JD Lasica archives: technology

February 6, 2014

Photos from Startup Grind 2014

MC Hammer

Here are 63 photos I shot this week at Startup Grind, the startup conference that drew 1,000 attendees and speakers — including MC Hammer, above — to the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

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December 21, 2013

Powerocks: How to get charged up


A portable charger for your digital lifestyle

By JD Lasica

Over the years, I’ve done product reviews for companies like Nokia, small camcorder companies and gadget startups in my role as a columnist for Engadget, all the while offering this disclosure statement that spelled out my affiliations.

powerocks-magicstick-charger200Well, let’s toss another one into the mix, because the good folks at Powerocks recently sent me the Powerocks Extended Battery Pak Super Magicstick (2800mAh) to test out, and within a week I began adding it to my road warrior arsenal.

Powerocks is a lightweight portable charger that takes the worry out of heading out of the house with a less than fully charged array of mobile gadgets, including the iPad, iPhone, Android phones, digital cameras, handheld game devices, GPS gizmos, MP3 players and more.

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September 5, 2009

Rip and watch movies and TV shows


How to rip DVDs and record TV for on-the-go video entertainment

There are several ways to watch DVD movies and TV shows on the road.

Sling Media sells a commercial product, the Slingbox ($250), that lets you stream television shows over the Internet to wherever you’re located. Macintosh users can buy Elgato’s EyeTV ($330), which works like a computer-based TiVo and records shows in MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 format. The Linux-based MythTV captures over-the-air unencrypted television signals (for more, see the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s HDTV-PVR Cookbook). A few mobile devices, such as various Archos players, make it easy to transfer TV shows from a TV set to a handheld device.

If you’d like to rip (or copy) copy-protected DVD movies that you’ve purchased to make your travels easier, you have lots of options. Be warned that this is a grey legal area, given that the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (PDF) makes no exceptions for fair use. But as Macworld magazine points out, “you can conserve battery power—and keep your actual DVDs safe—by ripping your movies to your hard drive.”

Ripping programs include:

• PC users have a choice of dozens of different programs such as DVD Decrypter, SmartRipper or many others. (See Doom9.net’s DVD Ripper comparison.)

• For Mac users, the free MacTheRipper program copies DVDs in full fidelity and at full size — roughly 4.5GB per movie. Ripping a DVD typically takes about 30 to 40 minutes.

• If high quality isn’t required, the free, open-source HandBrake will rip a DVD to a smaller, lower-quality file playable by programs such as Windows Media Player or QuickTime Player or MediaCentral (pictured above) for the Mac.

Want to watch the captured video on your hotel room’s TV rather than your laptop screen? Bring along an S-Video or composite video cable, along with an adapter, if you’ve got them.

Sources: Macworld mobile Mac issue, Macworld Mac the Ripper review,

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August 8, 2005

The Engadget Interview: Christian Bubenheim, general manager, Magellan Consumer Products

For this week’s Engadget Interview, veteran journalist J.D. Lasica spoke with Christian Bubenheim, vice president and general manager, Thales’ Magellan Consumer Products Business about portable GPS systems, how you use them in the wild, and how to find your car in Shea Stadium’s parking lot.

Why don’t you give us the nickel tour of Thales and Magellan? Christian_Bubenheim

Thales Navigation is the result of four GPS companies that came together over the past few years. The business really comprises three business units: Magellan on the consumer side, which includes outdoor handheld products and vehicle navigation; on the professional side we service survey and GIS or mapping customers, and on the OEM side selling into the automotive industry, avionics, lots of consumer electronics providers, and we do that through lots of different chipsets and black-box products. We have 13 locations around the world, about 650 employees, and we are sold through more than 20,000 retail locations.

Lay out for me the landscape for GPS devices. How big is this marketplace? Have we reached a tipping point yet where GPS navigation is becoming a mainstream activity?

