Category: Commentary

Use of DVB-I and similar technologies to provide radio and TV over Internet-based infrastructure

ABC News 24 coronavirus coverage

Traditional TV and radio could be delivered via the same means as the Internet

A direction that we are expecting to see for broadcast radio and TV technology is to stream it via Internet-based technologies but assure users of a similar experience to how they have received content delivered this way.

It is about being able to use the agile wired and wireless Internet technologies like 5G mobile broadband, fibre-to-the-premises, fixed-wireless broadband; and Ethernet and Wi-Fi wireless local area networks to deliver this kind of content.

What is the goal here

The goal here is to provide traditional broadcast radio and TV service through wired or wireless broadband-service-delivery infrastructure in addition to or in lieu of dedicated radio-frequency-based infrastructure.

The traditional radio-frequency approach uses specific RF technologies like FM, DAB+, DVB and ATSC to deliver audio or video content to radio and TV receivers. This can be terrestrial to a rooftop, indoor or set-attached antenna referred to in the UK and most Commonwealth countries as an aerial; via a cable system through a building, campus or community; or via a satellite where it is received using special antennas like satellite dishes.

The typical Internet-Protocol network used for Internet service uses different transport media, whether that be wired or wireless. It can be mobile broadband receivable using a mobile phone; a fixed setup like fibre-to-the-premises, fixed wireless or fibre-copper setups. As well, such networks typically include a local-area network covering a premises or building that is based on Ethernet, Wi-Fi wireless, HomePlug or G.Hn powerline, or similar technologies.

The desireable user experience

TV remote control

It will maintain the traditional remote-control experience like channel surfing

It also is about providing a basic setup and use experience equivalent to what is expected for receiving broadcast radio and TV service using digital RF technologies. This includes “scanning” the wavebands for stations to build up a station directory of what’s available locally as part of setting up the equipment; using up/down buttons to change between stations or channels; keying in “channel numbers” in to a keypad to select TV channels according to a traditional and easy-to-remember channel numbering approach; using a “last-channel” button to flip between two different programmes you are interested in; and allocating regularly-listened-to stations to preset buttons so you have them available at a moment’s notice.

This has been extended to a richer user experience for broadcast content in many ways. For TV, it has extended to a grid-like electronic programme guide which lists what is showing now or will be shown in the coming week on all of the channels so you can switch to a show that you like to watch or have that show recorded. For radio, it has been about showing more details about what you are listening to like the name of that song you are listening to for example. Even ideas like prioritising or recording the news or traffic announcements that matter or selecting content by type has also become another desireable part of the broadcast user experience.

Relevance of traditional linear broadcasting today

There are people who cast doubt on the relevance of traditional linear broadcast media and its associated experiences in this day and age.

This is brought about through the use of podcasts, Spotify-like audio streaming services, video-on-demand services and the like who can offer a wider choice of content than traditional broadcast media.

But some user classes and situations place value upon the traditional broadcast media experience. Firstly, Generation X and prior generations have grown up with broadcast media as part of their life thanks to affordable sets with a common user experience and an increasing number of stations or channels being available. Here, these users are often resorting to broadcast media for casual viewing and listening with a significant number of these users recording broadcast material to enjoy again on their own terms.

Then there is the reliance on traditional broadcast media for news and sport. This is due to the ability to receive up-to-date facts without needing to do much. Let’s not forget that some users rely on this media experience for discovery of content curated by someone else like staff at a TV channel or a radio station rather than an online service’s content-recommendation engine. Even the on-air talent is valued by a significant number of listeners or viewers as personalities in their own right because of how they present themselves on radio or TV.

Access without traditional radio-frequency infrastructure

TV aerial and satellite dish on house roof

DVB-I and allied technologies may reduce reliance on RF infrastructure like TV aerials or satellite dishes

One of these goals here is to allow access to traditional broadcast radio and TV without being dependent on particular radio-frequency infrastructure types and reception conditions. This can encompass someone to offer a linear broadcast service with all the trappings of that service but not needing to have access to RF-based broadcast technologies like a transmitter.

To some extent, it could be a method to use the likes of SpaceX Starlink or 5G mobile broadband to deliver radio and TV service to rural and remote areas. This could come in to its own where the goal is to provide the full complement of broadcasting services to these areas.

It also is encompassing a situation happening with cable-TV networks in some countries where these networks are being repurposed purely for cable-modem Internet service. As well, some neighbourhoods don’t take kindly to satellite dishes popping up on the roofs or walls of houses, seeing them as a blight. Here, multi-channel pay-TV operators have had to consider using Internet-based delivery methods to bring their services to potential customers without facing these risks.

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 tablet

Or a mobile platform tablet could run software to pick up TV broadcasts via the Internet

Let’s not forget that IP-based data networks are being seen as a way to extend the reach of traditional broadcast services in to parts of a building that don’t have ready access to a reliable RF signal or traditional RF infrastructure. This may be due to it being seen as costly or otherwise prohibitive to extend a master-antenna TV setup to a particular area or to install a satellite dish, TV aerial or cable-TV connection to a particular house.

In the portable realm, it extends especially to smartphones or mobile-platform tablets even where these devices may have a broadcast-radio or TV tuner. But broadcast reception using these tuners only becomes useful if you plug a wired headset in to the mobile device’s headset jack, because of a long-standing design practice with Walkman-type personal radio devices where the headset cable is the device’s FM or DAB+ antenna. Here, the smartphone could use mobile broadband or Wi-Fi for broadcast-radio reception if you use its speaker or a Bluetooth headset to listen to the radio.

Complementing traditional radio infrastructure

SAT>IP concept diagram

What SAT>IP is about with satellite TV – broadcast-LAN content distribution

In the same context, it is also being considered as a different approach to providing “broadcast-to-LAN” services where broadcast signals are received from radio infrastructure via a tuner-server device and streamed in to a local-area network. This could allow the client device to choose the best source available for a particular channel or station.

But even the “broadcast-to-LAN” approach can be improved upon by providing an equivalent user experience to a traditional RF-based broadcast setup. It would benefit buildings or campuses with a traditional aerial or satellite dish installed at the most optimum location but use Ethernet cabling, Wi-Fi wireless or similar technologies including a mixture of such technologies to distribute the broadcast signal around the development.

As well, some of these setups may be about mixing the traditional broadcast channels and IP-delivered content in to a form that can be received with that traditional broadcast user experience. Or it can be about seamlessly switching between a fully-Internet-delivered source and the broadcast stream provided by a broadcast-LAN server to the local network that is providing Internet service. This can cater towards broadcast-LAN setups based around devices that don’t have enough capacity to serve many broadcast streams.

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio – an example bringing broadcast radio via RF and Internet means

Even a radio or TV device could maintain a traditional user-experience while content is delivered over both traditional RF infrastructure and Internet-based infrastructure. This could range from managing a situation where an alternative content stream is offered via the Internet while the main content is offered via the station’s traditional RF means. Or it could be about independent broadcast content being broadcast without the need to have access to RF infrastructure or spectrum.

Similarly, some digital-broadcast operators are wanting to implement networks typically used for Internet service delivery as a backhaul between a broadcaster’s studios and the transmitter. Here, it is seen as a cost-effective approach due to a reduced need to create an expensive pure-play wired or wireless link to the transmitter. Rather they can rely on a business-grade Internet service with guaranteed service quality standards for this purpose.

Even a master-antenna system that is set up to provide a building’s or development’s occupants access to broadcast content via RF coaxial-cable infrastructure could benefit this way. This could be about repackaging broadcasters’ content from Internet-based links offered by the broadcasters in to a form deliverable over the system’s RF cable infrastructure rather than an antenna or satellite dish to bring radio and TV to that system. It could be also seen as a way to insert extra content for that development through this system such as a health TV channel for hospitals or a tourist-information TV channel for hotels.

