Dis-Kinect-ed

Well, I’ve seen it, and I’ve tried it. And I am not blown away.

On the positive side, yes, it does work. Wave your hand, your little avatar waves back. Squat. Kick. Jump. Stick your head between your knees. No problem… the little onscreen goof follows right along.

Furthermore, Kinect can be a great workout. From a standing start, I was quickly breathless as I side-stepped and hopped my way through a white-water rafting course. Then ducked barriers as my little trolley rolled along a roller-coaster track. And finally, batted balls in a 3D version of Breakout. (The latter, oddly enough, was by far the most interesting part of the demo.)

On the downside: the Kinect doesn’t seem to work any better than, say, the Wii controller. Movements are registered approximately at best. If there’s any forward-backward tracking (‘into’ the screen), it was not in evidence. And worst of all, there was massive lag — a near-half-second delay between body movement and onscreen echo.

You adjust pretty quickly, and the Kinect seems to do a pretty good job with the Silly Sports games that Microsoft is using to promote the new controller. But if you’re dreaming of a first-person shooter where you go “Pew! Pew!” with your finger, I think you can forget it. From what I experienced, targeting would be neither fast enough nor positive enough to make the experience anything other than an exercise in frustration.

Of course, that’s only a ‘first look.’ The Microsoft demonstrator had no idea whether we were using alpha or beta software. He did attempt to deny the existence of what I called control “lag” — while seeming to be well aware of the effect I was talking about. Only the one game was running, and I was not able to try using the Kinect with the Xbox Live interface.

Based on this limited trial, I’d give the Kinect a cautious passing grade for existing Xbox 360 owners who want a more physical gaming experience, but don’t want to shell out for a Wii. And a tentative failing grade for anything else.

More to come…

Bethesda Buys id

Weird corporate news: Bethesda (or its parent company, ZeniMax) has bought id Software. It’s a surprising union, but I think an overwhelmingly good one for both companies, and for the gaming world as a whole.

  • Bethesda will publish id games, which should be a huge step up from the sledgehammer corporate approach of an Activision or Electronic Arts.
  • The cultures should be a good fit. Both Bethesda and id are companies that have deliberately stayed small, and kept tightly focused on a particular style of game.
  • Bethesda may pick up on some of id’s top-notch 3D coding expertise, and id may be reminded how to do games with a bit of depth.

Doom RPG, anyone?

Y I h8 IE8

I’ve just attended a Microsoft LiveMeeting briefing talking about the new version of Internet Explorer. The comparisons to Firefox were fairly contrived, as you might expect, and even so, the pitch still came off as fairly underwhelming.

Here’s a quick run-down:

  • Pages render faster in IE8 than in other browsers. Maybe. Under some circumstances. But in any case, the difference is “pretty small.” (Getting excited, yet?)
  • Interesting statistic: Microsoft claimed that Mozilla itself admits only about 20% of Firefox users install add-ons. If true, having more stuff built-in would certainly be an advantage. As long as that stuff was equally ‘rich’ (to use Microsoft parlance) and far-reaching. Well, Microsoft’s main alternative to add-ons are Accelerators, which are like mini-add-ons specific to certain services — Gmail, Facebook, etc. But of course, the functionality is pretty restricted too — mostly they show little pop-ups, like a Live Map. Or instead of cutting and pasting a bit of text into an email, an Accelerator might allow you do it with one right-click. Cute, but hardly Earth-shattering. And it still depends on third parties cooking up the dowloadable modules — just as with add-ons.

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  • Web Slices are like a proprietary take on RSS feeds. They can let you track specific parts of a favorite Web page — but of course, they require the page to enable this, using special markup on their site. Slices look easier to use than most RSS feedreaders, perhaps, but RSS is a widely-adopted standard, while Slices are all custom Microsoft. (See below about how Microsoft is now playing nice with standards…)
  • IE8 clones the Firefox URL “amazing bar,” where it can now offer extensive suggestions as you type, from both your recent sites and quick online searches. There are some minor tweaks, mainly by virtue of working with specific providers, like Amazon and Wikipedia.
  • IE8 has a cross-site scripting blocker, which Microsoft admits is similar to the Firefox NoScript add-on. But they called NoScript “extreme” in that it blocks all scripts. (As if that weren’t a good thing!) IE8 InPrivate Filtering is not unlike Firefox AdBlock — but with a simpler dialog, I’ll give them that.
  • IE8 allows tabs to crash individually, without bringing down the browser. Cool. This would be a huge help — about twice a year.
  • Another big feature: IE is now supporting standards. (As they admit Firefox and Safari have been doing for some time…) Gosh! But the real beauty of IE8 is that it has a Compatibility View, to correctly render all those pages that have already been built for Microsoft’s previous rogue non-standards. Microsoft has even created a new XML tag that can tell IE8 to render in IE7 mode. (Just one more new trick for developers to learn… assuming they still care what IE does with their pages.)
  • Not discussed in the demo, but Tabs in IE8 are still horrible, horrible, utterly useless and horrible. Microsoft seems to feel no one will ever open more than about 6 tabs. In my case, their estimate is out by at least an order of magnitude.

