simonmackay Archive

Application-distribution platforms for smartphones and other devices

At the moment, there are an increasing number of PDAs, smartphones and mobile Internet devices that can be given extra functionality by the user after they buy the device. This is typically achieved through the user loading on to their device applications that are developed by a large community of programmers. This practice will end up being extended to other consumer-electronics devices like printers, TVs, set-top boxes, and electronic picture frames as manufacturers use standard embedded-device platforms like Android, Symbian or Windows CE and common “embedded-application” processors for these devices. It will be extended further to “durable” products like cars, business appliances and building control and security equipment as these devices end up on these common platforms and manufacturers see this as a way of adding value “in the field” for this class of device.

From this, I have been observing the smartphone marketplace and am noticing a disturbing trend where platform vendors are setting up their own application-distribution platforms that usually manifest as “app stores” that run on either the PC-device synchronisation program or on the device’s own user-interface screen. These platforms typically require the software to be pre-approved by the platform vendor before it is made available and, in some cases like the Apple iPhone, you cannot obtain the software from any other source like the developer’s Web site, competing app store or physical medium. You may not even be able to search for applications using a Web page on your regular computer, rather you have to use a special application like iTunes or use the phone’s user-interface.

People who used phones based on the Windows Mobile or Symbian S60 / UIQ platform were able to install applications from either the developer’s Website or a third-party app store like Handango. They may have received the applications on a CD-ROM or similar media as the mobile extension for the software they are buying or as simply a mobile-software collection disc. Then they could download the installation package from these sites and upload it to their phone using the platform’s synchronisation application. In some cases, they could obtain the application through the carrier’s mobile portal and, perhaps, have the cost of the application (if applicable) charged against their mobile phone account. They can even visit the application Website from the phone’s user interface and download the application over the 3G or WiFi connection, installing it straight away on the phone.

The main issue that I have with application-distribution platforms controlled by the device platform vendor is that if you don’t have a competing software outlet, including the developer’s Web site, a hostile monopolistic situation can exist. As I have observed with the iPhone, there are situations where the platform vendor can arbitrarily deny approval for software applications or can make harsh conditions for the development and sale of these applications. In some cases, this could lead to limitations concerning application types like VoIP applications being denied access to the platform because they threaten the carrier partner’s revenue stream for example. In other cases, the developer may effectively receive “pennies” for the application rather than “pounds”.

What needs to happen with application-distribution platforms for smartphones and similar devices is to provide a competitive environment. This should be in the form of developers being able to host and sell their software from their Website rather than provide a link to the platform app store. As well, the platform should allow one or more competing app stores to exist on the scene. It also includes the carriers or service providers being able to run their own app stores, using their ability to extend their business relationships with their customers like charging for software against their customers’ operating accounts. For “on-phone” access, it can be facilitated in the form of uploadable “manifest files” that point to the app store’s catalogue Website.

As well, the only tests that an application should have to face are for device security, operational stability and user-privacy protection. The same tests should also include acceptance of industry-standard interfaces, file types and protocols rather than vendor-proprietary standards. If an application is about mature-age content, the purchasing regime should include industry-accepted age tests like purchase through credit card only for example.

Once this is achieved for application-distribution platforms, then you can achieve a “win-win” situation for extending smartphones, MIDs and similar devices

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Soft-goods being available on demand at retailers – could this be real?

Big W disc kiosk lets customers burn on demand

My comments

This concept that Big W is trying, as well as the “on-demand” book-printing machines being tried at some bookshops could easily upset the applecart when it comes to the distribution of “soft-goods” (books, music, video and computer software). It would be achieved through an Internet-connected server installed at a “soft-goods” retailer which is connected to optical-disc burning and/or high-speed “print-to-finish” document-printing hardware that is also installed at the same retailer. These setups could typically take up the same space as a free-standing office copier and be based on today’s computing and networking technology.

Similarly an online content retailer like Amazon could engage in using the technology to “print and deliver” titles without needing a huge warehouse to run their operation from. In some cases, they could use smaller offices to fulfil “print and deliver” orders local to the delivery locations. As well, there have been proposals to set up “buy-download-burn” arrangements so that people can buy music or video material and make it to optical disc on their computer equipment at home. This is in conjunction to the supply of legally-downloaded music through the likes of iTunes, Destra and Big Pond Music and the various proposals to provide legally-downloaded video material, such as AACS’s “Managed Copy” that is currently practised with Blu-Ray.

There could be the idea of titles still being available even though they reach the end of their print run and the contract with the author may preclude further print runs. This definitely can be of benefit with titles that have demand that outstrips agreed supply and it can allow publishers to liaise with the author about whether to do extra runs or not. Similarly, there could be less risk of shops dedicating shelf space to slow-moving titles, yet these titles can be made available irrespective of this fact.

Similarly, there could be “mass-customisation” being available for particular classes of titles. For example, there could be the ability to have computer-software disks full of appropriate programs for the customer’s needs. Similarly, a reference-type title like a Bible or dictionary could be printed with indexing that suits the customer’s needs, such as “white-on-black” for the current letter in a dictionary or a book of the Bible.

