Friday, January 28, 2011

What's the deal with this WebM stuff?

If you watch video online, then this concerns you. However, I must say, I didn't quite know what I was getting into with this. The whole WebM, H.264 debacle is confusing, to say the least. With that in mind, let's get on with it...

Google is big. They seem to have their hands into everything nowadays: search, email, numerous online services, operating systems both mobile and desktop (Android and Chrome OS), mobile phones and tablets, browsers, and home entertainment (Google TV).

Say what you will about the apparent failure of Google TV (in its current iteration), but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Internet video is the future of all broadcast content, and were slowly but surely finding our way there. The question is then, how will internet video be embedded and implemented and which of the many codecs out there will become the de facto standard (if there must be one) for a wide range of TVs and devices?

The Internet as a content vehicle
Currently, Flash and H.264 are the primary options for internet video. But Flash is specifically an Adobe product, and H.264, though having many supporters, has licensing fees associated with its use in commercial products -- or it had licensing fees. As of August 2010, the MPEG Licensing Authority claimed it will allow royalty-free internet broadcasting for an indefinite period -- keyword indefinite. That means somewhere down the line, once everyone has comfortably settled into use of H.264, they could impose fees again on its implementation. And that ain't good. So, it seems only natural that another company or group of companies would gather in support of a new codec that is completely open and has no fees. That format is called WebM.

Google subsequently has dropped native support for H.264 in its Chrome browser, just as Firefox never had it, who had even petitioned the HTML 5 board for previous versions of Ogg Theora to be the default codec for embedded HTML 5 video. That never came to fruition, and rightly fully so; other than its openness, Ogg Theora wasn't that great compared to competing technologies.

However, I look at it all as a matter of control. Who is or will eventually control the container in which we are all delivered content? And if there is an open source, license-free codec we can all use, will it be the best? We can all agree that H.264 works great -- it results in quality content, small file sizes and even allows for hardware acceleration for pumping out HD video so our devices don't break a sweat. But will WebM do any of that?

Those are my concerns, so in order to understand the situation as much as possible, let's learn together while we answer questions I had in this process and how it will affect you and I both.

What is WebM?
WebM is a media file format and container for internet content that is royalty free. It is defined as a combination of the video codec based on a technology bought from On2 by Google called VP8 and the Vorbis audio codec.

Who works on and supports the development of WebM?
Well, this one's a toughie. VP8 is a video codec open for development for anyone that wants to contribute, but currently Google is pushing for its progress and adoption more so than anyone else in the industry now.

Is it better than the codecs in use today? How efficient is it for HD content?

Here's a chart from comparing the performance:

In this head-to-head comparison, the VP8 codec is lower in terms of visual quality, though to the typical user, it isn't that noticeable. What is noticable, however, is amount of processing power it sucks from your CPU. Playing a 720p video encoded in both H.264 and WebM formats, WebM across different machines required substantially more hardware resources to play similar files.

In response to results like these, the FAQ page on the website says:

"WebM playback seems to use a lot of processor resources on my computer. Why is this?

WebM decoding speed and browser rendering performance have improved significantly since our first release in May, 2010. Members of the WebM community and our partners are working hard on further performance improvements."

Additionally, coming from certain veteran codec developers, the VP8 codec specifications are a mess. If you'd like to dive real deep into this issue, you might want to read this and this. Here's a summary from said individual, Jason Garrett-Glaser, the current primary x264 developer and a ffmpeg developer:

"VP8, as an encoder, is somewhere between Xvid and Microsoft’s VC-1 in terms of visual quality.  This can definitely be improved a lot.

VP8, as a decoder, decodes even slower than ffmpeg’s H.264.  This probably can’t be improved that much; VP8 as a whole is similar in complexity to H.264.

With regard to patents, VP8 copies too much from H.264 for comfort, no matter whose word is behind the claim of being patent-free.  This doesn’t mean that it’s sure to be covered by patents, but until Google can give us evidence as to why it isn’t, I would be cautious.

