Achieving the goal of a competitive Internet service

Linksys EA8500 broadband router press picture courtesy of Linksys USA

A competitive Internet service market is lively and for the end user

The common problem

A market with one Internet-service player, described as a monopoly, is at risk of poor customer service and prices that don’t represent real value.  A similar situation can occur where there are two or three players colluding together and this can be described as a cartel or oligopoly.

In some situations, the Internet service providers can engage in activities that are hostile to the customer such as bandwidth limiting, contracts with onerous terms and conditions or simply refusing to invest in the Internet service they provide.

How is the Internet service constructed?

The Internet service that we buy consists of various components, namely the wired or wireless infrastructure that brings the service to the customer’s door, the off-ramps from various national and global Internet backbones and the Internet services which are provided on a retail basis to the customers.

Ownership approaches

The North American approach

Infrastructure for the exclusive use of the communications company

In the USA and Canada, the retail Internet service is provided by companies who own the infrastructure, the off-ramps from the backbones along with the “to-the-customer” functions. Sadly this has led to a situation where few companies exist to provide this service – one for each wired or wireless broadband medium. This is represented by a cable-TV firm providing cable-modem service, a “Baby Bell” telephone company offering ADSL or fibre-optic service along with one or two wireless (cellular) telephone providers offering mobile broadband.

The European model

An established telephony infrastructure owned by the incumbent telephony company but leased to other ISPs.

But in Europe, Asia and Oceania, there is a different approach. This is where multiple companies, including the incumbent telephony companies provided wholesale Internet service which was sold by different retail ISPs that used the same physical infrastructure which was the copper telephone cabling.

These countries typically had an incumbent telecommunications company that was initially part of the national government’s post-telephone-telegraph ministry and was typically split from the post office, ran as a government entity then fully privatised. Such companies were often charged with providing the universal telephone service including the public payphones installed in the streets and managing the national emergency telephone service i.e. 999, 000 or 112 and they owned the abovementioned established telephone infrastructure.

But there was still the ability for other companies like cable-TV companies to use other wired and wireless infrastructure for their Internet offerings.

The problem here was that the incumbent telephony provider “taxed” the other providers for using the established telephone infrastructure to provide an ADSL service in an unfair manner, such as by requiring the rental of their equipment and requiring customers to subscribe to a local “dial-tone” telephony service through these providers even if they just want Internet service.

Key issues

Access to established infrastructure by competitors

One issue that is always raised is allowing competing telecommunications providers to have access to established telecommunications infrastructure, especially wireline infrastructure. There were issues where the incumbent telecommunications company would frustrate this access through onerous costs or service requirements levied on competing providers and their customers who wanted to use this infrastructure.

Unbundling the connection between the customer’s premises and the exchange

Instead, this has lead to the arrival of “local loop unbundling” or “dégroupage” where the wires between the customer’s door and the telephone exchange were effectively handed over to the competing operator. Typically this is facilitated through the incumbent telco renting rack-space in their exchanges out to competing operators and connecting the subscriber to the competing ISP’s equipment in that rack-space. A variant of this technique is “sub-loop unbundling” where the competitor connects to the subscriber at the local telecommunications distribution point in the street or the telecommunications wiring closet in a multiple-tenancy building.

ADSL service that is independent of dial-tone telephony service

Another tactic is to allow the sale of a “naked” or “dry-loop” DSL service which doesn’t require the customer to rent a local “dial-tone” telephony service from the incumbent telco. This meant that the wires were just to be used just to provide Internet access and a voice telephony service was either provided as a VoIP service or the customer had to subscribe to a mobile telephone service. This has been practices in Australia, France and a few other countries but not in the UK.

This service appeals also to customers who used to maintain a separate telephone line for a fax machine or dial-up Internet but want to use those wires for a dedicated ADSL data path with all the benefits of better throughput.  They can maintain their main telephone line for their classic voice telephone service with a traditional telephone as a “lifeline” independent of local power conditions or a “catch-all” phone number for the household.

Removal of infrastructure control from the incumbent telco

But this elephant of monopolistic practices didn’t go away while the incumbent telco had control of the wires to the customer’s door. Instead, some countries used various procedures to remove the infrastructure from the incumbent telco’s control and either require these assets to be divested to a separate company or to be nationalised where they owned by the nation’s government.

If this was a separate legal company that was owned by the telco, the situation was called “functional separation”. This would require the telco to sell retail service through its own entity while access is sold via that separate legal entity.An example of this is BT Openreach who maintains the infrastructure for the UK’s telephony and Internet service while BT supplies retail telephony and Internet service to customers but competitors use Openreach to provide telephony and Internet service.

On the other hand. “full separation” would require the infrastructure to be nationalised or owned by another entirely different business entity and the incumbent telco would be required to rent the infrastructure and use the infrastructure to sell their telecommunications services. This is while competitors can rent this same infrastructure to sell their telecommunications services.

Competing infrastructure providers

There has been the creation of competitive infrastructure, typically in the form of coaxial cable by cable-TV providers and cellular radio setups for mobile-telephony services. These were then set up for Internet service through the gradual evolution of technology. Similarly, some towns had their own copper and fibre infrastructure that was owned by a separate entity to provide a telecommunications service for that area or leased back to the incumbent telco.

But this idea was taken up in a strong manner in some markets where competing infrastructure companies who just owned the wires and leased these wires to other providers and/or offered a retail Internet service to these markets. The UK have moved along this path with some fibre-optic deployments in rural areas, more as a way to seek independence from British Telecom. It is a similar path in France where multiple retail ISPs established partnerships who owned particular fibre-optic infrastructure.

An issue that is being examined by regulators is the ability for competing interests to build infrastructure of the same technology in the same area for the same purpose, commonly described as “build-over”. This could allow a retail ISP to choose a particular infrastructure for the best package or allow them to provide the same service across multiple infrastructures.

Similarly, in North America, the established telcos and cable-TV companies were paying US state governments to prohibit the deployment of infrastructure for competing Internet service. It was perceived as a way to stop local government and other public-minded organisations from spending public money on providing free wireless Internet as a community service in competition to the established operators. This allowed for comfortable oligopolies to exist between these established players and, among other things, had ruined the quality of service and value for money Internet users experienced.

