Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Inevitability Of X86/X64 Smartphones

I've been watching the slow drip of news and details about Intel's upcoming low power-consumption mobile CPU, codenamed "Moorestown" more closely lately. Granted, details are few and Intel is still focused on promoting their Atom processor.

But in a previous post (Rise of Smarter Smartphones... ) I talked about the near-future of smartphones, and how they're morphing into general purpose mobile computers. I've also read the ongoing debate between people who think ARM (a RISC-architecture mobile CPU used in iPhones, T-Mobile's G1, the HTC Touch Diamond, and most other smartphones) is the future of mobile computers, and those who think the x86 architecture will eventually triumph.

Well, while I think ARM is great - my Touch Diamond runs on a 528 MHz ARM chip - the history of alternative architectures for widespread computing is pretty grim. The DEC/Compaq Alpha chip (also a RISC processor) was the first 64-bit CPU to run Windows. Most people never even knew there *was* 64-bit windows on non-x86. And the once-vaunted Alpha chip? It's design was eventually sold off to Intel, who put it to pasture as soon as they could.

The Alpha, Sun's Ultrasparc, Intel's own Itanium, the Motorola/IBM/Apple 68000-series, and so on are all now either dead or niche products. If Intel can't get people to adopt a new architecture - and they tried, but AMD read the tea-leaves right and offered 64-bit x86 - then it's hard to see how ARM will fare much better, when the two architectures start to compete in the same space. And that's not yet - but by 2011 or 2012, we're going to see the high-end smartphone market moving en masse to x86. Count on it.

Sun's Ultrasparc, and the Alpha chip both survived fine - until x86 started showing up in servers and competing with them. For now, Intel's Atom is still too power-hungry to compete with battery-loving ARM chips, but Moorestown allegedly draws 1/10th of Atom's wattage when "idle." If it's even close in power consumption to ARM chips (comparing watts/flop, or whatever - doing equivalent tasks) then building x86 smartphones becomes a no-brainer. OEMs won't have to re-write device-drivers, and software companies won't have to worry about hardware incompatibilies. Apple's OS X already runs on X86, so creating an x86 iPhone would be pretty straightforward. Ditto for Android (based on Linux).

Plus, we've already seen some interesting near-smartphone x86-based phone/devices... these are the "Newtons" of the x86 smartphone market - not ready for prime-time, but a demo of the concept.

So - that's my stake in the ground. Whether it's Moorestown, or some AMD mobile-ized chip, or the next-gen chip beyond those, eventually the x86/64 architecture is gonna be in your hands.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

As Usual - I Find Out About Bangkok Protests on Google News

As is often the case, I just found out the latest news about the seemingly never-ending protests and counter-protests that Thais are having by scrolling past the headline on Google News. Doh!

The city is so huge, that other than some newspaper reports I read about planned protests (by both pro- and anti-government protesters, who really disagree) while being rained on in Koh Samui island over the weekend, there just wasn't any evidence of anything big going on today. I even walked to the grocery store and bought a turkey, potatoes, bread cubes, etc. (I cook a big Thanksgiving dinner every year), and walked back, and nothing. Nada.

After catching the latest episode of "Heroes", I was checking out Gizmodo, and decided to check Google News - and the protesters have gathered at Bangkok's international airport, which the government proceeded to shut down. Okay, so I'm glad these losers didn't decide to "occupy" the airport yesterday (since I flew back from Samui last night), but ya know, they've just lost any sympathy they might have had from me. Don't mess with the airport - airports are a big enough pain the butt for everybody involved on the best of days. Get the *$$! out of Suvarnabhumi Airport already.

This post was slightly off-topic, although the fact I find out about almost anything going on here (the occasional bloodless coup, protests, etc.) via the internet is a source of some amusement (for me anyway - I'm obviously easily amused, lol). Thai politics are amusing for a whole HOST of other reasons that I'll save for an article on the main hackingbangkok.com site.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The HTC Roadmap for WinMo, and Android Answers

I managed to attend a presentation by someone at HTC this week, and a (small) amount of light was shed on some of their future plans. I'm pretty sure that between Engadget Mobile and Gizmodo (and the dozens of gadget sites they troll for information), this information already exists at least as rumor, but here is what I learned. My last phone, and my current one, are both made my HTC, and both run versions of Windows Mobile (aka WinMO or WM).

One of the first slides of the presentation was an overall roadmap (see above) - unfortunately, the road on that map ended with 2008. Still - there was interesting info! There are three roads on the map: one for 3G phones, one for "Edge PDA" phones, and one for "Smart Phones". The last one - smart phones - only has two devices on it, and only one "new" one - the HTC S740 (code-named "Rose"), a oddish-looking mobile phone running WM6.1 Standard (e.g., non-touchscreen), and yet with a slide-out qwerty keyboard (plus a "normal" numeric keypad below the screen) and the same CPU as the Diamond. I guess some people really hate on-screen keypads.