VP8 is definitely better compression-wise than Theora and Dirac, so if its claim to being patent-free does stand up, it’s a big upgrade with regard to patent-free video formats.

VP8 is not ready for prime-time; the spec is a pile of copy-pasted C code and the encoder’s interface is lacking in features and buggy.  They aren’t even ready to finalize the bitstream format, let alone switch the world over to VP8.

With the lack of a real spec, the VP8 software basically is the spec–and with the spec being “final”, any bugs are now set in stone.  Such bugs have already been found and Google has rejected fixes."

If it's not better than H.264, then how does the end-user benefit from this open codec, if at all?
The farthest-reaching implications I can fathom about a license-free, patent-war-free is greater availability of content. Seems like a good thing to push competing options out there. Let's just hope that Google doesn't sit this one out in trying to make VP8 and WebM better. It's not completely up to the community to fix a codec whose spec was flawed in the first place.

What devices will support WebM?
Hmm... Right now, I think only certain browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Opera) and media player software (VLC, Winamp, XBMC) on any PC. Here's an up-to-date list.

How does the future look for this new codec, and to what extent will it be adopted?
That's anybody's guess, honestly. However, there are two aspects of interest: for one, don't expect Apple to give into this technology while so invested in H.264, the technology behind the formats mp4 and m4v used in all Apple devices and content provided on the iTunes store. Because of Apple's influence in certain markets, if they don't jump on board, then you won't see WebM as widespread while we live in an iPod/iPhone dominated landscape.

However, if you take into account Google's influence over online video content via YouTube, which at some point will have all its video available in the WebM format, then you can expect to see more usage of the codec, especially if YouTube does away with H.264 support. Of course, I don't see Adobe's Flash going away any time soon, as it will most likely remain YouTube's default video container for a while to come.

So what does this all mean?

Who knows?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is an AT&T to Verizon iPhone switch possible?

People currently with Verizon: I truly believe your dreams have come true. The iPhone 4 is the best phone, Verizon the best network. You are in a good place to have your wishes answered. But what about you people that already have an iPhone? Is it time to throw in the blue AT&T towel?

Well, that all depends on a number of things. The first is whether or not you have problems with AT&T's service. There could be any number of problems that result in degraded signal quality or slow speeds, such as geographic location, distance from towers, local population all attempting to access the same network, and the device's antenna integrity. Whichever it may be, if you hurt for better service or at a point were your iPhone is nearly unusable for calls and data, a Verizon switch may seem like the only option.

Secondly, deciding whether or not to end your service with Ma Bell depends if you're still on contract. For those that don't straight-up buy their phones so to avoid contract, chances are that early-termination fees are substantial, especially if you bought an expensive device like the iPhone 4. Even so, that iPhone 4 won't work on Verizon, so here's to your endeavors for the Verizon-iPhone pipe dream.

Another point of speculation is wondering whether or not enough people will switch over to Verizon so that AT&T's 3G network becomes less crowded and faster. There's no telling how much network traffic will dwindle, but I'm willing to bet not much (if at all). If you live in a not-so-great an area for service, don't expect that all your problems will go away once Verizon iPhones take up a little slack. Chances are that Verizon's network will eventually see much more data than they do now and possibly even choke up in heavy-use areas. Given all these factors, I've realized that almost everyone in AT&T iPhone contracts won't care much for Verizon's offering; that is unless of course they are due for a contract renewal and upgrade in the first place.

While we're still on the cons about the Verizon iPhone, you should be aware of the no voice and data and the same time thing. For many this is not a big issue, but for yours truly, I don't think I could live in that world -- a world were I can't check for movie times while talking to a friend about which movie we should see.

And one last con for Verizon iPhone users is that the iPhone Apple is releasing early next month is still a purely 3G devices, while Verizon has been fervent in its efforts to promote its new "Rule the Air" LTE 4G campaign. That's right, LTE (long-term evolution) technologies by Verizon can be expected nationwide in a few years and are already rolled out in major cities. However, many industry onlookers say that you shouldn't expect to see Apple implementing 4G radios in their phones until the iPhone 6, which would be somewhere around summer '12. That seems like quite a time to wait, but as they say, we'll just have to wait and see...

