Archive for January, 2008

DLNA adds mobile phone to the mix

Nokia’s eight-gigabyte model of the N95 today became the first wireless handset to receive Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) certification, an important step in the drive for a fully connected digital home. This recognition, typically reserved for home networking technologies, means that consumers will be able to connect to their computers wirelessly to stream content like photos, music and video from their N95.

The DLNA, an organization that advocates the interoperability of wired and wireless consumer devices, essentially allows for connectivity between any DLNA-certified home electronics device and a consumer’s personal computer. The alliance has certified the Nokia N95 8GB as a mobile digital media server, acknowledging what Anssi Vanjoki, executive vice president of markets for Nokia, calls a prime example of the direction mobility is taking. Vanjoki said the handset is “personal, powerful and fits seamlessly into your life inside and outside the home.”

Although, with a price tag of $750, it had better. Consumers would have to find the mini-computer compelling as a complete entertainment experience to make the purchase. That being said, Nokia does appear to being making good on its promises of openness and seamless interoperability between devices and services from different brands.

The main perk for consumers is that they can use the Nokia N95 8GB to take pictures, listen to music or watch videos and then share that content wirelessly on any of the 1,800 computer or consumer electronic products that share the DLNA certification. Plus, the DLNA support is free for subscribers and integrated into both the North American and European models of the phone.

As mobile phones continue to gain traction as multimedia computers and social networking and content sharing continues to entrance thousands of consumers, the seamless mobility functions may prove significant to Nokia’s success. It is fair to say more carriers will try to get aligned with the certification body. As long as the telcos’ in-home network bandwidth can support it, the more DLNA-certified devices in the home, the better.

Apple on location

iPhone Maps JpegPerhaps Steve Jobs’ mock location demo wasn’t so mock after all. Tuesday at his keynote at MacWorld, the Apple CEO showed off the iPhone’s ability to pinpoint his location in Moscone West using information from the wireless networks the phone was linked to. Google has had this rather useful feature enabled for several months on all of its stand-alone versions of Google Maps , so the demo seemed to be old news as well as far-fetched, since cellular location isn’t that accurate.

But it turns out there was more to the demo than met the eye. The iPhone wasn’t just triangulating location from cell towers, but tapping into location data from the dozens of Wi-Fi routers that litter Moscone. Apple has contracted out with Skyhook Wireless to provide Wi-Fi location. Shyhook is one of several companies that have wandered around major metro areas with a signal sniffer, mapping the Media Application Control (MAC) addresses of every access point it can find. It doesn’t matter if a Wi-Fi network is private, the access point still reveals its address to the public, giving Skyhook hundreds of thousands of quasi-unique identifiers which it then maps to GPS coordinates. When the iPhone detects a signal, Skyhook knows where its owner is within the radius of the Wi-Fi router, and if it detects more than one signal, additonal software can pinpoint an approximate location.

According to Skyhook, cellular location can put as much as 1000 meters off from your location–not good for vehicle navigation–while Wi-Fi positioning is accurate to within 50 meters most of the time. The problem is, Wi-Fi may seem like it’s everywhere, but it’s not everywhere. Being in the middle of a convention center that is crammed with Wi-Fi, Jobs had no problems, but try getting it on the freeway or on a train or outside of a dense residential area. All it needs is a weak signal, but in some cases a weak signal is hard to come by. The other issue is that access points, unlike base stations, are fairly portable. They go online and offline, people move them about in a house or they just plain move. A MAC address registering in New York one week can wind up in Cleveland the next.

Skyhook adjusts its maps accordingly when a displaced MAC address is detected, but Jobs doesn’t appear to be taking any chances. The iPhone is using both Google’s cellular-location and Skyhook’s Wi-Fi positioning simultaneously. Not bad, but wouldn’t it have just been easier to embed GPS in the thing?

Jobs keynote: A second look at the iPhone’s configurable interface

I take back my initial reaction to the iPhone’s new configurable interface after digging into a few of the details–and some chastisement from Telephony Senior Editor Rich Karpinski. Said Rich:

“The ‘re-arrangeable’ home screen isn’t all fluff but a nod to the still-to-come iPhone SDK, which will let third parties build applications which now — at the user’s choice — can apparently bump Apple apps to the background. At first glance at least, Apple is moving from a locked-down apps and deck to something fairly user-configurable.”

As Rich points out, Apple seems to be doing more than just rearrange icons. It’s allowing iPhone users to tailor the interfaces of their phones, initially allowing them to turn a bookmarked Web site into a Webclip that can be pasted as an icon on the iPhone home screen. It’s a nifty feature, but as Rich points out, its true potential lies in what the user can do when the SDK comes out and suddenly hundreds of Safari and Mac OS apps become available for the iPhone. Like Mapquest instead of Google Maps? Well, supposedly you can replace the latter with the former on the interface.

