Category: Current and Future Trends

Dell XPS 15z–a Sandy Bridge laptop that snaps at the heels of the MacBook Pro

Articles

Dell XPS 15z available in Australia and Asia, fits Sandy Bridge in under an inch of thickness – Engadget

Dell XPS 15z review – Engadget

Le XPS 15z de Dell officialisé (MAJ) – Le Journal du Geek (France – French language)

My Comments

Previously, I had written an article about Windows-platform laptops approaching Apple’s “Super Cool” position on the laptop-computer equivalent of Top Gear’s “Cool Wall”.

Now Dell have come up with a 15” “thin-and-light” laptop which has a very similar look and styling to Apple’s ultra-cool MacBook Pro series of laptops. The XPS 15z, which is driven by an Intel Core i5 processor and Sandy-Bridge chipset is finished in an aluminium housing with a satin-chrome-finished magnesium alloy keyboard keyboard bezel. The keyboard has the same “chiclet” style and finish as the MacBook Pro but is illuminated and flanked by the system’s speakers in that same way.

The side of the machine is very similar to the MacBook Pro, with a slot-load optical drive and audio input/output jacks on the right-hand side and the data and display sockets on the left-hand side. You might think that this computer may end up with an illuminated Dell logo on the lid but it doesn’t.

Of course, from the Engadget review, it competes in price and power to the Apple unit but it still needs to work better on the battery runtime.

Here, it is starting to show that the aluminium or “satin-silver” metal finishes and silver-finish plastics could become a part of laptop styling, especially with “thin-and-light” designs. This is more so as manufacturers try to imitate the looks of the Apple MacBook family and see their laptops appear in the “Super Cool” section of computing’s “Cool Wall”.

Of course, it will be interesting to see whether other industrial-design cues will be implemented in designing that “ultra-cool” laptop computer that is to be noticed in the Wi-Fi-equipped coffee lounge. On the other hand, I hope that this class of computer still is useable, performs powerfully and can work for longer periods on the battery while maintaining the looks and making use of industry-standard connections.

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First device to use Wi-Fi technology for host-peripheral connection

Article

HP Intros The First Wi-Fi Mouse For Your PC | eHomeUpgrade

From the horse’s mouth

HP Introduces Wireless PC Accessories to Enhance the Computing Experience

Click here to play YouTube video

My Comments

This mouse is the first to use the Wi-Fi technology as a “personal area network” i.e. to use a network technology to connect peripherals to a host computer. At the moment it requires the host computer to run Windows 7 and implement the “virtual network adaptor” technology in its Wi-Fi chipset.

Furthermore, the host computer needs also to run a device-monitor applet supplied by HP with this mouse. This whole functionality could be improved through the use of code being integrated in Windows 7.

This mouse is expected to have a 9 month battery life which is meant to be longer than with devices that run current Bluetooth technology. I would see that as a coup for Wi-Fi when it comes to applications ranging from mice and keyboards to other “sensor and control” applications like barcode readers used in business; remote controls or health-monitor devices. As well, if the chipsets used in this mouse are implemented in smartphones, PMP / MID devices (iPod Touch, etc) or tablet computers, this could help with improving device runtime when they are used with Wi-Fi networks.

As far as the software is concerned, I would like to have HP avoid “reinventing the wheel” for Wi-Fi mice, keyboards and similar peripherals by making use of “class drivers” that have been defined for USB or Bluetooth human-interface devices.

There is one question that could be asked about this device as in whether it could work over the regular wireless network using the network’s router or access point and sending the data back to the host computer via that local area network, rather than the host PC’s wireless adaptor being virtualised as an access point. This may be of concern with people who run a desktop computer that doesn’t have integrated Wi-Fi but is connected to a the network via Ethernet or HomePlug and this network has a Wi-Fi segment serviced by a wireless router or access point.

A similar setup has been achieved with the myRemote Android app which converts an Android smartphone in to a mouse or remote control for a computer. This one uses the regular wireless network and requires knowledge of the host computer’s IP address and that computer has to run a monitor program downloaded from the myRemote developer’s Web site.

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IPTV now being featured on mainstream TV media

Articles

Smart TVs (A Current Affair article) – NineMSN VIDEO

My Comments

From the recent “A Current Affair” broadcast on the Nine Network, it seems to me that the “Smart TV” or “Internet TV” concept is now ready for prime time.

What is this trend all about?

This is where functionality like access to IPTV channels, “catch-up” TV and video-on-demand is now being integrated in to most of the big-name TV sets that are to be sold at the likes of Harvey Norman. It will also include an “app-store” interface so that users can add functions to these sets in a similar way to how they add functions to a smartphone or tablet computer.

Some of the sets will come with an integrated hard disk which will provide PVR functionality. But what wasn’t mentioned was that most of the sets from the big brands, especially LG, Samsung and Sony, will support integration with the DLNA Home Media Network. This means that these sets could play content held on a computer or network-attached storage device that uses this standards-based technology.

Typically, these functions will be pitched at TVs targeted for the main viewing area i.e. the main lounge room or family room. But this kind of function may be added to existing sets through the use of some of the current-issue Blu-Ray players and network-media adaptors like the Sony SN-M1000P network media adaptor.

A few key questions that I have

“TV plus Apps” or IPTV and interactive-TV content?

There could be a fear that this could turn out as “TV plus apps” with the same old TV content plus some apps such as clients for the popular social networks, photo-sharing sites and YouTube-type sites thrown in.

But some providers are making ties with the various manufacturers to set up free and pay-TV front-ends through the IPTVs. Examples of this include Samsung establishing a tie with BigPond TV to provide direct access to that content or most of the manufacturers running ABC iView through their TV sets. It may also open up opportunities like video-on-demand or boutique content services. As well, once there is a level playing field for adding TV services, this could lead to the addition of extra TV content.

