Technology

The New Google Maps

The new Google Maps is here. It's gorgeous, and more helpful. Plus, it anticipates what you like and what you search for (given that it normally relies on your Google account).

However, gone is the ability to create custom maps. The "my places" custom maps have been left behind in Google Maps Classic.

I will have to download my custom map data, or print them, as I'm sure Google will retire the classic map in a couple years time (or sooner).
 
In the meantime, wait for the updates to arrive to your mobile device, or go to maps.google.com to sign up for the new web version of Maps.
You'll see that it attaches keywords to places, based on user reviews and social media.  So for example, if you click on The Strawberry pub in Newcastle Upon Tyne, you'll see keywords like "roof terrace." Pretty cool.

What felt new in 2004 is new again.

Dhalgren's Favorite Android Apps

After using and loving Andorid for 11 months, I figured I'd add my two cents on the most useful, trustworthy apps to download and use.

1. Flight Track ($4.99). Track flighs and save a list of all the flights you have taken / will take. Flight Track notifies you when a gate or time changes and when the flight status has changed (taken off, landed, etc.).


2. Flight Board ($3.99). A beautiful companion of Flight Track that lets you see the arrivals or departures board for any airport in the style of the big boards at Paris' CDG airport. Flight Board can be used as the phone's live wallpaper, which is really nice.


3. Google Scoreboard (free). It's just a baby, but Google Scoreboard is off to a wonderful start. Select leagues to follow, including all 4 English football leagues and Japanese baseball. Select favorite teams. When a game starts or ends involving a favorite team, you get a notification at the top of the screen. Really nice. But it has growing pains. Often you have to reload data by tapping the scoreboards. The scoreboards are separated by league, like cards in a deck, and Scoreboard does not actively load them all. The app is not yet set up for full background operation. It often loads the scores for the league that currently has games in progress, and neglects the others. So for a user like me who is following a Japanese baseball team, the most reliable notification is the score of the NPB game in progress, which arrives as soon as I turn on my phone at 06:00 or 07:00 New York Time. But I am confident that Scoreboard will be ironed out.

 

4. Beautiful Widgets ($2.90). Don't like the home screen clock that you carrier put on your Android phone? Or was there no clock at all? Add a beautiful clock, clock + weather, or weather-only widget with Beautiful Widgets. True to its name, there are hundreds of different skins, fonts, and icons to download and use. Widgets are one of the biggest differences between the iPhone and Andorid. And Android users love to customize their phone to make it ther own. Beautiful Widgets is the best app for the money to let you do that.
 
5. Gingerbread Launcher (by Modaco, free). Sprint is great, but the SprintID packs Sprint is encouraging us to use are not. Switching from your customized screen to a SprintID pack wipes out your widgets, wallpaper, and sometimes your settings and shortcuts/folders. Replace the annoying SprintID icon at the bottom of your screen with the standard green Google browser globe, and never accidentally use SprintID again. Unfortunately requires you to recreate your widgets and folders. But it's a one time process. Once it's done, you don't ever hve to see the SprintID icon again.
 
6. Better Alarm Clock Pro ($1.99). It's an alarm clock that layers over the standard Anfroid alarm clock. Why is it better? Becasue it has a cool LED display feature. Choose the color for the digits from millions of colors. Then dim the screen so your phone can be used as a travel alarm clock. Simply stand the phone upright or horizontally and you have a cool travel alarm that won't light up the room. Better Android is a popular, trusted delveloper. But as of this month, they have been banned from the Market after one of their apps was frowned upon by the Google gatemasters. I hope they -and this app- come back.


7. Tip Calculator ($0.99). Very straightforward. Enter the check amount, the tip percentage (15%), and the number of people splitting the bill. Tip Calculator does the rest. 
 
8. OpenTable (Free). Make restaurant reservations and find new restaurants. Works really well and has a clean interface. App can be moved to the SD card, saving you phone storage space.
 
