Thursday, November 29, 2007

Hey Tesla: Partner With Google to Wire the Highways

As I type this, I'm traveling about 60 miles per hour in an electric car with unlimited range. Every day I ride this electric car to and from work, as do thousands of other people.

Of course, this electric car is part of an electric train, and it doesn't have to worry about battery range because it receives continuous power from a rail above the track. The downside is that it's constrained to a prescribed route. I can't have the 6:43 drop me off in front of my house; I live about 5 miles from the train station.

The promise of an electric automobile, like the Tesla Roadster - as opposed to an electric train- is the ability to drive anywhere you'd like, without being constrained to the tracks. The main sticking point is the range- after about 200 miles you need to plug in for a lengthy recharge, vs. a five minute fillup for your gas vehicle. That makes it a little tough to do a 400 mile roadtrip, like the Los Angeles to San Francisco trip I used to do frequently on my motorcycle.

Looking at this map, you can see that there aren't a heck of a lot of choices as to the route between the two cities. In fact, Interstate Route 5 is so direct and straight, it might as well be a train track. My proposal: Tesla, partner with Google to wire the I-5 freeway with a 'third rail' for electric vehicles. You don't have to do the whole thing, just the 200 miles worth of desert in the middle- that way you can throw up solar panels and wind farms to provide part of the energy.

If this as-yet-undeveloped third rail can power the car without depleting the battery, suddenly the vast majority of California between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and even up to Santa Rosa and down to Long Beach, is reachable in a day's drive via electric car:

If the third rail can recharge the battery pack while running the car, even better- suddenly San Diego is in reach for San Franciscans looking for a little sun.

This undertaking would undoubtedly be costly and require a lot of engineering and political effort. However, I think it's a natural fit for Google, for the following reasons:

  • Google can pump map, traffic & local information / advertising down to vehicles on the wire.

  • Google can garner important information about traveler's buying and search habits, as well as traffic flow information for traffic reporting.

  • Google wants to take real action to reduce our impact on the environment

  • Greatness comes to those who dare to do great things, and we could use a little more greatness in this country lately.

So how about it, Google? Are you going to keep trying to give free wifi to people who have enough already, or are you going to turn California into an electric vehicle paradise?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Facebook... Our Macarena

This morning, the first item on my Facebook 'Status Updates' feed caught my eye....

(Names have been obscured but the messages are real).

This isn't the first time I've seen someone using a Facebook feature to complain about Facebook features. I personally enjoy using Facebook to keep track of friend's milestones, both significant and minor. The games, gifts and zombies? Not so much (although I admit that I have bitten a chump or two in my time).

I am beginning to think that Facebook is our Macarena. When everybody's doing it, it's easy to jump in and play along with the crowd. I suspect when the music stops we'll all wonder what we found so appealing about it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Kindle vs. iPhone vs. an old, beat up Palm....

While I was writing my previous post on the Kindle about a highly portable yet low-rent reader client that I could synch daily with periodicals and feeds, and drop the odd e-book onto when necessary, I felt a gnawing feeling of familiarity. Later that day, I realized that rather than imagining an ideal future, I was recalling the fading past... I was doing exactly what I described in the ancient era of 2003!

Back then, I had recently relocated from Los Angeles to New York City. In LA, I commuted by motorcycle, so reading on my daily trip was out of the question. In New York, I found myself with an hour's worth of downtime on the subway each day. Never a fan of ink-stained hands or managing a clumsy folding broadsheet on a crowded train, I set out to find a way to read the daily paper without ever touching paper.

I eventually settled on the combination of a Palm Tungsten T3 (an early 'large screened' Palm, with a slider body that revealed a bright 480x320 LCD screen) and an AvantGo subscription. I set up AvantGo to download the NY Times and other feeds each morning at 7:30- a few minutes before stepping out the door I'd press the 'Sync' button on my Palm cradle, the feeds would download to the device, and I'd be out the door.

Once on the subway I could browse the channels I had downloaded to the device. I also had an e-book reader - Mobipocket, I believe - so if I wanted to overpay for e-books, I had the option. Usually, however, I downloaded freely available classic books from Project Gutenberg - I burned through everything H.G. Wells ever wrote in a matter of weeks.

Nowadays I plop myself down on the train and whip out my Blackberry. In between writing and answering emails, I usually catch up with the day's news via the NY Times and Google Reader- the difference being now, in this modern age, I wait an excruciatingly long time for the tiny text files of the NY Times mobile site to slog their way through Verizon's 'high speed' EVDO network and render on the dull, cramped screen of my device. Four years ago, since the information was already downloaded to my device, it would snap instantly on to the crisp, wide screen of my Palm. So this is progress?

Sure, with the wireless connection I can now follow a link to a Wikipedia page that will take forever to load, or do a Google search for the name of the poignant, time-lost Sleestak on Land of the Lost... but I really only stand for the interminable load and terrible screen experience because I'm a captive audience for that forty minutes each morning. I'm completely out of luck when I transition from the above ground commuter train to the underground subway- a limitation I didn't have with AvantGo.

AvantGo still exists - in fact, I just tried an old username and password combination and found that my AvantGo account still exists - and it's free. For $19.95 a year I can upgrade it to an 8MB account limit (up from 2mb- of which my channels are apparently using all of 175k). My Palm Tungsten still exists- it's been collecting dust in my office since I dropped it for a dear, departed Sidekick a few years back. I turned it on for kicks the other day and I was pleasantly surprised by the clean simplicity of the OS after living in the DMV office-like interface of the Blackberry this past year.

