Commentary Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of the personal computer, Internet and smartphones

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

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

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

The smartphone and tablet era

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

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

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

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

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

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

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

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

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

What it has come down to

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

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

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USB-C Audio modes–something worth understanding for this new connector

Articles

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

There needs to be some work to make USB-C a worthwhile replacement for the 3.5mm audio jack on a smartphone

What you need to know about USB-C audio | Android Authority

My Comments

At the moment, the USB-C audio application case isn’t being implemented consistently across all mobile devices that rely solely on that connection form.

There are two operating modes – a “passive” accessory mode which creates inbound and outbound analogue audio paths as if it is a 3.5mm audio jack, and an “active” mode which uses USB Audio device classes and outboard digital-analogue audio circuitry to create the sound to be heard via the accessory.

Passive setups

The former passive setup is primarily exploited by USB-C jack adaptors and basic headset implementations, especially “earbud-style” headsets. Here, the host device which is typically the smartphone or tablet would use an onboard audio chipset to convert the sound between an analogue and digital representation.

If there is some form of remote control, a basic implementation may be in the form of a single button that starts and stops media or answers and ends calls. On the other hand, if the USB Human Interface Device specifications are implemented properly in mobile operating systems, it may allow for a device to support advanced multifunction remote control.

At the moment, it may be a case of trial-and-error to find out if a USB-C Audio passive-mode headset or adaptor will work across USB-C-equipped regular computers. So for, to my knowledge, recent iterations of the Apple MacBook lineup of laptops that use this connection will provide some support for this setup.

Active setups

The latter active setup would be targeted at premium or audiophile applications such as highly-strung USB digital-analogue adaptors, noise-cancelling headsets or headsets with highly-strung digital-analogue circuitry. In some cases, this setup may also support accessory devices that implement multiple-microphone arrays.

It may also apply to wired setups involving home or car audio equipment. In this case, one would be thinking of this kind of equipment providing digital-analogue interface, power to the host device and remote-control / accessory-display abilities.

Here, they have to fully implement the USB Audio Device Class 3 peripheral class as expected in the “textbook”. As well, iOS and Android need to provide a native class driver for this device class and implement its code as expected for a mobile device which will do communications and / or multimedia. This would mean that microphones have to be used as an audio endpoint for communications purposes including regular telephony as well as for multimedia purposes. It may be a non-issue with regular computers running the Windows or MacOS desktop operating systems where it is easier for the operating system or application software to “purpose” an audio endpoint.

USB Audio Device Class 3 provides inherent support for audio-processing so accessory manufacturers don’t need to reinvent the wheel by creating their own software to implement any sort of sound processing. As well, Android and iOS need to support the inclusion of audio-processing logic in the inbound or outbound audio-signal paths in a purpose-specific manner.

Power and connectivity

There will be power and connectivity issues raised for both implementations of the USB-C Audio application. Active devices will need to draw power from the host unless they have their own battery. But with proper implementation of USB-C Power Delivery, it could allow a USB-C Audio accessory with a very high capacity battery to provide power to the host smartphone.

The passive setup wouldn’t work properly with USB-C hubs or devices that have this function unless it is assured that the hub will assure a proper clean electrical connection between the host and the accessory.

Remote control and accessory display

Another issue yet to be raised is implementation of USB Human-Interface-Device Classes and Usage Tables when it comes to using a USB-C accessory as a control surface for the host. The key issue here is whether there is proper operating-system support especially in the mobile operating systems. In the same context, there will be a market requirement for the accessory device to be able to view host-device-held lists like call lists, message lists and track lists.

The functions considered relevant to this usage case would be sound volume and transport control (play / pause / next track / previous track / etc) for multimedia; and caller volume, microphone mute and call control for communications. Accessory-based display would also need to be factored in with USB-C audio adaptors and in-line remote-control modules which implement an LCD or OLED display.

There may be use cases where multiple remote control devices are used in the same setup, typically to offer complementary functionality. Examples of this may include a USB headset with elementary remote-control for volume and a single-button control for multimedia “start-stop” or call “answer-end” functionality; along with a display-equipped inline remote control which allows for track navigation or advanced call-control.

Broadcast-radio reception

There will also be an issue regarding use of the USB-C cable as an aerial (antenna) for broadcast-radio reception whether the tuner is built in to the smartphone or the accessory. It is because of a long-standing design factor for Walkman-type radios with separate headphones where the headphone cord served as the radio’s aerial. Similarly single-piece headphone-based personal radios implemented the headband as their aerial.

It also extends to the ability for mobile operating systems to control broadcast-radio tuners integrated within smartphones or accessories to the fullest extent possible. This would include preset-station management, “follow-this-station” operation for stations appearing at other broadcast locations, graphical identifiers amongst other things.

Conclusion

If the smartphone and audio-accessory industry wants us to think of using the USB-C connector as the point to connect all peripherals, they need iOS and Android to have full native USB Audio Device Class 3 support including support for advanced-audio modes. As well, the operating systems need to have USB Human Interface Device class support for remote-control and accessory display abilities. Similarly, there would have to be proper support for broadcast-radio operation with USB-C-based mobile-device setups.

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The NAS as an on-premises edge-computing device for cloud services

QNAP TS-251 2-bay NAS

QNAP TS-251 2-bay NAS – units like this could become a capable edge-computing device

The high-end network-attached storage system is a device able to augment the cloud computing trend in various forms. This is by becoming a local “edge processor” for the cloud-computing ecosystem and handling the data that is created or used by end-users local to it.