Google and a few other private operators set up Gigabit fibre Internet service at prices that most could afford in a few neighbourhoods using their own infrastructure and this opened up the floodgates of competition. This along with various laws and regulations put up by Uncle Sam had improved access to Internet service which was about better value for money.

Pay-TV and multiple-play services

Foxtel IQ2 pay-TV PVR

Access to desirable content by all Pay-TV providers including telcos and ISPs helps with competitive Internet service

Another issue that is creeping up in some markets is the provision of subscription multiple-channel TV. This was typically provided by a cable-TV provider or a satellite-TV provider who owned the infrastructure on an “end-to-end” model.

But there is interest amongst telecommunications and Internet providers in the concept of providing a pay-TV service as part of a “multiple-play” offering, something which the traditional cable-TV providers could do with their infrastructure. These “multiple-play” packages typically include landline telephony, pay-TV and/or broadband Internet with some packages offering mobile telephony and mobile broadband Internet.

Such services appeal to most of us because of the ability to have “all the eggs in one basket” with only one account to think of and pay to obtain telephony, pay-TV and Internet.

Previously, a telco or ISP would deliver these services if they had a contractural arrangement with a cable-TV or satellite-TV provider and this involved installation of extra infrastructure at the customer’s premises. Now this involves a “single-pipe triple-play” setup based on IPTV technology which makes it feasible for an ADSL-based or fibre-based provider to offer multichannel pay-TV as part of their service offerings without needing to support new infrastructure.

These providers may run their own pay-TV service such as what Telstra, BT and most of the French ISPs do and solicit the content to show on these services themselves. On the other hand, they would sign up to an IPTV franchise which solicits the content itself and provides it to multiple telcos and ISPs. An example of this is the Australian Fetch TV franchise who offers pay TV to independent ISPs. In some cases, a traditional pay-TV provider could offer their services as an IPTV service as well as through their own end-to-end infrastructure and franchise it to ISPs and telcos.

Access to desirable TV content

A problem that is showing up in the UK and could show up in Australia and other markets where there is a dominant pay-TV provider like Sky or Foxtel is the availability of desirable TV content, whether as particular channels or shows, only through that dominant TV provider rather than through other pay-TV services like IPTV services.

Typically a content provider like Viacom or the BBC would offer channels of particular content like MTV, Comedy Central or BBC First for people to subscribe to. A dominant pay-TV provider would obtain the content on an exclusive basis so that a competing pay-TV provider like a telco or IPTV franchise can’t make these channels available to their customers for the duration of the contract.

This is augmented if the local outpost of a particular channel which is supplied via the dominant pay-TV provider obtains exclusive TV rights to a popular sports event or movie. The UK example would be for Sky Sports owned by Sky TV obtaining exclusive rights to the  Premier League soccer (association football) matches while the Australian example is for one of Foxtel’s premium channels to obtain exclusive rights to “Game Of Thrones”. Here, they can play a rough hand with these shows by: running them on premium channels only available to “platinum-package” subscribers, even making it hard for commercial (hotel/restaurant/bar) subscribers to play these shows; not completing their screening obligations in order to inhibit access to the show by free-to-air TV, “over-the-top” video-on-demand services or home video; or even trying to frustrate access to radio-broadcast or online-service rights for the hot games so you can’t get play-by-play commentary unless you subscribe to their sports channel.

Such situations lead to customers taking out multiple pay-TV subscriptions and dealing with multiple set-top boxes in order to get the video content that they want. That is if the dominant pay-TV provider will only deliver their service in an “end-to-end” fashion requiring the customer to install their infrastructure and set-top box.

Personally, I would like to see limitations placed on exclusive-access contracts for pay-TV channels so that a particular MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor – a Pay-TV provider) cannot tie up channels for their own exclusive access. It could be facilitated through an open “wholesale-retail” market for each content provider and pay-TV provider where content packages and channels are sold to pay-TV providers as though the content provider is a wholesaler and the pay-TV provider is a retailer.

In the USA, the FCC have achieved this goal with satellite TV by making it hard for cable-TV companies to tie up content so that DirecTV and DISH can’t screen that content or have to pay too much. They are working towards extending the rules about that situation to encompass telcos and others using IPTV methods.

There will be other issues that need to be looked at such as differentiating between “first-run” and repertory screening when determining the conditions of a contract affecting a show’s broadcast in order to prohibit tying up of shows so it takes too long for them to appear on home video or other screening platforms.

Net Neutrality

Another key issue that is raised in the context of Internet services is Net Neutrality. This is where everyone has equal access to the Internet as a highway.

It is compared to practices by various telcos and ISPs who would make it hard for customers to gain access to Internet services unless the company providing these services paid the ISP for a high-throughput path. This was feared because it would make it harder for small-time publishers and new startups to be seen by their customers.

It has been the subject of debate and is something I mention in the same breath as competitive Internet service. A competitive Internet market would provide proper benefit to customers in the form of value for money and if a customer couldn’t benefit from a particular Internet resource like, say, Wikipedia; they would want to “jump ship” to someone who provided the proper throughput.

Conclusion

To maintain a healthy Internet-service market that allows us to make the best use of this technology, there needs to be a strong effort to assure sustainable competition. This includes government departments that oversee telecommunications and competitive-market issues maintaining that level of competition by removing encumbrances and protections for established operators along with limiting market consolidation.

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Windows 10 Start Menu–not your father’s old station wagon

Windows 10 Start Menu

Start Menu in Windows 10 – the pop-up look from Windows 7 with the tiles from Windows 8

Windows 7 and its predecessors had a traditional pop-up start menu with an option to see all the programs or the frequently-used programs on your computer. This was presented in a list rather than a cluster of icons or tiles.

But Windows 8 headed down a totally different path with a dashboard-style layout hat has all of the programs or a user-defined set of programs represented as tiles. This had thrown many computer users off the operating system and caused some unnecessary worry.