The technology of GPS has been around for a long time. From a consumer standpoint, we definitely have reached a tipping point in the area of vehicle navigation. From region to region, the adoption rates and penetration are different. The Japanese market is the most advanced in vehicle navigation, followed by the European market and then, last, with a couple of years to catch up, is the North American market.

The tipping point where we see the biggest growth in vehicle navigation has been portable aftermarket products. Those are dedicated devices like the Magellan RoadMate that the consumer can buy in a consumer electronics outlet or club warehouse, put into his car and get up and running very quickly. It’s usually a windshield installation or dashboard mount, but there’s no professional installation necessary, you just turn it on and go.

That market is doubling year over year. We’re the market leader in the North American market with the RoadMate series.

The other segment on the GPS side is outdoor recreation. Within that there’s a lot of different segments. A big one is marine. Another is outdoor enthusiasts, people who like to hunt, hike, fish, trek, bicycle. And the third in this area is athletic products, with GPS usually coming in a large type of watch. Those are just now starting to emerge as an additional category.

So your RoadMate series is for vehicle navigation, and your eXplorist, Meridian and Sportrak series are for outdoor enthusiasts.

Right. Those are classic outdoor products. They’re rugged, waterproof, durable, and designed to show the outdoor consumer a view of different maps, charts, topographies. You can see fishing hotspots if you’re in a boat in a lake.

They also allow an application called outdoor route, a navigation product that lets you put in an address and you’ll get the same basic turn-by-turn guidance as you’d get with a vehicle navigation product.

How many satellites are in the network?

The satellite piece is a very easy one. There’s one GPS network we use from the U.S. military for civilian use. A second satellite system is under development in Europe. It’s called Galileo and will launch its first satellites in a couple of years. As part of Thales Group we’re very involved in the development of the receivers that will use Galileo. Having a second system in Europe promises to provide more reliability and accuracy in Europe.

There are 24 satellites in the network. The device should see a minimum of two satellites to get the first fix, and a third to pinpoint the location, and then you can also get the altitude of where you are.

How accurately do the GPS devices pinpoint your location?

We support an augmented GPS system that is accurate to within one meter, or three feet.

What percentage of customers use Magellan handhelds in the car?

More than 80 percent of our customers use the devices in their cars, with or without a turn-by-turn application. Some of them use it as a moving map, if you will.

Do you have any partnerships with car manufacturers yet?

The most important partnership we have is the Hertz NeverLost product we’re developing with Hertz.

For the novice, explain how GPS auto navigation works.

Well, if you’re using a Magellan RoadMate, you literally turn it on and go. All the maps are preloaded on the Magellan RoadMate 700 and 760 and there are preloaded SD cards for the Magellan RoadMate 300. The customer takes the product, puts it in their car, turns it on, and the GPS pinpoints your location. Then you can enter a destination, or see a nearby restaurant or hotel, or any of the 7 million points of interest we supply with the map database.

If you’re heading to an address, you type in the city and street and number, and you choose how you’d like to get there, by freeways, no toll roads, or country roads, and the system calculates every turn that’s necessary to get you there. It then gives you voice prompts whenever a maneuver is necessary. It shows you the map while it’s doing that. Our latest device, the Magellan RoadMate 760, goes a step further. It tells the driver a spoken street name. It’ll say, “Right turn in 100 yards — Smith Avenue.” It also gives you a choice to find an alternate route when you run into a traffic jam or detour.

But it doesn’t currently scan the roads to tell you if there’s a traffic jam up ahead, right?

That’s coming right now. It’s been quite popular in Europe for some time. In the U.S., the live traffic information services are becoming available. With the Magellan RoadMate 760, we offer an external live traffic receiver that integrates that information into the car’s navigation unit. If there’s an accident or road obstruction ahead, that is factored into the road calculations.

I could use one of those. You also get a choice between looking at a top-down map or a 3D videogame-style view?

In our case, we have the top-down view and what we call True View. As the turn comes up, the turn gets shown in a three-dimensional map with a large arrow to show the angle of the turn.

