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Raising a Glass to Steve Jobs –-1955-2011

I’ve just been sitting and chatting with my parents on the phone.

Told them that the first computer I ever laid eyes on was an Apple II.  It was at the CompuMart store at the corner of Roosevelt and Byron in 1978.  We used to head down there after school. The owner, a tolerant guy who didn’t mind a few geeky boys in his store, would let us laboriously type code from the latest issue of Byte Magazine into the one Apple II he had in the shop. And then we’d sit back, type “Run”, and magic would happen.

We loved the Apple II because it had a vector graphics card, unlike the Commodore PET with its clunky peek/poke memory mapped character graphics. And when Apple shipped the Pascal board, we all marvelled at this new language that was so foreign to the Microsoft Basic that we’d been honing our programming chops on.

The Apple II was pure magic, and we were the alchemists and wizards extracting its secrets.

In the words of today’s venture capitalists, 1978 was a pivot year for me.  Until that point in time I was on a path to be a musician or some kind of scientist.  The Apple II opened my eyes to the creative possibilities of the personal computer.

As a coop student at Mitel in the spring of 1983, I had the privilege of seeing a demonstration of the Apple Lisa – a $12,000 machine that was Apple’s first foray into the iconic mouse and pointer idiom that persists today.

I spent the 1990’s working for Apple’s nemesis, Microsoft.  Even there, the Mac faithful endured.  My pal, Jeff Smith, was an enigmatic, Newton-carrying figure.

There was a rough patch in the 90’s.  Apple almost failed, and Microsoft extended $200 million to keep them alive. Ironic, eh? Since 2003, Jobs and Apple have reinvented the music industry, the telephone industry, and the book industry.  Quite the comeback.

For nearly 30 years I’ve lived in a world that has been somehow shaped by this man that many are calling a modern day Da Vinci.

Today, one of the creators of the modern information age and the world where I live, work and play, has passed.

Raise a glass, my friends.  Toast the artist, genius, visionary and human being who was Steve Jobs.  He will be missed.

To a life well lived.


Photographing SFO with BlackBerry Torch

I’m an enthusiastic amateur photographer.  Part of my enthusiasm comes from being married to an art photographer, and part of it is fascination with the creative process in the digital age. So, I like to think that I might occasionally take a decent photograph (check out my flickr stream).

Last week I was strolling through the SFO International Terminal on my way home after a couple of days at the GigaOm Mobilize Conference, and at the RIM Redwood City offices.  It was late in the day, and the International Terminal was empty – a lull period between the late day flights to Asia, and the redeye flights back to the east coast of North America.

I didn’t have my Nikon DSLR with me, so I snapped the image above with the new BlackBerry Torch 9810.  The BlackBerry is a pretty simple camera, but surprisingly versatile.

This image is actually a composite from 3 images stitched together in Photoshop Elements. I stood at the centerpoint in the image, and slowly rotated left to right snapping images, which I then merged later. The original images are these three (click on any of them if you want to see a larger version):




All three images are quite noisy.  Noise, in photography, refers to chromatic or pixel distortion that occurs when the picture is taken.  It’s a very common problem with snapshot cameras, especially in low light, and my BlackBerry is no exception.

On my first attempt to stitch the photographs together, I noticed clearly visible bands as a result of the first photograph being quite a bit noisier than the second.  So, I used PictureCode’s Noise Ninja filter to clean it up.  Here’s an enlarged before and after from a section of the terrazzo floor in the first photo so you can see the difference.  The noise reduction removes some detail, but it also gets rid of the graininess of the original.



Next I used Photoshop Elements “merge panorama” tool to create the composite image.  Now, there are a number of settings you can use on this tool.

If you use the defaults, you’ll get an image like this:


There isn’t a lot of usable photograph in this merge, however.  So I generally add the “remove vignette” and “correct geometric distortion” settings which results in an image like this:


The corrected image has much more usable picture in it than the uncorrected image.  Plus, I like the slightly curved distortion that it has introduced into the photo.  It gives the impression that it was taken with a wide angle lens.

After that, the remaining adjustments I made included:

  • brightening the image by about 20%
  • adding a warming filter.  Elements has a feature that allows you to imitate the effect of an old-skool glass filter, and in this case I chose an 81B, which compensates for the bluish cast of fluorescent lighting.
  • bumping saturation by 10%.

Then I straightened, cropped, and uploaded.

And this was the final result (click on it to see a larger version).  It turned out pretty well, and more than a few people have been surprised that it was taken with a BlackBerry.

