Jumped ship to Google Apps 3 mo. ago, haven’t looked back…

For the longest time (as in, since around 2001) I’ve been hosting my own mail server and web server. I tried to make it a number of things – blog host, email server, place to access documents, data, etc. The only thing it still does today is host this blog.

I’ve embraced the cloud.

Three months ago I switched off my mailserver and moved it to Google Apps hosted service. I only use 4-5 email accounts, and the service is free to those with less than 25 accounts (50 if you’re a non-profit agency). I also moved the email system for this blog, as well as the email system for a non-profit group I volunteer for over to Google Apps as well.

Things have been just about perfect.

Not only do I get all the email hosting services, I get the Gmail web interface, I get syncing to my phone via Microsoft Exchange protocol (better than IMAP or POP3), HTTPS and all the robustness of Google’s incredibly high uptime.

Beyond just email, I also get Calendaring (also through MS Exchange protocol), Google Docs, and soon I’ll be able to roll up all the other Google services I use (Google Reader, etc) into the same account so I don’t have to try and have 3-4 different Google accounts logged in at once – yes you can do it but its prone to errors.

The app with the biggest impact so far is Docs. From any computer anywhere in the world (almost) I can access my library of documents over HTTPS (so my IT department cant see what I write) and just create a word processing document and write down all my ideas, or create a spreadsheet to do some calculations for something for me to refer to later. All the functionality I need is there to write simple documents (nee screeds) and spreadsheets – page/cell formatting, printing to PDF, etc.

Looking back, I have a hard time thinking about how I did this before. If I had an idea while I was at work, I’d have to write it down on my iPhone’s notes app, and then hope I remembered later to open the notes app back and and look at it. Now I can just create a document, write it down, and then when I get home and open up my web browser, the document is there, staring me in the face.

And the best part is that its free. Thanks Google!

Will you ever want to buy an electric car?

Note this is not an attack on electric cars – I think cars like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are the future. We cant live on oil forever, especially not with China and India adding two billion people to the working class over the next 75 years.

But my question is more a question about innovation. If Li-Ion batteries improve 8-10% per year, do you want to invest anywhere between $8,000 and $15,000 for a battery in the first few years of this decade? Even after prices level out, will a 40% increase in range (or a similar decrease in cost) be enough to keep you from buying the battery outright? What about the residual value of the battery after 8-10 years of (ab)use in a vehicle.

The first premise is that batteries improve 8% per year. This appears to be close to constant (until major step-changes like changing chemistry from NiMH to Li-Ion), and has been noted by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors.

The next premise is that if batteries are constantly being improved, and will continue to improve until at least 2030 (around the time we hit the theoretical limits for Li-Ion), that constant innovation will push prices on older batteries down, in the same way when Intel produces their fastest chip and put it in the top of their price list, everything else gets knocked down a pricing level. Beyond that, as production ramps up, per unit costs will come down. This is a double whammy on battery prices – as such A123 representatives have speculated on end-of-2012 pricing of $400/kWh from about $750 in mid 2010 (a kWh will propel a Prius-like car approximately 4 miles, and a large Ford Explorer-like vehicle about 2.75 miles.

The argument to buy says its bad to lease anything because you don’t end up owning anything. At the end of the five year financing, you own the car and battery. But over time and with each recharge, batteries lose capacity, and that could be exacerbated depending on the climate you’re in, how you treated it (faster recharge = more degradation), if it is liquid or air cooled, etc. The return-on-investment calculations vary depending on your driving patterns, so you need to make sure that an electric car is right for you. If you lose your job or change jobs and your driving patterns change significantly, you might find yourself not having a positive return-on-investment compared to buying a traditional gasoline or regular hybrid car (you might end up not driving enough or driving too much per day).

