Mobile Computing Archive

Possible improvement ideas for the new microUSB-based external-power standard for mobile phones

Introduction

As part of the “green ethos”, there has been a rethink concerning powering portable battery-operated devices from external power supplies. One issue that was raised was running a device continuously from a battery charger when the battery was charged. Similarly, every time someone bought a new portable device or upgraded their existing portable device, they would receive an AC adaptor or battery charger as part of the delivery. If they replaced the previous device, they wouldn’t be able to use the external power supply devices that was used with the previous device on the new device unless it was made by the same manufacturer or, in some cases, part of a particular series of devices.

This has led to the idea of powering or charging personal devices via a standard “microUSB” connection that would be use also for wireline-based data transfer. This allowed for a “one-size-fits-all” connection so that the user keeps one external power solution (AC-powered charger, car charger, etc) for their device even if they upgrade the device to a newer model. This avoids the need to junk AC adaptors and car chargers during a phone upgrade, although most of these power supplies are often stored in drawers around the home.

It has also led to devices using “pronounced” visual and audible alerts to let their users know that the battery is fully charged from an external power supply. This is with a view to encourage users to disconnect the device from the external power supply once the battery is full.

External-power-supply operation mode

There are other reasons why we may keep a device plugged in to an external power supply beyond the time required for battery charging. One common reason is part of a practice that has been commonly practiced since the 1960s primarily with portable radios, portable tape recorders, pocket calculators and other electronic devices that were commonly used with disposable dry cells. This is to run the device and use its primary functions from the external power supply, thus conserving battery runtime and allowing the user to use those functions that would compromise the battery runtime, like using the device’s lighting or fast-winding tapes in a portable tape recorder. In some cases, people connect their portable devices to car adaptors that plug in to a vehicle’s cigar-lighter socket so that the device can work from the vehicle’s electrical system while they are under way in the vehicle.

If a phone or other device that is being charged is meant to signal when the battery is full, the device should also have a user-selectable option to simply run from the external power supply rather than the battery when the battery is full and “fall over” to the fully-charged battery when the external power supply is turned off or disconnected. This mode could allow a user to run the phone from the external power as a way of conserving battery runtime and would be more relevant to smartphones and phones that can work as media players, GPS navigation units or handheld games consoles like my Nokia N85 or the Apple iPhone. The message could say “Battery full, Running on external power” as an alternative to a “please disconnect external power” message. As well, the device could show an “external power” icon like a “plug icon” that indicates it is running on the external power. It can also lead to "power-source-dependent” operating modes like the display being brighter and always on when connected to external power.

There could be an extension to the new micro-USB power-supply standard to cover external battery packs that supply power to devices either from common “AA, C or D” batteries or high-capacity rechargeable battery packs. These could signal to the device that they are an external battery pack and the device works as if on its own batteries when they are connected. This would lead to regular battery-mode operation like the display lighting up on demand; and could allow for “power-only, no charging” behaviour if the internal battery is full. It can also allow for the battery-level gauge to show a battery-level reading for either the internal battery or the external battery pack or a “combined” battery-level reading for both battery packs.

Self-powered multi-port USB hubs

I have tried using some self-powered multi-port USB hubs as battery chargers for my Nokia N85 mobile phone but sometimes the phone will treat the USB hub simply as a data uplink rather than a battery charger. I have also seen similar “hit and miss” behaviour with the Apple iPhone or recent-issue Apple iPods.

What needs to happen is that these hubs need to support “battery charger” / “power supply” mode when nothing is connected to the upstream (computer) port and the only thing connected to them is their AC adaptor. They would then need to provide the full power requirement for each of the ports and behave as if they are a power supply. They could switch off power to ports that don’t have anything connected to them so as to conserve energy. The AC adaptor would also have to be rated to provide the full power to each of the ports.

This is because a 7-port self-powered USB hub can appeal to being used as a “charging bar” for multiple personal-electronics devices, thus avoiding the need to use a powerboard to power many mobile-phone chargers.

Similarly, this idea can lead to the development of integrated “power-only” USB hubs that can be built in to various objects, including furniture and vehicles.

