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Since 5 years in a row makes a tradition in my book, it's now once again time to revisit my predictions for 2011, and see how they panned out...or not.

1. The Apple iPad 2 (or whatever it's called) will be available with a front-facing camera and 4G (LTE), but will have the same screen resolution as the iPad.  We should know about April.

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Mostly right: Yes on the FF camera (albeit an incredibly low-resolution one) and yes on the same resolution as the original iPad, but no 4G LTE. Heck, not even the iPhone 4S has LTE. C'mon, Apple...what's the problem? Afraid of battery life complaints?

2. Nintendo will launch a new Wii console with HD output, DVD playback, and a Kinect-like video camera accessory.  I think the first two are a lock, but the third part of that is more wish than expectation.

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Again, mostly right. Nintendo launched a new console, the Wii U, and it does have HD output (although the multi-function controller, which includes a screen, is the main differentiator). But, like it's predecessor, it still won't play DVDs or Blu-Ray. Why, Nintendo, why??? The Wii U will be available early in 2012.

3. At least one of the smartphone platforms (iOS, Android, Symbian, Blackberry, WP7, MeeGo, webOS, Bada) will go away for good.  My money is on Bada.

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This was perhaps my most cynical prediction and I wasn't really that confident in it. But, amazingly, we saw not one, not two, but three smartphone platforms become abandonware in 2011. MeeGo was killed off when the Linux Foundation decided to move whole-hog towards Tizen, an HTML5-based OS. Nokia abandoned Symbian when it was clear there was no hope of it gaining traction in the smartphone space. We'll see if their cozying up to Microsoft and Windows Phone will prove to be a smart move. Finally, HP did, then didn't, then finally did open the cage and let webOS into the wilds of open sourcedom, likely to never see another smartphone installation again. So sad. Ironically, Bada is still going strong at Samsung, amazingly selling over 10 million Bada handsets in 2011. To whom, exactly, I'm not quite sure.

4. 3D will continue to grow, but not substantially and will mostly be relegated to gaming and in-theater movie experiences.

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Perhaps I was a bit too US-centric in this prediction. According to NPD DisplaySearch, while 3D TV sales were so low that 3D actually lost ground in the US, it has grown in popularity in Europe and China. Given Sony's recent entry into 3D gaming TVs and systems for the home, it seems pretty clear that, at least in North America, gaming and theater experiences are the only things keeping 3D in people's minds. Whether or not the rest of the world knows something we don't, or soon follows suit, is yet to be determined.

5. More Android tablets/slates will be sold in 2011 than iOS tablets/slates.  That assumes, of course, that the tsunami of Android slates we should see at CES results in products you can actually buy.

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Ha ha ha...not even close. All the estimates I've seen have iPads outselling all Android tablets by multiples in 2011. It's not clear to me why that is, especially now that Android phones are outselling iPhones by almost a 2:1 margin. That said, given the new Kindle Fire, Nook Color, and some other rather serious tablets running Android (e.g., the Asus Transformer Prime), and rumors that Google itself might release a Nexus tablet in 2012, this coming year might see that gap close somewhat.

6. At least one of the DSLR manufacturers (Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax/Samsung, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma) will cease producing DSLRs and/or be acquired by another company.  My guess is Sigma, as I really have no idea how they can afford to put out mediocre (read "poorly selling") DSLR after mediocre DSLR.

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Yes, but it wasn't Sigma (I still have no idea how they generate revenue). Pentax was purchased by Ricoh, who wants to get into the digital camera biz in a big way. Sony, Canon, and Nikon continue to dominate the DSLR market, with Olympus (who might not be around in a year), Panasonic, and others trying to carve out share in the Micro-Four-Thirds market.

7. By the end of 2011, Windows Phone will have the third largest app catalog (behind iOS & Android).  That shouldn't be too much of a stretch, as its growth curve means it'll surpass Blackberry's 15,000 apps or so in a few months.

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Yep. Apple still has the largest, with Android catching up quickly, and Windows Phone a very distant third. Although, if Nokia can execute on hardware and marketing as it has in the past, and Microsoft can continue to spend those Android licensing revenues on writing solid updates for Windows Phone, Redmond might just crack the top 3 smartphone platforms sooner than you think. RIM certainly isn't doing anything to stop them.

8. Google will struggle to establish content licensing agreements for Google TV, ending 2011 with a still-lackluster platform.  Unless Google is willing to toss a bunch of cash at the networks, that is...it isn't going to win this on charm alone.

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I'm not sure I could've nailed this more accurately. By any definition, Google TV was a huge disappointment for Google (not to mention Logitech) in 2011. Licensing problems kept certain content from being available, and platform software issues kept the user experience from wowing anybody. Better luck with the reboot, Goog.

9. Facebook will become the 2nd largest (most trafficked) website in the world (overtaking Microsoft.com).  Heck...maybe the largest.  A reminder that being successful doesn't mean doing anything to significantly improve the human condition.

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If you look at these numbers, Facebook is indeed at #2, well behind Google and just in front of Yahoo! and MSN. However, if you add Google and YouTube together, as well as Microsoft.com and its MSN/Live properties together, Microsoft is still #2. But, the single-site statistics suggest that Facebook is a quickly growing superpower regardless.

