Commentary Archive

Why should a common retailer join in to a tech platform with their own brands?

IKEA SYMFONISK speaker range press picture courtesy of Inter IKEA Systems B V

IKEA’s affordable path to the SONOS multi-room audio ecosystem

I have seen IKEA present a set of speakers that work with the premium SONOS multiroom audio platform but are more affordable than the SONOS speakers. Then I did some research on IKEA’s Tradfri smart-lighting infrastructure and found that the affordable smart lights offered by them can work with other Zigbee Light Link compliant home-automation setups.

A very similar practice is taking place with some of the German hypermarkets who are offering multiroom audio products under their private labels such as SilverCrest by Lidl / Kaufland.

But there are attempts especially by telcos who are offering “smart-home” systems where they don’t disclose what technical platforms their system supports. This is more so when users buy “starter packs” then want to “build out” their smart-home setup by adding on the devices that suit their needs.

What benefit does this offer?

Here, a retailer or telco’s retail arm can provide a set of equipment that is part of a particular multiroom-audio, smart-home, distributed Wi-Fi or similar device platform at a price affordable for most people. This is more so where they offer the products under their own private labels that are dedicated to value-priced or budget equipment.

Such a system can allow for a low-risk entry path to the multiroom-audio, home-automation or similar platform for most users. This is more so where a user wants to start out small, typically to suit a particular need like having a few lamps managed by a smart-lighting system.

Another advantage that exists for those of us who have invested in that platform is that we can build on it in a cost-effective manner. In the case of IKEA Symfonisk speakers, a person who has one or more SONOS speakers serving one or more primary living areas like the living room or the family room could extend their SONOS multiroom-audio setup to other rooms like the bedrooms in a cost-effective manner by using Symfonisk speakers. IKEA even took this further with Symfonisk by allowing you to have a compatible SONOS soundbar and a pair of the Symfonisk speakers in order to set up a full-on surround-sound system for your TV.

The retailer also benefits from the fact that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel if they are heading towards multiroom audio, smart-home or similar technology. Here, they can come on board with a range of products that suit their brand identity and focus on their specialities like, perhaps, home furnishings.

How does this work effectively

The key devices that are part of the device platform have to be designed as entities that can work with any systems or standards that drive the home-automation, multiroom-audio or similar platform. This means that they are to be interoperable with other devices working on that platform in a transparent manner.

If the retailer is offering a “hub” or “controller” device under their label, they may get away with something focused around their identity. But they could gain better mileage out of these devices by making them work to common technical standards so the devices can become part of the system that you want.

Some systems that allow a device to perform a supporting role like a pair of speakers augmenting a soundbar as “fronts” or “surrounds” for example could open up the path for accessing the desirable functionality.

Conclusion

When common retailers, telcos and installers offer equipment that works according to one or more common technical platforms and is affordable, this means that we can get in to the technical realms that the platforms offer with minimal risk. It also means that we can build out and add functionality to these systems in a cost-effective manner even if we use premium equipment based on these platforms.

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Major improvements expected to come to Bluetooth audio

Article

Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar press picture courtesy of Creative Corporation

The Bluetooth connectivity that the Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar benefits from will be improved in an evolutionary way

The future of Bluetooth audio: Major changes coming later this year | Android Authority

My Comments

One of Bluetooth’s killer applications, especially for smartphones and tablets, is a wireless link between a headset, speaker or sound system to reproduce audio content held on the host computing device.

At the moment, the high-end for this use case is being fought strongly by some very determined companies. Firstly, Bose, Sony and Bang & Olufsen are competing with each other for the best active-noise-cancelling over-the-ear Bluetooth headset that you can use while travelling. This is while Apple and Sony are vying for top place when it comes to the “true-wireless” in-ear Bluetooth headset. It is showing that the Bluetooth wireless-audio feature is infact part of a desirable feature set for headphones intended to be used with smartphones, tablets or laptops.

Let’s not forget that recently-built cars and recently-made aftermarket car-stereo head units are equipped with Bluetooth for communications and multimedia audio content. This is part of assuring drivers can concentrate on the road while they are driving.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

.. just like headsets like this JBL one

But this technology is to evolve over the second half of 2019 with products based on the improved technology expected to appear realistically by mid 2020. Like with Bluetooth Low Energy and similar technologies, the host and accessory devices will be dual-mode devices that support current-generation and next-generation Bluetooth Audio. This will lead to backward compatibility and “best-case” operation for both classes of device.

There is an expectation that they will be offered at a price premium for early adopters but the provision of a single chipset for both modes could lead towards more affordable devices. A question that can easily be raised is whether the improvements offered by next-generation Bluetooth audio can be provided to current-generation Bluetooth hosts or accessory devices through a software upgrade especially where a software-defined architecture is in place.

What will it offer?

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

… like with the upcoming generation of smartphones

The first major feature to be offered by next-generation Bluetooth audio technology is a Bluetooth-designed high-quality audio codec to repackage the audio content for transmission between the host and accessory.

This is intended to replace the need for a smartphone or headset to implement third-party audio codecs like aptX or LDAC if the goal is to assure sound quality that is CD-grade or better. It means that the device designers don’t need to end up licensing these codecs from third parties which will lead to higher-quality products at affordable prices along with removing the balkanisation associated with implementing the different codecs at source and endpoint.

A question that will be raised is what will be the maximum audio quality standard available to the new codec – whether this will be CD-quality sound working up to 16-bit 48kHz sampling rate or master-quality sound working up to 24-bit 192kHz sampling rate. Similarly, could these technologies be implemented in communications audio especially where wide-bandwidth FM-grade audio is being added to voice and video communications technologies for better voice quality and intelligibility thanks to wider bandwidth being available for this purpose.

Another key improvement that will be expected is reduced latency to a point where it isn’t noticeable. This will appeal to the gaming headset market where latency is important because sound effects within games are very important as audio cues for what is happening in a game. It may also be of benefit if you are making or taking videocalls and use your Bluetooth headset to converse with the caller. Here, it will open up the market for Bluetooth-based wireless gaming headsets.