The leasing argument is much more interesting (and complicated). The reason to lease is that the battery has a fairly fixed lifespan – 1,500 cycles or whatever the cell manufacturer promises. However, even after the batteries might no longer be suitable for driving (this would adversely affect the resale value of the car), they can still be used in applications like power grid storage and stabilization. This residual value of that battery could be 50-75% the price of a new battery. Returning the car after the lease and letting the dealer replace the battery, send it back to be remanufactured into something useful, and then installing a new (lighter, more powerful) battery and updating the car’s system for that battery is an easier course for the consumer instead of having to do that and pay for it before trying to sell it, or take a hit on trade-in value.

Leasing can also bring down the per-month costs – instead of paying for the entire car, and then getting a substantial bump in the trade-in value for the battery, the user (for the most part) only pays for the depreciation of the car during its use. As seen in both the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, the price for the lease (estimated $350/mo) is much less than what you would expect on cars costing between $27,000-33,000 after tax incentives.

Another non-conventional argument for leasing is the increasing rate of technology invading vehicles. From in-car entertainment, in-car communication (think: replying to text messages verbally), to safety features. While I don’t have a problem buying a new $300 iPhone every year, I certainly will not buy a new car with such frequency because its in-car entertainment is better than the car I currently have (software upgrades aren’t likely to help much in terms of adding new features – my 2009 Ford Escape hasn’t had any new features added to its in-car computer systems since I bought it). By 2015, most cars should have anti-collision systems to stop the car before it rear-ends the car in front of it (its already on some high-end cars today). By 2025 cars will be able to drive themselves down the highway and navigate to the exit, and even around some roads. It wont be fully autonomous but it will take care of 90% of your driving.

One of the ideas being tossed around is a hybrid – buying the car (shell, interior, electric motors, transmission, etc) and leasing the battery, often in conjunction with battery quick-swapping systems instead of dealing with lengthly recharge times – while battery technology might increase 8% a year, there is no way to increase recharging times for a given level of safety and source electrical systems: recharging a battery after 3-4 hours or 250 miles of all-electric highway driving will take 11 hours at 240V/30A (the most you’ll be able to get at home), and 5.5 hours at 240V/70A (the most you’ll be able to get in a commercial environment – e.g. an office building or parking lot). Even a 480V DC 50kW fast-charge circuit will still take 90 minutes. The only way to rapidly recharge the batteries is to have parallel 50kW fast charging systems hooked to one car, however fast-charging batteries can advance their degradation rate.

Its an interesting decision – there are clear pros to each choice, whether to buy, lease, or just buy the shell only and lease the battery. I would recommend that folks lease a first generation electric vehicle if they want to drive one, simply because of how much knowledge car companies and battery makers are going to learn the first few years about automotive batteries, and you don’t want to be stuck with an outmoded design or fatal flaw. By 2015 the prices of batteries will come down enough making the purchase of a second or third generation electric car reasonable if you carefully compare it to your driving habits compared to the vehicle’s EV characteristics.

Quick Thoughts on the new MacBook Air

Got the new 13″ MacBook Air today (which is impressive considering that I ordered it less than 24 hours ago and overnight shipping only cost $16). Loaded out with a 2.13GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM (not upgradable so I’m stuck with 4GB for the next 4-5 years of use), and a 256GB SSD.

Its an engineering marvel. The first MacBook Air was a revolution in that they finally had the idea to minimize the circuit board inside that houses the CPU, memory, etc. and then try and fit it in such a thin design. Though the UFO/Flying Saucer design was novel, it wasn’t until after Apple had more experience assembling things in tiny form factors (see iPad and iPhone 4circuit boards and how small they are compared to the rest of the interval volume being occupied by batteries).

Now that Apple had figured out how to cram everything you needed for a real laptop on a tiny circuit board, it was time to revise the housing and design of the MacBook Air. This was the result. And it was good.

The more (but not completely) square design allows for ports on both sides of the unit. Eliminating the door that was needed by the flying saucer bottom of the laptop. This adds a second USB port, display port out, and SD card reader on the 13″ version. I don’t have a need for the SD card slot, but I’m sure if I was more artsy or hip I’d have a 13MP DSLR and take moody photos and need to unload my SD card somewhat frequently into iPhoto.