10. Twitter will be acquired by another company. Fingers crossed they aren't evil.

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Nope. Honestly, I had hoped that Google would buy Twitter, make it a stable platform, and integrate it into its other properties and services. Instead, Google did something I didn't think they were capable of:  making a robust, vibrant, and successful social media platform from scratch. Google+ grew faster than anyone imagined and is well on its way to being the quickest to 100 million members of any online service anywhere. I can just hear Larry and Sergey asking, "Who needs Twitter?"

So, 8-ish out of 10 were mostly correct...my least incompetent job so far. Anyway, I'll be posting my predictions for 2012 tomorrow, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are GearBits' previous years' predictions and results:
2004:Predictions, No Results
2006:Predictions, Results
2007:Predictions, Results
2008:Predictions, Results
2009:Predictions, Results
2010:Predictions, Results

After a relatively successful set of predictions for 2010, here are our prognostications for 2011.  Don't laugh...if history serves as a guide, several will come true...or mostly true.

1. The Apple iPad 2 (or whatever it's called) will be available with a front-facing camera and 4G (LTE), but will have the same screen resolution as the iPad.  We should know about April.

2. Nintendo will launch a new Wii console with HD output, DVD playback, and a Kinect-like video camera accessory.  I think the first two are a lock, but the third part of that is more wish than expectation.

3. At least one of the smartphone platforms (iOS, Android, Symbian, Blackberry, WP7, MeeGo, webOS, Bada) will go away for good.  My money is on Bada.

4. 3D will continue to grow, but not substantially and will mostly be relegated to gaming and in-theater movie experiences.

5. More Android tablets/slates will be sold in 2011 than iOS tablets/slates.  That assumes, of course, that the tsunami of Android slates we should see at CES results in products you can actually buy.

6. At least one of the DSLR manufacturers (Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax/Samsung, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma) will cease producing DSLRs and/or be acquired by another company.  My guess is Sigma, as I really have no idea how they can afford to put out mediocre (read "poorly selling") DSLR after mediocre DSLR.

7. By the end of 2011, Windows Phone will have the third largest app catalog (behind iOS & Android).  That shouldn't be too much of a stretch, as its growth curve means it'll surpass Blackberry's 15,000 apps or so in a few months.
 
8. Google will struggle to establish content licensing agreements for Google TV, ending 2011 with a still-lackluster platform.  Unless Google is willing to toss a bunch of cash at the networks, that is...it isn't going to win this on charm alone.

9. Facebook will become the 2nd largest (most trafficked) website in the world (overtaking Microsoft.com).  Heck...maybe the largest.  A reminder that being successful doesn't mean doing anything to significantly improve the human condition.

10. Twitter will be acquired by another company. Fingers crossed they aren't evil.
I recently received the MobileOffice D28, a very portable duplex sheetfeed scanner, from Plustek.  Overall, it's a very capable, compact, and relatively affordable (compared to similar models from Fujitsu and others) scanner with decent performance and capable, if not very polished, host PC software to support it.
d28.jpgPlustek lists the following as some of the D28's core features:
  • Compact design & easy to carry
  • Fast Scanning Speed ( 2.2 sec per page)
  • Special design for Embossed / Plastic card scanning
  • Duplex / Simplex Full Color Scanning
  • Power & Time saving (no warming lead time needed)
  • Multi function with user friendly software
  • Support Asian Language Recognition (Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Japanese)
While I didn't take a stopwatch to it to test the 2.2-second scanning time claim, it is rather fast.  Since it doesn't have an automatic sheet-feeder, each page has to be manually fed into the scanner.  This makes the human operator likely the slowest part of the setup.  For that reason alone, you'll want the D28 for small scanning jobs only.

d28-2.jpgThe user interface on the scanner is dead simple.  It has a numeric LED that displays which of 9 user-settable scanning modes it's in, a button to change the mode, and then two buttons to select Simplex (single-sided) or Duplex (double-sided) scanning.  That's it.  Oh, and a power button on the side.  The top cover flips open to clear jams and the back part slides up and down to let the user select where outgoing media go (either straight out the back or diverted straight up for easier retrieval).  The only other user-accessible moving part are the sliding media guides on the front, which vary from 8-1/2" to business card width.

Setup includes plugging in the removable cord (with power adapter), plugging in the USB cord to your PC and the scanner, running the setup software, and feeding in the special calibration sheet included in the box.  All told, it took me less than 10 minutes, with most of that unpacking and letting the software install.

Plustek includes a raft of software titles with the scanner:  "ABBYY FineReader 6.0 Sprint for OCR and NewSoft MaxReader 4.1 for organizing Asia language, and NewSoft Presto! PageManager 7.10 for document management, NewSoft Presto! Image Folio 4.5 for photo management."  Pretty complete, but obviously, Plustek used all of its HR budget to hire engineers instead of English-language web editors. 

The one piece of software that the user will interact with most often is the DigiDoc scan control interface.  This is where all the settings for each of the 9 user-determined scanning modes.  Each mode can be individually configured along a variety of settings, including output type (e.g., image file, PDF, etc.), resolution, color depth, save-to directory, file autonaming scheme, and so on.  It is impressively flexible and fairly straightforward, if rather bland and uninviting. 

Here are a couple of sample screen shots.  The first one is set up to save modest-resolution, grayscale JPGs. The 9 tabs each correspond to a different profile, and the checkmarks indicate whether or not the scanner should make them available via its mode selection button.