What I see with this kind of technology is that content creators who want total control over their content will find that they have lost that control. This may be of concern to content providers who want to be sure of a limited number of copies in existence or make sure of having their content “vaulted” for significant time so as to create a public “want” for re-releases.

It will be interesting to see whether this concept will achieve the mass-market as a way of providing current and legacy “soft-goods” or just simply flounder.

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Where’s Outlook Express or Windows Mail gone in Windows 7?

In Windows XP and Vista, there was a free entry-level desktop email client that could work with most Internet mail systems as part of the operating system. This client, either Outlook Express in XP or Windows Mail in Vista, often offered enough for people who used their home ISP’s POP3/SMTP or IMAP email facilities rather than use a Web-mail service like Hotmail, GMail or Yahoo Mail.

Windows Vista also had a free calendar program, known as Windows Calendar, as part of the distribution.

This situation was primarily reflected in the provision of Microsoft Office 2007 Home And Student Edition, which didn’t come with Microsoft Outlook. The user would typically run Windows Mail or Outlook Express for their POP3 email or use a Web-hosted mail service for their email and online calendar needs.

The Windows 7 situation

Now Microsoft have removed the email client from the Windows 7 distribution. most likely to comply with various competition directives and orders. It is also because there are a few desktop personal-information-management programs available for free as companion tools for some of the other Web browsers like Firefox and Opera. This would require the user to work with a Web-email service or, if they want to do so, use Windows Live Mail as their desktop email service.

The Windows Live Mail program can work with multiple POP3 or IMAP email services and even become a front-end for Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail service. It also has an integrated calendar function and the contacts are integrated with Windows Live services. This may mean those of you who use Windows Live Messenger / MSN Messenger can keep the contacts’ Messenger IDs as part of the contact database, which can allow the program to show “presence” information about the contacts.

There is some improvement in handling the sending of digital images. Here, if you register with Windows Live, you can send a “photo email” when you send pictures by email. This is an email message with thumbnails of the pictures, but the pictures have a hyperlink to the high-resolution image that is also held on the Windows Live server for a month. Any user who views the email in an HTML-enable desktop email client or Webmail service can click on the pictures to view or download the high-resolution image. 

You also benefit from the ability for Windows Live Mail to monitor your RSS feeds that you subscribe to through the Windows Feed Platform that is part of Internet Explorer 7 and 8. This will provide a “river of news” view sorted by the “press time” of each article; but can allow you to view the contents of a particular feed. It also can handle newsgroups based on the classic USENET method if you do still subscribe to them.

Where do I get Windows Live Mail?

You have to download the program for free from Microsoft’s Web site at http://get.live.com and if you want to benefit from Windows Live fully, you don’t have to maintain a Hotmail account. Instead, you can create a Windows Live account with your regular email address such as the email address your company or ISP gave you.

You also have the chance to pick up Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live (MSN) Messenger, Windows Live Writer which is a “blogger’s friend” (and the software I use for writing articles for this blog), Windows Live Movie Maker amongst other good software, It is also worth knowing that Windows XP and Vista users can run Windows Live Mail and these other programs on their computers if they are after better functionality.

Once you have this program set up on your Windows XP, Vista or 7 computer, you have the essential tools needed for personal email and information management.

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Windows 7 – How it will benefit the small business and work-home laptop users

There have been some significant advances in Windows 7 that benefit the small business and the mobile laptop users. This includes people who use their computers for both their work use and home / community use.

Location Aware Printing for “work-home” laptops

If you run Windows 7 Professional or above on your laptop, this operating system has another feature to support the “work-home” laptop. It is in the form of “Location Aware Printing” where the default printer is determined based on which network the computer is connected to. The network can be determined by factors like the domain Windows is associated with, the SSID of a wireless network or the MAC of the Internet Gateway or DHCP Server that it gets its IP address from.

The printer can be a network printer that exists on the network like the HP OfficeJet at your workplace or your Epson WiFi-enabled all-in-one at home, a locally-connected printer like your Canon portable USB printer or a software-based virtual printer like your fax software’s “print-to-fax” function or “print-to-PDF” software.

At the moment, there isn’t ready support for handling location-aware printing in locations where there are many printers in the same facility, such as the typical workplace or educational institution with its many rooms.

Inherent support for mobile broadband services

Windows 7 has inherent support for 3G wireless broadband services thus eliminating the need to run operator-provided software to use the 3G modem. It also caters for laptops that have integrated 3G modems, which is a feature becoming more common with units that are supplied through mobile-phone outlets. In some cases, you may not need to install any software provided by the 3G provider to use wireless broadband Internet service.

This is similar to when Microsoft implemented Dial Up Networking in Windows 95 and users didn’t have to run any other software to get online with their dial-up Internet service.

Wi-Fi Wireless Flexibility for the business partner and hotspot surfer

Windows 7 has improved the Wi-Fi wireless infrastructure thus allowing a Wi-Fi equipped computer with an appropriate hardware driver for its wireless card to do more tricks. It can become a wireless-wireless LAN bridge which can allow for such things as running Wi-Fi devices that can’t go beyond regular WPA2-PSK authentication and don’t have an easy-to-use Web browser with networks that implement WPA2-Enterprise authentication at workplaces or Web-based authentication at hotspots. A good use for this could be for a business partner to take pictures with his Wi-Fi digital camera and upload them to his laptop or a site worker who wants to play his Roberts Stream 202 Internet radio at a wireless hotspot just by using his laptop (which will alert him to new work) as a gateway. It can also allow for “bonding” of multiple Wi-Fi signals for greater throughput, which can come in handy with multi-access-point networks.

