Tag-Archive for » wireless «

Mobile phone bans miss the point

This Victoria Times-Colonist editorial has its heart in the right place, but reaches an erroneous conclusion.

I understand that using a mobile phone sucks up valuable brain computing cycles and thus increases one’s reaction time by a factor of four while driving.  I accept that, according to the latest research, the degree of impairment caused by using a hands-free phone is the same as that caused by using a handheld phone.  Nor do I dispute that, in a perfect world, human beings would have the sense not to talk on mobile phones at all while driving.   I am no longer a mobile phone aficianado myself, having gotten to the point where my own phone is a relatively basic RAZR (no internet, no GPS, no App Store) borrowed from a friend.  Despite all this, I perceive banning cell phone use for drivers to be stupid and impractical.

Back in 1989 such a ban might have been possible, before the devices became ubiquitous and everyone became accustomed to using them.  Right now the Canadian wireless market is supposed to be hovering near 65% saturation, meaning there is still plenty of room for new sales and more growth.  For those that can read the writing on the wall, the message is: wireless devices are not going anywhere, their usage (at this point) is only going to increase, and policing their growing use on the road will be an enormous and laughable waste of law enforcement time.

We already have cadres of people who are trained to communicate and operate vehicles at the same time (pilots, police and emergency services), so perhaps a better way forward would be to teach the Average Joe or Jane how to mitigate the inherent risk.  Pilots learn little turns of phrase like “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” to remind them of the necessary order of operations.  The first responsibility is to keep the plane controlled and flying; second priority is knowing where you are going; the third is staying in regular contact with air traffic control.  They also—importantly—learn to be brief, so as not to clog the frequency when others are trying to communicate.  This also would have some resonance for personal communications, for while you are not hogging air time away from anyone else, you are lowering your ability to respond to environmental or mechanical challenges around you.  The briefer you are, the better.

Instead of trying to roll back time to a point before these devices existed, it would be more practical to accept their use and alter the design of our vehicles and thoroughfares accordingly.  We could be designing vehicles and roadways with strategically placed sensors, so that when a paired wireless device goes active, the vehicle itself assumes control over navigation and separation from other traffic.  When the paired device stops being active, guidance can be returned to the human driver.  In my mind this is the only sensible way forward into a future where wireless devices get increasingly commonplace and indispensable.

Whatever one’s personal preferences, it is clear that our future is going to include more, not fewer, wireless devices.  It would not be a bad idea to try and adapt ourselves accordingly, instead of doggedly trying to preserve driving as it was before this technology existed.

Category: Web/Tech  Tags:  Comments off

Welcome to the ad-free internet

Something that bugs me about consumer IT gear is that typically all the best features of the hardware get locked down or just plain ignored in the manufacturer’s stock GUI, so the average consumer doesn’t have a chance to mess with it.

For example, if you have a wireless access point (or wireless router) connected to your LAN, that WAP has the ability to increase or decrease its antenna power settings to yield better range.  Many manufacturers max out the power setting, meaning you get good range but at the cost of longevity—the WAP antenna runs so hot that its guts will burn out within few months of purchase.  And the interface that ships with the device doesn’t let you access the antenna power setting feature.  That’s really handy.

This is why I typically junk the manufacturer firmware for many electronic devices, especially phones, routers and wireless access points.  On my router, I run a really terrific 3rd party Linux firmware called DD-WRT.  One of the fun features of DD-WRT is the ability to control your router’s startup script when it boots; my startup script uses this guy’s ad-blocking code.

I know, I know.  You can do that via the browser, right?  Sure, but you’re still wasting bandwidth and retrieval time to collect those ads you ultimately aren’t going to see.  This way the request never makes it past your router, and even clever but annoying contextual ads like Google AdSense get the axe.  Well worth the time to implement.

