Ultra-cool Computers

My next personal computer is going to be an ultra-portable tablet. I’ve never bought a laptop of my own, since my employers tend to shower me with them, and they’ve had so many drawbacks I couldn’t see any point in shelling out for one of my own. But recent research shows that we’re officially in the Dynabook Era with great gear like the Dell Latitude XT Tablet, the Lenovo X200 Tablet, the Asus R1E, Fujitsu LifeBook T5010, and the recently-announced HP Elitebook 2730p

What these babies have in common is light weight, sharp but small screens, long battery life, a wealth of connectivity features, and other goodies like web cams and mikes, GPS locators, touch-sensitive displays, and handwriting recognition. They’re more like Smartphones than traditional PCs, but without all the annoying limitations that make Blackberries better in the demo than in real life. Unlike pure slate computers that lack keyboards, they have swivel-mounted screens that can be twisted and folded to cover the laptop’s clamshell base, so you have a touch-sensitive display for when you need to jot notes or draw, and a regular keyboard for high-volume typing.

Each excels in some areas. The Dell seems to have the clearest screen and the best handwriting recognition since it uses a capacitive touchscreen. It draws a bit more power, since capacitive touch keeps an electric field active across the screen, where the more common resistive touch relies on a magnetic stylus to alert the touch sensor that something’s happening. The stylus-activated system rules out using your finger as a pointing device, which is also unfortunate, and has a thicker overlay on the screen than the Dell. The iPhone uses a capacitive touch system.

Dell also has a nice graphics chip with some dedicated memory which signficantly outperforms the shared-memory systems that are commonplace. But Dell’s CPU is at the low end of the scale, and the 1.2 GHz Intel U7600, an ultra-low voltage 65nm dual-core CPU, is as good as it gets. This is apparently a soldered-in part that can’t be upgraded. Dell is also super-expensive.

The Lenovo is too new for much in the way of evaluation, but it has very nice specs and a great pedigree. While the XT Tablet is Dell’s first convertible, the X200 is Lenovo’s third or so, and the details show. If they would only stop white-listing their own wireless cards in the BIOS they’d be at the top of my list. X200 Tablet uses a more substantial and higher power Intel CPU, around 1.8 GHz, which makes is considerably faster than* the Dell. They also use Intel’s Centrino graphics, and suffer a bit for it, but that’s a classic engineering tradeoff. Lenovo has an amazing array of connectivity choices, including the UWB system AKA Wireless USB. With an internal Wireless WAN card with GPS, internal Wi-Fi (including 3×3 11n,) Bluetooth, and Wireless USB, this system has five kinds of wireless without a visible antenna, awfully sharp.

The Fujitsu and Asus convertibles have larger screens – 13.3 in. vs. 12.1 for the Dell and the Lenovo – and add a pound or so of weight. Asus is concentrating on their netbooks these days, and doesn’t seem to be serious about keeping up to date, while the Fujitsu makes some strange choices with noisy fans and heat.

To be avoided are the older HP’s using the AMD chipset. AMD can’t keep up with Intel on power efficiency, so convertible systems that use their parts are only portable between one wall socket and another.

None of these little Dynabooks has made me swipe a card yet, but the collections of technology they represent say a lot about the future of networking. With all that wireless, the obligatory Gigabit Ethernet looks like an afterthought.

Which brings me to my point, gentle readers. What’s your experience with Wireless WANs in terms of service – between AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, who’s got it going on? I get my cell phone service from friendly old T-Mobile, but they’re not player in the 3G world. I like Verizon’s tiered pricing, as I doubt I’ll use 5GB/mo of random wireless, as close as I tend to be to Wi-Fi hotspots, but it seems like a much nicer fall-back than using my Blackberry Curve as a modem.

For a nice demonstration of the XT’s capacitive touch screen in comparison to the more primitive Lenovo, see Gotta Be Mobile.

*Edited. The X200 non-tablet has a faster processor than the X200 Tablet. The tablet sucks power out of the system, and Lenovo had to de-tune the CPU to provide it.

Skype defense not persuasive

Now that the whole world knows that Skype’s Chinese partner, TOM, has been censoring IM’s and building a database of forbidden speakers for the government of China, Skype President Josh Silverman had to respond:

In April 2006, Skype publicly disclosed that TOM operated a text filter that blocked certain words in chat messages, and it also said that if the message is found unsuitable for displaying, it is simply discarded and not displayed or transmitted anywhere. It was our understanding that it was not TOM’s protocol to upload and store chat messages with certain keywords, and we are now inquiring with TOM to find out why the protocol changed.

We also learned yesterday about the existence of a security breach that made it possible for people to gain access to those stored messages on TOM’s servers. We were very concerned to learn about both issues and after we urgently addressed this situation with TOM, they fixed the security breach. In addition, we are currently addressing the wider issue of the uploading and storage of certain messages with TOM.

I don’t know what’s more disturbing, the fact that one of most vocal net neutrality advocates is colluding with the government of China to finger dissidents, or the fact that they didn’t know they were collaborating. Frankly, this corporate defense raises more questions than it answers.

There are always going to be countries where the local laws are antithetical to post-enlightenment values. I think the correct response to such situations is to just say “no” and go somewhere else. For particularly compelling services, such as Google and Skype, the fact that the foreign service provide can’t do business in the fascist state then becomes a pressure point for change. The companies that collaborate with China are selling out their futures to fund the current quarter. How much money does Skype need to make, anyhow?

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Debate Strategy Notes: Don’t debate, pontificate

Tom Shales saw what I saw in the VP debate, a lot of evasion:

Palin basically stated early in the debate that this would be her strategy. She said she wasn’t necessarily going to respond to the questions of the moderator or charges from Biden, but instead, “I’m gonna talk right to the American people.” Since this was billed as a debate, not a speech, her remark came across as arrogant, and as an admission she would duck tough questions.