In all this news and speculation, really the best position to be in right now are those folks that still have yet to even buy a smartphone -- those that have been hanging out with their usable flip phones and Razors, watching their friends having fun with iPhones, Palms and Androids. Your day has come. It's time for you to enter the next decade.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

New iPhone 4 screws makes a mountain out of a molehill

Apple's recent decision to alter the default type of screws that hold the iPhone 4's case shut has suddenly received a lot of attention. iFixit, an indispensable website and a company I adore, put out this PSA-type video, voicing their woes associated with Apple's new "pentalobe" screws.

Apparently, if you take your iPhone 4 into an Apple Store for repair, after opening the case, the Geniuses behind the Bar replace those common Phillips screws with something a little less easy to bypass.

Everyone seems to be against Apple on this, and I too don't see it that necessary to change screw types, if only because if somebody really wants to open their iPhone, I'm pretty sure they can find a way. In fact, some have already found that a simple flathead screwdriver can do the trick.

However, my problem with all this is that iFixit and most other folks in the media are missing an important point completely. As iFixit claims, "Once I've purchased it, it's mine to do with as I please." I agree with that. But HELLO! Do you guys have any clue about the idea of subsidization? When someone buys an iPhone at a subsidized price of $199, they don't entirely own that phone. AT&T owns part of that phone. Then you have to pay it off for the next two years by contract.

While in those first two years the purchaser doesn't entirely own that iPhone, Apple, who takes care of the cost of repairs in almost any incident of its demise, wants to look after those phones just as much as the user. Because, while covered by AppleCare, if you reach in that phone that you, Apple and AT&T all partially own, and screw it up, why should it then fall on Apple to pay for the user's ignorance?

What bother's me more is the apocalyptic-type wording iFixit likes to use in this video. For one, it's a "diabolical" plan to "screw" your iPhone. Yes, simply changing screw types is so like, evil and stuff, right? And of course it will "screw" it up -- your iPhone -- I mean, your iPhone that also still belongs in part to AT&T. Secondly, as iFixit says, it's also an "insidious" way to "sabotage" their own product. Oh please...

Besides, they're just screws.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Another reason I love the Mac: Control Panel vs System Preferences

Have you ever taken a good look at the control panels in both Windows and OS X? When I used to be a die-hard Windows user, the XP-style control panel and all its options I looked at as an advantage, where a user can have much control over his or her machine. And as a nerd, sorting through those complicated options I found a necessary evil.

But when I see less computer-literate family and friends wondering how to change their security settings or uninstall a program, the Windows Control Panel is cryptic.

It's interesting that people who have never used a Mac just assume that computers will be difficult to use and never look at it any other way; they assume themselves less capable to figure out how to get what they need from their machines. They are perfect examples of folks that need to look at Apple's offerings, if they can afford it.

As Windows adds more features, the options for tweaking those features grow and grow. However, that seems to unfortunately correspond with its complexity of use. Though Microsoft has altered the way they list these options, giving an abstract category view, you'll notice how much is left out and still troubling from a design standpoint.

I'll show you the difference between altering settings through the System Preferences panel on a Mac and the Control Panel, and let you decide which seems the less complicated...

Lets start with a simple option of changing some of the mouse settings.

In Windows, you start at the Control Panel in it's default category view, as it looks in Windows 7 Home Premium: (You can click these images to view them full size)

Control Panel in Windows 7
Here you are presented with a category view of the different options of things you can change. We're look for mouse settings. Scanning through the headings and then their subheadings, try and decern where the mouse might be hiding. Or look at it this way: You are your grandmother, for just a moment (and if your grandmother is dead, just pretend you're old and unsure about all this technological stuff).

Obviously, the mouse should be under "Hardware and Sound." Well, that would be obvious if you are aware that the mouse is considered hardware yet not at all related to sound...

