Standing on the precipice

With Barack Obama's acceptance speech tonight, the general election season truly begins. It seems to me to be worthwhile to pause for a moment, and consider some of the implications of what we, as Americans, are about to do in electing a new president.

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that the next President of the United States, whether it is McCain or Obama, is going to disappoint us all. Expectations are high, and it is inevitable that not all of them are going to be fulfilled. Following George W. Bush, who is about as popular among Americans right now as Mao Tse-tung is among Tibetan exiles, one might think that it wouldn't be terribly hard for the next president to look like a success. But even a Republican presidency under McCain won't be able to magically transform Iraq into a politically moderate and economically prosperous island of democracy in the Middle East, thus disappointing the neocons; and a Democratic presidency under Obama won't be able to magically transform inner-city Detroit into an upper-middle-class paradise, or make Detroit's automakers produce hybrid SUVs that survive 55-mph crashes, get 100 mpg and cost $12,000. Some inconvenient realities will get in the way. And regardless of party affiliation, the next president will have to deal with a Congress that is in no mood to kowtow to the White House after eight years of Bush the Younger.

This is not to say that it doesn't matter which candidate we elect. There are some important differences between them, as well as between the parties, and these must be taken into consideration. What follows is a brief sketch of each of them, and where they show promise as well as where they fall down.

McCain

John McCain is not the man that much of the Republican base wanted. He's been a bit of a maverick in the Senate, going against the Bush administration when it suited him, and there are lots of conservatives who are not happy with his candidacy. To some extent, this is probably a good thing--it increases his chances with the broad mass of the electorate, who tend to occupy the moderate center. Unfortunately for McCain, there has been some talk among the conservative core of sitting this election out. For a party that is trying to keep control of the White House despite the unpopularity of the incumbent, this is not good news.

McCain's personal life also does nothing to endear him to many voters. He unceremoniously dumped the wife who waited for him while he sat in a North Vietnamese prison in favor of a rich, blond, connected heiress to a beer distributorship. So much for the family values constituency. In a recent interview, he was unable to remember how many houses he owned, and suggested that you weren't rich unless you made more than $5 million a year. Unless you're the spokesman for Monocle Pete's Magic Yacht Wax(apologies to Merlin Mann), this isn't a good thing.

What is a good thing is that given McCain's experience as a POW during the Vietnam War, he's been fairly unequivocal in his denunciations of torture, which gives hope that he would curtail some of the activities that took place in places like Guantanamo Bay under the Bush administration. But given his voting record in the Senate, where he supported the policies of the current administration time and time again, voters would be wise to not make too many assumptions about his desire for change. And while a military background would seem to give him an edge in judgment about when to use force, his recent statements on the conflict between Russia and Georgia have been, in my opinion, grossly irresponsible.

Obama

Much has been made of Barack Obama's unusual background, which tends to obscure the fact that he is the product of an Ivy League education and is an incumbent U.S. Senator, which makes him somewhat less of an outsider than his campaign staff would like you to think. It also means that he is somewhat less naive and inexperienced than his detractors would have you think--no one who succeeds in the world of Chicago politics is exactly a babe in the woods.

As with McCain, Obama faces a challenge in that there are numerous members of his party who would have preferred to see someone else elected, namely Hillary Clinton. Some Clintonistas have voiced an intention to vote for McCain, and one of them has actually appeared in a McCain campaign ad. It's hard to imagine, though, that once the general election campaign starts and reality kicks in that many of them will actually vote for an elderly white male who opposes gay marriage and national health insurance and favors continuing the war in Iraq.

Obama also faces the problem of being the first black candidate to be nominated for President by one of the two major parties. While it would be nice to think that America has moved beyond racism, the reality is different, and it is not too difficult to find people who will refuse to vote for him because of his skin color. If this turns out to be a close election, it could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Some of that difference will be made up by the fact that he has been virtually anointed by the Kennedy family as the successor to JFK. In his youth, his optimism, and his vigor, he does remind many of the late President. Of course, this cuts two ways: like JFK, he is also thin on foreign policy experience, and has been in the Senate a relatively short time. The historian in me also remembers that JFK brought us closer to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis than any President before or since, and that the memory of his administration as Camelot is colored both by its relative brevity and a by a certain romanticism. Comparisons to JFK are not unreservedly positive.

