Abhi 2.0 on Technology

Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan’s Tech Archive: Columns, reports and video

Archive for April 2008

Tech Tonic #6: Summer Tech Projects

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Tech Tonic 5

Ours is the generation, straddling the analog, digital and now high-def. We remember taking photos with film cameras, watching scratchy VHS tapes, later VCDs and listening to cassettes before making the changeover to CDs. Stuff is getting outdated faster than ever before and keeping up with involves constant conversion of personal media into newer digital formats for convenience, archival value and easy access. If Con-version 1.0 was about converting VHS tapes and audio cassettes, then 2.0 involves disposal of what was once cutting-edge. The problem is that all this involves engaging in some fairly monotonous tasks that will never get done in the regular routine and cannot as yet, be outsourced easily. They’re best left to lazy days, whilst watching sitcom reruns, test matches or mindless movies that don’t need full concentration. Typical summer vacation stuff! Now most of us don’t have the luxury of two whole months like the good ol’ days anymore, but if you do, here are some summer tech projects I recommend. :

Music:
Apple has officially overtaken Wal*Mart & Best Buy as the US’ number one music retailer and while India has been slow to catch on to the legal download bandwagon, the future is pretty bleak for CDs. “Ripping” your CDs ie. converting them to a friendlier digital format like MP3 is relatively easy. You can use a program like iTunes if you’re an iPod user or the default Windows Media Player for one-click ripping. If you’re connected to the net, these programs automatically pick up song, artist and album information. You’re literally a zombie, ejecting, inserting and replacing CDs and before you know it, the music collection is fully wired!

Video:
With the new high definition format, ‘Blu-Ray’ players and discs, trickling into the market, VCD is officially TWO generations behind the curve, even as DVD reigns supreme. As most people upgrade to big-screen TVs, VCDs will look stretched and awful. The only displays that will justify their existence are the ones on small portable media players such as the iPod Touch or the Cowon A3. Ripping VCDs though is much more painful than CDs. You have to pop the disc into your PC and open the MPEGAV folder, in which you’ll see many files with .DAT extensions. Typically, the largest sized file will be the movie while the rest will be annoying trailers that VCDs usually force on you. Rip the movie into a compressed format such as MP4 using a program such as Free iPod Video Converter available at jodix.com. The next problem is that most VCDs are spread over 2-3 discs, which means you have to repeat this fairly time-consuming process for each disc. After half an hour or so you’ll have three MP4 files which need to be stitched together. Yamb is one of the simplest programs for this and can be downloaded free at softpedia.com or download.com.

Documents & Photos:
This is most worthwhile one. Buy a basic scanner, and just put your head down for a whole day – you won’t regret it. On most flatbed scanners, you can arrange four or five photographs in the preview and select them individually for final scanning. Some of the higher end visiting card scanners are easier to use for small 4×6″ photos. Most scanners will save multi-page things like passports or contracts into a single PDF file – all you have to do is remember to ’scan as document’ and not as ‘image.’ Trust me, the effects on quality of life of this one-time painful task are immense. About nine months after the fun and frolic, when nasty surprises come your way (I’m talking about tax deadlines, whatever were YOU thinking?) you’ll be grinning like a Cheshire cat!

I would highly recommend outsourcing these tasks to your kids, especially during hot summer afternoons, when there isn’t much to do. If you have some to spare, do get in touch – don’t worry, I have considerable experience in exploiting underage labour for technological pursuits. I remember one particular summer vacation just after first year of college, when I wanted all my hand-written articles and essays converted into digital format. Having just turned 18 and with more interesting things to do, I decided to offer my 13-year old brother the task. About a week of 4-hours-a-day labour for 50 bucks. My brother couldn’t believe his luck: “FIFTY whole bucks AND I get to use the computer? All to myself? Which means if I type it out fast I can use the remaining time to play games? Deal!” Sigh. No wonder, the Indian IT industry was my calling as a journalist – I’d understood the business model way before its time!