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The second is for generating high-res Acrobat files.  Notice the handy setting to allow each page to create its own unique file or to automatically append pages to a single PDF file.  Also, notice that you can have different settings for the front versus the back in duplex mode. I've not seen a scanner with that level of flexibility, certainly not one in the price range of the D28 ($275-$325 street prices).

plustek2.gifI tested the D28 out on a few different jobs.  One was a stack of business cards I'd been collecting.  I was able to churn through all 150 in about 12 minutes, and that was mostly determined by how fast I could stick the next card into the scanner each time.  Output was just fine, although auto-deskew didn't straighten out some of my more misaligned feeds.  I configured DigiDoc to save each scan straight to a PNG file (a nice touch) and then mass-uploaded them to Evernote where they're now all searchable online.

I also scanned in a couple of my daughter's drawings on the D28's max resolution (600 dpi) and they looked very good.  This isn't the right machine for scanning in photo negatives or slides, but printed materials up to about the thickness of a CD work great.  I tried sending a piece of paper with an 1/8th-inch thick sticker on it and it got caught up every time, so it's not nearly as flexible as a flatbed scanner, but then those aren't usually very portable, either.

All told, I'd definitely consider the D28 a strong contender if I regularly had small scanning jobs, moved locations fairly often, and wasn't trying to scan books or other non-feedable materials.  The flexibility of DigiDoc plus the simplicity of the D28's interface make it really simple to set up and use right away.  While I have no idea about the D28's build quality (many scanners, even expensive units, suffer feed problems even after a few hundred pages), at this price, you won't feel too bad replacing it if it stops performing up to snuff.

F200EXR.jpgIn July, 2002, Fujifilm and Olympus horrified digital photography fans by launching an all-new flash memory format, the xD-Picture Card. Why, nobody outside these two companies was sure, but it seems the grand experiment may be coming to an end.

Fujifilm has announced that an upcoming pocket point-and-shoot camera, the F200EXR, will accept both xD and SD/MMC memory formats. At least according to the folks at Crave.

I, for one, will be happy to pare down the ranks of incompatible flash memory formats. Sony, would you like to take your turn and off the noxious Memory Stick? Honestly, nobody will miss it...I promise.

tivo3.jpgI am in need of two new pieces of gear and would like YOUR suggestions and insights on what to get.

First, we need to replace our dead (kaput!) Series 1 TiVo. It lasted an amazing 7 years and change, but it has made the final ascent to the great Now Showing in the sky. So, what should we get to replace it? An HD TiVo? The HD XL TiVo? We have nothing but HD TVs in our house, so the Series 2 isn't terribly desirable. Or should we nix TiVo and go with a different brand altogether? We're on Time Warner Cable (despite their awfulness), in case that affects your recommendation.

cam.jpgSecond, I need a smallish digital camera with a reasonable resolution (5MP+), but with as much optical zoom as possible (320mm and greater would be ideal). This is for use with the GigaPan Imager I acquired for work purposes. The GigaPan mount won't support something like a dSLR, so nothing that massive can be considered. What suggestions do you have for this purchase?

Thanks in advance for your comments, here on GearBits (using the form below), to me via Twitter (CRA1G), or via my Facebook account (Craig Froehle).

REVIEW
Plustek was kind enough to send me what is arguably the largest box I've ever received from a vendor. Inside it was their new OpticPro A360, an A3-sized flatbed scanner.

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For those of you unfamiliar with European-spec paper sizes, A3 is equal to 12" x 17", or what North Americans refer to as "tabloid" size paper. For a flatbed scanner, that's pretty big. In fact, the unit weighs 17 lbs, so this is anything but a scanner you'll want to move around much; it's pretty much the antithesis of "portable."

There's rarely anything particularly sexy about a flatbed scanner, so this review concentrates on two aspects that tend to separate the wheat from the chaff: bundled software (the user experience) and scanning performance.

SOFTWARE
Setting up the A360 was fairly straightforward. After plugging in the unit and inserting the included CD-ROM, Windows XP found the TWAIN driver (and other necessary support files) and installed them straight away.

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Then, I was prompted to install the additional applications that Plustek bundles with the A360. Unfortunately, this didn't go very smoothly. The installer locked up twice and I had to go about installing the last couple of apps manually. Not terrible, but definitely not what you'd hope for. After that hiccup, all went pretty well. Even the "copy" button on the scanner was correctly set to send a letter-sized page to my default printer.

The bundled applications are all adequate for the task, but nothing to get excited about. DI Capture is a rather modestly-featured image capture app that helps tweak some of the settings and parameters one can apply to incoming images. NewSoft Presto! PageManager is a workmanlike document management utilities; I'm not sure who is going to rely on this, but it's there if you want it. ImageFolio 4 is a lightweight photo manipulation tool; suffice to say, you're likely much better off with Adobe PhotoShop Elements. Finally, the A360 comes with ReadIris Pro 10 Corporate Edition, a very decent OCR application.

It irks me that, in 2009, we're still having to deal with 4+ different applications to handle output from a scanner. You'd think that we'd have some unified interface from which the user can easily and quickly scan, manipulate, and manage images. But I guess that's too much to hope for. :-/

SCANNING PERFORMANCE
The proof of any scanner is in the quality of images it generates. The A360 is modestly equipped, maxing out at 600 dpi optical resolution. For a scanner this size, I guess that makes sense, but it surprised me given that you can easily find a legal-sized flatbed scanner that will do double that for a couple hundred bucks.