High-end network-attached-storage systems

We are seeing the rise of network-attached-storage subsystems that are capable of running as computers in their own right. These are typically high-end consumer or small-business devices offered by the likes of QNAP, Synology or NETGEAR ReadyNAS that have a large app store or software-developer community.

The desktop variants would be the size ranging form half a loaf of bread to a full bread loaf, with some rack-mounted units about the size of one or two pizza boxes.This is compared to servers that were the size of a traditional tower computer.

But some of the apps work alongside public cloud-driven online services as a client or “on-ramp” between these services and your local network. A typical use case is to synchronise files held on an online storage service with the local storage on the NAS unit.

These high-end network-attached-storage devices are effectively desktop computers in their own right, with some of them using silicon that wouldn’t look out of place with a traditional desktop computer. Some of these machines even support a “local console” with a display connection and USB connections that support keyboards and mice.

Cloud computing

Cloud computing takes an online-service approach to computing needs and, in a lot of cases, uses multiple computers in multiple data centres to perform the same computing task. This is typically to host the data in or close to the end-user’s country or to provide a level of scalability and fault-tolerance in the online service approach.

Lot 3 Ripponlea café

A cafe like this could benefit from big-business technology without paying a king’s ransom thanks to cloud computing

Small businesses are showing an interest in cloud-driven computing solutions as a way to come on board with the same things as the “big end of town” without paying a king’s ransom for hardware necessary for an on-premises computing solution. In some cases, it is also about using different endpoint types like mobile-platform tablets for daily use or as a management tool, underscoring such concepts as low cost or portability that some endpoints may offer.

Typically, this kind of computing is offered “as a service” where you subscribe to the service on a regular, usually monthly or annual, basis rather than you spending big on capital expenses to get it going.

But, due to its nature as an always-online service, cloud computing can cause reliability and service-availability issues if the Internet connection isn’t reliable or the service ends up being oversubscribed. This can range from real-time services suffering latency towards a cloud-computing experience becoming unresponsive or unavailable.

Then there is the issue of privacy, data security, service continuity and data sovereignty which can crop up if you change to a different service or the service you use collapses or changes hands. It can easily happen while cloud-computing faces points of reckoning and the industry goes in to consolidation.

Edge computing

But trends that are being investigated in relationship to the “Internet Of Things” and “Big Data” are the concepts  of “edge” and “fog” computing. It is based around the idea of computing devices local to the source or sink of the data that work with the locally-generated or locally-used data as part of submitting it to or fetching it from the cloud network.

It may allow a level of fault-tolerance for applications that demand high availability or permit scalability at the local level for the cloud-computing application. Some systems may even allow for packaging locally-used data in a locally-relevant form such as for online games to support local tournaments or an online movie service to provide a local storage of what is popular in the neighbourhood.

The ideas associated with “edge” and “fog” computing allow for the use of lightweight computer systems to do the localised or distributed processing, effectively aggregating these systems in to what is effectively a heavyweight computer system. It has been brought about with various early distributed-computing projects like SETI and Folding@Home to use personal computers to solve scientific problems.

What is serving the edge-computing needs

Qarnot Q.Rad press image courtesy of Qarnot

This Qarnot Q.Rad heater is actually a computer that is part of edge computing

Some applications like drones are using the on-device processing to do the local workload. Or we are seeing the likes of Qarnot developing edge-computing servers that heat your room or hot water with the waste heat these computing devices produce.  But Amazon and QNAP are working on an approach to use a small-office NAS as an edge-computing device especially for Internet-Of-Things applications.

The NAS serving this role

Here, it is about making use of these ubiquitous and commonly-available NAS units for this purpose as well as storing and serving data that a network needs. In some cases, it can be about the local processing and storing of this locally-generated / locally-used data then integrating the data with what is available on the cloud “backbone”.

For some applications, it could be about keeping enough data for local needs on the NAS to assure high availability. Or it could be about providing scalability by allowing the NAS to do some of the cloud workload associated with the locally-generated data before submitting it to the cloud.

Netgear ReadyNAS

The NETGEAR ReadyNAS on the right is an example of a NAS that is capable of being an edge-computing node

This may be of importance with IT systems that are moving from a totally on-premises approach towards the use of cloud-computing infrastructure with data being stored or processed online. It is where the focus of the cloud infrastructure is to make business-wide data available across a multi-site business or to provide “portable access” to business data. Here, a NAS could simply be equipped with the necessary software to be a smart “on-ramp” for this data.

For small and medium businesses who are moving towards multiple locations such as when a successful business buys another business in another area to increase their footprint, this technology may have some appeal. Here, it could be about doing some pre-processing for data local to the premises before submitting to the cloud as part of an online management-information-system for that small effort.  As well, it could be about keeping the business-wide data “in-sync” across the multiple locations, something that may be important with price lists or business-wide ledgers.

This kind of approach works well with the high-end NAS units if these units’ operating platforms allow third-party software developers to write software for these devices. It can then open up the possibilities for hybrid and “edge” computing applications that involve these devices and the network connectivity and on-device storage that they have.

Conclusion

What needs to happen is that the high-end network-attached-storage systems of the Synology or QNAP kind need to be considered as a hardware base for localised “edge computing” in an online “cloud-computing” setup.

This can be facilitated by the vendors inciting software development in this kind of context and encouraging people involved in online and cloud computing to support this goal especially for small-business computing.

