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TECH: iPhone vs. The Field

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in Tech

In the summer of 2007, Apple released the first generation of their groundbreaking smartphone, the iPhone. The device recieved rave reviews for its revolutionary mobile web browsing and touch-screen interface, but received criticism due to its lack of 3G support and third party applications. Sales were strong for the phone and Apple sold 6.1 million handsets in its first 5 quarters; strong numbers, but not strong enough to bring down international smartphone leader Nokia. By the 4th quarter of 2007, the iPhone had gained a 5% international market share and was showing promise as a new leader in the smartphone market. Apple corrected many of the mistakes of the first generation with the second iteration of the phone, the iPhone 3G, in 2008 by adding 3G support and, perhaps most importantly, creating the iTunes App Store. Apple also dropped the phone’s price tag and added more then 70 new international carriers.

The iPhone 3G became a smash hit. The phone sold more then 6.8 million units in its first quarter, more than its predecessor sold in over a year of production. In its first 3 quarters the 3G sold in total more than 14.5 million units and Apple’s stranglehold on the smartphone market began. Apple released the third generation of the iPhone hardware, the iPhone 3G S, last month and the phone reportedly sold more then a million units in its first week. While the numbers aren’t perfect, certain reports suggest that, as of the June 25th, Apple has a 69% market share in the U.S. smartphone market. Internationally, the iPhone has yet to overtake Research-in-Motion (makers of the Blackberry) and leader Nokia, but seems to be gaining ground.

In the last year, several companies have tried to stop Apple’s stranglehold on the market by creating “iPhone killers.” Phones such as the Blackberry Storm, the HTC G1 and the new Palm Pre have all been touted as the new “It” phone, yet Apple has maintained (and grown) its dominant market share. The question is, “How?” Well, there are several answers to this question:

  • The App Store. To date, there are more then 50,000 apps available for the iPhone and there have been more then a billion downloads from the iTunes App Store. As of today, the Palm Pre app store has about 30 apps. Literally, whatever I need to do on my iPhone, “There’s an app for that.”
  • User Interface. Simply put, the iPhone user interface just works: it’s simple, easy and anyone can pick up the phone and figure it out. I know plenty of people who can’t even navigate the finder on their laptops or open the Start menu, but they can navigate an iPhone.
  • Multi-Touch. The touch-screen technology used by the iPhone is second to none. The multi-touch technology works great and is very intuitive.
  • Form Factor. Let’s face it:  the iPhone is sexy.
  • Marketing. The marketing team at Apple has done a brilliant job of touting the phone, while other phone makers have not successfully pointed out the phones flaws: the lack of MMS, tethering and a decent camera. However, Apple has now added these features and, as a result, there are now very few identifiable flaws. Research-In-Motion could point out that the iPhone lacks a decent enterprise-level mail client or HTC could highlight the device’s lack of a tactile keyboard. No Blackberry will ever match the iPhone’s media player and no Palm will ever possess an equivalent touch interface. These companies should stop trying to outdo Apple at what it does best. Instead, they should focus on promoting the features their phones have that the iPhone lacks. The timing of Apple’s releases have been critical as well. The Palm Pre received lots of buzz around the Internet for months prior to its release. However, the week the Pre was released Apple also announced the iPhone 3G S, effectively killing any momentum the Pre had been building since January.
  • Dependence. iPhone users find themselves dependent upon the apps on their phone. This makes the very idea of switching to another phone seem ludicrous, considering the money they have invested and the need they feel for their apps. I personally have about $60 worth of paid apps on my phone and plenty of free ones. Switching to another phone would mean the loss of thar $60. As the number of iPhone owners increases (especially with the recent price drop of $99 for the 8GB 3G), Apple will find ways to make users more dependent then ever on the handset. With the release of iPhone OS 3.0, manufacturers are now allowed to create accessories that connect with the phone’s dock, creating all new possibilities. Medical, scientific and gaming equipment will all be compatible with your iPhone very soon. For example, GPS maker TomTom has announced an app and car kit that will dock with the iPhone, boost the device’s built-in GPS and allow for turn-by-turn voice instructions. Similarly, various medical companies are creating new technologies that will dock with the iPhone. Need to see your blood sugar levels? Plug in your iPhone and get a readout.