9, Opera Mini Web Browser (free). The standard Google browser that comes with the phone is just fine. But if you need extra speed and a cleaner interface, the folks at Opera have built a super fast browser that lets you get into a web page, do your thing, and get out. Very nice when you are in the middle of the Great Urban Race. App can be moved to the SD card, saving you phone storage space.
 
10. IMDb (free). You see a sign for an upcoming or ongoing film production in the city. Don't make a mental note of the title. Launch IMDb on your Android and find the synopsis and cast in seconds. App can be moved to the SD card, saving you phone storage space.


12. Gauge Battery Widget Pro ($1.98). Android phones eat up batteries, especiually when you have GPS and WiFi turned on, or if you're uploading phone photos to Facebook. Gauge Battery Widget is an attractive dashboard-style widget that shows you how much juice you have left. Very simple and it doesn't eat batteries. The Pro version allows you to customize the color and transparancy of every gauge element.


13. Google Sky Map (free). Point your phone to the sky and identify constellations, planets, and moon phases in a lovely graphic interface. A novelty application, yes. But this is one that people install and then love. Uses the phone's gyroscope and compass to accurately show what is above you (or below you if you point to the floor to see southern constilations. This is one of those apps that differientiates Android from iPhone. App can be moved to the SD card, saving phone storage space. 
 
14. FX Camera (free). Add a toy camera, polaroid effects, and a nice B&W camera to your Android device. Photos are captured in 960x640 resolution, making it an ideal Facebook photo capture app. App can be moved to the SD card, saving phone storage space.


15.  AK Notepad  (free) Says what it does. Create a text document on the go. Write a list of things to do. Export them to MS Word or an email. Write a blog post, or a restaurant review, or a diary entry on the go. The possibilities are endless. Stores text files to the SD card.

 
16. Google MyTracks (free) A GPS distrance tool that tracks how far you walk or travel on land (car, bus, train). See your average speed, elevation, total distact, and track on a Google Map. It's a battery hog, but it is the most reiable and accurate GPS tracker I have found yet for the Andorid platform.
App can be moved to the SD card, saving phone storage space.


17. Minimal Reader (free) This stripped down version of Google Reader allws you to put a widget on your screen that displays the titles of blog posts from your favorite blogs and news sites. You set up the RSS feeds and Minimal Reader does the rest. My feeds include DNA Info Inwood News, Curbed New York, Gothmanist, Reuters headlines, and some podcasts. Needs a little work, but because it is minimal, it doesn't clog your storage space with articles. It just shows you the titles of the blog posts, so you choose what you want to downloand and read.

18. Notepad (free) Another plain text editor, but more plain and business like than AK Notepad. Probably better for writing and editing loner notes or lists than AK Notepad. It's free. Why not get it in addition to AK and decide which is best for you?

20. Shoot Me (free) You don't have to have a rooted phone in order to take great screenshots. All the screenshots here were taken with Shoot Me on my stock LG Optimus S running Android 2.2.2. Simply activate, go to the screen you want to capture, and either press a shutter button or give the phone a gentle shake. All photos store on the SD card in a separate Shoot Me folder. Should work on most new unrooted phones. It's definately worth a try.

Family Friendly Rally Cars: The 2012 Ford Focus & 2012 Subaru Impreza Hatchbacks

Perhaps I should go easy on the third generation Ford Focus. It might not be as family friendly as the fourth generation Subaru Impreza. With its tiny back seat and swooping, mobile phone like center stack, it is the sporitiest Focus yet.

But I should back up a bit. What do I mean by "rally car?" There are a few requirements that separate a genteel, front wheel drive hatchback from one that shares its chassis with race cars. So here goes.

First of all, rally cars are based on road cars, not the other way around. Rally cars are a stroke of worldwide marketing genius. Take a car -a small hatchback that might be the first car of a young couple- strengthen the chassis, lighten the car, increase the power and ground clearance, and go racing in dangerous environments -on asphalt, gravel, and dirt. Under the contemporary rally car standards, there are minimal requirements for a car that can be converted into a rally racer. It must have a four cyllinder engine. It should weigh under 3,000 pounds before modification. Ideally, it should have a wide stance, with a low center of gravity. And also ideally, it should have rear wheels pushed as close to the corners as possible.