Conclusions

As can perhaps be inferred from the foregoing, I will voting for Obama unless something happens in the next two months to change my mind. I will vote for him despite the fact that I disagree with him on certain issues (like abortion), and that I am far from certain he will be able to extricate us from the disaster that is Iraq. However, there is one overriding issue that takes precedence for me over all others, and which leads me to conclude that there is no other rational choice: the Constitution.

The Constitution of the United States is what defines us as a nation. In 1787, thirteen squabbling former British colonies came together to revise the Articles of Confederation that had been the basis for their government, and ended up writing one of the most flexible and far-sighted documents the world has ever seen. For over two hundred years, each President of the United States has taken an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution.

It is my belief that the current occupant of the White House is in violation of that oath. As a direct result of actions taken by the current administration, the U.S. is holding people in prison without charges for indefinite periods of time. It has handed over prisoners to governments that practice torture, for the express purpose of facilitating said torture. It has authorized the FBI to search individuals' homes without their knowledge, and to search their financial, email, and telephone records without a court order. If you are a person the government is interested in, they may compile information on your reading habits by searching your library and bookstore transactions. It has even turned the simple act of air travel into an ordeal resembling East German passport control (I speak from experience, having been through both).This is not how Americans are supposed to behave. This is not what America is supposed to be like.

I recognize, of course, that George W. Bush is not running for re-election. But to the extent that John McCain would continue the policies of the current Republican administration, I feel that it is too dangerous to take the chance of electing him. It's a shame, really. In many ways, he'd make a good President. But there is simply too much at risk. I'll take the chance of an Obama administration doing something really stupid, because I have more confidence that I'll be able to continue to exercise my constitutional rights under an Obama administration.

And one more thing: the Republicans as a party have behaved execrably in the last eight years. Historically, the GOP has seen itself as the party of fiscal restraint, yet this administration has taken the national debt to new highs, and Republicans in Congress have been all too willing to spend like drunken sailors on leave. And why shouldn't they? It was the "conservatives" who encouraged the rampant consumerism in this country over the last twenty years that led to easy credit, creating a society that accepted 8-year car loans and adjustable-rate mortgages with balloon payments that were predicated on a real-estate bubble that had to burst eventually. It's hard to argue that the government should live within its means when you're convincing the citizenry that they don't have to live within theirs.

Someday, there will be a true conservative movement in this country again, less beholden to global corporations, one that accepts the notions of restraint, frugality, personal responsibility, and the common good. Such a movement would be closer in ideology to what the British call Red Toryism than to the consumerist neoconservative drivel spouted by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. When that day comes, I'll be the first to join. Until then, I see no reason not to give my vote to the Democrats. They may tax me more to pay for social programs, but at least that's doing some of God's work. The Republicans have proven they are more interested in doing Mammon's.

Checking in

Just looking in to make sure everything is shipshape. Things have been fairly busy since getting back from vacation at the beginning of August, but I will be back soon with some content--maybe even tonight.

Until then, take a look at Leo Laporte's new project.

The doctor and the commander

The past week has not been kind to genocidal war criminals, nor to those accused of being one. First, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was apprehended in Belgrade, living quite openly under an assumed name (and one heck of a disguise). Karadzic is charged with responsibility in, among other things, the Srebrenica massacre. From Wikipedia:

Karadzic is accused of personal and command responsibility for numerous war crimes committed against non-Serbs, in his roles as Supreme Commander of the Bosnian Serb armed forces and President of the National Security Council of the Republika Srpska. Under his direction and command, Bosnian Serb forces initiated the Siege of Sarajevo and carried out numerous massacres across Bosnia. Tens of thousands of non-Serbs were killed, hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes and thousands more were imprisoned in <span class="mw-redirect">concentration camps</span>where many died. He is accused of ordering the Srebrenica massacrein 1995, directing Bosnian Serb forces to "create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival of life" in the UN safe area. In addition, he is accused of ordering that United Nations personnel be taken hostage in May-June 1995.

