Tagged: Netbooks

Dead Drops are subversive, cool and risky

Dead Drops are USB keys embedded in walls or other fixed objects. Courtesy of DeadDrops.com

Dead Drops are USB keys embedded in walls or other fixed objects. Courtesy of DeadDrops.com

Have you ever just been walking down the street only to glance over at the wall beside you and notice the butt of USB key sticking out of the bricks and mortar? Neither have I. And yet, this might become a familiar sight in the not-too-distant future if a new movement known as “Dead Drops” starts to catch on.

The brainchild of Aram Barthold, a Berlin-based art student, Dead Drops was conceived as an “anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space.” The name comes from the practice used by spies and other folks engaged in clandestine activities to pass information to one another without meeting face-to-face. In this most recent incarnation of the idea, a participant identifies the location of the dead drop, shows up with a laptop or other device equipped with a USB port, and uploads or downloads files to or from the embedded USB storage device.

What kind of data is on one of these digital protrusions? Anything at all. That’s both the promise and peril of Dead Drops.

Clever marketing companies will realize the potential of Dead Drops to reach a highly sophisticated group of consumers who are young, tech-savvy, urban-dwelling and likely influential in their social media circles. Uploading a previously unreleased track from a new album, or digital coupons for products could yield impressive viral results very quickly. Or the files could simply end up being deleted by the next person who jacks in. In the wild west of Dead Drops, there are no police, no back-ups and no guarantees.

One of Canada’s only two registered Dead Drops at the time of writing, is installed in the wall of an enterprising book store in Carelton Place – just outside of Ottawa. Read’s Book Shop invites Dead Droppers to “plug in” to their store and “Check for future book reviews and coupons!” Take that, Chapters. Barthold’s site contains a database of other Dead Drops too.

The dark side that this unfiltered sneaker-net enables is easily imagined: What better place than Dead Drops to try your hand at releasing the next killer Windows virus into the wild?

As with online file-sharing, all the same rules and guidelines apply to Dead Drops, only more so.

Apart from the digital safety issues involved in jacking a strange device into your computer, there are some physical concerns to consider as well.

Jacking into a Dead Drop. Courtesy of agoasi on Flickr.

Jacking into a Dead Drop. Courtesy of agoasi on Flickr.

Usually when you plug a USB key or similar device into your machine, the relationship between the two objects is similar – your computer is the bigger of the two items and typically doesn’t move around much.  USB keys are very light and place almost no stress on the USB ports. That means unless you’re being careless with the USB device, the odds of damaging either gadget is low. That model gets turned upside down (sometimes literally) when you’re dealing with a Dead Drop. In this case, the USB device has no give whatsoever. Depending on the height, angle and orientation of the Dead Drop, you might have to hold your PC to the wall or other host material at an awkward angle while you try to navigate menus and folders with your remaining hand. I hope you buy a netbook before going on a Dead Drop scavenger hunt!

A Dead Drop, seen mid-installation

A Dead Drop, seen mid-installation

Barthold’s site contains tips on how to mount your Dead Drop so as to minimize these difficulties for users, but my advice is to go to your nearest dollar store and buy yourself an extension USB cable of at least 3 feet in length. This less-than-a-cup-of-coffee investment might save you from having to replace a damaged USB port, cracked motherboard or worse. Plus it will eliminate the stress on the Dead Drop too – don’t forget, these things are just off-the-shelf USB key for the most part and they won’t survive abuse. They may not even survive a winter.

Is Dead Drops just the latest flaky internet craze, right up there with Rick-rolling, or are the current handful of USB-encrusted walls just a drop in the bucket of what’s to come?

Maybe the next great idea will arise as a result of these anonymous, disconnected micro-vaults of information. Perhaps an exciting counter-culture will emerge that will thrive in the ad-hoc environment of Dead Drops that can’t be controlled by any one entity.  I’d like to think we’re looking at a new wave of urban geo-caching where the sight of seeing someone huddled against the wall of darkened alley bathed only in the glow of their laptop screen brings a knowing smirk to our lips. But I fear it will simply become another avenue for the distribution of material that we as a society could do without.

