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, so I may suggest that she become our household’s Palm Pre guinea pig. The Pre claims some great features: true multi-tasking and multi-service contact and event sync (as well as the real keyboard and cut and paste) plus an app store all sound pretty good to me. Palm did a great job of commanding media attention at CES this year, partly because the Pre is a hail-mary pass for the company. And I have to say, based on how the ball looks in the air right now, it is conceivable the wide receiver might actually catch the pigskin in the end zone. Apple’s introduction of the iPhone has forever changed the smartphone market by breaking the carriers’ hegemony over the software stack and has caused everyone in the mobile market to raise their game. Consumers benefit, as will app developers who will have several viable platforms to develop to. Exciting times.

Finally, Sling Media had some interesting product announcements. During MacWorld they demoed the SlingPlayer for the iPhone (hooray) and they also showed the first EchoStar DVR with an integrated Slingbox. This product is the first of (hopefully Many) fruits of the vision of the 2007 merger of EchoStar and Sling Media. The Slingbox inside this new DVR has access to one of the multiple internal tuners, so a remote viewer watching via a SlingPlayer or SlingCatcher will no longer be commandeering what’s on in the living room. If they added a bluray player and access to online video sources, this would be the ultimate STB, and might be enough to cause me to switch from Comcast to DISH.

And as a final note, one thing that wasn’t announced until after CES, is that Sling’s co-founders Blake and Jason Krikorian as well as executives Jason Hirschorn and Ben White are leaving EchoStar and handing the reigns over to the (very) capable COO John Gilmore. I know that Blake, Jason, Jason and Ben are planning to take some well-deserved time off, and I wish them the best of luck in the future. Gents, it was an honor and a pleasure to work with you guys, and I sincerely hope we can work together again someday…

January 12th, 2009     Categories: Gadgets    

SlingPlayer on the iPhone

6BB3677F-A2E9-47FF-87B7-32669A111CBF.jpegHooray! As a former investor in Sling Media and an ongoing fan of the company and its products, I’m very happy to see they’ve announced support for the SlingPlayer on the iPhone.   Can’t wait to get my hands on it it — it is supposed to ship towards the end of this quarter, assuming Apple approves the app. C’mon Apple, don’t kowtow to AT&T and back down from support for this app because of bandwidth concerns…

January 6th, 2009     Categories: Gadgets    

Sonos Controller on the iPhone

sonosAs a longtime fan of the Sonos (see here, here, here and here), I’ve been wondering ever since the launch of the iTunes AppStore when Sonos would release software to turn my iPhone and iPod Touch into a Sonos controller. Well, today was the day, and having just installed the software and played around with a bit, I have to say that Sonos has done an excellent job. I have a feeling the iPhone is going to become my default controller for my Sonos now. One big bonus over the Sonos controller with the iPhone app is the ability to use a virtual keyboard to search for music — on the scroll-wheel-based Sonos controller, text entry is a bit cumbersome. Way to go, guys! Finally, I have to give Sonos props for making it a free app, a very classy touch.

Update: I should point to a nice in-depth blog post over at Zatz Not Funny! for folks looking for more information, and also will embed the youtube video that appeared on that post. One excellent point the readers over there made is than Sonos really needed to do this — since a user armed with a mac, and a couple airport expresses and the Apple Remote Application on their iPhone could get pretty close to the same functionality that Sonos provides.

That being said, I still give Sonos the victory nod by a wide margin — access to internet radio, and the ability to consume services like Last.fm, Rhapsody and Pandora (now FREE on Sonos, BTW) without the use of ANY computer give the Sonos a distinct edge. It is just a more complete and well-integrated solution, IMHO.

And, here’s the youtube demo.


October 28th, 2008     Categories: Gadgets, Music    

Cow Magnets: Who Knew?

mgux7239.jpgIn the “you learn something new every day” category, I was at the hardware store (McGuckin’s, of course) and came across cow magnets . At first I thought this product name was some sort of hardware joke, sort of like Duck Tape brand duct tape, which really isn’t used for (or on) ducks at all.

Of course, this exposes the fact that I’ve never lived or worked in a heavily agricultural region, because I’m sure anyone who has even basic first-hand knowledge of cows probably knows that cow magnets are, in fact, a very real and very useful product. Apparently, you feed your calf the magnet at branding time, which then remains in the cow’s rumen for the rest of its life, and protects the cow from hardware disease , which is inflammation of the digestive tract caused when the cow inevitably consumes tramp iron (bailing, barbed wire, staple, nails, etc.) while grazing.

On a slightly morbid (yet eco-friendly) note, Wikipedia notes that after the cow is slaughtered, the magnet is removed and the farmer sells the metal for scrap.

I really had no inkling of such things. Golly.

July 29th, 2008     Categories: Gadgets, Humor    

July 11th, Really?

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the 3G iPhone for some time, and was mostly pleased with the new features, but the July 11th release date was a bit of a drag, as I’m no good with the whole delayed-gratification thing. Besides the higher data speeds and third party apps, the feature I’m most excited about is Exchange integration, given our shop at Foundry Group uses Exchange for our calendar, contacts and messaging. Oh, geotagging of photos is pretty damn cool as well.

But since I cannot truly be satisfied by what’s currently available and am always looking around the corner, I might as well complain a bit. The iPhone needs a better camera — with Samsung and others shipping 5 megapixel camera phones, the fact that Apple didn’t bump up the pixel count beyond two paltry megapixels on the 3G iPhone was disappointing. As is the ongoing lack of ability to record video, though I’m hopeful this can be addressed in a future software upgrade and won’t require another hardware rev. The late-breaking rumors of a front-facing camera for video conferencing were also intriguing, so that was another unfulfilled item on my wishlist. And, finally, I’d be more than happy to pay a premium for more storage, and I was really hoping for a 32GB capacity model. Looks like I’ll have to wait until 2009 to get those wishes fulfilled.

Despite my bitching, I’ll be in line on July 11th to get the new iPhone – it will still be (by far) the coolest phone out there.

June 10th, 2008     Categories: Gadgets