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Written by Abhi 2.0

April 20, 2008 at 9:07 am

Posted in Hindustan Times

Tech Tonic # 5: The Mythical Centro-Q

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 Tech Tonic 5

The PDA-phone market is going to be a two-way race in 2008 as Apple’s iPhone takes RIM’s Blackberry head-on both in the corporate-IT and in the consumer tech space. Surprisingly the pioneers of both the PDA and the mobile phone – Palm and Motorola respectively, are struggling since neither managed to merge the two categories together as succesfully as the (relative) newcomers.

However, earlier this week, two PDA-phones from these fallen legends landed on my desk for review. One was the Moto Q8 and the other the Palm Centro. The first thing that struck me even before I opened the boxes was the price. Both these full-keyboard phones are priced at around Rs.14,000! That’s a good 10k less than the (hacked) iPhone or the Blackberry Curve. After exactly, half an hour of probing each device, it suddenly struck me: “Oh My God! Palm and Motorola should.. like …totally merge dude!”

I’m no investment banker and am barely familiar with the financials of either company. I have no clue about valuations, strategic fit, anti-trust implications, blah blah. I’m just a long-time fan of both companies’ products and as a consumer I would LOVE to see ‘MotoPalm’ emerge as the third player, who according to the “Rule of Three” management mantra, will shake-up the market in style!

Just hear me out on this. The Palm Centro is the most compact smartphone with a full QWERTY keyboard that I have ever seen. It’s not particularly slim, but neither is it a brick. My first thought on seeing the tightly packed keys was, “No way my fingers are going to handle this.” Surprisingly, not only are the keys beautifully beveled, they also provide the softest, yet most tactile feel on any phone keyboard in the market. There are lots of nice touches that can only come from a company that knows its users well. Let me give you two quick examples. The biggest problem I face when using touchscreen phones is that my earlobes keep pressing on the screen and often end up deleting contacts or setting off alarms – its eerie! Sure, in some phones, you can turn the screen off just after dialing or taking a call but thats painful. The Centro has a simple setting that allows you to lock the screen whenever you’re in a call. Next, I work in television so I’m often rushing into a studio and fumbling last minute to silence my phone, lest it ring during a live recording. “Unlock keyboard.. whats the key combo?? drat! ok, find ‘profiles’ in the menu, activate ‘silent’ … woops in a hurry I pressed “loud” … too late .. cameras rolling… I’m done for!” Palm pioneered the physical silent-switch on the outside that just puts all sound off with one slide of a button. I love it – no wonder Apple copied it on the iPhone!

The Moto Q8 on the other hand is the slimmest Windows Mobile ever. In spite of having a full keyboard it’s way thinner than nearly all Windows phones that don’t have keyboards! Do you see what I’m getting at? The Centro’s keyboard on the Q’s ultra-thin body with a silent-switch thrown in could be the ultimate smartphone!

What software will this as yet mythical phone run? Palm’s hived-off software division was acquired by a company called Access which has turned the once proprietary Operating System (OS) into a Linux-based open-source platform. The Centro is among the first phones to use this new Linux-based OS. Motorola has thrown everything and the kitchen sink at its phones as far as software is concerned. It has made phones running its own OS, Palm, Symbian, Windows and pioneered mainstream mobile Linux resulting in current models such as the MotoMING. It also acquired a company called Good which is basically makes messaging software that competes with Blackberry, and from what I’ve heard, is superior if not as good in most aspects. With both companies having great Linux-on-smartphone experience, they’re best positioned to use Google’s upcoming Android mobile OS that promises to liberate phones and make them more like PCs.

Anyway, while “researching” some facts for this column, I was dismayed to learn that my brilliant merger idea was not original by a long shot! Half the corporate world seems to be clamouring for Motorola to acquire Palm. As of writing this piece, no such thing has happened though by the time you see this in print, MotoPalm may be for real. However, if you see a Centro-Q running Android in the near future, please do contact me and volunteer your services as a court witness when I sue the new entity for royalty.

Written by Abhi 2.0

April 6, 2008 at 11:15 pm