Do We Really Need $700 Electronic License Plates?

Lots of trends and technology come out of California; Apple, for example, makes a point of proudly proclaiming that its products are “Designed in California.”

Electronic license plates—a recent innovation developed and introduced in the Golden State—may also soon migrate across the country. A California pilot program uses e-plates developed by Bay Area-based Reviver Auto, and the state says it can save $20 million a year in postage alone by replacing metal plates.

Reviver Auto founder and CEO Neville Boston told The Drive that the company’s plates are now legal in Texas, Florida, and Arizona, and he expects that within a year Pennsylvania, Nevada, Maryland, and Washington will also allow them. Reviver also plans to make e-plates available for sale via car dealerships in California.

E-plates use the same technology employed in eReaders—the display can be changed and drivers can even flash personal messages. A video from the company shows that in addition to digital registration renewal, its RPlate Pro can be changed to “cause” plates and flash emergency messages such as accidents ahead; future features include showing Amber Alerts and parking permits

Since the plates are connected to the cloud, they also allow a car to be tracked. Last week, Sacramento began testing the plates on 24 vehicles in its municipal fleet. According to the Sacramento Bee, city officials want to see if the plates let them more efficiently track vehicles, and it plans to experiment using the plates as digital message boards to warn residents of street closures and to display ads for city services.

But the $699 price of the Reviver RPlate Pro, plus a monthly fee of about $7, is just one reason to stick with good ol’ metal plates.

My Metal Plate Will Do

I just renewed my tags on my 1996 Impala SS, and it costs me $86 for two years. And when I went to apply the stickers, I noticed how bent my front plate was from some idiot backing into me. So I’m not keen on dropping $700 on an easily breakable and far more expensive e-plate, although Reviver says on its website that its e-plates are “industrial-strength and able to withstand extreme changes in weather conditions.”

I’m not the paranoid type, and not too concerned with being tracked, but e-plates do bring up privacy issues at a time when data security and cyberattacks are on consumers’ minds. (The city of Sacramento said it plans to talk with labor representatives to assure them that the technology will not be used to track city employees.) And if I want to track my car while someone else is driving it there’s already technology for that purpose, ranging from automaker solutions such telematics systems and aftermarket OBD-II dongles.

Reviver also points out that if a car is jacked, the plate can be programmed to read STOLEN, and it uses “anti-theft fasteners” and a protective glass cover. But if a car thief doesn’t simply ditch the stolen car’s e-plate, I’m guessing a good whack will be enough to break it.

While the Rplate is powered by a replaceable battery, metal plates are low-maintenance. Finally, the plate display is monochromatic, while at least metal plates come in cool colors. (Shout out to South Carolina!)

Even though I’d probably never buy an e-plate, I do like the personalized message part. And I could think of a great use for the feature: to tell left-lane hogs to move over once I pass them.

Truly Flexible Displays Will Reinvent Smartphones

One of the things I learned early in my career is that if you want to get a glimpse of the future, you need to go to technology trade shows focused on components and deeply entrenched in the world of engineering. Here, you see the technology that will likely show up in consumer gadgets two to three years down the line.

One such show is the Society for Information Displays (SID) conference, which took place last month in Los Angeles. Dedicated to the world of display technology, SID showcases all types of screens, including next-generation OLEDs for TVs and laptops, as well as the star of this year’s show: flexible and even rollable displays.

Visionox kicked off the event with a keynote that highlighted its foldable display in a video, but I did not see an actual model in its booth. On the other hand, BOE, one of the largest makers of displays in China, showed off two types of mobile devices with working flexible display. A smartphone with a display surface of close to 9 inches folded completely in the center, and even in that folded position, the image and videos worked flawlessly.

The second phone it showed had an actual bendable screen. The 5.5-inch screen folded in half to make a smaller device that’s easier to carry.

I saw a few other flexible screens I can’t yet discuss, but it is clear this is the next big thing in smartphones.

If you look closely at the BOE flexible display in the photo up top, you can see why foldable displays matter. Our smartphones today pretty much top out at 6-inch screens, but BOE’s flexible display adds about 3 more inches in viewing space, making it more like a tablet that fits in your pocket. The flexible or foldable display in the other photo provides even more portability.