If there is a desire to provide new live or on-demand IPTV services, there needs to be support for adding the newer services to existing IPTV equipment. This could be achieved through an always-live app store on these sets. Similarly, existing broadcast content, both editorial and advertising, must be able to support links to apps and interactive front-ends that are accessible to the average viewer with one click of a particular button through the use of interactive-TV content-delivery standards.

This can include applications ranging from interactive games and competitions that are part of children’s TV through “play-along” quiz shows to polls run in conjunction with current-affairs shows which have the option for you to view “extended-version” interviews.

Equipment Useability

A key issue that I have raised in this site was the useability of services like the Social Web on this class of equipment. Typically, the “smart TV” concept prides itself on connection with social-network services like Twitter and Facebook; but there will be the desire to gain access to photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Picasa or gain full benefit from sites like YouTube. These can make use of “smart-TV” services more daunting for someone who doesn’t find themselves competent or isn’t experienced with technology.

An example of this was when I mentioned to a friend of mine about the Pixel Eyes app on the TiVo platform where they could view their Picasa albums through the lounge-room TV connected to the TiVo PVR. I mentioned that they would have to log in to their Google account using the “pick-pick” method of entering their credentials in order to view their pictures on this service and this idea frightened them off it.

The main problems is that different users will want to log in to this common terminal or, in the case of the Social Web, leave comments in relation to what they are viewing. Typically, this will require a fair bit of text entry and most remote controls won’t be fully engineered to cater to this requirement. The user will typically have to work a D-pad or wave a Wii-style “magic remote” around to pick letters from an onscreen keyboard and may have to switch between logical keyboards to use different character sets like numbers, different-case characters or punctuation. Try entering in a Facebook / Twitter / Google username and password that way or “knocking out” a Tweet that way.  As well, I have raised in that same article methods in which logging in to these services from devices like TVs and set-top boxes can be simplified and referenced how Facebook achieved a login experience suitable for these devices with their HP ePrint app. This includes being able to change the active user associated with a TV or set-top box to another user.

Similarly, I would look at issues like keyboard support for IPTVs. This is whether a TV comes with a QWERTY-enabled remote or not. The best method for add-on keyboard support would be to use Bluetooth HID connectivity so that a Bluetooth-based wireless keyboard can be used as a text-entry tool. Similarly, the ability for one to plug a standard USB computer keyboard in to the USB port usually reserved for USB memory keys and use this for text entry may make things easier. This would work well with those wireless-keyboard sets that plug in to the computer’s USB port.

A remote that doesn’t have a QWERTY keyboard but uses a numeric keypad for direct-channel-selection or parental-code-entry could use this keypad as an “SMS-style” text-entry interface, something which many nimble-fingered teenagers are used to. This would work better if it used the character-set-selection practices used on popular mobile phones.

Other methods that can be looked at include the use of smartphone apps as virtual remote controls like what Samsung has done for their Android smartphones. Here, a user could download an app to their Galaxy S phone and have this become the TV remote control. This could be extended to ideas like multi-control for interactive applications such as “own-account” operation for Social Web and similar applications with the TV screen becoming a “common monitor”.

What to consider when choosing or using your network-enabled TV

DLNA functionality

The TVs or set-top devices should support DLNA Media Player functionality at least, with preferable support for DLNA 1.5 Media Renderer functionality. Initially this would give you access to content held on your computer’s or network-attached-storage device’s hard disk.

The Media Renderer functionality can allow the TV to be controlled by a UPnP AV / DLNA control point such as TwonkyMobile, PlugPlayer or Andromote on your smartphone or tablet computer, or TwonkyManager on your netbook.  In the case of Blu-Ray players and set-top devices, you may even be able to play music from your network storage through your favourite stereo without the need to have the TV on to select the music

If the TV or set-top box offers integrated PVR functionality, look for DLNA Media Server compatibility because this may allow you to play recorded TV shows on other TVs in the house without them needing to be of the same brand.

It is also worth noting that some DLNA functions like DLNA server or Media Renderer may not be enabled by default even though the set has these functions. Here, you may have to go to the setup menus and look for “DLNA control”, “Media Server” or similar options and enable them to benefit fully from these functions.

For further information, it is also worth reading the DLNA Networked Media articles that I have written on this site.

Connecting the set to your home network

When you connect one of these TVs to your home network, I would suggest that you avoid using Wi-Fi wireless connectivity, especially if the TV or set-top box uses a dongle for this connectivity rather than integrated Wi-Fi connectivity. This is because of the fact the Wi-Fi network is radio-based and if anything is shifted slightly between the Wi-Fi router and the TV, you may have service-reliability issues.

Instead, I would recommend that you use a wired method such as Ethernet cable or a HomePlug AV powerline-network setup. The Ethernet-cable solution would work well if the router and TV are in the same room; you have wired your home for Ethernet or you can get away with snaking Ethernet wiring through windows. On the other hand, the HomePlug solution would work well for most users who don’t want to or can’t lay new wiring through their homes because this uses the house’s existing AC wiring.

In fact, if you are renovating or rewiring your home, it may be worth considering wiring the house for Ethernet and making sure you have an Ethernet connection in the main TV-viewing areas of the house. This may be achievable if you have an electrician who is competent or knows one who is competent with communications or data work doing the job.

Conclusion

This site will have regular coverage of home media network issues that will become of importance as we head down the the path towards online home entertainment.

