is it too early?

November 18, 2006

Is it too early to proclaim the doom of the Nintendo Wii? Probably, but when has that ever stopped anyone (least of all me)? Yes, the Wii has a huge battle to win if it is to garner even a fraction of the market in the next-generation console wars. Let’s look at a few of the reasons for this:

  1. Microsoft is now turning a profit on each Xbox 360 sold, negating Nintendo’s supposed advantage in that area, and with standout titles like Gears of War, it stands to sell at least three bazillion units this holiday season.
  2. Early reviews of Wii launch titles Zelda: Twilight Princess and Red Steel say that the console is promising in the gameplay department but only slightly better than last-gen consoles in terms of graphics (“nowhere near the latest Xbox 360 releases,” says one). Noting that Zelda is also available on the GameCube, is the “Wii Remote” really compelling enough to justify a $250 upgrade? Graphics may be superficial in the end, but it is difficult to see the merit in buying a new console to play games that could have been done just as well on older hardware. So, the console boils down to the Wii Remote, innovative uses of which are few to be seen at this point in time–can I call it gimmicky?
  3. The Wii’s lack of any sort of disc-based movie playback is also disappointing, especially considering that Blu-ray comes standard on the PS3 and that Microsoft has just announced a stellar upgrade to the X360 in the form of a $200 HD-DVD drive. This forces us to judge the Wii solely on the merits of the gameplay it can deliver, whereas both Sony and Microsoft have embraced their products as broad platforms for digital media playback and storage. And yes, I am fully aware of Nintendo’s stated goal of attracting more “casual” consumers to their products; I am still waiting to be convinced of that plan’s efficacy
  4. A potentially interesting feature allowing the purchase and download of “classic” games from Nintendo’s previous consoles is also lackluster: only 12 games are available at launch, with a total of 30 expected by year’s end. Out f a library of hundreds (thousands?) of titles, this a weak showing.
  5. Assuming that Sony can manage to drive down its component costs to a more reasonable level–the company is losing more than $300 for each 20GB PS3 sold–and ramp up production, the PS3 could easily emerge as the dominant force in the market, especially if analyst projections are even close to accurate (remember, the PS2 was, far and away, the winner of the last round). That is, once the insanities surrounding launch day diminish to a more reasonable level.

But don’t let that stop you. The Wii cometh nonetheless.

–D. S. W.


the playstation cometh

November 4, 2006

For lo, the heathen executives at the place called Sony did send unto Engadget the thing called “test unit” (says so right on the box). And Ryan Block saw that it was good. And it was good. Thus the fanboys were sated for a time, their googly eyes glazed over at the sight of CELL vapor made flesh–at least until they drew out, for the zillionth time, their pre-order receipts from their collective pockets and cried the tears of unattainability.

Not long now, fellas.

–D. S. W.

think different. really.

November 4, 2006

Long have I considered myself a “power user.” While not skilled in the ways of coding until quite recently, I lorded over my PC with an iron fist, keeping tabs on the minute details of processes, services, and registry obscurities whose operation is essential to the stability of any Windows session. How humbled I was, then, when the MacBook Pro arrived, and with it OS X, an operating system whose power and elegance are only nominally under my control at this early juncture. What a rush.

Yes, the “welcome” video is hokey. Yes, the Aqua interface has its cutesy bits. No, OS X is not perfection incarnate. But it’s close, far closer in almost every way than Windows XP manages to be and even than Vista promises to be. Start with built-in search (called Spotlight). With it, any file, regardless of location, can be instantly located and opened from any window in the Finder (OS X’s file browser). Examine the beauty of the whiz-bang effects that accompany even the most minor of operations–the fade-in of Dashboard is particularly nice.

