Thursday, May 31, 2012
ONE day, when my children are a little older, I will gather them close and I will tell them about how I lived through the Great Format Wars.
I will recount to them a seemingly endless cycle of battles. From LP to cassette to minidisk (oh wait — not to minidisk) to CD. From Betamax to VHS to DVD to HD-DVD to Blu-ray. From punchcards to magnetic tape to floppy disks to zip drives to DVD-ROMs.
Some were dirty little skirmishes, like the Eight-Track Incursion of the late 1960s. But, oh, there are epic tales to be told as well: How my children’s hearts will leap and dive (assuming they are not the kind to be bored to distraction by what Dad is droning on about) as they hear about VHS and Betamax, each bringing the other ever closer to oblivion, and how only one of them left the battlefield — only to fall victim to a far nimbler opponent, DVD, which was waiting in the wings.
And my children will hear of this and be amazed (see assumption above), for they know nothing of this kind of conflict. They will grow up in a world where physical storage of information is as outdated as rotary-dial telephones and mimeograph machines are now.
Indeed, they already live in that world, even if vestiges of the old remain (turntables, for example). We older people can enjoy this new world as well, what with streaming music and video services, cloud-based storage options and social networks that easily absorb our photos and ephemera. We may be hardened by battles past, but our future is digital, wireless, ubiquitous and, we hope, pacific. Here’s what it looks like.
It was not that long ago that a home-stereo system was a black-and-brown tower of components: an amplifier, a receiver, a cassette deck, a CD player, a phonograph, perhaps an equalizer.
All that can be cast aside. Our music is now stored digitally on a computer, or sent over the Internet from a streaming service like Spotify or Pandora. To hear it in the home, all that’s required is a speaker to receive the necessary data. One of the simplest ways to do this is with a wireless speaker that uses Bluetooth wireless technology to connect to a smartphone or computer.
The two big players in this area are Bose, with its SoundLink speaker ($300), and Jawbone, with its Jambox ($200) and Big Jambox ($300) speakers. The products vary in size and shape and have different secondary features, but their primary function is the same: to take the music that is on a computer or phone and, wirelessly, play it in a room.
All three models are powered by a rechargeable battery (the Bose lasts eight hours on a charge; the Big Jambox lasts 15), so you can move them in and out of the house. Because many people store music on their phones or use it to pull in music from a streaming site, the smartphone becomes both the source and the remote control for the speaker.
If a listener wants a more sophisticated package, there is also Sonos, which makes small ($300) and large ($400) indoor speakers that work on a proprietary network. When multiple speakers are set up around a house, music can be sent to all of them simultaneously, or different tracks can be sent to different rooms. Controlling the speakers can be done from a computer or via a smartphone app that works with your existing music library as well as Internet-based services.
TV and Movies
The VCR gave way to the DVD player, which then begot the Blu-ray DVD player, but the next device we use to watch movies will not have any disc or cartridge at all. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video are able to send shows and movies to televisions directly, and online stores like Apple’s iTunes Store can allow users to download videos to their devices for offline viewing.
To get this content onto a television, you need either a new TV — which will probably have the ability to get on a Wi-Fi network, so it can access the Internet and reach streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu directly — or an accessory that allows your current television to do the same thing.
If the latter is the case, then you may want to consider a Roku box (starting at $50) or an Apple TV ($99). Both will allow you to get online and stream content. Roku has deals with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus. Apple’s box will connect you to Netflix and will also gain you access to its iTunes store.
If you’re a user of other Apple products, Apple TV will let you view your pictures in iPhoto on your television; it can also work with iPhones and iPads, so your TV can “mirror” what’s being shown on the tablet’s screen. If you’re playing a game on the iPad, the tablet can become the controller while your TV can become the larger display.
Another way to view movies on demand is through gaming consoles. Microsoft’s Xbox (starting at $200) has its own online-video service, and in some areas, can even pull in a limited number of cable channels, supplanting not only a DVD player, but a cable box as well. Sony’s PlayStation 3 ($250) and Nintendo’s Wii ($150) gaming consoles also have the ability to pull in streaming video from popular services.
Early computer users may remember that the storage medium of choice in the early 1980s was a cassette of magnetic tape. This then gave way to the 5 1/4-inch floppy, which in turn evolved into the 3 1/2-inch floppy (this time protected by a hard plastic case), only to be overtaken by the CD-ROM, which morphed into the DVD.
