Monthly Archives: June 2010

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Just Cause 2: I’m The Bull in Panau’s China Shop.

It’s been a while since I did a game review on this blog and there’s a very good reason for that. After spending a solid few months developing Geon (and subsequently relegating myself to rewrite it again) I fell hopelessly back into my old addict, World of Warcraft. The lure of defeating the nemesis that Warcraft 3 created in the Lich King was too tempting and I was soon caught up in the rough and tumble world of raiding once again. Still I found myself with less tolerance for some of the crap the game throws at you (although I admit most of it has been removed, thank heavens) so I’ve been dabbling with a few other games. Just Cause 2 happened by my way through several recommendations from friends so I ponied up the US$50 for the game and gave it a good slog over the past couple weeks. There’s a couple unique things about this game that got me hooked and one external thing that changed the game fundamentally for me.

The name has been subject to both ridicule and praise amongst the gaming community and rightly so. Whilst I think that the actual thrust of the name is supposed to be that you’re fighting for a just cause (although that’s questionable) it can also be taken as a light hearted stab at the core of the game: fucking around. Probably a more apt name for the name would be Grand Theft Democracy: Panau, but then again I’m not really in the business of making up game names now am I? ;)

Right off the bat the game is quite a looker. I caught myself on several occasions just flying around the island of Panau and checking out the scenery. You’re not left wanting for various methods to see the scenery either as nearly every form of transport is represented on the tiny island nation. The attention to detail also extends to the little things like the constant stream of explosions you’ll be setting off, and all the glorious debris that follow it.

The story itself is a little thin on the ground. You’re an Agency Agent named Rico Rodriguez (wait it gets better) who’s being sent to Panau to figure out why the island has severed all ties with the glorious USA and to hunt down one of your former colleagues who’s gone rogue. Nearly every character is some kind of overblown stereotype and realistically the game wouldn’t have suffered much if they replaced everything with just text boxes instead of in game videos. Not that I come seeking a deep story from an sandbox action game but the deliberate attempt to be completely cheesy and bordering on the racist, whilst amusing, became almost a chore to sit through towards the end.

Combat in Just Cause 2 is a ludicrous as it comes. The main objective of the game is to cause chaos by any means necessary which mostly means going around and blowing anything and everything up. For such a small island nation Panau seems to have an extremely healthy and incompetent military with fully armed helicopters, aircraft and land vehicles all laying about just waiting to be driven away. This leads to a game where you spend most of your time looking for somewhere to lay waste to or laying waste to something. Realistically though you’ll usually end up trying to find a helicopter with rockets on it as it’s the quickest way to blow up a whole mess of things and it provides you a quick getaway once the fuzz gets on the scene.

Now I’m not one to complain about a game that enables, nay encourages, you to unleash untold destruction on the world they’ve thrust you into. I’m known for being a complete ass in games that let you do this, leading to me spending many hours loading up a save game and wrecking havoc on the in game world. My better half has grown used to me cackling madly as I set up elaborate contraptions in games just to see the NPC crowd explode in a flurry of ragdoll physics and giblets. Still after a while I became bored with the whole untold destruction thing, opting more to try and do missions that would grant me more chaos so I could progress the damn story. To be honest I lasted about 7 hours before this got extremely tedious, so I started to look for other solutions.

You see it wasn’t too long after I got the game that someone put me onto this video of someone having some fun with multiple grappling hooks (yet another one of the games unique features). Intrigued I started hunting down the mod that he made reference to called Bolo Patch which, amongst many other things, enabled this multi grapple ability. Included in the usual money and upgrade hacks there was also the ability to change how much chaos you had, and I couldn’t resist setting it to its highest setting. Now many people will say I was missing the point of the whole game here but hear me out, I was completely and totally bored with what it had to offer. Really all I was after was some closure on the thin plot they had got me interested in and hopefully something different than blowing up yet another military installation.

Playing just the agency missions would see this game done in about 3 hours so you can see why they padded it out with the various faction missions as well as the traditional sandbox chicanery. That wouldn’t of been too bad except for the fact that many of the missions felt like I was doing the same thing just in a different area. Additionally there are whole parts of the game rendered completely moot, such as the black market dealer. Why would I bother buying something from him when realistically I was only 5 minutes away from having something infinitely better? I can’t tell you the number of missions were trivialized by just finding a helicopter and then raining hell from the skies or how every stronghold mission seemed to have a mounted gun that I could take with me for the whole ride.

In the end I turned on god mode and gave myself a fully upgraded rocket launcher with unlimited ammo and honestly the last few missions were a blast. There’s nothing more fun than juggling your enemy in the air with a relentless chain of RPG fire which every so often would land directly at my feet sending Rico flying skyward in a hilarious rag doll spin. There’s also some fun to be had with stacking 50 triggered explosives under your feet and doing the same, as you can actually throw yourself up so high that you can sky dive back down to the ground.

Would I recommend Just Cause 2? That depends, you really have to be a fan of sandbox type games to enjoy the things that this game provides. Whilst it does have its moments (and really some of them are just spectacular) the real meat of the game is just too much of the same thing and after a while you’re longing for something other than blowing up another village or fending off an endless horde of Panauian soldiers. The redeeming feature of Just Cause 2 are the stories you’ll tell with your friends, like that time you hijacked a plane, flew up to another plane, grapple hooked them together and then watched them collide as you parachuted back down to earth.

Rating: 6.5/10

Just Cause 2 is available right now for PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and PC right now for AU$99, $99 and $78 respectively. Game was played on hardest difficulty setting for the entire game, with the last 3 out of 10 hours game play spent cheating like there was no tomorrow.

It’s a Metric Problem.

