Commentary Archive

Why I support multiple accounts with online media endpoints at home?

Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

The Apple TV set-top box – an example of a popular online-media platform

It is so easy to think of the idea of one person associated with an account-based online media service that is run on a commonly-used online media device. The classic example of this is a smart TV or set-top box that is installed in the main living room. It also extends to smart speakers, Internet radios and network-capable audio setups that work with various online audio content services.

There is a reality that many adults will end up using the same device like the aforementioned smart TV. But a lot of online-media services like Netflix, the broadcast video-on-demand services run by the free-to-air TV broadcasters or online audio services implement user-account-driven operation so customers benefit from their subscription or user-experience personalisation like “favourite shows” lists. With these smart TVs or similar devices, you can only associate the device with one user account for each of these services. This assumes that one person owns and operates the device.

Dish Joey 4K set-top box press picture courtesy of Dish Networks America

Set-top boxes connected to TVs in common areas are used by many people

It is although Apple has started work with having one Apple TV device work with multiple Apple ID user accounts, leading towards concurrent operation of these accounts in tvOS 13. But, at the moment, this only works with Apple-provided online services that are bound to end-users’ Apple IDs.

This reality is driven by the rise in multi-generational households with adult children living under the same roof as their parents. That has come about due to strong financial pressures on young people driven by costly housing in major cities, whether owned or rented. It goes along with that long-time adult reality of maintaining personal relationships under the same roof, while other adults end up staying at the home of another person they are friendly with as a temporary measure. As well, younger adults are increasingly living in share-houses in order to split their living costs easily amongst each other.

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

An online media account set up on a laptop, tablet or smartphone is typically set up for one user having exclusive use of that device

But a significant number of the accounts for the various online-media services are established on computing devices that are primarily or exclusively used by a single adult. Then a person may decide to register their online-media service account on a commonly-used online-media device to use their subscription or customisations there.

The problem that easily happens is that other people cannot operate their accounts for the same service on that same device thus losing the benefit of their customisations being valid at that device. Or if they do so, they have to complete a rigmarole of logging others out before they log in, with some services having a login procedure requiring you to enter usernames and passwords on the media device using that dreaded “pick-and-choose” method even if the service was set up using social sign-in.

What does the single account problem affect?

Netflix menu screen - favourites

Shows you have marked as “favourite” for your profile in your Netflix account

The situation can also affect the account that is associated with the commonly-used device in a number of ways. This is more so with the content recommendation engines that most online media services implement which help in the discovery of new content that may be of interest. The behaviour of these engines manifests in the form of a “recommended content” playlist that appears on the service’s homepage, the customer email that is sent out to each of the service’s customers with a list of recommended content or a content suggestion that appears at the end of content you were engaging with.

SBS On Demand - favourites screenshot

Another example of shows you have marked as favourite – this time on SBS On Demand

Here, you may have “steered” SBS On Demand’s content recommendation engine to bring up European thrillers due to you watching these shows. But someone else comes in with a penchant for, perhaps, Indian Bollywood content. They binge on episodes of this content and you end up with the recommended-content list diluted with Indian content.

SBS On Demand - recommendations screenshot

The recommended-content playlist like this one can be diluted when there is one account shared by many with different tastes like with SBS On Demand

Another area where this will affect is the list of favourite shows or currently-viewing series that these services keep. Here, you use these lists to identify where you are up to in a show or series you are viewing. Similarly, your member email may alert you to new seasons of your favourite series or if the show is to be removed from the service. But if you started working through a show or series on a computing device you exclusively use but want to continue it on the large-screen TV bound to someone else’s account, you won’t be able to do so unless you log in with your account to continue your viewing there.

In the same context, it doesn’t permit a user who is enjoying the content on the account associated with the commonly-used device to another device associated with their own account. This may be of concern if, for example, you commenced viewing of an episode of a binge-worthy series on the main TV in the house’s main living area but had to continue it on your 2-in-1 laptop in your bedroom because someone else wants to do something else.