All in all, the final release is looking no more amazing than early betas suggested it would be. The new features are all swell, but limited in quantity, and mostly just catching up on features already available in other browsers. The user interface remains by far the worst of any browser, ever. Overall functionality is light-years short of what Firefox can do with a few well-chosen add-ons. (And you can bet that Firefox will remain the more attractive platform for add-on developers.)

This is a far cry from Microsoft’s glory days. When threatened by Netscape Navigator, the company really moved browsing forward in a big way. Overall, there’s nothing in IE8 that would cause anyone to switch back from an alternative browser. Nor anything that would slow the steady trickle of IE users who try something else and never come back.

DRM hoses TV

I’ve just been to a preview of new products coming from Belkin. Among these was a really nifty item they’re calling the FlyWire. It connects to your HDTV sources (cable box, Blu-ray player, whatever), then broadcasts the signal to a smaller receiver box that connects to your TV. Basically, it’s wireless cabling for your flat-screen.

Belkin FlyWire - rear showing inputs

Belkin FlyWire - rear showing inputs

Even neater, it can transmit to multiple receivers, allowing you to switch, say, your favorite TV show up to your bedroom TV. It includes an infrared ‘Blaster’ to relay remote-control commands back to the cable box.

Cool idea. But: one thing this $1,000 product can’t do is transmit one digital source to multiple TVs. For example, to allow you and the wife to watch upstairs while the kids watch downstairs.

With analog cable, this is easy: just insert a splitter in the wire. (You might need a signal booster.) Network players do it too; I’ve had no trouble streaming the same video clip to multiple PCs over our home network. With the new HDMI digital high-def connection, however, it’s impossible. (And just for good measure, will soon be illegal, under Bill C-61.) The HDCP copy-protection built into HDMI won’t let you view one source simultaneously on multiple TVs.

Does it make sense to limit usage in this way? Sure: provided you’re a Hollywood accountant. If I ‘own’ a DVD, I have a right to watch it. My whole family has a right to watch it simultaneously. Do they all have to be in the same room to do so? I’ll leave that question to the lawyers. But what’s clear is that HDCP is not protecting the content from being “stolen.” It’s protecting the business model of the owner — or, rather, creating an entirely new profit opportunity, moving us to per-room licensing for content, and away from the old 1950s per-household model.

Just another example of how technology is being used to de-feature our entertainment experience. Deliberately crippling premium products in awkward and arbitrary ways is not how you build a market. It’s just one more delay preventing us from reaching that rosy digital future we keep hearing about.

Meeting with Bob Rae

(A slightly different version of this report was also posted to the Fair Copyright for Canada, Toronto Chapter, Facebook group.)

At the Fair Copyright for Canada, Toronto Chapter, strategy session with Michael Geist, on July 24, attendees were broken into groups by riding, and asked to contact local MPs and speak with them in favor of amending Canada’s absurd Bill C-61 (essentially an ‘improved’ version of the US’ disastrous Digital Millennium Copyright Act).

This morning, Lukasz Kosewski and I met with Bob Rae, at his office on Parliament Street. Lukasz very eloquently presented the perspective of the open-source community, and its problems with highly restrictive legislation such as Bill C-61. (I’ve emailed him this report, and hope that he’ll expand with comments of his own.)

I attempted to present the point of view of the consumer electronics industry (which I cover in my day job as a technology journalist). My efforts met with only modest success. It seems that I was the very first person to actually present this perspective to Mr. Rae! He mentioned that ACTRA had been in to see him earlier that very morning, to plead for more copyright protection. But meanwhile, powerful companies such as Toshiba, Samsung, LG, Sharp and others – all of whom stand to lose bigtime from C-61 – are nowhere to be seen. Very odd.