Speaking of vehicles, I may have mentioned this before, but there needs to be a reference design for a USB 2.0 or 3.0 self-powered multi-port hub that can work in an automotive environment. This involves support for a reference 5V 2.3A DC power supply circuit that can work from either a 12V or 24V DC power supply like what is found in a vehicle. The reference design should support power regulation so it can handle a “rough” power environment such as power “sags” and “surges” that occur when the engine is started. As well, it could support the concept of “ignition-switch control” where devices could be put in to low-power mode or turned off when the driver removes the key from the ignition switch.

Conclusion

Once these factors are looked at, they can allow us to provide better use of the new standards for operating our smartphones and similar devices in an optimum manner.

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Showdown on the handheld front

Two years ago, there was very little activity concerning the handheld PDA and smartphone front save for a few devices based on the Symbian S60 / UIQ platform and Windows Mobile (CE) platform.

Then Apple brought their touchscreen-enabled all-singing all-dancing iPhone on the market and businessmen became addicted to Research In Motion’s Blackberry smartphone with push e-mail functionality. Now Nokia (Symbian S60), Google Android and Microsoft have jumped on the same bandwagon as these previous companies. In the case of Nokia and Microsoft, they have released handset designs based on the iPhone-style “touchscreen” model as well as a QWERTY-style keypad. Some have even designed a handset that works sideways and uses a pull-out QWERTY keyboard. As well, Google had built up the Android Linux distribution for smartphone applications and a few manufacturers are releasing smartphones bast on this platform; while Palm, known for the classic “Palm Pilot” PDA, have come back from the dead with the Palm Pre smartphone platform.

This had stirred up things very significantly with the contract-driven high-end smartphone market. 

A new expectation was required for this class of device in the way they operated, the features they came with and how the additional software that extends their functionality is marketed. The devices will have 3G (or better) cellular voice and data interface, 802.11g WPA2 Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth connectivity while being capable of working as a digital video camera, phone, portable media player, personal navigation unit and Internet terminal at least. Additional programs will be typically sold or provided through a PC-based or over-the-air application store hosted by the device’s manufacturer or platform provider.

As part of this showdown on the smartphone front, handset designers, operating-system and applications developers will start to develop very interesting handsets and handheld applications. The handset designers and operating-system developers will end up at the point which was common for consumer electronics in the 1970s and 1980s where manufacturers pitted themselves against each other to design the best product and as models evolved, the features that were in the top-end model gradually appeared on midrange and low-end models. Mobile service providers will also have to provide cost-effective mobile service plans which consider increased data usage on these devices as they become work and lifestyle information terminals for their users.

This could lead to inclusion of digital radio and TV reception in some of the models; 802.11n Wi-Fi networking; OLED user displays, improved battery runtime on “full-feature” use; and the like.

As far as applications are concerned, developers who write handheld applications, whether operating as a dedicated program or as a front-end to a Web page, will need to make the applications suit the different platforms and application stores. This may be easier for the Microsoft and Symbian platforms because the developer can have the option of providing the application through their Web site, a competing application store like Handango, or a mobile phone operator as well as the official application store for the platform.

There is a risk that certain features will be missing from the smartphone market during the smartphone platform showdown. One will be the support for WPS “quick-setup” functionality for Wi-Fi networks. These devices really need to benefit from this technology – how could you enter a WPA passphrase that is “security-ideal” in to a phone with a 12-key keypad or “picking through” a small QWERTY keypad. As well, most of the desireable wireless routers and access points that are being released at the moment are now equipped with WPS, These phones should have support for WPS, preferably as part of the operating system’s Wi-Fi functionality, but at least as a reliable application that the user downloads to the device for free.

As well, DLNA media-management support should be available across all of the platforms, preferably as a playback and download (to local storage) function and a media control point. Similarly, the phone could be set up to act as a media server so that pictures taken with the phone’s camera can be shown on larger screens. At the moment, Symbian is providing the functionality native to their S60 3rd Edition platform and third parties, mostly hobbyist developers, are developing implementations for use on the Apple iPhone and Windows Phone platforms.

