Loons, Wi-Fi and ever-expensive hardware

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You have to give credit to Google for picking a name for its ambitious Wi-Fi project that will more than likely make many people snicker: Loon.

You may have heard about Project Loon in the news. Google is using balloons — huge balloons — to float over New Zealand in a pilot project aiming to test the delivery of Wi-Fi to places where conventional wisdom would hold it’s too difficult and/or expensive to reach.

Project Loon


Google has long had an interest in extending its operations beyond the screen and into other areas, and one of them is providing


I’ve written before about Google Fiber, its project to serve up uber-high-speed Internet and TV services, starting with its pilot location, Kansas City, Kansas and moving along to such recent rollouts as Provo, Utah, and Austin, Texas.

Loon changes things quite a bit.

During the weekend, Google launched a series of huge solar-powered balloons over New Zealand, where a few dozen testers will be seeing what kind of Internet service they get. The balloons won’t merely be floating around. Quite a bit of engineering and know-how has gone into making sure the balloons move with the winds at the stratosphere.

Because they are all networked together, they collectively will be able to provide a broadband Internet service below.

As the kids would say, mind: blown.

Well, that’s if it works. There’s a social imperative here, of course. Newfoundland and Labrador is far, far from the only place to be struggling to provide broadband access to rural and remote locations. In fact, the majority of the humans on the planet — at least five billion — are in the same position.

If Loon works, it opens up all kinds of possibilities, and you see why it picked this promotional tagline: “Balloon-powered Internet for everyone.”

We use the phrase “blue-sky thinking” all the time to describe imaginative problem-solving. It looks like Google’s famed X Labs took the advice to heart.

The project just launched, literally, and there’s no way to tell what the immediate applications will be. But I imagine quite a lot of attention will be focused on what Google finds out — and then on what Google expects to be paid for a commercial service.

Those pricey tablets

A friend of mine was asking me for some shopping advice recently. I’ve become attached to my iPad and an advocate for tablets in general, so much so that I carry mine around during most of the day. I use it for note-taking, writing, emails, recording audio, reading, playing games … the list goes on.

So, my friend has been doing some comparison shopping, and just about fell over when he saw how expensive an iPad can be these days.

Apple is pretty savvy: it lures potential consumers in with the basic prices. An iPad Mini currently starts at $329, while a pared-down version of the older iPad 2 goes for $399.

But you can spend a whole lot more than that. A top-of-the-line iPad, with its high-def Retina screen, can cost as much as $929. My buddy told me his eyes practically left their sockets when he saw that. Why the difference? There are two main reasons, and let’s use a car analogy: a whole lot more zoom under the hood, and a whole lot more room everywhere else.

All of the latest iPads have a new processing chip (called an A6X), which Apple says doubles the capacity of what it had been previously using.

You’re paying for that, no matter which model you choose, but you are getting some pretty sophisticated capacity, especially with graphics.

The higher prices are also determined by storage. I whined in this column a while back about running out of space, and pretty quickly.

That happened largely because I’ve moved a number of magazine subscriptions to the digital space, and some of them come loaded with so many bells and whistles that a single issue can suck up a gig of space.

The highest-end iPad now comes with 128 gigs of memory, and the $929 price tag is attached to the version with a cellular plan. If you want to rely on Wi-Fi alone (as I do), the cost comes down to $799.

The question is this: do you really need that much storage? The full lot will allow you to put (depending on the quality you prefer) 30,000 songs or at least 100 movies (fewer if you’re dealing with Blu-Ray quality). That’s more than many people ever put on their home computers, so the range may be a bit much. Even I would have a hard time filling it with all of those magazine issues.

If you’re a mega-user, though, or a company dealing with many types of very large files, you may like that space. The average consumer could easily scale down their model.

As much as I like Apple products, I advise my friends to check out other manufacturers. The tablet revolution has meant an incredible advance in the quality of handheld devices.

Plus, if you’re still not sure about what’s in the marketplace … just wait. Prices continually drop, and new products emerge (albeit with, yes, hefty price tags for those new innovations).

John Gushue is a producer

and broadcaster with CBC News

in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue

Organizations: Google, Apple, CBC News

Geographic location: New Zealand, Loons, Kansas City, Kansas Provo, Utah Austin, Texas Newfoundland and Labrador

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