October 29, 2007

Hi Hulu Hulu Nuku Nuku Wah Ha Hah...

Updated: Hunh - they fixed the scaling :) Beta-in-motion... cool!

Hulu (the YouTube/iTunes clone from "Big Media") is now in beta (closed, but still)... see the embedded player below (link).

It looks pretty nice - nothing mind bogglingly interesting or anything, but somewhat well executed (annoyances already: can't invoke menu without sitting through the ad, scales size REALLY poorly - note that I'm not using the default "520 x 295" size... and permalink, wherefore art thou?). You can follow a "related content chain"to other assets by clicking on links when you invoke the "menu" - rollover the clip above to see what I mean.

I obtained this clip from from the Hulu blog (written by the CEO)- which has all of two entries since August.

CEO blogging is nice and Web 2.0h-ey - but only if you follow through, so minus style points for that. On the flipside, its an episode of the Office (full episode!) they use as a first example - which is frikkin' hilarious, so there's that.

I have to admit, as content providers increasingly push out the middle man, and offer the content directly... well - I'm not sure how many "pure" aggregators will be left standing.

Maybe this will be one. Or maybe not.

October 24, 2007

Steady Search Improvements

I'm not sure when it started happening, but both Google and Live now display a simple "table of contents" (link) for the first entry (Yahoo doesn't currently, and Ask has its own variant)....

Its really quite handy.

Back when, I had proposed a similar feature for AOL Explorer, based on the idea that an auto-discoverable RSS feed (a simple feature all browsers now have) is more than just an "update feed" - its really also an alternative editorially managed table of contents for the site. The idea was that you'd visit the site (like ESPN or CNN), and perhaps a small toaster would appear in the lower right presenting the feed as a mini TOC for quick navigation.

In any case, no idea if that's how the search guys are doing it - but the idea that the RSS feeds are actively programmed means they present an alternative, intelligent view into the site clearly must feed relevancy (which is really another word for "recommended" if you think about it...).

And little features like this showing are going to be increasingly important - more content means more specialization (witness: search engine fatigue)- so nicely done.

October 17, 2007

Software the Ultimate

If you're a language geek of any sort, you should really be regularly reading Lambda the Ultimate (er - "language geek" of the digital variety, that is - you freak-ish polyglots can go elsewhere). Of course, if you are one, you're likely already there, so the reference here is redundant.

That said, there was an excellent post from a few weeks ago that any futurist should embrace as a foundational principle (uh - IMHO :)). That principle, emodied in an argument about the base nature of programmable circuity, is that "Everything is software - the rest is just wiring". At some point, this will seem like a obvious thing - we'll wonder how anyone could have ever imagined it differently (and I'll bet some already do :)).

The most dramatic public demonstration of this is the iPhone, of course, where the "hardware" interface (input keys, etc.) is configured on-demand, programmatically (i.e. in "software"). But, the rise of the Programmable Processing Unit (the "PPU", whether called the CPU, GPU, Embedded processor, or whatever) has been underway for a long time - implicitly masked in the rise of "Edge Processing Capacity": smart devices of all sorts (phones, fridges, routers, blah blah ...), presaged by the Personal Computer itself.

Not there haven't been some promising mis-steps (Transmeta Crusoe comes to mind) - but it is the path. Most industries today, including Video, are full of single purpose, limited function ASICs, and that will change.

A few trends contribute directly to the idea, and value, of "Software-as-Hardware":
  • Specialization of function delivering a higher quality experience: think IMDb v. Yahoo Finance v. Google. And if you don't believe even Google believes this, ask yourselves why they have CodeSearch, Google Finance, and the like.
  • Aggregation of access points: think PDA/laptop/cell phone, or TV/Internet and Game console convergence - I don't mean "connectivity" here, but your physical access point to digital services.
    This is driven by what I think of as "the Lazy IT" principle required for mass commoditization: You just don't want to manage - that is, administer, install, update, and (in the case of portable access points) carry - all these access points.
    Sidenote: Mobility of access as a proxy for personalization will be an interesting trend to watch here.
  • The rise of what I call "Content Engineering": data driven design systems (think HTML, Flash, and to a lesser extent Java, .NET, etc.) enabling richer and more dynamically flexible relationships between content and services providers and their end users. The essence of this practice, on-demand delivery, is at the heart of what drives the move to progammability.
Another future wrinkle will be as our devices (access points in this context) become even more configurable. We see a *tiny* bit of this with some fun phone form factors (say THAT 5 times fast), but I think piezo-electric stuff (and/or some karmically related technologies like digital ink, or the like) will drive some dramatic application innovations that create significant behaviour shifts in next 8 years.

Imagine what it'll be like if your apps or content can change not just the surface, but the shape of your terminal.

Power consumption impedances (in the "laws of physics" sense), I think, are the only unknown blocker, versus greater programmability. Though perhaps there are creative ways to solve even that...