The car that successfully linked the sport of rally racing, manufacturers, and automobile marketing was the 1968 Ford Escort Mk I, which won what becme the WRC in 1970. It was a rear wheel drive car with a V6, but that would change as both the sport and the industry changed. Just 14 years later, the Escort driven worldwide would be front wheel drive, and would set a long standing record as the best selling car worldwide for several years. It would be accompanied by cars such as the Audi Quattro, Peugeot 200 series, Toyota Corolla and Celica, Subaru Impreza, Citroen models, and the Mitsubishi Lancer.

In 1998, the Escort was repaced by the Focus, and Ford kicked things into high gear. Customers had more choices of body styles and engines. But there was a catch. Like the Escort before it, there was an international version, and a slightly less agile and exciting North American version. A combination of customer demand and economic conditions prompted Ford to synchonize and globalize most of their products. Ford sent the US market a few international products over the years, notably the Freestyle crossover wagon. Ford fans will remember that some things would never be globalized, such as the muscle cars for the Australian market, the Falcon coupe and sedan. But Fors has been able to globalize its most popular products: the subcompact Fiesta, the compact Focus, the midsize Mondeo (Fusion), and soon, the C-Max minivan, and next generation Kuga (Escape). That's five global models under the "One Ford" banner.

Ford has not only embraced the economic practicality of global platform integration and manufacturing, but it has also embraced the reality of peak oil. If Ford keeps its promises, over half of its new cars sold will be fully electric in 20 years. A way off, but if that holds it will be a significant shift. And Ford is putting its money where its mouth is, with plans to offer EV versions of the Fiesta and Focus in North America over the next few months.

The electric Focus. Please make it available, Ford.

So the US has finally gotten the global model of the Focus 5-door hatchback. How is it? Well, without having driven it, I can report that the Focus is closer to the concept of a four door sports car than it has ever been before. With a tight, swooping cockpit, soft touch materials in the dash and center stack, layers of technology, and very firm, Volvo-like leather seats available, the Focus feels like a premium car from the driver's or passenger's position. Less so for the rear passengers. The back seat is smaller this time around for the Focus. A six foot passenger like me would be very cramped. Rear passenger room was sacrificed for style, as the roofline drops beautifully into an egg-like rear section, with speared tailights and an available rear spoiler. Audio system is by Sony. The user interface is what Ford brands as MyTouch. It includes the latest generation of Microsoft Sync, now with video playback support and the ability to stream Pandora internet radio. Everything is fed through an 8 inch touchscreen that supports Sync, bluetooth phone piggybacking, navigation, a driver's log, car information center, and all in-car entertainment. Instrument illumination appears to be LED, and a digital display climate control is available. Very nice all around.

Engine wise, gone is the very good aluminum block EcoTech engine, which generated 140 horses. In is a new 2.0 liter, direct injection engine generating 155 horses, which consumes less fuel per mile. And coming soon is a 1.6L EcoBoost turbocharged power plant, which will produce 200HP in a future, rally inspired ST model. I like the Japanese philospohy of a front wheel drive car not generating more than 170HP, but 200HP, if balanced and throttled correctly, might be a blast in the Focus ST.

Suspension is the expected MacPherson in the front and multilink in the rear, with a stiff stabilizer bar and firm springs. Much like my Hyundai Elantra Touring, the Focus has fuel saving electric power steering. But unlike my Touring, the Focus gets a six speed automatic, dual clutch transmission, making it even more fuel efficient. A Focus Platinum (the primium model right now), with all the electronics options, leather heated seats, sunroof, and the standard 2.0L engine and six speed automatic, should get about 24MPG in the city and 34MPG on the highway. If the customer drops an extra $2,000 for the SFE powertrain, then 38-40MPG on the highway is obtainable. But we should focus on the non SFE models (pun intended), since those are the models that will sell the most.