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Authenticating users to services on limited-user-interface devices

Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc Player

A Blu-ray player that has advanced set-top-box functionality and access to online services

There is an increasing trend to interlink services like photo-sharing and social-networking services with network-enabled devices other than PCs or “lightweight computers” like smartphones or tablet computers. This includes set-top boxes, network printers and digital picture frames and example applications include showing photo albums from Picasa or Facebook on the large TV, printing out pictures from Picasa or Facebook without the need for a computer or showing one’s Facebook Feed on an advanced Internet terminal like the Pure Sensia. One reason that is leading the concept on is the use of device platforms like HP ePrint, Panasonic VieraCast and Google TV, where an operating-system developer or a device manufacture use the platform to build up an “app” library for the device or operating system.

HP Photosmart 7510 multifunction inkjet printer

Printers even now can print material from online services

It will also become more common with VoIP telephony encouraging the development of “personal landline telephone” services as well as “personalised home environments” being brought about by home automation and security functions being part of the connected home.

The current situation

The main problem with these services is that they require the user to log in to the service using an alphanumeric user name and an alphanumeric password. This would be best done using the regular QWERTY keyboard of a computer.

But most of these devices would require one of these methods to enter the credentials:

TV remote control

A typical smart-TV remote control that can only offer “pick-and-choose” or 12-key data entry

  • “Pick-n-choose”, where the user uses a D-pad on the device’s control surface to pick letters from a letter grid shown on the device’s display. This is a method used primarily with set-top-box applications like “Pixel Eyes” (a Picasa / Filckr front-end) for TiVo; or used on most Internet radios to determine the network password for a Wi-Fi network.
  • Small on-screen QWERTY keyboard for a touchscreen device. This is a practice used on smartphones and tablet computers that have this interface but is becoming common with network printers and other devices that use a touchscreen. This interface can be awkward and prone to errors if the device uses a small screen as common with most printers.
  • “SMS-style” with a 12-key keyboard. This is where the device is equipped with a 12-key numeric keyboard not dissimilar to a telephone and the user enters the credentials as if they are tapping out a text message on a mobile phone. This practice may be used on communications devices (dialling phone numbers), security devices (entering access codes) or consumer electronics (direct-entry channel / track selection).
  • 26-key alphabetic keyboard. This is where each letter of the alphabet is allocated a key usually in a 5×5 matrix in alphabetical order. You still may have to press a button to change case or switch to numeric or punctuation mode. This has been used with some of Sony’s MiniDisc decks for track labelling and is still used with some Brother labellers for entering label text, but is not commonly being used as a text-entry method for consumer electronics devices due to size, design or cost limitations.

As well, most of the implementations don’t allow for proper “hot-seat” operation by remembering just the user name; and therefore require the user to provide both the user-name and password when they want to use the service. This can then be made more awkward with the interfaces listed above.

Facebook’s login method

HP Envy 100 all-in-one printer (D410a)

HP Envy 100 all-in-one printer -implementing a simplified device enrollment for Facebook’s HP ePrint setup

Facebook have improved on this with their HP ePrint app which is part of the HP Envy 100 printer which I have on loan for review. Here, the printer displayed an “authentication code” which I had to enter in to the Facebook Devices page (http://www.facebook.com/devices). Here, you would have to log in with your Facebook credentials if you haven’t done so already. Then the printer is associated with your Facebook account.

The only limitation with this method is that the device is bound to only one FB account and multiple users can’t switch between their Facebook accounts. This can also make a Facebook user more vulnerable to undesirable control-panel modification to their account if the app allows it.

The reality with most devices

Most devices like network printers or set-top boxes are typically operated by multiple users. What needs to happen is a simplified multi-user login and authentication experience that suits this class of device.

This is also more so as the authentication parameters used by Google (Picasa, YouTube), Facebook and others are becoming central to the “single sign-on” environments offered by these service providers and these “single sign-on” providers could appeal as credentials bases for home network applications like NAS management or even building security.

What could be done

A situation using a combination of the “Facebook limited-device login” method and the login experience that one encounters when using an automatic teller machine or EFTPOS terminal would be appropriate here. This is where a device can keep multiple “device account codes” for multiple accounts as well as securing these accounts with a numeric PIN.

Main points

A credentials service like Facebook, Windows Live or Google could add a simplified “numeric PIN” field for limited user-interface devices as well as the text-based password. The simplified “numeric PIN” which would be four or six digits long would only be able to work on qualified devices and the user would need to key in their text-based password to log in from a computer or smartphone.

Devices that support “limited interface” operation create a “device account passcode” for each account that is to use the device. This allows the device to create a reference between the account on the service and the account on the device. When a user is added to the device, this would be shown on the device’s user interface and the user enters this in to a “Devices Login” page at the credentials service’s Website.

Add user

  1. A user selects the option to “add user” to the device using the device’s control surface.
  2. The device’s user interface creates a “device account passcode” and shows it on the device’s user-interface (LCD display, TV screen, etc). In the case of a network printer, it could also print out this “account passcode”.
  3. The user transcribes this “device account passcode” to the credentials service Website (Google, Facebook, Windows Live, etc) using a regular computer or other Web-browser-equipped device.
  4. If the user hasn’t previously defined a numeric PIN for “limited-interface access”, the service invites the user to enter and confirm a numeric PIN of own choosing if they agree to “protected device access”. This could be done either through the Web browser or continued at the device’s control surface.
    If they have previously defined the numeric PIN, the device will challenge them to enter the numeric PIN using its control surface.
  5. The user’s account is bound to the device and the user would be logged in.

Switching between users on a device;

1 A user would go to the “Users” menu on the device and selects their user name represented as how they are known on the credentials service (Facebook name, etc) from the user list.

2 The user then keys in the numeric PIN using the device’s control surface

3 If successful, the device is “given” to the user and the user then interacts with the service from the device’s control surface

Other points of note

All users have opportunity to “remove themselves” from the device by going to the “user settings” UI and selecting “Remove User” option. Some devices may allow privileged users to remove other users from the device and there could be the option for users to change their numeric PIN from the device’s control surface.