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How about the expansion docks with room for extra secondary storage

Sony VAIO Z Series and docking station

Like with this (Sony) VAIO Z Series ultraportable, an add-on module with integrated optical disk or other storage could add capabilities to today’s small-form-factor computers

A key trend affecting personal computing is for us to move away from the traditional three-piece desktop computer towards smaller form factors.

Here, the traditional desktop computer’s system unit was a large box that was about the size of a hi-fi component or a large tower. As well the smaller form factors we are heading towards are laptops / notebooks; ultra-small desktop computers of the Intel NUC ilk; or all-in-one

USB-C (also the physical connector for Thunderbolt 3)- the newer connection type that can make better use of add-on modules

which integrate the computing power with the display.

With these setups, it is assumed that we are moving away from on-board data storage in the form of hard disks or staying well clear of packaged media in the form of optical disks. This is driven by online software delivery and the use of streaming audio and video services.

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

.. with this applying for small-factor desktops like the The Intel Skull Canyon NUCvideo services.

What was often valued about the traditional computer design was that there was extra space to house more storage devices like hard disks or optical drives or the ability to install high-performance graphics cards. This is why these form factors still exist in the form of high-performance “gaming-rig” computers where performance is more important and there is the likely of more data being held on these machines.

But for some of us, we will still want to maintain access to prior storage media types like optical disks or use high-performance graphics chipsets especially at home or our main workspace.  For example, the traditional optical discs are still valued when it comes to media in an always-accessible future-proof collectible form.

There is also the idea of maintaining a secondary hard disk as extra storage capacity specifically for data, whether as a backup or as an offload storage location. This is more so where you are dealing with laptop computers that are equipped with solid-state storage of up to 256Gb and there is a desire to keep most of your data that you aren’t working with somewhere else.

Laptop users often answered this need through the use of a “dock” or expansion module to connect a cluster of peripherals to a single box which has only one connection to the host laptop computer. But Thunderbolt 3 facilitated the rise of external graphics modules which add extra graphics horsepower to laptops and similar low-profile computers.

This concept can be taken further with USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 expansion docks that have integrated optical drives and/or mounting space for hard disks. These would present to the host as Mass Storage devices, using the operating-system class drivers for this kind of device. Of course there would be the expansion abilities for extra USB devices, as well as an Ethernet network interface and/or onboard USB audio chipset with own SP/DIF or analogue connections.

Video to the displays could be facilitated via DisplayPort alt or USB DisplayLink for devices not implementing an external graphics module functionality. In the latter situation, it is like “hotting up” a car for higher performance.

Of course they would have to be self-powered with a strong USB Power Delivery output for the host and USB peripherals. There could be research in to having USB ports head in to optimised charge-only mode when the host computer isn’t active for example.

Most of the onboard devices will be required to represent the devices according to standardised device classes. This will typically lead to a “plug-and-play” setup routine so you aren’t downloading extra software to run the devices if you use recent versions of the main operating systems.

Manufacturers could see these devices as something that complements their ultra-small desktop computer product lines. This is in an approach similar to how consumer hi-fi equipment, typically devices of a particular model range are designed and marketed. Here, the importance would be on having equipment that shares common styling or functional features but encouraging the ability to expand the ultra-small desktop computer at a later date.

The idea here is to allow users to adapt portable or small-form-factor computers to their needs as and when they see fit. It is as long as these computers implement USB 3.1 connections in Type-C form or, for faster throughput and support for external graphics modules, implement Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connections.

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Facebook clamps down on voter-suppression misinformation

Article

Australian House of Representatives ballot box - press picture courtesy of Australian Electoral Commission

Are you sure you are casting your vote or able to cast your vote without undue influence?

Facebook Extends Ban On Election Fakery To Include Lies About Voting Requirements | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Facebook

Expanding Our Policies on Voter Suppression (Press Release)

My Comments

Over recent years, misinformation and fake news has been used as a tool to attack the electoral process in order to steer the vote towards candidates or political parties preferred by powerful interests. This has been demonstrated through the UK Brexit referendum and the the USA Presidential Election in 2016 with out-of-character results emanating from the elections. It has therefore made us more sensitive to the power of misinformation and its use in influencing an election cycle, with most of us looking towards established news outlets for our political news.

Another attack on the electoral process in a democracy is the use of misinformation or intimidation to discourage people from registering on the electoral rolls including updating their electoral-roll details or turning up to vote. This underhand tactic is typically to prevent certain communities from casting votes that would sway the vote away from an area-preferred candidate.

Even Australia, with its compulsory voting and universal suffrage laws, isn’t immune from this kind of activity as demonstrated in the recent federal byelection for the Batman electorate. Here, close to the election day, there was a robocall campaign targeted at older people north of the electorate who were likely to vote in an Australian Labour Party candidate rather than the area-preferred Greens candidate.

But this is a very common trick performed in the USA against minority, student or other voters to prevent them casting votes towards liberal candidates. This manifests in accusations about non-citizens casting votes or the same people casting votes in multiple electorates.

Facebook have taken further action against voter-suppression misinformation by including it in their remit against fake news and misinformation. This action has been taken as part of Silicon Valley’s efforts to work against fake news during the US midterm Congressional elections.

At the moment, this effort applies to information regarding exaggerated identification or procedural requirements concerning enrolment on the electoral rolls or casting your vote. It doesn’t yet apply to reports about conditions at the polling booths like opening hours, overcrowding or violence. Nor does this effort approach the distribution of other misinformation or propaganda to discourage enrolment and voting.