The Start Menu

Windows 10 brought back the pop-up Start Menu that looks like a combination of the traditional Start menu and Windows 8’s tile-based look. This includes the famed “Live Tiles” that are always updated with new content thus working like a dashboard.

In the early days of your experience with Windows 10, you can mess around getting that tile-based Start Menu area looking how you want. If you run Windows 10 on a touchscreen laptop or a computer with a touchscreen monitor, this menu style can work just as well for you.

Getting it right!

You can organise your tiles in to groups by dragging them in to the space between two groups to create a group or dragging them in to a group to have them part of that group. This can be done in both the traditional pop-up view and the Tablet Mode view mentioned later on at the end.

Then you can name each group by right-clicking or “dwelling” your finger on the group name then typing in the name you want to give it.

Browsing for that program

Windows 10 Start Menu - All Apps highlighted

Looking for that program – click All Apps on the Start Menu

This will be a situation for those of you who have held out with Windows 7 or its predecessors, where you will be wanting to know where all of your programs have gone even though they aren’t on the Start Menu or Taskbar.

Browsing for that particular program? Click on “All Apps” to see a list of all programs on your computer. Then, click on any of the letters to bring up a list of alphabetical letters. Subsequently, you just need to click on the first letter of the program’s title to be sent straight to a list of the programs beginning with that letter.

You then have two options to have your program readily accessible. One is to “pin” your program to the Taskbar so it is always accessible and this setup may remind you of the station-preset buttons on your car radio. On the other hand, you could “pin” your program to the Start Menu where it will appear as a tile which you shift around until it is in the right place for you.

Tablet Mode

Windows 10 Tablet Mode

How Windows 10 looks when you use Tablet Mode

The Tablet Mode gives you a view that is not dissimilar to how you have operated your Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 computer. It is automatically selected if you detach a keyboard from your detachable-style “2-in-1” tablet or fold over a convertible notebook so the screen becomes a tablet. But you can manually select this mode on any Windows 10 computer.

Windows 10 Notification Menu buttons wiht Tablet Mode highlighted

How to select Tablet Mode manually

As I have said just before, this doesn’t just those of you who work with tablet computers or 2-in-1 devices. You can use it with a laptop or desktop computer and it doesn’t need a touchscreen to benefit from this function. Rather you would use your mouse or trackpad to navigate around the screen and a scroll-enabled mouse earns its keep by allowing you to scroll downwards. In the Notification Menu, you have a button labelled Tablet Mode which you can use to toggle between this mod and the regular Desktop Mode.

I would recommending having your screen in the Tablet mode if you are trying to sort out the Start Menu groups after an upgrade because you can use the whole of your screen’s real estate to do this.

Search Bar

There is an always-visible Search Bar on the Taskbar which you can fill in your search requests for local or Web-hosted resources. This works with Cortana which is the personal digital assistant in the same vein as Siri or Google Now.

Here, ordering a search is as simple as clicking or tapping on the search area and typing in what you are after.

Conclusion

Anyone who has worked with any of Windows’ incarnations will find the Windows 10 Start Menu as something that doesn’t daunt you but allows you to get more out of the operating system.

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Work in progress on HomeNetworking01.info

Hi everyone!

HomeNetworking01.info is undergoing a few improvements. One of these is to have a new look that works well for mobile, tablet and regular (desktop and laptop) computers so you can still enjoy reading the good articles on whatever device you are using.

Soon, those of you who follow this website by email or RSS (Webfeed) methods will be moved towards the FeedBlitz system. This will be in order to benefit from better feed targeting and also newer email subscribers will benefit from an improved onboarding experience where you can catch up with previous featured articles.

It will take some time to iron out the bugs here and there but you will benefit when things become smoother.

With regards

Simon Mackay

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Using Bluetooth audio devices with your laptop computer

Braven BRV-X outdoor Bluetooth speaker

Braven BRV-X outdoor Bluetooth speaker – another of many Bluetooth speakers with speakerphone functionality

There is an increasing number of Bluetooth-connected wireless audio devices available for  use with smartphones and similar devices. But you may want to use these headsets, audio adaptors, Bluetooth speakers or Bluetooth-integrated audio devices with your laptop instead of those tiny speakers that are the norm for these computers. The best example for the speakers would be the Bose SoundDock speakers, especially the SoundDock 10, due to its good bass response, when used with the Bluetooth adaptor. As well, I ran a test setup with the Motorola DC800 Bluetooth adaptor connected to an older Sony boombox and had the review-sample Fujitsu LH772 laptop being fed through this Bluetooth adaptor.

Similarly, there are those of us who may want to use a Bluetooth headset like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro with a laptop computer so you can roam around the office or home listening to your favourite tunes or podcast or as a contingency measure to avoid missing that important VoIP call.

How a Bluetooth audio setup would function for a laptop

You can achieve these setups with Bluetooth-equipped laptops that run Windows 7, MacOS X Snow Leopard and Linux and newer versions of these operating systems. This is due to the supply of a class driver for the Bluetooth A2DP audio profile  and Hands Free Profile as part of the operating system distributions.

Initial setup

First, you have to set up the Bluetooth A2DP-capable audio device to become discoverable. The method for this is explained in the instructions that come with the device but you typically may have to hold down a setup button to achieve this goal.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones

Headphones you can treat your laptop to

Then you have to put the computer in to a “Bluetooth setup” mode in order to annex the device to the operating system. In WIndows 7, you would have to click on “Devices and Printers”, then click “Add Device”.

After you complete these procedures, both the device and the computer start to pair up and identify themselves to each other. The computer would then find and install the A2DP audio-device class drivers that are part of the operating system. In some cases, the class driver may be fetched from Microsoft’s or Apple’s Website. The same thing will also happen with the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile or Bluetooth Headset Profile when you initially connect a Bluetooth headset, headphone audio adaptor or other device equipped for communications functionality.

Now the Bluetooth audio device is defined as a sound device and some Windows setups may have it run as the default audio device for all of the laptop’s sound output.