How is this approach being taken

Here, a broadcast-ready linear content stream or a collection of such streams that would be normally packaged for a radio-frequency transport is repackaged for a data network working to IP-compliant standards. This can be done in addition to packaging that content stream for one or more radio-frequency transports.

This approach is built on the idea of the ISO OSI model of network architecture where top-level classes of protocols can work on many different bottom-level transports, with this concept being applied to broadcast radio and TV.

The IP-based network / Internet transport approach can allow for a minimal effort approach to repackaging the broadcast stream or stream collection to an RF transport. A use case that this would apply to is using a business-standard Internet service as a backhaul for delivering radio or TV service to multiple transmitters.

It is different from the Internet-radio or “TV via app” approach where there is a collection of broadcasters streamed via Internet means. But these setups rely primarily on online content directories operated by the broadcasters themselves or third parties like TuneIn Radio or Airable.net. These setups don’t typically offer broadcast-like user experiences like channel-surfing or traditional channel-number entry.

At the moment, the DVB Group who have effectively defined the standards for digital TV in Europe, Asia, most of Africa, and Oceania have worked on this approach through the use of DVB-I (previous coverage on this site) and allied standards for television. This is in addition to the DVB Home Broadcast (DVB-HB) standard released in February this year to build upon SAT-IP towards a standardised broadcast-to-LAN setup no matter the RF bearer.

Similarly, the EBU have worked on the HRADIO project to apply this concept to DAB+ digital radio used for radio services in Europe and Oceania at least.

Another advantage that is also being seen is the ability for someone to get “on the air” without needing to have access to radio-frequency spectrum or be accepted by a cable-TV or satellite-TV network. This may appeal to international broadcasters or to those offering niche content that isn’t accepted by the broadcast establishment of a country.

What is it also leading to

This is leading towards hybrid broadcast and broadband content-delivery approaches. That is where content from the same broadcaster is delivered by RF and Internet means with the end user using the same user experience to select the online or RF-broadcast content.

One use case is to gain access to supplementary content from that broadcast via the Internet no matter whether the viewer or listener enjoys the broadcaster through an RF-based means or through the Internet. This could be prior episodes of the same show or further information about a concept put forward in an editorial program or a product advertised on a commercial.

For radio, this would be about showing up-to-date station branding alongside show names and presenter images. If the show is informational, there would be rich visual information like maps, charts, bullet lists and the like to augment the spoken information.

If it is about music, you would see reference to the title and artist of what’s playing perhaps with album cover art and artist images. For classical music where people think primarily of a work composed by a particular composer, this may be about the composer and the work, perhaps with a reference to the currently-playing movement. Operas and other musical theatre may have the libretti being shown in real time to the performance.

In all music-related cases, there may be the ability to “find out more” on the music and who is behind it or even to buy a recording of that music, whether as physical media like an LP record or CD, or as a download-to-own file.

For TV content, this would be about a rich experience for sports, news, reality and similar shows. For example, the Seven Network created an improved interactive experience for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics by using 7Plus to provide direct access to particular sports types during the Games.  A true hybrid setup on equipment with a broadcast tuner would allow a user to select Channel 7 or 7Mate for standard broadcast feeds using the 7Plus user experience with the broadcast feeds supplied by the broadcast tuner or the Internet stream depending on the signal quality.

Issues to consider

There are issues that will be raised where broadcast radio and TV are delivered over Internet infrastructure with the goal of a broadcast-like user experience.

One of these is to assure users don’t pay extra costs for this kind of reception compared to delivery by RF-based means. Here, these Internet-based broadcast setups would have to be “zero-rated” so that users don’t incur data costs on metered Internet services like mobile broadband. Add to this a common issue with rural areas where Internet service quality wouldn’t be reliable enough to provide the same kind of user experience as traditional RF-based broadcast reception.

As well, broadband infrastructure providers would need to assure transparent access to Internet-based broadcast setups so that users have access to standard broadcasters without being dependent on service from particular retail ISPs or mobile carriers. It may also be about making sure that one can receive broadcast content with the broadcast user experience anywhere in a typical local network.

Another factor to be considered as far as DVB-I or similar technologies are concerned is whether this impacts on content providers’ liabilities regarding broadcast rights for music and sports content. Here, some sports leagues or music copyright collection bodies consider Internet-based distribution as different from traditional broadcast media and add extra requirements on this distribution approach.

It can be about availability of content beyond the broadcaster’s home country, in a manner to contravene a blackout requirement or to provide a competing source of availability to the one who has exclusive rights for that territory. It is also similar to “grey-importing” of music rather than acquiring it through official distribution channels, that also leads to bringing in content not normally available in a particular country.

These issues may be answered through a framework of various legal protections and universal-service obligations associated with providing free-to-air broadcast content. It would be driven more so by countries who have a strong public-service and/or commercial free-to-air broadcast lobby.

Conclusion

Internet-based technologies are effectively being seen as a way to extend the reach of or improve upon the broadcast-media experience without detracting from its familiar interaction approaches. This is thanks to research in to technologies that are about repackaging broadcast signals for an RF transport in a manner for Internet use.

How could CD-quality lossless audio be marketed when it comes to streaming

Sony MAP-S1 network CD receiver

A strong direction for music streaming services is to offer CD-quality sound for all of their library at least

Apple, Amazon and Spotify are lining up or have lined up hi-fi-grade service tiers as part of their audio-streaming services. It is in response to Tidal and Deezer already offering this kind of sound quality for a long time along with the fear of other boutique audio-streaming services setting up shop and focusing on high-quality audio.

Now there is something interesting happening here regarding hi-fi-grade streaming. Here, Apple is having a CD-grade lossless-audio service as part of their standard premium subscription while making sure all music available to their Apple Music streaming service is CD-quality.

So how could these streaming music services compete effectively yet serve those of us who value high quality sound from those online music jukebox services that we use?

What are these hi-fi-grade digital audio services about?

Spotify Windows 10 Store port

This will be something that is expected of Spotify at least

The hi-fi-grade service tiers typically offer a sound quality similar to that of a standard audio CD that you are playing on your CD player, with the same digital-audio specifications i.e. 44.1 kHz sampling rate and 16-bit samples representing stereo sound. Some of these services may offer some content at 48 kHz sampling rate that was specified for the original DAT audio tapes and may be used as a workflow standard for digital radio and TV.

In the same way that a regular audio CD stores the audio content in the original uncompressed PCM form, these hi-fi-grade streaming services use a lossless data-compression form similar to the FLAC audio filetype to transmit the sound while preserving the sound quality. That is equivalent to how a ZIP “file-of-files” works in compressing and binding together data from multiple files.

CD-grade digital audio was adopted during the late 1980s as the benchmark for high-quality sound reproduction in the consumer space. As well, the DAT tapes that recorded 16-bit PCM audio at 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling rates were considered the two-channel recording standard for project studios and similar professional audio content-creation workflows. It is although MiniDisc which used a lossy audio codec caught on in the UK and Japan for personal audio applications.

Some of these services offer extras like surround-sound or object-based audio soundmixes or supply the audio at “master-grade” specifications like 96 or 192 kHz sampling rates or 24 or more bits per sample. But these are best enjoyed on equipment that would properly reproduce the sound held therein to expectations. This is while most good audio equipment engineered since the 1970s was engineered to work capably with the audio CD as its pinnacle.

The provision of these hi-fi-grade services is having appeal thanks to telcos and ISPs offering increased bandwidth and data allowances for fixed and mobile broadband Internet services. This is more so in markets where there is increased competition for the customer’s fixed or mobile Internet service dollar.

As well, there is a highly-competitive market war going on between Bose, Apple and Sony at least for high-quality active-noise-cancelling Bluetooth headsets with the possibility of other headset manufacturers joining in this market war. This is something very close to the late-1970s Receiver Wars where hi-fi companies were vying with each other for the best hi-fi stereo receivers for one’s hi-fi system and increasing value for money in that product class.