Next we're presented with this new page and all its options in the "Hardware and Sound" page:

Hardware and Sound Control Panel

Okay, so far so good. Do you see "Mouse" anywhere? Look real hard. It's the word that says "Mouse," in case you were confused, under "Devices and Printers."

Let's just assume your grandmother made it this far.

Another click on "Mouse" gives us an entirely new control panel and lots of tabs:

Windows 7 Mouse Properties
Alright! You did it! And now you can go through this mess to change what you want, if you know what you want...

If all those steps were too confusing, you could always navigate through this stuff -- the Large Icon view (make sure you know your ABC's and exactly how the Windows operating system would list what it is you're looking for):

Control Panel Large Icon Views
Okey doke!

Now let's look at that in Mac OS X:

Click "Mouse."

Mac OS X System Preferences

That's it!

And it comes complete with video tutorials built in and everything:

Mac OS X Mouse Preferences

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

4G to replace cable and DSL?

4G. The next generation of wireless telecommunication. Carriers are in a mad rush to get new, faster tech radiating our airwaves, whether it means rolling out entirely new spectrum, namely LTE, or adding bolt-on tech like HSPA+ to GSM standards, which is debatable as to its branding as true 4G. Either way, in order to compete, consumers, aware of the the technology or not, want to hear "4G" next time they're due for a new phone.

However, amid the branding wars and eventual mass rollout by all carriers a version of 4G, I question it's usefulness and real impact for mobile phones, 4G's primary focus.

Let me explain.

Greater bandwidth in any case at any time is always a good thing. So, just as the competition is heating of for 4G, in the virtuous nature of capitalism, the carriers are pushing full-steam ahead here in the US for the fastest speeds they can manage. That way somebody can claim alpha-dog status and gain a bunch more customers. Hooray for all that.

The only issue I see with the whole thing is that everyone is touting 4G availablity solely as a faster network for your phone's data. I don't know about you, the amount of data I consume on my phone is but a pittance of the gigabytes upon gigabytes of data I consume on my home network.

I have an iPhone 4 and a contract with AT&T for my 3G data. But to be honest, the speeds I get with that, which can sometime get up to 3Mbps here on the outskirts in Atlanta, is entirely sufficient for any phone. That's plenty for streaming Netflix on the go, but almost everywhere else you'll use your smartphone probably has WiFi access. So, my question is, when is 4G, or later on, 5G, wireless data going to eventually replace my home broadband connection?

With WiMax, the idea is already there, except that is a data-only connection, meaning all voice calls mean VOIP, which is great, but there's no streamlined VOIP integration for cellphones quite yet. I assume because carriers make tons of money selling "minutes" and texting plans.

LTE and 4G technologies of the like should at some point be everyone's main broadband connections, both at-home and on the go, consolidating our telecom bills into one.

For the savvy tech user, maybe there are a few people that use 3G hotspots for all their data at home, but two problems exist there. For one, 3G is too slow for home use and external network devices are required, i.e. tethered cellphones, MiFi hotspots, or USB network dongles/adapters. And there lies the problem for at-home wireless access today: you have to pay for both the network modem or router for your home connection as well as the extra costs for a non-subsidized non-cellphone plan.

This may be pipe dream, but once LTE becomes widely available, I'd want a Verizon plan that allows me an iPhone 5 with 4G access along with a subsidized at-home router, effectively replacing my current setup of two bills, one for mobile 3G, the other for DSL.

Sounds good. Now let's just hope we can do all that with low latency and speeds around a consistent 5Mbps+.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Big Red iUnicornPhone 4 Thingy

Verizon iPhone, people!!! It exists!

It's looking at a launch date of Feb. 10.

I would get on this newsletter from Verizon to keep you on the up-and-up.

Tablet Fever

Apparently at CES this year, some 100 or more tablets were announced or introduced.

That's crazy.