Common workarounds

Using a setup like AirPlay, Chromecast or hard-wired connectivity to link your own computing device to the large-screen TV may be seen as a workaround for access to your account even if the set or main set-top device is associated with another account.

But this can yield problems like mobile devices not yielding a best-quality picture with a hard-wired connection or the existence of an Apple TV, Chromecast, Android TV setup or appropriate cable that is connected to the TV you want to use. Let alone it not being feasible to carry that desktop computer of yours around to the main TV to watch that Netflix show there using your account and its customisations. Or your smartphone or tablet going to sleep and interrupting your viewing due to it taking battery-conservation measures or simply running out of battery power.

You may find that connecting multiple set-top boxes or similar devices to the main TV with each one bound to different accounts may exist as another workaround. This is typically demonstrated by the use of a games console bound to its owner’s online media service accounts connected to a Smart TV that is bound to someone else’s online-media-service accounts.

But this can look very ugly, become less useable and you may not have enough HDMI ports on your TV or audio peripherals (soundbar, AV receiver) to cater for each set-top device bound to each individual household member’s accounts. It is made worse by most TVs having up to 3 HDMI inputs and most popularly-priced audio peripherals only having the one HDMI-ARC connection to the TV.

What can be done?

An online media service that works through a particular online media endpoint device could support multiple logins with the number being this side of 10.

Here, you could have an option to add or delete extra accounts to the online media-service interface as if you are managing your own account on that interface. The authentication process for adding accounts would be the same as for your own account, whether through supplying a username and password or transcribing an on-screen number in to the Website or mobile app for that service to enrol a limited-interface device.

A question that will come up is whether to have the accounts concurrently operating with the device exposing the customisations associated with each account on the same interface; or require the end-users to switch accounts for exclusive operation when they want to use their account.

Concurrent operation may be considered of relevance to, for example, a couple who watching their shows with each other whereas exclusive operation may come in to its own with an adult who watches their shows by themselves. This can also help with building out content recommendations or the online-media service keeping track of the popularity of a particular piece of content including how it is enjoyed.

What features can this add to online media consumption?

One feature would be the ability to easily enjoy the same content across different devices associated with your account, no matter whether they are exclusive to your account or not. This would benefit where you are working through the same content in different locations like hearing a playlist from that online music service in the car, or at home on the hi-fi; or watching that series on an iPad while you come home from work on the train then continuing it on the TV in the main lounge area at home.

Concurrent operation could also allow for an amalgamated content-choice experience, perhaps with separate menus or playlists for each person. It can extend to providing a list of common favourites or content recommendations that appeal “across the board”.

You also make sure that the content recommendations offered by the online media service reflect your content-consumption habits rather than be diluted by someone else’s choices. This is more so for music or video content that you enjoy and you want to discover similar content.

In some cases, you could have the ability to have the content-recommendation engine come up with content that appeals to the tastes represented by a group of accounts like a household rather than just one account. Such recommendations could be listed alongside account-specific recommendations lists.

Conclusion

What needs to be considered as the rise of online multimedia consumption occurs is the ability for multiple online media-service accounts to be used for the same service on the same device. This means that these services can work well with the reality of multiple-adult households such as couples or multi-generation households.

It then means that the service is personalised to each end-user’s tastes and the content recommendation system in these services reflects what they watch.

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The generation gap has its own digital divide

Article

Old lady making a video call at the dinner table press picture courtesy of NBNCo

Making the idea of new technologies familiar to the older generation needs to be done at a pace they are comfortable with.

Smartphones creating generational and income divide | ABC News

Broadcast

“Living On The Wrong Side Of The ‘Digital Divide’” – ABC Radio AM (Monday 18 November 2019 8:00am)
MP3 audio file

My Comments

The recent ABC Australia Talks National Survey looked at a wide range of issues including climate change and social respect. But one of the issues that is relevant to this Website is the issue of the digital divide.

This highlights how pervasive personal computing including use of online services and mobile computing devices like smartphones is amongst certain parts of the community. It also includes the issue of missing out on essential services due to not being able to or comfortable about using them the online way.