Like it or not, Apple’s touch-screen phone is here to stay as the leader of the smartphone market. If you don’t own one yet, there’s never been a better time, especially with the 8 GB 3G now priced at only $99. I’m just warning you now: you may never go back.

Ben Wagner is a tech correspondent for Rhombus and is admittedly addicted to his iPhone. Give him advice on how to break the habit by sending a tweet to @ben_wagner.

MUNCHMOBILE: Hecho En Mexico

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in Food

In an effort to expand the gastronomic vision of the inhabitants of Provo beyond that of Cafe Rio and Chili’s, Rhombus has enlisted the help of three of the most overqualified food critics from across the country. These infamous connoisseurs concocted a plan to explore a variety of local restaurants in the Valley and dissect their cuisine. Each week the Munchmobile Crew will report their findings so you can eat with confidence, broaden your horizons and tip the scales with delight. Please enjoy a unique take on our unique Provo food scene as tasted through the buds of Jake Welch, Ben Wagner and Jamie Wood. Let the munching begin.

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WEEK 1 — HECHO EN MEXICO GRILL

Located on the corner of 300 South and 300 East in Provo, owner Alfredo Torres has opened his doors and his fine recipes to the public through this little hole in the wall establishment well off the beaten path south of BYU campus. As you walk through the doors, you’re not overwhelmed with sombreros hanging from every corner, “It’s always Cinco de Mayo in here’ Corona posters or neon cacti with drunken neon amigos slouched over next to them. Instead you are greeted by a true Mexican touch of empty glass Coke bottles and a collage of Telemundo soap opera flyers on the wall.The menu is limited at Hecho En Mexico (Spanish for “Made in Mexico”), keeping things simple and sticking to what they do best. When we asked Alfredo for his advised dish, he quickly suggested the Tacos al Pastor: delicious, specially marinated spicy pork tacos topped with cilantro and fresh pineapple. He informed us that this menu item alone accounts for 65% of the restaurant’s sales, evidence of its mass appeal.

Next, he suggested we sample the homemade “horchata,” a traditional rice and milk drink that seems to elude the desire of the gringo pallet. He quickly pointed out that Hecho En Mexico’s horchata was made with coconut, not rice, and is therefore one of their specialties. Alfredo turned and quickly brought each of us a small plastic cup with a sampling of the drink. Each was immediately downed with significant satisfaction and subsequently ordered for a whopping $2.50 per glass. (A little steep, but incredibly worth it.) “As someone who was forced to drink Horchata almost everyday for two years and never liked it, this is the best horchata I’ve ever had,” Ben Wagner commented. Orders were made, chips and salsa (which rocked) were delivered, horchata was sipped,and our experience had officially begun. Here is the skinny on a few thick meals:

Jamie Wood — Torta de Carne Asada
As an established connoisseur in the realm of Latin foods and, more specifically, of the Mexican sandwich that is “the torta,” I feel completely justified in saying that this was hands down a technically sound sandwich. Bursting with marinated steak, avocados, onions, jalapenos and basted with seasoned refried beans, this torta packed a punch and hit the spot. This scrumptious sandwich from south of the border was surprisingly easy to manage as compared to other tortas. All the ingredients were comfortably situated within the classic Mexican bread, making it easy to enjoy without the mess. For those gringos out there, like myself, who want to ease into the spicy and often overwhelming sector of authentic Mexican food, the torta is your best bet for a smooth entry. It talks like a hamburger, but it’s swagger is puro mexicano. Be sure to ask for everything on it to get the full experience. 4.5 out of 5 tacos.