I have a sorted history with metrics. As any blogger will attest to one of your biggest motivators is the number of hits you generate on your blog per day as each of them is (hopefully) a real person wanting to read your content. It’s quite hard to write a post every day if you’re not sure anyone will read it and for a while that was the case with this blog to. I’m lucky enough to attract about 40ish people per day and that’s more than enough for me to lose an hour¹ writing a thousand words on something. I know most of them don’t read it on the same day when I publish it but that’s just the way it is and it’s always nice to see someone trawl through a week’s backlog of my posts. It lets me know they’re interested.

Still after a while the metrics start to lose their meaning after a while and it’s usually a combination of two things. The first is you begin to realize they aren’t everything as all that should matter is that you’re doing something you enjoy (and I will attest that some people just like seeing the numbers, hey I play World of Warcraft to remember). The second, and probably most important one, is that many of the numbers can be gamed in all sorts of ways which dilutes their real meaning. Whilst its really up to the providers of the metrics to police such things it’s also the responsibility of the users of that metric to ensure they’re not being taken for a ride by their slightly more savvy counterparts.

Take for instance this post on TechCrunch which is ultimately responsible for this post:

Yahoo and Bing/MSN each added approximately 60 bps and 30 bps to 18.3% and 12.1%, respectively. Google is down, claims comScore, declining approximately 70 bps for the second consecutive month to 63.7%.

But that’s not the whole story, and investors need to caution when interpreting the data as presented by comScore, say analysts.

We’ve detailed how Yahoo has boosted its search market share with these ‘tricks’ last month.

When adjusted, backing out Yahoo and Bing/MSN’s use of contextual shortcuts and image slide-shows from both May and April, Broadpoint.AmTech estimates that Yahoo’s share actually declined roughly 30 bps month over month in May to 16.6%, while Microsoft Sites’ share was flat at approximately 10.8%.

Google, after a small data collection adjustment to the April data (namely a change in how Google handles searches with typos), appears to have gained roughly 30 bps of share in May to 66.4%, says Broadpoint.AmTech. However, Google’s domestic core search market share was 63.7% in May, down slightly from 64.4% in April, J.P. Morgan claims.

Whilst I’m sure that most of the “gaming” here is really just innocent changes on the behalf of the relevant search providers it does illustrate my point aptly. Metrics are great for getting a feel about certain aspects of a subject but due to their unfortunately algorithmic nature they are always susceptible to outside influence gaming certain variables to act in their favor. Just to prove how fragile some of these things can be give a quick Google of the terms “Alexa rank script” to see how quickly these metrics can turn from insightful tidbits of data to digital red herrings.

This isn’t limited to the world of hard numbers either. Take for instance humble soft drink, often one of the first things to pointed out as a major cause of health problems in the developed world. Common wisdom suggests that sugar is to blame for most of the problems and so many of the companies sought to replace it with artificial sweeteners (Coca-cola being the longest hold out on that point). This is despite the fact that the jury is still out on whether or not it’s the healthier alternative but I’d rather take my chances with good old fashioned sugar with it’s mostly known health consequences. The point here is that companies will take any metric you give them and find a way to undermine it if it will help their bottom line.

Perhaps the most bandied about metric recently is the one of market capitalization. In essence this metric is the number of shares that have been bought and paid for by investors and are not currently being traded which is then multiplied by their current value on the stock exchange. Taking that number into consideration it recently came to pass that Apple was bigger than Microsoft. If you’d care to take a glance at each of the companies in real terms however you’d know that Microsoft stands as the giant over Apple any day of the week with almost $16 billion more in revenue and well over double the head count of employees. I’m not saying that Apple isn’t a highly successful company, far from it, more the fact that the market cap metric isn’t a good metric for judging a company on its own. I’d hate to see what would happen to Apple’s market cap if say 5~10% of their shareholders, you know, tried to sell their shares.

It all takes me back to those maths classes at university. You see for 3 years I did all sorts of mathematics that all my teachers told us had untold applications in the real world. Unfortunately though most of them failed to actually show us any practical applications, leaving us with countless algorithms that were set to gather dust in the back of minds. However in the numerical analysis class our teacher finally got us to understand all the equations that we’d been learning and how to make sense of the numbers that came out the other end of an equation. Since then I’ve looked upon almost all metrics with a skeptical eye, especially those who decline to discuss how they were derived. I’d encourage you to do the same as you’d be surprised how often crazy metrics pop up.

¹Today however I lost a lot more than that because my web server, in its infinite wisdom, decided to trash this web site yet again. Whilst I did make sure to copy the blog post out of the editor before it went kaput I accidentally copied something else I needed to try and get the bloody thing running again. I would chalk it up to it just being flaky but the 26 other sites I have running on here suffered no such troubles, sigh.

Do You YouTube?

I’ve had a strange relationship with the world’s largest video sharing site. Way back when it debuted in early 2005 I was still one of those unfortunate people who was rocking blazing fast 56k dial up, due to my remote location. If I wanted to watch any videos on the site I’d have to stop all browsing actions for a good 30 minutes while the darn thing loaded, so for the better part of 2 years I ignored the site completely. I only started using the site after I got a reasonable form of broadband after moving into Canberra, but even then I still wasn’t a big user of it. At the start of the year however I started to notice it’s market pull with a lot of media giants and startups, and I’ve been an avid user ever since.

Primarily what caught my eye was the YouTube Partner program which is basically Google Adsense for videos. If you’re successful in applying to be a partner you get a cut of the ad revenue that your videos generate. The caveat is of course that you have somewhat of a proven record in making videos that people actually watch so for the most part the partner program is free of spammers attempting to get in to make a quick buck and the quality of YouTube partners content remains fairly high. There’s also been some perks like most partners getting a free Nexus One if they did a video about it, which led to some very interesting clips. I guess it was also a bit of a paradigm shift for me as well since I didn’t really know that anyone could generate revenue from the site, save for sponsorships and external sales.

