Monday, August 25, 2008

Extending a Cell Signal With zBoost

Although I'm curious about the AIRAVE, I'm not on Sprint and not convinced it's worth switching just for the AIRAVE capability.

But I do have a signal problem at my house, and I'm currently testing out the zBoost Wi-Ex signal booster to see how much of a dent it can make.

Unlike AIRAVE, which creates a local CDMA network and bridges it to another backhaul, the Wi-Ex is an RF repeater/amplifier. So you need to feed it a signal -- from somewhere nearby that has a signal -- and it extends the signal via a new base station and antenna.

So far I'm inconclusive on the quantitative results. Certainly, in my house, the coverage area it creates is closer to 600 square feet than the 2500 square feet advertised. But as with any RF setup, there are so many variables that this doesn't prove a heck of a lot.

I can report positive results on a qualitative measure.

Normally, the signal is so weak inside my house that, without this unit, I can receive a call signal (e.g., ring or text message) but as soon as I press "talk" it drops. 100% of the time. Also, my Blackjack had never successfully retrieved a web page from inside the house. With the zBoost unit, there is  qualitative difference: The data connection can retrieve web pages -- sometimes slower, sometimes faster, but pretty much successfully. And if I receive a call, I can answer without the call dropping instantly. Again, depending on various things the call quality may be better or worse -- but there is always a call there, struggling to get through. Which despite being reminiscent of 1995 is a major improvement.

What I'm wondering is ... if, as zBoost claims, the device is FCC legit and is designed not to create trouble for the existing cell network, why don't the cell carriers themselves sell this device? It seems like it could help them extend their reach geographically and satisfy a few more customers.

And before you suggest that they don't offer it because doing so would be tantamount to admitting their existing network footprint isn't solid, note that both T-Mobile and Sprint are already selling personal femtocells and rumors are that AT&T isn't far behind. And anyway, spotty coverage inside buildings has never been any kind of secret.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Airave and Network Sniffing for Fun and Profit

Sprint's AIRAVE BYOB (bring-your-own-backhaul) femtocell went on sale nationwide this week. Reviews seem mildly positive; it kind of costs a bunch considering you're subsidizing Sprint's infrastructure, but it's marketed toward people who have little other choice.

I don't have one (I'm not on Sprint at the moment). But if I did, the second thing I'd do with it is to start sniffing the traffic it sends back up the wire.

But all that data would be encrypted, right? Well, maybe ... and maybe not. Since Excel files seem to be an enterprise data store of choice these days for companies handling sensitive personal information, and since telcos are not the science-fair winners of the class but more like that kid in the back that just giggles all day keeps getting his lollipop stuck in his own hair, it wouldn't surprise me if they think ADPCM is encryption.

Even if some or all of the call content is encrypted, though, one could probably learn a lot about the signaling layer of the system -- i.e., how the network identifies and talks to the phones to indicate presence or session initiation.

Why would this be useful?

Well, for one thing, it would be interesting to use the AIRAVE as a presence detection mechanism. Once I can determine that the base station has recognized a known cell phone ID, I can automate all sorts of things that are supposed to happen when I'm nearby.

Applications include home automation (open locks, turn off the alarm); media (access and/or license to all of the media I own "appears" on any connected device when I'm nearby with my cell phone, and goes away when I leave); or for commerce: my hotel reservation, preferences at a restaurant, or online search history for a retailer can cue up automagically as I enter range.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Tripeedo Brings Travel Search Full-Circle

I couldn't help but crack up when I read a post about Tripeedo, an AJAX-enabled "command line for travel," since of course all this reservation searching stuff was on a command line to begin with, on a terminal a generation older than this hideous beast. And in fact while the hardware has mercifully been emulated away, the protocols are still in wide use under the hood in the travel industry.

I had to use a command line like this as recently as 2006 for a project. Unlike tripeedo's version, I recall the search started with a strange lozenge character that doesn't seem to have a proper Unicode name, but was part of the 6-bit EBCDIC charset these terminals used when they were deployed in 1969. Then came a letter or a delimiter of some sort, and then a line like 15AUGSFODFW to look at flights on August 15th from SFO to DFW.

I thought I'd try it in Tripeedo. The site prefers the month first, and it likes spaces. And, unlike the old system, it has lowercase letters too!