Here are some demo scans of a newspaper front page (Note: all scans are with no software sharpening and JPG quality set on 100%):

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View full-sized scans:

300 dpi
3578 x 5078
8.0 MB

600 dpi
7154 x 10154
29.4 MB

To give you an idea of the quality of these scans without having to open up those full-size images, below are two crops at 300 dpi and 600 dpi:

300 dpi:

paper_300dpi_crop.jpg

600 dpi:

paper_600dpi_crop.jpg

Pretty good; edges are clean without being oversharpened and there doesn't seem to be any significant distortion, blooming, or other artifacting as far as I can tell.

To assess the A360's color performance, I enlisted my aging HP Officejet 6110 all-in-one as a comparison with a run-of-the-mill scanner. Below are the two samples, cropped from a photo I pulled out of a drawer, both at 300 dpi with no image manipulation.

a360_300dpi_crop.jpg
hp6110_300dpi_crop.jpg
OpticPro A360
HP 6110

With zero sharpening during and after either scan, the A360's output looks softer than the 6110. The tonality differences aren't too troubling; I put neither scanner through a full color calibration, so they're both probably off. To my eyes, however, there's no marked quality difference between these two. In fact, if I had to pick, I'd say the OfficeJet does a little better job picking up detail at 300 dpi.

Other hardware bits do help the scanner's ability to do its job. The hardware buttons to the right of the scanbed cover are programmable with lots of flexibility via the configuration utility. Also, the cover has a tricky hinge that easily accommodates thicker materials like books, frames, and so forth while keeping flat for uniform lighting. The A360 does not scan film slides or negatives and has no ability to accommodate an adapter to do so. While the scanner can be configured to keep its CCFL ready at all times, setting it into a more environmentally friendly sleep mode will require a 30-second-or-so warmup before your first scan of the day. Not bad...certainly better than a lot of copier/scanners.

In short, while the A360 has size on its side, it doesn't do a lot to impress me in many other ways. If I had a bunch of large documents (e.g., newspapers) that had to be scanned, or did it regularly, I'd probably do well by the A360. My online shopping bot tells me that it can be had from around $960 up to its MSRP of $1199. So, for under a grand, you get a reasonably quick, A3-sized flatbed scanner that is immediately recognizable as a larger version of every other flatbed scanner out there. And that is both reassuring and disappointing at the same time.

SUMMARY
Pros:
• Big!
• Convenient, programmable hardware buttons
• Hinged lid for thicker materials (e.g., books)
• Speedy data transfer to PC
• ~30-second lamp warmup

Cons:
• Mediocre software / sketchy initial setup
• Unimpressive resolution (600 dpi optical)
• No slide-handling

SPECIFICATIONS
Width: 24.5 in
Depth: 15.7 in
Height: 5.2 in
Weight: 17 lbs
Maximum Media Size: 12 in x 17 in
Grayscale Depth: 16-bit input, 8-bit output
Color Depth: 48-bit color input, 24-bit output
Optical Resolution: 600 dpi x 1200 dpi
Lamp / Light Source: Cold cathode fluorescent (CCF) lamp
Scanning Speed (300 dpi, A3 size)
- Color: 2.5 secs
- Grayscale: 1.6 secs
- Black&white: 1.6 secs
Interface: 1 x Hi-Speed USB 2.0
TWAIN Compliant: Yes
Included: 1 x 4' USB 2.0 cable
Power Consumption
- Operational: 36W
- Standby: 8W
Software Included:
- NewSoft Presto! PageManager 7.10
- Plustek DocAction
- NewSoft Presto! ImageFolio 4.5
- Plustek DI Capture
- Drivers & Utilities
- Readiris Pro 10 Corporate Edition
- Adobe Acrobat Reader
Supported Operating Systems: Microsoft Windows Vista / 2000 / XP

Each year, we at GearBits post some predictions for the coming year. And then, in the interest of honesty, fairness, and self-deprecation, we take a look back to see how we did. Each of our predictions for 2008 are listed below, along with an update on what actually happened.

1) Blu-Ray Wins the Format War
Yep, I'm going to pick a winner and it's going to be Blu-Ray. The one-two punch of Warner Brothers's move to Blu-Ray exclusivity (from its Switzerland-like neutrality of supporting both formats) later in 2008 and Apple's announcement that BD will be the only HD format available in its products will cement HD DVD's demise. And none too soon. I don't really care which wins...just make it snappy so that prices on players and media can plummet, thanks.

thumbs-up.gifAs of now, the end of 2008, it seems like forever since Blu-Ray trounced HD DVD in the format war. But back in early January, it was anyone's guess. But then, on February 18th, Toshiba officially threw in the towel. Interestingly, the Warner Bros. move I thought would happen eventually was actually announced the day after I posted my predictions. Of course, Apple hasn't yet released any products with any form of HD optical drive, so that bit wasn't exactly spot on. And I'm still waiting for my $99 Blu-Ray player. But, overall, this prediction looks pretty solid.