Category: Web/Tech  Tags:  Comments off

Canadians still successfully ignoring elephant in the room

So, potential iPhone customers in Canada will get the shaft, via the carrier’s wireless data plans.  Don’t be too surprised—we’ve been getting gouged (relative to our southern neighbours) on dairy products like eggs, milk, butter and cheese for decades.  And we’re all much more likely to buy any of those items.  Yet dairy lacks the sex appeal of cell phones, so instead of getting angsty about the essentials, people get angsty about the toys.

I am a little sympathetic to the situation, since I am also required to be a hostage to the nation’s only GSM service provider. But I’m not going to blame Rogers for taking advantage of their monopoly situation, which was, after all, blessed by the CRTC and thence by politicians.  Companies, large or small, always adapt to market conditions—otherwise they go out of business.  It has always been thus.  More appropriate targets for popular agitation and reform might be:

  • Various federal politicians and their departments, who protect sectors of Canadian industry from the hurly-burly of unfettered interaction with foreign competitors.
  • Voters, who have consistently elected protectionist politicians.  There is still a widespread notion across all major parties that Canadian firms cannot hope to survive against global competitors.  They must therefore be protected by the regulations and restrictions of our artificial economic hothouse.

On a global playing field, you can have protectionist safeguards to preserve local industry, incurring potential costs of stagnation and non-competitive pricing.  Or you can have innovation and competitive pricing at the potential cost of losing your local industry.  It is an either/or proposition.  You can’t have protectionism accompanied by innovation and competitive pricing, because competition is the very thing that spurs companies to innovate and stay nimble.

To be blunt: lack of competition is a structural problem afflicting large sectors of the Canadian economy.  The CPRP and OECD say so.  It is not mere avarice on the part of one company, or even one industry.  It is the natural, logical result of trying to protect companies from the very catalyst that forces them to improve.

So by all means, write angry letters to Rogers, the CRTC, your MPs, et cetera.  But don’t expect an awful lot of change unless you’re prepared to let certain sacred cows die first.

Category: Amor Patriae, Finance, Industria  Tags:  Comments off

Nerd Wars of Religion

nerd_phone_wars

Reading some of the BlackBerry addict sites today, I was not surprised to see that the Faithful were up in arms over the heretical teaching of Consumer Reports.  The American magazine came under fire for having the gall to rate the iPhone and several other smartphones above the BlackBerry.  Yes, I know CR has been involved in several lawsuits and controversies regarding their reporting.  But I simply can’t stand nerd religious wars (i.e. Mac vs. PC [vs. Linux], PS3 vs. Xbox 360, boxers vs. briefs, fish vs. cut bait), and this is a prime example.

A particularly ludicrous rant comes from Alexander Wolfe, “advanced technology” blogger for Information Week.

Even more mystifying is that fact that, on Consumer Reports‘ full list of smartphone ratings, a BlackBerry doesn’t appear until No. 7. That’s after the iPhone, Palm Treo 755P, Samsung BlackJack, Motorola Q, and Treo 680. How can a BlackBerry be below a couple of Windows Mobile devices like the BlackJack and the Q?

As an former owner/operator of two Treos and three BlackBerries, let me break it down for you.

Things BlackBerries Do Really Well (Compared to Treos):

  • Provide wireless push messaging and PIM sync services.
  • Run a small number of third-party applications from device RAM.
  • Run applications that pull data from wireless connections rather than an onboard database.
  • Task switch/multitask, especially with an active data connection.

Things Treos (Palm OS or Windows Mobile) Do, but BlackBerries Can’t:

  • Keep applications on the SD card, only loading them into RAM at application launch.
  • Read data and execute applications from the SD card.
  • Employ a touch-screen and stylus, thereby avoiding endless scrolling and clicking.

How do these examples play out in the real world?

Example 1: Navigation

Let’s say you have a fancy new BlackBerry with onboard GPS receiver.  You’re in the middle of nowhere—Baffin Island—and want to find out where the nearest town is.  Get out your BlackBerry, turn on the GPS receiver and voila, you are shown a spot on a blank map.  I said a blank map—the BlackBerry doesn’t keep its maps in device RAM (nor on the micro-SD card).  It downloads maps on an as-needed basis using your cell phone connection.  Not so useful any more, is it?

