More Bad News On the Tablet Front

So, ASUS announced their two new Eee Pads today at Computex. And, they really look beautiful. Simple, clean design. Aluminum edges, thin, and according to Engadget, "neither was particularly heavy". But then there is this (from Anand):

There are two versions of the Eee Pad, a 12" and a 10" model. I'll start with the 10" first as it is the closest competitor to the iPad. The EP101TC runs Windows Embedded Compact 7 (Windows CE based) and uses NVIDIA's Tegra 2.

Windows CE? Seriously? Well, maybe the 12" will get some Android-love...

The 12" Eee Pad shares little in common with the 10" version other than the name. The EP121 uses a CULV Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and runs Windows 7 Home Premium.

Well, that's a better option than Windows CE, I guess, but we've already seen tons of tablet-style PCs. Without an OS specifically designed for a finger-friendly touch UI, the system really breaks down. Sure, certain applications that are designed with a touch interface in mind will work fine, but then you end up trying to configure the thing in the control panel, or use multiple tabs in your browser, and you start to see where the paradigm breaks down. In other words... If you need to use a stylus, then you've already failed (and there's a difference between needing a stylus, and being able to use a stylus when it suits you). And then there's this, from Engadget: "The EP121 wasn't booting at all". Oh, so it doesn't actually "run" Windows 7. It has a Windows 7 sticker on the glass. I see. Sign me up!

Switching back to the Tegra 2 powered 10" tablet, we get this (again, from Engadget):

An NVIDIA Tegra-powered EP101TC was powering on, but its Windows Embedded Compact 7-based interface was still noticeably buggy, and the touchscreen quite unresponsive. The UI certainly looked attractive enough, and our swipe motions across the capacitive touchscreen were handled admirably, but ASUS definitely has a ways to go in terms of functionality. We wish we had more impressions to share, but it looks as if we'll have to wait for a less half-baked iteration to really dive in.

It does look attractive, I suppose, but if I'm going to switch from the iPhone OS platform (abandoning all of my existing apps), I'm sure not going to do it for a Windows CE device. Not at this stage anyway. Perhaps after Windows Phone 7 comes out and matures for a while and proves itself in the market (assuming that those two OSes are effectively the same, and can run the same software, which isn't at all clear). Otherwise, I think Android is the best hope of a real iPad competitor. But this, along with news that many Android tablets are also not even close to ready, doesn't bode well at all.

Again, the hardware looks good on both devices. As far as the thinness and weight, the EP101TC is effectively the same exact weight as the iPad (675g vs Apple's quoted 0.68kg), and is actually a little thinner at 12.2mm (vs. Apple's 13.4). I haven't seen word on the exact dimensions of the 12" part, but I'd guess it is probably quite a bit more hefty and with a Core 2 Duo in there, certainly a bit thicker (and no word on if it will be a fanless design either). But hardware without the software is useless. And, frankly, if it is this early with the OSes not booting or not running well at all, then it is quite possible that those specs will change before the actual release. Again, hopefully these are just "early" looks. But Computex was supposed to be the big coming out party for the iPad competition. This really isn't a great start!

If everyone and their brother knew that Apple was working on a fancy, magical tablet for so long, and had all that time to prepare, then what the heck is taking so long? If what Apple put out was "just a big iPod touch" then why didn't you just put out a big Android tablet three days later?

Me thinks that it wasn't as easy as people may have expected.

Update: MSI apparently also showed off their Windows 7-powered WindPad 100 and Android-powered WindPad 110 at Computex (though apparently only talked about the Windows 7 version in their press conference). According to Engadget, MSI isn't even sure if they are planning to bring the Android tablet to market, and the model they showed certainly just seemed like a mock-up (stock Android only, not even remotely customized for the tablet). I can't say much else about these other than this: Wow, take a look at the cheap plastic ugly.

Update 2: More bad news... The quoted 10-hour battery life on the 12" Windows 7 Eee Pad? Apparently, that isn't quite as simple as it seems either. According to Cyril over at Tech Report, the announcement was for "10 hours of battery life for the docked config". So, that battery life only applies to when it is docked into it's keyboard dock, not to the Eee Pad itself in "normal" usage mode.