Improved business network functionality

The Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate computer has improved business network functionality, which can come in handy with corporate or business-partner networks. One feature that I like is “network-specific” security that accounts for VPN and DirectAccess network setups. Here, you can set up a “domain-driven” business network profile for the VPN tunnel while you have a “private-network” security rule that applies to your home network or a “public-network” security rule that applies to public networks like wireless hotspots. This still allows business-driven network tools like system management tools or desktop-based MIS “dashboards” to operate “through the tunnel” with your computer being secure enough for the network you are in.

Speaking of DirectAccess, this is an improved IPv6-IPSec VPN replacement provided with Windows 7 Ultimate that does away with the need for extra weight associated with a lot of VPN software. The software sets up a separate IPv6 path to the DirectAccess server that your employer or business partner provides and makes the access to business resources more transparent. This function will require the use of a Windows Server 2008 R2 box installed at the workplace by your employer or IT contractor and your computer to run Windows 7 Ultimate.

Conclusion

This series of Windows 7 articles shows how your Windows-based computer and network can be improved when you deploy Windows 7.

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Christmas post

Christmas treeI wish all of you who are reading this blog or are following it a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year.

I have written some information that can become useful as you decide what to buy during the Christmas shopping season and the Boxing Day sales, whether as gifts or for yourself. This also includes references to articles that I have written over the year to explain newer products and services that have appeared since.

What to consider buying

Improving your home network’s infrastructure

If you are thinking of improving your home wireless network, it may be worth upgrading the existing router with a unit that works to the recently-ratified 802.11n standard with WPS quick-setup. This is more so if your existing unit is at least two years old and you or your company are deploying laptop computers from this financial year onwards. You may want to make sure that it has Gigabit Ethernet ports for future multimedia computing needs. Some newer ADSL routers may offer an Ethernet WAN port so you can move from ADSL to cable or fibre-optic networks if you move house or they lay super-fast broadband technologies like fibre-optic broadband past your door and you sign up to these technologies.

You can also augment your home network with a HomePlug AV kit as a wireline connectivity solution which doesn’t require new wiring to be laid down. This is because the HomePlug AV solution uses the house’s AC wires as its backbone. As well, if you run an existing HomePlug segment based on the 85Mbps technology, adding a HomePlug AV segment won’t upset this setup, which you can then use for low-bandwidth applications like printer sharing or network gaming.

Newer hardware that can work with your network

You may want to buy newer computers either as an upgrade for existing equipment or as additional equipment. One option that may come before you is a low-cost “netbook” or “nettop” computer. These are low-powered computers that have enough power for most Internet and word-processing tasks but don’t work well with full-screen video or the latest action games. On the other hand, these computers can come in handy with Web-based casual games like what is available at Miniclip or MSN Games. Some parents may consider them suitable primarily as a computer for kids to use and focus their mind on serious homework, but these computers can find an application beyond that. Older people may find them handy as an uncomplicated online communications terminal to stay in contact with their relatives. Similarly, these computers, especially the netbooks can come in handy as a supplementary computer for use around the house while looking up information, doing Web-based e-mail or using social-network sites like Facebook or Twitter.

A network-attached storage (NAS) device may be worth considering for your network because of what it can do. It can become a backup device for your computers’ data and can be used as a central storage point for music, pictures and video files. If you dabble with BitTorrent or other downloading, you can set most of these devices to work as a “download endpoint” that fetches files from the various download locations for use on your network.

When choosing a NAS device, look for a single-disk or dual-disk unit with as much storage space as you can afford. If you buy the device as a “bring-your-own-disk” enclosure, try to negotiate a good deal on the hard disks or buy the hard disks as a “cleanskin” OEM unit from an independent computer store. These “cleanskin” hard disks are just simply packaged in a clear plastic crate rather than a cardboard box with the manufacturer’s logo over it. The dual-disk option allows for a second hard disk of equal capacity to work as a “fail-over” disk if one of the hard disks dies; and can provide high disk-network throughput for media files. Some units may provide “online” RAID servicing where they can continue to work while you replace the hard disk. The NAS unit should support SMB/CIFS for general network file access, DLNA (UPnP AV) for media access, DAAP support for any iTunes clients and either SMB, LPR/LPD or IPP for printer sharing.

It may be worth considering a network printer because these printers, which hook up to your network via Ethernet or WiFi, are becoming more affordable. There are even some steps taken to make these printers easier to integrate with your computers. In some cases, this may have the printer being automatically discovered by the computers or you may just need to run an install CD to enable network printing. The multi-function printers may support “push” or “pull” network scanning and may also work as a fax server.