US-based Facebook end-users can use the reporting workflow to report voter-suppression posts to Facebook. This is through the use of an “Incorrect Voting Info” option that you select when reporting posted content to Facebook. Here, it will allow this kind of information to be verified by fact-checkers that are engaged by Facebook, with false content “buried” in the News Feed along with additional relevant content being supplied with the article when people discover it.

This is alongside a constant Facebook effort to detect and remove fake accounts existing on the Facebook platform along with increased political-content transparency across its advertising platforms.

As I have always said, the issue regarding misleading information that influences the election cycle can’t just be handled by social-media and advertising platforms themselves. These platforms need to work alongside the government-run electoral-oversight authorities and similar organisations that work on an international level to exchange the necessary intelligence to effectively identify and take action against electoral fraud and corruption.

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What are the full-featured desktop NAS units about?

Article

Synology DiskStation DS415play NAS with media transcoding - Press image courtesy of Synology

Synology DiskStation DS415play – an example of these full-function network-attached-storage units

Synology DSM vs. QNAP QTS: Which NAS is right for you? | Windows Central

My Comments

Increasingly Synology and QNAP have become strong rivals when it comes to full-function network-attached-storage devices that do more than what WD, Seagate and others offer. Here, they are made by two NAS specialists who are running high-end NAS-focused operating systems that can be run headless or with a screen and keyboard “head”. Some manufacturers like NETGEAR and ASUSStor are following on with Synology’s and QNAP’s efforts to join in the pack when it comes to

QNAP TS-251 2-bay NAS

QNAP TS-251 2-bay NAS – another example of what a full-function NAS is about

offering full-function NAS units for home and small-business use.

Recent iterations of these devices typically have the same kind of computing power as a relatively-recent low-end regular personal computer but put this power towards file handling and serving. Most of them will support at least a two-disk RAID setup in the low-tier varieties with the mainstream models having four or five disk bays for a RAID 5 setup. The “brain” in these devices will be mostly an ARM-based CPU but higher-spec variants may use an Intel or AMD processor expected in a very low-end laptop computer. You may also find some NAS units like the Synology “play” NAS units running a graphics processor as a co-processor for media transcoding. A significant number of models will even support upgradeable RAM to allow them to work more quickly and handle more data traffic.

But the operating system is of a similar standard to one that would drive a regular personal computer. Most likely it would be a variant of a desktop Linux distribution and would be regularly updated as well as allowing users to install apps from the NAS vendor’s app store. Once you log in through a Web-based user interface or a keyboard / screen / mouse “console” attached to the NAS, you would experience a user interface similar to Windows, MacOS or desktop Linux running a graphical user interface.  But most of these user interfaces can’t allow for cut-and-paste between the host computer and the NAS user interface.

The apps will typically convey particular file-handling functions like syncing to online storage platforms, BitTorrent server functionality and DLNA-compliant media-server functionality. There is also apps that “tie” the NAS to native mobile-platform client apps supplied by the vendor to allow transfer of data between the NAS and a mobile-platform tablet or smartphone. It is typically a way to push a NAS as a “personal cloud” by working with a vendor-hosted “DNS-mapping” arrangement to allow you to upload content from your iPhone to your NAS even while you are out and about and connected to the Internet. This is in addition to various “client-backup” server tools for regular-computer platforms along with NAS-NAS backup tools.

Let’s not forget software like media-player functionality or IP-camera videosurveillance recording functionality. In some cases, there are various server apps for email or WordPress content management so you could easily purpose these units as a business information server. In some cases, adding peripherals to these NAS devices opens up paths for extra functionality with, for example, TV-tuner modules converting these NAS units in to Tivo-style PVRs that can share live or recorded TV content over the network.

QNAP’s QTS and Synology are very similar in many ways but Synology is focused towards simplified operation while QTS is focused towards taking advantage of faster better hardware. There are other similar full-featured NAS platforms like Netgear’s ReadyNAS or the ASUSStor NAS platform existing but there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of third-party developer base built up around these platforms.

But what can be done to make the full-featured NAS market better? One approach could be to allow the licensing of one or more of these NAS operating systems and app platforms to other companies on a “white-label” basis so they can launch their own full-featured NAS product range. This can avoid the need for a company who wants to develop their own NAS product to “reinvent the wheel” when building software.  As well, the creation of one or more large platform bases for NAS operating systems can give software developers the confidence to create software for these devices. Therefore it can avoid the home and small-business NAS market becoming like the games-console market which is focused towards vendor-specific solutions with a limited path for delivering additional software.

Personally, I would recommend the full-function NAS units of the Synology or QNAP ilk as being suitable for those of us who want more out of a network-storage device. In some cases, I would see it as appealing for an upgrade path for people who see their NAS device do more than just host files from your computer and share them to your Smart TV. Similarly it would appeal to those of us who want the basic abilities like DLNA media serving to be done in a more capable manner.

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What could be done to simplify your router upgrade

Telstra Gateway Frontier modem router press picture courtesy of Telstra

There needs to be a standard filetype to simplify the process of upgrading your home network router without reconfiguring your home network

An issue that will crop up through the life of a home network is to upgrade the router. This will be brought on with replacement of carrier-supplied equipment with retail equipment, replacing that half-dead router that you are always powering off and on many times a week, or upgrading to higher-performance equipment.

But you will end up having to transcribe out configuration data from your old equipment so you can enter it in to your new equipment especially if you want to avoid having to reconfigure other network equipment on your same home network.