It will be very interesting over these next few model years as we observe mobile phone manufacturers, smartphone operating-system developers, independent application developers and mobile phone service providers grapple with this new reality.

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Feature Article – Repurposing that ex-business laptop computer for home use

Originally published at my previous Windows Live Spaces blog in May 2007
First published on this blog in November 2008. Updated 31 July 2009
 
If you are repurposing an ex-business laptop computer for home use, you need to make sure that it is safe as far as the computer’s former life is concerned and able to perform well in the home. Here, you would need to “detach” the computer from its former business life by removing line-of-business applications and data; and business-specific configurations like network, VPN and terminal-emulation setups used in the business. In some situations like ex-kiosk computers where the computer was heavily locked down, you may have to research the Internet to find out how to reset the BIOS settings so you can boot from the optical drive for example.
 
1. Make sure that you have the original media and licence information for the operating system and any other software to be used in the home context.
2. Visit the computer manufacturer’s Website and obtain the complete driver set for the computer’s current configuration. Copy this driver set to a CD-R or USB memory key. You might find it better to work the computer directly with the operating system’s abilities like Windows Zero Configuration rather than use the software supplied by the system manufacturer.
3 Do any necessary repairs to the computer like replacing damaged keyboards. This could be a good time to track down replacement batteries, AC adaptors or AC cords for the computer. If the computer doesn’t have built-in wireless or isn’t able to have wireless networking retrofitted at a later date, track down a wireless-network PCMCIA card or ExpressCard to suit your home network.
4. Format the primary hard disk and install the operating system and other software from the original media. Activate XP / Vista / Windows 7 and Office as applicable and deploy the driver set from the CD-R or USB memory key that you prepared in Step 2.
5. Register the computer with network services that are part of the home network like the network printer. If the printer is hosted by a Windows box, you may be able to set it up using “Point and Print” where you load the printer drivers from the Windows box.
 
As far as software is concerned, you can use a basic “office” package like Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition as well as Screen Paver (the shareware photo screen-saver that I use) and the latest version of AVG AntiVirus Free Edition or Avast AntiVirus Home Edition for your additional software. Most functionality is catered for by the software that is part of the operating system.
 
If you are working with a Windows-based computer, it may be worth downloading Windws Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Photo Gallery from http://download.live.com . These programs provide the essentials for instant mesaging, desktop POP3 or IMAP mail, RSS-feed management and digital-image management.
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Stronger Economy May Weaken Netbook Sales

Stronger Economy May Weaken Netbook Sales | Wi-Fi Planet

Netbook growth might end when economy recovers, says iSuppli

My comments on this issue

The “people’s cars” that were built in Europe.

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, VW, Citroen, British Motor Corporation and Fiat had put in to their lineup a small simple car which sold at a price affordable for most people in the country they were sold in. Before these vehicles came on the market, vehicles that were on the market wore priced out of reach of most people living in Europe. In some cases, the national governments were involved in the manufacture and sale of the vehicles to their citizens.

The vehicles, which were the VW “Beetle”, the Citroen 2CV, the Morris Minor, the Mini and the Fiat 500, had minimal equipment levels and were powered by a low-power engine which was of a simple design with the power going via a three or four-speed manual gearbox. These cars, which were of the sedan (saloon) body style, were able to comfortably accommodate four adults including the driver or a family of two adults and three children at a pinch.

But through the life of the models, they had undergone significant revisions to make them to the same standards as one of today’s small cars. For example, some of the cars were equipped with more powerful engines and had equipment which they did not have previously like electric windscreen washers or wind-down windows. The vehicle builders also had issued the vehicles in different body styles such as a delivery van, or convertible as well as the standard sedan (saloon) body style. In the 1960s, most of these vehicles had undergone a “rework” which had modern conveniences, improved performance and compliance with newer road-safety expectations integrated in to their design.