While these screens are early demos, I’m told they are not far off. In fact, we could see one in a smartphone from a major manufacturer in early 2020. My best guess is that given the challenges in actually making these flexible screens in high volumes, they might not have a dramatic impact on smartphone designs until 2021-2022.

In the short term, the smartphone industry is well on its way to giving us an interim approach. By early 2019, look for more smartphones with dual screens that, when opened, double the size of the viewing space. In this case you will be viewing two screens and thus have two displays for content. A seam in the middle separates them, in contrast to the smartphones with flexible displays in which the content is delivered on a single display.

Another new concept in displays at SID was shown by E Ink, which is best known for supplying the electronic digital paper used on Amazon Kindles. In the picture on the right, you can see a prototype of a rollable display using its digital paper display.

It’s only in black and white but is an interesting twist on electronic digital paper. I also saw color E Ink screens that are destined to be used in all types of advertising displays in stores and any place where signage needs to be changed or updated on a continual basis.

While I do think that AR and mixed reality glasses tied to a smartphone will have a more revolutionary impact on mobile computing eventually, the introduction of flexible and foldable displays is important to advancing the designs of smartphones in general. I personally like the idea of having a smartphone that when opened up could become a tablet.

Apple Ignores What’s Wrong With the Mac

The Mac needs help, and in a more than two-hour presentation today, Apple refused to provide it.

Apple makes great software. I use Windows and macOS daily, and macOS is cleaner, smoother, and more stable for basic tasks. Windows gives me the power I need to do great work, but I relax into a macOS browser window at home.

Apple’s Mac shipments have been steady year over year in a declining PC market, according to Gartner. So you could be excused for thinking Apple doesn’t have a problem at all; everything’s fine. That’s not the sense I’m getting from tech-savvy users, though. They’re buying new Macs because of macOS software, and they’re grumbling increasingly about the hardware. But they’re trapped, because, of course, no hardware runs macOS other than Macs. That raises the question of when, if ever, they’ll snap and jump ship.

Last year, I needed a new Mac, and I bought a 2015 MacBook Pro. Yes, I bought a 3-year-old laptop because it’s better than Apple’s current models.

Apple’s hardware changes in the past few years have been awful. Its flat, loud, painful “butterfly” keyboards are now subject to three class-action lawsuits and can be disabled by bits of dust. The Touch Bar is like OpenDoc and 3D Touch, an “innovative” Apple technology that lies nearly useless because third parties decided not to take it up. (And I was a 3D Touch believer!) The latest laptops have a ridiculous lack of ports.

(Yes, I know the 2017 Macbook Pro got a PCMag Editors’ Choice. We can have more than one opinion on our staff. Mine is that the last time Apple made great PC hardware was in 2015.)

It was almost laughable when Craig Federighi called out Apple’s software support for external GPUs, because what people really want is a 13-inch MacBook Pro with some sort of discrete GPU option and not Intel Iris Plus. Apple said in April that it won’t introduce a new Mac Pro until 2019.

But Apple has always been better at playing up its strengths than admitting its weaknesses. We saw this with its iPad-in-education event in March. Under-resourced, over-tested American schools are turning away from the iPad because they want something more durable and less expensive. Apple instead doubled down on rich, creative curricula those schools probably won’t be able to pull off. The new iPad is the best midrange tablet available today, and it’s not a realistic choice for most of the schools it’s aimed at.

With Macs, Apple is coasting on the stickiness of its OS here, and on the ties between macOS and iOS. I can’t help but feel they’re only getting replacement buyers at this point, and that they’re even losing some of those to compelling Windows PCs like the Microsoft Surface.

iPhones continue to sell in multitudes, and Apple’s “sneak peek” developer feature, making it easier for devs to bring hot iOS apps to Macs in 2019, is going to help the platform. Continuity, iMessage, and other cross-OS features also keep pulling iPhone users over to the Mac. But the platform will leak passionate professionals if its keyboards continue to be rage-inducing garbage and there’s nowhere to plug in peripherals.