As it is often discovered, the digital divide potently affects the older generations but also affects people based on income due to access to the necessary technology. What has never been called out was whether the kind of work people do during their working life had affected their risk of falling victim to the digital divide.

The ubiquity of new technologies through one’s productive life

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook at Rydges Melbourne

It has taken a significant amount of time through the 1980s to the 2000s for the computer to be a mainstream tool in one’s productive life

A key factor that I have noticed is how much of one’s school or working life was spent using the technology and how quickly one adapted to newer technologies as they came in to being through their productive life. This is underscored through the evolution of personal computing technology including networked and online computing that took place through the 1980s to the 2000s. As well, the 2000s and 2010s brought about the idea of mobile personal computing thanks to smartphones and tablet computers used both personally and in the workplace.

The workplace

It became more potent in the workplace through the 1990s as computing power moved to the desktop in an affordable form and this brought about the change from the manual office that is based around typewriters, ledger books and card files to the highly-computerised office based around on-site desktop and server computers which handled word-processing, record-keeping and accounting tasks using computer software.

After the Australia Talks show, I had a follow-up conversation with an older man who worked in an office that was facing this transition revealed that his workplace’s accountant took a long time to adapt his accountancy skills to the highly-computerised office. Here, it was about being able to use the computer software to maintain an electronic equivalent of the ledger books.

Let’s not forget that a significant amount of blue-collar or public-facing work didn’t involve the use of computer technology. In some workplaces, specially-employed staff would collect or provide data to the blue-collar or public-facing workers as they needed it. If the worker ran their own business, they would be performing most of the record-keeping for their business the manual way.

The school

The same situation can be underscored through one’s school life before the 1990s where personal computing tended to play second fiddle. This would be about practices like a separate computer-studies lesson that would be taught in a computer lab equipped with personal computers. Other subjects typically required students to present their work in a handwritten form while teachers engaged in “talk and chalk” presentation techniques for most of their classes.

As well, investment in computer education tended to depend upon the whims of the powers that be that oversee the school, whether they be the school board or the government-based or church-based education authority that the school was accountable to. In some cases, it required private enterprise to “chip in” to provide the necessary capital for this kind of study.

After the 1990s, most schools encouraged the use of office software like word-processors, spreadsheets and presentation software as a teaching tool. This is along with the idea of seeing the computer as a tool to facilitate integrated learning and online research.

Being able to adapt to newer technologies

Let’s not forget that different people adapt to the newer technologies at a different pace. It includes whether they will deploy and encourage the use of that new technology to an area that they have oversight of and with what level of enthusiasm. This may be driven by factors including confidence, financial abilities or whether there is much support for that technology.

Some of use may be more keen in implementing newer technologies in our personal and productive lives, such as being “early adopters” of newer technology. Here, they will typically be interested in what new technologies come their way such as through reading journals, magazines and other material on that subject. This is typically said of younger people who tend to adapt very easily to newer social and other trends.

Similarly, some users have demonstrably wanted to adapt to the newer technologies using various methods such as class-based or self-paced training; and / or playing video games based on the new platform in order to make themselves comfortable with it.

Then there are others who will take a slower approach towards handling anything that is new. This may be due to avoiding being stuck with a trend that may be a “rooster one day, feather duster the next”. Similarly, it may be about waiting for the technology to become mature and affordable for most people before they take it up. Some users may even be very skeptical of any new trend that comes along especially if it is pushed on them. This is often said of mature or older people who are more settled in their ways regarding life.

Conclusion

There are many different reasons why there will be a generation-specific digital divide with the core one being about how much exposure they have to newer information technology through their school and working life.

To assist with this digital divide, there will need to be people within their family and community who can help them understand and utilise the various newer technologies that come their way. It can also be through the use of courses and other computer-literacy education tools that are pitched to this generation and its IT needs.

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What is infrastructure-level competition and why have it?

Fibre optic cable trench in village lane - press picture courtesy of Gigaclear

Gigaclear underscores the value of infrastructure-level competition

An issue that will be worth raising regarding the quality of service for newer high-speed fixed-line broadband services is the existence of infrastructure-level competition.