Your Treo, on the other hand, stores all of its third-party maps on the SD card.  It doesn’t even have a built-in GPS, so you have to use a GPS puck connected via Bluetooth.  But you have the advantage of being able to utilise GPS in the absence of a cellular connection.  Which is more useful to you?  Kind of depends on where you travel, doesn’t it?

Example 2: Inefficient Use of Device Memory

Want to read an e-book or access a large-ish local database on your BlackBerry?  Those need to be stored in device RAM, which is somewhere between 64-72 MB (minus a dozen MB or so for device firmware and OS).  Device RAM is also where all of your call logs, tasks, calendar entries and emails live, so you can’t eat up too much of that space.  Want to store applications on the micro-SD card and load them into RAM when required?  Sorry, can’t do it.

Your Treo, on the other hand, can store applications on its SD card, loading them into device memory when launched.  Your Treo is also smart enough to be able to read e-books, databases and data of most types directly from the SD card, so you are not eating up precious device memory just storing your currently-dormant applications.

Conclusion

I happen to like both device types for different reasons.  Users will have a variety of viewpoints on the utility of these devices.

BlackBerries are unbeatable in a corporate environment because they provide the connectivity and messaging that corporate users crave, while simultaneously providing the security that corporate IT groups crave.  BlackBerries are terrific in situations where you have wireless data coverage, the information you need is easily accessible via wireless connection, and your IT department concurrently needs the ability to make your BlackBerry drop dead when (not if) you are an idiot and misplace it.

Treos (and iPhones, and others) are great in the prosumer realm because they provide a broader feature set and can sacrifice some security and control for a different user experience.  They are also good in situations where a wireless connection is not guaranteed (like the subway, or Baffin Island), because you can carry the bulk of your data with you on the SD card.  On the downside, their integration with corporate messaging is usually handled through third-party applications, and they have no integral remote-kill, which makes them more risky for corporate environments.

Different situations call for different tools.

Internal Audit always rings twice

Get back to your desk, slacker!

Suddenly, I regret having a GPS-enabled BlackBerry.

While reviewing the new I.T. policies on a just-upgraded BlackBerry Enterprise Server, I found this little gem:

bes_location_track

Normal GPS receivers are exactly that—receivers.   They don’t transmit any information back to ground or satellite stations.  But cell phones—by their very nature—are location-reporting devices.  They are constantly in touch with the cellular towers, checking signal strength against several towers at once, allowing triangulation of your position.

Some North American wireless carriers are employing this innate capability in a useful way, by giving that triangulation information to emergency services when someone calls 911 from a mobile phone.  This is also how services like Globis Data’s DRIVES determines traffic flow along major streets and highways.

This information has never been reported back to the BES, and I’m not sure just how granular and specific the recorded data will be.  Will it record a complete daily track, or just take a single snapshot every 15 minutes, discarding the previous location data?  I guess one way to find out to enable this policy for my own account and see what kind of crap it records in the back-end database.

Category: Web/Tech  Tags: ,  Comments off

BlackBerry software must-haves

Just retired the BlackBerry 8100 (Pearl) for an 8310, and while I was in the process of loading up all the software again, I figured I would make a list here of all the cool junk you need to have installed on your wireless handheld.