Android Tablet? Ain't No iPad Killer Yet.

I've been busy both at work and at home (at home I've been reconstructing my erased hard drive), with little time for writing in-between. Frankly, I admit, the time I could have been using to write has been used for beer instead. And I'm really okay with that decision. So, faithful reader, I'm going to instead refer you elsewhere for an interesting article and make some inane comments of my own and act like this is real content. That is, after all, what WordPress is all about, right?

One of my favorite writers over at Ars has a story up today about some recent hands-on time he had with the current crop of fancy-pants upcoming Android Tablets which use the super-hyped NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor. The results?

I've been a big booster of the idea that an Android- or webOS-based tablet could be superior to the iPad in a number of key respects, so I was prepared to be wowed by the demo units. And I was kind of wowed... but not in a good way.

As one of the major sponsors of the summit, NVIDIA had a strong presence. Their booth at the exhibit hall featured three different Tegra 2 tablet prototypes, all running Android. As I poked around at the different apps available for demo purposes—a Web browser, the Cooliris-based Gallery application, an AIR-based prototype of the newly launched Wired tablet app, and a short game that involved guiding a football player down the field—confusion began to set in. The performance stank. It was a stutter-fest. Worse-than-Nexus One performance was not what I was expecting from these prototypes.

Resizing pages with the Web browser was jerky and uneven. The Gallery app stuttered a bit and generally wasn't nearly as responsive as it is on my Nexus One phone. And the Wired tablet app was just awful, running as it did on Adobe's AIR platform. If you compare the demo app to the Wired iPad app released Wednesday, the difference is night and day in terms of performance. All three tablet prototypes were a huge let-down.

He goes on to say that he spoke to some of the Nvidia reps at the event about his issues with the prototypes and they basically just regurgitated PR-speak about how the Tegra 2 was "teh r0x0rs!!11one!" The whole article is worth a read, so check it out.

Wow. That's really a bummer.

Like Jon, I'm really looking forward to see what HTC, ASUS, and others bring out to compete with the iPad later this year. I'm absolutely interested in an iPad in theory. I've really wanted a good tablet-form-factor device for a long time. Up until the iPad, though, none of them really worked out when you actually got down to trying to use them (and I've tried a number of them out). The Windows tablets available so far have been absolutely terrible (if you ever need to pick up a stylus, you've already failed). The iPad may look somewhat lackluster on paper, but until you try one out, you really have no idea what they are like to use in the real world.

However, in my opinion, the current iPad really has one major issue that I don't see Apple addressing any time soon: the file system.

I'm really fine with Apple hiding the complexity of the filesystem on my phone. Would it be nice to be able to use my media management application of choice (rather than the junk that is iTunes) to sync music, video, and images over to my phone? Absolutely. J. River's Media Center has FAR better options for managing media, converting, and syncing that media to a handheld than iTunes could even dream of handling (in fact, you can't even load my full media library into iTunes without suffering through numerous crashes and without being forced to convert many of the files to other Apple-blessed formats first). However, there is some benefit to using iTunes for the sync. It makes managing the content on the phone relatively simple and self-contained. I just use MC to sync the content I want on my phone to a folder on my hard drive, use iTLU to sync that folder to iTunes, and then have iTunes just sync EVERYTHING it contains over to the phone. At my house, iTunes is only used to sync the phones, and never really "manages" any content on it's own.

The difference on a phone is that I'm using my phone mostly to consume content on the go. I'm listening to music and podcasts, viewing the occasional episode of Breaking Bad synced to the phone (or, more often, using AirVideo), listening to podcasts, looking up recipes on Big Oven or AllRecipes, reading email, and browsing the web. I don't, very often, use it for creating content (unless you count the occasional text message, tweet, or brief email as "content"). When I do actually create something "real", it is mostly notes in the Notes app (or occasionally things in Evernote). To get files onto the phone if I need them, I just use Dropbox (or AirSharing if I need something larger than I want to dump into my free Dropbox account). Either way, I generally don't really need to save this content out, re-edit it on my computer, and then round-trip the documents back to the phone. It just isn't an appropriate device for that type of use very often. Therefore, the closed and inaccessible file system really isn't A Big Deal.