When we talk of infrastructure for a fixed-line Internet service, we are talking of copper and/or fibre-optic cabling used to take this service around a neighbourhood to each of the customers’ premises.

Then each premises has a modem of some sort, that in a lot of cases is integrated in the router, which converts the data to a form that makes it available across its network. A significant number of these infrastructure providers will supply the modem especially if they cannot provide a “wires-only” or “bring your own modem” service due to the technology they are implementing and, in a lot of these cases, will legally own the modem.

In Europe, Australia and some other countries, this broadband infrastructure is provided by an incumbent telco or an infrastructure provider and multiple retail-level telecommunications and Internet providers lease capacity on this infrastructure to provide their services to the end-user. This is compared to North America where an infrastructure provider exclusively provides their own retail-level telecommunications and Internet services to end users via their infrastructure.

In a lot of cases where multiple retail telecommunications and Internet providers use the same infrastructure, the incumbent telco may be required to divest themselves of their fixed-line infrastructure to a separate privately-owned or government-owned corporation in order to satisfy a competitive-service requirement. This means that they cannot provide a retail Internet or telecommunications service over that infrastructure at a cost advantage over competitors offering the same service over the same infrastructure. Examples of this include Openreach in the UK, NBN in Australia and Chorus in New Zealand.

A problem with having a dominant infrastructure provider is that there is a strong risk of this provider  offering to retail telecommunications providers and their end-users poor value for money when it comes to telecommunications and Internet services. It also can include this provider engaging in “redlining” which is the practice of providing substandard infrastructure or refusing to provide any infrastructure to neighbourhoods that they don’t perceive as being profitable like those that are rural or disadvantaged.

Some markets like the UK and France implement or encourage infrastructure-level competition where one or more other entities can lay their own infrastructure within urban or rural neighbourhoods. Then they can either run their own telecommunications and Internet services or lease the bandwidth to other companies who want to provide their own services.

Infrastructure-level competition

Where infrastructure-level competition exists, there are at least two different providers who provide street-based infrastructure for telecommunications and Internet service. The providers may run their own end-user telecommunications and Internet services using this infrastructure and/or they simply lease the bandwidth provided via this infrastructure to other retail Internet providers to provide these services to their customers.

Some competitors buy and use whatever “dark fibre” that exists from other previous fibre-optic installations to provide this service. Or they provide an enterprise communications infrastructure for government or big business in a neighbourhood but use dark fibre or underutilised fibre capacity from this job for offering infrastructure-level competition in that area.

As well, larger infrastructure operators who pass many premises in a market may be required to open up their infrastructure to telcos and Internet service providers that compete with their retail offering. This is something that ends up as a requirement for a highly-competitive telecommunications environment.

This kind of competition allows a retail-level telco or ISP to choose infrastructure for their service that offers them best value for money. This is more important for those retail-level ISPs and telcos who offer telecommunications and Internet to households and small businesses. As well, whenever a geographic area like a rural neighbourhood or new development is being prepared for high-speed broadband Internet, it means that the competing infrastructure providers are able to offer improved-value contracts for the provision of this service in that area.

Infrastructure-level competition also allows for the retail-level providers to innovate in providing their services without needing to risk much money in their provision. It can allow for niche providers such as high-performance gaming-focused ISPs or telcos that offer triple-play services to particular communities.

There is also an incentive amongst infrastructure providers to improve their customer service and serve neighbourhoods that wouldn’t otherwise be served. It is thanks to the risk of retail ISPs or their customers jumping to competitors if the infrastructure provider doesn’t “cut the mustard” in this field. As well, public spending on broadband access provision benefits due to the competition for infrastructure tenders for these projects.

What needs to happen

Build-over conditions

An issue commonly raised by independent infrastructure providers who are the first to wire-up a neighbourhood is the time they have exclusive access to that market. It is raised primarily in the UK by those independent infrastructure providers like Gigaclear or community infrastructure co-operatives like B4RN who have engaged in wiring up a rural community with next-generation fibre-optic broadband whether out of their pocket or with financial assistance from local government or local chambers of commerce.