Revo iBlik RS - close-up An Internet radio can be a very good gift idea especially if you or the recipient like offbeat radio content or like the sound of “local radio from other countries”. Most of these radios can work well as a network music player if you have music files stored on your computer or network-attached-storage unit. I have written a buyer’s guide to help you go about buying the right Internet radio for your needs and network. I have also reviewed a few sets – the Revo iBlik RadioStation and the Kogan WiFi Digital Radio with iPod dock.

No doubt, the kids will want to get new games consoles for Christmas. These consoles, whether “TV-attached” or handheld, will have suppoPS3rt for some network and Internet functionality like online gaming. I have set up an article with some video guides produced by Netgear on how to connect the popular games consoles to your home network and the Internet. This article also mentions particular connectivity accessories that your console(s) may need for particular network setups, which you can get from the same place you bought your console.

Getting the most out of your home network

There are a few feature articles in this blog that are worth reading and will help you get the most out of your network equipment. In some cases, you may avoid the the situation where you need to take any of your home-IT purchases back to the store.

I have an article on how to make sure your wireless network is secure so your personal and business data is safe from prying eyes. This should be read whenever you unwrap that new computer or router and get it going.

The “Understanding 802.11n wireless networks” article describes what the recently-ratified 802.11n wireless network standard has to offer and how to set up your 802.11n wireless router to suit your network as it evolves.

The DLNA Media Network series gives information on establishing a DLNA-compliant home media network. This covers establishing such a network by sharing your media held in your computer when you buy an Internet radio or other DLNA-compliant network media player. It also covers how to get your DLNA Media Network to a point without needing your computer switched on all the time including the use of NAS devices, and the concept of network-controllable media players and the 3-box DLNA media network. Classical-music fans are taken care of with information to organise the metadata for their music so they can play symphonies, concerti and the like straight through or pick a favoured movement as well as achieving sound quality that does justice to the music.

Further More

After I have moved the blog to this domain and to a flexible site at GoDaddy, I will build it to become a site focused on providing high-quality information about IT issues that will affect home, small-business and community-group computer users.

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New 2010

Simon Mackay

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Rovi brings the car closer to the DLNA home media network

News articles

Rovi Home Network Media Syncing Automotive Solution Announced | eHomeUpgrade

Rovi hooks cars up to home media collection | TechRadar (UK)

From the horse’s mouth

Rovi’s own page about their automotive network solutions

My comments on this topic

Mustang dashboard with Eclipse head unit What Rovi is doing is integrating the vehicle in to the home network and its content pool. This will, as far as car entertainment companies are concerned, legitimise the feasibility of a hard disk / solid-state drive and/or WiFi network connection in the car AV system.

Key features

Content-description metadata would be available for CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs in a manner similar to the current practice with iTunes or Windows Media Player. This can also work well with setups that have a built-in hard disk and a “rip-to-hard-disk” function for CDs. This can be updated with new data over the network connection or with the user transferring data from their PC using removeable media.

There would also be the ability to have improved content lookup available for applications where the media is stored as files in a file system like in an SD card, USB memory key, mobile phone or MP3 player like the Apple iPod.

Another key feature that Rovi has established in the press collateral has been the concept of transferring and syncing media content between the vehicle and a media collection hosted on a DLNA media server. This again would work with a 2.5” hard disk that is located in the car and used as the data storage.

There is even the concept of sharing data held in the vehicle or devices plugged in to the vehicle with associated networks which could allow for such things as map updating for satellite navigation and, I may have said this before, collection of diagnostic information from the vehicle.

Where do I think this will exist

The concept will typically appear initially as equipment installed at the factory in high-end cars and / or as high-end aftermarket car AV equipment that appeal to young men who turn their highly-customsied cars into “mobile discos”.Also these kind of markets are based around people who are usually more willing to spend big on the new technologies.

The primary form factor for aftermarket deployment may typically be in the form of the 2-DIN car navigation/audio/video head-unit with a large touchscreen on the front. It is because these head-units will typically have room for an integrated hard disk alongside a CD drive.

Some manufacturers may move towards moving the hard disk out of the head unit so as to reduce costs or design equipment that fits in to a 1-DIN car accessory space. This will typically allow for a USB or eSATA hard disk in an enclosure with an automotive-rated power supply located somewhere in the dash. On the other hand, highly-compact SSDs could become part of 1-DIN head-units which become part of the home network.

The network connectivity issue may be worked out either with an integrated WiFi-Bluetooth radio platform in the head unit or a WiFi network adaptor on the end of a USB cable or WiFi-Ethernet bridge on the end of an Ethernet cable located near the windscreen (windshield) or the rear window.

Conclusion

Once Rovi have established this technology, it could mean that the car will exist as part of the home entertainment and information network.

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Britt Lapthorne Inspired I Am Safe IPhone App By Tim Hine

Britt Lapthorne Inspired I Am Safe IPhone App By Tim Hine | The Age Digital Life

I Am Safe – Home Site 

iTunes App Store Direct

My comments

The “I am safe” application was written primarily in response to Britt Lapthorne’s disappearance in Croatia, but may have been brought about by the kidnap and murder of British tourists, Peter Falconio and Joanna Lees, in Northern Territory, Australia during July 2001.

It effectively “copies” the primary panic-alarm function on the typical monitored security system to your smartphone by sending out e-mail messages, SMS and / or voice messages to designated contacts as well as recording sound and providing a real-time update of the iPhone’s location on a Google map once you start this app.