Most routers offer a way for users to back up the current configuration details. This is typically to allow a user to do things like perform a factory resent or to test a configuration without losing a prior known-to-work state.

The process typically requires the user to download a configuration file to the computer they are configuring the router from in a similar manner to downloading a resource from the Web. But there isn’t a consistent file schema for storing this data in a manner for transferring to devices supplied by different vendors. In some cases, you may not be able to transfer the configuration data to newer equipment from the same vendor such as to install a newer router model.

AVM have taken steps in the right direction by allowing users to save a configuration from an older Fritz!Box router and upload it to a newer Fritz!Box router running a newer version of the Fritz!OS firmware. It is also to factor in allowing the router to persist your configuration to a newer version of the firmware.

But what can be done to make this work better would be to use a standard file format, preferably an XML-based schema which could be used for storing a router configuration. This would have to be agreed upon by all of the vendors to provide true vendor interoperability.

There would also be issues about providing multiple methods of storing this data. It could be about maintaining the traditional HTTP download / upload approach with Web clients on the same local network. Or it could also be about transferring the data between a USB Mass Storage device and the router such as to facilitate an out-of-box install.

Such a setup could allow for a range of scenarios like simplifying the upgrade path or to make it easier for support staff to keep information about different configurations they are responsible for.

The configuration data would have to cater for WAN (Internet) and LAN details including details regarding Wi-Fi wireless network segments, advanced network setups like VLAN and VPN setups, VoIP endpoint setups as well as general and security-related data.

Of course an issue that will crop up would be assuring the user of proper network security and sovereignty, something that could be assured through not persisting the management password to a new router. Also you won’t be able to keep Wi-Fi channel data especially if you deal with self-optimising equipment, because you may have to face an evolving Wi-Fi spectrum landscape.

What will need to happen is to provide methods to allow seamless upgrading of devices that serve as your network-Internet “edge” so you can simplify this upgrade process and get the most out of the new equipment.

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Across-the-room data transfer–many questions need to be answered

Transfer data between two smartphones

Wirelessly transferring data between two devices in the same space

The industry has explored various methods for achieving point-to-point across-the-room data transfer and user discovery. This would avoid the need to use the Internet or a mobile phone network to share a file or invite another user to a game or social network. Similarly, it would be a way to exchange data with a device like a printer or an interactive advertising setup in order to benefit from what that device offered.

Methods that have been tried

The first of these was IrDA infra-red transfer working in a similar to how most TV remote controls work to allow you to change channels without getting off the couch. This was exploited by the legendary Palm Pilot PDA and some of the Nokia mobile phones as a way to “beam” one’s contact details to a friend or colleague with the same device.

Bluetooth pushed forward with the Object Push Profile and File Transfer Profile as methods for exchanging data across the room. This was typically useful for contact details, low-resolution photos or Weblinks and was exploited with the popular feature phones offered by the major phone manufacturers through the 2000s. This method was also exploited by the out-of-home advertising industry as a way to convey Weblinks or contact details from a suitably-equipped poster to suitably-equipped mobile phones set to be discoverable.

But Apple nipped this concept in the bud when they brought out the highly-popular iPhone. The concept has been kept alive for the regular-computer operating systems and for Android mobile applications but mobile users who want to exchange data would have to ask whether the recipient had an Android phone or not.

Bluetooth also implemented that concept with the 4.0 Low Energy Profile standard by using “beacons” as a location tool. But this would be dependent on application-specific software being written for the client devices.

Microsoft is even reinstigating the Bluetooth method to transfer files between two computers in the same room as part of the functionality introduced in the Windows 10 April Update. But I am not sure if this will be a truly cross-platform solution for Bluetooth as was achieved with the earlier Object Push Profile or File Transfer Profile protocols.

Apple tried out a method similar to Bluetooth Object Push Profile called AirDrop but this implemented Wi-Fi-based technology and could only work with the Apple ecosystem. It was associated with “cyberflashing” where lewd pictures were forced out to unsuspecting recipients and Apple implemented a “contacts only” function with contacts’ emails verified against their Apple ID email logins as a countermeasure against this activity.

QR Code used on a poster

QR codes like what’s used on this poster being used as a pointer to an online resource

The QR code which is a special machine-readable 2D barcode has the ability to convey contact details, Weblinks, Wi-Fi network parameters and other similar data to mobile phones. These can be printed on hard-copy media or shown on a screen and have a strong appeal with business / visiting cards, out-of-home advertising or even as a means for authenticating client devices with WhatsApp.

Facebook even tried implementing QR codes as a way to share a link to one’s Profile or Page on that social network. Here, it can be a secure method rather than hunting via email or phone number which was raised as a concern with the recent Facebook / Cambridge Analytica data-security saga,

The Android and Windows communities looked towards NFC “touch-and-go” technology where you touch your phones together or touch an NFC card or tag to transfer data. This has been exploited as a technique to instigate Bluetooth device pairing and implemented as a method of sharing contact data between Android and / or Windows devices. For a file transfer such as with contact details, the data itself is transferred using Bluetooth in the case of Android Beam or Wi-Fi Direct in the case of Samsung’s S Beam feature.

The Wi-Fi Alliance are even wanting to put up a Wi-Fi-based method called Wi-Fi Aware. Here, this would be used for data transfer and other things associated with the old Bluetooth Object Posh Profile.

