Approval of Mobile TV Standard A Positive Sign for Digital Broadcasting

Earlier this year, much ado was made over the transition from analog to digital broadcasting. So controversial was the switchover that Congress delayed the transition from February until June to give consumers more time to upgrade their equipment. Among the myriad benefits touted by proponents of the switch was the promise of new services and added content. While few of the promises have been met, the recent approval of a standard for mobile television is a step in the right direction.

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First Impressions of Google Wave

Earlier this week, I received my invitation for Google Wave. The service, which Google announced earlier this year, is the company’s concept for the next generation of online communication and aims to combine the static nature of email with the live interaction of instant messaging. While the interface is organized like an email inbox, with a message list in the left pane and message bodies displayed to the right, the entire display updates in real time. This means that changes to a “wave” (the service’s term for a message) appear as they are made; participants can see other users type their messages, make revisions, and add attachments such as pictures. Extensions are also supported, enabling users to add functionality to the service. As Google Wave revolves around collaboration, however, its focus is also a current source of weakness.

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Google Voice Invites A Promising Sign

I logged into my Google Voice account today to discover I can now invite others to the service. As up until this time Google was controlling the invites as it scaled up its Voice infrastructure, allowing users to send invites is a positive sign that the system is handling growth well.

In the roughly four months I’ve been using the service, Google has made many enhancements to the service, from the user interface to its ability to collect calls to more numbers. AJAX improvements to the user interface support one-click marking of messages as read, a drop-down menu on messages to provide additional options, and a tabbed settings pane. I no longer encounter busy signals when calling numbers in certain regions, nor do text messages fail to reach their destination. At the same time, Google has released a BlackBerry application, added support for the service to phones running its Android platform, and attempted to release an iPhone app as well. Add to that users’ ability to send invites and it would seem the beta is progressing well.

Can AT&T’s Network Handle the iPhone’s VoIP Traffic?

AT&T’s recent decision to allow iPhone-based internet voice applications (VoIP) on its network begs the question, can the network handle it? In September, the New York Times reported that the increase in data usage related to the iPhone 3GS release has severely impacted AT&T’s service. Customers complain of “dropped calls, spotty service, delayed text and voice messages and glacial download speeds as AT&T’s cellular network strains to meet the demand.” At the same time, AT&T has yet to support tethering on the iPhone as it performs “fine tuning to our systems and networks so that we do deliver a great experience” (Ironically, AT&T does support tethering, or using one’s phone to access the internet by computer, on other devices, for $60 per month). Considering that AT&T also recently began supporting picture messaging (MMS) on the iPhone, how will AT&T’s network respond to the added stress of voice applications?

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Eight Years Ago Today

Eight years ago today, I was a high-school senior finishing up his second-period math class when one of my school’s headmasters made the announcement that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Like most everyone alive on that day, I will forever remember where I was and what I was doing when I first heard about the 9/11 attacks. But the tragedy of September 11 also had a profound impact on my life from that point forward. 9/11 marks the day the innocence of my childhood ended and my obsession with NPR, world affairs, and all things news began.

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Post Office’s Justification of Monopoly is Outdated

A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal takes aim at the U.S. Postal Service’s monopoly over first-class and bulk mail. After 200 years as a monopoly, I think the writer is on to something. Then there’s that two-year, $14 billion loss. Indeed, I believe it’s time for change to come to the post office.

For the full editorial, see “US Postal Service Needs to Cut Back and Make Changes,” The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2009.

Apple Tablet Confirmed, Sort Of

Today’s Wall Street Journal features an article about Steve Jobs’ return to Apple following a leave of absence for a liver transplant. The article, “Jobs, Back at Apple, Focuses on New Tablet,” confirms the rumor that has been circulating on the internet for some time now: Apple is preparing a tablet computer. From all the mockups I’ve seen, it looks like an oversized iPhone running a full version of Mac OS X. Now that Apple has confirmed the tablet’s existence in a way, the rumors about its features and capabilities will really begin to fly. I, for one, am interested in an Apple tablet if for no other reason than Apple tends to take an already-existing idea and make it kick-ass. I’ve never before been interested in a tablet computer, but Apple is sure to give existing iterations of the concept a run for their money.

What!? Facebook Users Sue Over Privacy Concerns

In what seems completely ridiculous to me, five Facebook users have sued the company in a California court, alleging violations of privacy. The plaintiffs claim their private information was harvested by Facebook without receiving compensation for the information. This suit baffles me for two reasons. First, users sign up and provide their personal information of their own volition, after agreeing to Facebook’s terms of service and privacy policy. How then did Facebook “harvest” the information if the users provided it? Second, what “compensation” did the plaintiffs expect? The site’s purpose is to connect people, not pay them for private information. If its purpose was the later, why would anyone join?

