Views from Phanfare CEO and Co-founder Andrew Erlichson

Link Other CES Impressions

Before CES completely fades into the hazy distant memory, I wanted to document a few of my impressions.

The two least interesting booths for me were Intel and Microsoft. The Microsoft booth was showcasing Windows 7 (see my earlier post), a bunch of Zunes (does it respond to touch? no..move on) and MS Office. Yawn. The Microsoft ship is so large and the wealth that must be protected so great that the incentives to try whacky new things is just very low for them. To be fair, the folks at Microsoft Research are doing some cool stuff in surface computing, but they were not there that I could see.

At Intel, the issue is just that processors are pretty darn boring these days. Although Intel was successful, for a while, at getting consumers to care what processors were inside their computers through the Intel Inside campaign, as consumers shift toward smartphones and other embedded devices, the issue of processor is less important. What processor is in your iPhone? (an ARM, did you know that? well maybe my readers do).

One of the most interesting conversations I had was with a Motorola person who explained to us the upcoming competing 4G broadband cellular standards of WiMax and LTE. Clearwire is doing WiMax. Sounds like the fight between BlueRay and HD DVD, where LTE is BlueRay. Moto is an also-ran in handsets these days, but if they can build the equipment that runs 4G, they should do ok. I have always had a soft spot for Motorola. They seems like an engineer’s company.

Our long term vision of mobile photography is that cameras become connected devices that can show you everything you have ever taken and can upload what you take directly to the cloud in the background. To realize that vision for photos and videos, taken in abundance, as they are with point and shoot cameras, we will need these next generation wireless broadband networks.

The TV manufactures (Sony, Samsung) were hyping Green this year, with big power meters under their TV sets to tell you how many watts they consume. But the story there for me was that it has been two years since I saw super-thin OLED TVs displayed at my first CES, and since then nearly no progress has been made to get them out to the mainstream.

This year Samsung was demonstrating super thin LCD TVs with LED backlighting that gave the OLEDs a run for their money in terms of thickness and viewing angle. We will see whether those come to fruition any faster.

I have spent very little time with Nokia smart phones based on the Symbian OS. I was surprised how primitive they felt. Hard to believe they are the world leader.

I stopped by the LG booth and played with a Dare. I did not care for its tactile vibration feedback. The LG person standing near the Dares told me that the keyboard was easy to type on, easier than the iPhone. I challenged him to a race and I won. Pathetic.

Toshiba appears to be a laptop only company now. I wonder whether they are headed for a fall if smart phones and the upcoming touch tablets turn out to be as disruptive to laptops as I expect.

The other novel thing we saw was flat wiring that you can use to do rewire for home theatre. It almost looks like ribbon cable. You run it on the walls, spackle and paint and don’t need to snake wires. They can even do power that way, although it is not UL approved quite yet. I could not get an accurate estimate of the labor savings out of their floor folk, but my estimate is that it is probably about a wash if you want to do a professional job of covering it up with mesh, mud, and paint.

Link The future of consumer computing

I have long believed that the personal computer, as exemplified by a machine running Windows or the Mac OS is the wrong solution for consumers. The PC is too hard to maintain and exposes too much of its internal working to the consumer. A user is forced to think about the memory hierarchy (disk versus memory) and the organization of the filesystem and its role in permanent storage. Extensible and complicated, the PC is an engineer’s tool.

You need only look to how consumers have taken to the iPhone and iPod touch to understand that a PC is overkill. Give me a good web browsing experience, a decent email client, access to email, calendar, contacts, games and a few utilities and I am basically done.

The rumors are that Apple will be introducing a tablet version of the iPod touch in the fall. This is the right solution for consumers. The touch tablet will probably have an optional bluetooth keyboard, which will be useful for composing longer messages. But what will distinguish the device is not only the touch interface, but also that the computer is an appliance, with no consumer access to the file system and a more limited degree of customization possible.

Microsoft seems to be missing that one half of what makes the iPhone and iPod touch special is not that they are touch driven, but that they run an entirely new operating system not designed for engineers. On a mobile device, touch makes the device more convenient to use for information retrieval, but the alternative on a mobile device is not a mouse, it’s a wheel or trackball.

On the counter-top or desk, a mouse might work fine, but Windows is still the wrong solution.

The Wall Street Journal article reported that MS is investing heavily in getting touch [subscription only] to work well in Windows 7. This is a huge mistake. What Microsoft should be doing, and hopefully is doing, is creating an entirely new operating system that is designed for consumers from the ground up to be easy to use. It should not expose the file system to the user. But MS is so heavily invested in the huge number of apps written for windows that it can’t consider creating an entirely new platform. This is a mistake. They need to leave the baggage behind.

I believe the touch tablet from Apple will herald the beginning of a new era in consumer computing. After that, consumers will migrate away from general purpose computers to computing appliances that provide the applications they need and want without providing the extensibility and associated complication that comes with the PCs we use today. These computing appliances will be primarily based on touch interaction. But more importantly, none will expose the file system, have little icons for the hard drive in the corner or have layered windows.