But the latest portable computers forgo any removable storage media whatsoever. In an era when documents can be stored on Google Docs, photos on Facebook and other files on cloud services like Dropbox, the need for a disk of any type is rapidly approaching zero. Why carry around extra equipment that you don’t really need all the time?
Apple was the first popular computer maker to ditch a disk drive (in much the same way the company omitted the still-popular 3 1/2-inch drive from the first iMac, favoring a CD-ROM drive). Its line of MacBook Air laptops, which come in either an 11-inch version (starting at $999) or a 13-inch one (starting at $1,300), contain an internal, solid-state drive for storage and a couple of USB ports that can be used with flash (or thumb) drives if necessary.
Other computer makers have followed suit. A new line of “ultrabooks” from various brands define themselves in a couple of ways: they are extremely thin, they don’t weigh as much as other laptops and they can run four to six hours between charges.
Models include the U300S from Lenovo ($999), Asus’s UX21A (price not yet announced) and Samsung’s Series 5 Ultrabook ($800). Like the MacBook Air, these devices realize these goals by doing away with a disk drive — it adds bulk, it adds weight and spinning a mirrored circle around and around at high speed consumes a lot of power. Lose the drive, and you gain a lot more in portability and usability.
So no more black boxes stacked in the living room if you want to listen to music. No more black boxes stacked near the TV if you want to watch a movie. No more bulky laptops with increasingly unnecessary components.
Perhaps in my children’s lifetime, all these products will be reduced to their most elemental forms: a simple glass display to see things, with some small speakers to hear things. The future of media and tech devices is not how many things can be packed into a given size, but how much can be left out.
BUYING a smartphone, whether for yourself or as a gift, is a harrowing process made all the more mystifying by the language the marketers use. Every year they add new lingo and ever trickier claims — all networks can’t be the fastest, can they?
Here is a glossary to help decipher what the ads and sales representatives are talking about. Some of the terms are very familiar, others arcane.
3G, 4G, WIMAX, HSPA+ These may be the most confusing terms because there is a lot of marketing mystery around them. The G stands for generation. The higher the number next to the G, the newer, and presumably faster, is the network the device is using. (To make things even more confusing, when Apple calls a product 4G, that means it is the fourth generation of that device, but not necessarily that it works on a 4G network, although sometimes it does.)
Not all 4G is created equal. Different carriers use different kinds of 4G. If you are looking for speed (and who isn’t?), the technologies, rated from fastest to slowest, are LTE, WiMax and HSPA+. After that come EVDO and EDGE, which are 3G. RootMetrics, a company that measures mobile network performance, tested in 42 markets and found that the fastest provider over all was Verizon (it has the most LTE), followed by AT&T, then T-Mobile and Sprint.
But there are big caveats. One is, not every city has 4G from every carrier. Another is that you need a phone that receives the 4G network, and not all do. But most of all, the speed of a network doesn’t matter if you can’t get a signal. First, find which carrier has the strongest signal where you use your phone most. (There is a RootMetrics map you can check, and you can ask neighbors about their experiences.) Choose the fastest network with good reception in your price range.
TIERED PLAN Carriers talk about “tiers of service,” which are packages with varying amounts of minutes, instant messages and data. The more time and data you buy, the more you pay. Many people overpay.
With unlimited plans disappearing, many people buy a top tier for peace of mind — that way, they know they will not run over and incur expensive penalties. But paying for minutes and data that aren’t used may be more expensive than the occasional penalty. The trick is to buy only what you use, with a minimal cushion, which requires an accurate accounting of what you use. A Web site called BillShrink analyzes a current bill and makes a recommendation on what plan to buy.
CDMA VS. GSM These are different wireless standards: think of them as being like AM and FM on radios. Of the large carriers, Verizon and Sprint (and brands using Sprint’s network, like Virgin and Boost) are on CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile (and its resellers) are on GSM. This matters mostly to international travelers: GSM is the standard in most of the world, so a GSM phone may be used in more places overseas. Another difference, less important to most people, is that a GSM phone keeps its identity and data, like contact lists, on a removable SIM card, which makes it easy to switch to a new phone. CDMA phones hold the phone’s identity on the network, so the information may have to be sent over the network to a new phone, which is a bit more complex.
WI-FI This provides the ability to connect to a Wi-Fi network using a phone.
Why would you want to? There is no charge for data transmitted by Wi-Fi. As data limits become smaller (and data charges rise), that’s a very good thing. If downloading two HD movies might eat up your monthly data limit, you could load them over Wi-Fi and leave the limit intact.
