Wednesday, 20 July 2011

An Op-Ed on Ultrabooks

ultrabook |ˈəltrəˌbŏk| 
A term used to describe a category of thin-and-light ultraportable laptops, coined by Intel Corp

It seems like this could be how Intel imagines the future of mobile computing to be - 

  • small (between 9" and 13" screens), 
  • thin (less than 1" thick), 
  • light (less than 2kg and without an optical drive), 
  • inexpensive,
  • loaded with wireless technologies (3G/4G, Bluetooth, 802.11n, etc.)
  • long battery life (≥7 hours), 
  • powered by an Intel Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge multicore CPU,
  • and a solid-state drive.
There are a couple of examples of Ultrabooks that are coming soon/available now. Apple's recently-updated MacBook Air is probably the most well-known ultrabook out there, alongside various iterations of Vaio X/Z models, as well as some up-and-coming Asus and HP products.

As a user of a 15" MacBook Pro, there are a few things that I find appealing in the Ultrabook concept, and a few that I have gripes with.

The most appealing feature about laptops in general is probably its portability. The ability to work from anywhere with a slab of electronics-plus-casing-with-batteries, at the expense of a bit of horsepower, has made the laptop an attractive product offering in any PC manufacturer's product lineup relative to their desktop counterparts. 

The ultrabook concept seems to be the natural evolutionary step for the laptop, then - getting lighter, more compact, and setting in stone the transition from the fragile and vulnerable HDD (with disk heads moving around barely microns over some platters) to the more robust and faster SSDs (which are basically NAND Flash).

However, as laptops shrink, the thermal environment in which to squeeze the essential components of a computer also shrinks, leading to crippled, low-power, "energy-saving" parts going into an overpriced and sluggish device. This has always been why I never buy sub-14" notebooks. It's rare to see a laptop under 14" that has a discrete GPU (read: not the Intel Graphics, or the occasional Nvidia/AMD-ATI integrated cards) - the only one that springs to mind right now is the Alienware M11x.

In an ideal world, my dream laptop would be a 13" laptop with a discrete GPU card, SSD+HDD, and because I love this feature on my current laptop, a backlit keyboard.

In reality, a 13" laptop would either weigh like my current 15", or be powered by the Intel Graphics.

But recent developments in the laptop arena, specifically from the Sony and Apple camps, have given me this new image of computing in the future.

Picture this scene: you're at work, working on a Word Document on your laptop. Suddenly, you've been given a task that involves heavy use of the GPU. It could be editing a video files, or perhaps giving a presentation on an external projector. This is when you normally get fed up, because your laptop just can't handle the task. What if you could add some extra horsepower to the laptop, just for this task? Something like an external dock, which has a GPU, connected via a fast connection (ExpressCard, eSATA, FireWire, USB3, Thunderbolt, etc.), maybe even build it into the projector/display itself. When you don't need the extra power, just unplug the GPU, and you are back to working on a thin-and-light, long-battery-life ultraportable.

We can run wild with this idea. The Ultrabooks shown on the gadget blogs seem to only have the essentials. The external docking device might include things that you only need when you're at a desk - a charging solution (a la Apple's Thunderbolt Display), extra ports, extra disk space (for your movies/photos/music), extra screen/projector, an optical drive (when was the last time you used the one in your laptop, anyway?), external GPU (upgradeable?). The list goes on.

With the development of Thunderbolt/USB3 and the emergence of Ultrabooks, perhaps there is a potential demand for power-boosting external docks again. Just imagine - a 13" sub-1kg thin-and-light laptop with 10 hours battery life, and when plugged in at home, can transform into a gaming rig churning MW3 at 60fps. All for the price of a MacBook Air + GPU.

The only issues I can foresee are these:
  • The CPU on the MacBook Air may become a bottleneck, relative to the GPU.
  • PC gamers would probably build proper rigs, not get an ultrabook + dock.
  • Will the typical ultrabook buyer be savvy enough to understand the benefits of the external dock, and if so, will they be willing to buy it?
  • Each company/manufacturer will probably have their own proprietary docking solution. Monopolies ensue.

In spite of these issues, I really think it's a solution that's worth a try. Just make sure the price is right (glares at Sony).

Friday, 8 July 2011

Google & Social Network.

Today, I've joined an elite class of web users that have special powers that others don't.

Alright, that's how I see it. But in reality, I know Google Plus is just an overhyped, Facebook-esque service, provided by the brilliant folks at Google. A service, which at the time of post, is still under wraps for most, as it undergoes a limited trial test (*cough* BETA *cough*).

I have to admit. I've been skeptical when I heard that Google was developing a social networking service. Looking back at this company's past history of social networking services (Orkut, Google Buzz, Jaiku, and arguably, Google Wave), we can see that Google has made attempts into this realm before, and with the exception of Orkut, they've had brief moments of success before the hype surrounding them died down, and people went back to Facebook and Twitter like a yo-yo.