Readers, what do you think?


Intel launches an app store for netbooks


Apps, apps, apps. It’s all you hear these days isn’t it? We’re constantly being informed “there’s an app for that”. Of course, they’re all refering to apps that run on Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch and soon the iPad. But not for long…

Intel is attempting to take the netbook category of PC beyond its initial scope of a low-cost, portable PC, and into the realm of a dedicated platform for app developers, using the very successful storefront model pioneered by Apple for their touchscreen devices.

AppUp is the name for Intel’s netbook app platform. It is a downloadable application that will work on any Intel-powered PC – not just Atom-based netbooks – and provides a one-stop-shop for browsing and acquiring apps that have been built specifically for netbooks. AppUp is currently in beta and will only install on WinXP and Win7 machines.

Unlike the majority of programs written for the various Windows OS flavours, AppUp apps are specifically geared for the small screens and the low-power Atom processors found on most netbooks.

Once you install AppUp, it will appear as an icon on your desktop and Start menu (if you choose this during the install). Launching AppUp takes a surprisingly long time given that it is supposed to be a starting point for small and fast apps for your netbook, but this may be a reflection of the program’s beta status. The AppUp interface  – much like the apps it provides – is a simplified experience that favours large buttons and minimal text, the entire UI runs at 1024×600 resolution which means it takes up 100% of the typical netbook screen. It can’t be increased or decreased or even repositioned, so for people who own HD-level netbooks (typically 1366×768), or for people running it on non-netbooks, it will simply stick to the top-left corner of your screen. Once you launch AppUp, it will ask you to sign in.

In a move that will hopefully be reconsidered once AppUp leaves Beta, Intel forces you to provide a credit card during sign-up. Without this, you can’t access the store at all, even if you’re only interested in the free apps. This will surely prevent many would-be users from joining – especially given that netbooks are a favourite amongst the student population, a group that doesn’t typically have their own credit cards.

The overall UI is divided into two main tabs, “Store” and “My Apps”.

AppUp Store Tab

AppUp Store Tab

In the Store, you can find apps using the built-in search tool, or browse by “favourite categories” (there are 18), or by three other classifications: Staff Picks, Top Rated, Most Downloaded and New Releases. Depending on the app, downloads are free, or paid. While you can choose to display only Free or Paid or All apps once you are within a category e.g. “Business”, there isn’t a global listing for all Free apps.

Clicking on a listed item takes you to the app’s download area where you can read a short description, see screenshots if available, and check out user reviews and ratings. You can only submit a review once you’ve successfully downloaded and installed the app.

AppUp My Apps Tab

AppUp My Apps Tab

The My Apps tab works just like the home screen on an iPhone/iPod Touch: this is where you can launch any apps you have downloaded. Installed apps appear as large, friendly icons which can be displayed as a grid, or a list, and can be sorted by Title, Rating, Free, Paid or All. There doesn’t seem to be a way to customize this screen to display specific apps, which is also something that should be reconsidered for the full release.

Also present on this tab are a collapsible lists showing you your most recent downloads, downloads that are either in progress or pending, and any updates that might be available for apps you already have.

App sizes are fairly small, averaging about 30-50Mb each. For a first test, I downloaded the free app Boxee, a program that is designed to turn your PC into a TV-based media center. The download and install process went well, albeit a tad slow given the speed of my net connection. Running Boxee was also smooth and it looked great as a full-screen experience, though being in Canada means NetFlix and Pandora options are not available.

Unfortunately, this is where my experiment ran into trouble. I wasn’t able to successfully download and install any other apps after Boxee. More frustrating was that AppUp suddenly decided I didn’t have an internet connection. This might not be such a bad thing if it only meant that I couldn’t browse new apps and do downloads, but for some reason it locked up the “My Apps” tab for ages before finally letting me see the apps listing. Once I could see it, my one and only app (Boxee) took several minutes to launch. An internet connection is apparently a very good thing when using AppUp!