The significance of this may not be readily apparent, but anyone who has ever downloaded a third-party app onto a feature phone or smartphone knows how hard it is to find your pet application afterwards. It’s usually buried down in the applications folder among dozens, if not hundreds, of icons. One of the primary reasons the iPhone is so successful is because of its ease-of-use and the sleekness of its interface. The reason it’s so sleek, though, is Apple now controls every application on the deck. Once you start introducing third-party apps (like the ones Google is now offering) the seamlessly organized interface of the iPhone suddenly begins to look like a touch-screen mess. Apple is obviously trying to get ahead of that problem–so much so that it is actually creating the ability to have up to nine home screens which you can flip through with the flick of finger. I assume that means you can have a gaming home screen, a navigation home screen and an e-mail screen, if you like. Whether the average iPhone user takes advantage of all of these new functions is anyone’s guess, but Apple seems to be doing as much as it can to let people bring their own content to the forefront–something the carriers and even the more innovative handset makers like Nokia have really failed to do.

Want the update? Chances are, you already have it. Apple is automatically updating the iPhone software during synchronization to iTunes 7. A Quicktime Demo of the the new configurable interface is available on the Apple iPhone site as is an MPEG-4 or Quicktime video of Jobs’ keynote (why Apple doesn’t webcast it live, I have no idea).

As for the location-based services hoopla, I still stand by my initial assessment. As you may recall, Google introduced this element to mobile versions of Google Maps across the board a few months backs after it grew impatient with the lack of GPS penetration in phones. Jobs demoed the app on the iPhone at MacWorld, but I–and a lot of other people–suspect that Jobs had his coordinates pre-programmed for the network to pinpoint him so quickly in Moscone Center in San Francisco. The network triangulation Google uses is handy, but it’s not exactly the most accurate means of determining location. Don’t get me wrong–it’s an incredibly handy feature–but Jobs might be selling us some false expectations again just like he sold us on the lightening-fast browsing speeds of the iPhone.

Jobs keynote: New laptop but no WiMAX

Apple CEO Steve Jobs dispelled the anticipation of a second major wireless announcement at MacWorld: the prospect of WiMAX-embedded Apple notebook computer. Apple did release a new laptop, and it has a new radio interface, but the new eco-friendly MacBook Air comes embedded with an IEEE 802.11n chip, the new high-capacity, long-range Wi-Fi solution that has yet to become fully standardized.

While the new laptop is definitely a win for Apple’s environmental critics (mercury- and arsenic-free in the housing, with caustic chemicals removed from the circuitry) as well as for the Draft N sector, the WiMAX industry might be a bit disappointed. (For more details about the Air and other up-to-the-minute updates and photos from MacWorld check out Gizmodo’s live blog.) But then again, the likelihood of Apple releasing a WiMAX laptop anytime soon was pretty slim. So far Sprint has only two live networks up and running and not a single commercial subscriber online while Clearwire still hasn’t migrated its networks to WiMAX. Apple supports new technology (well, with the exception of 3G), but it also has to have a market. So we can just chalk this one up to overly high expectations.

The iPhone is another story. Jobs announced that Apple has sold 4 million of these suckers now. That’s an impressive feat, and as long as he can keep milking the EDGE device for all its worth, he probably has little incentive to come out with the highly anticipated 3G version of the iPhone. Stay tuned for Associate Editor Sarah Reedy’s podcast with the Yankee Group’s John Jackson about the wireless implications of Apple’s new wares. Also, check back with Telephony Unfiltered for more analysis of the new configurable aspects of the iPhone.

Jobs Keynote: Apple TV gets a facelift

Jobs didn’t neglect AppleTV — designed to be an accessory for iTunes, but now so much more — “Take 2” if you will. Jobs announced that movies, including new releases from all major studios, will be available through rental through iTunes and playable anywhere — Macs, PCs, iPods and iPhone and AppleTV.

Now, with its new user interface, no computer is required for AppleTV. Movies can be rented directly onto AppleTV and, here’s the biggie, watched in high-definition with 5.1 surround sound. Users can also view video and audio podcasts, photos from Flickr — both your own and your friends’ photos — or .Mac, YouTube, buy TV shows and music streamed back to the computer.

At least for the demo, movies take about 30 seconds to load and work the same way they do on iTunes on your PC. As with the iPhone, the software update to get these new features is available free, but the AppleTV is priced at $299. Although, for the love of Macworld, starting today its only $229 and Apple will ship the free software update to existing owners and new units in two weeks. Jobs said he wants everyone to have the new software, so that’s not a bad start.