It could be feasible for a device to provide varying levels of access to a user’s account. For example, a device shared by a household could allow “view-only” access to certain data while a user who is directly logged in can add or modify the data.

There could be the option to integrate local user-authentication information on devices that support this by relating the “device passcode” with the local user-authentication data record. This could allow a device like a security system to allow the user to gain access to functionalities associated with the credentials service but the user still uses their regular passcode associated with the device.

Conclusion

Once companies like social-networking or photo-sharing sites work on ways to support multi-user one-device scenarios with limited user-interface devices, this could open up paths of innovation for the devices and the services.

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Understanding the new Thunderbolt peripheral-connection technology

Another of the new technologies that Intel has been promoting alongside its “Sandy Bridge” processor architecture has been the “Thunderbolt” peripheral connector.

Capabilities

This connector has a current raw transfer speed of 10Gbps but could have a theoretical maximum is 40Gbps (20Gbps up and 20Gbps down) when both pairs of wires are used. You can use this same “pipe” to pass a DisplayPort-based audio-video stream for a display as well as PCI-Express-based data stream.

There is the ability to daisy-chain 7 Thunderbolt-connected devices but you can have less than 3 metres between the devices at the moment.

Thunderbolt at the moment

This technology will complement USB and other connection technologies but will be like what happened with USB in the mid-90s. This means that it will be an Apple-only technology and this will appear on the latest run of MacBook Pro laptops.

It will appear on PC-based computers in early next year. As far as retrofit opportunities go, Intel had mentioned that it could be available for new motherboards but there was nothing much said about availability as an add-in expansion card.

The main peripheral applications would be external storage subsystems like the LaCie “Little Big Disk” storage array; as well as displays. Such peripherals that have this connection will typically be marketed as being “Thunderbolt-ready”.

What could it offer

Another storage-expansion connection for computing devices

One key application would be to provide a high-bandwidth direct connection between computer devices and one or more external hard-disk storage subsystems. The reason I use the term “computer devices” is because such devices could encompass PVRs which could benefit from capacity expansion, routers and network devices that convert attached external hard-disk subsystems to network-attached storage; as well as the general-purpose computers.

Multifunction devices that are fit for the new generation of compact high-performance computers

There is the possibility for one to exploit the Thunderbolt concept to design a multifunction desktop console unit. Here, this unit could house a screen, audio subsystem, video camera, removable storage such as an optical drive or SDXC card reader and/or a USB hub. Another variant could house a keyboard instead of a screen and connect to one or more external displays using DisplayPort or regular monitor connectors.

This display unit would be connected to an ultracompact system unit that has only the processor, RAM, graphics-processor, network connectivity and a hard disk, plus some USB sockets for a desktop application. On the other hand, this display could serve as a “desktop display” for a subnotebook or ultraportable computer. The USB hub would come in handy for connecting keyboards, mice, USB memory keys and similar devices.

Here, these multifunction devices can be designed so that they are no “second-class citizen” because they have multiple functions. This means they could render the multiple video streams as well as support the high-capacity removable storage technologies like Blu-Ray Disc or SDXC cards.

This is more so as the Intel Sandy Bridge technology makes it feasible for small computers like book-sized ultracompact desktops and notebooks of the “subnotebook” or “ultraportable” class to “have all the fruit” as far as performance goes.

Issues that may be of concern

One main issue that I would have about the Thunderbolt technology is that Intel could limit it to computer applications that are centred around its chipsets. This would make it harder for competing processor designers like AMD or NVidia to implement the technology in their chipset designs. It would also place the same implementation limits on system designers who want to use chipsets that offer improved performance or better value for money alongside Intel processors on their motherboards.

This is like the Intel Wireless Display technology which allows a special display adaptor to connect to an Intel-based laptop computer via a WiFi wireless network and show the pictures on the attached display device. Here, this functionality could only work with computers that have certain Intel chipsets and couldn’t be retroactively applied to older computers.

Another issue would be to encourage implementation in “embedded” and dedicated-purpuse devices like PVRs and routers as well as the general-purpose computers. For some applications like the previously-mentioned storage-expansion application, this could add value and longer service life to these devices.

Conclusion

Once the Thunderbolt technology is implemented in a competitive manner, it could open up a new class of devices and applications for the computing world by making proper use of the “big fat pipe” that it offers.

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Smartphones and tablets now working with sensors and controllers

Introduction

A trend that we may be seeing with smartphones and similar devices is that they work with various third-party sensor or controlled devices through the use of various apps written by the sensor’s or controlled-device’s vendor. A main driver for this trend has been the “There’s an App for that” mentality that has been established around the Apple iPhone with that smartphone becoming the centrepiece of most people’s lives.

Examples of this include the recently-launched Parrot “ARDrone” remote-control helicopter that uses a dedicated Wi-Fi link to an iOS device running a special app that is its controller; a barbecue thermometer being launched at the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 that uses a Bluetooth link to an iOS device that acts as a remote temperature display. There were even other examples like the Nike running-shoe pedometer that uses a dedicated wireless link to an iPod Nano running an exercise-tracking application.

These applications may be novelty ideas of implementing an iOS or Android smartphone as a SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) device but there will be more applications that will become more real in our lives.

Examples application fields will include:

  • Food safety (thermometers that measure temperature for areas where perishable food is stored)
  • Personnel health and wellbeing (blood pressure and heart-rate monitors)
  • Building automation and security (dashboard apps that work with HVAC, security systems, smart meters and the like; garage door openers that work with a touchscreen smartphone)
  • Automotive and marine instrumentation (engine monitoring and diagnostics)

The current situation

The main problem is that whenever an application that works with an outbourd sensor or controlled device is developed, a lot of code is added to the program to work with the sensor or controlled device. This extra “bulk” is written by the app writer usually because the writer is the one who designs the device. The communications between these device and the host smartphone or tablet is typically using USB for wired connections; Bluetooth, dedicated or network-integrated Wi-Fi for wireless connections and the application developer has to work with the link that is appropriate to the device.

