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Tuesday
May132003

MP3 & Critical Mass

iPod & iTunesBeen having some good discussions with a few Mac friends who are both very interested in the new iTunes Music Store and more particularly, the AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) format. This is the format Apple is using (with DRM features enabled) to distribute $0.99 tracks. AAC can also be used to burn personal music files from CDs, using Quicktime 6.2.

Matt is currently in the process of converting his entire music collection from MP3 to AAC, mainly because it takes so much less space on his drive. In our last discussion about his conversion Matt estimated he might save upwards of 10GB on his drive going to AAC from MP3. That's nothing to sneeze at!

Another friend, Andy, is also contemplating conversion of his music collection to AAC. Last week he told me that the quality of AAC is much improved over MP3 files with much higher bit rates. He claims AACs rival the quality of the original CD tracks even at 128 bit rates. He's also interested in space savings, as his drive space is limited and his music collection is quite substantial.

I can't comment on AAC sound quality vs. MP3, since I've not yet heard a comparison, though Matt posted an interesting tidbit on his weblog today questioning if there is any real difference between sound quality of an MP3 vs. AAC file, other than file size.

What I will comment on is this: the quality of AAC, even if it proves better sounding than MP3 is still not compelling enough to convince most regular people to re-rip their entire MP3 music collection. Here are my reasons:

MP3 has achieved critical mass. MP3 decoding can be found on more and more electronics items -- Craig Froehle mentioned buying a MP3 CD player with FM tuner for $40 at Best Buy just last week. MP3 players are now even available in mobile phones and car stereos. I fully expect to buy a fridge in the next two years with a 500GB MP3 player and Wi-Fi networking capabilities built-in. :-)

Most music players support MP3 and not AAC. Music players like my trusty Rio Volt SP250 can't play AAC files, so I'm out of luck whether I've burnt the AACs myself or bought from the iTunes Music Store. If my RioVolt and other devices like it offer a software or a firmware update, I'm pretty sure most regular users will not perform the upgrade. This leaves only the Apple iPod (an excellent bit of hardware) and Macs or PCs with Quicktime 6.2 for AAC playback.

Locations where you most often listen to MP3s are really noisy. Ambient noise surrounds any listener in a bus station, on a train, in an airplane, in your car or even your home office. Because of this ever-present ambient noise, any quality benefits of an AAC are going to be lost anyway.

MP3 is good enough for most listeners. I think of MP3 music as my own FM radio -- it has high enough quality to sound good in most locations, even with good quality headphones. FM radio is nowhere near the quality of CD music, but it has millions of happy listeners worldwide, because it is good enough.

So, if you're a stickler for better sound quality (which is still up for debate), you need more drive space, you have an iPod or only play converted music on your Mac or PC (with Quicktime 6.2), then it makes sense to consider AAC. Otherwise, AAC falls a bit short for those without a way to play tunes on a portable device, like me and millions of other people who use MP3s.

I do hope the iTunes Music Store does well. However I fear that until AAC reaches a wider audience and gains more users, it is destined to remain a cool yet minor niche format compared to the ever-popular MP3.

Monday
May122003

Palm DevCon: Day Four

Departure day. Bags are all packed up tight and a 6:30am phone call from my wife served as a nice end to the week away and wake up call in case of an alarm failure. Gail and Nathan are doing better and are glad I'm heading back home.

At 6:50am, I meet Jen Edwards (a.k.a. PocketGoddess) in the lobby to catch the shuttle to San Francisco International, as our outgoing flights both left around 9am. We had a good chat on the way over to the airport, discussing our meetings and experiences over these past few days. Jen mentioned writing some articles about her experience -- when that info goes up I'll be sure to share the link. Jen and I parted outside SFO as I needed to ride the shuttle a bit farther to catch my United flight.

Inside, people were hustling to gates and security checkpoints seemed very busy. I found the line for United and within a few minutes, I was standing at the desk, getting checked in. Interestingly, United's desk featured e-ticket consoles which most people were using -- since I didn't have an e-ticket, I chose to speak to a representative. This turned out to be a good choice, since the attendant seated me farther up on the plane since getting to my connecting flight within 45 minutes was going to be a tight affair.