So comparing the new Focus to my 2009 Elantra Touring, I would say that it has no advantage in terms of steering and suspension. Both are identical and fun to throw into turns. But the Focus is lighter, has 17 more horses, and probably squeezes one or two extra miles per gallon. The Elantra beats the Focus for interior comfort, as it has a longer wheelbase, a smoother ride, and about double the amount of rear legroom. And the Elantra Touring qualifies as a rally car, since it has wheels pushed to the corners, and the turbodiesel verion has been driven in the Targa Tasmania rally down under the past two years.

If the Focus chassis is anything like its Peugeot and Citroen competitors, then it should be a thrilling ride. Hopefully, I can drive one soon and give a driving impressions review.


Now onto another four door sports car that might be in danger of losing that title, the fourth generation Subaru Impreza hatchback.

I would argue that the Impreza and BMW 3 series are the two greatest four door sports cars ever sold in the US (Audi A4, Mitsubishi Lancer, BMW 5 series, Porsche Panamera and Maserati Quadraporte fans will certainly disagree). Consider that the Impreza never became a midsize car. It did grow from subcompact to compact size, like the BMW 3 series. But the Impreza's basic formula never changed. It always was a lightweight, 4 or 5 door car with all wheel drive, independent suspension, a very low center of gravity, and a flat four (boxer) engine - not too dissimilar to what used to power early BMWs or Porsches.

From its introduction in 1992, the Impreza has been a contender on the rally circuits and the streets. It's a favorite of the tuner crowd in cities, as well as left of center folks in New England. It's a rare automobile that somehow took the place of the Saab 900 as the ultimate "Liberal's" car (perhaps the Forester is even more so). Driving an Impreza was and is an act of rebellion. It's a cult car. And it's a car that, again, like the BMW 3 series, has demonstrated the evolution and refinement of a successful automobile platform.

Here are some of the Impreza's greatest hits.

The 1992 US TV commercial staring a young, adorable Jeremy Davies:

A fully tuned, second generation Impreza WRX STi beating a Lamborghini in a European urban drag race:

The infamous crash of Alec Osenbach behind the wheel of a tuned, 350HP Impreza WRX at over 140MPH at the first annual Subifest in 2006. Amazingly, his injuries were minor:

US rally car driver Ken Block successfully jumps an Impreza rally car 170 feet.

Subaru introduces the third generation Impreza (2007-2012) with a jab at Volkswagen:

And the crowning stunt for the third generation Impreza, Travis Pastrana successfully jumps a rally spec car 269 feet in Long Beach, CA:

I like the third generation Impreza. I like the LED taillights and the four wheel wishbone suspension (unheard of in a car of that size and price). The STi Spec C is a triumph. I love the 2.5L boxer engine, the most successful engine in Subaru's history.

However, the enthusiasts and auto press was very clear about this Impreza - it's chassis had fallen behind to the Mitsubishi Lancer in terms of handling, character, and weight distribution. The stock Impreza 2.5i weighed in at 3,100 pounds. Also, the DVD navigation offered in the current car, from what I understand, is sub optimal. Subaru reliability and safety has never been better. But something had to change.

And so, Subaru, which ran the two previous Impreza generations for six years each, had to cut the third generation short in its fifth year of sales. Call it an intervention.

At the 2011 New York International Auto Show almost prcisely four years after the debut of the third generation Impreza, Subaru unveiled the fourth generation sedan and hatchback. The new car can be summed up in one phrase: do over. Instead of making the car bigger, Subaru only lengthened the wheelbase and added crucial rear seat legroom. Instead of modifying the venerable 2.5L boxer engine, Subaru has given the next Impreza the smaller, more fuel efficient 2.0L boxer already being used in the European Forester. And it is an all new platform, weighing 200 pounds lighter, at 2,900 pounds. If there's anything enthusiasts want more, it's a stock Impreza that weighs less than 3,000 pounds.