This is more so where an established high-profile infrastructure provider that has big-name retail Internet providers on its books hasn’t wired-up that neighbourhood yet or is providing a service of lower capability compared to the independent provider who appeared first. For these independent operators, it is about making sure that they have a strong profile in that neighbourhood during their period of exclusivity.

Then, when the established infrastructure provider offers an Internet service of similar or better standard to the independent provider, the situation is described as a “build-over” condition. It then leads to the independent provider becoming a infrastructure-level competitor against the established provider which may impinge on cost recovery as far as the independent’s infrastructure is concerned. Questions that will come up include whether the independent operator should be compensated for loss of exclusivity in the neighbourhood, or allowing a retail ISP or telco who used the independent’s infrastructure to offer their service on the newcomer’s infrastructure.

Pits, Poles and Pipes

Another issue that will be raised is the matter of the physical infrastructure that houses the cable or fibre-optic wiring i.e. the pits, poles and pipes. These may be installed and owned by the telecommunications infrastructure provider for their own infrastructure or they may be installed and owned by a third-party operator like a utility or local council.

The first issue that can be raised is whether an infrastructure provider has exclusive access to particular physical infrastructure and whether they have to release the access to this infrastructure to competing providers. It doesn’t matter whether the infrastructure provider has their own physical infrastructure or gains access rights to physical infrastructure provided by someone else like a local government or utility company.

The second issue that also can crop up is access to public thoroughfares and private property to install and maintain infrastructure. This relates to legal access powers that government departments in charge of the jurisdiction’s regulated thoroughfares like roads and rails may provide to the infrastructure provider; or the wayleaves and easements negotiated between property owners and the infrastructure provider. In the context of competitive service, this may be about whether or not an easement, for example, is exclusive to a particular infrastructure provider.

Sustainable competition

Then there is the issue of sustainable competition within the area. This is where the competitors and the incumbent operator can make money by providing infrastructure-level Internet service yet the end-users have the benefits of a highly-competitive market. A market with too much competition can easily end up with premature consolidation where various retail or infrastructure providers cease to exist or end up merging.

Typically the number of operators that can sustainably compete may he assessed on the neighbourhood’s adult population count or the number of households and businesses within the neighbourhood. Also it can be assessed on the number of households and businesses that are actually taking up the broadband services or likely to do so in that neighbourhood.

Retail providers having access to multiple infrastructure providers

An issue that will affect retail-level telcos and ISPs is whether they have access to only one infrastructure operator or can benefit from access to multiple operators. This may be an issue where the infrastructure operators differ in attributes like maximum bandwidth or footprint and a major retail-level operator want to benefit from these different attributes.

In one of these situations, a retail-level broadband provider who wants to touch as many markets as possible may use one infrastructure provider for areas served by that provider. Then they use other providers that serve other areas that their preferred infrastructure provider doesn’t touch yet. This may also apply if they want to offer service plans with a particular specification offered by an infrastructure provider answering that specification but competing with the infrastructure provider they normally use.

Multiple-premises developments

Then there is the issue of multiple-premises buildings and developments where there is a desire to provide this level of service competition for the occupants but offer it in a cost-effective manner.

This may be answered by each infrastructure provider running their own wiring through the building but this approach leads to multiple wires and points installed at each premises. On the other hand, an infrastructure cable of a particular kind could be wired through the building and linked using switching / virtual-network technology to different street-side infrastructures. This could be based on cable technology like VDSL, Ethernet or fibre-optic so that infrastructure providers who use a particular technology for in-building provision use the infrastructure relating to that technology.

Estate-type developments with multiple buildings may have questions raised about them. Here, it may be about whether the infrastructure is to be provided and managed on a building-level basis or a development-wide basis. This can be more so where the multiple-building development is to be managed during its lifetime as though it is one entity comprising of many buildings.

Then there is the issue of whether the governing body of a multiple-premises development should be required to prevent infrastructure-provider exclusivity. This can crop up where an infrastructure provider or ISP pays the building manager or governing body of one of these developments to maintain infrastructure exclusivity perhaps by satisfying the governing body’s Internet needs for free for example.