If the device designer wants to build a lively application-programming environment around the device, they have to either prepare a software development kit which usually requires the distribution of a runtime module with the application. This can take up memory and can put a strain on the battery life of the device.

What can be done

An improvement to this situation that would improve the lot for device designers and application developers who write SCADA for smartphones and tablets would be to establish a “driver” model for sensor and controlled devices.

Here, the operating system could run a “driver” for the application in a similar vein to how peripherals are managed by desktop operating systems. Here, the operating system can do things like manage the polling cycle for sensors or transmission of events to controlled devices, including responding to sensors that are set to trigger software events for the device class.

This can help with conserving battery power by disconnectiong from a sensor or controlled device if the destination apps aren’t run; or sharing data between two or more apps benefiting from the same sensor data. This could benefit some platforms, most notably Android, where one can write lightweight indicator applications like “widgets”, notification-area icons or active wallpapers which just benefit from sensor data or respond to certain conditions.

The problem is that the smartphone operating systems such as iOS and Android don’t support the same kind of programmatic modularity that desktop computing has permitted due to limitations placed on them by battery-operated handheld device designs with constrained memory and storage size. This issue may have to be examined whenever a subsequent major revision of the smartphone operating system is being worked on; and could include whether a separate “driver store” is maintained at the platform’s “app store” or that drivers are supplied as “apps”. This can then allow the manufacturers to update drivers as necessary, for example to add new functionality.

Conclusion

The idea of controlling or monitoring devices from computers or mobile devices is going to becoming something more mainstream rather than just a novelty and the operating system designers may have to factor this in to their designs.

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VPNs and remote access in the home and small-business space–a lot of unanswered questions

What is remote-access and VPNs

The concept of remote-access and VPNs is primarily about gaining access to computer resources located in a location that is physically distant from where we are. The typical applications that we talk of are access to business data held out our small business’s shopfront from our home office’s computer or gaining access to data as we travel.

The method that is usually implemented is to set up a Virtual Private Network or VPN which is a virtual secure network link between one or more computers in one network and computers in another network. This link is hosted over another network infrastructure like an Internet service and acts as the secure data “tunnel” or path between these networks.

This will typically allow one to “draw down” files held on a remote hard disk or more likely use a “remote desktop” program to operate a computer from afar. The latter application would typically be performed using programs like VNC or Microsoft’s Remote Desktop / Terminal Services with a server component running on the host computer (which has the data and programs) and a remote-terminal client program on the computer that the user is working from.

Draytek VPN endpoint router

One of Draytek's VPN-endpoint ADSL modem routers

Previously, a VPN was based around two Internet-connected computers with one, typically a file server, being a “VPN server” and the remote computer being something like a laptop or home computer. Now the VPN can have a specially-enabled router as the “VPN server” or can become a secure link between two physical networks separated by an Internet connection and facilitated by specially-enabled routers. 

Two types of VPN

There are two types of VPN setup that are in use. They are the “Client to Box” setup and the “Box to Box” setup.

“Client-to-Box” – Remote computer to local network

The “Client to Box” setup has a user operating a single computer to gain access to the remote network. This is typically used to allow a mobile worker or a telecommuter to gain access to company resources from their laptop or home computer.

The computer runs a “VPN-client” program that is either part of the operating system or a separately-supplied program. Here, this program provides the login experience for the user and authenticates the computer to the main network. Then it effectively “bridges” the computer’s resources to that network.

Client-Box Remote Access VPN

Single-Client Remote Access VPN

“Box-to-Box” – Connecting multiple logical networks

The “Box to Box” setup is simply a secure link that is established between networks established in different locations. The typical reason to do this is to avoid the costs of renting a dedicated line between the locations and use the economies of scale that the Internet offers. This is typically established with the use of special “VPN endpoint” routers joining the networks and these routers create a secure encrypted “tunnel” for the data to move between the networks.

Box-to-Box VPN connecting two networks

"Box-to-Box" VPN connecting two networks

Relevance to the small business and home users

These VPNs do appeal to small businesses and home users in many ways. One is to allow a shopkeeper to have access to data held at either their home office or their shop from the other location. Similarly, a small-business owner can establish a branch of their business in a new location and make sure they have access to the business resources at the main location from the branch’s network.

Another example for a “client-to-box” setup is to allow a tradesman or similar worker to gain access to customer data held on his home-office computer from the road through the use of a laptop computer connected by a wireless-broadband link or use of a wireless hotspot.

There is even the prospect of home users using this VPN technology to gain access to media held on a home media server from remote locations. One example would be to “pull up” audio material held on the home media server from one’s car using a wireless-broadband link to download or stream the material. Another example would be to have the same media that you have “at home” available on a home network installed at a secondary home that you own or rent.

As well, it could be feasible to use VPN technology as part of home security and automation, especially when it comes to managing remote properties.

Similarly, there can be the ability to support the use of the home network’s facilities in households where one or more members maintain separate Internet services and networks. Examples of this may include a business that is operated from home and a separate Internet connection for business-owned equipment; lodgers, students who want to have their own Internet use on their own terms

Limitations with the current technology

Hard to provision

The main limitation for home and small-business users when dealing with the VPN is that the VPN is typically hard to provision, whether it is to set up for the first time or to adapt it to suit future needs. 