SFO 3 copy

So next time you’re wandering around without your SLR, and you see something interesting, just snap it.  You won’t be disappointed.  You can take great pictures with a camera that’s as simple and easy to use as the one in my BlackBerry.

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New Beginnings @BlackBerryDev

In early 1999, I experienced a technology that would change the world.  From the backseat of a taxi in Las Vegas, I edited a press release on a RIM 950 Inter@Active pager.  It was an early device, with email but no real PIM capability to speak of.  Still, it was enough to open my eyes to the potential of wireless email. And, shortly after, employees all across the Microsoft campus where I worked at the time were carrying these devices, as they became the de rigeur technology that year.

On July 25th, I joined RIM’s QNX subsidiary as their Vice President of Developer Relations and Ecosystems Development, and today it’s public that I’m now Vice President, Developer Relations for all of RIM.  Over on the RIM DevBlog you can find a short interview with me, describing my role. (Shout-out to Andy Abramson, who reported this on Sunday… always the bloodhound.)

Over the last few days I’ve been in San Francisco at the Mobilize conference, and speaking with developers.   It’s clear from those conversations that the primary problem we face is lack of support from application developers.  My team’s job is to correct that – to win the hearts and minds of mobile developers again.

The good news is that we have plenty of great people to help with this challenge, and a wonderful story that’s largely untold.  Today, there are more than 120 million downloads per month from AppWorld, the RIM application store.     And according to Evans Data, BlackBerry is the best platform for making money as a mobile developer.  You might get more downloads with the competition, but with BlackBerry you can actually make a living!  That’s a novel concept, I know…

And speaking personally, the best part is that I get to work with the software development community again.  For most of my career – whether it was the early days of Microsoft C7, the 1993 launch of MS-DOS 6, the trench warfare of the Windows 95 vs OS/2 battle, the Internet Explorer vs Netscape battle, or the launch of QNX Momentics – I’ve worked with developers, platforms, and ecosystems.  Authoring this blog for the last 9 years has been a constant reminder of how much I enjoyed doing that.

It feels great to be in the thick of it once more.


P.S. We’re hiring developer evangelists – technical articulate people with a passion for mobile platforms.  Interested?  Contact me at alec dot saunders at rim dot com.

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Start-up advice, from the wine industry

Sunday morning Janice and I took a quick trip to Picton, Ontario. One of Janice’s photographs has been juried into CLIC, the Eastern Ontario Photo Show, and so we made the trip to Picton to drop her entry off before the exhibition begins next week.

It happens that Picton is in the centre of Prince Edward County, Ontario’s eastern wine growing region.  So we made the rounds to some of our favourite tasting rooms – Norman Hardie, Huff Estates, and Long Dog – as well as a couple of new wineries.

Prince Edward County has seen an explosion of wineries in the last few years.  When we first visited the county in 2006, there were 21 wineries.  Five years later, there are 34 or 35.  It’s a bit of a gold rush as start-up wineries are springing up all over.  Like many start-ups, they sometimes make mistakes as well.   One winery served us a chardonnay tasting from a bottle that had been open for two days – it was clearly oxidized.  Another opened a new bottle of cabernet franc, and served a “corked” taster.  Another had just varnished the walls in the tasting room, which made it impossible to smell the wine – all you could smell was varnish.  And another had cranked the price of their new white up to $49 per bottle after winning first place in the recent Ontario Wine Awards.

I was chatting with Long Dog co-owner Steven Rapkin at the end of the day about some of what I’d seen, both yesterday and other trips.  He made the following comments:

  1. Winemaking is a retail business.  It’s true that everyone has a different perception of wine, which more than ever drives home the old maxim that “the customer is always right”.  Address the perceived flaws in your product and services immediately, because it’s always easier to retain an existing customer than to recruit a new customer.
  2. Winemaking is a word-of-mouth business.  Very few winemakers can afford the huge marketing budgets of the large wineries.  They rely on satisfied customers who tell friends in order to bring new business.  See point 1!
  3. Don’t sweat the loonies (that’s a Canadian 1$ coin).  Today it’s common to charge a nominal fee for a tasting at a winery, largely to combat the busloads of wine tourists who sometimes show up intending only to drink sample without buying.  Most wineries waive the sample fee for buyers, but some don’t.  In Rapkin’s own words “you’re not going to get rich on the loonies”.  You have to price your product fairly, and reward customers by treating them fairly.

Starting a winery sounds a lot like starting a technology business, doesn’t it?

We left with Prince Edward County with three cases of wine, including a half case of Long Dog’s wonderful 2007 “Bella” Riserva Chardonnay, which will soon be sold out.  On the way back to Ottawa, we also stopped at Fifth Town Cheese, and bought a half dozen of their excellent artisanal cheeses to enjoy with our wine.

