Microsoft Surface Pricing

Microsoft is apparently trying to quietly reinvent itself as an expensive software company to undercutting the competition. First it announced it will be making Windows 8 painless and affordable to upgrade to. Now apparently Microsoft is looking to make its tablet ultra affordable.

According to Engadget, Microsoft is looking at making its tablet $199, which would be a major shakeup to the tablet market. At that price even hardware partners can’t compete. Priced the same as the Kindle Fire it would run Windows RT. It looks pretty polished, more so than anything else in that price range.

Clearly Microsoft is trying a different route than it has in recent years. Given how late they are to the market, this is pretty much a requirement if they want to have a chance.

Hard Drives Still Expensive After Flooding

From Ars:

The impact of that disaster has passed, and supply levels are back to near where they were before last October’s disaster. But while the flood waters have long since receded, drive prices haven’t fallen nearly as much—as InfoWorld’s Woody Leonhard reports, retail hard drive prices are still about 75 percent higher than they were before the flood and show no signs of coming down. And the manufacturers are posting healthy profits as a result.

Nobody is shocked by this right?

Unfortunately for them, this will be short lived. The major HDD manufacturers don’t really have great penetration in the SSD market, which is growing at an amazing rate due to dropping prices and people wanting faster boot times.

Hiking pricing, unwillingness to adapt product lineup to meet demand. I think we know where this business strategy leads.

Netflix Open Connect

Netflix is trying to reduce it’s dependency on CDN’s by peering directly with ISP’s and with a new hardware appliance ISP’s can host on their own network to offload traffic. The peering option is pretty strait forward. The appliance however is interesting. Netflix is actually quite transparent about what they are doing, so I thought I’d dig in and take a little look since they are sharing:

Hardware

Netflix says right up front they were influenced by Backblaze, and their appliance is actually quite similar in many respects. The difference is that Netflix does need a bit more CPU and Network IO and a little less storage. That balance is pretty achievable. The appliance must be a tad on the heavy side as this is a pretty heavily packed server.

Essentially the hardware is a Supermicro mATX board and a bunch of SATA hard drives in a custom 4U enclosure. There are 2 16 port LSI SAS controllers for 32 drives and 4 drives presumably running directly off the motherboard. Hitachi Deskstar or Seagate Barracuda drives. Nothing fancy here. An interesting tidbit is there are 2 x 512 GB “flash storage” (presumably SSD) for logs, OS, popular content. I’d assume those two are running in RAID 0 as one volume. They are managing the spinning disks in software RAID so they can handle failures.

Software

FreeBSD is the OS of choice. Not sure if this software RAID they are doing is something they cooked up or something already out there. Another interesting note is they are using nginx for a web server and are using http for moving content. Huge win for nginx and says a lot for it’s abilities as a web server. It also sounds like Netflix is a customer of NGINX, Inc.

The idea of an appliance on the ISP end isn’t new. CDN’s generally live close, not in the ISP’s network. On the TV side Weather Channel has done this for ages via the little known WeatherSTAR appliances (pic). They sit at the headend and get weather from TWC. They then output local weather reports as a video for the cable provider to insert. The WeatherSTAR appliance like the Netflix appliance is essentially 0 maintenance. It just lives locally and serves it’s master remotely.

It’s nice that they’ve been as open as they have about what they are building. They also have an engineering blog worth keeping an eye on.

Raspberry Pi!

I’m pretty psyched about these little guys. Can’t wait to play with this one. Here’s why I’m so interested in them:

  1. It’s cheap – While it’s not as cheap as a TI MSP 430 Launchpad, it’s cheap enough that I could break one and not cry too much about it. That’s amazing if you remember when a computer was one of the most expensive things a person could own besides a house and car just a matter of years ago.
  2. It’s a familiar stack – The problem with the TI MSP 430 or Arduino is that they require working in an unusual environment for many/most people. Arduino is intuitive, it’s beautiful, it’s fun. But it’s hardly familiar. The MSP 430 takes me back to a time when I was too young to code. Linux on ARM is really Linux. The stack is familiar. You can run modern scripting languages we use every day. The learning curve is awesomely non-existent. Python, Ruby, Perl, Ruby, Bash? All can be run on ARM.
  3. It’s power efficient – I’ve been playing with Linux on ARM hardware for a while now. It fascinates me. The hardware is cheap, but it’s also power efficient. These little guys run on almost nothing. They require no fans, they generate almost no heat (which is energy remember). PC’s use lots of power. ARM doesn’t. Leave it on, run it like a tiny desktop server. Use it for tasks where it’s not worth leaving a PC on. It’s awesome.
  4. Encourages Innovation – Nothing encourages innovation like a low barrier to entry. $35, an Ethernet cable and a small cheap SDHC card and I’ve got a dedicated computing device that can hook up to any modern TV or display. For a few more dollars I could get a Bluetooth or USB WiFi adapter. In almost no time at all I can put something useful on there as it’s a familiar and well established software stack. Nothing encourages good or bad ideas like a low barrier to entry. Hardware wise, this is about as low as you can get right now. It’s the Cloud Computing or VPS of hardware.