Did you see the article in Wednesday’s Slate comparing the GPS devices of five leading manufacturers? The good news is that Magellan’s RoadMate won the best UI category. The bad news is that it finished in the middle of the pack overall.

One of the key advantages we have with the RoadMate product is the ease of use. That user interface has been developed over many years and fine-tuned and optimized. Millions of users by now have used Hertz’s Neverlost system. If you have a system that anyone in a rental car can use, you get a lot of exposure and a lot of user experience to feed into further developing the product. It’s definitely a strength that we have.

Who’s currently the GPS device market leader — Garmin?

It varies by region and product category. In the North American market, we have by far the market leadership in vehicle navigation with a 53 percent share, with Garmin number two. In the outdoor category, Garmin has the leading market position, and we have between 25 and 35 percent of the market. In Europe, there’s another player, TomTom, that has the leading market position in vehicle navigation.

One of your competitors, Go, offers John Cleese’s voice for your navigational enjoyment for 12 bucks. How about Paris Hilton, Homer Simpson, or Clint Eastwood saying, “Turn right here, or do you feel lucky, punk?”

We’ve looked into these options. Technology-wise, it can be done and I think it’s pretty neat to have downloadable voices. Does it make business sense though? Our research shows only a very small number of customers would be willing to pay 12 dollars for a celebrity voice to guide them. Instead, they’re saying, get the basics right. I want to make sure I have the most accurate maps, the best turn-by-turn guidance, the best detouring around traffic jams. That’s where they see the most value.

What other things can GPS sports devices do for you?

GPS systems allow databases to be used in addition to guidance or standard navigation. This is most useful when you talk about tides and currents or moon phases. Someone using the device on a boat as they approach a harbor can determine the tides.

How about using a GPS device as a star map, to tell you the position of the constellations in the night sky?

I believe there’s a telescope company that is doing that relating to the position of the stars in the firmament. Very minor market there.

Have you heard any interesting stories about people using Magellan to locate a loved one, or to find civilization after they’ve been lost in the wild?

We’re heard from military personnel in the Middle East who told us, ‘Your device really helped me get through a crisis situation.’ There are fun stories like the fellow who lost his GPS system on a boat in New York, and it got picked up six months later by someone off the coast of Florida. The batteries were low, but the system was still working.

We got a letter just this week from a customer who lives in a rural area. There was a motorcycle accident out there with fire and rescue on the scene. They called for a helicopter and they were gonna use her front yard as a transfer site. The firemen were unable to get a lock on the satellite with their own GPS unit, so she ran into the house, got her Magellan, and within a few minutes had the GPS coordinates so they could get the helicopter in and get the guy critical medical attention.

How would Magellan devices be useful for us city slickers?

In addition to the map, there’s also a Point of Interest database pointing out restaurants, bars, museums, hotels, parks, parking lots. Also, when you park your car, you can leave a marker to remember where your car is. You can then have the system guide you back to your car.

That would come in handy at Shea Stadium!


What Magellan GPS devices do you personally use?

Sure, that’s part of the fun. Me and my wife have them in our cars, and when we have guests, I do the classic beta testing with those who’ve never used the product before. I’ve also used them boating, and when I go skiing to find out what the altitude is on the slopes.

The RoadMate 760 costs $1,100 — that’s a pretty penny. Who are you targeting at that price point?

We now start some of our products for as low as $99 for the eXplorist 100, for someone who just wants basic GPS functionality. It’s $499 for the Magellan RoadMate 300. With more features and functionalities, and pre-loaded hard drive so the product is ready to go out of the box, the Magellan RoadMate 760 is priced at $1,100. But the price range is very wide. It depends on what kind of map storage you want, the kind of screen, features, color vs. monochrome.

What does the future hold in store for GPS devices? Does Magellan have any plans to extend beyond GPS into other markets or services?