My main point was that any gains for the content industry will be losses for the consumer electronics industry. The former is stable, whereas the latter is poised for explosive growth, given a halfway reasonable legal climate. I think I took Mr. Rae’s thinking about as far along this path as was possible from a standing start. But much more remains to be done. (I’ve attempted to spur consumer-electronics companies to action in my writings, and will continue to do so. I suspect these folks may be taking a needlessly deferential attitude to Big Content.)

Throughout our conversation, Mr. Rae’s stance seemed to be far less than enthusiastic to the points of view presented by Lukasz and myself. If I had to guess, I’d say that various parties from the content industry had been hitting him pretty hard. He spoke several times about the need to protect creators’ rights. When I noted that most of Canada’s prominent music creators seemed opposed to this type of legislation, he countered that only ‘some’ were opposed; others were not. (ACTRA was mentioned as an example of a creators’ body that at least generally favored the bill.)

On the other hand, Mr. Rae did speak very encouragingly about the need for “balance.” And he acknowledged that the playing field had changed in the Internet world. He also said that when the bill (likely) goes to committee, the Liberals would push for changes. He further suggested that a fall election was very possible, and that in that event, Bill C-61 would very likely go back on the drawing board, with time taken for proper consultation with all parties.

Anyway, huge thanks are due to Lukasz for persisting with Mr. Rae’s office over many days, in order to set up our half-hour chat. I believe we did move the ball a few feet, if not much more. Clearly, there’s a need to keep up the pressure. There’s a long way to go, even though Bob Rae has already spoken out in favor of amending C-61, and is theoretically on our side.

On a more positive note, I’d have to say that Lukasz and I both emerged from the meeting energized and quite a bit more aware of the political realities involved. I hope that other attendees of the Strategy Session are having at least equal success in setting up similar meetings. We’re really going to need to do a lot more of this, if our voices are going to be heard above all the others clamoring for attention.

Sharing <> Stealing

I just saw this story on TorrentFreak, about how the FBI busted the EliteTorrents.org tracker site. Inevitably, a few commenters tried yet again to push the tired notion that everyone reading the page should feel guilty for “stealing” all that content. To which I would make the following final and irrefutable reply:

The law has always been perfectly clear: “theft” and “copyright infringement” are not the same thing.

That was true long before the Internet and digital sharing, and it remains true today, even under ludicrous legislation like the DMCA. This is largely because ‘intellectual property’ is not the same as actual physical property. The similar terminology is deliberately misleading, but creators have never ‘owned’ their works, they way you own your car, your computer or your pants.

There are good reasons for this, which you can learn very quickly by doing a search on the history of copyrights. But at least take a moment to notice that taking a unique physical object away from someone is quite different from making yet another copy of something that’s infinitely copyable in the first place. The act of copying may reduce the copyright-holder’s revenue from the work, but this is not a given. (It may actually increase the value of the work, for example.) True, the basic intent of copyright laws is to allow creative works to achieve some “reasonable” value. But that actual value is determined by market forces and negotiation, not by any absolute moral principle.

The point is, the debate over copyrights is never going to be simple. So let’s at least insist that everyone chooses their words appropriately. If you want to argue that copyright infringement is a scourge on the economy and the creative landscape, go ahead, make your case. But don’t get off to a bad start by trying to claim that it’s the same thing as stealing. Because it’s not. Never has been. Never will be.

(Updated 11-01-03, mainly for clarity.)

2.0 2.0

The whole “YouNameIt 2.0” thing has gotten stale. Time to move on! What we need is to kick the whole concept up a notch, and fortunately, I have the answer: what I like to call “2.0 2.0.”

That’s right… instead of just renaming any old tired bullsh*t “BullSh*t 2.0,” now you can go way, way beyond… all the way to “BullSh*t 2.0 2.0.” It’s like the old “2.0,” only, like, you know, basically… even better. The 2.0 version of “2.0.” How great is that??

I mean, think about it! If “Web 2.0” was that much more amazing than just plain old “Web” (1.0), just try to imagine how unimaginably beyond supremely amazing “Web 2.0 2.0” is going to be!!!

Remember, you read it here first. As of right now, “2.0” is the new “1.0.” And “2.0 2.0” is the new “2.0.” Or something like that. (ISO standard pending.)