Ben Wagner – Tacos al Pastor
Mexico City is renowned for its tacos al pastor and, having lived there for two years, I consider myself an expert on the subject. I have tried just about every Mexican joint in town in an attempt to find that authentic al pastor taste. Perhaps it’s been the lack of dogs roaming the street or the contaminated air of Mexico City, but I have yet to find any taco that matches the ones sold in the streets of the D.F. However, the Tacos at Hecho En Mexico are as close as it gets. The meat on each taco almost overran the small flour tortilla used to contain it.  The marinades used on the meat were excellent and each piece of meat was cooked to perfection. The pineapple used was real, fresh (well, as fresh as it can get in Provo), and didn’t come out of the canned fruit aisle at Smith’s. Again, the flavor was as close to authentic Mexican tacos al pastor as I’ve seen;  Hecho En Mexico is indeed an appropriate name. If you’re never going to make it south of the border, at least make it south of campus and try out the most authentic tacos al pastor in town. 5 out of 5 sombreros.

Jake Welch – Tacos de Asada
You know you’re going into a legit Mexican restaurant when you don’t see burritos on the menu. Contrary to popular belief, burritos are seldom found in authentic eateries south of the border. I was pleased to find a very simple menu upon entering Hecho En Mexico. They have the basics: tacos, tortas, rice and beans. If you’re looking for a large elaborate menu of average dishes, this is not for you. This is a legit taco shop. Because I joined the crew a little late, I decided to go easy and just get two tacos. The taco de asada (or steak taco) hit the spot. They didn’t skimp on the meat and the salsa had the perfect amount of kick. I am not one for weak salsa and they follow the same philosophy at Hecho En Mexico. I also ordered one taco al pastor and it was everything a taco should be and more. The only downer about the restaurant is that it is only open in the evenings. The owner, Alfredo, said that should change once business picks up. He also said they might have certain days of the week where they will have Mole, God’s gift to Mexican food. Even without the dish, this taco shop gets my seal of approval. 4 out of 5 Horchata glasses.

There you have it: one full-blooded gringo and two honorary Mexicanos agree that Hecho En Mexico Grill is worth the drive down south and the small dent in your pocketbook. The full price for the torta and horchata came out to be a little over $8 — chump change for the seasoned veteran of Latin cuisine and well worth it for the fiesta that will ensue inside your mouth. Break out the pinatas and mariachi band, because Hecho En Mexico is “livin’ la vida loca” on the Provo food scene. Overall: 4.5 out of 5 churros

For suggestions on where you’d like to see the Munchmobile head next week, send an e-mail to rhombusmag@gmail.com or send a message on Twitter to @rhombusmag.

Jamie Wood, Jake Welch and Ben Wagner are correspondents for Rhombus Magazine. For more of their thoughts on Mexican cuisine and imaginary rock bands, check them out on Twitter at @jamie_wood, @jraywelch and @ben_wagner, respectively.

TECH: How Twitter Is Changing The World

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in Tech

I was sitting in my cubicle at work on Thursday afternoon, trying out Twhirl (a great Adobe Air-based desktop Twitter client) when across my Twitter feed came a flurry of tweets about the death of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. I had barely finished reading the tweet when the news began to spread through the office like wildfire. Somehow we all received the news simultaneously, whether it was through Twitter, Facebook, text messages or RSS feeds. Within minutes we were all watching live feeds from CNN.com and other news sites, receiving up-to-the-minute updates, all thanks to the Internet.

Popular microblogging service Twitter crashed as a result of the increased activity caused by the news of Jackson’s death. Users reportedly sent over 50,000 tweets about the pop icon’s death in under an hour. Search giant Google received so many Michael Jackson hits that the company believed its servers were under attack and users “Googling” for Michael Jackson received an error message stating, “Your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application.”

The way the news of Michael Jackson’s death reached our ears is a prime example of how the Internet has changed communication and the speed at which we receive our news. Long gone are the days of reading yesterday’s news in the morning paper or spending every night with your local news anchor. Real-time delivery of breaking news is the now the name of the game. Web services like Twitter take word of mouth to the next level, allowing us to instantly communicate what we know to a mass audience. Facebook allows us to distribute information to our network of friends who can then pass that info on to other friends, allowing news to travel faster then ever before. RSS feeds allow subscribers instant access to news from reputable sources, such as newspapers, magazines and television networks.

