[Missing Post] The Dark Horse in the Race for Our TV

by Michael in ,

What follows is a "missing post". I wrote all of this before WWDC this year in June with predictions for exactly what Nintendo has just announced (or at least how Nintendo is in a unique position for it). While laziness got the best of me, so I never completed the post, I'm going to go ahead and post this right now while Nintendo is still announcing just as evidence that I already had it written. Obviously it's pretty bare bones, as I tend to jot down notes before going back and filling in details and actual words for a post. I haven't touched anything since Nintendo's event started.

Everyone is, and has been, talking about the future, mystical, this changes everything Apple TV. WWDC 2012 is right around the corner and the press has worked itself into such a tizzy over this hypothetical product that if (and I believe when) Apple doesn't announce some new revolutionary our minds just eploded because of how intensely this will change the world overnight television or related device during its main Keynote, Apple's stock price will take its (usual and very temporary) hit, the press will wonder where the product is, and everyone will continue the cycle of excitement until Apple's next event. This is exactly what happened with the iPhone. People expected it for years before it came out. Then it did and changed everything.

The thing is, the TV market is different from the phone market.

 Content vs device (TV vs phones)

Take time to change things (content incumbents)

Most successful in the hybrid world (Xbox 360)

App model for Apple TV (Input is problem: hypotheical iphone/ipod touch/iPad as input--problems are cost, ubiquity. No point to software using both if nobody has both.)

Surprise possibility (Wii U picture - highlight TV button on Game Pad)

What the Wii U has that nobody else does. (Cheap, software updatable/downloadable, platform with intuitive *and* "high definition" input mechanisms built in. Warm "Wii" name which non-technical people have already invited into their homes and aren't intimidated by. They can go buy "the next Wii". Extra input devices for games already in peoples' homes. Built-in, ready-to-go, "Angry Birds" style casual games in "Nintendoland" which anyone can play--familiarize with mascots and then have an included games console for much better games than an Apple TV could manage. Plus easy ports from 5+ years of Xbox 360 and PS3 that, if volume of Wii Us are sufficient, can be easy money at lower prices for publishers/developers on *MUCH* better games than anything Apple could create could do. Cutting edge games on PS4/Xbox 720/PC. Less advanced but not at all input-bottleknecked "real" games on Wii U with non-intimidating platform also being able to be picked up for people who don't/hardly want to game at all.)

Microsoft and Sony already want to do this because there isn't enough money just in "real games" for them. Nintendo isn't competing as  

Obstacles: (Nintendo itself. Partner deals. Stubbornness. Allowing cheaper 3rd party games.)

Biggest obstacle: Nintendo making content deals with the essential movie and TV content creators. Interfaces for accessing media.

Biggest benefit: Touch screen controller always available to control TV stuff, no need to clutter content display to get media info, browse media store. Again: bundled with device.

AfterShokz Bone Conduction Headphones

by Michael in

I like running. I also like listening to things while I run. I've never purchased headphones specifically for running, so listening to my headphones on a run inevitably becomes more annoying the longer a distance I run. I've long wanted to purchase some headphones specifically for running, but have had a list of points I needed to be addressed which I was never quite convinced a prospective purchase would solve.

The basic lists of prioritized conerns I had for headphones to use while running were as follows:

  1. Safety. The biggest problem with wearing ANY headphones while running is the necessary obstruction of traffic noise. I generally don't run in traffic heavy areas, but it would still be nice to be able to hear things around me in order to avoid a fluke accident. Standard headphones ALL make it more difficult to hear things around you as you run.
  2. Comfort and Fit. The Apple earbuds, alternative earbuds, and simple over-the-ear per-ear headphones I've had over the years have all been uncomfortable while running. Per-ear athletic headphones would put enough weight on the ears that a long run would leave the backs of my ears aching. Earbuds would either have to be pushed in uncomfortably and cause the ear to ache on the inside or would become loose as I sweat, potentially falling out as I went.
  3. Durability. When a person runs, there will be a certain amount of wear and tear on the cable leading up to the headphones. Combined with the constant sweat coming into contact with the unit, the physical stresses of running can be surprisingly rough on headphones--sometimes meaning I go through several pairs a year.
  4. Sound quality. By far the least important of the points, the sound quality needs to be good enough for me to hear most of the frequencies involved in the music I'm listening to or to make out distinct voices and easily understand any podcasts or audiobooks I want to use to get me through an especially long run.