Now these cars had acquired “cult status” especially amongst people of the “baby-boom” generation. This was due to the vehicles being used by their family as the main household vehicle or these people buying them as their first car. The minimalist design that these vehicles had also been valued by the 1960s hippie culture.  The vehicle builders had responded with or are responding with “one-more-time” designs of these vehicles which look similar to the original model but have a design based on a current-issue small car. These cars are still considered “cool” and fashionable amongst today’s generation.

How this relates to the netbook.

I see the netbook as being akin to these “people’s cars” – a computer designed with a quaintly simple design with a simple outlook for a simple purpose. Then, like the vehicle builders had done with the “people’s cars”, the manufacturers will supply newer models with improved performance, capacity and functionality but in the same form factor, especially as the financial situation improves. Similarly, operating systems available for installation on these devices will end up being able to do most of what a full-size computer can do.

How the netbook could be relevant in a stronger economy

The netbook would evolve as a lightweight small-unit alternative to the economy notebook for the entry-level computing market. This class of users will want to start out on something simple so they can “get the hang” of the technology and work out their direction with it.

It would then exist as a secondary-computer option especially for users like journalists or students who want a highly-portable computer to take “out and about”, especially for notetaking or liveblogging. On the other hand, it could exist as an alternative to the mobile Internet device or the smartphone as one’s personal computing device.

It can also exist simply in a home network simply as a secondary “floater” computer that is moved between the kitchen, main lounge area (where most of the TV viewing is done), the outdoors entertaining area and similar common areas for online activity like interacting with TV-show Websites or responding to social networks and Web-based e-mail.

The thing to remember about these devices is that they won’t be used by most computer users as a primary desktop or laptop computer. They will simply be seen as an extension of one’s computing life.

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Bluetooth 3.0 with High Speed Transfer – What does this mean?

Bluetooth Special Interest Group press release

WiFi Planet article on Bluetooth 3.0

My Comments

Bluetooth has hit the “big 3” by introducing a high-throughput version of its wireless personal network specification. This same technology used for sending pictures or phone-number data between mobile phones in the same space or streaming sound between mobile phones and car handsfree kits can do such things as wirelessly transferring one’s music library between a laptop computer and an MP3 player or “dumping” the contents of a digital camera to a computer.

It primarily allows data streams conforming to the Bluetooth protocols to be transmitted over the 802.11b/g WiFi network just by using the media-transfer levels of that specification. This takes advantage of the fact that a lot of the smartphones and the laptop computers have Bluetooth and WiFi wireless technology built in to them; and that premium MP3 players like the Apple iPod Touch will offer WiFi and Bluetooth on the same device. This is a situation that will become more common as chip manufacturers develop “all-in-one” WiFi / Bluetooth radio chipsets. For applications requiring a small data stream, the device just engages a single Bluetooth transceiver with the regular Bluetooth stack, which can save on battery power.

Intel had developed “My WiFi” which is a competing standard for a personal area network based on the WiFi technology with the devices using the full list of protocols and standards applicable to regular LAN applications. The idea was to have the laptop “split” its wireless-network ability into a client for a WiFi LAN and a very-low-power access point for a WiFi LAN which is the personal area network. At the moment, this technology is limited to laptops based on the Centrino 2 platform and requires that the laptop, being a general-purpose computer, becomes a “hub” device for the personal area network. But what could happen could be that other WiFi chipset vendors would license this technology and implement it into their designs, which could extend it towards other applications.

This would lead to a highly-competitive space for technologies that connect the wireless personal area network together, especially if the primary device of the network is a laptop computer. It could also incite manufacturers of devices like digital still and video cameras to include WiFi and Bluetooth in to these devices.

Who knows what the future will hold for the wireless personal area network.

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The Mobile Internet Devices becoming the trend for this year

O2’s Joggler, formerly OpenFrame, launches in UK this April

Over the past few months, a new device category has started to emerge in the form of the Mobile Internet Device. It would have the functionality of one of today’s smartphones except for cellular voice and data communications.