Here, a streaming music service that befits these high-quality in-ear or over-the-head headsets could show what they are capable of when it comes to sound reproduction while on the road.

Let’s not forget that Apple and others are working on power-efficient hi-fi-grade digital-analogue-converter circuitry for laptops, tablets, smartphones and other portable audio endpoint devices. Then hi-fi-grade digital-analogue-conversion circuitry that connects to USB or Apple devices is being offered by nearly every hi-fi name under the sun whether as a separate box or as part of the functionality set that a hi-fi component or stereo system would offer.

Current limitations with enjoying hi-fi-grade audio on the move

There are limitations with this kind of service offering, especially with the use of Bluetooth Classic streaming to headphones or automotive infotainment setups from mobile devices. At the moment, it is being preferred that a wired connection, whether via a traditional analogue headphone cable or via an external digital-analogue converter box, is used to run the sound to a pair of good-quality headphones while “on the road”.

Similarly, Apple’s and Google’s smartphone-automotive-integration platforms need to be able to support use of these hi-fi-grade audio services properly so you can benefit from this class of sound when you are at the wheel of your car.

What could be done?

One step that can be taken by many music-streaming services is to create a service-level distinction between CD-quality stereo lossless audio service and create a higher-grade extra-cost audio services that focus on “master-grade” or multichannel soundmixes.  Here, most of us like our music in stereo sound and see CD quality sound as the pinnacle with equipment engineered to that calibre. This is while the esoteric audiophiles would invest in equipment and services that can handle master-grade audio or multichannel soundmixes.

The music services could them move towards offering the CD-quality stereo lossless sound as the audio quality for the standard paid service subscription. That includes moving the service’s music library towards that kind of quality. The user would need to have the ability to enable and disable the CD-quality lossless stereo sound on a device-by-device basis perhaps to cater for smartphone use or limited bandwidth.

Where a music service offers transactional “download-to-own” music, the recordings could be offered at CD quality stereo as lossless files. There could be the ability to provide a complementary download of previously-purchased material as the CD-quality stereo lossless files.

At the moment, there are a number of open-frame and proprietary paths that are able to use a home network to transmit CD-quality or master-quality lossless digital audio from a computing device or streaming audio service to audio endpoint devices within the home. But there needs to be more done to support mobile and portable setups where one is likely to hear audio files while out and about.

The Bluetooth SIG could investigate how CD-quality lossless audio can be sent wirelessly between devices using the various audio profiles that they oversee. This is more so as Bluetooth is used primarily to send multimedia audio from a smartphone or tablet to speakers, headphones or home and car audio equipment. Here, it could be based on their Bluetooth LE Audio specification which is being used to revise the Bluetooth multimedia audio use case effectively.

Similarly, the use of USB-C as a “digital audio path” from a computing device to an audio-output device needs to be encouraged. This would come in to its own with connecting to audio devices or systems that have highly-strung digital-analogue conversion circuitry which can come in to its own with high-quality audio streaming services.

In the automotive context, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto which are used to provide integrated smartphone-dashboard functionality could be improved to provide lossless audio transfer between the smartphone and the car’s infotainment system. This may be valued as a differentiator that can be applied to premium car-audio setups.

Once there are a list of standard protocols adopted for streaming lossless hi-fi grade stereo sound to headsets and automotive setups and that support wired and wireless connectivity, this could make proper CD-quality stereo sound more relevant on the road.

Jerusalema–now seen online as a song of hope

Articles

Jerusalema – could the South African dance craze be a symbol of hope? | Latest Ghanaian Music News & New Songs – Pulse Ghana

Jerusalema: The South African Song The World Needed (insider54.com)

How South Africa’s ‘Jerusalema’ Became a World Hit Without Translation – Rolling Stone

Where to get this song online

Songwhip link – availability on streaming or download-to-own services (7”single equivalent)

Beatport (download-to-own music service pitched at DJs) – 7” single equivalent

Qobuz Store (hi-fi-grade download-to-own music service – Now in Australia and New Zealand) – 7″ single equivalent

There is an album of the same name and recorded by the same artist featuring this song as an “album-length” track. It is available as an LP record or as a CD. You can get this at Amazon or your favourite record store may have a copy of it on hand or can order it for you if you want it playing on your turntable or CD player.

Jerusalema Dance Challenge video examples

Jerusalema Challenge – Aussies in Iso (Click or tap to play on YouTube)

My Comments

Over this past year, a South-African song with Zulu lyrics ended up becoming a musical symbol of hope through this COVID season.

This song, “Jerusalema”, was recorded in 2019 by Master KG but when it appeared online in 2020 along with a set of associated dance moves, it became very popular. There were a series of dance challenges where individuals or groups of people performed the dance associated with this song and uploaded music videos of their performances.

It was all concurrent at the time when the COVID-19 coronavirus plague was an unknown quantity and governments implemented measures to limit the spread of this virus. Such measures manifested in the form of border and travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and lockdowns; mask-wearing and social-distancing mandates; amongst other things.

At the same time, there was Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro who were treating this pandemic with contempt and creating disdain against these necessary public health restrictions and the medical-research races for treatments and vaccines. Even the act of honouring one or more of these public-health measures became politically-charged within the USA.

It was also aggravated by the death of George Floyd at the hands of American police offices which brought on the Black Lives Matter protest movement. This movement also highlighted how divisive things were within the USA when it came to civil rights and the treatment of marginalised minorities in that country and was aggravated by Donald Trump’s behaviour during the protests.

The song, its music and the associated dances conveyed a comfortable “feel-good” vibe along with a thread that unites the various communities of people whether “over-the-wire” using the Internet or face-to-face where the various restrictions allowed it. This helped with boosting public moral through this season. There was also a celebration of the survivors and of survival.

Let’s not forget the Zulu-language lyrics and the associated melody were conveying a message of escapism from the continuing barrage of bad news we were facing. This is very much like how other catchy popular music songs played by oneself during hard times can be seen as a form of escapism.

As well, “Jerusalema” has caused us to show interest in Afrobeat and placed Africa on the popular-music map. This follows on from the way African-heritage diasporas have contributed to popular music over the past century and a bit through the form of jazz, funk, soul, disco and similar musical styles along with musical techniques like rapping and breakdancing.

YouTube and similar services are replete with videos of these dance challenges done by various groups of people. There are even some European airlines who have had aircrew groups perform this dance and make a video in the name of the airline as a way of saying that we will be back in the air again. The Irish Gardai national police and the Swiss federal police each had some officer teams within their forces create similar videos as an effort to boost public morale within their nations.

There are also some videos existing on YouTube about how to perform the dance routine associated with this song. These resources can be worth referring to if you want to know how to perform the dance.

“Jerusalema” and its associated dance routine will be seen in the same light as some of those songs which had or acquired their own dance routines that market out particular years or eras. Think of songs like “YMCA” by the Village People; “Forever” by Chris Brown with its wedding-dance video; “Macarena” by Los Del Rio; or “Vogue” by Madonna.

But it will also continue to be seen as a song of hope for the COVID-19 season just like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” became a song of hope through the 1970s or John Lennon’s “Imagine” being a song of hope through the Vietnam War era.

Update (23 June 2021) – added link to where you can purchase “Jerusalema” from Qobuz

The Internet fridge–still considered very mythical

Samsung Family Hub Internet fridge lifestyle image courtesy of Samsung USASince the “dot-com” era of the late 1990s, there has been a very mythical home appliance often cited by Internet visionaries. This is the Internet fridge or “smart fridge” which is a regular household refrigerator equipped with Internet connectivity and a large built-in display.

It is expected to provide access to a wide range of online services like online shopping, online photo albums, email and messaging, and online music services. It is also expected to keep track of the food and drink that is held therein using a simple inventory-management program.