There is a two-tiered delay arrangement where, after a few seconds, the phone will ring to indicate that it is gaining the location and starting recording. Then it will wait a few more seconds before sending out the e-mails and SMS messages. The messages will have a URL with reference to a “monitoring” Web page that hosts the Google map and an audio feed from the phone.

Equivalence to “panic” mode in a building alarm system

I had thought about this application further and related it to the “panic” or “hold-up” mode available on most, if not all, building alarm systems. This is usually where the user can press a dedicated “PANIC” key or, on most 12-key codepads, the * and # keys at the same time, to cause the alarm to signal to the monitoring service that the user is under threat. Similarly, some installations may use a remote panic button or wireless transmitter to fulfil this function. Some of the installations may also cause the local siren to sound in this condition.

From what I read, I also found that there are risks that can become real if tourists are faced with a nervous or paranoid attacker. One main issue is that the tourist could be forced to cancel the alert cycle or shut down the phone if the assailant is aware that the device could “rat on” them.

Possible software improvement ideas

An improvement that I would be wanting to see for this software is a PIN-to-cancel option where the user must key in a user-defined PIN number or the phone’s PIN number to cancel the alarm cycle. This would prevent the attacker from immediately cancelling the alarm cycle.

As well, I would like to see a “duress code” function as part of the PIN-to-cancel option where the user keys in a “decoy code” to immediately start the alarm cycle and transmit a special “attempt to cancel under duress” message as part of the alert message. This is again similar to most building alarm systems offering this function where the user knows a “decoy code” or "decoy modifier” for the user code that they use when they are disarming the system under duress. These systems then send a “duress” signal to the monitoring station and, in some cases, cause the local alarm to sound.

Need to port to other smartphone platforms

As well as addressing the security issues with the author, I also raised the issue of porting the program to other smartphone platforms. It’s too easy to agree that the Apple iPhone is the only smartphone on this earth but there are other platforms like the Blackberry, the Symbian S60 (Nokia phones) and the Windows Mobile platforms out there in the field. Some of these platforms, such as the Blackberry, have won hearts with the business community; and the Nokia phones have won hearts with European users. In fact, I have used Nokia Symbian S60 phones over the last two 24-month mobile-phone contracts with Telstra and am using a Nokia N85 on another 24-month plan, again with Telstra.  As well, the Google Android platform is coming up as a serious contender for the Apple iPhone.

The various “ports” could provide for platform-specific features like use of the phone’s hardware keypads that are common in some of the platforms; as well as use of series-specific hardware switches. For example, the software could allow the user to press and hold down * and # together on the phone keypad or press and hold down a button on the phone’s side to instantly start the alarm cycle.

Conclusion

The “I am safe” application has definitely provided the concept of adding the equivalent of a monitored alarm’s “panic” or “hold-up” function to a smartphone for use around town or around the globe. It would certainly provide peace of mind for all travellers, their loved ones and their business partners / employers.

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Windows 7 – What does it mean for multimedia and the home media network

Improved sound-reproduction infrastructure

Some of you may use two or more sound cards in your computer; such as using the sound circuitry that is part of your motherboad as well as an aftermarket sound card. Windows 7 caters for that by allowing you to relegate a particular sound subsystem to a particular program or activity. A common use would be to use a Bluetooth headset for Skype and related VoIP communications, gaming taunts and similar applications while you have your music playing through the main speakers. Similar you could connect a “good” sound card to a good sound system for recording and playback while the onboard sound infrastructure can be used for system sounds.

Even the ability to send digital audio signals to home-theatre equipment via the HDMI port has been improved. It includes the ability to pass the high-definition audio streams from BluRay and similar applications as a raw bitstream. It will also provide the multiple-sound-device functionality as mentioned previously with HDMI audio setups that use a dedicated sound infrastructure rather than feeding an SP-DIF audio bitstream from the computer’s main sound card.

As well, there is functionality that permits the music or video sound to be reduced in volume whenever a VoIP or similar call comes in even if the call goes through a different sound device, which makes life easier when you take these calls using the computer.

DirectX and Gaming

DirectX in Windows 7 has been taken up to version 11 and this has brought forward a lot of improvements as far as computer games go. This also includes a lot of work “under the bonnet” to improve game responsiveness with the screen and sound and bring up PC gaming to current-generation console level.s

Streamlined network management

The network management functions are similar to what Windows Vista users have expected in the Network And Sharing Center, But this interface has been streamlined and made easier to use. The “full map” is still available and you can gain access to shared resources or UPnP-provided device management pages when you click on the various devices.

HomeGroup

This feature is a way of establishing a “circle of trust” within a home network when it comes to sharing resources around that network. This is based on a computer-generated password that is used across the HomeGroup to authenticate all of the computers on the network to the resource pool. At the moment, this only works across Windows 7 boxes on the network, but it may be worth keeping an eye out for Microsoft and third-party downloads that allow Windows 2000 / XP / Vista, Macintosh and Linux boxes to work in with a HomeGroup setup.