The security line looked like a zoo, but moved quickly. While departing Milwaukee earlier in the week, one of the security personnel commented to another traveller that tennis shoes didn't require scanning, so I tested this info at SFO and found it accurate. A few minites later I was through and headed for my gate.

Decided to grab a coffee and was pleased to learn that the Starbucks location at SFO accepted the Starbucks card (many airport locations do not). I have this card for occasions such as this; where my pocket cash is limited but I can really use a coffee.

Starbucks seems to have done well in cornering the airport market for coffee vendors, at least at San Francisco International, Chicago's O'Hare and Milwaukee's Mitchell. It seemed everywhere I went I could easily locate a Starbucks either by sight, smell or the sound of squealing steam and frothing foam. At O'Hare it seemed as though there was a Starbucks at every gate.

While awaiting my flight from San Francisco to Chicago, I noticed the pillar near my gate had a T-Mobile HotSpot logo emblazoned on it. I fired up the Powerbook and activated AirPort networking -- the HotSpot immediately displayed itself in the menu bar, to my delight. I then tried checking my email, but with no luck. Must sign in.

Next I launched my browser which brought up a JavaScript that automatically launched the T-Mobile HotSpot login page. It was very disconcerting to have my browser so easily commandeered by the HotSpot server. I began to wonder how hard it would be for a hacker to access the T-Mobile access point or server, in order to spoof users signing in to get access to their Wi-Fi connected laptops. Hmmm.

Finally, I wanted to see if I could sign up for access via the HotSpot connection and found it quite possible, but with only a few minutes until boarding began, I decided to hold off for a future opportunity. Still, this sign up option brought another question to my mind -- was the signup secure? Could someone with a packet sniffer grab my credit card info, or my username and password this way? Double hmmm.

Flight was significant only in that the pre-takeoff announcement by our pilot included:

"related to the the safety presentation, which I'm sure you all followed intently... that some passengers are charged with helping the crew. I wanted to point out that this includes certain security situations, such as dealing with unruly passengers. Please think about that."

I had to chuckle -- an airline pilot with a dry sense of humor. :-)

Near the end of the flight I was slightly concerned about timing, since we were running about 18 minutes late on the expected 3:00pm landing time. My connecting flight was scheduled to depart at 3:45pm. This delay would leave me with less than 30 minutes to get across O'Hare, not to mention my checked bags.

When we finally landed it was 3:18pm -- I cranked it out of the gate, searching for the connecting flight's gate number, then located the gate on the map. Sure enough, I had to cross the entire airport to reach my flight, so I put the afterburners on. I blew past all sorts of travelers, until climbing an escalator where a wife was casually chatting with her husband, blocking the way. Arrgggh!

Amazingly, I made my gate with time to spare, only to find that the gate had switched from E9 to E7 and the Milwaukee flight had been delayed. All that hard work to make the flight for nothing. Still, I was happy for the delay in the end, since I figured my bags would have never made it on my original flight. Better to be delayed 15 minutes at the gate than spending hours hunting down bags at the airport baggage claim.

Saw a great t-shirt on two guys from the Soldiers for Jesus Motorcycle Club who were traveling to Milwaukee for a Harley rider's convention:

Jesus Would Have Ridden a Harley

On the ground in Milwaukee, I exited the terminal and entered the main waiting area where I heard Gail call my name. Wow, it was great to see her and Nathan again. Ah, home again. :-)

All told, I had a great time on my visit to the PalmSource DevCon and I hope you've enjoyed my travelogue account. I wish I could share more details from meetings and other events, but I take the NDAs I've signed very seriously. I will instead direct you to other story links from the event:

BrightHand: Steve Bush's PalmSource Trip Diary
Brighthand: PalmSource Developer Seminar Recap
GearMongers: Craig Froehle's Post on the Tapwave Helix
Palm Infocenter: Palm OS 6 To Be Released in Late 2003
SiliconValley.com: Palm OS 6: the Evolution
SiliconValley.com: Q&A with PalmSource CEO David Nagel

If I do come into information related to PalmSource stuff that's ok to share, you can be sure I'll post it here. :-)

Thanks for reading. I should be back on my normal weekday blogging schedule here once again, so tune in tomorrow for another installment.