Personally, I can’t wait for that day. Phanfare already runs on the iPhone and iPod touch by way of our Phanfare Photon app, and by the time they come out with their touch tablet, Phanfare will be at feature parity with our other interfaces.

Link Taxicab confessions at CES

Last week when Mark Heinrich and I were at CES, we chatted up a lot of cab drivers about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The consensus is that the CES is way down this year in terms of people. One cab driver speculated that while most of the companies came to the show and honored their commitment, they took half as many staff. That was true for Phanfare. We had 4 people 2 yrs ago and 2 people there this time.

Cab drivers universally complained that they sometimes waited almost an hour at a hotel to get a fare (you can’t take a street hail in Vegas, unlike NY). Some drivers said they were doing fewer than 14 rides per day on a 12 hour shift, but some claimed as many as 24 rides. They claimed they took home about $5 per ride.

As usual, cab drivers pressured us to go to night clubs (aka strip clubs). We passed but we did interrogate them a bit on the economics of that pressure. Apparently cabs receive a $50 skin for each person they deliver at a club. There is a whole system of tracking which cab dropped the person off, whether they paid the cover, etc. The “affiliate” bonus for bringing a client to a brothel (legal outside of Las Vegas in Nevada) was reported by one of our drivers to be $180. That sort of explained why the drivers were willing to work for so little.

One cab driver told us he wanted to create a publication called CESPool.

But by far the most disturbing thing a cab driver told us was that he routinely takes passengers on the highway versus local roads from the airport to the strip if he believes they are not familiar with the town, almost doubling the fare. He asks a series of questions, the first often being “first time to vegas?”

For foreign tourists, especially people from Tokyo, he often loops twice around the town. He claims they never complain, but universally never tip.

In NYC, they have addressed the problem of cab drivers ripping off tourists by dispatching cabs from the airport on a fixed fare basis. You tell the taxi stand operator where you are going, and he hands you a paper with the fare to your destination. You hand that to the driver and that is what you are supposed to pay. It is sad that we need that in the world. Most taxi drivers are probably honest, but it only takes a few to give a place a bad reputation.

Link Interview with Jefferson Graham at USA today

I spoke with Jefferson Graham at USA today from the floor of CES. I showed him Phanfare Photon for the iPhone and talked about our vision for mobile photography.

If you are a Phanfare customer at CES, feel free to email me at aje@phanfare.com and we can meetup on the show floor.

Link Phanfare Photon now shows all your stuff

A new version of Phanfare Photon, our industrial-strength photo and video sharing solution for the iPhone, is out today. New features in include:

  • Delete an album by swiping across it
  • Hidden images are shown with an hidden-indicator in thumbs view
  • Upload progress of each image is shown underneath the thumb using the same little blue progress part that installing apps uses.
  • You can see all your albums by fetching 25 more at a time. Once, fetched, they are there on the phone.
  • Phanfare Photon new prefetches new albums so you don’t need to browse to each one to have it be there when offline.

This version is also re-built from the ground up to provide more scalability and robustness. That is actually the largest difference to this version, but it will enable rapid development of new features going forward.

We have our own roadmap for Phanfare Photon, but I would love to hear from the community what you would like to see it do. I am also interested in knowing how useful you would find us implementing Facebook Connect. With facebook connect you would be able to login to Phanfare using your facebook credentials and potentially your facebook friends could see your content on Phanfare without having to be your friend on Phanfare.

Link Initial impressions of the Panasonic LX3

I have been in search of a compact camera that offers some of the creative control and low light performance of my digital SLR. DP Review recently reviewed a bunch of cameras in this category and gave high marks to the Panasonic LX3. I got one yesterday and took it for a spin in a typical situation where usually only an SLR will do the trick: an indoor holiday party in a house.

What first strikes you about the camera is that it looks like an old Leica rangefinder. it has more heft and a more traditional design then a Canon digital elph. it also has a hot shoe, which seems a waste of space. If I am going to put an external flash on the camera then I will just carry the SLR.

Indoors, shooting with available light you need a low noise sensor and a fast lens. The LX3 has one of those; the f2.0 lens is fast enough that you can often shoot at ISO 400 and below, where the noise is manageable. But you pretty much need to stay at wide angle (24mm equivalent) to avoid having to use ISO800 indoors. The lens slows down to f2.8 when zoomed. At f2.8, typical home lighting requires ISO 800 or higher, something my digital SLR handles just fine but the LX3, not so much. The LX3 is supposedly less noisy than most of its competitors at ISO800 but compared to a digital SLR like the Canon 5D or 40D, there is a ton of noise.