A lovely human being. Of course, it should be remembered that the Serbs, who have so often been demonized in the Western press, are not solely to blame for the horrors that have been perpetrated in the Balkans. During World War II, the Croatian fascists, the Ustashe, were allied with the Nazis, and carried out acts of depravity comparable to anything that Himmler and his minions could dream up.

One of them, Dinko Sakic, died this week in Croatia, where he had been extradited from Argentina, which sheltered him for over fifty years. Sakic was commandant of the concentration camp complex of Jasenovac, known as the "Auschwitz of the Balkans." From the New York Times:

Mr. Sakic was found guilty of killing more than 2,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies at the camp named Jasenovac. Among other crimes, the verdict said, he ordered executions; did not treat the sick; worked inmates to death; starved and tortured some with a blowtorch; and hanged others, sometimes leaving them dangling for days. He personally shot at least four prisoners dead, two of them for smiling...in 1994, during a state visit to Argentina by (Croatian) President Tudjman, Mr. Sakic spoke to Magazin, a Croatian magazine. "I'd do it all again," he said, adding that he wished more Serbs had died at Jasenovac. "I sleep like a baby."

An equally lovely human being.

The moral of all this, if there is one, is this: in human affairs, there is always more than enough blame to go around. In war, no side is completely blameless. The atrocities committed by the Croats during World War II, which were just one more chapter in an ongoing saga of interethnic hatred, provided a rationale for Serb extremists to commit atrocities against Croats. This does not excuse either side for what it did; rather, it condemns each of them equally. Sakic and Karadzic were both monsters. Sakic is answering to God for his crimes; in time, so will Karadzic.

Addendum: Early reports had it that Karadzic hid by disguising himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest. For a well-rounded discussion of this topic, and the role of the church in the Balkans, see this blog article by Terry Mattingly. (Disclaimer: Mr. Mattingly, like myself, is Orthodox.)

The long, slow death of an institution

From the New York Times comes word that the Los Angeles Times is continuing its long, slow decline into mediocrity:

The Los Angeles Times will announce long-rumored changes to its book review coverage next weekend, a spokeswoman for the paper said on Tuesday. According to a report in Publishers Weekly, next Sunday will be the last time the paper runs a stand-alone book review section.

As a native-born Angeleno, I've seen the L.A. Times at its best, and lately at its worst. I remember my dad always read Jack Smith's column, just as I never miss Steve Lopez's. But I'm watching it slowly decline into a mere shadow of its former self. They've killed the Religion section, the county-specific sections, and fired reporters. They tried to get rid of Al Martinez, who's kind of an institution at the Times. They've made the Sunday magazine monthly, and toyed with the idea of turning it over to the advertising staff. They've taken what was once a quality newspaper and emasculated it, and one wonders where the end is or what form it will take.

My wife and I subscribe, and at $44.40 every two months, it used to be a bargain. We'd probably pay twice that for a better newspaper. But with every cut they make, that $44.40 begins to look like less of a deal. Little by little, my favorite sections are being killed off, and I'm not so sure anymore why I'm subscribing. It would be more understandable if it was losing money, but it's not--it's just not profitable enough to suit the suits at the Tribune Co.

I tried the Kindle edition briefly, but it was so shoddily put together that I canceled my trial subscription. I get the New York Times every morning, and the difference in quality--both of the reporting and editing--is noticeable. Electronic distribution is the future of the newspaper industry; you'd think the L.A. Times would take it more seriously. But, apparently, they haven't figured that out yet.