Not only is news being reported in new ways, it is also being generated in new ways as well. With mobile computing devices such as iPhones and Blackberries, individuals are not limited to sitting down at a computer to receive information. These devices can make us participators in the newsgathering and sharing process. From wherever I am, I can send out a tweet, update my Facebook status or receive text messages from my friends. With the iPhone 3G S now featuring a video camera with direct and instant uploading to YouTube, you can bet that we will see a huge surge in video news posted directly from locations where important events are taking place. Take, for example, the recent protests in Iran. As the government has cracked down, preventing traditional journalists from reporting on the conflict, many of the major news networks have been featuring videos taken in the streets with personal cameras or even camera phones. One of the most jarring images of the entire ongoing saga, a young woman named Neda bleeding to death in the street, was filmed by two people holding camera phones. Instead of hearing reports from professional reporters on-site, breaking news has come to global networks in the form of tweets and Facebook messages. The news networks are reporting what they see on Twitter before their reporters can uncover and pass along the info.

Of course, one must be wary of such reporting methods. Some months ago someone posted a story on CNN’s user-generated news service, iReport.com, stating that Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs had died. The story spread across the Internet like wildfire and Apple’s stock plummeted before it was confirmed that Jobs was indeed still alive. Such are the potential tradeoffs of this information revolution.

With communication changing and progressing every day through the Internet, it is necessary that we become familiar with these new forms of communication. Services like Twitter and Facebook can be valuable tools, whether it be for communicating with old friends, promoting a business venture or receiving up-to-the-minute news. It’s up to us to figure out how to best use these services to fit our growing and changing needs — or the world may leave us behind.

Ben Wagner is a technology correspondent for Rhombus. When he’s not listening to “Thriller,” he tweets semi-regularly at http://www.twitter.com/ben_wagner.

TECH: Microsoft Announces Lower Prices For Windows 7

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in Tech

Microsoft announced the price points for their new, much hyped Windows 7 operating system on Wednesday. The product is slated for release later this year.

The software giant’s monopolistic approach to doing business has backfired in the past few years, starting with the release of the much maligned Windows Vista in January 2007. After Vista users experienced security, compatibility, functionality and pricing issues at the time of release, a massive backlash ensued and Microsoft has been trying to stop the bleeding ever since. Microsoft’s dominance of the operating system market was challenged in 2008 as their market share dropped below 90% for the first time ever, while competitor Apple gained their highest market share in the company’s recent history.

Hoping to stem the tide of criticism, Microsoft has changed their MO for their new operating system, releasing a public beta for free (which is still available for download from the company’s Web site.) The Windows 7 Beta has received overwhelmingly good reviews as it fixed many of the issues that plagued its predecessor, and many people have found that the “Beta” version is good enough to use as their day-to-day operating system. With all of the hype, Microsoft is hoping that Windows 7 will help them retake their lost market share and, as such, introduced more aggressive price points then the those used for Vista:

  • Firstly, beginning Friday and running through July 11th, customers currently using a PC running Windows XP or Vista will be eligible to receive an early upgrade price of $49 for Windows 7′s Home Edition and 99$ for the Professional Edition. This is a record low price for Microsoft and I suggest PC users take advantage of this before the July 11th deadline. This is a limited time offer and can be bought through Microsoft, Amazon, Best Buy and most other major retailers.
  • Interestingly enough, also beginning Friday, customers who buy a copy of Vista (or a PC that comes equipped with Vista) will receive a free upgrade to Windows 7 when the software hits shelves. DO NOT BUY A PC TODAY, WAIT TILL TOMORROW.
  • When the full version of Windows 7 is released, customers upgrading from Vista or XP will pay $119 for the Home Edition, $199 for the Professional Edition or $219 for the Ultimate Edition. This is a $40 cut from price Microsoft charged for the Vista Home upgrade, although the Professional and Ultimate versions are similarly priced. Users who need a clean copy of Windows and are not upgrading from Vista or XP will be set back $199 for the Home Edition, $299 for the Professional and $319 for Ultimate. The Ultimate and Professional editions are, again, on par with the price charged for their Vista counterparts, while the Home edition is down from the $239 price tag on its Vista predecessor.