There are a couple of things that will emerge over the next couple of years. The main one is the classic consumer electronics drivers: As volume goes up, cost goes down, innovation becomes more rapid. The price for GPS chips is dropping dramatically. All mobile devices will be able to integrate GPS very cost-efficiently. Cell phones will be the most important driver of GPS adoption over the next couple of years. As the carriers roll out services and provide information based on location, that will be a major new segment that is opening up.

J.D. Lasica‘s new book about the digital media revolution is Darknet : Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation (Wiley & Sons).

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November 8, 2004

The Engadget Interview: Niklas Zennstrom of Skype

Veteran journalist J.D. Lasica interviews Skype co-founder and CEO Niklas Zennström about the future of voice communication, using Skype through wi-fi handhelds, and the coming death of the telecom dinosaurs:

Niklas_ZennstromPlease give me a quick backgrounder on Skype.

We were founded on Aug. 29, 2003, and now have 70 employees, about half in London and half in Tallinn, Estonia, and some in Luxembourg. With our work at Kazaa, we began seeing growing broadband connections and more powerful computers and more streaming multimedia, and we saw that the traditional way of communicating by phone no longer made a lot of sense. If you could utilize the resources of the end users’ computers, you could do things much more efficiently.

So what is Skype all about, and what’s the difference between Skype to Skype and SkypeOut?

Skype to Skype lets you call anyone else in the world who has downloaded the Skype application on their computer or PDA [personal digital assistant], for free. You just download the free software from our site. With SkypeOut you can call anyone anywhere in the world at cheap local rates, often two or three cents a minute.
How many Skype users are there, and how fast is it growing?

We have 2 million users in the U.S. and about 13 million worldwide in more than 200 countries. We’re getting 80,000 new users each day. And more than half a million people are connected via Skype at any given moment. In fact, we just surpassed our first 1 million simultaneous users online. The average call time is over 6 minutes – longer than traditional phone calls.

What platforms does Skype work on?

Windows, Linux, Mac OS 10 and Pocket PC, and we’re now working on some other mobile platforms.

What is SkypeIn and what are the plans for it? skype

SkypeIn will allow phone calls from the traditional phone network in to Skype. We don’t have a specific launch date yet, but hope to offer it sometime this winter.

Who’s using Skype? Who’s your typical customer?

Skype is for any individual who has a broadband Internet connection. Our early adopters were primarily male, 18 to 38 years old, but we have users now from across every demographic, from young children using it to keep in touch with a parent who may be traveling on business to great grandparents using it to keep in touch with family living all over the world. Skype is easy enough to use so that people don’t need to be tech savvy – a lot of users just want to communicate with their friends and family, and they find this is the easiest, cheapest way. If you can use a Web browser, you can use Skype.

Do you still use a land-line phone?

At home, I still have a regular phone line because I sometimes need to send faxes. At the office, we actually don’t have a land phone line. We use Skype mostly, and mobile phones to receive calls from people not on Skype.

I hear that Skype has higher penetration in some countries than in the United States. Why is that?

We have a much higher penetration in countries like Brazil and Poland, where phone rates are high and service is hit or miss in some places. In Poland, for example, an awful lot of families have relatives in Chicago and other U.S. cities, and so they place a lot of international calls. A lot of people in China, Taiwan, Japan and Germany are using Skype, too. There are different drivers in different countries.

How does Skype differ from Vonage, 8×8, and VoIP offerings from Verizon or AT&T or the other telecoms?

Vonage is much more similar to Verizon and AT&T than to us. With Vonage, you’re using a regular telephone, dialing a number, and its services have rates similar to the telecoms. What we are doing is taking advantage of the broadband Internet to provide basically unlimited free calls to anyone at a higher voice quality than they can with the phone lines.

Another differentiator is that Skype is free and simple to set up, and it costs us virtually nothing for a new user to join the Skype network, which is why we can offer the service for free.