In the context of the smart home, the Internet fridge is expected to be a “dashboard” or “control surface” for lighting. heating and other equipment associated with the home. Often the vision for the smart home is to have as many control surfaces around the home to manage what happens therein like setting up HVAC operating temperatures or turning lighting on and off according to particular usage scenarios.

The Internet-fridge idea is based on the concept of the typical household refrigerator’s door ending up as the noticeboard for that household thanks to its role as the main food-storage location for the people and pets therein. There is the thriving trade in “fridge magnets” that people use to decorate their fridge’s door. Let’s not forget that some households have even put a radio or TV on top of the fridge that they can flick on for information or entertainment in the kitchen.

Who is making these appliances?

At the moment, Samsung and LG are making Internet-fridges in production quantities available to the market. These are typically positioned as American-style wide-format fridges that also have the integrated ice makers. Samsung offers theirs in a few different compartment configurations with the cheapest being a two-door fridge-freezer arrangement.

But most of the other white-goods manufacturers exhibit examples of these Internet fridges at trade fairs primarily as proof-of-concept or prototype designs. These are typically based on common fridge-freezer designs already on the market but are modified with Internet functionality.

But the Internet-fridge idea has not become popular with most people. Why is that so?

One issue is to do with the computer hardware associated with the Internet-fridge concept. These setups typically have a separate computer from the microcontroller circuitry associated with keeping the appliance’s compartments to the appropriate temperature or managing ice-maker or chilled-water functionality. But this computer hardware is effectively integrated in the appliance in a manner that makes it hard for users to upgrade to newer expectations.

This means that if this computer fails or gets to a point where it is “end-of-life”, the user loses the full functionality associated with the Internet fridge. The same thing can happen if, for example, the touchscreen that the user uses to interact with the Internet fridge’s online abilities fails to work.

It is underscored by the fact that a household refrigerator is in that class of appliance that is expected to serve a household for many years. As I have seen, many households will buy a new fridge when an old fridge fails to operate properly or when they are making a new house and want to upgrade their fridge. This is even though a lot of consumer IT equipment isn’t expected to provide that length of service thanks to rapidly-advancing technology.

Another factor is the software and online services associated with the Internet fridge. Typically this is engineered by the appliance manufacturer to provide the “branded experience” that the manufacturer wants to convey to the consumer.

The questions associated with the software focus around the appliance manufacturer’s continual attention to software security and quality over the lifetime of the Internet fridge. It includes protecting the end-users’ privacy as they use this appliance along with allowing the appliance to do its job properly and in a food-safe manner.

I would also add to this the competitive-trade issues associated with online services. Here, appliance manufacturers could easily create exclusive agreements with various online-service providers and not allow competing service providers access to the Internet-fridge platform. It can extend to online-shopping platforms that tie in with the inventory-management software associated with the Internet fridge platform.

Such exclusive partnerships with online service providers or online-shopping platforms will make it difficult for customers to use their preferred online-service or online-shopping platform with an Internet fridge. In the case of online-shopping platforms, it will become difficult for smaller, specialist or independent food suppliers to participate in these platforms especially if the platform has “tied up” a significant customer base. That can be achieved with excessive fees and charges or onerous terms and conditions for the merchants.

Let’s not forget that the Internet fridge ended up, like the Aeron-style office chair, being seen as a status symbol associated with the dot-com bubble.

For that matter, householders are using alternative approaches to the same goal touted by the Internet-fridge suppliers. Here, they are using smart speakers like Amazon Echo or Google Home or, if they are after a display-driven solution, they will use a smart display like Amazon Echo Show or a Google-Assistant-based smart display. Let’s not forget that the iPad or Android-based tablets are offering the idea of a ubiquitous control / display surface for the smart home.

What can be done to legitimise the Internet fridge as far as consumers are concerned?

As for the hardware, I would recommend a long-tailed approach which is focused on modularity. Here, newer computer, connection or display modules can be installed in the same fridge by the user or a professional as part of an upgrade approach. It could allow the appliance manufacturer to offer a cheaper range of standard-height household fridges that can be converted to Internet fridges at a later time when the user purchases and installs an “Internet display kit” on their appliance.

Furthermore, if the hardware or connectivity is of a standard form, it could allow a third-party vendor to offer this functionality on a white-label basis to appliance manufacturers who don’t necessarily want to reinvent the wheel. It can also apply to those appliance manufacturers who offer products in a “white-label” form under a distributor’s or retailer’s brand.

One approach I would recommend for software is access to ubiquitous third-party software platforms with a lively developer ecosystem like Android. The platforms should have an app store that maintains software quality. This means that users can install the software associated with what they need for their Internet fridge.

The problem that manufacturers may see with this approach is providing a user interface for controlling how the fridge operates such as setting the fridge, freezer or other compartment temperatures. Here, this could be facilitated by an app that runs as part of the Internet fridge’s display ecosystem. It may also be preferred to provide basic and essential control for the Internet fridge’s refrigeration and allied functionality independent of the Internet display functionality and create a secure firewall between those functions to assure food safety and energy efficiency.

Using open-frame approaches for building Internet-display functionality in to fridges may help with reducing the cost of this kind of functionality in these products. It could also encourage ubiquity in a low-risk form as well as encouraging innovation in this product class.

How about having an up-to-date recovery image on your computer

Dell XPS 13 press picture courtesy of Dell Australia

You need to have access to the latest data representing your computer’s operating system, device drivers and allied software from its manufacturer as a recovery image to simplify any repair / restore efforts or to get your “new toy” up and running as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Recent computers that run MacOS or Windows now come with a partition on their hard disk or SSD that has a copy of the operating system and other software they come with the computer “out of the box”. Or there is the ability to download a recovery image for your computer from the manufacturer’s Website using a manufacturer-supplied app.

It is in lieu of the previous method of delivering an optical disc with the computer that has the operating system and other manufacturer0-supplied software thanks to newer computers not being equipped with optical drives.

Here, this recovery data comes in to play if the operating system fails and you have to reinstate it from a known good copy. An example of this could be the computer being taken over by malware or you need to get it back to “ground zero” before relinquishing it. Or the system disk (hard disk or SSD) fails and you have to put the operating system on a new system disk as part of reconstructing your computing environment.

But Microsoft, Apple and the hardware manufacturers associated with your computer’s internal peripherals update their software regularly as part of their software quality control. There are often the feature updates that add functionality or implement newer device-class drivers that are part of an operating system’s lifecycle.

What typically happens is this recovery image represents the software that came with your computer when it left the factory. It doesn’t include all the newer updates and revisions that took place. Here, if you have had to restore the operating system from that recovery image, you will then have to download the updates from your computer’s manufacturer, the operating system vendor or other software developers to have your computer up-to-date.

The firmware / BIOS updates may not matter due to them being delivered as a “download-to-install” package. This means that when these packages are run, they verify and shift the necessary firmware code to the BIOS / UEFI subsystem for the computer or the firmware subsystems for peripherals supported by the computer’s manufacturer, then subsequently commence and install the installation process.

Questions that can be raised include whether the factory-supplied data should be maintained as the definitive “reference data” for your system. Or whether the computer manufacturer is to provide a means to keep the software up-to-date with the latest versions for your computer.

This will be an issue with manufacturers who prefer to customise the software drivers that run hardware associated with their computer products while end-users prefer to run the latest software drivers offered by the hardware’s manufacturer. This is typically due to the hardware manufacturer’s code being updated more frequently and is of concern with display chipsets like Intel’s integrated-graphics chipsets.

Similarly there is the issue that people are likely to change the software edition that comes with their computer like upgrading to a “Pro” edition of the Windows operating system when the computer came with the Home edition.

An approach that a manufacturer can take over a computer system’s lifetime is to revise the definitive “reference data” set for that system. This could be undertaken when the operating system undergoes a major revision like a feature update. This can be about taking stock of the device drivers and updating them to newer stable code as part of offering the latest “reference data” set.

That allows a user who is doing an operating-system recovery doesn’t need to hunt for and download updates as part of this process if they want the computer running the latest code.