 

The first thing most Impreza fans will notice is the sub-A pillar on the front doors. This was added to increase visibility in turns and to lengthen the front doors. It's a feature we have seen on a few new cars lately, namely the Honda Fit, Honda Civic, and second and third generation Toyota Prius. When I see that triangle of glass, I immidatey think 'family car.' But now that I've had over a week to admire the new Impreza, it is actually growing on me. It helps the car look longer than it actually is. And the front fascia is one of the best Subaru has designed in a long time (the best since the Dr. Zapatnas facelift, I think).

From the rear, the new Impreza has a bit of a Toyota Matrix look [photo], with a big rear bumper piece that adds utility, and can also be swapped out for a different design in the future should Subaru desire it. The rear doors have a sub-C pillar that complement the front door design. The fender flares are muscular and modern. And the car combines nice angles and seams in an attractive egg-like shape. I'm liking this new design.

So while there won't be any driving reviews published for a while, we do know a few appealing aspects. It's lighter. It has a smaller boxer engine, that finally features a timing chain instead of a timing belt. It gets 30% better fuel economy, while retaining a wonderful part-time all wheel drive system. Tall adults can now fit into the back seat. And Subaru has partnered with Harmon Kardon to improve the audio system and (hopefully) factory navigation system. The guages are still trademark Impreza orange-red. And the car is winterized, as always, with wiper deicers, heated side mirrors, and heated seats, all of which should be standard on the 2.0i Premium model. And the price will be about $50 more. So this 5-door, with navigation, bluetooth, and satelitte radio, should come delivered around the $23K mark.

Subaru knows that it can't keep the Impreza a cult car forever. Subaru was the only auto brand in the USA besides Ford and Hyundai to see a record sales increase in 2010. The Impreza has to compete against the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus. I'll return to this car later with a review of whether or not it delivers the classic Impreza feel and fun factor to a potentially larger market. Subie owners really love their cars. Subaru wants millions more to join their club.

Going to the 2011 New York International Auto Show!

Either someone at the Auto Show made a mistake, or I'm really a novice car blogger now. Either way, I'm now on a list of invited bloggers to the New York International Auto Show. I just got my red press pass to go along with a red Hyundai lanyard, to show off my Hyundai pride.

I will be blogging both press days of the NYIAS on Wednesday April 20th and Thursday April 21st.

Live blogging probably won't be possible, but I expect to have posts and pictures up at the end of each day.

The press days at the New York auto show are fun. Cars on the floor are usually left unlocked and unobstructed, including some of the pre-production models. I will be doing a rundown of what's new and exciting for each manufacturer. If I see a car worth getting excited about, I will do a 'hands on' review. Expect some feedback for the following cars released over the last 12 months:

  • The bigger, heavier, controversial Lotus models
  • The big new Ford Explorer
  • The European Ford Focus finally in the USA
  • Fifth generation Hyndai Elantra
  • Hyundai's new FWD sports coupe, the Veloster
  • Some more face time with the Nissan Juke
  • BMW X3, now made in the USA
  • BMW 5 Gran Turismo, my favorite new German sedan
  • Fourth generation Subaru Impreza sedan and hatchback

Rappelle Moi: Ringing Mobile Phones In Sub-Saharan Africa

Now I'm going to totally sound like the libertarian, amateur economist and paid blogger, Megan McArdle, but this is an interesting story about how cash-strapped mobile phone users in Africa ring their friends and pass-on their phone number without paying for a call. Then, their presumably more affluent friends decide to call back at their own expense. This is a phenomenon that doesn't happen much in western countries because most mobile phone users have contracts with a set base fee each month. But in countries where most users pay as they go and accumulate credits, this happens. Think of it as third-world paging.

Phone credit low? Africans go for "beeping"
By Andrew Heavens
Reuters
Wed Sep 26, 11:32 AM ET

If you are in Sudan it is a 'missed call'. In Ethiopia it is a 'miskin' or a 'pitiful' call. In other parts of Africa it is a case of 'flashing', 'beeping' or in French-speaking areas 'bipage'.

Wherever you are, it is one of the fastest-growing phenomena in the continent's booming mobile telephone markets -- and it's a headache for mobile operators who are trying to figure out how to make some money out of it.