What really got me interested however was the common thread amongst the top YouTubers: they’re almost all just individuals or small independent groups. Really this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as the YouTube grew on the backs of users who submitted content to it so it makes sense that the community creates its starlets from within its own ranks. Still the marketing power of viral videos has been known for quite some time so it still seems a bit odd that most corporations aren’t ranking too highly as you would think they’d try everything to break into this platform. There is one notable exception however in Universal Music Group who owes their success to their acquisition of VEVO and the two starlets they dug out of this social network (Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga).

So the question remains, do corporations actually understand YouTube?

From what I’ve seen on the various “news” channels that focus on YouTube events it would seem that as a whole the YouTube community is rather hostile to traditional corporate entities. This phenomena isn’t limited to YouTube either as other social networking sites like Twitter seem to shy away from the big organisations and gravitate more towards real people. Take for instance the (rather short lived) backlash that President Obama got hit with when he publicly admitted that he’d never used Twitter, despite the fact that he had a verified account in his name. It would seem then that corporations are doomed to flounder in these new social mediums because, to the communities, they’re not part of their social circle.

Taking a step back for a second though you can see why things like viral video marketing began to take off. Faced with the prospect that such large communities will actively reject any of their advances corporations began looking for more innovative ways to sneak their advertising under the community’s radar. Whilst sponsored videos from community starlets work to a point people are quick to label people sell-outs, thereby diminishing a starlets marketing potential over time. Developing a video that appeals to the community yet does not make reference to the product or service you’re attempting to market will hopefully help it sneak under it under the radar and if its good enough you’ll have a flurry of people searching to figure out what its all about, and there your product will be.

Realistically I think most corporations that are seeking to use YouTube understand it completely, and that’s why many of them are maintaining a presence there but don’t spend a lot of time trying to break into the community. There’s notable exceptions of course that have managed to strike the balance between being a community member and a corporation but for the most part the YouTube community remains dominated by people like you and me. Personally I like it that way as it gives people the opportunity to work on a global scale without having to have the resources of a global company, and history has shown just how powerful a large community like YouTube can be in propelling people from the unknown to the spotlight.

As for myself? I have some plans to start something on YouTube just for fun, but I’ve got a couple other projects to knock over before I do. Stay tuned :D

The Untold Damage of Failed Product Cycles (Or The Windows Vista Story).

I’ve been in the IT industry professionally for quite some time now, and even longer as an avid enthusiast. I’ve seen so many companies come and go as they evolve with the fast paced ever changing technology world and that’s lead to a great understanding of some of the fundamental rules that don’t seem to change. One of these such rules is the constant upgrade cycle, e.g. the release of new versions of products on a fairly regular schedule , in order to take advantage of the latest developments from other companies. The interesting thing about these cycles is that usually they can’t be too drastic lest you alienate your customers who’ve created expectations of the product that will cause a revolt should they not be met.

Take for example some of Microsoft’s products, most notably their desktop operating systems Windows. From Windows 3.1 to Windows 7 there’s a kind of baseline familiarity that users have developed with the products and, for the most part, they’ve remained unchanged for the better part of almost 2 decades. Granted it would be quite a shock for someone who’d been using Windows 3.1 to move straight to 7 but that’s usually never the case. More most users would be ushured along onto the latest product from at most 2 generations previous, usually when they can’t do something that everyone else in their social circle can.

Most major players in the IT world have mastered this idea of product cycles. From Apple to Dell to AMD you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll release a new product on a predictable timeline, usually timed perfectly to be right smack in the middle of their competitors cycle. If there’s any phenomenon that’s to be held responsible for the IT sector’s almost ubelievably fast movement speed it would have to be this culture of ensuring that your company is providing the latest and greatest features and products to its consumers, always making sure that you keep on eye on your competitors. It is basically a massive game of one-upmanship.

Sometimes however, the product cycle does not go quite as planned.

You see I’m writing this blog post to you today on what should be considered an absolute dinosaur of the IT world: a Windows XP machine. Released late in 2001 I can remember fondly my first experiences with it, blue screens abounding and most of my hardware behaving in ways that I never thought imaginable. A couple months saw it come good with the various manufacturers catching up with their drivers and Microsoft patching the more obvious flaws in the system. It was a rocky start for Microsoft’s attempt to bring some of the better parts of their server line to the desktop but eventually most companies relented and XP found its home as the defacto operating system for the majority of computer users worldwide.

5 years later, Microsoft would attempt to do it all over again.

Now before we dig into Microsoft’s next product cycle let’s take a moment to think about that last paragraph. Think about where you were 9 years ago and compare it to today, worlds apart right? Just imagine if I told you that I’d bought a top of the line phone back in 2001 and I was still using that today, you’d think I was pretty bonkers since even a $50  phone today would be better in almost every way. Whilst I’m sure there are people doing such things (my Dad is using a phone from 2004) the simple fact that technology moves so fast means that most products have an effective life of around 2~3 years. Windows XP, for some reason, seems to be completely immune to that idea.

Partly that’s to blame with the long development cycle that plague its successor, Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn). Initially planned for release a mere 2 years after the initial release of XP its original intention was to function as a stop gap between XP and the next major release codenamed Blackcomb. Due to feature creep that saw Longhorn encroach on Blackcomb’s territory the two finally merged together under the Vista title and the release date slipped by over 3 years. This lead to one of the longest time between releases of Windows versions in almost a decade, and the markets reaction was nothing short of devastating.

Windows Vista, for what its worth, was not a bad operating system at heart. Like its predecessor it was plagued with the job of attempting to support legacy systems whilst at the same time trying to innovate in any way it could. Consequently neither part could be done very well as legacy support inherently holds back innovation, leaving Vista to languish in a kind of no man’s land. Again like XP before it Vista attempted to do things in a completely new way which broke the compatibility with numerous bits of hardware and software further stifling its adoption rates. Overall the industries first reactions to Vista were ultimately its death knell and I never found a workplace that found the idea of switching to it appealing.