On the iPad, I think it would be an entirely different situation. The iPad form-factor would open it up to being used as a content creation device as much as a content consumption device. I'd want to be able to open Word or PowerPoint documents up on the iPad, edit them, save them, and then edit them some more on my desktop machine, then put them back on the iPad, and so on and so forth. Even more, imagine a Tablet version of Illustrator or Photoshop? How about a tablet friendly audio editor, or a video editing suite that can round-trip with Final Cut? While these things are all possible with the iPad's locked-down file system, each application handles things a differently, and there are many ands, ifs, and buts when you get right down to it. Want to choose what application you want to use to open up one of those files in your Dropbox? Better hope the makers of Dropbox thought you might want to, because if not, you're out of luck. Since there's no filesystem, you can't just browse the files on your iPad in a "finder" and then choose what app you want to use to open them. You can't edit a document in one app, and then switch over to another app to tweak it further, unless support for that exchange has been specifically built into both of the apps by the developers (and then you can't come to rely upon this capability, because version 2.0 of one of them might break this support).

Look, I understand that complex file systems confuse novice users. But someone explain to me why can't we just have a simple shared "My Documents" folder, that is accessible via traditional USB-mass storage means on your computer and then let all the apps on the device play in this space? You can hide all the other complexity of the file system, but let us have this one special folder where we can easily stash our stuff. For a device in this "space", this feature is a must-have, not a "would-be-nice-if-it-did". Having each and every app vendor completely re-invent the wheel while stuck inside of their own little storage fiefdom is absolutely not a viable long-term option.

I had (and still have, really) great hope for someone to make a good Android-based competitor to the iPad that will fill this need for me. But, the clock is ticking, and this early look does not bode well for the revision 1.0 of the competitors. It looks a lot like the first ones out of the gate will have a very HTC G1 kind of feel, and that isn't a good thing at all. Here's hoping that Stokes saw only a cross section of some of the worst examples, or that the improvements over the next 3-4 months will be dramatic beyond belief, but somehow I doubt it. What concerns me the most is the implications this report has for the timing of the release of the final products. By the time we get something competitive actually shipping, January will probably be just around the corner, and with it, the announcement for the iPad HD or 2.0 or whatever. And say-what-you-will, but Apple is probably going to come on strong with the next rev of the iPad. They are taking this market very seriously.

So, like Jon, I still have a lot of hope for the Android Tablet future, but this isn't really a good start at all.

PS. Oh, and no. Chrome OS is not really what I want at all. Again, I want a content creation and consumption device, and not everything can or should run inside a browser.

Thoughts on Google's Open-Source and Royalty-Free WebM Project

Yesterday at their I/O conference, Google announced that they were open-sourcing the well-regarded VP8 video compression codec as part of a project to create a full-featured MPEG-4 competitor dubbed WebM. From the newly-minted WebM blog:

WebM includes:

  • VP8, a high-quality video codec we are releasing today under a BSD-style, royalty-free license
  • Vorbis, an already open source and broadly implemented audio codec
  • a container format based on a subset of the Matroska media container

The new WebM format enters a divided video compression codec scene. From a content-producer's perspective, one problem with supporting HTML5 Video on the web has been the lack of consistent video format support in the browser market. WebM aims to change that.

Currently, there are a variety of options for video support on your website, including: Flash, SilverLight, QuickTime, HTML5, and even still Real Media. Right now, the most popular choice is, of course, Adobe Flash. This high adoption rate is driven by the ubiquity of Adobe's Flash Plugin (Adobe quotes a 99.1% penetration in "Mature Markets" for Flash Player version 9 or better) and also by end-user acceptance. Most end-users know how to use a Flash video player intuitively, and they don't need to worry about how the video was compressed, or how to make sure the video opens in the right "player" application. It is the format used on YouTube, Hulu, Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, and a vast number of other popular sites.

As of Flash Player version, Adobe introduced full support for the MPEG-4 AVC (also known as H.264) compression codec and a new file format, F4V, based on the MPEG-4 Part 12 ISO specification (better known as MP4).

Briefly regarding terminology, the MPEG-4 Part 10 specification is also known by the names "AVC" (for Advanced Video Coding) or "H.264" depending on which specific standards body you are discussing. However, these terms both refer to the same standard, and can be used interchangeably.