When Apple says its the future of laptops they’re right. Intel’s next CPU has a graphics processor on the same piece of silicon. It wont be long before the large areas needed for two separate packages now can be combined into one package. With the advent of the Mac App Store, people will need less CDs and DVDs so optical drives start to disappear. Side note: I wouldn’t be surprised to find large vendors with lots of units (e.g. Microsoft, Adobe) looking to cut special deals with Apple ($99 copies of Microsoft Office Home Edition with Apple taking less than 30%, probably 20%), with the clear goal of going 100% digital, with the side effect of reducing piracy.

People don’t need anything much faster than a 2GHz Core 2 Duo for using the internet, especially if the video they are watching is decoded using the GPU (and less power than a CPU), which it is on the MacBook Air and other Mac laptops with the Nvidia 9400M and 320M chips. Sure if you’re running AutoCAD for the Mac, Photoshop, or Maya you’ll need more horsepower. But then I don’t think this is the laptop you want – you’ll fit better with the 15″ Macbook Pro.

Despite being a niche player in terms of market share, Apple never acts like a niche player. They target their hardware to the broadest possible audience in the segment they’re trying to address. Its why we don’t see Apple quad-core laptops, its why we don’t see more exotic high end video cards (I’m just glad we get decent video cards now – I still have my old Macbook with the GMA950 video, bleck!), its why there aren’t dual SSDs in RAID, etc.

The big push here seems to be the cloud. The problem is that Apple doesn’t have a lot of cloud services to offer – just MobileMe which isn’t that good – I feel like I get better service with my free Google Apps account – email, calendar, docs, etc, and I pay only $20/yr for my domain name for it.

There are only two downsides to this laptop.

First is an artifical restriction by Apple – to get the fastest CPU in the 11″ or 13″ class you have to pick the largest SSD. This isn’t much of a price increase on the 11″ model (64 to 128GB) but on the 13″ model, the jump to a 256GB SSD is a $300 price premium. My original desired model was the 13″ 2.13Ghz with a 128GB SSD. However Apple doesn’t make any in that configuration. So I had to fork over the $300 (ouch) to get that faster CPU. I’m tempted to find someone who has an 11″ model who wants to send me the $300 and their 128GB SSD and I’ll swap them the 256GB.

Higher resolution 13″ display. This might be a pro for most people (and I will list it below under the positive points), with my and my constantly deteriorating eye sight, I have to blow the font size on web pages up pretty high to read the screen on my old Macbook, and with the higher resolution screen I have to hit Command + one extra time.

While there were a number of upsides…

Stereo speakers. And I think Apple applied what they learned with the iPad to make the speakers on this sound decent. I think they’re doing a Bose-like setup (speaker -> small “acoustical chamber” -> output).

Higher resolution screen. As I mentioned above, its a negative for me but a positive for just about everyone else.

Solid state drive. During the keynote Steve said it was 2x as fast, but in reality its much faster than that for the types of disk operations your average application is going to be having compared to a 1.8″ or 2.5″ HDD.

Weight. The laptop is very light. You could carry one around in a backpack all day and not notice it.


For the sufficiently techie looking for an ultraportable (11″) or small (13″) laptop, isn’t averse to paying for a Mac and going without an optical drive (or leeching from a Mac or Windows PC with one), and isn’t looking for a laptop to do heavy lifting, the MacBook Air is the new standard.

I can see the future in the MBA line – in two years when Intel is at 22nm and can put a much faster dual core CPU (in terms of performance, it wont be much faster in terms of GHz) and a built-in sufficiently fast GPU and SATA 6Gb/s with an even faster SSD, we’ll wonder why people hung on to those heavy, chunky laptops for so long. With another 15% of battery life (Li-Ion batteries improve about 8% per year) we’ll see another hour or so of battery life too.