Which sound device

Bluetooth device listed alongside default audio device

List of audio playback devices including the Bluetooth audio device

But you may want to have a split setup so that music and video sound go to the Bluetooth speakers and all of the notification sounds come via the laptop speakers. Here, you would have to set the integrated sound subsystem as the default audio device. Then you would have to set iTunes, Windows Media Player or other media-management software to use the Bluetooth A2DP audio device.

This latter setup may not work well with software like games, the Spotify desktop program or Web browsers where there isn’t an option to specify the sound output device for that application. Here, you would have to specify the Bluetooth audio device as your default audio device to have the soundtrack from video on demand including YouTube videos, or your Spotify playlist coming through that device.

Bluetooth headsets and speakers with speakerphone functionality will cause Windows to purpose the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile or Headset Profile as a Communications Device and may cause Windows 7 to determine it as a Default Communications Device.

The controls on these Bluetooth devices should map through to the applications’ controls courtesy of operating system support for Bluetooth AVRCP control profile for media navigation and the call-control functionality of the Hands-Free and Headset Profiles. This will apply to applications that currently have the focus for media playback or communications.

Multipoint Operation

The Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Adaptor - supports multipoint operation for two devices

The Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Adaptor – supports multipoint operation for two devices

An increasing number of communications-capable Bluetooth devices have support for “multipoint” operation where they can work with two different source devices. This function is typically to support people who use two mobile phones such as a “personal” one and a “work” one.

As I discovered when reviewing the Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth headphone adaptor, I fund that this function can also work with a computer. This can be of use if you are maintaining a playlist or listening to Web content on your laptop.

Here, you have to determine which device is your “priority” device which allows the headset to primarily control that device. This is something you would do either through the device’s setup menu, a desktop or mobile control program or a certain keypress sequence depending on the device. You may be able to at least use the call-control button to answer and end calls when you are using your secondary device. It is a good idea to set the laptop as the priority device when you are playing content from it or are wanting to use a VoIP app that may come across as being rickety.

Conclusion

Once you know what your Bluetooth-capable laptop can do with those Bluetooth audio accessories, you can then let it perform at its best with these devices and they don’t need juhst to be considered for mobile phones anymore.

Updates

This is to reflect newer Bluetooth hardware that I have reviewed along with highlighting the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile used for communications purposes and multipoint operation offered by an increasing number of Bluetooth devices.

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Personal-assistant software turns from a trickle to a flood

Siri - the first of the mobile personal-assistant software

Hi Siri! Siri – the first of the mobile personal-assistant software

First there was Apple with Siri, then Google with Google Now, then Microsoft with Cortana (not that Ford car of the 1970s). Now Facebook has jumped in on the act with M. What is this about?

We are talking of “personal-assistant” software that uses artificial intelligence and natural-language processing along with access to locally-stored and Web-hosted resources to answer questions.They also implement machine learning to fine-tune themselves to how you operate in life. Depending on the software, you may pose these questions by talking to the device or typing in the question. They will reply either by text or, if they implement speech technology, by voice. In some cases, you could ask the “personal-assistant” software to get the ball rolling for a hotel, restaurant or journey booking or product purchase.

Some of these programs provide API hooks to other programs and Web services either to learn from or pass commands to them so you could, for example, ask Google Now or Cortana to get Shazam to identify a particular song playing on the radio. These APIs may be passed to select programs as determined by the personal-assistant software vendor or may be widely available to every third-party app developer.

OK Google - Google Now as an Android widget

OK Google – Google Now as an Android widget

Initially this class of software was bound to a particular operating system but it is less becoming the case especially with Google Now, Cortana and Facebook M. Rather you can use these assistants at least on the major mobile platforms. Let’s not forget that these assistants are showing up on regular desktop and laptop computers with Microsoft rolling out Cortana for Windows 10 desktop use and Apple working on having Siri in an upcoming version of MacOS X.

Hey Cortana - Cortana which is the first of these intelligent personal assistants for regular-computer use

Hey Cortana – Cortana which is the first of these intelligent personal assistants for regular-computer use

What do I see of this competition? Personally, the proliferation may be focused on tying a natural-language personal-assistant experience to be centric to particular platforms and aps even if your computing life is multi-platform. But it could then lead to different personal-assistant programs that are focused on particular experiences, beliefs and ideals so that the experience is more in tune with who you are, what you believe and what you like. For example, a media company could create a personal-assistant program based on their media properties like ESPN creating a personal-assistant program centered around their sports channels but learning who your favourite leagues, teams and competitors are.

But I would rather that these platforms focus on a level of modularity where you can interlink them with particular information sources and apps and give them the kind of functionality that you desire yet keeping your data private. As well, this will assure that users can use a single interface point rather than switching between interface points according to what they are after.

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Tablets facing attack from different points

Article

The future of the tablet is the PC | CNET

My Comments

Acer Iconia Tab A500 tablet computer

The 10″ tablet faces stiff competition nowadays

The 8”-10” tablet like the Apple iPad and its peers is facing competition from many different angles.

Firstly, it is considered a venerable portable computing device class that suits most reading tasks including Web browsing, social-network interaction, email management and the like along with casual gaming, video viewing and the like. In a lot of situations, there isn’t much need to upgrade to newer models, except if the idea is to purchase a newer model so someone else can use the existing tablet. This is very similar to the colour television set that was based on solid-state electronics where this device was brought to a point where it can serve most people’s needs effectively and reliably for a long time and manufacturers worked on ways to improve the higher end of the market.

Sports scoreboard app

The phablet-style smartphone becomes the norm – fits in your hand easily

This device is facing competition from the 5”-6” smartphone or “phablet” phone with these phones becoming the norm for a highly-portable reading device. They are displacing highly-compact smartphones like the original iPhones along with the 7” “coat-pocket” tablets like the iPad Mini. This is because their size is very similar to a pocket calculator of the high-end scientific or financial type which had a large surface area with plenty of buttons for direct access to the formulae and functions that mattered.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

The 2-in-one like this Lenovo Yoga Pro family offers competition to the tablet

Another device that is causing competition to these tablets is the so-called “2-in-1” which becomes either a laptop computer or a tablet depending on how you fold over the keyboard or whether you attach a detachable keyboard. The 11” variants like the Microsoft Surface family offer a size that suits tablet use but may be too small for intense document-creation activity whereas the 13” variants may be too large to work as a personal tablet but earn their keep for creating documents. This is although some tablet users are using Bluetooth or USB keyboards including the tablet cases that come with integral keyboards with their tablets to speed up text entry.