THE TOP FIVE

  • Gmail Mobile (Free). Sure, you can set up BIS at home and have it push your Gmail to your BlackBerry—as long as your desktop is running and can connect to your mail account.  But why bother when Google has made it easy for you?  Just download the Gmail mobile client to your handheld device.  It will pre-load messages and check mail in the background.  Any Gmail
    messages you read, delete, or mark for follow-up on your handheld will be similarly handled in your web-based account, automatically.  Can use it to search your Gmail account for words/phrases too, just like the web version.  I prefer to use Gmail Mobile rather than BIS, so that my personal email doesn’t show up in the standard BB Messages view (which is always clogged with business email).  As the Offspring would say, ya gotta keep ’em separated.
  • Virtual Reach Viigo Personal (Free).  An indispensable RSS reader for your handheld device.  Set the update interval to something as short as every 30 minutes, or as lengthy as once a day.  Manage feeds via the device or by logging in to Virtual Reach’s website.  Now you’ve got the latest news and blog updates to read on your morning commute.
  • SplashID ($).
    ID and password manager for mobile devices.  password- and encryption-protected to guard your data.  Syncs with a desktop component too, so you can enter the stuff via your desktop keyboard and, after syncing, have the data readily available on your mobile device.  Not just for computer IDs and passwords, but can accommodate insurance account numbers, frequent flier IDs, clothing sizes, web logins, et cetera.  Super-handy if you have a million infrequently-used IDs and/or passwords, but may need any one of them at the drop of a hat.
  • Globis Data DRIVES (Free).  Not an application, but a website that can be accessed via your mobile (or desktop) browser.  WAP-based traffic information services for Toronto and Montreal, with Calgary coming soon.  Uses mobile phone signals to determine the speed of cars along certain streets and highways, then displays average traffic speed on the map.  Frackin’ cool use of everyday technology.  Bookmark this one, it’ll come in handy.
  • Pretty much any Magmic game ($).  A boatload of addictive games for your mobile device.  Old board games like Monopoly and Stratego.  Sports games like Curling, or my current addiction, Golden Tee Golf.  Yes, it’s just like the full-sized Golden Tee where you compete against drunken people in bars across the continent.  There’s also card games like Blackjack, Cribbage, Euchre and Texas Hold’em Poker.  A veritable warehouse of time-wasting mobile goodness.

FOR THE I.T. CROWD

  • Rove Mobile Admin ($$).  Permits management of your IT infrastructure from a wireless handheld (BlackBerry, Treo, specific models of Sony, Nokia & Motorola phones).  The list of supported servers and devices is considerable.  Free 30-day demo, otherwise licensing cost is calculated on a per-server basis.  Well worth the investment—say goodbye to hauling your laptop everywhere during on-call duty.

FOR THE MOBILE EXECUTIVE

  • WorldMate Live ($$ ).  Create and manage travel itineraries, check flight schedules and status, look up numbers of airlines, hotel chains, and car rental places.  Plus a currency converter, local weather forecasts, and world clocks.  Nine bucks a month for the fully-featured jet-setter Gold Edition, or a slightly crippled version for free.

RUNNERS-UP

  • Google Maps Mobile (Free).  Get directions to unfamiliar places.  Find the closest gas station, restaurant or hospital.  Figure out where the hell you are.  Works with GPS-equipped BlackBerries, showing your position on a moving map.  For handhelds without GPS, it won’t tell you where you are, but it’s still more convenient than carrying a wad of paper maps around.
  • Facebook for BlackBerry (Free).  Just what you needed.  The universal productivity-destroyer, now with added wireless data charges!  Note that the Facebook app uses the BlackBerry Browser to communicate.  The BB Browser uses your company BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) to surf, and then packages and sents the requested data to your wireless handheld.  Most companies don’t permit their BESes to communicate with the Facebook.com domain, so if you’re on a corporate BES, forget about it.

As with all mobile phone software, the application may be free, but the air/data time is not.  Be aware of the wireless data charges you will be incurring through use.