APPS Apps is short for applications, another word for software or simple computer programs. Apps add functions to a phone, like maps that give audible directions, a stock ticker or a game like Angry Birds. Even for those phones with the fewest number of apps, thousands will be available.
OS OS stands for operating system, the underlying software that runs the phone. The OS you get determines, among other things, the features of the phone and which apps it will run. According to market analysis by comScore, Google has the most popular OS in the United States (Android) with a 51 percent market share, followed by Apple (iOS) with 31 percent, Research in Motion (BlackBerry) with 12 percent and Microsoft (Windows) with 4 percent.
The picture is a bit different when you look at customer satisfaction, as J. D. Power & Associates does. In its survey, Apple iOS was the clear favorite, followed by Windows and Android at near parity, then BlackBerry.
Apple iOS has the greatest number of apps available. Often cited for its ease of use, it works easily across Apple products, and nearly does so with Windows computers as well.
Android is almost as easy to use as iOS, but because there are many different versions, it doesn’t work the same way with every Android phone. That means that not all phones can run all Android apps. If you want a specific app, check to see if it works on a prospective phone before you buy. Another difference from Apple is that with Android, extra software might be needed to connect a phone to a computer for sharing a contacts list or music.
The Windows OS has come a long way, with engaging “live tiles”: animated square icons that show updates, like the number of messages waiting, or the latest posts from social networks. A nice feature is that messages are threaded — strung together for continuity — even when they come from different sources. So a conversation begun on Facebook can continue by text and appear in one string.
The BlackBerry still has the security features that make it beloved of corporate I.T. departments, but it has fallen from the top of the heap in consumer popularity. It has two primary features that help distinguish it from other phones. One is that most BlackBerrys still have physical keyboards, as opposed to touch screens. The other is BlackBerry Messenger, an app that allows free instant chatting between BlackBerrys anywhere in the world. BBM, as it’s known, also allows the sending of pictures, videos and voice notes.
Monday, May 7, 2012
The French are revolting. The Greeks, too. And it’s about time.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Both countries held elections Sunday that were in effect referendums on the current European economic strategy, and in both countries voters turned two thumbs down. It’s far from clear how soon the votes will lead to changes in actual policy, but time is clearly running out for the strategy of recovery through austerity — and that’s a good thing.
Needless to say, that’s not what you heard from the usual suspects in the run-up to the elections. It was actually kind of funny to see the apostles of orthodoxy trying to portray the cautious, mild-mannered François Hollande as a figure of menace. He is “rather dangerous,” declared The Economist, which observed that he “genuinely believes in the need to create a fairer society.” Quelle horreur!
What is true is that Mr. Hollande’s victory means the end of “Merkozy,” the Franco-German axis that has enforced the austerity regime of the past two years. This would be a “dangerous” development if that strategy were working, or even had a reasonable chance of working. But it isn’t and doesn’t; it’s time to move on. Europe’s voters, it turns out, are wiser than the Continent’s best and brightest.
What’s wrong with the prescription of spending cuts as the remedy for Europe’s ills? One answer is that the confidence fairy doesn’t exist — that is, claims that slashing government spending would somehow encourage consumers and businesses to spend more have been overwhelmingly refuted by the experience of the past two years. So spending cuts in a depressed economy just make the depression deeper.
Moreover, there seems to be little if any gain in return for the pain. Consider the case of Ireland, which has been a good soldier in this crisis, imposing ever-harsher austerity in an attempt to win back the favor of the bond markets. According to the prevailing orthodoxy, this should work. In fact, the will to believe is so strong that members of Europe’s policy elite keep proclaiming that Irish austerity has indeed worked, that the Irish economy has begun to recover.
But it hasn’t. And although you’d never know it from much of the press coverage, Irish borrowing costs remain much higher than those of Spain or Italy, let alone Germany. So what are the alternatives?
One answer — an answer that makes more sense than almost anyone in Europe is willing to admit — would be to break up the euro, Europe’s common currency. Europe wouldn’t be in this fix if Greece still had its drachma, Spain its peseta, Ireland its punt, and so on, because Greece and Spain would have what they now lack: a quick way to restore cost-competitiveness and boost exports, namely devaluation.