What a way to spend a Sunday!

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Want proof of pent-up demand for Blackberry Playbook applications?  Announced in March, and reportedly due to be available later this year, an early beta of the Playbook Android Player was inadvertently made available for a short time on Blackberry.com yesterday.  RIM pulled the software, and issued a statement telling people not to use it, but not before a group of developers on Crackberry.com grabbed it and started testing every Android app they could get their hands on.  What you can see from the conversation on Crackberry.com is that although the leaked code is an early beta, many Android applications worked immediately.

Don’t feel like hacking your Playbook to see what Android Player looks like?  No problem.  The Crackberry team has helpfully posted the following video so you don’t have to.

Source: Crackberry.com

Are you excited?  I am.

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Phono, by Voxeo Labs, is a simple jQuery plugin and JavaScript library that turns any web browser into a phone, capable of making phone calls and sending instant messages. Phonegap is an HTML 5 framework that lets any web based application become a mobile application, for virtually any modern mobile device – Windows Phone, Android, iOS, Blackberry, and so on.

Pair the two of them together and what do you get?  An HTML 5 based mobile voice development platform.  And that’s what they announced this morning.

I like it.  A lot.

  1. It lets web developers become mobile developers using tools that many people already know and understand.
  2. It gives mobile voice developers a single framework to target, and hopefully a single codebase to develop for.

Both of those advantages add up to reduced time to market, reduced investment, greater profits.  And for customers, they might mean many more innovative uses for voice in mobile.

Nice job!


The Blackberry Playbook is now the first tablet to gain FIPS certification, which means that it meets US government standards for data security and encryption.  Playbook also won Best in Show and Best of FOSE in handheld devices at the federal government IT conference in Washington DC this past week.

This certification and these awards certainly reinforce RIM’s position that the Playbook is the first “professional grade” tablet on the market, and may be a good indicator of how the market will evolve – Android and iPad devices for consumers, and Playbook for professionals.   Now, what will Avaya and Cisco do?  Both companies have announced  business focused tablets as well, but built on Android.

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Like a lot of other folks, on Wednesday I was playing with the newly launched video chat capability on Facebook.  Done in partnership with Skype, it brings video chat to the masses via the 750 million Facebook users out there.

First I chatted with Larry Lisser in San Francisco.  Not a good experience.  Grainy, laggy video, and bad audio synch problems.  If this is what Facebook video chat is all about, I thought to myself, it’s going to be a failure.  Next I talked with Dan York and his two year old daughter Cassie.  Great experience, and entertaining as all get out due to young Cassie’s antics on the screen.  Don’t tell Mrs. Saunders, but that little flirt was blowing me kisses the whole time!  And the video was wonderful and in synch.  Clearly the quality problems with Larry were simply network related.  And then I chatted with Jim Courtney, where we quickly started digging through the nitty gritty of the user experience.

What do I love about Facebook video chat?

  1. It’s a little thing, but the window pops up on screen directly below my center-mounted web cam.  It forces me to look into the camera when i’m chatting, which means that I’m meeting the other person’s eye, rather than looking at the screen.
  2. I can leave a video-mail message if the other person isn’t available.  Why isn’t this in the standard Skype application?
  3. It’s SUPER easy to set up and use. For many people, Skype has an intimidating UI with a lot of options.  Facebook video chat is pure simplicity. I could see my wife, or my brother-in-law, both of whom have resisted Skype until now, using this.

It’s probably not going to steal away today’s Skype user.  The experience isn’t as rich, quality isn’t as high, and you have to be logged into Facebook to receive calls.  Instead, Facebook video chat is a great compliment to Skype.

Bottom line: I don’t agree with Om Malik that this is a one-sided deal in Facebook’s favour.  Like Andy Abramson, I think this is a good thing for Skype and for Facebook.  Facebook gets a feature that will allow it to compete against Google +, and Skype gains an audience that they might not have otherwise had access to.  It won’t be long before there are a billion video chatters on the planet, all using Skype technology, and that’s what Skype’s management wants and needs.

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According to the Globe and Mail’s Hugh Thompson, next month will mark the 10th anniversary of the Personal Video Recorder, or PVR, in Canada.  And what a boring and dull ten-year old our PVR has become.  Almost none of the promise of the PVR’s first released in 1999 has ever been realized here.  Instead, our PVR has become little more than a glorified video cassette recorder.