This kind of approach can also come in to its own during the time that the computer system is on the market. It means that during subsequent years, newer computer units receive the latest software updates before they leave the factory. This is so that the computer’s end-user or corporate IT department don’t have to download the latest versions of the operating system, device drivers and other software as part of commissioning their new computer system.

The idea of computer manufacturers keeping their products’ software-recovery data current will benefit all of us whether we are buying that new computer and want to get that “new toy” running or need to reinstate the operating software in our computers due to hardware or software failures.

Chapter marking within podcasts

Android main interactive lock screen

Smartphones are facilitating our listenership to podcasts

As we listen to more spoken-word audio content in the form of podcasts and the like, we may want to see this kind of audio content easily delineated in a logical manner. For that matter, such content is being listened to as we drive or walk thanks to the existence of car and personal audio equipment including, nowadays, the “do-it-all” smartphones being connected to headphones or car stereos.

This may be to return to the start of a segment if we were interrupted so we really know where we are contextually. Or it could be to go to a particular “article” in a magazine-style podcast if we are after just that article.

Prior attempts to delineate spoken-word content

In-band cue marking on cassette

Some people who distributed cassette-based magazine-style audio content, typically to vision-impaired people, used mixed-in audio marking recorded at high speed to allow a user to find articles on a tape.

This worked with tape players equipped with cue and review functionality, something that was inconsistently available. Such functionality, typically activated when you held down the fast-forward or rewind buttons while the tape player was in play mode, allowed the tape to be ran forward or backward at high speed while you were able to hear what’s recorded but in a high-pitch warbling tone.

With this indexing approach, you would hear a reference tone that delineated the start of the segment in either direction. But if you used the “cue” button to seek through the tape, you would also hear an intelligible phrase that identified the segment so you knew where you were.

Here, this function was dependent on whether the tape player had cue and review operation and required the user to hold down the fast-wind buttons for it to be effective. This ruled out use within car-audio setups that required the use of locking fast-wind controls for safe operation.

Index Marking on CDs

The original CD Audio standard had inherent support for index marking that was subordinate to the track markers typically used to delineate the different songs or pieces. This was to delineate segments within a track such as variations within a classical piece.

Most 1980s-era CD players of the type that connected to your hi-fi system supported this functionality. This was more so with premium-level models and how they treated this function was markedly different. The most basic implementation of this feature was to show the index number on the display after the track number. CD players with eight-digit displays showed the index number as a smaller-sized number after the track number while those with a four or six-digit display had you press the display button to show the track number and index number.

Better implementations had the ability to step between the index marks with this capability typically represented by an extra pair of buttons on the player’s control surface labelled “INDEX”. Some more sophisticated CD players even had direct access to particular index numbers within a track or could allow you to program an index number within a track as part of a user-programmed playlist.

As well, some CDs, usually classical-music discs which feature long instrumental works that are best directly referenced at significant points made use of this feature. Support for this feature died out by the 1990s with this feature focused on marking the proper start of a song. It was considered of importance with live recordings or concept albums where a song or instrumental piece would segue in to another one. This was of importance for the proper implementation of repeat, random (shuffle) play or programmed-play modes so that the song or piece comes in at the proper start.

There was an interest in spoken-word material on CD through the late 1990s with the increase in the number of car CD players installed in cars. This was typically in the form of popular audiobooks or foreign-language courseware and car trips were considered a favourite location for listening to such content. But these spoken-word CDs were limited to using tracks to delineate chapters in a book or lessons within a foreign-language course.

But CD-R with the ability to support on-site short-run replication of limited-appeal content opened the door for content like religious sermons or talks to appear on the CD format. This technology effectively “missed the boat” when it came to support for index marking and most CD-burning software didn’t allow you to place index marks within a track.

The podcast revolution

File-based digital audio and the Internet opened the door to regularly-delivered spoken-word audio content in the form of podcasts. These are effectively a radio show that is in an audio file available to download. They even use RSS Webfeeds to allow listeners to follow podcasts for newer episodes.

Here, podcast-management or media-management software automatically downloads or enqueues podcast episodes for subsequent listening, marking what is listened to as “listened”. Some NAS-based DLNA servers can be set up to follow podcasts and download them to the NAS hard disk as new content, creating a UPnP-AV/DLNA content tree out of these podcasts available to any DLNA-compliant media playback device.

The podcast has gained a strong appeal with small-time content creators who want to create what is effectively their own radio shows without being encumbered by the rules and regulations of broadcasting or having to see radio stations as content gatekeepers.

The podcast has also appealed to radio stations in two different ways. Firstly, it has allowed the station’s talent to have their spoken-word content they broadcast previously available for listeners to hear again at a later time.

It also meant that the station’s talent could create supplementary audio content that isn’t normally broadcast but available for their audience, thus pushing their brand and that of the station further. This includes the creation of frequently-published short-form “snack-sized” content that may allow for listening during short journeys for example.

Secondly a talk-based radio station could approach a podcaster and offer to syndicate their podcast. That is to pay for the right to broadcast the podcast on their radio station in to the station’s market. It would appeal to radio stations having programming that fills in schedule gaps like the overnight “graveyard shift”, weekends or summer holidays while their regular talent base isn’t available. But it can also be used as a way to put a rising podcast star “on the map” before considering whether to have them behind the station’s microphone.

Why chapter marking within podcasts?

A lot of podcast authors typically ran their shows in a magazine form, perhaps with multiple articles or segments within the same podcast. As well, whenever one gave a talk or sermon, they would typically break it down in to points to make it clear to their audience to know where they are. But the idea of delineating within an audio file hasn’t been properly worked out.

This can benefit listeners who are after a particular segment especially within a magazine-style podcast. Or a listener could head back to the start of a logical point in the podcast when they resume listening so they effectively know where they are at contextually.

This can also appeal to ad-supported podcast directories like Spotify who use radio-style audio advertising and want to insert ads between articles or sections of a podcast. The same applies to radio stations who wish to syndicate podcasts. Here they would need to pause podcasts to insert local time and station-identity calls and, in some cases, local advertising spots or news bulletins.

Is this feasible?

The ID3 2 standard which carries metadata for most audio file formats including MP3, AAC and FLAC supports chapter marking within the audio file. It is based around a file-level “table of contents” which determine each audio chapter and can even have textual and graphical descriptions for each chapter.

There is also support for hierarchical table of contents like a list of “points” within each content segment as well as an overall list of content segments. Each of the “table of contents” has a bit that can indicate whether to have each chapter in that “table of contents” played in order or whether they can be played individually. That could be used by an ad-supported podcast directory or broadcast playout program to insert local advertising between entries or not.

What is holding it back?

The main problem with utilising the chapter markers supported within ID3.2 is the lack of proper software support both at the authoring and playback ends of the equation.

Authoring software available to the average podcaster provides inconsistent and non-intuitive support for placing chapter markers within a podcast. This opens up room for errors when authoring that podcast and enabling chapter marking therein.

As well, very few podcast manager and media player programs recognise these chapter markers and provide the necessary navigation functionality. This could be offered at least by having chapter locations visible as tick marks on the seek-bar in the software’s user interface and, perhaps allowing you to hold-down the cue and review buttons to search at the previous or next chapter.

Better user interfaces could list out chapters within a podcast so users can know “what they are up to” while listening or to be able to head to the segment that matters in that magazine-style podcast.

Similarly, the podcast scene needs to know the benefits of chapter-marking a podcast. In an elementary form, marking out a TED Talk, church sermon or similar speech at each key point can be beneficial. For example, a listener could simply recap a point they missed due to being distracted thus getting more value out of that talk. If the podcast has a “magazine” approach with multiple segments, the listener may choose to head to a particular segment that interests them.