In all of these cases, it would be about making sure that each premises in a multiple-premises development is able to gain access to the benefits of infrastructure-level competition.

Conclusion

The idea of infrastructure-level competition for broadband Internet is to be considered of importance as a way to hold dominant infrastructure providers to account. Similarly, it can be seen as a way to push proper broadband Internet service in to underserved areas whether with or without public money.

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Indie games like Untitled Goose Game appeal to people outside the usual game demographics

Articles

Honk if you’ve got a hit: Melbourne-made “horrible goose” game goes global | The Age

Everyone from Chrissy Teigen to Blink-182 is freaking out about a ‘goose game’ — one look at the bizarre new game explains why | Business Insider

Untitled Goose Game Melbourne-based creators stunned after topping Nintendo charts | ABC News Australia

From the horse’s mouth

Untitled Goose Game (product page)

Video – Click or tap to play

Previous coverage on indie games

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

Alaskan fables now celebrated as video games

Two ways to put indie games on the map

My Comments

What is being realised now is that independently-developed electronic games are appealing to a larger audience than most of those developed by the mainstream games studios.

A case to point that has appeared very recently is Untitled Goose Game. This game; available for Windows or MacOS regular computers via the Epic Games Store, and the Nintendo Switch handheld games console via its app store, is about you controlling a naughty goose as you have it wreak havoc around an English rural village.

Here, it uses cartoon imagery and slapstick-style comic approach of the kind associated with Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy in the early days of cinema to provide amusement that appeals across the board. It also underscores concepts that aren’t readily explored in the video games mainstream.

This game was developed by a small North Fitzroy game studio called House House and had been underpinned by funds from the state government’s culture ministry (Film Victoria) before it was published by an independent games publisher called Panic.

A close friend of mine who is a 70-something-year-old woman was having a conversation with me yesterday about this game and we remarked on it being outside the norm for video games as far as themes go. I also noticed that her interest in this game underscored its reach beyond the usual video-game audience where it would appeal to women and mature-to-older-age adults, with her considering it as a possible guilty pleasure once I mentioned where it’s available on.

With Untitled Goose Game being successful on the Nintendo Switch handheld games console, it could be a chance for Panic or House House to see the game being ported to mobile platforms. This is more for benefit to those of us who are more likely to use an iPad or Android tablet to play “guilty-pleasure” games. This is in addition to optimising the game’s user interface for the Windows variant to also work with touchscreens so it can be played on 2-in-1 laptops.

What is happening is that there is an effort amongst indie games developers and publishers to make their games appeal to a wide audience including those of us who don’t regularly play video games.

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Make VPN, VLAN and VoIP applications easy to set up in your network

Draytek Vigor 2860N VDSL2 business VPN-endpoint router press image courtesy of Draytek UK

Routers like the Draytek Vigor 2600N which support VPN endpoint and IP-PBX functionality could benefit from simplified configuration processes for these functions

Increasingly, the virtual private network, virtual local-area network and IP-based voice and video telephony setups are becoming more common as part of ordinary computing.

The VPN is being seen as a tool to protect our personal privacy or to avoid content-blocking regimes imposed by nations or other entities. Some people even use this as a way to gain access to video content available in other territories that wouldn’t be normally available in their home territory. But VPNs are also seen by business users and advanced computer users as a way to achieve a tie-line between two or more networks.

The VLAN is becoming of interest to householders as they sign up to multiple-play Internet services with at least TV, telephony and Internet service. Some of the telcos and ISPs are using the VLAN as a way to assure end-users of high quality-of-service for voice or video-based calls and TV content made available through these services.

AVM FRITZ!Box 3490 - Press photo courtesy AVM

… as could the AVM Fritz!Box routers with DECT base station functionality

It may also have some appeal with some multiple-premises developments as a tool to provide the premises occupiers access to development-wide network resources through the occupiers’ own networks. It will also appeal to public-access-network applications which share the same physical infrastructure as private networks such as FON-type community networks including what Telstra and BT are running.