2) Google's Android Shakes Up Phone Industry
For a while now, the cellphone industry has been fairly static. A few smartphone and mobile OS makers have generally tussled for market share, but the overall industry has been pretty evolutionary. Google's entry will prove to be a watershed moment, with open source finally making a big impact in the handheld space (and no, I don't consider the Zaurus to be a big deal...sorry). Actual handsets running Android will be announced, if not available, before the end of 2008.

thumbs-up.gifDepending on your threshold for "shaking up" the phone industry, I think most people would agree that Android made quite a splash in 2008 when the HTC G1 was launched on T-Mobile in the US on September 23rd. And we've already heard of around a dozen hardware makers signed on to release Android handsets. While handset sales still pale in comparison to the iPhone, 2009 looks like it just might be the year of the Android.

3) Palm Supports Android
This is more of a hope than an actual prediction, as I just don't know whether the egos at Palm will let the company do the right thing and admit that their next-generation OS (which has been under development since 2004!) will be a viable contender against Android (which has essentially the same technical details but scads more developer support). But, if cooler, more rational heads prevail at Palm, they'll announce that they're plans will be to produce at least one Android-based product (probably to come out sometime in 2012 :-/ ).

thumbs-down.gifOuch...I couldn't have been more wrong. While I still think Palm would have been smart to advance their product refurbishment by a full year (maybe more) by going with Android instead of continuing to pursue Nova, the company stuck to its original, go-it-alone plans. We'll see how well that pans out in 2009.

4) Microsoft's HD Photo Replacement for JPEG Image Standard Goes Nowhere
I'm not saying it's a bad idea technically; I'm just saying that JPEG is so entrenched now that replacing it would be about as reasonable a thing to try as would be replacing MP3 with any of the multitudes of better formats. JPEG, like MP3, isn't great, but it's adequate (at least for consumers) and ubiquitous. We'll still be saving all our photos in JPG (and maybe RAW) at the end of 2008...and likely long after that.

thumbs-up.gifJPEG XR, the official name of Microsoft's HD Photo format, has generated essentially zero traction in the camera industry. Part of that is Microsoft's less-than-swift transition of JPEG XR into its quasi-open licensing portfolio, a move that will have to happen for camera makers and developers to trust that they won't be bitten by huge licensing fees in the future if they move their products away from RAW to JPEG XR.

5) Subnotes Will Explode in Availability (and Maybe Popularity)
I've always been a fan of tiny, sub-3-pound laptops, but I think 2008 will see a huge number of these clamshell devices come out of every corner of the consumer electronics space. The Asus EeePC and the OLPC XO Laptop are two examples. While Microsoft had a good idea in its UMPC (Ultra-Mobile PC) concept, the hardware was just never executed all that well. Frankly, I think a 7" touchscreen for Windows is just too difficult. But, going with the traditional clamshell design and using cheaper and/or smaller technologies (e.g., flash memory instead of a HDD) will bring us a raft of interesting (and some good) designs at <$500 price points. Bring 'em on! And I think we'll start to see a lot more people toting these things along that traditionally avoided laptops for whatever reason (cost, weight, etc.).

thumbs-up.gifBingo. If the shelves at Best Buy and Circuit City are any indication, these "netbooks" (the now-favored term...at least by everyone except Psion) have multiplied faster than Tribbles on Cialis. One glance at the huuuge list of netbooks over at small-notebooks.com is enough evidence to suggest that this prediction was spot on.

6) The GPS War Heats Up
TomTom, Nokia, and Garmin will exchange hostile fire over the GPS market due to convuluted agreements regarding mapping data as well as market-share for hardware. Products will continue to decline in price and improve in functionality, and >50% of cellphones will have some form of GPS functionality available on them. I guess that's two predictions in one...oh well.

thumbs-up.gifI'm going to give myself this one. While we haven't heard that much more about the complex licensing agreements involving the big three, you need only walk through a Staples, Radio Shack, or Target to see a vast assortment of portable GPS units now available for under $150, most even having text-to-speech and other advanced functions. That's in direct comparison to late last year, when it was difficult to find a decent unit for under $300.

7) DRM Hits Choppy Water
2007 saw some movement away from DRM (digital rights management), especially in the music industry, but I expect we'll see similar initiatives in all areas of media. DRM has been proven again and again to be little more than an expensive technological boondoggle, and the leading innovators at the consumer media interface (e.g., Apple, Amazon, and Google) will make some headway into reversing the trend of more encumbrance for our media. The RIAA and MPAA will continue to fight it...they know how to do nothing else...but economic results will start to demonstrate that DRM actually hurts profitability.

thumbs-down.gifNope...we didn't hear much consistent with my prediction. While some markets moved towards offering DRM-free downloads, most are still heavily laden. And the RIAA actually reversed its strategy and is now no longer suing everyone and their mother for alleged downloading. So that's two different ways I was off on this one. Just goes to show that there's no telling what the content owners are thinking.

8) Major Tech Stocks End 2008 Up Significantly
These are bound to be wrong, but what the heck...nobody pays me for stock tips. I think Apple will end 2008 at 235, Google will be at 960, and Microsoft will finish the year at 50. As for other stocks, iRobot will end up at either 46 or 12 (can you tell I'm a cynical shareholder?), IBM will show tepid growth to 112, and RIM, hurt by the continued weak US dollar and facing increasing competition, will struggle to match its 1-year high of 127.

thumbs-down.gifUh, no. While I doubt many saw the massive downturn in stocks coming, tech stocks are decidedly not even slightly better off than most. Let's see how my specific price predictions held up:
  • Apple (AAPL): Predicted = 235; Actual = 86.29
  • Google (GOOG): Predicted = 960; Actual = 303.11
  • Microsoft (MSFT): Predicted = 50; Actual = 19.34
  • iRobot (IRBT): Predicted = 46 or 12; Actual = 8.95
  • IBM (IBM): Predicted = 112; Actual = 83.55
  • Research in Motion (RIMM): Predicted = 127; Actual = 38.77
In summary, do not ask me to manage your stock portfolio...you would be better served by setting your money on fire, as then you could at least stay warm for a while.