Jobs keynote: Customizable iPhone screen–big whoop

Instead of unveiling the next iPhone, Apple CEO Jobs used his MacWorld pulpit to tout new iPhone features, none of which are that earth-shattering and many of which, agruably, should have been included in the initial iPhone launch.

1) SMS: Sending messages to multiple recipients. Come on….

2) Location: The iPhone has no GPS, but it can use the mobile network to triangulate a user’s approximate position. Nifty. Apple, however, announced this capability months ago for the Java and OS versions of Google Maps. Nothing new here.

3) Lyrics Support: As Telephony Senior Editor Ed Gubbins said “So it can be like a portable, handheld karaoke [device]? My God, it is a great time to be alive…”

4) Customizable Interface: Here’s the big one if you can call it big. You can move the iPhone icons around by “shaking” the device, bringing your content to the forefront and maximizing applications you use most. Nifty, but again not earth-shattering.

Looks like there’s no new iPhone on the plate today, but we’ll see what else Jobs has in store.

Apple expectations

The Apple store is officially down for maintenance. That can only mean one thing: CEO Steve Jobs keynote, beginning as I type, will reveal new Apple products. The question is, will we just see a batch of new iPods or is today the fateful day Apple releases the 3G iPhone? The iPhone isn’t the only anticipated wireless product. Rumors have been circulating that Apple will release laptops embedded with WiMAX chips, a move that could be of massive significance to Sprint and Clearwire. Updates to come.

CES: Intel and Moto’s WiMAX ride

When I climbed into the SUV in the Las Vegas Convention Center parking lot, Motorola Networks CTO Dan Coombes asked, “Got your laptop? Well, pop it open.” Moto and Intel had set up a demo WiMAX network around the convention center and Las Vegas strip, and they aimed to show it off. But instead of passively watching the typical demo, they invited me to try to push the networks to its limits while they carted me around the city. I love a challenge.

To set up some context, Motorola and Intel were taking a bit of a risk of here. We all know the rules of demos. Half the time they don’t work. Wireless demos are particularly cantankerous–which usually explains the Ethernet cord that snakes out from under the counter. So, to do a live demo in a moving vehicle during rush hour traffic in one of the most congested areas of the U.S. took some chutzpah.

Motorola and Intel have done this kind of thing before. In Chicago at WiMAX World, Motorola rented out a tourist boat and cruised it up and down the Chicago river, running two dozen WiMAX devices at full tilt in the process. There, however, they had a base station every quarter to half mile, each pointing directly at the wide-open murky expanse of the river. There was no way that setup wasn’t going to deliver. In Vegas, though, the situation was a bit more tenuous. Moto decided to set up a temporary network using Clearwire spectrum six weeks before the Consumer Electronics Show, and according to Coombes, they had to rig an awful lot of stuff together at the last moment.

The access points were installed about a mile apart in rough circle around the convention center. There are no 25-story casinos sticking out of the Chicago river, so in Vegas Moto and Intel had to show that MIMO really works. The modem that Moto used was its newly announced MIMO home gateway, a device that really isn’t supposed to be moving around at 40 MPH leaping from sector to sector, Coombes explained. To get it to work, Coombes’ engineers yanked off the MIMO antennas, and taped on two large plastic flanges that looked as if they had been just cut off the Venetian blinds in his hotel room. This contraption along with a Wi-Fi router was mounted behind the backseat, while the rest of the car was packed to the gills with Intel-powered gadgetry all connected to the WiMAX modem through Ethernet cables and Wi-Fi.

My hosts warned there would be dead spots, and dead spots there were. As we passed under the towering steel curtain of the Wynn Hotel–where we stayed trapped for 10 minutes–in gridlock traffic, the Internet radio stream cut off, the onboard navigation system stopped remapping and everyone’s browsers popped up error screens. Meanwhile the WiMAX modem went haywire desparately searching for a signal. But after passing out from under the Wynn’s shadow–and quick reboot of the modem–the network worked impressively.

Admittedly we were one of the only three cars on the network so capacity wasn’t much of an issue, but I did my damndest to overtax the bugger. I simultaneously played YouTube videos on my Wi-Fi enabled phone, previewing songs from the iTunes store on an iPod touch, and downloading the biggest honking files I could find on my laptop. Meanwhile the Internet radio was blaring, the in-car navigator was chirping away and live video feeds from the other vehicles were streaming over a peer-to-peer connection on another computer (Coombes, who I suspect was a bit bored after a full day of reliving same demo, was also checking his e-mail via Outlook). And during all this IP commotion, I managed to navigate my way without the slightest hiccup.