It will also open up Bluetooth audio towards the “many-endpoint” sound-reproduction applications where multiple endpoints like headsets or speakers receive the same audio stream from the same audio source. In these use cases, you can’t have any endpoint receiving the program material reproducing the material later than others receiving the same material.

A key application that will come about is to implement Bluetooth in a multiple-channel speaker setup including a surround-sound setup. This will be a very critical application due to the requirement to reproduce each channel of the audio content stream concurrently and in phase.

It will also legitimise Bluetooth as an alternative wireless link to Wi-Fi wireless networks for multiroom audio setups. As well, the support for “many-endpoint” sound-reproduction will appeal to headsets and hearing-aid applications where there is the desire to send content to many of these devices using a high-quality wireless digital approach rather than RF or induction-loop setups that may be limited in sound quality (in the case of induction-loop setups) or device compatibility (in the case of RF setups). There could even be the ability to support multiple audio-content channels in this setup such as supporting alternative languages or audio description. In some cases, it may open up a use case where transport announcements heard in an airport or rail station can “punch through” over music, video or game sound-effects heard over a Bluetooth headset in a similar way to European car radios can be set up to allow traffic bulletins to override other audio sources.

A question that can be raised with the “many-endpoint” approach that this next-generation Bluetooth-audio technology is to support is whether this can support different connection topologies. This includes “daisy-chaining” speakers so that they are paired to each other for, perhaps a multi-channel setup; using a “hub-and-spoke” approach with multiple headsets or speakers connected to the same source endpoint; or a combination of both topologies including exploiting mesh abilities being introduced to Bluetooth.

Conclusion

From next year, as the newer generations of smartphones, laptops, headsets and other Bluetooth-audio-capable equipment are released, there will be a gradual improvement in the quality and utility of these devices’ audio functions.

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Google to provide wireless across-the-room data transfer to Android

Article

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

Google Fast Play could open up an improved point-to-point data transfer experience to Android smartphones

Google working on ‘Fast Share,’ Android Beam replacement and AirDrop competitor [Gallery] | 9To5Google.com

Fast Share is Google’s Android Beam replacement: Here’s what you should know | Android Authority

My Comments

Google is to provide as part of the Android platform a new “open-frame” point-to-point data-transfer solution. This solution, known as Fast Share, implements Bluetooth and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi to transfer text, pictures, Weblinks and other resources.

The Android platform had two different peer-to-peer data-transfer solutions previously. The first of these was the Bluetooth profile that was implemented by Symbian, Microsoft and others to transfer pictures, contact details and the like since the rise of the feature phone. The second of these was the Android Beam which used NFC “touch-and-go” as a discovery method and initially used Bluetooth but moved towards peer-to-peer Wi-Fi as a transfer method.

This was while Apple was using AirDrop across their ecosystem which included iPhones and iPads. In Apple’s true style, it was part of keeping as many users on the iOS platform and you couldn’t do things like transfer to other mobile or desktop platforms.

Google is intending to have Fast Share as part of their Play Services software package rather than being “baked in” to a particular version of the Android operating system. Here, Fast Share can be run with Android devices running older versions of the operating system which is a reality with a significant number of phones where the manufacturer won’t provide support for newer Android versions on particular models.

Advance images of this concept shown on the Web are underscoring a tentative plan to port it to their own ChromeOS and Apple’s iOS operating systems. If Microsoft and Apple are interested, it may be seen as a way for Windows or MacOS regular-computer users to share resources across the room on an ad-hoc basis. As well, Google could look at how Fast Share can be implemented in a “headless” form whether for sending or receiving the data.

You will have the ability to share file-based resources like photos, videos, PDFs or vCard-based contact-information files along with URLs pointing to Web-hosted resources or snippets of text. This will satisfy most usage requirements like sharing family snapshots, contact details or Weblinks.

There will be the option to give a sender “preferred visibility” status so they can discover your phone when you are near them. This status means that they will see your device if you aren’t running the Fast Share app. Of course, users can turn Fast Share on and off as required, preferably with the idea of turning it off when using the phone in a public place unless they expect to receive something. You also have the ability to decline or accept incoming files so you have some control over what you receive.

The core issue with Google Fast Share and similar point-to-point across-the-room file-transfer platforms is that they have to work in a truly cross-platform manner so you don’t have to worry whether your friend sitting in that armchair across from you is using an iPhone or Android device when you intend to send that photo to them or share your contact details.

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Why do I consider a digital fax vault an important feature for multifunction printers?

HP LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw colour laser multifunction printer

HP LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw colour laser multifunction printer – an example of a fax-capable multifunction that implements flash memory and fax-vault functionality

Nearly every multifunction printer that is pitched towards small businesses and SOHO operations is equipped with basic Group 3 fax functionality at least. Most will have the high-speed Super Group 3 functionality while most multifunctions that print colour will support colour faxing.

This is a feature still considered of value by people who work in the legal, medical and allied professions because they see it as the preferred way to exchange documents “over the wire”, especially in the context of requiring other parties to sign and send the documents.

But inbound documents that arrive via these machines can be seen by people other than the intended recipients which is something that can betray the required confidentiality that most of these documents require. This is an important issue as far as client confidentiality and privacy are concerned when it comes to legal, medical or similar issues; but can also be of concern with the intellectual property that most organisations accrue such as customer / member lists or financial reports.

This can be of concern in traditional workplace environments like clinics where you have people like late-night workers or contract cleaners existing in the office beyond normal business hours. It can also be exacerbated for small-time professionals who share or sub-let office space or use serviced offices.

It can also extend to people who maintain a home office, something that is an increasing trend for small-time practitioners or people who maintain a small public storefront at other premises. In this case, even though the business operator’s household respects the business’s confidentiality requirements, there is the issue of houses being occupied by house-sitters, couch-surfers and the like who may not respect that level of confidentiality even though you trust them. It includes tradespeople who come in to your home to perform work that you require.