Open and closed, Part III—Microblogging redux

Not terribly long ago, I said some extremely positive things about Identi.ca, a new microblogging service running on open-source software. At the time, I indicated I'd be making it my main microblog:

I'm moving to Identi.ca as my main status blog, and I'm asking my friends, family, and anyone who reads this to join me over there. At the very least, register an account there and get your preferred username while it's still relatively new and uncrowded. I'll still be posting my sutff at Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku, etc. through the miracle of Ping.fm, but I'll be hanging out at Identi.ca

Sounded good at the time. Turns out, though, I let my enthusiasm get ahead of my common sense. While I still think Identi.ca points the way to where this type of service needs to go, I'm making Jaikumy home base for now. When all is said and done, Identi.ca is still very much in beta, and has a way to go before it's mature enough to rely on.

What happened? Well, yesterday they rolled out SMS posting (that's text messaging, to use the common term). Something happened, and Identi.ca's servers decided they didn't want to deliver the SMS messages I sent to the email address I was given (they're using an email address instead of a phone number or shortcode). This resulted in dozens of multiple error messages being sent to my phone, over and over again. All day. And all night. And well into today, for good measure.

This, coupled with a hiccup with the servers at Ping.fm, who also decided to send me multiple SMS failure messages, meant I got inundated with unwanted incoming text messages. This is exactly the sort of problem that one has to expect when rolling out a new service, but unfortunately it's also the sort of problem that can cost the recipient real money if it pushes him over the limit of what his mobile provider's calling plan allows. I'm still not sure why Identi.ca kept sending me messages--it was down almost all morning, and Evan, the developer, said only that it was "a terrible bug", but Ping.fm blamed it on my mobile provider, Verizon Wireless. Or maybe it was my phone. Yeah, that's it...

Gee, thanks. I'll just ring up Verizon and LG straightaway and get them to totally revamp their software architecture so I can post what I had for lunch on a website in beta. No problem.

Since I needed to make the ringing stop, I totally disabled my Ping.fm account, deleted my SMS information on Identi.ca once it came back online, adjusted my Verizon Wireless settings to reject practically all SMS messages, and spent the day with Twitter and Jaiku. And you know what? I had no problems. Both have US shortcodes, so I could post from my phone with no hassles. And Jaiku has a particularly appealing and well-thought-out interface (to my eye, anyway). I'd forgotten how much I liked it.

So, for the time being, here's the deal: if I'm in front of a computer, I'll crosspost through Hellotxt.com. Otherwise, I'm sending SMS direct to Jaiku and Twitter. I really encourage you to post at Jaiku, since it's the only one that never gives me a problem, but I can't force anyone to do it, so I'll check in at Twitter from time to time. But if you want to join Jaiku, let me know. I've still got some invitations, and it'll be a great place to track me when I go on vacation in a few days. Ironically, it's the polar opposite of Identi.ca; it runs proprietary software and is owned by Google, so I've gone from completely open to as closed as you can get.

And Identi.ca? A great idea. I'm keeping my account (despite an earlier post), but I'm just a bit leery of relying on it. As it stands now, as a single provider, it's just as liable as Twitter to have scaling issues; the magic happens when other sites running the Laconica software crop up, and interoperability happens. We'll get there eventually, but we're not there yet. Meanwhile, Twitter has the community, and Jaiku has the aesthetics and feature set. Say what you will about the small-town atmosphere of Identi.ca, sometimes it's nice to have big-city conveniences.

Update (2008-07-23): After about 24 hours of no SMS fail messages from Identi.ca, I unblocked my SMS service with Verizon. A few minutes later, they started coming in again...so I re-blocked most SMS messages. I wonder how long it will take for this storm to pass?

Death of a victor

From the New York Timesthis morning comes word of the death of Bronislaw Geremek, a Polish Jew who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation and became one of the leaders of Poland's transition out of Communism:

In a lifetime of enormous achievement, Mr. Geremek's greatest contribution may have been as one of the leaders of the round-table negotiations that helped pave the way for elections in 1989 that eventually brought the Solidarity movement to power, initiating a peaceful end to Communist control of Poland.

This negotiated change of power provided a template for other countries in the Warsaw Pact and, in the years since, far beyond.

