Is anybody listening?

This afternoon I had lunch at the Jebel Ali Free Zone food court and saw a heavily disguised version of the 2006 Mercedes ML500. I’ve seen many pictures on the net of various prototypes of this vehicle, so I recognized it immediately. I had my iMate PocketPC phone with me and took several pictures of the car.

This is not the first prototype I’ve seen in this parking lot. Previously I’ve seen the new Land Rover Discovery (LR3) parked here as well. In other parts of Dubai, I’ve seen other heavily masked vehicles on the highway but have never gotten close enough to figure out exactly what they are. Some of my friends have also seen some and taken pictures as well, but they were always to fuzzy to identify what we were looking at.

I had initially decided not to post the pictures I took today on the net, but now I’m reconsidering. Having worked on non-public/confidential projects when I was at Microsoft, I know that keeping unannounced products private is very important to the marketing efforts of any companies. Many auto manufacturers have been struggling for years to thwart spy photographers who print pictures like the ones I see on every week.

Having said that, the guys who illegally parked this car so it was blocking traffic in the parking lot of a very busy food court should have known better. Who the hell do they think they are? Sure it’s hot, but the rest of us drive around and try to find legal spots so why can’t they? This is especially true if you are driving a prototype of something which the public isn’t supposed to see until January.

I have a few more gripes that I need to get off my chest. Why is it that Mercedes customer service in Dubai sucks? Really, I want someone to tell me why I’m treated like shit after spending $$$ on a car? It’s not like you sell the damn thing any cheaper in Dubai than the US. It’s not like the car comes with a longer warranty, in fact it’s only three years instead of four. I don’t get free scheduled maintenance for the entire warranty period. I don’t get a loaner car when my car breaks down and needs warranty service. The employees at my dealer are paid 1/3 of what their counterparts in the US make, and the dealership pays no taxes of any kind. So what’s the story?

It’s great that Dubai has become a popular hot weather testing ground for car manufacturers. But just because we’re in the middle of the desert doesn’t mean that we don’t have camera phones and can’t recognize what your vehicles look like even if you cover them in tape and garbage bags. You could have a disgruntled customer or two walking around eating at the same place you are.

For now, I’m only going to post one picture which really doesn’t reveal much. I feel cheated, so I want to help any other potential ML series buyers out there make a more informed decision by seeing what waiting another year will get them. Maybe they won’t feel as unhappy as I do by the treatment my $$$ has gotten me. I’ll sleep on it and decide if the rest of the pictures I took are worth posting. I feel better after whining like a spoiled brat. Anyone who’s got a strong opinion either way should feel free to post a comment.

New Tablet PC

After much thought and consideration, I have replaced my Acer TravelMate C110 convertible tablet pc. This model had the benefits of being a regular laptop which had a rotating screen which allowed it to convert into a Tablet PC. This was my second tablet after the original Toshiba Protege 3500 which I had while I worked at Microsoft. It has now been replaced with an HP Compaq TC1100 Tablet PC

There are several reasons why both the Toshiba and the Acer were not suitable for my needs and the HP is better:

  • My primary laptop is a 17″ PowerBook G4 from Apple, and there is no Windows compatible laptop on sale today which even approaches Apple’s products in terms of design, style, build quality, and features. Apple has been building the best portable computers for fifteen years and there is no sign of the competition catching up.
  • I need a Tablet PC primarily to take notes in meetings, not as a full featured laptop (that’s what my PowerBook is for). Both the Acer and the Toshiba were not machines which I enjoyed carrying around in my hands. They are too thick, too ugly, and the battery life was less than I would have liked.
  • The HP is very well designed, almost as good as what Apple builds. It is sleek, feels well built, light, thin, and isn’t covered with ugly stickers. It has decent battery life, Bluetooth, WiFi (upgraded to 802.11a/b/g), and a detachable keyboard.

The other Tablet PC models I considered before selecting the HP were the following:

  • Fujitsu-Siemens Stylistic ST5010. I decided not to purchase this model because it is not stocked by dealers in Dubai and has a 3-5 week lead time, and is Dhs. 3000 more expensive for a similar config to my HP (approx US$800).
  • Motion Computing M1400. I really like this model, but it is not sold in Dubai. It also costs about US$ 500 more, has no fan (so it gets pretty warm), and the attachable keyboard is not as solid as the one from HP. The two features of this model I really like are the fingerprint scanner and array microphone.
  • Tatung TTAB-B12D (also sold as the Electrovaya Scribbler SC2010 in the US). Again, this model is not sold in Dubai. It is very similar to the Motion M1400, but lacks the array microphone. On the plus side, battery life is claimed to be in the 6-9 hour range! Yikes.