The MPEG-4 AVC codec provides much higher quality, especially at low bitrates, than the older choices available for Flash playback (typically the On2 VP6 codec or Sorenson Spark). The MP4-wrapped AVC files are also compatible with most of the more "traditional" computer video player applications like Apple's QuickTime, VLC Player, ZoomPlayer, and Windows Media Player (with widely-available free decoder DirectShow filters). Many set-top DVD players began to support AVC MP4s (in addition to MPEG-4 ASP compressed AVIs), an AVC codec is used to compress the video content on many BluRay discs. And, of course, if you choose your settings carefully, they are compatible with Apple's dominant iPod (and later the iPhone). Choosing Flash to embed video content in your website, and using AVC to compress your videos, seemed like the simple choice.

However, with the recent explosion in the use of mobile devices for Internet access, counting on that monolithic level of Flash support among your users has become much more difficult for content producers. Unless you've been living under a very large rock, you know that Apple won't support Adobe Flash on their iPhone OS based products. However, the truth is that none of the currently-shipping smartphones and other mobile web-connected devices currently support Flash video at all. Adobe has promised a working solution for Android with Google's upcoming "FroYo" Android release, but even that won't offer full support. Adobe admits that Hulu's DRM-protected video won't be supported, and public demonstrations of the new mobile Flash running video haven't gone so well.

So, with all of this in mind, what is the big alternative? To many, it seems likely to be HTML5 and the new video embed tag. Instead of requiring a plugin like Flash, browser makers are just building the video support directly into the browser. HTML5 provides the delivery mechanism, but unfortunately does not resolve the issue of the the video format support.

The problem has been the with the compression and container formats. Supporting MPEG-4 AVC would seem like the simple choice. Much of the more recent Flash video content out there is already in AVC, so it wouldn't require a massive re-encoding project for the content producers. It is very high-quality, even at low bitrates, and it is an open standard approved by an international standards body. Unfortunately, all is not well in H.264-land, as it is also patent "encumbered". Many of the technologies upon which both AVC compression and the MP4 container format are based are patented by a variety of corporations. Apple, Dolby, Hitachi, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Sony, Siemens, and even Columbia University are all licensors in the MPEG LA AVC/H.264 license pool. This same licensing authority maintains license pools for many other popular current, future, and legacy technologies including MPEG-2, ATSC, 1394 (FireWire), and LTE. While the MPEG-LA has committed to "continue not to charge royalties for Internet Video that is free to end users" through the end of their next licensing term on December 31, 2015, they can-and-do charge royalties to companies making hardware and software that works with or decodes AVC-encoded video. They also require licenses for companies that want to resell AVC-compressed video, via title or via a subscription (such as Amazon or Apple). And, they will make no guarantees that these terms won't change in 2016. In fact, they openly admit that one of the goals of their licensing model is "in order to encourage early-stage adopters".

Despite this encumbrance, Apple and Google decided to support the MPEG-4 AVC and MP4 standards, and the current version of both companies' browsers fully support the HTML5 video embed tag using those formats. While a bit late to the game, Microsoft announced that they too would be fully supporting HTML5 and AVC-compressed video in their upcoming IE9 browser. In fact, Google has converted most of YouTube to AVC and launched a HTML5-driven Beta version of their site back in January.

However, the patent licensing scheme was not an acceptable option for Mozilla and Opera. They were both philosophically opposed to the restrictions that this would place on their end-users (and, frankly, they also worried that they could be forced to pay unspecified royalties themselves now and down the road).

Instead, Opera and Mozilla both supported the Ogg Theora codec (with video wrapped in an OGG Video container). Google also released support for the Ogg Theora video in their Chrome browser, but Apple and Microsoft stuck with AVC and MP4 only. This led to a new problem for content producers! You're trying to move away from Flash in order to support mobile devices and your web browser users with one single simple technology, but the market is badly fractured! You have:

  • Apple on one side with their popular mobile platform supporting only MPEG-4 AVC/H.264
  • Microsoft with their sliding-but-still-impressive 60-ish percent market share not supporting anything currently, but promising to support the same as Apple with their next browser.
  • Google straddling the middle with their browser, but using AVC/H.264 on their all-important YouTube property
  • Adobe continuing to support AVC/H.264 with their still-dominant Flash Player
  • And then there is Mozilla (and Opera) on the other side with Ogg Theora. Firefox has the second largest browser usage share, and has generally continued to grow.