Cheers!

Friday
May092003

Palm DevCon: Day Three

Another early start Wednesday, but like Tuesday, our meetings were well worth the time spent. We learned quite a bit about the state of wireless carriers and how Palm handhelds integrate with them among other things.

I was also able to have a look at the new Aceeca device in the expo area between meetings. Aceeca is the second of two licensees to the Palm OS platform. The Meazura device was interesting -- I can imagine even more interesting to industrial clients looking for an inexpensive, reliable device for testing and gathering information. I even had a chance to meet the CEO, Alex Topschij, a good bloke from down under in New Zealand. :-)

Lunch was a short grab and stuff affair, followed by more excellent internal meetings in the afternoon. Near 4:30 we wrapped up. I enjoyed note taking once again, though after another day of mind-to-finger processing, I was glad for the break from note writing. Amazingly, in two days I managed to write about 15,000 words and about 100k worth of notes -- yikes!

Okay, now for something a little off topic and curious. I observed over the past two days a very strange habit of people at the seminars starting sentaces with "so...". To give you a better idea of what I mean, here's an example:

Q: Why did the Tungsten C have a mono headset rather than stereo headset?

A: So... We asked people if they had to choose between a stereo jack or a mono jack with potential Voice Over IP features, what would you choose? They overwhelmingly said "give us the mono headset and VOIP".

This sentance starter just seemed to me a very odd way to begin a statement. I noticed the abundance of "So" statement-starters because of how commonly it was used among speakers. I suppose this could equate to an "Ummm..." often used for buying a little time while organizing thoughts. See what two days of note-taking does to me? :-)

The seminar sessions ended with an interesting session with David Fedor on details of Palm OS 6. Most of the stuff he spoke about was several atmospheres above my head (I'm no developer), however some tidbits I did comprehend and liked the sound of. One in particular is the structure of new built-in core app databases being based on "schemas" which meant XML to me. Very cool.

The essence of David Fedor's message on this point was extensibility of stock databasess, allowing 3rd party developers to add fields to the built-in app DBs without screwing them up. So, a product like Beyond Contacts, used for full sync to Outlook could theoretically extend the standard Datebook and other stock DBs without ruining the underlying database structure. (Developers, feel free to correct any errors I may be spouting here)

Fedor also mentioned an evolutionary transition to OS 6 rather than revolutionary, so the changes will not be so shocking. He phrased it as "Changing Everything and Nothing." I suppose this should make developers a little happier knowing their apps will not have to change unless they choose to take advantage of new OS 6 system features. I was happy to hear old Palm OS apps should still run on OS 6 under PACE (Palm Application Compatibility Environment), assuming they've followed the Palm OS guidelines properly.

After the David Fedor OS 6 preview and a break I attended the Silicon Valley Palm User Group PUG meeting, featuring David Nagel and speakers from Palm SG, Fossil, PalmGear, and Handango. I put my card into the bucket to win one of 3 handhelds, but no such luck.

That evening the PUC group and a few others had a final dinner together in the overpriced California Grill, inside the hotel. It was a great time of discussion and banter about the past few days, Palm devices and many other topics. Will and Matt from SnapperMail dropped in a bit later to hang with us -- I had a great time chatting with these friendly New Zealanders while enjoying my Spicy Thai Chicken bowl.

I stopped by Michael Ashby's place to get a fix of his high-speed hotel network connection -- I was too cheap to activate mine at $10 per 24 hours. Back at my room I spent the remaining hours before bed, organizing and packing my gear for the journey home. The incredibly nice backpack by PalmSource on Tuesday ended up packed to the gills with t-shirts and promo swag, and would have to be checked as baggage since I brought my own backpack for the PowerBook and other stuff.

And so the seminar ended. All in all a great time to meet other Palm people, learn about what's new and to make a difference for the future. It all seemed to go by so quickly though. Ah well, that's what makes "see you next time" so attractive.