What is a “fax vault” and how could this feature answer these situations?

Brother MFC-J5730DW multifunction inkjet printer

Brother MFC-J5730CDW fax-equipped multifunction which can be set up to forward incoming faxes to Dropbox or OneDrive

A “fax vault” function stores all incoming fax documents to a digital storage medium of some sort rather than printing them out. Then the user enters a code and selects a “print stored faxes” function to print out the documents. Such setups could allow functions like printing out selected faxes such as those that relate to the work they are dealing with, or forwarding the documents to another fax machine like the one installed at a convenience store or newsagent to be collected there. Some machines also provide a “forward to email” function where they send the received fax document via email as a TIFF-FAX file or a PDF file.

Some of these setups may provide PIN-protected dial-in access to allow users to enable or disable this function or forward documents to a nominated fax machine from the nearest telephone like their home phone. The functionality could also be facilitated through a Web page or mobile-platform app for a granular operating experience.

The most basic form of this kind of storage is in RAM memory in the machine, but a power failure can have you lose all the documents you have received. Better implementations of this storage can be in the form of non-volatile storage like a hard disk or solid-state storage device including an SD card or flash memory installed in the machine, or the data is held on a network storage like a NAS.

For example, HP implemented integrated flash memory within the LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw that I reviewed. This was in lieu of using RAM which is vulnerable to power failure, also leading to that printer implementing a comprehensive “fax vault” function,

Brother have come close to this ideal by equipping some of their printers with “Fax Forward To Cloud” functionality provided as a machine app where documents can be held in a Dropbox or similar online-storage account. But this feature still requires the user to have documents printed out as they come in.

As I review a fax-capable multifunction printer, I applaud manufacturers who offer this function in the proper manner in their products especially if it is feasible not to print documents that are held on the storage. As well, I applaud manufacturers who implement non-volatile memory technology, preferably user-upgradeable technology or use of external, network or common cloud-based storage for incoming faxes.

The feature is important to prevent others from seeing confidential faxes which come in through the machine thus assuring client confidentiality and privacy along with intellectual-property protection for professionals.

How to achieve this better

The manufacturers could implement flash memory in their fax-capable MFCs to avoid risk of document loss during power failures.

This can be taken further with the ability for the user to install standard-form storage devices like SDXC cards, M.2 or 2.5” SATA storage devices within the machine to allow the user to install higher-capacity storage devices at a later time; or a USB port to allow the connection of USB Mass-Storage devices like memory keys or external hard disks. SD-based cards or M.2 SSD sticks can work well with the manufacturer’s desire to maintain a compact design for their desktop multifunction printer devices.

Similarly, simplified resource-discovery protocols for NAS devices could make these devices discoverable by equipment other than regular computers. This could be facilitated through a Samba (open-source SMB implementation) client on the multifunction that implements the SMB protocol most of the NAS units use.

To protect the data on the mon-volatile storage device against further snooping should the non-volatile media unit be stolen, the fax-enabled multifunction printer could implement encrypted storage or simply encrypt the files associated with fax operation. File-based encryption can also work with data stored on a NAS unit.

The large capacities offered by newer cost-effective storage media would cater to businesses in the legal profession who are having to deal with large legal documents as a matter of course, or doctors who receive graphically-rich documents like medical imaging.

It also encourages the use of the non-volatile storage medium in these machines for storing fax documents yet to be transmitted such as with scheduled faxing or attempting to transmit a document to a machine that is busy or not answering. The benefit also applies when your machine is busy printing large documents and wants to keep itself available for other incoming faxes.

For regular printing from a network, the non-volatile storage option can allow for enqueued printing where each job waits on the storage medium until it is printed out. This can also work well with secure print-job release where you enter a code that you predetermine to collect your job before the job is turned out. It can also allow manufacturers to implement remote printing, public-printing facilities and the like as part of a multifunction’s feature set.

Let’s not forget scanning, where an efficient workflow can be created. Here, a user could scan many originals at the machine then go to their computer or mobile device to take them further by “picking them up” from the machine’s storage. A multifunction with advanced abilities could even have the ability to, for example, recognise many small originals like snapshot photos, business cards or till receipts that are scanned at once and create separate files for each original.

Conclusion

Having a digital fax vault as part of a small-business or SOHO-grade fax-capable multifunction’s feature set can be of value to professionals who place high value on client confidentiality.

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Lifestyle publishing heads towards the online trend

Lifehacker Website

Lifehacker – an example of the new direction in online-based lifestyle publishing

The online life has placed significant changes in the realm of “lifestyle publishing”.

What I would describe as “lifestyle publishing” are print or online publications that primarily cover lifestyle issues like living at and keeping our homes, parenting, personal health and personal / relationship issues. This kind of content is seen as being evergreen and relevant for a long time.

The classic “women’s magazines” maintained this role while running celebrity gossip and similar material. They existed in a position where they were available in the checkout lanes at supermarkets or at general/convenience stores and newsagents. As well, prior issues would exist in the waiting rooms at most medical practices and, of course, they would exist on many coffee tables as casual reading.

Some of these magazines even provide activities like crosswords and other puzzles or provide colouring-in pages and similar activities for children. This is to enhance the value of the magazine across the reader’s household. You may also find a few comic strips in the magazines as another content type.

They have been supported by various magazines that focus on particular topics like cookery, home improvement, parenting and health. It is also along with those salacious gossip magazines filled with lurid details of what the TV stars, the European royal families or other celebrities are up to.

Mamamia Website

… as is Mamamia

But, thanks to the smartphones and tablets, the direction for this kind of publishing has headed towards two major online paths. These devices have provided a portable and discreet means to consume this kind of material whether at home or out and about, in a similar way to how the e-book has been a boon to the romance novel and similar popular “guilty-pleasure” reading.