My only question is… will there be a “2.0 3.0”? Or do we go straight on to “3.0 1.0”? Either way, I’m sure it will be even more amazingly amazing than anything we’ve dared to imagine.

Gosh… I just love living in the future!

Vista User Account Contortions

I was just skimming this exhaustive article by Mark Russinovich on Microsoft’s TechNet site, hoping to understand just why those User Account Control pop-ups in Vista have to be so annoying. Much of his treatment is far too detailed for me to care about, but in the second-last paragraph, Russinovich tosses out this little bombshell:

“…users who want to forgo security in favor of convenience can disable UAC on a system in the User Accounts dialog in the Control Panel, but should be aware that this also disables Protected Mode for Internet Explorer.” [my emphasis]

In other words, if I read this right, you have to accept the incessant nag dialogs of UAC in order to get the benefit of the vaunted sandbox for IE… even though the latter is exactly the sort of feature a power user might want to count on for ‘invisible’ protection! Worse, there’s no warning of this hidden connection; I disabled UAC with no idea that I was giving up the other feature. (Note that the free Sandboxie utility doesn’t seem to make this kind of demands. Yet another touted Vista feature that apparently could have been implemented — better — on Windows XP.)

Russinovich also reiterates Microsoft’s position that UAC is “a convenience” (who says they don’t have a sense of humor?) and not “a security boundary.”

I think the idea is that you should run as an admin but give up most of your admin rights — then constantly beg for them back. The benefit of this contortion is nebulous at best. Russinovich notes that malware can intercept the UAC process, though he says that this type of attack would be “relatively sophisticated.” (Thank god today’s hackers are incapable of sophistication!)

From Russinovich’s explanation, it would seem that the only way to get any real value out of the new Vista rights scheme would be: run most of the time in a standard user account, and switch to a separate admin account (with UAC disabled!) when elevated privileges are required. To me, this would seem to give exactly the same level of security that the Linux crowd likes. (While working pretty much exactly the same way that it does in Linux… or, presumably, that it could work in Windows XP.)

All of which leaves me right back where I started, with UAC still looking like nothing more than a redundant annoyance. Worse, actually; it now looks to me like a way of fooling yourself into thinking you have the security of running in a user account, with twice the hassle and very little (if any) of the actual benefit.

If someone more knowledgeable in this area wants to convince me I’m mistaken, by all means fire away.

Fun with Standards

I just came across a marvelous page that runs through “Dirty Tricks” that Microsoft has done with various technical standards. It’s a long list, and a fascinating one, from both historical and technical perspectives.

If you’ve been around the computing industry a few years, many of the examples will be familiar. But a few may surprise you. Personally, I hadn’t really been following how Microsoft was pushing its new XML-based OOXML Office document format against the perfectly good existing standard (ISO Open Document Format). For me, this battle is purely academic; I wouldn’t ‘upgrade’ to Office 2007 even with a gun to my head. But it does rankle that something this important should be subject to such self-serving squabbles.

Another gruesome little tale is how Microsoft has nearly obliterated the OpenGL standard for 3D graphics. As someone who closely follows gaming, I’ve always appreciated the virtues of Microsoft’s DirectX in that area. It’s a great system for realtime graphics, something that OpenGL doesn’t really tackle. But I always took Microsoft at its word, that OpenGL would continue to be available in parallel, for those applications in which it excels. Not so, according to the Dirty Tricks page — and Vista is apparently the last nail in the coffin, since the entire UI is now based on DirectX, making it tougher than ever to squeeze in an OpenGL engine.

The site makes no secret of its bias, so by all means take its pronouncements with a grain of salt. But also take a moment or two to follow some of the many links, and see what the fuss is about. Whether you side with Microsoft or agin’ ’em, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation for the whole standardization process.

Net Neutrality petition for Canada

Someone has set up a Canadian petition for Net Neutrality. If you live in Canada, it’s important to sign up and be counted. You can find a red button at the right of this page… and lots more info on the Neutrality.ca site.

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With the Canadian Internet landscape dominated by just two main service providers, neutrality has always been particularly precarious. Recently, these ISPs have been making various moves that undermine the notion of neutrality and potentially presage far more drastic moves should consumers accept the status quo with their usual passivity.

If you live in Canada, and value your ability to surf where you want, when you want, at the speed you want — all at a fair market price — it’s time to get involved.