You beep someone when you call them up on their mobile phone -- setting its display screen briefly flashing -- then hang up half a second later, before they have had a chance to answer. Your friend -- you hope -- sees your name and number on their list of 'Missed Calls' and calls you back at his or her expense.

It is a tactic born out of ingenuity and necessity, say analysts who have tracked an explosion in miskin calls by cash-strapped cellphone users from Cape Town to Cairo.

"Its roots are as a strategy to save money," said Jonathan Donner, an India-based researcher for Microsoft who is due to publish a paper on "The Rules of Beeping" in the high-brow online Journal of Computer Mediated Communication in October.

Donner first came across beeping in Rwanda, then tracked it across the continent and beyond, to south and southeast Asia. Studies quoted in his paper estimate between 20 to more than 30 percent of the calls made in Africa are just split-second flashes -- empty appeals across the cellular network.

The beeping boom is being driven by a sharp rise in mobile phone use across the continent.

Africa had an estimated 192.5 million mobile phone users in 2006, up from just 25.3 million in 2001, according to figures from the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union. Customers may have enough money for the one-off purchase of a handset, but very little ready cash to spend on phone cards for the prepaid accounts that dominate the market.

Africa's mobile phone companies say the practice has become so widespread they have had to step in to prevent their circuits being swamped by second-long calls.

"We have about 355 million calls across the whole network every day," said Faisal Ijaz Khan, chief marketing officer for the Sudanese arm of Kuwaiti mobile phone operator Zain (formerly MTC). "And then there are another 130 million missed calls every day. There are a lot of missed calls in Africa."

'CALL ME BACK'

Zain is responding to the demand by drawing up plans for a "Call-me-back" service in Sudan, letting customers send open requests in the form of a very basic signal to friends for a phone call.

The main advantage for the company is that the requests will be diverted from the main network and pushed through using a much cheaper technology (USSD or Unstructured Supplementary Service Data).

A handful of similar schemes are springing up across Africa, says Informa principal analyst Devine Kofiloto. "It is widespread. It is a concern for operators in African countries, whose networks become congested depending on the time of day with calls they cannot bill for.

"They try to discourage the practice by introducing services where customers can send a limited number of 'call-back' request either free of charge or for a minimum fee."

There are plenty of other reasons why mobile operators are keen to cut down on the practice. One is it annoys customers, pestered by repeated missed calls.

A second is that 'flashes' eat into one of mobile phone companies' favorite performance indicators -- ARPU or average revenue per user. Miscalls earn very little in themselves - and don't always persuade the target to ring back.


 

 

 

 

 

Orange Senegal, Kofiloto said, lets customers send a 'Rappelle moi' ('Call me back') when their phone credit drops below $0.10. With Safaricom Kenya, it is a "Flashback 130" (limited to five a day -- and with the admonishment 'Stop Flashing! Ask Nicely'). Vodacom DR Congo's 'Rappelez moi SVP' service costs $0.01 a message.

MORE THAN MONEY

But beeping is not only about money. Donner's 'Rules of Beeping' suggests a social protocol for the practice.

"The richer guy pays," he writes. It is acceptable to beep someone if you are short of cash and they are flush with credit. Never beep someone poorer than you.

Never beep someone you are tapping for a favor. You don't want to risk annoying the person you are trying to win over. Never flash your girlfriend, unless you want to look cheap.

"Most beeps are requests to the mobile owner to call back immediately, but can also send a pre-negotiated instrumental message such as pick me up now,' or send a relational sign, such as I'm thinking of you,'" the paper says.

It can go even further than that.

Cameroonian researchers Victor W.A. Mbarika and Irene Mbarika identified a different kind of beeping-powered relational call in a study for the technology association the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

"Lovers often communicate with text messages or beeping'," said the study. "One party dials another's number and then hangs up. One ring could mean, I am here,' two rings, Call me now.'"