Such things are not unusual with Beta-ware, but judging from some of the reviews on the apps, I’m not the only one encountering bugs.

Although at first it seems as though you need to have the AppUp program running in order to use your downloaded apps, this isn’t actually the case. Your downloaded and installed apps appear in your program menu and you can run them even if AppUp isn’t open.

Intel is on to a very good thing with AppUp. The netbook market is already much bigger than anyone anticipated. Millions of units sold means that there is already a significant base of users who are potential AppUp customers. iPhone app developers who have spent considerable time and resources creating small screen experiences for that device should take a serious look at AppUp. If your plans already include a larger-screen experience aimed at the forthcoming iPad, an AppUp port might well be worth your while – it’s hard to imagine that there is going to be massive overlap between these two audiences.

If you own an Atom-powered netbook, you owe it yourself to download AppUp and try it out. I realize the credit card requirement will put off some of you, but it’s a minor inconvenience for the ability to access a growing library of apps that were built from the ground up for your screen size and processor power. Then head back here and tell us what you thought.

Why the iPad got the cold shoulder

ipad-1up-us-20100127_512x512_015While Apple may be scratching their heads at the mixed reaction their latest device has received, you can see how it happened…

When netbooks took the computing world by storm two years ago, they created a new category: The cheap, small, lightweight, just-the-basics laptop.

It was an overnight success story, with geeks and other gadget lovers buying these devices up as quickly as manufacturers could build them. Within a year of the original Asus Eee PC going on sale in North America, it was joined by models from almost every manufacturer with one notable exception: Apple.

Steve Jobs was famously quoted as saying that, “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk”.

Perhaps what he really meant was “we don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that we can make a decent profit on.”

Jobs was likely taking note of the unexpected side-effect of the netbook craze. What had been initially intended as a simple, internet-connected appliance for basic email and web surfing, running on a zero-cost install of Linux, netbooks have evolved into mini laptops running Windows XP or the newer Windows 7 Starter Edition – both of which add incremental costs for manufacturers. The group of users that netbooks had been designed to woo were those who had no need for a fully-fledged PC and wanted to accomplish some very basic tasks as quickly and easily as possible. Instead, they appear to have attracted traditional laptop buyers who have been pulled in by the super low pricepoints and small form factor.

So it was widely expected that last week’s announcement would be Apple’s answer to the netbook: a ground-breaking device that would (depending on who you listened to) do a myriad of tasks far better than any netbook while ushering in a new age of tablet-based computing. From some of the hype, you’d have thought Apple was getting set to announce the end of war, poverty and hunger, not a new gadget.

Instead, they launched the iPad.

Journalists who attended the event in California seemed to be quite taken with the new device despite many acknowledged shortcomings. But out on the blogs, message boards, chat rooms and social sites, the critics pounced. Yes, it’s pretty, they acknowledged. But the litany of flaws including a lack of support for Flash, no built-in camera, no multi-tasking, an OS better suited to smartphones than computers, a lousy name (yes people are very vocal about this), no USB ports, no memory card slots, etc. seemed at points to be endless. How could Apple have so seriously misjudged the audience for this new product?

They didn’t.

The trouble is, they didn’t communicate who the iPad was aimed at, either before, during or after the launch.

Perhaps Jobs felt he had given enough away when he said “We don’t know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk”.

Perhaps industry watchers thought that this meant that Apple’s forthcoming product would be an expensive tablet computer that presumably was not a piece of junk. That might explain why there were so many rumours about a $1,000 price point.

For these reasons or perhaps just because Apple followers believe with a cult-like devotion in their favourite company’s ability to redefine the computing experience as they did in 1984 with the launch of the original Macintosh, most people didn’t realize that Apple wanted to target the original netbook audience (those who had no need for a fully-fledged PC and wanted to accomplish some very basic tasks as quickly and easily as possible), and not their existing user base of MacBook and iMac customers.