I figured it was time for a real test, though. YouTube is for bandwidth-challenged sissies. Could the network handle a DVD-quality stream of a feature-length movie? So I went to Netflix’s movie-on-demand page and selected a good three-and-a-half hour long movie for our in-car enjoyment. This may have been a little more than I bargained for. My computer didn’t have the proper software, so Netflix began downloading all 25 MBs of Windows Media Player 11, updated my codecs and made me restart my computer. But as we pulled in to the parking lot of convention center, the opening credits of Les Miserables began playing full-screen on my computer. I admit, I was impressed.

Juniper loses its COO

At first glance, analysts do not appear to be too dismayed by the news of Juniper Networks’ chief operations officer resigning without a replacement. In a research note this morning, UBS Investment Research analyst Nikos Theodosopoulos called the announcement a definite negative for Juniper but said the router vendor’s strong fundamentals would outweigh any effect of Stephen Elop’s departure in coming months.

Elop, who joined Juniper as COO (a post created for him) only a year ago this month, was crucial to the router vendor as it conducted a sweeping internal overhaul. The man himself described some of those efforts to me in an interview last fall. In that sort of reorganization, it’s especially helpful to have an outsider at the helm to see things with a fresh pair of eyes. If Juniper is now on the tail end of those efforts, Elop’s importance may be ebbing anyway.

For day-to-day operations, I have posed the question before: Who needs a COO? Some studies have even suggested that CEOs with COOs perform worse because they rely on the COOs more.

In any case, if Juniper wants to maintain the position, Theodosopoulos had an interesting piece of advice in this morning’s note.

“Juniper may need to provide a path to CEO for the new COO in order to get a high-caliber candidate like Elop,” he wrote. “Juniper has had two COOs in the past, and both left the company within two years of starting.”

Juniper’s CEO for more than 11 years, quinquagenarian Scott Kriens, gives the impression he plans to stick around a while. If Juniper wants to lure a top-shelf, hard-working, ambitious COO, the company must realize that, to such a person, being COO won’t always be enough.

CES: Entering the point-and-click paradigm

I have a remote for my television set, DVD player, audio system and even one left over from the VCR days. As a result of my plethora of remotes, it often takes a good ten minutes and a lot of frustration to navigate between all the entertainment options. For this reason, I was especially excited to hear about software developer Hillcrest Laboratories’ news this week.

In conjunction with CES, Hillcrest announced it has secured an additional $25 million round of funding, led by new investor AllianceBernstein. Hillcrest said it will use the funds to further extend its pointer-based application creation platform and pointing technology to devices that control and display digital media.

As a start-up company seven years ago, Hillcrest has been in the development and innovation stages for the better part of its existence. Now as high-definition TV sets with higher resolutions improve the picture quality, encourage interactivity and new applications, 2008 is poised to be Hillcrest’s year to make it big.

In the fall, I spoke with Danny Briere, CEO of TeleChoice, who told me that Hillcrest is historically a favorite company of the analyst firm’s to follow because of the “insanely cool stuff” it develops. Specifically, he was referring to its sleek new air mouse that uses soft buttons on the TV set and an interface users navigate similar to the PC. Since insanely cool technologies are what CES is all about, I had to check it out for myself. Having done so, I wasn’t disappointed.

According to CEO Dan Simpkins, Hillcrest’s vision is to bring a new “‘point-and-click’ paradigm to the television and beyond” through its pointing technology, Freespace, which can be used in remote controls, PC mice, and game controllers. Parag Sheth, vice president of corporate marketing for Hillcrest, said that the traditional 100-button remote control will become a thing of the past as consumers want new ways to interact with all the content exploding today.

Hillcrest, which licenses its technology business to business to consumer electronic companies and service providers, is emphasizing two main differentiators in its pointer devices: efficiency of interaction – users can point anywhere on the screen without having to scroll, search or even aim at a particular point on the screen – and scalability of the presentation as users get access to hundreds of movie titles, their personal content, Internet services, games and traditional TV through spatial, contextual navigation.

The remotes are reminiscent of Nintendo’s Wii game-changing controllers that also require simply pointing and clicking. Sheth said that Hillcrest’s designs have some distinct advantages over the Wii, namely its Adaptive Tremor Removal. The technology gets rid of the natural tremor in user’s hand to allow for accuracy in pointing. Furthermore, it doesn’t require the level of activity that the Wii encourages. The devices works whether consumers hold the device upside as they lie on the couch, sideways or even if they are grabbing a drink in the other room. Using wireless RF technology, it doesn’t even have to be pointed at the TV set, STB or wherever the service provider opts to embed the software.

Steth said that we can expect service providers to begin marketing the technology in the summer of ‘08, and the company hopes to announce customers in the first half of the year. I, for one, am excited to see the industry reaction to this decidedly insanely cool new product.


January 2008
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