Until my next post...

Thursday
May082003

Palm DevCon: Day Two

First day of the DevCon and it was off to David Nagel's (PalmSource CEO) opening keynote speech. It was an upbeat and positive presentation, covering the current state and future aims of PalmSource. David mentioned two staggering stats: there are now about 260,000 Palm OS developers and 17,000 Palm OS applications out there. Pretty significant and important for PalmSource and Palm OS users alike.

Nagel also suggested the coming availability of ubiquitous wireless in the next few years and PalmSource's desire to have an impact in this area with the Palm OS. I'm all for that!

Following David Nagel's keynote intro, the group I'm a member of -- Palm OS User Council (PUC) -- departed to prep for our day-long meetings. In a nutshell, our group of 10 Palm community leaders distill and share feedback from the Palm community with both PalmSource and Palm OS licensees, to help improve Palm handheld devices and the Palm OS.

The PUC represents the voice of Palm handheld users, making sure the user perspective is heard clearly. While details of our meetings are all under NDA, I'm pleased to report we had very productive meetings with PalmSource and several licensees.

At lunch, one of the PUC members, Dan Royea, did a Bluetooth test at the Sony booth. While holding a Clié TG-50 he walked nearly 30 feet from a Bluetooth controlled DV video camera and was able to activate panning, zooming and other functions -- all from the Clié. Impressive!

Lunch itself was eaten in the hotel courtyard under overcast skies. I was surprised at how chilly San Mateo was in May. However, I did remember I was in the San Francisco area, which has the reputation as a cool and foggy place.

Our PUC meetings continued productively after lunch break. I was grateful when our meetings finally ended at 5pm, mainly because I'm the group secretary. My tired fingers and brain needed the break after hours of processing and typing.

On my call home, I learned my wife and 6 month old son were both battling terrible colds. l felt a bit guilty for having such a great day. But we both felt badly for our little boy's sickness, even though we know colds help build his immune system.

Next, it was off to the seminar reception for great Chinese dim-sum and conversation with Palm developers. I met Brian Oldham and Dale Walker of Farwalker.com, who help small companies integrate Palm devices into Mac networks. We actually talked more about Macs than Palms, as we were all Mac fans.

The reception was interrupted by a power outage in the hotel, lasting over an hour. It's apparently become a tradition at PalmSource events (February '02 conference in San Jose had a power cut too). The hotel staff even broke out the green light sticks as night fell.

A small group of people, including the PUC group and others escaped the hotel for the Prince of Wales Pub in downtown San Mateo. The pub was quite unique, with a comfortably shabby ambiance one member of the group described as "The kind of atmosphere you can't buy". We managed to acquire the private upper room of the place, complete with recently patched kick-holes in the wall, legless, gaudy and torn couch, a table and mixed chairs.

Four of us began a game of Cricket with darts and a board we found while the rest of the group chatted. For the record, Hal and I beat Craig and Dan by a single bulls eye. Greg from the PUC tried the pub's famous Habenero Burger, which helped warm the room. I think Greg's ears were smoking, but he ate it all.

Back at the hotel, I posted my first DevCon entry on the blog. It was good to test out my WordSmith blogging solution and to see how well remote posting to a blog is. Most definitely easier than manually editing and posting files via FTP.

I can also tell you that using a broadband cable connection has a way of amplifying the pain of using a 56k dialup connection in a hotel room. It works, but I fear cable has spoiled me.

So that's the story for Tuesday. Look for the remaining DevCon entries to appear here in the next few days.

Until my next post...

Tuesday
May062003

Palm DevCon: Day One

Sorry I've been mostly quiet this past week -- I'd been preparing for my trip to California for the PalmSource Developer's Conference. I left today (Monday) on my journey. Yes, I know it's Tuesday... more on that later.

It was hard to say goodbye to Gail and Nathan this morning. I'm going to miss them the next few days. But traveling is in my blood and I know this little getaway will be very good for me. Time to venture out and explore. The good thing about travel, in my opinion, is knowing I have someone and somewhere I can return to. As enjoyable as travel is to me, coming back home is always the sweetest feeling.