Microsoft managed to make the system quite usable in the years following Vista’s initial release. I myself ran it on my personal computer for quite some time and so did many of my technical friends. Still the damage was done and many corporate departments decided that XP suited their needs aptly and left it at that. It wasn’t until late last year that Windows 7 made its triumphant debut, hoping to be the knight in shining armor to pull the damsels of corporate IT away from the darkness that was Windows XP.

However due to the botch cycle of Windows Vista they were met with almost spiteful disdain. 8 years is a long time to go between refreshing your products and nearly all IT departments had grown accustomed to things working the XP way. Whilst many recognised that Windows 7 was not Vista (thanks to new and improved eye candy) they still couldn’t fathom the idea that anything but XP was required and were even more concerned for all those legacy applications they’d developed for their aging XP systems. Thus Microsoft, who really did so many things right with Windows 7, was left trying to market a product to people who were so entrenched in their habits that Windows 7 was almost set to Vista all over again. Windows 7 however is that good that its adoption rates are almost double that of Vista’s for the same time period, matching that of Windows XP.

There’s a couple lessons to be learnt from the Windows Vista story. The first is to repeat the old developer mantra release early, release often. Microsoft’s long development cycle for Vista meant that there was already quite a bit of inertia working against it. Whilst its quite understandable that something as complicated as an operating system takes time to develop they knew from the get go that a long development cycle would harm the adoption rates. They fell prey to some of the most common project management mistakes (read: scope creep) and their final product, whilst impressive technologically, was too far away from user’s current expectations. The original idea of Longhorn being a stepping stone to Blackcomb was sound and was proven succinctly with the success of Windows 7 which inadvertently used Vista as its stepping stone.

It’s always interesting to look back at the history of product releases and to see how customer behaviour influences company decisions. Vista was one of those oddities where the latest and greatest was wholly rejected by the community it set out to serve and only its rebirth under a new label and shiny facade was enough to win them back. It was also a demonstration of the market power that Microsoft has since a failed product cycle was the in for many competitors to swoop in yet as we can see despite their disdain for the latest offering Microsoft’s customers remained loyal, even if it was to the wrong product (in Microsoft’s eyes).

I should really update my machine to the new Windows 7 environment they’re offering here… ;)

How Long Can Apple Hold Out on Flash?

Before I get this tirade underway let me preface it with this, I’m not a fanboy of either of these companies. Apple, in recent times, has grown from the hipster chic underdog to Microsoft 2.0 in its attempts to create a massive walled garden and Adobe has been doing similar things for the past decade. I respect both of their prowess in their respective fields and have used products from both companies for quite some time. It was only a couple weeks ago when I posted my thoughts on the current PR war waging between them on the whole Flash thing which quickly turned into a full blown geek fight over web standards, but even after writing that I still feel like there’s a lot more to be said on this topic. It seems even more relevant since they just released yet another device that will defy the current norms of the Internet.

Apple’s, well Jobs’, position on Flash is no secret and in his statements there are some points that deserved to be talked about. However whilst the apparent motivation appears to be solely focused on user experience it’s something far more obvious than that. I am of course talking about Apple’s bottom line. You see for all the belly aching going on it all boils down to Jobs’ walled garden in which he reigns supreme and reaps all the benefits. From a capitalist point of view I wholly support this motivation as realistically most of Apple’s direct competitors are doing the exact same thing. It makes even more sense when you realise that at its heart Apple is actually a hardware company, with every other endeavour they’ve undertaken done to drive sales of their iProducts. Whilst the App Store might be an extremely lucrative side business its main focus was to drive sales of the iPhone and subsequently provide a massive install base of applications for the iPad.

Flash in this case would undermine their current efforts to drive additional hardware and software revenue through other channels. Whilst I’m sure there wouldn’t be a mass boycott of the App Store there it would definitely see a drop in sales for some channels, particularly games. Additionally once one of these platforms is allowed on you’ll have all the others screaming for their own native implementation on Apple devices, further undermining their revenue streams and increasing their support overhead. It then comes as no surprise as to why Jobs’ has been so outspoken on this since realistically the support he’d gain by implementing Flash would end up costing him quite a lot in real terms. Whilst they’ve managed to generate some decent good will in the past (non DRMed songs anyone?) they’ve only done so when there was a positive impact to their bottom line (that upgrade fee was a bit rough ey?), and Flash really doesn’t have a monetization stream that Apple can realise.

Still their alternative of HTML5 + JavaScript + CSS3, whilst applauded for being an open alternative to the wholly propeitary flash, may in fact end up being their undoing. Apple’s latest volley at Flash was to release a set of HTML5 technology demonstrations hoping to prove to everyone that HTML5 was more than capable of wholly replacing Flash. Strangely however they required you to download their Safari browser to be able to see them which should strike you as suspicious. Whilst any company should take every opportunity to peddle their products when Apple did it here they were not so subtly admitting quite a lot of things and the tech community has been quick to pick up on this.

You see the HTML5 specification is still in draft and will be for quite some time. This means that whilst a lot of browsers support a good chunk of the specification it’s still subject to change and review, meaning things could be added or removed in future versions. Additionally there are many aspects of it that would class as still being in submission status, I.E. they’re not even part of the draft specification yet. Most of these are vendor specific augmentations, some of which have come from Apple. The tech demos they have put out rely on vendor extensions specific to the WebKit framework they have developed, meaning that only Safari and Chrome are capable of rendering them accurately. Many of the demos do work under FireFox (you can trick Apple’s site into thinking you’re a Safari user using this) however the current proprietary extensions based demos will fail in some way.

For Apple HTML5 offers them a comparable level of functionality that Flash provides with the added benefit of being partially under their control. Apple is well known for its iron fist like rule over its App Store and allowing Flash onto their devices would mean relinquishing much of it. With HTML5 they can at least mould parts of it in ways that support their strategic plans, letting them chip away at the functionality that Flash provides with submissions to the new web standard. Additionally it then lets them leverage their current captive audience of developers to put pressure on others to develop HTML5 based sites for their iDevice line, further widening the walls of their garden and swelling their bottom line.

