A lot of short points this week as there was a lot of interest. Where last week brought big rockets, now there are plans for nanocrafts, Facebook held its F8 conference, Microsoft sues the US government, Swift supports Android, and a new Kindle.
Breakthrough Starshot has announced that they’re planning to send a fleet of tiny spacecrafts to Alpha Centauri. There are still various technical difficulties that need to be overcome, but the idea itself is fascinating.
They plan to propel these nanocrafts, which are small and similar in costs to a smartphone, by beaming a laser at them from Earth until they reach about 20% of light speed in a matter of minutes. It will likely still take a couple of years before all the technical hurdles are passed, but in a way this ties in with what I wrote last week concerning the IoT: that the current state of technology allows for cheaper products to be created.
While the goal is laudably high, I can’t stop but think how this might change the exploration of our own solar system as well. New Horizons was (and is) a great mission, and provides us with a wealth of information about Pluto, but it also took almost a decade to reach its destination.
If it becomes possible to instead send a fleet of these tiny crafts there in a matter of weeks or months, that will open up so many more options. While each individual craft is less capable, with a fleet you’d get a lot of data to combine and work with. Not to mention that there is a far larger margin for error and that it will then be possible to send a different fleet with different recording equipment as a follow up soon after.
Of course, before we get too excited, first those not exactly minor hurdles have to be passed. I’m looking forward to that happening though.
Facebook held it’s F8 developer conference last week, and several interesting announcements came out of that.
One of these is that they’ll be following the apparent trend of chatbots by enabling these in Messenger. That means you’ll be able to talk to a bot for your reservations and things like that1. Whether that’s going to be a good and useful experience I guess we’ll find out in time. While I like chatbots (I built one after all), there are some things that they’re not great for or that have better alternatives.
More interesting than that though are Facebook’s efforts to providing (better) Internet connectivity for people. For this they have several programs, from satellites for where it isn’t available at all to antennas for places where the access can be improved. Combined with Google’s Loon project this should help in enabling this access for people who don’t have it. Of course, just having Internet access available doesn’t mean much if you can’t use it, and it doesn’t help with other problems. Still, let’s take it as a potential good step.
There was a lot more, including lots of VR related items, but I’ll leave those for you to look at yourself.
Microsoft opposes the government
The US government, or their law enforcement agencies, has the tendency to request information from technology companies regarding their users. They usually combine this with an order that stops these companies from talking about it. Because of this some companies have taken to using a warrant canary on their site.
This is basically a line that says something like “We’ve never received any warrants from the US government”. And once this disappears, as it recently did with Reddit, we know that it has happened even though they can’t say anything about it.
However, this doesn’t solve an underlying problem. That users still can’t be informed that the government requested information about them. Often these gag orders have an expiry date, but other times they don’t. And it’s to fight this last type that Microsoft is now suing the US government.
What they want is that there will no longer be any indefinite or even long-term gag orders preventing them from ever being able to discuss this with their users. Which I completely agree with. Even in cases where a gag order might be necessary, I don’t believe that this should be indefinetely. Of course, some criminal investigations might be going on for a long time, and I can understand they don’t want to tip of who they’re looking at, but indefinite orders are signs of a police state not a democracy.
Swift on Android
When it was first opened, I mentioned this pull request concerning support for Android in Swift. Last week this was finally merged, so that Swift can now officially be build for the Android platform as well.
Obviously this doesn’t mean iOS apps can simply be ported over to Android with minimal work. A good UI for example should match the platform2, and frameworks like UIKit aren’t available outside of an iOS device. That said, it still makes it a lot easier to have your backend code the same across platforms. In the end, while this makes it slightly easier, it will still be a financial decision for developers whether they should port their app to Android. I suspect that at least in the beginning this will mostly be of use to those who already have an Android app and would like to simplify their code base (and ensure it remains the same).
As I’ve hinted in the past, I’m a big fan and user of Amazon’s Kindle devices. The ebook readers, not their tablets. So it was with great interest that I saw they’ve announced the Kindle Oasis, their latest flagship device. To me it looks great. I like how they’ve completely redesigned it so that the actual device is lighter, but that it now comes with a cover that doubles as a battery case. This should make it easier to use, while offering better battery life than before.
I’m unlikely to buy it any time soon though. Not only am I still very happy with my Kindle Voyage, but this new design comes with an unfortunate premium in price. The Oasis can be yours from $290 USD (ad free it becomes $360). That’s a rather high price compared to other Kindles and I suspect more than most people are willing to pay. Of course, that’s relative. The first Kindle I bought cost more than that, but prices have dropped considerably since that time.
Because of all this, my recommended Kindle for most people is still be the $120 USD Paperwhite. The latest version Paperwhite is very similar to the Voyage in everything matters to most people, but a lot cheaper.