The user need to make sure each location’s local network uses a different IP address range which would be a difficult task especially as most small networks are set up to the IP-address specifications that are determined by default when you get the network-Internet “edge” router.

Then they need to know the VPN protocols, security protocols and the VPN passphrase and set these in the “hub” VPN endpoint. They have to make sure this is accurately copied and copy these details to the “spoke” VPN endpoints at the remote locations. Here they may become confused with determining which is “outbound” and which is “inbound” for each tunnel when configuring each endpoint.

They would also have to make sure that one of the VPN endpoints or the one that is to be the “hub” endpoint either has a fixed Internet IP address or can support a dynamic DNS service like DynDNS.org or TZO and is set up for this service.

Most of these tasks would then daunt most home and small-business computer users unless they had a lot of detailed computer knowledge and skills.

Limited protocol and application set

Most VPNs can only handle the protocols associated with bulk file transfer between two or more general-purpose printers. They don’t properly support device discovery for other devices which is important for the home and small-business user.

As well, they don’t work properly when it comes to streaming of real-time media between sites due to issues with streaming protocols and quality of service. Here, VPN applications involving these applications may have to implement application-layer gateways to facilitate the QoS and protocol needs.

Action to facilitate these networks

The UPnP Forum have released the “RemoteAccess” Device Control Profile for facilitation remote access and VPN use especially when it comes to supporting UPnP-compliant devices on the “other side” of a remote access link or VPN tunnel from “your side”. The first version is pitched at the “client-to-box” VPN setup, mainly to allow smartphone and laptop users to gain access to media on the home network. The second version, to be coming over the next year, is intended to support “box-to-box” setups like multi-site “super-networks”.

This has been released in conjunction with the “ContentSync” Device Control Profile which allows for synchronising of content collections (or parts thereof) between two UPnP AV MediaServer devices.

It has then made a relevant case for home users to value VPN and remote-access technology for personal-media applications such as keeping copies or subsets of media libraries at other locations or playing media held at one location from another location.

What needs to happen

Improve provisioning experience

The routine associated with provisioning a remote-access setup or VPN “super-network” needs to be simplified in a manner similar to what has happened to Wi-Fi wireless networking. Here, this was facilitated by the user not needing to work out any new data except to identify a wireless-network segment via its SSID.

In a VPN or remote-access network, the user sets up a “hub” endpoint which would work on machine-determined VPN protocol settings. Here, the user determines the location name, dynamic-DNS service or fixed IP address; and the VPN network password.

As well, a dynamic-DNS service that has a lot more “meat” such as increased reliability could be a service that is sold by carriers and Internet service providers as a value-added service. These services could typically be packaged as a product differentiator between different Internet-access-package lineups or just simply as an add-on item.

Then the user sets up a “spoke” endpoint or client terminal by providing the fully-qualified location name and the VPN network password as well as an identifier for the “spoke” endpoint.

This setup could support the use of machine-generated passwords that have been successfully implemented with Windows Connect Now easy-Wi-Fi setup method in Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Vista; as well as the HomeGroup password in Windows 7. Similarly, there could be support for configuration files like what has happened with Windows Connect Now – USB setup where a configuration file is uploaded to a Wi-Fi router or client device to facilitate quick wireless-network enrolment.

A client-to-box setup could be set up with the user entering the VPN name and password in to a VPN client program that is part of the computer’s or smartphone’s operating system.

Site-local subnets (logical networks)

The provisioning process for a “box-to-box” remote-access network should make it easy to create site-local subnets that are peculiar to each logical network. This could require the “hub” endpoint to keep track of the subnets and cause “spoke” endpoints to determine new subnets as part of the setup process.

It can include the ability to reinforce a DHCP “refresh” so that all network devices that are in a logical network obtain new IP addresses if the addressing scheme has to be redefined for that network. This is because most network devices in home and small business networks are allocated IP addresses using DHCP rather than the user defining them in order to simplify setup of equipment on these networks.

Use of a logo for easy-setup VPN systems

A VPN or remote access system needs to work to an industry standard that is supported by many vendors. Here, equipment and software that complies to this standard needs to be identified with a trademark and  logo which denotes this compatibility so customers can choose the right hardware and software for an easy-to-provision remote access setup.

Retroactive upgrading programs

There are small businesses who run VPN setups that are typically based on VPN-endpoint routers that have existed for a long time and are currently in service. The standards for providing “easy-setup” VPN systems could be retroactively implemented in these units by applying updated firmware that incorporates this functionality to existing VPN-endpoint routers. This may happen more easily for devices that are based on open-source firmware.

Conclusion

Once the industry makes it easier for home and small-business users to establish or manage their remote-access setups and VPN-based multi-premises super-networks, the kind of features that larger businesses take for granted can be of benefit to this class of user.

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Faxing and machine-to-machine communications in the IP-based telephony age

The new direction for telephony

There is a new direction for telephony that will be affecting faxing and machine-to-machine communications over the next few years. It is Voice-over-IP which is regular voice telephony carried over an Internet-standard network.

This has been used primarily in large-business telephony but is now becoming a reality with consumers and small organisations. Initially, this technology was being pitched as a way of saving money on long-distance calls but is now becoming part of regular landline telephony.

The main drivers for this direction are the arrival of “naked DSL” Internet services where the telephone wires are used for DSL Internet connection and the customer doesn’t pay the incumbent telephone company for landline telephone service; cable-TV providers stepping to the fore for providing competitive local telephony service; and and the arrival of “single-pipe triple-play” services with multi-channel TV, Internet service and landline telephony delivered over one physical connection as one service package. These services are using the VoIP telephony technology to provide the local landline telephone service.