VoIP and similar IP-based telecommunications technologies will become very common for home and small-business applications. This is driven by incumbent and competing telecommunications providers moving towards IP-based setups thanks to factors like IP-driven infrastructure or a very low cost-of-entry. It also includes the desire to integrate entryphone systems that are part of multi-premises buildings in to IP-based telecommunications setups including the voice-driven home assistants or IP-PBX business-telephony setups.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

A device like the Amazon Echo could be made in to a VoIP telephone through an easy-to-configure Alexa Skill

In the same context, an operating-system or other software developer may want to design a “softphone” for IP-based telephony in order to have it run on a common computing platform.

What is frustrating these technologies?

One key point that makes these technologies awkward to implement is the configuration interface associated with the various devices that benefit from these technologies like VPN endpoint routers or IP-based telephony equipment. The same situation also applies if you intend to implement the setup with multiple devices especially where different platforms or user interfaces are involved.

This kind of configuration also increases the chance of user error taking place during the process which then leads to the setup failing with the user wasting time on troubleshooting procedures to get it to work. It also makes the setup process very daunting for people who don’t have much in the way of IT skills.

For example, you have to complete many steps to enrol the typical VPN endpoint router with a consumer-facing privacy-focused VPN in order to assure network-wide access to these VPNs. This involves transcribing configuration details for one of these VPNs to the router’s Web-based management interface. The same thing also applies if you want to create a VPN-based data tie-line between networks installed at two different premises.

Similarly, IP-based telephony is very difficult to configure with customers opting for pre-configured IP telephone equipment. Then it frustrates the idea of allowing a customer to purchase equipment or software from different resellers thanks to the difficult configuration process. Even small businesses face this same difficult whether it is to add, move or remove extensions, create inter-premises tie-lines or add extra trunk lines to increase call capacity or provide “local-number” access.

This limits various forms of innovation in this space such as integrating a building’s entryphone system into one’s own telephone setup or allowing Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Viber to permit a business to have a virtual telephone link to their IP-telephony platforms.

It also limits the wide availability to consumers and small businesses of “open” network hardware that can answer these functions. This is more so with VPN-endpoint routers or routers that have IP-based telecommunications functionality which would benefit from this kind of simplified configuration process.

What can be done?

A core requirement to enable simplified provisioning of these technologies is to make use of an XML-based standard configuration file that contains all of the necessary configuration information.

It can be transferred through a download from a known URL link or a file that is uploaded from your computing device’s local file system. The latter approach can also apply to using removable storage to transfer the file between devices if they have an SD-card slot or USB port.

Where security is important or the application depends on encryption for its operation, the necessary binary public-key files and certificates could be in a standard form with the ability to have them available through a URL link or local file transfer. It also extends to using technologies based around these public keys to protect and authenticate the configuration data in transit or apply a digital signature or watermark on the configuration files to assert their provenance.

I would also see as being important that this XML-based configuration file approach work with polished provisioning interfaces. These graphically-rich user interfaces, typically associated with consumer-facing service providers, implement subscription and provisioning through the one workflow and are designed to he user-friendly. It also applies to achieving a “plug-and-play” onboarding routine for new devices where there is a requirement for very little user interaction during the configuration and provisioning phase.

This can be facilitated through the use of device-discovery and management protocols like UPnP or WSD with the ability to facilitate the upload of configuration files to the correct devices. Or it could allow the creation and storage of the necessary XML files on the user’s computer’s local storage for the user to upload to the devices they want to configure.

Another factor is to identify how a device should react under certain situations like a VPN endpoint router being configured for two or more VPNs that are expected to run concurrently. It also includes allowing a device to support special functions, something common in the IP-based telecommunications space where it is desirable to map particular buttons, keypad shortcodes or voice commands to dial particular numbers or activate particular functions like door-release or emergency hotline access.

Similarly, the use of “friendly” naming as part of the setup process for VLANs, VPNs and devices or lines in an IP-telephony system could make the setup and configuration easier. This is important when it comes to revising a configuration to suit newer needs or simply understanding the setup you are implementing.