Twenty-seven years ago this month, I personally witnessed a portion of the exodus of Polish citizens during the brief flowering of liberty before Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law that fall. On a tourist bus, in transit across East Germany on the autobahn leading to Hamburg, I did not suspect that the families I saw in overloaded Polski-Fiats were but the first sign of a crack that would split apart the Soviet bloc and end Communism less than ten years later. As a child of the Cold War, it was something I never expected to see in my lifetime.

As Americans, we like to think that we "won" the Cold War under the leadership of Ronald Reagan. But without the bravery of men like Bronislaw Geremek, who had the courage to stand up to tyranny in whatever form it presented itself, we would still be facing Soviet troops across the Iron Curtain. His life stands as testimony to the fact that freedom cannot be imposed from without, it must be fought for from within.

Godspeed, Bronislaw.

Open and closed, Part II—Microblogging

Microblogging is one of those things that's hard to explain to the uninitiated, and doesn't really begin to make sense until you've used it for a while. It's like instant messaging, only public. It's like a bulletin board, only for short messages. It's a status update system. It's a very small blog. It's...well, it's hard to explain.

The granddaddy of the microblogs, of course, is Twitter. Twitter has been much in the news of late, not only for its random crashes and frequent unavailability, but also for its recent infusion of venture capital from the likes of Jeff Bezos. Twitter's popularity has spawned a multitude of competitors, all of whom have tried to differentiate themselves from Twitter by adding features.

Pownce, brought to you by Kevin Rose, the creator of Digg.com, offers file transfer and the ability to send messages to selected groups of people.Jaiku, from a team in Finland, added the ability to follow RSS feeds and introduced threaded replies. It showed great potential until Googlebought it and made it invitation-only, which effectively killed whatever momentum it acquired after tech journalist and podcaster Leo Laportemade a well-publicized switch from Twitter, bringing with him his audience. There's Friendfeed, which also has RSS aggregation ability plus commenting, and the quirky Plurk.

What all of these services have in common is that they are silosâclosed systems, vertically integrated and walled off from the outside world. Twitter has taken some criticism for its frequent outagesâwhich have become so common that the "fail whale" image it displays at such times <span>has its own Wikipedia entry</span>_(Wikipedia entry deleted as of 2008-07-15) but all of them are potentially subject to the same issues of reliability. Just last week, though, a new competitor went public that has the potential to be radically disruptive.

The new entrant is Identi.ca, a Canadian offering that is based on an open-source microblogging platform known as Laconica. I'm no programmer, but as I understand it, the idea behind Identi.ca is that individuals or companies can download and install the Laconica software on a server and run their own microblog, and all these microblogs can interact with each other and with Identi.ca. Suddenly, you're not in a silo, you're part of a distributed network of microblogs, and if one fails the others can go on undisturbed. This means, in theory at least, that the kind of scaling issues we've seen with Twitter won't be a factor. It also means that you can be on one service, and a friend can be on another, and you can still see their status updates and follow their posts.

Of course, right now Identi.ca is the main user of the software, but there is a list on the Laconica website of other servers running Laconica,and there is no reason to think there won't be more. The Laconica software is open-source, so anyone can maintain or develop it, and then donate those changes back to the community. It's essentially the same model used by the Linux community and the popular browser Firefox, and it has been shown to work well.

The only fly in the ointment, if there is one, is the numbers. Right now, Twitter is still where the majority of users are, but the "cool kids"âthe developers, programmers, and open-source advocates who can see the potential of a distributed microblogging networkâare already moving towards Identi.ca (here's one example). In the first 24 hours it was public, Identi.ca registered over 8000 new users and posted more than 19,000 status updates. Clearly, the early adopters are interested. What is needed now is for regular users to adopt it as well.

So, I'm doing my part. I'm moving to Identi.ca as my main status blog, and I'm asking my friends, family, and anyone who reads this to join me over there. At the very least, register an account there and get your preferred username while it's still relatively new and uncrowded. I'll still be posting my sutff at Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku, etc. through the miracle of Ping.fm, but I'll be hanging out at Identi.ca. It isn't feature-complete yetâthings like an SMS gateway and direct messaging are still to come. But it's evolving rapidly, and so far shows impressive stability. The main developer is responsive, and the community (the Identi.cans?) is ever so congenial.