Then consider that I have yet to have OS X crash, seize up, or otherwise fail despite numerous deliberate attempts to do just that; simply put, OS X is steeled against all manner of would-be catastrophes by virtue of its UNIX underpinnings. That framework also allows its command line, Terminal, to behave just like a UNIX shell–you can ssh and chmod to your heart’s content with no additional software required. PDF support too, is native to the OS, and reading those files is far more responsive than is Adobe Acrobat on my PC. Much faster, indeed.
In fact, the sheer usefulness of each and every included feature, coupled with a few freely available 3rd party programs, is staggering, so much so that I wonder how I ever got along without them. The Finder is not without its oddities–no photo thumbnails, for one (a feature that Windows does have)—but I love the simplicity of having an “Applications” folder with one, and only one, file per program. Installing and uninstalling are a snap to perform, with no unnecessary detritus to clutter things up.

Windows never struck me as especially bad in any regard, but compared to OS X it seems faded and old. Much of this is due to the advanced graphics subsystem, but using both makes me recognize a difference in design philosophies: both are quite powerful, but Windows chooses (perhaps wrongly) to make its options and features plainly obvious in the form of myriad tabs, buttons, settings menus, and utilities.

OS X can seem a bit simplistic on first blush; the Terminal is where its power ultimately lies, and Apple designers have done a miraculous job of channeling that sophistication into a spare graphical interface that displays relatively few settings at any one time and for any one application or feature. Once glance at the Windows Registry or Device Manager is enough to send any Mac fan scurrying off in abject terror.

I jest, of course, but not as much you might think–or, perhaps, not as much as I should. Simply put, Redmond and Cupertino think differently about what an operating system can and should be about. Both have their merits, and both have their established audiences–Windows’ being much bigger of course. As a newbie, a technically-minded computer user, and unabashed fan of the Jobsian mystique, I find my initiation into the Cult of Mac positively delectable.

–D. S. W.

After literally months of “it’s just got to be tomorrow!” Apple today updated the MacBook Pro line to include, among other niceties, Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors (the mobile variety, of course) at 2.16GHz and 2.33GHz speeds, a minor bump from the previous generation. The new models also receive upgraded RAM loadouts (1GB standard on base models, upgradeable to 3GB), 6x double-layer SuperDrives for 15-inch varieties, FireWire 800, and bigger hard drives (120GB standard). Graphics duties are still handled by the ATI Radeon X1600, the same as before.

And there was much rejoicing. I, at least, will be purchasing one later today. You can expect some sort of write-up on it when it arrives in “2-4 business days” (we’ll see). In all, though, it’s just enough of an upgrade to keep me from feeling guilty about not waiting (groan) for the new Santa Rosa platform, due in 1H ’07. At least those guys over at MacRumors can be at peace now.

–D. S. W.

firefox 2, now available

October 23, 2006

It’s been quite a long road for the Firefox development team, starting off in Fall 2004 with the release of version 1.0 (though I had been using it for quite a while before that) and now continuing with version 2.0, which updates the browser to be even more competitive with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7, the market leader, and various lesser-known offerings like Safari and Opera. Its market share, too, has grown immensely, sitting now at 12% or more from essentially zero two years ago.

New features for the 2.0 release include anti-phishing features, better management of extensions and themes, built-in spell checking, and numerous other graphical and technical updates. While release day is, at least officially, tomorrow, the final build has been uploaded to the development trunk and is accessible here (win32) and here (Linux). Before upgrading, consider that some extensions and themes have not yet been adjusted to work correctly with the new version, so you may be stuck with a rather minimal feature set until various third-party developers can take care of those issues.

I am writing this in in the new version, actually, and have found it (so far) competently designed. The spell check in particular is well thought out, with small red lines appearing under words the browser thinks are misspelled; a right click brings up a list of possible replacements. It’s simple, clear, and elegant. So too is the new default theme, which adds some nifty gloss to many of the buttons and tabs while retaining the character of the skin it replaces. It’s a good thing, too, since none of the other themes I had installed worked with 2.0 and the ones that have been updated are decidedly deficient in that all-important area of good taste. (Judge for yourself here and here.)