I’ve had the HP TC1100 (Centrino 1.0 GHz, 1024mb RAM, 40gb HD) for nearly ten days and I’m still convinced I made the right decision. I was at first concerned that I bought something that was already nearly ready replacement with a newer model, but the delay of the ultra low voltage version of the Dothan processor from Intel meant that it’s unlikely to see any major improvements in slate Tablet PC’s until early next year. By then I’ll have found an excuse to replace the HP!

I’ve found some great resources for Tablet PC owners over the past few weeks:

Return flight: JFK -> DXB

I flew back to Dubai on Emirates flight EK 202 on July 5th, which departed JFK at 11:30pm and arrived in Dubai 20 minutes early at 8:00pm on July 6th. The flight went quite well except for two problems:

  1. The WiFi network onboard which connects to the Tenzing e-mail service was not working and no one onboard knew why. I didn’t try the Ethernet jack in the seat because I forgot to put the cable in my hand bag and there wasn’t a spare one available onboard.
  2. My laptop (Apple 17″ PowerBook) fell off the seat next to me while I was in the bathroom onto it’s side. The laptop is still working, but unfortunately it fell with the power adapter connected so the lower part of the case is pretty badly warped and now it won’t stay closed. This is a major bummer.

I think I slept for two hours on this flight. The departure from JFK was quite simple. I called before going to the airport to find out what time I needed to check in. I was told that I could check-in as a business class passenger (yes, I’m a sucker and used up another 65k miles to upgrade on the return journey) as late as 40 minutes before departure. I showed up at JFK Terminal 4 about 60 minutes before departure at 10:30pm, and there was no line to check in. Got my boarding pass, went into the departure area, bought some Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and relaxed for a while in the Aer Lingus lounge. There didn’t appear to be any extra security measures and I was through pretty quickly. There aren’t many other flights leaving that late from JFK so there were no lines anywhere.

The boarding process was not handled very professionally by the Emirates ground staff. They appeared to be young and inexperienced, and it didn’t help that there was a broad mix of nationalities among the passengers who all had their own ideas about the correct process to board the flight. It’s amusing to watch 200 people all try to board a flight at once!

This flight was not completely full, probably about 75% capacity. There were 10 open business class seats out of 42. It was a little bumpy most of the way across the Atlantic, but it smoothed out when we high Europe. The meals served in business class were pretty good, but I was disappointed with the selection of snacks that are kept in the galleys in-between meals. All they had were some pastries and sandwiches; no fruits/cand/chips were available. BA keeps a nice set of treats available in their Club World galley during the SFO-LHR flights.

Arrival into Dubai was actually as smooth as it could have been. We got off the plane pretty quickly, immigration took only 30 seconds as I use the eGate service at Dubai Airport, and the bags just started to arrive as I reached the baggage claim area. Bags from a flight from Kuwait were on the same belt, but it didn’t bother me too much. I got home 60 minutes after landing, which includes the 30 minute drive home.

On this journey, I earned 6834 tier miles (actual flown mileage) each way, but with the online booking bonus for an economy class ticket and the 25% bonus for being a Skywards Silver member, the total earnings for the return journey was 27,338 regular miles (bonus don’t count as tier miles). Unfortunately, I used up 130,000 miles on the upgrade to business class both ways. That’s a little steep and I hope they reduce that at some point. I’m 8,900 tier miles away from earning gold status, which I hope to achieve by the end of the summer with a few more trips to Bombay.

EK 201, DXB to JFK

On Friday (June 18th, 2004), I took my first flight on an Airbus A340-500. This was a non-stop flight from Dubai (DXB) to New York (JFK). Emirates launched this service on June 1st, their first passenger service to North America. They currently have a weekly Boeing 747-400 cargo service into New York.