The potential light at the end of the tunnel: macOS Mojave is coming out “this fall,” which means new Mac hardware is probably also coming out this fall. I wonder how many Mac users will switch to Windows before then?

Why Nintendo’s Gamble on Retro Consoles Paid Off

Nintendo is rebooting the Classic Edition of its NES and SNES consoles, which are 33 and 28 years old, respectively; they’ll ship on June 29. But anyone who tries to revive two 8- and 16-bit consoles in a market dominated by the likes of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is probably committing business suicide—right?

Well, Nintendo is not just anyone. In its first launch of the retro NES Classic in late 2016, the company sold approximately 2.3 million units in five months and sold out its entire stock by July 2017. It then sold 5 million units of the SNES Classic in a few months.

This doesn’t mean that dusting off any old gaming console is a recipe for success. Nintendo has mastered the art of reboot through perfect timing and meticulous planning. We have yet to see how these retro gaming consoles will perform this summer—but if the past is any indication, they’ll be a hit. Here’s everything that made the NES and SNES Classic such huge successes.

The Right Mix of Nostalgia and Technology

By most accounts, the NES and SNES are two of the most successful gaming consoles in history. The NES ushered in a new era of gaming that featured quality sound and music. The SNES surpassed it with even more features, including a comfortable and multi-buttoned gamepad and 16-bit graphics and sound, and dominated console gaming through the 90s.

For most 30- and 40-somethings, like me, the NES and SNES introduced them to the world of gaming—and, in my case, computer programming. Even if most of us don’t play games that frequently anymore, we still remember Nintendo’s consoles fondly, as icons of our childhood. The retros provide us with a chance to revisit a time where games were no more than a few hundred kilobytes of code; sprites and MIDI songs stuffed into a plastic cartridge. The feeling is pretty much summed up in this video review of the NES Classic:

For younger generations, the NES and SNES reboots were a chance to travel back in time to see what paved the way for the super-rich and complicated games they play on high-end consoles.

Both Nintendo consoles also pack the right combination of past and present technology. For instance, the NES Classic has a CRT Display mode that revives the nostalgic feeling of playing on old television sets (its Pixel Perfect mode gives you high-quality video output.)

And it has some additional features that weren’t possible when the original NES was built—such as the possibility to save your progress at any time—that removes frustration for gamers who aren’t used to the limited saving modes of old consoles. (Personally, I think part of the fun and challenge of playing on old consoles was the fact that you could save games only at distinct points.)

Not a Replacement for Contemporary Consoles

The Classics weren’t created to compete with current consoles. Rather, they’re a welcome respite and a distraction from the norm. The NES and SNES Classic give you a few days’ worth of 80s and 90s love and childhood memories—and then you can get back to playing Xbox One, PS4, or the Nintendo Switch. If you get hooked, though, you might spend a bit more time beating some old-time favorites. (I had to go through Contra III and Donkey Kong Country again before I put the SNES away.)

In fact, the consoles’ prices reflect the goal of providing short-lived entertainment. At $60, the NES Classic came with 30 games. The $80 SNES Classic offers 21 hit games. Compared with current consoles (the $500 Xbox One and the PS4 and Switch, each $300, all excluding games), those are very reasonable prices.

As became evident later, aficionados were willing to dish out much more to get their hands on the retro consoles. After the NES and SNES Classics sold out, people bought them on eBay at several times the retail price, sometimes at the insane amount of several thousand dollars.

Perfect Timing and Supply

The original NES Classic shipped in November 2016, right in time for the holiday season. The release date was significant also because it was a few months before Nintendo released the Switch, the successor to its Wii U gaming system. By the time the Switch shipped in March 2017, the NES Classic had already sold more than 1.5 million units worldwide, whetting the gaming community’s appetite for the Nintendo’s new console.

The Switch has been a very successful product, outselling its predecessor less than a year after its release, but the NES Classic played an important role in helping build the hype around the Nintendo brand as the Switch’s release date approached.

The limited supply and the exciting secondary market that surfaced after the consoles sold out created the perfect environment for the next release of the NES and SNES, perfectly timed for summer vacations.