The device would link to a home or other network using 802.11g or 802.11n WPA2 wireless or use a Bluetooth-connected mobile phone as its modem when it wants to benefit from the Internet. They will work as a media player, a games machine or an Internet-based information device. Some of these devices may benefit from extra software being downloaded on to them through a Web portal set up by their manufacturer or supplier. The primary user interface on all of these devices is a touch screen, but they may have extra keys for access to regular functions. They would mainly use a standard or micro SD card and / or built-in flash memory as their user storage and have their software loaded on other flash memory.

Interestingly, Clarion, one of the most respected car-audio brands, had developed the ClarionMIND which is a combination of a portable navigation device and a mobile Internet device. This gadget provides in-car and on-foot satellite navigation as well as Internet information access and media playback. If it is installed in a matching dock, the unit works like a high-end portable navigation device, passes its audio through the car stereo system and matches its display to “day” or “night” mode according to how you operate the car’s headlight switch.

The iPod Touch was one such device that predicted this device-category trend. It had the ability to play or show media held within it and was able to benefit from a wireless home network by being able to browse the web or add on software through the iTunes App Store.

But could they make the smartphone or connected electronic picture frame / portable navigation device / portable media player redundant? Not really. I would see them as a companion device for all mobile phones and a device which can perform functions complementary to these other devices.

For example, a mobile Internet device could become a DLNA Digital Media Controller / UPnP AV Control point for the DLNA Home Media Network. Similarly, they could perform other control functions that are becoming part of networked home automation. As well, they could be seen as an alternative to handheld games consoles by being able to download games from the Web portal. Other applications would include Web activities where very little text entry needs to be done such as monitoring information pages.

It would be certainly interesting to see how the new Mobile Internet Devices fit in to the personal computing ecosystem as they start to appear on the market.

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Wi-Fi for your Car, Truck, or MPV

 

Wi-Fi for your Car, Truck, or MPV

My Comments

One factor that is often missed when WiFi in the car is mentioned is the idea of network-hosted media in the car. This should cover access to Internet-hosted media like Internet radio through the car stereo, the ability to sync to the master media library at home whether the vehicle is at home or away and DLNA functionality at home or away.

The last function would cover DLNA media play through the car audio system whenever there is a DLNA media server in or near the car. A situation that would be covered in this setup would be to play music files held on a DLNA-enabled laptop or mobile phone or a home network’s DLNA server through the car speakers. Similarly, music could be downloaded to a hard disk installed in the car from these sources for later playback. In a similar vein, the car stereo could be a DLNA media server for RV (caravan) and holiday-home setups where the media library could be available through a UPnP AV-compliant media client device in the RV or holiday-home. This same setup can also please tradesmen who don’t want to hear the usual radio content on the job.

Another issue that needs to be raised is to have wireless broadband service at a cost-effective rate so that more people can think of benefiting from the technology.

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Ultra-Low-Power Wireless Networking

Recently semiconductor manufacturers like Intel and members of the Bluetooth consortium have been working on reference circuit designs for Bluetooth and WiFi network hardware that is designed around reduced power consumption and small circuit footprint. They will still have the same power output as current-generation wireless-network devices.

Ozmo and Intel are now looking at using the physical layer standards of WiFi beyond the local area network. They are looking at competing with Wireless USB and Bluetooth by using it as a “personal area network” or linking peripherals, typically user-interface peripherals, to a computing device. Their idea is that if a computing device like a laptop, mobile phone or portable media player has WiFi functionality for network access, the same WiFi electronics can be used for connection to wireless peripherals. It is in a similar sense where one uses a Bluetooth-capable laptop computer and uses that Bluetooth functionality for connection to a mobile phone as well as using a Bluetooth mouse.

Initially this technology will work as a way of allowing gadgets like mobile phones and MP3 players that have Bluetooth or WiFi functionality to work for longer sessions without “running out of juice” or needing to spend significant amounts of time being hooked up to external power. It could even lead to the feasibility of running this class of devices on commonly-available batteries like AA alkaline batteries. In the case of “small-form-factor” devices like watches or key-fob / card-size remote controls, they could be able to benefit from WiFi or Bluetooth technologies while running for their expected battery life of at least 3 months on one or two “button-cell” batteries.