Conclusion

Using XML-based standard provisioning files and common data-transfer procedures for setup of VLAN, VPN and IP-based-telecommunications setups can allow for a simplified setup and onboarding experience. It can also allow users to easily maintain their setups such as to bring new equipment on board or factor in changes to their service.

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Ambient Computing–a new trend

Article

Smart speakers like the Google Home are the baseline for the new concept of ambient computing

Lenovo see smart displays as a foundation for ambient computing | PC World

My Comments

A trend that is appearing in our online life is “ambient computing” or “ubiquitous computing”. This is where the use of computing technology is effective part of our daily lives without us having to do something specific about it.

One driver that is facilitating it is the use of voice-driven assistant technology like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant or Microsoft’s Cortana. It has manifested initially in mobile operating systems like Android or iOS but has come about more so with smart speakers of the Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod kind along with Microsoft and Apple putting this functionality in to desktop operating systems like MacOS and Windows.

Lenovo Smart Display press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

as are smart displays of the Lenovo Smart Display kind

As well, Amazon and Google have licensed out front-end software for their voice-driven home assistants so that third-party equipment manufacturers can integrate this functionality in their consumer-electronics products. It also includes the availability of devices that connect to larger-screen TVs or higher-quality sound systems to use them as display or audio surfaces for these voice-driven assistants, even simply just to play audio or video content pulled up at the command of the user.

Lenovo underscored this with their current Smart Display products and the up-and-coming Smart Display products including a Lenovo Yoga Smart Tab which was premiered at IFA 2019 in Berlin. These are based on the Google Home platform and they were underscoring the role of these displays in ambient computing.

Another key driving factor is the Internet of Things which may be seen in the home context as lights, appliances and other devices connected to the home network and Internet. It doesn’t matter whether they connect to the IP-based home network directly or via a “home hub” device. These work with the various voice-driven home-assistant platforms as sensors or controlled devices or, in some cases, alternate control surfaces.

It extends beyond the home through interaction with various building-wide or city-wide services that relate to energy use, transport, personal security amongst other things.

The other key driver that is highlighted is the use of distributed computing or “the cloud” where the data is processed or presented in a manner that is made available via the Internet on any device. It can also include online services that present information or content at your fingertips from anywhere in the world. In some cases, there is the use of data aggregation to create a wider picture of what is going on.

What this all adds up to is the concept of an “information butler” that responds with information or content as you need it. This is underscored with ambient or ubiquitous computing that is not just a Silicon Valley buzzword but a real concept.

What does the concept of ambient or ubiquitous computing underscore?

Here it is the use of information technology in a manner that blends in with your lifestyle rather than being a separate activity. You interact with one or more of the endpoints while you undertake a regular daily task and this can be about showing up information you need or setting up the environment for that activity. It relies less on active participation by the end-user.

Ambient computing is adaptive in that it fits in and adapts to your changing needs. It is also anticipatory because it can anticipate future needs like, for example, changing the heating setting to cope with a change in the weather. It also demonstrates context awareness by recognising users and the context of their activity.

But ambient computing still has its issues. One key issue that is called out frequently is end-user privacy including protection of minor children when users interact with these systems. An article published by Intel underscores this in the context of simplifying the management of our privacy wishes with the various devices and online services through the use of “agent” software.

This also relates to data security for the infrastructure along with data sovereignty (which country the data resides in) due to issues like information theft and use of information by foreign governments.

Similarly, allowing ambient-computing environments to determine activities like what content you enjoy can be of concern. This is more important because you may choose particular content based on your values and what others who have similar tastes and values recommend. It can also lead to avoiding addiction to content that can be socially harmful or enforcing the consumption of a particular kind of content upon people at the expense of other content.

Another factor that can creep up if common data-interchange standards aren’t implemented is the existence of data “silos”. This is where an ambient computing environment is limited to hardware and software provided by particular vendors. It can limit competition in the provision of these services which can restrict the ability to innovate when it comes to developing these systems further.

But what is now being seen as important for our online life is the trend towards ubiquitous ambient computing that simply is part of our lives.

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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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