Nintendo has already made more than $500 million selling old consoles in the past 18 months. And given the well-planned reboot, it’s likely to make even more on the second release of the NES and SNES Classic Editions. Down the road, expect more surprises from Nintendo, such as special editions of the NES and SNES Classics loaded with niche games such as the Dragon Ball series. That will appeal to its unique audience (and translate to more sales, of course).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a game of Double Dragon II to get back to.

The OS Armageddon Is Coming

From all the recent online complaining, it seems the Windows 10 April 2018 Update has borked a lot of machines; many can’t even boot, let alone access the OS’s new whiz-bang features.

Microsoft does not yet force OS upgrades on its users, but it’s getting closer. One of these days, Microsoft will probably send out a mass upgrade to millions of people and some last-minute foul-up or perhaps sabotage will result in the complete bricking of millions and millions of machines, a technology nightmare that might even become a national emergency.

It’s inevitable, and I imagine most people will be unprepared. How many do you believe have actually made backup boot disks?

The idea behind universal auto updating is simple: Microsoft (as well as much of the community) would love a single OS build so drivers and DLLs can standardize on the latest and greatest.

This idea has yet to be achieved and the stalling phenomenon among users was particularly noticeable with Windows XP. Users refused to upgrade, including corporations that paid extra money for support of a dead OS. Much of the military gets stuck on a particular OS and feels that it is unsafe to randomly upgrade. As of 2015, Paris’s Orly Airport was still running on Windows 3.1.

Microsoft employs numerous tricks and tactics to upgrade you even if you manage to find a way to disable auto updating. Unless you literally turn off your machine after every session, you will be trapped by some overnight query you cannot stop.

The message telling you that your PC needs to upgrade waits for a response that you are not able to give because it’s 3 a.m. So it does the load and boot while you’re sleep. You wake up to a rebooted machine that seems to have been up to something. After those updates always introduce annoying anomalies that create problems.

The updates themselves accumulate like crazy. When you go to the program loader to delete or uninstall something, you find all these upgrades piled high within the install/uninstall list.

If you got on board with Windows 10 at the outset, the pile of upgrade code makes you look like a maniacal archivist as the patches pile up.

Here is where Microsoft should just stop this farce and release a low-cost update DVD that contains an all-new unpatched OS for users who registered with the company. This is the way things used to be in the olden days (in a way). This would encourage registration, which Microsoft has troubles with too.

I am actually jealous of the new user with a new machine and the latest version of Windows 10, a clean version without a million patches.

Microsoft makes more than enough money to do this OS reboot, and I would welcome it. But the way things go, there would be an online automated patch the next week anyway. In the meantime, get yourself a backup boot disk and get ready for an epic fail. It is coming.

How AI, ML Will Transform Speech-to-Text, Language Translations

One of the most impressive demos at Google I/O was Duplex, an artificial intelligence that made calls to places of business—in this case a hair salon and a restaurant—to book appointments. The humans on the other end of the line were seemingly none the wiser, and Duplex handled challenges with ease, like when the restaurant said it didn’t accept reservations for small parties.

This particular AI announcement got a lot of coverage at Google I/O, but AI and machine learning was prevalent in all the products and services showed at the developers conference. Just look at this chart, which Google displayed at an AI-focused analyst event the day before I/O opened.

There were two other things showed at that event that I consider potential game changers.

The first is how AI is applied to voice-to-text translation. The goal is to get this to 99 percent accuracy using AI and ML over the next few years. That said, the demos in which they dictated comments into various G-Suite applications were already pretty accurate. We also saw a more in-depth demo of Smart Compose, where a person writes a sentence in Gmail, and Smart Compose writes the next sentence for you based on the first sentence’s context.

Various voice-recognition products, such as Dragon Dictate, have been on the market for years. But these programs relied on localized software and took advantage of the current processing power available at the time of each release. These programs did get better over the years, but if you ad AI and ML, the accuracy rate is bound to get better.