I just witnessed a sadly funny scene here at the terminal. An older, cranky lady who looked a bit like Georgia O'Keefe was sitting near the departure door, hassling the United woman at the desk about getting on her flight to Denver waiting just outside. She needed a wheelchair to board and had apparently been waiting a while. "I'm frustrated! Been here an hour and a half! Arggh!" At one point an Asian man walked past her, with a wheelchair and she snapped at him with a gruff "Hey you!" The guy threw her a dismissive wave and said "Not for you! Another one coming. You wait! " and kept rolling down the terminal.

Finally Georgia's ride arrived, but not before she had a little verbal tussle with the United attendant. It wasn't pretty.

Whew, almost missed the flight! Sitting in terminal D at gate 35... Realized nobody else was sitting around me. Took a brief walk, and found the flight had moved to gate 33. That was close.

Saw that our pilot was scribbling in an old Palm III, which I spotted while embarking. There is still hope for old tech! :-)

In Chicago, I heard a funny announcement in the men's room between flights: "Please present all electronic devices to security personnel before entering the magnometer..." This announcement made me wonder just what would happen if electronic devices were accidentally or intentionally run through the magnometer? Would the offending bag launch itself against the magnometer's wall and stick like a wet jello square? Funny how seeing a film like X-Men 2 with a bad guy like Magneto, alters the imagination.

Spent time after a little lunch scoping out power outlets, so I could use my Powerbook without killing off the battery. found several, but always in awkward locations or next to occupied seats. At the moment I'm contemplating stringing my power cable from my seat to the outlet across from me or sitting against the wall. Pretty pathetic, eh? Maybe I'm better off reading my paperback book or listening to music than becoming an electro-vampire geekazoid.

Amazing how many people are on mobile phones at the airport. There was a guy in Milwaukee making call after call, like the president lining up votes. Here in Chicago there's a woman to my right, stretched across three seats, working the phone. This struck me as both admirable and disturbing. Admirable in that these two business people were utterly dedicated to not wasting a precious moment of down time. Disturbing for the very same reason.

I mean, isn't travel stressful enough? I just want to relax. However, I see this tendancy popping up in myself as well, as I seek to plug in my laptop to read email or write this account on my handheld. The question is, why are we so driven to fill every second of our lives with activity? Are we modern people unable to be loafers once and a while?

Which reminds me of a valuable lesson I've learned from several of my European friends: the art of doing nothing. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean doing nothing all the time, but occasionally and intentionally. Martin, Matthias, Andreas, Mysan and Andy all taught me the art of finding a nice spot to let the world pass by. Normally it was a cafe (accompanied by a tasty coffee) but was often a roadside or park. Hmmm... in light of my observations today, I think I need to practice the art of doing nothing a bit more often.

The rest of my trip was uneventful. Waited a long time for the free hotel shuttle, but it was such a nice cool spring afternoon, I didn't mind at all.

Met my fellow Palm-friends at the hotel and we trekked over to the Metreon, a Sony-sponsored store inside the Moscone center in San Francisco. It was a little underwhelming and overpriced, though some of the tech they showcased was very cool, like tiny Vaio notebooks and large flat screens.

We settled on dinner at the Moscone, which for me consisted of a pudd thai-like noodle dish at a noodle joint. Not bad.

Our final destination for the evening was the launch of a new Palm OS product from Tapwave, a new Palm OS licensee. The event was held in a snowboard club in the industrial part of San Francisco. After 30 minutes of mingling, the presentation began with heads of the company sharing their process of developing a new multi-purpose gaming/multimedia device, culminating with an actual viewing of prototype devices. Can't say much more than this device they're developing is very, very cool. Good industrial design and top-notch specs to match. Keep your eye on Tapwave.

The remainder of the evening was spent back at the hotel, settling into my room and calling my wife. Not a bad first day in California.

So, as you can see it's actually Tuesday and I've had another full day here. I'm going to be a bit delayed in posting here because Wednesday is going to be jam-packed full too. I'll probably be writing posts on the flight home, so keep popping back here for more entries.

Until next time...