There have been the doubters who thought these devices would flounder during the early years of mobile computing. One of these was Apple’s Tim Cook who described the 2-in-1s as crossbreeding a fridge and toaster in 2012 and another was the Dell Streak which was one of the first 5” phablets that was panned by consumers and critics in 2010. These were made at the time when the market wasn’t really ready for these classes of devices and was grappling with the platform smartphones and tablets.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10" tablet - Press Photo courtesy of Samsung

The AMOLED-equipped Samsung Galaxy Tab S tablets fit for previewing digital images

Apple and Samsung are looking at exploring other market niches for their mobile-platform tablets while keeping venerable product categories alive. One area they are working on is to launch mobile-platform tablets that have a screen size of 13” or above. This may be seen as a way to snap at the heels of the 13” 2-in-1 of the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro ilk or the regular laptop computer where these computers are based on Windows or MacOS X which are “regular-computer” operating systems rather than mobile operating systems.

Other market niches worth exploring would include use in the business context including high-durability tablets for those doing construction / outdoors work. Similarly,tablets can be purposed to particular user groups like those of us who work in the graphics arts or those who enjoy advanced gaming. An example of this could be the Samsung Galaxy Tab S family with the AMOLED displays that excel on contrast making them fit for previewing photographs.

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Regular operating systems and their vulnerability to security threats

Article

Which Is More Vulnerable To Viruses And Hackers: Windows 10 or Mac OS X? | Gizmodo

My Comments

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – an example of a laptop based on a regular computing platform

During the 2000s, the personal computing scene focused on so-called “regular” personal computers i.e. desktop and laptop computers that ran a desktop-grade operating system. The main platforms were the Windows platform heralded by Microsoft and with hardware made by plenty of other manufacturers and the Macintosh platform that was made by Apple. Of course, there were a few personal computers that ran one of many open-source Linux distributions which were effectively UNIX.

There was the issue of security risks magnified due to an increased amount of personal and business computing time spent online through the Internet. In most cases, especially with the Windows platform, these risks were mitigated using a desktop or endpoint security program installed on the client computer. Although I have constantly seen the Apple Macintosh platform at risk of security exploits, that platform wasn’t at risk because there were fewer computer users using that platform.

Enter Windows Vista. This operating system had improved security features like operating as a regular user unless necessary but these were tacked on to the Windows XP codebase. This led to poor performance and computer users saw the value of switching to the Apple Macintosh platform for regular computing needs with some even using Apple’s iWork office tools as a way simply to dump Microsoft.

This led to the Apple Macintosh platform becoming more vulnerable due to its increased popularity and the use of “write once run anywhere” code like Java. Apple had to pull their finger out to improve the Macintosh platform’s security and, like Microsoft, engage in regular software updates and patches.

Improvements

Major upgrades for pennies’ worth or free

Windows 10 Start Menu

Windows 10 – a free upgrade from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1

Microsoft and Apple had even started to offer newer iterations of their operating systems to home users and small businesses at prices that would represent chump change or, later on, offer these iterations for free.

Apple started the ball rolling with Mac OS X for pennies’ worth starting with OS X Lion and for free starting with Mavericks. Subsequently Microsoft used Windows 8 to facilitate a software upgrade for pennies’ worth and used Windows 10 to instigate a free software upgrade program.

The major upgrades typically had security improvements like creation of app stores and newer secure codebases.

Blind updates for security patches

A way software developers keep their software going strong is to deliver updates and patches that rectify software bugs and allow the software to improve in performance. The delivery of these updates is being used to harden the software against known security exploits, often as soon as these holes are discovered.

Windows Update - one stop shop for software patches along with automatic delivery

Windows Update – one stop shop for software patches along with automatic delivery

This process typically involved users finding patches or newer code on the developer’s Website but Microsoft and Apple have put an end to this. Initially they set up a “one-stop-shop” program for downloading these updates including any peripheral-driver updates but have improved on this by providing for “blind updating”. This is where the operating system automatically downloads and installs these patches as soon as they become available.without you needing to do anything except, perhaps, reboot the computer when prompted.

Microsoft and Apple are even working on having these patches become effective once they are installed without you needing to reboot your computer. This is being achieved in the newer operating-system variants and with some newer patches.

The option for secure boot

Apple implemented in the Macintosh standard firmware a way to only let MacOS X boot on their Macintosh computers and this provided a sense of security because it can only allow these computers to run Apple-authorised code.

Microsoft and Intel are now implementing this through UEFI and Secure Boot which allows for authorisation of operating systems and pre-boot software that runs on a computing device. This has been considered controversial because it would wrest control of the computer from uses who may want to deploy Linux, especially a custom Linux distribution or wish to run with a dual-boot setup.

App stores and walled gardens

Windows 10's own app store

Windows 10’s own app store

Another weapon that Microsoft and Apple are deploying comes from the world of mobile computing where mobile operating systems implement an “app store” which is a one-stop software “shopping mall”.

Like a suburban shopping mall with its physical goods, these app stores have tight controls on who can sell their software there. Here, the software has to be provided by an identifiable developer and approved and audited by the operating system developer who runs that app store.

There is also a requirement for the software to be sandboxed and have access to certain parts of the operating system rather than having full run of your computer.

Another factor that is also considered important is that if an application “does the right thing” by its users and the operating-system vendor, it is typically highly recommended or featured such as being given an “editor’s choice” or put in the “spotlight”. This gives the program increased exposure which attracts more installations and more purchases. As well, there are user-review mechanisms where people can uprate or downrate the software.

But both the Macintosh and Windows platforms require the ability to work with established software deployments that are typically installed via removable media or a download from the developer’s site. This is due to their legacy where people installed software from floppy disks or CDs or downloaded software from bulletin boards and download sites.