This is implemented on a short-range device-to-device basis because users in the same room may not be connected to the same Wi-Fi Direct or Wi-Fi infrastructure network as each other. There is also the reality that a properly-configured Wi-Fi public-access network wouldn’t permit users to discover other users through that network and the fact that a typical Wi-Fi network can cover the whole of a building or a street.

But there could be the ability to enable data transfer and user discovery using Wi-Fi Aware but being able to use a Wi-Fi infrastructure network but allow the user to define particular restrictions. For example, it could be about limiting the scope of discovery to a particular access point because most of these access points may just cover a particular room. Using the access points as a “scoping” tool even if the host devices don’t connect to that network could make the concept work without jeopardising the Wi-Fi infrastructure network’s data security.

Applications

There are a series of key applications that justify the concept of “across-the-room” data transfer. Typically they either involve the transfer of a file between devices or to even transfer a session-specific reference string that augments local or online activity.

The common application here is for a user to share their own or a friend’s contact details with someone else as a vCard contact-detail file. Another common application is to share a link to a Web-hosted resource as a URL. But some users also use across-the-room data transfer to share photos and video material such as family snapshots. In the same context, it could be about a dedicated-pudevice sending or receiving a file to or from a regular computer or mobile device such as to transfer .

In the advertising and public-relations context, “across-the-room” data transfer has been seen as a way to transfer a URL for a marketer’s Website or a visual asset to an end-user’s phone or computer. For example, the QR code printed on a poster has become the way to link a user to a media-rich landing page with further explanation about what is advertised. Similarly some out-of-home advertising campaigns implemented the Bluetooth Object Push Profile standard as a way to push an image, video or Weblink to end-users’ mobile phones.

But “across-the-room” data transfer is also being used as a way for users in the same space to discover each other on a social network or to identify potential opponents in a local or online multiplayer game. I find this as a preferred method for discovering someone to add to a social network or similar platform I am a member of so that I can be sure that I am finding the right person on that platform and they are sure about it. Also, in the case of a local multiplayer game, the players would have to continue exchanging data relating to their moves using the local data link for the duration of their game.

Facebook even explored the idea of using QR codes as a way to allow one to invite another person whom they are chatting with to be their Facebook Friend or discover their Facebook Page. It is infact an approach they are going to have to rediscover because they are closing off the users’ ability to search for people on the social network by phone number or email thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

What does the typical scenario involve?

The users who are in the same area are talking with each other about something that one of them has to offer such as contact details or a photo. Or, in the context of advertising or other similar situations, there will be some prior knowledge that there is something to benefit from knowing more about the offer using an online experience.

One of the users will invoke the transfer process by, for example, sharing the resource or hunting for a potential game opponent using their device’s user interface. The other use will share a nickname or other identifier to look out for in the list that the initial user is presented.

Then the other user will confirm and complete the process, including verifying success of that transfer and agreeing that the contents are what they were expecting. In the case of adding another user to a social network or multiplayer game, they will let the instigating user know that they have been added to that network or game.

What does a successful across-the-room data transfer or user-discovery ecosystem need?

Firstly, it needs to be cross-platform in that each device that is part of a data transfer or user/device discovery effort can discover each other and transfer data without needing to be on the same platform or operating system.

Secondly, the process of instigating or receiving a data transfer needs to be simple enough to allow reliable data transfer. Yet end-users’ data privacy should not be compromised – users shouldn’t need to receive unwanted content.

The protection against unwanted discovery or data transfer should be assured through the use of time-limited or intent-based discovery along with the ability for users to whitelist friends whom they want to receive data from or be discovered by in the wireless-based context. Intent-based discovery could be to have the recipient device become undiscoverable once the recipient device confirms that they have received the sender’s data or, in the case of a local multiplayer game, the players have completed or resigned from the game.

Conclusion

The concept of “across-the-room” data transfer and user/device discovery needs to be maintained as a viable part of mobile computing whether for work or pleasure. Where operated properly, this would continue to assure users of their privacy and data sovereignty.

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Laptops and mobile devices could implement system-wide battery-saving techniques

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

There needs to be software-wide support for determining when a laptop like the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 is on battery power or not so it runs in a manner to conserve battery power

I had read a Lifehacker article about how one could disable real-time malware scanning on a laptop while it is running on battery power as a way to “spin out” the battery runtime further. This was because if the desktop-security program is performing real-time scanning, it would be using a processor thread and demanding more power to do that job.

It is in addition to Microsoft researching ways to minimise screen refreshing while a portable computer is running on batteries so as to conserve battery power. Here, it was about avoiding the need for the CPU and graphics infrastructure to devote lots of energy to “painting” the whole screen when there is a small amount of animation taking place.

Here, I am advocating a “dual-power” approach for software development to allow software to operate in two different modes – a high-performance mode and a power-economy mode. The operating system would sense if the computer is running on external power or battery power and convey this power status to the software applications accordingly. This is in addition to optimising the display, Wi-Fi or other functionality depending on their power source.

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

It also applies to smartphones like this Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus so they can take advantage of time they are connected to a charger

It is similar to how some portable electronics made through the 70s to the 90s operated depending on the power source. For example some portable radios and boomboxes along with some personal audio players would have the dial or display illuminated while they were connected to external power but you could activate this lighting at the press of a button if the unit was running on batteries. Or some devices would charge rechargeable batteries installed therein while they were connected to external power.

Also there is a reality that most of us will plug our laptops, tablets or smartphones in to a charger while we are at home, in the office or in the car even while we have a full battery in our devices. This is typically to “spin out” the battery runtime and make sure the battery’s “topped off”. In this situation, if we use our devices while they are plugged in to the external power source, we could see a situation where they work in a higher-performance mode.