Won't you join me?

Open and closed, Part I(a)—iPocalypse

I can't move on to Part II without saying something about today's disastrous rollout of the 3G iPhone. Apple is normally very good at providing an excellent customer experience, but today provided a cautionary lesson to Apple in what _not_ to do.

For starters, it's been said, fairly in my opinion, that the Achilles heel of the iPhone is the linkup with AT&T. When we're talking about AT&T in this context, we're really talking about what used to be Cingular. The old AT&T Wireless was absorbed by Cingular a few years ago, and since then the former AT&T network has been obliterated in favor of the ex-Cingular GSM network, which was definitely not ready for prime time, at least not in my area—and their customer service was singularly (Cingularly?) bad.

For example, when I complained of bad reception, I was told that my office, which lays directly next to one of the two major highways between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is in a city of over 100,000 people within a broad valley, was in a "tough area." Gee, thanks.

Anyway, it looks like today's problems were caused not by AT&T, but by Apple itself. There are conflicting stories out there, but it appears that Apple's iTunes activation servers went downat a _very_ inconvenient time. Imagine standing in line for several hours, finally purchasing the phone, having your number ported over, and then not being able to activate the thing. Nice. The basic problem here is something that has served Apple very well up until now: Apple's insistence on controlling every aspect of the user experience. While this has allowed Apple to craft a consistent look and feel across multiple computing platforms, in this case it worked against them in a big way.

Most of the time, when you buy a GSM phone, it's a simple matter of taking the SIM card out of the old phone and putting it in the new one (or, in the case of a new customer, activating a new SIM card). In this case, an extra step was inserted into the process, because Apple does not want you to use the phone in ways that Uncle Steve disapproves of—and, apparently, because of concerns over unauthorized unlocking of the phone. Because the price of the iPhone is being subsidized by AT&T, AT&T wants to make sure you activate the phone on the AT&T network, and there is doubtless a contractual obligation on Apple's part to help ensure that this happens, and that iPhones are used only on AT&T's network. This, of course, is a losing battle.

There's an interesting corollary to the music industry here. The record companies would love it if everyone bought the same music over and over again. This is why they initially pushed so hard for digital-rights management (DRM). This led to Apple selling music files through the iTunes Music Store that were hobbled by DRM and were consequently unable to be played on anything but an approved iPod by the person who originally bought the music. Predictably, various methods were found to strip out the DRM from tracks purchased through the iTunes store, and ultimately the record companies were forced by consumer pressure to offer DRM-free tracks through other merchants. Like the record companies with their music, Apple and AT&T are following an outdated business model. Instead of locking down the iPhone six ways from Sunday, what Apple should do is fairly obvious, at least to me:

  1. Sell the iPhone as an unlocked and unsubsidized GSM phone. The initial iPhone proved that people were willing to spend large sums of money for an Apple-branded phone that just worked. Why not let them?
  2. Permit its use on any GSM network.
  3. Either sell it exclusively through Apple Stores, or offer it through multiple providers.
  4. Develop and market a CDMAversion of the iPhone that can be sold via Sprint and Verizon. In many areas of the USA, those are the most complete and reliable networks; why not take advantage of them? Palm and Blackberry manage to do both GSM and CDMA versions; why can't Apple?

Of course, for those who just can't wait for this eventuality to take place, there is an option. But then, if you read Part I, you already know that.

Open and closed, Part I

The last few weeks have seen a couple of announcements in the tech world: the launch of the new 3G iPhone from Apple, and a new round of investment in the popular but increasingly unreliable microblogging service Twitter. Each of these events has been discussed in the tech press, and the iPhone in particular is currently the subject of much hype and publicity,having gone on sale today.