One of these are the independent blogs and small-time Websites, especially the “mum blogs”. These blogs appear on their own site or purely on a social-media platform like Facebook. People who follow the independent sites and blogs consider them authentic due to them representing the voice of the site’s or article’s author and their experiences.

MillieMummyMelbourne mum blog

… and “mum blogs” like MillieMummyMelbourne

The other fork in the road are the likes of Fusion Media Group and Pedestrian TV who maintain a large powerful blog/Website network with names like Lifehacker and Gizmodo. In this case, Fusion Media Group are franchising some of their mastheads in to other countries in a similar manner to what the Daily Mail and The Guardian are doing. It includes providing localised content for these markets as well as content that appeals across the world.

Another example of the other fork in the road is Mamamia who is becoming a powerful online “women’s magazine” focusing on what women really want. But this masthead is moving away from the traps associated with the salacious celebrity-gossip culture such as relying on imagery supplied by paparazzi photographers.

The online lifestyle publications don’t just provide content in the written form augmented with photos or other imagery. Increasingly these publications are providing audio podcasts or short videos in addition to the written content. Here, it is positioned as another way to present the same information that the site provides.

Lenovo Yoga Tab Android tablet

These mobile tablets play in to the hand of the online lifestyle publishers

Some of these online lifestyle-publishing mastheads are doing some things that aren’t really associated with the traditional women’s mags. One approach has been to review and compare different products that exist on the market and are relevant to their reader base.  This was a practice that was typically saved for car, boat, photo/audio/video and similar magazines or magazines offered by consumer-rights organisations.

But independent bloggers like the “mum blogs” are undertaking this role by reviewing or comparing household and similar goods. In some cases, the vendors supply the review samples of these goods, especially newer products, in order to have them put in the public consciousness.

There will be some continual questions raised about online lifestyle publishing.

One of these will be about monetising the content. This is more so where people are using social media, online content aggregators or email to follow the sites and read the latest content they offer.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel - presentation mode

.. as do the popular 2-in-1 convertible laptops like the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 range

This situation may affect the viability of on-site display advertising as a monetisation strategy. It is even though most of these publishers don’t have difficulty in creating family-friendly brand-safe content which can attract the advertisers to their Website.

One way this issue has been targeted is through the provision of sponsored content on these sites. The article or articles will have some input from a brand and be published with the brand’s identity appearing at various points in the article. This may also include the supply of goods and services at no cost to the blogger in exchange for them to write up a review about them like in the MillieMummyMelbourne blog regarding LEGO Duplo Stories with Amazon Alexa.

Some people see the existence of sponsored content or product reviews based on vendor-supplied samples as not being authentic. This is because they see the vendors or brand owners effectively steering the discussion regarding the goods or services being offered with the publishers extolling the advantages of these goods. This is something that has happened across lifestyle publishing in the traditional media with the use of advertorials within the magazines or infomercials being run during morning TV.

Another approach has been to run an online storefront that offers merchandise promoting the Website or designed by the author. It is more so where the author has the creative ability to design their own merchandise like clothing for example.

Another issue that will crop up is how to position online lifestyle publications in a manner to make them discoverable.

At the moment, discovery of this content is primarily through Google, Bing or other search engines especially where the search engine may surface a list-driven article written somewhere on the Internet that compares and describes the sites you are after. This takes over the role of the browsing-driven Internet directories like Lycos which existed before the Google behemoth came to the fore where Web providers could submit links to their sites to these directories.

As well, some of the online content aggregators like Feedspot or Feedly do provide the ability to search or browse for content of a kind. Similarly Web portals could be used as a tool to place online lifestyle publications “on the map”, perhaps through the use of a dedicated “lifestyle” Web portal promoted through traditional media.

Use of native or Web apps that show up strong with iPads, Android tablets and similar devices cam be a way to keep that “magazine experience” alive when you are “flicking” through these online lifestyle publications or “mum blogs”.

What needs to be done regarding online lifestyle publishing is to raise the profile of this segment to a position comparable with the traditional printed magazines. There was an episode of ABC’s “Media Watch” comparing them against the traditional womens’ magazines but this was showing concern about the sponsorship and brand-interaction issue.

Here, it was a way to use traditional media to put these blogs and sites on the map, but other resources can be used equally as well. For example, a radio or TV talk show could be used as a platform to interview lifestyle bloggers including “mum bloggers” and place them on the map. Or traditional media can exchange content with the lifestyle Websites and blogs to, perhaps, enrich coverage of a particular topic or cross-promote resources.

What needs to happen is to increase the profile of the online publications and blogs in the context of lifestyle-focused publishing especially in the eyes of the casual readers.

Now lifestyle publishing has headed towards the online direction and is coming to a tablet computer near you.

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Yale uses modules to extend smart-lock functionality

Article

Use of a user-installable module allows these Yale smart locks to work with different connected-home systems

Yale Expands Assure Lock Line With New Smart Lever Lock | Z-Wave Alliance

My Comments

Yale have implemented the smart-lock approach in a very interesting way ever since that company released their Real Living Connected Deadbolt in to the North-American market.

Here, they designed an electronic lock as a basic platform device but built an expansion-interface arrangement in to this lock’s design. Here, users could install a retrofit module in to the battery compartment on the door’s inside to add on Zigbee, Z-Wave or August smart-lock connectivity to their lockset.

This approach has been rolled out to the Assure range of electronic deadbolt locks and lever locksets with the use of the same module type for the whole range. It also applies to the Lockwood Secure Connect product range offered in Australia which is based on the Yale designs.

A similar approach has been implemented in the UK for some of the Yale electronic door locks sold in that market. But the modules used with the UK locksets are different to the North-American modules due to the regional differences that affect how Z-Wave and Zigbee operate and the country’s preferred building-hardware form factors. One of these units is infact designed to replace the outside cylinder on a rim-mounted nightlatch or deadlatch to enable “smart lock” functionality to this common class of door lock.