Google understands the importance of speech-to-text as it relates to our everyday lives. An accurate voice-to-text interface is critical when answering a message while driving. It is a meaningful way to respond to an email or text message on wearables or smartphones. It will eventually become a valuable input when using mixed reality glasses, where using voice as part of the navigation process and voice-to-text is needed for various types of AR applications.

The second is how AI and ML are used in Google Translate, which will be genuinely transformative when translations occur in real time. As an international traveler who only speaks English, this type of translation would be a godsend. There are some handheld devices that attempt to translate what you say into a local language, but they currently have many limitations.

Google has its eye on this type of translation, so it’s safe to say we could see some real breakthroughs in more accurate language translation on Android phones shortly. Apple also has AI and ML research going on around various aspects of voice and text translation so it too, along with potential partners, could deliver a mobile language translation solution on iOS someday.

AI and ML will have a dramatic impact on voice-to-text translation, and its most prominent effect may be as part of the UI in AR and VR or mixed reality glasses. Personally, the language translations excite me the most, as it would make my world travels easier.

With Volkswagen Deal, Apple’s Self-Driving Car Dreams Shrink

Until two years ago, most industry observers (including yours truly) were convinced Apple was building a self-driving car. And as with other product categories the iconic company has entered, most predicted Apple would disrupt and perhaps dominate the automotive industry.

While Google publicly rolled out its self-driving car program in measured stages, reports filtered out that the famously secretive Apple had assembled a large team of talent to work on what was called Project Titan, had hired (and poached) high-profile automotive engineers, and pressed its former hardware honcho, Bob Mansfield, into service on its autonomous car effort.

Other indicators that Apple was pouring its abundant resources into Project Titan came from the company securing a private testing ground not far from its Silicon Valley headquarters and obtaining a permit to test self-driving cars in California. Apple CEO Tim Cook even made a trip to Munich to meet with BMW brass, and Apple executives went to Leipzig to witness firsthand BWM’s production techniques for its i3 electric car.

Later, reports said Apple had shifted to providing a technology platform and software for autonomous cars. According to The New York Times, the company’s self-driving dreams have shrunk to something much more mundane: a deal with Volkswagen to convert the automaker’s new T6 Transporter vans into autonomous shuttles for employees at Apple’s new campus in Cupertino, California.

The newspaper also reports that Apple approached VW after being “spurned” by BMW and Mercedes-Benz, its No. 1 and No. 2 choices—making the Apple-Volkswagen hookup look like even more desperate.

VW and Apple Lag

Volkswagen has, of course, been rocked by the Dieselgate scandal that climaxed earlier this month with the company’s former CEO, Martin Winterkorn, being charged in the US with four felonies following VW’s admission that it cheated on EPA emission test. And its Audi division notwithstanding, VW is behind other automakers in developing self-driving cars and could use some of Apple’s luster.

Apple is also lagging in autonomous technology development compared to others. The Times details changes in direction and an overall lack of focus on the part of Apple stretching back to when Project Titan was first revealed in 2014. And it describes the defection of hundreds of members of the Project Titan due to low morale.

The story also says Apple was rebuffed by BMW and then Mercedes-Benz because the notoriously controlling tech company locked horns with the automakers over who would retain control of the “customer experience” and data. Apple also met with Nissan, Chinese automakers BYD Auto, and British sportscar maker McLaren, but “none of the talks resulted in a deal because either the automaker was reluctant to give up control to Apple or Apple was holding out for a more attractive partner,” the Times said.

Along with Apple’s comeuppance when it comes to self-driving technology, the larger story has been Silicon Valley’s realization that manufacturing cars is much more complicated than building software or consumer electronics. Just ask Google, which scrapped its plans to build cars, or consider Tesla’s ongoing production problems.

Google, now under the Waymo brand, is successfully testing a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans and recently struck a deal with Jaguar to buy 20,000 I-Pace EVs and press them into service as robo-taxis. And despite its multiple issues and Elon Musk’s ego, Tesla is outselling traditional luxury car brands in key markets.

For now, Apple’s efforts have been reduced to working with VW on those autonomous shuttles. And, according to The New York Times, even that’s “behind schedule and consuming nearly all of the Apple car team’s attention.” So much for disruption and dominance.