Looking at these qualities in aggregate is pretty simple. No headphones will be considered if they can't provide enough sound quality to be worth bothering. Once I've determined a pair can deliver a sufficient not-particularly-high level of audio such that I can hear what I'm attempting to listen to, no more consideration will be given to audio quality over the other points. Durability matters when I take into account whatever price I intend to pay for that particular pair of headphones. As it stands it is already easy to blow through a surprising amount of money by simply wearing through numerous cheap headphones. As long as a pair will last long enough to make up for most (not necessarily all) of the price increase over some cheap earbuds, the durability is satisfactory. Comfort is essential. If the headphones make me uncomfortable, I'll be constantly thinking about the irritation of the headphones instead of relaxing my mind as I run. The best pair of headphones for running is a pair you can forget you have on, and that stays on your ears without any continued effort. Finally, safety is a wild card. I certainly can't purchase sound isolation headphones because that could cause major accidents, but running with headphones almost requires a certain acceptance of environmental hearing impairment. If I could find a pair of headphones which obstructed my hearing minimally, that would be eccellent, but I can make do as long as horns and close by sources can be heard.

Considering all these points, it's no wonder I could never make my mind up on a pair of decent running headphones. About a month ago, that changed. During episode 8 of The Nickel, a podcast about the intersection of sports and technology, the host talks to the creator of AfterShokz. These headphones are different from what the normal pair. They don't go in your ears at all. Instead, they have soft pads which rest on the skin right in front of your ears. The speakers lie behind these pads, sending the vibrations of the audio through the bones in your jaw into your head. As is addressed in the podcast, these are not the first headphones of their kind. That said, every pair of bone conduction headphones I've heard of before has generally been regarded as sub-par. You can imagine my surprise, then, when a quick investigation of online reviews indicated these were truly a nice pair. I decided to give a pair a try.

I purchased the cheaper of the two pairs and it took no time at all to appreciate these headphones were exactly what I had been looking for. Before I start listing off the positives I want to quickly address the only negatives to the headphones. First: audio quality is not especially high. You are not going to want to substitute these for stock Apple earbuds or any decent pair of headphones when you're simply sitting on a chair, couch, or at a desk. The difference in quality essentially disappears once you're outside and environmental noise surrounds you, but if in a quiet environment where you're hearing nothing else you'll want to be using something else. Next, these headphones produce plenty of audio bleed. If you're sitting around with these on, other people will absolutely hear what you're listening to. You can't use these in constrained environments without annoying others. These headphones are absolutely only for running. If you're not willing to buy a pair of headphones to dedicate to running, don't bother with these. The final two negatives are related to one another. These headphones are a powered pair of headphones, meaning that instead of drawing power from your audio device they use power from a separate source: in this case a built-in battery pack. The downside here is that you could conceivably pick up the pair of headphones for a run and find they're out of power and, therefore, useless. Thankfully a single charge takes just a bit more than 2 hours to complete and is rated for 15 hours of active use. I generally charge the set every two weeks without any problem. You need to make sure to have the small USB charger (which looks like a USB flash drive)to plug the headphones in for charging, but there is a nice soft Velcro-sealing bag included which you should use for transporting the headphones in anyway. The final downside relates to the positioning of the battery and control pack. This small box is too close to the headphones. The box has a clip on it for fastening, but it's positioning means you have to be wearing a shirt, an arm band of some sort on your left bicep, or presumably a sports bra (I can't speak from experience here) to fasten the control box to. Leaving it loose is not an option as the weight is easily high enough that it would become an irritation at your very first jogging step. I run without a shirt with my iPhone in an arm band on my left arm, so it's not a big problem for me, but if I were to use a smaller music player (like an iPod shuffle or equivalent) which could easily clip to my shorts I would have no solution without wearing a shirt. This is something to be aware of.

Now, though, I can talk about the positives. As discussed above, the audio is plenty sufficient for listening to things clearly while running. I can easily make out both parts of a conversation when listening to podcasts and am surprised at the quality of the entire range of audio when listening to music. It's no replacement for my higher quality headphones I use while working or relaxing, but it is well above the threshold I've set for running headphones. The only thing to be aware of here is that you might not place the contacts correctly the very first time. If the audio sounds tinny, shift the pads slightly closer to your ear until you hear a sudden increase in depth of the audio. I have only had the headphones for just over a month now, but the construction seems excellent. The contacts are very comfortable against my skin and wipe clean easily. The around-the-back-of-the-head design has exactly the right amount of tension to fit my head as well as heads larger and smaller without getting tiresome. The build quality feels solid and rugged, extending even to the angled entry point of the audio cable into the headphone unit at your head. It is angled behind you in such a way that seems to reduce stress on the joint, a frequent failure point of headphones I have had in the past. The fact that there are no drives sitting on or in the ears means irritation from sweat and heat inside the ears is drastically reduced. In terms of comfort and fit, these headphones are well above any pair I've used in this capacity. Only one month in to use is too early to speak conclusively about durability, but every indication is the AfterShokz should be given just as much credit here. The final area, safety, is where this pair truly shines, though. Simply put, you can not have a standard pair of headphones that is as safe as these. Because these do not obstruct your ear in any way, you are able to hear all environmental noise, including vehicles, just as well as if you had no headphones on and were simply listening to a friend talking right next to you (presuming you leave the volume at a healthy level). In other words, the main issue becomes one of concentration and awareness, and the only way to be safer is simply to not listen to anything at all.