So, as a content provider on the web, you end up having to choose to support one or all of these individual different options and create and maintain multiple different encodes for each video asset on your site.

Making things worse is the fact that Ogg Theora is not quality competitive with MPEG-4 AVC at equivalent bitrates. Even, the organization responsible for the OGG and Theora projects, does not claim that Theora (with the new Thusnelda technology) "beats x264 in perceived quality, as it certainly does not (yet ;-), only that the gap is closing". A final problem with supporting OGG Theora is that it is also not currently supported by most professional video encoding suites and hardware encoder devices (not to mention handheld decoder devices).

So, it is into this fractured world that Google is introducing their new WebM standard. It certainly has the promise to solve many of these problems in one fell swoop. The video compression in the standard is based on the well-regarded On2 VP8 codec. On2 made the popular VP6 codec supported by earlier versions of Adobe Flash Player, and Google purchased them back in August 2009.

Now, VP8 is not necessarily the complete panacea that Google would have you believe. Jason Garrett-Glaser, one of the primary x264 developers, wrote:

Overall, VP8 appears to be significantly weaker than H.264 compression-wise. The primary weaknesses mentioned above are the lack of proper adaptive quantization, lack of B-frames, lack of an 8×8 transform, and non-adaptive loop filter. With this in mind, I expect VP8 to be more comparable to VC-1 or H.264 Baseline Profile than with H.264. Of course, this is still significantly better than Theora, and in my tests it beats Dirac quite handily as well.

Still, it is a vast improvement over Theora and other competing compression formats, and Google is now making it available with an open-source friendly license. The patent issue, unfortunately, isn't nearly so clear. Garrett-Glaser goes on to say (emphasis his):

VP8 is simply way too similar to H.264: a pithy, if slightly inaccurate, description of VP8 would be “H.264 Baseline Profile with a better entropy coder”. Though I am not a lawyer, I simply cannot believe that they will be able to get away with this, especially in today’s overly litigious day and age. Even VC-1 differed more from H.264 than VP8 does, and even VC-1 didn’t manage to escape the clutches of software patents. Until we get some hard evidence that VP8 is safe, I would be extremely cautious. Since Google is not indemnifying users of VP8 from patent lawsuits, this is even more of a potential problem.

But if luck is on Google’s side and VP8 does pass through the patent gauntlet unscathed, it will undoubtedly be a major upgrade as compared to Theora.

Still, many of the choices Google made with this new WebM project look, on the surface, to be very good ones. On2 is, at least, a viable competitor to MPEG-4 AVC. The OGG Vorbis audio compression codec they selected is a very well-regarded open-source competitor to AAC. And I, personally, think they couldn't have done better than to have chosen the fantastic open-source and patent-free Matroska (better known as MKV) for the container format. Google announced a huge list of companies and organizations that are signed up to support the new WebM standard including Mozilla, Adobe, Opera, Brightcove, Ooyala, Telestream, Qualcomm, ARM, and AMD.

And, the fact that Google controls both the most heavily trafficked internet video destination on the web today and a fast-growing mobile OS competitor to the iPhone OS both make the future for WebM look bright indeed.

Now, I personally just need the new Telestream Episode 6 to support WebM when it ships (and suspect it will since they're on Google's hit list), and to convince my web developers in helping me to deploy HTML5 support in AVC/H.264 and WebM with fallback to Flash. Exciting news indeed!

That's a Mighty-Fine TLS Cert You Have Thar

I'm fairly excited that I got the secure server working tonight, making my logins and admin stuff all shiny and secure. We'll figure the rest out later. One thing that was a bit tricky was knowing to add the wfRunHooks( 'BeforeInitialize', array( &$title, &$article, &$output, &$user, $request, $this ) );, but I got it sorted out. Of course, that change is going to get blown away if there are any further point releases that come out before 1.6 comes out of beta. So, I'll have to remember the deal, which was here:

It is working quite nicely though! I'm pleased!