If we filtered out all of the negative comments written by geeks, gadget-gurus, Apple fanatics and even most of the tech journalists, we might just find the set of individuals the iPad was conceived for. Let’s take another look at the device from the point of view of someone who:

  • Isn’t in love with their computer because frankly it’s just too complicated for what they really want to do, and
  • Doesn’t own an iPhone (or any smartphone for that matter) or an iPod Touch.

If you’re a 30 or 40-something, I know what you’re thinking: “My parents.”

How many of us tech-savvy ‘kids’ are called upon by their aging parents to provide emergency tech-support when an email attachment won’t open? Or when “the internet isn’t working”?

The hard truth that so many of us who grew up digital have tried to ignore is that computers are complicated. They are not user-friendly. Not even Macs. Someone once claimed that if cars possessed the same attributes as PCs, no one would ever be comfortable getting behind the wheel who wasn’t a certified mechanic. There is a group of users out there (and I’m willing it bet it’s sizable) who are eager to enjoy the benefits of internet-connected PCs (digital photos, movies, music, email, ebooks, web-browsing) but who find the prospect of using a computer daunting, frustrating, time-consuming or just not worth the trouble. Still others use a computer, but do so reluctantly or with anxiety, and find themselves wishing for an easier way to do things.

This is the group at which the iPad is aimed squarely, even though Steve Jobs never once said it. And he never will. Instead, he will woo them with phrases like “using the iPad is much more intimate than a laptop” as he sits comfortably in an easy chair.

For these people, the iPad fills a huge void. A void that netbooks tried to fill, and may have been successful at filling if they had stayed true to their original vision.

And that’s why the iPad’s keyboardless touchscreen interface is such a smart move on Apple’s part. In courting a group of users who prize simplicity and ease of use above power, above speed, above almost anything that regular PCs offer, the dead-easy UI of the iPhone/iPod Touch OS is a master stroke.

While making a touch UI for Apple’s OS X might have been what enthusiasts were hoping for (and there’s nothing stopping Apple from doing this on a future device), the I-can’t-open-my-attachment crowd couldn’t care less. They likely aren’t going to be too bothered by the inability to multi-task (they probably work consecutively rather than simultaneously on their existing PCs anyway). The iPad promises to keep things simple. And easy. And that’s exactly what they want.

So was the omission of a webcam a mistake? Yes, I think it was. The iPad is going to be a communication tool for a lot of people and having a webcam would have made it a more powerful one. Should it have come with a slot for camera memory cards? Probably. But my mother has had a digital camera, a laptop with a card reader and a digital photo frame for over a year now and she has NEVER transferred a single photo to either device. Sad? Yes. But you can bet Apple understands my mother from a technology point of view better than you or I.

If you’re sitting at your computer or laptop or iPhone right now reading this, and if you’ve got a few apps open in the background while you’re listening to MP3s or streaming an internet radio station, and if you were one of the people who read about the iPad and said to yourself “Holy cow, Apple really blew it this time. So much for the iPad, I’m never buying one of those things”, I’ve got news for you: You aren’t the target market for the iPad.

In the coming months, especially as Apple switches their advertising machine to full power, take careful note at how (and to whom) they are pitching the iPad. Though they will obviously try to make it as sexy and appealing as they can to the widest possible audience, the one message that will resonate with the target audience is “This is not a PC. This is not a Mac. This is not an iPhone. It’s something else. It’s something you will love using.”

And they will be absolutely right.

Consumers are confused about netbooks

Ok, so the child is actually holding a DVD player. But a netbook is nearly the same size.

Ok, so the child is actually holding a DVD player. But a netbook is nearly the same size.