All these modules are expected to be installed in a “plug-and-play” fashion where they simply add the extra functionality to the lock or bridge it to the smart-home ecosystem once you install the module. After you install these modules in the lockset, the only thing you need to do is to pair them with the smart-home or integrated-security ecosystem.

Even within the same form-factor, the electrical interface for these modules may be varied for later products which can raise compatibility issues. Similarly, some of the home-automation integrators tend to presume that a particular module will only work with their system.

They also work on a particular “Internet-of-Things” wireless interconnection rather than an IP-based home network, requiring them to use a network bridge to work with an online service. This bridge is typically provided as part of a security-and-home-automation ecosystem whether offered by a telco, security services firm or similar company.

What have I liked about this approach is the use of user-installable modules that are designed to work across a particular Yale smart-lock range. Here, these modules interlink with Yale or third-party smart-home setups with the ability to be replaced should you decide to move to a better home-automation system that uses a different Internet-of-Things interface.

It underscores the fact that, once installed, a door lock is expected to be in service for a very long time and this same requirement will be placed upon smart locks. This is even though new smart-home or smart-building technologies will appear on the horizon.

It is similar to how central-heating systems are being enabled for smart-home operation through the use of a room thermostat that has the “smarts” built in to it. These thermostats are designed to be powered by the host HVAC system and connect to that system according to industry-standard wiring practices that have been determined and evolved over a long time.

This approach can be taken further with other devices like major appliances that are expected to serve us for a long time. Even if a manufacturer wants to create an ecosystem around its products and accessories, it needs to keep the specifications for interlinking these products and accessories the same to allow users to implement newer devices in to the system.

It can also work properly with a self-install approach where the customer installs the necessary aftermarket modules themselves or a professional-install approach which involves a technician installing and commissioning these modules. The latter approach can also work well with manufacturers who offer “functionality” or “upgrade” kits that enable the use of these modules.

The ASSA Abloy approach to making sure your smart lock works with the smart-home system by using user-replaceable modules makes sense for this class of product. Here, you are never worried about the smart-lock ability being “out of date” just because you install a home-automation setup that suits newer needs.

What needs to happen with the retrofit approach is that the physical and electrical interface for add-on modules has to be consistent across the product range or device class for the long haul. There also has be be some form of compatibility should any design revisions take place. Similarly, using a common application-level standard can work well with allowing the same device and retrofit module to work with newer systems that adhere to the relevant standards.

These expectations may not really work well with system integrators, telcos and the like who prefer to be the only source for products that work with a smart-home system.

Here, it is the first time I have noticed a smart-home device designed to be upgraded over its long service life.

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Could a logical network be a data-security attribute?

Telstra Gateway Frontier modem router press picture courtesy of Telstra

The local network created by one of these routers could be seen as a way to attest proximity or effective control of these devices

In data security, there has to be a way to attest that a user has effective control of their computing devices when they are authenticating with a device or service. Increasingly, most of us are handling two or more devices in this context such as to move data between them, use one of them as an authentication factor or to verify mutual trust between two or more people.

The logical network, also called a subnet, represents the devices connected to the same router irrespective of what media they use to connect to this network like Ethernet or Wi-Fi wireless. It is represented at Layer 3 (Network Layer) on the OSI network model stack and is represented by IP (Internet Protocol) whether version 4 or 6. Routers that implement guest or hotspot/community network functionality create a separate logical network for the guest or hotspot network.

But a hotspot network can be set up to cover a large public area like a bar or cafe’s dining room or even the whole of a hotel or apartment block. As well, if a hotspot network is properly set up for the end users’ data security, it shouldn’t be feasible to discover other devices on that same logical network. This is thanks to IP-based isolation functionality that the router that serves the hotspot offers.

Here, the existence of devices on the same logical network can be used as a way to attest proximity of these devices or to attest effective control over them.

Use cases

Enhanced two-factor authentication

Increasingly, most of us who implement two-factor authentication use an app on a smartphone to provide the random key number that confirms what we have along with what we know. But in a lot of situations, we have the smartphone and the computer we want to use to gain access to the resources existing on the same network. This may be our home or business network, a public-access hotspot or tethering our laptop to a smartphone for Internet access via the mobile network.

Having both devices on the same network could be seen as a way to assess the security level of a multifactor authentication setup by assessing the proximity of the devices to each other. It is more so if the devices are communicating to each other behind the same Wi-Fi access point or Ethernet switch. This concept would be to prove that both devices are effectively being controlled by the same user.

It can also work as an alternative to Bluetooth or NFC as a device-to-device link for a transcription-free multi-factor authentication setup if you are thinking of two devices that are able to connect to a network via Wi-Fi. This is more so where the issue of phishing of multi-factor authentication setups involving the transcription of a one-time passcode has been raised.

Discovery of devices in the same network

The same concept can also be examined in the context of interlinking between devices that exist on the same network or even determining one’s “home” domain in the context of AV content rights. In some ways, the concept could also be about tokenised login for online services where a user’s credentials are held on one device like a smartphone but a session-based token is passed to another device like a set-top box to facilitate login from that device.

It is a practice that has been used with UPnP and Bonjour technologies primarily for device and content discovery. The most obvious situation would be to use Apple AirPlay or Google Chromecast to throw content to the big screen from a compatible mobile device. It also works in the same context when you set up and use a network-based printer from your computer or smartphone.

Across-the-room discovery and mutual-user authentication

Another use case this concept can apply to is “across-the-room” device discovery and mutual-user authentication. This would be used for data transfer, social networks or online gaming where you intend to share a resource with someone you talked with, invite them as a friend / follower in a social network or engage them in an online game.

Proof of presence at a particular location

Use of a logical network’s attributes can be a tool for proving one’s presence at a particular location. This is more so where the Internet service for that network is being provided using a wired-broadband or fixed-wireless-broadband approach for its last-mile, like with most home and business networks. It may not work with “Mi-Fi” setups where a mobile broadband network is being implemented for the last-mile connection.

