Man in a Wireless Suitcase

My New York Times article on the continued deployment of wireless 802.11b networks in U.S. and Canadian airport appears in Thursday's Circuits section, though you can link to it now. (A secret: Circuits posts its content by mid-afternoon on Wednesday without linking to it from the Circuits home page. Enter www.nytimes.com/yyyy/mm/dd/technology/circuits/, replacing yyyy, mm, and dd with that Thursday's year, month, and date.)

This article arose out of some good serendipity. I continually talk to the wireless ISPs and other folks involved in this fine industry. It seemed to me the time was ripe post-Sept. 11 to talk about whether we were gaining or losing service in airports, and I found to my surprise that companies hadn't scaled back their efforts overall. Rather, they paused, regrouped, and continued in a more conservative way. Simultaneously, the airport authorities, the government bodies that operate airports, realized that their best bet for reliable, long-term service was slow and easy, and so eased their requirements.

Nomad User Speaks

From bump: The Nomad Jukebox eats batteries very quickly, and I got about two hours of playback at the most out of it. The interface on it for navigating music is sometimes maddening, other times barely usable. Finally, transferring music takes forever.

Yeah, I didn't have room to rant about battery life in my column for this Sunday's Seattle Times on the iPod. The Nomad uses four AA batteries, which it can recharge internally, to run its rated four hours of service, which Robert Occhialini says above is really two. Managing AA's is a pain in the butt. None that I've seen are intelligent enough to have current levels or other markings on them to help differentiate them. They're a commodity you're supposed to buy in endless quantities and throw away.

Never mind that they're full of toxic chemicals and should be disposed of as hazardous waste if we lived in a society that dealt with the real cost of its consumers' actions.

A brand name 4-pack of rechargeables is $13.00 from Amazon.com. Let's say you get three sets to allow for some going bad before their time, rotation, and having an extra set. So that's nearly $40 without a separate charger - you're relying on the Nomad's built-in ability. The reviews at Amazon.com indicate that these batteries really last through hundreds of charges. Great!

So you're walking around for a cross-country trip with at least 12 batteries to get at least six hours of continuous play...huh, okay, maybe you need 16 or 20 judging by Robert's description. And maybe they will last years and years: in three or four years, you're still using the same set, still getting good life out of them. But they've raised the price of your "$250" 6 Gb Nomad well over $300, maybe to $350 between losing batteries, chargers, replacements, etc.

The iPod, at $400, has a 10-hour lithium battery. I was using the hell out of it this weekend on a long road drive and couldn't run the sucker down after hours of continuous play and backlight use. The deal is that the iPod precaches about 20 minutes of music on a rotating basis in its 32 Mb of static RAM. During part of the drive, I was jumping around from album to album (don't worry - I was the passenger - never, ever control the iPod while driving - you will die). This reduces battery life by requiring hard drive seeks and frequent spin up/spin down. Still, over a five-hour drive, I couldn't drain it more than half.

And one more detail. Let's say I'm travelling with my iBook, a likely combination. I'm stuck in an airport with no A/C adapter nearby and my iPod starts to reach the end of its charge. I plug it into the iBook, let it charge, and get several more hours while only winding down the iBook's battery life by a fraction. (Even better: I also got a USB charger cable for my cell phone. Investing in a second iBook battery now makes much more sense than investing in multiple AC adapters, batteries, and cables on disparate devices.)

I Want My eMpTy View

I have a friend who works or worked at MTVi in a high-level position. Their offices were south of 14th Street in Manhattan, so after (first) the trauma of the World Trade Center disaster, they were unable to return to work until the next week. Back in the office, things were raw, apparently. The axe finally fell today, about six weeks after the disaster. MTV is folding its interactive division, once primed for a separate IPO, back into the parent firm and laying off a ton of employees. I'll be interested to see Adam Curry's reaction given his long-time "relationship" with MTV and his many friends and colleagues at the network.

Amazon.com Explains Special Order Surcharges

I noticed today that Amazon.com has modified and raised its special order surcharge for books that require direct-from-publisher orders. Typically, these books are listed with 4-6 week availability on their site. I have written (and been quoted) extensively on the subject during Amazon.com's confusing pricing tests this summer, since which the company calmed down. My colleagues at the firm expressed their surprise and concern that I was critical of the pricing test, but ultimately I think I convinced them that consumers wouldn't be able to navigate the several changes in price, shipping, and surcharges.

The latest change comes after months of stability, and addresses all of my concerns. In the interim between summer and this change, Amazon.com has charged a 99-cent surcharge for special order titles, but did not note this information anywhere except as a surcharge on their shipping charges page. When you reached the checkout page, the surcharge was included in shipping and handling without an additional explanation.

When I noticed the change today, it was profoundly improved: each page that has a surcharge not only notes it (see this book, for instance), but explains it with some depth and links to a page with even more information. Since Amazon.com is the best and biggest fulfiller of special order titles - being the largest bookstore that orders non-mainstream titles direct from individual publishers - I find it perfectly reasonable that they're charging something that reflects their costs involved.