Category: Web/Tech  Tags: ,  Comments off

What I Did on my Blogging Vacation

I didn’t actually have a vacation, but I had a bit of an unplanned break from blogging. Work and all that real-life stuff tends to intrude from time to time.  Here are some of the highlights:

dlink_dgs-1008dReplaced a switch. This particular specimen, the D-Link DGS-1008D, is one sad excuse for a home office gigabit Ethernet 8-port switch.  It doesn’t have a bracket for vertical mounting, so it has to sit flush on the desk.  If you have all 8 ports in constant operation, 24/7, this means the switch tends to overheat regularly.  When it overheats it resets, dropping all eight network connections.  If I were still a member of a rifle club I would have taken this thing to the range to be disposed of like the traitor to networking technology that it is.  The paradox of small office / home office 8-port gig switches is that in a busy, 24/7 environment where all 8 ports are occupied and constantly transmitting, you need a fan-cooled unit to avoid overheating.  But fan-cooled units are typically noisy and thus unpleasant to have in a quiet home office when you’re trying to get some work done.  You just can’t win.  Of course the new owner (Dax) tells me that the D-Link hasn’t reset once…

Replaced a router. In preparation for the arrival of the AppleTV, the old wireless-G router was upgraded to a wireless-N unit with good range.

blackberry_pearl Replaced the Treo 650 with a BlackBerry 8100. Mostly due to the demands of my job.  I like the 650 a lot and I still think it’s a terrific smartphone; it offers a lot of flexibility that BlackBerries just don’t have.  The one thing it can’t do is connect to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server using AES encryption; the 650’s BlackBerry Connect client only uses 3DES encryption and that’s not good enough for the Firm.  It’s also a good test-bed for all the various applications and BES policies that we use.

  • Most-missed Treo 650 feature: E-books.  I have a wad of 300 free Palm e-books (all good classics of Western civilization) and I am sad to say that I only got around to reading fifteen or twenty of them.
  • Least-missed Treo 650 feature: Damn resets caused by the Treo’s inability to keep its own DBcache relatively clean.

UPDATE: Oh yeah, there was this little BlackBerry-related incident too.  Hilarious little factoid:  I got notified of this outage Tuesday night at 2200 by our RIM support account manager via an e-mail sent to my… BlackBerry.  The outage apparently started at about 2030 Eastern.  I passed the word on to the boss, his boss, various other IT teams that carry on-call BB devices, and posted a notice to the Firm’s intranet.  The national helpdesk did the bright thing and included a notification of the outage in their call-routing system, so everyone on the business side knew about it the instant they called to find out what was going on.  Net result was zero frantic accountant calls to the Firm’s IT staff.   What do you know, communication works.

appletv Acquired and hacked the crap out of an AppleTV. Had some Best Buy gift cards to burn, so I thought I would bring the household into the age of net-downloadable TV and get an AppleTV.  Enlisted friend Dax (whose OSX-fu is good) to replace the ATV’s stock 40GB internal drive with a 120GB drive, enable SSH and install XviD, DivX and AC3 codecs.  Voila, set-top unit that can play just about any old movie downloaded off the net — not that I recommend doing so, of course.  Not to mention photos, music, podcasts, etc — and once SSH is enabled, you no longer require iTunes installed on your PC to transfer stuff to it.  Nice thing about the ATV is that it runs the same basic OS as the Intel Macs, so for 300 bucks you can hack your way into a box roughly equivalent to a Mac mini (CDN $679 retail).

If you’re willing to live with the puny 40GB drive, you could even hack it without opening the case (thus keeping your warranty intact).  Nice.

Last but not least, I watched a lot of baseball. Back in February I found out that The Firm offers a substantial discount on Jays tickets, and ordered a wad of them (for the first time since 1993).  Attended the April 12th and 15th games versus Detroit, and the 18th versus Boston.  I like to sit near 1st base since that is where most of the action tends to take place, plus you can see into the Jays dugout.  Never really understood why people like to sit near 3rd base (above the home team’s dugout) since you’re staring at the opposition all game.

100_4447 100_4449 100_4450

My wife took a load of pics from the 15th  — also Jackie Robinson Day, which is why lots of guys are wearing the old-school socks-over-pants and Jackie’s number 42.  Apparently the entire LA Dodgers lineup wore 42 in honour of their former teammate.  Classy, and nice to see MLB in touch with its history.