9) I Buy a New Laptop and Am Disappointed
My Panasonic CF-W2 is now three-and-a-half-years-old and I'm starting to cringe every time I turn it on (my luck with hard drives makes me skeptical of many living past their 4th birthday). I've been looking at possible replacements (e.g., Toshiba R500, Panasonic W7, maybe the Lenovo IdeaPad U110 or the rumored Apple subnote) and so far every single one has some significant trade-offs. So, I expect I'll get one and it will turn out to be not significantly better than my aging Toughbook. You'd think in nearly four years that two grand would buy something markedly superior. We'll see...

thumbs-up.gifUnfortunately, I was right on this. The Fujitsu LifeBook P8010 I ended up purchasing in February is a good laptop...don't get me wrong. It's just not a heads-and-shoulders better laptop than my ToughBook was, and that's what I was expecting given the nearly 4 years newer technology and the $2500 it cost. And, given that I've already had to send it in for a repair (the power button broke off), I'm guessing the durability won't even come close to that of the Panasonic (which I still use regularly around the house).

10) Major Changes in Automotive Industry Announced
While the car business makes actual change only very slowly, we'll see some huge announcements in 2008 that will fundamentally change the future of that industry. Things like record oil prices, an increasing attention to sustainable/green technology, and significant ownership changes will substantially change the competitive landscape. Make no mistake; Toyota will continue its ascent and eclipse GM as #1 car-maker in the world. But, we will see several major announcements that will start affecting actual consumers in 2009 and beyond.

thumbs-up.gifWhile I didn't get the stock predictions exactly right (OK, not even close), I think it's safe to say that the US automotive industry has been shaken up with major changes during 2008. We saw record oil prices (check!), more attention to green tech (check!), and the bottom dropping out of US consumption didn't leave them anywhere to go except to the Congress for help. And Toyota did indeed become the biggest carmaker in the world in 2008, just as predicted. Let's hope the Volt truly is something special...for all our sakes.

So, there you have it: our final score is 7 winners and 3 losers. I'll take it. :-)

In a couple of days, I'll be posting GearBits' predictions for 2009, so make sure you come back and check those out, m'kay?

Barack Obama came to Cincinnati on Thursday, October 9th and visited one of our city's most attractive places...Ault Park. On an immaculate Fall day, a crowd of roughly 15,000 people waited, some over 4 hours, to hear this future US President speak. Below are some of the nearly 400 photographs I took at the event.

A Cincinnati Enquirer story gives more details about the rally.

A crowd of about 15,000 on hand.
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Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland revs up the crowd.
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Obama takes the stage.
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lifespoke-logo.gifA week-and-a-half ago, I spent all weekend (well, about 34 hours of it) in a habitrail of meeting rooms with about 100 other people trying to do something pretty incredible: invent, build, and launch a new Internet startup in less than three days.

The event, InOneWeekend 2008, was the inaugural entrepreneurial exercise by this new Cincinnati organization, which hopes to jump-start new-venture creation in the technology-based services space (i.e., dot-coms).

After lots of thinking and working and coding and sweating (not to mention eating fast food and swilling highly caffeinated beverages), our concept was outlined and mocked up to a degree that we thought the world should be invited to share in its evolution from beta concept to fully operational service.

I, er, we give you...LifeSpoke.

Go on...click the link and check it out...it won't hurt, I promise.

LifeSpoke is, and soon will be more of, a place to save, organize, and share all your personal memorabilia and life's memories (assuming they come in handy digital format, of course). With an innovative, patent-pending interface (that we're not quite ready to share yet) and a family-oriented content model (that includes loads of privacy, security, and convenience), we're pretty stoked at the idea that moms, dads, kids, grandparents, and close friends will finally have a place to share their intimate memories and most precious media in a rich new environment.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Actually, you're thinking "I'm hungry...I wonder what's in the fridge." Hey, focus...there's just a little more to read here. You were also thinking "But aren't there a bazillion other media-sharing websites out there, like YouTube, most with sharing features?" To that I say of course! But LifeSpoke is different and will be the best solution for families and close-knit groups of friends to share their memories. While those other sites are great for stuff like watching someone's dog ride a skateboard or having anonymous 15-year-olds "friend" you, LifeSpoke focuses on the relationships in your life that mean the most.

So...go sign up for one of the limited beta invitations at LifeSpoke.com and join us as we ride this idea to wherever it takes us. Should be a fun trip.

If you're interested in reading more about the InOneWeekend adventure we had, check out these stories:
Official LifeSpoke press release (Marketwatch.com)
Cincinnati Business Courier article (bizjournals.com)

As an engineer by training, it's my duty to make sure my kids are exposed to the fun of hacking their world. Combining hacking and art makes for an activity fun for both generations, so I'm generally on the lookout for fun art/science projects. An instructable (I'm an avid instructable fan) entry had a great idea -- light doodles! To have fun drawing in the air, all you need is some colored lights, a dark room, and a digital camera.