Both of these things, however, have eclipsed a couple of developments that are, arguably, far more interesting and with much greater potential to shake up the established order. With all due respect to the iPhone, which has had a dramatic impact on the smartphone market, the new model is probably more accurately seen as an upgrade of the first-generation model than as something all-new—at least in terms of hardware. The new hardware features are GPS and 3G support (i.e., support for the GSM HSDPAprotocol, a mobile broadband standard). Unfortunately, GPS tends to drastically reduce battery life, and AT&T offers 3G access in only a limited number of areas. Because the new phone requires a much more expensive calling plan, and the other improvements to the new iPhone are software improvements that are available to current iPhone owners as a download, there has been some grumbling that upgrading to the new iPhone may not be worth it to current owners.

What the iPhone hype has obscured is the launch of a phone that, while not a direct competitor to the iPhone in any real sense, is at least a shot across the bow from an unlikely source. The OpenMoko group has introduced the Neo Freerunner, a touch-screen, tri-band unlocked GSM phone that bears more than a passing resemblance to a rounded-off iPhone. The potentially game-changing thing about the Freerunner is its open-source nature. While the iPhone runs a version of OS X, the Freerunner uses a mobile version of Linux—and unlike the iPhone, an owner can legally hack into its operating system, add programs to it, and generally alter it to his or her heart's content.

True, most people aren't interested in doing that to their mobile phone, but the emergence of the iPhone Dev Team showed that a fair number of people want the ability to customize their phone regardless of the manufacturer's wishes. Apple would prefer that this not happen, which is likely the reason why the new iPhone must be activated in-store rather than at home through iTunes, as was the case with the previous model. With the Freerunner, there is no such limitation, and the inclusion of a Linux-style package manager should make installation of new programs a breeze. The Freerunner is not an exact match for the iPhone feature-for-feature; for example, there is no camera, it doesn't support HSDPA, and you won't be using it to sync up to your iTunes library anytime soon.

Because it's an unlocked phone, not subsidized by a mobile operator such as AT&T, it's also more expensive. But for what it is, it's an extremely interesting peek into a world of much greater wireless freedom than we're used to. Lots of people must agree; as I write this, the GSM 900 version is sold out at the NeoMoko store. Coming up in Part II: Twitter and the world of microblogging, and a new open-source competitor.

Giving the people what they want

Listening to this week's episode of This Week in Tech, reference was made to the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?"Now, I haven't seen the film in question. I can't speak to whatever argument it puts forth. I do, however, have a fairly good idea of the answer to the question posed in the title.

Folks, the electric car was killed by the public. I know that isn't the answer people want to hear. It's much more satisfying to blame General Motors and Toyota for killing off their electric cars (although Toyota receives kudos for its hybrid technology). The fact remains, however, that if enough people had wanted them, they'd still be producing them, because that's how free enterprise works. If there is demand, someone will fill that demand. If there is insufficient demand to profitably produce something, it's going to be killed off. Like it or not, that's how the world works.

Here's an example from another industry: when I worked for McDonald's (which I did for almost fifteen years, as a manager), there was a general outcry that McDonald's needed to produce healthier food. In response, the company replaced its soft-serve ice cream with frozen yogurt, introduced salads, developed a low-fat hamburger (the McLean Deluxe), and lowered the fat content of its milkshakes. And then... Sales tanked. People complained that the yogurt had an aftertaste (guess what, people, it's yogurt), that the shakes weren't rich enough, that the McLean was dry. The most popular dressings for the salads were bleu cheese and ranch.

You see, people often say they want one thing, and then go out and spend their money on something else. While Mickey D's was introducing healthier options, people kept right on buying Big Macs and Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese. And when GM introduced the EV1, people kept right on buying Tahoes, and Silverados, and Yukons, and Hummers, and did so in ever-increasing numbers, because twenty years after the Arab oil embargo, people forgot that gasoline could get expensive and scarce. Sure, there were some people who wanted an electric car, but not enough to make it a profitable enterprise--and so GM, and the rest of the industry, gave people what they wanted, until even Cadillac, Lincoln, and Lexus started building huge, glitzy trucks.

So the next time you're tempted to blame the industry for its stupidity, take a look in your own driveway. If you're driving a full-size truck or SUV, and you're not a farmer--or if you don't live in an extreme climate--blame yourself instead. We only got what we asked for.

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