Even though Microsoft is charging lower rates for Windows 7, they still have found themselves undercut by the boys in Cupertino who, at the Apple keynote at the Worldwide Developers Conference a few weeks ago, announced that the newest version of Mac OS X, dubbed “Snow Leopard,” will be available to current Mac users for only $29.

Windows 7 is currently slated for an October 22nd release. In the meantime, the Beta version is still available for free from the Microsoft Web site and will continue to function until March 2010, at which point users will be forced to upgrade and reinstall the operating system.

To try Windows 7 for yourself, visit Microsoft’s Web site.

Ben Wagner is a technology contributor for Rhombus. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ben_wagner.

TECH REVIEW: Mozilla Firefox 3.5 Release Candidate

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in Tech

I began using Mozilla’s open source web browser Firefox in 2005 — and I haven’t looked back since.

With every new iteration of the browser, I’ve seen Mozilla upgrade the speed and compatibility of Firefox. With Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 showing significant speed upgrades, Apple’s Safari 4 boasting impressive Java benchmark results, and Google’s Chrome gaining ground, the pressure was on for the development team at Mozilla. They finally unveiled the release candidate for Firefox 3.5 this week and, after a few days of using it, I have my first impressions.

(Now, we must keep in mind that this is only a release candidate and in all likelihood there will be changes made before the final version is released.)

Firefox 3.5 adds some new features not found in previous versions. Some of the new aesthetic additions include improved private browsing (sometimes referred to as “porn mode”), which allows the user to view internet pages while the browser conveniently leaves the site out of the browsing history and doesn’t store any cookies the site would have placed on your computer. Mozilla also added a “forget this site” feature, which allows users to enter their history and remove any references to or from a particular site. There is also a “delete recent browsing history” option, which allows users to delete all information about what pages they have visited within a particular time frame (i.e. in the past hour, etc.) All these new features come in handy when your wife checks your browsing history to, uh, “see what gift you were going to get her for her birthday…” Mozilla also made improvements to the tabs on Firefox, allowing you to pull a tab off the browser and create a new browser window instantaneously. Other new features include more advanced color profiles and location based browsing.

The team has also been hard at work on the internals of the browser, features which aren’t necessarily obvious to the average user. One of the features the team seems most excited about is the way Firefox handles video in version 3.5. If a page is written in HTML 5 with a video in an open source format, the video is treated just as part of the page, not as a separate flash video. This helps push the web towards a more seamless integration of text and video.

Another internal upgrade with version 3.5 is the creation of a new JavaScript engine called Tracemonkey. Mozilla claims that Tracemonkey is 20-40 times faster then the Spidermonkey engine used in previous versions of Firefox. Early benchmark tests done by the team at LifeHacker don’t seem to reflect this, and show that Safari 4 and Chrome are still ahead of the game in the speed department, although Firefox is still the lightest on your system and far ahead of Internet Explorer.

After using the new browser for a few days, I feel there is a reason Firefox has gained such a large market share over the last few years (up to 22% by some reports). While it may still lag behind Chrome and Safari when it comes to speed, Firefox is much more compatible than Chrome and much more secure then Safari — not to mention that running Safari on Windows is a joke. Firefox is also available on Mac, Linux and Windows, unifying your browsing experience no matter what operating system you use. With all the available add-ons for Firefox, it is still the most customizable of all the browsers and allows you to add functionality for whatever you need to do. Firefox is still my browser of choice and should be yours too.

Download the Firefox 3.5 RC for Windows, Linux or Mac here, or check out the Mozilla Foundation for more info about other Mozilla Projects.

Ben Wagner is a technology contributor for Rhombus. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ben_wagner.