Tiny ARM hardware can change the world. You could put internet enabled gadgets anywhere. Want to have a Twitter account that tweets every time the refrigerator is opened? That circuitry isn’t terribly complicated (essentially it’s a Hall effect sensor + a magnet) and writing a script that would read that input and post it to a Twitter account isn’t terribly hard it’s only been done a million times in every language ever written.

Inside Apple’s iPhone Charger

Ken Shirriff did an amazing teardown of an Apple iPhone Charger. If you’re like me and enjoy reading in detail about how electronics are engineered, you’ll really enjoy this one. Citations and all.

The real takeaway is that it’s a very high quality product both in terms of build quality and design. That’s pretty typical of most Apple products. Ken goes on to note that it only costs a tiny bit more yet Apple charges substantially more than the competition. However the cost analysis only covers parts, not manufacturing, R&D and patent licensing which is generally substantial, especially when you have a highly customized and well engineered solution.

Lenovo Gets Rid Of The Classic Keyboard

It’s no secret that I’m a keyboard snob. After all how many others have written several blog posts about keyboards. I’m rather disappointed to see Lenovo getting rid of the classic keyboard. Lenovo (previously IBM) ThinkPad had the best keyboards of the PC laptops. There was no competition.

Apple managed to achieve a decent “chicket style” keyboard, the spacing is pretty good. The low action makes it very responsive. So I’m not totally opposed to the style. I’m typing on one now.

Looking at the photo, I can’t imagine this new keyboard Lenovo is using will be any good. The function keys look quite narrow and the arrows look like they have the prev/next against them. Those buttons are essentially useless and just ruin the feel of that part of the keyboard. My T43 has them, but at least that was a classic keyboard which was very tactile. I’d imagine the new keyboard also changes the usability of the Trackpoint. I’m just going to assume the spacing and action is solid.

I guess this is the downside to making laptops thinner and lighter.

SSD Price Wars

There’s now talk of an SSD price war brewing. This is great as the price for SSD’s are still pretty high.

Unfortunately they still have a way to drop. Especially in recent years people have tons of video and photos, more than they can upload due to asymmetrical broadband. Most people only have one computer, meaning a 128 GB drive isn’t going to get them very far. Especially true for people who are big movie downloaders (legal or licensed via iTunes). Most people don’t have several computers and USB drives hanging about for bulk storage. What’s on their laptop is what they have.

Even when I went with an SSD in my desktop, I put a RAID 0 HDD array in. Just a game or two can occupy half that SSD. It’s more cost-effective to have this gigantic complicated setup than to get an SSD, and truthfully most of what’s on that HDD array is fast enough at RAID 0 speed. So yes, I split things up, but it performs fast and is substantially cheaper. I got the best of both worlds. I can’t wait until this isn’t necessary.

US Wireless Carriers To Start Blacklist

Wireless companies are going to start a blacklist for stolen phones. This is a long overdue move. It should have happened years ago. The downside to smart phones like the iPhone having a high resale value is that they have a high resale value. By that I mean they are targets for thieves.

Some, notably Sprint and certain wireless companies in other countries already have such blacklists. A search on ebay for “bad esn” returns quite a few phones. It’s virtually a guarantee these are all stolen phones. Some are sold for parts, some are taken to other wireless providers. Stay away from any phone marked as such if buying used or buy new. I know lots of developers buy older model new phones on eBay, and some buy used. Avoid the “bad ESN” listings so you don’t support this.

Hopefully the next step will be cooperating with overseas partners for a global blacklist. It shouldn’t be terribly difficult to accomplish. That would even further reduce the value of a stolen phone to being worth much more than it’s parts.