Conclusion

The use of chapter marking within podcasts and other spoken-word audio content could make this kind of content easier to deal with for most listeners. Here, it is more about searching for a particular segment within the podcast or beading back to the start of a significant point therein if you were interrupted so you can hear that point in context.

How regional next-generation infrastructure providers enable competitive Internet service

Previous Coverage

Gigaclear fibre-optic cable - picture courtesy of Gigaclear

Gigaclear – laying their own fibre-to-the-premises within a rural area in the UK

What is happening with rural broadband in the UK

Further Comments

In some countries like the UK, Australia and Germany, regional broadband infrastructure providers set up shop to provide next-generation broadband to a particular geographic area within a country.

This is used to bring next-generation broadband technology like fibre-to-the-premises to homes and businesses within that geographic area. But let me remind you that fibre-to-the-premises isn’t the only medium they use — some of them use fixed wireless or a fibre-copper setup like HFC cable-modem technology or fibre + Ethernet-cable technology. But they aren’t using the established telephone network at all thus they stay independent of the incumbent infrastructure provider and, in some areas like rural areas, that provider’s decrepit “good enough to talk, not good enough for data” telephone wiring.

In the UK especially, most of these operators will target a particular kind of population centre like a rural village cluster (Gigaclear, B4RN, etc), a large town or suburb (Zzoom), city centres (Cityfibre, Hyperoptic, etc) or even just greenfield developments. Some operators set themselves up in multiple population centres in order to get them wired up for the newer technology but all of the operators will work on covering the whole of that population centre, including its outskirts.

This infrastructure may be laid ahead of the incumbent traditional telco or infrastructure operator like Openreach, NBN or Deutsche Telekom or it may be set up to provide a better Internet service than what is being offered by the incumbent operator. But it is established and maintained independently of the incumbent operator.

Internet service offerings

Typically the independent regional broadband infrastructure providers run a retail Internet-service component available to households and small businesses in that area and using that infrastructure. The packages are often pitched to offer more value for money than what is typically offered in that area thanks to the infrastructure that the provider controls.

But some nations place a competitive-market requirement on these operators to offer wholesale Internet service to competing retail ISPs, with this requirement coming in to force when they have significant market penetration.That is usually assessed by the number of actual subscribers who are connected to the provider’s Internet service or the number of premises that are passed by the operator’s street-level infrastructure. In addition, some independent regional infrastructure providers offer wholesale service earlier as a way to draw in more money to increase their footprint.

This kind of wholesale internet service tends to be facilitated by special wholesale Internet-service markets that these operators are part of. Initially this will attract boutique home and small-business Internet providers who focus on particular customer niches. But some larger Internet providers may prefer to take an infrastructure-agnostic approach, offering mainstream retail Internet service across multiple regional service providers.

Support by local and regional government

Local and regional governments are more likely to provide material and other support to these regional next-generation infrastructure operators. This is to raise their municipality’s or region’s profile as an up-to-date community to live or do business within. It is also part of the “bottom-up” approach that these operators take in putting themselves on the map.

In a lot of cases, the regional next-generation infrastructure providers respond to tenders put forward by local and regional governments. This is either to provide network and Internet service for the government’s needs or to “wire up” the government’s are of jurisdiction or a part thereof for next-generation broadband.

Legislative requirements

There will have to be legislative enablers put forward by national and regional governments to permit the creation and operation of regional next-generation broadband network infrastructure. This could include the creation and management of wholesale-broadband markets to permit retail-Internet competition.

There is also the need to determine how much protection a small regional infrastructure operator needs against the incumbent or other infrastructure operators building over their infrastructure with like offerings. This may be about assuring the small operator sufficient market penetration in their area before others come along and compete, along with providing an incentive to expand in to newer areas.

It will also include issues like land use and urban planning along with creation and maintenance of rights-of-way through private, regulated or otherwise encumbered land for such use including competitors’ access to these rights-of-way.

That also extends to access to physical infrastructure like pits, pipes and poles by multiple broadband service providers, especially where an incumbent operator has control over that infrastructure. It can also extend to use of conduits or dark fibre installed along rail or similar infrastructure expressly for the purpose of creating data-communications paths.

That issue can also extend to how multiple-premises buildings and developments like shopping centres, apartment blocks and the like are “wired up” for this infrastructure. Here, it can be about allowing or guaranteeing right of access to these developments by competing service providers and how in-building infrastructure is provided and managed.

The need for independent regional next-generation broadband infrastructure

But if an Internet-service market is operating in a healthy manner offering value-for-money Internet service like with New Zealand there may not be a perceived need to allow competing regional next-generation infrastructure to exist.

Such infrastructure can be used to accelerate the provision of broadband within rural areas, provide different services like simultanaeous-bandwidth broadband service for residential users or increase the value for money when it comes to Internet service. Here, the existence of this independent infrastructure with retail Internet services offered through it can also be a way to keep the incumbent service operator in check.

Should videoconference platforms support multiple devices concurrently

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

The idea of a Zoome or similar platform user joining the same videoconferences frp, multiple devices could be considered in some cases

Increasing when we use a videoconferencing platform, we install the client software associated with it on all the computing devices we own. Then we log in to our account associated with that platform so we can join videoconferences from whatever device we have and suits our needs.

But most of these platforms allow a user to use one device at a time to participate in the same videoconference. Zoom extends on this by allowing concurrent use of devices of different types (smartphone, mobile-platform tablet or regular computer) by the same user account on the same conference.

But why support the concurrent use of multiple devices?

There are some use cases where multiple devices used concurrently may come in handy.

Increased user mobility

Dell Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 - viewer arrangement at Rydges Melbourne (Locanda)

especially with tablet computers and 2-in-1s located elsewhere

One of these is to assure a high level of mobility while participating in a videoconference. This may be about moving between a smartphone that is in your hand and a tablet or laptop that is at a particular location like your office.

It can also be about joining the same videoconference from other devices that are bound to the same account. This could be about avoiding multiple people crowding around one computing device to participate in a videoconference from their location, which can lead to user discomfort or too many people appearing in one small screen in a “tile-up” view of a multiparty videoconference. Or it can be about some people participating in a videoconference from an appropriate room like a lounge area or den.

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 tablet

like in a kitchen with this Lenovo Yoga Tab Android tablet

Similarly, one or more users at the same location may want to simply participate in the videoconference in a passive way but not be in the presence of others who are actively participating in the same videoconference. This may simply be to monitor the call as it takes place without the others knowing. Or it could be to engage in another activity like preparing food in the kitchen while following the videocall.

As far as devices go, there may be the desire to use a combination of devices that have particular attributes to get the most out of the videocall. For example, it could be about spreading a large videoconference across multiple screens such as having a concurrent “tile-up” view, active speaker and supporting media across three screens.

Or a smartphone could be used for audio-only participation so you can have the comfort of a handheld device while you see the participants and are seen by them on a tablet or regular computer. As well, some users may operate two regular computers like a desktop or large laptop computer along with a secondary laptop or 2-in-1 computer.

Support for other device types by videoconferencing platforms

.. or a smart display like this Google-powered Lenovo smart display

Another key trend is for videoconferencing platforms to support devices that aren’t running desktop-platform or mobile-platform operating systems.

This is exemplified by Zoom providing support for popular smart-display platforms like Amazon Echo Show or Google Smart Display. It is although some of the voice-assistant platforms that offer smart displays do support videocall functionality on platforms own by the voice-assistant platform’s developer or one or more other companies they are partnering with.

Or Google providing streaming-vision support for a Google Meet videoconference to a large-screen TV via Chromecast. It is something that could reinvigorate videoconferencing on smart-TV / set-top box platforms, something I stand for so many people like a whole family or household can participate in a videoconference from one end. This is once factors like accessory Webcams, 10-foot “lean-back” user interfaces and the like are worked out.

It can also extend to the idea of voice-assistant platforms extending this to co-opting a smart speaker and a device equipped with a screen and camera to facilitate a videoconference.  This could be either with you hearing the videoconference via the smart speaker or the display device’s audio subsystem.