Here, it could be used for time-and-attendance purposes including “proof of presence” for home-based carers. Or it could be used to conditionally enable particular functionality like app-based on-premises food-and-beverage ordering at a venue. To the same extent, it could be used to protect delivery services against orders that were instigated at one location being sent to another location.

Methods

Both devices existing on the same network

In a premises-specific network like most small networks, testing that both devices are on the same subnet / logical network behind the same gateway device (router) could be a way to attest that both devices are in the same premises. The same test can be performed by the use of a “hop count” on Layer 3 of the OSI network-layer tree, which also determines the number of logical networks passed.

It is a method used with a wide range of network-based AV and printing applications to constrain the discovery and control of devices by controller software to what is local to you.

But assessing whether the two devices are connecting to the same access point on a Wi-Fi network can be used to attest whether both devices are in the same room in a large Wi-Fi setup. It may not work in a network setup where different devices connect to a network using different connection media like Ethernet, Wi-Fi Wireless or HomePlug powerline. This also includes situations where multiple access points cover the same room or floor such as with large rooms or open-plan areas.

Another approach that can be used for Wi-Fi hotspot networks honouring the Hotspot 2.0 / Passpoint setup would be to read the “venue” metadata for that network and compare whether both devices are in the same venue. If this technology is able to support subdividing of a logical venue such as based on floors or rooms, this could work as a way of further attesting whether both devices are in close proximity.

A Wi-Fi wireless network can be attested through the use of the BSSID which identifies the same access point that the devices are connecting through or the ESSID which is the network’s “call sign”. The BSSID could be used for a public hotspot network including a “hotzone” network ran by a local government or ISP,or a large network that uses many access points while the ESSID approach could be used simply for a small network with a few access points.

Trusted networks with authentication certificates

On the other hand, there could be the concept of creating “trusted networks” where authentication certificates relating to the network are stored in the network’s gateway device or in infrastructure devices associated with that network. It could be used to work against man-in-the-middle attacks as well as a stronger approach to attesting trust between the client device and the network it proposes to access.

The initial appeal for this concept could be to attest the authenticity of a business’s network especially in the face of business partners or customers who want to use that network as a gateway to the Internet or use the host business’s resources.

It could have some appeal to the food, beverage and hospitality industry where particular cafes and bars are often seen by individuals and workgroups as favoured hangouts. In this context, if an individual wants to use the Wi-Fi public-access network in their favourite “watering hole” or “second office”, the “trusted network” approach can be used to verify to the customer that they have connected to the venue’s network at the venue to avoid “man-in-the-middle” attacks.

This approach is being implemented with the Wi-Fi Passpoint / Hotspot 2.0 technology to provide for the simple yet secure public-access Wi-Fi network.

The same approach can be used with a home network if the router can store data like digital certificates in onboard non-volatile memory. Then this data could be created by the ISP as a “known trusted network” with a network-specific certificate relating to the router and network equipment. Such a service could be offered by an ISP as a value-added service especially to cater for “proof-of-presence” applications.

Conclusion

Using a logical network as a data-security attribute can be effective as a security tool for some use cases. With current network equipment, this can be a surefire way of assessing device proximity.to other devices. But use of certificates stored on network-infrastructure devices like routers and provided by ISPs or similar entities can be of use for authenticated-network or proof-of-presence applications.

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Cross-platform online game leaderboards–how about it?

Lenovo Yoga Tab Android tablet

Playing that game on a mobile tablet or..

Most video and computer games nowadays implement an online leaderboard as part of the way they operate. They typically require you to log in to the leaderboard to persist game data “in the cloud”, support social gameplay including discovering newer opponents or the maintenance of challenges and leaderboards so players can compete against each other on the game.

Game studios tend to write their own leaderboard that is specific to that game’s needs but the game-distribution platforms are running their own leaderboards to offer this same functionality to all studios and games.

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

a smartphone or..

It typically leads to a game-recommendation engine to recommend games similar to what you play a lot, subscription-driven gameplay or digital software locker functionality for the titles, typically to keep you with that platform. In some cases, they offer a means to measure your prowess as a gameplayer or as a specialist in particular game types, typically to match you with opponents of a particular skill level in that kind of game.

The leaderboards offered by the distribution platforms make it feasible for a small-time or indie studio to have this functionality without the game developer having to create a leaderboard and rent the necessary server space by themselves.

Sony PS4

a games console like the Sony PS4 or ..

But there is a reality for users who play the same game title across multiple platforms. It is highlighted through someone owning or regularly using computing devices based on different platforms for gameplay such as a “gaming rig” that runs Windows 10, a smartphone that could either run iOS or Android, and perhaps a mobile-platform tablet running either iOS or Android along with a set-top box or games console. The set-top box situation is very real as an increasing number of set-top and smart-TV platforms like the Apple TV or the “décodeurs” offered by French telcos as part of their “n-box” triple-play platforms within France are moving towards the kind of performance associated with games consoles.

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation clamshell Ultrabook

a laptop like the Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation clamshell Ultrabook or ..

Increasingly, it encourages game studios to port titles to many different platforms but there has to be an approach that allows the player to carry the online experience between the platforms. At the moment, Facebook has achieved the goal of a cross-platform leaderboard but it requires players to be part of this social network which may put some people off the idea due to the various controversies about this Silicon Valley giant. Facebook’s leaderboard supports “provisioning” from one’s Facebook account along with support for native and Web-based games.

Microsoft has extended their XBox Live leaderboard beyond the XBox One games console and Windows 10 computers by providing limited support for iOS and Android mobile platforms. But this is focused towards a Windows 10 or XBox One setup as your main gaming platform.

Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

a set-top device like the Apple TV should lead towards you keeping score and matching opponents on one or more cross-platform online leaderboards

What needs to happen is an effort towards a truly platform-independent gaming leaderboard that facilitates cross-platform gameplay and appeals to multiple game developers and distributors. It has to appeal to a userbase and developer-base that wants to stay away from large social-media powerhouses who see users’ data as the new gold.

A key feature would be to provide support for native-coded and Web-coded games including the newer Progressive Web App games. This is more so as independent game studios work on “free-to-play” games that are written as Web-coded games for play in a Web browser as well as being ported in a native-coded form to iOS and Android mobile platforms. As well, the Progressive Web App is being pitched as a “write once run anywhere” app solution for mobile, tablet and desktop computing.

XBox leaderboard app in Windows 10

The expected functionality would include:

  • the ability to persist gameplay data and scores in the cloud
  • support for challenges and leaderboards including allowing venues, sponsors and others who partner with the game developer to run their own challenges
  • social gaming with opponent discovery on a local and global basis, in-game chat on a one-to-one or party-line basis, and gift exchange for in-game items like microcurrency or game lives.

The leaderboard would have to be child-safe according to established norms and protocols like requirement of parental permission for signing in or participating in sponsored challenges, and support for minimum ages.

Google Play Games app

Google Play Games – the online leaderboard for the Android platform

The issue of allowing venues and marketers to use the leaderboard to run their own challenges may be of concern to some people who want a life free from marketers and commercialism. But there are people who want to build a tighter relationship with the brands that they value and allow these brands to participate in their online life. Similarly, some games studios may associate with various popular brands to underscore their players’ relationship with these brands and as a monetisation tool.

As well, user privacy would need to be valued in many different ways like user discovery or game-chat access. It also includes whether a notification about gaming accomplishments or level-up scenarios should be shared on to outside social networks, which social networks should be used and who should see this information.

It also includes the ability to provide a single-sign-on experience that can work with a wide variety of credential pools. This is important where a user maintains a set of personal credentials with multiple different credential pools like Apple ID for iOS, MacOS and Apple TV devices; Facebook; Microsoft Account for Windows 10 and XBox One; and Google for Android and ChromeOS.  The reason this can happen is due to playing the same game across the multiple platforms.

This could be a goal for companies who are behind content-streaming services, IP-telephony services and the like to engage in if they do want to diversify their offerings. European companies could even jump on the bandwagon especially if they want to tout their end-user privacy and data-security prowess.

What needs to happen is for the games studios to gain access to one or more highly-capable cross-platform game leaderboards so that users can play the games and benefit from leaderboard or game-recommendation functionality no matter the platform they use without being required to “reinvent the wheel”.

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Using Bluetooth as part of the hybrid radio concept

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio – a representative of the current trend towards the “hybrid radio” concept

Previously, I have covered the concept of “hybrid radio” which is being put forward by RadioDNS. This is about integrating the reception of audio-based radio content from a radio station either through the traditional analogue or digital broadcast technologies or through the Internet.

It is based on the common Internet-radio application where traditional radio stations transmit a simulcast of their broadcast output as an Internet stream. You would experience this with an app like TuneIn Radio or by using an Internet radio, of which I have reviewed many. This has been used to listen to overseas radio stations by those of us who like the “vibe” of a particular country or to learn a new language, but has been used as a way to hear a national radio station that isn’t received in one’s local area, a situation that is common in rural Australia.

It is intended to provide automatic switching to an Internet-based simulcast of the radio station if you are out of the reception area for a broadcast transmitter and you can’t be “handed over” to a better transmitter’s output of the same station. It is also underscored by the concept of a “single-dial” tuning approach to select stations without worrying which broadcast methodology they are using, whether traditional or Internet-based. here is also the availability of richer metadata that can be shown on screens that support rich graphic displays along with an electronic programme guide for radio broadcasts.

This functionality is dependent on the radio having Internet connectivity of some sort. It is typically with the set being equipped with Wi-Fi or Ethernet connectivity for use on a small network, or a car radio being equipped with a mobile-broadband modem provisioned with mobile-broadband service.

This may not work properly with enterprise or public-access networks that require authentication beyond a Wi-Fi passphrase or WPS-PBC setup or we have to make sure the mobile-broadband service is provisioned for the car radio that we are using in the way the radio expects. This was something I had come across when someone posted a question about attempting to use the Internet capabilities of the Sony CMT-MX750Ni Internet-capable bookshelf music stereo system with a “headline” public-access Wi-Fi network in the place they were living in.

As well, the Internet connectivity is offered by consumer-electronics manufacturers as a product differentiator with it typically ending up on the premium products in the range. Similarly, some manufacturers want to steer clear of Internet-connectivity as a feature for their consumer-electronics product ranges.

But an increasing number of radio sets and audio equipment are implementing Bluetooth technology typically to allow streaming of audio content from mobile devices paired with the set. In the car-audio scene, this is to facilitate a safe hands-free telephone setup that allows the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

Smartphones or tablets could be used to provide “hybrid-radio” functionality

The RadioDNS hybrid-radio concept could be extended to the Bluetooth link by a standard application-level class or profile for the Bluetooth specification. Here, this would work in conjunction with a computing device that runs companion “hybrid-radio” software and is linked to the radio via Bluetooth in order to enable full “hybrid-radio” functionality.

This could allow for broadcast station selection using the companion device or the display of rich metadata for the currently-listened-to station on the companion device’s display irrespective of the source of the metadata. This would be of benefit to those sets that can’t show rich graphic metadata such as what DAB+ or Digital Radio Mondiale are capable of.

The concept cam make use of the voice-driven home assistants like Amazon Echo or Google Home for many options. Here, it would exploit the idea of having a device like Amazon Echo or Google Home provide the Bluetooth – Internet bridge to your small Wi-Fi network and play network-hosted or Internet-hosted audio content through the radio’s speaker. It would be important where the radio’s amplifier and speaker does a better job at reproducing music compared to what the Amazon Echo or Google Home device.