So, while yesterday I was wistfully anticipating Apple coming to my offline reader rescue with some expensive new device, I think I'm going to get back in the e-reader business after the Thanksgiving holiday- for all of twenty bucks.*

[*To be fair, at the time I purchased it, a Palm Tungsten was $399- exactly the price of today's Kindle. However, you can pick up a brand new, equivalently featured Palm for $199 nowadays, and if you're more economically minded, it looks like T3's are going for about $120 on eBay- which I must admit seems surprisingly high to me for a 4 year old gadget.]

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amazon Kindle: Nice Idea, Weird Execution

I haven't seen a Kindle up close, so I'm not going to comment on its dubious industrial design (at least not much). However, the fact that it looks like a medical instrument from 'Space: 1999' is irrelevant to the actual issues I believe will plague this device.

Issue 1: When was the last time you got on a plane or train and thought to yourself, "I wish I had 200 books to pass the time!" I'm guessing, never ever. An iPod for books is unnecessary, as we don't consume books passively in three minutes (Blogs are another matter, which I will touch upon shortly).

Similarly, the ability to shop for, and download a book, on the go via Whispernet will only be crucial for the most ADD among us. Nowadays, when I hear about or see a book I might be interested in, I pull out my BlackBerry write myself an email reminder to order it (from Amazon, of course) when I get back to my laptop. Rarely do I kick myself for not being able to consume that book right there, on the spot (Magazines are a different story, and these too will be dealt with shortly).

There's one common situation that I can imagine there being a benefit from having access to dozens of 'books' in portable form - being a schoolkid, taking a half dozen courses, each with a ponderous companion text.

(An uncommon situation would be traveling around the world purely via surface transportation, which would involve long weeks at sea on a freighter or multi-day rail trips traversing frozen wastelands- but there's only one person I know who has ever done the like, and she's a pretty small market).

Back to the schoolkid- so great, you have one portable device you can carry to read all your books on. Then, once you've finished your research, your other portable device (a laptop) and write your assignment.

Since the schoolkid is going to be forced to carry a laptop anyway, which does everything the Kindle does (with a couple of ergonomic differences), do the supposed advantages of the Kindle make the extra device worth it?

The root of the problem is that book reading isn't passive enough to be relegated to a pocket sized device of inconsequential size and weight (like my nearly microscopic iPod Shuffle) nor is it primary enough to command its own obtrusive device. The incremental improvements it brings over reading a book on a laptop do not argue for a dedicated device for reading so much as point out some minor improvements that could make laptops more usable.

I think the Kindle service would be a great adjunct to a paperback sized laptop with a fold-back keyboard and a touch sensitive, high resolution screen. You could read your books, flipping the pages with a flick of your fingers, and when you needed to write your report (or check your email or pay some bills), the functionality would be there.

I do believe there is a market (and a use) for a dedicated e-reader. I've already opined that books are ill-suited for a dedicated portable device, especially one as expensive or feature-rich as the Kindle. Newspapers, magazines and books? That's another matter. The key is to diminish (or eliminate) the hardware cost and footprint.

I'm envisioning a device about 4"x 6"- the size of a typical snapshot. Ditch the bezel- make it all screen on the front with a flip cover. Give it enough memory to hold five books, or twenty magazines, or fifty daily newspapers. Yank out the wireless capability and the keyboard- give it an iPhone-style virtual keyboard for the rudimentary notes you might be taking- and require it to be dropped in a dock every night to recharge and receive updated subscription content. Grab it on the way out of the house and browse Time, Newsweek, the Times, etc. on the train, plane or automobile of your choice. Charge me $9.99 a month for an all-you-can eat periodicals subscription and the normal per-book charge. Give me the device for free or cheap with a three-year commitment.

Add a few extra gigs for MP3s and a decent music player and all of a sudden you have what sounds like an overgrown iPod Touch. Since Apple's already got non-Space:1999 style hardware designs for that, let them build the thing- and let Amazon's service fill it up. To me, that's the winner (and I bet, the eventual end game here).

Monday, November 5, 2007

All The E-Mail That's Fit To Read

The New York Times published an article on combating distractions caused by e-mail. Among other charming bits of advice, it contains this tidbit:

Most organizational experts suggest setting aside two or three times a day to check e-mail.

Great idea! Let's extend it further. Hey restaurant chefs! Don't bother cooking all the orders as they come in, just hold on to them and cook two or three times a night! It will make it much easier to prep the ingredients, monitor cooking time, etc. etc.

The Times' advice may be useful for folks who work in mostly offline jobs, and who use e-mail as a general communication tool- like someone processing mortgage applications, or a photographer. However, I wager most of the people suffering from e-mail overload are information workers like myself- and separating 'e-mail' from 'work' is simply not possible.

This Times article is the latest in a long line of proposals and articles around managing e-mail overload - including a concept posted by my brother, of non-essential emails with an expiration date. I still believe the key is in a basic revision of e-mail interfaces, which haven't changed substantially since I first installed Eudora on my Mac IIcx in 1993.

Why can't e-mail programs:
  • learn who I consider to be important senders?
  • automatically tag and create views for grouped messages?
  • automatically condense redundant information within messages (like signatures repeated ad infinitum in long reply chains)
  • adjust their views dynamically based on how many messages are in my inbox?
  • allow me to file messages in more than one folder or hierarchy?
  • condense a long string of replies into a single, BlackBerry friendly compendium message that dynamically updates?
  • provide me with an insights panel like Quicken so I can get a snapshot of email activity (hot threads, reply percentage, aging for drafts, etc.)

I could go on. Given the obvious demand for such an improvement (as evidenced by the never ending stream of 'Cure e-mail overload' articles) you'd think some enterprising application developers would come up with solutions that aren't worse than the problem they're trying to solve. I've got some ideas around fixing it, but they will have to wait until I get over the annihilation of my spare time due to my new job and newborn son... hopefully he won't be stuck with the same ineffective interface by the time I'm e-mailing from the nursing home to complain that he never SuperPokes me anymore.