However there’s a storm brewing on the horizon. For every piece of functionality that gets adopted into the HTML5 standard another step is taken towards being able to replicate Flash entirely. Right I’ve alraedy said that but think about that closely for a second there. If the potential is there to mimmic Flash is there also potential to emulate it? Funny I should ask that since it appears that some interpid coders have come up with solutions to run Flash objects in HTML5 and JavaScript, the exact technologies that Jobs would see proliferate all over the web. It doesn’t stop there either with Adobe partnering up with mobile advertising network Greystripe to develop technology to transcribe Flash ads to HTML5, effectively circumventing the restriction. Adobe is poised to take on Apple’s restrictions with devastating gusto and if I were Apple I’d be seriously reconsidering my position.

You see many of the aspects that Jobs mentioned in his thoughts on Flash will unfortunately apply to not only Flash apps transcribed into HTML5 but also native HTML5 applications. Since it’s currently in its infancy HTML5 is not much of a threat to Jobs’ current direction and that, in addition to my previous points, is why his support is behind it. Whilst it might look like Adobe is bending over backwards to satisfy Apple’s restrictions its more likely that whilst Apple will win the battle of getting people to transition to HTML5 they’ll lose the war of keeping their garden walled. With the increased capability of HTML5 comes the potential for all the problems that Flash has to infect the iDevice platform, thereby rendering his current stance completely moot. Just to prove my point go and run some of those HTML5 demos and watch the CPU usage on your computer (the text one is great for this), that alone proves that HTML5 is capable of destroying a mobile device in many of the same ways as Flash.

In the end it all comes down the bottom line of both Adobe and Apple and how willing they are to go to further it. Apple will more than likely continue its stance of no Flash for as long as they have devices capable of browsing the web. Adobe on the other hand seems poised to innovate their way out of this, with the additional help of many skilled programmers who see Flash on the iDevices as a simple programming challenge. I’ll be very suprised if Apple wins out in this one as they’re already laying the ground work for this to blow up in their faces, with Adobe priming the explosives.

Maybe we’ll have Jobs writing a Thoughts on HTML5 post in the future when he bans it from the iPhone.

iPhone4BlackAndWhite

iPhone 4: Months Behind, But No One Will Notice.

Whenever you go out to buy some piece of tech you’re pretty much guaranteed that in just a couple months time there will be something better available for the same price. I asked myself the same question when I bought my iPhone about 2 months ago and came to the decision that I might as well get the most expensive one I could get (since I could write it off) and one that I would eventually be developing for. Shortly afterwards the whole iPhone 4G leak thing happened and many people asked why I didn’t “just wait a few months” to get the new one. The answer is that the benefit of having the phone for 3 months outweighed the delay in getting the new one. I could’ve snagged myself an Android phone in the mean time but again I would’ve ended up in much the same situation as the handset of choice at that time was the HTC Incredible and now it is the HTC EVO 4G.

Last night marked the official announcement of the phone everyone told me to wait for, the iPhone 4. Realistically it would be a much more impressive device if I hadn’t heard everything there is to know about it constantly over the past 2 months (thanks to Gizmodo et. al), but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is an improvement over the current iPhone offering. Whilst Apple’s tagline for it is “This changes everything. Again.” I’ll go on record saying that it changes as much as the iPad did with all its “magic”, that is to say not a hell of a lot.

First let’s have a look over the specifications to see what we’re actually dealing with here:

Display

  • High-resolution Retina display
  • 960-by-640 resolution
  • 326 ppi
  • Multi-Touch

Video Calling

  • FaceTime Camera

Camera

  • 5 megapixels
  • LED flash
  • Backside illumination sensor
  • Autofocus
  • Tap to focus
  • Front camera with VGA resolution

Video Recording

  • HD video recording
  • Tap to focus while recording
  • LED light

High Technology

  • Multi-Touch
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi3
  • 7.2Mbps HSDPA
  • 5.8Mbps HSUPA
  • GPS
  • Accelerometer
  • 3-axis gyro
  • Apple A4 processor
  • Dual-mic noise suppression

(For some reason Apple wants to make mention of the fact that their iPhone has multi-touch twice, that’s not a typo on my behalf)

First off let me compliment Apple on the things that are really something. The display is pretty phenomenal, offering the highest resolution on any smart phone I’ve seen to date. They’re calling it the Retina Display as the dots per inch (DPI) is above the magic 300 DPI threshold that our eyes are able to see. Whilst most users won’t notice a whole lot of a difference (showing people my Xperia side by side with an iPhone saw most thinking the iPhone had a better display) it does mean that it should be quite a gorgeous screen. It’s no technical marvel beyond resolution though, as its just your plain old LED back lit LCD.

The other most notable upgrades are in the guts of the phone, namely an upgrade to 802.11N wireless, a 3 axis gyro, dual mics and the new Apple A4 processor which was debuted with the iPad. They’re all quite decent upgrades and really had these been left out you’d be wondering what the hell Apple’s research and development department was doing as they’ve been standard on most phones for the past year or so. The addition of Apple’s new A4 into the iPhone 4 brings it up to speed with the latest swath of Snapdragon based Androids, hopefully paving the way for some more intensive applications to make their way onto the handheld iPlatform. The inclusion of a 3 axis gyro is interesting as no one will argue against the fact that it will make motion detection more accurate but the use cases for it are small in number. Sure your Doodle Jump will be a lot more accurate, but is it really required? Time will tell though, developers always have a habit of exploiting additional features like this in ways we don’t really expect.