Windows 10 is providing a way to harden things further when it comes to this software in the form of Device Guard. This is a form of sandboxing which allows only certain programs to run on a computer but is made available to the Enterprise Edition only. It is because the process for setting up this whitelist would be considered very difficult for householders, small businesses and community organisations.

Steam - one of the most common games managers

Steam – one of the most common games managers

For games, major games studios are implementing their own app stores and games delivery systems in order to allow for cross-platform game and supporting-content delivery. Here, they want regular-computing gaming to have that same level of confidence associated with console or mobile gaming. This is although Apple and Microsoft deliver games through their app stores. The best example of this is Valve’s Steam online games shop but there are others like EA’s Origin.

Conclusion

What is happening is that for both the Windows and Macintosh computing platforms, they are being made more secure and malware-resistant and it is becoming a race between Apple and Microsoft to keep the regular computing environment as safe as a mobile computing environment.

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Rural-growth campaigns need to factor in broadband and mobile

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A house in an Australian country town - telecommunications needs to be factored in for rural areas if there is pressure for them to grow

A house in an Australian country town – telecommunications needs to be factored in for rural areas if there is pressure for them to grow

Government to Build More Rural Homes, But What of Broadband? | ISPReview.co.uk

My Comments

The UK Chancellor, George Osborne, puts forward a growth and productivity plan for UK’s rural areas, an activity which other countries call for in order to “spark up” their similar low-density areas. This may also involve encouraging a larger employer to set up shop in or near a rural area or nurturing a tourist area for increased capacity and attraction. Similarly a town with a tourist attraction may see economic growth based on that tourist attraction.

But even if the government doesn’t call for this, these rural areas continue to attract the “tree-change” culture where people who were in urban areas shift out to these rural areas because of attractions like beauty, tranquility, ability to know locals easily and the like. This also encompasses an increase in small businesses operating in these areas, whether to serve the local area or larger areas. Let’s not forget rural areas that exist on the periphery of an urban area falling victim to urban sprawl as the neighbouring urban area expands.

This is something that typically encompasses an increase in housing density in these areas such as subdivision of land, creation of new housing communities or expansion of existing housing areas.. But there is the need for improvements in local (private and public) transport, infrastructure, education and the like which also will include a requirement to see local telecommunications services like broadband Internet and mobile (cellular) telephony be brought to urban standards.

With the telecommunications issue, this may be sorted with extension of telephone lines from the town-based exchange in to the new developments but this can limit bandwidth for DSL-based broadband services. Such situations may call upon a need to re-architect the telecommunications infrastructure that serves the town and neighbouring communities, whether to have separate exchanges or distribution points for each community. In the case of a next-generation broadband rollout, it may call for a fibre-based fixed-line rather than a fixed-wireless deployment for the town and those communities.

Similarly, there will have to be the issue of mobile coverage which may be contentious ion some areas due to the perceived health effects of electromagnetic radiation. This could be approached again through re-architecting the mobile base station layout with use of more low-powered base stations in denser neighbourhoods.

So if there are efforts to increase capacity for a rural neighbourhood or factor in a change of direction for these neighbourhoods, the telecommunications issue may have to be factored as much as housing density and other infrastructure.

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VAIO makes a comeback to the US market

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VAIO computers to return to the US to woo high-end customers | CNET News

My Comments

Sony VAIO Fit 13a convertible Ultrabook at Rydges Hotel Melbourne

The Sony VAIO Fit 13a – VAIO is returning to the USA independently from Sony

Regular readers will have seen the product reviews of some of Sony’s VAIO laptop computers. These were positioned by Sony at the premium end of the market and had specifications and features that were considered “out of he ordinary” as far as Windows-based computers were concerned. An example of this was a Sony VAIO Pro 13 laptop that had a display resolution that was better than the Apple MacBook Air that was issued at the time the VAIO was marketed and various reviews said that this computer could earn its keep as a photographer’s field computer. Similarly, I had seen a DJ in action use a Sony VAIO laptop computer rather than an Apple MacBook as a playout device.

As the bottom was falling out of the “regular-computer” market thanks to the cheaper mobile-platform tablets, Windows 8 and other issues in 2014, Sony sold off their VAIO computer division to an independent investment fund. This fund continued to sell a smaller product range of computers under the VAIO brand which used to be a “sub-brand” of Sony’s for this product class. This range, which was sold in Japan only, was tightly focused around a few premium ultraportable computers. People after this brand tended to “grey-import” the computers from Japan whether online or as part of a foray in to that country.

Sony VAIO Fit 15e on dining table

Sony VAIO Fit 15e

Now VAIO have released these computers in to the US market through an online storefront and the Microsoft Stores in that country. Here, they are selling high-end portable computers that are focused around the “made in Japan” ideal which is similar to the way that some parts of Western Europe like Scandinavia or the Germanic countries (West Germany, Austria or Switzerland) were seen through the 1960s to the 1980s when it came to consumer electronics and photographic equipment – a purveyor of finely-crafted premium equipment.

The first of these is a VAIO Z Canvas which is a 12.3”  2-in-1 with a wireless keyboard. The screen resolution is 2560×1704 and it uses an Intel Core i7 for horsepower and has up to 16Gb RAM and 256Gb SSD storage. This will be offered as a Signature Edition computer that comes out of the box with Microsoft Windows 10 and no bloatware on board. The expected price will be US$2199 which would make you think of it like purchasing a the computer equivalent of a B&O or Loewe TV.

Sony VAIO Tap 20 adaptive all-in-one computer

Sony VAIO Tap 20 – an example of an “Adaptive All-In-One” computer

There are plans for VAIO to issue some more of these computers to the US market, more so in the form of traditional laptops (hear here, VAIO Fit 15e) and some desktops perhaps of the “gaming-rig” or “all-in-one” ilk. Personally, if VAIO were to have their fingers in the traditional “bricks-and-mortar” pie, I would recommend that they follow what Bose and B&O have done where they either run their own stores in upper-class neighbourhoods or work the “store within a store” method where they set up shop in premium department stores.