This is another way that Microsoft implemented a practice commonly associated with locks and keys, Here, the identifying factor that only allows the lock to work with particular keys is already determined by the tumblers that are integrated in the lock’s mechanism and these tumblers are configured to work that way either by the manufacturer or by a locksmith when you have the lock rekeyed.

The first instance of this was with Windows Connect Now, which was implemented in Windows XP Service Pack 2 as a way of configuring a highly-secure wireless network. Here, the WPA-PSK passphrase was determined randomly by Windows Connect Now and used as part of a “configuration manifest” file to be transferred to routers and other computers using a USB memory key. This was extended to Windows Vista through the WPA-PSK passphrase being uploaded to a compliant wireless router using an Ethernet connection, and was integrated in to Wireless Protected Setup which is implemented as part of Windows Vista Service Pack 2.

Another advantage provided with HomeGroup is that it can work with “work-home” laptops that move between a domain-managed business network and a home network. HomeGroup can also cater for other small networks, because there is the option to share particular resources with particular users as you were able to do son with any Windows-based CIFS network.

Improved DLNA support

Windows Media Player 12, which is part of the Windows 7 distribution or, in some cases, available as a free download from Microsoft, has DLNA built in to its ecosystem. This doesn’t just stop at sharing media files with DLNA / UPnP AV media devices or streaming media files from other DLNA / UPnP AV media servers like NAS boxes. It allows you to “push” content to DLNA / UPnP AV media devices that present themselves as “MediaRenderer” devices. This is typically provided in the form of the “Play To” right-click shortcut for multimedia files.

Remote Media Streaming

You can stream content from one Windows 7 computer to another over the Internet as long as you use the same identifier, like a Windows Live ID. with each of them. This can be useful for situations like temporary accommodation like hotels, holiday homes or serviced apartments where you may have your computer at home running and you may want to play media at your temporary location. I have discussed this feature before on this blog and have raised issues regarding VPN operation and the computer that is pulling the media being able to serve it to DLNA-compliant media hardware on its local network.

Inherent support for current digital-TV standards and Internet TV

Windows 7 provides its Media Center application with inherent operating-system support for currently-deployed digital-TV standards so there isn’t much need for TV tuner card manufacturers to supply software to work with the current standards. As well, this operating system provides improved support for “over-the-top” Internet TV services that may be released in your country. In some cases, this may do away with the need for the coaxial TV cable to the computer or the need to sign up to cable services full of “fodder channels” to gain access to the “good channels”.

Next article in the series will touch on how Windows 7 will benefit the small business and the work-home laptop.

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Product Review – Kogan Wi-Fi Internet Table Radio with iPod Dock (Frontier Internet Radio Platform)

Overview

Kogan Internet radio

Kogan is an Australia company who are selling good-quality value-priced consumer electronics like LCD TVs in a manner that is considered common in the USA but rare in Australia. It is to sell the goods under their own brand through what used to be known as mail-order. You can buy equipment like this Internet table radio by visiting their Website or calling 1300 304 292.

The set, which is sold direct for $169 excluding delivery but including Australian GST, looks like a mantel radio made during the late 70s just before that style of radio went out of fashion and has a generous-sized front-facing speaker behind a mesh grille. An iPod or a USB memory stick can be connected to sockets installed on the top of the set.

The set is powered from the mains through a small AC adaptor but the adaptor that came with the review sample had something that can be annoying if you were to properly switch it on or off at the wall, because it sticks upwards.

Connectivity

The set has an iPod dock which can work with most of the Apple iPod range; and a USB port for connecting USB memory keys, MP3 players and other devices that present themselves as USB Mass-Storage Devices. This port may be better placed on the front or back of the radio so as to avoid dust, crumbs and other nasties falling in to the set and causing unreliable operation with USB devices.

It also has a 3.5mm jack for connecting up another MP3 player, Discman or similar device to play through the built-in speaker; and has a 3.5mm headphone jack which can also be used to play the set through a pair of better-sounding active speakers.

Setup

When you unpack the set, you don’t get the instruction manual as part of the packaging. Instead, you have to go to the support section of Kogan’s web site to download the manual as a PDF file.Kogan Internet radio - close-up

There are some issues that affect the way you integrate the radio to the Wi-Fi home network. One is that there needs to be a clear indication for “enter” to confirm the WPA-PSK key and another clear indication for “backspace delete” of erroneous characters.

As well, you have to make sure that your router’s wireless-network security is working in a “pure” WEP or WPA-PSK mode rather than a “compatibility mode” that may be common on some routers made when WPA just started to come in as a Wi-Fi link-level security option.

Once the radio is on the home network, everything is effectively “plain sailing”. The unit can be set up to get the time from the Internet, but you have to determine the time zone yourself by going to the Main Menu – System Settings – Clock Settings option. You will also have to change the time zone by an hour every time we switch from standard time to daylight-saving time. For example, in Sydney and Melbourne, you would have to set the Time Zone to +10 during Standard Time and to +11 during Summer Time. This may be rectified in a future firmware update for this set.