What can be done to make this secure for small accounts?

There can be security and privacy issues with this kind of setup with people away from the premises but operating the same account being able to join in a videoconference uninvited. Similarly, a lot of videoconferencing platforms who offer a service especially to consumers may prefer to offer this feature as part of their paid “business-class” service packages.

One way to make this kind of participation secure for a small account would be to use logical-network verification. This is to make sure that all devices are behind the same logical network (subnet) if there is a want for multiple devices to participate from the same account and in the same videoconference. It may not work well with devices having their own modem such as smartphones, tablets or laptops directly connected to mobile broadband or people plugging USB mobile-broadband modems in to their computers. Similarly, it may not work with public-access or guest-access networks that are properly configured to avoid devices discovering each other on the same network.

Similarly, device-level authentication, which could facilitate password-free login can also be used to authenticate the actual devices operated by an account. A business rule could exist to place a limit on the number of devices of any class but operated by the same consumer account able to concurrently join a videoconference at any one time. This could realistically be taken to five devices allowing for the fact that a couple or family may prefer to operate the same account across all the devices owned by the the members of that group, rather than have members maintain individual accounts just bound .

Conclusion

The idea of allowing concurrent multiple-device support for single accounts in a videoconference platform when it comes to videoconference participation is worth considering. This can be about increased mobility or user comfort or to cater towards the use of newer device types in the context of videoconferencing.

Why do I defend Europe creating their own tech platforms?

Previous Coverage on HomeNetworking01.info Map of Europe By User:mjchael by using preliminary work of maix¿? [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Europeans could compete with Silicon Valley when offering online services

How about encouraging computer and video games development in Europe, Oceania and other areas

My Comments

Regularly I keep an eye out for information regarding efforts within Europe to increase their prowess when it comes to business and personal IT services. This is more so as Europe is having to face competition from the USA’s Silicon Valley and from China in these fields.

But what do Europeans stand for?

Airbus A380 superjumbo jet wet-leased by HiFly at Paris Air Show press picture courtesy of Airbus

Airbus have proven that they are a valid European competitor to Boeing in the aerospace field

What Europeans hold dear to their heart when it comes to personal, business and public life are their values. These core values encompass freedom, privacy and diversity and have been build upon experience with their history, especially since the Great Depression.

They had had to deal with the Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin dictatorships especially with Hitler’s Nazis taking over parts of European nations like France and Austria; along with the Cold War era with Eastern Europe under communist dictatorships loyal to the Soviet Union. All these affected countries were run as police states with national security forces conduction mass surveillance of the populace at the behest of the dictators.

The EU’s European Parliament summed this up succinctly on their page with Europeans placing value on human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. It is underscored in a pluralistic approach with respect for minority groups.

I also see this in the context of business through a desire to have access to a properly-functioning competitive market driven by publicly-available standards and specifications. It includes a strong deprecation of bribery, corruption and fraud within European business culture, whether this involves the public sector or not. This is compared to an “at-any-cost” approach valued by the USA and China when it comes to doing business.

As well, the European definition of a competitive market is the availability of goods or services for best value for money. This includes people who are on a very limited budget gaining access to these services in a useable manner that underscores the pluralistic European attitude.

How is this relevant to business and consumer IT?

Nowadays, business and consumer IT is more “service-focused” through the use of online services whether totally free, complementary with the purchase of a device, paid for through advertising or paid for through regular subscription payments. Increasingly these services are being driven by the mass collection of data about the service’s customers or end-users with people describing the data as being the “new oil”.

Examples of this include Web search engines, content hosting providers like YouTube or SoundCloud, subscription content providers, online and mobile gaming services, and voice-driven assistants. It also includes business IT services like cloud-computing services and general hosting providers that facilitate these services.

Europeans see this very differently due to their heritage. Here, they want control over their data along with the ability to participate in a competitive market that works to proper social expectations. This is compared to business models operated by the USA and China that disrespect the “Old World’s” approach to personal and business values.

The European Union have defended these goals but primarily with the “stick” approach. It is typically through passing regulations like the GDPR data-protection regulations or taking legal action against US-based dominant players within this space.

But what needs to happen and what is happening?

What I often want to see happen is European companies build up credible alternatives to what businesses in China and the USA are offering. Here, the various hardware, software and services that Europe has to offer respects the European personal and business culture and values. They also need to offer this same technology to individuals, organisations and jurisdictions who believe in the European values of stable government that respects human rights including citizen privacy and the rule of law.

What is being done within Europe?

Spotify Windows 10 Store port

Spotify – one of Europe’s success stories

There are some European success stories like Spotify, the “go-to” online subscription service that is based in Sweden as well as a viable French competitor in the form of Deezer, along with SoundCloud which is an audio-streaming service based in Germany.

Candy Crush Saga gameplay on Windows 10

Candy Crush Saga – a European example of what can be done in the mobile game space

A few of the popular mobile “guilty-pleasure” games like Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds were developed in Europe. Let’s not forget Ubisoft who are a significant French video games publisher who have set up studios around the world and are one of the most significant household names in video games. Think of game franchiese like Assassin’s Creed  or Far Cry which are some of the big-time games that this developer had put out.

Then Qwant appeared as a European-based search engine that creates its own index and stores it within Europe. This is compared to some other European-based search engines which are really “metasearch engines” that concatenate data from multiple search engines including Google and Bing.

There have been a few Web-based email platforms like ProtonMail surfacing out of Switzerland that focus on security and privacy for the end-user. This is thanks to Switzerland’s strong respect for business and citizen privacy especially in the financial world.

Freebox Delta press photo courtesy of Iliad (Free.fr)

The Freebox Delta is an example of a European product running a European voice assistant

There are some European voice assistants surfacing with BMW developing the Intelligent Personal Assistant for in-vehicle use while the highly-competitive telecommunications market in France yielded some voice assistants of French origin thanks to Orange and Free. Spain came in on the act with Movistar offering their own voice assistant. I see growth in this aspect of European IT thanks to the Amazon Voice Interopability Initiative which allows a single hardware device like a smart speaker to allow access to multiple voice-assistant

AVM FritzBox 7530 press image courtesy of AVM GmBH

The AVM FRITZ!Box 7530 is a German example of home network hardware with European heritage

Technicolor, AVM and a few other European companies are creating home network hardware typically in the form of carrier-supplied home-network routers. It is although AVM are offering their Fritz lineup of of home-network hardware through the retail channel with one of these devices being the first home-network router to automatically update itself with the latest patches. In the case of Free.fr, their Freebox products are even heading to the same kind of user interface expected out of a recent Synology or QNAP NAS thanks to the continual effort to add more capabilities in these devices.

But Europe are putting the pedal to the metal when it comes to cloud computing, especially with the goal to assure European sovereignty over data handled this way. Qarnot, a French company, have engaged in the idea of computers that are part of a distributed-computing setup yielding their waste heat from data processing for keeping you warm or allowing you to have a warm shower at home. Now Germany is heading down the direction of a European-based public cloud for European data sovereignty.

There has been significant research conducted by various European institutions that have impacted our online lives. One example is Frauhofer Institute in Germany have contributed to the development of file-based digital audio in both the MP3 and AAC formats. Another group of examples represent efforts by various European public-service broadcasters to effectively bring about “smart radio” with “flagging” of traffic announcements, smart automatic station following, selection of broadcasters by genre or area and display of broadcast-content metadata through the ARI and RDS standards for FM radio and the evolution of DAB+ digital radio.

But what needs to happen and may will be happening is to establish and maintain Europe as a significantly-strong third force for consumer and business IT. As well, Europe needs to expose their technology and services towards people and organisations in other countries rather than focusing it towards the European, Middle Eastern and Northern African territories.

European technology companies would need to offer the potential worldwide customer base something that differentiates themselves from what American and Chinese vendors are offering. Here, they need to focus their products and services towards those customers who place importance on what European personal and business values are about.