So I type "15 aug sfo dfw" and get some flights to look at. In 1969, this was the future.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

iPhone Brings New Attention to AT&T's Existing 3G Problem

The wave has been building for a few days now, with consumers, Apple, and AT&T sparring over the problems with the iPhone 3G staying connected (and on 3G).

Today seems to be a local maximum and the mainstream media are starting to look.

If you read this blog regularly, you're probably expecting me to blame Apple for the problem, then blame Apple again for denying there's a problem, then blame Apple fanboys for putting up with it all for so long then suddenly acting betrayed.


As much as that might be a valid argument -- especially the part about Apple denying there's a problem -- this one is really not their fault.

It's kind of AT&T's fault -- and kind of GSM's fault -- and kind of just mediocre engineering.

A while back, I wrote about similar experiences with my Samsung Blackjack on AT&T. I've also seen the same thing with the AT&T 8525 (Cingular 8525 / HTC TyTn), as this was one of the first multi-protocol, multi-band 3G devices on that network.

Most people don't have any idea what this is all about, since their devices cannot experience this specific sort of problem because they don't support 3G, and so never have to resolve between 3G, EDGE, GPRS, etc.

In this case, AT&T argues that one suspect, the Infineon chipset, is not to blame because it's the same one in Samsung devices, with which they have had little problem. I don't think that's their strongest argument: others appear to be having as much trouble as I do with the Blackjack/3G. We just never made as much noise as the iPhone folks.

Perhaps a better argument would be that it affects all the EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA devices on the network and then maybe blame GSM for having such a funky data transport technology roadmap over the last 10 years.

I'm not saying AT&T could easily do better -- maybe they need more capacity and a tune-up of switching algorithms. A CNET article points to GSM carrier T-Mobile Netherlands having the same problem. And even though CDMA is worlds better as a technology, it's nice to have a little competition out there: two CDMA carriers for the U.S. out of four majors is enough.

So what does all this mean?

First, I'll tip my hat for once to the iPhonosphere and the obsessive media that love them: this is a real issue and we all know it takes a lot of volume to be heard talking to a telco.

Second, even Steve Jobs' strong-arming of the carriers worldwide (and good for him on that one!) doesn't mean everything is really under his control. According to this Sydney Morning Herald story, Apple didn't provide any test units to some carriers until the day before the product release, hoping it would all "just work."

To paraphrase someone I used to work with, in technology "hope is not a strategy."

Non-compete Ruling May Indirectly Help Broken Organizations

Last week's California court ruling against non-competes is interesting, not least because I've had one client who was more interested in a getting me to sign a specially crafted non-compete that he hoped to use in a lawsuit than in having me actually deliver work.

Actually I'm not sure this ruling would even affect independent contractors like me; the view of employment law towards contractors (where it applies at all) is very different from that toward employees.

This ruling may play a small role spurring innovation by making it easier for employees to quit and then compete with their former employer.

I'm also hopeful that the newly prominent threat of such competition may encourage dysfunctional tech organizations to renew their efforts at achieving better group dynamics. (Is there such a thing as therapy for whole organizations? No, I don't mean those motivational or consulting clown-schools that involve offsites and create a distraction ... at least until the check is cashed.)

In addition to the ominpresent threat that one's best employees might leave, there is now renewed emphasis on the fact that a group of them might well leave together and "do it right" if they can.

While the ruling does not of course give anyone license to loot protected IP from the former company, history shows that's rarely the issue in Silicon Valley anyway.

Every development manager should view this as a wake-up call to think about keeping the team on board.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Format Shifting

The dead-tree-publishing world is slowly starting to worry about online, possibly illegal, distribution of books. Not nearly enough to get smart about it though.

To me, it seems brain-dead obvious that if I buy a paper copy of a book for anywhere from $20 to $50, I ought to be able to use an electronic copy. I don't know the law on this, but I don't have pangs of conscience downloading a gray-market PDF of a book I've already bought, because the publisher wants to charge me again for an "e-book bundle" or because they make the content available in an annoying format.

But that's just the tip of the blade. In a short while, things like Kindle will take off, and the next generation -- motivated to leap in because of expensive textbooks -- will start assuming all books will be free.

Publishers should be experimenting with their models right now in attempt to adapt.

Here's one idea: the whole hardcover-softcover release cycle makes about as much sense as releasing a movie in the U.S. on Wednesday and not expecting it to be an xvid in homes in Thailand by Friday.