As far as the DAB (digital radio) operation goes, there isn’t a “clean-up and scan” routine available. Typically you have to do the “full scan” routine which adds new stations to the multiplex roster. This was annoying because the review sample, like the Revo iBlik RS clock radio reviewed in a separate review, had come down from Sydney and had references to the Sydney DAB multiplexes and stations. It can also be a headache for those of us who move between towns, or if there is a situation where the DAB multiplexes are being re-organised.

Use

The menus on the set are mainly navigated through the use of the tuning control which you turn to select the option and press to confirm the selection. There is a “Back” button to go back through the menus if you need to do so. The volume is adjusted with a smaller knob rather than “up-down” buttons. You change between FM, DAB, Internet Radio, Media Player, USB, iPod and Aux modes by pressing a MODE button. This control arrangement  makes the set appeal to be easier and comfortable for older people to use and makes you think of it as a proper radio.

Access to Internet radio stations is through an integrated directory that is regularly updated. You can select stations by “home area”, “country” or genre. I did a test to find Heart 106.2 London, a radio station that I often listen to over the Internet. Here, I went to “all stations”, then “country”, then “Europe”, then “United Kingdom” to filter for UK radio stations. After that, I went to all stations and browsed the list of UK stations to find “Heart London”.

There are five preset buttons which you can assign to a station in each of the radio modes. This means you have 5 FM stations, 5 DAB stations and 5 Internet radio stations held as “one-touch” presets You associate the button with the currently-playing station in the same manner as most car radios that are currently in use i.e.: hold the button for around 10 seconds until the display shows that the station is with the preset.

The radio also works well as a DLNA network audio player with the ability to honour the UPnP AV Media Server’s media hierarchy. It even worked well with playing music hosted on my computer by allowing a smooth playout experience. One main problem was that the transport keys such as the play-pause button didn’t work for the network media stream.

The radio does work well as an iPod speaker dock and the function keys worked properly when navigating the iPod’s content. I also attempted to adjust the volume from the iPod, but the sound came through at the same level, thus requiring you to use the radio’s volume control to adjust the sound.

Sound quality

The sound was something typical of either a classic mantel radio or one of those mono radio-cassette recorders made during the 1970s. There isn’t any way to adjust the tone on the set, whether through the menus or a separate control. There is still some “punchiness” in the sound but not the full bass expected by today’s young generation. A difficult-to-reproduce piece like the BBC brass-band rendition of “God Save The Queen” played at the end of the day (UK time) on Radio 4 may sound “difficult” at times. For talk-radio broadcasts, the sound is clear and intelligible whether turned up loud or at a modest listening level.

The sound volume is relatively loud, thus allowing the set to fill a room with its sound and can compete with a noisy appliance operated nearby. I even ran our noisy rangehood fan while the set was playing and it could easily compete with that. This means that it could work well at “belting out the tunes” in a takeaway-food shop, café or similar establishment.

Fit and finish

I have observed that this unit has avoided fingermark-attractive “gloss” finishes but this may be considered as a set that is dull and boring. But this also has been a bonus with a review unit that has “done the rounds” and been handled by many reviewers. This would be a bonus for radios that are likely to be handled by many users or spend their working life in a kitchen.

When I bought my own one of these sets, I had it working as a “utility radio” for the household and at times had seen it used in a workshop and outdoors while there was carpentry work going on. This hasn’t had any impact on the set’s finish or operation.

Points of improvement and product-class development

Connectivity improvements

The 3.5mm headphone jack could be positioned up front so as to allow “walk-up” headphone use and could be set to override a 3.5mm external-output jack on the back as well as the built-in speaker. The role of this rear-mounted jack could be determined by a menu option as a “line-out” jack independent of the volume control and headphone jack or an “external speaker” jack that is dependent on the volume control that can be set to either run with or override the internal speaker. This would allow Kogan to supply a “right-channel” active speaker as an accessory thus causing the radio to become a 2-piece stereo radio.

The manufacturers could relocate the USB port to the front of the set thus removing the risk of problems associated with dust and foreign objects falling in to the top-mounted USB socket.

Improved display

The display could be improved as far as legibility goes. It could be a high-contrast LCD with a strong LED-array backlight. Some other reviewers wanted to see a variable backlight display, which could make the set fit for use in a bedroom. This would be best executed with a backlight setting for standby use and a setting for whenever the set is in operation.

Possibility of tone control

There could be the possibility of some form of tone control, not just as a “bass-boost” option. This could be in the form of the classic “tone” control knob used on older sets which provided a bass-rich sound at the low setting and a bright treble-rich sound at the high setting.

WiFi connectivity improvements

Some users may take one of these sets between multiple locations like home and work or home and a friend’s house or holiday home; as I have often seen with some clock radios and portable radios. An improvement that I would like to see would be to allow the user to have up to eight “network profiles” stored in the radio, like what happens with computers and mobile phones. There could be an SSID and WEP/WPA passphrase associated with each of the profiles so the set doesn’t have to be reconfigured when it is taken between regular locations.

Similarly the set could support WPS “quick-connect” options so as to avoid messing with “pick-and-choose” WPA passphrase entry.

Conclusion and Best Placing

This set would be best suited as a radio you may use in a small office, household kitchen, small shop or waiting room at a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. It is also a set worth considering for the workshop or garage even though it is as loud is most typical clock radios because of the fact its finish isn’t susceptible to these working environments. It wouldn’t be appropriate in the bedroom as a replacement for that old clock radio because the set would be too big for a bedside table, the display is too bright even when switched off and the alarm-clock functionality isn’t easily accessible.