What it is showing is that computer brands are finding that working within certain profitable niches such as performance computers (mobile workstations or gaming-grade laptops) or premium computer ranges is considered a way to survive. This is similar to how a few American and European AV names focused on premium-grade photographic, audio and video equipment when Asian companies took on the mass-market for this class of equipment through the latter part of the 20th century

Who knows if VAIO will return to Europe, Australia or New Zealand?

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USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 make it real for outboard graphics expansion

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Here’s The Box That Can Turn a Puny Laptop Into a Graphical Powerhouse | Gizmodo

My Comments

Sony VAIO Z Series and docking station

The Sony VAIO Z Series ultraportable with functionality expanded by an add-on module

There have been some successful attempts at developing outboard expansion modules or docking stations that add discrete graphics or a better discrete-graphics solution to a laptop computer which wouldn’t have internal room for this kind of performance.

One of these was Sony with their VAIO Z Series that I reviewed previously which had an expansion module that housed a Blu-Ray drive and an AMD discrete graphics chipset. This used an Intel “Light Peak” connection (Thunderbolt over USB) between the devices to provide for high data throughput between the host computer and the expansion module.

Another of these was one of the new Alienware gaming laptops that could connect to a so-called “Graphics Amplifier” which was an expansion module for some of the Alienware R2 series gaming laptops that could house one or two PCI-Express graphics cards. This brought forward the idea that a laptop could have desktop gaming-rig performance just by adding on an expansion module.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module that connects to selected Alienware R2 gaming laptops

Both these solutions implemented manufacturer-specific connection methods which restricted which devices can connect to these “external-graphics” expansion modules.

But the USB 3.1 standard with the Type-C connection allowed the same connection to be used to connect other devices via different logical connection methods like Intel’s Thunderbolt. This was effectively “opened up” as a high-performance connection for expansion modules when Intel launched “Thunderbolt 3” which has throughput equivalent to what happens on a computer’s motherboard.

Alienware gaming laptop

An Alienware gaming laptop that can benefit from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

This led to some reference designs being presented at the Intel Developers Forum 2015 for external-graphics docks of the Sony VAIO Z or Alienware Graphics Amplifier ilk that are able to work with laptops that have the USB Type-C and Intel Thunderbolt 3 connection. In their own right, they are expansion modules which add extra connectivity to the laptop but also they give it access to improved discrete graphics chipsets. One of these was modelled on the Alienware Graphics Amplifier by virtue of allowing the use of fully-fledged graphics cards of the kind expected in that tower-style gaming rig.

The equipment that was shown proved the concept that you could use Thunderbolt 3 over a USB 3.1 Type C physical connection to provide an external discrete-graphics solution for an ultraportable laptop computer or similarly-small computer design. This proves that it can be feasible to use these modules for an “at-home” or “at-office” solutions where performance is desirable but allow for a lightweight computer system.

Similarly, a manufacturer could offer a laptop or all-in-one desktop with the integrated graphics but allow their customers to buy a graphics expansion module at a later date should they want something with more graphics acumen. Here, they can simply plug in the graphics expansion module and play rather than opening up the computer to install a graphics card. There is also a reality that as newer graphics chipsets come along, the person can purchase a newer expansion module or, in the case of those units that use PCI-Express desktop cards, install a newer graphics card in to the module to take advantage of these newer designs.

It simply underscores that fact that USB 3.1 Type C opens up the concept of expandability for tablets, laptops, all-in-one and small-profile desktops even further by use of external modules that offer different functions to suit different needs at different times.

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Gaming with a regular computer and the big screen in the lounge?

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How To PC Game From The Comfort Of Your Couch | Gizmodo

My Comments

Alienware gaming laptop

An Alienware gaming laptop that bridges performance and portability

Gaming on the big-screen TV isn’t just restricted to the likes of the XBox One or the PlayStation 4 consoles. You can engage in these games using your PC especially if you are using a laptop or dare to bring the tower-style gaming rig in to your lounge area. This is more so as the regular computer platforms i.e. Windows, OS X (Macintosh) and Linux still maintain a strong level of open-frame software deployment and become more the areas to try out gaming ideas.

This is brought on by the increase in the number of portable computers that have performance-computing chops whether in the form of mobile workstations or gaming laptops is making this kind of gaming more real. The manufacturers see this as a valuable niche for people who value performance and portability for work or play.

Dell Precision M2800 Mobile Workstation courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Precision M2800 – a mobile workstation that also bridges performance and portability

This will apply to those of you who are at home or at a friend’s house because you could bring your gaming computer in to the living room or games room and play that game on the big screen from the comfort of your couch. Those of you who are staying at a college dorm (university residence hall) or similar location can use the big-screen TV in the common lounge area for playing that epic game on your gaming laptop.

What do you need?

TV and sound system

The TV or home-theatre system would need to have a spare HDMI connection for you to plug in another video peripheral.

Here, you are relying on HDMI as your audio and video connection and the equipment must be able to play the sound from an HDMI connection rather than just be a switcher. Recently-made home-theatre receivers will most likely be able to satisfy this requirement but beware of lower-end equipment that can’t achieve this goal.

One of the big-screen TVs that is worth playing games on

One of the big-screen TVs that is worth playing games on

If you are buying a newer large-screen TV and you expect a regular computer to be connected to it, you should look for sets that have a high refresh rate like what would be expected for most well-bred monitors. As well, if your gaming setup is of a temporary nature, I would recommend that the equipment concerned has an HDMI connector on the front panel for a home-theatre receiver or similar device or on the side edge of a TV so that it is easily accessible without you needing to shift the equipment out or grope around the back whenever you want to play games.

Your computer

HP Envy 4 Touchsmart Ultrabook left-hand-side connections - Ethernet, HDMI, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader

HDMI connection on a laptop

HomePlug AV adaptor

The HomePlug powerline adaptor – a no-new-wires network with gaming chops

The computer should have HDMI as a video output option and be capable of directing the sound through that output. This is to achieve the goal of one cable between the computer and the TV or home-theatre receiver rather than worrying about many cables, with this cable carrying a digital audio signal along with the high-resolution video signal.