For the rest of the features though I’m a little less impressed. You see way back when the 3GS (and really even the 3G model) was released dual cameras, with the back one being 5+ megapixels, were the norm on many feature and smart phones. Their omission on the iPhone was puzzling to say the least as the technology had been around for quite some time, with proven implementations across several brands. Much like the lacking of MMS in the original iPhone Apple’s omission of such features confounded the tech crowd whilst the rabid fanboy population decried that it was not required. Consequently when Apple finally caved it was touted as revolutionary, an almost textbook case of the idea of doublethink. Whilst the hype about these things is on the low at the moment I’m sure I’ll come across those who trick themselves into believing that Apple is revolutionizing this space when really they’re playing catchup with the rest of the modern world.

The inclusion of HD video recording capabilities on the iPhone is a good step forward and matches many of its competitors offerings. Whilst I’ve yet to see an actual sample of the video direct from the camera I can tell you know that it’s more of a gimmick than anything else as cameras that small just don’t have the surface area required to make decent 720p video. It’s not Apple’s fault really as any camera capable of producing proper HD video will have a sensor almost 1/5th of the size of the iPhone, with an appropriately sized lens to match. No one has extolled the virtues of the video yet so I’ll let this one slide for now but if anyone dares tell me it’s good HD I’ll probably have to take a bandsaw to their new iPhone, just to teach them a lesson.

Overall I’d say it’s a good evolution of the current iPhone offering and my issues, as always, lie in the hype and marketing behind it. Looking over the phone I can say that had I known these specs before buying my current phone (neglecting the fact that they release a new damned phone every year) I would’ve given a lot more consideration to buying an Android handset first. I’m still not so sure if it would’ve changed my mind though as 3 months is quite a wait when you’ve got a free phone voucher burning a hole in your pocket. The upgraded specs are sure to please those upgrade happy tech heads and the under the hood upgrades are sure to give the devs some new ideas with their applications.

At least there’s no magic in this phone. This post would’ve been a lot less level headed if they had used that term to describe one of their products again ;)

Falcon 9 Soars Into The History Books.

There are times when I stare at this page for hours trying to think up something to write, hoping that a spark of inspiration hits me at just the right time and with enough force for me to spill out a few hundreds words. There are other times when I have no such trouble and today is one of those days. Just a couple days ago one of my favourite space companies, SpaceX, launched their Falcon 9 rocket into space carrying a prototype of their Dragon capsule which will one day bring astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Before I say anything about it though I think you need to see the launch for yourself:

YouTube Preview Image

The whole video is awe inspiring in the simplicity of the image that hides the thousands of man hours required to make such an event happen. I watched the entirity of it with bated breath as even though the most difficult part is liftoff there are still so many things that can go wrong. You can then imagine my elation when the Dragon capsule reached orbit and the engines shutdown, making this launch nothing short of completely flawless.

As you would expect the space community is completely engulfed in the enormity of this achievement, and rightly so. SpaceX has proven that they’re quite capable of doing what is usually reserved for large governments and budgets in the billions on what amounts to a shoestring budget. Additionally they’ve shown that they’re quite capable of learning from their mistakes as this flawless launch avoided all the problems that they’d previously encountered. The incredible pace of development that they’ve managed to keep up over the past couple years shows just how talented the entire SpaceX team is and how much they mean to the future of space for all of humanity.

The launch itself isn’t the only thing making headlines either. You see around the same time as the launch some of my fellow Australians noticed a strange spiral lightshow up in the sky. Whilst many where quick to jump on the alien UFO bandwagon the space community cast our minds back 6 months to when a similar event happened over Norway. As it turns out they are obstensibly the same thing as our lightshow was caused by the Falcon 9 first stage booster spiraling back down to earth, venting its remaining fuel as it did. This was probably the only unexpected part of the Falcon 9 launch as SpaceX didn’t expect it to create such a show on its way back down and future launches of the Falcon 9 will not do this again.

So what does this launch actually mean for the future of space? Well the success of this intial flight means that all their processes and systems have been verified as fully capable of launching an orbital craft. Whilst the Dragon capsule is in orbit (I think it has returned already as the mission profile was 5 hours, but can’t find any confirmation of that) it will provide quite a lot of useful data on the real world flight characteristics of the craft. Additionally upon return it will verify their landing capabilities, ensuring that once this thing is used for people it won’t turn them into soylent jam. Most importantly it means that the next 2 scheduled flights can focus on their core objectives, rather than verification of core systems had this initial flight failed.

SpaceX currently has 2 more flights of the Falcon 9 planned for 2010 and if you look at their objectives you can see why I and every other space nut in the world is going ballistic:

Demo Target Date Duration Objectives
1 2010 5 hours Launch and separate from Falcon 9, orbit Earth, transmit telemetry, receive commands, demonstrate orbital maneuvering and thermal control, re-enter atmosphere, and recover Dragon spacecraft
2 2010 5 days ISS Fly-by. Dragon will approach to within 10 km of ISS and exercise the radio cross-link, demonstrating the ability of ISS crew to receive telemetry from Dragon and their ability to send a command to the spacecraft. After this primary objective is completed, Dragon will leave the vicinity of ISS and perform a comprehensive set of in-space check-outs before returning to earth.
3 2010 3 days Full cargo mission profile including mate to ISS

Do you see it? This year could see the first fully private space vehicle actually docking with the ISS and delivering cargo to it! Whilst I understand that these times are tentative you can still see just how mind blowing this is, as we’re mere baby steps away from replacing the retiring space shuttle’s cargo delivery service and arm’s reach from delivering the people it used to carry.

So my congratulations goes out to SpaceX and all the supporting people for their success with launching the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule into orbit. Your hard work and dedication is paving the way not only for a new era of private space travel but also for NASA to return to its true goal of pushing the boundaries of what the human race is capable of. I look forward to watching your accomplishments roll on steadily and, one day, to be just another happy customer of the services that you provide.

See you SpaceX cowboy.

On The Importance of Focus.

