Monthly Archives: September 2011

Amazon Silk: fast cloud-powered browser, or a new way to mine your data?

Amazon announced its new range of Kindle devices today and the web is buzzing with debate about the impact of the new Android-based Kindle Fire tablet on Apple and others.

Amazon knows how to pile high and sell cheap, and can make money from content even if it gives away the hardware, so it is a strong contender in this space.

The real innovation announced today though was in the web browser. Amazon announced Silk, which splits the browser between your Kindle Fire and EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud).

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Amazon’s point: it can hold a massive cache of web content on EC2, as well as performing common-sense optimizations like scaling images to an appropriate size before sending them to your device.

Is this really new? Much of it sounds familiar, if you know about caching and proxies. Nevertheless, Amazon is in a strong position with its large cloud resource, and can design the web browser specifically for its cloud proxy. In addition, it knows the exact size and capability of the device. And perhaps its smart engineers have come up with better ways to cache. One feature is predictive caching – sending down the page it things you will visit next, before you actually go there.

There are some hard problems, as I have found in trying to optimize my own web site. Caching dynamic content, so that PHP script does not get executed by every browser request, is an obvious thing to do; but web pages draw content from multiple sources, including scripts that serve ad content that is meant to be targeted for the specific viewer. Optimizing that is harder.

It does also occur to me that a side-effect of Silk is that every single bit of browsing you do will go through Amazon and could potentially be mined for data about your browsing habits. Amazon, naturally, is well-placed to send you related ads from its own retail site. Amazon has not mentioned this aspect, but I am sure it has been thought about.

An ugly dialog from Spotify

I am a big fan of Spotify, mainly because it works so well. Search is near instant, playback is near instant.

I understood when, under pressure from the music industry, it limited the value of the free version by restricting the hours of play and the number of times you can play a specific track.

This is ugly though:

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Spotify says:

From today, all new Spotify users will need to have a Facebook account to join Spotify. Think of it as like a virtual ‘passport’, designed to make the experience smoother and easier, with one less username and password to remember. You don’t need to connect to Facebook and if you do decide to, you can always control what you share and don’t share by changing your Spotify settings at any time.

Why care? Privacy? Because you might want Spotify but not Facebook?

I would put it another way. I am wary of putting Facebook at the centre of my Internet identity. If others follow Spotify’s example and the Web were to become useless unless you are logged into Facebook, that would give Facebook more power that I would like.

If for some reason you want to withdraw from Facebook, why should that affect your relationship with Spotify? It is an ugly dependency, and I hope that Spotify reconsiders.

See also Cloud is identity management says Kim Cameron, now ex-Microsoft.

Android tablets ahead of Apple iPad on Amazon

Following Gartner’s report on the expected dominance of Apple’s iPad2 in the tablet market throughout 2011 I took a quick look at Amazon’s sales and user ratings.

My guess is that Apple stores and direct sales online account for a large proportion of iPad sales, so no doubt the iPad is ahead overall. Even so, I was interested to find  the iPad at number 7 on Amazon.co.uk, not only below three cheap 7” cheapies from little-known brands, but also below the Asus EeePad Transformer and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, both of which are at iPad-like prices.

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Buyers on Amazon.com seem to have less enthusiasm for the cheapies. At the time of writing, bargain prices have pushed HP’s discontinued TouchPad to number 1, followed by the EeePad and the Motorola XOOM. Apple iPad is at 4, with Galaxy Tab 10.1 at 5 and 6.

When you see nearly 500 user reviews and a four star average rating, as for the Eee Pad, it shows that these things really are selling and being enjoyed.

Of these I have only properly tried the TouchPad and the iPad. I did not much like the TouchPad, though apparently firmware updates have considerably improved it.

The closest I got to Windows on ARM at Microsoft BUILD 2011

A couple of the stands in the exhibition at Microsoft’s BUILD conference last week were showing Windows on ARM. This one was on the NVIDIA stand and was most likely running its Tegra 2 SoC (System on a Chip) though Tegra 3 (code-name Kal-El) is apparently now in production. The tablet was displayed under a plastic shroud which could only be lifted when someone from Microsoft was present, though I was able to get this snap of the machine sans shroud. I was not permitted to handle the machine.

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I have blanked out part of the background because it was black on black.

My main observation: it looks just like the Intel version. This screen shows a Metro app running side by side with the Windows desktop, and showing the “charms” on the right.

Gartner reports that Apple will have the tablet market almost to itself in 2011 (73.4% market share). I believe Windows on ARM is critical to Microsoft’s strategy to compete. In principle, it should be cheaper and more efficient than an Intel device, and one that is more locked-down in the style to which Apple has made us accustomed.

If Microsoft and its hardware partners can get the size, weight and design details right, I suspect I would rather have a Windows 8 tablet than an iPad. One advantage is the ability to have two apps side by side. Microsoft’s new user interface works really well with touch. I will expect to find a Windows remote desktop client there by default, and better support for Microsoft Office and SharePoint than I find in the iPad.

By the time Windows 8 comes out though, we will likely have iPad 3 with who-knows-what improvements; Apple has all the apps; and breaking into this market will not be easy.

Why I miss pinball machines

I’m just back from Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California, where I had little time to do much other than attend sessions, write, eat and sleep (a little).

I did have a quick look round the exhibition though, and was pleased to find four pinball machines. Unfortunately I never got a go, except on one that proved to be slightly broken. Another was so broken that it was switched off.

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That’s one of the reasons you don’t see many pinball machines these days. They are high-maintenance, with many moving parts that get pounded constantly by one or more heavy silver balls, plus the occasional thump from the player as he bangs or shifts the machine just enough to affect the ball’s motion without causing, he hopes, a tilt.

Another reason for the game’s decline is that a good player can play for ages on a single quarter – or 50c, which seems to be the going rate now. It is a game of skill where accurate shooting gets you both long games and frequent extra balls and replays.

Neither of these characteristics is good for arcades, which like high income and low maintenance.

I love the game though. It offers tactile, physical pleasure that will never be captured by video simulations. The machines themselves are pure delight, every one different, often with gorgeous artwork and amazing gameplay with loops and tunnels and mini-play areas and fantastic contraptions that enable themselves if you get the right sequence of targets.

Most latter-day machines have a multi-ball mode, which is a lot of fun and surprisingly difficult. Watching several balls at once is a great deal harder than keeping your eye on just one.

I am not sure that pinball machines are made any more, though enthusiasts seem to be able to keep the old ones going. Sadly a lot of the machines you encounter in dusty corners of cafés and arcades are not in good order, the bumpers do not bump as they should, some features do not quite work, and they are disappointing.

The best one at BUILD was called Pirates of the Caribbean and seemed pretty good, though I never got a game.

Most of the time I have to make do with computer simulations. The best I have come across are the Pro Pinball series for the PC (don’t get the Xbox version which is a poor port). I was on a forum once with one of the developers, who explained how he hated scrolling on pinball simulations. I agree – how you can shoot accurately with the play area is scrolling all time? There is also an amazing open source project which lets you load actual machine ROMs for authentic simulation, though this is of uncertain legality.

I am more interested in simulations than pinball-ish games that you could never build. One of the great features of Pro Pinball is that you can go into a maintenance mode and tune it as you would a real machine.

Unfortunately none of these are anything like as much fun as the real thing, though they do save on quarters or your local equivalent.