Since Asus started the netbook craze a little over two years ago with their diminutive Eee PC, the netbook category has exploded. Nearly ever major PC brand (with the notable exception of Apple) has one, and prices have continued to drop as features and screen sizes have grown.

It’s no surprise that these little machines have become a hit: most models offer Windows XP, a 9″ or larger screen, built-in Wi-Fi, webcam, media card reader and a power-sipping processor that can last 5 hours or more on a a 3-cell battery. Higher-end models offer Solid State Drives, Bluetooth and multi-touch functionality. All this, starting at around $300.

There’s no doubt, netbooks offer superb value and portability for the money. So why then are a whopping 30% of all netbook purchases returned to the retailer where they were sold? The number comes from a recent Yankee Group report which concludes that consumers just aren’t well enough informed about the performance characteristics of netbooks before they buy.

Surprisingly, these consumers are not walking in to their local big box electronics retailer on a whim, and buying the first PC they see under $400. The same report claims that “consumers typically make a buying decision about a particular brand after hours, days or weeks of research—long before they ever walk into a store to purchase an item.”

If consumers are doing such due diligence yet are still unsatisfied with their purchase, it means that PC manufacturers, and all of us in the media, are doing a poor job educating buyers about netbooks before they even begin their research into which model is right for them.

The way to correct this apparent confusion is to start with some defintions that are meaningful to the average consumer. What is a netbook and what are the real differences between netbooks and their look-alike, but larger cousins, the laptops (or notebooks)?

Intel, the maker of the chips that are used in the vast majority of netbooks and notebooks, coined the term and has used it ever since to describe ultra-portable PCs that use their Atom processor. If we go with that as a starting point, any portable PC equipped with an Atom processor is a netbook, whereas any other CPU will make it a notebook.

But why does the processor matter? Aren’t size, weight, feature set etc. all important factors in identifying netbooks? Yes and no. While it’s true that most netbooks are small, with screen sizes never larger than 12″, and thin (often 1.5″ 1.5 cm thick) and light (some even as light as 2 lbs), it’s also true that they are no match for a notebook in the brains department.

And regardless how small and cheap a PC may be, if it can’t run all the software you could normally run (in the way that you normally run it) it’s not a notebook.

Well that sounds pretty clear: Atom processor = netbook, anything else = notebook. Right? Well…

It turns out that while Intel feels the netbook label is all about the CPU, other experts and some manufacturers disagree.

Sony just announced a machine they say is the world’s lightest laptop: the Vaio X.

And if the price is anything to go on, I’d have to agree. At $1300 it had better not be a netbook. But guess which processor is under the hood of this baby? Yup. An Intel Atom.

CNET, as recently as August of this year, argued that we should do away with the moniker altogether, claiming that “Netbooks are nothing more than smaller, cheaper notebooks,” and that “the distinction between the two can now be considered little more than marketing speak.” 

The same article doesn’t mention anything about the difference in processing power between the two categories, which is a shame, because it can really make a difference. How much depends on the CPU comparison, but Tom’s Hardware benchmarked the Atom against a fairly slow Celeron chip, and the Atom did not fare well. The Celeron was 35% faster, across the board. Remember the Vaio X? Still wondering about that $1300 price tag? Me too.

That sounds like a real knock against the Atom, but when you consider that the Atom consumes far less power than the Celeron, things begin to make sense, and it brings us back to the reason why netbooks are appealing despite their lack of processing power:  Their tiny size, and super-efficient internal components means that though they aren’t workhorses, they can go much longer without plugging in to a wall.

What consumers should remember is that while the line is blurring between netbooks and notebooks, there are some real differences in terms of performance. Want a super-portable PC that can give you quick and easy net access from a Wi-Fi hotspot so you can check your mail, surf the web, watch some videos and stay up-to-date on Facebook? Want to go up to a whole day without a recharge? Get a netbook.

But if you need a portable PC that can mutli-task, edit video, play 3D games, run Photoshop and do it all without grinding to a halt, you want a notebook.