And duck she did. Biden is an impressive person and he’ll make a fine vice-president.

I never realized that Peggy Noonan had a drug problem before reading this deranged piece of spin. She had to be high to write the last three paragraphs, in which she segues from Palin’s debate performance to some imagined love Tiny Fey must have for her subject. The incoherence is understandable, given what a bizarre event this was.

The so-called debate was actually a conversation between Joe Biden and Gwen Ifill on the issues, conducted while a perky little bunny hopped around the stage singing lines off index cards and weaving a maypole. I hope nobody saw this outside the US, because I’m going to Europe in a few days and I don’t want to have to explain the American political system to quizzical foreigners. Sometimes it sucks to be an American.

UPDATE: Uncommitted voters scored it a knock-out for Biden, with a 2-1 margin.

(CBS) Uncommitted voters who watched the vice presidential debate thought Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden did the best job by a margin of more than two to one, according to a CBS News/Knowledge Networks poll taken immediately following the debate.

My fellow citizens aren’t that dumb, you see.

Joe Gandelman has compiled the mother of all reaction lists, but most of it is boring. Read this instead and find out why some people think Palin won the debate: she’s regular, and Joe’s one of them damn elites. Totally.

FCC fills empty job

Kevin Martin’s FCC has hired a new chief technologist, Jon Peha:

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin named John Peha chief technologist, the senior adviser post at the commission on technology issues, based out of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis.

I’m a bit disappointed. Peha is the guy who delivered strong testimony denouncing the Comcast management of BitTorrent without bothering to study BitTorrent’s use of TCP connections. His testimony was substantially wrong on a factual basis. Perhaps Peha can persuade me that he means well, but his performance so far has not been encouraging.

UPDATE: What am I talking about? Well take a look at the comments Peha filed in the Comcast matter, which are on-line at the FCC’s web site. He understands what’s at stake:

In the debate over network neutrality, both sides can make points that deserve serious consideration from policymakers. Such consideration requires clear and accurate statements of the facts, to say nothing of the broader issues at stake. Unfortunately, the public debate has often been filled with hyperbole and spin from advocates on both sides.1 Such rhetoric, combined with issues of technical complexity and subtlety, has made it unnecessarily difficult for policymakers to make informed decisions.

So what did he do? He misrepresented the facts and engaged in advocacy spin, to wit:

Comcast sends Device A a reset packet, with parameters set such that Device A will believe the reset is coming from Device B. Device A is therefore led to believe (incorrectly) that Device B is unwilling or unable to continue the session. The same may be occurring at Device B. Thus, the devices determine that the session must be ended, and no further packets can be sent.

It is factually incorrect to say that the process described above merely delays P2P traffic.

Bzzzttt, wrong answer. BitTorrent “sessions” consist of multiple TCP connections, so terminating one, or two, or any number less than the total number of TCP connections a given instance of BitTorrent can use at any particular time is in fact “delaying” instead of “blocking.” Peha makes the assumption that BitTorrent “sessions” are the same as TCP “sessions” and they clearly aren’t. Most of what makes BitTorrent troublesome, in fact, is the large number of TCP “sessions” it uses. It’s particularly outrageous that Peha charges Comcast with misrepresentation and then goes on to misrepresent in his own right.

He then goes on to contradict himself and admit that it’s really “delaying” after all:

After the flow of P2P from a given sender and recipient is blocked or terminated, the recipient is likely to seek some other source for the content. If the content is extremely popular, there are many options available. Consequently, this leads to a small delay, somewhat decreasing the rate at which this recipient can gather content.

So which is it, Dr. Peha, “blocking” or “delaying?” He can’t even make up his own mind. He then goes on to whack Comcast for targeting P2P:

Comcast has elected to employ mechanisms that degrade service for a particular application, i.e. P2P, instead of relying only on congestion control mechanisms that deal with traffic of all application types. Central to their justification of this approach has been the assertion that it is specifically P2P that has an adverse impact on other traffic. This assertion is untrue.

…and he goes on talk about blue cars and red cars, a lot of nonsensical fluff. The fact remains that P2P is the only application with such a great ability to consume bandwidth on a non-stop basis as to degrade the Internet experience of web browsing, and that’s what Comcast was trying to protect.

And more significantly, Peha fails to grasp the fact that applications are not created equal in terms of their tolerance for delay. P2P has no particular time constraints when running as a seeder (serving files to the rest of the Internet) but interactive applications like Web browsing and VoIP have very little tolerance for delay. And now we have a standard in place that requires ISPs to ignore these technical distinctions, thanks largely to the inept analysis of people like Peha.

In additional remarks he confesses his ignorance of network management techniques generally, and compares the Comcast method to a “man in the middle attack.” If that’s what he thinks, really and truly, he’s seriously under-informed. A “man in the middle attack” is means of breaking into a system by stealing passwords. What system did Comcast break into, and what password did they use to do so?

In Kevin Martin’s FCC this outlandish foolishness is a job interview. Peha is smarter than Sarah Palin, but he’s no Dave Farber. Surely the FCC can do better than to employ an advocate in the position that requires depth of technical knowledge and a commitment to impartiality. Kevin Martin has failed the American people again.

A more suitable candidate exists: Just a Girl in Short Shorts Talking about Whatever:

Comcast was regulating the download speeds of peer to peer networks, such as BitTorrent. I like to pirate movies as much as next cheapskate, but I do not think it is necessary that it be given equal priority with VoIP (voice over Internet).

That’s the level of insight we need in a Chief Technologist.

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