Indeed, developing a social network to compete against the dominant players right now (Facebook and Twitter) is no easy task. These companies have been building up their user base, to the extent where they now have enough power to enable them to "tentacle" their way across the internet. Nowadays, it's rare to come across a news site or a blog that doesn't give you the option to share the news story on Facebook or Twitter. Facebook and Twitter have shaped our lives in more ways than one - from procrastinating with Farmville and #Hashtags, to toppling regimes in the Arab Spring; from being able to know what @ProfBrianCox is thinking, to seeing tagged photos of your antics from last night at Arena. My point is: think social network, and the top results in your mind are likely to include Facebook and Twitter (disregarding the regional equivalents for the moment, like RenRen and Orkut). Google has the challenge of shaking away their past non-successes and coming up with a competitive product that will stick in people's minds for the right reasons.

Is Google Plus the right solution to this challenge? Well, let's look at what it has to offer first.

From what I've seen and heard thus far, Google+ is attempting to integrate various Google services together. Think of it as an aggregator for what you do with Google. Your Blogger blog posts, your Picasa uploads, your "+1"s on a news story that you read somewhere (I +1 this, or in Facebook speak, I like this), your Google Chat (remember that, from the days when it was in Gmail?), your YouTube activities, maybe your gaming activities on Angry Bird (think Apple's Game Centre, but on Android + other platforms). At this point, you might say "I can do all that already. It's called Facebook". True, all these features have been available on other services.

But perhaps the most exciting this for me about Google+ is their concept of Circles.

The best way of explaining circles is probably this: Imagine Google+ is a chatroom with all your online contacts together - your relatives, your ex-teachers, your ex-girl/boyfriend, your flatmates, your coursemates, your colleagues, etc. Sometimes, you just want an outlet to say something, but perhaps you only want certain people to see it, and not others, and you don't want to set a specific privacy setting just for that one status update on Facebook or that one Tweet, because it takes umpteen steps to do so. Well, Circles in Google+ is very similar to the idea of lists in Facebook, but made simpler. By default, Google gives you 4 circles to start off with - Friends, Family, Acquaintances, and Following. By putting your contacts into individual circles, you can now post certain things, and choose to share it with a specific circle(s), extended circles, just your contacts, or if you don't mind, the whole world. Because Google emphasises the Circles feature right from the outset when you want to add contacts, you are more likely to sort out your contacts into "circles" then with lists on Facebook. The clean user interface in which Google presents the Circles idea to you could not have been any simpler - you just drag a contact into the appropriate circle. Simple as that. And posting a status update is now easier than sending an email - you compose the status, and you choose who you want to send it to via Circles. And if you made a mistake, the brilliant minds at Google Inc can allow you to make an edit, even after posting. No more embarrassing typos!

One other feature that is of interest to me right now is the "Hangouts" feature on Google+. This concept is not exactly new - video/text chat over a social network, with people who happen to be online. However, recent events at Facebook has made this feature pop out to me. In case you haven't heard, Facebook and Skype have recently deepened their partnership by not only enabling Skype users to search their Facebook contacts, but also (most crucially), allowing Facebook users to have a video chat with each other over Facebook. Imagine that, I see that my friend is (as usual) procrastinating on Facebook, and I start a video chat with him/her. Considering how much time we spend online on social networking sites, this could be a hot feature for Facebook. Could this be a deal-breaker for Facebook? Or is this just Facebook trying to steal some limelight from Google's newest baby by playing catchup?

Putting aside the Facebook factor, I think Google+ is a pretty convincing product. Even though it's still in a limited field test, I think it's a clean, polished product with some compelling features, and assuming the backend stuff can scale to accommodate the masses, it is a brilliant service that's ready for primetime.

The problem is the elephant in the room - Facebook. Think about the number of friends you have on Facebook, the number of photos you have on Facebook (that's photos uploaded, and/or photos tagged of you). With Google+, it's a reboot - you have to spend time rebuilding things again. One of my friends on Google+ was telling me, as much as he loves Google+, he'll probably stick with Facebook for now because, well, that's where everyone and everything is at the moment.

The other issue right now is that I don't see any feature that is unique to Google+, that is a must-have, and not obtainable anywhere else on the web. Its 3 biggest selling point (as sold by Google) - Circles, Hangouts and Sparks (which is a feed of things that you are interested in, and which you can share with friends), are not that much different from Facebook Lists, Facebook Chat, and Facebook Likes/Share Options on articles in your RSS feed, respectively. The only plus side advantage that Google has right now is that the Google solution is simpler and cleaner. Apart from that, it's the same thing, is it not?

Google has certainly put their back into their latest attempt at going against Facebook - they've come up with a polished, convincing competitor to match Facebook. If Mark Zuckerburg hadn't had the few beers it took for him to kickstart the whole Facebook project, I would have definitely loved Google+ in an instant. It will take a lot of time and effort before people will embrace Google+. Nevertheless, I am hoping for Google to stay with this one for the long-haul and not abandon ship after a few months. After all, as economists would say, competition can be good for consumer choice, as it keeps the competing firms (read: Google & Facebook) on their toes. I'm looking forward to seeing how Google will impact the social networking services industry.