Subsequently, the technology will allow the WiFi LAN technology to be considered useful for device control subsystems like handheld or key-fob remote controls and control / display units that are part of any building control and security application. Such devices could then be able to run on the same power quota as devices of this class based on current technology i.e at least 6 months on a set of 2-4 AA or AAA alkaline batteries or 1-2 “button cells” rather than manufacturer-specific rechargeable battery packs that require the device to live in a charging cradle. This can give RF-based remote control the ability to work in a home network that is optimised for the building. It also permits one to design a network device that has only a wired (Ethernet or HomePlug powerline) network connection but can exchange control signals with an optional WiFi-based controller that works through the wireless home network hosted by the wireless router that the device is connected to using a wired network connection. Similarly, a central HVAC system could use one or more wireless-linked temperature sensors to gain a proper measurement of house temperature instead of referring to the thermostat located in the hallway or kitchen.

As we se more of the semiconductor manufacturers and the wireless networking standards bodies work on the ultra-low-power wireless client device, there could be many new applications for WiFi and Bluetooth being made real and a huge gateway of innovation could open up.

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WiFi tops poll for best technological innovation of last decade – Telegraph

 

WiFi tops poll for best technological innovation of last decade – Telegraph

What has WiFi been about especially for the home IT environment?

One major way WiFi has benefited the home IT environment is the increased sale of laptop computers (http://www.australianit.news.com.au/story/0,24897,24851973-15306,00.html?referrer=email) over desktop computers. This typically would manifest in a home computing environment consisting of one or more laptop computers that have built-in WiFi wireless ability. The network – Internet “edge” device in this environment would be a wireless router that brings the Internet to these laptops via WiFi wireless. In some countries, the standard provider-supplied “customer premises equipment” for Internet service would be equipped with WiFi wireless capability.

Increasingly, nearly every printer manufacturer is running at least one residential-tier multi-function printer equipped with network ability, typically with WiFi network access. This means that the printer can be located in one position wherever the user desires and print documents from their laptop. There also is the increasing number of “Internet radios” or “i-Radios” that use WiFi to bring Internet radio streams to the speakers in these sets.

This may not be strictly a home-IT environment issue but the number of “hotspots” and “hotzones” that are part of public places is now increasing. These WiFi-based public networks are allowing for anywhere computing.

This has also caused most current-model mobile phones and PDA devices to be equipped with WiFi wireless thus allowing for cost-effective portable Web browsing and, increasingly, DLNA-driven music management and playback. These phones will eventually lead to WiFi being another mobile-telephone network usually in the form of fixed-mobile communications for example.

There have been attempts to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg” by limiting WiFi or making it unpopular. It has mainly been based on the “electromagnetic waves being dangerous to people” theory being propagated as part of junk science, but real scientific tests have proven that the RF emissions yielded by typical WiFi and Bluetooth setups none or very little detrimental effect on people.

Even without this article, I would certainly agree that WiFi has become an important computer technology for all IT scenarios.

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Broadcom's New 802.11n Chip Includes Bluetooth and FM | WiFi Planet

 

Broadcom’s New 802.11n Chip Includes Bluetooth and FM

My Comments

I see this design as being increasingly relevant because of the way major electronics manufacturers are building “best of class” personal-electronics devices in all of the device classes (mobile phone, personal digital assistant, personal media player, etc) that they offer such devices in. The main issue that has plagued people who use these devices is the increased likelihood of the device’s battery dying on them when they want to get the best out of the device.

I see this design as a step in the right direction regarding long battery run-time for these devices because, as the article has said,  of integrating the WiFi N, Bluetooth and FM radio circuitry in to the one circuit with improved power consumption. This is certainly important if the device is to be used in a wireless network and with a Bluetooth headset for example.

It also encourages device builders to consider not just Internet-hosted services but network-based services like DLNA-based media server / control / play functionality. Now that this version of the chip integrates low-power FM transmission, this could appeal to the idea of a “music phone” or personal media player with DLNA media play functionality playing music from its own collection or a DLNA network media server through an ordinary FM radio.

At least this chipset will be a step in the right direction for “raising the bar” in personal-electronics design.

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