Back in the days when I was still a naive university student dreaming of someday being a project manager I remember being in a particular class discussing the idea of sunk costs in projects. For almost any project there are going to be costs for things that you won’t be able to recover such as time spent in research or marketing. Unfortunately for a lot of projects sunk costs will often lead projects to go long on after they were no longer viable, in a vain hope to recover some of the resources that were already sunk into the project. This is often referred to as the sunk cost fallacy and is aptly demonstrated by the dollar auction thought experiment. It is then a completely logical behaviour to see people act in this fashion, even when it seems to be irrational.

For an engineer like myself it’s usually pretty hard to give up on something once I’ve got it going. I’m a completionist at heart not wanting to leave a project unfinished lest it tug away at the corners of my mind for weeks on end. This kind of mentality has often lead me into sunk cost dilemmas where a project or task will take considerable time to finish but the opportunity cost of doing so far outweighs the benefits. I think that behaviour changed after my recent snap mindset change at the end of last year as after a recent talk with my current boss revealed there are some things I’ve just not followed through on, as I’ve come to realise how little benefit they actually provide.

Looking back over the previous six months I found that many of the times when I would get caught in a sunk cost dilemma would usually be when a core goal, say developing my new products, usually spawned several non-critical tasks that would be in some way beneficial. For the most part these would be quick win scenarios and for the most part they were done and out of the way in no time. Still there were several occasions when a simple problem, say getting movie information from IMDB¹, would consume an enormous amount of time whilst providing a very small amount of benefit. Realistically these kinds of things should have been left by the wayside until I had some spare bandwidth to use on them, but sometimes you don’t know how much time you’ve wasted until you’ve wasted it.

Unfortunately for me I had yet another one of those lightbulb moments when thinking about Geon and the direction its heading in. You see the initial idea I had almost a year ago (“What’s going on there.”) was taken over with the idea of getting as much information about the location as possible all stuffed into the one application. Whilst all this data is easily available and developing the components was a great introduction into the world of web programming at their heart they’re just not what Geon is about and realistically provide little value. After looking over many of the players who are in the location space I realised that most of the features I’ve included would more than likely detract from the actual purpose of my application, rather than help it.

So it’s with a painful glance towards my codebase that I realise I might need to drop a good chunk of my work before I get too caught up in chasing down yet another information feed to aggregate into it. It was a painful decision as the majority of the code is based around these ideas and I’m really quite proud of some of the tricks I implemented to get them to work. On the other hand I’ve started to get so many other ideas to improve the core functionality to make it more functional and most importantly more desirable for end users. It might pain me to take the axe to my last couple months of work but if I don’t do it now I could be chasing sunk costs for many more months to come, and that’s something I can’t really afford to do.

It feels like growing up all over again.

¹ I know right, there’s heaps of applications out there using IMDB data in their applications, so it should be really easy. What suprised me was that, although IMDB provides the vast majority of their data in flat text files, they have no API to speak of. Whilst their terms of service explicitly exclude any service from scraping their pages for information every single library or api out there does exactly that, meaning that they’re all a layout change away from being completely and utterly broken. I went through at least 5 different libraries all with varying results, and the text files seem to be missing a good chunk of information (where are the TV episode listings?).

OnLive Might Just Catch On.

Ah the cloud, it seems to be the catch all for any problem that you might have had with your computer since the day it was invented. Need your files wherever you go? Put it in the cloud! Want to sync your personal data across all your devices? Put it in the cloud! Does your hair not have enough body and lift? Get some better shampoo, since the cloud probably isn’t the answer to that one. Still there are some interesting ideas that just so happen to be cloud based and one of those, that I’ve covered a couple times previously, is OnLive. A curious service that aims to bring high end gaming to those on a budget, all for the low low cost of $14.95 per month (plus game costs).

Now whilst I haven’t been a huge fan of the idea I did muse that it had its place, albeit in a somewhat niche capacity which limited its appeal. Still this hasn’t stopped them from inking deals with big names like British Telecommunications to bring their product to a much wider audience. From what I’ve seen there’s still a significant amount of work required before they hit all the platforms they were talking about (computing appliances, like the iPad) and there’s still some issues they won’t be able to innovate away (input lag for instance). Given time and their obvious sway with investors I’m sure any problem that can be solved will be solved eventually, hopefully driving up the market adoption they’ll need to keep their heads above water.

There really hasn’t been that much said about OnLive in recent months, most because the initial trials have been done and now the only thing people are interested in is when they can give it a go. Turns out that might be sooner than we thought, thanks to this little tidbit of news:

Smart move by OnLive today. The controversial streaming game service is offering to waive the $14.95 monthly access fee for a full year (originally it was 3 months) for anyone who enthusiastically pre-registered early — many of you we suspect. It’s even tossing in a coupon for a free game when you register for the offer. The only catch seems to be the credit card required to complete registration as proof that you’re over 18. If you didn’t pre-register then tough luck, no offer for you. But at least you can take comfort in knowing that a small army of gamers will be taking the service to task unencumbered by membership fees. In other words, we’ll know right quickly if OnLive can live up to its “ultra high-performance” streaming gameplay on entry-level PCs and Macs.

I’d previously criticized OnLive for attempting to charge for their service from the get go, saying it would stifle adoption rates. Whilst this offer is really only valid for a very small subset of people (read: those who can actually get the darn service) it does mean there will be 25,000 people on the service in its early days functioning as free beta testers. The offer of a free game confirms this since that means everyone will have at least something to play on the service for their free 12 months. It will be interesting to see what the retention rates will be like after the initial 12 months, since I’m pretty sure that if OnLive isn’t up to par it will be dropped completely when they start asking for your credit card.