I like paper books, but I don't like hardcover books for anything non-classic. They're overly large, awkward to carry, just plain silly. So what happens when a publisher releases a new book I want to read in hardcover? I'm not inclined to buy it -- heck if I wanted to carry the hardcover around I could just get it out of the library.

I could download it as soon as someone puts it online, but I would want to print and bind it ... so I'd have to submit it as a print-on-demand job somewhere, hope they don't complain about the copyrighted material, and get it sent to me. I guess Kinko's is an option.

Anyone else see the problem/opportunity here?

For now, anyway, the hassle and cost of print-on-demand makes it a cost-neutral issue; I simply don't have the option getting a bound paper copy of the book for free. So given that I'm willing to -- and indeed must -- spend money to get the book, why won't the publisher sell it to me in the format I want?

Publishers ought to be taking the risks and making the friends now, before e-book readers make a big dent in the marker. Otherwise, it will be game over soon enough.

And before anyone suggests that the publishers play some critical role in blessing publications, I would point out that is just an artifact of the traditional physical distribution mechanism (paper, shelf space, etc.) ... the Internet already allows vastly more content than could be run through a press and tossed up at Borders. It's not all "good" ... but the net does a fine at creating search, moderation, and recommendation networks that allow one to find the good stuff, in a way that 3x5 "recommendation" cards tacked under a bookshelf at the local store cannot.

Rails and .Net Had One Thing in Common Before ASP.Net-MVC: Magic

It's possible now to build a very Rails-like website via ASP.Net MVC. And at RailsConf, John Lam showed IronRuby starting to run Rails.

But long before all this, these two very different platforms had one thing in common: "magic."

By magic, I mean the sort of implicit, we-solve-problems-you-didn't-even-know-you-had kind of magic that makes it easy for people who don't know the details, don't want to know the details, or know but don't want to be bothered by the details to build an app.

From ASP.Net's first iteration, where you could drop an item on a "web form," wire a server-side event handler, and talk to items on the page through a .Net server-side object interface, ASP.Net has been heavy on the magic. Rails has been the same way, from scaffolding up through ActiveRecord, you point Rails in the direction you want to go and it drives.

Of course we all know about the leaky abstractions... in .Net, you used to get some funky HTML and Javascript, plus a server-based page lifecycle that didn't always match the model of what you wanted to do with the DOM. In Rails, we've seen perf issues, and discussions of the "worst practices" [pdf] that can result from letting the autopilot do too much and your brain too little when writing for Rails.

But in any case -- as opposed to a framework like Django (which included a big feature push called 'removing the magic' to make functionality more explicit) -- Rails and .Net give you as much magic as they can.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

[How] Will Microsoft Weather a Perfect Storm?

Last week's article What Is Microsoft So Afraid Of? is meant to be provocative ... but it is also real reporting.

Thinking about the situation Microsoft is in, I believe the firm has, at a high level, quite a lot to be worried about ... a sort of perfect storm of high-level business trends, many of which transcend any individual product or feature. Big trends are harder to debug and then patch on Tuesdays.

Here are the issues:

  1. Declining importance of the desktop OS. As people spend more and more time in their browsers, the OS underneath it matters less. The trend is definitely toward more browser-based apps, even if they employ Flash or Silverlight or other acceleration technologies. Offline support is moving slowly but together with cloud (Mesh?) storage, will make the local filesystem less important.
  2. Rise of OS X as a real competitor -- between publicity, 'time to sink in,' and the decreasing premium that Apple charges for a Mac over a similarly equipped Dell/Acer/Toshiba laptop, OS X is a real and growing threat to Windows.
  3. Bill's off to save the world. For a while now, Bill has been the good cop (hey, stop laughing, I'm serious) to Steve Ballmer's bad cop. Now that Gates has retired to work on philanthropy, and Ballmer's the CEO, we're seeing more dumb-ass bad-cop stuff like the Mojave experiment, and less brilliant product strategy. Microsoft needs a good cop to pair off with Steve.
  4. Vista failure. The .Net platform was one of the smartest, most successful things Microsoft has ever done, an enormous accomplishment that brought enterprise IT shops and other developers along. Following that up with Vista isn't just bad at the retail (license selling) level, it shakes enterprise confidence in MSFT, and ticks off developers. From a developer POV, most of the cool stuff in Vista was gutted, or moved somewhere else ... or never really worked very well (WPF), after years of build-up. Now MSFT desperately needs devs to buy into "the next thing," and they're hesitant.
  5. Silverlight stuck in transition: Silverlight 2 is an awesome technology... but it has two problems: First, small penetration, unknown/unpublished penetration numbers, and no specific numeric commitment by MSFT to create penetration on PCs. Second, folks are sceptical that Silverlight on Mac really has a future. If that's in doubt, it seriously impacts the choice to use Silverlight because of #2 above. I can say that I've already had more than one client interested in doing serious work on Silverlight 2, but they insist on installed base projections (not download numbers) to make the business decision, and I don't blame them.
  6. Rise of console gaming: PC gaming was always a key part of the "latest and greatest" PC/OS/component ecosystem, plus it helped press down Mac adoption. As consoles (including Microsoft's own Xbox 360) gain, this relative benefit of the Wintel client platform goes down... and yet MSFT still has to spend a ton on R&D if they intend to keep the PC gaming client (DirectX and hardware integration) decent. So less bang for the buck there.
  7. Rise of USB. Now that practically everything runs over USB, it's easier for device makers to offer Linux, MacOS, etc. drivers (the upper layers can often be just user-space apps). So on the peripheral front there is less Windows differentiation in terms of hardware choices, and less lock-in.
  8. Reluctance to innovate with server licensing model. Most startups dream of going big, and they assume they'll do so on an open-source stack -- not because Windows Server isn't a killer product ... but because the current licensing for Server makes it a non-starter for cloud services or for architectures designed around cheap, flexible horizontal scaling. An easy fix is to add auditing to the core WMI counters and create a Windows Server SKU that costs $0 per CPU and $0 per client ... but to stay in compliance you average your transaction count, or SQL size/complexity + operation count and then cut a license renewal check. Make it free (as in beer, with online-only support) for the first few thousand page views per month for a typical app, and it'll rapidly start taking over a big piece of the startup and cloud/on-demand computing world.

All this said, big companies tend to have nine lives (even if Yahoo! seems intent on burning through all nine of them). So I'm not about to count Microsoft out, or suggest an "over-the-hill" tipping point is at hand. Just some big decisions, both strategic and tactical, that ought to be made well and soon.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

So What's the Deal With ... ?

  • ... those tech videos where the topic sounds interesting but I have to watch 3 guys chat about it in real time for 45 minutes? Like I have nothing better to do than watch people talk? Give me the slide deck, the bullets, a transcript, something I can scan through and read, since I know it's going to take me 4 minutes max to sort through the content.
  • ... 10gen and the folks that want to write yet another server computing platform ... in JavaScript, and then compete with Google using their $1.5 million in VC? Ever since Douglas Crockford schooled me in the true nature of JavaScript, I've had little bad to say about the language. But why yet another platform for server-side computing? 10gen's argument that Google's AppEngine is too closed and locks apps in seems like a stretch: you can run Python/Django apps on AppEngine ... or somewhere else. Yes, the Google data API is their own, but it's simpler than a relational database API -- if you really need to use Google's data API over your own data store, it won't be hard to set up. There's also Rails, which is open and has the advantage (over 10gen) of being well known already ... If you don't think Rails can work as a cloud platform, talk to Heroku.
  • ... Symbian's S60 emulator triggering DEP faults, so that Windows has to kill it? I can imagine how one might, when writing an emulator, run afoul of DEP ... But this is my first run-in with an app fatally triggering it, and I've already used Microsoft's device emulators, Palm's emulators, VMWare, and Sun's xVM VirtualBox (a VM is not the same as an emulator ... but some parts of the VM function via emulation) ... and had no problems.
  • ... all the enmity toward Windows from the Rails guys? First, Ruby and Rails run fine on Windows, there's no need for all the "we specifically won't say anything about working on Windows, I mean, if you're crazy enough to want to do that" stuff that keeps popping up in otherwise respectable books. Second, many (most?) of the top Rails hackers are so young, they probably don't even remember Microsoft's real "bad old days." Yes, Microsoft has done some shady things worth complaining about. The fact that IE 7 doesn't render your CSS the way you wanted is not one of them.
  • ... those posts where an unknown wantrepreneur with no valley connections or financing seeks a successful, experienced, genius hacker to build his mediocre but top secret idea for equity only? The posts crop up constantly on craigslist and all the SF tech meetup mailing lists. If this kind of post represents your thought process, why not just skip step 1 and 2, and post for people to send you a burlap sack full of cash?