Just one year ago, right before the iPad was announced, Steve Ballmer got up on stage to announce a few tablets, highlighting one -- the HP Slate -- that wouldn't even go into production. Why? Because once again, the ideas and concept products from manufacturers all had to be re-thought and redesigned in order to compete.

The iPad. When it was announced January 2010, most tech journalists screamed disappointment, their favorite word to describe it being "underwhelming." Oh, it was "just a big iPod Touch." And most people wrote it off as unimportant nearly instantaneously. The problem wasn't with the device at all. The problem was with people's expectations. If the iPad cured cancer, it still wouldn't have satisfied those people. What, with all the hype and speculation the Apple Tablet had garnered for more than a decade?

But it turns out that being just a big iPod Touch is freaking awesome. As soon as I saw the iPad and then heard its "big iPod Touch" description, I thought, "Alright! A big iPod Touch! That's great!" What else could it have been? It seems that being just a larger iPod is still better than what any manufacturer could come up with for the past year and possibly even another year.

So the tablet hype is in full swing, and opinions about the iPad have come full circle. As soon as a few other manufacturers started seriously trying to ship Windows 7 tablets, we then had a more telling look at the devices when we could see them in action side-by-side. And the iPad won, over and over again.

Since then, Samsung recently has been the most direct competition for Apple with the release of the Samsung Galaxy Tab. It is built by using the phone Android OS, with Samsung doing what it can to make it more tablet-y. But after having high hopes for what it was and what it could do, after using it I was sadly disappointed. Samsung seemed to rush this thing into market, as it lacked real polish (as does most Android phones). And in many instances across the OS, there were too many references to the "phone" the OS thought is was running on. Looks like they forgot to erase the term "phone" and switch it to "tablet" or "tab." As an example, using a demo model, the Galaxy Tab told me that the phone was missing its card-storage.

However, now Android is finally out to compete is better products, and with the Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" OS coming on a bunch of new devices, we might finally see some actual competition for another market that Apple has once again dramatically influenced and/or dominated.

And as for Windows tablets? God, if they don't soon make the Windows Phone 7 OS over to a tablet form and call it Windows Tab 7 -- or something -- then they have no hope in this catagory. Somebody over there has got to get it together and realize that Windows 7 wont make it in the current market landscape. At CES, Microsoft announced that Windows will make it over to support an ARM-based infrastructure, which just means that they plan on making their desktop OS more fit for tablets. Get you heads out of your ass, Microsoft. Put all your resources in to Windows Phone 7 OS on tablets. It's good. You did great on that software. As soon as you join the pack with a real offering -- an OS with real simplicity, tight underpinnings, and a re-worked UI that's as fluid and seamless as your great new phone OS, then you might have a chance.

Here's just a sample of the tablets that were announced at CES, with more on the way.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Steve vs. Steve (Jobs vs. Ballmer)

Two Steves, two CEOs of major techonology corporations, two very different thinkers...

Steve Jobs, considered a saint by many Apple "cult" followers, has a coolness, sleekness about his style, friendly yet fierce when he needs to be.

Steve Ballmer, intelligent in business and markets, enthusiastic about the product he sells, wearing a business suit and tie, can run a great business yet sometimes seem a little out of his element.

Either way, they both are funny:

Jobs likes "Boom"

Ballmer is "coming" way too much...

Ballmer compliation:

This new iPhone = universal iPhone 4 = Verizon iPhone [u]

If you've been reading any of the gadget news lately, then you've probably seen the oh-so-certain wrap-up by the tech community that Verizon is set to announce the iPhone on their networks this coming Tuesday, Jan 11.

Gotta say, I'm a believer too.

The recently discovered redesigned iPhone 4 -- the one with four different "black strip" antenna marks in the steel ban -- is not an early iPhone 5 design. It's a universal iPhone 4.

Of course, I'm saying this out of pure speculation. But too many facts have fallen in place recently that make this iPhone's purpose all too obvious.