Well, it is a little more complicated than that. If you don't have some colored LED lights (like car keychain lights) handy, you can follow this instructable to make some of your own. I bought some cheap assorted LEDs and other parts off eBay to make mine. I had tried using an incandescent flashlight, but the poor results bored my kid. The LEDs are easier for small kid hands, and multiple colors add to the fun.

Next, I had to pour through my digital camera manual to figure out how to set (a) the delay and (b) a long exposure. The exposure setting was hard to find! My Canon SD100 can be set for 15 seconds. After that, it's pretty simple. If you need more tips, read this instructable for advice on taking the pictures.


lightdoodle-mommy-small.JPG
Look, Ma! No messy paints, no wasted paper!

I just came across this ridiculous story on BoingBoing about Ford preventing a Mustang owner's group from publishing a calendar featuring photos the owners took of their own cars on the grounds that all images of Ford cars are inherently trademarked and, therefore, property of Ford.

Can American companies become any more stupid than this? I'm not quite sure it's possible.

For the record, I'm fairly confident Subaru has no such policy. And just to try it out, here's a shot of my own car (a 2005 Impreza WRX STI).

2005 STI

As has become customary around the changing of the calendar, here are GearBits' official predictions for 2008.

1) Blu-Ray Wins the Format War
Yep, I'm going to pick a winner and it's going to be Blu-Ray. The one-two punch of Warner Brothers's move to Blu-Ray exclusivity (from its Switzerland-like neutrality of supporting both formats) later in 2008 and Apple's announcement that BD will be the only HD format available in its products will cement HD DVD's demise. And none too soon. I don't really care which wins...just make it snappy so that prices on players and media can plummet, thanks.

2) Google's Android Shakes Up Phone Industry
For a while now, the cellphone industry has been fairly static. A few smartphone and mobile OS makers have generally tussled for market share, but the overall industry has been pretty evolutionary. Google's entry will prove to be a watershed moment, with open source finally making a big impact in the handheld space (and no, I don't consider the Zaurus to be a big deal...sorry). Actual handsets running Android will be announced, if not available, before the end of 2008.

3) Palm Supports Android
This is more of a hope than an actual prediction, as I just don't know whether the egos at Palm will let the company do the right thing and admit that their next-generation OS (which has been under development since 2004!) will be a viable contender against Android (which has essentially the same technical details but scads more developer support). But, if cooler, more rational heads prevail at Palm, they'll announce that they're plans will be to produce at least one Android-based product (probably to come out sometime in 2012 :-/ ).

4) Microsoft's HD Photo Replacement for JPEG Image Standard Goes Nowhere
I'm not saying it's a bad idea technically; I'm just saying that JPEG is so entrenched now that replacing it would be about as reasonable a thing to try as would be replacing MP3 with any of the multitudes of better formats. JPEG, like MP3, isn't great, but it's adequate (at least for consumers) and ubiquitous. We'll still be saving all our photos in JPG (and maybe RAW) at the end of 2008...and likely long after that.

5) Subnotes Will Explode in Availability (and Maybe Popularity)
I've always been a fan of tiny, sub-3-pound laptops, but I think 2008 will see a huge number of these clamshell devices come out of every corner of the consumer electronics space. The Asus EeePC and the OLPC XO Laptop are two examples. While Microsoft had a good idea in its UMPC (Ultra-Mobile PC) concept, the hardware was just never executed all that well. Frankly, I think a 7" touchscreen for Windows is just too difficult. But, going with the traditional clamshell design and using cheaper and/or smaller technologies (e.g., flash memory instead of a HDD) will bring us a raft of interesting (and some good) designs at <$500 price points. Bring 'em on! And I think we'll start to see a lot more people toting these things along that traditionally avoided laptops for whatever reason (cost, weight, etc.).

6) The GPS War Heats Up
TomTom, Nokia, and Garmin will exchange hostile fire over the GPS market due to convuluted agreements regarding mapping data as well as market-share for hardware. Products will continue to decline in price and improve in functionality, and >50% of cellphones will have some form of GPS functionality available on them. I guess that's two predictions in one...oh well.

7) DRM Hits Choppy Water
2007 saw some movement away from DRM (digital rights management), especially in the music industry, but I expect we'll see similar initiatives in all areas of media. DRM has been proven again and again to be little more than an expensive technological boondoggle, and the leading innovators at the consumer media interface (e.g., Apple, Amazon, and Google) will make some headway into reversing the trend of more encumbrance for our media. The RIAA and MPAA will continue to fight it...they know how to do nothing else...but economic results will start to demonstrate that DRM actually hurts profitability.

8) Major Tech Stocks End 2008 Up Significantly
These are bound to be wrong, but what the heck...nobody pays me for stock tips. I think Apple will end 2008 at 235, Google will be at 960, and Microsoft will finish the year at 50. As for other stocks, iRobot will end up at either 46 or 12 (can you tell I'm a cynical shareholder?), IBM will show tepid growth to 112, and RIM, hurt by the continued weak US dollar and facing increasing competition, will struggle to match its 1-year high of 127.

9) I Buy a New Laptop and Am Disappointed
My Panasonic CF-W2 is now three-and-a-half-years-old and I'm starting to cringe every time I turn it on (my luck with hard drives makes me skeptical of many living past their 4th birthday). I've been looking at possible replacements (e.g., Toshiba R500, Panasonic W7, maybe the Lenovo IdeaPad U110 or the rumored Apple subnote) and so far every single one has some significant trade-offs. So, I expect I'll get one and it will turn out to be not significantly better than my aging Toughbook. You'd think in nearly four years that two grand would buy something markedly superior. We'll see...