Where does that leave me? I like the camera. It fits very nicely between the Canon 880IS that I carry when skiing and the digital SLR that I take out when image quality is my number one concern. I see myself using it when hiking, when going to indoor parties and other casual events. I do wish the camera had a lower noise sensor, which means that I wish it had a physically larger sensor with a lower pixel density. But for some reason, manufacturers don’t want to build a compact point and shoot around the sensor found in the Canon 40D. In the interim, this camera is probably the closest thing to my dream camera.

The Canon 880IS is still my choice when i want to carry a camera that will disappear entirely when not using it. The LX3 certainly won’t fit in your pocket. They know that. It has a full strap like an SLR. The Canon 880IS has just a wrist strap.

Oh yeah, the camera takes video too. performance in 4×3 aspect ratio mode, where it shoots 30 FPS, is excellent. Performance at 720p, 16×9 ratio, 24 FPS (the other option) is not quite as good. there seems to be some stuttering and motion does not seem quite as smooth. There are more artifacts in the video at 720p too to my eye. Both modes produce motion JPEGS in a quicktime container, a pretty dense format with lots of wasted space, but Phanfare’s video conversion takes care of that for me.

You can’t zoom while shooting video, pretty typical for the genre. But I don’t find that a big problem.

My biggest complaint about the camera so far is that i can’t change the ISO without going into the menus, but I read that I might be able to re-assign a button to do that.

Link Just in time for the holidays – Fullscreen video arrives at Phanfare

I am happy to announce that we now show video fullscreen when you play Phanfare slideshows. Fullscreen video is a popular feature request. We debated for a while whether to offer this feature because the video must be stretched and hence will be pixelated. But the consensus is that full screen video is more immersive and when you watch slideshows, you are often further from the screen and don’t mind some pixelation.

You can still watch video unstretched (non-fullscreen) by watching it within the album context versus the slideshow.

To review how video works at Phanfare, we keep multiple renditions of each video uploaded. We keep your original video (or a 4 megabit per second MPEG4 version) that you can download through the “download high quality” link on a page. We also keep three h.264 versions, the highest bit rate being 1.3 megabit/second. The lowest bit rate we encode in is 512 kilobits/second. And, we keep two Flash 7 compatible version for viewers who don’t yet have a version of Flash that supports h.264.

When a viewer first watches a Phanfare video, we measure their CPU speed and the bandwidth between them and us, and based on our measurements, we select a video that is appropriate for the situation. The goal is to give the viewer the highest possible bitrate that their computer can play without stuttering.

Hence, the degree of pixelation will depend on how high a bitrate video you are viewing. You can override our choice of video bitrate if you believe that a different version will work better for you. You do this in the right bottom corner of the video in album context. The slideshow respects this setting.

Our videos are not HD, but most users can’t support high enough download rates to show true HD video. Most videos shot with point and shoot still cameras are 640×480 (not HD) and we do support showing that format at original resolution and high quality.

So gather around the the biggest monitor you have this holiday season and enjoy our full screen slideshows with music and video.

As part of this release we also improved the downloadable version of the slideshow with full-screen slideshows. You can download a Phanfare slideshow and show it offline in all its glory, great for situations where you are not sure you will have a network connection when showing the slideshow. The downloadable slideshow for the Mac is now a universal binary, no longer running under Rosetta, and hence is much snappier on Intel-based Macs.

Link Quantity discounts on cards plus free shipping

This is the first year we are selling holiday cards and photo books and we are still feeling our way a bit. Some of our old-time customers told us that it was very typical to offer quantity discounts on cards. We had not considered doing so because as rational engineers we know that our costs are actually fairly linear with respect to card quantity.

Nevertheless, we looked around the competitive landscape and now realize that these discounts are completely standard. So, we got with the program and now offer significant discounts on cards depending on the quantity ordered.

We are also running a promotion until this Sunday, December 7th for free ground shipping on card orders over $50. US shipments only. We truly hope that some of you will give our new cards a try. We designed most of the cards for 2008 so you will see a lot of fresh stuff in our collection.

Link Phanfare Photon for iPhone now helps you along

We did a small release of the Phanfare Photon app for the iPhone and iPod touch that shows help screens and and allows you to add albums from the main play screen. There are also a few bug fixes.

The help screens are designed to guide new users through the process of creating albums, adding friends and viewing content.

Link Viewing Phanfare without an iPhone

As faithful readers of this blog know, we have been focused on delivering a next generation photography and video experience on the iPhone. But of course, most people don’t have iPhones (yet). They do have a variety of cell phones ranging from competent smartphones like the Blackberry, feature phones like the LG Dare and basic cell phones like the Motorola Razr.

For all those folks, we now offer a rudimentary mobile viewing experience for your photos (no video). You won’t mistake it for what we offer on the iPhone. On the iPhone, you can download Phanfare Photon to view and manage your collection or view in the Safari browser.

If you are an avid Phanfare Phan, please try our new mobile viewing experience. You should just be able to navigate to www.phanfare.com but if have trouble with that, navigate to m.phanfare.com.

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