The "Edge PDA" road has what looks like modestly updated versions of the original HTC Touch. Same OMAP 201 MHz processor, but with slightly better cameras, and running WM6.0. *yawn* These were codenamed "Opal". An un-codenamed device for Q4 of this year (that's now, for those keeping track) seemed to be the HTC P3470, another 201 MHz OMAP processor phone running TouchFLO 2D, but with quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE instead of the tri-band in the Touch/Opal series. There's also a quad-band Touch with the same specs, but with the rounded Touch form-factor, giong by "Touch Viva". I don't know about you, but I'm so over the underpowered, 2.5G, low-rez screens of the entire pre-Diamond series of "Touch" phones.

Which is a nice segue to the top-row of the "roadmap" - the 3G phones. The Touch Diamond shows up around mid-year (and since I bought mine in June, that jives with reality), followed by the Raphael (aka Touch Pro), and then the Jade. The Touch Pro is pretty much a fatter Diamond, owing to its slide-out qwerty keyboard, and includes a TV-out and a micro-SD card slot. According to Slayo.com, the Jade combines 3G, and the same processor as the Diamond series (528 MHz Qualcomm) with the 240 x 320 screen of the 2.5G Touch phones. On a later slide, it's referred to as the "HTC Touch 3G", and confusingly labled as having "four times the resolution of most phones", which is the same line used on the Touch Diamond slide. So is it really 240 x 320, or is it 320 x 640? Hmm... Anyway, the form-factor is defintely more Touch than Diamond, though by no means ugly. It comes in a few different colors, including ivory and black.

After the Jade comes the Victor - another variant on the Touch Diamond, with the corners being more rounded, and a different back. This phone was passed around the presentation, but I didn't have a chance to take a photo (they're all over the web anyway). The G1 was nowhere on the roadmap, but the final phone in the 3G row was the HTC Blackstone. As revealed by Coolsmartphone.com, this is HTC Touch HD, which goes on sale here in Thailand next week (knocks on wood) with it's gorgeous 3.8" 480 x 800 screen - enough pixels to watch video ripped from DVDs in all their 1990s-rez glory.

The presentation had some charts, courtesy of IDC (and dated 2007.... doh!) that showed sales of "converged devices" growing at double-digit rates. Since HTC is one of the biggest (and fastest-growing) makers of these mobile communication devices (which is what I'm calling them - "smartphone" doesn't really do justice to what you can do with a good one), things look pretty good for them, at least in the world of bar-chart projections. They've got the largest WinMO R&D team on the planet (not sure if that includes Microsoft or not.... looking at how delayed WM7 is, though, I wouldn't be suprised if HTC has more WinMo developers than Microsoft), and with Android, they're covering their butts just in case!

HTC doesn't just make gadgets though - they offer enterprise solutions to carriers including putting in push-mail using either the CAMEO Enterprise Server (which can connect to Exchange, Lotus/Domino, and normal IMAP/POP3 servers) or by adding BlackBerry Connect software to their phones, so crackberry-addicts can get their fix from HTC hardware. Unbeknownst to me, HTC has enterprise software for vertical markets like mobile insurance, healthcare management, sales-force automation, and "mobile monitoring" for fleet management (read: keeping tabs on where your truck-drivers are). All of these other offerings explain part of why HTC is sticking with WinMo through thick and thin (lately, thin). These other software solutions were all designed to run on WinMo - hence, more WinMo h/w from HTC.

At the end of the presentation was Q&A time. I had about 50 questions in my head, but to be polite, I just asked two. The biggest one was, "Why is the G1/Dream hardware less impressive than the Touch HD and Touch Pro, which came out around the same time?" The answer was very, very interesting. I was told that "clearly, HTC wasn't responsible for the complete design" - and that given HTC's focus on making "stylish" phones, the sheer non-beauty of the G1 should make that obvious. Whether it was T-Mobile, or Google that was influencing the G1's less-than-Prada-level of style, I don't know. I do know that the G1 has a 320 x 480 screen, which is half that of the Touch Diamond, and even less than half of the almost-identical sized Touch HD's screen. The HTC rep told me that the "next generation" of Android phone, to be released next year, will bring the hardware up to parity with their WinMo sets, and will be more stylish.

Oh - for you guys over at the XDA-Developers.com forums, HTC is definitely keeping an eye on what you guys write about. I mentioned to the HTC rep that there were people working on getting Android to boot on Diamond/Touch Pro hardware, and was rewarded with a big smile, and the reply, "Oh, you mean the XDA Developer people? Yes, they've been playing with our hardware a lot" (or words to that effect).