What needs to be done at the national and EU level

Some countries like France and Germany implement campaigns that underscore products that are made within these countries. Here, they could take these “made in” campaigns further by promoting services that are built up in those countries and have most of their customers’ data within those countries. Similarly the European Union’s organs of power in Brussels could then create logos for use by IT hardware and software companies that are chartered in Europe and uphold European values.

At the moment Switzerland have taken a proactive step towards cultivating local software-development talent by running a “Best of Swiss Apps” contest. Here, it recognises Swiss app developers who have turned out excellent software for regular or mobile computing platforms. At the moment, this seems to focus on apps which primarily have Switzerland-specific appeal, typically front-ends to services offered by the Swiss public service or companies serving Swiss users.

Conclusion

One goal for Europe to achieve is a particular hardware, software or IT-services platform that can do what Airbus and Arianespace have done with aerospace. This is to raise some extraordinary products that place themselves on the world stage as a viable alternative to what the USA and China offer. As well, it puts the establishment on notice that they have to raise the bar for their products and services.

Why do I see Thunderbolt 3 and integrated graphics as a valid option set for laptops?

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

The Dell XPS 13 series of ultraportable computers uses a combination of Intel integrated graphics and Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports

Increasingly, laptop users want to make sure their computers earn their keep for computing activities that are performed away from their home or office. But they also want the ability to do some computer activities that demand more from these machines like playing advanced games or editing photos and videos.

What is this about?

Integrated graphics infrastructure like the Intel UHD and Iris Plus GPUs allows your laptop computers to run for a long time on their own batteries. It is thanks to the infrastructure using the system RAM to “paint” the images you see on the screen, along with being optimised for low-power mobile use. This is more so if the computer is equipped with a screen resolution of not more than the equivalent of Full HD (1080p) which also doesn’t put much strain on the computer’s battery capacity.

They may be seen as being suitable for day-to-day computing tasks like Web browsing, email or word-processing or lightweight multimedia and gaming activities while on the road. Even some games developers are working on capable playable video games that are optimised to run on integrated graphics infrastructure so you can play them on modest computer equipment or to while away a long journey.

There are some “everyday-use” laptop computers that are equipped with a discrete graphics processor along with the integrated graphics, with the host computer implementing automatic GPU-switching for energy efficiency. Typically the graphics processor doesn’t really offer much for performance-grade computing because it is a modest mobile-grade unit but may provide some “pep” for some games and multimedia tasks.

Thunderbolt 3 connection on a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

But if your laptop has at least one Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port along with the integrated graphics infrastructure, it will open up another option. Here, you could use an external graphics module, also known as an eGPU unit, to add high-performance dedicated graphics to your computer while you are at home or the office. As well, these devices provide charging power for your laptop which, in most cases, would relegate the laptop’s supplied AC adaptor as an “on-the-road” or secondary charging option.

A use case often cited for this kind of setup is a university student who is studying on campus and wants to use the laptop in the library to do their studies or take notes during classes. They then want to head home, whether it is at student accommodation like a dorm / residence hall on the campus, an apartment or house that is shared by a group of students, or their parents’ home where it is within a short affordable commute from the campus. The use case typifies the idea of the computer being able to support gaming as a rest-and-recreation activity at home after all of what they need to do is done.

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

Razer Core external graphics module with Razer Blade gaming laptop

Here, the idea is to use the external graphics module with the computer and a large-screen monitor have the graphics power come in to play during a video game. As well, if the external graphics module is portable enough, it may be about connecting the laptop to a large-screen TV installed in a common lounge area at their accommodation on an ad-hoc basis so they benefit from that large screen when playing a game or watching multimedia content.

The advantage in this use case would be to have the computer affordable enough for a student at their current point in life thanks to it not being kitted out with a dedicated graphics processor that may be seen as being hopeless. But the student can save towards an external graphics module of their choice and get that at a later time when they see fit. In some cases, it may be about using a “fit-for-purpose” graphics card like an NVIDIA Quadro with the eGPU if they maintain interest in that architecture or multimedia course.

It also extends to business users and multimedia producers who prefer to use a highly-portable laptop “on the road” but use an external graphics module “at base” for those activities that need extra graphics power. Examples of these include to render video projects or to play a more-demanding game as part of rest and relaxation.

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module press picture courtesy of Sonnet Systems

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module – the way to go for ultraportables

There are a few small external graphics modules that are provided with a soldered-in graphics processor chip. These units, like the Sonnet Breakaway Puck, are small enough to pack in your laptop bag, briefcase or backpack and can be seen as an opportunity to provide “improved graphics performance” when near AC power. There will be some limitations with these devices like a graphics processor that is modest by “desktop gaming rig” or “certified workstation” standards; or having reduced connectivity for extra peripherals. But they will put a bit of “pep” in to your laptop’s graphics performance at least.

Some of these small external graphics modules would have come about as a way to dodge the “crypto gold rush” where traditional desktop-grade graphics cards were very scarce and expensive. This was due to them being used as part of cryptocurrency mining rigs to facilitate the “mining” of Bitcoin or Ethereum during that “gold rush”. The idea behind these external graphics modules was to offer enhanced graphics performance for those of us who wanted to play games or engage in multimedia editing rather than mine Bitcoin.

Who is heading down this path?

At the moment, most computer manufacturers are configuring a significant number of Intel-powered ultraportable computers along these lines i.e. with Intel integrated graphics and at least one Thunderbolt 3 port. A good example of this are the recent iterations of the Dell XPS 13 (purchase here) and some of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 family like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Of course some of the computer manufacturers are also offering laptop configurations with modest-spec discrete graphics silicon along with the integrated-graphics silicon and a Thunderbolt 3 port. This is typically pitched towards premium 15” computers including some slimline systems but these graphics processors may not put up much when it comes to graphics performance. In this case, they are most likely to be equivalent in performance to a current-spec baseline desktop graphics card.

The Thunderbolt 3 port on these systems would be about using something like a “card-cage” external graphics module with a high-performance desktop-grade graphics card to get more out of your games or advanced applications.

Trends affecting this configuration

The upcoming USB4 specification is meant to be able to bring Thunderbolt 3 capability to non-Intel silicon thanks to Intel assigning the intellectual property associated with Thunderbolt 3 to the USB Implementers Forum.

As well, Intel has put forward the next iteration of the Thunderbolt specification in the form of Thunderbolt 4. It is more of an evolutionary revision in relationship to USB4 and Thunderbolt 3 and will be part of their next iteration of their Core silicon. But it is also intended to be backwards compatible with these prior standards and uses the USB-C connector.

What can be done to further legitimise Thunderbolt 3 / USB4 and integrated graphics as a valid laptop configuration?

What needs to happen is that the use case for external graphics modules needs to be demonstrated with USB4 and subsequent technology. As well, this kind of setup needs to appear on AMD-equipped computers as well as devices that use silicon based on ARM microarchitecture, along with Intel-based devices.

Personally, I would like to see the Thunderbolt 3 or USB4 technology being made available to more of the popularly-priced laptops made available to householders and small businesses. It would be with an ideal to allow the computer’s user to upgrade towards better graphics at a later date by purchasing an external graphics module.

This is in addition to a wide range of external graphics modules available for these computers with some capable units being offered at affordable price points. I would also like to see more of the likes of the Lenovo Legion BoostStation “card-cage” external graphics module that have the ability for users to install storage devices like hard disks or solid-state drives in addition to the graphics card. Here, these would please those of us who want extra “offload” storage or a “scratch disk” just for use at their workspace. They would also help people who are moving from the traditional desktop computer to a workspace centred around a laptop.

Conclusion

The validity of a laptop computer being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 or similar port and an integrated graphics chipset is to be recognised. This is more so where the viability of improving on one of these systems using an external graphics module that has a fit-for-purpose dedicated graphics chipset can be considered.