I have been on an Airbus A340-300 before when I flew Gulf Air non-stop from Abu Dhabi (AUH) to Newark (ERK) back in 1994; but I have to say that A340-500 is now my new favorite. It’s very quiet, vary spacious, and Emirates has done a phenomenal job with the interior. I purchased an Economy class ticket for US$ 1080 round trip and used 65,000 Skywards miles to upgrade to Business. The flight is scheduled to take 14 hours, but actual flying time was 13 hours and 17 minutes. The flight was nearly full, which surprised me for a two week old route. As far as comfort, this is the second best Business Class I’ve been in (BA’s new Club World is still tops). The full details of the amenities available on this aircraft and the new service to JFK is available on the Emirates web site, but I thought I’d comment on what it’s like to spend 14 hours on this plane.

Departure was at 8am local time from Dubai. There is a separate check-in area for New York flights, with additional security. There were also additional security and passport checks at the boarding gate (Gate 25). Once on board we got the usual pre-takeoff beverage. We had a very long run for takeoff, probably because of the extra fuel required for such a long flight. This aircraft is actually capable of up to 20 hours of flying time fully loaded; but damn is it quiet. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot of noise, but it’s far less than what you find on a 777. In fact, it’s similar to the noise level on the upper deck of a Boeing 747-400.

The seat itself is comfortable and wide. There is more than average leg room because of the unique shape of the seat back in-front of you. I’m 5′ 10″ and was able to stretch out all the way. The first thing you notice is the size of the in-seat LCD monitor. It’s a 15″ touch screen which is bigger than anything I’ve seen on any other aircraft. The UI is also quite slick, though it could be a little more responsive. Emirates calls their system “ICE” which stands for Information, Communication, and Entertainment. You can control the system three ways: by touching the screen directly, using a color LCD touch-screen remote control hidden in the arm rest, or using the controls on the back of the telephone handset which is also in every seat. The calibration on the main touch-screen seemed to be a little erratic, something I’ve noticed with other PC touch-screens; but otherwise directly controlling the ICE system from the front display was the best option when the seat is in the upright position. When the seat is reclined, you have to use one of the two alternate control interfaces as it’s difficult to reach the main screen.

The ICE system has the following capabilities:

  • Flight information: The standard moving map along with forward and downward looking cameras which provide you with a real time view of the world around you while flying. Now everyone has a window seat. It also provides news headlines from the BBC updated every hour or so during the flight.
  • Communication: The system has a built-in client for sending and receiving both text messages (SMS) and e-mails. A temporary SMS phone number and e-mail address are created for each passenger and are good for the duration of the flight. You are charged $1 per incoming or outgoing message and they are sent/received in almost real time. An onscreen keyboard is used to input your message. The charge is billed to a credit card which you swipe through the card reader built-into the phone handset. What’s annoying is that if you leave the Communication area of ICE, you are no longer notified of incoming messages. To get back to the Communication area, you have to swipe the same credit card again…though your settings are remembered for the duration of the flight.
  • Entertainment: If you like TV, Movies, or Music you can’t get bored on this flight. Almost 500 TV shows and movies are available on-demand, along with a very large library of digital music (like the iTunes Music Store). The video quality is great because it’s a DVD quality MPEG2 stream from a central server onboard the aircraft. All First and Business class passengers are provided with special noise canceling headphones, though they aren’t good as the Bose ones. A good selection of movies, shows, and music is available and I blame that for preventing me from sleeping the whole flight. 🙂

Now, for the real techie the most important question is how laptop friendly this aircraft is. I can only comment on Business Class, but I have to say this is the most laptop friendly flight I have ever been on. Each seat has a regular power outlet outputting 115v AC. It accepts both US and UK plugs, so you don’t need a special airline adapter. There is an RJ-45 Ethernet jack in every seat providing 10/100 connectivity to the onboard LAN, along with an RJ-11 jack in the satellite phone handset for modem/fax communication. Lastly, a WiFi network is available.

The WiFi and Ethernet LANs connect you to an onboard gateway provided by Tenzing which connects over a 128kbps Inmarsat satellite link to the ground. The speed of this connection is supposed to cross 800kbps by 2006. At present, Tenzing only offers a store-and-forward e-mail service which costs $10 for unlimited e-mails per flight. That is for e-mails that are 2k or less, with a charge of $0.10 per additional kilobyte for larger messages or attachments. You can either use their web interface to fetch your e-mail, or download a small configuration program (Windows only) which configures Outlook to use the on-board e-mail proxy for fetching and sending e-mails.