After using these headphones for a while I can give a hearty recommendation to anyone willing to deal with the (in my opinion minor) issues I've mentioned. These are a better solution than any I could have dreamed up on my own. If you're looking for a solid pair of running headphones, you can stop looking now.

The company sells two varieties. I bought the cheaper AS300 AfterShokz Sport variety, which has a control box with volume controls, a power button, and a blue power indicator light. These are not controls for your iPhone or other smart device, but dedicated controls for the headphones. The more expensive AS301 AfterShokz Mobile variety has the same power button and indicator as well as a line-in microphone on the control unit instead of volume controls with a call answer button that will also operate as the single play/pause button if plugged into an iPhone. You have to make the choice between volume controls or microphone and play/pause functionality.

If you decide you want to buy these, I'd appreciate using my Amazon referral links here. If you don't want to buy from Amazon, though, you can purchase directly from the manufacturer's website.


AfterShokz Website

→ Salespeople say the darndest things: secret-shopping the Nokia Lumia 900

by Michael in

Salespeople say the darndest things: secret-shopping the Nokia Lumia 900

A brilliant piece of work by Ars Technica's Casey Johnston.

The store reps were hit and miss, so as I always tell people: Don't take sales reps at their word. Even if they're trying to be helpful, they'll often be wrong. You're better off getting the information from a friend or family member who keeps up with this sort of thing. It's not sufficient to just have someone who is tech savvy come along with you because even if they understand the technology well the reps can (accidentally or deliberately) provide false information.

It's good to see a third platform finally getting a little bit of a push. Hopefully by some time in 2013 this will mean we have three truly competitive phone platforms rather than the current two.


Why Facebook's Instagram Acquisition Makes Sense

by Michael in ,

As you may know by now, Facebook and Instagram have announced the former social network is going to be acquiring the latter for $1 Billion.

$1 Billion is a lot of money. Many have understandably wondered why the valuation is so high. The numbers don't play out for Instagram's current user base or potential revenue streams from the current install base. Still, though, the purchase makes sense.

You see, Facebook has so far been stuck. It has been doing an excellent job of spreading to more people in more countries, but its install base is stabilizing in many western (the US, for instance). Facebook's growth right now is primarily determined by its growing install base, and that install base is increasingly mobile. You might make the mistake of only thinking I'm talking about cell phone internet access in the US and similar countries. Instead, I'm talking about countries like India, China, and many developing nations where much of the population accesses the internet exclusively through cell phones. Facebook's significance has been thus far limited to mobile users, meaning its ability to continue spreading agressively has also been limited. So the first problem Facebook has that Instagram can potentially solve is improving its reach to exclusively mobile users.

Facebook's mobile apps have, as nearly anyone using an iPhone, iPad, or Android device can attest, not been the most pleasant applications to use. They offer a limited subset of the website's featureset, are unstable, and have all kinds of inexplicable bugs that never seem to go away across multiple major releases. So the second (and probably least significant) problem Instagram might help with is having decent mobile developers on staff and the third is having a social network set up for use on a small screen from the start--meaning the mobile experience is the full experience.

That third point is important. Facebook is monetized through advertisements on its main website. There are no advertisements in the mobile apps. Facebook is completely failing to monetize the mobile experience right now. This is surely partly due to the fact that Facebook has already struggled to merely get the mobile applications to reflect most of the basic functionality of the website without also taking extra room for advertisement. It is already having difficulty in its attempts to shoehorn an experience made for the traditional desktop web browser into a tiny form factor without taking up extra screen realestate for monetization. The problem may be solvable, but a solution will not come easily.

Instagram, presumably, already has a plan for continued monetization of its business. Mobile-first and mobile-exclusive social networks will, presumably, dominate the internet in the future. This purchase by the largest "old guard" (read: traditional computer based) social network of the largest "new guard" (read: mobile based) social network is probably the best bet Facebook could make for continued relevance a decade from now.

For now the claim is that Facebook will allow Instagram to operate independently. This is probably a good call. This allows Facebook to perhaps pull a few employees here or there to improve Facebook's mobile operations with their expertise, but it more importantly also allows Facebook to own the biggest player in purely mobile social networking. Who knows? Maybe ten years from now Facebook Inc.'s biggest product will be Instagram and the Facebook website will be a legacy product. We can assume the deal will mean some integration between the two networks down the line, but it's probably in both networks' best interests to allow Instagram to grow on its own and not do anything to sacrifice its experience in order to further Facebook's. Mobile first is the future.