My assessment of OnLive being suited to “casual, city dwelling gamers” still seems to ring true 4 months on and when coupled with some recent developments I’m even more sure of it. Whilst I’m aghast to point to the iPad as a potential source of innovation (ugh I feel dirty already) the casual gamer, to whom the OnLive service would be highly appropriate, is in my opinion much more likely to have a device like the iPad. The reasoning behind this is simple, for most casual games they don’t need a high end machine and most casuals would rather use a device like an iPad or netbook since they’re cheaper and far more portable. The iPad is the more likely of the mostly thanks to the brand power that Apple commands and the fact that it has been marketed directly as a casual computing device. If you then also consider that those who are buying a product like that are more likely to have the disposable income required to pay for such a service then the iPad becomes a pretty powerful gaming device for those that like to game but don’t want to bother messing around with a full sized machine.

I really hadn’t considered this viewpoint until I came across a recent article about one of OnLive’s competitors, Gaikai, who was mentioned in the same breath as World of Warcraft running on the iPad. Now whilst that might just seem like a pointless waste of time (and in fact I can’t confirm that it actually works) its actually quite a smart move by Gaikai. You see of the 12 million-ish subscribers to World of Warcraft the vast majority of them would identify themselves as casual players¹. For them playing on an iPad would probably be quite preferable to sitting on the computer and the bonus would be that they could play all the other games they have on there as well. So whilst OnLive might still be a niche, they might just have had a huge gust of wind put in their sails by Apple.

For me personally I’ll probably never have a use for a service like this. I get far too much enjoyment out of building up a really good gaming rig and then putting it through its paces, savouring the moments when I can crank all the slider bars up to “EXTREME”. Still I’m beginning to realise that even though a market might not yet exist for something there’s the potential for someone to create it, and OnLive seems to be doing a good job of developing theirs. Time will tell if they have enough staying power to be the best and fend off their imitators, but that’s what capitalism is all about right? ;)

Now I wonder how long it will take them to release it in Australia…. I’m not going to hold my breath over that one.

¹ I tried to find a good source on this as I remember a survey being done some time ago showing the breakdown of play times and amount of content completed. From memory it was something on the order of 6% of players identifying as hardcore players and the rest identifying with something along the lines of casual, semi-casual or casual hardcore. Doing some quick numbers there are approximately 6100 guilds that have “finished” the current content patch (I.E. defeated the last boss in the current endgame encounter) which gives you about 153,000 players I’d consider “hardcore”, which is about 1.3% of the total population. That’s a wild guess though and should be taken as such.

Any Excuse Will Do. (Or Oooooh Shinies)

If there’s one thing (amongst a never ending list) I can thank my parents for is the spend thrift mentality they instilled in me. Whilst there were a couple glorious years where they let me run rampant on their dime it soon came to a halt when they announced “We’re not letting you spend anymore of our money”. Being a direct problem solving child I instantly retorted “Then I need to my own money” and no less than a month later I was in my first job which I would hold for 6 years, and I was then in charge of my own cash. After the initial spending spree that all kids go through when they start earning some decent coin I began to realise that my time had a certain value and this translated directly into the things that I desired.

The initial line in the sand that my parents drew came from my ever increasing interest in technology and all the wonderful expenses that come along with it. Back then the upgrade cycle to keep up with most modern games was still around the 12~18 month mark and mobile phones were starting to become all the rage with us teenagers. I’d also had my eye on several other gadgets like my mini-disc player and the Playstation 2. My meager retail wage barely covered all these extravagances and many times I saw myself sans my debit card as part of a loan deal with my parents. Over time however I learnt that keeping a healthy amount of savings allowed me to have what I wanted instantly and my spending habits were changed forever.

In the 10 years since I first started working the technology hungry teenager in me really hasn’t changed. I can still lose hours browsing through online stores and forums, seeking out the latest and greatest product that might suit a particular need I have. I’ve also developed an unfortunate taste for things that are far, far beyond my current means like private jets and space travel making any cash that I might put away burn a hole in my pocket that much faster. Thankfully due to my many years as a poor, tech hungry youth I’ve steered clear of running myself into untold consumer debt, but that hasn’t curtailed my desire at all.

You see I’ve known for a while that anything I’m doing I’m probably doing it for the tech. Looking over all the things I’ve acquired over the years they all some connection to an underlying desire for new technology, save for the gym equipment (although I admit I did eye off a few bits until I realised a barbell was sufficient). One of the saving graces has been that whilst I usually eye the top of the range first I almost always work my way down to the best bang for buck, leaving the tech geek in me satisfied and my wallet just a little less horrified.

Thinking about it this morning I realised that even my current projects provided a convenient excuse for me to rack up the gadget purchases. Geon, with its need to be on as many platforms as I can handle, has already landed me an iPhone but is also paving the way for at least 2 more handsets and possibly one or more tablet devices (read into that how you will :P). Sure I could test everything on an emulator but really there’s no substitute for the real deal. My other yet unannounced projects are paving the way for a refresh of my photography equipment and some additional bits of home entertainment equipment. Yet again many of these started out as just general ideas which have then manifested in me tracking down some gadget that then becomes a must have to begin or further the project. I can’t imagine how I’d be coping if I wasn’t an IT contractor.

You can imagine then that me making any kind of purchase is a bit like a game of cat and mouse. I’ll get all excited about buying something but will almost always not buy it on the first day I think about getting it since I’ve got to make sure I can justify the purchase in some way. I think the projects are becoming a shortcut to bypass this internal logic check on my purchasing habits because it’s not really for me, it’s for the project. It’s already managed to bypass my stance on Apple products¹ so there’s no telling where it will take me now. Hopefully before it gets too out of hand I’ll be spending venture captial money rather than my own. ;)

¹Honestly I never really had that much against Apple products, they just never suited my needs. Whilst it might look like my current stance has done a quick 180 thanks to the iPhone (and soon MacBook Pro) it’s more been that I now have a use for them. Had fate swung the other way I’d probably be rocking an Android phone and some Dell XPS monster of a laptop.