Yes, the satellite and cable industry trumpets the advent of “whole home” networked PVR’s.  What a yawner.  ReplayTV had this ten years ago.  In fact, the current crop of PVR’s is missing a whole host of features that used to be common place!  How about:

  • In-video content search, pioneered by Ottawa’s own Televitesse.  By scanning the caption stream, Televitesse could find specific spoken words in a program, and jump the viewer to that scene.  It was perfect for news hounds.
  • Search and record by cast member, subject, genre, or review ratings.  All delivered by ReplayTV over a decade ago.   My favorite feature of ReplayTV?  Once you had created the search, it would simply record anything on any channel at any time that matched search.
  • Tivo Season Pass – record an entire series, every week, even if the time or the day or the channel changes.

The tenth anniversary of the PVR in Canada is a legacy of mediocrity.  The television companies – Bell, Rogers, Shaw – apparently don’t have the imagination or the desire to improve the viewing experience for the user.

Is it any wonder that so many people are turning to the web, instead of television, for video?

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eComm 2011 doesn’t disappoint

Each year around 300 people gather together for three days in San Francisco at an invitation only event to plot the future of communications. The event is Lee Dryburgh’s eComm, the Emerging Communications Conference. You can think of it as TED, for the communications industry. Topics have ranged from Voice over IP, to the Internet of Things, mobility, sensor networks, user experience design, augmented reality and social networks.


I attended this year’s eComm last week, and it didn’t disappoint.

Monday morning kicked off with a series of presentations on how todays markets are evolving. The best of the bunch was Ovum Chief Telecoms Analyst Jan Dawson’s presentation titled Telecoms in 2020: A Vision of the Future. He made the case for the emergence of two categories of carriers: SMART players, where SMART stands for ‘Services, Management, Applications, Relationships and Technology’, and LEAN operators, where LEAN stands for ‘Low-cost Enablers of Agnostic Networks’. You can think of these as being similar to today’s retail and wholesale telecom markets. Dawson showed how carriers could build good businesses in either market, a departure from the common viewpoint that carriers must build value-added services rather than be so-called “bit pipes”.

Monday afternoon, another stand-out presenter was Raj Singh from SRI International. Singh’s research focused on enterprise mobile applications, showing convincingly that enterprise is ready to buy narrowly construed mobile applications in virtually every part of business, from HR to accounting, sales, manufacturing and more. This is a market which has been dramatically overlooked in the rush to build consumer smartphone applications, yet may hold more promise.

HP’s Dr. Peter Hartwell showed prototype sensors orders of magnitude more sensitive than the motion sensors in today’s mobile phones. Hartwell imagines a world in which highly integrated sensors, capable of detecting light, motion, send, and location are embedded into literally everything. Using a prototype he demonstrated how a single device could be used to monitor breathing, heart rate, location, and velocity when attached to a person, or an entire building when attached to a single piece of infrastructure such as a water pipe.

Tuesday morning was dominated by presentations around Voice 3.0, the Voice Web, including a panel at the end of the morning. Harqen CEO Kelly Fitzsimmons presented a wide ranging series of scenarios on how to extract relevant information from voice conversations, Vox.io’s Tomaz Stolfa showed his company’s web based telephone services, and Voxeo’s Jose de Castro gave an update on the latest Web RTC / RTC Web efforts to embed voice communications directly into the web using open standards. De Castro showed how to create a telephone call from a web page using just five lines of javascript, and according to de Castro the next releases of the Chromium browser will support RTC Web.

Martin Geddes also demonstrated an early prototype he and Dean Elwood have been working on, which allows the creation of voice “objects”. They propose encapsulating logic within a voice stream – a voice mail message, for example, with actions associated with it, similar to an HTML email message. A restaurant might leave you a voice mail message about a reservation, asking you to press 1 to confirm, or 2 to cancel.

Harqen’s security industry heritage was on display Tuesday afternoon, as they launched their Symposia product. Symposia creates automatic synopses from web conferences by following user actions, text communications, and tagging events in order to allow meaningful search of the entire event – voice, presentation and text chat.

The rest of eComm promised as much as the first day and half as it continued with presentations on augmented reality, open source voice, user experience and more. I was forced to leave early for family reasons, and was disappointed to miss Berkeley’s Alex Bayen, Skype’s Jonathan Christensen, 2600Hz Darren Shreiber, the always fascinating Dean Bubley and the closing talk by Richard Thieme.

eComm is unique in the communications industry in the extent to which it focuses on the future of communications technology. You won’t generate leads or sales from this conference, but you will walk away energized by the possibilities, and possibly with one or two great product ideas of your own.

I can hardly wait for next year’s event. In the meantime, there’s always the eComm blog, with its repository of presentations from years past.