First off, Apple started restricting vacations on its employees around Feb. 3, a move usually made around big product launch times. Then Verizon sent out invitations to a media event just after CES (consumer electronics show), curiously barring Gizmodo from the event, which because of their previous battles with Apple and the iPhone 4, have also been barred from Apple events. That could only mean one thing: Apple is involved somehow with the announcements to be made.

Then, as chance would have it, this video comes out showing some newly redesigned steel band and antenna system -- this one with an additional black strip. The YouTube video claims it to be parts to the upcoming iPhone 5, but I beg to differ.

The additional black strip? Yeah, it's a CDMA radio antenna. I mean, what else could it be? I imagine the to-be announced iPhone 4 will be a global device -- a buy one, use anywhere phone. That means it will contain both GSM and CDMA radios. Apple, being a few-device, simple-product-line company wouldn't have it any other way.

Not to mention the Wall Street Journal has recently confirmed most of these rumors, which, for some, is all the confirmation one could need.

Update: Well, it looks like I was wrong about the whole "world phone" thing. But, here we have a new iPhone for those Verizon users. I personally know many people that love the iPhone, but also love Verizon. I think dreams were made today.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Apple setting an example for developers by cutting it's own app prices

The Mac App Store came out today via Snow Leopard update 10.6.6. Apparently, the store contains just about or over 1000 apps to start with more along the way.

Most of these applications have already been available elsewhere, usually straight from the developers website or other repositories among the web. The Mac App Store is certainly an improvement in the discovery and installation of new applications and, hopefully for the end user, cheaper. It seems that Apple is taking the first steps by cutting the prices of its software. From the ability to buy individual iWork Suite applications, to Aperture and Apple Remote Desktop being both dramatically cheaper, it looks like Apple is saying, "You see this, developers? In the Mac App Store people want cheap, so price it low and go for volume."

Add to the fact that any software you buy off the app store is able to be installed and used on any of your personal Macs associated with your iTunes account (I'm assuming up to five, just like with iTunes music), then applications through the Mac App Store look to soon be orders of magnitude cheaper than previously.

We will just have to wait and see, but I'm sure that the price race to the bottom, though definitely slower than with the iPhone App Store, will still happen... what, with being able to compare two apps of similar function right next to one another? It's just like deciding between two deordorants in the aisles of CVS: you see they both say "spring-fresh scent," but one is two dollars cheaper. Which one would you get?

A couple of apps I'm waiting to see drop are like Elgato's Turbo.264 HD Video Converter, Things, iBank, and one app called "alpha" looks pretty interesting -- but it's also $229.99.

Eventually, most all developers will want to find a way to spot their apps in the Mac App Store. Though, I'm not sure technically how complex "pro" apps like Pro Tools or Final Cut Pro can have a simple drop-into-the-dock install process. But seeing how the App Store on the iPhone blew up mobile gaming, I'm wondering just what kind of effect the Mac App Store will bring to the long-neglected gaming platform OS X. In a way, it directly competes with Steam and their game store. We'll eventually see a struggle from some game developers looking to get on the Mac in deciding which store to launch games on. Price wars and competition...

It'll work itself all out, I'm sure.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Skype works over 3G, FaceTime still fighting with AT&T?

Skype for iPhone has been approved and released in the App Store. That's great. Video calling is getting more and more prevalent. And for those that don't have an iPhone 4 or a Mac for FaceTime can now chat video chat with all their iPhone 4 friends that were left out of the loop.

One thing that is interesting about this release, is that Skype for iPhone works over the 3G networks. Seriously. Apple and AT&T allows it. But AT&T doesn't allow Apple's own FaceTime over their network. Like wha? Really?

I think that the over-3G video quality for Skype gets dropped down to a lower bit-rate than for when over WiFi, but for those of us that prefer FaceTime, Apple's own video calling technology that's hard-wired into the phone application, we still have to jailbreak if we want to use it over 3G. Weird, huh?

I know of people that use WiFi cards like Verizon's MiFi card, carrying it with them wherever they go, just so they can FaceTime when not around a WiFi hotspot. So, isn't about time the restriction on FaceTime to go away?