When you set up the sound, make sure that you know what your equipment can handle at best. If you use a home-theatre system, make sure that you set the audio output for Dolby Digital 5.1 bitstream or a similar codec that your equipment handles so you can take advantage of games that implement surround sound. As well, it may be worth paying attention to an article that I wrote about multiple sound devices in Windows.

Control devices

Games that require frequent interactive activity would benefit form a console-type controller if you are leaning back on the couch. There are some wireless controllers out there but you can use an XBox 360 controller that works with Windows courtesy of an adaptor that is sold for “pennies worth” by Microsoft.

Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard (open) press photo courtesy of Microsoft

These Bluetooth keyboards also earn their keep on the couch when gaming in the lounge

If you are needing to use a keyboard or mouse, it may be preferable to use wireless peripherals so you avoid cable clutter. Personally I would prefer to use Bluetooth equipment because you only need to use one transceiver dongle across them all and if the computer has integrated Bluetooth, you don’t need to worry about any of these transceiver devices. Sometimes a wireless keyboard or mouse pitched at tablet use can work as a wireless keyboard for gaming use.

Network

It is preferable to have an Ethernet socket in the lounge area but this may not be a reality. For your home or a friend’s, you may find that setting up a HomePlug AV500 powerline-network segment may work well in these circumstances.

Some college dorms and similar places may have an Ethernet socket connected to the premises’ network and Internet service not far from the common lounge area  HomePlug AV500 or HomePlug AV2 may work well in using a no-new-wires setup to bring the connection closer. In some cases, this connection may be locked down for specific devices and uses and it doesn’t hurt asking the staff about whether the connection is a “general-use” connection or can be set up as such.

At a pinch, you would need to use Wi-Fi wireless and make sure you have a reliable Wi-Fi connection at your computer. Wi-Fi networks that use Web-based login can be tricky to use and may require you to keep the “login successful” Web page minimised while you play that online game.This is best done with a Web browser that doesn’t take up much memory space.

Similarly, if you are playing against multiple computers across a public network, it may be difficult to discover the opponents’ computers because these networks are most likely set up to provide client isolation.

Setup

There are some things you will need to be sure of when you are setting up for gaming in the living room or other lounge area.

One would be to use a rug to cover long cables that travel between the computer and the TV or home theatre so as to avoid the situation of people tripping over the cables. This is important for situations where the area between the couch and the TV equipment is part of a thoroughfare.

A tray-table is also a good place to position your gaming laptop or to use as a mouse mat. On the other hand, you may want to use the coffee table for that same purpose. This is to assure stability. Even those “Stable Table” trays with integrated cushions can come in handy as a mouse mat.

As for online game managers, Steam is the only such platform that provides a “big-screen” mode courtesy of their “Big Picture” mode. This will allow you to manage it while viewing the display from a distance. But when you are actually playing the game, this may not be a problem.

Conclusion

Once you know that you can game on with the big-screen TV and your gaming rig or laptop computer, you could be able to add that bit extra to your solo or group gaming experience.

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What is this about “cyberflashing” and how to prevent it?

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 smartphone

Taking control of local data-transfer functionality like AirDrop can help you avoid unwanted surprises

Article

Cyberflasher Airdrops rude images to victim’s iPhone | Naked Security (Sophos)

My Comments

A problem that has started to surface for Apple iOS users is the ability for someone to send gross images to strangers courtesy of the AirDrop feature that newer iterations of this platform have. Situations where this typically happened were when the offender and victim were on public transport or in public areas.

This feature makes it easy to share photos between iOS and MacOS X devices in a local area using Bluetooth and Wi-FI technologies and provides a thumbnail image of incoming photos rather than a dialog box asking if you want to receive the image.

This was feasible with Android and other open-frame mobile operating systems courtesy of Bluetooth Object Push Profile but these platforms. especially Android, hardened themselves against this by making your phone undiscoverable by default and providing a narrow time limit for having your phone discoverable by Bluetooth devices. As well, these platforms required your permission to start receiving the file and you didn’t see one bit of that file until you gave the go-ahead.

Android and Windows improved on this using a passcode that you and your correspondent exchange before a file is transferred and the NFC functionality that is part of recent Android versions requires you to physically touch the backs of the phones as part of instigating the data transfer.

The same situation may also crop up with Wi-Fi Aware as it implements Bluetooth local discovery for ad-hoc Wi-Fi networks created by mobile devices and will require users to be able to take control of what notifications and files they receive on their devices if this technology is for transferring files.

Protecting yourself

A good practice to observe is to turn off the AirDrop feature unless you make regular use of it. Or, at least, set AirDrop’s discoverability settings to “Off” or “Contacts Only” rather than “Everyone” so that every man and his dog can’t discover your phone. You would turn this function on if you are expecting a photo from someone not yet in your Contacts List.

In some situations, you may have to disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth unless you are actually using these features such as linking to a hotspot or using a Bluetooth headset.

You may find that changing your device’s identity to your initials or something innocuous rather than your first name may work wonders in these situations.

I would also prefer that any local data transfer or similar activity between users takes place in a manner where each participant can see each other. This may be at the same table in a café, restaurant or library, the same seating cluster in a lounge area, the same row of seats in a public-transport vehicle or a similar area of close proximity. As well, such activity should be preceded by relevant conversation.

What must be preserved

If a setup allows for local data transfer between computer devices using a wireless medium, there must be a way of allowing the users to confirm their intent to transfer the data between each other. This means that the sender and receiver know whom the data is coming from and to and must occur before a single bit of the actual data changes hands.

This may be through the sender exchanging a simple passcode to the receiver or requiring the devices to physically be near each other at the start of the data transmission. The latter solution may be in the form of NFC where the users touch the backs of their devices together, or a QR code shown on the sending device’s screen that the receiving device has to scan before transmission takes place.

If a user wants to simplify this process, they could create a “trusted recipients” list which can be their Contacts list or a separately-created list. Personally, I would use all of the “friends” in a social network as this list because that tends to encompass too many people and an account can too easily be compromised.

The same thing must also apply to social networks, online gaming and similar services where one user may want to enrol another user in to their personal lists. This is more important if any of these services facilitate the transfer of files between users or support any form of instant messaging.

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