Of course, its not entirely impossible I'd feel differently if my title were "Chief Hardware Architect" :)

October 11, 2007

Flash rulez

Courtesy of Corey.
Fairly impressive set of announcements from Adobe's MAX conference this year.

Most notably (for me):
  • Aformentioned Flash player support for H.264/MPEG-4 should be released in the next few weeks (though media streaming is still tied to their Media Server, which kinda sucks),
  • 2D Shading language for Flash code-named Hydra; you can check out a HW accelerated only version here,
  • C/C++ compiler for Actionscript; not sure if this will be productized, but the demo of Quake I software rendering compiled to the AS3 VM is pretty cool (end of the second video, here),
  • Substantially expanded text control: flow, wrap-around, tables, etc.,
  • 2.5 rendering, e.g. a perspective display system.
Get (slightly) more detailed info at Adobe Labs.

With some significant focus of the developer productivity/debugging chain, Adobe could make things very interesting for the current generation of incumbents (Sun, Microsoft, etc.).

Certainly it turns up the heat intensely for the Silverlight team... and even moreso for the future of Java on the desktop for RIA.

October 10, 2007

Secrets of the Cable Universe #2: Bandwidth, pt 2

Continuing from Part 1.

To cut to the chase, your coaxial cable (and hence your cable company) is capable of delivering (roughly somewhat less than) 5Gbps into your house.

The math for that number is pretty simple. There's about 750mhz (or so) or RF spectrum avaible, divided into 6mhz "channels". Why 6mhz? Because that's about how much spectrum you need to deliver an uncompressed analog NTSC AV signal - in the digital world, that translates into (about) 40Mbps. So 40*125 = 5 (you know, adjusting for decimal places).

That sounds like a big number, and it is, but there are a few mitigating factors, as discussed last time.

First, it is a "shared" connection. There a certain number of households grouped into a "service group", usually between 200 to 2000 (very broadly), which connect to some physical networking gear at the cable plant (I use the term "plant" very loosely here). Within that service group, DOCSIS (the cable networking data interface protocol) basically works like a form of encrypted ethernet. Everybody in that service group sees all the packets, but cannot decode those packets.

So right off the bat, your effective sustained speed (more on this concept in a bit), is 5Gbps divided by [number of homes in your service group].

Additionally, some portion of that spectrum, those channels, is consumed by television - In fact, almost all of it. Today, only a single 6mhz channel is allocated to your High Speed Data (HSD) connection. That's a big part of what DOCSIS 3.0 promises - the ability to "bond" channels to effectively multiply the available bandwidth by N number of 6mhz channels.

Assuming there's channel spectrum to allocate...

In digital form, some 10 to 16 or so Standard-Def (SD) channels can fit in a single 6mhz channel (multiplexed into a single MPEG container over that channel, for those curious - this is also important because it has implications for compressions; specifically regarding CBR v. VBR). Two to maybe 3 or four High-Def (HD) channels can fit in the same 40Mbps. The range incidentally, is largely a function of compression quality per digital channel; this is probably worth a future post.

Short version: you get either 1 analog channel, 10 to 16 (or so) SD digital channels, or 2 to 4 (or so) HD digital channels.

Thr rub is this: most of the U.S. is still analog. Or at least, enough of it that most cable operators carry around 80 or so analog channels (out of a possible 110 or so). Then they consume another 6 to 8 or so "double carrying" the same channels in digital form, and the rest is allocated to HD channels (triple carrying many channels) and VOD (Video-On-Demand - more on how this works in a future post also).

Which doesn't leave a lot of room for your HSD connection.

Interesting, the core technology and bandwidth available compares reasonably favorably even with newer technologies like optical fiber (remember that we're talking about the connection to the home from the "edge" of the network - "inside" the cable network is often optical fiber, already; the challenge here is the "last mile"). Mostly the advantage of networks like FiOS is smaller service group sizes (owing to larger capital investments and other "late mover" advantages), and less legacy encumberances.

October 2, 2007

Vista: 1 year later

Ok, it hasn't really been a year - the Vista launch was "officially" January 30, for consumers, with the actual release tepidly launching 60 days earliers to businesses and developers on November 30.

But its interesting to note the contrast betwixt Vista's reception and Halo 3 (which just launched September 25).

I don't think there's anything wrong, per se, with Vista (other than the ridiculously massive gap between it and the last major OS release from Microsoft) - and there's much to recommend - but, it reaffirms for me that OS'es increasingly won't matter. Note that although Vista projections are down from MS, XP projections are up - the message seemingly that one's just as good as the other.

I don't mean that snidely - as computing has moved from novelty to utility, consumer interest will be be driven by experience, not capability. That is, "What have you done for me lately?", not "What could you do for me lately?" - which explains Halo's, um, halo.

Natural enough, but it probably has some significant implications in how Microsoft will/should think about the future of its platform... generating infrastructure that creates platform lock-in will be increasingly difficult.