The next driver that will affect all customers is the national landline telephone system being moved away from the traditional circuit-driven setup to a packet-driven Internet-technology setup. Examples of this are the 21CN project in the United Kingdom and the National Broadband Network project in Australia. The advantage of these projects is to reduce the cost of providing regular voice telephony over short or long distances and to prepare for improved telephony setups like HD wideband voice telephony and video telephony. 

The effect on machine-to-machine applications

This will place a negative effect on machine-to-machine applications like faxing and monitored-alarm setups which are the two main applications that are facing consumers and small organisations. These setups are based on modem-based protocols that are designed for circuit-switched telephone networks like the “plain old telephone service”.

The main effect of this is that the packet-based telephony setups will cause the protocols used in these applications to go “out of step” and lead to communication failure. In the case of a fax machine, the document will either take a long time to go through to the correspondent or the fax transmission won’t succeed. In a monitored-alarm setup, the alarm event that is initiated by the premises-based alarm system will take a long time to register with the monitoring station or at worst won’t register there at all, which is a threat to security and safety – the main reason for these systems in the first place.

Bringing these applications to the IP age

Faxing

The T.37 Fax-over-email solution

Most high-end business-market fax machines are equipped to work according to the T.37 “fax-over-email” protocol. This is a “store-and-forward” method that uses regular SMTP and POP3 Internet email protocols to send hardcopy faxes as TIFF-F (fax-optimised TIFF) image files attached to emails.

This solution requires that the recipient has a T.37-compliant fax machine or computer which is running an email client and software for reading TIFF-F files to receive the files. This may be no mean feat for a general-purpose desktop or laptop computer hut most smartphones and similar devices won’t have software that can read TIFF-F files.  As well, a person can use a scanner attached to a general-purpose computer that has software that can turn out TIFF-F files from the scanner as well as the regular email client to send hardcopy documents to a T.37 fax machine.

Some T.37-compliant fax machines can be set up to work as a T.37 – G3 gateway to forward faxes to regular fax machines. But this requires the sender to send email to an address formatted as “fax-mailbox@service-domail(FAX#fax_number)”, which can be difficult with many popular email clients. Here, these clients may not handle the phone-number data that is held in parenthesis properly or require the user to “go through hoops” to support this function when they manage their address book. It may be easier if the gateway uses a “international-format-fax-number@fax-gateway.service-domain” address format.

As well, the technology could support colour or greyscale photographic images through the use of JPEG or a colour variant of TIFF-F. This point is raised because of most fax-enabled inkjet and colour-laser multi-function printers being equipped with the ability to send and receive colour faxes using the “Super G3” protocol.

The T.38 real-time-fax solution

The T.38 protocol has been introduced as a method of providing “there-and-then” fax transmission over an IP network. At the moment, it requires a gateway device to be connected to a regular fax machine at each end of the link. This could be achieved by the use of a properly-designed VoIP “analogue telephone adaptor” terminal that becomes a T.38 gateway when it is connected to a regular fax machine.

The standard also requires the use of SIP and other call-setup protocols that are used in VoIP to establish the call. The destination information would have to be understood by the gateway picking up the DTMF “touch-tones” from the connected fax machine.

You can use a single ATA for VoIP and T.38 service, with use of distinctive ring + CNG fax tone to “wake up” client fax for incoming calls and use of the CNG fax tone generated by the connected fax machine to enter T.38 mode. But this would require separate T.38 service with separate number to be provisioned for smooth operation.

Another question is whether a network-enabled fax machine can become a T.38 fax endpoint machine or not? As well, would the T.38 protocol support enhanced fax modes like “photo” resolution or colour faxing.

What can be done

Improved provisioning experience

At the moment, most mid-tier consumer and all business multifunction printers have regular fax functionality and network connectivity. As well, some small-business units, especially the units sold by Brother, have T.37 “fax-over-email” functionality as part of the function set.

Typically these features are difficult to provision and use for most home and small-business users. What could be done is to implement a “wizard-based” user experience for the provisioning routine and / or, there could be the ability to download an XML provisioning file from the Internet provider whenever one wants to set up Internet fax.

As well, the industry could adopt a qualification program for Internet-fax equipment that requires a unit to achieve certain requirements such as compliance with known standards before being able to receive the right to display a particular logo of compatibility. This could also extend to the use of service-information files provided by carriers and service providers so that there is little effort required on the behalf of the home or small-business customer to set up their Internet fax service.

Internet fax service as part of a communication service provider’s arsenal

As far as addresses for T.37 fax services go, there could be the ability for a subscriber to be provided with a “virtual fax number” as well as an email address for their T.37 service. This is a telephone number that a person can dial to send faxes to the T.37 mailbox from the regular fax machine. Similarly, there could be support for an SMTP fax-gateway setup that uses a simplified addressing scheme as I have outlined earlier but uses address and password protection to authenticate customers and these would then be related to the “virtual fax number” which is to show on a regular fax machine’s display and  in the fax transmission reports.

The T.38 real-time-fax service could simply be provided by a VoIP or triple-play communications provider as a secondary fax-only number which works with T.38-compliant fax gateways or endpoints. This could be provided with a T.37-compliant Internet fax mailbox that can lead to such services as controlled transmission or reception setups such as “receive all faxes when you start business” or “transmit international faxes I send on local morning time”.

Equipment and software design considerations

A network-enabled fax terminal should support both the T.37 and T.38 network-fax protocols as well as the Super G3 protocols for circuit-based communications. As well, the setup experience for these machines should be simplified, preferably wizard-driven and with service-host interaction, so that people who don’t have much computer experience can get these machines going for Internet fax. This can be augmented by support for standardised XML-based service-manifest files that are downloaded from the service host.