For example, a game could activate extra “between-move” animations only while the laptop, tablet or smartphone is connected to external power. Or a program which does a lot of calculations like a photo-editing program could work in a “high-performance” mode while on external power. Similarly an email client or similar program could work in a “manual refresh” mode on battery power or an endpoint security program could enable real-time scanning and similar functionality only while on external power.

Candy Crush Saga gameplay screen Android

Games like Candy Crush Saga could work in a manner to provide the best experience depending on if the mobile device is connected to external power or not

What needs to happen is for the desktop or mobile operating system to convey the device power-mode status to all of the apps as part of an “application-programming-interface” hook and for the apps to take advantage of that hook to adapt their behaviour.  The functionality could be enabled or disabled for each application through a configuration option in the application’s settings window.

A security issue that can easily be raised is enablement of unwanted cryptomining and other processes while the mobile device is on external power as a way to facilitate stealthy operation of these processes. This is to make it appear to the user that the unwanted processes don’t exist because there isn’t the excessive battery drain taking place with these processes.

In the privacy context, determining whether a device is running on external power could be used to assume whether the device is at a fixed location or not because AC mains power is the common power source associated with these locations. This is although external power supplies can be used in a mobile context such as being connected to a vehicle’s, boat’s or aircraft’s power infrastructure and used while underway for example.

What is being highlighted here is for the feasibility for operating systems in portable computing devices to convey a system-wide power-mode status relating to use of external power. This is to allow application software to work in a manner to conserve the host computer’s battery power.

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What is happening with driver-free printing

What is driver-free printing?

HP OfficeJet 6700 Premium business inkjet multifunction printer

Driver-free printing like AirPrint allows for use of printers like this HP OfficeJet without the need to install drivers or extra software on host computers

This is to be able to use a printer with a host computing device without the need to install drivers or additional software on that device.

The current situation with most operating systems is that since the rise of page-based printers, you had to install additional driver software to get all the software on your computer to work with your printer.

This involves one having to know what make and model the printer was and how it was connected to the host device. Then one would be  downloading the software from the printer manufacturer’s Website or the computer platform’s app store and installing it on that computer or loading it from media supplied with the printer by the manufacturer.

Of course, how your printer connects to your computer or mobile device, be it through a USB cable, a Bluetooth link or a network is about the physical link to that printer. Most of the standards associated with these connection methods don’t provide support for driver-free printing.

Why is there an imperative for driver-free printing?

Mobile computing

You could print from a mobile-platform tablet like this Lenovo to a range of printers without installing lots of extra apps. Infact you can use Mopria to print from this Lenovo Android tablet driver-free.

A key imperative behind driver-free printing is the concept of mobile computing. It is about using highly-portable computing devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets for personal computing no matter wherever you are. This may include being able to use someone else’s printer or a public printing facility to get that document or photo printed there and then.

Similarly it can be about paying a service provider to perform advanced printing tasks such as bulk printing and document finishing for a small business or community organisation, or a photo lab to turn out a special photo as a large high-quality print on glossy paper.

Dedicated Computing Devices

Furthermore, it can be about the idea of providing a computing device, especially a dedicated computing device with printing abilities. A key application would be interactive TV supported by a smart-TV or set-top-box platform. In this scenario, a viewer could do something like print out a recipe from a cooking show that they view on demand just by using the remote control.

Accessible Computing

In the case of accessible computing, some blind users are using PDA devices which use tactile data input similar to a Perkins Braille typewriter and voice or Braille tactile output. Here, these users want to yield information in hard-copy form for sighted users but these devices have the same software requirements as a dedicated computing device. Typically they would have to work according to common standards for driver-free printing.

Similar devices are being constructed to allow people to live a life independent of particular disabilities and these will benefit from driver-free hard-copy output.

Efforts that have taken place to achieve this goal

In the early days of personal computing, Epson used their ESC/P codes as a defacto standard for determining how dot-matrix impact printers format the characters they print if anything beyond ordinary ASCII text was required. This was effectively used by every manufacturer who offered dot-matrix and similar printers whether through licensing or emulation.

A similar situation took place with Adobe with PostScript and HP with PCL as common page-description languages for laser and inkjet page printers. Again, other manufacturers took this on with licensing or emulation of the various language-interpreter software for their products.

These standards fell away as GUI-based operating systems managed printing at the operating-system level rather than at the application level. This was underscored with some printer manufacturers working with Microsoft to push forward with GDI-based host-rasterised printing leading towards cost-effective printer designs.

There have been some initial efforts taking place for driver-free printing in particular application classes, especially where dedicated-function devices were involved. This was through the persistence of ESC/P and the ESC/POS derivative printer-control protocol within the point-of-sale receipt printer space, along with the use of PictBridge as a driver-free method for printing photos from consumer digital cameras.

Similarly some managed-business-printing and service-based-printing platforms implemented a “single-driver” approach for printing using these platforms. This was to achieve a goal towards one installable program needed to become part of the platform and print to any machine the user is authorised to print to regardless of make and model. But it didn’t really answer the need for true driver-free operation for a printing environment.

As the home network became more common and was seen as part of the home-entertainment technology sphere, the UPnP Forum and DLNA made attempts at driver-free printing as part of their standards. It was positioned as a way to allow, for example, Smart TVs, electronic picture frames and set-top boxes to yield hard-copy output of photos for example. HP were the only vendor whose mid-tier and premium consumer printers answered these standards as I have discovered while reviewing some of their products.