Consumers may shy away and try to buy from cheaper sources, but will return when they find the wait, expectation, and follow-through is substantially worse than Amazon.com. In my talks with bricks and mortar booksellers, it's clear that they just hate special order books. Booksellers love to help their customers find the titles they want, and they generally love smaller presses. But ordering single books from publishers often involves a lot of paperwork, a short discount (20% or less instead of a more normal 40% or more), shipping fees (shipping is waived on large orders), and a reasonable delay (as they tend to have to aggregate orders or handle them on a batched weekly basis for the reasons above).

Small bookstores don't make much money, or even lose money on special order titles. Amazon.com has always had a high volume of these titles, allowing them to get the highest discounts most of the time and have waived shipping. But it still involves a lot of human involvement except with the largest publishers. The surcharge is reasonable, and should increase their margins. If Amazon.com ships, say, 200,000 special order books in 2002 out of the millions of books they handle, that's an additional nearly $4 million in revenue that's "free" to them. It benefits consumers in that consumers get the advantage of a sophisticated order and tracking system. (It may even benefit independent booksellers in offloading these more difficult, margin-reducing titles from them.)

iKilled my iPod

In my inimitable fashion, my Apple-supplied technology preview of the iPod (see earlier posts) died on me about two days after arrival. I'm sure it was my fault. I unplugged while it was running. I stuck a too-long stereo adapter in it. I put it in my back pocket (and didn't sit on it). Fortunately, my Apple PR contact at Edelman Worldwide is a clever dude. I called him this a.m., and he said, press Menu + play for 10 seconds and it'll force a reboot. I do so. Little happy iPod bootup screen. Tony, you're my savior, I say, and email his Apple contact. I deal with a lot of PR people, and they are always criticized when they don't do what we press types want. It's important to thank them to their clients when they do great deeds such as this one. Does his competence predispose me more to the product? A bit. More in this Sunday's Seattle Times.

'eLLO iPod

Thanks to a generous loan from Apple Computer, I've been playing with an iPod since yesterday morning. It comes in a fascinating cube-shaped box that not only firmly protects the iPod with inches of foam, but splits in half in the middle to reveal components on on side and the iPod on the other - reminiscent of McDonald's failed McDLT. (There's a tape drive format known as DLT, but I'm not making the MacDLT joke here.)

It's a nifty toy with all the features Apple claimed for it. It's not entirely silent, but it's not far off. You can hear the tiny hard drive whirr from time to time. The interface takes 20 to 60 seconds to learn based on my experience in showing it to four computer-oriented folks in my office.

Some early praise: it really does take just a few seconds to transfer a 160 kbps stereo encoded MP3 album. My initial attempts with my G4 Cube were oddly slow, but testing it with an iMac and a Titanium iBook revealed the true speed. The integration with iTunes 2 is optimal, making it seamless to manage lists.

Some displeasure: My girlfriend is deaf in her right ear, and there is no balance control, not to mention no equalization or other features. I expect these will show up in firmware upgrades, as most of this has to do with controlling an addressable DSP and processor, not in the hardware design. (The number of firmware upgrades will be interesting).

I managed to crash the unit already by stupidly plugging in the extra-long iBook A/V plug. The dual-USB iBook has video and stereo audio out through a single micro-RCA connector. If you plug a regular stereo plug in, you get audio. If you plug the special cable in (about $15 extra), it's got an extra centimeter or so to it that sucks the video off the end. This doesn't interface well with the iPod. Fortunately, the iPod has some kind of automated recovery circuitry because after a while of acting slow and funky, it rebooted itself and acts normal. That's insanely impressive.

(I've often through that Macs should come equipped with a micro-boot kernel in firmware. If the machine was really hosed, the machine would have some extra monitoring circuitry that would reboot it into this mode, run the latest firmware updated version of Apple Disk Tools or other recovery software, and attempt to fix problems and run diagnostics. If that failed, it would enabled simple Ethernet (DHCP-based), AirPort (DHCP-based), or a simple internal modem configuration to dial into an Apple automated help desk.)

Another small complaint: random shuffle play seems to be an overall setting across all songs on the device.

I'm about to take a short trip in a car (about 10 to 12 hours of driving over a couple days), and I'll see how it functions as a road warrior tool. Apple has strangely not promoted this as a portable auto audio device. They could release a translucent white cassette tape with the stereo plug as another design item.

The synchronization features, by the way, are highly interesting. You can sync your whole collection, which won't work for my 25 Gb of MP3s (all ripped from legal albums, by the way). With 5 Gb on the iPod you have to be somewhat selective, even though it will fit 1,000 160 kbps encoded songs. You can create playlists and automatically sync those, too. Or, you can manually synchronize. If you choose that last option, this means that you can use the iPod with many machines. You can also overcome what was advertised as a deficiency: you can copy songs from the iPod back to a computer, even one the song didn't come from. But you can't synchronize both directions automatically.

Howdy, Mr. Peabody

The Internet Archive announces the Wayback Machine. Enter any URL and see what they have archived and when, then view it, in real time. This is an invaluable tool for archivists and researchers. It will almost certainly blow out copyright issues to the fore, as it has before. F'r'instance.

It just hit me that this could be a national security problem. Nuclear plants are revising their sites to move previously quite explicit information about the site location, such as maps. But then, you can use the Internet Archive to view Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the past.