As a counterpoint to Ireland’s sad story, consider the case of Iceland, which was ground zero for the financial crisis but was able to respond by devaluing its currency, the krona (and also had the courage to let its banks fail and default on their debts). Sure enough, Iceland is experiencing the recovery Ireland was supposed to have, but hasn’t.
Yet breaking up the euro would be highly disruptive, and would also represent a huge defeat for the “European project,” the long-run effort to promote peace and democracy through closer integration. Is there another way? Yes, there is — and the Germans have shown how that way can work. Unfortunately, they don’t understand the lessons of their own experience.
Talk to German opinion leaders about the euro crisis, and they like to point out that their own economy was in the doldrums in the early years of the last decade but managed to recover. What they don’t like to acknowledge is that this recovery was driven by the emergence of a huge German trade surplus vis-à-vis other European countries — in particular, vis-à-vis the nations now in crisis — which were booming, and experiencing above-normal inflation, thanks to low interest rates. Europe’s crisis countries might be able to emulate Germany’s success if they faced a comparably favorable environment — that is, if this time it was the rest of Europe, especially Germany, that was experiencing a bit of an inflationary boom.
So Germany’s experience isn’t, as the Germans imagine, an argument for unilateral austerity in Southern Europe; it’s an argument for much more expansionary policies elsewhere, and in particular for the European Central Bank to drop its obsession with inflation and focus on growth.
The Germans, needless to say, don’t like this conclusion, nor does the leadership of the central bank. They will cling to their fantasies of prosperity through pain, and will insist that continuing with their failed strategy is the only responsible thing to do. But it seems that they will no longer have unquestioning support from the Élysée Palace. And that, believe it or not, means that both the euro and the European project now have a better chance of surviving than they did a few days ago.
In what is shaping up as an academic Battle of the Titans — one that offers vast new learning opportunities for students around the world — Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities.
Harvard’s involvement follows M.I.T.’s announcement in December that it was starting an open online learning project, MITx. Its first course, Circuits and Electronics, began in March, enrolling about 120,000 students, some 10,000 of whom made it through the recent midterm exam. Those who complete the course will get a certificate of mastery and a grade, but no official credit. Similarly, edX courses will offer a certificate but not credit.
But Harvard and M.I.T. have a rival — they are not the only elite universities planning to offer free massively open online courses, or MOOCs, as they are known. This month, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michiganannounced their partnership with a new commercial company, Coursera, with $16 million in venture capital.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who made headlines last fall when 160,000 students signed up for his Artificial Intelligence course, has attracted more than 200,000 students to the six courses offered at his new company, Udacity.
The technology for online education, with video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, is evolving so quickly that those in the new ventures say the offerings are still experimental.
“My guess is that what we end up doing five years from now will look very different from what we do now,” said Provost Alan M. Garber of Harvard, who will be in charge of the university’s involvement.
EdX, which is expected to offer its first five courses this fall, will be overseen by a nonprofit organization governed equally by the two universities, each of which has committed $30 million to the project. The first president of edX will be Anant Agarwal, director of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who has led the development of the MITx platform. At Harvard, Dr. Garber will direct the effort, with Michael D. Smith, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, working with faculty members to develop and deliver courses. Eventually, they said, other universities will join them in offering courses on the platform.
M.I.T. and Harvard officials said they would use the new online platform not just to build a global community of online learners, but also to research teaching methods and technologies.
Education experts say that while the new online classes offer opportunities for students and researchers, they pose some threat to low-ranked colleges.
“Projects like this can impact lives around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University, a publicly supported online Canadian university. “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”
The edX project will include not only engineering courses, in which computer grading is relatively simple, but also humanities courses, in which essays might be graded through crowd-sourcing, or assessed with natural-language software. Coursera will also offer free humanities courses in which grading will be done by peers.
In some ways, the new partnerships reprise the failed online education ventures of a decade ago. Columbia University introduced Fathom, a 2001 commercial venture that involved the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and others. It lost money and folded in 2003. Yale, Princeton and Stanford collaborated on AllLearn, a nonprofit effort that collapsed in 2006.
Many education experts are more hopeful about the new enterprises.
“Online education is here to stay, and it’s only going to get better,” said Lawrence S. Bacow, a past president of Tufts who is a member of the Harvard Corporation. Dr. Bacow, co-author of a new report on online learning, said it remained unclear how traditional universities would integrate the new technologies.
“What faculty don’t want to do is just take something off the shelf that’s somebody else’s and teach it, any more than they would take a textbook, start on Page 1, and end with the last chapter,” he said. “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.