I also applaud Kogan for providing a tabletop Internet radio that is positioned at a price that most people can afford and this could be a way for them to cut in to the premium table radio scene. They could go further with a unit that has two speakers, a portable DAB+/Internet radio that can run on batteries or AC, or a tuner that can pick up FM, DAB+ and Internet radio; with all these sets being capable of playing audio from DLNA Home Media Networks.

But I would still recommend the Kogan Wi-Fi Digital Radio with iPod Dock as a value-priced entry-level DAB/Internet radio for situations such as your first Internet radio or when giving someone an Internet radio as a gift. It may also be a good excuse to ditch that tired old radio in the kitchen or office for something that offers a lot more.

Purchase online:
Kogan Web site

I have had this set on loan for a week courtesy of Kogan and their public-relations company, Profession Public Relations. As well, Professional Public Relations have offered the set for sale to me at a reduced price as per their standard practice with media and I had taken up this offer.

The review has been updated with further notes from my experience with this set and may help with your purchasing decisions.

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Avoiding “online scalping” when buying event tickets online

Buying concert tickets online can be risky warns Consumer Direct : Directgov – Newsroom

My comments

After I heard the radio ad on Heart 106.2 London about consumer rights concerning online ticket sales in the UK while testing out an Internet radio that I was reviewing for the blog, I thought that this is an issue worth touching on in an international context.

As well, a friend who I know very well told me that whenever an alternative-music festival sells its tickets, all of the tickets are sold out within 10 or 15 minutes of them being available.As soon as this fact is announced, the tickets are immediately hawked on bulletin boards and similar locations on the Internet at heavily-marked-up prices.

I had gone through the advice but looked at it from an international and trans-national perspective so as to allow for those travellers who buy tickets for events they want to attend while they travel.

Advice – from UK news release but suited for international application

The first thing to do is to check the event’s or venue’s official website for information concerning ticket availability. Then prefer to deal with online box offices that are well-known.

If you are buying for an overseas event, find out whether your local online box office can sell the tickets for the overseas event? It may be possible if the event’s ticket agency is part of a chain with an international footprint. If the tickets are only available through ticket agencies located in the country where the gig is, find out how you can make sure you can get the ticket. Some agencies may forward it to your home or business address or they may forward it to the address of where you are staying. In most cases you could arrange to collect the ticket at the event’s box office or have the ticket sent to you as an e-ticket. It may also be worth asking whether you can pay for the tickets now so you can lock the transaction to the current exchange rate. If you are organising your travel through a travel agent, it may be worth getting their help in organising tickets to the overseas event.

As well, shop around the reputable online outlets for the best prices for the event. Check for a full street or postal address – don’t just rely on an e-mail address.

Don’t rely just on “domains of credibility” like nation-specific top-level domains usually associated with your country or established Western nations such as “.com.au” or “.co.uk” to determine the geographic location of the company. This is because there aren’t methods to check this location and it can be easy to set up a forwarding address and "out-of-country" phone number to fool authorities. It may be wise also to do a “whois” search on the domain to locate its owner’s details.

The website, especially the form where you enter your credit-card details, should have encryption. This is indicated with https at the start of the URL and a closed padlock on the address bar or a complete key icon on the  bottom of the browser’s user interface. If you use Internet Explorer 7 or 8, Firefox, Safari or other newer browsers, you are at an advantage if the address bar is green or you see a similar indication on the address bar because of extended-validation SSL certificate. These have stronger credibility and authenticity tests than the regular SSL certificate.

Find out what you are being charged for in the transaction – the seat price, booking fee, transaction charges as well the seat you are being allocated or class of patronage you are in for.

Check for delivery costs if they deliver the tickets by post or courier. These shouldn’t apply for “collect-at-venue” tickets or “e-tickets” that you print out on your printer.

A credit card is your ally because in a lot of cases your credit-card issuer can offer you protection. This is often facilitated by various consumer-protection laws in most countries as well as business agreements that the card networks have established.

It may be worth checking “secondary agency” and anti-scalping laws in your location and/or the location where the event is hosted in (if the event you are buying tickets for is overseas) to be sure whether the tickets are meant to be sold.

Make sure that you can get a refund of all fees if the event is cancelled. This is more important for some sports events that may be cancelled if there is adverse weather.

If you do have queries about the tickets being sold, it may be worth checking with your local government-run consumer-affairs department or the similar department in the country you are travelling to if the event is overseas. In the latter case, it may also be worth visiting the country’s “online-government” portal or contacting their embassy or consulate in your country.

Conclusion

I have often found that a campaign that concerns online consumer protection that is ran in one country can have merit when it concerns transactions that are performed from or within another country, It may differ in certain details like local contact details or country-specific practices but the basic elements are the same the world over. Sometimes, if you listen to an ad for a campaign like this one via Internet radio or see it as an ad in an overseas Web site or “expat’s” newspaper, the basic elements may be conveyed in the ad, with location-specific details when you “descend further” to the associated Website.

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