While Internet Explorer is no longer the dinosaur it once was, I still prefer the flexibility of a plug-in architecture to Microsoft’s more exhaustive approach. Version 2.0 takes Firefox ahead just enough to make using it nearly a foregone conclusion for the technically inclined and all those they can sway.

–D. S. W.

Several days ago, Apple announced via its Support site that “less than 1%” of the newly updated video iPods sold since September 12th shipped from the factory infected with the RavMonE.exe Windows virus, a not all that problematic trojan. In its blurb on the issue, the company assigned blame not only to itself for allowing the issue to slip through but also to Microsoft. They wrote, “As you might imagine, we are upset at Windows for not being more hardy against such viruses,” perhaps as a way of sneakily drawing attention to OS X’s immunity to most forms of digital malice.

Yesterday, in response to the “charges” (I suppose that’s what they are), Microsoft’s product release virus scanning guy, Jonathan Poon, posted a blog entry that ridicules Apple for being lax in their quality control–it’s their system, ergo the onus is on them to prevent these sorts of issues–and for not being more specific in their press release about the real nature of the problem, referring to the virus by name rather than by its type and capacity for harm.

And round and round and round we go, whining, pointing fingers, and calling names. Aren’t company rivalries terrific?

–D. S. W.

is this progress?

October 15, 2006

The Times recently ran a story profiling a set of technologies under development at a Santa Monica startup called Image Metrics that purports to offer a lifelike means of creating virtual actors and performances for film, videogames, and more. Though motion capture, the process of recording a performance based on marker dots placed on an actor’s face, has long been available, the company claims that their software goes beyond this by replicating eye movements and other subtle facial details that, collectively, can make a virtual actor seem “real.” Chairman Andy Wood calls it “soul transferrence.”

They have certainly convinced Hollywood correspondent and article author Sharon Waxman, who writes, “Ultimately, though, Image Metrics could even go beyond the need for Tom Hanks — or any other actor — altogether.” Bold words, indeed. While the demonstration provided in the accompanying video (see the link above) and the potential applications mentioned by convert Taylor Hackford (director of Ray and other films)–allowing actors to “play” younger versions of themselves; bringing dead actors back to life to share scenes with modern ones–are undeniably intriguing, I have significant reservations about its implications.

According to its web site, an early version of Image Metrics’ technology powered the 2004 animated feature The Polar Express, a film that, more than any other, exemplifies the phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.” Current animation techniques allow for creations that are almost, but not quite, identical to real actors. I say almost; the gap between the best artificial creations and actual reality can come off as disastrously eerie if it becomes small enough, as it did (sort of) in The Polar Express–many critics derided its animated characters as “disturbing” and “doll-like”–and as I fear we may see in the products of this new iteration of the technology that Image Metrics is promoting, no matter how much more “real” it is.

Simply put, until the dawn of animation that is practically perfect–read: absolutely indistinguishable from reality–I, and much of the moviegoing public I think, have little use for digital actors that are incrementally more evocative of their mores substantial counterparts. It is the same problem that, to a lesser extent, afflicted the Star Wars prequels, whose overenthusiastic author eschewed physical sets (and even actors) for the immaterial creations of Industrial Light & Magic, and that cheapens visually ambitious upcoming “next-generation” video games such as Crysis and Alan Wake. Mr. Hackford’s examples too, for all their promise, sound more like a silly hypothetical construct than something that consumers (and film buffs) would care too see in a multiplex of the year 2015. It smacks of technology being developed and used for its own sake, which effectively renders it meaningless.

Yes, what is most distressing here is that there is no apparent necessity for any of the avenues of possibility that the Image Metrics tech would offer. VFX has been, at least until now, a means of creating visually fantastic backdrops for human drama–that’s human, as in “consisting of non-artificial people.” Unlike, say, squadrons of TIE fighters or glowing laser-swords, ordinary human actors need no magical help in representing themselves as they are, and thus the search for a replacement for them is a puzzling choice of endeavors. Doubtless there is money to be made, but even if it succeeds, I am very much inclined to ask, “So what?”