Unfortunately, the system did not seem to be working very well on this flight. I was unable to get an IP address assigned via DHCP over Ethernet, and the WiFi network kept coming and going every few seconds. I don’t know if this was an incompatibility with my PowerBook, or a problem with the system. There was a period of about an hour when I tried it when I was able to connect over WiFi reliably and use their web interface to check my personal e-mail accounts and send/receive e-mails. $10 per flight is reasonable, if it works.

I will be flying back on EK 202 next week and will spend some more time trying out this system with my Tablet PC to see if it works better with a Windows laptop. Over all, the flight went by quite quickly and I really do prefer one long flight over two slightly shorter flights and transit through Europe. The amazing thing is that it took me 25 minutes to get off the plane at JFK, go through immigration, get my bags, go through customs, and get into the free Emirates limo service. Just wish they had a lounge at JFK where I could have taken a shower and changed before leaving the airport. Flight touched down at 1:37pm, almost thirty minutes early.

Omar is leaving MacBU

Omar Shahine is leaving the Macintosh Business Unit to work on the Hotmail Frontdoor team.

Omar and I worked in MacBU for four years together. He contributed a little to almost every product MacBU shipped, plus a bunch of other Microsoft products which were developed outside MacBU…and even a few Apple products! We were also roommates for two and a half years. We got to fulfill our dreams very early in our careers, and then face the difficult task of asking ourselves “What next?”

Yahoo and Google are in for some tough competition from Hotmail, and Omar would have been my first choice to put in charge of giving them a run for their money. I still find myself having the urge to get out of my chair at work and walk down the hall to Omar’s office and chat, and I’m sure many people at MacBU will miss his passion and experience.

Bombay, the rains have started

I’m in Bombay (Mumbai) again this weekend. I have lost count, but I think this is my tenth or eleventh trip here in eight months. I’m well on my way to Emirates Skywards Gold, though I’m not sure what that will get me.

As far as the name of this city goes, for me it will always be Bombay. I was born in a city named Bombay and that’s what it will always be for me. Next they’ll decide to rename the capital after every Prime Minister. Mumbai was the name of the city before the British renamed it, but it was called many things in the past before Mumbai. The state government has money to waste on changing the name (it cost a FORTUNE), but clothing and feeding the people on the street isn’t as important.

There’s a cyclone off of India’s west coast causing some trouble. The hope is that it will travel west and dissipate when it reaches Oman. Otherwise NW India and Pakistan are in for a rough week.

Viewsonic LCD monitors & HD

I have been shopping around for an LCD monitor for my home theater for a while. Though my primary display device is a projector, my system is driven by a dedicated PC (often referred to as an HTPC). The problem is that whenever I have to install new software on this machine or debug any problems I might be having, I need to turn on the projector. That’s why I decided I wanted to have an LCD monitor on which I can mirror the signal being sent to my projector.

That means that I needed an LCD monitor which accept a 1280x720p signal over DVI and some sort of DVI splitter. It turns out that there aren’t a lot of smaller LCD monitors (less than 20″) that support this resolution. Viewsonic claims that their professional series of LCD monitors are “HDTV 720p ready” but this is actually misleading. What these displays do is take any resolution fed to them and scale the signal to fill every pixel on the screen. That means if you send in a 16×9 image it will stretch it vertically to fill these 4×3 monitors. There is no way to get a 1:1 mapping or at least maintain the correct aspect ration of the source signal.

In the end I found that Viewsonic has one model of LCD display which can display this resolution: the N1700w LCD TV. This model boasts a 16×9 17″ wide screen LCD with DVI & VGA inputs, along with gobs of TV/Video inputs via a breakout box. As usual, there is a small catch. The native resolution of this monitor is actually 1280×768 which is closer to 16:10 rather than 16:9. When you feed it a 1280×720 signal, it stretches it vertically slightly to fill the display. Luckily, it has a mode which forces 1:1 pixel mapping of the input signal and leaves two 24 pixel black bands at the top and bottom. Again, this monitor is advertised as an HDTV display with a 16:9 aspect ratio which it clearly isn’t. Also, I have no idea why the 1:1 pixel mapping feature is not present in any of Viewsonic’s 4:3 LCD monitors where it makes more sense.

Anyway, I bought this monitor and it will suite my needs. The minor vertical stretching of 720p signals it does is not too bad and this won’t be my primary display device. I’ll post picture of the whole home theater soon once I get my new equipment rack and have everything mounted.