10) Major Changes in Automotive Industry Announced
While the car business makes actual change only very slowly, we'll see some huge announcements in 2008 that will fundamentally change the future of that industry. Things like record oil prices, an increasing attention to sustainable/green technology, and significant ownership changes will substantially change the competitive landscape. Make no mistake; Toyota will continue its ascent and eclipse GM as #1 car-maker in the world. But, we will see several major announcements that will start affecting actual consumers in 2009 and beyond.

So, I'll check back in about 12 months to see how I fared. In the meantime, what do you think will happen?

iphoto_unhappy.jpgA few months ago, I upgraded our family room's HTPC by replacing the old Shuttle box with a nice Intel-powered Mac Mini. So far, nearly everything has been hunky dory. Front Row pretty much works as advertised, and that's the computer's main use.

But one sore point with me has been an inability to wrangle iPhoto to display my photos I have on an external drive attached to the Mac so that we can view them through Front Row (which only talks to iPhoto for photo-viewing purposes).

Basically, what I want iPhoto to do is simply index and display photos stored on an external hard drive, in much the same fashion that iTunes handles MP3 files stored externally. You see, I keep all my "original" photos on a machine elsewhere on our network -- the files on the Mini's external drive are merely copies, updated as needed via network backup. So, when I add some new photos to the collection, all I want iPhoto to do is realize I've done so and make the new folder available via Front Row. Isn't that easy?

Yet there's apparently no way to do that. iPhoto wants to be the sole photo-management app and really makes it difficult to interact with photos that aren't "imported" directly through it. In that sense, iPhoto is really an overly egocentric, yet very lame, program.

Anybody have a suggestion as to how to view our photos via Front Row? Anyone? Bueller?

Last month, I became fed up with the increasingly disgusting state of my LCD screens. Both my laptop and my two LCD desktop panels at work were just rife with dust, lint, and macroscopic unmentionables. Just gross.

So, I thought I'd grab a screen cleaner and wipe them off. Turns out that's not as easy as one might imagine. Most everyday cleaners you find in grocery stores have alcohol, ammonia and/or other chemicals in them that do not play nicely with the plastics and coatings involved in LCD and other portable electronic displays.

So, I did what any conscientious tech blogger would do: I ordered three of the more commonly recommended cleaners to do a comparison test. KlearScreen, Purosol, and Mirachem Optix were all purchased from online retailer Photodon (who provided no monetary or other support for this test other than selling me all the cleaners at their standard price). I also purchased a bottle of the Photodon house brand LCD cleaner just to see how it stacked up. I also bought a brand new microfiber cloth to use in the testing.

cleaners.jpg

Read on for details on the four candidates and the results of my month-long test for performance, endurance, and overall value.

According to TWICE, a recent study suggests that phone-based photo-sharing is declining:

Camera Phone Image Sharing on Decline
By Greg Scoblete -- TWICE, 4/6/2007 9:24:00 AM

Jackson, Mich. -- Despite a sharp uptick in the number of households with camera phones, fewer consumers than ever are sharing their camera phone images, according to a new study from the Photo Marketing Association.

In a January survey canvassing 5,985 families, 35 percent reported owning a camera phone, up from 26 percent in the previous year. Of that figure, only 24 percent reported sharing images via e-mail or wireless transmission, down from 28 percent in 2005 and 36 percent in 2004.

The percent of camera phone owners who print their images was unchanged at 4 percent.

More than 80 percent of camera phones on the market are under 2-megapixels, PMA said.

I see two likely reasons for this trend (if it is, indeed, an actual trend). First, cameras are increasingly found in all manner of phones, from the priciest smartphones to the freebie disposables you get with a new contract. That means a wider variety of individuals are using cameraphones. So, given that a camera in one's phone may be a new feature to many who have it now for the first time, they may be less familiar and less likely to use it. Also, many who now have cameraphones got the phone with no intention of using the camera function -- it just happened to have a camera in it. Both of these user demographics factors would tend to lower the percentage of cameraphone owners who actually share photos with the cameraphones.

Second, and perhaps more sinister, is how difficult, cumbersome, and unpleasant most carriers have made it to actually share photos using their cameraphones. Take Sprint, for example. In order to share a photo from my phone, I have to submit it through the Sprint's proprietary Picture Mail service. Once uploaded, say, via MMS, the recipient gets a text message pointing him to a URL (yes, a website!) at which the photo can be viewed. This requires starting an actual web browser and burning through lots of overhead packets downloading things like menus, background images, etc. Despite having a perfectly good MMS application in my Treo and my wife's Treo, both on Sprint, we can't simply MMS a photo to each other. Instead, it either has to go through Sprint's craptastic Picture Mail service, or we just have to email it as an attachment. Instead of simply using the functions that most phone-makers have already embedded in the handsets themselves, carriers' desire to control every aspect of the usage experience generally tends to harm the user's experience and destroy value for their customers.

While the demographic trend may ultimately push these numbers down fairly low, the carriers could easily help reverse the trend somewhat by opening up picture-messaging the same way that most have done with SMS/text messaging. Open standards promote use and foster innovation, both of which benefit the carriers nearly as much as they benefit their customers.