And the name they gave this new entry in the beeping lexicon? Borrowing a street slang term for an appeal for sex, they christened it "the booty call."
Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited

David Pogue: iPhone Gets a Thumbs-Up


Photo copyright the New York Times, June 26 2007

David Pogue of the New York Times has one of the coolest jobs in the world. He's been playing with an iPhone for several days. Here is his first review (registration required), which I think is the second review anywhere (the first was written by Walter Mossberg in yesterday's Wall Street Journal). Check out the sample photos, too. Very impressive pictures, provided you take them in daylight and hold the device steady.

Geeky Friday: The Rise of "Surface Computers" and "Multi-Touch" Technology


In the spring of 1988, I was finishing my freshman year in high school, and Steve Jobs debuted his labor of love, the machine he left Apple to buid - the NeXT workstation. It had the slickest Graphic User Interface (GUI) ever, the most memory of any desktop at the time, and even had the option of an external, magneto optical disc drive, which I also think was an industry first. It also used the UNIX kernel in its revolutionary Operating System, called NeXTSTEP - the same kind of technology that now runs Mac OS X. I remember a NeXT showroom in Post Office Square in Boston in 1991, and I would go to the window and drool. But how could you browse the Internet if there were no consumer Internet providers at the time? How could you watch QuickTime movies if you couldn't download any from the Internet? Sure the GUI is cool, but after opening windows for a calendar, a development app, e-mail, a CD player, a game, and your one QuickTime movie, what could you actually do with a NeXT Cube in 1991? I'll let super geeks answer that. But when I thought about it, I could do all the computing I would ever want if I had a Mac Classic II, or even an Apple IIc+, one of the most practical and best-looking computers of the 1980s. And to think I couldn't afford a Mac Classic II, which was $1,200. The NeXT Cube started at $6,000, and could easily be priced up to $15,000 with laser printer, big monitor, and software.

But NeXT gave the world the first graphical web server. It couldn't be a practical web browser in 1991, but a NeXT station played a key role in creating the World Wide Web. And it did prove that the UNIX language was the smoothest, most reliable foundation for an operating system, hence its use in Apple devices today. And from roughly 1992 through 1999, UNIX workstations were esed extensively at large corporations for application and web development. Sun Microsystems sold a lot of $5,000 & $10,000 SPARCstations to financial services firms and universities. They did a fine job until we had technology to do the same thing for much less (ahem, Linux).

Now are Apple and Microsoft ready to take us users somewhere very new and revolutionary again?

Surface Computers, which utilize fully-touchable glass surfaces and "multi-touch" technology, promise to let users use their hands to pretty much do anything - all without a keyboard and mouse. Check it out -

In this video from fastCompany.com, Jeff Han demonstrates how a conference room surface computer could work. He also helped build a drafting table version as a research scientist at NYU. Here is another demo of that table. Archetype would love this as he's an architect.

David Pogue of the NY Times has been following this relatively new technology for several weeks now. It is too early to tell if this technology will replace the keyboard and mouse interface. But the first mainstream product to use multi-touch technology, the Apple iPhone, is hitting the streets this July. If Apple gets ambitious, its next iMac could be something like the Jeff Han drafting table, or the new Microsoft furniture announced this week.

Here is a video of the Microsoft project, from Popular Mechanics.

It is probable that W Hotels will be installing Microsoft's product next year. But the public needs to accept the new buttonless interface in phones and other devices in order for surface computers and multi-touch technology to catch-on and replace (or compliment) the separate keyboard / mouse / monitor model.

I will say one thing, this kind of technology will not appeal to people who hate smudges and fingerprints. My girl would not be a fan of this sort of thing at all. If she does get an iPhone, she would have a fabric dustcloth in every bag and jacket she owns. Fingerprints bad!

Having a coffee table that doubles as your entertainment system remote control and photo lightbox is very very cool (that would save me so much time...processing vacation photos with my fingers while watching Baseball Tonight). Even having a hallway mirror that lets you read emails while checking your hair is cool, if also very silly. But there has to be a more fundamental breakthrough that makes this technology mainstream. Yup. That would be porn. Once porn comes to surface computing, it will take-off.