The same machines could also support the storage of fax addresses as regular numbers or Internet-format email addresses and could simplify the construction of Internet-based fax addresses for regular number-based addresses based on however the T.37 fax server expects such addresses to be formed. This should then simplify the management of the one-touch or speed-dial address book that is part of the typical fax machine’s feature set. As well, email software should support the ability to send and view T.37 fax-over-email messages and support “sub-addressing” and address construction for T.37 fax gateway servers.

Monitored alarms

The main method that is being used for adapting an existing  monitored alarm infrastructure to an IP-based environment is to use a VoIP analogue-telephony-adaptor terminal that is programmed to be a “virtual modem” endpoint. Here, the alarm uses the standard modem protocol to signal the event to the ATA and this device forwards the event message to the control centre using an industry-standard message packet.

On the other hand, a network-enabled alarm system could be connected to the network and sends the event message via its network interface. This also includes existing systems that are designed to be future-proof by allowing a network interface kit to be installed at a later date.

There will also be the desire to provide this kind of network integration to this class of device in order to support enhanced monitoring functionality or building automation. The latter application would bode well with the “green impetus” in order to provide functionality such as synchronised control of lighting and heating / air-conditioning.

Another benefit is that a monitored alarm setup can be upgraded with new firmware without the need for a technician to visit the installation. This is in the same way that computers and mobile phones can be “patched” with software fixes by them connecting to a server to get the necessary software.

What needs to happen

Customers need to know what to do concerning evolving their monitored security or safety services to the Internet-driven world and view it as being important for all such services, not just for high-perceived-risk installations. As well, any monitored-alarm equipment that is pitched at the residential or small-business user has to have inherent IP-based monitoring or have support for the feature at a later date.

Equipment design considerations

The alarm-system industry needs to provide panels that either have inherent support for IP-based  signalling or can be upgraded to this function at a minimal cost through its service life. This is understanding that a typical alarm installation is seen by its users as a “backbone” device in the same context as a central-heating boiler or furnace and is therefore expected to have a service life of at least 10 or more years.

This should mean that a hardware upgrade should be in the form of a card being installed in to the existing alarm panel or a software upgrade is provisioned by, at the most, one visit from a technician.

Conclusion

As telephony systems move towards the packet-driven IP telephony space, the traditional machine-to-machine applications that face most users need to be evolved to support the Internet-based networks. This includes improved in the way these services are set up so that most people can provision them in a competitive manner rather than being tied to a particular carrier or operator.

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The Telstra T-Hub can now become a fully-fledged Internet radio

News article

Tune into the world with the latest T-Hub software update – Radio, Software, Global | Telstra Exchange

My comments

Previously, the Telstra T-Hub multipurpose Internet device had an Internet radio function but this was limited to receiving the Internet streams of Australian radio stations. Most of us would think that this is limiting because of radios like the ones reviewed on this site being able to pick up Internet streams from overseas radio stations or the fact that we could use vTuner or Reciva web sites to “tune in to” these streams.

There had been a lot of discussion about this on Telstra’s “Exchange” website especially as they were about to release new software for this device, especially with a desire to have this functionality on board. Now Telstra have answered these calls by integrating the fully-fledged Internet radio functionality in to the T-Hub as part of the latest (version 1.10k) firmware update.

Someone raised in response to this article an issue about whether the Internet-radio service would be counted towards one’s Internet-traffic limit and there is a fear that it may not be so for overseas stations. Another key issue that also has to be resolved would be the quality of service that one gets with Internet radio because, as from my experience, there are times where there is increased jitter and latency with Internet radio stations especially when the station’s home country or we enter peak Internet-use times.

This news is also of interest to manufacturers, distributors and users of other multipurpose Internet devices that are intended to supplant or supplement landline-telephone functionality.

How to update the T-Hub to the latest version

  1. Touch the “Settings” icon on the T-Hub’s second home screen
  2. Touch the “Software Updates” icon.
  3. Touch “Check for New Software Updates”. This will identify if the T-Hub is on the latest firmware or whether there is an available update.
  4. If an update is available, touch “Download Now” to start the update process.
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Ozmo’s low-power Wi-Fi technology now with real silicon proof-of-concept

Articles

News articles

Ozmo’s WiFi PAN available Q4, is this the end of Bluetooth’s reign of terror? – Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Ozmo Devices Announces Revolutionary Solution Powering World’s First Wi-Fi Mouse and Keyboard

Related Articles in this site

The Wi-Fi Personal Area Network is getting closer

Ultra-Low-Power Wireless Networking

My comments and questions

Previously I have covered the topic of WiFi technology being used as a “personal area network” for a computer, which comprises of peripheral devices like mice and keyboards communicating to a particular computer via the WiFi technology. rather than that technology being used to transfer data between computers and other devices in a local area network. What has happened is that Ozmo have come up with a real chipset for use in these devices that can use this medium as well as run for a  long time on batteries. At the same time, Ozmo had built reference designs of wireless mice and keyboards that use this technology to communicate with their host devices.

One main question that I have about Ozmo’s effort is whether the same technology can be applied to devices that link directly to a Wi-Fi local area network’s access point rather than a particular computer? One main application that I see here with this technology would be Wi-Fi as a sensor / control network medium with devices like those that Ekahau had made as part of their Wi-Fi-driven real-time location technology, such as the pager tag which I had talked about in this site previously. Another application would be Internet radios, Wi-Fi-connected speakers and similar multimedia terminals that would be able to work on batteries as well as digital cameras that can upload to network storage or Internet sites or present to DLNA terminals without a severe penalty on battery life.

Another issue would be for a dedicated-function device like a set-top box or games console to support this kind of technology, whether as part of integrated Wi-Fi LAN functionality or as a Wi-Fi PAN setup as an alternative to Bluetooth or infra-red as a way of connecting peripherals, especially control peripherals.

It would be very interesting to see what comes of this technology once the silicon becomes fully available.

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