The Printer Working Group started working on IPP Everywhere as a way to achieve driver-free printing via the network or direct connections for both consumer and business applications. This even was about exposing printer capabilities and features without the need of adding in special software to do something like stapling or supporting PIN-driven secure job release.

One of the standard page-description languages specified for IPP Everywhere was the Adobe PDF format which is infact used for “download-to-print” situations. This is because it is seen as a file format that represents “electronic hard copy” and the common practice in the “download-to-print” use case is to prepare a document as a PDF file before making it available. The IPP Everywhere approach also included and defined a use case of “printing by reference” where the printer “fetches” the PDF document off the Web server for printing rather than the user downloading it in order to turn out a hard copy of it.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

Most iPhones and iPads implement AirPrint to allow for driver-free mobile printing

Apple was the first to make a serious breakthrough for driver-free printing and the IPP Everywhere goal when they added AirPrint to the version 4.2 of the iOS platform. This was important for iOS due to the desire not to add any extra machine-specific code for particular printers since the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch were mobile devices with constrained memory and storage space.

Google initially achieved something similar with their Google Cloud Print ecosystem which was being pitched for ChromeOS and Android. But this worked as a cloud-driven or hosted variation of print management solutions pitched at enterprises which offered a form of driverless or universal-driver printing to that user base.

But the Mopria Alliance have made a serious step closer with driverless printing by creating a network-based printing infrastructure for the Android platform. Google followed up the Cloud Print program with the Android Print Service software ecosystem which uses “plugins” that work in a same way to drivers. Here, the Mopria Alliance, founded by Canon, HP, Samsung and Xerox, worked towards a single plugin for driver-free printing and had these companies install firmware in their machines to present themselves across a logical network to Mopria-compliant hosts as well as process print jobs for these hosts.

What needs to happen

All printers that work with any network need to support AirPrint, IPP Everywhere and Mopria no matter what position they hold in a manufacturer’s product lineup. This will then incentivise the idea of driver-free network printing.

The IT industry also needs to investigate the use of device classes / profiles within the USB and Bluetooth standards to facilitate driver-free direct printing. This is because USB and Bluetooth are seen as connection types used for directly connecting a peripheral to a host computer device rather than connecting via a network. As well, driver-free direct printing could open up more use cases involving printing from dedicated-function devices.

Similarly, Microsoft needs to implement Mopria and/or IPP Everywhere in to Windows as part of a default print driver delivered with the desktop operating system. This would then allow for truly-portable printing from laptops, tablets and 2-in-1s running the Windows operating system.

Driver-free printing could come in to its own with interactive TV especially when you are dealing with cooking shows like MasterChef

A use case that needs to be put forward for driver-free printing is its relevance with interactive TV. In this case, it could be about watching a TV show whether linearly or on-demand, including watching content held on Blu-Ray discs and being able to, at a whim, print out resources relating to that show. Situations that can come up include printing a “white paper” associated with a public-affairs show or printing a recipe that was demonstrated in a cooking show. Even advertising could lead towards the ability for users to print out coupons in response to advertised specials, something that would be valued in the USA or complete a booking for an advertised event with the printer turning out the tickets. Such a concept can also extend to other “lean-back” apps offered on a smart-TV platform by providing a printing option to these apps.

But this would be about achieving a user experience that is about selecting the resource to print and instantiating the print job from a 10-foot “lean-back” user experience using a limited remote control. It would also include advertising the fact that printable resources exists for that show that you can print using the interactive-TV platform. Similarly, interactive-TV platforms like HBBTV, media-storage platforms like Blu-Ray, and smart-TV / set-top-box platforms like tvOS, Android TV or Samsung Smart Hub would need to support one or more of the driver-free printing platforms. In the case of tvOS, Apple could simply add AirPrint functionality to that set-top operating system so you could print from your Appl

The idea of driver-free printing will also be relevant to the smart home especially if it is desirable for devices therein to be able to provide hard copy on demand. For example, kitchen appliances that have access to online recipe libraries, an idea positioned by most of the big names in this field, may benefit from this feature because you could configure them to be set up for a particular recipe while your printer turns out the actual recipe with the ingredients list. But this concept will need to be driven by the use of “print by reference” standards for access to online resources.

As well, a driver-free printing setup should be able to recognise label and receipt printers in order to permit transaction-driven printing using these devices. For example, address labels could be turned out as a sheet of paper with all the labels on a regular printer or as a run of labels emerging from a label printer.

How could this affect printer design and product differentiation

The use of driver-free printing won’t deter printer manufacturers from improving their products’ output speed and quality. Infact, the use of standard page-description languages will lead towards the development of high-speed coprocessors and software that can quickly render print jobs sent to them in these formats.

There will also be a competitive emphasis on the number of functions available at a multifunction printer’s control panel with this being driven by app platforms maintained by the various printer manufacturers. Like with smart TVs, it could lead towards third parties including alliances developing app platforms for manufacturers who don’t want to invest in developing and maintaining an app platform.

Let’s not forget that printer manufacturers will maintain the “horses for courses” approach when it comes to designing printer models for both home and business use. But it will lead to an emphasis on refining the various product classes without needing to think about shoehorning driver and print-monitor software for the various host devices.

Conclusion

Once we see driver-free printing, it can lead towards simplified real plug-and-play printer setup for all kinds of users. Similarly it opens up printers towards a large class of device types beyond mobile and desktop computing devices.

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