The telephone is a 100-year-old technology. It’s time for a change. Charging for phone calls is something you did last century.

I imagine this also appeals to multi-taskers. You can text-message someone at the same time you’re talking with them.

Right. They also can combine voice with instant messaging and online file sharing. You can also instant message with others whle you’re talking to someone else, which makes the whole communication experience much richer and more efficient for businesses, too. We also have a conference call feature where up to five people can talk on one Skype call.

How do you plan to make money?

We’re making money right now by selling value-added services like SkypeOut, which brings in revenue. We don’t need to make as much money per user as the traditional phone companies because our marginal costs are so low. We’re also working on new paid-for features to offer users. But let me stress that Skype to Skype calls and all the features that you see today – except for SkypeOut – will remain free.

skype_wifiYou recently unveiled Skype WiFi. How does that take your company in new directions?

We decided to make Skype available on multiple platforms and independent of the PC. People need to access Skype wirelessly, no matter where they are, and what happens is that we’ll be taking advantage of the rollout of Internet everywhere – WiFi and WiMax in particular.

We started with Pocket PC, and now we’re looking at other mobile platforms like Windows SmartPhone, Symbian and Palm. We don’t have any launch dates yet for any of those platforms. It’s going to be wonderful to be able to make a Skype call from cell phones or PDAs.

So the idea is that anyone in a WiFi cloud can make a free Internet voice call to other Skype users using their Pocket PC.

Right. At no charge, if they both have the software installed. Or by using SkypeOut if they need to call a land line or mobile at low rates.

Several users have told me Skype to Skype typically sounds much better than SkypeOut to a land phone. Why is that?

That’s correct. Skype to Skype uses our broadband technology and we’re not limited to the phone network. The phone network imposes certain technological limitations on what we’re able to do with SkypeOut, unfortunately.

What equipment do you recommend to Skype users? Using a headset improves sound quality markedly, doesn’t it?

We do recommend headsets, and Plantronics is our headset partner. It’s good for your neck and frees up your hands, and it can improve sound better than some built-in computer microphones.

Have you considered incorporating Skype into other applications? For example, wouldn’t it be cool to integrate it with your Outlook contacts?

Exactly. We’re talking with third-party developers to integrate their applications with Skype.

And people can use Skype for other things, like sending documents to colleagues or downloading photos.

Yeah. What we want to do is remove the barriers in modern communications. If I have a Word document or digital pictures, it’s easy to do and we don’t have the limitations you get with e-mail.

What other kinds of gadgets will we be seeing Skype on in the future?

There are several manufacturers that you’ll see turning out cordless phones that you can connect to the computer via a USB dongle. We’re working with Siemens on that.

Will the wide deployment of WiMax affect the marketplace for Skype?

Sure. The more broadband wireless connections there are, the more you’ll see Skype proliferate.

Should the FCC regulate the VoIP market as it does traditional telephony?

The phone market was regulated so that customers get good service and also to enable fair competition in a monopolistic arena. Voice over IP should not be regulated because there is no monopoly. Today, millions of people and teenagers in particular aren’t getting land lines, they’re getting mobile phones and Internet connections. The phone companies are clinging to old business models rather than transforming themselves into services companies and reducing operational expenses by using the Internet. Soon, most of us will be using the Internet for voice communication, and the idea of charging for that makes as much sense as charging for email or for using a Web browser.

A lot of people associate peer-to-peer with piracy. Will Skype change people’s attitudes toward P2P?

Definitely. First of all, the Internet has been a P2P network from the very beginning. There are plenty of uses of today’s P2P networks that have nothing to do with music file sharing or piracy.

Any trouble with your traveling to the States because of your role with Kazaa? We have some fairly onerous copyright laws here.

Well, that’s not a problem. We have a number of investors from the United States. The entertainment industry is still spending a lot of money on lawyers, even though they don’t have a case anymore. They’re still trying to drag me into things. I’m free to travel there whenever I wish.

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