If this is progress, count me out.

–D. S. W.

As has been reported here and elsewhere, rumors have been flying about suggesting that web services company Google would acquire video-sharing site YouTube for $1.6bn or thereabouts. Confirmation arrived today that the buyout will indeed be taking place, the price being $1.65bn in Google stock (currently $429/share, up $8.50). Google outmaneuvered the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo!, and media conglomerates Viacom and The News Corporation (the new owner of social networking site MySpace) for the privilege.

An official press release from Google regarding the deal is available here. It reveals that YouTube will remain a separate brand, at least for now, rather than being folded into the Google Video project. YouTube CEO Chad Hurley had this to say today:

“Our community has played a vital role in changing the way that people consume media, creating a new clip culture. By joining forces with Google, we can benefit from its global reach and technology leadership to deliver a more comprehensive entertainment experience for our users and to create new opportunities for our partners. I’m confident that with this partnership we’ll have the flexibility and resources needed to pursue our goal of building the next-generation platform for serving media worldwide.”

Also notable are three agreements signed today between YouTube and content companies CBS, Sony BMG, and Universal Music Group (press releases here, here, and here) to provide their content to YouTube. They should at least begin to legitimize the site, which has become a repository for all sorts of troublesome material–copyrighted works used without permission of their authors, mostly. The solution to the overall problem is less clear, though; ideally, Google will pay some small fee to these companies to license the copyrighted works for each instance, but the bother involved in tabulating that may make it untenable.

So, Google buys YouTube. What do we, the users, care about it? Not much, really. The money will work differently, Google Video will disappear (will anyone miss it, really?), and YouTube’s technology can only get better with the expertise of those brainy Google engineers, but everything should stay largely as it is. At least until it changes.

–D. S. W.

google to buy youtube?

October 6, 2006

Does the silence on the Intel-Nvidia buyout rumors getting you down? Fear not, for the Wall Street Journal reports today (subscription required, though not for today) that web behemoth Google is in talks to buy the insanely popular video-sharing site YouTube for $1.6bn, though “discussions are still at a sensitive stage and could well break off” according to the article’s unnamed source.

If it goes through, YouTube would ostensibly merge with Google’s own site Google Video, creating an entity that should be untouchable in terms of market share. Making money is another thing, though, as YouTube is hemorrhaging funds at an alarming rate without a clear model for sustaining itself for the future. Perhaps a jolt from Google’s excellent AdSense service would do the trick?

In any case, the acquisition would only further cement Google’s dominance in virtually every area of the Interweb (yes, I know that isn’t a word). Google is also better positioned to deal with the inevitable lawsuits over the growing amount of copyrighted material available on YouTube (television programs and music videos especially). But don’t hold your breath. And don’t tell Mark Cuban.

–D. S. W.

Yes, you read that right. Graphics maker Nvidia’s stock price soared 8 percent today amid on a report by Reuters that chip giant Intel was preparing a buyout of the company, the culmination of months of rumors that began with Intel rival AMD’s purchase of Nvidia competitor ATI last July. An analyst from brokerage firm vFinance Investments was even so bold as to suggest that the deal would go down “tonight.” As in, right now. I can just imagine them signing the blood contract, the chief executives swearing their undying loyalty to one another and agreeing to swap wives sometime.

But seriously, this is all very, very specious, as the article notes that Intel has no clear incentive for this move considering that it already has a brisk business making and selling its own integrated graphics chipsets in Intel-branded motherboards. The price would also be astronomical compared to the AMD-ATI deal (Nvidia has a market cap of $10bn) Yowzers! So, don’t be too disappointed if you wake up tomorrow and find that this was all much ado about not much. Remember, these things happen.  It will all be fine. I promise.

–D. S. W.