2009 should see some new HTC Android hardware - to HTC, Android is more of a "consumer" mobile OS, while WinMo is more of an "Enterprise" OS, but as time goes on, I suspect Android is going to get a lot of "enterprise" features too. Oh - and thanks, HTC, for the free Touch Diamond slim-case and the gift-pack of car-charger/mobile-charger/retractable-sync-cable and screen protectors - that's exactly the kind of swag I needed!!!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

True Move to Carry iPhone in Thailand - AIS Still Flapping Lips

Image from www.techgadgets.in
According to this news report from Reuters, those who lust for the Jesus Phone in Thailand will finally.... um... be able to get one "legitimately". Not that the gray-market-ness of the iPhones for sale in MBK, Pantip, and everywhere else has slowed anybody down - Reuters estimates there are 100,000 iPhones in use in Thailand. But still, at least there will be visual voicemail now (I guess?), and possibly lower prices (don't bet on that, but hey, maybe!)

The Reuter's article says:
True Move, said on Thursday it had signed a deal with Apple Inc to sell the 3G iPhone in Thailand.

The deal could make True Move, a subsidiary of True Corp TRUE.BK, the first operator to sell the new phone in the fast-growing Thai market. Bigger rival Advanced Info Service ADVA.BK says it is still talking with Apple about iPhone.

"True Move has signed an agreement with Apple to bring the iPhone 3G to Thailand in the coming months," True Move said in a statement. It gave no precise date.
I recently wrote a blog post about True Move's opening of a new "flagship cafe/store/hangout" place. Looks like they're staying true to their name, and bustin' a move, finally, to bring the iPhone (3G version, no less) to Thailand. The big remaining issue is the lack of 3G coverage in the Kingdom.

So - with no 3G network yet, is the sheer desire of many Thai people to own the most status-showing phone of them all enough to help True Move continue their untrammeled rise? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.
Update: 3GWeek - Asia's Mobile News is also covering this story.
Update 2: Due to a misconfiguration with my blog, it was unavailable for roughly the past four days. Doh!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

When You Have To Visit a Hospital - Might As Well Be a Nice One!

Two weeks ago, I caught some mutant, drug-resistant strain of strept throat that has been kicking my butt ever since. After two days of thinking (wrongly) that I would just fight off whatever it was like I do a cold, I gave up and went to the hospital. In Bangkok, most of the hospitals are probably okay, but most expats (and medical tourists) go to Bumrungrad Hospital. It was the first hospital in Asia to be accredited by JCI (the same group that accredits hospitals in the U.S.).

As an I.T. person, I've always had an interest in Bumrungrad - they've got a nearly paperless digital hospital system. Electronic medical records, multilingual support, every prescription is scanned in and saved in your file which your doctors can get to from anywhere, the works. The software package was originally developed by Global Care Solutions (GCS), and was built on the Microsoft .Net platform and SQL Server. GCS had a hellish reputation for burning out programmers (although they paid well!), and I've interviewed a few "ex-Global Care" people over the years for jobs in companies I've worked in here.

When Google started talking about electronic medical records a couple of years ago, it must have spooked Microsoft, though - they up and bought GCS lock, stock and stethoscope! I'm guessing (from my own experiences at Microsoft) that it's a much better place to work now.

When I was doing my MBA program here, I went on a tour given by a then employee (who was later fired - doh!). Because the hospital serves patients from all over the world speaking every language, non-English speakers are assignd a young woman wearing a small flag-pin to show what language she can speak (e.g., a visiting Japanese patient has a Japanese-speaking Thai girl following him around to translate). Their I.T. systems do the same - that same patient's prescription instructions come out in Japanese.

when you're waiting for your number to be called at the pharmacy, or the cashier (I have insurance, so luckily no charge), Arabs have their little info-slips in Arabic, Koreans in Korean, and so on.

In any case - they're growing a culture of whatever was eating my throat up, and I'll be back at Bumrungrad (gotta love that name) again Saturday. Did I mention the other reason it's my favorite hospital? There's a Starbucks in the lobby, and the nursing staff are... how to put this delicately... a bit more aesthetically pleasing than in any hospital I've been in back in the states. *cough*

Apple Comes to Thailand.... Sort Of.

It looks like the mighty eye of Sauron....err... Apple, that is, has finally set its gaze on the Kingdom of Thailand. To the left (conveniently in Thai) is part of an email promo sent out by Apple to announce the new Official Apple Online Store for Thailand.

The large first line just says, "Sawadee meung Thai", which basically means, "Hello Thailand". If you click on the link above to the Apple Online Store, you'll see the same thing in English. No mention of the iPhone yet, just iPods and Macs - and a free purple T-shirt if you buy one before November 24th. *yawn* Of course, the country is literally swimming in iPhones, including the new 3G iPhones - despite they're all being gray-market items, and of course, the complete uncertainty over when, if ever, we'll see a 3G network rolled out!

Now if we could get a genuine, physical, bricks and mortar Apple Store, that would be something. Just sayin'.

Edit: Looks like True Move will be bringing the iPhone to Thailand too, so hopefully this is just a portent...