… as could devices like the Lenovo Smart Display

For example, you could ask Alexa or Google Assistant to select a station and the local broadcast signal will then play. Or if you use something like Google Home Hub, you could have the station’s audio coming through the radio while a graphically-rich interface for that station appears on the Home Hub’s screen.

What RadioDNS needs to look towards is the idea of using Bluetooth or similar peripheral-level connections as a way of allowing a companion computing device to facilitate hybrid radio functionality for equipment or use environments that don’t support integrated Internet connectivity.

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Are we at an era where the smartphone is the new “idiot box”?

The TV era TV, VHS videocassette recorder and rented video movies

From the late 1960s through to the 2000s, the television was seen by some people as a time-waster. This was aggravated through increasingly-affordable sets, the existence of 24-hour programming, a gradually-increasing number of TV channels competing for viewership, remote controls and private broadcasters including many-channel pay-TV services.

It led to an increasing number of users concerned about various idle and unhealthy TV-viewing practices. Situations that were often called out included people dwelling on poor-quality content offered on commercial free-to-air or pay-TV channels such as daytime TV;  people loafing on the couch with the remote control in their hand as they idly change channels for something to watch, known as “flicking” or channel-surfing; along with parents using the TV as an “electronic babysitter” for their children.

Even technologies like videocassette recorders or video games consoles didn’t improve things as far as the critics were concerned. One talking point raised during the early 1990s was the ubiquity and accessibility of violent video content through local video stores with this leading to imitative behaviour.

We even ended up with the TV set being referred to as an “idiot box”, “boob tube” or similar names; or people who spend a lot of time watching TV idly having “square eyes” or being “couch potatoes”. Some people even stood for “TV-free” spaces and times to encourage meaningful activity such as for example not having a set installed at a weekender home.

There was even some wellness campaigns that were tackling unhealthy TV viewing. One of these was the “Life Be In It” campaign ran by the Australian governments during the late 1970s.  This campaign was centred around a series of animated TV “public-service-announcement” commercials (YouTube – example about walking) featuring a character called “Norm”, which showed different activities one could be engaging in rather than loafing in the armchair watching TV non-stop.

The rise of the personal computer, Internet and smartphones

The 1980s saw the rise of increasingly-affordable personal-computing power on the home or business desktop with these computers gaining increasing abilities over the years. With this was the rise of games written for these computers including some “time-waster” or “guilty-pleasure” games like Solitaire or the Leisure Suit Larry games.

During the late 1990s and the 2000s, the Internet came on board and gradually offered resources to the personal computer that can compete with the TV. This was brought about with many interesting Websites coming online with some of these sites running participant forums of some form. It also had us own our own email address as a private electronic communications channel.

Also, by the mod 1990s, most Western countries had implemented deregulated competitive telecommunications markets and one of these benefits was mobile telephony service that was affordable for most people. It also led to us being able to maintain their own mobile telephone service and number, which also lead to each one of us effectively having our own private connection. This is rather than us sharing a common connection like a landline telephone number ringing a telephone installed in a common area like a kitchen or living room.

The smartphone and tablet era

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

The smartphone is now being seen as the “new TV”

But since the late 2000s the Internet started to head down towards taking the place of TV as a centre of idle activity. This was driven through the existence of YouTube, instant messaging and social media, along with increasingly-portable computing devices especially highly-pocketable smartphones and tablets or small laptops able to be stuffed in to most right-sized hand luggage, alongside high-speed Internet service available through highly-affordable mobile-broadband services or ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks.

Issues that were underscored included people looking at their phones all day and all night to check their Facehook activity, watching YouTube clips or playing games and not talking with each other; smartphone anxiety where you have to have your phone with you at all times including bringing it to the dinner table, and the vanity associated with the social-media selfie culture. Sometimes browsing the Social Web including YouTube ended up being seen as today’s equivalent of watching the low-grade TV offerings from a private TV broadcaster. Let’s not forget how many of us have played “Candy Crush Saga” or “Angry Birds” on our smartphones as a guilty pleasure.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

Or the iPad being used to browse around the Social Web and watch YouTube

This issue has come to the fore over the last few years with concepts like “digital detoxification”, an interest in Internet-free mobile-phone devices including “one-more-time” takes on late-90s / early-2000s mobile-phone designs, mobile operating systems having functionality that identifies what you are spending your time on heavily, amongst other things.

Educators are even regarding the time spent using a computing device for entertainment as the equivalent of idly watching TV entertainment and make a reference to this time as “screen time”. This is more so in the context of how our children use computing devices like tablets or smartphones.

Recently, France and the Australian State of Victoria have passed regulations to prohibit the use of smartphones by schoolchildren in government-run schools with the former proscribing it in primary and early-secondary (middle or junior high) levels; and the latter for primary and all secondary levels.

Even smartphone manufacturers have found that the technology has hit a peak with people not being interested in the latest smartphones due to them not being associated with today’s equivalent of idle TV watching. This may lead to them taking a more evolutionary approach towards smartphone design rather than heavily investing in ewer products.

What it has come down to

How I see all of this is the existence of an evolutionary cycle affecting particular forms of mass media and entertainment. It is especially where the media form allows for inanity thanks to the lack of friction involved in providing or consuming this kind of entertainment. As well, the ability for the producer, distributor or user to easily “shape” the content to make a “fairy-tale” existence where the “grass is always greener” or to pander to our base instincts can expose a media platform to question and criticism.

In some cases, there is an ethereal goal in some quarters to see the primary use of media and communications for productive or educational purposes especially of a challenging nature rather than for entertainment. It also includes reworking the time we spend on entertainment or casual communications towards something more meaningful. But we still see the lightweight entertainment and conversation more as a way to break boredom.

UPDATE: I have inserted details about France and Australia banning smartphones in schools especially in relationship to the smartphone ban announced by the Victorian State Government on 26 June 2019.

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