I can only hope that the judge has enough common sense to dismiss this frivolous lawsuit.

Starbucks Borrows ‘Lean’ Page from Toyota

As The Wall Street Journal reports in “Latest Starbucks Buzzword: ‘Lean’ Japanese Techniques,” the coffee giant is adopting one of the auto giant’s most successful management practices as it combats the economic downturn. In lean manufacturing (known as the Toyota Production System until the 1990’s), any activity that doesn’t ultimately add to the value of the product is wasteful. This can be anything from moving a part around a factory excessively to locating various production processes inconvenient distances from each other.

In the case of Starbucks, waste takes the form of excessive moves about the store, waiting for timers to expire or brewers to finish, and lifting items from under-counter storage. Even the barista who once stood guard behind the pastry case, awaiting only pastry orders and taunting the coffee purchasers, has been eliminated. Speaking from personal experience, I never much saw the point of having a barista perform such a limited task, even when I did order food with my caffeinated creation. The company is even hoping that decreasing the distance a barista moves for the various components of a drink will increase productivity and reduce the number of baristas needed for each shift. But, given how little a barista moves from the espresso machine now (with exceptions, of course—see below for how this is changing), I wonder how much efficiency the company can find there. Nonetheless, if you’ve been in a store lately, you may have noticed some of the changes without realizing it.

As I mentioned, gone is the barista at the pastry case, generally. Lately, I’ve noticed that the barista making iced teas and Frappuccinos is largely responsible for toasting items as needed. Otherwise, the barista ringing up the orders is pulling pastry items from the case. This seems to free the barista at the espresso machine to focus on those drinks. I’ve also noticed containers for bulk ground coffee are now located next to the brewers, rather than below them, along with filters. Undoubtedly, items have moved behind the espresso machines, but I haven’t noticed anything so far. However, the new espresso machines, which the company is rolling out now, hold more beans and give the baristas more control over shot length and steaming, so presumably that should equal more efficiency by way of less wasted milk, espresso, and ultimately, time.

As a customer, I have to say that the few changes I’ve noticed are for the better. I can’t speak to how these changes have affected peak times or the bottom line, but if the company is confident enough to implement lean procedures in its 11,000 stores, something must be working.

Maybe with all the money the company is saving on this efficiency, it can work on putting together some better pairings. After all, I need more than a tall beverage in the morning.

Radar-enabled ‘Adaptive’ Cruise Control Coming to Ford

When was the last time somebody got excited about a new Ford Taurus? Exactly.

My question was not posed with malice, but more out of musing. I had this thought after coming across an article on Wired.com about “adaptive” cruise control. Having never heard of adaptive cruise control before, my interest was piqued.

Last month, Wired.com’s Gregory Mone took a ride in a 2010 Ford Taurus with a few members of Ford’s engineering team. After 60,000 miles testing the system, Ford is working out the last few bugs before releasing production models of the system, first in the new Taurus. Eventually, every Ford vehicle will include this system.

“Adaptive” cruise control uses radar, much like aircraft and submarines, to identify objects around the vehicle. Based on that information, the system will adjust the vehicle’s speed while cruise control is engaged. On the day Wired’s reporter rode in the 2010 Taurus, the vehicle had been traveling south on the New Jersey Turnpike for nearly an hour without the driver touching either the brake or gas pedal. For the driver, it became simply a matter of signaling and steering. The system can also help drivers avoid collisions, whether or not cruise control is in use.

If the system senses a crash, it warns the passengers, tightens seatbelts, and improves brake response. This feature is already available in some form on certain Volvo models, which is understandable considering Ford owns the Volvo car brand (for now).

As someone who spends a substantial amount of time on highways in the ever-congested Northeast, the system could certainly be useful if it works as well as described. Even better, if the technology became available in a wide variety of vehicles, congestion and accidents could be significantly reduced if drivers can trust the system. With many vehicles adjusting their speed in controlled manners, the knee-jerk reaction to “slam on the brakes” can be eliminated because vehicles are no longer abruptly changing their speeds. Bottlenecks for no apparent reason can be reduced because one driver’s action will not have as large a ripple effect as otherwise might be the case. But, again, the technology is new, untested on a massive scale, and available only on one vehicle from Ford. Until Ford adds the system to more of its product line and more customers test it in everyday situations, its potential to improve driver safety is just a dream.