Interestingly, the game on the 18th featured a lot of Japanese content — probably a nod to Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka, who had pitched the day before.  The Japanese Ambassador to Canada and a Japanese-Canadian member of our Olympic team were on hand to toss out the first pitch.  And there were taiko drummers on hand before and during the game.  Taiko would probably make a good addition to every game; just imagine how differently your day at work would go if you rolled into the office with ten guys drumming away like mad.  Less antediluvian ballpark organs, more guys whaling away on drums.

Wireless carriers gouging Canadians

From this morning’s Globe & Mail:

The average cellphone bill is one-third more in Canada than in the United States, and although the price gap is closing, it continues to hinder the adoption of wireless communications in this country, a report to be released on Monday says.

Just 56 per cent of Canadians have a mobile phone, compared with an average of about 90 per cent in the rest of the developed world. The discrepancy leaves the country at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to using a basic productivity tool that has become the world’s most common communications device.

“Canadian wireless adoption is a national disgrace,” concludes the telecommunications consultancy Seaboard Group, in a report entitled Lament for a Wireless Nation.

Twenty-four years after the federal government issued its first licences for cellphone service, only about one of every two Canadians has a device, compared with about three-quarters of the population in the United States, which began going mobile at the same time.

— Simon Avery,  “High fees prompt Canadians to leave cellphones on hold“, Globe & Mail, 05 March 2007.

On the other hand there is a certain school of thought which regards mobile phone usage as akin to driving an SUV, and they would no doubt interpret this low rate of adoption as a sign of Canadian superiority.

The best stuff is in the report highlights, some of which I will quote here from the SeaBoard Group themselves:

  • The average wireless customer in Canada pays 60% more than if they had used a U.S. plan. The average Canadian wireless customer also pays a 19% premium when compared with customers of European carriers when identical profiles are priced and adjusted for purchasing power parity.
  • While Canada offers plans at parity rates for prepaid and low-end user profiles, Canada is significantly more expensive than the U.S. for plans that cover more than just ‘glove compartment usage’.
  • Rogers, with its Fido brand, has the most compelling Canadian strategy of having both the least expensive prepaid product in the market, while the primary Rogers brand, with its broader access reach, remains a higher price, higher value product.

wireless_pricing

(Chart courtesy of the SeaBoard Group)

One big obstacle to Canadian wireless adoption is the ridiculous pricing of wireless data plans.  Many US carriers offer flat-rate unlimited data use — which is handy for anybody who transmits or receives a lot of messages with their BlackBerry or Treo.  Rogers’ BlackBerry plans aren’t too bad, but for other GPRS devices the data charges are ridiculous.

If you look at the Rogers data plans, they claim that 1.5MB is sufficient for 25 e-mails per day.  This may be true for non-encrypted protocols with a minimum of file attachments, but it is not at all true for a Treo 650 utilising BlackBerry Connect (which requires 3DES encryption) within a corporate environment.  With that device and software, at 25 messages per day, the data usage is closer to 3-5 MB.  Since Rogers doesn’t have a  5MB plan you have to step up to the 7MB plan, which costs  CDN $40/month on top of your regular wireless voice charges (which is about CDN $35 for me).

On other hand, if I were a Cingular customer in the United States, I could sign up for the Smartphone Connect plan (5 MB/mo) for just USD $9.99 (CDN $11.79).  If I wanted unlimited data usage on Cingular, I could get the Smartphone Max plan for USD $29.99  (CDN $35.39).  Rogers has no unlimited data plan, but they’re happy to charge you CDN $100 (USD $84.73) for their top-end data plan which includes 200MB of data usage.

Seeing a bit of a pricing disconnect there?  That’s why I don’t use the data capabilities of the Treo very much.  Is it any wonder that we’re reluctant to use these things to their full potential?

Category: Industria, Web/Tech  Tags:  Comments off